Zen and the Art of Elevator Repair

It turns out earthquakes have a funny way of shaking things up. Puns aside, this is a far deeper and more spiritual sentence than you might think. Early this morning, I awoke to the gentle rocking motion of my second floor top bunk. I’m staying in a hostel for startup nerds in San Francisco, while I wait patiently for my first paycheck from a new job. Without said paycheck and its included signing bonus, I will not be able to afford a luxury refrigerator box (gently used) under the I-280 overpass, let alone a tiny studio apartment within walking distance of my new office.

This was my first earthquake experience, and I must say it was “A++++ would ride again!!!!11!one” After a few seconds of realizing I was not, in fact, dreaming the whole thing, I lay in my bunk evaluating my options. I could hear people in the common area considering running outside to avoid the imminent collapse of the building. As a diagnostician and engineer, I feel qualified to assess the imminence of said collapse, as well as the logistics of the ensuing chaos.

Sure, there would be trouble if the building came apart. That much is clear. It would certainly make my transition period more challenging; damned inconvenient, really, given the current state of my credit card and bank account balance. Still, I took solace in my assessment, surmising that there would be less building to fall on my head if I were to stay on the second floor than if I vaulted from my bunk and sprinted down the stairs, attempting to make it outside before the ceiling did. Then, there was the nagging little problem of my belongings.

Part of my assessment included the time it might take to gather my essentials. Laptop was first on my list. I can fish my clothes out of the rubble. The laptop seems unlikely to survive. Also, I can sell the laptop to buy more clothes, or at least trade it for an Uber ride to a friend’s house and/or an AirBnB for a few nights. The laptop is also fairly easy to carry, as it is already conveniently in a backpack, ready to go on a moment’s notice. After about twenty seconds of evaluation, including anecdotal reports from the other occupants, I concluded that my time was best spent tweeting about the experience.

I considered tagging USGS in the tweet, but immediately decided against that, presuming (incorrectly, as it turns out) that their Tweet Earthquake Detection (TED) system was already aggregating data from others in the area. Hours later, I would learn that the TED system was sadly offline at the time of the event. Instead, I chose one of my favorite half-snarky announcement styles, as follows:

“Achievement unlocked! Woken up by earthquake”

I briefly considered using the word “survived” in the tweet, but I thought better of that. What supreme irony to be accidentally overly optimistic in a tweet about my first earthquake… I feel good about this decision. By the time I had found my phone and brought up the twitter app, the earthquake was over. So I sent the tweet and went back to sleep. Later in the morning, after I awoke at my usual time of 7:29am, I began reviewing notification activity on my phone, as I do every morning. I had a few text messages and twitter alerts from concerned friends. I went on to review photos posted by others affected more severely by the earthquake. Let’s just say Napa Valley wines are going to be expensive this year. I especially loved the photo of a skateboarder catching some wicked air on a ramp formed by the recently reorganized road surface. How perfectly California!

Shortly after making sure my parents knew I was still alive, I went on with my day of email review and video gaming as an effective means of procrastination. In my email, I discovered a curious message from someone at the office. As a result of the earthquake, the elevators had sent themselves to the ground floor and locked out the controls. The express elevators to the upper floors (where our office is located) would not be operational until an elevator technician came to reset them. I imagined myself as an elevator technician for a moment, thinking how boring that job must be, except on days like today, when suddenly you’re the most important person in the lives of thousands of people, desperately hoping you won’t make it to their building, so they can take the day off tomorrow to get stoned in the park, like any self-respecting Californian.

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Engineering Through Empathy

I’ve spent the last several hours stretching the capabilities of apps like Garage Band and Audacity to achieve a task they weren’t really meant to handle. They do very well with their intended tasks, but they leave quite a bit to be desired when used in the way I need. I can cut audio and shift it to another track with a different gain and effects and all that. I can shift clips relative to each other in time. But, the one thing I need that neither tool does at all is to organize discrete clips with tagging and/or annotations on each clip. This way, instead of starting with 2-3hrs of contiguous recorded time and removing irrelevant segments to distill down to an hour for production, we might consider cutting the whole into a number of clips and constructing a narrative by arranging clips to convey a cohesive theme.

For those who haven’t ever needed to edit audio for a podcast, what I’m really talking about here is the process of designing interactivity features based on experiencing first hand the frustration of an unfulfilled need. There is no clearer perspective on the possible solutions than that of a dissatisfied user who is also an experienced design professional. This is the closest we can ever hope to get to the feedback source. One of the most challenging aspects of product development is connecting with the users in a way that bridges the divide in communication between user and developer. Inevitably, users lack an understanding of the basic language, the terminology we use to describe behavior we see.

I have been accused of many things, far too many and risque to describe here. One thing I have never been called is cold and indifferent. I care. Anyone who sees the fruits of my labor or talks to me for 2mins can see this to be true. I might let some hacky shit find its way into a production app for all to see, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice it, nor that I expect it will survive more than a week at it is. Product development is at its core adaptive. We build what is needed. There is no ego. We react to the customer. Delivering core behavior is the first and last goal of any engineer’s effort. We may not always immediately understand your core problem, but as we interact with you, we learn more about your needs, that we might better serve them. Product engineering is 75% empathy, 25% gravitas. If we don’t understand and relate to the core pain point, we could never hope to solve the underlying problem effectively.

You Must Be At Least This Stinky To Get A Free Shower

Picture yourself cycling to work. That part’s easy. It even seems nice in your head. You can take your time, enjoy the breeze, and get a little cardio workout. Sounds nice and healthy. It is actually a very healthy and sustainable solution to a problem we all face. We all need to go places, whether to work or to school or to the park or to the mall or (sometimes) to the airport or (hopefully very rarely) the hospital. But we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. We all collectively believe cars are the best choice because “freedom.” (rock and roll quotes added for effect)

Lots of people drive to work because they believe they need to drive to work. Many people don’t work or live near enough to public transportation for it to be convenient enough to suffer the extra time required to wait for buses and trains. The folks who live or work in rural areas are basically fucked. They have little choice but to buy a car, even if it sits in the driveway or a parking space 95% of the time.

Hopefully by now, some part of you is starting to think about the things you need to change in your life to transition from a car to a bicycle. For me, it was the sudden loss of my car. Loss is a common motivator. Whatever your situation, the choice may be challenging. Much of the challenge comes from within. You will start to find reasons why it wouldn’t work. You may begin making excuses for 5% situations (things you do only ever couple weeks) as if they are the 95% (things you do every day). If you’re able to survive through that, you will eventually come to one rather real conclusion – cycling is sweaty business.

This is where I segue the homeless into the mix, in an attempt to confuse and intrigue the reader. See how I did that? 😉

We’ve all encountered a smelly homeless person in our lives. I have no problem with the homeless. Some folks just prefer the freedom of the open world. That’s a brave lifestyle choice. It’s not for me, but who am I to judge? That sentiment ends where my nose begins. If I can smell you from 3m away (that’s 10ft for you heathens), that’s a problem. (and maybe a public health risk)

This is where I tie it all together. Thanks for your patience.

What if we could provide a way for the cycling commuters to rinse off after biking to work, while simultaneously helping the homeless, and save everyone’s collective noses in the process? Here’s how we do it:

Provide pay showers in common commuter destinations. Give them enough space and privacy to be comfortable, but not so much that someone could sleep there. Then, add some kind of odor sensor on the pay box. If you trigger the sensor, you get a free 5min shower. Otherwise, it’s $2. Use solar energy for heating the water wherever possible to reduce energy requirements. Problem solved.

Now, go sell your car. Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Well, if we had some public shower infrastructure, maybe it would be an easier choice. If nothing else, the world would smell a little better. That’s something we can all appreciate. 🙂

Surfing the Balmer Peak

There’s a joke common among software engineers, based on an xkcd comic, titled The Balmer Peak. Stories surrounding the Balmer Peak have evolved in the wake of the comic, stories I could do no justice here. Like legends of olde (so long ago that English-speaking people and French-speaking people got along and shared a silent ‘e’ in their written language, but still commonly hated the Dutch), stories spread from one epic moment in time out through hamlets and villages across the land. In this case, the hamlets are big companies and the villages are startups. Some repeated the tales in taverns and markets. Others heard the tales and took it upon themselves to seek to achieve such greatness.

Often, when working in an oppressive corporate sweatshop or your buddy’s sweaty garage, groups of geeks band together and form strong bonds during times of great struggle. When there’s a sudden defect in a major system that results in thousands of dollars of revenue loss per minute, the operations team that manages the resolution is battle-hardened in the process. Like any hardy band of warrior poets, their souls annealed by the tragedy of their plight, they write epic tales of their heroic triumph. As employees migrate from one job to another, they carry with them a vocal account of the history of their prior employers, including such heroic tales of “wicked all-nighters spent doing shots and jamming out code.” I salute these champions, for they have caught a glimpse of something others only hear about in pub legends.

These brave warriors have ridden the Peak, if even for a short time. Moreover, they have given us the wisdom of their example, so that we might be inspired to learn this herculean skill. To surf the Balmer Peak is to invite equal parts prosperity and catastrophe. It should not be undertaken without a guide (and a good lawyer). Just remember who wins whether you do or not, and incidentally, tip your bartender.

Note: the Balmer Peak applies only to programming skill. All other skills will effectively drop to zero during the experience. Participants may require a nanny (and, once again, a good lawyer).

Dear Universe

Dear Universe,

I know we’ve had our moments of doubt and pain, but I thought we were on pretty good terms. I’ve recently learned that there’s a fair chance that the Mayans predicted that you will be closing up shop on my birthday. Thanks for thinking of me. I’m flattered you’d plan your final moments to coincide with the anniversary of my birth. That sounds like a story fit for warrior poets. Still, I wish you’d consulted me before making the final arrangements. I would have looked at this year quite a bit differently had I known of your humble birthday gift of the end of existence (and several of the years leading up to it, especially 2009 which can fuck right off).

So, now that I have a mere 48hrs left to enjoy existence, sleeping seems really damned inconvenient. I’d really rather not spend my last days tweaked out on an unholy combination of intravenous caffeine and RedBull. Funny how 4hrs sleep sounds like barely enough when you’re flying across the country, yet woefully irresponsible when that’s nearly 10% of one’s remaining time in existence. Perspective is a sometimes cruel manifestation of personal growth.

Maybe next time you decide to end it all, you could at least give us some sort of warning. Folks seem keen on natural disasters as “acts of god” or signs of the impending apocalypse. I, for one, always thought it would somehow involve multiple super-volcanoes and devastating earthquakes, possibly accompanied by zombies, but maybe you’re going for something more subtle. Maybe the first season of Jersey Shore was your two-minute warning, and we missed the memo. Well, ain’t that a bitch? Hey, at least we got zombies. And who knew zombies were into spray tanning? Did not see that coming…

Thanks,

Aubrey

ps. thanks for, well, everything. 🙂

Fun With Future Archeologists

I love the future. There’s something hopeful and magical about it, like we could do anything. But you know eventually, after our civilization falls and centuries of biological purification wash over the globe, a new dominant form of life on our planet will emerge. Eventually, they’ll form a civilization of their own, and at some point, they’ll have archeologists. Just like Indiana Jones digging for Mayan relics, they’ll be traveling the world in search of ruins. I, for one, would like to fuck with them a little.

It wouldn’t be trap doors or spiked hammers that swing from the ceiling when a trip wire is released. It would be much more insidious. No, I’d just fart into a jar, seal that fucker up, and set it on a shelf somewhere. Then, I’d chuckle for a moment, visualizing the future archeologist who cracks open that jar, wondering what’s inside, only to find nothing inside but my thousand year old fart waiting to assault his senses. This naturally makes me wonder how many people in history had this same thought.

Now, I’m picturing a cave full of dudes five thousand years ago trying to catch their farts in crude pottery jars, like some twisted jokester of a shaman told them they would live one more year for each fart they could catch, seal, and bury in sacrifice to their dying god. There they go, like hairy ogres chasing phantom butterflies in a field of gaseous sulfur and methane. There could be caches of fart jars all over the world, and the only ones who ever know of this diabolical evil are those present for the opening ceremony.

Another way I’ve considered as a way to annoy the shit out of our future grave robbers is to find some random gibberish and etch it on a stone tablet. It’s better if you can find two different symbologies to represent the same information. That way, you can make something like the rosetta stone, but with contents sourced from those Nigerian bank account scam emails, translated into the best engrish.com has to offer, puzzling future archeologists for hundreds of years. Remember, the more ornately you decorate and secure the tablet, the more seriously our future friends will be interested and confounded.

Finally, for those archeologists in the not-so-distant future who like to go searching for things people hide (you may know them as geocaching enthusiasts), I recommend the following. Take a lock box, fill it with dog shit, lock it, bury it, stash the key someplace with directions to the box, and tweet the location of the key. You won’t be there to see the look of disgust on their faces, but you can sleep soundly knowing that someone went through all that trouble to dig up a box of dog shit.

Connectedness in the 21st Century

It’s hard to talk about centuries these days. Time scales are so much shorter than they used to be. I remember when a meal meant sitting an unreasonable three minutes while your mom fried up an egg. You were lucky if she had the good sense to multitask that shit with some bread in the toaster, lest you wait another two minutes for your sustenance. These days, it feels like I can’t sneeze without hearing someone’s phone light up with likes and retweets, socializing the quality and magnitude of the event in real-time. And sometimes, it’s like a nasty fart that no one wants to claim. You can hear the ripples of dissatisfaction propagate away from the event’s unfortunate epicenter. Let us pray that GPS never becomes that accurate.

As we navigate the schizophrenic seas of intersecting social graphs, we’re challenged at every tack with emergent behaviors even the early adopters have barely heard of. And we can’t hold our breath to see what the twitterati says. We must react in the here and now. If I need to wait 30sec to count how many retweets I get and use that as a control on what I say next, I have lost sight of the goal and lost myself. It would be impossible to pilot a vehicle with that sort of feedback response. A thought experiment:

“uh oh, i think that car in front of us is veering out of control”

+1

“wtf does that even mea… oh god, we’ve crashed and the car is on fire. so much blood!!1!!11!!!one”

If we’re to survive to the end of this decade, let alone to the 22nd century, we need to remind ourselves that the here-and-now is at least as important as the somewhere-else-and-now. And it might even be more important than what your phone might have you believe. So, try to focus on your humanity and let technology do what it does best – offer suggestions, not demands.