Category Archives: etc

2017

Previously: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.

As 2017 began, I felt fairly despondent about what the year would bring. Looking back at the way 2017 actually turned out, it looks like the despondence forced me to shift focus in a few ways that, on balance, have been major positive changes.

A case in point. For the first half of the year, I was having problems sleeping. I struggled with feverish nightmares related to the news and the state of the world. The information consumption habits I thought so enlightened last year (no news after 6pm!) were not, it turned out, enough to release me from the power of the information flow. This summer, I started reading the physical local newspaper, and in the fall, I stopped reading news and magazines online altogether. My one engagement point with news during the day is at breakfast, over coffee. When I walk away from the table, I walk away from the manufactured anxiety of constant contact. It's been marvelously therapeutic. And I actually feel *better* informed on most subjects, since I'm able to judge them at some distance rather than succumbing to the endorphin rush of "breaking news" and the "conversation" that accompanies it. I am increasingly disconnected from memes and collective-outrage-du-jour and other aspects of the zeitgeist, but I consider this too to be an improvement in my quality of life.

In place of the online world that I'm increasingly leaving behind, I've been searching out new channels for engagement that feel more authentic. An oddly underattended college reunion and some related contact with college buddies has caused me to reflect on the communities that we move in and out of through the course of our lives, and to think about how these dormant connections might serve as the organic seed for meaningful future relationships. I've been devoting more time to music and to a new-found interest in the visual arts. I've reached out to some old friends, and after stumbling across a cache of old letters from high school and college, have started building the idea of private correspondence – letter writing for its own sake! – back into my life.

Regarding work, I had a somewhat busier year than I'd hoped, and I devoted less time to free software than I have in the past few years. (See my Hard G post for more.) My relationship with WordPress and BuddyPress is something that I have struggled with in 2017, though it's become somewhat clearer in the last few months. When I first started contributing to free software, my spirit was nourished by the personal connections I made to people who were using the software. As I became busier and more "important", I justified to myself that I had bigger things to worry about than those connections, focusing instead on some vague ideas about "leadership" and "product". Beginning this fall, I started approaching my free software work with a different attitude, starting with a dose of humility about who I am and the value I bring to the projects. I started spending much more time in the support forums. I began approaching bug reports and PRs with an amount of empathy that felt forced but eventually gave way to true feelings of kindness. And I've started thinking more about the ways that I can use my years of experience in these projects to connect the humans working in disparate areas in a spirit of actual cameraderie. I'm unsure how my time committments to these projects will or won't change in 2018 (though I have a feeling I'll be spending proportionately more time on BuddyPress, where I feel like I've got the ability to make a more direct impact), but I feel strongly that any time spent on them should be purposeful and humane.

With my career more generally, I have found some solace by being explicit with myself that I will not be doing this work forever. Thinking about an off-ramp in the next few years gives a bit more urgency and purpose to the work that I do today, and I think this is a good thing no matter what happens.

One small resolution for 2018 that I've already put in place is: more enforced time off. I've already slated a couple of weeks for the first half of the year when I will be totally AFK, no screens, no internet, maybe no newspaper. Just having this on the schedule has made the everyday load feel lighter.

Happy new year to all!

2016

Previously: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.

Good bye and good riddance to 2016!

Some highs:

  • My kids and my wife are amazing. My five-year-old started kindergarten and is learning to read. My almost-two-year-old went from a baby on January 1 to a sweet, talkative, out-of-control kid on December 31. My wife is most of the way through her PhD coursework. I’m very lucky.
  • I had a pretty successful year business-wise. I made more money and did some work that I found interesting and gratifying. In the next couple weeks, I’ll kick myself into gear and write about some of the client work I did in 2016, probably over on my Hard G blog.
  • I remained pretty active in the WordPress and BuddyPress projects. I managed to scale back a bit, especially as regards WordPress, when compared to 2015, but this was mostly by design, so counts as a good thing. I wrote a separate post laying out this work in 2016.

The lows? It was a rough year in so many ways. Over the last few months, I’ve reacted to the more awful parts of 2016 with a couple of changes to my routine. I guess these are kind of like “resolutions” that are already in progress.

The main theme is the idea of reclaim. I went through a period a few years ago where I attempted to take control of my digital life by moving from proprietary, third-party services to free-as-in-speech software that’s more under my control, a process I called Project Reclaim. Today, I’m focused less on technology, and more on energy and time. There are just so many hours in a day, and I’ve only got so much emotional and intellectual energy to spare. I’ve been taking steps to make sure that these resources don’t go to waste.

  • The news – I have a reflex to read the news when I have a few minutes to spare. Under normal circumstances, this habit would be a time-waster. In 2016, it’s become actively harmful to my well-being. Reading the news is something I need to brace myself for, so I’m now doing it just two or three times per day, at times I’ve set aside for information consumption. And never after 6pm! It keeps me up at night.
  • TwitterI stopped using Twitter actively a few years ago. But in 2016, I slipped into periods where I’d waste time scrolling through once or twice a day. This, despite the fact that nearly every time, I find it emotionally devestating. So, around the beginning of October, I stopped looking at the site altogether – aside from a weekly check to see if I have any mentions to respond to.
  • Magazines etc – 2016 was a Year of Thinkpieces, and I read too many of them for my own health. I’m going to mostly cut them out in 2017. Aside from other problems with the genre, I find myself disgusted with the smug slactivism that oozes from thinkpiece culture, the idea that engaging pithily with election analysis or with apocalypse porn or with red state travelogues amounts to doing something productive with your intellectual angst. I’m going to spend this energy engaging in my community instead.
  • The phone – I ditched my smartphone in 2014. After having a second kid and moving to Chicago, I caved and decided to get another smartphone late in 2015. Mainly, I wanted a convenient camera, so that I could have more pictures of my youngest. But I slowly found myself using the smartphone for other reasons, and feeling all the old awfulness creep back. Reading the news and reading Twitter and reading email are all potentially traumatic experiences, and having all those things in my pocket – even just potentially – is emotionally crippling for me. On November 10, I switched back to my dumbphone, and it felt soooo good.
  • Books – In 2015, I read 45 or 50 books. In 2016, I read maybe 10 or 15 – mostly for the reasons described above. I need to do better in 2017.
  • Separation – All year, I teetered on the edge of work-related burnout. This is partly because I treated free software contribution as “hobby”, at least in part: I spent a fair number of evenings catching up on ticket backlogs. In 2017, I’ll be more disciplined in this area, treating free software work as part of my workweek, not as something I’ll get around to if I have “free time”.

I can’t remember a January 1 where I felt so uneasy about the upcoming year. I’m reclaiming my energies and focusing them on things like my family and my community rather than letting them be exploited by the internet, a strategy that I hope will help me to make the best of 2017.

Indirect funding and the limits of free software patronage

A few thoughts about direct and indirect funding for free software development.

Proprietary software is often sold at retail, which makes for a diverse economic model. Let’s say that a million people buy a $10 yearly license for your iWidgetFactoryPro™. This year you’ll have $10,000,000 dollars, much of which can be used to fund future iWidgetFactoryPro™ development. If you lose fifty thousand users next year, you’ll have $500,000 less to work with. That’s a lot of cabbage. But you’ll still have $9,500,000, enough to carry on your product development, perhaps with a slightly reduced scope. Retail pricing spreads the risk around.

Most free software is not sold in a retail fashion. A single company might pay for the development of a tool, and then decide to release it under a free license. Or a tool’s builders may fund development themselves, with their own money or their own free time. Or a project that starts off as a labor of love may become important enough that a number of companies volunteer resources to improve it. In any of these cases, the funding model is highly centralized. Instead of a million users who share the financial burden roughly equally, as with retail software, a free tool may have a million users but just a small handful of funders, each of which is footing a disproportionately large part of the bill. It’s a precarious setup not merely because the sheer number of funders is so small, but also because the costs are distributed in a way that’s so uneven – and unfair! – that individual funders have arguably more inclination to walk away than the retail licensee who’s paid a lousy ten bucks for a copy of iWidgetFactoryPro™.

The asymmetrical funding model for free software is the cause of much hand-wringing among the individuals who maintain free software projects. How does a volunteer, a solopreneur, a small businessperson, an underfunded or unfunded Desperado, take on the huge and often unrewarding task of maintaining a popular project, while still managing to make money? My friend Daniel Bachhuber has written a number of posts recently in which he struggles with this problem, and is experimenting with a couple different models:

The key idea behind Sparks is to create a space where WordPress-based businesses can contribute to an open source roadmap, collaboratively prioritize, and then share the cost of development and maintenance […] When I explain the concept of Sparks to a prospective customer, they get it. It makes a ton of sense to share the burden of building and maintaining boring, business-critical infrastructure.

The strategy is to hedge against some of the instability of the “patronage” model – free software tools being supported by a very small group of generous funders – toward a more diversified financial base.

The structure of “Sparks” – crowdfunding, but where the members of the “crowd” are businesses with budgets – moves toward retail software in two ways that are worth considering. First, by getting interested individuals to take an equal share in funding the software, it tries to make the funding model more fair. Second, by tying the decision of which tools to build to the number of voters (or backers, or whatever) in support of that specific tool, it tries to make the funding model more direct.

Can this work? Direct funding models are kind of like health insurance exchanges: the economics only work if there’s a mandate that everyone participate. Proprietary software licensing is one such mandate. With free software, it’s an uphill slog, and a hard sell.

I have mostly given up on direct client funding for my free software work. There are a couple of interconnected problems:

  • Clients can be convinced to pay for something new and shiny and released with public credit to their name. But fewer want to pay for maintaining something old and boring and anonymous.
  • Once a project is released and in broad use, the client’s ongoing needs for improvement often (usually) diverge with the needs of the broader community.
  • When you are a maintainer of a large software project, quid pro quo contributions – “we’ll pay you to add this feature to WordPress” – are fraught with ethical and practical difficulties.
  • The things that clients want to build are not usually the things that I want to build, or the things that I think need to be built.

As direct funding has become less attractive and more difficult to manage, I’ve turned more toward indirect models. I’ve spoken and written at length about what I call “the reputation cycle”. This is the idea that time spent contributing to free software can improve your reputation, which allows you to increase your rates, which allows you to bill fewer hours, which allows you to contribute more time to free software. Over the last few years, I’ve ratched myself up to the point where I spend roughly 50% of my working time doing work that is not paid for by a client.

Or, at least, not paid for directly. Client work subsidizes free software work, but the subsidy is indirect. This indirectness avoids most of the problems sketched above. My decisions about how and where to contribute to the projects I’m involved with are made based on my own interests and my own assessment of project priorities and needs. Since the work is not being done under the aegis of any specific client relationship, I’m not bound by any specific client expectations.

If not framed correctly, the indirect model can feel vaguely dishonest. It involves charging a higher rate to paying customers, without providing any direct benefit for the increased cost. In one sense, this feeling is clearly misguided; the software I choose to work on in my “free” time is the very same software that powers my clients’ sites. They’re reaping benefits that are indirect – but not that indirect.

More importantly, the sense of dishonesty is misplaced because there’s no deception involved. The model is indirect, but it’s not implicit. My message for potential clients is pretty explicit: When you hire me, you are not only buying top-quality technical work, but you are also funding the more general improvement of the free software projects in which I’m involved. It’s part of the brand. It’s less Robin Hood – illicit redistribution of funds – than, say, buying organic milk: you pay more for a slightly better product, knowing that part of the extra cost goes toward the normalization of a system of production that’s superior to the conventional system.

Can this funding model – indirect, but explicit about it – be scaled? Probably not. Like patronage, it depends on the good will of a fairly small number of benevolent folks – developers and clients – to shoulder the burden of the other 99% of users. But there’s something noble about it too. A totally “fair” system, in which each user pays an equal amount to use a piece of software, ignores the fact that not all users have equal resources. One of the beauties of free software is that the generosity of those who can afford to contribute can benefit those who cannot.

 

Willa and Wally

My kids are named Wilhelmina and Walter. So when I saw this image in a New York Times article about items recently unearthed in Dr Seuss’s filing cabinets, I swooned:

willy-and-wally

I sent a link to my wife, and told her I wished I could get it in poster size.

Yesterday, I got an early birthday present – my wife had sent the link to my mother, who painted me a slightly modified version:

DSC_0294

Thanks, Mom and Rebecca 🙂

A New York City farewell eating tour

Posting this mostly for my own records.

Next week, I’m moving away from New York. Starting with a pizza tour a few weeks ago, I’m trying to cram in some quality NYC meals in my last stretch as a New Yorker. Some of these are classic places, some are on the list for sentimental reasons. Here’s a summary of where I’ve been in the past few weeks, along with a few places slotted for my remaining 10 days:

First, the pizza joints:

Etc:

  • Bagels: have been hitting my local, but would like to get a last trip to The Bagel Hole
  • Court Pastry Shop, for the spumoni and maybe a lobster tail
  • White sauce hot sauce – probably won’t make it to my favorite Halal cart (near Queens College), but trying to patronize all my neighborhood stands
  • Some quality pastrami – probably Pastrami Queen, which is near my place and is ridiculous
  • A last slice of the weirdly delicious cheesecake at my favorite diner

The characters in the Cheers opening: A critical analysis

One of the great TV memories of my childhood is the Cheers opening sequence. I’m a great lover of TV theme songs, and I remember Cheers being one of my favorites. I’ve been rewatching Cheers, and the show is still great, but I find the old-timey images used during the opening sequence to be much odder than I remember. A casual search suggests that no one has ever done a true analysis of these pictures. I humbly accept the responsibility myself.

I’ll start with the pictures of people who look like the kind of folks I wouldn’t mind hanging out with in a bar. The more irksome characters are at the end of the list.

Mustachioed Barkeep

Mustachioed Barkeep

Mustachioed Barkeep


Oddly, I find this guy’s mustache to be wholesome and comforting. Maybe it’s because I lived in Brooklyn for so long. I know he works for tips, but I’m also impressed by how he manages to have one of the only non-lecherous smiles in the entire sequence. Sadly, after the death of Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach, they removed this likable chap from the opening sequence.


The Champion

The Champion

The Champion


Also known as the “We Win” guy. Bonus: The fair-haired dude hoisting a pint always makes me think of Matt Mullenweg.


Tom Joad

Tom Joad

Tom Joad


The dude with the Jed Clampett hat and the five-o-clock shadow is pure salt-of-the-earth. I feel like most Woody Guthrie songs are about this guy.


Norm

Norm

Norm


Even as a kid, I remember feeling bad that they chose an overweight guy to represent Norm. As if his weight is his only salient quality. Why not show an accountant? In any case, I respect a guy who can pull off a suit of that color. To me, one of the great mysteries has always been: what is he handing to the woman in the red skirt? The TV remote wouldn’t be invented for another 40 years.


The Madam

The Madam

The Madam


This woman seems like she’s the only drinker in the entire intro who is maintaining control over herself. I can respect that. The composition of this shot reminds me of that Renoir painting where everyone’s checking everyone else out.


Kid Gorgeous

Kid Gorgeous

Kid Gorgeous


The pale fellow in the jacket doesn’t look old enough to be drinking in this establishment, and his complexion makes me suspect that he’s nervous about being caught. I always imagine him as having been a 12-year-old drummer boy for the Confederate Army, returned to his local tavern as a 17-year-old amputee veteran. Notice that his legs are not visible in this picture.


The Cognac Brothers

The Cognac Brothers

The Cognac Brothers


Does he really need that cane? Or is he just trying to intimidate? Is he the bouncer, or just waiting for his carriageman to bring the team around? So many questions.


Rich Uncle Pennybags

Rich Uncle Pennybags

Rich Uncle Pennybags


You can’t afford what this guy is drinking.


Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy


The two most insufferable people in the sequence are also the last two, and boy, do they leave a bad taste in your mouth. Both are clearly looking to start a fight. The guy on the left, apparently drinking a $20 Trappist ale, is barely managing to hide his disdain for everyone around him. The dude on the right appears to be bragging about hooking up with your sister. (The guy in the bottom right, who looks as if he may in fact be dead, has pretty much checked out of the party.) I hate them so much.

Chicago

I’ve spent a lucky thirteen years in New York City, but my time here is drawing to a close. My wonderful wife is entering a PhD program at the University of Chicago in the fall, so this summer we’ll be trading the First City for the Second.

I’m trying to untangle my thoughts about leaving my adopted New York and returning to my native Midwest. It’s heartbreaking, thrilling, terrifying, a huge relief. For the moment, I can say with confidence that I am excited to be relocating to a city that’s served as the setting for so many great theme songs. Nothing’s gonna stop me now!

I miss my camera

It’s been almost a year since I ditched my smartphone. For the most part, it’s been glorious. Like a slow-growing tumor, I’d hardly noticed the damage that years of carrying a smartphone was doing to my lifestyle and my psyche.

The one thing I legitimately miss is the camera. In one sense, I’m glad to buck my generation’s tendency toward hyperselfdocumentation. At the same time, I have kids. I took many hundreds of photos and videos of my first child on my smartphone. I’ve partially compensated for this with the second child by strategically storing cameras in various parts of my apartment, so there’s always one at hand. In the house, this works. But, with the approach of warm weather, I worry once again about the hassle of filling yet another pants pocket with yet another device.

Friends have suggested that I get a smartphone but don’t use the data. But this is like suggesting that I replace my extracted tumor, but this time put it a little further from vital organs.

I feel like I’d be more likely to carry a point-and-shoot camera if they were more svelte. If the iPhone 6 can take such beautiful pictures, why doesn’t someone market a standalone camera with the proportions of a smartphone? The thinnest cameras I’ve seen are double the thickness of even the bulkiest modern phone – way beyond the point of pocketability. Is there a device out there for me?

2014

Reflecting on 2014, a couple of themes:

  • Reclaim. In the past, I’ve written about taking back technologies from corporate entities. This year, I’ve found myself embarking on what I consider to be the natural extension of Project Reclaim: taking back my attention from technologies. In April I ditched my smartphone, and in September I stopped using Twitter. Each decision arose from a desire to devote more of my limited mental and emotional energies on things that matter most to me, like my family and my work. In each case, the pull of inertia was strong – the natural thing was to continue using the tools, just like everyone else around me was doing – but in each case, the rewards of letting go have been significant.
  • Ease. My wife and I decided over dinner tonight that 2014 felt easy. We didn’t move this year. We enjoyed satisfying jobs and financial stability. Our son transitioned from a toddler to a very nice little boy. In contrast, our family has a number of very large changes coming in 2015, changes that will be hard in many ways. So the relative and welcome easiness of 2014 is worth a moment’s pause.
  • ShippingDuring 2014, BuddyPress shipped a number of major versions. I put a huge amount of time into BP 2.0, as both a developer and a release manager, and I think it paid off – IMHO it’s one of the most important releases in BuddyPress history. BuddyPress 2.2 will come in the first weeks of 2015, and it too promises to be a really important release. In addition, I was invited to join the WordPress core team for the 4.1 release, an experience that’s been fulfilling in its own way. Considered alongside a number of successful client project launches, I’ve been involved in a happily large number of solid software releases this year.

A big year ahead, but for now, за ваше здоровье!