The Blogroll: Week 7

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

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus - Who Am I Buying This For?

We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.

What a cycle.

We showcase our favorite brands in a futile effort to signify our individuality: See this shiny new thing? This is who I am! Our logos make us feel unique, just like everybody else.

The brands themselves aren’t the problem, though: we all need some stuff, so we rely on brands to create the things we need. The problem arises when we feel external pressure to acquire, as if new trinkets are a shortcut to a more complete life.

I had a conversation with my dad yesterday about Spotify. It went like this: “Why don’t you get Spotify?” “I already own all the songs I like.” “But there are millions you’ve never heard!” “If I like one, I’ll buy it. I think Apple charges 99¢.”

He clearly isn’t worried about external pressure — his party playlist will have Styx’ “Come Sail Away” forever and ever. Amen.

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Marcelo Rinesi - Cyber-weapons as a form of magic, and why we can’t code our way to a safer internet

A “cyber-weapon” isn’t a thing, but a skill. It’s not an object you can blow up with a missile or send a UN team to inspect, but the technical knowledge of how to identify and exploit a set of systems, written clearly enough that a computer can do it. It’s a recipe that can make millions of copies of itself even as it bakes the cake it describes, and even if all copies were to be deleted, all it would take to recreate it is a single person with the technical knowledge writing it down again.

It’s a poem that, written down, unread by human eyes, causes havoc in the real world. You might as well apply the concepts of “deterrence” and “arms control” to a rumor. By calling them “weapons,” politicians and the military, while reflecting the uses for them they desire and fear, misunderstand their nature. People who, in other contexts and issues, claim it impossible to control the production and distribution of something as solid as an AR-15, attempt to ensure the security of their computational infrastructure by controlling the production and distribution of pure knowledge, in an era where the circuits inside a car’s door could drown out the output of any printing press.

Sometimes non-developers joke that developers seem like magicians. I guess if you can bend machines to your will with nothing but bleep-bloops, you kind of are a magician (does that make me a word magician?).

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Cate Huston - How Do Teams Define Success?

I wonder if part of this is the challenge of generalising when teams are made different not just by the people in them, but in the circumstances they operate in, and the harder things get the more personal things become. When we distill to a blogpost, by necessity we leave much of the complexity out of it. So it’s a lot safer to write about how to bring in Kanban, than is it to talk about how to manage up. It’s much easier to talk about how to hire than how to fire – and hopefully we do more of the former, anyway. It’s more enticing to talk about the CI stack than the slow grind and many failures towards achieving product market fit.

But ultimately I think any experienced manager will tell you the harder topics make the biggest difference to the a team that executes on meaningful work, than a disconnected non-team that does not execute at all.

Buzzword management is so easy (the author asks Twitter, “what does a successful dev/product team look like?” and gets a ton of buzzword-y results), but it rarely tackles actual problems.

The answer that’s floating around in my head is that creating a successful team requires a clear “we do this here” culture where everyone falls in line, from top to bottom (with an emphasis on the fact that culture generally comes from the top). Teams fail when the response to “we do this here” is “do we really?”

In short, identify the behaviors you seek, then reinforce them by hiring and retaining people who share your vision. Also, don’t be a jerk. Teams fail when people are jerks.

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Catherynne Valente - Five Things I Learned Writing Space Opera

Of course, when you make any attempt to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams is always in the room. He did it best, and you can’t do better. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can actually get to work. It was even worse for me, since I knew I couldn’t have my protagonists be American (it’s not called Americavision) and the only participating country I’ve lived in, and thus, felt comfortable enough to write about, is the United Kingdom. I knew there would be comparisons, and it’s a bit terrifying, because, as I said, you can’t come close to Hitchhiker’s, it’s a mathematical law, like Xeno’s Paradox.

Ultimately, I had to give myself permission to sound a little bit Adams-y from time to time, that it couldn’t be helped, and know that in the end we are very different writers, with very different concerns, and a perhaps bit of arch deadpan humor on a spaceship could be forgiven in service of rocking out as hard as possible. One of my favorite things to do is dwell in the comedy until the reader feels comfortable, and then go straight for the feelings. It’s that oh-so-American hard turn into gut-rending emotion that I feel I can bring to the genre. And you know, it’s fairly freeing to know that you just can’t reach the same heights as the master—you’re bound to mess it up in comparison, but if I can pull a bronze in the event, that’s enough for me.

We all have someone we try to emulate, but most of us fail to reach their great heights. If you can’t let those ghosts go, you’ll never be able to accomplish anything.

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Kyle Chayka - Style Is an Algorithm

The threat of banality (or the lack of surprise) implicit in full machine curation reminds me of the seemingly random vocabulary meant to improve SEO on Craigslist posts. As one chair listing I encountered put it: “Goes with herman miller eames vintage mid century modern knoll Saarinen dwr design within reach danish denmark abc carpet and home arm chair desk dining slipper bedroom living room office.”

Imagine the optimized average of all of these ideas. The linguistic melange forms a taste vernacular built not on an individual brand identity or a human curator but a freeform mass of associations meant to draw the viewer in by any means necessary. If you like this, you’ll probably like that. Or, as a T-shirt I bought in Cambodia a decade ago reads, “Same same but different.” The slogan pops into my mind constantly as I scroll past so many content modules, each unique and yet unoriginal.

This article is really good. Just read it.

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Jack Wellborn - The Menu Bar

The menu bar isn’t perfect. It’s not a solution for touch and even the Mac’s global menu bar can quickly become overwhelming in very sophisticated and poorly designed applications, but for now I would happily stay in a world with familiar menu bars than one without… at least until something better comes along.

I think about complex interfaces a lot — particularly responsive/small-screen interfaces — and usually come to the same conclusion: the internet is hurt, more than helped, by its lack of standards. I know, I know, the internet is all about freedom, but imagine how nice it’d be if every site had a /help page that corresponded with a Help button in a menu bar that acted like the Help button in native Mac apps. The Help button is always there. Expected. Apps can do things within that framework, but the basics are there. Always.

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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.)