Notes

The medium is the message of blogging

This piece has been making the rounds of the indieweb, The Message Behind the Medium of a Personal Blog. These are the intrinsic qualities that the medium of a personal blog communicates:

  • Each voice is individual and matters
  • Slow is ok
  • Diversified and independent is good
  • Not fitting a pattern is ok
  • Not being easily commodified is ok

These are great values to have.

The Middle

Time for some music nostalgia, The Middle by Jimmy Eat World. [YouTube]

Hey, don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head, you feel left out
Or looked down on
Just try your best
Try everything you can
And don’t you worry what they tell themselves
When you’re away

It just takes some time
Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride
Everything, everything’ll be just fine
Everything, everything’ll be alright, alright

Hey, you know they’re all the same
You know you’re doing better on your own
So don’t buy in
Live right now
Yeah, just be yourself
It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough
For someone else

Sometimes you just need a good song, sometimes the song fits the mood perfectly.

Exhaustion

It’s been well over a year since I’ve had a proper vacation. My time off has been spent job hunting, planning an international move and playing host. In the background the war keeps going.

And thus Brad Frost’s A bit of a break hit me:

In September of last year, I dragged my cursor across all of August 2022 in Google Calendar. I gave the calendar entry the title of “Time off?” A year later, I’m actually taking that time off!

I’m taking a break. I need a break. My body needs a break. My mind needs a break. My soul needs a break.

I’m not setting any goals for my break. I’m not trying to accomplish anything. I’m not trying to clear my to-do list. I’m not trying to write a book. I’m not trying to launch a side project. I’m not trying to read a set number of books. I’m just going to be for a while.

I’m only giving myself a week and a half, but it starts tomorrow.

Time to rest.

The office

As more companies are moving back to the office as the default place to work, I’m seeing more thought pieces critical of in-person work as the default working arrangement.

Here are two examples from bloggers whom I respect:

  1. Cloud-work vs. Land-work by Dave Rupert
  2. Management with intent by Seth Godin

From Rupert:

As companies start to force people back to the office, I find myself coming back to this Cloud-work vs. Land-work dynamic. Is collaboration on land that much better than on the cloud? Is it about removing distractions? Is it because the leadership is ineffective at managing cloud-workers? Is this a means of control and surveillance? Are hallway crossings the key to fostering innovation? What about the cloud-work job requires it to be land-work?

From Godin:

If a manager says, “the only way I can create connections, loyalty and a sense of purpose is to force people to shlep to an office every day,” they’re being lazy. Surely we can come up with something better than simply taking attendance.

As knowledge work has shifted to a remote-first setting, organizations have generally done an astonishingly bad job of bringing any intent at all to how they will build a culture that they care about. Forcing people to show up so they can hide behind a screen in the office is lazy.

The argument is largely that if a job can physically be done remotely, it should be done remotely. Requiring physical presence in order to motivate people, create a common culture or simply get things done is a sign of poor management and leadership skills.

Of course there are bad managers out there who rely on looking over your shoulder in the office. But that’s not the only thing going on here.

Both of these gentlemen are in the consultant, freelancer, entrepreneur camp. Most of the other that I see making strong, good faith arguments for remote work are senior specialists. None of them benefit from being in the office. But I’m hesitant to extrapolate that experience to everyone who does “cloud-work”.

A lot has been written about the benefits of in-person, spontaneous interactions. Many of my best professional contributions started out as a random wild idea over lunch or a coffee. This doesn’t replicate remotely.

Much of the learning that junior specialists do is via informal mentorships. Something about scheduling a virtual call to do some informal and spontaneous mentoring doesn’t work as well.

Many of us also need the physical space of the office. Having to rent or buy a larger apartment isn’t always that straightforward, especially for more junior employees who tend to earn significantly less.

I could go on, but the last, and perhaps most important point, is that humans have spent thousands of years working in close proximity to each other. Changing that overnight is going to be difficult for many.

There are a few more reasons supporting remote work that I often see trotted out, but I think they are more tied to bad public policy.

  1. Commuting is awful. I agree, but this is because of poor infrastructure. The solution is cutting suburban sprawl and building better public transportation.
  2. Real estate is too expensive where the good jobs are. Also, 100% true but this is because of poor zoning laws, missing middle housing, too much regulation stifling development and real estate becoming a sort of pension investment.
  3. Childcare. Also valid, but the same is also true that lack of government kindergartens and poor parental leave polices are the root of the problem.

I get it that remote work help relieve the pressure on these symptoms, and my own opinion is that companies should explore as much flexibility as possible. That said, let’s not get carried away and get rid of thousands of years of human history for the sake of a few, hopefully, short-term policy failings. Completely destroying the office as an intellectual hub isn’t the right response to the failed urbanism of the past generation.

Dangerous stroads

The ideas of Strong Towns and Not Just bikes are becoming ever more mainstream. Take this article in Vox about a Florida stroad:

When fatal crashes happen, the questions — from law enforcement, the media, commenters on Facebook — inevitably turn to human behavior: Was the driver drunk? What was the pedestrian wearing? Was the driver texting? How fast were they going? Was the cyclist wearing a helmet? What was the pedestrian wearing? Could they be easily seen in the dark? In other words, we look for ways to blame individual behavior, rather than consider the larger systemic forces at play.

That instinct, to attribute a fatal crash to some failure of personal responsibility, distracts us from the bigger picture: that many of our road designs are inherently unsafe.

Also in a preverse irony:

Experts are still studying why pedestrian fatalities surged across the country during the pandemic, but some think the disruption to normal traffic patterns as Americans stayed home may have exacerbated the problem, because congestion is actually one of the few things that can force cars to slow down. “The congestion has in a sense been covering up our deadly designs,” Marohn says. “What the pandemic did is reveal how deadly our design approach is.”

What Ralph Nader did to get seatbelts in every car, I hope Charles Marohn can do for traffic infrastructure. When you look at the absolute numbers of people losing their lives to this, it’s hard to understand why the media is still so fixated on other things.

The positive impact of religion

I come across the common but lazy trope that religion is bad and holding back society all the time. The thinking seems to go that if there were no religion, everyone would be some sort of enlightened humanist — let’s ignore the fact that the enlightenment was borne out of the Protestant Reformation.

I’d argue that most religions somewhere on the scale of beneficial to benign to slightly malicious. If you look at some of the major non-religious belief systems of recent history, nationalism, communism and fascism, it’s hard to have such a rosy view.

Hence you can reasonably ague, even if you are, like me, not religious, that religion serves as a sort of vaccine against far worse ideologies.

Here’s a curious study showing that: the introduction of Islamic law in Nigeria is improving the lives of children. People invest more in their children, likewise children see it as their duty to care for the elderly.

Uncharted waters

One of the things I find the most fascinating is thinking about just how much we don’t know. Today’s theme, water:

  1. There may be three times as much water below the surface of the earth than in the oceans. But it’s conjecture and not easily explored.
  2. The Yucatan peninsula has 215 miles (345 km) of connected underwater caves.
  3. Earthquakes as far as Japan and Mexico create waves in Devils Hole, a Nevada cave. It’s unknown how deep and far Devil’s hole goes and how it’s connected to these distant waters.

Whenever it’s tempting to embrace scientism, take a step back and admire just how much we don’t know and likely never will.

Limitations of iCloud

For general use cases, iCloud works great. But there are some catches.

I can’t have a granular sync with a device, allowing only certain folders to be accessible. This is annoying when you want some files to be shared with your work computer, but by no means all.

Non-Apple apps can’t use iCloud sync unless you have all of iCloud drive on a device. This is annoying because, I’d like to use iA Writer and Reeder on my work computer and have their respective libraries sync. Nope — not unless I give my work computer access to every single file.

I don’t think this is a purely technical limitation, as first party Apple apps can do this.

Abby Covert — new book!

Abby Covert is one of my favorite people in the design thought leader space, and she’s out with a new book about diagramming.

That was an instant buy. Now I just have to wait for it to make its way across the pond.

For some background, Abby has a great book about information architecture called How to Make Sense of Any Mess. It’s accessible enough that you can give it to a non-designer to read, but it’s though-provoking enough that even a seasoned UX professional will get something, even a lot, out of it.

For a real treat, give yourself an hour and listen to this keynote talk that goes into so many nooks and crannies of everything IA related.

Fear bubbles

A good reminder to enjoy the summer and skip the media induced fear bubbles from Tim Urban.

I’m honestly worried about many of those who have been stuck in this bubble since the Trump era. Everything’s an existential threat, nothing can be enjoyed and fear lurks behind each corner. It’s a vicious cycle to snap out of, but it’s possible. Stop reading so much news, unplug and live more offline.

Childless

I read a Twitter thread with people offended over the word “childless”. The suggested alternative is “childfree”.

This is unfortunate, as childless is a neutral term, a mere statement of fact. When I say that I don’t have children I don’t wish to say why I don’t or whether I’m planning to have to.

Childfree is an extreme political movement, a quick look at r/childfree gives you the idea.

It’s unfortunate that more and more everyday words are becoming political.

Meat

Meat consumption is a popular arena for performative ethical grandstanding. Articles such as Supermarkets cut the number of bargain meat deal abound.

It really is odd since it amounts to the Bill Gates class of people harping at the peasants to eat bugs.

We need the apocalypse is the best article I’ve read about the whole thing from the elites demanding the hoi polloi eat less to the Dutch farmer protest:

For our extractive industrial mode of living really can’t go on forever. This, though, leaves ordinary farmers in the crosshairs. For most agriculture is as industrial as an Australian iron ore mine, thanks to fossil fuel powered farm machinery, nitrogen fertiliser and chemical pesticides. And these practices really do risk future food security.

Yet for the knowledge class, the world of atoms is something to be counted, rationalised, financialised, streamlined or otherwise manipulated in the course of the actually important work of abstraction, high-level thinking, and making more money. So when spreadsheet sociopaths of this type decide it’s time to force a “transition” out of such environmentally harmful and carbon-intensive work, people whose livelihoods are inextricable from that work may, understandably, have questions.

After mentioning that Bill Gates is now the largest owner of agricultural lands in the United States, the article continues:

Absent some kind of redistributive revolution, it seems more plausible that agriculture goes high-tech. Robotisation is already in use in some farms, while gene-edited crops are on their way to being waved through by the current Tory administration. And we’re forever being told that insect protein is the food of the future. But this, in turn, means even greater consolidation: fewer workers, bigger fields, larger parcels of land. In other words, more small farmers being forced out of business. And more tech implies an increasing dependency on Big Finance and biotech. If this is the future we get, those now fretting that we’re going to end up as a microchipped useless class, spending our meaningless, UBI-funded, AI-governed lives staring out of a pod home at hundreds of thousands of acres of robot-tended agroindustry while awaiting our drone delivery of insect protein, may be exaggerating only a little.

And indeed, grand top-down plans often seem indifferent to predictable human consequences — a fact underlined again by the Dutch protests. Here, farmers are furious that the government appears to have imposed strictures on nitrogen emissions to meet climate targets, with little thought for how the transition will be managed and how farmers’ livelihoods will be affected.

Nor is this the first time top-down idealism has fomented human-scale backlash. Last year, the Sri Lankan government was awarded an “Oscar for best policy” by the WEF, for a decision to ban nitrogen fertiliser. This government edict forced the nation’s farms to go organic more or less overnight, despite experts warning that this would be a disaster. The livelihoods and even lives lost have driven a popular uprising; last week, an estimated 300,000 protesters took to the streets, and forced the resignation and flight of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on a military plane.

What I take away from this, is that the current mode of industrial agriculture isn’t sustainable in the long term. We’re not headed towards a simpler, more human-scale and sustainable agriculture. Instead, It’s going to be a top-down techno-utopian “solution” a la lockdowns, masks and vaccines passports.

No thanks. As someone that didn’t eat meat for years and even now eats far less meat than most, I don’t need Bill Gates telling me what protein to eat, nor do I want bureaucrats seizing farmland.

And in conclusion:

Against this backdrop, the Dutch farmers emerge as tragic reverse-Luddites, battling not against the onset of industrialisation but its end. At root their cause is the defence of livelihoods that depend on the continuation of an extractive mode of production that feeds and clothes most of us, but is also slowly killing the planet. But those imposing grand schemes aimed at forcing change don’t come out much better. Techno-futurist visions on the scale proposed by Davos Man imply a vantage-point from which all possible variables have been assessed and the rational way forward determined — a perspective that routinely obscures the human costs of knowledge-class hubris.

Glassdoor

Glassdoor has been an important resource for making career decisions from where to work and how much money to ask for. That’s why a New Zealand company using American courts to force Glassdoor to reveal the identity of people who left reviews is upsetting (link).

Whether this is an isolated incident or the beginning of a decline remains to be seen.

Dev sass

Getting an undue amount of sass, cheek and attitude from developers is part of working in tech as a non-developer. It’s not all of them, but, golly, I’ve been on the receiving end of it at every single company I’ve worked at. Any time I mention it to others in UX, I get the knowing look and we have stories to share.

What I mean is basic rudeness, arrogance and flippancy. This can range from the subtle but omnipresent “I’m smarter than you” vibe to outright dismissiveness. When presenting designs, the UX team has usually researched something for weeks, gone through rounds of testing and given every last pixel and word hours of thought. This is nearly always met with sneers and “improvements”. Because they’re developers, their opinions have to be honored.

I suppose this came about for a few reasons:

  1. Software developers make a lot more money than non-developers, and salary is often conflated with intelligence and worth as a human being
  2. Developers solve problems computationally and assume that everything is a computational problem
  3. The tech-bro culture exults devs into thinking they really are smarter than everyone else

Again, this isn’t every developer. And since there’s a shortage of skilled software developers, they aren’t subject to the standard HR rules that govern mere mortals. The same behavior that would get you fired in another position is ignored if you’re a developer.

To go beyond being a whiny rant, I have some action points for developers:

  1. Be polite to non-developers
  2. Think twice before being dismissive of the work that others have done
  3. Assume that you don’t fully understand something if it’s outside of your field of software development and that your opinion about that thing is uninformed

I’ve been mulling this over for since I read I love you, Hacker News, but you’re toxic back in February. It’s short and really, you should read the whole thing, but I’ll quote most of it anyway:

As you spend more time on HN and start reading the replies, you’ll notice that HN is, unfortunately, toxic. Not all the time; not everywhere. But it’s there, and the regulars know what I’m talking about. So many posts on HN are met with skepticism, pessimism, or just an overall negative tone…

As a 20-something-year-old tech bro, I’m no stranger to this attitude of “I’m smarter than you, so I’m going to pick your ideas apart and tell you exactly why you’re wrong.” It’s a mindset I’ve moved away from since I first recognized it in college, but it’s easy to fall back into. I realized how much damage it was doing to my social life. I cared more about being right than being kind. Unfortunately, some people never let go of this attitude. They can go on to be very successful in their careers, but it’s hard to even grab coffee with them and have a light conversation…

Since being on HN, I’ve noticed myself falling back into this sort of mindset. I’m now aware of it, but I didn’t even realize I was doing it again. For example, my ex-girlfriend once told me that hospitals can’t require their staff to wear N95 masks at all times – only regular masks. I immediately said “I don’t believe that. They can probably do whatever they want.” Instead of being empathetic toward a nurse after a 12-hour shift, I was more concerned over hospital policy.

Or another example: My dad told me that he wants to dabble in programming, but MySQL isn’t compatible with his laptop. My response? “Yeah there’s no way that’s true. MySQL will work on anything.” Instead of taking a look at this laptop and working on the problem with him, I just told him that he’s wrong and he doesn’t know what he’s doing (basically).

It was eye-opening read, because I see the same tendency in myself to some extent. Now that I have a name for it, I’m noticing dev sass everywhere.