53-15 is too much. I got greedy.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is the first time I went from a tiny, single-speed Canadian Tire BMX bike to a 3-speed. I might have been eight or nine years old.
It was bad, by any modern standards. But even by the standards of the day, that old 3-speed was bad.
At the time basically all bikes were bad, of course. Most of them were were designed as more of an homage to the choppers and beach-cruiser motorbikes of the day than as bicycles in their own right. Mine came to me second hand, carefully chosen because it was exactly the same as my best friend’s 3-speed. A white frame, swooping cosmetic piping, heavy chrome fenders and cheap steel gears, Raleigh or Supercycle or who knows what. I don’t think my dad cared much about the difference between proper grease, machine oil and WD-40 even if any of that would have helped, so the whole thing rattled and squeaked. Now that I’m sitting here dredging up those memories I even think the grip tape on the drops was really electrical tape that melted on shifted on hot days.
It was beautiful.
On that little BMX, I could be pedalling as fast as I could and often it wouldn’t be enough; cyclists call it “spinning out”. Maybe going down a hill, when I just couldn’t pedal fast enough to engage with the rear wheel; I still remember that feeling too, it felt like being in a huge hurry and still having to run up a flight of stairs one at a time.
But when I graduated to gears on that heavy, rattling three speed with bigger tires? Oh my God.
Did you have that moment of revelation too? Spinning out in your lowest gear, pedalling as fast as your little legs will go, and then you drop down a gear, the machine locks in you can fly? And then you start to cap out your middle gear, and if you have a bit of tailwind you can do it again?
And you’re maybe 8 years old and four foot almost and the bike is rattling and the wind noise and every ounce of muscle your tiny legs can muster is going straight into the wheels and you’re probably going like 16kph but that’s so much faster than you’ve ever gone before and it feels like you’ve just launched yourself down the street at Mach 2.
I have been chasing that feeling forever.
Ryan Knighton, a blind author, once talked about getting lost in his own hotel room; he said “When you’re blind, you just can’t assume anything. And the problem is you get a picture in your mind and if you get it wrong, you just live inside the mistake.” I think about that basically every day, particularly when people are explaining how and why they measure things. So I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who describes their experiences in grams or watts.
I know people who find joy in that, but it’s not what I’m after. Or at least, I don’t want to start from the assumption that’s what matters, or trap myself in incrementalism. This is why none of my plans look like itineraries, I suppose, and more like a pin on a map and a list of contingencies to pack for. If I already know where I’m going and exactly how I’m getting there, what’s the point of making the trip?
Cinelli stopped making them last year – I suppose the market for entry-to-mid-level track bikes was already full to bursting – but my now-beloved Tipo Pista shipped 48-17; that is to say, with a 48-tooth chain cog on the crank and a 17-tooth cog on the wheel, a ratio of about 2.8.
If you like to tinker with things, you want the tooth numbers of your gearing to be coprime to keep tire wear even. For example, if you’re riding with a hypothetical 40 teeth on the front and 10 in the back, every half-rotation of your pedals will be exactly two full rotations of the rear wheel, so when you’re locking your legs to stop you’re putting all that stopping power on same small patch of rear tire with every time.
The 40-10 example is extreme, but once you understand the idea you can intuit that 48-tooth gears are notably unhelpful on this front.
48-17 is a decent starter ratio, though. If you’re new to riding fixed – which means, there’s no ratcheting mechanism on the rear wheel to let you coast, you pedal as long as you’re moving – it’s an accessible setup, not too big to get rolling, not too hard to get up a hill and not too terrifying to stop.
That ratio matters, because riding fixed is very pure experience as far as mass and velocity are concerned. You wrestle the bike to go faster, you fight it to stop, and the faster you want to go (and the faster you want to stop), the harder that gets.
It’s so good.
You get strong fast, you really do, but I can definitely understand why “a pure experience as far as mass and velocity are concerned” might not seem compelling to everyone. Mechanical advantage has its place, too! Many people enjoy inventions such as “the lever”; they’re popular for a reason.
But I’m idiosyncratic, and I like to tinker with things. And my first real hit in years of that drop-down-and-launch sensation – what turns out to be a Very Fixed Gear Feeling – was when I switched the rear cog out for a 15-tooth.
My friends, I swear that I started yelling like Saitama. Yes. Yes, this is it. This is the feeling I’ve been looking for.
But then I got a little bit stronger still, and a little greedier, and I wanted more and the only gear up that anyone had in stock was the 53-tooth front gear I’m riding now.
That gear is actually meant for electric scooters. Not battery-assisted e-bikes, but those electric-vespa jobs with the vestigial pedals that keep them just this side of legal.
A smarter man than myself might have seen that as a clue.
53-15 is too much. I can get around on it fine, though the modest hills around here are Not Fun, but it doesn’t really fit. That first moment of effort is there in spades, but – at least at my current strength, on these roads – it takes just a moment too long manifest, and once I’m up to speed it never slides into that sweet spot in the cadence where balanced, near-effortless motion seems to manifest itself.
It looks like Blackspire, a Canadian company whose work I’ve enjoyed, has the right rings back in stock so I’ve ordered a 49-tooth. It should be here next week, when I can dial myself back down to what I really wanted all a long.
But still, you know, those Vigorellis look pretty good…
Humans only use ten percent of their brains, the trope goes, and the least interesting people immediately ask the least interesting question: what if we could use 100% of our brains? Gosh, wouldn’t that be amazing.
Executive Function Theft (EFT) is the deliberate abdication of decision-making, tasks, and responsibilities that are perceived as administrative or repetitive, of lesser importance, or aren’t pleasant or shiny, to another person, with the result that the receiving person’s executive function becomes so exhausted that they are unable to participate in, contribute to, or enjoy higher level efforts.”
– Abigail Goben, August 2023.
15 years or so back I bought a safety razor and a variety pack of blades to try it out. I think it cost me about eighty dollars. I only shave every couple of days and I only replace the blade every couple of shaves, so when I finally worked through sampler pack I bought a hundred of the blades I liked best for about twenty dollars… maybe a decade ago now?
I didn’t understand the phrase “give away the razor, sell the blades” for a long time.
That box of blades kept me stocked until recently, when I finally ran out. Another twenty dollars later I had another box of 100 blades, and I assumed that’d sort me out for a good long time.
And then I found the box of blades I’d misplaced and assumed I’d either used up or lost in the move, still about a quarter full. So here I am. Shaving is a solved problem in my life. As far as this one life concern goes I won’t need to buy a new razor or more blades or do anything but decide whether or not some soap smells nice for maybe the next twenty years.
If I’d gone the plastic cartridge route I’d have spent more in any of the last 15 years than I have on this entire exercise, and all I’d have to show for it is decade of worse shaves. Instead, I’m wondering if I should spend another twenty dollars on another box of blades right now and buy myself the near-certainty that I’ll never need to think about this again.
Like I said, I didn’t understand the phrase “give away the razor, sell the blades” for a long time, at least not what it means for the customer. It’s a way to save a few bucks up front as a distraction from the the low, low cost of you’re dealing with this problem forever, not only with money but time and effort as well. And at the end of the day you’re still getting a bad shave.
“Samuel Vimes earned thirty-eight dollars a month as a Captain of the Watch, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars.
Therefore over a period of ten years, he might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet.
Without any special rancour, Vimes stretched this theory to explain why Sybil Ramkin lived twice as comfortably as he did by spending about half as much every month.”
– Terry Pratchett, “Men At Arms”
The least appreciated part of the Sam Vimes’ Boots theory of economic unfairness is poverty’s constant theft of executive function. The relentless cognitive drain of always dealing with problems that will never, that can never entirely go away, because the means to put them behind you – by design – are either inaccessible or simply don’t exist for that economic strata.
The old science fiction trope about humans only using 10% of their brain is a myth, to be sure, but the idea that you only bear a certain amount of cognitive and emotional burden in a day sure as hell isn’t. So you have to ask, where is it all going?
And the answer for a lot of people in a lot of little ways that add up fast is shopping for razor blades. Or boots, or shelter, or rent or their next meal or that sore tooth or losing their shitty job because the shitty car the can barely afford to run broke down or or or or or or or or or or or
or maybe the question is what could we have, what could we become a society, if we decided to solve problems once and for all. If nobody ever had to spend 80% of their brain, every day, on bullshit problems we could solve for everyone once and for all.
Anyway, I bought my kit from Fendrihan, a Canadian shop I’ve been happy with. If you feel like treating yourself they’ll sell you a nice starter kit, but just a razor and one of their blade samplers will see you right. If you have the means you should give it a try, cartridge razors are trash.
Way Back In The Day, 2007, I found and scraped out a Barbie phonecall-generator service and compiled what I’d found into a single .ogg file, with the 17000 names in its dataset.
Again, I am obligated to warn you: that original recording is a real, SCP-grade cognitohazard, a genuinely dangerous artefact. Nobody has ever listened to the whole thing in one sitting, and the people who’ve tried never talk about the experience in terms of listening to it. They only describe the decompressive experience afterwards, and always as a kind of psychic negative space “where the names should be”, as though something important was taken and a blind spot left in its place.
Nevertheless, that recording made the rounds again in 2015, and soon after that somebody put it on Youtube. A little while later, the original files found its way to archive.org, for great benefit of posterity, and all was well.
Today I discovered that posterity had showed up, and in 2020 somebody used those files and made an edm/noise album called “One By One The Stars Were Going Out”.
This, right here. This is what the internet is for.
An eight-year-old child with bright eyes, a dinosaur backpack and a little shovel in hand digs a hole under the furthest tree in their back yard, alone.
He hears a little “clink”, but it doesn’t sound like a rock. Excited, he unearths a strange bronze vessel, like the old lamps his grandmother burns incense in, but… heavier.
There’s no mythos in this child’s culture of genies and lamps; he’s too young to understand the stories about the steep price of selfish wishes, the cursed fate of those who willingly place themselves in the hands of the trickster’s particular reading. He has never started awake dreaming of the deep, cold water that rushes under the thin ice walked by careless power, the slow curl of the monkey’s paw.
He starts to rubs the lamp clean.
The spirit that emerges from this long-lost lamp is gaudy and resplendent, radiating an ancient power that seems to hum and crack just out of earshot, completely out of place in every form and scale that might suit this idly pastoral backdrop. It looms above the child, somehow both vast beyond imagining and merely too tall, too broad. Resonating as though a forgotten temple had found its voice, it speaks: “You, who have released my from my ancient prison, know that I will uphold the covenant. I will grant the three boons. Thrice, what is within my power to grant will be yours.
Wide eyed, the child responds “is a boon … like a wish?”
The genie smiles; this guileless child is the only soul near. T
“I want to be a doctor.”
The smiles turns a corner the child cannot recognize; patronizing, predatory. What luck, that it is so easy.
“Very good, may your w…”
“A dinosaur doctor.”
For the first time in uncountable aeons the genie is taken aback.
“You want to be… a what?”
“I want to be a dinosaur doctor and I want to find dinosaurs.”
“Oh! And I want my own shirt with my dinosaur I find on it.”
“… you … A dinosaur doctor, you say.”
“Yes and I want to find dinosaurs.”
“Have you considered … Wealth? Power? Strength, beauty?”
“Empire? Mountaintop palaces, grand vistas?”
“I don’t want a mounty visty, I want to be a dinosaur doctor.”
“And a dinosaur shirt, you say.”
“My dinosaur shirt. I want my own dinosaur I found on a shirt.”
The spirits can See deep into the folded contortions of the human spirit, the twisting ochre contradictions of a lifetime of justifications, self deceptions and lies, the gnawing tendrils of envy, lust, desperation and greed so common in those who’ve sought out his kind, and this one is fascinated that there is none of that before him. He has been summoned, somehow, by this uncomplicated form, by untainted colours vibrant, primary and whole. Where would he reach into this to set the hook, he wonders, to anchor the final turn of this child’s undoing?
And then for the first time in as many aeons, he finds himself wondering… why?
The cursed fate of those who seek the out the lamp’s prisoners is its own justification; its own poetry. None who could See those whose wishes were twisted into cruel consequence would ever think otherwise; the reason is there, sufficient and indisputable before them: corroded, vile and eminently, universally human.
Except, somehow, today. Except here and now.
The genie knows with a cosmic certainty that the contortions, the justifications and contradictions will come to this child in time. It cannot be otherwise. But they are not here now; perhaps that balancing will be set before another spirit on another day.
“Very well. You wish to become a Doctor of Dinosaurs? You wish to discover new dinosaurs, and you wish to have a shirt with the dinosaur you have discovered on it?”
In a sentence, Firmament is extremely A Cyan Game. Maybe not quite as much so as Obduction was, but still.
I want to get this out of the way up front: the controls are more than a little jank, there are very few interactions in the world that snap-to-fit if you’re close to the solution and you can sometimes wedge yourself hard, even very early in the game. Playing the game with a console controller is really rough – ladders, oof – and if you can imagine the experience of driving a mech designed and built by the people who made Myst, that experience is exactly the experience you think it is.
It is, first of all, beautiful.
As a built world it gives us an answer to, what if Bioshock’s Rapture but ecological, socialist and kind; that same commitment to Art Deco Scaled Beyond Understanding, but humane. At peace and in harmony with its surrounding space; not divisive, corrosive or cruel.
That alone makes it worth exploring. I’ve often said that the future I want will always be “designed by Sid Mead, soundtrack by Vangelis”, but there’s lots of room in my heart for towering, geometric aspirations made of brushed nickel, polished marble, brass patina and jazz.
In that beautiful space, the puzzles are intricate and the worlds are interconnected in a way that is frequently, and increasingly-rarely in modern games, frustrating – you will sometimes run into puzzles that you can get partway through and then get stuck on because you just don’t have the tool you need yet, and you need to find it that not nearby, but in a whole different part of the game. It helps to know Cyan well enough in these moments that you can trust that the answer is, if eventually, discoverable and that backing out and exploring elsewhere, for now, is part of the Cyan experience.
And that’s the most interesting thing; like all Cyan games, Firmament absolutely refuses to patronize you. There’s no flashing icons telling you where to go next, no soaring dronecam shots that fly through environments as you enter them to show you where you need to go and how to get there, no subtle nudges towards solutions or next actions. You’re given a world-machine in some state of partial function, overgrowth or disrepair, and it’s up to you to even recognize that there’s a machine there at all.
This is so rare in modern games.
There’s a particular art, a school of thought to teaching people how to navigate a problem as they’re navigating it – of dissecting large, intricately built puzzles into minimal-case micropuzzles, presenting them to people as they explore, introducing the tools gently one by one before they arrive at the larger setpiece where they’re all brought together in some particular order, to some particular effect. I have a lot to say about “gamification” – a term and tool that’s largely fallen out of the discourse since the least interesting people in the world got their clammy hands on it and now github has cheevos, so gross – but this is the approach that Nintendo’s designers pioneered and have long since mastered, one that virtually every puzzle-dungeon developer of the last decade has adopted as gospel, intentionally or not.
Not Cyan, though. And their counterargument is crystalline in its simplicity: what if you don’t die?
It is somehow incredibly refreshing.
There’s no time pressure, no heath meter, no edges to step off accidentally, nothing that’s going to crush or spike or spring out to antagonize you. You will never have to press X to not die, or even run. And in exchange, all you have to do – all you can do, all you are obligated to do – is solve the world. You can manipulate the machine in any way it will allow as long as you like to no ill effect; you’ve got as much time as you want to bring to it. But the price of that is you’re on your own. It’s all on you to figure out. The tools are all there in the world, but the world will not help you; you don’t get so much as a map or even get fast-travel, apart from basically speedwalking. There’s you, the model of the machine you have in your head, and that has to be enough, because that’s all you’re getting.
But what a difference it makes, this rich sense of accomplishment when the secrets of the mechanism reveal themselves. The difference between “you have figured out this strange, beautiful problem on your own” and “you’ve been cajoled into turning the crank on the solution you’ve been given”. Its echoing absence in so many other puzzlers that insist on showing you how to solve the puzzle you’re given. It’s a negative space you can’t even tell is empty unless you have, in that instant, been a little bit full of that particular kind of pride, and of yourself. I don’t think anyone but Cyan is making games like this now; certainly the last time Nintendo made anything close was Ocarina’s notorious Water Temple. But the idea of a challenge not laid out for the gamer like a five course meal proved so heretical to the Nintendo dogma that it couldn’t be allowed to survive; the 3DS release of Ocarina’s Water Temple comes with traffic signals, and they’ve never looked back.
There are a lot of very, very reasonable criticisms you could make of this game. Beyond the controls (and again, by modern standards they’re rough) the game often feels profoundly constrained by its mechanics – of which there are exactly two – leaving you with a sense they’ve built this beautiful puzzle world entirely out of doorknobs and a scrub brush specifically for cleaning doorknobs. There are some places where a machine whose larger purpose you are ostensibly seeking to understand winds up falling ass-backwards into an uncanny-valley-of-intent, showing up as a puzzling contraption here for the sake of being a puzzling contraption first, a machine of larger purpose a cold second, and the unvoiced echoes of possible gameplay you know were abandoned to ship-date expediency threaten to drown out the voice of the puzzle you’re solving. And like all Cyan games it feels like it ends too soon, too abruptly, with a twist that feels both plausibly foretold and vaguely dissatisfying.
But that’s Cyan, staying (frustratingly, beautifully) in character; nothing easy, nothing simple, but nothing condescending, and then it stops. You get the world you get in its entirety, unapologetically opaque, as is. Figuring anything out at all – looking all over the place from every angle, noticing any little detail that lets you distill engine and purpose out of this cloud of architectures, connections, levers and signals – that is all on you. You can’t die; all you can do is look around, move and try to understand.
That moment of anticipated correctness, when you can see how it will come together and hold, when you know it’s going to work is so rare in gaming, so refined that it’s entirely understandable why the people who love it and seek it out – because what they are really loving in that moment is their own big-brained selves – get smug as hell about the experience, and the people who find it tedious and frustrating and not fun at all find it incredibly tedious and frustrating and absolutely not fun in the least.
It’s easy to see all the reasons somebody might bounce off of this game early. But if you – like me – are always looking for a clean, uncut hit of that Myst Island Feeling? This is your game.
This is sort of an early draft, but how often do you get to tie together conspiracy thinking, occultism, hyperreality, weaponizing parastructuralism and (a personal favorite, longtime readers will recall) Halo: ODST? Not every dang day, imma tell you what.
Which is weird, because they’re all kind of the the same shape.
“One day, you stumble across something — a long video, an article, a conversation (How rare those are! You must make more time for them…) with a learned friend. The same self-righteousness of authority crosses his face, the tinniness of certainty issued from his mouth too, but this time what he says sticks. It seems to explain the wrongness. Or not even explain it, really—just make it stand still. It was this thing that was wrong. The monster disclosed himself. He was something small and definable—a vaccine, a chemical – that spreads until it can’t be isolated, or he was something large and indefinable – “wokeness,” “CRT” – that terminates in many small, sharp wrongnesses. Or maybe it was the second sort of thing, but epitomized in a single image, so that it sounds like the first: The Cathedral. The cabal. But for a second, you could see the wrongness. How clarifying, simply to see it. You felt something like desire.”
Just recently I came across an amazing presentation that Brian Moriarty made at the 1999 Game Developer’s Conference about the Paul Is Dead rumour. In it, he introduced a phenomenon he called “constellation”, as in a verb “to constellate”: the human drive many of us seem to share to imbue form and meaning into chaos.
In a sense, his presentation is both a rediscovery of older ideas (Beaudrillard, C.S. Lewis) and an incredibly prescient and astoundingly dangerous new approach, a brand new tool being sharpened to a razor’s edge at a time when game design and the larger concept of gamification were still nearly children’s toys. If you look at this with the right eyes, you can see the seed crystals not just of ARGs and ODST, but Gamergate, antivax propaganda and QAnon.
In barely an hour Moriarty, somehow perfectly if inadvertently named for the job, is introducing the world to the gamified, self-assembling virality that would become the flagship propaganda tool of the internet age.
“Paul is dead”, said Moriarty, “is one of the best games I have ever played. This ridiculous rumour sucked my entire generation into a massively multiplayer game, a morbid treasure hunt in which the accomplices were connected by word of mouth, college newspapers, the alternative press and underground radio. We can only wonder what would happen if something like this were to happen today in the age of the World Wide Web. Imagine how something like this could get started by accident.
Imagine something like this could be fashioned on purpose.
He’s describing the dark mirror image of engineer’s disease: not a worldview where perfection would be possible if it weren’t for all the people, but one where there must be a reason behind all of it, a real and perfect underlying structure. One we could scry through chaos, that would make sense if we could just see the connections of the world, interpret all the signs.
I wrote a few years ago that there are striking parallels between the practice of seeing a chaotic, half-engineered world through this lens of mandated rationalism, and C.S. Lewis’ view of “the occult temptation“.
After dabbling with it for much of his youth, Lewis ultimately came to see occultism as a sort of psychological snare, a rat’s nest of endlessly self-referential symbols of symbols of symbols with no ultimate referent. A bottomless semiotic rathole for the overcurious inquirer, designed to perpetually confuse and distract the mind. Beaudrillard, incidentally – creator of the term “hyperreal” – saw modern finance, and particularly advertising, in the same light – a set of self-referential symbols ultimately disconnected from reality, meaningful only in their own context and self-sustaining only to people trapped in that carefully interlocking mesh. None of us are immune to propaganda, of course, but when you hear somebody talk about “brand engagement“, these are the brainworms that are making their mouths undulate like that.
[…] “Constellation” is usually used as a noun referring to pictures in the sky formed by stars but I use it as a verb to describe one of the basic functions of human intelligence. Constellation is pattern recognition. “To constellate” is to apply order to chaos.
When faced with any kind of new experience, be it images or sounds or even just a strange idea, we marshal our personal knowledge and experience and project it into the novelty to imbue it with meaning and significance. And what kinds of meaning and significance are we most likely to project?
The meanings we expect to see. Constellation is in fact a form of self-recognition.”
A perfect ideological snare, in other words, for people who are smart enough to see the patterns but can’t see the metagame, a carefully constructed heat sink for harmlessly radiating away second-order cognition.
This came to a head recently over in the ODST fandom, where after years of strange “clues” and oblique hints about the true meaning of the glyphs that pervade a game inspired by The Hollow Men of T.S. Eliot and Dante’s Divine Comedy, a connection was finally drawn back to the 1999 Paul Is Dead speech that inspired the developers and the collective realization that … there’s nothing there.
An rat’s nest of symbols, tucked away in a game world that was itself built of and on a host of other symbolic structures. Virtual hyperreality, in a sense. Considering the game is about a young recruit lost in the twisting passages of darkened city at night, being led around the city by a guiding “superintendent” you (cruelly, fittingly, ultimately) never meet? It seems possible.
ODST came out in 2009.
There is no hidden meaning, no ultimate referent. There never was. In the place it should have, could have, we all wished it would have been, there was simply carefully, deliberately parastructured bait. The seed crystals of a hint of a pattern, a vaguely intersecting antipattern hinting that meaning must, somehow, be there, if we only look deep enough. Symbols of symbols of symbols with no ultimate referent, a complicated scaffolding assembled by enthusiastic participants, hinting at the shape of a building that could never exist.
You’ve heard this story before, I bet, in some other conversation about vaccine denial, flat earthers, the QAnon dorks, any of the various fashy fandoms that seem to be all over the place these days. People can spend years of their lives trying to open – or maybe escape from – a box they’ve helped built for themselves. One with nothing in it but the raw materials you need to build more elaborate locks, so people do. After all this time we’ve spent, the effort, the investigation, the connections … it has to mean something, doesn’t it?
We have very few defences against the idea that the world should, fundamentally, in some way, from some perspective, make sense. Even fewer, I think, when we’re nervous, angry, frightened and tired and there are whole industries out there now, billion-dollar companies, whose real job is making sure people stay just nervous, angry, frightened and tired enough to keep clicking the things that make people nervous, angry, frightened and tired, of engineering moral vulnerability in people getting their first free hit of a scholar’s joy from the worst people in the world.
He (it is so often he) thinks himself free from the formal, recognized strictures of School, and he is. Unfortunately, this does not mean that he is free in general—rather, without extraordinary luck and discernment, he is completely at the mercy of whichever informants an unregulated marketplace has put in his path.
I don’t want to say that this is all being done deliberately, of course. That’d be pretty crazy, like saying that there are people out there right now, conspiring to … make sure we’re all primed to believe in conspiracies.
That would be a silly thing to believe, wouldn’t it.
But those tools are on the table now, they have been for twenty years. They’re well understood, they’re testable, they can be sharpened to a razor’s edge, polished until you can see yourself, so clearly, in the reflection. So if you think somebody might be out there using them, that would make a certain amount of sense, wouldn’t it?
You know, if you looked at it the right way.
If you’re concerned about air quality, as a reasonable person might reasonably be these days, you might have been thinking to yourself, self, I keep hearing about all these companies that are really desperate to get people back into offices so they get “back to normal” where normal means the management-by-lurking they keep insisting is “magic”. So I bet that one thing those companies would be sure to do is to give their employees some way to feel good about coming back into those offices.
Self, you would say to yourself, I bet those companies would really want to champion how much time and expense they’ve put into upgrading their office air quality, so people can feel something approximating safe while huffing the exhalations of the guy who just interrupted them because he hasn’t done a goddamn thing to learn how to work with remote employees in three years and is desperately trying to avoid ever having to do that. So it’s pretty crazy how I’ve seen phrases like “upgraded our office HVAC system to mitigate COVID transmission risk as an investment in employee health and safety” in major corporate announcements a total of none times in the last two years.
It would be only embarrassing if people weren’t still suffering chronic illness, long term disability and death, but people are still doing all of those. I really am looking for work now, and I really am seeing all sorts of “required to come to this building for this amount of time every week and sit on zoom there instead”, and all I can see is companies with a management strata that does not know, at all, what value they bring to an organization if they can’t exercise power over people’s personal space, if they can’t look over people’s shoulders or interrupt them at random times.
“Come work for us! It’s fun and rewarding and we paid for this building so we’re gonna make you sit in it whether that’s useful or productive or you want to or not, we don’t care. Not in your own office or anything obviously, that’s crazy talk, you won’t even get your own chair. And we’re not paying you more for commute time or covering vehicle/transit costs or anything. This is about much, much more important things than your time, your experience or your health: performative management and amortizing real estate.”
Anyway, Sumana asked me earlier today about the ultraviolet light duct widget I installed a while back and whether or not I was “happy with it”, going so far as to suggest I write a blog post about my answer so it could be usefully discoverable instead of vanishing into the unsearchable federated ether, if you can believe that. Anyway, she’s great and here we are.
Back in the early months of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with two kids staring down the barrel of back-to-school mandates and inspired by Naomi Wu – who I think, and who can blame her, has given up on the Fedi – I went looking for a way to add ultraviolet air sanitizing to my home aircon system.
I quickly discovered a Canadian company, Allanson International, that makes an easy-to-retrofit kit you can bolt into existing home ductwork, that I bought at Canadian Tire for quite a bit less than I would have expected, given what it was promising.
You need a screwdriver and a drill, but they include the hole-saw bit you need in the box; if have a wall socket near your furnace the installation is straightforward. Because I’m a fancy man, I repurposed some spare “hide the ethernet” plastic conduit I had left over to tidy up the power cable’s run, but the real work of the installation took less than ten minutes. The design of it is elegantly safe, too – once the bracket is installed the power has a physical lockout, so you can’t turn it on if it isn’t fully inserted into the ductwork. Accidentally lighting yourself up can’t happen, a very nice feature to see in a piece of consumer-facing hardware.
In terms of “happy with it”, with the caveat that this is all obviously anecdata, we’ve had one covid-positive incident and a few of the before-times-standard flu/sniffles/colds things in the house, for which boring old staying-home-and-self-isolating did not end up infecting the whole house.
We don’t use HEPA filters on the furnace; we don’t have pets, and home-furnace filters aren’t really designed or intended to filter pathogens, they’re to protect the equipment. With that in mind, MERV-12-rated filters seem to be the sweet spot for cost-effectiveness.
But considering the fact that we’ve had no discernible transmitted illness in-house since the pandemic got rolling, that SwordfishUV widget might be the best two hundred bucks I’ve ever spent.
I gave a short presentation yesterday about understanding the general health of a software engineering organization. It’s a longish presentation – a thirty-second version might read “Technology last. Start with risk management, change management and disaster recovery, next look at staff (training,
process, culture, turnover) next, auditing the actual tech situation last”. But I wanted to share the “Brown M&M” questions with you.
If you haven’t heard the Brown M&Ms story, it’s detailed here, but the short version is that Van Halen had one seemingly-throwaway line in their stadium contracts saying there had to a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but all the brown ones needed to be removed. Failure to meet the arbitrary “no brown M&Ms” rule of these spoiled, self-indulgent rock stars was supposedly grounds to cancel the whole concert and, the story went, you could expect them to trash the venue on their way out the door. But, of course, that wasn’t the whole story.
That one seemingly-spurious demand was a contract canary. Van Halen was the first band to bring a huge show to second-and third- tier markets, specifically second- and third-tier facilities that might not be able to handle the electrical demands or pyrotechnics safety standards or even the weight of the stage. The Brown M&Ms clause was an easy way for the band to check if the venue was paying attention to the details of the contract; if they find no M&Ms, or one brown M&M, they’d know for sure that they to re-check everything to make sure nobody got injured or killed.
The Brown M&Ms I mentioned, when I’m sizing up a software shop, are pretty straightforward.
You might not have great answers to all of these, but organizations that don’t have decent answers to any of them are in trouble.
The logic behind the “interesting retro” question is: does your organization do retrospectives at all? Do managers and executives – does anyone – read them, and what happens then? Which is another way of saying, do you have a culture that champions learning and continuous improvement as a matter of course, or do you have … that other thing?
The point of the pager question is really a management question. Functionally, obviously, a pager is a device that activates a human when a piece of software can’t solve its own problems. As a question, it’s a proxy for “Do you really know who owns all your services, and what the real degree of urgency is of supporting them when they fail? Do do you understand – do you really in-your-bones understand – that that those people need sleep, rest, and time off?”
I’ve worked at places that hand out pagers without mature processes around on-call rotation, hand-off, sleep planning and time-off-for-real. Those companies destroy people.
Real talk here: if you’re running a service that requires a human to carry a pager, and the person who wrote that software isn’t carrying that pager, you’re not “doing DevOps”, you’re doing service contract management in a terminal window. If you want to drive service reliability, the people who write the service need to be the same people getting dragged out of bed at Oh My God O’Clock on Christmas morning when it falls over. People write very different code when they know they’ll be the ones responsible for all those sharp edge cases, and aligned incentives are magic.
The “how do you validate a rollback” question is a fast way to do a deep dive into change management practices. As in, do you have them at all, how much do you trust them, how do you gain confidence that you can recover in the event of process failure. Most software orgs now have something approximating mature change management, or at least had that forced on them by the popularity of GitHub in the forward-motion sense. Less than you’d hope actually have, much less test for, partial completion or abortive-recovery scenarios.
“What would you fix next if you had the resources” might as well read “does your org have a shared understanding of its backlog and priorities”, but nobody will say “lol no” to that question. But if you get a bunch of different answers to this from different people or teams, it’s very likely your organization has leadership and communications gaps that need urgent attention. Even “how would you make that decision” is informative; can you draw a straight line from organizational goals to the the top of your backlog? What would you need to have, for you to have that?
Finally, the agile question is one I’m most proud of, because agile hasn’t meant anything concrete for a long time beyond “who needs a plan when you can get interrupted and reorged at any time at the whim of managerial fiat.” Does this org actually have an ethos, much less a plan, for managing people, projects and resources at a high level? Maybe, God help us all, that will let people focus on hard problems and get them all the way solved? Or are we just playing management-shibboleth buzzword bingo with our people, and we don’t really know how or why anything happens.
Anyway, I hope you find some of that useful. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
(Remember when we thought TED talks were important? Wasn’t that weird?)
A side effect of the generative algo-art wave that’s gone at least underappreciated is the total dissolution of the notion that artistic intent exists and is anything worth investigating. Detail and context are no longer avenues of a creator’s comment or venues of study; there’s no point in engaging critically with anything that Midjourney has barfed out, because there’s nothing you could even vaguely call “intent” behind it. The fine details are reduced to the sterility of the forensic.
Why is this song seemingly off-key or jangly in the middle? Is that Thelonious Monk dropping some dissonance into a solo, chasing a feeling we don’t have a name for, or Shostakovitch obliquely deriding Stalin’s leadership, knowing full well Josef will be in the audience on opening night but won’t understand it? When we look at Gerome’s “The Death of Caesar“, should we be seeing the senate building, jagged teeth of the assassin’s upraised daggers, as the teeth in the jaws of a monster?
There’s no point in even asking the question. The answer doesn’t mean anything. The answer can’t mean anything, all you can do is count the fingers to see if it’s “real”. It’s not really surprising that these tools were universally built by people who don’t really care to understand why you might want, much less desire, to engage with art on anything but the most superficial, selfish level; nobody who had ever asked themselves what art is, or why, would have built them.
You know Spring has really arrived in Toronto’s when our cycling infrastructure has once again started to bud; as you can see, this year’s harmless plastic bollards are starting to sprout in anticipation of their annual reaping by Toronto’s motorists, providing the “drum roll” sound so many of them enjoy on their way to threatening (or taking!) the lives of cyclists and pedestrians, avoiding culpability with phrases like “they came out of nowhere”, the Toronto motorist’s traditional interpretation of the “vision zero” incantation.
Nature is beautiful.