ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

FaviconPhone Obsession 28 Jun 2017, 3:00 pm

On a recent Saturday night, a family connection got into trouble that took me on a rescue mission to a party gone wrong, then Emergency. Then it echoed into nightmare.

At the party scene there was broken glass and shouting and eventually first responders, and a partier left by ambulance; I beat the officials there and tried to hold things together. This young woman, barefoot and disheveled in her party dress, wandered through the front room a couple of times, crying. And in between the sobs “I can’t find my phone. Fuck you! I’ve lost my phone. Go away! I just gotta get my phone. Shut up!

Others rallied around suggesting the back yard, the basement,the bathroom; they got the abuse. I heard she found it, finally.

So I went off to Emergency to see if I could help out, pretty busy there on a weekend night. I wasn’t there long, but on two occasions a gentleman was escorted out by multiple large serious suddenly-appearing security employees, explaining that “No she doesn’t want to see you. She doesn’t want you here.”

One of these guys was telling them how much he loved her and respected her and would never want to hurt her and that he was terribly sorry for anything that might have gone wrong. A wasted-looking woman, thin as a wraith, wandered through trying to bum a smoke and told the dude “Nobody wants you here.”

He broke down suddenly: “OK, whatever, it’s just I really need my phone, I dunno if she’s got it or it at’s her Mom’s.” The security guy said “If I ask, will you just get out of here?” I never heard how that one ended.

Apparently there were no disastrous effects from the bad-party night, but I think it planted a seed, because a couple days later I woke up after a nightmare that I remember (rarely happens) in vivid full-color detail.

Riding a train to Boston with colleagues, I was between cars on my phone and accidentally stepped off the train at the last stop before our destination. As it pulled away I was furious but I knew what to do: Contact my party and ask them to grab my stuff before they got off, I’d catch up somehow. It was a pretty short stretch, so I’d have to get through fast.

But my dream-phone went into pathological-resistance mode; we’ve all been in that place where a device decides it’s not going to wake up, then won’t let you sign in, then the app you need won’t start, then it stupidly won’t recognize the name of a contact you’ve used lots of times, then drops into autocorrect-Swahili-emoji mode, then an update notice jumps in front of what you’re trying to do and captures a tap that that it thinks means “go ahead”.

Maybe not all those things happened in my dream, but what did happen was the UI finally morphed into this weird red/yellow dragon motif like a cheap Chinatown awning, and simply ignored all forms of input, as the seconds ticked away. I woke up sweating with that instant profound “that-wasn’t-real” relief. I’m pretty sure now that Chinese-torture UI mode is lurking somewhere in Android’s bowels waiting to leap out at me.

So what is this about?

Maybe we’re all getting a little overly intimate with our mobiles?

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FaviconGames with Girls 17 Jun 2017, 3:00 pm

Weirdly enough, for the first time in my life I’ve been spending videogame time with members of the opposite gender; specifically, my wife and daughter. Which is an excuse for reflections on (and groovy pictures from) No Man’s Sky.

Open world, with spouse

I saw a review somewhere and on impulse picked up Horizon Zero Dawn, a pretty and fast-moving open-world bowshooter. I was watching one of the early cinematics when Lauren walked by, got stuck, and sat on the sofa. Surprisingly, she stayed there after the movie while I steered Aloy (the female protagonist) off into the game. Very surprisingly, a bit later she started pointing out opportunities to harvest goodies and dodge monsters. Shockingly, the next evening she wondered if I was going to turn on the PS4.



Now, I’m not in love with HZD. All the shooters I’ve played have been on PC, and I find the PS4 joystick combo hard to aim with, full of overshoot. Also, HZD’s designers love snowy backgrounds, and I just have trouble seeing the targeting glyph in white-on-white mode.

But I’m going to play some more. Sorry, I mean we’re going to play some more. And Lauren has to drive occasionally. It turns out that she sees lots of things on the screen that I don’t; very helpful.

No Man’s Sky, again

I played a while when it came out (see blogs here and here), enjoyed it a lot, but got bored and stopped. I noticed a couple big add-ons had dropped and one evening decided to poke my head in. My 11-year-old daughter walked by just as I went near some animal and the “Feed?” dialogue popped up. “You can feed the animals?!” and she was hooked. So we play for an hour a few evenings a week, and I’ll occasionally do a late run. She still won’t do space battles, but has mastered the trick of gunning down sentinels. (BTW, if you’re playing the game and not murdering a few sentinels, you’re working too hard for your zinc and titanium. Use your grenade launcher.)

So, doing things with your kids is good, but I’ll be honest, I’m enjoying it again. I like trading up ships and building bases and fighting pirates and discovering weird planets and laughing at silly creatures. I think what I really like is that it’s a relaxing dreamy time (with the occasional short space battle), I can do it for a while then knock off and head for bed not feeling too wired at all.

For those who haven’t sampled the game, or who did so briefly then fell away, go pay it a visit. Also, word on the street is more goodies coming.

Anyhow, the other thing I like is taking pictures; the game now includes a “photo mode” to make that easy. No Man’s Sky photography is definitely a thing; one of the subreddits recently ran a photo contest. One reason is that there’s a lot of attention to light in this game; while there are still things to complain about, they completely nailed that bit.

So, here are a few. Let’s start with exotic alien landscapes.

No Man’s Sky, red landscape No Man’s Sky, water world No Man’s Sky, scary cave

Then there’s our ship. Oddly, we traded down from A-class to a C-class, because it was bigger and well-set-up and cool-looking. But a freighter is in our near future.

The opening mountain-top shot is the only one from my homeworld “Bengal’s Moon”, a nice little moon with lots to harvest and really no irritants.

No Man’s Sky; mountaintop parking No Man’s Sky; by the beach No Man’s Sky; heading for an anomaly No Man’s Sky; space battle

That last one is actually a space battle; those two trails you see are pirates trying to kill me, but they’re doomed.

Now let’s look at some creatures.

No Man’s sky; crab thing No Man’s Sky; headlight creature No Man’s Sky; wings on the head

That last is ridiculous, a galumphing beast with aetherial blue wings on its neck that flutter furiously as it drifts about.

I’ll close with a couple of shots of a nice Gek.

No Man’s Sky; Gek No Man’s Sky; Gek close-up

No Man’s Sky has been accused of being little more than a generator of synthetic space-opera covers. I’m OK with that.

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FaviconPie Pride 15 Jun 2017, 3:00 pm

I apologize in advance for bragging, something I do here only rarely. But my Mom taught me to make pie and now I make pies. It’s a beautiful thing, and there are lessons to be had.

I’ve made two in fact. Here’s the first, with Granny Smith apples inside.

Apple pie by T. Bray

If you want the recipe, just roll the blog clock back a decade to August 2006, when I recorded my mother’s narration. A lot of wisdom packed into six minutes or so of lousy but appealing audio.

We visited her again this spring and I took a more intense lesson with hands-on and copious textual notes.

The second pie was rhubarb from our own back yard; I cranked up the sugar a bit because rhubarb; fortunately not too much and it was still tart. Here’s a piece; the picture suggests the flavor sensation:

A piece of rhubarb pie

The color is because I inadvertently purchased “golden” rather than regular Crisco. I’ve been told that pie crust is better with real actual lard, but I wouldn’t know how to buy that.

Pie supplies

You need equipment and technique to make pie. Specifically, a pastry cloth and dough blender. The first provides a surface to roll the crust out on, and then you use it to flip the crust over the rolling pin so you can unflip it into the pie pan.

As for techniques, two stand out. First, mixing up the flour and Crisco into the right crumbly consistency. My notes say “Dig, don’t mash, longtitudinally” and you definitely have to twist the wrist. I’m sure there are YouTube videos, or you could ask for an intro to my Mom, who can show you. It’s what the dough blender is for; here’s ours.

Dough blender

Second, there’s that business of flipping and unflipping and rolling pins and pie pans. The bad news is, it’s hard. The good news is, when (not if) you miss, you can maneuver the crust around and repair any damage pretty straightforwardly with leftover dough and a bit of water to make it sticky. I should mention that my Mom doesn’t miss, she drops the bottom and top crusts on dead center every time. Maybe when I’m 86 I’ll be able to do that too.

What are you proud of?

Someone asked me that not too long ago, and while I have this highly visible geek persona, on that front I always feel like I’m stumbling in the dark pushing through cobwebs, benefiting unfairly from multidimensional good luck, straining at the edges of what I can understand, asking people to explain things over and over. Imposter syndrome? Yeah, but extreme cynicism, plus suspicion of anyone who sounds over-confident, are super helpful.

So I’ll tell you what I’m proud of: Being a functional domestic adult. I can conjure up an OK dinner for the family from whatever catches my eye in the grocery on the way home, and have it on the table pretty damn quick after I come in the door. I can iron a shirt and calm a baby and clean a kitchen and prune a shrub and chainsaw firewood, then split it. I can untangle a ten-year-old’s hair after she’s been on the trampoline.

I’ve got a kid inside my head who’s in awe of my awesome mastery of these grown-up mysteries.

On top of which, I can now make pie. It’s the opposite of imposter syndrome, and it’s really OK, I think.

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FaviconGareth and Rune 30 May 2017, 3:00 pm

He’s leaving and she’s dying. Still, these are happy pictures.

Gareth and Rune

That’s Gareth Kirkby, a friend for decades, who came over for dinner because we’d drifted apart, it’s been a while, and because he’s leaving (has left now) for Asia, on a trip with no fixed end. He’s political, a good writer and a good person and full of surprises. We’ll miss him.

In his arms, Rune the Bengal cat, who is 19 years old and failing fast; a list of her ailments would fill too much sad space. But the interventions have (just barely) not reached abusive levels, and they happen without the hated trips to the vet. Spring is coming and she visibly enjoys the sunshine; but she won’t see another. She’s been the best cat ever, full of stories; watch for her obituary in this space pretty soon. We’ll miss her.

Gareth and Rune

We are waves climbing the beach, growing thinner, and who knows how far each will get? But a sunny spring evening on the porch stops time.

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FaviconRock Surprise 20 May 2017, 3:00 pm

On a recent Saturday we accidentally took in two very different pop-music concerts; I got one decent pic but ended the evening angry.

Months ago, I’d learned that All Them Witches were touring and bought Vancouver-gig tickets, because I liked the basic loud well-written tuneful guitar-rock songs I’d heard on the radio or YouTube or somewhere. Then Lauren looked at the calendar and said “Hey, we’ve got Bobbi’s birthday party that night.” But it was OK because the party was early.

It was at the Fairview Pub, which I’ve gone by on wheels and feet a zillion times, once or twice even recognizing the name of the bar band, but never inside. I assumed, at 4:30, it’d be beers and conversation.

But I got a couple of shocks when I walked in. First, there was a nine-piece horns-and-guitar soul revue tearing up Rock Steady. Second, once my eyes adjusted, I felt… young. Well, have a look at the picture.

Big City Soul

The band is Big City Soul. Not much of a picture, and unfair because it leaves out co-lead-singer Connie Ballendine.

They’re good! And the audience is old! But, so am I.

The waitress told me that the white-hair set comes in for the 4:30-7:30 show; then they have a rock band later, and a younger crowd.

So, the geezers on the dance floor were laying down some pretty sharp moves, and the band was playing some super hot licks. Pretty straight-ahead R&B; I remember Them Changes and Good Rockin’ at Midnight. They closed with Proud Mary, which it’s hard to do anything new with; their approach was playing it twice as fast as anyone, which worked OK.

Nothing I heard changed my life, but the band was tight and fast and beautifully rehearsed. Except, during a sax solo, I cracked up because the break had three bars of jazz in it, which just didn’t work — remember that great scene in The Commitments?

In fact, they were a lot like the Commitments, only greying middle-class Canadians instead of snotty Dublin greasers. Also, the sound was pretty good. I left smiling from ear to ear.

It didn’t last. All Them Witches were at Vancouver’s sleazy old Cobalt Hotel, near the heroin neighborhood. What a dive, except for it’s got a higher stage than most bar venues, so you can usually see the band.

The opener was meh, sang out of tune and played too long. Finally, the Witches ambled on stage and muddled through getting wired up. I guess they’re not at a level where they have a road crew as such.

When they were all connected, they started playing — the first attempt didn’t take for some reason but they lurched into gear on the second attempt.

The sound was execrable, with Charles Michael Parks Jr’s vocals mixed behind the guitars. The songs, interspersed with lengthy episodes of bass re-tuning, were pretty good when you could hear them. The dual-guitar sound occasionally bit down super-hard and just right. But basically, they just weren’t bringing it.

Charles Michael Parks Jr of All Them Witches Charles Michael Parks Jr of All Them Witches

Looks like a rock star, though.
Shooting live electric music with a modern camera is totally a gas.

I might even buy their recording. But that performance was a disgrace to an honorable profession.

I’m not ready to start dancing to the safe stuff with the other old people. But If you’re offering something new and fresh, you still have to come halfway and work for your money.

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FaviconI Don’t Believe in Blockchain 13 May 2017, 3:00 pm

There are conferences and foundations and consortia and keynotes; it’s the new hotness! But I looked into blockchain technologies carefully and I’ve ended up thinking it’s an overpromoted niche sideshow.

First off, I should say that I like blockchain, conceptually. Provably-immutable append-only data log with transaction validation based on asymmetric crypto, and (optionally) a Byzantine-generals solution too! What’s not to like? But I still don’t think the world needs it.

I’m not stuck on the technical objections, for example the laughably slow transactions-per-second of most real-world blockchain implementations. Where I work, scaling out horizontally to support a million TPS is table stakes.

I could maybe get past the socio-political issues, the misguided notion that in civilized countries, you can route around the legal system with “smart contracts” (in ad-hoc procedural languages) and algorithmic cryptography.

I could even skate around the huge business contra-indicator: Something on the order of a billion dollars of venture-capital money has flowed into the blockchain startup scene. And, what’s come out? I’m not talking about platforms that are “ready for business” or “proven enterprise-grade” or “approved by regulatory authorities”, I’m talking about blockchain in production with jobs depending on it.

But here’s the thing. I’m an old guy: I’ve seen wave after wave of landscape-shifting technology sweep through the IT space: Personal computers, Unix, C, the Internet and Web, Java, REST, mobile, public cloud. And without exception, I observed that they were initially loaded in the back door by geeks, without asking permission, because they got shit done and helped people with their jobs.

That’s not happening with blockchain. Not in the slightest. Which is why I don’t believe in it.

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FaviconStill Blogging in 2017 3 May 2017, 3:00 pm

Not alone and not unread, but the ground underfoot ain’t steady. An instance of Homo economicus wouldn’t be doing this — no payday looming. So I guess I’m not one of those. But hey, whenever I can steal an hour I can send the world whatever words and pictures occupy my mind and laptop. Which, all these years later, still feels like immense privilege.

A lot of good writing is on Medium, which has learned its bloglessons. Shortish-to-longish form: check. Something fresh every day: check. Follow your faves: check. But on my phone, an irritating goober at the screen’s foot says “open in app”, trying to tempt me out of the blogosphere, off of the Web. I guess lots of people go there but I’m not gonna.

On a blog, I can write about blogging and whimsically toss in self-indulgent pictures of May’s budding azaleas.

Budding azaleas

I can end my career, right here, in a flash. I can rant about the perfidy and corruption of my local governing party, who I devoutly hope are about to be turfed by the voters. I can discuss the difference between O(1) and O(log(N)), which can usually be safely ignored.

On blogs, I can read most of the long-form writing that’s worth reading about the art and craft of programming computers. Or I can follow most of the economists’ debates that are worth having. Or I can check out a new photographer every day and see new a way of seeing the world.

Having said that, it seems sad that most of the traffic these days goes to BigPubs. That the advertising dollars are being sucked inexorably into Facebook/Google and away from anyone else. That these days, I feel good over a piece that gets more than twenty thousand reads (only one so far this year).

But I don’t care. I’ll prove it by running a picture of a cement mixer’s insides.

Inside a cement mixer

I wonder what the Web will be like when we’re a couple more generations in? I’m pretty sure that as long as it remains easy to fill a little bit of the great namespace with your words and pictures, people will.

The great danger is that the Web’s future is mall-like: No space really public, no storefronts but national brands’, no visuals composed by amateurs, nothing that’s on offer just for its own sake, and for love.

Here’s a visual composed by an amateur.

New York in a rainstorm

Manhattan rainstorm (spot the bicyclist).

If you’re reading this, you have my thanks. But let’s be honest: I can’t know what you like. Every human product that’s really worth reading or seeing or hearing is made mostly to please its human producer. Because if you aim to please the world you usually miss, the target’s just too big and you can only guess where it is..

That, more than anything, is why I’m still optimistic about whatever this thing is I’m doing here.

Anyhow, I’m not going away.

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FaviconMLB Fan 29 Apr 2017, 3:00 pm

I was in New York last week, and got to make a call on MLBAM, a really smart customer of AWS, where I work. The first three letters in MLBAM mean baseball, of which I’m a devotee; and also a happy five-year subscribing customer of So I was feeling sort of multi-level fannish. It was super-fun, and I got a cute picture.

MLB’s in a nice corner of SoHo and the offices are drop-dead cool, although I suspect the bobblehead-and-memorabilia density might be a bit much for some.

Anyhow, while you’re waiting in the lobby you can admire their fine selection of trophies, a lot of them tech-geek stuff. But there’s at least one Emmy, and then have a close look at the one in the middle.

Trophies at the office

The little plaque says:
NYC Metro Sports
2008 Co-Ed Softball
Division 3 Metro Champions

There were at least two of those NYC-city championship trophies, and I suspect that’s pretty elite amateur-ball territory. What I’d call walking the talk.

A footnote, by the way: I’ve had MLB as a customer before, at Sun, pre-cloud. Sometime around the time they won that NYC trophy they took me out to an Oakland game. I got to sit in the press-box and it stands out in my memory because the visiting team was Seattle, and also in that box were the cheery and deranged Japanese press gaggle who followed Ichiro around to all his games, back then.

Anyhow, if you like baseball at all, I totally recommend subscribing to their service. It Just Works, and on just about every conceivable device with a screen or a speaker, with lots of polish and attention to detail.

It makes me happy that they’re using software that I helped write, and it’s a signal of their sophistication that they’re well into adopting stuff I was still coding late last year.

They’re generally just damn smart in the way they use the cloud, to the extent that they’re now doing Internet for a growing list of other sports.

In particular, I got a briefing on the machinery they’ve put together to get all that Statcast raw data out of the parks and into the Internet. It included a couple of jaw-droppers, and there might be a chance to pitch in with some stuff we’re just coding up right now.

Anyhow, thanks to ’em for hosting us, and I wish we’d scheduled another hour or two.

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FaviconSix-page Typography 23 Apr 2017, 3:00 pm

What happened was, Lauren brought home Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style and I was instantly captivated, by the book’s beauty and also the power of its message. So I’ve got typography on my mind. Stand by for more on the subject, but it struck me immediately that I’m living a typography lesson at work, in the form of the famous Amazon six-pager.

It’s not a secret; to start with, read Brad Porter’s excellent The Beauty of Amazon’s 6-Pager (although in typo-geek mode, I have to point out that “Six-pager” reads much more nicely than “6-Pager”).

Like Brad says, we put intense work into writing these things, and then others of us put intense work into reading them. I’m at a place in the structure where I find myself doing both; neither is easier than the other.

As a guy who’s invested years into descriptive markup and structured documents and flexible presentation and so on, I ought to be horrified by six-pagers, which are fixed-format paginated word-processor output. But in fact they work great. It saves so much time when you can say “That replication setup, second para on page 3, won’t it murder write throughput?”

You know what I’m starting to see? People putting in line numbers. And that’s an even bigger time-saver, particularly if you want to raise an issue about how this on page 1 relates to that on page 5.

Oh, and we do some initial reviewing electronically, but when it matters, six-pagers are printed. Because of course.

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Favicon2017 Camera News 15 Apr 2017, 3:00 pm

Herewith some reportage on the most interesting cameras in the world, with opinions to provoke er entertain people who are up on this stuff, and a basic survey of the landscape for people who like pictures and wonder about cameras.

[Update]: The same day I wrote this, DPReview ran a nice piece on shooting Seattle cherry blossoms with a bunch of different cameras, including a few of the types, and individual cameras, discussed here. Check it out.

I’m an enthusiast photog (not remotely pro) and I’ve noticed, over the years, when I write generally about what’s up with cameras, I get notes from people saying “thanks, that was interesting”. I think I may have sold a few cameras over the years, even.

Conclusions first

Let’s see if we can start some arguments.

  1. The most interesting cameras in the world right now are the new digital “medium formats”: Fujifilm GFX 50S, Pentax 645Z, and Hasselblad X1D. Here’s a comparo. But they’re expensive and you almost certainly don’t need one unless you’re a pro.

  2. The next most interesting cameras in the world are the ones in mobile phones. They’re excellent for most things, but don’t obsolete “real” cameras just yet.

  3. All modern cameras take great pictures. The most important differences between them are ergonomic: How quickly and easily you can get the shot, especially when conditions are bad.

  4. There are reasons to think that the “APS-C” and “full-frame” sensors are the big winners going forward; the price of being smaller, and the cost of being larger, are both too high.

  5. I think the SLR is probably doomed; mirrorless cameras have too many advantages.

Picture break! The theme is spring.

Spring blossoms

Camera taxonomy

You can sort cameras into two baskets; by how big their sensor is, and by their physical configuration. For sensors, bigger is better; sizes that are relevant today, small to large, are:

  1. 1/2.3" (7.7mm diagonal, more or less); this is what good modern phone-cams have.

  2. Micro Four Thirds (~21.5mm diagonal); what the mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic have.

  3. APS-C (~28mm); what most “ordinary” DSLRs, and the Fujifilm/Sony mirrorlesses, have.

  4. Full Frame (~43mm); what’s in the Canon, Nikon, and Sony flagships.

  5. Medium Format (~55mm); also called 645, A.K.A. really freaking big. This is what the “most interesting cameras” at #1 in the first list above use; interesting because they have these sensors in bodies, and at price points, that are not totally out of reach.

There’s a pretty good write-up on all these size trade-offs at Camera sensor size: Why does it matter and exactly how big are they? But it’s from 2013 and doesn’t include Medium Format.

As for configurations, three are interesting these days.

  1. Mobile phone; it fits in your pocket and you shoot by tapping on the screen.

  2. SLR; the most “traditional” shape, with a lump on the top, and you look out through the front lens with the help of prisms and mirrors.

  3. Mirrorless; you look at an electronic reproduction of what the camera sensor is seeing, either through a viewfinder or a screen on the back of the camera. Those “most interesting” medium format cameras are interesting partly because two of them are mirrorless; the Pentax is the only SLR.

Time for another picture break!

Sprint moss

How big a sensor do you need?

The little ones in your phone can take great pictures; why would you want more? Two big reasons: A bigger sensor makes it easier to get that nice effect where your subject is sharp and the background is fuzzy (see the sharp fuzzball below). Second, if you have more pixels you can blow your picture up bigger, for example to print and hang on a wall.

The first argument is good, but the second is weak. Because most of us, these days, share and enjoy pictures on screens, and only on screens. That blossoms-and-sky pic at the top came out of my Google Pixel and, after cropping, is 2764×3375. My 15" Retina MacBook Pro only has 1200 pixels of vertical resolution. So I already can’t display all the pixels from my Pixel.

Also, on the wall of my living room I have a four-foot-tall print of a photo shot with an old-school pocket cam (no longer relevant in the mobile-cam era) from an airplane.

So, it’s surprising how big you can go. But still… last time I was in Vegas I went wandering and ended up at Rodney Lough’s gallery, full of room-size blow-ups; I found many of them overwrought and overproduced, but wow, the impact is not to be denied. He’s still using 4×5" and 8×10" film cameras, but I bet those medium-format puppies at #1 above could do the trick.

Realistically though, are you going to want to work with pictures wider than you are tall?

Picture break!

Left over from last fall

So what really matters?

For most practical purposes, your phonecam will meet your photographic needs. Which is to say, the quality of your pictures will depend mostly on your ability to see the opportunities.

Things your phone still can’t do: Take pictures of things that are a long way away; capture the classic portrait look (but Apple’s working on that); shoot in the dark (but late last year I managed to capture actual moonbeams with my Pixel); have fun with different kind of lenses; take pictures in a rainstorm. Or (most important) let you take control of your photographs.

So given that any modern camera can do all the things that your phone can’t, and produce beautiful pictures, what are the difference that matter?

It turns out that the camera companies have (differing) opinions about how pictures should be taken, and ship opinionated cameras. Which is wonderful. Personally, I’m a Fujifilm fanboy, for exactly one reason: I like where the knobs and dials are, and how they work, and how things look through the viewfinder. I suppose I could get used to another maker’s opinion, but at the moment I’m pretty convinced that for me, the Fujifilm setup lets me shoot faster and focus sharper and light-compensate better.

There are lots of people who are going to find themselves in better tune with the opinions of Nikon or Canon or Sony, and that’s just fine; although I have to confess that the few times I’ve tried out a recent Sony it felt like I was fighting against the controls, not working with them.

So, I’m gonna say, if you’re thinking about a camera, don’t waste time worrying about pixels or sensors or ISOs or, really, any specs at all. Borrow or rent a few different ones and take some damn pictures already; then you’ll know.

Focus on fun

I don’t get paid for taking picture (well, rarely) and you probably don’t either, so we should bear in mind that this is a recreational activity.

It’s a path I haven’t been down, but I suspect the cameras that win on the pure-fun metric are the fixed-lens mirrorless offerings, notably the Fuji XF-100 or Leica Q. These things are kind of expensive, but they have great lenses and great viewfinders and look cool and if you point them at pretty well anything and shoot, you’ll probably be happy. Photography should make you happy.

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FaviconJSONPath 14 Apr 2017, 3:00 pm

Or should be that be JsonPath? Whatever, it’s a tool I’ve been using lately and generally like. But it could use a little work.

The last project I worked on, Step Functions, has a JSON DSL for State Machines, which makes use of JSONPath (see Paths and Input and Output Procesing) to solve a tricky problem in a way that people seem to find easy to understand and use.

Early on in that project we adopted the Jayway JsonPath library and it seems to mostly Just Work.

But, we’ve had a few questions from customer along the lines of “Your service rejected my InputPath, but it looks OK to me.”

Which raises the question: What is a legal JsonPath, anyhow?

To the extent there’s an “official” definition, the most obvious candidate would be Stefan Goessner’s JSONPath - XPath for JSON. Standards wonks will sneer at it, not a shred of BNF in sight. But I like it, because it applies the most important lesson from Mark Pilgrim’s immortal Morons and Assholes essay: Have lots of examples.

Having said that, it’s kind of skinny. And if you go back to that Jayway JsonPath spec and start scrolling the, well, you can keep scrolling and scrolling, and there’s a lot of goodness there.

But still, is $.blog-entry a valid JSONPath? Or should you have to say $['blog-entry']? Because blog-entry is not, after all, a JavaScript “Name” construct.

For the purposes of AWS Step Functions, JsonPath means what Jayway says it means. But I’d be happier if there were an RFC or something because, good as Jayway is, people do [*gasp*] write code in languages other than Java.

So, an RFC maybe? The idea’s not crazy.


Let me settle one dispute right here: Stefan Goessner says “JSONPath”, Jayway says “JsonPath”. Stefan’s right, because it’s called JSON not Json, and by the analogy with XPath.

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FaviconIsItOnAWS Lessons 29 Mar 2017, 3:00 pm

I did some recreational programming over Christmas and the blog I wrote about it is now guesting in Jeff Barr’s space for your amusement; try the software at What I didn’t do there was relay the lessons I picked up along the way; one or two are around AWS, but most follow from this being my first nontrivial expedition into the land of NodeJS. So (acknowledging that only 0.8% of my profession aren’t already Nodesters), here they are. Spoiler: I don’t like Node very much.

Lesson: Lambda has historically been used for behind-the-scenes work. But with the recent arrival of new API Gateway and Certificate Manager goodies, it’s become pretty easy to convince a function to serve HTTP requests pointed at your own web-space. Will this be a popular idiom? Beats me.

Lesson: I can now work with Node’s everything-is-a-callback worldview, but still, at the end of the day I think it’s wrong. What I want to do is fetch data, then process data, then write data, and if a damn computer language can’t give me a sequential abstraction when I want to do sequential things, well screw it.

Yeah, I acknowledge the kozmick performance gains Node achieves, even when living in a single-threaded environment, by pushing developers into callback-or-die territory, but you know, there are things like pre-emptive multitasking and thread pools that should let the system interleave IO and compute for performance without making me worry my pretty little head over it.

Having said that, async/waterfall is a straightforward way to remediate the damage.

Lesson: Node provides a very serviceable little JavaScript REPL on my Mac. There is no programmer on whose life JavaScript doesn’t impinge sometimes, and a command line is awfully helpful in exploring array combinatorics and related weirdness.js.

Lesson: Constructing a zip was pretty easy with jszip. Except for, despite the fact that a zip is a bunch of bytes, jszip insisted on emitting a Node Stream. But it seems that NPM generally contains correctives for its misfeatures, in this case raw-body.

Lesson: Node’s HTTP-fetch function is kind of dumb and clumsy. Every language should have a one-liner that says “Here’s a URL, gimme back an object with the content-type and the response body’s bytes, or let me know if you can’t.” Of the languages I’ve used in recent years, only Go and Ruby do.

Lesson: Upon publishing this, I will receive much pitying feedback along the lines of “Well of course you could have done it in a one-liner using TheNewHotness.js.” And also pointing out many other better ways to have done this using things my Internet search skills were insufficiently advanced to discover. Draw your own conclusion.

Lesson: The IPv6 address-literal syntax is stupidly human-hostile.

Lesson: NPM has at least one of everything you can possibly imagine.

Lesson: NPM dependencies are a fulminating cancerous mess. This little Lambda that runs when the JSON updates needs fifteen freaking megabytes in its node_module directory, and the zip is like 2.5M. For the little function that actually handles the IsItOnAWS requests, I consciously tried to keep the dependencies down, but I still ended up needing async, ipaddr.js lodash, and sprintf-js for another 2½ meg. Feaugh. What’s a “lodash”, anyhow?

Lesson: The Lambda and S3 APIs are minimal, sensible, and well-integrated into Node’s resistence-is-futile you-will-learn-to-love-callbacks paradigm.

Lesson: The best Node code is Non Fancy Node.

Lesson: The tape unit-test harness Just Worked for me out of the box, had a nearly-zero learning curve, and was minimally intrusive. I’m a fan.

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FaviconContradictions 27 Mar 2017, 3:00 pm

Back when I was an actual Marxist, we used to talk about the “contradictions of capitalism”. It’s actually a handy phrase (alliterative too!) and recently I feel like the Internet is trying to stuff those contradictions down my throat.

Fish in a barrel

It’s not exactly hard to reel them off. Item: The owners of every business are incented to pay their employees as little as possible, but need their customers to have spare money in their pockets. Item: Prosperity depends on growth, everyone knows that; but we’re using our ecosystem fully and population curves around the world range from flattening growth to steepening decline.

See how easy it is?

Engagement in the clouds

Two pieces crossed my radar recently. First, Gartner recently released its annual State of the American Workplace report, a weighty slab of PDF you have to trade your email address for, but there’s a decent summary with some graphs over on LinkedIn.

The news isn’t good. It turns out that that only about 30% of American employees are “engaged”; of the rest, 50% or so are “disengaged” and 16% are “actively disengaged”. And there’s loads of quantitative data to show that lack of engagement correlates with lack of growth, profits, and other good-biz metrics.

Put another way: Scott Adams may be an annoying weaselly troll, but Dilbert is accurate reportage.

Now cast your eyes at The Future Of Labor by Fred Wilson, New York VC and Thought Leader; he discusses “three big megatrends impacting the future of labor/work”, one of which is “ the move to an on demand model for work”. He envisions a future where, when a business needs something done, “they issue the work order to the labor cloud and someone picks up the work order and gets it done.” This allows the business “to get the work done without thinking about the kind of relationship they have with the worker.”

Obviously, no sane manager should expect “engagement” from the denizens of the “labor cloud”, any more than they can from the growing chunk of the population working for low pay in permanent-part-time mode. See? Contradiction!


You want real contradiction? How about 11 Facts About Hunger in the US. The US, you know, Earth’s richest nation. Where 17.5 million households are “food insecure”.

I don’t miss Marxism as a framework, but let’s not kid ourselves that the symptoms it was trying to address are behind us.

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FaviconGarage Color Fix 21 Mar 2017, 3:00 pm

I was out the other day shooting signs of spring; there was this garage, and it was pretty too.

Regina, Saskatchewan garage in color-corrected light turquoise

Color partly by some paint company, augmented by
quite a few years of Prairie weather. Isn’t it pretty?

The reason I’m writing this is that it’s the first time in years I’ve had to put significant work into color repair on a Fujifilm pic. Because the version above looks just like what I saw. But out of the camera, it looked like this:

Regina, Saskatchewan garage in light turquoise, no color correction

Back in my Pentax days, I got pretty slick with the Lightroom white-balance apparatus, which is itself pretty slick. But in my four Fujifilm years I’m not sure I’ve touched them.

Well, I did on that one. It didn’t work; I found another way:

  1. White balance: as shot.

  2. Exposure: -0.25 (fight that glare).

  3. Highlights: -15 (fight some more).

  4. Shadows: +10 (boost the shady side).

  5. Saturation: +33 (the colors weren’t wrong, they were just washed-out).

  6. Blue: -20 (sky was overexcited). At this point things were better but still not what I’d seen. Time for the secret weapon.

  7. Profile: Velvia/VIVID (smiles).

I don’t know who it was at Fujifilm and Adobe that got those film treatments into Lightroom, but I sure owe them thanks. I don’t use one that often, but so great to have it.

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FaviconPrairie Spring 18 Mar 2017, 3:00 pm

Most places know four seasons, but for the most intense experience of spring you really come Up North. I’m in Saskatchewan visiting my Mom, went for a short walk in the park behind her house, and came back with pictures of the experience.

Most obviously, the snow is retreating.

Prairie spring - retreating snow

With the melting and freezing of early spring, some of the snow is now crumbly puddled ice, which is melting in the cold March sun, and faster given an excuse.

Leaf melts spring ice in the prairie spring

An excuse for a little Physics Moment with my ten-year-old: “Hey girl, why did the ice melt over the leaf?”

But that ice is being attacked from below as above; see the blades of grass straining away? Some green is already showing.

Prairie ice melting in spring

That ice, it’s a treat for the eye as it melts.

Melting snow on the prairies in spring

Having said that, it’s still not much above 0°C and there’s a brisk wind. But at 50.45° N, the oncoming spring is not to be denied.

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FaviconWhiteboard Interviews 4 Mar 2017, 3:00 pm

The other day, I joined a semi-viral tweet chain with I’ve been coding since 1979 and I still have to look up java.lang.String methods all the time. There were a bunch of programmers doing this and I thought it constituted amusing humility while also making a useful point: Remembering the details of any particular API or algorithm is irrelevant. Turns out I was part of a trend, see TheOutline: Programmers Are Confessing Their Coding Sins to Protest a Broken Job Interview Process. Except for, that’s bullshit; I still do whiteboards at interviews, and I don’t think the idea is broken. (Also, they’re not sins.)

Does this mean I ask people to code a bubble sort? Or to show any evidence that they remember the details of any particular API? Obviously not: As many have pointed out, that’s what Wikipedia, StackOverflow, and (most often) my IDE’s auto-complete are for.

These days, when I’m interviewing for senior-developer and development-manager positions at AWS, my questions are of the form “Design X”, where X is something like Twitter or SQS. The whiteboard is an appropriate level of detail; I want to look at the boxes and arrows they draw and see if they come up with a sane decomposition of the problem, and if they spot where the hard parts are. Sometimes, if there’s enough time, I might ask them to sketch in a bit of front-end code, but usually not.

Back when I was at Google, I was mostly interviewing people for “Developer Advocate” positions, and a lot of people somehow got into the process without being able to code at all. So, early on, I’d ask. “You’ve got a list of objects, write some code to select one of them at random. Any language, don’t worry about syntax, assume the built-in random function is good enough.”

That was actually a nice question: If you wanted to dive a little deeper, you could ask the candidate to sketch in unit tests. And if you’re talking to somebody super-technical, ask “Your code is in production and sometimes it’s throwing illegal-index exceptions under heavy load. What’s going on and how do you fix it?” Just because that’s a cool problem, very real-life, and most people smile when they get it.

Apparently DHH started the trend by admitting he couldn’t code a bubble sort on a whiteboard, and I think we can all agree that would be a totally dorky interview question. But TheOutline’s piece goes further, alleging that whiteboarding is anti-diversity. See Aline Lerner’s excellent (and data-rich) You can’t fix diversity in tech without fixing the technical interview. It mostly argues that “logic puzzle” interview questions are bullshit, and I heartily agree. By the way I got one of those in my interview day at Google, and another at Amazon, and I blew them both.

At AWS, these days, I’m on a few hiring loops, and I don’t see anyone asking logic puzzles. But I have no idea what the state of the art is these days at the big tech companies; are there any studies?

I think and hope that the way I use the whiteboard doesn’t make me part of the diversity problem, and I’ll be watching out for data on the subject.

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FaviconSpaced Paragraphs in Word 28 Feb 2017, 3:00 pm

The Internet is fierce with polemics about one-space-or-two-after-the-period. Bah, lightweight stuff. What about all those poor people you see making MS Word docs look a little more spacious by inserting an extra empty line between paragraphs? There is a better way! But the Office UI (on Mac at least) is heinous, so here’s a step-by-step.

Behold two paragraphs of text, crushed unkindly against each other.

two paragraphs, too close to each other

What you want to do is tell Word to henceforth leave a tasteful amount of space between all your paragraphs, without you having to moronically double-Enter.

You pull down the “Format” menu and select “Style”, for reasons which are obvious if you understand how Word thinks about the presentation units that it manages for you.

Format=>Style in Microsoft Word

Which gets you this entirely opaque screen.

Style in Microsoft Word

Once again, if you were able to mind-meld with a seasoned Office developer in Redmond, you’d understand that there’s a reason for each and every little morsel in this smorgasbord. You may not have thought that “No List” or “Theme Body” were important to your writing; silly you! Anyhow, ignore all that crap and just hit the “Modify…” button in the lower center, to tell Word that you want to fix up the rendering for the “Normal” style, softly highlighted in the left-side window.

Hm, that soft select suggests that you could hard-select “Normal” by clicking on it. But don’t, because I can’t be responsible for the consequences. Or even double-clicking; I betcha something happens. I wonder… no, let’s go back to “Modify…”; it’s your friend. And people who take a wrong turn in the Office style dialogs are in Gandalf-and-Mirkwood territory: Leave the path and the giant spiders are waiting.

Modify Style in Microsoft Word

Now we’re getting somewhere. Here are lots of interesting things about the “Normal” style, which is what you’re using in Word when you’re not using anything else. And this screen is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s helpfully highlighted the style’s name in case you want to change it; after all, you might not be feeling Normal that day. But for now we just want some white space. Many brave women and men have faced this screen, seen no path forward, and their courage has failed them. But I’m here to help. It turns out that what you want is the bottom-left control labeled “Format”. Mind you, everything else on this screen is all about format too; In effect it’s the We Must Go Deeper menu.

Modify Style Format Pulldown in Microsoft Word

Look at that! All the Aristotelian Categories of WYSIWYG, pregnant with ellipses. Well, except for “Shortcut key…” which you have to feel a little sorry for, stranded as it is among strangers.

Since we’re trying to space out paragraphs, you might be inspired to think that the “Paragraph” entry in this pulldown would be your ticket to happiness. And you’d be right!

Paragraph Style dialogue in Microsoft Word

Really, Word is a pretty-full featured document presentation system, if you’re up to the dialog-navigation challenges.

Anyhow, it turns out that to achieve the desired effect you use the “Spacing” group, third from the top — you can see that I’ve hit the “After” setting which helpfully jumped to a suggested 6 pt of paragraph separation. And 6 pt isn’t terrible but I normally prefer a little less, 5 or 4. The effect is way more polished than just hitting Enter twice after each paragraph. OK, so hit “OK” already.

Back to the Style dialog in Microsoft Word

You’re pretty well done, but now you have to escape this maze of twisty little dialogs, which is not as straightforward as you might think.

A close look reveals that the dialog in front with the “Apply” button doesn’t actually have focus, the one behind it does. I’m not sure exactly how this happens, but it’s really easy to get into a mode where you mash away at the Apply button and Word just isn’t having it, sneers at your attempts to Apply your amateur typographical notions. Then you have to bring the other dialog forward and hit the “OK”. Or maybe I have that backward. And it doesn’t always happen. But with a little persistence and after saying “Make It So, Number One” to a variety of subtly-3D blue buttons, the dialogs will all be gone, leaving your prose vaulting airily over graceful open space from paragraph to paragraph.

Separated paragraphs in Microsoft Word

OK, 80% of you probably knew this already, and I have learned over the years that people cheekily double-tapping the “Enter” key between paragraphs rarely appreciate being told that There Is A Better Way. Especially when I start filling their screen with dialogs.

Back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

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FaviconLooking Up 19 Feb 2017, 3:00 pm

Seems like everyone I know is blue and grouchy and angry; can’t say as I blame them. But it’s time to turn a corner, because the future’s just as long as ever, and we need joy to face it. Let me see if I can help.

Canada’s first few crocuses are up!

2017 Crocuses

Yes, I did blog about the spring crocuses in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 (twice!), 2009 (twice!), 2010 (twice!), 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Clearly I need to remediate 2016’s lacklustre performance.

Once again, as I often do, I should echo the question from John Crowley’s awesome Little, Big (seriously, one of the best books): “What is Brother North-Wind’s secret?” The answer: “If Winter comes, Spring can’t be far behind.”

This winter, our discontent has been political mostly. Lots of wars and lies and pain to be sad about, but most sharply felt: 62,985,106 Americans, about 25.4% of the potential electorate, thought it was OK to vote for That Man.

I’m sad too. And about Syria and Brexit and our sick elderly cat and my children’s foibles and global warming and destructive inequality and the fact that people still in 2017 think God wants them to kill other people.

But enough of that; today we’re in this blog’s silver-lining department. So here are a few more things to smile about.

  • What with the Women’s March and so on, the angry and disappointed have learned that they’re not crazy and not alone.

  • The explosion of unrest and anger has educated people around the world as to how non-monolithic America is.

  • The proportion of people around the world who’ve realized that Elections Have Consequences is noticeably higher than a few months ago.

  • Often I hear good new music on the car radio while I’m driving around. For example, I recommend Touch by July Talk.

  • There’s good old music too! The Rolling Stones made a pure blues record and it’s not terrible.

  • There are a lot of good books being written. For example, I recommend Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

  • There’s a lot of really good stuff on TV. For example, I recommend The Expanse.

  • Look around you; there are good people in the world.

  • Well, and another crocus.

2017 Crocus

I’ll watch the forecast for sunshine once they’ve opened,
and take some more.

Seriously, let’s grant that there are really unhappy trends stinking up the landscape. And that if we want to be part of the solution, it’s going to be a lot of uphill work with, doubtless, downhill slips. But it’s worth doing, and for reasons of mental health, and long-term survival, and pure propaganda, I’m going to try to walk into 2017 with a smile.

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FaviconGeek Career Paths 18 Feb 2017, 3:00 pm

Suppose you’re doing technology, and like doing technology, and your career’s going well, and you find yourself wondering what you’re going to be doing in twenty years. I’ve been down several of the roads you might decide to take, and it occurs to me that talking them over might amuse and inform.

Thanks are due to Andre Leibovici, who tweeted Is it possible to be in a sr. leadership position and still be hands-on w/ tech & code? For geek leaders out there... how to juggle? and got me thinking about this.

Q: Should you stay in tech-related work?

Seriously, this is the most important question. I know of knitting-store owners and carpenters and luthiers and microbrewers and doctors who walked away from tech life. Their reasons were good: They wanted to engage with life physically, to get away from rows of desks, to be outside, to be around women.

Me, I was never tempted; I’ve liked computers for their own sake for decades and still do. But I’ve watched people do this, and I’m pretty convinced that if you’re going to, it’s never too late or too early. When you’re young you can get by on less, have more energy, and have lots of years to flail around till something works. When you’re older, you probably have more money, which can be used to solve a remarkable variety of problems, and more experience as to how the world works.

For the purposes of this piece, let’s assume you’re staying on the tech train.

Q: Should you stay technical?

The bad news that it’s a lot of work. We’re a young profession and we’re still working out our best practices, so the ground keeps changing under you; it doesn’t get easier as the decades go by.

The good news is that it doesn’t get harder either. Once you learn to stop expecting your knowledge to stay fresh, the pace of innovation doesn’t feel to me like it’s much faster (or slower) now than it was in 1987 or 1997 or 2007. More good news: The technology gets better. Seriously, we are so much better at building software now than we used to be in any of those other years ending in 7.

And another thing that may not be obvious: It’s not a one-way door. I stepped off the technology train, spent years in startup management and technology evangelism, and climbed back into engineering life without too much pain.

It hurts me to say this, but there are gender issues here. There is a pernicious tendency for smart women to get streamed away from actually doing technology to, well, almost any of the alternatives I’m going to talk about below. I’ve been in the room when it happens: “She’s great with customers and super-organized, let’s encourage her to look at a management role.” Not that there’s anything wrong with a management role, but the engineering ranks need women too.

Q: Should you go into management?

I tried it, was a CTO and a CEO. I liked being on the spot for everything that mattered, and rarely having to wait for someone else to make a decision. Also, of course, getting the biggest paycheck.

But I hated lots of things: finding investors and dealing with them, managing cash-flow, being pulled in a thousand directions every minute, the really hard shitty HR problems that get to the top, and never being able to say anything that wasn’t on-message. I also disliked the company of my fellow CEOs, because they are people who can never say anything that’s not on-message.

A lot of the best executives started out as engineers. And there are really no barriers. In every tech company I’ve been in, if you’re a competent engineer and also a good communicator, and show evidence of seeing the bigger picture, then if you tell your boss you’d like to try management someday, that day may come a lot faster than you expect.

Q: Should you go into Product Management?

FYI: Good product managers are really hard to grow and hard to hire. So if you combine those technical, business, and communication skills, you won’t have any trouble finding work.

But it’s probably not a good long-term choice; most companies don’t have much of a career path for PMs. That may not be a problem; many PMs transfer to management or marketing positions after a while, without obvious strain.

So while it might be a good choice right now, you’re probably not going to be a PM in twenty years.

Q: Should you go into sales?

I’ve been on a lot of sales calls, and closed a couple of big deals all by myself, which is one of the most insanely satisfying things you can get paid for (and you can get paid a lot). It’s easy enough to find out; most technology companies’ salespeople regularly need geek support and well-run ones are happy to send engineers out on sales calls. If you like what you see, give it a try.

Yes, there’s the risk of ending up in Glengarry Glen Ross. And that remorseless pressure to close is implicit in the profession. But a lot of really successful sales people are ex-engineers; is the remorseless pressure to ship that much better?

Here’s a hint: All the truly great sales pros I’ve known have been people people; would genuinely rather hang out and shoot the shit all day than anything else. If that’s not you, then probably not.

Q: Should you go into marketing?

Marketing is at the center of everything. You probably know why you’re building the technology you’re working on, and what it’s good for, But it turns out that figuring out who out there needs it, what they’d use it for, and how to explain it in simple enough terms that an overworked non-geek can get it quickly, is really really hard.

There’s a range of marketing roles, from tech-oriented ones like “developer advocate” or “evangelist”, all the way over to full-time business strategist. Every one of them is accessible in principle to a technical person who wants to change lanes.

Q: Should you go into Venture Capital?

Please, please don’t. With the exception of a very few top-tier firms, it’s a shitty business that delivers a lousy return to its investors. A large part of your job consists of saying “no” to people, then watching most of the people you say “yes” to fail anyhow.

In my view, most of the pathologies that infect the tech sector, starting with self-absorbedness, arrogance, and lousy diversity, are joined at the hip with VC culture.

Q: Should you work for startups?

Absolutely, yes. I have, twice. The best reason is that you’ll get to see all the different parts of a business up close, how they work, and if you decide you want to pitch in with something that looks interesting, you may not encounter much resistance, particularly if you turn out to be good at it.

The white-hot team intensity, the feeling that you and a few others are moving the world, is just not something you’re going to find elsewhere.

You might make a lot of money, but do bear in mind that most startups fail, and there are a lot of ways for a startup to succeed where most of the money goes to the VCs and almost none to foot soldiers.

Q: Should you work for a BigCo?

Yes; you might not like it, but you should try it. Particularly, in a well-run company, when you get to see what high-quality marketing and legal support is like, and what classes of problem can be solved by throwing money at them, and maybe most of all, how to build systems and processes that are sustainable in the long term.

The flip-side of that coin is that you’ll likely also see institutionalized stupidity, toxic politics, and pathological caution. But I think the rewards make up for it.

I should also point out that you can make serious money working for a BigCo too, particularly if you get lucky with the share price. I speak from experience here.

Finally, suppose you’ve tried managing people and you just don’t like it, but you still want a senior job. Most big tech companies have a position called “Principal Engineer” or “Distinguished Engineer” or some such, which it usually takes decades to grow into, but is pretty well the ideal job for someone like me. You get to work on the most interesting problems and feel like you’re part of the leadership team, and have the chance to move the needle.

Fintan Ryan of RedMonk just published On the Myth of the 10X Engineer and the Reality of the Distinguished Engineer, which I think overstates the wonderfulness of the position, but does hit a few key points.

Q: Should you work for a government?

Up till maybe five years ago, I would have said “No way, run screaming in the other direction.” For decades governments as a matter of policy hired no software developers and based all their projects on outsourcing, usually to loathsome blue-suit operations whose core competencies are winning public-sector bids then cashing in by charging for every ripple coming out of those classic waterfall projects.

In recent years, led initially by the UK organization now called the Government Digital Service, a few governments have clued into the fact that information processing is an essential core competence for the public sector, and started pulling it in-house.

Remember when the Obama administration wrested control of out of the hands of the consultants, aimed a bunch of competent geeks at it, and rescued it? I’m thinking that kind of work could be among the most rewarding things you could load up a technical career with.

There’s a sub-question here: How about a job in the inteligence community? I’ve never had one, but I’ve sold them technology and worked with them. They have the biggest computers and maybe the hardest problems, and I firmly believe that effective intelligence makes the world a safer place.

But the people I know in the community always seemed more stressed out and less happy than your average geek, and I heard persistent grumbling about work-culture problems. So I’m not sure I’d recommend that path.

Q: Should you work for a non-tech company?

I can’t help you here very much; never done it. Since I’ve been working for AWS I’ve got in face time with a lot of IT people from outside the geek-o-sphere, and they seem to be pretty happy. But then, the ones I’m talking to are the ones mixed up in the move to the cloud, which is absolutely the most interesting single trend in IT these days.

Obviously, you’re probably at slightly higher risk of a pointy-haired boss who hasn’t the vaguest idea what it is you actually do.

Q: Should you be a consultant?

This is really two questions. First, should you be an independent consultant, working for yourself? I have, and it was OK, and paid pretty well (although both the startup and the BigCo did better). You have to be willing to market yourself aggressively; conference speaking slots work best, in my experience. Then, after the gig, you have to hassle your customers to get paid, which really isn’t fun. Finally, you’re going to be spending a lot of time on the road.

I had fun, and several remarkably interesting customers. Two things got on my nerves. First, you get to work on the hard problems, but you never get to stick around and ship a product. Second: A lot of times you end up telling management exactly the same thing their own smart geeks were telling them, but they listen to you, not their own people

The second question is, should you go work for a big consulting company? I’d offer a firm “No”, even though the pay is good. These companies work their people insanely hard, and in my opinion, based on thirty years of observation, charge too much and deliver too little. They are definitely Part Of The Problem, and you should stay away.

Q: Should you work for a nonprofit or charity?

I never have, and I regret it. Obviously, this is not a ticket to the 1%, and I suspect that the technology problems and solutions are pretty mundane. But I’d hope there would be other, more important, rewards.

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FaviconTwo AWS Years 12 Feb 2017, 3:00 pm

Wow, it was December 2014 when I climbed on board this train. I’m sitting in a pretty interesting place and feel I owe the world some reportage.

In terms of what it’s like to work to work here, I don’t have much to add to last year’s write-up.

Since then I’ve got my fingerprints all over two AWS services: CloudWatch Events and Step Functions. There are few things as much fun as helping ship something and watching people start to use it.

If you want opinions on what those products mean and how well they work, there are lots of blogs out there written by people who are less biased.

But here’s one amusing sidelight. When I came to work here I felt like I was facing a thousand-mile-high wall of technology and knowledge and experience, and damn little of the stuff I knew felt relevant. After six months it was less scary, but I still feel like a Perma-noob much of the time. Well, except for the Amazon States Language — they needed a JSON DSL, with a specification, and a parser inside the service, and (it became obvious) a downloadable command-line version. I smiled, because had this rare feeling of “I know exactly what needs to be done here, as well as almost anyone in the world, and how to do it.” I wonder if that’ll ever happen again in my whole life.

What makes me happy

Turning IT from Capex into Opex.

Writing code that processes billions of messages per week with good O()-notation behavior.

Working in an almost-entirely-asshole-free environment.

My paycheck.

Hearing about the weird shit people do with the infrastructure we rent ’em.

Working in Vancouver.

Cloud hypergrowth.

What makes me scared

Cloud hypergrowth.

What makes me unhappy

Working when it’s nice outside.

Videoconferencing technology.

Male-dominated professions.

I-5 between Vancouver and Seattle.

What makes me impressed

Network design that enables things like VPCs at scale.

Serverless. I’m pretty sure there’s a there there.

Linux. Seriously, no sense of strain after all these years.


CloudTrail. Maybe the most radical AWS service. I can’t imagine running a serious business without something like it. The combo with CloudWatch Events makes me smile too.

What makes me dubious and cynical

AI. *gasp* OK, the best implementations can now beat humans at Go and (even more impressive) reliably distinguish between photos of cats and dogs. But OMG the hype. My advice: Try linear regression first.

Node and NPM.



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