blarg?

September 21, 2019

Retrospect

Filed under: analog,digital,doom,future,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 6:51 am

Untitled

I bailed out of Twitter not long after I put this up. I tried to follow Anil’s lead going to lists and zero followers for a bit, but after some time reflecting on that last blown-up tweet I couldn’t stomach it. If I believed Twitter was that bad, and had to invest that much effort into twisting it away from its owners intentions into something I could use, what was I doing there at all? I look at that tweet now and all I feel is complicit; I might have given somebody a reason to try Twitter, or stay on Twitter, and I’m ashamed of it. Recently I’ve been using it just to put links to these blogposts up, but I’m trying to decide if I’m going to keep doing even that. It’s embarrassing.

Even at first, finding time and space free of that relentless immediacy was a relief. That sense of miserable complicity was reason enough to leave, but after some distance, reflection and feeling (and being) a lot better about basically everything, playing around in the fediverse a bit and getting eight hours sleep for the first time in a long while, I had a sense of being on the verge of different. In that rediscovered space for longer consideration I started to recognize a rare but familiar feeling, the lightness of putting some part of my life I didn’t care for much behind me.

Obvious from a distance, I guess; McLuhan is old news. Companies create their customers, and the perfect audience for any ad-driven company is a person who’s impulsive, angry, frightened and tired. The cyclic relationships between what you see and how you think, feel and react makes that the implicit victory condition for any attention-economy machine learning, the process of optimizing the creation of an audience too anxious and angry to do anything but keep clicking on reasons to be anxious and angry.

Whatever else you get out of it, the company selling your attention is trying to take your control of your attention away from you. That’s their job; what incentives point to anything else? It’s a machine that’s purpose-built for turning you into someone you don’t want to be.

April 10, 2019

Modern Problems, Etc.

Filed under: analog,awesome,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,weird — mhoye @ 10:51 am

genegraft

November 10, 2018

Tunnels

Filed under: a/b,analog,documentation,interfaces,life,travel — mhoye @ 2:13 am

Toronto’s oldest subway line, and the newest. This the view east from the Bloor Station platform:

Subway Tunnel, Bloor Station

… and this is the view north from York University:

PA250713

July 5, 2017

The Minimum Viable Context

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:51 am

2017-05-09_08-06-58

This is not a subtweet; if I thought this should be about you, I’d have said so to your face months ago. If you get all the way through it and still kind of suspect it’s about you, though, you should spend some time looking inward and gear yourself up to deal with whatever you find in there, rattling the chains.

I’ve started and stopped writing this a couple of times now. Some drafts have been didactic, other self-congratulatory. “Blogging isn’t real if it’s not the first draft”, I’ve read somewhere, but I’ve never been able to do that; writing has always been a slog from what I’ve got written to what I can just barely sense I could. If I wanted to flatter myself I’d wheel out the old Mozart/Beethoven analogy, but that feels too much like fishing for compliments and besides, that garbage was in an early draft too.

So let’s lead with the punchline. Here’s the checklist: does everyone on your team…

  1. have a shared understanding of success?
  2. know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well?
  3. know how their work contributes to the team’s success?
  4. know how their team’s success contributes to their own?

If you’re surveying the field from the executive suite and need big-picture, master-class management advice, well. This is not that. Talk to my friends Shappy and Johnath at Raw Signal. If you understand what they’re offering you know better than to look for it here. What I’ve got here is penny-ante table stakes, the difference between a team and a handful of people sharing the same corner of an orgchart. It is not complicated; it should, in theory, be trite. But to borrow a line, the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

In theory, you’d think hitting 4 out of 4 would be not just easy, but expected. In practice, in my experience, you’ll be lucky to make it to 2.

A few months ago I was asked to help a team out of the weeds. Getting into the details would be a disservice, so I won’t; in the broad strokes, I’m talking about a cross-discipline team of smart, invested people doing an important job. But for whatever reason, something – several somethings, it turned out – had gone really, really wrong. Execution, morale and retention were all going south. Everyone knew it, but nobody was really sure what had happened or what to do about it.

So I talked to a lot of people, I read a lot of mailing lists and bugs, and offered some advice.

If you’ve been around the team-dysfunction block before, you know there are plenty of probable causes. Shakeout from a reorg, a company pivoting hard, a team managing some sudden turnover, maybe the organization has grown from everyone being in the same room to nobody even being in the same city. Maybe you’ve hit that critical mass where communicating has suddenly gone from something nobody needed to worry about to something nobody remembers how to do. Maybe the one person who made it work left, maybe it’s just been that way so long nobody remembers the possibility that it could be different.

The advice I had for them was straightforward, a word I love for the veneer of upright nobility it adds to a phrase I could just as easily close out with “simple” or “obvious”. Get everyone into the same room for a few days, preferably away from everyone’s home base. Start the first day by having everyone give a talk about their jobs, not some name-and-title intro but a deep dive into what their job involves and the information, context and resources they need to do it well. Have some conversations – some public, some privately – between team leads and members about personal or professional goals and growth paths.

And then take the roadmap and the entire work backlog for the team and – ideally in the last meeting of that first day – print it out, stand up in front of everyone and drop it on the floor. Then tell everyone to come back the next day ready to start fresh.

The goal of this exercise was to make all the hidden costs – all the hidden work, all the hidden friction, everything people couldn’t see through the lens of their own disciplines – visible. And then, with that information, to take a hard reset. To narrow the team scope down to one or two tightly focused, high-impact features that could ship soon, and – critically – explicitly stop working on everything else. That sounded a bit dramatic, maybe impossible – I’ve been called worse – but nothing else seemed like it would work at all.

Because when I was asking my questions, the answers I got were mostly about the questions those teammates were asking each other. And it wasn’t hard to spot a common theme.

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “Player Piano”, 1952

Does everyone on the team understand that when you ask a designer to make a new button, that you’re asking them for a few dozen hours of product and market research, and a few more of design and testing, and not half an hour in Illustrator drawing pretty pictures? Does everyone really get that accommodating that schema change means refactoring a pile of business logic or backup processes? Did you all notice that you were asking for a contractual change with a major partner when you said “just change this string”?

I made those questions up for this post; the real ones were different in the specifics but definitely not in substance. You realize that you’re asking for the entire process, not just the output at the end, right? Why don’t you just?

You’ve seen this. You’ve probably even asked questions like them; I sure have. And unchallenged, even the mildest case of engineer’s disease left untreated will fester; eventually cultural rot sets in. We don’t really have a word for the long decline that happens next, the eventual checking out that happens the moment you clock in. The septic shock, the team’s paralysis and organ failures of core people ragequitting near the end. But you’ve seen that, too.

“You should focus on a small number of things” and “it helps to understand how your colleagues do their best work” is not exactly going to spur a revolution in technical leadership. I get that. But: don’t mistake the roadmap for the terrain. If you’ve made that plan without a clear, shared idea of where you’re going, how everyone can help you get there, and why you’re going at all? Then it’s hard to see how that will succeed, much less give rise to the kind of work or working environment you can be proud of. So toss it. Do the work of understanding where and who you are, and draw the map from there to somewhere that matters.

I told you this was table stakes, and I was not kidding about that at all. I wanted to help them get to a point where everyone on the team could confidently go 4 for 4 on the list, to get them to necessary so they could launch themselves at sufficient. And now, a couple of months later, I think it worked. They’re not all the way there yet – culture’s got a lot of inertia, and if I ever find a way to hard-pivot a whole org I’ll let you know – but they’re on the way, with a lot of clarity about what they’re doing, how they’re going to get it done together, and why it matters.

So: what about your team? Does everyone on your team have a shared understanding of success? Do you know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well? Do you know how your work, and theirs, contributes to the team’s success and to your own?

Or does your team – maybe, possibly, kind of, just – suck at being a team?

You should do something about that. What are you going to do about that?

June 4, 2017

What I’m Talking About When I’m Talking About Biking

Filed under: analog,interfaces,travel,vendetta — mhoye @ 4:08 pm

It’s a funny little quirk of Ontario traffic laws that the fine for killing a cyclist is often less expensive than the bike they were riding when they were killed.

I’m a cyclist. I own bikes for different jobs, I commute to work every day I can on a bike, and ride for fun when I have a chance. There’s no better way to get around this city; you have almost perfect freedom and nothing is faster. If I’m pushing hard my commute at the height of rush hour is 25 minutes. 22 is a personal best, pretty good for a 10 kilometer ride.

I only drive it two or three times a year but in a car I’ve never been able make it door to door in rush hour in less than 45. As a cyclist I’m faster and more agile than anything else on the road, but all that speed and freedom comes at one cost: total vulnerability. I am, I think I’ve mentioned, one of those proverbial “scofflaw cyclists”. I can guess what you think about that; I don’t particularly care.

Riding in Toronto means you’re quote-sharing-unquote the road; there are very few genuinely separated bike lanes, mostly disconnected from each other. All of them are about five feet wide, maybe enough for two cyclists to pass each other if one hugs the curb. About one and a third car doors, to use a metric that matters. If you’re lucky something more robust than a painted line separates you from passing cars, but usually not.

Navigating infrastructure built with your existence as less as than an afterthought is never boring; the casual transgressions drivers barely notice themselves committing every day can injure or kill an inattentive cyclist, so space and direction are never things you can just have, or trust. You fight for every inch of it, carve it out and press forward. What you’re given is the worst parts of the pavement if anything, where people will pull up to park, unload, and cut you off without so much as a glance. So you take as much of the lane as you can. It might be rough, the route might end up circuitous, but if you don’t assert your right to the lane you’re stuck. You might get in somebody’s way and they might get angry but you do it anyway because the alternative to being loud and visible is being a statistic.

And if you’ve ever been in an accident bad enough to warrant the police showing up, you know the drill already: it’s always an exercise in figuring out what the cyclist did wrong. Did they have lights on their bike? A bell? Did they signal? Maybe their clothes weren’t visible enough. It must have been something like that, but if not it was probably the cyclist being “too aggressive”. Just to give you a taste of how little the Toronto police think of cyclists, here’s an accident prevention campaign they ran on May 16th of this year by parking an old-timey novelty police car in the Adelaide bike lane. That’s right, a traffic safety awareness campaign forcing cyclists into traffic at rush hour.

For the most part, that’s just how it is. Cops don’t actually think cyclists are people, and the laws don’t actually treat cyclists like people. Cars, yes, definitely! Cyclists, not so much; this is why so many cyclists have bike- or helmet-cams now; without the recording, the police will always – always – find a reason it was the cyclists’ fault. If somebody threatens to kill you with a knife or a gun, police are on the way, sirens blazing. With a car, though? If they show up at all, it’s to tell the cyclist it was their fault.

So as a cyclist, you have to navigate this world full of people who are wearing three thousand pounds of indestructible, gasoline-powered armour and do not care enough if you live or die to glance in their mirrors – motorists who’ve lived in the armour of their privilege for so long they can’t distinguish it from a capital-R Right – but who will get incredibly upset if you do anything that so much as hurts their feelings.

And, Oh My God, they have so many feelings. They’re full to bursting with Driver Feelings. If you so much as startle somebody in a car, those feelings all come out at once. They’ll chase you down, cut you off, roll down their windows and start into the insults, the death threats, it’s amazing.

You’d think being functionally invulnerable would give you some sort of minimal sense of confidence, but my goodness no. That’s not the case at all; I’ve swerved around a car that decided to park in the Bloor bike lane, only to have the person in the SUV who had to brake behind me honk, pull up and start yelling. I’ve had a car on the Danforth start swerving into me like he’s playing chicken. Screaming, swearing, all of it, from people who’ve got three other lanes to choose from and an entire city of infrastructure purpose-built for their vehicles ahead of them. I’ve had a car run a stop sign just so they could catch up with me and yell at me not to run stop signs. I’ve been told, by somebody parked in the bike lane, that I should think of the reputation of cyclists and stay in my lane.

This is a routine experience in this city. You’re riding through a city where four- and eight- lane highways crisscrossing the downtown core are completely normal but safe bike lanes are somehow “controversial”. Nobody really cares about following the rules, to the point where people get upset if you’re following the wrong ones, and if you’re on a bike those rules aren’t, by design, going to protect you anyway. They’re just what drivers point back to when you’ve made them angry, and they’ll get angry if you break the rules, or if you follow the rules, or if you’re nearby, or if cyclists exist at all. It’s the veil of authority people hide behind, when they have power and want to vent their anger at people without.

You’ve heard this story before, I suspect. With different labels, in a different context maybe, but I bet the broad strokes of it are familiar. My routine bike commute is at the core of my politics, of my understanding of the nature of power.

For me, though, that ride is a choice. Ultimately I can put the bike down. And because I’m an upper-middle-class white man who works in tech, when I put the bike down I get to step into my own, different suit of nearly-invulnerable power armour.

It says a lot about you, I think, if you can look at any imbalance of power and vulnerability and your first reflexive reaction is to talk about how important rules are. I don’t know about you, but that’s not who I want to be. I live and work in a world full of people who can’t put their vulnerabilities aside so casually, who are full time, 24/7 navigating social and economic structures that are far more pervasive and hostile to them than cars are to me and my adorable little hour per day of commute. People who understand how those “rules” really work where the rubber (and sometimes the skin, and sometimes the skull) meets the road. So the least, the very least I can do is listen carefully to people who can’t put down their gender, their disability or the color of their skin, who suffer the whims of those oppressive, marginalizing systems, and to try to understand more than the problem or grievance they’re facing right now, but the architectures that give those problems their durability, their power. And to do the day-in, day-out work of understanding my own blind spots and taking responsibility for the spaces and systems around me.

It’s not super-convenient for me personally, to be honest. It takes me a bit longer to get places or find a place to park. But this is the job.

August 18, 2016

Culture Shock

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,mozilla,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 3:18 pm

I’ve been meaning to get around to posting this for… maybe fifteen years now? Twenty? At least I can get it off my desk now.

As usual, it’s safe to assume that I’m not talking about only one thing here.

I got this document about navigating culture shock from an old family friend, an RCMP negotiator now long retired. I understand it was originally prepared for Canada’s Department of External Affairs, now Global Affairs Canada. As the story made it to me, the first duty posting of all new RCMP recruits used to (and may still?) be to a detachment stationed outside their home province, where the predominant language spoken wasn’t their first, and this was one of the training documents intended to prepare recruits and their families for that transition.

It was old when I got it 20 years ago, a photocopy of a mimeograph of something typeset on a Selectric years before; even then, the RCMP and External Affairs had been collecting information about the performance of new hires in high-stress positions in new environments for a long time. There are some obviously dated bits – “writing letters back home” isn’t really a thing anymore in the stamped-envelope sense they mean and “incurring high telephone bills”, well. Kids these days, they don’t even know, etcetera. But to a casual search the broad strokes of it are still valuable, and still supported by recent data.

Traditionally, the stages of cross—cultural adjustment have been viewed as a U curve. What this means is, that the first months in a new culture are generally exciting – this is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” or “tourist” phase. Inevitably, however, the excitement wears off and coping with the new environment becomes depressing, burdensome, anxiety provoking (everything seems to become a problem; housing, neighbors, schooling, health care, shopping, transportation, communication, etc.) – this is the down part of the U curve and is precisely the period of so-called “culture shock“. Gradually (usually anywhere from 6 months to a year) an individual learns to cope by becoming involved with, and accepted by, the local people. Culture shock is over and we are back, feeling good about ourselves and the local culture.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t always work out that way. But if you know what to expect, and what you’re looking for, you can recognize when things are going wrong and do something about it. That’s the key point, really: this slow rollercoaster you’re on isn’t some sign of weakness or personal failure. It’s an absolutely typical human experience, and like a lot of experiences, being able to point to it and give it a name also gives you some agency over it you may not have thought you had.

I have more to say about this – a lot more – but for now here you go: “Adjusting To A New Environment”, date of publication unknown, author unknown (likely Canada’s Department of External Affairs.) It was a great help to me once upon a time, and maybe it will be for you.

September 11, 2015

Straps

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:23 pm

I was complaining on Twitter that almost everyone who makes shoulder bags makes terrible straps to go with them and that it’s the most important thing to get right and nobody does and everything is terrible. You know, as one does. And I mentioned modifying my bags to make the straps work right, and people seemed interested in what I did, so off we go.

Here’s a decent enough shot of what I’ve done to the bag I bought a while ago. Briefly:

P9110849

  • That entire buckle and d-ring assembly in the upper left does one job: it moves the place you cinch down the strap from the middle of my chest, where it used to live, to the bottom of the bag. This means that lifting the bag up and cinching it snug is a single motion in one direction, instead of trying to hoist the bag upwards with one hand to get some slack while pulling down with the other to tighten it down; it makes a big difference if you’re carrying a load.
  • The metal wire you see looped through the chest buckle is insurance; might be unnecessary, but I don’t quite trust that part of this exercise to stay put on its own.
  • The small strap you see hanging off the d-ring at about 11:00 is a quick-release; set up like this it stays nice and snug until I give little tug on that and it all comes slack. You can sort of see how that works here:

P9110857

  • You can’t clip your keys easily to this strap as shipped, which really sucks. The extra d-ring in that second picture is for that.
  • The bit with the two aluminum rings there is a replaced support strap, that works the same way; I can cinch it down easily once it’s on, one loop keeps the strap from dangling everywhere and putting a thumb through the lets me pop it off easily. There’s a cheap plastic caribiner hanging off the end of the bag that I can clip those to if I’m not using them, so they stay out of the way.
  • Finally, down in the bottom right, I’ve added some extra slotted-loop rings to the ends of the straps that hold the bag closed, so that they don’t flap around everywhere either.

So there you have it. About ten bucks worth of extra bits and a bit of extra thought has moved this bag from “very good” to “close to perfect”, quickly adjustable and a little more pleasant to interact with when you’ve got a lot to carry.

This is was I was going on about on Twitter, if anyone’s still reading at this point. It doesn’t take much; a bit of consideration, getting the parts, making the change. Repairability, as always, matters way more than it seems at first. Don’t buy a work bag if you can’t replace the straps with something worthwhile; I bet eventually you’ll want to. And when the part of a thing you interact with the most somehow gets the least attention, just that little bit of giving a damn can go a very long way.

January 23, 2013

Baking Bacon

Filed under: analog,awesome,documentation,food,interfaces — mhoye @ 1:29 pm

You need a Silpat nonstick cooking mat, a baking tray, an oven and tongs. Turn the oven up to 400, but you don’t need to let it finish preheating; this starts from cold. Silpat goes on the tray, bacon goes on the Silpat and it all goes in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

No other interaction, no stirring, no splatter, no mess. Pull out the tray when it’s as crispy as you like; I prefer crispy bacon so I aim for the 25 minute mark, but there’s room for debate here. Pick the bacon up and shake off any excess fat, plate your evenly cooked, perfect-all-the-way-across bacon, done. Cleanup is incredibly easy, just pour the grease out and rinse the Silpat and tray with hot water.

This has really revolutionized my bacon-having experience. You should try it.

January 15, 2013

Memetic Diversity

Filed under: analog,awesome,life — mhoye @ 7:38 am

On my subway ride home last night two elderly Chinese ladies were sitting across from me having an animated conversation I couldn’t understand a word of, when one of them suddenly ended a sentence with “… like a boss.”

The conversation paused, as the other just lifted her eyebrows and nodded appreciatively.

The moment passed; they started back into it, and I stepped off the train shortly afterwards.

It was beautiful, truly.

January 6, 2013

Besides The Photo And The Memory

Filed under: analog,awesome,doom,future,life,parenting — mhoye @ 2:40 pm

After explaining the death of a neighbor’s cat to Maya, every conversation we have can now get incredibly heavy without the least bit of advance warning.

“Dad, I want eggs for breakfast.”
“Ok, Maya, how do you ask for things?”
“Please can I have eggs for breakfast please?”
“Sure. We can make scrambled eggs.”
“Ok. Dad, are you going to die?”
“Eventually. Hopefully not soon, but eventually everyone dies. That’s why we have to be kind to each other with the time we have.”
“Can I have ketchup?”
“Maya.”
“Please can I have ketchup with breakfast please please?”
“Certainly.”
“Is mom going to die?”

It’s honestly like having a cartoon piano land on your mood four times a day.

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