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.

Execution and idea in Frontierland

It’s commonly held, and pretty much true, that ideas are shallow and execution is depth. That is, the former is nothing without lots and lots of the latter.

Let’s set aside how “execution over ideas” is used as a bludgeon for a moment. I think there’s possibly a case where “execution AND idea” is a viable recipe for success.

If you’re in a Wild West, converting the minimal version of the idea to an executed offering can be all you need to succeed. Temporarily.

If you’re always moving from emerging market to emerging market, you’re betting not on your ability to execute, but your ability to identify the next market. You’re OK with fast followers building on your idea, iterating on it, and establishing themselves as the market matures. That’s OK, because you’ve already moved on to the next market.

So the risk here isn’t execution, but idea/market selection. When you’re first, it’s slightly OK to ship with a product that will be viewed as laughable once the market is mature. 75% idea, 25% execution.

When you’re second, seventh, or seventeenth, you had better execute on the idea, the business, and the culture you build. It’s 95% execution, 5% idea.

Perhaps there’s a benign explanation for Paul Ryan appearing to have cut off his phones. Anecdotally, it does not seem GOP Congresscritters are putting much effort into their voicemails or phone lines. I called my representative, Lamar Smith, yesterday afternoon, incensed that he had suggested we listen to Trump and not the media. Both his DC and Austin voicemails were full. I was able to get through this morning and spoke with a staffer who was dismissive but polite.

This practice of neglecting voicemails and only dismissively answering phones during office hours is appalling. The job of our Congress is to represent us. They cannot do that job if they aren’t taking every voicemail, phone, and email into account. Very rarely do I get the feeling Congress wants to even appear they are doing their job.

If I didn’t answer my work email, I’d lose my job. But Congresspeople don’t lose their jobs except for during an election or certain kinds of partisan maneuverings.

Fire Congress anyway. I’ve started with the phones and a whole lot of pent-up frustration. Maybe the infernal hell of fax machines is next?

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.