Good Tools

I’ve been thinking and reading about technical and non-technical leadership, productivity and leveraging, and this describes very well why you need good tools in your work:

Finally there’s a psychological aspect to providing good tools to engineers that I have to believe has a really impact on people’s overall effectiveness. On one hand, good tools are just a pleasure to work with. On that basis alone, we should provide good tools for the same reason so many companies provide awesome food to their employees: it just makes coming to work every day that much more of a pleasure. But good tools play another important role: because the tools we use are themselves software, and we all spend all day writing software, having to do so with bad tools has this corrosive psychological effect of suggesting that maybe we don’t actually know how to write good software. Intellectually we may know that there are different groups working on internal tools than the main features of the product but if the tools you use get in your way or are obviously poorly engineered, it’s hard not to doubt your company’s overall competence.

Peter Seibel, “Let 1,000 flowers bloom

I may come back to this.

Breakfast Brexit

Made in Ireland, eaten in England.

The butter dish caused me to consider Brexit over my ‘full English’ in Blackpool. Given Lakeland Dairies location in Cavan, it almost definitely contains milk from both sides of the border, so this butter probably travelled more than I did to get to this table. All made easier by the EU. What’s going to happen next? Nobody knows, but it doesn’t look good to me:

The state can no longer undertake the radical planning and intervention that might make Brexit work. That would require not only an expert state, but one closely aligned with business. The preparations would by now be very visible at both technical and political levels. But we have none of that. Instead we have the suggestion that nothing much will happen on no deal, that mini-deals will appear. The real hope of the Brexiters is surely that the EU will cave and carry on trading with the UK as if nothing had changed. Brexit is a promise without a plan. But in the real world Brexit does mean Brexit, and no deal means no deal.

How will that butter get to that table in the future of Brexited Britain? Maybe it’ll just take longer, and cost more. Maybe it won’t appear at all, instead travelling to French tables, or German. Worse could happen, the dairy could go out of business. Farmers could lose livelihoods, nobody really knows yet.

Anyway, that’s the future. At the moment, there’s still butter for breakfast.

Dark: Mind-twisting TV

Everything is connected
A map linking the characters and timelines. More questions than answers.

We’ve recently finished season 2 of the excellent Netflix series ‘Dark’. It’s mind-bendingly fantastic. We were looking for something to watch after finishing Stranger Things, and my partner in crime and awesome TV series finder suggested this. It really fit the bill. Set in the fictional German town of Winden, it follows the stories of several local families as one of the children (Mikkel) goes missing.

Warning: Here be spoilers, tldr; just watch it.

What starts off as an engaging whodunnit about a missing boy, Mikkel, rapidly descends into brain twisting confusion as you start to realise that the key isn’t where he has gone, but when. Patterns emerge relating to a previous disappearance 33 years before, when another boy, Mads Neilsen, vanished. The story starts to revolve around another teenager, Jonas, who’s father recently took his own life. You start to see the same people at different ages and stages of their lives, influencing their future and past selves, until you’re no longer sure if the story even has a beginning “Der Anfang ist das Ende und das Ende ist der Anfang (the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning)”.

Then it gets really mind bending when Jonas discovers that Mikkel had gone back in time and grew up to become Jonas’ father.

We’re just as confused as Jonas.

Yes, Jonas realises that to put the course of time back to normal he’d end up not exisiting.

Then, in Season 2, not only are we dealing with two timelines (1986 and 2019), but it extends to 1952, 1921 and 2052. We get to see several characters at different ages, dealing with other characters (and themselves) from the future and the past. For example, Egon Tiedermann (Sebastian Hülk 1952/1953 & Christian Pätzold 2018/2019) meets Ulrich Neilsen (Ludger Bökelmann 1986 / Oliver Masucci 2018 / Winfried Glatzeder 1987) who is the father of the missing Mikkel and bother of the missing Mads from 2018 in 2018, from 2018 in 1952, and from 2018 in 1986. He then meets Ulrich again in 2019, but it’s the Ulrich who got stuck in 1952 and is now an old man, having been arrested for the murder of another two missing children in 1952. Brain melt.

(Yes, that’s us, we’ve no idea what’s going on, but we love it)

The cast is great, I enjoyed watching Sylvester Groth in Deutschland ’83, and he appears here as Clausen, an enigmatic detective brought in to solve the missing children cases but who also has an agenda of his own. Also, Michael Mendl who starred in Der Untergang (Downfall) appears as the older Bernd Doppler in 1986.

The setting, especially the 1986 scenes, remind me of being in Germany back in ’92, going to the Gesamtschule in Schlitz, Hesse. Wurst and schwartzbrot, beautifully cold autumn mornings and bad hairstyles (although we were obviously totally cool at the time).

Oh, and watch it in German. With subtitles. I can’t stand dubbing at the best of times, but the voice re-dub here isn’t great either. Change the sound track in Netflix for your listening pleasure.

Everyone asks this question sooner or later. Not just the viewers.

We trust that time is linear. That it proceeds eternally, uniformly. Into infinity. But the distinction between past, present and future is nothing but an illusion. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are not consecutive, they are connected in a never-ending circle. Everything is connected.

 The StrangerDarkSeason 1Secrets
Who even wrote this book? The author doesn’t even know, he was given a copy from the future. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. BRAIN EXPLODES.

“We are in an abusive relationship with our phones”

This is an illuminating way of looking at what the relationship really is like between us and our smartphones, and more generally with the you-are-the-product companies that provide so many of the services we use on smartphones or other devices nowadays.

What our smartphones and relationship abusers share is that they both exert power over us in a world shaped to tip the balance in their favour, and they both work really, really hard to obscure this fact and keep us confused and blaming ourselves. Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

– They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact — ‘user engagement’ — that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.

– They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.

– They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

– They love-bomb us when we try to break away, piling on the free data or device upgrades, making us click through page after page of dark pattern, telling us no one understands us like they do, no one else sees everything we really are, no one else will want us.

– It’s impossible to just cut them off. They’ve wormed themselves into every part of our lives, making life without them unimaginable. And anyway, the relationship is complicated. There is love in it, or there once was. Surely we can get back to that if we just manage them the way they want us to?

Nope. Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true.

Maria Farrell

You need to be able to see the box you’re in before you can start thinking outside it. It doesn’t have to be this way – “to get out of an abusive relationship you first have to see it for what it is”.

via Bruce Schneier & Memex

Margaret Hamilton: Pioneer Software Engineer

Enjoyable, if brief, interview with Margaret Hamilton, who lead the software team for the Apollo moonshots. I can’t help but notice how few men are ever asked how their lives as parents ever collides with their work.

Q: Did your life as a software engineer and a mother ever collide?
A: Often in the evening or at weekends I would bring my young daughter, Lauren, into work with me. One day, she was with me when I was doing a simulation of a mission to the moon. She liked to imitate me – playing astronaut. She started hitting keys and all of a sudden, the simulation started. Then she pressed other keys and the simulation crashed. She had selected a program which was supposed to be run prior to launch – when she was already “on the way” to the moon. The computer had so little space, it had wiped the navigation data taking her to the moon. I thought: my God – this could inadvertently happen in a real mission. I suggested a program change to prevent a prelaunch program being selected during flight. But the higher-ups at MIT and Nasa said the astronauts were too well trained to make such a mistake. Midcourse on the very next mission – Apollo 8 – one of the astronauts on board accidentally did exactly what Lauren had done. The Lauren bug! It created much havoc and required the mission to be reconfigured. After that, they let me put the program change in, all right.

Children do make good testers – no fears about pressing the wrong buttons! Also, reassuring to know that even the ‘well trained’ make mistakes.

The Numbers Stations

The Numbers Stations, Documentary BBC Radio4.

As a kid, I used to scan the radio waves at night, trying to find something different or unusual. I even added extra cable to the aerial in an effort to pick up more signal from further away (I don’t know if it worked, I never examined the physics of it!). The heaviside layer moves up as the solar wind is blocked, allowing radio transmissions to travel further. I’d sit there, sometimes with the curtains closed, sometimes with the light off and the curtains open, looking out at the stars, or the glow of Dublin city on the horizon, slowly moving the dial across the bands, the hiss of FM, the whee-whurr-whucks of medium wave, the vast emptiness of long wave.

Sometimes you’d pick up the Dublin based pirate stations on the FM band. Very occasionally, I could hear taxi conversations on their radios at the very end of the FM band, which was fascinating. It felt like I was some sort of spy, eavesdropping on secret chats deep in the night.

Long Wave was dominated by the local Atlantic 252 station, and RTE1 which broadcast on LW at the time.

AM always had a sprinkling of european stations, in all sorts of languages, mostly French and German. Picking out each station from the fuzz of interference, nudging the dial fractions at a time to get a better signal. It also had bizarre stations that broadcast pips, strange sounds and otherworldly noises.

Maybe one of them was a numbers station, sending it’s signal out to some secret agent in Cold War Europe. Who knows? I hadn’t heard of them at the time, it was only years later that I found out about them on the internet. I’m strangely drawn to these enigmatic voices broadcasting out into the ether, with their intriguing names: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, “Russian Man”, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”. I find myself picturing some spy furtively writing down the numbers before using a one time pad to reveal the message they’d been sent.

Even more sinister are the mechanical broadcasts from the Russian station known as UVB-76 (listen), rumoured to be part of a ‘dead-hand’ doomsday device created in the 1970’s. The idea is that even in the event that a surprise first strike that took out all the top Soviet leadership, retaliation would be guaranteed by whatever nuclear forces remained. A chilling concept indeed. Although, as Kubrick pointed out in Dr. Strangelove:

Dr. Strangelove: The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost…if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?!

Russian Ambassador: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

Dr. Strangelove