RPM 2017

I’m in it. I’ve committed to doing RPM again this year. It’s been a couple years since I’ve done RPM which basically means it’s been a couple years since I’ve done any music at all and I can’t handle it, anymore. I need to do something.

I hadn’t decided what I was going to do for this year’s RPM, but it’s the 10th year I’ve been a member (though not my 10th RPM — I’ve skipped a couple years), so I wanted to do something special. Also, having a theme has always made my RPM albums better (I think) (see: The Signal and Wasp). I think I’ve decided.

February comes after January, as you know, and January 20th we will be inaugurating into the White House possibly the most terrifying man who has ever held the position of President. This is inescapable. This is fact. It is not some nightmare we are collectively living in. To say that the world will be a less safe place with him running America is an understatement — he’s not even in office and it’s already unsafe for many American citizens.

It seems fitting, then, that as a punk rocker, as a musician, and as we are making albums in the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency, that my RPM 2017 album be about this political cycle, somehow. So here’s my idea:

  1. Every day I sit down to work on a new song, I start by doing a Google search for Trump.
  2. The title of the song comes from the headline of the article (but removes the word Trump. Doing a search today gives me “CNN/ORC Poll: Confidence drops in Trump transition”, so that song title might be “Confidence Drops”).
  3. The song mood/theme is built around the topic/title.
  4. The article body becomes the basis for found poetry. Fragments of sentences/paragraphs become lines and verses for spoken word. (I’m not going to attempt to be so ambitious as to commit to singing, though it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.)

I have a feeling this will be a very dark album. Just the hypothetical first song title gives me shivers.

With low expectations, you create your own dismal reality

I’m reading an article in December’s WIRED (look at that, 2017 Goals 👀 ) about the three days in a row last summer where there were 3 fatal shootings in a span of 72 hours, each of them livestreamed via social media. During the protests following the first two, police approached the protesters in riot gear. There is a quote from a police officer that I wanted to respond to:

If something happens in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, millions of people are finding out about it instantaneously with the video going out. You get a reaction much quicker. With that mob-type mentality — we want to do something — sometimes it’s to do some harm to those in law enforcement. We become a target again and again and again.

Here’s the thing, Frederick Frazier, Vice president of the Dallas Police Association, what you expect to happen shapes the outcome of what actually happens. If you send out an officer in a SWAT uniform to confront a crowdfull of angry protestors, you better believe they are going to react strongly to that. They are going to feel like they are being attacked. If you send out an officer in plain clothes or a regular uniform, who never touches his weapon, you can have a conversation. You may be sending in your officer in riot gear because you expect him/her to be attacked, but that expectation is going to create that reality. The officer will be looking for an attack because they are expecting it to happen. That’s what leads to a black man being shot for reaching into his glove box to get his wallet.

It’s like this: there are a lot of LEGOs that my kids have left out on the floor for several days. Any parent anywhere will agree with me that LEGOs on the floor is a bad thing because you end up stepping on them or breaking things or whatever. If I, as a parent, walk into the room where the kids are, sigh heavily, and say “can you guys pick up the LEGOs, please?” without helping them do it, expecting that they won’t actually clean them up in the time I want it done or to the degree that I would like, it’s absolutely going to go exactly the way I expect. I will walk into the room 2 hours later and nothing observable has been done. I am creating that reality by a) expecting that they aren’t going to do the thing I asked them to do and b) not providing the tools or support to help make the reality that I would like to actually happen.

It’s hard to do. I struggle with it. Somewhere along the way, I decided that it was better to set my expectations of people very low and be surprised when they are exceeded rather than having high expectations of people (and occasionally being disappointed). Having low expectations is a generally miserable place, let me tell you, because I guarantee you will always see the worst possible outcome. And maybe you tell yourself “well, at least I was prepared”, but where does that get you, really?

When the results started coming in for the 2016 election, it was easy to see where the trajectory was going fairly early on. There was an SNL skit that ran afterwards that showed a bunch of white people (and the token black guy) constantly going back and saying “well, if Hillary just wins here, we’ll be fine” and continuing to pat themselves on the back for being so empathetic and supportive towards various marginalized groups. As the skit progresses, they get more and more panicked as the scenarios for Hillary winning become more and more far fetched. And the punchline at the end is “are we really that racist?”

I didn’t feel that way on election night. Sure, I wanted Hillary to win, but once the results started swinging in Trump’s favor, they never really swung back. You could look at the 538 or a million and one different reports about how Trump has no chance but historically, people did that the whole campaign and he did have a chance and he continued to defy expectations. He was a blind spot for half of the country who believed he couldn’t stand a chance. But it doesn’t take a data analyst to see the pattern, which was, every time we expected he couldn’t do a thing, he did it. A dark part of me started considering what would happen under a Trump presidency, even while I hoped that Hillary could turn it around.

And here’s the real “hindsight is 20/20” thing: many of us who supported Hillary heard what the Bernie supporters were saying about “this may be the only time we can elect someone like this, with ideas for radical change like this”. We heard you. But the thing is, we didn’t expect that to work. Government is slow, he would be fought on every decision by the GOP every step of the way. Every time he tried to make something happen he would get shot down. It would be as hard or harder as it was for Obama. Yes, Obama was a black man but a lot of what Bernie wanted to do was more drastic than anything Obama actually set in motion. And then there’s the fact that the President doesn’t really do a whole lot on their own. They don’t write laws themselves, for example. They can’t just pass amendments to change things. They make appointments, they set things in motion and they approve or deny bills. Would Bernie have had a better shot at getting things done than Hillary because he’s male? Probably, but we’ll never know. The point is, this whole thing maybe could have had a different outcome if some of us had a different set of expectations. Maybe. The point is that if we expect the worst, we won’t be disappointed. The point is, expecting to be attacked will make you more likely to be attacked or see a possible attack where there is actually none.

The point is we should expect better of ourselves and of humanity.

And to nod back to my last post about resolutions and goals for the new year (and to not end this post on such a down note), maybe the reason we so epically fail at our new years resolutions is because we never actually expect to accomplish them? Maybe if you are doing NaNoWriMo and you are focussed on the impossible task of writing 50,000 words in 30 days you won’t do it. But if you expect to be able to accomplish that goal, maybe you have a better shot at it. That’s the theory I’m going to have going into RPM next month. I have no idea how I will manage work and making music enough to compose an album in a month but I know I’ve done it before and I know I can do it again and I will expect it to be an achievable goal and so it will be.

 

2017 Goals

I’m not one for making resolutions as typically they end up being things that get forgotten by February. That said, 2016 was rough all around for most people. Personally, I had a pretty good year (new job, new house) but there were a lot of things I’d like to improve upon. Resolutions are not powerful in themselves — it’s saying the thing and/or writing it down that commits those things to memory and makes them real. As such, I’m not calling them “resolutions” but “goals” for 2017. Here are some things I’d like to look back on in 2018 and think that I did a better job of.

  1. Read more. Reading books for me pretty much only happens on airplanes which I take infrequently. I managed to finish Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency but only because about 80% of that was read during jury duty. I want to make it a point to read more things that are not on my phone. I have a subscription to WIRED magazine but I think I literally went 12 months without opening a single one and I used to, at least, read that while eating breakfast and doing my morning routine. I’d like to get back into that routine and stop reading crap news on my phone.
  2. Write more. I have an amazing opportunity to write for the SBNation blog, RSL Soapbox which I’ve mostly let fall by the wayside in 2016. Sure there were reasons — I was a developer lead, I had very little free time and what free time I had I didn’t want to spend on my computer. I also wrote very little on my blog. I kept having things I wanted to write about but lacked the “time” to do such things. Time is relative, you can always make more time. Now that I am not in a position where I feel like I need to clock a specific number of hours a week and/or I need to be more available for half a dozen phone calls a day plus management duties, I want to make the most of my time and write more. I’ve already written one article for RSL Soapbox since landing my new gig and I want to write more both there and here.
  3. Do something with chrisreynolds.io. For a long time I thought my domain chrisreynolds.io could be a sort of portal into various projects that I am active in, but that meant building a site and that’s where the plan fell apart. I want to do something with that domain besides just using it for email even if that means just mirroring jazzsequence.com there.
  4. Make music. Music in 2016 suffered from the same fate as writing for the same reasons. I didn’t participate in the RPM Challenge in any capacity which tends to be when I double down and focus on making music for a month. It sounds daunting right now to even think about trying to participate in RPM next month but that’s probably the perfect reason to do it.
  5. Take time off. My mindset around taking time off has been focussed around making the best use of the small amount of days I have and don’t get sick and waste them. This often meant scheduling trips around holiday weekends when I’d get an extra day for the holiday, plus two days for the weekend, so I’m only using one or two vacation days. Trips scheduled like this are typically jam-packed, with last minute visits to cool places on the day that we are leaving so we get back home late and I work the next morning. Having a vacation that rushed is extremely stressful almost (but not quite) to the point of offsetting the recharging nature of taking a vacation. And I did it again for my Solstice/winter break even though I’m no longer in a position where I need to watch every PTO day. I took a longer break, but there was no break between when my parents came out to visit and when we left to go to the Pacific Northwest to visit family and no break between getting back and going back to work and I worked one of the days my parents were in town even though I didn’t necessarily have to. Not taking sick days because I tend not to get sick is one thing, but not taking mental health days because I need a break is silly when I have the days to take. I want to be more mindful of myself and part of that means taking time off and actually enjoying the time away from work and the computer.
  6. Learn javascript, deeply. 2 years ago now, Matt Mullenweg set out a goal for WordPress developers to “learn javascript, deeply.” While I am increasingly taking a more objective view of Matt’s opinions rather than what I did when I was a Matt fanboy, it’s obvious that JS is increasingly becoming the future of the internet. WordPress powers over 25% of the internet. The idea is that in order for WP to keep up with the rest of the internet, the future will be much more js-based. I have felt for a couple years that I am at a place where if WP died, I could make my way as a straight PHP developer. This is a fairly big leap from the days when the only programming language I felt fully fluent in (in that I could write something from scratch without a framework or existing platform) was HTML/CSS. Which means I could hop technologies pretty easily to, say, Joomla! (yuck) or Drupal if WordPress disappeared. More recently, I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’m capable at javascript — I can use existing libraries and write some simple things, mostly in jQuery. But I am not at the point where I feel like I could write something from absolute scratch. One of the first things I did when I joined HM was purchasing some javascript courses from Wes Bos and my goal for 2017 is to begin to become fluent (not just able to use/adapt) in javascript. Becoming fluent in a language means using it all the time, so the language is reinforced in your brain and at your fingertips. Yes, a lot of that involves Googling which is partially why at any given moment I have 30 different tabs open but having to Google doesn’t mean you aren’t fluent — mostly my Googling is to find out proper syntax or figure out the parameters and what order they come in for various functions. You have to know or be familiar with the functions to get to that point. I can do that with PHP and WP, but I’m not there yet — I don’t have the functions in my head and at my fingertips — with javascript.
  7. Listen to music. Thinking back on 2017, I feel like I was in a musical hole. I listened to my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist but on the whole, I had no idea of new releases or new artists coming out. What I listened to was, largely, the same stuff I normally listen to. Oh sure there was the new IAMX and Nick Cave and David Bowie but I completely forgot (or missed) that Radiohead quietly put out a new album and even those four specifically are artists that are already in my playlist, not new things I’ve never encountered before. I want to listen to more and find more new music so that I don’t look back on 2017 and wonder if any music at all came out.
  8. Make cider. My first batch of homebrewed cider was pretty much a success. As a first batch, it wasn’t too bad. More on the sweet side than what I would have liked. The instructions in the cider-making kit I got for my birthday said that you needed to use a sweetener with a more complex molecule structure than natural sugars (honey, cane sugar, brown sugar, etc) because the yeast will just eat it up and you’ll lose the sweetness. However, the result was that it tasted artificially sweetened (a little like Splenda or Sweet n’ Low). The instructions also said that the sweetener would bring out the flavor of the apple more. I’m sure that’s somewhat true. However, one of the best ciders I’ve had recently — Crispin’s Honey Crisp — was made with all natural ingredients including locally sourced honeycrisp apples and sweetened with honey. It had a very apple-y bite and wasn’t too sweet. I would much prefer using honey as a sweetener and if we lose some of the sweetness in the fermenting process, that’s okay because the batch I made was too sweet anyway. I also think that using a specific variety of apple, or using real apples (the kit came with a concentrate) makes a difference — the Honey Crisp cider tasted very distinctly of honeycrisp apples — and this means that using our apples from the apple tree in the back yard of our new home should work really well. They have a snappy, apple taste that’s not too sweet. I am looking forward to getting my new hose and auto-siphon so I can start thinking about what the next batch will be.
    Sidenote: In looking back on the label I made for the first batch of cider, I think there was a missed opportunity — I should have put a sombrero on Trump’s head. Would have made the visual much more absurd and much more obvious that I’m trying to make fun of him and his stupid use of the phrase “bad hombres”.

I’ve joined Human Made!

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This week, I started the next chapter of my great adventure — joining the team at Human Made.

Over the last roughly two and a half years, I’ve worked at WebDevStudios — one of the top WordPress-focused development agencies. When I joined, I was plopped in the middle of a project for the United States National Park Service with no development lead at the time and over the course of the next year, I was able to wrangle that and a subsequent project for NPS together, ultimately earning myself a promotion to developer lead largely as a result of my work on NPS.

You know that imposter syndrome stuff? You can’t have that lingering around when you’re working projects for the US Government or Microsoft or MotorTrend, and I had to shed that pretty quickly and adapt to agency development for brands that I not only recognized, but who are ubiquitous, like Campbell’s.

However, as I transitioned more into my role as a lead, I ended up being more deeply involved in things that didn’t bring me joy and excitement — namely, management stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my team and I enjoy being a leader and a resource, but the day-to-day administrative tasks of being a lead outweighed actual development and I learned (fairly quickly) that the thing I enjoy most is coding. Leading projects and architecting development, sure, but also actually writing the code for those projects and things that I’ve architected.

Much of the time I spent as a lead, I was pretty unhappy. I was stressed, I took work home after I signed off for the day, I had very little to look forward to the next day because every day was just a series of calls interspersed with pings and reviewing and updating tasks. The only time I ever got to write any code was on our #FiveForTheFuture days, and if the workload was too busy, those days occasionally were cancelled. I can be pretty good at whatever I put my mind to, but my heart wasn’t in it when my day-to-day tasks involved reviewing other people’s work and being present on anywhere between 2 and 6 calls a day.

I don’t want this to sound like WDS is a bad place or a bad employer. They are actively working to get their leads more involved in development. Hopefully things are heading in the right direction now. But I also know that different people enjoy different things and have different skill sets, and, for me, I can do all those administrative and managerial things, but I don’t enjoy doing those things. I kept coming back to a thing I had heard about Automattic’s structure where there is no pay increase associated with being a “lead” — you just are. And if you no longer want to be a lead, you aren’t. There’s no promotion/demotion involved, it’s just a hat you put on. And if you find that the hat doesn’t fit, you take it off. I felt trapped by being a lead and it was affecting my mental health and my life at home.

There are a lot of really cool companies out there for remote workers interested in building things for WordPress. Among those really cool companies, many of them offer amazing benefits that include flexible/unlimited vacation days. Since we like to go camping, and since doing that leaves me recharged and energized and able to take on work again when I come back, I knew that some place that had a generous policy for vacation was going to matter a lot. And most of those companies take a really honest view of employee well-being and all of these things that I’d been struggling with for the past year. So I tossed my resume into the ether, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.

And it was Tom who finally reached out.

That list of “really cool companies for remote workers interested in building things for WordPress”? Human Made is consistently at or near the top of that list. They are truly global, with “offices” in London and Australia and tend to attract the best of the best. So, I was bouncing in my seat a little as we arranged for a chat time on Slack and as I went through the interview process. I was offered a trial, worked with a team of Aussies and got to know the team and their processes.

The thing that was, has been, and still is most exciting to me, though, is actually writing code again. And the opportunity to learn. HM does things differently than WDS — they have different coding standards, build different types of applications, and try hard to be on the bleeding edge of what is happening in enterprise WordPress development. I could see right away that I have so much to learn and it excited me and made me realize that I had been feeling stagnant for a long time.

I enjoyed my time at WebDev and I learned a ton while I was there. Now I’m thrilled to be joining a team of people who unironically refer to each other as “humans”, who encourage and foster growth and actively take care of, and advocate for their team members.

Uncovering Digital Artifacts

This morning, my wife and I were having a conversation about what happens to our cultural information and identity when we are gone. Not just, what happens to, for example, this blog after I, personally, am deceased, but also, what happens to all of our information 50, 100, 200 years from now when the means of communication and information storage are completely different than the mediums used today.

Right now, if we want to understand what society and culture was like from a previous era, we piece things together from whatever information was left behind. For ancient civilizations and cultures (hundreds to thousands of years ago), we have little to go on. We have art that may have been preserved in sculptures or paintings. We can dig up tools and pottery. We can occasionally uncover cities or discover ruins and hypothesize what these buildings were used for. For more recent history, we can occasionally dig up writings from the period, or photographs, or film reels.

This conversation came out of a blog post on free range learning blog. In it, she talks about uncovering her own family’s history. It’s relatively easy to trace your family tree back to the nth generation but it’s significantly more difficult to understand who these people in your history were. Where is that information kept? Letters, journals, maybe newspaper articles or newsletters. What’s the modern equivalent?

Her argument is that we are an increasingly digital society. All of our information lives online or in the cloud or on a hard drive somewhere. That’s great. Maybe you even keep backups of your data and you own all your own information. Fantastic. But what happens to that hard drive when there is no machine to read the information?

I think in the future, archeologists are going to be experts in the field of data recovery. Our history is increasingly written in binary — but when a hard drive fails, it’s tossed in the trash. Maybe the data was recovered and moved to a new hard drive, or maybe that data is just lost forever and buried in a landfill somewhere. Digital archeologists will be necessary, to dig up these artifacts — hard drives, floppy discs, DVDs, BluRays, zip disks, thumb drives, SD cards — and use sophisticated tools just to extract what data can be recovered from them in order to get an understanding of who we were as a people. Because, be sure, we don’t leave physical remnants around. We don’t write with our hands on paper — we hammer keys and store that information on a hard drive somewhere. Every tweet, every blog, every Facebook message, every Instagram — what happens when these servers don’t exist anymore? Do you honestly think that all of that data is going to be migrated when we as a society are long past caring what an Instagram was? Or a hashtag?

How many things do you own that contain data that you actually, physically have no way of reading anymore? I have tons. I have zip disks of work I did in college. I have floppy disks with god-knows-what. My wife has floppy disks with important writings she did in college, too. I have slides and negatives from when I studied photography. I have Super8 film reels from a film class. I have stacks of VHS tapes, some from a movie I filmed in college and others the original recordings of a band I was in during the same time. I have stacks of cassettes from high school of various original music recordings I did. My mother-in-law is currently trying to deal with the thousands of unsorted photographs of her family and my wife and sister-in-law in boxes of prints and negatives and completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it. And this doesn’t come anywhere near the amount of photos we take now that we all have high quality cameras in our pocksts.

I have lost data, too. I built a server a number of years ago with a software RAID intended to back up and archive all our digital artifacts that ended up having a boot failure which corrupted the data that was striped across 3 hard drives. I had a backup solution in place at the time as well, but the backup solution had been failing and there was no recoverable data. Years and years of information, photos, backed up websites that I used to own were gone in an instant, never recoverable.

The point is, this thing we have now? This architecture, this system? It’s fallible. And we’re already losing our own personal histories.

Archaeology is the study of human culture through artifacts that are left behind. Archaeologists visit sites of lost civilizations and spend time digging up utensils, pottery, sometimes entire cities. Personal Digital Archeologist is a thing I think will exist in the future — and, for that matter, could probably be done now. It will require a different skillset than current archeologists because our culture is not traceable through the physical artifacts we own but through the data we record. What’s a computer besides a metal box? The thing isn’t important, it’s what’s saved on it that is valuable. Personal Digital Archeologists could be hired to dig through your mother’s digital archives — every website, every Facebook post, every blog, every recipe stored online — and collect data from whatever media that you can no longer access — the floppies, slides, zip disks and more that no longer have an interface (at least one you can read data from). It will take someone with an array of technical knowledge and tools — the ability to recover data from various forms of media including broken hard drives and physical media — and the patience to compile a personal history based on that data. You might get both a physical copy of the compiled data and a digital copy. Every home video burned to a BluRay, every photo and file saved onto a hard drive as well as printed copies of everything.

If this web development gig ever runs dry and/or I’m feeling ambitious enough to start a new business again, I might be interested in being a personal digital archaeologist and dig through family histories to create a narrative about who people were, starting with my own.