Category Archives: Uncategorized

Email, the once and future king

I was talking in this direction to someone recently—so let's allow David Heinemeier Hansson to kick off this riff:

Inconvenient fact.

There are a few different levels on which this has, for me, proven to be true. I'll limit it to three: work, personal, and groups. (I think there must be a better word than "groups", but I can't think of it—I mean the organizations we involve ourselves in voluntarily in our spare time.) And, for me, personal and work don't matter so much because I'll do what is asked of me in either case, out of respect (and because I like to get paid). The destruction of group communication is a bit more annoying though.

For me, the avatar of this inevitable retreat to email as a format of choice is a good friend and good person who once told me not to email him anymore because he was moving to Facebook Messages (not yet Messenger, I think, but maybe I'm old and remember it wrong), and that was the future and email was dying. That was ten years or so ago. And the referent person here—still good on all accounts—has taken the inevitable Facebook break and so on. Take that times Twitter as a communication platform, any federated service, anything with blockchain in the description, and so on. The promises of the bulk of the new systems far outweighed the reality.

The platform is not the problem—or the solution. Facebook Messenger is useful, but it ceases to exist outside the Facebook castle walls. Same thing with [name your service]. But email? I have a file full of @uiuc.edu emails from Ye Olde College days, and any email account I've added to my desktop client also has a backup. I ought to add: none of these things are valuable in any abstract sense, but if I needed the information I could retrieve it, versus any other platform where the messages are hosted on the platform, and if I or the platform quit each other—poof—gone.

Anyway. None of that was what I was talking about with a colleague; rather, it was this: we all just went through a weird near-decade-long period where it was possible to run an organization on Facebook alone. It was almost easy. Maybe it's still like that, but it's not as easy now that Facebook, even though it's basically a public utility at this point, is sufficiently toxic that it's hard to get an entire group's membership inside the castle walls. So, in making itself indispensable and sucking the oxygen out of the surrounding environment, then making itself dispense-worthy—I can't make a sentence out of this, I just mean to say that it ruined communication with groups, and I haven't figured out how to repair it except to behave as though that period of temporary ease never existed.

Email, on the other hand, is still there.

And email is, essentially, same as it ever was.

And it will be—tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Why?

...

In the final analysis, maybe we just needed to send each other a damned message, and we didn't need a platform or a way of life or a cult or a solution or whatever. Facebook is only a platform, but a good email is a communication.

(I still have a Facebook account, and I use it daily, but I only use it to fart around.)


Small consolation to me was the homely wisdom of the philosopher, to wit: A woman is only a woman, but a good Ford is a car.
—Edward Abbey, "Disorder and Early Sorrow", The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977)

permafrost, internet archive

There's a post that's been sitting here in draft form for months that I think may never see the light of day. I can't find the right words to finish it. In short, I found the files from my students.uiuc.edu website on a backup disk. They were gone—I must have deleted them to save space—but they survived. It was a lucky break to find them because they weren't captured on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Trust me. I spent hours looking for evidence of that site, and other sites I had created on the 90s internet. I don't understand what that period causes so much tension when I think about it; see also: AOL Instant Messenger Is Away. It's silly, but that piece bleeds.

I'm going to leave that all alone for now—if I finish it, I finish it. If not, well, so what?

Recently I read two disparate articles that made me think of this terminal draft piece:

Both articles struck a hidden nerve. Why? First, an urge I can't explain except to say that I have it and it's there: the urge to preserve information. It feels awful to lose it—whether it's Brazil's national museum burning down or reading about the destruction of all but a literal handful of Mesoamerican records by the Spanish or old, old books that we know about today only because they are referred to in other books... It feels like a personal thing lost when collective information like that is obliterated. Knowing something—really really knowing something—feels like a permanent state that can't be erased, and when it is erased, it's like cutting out a load-bearing column.

The permafrost article is about finding a cache of old, forgotten movies from 1903 to 1929 in an old, forgotten, filled-in gym swimming pool in Alaska. The Internet Archive article is sort of the opposite: the Internet Archive itself is a remembered cache of media—but if you have the lawyer money to make an inconvenient part of that cache disappear, you can do so.

There is something about media—movies, books, the internet— that seems permanent. If I can see something and you can see something and others can see something, then that's permanent, right? We can objectively say that a thing exists and has always existed and will always exist, right? I really think that is an obvious and natural position to take. But after searching for my own recent, once-publicly-available history, I know it's not right. A thing exists if it exists; but a thing that existed without currently existing... the problem is different.

I've seen dinosaur bones but not a dinosaur: I believe dinosaurs existed. I've never seen any people on the moon but I believe they were there. Thousands of movies were made in the 1900s but are now lost, and I believe they existed, but it really seems that something as compact and portable as a movie should have been preserved. But that's not the case, eh? Dig in: Paul Harris, Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost, Variety (2013-12-04).

Why does it matter that we existed? That we created something?

Stephen Crane (1899):

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

What does the universe know anyway? Most people consume. I consume. There's no need to record consumption. But creation? Record that. Protect that. Creating something is holy. Being human is more than who you are and what you have. It's the aggregation of the entire body of work.


See also: Paul Auster, Leviathan (1992)

Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem

Maybe there's another way to think about not getting caught up in the buffet problem. Here's an episode of Charlie Rose with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that made me think of this—video and pertinent transcript below. So, for a single attribute—call it structuredness (sorry)—you could end up hitting the information buffet too hard both by being overstructured and understructured.

Overstructured is planning what information needs to be collected, and then sticking to it dogmatically even when it turns out to be unnecessary, or the wrong path to follow, etc. This is me when I read a book—you'd think there were Serious Consequences to leaving a book unfinished the way I plow ahead through books that I really don't want to finish. Let's leave this thread alone.

Understructured is the opposite—going in without a plan. Although it sounds sloppier, I think it breaks down again into two paths: sloppy and exploratory. Sloppy is just straightahead unthinking consumption. One more link, one more article, one more dinner roll—if you can reach it, put it in your face.

Exploratory is different. I mean "exploratory" in the same manner as "experimenting"—and "experimenting" in the scientific way of thinking about the problem and what needs to be evaluated to understand the problem, not "experimenting" as in just throwing something out there and seeing what happens. The latter is the sloppy path. The former has purpose. That's what I took from the interview below. I don't think that Warren Buffett leaves himself big blocks of unstructured time and blows it by stumbling through links and citations and whatever else is available at the information buffet. (I might be giving him too much credit... but what's the worst that could happen by just assuming that someone is a genius because they're rich?) But to have free time and a hypothesis or two to test, and an idea or two how to prove the hypothesis false, and a good method or two to collect the data and reduce it to information... that would be even more powerful than assuming you know enough to plan all steps of the path forward because—surprise—you don't, and you'll miss all sorts of useful side paths because the plan called for Straight Ahead.

[15:40, Bill Gates] I also remember Warren showing me his calendar. You know, I had every minute packed and I thought that was the only way you could do things. And the fact that he is so careful about—he has days.

[...]

[16:10, Charlie Rose] This is the week [sic] of April, of which there are only three entries for a week.

[...]

[16:20, Charlie Rose] So it taught you what, not to crowd yourself too much and give yourself time to read and think and...

[16:24, Bill Gates] Right. You control your time. And that sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority than a normal CEO, where's there all these demands and you feel like you need to go and see all these people. It's not a proxy of your seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.

[16:48, Warren Buffett] And people will want your time. I mean, it's the only thing you can't buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can't buy time.

A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem

What's the opposite side of the buffet problem? I think it's either (a) practicing the mature person's Art of Discretion when choosing where to invest attention or (b) a Very Quiet Moment.

I don't have much to say or think about (a) without turning it into a research project on decision analysis. (read these, if you're interested in it.) It's a fascinating topic, trying to understand the logic behind the dumb decisions one makes... presumably to make better ones, but it's perhaps more fun to rubberneck the bad ones, smoldering in the median, as they recede in the rearview mirror. Just writing and writing that sentence is an insight into the problem: if the problem is signing up for more work than one can do, focusing on the decisions that precede the work is just shifting the burden, not lightening it.

So: if avoiding the buffet problem is the goal, surrounding oneself in the absence of things to choose might be a better way. Escaping to the wilderness? Not quite—past life. For a few months in 2016, I tried Headspace guided meditation, if only due to susceptibility to podcast advertisements. I don't know if it helped—I don't even know what hypothesis to test to see if it helped—but there's one thing I do know after trying it: it's nearly impossible to be still.

The easiest test is to sit somewhere quietly and concentrate only on breathing. In out etc. Try to get to ten without thinking of anything, lightly guiding the mind away from encroaching thoughts back into some cold dark quiet center. Three times—maximum. Usually less. Three times of concentrating only on that spot in your head where the air catches some turbulence when you breathe in through your nose, and after that the small thoughts that were pawing at the closed door of your mind like a cat burst in and fill the space. The chief one—the one I'm most conscious of after it breaks in—is the one that says "Let's use this time for something productive, let's get something done while we're sitting here". This is pointed 180° from the desired direction. I understand that it's possible to get to 10 and beyond. It's difficult to imagine the discipline to do it, but it's not hard to imagine it's the same kind of discipline needed to avoid the buffet problem.


Because thoughts lead to thoughts... I remembered that I have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता, bhagavad-gītā), a good not-flowery translation (compare to the alternatives...) by Barbara Stoler Miller. I've had it for over ten years, it's tiny, yet I've never finished it. I couldn't get into it—too much abstract stuff about non-action, self, discipline, etc. Anyway, I dug it up and gave it a quick pass. Chapter 6, verses 35-36:

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते

I don't read Sanskrit either—here is Miller's translation:

Without doubt, the mind
is unsteady and hard to hold,
but practice and dispassion
can restrain it, Arjuna.

In my view, discipline eludes
the unrestrained self,
but if he strives to master himself,
a man has the means to reach it.

Buffet problem

Buffet, or not buffet, that is the question.

I'm not talking about the food line this time (though it does remind me of this old thing: Enough).

Every day, every week, every month, I do a little bit of planning ahead, thinking about goals, assigning the things I think I want to do to abstract pieces of future time. It never really works out. It's usually good enough—some of the important things get done—but, honestly, few things are as consistent as the too-long list of disparate things I wanted to accomplish in a day getting yanked out to sea by the furious riptide of Real Life.

For example, here's how I break down goals into "curricula":

  • Chinese curriculum: learning how to speak Chinese
  • Business curriculum: learning how work works—mostly reading books, papers, articles
  • Technical curriculum: keeping technical skills sharp—mostly studying things that can be written into software
  • Physical curriculum: running and strength training
  • Home curriculum: I added this to my list because if I didn't I'd get caught up in my own self and the things I wanted to do and crowd out the obviously more important facets of being better at home
  • Communication curriculum: writing and keeping in touch with people
  • Projects: the other things like professional societies, the Illinois alumni club, etc.—sort of a catchall for things that require time and planning but don't fit in other classifications

Every day, every week, every month, I think about these things, what the goals are, how to break them down, how I want to structure my time to to account for them. Et cetera. Even I know it's a little out of control. It's statistically unlikely to have a week that lines up well enough to do it all. It leads to weird behavior. Contorting to stuff plans into a fixed period of time. Overplanning and overthinking how to find the One True Way to organize a day or week. Feeling ashamed at not getting things done. And even if you do it all, it feels a little robotic and constrained, and there's another funny feeling that doesn't have a name, something like "if I could actually hit the target, was the target maybe a little too easy?"

Standing in the buffet line of possibilities, with your plate that can hold πt2, grabbing promises by the fistful... What can you do about that, really? Want less? Grab less? Be more time-efficient? Sleep less? Plan better? Execute more? Hire people to do things for you? Not all of those things at once, that's just a different flavor of the same thing—a meta-buffet problem.

I admire the people who focus on a single theme, hunker down, and execute. I think that's really the only way. No clever planning tricks. Why are you putting that thing on your plate? Do you really want to eat that? Why?


Here's an interesting take: Chris Brogan, Your Buffet Problem (You Have to Stop), LinkedIn Pulse (2015-05-22)


Follow-up posts:

  1. A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-04)
  2. Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-07)

Forced incidental social relationships

I read an article last week by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: Why do we feel so busy? It's all our hidden 'shadow work' (2018-10-12). I thought it was an interesting article—it explained how we might feel a little busier now because we buy products and services, we're also picking up more of the delivery, setup, service, etc. work. It seemed like a reasonable argument.

One of the references was to Craig Lambert and his book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. And at the very bottom of the Guardian article there was a link to a presentation by Lambert at Google in Cambridge, Mass. I didn't like the presentation much, and I doubt I'll read the book. Some of the ideas were interesting and unexpected—the professionalization of kids' sports affecting not just the kids but also causing an extra unpaid burden on the parents to keep up—but a lot of it seemed like it was yearning for Mayberry. I didn't agree with the screed against surveys at all. This review on Goodreads pokes at the book enough, and I haven't read it anyway, so I'll leave it there and move on.

I probably wouldn't have watched the entire video if I hadn't told myself I was going to sit on an exercise bike for an entire hour and watch it. I didn't want to break that important contract. The second-to-last question was redeeming. It didn't even talk about burdens or time or money or any of the other critical points to the argument, but rather the social consequences:

[0:52:07] Anyway, to me, though, the really interesting thing that you're getting at is the change in social relationships and a kind of atomization because I think one of the reasons people like to do this is that in many cases it saves time, but another really important reason is that a lot of people just don't like dealing with other people. They would rather check in at a kiosk than deal with somebody behind the counter. They would rather serve their own food than deal with the waitress. There's something about this that I think is kind of disturbing. A lot of people just don't want to have those kind of incidental social relationships that we used to be forced to have. I think there's something pretty disturbing about that, and I think it is changing the quality of our relationships. And one effect that it might be having is that the amount of social interaction that people of different social classes have with each other may be being reduced. I'm not sure about this, but one hypothesis, that some of these changes are basically making more of my interactions be with people of my own social class, and not as many with people of other social classes, in particular of less affluent people. And if that's really true, I think that could have profound effects on our social life.

And that made me think of a line from A.J. Jacobs in his recent stint on James Altucher's podcast 410 – AJ Jacobs: Ten Superpowers of 'Extreme Gratitude', The James Altucher Show (2018-11-15)):

The barista told me people just use her as a vending machine when they get their morning cup of coffee. Nobody looks her in the eyes.

So there's an obvious tension there. I like to save money on things, which often means doing the work myself. And companies like to save money, which often means getting me to do the work for them. But mix that all over larger and larger sets of people, and all of the connections between them, and imagine that they can opt out of those connections more frequently... and you can imagine that as an element in a feedback loop driving people to become more annoyed when they can't opt out of a connection, driving people to seek more isolation, driving... etc.

There needs to be a balance between just completing a transaction and treating a human as a human, not a human as robot. I think that feedback loop leads somewhere ugly, a one-way trip to Us Versus Them. I don't think it's reversible, but I always avoid the automated checkout lane at the grocery store as an act of harmless and mostly useless sabotage.


Postscript. What will the updated reference to the good old days that never really existed be for our generation? We should leave Mayberry to the folks for whom it was contemporary nostalgia, I think.

Slouching into training shape, 3: slouching out of training shape

Slouching into training shape, 2

If there's one thing I've been lucky to not experience, it's athletic injuries, even while accumulating years and mileage. The left ankle that was sprained in fall of 2001 while playing ultimate is still larger than the right one. And I kicked a rock hidden under the leaves somewhere around mile 37 at the 2012 Ozark Trail Endurance Run, tweaking something deep in my calf muscle, eventually dropping out around mile 50 for my first and only DNF. Otherwise: nothing debilitating. Some IT band syndrome early in 2012 (not recommended—the worst, most-painful non-injury injury, just deeply weird to relieve knee pain by massaging your hip) that took a while to get rid of. But nothing else that I can recall. Resilience isn't sexy, but so what? I'll take it.

What is the difference between resilience and luck? I don't know. Injuries can be bad luck (hidden under the leaves). Injuries can be earned through stupidity. But what's the path that leads to not-injury? Of course that's a nonsense question. It's like asking how I roll so many 4s while playing craps.

What happens is this: something hurts. OK, no big deal when you're Muy Hombre. Just a pain in the right calf, somewhere down low, somewhere you'd expect an occasional pain because you run with the zero-drop thin-rubber shoes. And you think: I've had worse. It doesn't necessarily affect the run itself, it just hurts in the morning. Then it hurts after the run. Then it hurts during the run. Then a two-mile run involves some walking. And there you are.

This is a hard lesson. I tried taking two days off, to no avail. I got tired of limping around the house, around the office, etc. This time I'm taking a week off.

The horror! The horror!

It's hard to take time off something that has, for good or for ill, become entwined with your own self-definition. But it's a long game, right? This is something we're trained to understand as systems engineers: sub-optimize the component to optimize the system that it's a part of. Take a week off, lose a little bit of (planned) training, in order to do better over the long term.

Those words are all very sensible to send out to the rest of the world, but internally it's just... chomping on the bit to get moving... want to push it, but...

It's like that out in the Real World, too, eh? When you're going the same way you've been going, dragging something (like your leg) behind you, losing ground, pushing anyway... sidelined... chomping on the bit to get moving...

I've taken a week off running now, but this week I discovered ("discovered") an exercise bike in the gym. It's a different set of muscles, and different kind of energy to make it ago, and—most importantly—it doesn't piss off the muscle or whatever that was causing the trouble. So that whole time there were options within the constraint, I had just always mentally filtered out the exercise equipment in the gym because it didn't match my vision of myself.

These past two weeks I've been studying web stuff I kind of knew, but didn't really know all that well—JavaScript, HTML, CSS, PHP, etc.mdash;for a project. I had written it off in the past as being something I couldn't understand beyond what I already knew. But I knew more than I thought, it turns out, and with what I've learned about software engineering in Python, R, etc., in the last two or three years, I can make all that stuff dance now. Eight years ago, when I got laid off, I had time time time to learn and do these things, but I didn't have focus or any vision for how it could be used or learned or whatever, and I just didn't understand how to bridge the gap between reading about something and making it exist in the real world. The information was all out there, but I didn't see it—at least not in the right way. But the situation had turned a little bit in these last two weeks, and I got to see it from a different angle, and it made sense. So that whole time there were options within the constraint.

I was going to start running again tomorrow, but I might not—I might mine that cycling vein for a while and see how it turns out. I was going to give up this web programming kick tomorrow, but I might not—I might mine all these ideas for implementing other ideas for a while and see how it turns out. I've got no plan for either thing, it's just fun to push it, get good enough to compete, lace 'em up, go, and let the race sort itself out.

An us-versus-them reader

I've been thinking recently about how to solve an us-versus-them problem with a team I was working on. Sometimes us-vs-them manifests itself as a fight against groups on the outside, but it also happens on the inside of teams, especially geographically separated or functionally separated teams. It's this second problem that I'm most interested in. Us-vs-them within a group is really us-vs-us. It's a stupid and pernicious problem, if you stop and think about it. But it's hard to stop and think about it when you're in the middle of it, when you get that amygdala activated and charge straight ahead at the enemy—straight ahead at ourselves.

All of those instances of "you" above should be replaced with "I". I'm not here to 'splain anyone about how they're wrong. I just wanted to compile a list of things to read to identify the problem, understand the problem, and most importantly improve the problem.


What is it?

Looking at us-vs-them like a scientist

Avoiding and fixing

Startup Connection 2018

A follow-up post, from after the event: After Startup Connection 2018


The annual Startup Connection is happening in downtown St. Louis tomorrow (2018-11-07). I thought I'd do a bit of recon like I did for the recent Startup Talent Showcase because it's interesting to learn more about what's going on in the area—and there is a lot going on, you just have to know where to look.

I took the list of companies provided by Startup Connection and made a big table with information for each company, plus external links (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Crunchbase) on Google Sheets: Startup Connection 2018.

(If you're behind a firewall, here's a PDF version: startup-connection-2018.pdf)

Perhaps you'd like to follow those companies on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Here are some links to posts on those platforms that will make it easier to follow them rather clicking all the links in that table (i.e., on the Facebook and LinkedIn links, mouseover each link to bring up a popup to follow each, etc.):

Bonus: some information from Startup Connection 2017 that I must not have posted here to the site last year:


News

A selection of news items about the various companies:

Better ballots

My wife and I got our sample ballots in the mail from the St. Louis County Board of Elections this week. It's my wife's first time voting. She looked at the sample ballot and said, "It's almost like they don't want you to understand." From the mouths of babes.

It's not bad, but as with most things: There's gotta be a Better Way.

It took 12 seconds of searching to find information about election board meetings, and how to take part in the public forum. No doubt there was, and is, a way to make suggestions, and I didn't care enough to learn how to do it. There's no sense complaining mindlessly—reckon you can find plenty of other places on the internet for that—so let's take a look at that ballot and see what I'd improve if I were King. And then let's see if there's a way to get involved.

  1. URLs for everything. Make it easy, or at least possible, for voters to get to more information. Unique URLS for every candidate is probably overkill, but for each level of government might be possible: e.g., stlouis.co/elections/ballot/federal, /state, etc. And use internal anchors for individual positions or candidates: e.g., /ballot/federal#senator, /ballot/federal#senator-mccaskill
  2. Style. These are petty suggestions, but:
    • Font size. I measured it: 1 mm. It's hard to read.
    • Collapsed list items. If you look at the amendments and propositions on the ballots, you'll see that there are some list items there set off with a dash bullet, but instead of each having their own line they're all set in the same line. It's really hard to read. Compare (1) a recreation of how it is, vs. (2) a slightly modified version (sorry, it's still pretty small, here's a Visio file you can play with if you want to edit it):

  3. Recruit volunteers. While people are thinking about elections, recruit people to volunteer for the next one. Give people a simple URL (/elections/volunteer) or make part of the sample ballot so that it can be mailed back to the Board of Elections with a checkbox for "contact me to be an election volunteer." (Side note on volunteering: why the hell do I have to declare party membership to be an election volunteer?)

Taking off from (1) URLs for everything: it seems like it would be easy to have a big list of candidates, filtered somehow based on where the individual voter lives, and then fill that page with basic info and links to more info. For example, using the ArcGIS app linked from the country elections page, I can get my sample ballot. It's OK. But imagine instead being taken to a website for a ballot, organized something like...


Ballot

  • Federal: U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative (District 1)
  • State: State Auditor, State Senator (District 24), etc.
  • etc.

...and each page might be something like...


Federal

U.S. Senator

Josh Hawley

  • Party: Republican
  • Website: joshhawley.com
  • Bio: (100-word statement about candidate)
  • Platform: (100-word statement about platform)

Claire McCaskill

etc.

State

etc.


There are so many other options available, so many online resources that are basically utilities at this point, not just indulgences. Using the two most likely Missouri candidates for U.S. Senate, here are other things you could link to:

That's just a quick run-through of ideas while they were still on top of my head after studying the ballot. It's OK as it is, but it could be better. Maybe there's a current of activity and effort that I've just been missing because I've not been looking, or looking in the wrong places—after all, the minutes from the September 2018 election board meeting say that 3500 poll workers have been trained for this year's election.

I think this might be something OpenSTL could hack on. This is a civic problem and a data problem.