The Iron

I tried something new. A new job that sounded risky but interesting and educational. It didn’t go well: I got laid off in just after a month. I’ve spent a couple months trying to find the right job.

Interviewing is horrible. Having been on both sides of the process, I know how arbitrary and silly it can be. You get asked questions that range from insightful to pointless and you jump through the hoops. And you get feedback that has the same range.

During this frustrating process, there has been one thing that I can rely on to never be arbitrary. As Henry Rollins says: the Iron.

This week, it was: 405.


Preach Henry:

I believe that the definition of definition is reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.

I prefer to work out alone.

It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I see them move from their offices to their cars and on to their suburban homes. They stress out constantly, they lose sleep, they eat badly. And they behave badly. Their egos run wild; they become motivated by that which will eventually give them a massive stroke. They need the Iron Mind.

Through the years, I have combined meditation, action, and the Iron into a single strength. I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds


Old Bad Code

sadPhoto Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

 This summer I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak at a conference. I was giving a pretty hands on product oriented talk with live coding and the majority of the conference was pretty high level and abstract, but I like to think the folks that showed up learned exactly what my session advertised.

A little before my talk, I ran into someone I vaguely knew from an old job. I said “Hi” to him, excited that I actually ran into someone I knew. And it didn’t take him long to let me know that something I did eleven years ago was the worst thing he had ever seen. I was probably mentally incompetent. He looked down his nose at me, adjusted his fedora and walked away shaking his head.

I thought back to the genesis of this code that established me as a terrible human being. It was 2003 and I, as the sole developer on some “B2B software” had to integrate with a security product that was being mandated by our security organization. It was the first roll out of this software and the expert consultant we were given to work with didn’t know the first thing about HTTP or websites. (This was a WAM product, which means it controls HTTP access to websites.)

During the project and in previous projects I remember micromanagement of my coding style and approach, something our “architects” found bafflingly necessary. Part of the integration required some SOAP 1.0 and later 1.1 calls.[1] Oh, and the consultant was zero help with that as well. Once the project and the required gnashing of teeth was over, I turned the code over to one of our excellent framework developers. I apologized to her for the state of the code. It worked and was safe, but it was pretty awful.

She, of course, found herself in the position of needing to make that functionality available to a wider audience, but without a test environment to refactor the code against. Three years later I found myself responsible on the framework team, and for the code. Which now had hundreds of apps using it, and now couldn’t be refactored because every app team would scream bloody murder if they had to change the way they consumed an API as part of upgrading.

Fast forward another eight years and I am Idi Amin.

If you’ve worked in software long enough and have the ability to feel shame, I’m sure this has happened to you. You’ve worked somewhere that you have tight deadlines, the organization is in chaos, management are screaming thugs, and you’re not supported by real software processes. The result is bad.

I’ve been on the other side of this equation many times. You open up some source code and say, “What idiot did this?!” I’ve learned after opening my mouth to slam someone’s code one too many times: if you weren’t there, maybe you should lighten up and just try to make things better.[2] Historical blame isn’t doing anyone any good, though you might be boosting your own ego. Often the structure and state of the organization has more to do with the code being produced than the developer and most developers want to do a good job.

If you find yourself in either situation, try to focus on the constructive and making the organization better, it will make more of a difference long term.

  1. If you weren’t exposed to SOAP prior to 1.2, look up the Spec for SOAP 1.0. Then cry.  ↩
  2. Of course some times you are there. And you’ve had the same conversation with the same person ten times. And they still crap on the code in the same way. That’s a different problem.  ↩


Uber, Taxis and Protecting Workers

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about business models and transit. From Uber and Lyft to the world of bike sharing we discussed business models and their effects on labor, etc… I love talking to him. We’ve known each other since college and in many ways we have opposite world views. I tend to think about things in terms of organic bottom up systems. He’s a top down guy, and to–probably unfairly–characterize his views, let’s talk about taxi cabs.

In most Metropolitan areas in the united states, taxi cabs are regulated. In New York City, you must have a “Medallion” to act as a Taxi. To do business as a taxi you have to purchase access to the market from the government. [0] There are a limited number of Taxis allowed to have these medallions, so this form of government regulation creates an artificial limit on supply.

My friend seemed to believe that taxi medallions are a good form of regulation in the sense that they protected taxi drivers by restricting the supply of taxis. More Taxis would mean that each taxi driver would make less, so he saw this form of regulation as a social good since it was a way to ensure that that taxi drivers received a good wage. He saw Uber and Lyft as damaging this labor protecting mechanism as well as putting their own drivers in an unhealthy race toward the bottom in terms of their own wages.

To me, there are so many other competing factors that I find the argument fairly uncompelling.

First, I almost never take a taxi. Usually because the experience is terrible from end to end. It’s a pain to get them to show up when you actually need them. The taxis themselves are unpleasant. From the smell and general nastiness to the obnoxious amount of advertising content that usually assaults you, I’m never happy to get into a cab. And then there’s the negotiation of payment and tip. The cabbie’s credit card machine will be having a “problem.” Uber eliminates all of these problems, and I think I’ve used Uber more often in the last year than I have used a cab in my lifetime. So, while the two are in competition, the innovator–Uber–is opening the market to a much broader set of customers.

Medallion holders don’t need to do this. They have a monopoly and they’re going to milk it. [1] That means, terrible experience and just sitting on the market they have. They have no reason to innovate because people will need cabs and they have no meaningful competition. What about the value the customer receives? I find the thought of locking an entire industry into a monopoly just so that a certain group can receive the wages they feel they are entitled to is deeply disturbing. Just because I do not know the equilibrium state that a business will reach, doesn’t mean that we need to design it.

The pretense to protection of the cabbies, generally disappears on inspection.[2]

In short, a nine-month Globe Spotlight Team investigation has found, the cab industry in Boston is a world of serial indignities that drivers, a largely immigrant workforce, endure while many cab owners walk off with huge and remarkably easy profits.

“They just do bribes left and right,’’ Nas Farah said of Boston Cab, the city’s biggest taxi company, for which he has driven since 2000. “That spot is not America, I’m telling you, man.’’

The city, which oversees the system, turns a blind eye to this climate of casual exploitation. Worse, city officials — in ways both subtle and obvious — enable it.

Matt Carroll of the Boston Globe

Then there’s the public choice problem of government granted monopolies. What do you expect politicians to do when given control over an industry? It doesn’t seem to create good incentives for anyone.

And aren’t monopolies and oligopolies bad? Don’t we hear them decried constantly? And in the case of allowing the state to define and control the monopoly there are no outs. There are no ways for the markets to “route around the damage.” Right now there are Taxi’s, Lyft and a couple other competitors in this market. But that doesn’t stop pundits from claiming the sky is falling. Glenn Fleishman, whom I admire in most things, has this to say in a recent BoingBoing post:

Uber is a new middleman, making a market and profiting from it. It matches buyers (those who need rides) with sellers (drivers and companies that hire drivers). If it dominates the car-hire and taxicab business, it could become both a virtual monopoly and a monopsony. A monopsonist is the only buyer for a given set of services or products, and can dictate terms to sellers while also potentially, but not always, controlling the price that its customers pay.[3]

Glenn Fleishman on BoingBoing

So, someday when Uber has no competition, it will have no competition.[4] Making predictions about the future of a market like this tends to be a fools game. Looking at Uber and saying they have no direct competitors and so are a monopoly is also confused. One of the ways that markets solve these sorts of problems is by diversity and not by competing in exactly the same way, this is one reason why highly regulated industries are miserable to deal with. Airlines and cellphone providers are hard to tell apart. There’s little diversity in the business models because regulation boxes them in, adds massive barriers to entry to competition, and lets them divide the artificially defined market. Few would have predicted the rise of Whole Foods and some still warn of its demise in the next recession because of its high prices and charity spending. But almost no one who buys their grass fed organic beef from whole foods was going to buy the same thing at safeway. They’re not competing on price. The price conscious go to safeway and those whose identity is bound up in the things Whole Foods is selling go to whole foods. Lyft is, to a certain extent, offering a different service aimed at a different crowd.

Of course, I’m arguing my ideology: Authoritarianism is bad and those solutions should be chosen last and only when absolutely necessary. There are hundreds of arguments on the other side, for example taxi medallions prevent a glut of taxis on the street.

But, when I hear people treat things like taxi monopolies as a straight forward simple solution to a straight forward simple problem like maintaining worker wages, I find it a kind of delusional narrative. Too often we try to pretend interventions have no cost and no downsides. It seems no one sees the value of diversity and distributed decision making when faced with what they perceive as simple levers.

I’m not trying to put Uber on a pedestal. I’m not what Ralph Nader calls a corporatist. They haven’t always acted well. But I’d rather see competition than monopoly.

I leave you a quote from my favorite economist:[5]

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit

  1. Yes. I know I’m technically abusing the term monopoly. I don’t care. Please read this bit of snark from Tim Wu at the new yorker to make you feel vindicated and better.  ↩

    The press confuses oligopoly and monopoly with some regularity. The Atlantic ran a recent infographic titled “The Return of the Monopoly,” describing rising concentration in airlines, grocery sales, music, and other industries. With the exception of Intel in computer chips, none of the industries described, however, was actually a monopoly—all were oligopolies. Tim Wu The New Yorker

  2. This is a pretty common thing with government intervention when compassion is invoked. Intervene for compassionate reasons, and necessarily take the rights and dignity of those to ostensibly be protected. Read my post on Matt Taibbi’s book The Divide  ↩
  3. You should read the Glenn’s piece, not the least because he’s pretty awesome. Just be aware the American Stasi has declared the readers of one of the most popular blogs in the world as extremists. So remember, Big Brother is watching you.  ↩
  4. Sure, he’s making a more subtle point about them creating a market and trying to control both sides, but I find it amounts to the same argument. So, Uber will install itself as the new monopsonist Taxi monopoly and so regulators must get involved to prevent imagined victimizations that will happen some day. It’s a kind of reactionary prior restraint of business. It’s at this point in the argument that I hope driverless cars make everyone’s arguments moot.  ↩
  5. For BoingBoing readers, I’m sure you noticed Hayek was recently demonized in BoingBoing as pro-plutocrat. I won’t link to it. I’m sure you can find it. For the open minded, here’s an article about the rap battles between Keynes and Hayek.  ↩

Mockey of Equal Protection. You should know about Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi has been compared to Hunter Thompson the progenitor of GonzoJournalism. While there’s definitely some Gonzo in him, I think it’s more of a sign of the corporatism and crony politics of modern journalism that he’s described that way. Taibbi has opinions, but while most journalists I associate with the left, seem to apologize for or rationalize the actions of the current regime, Taibbi pulls no punches. It’s not about muck raking. It’s about injustice.

His new book The Divide follows two different kinds of crime. The actions of the wealthy and banks like HSBC and Goldman Sachs and the daily lives of the poor.

If you’re not familiar with the HSBC scandal, his article in Rolling Stone is worth a read. [0] One of the worlds largest banks launders money for violent drug cartels and no one goes to jail. Story after story feature the same narrative: the super wealthy commit blatant crimes, no one is prosecuted, the corporation they worked for is fined, prosecutors throw a celebratory press conference clapping themselves on the back for being tough on white collar crime.

Meanwhile, story after story of lives ruined over, what for the middle-class or whites, would be non-crimes. People imprisoned, jailed or merely prosecuted without a meaningful defense. And if you’re poor, a simple Marijuana possession charge can exclude you from Public Housing and Student Loans.

The differences are stark: if you’re wealth and commit crimes on a grand scale under corporate cover, you’re a respected member of society. If you’re a welfare mom, you’re already guilty and you have your rights and dignity taken away, not because of some action, but because of who you are.

Some pigs are more equal than others.

The result is that the worst, most damaging actors in society are rewarded for their behavior, and the poorest and least able to protect themselves are targeted for automated abuse. Maybe when you realize you’ve built a machine that imprisons or kills the innocent or for minor mistakes and rewards the worst, it’s time to rebuild the machine.

Edit Embed started auto-playing, so here's a link.


Kids These Days. You should know about Danah Boyd

Ok, she works for Microsoft. Don’t hold that against her. I don’t remember when I first encountered her, but it was probably in a mention from Cory Doctorow. Her blog with the excellent name of apophenia, is one I always check on. [0] Her thoughts on youth and media are not to be missed. She spans social media, teen behavior, LGBT issues and bullying. But that’s not why you should know who she is.

You should know who she is because, like Bruce Schneier does for security, Danah gets to the heart of the matter. She gets to the unintended consequences of policies, the unseen costs of short-hand thinking. She shows what is actually going on with teens, not what adults imagine or someone’s ideology dictates. While most media makes its money by appealing to the mental junk foods of fear (If it bleeds, it leads), gossip, and tribalism, people like Bruce and Danah cut through those narratives and deserve our attention and our dollars.

Her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, is insightful and heart breaking. Perhaps, I’m biased. A favorite theme of mine is how every generation thinks the youth are out of control, have no taste, and thinks what they do is nonsensical. The world is always going to hell in a hand basket.

Kids these days.

In one section Danah shows how adult’s impression that teens are anti-social and obsessed with gadgetry, is a heart breaking confusion. Teen after teen she interviews is over-scheduled, lives far from her friends and is without the ability to go and hangout with them. She doesn’t use the word, but she’s arguing that Teens use cyberspace as a place to hangout; somewhere they can have some form of privacy to be with their friends. Danah shows how to previous generations, using a computer to communicate is something at the boundaries of social acceptance. It’s what weird people and “computer people” (my words) did. But, for today’s teens, social media is the sock hop or the rope swing. Instead of using a smartphone to withdraw, it’s the only place they can be themselves and can connect with other people like them. The regimentation, physical isolation, and lack of agency in their own lives is something the teens she interviews are always trying to overcome. Not for some evil ulterior motives, but to be themselves with their friends.

A variation on that theme is how a particular technology or new form of media will lead to the debasement of the youth and the minds of the next generations. Most people are familiar with the moral panics around comic books, television, and social media. Some of those still seem rational to people today, but they are just echoes of previous panics where the new technology is demonized: “this time it’s different.” Few remember similar panics and moral warnings around the creation of sewing machines, novels, film, and dire warnings about writing itself.

Any new technology that captures widespread attention is likely to provoke serious hand wringing, if not full-blown panic. When the sewing machine was introduced, there were people who feared the implications that women moving their legs up and down would affect female sexuality. The Walkman music player was viewed as an evil device that would encourage people to disappear into separate worlds, unable to communicate with one another. Technologies are not the only cultural artifacts to prompt these so-called moral panics; new genres of media also cause fearful commentary. Those who created comic books, penny arcades, and rock-and-roll music have been seen as sinister figures bent on seducing children into becoming juvenile delinquents. Novels were believed to threaten women’s morals, a worry that Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary dramatizes brilliantly. Even Socrates is purported to have warned of the dangers of the alphabet and writing, citing implications for memory and the ability to convey truth.

Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Her book is full of insights. But her parallels with Bruce Schneier become very strong when she talks about privacy, social norms, and the way teens deal with surveillance. Many of the teens she interviews are constantly surveilled by their parents, teachers and other who have power over them. Often, these are teens largest frustrations, when the powerful ignore the teen’s social norms. In small houses, parents and siblings have always spied upon teens, but in the world of social media, the lack of meaningful technological access control keeping the parents out, mean many parents feel justified diving into every aspect of the teen’s lives, usually without meaningful context. It makes you wonder how living with constant surveillances changes someone.

The sections on “Social Steganography” are fascinating, and show the extremes someone will go to to achieve privacy. Teens often carefully communicate in coded ways. Unable to control access to their posts, they control access to meaning by encoding what they say is only intelligible by themselves and their friends.

Privacy is not a static construct. It is not an inherent property of any particular information or setting. It is a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context. Cynics often suggest that only people who have something to hide need privacy. But this argument is a distraction. Privacy is valuable because it is critical for personal development. As teenagers are coming of age, they want to feel as though they matter. Privacy is especially important for those who are marginalized or lack privilege within society. Teenagers have not given up on privacy, even if their attempts to achieve it are often undermined by people who hold power over them. On the contrary, teens are consistently trying out new ways of achieving privacy by drawing on and modernizing strategies that disempowered people have long used. Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.

Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Lastly, the theme of context and context collapse weaves throughout. Social Media affords the loss of social context or the merging of social contexts in ways that were unlikely or impossible in the past. You would rarely run into a teacher when you were out with your friends on a rope swing, or a prospective college admissions officer at a GWAR concert. But with social media, those social contexts can merge quite easily. And those powerful in the teen’s life can often force them to. Social norms prevent or punish snooping in meat-space.

Danah provides insights into what teens are actually doing on social media, into the power dynamics that shape the teen’s lives, and into the hidden costs of moral panics around teen use of social media.

You should know who she is.

[0] I’ve made references to Apophenia as one of my favorite words before.

Two Girls Restore Their Friendship... and Avoid Zombies

Two girls try to restore their friendship… and try to escape a military dictatorship and spore infected rage zombies.

The Last of Us: Left Behind.

Before I get too far, I recieved disturbing news while working on this. A highschool friend has escaped a physically abusive relationship. People’s reaction on social media? Accusing her of being a crazy person. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see any problems with our culture’s relationship to gender and even mentioning the word misogyny puts you, for some, into the category of extremist jumping at imagined shadows. Perhaps a zombie video game will change minds.

The Last of Us: Left Behind.

In the game, Ellie and Riley, the main characters of Last of Us: Left Behind, wander through a post apocalyptic world where a fungus has taken over the minds and bodies of the majority of humanity. Ellie still lives under marshal-law and Riley has escaped and lives as one of the revolutionaries hunted by the military majority. Their relationship has taken a blow. Words were said. Riley has been gone for weeks and Ellie presumed her dead. Now she’s back and trying to recover their relationship. Strong girls who aren’t hyper-sexualized. Trying to survive life after the zombie apocalpse. And it’s great.

In the writing community, there is something called the Bechdel Test. For those of you who are not familiar, this is a test used by feminist critcs to evaluate films. I hope you won’t find it particularly outrageous. To pass, a film or story needs:

  1. At least two female characters, who
  2. talk to each other, about
  3. something besides a man?

That’s it. Not exactly radical stuff. And it’s disturbing how much can’t even rise to that level, like the original Star Wars trilogy or the Lord of the Rings films. It should go without saying that in the realm of videogames, a game that passes the Bechdel Test is a rare find. This expansion for an already excellent game really made me smile. And even though I know that Riley can’t survive this prequel, I deeply enjoyed the high quality game, both as Ellie tried to reconnect with Riley and as she was driving her small stilletto blade into the eye socket of one of the “Infected.”

This is our culture. We worry about violence and sex in media, when the Bible and classical literature–forming much of America’s cultural foundation–are filled with both, but it’s rare that real female characters have an actual part in any book, film or video game. What effect does that have on our minds and the minds of our children? What message are they receiving when women don’t even seem to exist in media or are only bit characters?

When I think about my friend’s suffering the indignation of having people judge her for taking her children away from an abusive relationship, I have to wonder if that’s because, for them, she’s a minor character while her husband is a main character.

Resilience, Recovery and Antifragility in Security

Resilience and Recovery are undervalued aspects of Security. When it comes to security, popular culture and politicians focus too much on control. They should be focussing on resilience and recovery. Control strategies contribute to security theater. They give the impression that someone is in charge and that things are under control. When that is always a bit of a facade on reality. Our ability to recover is more important and effective, especially when it comes to extremely rare events. To take two kinds of failure of control,  school shootings and terrorism.  Fortunately, both are extremely rare.

Being able to respond quickly to school shootings appears to have reduced their impact. Control based strategies haven’t been successful in this regard. Limiting access to guns sounds good, but the proliferation of guns in the United States make it unlikely that a ban would be effective. There is a lot of emotional rhetoric around assault rifle bans, but the reality is that even those bans wouldn’t have covered the weapon used by Adam Lanza, a weapon acquired by his mother legally.

Another control based topic is around how we treat our mentally ill. I’ll agree that our society’s way of dealing with the mentally ill is ineffective, occasionally inhumane, and often… dreadful. But, that doesn’t mean a policy of proactive jailing of potential school shooters would be effective. Despite their increasing numbers, there just isn’t enough data and actual science on the subject to make good decisions.

We have made progress on becoming more resilient. New practices for schools and responders appear to have limited the damage shootings have caused. The same is true for terrorism. The NSA’s shockingly unconstitutional intrusions didn’t stop the Boston bombings. The authoritarian someone is in charge spying didn’t stop it, but the city’s preparedness saved lives, limbs and caught the perpetrators.

Focusing on prevention while ignoring recovery will give bad results. Resilience is important: something will get through the defenses.

In tech and identity the modern plague is identity theft. Some forms are harder to recover from than others. If someone steals your credit cards or your social, people seem to recover reasonably well.[1] But if someone steals your email or your social media accounts, usually the master-keys to your identity online, you’re probably totally screwed.  And they’re regularly stolen. The recovery side is almost non-existent. The companies in question find it easier and cheaper to have people create a new account and instead of providing secure customer service.[2]  They often have “recovery” built in where you can add multiple email addresses or some such thing, but in the examples above these systems often help or are easily evaded by the attackers. We need a better way to recover from having our online identities stolen.

There’s a related concept to resilience and that’s Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility. Antifragile system benefits from stress.  In this case it would become more secure the more you try to hack it. Don’t believe antifragile systems exist, then you should read his book. Let’s take an example of the anti-fragile in the tech world. Netflix’s operations trends toward the antifragile because of their practices and their use of Chaos Monkey.

What is Chaos Monkey? Chaos Monkey is a service which runs in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) that seeks out Auto Scaling Groups (ASGs) and terminates instances (virtual machines) per group.

Netflix’s Tech Blog

It randomly kills stuff in Netflix. All the time. This means Netflix becomes better and better at dealing with failures. I’ve seen companies create “Recovery plans” and other grand schemes to deal with the loss of systems or datacenters. The last time I was somewhere, that took the “Recovery Plan” strategy to instead of the “Chaos Monkey Strategy,” when they lost an entire datacenter they spent more than a day rebuilding it. They essentially didn’t use their plan. Because they knew it was worthless.  It was just another document they had to create.  They weren’t antifragile, they weren’t even resilient. They were fragile.

You can't treat recovery as an abstract when Chaos Monkey is... causing chaos.

But that seems to be how we deal with identity theft online. The big email and social media companies create “plans,” but they rarely are the ones who suffer for a bad plan or have to deal with the consequences. Every year, after a well advertised attack, they get a little better, but the attackers seem to be outpacing them. We need antifragility in our internet identities. Imagine if the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters of the world had a Chaos Monkey for their employees and executives online identities. Perhaps they need a Chaos Monkey to help make the identities they manage antifragile… or at-least resilient.

  1. The average cost in dollars isn't bad, but in time and peace of mind it's pretty bad.  It shouldn’t be as bad as it often is, but that’s another discussion.  ↩
  2. A pretty big challenge in itself.  ↩

Three Fifteen

315 Wide Three fifteen isn’t a magic number.

Wait, let me back up.

When I was younger, I really enjoyed weightlifting. I was reasonably good at it and it was a great way to get exercise, but after high school I could never get back into it. Oh I tried. I would spend hours in the gym performing the standard three sets of eight to twelve reps. And I would get nowhere. Months of going to the gym and no progress. Every couple years I would try this. Same routine and the same results.

But, everyone has heard the quote:

  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 

Often misattributed to Einstein or Benjamin Franklin.

In November I decided to try something different. I’d read about another routine. It was progressive and used less reps. Deep down I remembered the dogma– ostensibly science– I had retained from somewhere: that the eight to twelve reps to failure over five sets is the ideal weight lifting routine.

One of my objectives was to raise my deadlift workout weight to three fifteen. (See, I brought it back.) That means to raise three fifteen from the floor to waist height and to do that five times in rapid succession.

The picture above is last Thursday’s workout. (45+4x45+2x35+2x10=315)

The quote above is a bit dumb and who knows its provenance, but too often we keep doing the same thing over and over again and we’re surprised that we get the same results. Habits form and we repeat patterns from our past. For me, this time, it was stupid workout dogma I learned at seventeen. It kept me from making progress for years. What pattern are you locked into? What result keeps turning up differently than you want?

My Superpower Fails Me to my Shame

Sometimes my super power fails me. It failed me last February when I tried to read an opinion piece in the new york times. [1] It failed me big time. Normally, I can do something that most people seem to be unable to do. One of my Superpowers is that I can read articles written by people whose views I oppose and think rationally about them. Ok, not that super. But, in a world of filters and media that caters to every bias, it’s pretty easy to consume only content from the echo chamber of your choice. There are many articles and books on describing this as a sickness of culture and of mind. But there also movements that imply that finding your tribe is important. That’s where you can thrive. This is part of the tension in which we find ourselves with modern media.

As Eli Pariser discusses in his Ted talk, everything is becoming more and more personalized. Facebook’s feeds and google searches are being silently edited. Eli shows the results of two google searches. The searches are the same. The searchers are different. The results are amazingly and disturbingly different. And watching the video, one cannot help but agree that this seems a bad thing. People have news hidden from them, because it’s not the kind of news they want to see.

There’s a healthy balance to be had. We can’t constantly consume content that is hostile to our views. Imagine watching that news show that you can’t stand. Do you feel your response? Somewhere in your body there’s a physical reaction. Finding your tribe is valuable. If you’ve been an outsider, you know what I’m talking about. That tension is important. We can’t and shouldn’t live in a pure echo-chamber of our tribe and we can’t and shouldn’t live in a pure echo-chamber hostile to our views.

We all have triggers. The things that light up our fight-or-flight. When we’re reading an article and we encounter one of those triggers, our response keeps us from understanding and probably from even hearing what the other side is saying.

Modern media gives us good reason for having those triggers. In the age of think tanks, sound bites, talking points and twitter, most discourse, political or otherwise, is precanned. It’s not unbaised journalism (if there is any such thing.) It’s probably :

  • The unedited contents of a press release.
  • The biased deification or sliming of some product, candidate (physical political product), or position (memetic political product.) Probably from a conscious partisan or, worse, an unconscious partisan. (Afterall if you’re fighting an existential threat, the ends justify the means, right?)
  • An advertisement masqerading as “content.”
  • Some slimy combination of the above.

It starts with a conclusion and tries to manipulate you. Either for clicks or to change your mind and worm its dishonest meme into your mind displacing something else. So we develop a shell of cynicism or reaction. For most people I think it’s both. This is reasonable in a world where much of the groups that are vying to your attention are being just plain dishonest.

I’m a bit of an idealist. [2] I think we should strive to the best media and the best solutions we can find. Not just the ones that happen to fit with my preconcieved notions.

I tend to read a wide variety of blogs and news sites from across the political spectrum. And I take pride in being able to read many that push my trigger buttons. But when I encountered the Op-ed “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution,” I failed to maintain my detatchment.

At first I thought it was a joke. I include his opening words here.

As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken. But almost no one blames the culprit: our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.

Louis Michael Seidman

But no, this Op-ed was written by a constitutional scholar. I felt my blood boil and stopped reading.

I was pleasantly suprised and a moderately shamed when I found that on one of my favorite podcasts, Econtalk, Russ Roberts would be interviewing Mr. Seidman. The discussion is well worth listening to, and both men, Roberts and Seidman handle the discussion, including their deep disagreement, with reason and grace.

Though I have never criticised nor emailed Mr. Seidman, I must say that I’m deeply saddened by the response he recieved. About ten minutes into the interview we find:

Seidman: Before I do that, I hope you won’t mind if I just say it is a real pleasure to have an intelligent conversation with somebody who is skeptical about my argument. Over the last several weeks, I’ve gotten something over 1000 abusive emails, many of them anti-semitic, some of them threatening violence. So this is a pleasure.

Nearly fifty minutes of discussion later. The interview end with this excellent section. (Cribbed and formated from the podcast highlights)

Russ: You said that you are surprised it took you this long to come to this view. How did it change and how will it change your teaching?

Seidman: Well, I don’t think it changes it a lot, in the sense that I am preparing people to be lawyers. As lawyers, they need to understand Constitutional doctrine, and to be able to understand arguments, and to be able to advance the arguments. And to know what the law is and what the Supreme Court says. So, all that is the same. I also have absolutely no ambition to convince or indoctrinate people. A good class by my standards is one where I have had to think and the students have had to think. Not one where people come away necessarily thinking one thing or another. So, these are issues I certainly discuss in class. I raise arguments that maybe the students haven’t heard before; they argue back. Sometimes if somebody’s been supporting my view I argue back, because I want them to think harder. But I don’t expect or even want people to come away from my classes agreeing with me. What I want them to come away the classes is holding the view they hold in the most sophisticated form that it can be held. And that’s my ambition as a teacher.

Russ: Have these issues–when you were starting out as a professor, you had a different perception of the Constitution, presumably. Is this perspective that we are talking about of Constitutional Disobedience affect how you teach and what you teach?

Seidman: It doesn’t affect how I teach or what I teach. I may raise some issues that just hadn’t occurred to me 20 or 30 years ago to talk about. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen a law school classroom. The best law school classrooms are Socratic. So, the job of the professor—my job—is to ask critical questions about any argument that a student makes, whether they are on my side or another side. Because the object is to try to get the student to think as hard as the student can think about the issue.

Russ: A very admirable goal.

Thank you both.

Thank you for reminding us what debate can be. Thank you for the long form of the 1 hour interview. You’ve both reminded us why we all need to focus on listening and responding instead of reacting. An Admirable goal indeed.

  1. I orignally wrote this when that podcast came out nearly a year ago. I had not started a blog yet. Now it has a place to appear.  ↩
  2. No really, on Meyers Briggs, I come out as either an INFP or ENFP. Being an ambivert tends to confuse psych tests.  ↩

Fear and Loathing in Hipsterville

You know them when you see them. You know what you think: “Fucking Hipsters.”

There they are with their skinny jeans or their trucker caps. They’re sitting there with their artisanal fill-in-the-blank and just exuding contempt for you, because that’s their main characteristic. Because looking down their nose over their waxed handle-bar mustache with you or your music or your lifestyle or your appearance is their defining characteristic. That and being shallow.

But is it true?

Is that woman you saw sporting a trucker hat, that dirty hipster, really sneering at you? Or, is she just trying to be her own creative self and really, deep-down, you don’t like creative people. Maybe you find them obnoxious. Maybe you even resent them.

Kinda harsh?

Well, before we come back to the woman in the skinny jeans and trucker hat, wearing a striped top over a shirt with clashing stripes, let’s look at an important group of people who most of us want to love and promote creativity: teachers.

These are the people who help our children, the next generation meet their potential. These are the people you imagine supporting the writers, designers and other creatives of the future. But do they? A journal article Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?, attempts to answer that question, and–if you’re like me–the results will depress you. It reviews two related studies of teachers and students in the classroom:

Judgments for the favorite student were negatively correlated with creativity; Judgments for the least favorite student were positively correlated with creativity.

Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? – Abstract


Research has indicated that teachers prefer traits that seem to run counter to creativity, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority… The reason for teachers’ preferences is quite clear–creative people tend to have traits that some have referred to as obnoxious (Torrance, 1963.)

Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? – Body

There’s that word, “obnoxious.” The italics are from the original. The authors go on to try to understand the reason that while teachers say they value creativity they punish and discourage it in the classroom. I think most of us are like the teachers. We hear the message that we’re supposed to value creativity; we’re supposed to innovate. But the reality is, our value of creativity is domain and context specific and we rarely want to pay the price. [1]

On my second anniversary, while we were preparing to walk out the door to a nice dinner, a pipe burst in the ceiling. The last thing I wanted my plumber to do, when he was repairing the pipe, is try out a new idea with materials or pipe welding. Just fix the goddamn leak. If he’d told me that he had been experimenting with a new kind of welding technique that might be very expensive and might not work, but would last much longer if it did, I would have found a new plumber.

Barry M Staw wrote an excellent paper entitled Why No One Really Wants Creativity. Everyone should read it. While he doesn’t make explicit reference to it, he’s indirectly referencing experimental economics and points out that the majority of people and organizations aren’t creative and don’t want to be. [2]

In terms of decision style, most people fall short of the creative ideal. They are satisficers rather than searchers for the optimal or most desirable solution. They follow a number of energy-saving heuristics that generally lead to a set of systematic biases or inaccuracies in processing information. And, unless they are held accountable for their decision-making strategies, they tend to find the easy way out—either by not engaging in very careful thinking or by modeling the choices on the preferences of those who will be evaluating them.

Barry M Staw

Staw isn’t berating the uncreative, he’s describing it. He seems to believe that creativity isn’t a good strategy:

The average person may become intrigued when the glories of successful creativity are hailed by the media. But when confronted with the bald truth that most scientists never come up with any earthshaking findings, most new businesses end in failure, and most whistle-blowers get demoted or fired, it is not surprising that people generally opt for a safer, more normal life than that followed by the creative.

He goes on to describe a similar effect of conformity in organizations and the costs and risks of creativity. It’s not a negative piece, but one that realistically looks at the cost benefit of different strategies creativity or conformity. His point is that usually conformity is more rational and more consistent with the behavior of the majority of humanity.[3]

But that was 1995.

Now, the cost of conformism is going up. Almost none of us will work at one job for a lifetime and retire with a gold watch and a pension. And for many of us, creating our own meaning in life and work is key. Almost a decade after Staw wrote that piece, Richard M. Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. where we see the rising rewards of non-conformism. [4]

We see a woman wearing a trucker hat, wayfarers, and holding a can of PBR.

Sophy Bot

Sophy Bot speaks about her experience and her book The Hipster Effect. It’s a history of the creative, the rise of the Hipster, and a study on why we find them obnoxious. She discusses social signaling and how, in a modern world where people are able to live the mobile lifestyle and freed from their traditional roles and communities, chances are you won’t understand the social signals someone is trying to send. Or that, in their freedom, they may not be concerned with your interpretation of their signaling. The book begins with a quick jaunt though previous iterations of non-conformist subcultures: flappers, hippies and punk. At its heart, her book is about creatives, by definition, look for new ways of doing things–they are non-conformists in some dimension–and what could be more creative than choosing the way you live.

That rubs people the wrong way.

“Kids these days.”

When you’re still doing the same old thing, it’s not surprising that when you see someone diving into something new or living some way that you feel judged. But where is the judgement really coming from? I’m sure the negative hipster stereotype exists: any group large enough to be referred to a such will contain a non-trivial percentage of assholes.

You don’t have to go out and buy your skinny jeans, but when there’s a group of people you don’t like, sometimes it pays to reflect on what it is that bothers you about them and why.

  1. This reminds me of one of Penn Jillette’s stories. Penn was and is a tee-totaler. He frequently remarks on how he’s never tasted a sip of wine or tried illegal drugs. But in high-school he was regularly singled out as some kind of hippy drug user. Simply because of his non-conformism.  ↩
  2. Since I can’t have a blog post without an Econtalk reference, here’s Vernon Smith discussing experimental economics. For those of you who haven’t encountered, here’s Tyler Cowan’s post referencing his paper where he discusses neurodiversity. And a good wired article for the less economically minded.  ↩
  3. This is where the topic of the results of Experimental economics and neurodiversity would have been really interesting to introduce. But Staw wrote this in 1995. Research in both fields seem to indicate that humanity is deeply diverse, but a majority follow the satisficer path and the heuristics shaw mentions. Given the billions of humanity, the minorities of behavior and neurology aren’t trivial at all.  ↩
  4. And in the reaction, we’ve all seen attempts to industrialize creative work. To change creative work so that the“creatives” will the be the “fungible resources” of the corporate world. We’ve seen the attempts to dumb down technology and turn it into the widget cranking if McDonalds and we’ve seen the desolate corporate IT landscapes that resulted. In retrospect, you’d think it would be obvious the result of removing creativity from creative work would be a disaster.  ↩

Good Guys Bad Guys and Narrative

I think a lot about narrative. While I find reason and empiricism very important tools, we rarely use them, preferring narrative as a heuristic. It’s much more efficient–if often much less accurate. I’m fascinated by how much more we are influenced by narrative and allow it to blind us to others and ourselves. People are pattern building critters and what’s more they are narrative building critters. Your unconscious tries to discern intention and agency behind almost every complex piece of information you encounter.

At the lowest level, we’re wired to see patterns and our pattern recognition is dialed up so high, we see patterns even when they’re not there. Have you looked at the clouds and seen a rabbit or a dragon or some other shape? Have you mistaken a jacket hanging on a door for someone looming there? Have you ever jumped at shape that turned out not to be what you thought? The reason we work this way is often attributed to an evolutionary advantage: If you run away from a bush that moved thinking it’s a tiger and it’s in fact just the wind, you survive. If you don’t run away from a bush that moved and it is a tiger, you get eaten and don’t pass on your genes.

It almost has to work this way. Our brains never have complete information and must constantly use partial information to generate our model of the world around us. Part of that pattern recognition is the attribution of agency: deciding something is acting on its own. Deciding, more or less, that it’s alive. Back to the tiger again.

We not only over-actively see patterns and living things, we also project narratives on almost everything. As an example, here’s the Heider-Simmel video:


The above comes from research published in 1944 by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel.[1] You immediately built a story around what you saw, but here’s the thing: these are abstract shapes moving around. The story doesn’t really exist except in your head. The Heider-Simmel video is obviously built to produce that result, but there are simpler examples of attribution of narrative–social behavior attributed to perceived agents. Scientific American has a great article on this.

You over-percieve patterns in general. You over-percieve agency. You over-perceive narrative. Now imagine someone brings up a political issue. Do you think you try to apply a narrative to the issue? Economist Arnold Kling wrote the short book The Three Languages of Politics where he argues that we (at least in the US) use one of three dominant heuristics for perceiving the political. Essentially three base narratives that we apply.

The first dominant heuristic is one I associate with progressives (henceforth Ps). Ps … are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of oppressors and oppressed.

The second dominant heuristic is one I associate with conservatives (henceforth Cs) Cs … are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of civilization and barbarism.

The third dominant heuristic is one I associate with libertarians (henceforth Ls). Ls … are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of freedom and coercion.

There’s a real sense in which these are the models of reality that are within people’s heads. The models matter as they influence what you can perceive. The term for seeing patterns in random noise–as our over active pattern detection is wont to do–is apophenia and when the experience involves images and sounds it is called pareidolia. [2] It’s what you’re experiencing when you listen to a record backwards and hear hidden messages. It’s even easier to experience if someone primes you–tells you what to expect to hear. They give you a model to match your expectations to and it’s much easier for your mind to confirm that model than to imagine a whole new one.

Michael Shermer illustrates the effect in this excerpt of his Ted Talk:

Shermer discusses pareidolia

If we can appreciate Kling and Shermer’s points, it’s not hard to see how we can project our political narrative on situations where it’s probably doesn’t really apply. [3] And then when we try to reason with someone whose narrative conflicts, we can become so angry with them when they willfully ignore the narrative so obvious to us. Not only does that narrative give us a model of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, it gets in our way of discussing reality with other people whose narratives may be different from our own.

What kind of narratives do you automatically apply to what you encounter? What kind of narratives are you applying to yourself and your life? Are they real or are they apophenia?

  1. Sadly, Marianne Simmel has no wikipedia page.  ↩
  2. I first encountered the term in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, still one of my favorite books. The theme of apophenia runs thought the book and is a powerful challenge of the information saturated age we find ourselves in.  ↩
  3. You don’t have to agree with Kling’s specific claim for this to be true. Our models of social and political behavior are more complex and nuanced, but his idea, while perhaps not rigorous, seems a good general rule.  ↩

The New Pillory

  Pillory by OLOliuqui on flickr

Let’s get this out of the way: Justine Sacco said some loathsome things.

And twitter lit her up for it. Lots of well-to-do, highly connected twitterers and the rest of the mob jumped on her. They began throwing refuse and beating this woman who was locked up in the public square. A righteous mob abusing the person who stepped outside the social norms. It’s a pillory.

This is the economics of twitter. Create value for your followers, get more followers, and indirectly make internet money. Twitter rewards you for becoming the leader of that righteous mob. You get the retweets you’re craving. It doesn’t differentiate on the target of your abuse. If you aim the abuse at the powerful, some politician perhaps, you get the same economic benefit as aiming at some middle class person who was a moron. And let’s face it, it’s easier to jump on people the lower class they are. Some football player or politician has a PR corp to help them and the money to weather out any storm. No matter what loathsome thing they’ve been caught doing, they’ll bounce back. But you can destroy the life of that unconnected person. You can feel that satisfaction as you break their jaw as they’re hands and feet are locked in place by the pillory. So, middle class people are a better target for your righteous rage. You can actually hurt them.

This is also why I don’t watch the works of Sacha Baron Cohen. This is a rich man who makes his money holding up the poor and marginal people to ridicule. Let’s face it, it’s easy to laugh at homophobes, Kazakhstan, and rednecks. Directing ridicule at the powerful is liable to lose you profit.

If you’re a super connected person like Xeni, you have a responsibility to think about the person you’re pillorying and not just bathe in the adoration of mob for taking someone’s teeth out.

It’s time to think hard about social media.  Michelle Goldberg of the nation writes:

We’ve built ourselves a panopticon in which any one of us can be singled out for minor transgressions and transformed into a meme for jeering global flagellation. Almost any of us could be vulnerable to a crowd-sourced inquisition.

(You gotta love a writter who can get “panopticon”, “transgressions”, “jeering”, and “flagellation” in one sentence.) It's concerning when the level of enforcement of orthodoxy becomes so powerful at attacking private individuals. I’ve seen this sort of thing for economic and policy arguments. I was recently called an “extremist” on facebook for challenging someone who said that raising the minimum wage doesn’t reduce employment. This persons self righteousness wouldn’t allow him to have a rational conversation about an effect predicted by the very basics of economic understanding. I was just an “extremist”. This is a variation of what feminists refer to as “othering.” It’s defining the us and the them, and demonizing the them. And that’s the dark side of the internet and social media. You can find your tribe, but too often people spend their energy targeting the “other” for abuse. And it’s very easy to join the mob when it’s made up of your tribe, made up of “us.”  Just think of that guy on facebook that always posts about "Republicans" or "Liberals."

I’m glad I didn’t try to have that conversation on Twitter or I might have had a reporter track my parents down to criticize me–which happend to Justine.

For every person and brand who tried to profit from criticizing Justine, shame on you. And if you haven’t read about the brands–especially GoGo–joining in, you should start here.

Craftsmanship and Contempt

I came across Jeff Nolan’s post about Silicon Valley and DC. I loved it for a lot of reasons. It captures what’s wrong. While the valley values marketing, DC values marketing without anything to back it up. In the valley, the narrative is how you make the sale, but things have to work. In DC, only the narritive is important and the solution/engineering doesn’t just come last, it is something contemptuous that the “leadership” doesn’t want to get on them. I’m not saying something partisan here. Read the Clay Shirky post Jeff references. [1] This is the section that caught my eye, because I’ve seen it many times.

The thing that made this meeting unusual was that one of their programmers had been invited to attend, so management could outline their web strategy to him. After the executives thanked me for explaining what I’d learned from log files given me by their own employees just days before, the programmer leaned forward and said “You know, we have all that information downstairs, but nobody’s ever asked us for it.”

I remember thinking “Oh, finally!” I figured the executives would be relieved this information was in-house, delighted that their own people were on it, maybe even mad at me for charging an exorbitant markup on local knowledge. Then I saw the look on their faces as they considered the programmer’s offer. The look wasn’t delight, or even relief, but contempt. The situation suddenly came clear: I was getting paid to save management from the distasteful act of listening to their own employees. – Clay Shirky

While at New Relic, it’s common that Ceo Lew Cirne pair programs with his employees. So, in one kind of organization, the organization’s leadership has contempt for its day to day employees. The other embraces their values and tries to learn from them. Guess which one is more agile, produces better results, and has any grasp on reality.

Taking this out of the software world, we have, as a culture, encouraged the contempt for work. Popular culture often encourages people to aspire to have a life where they never actually labor, and to hold those people in contempt. Listen to Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs his experience with his highschool guidance counselor:

Mike Rowe On the High Cost of College

The poster Rowe was presented with was “Work Smarter NOT Harder.” It contrasts the fresh faced college grad and the oppressed, dirty mechanic. The message is clear, become educated because actual work is for losers. No, not losers, for rubes. And the winners don’t want to mingle with the rubes: there is nothing the winners could learn from a rube.

If you’ve read Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, he has a profound concern for the way the powerful use their power to push risk onto the weak, and he notes that in earlier societies, part of the deal of being powerful was that you accepted risk. If you wanted rank, you took on the obligations. You had skin in the game as Taleb refers to it.

But popular values have changed. Now everyone wants to be a vampire squid because to be rich and bailed out, like Goldman Sachs is better than to productive and have a lifestyle business. Those values are to be rich without obligation at the expense of others. They are the values of the company man risk manager of the industrial age, who know they have the connections to get what they want without risk. They are the values of the American politician, that windbag with no skin in the game.

Those values inform the contempt that some parts of society have for the laborers. What you don’t realize, is you’re the next generation of the manual laborer. Do you write software? Or do some other menial, eminently outsourceable task? You’ve got a “dirty job” but you don’t realize it yet.

But, you can fight against these values. You can show that being a maker doesn’t make you a rube. You can bring excellence to what you do. You can look at what you do as a craft. I build software and systems and, let me tell you, it’s craftsmanship. It requires constant study, practice, and learning. It requires being thoughtful, creative and industrious.

Do you work for yourself? If not, what’s your company culture? Does it treat you like a craftsman or craftswoman? Or do they treat you like a rube?

  1. If you’re not familiar with Clay Shirky, you should be. If you are interested in culture and the internet, you will find him humbling. His Ted profile is here.  ↩

Non-Profits are crazy. Volunteer anyway.

For geeks or anyone else familiar with the corporate world, non-profits tend to be bafflingly inefficient and occasionally a bit irrational. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that corporations are the most rational, efficient places around. It’s just that, when you’re used to operating in a corporation or if you’re the sort of geek who “optimizes their workflow” with apps like Omnifocus, the culture shock of dealing with non-profits can be a bit overwhelming. Don’t believe me? Organize a group of people from your work to volunteer. I guarantee at some point, you will catch someone who is new to volunteering with a look of terror on their face. And you’ll be able to read their thoughts: “Oh, my god. No one knows what the hell is going on.” Embrace the madness. Non-profits have it rough in various ways. Often they're staffed by a majority of volunteers, who may or may not have any business world experience. They frequently don’t have enough money, people, or talent. And we live in a world where you are increasingly insane for working full-time for a non-profit.

Don’t believe me? You should check out what Dan Pollatta has to say in his 2013 TED Video. [1]

Dans 2013 TED Video

See. Our society almost persecutes you for working for a non-profit and making a dime. But, hope is not lost. You don’t have to be Dan, railing against injustice. You can still help out a non-profit. Donate. Does your work give you a volunteer day? Mine does. Got one weekend? Or, do one of the many events inspired by Dan’s work.

I do volunteer work with two different organizations and they’re both outstanding examples of doing good and making the volunteer experience a good one. First is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. If you know someone affected by blood cancer, you should put them in contact with this organization. If they’ve been newly diagnosed, point them at First Connection. They do a lot of good.

The second organization is Habitat For Humanity. For the last two years I’ve organized a habitat group at my work. This year we had 18 Identians [2] [3]building houses and being exposed to my horrible advice on proper hammering technique. I was a bit worried about it going in. The year before we had four people putting siding onto a house. This year we framed walls, lugged wood around, put in flooring and generally worked our behinds off. In the end, everyone was tired and happy. The culture shock had come and gone, and the good people at habitat had brought order to chaos and assured everyone had a safe, successful time.

Build a house, volunteer for something, or just help out with some donations and get a bump on your taxes (it’s nearing the end of the year.) Science says it might be good for you. If you’re metrics driven and you’re unsure whether to work with a particular charity, you can use Charity Navigator to evaluate them. Just remember that even they acknowledge that you must be careful when looking for simple metrics to measure charities.

Ideas to volunteer or donate for Coloradans (most are national organizations):

If you’re a geek, you could be supporting:

  1. If you want a more in depth view of Dan’s thinking check out his econtalk interview or his book Uncharitable  ↩
  2. Yeah, that’s what we call ourselves 'cause we work in Identity.  ↩
  3. There’s only 17 in the photo. That’s because @__b_c had to skin out a couple minutes early, right before this shot. He was there. There are many bent nails to prove it.  ↩

What your company doesn't understand about APIs

If you have a website or sell software with a UI, you probably have someone design the user experience. They might be on your staff or you might contract out to an “agency.” If they’re on staff, they’re a vaguely artsy person. They talk about information architecure and user experience. They mention design principles and they’ve read classic books like Don’t Make Me Think. They pull in graphic artists. They might do AB testing and you probably iterate on the wireframes they produce. They might be a little bit hipster. For some reason, that gives them some cred. Why do you do all of this? Because after the second rise of Apple, everyone understands that capital “D” Design matters. It has value. Business value. It makes you stickier and increases the sentiment toward your brand. It improves your bounce rate. It makes it more likely that you’ll have a long term relationship with your customers/readers/whatever. It translates into money and success.

Before the I-Era, bringing up design in a business setting was usually the classic idealist meets realist situation. The realist rolls her eyes. She knows her business is about cutting cost and the bottom line. Spending a little more on elegance and user experience is just another pointless head-in-the-clouds principle. The idealist slinks back to her crappy appartment and works on her art.

But now we live in an era, where even The New York Times knows that bad information design kills people. We know that design with capital D makes bank and makes your brand.

So why the fuck aren’t you doing any of this with your APIs and SDKs?

You know you’re not. And it’s probably because you don’t think of them as UI. But they are. API even has Interface in the name. They have their own UXP. Ask any developer if there are good APIs and bad APIs. They’ll have an opinion.

As the number of APIs and SDKs increase and as the API consumption gets democratized, this will matter more. Do you really think that this area of design doesn’t matter? That it’s just the mental masturbation of overly critical developers?

Are you sure that the design and user experience of your APIs isn’t part of your brand? Developer Experience is important if you want API customers and want your customers to evangelize your product.

If that matters to you, I can recommend two resources to get started. First you should listen to the talk below by the very awesome Pamela Fox. Second, you should read Developer Experience Matters by Mashery’s Rob Zazueta.

Pamela Fox being awesome