friday, july 23, 2021

one thing i notice
the hotter it gets
the harder it is
to give a shit
about industry & thrift

p1k3 / 2021 / 7 / 23
tags: topics/poem

Wednesday, July 21, 2021


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:

  1. Always copy and paste a URL.
  2. A will-do attitude trumps skills.
  3. Always ask the simple troubleshooting questions first.
  4. Externalize your memory: write things down, always carry a notebook.
  5. Measure, don't guess.
  6. Write flames, but don't send them.
  7. Always write unit tests for error handling.
  8. Aim for 100% test coverage. You'll never get there, but bugs mostly happen in the parts without tests.
  9. Don't be late in telling you're late.
  10. If you cannot automate it, make a checklist out of it.
  11. Be careful what you reward, because you will get more of it.
  12. Be careful what you measure, because you will optimize for that.
  13. Don't debate with analogies.
  14. Always indicate time zone explicitly.

Those are pretty good.

Here’s a crack at the list that’s been floating around in my head:

  • Do the dishes.
  • Only break one law at a time.
  • Ask the stupid questions early.
  • Don’t deploy on a Friday.
  • Don’t let your gas tank drop below half.
  • Remember that avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it.
  • Never mistake an aesthetic for an ethic.
  • Don’t mistake a shared experience for a shared understanding.
  • Don’t trust systems that rely on the benevolence of a few powerful actors.
  • If you figure it out: Write it down.
  • If you have to figure it out three times: Automate it.
  • “Read the manual” is good advice; “write the manual” is a moral imperative.
  • If a server is broken, first make sure that something in /var/log hasn’t filled up the disk.

It seems like there should be more of these and they should be pithier, or something.

p1k3 / 2021 / 7 / 21
tags: topics/idealogging, topics/rules

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

an appeal to people who sell stuff on the internet

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:

  • Amazon’s all-devouring maw
  • Google’s adtech protection racket
  • More and faster competition from a global supply chain
  • Ubiquitous phones
  • Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  • How you’ve probably hired marketing professionals
  • The grotesque absurdity of contemporary web development tech
  • …just all of it, really.

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:

  • To give you money in return for a thing
  • To know up front what the thing costs
  • To see clear pictures and a description of the thing I’m buying, including relevant technical specs
  • To have the thing shipped to me
  • To know where to ask for help if something goes wrong with getting the thing

Things I won’t mind along the way if you manage not to louse it up:

  • Reading some reviews of the thing from your other customers
  • Showing me the similar things you have for sale
  • Getting an e-mail when I place the order and one when it ships (but seriously like 2 e-mails, no I don’t want your newsletter)

What I do not want:

  • To load dozens of actively hostile 3rd-party spyware services
  • To figure out which half dozen actively hostile 3rd-party spyware services I need to tell my adblocker to ignore for your site to work
  • To discover much later that my order has been silently canceled without notification
  • To drive an hour to retrieve my order at a distribution center because you shipped it to an undeliverable address
  • To be remarketed at, anywhere, ever
  • To install an actively hostile mobile app in order to access and/or transfer ownership of the thing I purchased
  • To give up and buy the thing on Amazon because your website doesn’t work
  • To like and subscribe
  • To fill out a survey
  • To know I’m being A/B tested
  • To engage with your brand
  • Just about anything the marketing professionals you hired probably 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.

p1k3 / 2021 / 7 / 13
tags: topics/business

wednesday, june 2, 2021

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

p1k3 / 2021 / 6 / 2

tuesday, april 27, 2021

there was a flood once,
and then it was years before
the sound of rain on a roof
for more than a few minutes
stopped being a reminder i didn't want

you'd see it in the people who
were there — one of those rare wet
days would set in and they'd
get a little nervous around the eyes

last summer we patched together the
failing gutters on this old house
and added a section or two

it was shoddy work and the lesson i
learned about gutters is next time
i'll hire it done, but they carry water
down to the ground better than before

now, nearing midnight, it's been raining
steady since before sundown
i can hear it streaming through those
aluminum troughs, probably pooling in
the low spots i can't figure out how
to build up, trickling down into the
crawlspace we'll have to fix for real
one of these seasons

and what i feel is just the old midwestern
calm of a roof overhead in weather
the quiet pleasure of being alive in a world
that's happening at some greater scale than mine

the grass all lifting up to meet it
the birds waiting to make riot at dawn
the rabbits huddled under the scrubby
trees in the fenceline

just rain on the roof.
i'll take it.

p1k3 / 2021 / 4 / 27
tags: topics/poem


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