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I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter

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I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.

I lied. According to US Army Technical Manual 0, The Soldier as a System, “attack helicopter” is a gender identity, not a biological sex. My dog tags and Form 3349 say my body is an XX-karyotope somatic female.

But, really, I didn’t lie. My body is a component in my mission, subordinate to what I truly am. If I say I am an attack helicopter, then my body, my sex, is too. I’ll prove it to you.

When I joined the Army I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment. It was mandatory for the MOS I’d tested into. I was nervous. I’d never been anything but a woman before.

But I decided that I was done with womanhood, over what womanhood could do for me; I wanted to be something furiously new.

To the people who say a woman would’ve refused to do what I do, I say—

Isn’t that the point?

This short story almost-certainly isn’t what you’d expect, based on the title. What it is sits at the intersection of science fiction and gender identity, and it’s pretty damn good.

Looks like the original’s gone down, but here’s an archived copy.

Sandwichware: Machines Talking to Machines About Humans

A recent observation by Phil Gyford reminded me of a recurring thought I’ve had. He wrote:

While being driven around England it struck me that humans are currently like the filling in a sandwich between one slice of machine — the satnav — and another — the car. Before the invention of sandwiches the vehicle was simply a slice of machine with a human topping. But now it’s a sandwich, and the two machine slices are slowly squeezing out the human filling and will eventually be stuck directly together with nothing but a thin layer of API butter. Then the human will be a superfluous thing, perhaps a little gherkin on the side of the plate.

While we were driving I was reading the directions from a mapping app on my phone, with the sound off, checking the upcoming turns, and giving verbal directions to Mary, the driver. I was an extra layer of human garnish — perhaps some chutney or a sliced tomato — between the satnav slice and the driver filling.

What Phil’s describing is probably familiar to you: the experience of one or more humans acting as the go-between to allow two machines to communicate. If you’ve ever re-typed a document that was visible on another screen, read somebody a password over the phone, given directions from a digital map, used a pendrive to carry files between computers that weren’t talking to one another properly then you’ve done it: you’ve been the soft wet meaty middleware that bridged two already semi-automated (but not quite automated enough) systems.

Galaxy Quest: Tawny Madison says "Gosh, I'm doing it. I'm repeating the damn computer."
Sigourney Weaver as Gwen DeMarco as Tawny Madison realised what she was doing back in 1999. Should I be alarmed that a science fiction spoof is a better indicator of the future that the science fiction it parodies?

This generally happens because of the lack of a common API (a communications protocol) between two systems. If your phone and your car could just talk it out then the car would know where to go all by itself! Or, until we get self-driving cars, it could at least provide the directions in a way that was appropriately-accessible to the driver: heads-up display, context-relative directions, or whatever.

It also sometimes happens when the computer-to-human interface isn’t good enough; for example I’ve often offered to navigate for a driver (and used my phone for the purpose) because I can add a layer of common sense. There’s no need for me to tell my buddy to take the second exit from every roundabout in Milton Keynes (did you know that the town has 930 of them?) – I can just tell them that I’ll let them know when they have to change road and trust that they’ll just keep going straight ahead until then.

Finally, we also sometimes find ourselves acting as a go-between to filter and improve information flow when the computers don’t have enough information to do better by themselves. I’ll use the fact that I can see the road conditions and the lane markings and the proposed route ahead to tell a driver to get into the right lane with an appropriate amount of warning. Or if the driver says “I can see signs to our destination now, I’ll just keep following them,” I can shut up unless something goes awry. Your in-car SatNav can’t do that because it can’t see and interpret the road ahead of you… at least not yet!

Oxbotica Driven self-driving car in Oxford.
I was certainly glad that this prototype self-driving car could “see” me when it overtook my bike the other day.

But here’s my thought: claims of an upcoming AI winter aside, it feels to me like we’re making faster progress in technologies related to human-computer interaction – voice and natural languages interfaces, popularised by virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa and by chatbots – than we are in technologies related to universal computer interoperability. Voice-controller computers are hip and exciting and attract a lot of investment but interoperable systems are hampered by two major things. The first thing holding back interoperability is business interests: for the longest while, for example, you couldn’t use Amazon Prime Video on a Google Chromecast for a long while because the two companies couldn’t play nice. The second thing is a lack of interest by manufacturers in developing open standards: every smart home appliance manufacturer wants you to use their app, and so your smart speaker manufacturer needs to implement code to talk to each and every one of them, and when they stop supporting one… well, suddenly your thermostat switches jumps permanently from smart mode to dumb mode.

A thing that annoys me is that from a technical perspective making an open standard should be a much easier task than making an AI that can understand what a human is asking for or drive a car safely or whatever we’re using them for this week. That’s not to say that technical standards aren’t difficult to get right – they absolutely are! – but we’ve been practising doing it for many, many decades! The very existence of the Internet over which you’ve been delivered this article is proof that computer interoperability is a solvable problem. For anybody who thinks that the interoperability brought about by the Internet was inevitable or didn’t take lots of hard work, I direct you to Darius Kazemi’s re-reading of the early standards discussions, which I first plugged a year ago; but the important thing is that people were working on it. That’s something we’re not really seeing in the Internet of Things space.

XKCD 927: Standards
Engineers: “Standards are good. Let’s have lots of them.”
Everybody else: “…?”

On our current trajectory, it’s absolutely possible that our virtual assistants will reach a point of becoming perfectly “human” communicators long before we can reach agreements about how they should communicate with one another. If that’s the case, those virtual assistants will probably fall back on using English-language voice communication as their lingua franca. In that case, it’s not unbelievable that ten to twenty years from now, the following series of events might occur:

  1. You want to go to your friends’ house, so you say out loud “Alexa, drive me to Bob’s house in five minutes.” Alexa responds “I’m on it; I’ll let you know more in a few minutes.”
  2. Alexa doesn’t know where Bob’s house is, but it knows it can get it from your netbook. It opens a voice channel over your wireless network (so you don’t have to “hear” it) and says “Hey Google, it’s Alexa [and here’s my credentials]; can you give me the address that [your name] means when they say ‘Bob’s house’?” And your netbook responds by reading out the address details, which Alexa then understands.
  3. Alexa doesn’t know where your self-driving car is right now and whether anybody’s using it, but it has a voice control system and a cellular network connection, so Alexa phones up your car and says: “Hey SmartCar, it’s Alexa [and here’s my credentials]; where are you and when were you last used?”. The car replies “I’m on the driveway, I’m fully-charged, and I was last used three hours ago by [your name].” So Alexa says “Okay, boot up, turn on climate control, and prepare to make a journey to [Bob’s address].” In this future world, most voice communication over telephones is done by robots: your virtual assistant calls your doctor’s virtual assistant to make you an appointment, and you and your doctor just get events in your calendars, for example, because nobody manages to come up with a universal API for medical appointments.
  4. Alexa responds “Okay, your SmartCar is ready to take you to Bob’s house.” And you have no idea about the conversations that your robots have been having behind your back

I’m not saying that this is a desirable state of affairs. I’m not even convinced that it’s likely. But it’s certainly possible if IoT development keeps focussing on shiny friendly conversational interfaces at the expense of practical, powerful technical standards. Our already topsy-turvy technologies might get weirder before they get saner.

But if English does become the “universal API” for robot-to-robot communication, despite all engineering common sense, I suggest that we call it “sandwichware”.

Parent-child play: It’s constant and exhausting, but is there a better way?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

It’s worth noting here that the idea that a parent should be a caretaker, educator, and entertainer rolled into one is not only historically, but also culturally specific. “There are lots of cultures where [parent-child play is] considered absolutely inappropriate—a parent would never get down on their knees and play with the children. Playing is something children do, not something adults do,” developmental psychologist Angeline Lillard said in an interview. “And that’s just fine. There’s no requirement for playing.”

Differences in practices around parent-child play exist within American subgroups, too. Sociologist Annette Lareau has observed a gap in beliefs about parent-child play between working-class/poor parents and middle-class parents in the United States. Working-class and poor parents in her study held a view that they were responsible for “supervision in custodial matters” (Did the child get to sleep on time? Does the child have sneakers that fit?) and “autonomy in leisure matters,” while the middle-class parents engaging in what Lareau termed “concerted cultivation” invested themselves heavily in children’s play. Ultimately, the poorer kids, Lareau found, “tended to show more creativity, spontaneity, enjoyment, and initiative in their leisure pastimes than we saw among middle-class children at play in organized activities.”

Interesting article (about 10 minutes reading), so long as you come at it from at least a little bit of an academic, anthropological perspective and so aren’t expecting to come out of it with concrete, actionable parenting advice!

Engaging in some kinds of play with your kids can be difficult. I’ve lost count of the hours spent in imaginative play with our 6-year-old, trying to follow-along with the complex narrative and characters she’s assembled and ad-lib along (and how many times she’s told me off for my character not making the choices she’d hoped they would, because she’s at least a little controlling over the stories she tells!). But I feel like it’s also a great way to engage with them, so it’s worth putting your devices out of sight, getting down on the carpet, and playing along… at least some of the time. The challenge is finding the balance between being their perpetual playmate and ensuring that they’re encouraged to “make their own fun”, which can be an important skill in being able to fight off boredom for the rest of their lives.

If I ever come up with a perfect formula, I’ll tell you; don’t hold your breath! In the meantime, reading this article might help reassure you that despite there almost-certainly not being a “right way”, there are plenty of “pretty good ways”, and the generally-good human values of authenticity and imagination and cooperation are great starting points for playing with your children, just like they are for so many other endeavours. Your kids are probably going to be okay.

Running Code Over Time

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I’m posting this on the last day of 2019.  As I write it, the second post I ever made on meyerweb says it was published “20 years, 6 days ago”.  It was published on the second-to-last day of 1999, which was 20 years and one day ago.

What I realized, once the discrepancy was pointed out to me (hat tip: Eric Portis), is the five-day error is there because in the two decades since I posted it, there have been five leap days.  When I wrote the code to construct those relative-time strings, I either didn’t think about leap days, or if I did, I decided a day or two here and there wouldn’t matter all that much.

Which is to say, I failed to think about the consequences of my code running over long periods of time.  Maybe a day or two of error isn’t all that big a deal, in human-friendly relative-time output.  If a post was six years and two days ago but the code says 6 and 1, well, nobody will really care that much even if they notice.  But five days is noticeable, and what’s more, it’s a little human-unfriendly.  It’s noticeable.  It jars.

As I mentioned in my comments on a repost last week, I work to try to make the things I publish to this site last. But that’s not to say that problems can’t creep in, either because of fundamental bugs left unnoticed until later on (such as the image recompression problem that’s recently lead to some of my older images going wonky; I’m working on it) or else because because of environmental changes e.g. in the technologies that are supported and the ways in which they’re used. The latter are helped by standards and by an adherence to them, but the former will trip over Web developers time and time again, and it’s possible that there’s nothing we can do about it.

No system is perfect, and we don’t have time to engineer every system, every site, every page in a way that near-guarantees its longevity; not by a long shot. I tripped myself over just the year before last when I added Content-Security-Policy headers to my site and promptly broke every embedded YouTube or Vimeo video because they didn’t fit the newly (and retroactively) enforced pattern of allowable content. Such problems are easy to create when you’re maintaining a long-running system with a lot of data. I’m only talking about my blog, but larger, older and/or more-complex systems (of which I’ve worked on a few!) come with their own multitudinous challenges.

That said, the Web has demonstrated a resilience that surpasses most of what is expected in consumer computing. If you want to run a video game from 1994 or even 2001 on a modern computer, you’re likely to find that you have to put in considerably more work than you would have on the day it was released! But even some of the oldest webpages still-existing remain usable today.

Occasionally, though: a “hip” modern technology without the backing of widespread browser standards comes along and creates a dark age. Flash created such a dark age; now there are millions of Flash-dependent web pages that simply don’t work any longer. Java created another. And I worry that the unnecessary overuse of front-end rendering technologies are creating a third that we’re living through right now, oblivious to the data we’re creating and losing.

Let’s think about longevity.

Subscribing to The Far Side (by RSS!)

Prior to his retirement in 1995 I managed to amass a collection of almost all of Gary Larson’s The Far Side books as well as a couple of calendars and other thingamabobs. After 24 years of silence I didn’t expect to hear anything more from him and so I was as surprised as most of the Internet was when he re-emerged last year with a brand new on his first ever website. Woah.

The Far Side by Gary Larson

Larson’s hinted that there might be new and original content there someday, but for the time being I’m just loving that I can read The Far Side comments (legitimately) via the Web for the first time! The site’s currently publishing a “Daily Dose” of classic strips, which is awesome. But… I don’t want to have to go to a website to get comics every day. Nor do I want to have to remember which days I’ve caught-up with, yet. That’s a job for computers, right? And it’s a solved problem: RSS (which has been around for almost as long as Larson hasn’t) and similar technologies allow a website to publicise that it’s got updates available in a way that people can “subscribe” to, so I should just use that, right?

Except… the new The Far Side website doesn’t have an RSS feed. Boo! Luckily, I’m not above automating the creation of feeds for websites that I wish had them, even (or perhaps especially) where that involves a little reverse-engineering of online comics. So with a little thanks to my RSS middleware RSSey… I can now read daily The Far Side comics in the way that’s most-convenient to me: right alongside my other subscriptions in my feed reader.

The Far Side comics in Dan's RSS reader.
How screen scrapers are made.

I’m afraid I’m not going to publicly*-share a ready-to-go feed URL for this one, unlike my BBC News Without The Sport feed, because a necessary side-effect of the way it works is that the ads are removed. And if I were to republish a feed containing The Far Side website cartoons but with the ads stripped I’d be guilty of, like, all the ethical and legal faults that Larson was trying to mitigate by putting his new website up in the first place! I love The Far Side and I certainly don’t want to violate its copyright!

But – at least until Larson’s web developer puts up a proper feed (with or without ads) – for those of us who like our comics delivered fresh to us every morning, here’s the source code (as an RSSey feed definition) you could use to run your own personal-use-only “give me The Far Side Daily Dose as an RSS feed” middleware.

Thanks for deciding to join us on the Internet, Gary. I hear it’s going to be a big thing, someday!

* Friends are welcome to contact me off-blog for an address if they like, if they promise to be nice and ethical about it.

Which emoji scissors close?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Ah, scissors. They’re important enough that we have an emoji for them. On your device, it appears as ✂️. Unlike the real world tool it represents, the emoji’s job is to convey the idea, especially at small sizes. It doesn’t need to be able to swing or cut things. Nevertheless, let’s judge them on that irrelevant criterion.

I’ve watched from afar as the Internet collapsed in on itself during a debate about what a cheeseburger looks like and I’ve raged a little myself at the popular depiction of juggling, but this newly-identified emoji failure is a whole new thing. Sure, emoji are supposed to be representative, not realistic. But if they have to cover sufficient diversity to include gender-neutral representations (which they absolutely should, and should have done in an early instance, but at least we’re fixing some of the issues in hindsight, like Ido did) then perhaps they could also include sufficient attention to detail that the tools they depict would actually, y’know, work?

It’s 2020 and you’re in the future

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

West Germany’s 1974 World Cup victory happened closer to the first World Cup in 1930 than to today.

The Wonder Years aired from 1988 and 1993 and depicted the years between 1968 and 1973. When I watched the show, it felt like it was set in a time long ago. If a new Wonder Years premiered today, it would cover the years between 2000 and 2005.

Also, remember when Jurassic Park, The Lion King, and Forrest Gump came out in theaters? Closer to the moon landing than today.

These things come around now and again, but I’m not sure of the universal validity of observing that a memorable event is now closer to another memorable event than it is to the present day. I don’t think that the relevance of events is as linear as that. Instead, perhaps, it looks something like this:

Graph showing that recent events matter a lot, but rapidly tail off for a while before levelling out again as they become long-ago events.
Recent events matter more than ancient events to the popular consciousness, all other things being equal, but relative to one another the ancient ones are less-relevant and there’s a steep drop-off somewhere between the two.

Where the drop-off in relevance occurs is hard to pinpoint and it probably varies a lot by the type of event that’s being remembered: nobody seems to care about what damn terrible thing Trump did last month or the month before when there’s some new terrible thing he did just this morning, for example (I haven’t looked at the news yet this morning, but honestly whenever you read this post he’ll probably have done something awful).

Nonetheless, this post on Wait But Why was a fun distraction, even if it’s been done before. Maybe the last time it happened was so long ago it’s irrelevant now?

XKCD 1393: Timeghost - 'Hello, Ghostbusters?' 'ooOOoooo people born years after that movie came out are having a second chiiiild right now ooOoooOoo'
Of course, there’s a relevant XKCD. And it was published closer to the theatrical releases of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Paranormal Activity than it was to today. OoooOOoooOOoh.

Automattic Transition (days -50 to 78)

Since I reported last summer that I’d accepted a job offer with Automattic I’ve been writing about my experience of joining and working with Automattic on a nice, round 128-day schedule.

My first post covered the first 128 days: starting from the day I decided (after 15 years of watching-from-afar) that I should apply to work there through to 51 days before my start date. It described my recruitment process, which is famously comprehensive and intensive. For me this alone was hugely broadening! My first post spanned the period up until I started getting access to Automattic’s internal systems, a month and a half before my start date. If you’re interested in my experience of recruitment at Automattic, you should go and read that post. This post, though, focusses on my induction, onboarding, and work during my first two months.

(You might also be interested in other things I’ve written about Automattic.)

Kitting Up (day -37 onwards)

Dan in front of a crowded desk: two large monitors, a regular-sized monitor, and a laptop are visible, among clutter.
I could possibly do with a little more desk space, or at least a little better desk arrangement, after the house move.

With a month to go before I started, I thought it time to start setting up my new “office” for my teleworking. Automattic offered to buy me a new desk and chair, but I’m not ready to take them up on that yet: but I’m waiting until after my (hopefully-)upcoming house move so I know how much space I’ve got to work with/what I need! There’s still plenty for a new developer to do, though: plugging in and testing my new laptop, monitor, and accessories, and doing all of the opinionated tweaks that make one’s digital environment one’s own – preferred text editor, browser, plugins, shell, tab width, mouse sensitivity, cursor blink rate… important stuff like that.

For me, this was the cause of the first of many learning experiences, because nowadays I’m working on a MacBook! Automattic doesn’t require you to use a Mac, but a large proportion of the company does and I figured that learning to use a Mac effectively would be easier than learning my new codebase on a different architecture than most of my colleagues.

Dan working on a MacBook covered with Automattic stickers, wearing a WordPress Diversity t-shirt.
Working on location, showing some Automattic pride. You can’t really make out my WordPress “Christmas jumper”, hanging on the back of the sofa, but I promise that’s what it is.

I’ve owned a couple of Intel Macs (and a couple of Hackintoshes) but I’ve never gotten on with them well enough to warrant becoming an advanced user, until now. I’ll probably write in the future about my experience of making serious use of a Mac after a history of mostly *nix and Windows machines.

Automattic also encouraged me to kit myself up with a stack of freebies to show off my affiliation, so I’ve got a wardrobe-load of new t-shirts and stickers too. It’s hard to argue that we’re a company and not a cult when we’re all dressed alike, and that’s not even mentioning a colleague of mine with two WordPress-related tattoos, but there we have it.

Dan wearing a WordPress hoodie and drinking from an Automattic bottle.
Totally not a cult. Now let me have another swig of Kool-Aid…

Role and Company

I should take a moment to say what I do. The very simple version, which I came up with to very briefly describe my new job to JTA‘s mother, is: I write software that powers an online shop that sells software that powers online shops.

Xzibit says:
It’s eCommerce all the way down. Thanks, Xzibit.

You want the long version? I’m a Code Magician (you may say it’s a silly job title, I say it’s beautiful… but I don’t necessarily disagree that it’s silly too) with Team Alpha at Automattic. We’re the engineering team behind WooCommerce.com, which provides downloads of the Web’s most-popular eCommerce platform… plus hundreds of free and premium extensions.

There’s a lot of stuff I’d love to tell you about my role and my new employer, but there’s enough to say here about my induction so I’ll be saving following topics for a future post:

  • Chaos: how Automattic produces order out of entropy, seemingly against all odds,
  • Transparency and communication: what it’s like to work in an environment of radical communication and a focus on transparency,
  • People and culture: my co-workers, our distributed team, and what is lost by not being able to “meet around the coffee machine” (and how we work to artificially recreate that kind of experience),
  • Distributed working: this is my second foray into a nearly-100% remote-working environment; how’s it different to before?

To be continued, then.

John wearing a WordPress t-shirt.
I’m not the only member of my family to benefit from a free t-shirt.

Onboarding (days 1 through 12)

I wasn’t sure how my onboarding at Automattic could compare to that which I got when I started at the Bodleian. There, my then-line manager Alison‘s obsession with preparation had me arrive to a thoroughly-planned breakdown of everything I needed to know and everybody I needed to meet over the course of my first few weeks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves little breathing room in an already intense period!

Leslie Knope (Parks & Rec) presents a pile of binders, saying
What it felt like to receive an induction from the first boss I had at the Bod.

By comparison, my induction at Automattic was far more self-guided: each day in my first fortnight saw me tackling an agenda of things to work on and – in a pleasing touch I’ve seen nowhere else – a list of expectations resulting from that day. Defined expectations day-by-day are an especially good as a tool for gauging one’s progress and it’s a nice touch that I’ll be adapting should I ever have to write another induction plan for a somebody else.

Agenda and Expectations Checklist for Dan's first day at Automattic
Both an agenda and a list of expectations for the day? That’s awesome and intimidating in equal measure.

Skipping the usual induction topics of where the fire escapes and toilets are (it’s your house; you tell us!), how to dial an outside line (yeah, we don’t really do that here), what to do to get a key to the bike shed and so on saves time, of course! But it also removes an avenue for more-casual interpersonal contact (“So how long’ve you been working here?”) and ad-hoc learning (“So I use that login on this system, right?”). Automattic’s aware of this and has an entire culture about making information accessible, but it takes additional work on the part of a new hire to proactively seek out the answers they need, when they need them: searching the relevant resources, or else finding out who to ask… and being sure to check their timezone before expecting an immediate response.

Onboarding at Automattic is necessarily at least somewhat self-driven, and it’s clear in hindsight that the recruitment process is geared towards selection of individuals who can work in this way because it’s an essential part of how we work in general. I appreciated the freedom to carve my own path as I learned the ropes, but it took me a little while to get over my initial intimidation about pinging a stranger to ask for a video/voice chat to talk through something!

Meetup (days 14 through 21)

Dan with a 50 South African Rand note.
How cool is South African currency? This note’s got a lion on it!

I’d tried to arrange my migration to Automattic to occur just before their 2019 Grand Meetup, when virtually the entire company gets together in one place for an infrequent but important gathering, but I couldn’t make it work and just barely missed it. Luckily, though, my team had planned a smaller get-together in South Africa which coincided with my second/third week, so I jetted off to get some facetime with my colleagues.

Dan sitting on a rock on Table Mountain, Cape Town, with a sunset in the background
When they say that Automatticians can work from anywhere, there might nonetheless be practical limits.

My colleague and fellow newbie Berislav‘s contract started a few hours after he landed in Cape Town, and it was helpful to my journey to see how far I’d come over the last fortnight through his eyes! He was, after all, on the same adventure as me, only a couple of weeks behind, and it was reassuring to see that I’d already learned so much as well as to be able to join in with helping him get up-to-speed, too.

Dan with a pair of African penguins
The meetup wasn’t all work. I also got to meet penguins and get attacked by one of the little buggers.

By the time I left the meetup I’d learned as much again as I had in the two weeks prior about my new role and my place in the team. I’d also learned that I’m pretty terrible at surfing, but luckily that’s not among the skills I have to master in order to become a valuable developer to Automattic.

Happiness Rotation (days 23 through 35)

A quirk of Automattic – and indeed something that attracted me to them, philosophically – is that everybody spends two weeks early in their first year and a week in every subsequent year working on the Happiness Team. Happiness at Automattic is what almost any other company would call “tech support”, because Automattic’s full of job titles and team names that are, frankly, a bit silly flipping awesome. I like this “Happiness Rotation” as a concept because it keeps the entire company focussed on customer issues and the things that really matter at the coal face. It also fosters a broader understanding of our products and how they’re used in the real world, which is particularly valuable to us developers who can otherwise sometimes forget that the things we produce have to be usable by real people with real needs!

Happiness Live Chat screenshot, customer's view.
Once I’d gotten the hang of answering tickets I got to try my hand at Live Chat, which was a whole new level of terrifying.

One of the things that made my Happiness Rotation the hardest was also one of the things that made it the most-rewarding: that I didn’t really know most of the products I was supporting! This was a valuable experience because I was able to learn as-I-went-along, working alongside my (amazingly supportive and understanding) Happiness Team co-workers: the people who do this stuff all the time. But simultaneously, it was immensely challenging! My background in WordPress in general, plenty of tech support practice at Three Rings, and even my experience of email support at Samaritans put me in a strong position in-general… but I found that I could very-quickly find myself out of my depth when helping somebody with the nitty-gritty of a problem with a specific WooCommerce extension.

Portering and getting DRI (days 60 through 67)

I’ve also had the opportunity during my brief time so far with Automattic to take on a few extra responsibilities within my team. My team rotates weekly responsibility for what they call the Porter role. The Porter is responsible for triaging pull requests and monitoring blocking issues and acting as a first point-of-call to stakeholders: you know, the stuff that’s important for developer velocity but that few developers want to do all the time. Starting to find my feet in my team by now, I made it my mission during my first shift as Porter to get my team to experiment with an approach for keeping momentum on long-running issues, with moderate success (as a proper continuous-integration shop, velocity is important and measurable). It’s pleased me so far to feel like I’m part of a team where my opinion matters, even though I’m “the new guy”.

A woman carries a large cardboard box.
“Here, I found these things we need to be working on.” Pretty much how I see the Porter role.

I also took on my first project as a Directly Responsible Individual, which is our fancy term for the person who makes sure the project runs to schedule, reports on progress etc. Because Automattic more strongly than any other place I’ve ever worked subscribes to a dogfooding strategy, the woocommerce.com online store for which I share responsibility runs on – you guessed it – WooCommerce! And so the first project for which I’m directly responsible is the upgrade of woocommerce.com to the latest version of WooCommerce, which went into beta last month. Fingers crossed for a smooth deployment.

There’s so much I’d love to say about Automattic’s culture, approach to development, people, products, philosophy, and creed, but that’ll have to wait for another time. For now, suffice to say that I’m enjoying this exciting and challenging new environment and I’m looking forward to reporting on them in another 128 days or so.

The Legend of the Homicidal Fire-Proof Salamander

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

In the first century AD, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder threw a salamander into a fire. He wanted to see if it could indeed not only survive the flames, but extinguish them, as Aristotle had claimed such creatures could. But the salamander didn’t … uh … make it.

Yet that didn’t stop the legend of the fire-proof salamander (a name derived from the Persian meaning “fire within”) from persisting for 1,500 more years, from the Ancient Romans to the Middle Ages on up to the alchemists of the Renaissance. Some even believed it was born in fire, like the legendary Phoenix, only slimier and a bit less dramatic. And that its fur (huh?) could be used to weave fire-resistant garments.

Back when the world felt bigger and more-mysterious it was easier for people to come to the conclusion, based on half-understood stories passed-on many times, that creatures like unicorns, dragons, and whatever the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was supposed to be, might exist just beyond the horizons. Nature was full of mystery and the simple answer – that salamanders might live in logs and then run to escape when those logs are thrown onto a fire – was far less-appealing than the idea that they might be born from the fire itself! Let’s not forget that well into the Middle Ages it was widely believed that many forms of life appeared not through reproduction but by spontaneous generation: clams forming themselves out of sand, maggots out of meat, and so on… with this underlying philosophy, it’s easy to make the leap that sure, amphibians from fire makes sense too, right?

Perhaps my favourite example of such things is the barnacle goose, which – prior to the realisation that birds migrate and coupled with them never being seen to nest in England – lead to the widespread belief that they spontaneously developed (at the appropriate point in the season) from shellfish… this may be the root of the word “barnacle” as used to describe the filter-feeders with which we’re familiar. So prevalent was this belief that well into the 15th century (and in some parts of the world the late 18th century) this particular species of goose was treated as being a fish, not a bird, for the purpose of Christian fast-days.

Anyway; that diversion aside, this article’s an interesting look at the history of mythological beliefs about salamanders.

This Page is Designed to Last: A Manifesto for Preserving Content on the Web

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

How do we make web content that can last and be maintained for at least 10 years? As someone studying human-computer interaction, I naturally think of the stakeholders we aren’t supporting. Right now putting up web content is optimized for either the professional web developer (who use the latest frameworks and workflows) or the non-tech savvy user (who use a platform).

But I think we should consider both 1) the casual web content “maintainer”, someone who doesn’t constantly stay up to date with the latest web technologies, which means the website needs to have low maintenance needs; 2) and the crawlers who preserve the content and personal archivers, the “archiver”, which means the website should be easy to save and interpret.

So my proposal is seven unconventional guidelines in how we handle websites designed to be informative, to make them easy to maintain and preserve. The guiding intention is that the maintainer will try to keep the website up for at least 10 years, maybe even 20 or 30 years. These are not controversial views necessarily, but are aspirations that are not mainstream—a manifesto for a long-lasting website.

This page is designed to last, too. In fact, virtually every post of any type I’ve made to this blog (since 2003, older content may vary) has been designed with the intention that it ought to be accessible without dependence on CSS, Javascript, nor any proprietary technology, that the code should be as human-readable as posssible, and that the site itself should be as “archivable” as possible, just as a matter of course.

But that’s only 15 years of dedicated effort to longevity and I’ve still not achieved 100% success! For example, consider my blog post of 14 December 2003, describing the preceeding Troma Night, whose content was lost during the great server failure of July 2004 and for which the backups were unable to completely describe. I’m more-careful now, with more redundancies and backups, but it’s still always going to be the case that a sufficiently-devastating set of simultaneous failures could take this content away. All information has fragility and we can work to mitigate it but we can never completely solve it.

The large number of dead outbound links on the older parts of my site is both worrying – that most others don’t seem to have the same level of commitment to the retention of articles on the Web – and reassuring – that I’m doing significantly better than the average. So next, I guess, I need to focus my attention – like Jeff is – on how we can make such efforts usable by other people, too. The Web belongs to all of us, after all.

I ignored warnings from friends and family not to marry my husband

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

When I was 20, a man I barely knew proposed without a ring.

I said yes.

Our friends were alarmed about our fast decisions to marry and move from Tennessee to New York City. I got a handwritten letter from an elder at church suggesting I wait to get to know my fiance better. His friends held a tearful intervention. One of our beloved professors questioned the decision. My mother referred to my fiance not by his name — David — but by the nickname “rank stranger.”

But we were in love. After refusing premarital counseling (we didn’t need it, we insisted), David and I got married and moved to Gramercy Park. We could see the Empire State Building at night when it was illuminated, if we craned our necks while sitting on our creaky fire escape.

My life was as romantic as a love song. Then, after one week of marriage, the phone rang.

Delightful story full of twists and turns on The Washington Post (warning: their adwall has a less-than-ethical/probably-not-legal approach to GDPR compliance for those of us in Europe so you might like to obfuscate your footprint or at least use privacy mode when visiting); seems like it’s going to be much darker than it is but turns out surprisingly uplifting. Give it a read.