Our laws are here, they just aren’t equally practiced yet

That thing where institutions like the FBI are prohibited by law from meddling with presidential elections, and then the FBI meddled multiple times. We’re just going to let that slide? Seems like it!

The point is not there was one big injustice, which there was. The point is that justice has been distributed unevenly through your history. Outcomes favored by those in power but obtained illegally have long been effectively legal. Those out of power have always felt the full brunt of the law, and even worse.

The inequality and imperfection by which our law has always been practiced. That’s the lesson.

Journalism for people, not power

Journalism is trying very hard to do better, but still failing America. Media is covering politics and not “We, the people”.

Take the coverage of the Republican attempt to neuter congressional oversight and subsequent retreat amidst tremendous scrutiny. Coverage typically read “Donald Trump tweeted about this and by the way a ton of people called their congressperson.” The coverage is focused on what a person in power says. A fascination with celebrity and power.

It’s not focused on the readers, or the people who bear the actions of politicians. Certainly not the disadvantaged who can’t even keep up with politics because they have neither a) the money for a newspaper subscription or b) the time to follow it all between multiple jobs and possibly a family.

It’s focused on what politicians are saying the people want. It’s easy to get a politician to talk about this. That’s part of their job now, skating the public discourse towards the laws they want to pass.

It’s focused on what think tanks want to talk about. Those talking heads on TV and think pieces on the opinion pages? It’s easy to get those people to talk because they’re paid to do those things by giant lobbies and interest groups. They’re paid to get in front of people and tell them what laws they should want.

Journalism should counteract these extensions of the corporate state. When a politician, funded by a lobby, says “the people want affordable health care”, a print or television journalist should say “and here’s what three people not involved in politics actually said”. Maybe they’ll agree with their politicians, maybe they won’t!

When a politician says “we should lower taxes on the top tax bracket”, media should follow up with that that means. Who exactly gets that tax break? Will actually benefit other people? What do people who don’t benefit from that tax break gain or lose because of it.

The next news cycle will come up, the politicians will say one thing. The truth and tradeoffs will reflect another truth. The journalists will go out there and talk about the tradeoffs and what people think now. And then maybe we’ll get a more educated society.

Likely this means the sports and entertainment pages have to subsidize the political coverage. Or we need to start recognizing pieces stuffed with quotes from think tanks and politicians as “advertorial” and not news.

Regardless, political journalism as zero-sum entertainment has to go.

I love overproduced music

It seems like some folks don’t like music with a lot of studio work. Overproduced, they call it. Maybe this is a relic of the days when producers weren’t a creative force on par with the actual performers and artists.

I don’t know, because I love overproduced music. Phil Spector, “Wall of Sound”? Bring it. Large band efforts like “Sir Duke”, “You’re not from Texas”, or “Good Vibrations”? Love it. Super-filtered drum sound? Gotta have it.

It probably has everything to do with, at one point, wanting to pursue a career as a double bassist in symphony orchestras. The pieces I loved the most were the big Romantic tone poems and symphonies with a chorus. Hundreds of people, dozens of unique parks, all playing at the same time, often loudly. It’s the essence of overproduced.

Here’s a curious thing. When I hear “Wouldn’t it be nice?” in my head, it’s much bigger and Wagnerian than it is on Pet Sounds. The pedal tone is bigger and more prominent, the first note after the guitar intro is massive. Maybe I’m just projecting my interpretation onto the song.

Contrast to “Good Vibrations”. There’s always more going on than I remember. Vocal parts, instruments. Sooooo good.

Outside of Brian Wilson, I’ve noticed Jeff Lynne is amongst “the overproducers”. Especially, apparently, how he thins out drum sounds. Love it. Have I ever told you how much I dislike the sound of an raw snare drum?

Turns out Ruby is great for scripting!

Earlier last year, I gave myself two challenges:

  • write automation scripts in Ruby (instead of giving up on writing them in shell)
  • use system debugging tools (strace, lsof, gdb, etc.) more often to figure out why programs are behaving some way

Of course, I was almost immediately stymied on the second one:

sudo dtruss -t write ruby -e "puts 'hi!'"

dtrace: failed to execute ruby: dtrace cannot control executables signed with restricted entitlements

dtruss is the dtrace-powered macOS-equivalent of strace. It is very cool when it works. But. It turns out Apple has a thing that protects users from code injection hijinks, which makes dtrace not work. You can turn it off but that requires hijinks of its own.

I did end up troubleshooting some production problems via strace and lsof. That was fun, very educational, and slightly helpful. Would do again.

I did not end up using gdb to poke inside any Ruby programs. On the whole, this is probably for the better.

I was more successful in using Ruby as a gasp scripting language. I gave myself some principles for writing Ruby automation:

  • only use core/standard library; no gem requires, no bundles, etc.
  • thus, shell out to programs likely to be available, e.g. curl
  • if a script starts to get involved, add subcommands
  • don’t worry about Ruby’s (weird-to-me) flags for emulating sed and awk; stick to the IRB-friendly stuff I’m used to

These were good principles.

At first I tried writing Ruby scripts as command suites via sub. sub is a really cool idea, very easy to start with, makes discovery of functionality easy for others, and Just Works. You should try it some time!

That said, often I didn’t need anything fancy. Just run a few commands. Sometimes I even wrote those with bash!

But if I needed to do something less straightforward, I used template like this:

#!/usr/bin/env ruby

test # Run the test suite
test ci # Run test with CI options enabled
test acceptance # Run acceptance tests (grab a coffee....)

module Test

def test
`rspec spec`

# ... more methods for each subcommand


if __FILE == $0
cmd = ARGV.first

case cmd
when "ci"
# ... a block for each subcommand

This was a good, friction-eliminating starting skeleton.

The template I settled on eliminated the friction of starting something new. I’d write down the subcommands or workflow I imagined I needed and get started. I wrote several scripts, delete or consolidated a few of them after a while, and still use a few of them daily.

If you’re using a “scripting” language to build apps and have never tried using it to “script” things I “recommend” you try it!

Tinkers are a quantity game, not a quality game

I spend too much time fretting about what to build my side projects and tinkers with. On the one hand, that’s because side projects and tinkers are precisely for playing with things I normally wouldn’t get a chance to use. On the other hand, it’s often dumb because the tinker isn’t about learning a new technology or language.

It’s about learning. And making stuff. Obsessing over the qualities of the build materials is besides the point. It’s not a Quality game, it’s a Quantity game.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to officiate a nerd horserace between Rust, Elm, and Elixir.

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.