Why are you building this?

At some point in what feels like the very distant past, I bought The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero. For six years, apparently, I’ve flipped past it on the way to reading other things. For some of that time, I was convinced I’d already read it. I was wrong, I just started reading it, and I’m super glad I did.

It opens with this bit of foreword, which struck me right in the “these are my people” feels:

Frank Chimero and I came together over a shared commitment to jazz. But not only exchanges of music. We emulated the form. He would write a blog post. I would respond. I would improvise one of his hunches. He would iterate one of my posts. A call-and-response approach to a developing friendship.

From there, it’s continued to impress. The illustrations before each chapter are delightful, the chapters are short and punchy, and the ideas are as useful to doing computer programs as they are to doing design.

The first idea in the book has taken up residence in my brain and I don’t want to let it go. It is, simple enough, that we should ask “how and why?” are we building this thing.

The “how” is often easy enough and the proverbial cart before the horse. We’re building a design system, we’re using Rails or React or whatever’s hot right now, or we’re doing XP with a little bit of Kanban and a dab of Lean methodology. The thing is, in the end, few of us will say “Oh, they built this with a design system, React, and lean methodology. Phew! I wasn’t going to use it otherwise.”

The answer to “why” is more likely to generate a satisfying response. We build things to learn, because they don’t exist and we want it to exist, because what exists doesn’t satisfy us, because people need it, because it brings joy to those who would use it, etc. Answering why motivates our craft.

Working backwards from “why” something should exist to “how” it should come to exist makes the difference between boring blandness and purposeful clarity.

A foray into building interface

I spent some time this weekend attempting to make front-end code with Tailwind CSS. Tailwind is a utility-first approach to CSS wherein styles are organized into classes by how they function, not what they style. Instead of avatar-image as a class name on a user’s photo, you would probably have m-4, roughly meaning “margin four”. It’s a bit cryptic at first!

Reading through all the documentation before getting started is a good idea! Once I read through it and tinkered with it (or any other utility-first CSS approach) for a bit, it was pretty easy to use. The point where it clicked for me was when I thought “hmm, this needs a little room on the top” and then “that means I want mt-2, perfect!” Having a good autocomplete for class names helps a lot too.

I started off trying to use Tailwind in a Code Sandbox, but it seems like the community hasn’t quite figured that one out yet. That said, once I cloned a not-quite-working sandbox locally and ran it, I was off to the races.

I’ll probably read more through the component gallery next. If I can get closer to being to thinking/sketching up a UI component and then coding it up in just HTML and utility CSS, that will be a huge step forward for my craft.

Onward and upward! 📈

Refreshing my Rails: OmniAuth

I’m refreshing my understanding of mainstay Rails libraries lately1. This week, it’s OmniAuth.

When you sign-in (authenticate) to website A (say dev.to) via website B (say GitHub), that’s delegated authentication and the protocol underneath it is OAuth2. OAuth2 is a bit tricky because there is a lot of back-and-forth between the service that the user signs into (GitHub) and the service that you’re signing into with that authentication (dev.to).

Once you’ve set it up set it up, OmniAuth encapsulates much of the back-and-forth with a Strategy class. A bunch of folks out on the internet have bravely contributed literally hundreds of strategies for various services that provide OAuth2 sign-in, e.g. omniauth-twitter or omniauth-github.

A nice thing about the Strategy implementation is that each phase of the OAuth2 callback scheme2 is a method; you can overwrite each one to handle the particularities of the provider you’re integrating with. For example, the “callback phase” is the most common extension point since every app is likely to want to store user information and access tokens differently.

In the wild, OmniAuth is often used in combination with Devise for user models which in turn uses Warden for authentication.

Also nifty to note: the Rakefile for OmniAuth has developer tasks for benchmarking performance and measuring memory overhead. It’s pretty awesome that an essential gem like this has that level of detail in its maintenance.

The time required to do a simplistic OAuth verification is negligible; about as fast as a call to Redis:

% rake perf:ips
Warming up --------------------------------------
                 ips     1.210k i/100ms
Calculating -------------------------------------
                 ips     12.329k (± 5.1%) i/s -     61.710k in   5.019465s

I have no baseline to compare this with, but memory usage looks like this:

% rake perf:mem|head
Total allocated: 147317 bytes (831 objects)
Total retained:  60863 bytes (152 objects)

allocated memory by gem
     74492  lib
     52894  rubygems
     12659  omniauth/lib
      4200  rack-2.0.7
      2832  hashie-3.6.0

So that’s OmniAuth. If your Rails app is more than a few years old and integrates with other services, you’re probably already using it. Thanks, OmniAuth community!

  1. This series isn’t meant as tutorials for getting started with these libraries. If tutorials are the first thirty minutes I spend with a library, these are the second thirty minutes where I start to wonder how this library works. I’ll always link to getting started tutorials though! 
  2. In short: user clicks a link/submits a form on your site to initiate authentication with the other site. If the user successfully authenticates with the other site, they are redirected (the callback) back to your site with a user info and an access token encoded in a query parameter. OAuth 2 simplified is an even better read. 

Gorillaz & Moby & Van Vaudeville & Soulection

Gorillaz, Demon Days – this one holds up, still a solid album.

News to me, Moby has been making extended ambient tracks in some manner of partnership with the Calm app. They make good “I need to focus and get stuff done” music, but aren’t particularly high energy, if that’s your thing. Says Moby, “my suggestion is to not approach this as music, but to approach it as a sleep aid or tool“. Okay!

I would like to some day learn enough piano to play and sing the songs of the original Van Halen line-up, e.g. “Panama”, “Hot for Teacher”, “Beautiful Girls”, and “Unchained”. My theory here is, the original Van Halen is very Vaudeville, except louder and more late-seventies. Corollary: played literally and with a little bit of a vaudevillian spin, they’d work perfectly. Case in point: “Ice Cream Man”.

Somehow, I’ve never mentioned Soulection Radio. It’s equal parts new R&B/hip-hop, classic soul, and a lot of sample culture. It’s one of the best things going on Apple Music, Spotify, and Soundcloud.

Robocalls. What a concept!

They’re on our phones, in our voicemails. Computers or sometimes even humans calling in massive volumes, funneling people into bad purchases. Questionable insurance at best, outright fraud at worst. Sometimes, depending on the state you live in, politics!

There’s no reason to pick up on an unknown number in 2019, or even 2009. For many of us, Dunbar’s number for phone calls is in the low single digits. Outside those few numbers, why answer an even remotely questionable number, ever?

If you squint right, robocalls appear they were  designed for the technological landscape of 1995, of _Friends_ and cordless, landline phones. Robocalls,  could have made sense in 1995. You get a call, it’s Friday, there are no repeats of your favorite show on, you’re a bit bored. Sure, maybe you’ll pick up. Or in 1992, when receiving a phone call was not only a big, exciting deal!, but also a social imperative. You can’t just let the answering machine pick up? It could be…someone. Probably a human!

Sadly, the technological landscape I just described is exactly folks who aren’t “technology natives”. I suspect that’s largely who Robocalls prey on: the bored and lonely, those who grew up before the pace of technological evolution surged and haven’t developed a layered defense to those who would prey on them.

How we get back to space

Space isn’t a dead-end, it’s just taking us longer to figure out than our earliest trajectory. The New Yorker has a great look at The Race to Develop the Moon for industrial purposes:

Lunar construction projects now look feasible. “Down the hall, we have a telerobotics lab,” Burns said. “You could print components of habitats, of telescopes. You use the lunar regolith”—the dust of the moon—“as your printing material. You could print the wrench you need to fix something.” Fifteen years ago, the moon was believed to be a dry rock; now we know that there’s water there. Both private industry and national agencies regard the mining of water and precious materials as something that’s not too far off.

Only twelve people have walked on the moon, all of them between the summer of 1969 and Christmas, 1972. All the moonwalkers were men, all were American, all but one were Boy Scouts, and almost all listened to country-and-Western music on their way to the moon; they earned eight dollars a day, minus a fee for a bed on the spacecraft.

Buzz Aldrin had hoped, and briefly expected, that it would be he, and not Neil Armstrong, who would take the first human step on the moon. The astronaut Michael Collins, who manned the control module that orbited the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin walked below, has said of Aldrin that he “resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second.” On the moon, Armstrong took photos of Aldrin posing, but Aldrin took none of Armstrong doing the same. One of the few photos that shows Neil Armstrong on the moon was taken by Armstrong himself—of his reflection in Aldrin’s helmet, as Aldrin salutes the flag. We are petty and misbehave on Earth; we will be petty and misbehave in space.

​Futurism isn’t dead, it’s just not all around us like Tomorrowland promised.

The notes – May 6, 2018

Unclogging the blog pipes here…

Think better

I feel seen – Satisfaction and progress in open-ended work:

For more open-ended problems, much of the challenge lies in figuring out what to do next. These rich questions offer deep satisfaction on longer time scales, but without a clear sense of progress, each day ends ambiguously. Was today good? Will these tinkerings add up to anything? In what timeframe? Who knows. Ultimately: what structures around progress, self-correction, and operations can help us in open-ended mode?

Times Jason Kottke or Austin Kleon wrote about thoughtfully engaging with the news: Things you notice when you quit the news, A tip for a better media diet: delay reading the news, You can be woke without waking up to the news.

Code better

I revisited thinking about code on my iPad again this weekend. On the one hand, the status quo continues: you can type programs in, but you can’t navigate, compile, or run them on the device. Textastic, Working Copy, Codea, and Swift Playgrounds continue to exist and continue to set a high standard but leave me wanting. I did make it further using CodeSandbox than last time I tried. If you don’t mind living entirely in a mobile Safari tab, you can do non-trivial things with JavaScript!

Related: Muse is a prototype for an iPad-based thinking environment and I want this running on a dozen iPads spread across a big table in a well-lit room. The demo video and accompanying essay are full of great ideas.

SRE School: No Haunted Forests:

You’ve heard the euphemism tech debt, where like a car loan you hold a recurring obligation in exchange for immediate liquidity. But this is misleading: bad code is not merely overhead, it also reduces optionality for all teams that come in contact with it. Imagine being unable to get indoor plumbing because your neighbor has a mortgage!

Preact – a cool way to understand React as a UI runtime is to look at smaller, single purpose implementation of the concept. To my surprise, much of React’s API surface area is about delivering values to components, passing those values to components, and letting the component help decide if it should re-render. All implemented in two not-so-tricky functions which handle render components.

Listen better

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – fresher than it is essential, carries the vibe of the movie nicely.

Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – I forgot how strongly this album starts, “Narcolepsy is a real gem”.

New-to-me band whose whole catalog I’m celebrating: The Middle Kids.

Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride – meets but does not exceed expectations.

What makes Into the Wide Open such a great album?

Into the Great Wide Open strikes me as a singular album. Perhaps it’s not even the best Tom Petty album, but it stands out from the rest in some kind of way.

Maybe it’s nostalgia? It’s the first Petty album I bought.

Maybe it’s humble? None of the songs are flashy, sitting right on the fence between songwriting and rock ‘n roll.

Maybe it’s the lyrics? I’ve listened to this album a lot, so I’ve actually heard the lyrics and they’re the right balance between clever and storytelling, for me.

Maybe it’s Jeff Lynne? Love that guy’s production work. Great touch.

It’s not too long, it’s not too short. All the moving parts do their job without getting showy. Perhaps, it’s just more than the sum of its parts.

We don’t have to agree about code style

Will we ever come to agree on writing code?

Ruby folks like short methods. One-liners even; maybe for their concision, maybe to show off their language and code golfing skill.

JavaScript folk like often like a bit more heft in their functions. No matter how good a function name is, logic is easier to understand if it’s all in one place.

Despite the mechanical similarities of this sample size of two languages, programming communities have chosen very different styles. This has been happening for decades, since the beginning. It will probably always happen.

As sure as Keith Richards sounds different than George Harrison or Pete Townsend, developers will disagree on the structure and little details of code. Like music, like code.

Luckily, now we have pretty printers and code formatters like prettier, gofmt, rustfmt, or RuboCop. This is a welcome advance from even ten years ago, when some code reviews could bog down in “there’s an extra whitespace here” or “this function seems too short, can we merge it with its callers?”

We don’t have to agree, we just have to act like professionals when it comes to the little things.

It’s 2019 and I’m signing my jokes like its 2019

A stranger walks into an elevator. I say “how about this weather?!” They smirk, or let out a small laugh. It’s easy to think, “I am funny guy!” But: that’s not a joke, it’s not funny. It’s just small talk and politeness in action. I am not, actually, the funny guy in this scenario.

When I was fourteen, I was really into standup comedy. I managed to find a club above a bowling alley that let me do a 2 minute set. The only constraint was that I couldn’t work blue. So I wrote two minutes of jokes, performed it a couple times, got a few laughs, and that was that. I figured out that I could get in front of people and tell some jokes, and I didn’t need to rely on slapstick cursing to do it.

Also, I was fourteen and surrounded by teenagers. Teenagers make a lot of jokes at each other’s expense, because they’re cruel, don’t know better, and aren’t practiced humorists. I had experienced my share of being the subject of those jokes and decided I didn’t want to be that kind of funny. Eventually, I came to the formulation that the best jokes aren’t at someone else’s expense.

As random things in one’s youth go, these two were pretty formative. I decided that if you can’t get a laugh without cursing or making a joke at someone’s expense by punching down, you weren’t actually funny.

Turns out these principles are pretty handy for the world we live in (and have always lived in, but some the future is not evenly distributed, etc.)

You can work blue, you can demean other people, you can say what’s really on your mind, and you can punch down. You may get laughs, but they’re because people are sympathetic to your anger or cruelty. Or, maybe you’ve been bombing so long they’re just relieved you said something almost decent and the laugh to diffuse the situation. But, that’s not funny.

When a joke misses, when a standup flops, it doesn’t mean we’ve become a humorless or prduce society. None of this means the end of humor or satire. It means we’re going to separate the really excellent humorists from those who are merely humor-adjacent.