Music from the Week of August 6, 2023

It looks like I may like a genre called hyperpop. Spotify’s hyperpop playlist has a few artists I already know and enjoy. Discovery ahead. (Update: an entire playlist of hyperpop is too much. I like some hyperpop artists and songs. I don’t like hyperpop as a genre.)

This set by 100 gecs at Boiler Room in L.A. is all. over. the. place. But it’s a lot of fun. Check out 59:00 for a wild taste. And do read the comments. Speaking of 100 gecs, the video Acai playing the 10,000 gecs album on Clone Hero Drums for the first time mesmerized me. Wut.

Spotify playlist for the week of August 8, 2023.

Music From the Week of July 31, 2023

Now with a playlist!

Music From the Week of July 24, 2023

Music From the Week of July 17, 2023

Music From the Week of July 10, 2023

Music From the Week of July 3, 2023

Music From the Week of June 12, 2023

Music From the Week of June 5, 2023

Music From the Week of May 29, 2023

Music From the Week of May 22, 2023

Amy Winehouse (feat. Blackmer): Great song by Burlington, VT, artist Willverine.

2022 Holiday Newsletter

This is installment #6 of the annual newsletter I share with my colleagues at Enthought (previous years 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017).

I feel like I consumed less media this year, and yet, there is so much stuff! (And even more I didn’t include!)

I hope you’ll find a good thing or two.

Happy Holidays!

Three things

I’ve been told a few times: “your newsletter is amazing, but I haven’t read or watched or listened to anything from it.” This is my attempt to fix that. If you do only three things, make it these three:

  • Listen to Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw.
  • Read Too many needles by Oliver Burkeman (author of Four Thousand Weeks). It helped me take a step back from my desire to read all the things. This sentence was key: “After all, you presumably don’t feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library – and not because there aren’t an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.”
  • Watch One-Minute Time Machine, a delightful and surprising short film.

The Big Idea: Cynefin

The Cynefin framework (kuh-NEV-in) is a framework to make decisions by making sense of the domain you’re in: clear, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Depending on the domain, the “right thing to do” will change.

  • The clear domain is known knowns. Things are stable, causes and effects are clear. It’s the world of rules and best practices: you acquire data (sense), categorize them, and respond appropriately.
  • In the complicated domain, it’s known unknowns. You don’t know the cause-and-effect relationship, but you can figure it out with analysis. You sense, analyze, then respond. It’s the domain of experts: engineers, lawyers, and surgeons.
  • In the complex domain, it’s unknown unknowns. You figure out the cause and effects after the fact. You must probe the system first, sense, then respond. Probes are experiments that are safe to fail. Here are markets, culture, and much of software development.
  • In the chaotic domain, cause and effect are… a mess. You can’t take wait to figure out what they are. You must act first, then sense and respond. Be quick and decisive. This is crisis management, September 11, and March 2020 and the COVID pandemic. You want to get out of this domain ASAP.

Things go wrong when the approach you chose doesn’t match the domain you’re in. It would be a valuable framework to convey to clients that want you to take the wrong approach, but teaching it to them is a tall order. Here’s a great quote from the HBR paper A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making:

As in the other contexts, leaders face several challenges in the complex domain. Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles—to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.

Like Simon Wardley’s maps, the “sense-making” exercise to map domains and identify where you are helps setting the “direction” to go towards to achieve the desired results. Unsurprisingly, Snowden and Wardley know each other. Wardley wrote a chapter for the book Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world.

The HBR paper above is a good entry point, so is this video of Snowden. For a software development angle, check out Liz Keogh’s Cynefin for Developers and Estimating Complexity. She also has a great summary. Even Stack Overflow wrote about Cynefin. If you want to dig further, there’s a Cynefin wiki and the site of Snowden’s company, The Cynefin Co.

Read

Free Returns Are Complicated, Laborious, and Gross by Amanda Mull: I didn’t like sending stuff back, now I really don’t want to send anything back.

Outliers, Revisited on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast (transcript): In schools and in sports, the “best” people in a class or team have the largest “relative age.” That’s the age difference to the youngest a person can be to join the team or class. On a hockey team where the cutoff date is Jan 1 for selection, 40% of players will be from Q1. For young people, months make a big difference on size and ability! They go to UPenn and talk to 75 seniors. Everyone is older than the minimum age, by a lot. Some people are 20 months older than the minimum age. Is there a name for this phenomenon of aggregating a “feature” too much and losing important info? Aggregation error? They suggest using a formula to compensate or account for the differences within a group. Even though it “works,” it feels icky.

Self Documenting, Interactive Make by Exthoughter Matt Planchard. A wonderful nerdy interactive make script with help. Over the top.

You need to start writing Architecture Decision Records by my colleague Rahul Poruri. Organizations need decision records for all big things, not just software. We could adapt decision journals for teams. I recently discovered Loomio, a tool explicitly designed for collaborative decision-making. It assumes the decision will be made asynchronously by a distributed group of people.

A tiny CI system by Christian Ştefănescu. This is a neat little project: self-host a Git server and your own little CI server based on Git post-receive hooks.

Novelty Search and the Problem with Objectives PDF by Joel Lehman and Kenneth O. Stanley: Optimizing for novelty, not fitting an objective. Relevant to art, creativity, and… science?

Characterizing people as non-linear 1st order components in software development is a 1999 talk by Alistair A.R. Cockburn of the Agile Manifesto. This predates the Agile Manifesto by two years. It’s a great telling of the evidence that human factors are the most important predictors of software quality, not technology choices. For an even more fundamental take on this topic, check out The epistemology of software quality by Hillel Wayne.

Justice Stevens reads the fine print: Matthew Butterick: Law + typography + David Foster Wallace.

Contributing to Complex Projects, a how-to by Mitchell Hashimoto, founder of HashiCorp.

Architecture, Design, and Urbanism

Sustainable Apartments – A New Model for the Future by Jeremy McLeod at TEDxStKilda: Interesting because of the financial, environmental, and social design of the apartments. They only get ethical investors to buy the site. They interview people for who gets to buy, but they use a lottery to decide who gets to buy which appartment. There’s just one bathroom per apartment, no chrome because it’s toxic, no tile because it comes from Spain or Italy (it’s in Australia). They prioritize social spaces within the building.

The Bagworm Caterpillar’s DIY Mobile Log Cabin: Nature is just incredible.

The Ugly, Dangerous, and Inefficient Stroads found all over the US & Canada: will give you a word for the terrible stroads of Austin, like Burnet and Airport.

Books

It’s been a good book-reading year. I think it’s due to a good amount of travel and a regular-enough book club. I read books marked with a ♣️ (club, getit?) as part of the Enthought book club.

  • ♣️ No Rules Rules by Reed Hastin and Erin Meyer: a fascinating account of how Netflix manages their (creative) organization. Each component taken separately would be unstable or unsustainable in other organizations, from the absence of vacation policy, to the culture of feedback, to the requirements of taking any recruiter’s call. Yet, when all implemented together, it creates a solid organization edifice.
  • Sourdough by Robin Sloan: A novel about a programmer who gets into baking because of a powerful sourdough starter. I loved it.
  • ♣️ Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg: should be required reading for any consultant. It’s peculiar, as my colleague said, but the stories are great. Some key lessons. Don’t accept someone else’s solution as your problem statement. Check if you can change the question if you don’t like the answer. Don’t solve other people’s problems if they can solve them perfectly well. Don’t be a solution problemer: someone with a solution in search of a problem.
  • ♣️ Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott: coined the term ruinous empathy. When being nice is actually damaging. Hit home.
  • Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber: A bullshit job is pointless for both the company and the individual. He develops an ontology for such jobs: flunkies, box tickers, goons, duct tapers, and taskmasters. It’s an incisive and deeply funny analysis of work and working. I loved Chapter 6 on the history of the concept of time and labor, and the difficulty of distinguishing between social value and economic value. Recommended.
  • The Premonition by Michael Lewis: Interesting reading this after reading about the Cynefin framework. The pandemic was definitely in the chaos and then complex realm. Charity Dean was a master of dealing with chaos. Carter Mecher somehow managed to turn a complex situation into something complicated. The CDC and the (US) government were doofus, not even acting as if the situation was simple, they were just concerned about optics and saving their own butt. The government really was f’ed up.
  • A World Without Email by Cal Newport: Coins the term Hyperactive Hive Mind: “A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.” And the term Attention Capital Principle: “The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.” Newport theorizes that the lack of friction in communication is leading to out-of-control feedback loops. A core proposal is to “seek workflows that (1) minimize mid-task context switches and (2) minimize the sense of communication overload.” This must be done at the team or organization level. It’s hard to solve as an individual.
  • The All-Road Bike Revolution by Jan Heine: a summary of everything Bicycle Quarterly has learned about bicycles that feel great. I see a new bike in my future.
  • Who: The A Method of Hiring by Randy Street and Geoff Smart: Presents a rigid framework for recruiting. The full process is long for hiring for technical roles, but seems appropriate when hiring for leadership and management roles. Makes a big deal of reaching out to 7 references. Ultimately, the key point is to hire great people, not good people. Echoes * No Rules Rules* and Netflix.
  • Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber: I wonderful little book I read after Bullshit Jobs. I knew nearly nothing about anarchism and this was eye-opening. He makes the point that anarchy is based on action, not theory. The various anarchy groups are named based on how they act: anarcho-syndicalists, insurrectionists, anarcho-communists, individualists, and not on their thought leaders, like Marxist-Leninists, or Maoists. There’s also a powerful and scary idea about democracy: it can only exist if there’s both a belief that people should have equal rights in making ground decisions and a coercive apparatus to enforce those decisions. In a democracy, one must lose (their election/vote) and the winner’s choice must be enforced. Instead, anarchist movements are based on consensus: no one loses. There’s no assumption of changing someone’s mind. People decide on a common course of action. There are only two forms of disagreement: “stand aside” or “block.” The former says “I don’t like it and chose not to participate but won’t stop anyone from doing it,” whereas the latter is a veto arguing the action would violate the reasons for being a group. (That’s super interesting: it means in a democracy, someone must lose face. In anarchy, no one does.) He wrote this book early in his career, but you can see elements of future books: Debt, Bullshit Jobs, and The Dawn of Everything.
  • Saga: Compendium one by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: A graphic novel that’s weird, original, and continually surprising about a couple from two different planets caught in a deadly war. Not family-friendly, but highly recommended.
  • How to Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters by Michael Bungay Stanier: a straightforward process for defining and getting started on big personal projects. An easy read.
  • Learning to Build by Bob Moesta: a follow-up to Demand-Side Sales, but on the building and prototyping stage. One particular lesson is the use of the Taguchi Method to design experiments and explore a problem space efficiently.
  • The Circle by Dave Egger: a dystopian novel about a young woman joining a new all-powerful tech company encouraging everyone to share more about themselves. It was fine but not great.
  • In the beginning by Diane Arbus: photography. I saw her work at Pier 24 in San Francisco and enjoyed it. The book was on sale at BookPeople.
  • Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren: things can be perfectly imperfect.
  • Y: The Last Man - Compendium One by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra: starts fun and continues to be for maybe three or four books, but then gets contrived and unoriginal.
  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel: Meh.

Watch

Movies

  • Everything Everywhere All at One (2022): Just watch it if you haven’t! Don’t look anything up! My favorite movie of the year. Decade? Life?
  • Fire of Love (2022): A documentary about a couple and their love and study of volcanoes. Interesting, funny, moving, and beautiful.
  • Glass Onion (2022): better than Knives (out)
  • Parasite (2019): Not at all what I was expecting! “[F]ollows a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family and infiltrate their household by posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.” Things don’t go well.

Online

Music

I started listening to Soundfounder, the KUTX show hosted by Andrew Brown, on a regular basis. Half the show is artists I love (and sometimes forget that I love) and the other half is new artists I really enjoy, many of which are from Austin. Two stand-out artists I learned about are Domi & JD Beck, and Ross From Friends.

Modern classical music

I listened to multiple episodes of Meet the Composer, the 2014–2017 radioshow/podcast hosted by Nadia Sirota (of yMusic and Alarm Will Sound). Each episode dives into a single modern classical music composer and is beautifully produced. It’s like the Radiolab of modern classical music. Every time I listen to it, I learn of a new artist who makes incredible music and who is off most people’s radar. I’m sad the show is no more. The two standout composers were Andrew Norman and Caroline Shaw. Caroline’s work is stunning. A lot of her music has been used in TV and movies. Her most famous piece is Partita for 8 Voices. Its Motion Keeps, written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, is another fantastic piece.

Austin Music

Honestly, I don’t love many Austin bands (🙀). I enjoy Spoon, Balmorhea, and Grace Pettis but that’s pretty much it. Until this year. Here are six awesome songs.

  1. Urban Heat - HAVE YOU EVER?
  2. Darkbird - Heartbeat
  3. Strawberry Hospital - Azure: the tags say “noise, vocaloids”. It reminds me of the strange and interesting pop music coming from Japan.
  4. Sir Woman - Party Woman
  5. Font - Sentence I.
  6. B11ce - Pointillist

Other music

Last.fm tells me I’ve listened to 11,800+ songs. My most-listened track (29 times, now 31 after writing this) is You Will Never Work in Television Again by The Smile. I did have tickets to go see them in Dallas, but the Universe conspired against us and we didn’t go. Oh well.

I collected all my “liked” songs in the 2022 playlist (387 songs). Similarly with the 2022 Albums.

I listened to the album Ultimate Care II by Matmos the most. All sounds are recordings of their washing machine. I discovered it on Meet the Composer. I got to see them live. The first two pieces were also made of samples recorded live. It was great.

San Salvador is a voice and percussions ensemble who sings in Occitan, or “langue d’oc” in French. They’re my new favorite band. The rhythm and vocal harmonies are right up my alley. The energy they project in the video linked above is stunning. I hope I get to see them live one day. Their music reminded my of Barbatuques’ Baianá.

Ephemera by Ehsan Gelsi is a strange two-twenty-minute song album composed for the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ, Moog, Buchla, analogue electronics and live percussion. Recommended if you like prog rock, even if just a bit.

Jihye Lee Orchestra - Daring Mind: Modern Big Band Jazz. You’ll love this if you like Absolute Ensemble, Kevin Eubanks, and Dave Holland’s big bands. Modern jazz meets modern classical. She put together a fantastic jazz big band playlist.

Other great albums:

Hardware

A Stapleless stapler for stapling articles to read and annotate. Satisfying.

A USB-rechargeable plasma lighter. The fact that it exists boggles my mind.

Buying art (and then framing it, which I have yet to do). I managed to put my hands on two Phlegm prints: Customary Hats and Civilization II. Then there’s a stunning black and white infrared photo of a Twisted Sierra Juniper at Emerald Bay by Ctein. Next up: acquire more wall space.

The kitchen sink: with interrelationship and causal diagrams

Yesterday, I used Ryan Singer’s interrelationship and causal diagrams to remove a water filtering system from under my sink. The diagrams likely saved me hours of work.

Four diagrams. #1 is a photo of a words written around a circle with arrows point from one to another. #2 is a replicate of #1 in softare. #3 is a replicate of #2 where items without entering arrows are place towards the top. #4 is a printed out version of 3 with some handwritten annotations.

First, while sitting in front of the open cabinet, I wrote on paper all the steps I needed to complete the removal (1). When step “A” needed to happen before step “B,” I drew an arrow from “A” to “B.” Then I redrew the whole thing on the computer (2) so I could move the steps around.

I copied the steps to create the causal diagram (3). Steps without requirements “float” to the top, while steps with requirements are placed 1 level below their “most recent” upstream requirement. Thanks to the causal diagram I realized I missed steps. It was much easier to adjust the diagram than to figure it out in the moment!

Finally, I printed the causal diagram and used it as my checklist while doing the work (4).

I should use these tools more often. They’re powerful.

Tools for Shaping

Ryan Singer walks through his process for solving problems and writing up solutions (shaping and pitching). It’s an incredible example of externalized thinking.

The toolset he describes is like an application of the Unix philosophy to thinking tools.

Brik Font

Craig Ward’s Brik Font project gives me a huge smile but also hurts my brain. Am I seeing something that’s near or something that’s rendered to look as if it’s near although it’s far? It’s genius.

(Lowercase letters A, B, C, D, E, and F made of white Lego blocks on grey blocks.

White letter C on a grey background, drawn with Lego blocks.

Via Kottke.

Centre d’Expérimentation Musicale - Gaël Chabot-Leclerc, créateur en résidence - Facebook

My brother, talking about his new music creation centered around cut glass carboys. I’m impressed by how natural he is in front of the camera.

The first credit card was introduced in 1950. Store credit, installment credit, personal loans, payday loans – everything took off. And interest on all debt, including credit cards, was tax deductible at the time.

Morgan Housel in How This All Happened, an overall great read.

Moxie Marlinspike >> My first impressions of web3. Overall, not positive. I knew the “art” of the an NFT was not stored on the blockchain, but I didnt know the data was just a url. There is no hash of what’s at the other end of that url.

San Salvador, the Band

San Salvador is a voice and percussions ensemble who sings in Occitan, or “langue d’oc” in French. They’re my new favorite band. The rhythm and vocal harmonies are right up my alley. The energy they project in the video embedded above is stunning. I hope I get to see them live one day.

Their music reminded my of Barbatuques’ Baianá.

Via Emma Bauchner’s New Sounds 2021 year in review.

Giacometti – Grande femme debout I. MFA, Houston.

2021 Holiday Newsletter

This is installment #5 of the annual holiday newsletter I share with my colleagues at Enthought. (2020, 2019, 2018 and 2017).

Unlike in 2019 and 2020, I didn’t keep track of interesting things as the year went by. Big mistake. Nonetheless, I hope you find one or two interesting things below!

Happy holidays to you all, and happy reading/watching/listening!

Wardley Maps: Seeing the future, maybe?

If you’ve talked to me this year, there’s a good chance I talked about Wardley Maps. It’s a tool for mapping “competitive landscapes.” This means picking a set of users’ needs, breaking them into the value chain of their components, and placing the components on a map based on how far they are from the user’s needs and how evolved they are. One can then make business decisions based on the map. Here’s one Simon Wardley made for the photo-sharing business he ran in the early 2000s.

Wardley Map of a photosharing app.

Image from Simon Wardley’s Finding a path.

Wardley makes a compelling case for using maps to make decisions. In chess, moving a pawn isn’t a good or a bad move in itself, it all depends on the situation. In war, the flanking move is the move in a particular situation and not in others. In both cases, you use a map to make the decision. Why would business be different?

He goes on to overlay many business and management concepts on top of the maps. Here are a few:

  • Picking a different development process based on the evolution of the component: Agile for early stages, Lean for products, Six Sigma for commodity.
  • Building teams around attitudes to work on different states of evolution. That’s the Pioneers, Settlers, and Town Planners idea.
  • “Context-specific gameplays”: moves one can make when the map is in certain state to accelerate changes. For example open sourcing technologies and data to push a product into a commodity.
  • Bundling and unbundling components.

I feel like Wardley stumbled on a Truth of the Universe. Even though it’s likely not to be 100% correct I sure think he’s onto something valuable.

If you’re interested in digging deeper, Wardley wrote a long series of articles that were collated into a book. I’m about a third of the way through and it’s excellent. Hat tip to Rahul for pointing me to Wardley’s talk, Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones.

2,080 Weeks Left

In August, I added Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals to my reading list because Adam Grant, Ryan Holidays, and Austin Kleon recommended it. Then I forgot about it. Then I read Too many needles by Oliver Burkeman, which 🤯. Why do I stress about reading everything on my reading list(s) but not about reading everything that’s in the British Library? Then I read What if you never sort your life out? by Burkeman. Then I read How to make writing less hard by Burkeman. Then someone mentioned Four Thousand Weeks by Burkeman and I went Oh. So I read Four Thousand Weeks. If you feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it all, this may be the right book for you (it was for me).

Apenwarr

I can’t remember how I ended up on apenwarr.ca the first time, but every single thing I read was mind opening. The author is Avery Pennarun, co-founder of Tailscale (and author of git-subtree?!). I enjoyed his software engineering simulator series. In SimSWE part 1: Indecisiveness simulator, he makes a strong case for deciding on release goals and then completing them. In SimSWE part 2: The perils of multitasking, he makes an equally strong point that releasing often brings more value to your users, which he explores again in SimSWE 4: Wants, needs, and chasm-crossing. This time the focus is on shipping first what users need instead of what users want. And then there’s the monstrous and fabulous An epic treatise on scheduling, bug tracking, and triage. It’s too big to summarize, but some key points:

  • There are echoes of Shape Up: deciding what to build and building it are two separate tracks with different timelines.
  • Focus on velocity (in the Agile sense), don’t give people deadlines or goals.
  • When writing User Stories “only things that affect the customer are allowed (in the cycle), because things that don’t affect the customer do not deliver value to the customer.”
  • Product managements can totally manage users stories in a spreadsheet.

And finally, in Highlights on “quality,” and Deming’s work as it applies to software development Pennarun sent me back towards W. Edwards Deming’s work, who was Bob Moesta’s mentor (mentioned in the 2020 newsletter). Deming is often considered a father of the Japanese Quality Revolution. Deming is on my 2022 list.

Datasette Redux

After mentioning it last year, I managed to play with Simon Willison’s datasette project. It’s an SQLite-centric tool for “publishing and exploring data”, where you published the data with the code. Simon calls it the “baked data pattern.” In April, I made a code search engine that searches across all ETS repos using the datasette-ripgrep plugin. The hardest part was, by far, pushing the code to Google Cloud Run. It took me only two months. Later in the year, I played with dogsheep-beta to build a “personal search engine” built as a collection of SQLite files with a search index implementing the denormalized query engine pattern. I don’t have code published for that yet, but it’s been a fun project to collect notes, reading and watching lists, listening histories, location data, and bookmarks in a single searchable interface. In a way, I’m competing with Neeva (but I’m not going full-Linus). The next thing I’d like to play with is Git scrapping and git-history.

(Mostly) Shorter Reads

  • Austin Kleon talks about the 13-month International Fixed Calendar. It reminds of the ISO week numbers that the Danes love so much. It always weirded me out when they asked “Are you free week 14?” Thinking back, they might have been onto something.

  • A trio of articles on the relationship between open source maintainers and the people who use their software. Brett Canon writes The Social Contract of Open Source. Rich Hickey writes Open Source is Not About You. And Drew Devault writes Provided “as is”, without warranty of any kind.

  • Dan Lu had many great pieces this year but I particularly liked Some reasons to work on productivity and velocity. What resonated with me was the idea that there are “phase changes” in the nature of the work you can tackle as your velocity increases and your feedback loops shorten. With low velocity and long loops, you plan longer because you don’t want to waste an iteration. With high velocity and short loops, new problems become tractable, it’s easier to stay motivated, to stay in the flow. Nearly all the consulting projects we work on aim to achieve that. Do read the whole thing.

  • Two articles about cybernetics, “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things” says Wikipedia. (I realized they were linked as I wrote this.) In Problem-Solving in Music, Art, Science & Software, Jessica Kerr ties together camerata (groups of people working on a common problem) and cybernetics applied to software development. And in Notes are conversations across time, Gordon Brander discusses how note-taking is a cybernetic feedback loop between yourself today and your future self. Another thought that crossed my mind while reading was conversations as gradient descent towards shared understanding.

  • David Wiley is a big wig in the open educational resources movement. And yet, in We Should Pause and Ask the Question he asks: is openness what we should strive for? Does “open” really mean increased access? Instead, he suggests evaluating educational resources in terms of their success, scale, and savings for students. For example: “as of March 1, 2021, 985,081 people have enrolled in Python for Everybody on Coursera and […] no one has stood up the tool chain themselves.” He also has this great quote given to him when he was a Shuttleworth Fellow: “don’t let your principles keep you from accomplishing your mission.”

  • Ryan Singer published 19 short articles on product management, shaping, pattern languages, and usability. They’re all worth a read.

  • A virtuous cycle for analytics by Jon Udell. A series of articles on providing data to users and mixing Postgres with Python.

  • Julia Evans on patterns in confusing explanations.

  • Chelsea Troy on The Art of Documentation.

Books I Read This Year

I read few books, but thankfully they were great.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. This one made for a delightful and useful book club. Most strategy is bad. It’s all fluff, goals, and bad objectives. See for example Simon Wardley’s (him again) bad strategy generator. Good strategy has a kernel: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent actions.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker blew my mind. I got giddy reading it, like when I first read Flour Water Salt Yeast. I felt like I had put my hands on a truth of the universe that I knew existed but didn’t have a word for, or that someone with super powers wrote a guide for how to be a superhero like them. I keep thinking of how it applies to dinner parties, meetings, and classes. I’ll be re-reading this one.

Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda. Kocienda was on the small team of people who developed the original software for the iPhone. He was in charge of the keyboard. What struck me the most was Apple’s prototyping culture. They build a thing and then critique it. There are no wireframes. It reminded me of Basecamp’s Getting Real and more recently, of Jason Fried’s MVP: Minimum Viable Pie.

Watching — Shorts

Most of the videos I end up watching are from the incomparable Jason Kottke.

  • Two Lego-centric videos: In the first, someone builds a car that can climb obstacles, and in the second, the car crosses a gap of increasing length. Watch both until the end for the satisfying bits.

  • More Lego. This time a flexible plane made out of solid blocks.

  • Mesmerizing Matchstick Stop Motion Video: I’m very patient, but not patient enough to make this if it’s indeed pure stop motion.

  • Every Sport a Bowling Ball. Just what it says on the tin.

  • Tom7 creates the uppestcase and lowestcase letters by training two deep learning models: one to create uppercase letters from lowercase ones, and the other to create lowercase letters from uppercase ones. Then he pushes things (beyond) their logical conclusions, such as creating lowercase versions of lowercase letters, and uppercase versions of uppercase letters. The results are fonts you can download and “use.” In the process, he builds a lot of really neat custom UIs to visualize what the models are doing. It’s entertaining and interesting.

  • Designing and Evaluating Reusable Components by Casey Muratori: I find it fascinating when an expert can externalize their knowledge and doesn’t just bask in expert blindness. Not only can Muratori explain why he thinks some API are good and some not, but he can give you a checklist so you can follow the same thought process. (Thanks Scott M. for the recommendation!)

Watching — Longs

Borgen could be considered a Danish The West Wing. But with better home life scenes, less world drama, more personal drama, more media drama, and more awesome Danish furniture. It’s an interesting story with great acting. It came out while I lived in Denmark and was all the rage then, but didn’t watch it until now.

Rita another Danish series. This one, a mostly light-hearted comedy-drama about a teacher who stands ups for the kids, but is terrible to grown ups. Again, awesome Danish furniture.

The General is a 1926 movie by Buster Keaton. One could call it a 100-year-old blockbuster. Action-packed, funny. On Roger Ebert’s top 10 list.

I watched Ford V. Ferrari at my into-cars friend’s recommendation. I knew nothing about it when I started watching it and enjoyed it until the last few minutes, when something so incredible, so preposterous happened that it changed my entire appreciation of the movie. Now I love it.

Bought

  • I bought a whetstone years ago but sharpened knives only one or twice a year. This year I read somewhere the story of someone in a similar situation whose brother-in-law (or the likes) said, as he saw him sharpen knives: “Are you planning on becoming a sharpening master or on having your knives in a museum? If not, get a knife sharpener and move on with your life.” So I bought a refurbished knife sharpener from Brod & Taylor. It’s awesome and now we have sharp knives every day.

  • Our house-purchasing process took 7 months and it was traumatic. But thankfully, memory is a faculty that forgets. In the end, I say it was worth it for us.

  • Anna and I went to Big Bend in March (which was great!). About a mile from the parking lot, my “normal” hiking boots started to hurt my ankle so Anna, my hero, dropped her backpack, took my boots and went back to the car to bring back her and my pair of not-made-for hiking Vivobarefoot boots. We went our merry way without pain for the rest of the 3-day hike and both bought a pair of Trackers the day we came back to Austin. They’re amazing.

Quick Hits

Music

I listened to more than 43,400 minutes of music by about 1,460 artists across 161 genres (says Spotify). TOBACCO was the artist I listened to the most. I must have been in a weird groove at the beginning of the year because I listened to the album Hot Wet & Sassy 26 times.

Every album I enjoyed this year is in a playlist, but here’s a short list of outstanding albums:

  • Shire T - London. Paris. Berlin, and Tomorrow’s People (half of Maribou State). Tomorrow’s People may be my favorite album of 2021. It’s so dancey, so happy.
  • Sylvan Esso - Free Love: First post-pandemic concert in September at the new Moody Amphitheater. I had forgotten that people sing along.
  • Alessandro Cortini - SCURO CHIARO: Also a member of Nine Inch Nails, Cortini makes perfectly ambient, loopy, enveloping synthesizer music.
  • Clay and Friends - La Musica Popular of Verdun : A Montréal-based band making music as if they were Manu Chao driving down an L.A. freeway (Verdun is a part of Montréal). Mixes English, French and Spanish.
  • voljum - dayscapes: Most of the songs are like if a big band stepped into the Spider-verse where they first turn into Medeski, Martin & Wood, then into Amon Tobin-as-Two-Fingers for a bit, followed by a brief stint as Jamiroquai before the big band returns to the normal world. I dig it.
  • Arca released 4 albums this year (!), Kick II, Kick III, Kick IIII, and Kick IIIII. Kick III is the only one I’ve had the change to listen to multiple times and it’s… hard to describe. Do use good headphones or a subwoofer.
  • Aufgang - Broad Ways: Another loopy piano trio that mixes electronics with prepared piano. In the same family as Grandbrothers and GoGo Penguin.
  • Cid Rim - Songs of Vienna.
  • Current Value - The All Attracting as well as many singles and EP. When you see me bobbing my head intently at my desk, there’s a good chance I’m listening to this intense drum ‘n bass.
  • Speaking of drum ‘n bass, I had the chance to see Noisia live in Austin November. Gosh, I missed concerts.
  • Rezz - Spiral: Another really heavy bass album. Not good brunch music.
  • Hubert Lenoir - PICTURA DE IPSE: A darling of the Québec indie scene. Of many strange albums on this list, this may be the strangest.
  • Jean Louis Cormier - Le ciel est au planché: A solid 2nd pandemic album, even though I don’t like it as much as last year’s Quand la nuit tombe.
  • Jaga Jazzist - The Tower: The latest album from what may be my all-time favorite band. This 10-piece Norwegian group gives incredible concerts.
  • José James: No beginning no end 2, New York 2020 (Live), and even a Christmas music album, Merry Christmas from José James: R&B meets hip hop meets blues meets crooner meets late night jazz trio. I have a hard time describing his styles but I enjoy his voice.
  • Julien Mier - Industry in the trees: makes glitchy music that cheers me up.
  • LITE - Fraction: An album of remixes of this influential Japanese math rock band. Bandcamp had a great write up of their history and discography. Their whole discography is worth a listen. This is Alex catnip.
  • KUNZITE - VISUALS: Somewhere on the spectrum between Unknown Mortal Orchestra and El Ten Eleven, but with more energy than both.
  • Laura Mvula - Pink Noise.
  • Noname - Telefone: A little like Lauren Hill, with a little bit more electronics and smooth sounds.
  • Mieux - Rulers: Some loopy music, sometimes with electronics, sometimes with guitars. You’ll like it if you like Steve Reich or The Field.
  • Tangents - Timeslip & Chimeras: Mostly acoustic ambient “jazz,” reminiscent of Pantha du Prince and Dawn of Midi.

Empowering users to prototype what they need

Jon Udell, A virtuous cycle for analytics:

We recognize this software pattern in the way application programmers who push a system to its limits induce systems programmers to respond with APIs that expand those limits. I suppose it’s harder to see when the application environment is Metabase and the systems environment is Postgres. But it’s the same pattern, and it is powerful.

See also scientists and engineers who can program well enough to validate that their ideas work and then hand them off to developers to scale them.

I’m making a distinction between using Metabase, in Jon’s post, and learning programming because in many cases, scientific and engineering questions can’t be answered (sadly) with SQL queries and a nice friendly UI like Metabase’s.

Zilker Park parking