RSS Pick: Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky only posts once every few months, but when he does, he posts excellent long form articles about the intersection of the internet, journalism and society. Like Dion, he has also posted to Medium.

One of my favorites:

The most important fight in journalism today isn’t between short vs. long-form publications, or fast vs. thorough newsrooms, or even incumbents vs. start-ups.

If you are into big thinking about how the internet is going to change how information is controlled, distributed and charged for, Clay is your guy.



My Experiences with a Digital Sabbath

I’ve tried a digital sabbath a few times in the past year.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it means taking one day a week and putting away all your digital devices.  No smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktop computers (do people still use those?  I do!).  For one day, I even skipped making phone calls.  Focus on the here and now.  Read a book.  Play with your kids.  Go outside.  Do that home improvement project you’ve been meaning to get to.  Look, there’s even a website about the digital sabbath!

I’ve done this a few times and it is tough.  Why?  If I have any questions about anything, I reach for my phone or tablet–when does Home Depot open?  How do I cook sunchokes?  That is relatively easy to counter–just prepare ahead of time, or accept not knowing.  I’ve even been known to pull out a copy of the white pages (yes, they still distribute that).

I also feel I am ‘maximizing’ my time–when I can read about Clojure or respond to tweets while brushing my teeth, I feel like I’m doubling my time.  It’s the same feeling I have when I run the washing machine and the dishwasher–I can sit on the couch and read because I’m ‘doing’ two jobs already!  So, a sabbath removes a major source of attention fragmentation.

The harder part of a digital sabbath is the non informational uses of my phone.  Frankly, I use my phone to escape boredom and frustration.  Of course, it is still entirely possible to ‘check out’ with a book or even daydreaming, but using a phone makes it so dang easy.  I think it is because it feels like you are accomplishing something worthwhile easily–gaining new knowledge, interacting with someone across the world.  Maybe because those use to be hard hard tasks–you had to check a book out of the library, or write someone a letter or make an expensive phone call.  Now the effort/reward has a radically decreased numerator, but my brain is still in the 1980s and doesn’t recognize it.

But.

While I can learn plenty and make plenty of friends through your phone/tablet/internet connected whatzit, a digital sabbath forces you to ive in the now and the here.  Escapism is fine in small doses, but a digital sabbath forced me to confront how often I use my phone for that purpose.



Parents In Tech Interview

baby photo

Photo by paparutzi

A few months ago I was contacted by Morgan who read a comment I’d made on Hacker News about reshuffling my work life balance.  He was starting a site for parents who work in technology, and was looking to interview such people for tips on parenting.  After a flurry of emails, we finally found a time that worked for both of us and were able to skype for an half hour.

My interview is up here.  Morgan doesn’t do a ton of editing, so it is a little rough, but you get a sense of my thought process:

M: Has having a Baby changed your worldview, beliefs, or how you treat other people? How so?

 

D: Sometimes I wonder how my parents can take me seriously, given that they saw me as an infant. You put it nicely, getting some empathy, starting out as something that just cries, poops and sleeps.

Full post here.

If you are a parent who works in technology and want to chat with Morgan, let me know and I’ll do an intro.



The Power of the Internet to Create Low Friction Marketplaces

 

RipeNearMe is an online marketplace for locally grown food.

Ever had a peach, apple or lemon tree go bananas with a bumper crop and not know what to do with it? Or maybe you’ve seen your neighbours’ trees overloaded, left to the birds, falling to the floor and going to waste? We have too, and that’s why we started RipeNearMe: a web app that connects people through the food we each grow ourselves.

As we near the end of harvest season here in Colorado, it is great to see this kind of marketplace for free or low cost food.  Maybe the bags of zucchini at the office are on their way out?

Regardless, it would be impossible to have this kind of market if the internet (and specifically the HTTP protocol) wasn’t powering it.  The transaction costs are simply too high and the value of the goods too low.

Any other examples of low friction marketplaces that the internet enables?


Lob Postcard Review

A few months ago, I wrote a Zapier app to integrate with the Lob postcard API. I actually spent the 94 cents to get a postcard delivered to me (I paid 24 cents too much, as Lob has now dropped their price). The text of the postcard doesn’t really matter, but it was an idea I had to offer a SaaS that would verify someone lived where they said they lived, using postal mail. Here are the front and back of the postcard (address is blacked out).

Lob Postcard Sample, address side

Lob sample postcard, address side

Lob Postcard Sample, front

Lob sample postcard, front (from PDF)

Here is the PDF that Lob generated from both a PDF file I generated for the front (the QR code was created using this site) and a text message for the back.

A few observations about the postcard.

  • The card is matte and feels solid.
  • The QR code is smudged, but still works.
  • The text message on the back appears a bit closer to the edge on the actual postcard than it does on the PDF image.
  • The front of the postcard appears exactly as it was on the PDF.
  • It took about 5 business days (sorry, working from memory) for delivery.

So, if I were going to use Lob for production, I would send a few more test mailings and make sure that the smudge was a one off and not a systemic issue. I would definitely generate PDFs for both the front and back sides–the control you have is worth the hassle. Luckily, there are many ways to generate a PDF nowadays (including, per Atwood’s Law, javascript). I also would not use it for time sensitive notifications. To be fair, any postal mail has this limitation. For such notifications, services like Twilio or email are better fits.

In the months since I discovered Lob, I’ve been looking for a standalone business case. However, business needs that are:

  • high value enough to spend significant per notification money and
  • slow enough to make sending mail a viable alternative to texting or emailing and
  • split apart from a larger service (like dentist appointment scheduling)

seem pretty few and far between. You can see a short discussion I kicked off on hackernews.  However, they’ve raised plenty of money, so they don’t appear to be going anywhere soon.

But the non-standalone business cases for direct postcard mail are numerous (just look in your mailbox).



#TBT: Business Process Crystallization

crystal photo

Photo by włodi

This is a repost from over a decade ago, about how software coalesces and defines business processes. The post is a little rough (“computerizing tasks”?), but hey, I’d only been blogging for months.

The ideas are sound, though. The longer I’ve been around this industry, the more the ideas in this post are reinforced.

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I’m in the process of helping a small business migrate an application that they use from Paradox back end to a PostgreSQL back end. The front end will remain written in Paradox. (There are a number of reasons for this–they’d like to have a more robust database, capable of handling more users. Also, Paradox is on the way out. A google search doesn’t turn up any pages from corel.com in the top 10. Ominous?)

I wrote this application a few years ago. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot since then, and wish I could rectify a few mistakes. But that’s another post. What I’d really like to talk about now is how computer programs crystallize business processes.

Business processes are ‘how things get done.’ For instance, I write software and sell it. If I have a program to write, I specify the requirements, get the client to sign off on them (perhaps with some negotiation), design the program, code the program, test it, deploy it, make changes that the client wants, and maintain it. This is a business process, but it’s pretty fluid. If I need to get additional requirements specification after design, I can do that. Most business processes are fluid, with a few constraints. These constraints can be positive: I need to get client sign off (otherwise I won’t get paid). Or they can be negative: I can’t program .NET because I don’t have Visual Studio.NET, or I can’t program .NET because I don’t want to learn it.

Computerizing tasks can make processes much, much easier. Learning how to mail merge can save time when invoicing, or sending out those ever impressive holiday gift cards. But everything has its cost, and computerizing processes is no different. Processes become harder to change after a program has been written or installed to ‘help’ with them. For small businesses, such process engineering is doubly calcifying, because few folks have time to think about how to make things better (they’re running just as fast as they can to stay in place) and also because computer expertise is at a premium. (Realizing this is a fact and that folks will take a less technically excellent solution if it’s maintainable by normal people is what has helped MicroSoft make so much money. The good is the enemy of the best and if you can have a pretty good solution for one quarter of the price of a perfect solution, most folks will choose the first.)

So, what happens? People, being more flexible than computers, adjust themselves to the process, which, in a matter of months or years, may become obsolete. It may not do what they need it to do, or it may require them to do extra labor. However, because it is a known constraint and it isn’t worth the investment to change, it remains. I’ve seen cruft in computer programs (which one friend of mine once declared was nothing but condensed business knowledge), but I’m also starting to realize that cruft exists in businesses too. Of course, sweeping away business process cruft assumes the same risks as getting rid of code cruft. There are costs to getting rid of the unneeded processes, and the cost of finding the problems, fixing them, documenting them, and training employees on the new ones, may exceed the cost of just putting up with them.

“A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history – with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.” -Mitch Ratcliffe, Technology Review, April 1992

A computer, for the virtue of being able to instantaneously recall and process vast amounts of data, also crystallizes business processes, making it harder to change them. In additional to letting you make mistakes quickly, it also forces you to let mistakes stand uncorrected.



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