Answering @buzzyrobin about burnout

Robin posted on The Bird Site:

I’ve read a lot of “I was burned out, I took some leave, I’ve kind of recovered” retrospectives, but comparatively few written by people in the middle of it and living with that uncertainty.

I get that. As Robin explains, it floors me that people in financially perilous circumstances (aka, most of the world) can’t take leave, or the disabled among us who live with so much of this frustration on a daily basis. Respect doesn’t cover it. But I digress.

I’m in the middle of such leave right now too, so here’s my middle-of-the-road report. I’ve rewritten this at least a dozen times; I wouldn’t have expected that articulating such thoughts would be so difficult.

Everyone’s burnout manifests in different ways. Mine exacerbated longstanding anxiety, which when mixed with some deaths in the family, commitment overload, messed up sleep, and some unexpected “elective” surgery on the horizon, I snapped like a Polaroid Picture. Wait, that’s not the lyric.

Photo of one of the walking trails around Echo Point, near the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains.

Robin’s “kind of recovered” summary matches my mood thus far too. Not panicking (as often) has been wonderful. My resting heart rate is lower, and that foreboding fight or flight alliteration is starting to feel manageable again.

IT people are trained to think in inputs and outputs, so it flummoxes me that my mental black box isn’t responding as well to this break as before. The Blue Mountains are a beautiful reprieve, but it hasn’t done it for me the way travel in Southeast Asia, or Japan, or the US travel did prior to Covid.

I’m sure this is a perverse form of mental recursion, but I can’t shake this unsettling feeling that my current trip “isn’t working”, or not to the extent previous ones have. Maybe it’ll take two weeks this time, or four? Who knows. Maybe things will click in a couple of weeks, or a month, and I’ll look back on this and laugh. I mean, the absurdity of it all makes me crack a smile now, which I’m sure PuTTY would fix. Eh, not one of my better ones.

Robin is among the most compassionate, professional people I’ve ever met. Not at all to equate what they’re going though with my own struggles (as Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and B2W fame says, we all have our own personal forms of psychosis), but I hope know they’ll pull through this too. ♡

Chancellor of Earth: Advertising

The Chancellor of Earth Ruben Schade made his way up the flower-lined stairs to the stage overlooking the Planetary Parliament chamber. The crowd of politicians, journalists, and commoners in the viewing gallery hushed their conversations and took their seats.

He adjusted his multicoloured tie and glasses, smiled, and looked into the transparent teleprompter.

Good morning, afternoon, or evening, depending on your locale. Pause for applause.

He shook his head. He wasn’t supposed to read that bit.

This month’s legislative agenda will put to rest once and for all two issues concerning the advertising of goods and services. These will come into effect within one Earth week, permitting affected parties time to pull down all relevant billboards, privacy-invading website banners, business cards, video advertisements, novelty pens, and so on.

He didn’t read the pause this time, but forgot to implement it nonetheless.

The first concerns grammatically-incorrect, vague, or meaningless slogans. If you’d flunk a language test reading the slogan, you will be fined the net worth of your company, and all your novelty pens, for publishing it.

A hand shot up from the front row of seated executives, though he was quick to retrieve it with his other one.

I’m not sure when these press conferences became a Q&A, but yes, you there with enough hair gel to launch a ship down a slipway.

Thank you Chancellor, I… hey. What’s the harm if my phone company wants to use the phrase Today Now or Possibilities Are Yes. It speaks to the dynamism, synergistic disruption, and unlimited potential for the…

The executive disintegrated into a puff of pink smoke, his bowtie and blazer dropping to the chair upon which he once sat.

Seems like someone could have stood to be more grounded. Huh? HUH!?

The sound of crickets punctured the silence in the chamber, a bizarre occurance given the time of day and the fact it was indoors.

Well then. The second of these concerns an immediate termination of the use of euphemistic or vague words to describe products we all know. For example, it is not bathroom tissue, it is toilet paper. We all use it, it is just as essential, there is no shame calling it what it is.

Another hand shot up, this time from someone wearing one of the aforementioned rolls on his head.

No, I think that’s all we have time for today. Thank you.

The Chancellor stepped down from the podium to the sound of applause.

Spam calls

I managed to largely avoid getting spam calls my whole life, though that’s just changed in the last couple of months. I get calls with Swiss, British, and American country codes telling me about Amazon orders I haven’t made, tax I don’t owe, and support for desktop operating systems I don’t run.

(And I’ll bet even those caller ID numbers are faked).

It’s got so bad that I’ve been tempted to ditch my personal number entirely, and only use it for data (if that’s even possible). There are people who make YouTube careers stringing along these scammers, but I just want to be left alone.

They’re a nusiance, but they also do a number on people prone to anxiety. Friends and family know that we message each other first to make sure we’re not in the middle of something important, so a call usually signals something is either urgent, or a delivery. Now my heart rushes only to realise its someone telling me “Microsofts need of the updates?”

My heart does go out to some of the people doing this. For each arsehole, I’m sure there’s someone in a troubled part of the world who see oblivious people in the rich world as a meal ticket. I’m sure in their ethical model they assume you and I would be down a bit of money, but to them it might be a lifeline. Whether it be vaccine rollouts or general aid, we sure are good at turning a blind eye to the plight of our fellow human beings in other parts of the world.

But then I remember the kind of people who are taken in by these scams, many of whom are not that well off themselves, and that idealised view of a scammer begins to disintegrate. Just like my patience!

I’d continue this post, but I just got a call from someone in New South Wales claiming that I have overdue tax. The Internet would tell me to string him along and try and scam him, but I just hung up.

PBS Frontline documentary on the 737-MAX

Play Boeing's Fatal Flaw (full documentary) | FRONTLINE

This is one of the better retrospectives on the 737-MAX, and the MCAS system that caused those two fatal crashes. I appreciated that they started with the human impact, before talking about the engineering, business decisions, and FAA oversight that lead to it. They also provided a lot of context that other rapid-fire videos tend to lack. The interview with Dennis Tajer at 37 minutes made me choke up too. “And I swore [at the transcript]. He got it right. The kid got it right”.

The 737 was a clever modification to the 727 trijet (itself derived from the venerable 707) when it first came out, but it’s been overdue for a proper replacement for decades. Hindsight has 20-20 vision, but I still think it was a mistake to retire the 757 to extend the jet beyond what it was designed for. The ungainly engine nacelle modifications were always the obvious external indiciation of this, though MCAS may very well be the one that had the most impact.

It’s weird to think that in 2021, the closest airframe in capacity and range to the 757, one of my favorite aircraft designs of all time, is the A321neo.

We should rename Australian things

I’m on personal leave for a couple of weeks, and find myself in the Blue Mountains once more. It’s such a beautiful part of the world, and feels so far from inner Sydney despite only being a few hours away by train. It’s become a sanctuary for me during Covid times.

Wandering along one of the walking trails near Echo Point and the Three Sisters (an unintentional band name if ever I heard one), I was struck by this sign foregrounding one of the most jaw-dropping vistas in the world:

Sign saying The Prince Henry Cliff Walk.

Is that… is that the best we can do? A World Heritage site with rock formations dating back further than any other continent on Earth, and it’s called… the Prince Henry Cliff Walk?

Nowhere will beat Jersey City, New Jersey for me; a city named for a state that took its name from an island. But with all the New things in the United States, and British things in Canada, I think Australia has them beat with our uninspired names. The bulk of our state and territories merely describe where they are, what they are, or have ties to the British monarchy:

  • Australian Capital Territory
  • Northern Territory
  • New South Wales
  • Queensland
  • South Australia (which isn’t even accurate)
  • Victoria
  • Western Australia

That leaves us with Jervis Bay, Norfolk Island, and Tasmania? I guess they’re better, but still a far cry from what we could have. And don’t get me started on our state flags.

What strikes me as ridiculous, aside from the inanity of it all, is that we have so many amazing Native Australian languages here, all rich with unique words and pre-existing place names we could be using. Instead we’re stuck, much like our constitution and head of state, with glorified hand-me-downs that are ill-fitting and smell of inbred mothballs. I’m not sure how a mothball can be inbred, but have you seen some European royalty?

I’d say we can do better, but clearly we can’t at present. Let’s change this!

Not just the algorithm, it’s Zuck’s company too

Last Saturday I quoted a journalist saying social media algorithms aren’t “inherently bad and problematic”. I mentioned that despite being useful for me too, that it shouldn’t be confusing that others have reservations:

There’s plenty of evidence, from search engine “bubbling” to radicalisation, that they can cause problems. Transparency is the other big issue.

My position has only solidified in light of Zuck’s Papers. I cannot overstate this: absolutely nothing his company has done has ever surprised me, and any surprised journalist should resign and go farm turnips. But it reinforces what we’ve long suspected.

Susan Benesch of George Washington University agrees, arguing in The Atlantic (paywall) that the companies themselves are opaque:

This decisions that their employees and their algorithms make about what to amplify and what to suppress end up affecting people’s well-being. Yet the companies are essentially black boxes.

Susan is working with other academic researchers on “initiatives that would guarantee the sharing of key information”. I’m relieved people are thinking about this; everything from our health to our democracies are at stake.

I’m not going to talk about the company’s renaming, or any of the furore or painfully unfunny memes that I wish people would stop sharing. I just want this despicable company to vanish up its own posterior, so we don’t need to waste any more mental CPU cycles on them. I’d rather eat turnips… which says a lot.

My favourite StackOverflow answers

… are those preceding a comment claiming something can’t be done.

These more than make up for the have you tried Googling it or why would you want to responses that appear with such regularity, you’d think people are being paid for them.

Rest in peace, Bert Newton

My sister and I spent most of our formative years overseas, but even we remember Bert Newton. He was a fixture of Australian television from the black and white era to the present. My parents regularly invoked his legendary sketch comedy skits with Graham Kennedy, and we remembered him as being the ever-present host of Good Morning Australia.

Warning for Aboriginal Australians: This contains an image of a deceased person. Photo of Lucy Durack and Bert Newton in 2014 by Chris Phuttly. Click to expand.

Photo of Lucy Durack and Bert Newton in 2014.

Years ago I was stuck at home with a fever, and watching morning television to pass the time. Bert had just cut over to one of GMA’s infomercial segments to advertise a vacuum cleaner, but unbeknownst to him he was still slightly in frame. He got out of his chair and started plowing the ground with an invisible vacuum cleaner, while the poor people on the other set tried to keep straight faces while delivering their lines. Eventually the advertiser broke down and waved Bert over to try the real thing. I can’t remember the line Bert gave them as he came onto their set, or I was too young to understand the joke, but he had them in stitches.

I like to think that was how he was. Like most Australians I’ve ever met in business and life, he was professional, but just a bit cheeky.

I also assumed he’d be around forever. Rest in peace, Old Moonface.

The Economist’s insight into Big Tech during Covid

The most recent Economist ran an article about tech growth during These Covid Times, and had some interesting insights:

If the latest round of quarterly earnings are any guide, the tech industry is coming back down to earth.

They cite figures saying growth was “only” 26-39%, as opposed to the “stratospheric” heights of the previous years. This ran contrary to what was expected:

[..] one of the first predictions when Covid-19 hit in early 2020 was that it would make big tech even bigger. Those firms, ran the theory, would be better placed to benefit from an in increased demand for digital offerings.

Instead, that uptick was less than expected, in part due to smaller businesses being more capable of riding the downturn than expected. As someone working at an SME cloud provider, this has been good news.

My personal reservation about IT growth predictions was that they were based on a fantasy that everyone was working from home. Plenty of us were, but people still lost their jobs, shifts, and livelihoods at a tremendous scale. It’s hard to justify dozens of subscriptions for web streaming platforms when you’re worried about rent, and must surely have had knockon effects. Fewer people with money leads to lower demand for the things people like me working remote are providing. Retail, tourism, and hospitality use a lot of computers.

Related to this, I’ve long been interested in the idea of the “two-speed economy” where information workers benefit at a greater rate than everyone else. This can’t be sustainable long term, both in terms of ethics and economic reality.

It’s not (always?) the algorithm

One of my favourite Techdirt writers Mike Masnick thinks we’re barking up the wrong tree when we wholesale dismiss social media algorithms:

But underlying all of this is a general opinion that “algorithms” and “algorithmic recommendations” are inherently bad and problematic. And, frankly, I’m confused by this. At a personal level, the tools I’ve used that do algorithmic recommendations (mainly: Google News, Twitter, and YouTube) have been… really, really useful? And also pretty accurate over time in learning what I want, and thus providing me more useful content in a more efficient manner, which has been pretty good for me, personally.

I recognize that not everyone has that experience, but at the very least, before we unilaterally declare algorithms and recommendation engines as bad, it might help to understand how often they’re recommending stuff that’s useful and helpful, as compared to how often they’re causing problems.

I’ve had the same positive experience; I wouldn’t know half the engineering YouTube channels if the algorithm hadn’t recommended them to me.

I’m willing to entertain the idea that some of this frustration is misplaced, and that it’s the fault of things like the financial model of social media platforms, or even us as willing participants. There are plenty of other issues at play here too. But I don’t think it’s confusing why people also have reservations about algorithms in general. There’s plenty of evidence, from search engine “bubbling” to radicalisation, that they can cause problems.

Transparency is the other big issue. The world’s biggest search engine likes to talk up how open they are, and spruik their standards cred (or at least, they used to in a pre-AMP world), but all of these algorithms are black boxes. We can only speculate on their internal machinations, and judge them on their output. They work well for some of us, but at best they’re a mixed blessing, and I think it’s fair to question their effect at scale.

Mike points to Facebook having made more money since they stopped using specific news algorithms, which I’ll have to take their word on. But social media algorithms in general do seem to favour clickbait and polarising views, which leads to perverse incentives for creators.

Ann Reardon of How to Cook That continues to provide an interesting perspective here, precicely because she isn’t technical. You and I can attempt to think about how these systems work, but it’s also good to hear how people in the real world (especially those who create media) live with these things. Algorithms shouldn’t punish people for being honest.