I do my best thinking:

  • In the shower. I love to take long showers, and I love my tankless water heater.
  • While talking. Something about my brain is wired directly to my mouth.
  • When I’m not thinking. See also, the value of letting your mind idle, wander, or just walking away from a tricky problem.

Your thinking may vary!

We should get back to inventing jetpacks

I don’t like using services like Uber, Twitch, or Favor. I want to like them, because the underlying ideas are pretty futuristic. But the reality of these services is that the new boss wants to squeeze their not-even-employess-anymore just as badly the old boss did. It feels manipulative, like buying a car. Except I’m abetting the manipulation too. :(

The New Yorker, THE GIG ECONOMY CELEBRATES WORKING YOURSELF TO DEATH:

The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear.

What happens when the gig economy tries to turn a profit? The race downwards will squeeze out all of their contractors until they can replace them all with automated drivers, commoditized personalities, and punitively-low ad revenue sharing rates. This sounds horribly dystopian but I’m pretty sure it’s already happening. See also: when Google kneecapped bloggers as a side-effect of end-of-lifing Reader and changing Pagerank.

The New York Times, Platform Companies Are Becoming More Powerful — but What Exactly Do They Want?

Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. And accordingly, platforms are the underlying trend that ties together popular narratives about technology and the economy in general. Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.”

After reading this, I started substituting “platform company” for “company building its own monopoly”. And then it all makes sense. Businesspeople say they love free markets, but give any rational-thinking business the chance and they will create so many “moats” and “barriers to entry” that they resemble tiny state enterprises more than a private business. See also: telecoms and airlines.

Anil Dash, Tech and the Fake Market tactic:

This has been the status quo for most of the last decade. But the next rising wave of tech innovators twist the definition of “market” even further, to a point where they aren’t actually markets at all.

Yes, my confirmation bias is burning. Yes, technologists are doomed to recreate the robber-baron past they didn’t study. Yes, we still have time to change this. Yes, our field needs an ethics refresher. Yes, we should get back to inventing jetpacks!

Healthcare is a multiplier, not a consumer good

Adam Davidson tells a personal story about a relative who, with health care, could’ve continued his career. Without that healthcare, he ended up addicted and in jail. What the GOP doesn’t get about who pays for health care:

However, dividing health expenditures into these categories misses an important economic reality: health-care spending has a substantial impact on every other sort of economic activity.

Healthcare isn’t consumption, like buying a TV or going to a movie. It is a Keynesian multiplier. Every dollar the government spends on it means an individual or business can spend more than a dollar on something productive in GDP terms.

UPS and FedEx can’t exist without public roads. Southwest and United Airlines can’t exist without the FAA. Lockheed and Northrop can’t exist without the Air Force. Walmart and McDonald’s can’t exist without food stamps. Entrepreneurs find it harder to start without individual access to healthcare.

Yet Republicans are opposed to the existence of all of these. Perhaps business in America relies on more subsidies and government services than Republicans are willing to admit!

Let’s price externalities, America

Hello, America. We have to talk. You are built on top of a mountain of federal (a trillion or so dollars) debt. That debt covers some things we need (roads, health care, social safety nets, education, scientific research) and subsidizes distasteful things (energy companies, military contractors, banks, real estate). You could consider that debt the tip of the iceberg. We can see how it contributes to the annual federal budget in dollars and by percentages. It’s a measurable, knowable thing.

Unfortunately, there’s also a ton of unmeasured debt we are accruing. We have to pay the price for it through social norms and charity. Here’s a hackish list:

  • food service is systematically underpaid so we tip them, most often poorly
  • the people who clean our hotel rooms are underpaid because they are invisible, unskilled, and often immigrant; depending on what you read, you should tip them but they also say you should hide your valuables from them so which is it, leave money laying around or distrust them not to rub your toothbrush in the toilet?
  • we pay a small tax on the amount of gasoline we use, but it is comically low, hasn’t gone up in years, and isn’t enough to pay for the usage of our crumbling roads, bridges, etc. sometimes it’s also used to pay for public transit, which is perverse during high gasoline prices if you’ve studied even rudimentary supply-and-demand
  • our children are raised mostly by women who are expected to just do it for free, despite what else they may want to do with their lives
  • we let financiers play with our retirement money, in theory because they know how to allocate it, get the occasional Google but more often some business tragicomedy, and in return they get to take a few percent off the top, which ends up being a huge number, for the service basically of them having gone to Harvard or their daddy knew a guy
  • millions of people live paycheck to paycheck, go hungry, go into massive debt if life comes at them wrong, etc. all because the Walmarts of the world (and there are way more than just Walmart) pay them next to nothing expecting the federal government to pick up the slack except the federal government has been systematically dismantled over the course of decades by men who fancy themselves smart enough to start The Next Walmart but in fact are barely smart enough to get themselves elected in a fair contest let alone actually lead a congressional district

But I digress and rant. And rant. Economists call these externalities. It’s when you have some accidental cost or benefit that is paid for by a third party, e.g. Walmart paying less than a living wage because the government will pick up the tab through welfare.

Point is, we’re underpaying for a lot of stuff. And that’s fun for some of us. We eat avocado toast, take exciting trips around the world, maybe drive race cars. We sort ourselves out so we don’t see the literally millions of people suffering because we’re not paying what it takes to give everyone a chance at doing better off than their parents or picking themselves up when life knocks them down. And then when some transparently awful populist blowhard runs for president, we’re shocked, just shocked, that he ends up winning.

Bring the higher taxes. Make me pay more to eat out. Charge me more for gas. I don’t mind thinking twice about whether I should subscribe to HBO and Showtime and Netflix. If I can’t go to Disney World as often, so be it.

It’s a small price to pay to have avoided what’s coming over the next four years: an increasingly unequal, unfair world for those of us who aren’t already doing great and white and male. Let me pay more for a greater country where everyone, not just the affluent, seek what it is that makes them happy in life without the fear of illness, bad circumstance, political or racial backlash. Let’s not lord that greater country over people to “motivate them to work harder and escape their current lot in life”. Let’s price the externalities that separate the concerns of the rich from the stresses of the poor and let’s all pay our share.

Personal city guides

I’ve seen lots of sites about how to use software. The Setup and The Sweet Setup are my favorites. You can find lots of sites about how to use ideas like Inbox Zero or Crossfit. People love this stuff.

What I don’t see a lot of is how to use a city, as a visitor or resident. I suspect these things are all around me and I don’t even notice.

A travel guide will tell you where you can go and what you can do, but it won’t tell you how you should go about it. It won’t tell you the little things you’d do as a resident but wouldn’t notice as a traveler. They don’t tell residents (or future residents) what the essence of the city is and what you should do when it’s nice, or gloomy, or when you want to go out, or when you’re hungry.

For example, if I had to write an Austin Setup guide, it would include things like:

  • what to eat lots of (tacos and breakfast) and what to eat little of (Italian, oddly enough)
  • where to go when it’s nice outside (S. Congress, Auditorium shores, or Zilker park), where to go when it’s blazing hot (Barton Springs), or where to go when it’s miserable outside (one of the many great coffee shops)
  • where to find funny people and where to find technology people (because those are my scenes)

The thing is, this would end up reflecting my idioms. Not as useful for someone who wants to do sports, or outdoorsy activities, or music. This thing is more personal, like an interview on The Setup about how people use computers to do their cool thing. Sort of a “how I’ve hacked my city to work better for me” guide. A reverse travel guide of sorts; not for everyone else, just for me.

Sometimes it’s okay to interrupt a programmer

I try really hard to avoid interrupting people. Golden rule: if I don’t want interruptions I shouldn’t impose them on other, right? Not entirely so.

Having teammates around, and interrupting them, has saved my butt. I’ve avoided tons of unnecessary work and solving the wrong problems, and that’s just the last week!

Communicating with others is a messy, lossy affair. We send messages, emails, bug reports with tons of partial context and implicit assumption. Not (always) because we lack empathy or want to bury ideas in unstated assumptions, but because we’re in a hurry, multitasking, or stressed out.

When you interrupt a co-worker you can turn five minutes of messages back and forth to thirty seconds of “Did you mean this?” “Yeah I meant that!” “Cool.”

When you interrupt a co-worker you can ask “this made sense but you also mentioned this which didn’t entirely make sense” and they can say “oh yes because here’s the needle in the haystack” and now you can skip straight to working with the needle instead of sifting through the haystack that was your own assumptions wrongly contextualized.

If your coworker is smart, they are keeping track of why people interrupt them. Later they’ll try to make it easier for you to not interrupt them, e.g. write documentation or automate a task. Maybe they want you to interrupt them so that whenever someone wonders “why haven’t we automated this?” they can talk to you about how it’s important to have a human hand on it rather than let failed automation go unnoticed.

There are plenty of reasons not to interrupt someone. I know the struggle. I do my best to respect when people put their head down to concentrate and get stuff done. I always spend a few minutes rereading communications or spelunking the code, logs, or whatever context I have before interrupting someone. It’d be rude to interrupt before I even started trying. But, there’s a moment when the cost and benefit of interrupting someone so I can get something done faster swings towards mutual benefit. That’s when I interrupt them.

They’re okay political opinions

The downside to the Republicans proposing a healthcare bill is that it’s a major legislative disappointment, given they’ve spent seven years symbolically opposing healthcare. The upside is that, at least, we have something substantive to discuss about healthcare. The silver lining is possibly voters will come to see the Republican party for its cynicism.

What is there to talk about? We could start with David Brooks on how we got to the point wherein the GOP has received their moment in the sun. He argues that neglecting three ideas led us to the propaganda of the Trump era:

First, the crisis of opportunity. People with fewer skills were seeing their wages stagnate, the labor markets evaporate. Second, the crisis of solidarity. The social fabric, especially for those without a college degree, was disintegrating — marriage rates plummeting, opiate abuse rates rising. Third, the crisis of authority. Distrust in major institutions crossed some sort of threshold. People had so lost trust in government, the media, the leadership class in general, that they were willing to abandon truth and decorum and embrace authoritarian thuggery to blow it all up.

Brooks argued Obama should have addressed these crises, which the ACA arguably did for the second. IMO, Republicans stoked all three of these fires while pointing their fingers elsewhere. Supply side economics built the first crisis, privatization the second, and propaganda media the third.

Meanwhile in Congress, Paul Ryan is rolling up his sleeves and saying taking healthcare away from Americans is about giving them freedom. Paul Ryan’s Misguided Sense of Freedom:

…But Mr. Ryan is sure they will come up with something because they know, as he said in a recent tweet, “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.”

He went on to argue that Obamacare abridges this freedom by telling you what to buy. But his first thought offers a meaningful and powerful definition of freedom. Conservatives are typically proponents of negative liberty: the freedom from constraints and impediments. Mr. Ryan formulated a positive liberty: freedom derived from having what it takes to fulfill one’s needs and therefore to direct one’s own life.

(Positive and negative freedom, as terminology, always confuse me; this bit is well written!) This op-ed makes a nice point: healthcare as envisioned by Obamacare, and other more progressive schemes, imagine an America where we are free from worrying about health care. Preventative care happens because we needn’t worry whether we should spend the money elsewhere or take the day off. Major health care events like pregancy or major illness are only intimidating because they are life events, not life-changing unfunded expenditures.

I cannot understand why, outside of deep cynicism of the American dream, Republicans in Congress would not want this kind of free world.

Just tackle the problem

There’s a moment when a programming problem engulfs me. Perhaps it’s exciting and intriguing, maybe it’s weird and infuriating, maybe it’s close to a deadline and stressing me out. Whichever it is, I’m not so great at managing that intensity.

I can’t handle adult responsibilities. Any external demands on my time are met with impatience. My thoughts drift to the problem when I’m not otherwise occupied. I get on my own case about why it’s not solved, festering a negative feedback loop of feeling bad about not having solved it yet and then feeling worse about not having solved it yet.

I am able to step away from it a little bit. Go grab food, spend some limited time with my wife or dogs. It doesn’t fully engulf me. But I can’t detach myself from it.

It’s not frustrating that I get excited or perturbed by my programming work. It’s frustrating that I let it stress me out, to negatively effect my life even if only for a short time. Especially that it’s spurious, that I don’t need to stress out over it. My code’s not going to endanger lives, yet.

The best coping tactic I’ve come up with, so far, is to tackle the problem. Don’t go stew on the circumstances of the problem. Maybe take that moment away to pet a dog and release some stress. Then, find a solution that fits the time and context of the problem so I can get back to thinking clearly about work and life.

Sometimes, I get lucky and the solution to the problem presents itself.

Protect the beginner’s mind

Someone joins your team. They have a beginner’s mind about your project and culture.

Take a person with beginner’s mind, tell them about how things have always been, how they got that way, and insist we just try to keep that status quo? That’s a shame.

When you harness a beginner’s mind, you have a short window to make the most of their new perspective. After a while, it becomes the team or culture’s perspective. Opportunity lost.

Put a person with beginner’s mind in a room with someone who knows All the Reasons. If they survive, you have just created a ton of learning for both people.

Protect the beginner’s mind. Listen to it. Act on it.

Contrast NYC and SF

Dallas and Austin are the cities I’ve spent my life in. I’ve spent maybe three weeks of my life, total, in San Francisco and New York City. They’re similar in that SF and NYC are both a Whole Other Thing in comparison to my Texan expectations. Indeed, they’re global cities operating at an entirely different order of magnitude.

It’s long puzzled me why I find NYC less intimidating and strange than SF. I’m starting to think its the attitudes. Walking through either town, I frequently suspect that I’m Doing It Wrong, from where to eat to where to sleep to how to use the subway.

In NYC, I suspect the natives are looking on as I struggle to hail a cab or catch a train, but they are silent in their snickering about me doing it wrong.

SF feels much more in your face, eager to tell you “You have done it wrong and you should feel bad”, from the subway systems to the tech bubble.

San Francisco very much remains a frontier town. You move there to make your fortune, to burn bright and “compress your career into several years”. It’s at the same time fractured by law (the city has three different transit systems, all using different tokens last time I visited) and lawless (Uber and Airbnb in particular are about landgrabs before the law can catch up with technology). It’s at once a global city and embarrassingly self-centered.

In summary, I guess I just like Texas a lot better. Even after our awful lawmakers.