November is Falling Expectations – descriptive month names

The translation of the Czech month name November is “Falling Leaves“.  Curiously in warmer Croatia the same month name goes to October.  So at the beginning of the month i was thinking of things in a falling theme and sadly i was having a new intimacy unravel badly and what was clearly falling for me was my expectations of what was possible (oh, yes there are lots of personal things i dont blog about).  What i have written about in the most recent past have been my predictive month name choices, but this is actually a smaller fraction of the months i name.

Shal, who is an active hammocks general manager, has been out sick for the last couple of weeks.  This has helped me drop my expectations about the amount of my “regular” work i am going to get done.  After commenting in two different groups 2 days ago how much i loved and missed labor assigning, my co-teacher at Pegasus School, Bochie got deathly ill and asked me if i would fill in for him as a labor assigner.  And with this my expectations of calling back customers and setting up this new satellite hammock shop dropped even further as the huge job of labor assigning gobbled up my day.

And i love labor assigning.  It is crazy complicated, with hundreds of possibilities and dozens of conflicting and complimenting priorities.  Is it more important for this member to work on Emerald City Wood (where we make our hammocks stretcher and hanging chair frames) or should they pack seeds for our growing wholesale seed business?  Should i reschedule this personal date with this largely unavailable person, so they can have the child care shift that they asked for and has only one possible slot?

Beyond these many choices, there is the possibility to tweak peoples lives.  This visitor who i quite like could be assigned this chatty work shift with the member of the membership team who i think this visitor is most likely to have trouble with them, because in this environment i think the visitor will shine and the membership team person will see that.  What about this other attractive visitor who several people say they want to work or play with, should i make the numerous changes needed to make these likely flirtatious encounters happen?  [If you know me at all, you know i made the changes so these work and social dates could happen].

For every interesting labor assigning choice there are a dozen mundane assignments to be made (over 40 kitchen cleaning shifts, dozens of people scheduled to garden, and perhaps 50 requests for meetings small and large to deal with all manner of community business or social life).  Even so, being reminded of our collective complexity, getting an update on the things people are spending their time on – especially the members who i like but dont spend much time with – all this is satisfying.

When i first came i thought “we should computerize this system”.  It currently takes a person about 20 hours each week to coordinate all this labor assigning.  Presumably a computer could do it all much faster, right? Probably not.  There are endless exceptions and rules for many assignments.  Plus the dynamic nature of relationships (before Falling Expectations i would be thrilled to get a K shift with this new intimate, now we are struggling to talk).  And of course some labor assigners are on top of the gossip and community dynamics and others assign things, which the members then choose to “req out of” which means they cancel the assignment before it is finalized.  It would take more time to computerize the system than it would save, because of the tremendous exception handling needed and dynamic assigning.

The labor assigning system here is fairly amazing.  Hundreds of jobs get covered every week.  Every week some of the key people who do many jobs are gone and finding a replacement for them is non-trivial.  And yet we have reached this comfortable orchestra size in which people can be sick or away for weeks and months and it still all basically hangs together.

Shal was saying he felt badly about my burden being increased because of his illness and i brushed off his regret saying simply “this is why we live in community”.

About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

7 responses to “November is Falling Expectations – descriptive month names”

  1. shadiek says :

    If computers can’t help, you’re not using them correctly.

  2. paxus says :

    @ Chad: Balony

  3. Sean Crist says :

    Speaking as a non-member, here’s my take on this. All of the complexity that you mention doesn’t mean that a computer can’t handle the problem in a satisfactory way. What it means is that there has to be some way of representing all of that rich information, and the program has to be designed in a way to consider all of it. Since there’s not any one right solution for any given week, and because some solutions are better than others, it suggests a probabilistic sort of approach. You set weights to make certain kinds of solutions more or less likely. Zachariah doesn’t like garden shifts but will fill in in a pinch, so you put a -1 weight on Zachariah for gardens.

    Suppose that you, as the human scheduler, know that there is a budding romantic interest between Arcturus and Bumblebee. With a twinkle in your eye, you schedule them to work on a shift together.

    A program can do that too, but what it means is that the human overseer of the program has to tell the program about it. You can make it more likely or less likely that certain people work together. Maybe you add a +1 bonus to the Arcturus, Bumblebee pair. There are all sorts of ways that everyone could be scheduled this week to fill all the slots, but by adding this bonus, you’ve just made it more likely that a solution will bubble to the top where the intrigued pair gets to work together.

    Adopting this approach is not sociologically neutral. It’s one thing if this information exists in the privacy of the scheduler’s mind; it’s another thing if it’s explicitly encoded, and everyone can see it. In the corporate world, this sort of information would typically be available only on a need-to-know basis, but Twin Oaks values transparency. So if it turns out that you were wrong and Arcturus and Bumblebee actually hate each other, you have no plausible deniability. Also, having a romantic interest reduced to a set of numbers somehow isn’t the same, even if the scheduling result is the same.

    What if you can set your own weights, marking who you prefer to work with and who you don’t want to work with? What if everybody can see this? Suppose Arcturus is romantically interested in Bumblebee, and clicks on some web form to add Bumblebee to co’s “Prefers to work with” list. Bumblebee, who is actually not interested, sees this and adds Arcturus to co’s “Don’t want to work with” list. If nothing else, it creates a whole new set of interesting ways for human drama to play itself out.

  4. Dan Kappus says :

    Ultimately, someone is going to have to go through each labor req and each co’s schedule, whether its computerized or no. The actual assignments are going to have to be finalized by a human, for all the reasons Pax mentions. I see no way that adding a computer is going to make the process any less time consuming.

    The parts that could be computerized relate to the recordkeeping and workflow parts of the system. This would substitute a web interface for paper so that reqs and assignments passed into the assigner via a web interface and cos retrieved assignments in the web client. Labor assigner would then distribute the assignments/schedules via this product and each co would use it to approve or submit revisions to co’s schedule this way. Then, the assigner would approve final revisions.

    At the end of the workweek, each co would annotate the electronic schedule as assigned with whatever co’s actual hours were. Then the hours from this electronic timesheet would be saved to the labor database, debited from budgets, and so forth.

    Doing it this way would remove the onerous data entry requirement that emerges when people hand in time sheets. It would cut down on passing back and forth pieces of paper, too. If co lost co’s timesheet, co could go look it up using whatever web-browser was around. But ultimately, it would just model in a computer what’s done with paper. It automates the data entry and the workflow, not the actual assigning,

    When I visited, I was impressed at how organized the paper version is. It’s a great system that works fine just as it is. And there would be a number of experienced communards who would object to having to stare at a screen for a day, or even a moment. As is, the paper sorting can be done in a nice bright room with a cup of tea and little distraction. That seems just as pleasant to me.

    • paxus says :

      I think Dan is almost right. All the requests would have to be keyed in, because perhaps 20% of them are custom each week. But what is assigned is often different from the work which is done, so trying to use the labor system to track budgets will require a fair bit of operator intervention.

      And while i talked initially about labor assigning being automated (or not). The idea that budgeting could be tracked this way and that individual members would look at screens will certainly run afoul of may technophobic members.

      Paxus at Woodfolk
      18 Falling Expectations 2KXI

      • Sean Crist says :

        I do think that the assigning could be fully automated with results as good as those of a human scheduler. A system could be built which wouldn’t require a human to go through each co’s schedule. You click a button, and in 10 seconds, labor sheets appear. The labor assigner would no longer decide that so-and-so is working the garden shift Tuesday morning; instead, the labor assigner’s role would be to oversee the considerable amount of data which make up the model which the system uses to make the assignments. If you don’t like the assignments it’s making, then you figure out how to tweak the model (and the model has to be designed in a way which makes the tweaking easy). It’s not a simple problem, but I think it could be done.

        The post I made was more a thought experiment about how I might do it at the dream community which exists only in my head, where everybody is fine with entering their weekly requests on some web form. The programmer part of me can’t help but think of what a great programming problem that would be.

        In reality, though, I know that it wouldn’t mesh very well with Twin Oaks culture. Probably, the closest that Twin Oaks could ever come to it would be to allow individual members to opt into a paperless work flow. If you opt out, then you fill out your labor sheet on paper, someone hand-keys it, and you get back a printout. So you only have to hand-key for part of the community.

        It would be a significant initial investment to build that system, and my guess (speaking as a non-member) is that the community is unlikely to put the resources there. It has enough of a corporate look-and-feel to it that I doubt that it would ever fly. As a thought experiment, though, I keep turning it over in my head, thinking about how to do it.

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