The Diamonds, The Dagger and One Classy Dame

On account of the pandemic, I’d expected my fortieth birthday to be a somewhat more-muted affair than I’d hoped. I had a banner, I got trolled by bagels, and I received as a gift a pizza oven with which I immediately set fire to several pieces of cookware, but I hadn’t expected to be able to do anything like the “surprise” party of my thirtieth, and that saddened me a little. So imagine my surprise when I come back from an evening walk the day after my birthday to discover than an actual (remote) surprise party really had been arranged without my knowing!

Matt, Suz, Alec, Jen, Dermot and Doreen on a Google Meet screen.
“Hello, remote guests! What are you doing here?”

Not content with merely getting a few folks together for drinks, though, Ruth and team had gone to great trouble (involving lots of use of the postal service) arranging a “kit” murder mystery party in the Inspector McClue series – The Diamonds, The Dagger, and One Classy Dame – for us all to play. The story is sort-of a spiritual successor to The Brie, The Bullet, and The Black Cat, which we’d played fifteen years earlier. Minor spoilers follow.

JTA (wearing a string of pearls) and Robin (wearing sunglasses)
“Hello, local guests. Wait… why are you all in costumes…?”

Naturally, I immediately felt underdressed, having not been instructed that I might need a costume, and underprepared, having only just heard for the first time that I would be playing the part of German security sidekick Lieutenant Kurt Von Strohm minutes before I had to attempt my most outrageous German accent.

Dan with his tongue out holding a glass of champagne.
Fortunately I was able to quickly imbibe a few glasses of champagne and quickly get into the spirit. Hic.

The plot gave me in particular a certain sense of deja vu. In The Brie, The Bullet, and The Black Cat, I played a French nightclub owner who later turned out to be an English secret agent supplying the French Resistance with information. But in The Diamonds, The Dagger, and One Classy Dame I played a Gestapo officer who… also later turned out to be an English secret agent infiltrating the regime and, you guessed it, supplying the French Resistance.

Jen drinking from the neck of a nearly-empty wine bottle.
As she had previously with Sour Grapes, Ruth had worked to ensure that a “care package” had reached each murder mystery guest. Why yes, it was a boozy care package.

It was not the smoothest nor the most-sophisticated “kit” murder mystery we’ve enjoyed. The technology made communication challenging, the reveal was less-satisfying than some others etc. But the company was excellent. (And the acting way pretty good too, especially by our murderer whose character was exquisitely played.)

JTA downing a Jeroboam of champagne.
The largest bottle, though, was with us: we opened the Jeroboam of champagne Ruth and JTA had been saving from their anniversary (they have a tradition involving increasing sizes of bottle; it’s a whole thing; I’ll leave them to write about it someday).

And of course the whole thing quickly descended into a delightful shouting match with accusations flying left, right, and centre and nobody having a clue what was going on. Like all of our murder mystery parties!

Google Meet transcript with the words "You are the Jewish", which nobody said.
I’m not sure how I feel about Google Meet’s automatic transcription feature. It was generally pretty accurate, but it repeatedly thought that it heard the word “Jewish” being spoken by those of us who were putting on German accents, even though none of us said that.

In summary, the weekend of my fortieth birthday was made immeasurably better by getting to hang out with (and play a stupid game with) some of my friends despite the lockdown, and I’m ever so grateful that those closest to me were able to make such a thing happen (and without me even noticing in advance).

COVID Ipsum

So I made a COVID conspiracy theory-themed lorem ipsum generator:

I blame my friend Bryn, who put the idea into my head while he was coming up with fake COVID conspiracy theories (I realise this sentence makes it sound like there are real COVID conspiracy theories) on a WhatsApp group we’re both in:

WhatsApp conversation: Bryn says that it's easy to come up with COVID conspiracy theories, Dan says somebody should make a Lorem Ipsum generator based on them.
This is about the minimum level of encouragement I need to do just about anything in tech.

It’s implemented using perchance, a platform for creating random text generators that I’ve been playing with – sometimes with the kids – lately. It’s really easy to use and provides a kind of instant-satisfaction that I think is important if you want to inspire the next generation of software engineers. This means, among other things, that you can clone, edit, and mashup my tool: perhaps you can make it better! Or perhaps you’ll use perchance to write some fiction, or poetry, or something else entirely. But regardless, I’d encourage you to have a play.

Mostly my generator comes up with meaningless gibberish, nonsense, and laughable claims. So it’s marginally more-trustworthy than your typical COVID conspiracy theorist.

Staying Sane with GEMSAW

I’ve been having a tough time these last few months. Thanks to COVID, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Times are strange, and even when you get a handle on how they’re strange they can still affect you: lockdown stress can quickly magnify anything else you’re already going through.

We’ve all come up with our own coping strategies; here’s part of mine.

JTA, Dan and Ruth shopping for a Christmas tree, wearing face masks
Only people who are highly-allergic to pine needles normally look like this when they’re shopping for a Christmas tree.

These last few months have occasionally seen me as emotionally low as… well, a particularly tough spell a decade ago. But this time around I’ve benefited from the self-awareness and experience to put some solid self-care into practice!

By way partly of self-accountability and partly of sharing what works for me, let me tell you about the silly mnemonic that reminds me what I need to keep track of as part of each day: GEMSAW! (With thanks to Amy Blankson for, among other things, the idea of this kind of acronym.)

Because it’s me, I’ve cited a few relevant academic sources for you in my summary, below:

  • Gratitude
    Taking the time to stop and acknowledge the good things in your life, however small, is associated with lower stress levels (Taylor, Lyubomirsky & Stein, 2017) to a degree that can’t just be explained by the placebo effect (Cregg & Cheavens, 2020).
    Frankly, the placebo effect would be fine, but it’s nice to have my practice of trying to intentionally recognise something good in each day validated by the science too!
  • Exercise
    I don’t even need a citation; I’m sure everybody knows that aerobic exercise is associated with reduced risk and severity of depression: the biggest problem comes from the fact that it’s an exceptionally hard thing to motivate yourself to do if you’re already struggling mentally!
    But it turns out you don’t need much to start to see the benefits (Josefsson, Lindwall & Archer, 2014): I try to do enough to elevate my heart rate each day, but that’s usually nothing more than elevating my desk to standing height, putting some headphones on, and dancing while I work!
Dan dancing at his desk (animated GIF)
Warming up. Things only get nuts when the bass drops, but I’ll spare you having to watch that.
  • Meditation/Mindfulness
    Understandably a bit fuzzier as a concept and tainted by being a “hip” concept. A short meditation break or mindfulness exercise might be verifiably therapeutic, but more (non-terrible) studies are needed (Vonderlin, Biermann, Bohus & Lyssenko 2020). For me, a 2-5 minute meditation break punctuates a day and feels like it contributes towards the goal of staying-sane-in-challenging-times, so it makes it into my wellbeing plan.
    Maybe it’s doing nothing. But I’m not losing much time over it so I’m not worried.
  • Sunlight
    During my 20s I gradually began to suffer more and more from “winter blues”. Nobody’s managed to make an argument for the underlying cause of seasonal affective disorder that hasn’t been equally-well debunked by some other study. Small-scale studies often justify light therapy (e.g. Lam, Levitan & Morehouse 2006) but it’s possibly no-more-effective than a placebo at scale (SBU 2007).
    Since my early 30s, I’ve always felt better to get myself 30 minutes of lightbox on winter mornings (I use one of these bad boys). I admit it’s possible that the benefits are just the result of tricking my brain into waking-up more promptly and therefore feeing like I’m being more-productive with my waking hours! But either way, getting some sunlight – whether natural or artificial – makes me feel better, so it makes it onto my daily self-care checklist.
Bright sunlight in an almost-cloudless blue sky.
10 minutes of overhead, unoccluded sunlight is the minimum therapeutic dose. That translates to about 30 minutes of winter sun at my latitude or 10,000 lux full-spectrum sunlamp.
  • Acts of kindness
    It’s probably not surprising that a person’s overall happiness correlates with their propensity for kindness (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener 2005). But what’s more interesting is that the causal link can be “gamed”. That is: a deliberate effort to engage in acts of kindness results in increased happiness (Buchanan & Bardi 2010)!
    Beneficial acts of kindness can be as little as taking the time to acknowledge somebody’s contribution or compliment somebody’s efforts. The amount of effort it takes is far less-important for happiness than the novelty of the experience, so the type of kindness you show needs to be mixed-up a bit to get the best out of it. But demonstrating kindness helps to make the world a better place for other humans, so it pays off even if you’re coming from a fully utilitarian perspective.
  • Writing
    I write a lot anyway, often right here, and that’s very-definitely for my own benefit first and foremost. But off the back of some valuable “writing therapy” (Baikie & Wilhelm 2005) I undertook earlier this year, I’ve been continuing with the simpler, lighter approach of trying to no more than three sentences about something that’s had an impact on me that day.
    As an approach, it doesn’t help everybody (Zachariae 2015), but writing a little about your day – not even about how you feel about it, just the facts will do (Koschwanez, Robinson, Beban, MacCormick, Hill, Windsor, Booth, Jüllig & Broadbent 2017; fuck me that’s a lot of co-authors) – helps to keep you content, and I’m loving it.

Despite the catchy acronym (Do I need to come up with a GEMSAW logo? I’m pretty sure real gemcutting it actually more of a grinding process…) and stack of references, I’m not actually writing a self-help book; it just sounds like I am.

I don’t claim to be an authority on anything beyond my own head, and I’m not very confident on that subject! I just wanted to share with you something that’s been working pretty well at keeping me sane for the last month or two, just in case it’s of any use to you. These are challenging times; do what you need to find the happiness you can, and hang in there.

Watching Films Together… Apart

This weekend I announced and then hosted Homa Night II, an effort to use technology to help bridge the chasms that’ve formed between my diaspora of friends as a result mostly of COVID. To a lesser extent we’ve been made to feel distant from one another for a while as a result of our very diverse locations and lifestyles, but the resulting isolation was certainly compounded by lockdowns and quarantines.

Mark, Sian, Alec, Paul, Kit, Adam, Dan and Claire at Troma Night V.
Long gone are the days when I could put up a blog post to say “Troma Night tonight?” and expect half a dozen friends to turn up at my house.

Back in the day we used to have a regular weekly film night called Troma Night, named after the studio who dominated our early events and whose… genre… influenced many of our choices thereafter. We had over 300 such film nights, by my count, before I eventually left our shared hometown of Aberystwyth ten years ago. I wasn’t the last one of the Troma Night regulars to leave town, but more left before me than after.

Sour Grapes: participants share "hearts" with Ruth
Observant readers will spot a previous effort I made this year at hosting a party online.

Earlier this year I hosted Sour Grapes, a murder mystery party (an irregular highlight of our Aberystwyth social calendar, with thanks to Ruth) run entirely online using a mixture of video chat and “second screen” technologies. In some ways that could be seen as the predecessor to Homa Night, although I’d come up with most of the underlying technology to make Homa Night possible on a whim much earlier in the year!

WhatsApp chat: Dan proposes "Troma Night Remote"; Matt suggests calling it "Troma at Homa"; Dan settles on "Homa Night".
The idea spun out of a few conversations on WhatsApp but the final name – Homa Night – wasn’t agreed until early in November.

How best to make such a thing happen? When I first started thinking about it, during the first of the UK’s lockdowns, I considered a few options:

  • Streaming video over a telemeeting service (Zoom, Google Meet, etc.)
    Very simple to set up, but the quality – as anybody who’s tried this before will attest – is appalling. Being optimised for speech rather than music and sound effects gives the audio a flat, scratchy sound, video compression artefacts that are tolerable when you’re chatting to your boss are really annoying when they stop you reading a crucial subtitle, audio and video often get desynchronised in a way that’s frankly infuriating, and everybody’s download speed is limited by the upload speed of the host, among other issues. The major benefit of these platforms – full-duplex audio – is destroyed by feedback so everybody needs to stay muted while watching anyway. No thanks!
  • Teleparty or a similar tool
    Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party, but it now supports more services) is a pretty clever way to get almost exactly what I want: synchronised video streaming plus chat alongside. But it only works on Chrome (and some related browsers) and doesn’t work on tablets, web-enabled TVs, etc., which would exclude some of my friends. Everybody requires an account on the service you’re streaming from, potentially further limiting usability, and that also means you’re strictly limited to the media available on those platforms (and further limited again if your party spans multiple geographic distribution regions for that service). There’s definitely things I can learn from Teleparty, but it’s not the right tool for Homa Night.
  • “Press play… now!”
    The relatively low-tech solution might have been to distribute video files in advance, have people download them, and get everybody to press “play” at the same time! That’s at least slightly less-convenient because people can’t just “turn up”, they have to plan their attendance and set up in advance, but it would certainly have worked and I seriously considered it. There are other downsides, though: if anybody has a technical issue and needs to e.g. restart their player then they’re basically doomed in any attempt to get back in-sync again. We can do better…
  • A custom-made synchronised streaming service…?
Homa Night architecture: S3 delivers static content to browsers, browsers exchange real-time information via Firebase.
A custom solution that leveraged existing infrastructure for the “hard bits” proved to be the right answer.

So obviously I ended up implementing my own streaming service. It wasn’t even that hard. In case you want to try your own, here’s how I did it:

Media preparation

First, I used Adobe Premiere to create a video file containing both of the night’s films, bookended and separated by “filler” content to provide an introduction/lobby, an intermission, and a closing “you should have stopped watching by now” message. I made sure that the “intro” was a nice round duration (90s) and suitable for looping because I planned to hold people there until we were all ready to start the film. Thanks to Boris & Oliver for the background music!

Dan uses a green screen to add to the intermission.
Honestly, the intermission was just an excuse to keep my chroma key gear out following its most-recent use.

Next, I ran the output through Handbrake to produce “web optimized” versions in 1080p and 720p output sizes. “Web optimized” in this case means that metadata gets added to the start of the file to allow it to start playing without downloading the entire file (streaming) and to allow the calculation of what-part-of-the-file corresponds to what-part-of-the-timeline: the latter, when coupled with a suitable webserver, allows browsers to “skip” to any point in the video without having to watch the intervening part. Naturally I’m encoding with H.264 for the widest possible compatibility.

Handbrake preparing to transcode Premiere's output.
Even using my multi-GPU computer for the transcoding I had time to get up and walk around a bit.

Real-Time Synchronisation

To keep everybody’s viewing experience in-sync, I set up a Firebase account for the application: Firebase provides an easy-to-use Websockets platform with built-in data synchronisation. Ignoring the authentication and chat features, there wasn’t much shared here: just the currentTime of the video in seconds, whether or not introMode was engaged (i.e. everybody should loop the first 90 seconds, for now), and whether or not the video was paused:

Firebase database showing shared currentTime, introMode, and paused values.
Firebase makes schemaless real-time databases pretty easy.

To reduce development effort, I never got around to implementing an administrative front-end; I just manually went into the Firebase database and acknowledged “my” computer as being an administrator, after I’d connected to it, and then ran a little Javascript in my browser’s debugger to tell it to start pushing my video’s currentTime to the server every few seconds. Anything else I needed to edit I just edited directly from the Firebase interface.

Other web clients’ had Javascript to instruct them to monitor these variables from the Firebase database and, if they were desynchronised by more than 5 seconds, “jump” to the correct point in the video file. The hard part of the code… wasn’t really that hard:

// Rewind if we're passed the end of the intro loop
function introModeLoopCheck() {
  if (!introMode) return;
  if (video.currentTime > introDuration) video.currentTime = 0;
}

function fixPlayStatus() {
  // Handle "intro loop" mode
  if (remotelyControlled && introMode) {
    if (video.paused) video.play(); // always play
    introModeLoopCheck();
    return; // don't look at the rest
  }

  // Fix current time
  const desync = Math.abs(lastCurrentTime - video.currentTime);
  if (
    (video.paused && desync > DESYNC_TOLERANCE_WHEN_PAUSED) ||
    (!video.paused && desync > DESYNC_TOLERANCE_WHEN_PLAYING)
  ) {
    video.currentTime = lastCurrentTime;
  }
  // Fix play status
  if (remotelyControlled) {
    if (lastPaused && !video.paused) {
      video.pause();
    } else if (!lastPaused && video.paused) {
      video.play();
    }
  }
  // Show/hide paused notification
  updatePausedNotification();
}

Web front-end

Finally, there needed to be a web page everybody could go to to get access to this. As I was hosting the video on S3+CloudFront anyway, I put the HTML/CSS/JS there too.

Configuring a Homa Night video player.
I decided to carry the background theme of the video through to the web interface too.

I tested in Firefox, Edge, Chrome, and Safari on desktop, and (slightly less) on Firefox, Chrome and Safari on mobile. There were a few quirks to work around, mostly to do with browsers not letting videos make sound until the page has been interacted with after the video element has been rendered, which I carefully worked-around by putting a popup “over” the video to “enable sync”, but mostly it “just worked”.

Delivery

On the night I shared the web address and we kicked off! There were a few hiccups as some people’s browsers got disconnected early on and tried to start playing the film before it was time, and one of these even when fixed ran about a minute behind the others, leading to minor spoilers leaking via the rest of us riffing about them! But on the whole, it worked. I’ve had lots of useful feedback to improve on it for the next version, and I might even try to tidy up my code a bit and open-source the results if this kind of thing might be useful to anybody else.

COVID-19 and Acedia

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Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

In a blog post far from his usual topics, Schneier shares a word – albeit an arguably-archaic one! – that captures the feeling of listlessness that many of us are experiencing as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold.

Automattic Retrospective (days 207 to 334)

Last year, I accepted a job offer with Automattic and I’ve been writing about it every 128 days. I’ve talked about my recruitment, induction, and experience of lockdown (which in turn inspired a post about the future of work). I’ve even helped enthuse other new Automatticians! Since my last post I’ve moved house so my home office has changed shape, but I’m still plodding along as always… and fast-approaching my first “Automattic birthday”! (This post ran a little late; the 128-day block was three weeks ago!)

Dan in his home office (links to an interactive 360° panoramic photo with info points).
If you missed it the first time around, click through to explore an interactive panoramic view of my workspace. It’s slightly more “unpacked” now.

As I approach my first full year as an Automattician, I find myself looking back on everything I’ve learned… but also looking around at all the things I still don’t understand! I’m not learning something new every day any more… but I’m still learning something new most weeks.

This summer I’ve been getting up-close and personal with Gutenberg components. I’d mostly managed to avoid learning the React (eww; JSX, bad documentation, and an elephantine payload…) necessary to hack Gutenberg, but in helping to implement new tools for WooCommerce.com I’ve discovered that it’s… not quite as painful as I’d thought. There are even some bits I quite like. But I don’t expect to fall in love with React any time soon. This autumn I’ve been mostly working on search and personalisation, integrating customer analytics data with our marketplace to help understand what people look for on our sites and using that to guide their future experience (and that of others “like” them). There’s always something new.

Alpha project planning meeting via Zoom.
I suppose that by now everybody‘s used to meetings that look like this, but when I first started at Automattic a year ago they were less-commonplace.

My team continues to grow, with two newmatticians this month and a third starting in January. In fact, my team’s planning to fork into two closely-linked subteams; one with a focus on customers and vendors, the other geared towards infrastructure. It’s exciting to see my role grow and change, but I worry about the risk of gradually pigeon-holing myself into an increasingly narrow specialisation. Which wouldn’t suit me: I like to keep a finger in all the pies. Still; my manager’s reassuring that this isn’t likely to be the case and our plans are going in the “right” direction.

Kudos to Dan "for resolving a weeks worth of project issues in one day".
Our “Kudos” system can be used to acknowledge other Automatticians going above and beyond. I was particularly proud of this one.

On the side of my various project work, I’ve occasionally found the opportunity for more-creative things. Last month, I did some data-mining over the company’s “kudos” history of the last five years and ran it through vis.js to try to find a new angle on understanding how Automattic’s staff, teams, and divisions interact with one another. It lead to some interesting results: panning through time, for example, you can see the separate island of Tumblr staff who joined us during the acquisition gradually become more-interconnected with the rest of the organisation over the course of the last year.

Automattic Kudos social graph for September 2020
Automattic as a social graph of kudos given/received during September 2020, colour-coded by team. Were you one of us, you’d be able to zoom in and find yourself. The large “branch” in the bottom right is mostly comprised of Tumblr staff.

The biggest disappointment of my time at Automattic so far was that I’ve not managed to go to a GM! The 2019 one – which looked awesome – took place only a couple of weeks before my contract started (despite my best efforts to wrangle my contract dates with the Bodleian and Automattic to try to work around that), but people reassured me that it was okay because I’d make it to the next one. Well.. 2020 makes fools of us all, I guess, because of course there’s no in-person GM this year. Maybe, hopefully, if and when the world goes back to normal I’ll get to spend time in-person with my colleagues once in a while… but for now, we’re having to suffice with Internet-based socialisation only, just like the rest of the world.

I got married and had kids so you don’t have to

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I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature, but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too, cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.

Robert Heaton, of Programming Projects for Advanced Beginners fame and reverse-engineering device drivers that spy on you (which I’ve talked about before), has also been blogging lately about his experience of Dadding, with the same dry/sarcastic tone you might be used to. This long post is a great example of the meandering thoughts of a (techie) parent in these (interesting) times, and it’s good enough for that alone. But it’s the raw, genuine “honesty and dark thoughts” section towards the end of the article that really makes it stand out.

The Unexpected Solace in Learning to Play Piano

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…while I practice, I have to simultaneously read, listen, think, translate. Every synapse of my brain is so utterly overwhelmed, there is no capacity left to think about the world out there.

When Christoph Niemann published this piece about learning to play the piano during the most-lockdown-y parts of the Coronavirus lockdown, it rang a chord with me (hah!). I, too, have experimented with learning to play the piano this spring/summer, and found a similar kind of Zen-like focussed calm emerge out of the frustration of staring at a piece of sheet music and wondering why I couldn’t for the life of me get me fingers to remember to do when they got to that point.

I started out with – after following some random links off the back of finishing the last bit of work for my recent masters degree – a free course in music theory by the OU, because I figured that coming in from a theoretical perspective would help with the way my brain thinks about this kind of thing. I supplemented that with a book we got for the kids to use to learn to play, and now I’ve now graduated to very gradually hunt-and-pecking my way through Disney’s back catalogue. I can play Go The Distance, Colors of the Wind and most of Can You Feel The Love Tonight barely well enough that I don’t feel the need to tear my own ears off, so I guess I’m making progress, though I still fall over my own hands every time I try to play any bloody thing from Moana. 20 minutes at a time, here and there, and I’m getting there. I don’t expect to ever be good at it, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.

But anyway: this piece in the NYT Magazine really spoke to me, and to hear that somebody with far more music experience than me can struggle with all the same things I do when getting started with the piano was really reassuring.

Lindsey Stirling/Johnny Rzeznik String Session

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One of the last “normal” things I got to do before the world went full lockdown was to attend a Goo Goo Dolls concert with Ruth, and so to see two musicians I enjoy team up to perform a song and share some words of hope and encouragement for a better future beyond these troubled times… feels fitting and inspiring.

Also awesome to see that Stirling’s perhaps as much a fan of Live in Buffalo as I am.

Fun diversion: I never know how to answer the question “what kind of music do you like?”, because I increasingly (and somewhat deliberately) find that I enjoy a wider and wider diversity of different genres and styles. But perhaps the right answer might be: “I like music that makes me feel the way I feel when I hear Cuz You’re Gone recorded from the Goo Goo Dolls’ concert in Buffalo on 4 July 2004, specifically the bit between 4 minutes 10 seconds and 4 minutes 33 seconds into the song, right at the end of the extended bridge. It’s full of anticipatory energy and building to a wild crescendo that seems to mirrors the defiance of both the band and the crown in the face of the torrential rain that repeatedly almost brought an end to the concert. Music that makes me feel like that bit does: that’s the kind of music I like. Does that help?”

Sour Grapes… a Murder Mystery in Lockdown

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!

Jen, Dan, Suz, Alec, Matt, JTA and Ruth at Sour Grapes
Not being in the same room doesn’t protect you from finger-pointing.

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.

Sour Grapes clue showing on an iPhone screen.
Actually, the interface didn’t work as well on an iPhone as I’d have expected, but I ran short on testing time.

I threw together a quick Firebase backend to allow data to be synchronised across a web application, then wrote a couple of dozen lines of Javascript to tie it together. The idea was that I’d “push” documents to each participants’ phone as they needed them, in a digital analogue of the “open envelope #3” or “turn to the next page in your book” mechanism common in most murder mystery kits. I also reimplemented all of Akers’ artefacts, which were pretty-much text-only, as graphics, and set up a system whereby I could give the “finder” of each clue a copy in-advance and then share it with the rest of the participants when it was appropriate, e.g. when they said, out loud “I’ve found this newspaper clipping that seems to say…”

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.

Sour Grapes' command centre: the Host Panel
Meanwhile, I had a web page with all kinds of buttons and things to press.

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.

Sour Grapes: participants share "hearts" with Ruth
Much love was shown for the “catering”.

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.
Planning a murdery mystery
Those who know me may be surprised to hear that the majority of my work planning an original murder mystery plot, even a highly-digital one like Murder… on the Social Network, happens on paper.

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):

Pyjama Party Water Fight

There comes a point where you’ve run out of new lockdown activity ideas, and you just start combining random pairs of activities you’ve already done. This morning’s first activity was… “Pyjama Party / Water Fight”.

Is it just me, or does “Pyjama Party / Water Fight” sound like a PWL song title?

Future Challenges for Remote Working

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.

Man in sci-fi jumpsuit and futuristic AR goggles.
Unfulfilled promises of the world of tomorrow include flying cars, viable fusion power, accessible space travel, post-scarcity economies, and – until recently – widespread teleworking. Still waiting on my holodeck too.

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:

  1. near-universal automation of manual labour as machines become capable of an increasing diversity of human endeavours (we’re getting there, but slowly),
  2. 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
  3. 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!

Driver's temperature being checked at the roadside by somebody in full protective equipment.
Apply directly to the head! Commuting looks different today than it did last year, but at least the roads are quieter.

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!

(Incidentally, if you have a question I haven’t answered yet, try these clever people first for even better answers!)

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.

Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy, by Matt Mullenweg.
I’ve shared this before, I know, but it exudes Matt’s enthusiasm for distributed work so well that I’m sharing it again. Plus, some of the challenges I describe below map nicely to the borders between some of

Tomorrow’s Challenges

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.
Teleworker dressed from the waist up.
On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re only properly-dressed from the waist up. No, wait: as of 2020, everybody knows that. Let’s just all collectively own it, ‘k.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Lucky Devil Eats

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

Lucky Devil Eats

The lockdown’s having an obvious huge impact on strippers, whose work is typically in-person, up close, and classed as non-essential. And their work isn’t eligible for US programmes to support furloughed workers. So Lucky Devil Lounge in Portland decided to adapt their services into one that is classed as essential by providing a drive-through food service. With strippers.

This is Erika Moen’s comic about the experience of visiting the drive-through. Her comics are awesome and I’ve shared them with you a few times before (I even paid for the product she recommended in the last of those), of course.