0.0 Context setting
You're reading Things That Caught My Attention, a newsletter of thinking-out-loud by me, Dan Hon. I write this for myself: it's as much a blog and a note of what I've found interesting. For some reason, writing about things unedited is a bit like thinking out loud, in that it helps organize my thoughts; I discover what I think about something by writing it down in this way.
The thinking out loud in this newsletter is, broadly speaking, about anything that has caught my attention, and the things that have caught my attention have variously included topics such as: software (amirite?); the unbearable digitization of being; what would it be like if we were actually good at software; no, you're stupid, of course there are some great examples of when we've been actually good at software; what it is like to be a human with a brain; aggressively blurring the lines between the personal and the professional.
Oh, and "verticals" like: advertising; government (and its "digitization", ugh); shitting on 99.9% of blockchain; being-a-dad; living-with-depression; and, well. You might able to see now why I am deliberately vague in this being about "things that have caught my attention".
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0.2 The setup for this particular episode
It's Sunday May 24, 2020 in Portland, Oregon, USA. This means it's a holiday weekend, which is to say that some people have Monday off, because Monday is memorial day.
I have lived here for something like ten years and still haven't really learned my American holidays other than Thanksgiving and 4th July, which means holidays like "Memorial day weekend" creep up on me rather like the way the current president crept up on the country: technically, with a lot of warning and foreshadowing, but in practice, catches me totally unprepared. This is, on reflection, probably not a great thing. I will need to learn the holidays here if I ever want to naturalize. (See? I even spelled it right.)
Anyway. It's a holiday weekend. Friday, we learned that the 3 year old's preschool will not be opening at all for the next academic year. It's a wonderful school and very Portland and crunchy: there are goats and chickens and a bee garden to play in. It is now a safe place made unsafe thanks to the combination of a virus, a disease and a despairingly inept and cruel government administration. I would be angry, but I am too tired to be angry. I am too tired to be anything, really.
I wish I had something uplifting to write here, and I suppose what I can do is be honest and say: I do not see that right now. I see a long, hard slog and the sadness of a self-inflicted civilizational injury when we could've done so much better. Today, I am sad and beaten down.
1.0 Some Things That Caught My Attention
1.1 An opportunity to be human
[This part has been sitting in drafts for a while. I am not going to feel guilty about digging it out].
Let me start with a story, first.
Our big kid is 7 years old, which means they’re in first grade in the U.S. Early on during These Times, we had a parent-teacher conference with their teacher to talk about how the last couple of weeks of remote classes have gone. What’s worked, what hasn’t worked, all the usual stuff that you’d expect in a scrum retro. (Sorry, not sorry etc.)
Their teacher had one observation that stuck out for me. Seeing the kids in gallery view on Zoom (it’s a small class, only 10-12 kids), they were able to notice things about the children they’d never noticed before in a physical classroom setting. Becoming aware of this helped them understand and meet each child’s needs better.
In gallery view, our kid’s teacher got to see each child’s face up close at the same time. (Actually, it’s not just because of gallery view. It also has a lot to do with the physical set-up of a phone/tablet/laptop and lenses and focal lengths, optics and screens and so on).
A teacher can see in a different way what each child is looking at, how they’re being distracted, what they’re paying attention to. Forget better or worse, it’s just different. Another perspective. One that might come with new, useful information.
In other words, Zoom is A Different Way Of Seeing. Or, tired: Seeing Like A State; Wired: Seeing Like A Multi-Participant Realtime Video Conference.
Here's another example of What's Different About Video Conference Facilitated Remote Learning: part of their group main lesson over Zoom includes drawing together. This drawing-together time over Zoom has a different quality - their teacher is able to mute the entire class so it’s quieter and they’re not talking to each other. They can sit on their own and concentrate, focus on their drawing in a different way. Again, not necessarily better, but certainly different.
Stepping back a bit, one thing I’m grateful for is that people who are otherwise skeptical about the ability of the internet to bring people together (all this “online friends aren’t real friends” business), with the rough belief that online relationships or connection isn’t as real or can never be as valuable as the offline equivalent… well, I’m hearing from a bunch of people who’re changing their minds. Choir groups that are rehearsing together, and sometimes not even rehearsing. Just getting together over video chat to talk with each other.
I’m thinking of those who think physical community and togetherness is the only option and how that is crashing down now. That online connection and community is a sort of inferior, scratchy, lo-fidelity facsimile. That socializing online is a sort of affront to actually meeting people and talking to them. But now that doing the physical part is much harder, it turns out that hey: in the absence of any physical socialization, this online stuff isn’t so bad. That skeptics or even those who were indifferent to the point of being passively skeptic are re-evaluating their beliefs out of the sheer quantity of evidence and experience. That there are people who are now discovering that online togetherness does create togetherness in the same way that community out there does.
My son’s school is a Waldorf school. We pay for it, and it’s complicated and that’s a whole other story, but right now, it’s the best school for him. One of the things I’m not excited about by it is that the school philosophy (which is, in one description, even harder-core than Montessori) is if not actively skeptical of technology, then disinterested. I’m heartened by their teacher’s reaction. They talk about how much they’re learning and new sides they’ve seen to their class. That’s beautiful, to me.
One last thing for parents: eldest's teacher is a former homeschooler with three children. Right at the beginning, she said to us "Look. You've got a 7 year old and a 3 year old. It's going to be impossible. Getting one hour of 'learning' in just for one day is going to be a significant achievement. There are going to be days when it's just nothing and that's fine."
It was such a relief to hear her say that and be given permission to not try to carry on as usual. That hasn't made it any easier, though.
1.2 Bipartisan independent scorecards for government services
I'm writing this down here because I want it to be written down and then I can point other people to it.
government service delivery is terrible, but let's for the moment assume that nobody actually wants to do a terrible job and skip as much as we can the environmental and systematic incentives for failing so badly and the quite frankly toxic approach to risk and psychological safety required to become competent over time
delivery of government services aided by technology (ie government digital services) has been to date outsourced to third party vendors because a) any internal government capability has been hollowed out due to, broadly, The Great Lie Of Outsourcing And Concentrating On Your Core Competency; b) it's always nice to blame someone else if your thing goes wrong; c) really, though, being able to blame someone else is an excellent way to appear to reduce risk while not actually reducing risk at all and instead, increasing it
the hollowing out of capability means governments are, broadly, not even able to assess the competence or capability of third parties to deliver contracted services
because the implementation of a program through technology (and, let's be real: what isn't, these days?) is an outsourced project, it is run as a project management exercise and this, broadly speaking, is still run as an exercise in Gathering Requirements By Talking To Anyone Other Than The People Who Actually Need To Use The Damn Thing.
it is not anyone's job, or it's not worth anyone's job, to make sure that the implementation delivers against a programmatic outcome, rather than, say, "did we do what the legislation and regulations require us to do" and not "can people do x, in the real world, now"
project management and having project managers on staff means there's no money to research a direction for delivery of a service, because all you have to do (to reduce risk, remember), is either write a Request for Information (RFI) where you ask vendors what they would do, or just write the Request for Proposal and sit back and wait. I mean, why do any work? You're not even *supposed* to be doing any work, you're supposed to *managing* the project.
generally, nobody likes paying for a report that might be perceived as telling you exactly how terrible you are at doing the thing you're supposed to do
in large government technology projects there exists a thing called IV&V, which means Independent Verification and Validation but for various reasons including a general lack of competency all around and the inability to judge the competency of the independent organization doing the IV&V in the first place, this discipline and line item which is intended to Reduce Risk And Improve Outcomes doesn't, and is generally a waste of money
All of which is to say this:
it would be nice if, say, an independent, trusted third party were to produce standard assessments of the usability (ie: ability to meet user needs and outcomes) of common government services. I'd start with, say, social services like applying for unemployment insurance.
these standard assessments at the base level can consist of screen-by-screen teardowns (or, better, friction maps -- thanks, Dave Guarino), that might show where in a process people have problems. You may know these as "User Journeys". Again, nobody wants to pay for these because they'll just get you in trouble.
look, all I'm saying is that the existence of independent, third party reports that at the base level are the simple facts of documenting what a process *is* (not even looks like, what it *is*) would be a remarkably useful asset for, I don't know: a) advocacy groups; b) vendors interested in improving the process; c) project managers who might be interested in holding a prime contractor vendor to account for failures in basic usability; d) any newspapers interested in holding power to account and finding out if policy promises are being followed through
if you know what's not working, you can see what you need to fix.
you could even be really specific about it, right? Like, to the point of Pointing To Wear It Hurts On The Independent Friction Map/User Journey/Walkthrough and including that in a change order and saying "hey, now that we've got instrumentation, we want this number to change in this direction" and what's that, you aren't able to do that? Oh how interesting. I guess we'll remember that when it's time to renegotiate the maintenance and operation budget and contract.
Wait, if these independent friction maps existed as a third party resource, they could even serve as a model for an actually-useful function of independent verification and validation! Imagine a regular audit or test of a service in production or development that scores whether your service actually meets needs!
I mean, all I'm *really* saying is that if anyone like a philanthropic foundation wanted to fund a group of user researchers and a smaller number of product/service managers to produce such an asset that's a major missing part of a functioning government technology ecosystem, well, you can just reply to this email
Don't tell me you don't want to see speedruns of government services and a sort of Government Services Done Quick festival
Nobody likes getting a public F in something, and getting an F in something can be a nice little bit of stick to go along with the carrot.
What I'm saying is: we need a Consumer Reports for Government Services, so if you’re interested in this, please get in touch. I am specifically looking for funders (doesn’t matter what kind! Institutional is fine!) BECAUSE THIS IS SOMETHING THAT IS WORTH INVESTING IN. I am absolutely livid about the expectation that something like this should be started on a volunteer basis first. I mean, have you looked outside? Putting this together is actual work, and if you rely on people who are able to volunteer their time, then… well, you’re being a bit short-sighted in your pool and running the risk of not making sure you’re able to serve the general population, i.e.: everyone.
I swear to god, if I get a single response like “Oh, this totally sounds worth it, put together a demo or see if you can get it going with some volunteers” I’m pretty much ready to name and shame. Now I’m really angry about the general western malaise and reluctance to invest in common infrastructural services. I mean, yes, someone else should be paying for it, but if you could be paying for it and getting it started, then…
2.0 Smaller bits
Edit Wars For Infrastructure: there's a novel that I'm working on which I am trying very hard not to think about given all the Oh Of Course This Is The Perfect Time To Work On The Novel, nevermind the fact that anything anyone was working on Before These Times is now a weird period piece. Anyway, one phrase I had to write down in conversation with a friend figuring out part of, well, the fundamental conceit of the novel, was "edit wars for infrastructure" in a world where software has eaten, well, the world. This isn't a phrase I expect to make it into the novel. It's a bit... hardcore. Or specialist. But I suppose I could see it being said by someone and then having to be Expositioned.
You say: software is eating the world; I say: this is what happens when software eats the world, every 2019 and 2020 Volvo car sold in the United States has been recalled due to a fault with its emergency braking system. Imagine if consumer electronics devices were recalled in a similar way. What would it take for recall legislation to be passed?
Haha, trick question! Over 100,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19 and I don’t see anything changing any time soon.
Last time I wrote about some governments letting large technology companies lead them around by the nose in setting API standards that, effectively, limit what a government can practically achieve in the real world. Now, I'm not so naive as to think that this is a new practice (ie. it's not like other powerful industries don't set standards!). It's nice to see, though, that New Zealand's Ministry of Health actually got ahead of the game and has issued a COVID-19 Contact Tracing Data Standard to define how they want things to work, as opposed to waiting around to be told how things are going to work.
Actually, more on that. In conversation with a reader, the (false?) choice that appears to have come up in the UK and USA is "you can have the mobile personal technology infrastructure determined by Google and Apple, as a treat" or "you need a government that actually figures out what it wants and negotiates a way to bring that about in reality" (also, I suppose, a sort of intentional politics, instead of an approach that's more like, idk, ¯\_(ツ)/¯, so long as the stock market keeps going up). So the choice here is between a representative democratic government (that in some cases chooses to willfully shoot itself in the kneecaps), or some sort of tech company ruled over by a Sun King who cannot be removed by the Board. That... is not a great choice? And it's kind of terrifying that, on balance, you could make an argument, as things stand right now, for a Benevolent Dictator For Life In Terms Of Preferred Voting Stock And Estate Planning Through Technological Infrastructure.
The easy remark to make would be the Gibsonian "the terrifying pandemic is here, it's just not evenly distributed" but it's true and it's terrifying so you should read this piece explaining why by the wonderful Ed Yong.
I Am Not A Game Developer But: this looks like fairly targeted criticism of the Unity engine by the developer of Garry's Mod and the big takeaway for me is to compare this description of Unity with Epic's Unreal: both are game engines (and more!) but one of them is also used by its developer to make games. The facetious note would be to say that Unity is used by Unity to make demos. I know people who work at Unity, and they are wonderful people.
Or, you know, if the point of a technology system was to deliver some sort of social outcome and it was primarily in the control, design and development by a organization that had nothing to do with delivering such a thing.
What with the release of the latest trailer of Christopher Nolan's film in Fortnite, I put another checkmark in my "Fortnite is Actually Snow Crash's Metaverse And Also, In A Way, The Black Sun" column, but then I also put a checkmark in "Wait, It's Also Minecraft": Reporters without Borders have put a library inside a Minecraft server as one technique to get past Great Firewalls. Hiding Legit Proper Grown Up Information inside That Thing Kids Use With Blocks feels like something wonderful.
I saw (can't remember via where) this piece on how getting better at numerical linear algebra algorithms has improved the performance of some problems by around 43,000,000x compared to 43,000x due to Moore's Law (the one about doubling transistor density -- not performance! -- every 18 months) . This reads like a fantastic claim so I immediately had to go and find the source, which is this:
The Report to the President and Congress on Designing A Digital Future: Federally Funded Research and Developing in Networking and Information Technology by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, December 2010.
It's a PDF, and you want page 71, and even then, it's not quite as well sourced as I'd like.
Me, as a joke: somebody should make a Duolingo for translating *from* corporate, content-free markov chain buzzword English into Actual English That Means Something And Can Be Understood By People Rather Than Just Invoking The Rule Where You Nod Along And Don't Ask What They Goddamn Meant In The First Place.
You, misunderstanding: a) why would you want to learn how to speak corporate English; b) actually, learning how to speak corporate English would be useful, yet also a depressing thought; c) see also: http://unsuck-it.com/; d) also me: SAY MOTHERFUCKING LEVERAGE ONE MORE TIME.
I somehow missed this apparently excellent piece about the sort of watches you see in the Financial Times and The Economist that John Travolta wears.
Game developers always want to simulate a world in detail, will even settle for a small one; n in a series of x, 2012 edition:
Every voice assistant is dumb, fight me (Siri on creating appointments and sending calendar invitations to people(!), not even the thing about Which London Is The Relevant London). Honestly, I’m proposing a much more useful test than the Turing Test anytime anyone wants to talk about voice assistant “artificial intelligence”: The Which London Is The Relevant London Test.
Ubiquiti, who make Proper Networking Kit, but not like Cisco, have an actual honest-to-goodness useful augmented reality feature in their mobile app: you can point a live camera view at your managed switch AND IT WILL AUGMENT YOUR REALITY WITH WHAT EACH OF THE PORTS ARE DOING (one of the rare occasions I’ll do an actual Twitter embed):
I mean, what if Iron Man, but a network systems administrator is something I can totally get behind. Also, weak signal: many of my geek friends are moving to Ubiquiti kit for their home networking.
3.0 Wrapping up
Okay, that’s it, we’re already at over 3,500 words.
Here’s a brief (slightly cringe-y) reminder that I’m looking for work after my work with the State of California was surprised terminated thanks to COVID-19 budget cuts. Here’s what I wrote last time, and thank you to everyone who’s already been in touch:
I love talking to everyone, so if you have anything in these areas, even if you likely have a hiring freeze, please get in touch:
roles like: senior product strategy and product management
games, especially massive-scale, internet native games, like Google Stadia (but not traditional AAA! Something more interesting than that!) and location-based games like Niantic’s Pokemon Go. I used to make alternate reality games, which given our current situation, combined with escape rooms and immersive theater, I have so many pitches for and this time, they actually come with revenue models.
product/strategy/creative roles in organizations like Apple, like for Apple Health and Watch or Arcade
public interest and government technology
And yes, I know that’s a wide bucket. But if you know me, then I think you know how much and what I can bring to those areas, because those are ones I really, really care about.
How are you doing? I always love getting notes from people, especially now, and I write back. Even if your note is just saying “hi”. (Hi)