all posts tagged 'systems'

npm install everything, and the complete and utter chaos that follows

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We tried to hang a pretty picture on a wall, but accidentally opened a small hole. This hole caused the entire building to collapse. While we did not intend to create a hole, and feel terrible for all the people impacted by the collapse, we believe it’s also worth investigating what failures of compliance testing & building design could allow such a small hole to cause such big damage.

Multiple parties involved, myself included, are still students and/or do not code professionally. How could we have been allowed to do this by accident?

It’s certainly no laughing matter, neither to the people who rely on npm nor the kids who did this.

But man, it is comical to see the Law of Unintended Consequences when it decides to rear its ugly head.

I applaud the students who had the original idea and decided to see what would happen if you installed every single npm package at once. It’s a good question, to which the answer is: uncover a fairly significant issue with how npm maintains integrity across all of its packages.

But I guess the main reason I’m sharing this article is as a case study on how hard it is to moderate a system.

I’m still a recovering perfectionist, and the older I get, the more I come across examples (both online like this and also in my real life) where you can do everything right and still end up losing big.

The best thing you can do when you see something like this is to pat your fellow human on the back and say, “man, that really sucks, I’m sorry.”

The worst thing you can do, as evidenced in this story, is to cuss out some teenagers.

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Anti-AI sentiment gets big applause at SXSW 2024 as moviemaker dubs AI cheerleading as ‘terrifying bullsh**’

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I gotta find the video from this and watch it myself, because essentially every single thing mentioned in this article is what I wanna build a podcast around.

Let’s start with this:

As Kwan first explained, modern capitalism only worked because we compelled people to work, rather than forced them to do so.

“We had to change the story we told ourselves and say that ‘your value is your job,” he told the audience. “You are only worth what you can do, and we are no longer beings with an inherent worth. And this is why it’s so hard to find fulfillment in this current system. The system works best when you’re not fulfilled.”

Boy, this cuts to the heart of the depressive conversations I’ve had with myself this past year.

Finding a job sucks because you have to basically find a way to prove to someone that you are worth something. It can be empowering to some, sure, but I am finding the whole process to be extremely demoralizing and dehumanizing.

“Are you trying to use [AI] to create the world you want to live in? Are you trying to use it to increase value in your life and focus on the things that you really care about? Or are you just trying to, like, make some money for the billionaires, you know?”  Scheinert asked the audience. “And if someone tells you, there’s no side effect. It’s totally great, ‘get on board’ — I just want to go on the record and say that’s terrifying bullshit. That’s not true. And we should be talking really deeply about how to carefully, carefully deploy this stuff,” he said.

I’ve literally said the words, “I don’t want to make rich people richer” no fewer than a hundred times since January.

There is so much to unpack around this article, but I think I’m sharing it now as a stand in for a thesis around the podcast I am going to start in the next month.

We need to be having this conversation more often and with as many people as possible. Let’s do our best right now at the precipice of these new technologies to make them useful for ourselves, and not just perpetuate the worst parts of our current systems.

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The U.S. Census Is Wrong on Purpose

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According to the just-published 2020 U.S. Census data, Monowi now had 2 residents, doubling its population.

This came as a surprise to Elsie, who told a local newspaper, “Then someone’s been hiding from me, and there’s nowhere to live but my house.”

It turns out that nobody new had actually moved to Monowi without Elsie realizing. And the census bureau didn’t make a mistake. They intentionally changed the census data, adding one resident.

Today, I learned about the concept of differential privacy.

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Bureaucratic Leverage

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Why do we hate bureaucracy?

Taken literally, a bureaucracy is just an organization tasked with ensuring some outcome. In the public sector, OSHA ensures worker safety, FDA ensures drug safety, EPA ensures environmental protection; in the private sector, HR ensures legal compliance, IT ensures trade secrets and data privacy, and so on. Yet even if people agree with the outcome, they often disagree with the implementation. Bureaucracies have an endless talent for finding wasteful and ineffective solutions.

Bureaucracies are ineffective due to a lack of accountability. If a bureaucrat imposes a wasteful policy, what are the consequences? Well, as long as they are achieving their desired outcome, they are doing their job, regardless of the pain they inflict on others. They can wield legal, technical, or financial penalties to force compliance. And paradoxically, when bureaucrats fail to achieve their desired outcome, they often get a bigger budget or a bigger stick to wield, rather than being fired for incompetence. The inability to recognize failure goes hand in hand with the inability to recognize success: competent and ambitious people avoid working for bureaucracies because their efforts go unrewarded. Bureaucracies end up staffed with middling managers, and we have learned to hate them.

I don’t know how to solve this problem in the public sector, but I think it’s solvable in the private sector, because there is theoretically a CEO who is incentivized to maximize the overall effectiveness of the company; they just need the right tactics. The solution is simple: hold bureaucracy accountable by forcing them to do the actual work.

I feel like there’s a counter argument to be made in here about the role of competition in the work produced for external entities to do.

In a functioning capitalistic system, you have several competing entrepreneurs who are testing all kinds of novel ideas against the rules established by the government to ensure a safe, fair playing field.

The role of a bureaucracy is not to get to the end goal faster. The role of bureaucracy is to make sure we get to the end goal without taking harmful shortcuts.

Regardless, there is something to be said about being thoughtful in imposing burdensome policies, and I think this concept of bureaucratic leverage is an interesting way to consider the role of the public sector in optimizing our systems.

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Dependency rejection

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Dependencies seem to be all around us, both in the real world, and in programming. And they are perniciously distracting in just this way. Have you ever noticed how rare it is for you to just do something?

If so, you might have been worrying, up front, about dependencies.

Being a senior developer means you spend most of your time stressed out about the optimal way to get something shipped.

But I don’t just see that stress manifest in my professional life. Ask my wife how many side projects around the house she wants me to do that have not even been started.

It’s why I admire people who just start projects with no fear.

And it’s a trait I find myself trying to instill in my children, who will naturally jump into a task with both feet and zero regrets while I’m impatiently hovering over them, fretting about “safety” and messes that’ll need to be cleaned up.

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Half-assing it with everything you've got

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If you're trying to pass the class, then pass it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you're trying to ace the class, then ace it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you're trying to learn the material to the fullest, then mine the assignment for all its knowledge, and don't fret about your grade. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you're trying to do achieve some combination of good grades (for signalling purposes), respect (for social reasons), and knowledge (for various effects), then pinpoint the minimum quality target that gets a good grade, impresses the teacher, and allows you to learn the material, and hit that as efficiently as you can. Anything more is wasted motion.

Ah, an engineer’s approach to optimizing life.

There is a good section in here as well about how to deal with the associated guilt when you take this approach.

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Hope Beyond Rugged Individualism

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Rugged individualism is still deeply enmeshed in American culture.

And its myth is one of our biggest exports to the rest of the world.

What could happen if we replaced the philosophy of rugged individualism with a philosophy of rugged cooperation? What if we swapped out the scripts we’ve learned in an individualist culture with the curiosity and care of a collaborative culture?

And how would your business or career shift if you approached it not as your best way to climb to the top in a flawed system but as a laboratory for experimenting with ruggedly cooperative systems?

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Everything I learned about concurrency and reliability I learned at the Waffle House

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A friend recommended this video to me while I was out with Covid a few months back and I just got to watch it.

Now I get to recommend it to you!

If you are a nerd for process, you will love this. Just one small fact to entice you to watch this: did you know Waffle House employs their own meteorological staff?

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You will always have more problems than engineers

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Most companies don’t get it. Most people don’t get it. To them, problems are a sign of failure. They think that the default state is perfection. They believe that if we just worked hard enough — planned hard enough then there wouldn’t be any problems. The only reason we fall from that perfect state is that someone, somewhere screwed up. But that’s not reality. The default state for our reality is chaos. It is ruin. It is entropy and erosion and human nature. We build things to make a better world, and yeah, part of that is people failing. People fail all the time. That sucks, but you’re not going to change it. So you might as well do a good job living with it.

This is really what we all need to cope with. The times we live in are chaotic, filled with uncertainty, fear, and a sense of impending doom. So much so that even our children are suffering at historic rates.

But as I deal with my own struggles to make sense of things, I continue to fall back on accepting that we've always lived in a world that is rife with turmoil. All we can do is go along for the ride, appreciate what we have, and be grateful for those who we can lean on to help navigate it together.

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The Time Trap of Productivity

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Anytime you try to control or reverse disorder, you introduce tension. This is true on a sociological level, where any attempt to organize people inevitably leads to rebellion. But more relevantly, it’s also true at the individual level, and is particularly poignant in our desire to control time.

This same thought (trying to control disorder) has been going through my head a lot lately, but I’ve only ever applied it to political discourse or workplace drama. I’ve never once thought to apply it to time.

Burnout is often associated with working too much, but the real reason it happens is because you have defined yourself by what you produce. It’s not just the exertion of energy spent during your working hours, but the exertion of thought spent during the time you’re not working. It lives in the moment where you’re physically with your family, but mentally planning out what you need to do next. Or when you keep looking at the time when you should just be enjoying lunch.

Again, as a recovering entrepreneur, I’m only now becoming aware of how awful my compulsive need to check in on my team had become.

I’m striving in 2023 to better utilize time as an ally, and to build back the healthy habits that I’ve surrendered in the name of maximum productivity and profitability. Those habits include things I actually used to do (5K run or 2.5mi walk every morning, journaling) and things I keep telling myself I want to do (yoga, biking, playing with my kids, dating my wife).

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