As far as I can tell, 100% of the google results for “burnout” or “recognizing burnout” boil down to victim-blaming; they’re all about you, and your symptoms, and how to recognize when you’re burning out. Are you frustrated, overwhelmed, irritable, tired? Don’t ask for help, here’s how to self-diagnose! And then presumably do something.
What follows is always the most uselessly vague advice, like “listen to yourself” or “build resiliency” or whatever, which all sounds great and reinforces that the burden of recovery is entirely on the person burning out. And if you ask about the empirical evidence supporting it, this advice is mostly on par with leaving your healing crystals in the sun, getting your chakras greased or having your horoscope fixed by changing your birthday.
Resiliency and self-awareness definitely sound nice enough, and if your crystals are getting enough sun good for them, but just about all of this avoiding-burnout advice amounts to lighting scented candles downwind of a tire fire. If this was advice about a broken leg or anaphylaxis we’d see it for the trash it is, but because it’s about mental health somehow we don’t call it out. Is that a shattered femur? Start by believing in yourself, and believing that change is possible. Bee stings are just part of life; maybe you should take the time to rethink your breathing strategy. This might be a sign that breathing just isn’t right for you.
Even setting that aside: if we could all reliably self-assess and act on the objective facts we discerned thereby, burnout (and any number of other personal miseries) wouldn’t exist. But somehow here we are in not-that-world-at all. And as far as I can tell approximately none percent of these articles are ever about, say, “how to foster an company culture that doesn’t burn people out”, or “managing people so they don’t burn out”, or “recognizing impending burnout in others, so you can intervene.”
I’ll leave why that might be as an exercise for the reader.
Fortunately, as in so many cases like this, evidence comes to the rescue; you just need to find it. And the best of the few evidence-based burnout-prevention guidelines I can find come from the field of medicine where there’s a very straight, very measurable line between physician burnout and patient care outcomes. Nothing there will surprise you, I suspect; “EHR stress” (Electronic Health Records) has a parallel in our lives with tooling support, and the rest of it – sane scheduling, wellness surveys, agency over meaningful work-life balance and so on – seems universal. And it’s very clear from the research that recognizing the problem in yourself and in your colleagues is only one, late step. Getting support to make changes to the culture and systems in which you find yourself embedded is, for the individual, the next part of the process.
The American Medical Association has a “Five steps to creating a wellness culture” document, likewise rooted in gathered evidence, and it’s worth noting that the key takeaways are that burnout is a structural problem and mitigating it requires structural solutions. “Assess and intervene” is the last part of the process, not the first. “Self-assess and then do whatever” is not on the list at all, because that advice is terrible and the default setting of people burning out is self-isolation and never, ever asking people for the help they need.
We get a lot of things right where I work, and we’re better at taking care of people now than just about any other org I’ve ever heard of, but we still need to foster an “if you see something, say something” approach to each others’ well being. I bet wherever you are, you do too. Particularly now that the whole world has hard-cutover to remote-only and we’re only seeing each other through screens.
Yesterday, I told some colleagues that “if you think somebody we work with is obviously failing at self-care, talk to them”, and I should have been a lot more specific. This isn’t a perfect list by any means, but if you ask someone how they’re doing and they can’t so much as look you in the eye when they answer, see that. If you’re talking about work and they start thumbing their palms or rubbing their wrists or some other reflexive self-soothing twitch, notice. If you ask them about what they’re working on and they take a long breath and longer choosing their words, pay attention. If somebody who isn’t normally irritable or prone to cynical or sardonic humor starts trending that way, if they’re hunched over in meetings looking bedraggled when they normally take care of posture and basic grooming, notice that and say so.
If “mental health” is just “health” – and I guarantee it is – then burnout is an avoidable workplace injury, and I don’t believe in unavoidable mental-health injuries any more than I believe in unavoidable forklift accidents. Keep an eye out for your colleagues. If you think somebody you work with is failing at self-care, talk to them. Maybe talk to a friend, maybe talk to their manager or yours.
But say something. Don’t let it slide.

Brace For Impact

I don’t spend a lot of time in here patting myself on the back, but today you can indulge me.

In the last few weeks it was a ghost town, and that felt like a victory. From a few days after we’d switched it on to Monday, I could count the number of human users on any of our major channels on one hand. By the end, apart from one last hurrah the hour before shutdown, there was nobody there but bots talking to other bots. Everyone – the company, the community, everyone – had already voted with their feet.

About three weeks ago, after spending most of a month shaking out some bugs and getting comfortable in our new space we turned on federation, connecting Mozilla to the rest of the Matrix ecosystem. Last Monday we decommissioned for good, closing the book on a 22-year-long chapter of Mozilla’s history as we started a new one in our new home on Matrix.

I was given this job early last year but the post that earned it, I’m guessing, was from late 2018:

I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s a mistake to think of federation as a feature of distributed systems, rather than as consequence of computational scarcity. But more importantly, I believe that federated infrastructure – that is, a focus on distributed and resilient services – is a poor substitute for an accountable infrastructure that prioritizes a distributed and healthy community. […] That’s the other part of federated systems we don’t talk about much – how much the burden of safety shifts to the individual.

Some inside baseball here, but if you’re wondering: that’s why I pushed back on the idea of federation from the beginning, for all invective that earned me. That’s why I refused to include it as a requirement and held the line on that for the entire process. The fact that on classically-federated systems distributed access and non-accountable administration means that the burden of personal safety falls entirely on the individual. That’s not a unique artifact of federated systems, of course – Slack doesn’t think you should be permitted to protect yourself either, and they’re happy to wave vaguely in the direction of some hypothetical HR department and pretend that keeps their hands clean, as just one example of many – but it’s structurally true of old-school federated systems of all stripes. And bluntly, I refuse to let us end up in a place where asking somebody to participate in the Mozilla project is no different from asking them to walk home at night alone.

And yet here we are, opting into the Fediverse. It’s not because I’ve changed my mind.

One of the strongest selling points of Matrix is the combination of powerful moderation and safety tooling that hosting organizations can operate with robust tools for personal self-defense available in parallel. Critically, these aren’t half-assed tools that have been grafted on as an afterthought; they’re first-class features, robust enough that we can not only deploy them with confidence, but can reasonably be held accountable by our colleagues and community for their use. In short, we can now have safe, accountable infrastructure that complements, rather than comes at the cost, of individual user agency.

That’s not the best thing, though, and I’m here to tell you about my favorite Matrix feature that nobody knows about: Federated auto-updating blocklist sharing.

If you decide you trust somebody else’s decisions, at some other organization – their judgment calls about who is and is not welcome there – those decisions can be immediately and automatically reflected in your own. When a site you trust drops the hammer on some bad actor that ban can be adopted almost immediately by your site and your community as well. You don’t have to have ever seen that person or have whatever got them banned hit you in the eyes. You don’t even need to know they exist. All you need to do is decide you trust that other site judgment and magically someone persona non grata on their site is precisely that grata on yours.

Another way to say that is: among people or communities who trust each other in these decisions, an act of self-defense becomes, seamlessly and invisibly, an act of collective defense. No more everyone needing to fight their own fights alone forever, no more getting isolated and picked off one at a time, weakest first; shields-up means shields-up for everyone. Effective, practical defensive solidarity; it’s the most important new idea I’ve seen in social software in years. Every federated system out should build out their own version, and it’s very clear to me, at least, that is going to be the table stakes of a federated future very soon.

So I feel pretty good about where we’ve ended up, and where we’re going.

In the long term, I see that as the future of Mozilla’s responsibility to the Web; not here merely to protect the Web, not merely to defend your freedom to participate in the Web, but to mount a positive defense of people’s opportunities to participate. And on the other side of that coin, to build accountable tools, systems and communities that promise not only freedom from arbitrary harassment, but even freedom from the possibility of that harassment.

I’ve got a graph here that’s pointing up and to the right, and it’s got nothing to do with scraping fractions of pennies out of rageclicks and misery; just people making a choice to go somewhere better, safer and happier. Maybe, just maybe, we can salvage this whole internet thing. Maybe all is not yet lost, and the future is not yet written.

Synchronous Messaging: We’re Live.

After a nine month leadup,, our Matrix-based replacement for IRC, has been up running for about a month now.

While we’ve made a number of internal and community-facing announcements about progress, access and so forth, we’ve deliberately run this as a quiet, cautious, low-key rollout, letting our communities find their way to chat.m.o and Matrix organically while we sort out the bugs and rough edges of this new experience.

Last week we turned on federation, the last major step towards opening Mozilla to the wider Matrix ecosystem, and it’s gone really well. Which means that as of last week, Mozilla’s transition from IRC to Matrix is within arm’s reach of done.

The Matrix team have been fantastic partners throughout this process, open to feedback and responsive to concerns throughout. It’s been a great working relationship, and as investments of effort go one that’s already paying off exactly the way want our efforts to pay off, with functional, polish and accessibility improvements that benefit the entire Matrix ecosystem coming from the feedback from the Mozilla community.

We still have work to do, but this far into the transition it sure feels like winning. The number of participants in our primary development channels has already exceeded their counterparts on IRC at their most active, and there’s no sign that’s slowing down. Many of our engineering and ops teams are idling or archiving their Slack channels and have moved entirely to Matrix, and that trend isn’t slowing down either.

As previously announced, we’re on schedule to turn off IRC.m.o at the end of the month, and don’t see a reason to reconsider that decision. So far, it looks like we’re pretty happy on the new system. It’s working well for us.

So: Welcome. If you’re new to Mozilla or would like to get involved, come see us in the #Introduction channel on our shiny new Matrix system. I hope to see you there.

Dexterity In Depth

I’m exactly one microphone and one ridiculous haircut away from turning into Management Shingy when I get rolling on stuff like this, because it’s just so clear to me how much this stuff matters and how little sense I might be making at the same time. Is your issue tracker automatically flagging your structural blind spots? Do your QA and UX team run your next reorg? Why not?
This all started life as a rant on Mastodon, so bear with me here. There are two empirically-established facts that organizations making software need to internalize.
The first is that by wide margin the most significant predictive indicator that there will be a future bug in a piece of software is the relative orgchart distance of the people working on it. People who are working on a shared codebase in the same room but report to different VPs are wildly more likely to introduce errors into a codebase than two people who are on opposite sides of the planet and speak different first languages but report to the same manager.
The second is that the number one predictor that a bug will be resolved is if it is triaged correctly – filed in the right issue tracker, against the right component, assigned to the right people – on the first try.
It’s fascinating that neither of the strongest predictive indicators of the most important parts of a bug’s lifecycle – birth and death – actually take place on the developers’ desk, but it’s true. In terms of predictive power, nothing else in the software lifecycle comes close.
Taken together, these facts give you a tools to roughly predict the effectiveness of collaborating teams, and by analyzing trends among bugs that are frequently re-assigned or re-triaged, can give you a lot of foresight into how, where and why a company need to retrain or reorganize those teams. You might have read Agile As Trauma recently, in which Dorian Taylor describes agile development as an allergic reaction to previously bad management:

The Agile Manifesto is an immune response on the part of programmers to bad management. The document is an expression of trauma, and its intellectual descendants continue to carry this baggage. While the Agile era has brought about remarkable advancements in project management techniques and development tools, it remains a tactical, technical, and ultimately reactionary movement.

This description is strikingly similar to – and in obvious tension with – Clay Shirky’s description of bureaucracy as the extractive mechanism of complexity and an allergic reaction to previous institutional screwups.

Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

… which sounds an awful lot like the orgchart version of “It’s harder to read code than to write it”, doesn’t it?
I believe both positions are correct. But that tension scribes the way forward, I think, for an institutional philosophy that is responsive, flexible and empirically grounded, in which being deliberate about the scale, time, and importance of different feedback cycles gives an organization the freedom to treat scaling like a tool, that the signals of different contexts can inform change as a continuum between the macro and micro levels of organizational structure and practice. Wow, that’s a lot of words in a strange order, but hear me out.
It’s not about agile, or even agility. Agility is just the innermost loops, the smallest manifestation of a wide possible set of tightly-coupled feedback mechanisms. And outside the agile team, adjacent to the team, those feedback loops may or may not exist however much they need to, up and down the orgchart (though there’s not often much “down” left in the orgchart, I’ve noticed, where most agile teams live…) but more importantly with the adjacent and complementary functions that agile teams rely on.
It is self-evident that how teams are managed profoundly affects how they deliver software. But agile development (and every other modern developer-cult I’m aware of) doesn’t close that loop, and in failing to do so agile teams are reduced to justifying their continued existence through work output rather than informing positive institutional change. And I don’t use “cult” lightly, there; the current state of empirical evaluation of agile as a practice amounts to “We agiled and it felt good and seemed to work!” And feeling good and kinda working is not nothing! But it’s a long way from being anything more than that.
If organizations make software, then starting from a holistic view of what “development” and “agility” means and could be, looking carefully at where feedback loops in an organization exist, where they don’t and what information they circulate, all that suggests that there are reliable set of empirical, analytic tools for looking at not just developer practice, but the organizational processes around them. And assessing, in some measurable, empirical way, the real and sustainable value of different software development schools and methodologies.
But honestly, if your UX and QA teams aren’t informing your next reorg, why not?


Karl Germain once said that “Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”
This is sort of a review of a game, I guess. It’s called Superliminal.

“Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object, and pledges to you its utter normality. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The part we call the Prestige.”
— Cutter (Michael Caine), “The Prestige

You’ve probably heard David Foster Wallace’s speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, the “This Is Water” speech.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It’s possibly the greatest College Graduation Speech of all time, both in its mastery of the form and the surgical precision of its own self-serving subversion of that same form. “This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories”, right after the parable-ish story. “I am not the wise old fish”, followed by an explanation of the whole point of the fish story. Over and over again, throughout, we’re shown the same sleight of hand:.

Tell your audiences that they’re too smart to want a certain thing and give it to them anyway. Remind everyone that they’re too hip for corny dad sermonizing and then double down on the corny dad sermonizing. This is a great way to write a commencement speech—not by avoiding platitudes, but by drawing an enchanted circle around yourself where the things we thought were platitudes can be revealed as dazzling truths. Where all of us can be consoled, if only for an instant, by the notion that the insight we lack has been here all along! Just hiding inside of our clichés.

I don’t think Harnette’s cynicism in that LitHub article, pointed at the pernicious consequences of Wallace’s “cult of sincerity” is the whole story. She’s not wrong, but there’s more: if you’ve got the right eyes to see it the outline of the Prestige is there, the empty space where the third act didn’t happen. The part where this long, drawn out paean, begging for sincerity and authenticity and “simple awareness” reveals itself for what it is, a cry for help from somebody whose inner monologue does not shut up or take its foot off the gas so much as a millimeter for anyone or any reason ever. A plea for a simplicity from somebody whose mind simply won’t, that nobody saw.
Because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know; you want to be fooled. I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a video game review is supposed to sound. But it’s just about capital-T Time to stop using this gag.

[ – Superliminal teaser trailer ]

I’ve played through Superliminal twice now, and I spent a lot of that time thinking about Wallace’s call for simple awareness as the game hammers on its tagline that perception is reality. I’ve got mixed feelings about it.
Superliminal opens in an obvious homage to both Portal and The Stanley Parable, guns on the mantle that never go off; in some ways it feels like the first Assassin’s Creed, an excellent tech demo that paved the way for the great AC2. It’s brilliant and frustrating, playing with the nature of constructed realities in ways that are sometimes trite, sometimes – the knife, the parking lot – unsettling and sometimes genuinely distressing. Like Portal it’s only a few hours long but they aren’t wasted hours, novel conceits and engaging mechanics flourishing through the iteration and conceptual degradation of the dreamscapes you traverse.
But I can’t shake the feeling like some part of the game is missing, that there’s a third act we haven’t been allowed to see.
As with Wallace’s Kenyon speech it’s the final conceit – in Superliminal, the psychologists’ summary – that ties the game together in a way that feels thematically complete, grandly inspirational and woefully unearned; where all of us can be empowered, if only for an instant, by the notion that the insight we lack has been here all along, if – perception being reality – we could only see it. And just like the Kenyon graduation speech, I can’t shake the sense that the same sleight-of-hand has happened: that what we’re not seeing, what we’re choosing not to see, is that this sincere inspirational anecdote isn’t really something meant to inspire us but something the author desperately wishes they could believe themselves, a rousing sermon from a preacher desperate to escape their own apostasy.
And how hard could that be, really? All you’ve got to do, after all, is wake up.
It’s a pretty good game. You should play it. I hope whoever made it gets the help they need.

Crossfade Dissonance

@pamela :

I will never, ever tire of seamlessly transitioning from the end of Mean Girls to the beginning of Hackers with the same song, this was a damn *gift* given to us by the movie industry

@mhoye :

@pamela Has somebody actually crossfaded the video for this?

@pamela :

@mhoye not that I’ve found, but I live in hope…

@kiethzg :

@pamela @mhoye Sounds like a fun little project to start off my weekend with!
@pamela @mhoye I actually got distracted with even sillier things, but! Finally did this. Then watched it on a loop for a bit. Then remembered I should actually upload it somewhere! So here it is:

I really love the idea of jumping from movie to completely unrelated movie through a common song and a smooth soundtrack crossfade. The only rule, really, is that the song you jump into a movie with has to be earlier in the movie than the one you jump out with. Anyone out there got a dataset of movie soundtracks I could use to cobble together an Oracle Of Bacon-like tool for figuring out the forward soundtrack distance between movies?

Star Wars 1979

Star Wars 1979

This is from a children’s Star Wars book printed in 1979, called “The mystery of the rebellious robots”. The story is nothing – spoilers, but the answer is they cheaped out on aftermarket parts and got hacked by Jawas – but I’m going to have to scan the whole thing, because stripped of the story the art is inexplicably great. I’ll come back with the whole thing in a few days.

Intrasective Subversions

I often wonder where we’d be if Google had spent their don’t-be-evil honeymoon actually interviewing people for some sort moral or ethical framework instead of teaching a generation of new hires that the important questions are all about how many piano tuners play ping pong on the moon.
You might have seen the NYTimes article on hypertargeted product placement, one of those new magical ideas that look totally reasonable in an industry where CPU cycles are cheap and principles are expensive.
I just wanted to make sure we all understood that one extremely intentional byproduct of that will breathe new life into the old documnent-canary trick of tailoring sensitive text with unique punctuation or phrasing in particularly quotable passages to identify leakers, and has been purpose-built as a way to precision-target torrent seeders or anyone else who shares media. “We only showed this combination of in-product signal to this specific person, therefore they’re the guilty party” is where this is going, and that’s not an accident.
The remedy, of course, is going to be cooperation. Robust visual diffs, scene hashes and smart muting (be sure to refer to They Live for placeholder inspiration) will be more than enough to fuzz out discoverability for even a moderately-sized community. As it frequently is, the secret ingredient is smart people working together.
In any case, I’m sure that all right thinking people can agree that ads are the right place to put graffiti. So I’m looking forward to all the shows that are turned into hijacked art-project torrents the moment they’re released, and seeing


in the background of the pirated romcoms of 2021.