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beyond the Kuiper Belt, over the sea

Archive for the ‘life’ Category

The End of the Third Age

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

I’m going to talk about the Lord of the Rings. Or maybe America, at this juncture in time. Tolkien, famously, hated allegory and rejected allegorical interpretations of his work. And yet, time and time again, people have found an allegorical reading of his Lord of the Rings inevitable and tempting. There are plenty of reads mapping the various stocks (hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, men, and more) to various nationalities or ethnicities. But I want to talk about an angle Max Gladstone mentioned recently.

Gladstone suggests that the One Ring can be read as representing the ideological and practical foundations of a militarized fascist state. The meeting point of Walter Benjamin’s aestheticization of politics with the military-industrial complex. I think this is an important read, but not just for what it says about the One Ring. If the One Ring is fascist ideology, what, then, does that mean for the rest of the pieces of the Lord of the Rings?

At the time of the Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth is at an inflection point. The age of the elves is drawing to a close, and the lands of the elves are proving increasingly untenable. Three holdouts of peace, beauty, and wisdom remain: Rivendell, under the rule of Elrond, Lothlórien, under the rule of Galadriel, and Lindon, under the rule of Círdan. Each of these rulers had one of the Three, three great rings of power that enabled them to hold their realms together despite the changing of the world. But these rings, as all of the other rings of power, were subordinate to the One Ring. They derived their power, ultimately, from the One Ring, and could not survive its destruction.

Where does that leave us? The realms of elves, these havens of beauty and justice, were built on a foundation that was intimately entangled with the roots of what we will read as fascism. With the one, came the other. And, in pursuit of true justice and peace, the elves knew that their realms must cease to be.

I live in Boulder, Colorado. It is growing quickly and particularly attracting those with advanced degrees and technical knowledge. Its history as a hippie enclave and the general political preferences of the well-educated mean that this is a very left-leaning town: including the more conservative suburbs, registered voters are 41% Democratic and 20% Republican. In the aftermath of the election, many people here have been looking around and wondering what the rest of the country is like. We knew we lived in a bubble, but we didn’t think it was that bad. We are, perhaps, in our own Lothlórien. To dismantle the power of the One Ring, we must sacrifice our Lothlórien. In this case, that will require actively pursuing political, economic, and racial diversity that we lack here. In other cases, it will require other sorts of changes.

Ta-Nehisi Coates talks, in his book Between the World and Me, about what he calls “the dream”. I think that I refer to, in some degree, the same thing he does. The Dream is about something more than comfort, it’s about what we call making it, not just living a life that by the standards of most of human history is unimaginably safe, comfortable, and healthy, but doing better than those around you. No one would frame it that way, either explicitly or to themselves, but that is part of the power of the One Ring that we build our havens on: the off-loading of risk, pain, and bodily harm onto other people, in other places.1 Put another way is Gibson’s famous saying: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

In the Lord of the Rings, the connection between destroying the One Ring and the loss of the elves’ power to sustain their realms is mystical, powered by magic and allowing action at a distance. In our material world, I think it is quite the opposite: I think that the work of destroying fascism intrinsically requires us to set aside our Lothlóriens, to recognize that however peaceful and plentiful they may seem, that peace is built on the bodies of others and on the same golden-age lies that breed fascism, white supremacy, and death. We must understand that a simple passive desire for harmony perpetuates segregation, and that we must therefore work proactively, struggle proactively, to make our communities more accessible and just and integrated. (What about those (white) liberals living in the most diverse cities in the USA? Yes, even your cities have this work to do. Segregation writ small is everywhere, and economic opportunities are very unevenly spread.) And this will not leave our world as it has been, and while there will be costs in comfort and familiarity, this is good, because this age has been, as all ages are, built on injustice.

  1. More generally, this is something capitalism excels at: accounting fraud. I don’t mean that in a legal sense, but rather in a holistic one. Everything we do in this world has costs, and the more we can put those costs on someone else’s books, the more we can lower our personal tally. There is no way out of this but pursuit of an ethos of holistic accounting, where nothing is dismissed as an “externality”, but rather accounted for. 

South Pacific

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

I grew up listening to a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein; it was some of my mother’s favorite music, and so there was a lot of it in the house. More than any other musical of theirs, I listened to South Pacific.

Now, there are problems, of course, with that show. It’s a product of its time, and the original cast recording captures in amber some choices we might not make today. But for all that, the writing of the show, the message of it, is pointedly anti-racist. The two main plotlines each deal with different facets of specifically white, American racism, and different answers to it.

I’m listening to it again now, for a whole confluence of reasons, and really appreciating the message of it. Talking with Allie about it, she asked an interesting question: how were the negative responses to the anti-racism of it framed at the time? Where now people might likely say things like “PC gone too far!”, what did people say at the time to try to frame themselves as the “good guys” while opposing a message of anti-racism?

I ended up doing a little reading and research on this. It seems that the two pillars American white supremacy relied on at that time for its public defense were “decency” and “anti-communism”. When South Pacific was on tour, the Georgia legislature apparently introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”

How did people at the time undermine that? I don’t know. But I do know that Rodgers and Hammerstein stuck to their guns. They would not change one bit of the show to play better in the South. They turned out to be right not just morally, but artistically and economically: it ended up being one of their longest-running shows and eventually one of the canon of classic musicals, and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (the most explicitly anti-racist number) is one of the most remembered songs from the show.

There are many fronts we are fighting on today. We’re not just fighting racism and a renewed Jim Crow, but the rise of an authoritarian kleptocracy. But on the cultural battlefront, we can and must make our art unapologetic, as good as we can, and, well, convincing.

Programmers aren’t special

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Listen to craftspeople of all sorts. Learn from outside the bubble. We are not magical. What we do is not magical. It has some cool properties, so do other things. Learn.

(Yes, this means learn about how writers write. Yes, this means learn about how carpenters carpent. How psychologists psychologize. How baristas bar. How sailors sail. All of it.)

Teamwork and Crosswords

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Allie and I have been doing a lot of crosswords lately. While half the fun is yelling at Will Shortz when a clue is weak, the other half is in working together to solve a problem. And in the process, I’ve noticed something I find interesting. Teamwork can be about unlocking each others’ potential.

In this particular case, we had just done a Thursday crossword in record time, and I congratulated Allie on a job well done together. She countered that I had done three-quarters of the puzzle, and that she didn’t feel like she’d contributed her fair share. I however, felt that she had been crucial, and I realized it was because if she hadn’t been there doing this crossword with me, I would have been stuck at one-fifth and never completed it.

It was a very clear illustration to me of how teamwork, particularly in a complex creative task, is not about everyone doing the same amount of a generic and commoditized work, but rather about doing the right thing at the right time to help the team as a whole achieve more than the individuals would.

I’ve also been reading some pieces lately about Google’s Project Aristotle. It seems to come to a similar lesson, but in more concrete terms: a group’s effectiveness and intelligence is determined by the degree to which the members of the group can all contribute.

I think it’s worth remembering that effort and labor don’t just fill up a meter, and ding when it’s done. The complex web of human relations can make it hard to attribute success to any one piece of the system.

Compassionate work

Friday, August 28th, 2015

A friend of mine has said that he strives, in every job he has, to make himself obsolete on his own terms. Then, he can move on to a new role, having left his job better than he found it.

Another friend of mine has been complaining about someone at his work who is actively working to make themselves a lynchpin, a silo of information that the company needs to function. They are trying to keep others in the dark, to gain power and protection through the knowledge that they alone wield.

The first approach is compassionate. You care for yourself, your coworkers, your company, your job. You try to improve all of them, by spreading understanding and power. The second approach is cowardly and selfish: you try to protect yourself at the cost of the community—and usually at the cost of yourself, too.

Be compassionate. Be part of a community.

What I need to work on in this respect:

  • If I need to know something, I’ll ask. I won’t worry about someone being too busy, but I will ask about when I can ask in detail. I’ll help others spread understanding.
  • If I see someone hoarding knowledge or responsibility, I’ll ask what I can do to help. I’ll understand that they may have deeper worries than they’re willing to discuss, and try to imagine them complexly.

Lessons for a freelancer from time in an office

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

A year and a season ago, I took a new job, working at a small start-up in Boulder that aims to help people reduce home energy use. Last week was my last day there (I’m moving on to work with a team doing face recognition), and so I thought I’d write up some of what I learned.

This all comes from the point of view of someone who has mostly lived in a freelance mode, beginning with controlling my own schedule while I was high school age. So I’m unaccustomed to showing up at the same place regularly on someone else’s schedule. I’m unaccustomed to a lot of components of office life. And that’s exactly why I took the job in the first place. (more…)

Double-Entry Timekeeping

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

I can credit Ben Warren with the phrase, and the particular expression of the idea.

Like double-entry bookkeeping, you don’t just track one value, you track in and out from each account separately. In particular, you track the time you’ve allocated to tasks, and you track the time you’ve spent on tasks.

One thing I’ve noticed in some organizations is a reluctance among those who do-the-work (as opposed to manage-the-work, and yes, I know this is an unfair division, but I trust you know what I mean) to allow visibility into the second part. How time actually gets spent.

I think that this is often motivated by a reluctance to risk blame: if we make it clear how time was spent, “waste” will become visible and blame will be apportioned. But doing so costs us some very valuable information. If we can’t see how we actually spend time, we can’t figure out where the actual waste lies and remove it.

(An aside about waste: in knowledge work especially, time spent apparently not working is not the same as waste. There’s value in long-term sustainability and value in surprise solutions to be had by allowing people some space to muse. You can’t just sit and churn out code if you want that code to be full of good decisions. You need to pause, ponder, learn, as well. So when I talk about “waste”, I really mean priority-shifting, interruptions, vapid features, and things like that.)

But blame is almost always very wrong to ascribe anyway. It is a truth (very nearly) universally acknowledged that complex systems do not fail because of a single cause. System accidents are the norm, and result from many pieces interacting to produce an undesired effect. A complex system can typically handle a handful of failures, because each section of the system gets designed with the local failures in mind, but the interaction of those failures can cascade and cause larger effects that the system cannot tolerate. If you think that either your system or your organization are not complex systems, you are probably wrong. So, usually, if something goes wrong, it is not the fault of one person. It is usually more accurate to ascribe the fault to the modes of interaction and the ways that failures are handled by components of the code or the organization.

In Defense of the Last 20%

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

There’s an idea right now, in our culture, that if you can at least get something to 80% done, you’re doing well. You see this all over, in the start-up world especially, in ideas like minimum viable product, Agile’s ethos of always being able to push a new release, and so on.

I think that this is great. But it’s also horrible and toxic.

The problem, as I see it, with the 80% solution, is that if you start with that in mind, and reach that 80%, you are very unlikely to ever reach 100%. Everything will be good enough, not good. The last 20% makes that difference.

Why won’t you reach 100% if you aim for 80%? Because the last 20% is hard.

The Unbearable Hardness of Detail

The last 20% is hard for many reasons, but the big one, to my mind, is that it is detail work. The first 80% is, for the most part, at a gross scale. You rush forward, wave after wave of effort, breaking new ground and making new functionality, making something out of nothing. The last 20% is all the trim and polish, the tightening, paring, smoothing, cleaning. The difference betwen something that works and something that works well.

For those of us who excel at reaching 80%, the detail work is exhausting in part because we don’t get the same feeling of reward from it. The value of doing work in that last 20% is less visible. We put in a bunch of work to tighten things up, and only after a lot of use and reflection on that use do we see the payoff for it.

Further, the individual pieces of this detail work often don’t have much value, even though they have tremendous value in the aggregate. Consider software development for a moment. Unit tests are part of the last 20% (and, if you’re good at TDD, are something you do before you reach the 80% functionality mark—more about that later). One unit test, for one method on one class in your project, has almost no value. Full test coverage on one class still has pretty trivial value. Full test coverage on all your classes has tremendous value.

Compared to the gross-scale work, which has a roughly linear value-to-work curve, the detail work has an exponential curve, but one that starts out well below the linear curve of gross-scale work. Add to this the fact that, if you do all the 20% work at the end, you already have a working product, and you will find that the 20% work very quickly seems not-worth-it—it has dipped below the threshold of “is this work worth my time”.

Soft Emotional Underbellies and Leaps of Faith

So, can’t we just solve this by saying “hey, this will pay off down the road a bit, keep going!”? No. Try as we might, we humans are bad at believing in the future. And in the context of start-up-culture projects especially, this is with good reason.

Quite simply, we don’t know whether what we’re doing is the thing we should be doing, or whether we’ll achieve it if it is. To embark on the project of detail work, where we have to delay our rewards and put in a lot of work before we see much result is frightening because of the very real possibility that circumstances will not let us reach that stable point on the other side.

So we hedge. We hedge against the financial cost, of course. In any start-up, the time before you have a product is a horrible dangerous time, when you can feel yourself skating on thin ice. You need to get something out so that you can have some stabilizing cash- or attention-flow. But we also hedge against the emotional cost. Because, as much as it risks our ability to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, working on something only to see it fall through, to see that work in pieces on the ground, is also a real punch in the feels.

Aside: Why do we care?

Does that 20% work really matter? Why? Obviously, I think it does. To me, it has intrinsic virtue. But I hope that I can convince the skeptic in my head that this virtue is real.

If 80% is our mark for something that works, it can be very hard to see why we should aim beyond that point. If it works, it works, and that’s all, right?

That, to me, is an incredibly pessimistic view. There is so much space above minimally-acceptable, and I think it is our duty as humans to aspire to exist in that space. The sublime feeling of correctness that comes from keeping one’s tools in order, from truly good customer service, from a tool that extends just a bit past your own understanding of your need and is there, like Jeeves, with just the right thing when you discover you need it, is not to be underestimated. It reduces friction, enabling us to go further, think clearer, live better.

What can we do?

Given that the last 20% is so hard, but also so valuable, what can we do to make sure we do it? Well, first, we can acknowledge, deeply and in the very fibers of our being, that creating things is hard. There is no shortcut, no silver bullet, nothing that will change the fact that creation is hard mental, emotional, and sometimes physical work.

But, as with anything hard, there are things we can do to help ourselves through it. If our goal is to get to the top of Everest, we don’t need to go up the North ridge, we can take the Southeast ridge. Still hard, incredibly hard, but we’ve used our wits to prepare and give ourselves the best chance of success we can.

What I find helpful (he says, hardly being an expert craftsman) is to intermix the rewarding, energizing, 80% work with the important, tiring, difficult 20% work. I call this the “spoonful of sugar” approach. By keeping in my head a clear vision of the end-state, how good I want this thing to be, I can remember that the 20% work is valuable, and will enable me to make a product I can be proud of. By remembering this all throughout the process, I can keep myself from eating my desert (the 80% work) first.

The real craft, I think, comes in knowing just how to mix these kinds of work such that you are not caught in the small details with no hope of escape, nor stuck at 80% with no will to work further. As with everything in life, it’s a middle way. Of course, I’d rather have an 80% product than no product, but I’d much rather have a 100% product than an 80% product. At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical American, satisfactory is not enough.

Craft is as deep a human mystery as love, and not something I expect to solve, but I’m curious: what do you do to help yourself make something that navigates the treacherous waters between perfectionism and good-enough-ism? How do you do that 20%?

(Many thanks to @strasa and @worldnamer for the conversations that lead to this.)

Wind and Things Unspoken

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Here I am, sitting in a mostly dark room, processing thoughts on class and drama and just not talking about it inspired by watching the beginning of Downton Abbey, and the wind outside is howling.

Yeah, I love fall.

My Personal Guernsey

Monday, May 7th, 2012

That one goes out to all you Victor Hugo fans.

I’ve found an island in the sea of job-hunting. I’m working with 3atmospheres, some nice folks out of NYC. I’m doing Django development primarily, and I’m likely to start posting some things about that here, as I work on interesting problems.