Jobs, not adventures

Earlier this year, after working at LivingSocial for four years, I switched things up and started at ShippingEasy. I didn’t make much of it at the time. I feel like too much is made of it these days.

These are jobs, not adventures.

It has, thankfully, become cliché to get excited about the next adventure. Instead, I’m going to flip the script and tell you about my LivingSocial “adventure”.

  • Once upon a time I joined a team with all the promise in the world
  • And as a sharp person I’d meet there told me, the grass is always greenish-brown, no matter how astroturf-green it seems from the outset
  • I wrestled a monolith (two, depending on how you count)
  • I joined a team, attempted to reimplement Heroku, and fell quite a bit short
  • I wandered a bit, fighting little skirmishes with the monolith and pulling services out of it
  • I ended up in light management, helping the people taking the monolith head on
  • I gradually wandered up to an architectural tower, but tried my best not to line it in ivory
  • I had good days where stuff got done in the tower
  • And I had days where I feng shui’d the tower without really moving the ball forward
  • In April, it was time for me to hand the keys to the tower over to other sharp folks and spread what I’ve learned elsewhere
  • In the end, I worked with a lot of smart and wonderful people at LivingSocial.

Sadly, there was no fairy tale ending. About a third of the people I worked with ended up leaving before I did. Another third were laid off in the nth round of layoffs just after I left. The other third made it all the way through to Groupon’s acquisition of LivingSocial.

It was not a happy ending or a classic adventure. It was an interesting, quirky tale.

Fascinating mechanical stories

I already wrote about cars as appliances or objects, but I found this earlier germ of the idea in my drafts:

There’s an in-betweenish bracket where prestige, social signaling, or bells and whistles count a bit more. The Prius and Tesla are social signals. Some folks get a Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, etc. for the prestige more than the bells and whistles.

The weird thing about e.g. BMW, Porsche, or Ferrari is how much enthusiasts know about them. The history, the construction, the internal model numbers, the stories. I suspect you can tell a prestige BMW owner from an enthusiast BMW owner if they can tell you the internal model number of their car.

My first thought, when I came across this, was this is a pretty good bit of projection and rationalization on my part ;) But it’s not hard to look into the fandom of any of those ostensibly-prestige brands like BMW or Porsche and find communities that refer to BMWs not as 3- or 5-series but as E90s or E34s (mine is an F30) and Porsches as 986 or 996 instead of the 911 marketing number. So I’m at least a little right about this!

I will never experience driving the majority of cars out there. I may never know how an old BMW compares to a newer one or properly hear an old Ferrari V-12. I can partake of the enthusiasm about their history, engineering, and idiosyncrasies. That’s the big attraction for me: the stories.

Connective blogging tissue, then and now

I miss the blogging scene circa 2001-2006. This was an era of near-peak enthusiasm for me. One of those moments where a random rock was turned over and what lay underneath was fascinating, positive, energizing, captivating, and led me to a better place in my life and career.

As is noted by many notable bloggers, those days are gone. Blogs are not quite what they used to be. People, lots of them!, do social media differently now.

Around 2004, amidst the decline of peer-to-peer technologies, I had a hunch that decentralized technology was going to lose out to centralization. Lo and behold, Friendster then MySpace then Facebook then Twitter made this real. People, I think, will always look to a Big Name first and look to run their own infrastructure nearly last.

In light of that, I still think the lost infrastructure of social media is worth considering. As we stare down the barrel of a US administration that is likely far less benevolent with its use of an enormous propaganda and surveillance mechanism, should we swim upstream of the ease of centralization and decentralize again?

Consider this chart identifying community and commercially run infrastructure that used to exist and what has, in some cases, succeeded it:

Connective tissue, then and now
Connective tissue, then and now

I look over that chart and think, yeah a lot of this would be cool to build again.

Would people gravitate towards it? Maybe.

Could it help pop filter bubbles, social sorting, fake news and trust relationships? Doesn’t seem worth doing if it can’t.

Do people want to run their identity separate of the Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn behemoth? I suspect what we saw as a blog back then is now a “pro-sumer” application, a low cost way for writers, analysts, and creatives to establish themselves.

Maybe Twitter and Facebook are the perfect footprint for someone who just wants to air some steam about their boss, politics, or a fellow parent? It’s OK if people want to express their personality and opinions in someone else’s walled garden. I think what we learned in 2016 is that the walled gardens are more problematic than merely commercialism, though.

That seems pessimistic. And maybe missing the point. You can’t bring back the 2003-6 heyday of blogging a decade later. You have to make something else. It has to fit the contemporary needs and move us forward. It has to again capture the qualities of fascinating, positive, energizing, captivating, and leading to a better place.

I hope we figure it out and have another great idea party.

On recent Mercedes-Benz dashboard designs

Mercedes (is it ok if I call you MB?), I think we need to talk. You’re doing great in Formula 1, congratulations on that! That said, you’ve gone in a weird direction with your passenger car dashboards. I suspect there are five different teams competing to win with these dashboards and I don’t think anyone, especially this car enthusiast, is winning overall.

Here’s your current entry-level SUV, the GLA. If my eye is correct, this is one of your more dated dash designs:

All the buttons!
All the buttons!

Back in the day, I think, you had someone on staff at MB whose primary job was to make sure your dashboards had at least 25 buttons on them. This was probably a challenging job before the advent of the in-car cellular phone. However, once those became common, that was 12 easy buttons if you just throw a dial pad onto the dash. And you did!

So it’s easy to identify this as an older design from the dozens (43) of buttons. But the age of this design also shows from the LCD. One, it’s somewhat small. Two, and more glaringly, you simply tacked the LCD onto the dashboard. What happened here? Did you run out of time?

I think you can do better. The eyeball vents are nice though!

Now let’s look at a slightly more modern, and much further upscale, design. Your AMG GT coupe:

All the suede
All the suede

OK so you lost most of the buttons in favor of bigger, chunkier buttons. That’s good! You also made a little scoop in the dash for the LCD. That’s progress, but the placement still feels awkward. I know that’s where all your luxury car friends put the LCD now, but you’re so dominant in F1, maybe you can do better here too?

Can we take a moment to talk about the interactions a little? Your take on the rotary control is a little weird. You’ve got one, and it’s got a little hand rest on top of it. That seems good. But then the hand rest is also a touch interface for scribbling letters? Seems weird! I’ve never used that, but I’m a little skeptical.

Next, you’ve gone through some weird stuff with your shifters. You had a really lovely gated shifter on the S-class couple as long ago as the early 90’s! Lately you’ve tried steering column shifters, and now it seems you’ve settled on a soap-shaped chunk of metal that you move up and down to change directions and put it in park. I feel like you should give up the physical shifter thing and just go with (you’re gonna like this) more buttons.

My parting thought on the GT’s interior is this: width. Your designs impart a sense of tremendous girth in the dash, making the car feel bigger. We’ll come back to that immediately…

Finally, one of your most recent designs, the E-class sedan:

All the pixels!
All the pixels!

Again with a regal sense of width. Personally, I don’t like it. It makes your car seem like a giant sofa.

You are making great progress on reducing the number of buttons. Again, kudos.

OK, clearly you got a great deal on LCD panels. Plus, an almost equally good deal on eyeball vents. Good for you!

Also you put an analog clock on the dash. So that’s nice.

I don’t think we’re going to like this giant piece of software and glass thing for very long. Did you see Her? There are hardly any displays in it. All the computers are somehow inhabited by the characters, either by talking to them or interacting within a projection. Why take one of your classic instrument clusters, make that an LCD, and occasionally project information onto the windshield if the driver or passenger needs to see it there? Just a thought!

I’m a little split on the design of your wheel there. It’s nice that technically it’s a 3-spoke design but really, if you count, it’s 4 spokes. The lamest number of spokes. Perhaps with the split you were trying to add more negative space and perhaps evoke a very old, SL-like 2-spoke design? That’s a nice gesture, but I think you missed here. Surely you could engineer a straight-up 2-spoke wheel?

In summary:

  • fewer buttons, less noticeable screens, more seamless interactions
  • a few retro design elements (eyeball vents, analog clocks) are great, too many is too much
  • reduce your five design teams (screens, buttons, wheels, interactions, A/C) down to two: driving interactions and auxiliary interactions

Hope that helps!

Mutual Benefit

Leaders of business and thought have been putting out statements showing unity or acceptance of Donald Trump’s election. I feel this is normalizing what has just happened to this country and therefore these statements are awful.

If I were a captain of industry or leader of thought, I’d use this statement and encourage everyone else to do the same:

As a private citizen, Mr. Trump has said and done numerous things which are indefensible and which we as a country cannot endorse or accept. While we regret that he’s been elected, as he transitions to life as a public servant, we are willing to consider his actions and act together when they are mutually beneficial to all of our customers, employees, partners, and the greater public. In any case where there is a conflict of benefit, we shall stand opposed to Mr. Trump as is our duty based on the founding principles of this nation.

Mutual benefit. It’s so easy to draft laws and make changes that benefit everyone. It takes nothing away from me if Black Lives Matter. Pricing the cost of pollution into the gas for my car means there’s an incentive for me to use less and what I do use pays for the negative effects of using it. Letting a gay couple marry or someone change their gender takes nothing away from my marriage or identity.

We will not let Trump do as he’s said to our neighbors and our country. If he wishes to change course for the better now, fine. Otherwise, we will refuse to allow Trump-style business and rhetoric to become business-as-normal in our country.

The least bad solution

Sometimes I look over the options and constraints to choose something suboptimal. I have to pick the least-bad solution.

I recently chose a least-bad way to write a test. In a Rails app, the most sensible thing to solve my problem was something like this:

def propagate_from_child_to_parent

In the test, I ended up having to write this assertion

expect_any_instance_of(ModelParents).to receive(:do_a_sideeffect)

This kind of stub and assertion is clearly a smell. But, consider the alternatives:

  • stub out the child model object under so that find_each returns a stub object that I can make sure do_a_sideffect is called on
  • try to hack around ActiveRecords associations so it returns the same object as I inject in my test
  • seek out some other result of do_a_sideeffect that I could assert on

In the end, it felt like the shady mock+assertion was the best choice. Using that particular assertion says “slow down and pay attention, a special thing is happening here”. It’s not something I want to do every time, but it was the least bad solution in this context.

Wanted: state machines in the language

Our programming languages are often structured around the problem domain of compilers and the archaic (for most of us) task of converting things people understand to a thing the computer can execute.

Why don’t our languages have deeper support for the ways we reason about problem domains or the ways we struggle to reason. For example, why aren’t state machines and checking their sanity (or marking their unsoundness) a thing in pretty much any language?

The unhelpful answer is “because you can write a state machine in library code”. Which leads me to ask, why don’t we have popular state machine clones? Why is there no xUnit or Sinatra of state machines that is widely cloned to fresh and exciting languages?

The cynical answer is “because many programmers don’t want to think that hard”. The optimistic answer is that there’s room for someone to capture this problem space as well as xUnit did for programmer testing or Sinatra did for turning URL-like strings into method calls. You could be famous!

Van Halen ranked, atypically

Best songs that David Lee Roth talks over:

  • “Hot for Teacher”
  • “Panama”
  • “Everybody Wants Some”

Coincidentally, best use of Van Halen songs in film:

  • “Hot for Teacher” in the strip club scene of Varsity Blues
  • “Panama” in the joyriding/donuts scene of Superbad
  • “Everybody Wants Some” in the Hummer scene of Zombieland

Bon Iver discovers the Option key on his Mac

Someone just discovered all the weird glyphs you can make if you hold the option key and type random stuff!
Someone just discovered all the weird glyphs you can make if you hold the option key and type random stuff!

22, A Million, quick thoughts:

  • first track has a very Tune-Yards drums thing going
  • second track has a very 808s & Heartbreak thing
  • a few tracks in: each track is like Bon Iver doing someone else’s track from the past ten years, but with emo autotune
  • I like the background piano/horn tracks on “29 #Strafford APTS”
  • feels like the track sequencing demonstrates thinking through emotional/tempo pacing 👍
  • I really like the use of pseudo-sax harmony e.g. “____45_____”; slightly Ornette Coleman-esque
  • I like how a lot of the individual parts don’t fit together exactly right, but it still works

So what genre is this album? Neo-electro-ambient-folk-jam? Either way, it works!