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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
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Going slow to go fast

In a business, and particularly in early-stage startups, there can be enormous pressure to go as fast as you can. In these environments, making fast decisions, and pushing code or building a design to get to the closest stated objective, is prioritized over a more contemplative process.

Famously, Facebook put it this way: "Move fast and break things." Get your code out there, big picture be damned. A few bugs here and there, or mounting technical debt, are acceptable collateral. Over at OKCupid, CEO Mike Maxim put it in strategic terms: "we can’t sacrifice forward momentum for technical debt."

Six years ago, Facebook moved away from this motto to the far less catchy "move fast with stable infra". As Mark Zuckerberg explained at the time, "what we realized over time is that it wasn't helping us to move faster because we had to slow down to fix these bugs and it wasn't improving our speed." Moving code around quickly so you can close out a Jira or GitHub ticket quickly and move onto the next thing isn't anywhere near as helpful as it feels. The right thing to do is take a step back and ask questions about what you're doing with a bigger picture in mind.

"There were plenty of cases where people would rush software out the door and learn something, but never put that learning back into the program. That analogy was borrowing money, thinking that you never have to pay it back."
~ Ward Cunningham

The same is true outside of product development. A 2010 study published in Harvard Business Review found that teams that took time to slow down, consider the impact of what they are doing, and have debate within the team moved faster - perhaps counterintuitively - than those that concentrated on running as fast as possible.

It's not enough to write code, build a design, or make a decision. To be effective, you need to think about how your decisions affect your community: your team, your customers, the other teams in your company. Software development is a people business more than anything else, and your decisions, fundamentally, should make the next set of similar decisions easier. 

Are you designing a page, or are you designing a way to empower your team to design subsequent, similar pages in the right way?

Are you fixing a bug, or are you taking the time to make sure this kind of bug never shows up again?

Are you just building a new feature, or are you also laying the groundwork for subsequent, similar features?

Are you making a strategic decision, or are you hardening the principles and process by which future strategic decisions will be made?

Are you doing work for yourself, or are you empowering your colleagues?

There are certainly more questions to ask. Hemant Taneja, Managing Director of General Catalyst, has some excellent questions that every management team should ask themselves. The core questions for each business, and each team, will vary.

Velocity is not the same as effectiveness. By stopping to think about how we can be more effective in our work and decisionmaking, we can move faster, have a better working life, and do better work.

Slow down. Think about what you're doing. Build for systems and principles, not individual goals. You'll get there faster.

 

Facebook bought Giphy for $400M. That's not as weird as it sounds

Axios is reporting that Facebook has bought Giphy for $400M.

Giphy is the animated GIF database that powers functionality in most of the social apps you can think of. It makes money through behind-the-scenes deals to provide that functionality, although its APIs are available to anyone.

$400M sounds like a lot of money - and it is - but it's actually $200M less than its most recent valuation. When it raised $72M from investors in a Series D funding round back in 2016, the price of its shares extrapolated to a valuation of $600M. The acquisition is therefore effectively a down round: the company sold at a lower price-per-share than its most recent investors paid. While the investors who bought in during the Series D round may not be getting such a good deal, Betaworks, which incubated it, should see a nice profit.

Giphy's functionality is available in an enormous number of tools, from Tinder and Snapchat to Telegram and Signal. Facebook's own Instagram is one of them, which is the ostensible reason for the acquisition, but the net result is that the company will be aware of activity on virtually every social app in existence, including the ones with end-to-end encryption. Animated GIFs are wildly popular, in part thanks to Giphy, and a social app that doesn't offer the functionality is considered incomplete. Giphy's API calls from these apps will contain important clues about what people are talking about all over the world, across platforms - and how often each platform is being used.

What happens next? I expect the secure apps to move away from using it, as a start. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the service, open or otherwise - it's had a cool $150M pumpted into it since inception, and it's highly unlikely that an open alternative will be able to offer its level of curation anytime soon. So we'll likely see this functionality diminish in these apps in favor of stickers, which don't require such a curated ecosystem.

The down round does suggest that VC-funded companies are going to enter some (more) choppy waters in the near future. But to be honest, while it might be embarrassing for some previously-bullish funds, some price corrections are probably not a bad thing for the industry.

giphy-downsized-large.gif

 

Image via GIPHY, obviously.

 

We just approved warrantless web surveillance

The PATRIOT Act has long been used to justify warrantless surveillance into ordinary Americans. It was a fast follow to the horrors of 9/11, but thanks to a renewal by President Bush, a four-year extension by President Obama, and an extension of important clauses in the USA Freedom Act, an entire generation is now used to the civil rights violations it authorizes.

On Wednesday, the following amendment to the reauthorized USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Ron Wyden, failed by one vote:

(C) An application under paragraph (1) may not seek an order authorizing or requiring the production of internet website browsing information or internet search history information.

Nine democrats, including San Francisco's own Diane Feinstein, voted against the amendment, effectively allowing an American's web browsing data or search history information to be surveilled without a warrant.

The definitions of web browsing information and search history are important here. "Website browsing information" means everything you do on the web, not just through a browser. It's functionally impossible to distinguish web browser activity from APIs hit by an app, say, or an Internet of Things appliance in your home. Manual web browsing is, for most people, a minority of their internet use. APIs represent at least 83% of internet traffic. Your apps and devices send API pings hundreds of times an hour, letting services know about your activity. With this data, it's possible to infer when you're home, traveling, eating, sleeping, talking to a friend, or buying something. In a world where so many of us are so heavily attached to the internet, the ability to warrantlessly scan our web activity comes close to providing barrier-less surveillance of our every move.

Correspondingly, the definition of "search history information" is vague. We immediately think of the literal text history of our search requests, which would be invasive enough; your search data can be used to figure out if you're pregnant, what you're religious views are, and who you're going to vote for. But log into your Google activity dashboard: you'll see more information about what you've watched, location information, topics Google thinks you're interested in, your news history, call and message history, and more. From raw information, Google makes inferences about who you are. That, too, can be accessed.

All of this is to say that Wyden's amendment was a good one, and the representatives who blocked it should be ashamed of themselves. The PATRIOT Act and its successor have been inevitably abused. It is legislation without appropriate checks and balances that protect civil liberties while protecting lives.

There are no great workarounds. Warrant canaries - notices published by a service provider saying that they have not received a subpeona for information - have not been legally tested, and are not definitive. In any event, they do not (and may not) notify the subject of the surveillance.

"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."
~ Edward Snowden

The best we can do product-wise is use peer-to-peer encryption technology based on open, auditable code, and trust that there are no undisclosed security flaws. I use Signal for texting. Open VPNs like Bitmask are available. But the single biggest thing we can do is to vote out our elected representatives that consistently support surveillance.

 

Amazon wants to disrupt digital cinema distribution

There was talk on Monday that Amazon wanted to puchase the struggling AMC theater chain, which also happens to be the world's largest, incorporating Odeon cinemas in the UK and across Europe.

Fortune posed a question about what an Amazon buy-out would be like, suggesting that tickets could be incorporated into Amazon Prime, and that Amazon originals could be shown in real cinemas first. Both of those things could happen, but I think there's an infrastructure play that's worth paying attention to.

Digital movies are distributed to theaters using technology developed by the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition, co-founded by Cinemark Theatres, Regal Entertainment Group, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros - and, yes, AMC. It uses satellites and high-bandwidth internet connections to send movies, trailers, and pre-show content to theaters (75% of all of them as of 2017) in Digital Cinema Package format. Notably, DCP is an outdated format that uses JPEG 2000 as its primary visual codec, in a world where 8K streaming is about to be mainstream.

If Amazon can replace this distribution mechanism with its own network and infrastructure, starting with the world's largest cinema chain and a co-owner of the incumbent, it can offer its own, more modern services over the internet. These can also include modernizing theater advertising; National CineMedia, the largest cinema advertising company, is partially controlled by AMC.

In a world where movies are moving online faster than ever before, sometimes skipping box offices entirely, some degree of consolidation between home and theaters makes sense. Services like Netflix already use Amazon for their infrastructure; with this change, most of the entertainment world would use its services. In addition, the distribution mechanisms for theaters and the home could begin to converge. By allowing theoretically anyone to use these services, the definition of what constitutes a theater could expand. And a consolidated advertising pipeline would allow campaigns to reach viewers across media.

It's a big opportunity that crosses the traditional boundaries of the movie industry, which is why a company like Amazon is well-placed to take advantage of it. What it doesn't benefit is independent theaters, which, if Amazon is successful, will need to buy into its services. The effect will be that every movie theater in the world will effectively be a part of the same dark chain, running on Amazon logistics. In turn, filmmakers will need to engage with the Amazon ecosystem if they want to reach any kind of audience at all.

A valuable question is then: what would an alternative look like that benefits independent filmmakers and cinemas, while embracing the new, streaming-forward world? Is there a way we can build open marketplaces for distribution, while taking advantage of advances in codec technology to stream high quality footage faster, and decentralizing payments? It's a different kind of technology problem, but one that increases the size of the pie for everyone, instead of locking an entire industry into one vendor's solutions. A modern technical solution is certainly better than the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition's offerings, but an open marketplace will ensure the future success of the industry in ways that a closed one won't.

 

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

 

21st century democracy requires an open web

Like it or not, Google and Facebook are becoming the leading patrons of the news industry:

Over the next few months, Google and Facebook will, combined, spend close to a quarter billion dollars supporting local news. [...] Google said it expects its relief funds will reach at least 4,000 different publishers. Facebook has already dispersed $16 million across 200 different newsrooms.

Elsewhere in that article, Richard Gingrass, the VP of News at Google, has a telling quote: "The money we make with our advertising tools is entirely dependent on the success of publishers."

The core of Google and Faceboook's revenues depend on publishers - and as such, they've spent the best part of two decades ensuring that they are intrinsically linked to those publishers' digital strategies, in order to maximize its share of the proceeds. Without their willing participation in these two corporate ecosystems, the entire news industry loses its distribution, its revenues, and its communities.

Once upon a time, each website produced a feed of content, in one of several standard formats, which you could read with any number of readers. New content would show up in your reader as soon as it was published; depending on your app, it might be presented in a reverse-chronological list, or it might be shown to you via an algorithm that predicted what you might want to read first. In either case, the mechanics of production, monetization, distribution, and audience growth were owned by the publisher.

This is no longer the case. In the world of 2020, while production is still up to the publisher, monetization, distribution, and audience growth have all been siloed away by third parties. Publishers see a cut of monetization, but the vast majority of the value gained from distribution and audience growth is captured by the platforms.

Google Reader's closure was an important step in building this new world. Not only was Reader a great feed reading product, its APIs and infrastructure were used by many other feed readers. Suddenly, that infrastructure was gone; innovation in the feed space became a great deal harder. Meanwhile, Google redirected its investment towards its own walled garden. As Wired noted at the time:

No matter what Mountain View says about changing user habits, though, both Now and Plus do one thing: They keep you in Google's world. It's a de-emphasis of content source.

And perhaps these walled gardens do offer something of a better user experience for many users. (We could debate that. I prefer feeds.) The problem isn't so much about the principle of closed software vs open feeds. The problem is that the entire news industry has consolidated down to two points of distribution.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Michael Porter's Five Forces will have identified that Facebook and Google have outsized supplier power over the entire news industry. This influence is often wielded in ways that benefit the technology giants at the cost of publishers; consider the infamous pivot to video, which was based on incorrectly reported analytics that just happened to benefit Facebook's platform.

In turn, the news industry has an important part to play in democracy, civic life, and the health of our communities. According to one of many studies, voters in districts with less campaign coverage had a harder time making democratic decisions and were less likely to vote. Each dollar spent on investigative journalism yields multiple dollars of savings to society. A loss of local news can also actually make it harder to track the spread of infectious disease.

The news touches all of society. And all of it is in the hands of two wealthy tech companies.

So where do we go from here?

First: I believe that the news industry needs to have representation in technical circles, and have a strong influence in how new technology standards are made. The Washington Post recently joined the World Wide Web Consortium, but not all publishers are able to devote the time or staffing to do this work. A non-profit dedicated to advocating on behalf of publishers, and advising publishers on technology issues, could spread the work and the cost for the benefit of the entire industry.

Second: publishers need to buy in as first-class participants. They need to acknowledge that the world has changed, and their role in it has shifted. Technology is not their expertise - so they need to find and embrace people who can provide it with their interests at heart.

Third: anti-trust legislation must be reformed. The current legislation, which looks at pricing as an indicator of consumer welfare, makes little sense in the internet era. A monopoly that is provided free at the point of use is still a monopoly, and may still have a crushing effect on society and the economy.

Fourth: we need an uptick in grant-based funding for open technology projects. Venture capital funding has an important place in the technology ecosystem, but VCs tend to want their investments to "own" a market. Monopoly is seen as a feature, not a bug. Technology projects that are inherently anti-monopolistic are currently harder to fund. And in a world where startups are incredibly highly-funded, it can be hard to lure top-level talent to other projects.

Fifth: open technology projects need to find ways to be as usable and human-centered as their walled garden cousins. Having great principles doesn't absolve you of the requirement to solve real human needs in an elegant way.

Sixth: we have to accept that the news might not be profitable, but we need it more than ever before. It's time to accelerate innovation around models for support.

 

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

 

Tools to navigate the CARES Act

I wrote a piece for the ForUsAll blog on how and why we built tools to help ordinary people navigate the CARES Act. It encompasses why I joined the team, and how we were able to help during this moment:

With the pandemic came the looming shadow of a deep recession, skyrocketing unemployment, and an increasing number of people who can’t pay for basic essentials like food and housing. We set out to help people find their way to financial safety in the way we always have: with a mission-driven, scalable, technology solution, built with empathy and a desire to help the most vulnerable.

Read more here.

 

Four Questions: May 3, 2020

I'm dogfooding the set of questions developed for my recording life project.

 

1. What did you do today?

I've been spending a lot of time with my mother since the quarantine began. It happened to  coincide with her beginning to feel quite a bit worse; being able to work from home, by which I mean her home, has been a silver lining to the crisis.

The last nine years have been practice, in a way: because of the immunosuppression associated with getting a lung transplant, and because of the uncertainty over most of that time about whether I would come down with pulmonary fibrosis too, we've been rich with masks and hand sanitizer, and know what it's like to hunker down and hope for the best. Her health has been so recurrently poor that I've been on a rollercoaster of grief for the best part of a decade. You think that at some point it'll get better to deal with, but it never really does. It's like watching someone you love be endlessly tortured, hoping that at some point she'll feel better. And sometimes she does, and life is wonderful, which is just enough hope to carry on with.

The latest indignity has been internal bleeding - we don't yet know where, or how - which has left her weak and in a state of permanent discomfort. She's been too weak to go out for a walk, so we took her for a drive, instead: up through Guerneville and the Russian River, and then across through Bodega Bay, where the sun glittered on the Pacific Ocean. We drove through side streets and wondered what it would be like to have a home there, with a view of the water.

When we came back, she slept, but not before telling me she might like to eat shrimp, as long as it was from a sustainable source that didn't use slaves. Social justice is part of who she is. I hope I live up to her spirit, and it continues to live on in me.

Of course, I bought the shrimp. Later, I'll peel and clean them, and cook them with just a little bit of butter, parsely, and garlic.

 

2. What did you enjoy?

I loved driving down the California coastline with my parents. When we got back, Ma and I sat on the sofa together, and she rested against me, falling asleep while I gave her a head rub.

I shouldn't enjoy going to the supermarket, but I do. Usually I go to Oliver's Market, a local, employee-owned store. These days you need a mask to enter, and the signs make clear that the trolleys are sanitized. This time I splurged on some organic, local meat, as well as butter from France and Germany. I bought my dad some Fort Point KSA, which has become one of both of our favorite beers.

And before everything, I loved waking up in the crisp morning, making a cup of coffee, and reading the news (on my iPad). The air is clear and still, and everything feels peaceful. I can trick myself into thinking that life is good.

 

3. What did you find difficult?

It's hard to watch someone you love go through their own crisis. Both my parents are getting older, and have a harder time than they deserve. It's deeply unfair, and I'm virtually powerless; I can be present, but I can't fix any of it.

And then, of course, this wider crisis is hard for everyone. It's a difficult time.

I have some work to do that should really have been done on Friday, and there's a book I've been meaning to start for weeks. But in the end, I needed to take this weekend to decompress. I had high hopes for what I might be able to achieve during the quarantine, but they have not been matched by reality. I'm forgiving myself for this. The bar has been lowered from achieving a set of lofty goals to just getting through it all.

 

4. What has changed?

Ma's decline. Other than that, my life this weekend is not materially different to my life last weekend. I expect each week to be more or less the same until at least September. We just continue through the turbulence, ever onwards, until we land somewhere new.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: April 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in April.

Apps

Untitled Goose Game. I'm late to the party, but this is super-fun with exactly my level of silly.

Novlr. I'm writing this again, and for whatever reason, I find this a better environment than Scrivener. Maybe it's something about being a web-native writer?

Drizly. Yes, I ordered delivery alcohol for the first time this month. I'm not proud of it. I'm also not not-proud of it.

Streaming

The Plot Against America. Atmospheric, unsettling, and one of the most tense last hours of television I've ever seen. Unfortunately hugely relevant.

Sex Education. Silly, in a good-natured way. I just wish everyone wasn't so incredibly posh.

Notable Articles

The Pandemic

'People are panic-buying cocaine': the drug dealer, spaceman, therapist and others on life after coronavirus. 16 very different people explain how life under Coronavirus has changed.

The Contrarian Coronavirus Theory That Informed the Trump Administration. An infuriating interview with Richard Epstein, a Professor at New York University School of Law, who Trump administration officials have been listening to for reasons I cannot understand.

If I Wrote a Coronavirus Episode. "Tina Fey, Mike Schur, and 35 more TV writers on what their characters would do in a pandemic." Transcendantly good.

This Pandemic Is Not Your Vacation. "All over the United States, people are fleeing urban areas with high infection rates for the perceived safety and natural beauty of rural areas. [...] The virus, some people have taken to saying, “does not discriminate.” But that’s not quite true. It is putting our class and racial hierarchies in harsh relief — systems that favor the rich and the globally mobile while declaring the work of so many of the working class “essential.” Wealth is the vector. And the economically precarious will suffer because of it — whether they’re cleaning the offices of the infected in New York or checking groceries in Blaine County, Idaho."

Apricot Stone Will FaceTime You to Recreate the Restaurant Experience at Home. "At the agreed-upon day and time, Ishkhanian calls via video chat: FaceTime, Duo, or Skype. Answer and you’ll see him standing at the restaurant next to a table set with water and wine glasses. Music plays in the background as he guides you through the menu and takes your order." I can't decide if this is weird or great. Maybe both?

The Americans defying Palm Sunday quarantines: 'Satan's trying to keep us apart'. America.

Coronavirus in New York: A paramedic's diary. "There's only one patient we've seen so far who I feel wasn't Covid-19 and that's because it was a suicide. Imagine: I was there and my brain felt relief. This person's dead and it's a suicide. I felt relief that it was a regular job."

The unkindest cut: Last call for a Zabar’s lox slicer. "“Look, Len,” he said. “I love you, but you’re over 90 years old and you’re in the group that is most susceptible to the virus and if you got it, if anything happened to you, I could never forgive myself.”"

California launches nation's first disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants. "New $125m fund will support those ineligible for federal support, but who make up 10% of the state’s workforce, largely in essential services." I'm very grateful to live in a more compassionate state than most.

"It'll all be over by Christmas". "Trump is shooting for May 1st because he's been told the economy will take 6 months to recover, minimum, and he's shooting for the November election deadline. This is laughably optimistic, even if the pandemic had burned out by May 1st: we're in Greatest Depression territory already, the hospitality sector has crashed 75%, airlines have crashed 90%, etcetera. It's not going to be back to normal by November, even if the Fairy Godmother shows up and banishes the horrid virus with a wave of her wand. Period." Let's look the crisis in the face, rather than tell stories to ourselves.

The Media’s Coronavirus Coverage Exposes Its Ignorance About the Working Class. "A reporter who thinks they hold no positions is much more dangerous than one with strong opinions, because at least the latter might have a hope of understanding what they are reporting and why. Perhaps most dangerous of all is a reporter who sees the structures of capitalism—bosses wishing they could force their workers to work through a pandemic, workers still unable to feed their families without opened businesses, immigrants pitted against native workers—and sees them as an immutable and unchallengeable fact, as inevitable as the sunrise, and just as comforting."

Lockdowns flatten the “economic curve,” too. "Cities that locked down faster in 1918 bounced back better."

Sinking feeling. "I clung to the middle class as I aged. The pandemic pulled me under."

Media & Society

The Terror Of The Umpty Ums. A lovely, and surprisingly meta, Doctor Who short story from Steven Moffat.

The Character of the Doctor Is More Important to Me Than Doctor Who Will Ever Be. More Doctor Who - this is a great encapsulation of why the show means so much to me.

The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic. What an amazing portrait. I was super into Weird Al as a kid, and I still love his attitude and irreverence. I finally got to see him live about ten years ago, and he was a revelation.

Technology

Facebook Wanted NSO Spyware to Monitor Users, NSO CEO Claims. "Facebook representatives approached controversial surveillance vendor NSO Group to try and buy a tool that could help Facebook better monitor a subset of its users, according to an extraordinary court filing from NSO in an ongoing lawsuit."

Utah attorney general suspends state contract with Banjo in light of founder’s KKK past. "The Utah attorney general’s office will suspend use of a massive surveillance system after a news report showed that the founder of the company behind the effort was once an active participant in a white supremacist group and was involved in the shooting of a synagogue."

What’s Missing From Zoom Reminds Us What It Means to Be Human. "While we’ve discovered that in many cases it can, more importantly we’ve discovered that, regardless of bandwidth and video resolution, these apps are missing the cues humans use when they communicate. While we might be spending the same amount of time in meetings, we’re finding we’re less productive, social interactions are less satisfying and distance learning is less effective. And we’re frustrated that we don’t know why."

How a handful of Apple and Google employees came together to help health officials trace coronavirus. The fascinating story of how the contact tracing apps came to be.

 

Building from scratch in 2020

I've been continuing work on my recording life project. At this point, the questions are finalized, and I've been building the first version of the platform. The working name is Four Questions.

It's been a long time since I've built new software from scratch under my own steam. The first question I had to answer is: how will I build it?

I roll my eyes at people who are snobby about any programming stack: whatever is productive for you is the right choice. Of course, if you're running a new business, "productive for you" has to cover a lot of ideas: you need to consider if you can build stable, resilient code that supports a delightful user experience at speed, whether you can hire a great team that builds in that language, and what the infrastructure landscape looks like. But for a personal project, it's all fair game.

For this project, I've decided that I want to stretch myself a little. I don't want to build this stack in the same way I chose to build Known in 2013, or Elgg in 2003. Both of those were based on PHP, albeit in very different eras; it'd be a fast build, but kind of boring, and the hosting options are limited.

I started writing node.js code at Medium four years ago, and although my learning curve was steeper than I would have liked, I eventually fell in love with it. JavaScript has traditionally been clunky and ambiguous, but ES6 and ES7 turned it into a much more elegant, expressive language. The combination of these improvements and npm - which gives you instant access to over a million libraries - makes it a hard platform to beat. It's also incredibly easy to build automatic testing and linting with npm, including as a pre-commit hook into git.

I've also become a fan of more modern versions of React; we used it at Unlock, and I was taken with how easy it is to build genuinely reactive interfaces. The web has become a place to access applications as much as a place to access documents. A lot of older-style web apps, from earlier in this transition process, feel more like slightly interactive documents. React apps can be made to feel like a real application, with a minimum of development effort. If you don't want to build on the web using JavaScript, you do you, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it. And adding Next.js allows pages to be rendered on the server, reducing the time to largest contentful paint and allowing non-JS browsers (including headless browsers) to access the content.

To node.js, Next.js and React, I've added Material-UI, which makes Google's material design framework easy to access from React.

So now my biggest question is: what should I use as the database? I'm torn between using a straight Postgres database, something like a MongoDB, Firebase, or FaunaDB. The latter is completely new to me and seems to be designed for serverless architectures, so maybe I'll try that. I'll try it and report back.

There's a lot of choice out there, and no correct answers. The downside is that setting up your development stack in 2020 is significantly more time-consuming than it ever was. The upside is that you have more choice, more developer support, and friendlier tools than ever. It's a different kind of fun to old-school web development - my first web scripts were written in Perl, and this is a universe away - but it's still definitely fun.

If you're a developer, what are you using these days?

 

Four Questions: April 14, 2020

I'm dogfooding the set of questions developed for my recording life project. And recording my life for my own benefit.

 

1. What did you do today?

I've been working long hours at ForUsAll, trying to get some tools together that will help people get access to their retirement savings under the CARES Act. The last few weeks involved a lot of working past midnight, which had knock-on effects on my wellbeing; this week, I'm trying to guard my time a little better. So far, I feel much better as a result.

My day involved a mix of writing code, having meetings, discussing company and product strategy, and pinning down technical implementation details. I spend at least half of my day in meetings, which drives me a little bit crazy, because it doesn't feel like getting things done. I like to make things a lot more than I like to talk.

2. What did you enjoy?

There was a moment where I was drinking my coffee and finishing off that day's blog post, and the morning light was streaming in, and I found myself thinking, "this is very nice". I like the quiet, and I like the tacit permission to stay in and work on things.

When I lived in the UK, I always felt like I needed to take advantage of any sunny day that came along. California sort of short-circuited that for me: they're mostly all sunny days. So despite everything, I'm enjoying having permission to stay indoors and read and write, which is when I'm at my happiest.

3. What did you find difficult?

I found myself getting short with some other managers at work - the endless stream of Zoom calls can wear me down, and if I find that a meeting is not covering important new ground, I'm finding it harder to be patient. I regret that, and I'll try and do better. I'm definitely finding that I have a shorter fuse under lockdown; for reference, though, my fuse is usually very, very long.

The biggest thing I found difficult is knowing that my mother is having a hard time. We spent over a fifth of last year in the hospital with her, and this spring she's progressively experiencing more pain and nausea. I don't want her anywhere near a hospital. Because she's immunocompromised, the risk of contracting Covid-19 is too great. I'm powerless, and I don't know what to do. I hope she starts to feel better.

4. What has changed?

This week I started to exercise after each meeting. 10 pushups after a meeting; 20 if I called it; X2 if it was unscheduled. It's actually genuinely added to my day - I felt like my muscles were atrophying. I think I'll start swapping out the exercises, though: sit-ups one day, push-ups another, and so on. I miss the gym. Gyms are terrible places, so this is saying something.

I've started to notice more cars on the road and people on the streets. I think people are either beginning to feel stir crazy, or the fear of pandemic has subsided. People are still social distancing - except for joggers, who are a scourge - but more of them are leaving their houses. I don't know if that's a good thing.

My Trumpiest relatives are now calling for everything to open again. I find that deeply disturbing. Their response is that "the majority agrees" with them, as if that's a counter to science. The majority of Americans enjoyed The Big Bang Theory. Forgive me if I don't have much faith.

 

Stretch questions:

5. What are you grateful for?

My health, and the continued health of my family. I'm particularly glad that my mother has not been re-admitted to hospital.

6. Which changes do you want to keep?

I'd love to see some of the societal changes stick around. We're cutting checks to people in need. We're helping the homeless to find unused places to live. We've emptied the jails for non-violent offenders awaiting trail, partially eliminating the predatory bail system. Some medical treatments are free at the point of use. All of those things are fantastic.

I also want to keep more flexible working from home policies: I think remote working is a deeply positive trend, for those that can do it. It opens up the whole country, and allows people who couldn't previously come into an office (eg carers and some single parents) to have access to jobs they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Those are wonderful things.

7. What are you scared of?

Anyone I love getting the virus. Anyone getting the virus.

I'm also scared of some of the implications. I'm worried about calls for widespread surveillance. I'm deeply worried about the President declaring that he has absolute authority. I'm scared that the USPS will go away and that voting by mail won't be available for a general election in a pandemic.

In other words, I'm afraid of four more years or Trump, and I'm scared we'll come out of this situation with fewer freedoms and civil liberties.

8. What has stayed the same?

People. Work is surprisingly similar. The day to day of my mother's life in particular. The ludicrousness of our government.

9. When did you last laugh?

I think in a phone call with my sister, where she was describing her alternative life in Stardew Valley. She's been self-isolating with cold symptoms for a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to hanging out with her again when all of this goes away.