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The boring web

A thousand years ago or so I had a website on GeoCities. It's gone now—long gone, after a slow but inevitable death at Yahoo in 2019. I had one site that I maintained there for years, plus one other that I didn't maintain, and then some newsletter site on Angelfire and maybe something on Tripod and/or something that had an x in the URL, I don't remember.

Back In The Day—the web was boring and trash.

It was really good.

I wouldn't want to go back to it, but then again, there are only a few features of the modern web that I really use. [pause] No, that's not right. I use a ton of features of the modern web, it's just that they're all infrastructure now, so they feel invisible. Using the bank website, or buying a book, or following a live baseball game—some trivial examples that come to mind, and I know there are more.

I can isolate what I meant by that comment, though: here, posting on this site, or posting on other sites, I really don't use all that many of the possible features, I think. I'm posting here on WordPress, and it's dead simple. I've been thinking of going back to a static site for ages but, ironically, that takes work. That's why the web used to be boring: it was a bit harder to make things. Not so terribly hard that no one could do it, just hard enough that the utilitarian bits of creating took enough effort that it didn't leave as much time for the creative bits, or the people who were good at the creative bits but not the technical bits couldn't get past the threshold required to post things consistently. Or, since there was a lot of other crap, crap was acceptable. I don't know.

I can't really defend the boring web, even though I prefer much of it.

I like to see boring updates of people creating. I think that's a fantastic use of the web. Not the self-promoting bits, or the retweets, or the mindless forwarding of conspiracy theories, or the LinkedIn posts that all seems to start with "Excited to... [something self-aggrandizing]", or the well-staged beauty or travel or eating shots, and so on and so on. I'm tired of polish, both real and otherwise. I just want to see pictures of people growing tomatoes. Give me the boring stuff. Hugh McLeod drawing cartoons on the back of business cards was boring—but there was something about the total body of work, or maybe the simplicity of the endeavor, or the constant showing-up that elevated the cards to something else. (A random selection from 2007 on from the Internet Archive to get the feel of it.)

I know that kind of thing is out there, and it's easy to find. I didn't set out to write that last sentence—I have been angling for a way to say the opposite, to indulge the getting-old laziness that I'm starting to enjoy, of how things really were better in the Good Old Days. But halfway through a now-deleted sentence I felt the opposite thing: we have an absolute embarrassment of riches on the web. It's so easy to find something, that once you find something it's easy to keep on going to find the next easy-to-find something, and round and round and round we spin.

I try to use the web in a reasonably boring way. I don't want to self-promote. I don't want to polish all my copy—except for the cases when I am making something that I want to be a polished finished product. Making this, cooking that, planting this, reading that, etc. Just: here I am. Seeing other people do that is pretty boring, honestly, and I don't want to follow it so closely—but dipping into it occasionally, sure. Being able to search and sample and see how different people do things, yes.

Sometimes I sit down here to write something, and the initial thought becomes clearer, and I hit the 'publish' button feeling satisfied. Today I'm more confused. I had this thought—a hypothesis, I guess, but not so well-formed—that the old web was in some way better. I was going to build a post around that, and why. But now, after thinking about it, I can remember the people who I've seen posting similar types of straightforward (read: not weird self branding or self promotion) things on Instagram, on Twitter, etc. For good or ill, it's all out there. Some (most?) of it is squirreled away on some platform, which I think is not good for long term access, but that's not really the point for most people—for normal people, at least.

I think I'm just looking for humble people on a journey, whatever that journey is. The website is just a conveyance for that.

Links found:

Burro time

Sure. One more step in this direction. Why not?

Yesterday it was about mule time. Mules have some kind of purpose. I guess. Burros are different. Burros are some kind of incarnate evil. We have a history.

I've scratched out the original post. I tried to make out burros as some kind of useful creature, and Burro Time as some kind of useful feature. No. It was a silly post.

Burros are horrible dinosaur monster horses, weird manmade donkey hybrids. They're destructive and territorial. They cut unnecessary trails and trample water holes. They are a nuisance (although it's complicated).

So let's admit that burro time exists. But it's not where you want to be. If you find yourself being like one of those Death Valley burros--stop. Hold in that next heehaw. Be something else

Mule time

I think this is the post I meant to write yesterday (Plan time is over). That note about "raw doing": that's Mule Time.

Mood music: Tom Waits, "Get Behind the Mule", Mule Variations (1999).

There are two important aspects of Mule Time: (1) Head down, straight ahead to the end of the row, turn around, repeat; (2) stubbornness, bordering on insubordination.

Mule Time happens when there ain't nothin' left to plan. The plan happened. The doing-to-plan happened. But there's still some work left to do, maybe to a plan, maybe not. It doesn't matter. What matters is knowing when it's time to be a mule or when it's time to be a human and find a better way to get the job done. How do you know? You don't. It's a matter of taste or temperament.

I've written enough about automation, and I've done extensive planning for complicated projects. It's real. I believe in it. I use it. But when you've got a long, boring, grinding problem, you gotta get behind the mule.

Plan time is over

When plan time is over, you have to put away your toys and get to work.

No more messing around. No more diversions. No more delays. No more hiding.

A plan is only as good as its implementation—but not the opposite. A beautiful plan isn't that great if it can't or doesn't get done.

I enjoy planning—if only because it's the best time to try to avoid the mistakes I made last time—but not nearly as much as I enjoy doing. Possibly I like that inflection point even more where the plan falls away and leaves raw doing in its place. It's not about abandoning the plan, just knowing that it has served its purpose and now it's time to move on. Otherwise you end up serving the plan, not serving the purpose.


If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?

I've had that line from Fight Club (the book) banging around my head all evening. (The line from Fight Club (the movie) isn't so bad either.) Around and around in circles. Bouncing from one side to the other, back and back again. What does it mean?

Caterpillars spin a cocoon when they're about to go into their pupal stage. They stay in their cocoon then emerge, eventually, as something entirely different—something they were not, but something they were supposed to be.

It's one of a thousand overwrought metaphors we can rely on as we get to the end of the pandemic.

That first line, though—back and forth, like a clapper striking the side of a bell.

So much talk about getting back to normal, but I don't know about that. Normal is broken. Anyway, when I emerge from the cocoon, I want to be better than normal. I want to be like the narrator in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions—Vonnegut, himself—metaphorically throwing things over his shoulder.

I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there — the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes — there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.

"Every day is a new day" is a nice thing to say. I believe it, I just don't believe it. Some of the baggage we carry around we can throw out, but some of the baggage we carry isn't baggage—it is us, ourselves. Every day we wake up and we carry ourselves around. It's inevitable, really. I'm not sure what the alternative is.

Emergence, though, is a transformation. Waking up as something different than when you went to sleep. Waking up as something different than when you spun your cocoon. There are many constraints in the world, and also many choices. The choices are constrained and the constraints are uncertain. You can't wake up as a different person every day. But some days you can. You have free will, just not a lot of it. When we emerge, let's see how much we've got.

A crank theory about technical reviews

In aerospace we have technical reviews for anything worth producing and showing to other people: requirements, technical drawings, test plans, integrated designs, etc. We work with things too complicated for a single person to understand how it all works when it's put together. So we get groups of people together to find the problems,

The problem is that many people who approach the reviews as the producer of the content to be reviewed really hate that role. It is an uncomfortable role. Your literal job is to hold up things you've spent blood, sweat, and tears working on so that other people can hit them with baseball bats. (OK, maybe there's a better word than "literal", but we'll go with it.)

So what you often get is one of two things: (1) People who don't produce a review package that is easy to understand for reviewers; (2) people who host reviews for the sole purpose of having the review being considered done. Both are a problem for everyone.

The first is a problem because it makes the reviewer's job harder. Now a reviewer has to burn more time and effort to come to the minimum level possible to begin contributing to the review—actually having to work to get to level zero to start. The second is a problem because it subverts the purpose of the review. The purpose is not to check some box labeled "have review", the purpose is to find problems so that they can be fixed.

That's my crank theory: make it easy for your reviewers to find problems.

You have to produce a review package in addition to the thing being reviewed. Bringing a technical spec up for review? You should have something else that explains the tough parts, explains how the spec relates to other specs and products—things that aren't being reviewed themselves, but are related to the integrated whole. Make it absolutely, 100% as easy as you can for your reviewers to contribute. It's not about holding their hand (the pejorative usually lodged against helping people understand things), it's about setting them up in the best possible situation to do good work.

You have to point out the things that you think will be problems, and promote those things so that reviewers will see them, consider them, smash them, and ultimately help solve them. Aerospace is no place for letting problems slide. Everyone knows that when they make something that it has problems—it's a complicated field. Spray paint those things orange and get to work collecting issues against them.

It's an uncomfortable place to stand in front of people for the purpose of being told you're wrong. It also results in the best work. You have to choose discomfort to win.

A race to the bottom, in a cart full of people

My favorite series of Seth Godin riffs is about the "race to the bottom". There are several good variations. pick your own favorite. For me, the best ones contain a variation of: "The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win. Even worse, you might come in second."

I was thinking about that in term of the relentless pursuit of metrics. Sorry: capital-M Metrics. People metrics. Job metrics. Financial metrics. Development metrics. Testing metrics. Et cetera.

With apologies to George Box: all metrics are wrong, but some are useful.

The best kind of metrics—or analytics or data visualization or whatever your kink is—support your people. Metrics can help get the job done. If you're running a marathon and you have a goal in mind, you want to know how far you've gone and how fast, and then you'll also know how far to go and how much time you have to get there. This kind of goal for this kind of person is helpful. It is well-applied, pertinent, meaningful. Some metrics are... not.

How many rocks did Person A pick up? Seven. Person B? Forty. Give Person B a raise, fire Person A. On day 2 of the job, discover that Person A's rocks were twenty times bigger than Person B's rocks. No matter. The metrics have spoken. With any luck—and a little soft-shoeing and a lot of manipulation—no one who matters will even know until it's too late, and then it's too late.

These are all analogies, and not particularly good ones. All I wanted to say is: mindless obeisance to numerical evaluation is a race to the bottom. The System—whatever your System might be, and no one capitalizes System without a little bit of venom—demands numbers, tables, charts, plans, etc. Those can be provided. You want a metric? I can get you a metric, believe me. There are ways, Dude.

Like many things in the world, this is all good until it becomes a proxy for The Truth. Metrics are a great Guide. The Truth? Depends. I want my thermocouples and pressure transducers to tell me the truth, sure. Measuring the number of spreadsheets Person C cranked out this week versus the planned number of spreadsheets? I don't know. Sounds like a guide to me. But it's easy to forget that it's a guide. Something can be a guide for a while, and then it gets mistaken for a truth, and then it can't be untruthed. Accumulate enough of those unnecessary mistaken truths and you can almost hear the whoooosh that you make as you tumble off a cliff, hellbent for the bottom, at the toppest top speed you can measure, trying desperately until the last moment to understand why—how—the metrics did you wrong.

Atoms and house fires

Every once in a while when I'm filling up a perfectly good silence with words—something I was recently advised that I shouldn't do, yet here we are again—I come up with a reasonably good string of words. I'm not saying they're the best words (believe me), but good ones, and in a good order.

I was just trying to explain my approach to a particular problem, but it goes for everything I do. The way I solve problems is extremely bimodal: all the way this way, or all the way that way. Extremely fast and with light detail, or extremely detailed and with low speed. Extremely thorough, or extremely cursory. Extremely sensitive, or extremely direct. And so on and so on.

In between the extremes—I don't know. I don't spend much time there. I don't know that there's a reason for it. In my mind, I assume that the fast, shallow touch is a compensation for the detailed, maddeningly thorough mode that I can lock into. You can't spend all your time in that second mode. You'd never get anything done, and if you did, no one would be around to receive the thing you made because it would have been excruciating to wait for, and the details would be so overspec as to be a work of art, not a work of utility. I don't know that that's the reason, or if there is a reason, and I'm not even very interested in the reason because I'm aware of the two modes and I just try to apply them at the right times, or to unapply them when they're engaged at the wrong times—mostly the second one, because it's just such a bother to be a victim of yourself.

Today's analogy for this bimodality: I either see things as a house fire and we have to pick things up and run and get out now; or I see a house as a collection of atoms, each of which can be identified and arranged exactly where I want them. I don't know. I can't account for it. Choose the madness that makes you whole, and keep moving, onward.

Plan flex

For project management class this week, we had to do a small group online simulation of setting up a mining project—a stakeholder management exercise. It was all about understanding how the different people who we had to work with—activists, officials, shareholders, etc.—felt about the project, how they felt about each other, how they felt about their treatment, etc. There was a total sim time of a few weeks, and a day went by every 90 seconds or so. So whatever plan you went in with was probably the one that you were going to execute once the click started ticktocking away.

Unexpectedly, our group came out with the top score, which was mostly some mixture of stakeholder opinions—meaning you could come out of the thing with the most profits, but not the highest score. I was surprised by the outcome because I know there are some smart people in the class. I wouldn't have bet my money on me. In the debrief in this evening's class, some of the other people explained their plans, and they sounded like well-reasoned plans that I felt were better than ours—at least until I saw the outcome.

I didn't really understand how we did it until one of my teammates said something that made sense to me. His explanation: we were flexible and willing to change the plan when we discovered things were working or not working in our favor.

That is easily the most obvious thing to do—and if you've worked for anyone else or yourself you know that it is something that is not done often enough. But you can't just hear that explanation and believe it. We—whoever we is here, I'm not sure, just go with it—believe in things like "stay the course" or "plan the work, work the plan" and deviation from the plan is seen as a weakness, not a strength. Deviation from a plan can be a weakness if it's done flippantly. If you just don't want to do whatever work is up next, and you don't, well... good luck. But if your plan leads you straight into something that your instincts tell you is wrong, that your experience tells you is wrong, that your advisors tell you is wrong... your plan might be wrong—if not fully wrong, then partially wrong, and you should have the courage to adjust your plan and meet the challenge on better footing.

Lack of flexibility is a weakness, not a strength.

Beautiful feedback

Here's where I start this story by saying, "I love getting feedback from other people because it helps me improve myself". I know that's the Right Answer when talking about critical feedback and—wink wink—we only say and do the Right Things here on That's our Brand.

I hate critical feedback. Everyone hates it, I think. I think it's useful, and I ask for it and take it, but I cringe hard enough I'm in danger of pulling something at my advanced age. Please, sir, just tell me I made it to the top of the mountain and that there isn't anything left to climb.

Nah. Life's not like that. It would be boring if it was like that, although a good deal more relaxed.

As part of the closeout for the once-dreaded negotiations class, our final team of four had to give each other positive and negative individual feedback about our performance. I would have guessed, going into this exercise, that it was going to be only a pro forma exercise. Yes, you did this and that, and, oh, I did this and that, fascinating. Thanks. Bye. Nothing substantial, just get it done.

But there was something to that all-day final negotiation activity that acted like a kind of fast-setting glue. It was a stressful day, and it was a kind of hard work to do the negotiation, even if it was just a game. It took on a life of its own within the simulation. The feedback that came out of it, surprisingly to me, had Meaning. I felt like I had meaningful things to say about teammates' performances as well because they made an impression on me during those few hours. Even though receiving the negative bits of feedback had all the same armrest clenching autonomic responses that I get from feedback in the real world, it was somewhat easier to relax and listen—even though we had our own bond in that short time, it was easier to detach from it because it was so short and hear the negative bits without judgment, without reservation, without reaction. It was less charged, less loaded. It was easier to corroborate with all of the things I witness about myself in my own head. It was beautiful to hear—although hearing feedback and doing something about it are substantially far apart.