The Goal is an odd mixture of novel and management handbook. In the form of a novel – where the narrator is the head of a factory in trouble, threatened with closure – Goldratt presents the Theory of Constraints.

In Socratic form Alex, the narrator, first gets to figure the goal of the business, and then how to achieve it. According to The Goal the goal is making money. You can agree or disagree with that, but that’s the premise of the book. Once that’s clear, Alex is coached to think about what levers he can use to make the plant make more money, and then we get to read, in quite a lot of detail, about how he actually manages the production in his plant to make it happen.

As a novel, The Goal is well below average, but as a business book, it’s an effective and enjoyable way to present a relatively dull topic. I definitely found it more interesting and easier to read than most business books.

I read this book because it was mentioned by Scott Bellware at the not-ALT.NET open space earlier this year, among a raft of other books that somehow have to do with lean software development. (Scott has an extensive and thoroughly described Lean reading list on his blog, too.)

The Goal has nothing directly to do with lean software development, although there are certainly themes that are relevant: continuous improvement, focusing on finding and eliminating the biggest bottleneck first, the necessity of having some slack in your process, etc. But perhaps one needs to have invested more of one’s soul and life in the concept of Lean to find this really inspiring. To me it was worth reading once, but not something I’m going to re-read any time soon for fun or profit.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.

Despite my less than stellar experiences with pushchair makers’ web sites, I managed to decide on a new pushchair. In the beginning of August we bought a second-hand Bugaboo Chameleon. (I’m not going to honour their atrocious web site with a link.)

One month later, I gave up and decided to get a new Stokke. The Bugaboo wasn’t a bad pushchair, really, but Stokke suits me much better. (Eric spends less time pushing the pushchair about and wasn’t as interested in the choice as I was, but he also liked the Stokke better.)

The deciding factor for me was the ease of “driving”. The Bugaboo started misbehaving as soon as the road sloped sideways. The pushchair was pulling me off the road, and the struggle to keep it straight left me with achy wrists every single afternoon. Add a heavy load of groceries and I was near tears at times. I never had that kind of trouble with the Stokke. I think the frame of the Bugaboo has a fundamental design flaw, at least for my body: the angles at which I can apply force (determined by the angle, attachment points and shape of the handlebar) were very inefficient given the direction I wanted to push or turn it.

Also, the handlebar on the Bugaboo can be raised and lowered, but its angle cannot be changed. When I had it at a comfortable height, I was walking way too close to the pushchair, so my toes kept hitting the rear axle. I had to either walk with my arms outstretched, or the handlebar too high, in order to avoid that. The Stokke doesn’t have a rear axle – the lower section of its frame is sort of x-shaped – and both the height and the angle of its handlebar are adjustable, which made it much easier to adapt to how I stand and move.

The two pushchairs are quite similar in many ways – robust design, well constructed, adaptable, expensive – and if you haven’t tried them you might well think that they’re pretty much the same. But once you take a closer look, it turns out that there are a lot of differences.

  • The Bugaboo has suspension on its front wheels. It’s also got foam rear wheels, while the Stokke has hard wheels with a layer of rubber. So the Bugaboo offers a smoother ride, especially on uneven roads, and is slightly easier to push up and down over pavement edges. But I think the suspension contributed to its headstrong behaviour on sloping roads.
  • The Stokke has better options for adjusting the handlebar. The Bugaboo only allows you to adjust the height, and changing it means unscrewing and then rescrewing two screws. Which means you wouldn’t adjust the handlebar every time you hand over the pushchair to your partner when you’re out walking together. With the Stokke we definitely do that. In fact adjusting the handlebar is so easy that I change it for a 100 metre uphill stretch, when I want a slightly different angle, and then put it back when I reach the top.
  • The Bugaboo allows you to reverse direction by just flipping the handlebar to the other side, so you end up with the large fixed wheels in front and the small swivel wheels at the back. Their instruction manual says it’s good for tricky terrain, snow and sand and such. The Stokke has nothing like that.
  • The Stokke has a more convenient basket. The Bugaboo basket has a curved bottom which makes it harder to pack (especially with boxy things like cartons of milk and juice) and it’s a bit difficult to access (almost impossible with the carrycot in place). The Stokke basket/bag has a flat bottom and is perfectly accessible with the seat facing backwards, and relatively convenient with the seat facing forwards, too.
  • The Bugaboo is lighter: 9.3 kg vs. Stokke’s 12.5 kg according to the official stats. Which was a real surprise to me, because the Stokke feels lighter when I’m pushing it.
  • The Stokke can go up and down stairs: you don’t need to lift it, you can pull it up step by step, i.e. less strain for your back, and no need to wait for someone to help you. This is less important in Stockholm where all train and tube stations have lifts, but in London this feature made all the difference.
  • On the Stokke you can raise and lower the seat, and at its highest, the seat comes much higher up than on the Bugaboo, or any other pushchair I’ve seen for that matter. I like that a lot, especially when Ingrid was a baby.
  • The Bugaboo carrycot has a carrying handle and can be used as a Moses basket. The seat can also be lifted off the pushchair and used separately. The Stokke doesn’t give you that option.
  • The Stokke comes with an infant insert for its seat, so the seat can be used from about 3 months’ age. (We never even bought a carrycot and got by with just the seat, since we didn’t use the pushchair much in the first months.) The Bugaboo has quite a deep seat so when it’s upright, small children tend to sink down into a “sack of potatoes” position.
  • Releasing the seat for reclining can be done with one hand on the Stokke, so the other hand can stabilize the seat and slowly lower it down. On the Bugaboo you need two hands to push two buttons on either side of the seat, so the seat always reclined with a jerk. Or perhaps there is a trick that I just didn’t discover yet.
  • The Bugaboo has a more “normal” shape, while the Stokke has a central axle which means that you need a special “split” foot muff and can’t use any old sleeping bag. It’s also a bit tricky to wrap a sleeping kid in a blanket when there’s a stick in the way.
  • The Stokke has a removable plastic footrest. Especially in autumn and winter, I often removed the footrest to shake off the gravel and dust. On the Bugaboo, the footrest is part of the seat, i.e. made of fabric and not removable, i.e. it gets pretty gunky pretty fast.
  • The Bugaboo has much more convenient brakes: the brake handle sits on the handlebar and is easy to put on and off. On the Stokke, the brake is operated by a little lever that sits down by one of the wheels, so you can only reach it with your foot, and sometimes I need to jiggle it a few times before I get the brakes on or off.

Edited on October 4th to add another paragraph (on brakes).

I am experiencing a decline – presumably temporary – in the need to express my thoughts in writing. I don’t feel that I am doing or thinking or experiencing anything just now that is worth writing down. Hence the relative decline in posting frequency. When the writing urge returns, you will notice.

The weather is chilly now, but the first half of this past month was still summery, and we spent a fair amount of time outside. Picking damsons was a favourite: Ingrid especially liked shaking the bush to make the damsons fall. It was particularly great if they fell on me or her. But picking the fallen fruit was also good fun.

We’ve also played in the play house that Eric built. Ingrid’s favourite use for it is a throwing platform. She climbs up, I stay outside, and then we throw a big inflatable ball between us. The play house makes it very easy: since she’s standing above me, she is throwing slightly downwards and has a good view of me, the target. And when I throw the ball back at her, the walls make sure the ball doesn’t roll past her.

She also likes riding her tricycle (to and from the playground, or Julia’s house). Practice makes perfect: she’s gotten quite good at controlling her speed. She used to need help braking when going downhill, but now she can ride it down good-sized hills at considerable speed, and push back against the pedals to brake when it goes too fast.

In general she’s gained physical control and confidence recently. She used to always want to hold my hands when jumping down (from a ledge, or a stone, etc) but the other day she jumped down from a knee-high step (my knee, not hers) without any help at all. The same goes for stepping across wide gaps: between the balance beams at the playground, or the big flat stones in the pond in our park. I think she’s running better, too: it looks slightly more balanced and less toddlerish.

Running, of course, means chasing. Our latest chasing game is the troll game. Usually she’s a troll and I am to run away from her. Sometimes she wants to be an angry troll, which means that I should run fast enough so she cannot catch me. Other times she says she’s a friendly troll, meaning I should let myself be caught. But in either case, and regardless of which of us is the troll, the most important part of of the game is that the chasee should frequently look over her shoulder to see how close the troll is. This leads to a fair few falls: I think Ingrid has entered the age of ever-present scabs on knees and elbows.

Ingrid remains intensely social. Yesterday she told me, “I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to be alone. I want my friends, too!” So I try to find her a playmate for at least a few afternoons each week. Julia is her best friend (and lives closest to us) but Ingrid’s found another favourite at nursery whom we’ve also visited a few times. I’ve asked if there are others she’d like to play with, but she says no, she only likes Julia and Elin.

They are definitely playing together, but it’s mostly limited to simple, physical activities. They might run to the trampoline and jump together, and then run to the see-saw together, and from there on to somewhere else. I haven’t seen any playing with toys together. I think it might be because both Julia and Elin are younger than her, and less used to playing together with others.

Sometimes “let’s go play with Julia” just means “let’s go to Julia’s house” and ends with us reading Julia’s books. I think we might start going to the library with her. Her Estonian feels solid enough that I’m happy reading to her in Swedish now.

At home, the doctor’s equipment set remains Ingrid’s favourite toy, by far. Other toys get occasional brief use, but not very much. She wants to play doctor every single evening. It’s become a set piece, almost. First I’m ill and she’s doctor, then we switch, and she’s always got a stomach ache. And when we take her temperature, it’s always fifty-one.

She’s quite interested in how numbers are used: temperatures, measuring, telling the time. She often asks me what time it is, and most mornings she asks me what day it is. Then she wants to know what that means: what do we do when it’s Tuesday, what do we do when it’s seven o’clock? Is it a weekday (“nursery day”) or weekend (“home day”)? Do we have anything special planned for today – is this the day when we go play with Elin, or the day when I need to work late? Sometimes we go on to hypothetical cases: she tells me “no, it’s half past eight! What’s it time for now?”

Turns out she’s learned to recognize numbers, too, even though we haven’t spent much time looking at them. This Sunday at the Estonian nursery she found a wooden number puzzle, with one piece for each number from zero to nine, and each number’s place was indicated by that number of things: there was one snake in the slot for number 1, two rabbits in the slot for 2, and so on. She got almost all of them right at first try (but 6, 8 and 9 were a bit tricky).

Another subject of fascination is buttons – the kind you press, not the ones on clothes. She likes pressing the buttons to make the traffic light go green, and doorbell buttons, too. But she also finds pretend buttons in all sorts of places: on lamp posts (to make the light go on), on her bike (to make it go), on playground equipment (to make the light go green, so she can go on and play).

And phones: she makes many phone calls on the toy phone they have at nursery, and on mine. She can repeat my side of the most important conversations (the ones where I call Julia’s mum to ask if Ingrid can come play with Julia) almost verbatim.

When she’s done that, she seems to believe that she really has called Julia’s mum, and insists that I don’t need to call, she’s done it already, and Julia’s mum has said yes. The border between truth and fantasy is fluid. When we play doctor, she is well aware that it’s make-believe sickness and make-believe medicine. But when she talks about things that aren’t physically present, she makes no difference between things that really happened, and things she has made up because she wishes they were true.

Somewhat related, I think, is her interest in what other people are thinking. When we pass someone in the street, who’s doing something noteworthy, she will ask me: where is he hurrying? why is she running? what are they talking about? I tell her I don’t know, but he might be hurrying to the train station, or to the market; and she adds her own guesses.

In general she’s asking more complex questions now. It’s not just “what is this”, “where is the spoon” and “can I play with this” but also “which station do we get off at”, “what did you just ask daddy”, “what is a folding rule” etc.

Speaking of questions, she’s already learned that when a stranger talks to her, they will inevitably ask for her name and age. So when someone asks a question that she doesn’t quite hear or understand, she will attempt to answer one of those known questions, and tell them her age or her full name. (And she knows her full name, with all four parts in the right order, too!)

There’s a fair amount of focus on her being a big girl and helping me. And the reverse, too: sometimes she tells me she is a small baby and needs help. Sometimes when we’re eating fruit (such as raspberries) she wants to feed me, or vice versa ask me to feed her. Sometimes she tells me that when she was a baby she drank milk from my breasts – and other times she tells me that she’s my mum and I used to be small and drink milk from her breasts.

She understands that children grow bigger, and then they go to school, and then they grow into adults. When asked, she can tell me that girls grow into mummies and boys grow into daddies. But I don’t think she’s quite understood it yet:

Kui mina suureks saan, siis saab minust emme. Ja kui ma veel suuremaks saan, siis saab minust pappa.

When I grow up, I will be a mummy. And when I grow even bigger, I will be a daddy.

Favourite books: Alfons, and Kringel (one of Eric’s old books), and Palle üksi maailmas. Favourite movie: Leiutajateküla Lotte.

I don’t seem to be doing anything interesting recently, and can’t seem to find time to write reviews for all the books piled up on my desk. So instead of text, here’s a photo that Ingrid managed to take of me. We were out in the garden, with me photographing some of the mushrooms that have popped up here and there. Ingrid wanted to take photos, too, so she borrowed my pocket camera.

Lettuce. Who on earth came up with lettuce? It is the most pointless “vegetable” on earth. It has very little flavour and hardly any nutritional value, and the energy it takes to prepare and eat it is barely recouped by digesting the stuff. It’s grass, and humans are not meant to eat grass.

Lettuce is the only thing in our weekly vegetable boxes that I really have no idea what to do with. It seems that other people consider it essential, because it’s included in every week’s box. I on the other hand find green salads totally pointless.

Is there anything else that lettuce can be used for, other than table decoration or rabbit food?

I like programming. When I don’t get to program for a while, I feel a certain restlessness. It’s the same with reading books, and physical exercise: when I get too little of it, I feel it.

Most of the time my work fills that need. When I get home and Ingrid’s gone to bed, I’d rather blog, read a book, etc. My hobby programming projects languish untouched. I haven’t done any work on my Rails app for over a month.

But this week I have barely touched a line of code at work. Instead I’ve been installing a new build-cum-version control-cum-database server, migrating all of those things from the old server to the new one, plus getting our new developer up to speed, doing various administrative tasks, and handling customer support issues.

By Thursday I was definitely feeling the pangs of abstinence, and my Rails app finally got some attention again. Luckily it’s a small app so it isn’t too hard to pick it up again. The hard part is remembering whether I had some unfinished task lying around, or whether I can just start on the next interesting-looking piece. I’ve taken to checking in a “next step.txt” in order to keep track of where I was.

According to the afterword, Chabon’s working title for Gentlemen of the Road was Jews with Swords. But as he himself admits, that brings up images of “Woody Allen backing towards the nearest exit behind a barrage of wisecracks and a wavering rapier”: funny, but in a puny way.

The Jews in the book are as far from Woody Allen as you can get: two mercenaries / con men in the 950s AD, wandering around somewhere in the Caucasus area. Zelikman is a pale, fair-haired, skinny Jew from the Frankish kingdom; Amram is a burly Ethiopian who likes to think of himself as a Jew. Neither matches the contemporary stereotype, which is exactly Chabon’s purpose.

Most of the action takes place in Khazaria, a Turkic nation that for some reason adopted Judaism as its state religion. I’d never heard of Khazaria before and at first I was convinced that it was a fiction but turns out that there really was an empire like that.

Due to money troubles (which seems to be the normal state of affairs for them) Zelikman and Amram find themselves tasked with delivering a young man safely to his grandfather’s home. The assignation spirals out of hand, and soon the pair are helping stage a revolution.

It’s Dumas with a modern, self-conscious angle. Inevitably there’s fighting and warfare, but nevertheless the adventures in the book have melancholy and fatalistic overtones. Nothing is black and white; the good guys cause as much bloodshed as the bad ones, and their reasons for acting are not more righteous.

The writing is wordy and lush, with long sentences flowing through phrase after twisting phrase. It won’t appeal to all tastes but in this setting it worked well for me.

The book as a whole was pleasant and enjoyable, but too slim, and, ultimately, forgettable. It did make me want to re-read Dumas and to read more of Chabon’s work, though.

Amazon US, Amazon UK.

Whenever I think of Jews with Swords I cannot help thinking about Jews with Horns. And whenever I think of Dumas, I cannot help thinking about The Shawshank Redemption.