s07e08: Jeremy Bearimy

Argh no what subtitle

0.0 Sitrep

It’s Wednesday, September 25 and I’m strapped into another plane, this time heading home to Portland from Sacramento, where it has been stupid hot.

Over the last 24 hours or so, it feels like All The News That’s Fit To Happen has happened, almost as if the cyberutopianists who dreamed of everyone being plugged into worldwide electronic network allowing access to all information at any time from any place got their wish and after a few hours of that, the only reasonable response was: well, that’s a bit much? I mean, there’s a lot going on? Could it maybe slow down a bit?

My plan is one more newsletter this week - this one and the previous have been free ones, the next one will be for subscribers only.

Now, some of you have pointed out quite reasonably that at the moment I am writing Too Much Newsletter and, really, if you look at things as a rational economic actor (which I know, we all are), then it doesn’t really make sense to subscribe if you’re not going to read everything. I agree with you! That does totally make sense. So, you know, don’t feel like you need to subscribe. I am not saying you should.

I mean, I am a bit, because the next episode is going to subscribers only, but I guess what I am saying is: hey, nobody should feel bad about anything. It’s only a newsletter.

I remain, however, more than pleasantly surprised, verging on taken-aback at the number and generosity of subscribers to date.

Anyway: here’s a button:

1.0 Things, etc.

Two things this time. You know what they say, come for the notes about bureaucracy, government digital transformation, management criticism via the lens of 1980s popular culture, analogies about user research and non-linear work via the lens of Kristen Bell’s body of work and, apparently today, extremely targeted 1990s technology nostalgia.

1.1 Jeremy Bearimy

So, another work thing. Some of you might find this useful or interesting or even god forbid an actual insight.

I’ve been working with a team putting together a sort-of narrative user journey which ultimately ends up a young boy being placed into emergency care with a relative. The team I’ve been working with are great - a mixture of people who work at different levels of US government (state, county, etc.) and who all variously have experience with social and child welfare work in different ways.

In some ways, I can see how the work has also been cathartic and, as a result, fun: it’s a safe, made-up scenario. Because the story by requirement ends up with the young boy being placed with a relative in an emergency, it means he needs to be removed from his mother. Turns out his mother is in big trouble! A high-speed car-chase! Found to be driving under the influence via a field test! In possession of illegal substances! And to cap it off, the little boy was sitting in the front seat, and not only that, unrestrained. Oh dear.

It would be funny but for the fact that the story needs to be relatable, which means elements of it are depressingly common.

I digress. So we put together this story and it’s great, we have names for all the people involved and we tell their story over the course of several hours. I get to find out what they do, when they do it, and how they come across certain pieces of information.

The bit where it got interesting was the other substantive documentation that exists is the equivalent of business process flows or administrative workflow diagrams. Flowcharts, that kind of stuff. Triggering event happens, decision point reached, following event(s) occur, hand-off, approval decisions and so on.

These diagrams and artifacts are valuable. They document and make visible administrative workflows - the bureaucracy, the act of administering something like child welfare.

There is something else about these diagrams too. They move, inexorably, from left to right, or from top to bottom. At least, they do in the western culture that I’m working in. They follow the arrow (if not the trousers) of time.

Again, this makes sense! They are documenting administrative workflows and bureaucratic outcomes and so on. I don’t know about you, but administrative workflows and bureaucratic outcomes are also embedded, like us humans, in a universe that has a time dimension that only (so far as we know?) subjectively only moves in one direction, no matter how many theoretical physicists you talk to at parties about time symmetry (just don’t mention the time crystals).

Look, here’s an example. You could imagine an investigation administrative workflow. There are things that happen when you do an investigation. There is is a box that a person enters which is the interview with another person. After that investigation interview, some information is recorded.

So we’re going through this narrative and I say (honestly, in a somewhat dumb “hey, what do I know?” fashion): “hey, so, Jeff, our child welfare worker, he goes and wakes up our little boy at some point and has an interview with him and asks him a bunch of stuff, right? What does Jeff find out?”

And my team laughs a bit because they say something like: “oh Dan, we know there’s an interview box, but remember our kid is a five year old boy. We’re not going to interview him. We’re looking after him in the middle of doing a million other things and we’re going to find out bits and pieces of information randomly or as appropriate over the next few hours”.

And I’m like: well, duh. I have a six year old.

So then we look back at the business process documentation or whatever and I point to the place on the business process document (and ask people to point to where it hurts?) and I say: so when do you do the information is recorded?

And they say: “Well, normally we wait until much later and then we sit down and we think about everything that happened and we write up a Contact Note, which is pretty formal and involves making sense of everything we’ve learned.”

And I say: “So, uh, what about when you interviewed the mum and you found out that our kid has an allergy and needs an epi-pen? Do you wait until you get back to the office for that too, to record the information from the interview”

And the answer is a bit of “Well, yeah.”

“So, you’re just kind of remembering it this whole time? In your head?”

“Well we might scribble it on a bit of paper.”

There’s a bit of silence.

“Well, that sounds… difficult.”

“Well, you know. Writing case notes is hard and difficult and the existing system is just really slow, and you’ve just got to get it right.”

Because just looking at the process diagrams implies a sort of linear, one-thing-at-a-time orderly march of time, of progress. Whereas what came through was a sort of chaotic: “oh shit, I have to do a gazillion things at once”.

Again, none of this information may or will be new to anyone who’s done the scarcest bit of user research in a related area.

So, I say… “But, the epi-pen thing is really important, right? Would it be okay if you recorded that as soon as you knew about it?”

“Sure!”

“Like, if we said you’d be able to record it in less than ten seconds? And then you could still come back to it and it’d be a prompt for your contact note later?”

“Sounds great!”

And this kept happening. Because the process view obscured the fact that was stupendously obvious in the story: random information comes in all the time at caseworkers, from multiple fronts, via multiple channels, like being attacked all the time by a sleet of information-bearing gamma-rays from space. They don’t stop! They’re unrelated! They ultimately end up staying in your head, or being scribbled down, or… worst of fall, degrading second by second, becoming increasingly subject to being forgotten, mis-transcribed or mis-remembered.

And this is where Jeremy Bearimy comes in. Jeremy Bearimy is from season 3, episode 4 of The Good Place and in this episode, the human characters get taught about how time works on Earth, vs how time works in the Afterlife. In the Afterlife, time is not an orderly linear process of events. In the Afterlife, time is like a cursive scrawl of the name Jeremy Bearimy (complete with a dot above the “i”, completely separate from the rest of the singular, unbroken line, which also happens to correspond with “Tuesday”), crossing over itself and thoroughly chaotic and non-linear.

Systems that rely on translating and updating administrative workflows end up behaving as if time flows in a linear way, or in a series of linear manners. It’s hard for those diagrams and artifacts to reflect a chaotic, stop-start, jumping-about experience. They might imagine, for example, that recording information about a person is only something that happens as part of a related administrative task or workflow and not that there might be value in being able to record that information at any point in time, irrespective of workflow.

In a meeting later, I get to use the phrase Jeremy Bearimy to try to explain to some other people the need to understand peoples’ subjective experience of time. And it totally worked! (The icing on the cake was the following day, when I got to use the concept and analogy again, which was a Tuesday).

Lesson and insight for the people I work with: Jeremy Bearimy helps us remember that things don’t happen in order.

1.2 A Unix System!

Hey, did you know that Lexi from Jurassic Park (“A Unix system! I know this!”) would’ve been around twelve years old in 1993 which would make her around 38 years old now, which means she should totally be the leader of the gang in the Leverage-meets-Parks-and-Recs show. She’d be an awesome infosec consultant who’d go around the world with her team solving problems and kicking ass for the rest of us, and, you know, just look:

INT. DAY. A non-descript cubicle in a non-descript government building. Fluorescent lights, “You’d have to be crazy to work here” decorations etc.

OLD WHITE CIO, OUT OF HIS DEPTH, DISMISSIVELY: And why should I listen to you, anyway?

LEXI: Isla Nubar. I shut it down.

MAN: But that was 26 years ago

*beat*

MAN: … you’d be-

*beat*

MAN: Shawn. Step away from the keyboard and let this woman work. You. Charlie. Get these people anything they need.

SHAWN rolls back from the workstation as LEXI grabs a chair, starts typing.

LEXI: Now if I’m guessing right there’s probably an unpatched IRIX system on your network running an obscure service everyone forgot about-

SHAWN, interrupting: What’s IRIX?

In the background, we see HARDISON rolling his eyes as LEXI just keeps typing.

LEXI: Found it.

LEXI sighs.

LEXI: Damn. Looks like Nedry was here, too…


There’s a few extra things to note.

One: Laura Dern’s Dr. Sattler is a recurring guest star who pops up every now and then as a mentor to Lexi.

Two: There are only throwaway comments about Dr. Grant.

Three: (Sorry Jeff Goldblum, this isn’t personal) Let’s just say the only mention we hear of Dr. Malcolm is that he was last seen resigning from his position of director of a small multi-disciplinary research outfit (with requisite breathless coverage in Wired Magazine after the events of Isla Nubar) attached to a prestigious university after revelations of a) accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein (previously denied) and b) multiple, corroborated allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. It need not be said, but is very carefully implied, that Lexi was involved in certain information about Dr. Malcolm coming to light.

Four: As pointed out by Jay Bushman, Lexi’s world obviously exists in the Crichtonverse, which means there’s a crossover with the Westworld universe. Lexi’s team gets called in by Delos to {fix, do some digging} but declines to help out and “decides to let it collapse because those rich assholes”. This sets us up nicely for am monologue from Lexi, reminding us that her worldview is shaped by certain events and experiences from when she was 12 years old.

Anyway, Universal’s lawyers, Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Crichton’s estate are welcome to get in touch.

2.0 And Finally

2.1 Some Smaller Things

Five small things this time:

  1. If you loved it, you should not have put an IP stack in it: drones, vibrators and kids’ toys are still vulnerable to hacking (via IEEE Spectrum), but honestly all this makes me think is: what, did something happen where they weren’t supposed to be vulnerable to hacking anymore?

  2. Transport for London is testing new designs for information boards if you’re into signs and the things that are displayed on them and how people use displays as signs and the computers that are plugged in to them (i.e.: me)

  3. Like many other people, I have been playing Untitled Goose Game. There are many things to appreciate about this game, one of them is its music, soundtrack and sound design. The Verge has a story about how developers House House adapted Debussy.

  4. Raytheon is super proud they’re using Agile to deliver software for NORAD at Cheyenne Mountain Complex (also known as Stargate Command), which has cut their delivery time for software deployments down to 120-180 days (4-6 months) from 18-24 months. This is… good? On the other hand, I think we should be kind of okay with a rigorous requirements definition and testing process for the software I imagine they’re developing (“integrated tactical warning/attack assessment”)? Like, maybe you don’t have to call it Agile? Maybe it’s just waterfall but a bit more frequent? Reading the article just makes it look like they’re concerned about taking too long to deliver software which is totally reasonable! Anyway, when you think Agile, think Raytheon. I guess that was the point of their blog post.

  5. First, I think I should get an award for self-control for waiting until iOS 13.1 came out before installing it on all the things. Second, I am trying Dark Mode. Third: have you seen Dark Mode for some of the system apps like Mail? More like Lurid Mode or High Contrast Mode with those purples and pinks everywhere. Did they just… invert colours? I had thought Dark Mode would be something like a considered muted-palette mode, not a Still Really Bright Colors But It’s Dark Because There’s Lots Of Black In It Mode.

2.2 Some notes from you

Last episode, I wrote about the desire for a product like Safer Routes Home, and how it might be super complicated. The brilliant Deb Chachra (of many things, but also of “any sufficiently advanced negligence is indistinguishable from malice”) wrote back to point out how easy it was to jump to technology solutionism. What problem are we trying to solve? It’s not quite “I want a safe route home”, which is the view we get from looking at what’s wrong with Google Maps, or what valuable features could be added to mapping products. The underlying user need is “I want to walk home safely”, to which an answer might be: “OK, let’s identify safer routes”, but perhaps a better answer might be: why don’t we make neighborhoods safer? What would it take to make it “vanishingly unlike that some random asshole would harass or threaten us”? Or, what if everyone who needed mental health care got it, or that there was good enough social support that mugging someone wasn’t an attractive option?”

I have to admit, I bristled a bit when I got that first reply from Deb (Though I think we had a good conversation about it in the end!), taking it a little as an accusation, but I’d also like to think of it as good feedback about framing everything around tech. Not everything is a tech problem or opportunity. But everything is a people problem. (Duh, because… we’re the people).

Via reader Richard Sargeant, some work by Faculty, of a demo of a safer route-finding algorithm.

Michael B. Johnson very politely reminded me that Disney Animation, not Pixar, were responsible for the Planes series of movies. I’ve corrected the web-published episode.


Gosh this 737-700 is hot and the air conditioning somewhat anemic. It can’t possibly have anything to do with Boeing’s business decisions and the influence of the biggest customer for this plane, could it? [The New Republic, NY Times]

I’m excited to head home and see my family again instead of over Facetime. I’ve got a busy weekend ahead, too.

How are you doing?

Best,

Dan