thursday, december 2, 2022
the richness of the colors
that come early in a deep drought:
sometimes we have a false idea
of the variation within some range
we see as narrow
I was doing the laundry a while ago (I first started writing this in May of 2019), and I got to some stuff where I wasn’t sure whether it was actually dirty and needed a wash, or if I’d just tossed it on top of the pile on the way to the shower one night thinking I’d sort it later. Should I trust my past self to have made a definitive decision that everything in the pile was dirty? Or did my past self act on the belief that my future self would make informed decisions about the pile’s contents?
In thinking about this, I came to something like a general rule: Minimize the trust that you need to place in past and future versions of yourself.
That is, past-Brennen would have done best to make the decisions about whether something was dirty instead of deferring them to future-Brennen. And indeed I washed pretty much everything in the laundry pile because it’s easier to assume past-Brennen was sending a clear signal than to re-evaluate the whole pile, but I think in more serious situations it’s important to always keep in mind that past-Brennen is at least as likely to have screwed up as now-Brennen.
Ideally, you shouldn’t have to make leaps of faith about your past selves' correctness, and you should operate with an awareness that your future selves will have a lousy memory and shortages of time/energy to deal with your unfinished work. Consequently, you should label things, document interfaces, write tests for your software, put your keys and wallet in the same place every time they aren’t on your person, etc.
I have to think about that rule and its phrasing for before I add it to my overall List of Rules, but it has promise. I’ve been thinking about rules of this sort—aphorisms, rules of thumb, personal commandments, proverbs, epigrams, whatever—for a long time. Now and then some phrase or injunction-to-self will prove itself useful for a while, and the idea of a personal canon of them seems attractive.
Two that I’ve thought about lately: The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, and my colleague Lars’s list, quoted here in full:
- Always copy and paste a URL.
- A will-do attitude trumps skills.
- Always ask the simple troubleshooting questions first.
- Externalize your memory: write things down, always carry a notebook.
- Measure, don't guess.
- Write flames, but don't send them.
- Always write unit tests for error handling.
- Aim for 100% test coverage. You'll never get there, but bugs mostly happen in the parts without tests.
- Don't be late in telling you're late.
- If you cannot automate it, make a checklist out of it.
- Be careful what you reward, because you will get more of it.
- Be careful what you measure, because you will optimize for that.
- Don't debate with analogies.
- Always indicate time zone explicitly.
Those are pretty good.
Here’s a crack at the list that’s been floating around in my head:
/var/loghasn’t filled up the disk.
It seems like there should be more of these and they should be pithier, or something.
This is a suggestion that people in business should be better at it. It’s a departure for me, inasmuch as I kind of hate business. All the same, if you work for or own a company that does e-commerce, build a web site that sells stuff, etc., this is one is addressed directly to you. (Unless the company / site we’re talking about, is for example, Amazon, in which case my only message to you is “stop that”.)
My job doesn’t involve selling physical goods on the internet now, but it’s something I spent around a decade on. Since I moved on to other things, it’s been unpleasant to watch so many of the people still doing it become so bad at it.
Let’s start with this: Your job is hard to do well. It was never exactly a cakewalk, but the whole environment has changed, and mostly not in a way that favors your chances. Web retail used to be an area where you could stumble into a growing revenue stream just by having something people wanted and posting half-decent pictures of it on a barebones shopping cart site.
Now you have to contend with:
I mostly wrote code for a living, but that meant I got to see the moving parts of a web retail business: Product design, purchasing, manufacturing, inventory control and catalog management, content marketing, customer service and technical support, picking/packing/shipping, fraud prevention, taxes, regulatory compliance, etc. I know there’s a lot that might live behind any given shopping cart icon.
Still, here I am. I buy things on the web: Electronics, computers, audio gear, notebooks, pens, tools, books, music, concert tickets. I feel bad when I give money to Amazon. I don’t operate under an illusion that your business is ethical, because mostly businesses are unethical, but all the same I would rather pay smaller organizations. Maybe your employees seem better treated, maybe I want to support manufacturing where you’re located, maybe I just like your product.
It’s 2021, and I am a person with money who might like to give you some of it. Help me to help you.
What I want:
Things I won’t mind along the way if you manage not to louse it up:
What I do not want:
To a first approximation and as best I can figure it out, the business I know the most about took off because some people in college stumbled into a growing revenue stream by way of posting decent pictures of stuff or whatever. As it grew, it was built and operated by a bunch of mostly-20-something stoners and freaks, most with scant experience.
I know it’s grim out there, but it keeps surprising me in 2021 just how thoroughly almost everyone seems to have thrown up their hands in defeat. A decade ago, us misfit toys were halfway competent at this. Now what happens is the laptop fans spin furiously in order to show me a giant popover about the 16 ways you want to abuse my privacy while a couple layers of video try to play in the background and the infinitely scrolling gallery of product photos fails to load correctly for some reason, the little counters on the adblocker widgets ticking ever upward. Later, you cancel my order but neglect to mention it to me. The second time I place an order, you send it to an address I told you not to use and I have to figure out which giant FedEx building a county over has ahold of it. When I finally open the box, a cable is missing. Soon afterwards I realize I’ve been subscribed to your newsletter.
As the cast of Letterkenny would say: Figure it out.
sure the self dissipates and hollows
and all dignity is temporary at best
while memory itself will betray you
at every turn
but all the same, if you're lucky,
you'll look back sometimes
across the sweep of time
and discover there was some extraordinary freedom
even in places you once read as trapped and lonely