By Steve Bogart on December 31, 2013 10:45 PM
One should have a post at least once a year, surely? Herewith some hasty disorganized thoughts at year-end, focusing on the positive:
Having a pretty healthy 5-year-old kid is one of the big successes. He was able to shed the egg allergy this year, so a wider range of foods opened up for us; hoping that trend continues next year with the remaining allergies.
Joined a choir, the Alexandria Choral Society. I did miss singing in groups. The December concert went nicely, I had a solo (We Three Kings, the Myrrh verse) and didn't mess that up, so thumbs up there.
The markets had a good year, which meant the 401K had a good year. Like/Favorite/+1.
Big work project launched, pretty successfully.
Out with 2013, bring on 2014. A few select goals I have in mind:
Launch a project which can simultaneously serve as a useful tool for communicating difficult ideas and as a way to demonstrate publicly some of what I know about software, UI and complexity. More on this to come.
Level up at work -- I'm moving back into a team lead role, which requires a different focus than I've had recently. So I will need to consciously make some changes to succeed there.
Blog more than once, eh?
After many years of relative quiet in public (mostly existing as a twitter feed), I would like to plan for 2014's underlying nature to be this:
To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Instead of thinking about what would be possible to do, under better conditions than these, possibly ideal conditions (what would even be ideal conditions, really, let's mull that over a bit) and with a better set of tools..how would one measure which tools are the best ones, hm, that's a chinstroker, and so on, and so on.
Around the middle of November, this was how I was feeling about the year—
Ever said this, exasperatedly? "It's the twenty-first century!" "It's 2012!"
These are the things that people I know say when faced with a problem that seems like it should have been solved long ago.
Like the fact that the majority of cabs still only take cash and not credit cards. (Seriously. Is it 1989?)
Like any company or government agency which requires you to fax something to them.
Or, more soberly:
Discovering people who think that people of different races shouldn't marry.
Discovering people who think women should stay out of the workforce.
Hearing that women shouldn't be able to vote, or be allowed to wear pants to important functions.
So it's usually said with a negative affect.
Why aren't we further along than this? <negative>It's 2012</negative>.
But there was just an election. And some things which have seemed overdue (or downright futuristic) have actually begun to happen.
Marijuana legalization was passed in Colorado and Washington. While I don't partake myself, I appreciate this move as possibly the beginning of a rational climb-down from the endlessly expensive/ineffective/violence-soaked War on Some Drugs.
18 women were elected to the US Senate (including the first disabled woman, first openly lesbian woman, first Asian-American woman..), bringing the number serving to 20.
Marriage was legalized for gay couples by voters in Maine & Maryland & Washington, and Minnesota voters declined to pass an anti-gay amendment.
Not to mention the first-ever black President earned re-election, by a pretty significant margin.
Look at that, gentle sentients.
Then of course on December 14 there was the Newtown slaughter.
Not that there isn't always some horrible news out there if you look for it. But this one obviously stood out as both extra-horrible and potentially-preventable at the same time.
In its wake, I have been left philosophizing and analyzing and theorizing to myself even more than usual, and contemplating to the point of great distraction both the powerful inertia of everyday life and the sudden randomness of some fates.
I don't have an essay in me right now about how I tie all this together in my mind; instead I'll try to sum up one piece of it—
I read a lot of Isaac Asimov stories and essays when I was young. And he argued well for his outlook on humanity and the future, which has been labeled 'Humanist' or 'Secular Humanist'. Here's one summation from him I found:
As indicated by our very name, we humanists celebrate humanity, want humanity to survive, and recognize that if humanity does survive, it will be by its own efforts.
Never can we sit back and wait for miracles to save us. Miracles don't happen.
Sweat happens. Effort happens. Thought happens.
And it is up to us humanists to help—to expend our sweat, our effort and our thought. Then there will be hope for the world.
And since I—who am not on the front lines of any of today's conflicts—despair sometimes at the intractability of the problems we face and at our intransigence as a species in addressing all but the shortest-term issues, I find it helpful and important to look to those like Asimov and Carl Sagan—who saw far and were confronted very directly with obstacles and resistance—and remember that they could bring themselves to continue to put forth effort in the name of Humanity, day after day. Somehow.
Their example is useful when I feel defeated, as I have by Newtown and other events.
As a valediction for 2012 and an epigraph for 2013, I nominate this somewhat recent musical mashup of clips from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, with a special emphasis on this part of the chorus:
The sky calls to us If we do not destroy ourselves We will one day Venture to the stars
If we do not destroy ourselves... by giving guns to as many people as possible and inviting ever more accidental gunshot deaths into our lives (even if you dubiously exclude the supposedly-deterrable intentional ones).
If we do not destroy ourselves... by biasing all our planning for the short term and leaving any real progress on longer-term threats (like a warmer planet) for much, much later.
If we do not destroy ourselves... we will one day venture to the stars.
I followed these accounts because they gave me a good balance between informative/timely on the one hand and not a bloody firehose of updates on the other. (That's why @barackobama was not included - too chatty.)
Suggestions for other qualifying feeds gratefully accepted.
The most popular business model has been to offer a free service and then shut down.
...while the [Pinboard] business is healthy and profitable, no angel investor or venture capitalist would touch it with a long stick, as it sits on the wrong side of the risk/reward curve.
The combination of low startup costs and investor aversion means there are all kinds of opportunities lying around for a developer to run a profitable small business, provided he or she remembers to charge money.
...An archive needs to have a credible plan for offering the same basic feature set over a time scale of decades. Any major redesign risks spooking users who will perceive it as a sign of instability. And the last thing people want to hear is that you're swinging for the fences - real archivists bunt.
A good role model here is craigslist, which has endured sustained derision for its 'ancient' UI for years from a succession of more modern websites, nearly all of which are now out of business.
Related: A fellow named Tom Armitage created a workflow which automatically turns his Pinboard stream into books, by year.
I didn't do anything special or illegal to get it -- I just checked the website when I was reminded of the concert by the Bobs' email newsletter, and lo and behold the seat I was presented with was the best seat in the house. I can only think someone who had the prime seats had to return them, or something strange like that. Thanks, unintentional anonymous benefactor!
Having scored an amazing ticket, I of course somehow misplaced it. Luckily the Wolf Trap Box Office person I spoke to on concert day was very helpful and printed a fresh ticket for me to pick up once I provided a blood sample and a confirmation number.
This was an unusual Bobs concert, in that it was a passing-the-torch moment: Amy Bob Engelhardt's last gig with the group and Angie Bob Doctor's second-ever Bobs concert.
Angie Bob and Dan Bob Schumacher have a CD of duets out, He Said, She Said which is just the two of them singing fascinating, complex arrangements (by Richard Bob Greene) which fill in just enough notes to feel like a song is 'all there'. This is hard to do in the best of circumstances, and even harder to reproduce reliably in a live setting. But the two of them performed a few of their tracks as the 'opening act' for the Bobs, and it was impressive.
Amy Bob was as good as ever in her farewell gig (i.e. very good). "Sandwich Man" was probably my favorite Amy song of the night.
Matthew Bob Stull has been with the group for all of its 30 years. I had the opportunity to find him after the show and tell him what I have always appreciated about his performances, namely his complete, matter-of-fact commitment to whatever profoundly goofy shit is happening on stage. (He laughed.) Having done some goofy shit on stage myself, I know how hard that can be, but he succeeds at it all the time without going over the top. If I have a challenging task to do on a stage, I will actually sometimes consider: How would Matthew Bob do this?
How was the new member? Angie Bob is clearly a very skilled singer, but in contrast to Matthew Bob's practiced ease with weird material, she seemed a bit tentative a good part of the time. This frankly isn't surprising: some of the material is truly, deeply odd, plus she's having to learn a deep catalog of songs for live performance and it's hard to ramp up quickly.
In hindsight I'm really glad I saw her duets with Dan Bob first, because she really shone there. That tells me she's not wrong for the job, she probably just needs a bit more time to settle in.
It's worth mentioning that each lady Bob who has been in the group has had a very different sensibility in terms of exactly what kind of odd songs they seem to enjoy singing, and often it's hard to imagine other lady Bobs really digging each others' stranger material. (Lori Bob Rivera's "Vapor Carioca" leaps to mind, and I'm not sure any other human can ever do justice to "Fluffy's Master Plan for World Domination" besides Amy Bob.)
All that to say: I'm looking forward to hearing Angie Bob do her own weird tracks on the next album.
Richard Bob's "Disappointment Pants" is one of my favorite tracks. They sing it noticeably faster live, which I think takes something away. Trivia: Last time I saw them (2008) they dedicated the song to Eliot Spitzer, which was perfect.
Cream's "White Room" is still a kickass closer, with Dan Bob doing most of the kicking.
Public service announcement: there are some still-fairly-new cover tunes available on bobs.com including Queen's "Bicycle Race" and "Synchronicity" by the Police. Worth a listen.
Born blog-ranter Steve Yegge, a Googler for the last 6 years, recently laid into his employer in a lengthy, fascinating post which was apparently not intended for public consumption. It's in the wild, though, so everyone can see it now.
The toy example itself isn't important at all, but the approach is.
In sad news, Dennis Ritchie, inventor of C, has died. His death coming close to Steve Jobs' means that some people are already straining to weigh the contributions of the two against each other, as though it is a contest.
Really people, they can both be titans in their own way. It's OK.
But what has struck me throughout this odd episode is their misunderstanding of what their own customers like about the service.
Making customers split their queue management into two separate websites which don't integrate with each other was a really really bad plan (with -- notice -- no actual reason given for it), and I can imagine lots of heated arguments in-house from the people who could tell it was a deeply stupid move. Tip for the head office: keep a list of those people and consult them the next time you get a really 'bright' idea.
The most foreboding aspect (for anyone wishing Netflix any success, that is) is the continued dimness and/or pridefulness of the executives. The juicy quotes in the New York Times report on the policy reversal do not inspire confidence:
"We underestimated the appeal of the single Web site and a single service," Steve Swasey, a Netflix spokesman, said in an interview, before quickly adding: "We greatly underestimated it."
Ok, so far so good. They have understood their basic error. But wait.. Reed Hastings doesn't agree with his own spokesman:
"there is a difference between moving quickly -- which Netflix has done very well for years -- and moving too fast, which is what we did in this case."
Replace 'moving too fast' with 'moving in the wrong direction' and you've sold me.
'Moving too fast' just tells me you really want to try this again in a year or two. And that means you do not understand your basic error.
We are still customers for now (and switching to streaming-only), but we'll be keeping an eye out for further drug trips and policy freakouts from the Netflix head office.
These are the sort of topics which catch my eye these days, and about which I'd like to learn & say more:
Where it comes from
Tools to make it both more comprehensible and easier to manage
How to communicate effectively with outside parties about how complex a thing actually is
That's a compact way of saying: it really ticks me off when people who clearly understand many nuances and tradeoffs involved in some things (say, their job, or a sport or two) then consider everything they are not that familiar with to be very straightforward and obvious.
This happens among otherwise-elite, brainy people too; this XKCD is a great example.
Humanity is constantly having to make big bets based on limited information.
(I think this has always been true; while you could argue that people throughout history have been solving much simpler problems than we have today, they also lacked most of the modern tools we have to tell us about the world - accurate maps, for instance. We're always bumping against the limits of our understanding.)
How we (as a society) handle decision-making under great uncertainty could be improved.
How we (as a society) view past decisions made under great uncertainty could be improved.
Music - studying, performing, appreciating, describing
Software - design, construction practices
Apple stuff - Mac OS X, iOS devices (yes, still a big Apple fan)
Parenting - I have a 3-year old. 'Nuff said.
Business - Management; "Organizational Behavior"; Emergent properties of systems of people
Checklists (a la Atul Gawande) and any other ways to improve the performance of groups of people doing complex tasks.
Politics & Media - the various intractable problems we face and the channels through which we all learn about them.
There's plenty more, but those are the headline grabbers for me at the moment.
Declaration: I intend to get back to this (blogging, writing in public, producing visible output, etc.) in a fairly serious way, starting now.
What good is it to learn a whole lot of things if you never share what you've learned with anyone? I haven't been idle for the last several years; I know about many more things now than I ever used to before. I've just been quieter.
I'll never be 'ready' to come back in full force if I keep waiting for it. The only way to do it is to practice it and get better at it again. The only way to practice it is to get started even when I'm rusty. So, here I am.
I've learned (from a lot of observation) that you shouldn't expect to think-think-think in isolation and then produce a finished perfect thing. The people I most enjoy reading are willing to think out loud and share unpolished ideas in order to gain the benefit of getting good input from other smart people about the same topics; it's a better outcome all around.
"Real Artists Ship" - Steve Jobs
Proximate cause/kick in the pants which led to actually posting something:
There have been lots of things which should have triggered posts. But yesterday's boot to the behind was the news that Steve Jobs died. If that won't get your ass in some kind of gear to try and make a bigger dent of your own in the universe, then not much will.
P.S. In case there is anyone reading this who doesn't know, I have at least been active on Twitter for the last few years.