The second quarter of 2021 is over, and it was an intense one at work. I’ve been working on some features for WordPress 5.8. It’s a packed version by my standards and those of many others. It will be published in a few days, and I’m excited to see it in the wild.
My laptop broke
While I was sprinting to get things done, half my screen stopped working. The day the technician came for reparations, I had a semi-working screen, and that same day, when he left, the motherboard didn’t boot. Not ideal.
I wish the information, service, and time-to-response had been better and quicker, but I was told I hadn’t paid enough for that. The support service was a team in London that ordered the new material through an external carrier based in the Netherlands to be delivered to a local company in A Coruña that would come to Lugo to replace the pieces. So many links.
The world runs on the optimism of the 90%: when everything goes as expected, everything is fine, most of the time anyway. But, unfortunately, upon the unexpected, the experience is terrible. The hope is that the bad times are offset by the fact that, if you’re lucky, they only happen once every 15 years or so — nobody cares to optimize for the customer experience of that little 10%, they instead optimize to reduce the costs as much as they can.
This is a long way to say that I had to use Windows for a whole week of work. First time I had to for more than a couple of minutes since… 2005? TLDR: it works, and I will still choose Linux every time.
Hat tip to Marcus for the WSL2 guide. It helped me to set up a Linux subsystem that runs on Windows.
Why aren’t we, developers, excellent writers if we spent so much time at it? Starting from this question, the talk touches on specific practices you can do to improve your writing daily. An over-produced talk that delivers. It comes with a site with references, and it inspired me to get On Writing Well by William Zinserr (ongoing) off my queue to my reader.
Apelidos da Galiza, de Portugual, e do Brasil. Vasques, son of Vasco; Romero, a pilgrim who goes in romaria (religious pilgrimage); Oliveira, a testimony of the existence of the olive plant in the Northwest of the Iberian peninsula. Those are the things you learn in this book: a fantastic introduction to the beauty of surnames and how they can serve as a living museum of the society that gave them birth.
The dagger of time
We were escape-room aficionados before the pandemic. We still are; we just don’t practice as much as before. So, as another step in welcoming our former lives, we booked an escape room for two: The dagger of time, by Ubisoft, in Compostela.
It’s the third VR room we do in that space. It has some similar mechanics to The Lost Pyramid and Medusa’s gate but still innovates in a few ways. It was a lot of fun.
I’m a remote worker that cooks daily. I don’t think I had shared this before. Upon trial and error, we’ve curated a set of recipes that don’t take a lot of time and are healthy. Sometimes, they’re also tasty, if I’m lucky cooking that day.
Over the past years, we’ve incorporated more variety into our salads catalog. Apparently, they’re a good choice for a picnic if you live through a pandemic. These are three that I prepared in June:
The first, hosted by Fran. We talked about how is it to work for Automattic or how does it feel to be involved in a free software project the scale of WordPress (40% of the web, 18 years old). We also touched on Obsidian and note taking.
The second, as a host. I interviewed Luz Castro, a galician computer engineer with three decades of experience in the areas of computational linguistics and videogames.
The two were organized by LaretasGeek, the initiative of a couple of local meetups. Both are in Galician ― people with a background in Portuguese or Spanish will understand fine.
Understand. What would happen if someone was able to transcend human abilities. What would that person optimize for? Egoism? Altruism?
Division by zero. It didn’t occur to me that you could write a moving story that pivots on the division by zero and the struggle it poses for mathematicians. Also suicide. It was short and the most beautiful of the book so far.
Story of your life. The one I bought the book for. Doesn’t disappoint. Having watched Arrival so many times the story held few surprises.
Seventy two letters. Set in the Victorian era, it’s an alternate past in which the industrial revolution pivots on nomenclators. Nomenclators are alchemists, programmers, or however you call people that give life to inanimated matter (golems) by imprinting words upon them. Artificial Intelligence, DNA manipulation, social issues, natural selection, etc. You’d like it if Gattaca or “The real danger to civilization isn’t AI, it’s runaway capitalism” resonates with you. There are plenty other reasons you may like it.
When I started the book, I knew Ted Chiang had won 4 Nebulas, 4 Hugo, 4 Locus, and many other awards for a total production of… 18 short stories. I was still caught off guard, he’s a master at world building. Each story has a distinct narrative style: while Understand simulates a stream of consciousness like a journal, Seventy two letters is a “conventional” steampunk story. They tend to be packed stories and there are some infodumps. That demand of attention from the reader is tamed by a decluttered prose in which every word counts.
Music: up and down
Inspired by The making of a corporate athlete, I’ve started to introduce more music during my work routine. I’ve created a list of songs to increase my energy when switching tasks. It’s three so far.
Unlike some other non-pandemic times, this year we didn’t organize anything for Eurovision. It isn’t worth it without friends at home. We had it in the background while doing other things, and I was surprised by the Belgian representative … Hooverphonic! I had listened many of their songs in my Portishead phase, but hadn’t actually played any of its albums back to back. It’s now checked off my list.
We went to a restaurant
First time since February 2020. It was unplanned and beautiful. We found ourselves visiting an old hydroelectric plant in disuse, which looks like a grand monastery at first sight.
The surroundings have been converted into a social area, including a restaurant. The music, the birds, and the calm of the place infused on us a sense of slowness. We felt it was a good moment.
I implemented this approach by having them as folders:
Input. It holds notes about things I’ve read, podcasts I listened to, events I’ve participated in, etc. When I come across something that I find interesting and potentially useful, I store it here. It doesn’t need to be long-form; it can be one paragraph if that’s what it’s meaningful to me. Folders are organized by type of input (podcast, talk, article, etc.), so it’s straightforward to capture and store anything. At this point, I may or may not know how I’m going to use it, so I don’t try to guess by giving it a predefined category ― it’s just a book, a talk, etc. Having this structure also reminds me of what’s important at this stage: summarize, help my brain digest the information.
Process. My scratchpad or journal. It’s messy and raw. It contains small notes I use to quickly brain-dump anything I want to revisit later, daily notes to keep TODO lists, thoughts that pop up connecting other thoughts, etc. Most things here tend to be highly useful in the short-term (days to weeks), but fewer are longer-term. They’re intermediate steps to help me think. This area has the same role as a paper journal: when it is full (the month is over, I start a new folder), I no longer see what I wrote the past month ― there’s an organic way for things to get out of sight if they don’t graduate to become anything meaningful (notes in the output folder, etc.).
Output. It stores what I consider my deliverables to be. There’s a place for pieces of knowledge that I judge can be useful to my future self. It’s a Zettelkasten of sorts; it contains notes about the difference between analytical and synthetic languages or how the WordPress style system works. There’s a different sub-folder for articles I’m publishing (like this one). And so on.
This is all more simple and less compartmentalized than it seems, as notes have links to each other, and I also use some tags.
I’ve been testing this setup for a couple of months now. It’s fine so far, but it needs more time to reach its full potential. I remind myself that this is not about having a nice note-taking system but about producing more and better output: write quality posts more frequently, understand how a specific piece of software works faster, etc. By asking myself to express my thinking process through these three steps, I aim to introduce a rhythm that forces me to split up work in small units, lowering the effort it takes to do them. Or so I hope.
Started reading Stories of your life and others, by Ted Chiang. My first impulse was to jump right into “Story of your life” but I refrained and decided to go chronologically. I’m happy I did because the Tower of Babylon is a fantastic tale, a reinterpretation of the biblical story. I’d like to compare my notes with another reader, haven’t read yet any online reviews, but it inspired me so many thoughts: the way science is made, our views on the religiosity of ancient civilizations, etc. I also enjoyed the calm and steady rhythm of the text: it reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin at times, although it has a certain feeling of the hard science writers as well ― undecided which group is most representative of Chiang’s style yet.
Talking of UKL, I ran into The carrier bag theory of fiction. Probably only interesting if the topics of evolution, soft vs hard science fiction, or UKL are things you entertain.
The making of a corporate athlete. This article is about what it means to perform to your full potential and how do you sustain that level for longer periods. It presents a set of areas to balance: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Have you found yourself in unhealthy habits of sleep, diet, etc., that affected your ability to deliver? That’s your physical capacity. Have you felt so frustrated by a decision that you were unable to deliver anything for a couple of days? That’s your emotional capacity. Have you felt your soul needs re-charging? That’s your spiritual capacity. And so on. In addition to providing a framework for thinking about this topic, it provides some practical tips.
Héroes del Silencio is considered one of the all-time best Spanish Rock bands. With only 4 studio albums, they had a short career as a group but had good selling numbers and a huge fan base. Netflix released a documentary with original footage from the 80s/90s and interviews with the protagonists. I don’t remember myself as a fan of HDS, but I learned to appreciate their work after the documentary. Here’s a half-an-hour list I compiled that includes one song from each of their albums (plus a bonus).
LaretasGeek AMA (Spanish). I discovered a new format for videos and talks: linked interviews. The person interviewed in one session is the interviewer of the next, and they get to choose who they talk with. I watched the six of them, and it’s fun. It has a very personal tone and feeling. I’m particularly fond of Fran‘s and Antón‘s, who I know and I’ve spent a bunch of my time with.
It’s dense and has a lot of ideas to digest. In this first pass, the relationship between emotions and body states picked my interest. In “The nature of feelings, evolutionary and neurobiological origins“, he goes deeper on this idea and argues that our brain has a Strava of sorts to record and measure our internal states. Feelings are a mental representation of the imbalance in those states: when the states are out of range, the body sends you a notification in the form of a feeling ― “don’t forget to reach your daily water goal“.
Galician noir: how a rainy corner of Spain spawned a new TV genre. The major streaming platforms have released tv-shows produced in Galiza and by Galicians: O Sabor das Margaridas / Bitter Daisies (Netflix), Auga Seca / Dry Water (HBO), La Unidad / The Unit (Movistar), 3 Caminos (Amazon Prime). The Guardian mentions scenery, low-budget costs, and a pre-existing industry fueled by the TVG (TeleVision of Galiza) as the main factors for Galiza’s becoming a production hub.
How would you measure how much of the “pre-existing” industry can be attributed to the role of the TVG? How would you measure the impact of having a distribution and production center with the autonomy and money to spend on the local film-making industry? One thing that hints at this is the story of Mareas Vivas (The Spring Tides). Aired from 1999 to 2003, it was certainly a good product in terms of audience, awards, and the fact that it was sold and distributed to other platforms. However, and this is what I didn’t understand until recently, it was also a good platform to grow local talent. If we fast-forward 20 years, what’s now doing the people involved in the show? Luis Tosar, who played one of the main characters, is a renowned international film star; Mercedes Peón, the intro song composer, has a career in the world music scene; many others (producers, camera-people, etc.) founded or are working for the companies that are now selling products to Netflix, HBO, or Amazon.
This pattern resonates with something I read about the evolution of the Estonia startup ecosystem as well: there’s a product that reaches highly successful rates (Mareas Vivas in 1998-2003 and Skype in 2003-2009, respectively), and the released energy from that success (money, connections, expertise) is invested back into the next round of products. It’s so common a pattern that there’s a term for it: the X mafia, after the Paypal employees who used the money they got from selling PayPal to invest in and/or create YouTube, Linkedin, Tesla, SpaceX, or Kiva.
Compensation as a reflection of values. Oxide is a startup that pays everyone the same: $175k. They understand the different risk profiles and skin in the game that different people have in the company, and they embed that risk in the company’s equity: the sooner you joined, the larger stock you have.
I agree with the internet that Cólico is a beautiful piece about an awful topic. I’ve also realized that I had been following Guadi Galego for a while, but I didn’t have a top-10 songs list. Here’s the fix to that, a 30-minutes list that would hopefully lighten your day:
WordPress 5.7 “Esperanza” was released this month. It’s named after Esperanza Spalding, a bassist, singer, and composer. In the past years, I’ve picked up the habit of listening to the jazz musician chosen to highlight the WordPress major release.
It’s been 30 years since REM’s Out of Time was released. An absolute masterpiece, I heard at home. I must confess REM grew slowly on me. Ironically, the sort of music I listened to at the time (grunge, shoe-gaze, brit-pop) was possible because REM had existed. Anyway, REM stands out to me as one of those groups with a unique characteristic: I can relate many of their songs to particular spatial-temporal moments of my life. When I hear one of these, I’m immediately transported to the past. These are three of them:
Unorthodox. A 19-year-old woman flees from the ultra-orthodox Jew community she lives in. It’s a great story about those who need to run away from their environment to flourish and be their own selves.
Can we live forever? My current favorite documentary series, Explained, produced a 20-minute episode on the latest of the health industry: investigations about how to tap into our own biological mechanisms to make our body delay/prevent the sort of diseases related to aging (cancer, Alzheimer, strokes, cardiovascular diseases, etc.). It’s so packed that I had to watch it twice. As pre-material, I suggest the talk Experiments that hint of longer lives:
Obsidian for writing. I continue to be thinking about how I take & organize notes. I like Obsidian so much that I became a supporter. I’m stupidly excited about the mobile app as well. There’s a huge community using it and sharing their setups, like this one:
For the first time since more than a year ago, I spent a bunch of time inside a building that wasn’t my home, my family’s, or a supermarket: I went to see Pharaoh: King of Egypt, an exhibition with material from The British Museum.
Although we went at the least crowded hours we could, it was still weird and uncomfortable at times. The exhibition itself was very well organized and produced; it renewed my interest in ancient civilizations. I already wrote about Rome in January. Something both have in common is that some marvelous things they invented and built were forgotten and lost for centuries after they collapsed ― some still are.
January’s post re-connected me with some folks, which made me think this “recently” idea wasn’t that bad after all. Here’s February’s.
3 blogs of programmers I follow
In a Twitter conversation with Óscar and Juan, Juan suggested we should share blogs of programmers we follow. It’s been a while since I do that. These are the 3 first programmers that came to mind:
Dan Luu. I ran into this blog 3 years ago when I read input lag, which I already shared here. I like the extremely well-researched topics he writes about, many times with original data he has compiled himself. The topics fall out of my field of expertise, so being exposed to them widens my views.
Kent Beck. The first reference I found in this blog to KB is +10 years old, so I’ve probably been following him since before that. He’s generally able to give me tools for thinking about programming and software design, mental models if you will. These days, I default to follow what he shares on Twitter as it’s been difficult to track where he’s posting content (Facebook, Medium, Substack, Youtube, etc.). Besides the things he publishes about software design, following the “grown-ups” of the field gives me food for thought about my own career.
Don’t use N computers when 1 would do.
Web development evolved from a single process in a computer to N computers specialized in different things: data, horizontal scaling the app, cache, load balancers, manage all those servers, etc. This article’s intro is a great zoom-out view of how we got here. As a follow-up, I recommend reading the story of an ex-googler that became an indie developer: leaving a company that can throw engineers to any problem means you have to re-think what’s at the core. Both together make the case that the hardware we have today no longer requires that high level of orchestration for most of the business problems people work on.
The articles above touch on one of my pet peeves: the conversations around technological decisions aren’t grounded on specific project’s needs ― they are unbounded, they ignore any trade-offs (link in Spanish). As a result, the voices heard are the big players’ voices, who have the muscle and incentives to advertise their problems and solutions. Combined with a couple of strong biases we have in the industry –halo effect and survivorship bias– makes the ground very fertile for uncritically accept unfit approaches.
Teaching is the most impactful aspect of tool building.
10 years of open-source visualization by the creator of D3 and co-founder of Observable. The first part of the article argues that documentation is the building block of creating a community around your tool ― worth a read, even if only for those sections.
Midas, the last song by As Tanxugueiras. It mixes trap with folk music, and while I’m not very deep into any, the result is 🔥🔥🔥
It put me in the mood of deejaying some other groups that mix the old and the new:
Baiuca, which I discovered recently and has a more electronic vibe to it.
Finally, my mind wandered to Rexurdimente, a song that connects two Rosalías through time: the two grammies song Malamente by Rosalía (2018) and the lyrics from a poem by Rosalía de Castro (1869) that was part of the book that started the Rexurdimento.
I thought these would make a delightful 15-minutes song list:
I’ve finished Lupin this month, which I enjoyed and I recommend as light entertainment. I also finished Spycraft, whose beginning was promising but quickly became too US-centric and less rigorous ― it raised my privacy alerts for a few months, though.
I watched landing it live. It was fun, and one of the family names is among the 11 million names on Mars ― for which you needed to sign up in 2010! The scales of time and effort required for an endeavor like this are mind-blowing.
I read how this is the beginning of a mission to collect rocks from Mars and send them to Earth:
Perseverance’s rover will collect rocks and leave them in tubes on the surface.
A future rover will take those tubes from the surface and will transport them to a lander.
It takes 10 years and several missions across national agencies.
There was also Ingenuity, potentially the first rotorcraft to fly outside Earth. It is powered by f-prime, an open-source flight & embedded system framework. It can also run on a RaspberryPi or an Arduino. This is a brilliant move from the perspective of tapping into all the amateur people doing DIY robotics. How crazy is it that you can use the same software that’s embedded in a helicopter on Mars to power your own LEDs?
I was surprised by the level of openness, production, and effort to spread the word about this mission. I presume it has many aspects, mainly funding, although having more contenders looking for the same talent you’re after probably plays a role.
February 2021 was focused on things that use brain energy -including finishing the Portuguese course I was taking- and less on everything else. Still, there was some nice weather on the last weekend of the month that pulled us outside. Views from Louro and Monte San Lois.
Inspired by Tom MacWright, I’m starting a “recently” series, where I’m going to branch out a bit from the usual topics of this site ― which weren’t very focused anyway. Aims to be monthly.
The past year I’ve started to follow some streamers. It’s a lot of fun if you find someone that resonates with your interests and style.
Recently, I ran into a doctor who streams content about keyboards, memory techniques, and other things that I like. I was shocked by learning that he earns more money from his passive income (courses, ads on YouTube) than from his profession (being a doctor):
While these cases exist, he makes a pretty clear point that is quite unusual and difficult to get there. Your ability to earn anything is bounded by the markets you appeal to. Example: US viewers (high income) + tech/productivity topics (things people spend actual money in) can make you something if you become popular. Galician viewers + medieval literature is not that appealing from the perspective of the YouTube ads market.
A different model is Twitch (Amazon-owned), in which viewers can pay for the content, and half of it goes to the creator. One of the most popular streamers from Spain has grown from 600 to 6 000 paying subscribers since March 2020. Given that the minimum subscriber package is 5€, he’s making at least 15k€ monthly only from viewers. While he’s at the top (his end of year stream had more viewers than many Spanish TV specials), beginners can also make some money in Twitch. If you have 40 paying subscribers you can buy a new webcam, which is unthinkable with the same viewers on YouTube.
Who would have thought that a business model based on consumers paying for content is a lot more friendly to niche markets than mass advertising?
I’ve been taking digital notes since 2009. It’s all markdown files stored locally and I still have all of them. +10 years worth of unused bytes sitting in my disk drives.
While I tried a few different approaches, I’ve settled for taking two types of notes since a few years ago:
Library notes about things I read or watch.
Journal notes about work and life.
They are named and stored chronologically, although with a few tweaks to make them searchable, especially on mobile. When I need to look up something, I search for it using VSCode, the editor I currently use for programming. It’s been ok so far.
I recently discovered another method of taking and storing notes popularized by the term “second brain”. Though the original author coined it “second memory” and that name makes more sense to me. The difference is that, while a journal is chronological and has a short lifespan, the way you organize your second memory aims to accompany you for decades and its goal is to help you connect ideas and develop new ones.
Though intrigued, I was unimpressed with what I read about this method by modern practitioners. So I went to the source: Niklas Luhmann, a german sociologist who famously used it to publish his papers and books from the 60s to the 00s. He called it the Zettelkästen, note boxes. The only paper he published about it, Communicating with Slip Boxes, is the best high-level intro I’ve found. If you are curious about the specifics after reading it, I also enjoyed this paper by the researcher in charge of digitalizing Luhmann’s state. The intro to his online archive is quite detailed as well.
The year started with some snow, then rain, and always fog:
It’s not surprising that I spent a good bunch of my time at home, given the weather and the pandemic. Can report that I’ve watched a documentary series about Roman Engineering (in Spanish) that I liked. It was fascinating to learn about the techniques and knowledge they applied to a lot of things: where to settle, how to organize cities, how to build aqueducts, or how to squeeze as much mineral from nature as possible. The series is very well produced. It makes excellent use of space reconstruction with 3D techniques and the script has a good balance between the high and low-level details. The presenter is a knowledgeable engineer and historian. The only thing I found weird is that they dubbed him ― people from home and the internet agree with me.
Some food I’ve cooked and eaten:
Since I started a Portuguese course a few months ago, I’ve been introducing more Portuguese input in my life (series, music, etc). It’s the kind of thing I usually do when learning new languages.
Enjoyed 3%, a Brazilian TV show produced by Netflix. The story has a lot in common with The Hunger Games. It also borrows some themes from Christianism and Capitalism, such as only the worthy will have a place in the world of the good people.
I’ve discovered a generation of indie musicians based in continental Portugal: Miguel Araújo, Márcia, J.P. Simões, Luisa Sobral, Salvador Sobral, etc. There’s a lot more to music in the lusofonia than alfacinhas and tripeiros, though, and I expect to share more in the coming months. Anyway, it seems duets are a thing among this generation so I created a list with three I liked: