New Fiction

I ended up writing a new story about Vicky Frankenstein. It’s called Pillow Talk, and is almost entirely Vicky and Ada talking about their relationship.

I’m not sure I was ever expecting to write a story about lesbian romance (well, Ada is bisexual. I don’t know if that’s canonically true, but having her be a lesbian would be somewhat surprising given her historical record. Also she predates modern labels for sexuality and thus might choose to self-describe differently). I lack a number of qualifying areas of knowledge for doing it well, but it seems to have turned out OK anyway.

Vicky continues to be extremely fun to write, and I’ve already ended up starting on a third Vicky story, the topic of which is largely inspired by this tweet (the original Vicky story was partly caused by a joke tweet too. It seems to be a theme).

This may end up eating into Programmer at Large time, though nominally I’m scheduled to write another one for this week some time. I am absolutely intending to finish Programmer at Large, but I seem to have made the whole thing bleaker than I originally intended, which combines poorly with the fact that I’ve been quite busy for the last month.

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Shutting down my Patreon

Earlier this year I started a Patreon as an experiment. The logic was that I like writing and I like getting paid, and I wanted to see if I could get these two great flavours to combine.

Long story short, I didn’t.

I set a goal for $500/month by the end of the year or I’d shut it down. It’s now obvious that I’m not going to get anywhere close to that, and I’m a big believer in stopping when you know failure is inevitable rather than actually waiting to fail.

But also, I’m finding that I’m not doing a good job at managing it (apologies to all my patrons. this is entirely my fault), and that it makes me feel worse about the process of writing. A lot of this is because I find it weirdly stressful, which is nobody’s fault but mine but also not something I can do much about.

So the result is a system that stresses me out and is probably going to earn me less than one day’s worth of work over the course of the year. This is is a bad deal any way you look at it.

So I’m going to stop. No hard feelings on my part, it’s just an experiment that didn’t work out. If anything, I’m extremely grateful to all of the people who supported me along the way. I apologise to any of you who are disappointed by this.

I’ll keep blogging here, obviously, but I’m going to put the rate back down to probably more in the region of 1/week (at least, that’s what I’m going to set the Beeminder goal back to).

I will leave the Patreon page up for one week to give people time to see this on the feed as well and grab anything they want from the private archives, but will then close it before anyone is billed for this month.

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A time and a place for work

For an Inclusive Culture, Try Working Less is currently doing the rounds. It makes the argument that having a rigid 8:30-5:00 working day creates a more diverse environment by including people who a so called “more flexible” set of working hours would not.

I think he’s probably right. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of implicit judgement towards people who had leave early to e.g. pick up the kids from school (or just because they wanted to have an evening to themselves), even when they arrived at work early (which was of course invisible to the people who rocked in at 11).

But at the same time I will never work at a company which enforces those hours. It’s simply not going to happen, even though I fully support the right of other people to work those hours if that’s what works best for them.

I have a low grade sleeping disorder. Many people have far worse experiences than me, but mine are still bad enough that I’m going to take a hard line that if you’re going to make my sleeping experience worse then I’m not going to work for you. Forcing me to conform to your schedule in the mornings definitely counts as making my sleeping experience worse.

What’s interesting here is that I don’t think I’m unusual in this.

I’ve been noticing for a while that tech seems to have a disproportionately high number of people with sleeping disorders in it – I definitely know people with sleep apnea at a higher rate than the background rate would suggest likely, and it often seems like most of the people I know in tech have some sort of problem with sleep.

Some of this is probably caused by tech – high caffeine consumption, sitting all day, lots of blue light, and a cultural encouragement for obsession are all things that can cause sleep problems. But enough of it (including mine) has a physical root cause that it’s definitely not all caused by tech.

My working theory is simply that flexible hours mean that a job works a lot better for people with sleeping disorders, so people with sleeping disorders will tend to gravitate towards jobs with flexible hours. For better or for worse, that currently includes tech.

I don’t have data to prove that sleep disorders are atypically common in tech. It sure looks like they are, but that could just be selection bias at work.

But regardless of whether it’s more common than usual, it’s certainly common enough that I and a lot of people I know are in this situation, and any work environment which demands we turn up to work at 8:30 is going to be throwing us under a bus.

It’s not just people with sleeping disorders either, there’s a broader ableism issue. Have you ever tried taking a wheelchair on public transport in rush hour? I haven’t, but I’ve helped take someone on the London underground not at rush hour and even that wasn’t much fun. Demanding people all arrive at the same time is a great way to seriously disadvantage people who need a wheelchair (I imagine it’s not great for people with any other sort of mobility issue either).

Sure, you could make exceptions for all of us who have sufficiently convincing reasons. That would be better, but it means we now need to be singled out as special cases, which inevitably makes other people annoyed about our special treatment – I have seen a huge amount of ill will towards developers from coworkers whose jobs require them to be in the office during a particular time range, and I can only imagine it would be worse from people you work more closely with.

And what about those for whom it doesn’t really stretch as far as a disorder or a disability, but is merely a really strong preference? e.g. even if I didn’t have sleep problems (here’s hoping for that future) I really hate crowds and as a result I would very strongly prefer not to travel during rush hour even if I’m awake. I’m not saying I can’t take a rush hour tube, but I’m still going to preferentially select for companies that give me the ability to come in an hour later, and I’m going to really unhappy if I don’t have that option.

People like me in this regard are sufficiently common in tech now that it’s really unlikely that you’ll ever get a situation where an early start is the norm – we’ll just avoid those companies in preference for ones that don’t require us to do something really unpleasant and harmful to our mental and physical well-being, and the result will be a tech industry divided into two distinct groups of companies with a relatively small intersection moving between them. That’s not a great situation.

Fundamentally the problem is that there is no one-size fits all solution. No single set of office hours is going to work for everyone, so what we need is a diversity of options where people can work whichever hours they want or need.

But that’s what we have now and it doesn’t actually work.  Everything I’ve seen suggests that flexible working hours doesn’t really mean flexible, you just converge on a new cultural norm of working later – people tend to gradually conform to a later (and longer) schedule, because when you leave work too early you feel subtly or not-so-subtly judged by your coworkers (whether or not you are being judged, but you usually are), which creates a strong pressure to conform or leave.

Even if the original article about the diversity implications is wrong (I do not think it is, but would like to see data before I believe it wholeheartedly) and this isn’t excluding women, it still means we’re creating an environment that is just as bad for early birds as an 8:30 start would be for night owls and others with sleep problems.

So what’s the solution?

Well, I think it’s probably remote work. By separating out the need to physically be there, and allowing a lot of work to be asynchronous, you remove a lot of the implied social pressure to conform to a particular set of hours.

And as a bonus, by opening yourself up to remote work you potentially open up a whole bunch of other opportunities for diversity – even without rush hour, commuting in a wheel chair is hard, and for other disabilities (e.g. people who are immunocompromised) it might not be safe for them to come into the office at all, but they might still be perfectly able to work.

A lot of diversity problems (I’d guess most diversity problems that don’t stem from up front flat out bigotry? I don’t know) come from trying to pretend we can fit everyone into a single mould, and thus silently excluding all the people who can’t fit into that mould. Rigid working hours don’t fix that, they just choose a different shaped mould. I’d rather break that mould altogether instead.

Of course, remote work is itself another mould to try to fit everyone into. It doesn’t work for everyone (though some people who think it doesn’t work for them can learn to love it – I did), but you can fix that to a large extent by e.g. renting them desks in a co-working space or having an office people can come into if they want. You can also probably get a lot of the benefits by allowing partial remote work – e.g. I personally would be mostly happy if I could do a couple of hours of work in the morning and then come in. Other peoples’ needs will differ, and that definitely won’t be enough for everyone, but even small accommodations help to include more people.

So it’s not perfect, and it certainly won’t fix everything, but nothing is and nothing will. I still suspect that starting from the principle that presence isn’t required and then fixing the problems that causes is going to be a much easier path to diversity than trying to force everyone to be in the same place at the same time and then trying to fix all the problems that causes.

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Talking to people at conferences

I’m currently at the Halmstad Summer School on Testing, where I know literally nobody. This means that I’m having to exercise one of my most useful and hardest won conference skills: Going up to new people and talking to them.

I can’t claim any special ability at doing this. If anything, I’m bad at it. But I started out terrible at it, so I thought I’d offer some advice for other people who are terrible at it and want to become less terrible (which, based on observational evidence at conferences and talking to friends, is a lot of us).

The big thing to know is that it’s not complicated (which is not the same as saying it’s easy). The following procedure works for me basically 100% of the time:

  1. Go up to somebody who isn’t currently talking to someone and doesn’t look like they’re busy.
  2. Say “Hi, I’m David” (you may wish to substitute your own name here if it is not also David).
  3. Make conference appropriate small talk.
  4. Part ways at a suitable juncture (e.g. beginning of next talk), and if you enjoyed each other’s company you can naturally say hi again later, and if not you won’t.

If you’re like me, that probably sounds impossible, but it’s actually surprisingly doable once you manage to suppress the associated feeling of mortal dread.

The thing that helped me the most was understanding what caused me stress (going up to groups where I didn’t know anyone) and just not doing that, which is why it’s about finding single people to go up and talk to. I generally don’t approach groups unless I already know some of the people in the group.

The second thing that helps is understanding that this behaviour is appropriate, socially acceptable, and often outright welcome.

You are at an event where a large part of the purpose is to meet people. Therefore introducing yourself to strangers is a thing that is part of the event and does not need an excuse. Also, the people around you are probably also struggling to do the same. By picking someone else who is also not talking to people, there’s a good chance you’ve found someone who is struggling the same way you are and have done them a massive favour by removing that struggle.

Is it sometimes a bit awkward? Yeah. Is it the perfect approach? No. But it works reliably, I am able to do it, and it does not rely on flawless execution to go smoothly. It is very unlikely to go terribly, and it will probably go well.

It’s still anxiety inducing, but for me the knowledge that this is acceptable behaviour and nothing bad is going to happen is enough to take it from terrifying to merely intimidating, at which point it’s fairly feasible to just force myself to do it.

Specific tips:

Picking who to talk to is tricky, but the nice thing about this just being a brief introductory conversation is that you don’t have to do it well. I don’t have a particularly good algorithm, but vaguely use the following guidelines:

  • People you’ve met in passing but not really properly talked to are an easy place to start.
  • If I see a speaker or someone I vaguely know something about, I’ll tend to default to them (as someone who regularly speaks at conferences, I can confirm speakers are just as socially awkward about doing this as the rest of us and will appreciate you talking to them).
  • I often preferentially try to talk to women or other people who are in a minority for the conference (obviously at some conferences women won’t be a minority, but I work in tech where sadly they usually are). This advice works better if you are yourself in a minority at the conference, but I figure that if people are feeling isolated it’s still better to have someone to talk to who isn’t going to be a jerk (which I’m told I’m mostly not), and they’re at least as likely (probably more) to be interesting people to talk to as anyone else.
  • Other than that, I just pick a random person nearby.

Once you’ve picked a person and introduced yourself, it’s time for the dread small talk. Fortunately, although small talk in general is hard, conference small talk is much easier. There are two reasons for this:

  • When you ask “What do you do?” the chances are good that it’s something relevant to the conference, and thus you have common ground to talk about.
  • You can always talk about the talks at the conference – which they have enjoyed, if there are any they are particularly looking forward to, etc.

The parting ways aspect is important largely to avoid the problem of finding one person to talk to and then latching on to them. It’s doubly important for me because of a moderate amount of insecurity about seeming to do that even when I’m probably not. Fortunately conferences come with a natural rhythm, so it’s fairly easy to do.

Another reason why it helps is that it keeps the entire interaction fairly low cost – you’re not committing to a new best friend for the entire conference, you’re just meeting someone new and having a brief chat with them.

So that’s how I introduce myself to new people. After that, I try to “pay it forward” in a couple of ways:

  • I try to introduce people I’ve talked to to each other. e.g. if I’m talking to someone and someone I’ve previously interacted with wanders past I say hi to them and ask “Have you two met?”
  • If I’m in a group (or even just talking to one other person) and see someone awkwardly standing around, I try to bring them into it (a “Hi, I’m David. Come join us” is usually sufficient).

Other people are also struggling with this, and helping them out is a good deed, which is the main way I do it, but conveniently it’s also a good way to meet people. It’s much easier to meet someone by bringing them into a group than it is to approach them on your own, and by forming a group you’ll tend to get other people members of the group know agglomerating on. Even if you don’t talk to them now, talking to them later becomes easier.


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Thoughts on the election

Beeminder is demanding that I blog today, but I’m not really feeling it, so I’m going to phone this one in, sorry.

I was trying to write something intelligent. Maybe something about delta debugging, maybe something about voting systems. When the dust settles and we have some data maybe I’ll do an analysis of what this election would have looked like under Random Ballot or something.

But, well, right now I’m too depressed, so here are some very ill-formed and ill-informed thoughts on the UK general election that is causing that impression.

This was a lot better than I feared, slightly worse than I expected, and a lot worse than I’d hoped it would be. I never expected a Labour majority (and I’m not the biggest Corbyn fan so would have felt only modestly positive if we’d got one), but I did think Labour might have been able to form a coalition.

Instead we get a Conservative + Democratic Unionist Party (think a more right-wing Irish version of the Conservatives. This is probably not a very fair description but I’m not very inclined to provide a fairer one) not-quite-a-coalition.

I confess I forgot completely about the DUP as a factor (English centric bias, sorry), and the Tory wins in Scotland were a complete surprise to me (Somewhat English centric bias, mostly that the Scots I know very strongly conform to the stereotype of Scotland being very left wing even though I know the reality is different), but I’d be lying if I said I ever really had a very firm sense of how the political landscape was going to go. I was mostly going on a mix of general knowledge and dread.

The dread turned out to be pretty warranted. Although I’m enjoying the schadenfreude of May losing her majority, this isn’t really much better than we started with. The DUP are terrible, and a Conservative/DUP alliance is going to be an improvement on the Conservative majority replaces in only three ways:

  • Their majority is smaller
  • They will be less able to get things done due to internal disagreements
  • They might go for a softer Brexit than they otherwise would have.

There’s also the argument that Brexit is going to be a disaster for whichever party deals with it, so in the long run this might be better by making the Conservative government pay the consequences. I’m not entirely sure I buy the calculus here, but it’s at least a small glimmer of hope.

Mostly I feel like as usual this election underlines the need for a better electoral system. The popular vote is so close between Labour and Conservative, with neither of them that close to a majority.

It is of course invalid to project how people would vote under a different voting system from this, but counting up the minority parties it is at least suggestive that if we’d had a more proportional system then we’d have likely been in the territory of the progressive alliance many people were hoping for – Labour + SNP + Lib Dem comes to 50.4% of the vote. Add the greens in and you’re up to 52%. Of course, in reality, that 52% of the vote came to 47.5% of the seats, so a small win became a small loss instead.

Oh well, so it goes. Another five years of something resembling this government.

Unless someone calls another general election I guess. So give it six months?

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