I’ve been watching the output that people machines around the Internet have been producing using GPT-3 (and its cousins), an AI model that can produce long-form “human-like” text. Here’s some things I’ve enjoyed recently:
I played for a bit with AI Dungeon‘s (premium) Dragon engine, which came up with Dan and the Spider’s Curse when used as a virtual DM/GM. I pitched an idea to Robin lately that one could run a vlog series based on AI Dungeon-generated adventures: coming up with a “scene”, performing it, publishing it, and taking suggestions via the comments for the direction in which the adventure might go next (but leaving the AI to do the real writing).
Language contains the map to a better world. Those that are most skilled at removing obstacles, misdirection, and lies from language, that reveal the maps that are hidden within, are the guides that will lead us to happiness.
Yesterday, The Guardian published the op-ed piece A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human? It’s edited together from half a dozen or so essays produced by the AI from the same starting prompt, but the editor insists that this took less time than the editing process on most human-authored op-eds. It’s good stuff. I found myself reminded of Nobody Knows You’re A Machine, a short story I wrote about eight years ago and was never entirely happy with but which I’ve put online in order to allow you to see for yourself what I mean.
As effective conversational AI becomes increasingly accessible, I become increasingly convinced what we might eventually see a sandwichware future, where it’s cheaper for an appliance developer to install an AI into the device (to allow it to learn how to communicate with your other appliances, in a human language, just like you will) rather than rely on a static and universal underlying computer protocol as an API. Time will tell.
Meanwhile: I promise that this post was written by a human!
Enter the latest iteration of the Android version, Firefox Daylight, which came out last week.
First, the good: this latest version of Firefox for Android is fast. Blazingly fast. The privacy controls are clearer and easier to access. Having picture-in-picture mode on mobile is a nice touch, as is the new generation of tracking prevention features.
But Firefox Daylight still makes me frown. And it’s a trio of smaller things that really niggle:
1. Top or bottom toolbar… but top is a second-class citizen.
In theory, I like the idea of having the address bar and its friends at the bottom of the screen where it’s more-accessible to your thumb. I’ve even tried it, independently. in years past. But it’s too much of a mental leap for me nowadays, plus it doesn’t cleanly fit into the “scroll down and the address bar disappears” user experience that’s become commonplace.
Making bottom toolbar the default was perhaps a little radical, then, but at least Mozilla provided an option to put it back at the top. But… it’s not quite right:
Even with the toolbar moved back to the top, some controls associated with it stay at the bottom. Want to open a new tab? You have to press the “tabs” button at the top of the screen, then the “plus” button at the bottom of the screen, then – probably – the address bar back at the top of the screen again! You’ve just covered two complete lengths of the screen to do something that used to require none. Not a satisfactory experience.
2. Tab previews were more space-efficient before
You’ve probably already spotted the other change to the “current tabs” view. Previously, open tabs were shown as mini previews with their titles above. Now they’re shown as tiny (sometimes absent) icon-sized previews with their titles alongside. This allows the domain name to be shown, which is nice, but not nice enough to justify reducing the instant visual recognition the previous interface provided.
It’s not even like you can fit more tabs onto a screen. The capacity is basically the same. You’re just making smaller hit targets with less recognisable graphics. Plus: previously the most-recent tabs were at the bottom (close to where your thumb is, which was the justification for making the address bar default to the bottom); now they’re at the top, further adding to the distance travelled.
3. Plugin support is terrible
I know first hand that implementing backwards-compatibility is hard, but breaking most plugins and then providing a list of nine or so popular/recommended ones that still works isn’t a great experience.
Feels a bit like this was released before it was ready.
For the time being, I’m using Fennec F-Droid as my primary mobile browser. It picks up exactly where Firefox for Android left off, and it doesn’t break my workflow. I hope to switch back to regular Firefox for Android someday, but Daylight needs “finishing” first.
You see what that’s doing? It’s loading the stylesheet for the print medium, but then when the document finishes loading it’s switching the media type from “print” to “all”. Because it didn’t apply to begin with the stylesheet isn’t render-blocking. You can use this to delay secondary styles so the page essentials can load at full speed.
I don’t like this approach. I mean: I love the elegance… I just don’t like the implications.
In principle, it’s this:
If you need support for Internet Explorer, you need a little more work, because Internet Explorer doesn’t expose<noscript> blocks to the DOM in a helpful way. There are a variety of possible workarounds; I’ve implemented one but not put too much thought into it because I rarely have to think about Internet Explorer these days.
In any case, I’ve implemented a proof of concept/demonstration if you’d like to see it in action: just take a look and view source (or read the page) for details. Or view the source alone via this gist.
This week, with help from Robin and JTA, I built a TropicTemple Tall XXL climbing frame in the garden of our new house. Manufacturer Fatmoose provided us with a pallet-load of lumber and a sack of accessories, delivered to our driveway, based on a design Ruth and I customised using their website, and we assembled it on-site over the course of around three days. The video above is a timelapse taken from our kitchen window using a tablet I set up for that purpose, interspersed with close-up snippets of us assembling it and of the children testing it out.
I’ve also built a Virtual Tour so you can explore the playframe using your computer, phone, or VR headset. Take a look!
This last month or so, my digital life has been dramatically improved by Syncthing. So much so that I want to tell you about it.
I started using it last month. Basically, what it does is keeps a pair of directories on remote systems “in sync” with one another. So far, it’s like your favourite cloud storage service, albeit self-hosted and much-more customisable. But it’s got a handful of killer features that make it nothing short of a dream to work with:
The unique identifier for a computer can be derived from its public key. Encryption comes free as part of the verification of a computer’s identity.
You can share any number of folders with any number of other computers, point-to-point or via an intermediate proxy, and it “just works”.
It’s super transparent: you can always see what it’s up to, you can tweak the configuration to match your priorities, and it’s open source so you can look at the engine if you like.
Here are some of the ways I’m using it:
Keeping my phone camera synced to my PC
I’ve tried a lot of different solutions for this over the years. Back in the way-back-when, like everybody else in those dark times, I used to plug my phone in using a cable to copy pictures off and sort them. Since then, I’ve tried cloud solutions from Google, Amazon, and Flickr and never found any that really “worked” for me. Their web interfaces and apps tend to be equally terrible for organising or downloading files, and I’m rarely able to simply drag-and-drop images from them into a blog post like I can from Explorer/Finder/etc.
At first, I set this up as a one-way sync, “pushing” photos and videos from my phone to my desktop PC whenever I was on an unmetered WiFi network. But then I switched it to a two-way sync, enabling me to more-easily tidy up my phone of old photos too, by just dragging them from the folder that’s synced with my phone to my regular picture storage.
Centralising my backups
Now I’ve got a fancy NAS device with tonnes of storage, it makes sense to use it as a central point for backups to run fom. Instead of having many separate backup processes running on different computers, I can just have each of them sync to the NAS, and the NAS can back everything up. Computers don’t need to be “on” at a particular time because the NAS runs all the time, so backups can use the Internet connection when it’s quietest. And in the event of a hardware failure, there’s an up-to-date on-site backup in the first instance: the cloud backup’s only needed in the event of accidental data deletion (which could be sync’ed already, of course!). Plus, integrating the sync with ownCloud running on the NAS gives easy access to my files wherever in the world I am without having to fire up a VPN or otherwise remote-in to my house.
Plus: because Syncthing can share a folder between any number of devices, the same sharing mechanism that puts my phone’s photos onto my main desktop can simultaneously be pushing them to the NAS, providing redundant connections. And it was a doddle to set up.
Maintaining my media centre’s screensaver
Since the NAS, running Jellyfin, took on most of the media management jobs previously shared between desktop computers and the media centre computer, the household media centre’s had less to do. But one thing that it does, and that gets neglected, is showing a screensaver of family photos (when it’s not being used for anything else). Historically, we’ve maintained the photos in that collection via a shared network folder, but then you’ve got credential management and firewall issues to deal with, not to mention different file naming conventions by different people (and their devices).
But simply sharing the screensaver’s photo folder with the computer of anybody who wants to contribute photos means that it’s as easy as copying the picture to a particular place. It works on whatever device they care to (computer, tablet, mobile) on any operating system, and it’s quick and seamless. I’m just using it myself, for now, but I’ll be offering it to the rest of the family soon. It’s a trivial use-case, but once you’ve got it installed it just makes sense.
In short: this month, I’m in love with Syncthing. And maybe you should be, too.
For most of the last decade, one of my side projects has been FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, a website that helps British adults to change their name for free and without a solicitor. Here’s a little known fact: as a British citizen, you have the right to be known by virtually any name you like, and for most people the simplest way to change it is to write out a deed poll: basically a one-person contract on which you promise that you’re serious about adopting your new name and you’re not committing fraud or anything.
Over that time, I’ve helped thousands of people to change their names. I don’t know exactly how many because I don’t keep any logs, but I’ve always gotten plenty of email from people about the project. Contact spiked in 2013 after the Guardian ran an article about it, but I still correspond with two or three people in a typical week.
These people have lots of questions that come up time and time again, and if I had more free time I’d maintain an FAQ of them or something. In any case, a common one is people asking for advice when their high street bank, almost invariably either Nationwide or Santander, disputes the legitimacy of a “home made” deed poll and refuses to accept it.
When such people contact me, I advise them of a number of solutions and workarounds. Going to a different branch can work (training at these high street banks is internally inconsistent, I guess?). Getting your government-issued identity documents sorted and then threatening to move your account elsewhere can sometimes work. For applicants willing to spend a little money, paying a solicitor a couple of quid to be one of your witnesses can work. I often don’t hear back from people who email me about these banks: maybe they find success by one of these routes, or maybe they give up and go down one an unnecessarily-expensive avenue.
But one thing I always put on the table is the possibility of fighting. I provide a playbook of strategies to try to demonstrate to their troublemaking bank that the bank is in the wrong, along with all of the appropriate legal citations. Recent years put a new tool in the box: the GDPR/DPA2018, which contains clauses prohibiting companies from knowingly retaining incorrect personal data about an individual. I’ve been itching for a chance to use these new weapons… and over this last month, I finally had the opportunity.
I was recently contacted by a student (who, as you might expect, has more free time than they do spare money!) who was having trouble with Santander refusing to accept their deed poll. They were willing to go all-out to prove their bank wrong. So I gave them the toolbox and they worked through it and… Santander caved!
Not only have Santander accepted that they were wrong in the case of this student, but they’ve also committed to retraining their staff. Oh, and they’ve paid compensation to the student who emailed me.
Even from my position on the sidelines, I couldn’t help but cheer at this news, and not just because I’ll hopefully have fewer queries to deal with.
As always seems to happen when I move house, a piece of computer hardware broke for me during my recent house move. It’s always exactly one piece of hardware, like it’s a symbolic recognition by the universe that being lugged around, rattling around and butting up against one another, is not the natural state of desktop computers. Nor is it a comfortable journey for the hoarder-variety of geek nervously sitting in front of them, tentatively turning their overloaded vehicle around each and every corner. UserFriendly said it right in this comic from 2003.
This time around, it was one of the hard drives in Renegade, my primary Windows-running desktop, that failed. (At least I didn’t break myself, this time.)
Fortunately, it failed semi-gracefully: the S.M.A.R.T. alarm went off about a week before it actually started causing real problems, giving me at least a little time to prepare, and – better yet – the drive was part of a four-drive RAID 10 hot-swappable array, which means that every single byte of data on that drive was already duplicated to a second drive.
Incidentally, this configuration may have indirectly contributed to its death: before I built Fox, our new household NAS, I used Renegade for many of the same purposes, but WD Blues are not really a “server grade” hard drive and this one and its siblings will have seen more and heavier use than they might have expected over the last few years. (Fox, you’ll be glad to hear, uses much better-rated drives for her arrays.)
So no data was lost, but my array was degraded. I could have simply repaired it and carried on by adding a replacement similarly-sized hard drive, but my needs have changed now that Fox is on the scene, so instead I decided to downgrade to a simpler two-disk RAID 1 array for important data and an “at-risk” unmirrored drive for other data. This retains the performance of the previous array at the expense of a reduction in redundancy (compared to, say, a three-disk RAID 5 array which would have retained redundancy at the expense of performance). As I said: my needs have changed.
Fixing Things… Fast!
In any case, the change in needs (plus the fact that nobody wants watch an array rebuild in a different configuration on a drive with system software installed!) justified a reformat-and-reinstall, which leads to the point of this article: how I optimised my reformat-and-reinstall using Chocolatey.
Chocolatey is a package manager for Windows: think like apt for Debian-like *nices (you know I do!) or Homebrew for MacOS. For previous Windows system rebuilds I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of Ninite, which will build you a one-click installer for your choice of many of your favourite tools, so you can get up-and-running faster. But Chocolatey’s package database is much more expansive and includes bonus switches for specifying particular versions of applications, so it’s a clear winner in my mind.
So I made up a Windows installation pendrive and added to it a “script” of things to do to get Renegade back into full working order. You can read the full script here, but the essence of it was:
Reconfigure the RAID array, reformat, reinstall Windows, and create an account.
Configuration (e.g. set up my unusual keyboard mappings, register software, set up remote connections and backups, etc.).
By scripting virtually all of the above I was able to rearrange hard drives in and then completely reimage a (complex) working Windows machine with well under an hour of downtime; I can thoroughly recommend Chocolatey next time you have to set up a new Windows PC (or just to expand what’s installed on your existing one). There’s a GUI if you’re not a fan of the command line, of course.
About three months ago, my friend Claire, in a WhatsApp group we both frequent, shared a brainteaser:
The puzzle was to be interpreted as follows: you have a three-digit combination lock with numbers 0-9; so 1,000 possible combinations in total. Bulls and Cows-style, a series of clues indicate how “close” each of several pre-established “guesses” are. In “bulls and cows” nomenclature, a “bull” is a correctly-guessed digit in the correct location and a “cow” is a correctly-guessed digit in the wrong location, so the puzzle’s clues are:
682 – one bull
614 – one cow
206 – two cows
738 – no bulls, no cows
380 – one cow
By the time I’d solved her puzzle the conventional way I was already interested in the possibility of implementing a general-case computerised solver for this kind of puzzle, so I did. My solver uses a simple “brute force” technique, as follows:
Put all possible combinations into a search space.
For each clue, remove from the search space all invalid combinations.
Whatever combination is left is the correct answer.
Visualising the solver as a series of bisections of a search space got me thinking about something else: wouldn’t this be a perfectly reasonable way to programatically generate puzzles of this type, too? Something like this:
Put all possible combinations into a search space.
Randomly generate a clue such that the search space is bisected (within given parameters to ensure that neither too many nor too few clues are needed)
Repeat until only one combination is left
Interestingly, this approach is almost the opposite of what a human would probably do. A human, tasked with creating a puzzle of this sort, would probably choose the answer first and then come up with clues that describe it. Instead, though, my solution would come up with clues, apply them, and then see what’s left-over at the end.
I expanded my generator to go beyond simple bulls-or-cows clues: it’s also capable of generating clues that make reference to the balance of odd and even digits (in a numeric lock), the number of different digits used in the combination, the sum of the digits of the combination, and whether or not the correct combination “ascends” or “descends”. I’ve ideas for other possible clue types too, which could be valuable to make even tougher combination locks: e.g. specifying how many numbers in the combination are adjacent to a consecutive number, specifying the types of number that the sum of the digits adds to (e.g. “the sum of the digits is a prime number”) and so on.
Next up, I wanted to make a based interface so that people could have a go at the puzzles in their web browser, track their progress through the levels, get a “score” based on the number and difficulty of the locks that they’d cracked (so they can compare it to their friends), and save their progress to carry on next time.
I implemented in pure vanilla HTML, CSS, SVG and JS, with no dependencies. Compressed, it delivers to your browser and is ready-to-play in a little under 10kB, most of which is the puzzles themselves (which are pregenerated and stored in a JSON file). Naturally, it lends itself well to running offline, so it’s PWA-enhanced with a service worker so it can be “installed” onto your device, too, and it’ll check for bonus puzzles and other updates periodically.
Honestly, the hardest bit of implementing the frontend was the “spinnable” digits: depending on your browser, these are an endless-scrolling <ul> implemented mostly in CSS and with snap points set, and then some JS to work out “what you meant” based on where you span to. Which feels like the right way to implement such a thing, but was a lot more work than putting together my own control, not least because of browser inconsistencies in the implementation of snap points.
Anyway: you should go and play the game, now, and let me know what you think. Is it worth expanding and improving? Should I leave it as it is? I’m open to ideas (and if you don’t like that I’m not implementing your suggestions, you can always fork a copy of the code and change it yourself)!
Seven years ago, I wrote a six-part blog series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) about our Ruth, JTA and I’s experience of buying our first house. Now, though, we’re moving again, and it’s brought up all the same kinds of challenges and stresses as last time, plus a whole lot of bonus ones to boot.
In particular, new challenges this time around have included:
As owners, rather than renters, we’ve had both directions on the ladder to deal with. Not only did we have to find somewhere to move to that we can afford but we needed to find somebody who’d buy our current house (for enough money that we can afford the new place).
The first letting agents we appointed were pretty useless, somehow managing to get us no viewings whatsoever. Incidentally their local branch got closed soon after we ditched them and the last time I checked, the building was still up for sale: it doesn’t bode well for them that they can’t even sell their own building, does it?
The replacement letting agents (who sold us this house in the first place) were much better, but it still took a long time before we started getting offers we could act on.
We finally selected some buyers, accepting a lower offer because they were cash buyers and it would allow us to act quickly on the property we wanted to buy, only for the coronavirus lockdown to completely scupper our plans of a speedy move. And make any move a logistical nightmare.
Plus: we’re now doing this with lots more stuff (this won’t be a “rally some friends and rent a van” job like last time!), with two kids (who’re under our feet a lot on account of the lockdown), and so on.
But it’s finally all coming together. We’ve got a house full of boxes, mind, and we can’t find anything, and somehow it still doesn’t feel like we’re prepared for when the removals lorry comes later this week. But we’re getting there. After a half-hour period between handing over the keys to the old place and picking up the keys to the new place (during which I guess we’ll technically be very-briefly homeless) we’ll this weekend be resident in our new home.
Our new house will:
Be out in the fabulous West Oxfordshire countryside.
Have sufficient rooms to retain an office and a “spare” bedroom while still giving the kids each their own bedroom.
Boast a fabulously-sized garden (we might have already promised the kids a climbing frame).
Have an incredible amount of storage space plus the potential for further expansion/conversion should the need ever arise. (On our second-to-last visit to the place with discovered an entire room, albeit an unfinished one, that we hadn’t known about before!)
Get ludicrously fast Internet access.
We lose some convenient public transport links, but you can’t have everything. And with me working from home all the time, Ruth – like many software geeks – likely working from home for the foreseeable future (except when she cycles into work), and JTA working from home for now but probably returning to what was always a driving commute “down the line”, those links aren’t as essential to us as they once were.
Sure: we’re going to be paying for it for the rest of our lives. But right now, at least, it feels like what we’re buying is a house we could well live in for the rest of our lives, too.
It had been a long while since our last murder mystery party: we’ve only done one or two “kit” ones since we moved in to our current house in 2013, and we’re long-overdue a homegrown one (who can forget the joy of Murder at the Magic College?), but in the meantime – and until I have the time and energy to write another one of my own – we thought we’d host another.
But how? Courtesy of the COVID-19 crisis and its lockdown, none of our friends could come to visit. Technology to the rescue!
I took a copy of Michael Akers‘ murder mystery party plan, Sour Grapes of Wrath, and used it as the basis for Sour Grapes, a digitally-enhanced (and generally-tweaked) version of the same story, and recruited Ruth, JTA, Jen, Matt R, Alec and Suz to perform the parts. Given that I’d had to adapt the materials to make them suitable for our use I had to assign myself a non-suspect part and so I created police officer (investigating the murder) whose narration provided a framing device for the scenes.
The party itself took place over Discord video chat, with which I’d recently had a good experience in an experimental/offshoot Abnib group (separate from our normal WhatsApp space) and my semi-associated Dungeons & Dragons group. There were a few technical hiccups, but only what you’d expect.
The party itself rapidly descended into the usual level of chaos. Lots of blame thrown, lots of getting completely off-topic and getting distracted solving the wrong puzzles, lots of discussion about the legitimacy of one of several red herrings, and so on. Michael Akers makes several choices in his writing that don’t appear in mine – such as not revealing the identity of the murderer even to the murderer until the final statements – which I’m not a fan of but retained for the sake of honouring the original text, but if I were to run a similar party again I’d adapt this, as I had a few other aspects of the setting and characters. I think it leads to a more fun game if, in the final act, the murderer knows that they committed the crime, that all of the lies they’ve already told are part of their alibi-building, and they’re given carte blanche to lie as much as they like in an effort to “get away with it” from then on.
Of course, Ruth felt the need to cater for the event – as she’s always done with spectacular effect at every previous murder mystery she’s hosted or we’ve collectively hosted – despite the distributed partygoers. And so she’d arranged for a “care package” of wine and cheese to be sent to each household. The former was, as always, an excellent source of social lubrication among people expected to start roleplaying a random character on short notice; the latter a delightful source of snacking as we all enjoyed the closest thing we’ll get to a “night out” in many months.
This was highly experimental, and there are lessons-for-myself I’d take away from it:
If you’re expecting people to use their mobiles, remember to test thoroughly on mobiles. You’d think I’d know this, by now. It’s only, like, my job.
When delivering clues and things digitally, keep everything in one place. Switching back and forth between the timeline that supports your alibi and the new information you’ve just learned is immersion-breaking. Better yet, look into ways to deliver physical “feelies” to people if it’s things that don’t need sharing, and consider ways to put shared clues up on everybody’s “big screen”.
Find time to write more murder mysteries. They’re much better than kit-style ones; I’ve got a system and it works. I really shout get around to writing up how I make them, some day; I think there’s lessons there for other people who want to make their own, too.
Meanwhile: if you want to see some moments from Sour Grapes, there’s a mini YouTube playlist I might get around to adding to at some point. Here’s a starter if you’re interested in what we got up to (with apologies for the audio echo, which was caused by a problem with the recording software):
When the COVID-19 lockdown forced many offices to close and their staff to work remotely, some of us saw what was unfolding as an… opportunity in disguise. Instead of the slow-but-steady decentralisation of work that’s very slowly become possible (technically, administratively, and politically) over the last 50 years, suddenly a torrent of people were discovering that remote working can work.
The Future is Now
As much as I hate to be part of the “where’s my flying car?” brigade, I wrote ten years ago about my dissatisfaction that remote working wasn’t yet commonplace, let alone mainstream. I recalled a book I’d read as a child in the 1980s that promised a then-future 2020 of:
near-universal automation of manual labour as machines become capable of an increasing diversity of human endeavours (we’re getting there, but slowly),
a three- or four-day work week becoming typical as efficiency improvements are reinvested in the interests of humans rather than of corporations (we might have lost sight of that goal along the way, although there’s been some fresh interest in it lately), and
widespread “teleworking”/”telecommuting”, as white-collar sectors grow and improvements in computing and telecommunications facilitate the “anywhere office”
Of those three dreams, the third soon seemed like it would become the most-immediate. Revolutionary advances in mobile telephony, miniaturisation of computers, and broadband networking ran way ahead of the developments in AI that might precipitate the first dream… or the sociological shift required for the second. But still… progress was slow.
At eight years old, I genuinely believed that most of my working life would be spent… wherever I happened to be. So far, most of my working life has been spent in an office, despite personally working quite hard for that not to be the case!
I started at Automattic six months ago, an entirely distributed company. And so when friends and colleagues found themselves required to work remotely by the lockdown they came in droves to me for advice about how to do it! I was, of course, happy to help where I could: questions often covered running meetings and projects, maintaining morale, measuring output, and facilitating communication… and usually I think I gave good answers. Sometimes, though, the answer was “If you’re going to make that change, you’re going to need a cultural shift and some infrastructure investment first.” Y’know: “Don’t start from here.” If you received that advice from me: sorry!
More-recently, I was excited to see that many companies have adopted this “new normal” not as a temporary measure, but as a possible shape of things to come. Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Square, and Spotify have all announced that they’re going to permit or encourage remote work as standard, even after the crisis is over.
Obviously tech companies are leading the way, here: not only are they most-likely to have the infrastructure and culture already in place to support this kind of shift. Also, they’re often competing for the same pool of talent and need to be seen as at-least as progressive as their direct rivals. Matt Mullenweg observes that:
What’s going to be newsworthy by the end of the year is not technology companies saying they’re embracing distributed work, but those that aren’t.
…some employers trapped in the past will force people to go to offices, but the illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies who embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.
We’re all acutely familiar with the challenges companies are faced with today as they adapt to a remote-first environment. I’m more interested in the challenges that they might face in the future, as they attempt to continue to use a distributed workforce as the pandemic recedes. It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that what many people are doing today is a rehearsal for the future of work, but the future will look different.
Some people, of course, prefer to spend some or all of their work hours in an office environment. Of the companies that went remote-first during the lockdown and now plan to stay that way indefinitely, some will lose employees who preferred the “old way”. For this and other reasons, some companies will retain their offices and go remote-optional, allowing flexible teleworking, and this has it’s own pitfalls:
Some remote-optional offices have an inherent bias towards in-person staff. In some companies with a mixture of in-person and remote staff, remote workers don’t get included in ad-hoc discussions, or don’t become part of the in-person social circles. They get overlooked for projects or promotions, or treated as second-class citizens. It’s easy to do this completely by accident and create a two-tiered system, which can lead to a cascade effect that eventually collapses the “optional” aspect of remote-optional; nowhere was this more visible that in Yahoo!’s backslide against remote-optional working in 2013.
Some remote-optional offices retain an archaic view on presenteeism and “core hours”. Does the routine you keep really matter? Remote-first working demands that productivity is measured by output, not by attendance, but management-by-attendance is (sadly) easier to implement, and some high-profile organisations favour this lazy but less-effective approach. It’s easy, but ineffective, for a remote-optional company to simply extend hours-counting performance metrics to their remote staff. Instead, allowing your staff (insofar as is possible) to work the hours that suit them as individuals opens up your hiring pool to a huge number of groups whom you might not otherwise reach (like single parents, carers, digital nomads, and international applicants) and helps you to get the best out of every one of them, whether they’re an early bird, a night owl, or somebody who’s most-productive after their siesta!
Pastoral care doesn’t stop being important after the crisis is over. Many companies that went remote-first for the coronavirus crisis have done an excellent job of being supportive and caring towards their employees (who, of course, are also victims of the crisis: by now, is there anybody whose life hasn’t been impacted?). But when these companies later go remote-optional, it’ll be easy for them to regress to their old patterns. They’ll start monitoring the wellbeing only of those right in front of them. Remote working is already challenging, but it can be made much harder if your company culture makes it hard to take a sick day, seek support on a HR issue, or make small-talk with a colleague.
These are challenges specifically for companies that go permanently remote-optional following a period of remote-first during the coronavirus crisis.
Towards a Post-Lockdown Remote-Optional Workplace
How you face those challenges will vary for every company and industry, but it seems to me that there are five lessons a company can learn as it adapts to remote-optional work in a post-lockdown world:
Measure impact, not input. You can’t effectively manage a remote team by headcount or closely tracking hours; you need to track outputs (what is produced), not inputs (person-hours). If your outputs aren’t measurable, make them measurable, to paraphrase probably-not-Galileo. Find metrics you can work with and rely on, keep them transparent and open, and re-evaluate often. Use the same metrics for in-office and remote workers.
Level the playing field. Learn to spot the biases you create. Do the in-person attendees do all the talking at your semi-remote meetings? Do your remote workers have to “call in” to access information only stored on-site (including in individual’s heads)? When they’re small, these biases have a huge impact on productivity and morale. If they get big, they collapse your remote-optional environment.
Always think bigger. You’re already committing to a shakeup, dragging your company from the 2020 of the real world into the 2020 we once dreamed of. Can you go further? Can you let your staff pick their own hours? Or workdays? Can your staff work in other countries? Can you switch some of your synchronous communications channels (e.g. meetings) into asynchronous information streams (chat, blogs, etc.)? Which of your telecommunications tools serve you, and which do you serve?
Remember the human. Your remote workers aren’t faceless (pantsless) interchangeable components in your corporate machine. Foster interpersonal relationships and don’t let technology sever the interpersonal links between your staff. Encourage and facilitate (optional, but awesome) opportunities for networking and connection. Don’t forget to get together in-person sometimes: we’re a pack animal, and we form tribes more-easily when we can see one another.
Support people through the change. Remote working requires a particular skillset; provide tools to help your staff adapt to it. Make training and development options available to in-office staff too: encourage as flexible a working environment as your industry permits. Succeed, and your best staff will pay you back in productivity and loyalty. Fail, and your best staff will leave you for your competitors.
I’m less-optimistic than Matt that effective distributed working is the inexorable future of work. But out of the ashes of the coronavirus crisis will come its best chance yet, and I know that there’ll be companies who get left behind in the dust. What are you doing to make sure your company isn’t one of them?
Since I accepted a job offer with Automattic last summer I’ve been writing about my experience on a nice, round 128-day schedule. My first post described my application and recruitment process; my second post covered my induction, my initial two weeks working alongside the Happiness team (tech support), and my first month in my role. This is the third post, running through to the end of six and a half months as an Automattician.
Always Be Deploying
One of the things that’s quite striking about working on many of Automattic’s products, compared to places I’ve worked before, is the velocity. Their continuous integration game is pretty spectacular. We’re not talking “move fast and break things” iteration speeds (thank heavens), but we’re still talking fast.
My team tackles a constant stream of improvements in two-week sprints, with every third sprint being a cool-down period to focus on refactoring, technical debt, quick wins, and the like. Periodic HACK weeks – where HACK is (since 2018) a backronym for Helpful Acts in Customer Kindness – facilitate focussed efforts on improving our ecosystem and user experiences.
I’m working in a larger immediate team than I had for most of my pre-Automattic career. I’m working alongside nine other developers, typically in groups of two to four depending on the needs of whatever project I’m on. There’s a great deal of individual autonomy: we’re all part of a greater whole and we’re all pushing in the same direction, but outside of the requirements of the strategic goals of our division, the team’s tactical operations are very-much devolved and consensus-driven. We work out as a team how to solve the gnarly (and fun!) problems, how to make best use of our skills, how to share our knowledge, and how to schedule our priorities.
This team-level experience echoes the experience of being an individual at Automattic, too. The level of individual responsibility and autonomy we enjoy is similar to that I’ve seen only after accruing a couple of years of experience and authority at most other places I’ve worked. It’s amazing to see that you can give a large group of people so much self-controlled direction… and somehow get order out of the chaos. More than elsewhere, management is more to do with shepherding people into moving in the same direction than it is about dictating how the ultimate strategic goals might be achieved.
Na na na na na na na na VAT MAN!
Somewhere along the way, I somehow became my team’s live-in expert on tax. You know how it is: you solve a bug with VAT calculation in Europe… then you help roll out changes to support registration with the GST in Australia… and then one day you find yourself reading Mexican digital services tax legislation and you can’t remember where the transition was from being a general full-stack developer to having a specialisation in tax.
Tax isn’t a major part of my work. But it’s definitely reached a point at which I’m a go-to figure. A week or so ago when somebody had a question about the application of sales taxes to purchases on the WooCommerce.com extensions store, their first thought was “I’ll ask Dan!” There’s something I wouldn’t have anticipated, six month ago.
Automattic’s culture lends itself to this kind of selective micro-specialisation. The company actively encourages staff to keep learning new things but mostly without providing a specific direction, and this – along with their tendency to attract folks who, like me, could foster an interest in almost any new topic so long as they’re learning something – means that my colleagues and I always seem to be developing some new skill or other.
I know off the top of my head who I’d talk to about if I had a question about headless browser automation, or database index performance, or email marketing impact assessment, or queer representation, or getting the best airline fares, or whatever else. And if I didn’t, I could probably find them. None of their job descriptions mention that aspect of their work. They’re just the kind of people who, when they see a problem, try to deepen their understanding of it as a whole rather than just solving it for today.
A lack of pigeonholing, coupled with the kind of information management that comes out of being an entirely-distributed company, means that the specialisation of individuals becomes a Search-Don’t-Sort problem. You don’t necessarily find an internal specialist by their job title: you’re more-likely to find them by looking for previous work on particular topics. That feels pretty dynamic and exciting… although it does necessarily lead to occasional moments of temporary panic when you discover that something important (but short of mission-critical) doesn’t actually have anybody directly responsible for it.
No examination of somebody’s first 6+ months at a new company, covering Spring 2020, would be complete without mention of that company’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Because, let’s face it, that’s what everybody’s talking about everywhere right now.
As the UK’s lockdown (eventually) took hold I found myself treated within my social circle like some kind of expert on remote working. My inboxes filled up with queries from friends… How do I measure output? How do I run a productive meeting? How do I maintain morale? I tried to help, but unfortunately some of my answers relied slightly on already having a distributed culture: having the information and resource management and teleworking infrastructure in-place before the crisis. Still, I’m optimistic that companies will come out of the other side of this situation with a better idea about how to plan for and execute remote working strategies.
I’ve been quite impressed that even though Automattic’s all sorted for how work carries on through this crisis, we’ve gone a step further and tried to organise (remote) events for people who might be feeling more-isolated as a result of the various lockdowns around the world. I’ve seen mention of wine tasting events, toddler groups, guided meditation sessions, yoga clubs, and even a virtual dog park (?), all of which try to leverage the company’s existing distributed infrastructure to support employees who’re affected by the pandemic. That’s pretty cute.
In summary: Automattic’s still proving to be an adventure, I’m still loving their quirky and chaotic culture and the opportunity to learn something new every week, and while their response to the coronavirus crisis has been as solid as you’d expect from a fully-distributed company I’ve also been impressed by the company’s efforts to support staff (in a huge diversity of situations across many different countries) through it.
Normally this kind of thing would go into the ballooning dump of “things I’ve enjoyed on the Internet” that is my reposts archive. But sometimes something is so perfect that you have to try to help it see the widest audience it can, right? And today, that thing is: Mackerelmedia Fish.
What is Mackerelmedia Fish? I’ve had a thorough and pretty complete experience of it, now, and I’m still not sure. It’s one or more (or none) of these, for sure, maybe:
A point-and-click, text-based, or hypertext adventure?
What I can tell you with confident is what playing feels like. And what it feels like is the moment when you’ve gotten bored waiting for page 20 of Argon Zark to finish appear so you decide to reread your already-downloaded copy of the 1997 a.r.k bestof book, and for a moment you think to yourself: “Whoah; this must be what living in the future feels like!”
Because back then you didn’t yet have any concept that “living in the future” will involve scavenging for toilet paper while complaining that you can’t stream your favourite shows in 4K on your pocket-sized supercomputer until the weekend.
Mackerelmedia Fish is a mess of half-baked puns, retro graphics, outdated browsing paradigms and broken links. And that’s just part of what makes it great.
If I wasn’t already in love with the game already I would have been when I got to the bit where you navigate through the directory indexes of a series of deepening folders, choose-your-own-adventure style. Nathalie writes, of it:
One thing that I think is also unique about it is using an open directory as a choose your own adventure. The directories are branching. You explore them, and there’s text at the bottom (an htaccess header) that describes the folder you’re in, treating each directory as a landscape. You interact with the files that are in each of these folders, and uncover the story that way.
Back in the naughties I experimented with making choose-your-own-adventure games in exactly this way. I was experimenting with different media by which this kind of branching-choice game could be presented. I envisaged a project in which I’d showcase the same (or a set of related) stories through different approaches. One was “print” (or at least “printable”): came up with a Twee1-to-PDF converter to make “printable” gamebooks. A second was Web hypertext. A third – and this is the one which was most-similar to what Nathalie has now so expertly made real – was FTP! My thinking was that this would be an adventure game that could be played in a browser or even from the command line on any (then-contemporary: FTP clients aren’t so commonplace nowadays) computer. And then, like so many of my projects, the half-made version got put aside “for later” and forgotten about. My solution involved abusing the FTP protocol terribly, but it worked.
(I also looked into ways to make Gopher-powered hypertext fiction and toyed with the idea of using YouTube annotations to make an interactive story web [subsequently done amazingly by Wheezy Waiter, though the death of YouTube annotations in 2017 killed it]. And I’ve still got a prototype I’d like to get back to, someday, of a text-based adventure played entirely through your web browser’s debug console…! But time is not my friend… Maybe I ought to collaborate with somebody else to keep me on-course.)
In any case: Mackerelmedia Fish is fun, weird, nostalgic, inspiring, and surreal, and you should give it a go. You’ll need to be on a Windows or OS X computer to get everything you can out of it, but there’s nothing to stop you starting out on your mobile, I imagine.
Sso long as you’re capable of at least 800 × 600 at 256 colours and have 4MB of RAM, if you know what I mean.
Going to that page results in about 14 Mb of data being transmitted from their server to your device (which you’ll pay for if you’re on a metered connection). For comparison, reading my recent post about pronouns results in about 356 Kb of data. In other words, their page is forty times more bandwidth-consuming, despite the fact that my page has about four times the word count. The page you’re reading right now, thanks to its images, weighs in at about 650 Kb: you could still download it more than twenty times while you were waiting for theirs.
Worse still, the most-heavyweight of the content they deliver is stuff that’s arguably strictly optional and doesn’t add to the message:
Eight different font files are served from three different domains (the fonts alone consume about 140 Kb) – seven more are queued but not used.
And because the site sets virtually no caching headers, even if you’ve visited the website before you’re likely to have to download the whole thing again. Every single time.
This isn’t really about this particular website, of course (and I certainly don’t want to discourage anybody from the important cause of saving the planet!). It’s about the bigger picture: there’s a widespread and long-standing trend in web development towards bigger, heavier, more power-hungry websites, built on top of heavyweight frameworks that push the hard work onto the user’s device and which favour developer happiness over user experience. This is pretty terrible: it makes the Web slow, and brittle, and it increases the digital divide as people on slower connections and older devices get left behind.
I had a bit of a realisation, this week. I’ve long sometimes found it especially challenging to maintain a mental map of the preferred personal pronouns of people who don’t use “he”, “she”, or “they”. Further than that, it seemed to me that personal pronouns beyond these three ought to be mostly redundant in English. “Them” has been well-established for over six centuries as not just a plural but a singular pronoun, I thought: we don’t need to invent more words.
Over time – even within my lifetime – it’s become noticeably more-commonplace to hear the singular “they”/”them” in place of “he or she”/”him or her”, or single binary pronouns (e.g. when talking about professions which have long been dominated by a particular gender). So you might hear somebody say:
“I will make an appointment to see a doctor and ask them about my persistent cough.”
It seemed to me that “they” was a perfect general-purpose stand in for everybody who was well-served by neither “he” nor “she”.
I’d put it down to one of those things that I just don’t “get”, but about which I can still respect and support anyway. I don’t have to totally grok something in order to understand that it’s important to others.
But very recently, I was suddenly struck by a comprehension of one of the reported problems with the use of the singular “they” to refer to people for whom the traditional binary pronouns are not suitable. I’ve tried to capture in the illustration above the moment of understanding when I made the leap.
The essence of this particular problem is: the singular “they” already has a meaning that is necessarily incompatible with the singular “they” used of a nonbinary subject! By way of example, let’s revisit my earlier example sentence:
“I will make an appointment to see a doctor and ask them about my persistent cough.”
Here, I’m saying one of two things, and it’s fundamentally unclear which of the two I mean:
I do not know which doctor I will see, so I do not know the pronoun of the doctor.
I will see the same doctor I always see, and they prefer a nonbinary pronoun.
The more widespread the adoption of “they” as the third person singular for nonbinary people becomes, the more long-winded it is to clarify specifically which of the above interpretations is correct! The tendency to assume the former leads to nonbinary invisibility, and the (less-likely in most social circles) tendency to assume the latter leads to misgendering.
The difference is one of specificity. Because the singular “they” is routinely used non-specifically, where the subject’s preferred pronouns are unknown (as with the doctor, above), unknowable (“somebody wrote this anonymous message; they said…”), or a placeholder (“when I meet somebody, I shake their hand”), it quickly produces semantic ambiguities when it’s used to refer to specific nonbinary individuals. And that makes me think: we can do better.
That said: I don’t feel able to suggest which pronoun(s) ought to replace the question mark in the diagram above. But for the first time, I’m not convinced that it ought to be “they”.
Ultimately, this changes nothing. I regularly use a diversity of different singular pronouns (he”, “she”, and “they”, mostly) based on the individual subject and I’ll continue to acknowledge and respect their preferences. If you’ve you’ve told me that you like to be referred to by the singular “they”, I’ll continue to do so and you’re welcome and encouraged to correct me if I get it wrong!
But perhaps this new appreciation of the limitations of the singular “they” when referring to specific individuals will help me to empathise with those for whom it doesn’t feel right, and who might benefit from more-widespread understanding of other, newer personal pronouns.
(and on the off chance anybody’s found their way to this page looking for my pronouns: I’m not particularly fussy, so long as you’re consistent and don’t confuse your audience, but most people refer to me with traditional masculine pronouns he/him/his)