December 27, 2020

Red Dirt, Blue Blood -- Book Review

Red Dirt, Blue Blood, The Story of the Nances of Lower Alabama (Rahkia Nance, 2020) is exactly that, a human-interest story of a family, descended from slaves, who at one time settled in the area that is now Fort Rucker, and surrounding counties. In this book are many interesting stories of young mayors, philanthropists, teachers, farmers, soldiers, and mill and factory workers. 

This book isn't about racism, and there are very few mentions of racism in the book. This book was interesting to me since my family came from a near-by part of the state, and because some of the Nance's have stuff named after them in my hometown of Union Springs.

Red Dirt is a quick read, only containing about 60 pages of text and another 50 pages of interesting photos. Unfortunately, some of the photos aren't clear.

In many ways, Red Dirt, Blue Blood is much like Poppa Didn't Play That, by Mildred Burrell (2020).

Poppa Didn't Play That is a quick and delightful read. There are only a few mentions of racism and discrimination in this book. The book isn't about that. This book is about one particular family. It's about their family life. It's a human-interest story. I was glad to read this after reading Dispossession; I needed something lighter.

December 24, 2020

White Guilt - book synopsis

White Guilt, by Shelby Steel, puts forth quite a Conservative point of view on racism, moral relativism, welfare, civil rights, affirmative action, individual responsibility, the new white liberal, and what we should do about those. These messages resonated with me. I suspect they would not resonate at all with a Liberal. I didn't fact check anything in White Guilt, and I can't say how much of the text is opinion versus factual. In fact, there aren't a lot of facts, at all, in this book. This isn't to say that it is nonfactual, just that it's subjective, opinionated. It uses logical arguments. It isn't backed up by facts and figures and science, but it is about social issues and psychology, so there is no science or numbers to back up this nor a contrary point of view. But to be fair, the same can be said by all the other books in my prior post, with the exception of Dispossession.

The Vacuum of Moral Authority

Shelby does not defend or excuse white supremacy. In fact, he says that it has undermined the moral authority (legitimacy) of America and its institutions. "Segregation was... an institutionalized infidelity to democratic principles." 

White guilt, then, come out of "...the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one's race is associated with racism. Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on. ...  The authority they lose transfers to the 'victims' of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power." 

To take that a bit further, "[w]hites know on some level that they are stigmatized by their skin color alone, that the black people they meet may suspect them of being racist simply because they are white." Whites have this fear of being called a racist, and so take actions so as to be seen as not racist. "...racism was also evidence of white wrongdoing and, therefore, evidence of white obligation to blacks. King had argued that whites were obligated to morality and democratic principles. But white guilt meant they were obligated to black people because they needed the moral authority only black people could bestow."

Riots Out of Proportion

Thankfully, this shift in attitudes away from racism brought on beneficial civil rights advancements, and some helpful policies and programs. But it also drove most remaining overt racism underground and made it harder to sustain black power and civil rights momentum. Therefore, the focus shifted to "systemic", "structural", and "institutional" racism. 

Such makes "every racist event the tip of an iceberg so that redress will be to the measure of the iceberg rather than to the measure of its tip." "...the smallest racial incident proved the 'global truth' of systemic racism. This is why one black man being beaten by police in Los Angeles could trigger a massive riot in which some 60 people were killed. ... A riot to the scale of systemic racism rather than to the scale of the [single] racist event." [According to Wikipedia, "63 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses", and that's just in LA.] We now have a "riot paradigm in which the scale of the violence was always far out of proportion to the triggering event, usually [an] ... instance of police brutality." Some part of white America now sees them "as authentic expressions of black rage and would respond to them with understanding rather than disregard and withering suppression."

Shelby says these riots are a manipulation of white guilt, evidenced by the fact that whites are rarely the targets. The damage was always to fellow blacks and within black neighborhoods. 

Blacks as Victims

Shelby gives multiple chapters to make a point that this all makes blacks perpetually victims, doesn't encourage personal responsibility, and encourages support of black identity (group identity) as being more important than individual identity. Black leaders say they can't uplift themselves, that they have no power, thus feeding white guilt. Making others responsible for its advancement ultimately harms blacks, keeping "black America underdeveloped".

This is where Shelby turns on white liberals and "corrupt black leadership". "Thus we got remedies pitched at injustices rather than at black academic excellence -- school busing, black role models as teachers, black history courses, "diverse" reading lists, "Ebonics," multiculturalism, culturally "inclusive" classes, standard tests corrected for racial bias, and so on. All this but no demand for parental responsibility, for hard to work on reading, writing, and arithmetic." Asking a black child to study harder is interpreted as racism.

Liberal Grasp for Moral Authority

Then, "poverty came to be seen as a condition unrelated to the dysfunctions of those who suffer it, and always treatable by the 'interventions' of government and other institutions." This gives the liberal party the moral authority and legitimacy it seeks. This "brings real power to whites to embrace it. ... This has been the essential power of the political left in America since the 60s -- this promise to restore legitimacy by taking responsibility for inequality and poverty..."   Their "social morality is nothing more than dissociation." 

Throughout his book, Shelby gives a few logical arguments to the absurdity of some policies and programs that have come from this situation. For example, in chapter 19 Shelby gives an argument to how Justice O'Connor in the Michigan affirmative action case, because of white guilt, "applies a remedy to something that is not a problem -- diversity. ... So O'Connor is saying that it is perfectly constitutional to have a remedy that remediates nothing, a race-based remedy that does not remediate racial discrimination; and that this is so even when that remedy is literally executed through programmatic racial discrimination."  "Worse, implied in her decision is a view of blacks as inferiors who simply cannot compete without 25 more years of white paternalism." Chapter 22 gives an interesting treatment about Justice Clarence Thomas' dissenting opinion on the case.

It is as if it doesn't matter what policies or programs are put in place, as long as they are seen as an effort to make amends for past wrongs, and to not hold "victims" of historical racism accountable for their own uplifting. 

"Institutions are not interested in the reasons for minority non-competitiveness; they are interested only in the fact that this persistent weakness means they must use preferences ..." Institutions only have to appear to dissociate from America's racist past, not actually do anything meaningful about it. Minority recruitment and lower standards for minorities don't solve the real problem.

It's theatre. "... hoping that money thrown at blameless poverty would win moral authority."

Liberal White Supremacy

"This points to the sad irony at the core of black-white relations in America. The price blacks pay for the mere illusion of recompense for past injustice always requires them ... to be merchandised to whites as inferiors in victims."

"...the great internal contradiction of white liberalism: that its paternalism, its focus on whites rather than on blacks as the agents of change, allows white supremacy to slip in the back door and once again to find a fundamental relationship between whites and blacks. So the very structure of the liberal faith – that whites and "society" must facilitate black uplift – locks white liberals into an unexamined white supremacy."

This Liberalism is all about dissociation and is inherently elitist. Such a person asserts they are better than any Conservative "because he is conspicuously dissociated from the litany of American sins." Worthy of moral authority. 

Black Responsibility

Throughout the book, Shelby repeats his point of view that blacks need to take more "responsibility for themselves and their children." "A 70% illegitimacy rate among all blacks ... pretty much makes the point that there is a responsibility problem. To know this, as all blacks do, and to have to pretend that it is not strictly true or that certain "systemic" forces are more responsible than blacks themselves is knowingly to lie to oneself."


I don't claim that this synopsis is free from bias. On the contrary, there is surely bias in how I arranged the points, in what text I selected to include, and in what I chose to exclude. Nevertheless, I tried to be fair to Shelby's thesis, to not misrepresent.

In a December 2020 discussion on Facebook, Curtis Stuehrenberg said "Shelby Steele has made himself famous and wealthy being one of the Black men who tell White people they aren’t racist." Shelby does indeed state that "Unreconstructed whites in America are not so unreconstructed anymore. Racism and imperial ambition no longer characterize the attitudes of most Americans." 

However, Shelby's book isn't written to tell white people they aren't racist. In fact, Shelby does indeed give examples of ongoing white racism. He acknowledges that it still exists. He also lambasts the white liberal as the new racist. But, it seems to me, his point isn't to let whites off the hook. His point is to get blacks to accept responsibility.

As I stated in my prior post, I have been intentionally seeking out voices I previously wouldn't have listened to, and reading stuff I normally wouldn't have read. This isn't something I normally would have read, but I'm glad that I did. I don't see the core message of White Guilt at being at odds with the core messages of those other books. It's "yes and". Yes there is systemic racism and whites should take responsibility for eliminating racists policies. Yes individual responsibility is important. Every family and individual should take responsibility for their own education, health, morality, civic duty, and contribution to society. Yes, everyone has some racist thoughts or actions, in various ways, at various times. We are all brought up in this system that none of us created. Whites do not have a monopoly on racism. Let's learn how to not be defensive, but to have positive conversations on how to move forward.

December 3, 2020

Dispossession, White Fragility, Antiracism: Book Reviews

I am ignorant of a great many things. The interests and concerns of minorities in America are among them. I've spent my whole life, thus far, in a largely white male environment. Interactions with the few black friends in high school, college, at church, and at work were always civil, professional, and superficial. No one ever talked of the black struggle. Most people don't bring those things up in "polite company". Like religion and politics, such topics aren't always well received. That's too bad.

Anyway, over the last couple of years I have been intentionally seeking out voices I previously wouldn't have listened to, and reading stuff I normally wouldn't have read. I've begun researching, learning, and employing critical thinking and introspection over all that. I'm on a journey to understand racism and racist policies, how they are seen by and affect those impacted, how to not perpetuate it, and how to eliminate it. I invite you to join me on a similar journey of your own.

I recommend "Black in 2020", a webinar series from Duke University's Black Alumni Association, which you can find on youtube. It's an excellent series. I've also started watching movies and documentaries on this theme. Unfortunately, I didn't keep track of all that I've watched or my thoughts on them. 

I did make notes on some of the books I've read. Here are some of those notes. I highly recommend all of these books.

Dispossession: Discrimination against African American farmers in the age of civil rights. Pete Daniel. 2013.

Dispossession is a weighty tome, full of evidence of discrimination on the part of our own government, particularly the USDA, Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), and Farm Service Agency. I had no idea. Sure, I knew discrimination was all around, but I had no idea the extent to which it infiltrated our government or how it persisted into the 2000s. This book is backed up by evidence. It's almost nothing but documented case after documented case. 

It would have helped me to understand the cases better if I had first read a short history on those agencies, when they came into being, and what their purposes were supposed to be.

I originally named this blog post after this book because it was so impactful to me. Then I read some other books that were equally impactful.

Poppa Didn't Play That. Mildred Burrell. 2020.

Poppa Didn't Play That is a quick and delightful read. There are only a few mentions of racism and discrimination in this book. The book isn't about that. This book is about one particular family. It's about their family life. It's a human-interest story. I was glad to read this after reading Dispossession; I needed something lighter.

Black Farmers in America. Ficara & Williams. 2006.

Black Farmers is mostly a book of photographs of black farmers. I've enjoyed studying the photos, the people, what I can see on their faces and in the background. There is one long well-written essay included in the book that's well worth reading. 

White Fragility. Robin Diangelo. 2018.

Diangelo supports "the fashionable argument that blacks cannot be racist because they lack power". More on that when I discuss Antiracist below. Diangelo says that people of color may "hold prejudices and discriminate... but they lack the ... power that transforms that prejudice and discrimination into racism." (pg 22.) Therefore, she says, that only whites can be racist. I don't take offense at that. Most authors do well to carefully define their terms, and it helps to frame the topic.

Diangelo's point seems to be that White people don't need to get bent out of shape by discussions of race and racism. She says if "I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth." (pg 4.) "All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it." The problem is that we are taught that prejudice is bad and that only bad people are racist, that it's binary, either one is a racist or they are not. (ch 5.) We want to think of ourselves as good, moral people. Therefore, we won't admit to having prejudice, or any racist opinions or thoughts. Therefore, we shut down our self-awareness, don't reflect, and therefore can't entertain any thoughts of change -- we can't see or remove any bias or prejudice we have. "[A] simplistic definition of racism -- as intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals -- engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem and that our learning is thus complete."

Diangelo then defines discrimination as action based on prejudice. She says that turns into racism when backed up by social or institutional power. "Racism is a structure; not an event." Racism goes beyond individuals and individual actions. "Racism is a system." "Ideology is reinforced across society..." (pg 20-21.) "Constantly reinforced."

"A racism-free upbringing is not possible, because racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions. We are born into this system and have no say in whether we will be affected by it."  (pg 83.) So, don't feel guilty about the existence of this system. But do accept responsibility for our role in it. (pg 149.)

Diangelo doesn't try to solve the problem of systemic racism. She does try to get white people involved, to get us to see it, to learn how to think about it and talk about it, and how to not think and talk about it. This book has given me a great deal of appreciation for what black people go through daily. (I say that realizing that this book is written by a white person.) I would have gotten much less out of this next book, Antiracist, if I hadn't read White Fragility first.

How to be an Antiracist. Ibam X. Kendi. 2019.

Kendi takes "a refreshingly strong stand against anti-white racism in the book, rejecting the fashionable argument that blacks cannot be racist because they lack power", a quote from Coleman Hughes taken from the Wikipedia article on Kendi. I couldn't have said it better myself, other than to add that he takes on all kinds of racism beyond just black/white/color/ethnicity. In his book, Kendi walks us through his own journey of racism toward anti-racism.

Kendi defines antiracist as "one who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity." Antiracist ideas are better than segregation, integration, and assimilation.

But Kendi's main point seems to be that it's best to focus on racist policies because racist policies are the cause of societal problems. Policies create the culture. Racist policies support and perpetuate racism. Change the policies and you'll change the culture. Our upbringing here in the culture in the US makes us racist, all of us, regardless of gender or color. Kendi defines racist as "someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas". We all do that in various ways at various times. We don't need to get defensive. Rather, let's admit it, confess it, acknowledge the source, and struggle to support antiracist ideas. "...racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people."

I had the most trouble with Kendi's chapters on gender-racism and queer-racism. "To truly be antiracist is to be feminist." I had to look up feminism: advocacy of women's rights on the basis of equality of the sexes. Ok. I can go along with that.

Kendi: "We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic." I had to look up homophobic, which in my mind is an unfortunate and unhelpful term because it's not really about a phobia, a fear. Rather, it's simply "dislike of or prejudice against gay people". The point is that whether queer or straight we're all human. 

My purpose in writing this blog post is to encourage everyone to read these books, particularly other white, evangelical Christian, males like myself. Therefore, let me editorialize for a bit. Hopefully, this will help you see that you can maintain your Christian beliefs and still get lots out of this book. This book is not anti-Christian. 

A Christian should be able to see any LGBTQIA individual as a human and love them. A heterosexual Christian should not see themselves as better than or superior to a homosexual. Christians see many things as sins and know that they themselves have committed most of them. Like Paul, a humble Christian might seem themselves as the "chiefest of sinners". There is so much that can be said on this difficult topic, but that's not the point of this post. Since I am writing to the white heterosexual evangelical, I think I can stop there. 

I support the liberty of religious organizations and certain small businesses. They should not be compelled to do things against their conscience, beliefs, and faith. The refusal to make a same-sex wedding cake lawsuits come to mind. Likewise, churches shouldn't be required to allow same-sex couples to rent their facilities. But I also believe that it's reasonable to allow same-sex couples to have the same health-care protections and allowances as heterosexual couples. What comes to mind is that if a hospital allows a heterosexual spouse into the ICU, then they should allow a same-sex partner into the ICU. Then comes the tax codes. This gets tricky. Maybe if Christians don't want benefits to be afforded to same-sex partners, then perhaps heterosexuals shouldn't get those benefits either. Just eliminate the benefit.  In any event, Christians demand allowances for religious beliefs. Individual Christians and their religous organizations don't have to support same-sex unions, and shouldn't feel bad about their convictions. In such a case, that would be an instance of not holding or supporting queer-antiracist ideas. But that's no reason for a Christian to not like this book or to avoid it. This concept isn't binary. No human can be completely anti-racist, in every instance, in every situation, and I believe the author agrees with that statement. Every Christian should read this book, and they'll get much goodness out of it. An intelligent person can hold multiple conflicting ideas in their head at the same time. 

In Conclusion

What surprised me the most about these books is that none of them made me mad. At no point did I get defensive. (Well, that's not true. I did get slightly defensive in a few cases, but I did what the books suggest, which is to self-examine why I got defensive. That helped me either acknowledge or even change a couple of unhealthy beliefs, attitudes. Then the defensiveness went away.) At no point did any of these books say I was a bad person. They each opened my eyes to some things that I was previously blind to, and for that I am grateful. I highly recommend all of these books.

Update 12/8/20

UNFORTUNATELY, whereas I was previously quite content in my ignorance, those books awakened and aroused in me white guilt. I have begun reading a book by that title, White Guilt, and I am now disturbed by how disturbed I've become beyond the level of which I was disturbed from reading those prior books. Bummer. Once I'm done reading that and perhaps Shelby's other book and possibly also a book entitled racism without racists, I'll post another update or another whole blog post.

October 20, 2018

Lessons learned as a Juror, For the Young Woman

As I mentioned in my prior post, I served on a jury earlier this month and it was a real eye-opener. The prosecuting attorney talked about the consequences of getting drunk, the symptoms of the hangover. The consequences are rightly a headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, shakiness, and the like. The consequences are not rape. They are not sexual assault. Alas, crime should not exist, but it does. Don't get me wrong: putting yourself at risk does not excuse the person who would commit a crime. We should all be able to get drunk and go wherever we wish. Perpetrators should all be caught and convicted. Nevertheless, it is prudent to take precautions.
  • Being drunk makes you an easier target for crime.
  • Having another person there with you will not guarantee your safety. There is safety in numbers, but a person can easily be separated from one or even two others. And with more than two others, attention is divided such that one person can be put in danger.
    • Further, your friend may be unable to convince the police that you were kidnapped.
    • If your friend can convince the police that you were kidnapped, an additional crime against you will be over before the police can use things like pinging your phone to find your location.
  • Drunk people are terrible at providing protection, and even worse at coming to your defense.
  • The perpetrator's defense attorney will try to discredit or defeat DNA evidence, and they can be successful.
  • When there is DNA from 3 or more persons (the victim + 2 or more, or when there is sperm from 2 individuals), DNA testing cannot separate the DNA from the various individuals in order to make a match to any individual.
    • And even if they could, you'll find that a conviction is unsatisfactory.
  • Cell phone location records are kept for only 18 months. It may be impossible to use such records for proof since…
  • It can take months for DNA evidence to be tested. Your perpetrator's DNA profile may not yet be in the crime database. It can take months for DNA from another victim to be tested. It can take time to find the defendant, to get his DNA, and months for his DNA to be tested. By then, certain other evidence is no longer available.
  • Although there are cameras everywhere, they are never where the victim needs them to be, or they aren't turned on, or they aren't recording, or the technology isn't working, or the video or audio isn't clear, or it's been so long since the event that the recording has been lost.
    • Even the police's car cam audio may be ineffective because the car isn't pointed in an ideal direction, or because of glare from other lights, or because of the radio being on. Police officers rightly use music to keep them alert during the night shift. They might not turn it off before they get out of their car.
  • Although there are eye witnesses everywhere, eye witnesses are terribly unreliable, and the police will testify to that in court. Eye witnesses don't pay attention until it's too late. Once the witness realizes something is going wrong they will have missed the opportunity to make a rational observation and to commit important details to memory. That can work to your disadvantage, rarely to your advantage.
    • Example: "We took a ride with someone. We were in the car with him for half an hour. Maybe more. But I generally trusted and ignored him. Then, suddenly, after I was out of the vehicle, I realized something was going wrong. After the driver was gone, with my friend still in the car, I realized that I never really looked at him. I can't describe him at all. DAMN IT! And I couldn't get the license plate."
  • The GBI specifically, and the state and district DAs have a large backlog of work and limited time and funds. They will not do everything possible for your case. They will do what they think is just sufficient, and efficient.

I don't believe young women understand how easily they can be abducted; nor do they realize how hard it is to catch the perpetrator; nor how little satisfaction would come from a conviction. The victim will live with and relive the pain the rest of her life.

The same goes for parents. I live in a safe, upscale neighborhood, more safe than most, but perhaps not the safest since it's not a gated and guarded community. Nevertheless, I feel safe. My family feels safe. Yet, in the case in question, there was a point in time in which this newly convicted felon lived within two miles of my house. One of his crimes was committed within three miles of my house.

I don't suggest living in fear. I do suggest living one's life with aplomb and gusto, to the fullest. But also with prudence.

Lessons Learned as a Juror, For the Young Man

I served on a jury earlier this month. It was an eye-opener to me. So many decisions are made as one grows up, the odds of making a wrong turn are great. Each bad turn can lead to another; or to repentance and a better direction. "There, but for the grace of God go I." Given this experience, I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts, first for the young man. Later for the young woman.
  • Having sex with someone who is inebriated is rape (assuming no prior valid informed consent for the sake of this article). An inebriated person cannot give informed consent. If a female's judgment is impaired in any way, she cannot give informed consent. If you think she gave consent, you better think again.
    • The penalty for rape can be life imprisonment.
  • If a male has sex with someone who is inebriated or who can claim to be so, she can claim she didn't give consent to the sex.
    • In fact, that person can claim rape even if she wasn't inebriated. Unless there is testimony or video that the jury believes, you can be (justly or unjustly) convicted of rape.
  • You don't realize how much DNA and other evidence you leave behind.
    • A condom will not conceal all evidence, particularly not even all DNA evidence.
  • If you run from the cops, you will get caught. Perhaps later.
    • Running from the cops makes you look guilty of more than you may be guilty of.
  • Being inebriated can cause you to make mistakes and get caught doing stuff that you would not get caught doing if sober.
  • You are more likely to get noticed by cops and pulled over after dark.
  • Certain evidence for your defense such as cell phone records are only kept by the phone companies for 18 months.
    • You may need those records for your defense for longer than that.
    • Evidence for your conviction, however, is kept around for what would seem like a sufficiently long time.
    • This will not work out in your favor.
  • There are cameras everywhere. There are eye witnesses everywhere.
    • Witnesses are unreliable, but that will not work to your advantage.
  • The jury will not believe your explanation. It will sound fantastical to them. Imagine the people in the jury. Do you think any of them have ever been in your situation? Not likely.
  • Public Defenders (state provided attorneys) can be surprisingly bad at their job. While they can also be surprisingly good, and they can be better than private attorneys due to the number of cases they handle (lots of experience) and their knowledge of the juries, of the local law enforcement, of the prosecutors, and of the judges, the big problem is their backlog of work. Their heavy caseload limits the time they can spend on your case.
  • The GBI (or your state bureau of investigation), prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement and DAs have limited funds and will therefore not do every test and collect everything possible. Nevertheless, they will try to win their case.
    • “About 90 percent of the cases end with a plea bargain, and of those cases going to trial, about 90 percent end in a guilty verdict,” (Something I found on the internet -- sorry, I'm quoting this without attribution.)
    • "In the United States, the federal court system, the conviction rose from approximately 75 percent to approximately 85% between 1972 and 1992. For 2012, the US Department of Justice reported a 93% conviction rate. The conviction rate is also high in U.S. state courts. Coughlan writes, "In recent years, the conviction rate has averaged approximately 84% in Texas, 82% in California, 72% in New York, 67% in North Carolina, and 59% in Florida." Wikipedia

If you are a defendant in a criminal case, don't think you'll fare well with a jury. Don't make up a story. Plead guilty, repent, beg for forgiveness, and throw yourself on the mercy of the court.

I don't believe young men realize what constitutes rape; nor do they realize how severe the penalty is. Likewise for any list of crimes. Perhaps that should be taught in school: crime and punishment.

For a biblical perspective on this, consider how this comes about and grows: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (James 1:14-15, ESV)

Yet, even if one were to make some big mistakes, he can still have forgiveness from God, salvation and eternal life.

  • For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
  • For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
  • But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NKJV)
  • If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)
  • For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13 NKJV)
  • So then faith [comes] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17 NKJV)
Yes, it's that simple. You can feel hope once again. You can feel love once again.

October 16, 2015

A Personal Kanban & a OneNote Folder for Every Client, Project, Aspect of Life

For the last couple years I have almost always had 5 to 10 active Personal Kanbans in Trello along with a folder in OneNote and another in Outlook or gmail (one for each PK). I have one of these trios for each client. I also have a trio for personal/home projects and another for church projects. I can access all 3 of these on my Mac, my windows laptop, and my Android phone. Sweet!

I'll generally work on one client or one project per day, or for a week, or even a month at a time. Whenever I finish for the day I endeavor to ensure my PK and notes pages are all up to date and in a state that will help me pick it back up tomorrow or some other day. Whenever I switch contexts, it's a simple matter to switch which Trello board and which OneNote folder I'm viewing.

I really like the way these work together. It's helping me become paperless which is a bonus given my travel and the number of notes I need to search for (and the sloppiness of my handwriting). This approach has segregated notes and tasks and emails into specific views so that I don't get distracted by what I don't need to focus on at the moment.

Seeing people take notes on a laptop, or open laptops in general, can be off-putting to many people. This is especially true when working with many different people or with a newish client, where we're still gaining trust and feeling each other out and haven't had many (or any) interactions yet. So I tend to take notes on paper whenever I'm having a conversation in person. Then I'll transcribe what is important of those notes into my PK or OneNote. Rewriting them (I'm told) helps to digest, consolidate, and remember what is important, a skill I never got the hang of in school. Many of my colleagues use those fancy pens to record handwriting and automatically convert it to text. I can see the benefit of that, but I'm a late adopter of new technology, due in part to being overly frugal. (I used a paper PK for a long while, until I found Trello.) I think I'll stick with manually reviewing and transposing the notes for a while.

All of this has gotten my life very organized. David Allen's Getting Things Done has helped too, but I've covered that in a prior post.

This may be the fastest blog post I've ever cranked out, one of the few I've cranked out in one sitting. I didn't know where the post was going to go until I wrote it. I just thought I'd share something about this system since it's been so powerful for me. I figured there was a blog post to be written about this, but I didn't/don't know what my readers would want to know. 

What have I not covered that you'd want to know?

September 11, 2015

What do you estimate and when do you do it?

Pick up most any book on agile or Scrum and see what it says about planning a product backlog or planning a release or about computing an end date for a project. It will say to identify the stories, estimate them in points, add up all the points, and compare the backlog point total with your velocity to figure out how many sprints it will take to implement all those stories. Then reserve some room for unknowns and for changes (agility).

So, that implies identifying and estimating stories far enough in advance to match whatever your planning and commitment horizon is. This implies that estimating story points in sprint planning or just before sprint planning or even one sprint in advance is likely not far enough in advance unless you are ultra-agile and aren't making commitments or setting date expectations more than a couple weeks out.

Most companies I work with have a planning horizon that is 3 to 6 months out. So, we put together a 4 or 6 month plan. That plan is going to be based on what we can know in advance, namely, user stories. (Sometimes we do this at the feature level, but that's another blog post.) We won't know research stories or spikes or defects or production support in advance. Whatever goes into the plan is what should go into the velocity metric. Stated differently, you shouldn't put anything into your velocity metric that you can't plan for 4 to 6 months in advance. Which means you shouldn't bother putting points on defect or on research stories. If you are going to compare apples to apples, your velocity must exclude unplannable stuff.

That's why I put points only on real user stories. Here is a series of blog posts I did on each of these topics:

Now, some people try to estimate this unplannable stuff. They try to quantify it in points and include it in placeholders in their plan. You absolutely should track this unplannable stuff, and you should reason about whether it will be more or less in the future, but trying to back it into points or plan it using points is folly. 

February 26, 2015

Don't Spike Defects

I've recently seen a small number of teams create Spikes for defects. That seems strange to me. If you have a good reason for doing this, please let me know.

It should be rare that we’d have a spike to research a defect. Defects almost always have some amount of unknown research and debugging to them. It would seem strange to me to have a SPIKE to debug a problem which would then be fixed under a Defect.

The exception case may be if we want a triage/debugging step where we figure out what’s wrong and estimate the effort to fix before agreeing to fix it. But typically with defects, once you know how to fix it, actually fixing may be faster than all the debugging. By the time you’ve got it debugged, you know exactly how to fix it. I rarely find that approval step necessary these days.

I haven't heard of spiking defects discussed in the agile community so I assume it's generally accepted that this is not a recommended or common practice.

February 12, 2015

How Many Stories per Sprint? Rules of Thumb

I'm often asked how many stories you should have in a sprint. People are looking for guidance.

I've heard some coaches recommend “3-6 stories per iteration per developer”. That's a bad rule of thumb. For a team of 7 developers you would have over 20-40 stories which is likely way too many. That kind rule of thumb also subtly takes the focus off of swarming and puts attention toward a developer per story, a story per developer.

My rules of thumb:

5 to 15 stories per sprint are about the right number, particularly for the clients I often work with in which there are maintenance teams knocking down a backlog of small defects and teams doing Web work with lots of small changes to do. 4 stories in a sprint may be okay on the low end from time to time, and 20 is an upper limit for me.

Most stories shouldn't take more than half the sprint to develop and test. Having 1 story each sprint that takes more than half the sprint is about all I would advise, and in that case all the other stories should be very small. For a 2 week sprint, it's better if every story can be completed in 1 to 3 days. (Adjust that for longer sprints.)

I need to elaborate on my comment that it's better if every story can be completed in 1 to 3 days. After stating that I'm often asked whether that's the developers working independently or all together. The answer is "whatever you are doing today." It is best if the team can swarm stories such that multiple developers can work on a story at the same time. If  2 or 3 devs can work on a story at the same time, then you can have larger stories finished within that 1 to 3 day rule of thumb. But if the team isn't there yet, if that's not the way they work today, then having stories that are too big given the way they are working is counter productive.

What's the maximum number of points for a story? How big is too big? How many points is too big for a story varies according to the team's pointing scale. I've known teams that start with 5 (5, 10, 20, 30, 50, 80). For them, 50 and 80 were too big. I've also known teams where a 1 point story would take less than half a day. For them, a 13 might not be too big. If a 1 takes more than a day, then 13 is probably too big. Generally, too big is an order of magnitude larger than the typical small story.

Here's an example: Assume my 1 point story takes a day or two and once in a while we have something that is truly tiny and we call those half a point. The 1 pointer is my typical low end of the range. I have something smaller, but it's not typical. A 13 is an order of magnitude larger that 1 point story. It's very difficult to keep the scale linear when there is that much diversity in your story sizes.

February 10, 2015

Story Splitting: Where do I start?

I don't always follow the same story splitting approach when I need to split a story. It has become intuitive for me so I might not be able to write about everything I do or what goes through my mind or how I know. But I can put here what comes to mind at the moment:

Look at your acceptance criteria. There is often some aspect of business value in each acceptance criteria that can be split out into a separate story that is valuable to the ProductOwner.

Consider the tasks that need to be done. Can any of them be deferred (to a later sprint)? If so, then consider whether any of them are separately valuable to the ProductOwner. If so, perhaps that would be a good story to split out.

If there are lots of unknowns, if it's a 13 because of unanswered questions, make a list of the questions and uncertainties. For each, ask whether it's a Business Analyst (BA) to-do or a Tech to-do. Also ask for each whether it's easy and should be considered "grooming". If it's significant enough and technical, maybe you should split that out as a ResearchSpike. Then make an assumption about the likely outcome of the spike, or the desired outcome of the spike, note the assumption in the original story, and reestimate the original story given the assumption.

Look in the story description for conjunctions since and's and or's are a clue that the story may be doing too much. Consider whether you can split the story along the lines of the conjunctions.

Other ideas:
  • Workflow steps: Identify specific steps that a user takes to accomplish the specific workflow, and then implement the work flow in incremental stages
  • Business Rule Variations
  • Happy path versus error paths
  • Simple approach versus more and more complex approaches
  • Variations in data entry methods or sources
  • Support simple data 1st, then more complex data later
  • Variations in output formatting, simple first, then complex
  • Defer some system quality (an "ility"). Estimate or interpolate first, do real-time later. Support a speedier response later.
  • Split out parts of CRUD. Do you really really really need to be able to Delete if you can Update or Deactivate? Do you really really really need to Update if you can Create and Delete? Sure, you may need those functions, but you don't have to have them all in the same sprint or in the same story.
Some of the phrases in the above list may have been inadvertently recited from Dean Leffingwell's book "Agile Software Requirements".