The Blogroll: Week 13

If you’re asking “what the heck am I looking at?”, here’s a primer. Also, if you know of an article or blog I should be reading, let me know.

The Blogroll

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Chuck Wendig - Setting Free The Sacred Cows Of Writing Advice

Write What You Know

Oh, god, this one.

I don’t know anything, and yet I write a lot of things, because I am capable of learning stuff. I am not a hacker, but I wrote a book about hackers. I know very little about ants, but I wrote a book about ants. Featuring characters who are decidedly not me. You know how I do it?

a) I do research

b) I make shit up

Write What You Know is not a law — it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to know more things, and it’s an opportunity to connect your current experiences with the work at hand, both out of a search for some authenticity and, well, because of basic laziness. Sometimes that means finding an emotional core to the story that connects to your emotional core. Sometimes it means taking your experiences in one hand (climbing a tree) and using that experience to inform a completely made up one (climbing a castle tower).

You can experience stuff, you can research stuff, and you can make stuff up.

That’s writing. That’s it.

There are so many good things about this post, but this particular point rang very true. Being a writer isn’t about having in-depth knowledge of anything in particular — it’s about being interested in things, and having the tenacity to do some research every once in a while.

And if you really think about it, everything you know came into your brain because you learned it somewhere, right? If you only wrote about what you knew, you’re saying that all learning stops when you begin writing — a very unwriterly thing to do.

Don’t do that.

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Michael Lopp - Say the Hard Thing

Your goal in life is to make feedback in all directions no big deal. You and your team never start in this state, they earn it. They start with small spoken observations that slowly turn into more useful feedback. They watch to see if each other are listening to the feedback and eventually acting on it. Once everyone has seen that feedback is both shared and acted on, they begin to feel more comfortable sharing large, more complex, and harder feedback. Why? Trust.

Feedback is an incredibly valuable social transaction. They take their time to observe an aspect of you. They have other things to do, but today they are investing in you. You think you’ve got it all figured out, but you don’t. You take the time to both clearly hear the feedback, ask clarifying questions, and hopefully adjust the way you work.

All the constituent parts of the act of giving and receiving feedback is an opportunity to build trust in a relationship.

Feedback is a hard thing to receive because — as the article points out — humans are very good at rationalizing their behavior. “X didn’t happen because of Y” is much easier to say than “X didn’t happen because I’m just not 100% this week and it fell off my unfairly short priority list.” And often, things just don’t work out the way you intend them to.

What’s important in a team setting is to create a comfortable way to get and give feedback without consequence. The first step to changing a behavior is to be aware of it. And the biggest driver to actually make a change is to be aware that other people are aware of it. But the stakes have to be clear, and the stakes have to be low — when your job is riding on everyday decisions, fighting to the death in defense of them is just a survival tactic.

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Kari - Sustainable happiness

I just heard the news about Anthony Bourdain, who was as ferocious about devouring life as a person could be. What a goddamn tragedy this is. What a week of flashing, blinding alarm lights. There is a crisis in this country, and even the strongest and most successful and seemingly charmed among us can’t fight it on their own.

So sad. A lot of my worldview came from watching No Reservations and Parts Unknown, and not having that in my life is just sad. I know his passing isn’t about that, and it’s silly of me to distill his existence into the availability of his TV show, but we need more of his outlook on the world. Now more than ever.

I often felt like his shows were a calling for us — as a society — to start valuing interconnectedness and real experiences over wasteful consumerism. And time and time again we failed him. We fail all of us, I guess. It’s hard — right now especially — to not feel like the wrong parts of humanity are winning out.

And say what you will about the awesomeness of Anthony Bourdain’s job — the thing he admired most in all of the people he interviewed was their passion for home. For roots. Something a traveling TV show and fame could never provide. It’s almost like he was sacrificing himself to show us all the follies of what we were creating.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the crisis of all this isn’t depression, it’s that we value greed and fame and stuff over family and shared experiences. We’ve built a world where the most creative, most emotionally sensitive people, are forced to churn and churn and churn to get by. And even that might not be enough — big businesses and misguided policies are going to run your favorite record shop out of town regardless.

Yikes, I’ve become a rambling mess. I don’t have any solutions other than, if you have kids, to keep them close. And cook dinner with them — if Anthony Bourdain taught me anything, it’s that true happiness is knowing that you’ve successfully passed on all your secret family recipes.

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Cal Newport - Jerry Seinfeld’s Closed Door

A key idea in attention capital theory is that knowledge work organizations implicitly prioritize convenience over value production. It makes everyones’ life easier in the moment if you’re quick to reply to email, willing to hop on a call, attend one more planning meeting and join that internal committee.

But as Seinfeld’s example hints, it’s possible that many of these organizations might end up producing massively more value in the long run if they set things up so their cognitive talent could shut the metaphorical door, disengage from the logistical tangle, and decide, “we’re going to make this thing funny.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow for most organizations. Management always seems like an apparatus that’s always supposed to know all the things, but in reality, successful management is all about placing the right structure around smart, creative people, then freeing them do their thing.

As John Roderick says, “Keep moving and get out of the way.”

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Dave Rupert - What’s Golf for People Like Me?

My father belongs to a generation of men (and some women) who, if the weather is right, leave work for a few hours to play a round of golf in the middle of the day. For as long as I can remember my father has been participating in this hobby which was always tangential to conducting business.

My father is an insurance man, so through golfing he builds relationships that eventually lead to a life insurance policy. But he doesn’t just golf with other insurance agents, he golfs with doctors and dentists, city council people, contractors, business owners, and more. All co-mingling and building their social network and social capital.

Part of me views leaving work mid-day to play as a bit irresponsible or an insult to Protestant work ethic. But as I get older, I see it as extremely healthy: take breaks, converse with people, build relationships.

This all has me wondering… what’s golf for people like me?

As I’m writing this, I’m having an on-and-off conversation with a plumber who’s doing work on my kitchen. You don’t realize how little interaction you have with non-coworkers until you find yourself seeing the world through a someone else’s lens.

Church, golf, going to “the lodge” — we’ve collectively decided these things aren’t important, but we haven’t really replaced them with anything but Netflix. It’s hard not to think about Anthony Bourdain in these moments.

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Brad Frost - I dunno

There are big paradigm shifts happening, and I’m finding my mind and my experience doesn’t always map well to these new paradigms. And because I apparently have to spell everything out, that’s not saying those paradigm shifts are wrong, it’s just that there’s a learning curve involved that warrants discussion. Because I spend a whole lot of my waking hours committed to making websites and learning about making websites, and a whole bunch of other people don’t have that luxury. If I’m finding this stuff hard, then I’d venture to guess other people are finding it hard as well.

That turns out to be the case. When I talk about this stuff, I have a lot of people — even seasoned, prominent people — quietly whisper to me, “I think this stuff is hard too.” There’s something very depressing about that. I believe that openness and sharing is what makes the web industry amazing, which is why it’s unsettling that these conversations increasingly feel like they’re driven underground. It’s especially depressing when women and people of color tell me now they especially don’t want to say anything too loudly.

We need to be able to candidly and thoughtfully talk about technology without people assuming you’re calling that technology and the people who create/use it garbage. We have to be mindful of the community we’re fostering, and encourage people to freely discuss all this stuff without getting dog piled on. And although I wish people wouldn’t take things so seriously and jump to the worst interpretation of a joke, I recognize I have to watch the tone of how I discuss all of this stuff.

Can we make this a Madlibs?

We need to be able to candidly and thoughtfully talk about _ without people assuming you’re calling _ and the people who _ it garbage.

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nomasters - unquantified

I was over-connected, over-stimulated, and fixated on hitting arbitrary numbers that represented some sort of success in my mind. Despite all the effort, I wasn’t really making myself happier. Now I understand that part of turning down the volume on dopamine means making room for quiet contentment. It also means choosing mindful ignorance and finding the joy in not knowing.

It’s even spilled over into non-personal stuff. For this site and killcord.io:

  • I don’t use any analytics tools to track readers (I don’t even run JavaScript, check out the source code).
  • I don’t keep access logs for S3 and Cloudfront (you can check out my terraform config here).
  • I have no idea who or how many folks visit my sites (I’m completely fine with that).

I’m not claiming to have figured this all out (I’m only one year in). I’m also not claiming that I’ve discovered some great truth. What I can tell you is that I’ve learned that trusting my intuition and introspecting honestly have been far more valuable for my health and happiness than any amount of data ever collected could try to accomplish.

Minimalism is a powerful design choice. It doesn’t just apply to visual aesthetics. What and how we quantify is also a design choice. When it comes to quantification, I prefer the path of the minimalist.

When I think of modern data and analytics, my mind goes in a bunch of directions.

  1. The data I collect on myself almost never leads to positive life changes. Instead, it just makes me hyper-aware of all the imperfect things I do to feel connected or stay motivated. (That said, I really like my new Fitbit Versa.)
  2. Analytics have completely revolutionized sports, but I’m not sure if I’m happy with the results. I’m a Houston Rockets basketball fan (I’m from Houston, howdy) and I love the team, but the 3s-and-layups style just isn’t very fun to watch. But analytics support it, and it’s creating this weird monoculture within the game where every team tries to play almost exactly the same. Everything is becoming vanilla.
  3. The world is probably a better place because of big data, and that’s difficult for people to grasp. And it’s what’s driving the culture war of today — data often points to one or two particular actions, but they often aren’t very sexy. A good world leader doesn’t care about sexy and does the right thing. A good politician only cares about sexy and rarely does the right thing.
  4. Sometimes the right thing isn’t the right thing. The world isn’t fun when every decision is perfect. Sometimes I want a cocktail before bed. Sometimes we choose to go to the Moon just to say we can. Sometimes we build products that go against the grain for the sake of being different, because conformity isn’t very punk rock. I dunno — I wish more people felt free to shake things up a bit.
  5. I think the world would be a better place if personal data and analytics were removed from marketing. Full stop.

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Jeffrey Zeldman - The Cult of the Complex

Good communication strives for clarity. Design is its most brilliant when it appears most obvious—most simple. The question for web designers should never be how complex can we make it. But that’s what it has become. Just as, in pursuit of “delight,” we forget the true joy reliable, invisible interfaces can bring, so too, in chasing job security, do we pile on the platform requirements, forgetting that design is about solving business and customer problems … and that baseline skills never go out of fashion. As ALA’s Brandon Gregory, writing elsewhere, explains:

“I talk with a lot of developers who list Angular, Ember, React, or other fancy JavaScript libraries among their technical skills. That’s great, but can you turn that mess of functions the junior developer wrote into a custom extensible object that we can use on other projects, even if we don’t have the extra room for hefty libraries? Can you code an image slider with vanilla JavaScript so we don’t have to add jQuery to an older website just for one piece of functionality? Can you tell me what recursion is and give me a real-world example?”

I’m not a developer and I don’t want to sound dumb, so I won’t say much. But I have a friend who is relatively new as a professional developer though, and she was telling me about how she only does CSS, and how she needs to learn X, Y, and Z languages to get ahead. I looked down and said, “I don’t know what I’m talking about here, but one thing that seems obvious from the outside is that the world badly needs more people who are really f-ing good at the fundamentals. If I had my own company, my first hire would be a front-end dev who has no desire to crud up my site with bloated Javascript. To me, saying you only do CSS is like saying I only write in English.”

The actual blogroll

(Blogs are ranked in order of appearances in these Blogroll posts. Also, I’m only listing blogs that don’t act as newspapers, because those are the ones I feel need the most support.)