Wikimedia chair, lawyer at Creative Commons, tech policy geek, FLOSS advocate, bassoonist, violist, nerd.
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On Noticing That Your Project Is Draining Your Soul

I was talking with a fellow consultant about what to do if you have a gig getting you down. Especially when you realize that the client isn't being helpful, and there's a bunch of learning curves that are exhausting you, and you still have several weeks to go.

In my master's in tech management coursework, I learned the lens that thriving is a function of a person times their environment. I think those of us who are used to trying harder, overcoming obstacles, etc. can be -- kind of out of self-protective instinct -- bad at noticing "this environment is so crappy it makes it systematically hard for me to achieve and thrive". Especially with short-term projects. At first, things like "I feel tired" or "ugh, new thing, I don't want to learn this and be bad at it (at first)" and "I'm worried that person doesn't like me" or "they missed the email/meeting/call and now it's harder to execute the plan" are identical to problems that we are reasonably sure we can overcome. Maybe we notice patterns about what's not working but think: I can take initiative to solve this, myself, or with my few allies.

Several papercraft pieces I made out of gold-colored wrapping paper, some alike and some differentThe data points accumulate and we chat with other people and, in the process, learn more data points and shape our data points into narratives and thus discover: this is a bad environment, structurally. But by the time we really figure out the effect a short-term project is having on us, it's supposedly the home stretch.

I'm looking back at gigs that I found draining, where, eventually, I had this realization, although I have never quite framed it this way before now. On some level I realized that I could not succeed by my own standard in these projects/workplaces, because there was so much arrayed against me (e.g., turf war, a generally low level of skill in modern engineering practices, lack of mission coherence, low urgency among stakeholders) that I could not do the things that it is kind of a basic expression of my professional self/competence to do.*

So I had to change what it was I aimed to achieve. For example, I've had a gig where I was running my head into the wall constantly trying to bring better practices to a project. I finally talked with an old hand at the organization and learned the institutional reasons this was practically impossible, why I would not be able to overcome the tectonic forces at play and get the deeper conflicts to resolve any faster. So we changed what I was trying to do. Running a daily standup meeting, by itself, is a thing I can do to bring value. I changed my expectations, and made mental notes about the pain points and the patterns, because I could not fix them right away, but I can use those experiences to give better advice to other people later.

An editor recently told me that, in growing as an editor, he'd needed to cultivate his sense of boredom. He needed to listen to that voice inside him that said this is boring me -- and isn't that funny? Parents and teachers tell us not to complain about being bored -- "only boring people are bored", or -- attributed to Sydney Wood -- An educated man is one who can entertain a new idea, another person, or himself. But pain is a signal, boredom is a signal, aversion and exhaustion are signals. Thriving is a function of a person times their environment.

Also, the other day I read "Living Fiction, Storybook Lives" (which has spoilers for Nicola Griffith's excellent novel Slow River).

How come I spent many years living a rather squalid existence... yet managed to find my way out, to the quite staid and respectable life I have now, when others in the same situation never escaped? In the course of writing the book, I found that the answer to my question was that the question itself was not valid: people are never in the same situation.

It takes substantial introspection and comparison to figure out: what kind of situation am I in, both externally and internally? Is it one where I will be able to move the needle? It gets easier over time, I think, and easier if I take vacations so I can have a fresh perspective when I come back, share my stories with others and listen to their stories, and practice mindfulness meditation so I am better at noticing things (including my own reactions). Maybe "wisdom" is what feels like the ability to X-ray a messy blobby thing and see the structures inside, see the joints that can bend and the bones that can't. In some ways, my own motivation and mindfulness are like that for me -- I need to recognize the full truth of the situation I'm in, internally and externally, to see what needs changing, to see how I might act.

The thing that gets me down most, on exhausting projects, is the meta-fear that nothing will improve, that I am stuck. When I realize that, I try to attend to that feeling of stuckness. Sometimes the answer is in the problem.

* As Alexandra Erin discusses, regarding her political commentary via Twitter threads: "I do the work I do on here because I feel called to it. For the non-religious, I mean: I have a knack for it and I find meaning in it."

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Melbourne, Australia
22 hours ago
Mountain View, California
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Ideologues and Grifters, Douchebags and Snowflakes: A Theory of the Trump Administration


I’ve read a lot of confused takes trying trying to make sense of the Trump administration through a traditional left-right lens. I’m sure you have, too. They use words like “pivot” and “establishment” and they struggle to explain when and why Trump does things other Republicans complain about. I find this particular style of Kremlinology unhelpful. Whether “conservatives” or “moderates” are winning is less than half the story.

The biggest division in the Trump White House is between ideologues and grifters. Ideologues care about policy; the grifters don’t. Ideologues sometimes fight viciously among themselves over their policy commitments, but they’re united by having commitments at all. Grifters are driven only by the enrichment of the Trump family and the appeasement of Trump’s ego.

Within the ideologue camp, the starkest contrast is between ethno-nationalists (economically populist, isolationist, and sometimes overtly racist) and globalists (economically libertarian, cosmopolitan, and not necessarily racist). There are also disagreements about military policy, but the overall distance between hawks and doves is much narrower.1 There are no analogous divisions within the grifter camp; any side cons they have going are small and personal. The grifters, as I said, are unconcerned with policy for its own sake, but are happy to go along with whatever position is more expedient at the moment.

The other deep division is a matter of style rather than substance: there are douchebags and there are snowflakes, with drones somewhere in between. The key here is shame: the douchebags are psychologically incapable of feeling it, the snowflakes struggle with it constantly, and the drones keep it at bay by crossing their arms and scowling at the floor. Douchebags call up reporters for lengthy profanity-laden tirades; snowflakes call up reporters to say how embarrassed they are; drones call up reporters but ask not to be quoted by name. Douchebags don’t quit because they can’t take a hint; snowflakes constantly wring their hands about quitting but never go through with it; drones quit when asked but never on their own. Douchebags make Trump angry by stealing his headlines; snowflakes by public signs of disloyalty; drones by telling him ‘no’.

Within the Republican party over the last two decades, there has been a rough correlation between ethno-nationalist ideologues and douchebags on the one hand (“conservatives”) and globalist ideologues and drones on the other (“moderates”). But this alignment of substance and style has always only been rough and partial, and one of the things that Trump did during the campaign was to expose, in literally spectacular fashion, how hard it is to pin down a grifter on the conventional political spectrum.

Trump himself is a douchebag grifter, and at the extreme on both axes. But consider some of the other players, past and present, in his administration:

  • Steve Bannon: douchebag ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Sebastian Gorka: douchebag ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Reince Priebus: snowflake ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Jared Kushner: snowflake grifter
  • Gary Cohn: snowflake ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Anthony Scaramucci: douchebag grifter
  • John Kelly: drone ideologue, subtype hawk
  • Jeff Sessions: drone ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Mike Pence: drone ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Michael Flynn: drone grifter

With this multi-dimensional taxonomy in mind, some of administration’s personnel gyrations make more sense. Consider the linked fates of Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In January and February they were at each other’s throats, fighting over policy. But by July, as ideologues working for a grifter increasingly hostile to ideologues, they found common cause in fighting for policy at all. Priebus, of course, went out on his ear – but that was primarily for being a snowflake in a position where Trump wanted a douchebag. He got one par excellence in the person of Anthony Scaramucci. Then Scarmucci flew too close to the douchebag sun, so he was one of the first go when Kelly started firing douchebags of all stripes.

In conventional political terms, it looks as though the White House lurched away from Priebus’s pro-business Republican establishment towards Bannon’s insurgent right-wing populism, and then quickly back. Those shifts are to some extent real – a collateral consequence of Kelly’s housecleaning is that the globalist ideologues have (or perhaps had) an open shot on goal in getting Trump to push their tax agenda. But it would be a mistake to see the back-and-forth primarily in those terms, not when so often the motivations are personal rather than political, driven entirely by personalities and rhetoric.

At least when it comes to setting policy, the palace politics of the Trump court are less important than they seem. Trump may swagger and rage like a medieval monarch, but unlike them he lives in a modern media environment. His ministers can keep the courtiers out of the throne room, but they can’t keep the king from seeking the counsel of Vulpes et amici or from listening to the tweeting of a million birds in his ear. The flow of information – both the raw “facts” and the all-important framing – to the current president depends less on White House staff filters than at any time in living memory. James Murdoch’s personnel decisions matter in a way that John Kelly’s don’t: more turns on whether Hannity keeps his job than on whether Bannon does.

The place in which it matters more who survives each successive purge is not in who has Trump’s ear at the moment but in who is there to take orders from him. The Office of Legal Counsel is of the view that the President could scrawl a legally binding executive order on a napkin, but Trump’s tweets are deeply underspecified. Someone has to translate them into directives specific enough to implement on the ground and defend before a judge. When that someone is a Steve Bannon, you get the first Muslim ban: malevolence tempered by incompetence. When that someone is a James Mattis, you get the transgender ban: malevolence subjected to a slow rollout. When that someone is a Leonard Leo, you get Neil Gorsuch.

This is why the current apparent depopulation of the White House staff is significant: Trump’s capacity to execute is dependent on having the cadres to embrace his vision, such as it is, and carry it into effect. One reason the “Reagan revolution” deserves the name is that it swept into Washington a large and ideologically coherent cohort of conservative officials and bureaucratic professionals capable of leaving their stamp on every significant government program. To the extent that anything like this is happening under Trump, it’s a bumper crop of grifters and douchebags with an ethno-nationalist streak – and there are only enough of them to destroy existing programs, rather than to create enduring alternatives. This is the future of your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.

Except for this: shift your attention from the White House to the agencies and things look rather different (with the notable exception of the State Department under the singularly ineffective Tillerson). The left may mock and disparage, but the reaction from every conservative I’ve talked to has been consistent: Trump’s cabinet is a conservative dream team, and they’re moving quickly and confidently across a wide range of issues. Perhaps simply because Trump has neither a personal financial stake in nor any actual knowledge about most of what the agencies do, he’s been content to leave things up to a crop of appointees who are mostly ideologues and mostly drones.

The current status of the Trump administration, then, might be described as an administrative inversion. The White House, ordinarily the center of policy direction, is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and dignity wraiths die like dogs. The real action is in the agencies. Trump, in this view of things, functions primarily as an electoral rocket car: destructive and uncontrollable, but at least capable of getting things moving. Some Republicans are sticking with Trump because of his style rather than in spite of it – better a right-wing douchebag than a left-wing snowflake – but even those driven by ideology still have something to like. Trump himself may be less than worthless in pushing the policies they care about, and his White House may be a badly-written daytime drama, but as long as he can sign bills and judicial commissions, he’s better than any available alternative. 2

There are ways this alliance of convenience could fall apart, but they are less direct than, “Trump says something else utterly indefensible,” or “The White House staff keep on murdering each other with pickaxes.” These are daily occurrences now, and they are not really news when they happen. Anyone who is ever going to have an experience of total moral clarity about Donald Trump has already had theirs by now. One possibility is that high-profile failures of the conservative agenda in Congress undercut the hope that legislative (as opposed to merely administrative) success is possible under Trump. Another is that Trump’s own appetite for drama and domination – something that is both innate in his personality and strongly encouraged by his preferred media diet – causes him to act out in ways that sabotage the political prospects of his supposed allies and the policies they care about. This is what it takes to get Congressional Republicans upset. Better to have the douchebag grifter inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, they reasoned during the election, but now here he is in office, inside the tent and still pissing inside it. It’s enough to make a drone ideologue go full snowflake.

  1. The reason is that Trump’s path to power as a Republican outsider effectively fenced out both Give Peace a Chance leftists and Carthago Delenda Est neoconservatives of the second Bush administration – that is, anyone committed to significant and sustained departures from the status quo. Trump himself defines both ends of his administration’s military Overton window: tough-talking swagger and fear of getting blamed if something big goes wrong. 

  2. Mike Pence is technically unavailable, even though he’s next in the line of succession. The only plausible way to remove Trump without party-destroying revenge would be a massive stroke – or something else disabling his ability to yell and tweet. 

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6 days ago
9 days ago
Mountain View, California
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annejamison: moonblossom: samtarly: my brain read “tous les mêmes” as “all the memes” instead of...

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my brain read “tous les mêmes” as “all the memes” instead of “all the same” and no one is surprised

I have a container of Tresseme hair gel that says “TRES GEL”, and my brain always parses it as some French variation of the Doge meme.


plus ça change, plus c’est la même doge

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22 days ago
Mountain View, California
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Mystic Jew Powers

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I don’t think I’ve ever written this down before. This is the story of the first time I played a shofar (as I remember it, not as it happened).

So it’s the mid 90s and I’m in primary school (‘elementary’, my dear yanks). We were doing Religious Education and learning about Judaism, I think for the first time. The teacher didn’t really know anything about Judaism that wasn’t written in the book, so he kept asking me, since I was the Only Jewish Kid In The Class (only jewish kid in the school in fact, except my sister). I wasn’t very religious, but I was doing my best to make up reasonable sounding answers. Anyway, the school had somehow got hold of a shofar. (If anyone’s religious education wasn’t up to the stellar standards of mine, the shofar is the ram’s horn that’s blown like a trumpet as part of the ceremony of certain jewish holy days). The shofar was passed around the class, and of course, hygene be damned, everyone tried to play it. But it’s not an easy instrument to play, there’s more to it than just blowing. So everyone is puffing and wheezing and red in the face, and the best anyone can get out of this thing is a pitiful squeak. But we’ve all just seen the guy on the VHS tape with the hat and odd hairstyle blowing it, and we heard the tooting noise come out of the tinny little speakers of the TV on the wheely cart, so we know this isn’t right. Is our shofar broken or something? Is it blocked up?

Finally the shofar gets around to me, and I am psyched all the way up. I haven’t played a shofar before, but I’m determined to get some kind of noise out of this damn thing, because my heritage is looking silly right now. The burden of upholding the dignity of Judaism itself falls upon my narrow shoulders. So, I take the biggest breath I possibly can, and put the shofar to my lips. Everyone’s looking at me, because I’m The Only Jewish Kid In The Class. And the thing that nobody in the room (including me) is thinking about, is the fact that I’m also The Only Trumpet-Player Kid In The Class. I only know one way to blow into an instrument. It happens to be the right way. And I do it, just as hard as I possibly can.

If you haven’t heard a shofar played properly in person, it’s not easy to describe. Recordings don’t capture it at all. Maybe it’s just because you usually hear it in a context of fasting and extreme reverence, but nonetheless a shofar blast (and that’s what they call it, a “blast”) is an amazing sound. The shofar sounds like raw naked power, it sounds like righteous fury. It sounds like more noise than a single human could ever make, yet it has a property like a human voice, like a bellow, a howl, like a newly bereaved mother splitting her lungs with blood and thunder. It’s a BIG sound, in the sense that it’s very loud, but also in the sense that it seems to fill whatever space it’s in, to come from all directions at once. It makes sense that the ancients gave it religious significance. When you hear the shofar’s call, the story of the Walls of Jerico tumbling down doesn’t seem that crazy.

So, it’s not possible to play a shofar quietly, and I’m giving the thing everything I’ve got in a little red brick classroom in southeast london. I can feel the room resonate and shake, hear the single-glazed windows rattle in their frames. I’m having a great time - this is the loudest noise I’ve ever made in my short life! And it’s in school! And I’m allowed to do it! So I keep going as hard as I can until my little lungs give out. I remember surfacing, out of breath and grinning, and listening as the antique cast-iron pipes throughout the building slowly stopped reverberating over the slack-jawed silence of the room.

The kids of course have seen enough TV to know exactly what happened. The Shofar knew I was Jewish. Obviously it’s not going to unleash that kind of unearthly sonic firepower for just anyone. Shofars only work for Jews. And the teacher is like “…That doesn’t sound right… but I don’t know enough about Judaism to dispute it?”. I didn’t offer any other explanations, because why would you demystify your Mystic Jew Powers?

And I’m writing this because I just realised that there were perhaps 30 kids in that class, and there just aren’t very many jews in southeast london to set them right, so it’s quite possible that there’s at least one 25 year old adult out there who still believes that the Shofar is a Holy Sacred Artefact which will Sound its Mighty Voice for none other than God’s Own Chosen People. And that cracks me up.

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24 days ago
Mountain View, California
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How “Demo-or-Die” Helped My Career

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I left the Media Lab 15 years ago this week. At the time, I never would’ve predicted that I learned one of the most useful skills in my career there: demo-or-die.

(Me debugging an exhibit in 2002)

The culture of “demo-or-die” has been heavily critiqued over the years. In doing so, most folks focus on the words themselves. Sure, the “or-die” piece is definitely an exaggeration, but the important message there is the notion of pressure. But that’s not what most people focus on. They focus on the notion of a “demo.”

To the best that anyone can recall, the root of the term stems back from early days at the Media Lab, most likely because of Nicholas Negroponte’s dismissal of “publish-or-perish” in academia. So the idea was to focus not on writing words but producing artifacts. In mocking what it was that the Media Lab produced, many critics focused on the way in which the Lab had a tendency to create vaporware, performed to visitors through the demo. In 1987, Stewart Brand called this “handwaving.” The historian Molly Steenson has a more nuanced view so I can’t wait to read her upcoming book. But the mockery of the notion of a demo hasn’t died. Given this, it’s not surprising that the current Director (Joi Ito) has pushed people to stop talking about demoing and start thinking about deploying. Hence, “deploy-or-die.”

I would argue that what makes “demo-or-die” so powerful has absolutely nothing to do with the production of a demo. It has to do with the act of doing a demo. And that distinction is important because that’s where the skill development that I relish lies.

When I was at the Lab, we regularly received an onslaught of visitors. I was a part of the “Sociable Media Group,” run by Judith Donath. From our first day in the group, we were trained to be able to tell the story of the Media Lab, the mission of our group, and the goal of everyone’s research projects. Furthermore, we had to actually demo their quasi functioning code and pray that it wouldn’t fall apart in front of an important visitor. We were each assigned a day where we were “on call” to do demos to any surprise visitor. You could expect to have at least one visitor every day, not to mention hundreds of visitors on days that were officially sanctioned as “Sponsor Days.”

The motivations and interests of visitors ranged wildly. You’d have tour groups of VIP prospective students, dignitaries from foreign governments, Hollywood types, school teachers, engineers, and a whole host of different corporate actors. If you were lucky, you knew who was visiting ahead of time. But that was rare. Often, someone would walk in the door with someone else from the Lab and introduce you to someone for whom you’d have to drum up a demo in very short order with limited information. You’d have to quickly discern what this visitor was interested in, figure out which of the team’s research projects would be most likely to appeal, determine how to tell the story of that research in a way that connected to the visitor, and be prepared to field any questions that might emerge. And oy vay could the questions run the gamut.

I *hated* the culture of demo-or-die. I felt like a zoo animal on display for others’ benefit. I hated the emotional work that was needed to manage stupid questions, not to mention the requirement to smile and play nice even when being treated like shit by a visitor. I hated the disruptions and the stressful feeling when a demo collapsed. Drawing on my experience working in fast food, I developed a set of tricks for staying calm. Count how many times a visitor said a certain word. Nod politely while thinking about unicorns. Experiment with the wording of a particular demo to see if I could provoke a reaction. Etc.

When I left the Media Lab, I was ecstatic to never have to do another demo in my life. Except, that’s the funny thing about learning something important… you realize that you are forever changed by the experience.

I no longer produce demos, but as I developed in my career, I realized that “demo-or-die” wasn’t really about the demo itself. At the end of the day, the goal wasn’t to pitch the demo — it was to help the visitor change their perspective of the world through the lens of the demo. In trying to shift their thinking, we had to invite them to see the world differently. The demo was a prop. Everything about what I do as a researcher is rooted in the goal of using empirical work to help challenge people’s assumptions and generate new frames that people can work with. I have to understand where they’re coming from, appreciate their perspective, and then strategically engage them to shift their point of view. Like my days at the Media Lab, I don’t always succeed and it is indeed frustrating, especially because I don’t have a prop that I can rely on when everything goes wrong. But spending two years developing that muscle has been so essential for my work as an ethnographer, researcher, and public speaker.

I get why Joi reframed it as “deploy-or-die.” When it comes to actually building systems, impact is everything. But I really hope that the fundamental practice of “demo-or-die” isn’t gone. Those of us who build systems or generate knowledge day in and day out often have too little experience explaining ourselves to the wide array of folks who showed up to visit the Media Lab. It’s easy to explain what you do to people who share your ideas, values, and goals. It’s a lot harder to explain your contributions to those who live in other worlds. Impact isn’t just about deploying a system; it’s about understanding how that system or idea will be used. And that requires being able to explain your thinking to anyone at any moment. And that’s the skill that I learned from the “demo-or-die” culture.

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43 days ago
Mountain View, California
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truffledmadness: montanabohemian: etave: thebaconsandwichofregr...

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Send me to Mars with party supplies before next august 5th

No guys you don’t understand.

The soil testing equipment on Curiosity makes a buzzing noise and the pitch of the noise changes depending on what part of an experiment Curiosity is performing, this is the way Curiosity sings to itself.

So some of the finest minds currently alive decided to take incredibly expensive important scientific equipment and mess with it until they worked out how to move in just the right way to sing Happy Birthday, then someone made a cake on Curiosity’s birthday and took it into Mission control so that a room full of brilliant scientists and engineers could throw a birthday party for a non-autonomous robot 225 million kilometres away and listen to it sing the first ever song sung on Mars*, which was Happy Birthday.

This isn’t a sad story, this a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things. We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the star to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That’s not sad, that’s awesome.

*this is different from the first song ever played on mars (Reach For The Stars by Will.I.Am) which happened the year before, singing is different from playing

People are lovely.

This a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things. We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the star to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.



Happy August 5, everyone.

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44 days ago
Mountain View, California
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