Link roundup for February 9, 2023

Lego reveals massively detailed Lord of the Rings Rivendell set. Take my money! []

The Window Trick of Las Vegas Hotels. “In order to make the buildings look smaller, less intimidating and messy, architects have come up with a ‘four or six windows in one’ solution. This means they grouped several windows (usually four or six) together and made them look like one window. This creates the visual effect of ‘shrinking’ the building, of making it more orderly and symmetrical.” []

You have to read this whole article for the full context, but this classification of the different ways we can choose to act online really got me thinking: “I see roughly three typical public stances: boring, lively, or outraged. Either you act boring, so the bandits will ignore you, you act lively, and invite bandit attacks, or you act outraged, and play a bandit yourself. Most big orgs and experts choose boring, and most everyone else who doesn’t pick boring picks bandit, especially on social media. It takes unusual art, allies, and energy, in a word “eliteness”, to survive while choosing lively. And that, my children, is why the world looks so boring.” []

The Junkification of Amazon. Why Does It Feel Like Amazon Is Making Itself Worse? “If you understand Amazon as an aspiring megascale infrastructure company — a provider of systems, services, capacity, and labor — its junkification makes sense. Amazon hasn’t been acting like a store for a while. In its ideal future, selling things to people is everyone else’s problem.” []

People Can’t Stop ‘Spotify Snooping’ on Friends, Exes and Crushes (WSJ paywall, link here). “When Ms. Ticoalu looked up what her ex-boyfriend was listening to in November, she saw ‘Glimpse of Us’ by Joji, a song about starting to date again after a relationship ended. Because he played the song so soon after their breakup, it led her to believe the two events were related. ‘It does lead me to overthink a lot,’ Ms. Ticoalu says.” []

New Form of Ice Discovered. “The newly discovered ice is amorphous — that is, its molecules are in a disorganized form, not neatly ordered as they are in ordinary, crystalline ice. Amorphous ice, although rare on Earth, is the main type of ice found in space. That is because, in the colder environment of space, ice does not have enough thermal energy to form crystals.” []

This is such a fun and interesting story by Louie Mantia about his time working as an icon/UI designer at Apple in the early 2010s. []

Don’t build a personal brand, build a reputation

I love this post on the personal brand paradox by Debbie Millman:

But rather than manufacturing a personal brand, why not build a reputation? Why not develop our character? Imagine what we could learn from each other if we felt worthy as we are instead of who we project ourselves to be. Imagine if we could design a way to share who we are without shame or hubris.

Tracy Durnell builds on this:

I’m more interested in following people as people — while I might have been drawn to certain blogs in the past because of the topic, the reason I keep reading many of them is having gotten to know the writer.

Those two posts articulate why I’ve decided to relax a little bit on the blog this year. For too long I didn’t really post here any more because it was so hard to get over my own self-imposed “this is worthy of a post” line. But these days I’m so much less interested in “building a brand” than I am in just… having fun and, well, being a person. So I am sharing things I find interesting, I am publishing unfinished thoughts alongside the deeply-researched posts. And I am slowly getting comfortable with posting more personal things as well (like yesterday’s LotR post).

I know this is the year of saying “this is the year of the personal blog” so I’m sure you’re pretty tired of hearing it from yet another person. But seriously, consider it. Consider thinking out loud and sharing those thoughts on a place that you own. Plant that digital garden—it might just give you life.

There and back again: a tale of two book editions

My first online purchase ever happened on September 5, 1999. I was in college at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, I really wanted to read Lord of the Rings, and after doing the math I realized that buying the book from this online bookseller in America called would be cheaper than buying it from a local bookstore—even when I took international shipping costs into account.

The book arrived a few weeks later, just in time for the summer holidays to start. I did very little that December that wasn’t reading Lord of the Rings. In fact, I distinctly remember missing the turn of the millennium because at 12:00am on January 1, 2000 I was deeply engrossed in the Entmoot proceedings to figure out whether or not the Ents should go to war against Saruman.

The book ended up traveling with me all over the world. To Australia where I lived for a few years, back to South Africa, all the way to the US, then back to South Africa again, and now here, in Portland, OR. It has served me well:

Robin Sloan has a new edition of his newsletter out. It’s called Crossing the Sunshine Skyway and it is wonderful, as always. Towards the end he links to Adam Roberts’s reflections on re-reading Lord of the Rings. It is long and it looks great so I saved it to read over the weekend. But then Robin says this:

I’ve just completed a reread of LOTR myself: a beautiful one-volume edition with Tolkien’s own (slightly wonky) illustrations included, plus some lovely rubrication.

He posted a photo of the edition he purchased and I was immediately smitten. It looked beautiful, and the idea of seeing some of Tolkien’s own illustrations as part of the story? Heck yeah! I decided that it was time. 24 years after purchasing my first copy of Lord of the Rings—and after many years of resisting lots of wonderful editions because I didn’t want to “cheat” on my original—I purchased The Lord of the Rings Illustrated By The Author. Robin only posted one photo in his newsletter, which made for a bit of a surprise when I received the book. It is so much more beautiful than I had imagined.

I am excited to embark on my own re-read of Lord of the Rings this year, something I’ve been planning to do anyway. And I don’t feel so bad about cheating on my 24-year old copy any more. I mostly feel grateful for the internet and blogs and newsletters and how they can help us find our people and make meaningful connections that sometimes end with a beautiful piece of art in our hands that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Maybe, at least sometimes, we can have nice things.

Don’t delete your old backlog

There’s a sentiment I started to see in the agile development world that advocates for deleting old/stale items off a backlog completely. A good recent example is Jason Knight’s latest newsletter:

The backlog becomes a dumping ground for every single customer support query. Every account manager and every salesperson has something in there from conversations with customers and prospects. […]

It’s tempting to see “length of time in backlog” as some kind of vector for prioritisation, but it really isn’t. It’s quite the inverse, in fact. So let’s all try to get comfortable, embrace the idea of getting rid of old stuff in our backlogs, and give people a “no” rather than a “one day”.

I’m not trying to pick on Jason—his work is great and it’s another very good edition of his newsletter! I am just using it as an example that got me thinking about this a bit more deeply.

My take is that we should absolutely keep all customer feedback around in our backlogs, because that is continuous discovery data that would be a shame to lose. Instead, my proposal would be to normalize the backlog as a place to build organizational memory and a customer feedback knowledge base—not as a list of things that all have to get done.

Two tactics can help with this approach. First, a Now/Next/Later roadmap keeps the focus on the list of current priorities. The entire backlog doesn’t go into the “Later” column—only things that are currently prioritized to start within the next few months.

Second, have a standard process that the entire company (especially the customer success team) can use to collect user feedback and attach it to features. In our case that’s Productboard, and our success team can easily add and process customer feedback via a browser extension.

I guess our list of features in Productboard is technically our “backlog”, but it doesn’t cause us stress in terms of feeling like we need to work on everything that’s on there. However, as part of our planning cycle we can go through this list and figure out if anything is important enough to pull into the “Later” column of our roadmap. An added bonus: if/when we start to work on any of those features we have access to lots of customer data about each feature, and we can reach out to those customers to have more in-depth conversations with them about their needs.

So instead of deleting old issues off our backlogs, let’s rather remove the pressure and stigma around what backlogs are for (maybe we should rename it to “customer needs knowledge base”?). And then let’s use our actual roadmaps for the list of things we know we’re going to work on.

How New Managers Fail Individual Contributors

In the post How New Managers Fail Individual Contributors Camille Fournier makes a great point about the split between “managerial” and “technical” career tracks:

Most people become managers right at the point where career tracks split between “technical” and “management” specializations. The result is that many new managers have most recently been very technical, yet they have no idea what it means to climb the technical track, but they will be managing people who want to follow that path. To be a great manager, you can’t afford to let the ICs on your team feel that they have no career path, so it’s up to you to manage this well.

She goes on to to list five pitfalls that new managers should work to avoid in order to set their direct reports up for success.

Link roundup for February 4, 2023

The Calculator Drawer is “a collection of emulated calculators, providing reference to how they worked and what the often unique interfaces would consist of.” (via Clive)

The Last Boeing 747 Leaves the Factory (NYT Gift Link). “The plane known as ‘Queen of the Skies’ helped make air travel more affordable, but it has been supplanted by smaller, more efficient aircraft.”

Here’s everything you ever wanted to read about the “This Is Fine” meme. The Meme That Defined a Decade (The Atlantic, possible soft paywall): “Memes are typically associated with creative adaptability, the image and text editable into nearly endless iterations. ‘This Is Fine,’ though, is a work of near-endless interpretability: It says so much, so economically. That elasticity has contributed to its persistence. The flame-licked dog, that avatar of learned helplessness, speaks not only to individual people—but also, it turns out, to the country.”

See also ‘This Is Fine’ creator explains the timelessness of his meme (The Verge), ‘This is fine’ creator reflects on 10 years of the comic meme (NPR), and the artist’s own reflection on the anniversary.

I adore the Barely Maps project—a collection of minimalist maps of places the author has visited. Here’s my local one:

I like this idea of “critical ignoring” as a way to be more intentional about our online time: “Critical ignoring is the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities.” See also The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything.

Human systems and the stuff they make

There’s so much goodness in Mandy Brown’s latest management post Made It, but it’s this paragraph that gets to the heart of it:

This is one of the ways that the adage about “maker time” versus “manager time” does harm. Setting aside the fact that it’s not even coherent—managers make decisions and plans and systems and visions all day long!—it also serves this notion that the stuff is what matters and the humans are just an unruly mess that gets in the way of the stuff. This is a self-defeating story, inasmuch as you don’t get good stuff without a system that takes care of the humans.

I have been thinking about human systems a great deal over the past few weeks. It started when I read Donella Meadows’s Dancing With Systems. When I applied that lens to my own work it was impossible not to see it in absolutely everything we do. Take this quote, for instance:

Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. As Kenneth Boulding once said, Don’t go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability–whether they are easily measured or not.

There are so many implications of this principle for the way we make software today. Here are a couple I’ve been thinking about in particular.


When we have quality issues in our product it’s tempting to try to solve those issues with process and overhead. Common ways to do that include instituting additional approval gates before code can be deployed to production environments, or adding “QA periods” where the entire organization is asked to test a feature before it goes live.

These solutions optimize for parts of the system—such as deployments or manual testing—while ignoring the system that is responsible for introducing quality issues into the product in the first place. To quote Deming:

Inspection does not improve the quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product. As Harold F. Dodge said, “You can not inspect quality into a product.”

We have to look at the system as a whole. What kind of automated test coverage do we have? What bottlenecks exist in our CI/CD pipelines? What level of responsibility do we ask of engineers to be stewards of their own code? Do teams have enough time to make sure that quality is built in from the start and not an afterthought? These are the total systems properties questions that have to be addressed in order to fix quality issues.

Team stability

One of the bigger leadership mistakes we make is to think that the humans that make up a social system are interchangeable and can be moved around at will without impacting the system as a whole. You see this especially in engineering teams where “resources” are constantly moved from one project to another—usually to speed something up that is perceived to be behind schedule. But we forget that it is the human system that produces the stuff, not the individuals.

Similar to the discussion about quality, if we perceive a project to be off track we need to understand how the project came to be off track, and then find ways to improve the system to correct that. Did we place unrealistic deadlines on the team without getting their input? Are we asking teams to build features that have not been validated with customers? Do teams have adequate autonomy and ownership over the way they prioritize their work? Do teams have the business context they need to make the best possible decisions?

If we instead go for the shortcut of moving people around, we will never get to the heart of the matter. Inserting additional humans into a system can inadvertently break it—and worse, moving folks from one project to another leaves a gap that is very likely to destabilize the project that they were working on before. Suddenly Customer Success doesn’t have an Engineer to talk to about documentation, or the Marketing Team doesn’t have anyone to fix an issue with a piece of demo software.

Once again, Donella Meadows says this well:

Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened.

Stable teams that work together for an extended period of time all have a steady beat, and we shouldn’t make changes to the system until we know exactly how that beat works. Here’s Donella again: “Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.”

And that’s how all this connects to Mandy’s piece that I linked to at the beginning. If we want the stuff to be good, we have to pay attention to the beat of the system of humans that make up an organization. We have to understand how they work, and we have to ask them how they want to work. We have to listen to the people who are beating the drums.

It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but if we optimize for the humans who make up a system, the good stuff will follow.

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Link roundup for February 1, 2023

Inside the Globus INK: a mechanical navigation computer for Soviet spaceflight. Dang this thing is beautiful. And what an amazing piece of engineering.

Youth Spies and Curious Elders. Life goals: “Waters is what I call a Curious Elder — someone who manages to retain their curiosity as they age and stays interested in what young people are up to. The curious elder isn’t interested in judging youth, they’re interested in learning from them.”

The Thoughts of a Spiderweb. This is a fascinating article about animal cognition but I am especially blown away by the idea of spiderwebs being “an extension of the spider’s cognitive system” because I’m reading the sci-fi novel Children of Time right now and that is how the spiders communicate in the story.

Audi’s new EV is a luxury SUV with augmented reality that doubles as a pickup. I can’t decide if I love this or hate it.

Prisoners Usually Can’t Have Cell Phones. See How People Use Them Anyway. “Some men use their phones to take online classes, posing as regular students in the free-world, a ruse that only works in the age of Zoom classrooms and online meetings.”

It’s the Coolest Rock Show in Ann Arbor. And Almost Everyone There Is Over 65. “The show always starts at 6:30 p.m. and ends at 9 p.m., in time to get to bed at a reasonable hour.” Sign me up! (NYT Gift Link)

How ‘The Last of Us’ changed gaming, strained relationships and spawned an empire. Probably my favorite read of the week. “‘The Last of Us’ always felt like a mission statement, a game that wanted to prove that big-budget action shooters could not only have a sense of gravitas but could advance the medium in narrative, gameplay and representation.”


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