Moving Notes #2: Sigh, Agents

This is part two in a series. See the previous post for a bit more context.

When we embarked into this whole process, I had very little experience with moving and flathunting: I’ve lived in my mother’s house back in Italy, in Ireland I found an apartment fairly quickly thanks to a colleague “passing on” a viewing he didn’t need, and in London I found the flat through the relocation consultants that were assigned to me after the move. The same was true for my wife, who’s been mostly living in flatshares before.

And in the middle of a pandemic, the flathunting process seemed even more annoying, as it had a number of immediate and delayed effects. The first one was restricting our options in how far we wanted to move. While the whole situation meant that work is not expecting me back to the office for quite a while longer, and that meant we could have looked at options further away from London, such as Birmingham (which we had considered briefly before, particularly as I was looking for a new job earlier in the year), going and finding a place would still have involved a significant travel on mass transit (trains) and spending time in shared accommodation (hotel). Plus risking of being locked up there if a new lockdown was announced before we would have found a place.

So at the end of the day, we decided to focus in the same area in West London where we’ve been living. This had the non-negligible advantage of letting us keep the “support network” of friends we found here – most of them while playing Pokémon Go, of all things – and of sensible takeaways, shops, delivery services, …

It also had an effect that I hadn’t figured out when we started. As we knew that virtual viewings weren’t going to be particularly useful to gauge a new place, including the feeling of the area or neighbourhood, we had to take a difficult decision: as my health issues make me particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, my wife would be taking the vast majority of the viewings. What we didn’t realize then, is that the real estate agents wouldn’t be able to drive her to the apartments they selected — and they totally failed to account for walking between different flats.

While she’s perfectly capable of walking miles, and she did – including hatching a number of Pokémon eggs! – when an agent books two flats that are 40 minutes walk apart to be viewed within 20 minutes of each other, you know that something is wrong. If something could have managed to make me more annoyed at car users who can’t figure out not everyone wants to be in a car all the time.

Eyes On The Prize

Before I start rambling on about the horrible services provided by most agencies I dealt with, let me explain what was that we have been looking for.

When we started the process, we weren’t sure we would leave the apartment. We were just informed that our landlord was trying to sell the apartment, and if he did we would have some time after the sale process starts to find a new place. Then again, as I did say in the previous part, we got to the point where the agency dropped so many balls, that we felt compelled to leave anyway.

And while the apartment we were living in was doing okay for us, beside the noise and the agency, there were a few things we were happy to change when moving. The flat we had been living was what I chose myself when I moved to London: a bachelor working at an office, with an occasional need to work from home, and with the far-fetched possibility of hosting guests for board games (only happened a handful of times in three years) and an even less likely chance of hosting friends visiting from abroad (I did technically have space to host one person sleeping over, but then turns out that living sandwiched between three hotels, it’s much easier to just let them have their own space).

As by then it was clear that for at least another year there wouldn’t be a commute to the office in my plans, it was clear that the office needed more space (particularly, storage space) and that it would be used nearly exclusively for working, rather than gaming. Turns out that after spending eight hours in the same room having meetings and writing docs, you don’t get to feel very good about sitting in the same chair and fire up a game, even one you like a lot.

What we definitely wanted was to keep Hyperoptic as ISP, or if that wouldn’t have been possible, at least have another gigabit fiber provider. It turns out to be very useful to not have to worry about my wife’s streaming lectures while I would be having a meeting. Plus the Hyperoptic support has been one of the best ones I’ve ever dealt with, and I know how annoying ISPs can be.

So our aim was, if possible, to find a three-bedroom flat – that way we could each have our home office, and we would have more space to “change the view” – with Hyperoptic. But we also would have been happy to settle for a more spacious, or more comfortable two-bedroom, particularly one where the master bedroom is not shaped like an S-tetromino like our previous flat.

It’s 2020, Learn Your ISPs!

I hate the words “unskilled labour”, because they fail to convey the importance of a variety of skills, but I would lie if I said I hadn’t chuckled at people calling real estate agents such in the past. The reason for it was that three years ago I had significantly different experience between the best and the worst agents I interacted with. This time wasn’t an improvement. But before I go on ranting, let me say that there’s plenty of skill in being a successful real estate agent — we could tell who was safe to deal with and who to run away from fairly quickly. So, kudos to the good ones, it’s not an easy job.

The first problem with pretty much all of the agencies (except one) has been that going through an aggregator such as Rightmove, they will ignore the details you provide in the contact form. I had explicitly sent a message stating that I’d like to book a viewing for the shown property, and possibly a selection of similar flats with Hyperoptic or similar level of connectivity. I also stated how I was busy with work and meetings, and wouldn’t be able to take phone calls easily, so email would be my preferred contact method.

Only one agency read the message and followed up on it. And turned out to be the most professional agent we have dealt with. So let me praise them: riverhomes and Tamir Gotfried in particular, did an exceptional job in taking in our requirements, and not wasting our time showing us unrelated or unsuitable flats. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a flat that fitted our requirements (Virgin Media being the best ISP they had available at that point — and I have personal reasons to sticking to Hyperoptic at least).

From nearly every other agent, we got the same type of excuses of not knowing what ISPs would be available — or not knowing how to check. Let me be clear here, I have no problem with checking that myself, but most of the agents refused to give the address of the flats they wanted to show us until the day, if not after the viewings. So instead of being given a list that we could pre-filter, they insisted in showing us a lot of flats that had vDSL as the best connectivity option.

Now, the Rightmove website (but at the time not their mobile app) had a drop-down from CompareTheMarket that shows the average speed available “at the postcode” — which for us would have been a good proxy, as we were looking for a flat in an apartment building, and buildings generally get their own postcodes. Unfortunately, most agencies lie out of their teeth on Rightmove (we’ll get back to that in a moment).

This is not particularly new. When I moved here, I had one agent insisting that a 25Mbit DSL line, that the landlord subscribed to the flat, and couldn’t be changed, was “fiber”. She wouldn’t accept my point that “That’s not fiber”. Sure the marketing material may call it “fiber-powered” or “SuperFast”, but it’s not fiber in any way shape or form. And in 2017 I expected an agent able to tell me whether a flat has floor heating or radiators should be able to tell me if a flat has DSL or fiber.

On the other hand, the agent that showed us the apartment we eventually rented said it had floor heating, while the only heating we have is heatpump based.

Do You Even Rent?

As I said, most agencies beside one ended up being a lost cause. Overall, the worst experience we had was with Foxtons — and it feels like we dodged a bullet of an agency worse than Dexters. But similar problems appeared with many.

Among the selections of flats we saw, with different agencies, there was one flat one floor up from a nursery, with the balcony overlooking into their back lot. We’re a childfree couple – as I noted talking about Sarah Millican as she makes us feel quite a bit more welcome than others – and that kind of flat would be a very bad fit. And, by the way, that’s an important part: if I did choose a flat knowing that there’s a nursery literally under my feet, and then complained about the noise, I would be a horrible person. Instead, I just want my peace and quiet and will avoid that location, stop.

Another flat had a thermostat (or possibly AC control unit) that was enclosed on all sides by the back wall of a “built-in” cabinet. With no separate sensor. It’s a great way to have basically no control over the heating in your bedroom, but the agent couldn’t even tell that this would be a problem. Maybe not even the landlord. As we saw a different flat in the same building with Foxtons, we also found that the built-in wardrobe was not part of the first flat at all — it was probably added to look like the flats in the upper floors, but for those, the thermostat is by the door, and outside of the cabinet.

Speaking of Foxtons, the first few options they showed us were not exactly what we were looking for. When they asked us our “approximate budget”, I gave them a bit of leeway in what to show us, and said there would be a bit of room to stretch. The stuff they showed us at first was well within the budget, even conservative I’d say… but smaller (and significantly so) than the place we were living in. So I explicitly pointed at one of their properties and said “Here’s more of what we’ve been looking for — this one seems well out of our budget right now, but if there’s any chance for it to drop by 10%, we’d be happy to stretch our budget to meet it.” And that kind-of helped.

Aside: the reason why I pointed at a flat outside of the budget and asked if it could come down is to apply a bit more of the techniques discussed by Getting More. We did our homework: we knew that the rent demanded for the property was on the high side of the market at that point, and we could tell the flat hadn’t moved in a number of months according to Rightmove. There was a chance that the 10% discount could still be lower than the loss in not finding anyone to rent the flat.

I say kind of, because the agent then did propose showing us a few more flats that, overall, did fit our needs a bit better — except that only the one we pointed at had Hyperoptic available. One of them was still tempting, and we were very disappointed by the lack of ISP options, given we knew the building right next door was Hyperoptic-ready, but it also was a “duplex” (which in this country means on two floors, but is a word that would confuse most Italians), and my wife was (reasonably) worried about me trying to go downstairs to grab sugars during a sugar low. I already nearly fell on the stairs during the visit.

But we did end up seeing the flat that we pointed at at first. It turned out to be even more spacious than the images shown, but it was also… dirty. I can’t use any other word, the wall over the cabinets was full of black spots that looked like mold, the extraction fans had dustbunnies visible inside, and in general it seemed to have quite the layer of grime all over, but that was partially understandable given that it still had tenants inside. We still put in an offer for a rent a bit higher than we were hoping for, but still in the “stretchable” part of the budget, and on the advice of the agent, we suggested a three years contract — the landlord was supposedly looking for someone to stay long term.

“I don’t feel comfortable renting from your agency”

After we put in the offer, the trouble started — the first call (from another agent at a different office) was to tell us that the landlord wouldn’t accept a three years contract, and requested a single year renewable contract. They also wouldn’t accept our first rent offer, and so they asked what would be our best for it. I did say we could go up £50/month but no more, but since that was enough they tried convincing me reminding me that I wouldn’t have to pay for heating — because that’s part of the service charge and so paid by the landlord. And according to them the law changed so that wouldn’t be possible to do anymore. It started smelling fishy, but then I relented, and accepted to raise up to £100 from our original offer.

The second call, informed us that the tenants of the time wouldn’t be leaving on the 1st of October as originally intended, so we wouldn’t be able to enter the property on the 15th as discussed. Instead the tenants would be leaving (hopefully) on the 1st of November. This is, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 related: the tenants were going to be flying back to their country, but the flights for October were cancelled, so hopefully they’d make it for November. I was back then sceptical, but I have not bothered checking if those flights reopened at all. That had us a bit worried, but since at that point we hadn’t given notice for the flat yet, we were okay to moving it to one more month later. Ensue call number three, asking us to move in on the 1st of November rather than 15th — despite the fact that our tenancy was terminating on the 26th, so the options would have been no overlap, or a much longer overlap than expected.

The fourth, but not final, call was to let us know that once the agents explained to the landlord that they wouldn’t be able to charge the hot water to us anymore, the landlord decided that our offer was not just too low, but even the advertised rent was too low! Indeed, they decided to ask more than 10% more money for the rent than originally advertised. We said we were no longer interested in the property, and thought we left it at that.

Yet another call, this time from the agent that showed us around had her just short of begging us to reconsider — saying that the rent would be “all bills inclusive, except council tax”. I said I wouldn’t trust it but we’d think on it, while I did the math. The only way that the increase in rent would be even covering the costs of bills would be if the heating would cost more than double what we were paying for the two bed (which sounded unlikely) and if they also paid for the same Hyperoptic service we had. But that also meant that we wouldn’t have control over the bills, which sounded very unlikely.

In particular, the thing they said about the hot water not being chargeable to the tenants was totally a lie. While the management company for the development (which is still the same for the old apartment, our current apartment, and the apartment we were discussing) did make things more complicated by not issuing separate hot water bills, hot water is counted as an utility and can be charged to the tenants. So, I really doubt that it was going to be “all bills included”.

Anyway, at that point we started looking further afield, and given we had done the math for the budget stretching, we started looking at slightly higher rents too, as options. That turned out to find other snags, which you can continue reading about afterwards, but also meant we found the flat we currently live in through another agency altogether. That agency, by the way, requires you to pay a deposit when you make an offer, which is only refundable if the offer is not accepted, and not if you withdraw the offer.

After that, the Foxtons agent who showed us around contacted us asking to show us three more flats, one in the same development, one across the street, and one… well, the last one we don’t know, because from the night before to the day we were supposed to see the flat, it was taken off the market. But this time, we were promised no more back-and-forths: the flats were managed from the same office as the agent, and her own manager would be the point of contact.

One of the flats was actually interesting. While the total square footage was not higher than the one we did end up renting, it was a three-bedrooms apartment — so smaller rooms, but with more space for privacy. And supposedly we could have had it for a bit less than we ended up renting (even considering the lost offer deposit). We considered it, and put in an offer with a couple of requirements (namely to remove the furniture that would be redundant to us, and to get the Hyperoptic socket installed — the flat was “ready” but the socket was never installed).

Then we got another one of those calls that we started dreading from them: the landlord appeared to have accepted the offer from another couple some time before with a different agency, but then some money didn’t change hands, and so it wasn’t clear if the place was officially rented or not. She would call us back by afternoon to confirm. We heard nothing until 8pm, by which time we sent an email pointing out that we weren’t interested in the property anymore, and that we would take an offer elsewhere.

The day after, the agent tried to call me (I was in a meeting, couldn’t pick up), texted me, spoke with my wife, texted her, trying to convince us to see a few more properties. I had to be rude and state explicitly that we wouldn’t feel comfortable to rent a property from Foxtons by that point, since two of the flats that we considered with them ended up having so much drama.

Agents, Lies, and Rightmove

Rightmove is probably the most commonly used website to look for housing, to rent or buy, in this country. It aggregates listings from any agency that would publish (I assume, for a fee), and provides a way to contact the agencies without exposing too much personal information up front.

Unfortunately, it’s also a nest of liars.

Since we have been looking for properties not too far from where we were living, we knew quite a bit about the area already. So when we would see a listing with a GPS point attached to one of the fancy, posh buildings of the development, but with the name referencing one of the older, still-to-be-fixed for cladding buildings, we knew we were made fun of.

Some of the listings are just slightly confusing. The flat we used to live in was advertised as having a “residents’ gym”, which turned out to be a half-truth: there’s a residents’ gym, and technically we could have gotten access to it, but as my wife went to check, the management company asked her to pay around £200. Turns out that being a resident is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Leaseholders do get free access by virtue of paying the service charge, but tenants need to pay separately. Except some tenants might have access already because the landlord already got the fob on the accesslist, and nobody is checking. Our fobs were not in the accesslist.

The same flat was advertised for sale (and still is at the time of writing) as having a concierge service. There is no concierge service for the building we lived in. I think it was meant to be there, as there is a strange door on the corner that looks like it could have been a concierge, but it wasn’t — only two buildings in the development have a concierge, and that was not one of them.

But the biggest lie is for properties that are not actually on the market at all! We found lots of those, and I complained to Rightmove about it. The first one we saw with Foxtons was from a building that’s still being finished, so they are releasing flats in “drops” — when my wife went there with the agent, the building’s concierge told them that they didn’t have any available flats to show. When we contacted another agency because of a very nice looking, spacious apartment down the road, we found out that it was not available at all.

Turns out that my complaints to Rightmove fell on deaf ears: according to them, even if a flat is already off the market because someone sighed up on it, the agencies are not required to take them off their site at all. They may mark it as “let agreed”, but they are not required to by their Terms of Service. The only moment when they are required to remove it from the site is when the new tenants move in.

So it seems like most agencies have incentive to sign up their best properties to be rented months before they are to be resided in, and keep them on Rightmove as a way to catch contacts. That way they will show you something else, which might not be what you’re looking for, but they might have more margins on.

Final Results

At the end we settled for a two bedrooms apartment, like we had before. We stretched our budget, I want to say, significantly, in part considering the likeliness to spend at least one year, possibly more, working from home, and so wanting to have a more comfortable living for the time being. We didn’t move very far — we literally are in the next building over, and the savings in doing the move mostly ourselves (more to that in a future most) probably made up for the first year of extra rent.

The agency we found the flat with was one of those with the trap listings, but they acted more professionally than Foxtons overall (again, there will be more to say about that), and we no longer have to deal with a property management agency.

But of course the trouble, or the annoyances, didn’t just disappear after finding a flat, so you’ll be able to read more notes and more trouble later on.

Moving Notes #1: The Reasons

As I noted when I took a break, this past October me and my wife moved out of the apartment I rented when I moved to London. The reasons of why we moved are a bit complicated, and not entirely connected with the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown. But more importantly, we learned a few lessons that, despite probably not being totally uncommon, I think might be worth writing about, just in case they can save time to someone else down the road.

So first of all, let’s make it clear that the main reason why we moved is that the property management agency that we have been dealing with (Dexters) was just so unprofessional that we couldn’t possibly salvage the relationship. I’ve had issues with them since I started renting here (you may remember I complained how they charged me for the costs that their bank attached to Fineco transfers), but usually they got solved, eventually. Unfortunately with the whole pandemic happening, they seem to have reduced the personnel to the point that their already oversubscribed agents couldn’t deal with issues reasonably anymore.

The year started badly with their finance department calling us three times in four months demanding we pay our hot water charges (the building we lived in has a “communal hot water system”, rather than an electric or gas heating system). This was caused by the property manager incorrectly adding the hot water charge as a monthly expense rather than a one-off — it was usually a one-off bill, but due to shenanigans with the development management company, this was also a six-months bill for once.

You would expect that it would be easy to reason with a human “Send us the bill, we’ll pay. Oh there’s no bill? Have a nice day, then.” But the folks from the finance department didn’t seem to understand such logic, and required us to argue with the property manager, who finally recognized we were overcharged (the first repeat we paid before arguing), supposedly credited us for it, and stopped the repeat. Except that at the end of March, right at the start of the new lockdown, they insisted on another payment, and I ended up spending six weeks arguing with the new “senior” property manager over those charges. Arguing that included at some point me printing out a copy of the statement she provided to me, taking a pen to enclose a couple of rows into a bright red box, scanning it and mailing it out, as a single line reply to “I don’t see any transaction for that amount on that date in the statement.”

But as bewildering this was, particularly with the dehumanizing experience of arguing with a finance office who is unable to accept the “no bill, no pay” concept, this was definitely not enough for us to decide to change apartment in the middle of a pandemic.

To add to the problem, we had not one, but two separate ventilation issues. One that we have been complaining for a while, and just became unacceptable during the lockdown, and one that was just unacceptable at any time: we spent nearly two months without extraction fans working in the bathrooms and the kitchen — getting instead the “reflux” of smells from someone else’s bathrooms (don’t ask how we know it’s bathrooms). The agency failed at dealing with either in time for them to leverage the constructor’s warranty.

After the first part of the lockdown, we also had to get installers in to replace the louvres on the windows — the original wood ones are no longer considered safe, and they had to replace them with metal. Which was fun, because they had to figure out how to open the second window, which we reported a year before as not opening, and needing to be fixed. The end result was a drilled out lock, which was not replaced up until we left. But hey, during the big heatwave we had both windows open, so we got that going on for us.

But the last drop for us was the last property manager we were assigned — as usual, neither he nor his predecessor informed us of a change as our agent. We found out about him after some new person asked us to book time for “pictures to be taken” for the apartment, which we thought was meant as the usual yearly inspection. No, it was a photographer coming to take pictures for marketing purposes so that they could advertise the flat to be sold on the market… except that we rented the flat unfurnished, and we were not going to agree to use the pictures of our furniture and art for marketing purposes.

Clearly the agency had no incentive to address our concern while trying to sell the flat, and at the same time we had to accept strangers coming into our apartment in the middle of a pandemic and sometimes not following health protocols either. We might have barked more than needed at the first agent that came with prospective buyers when she let herself in without knocking on the door!

So after a number of weeks and a few viewings, with the apartment not moving, the owner was satisfied to keep renting to us, but we weren’t satisfied to keep having that agency. We had already started looking around and found something we liked, prepared the paperwork and in parallel we gave notice in writing to the agency, and (with what in hindsight was a fortunate move) we reached out to our landlord via the only address we had, which was an accountancy firm.

It took two weeks for the agent at Dexters to realize we gave notice, and he spent another week pretty much ignoring it, and telling us “The problem with the ventilation will be fixed shortly [It wasn’t] so you can stay!”

You can imagine that things didn’t get much better after that. We had more people in and out of the apartment for the viewings, once the agent called us three minutes before the end of the slot they gave us for a viewing, saying they would be some more ten minutes late, expecting us to be play with it. I had a meeting coming up, so I told them in short order to not dare ringing us up at that point.

Indeed, after a few weeks of this, and with the extractions fan fix deadline lapsing twice, we told them not to come up with more viewings — yes that would have put us in breach of the tenancy agreement as they stipulate they’re allowed to enter your apartment in the last two months of tenancy, but given the failure on their part to provide a habitable flat we were getting miffed. The agent who called pretty much begged us to let them show the flat around — and failing being able to offer us anything for it, he promised a case of wine once the whole situation was over. You can imagine they didn’t keep their word.

As I said, in parallel we had reached out to our landlord. When I rented the apartment I was informed the landlord was overseas, and that we would not be in contact with him directly at all. And despite a couple of requests on our part to have his contact details, we still had no way to reach him except for the accountancy firm listed in the lease agreement. We hadn’t tried the firm before, because we were afraid we’d be complicating our position, by contacting someone who wouldn’t want to be contacted. Turned out that was not the case.

Indeed, once we got in touch with the landlord and explained the situation, showing the various communications and attempt at getting issues addressed, the situation became much more bearable to us. So win one for trying to talk to an actual human, rather than an inhuman company machinery.

The final cherry on top, was with the cleaning. As norm, we intended to have the flat professionally cleaned before moving out. Dexters suggests asking them for a recommended cleaner, so we did that, and we were given the name of a company that they usually asked to clean apartments to. We ask a quote, accept it, set up appointment for one day after we would have moved our stuff already… and then we found out that on the day we wouldn’t have water in the old building, so at last minute we had to push it out one more day.

On the day, my wife waited at the old flat, to no avail. She contacted the one person we spoke with, who apologized and would say he’d text when he would be available for the day after. Not hearing anything back for the day, we looked up another cleaner last minute, who accepted the job and confirmed availability for the day after. On that day, after the second cleaner was already through half of the flat, the first cleaner let himself in, with the keys to the apartment.

Dexters habitually hands out the keys to the flat they manage to their “known” contractors, without informing either tenants or landlords that the keys would be surrendered to a third party. The only “proof” they required was that we agreed to let the first cleaner clean the apartment, despite the fact that this was a communication between me and him, with no indication that Dexters would be asked to surrender the key. And according to the folks at Dexters, this is not a breach of the tenancy agreement (I wonder if anyone would be interested to try that out in court).

Of course, the agency wasn’t the only reason to leave. There were a few other issues that went beyond the control of agency and landlord, including one neighbouring family not accepting the idea that there might be people living next door that would like to have quiet evenings from time to time — I do totally understand the pain of being in lockdown, and how much it impacts families with kids, but when for two hours straight all we can hear is bam bam bam bam bam on the wall, and when bringing it up the only answer is “They’re kids, what can we do?”… well it’s too much for a civil engagement.

And at the same time, both towards the end of the first lockdown, and after it was originally lifted, the presence of short-term rentals in the building made life hard. We had one party that kept going until 3am. We had drunken people coming and going on our floor every other weekend. We had police coming to check the place, but it always came to nothing.

Even the building security was out of options — we were advised that they could only act and report on noise and nuisance that they could hear from the door, as they would be unable to enter the premises even if invited. The result was that for a few days we couldn’t go to bed before 1am, because the flat directly below us had kids that decided to play indoor soccer. Eventually I can only guess the estate office got bored of us keeping them up as much as we were.

So, with all of this mix going on, while already in the stressful situation of having started a new job, and learning yet another programming language, we decided to hunt for a new flat to rent. Which turned out to be a much more stressful process than I expected.

I No Longer Support FSFE

This post replaced a technical post that is now scheduled for some time in January, but for once, breaking news took precedence, and given my past writing on the topic, I thought I should state this explicitly as soon as possible.

You may remember that I have, many times, singled out FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) from FSF (Free Software Foundation — the original one). They (used to) have a positive attitude to Free Software, contrasting the “attack ads” strategy of their USA-based peers, and that alone set them aside in my views. And despite me having had doubts at times, I thought that active, positive engagement such as Public Money, Public Code, and REUSE were worth ignoring other “side projects” that I would disagree with, when it comes to Cloud solutions.

Well, today something entirely different (and yet something that didn’t surprise me) came to light:

Edit: you can also read the long form text, which is definitely easier to read through than the images.

I have no reason to disbelief this summary. I never interacted with Matthias face to face – though we have exchanged polite email before – so I cannot reconcile this with his character, but a significant bias against foreigners in the FSFE? Yeah I don’t need to stretch my mind to accept that.

Indeed I have twice raised my concerns with FSFE about how much focus was given to German issues overall, compared to more Free Sofware related issues. Both times I ended up not publicly ranting about this because of the Public Money, Public Code project (once because I was told it was coming, and the second time because it actually was announced), despite fairly unconvincing arguments that felt like “Well, it’s not my fault that it’s mostly Germans who get involved.”

While I would have loved to be involved more myself, there were problems with that. The first being that, since my previous employer was nearly directly targeted by one of their campaigns, it would be a difficult conflict to solve. The other being that, in an all too common play in Free Software community, there’s been a purity test on how to engage — in-person meetings are obviously not the easiest to attend, and with the strict constraints of privacy, finding a proper medium for discussion is always hard.

This is not to move the attention over from gama’s story — but to show that the attitude of “Yeah, there’s a problem, but can’t really fix it, can we?” in that story is not a surprise to me, and I can totally accept it.

And given the way their peer organizations in the USA and Latin America have been behaving over the past few years, particularly in defending Stallman’s behaviour as if he was a religious leader, and the still strong connections between them, I guess it’s time I publicly distance myself from FSFE – just as much as I did over the years with FSF — which fits with having been called an “enemy of Free Software” before.

I guess this is yet another community I don’t belong to, being a fan of nuance, and seeing that there’s a lot of good coming out of things that are not perfect. On both sides.

The Cat Who Reviewed Some Books

As promised, I am still doing sARTSurday posts about arts, including book reviews. In this case it’s not the review of a book but a review of a series. Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series, to be precise. So sit down and relax for a bit of feline whodunit review.

Personal History

This is a very special series for me. I was in primary school when I read a book from the series for the first time — not the first book in the series, though, but rather the 16th book, The Cat Who Came to Breakfast, titled in Italian Il Gatto Che Giocava a Domino (“The Cat Who Played Dominoes”). For a kid that was already into Agatha Christie novels, it felt so nice to read something more modern, and despite this not being something that my parents or my sisters ever cared about, it turns out the series is also fairly age-appropriate, at least most of the time.

I did manage to read four of the books in Italian – plus one of the unrelated short stories by Braun – but anything more was a lost cause. I went into so many different bookstores, even second hand bookstores, and I never found more than those. I even wrote to the publisher (Mondadori) asking them if they published more of the books, and how to find them and order them… this is before Amazon, and before most online bookstores, you need to understand. When I say I wrote to them, I mean that I typed it on an Olivetti typerwriter, and sent it over by snail mail. They did reply, by the way — but they also had no idea how to find any of the other books; I’m fairly sure the impression I got was that they didn’t print any of the other books, but Italian Wikipedia appears to disagree with me. Instead, they sent me over an anthology of short stories about cats and mysteries (or deaths), that included one story by Braun.

As an extra fun aside, some of you out there might remember a toy called 2-XL – not the 8-track version but the compact cassette one – which was available in Italy as well as a number of other countries. I loved that toy as a kid, and I think I might still have it somewhere at my mother’s house. It was pretty much just a tape player with trivia questions. One of the tapes I was given for that toy was about mysteries, and it had a question about this series of books! With hindsight, I guess they just translated the original Tiger Electronics cassette to Italian, because the series clearly had much more success in the USA than in Italy.

Anyway, when I decided I really wanted to be able to read English – after high school, when I didn’t have terrible teachers thinking they were helping while making us hate the language – I turned to these novels again, and bought a few books from one of the first Internet bookshops in Italy that actually sold English editions. Unfortunately even then it was not something I could read start-to-finish, because of the availability of the physical books. So it wasn’t until earlier this year that I decided to read the whole series, in order. It was a quarantine project.

This is one of the reasons why I feel that eBooks are still extremely empowering, despite the whole problems of artificial regions, DRMs, and so on. With very few exceptions, eBooks, like all digital goods, are removing the wall of scarcity that physical books have to live with. For good or bad, there’s no hunting down a second hand copy of the Italian translation in a bin in a small bookshop on the outskirt of Treviso — you go online, and get a copy of the book.

Well, at least most of the time. I know that some authors have explicitly boasted setting up deals selling only a limited amount of eBooks copies, to make an artificial scarcity that reproduces the physical world’s rarity into the digital world. I don’t particularly like this, but it’s their art and it’s their choice — I’ll just avoid playing to those notes myself, and not buy “limited edition” eBooks.

400 Miles North of Everywhere… or Not

So let’s talk setting for a moment, because this is a series that is fairly interesting. First of all, these are mystery novels, and they are generally light mystery novels. With a handful of exceptions, there’s no description of gruesome deaths, and while there’s fairly obvious references to characters sleeping around, they are only obvious to an adult, and I’m sure I had not picked up on any of them when I was younger.

The protagonist is Jim Qwilleran, a journalist from Chicago, and his cat companion Koko, who are later joined by another cat, Yum Yum. These are the only constants throughout the series, because the rest of the characters are not only varied, but they are also fairly disposable: I have not calculated the body count of each books, but there’s a lot of characters that, despite surviving for a number of books, end up dying some times “off stage”, for all different type of reasons: accidents, malfeasance, old age, health issues, …

The location of where the main action takes place is also not constant. When I read the four books as a kid, they all took place in the fictional rural community of “Moose County”, which is described as being 400 miles North of everywhere. But that’s not where the series started.

Indeed, the first few books take place “Down Below” in a city that could very well be Chicago, but is never specified. That’s where we get introduced to recovering alcoholic Qwill, and the posh Siamese cat Koko, and the first characters in the cast, some of which will stay around until the very end of the series. Then after twenty years from the first book, Moose County is introduced, which became the permanent setting for the series — well, with a couple of exceptions.

The different setting doesn’t really change the main feeling of the series, except for the fact that book number four The Cat Who Saw Red, the first book after the 18 year hiatus of the series, and the last one in the big city, that contains the only death that made me sick in my stomach when reading. Otherwise, the main difference between the two settings is that the cast stopped cycling, and started “building up”.

As for the cats… they feature prominently in the stories, not just as human companions but as raison d’être, at times, with most of the “good folks” sharing their life with a cat. The titular character, Koko, is a normal, pampered Siamese cat, that somehow acts just the right way to make Qwill see through misdirection and mysteries, and solve whichever murder just happened around him. While there’s the usual need for a suspension of disbelief of the typical whodunit series – why did people still invite Jessica Fletcher for events, knowing full well that someone will die just before or just after dinner? – Braun made a point that none of Koko’s behaviour was not out of the ordinary for a cat… just a lot of coincidence.

While the cast is far from diverse, and you can probably tell that Braun had not been mingling much with people outside of the USA, except maybe for Scots, it gives a warm feeling of rural closed communities, with a lot of time dedicated to the fictional history of the county, with immigrants from… a bunch of white European places. It’s definitely the product of its time in this regard — the only character that is described as being not white is a woman with not-well-defined “Mediterranean” origin.

A more interesting point is that, unlike a lot of other books I have read when I was a kid, the cast is generally older. Qwill himself is middle-aged to older, having gone through a nasty divorce before the events of the first book, and being a recovering alcoholic, and most of the friends he makes in the whole series are older than him. Any character that is described as being less than thirty is pretty much described as a youngster, if not a delinquent!

Qwill also appear to be – like me, my wife, and Sarah Millican – a “cheery childless”, not having particular fondness for children, avoiding babies, and having a short temper with their “nonsense”, which I totally relate to. While there’s a number of babies being born in Moose County, they usually stay off-screen, until at least they are grown up enough to at least say something.

And being a recovering alcoholic, he’s also the character that always goes for a mocktail — although I wonder if that word was even used at the time. But the Squunk Water with cranberry juice sounds pretty much like it. Once again, relatable.

As I said already, there’s a couple of exceptions about all the action happening in Moose County. Two of the books – The Cat Who Lived High and The Cat Who Moved a Mountain – have a different settings, Down Below and a different rural community, respectively. But at the same time, they are very clearly books that remind the reader why the action will stay in Moose County. So not really “pilots in disguise” for any reboot.

29 25 Delightful Novels.

The Cat Who… series includes 29 novels. Of these, I would recommend stopping after the 25th, The Cat Who Brought Down the House. There are repeated rumors that Braun, who was getting on with age herself, had not been writing the last few books — I have no idea nor proof about the situation with this, but the last four books definitely have lost their shine, and would not recommend reading them. Indeed, as I’m typing this review I’m still not done with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, but I thought it wouldn’t be important to actually finish it, as already the previous book was hard to swallow.

It’s not just the writing going a bit off-style — Braun has definitely played with different writing styles between books – in a way that reminds me a bit of the first few books in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files – but her characters have always behaved… in-character. While many of them have not been particularly well developed, they have at least always acted consistently between books… until those four books.

My honest, personal impression is that Braun might have had a general outline of where she wanted to bring a bunch of stories and threads, and a ghost writer took care of fleshing it out. The reason why I say that, is the number of inconsistencies, the characters that appear to be completely forgotten, other characters that appear and disappear out of nowhere, instead of being at least introduced and discussed.

I’ll give you a few examples with spoilers, so be careful about this section.

In the Moose County books, the unofficial historian throughout is a character named Homer Tibbitt — who became clearly a dear friend of Qwill. Indeed, Braun at times talk about how the latter never met his grandparents, and that’s why he gravitates around older people, such as Homer. As of Turkey, the title of county historian has been passed on to a different character (Thornton Haggis), and there’s no hearing about Homer until Bombshell, in which he dies, off-stage, announced by a phone call — not to Qwill, but to the plumber, never heard of before, and never heard of since, who came visiting the barn just right then. And despite the long-running job that funerals are big deals in Pickax, and that Homer was like a grandfather to Qwill, there’s no discussion of funeral arrangements, no discussion of wills, no call to his widow, … it isn’t until Whiskers (the last book), that Qwill even appears to care about Homer being dead!

This is just one of the reasons why I think Braun might have left notes about her wanting to “kill off” Homer before the 150th anniversary of the city, but it wasn’t her actually writing the whole treatment. And similarly, once people complained about not having heard anything about Homer’s funeral, the following book tried addressing that.

Similarly, at the end of Bombshell, another, much younger, character dies, that has a relationship with a close friend of Qwill — and neither him nor anybody else that talks about how that death will reflect on the friend! Not even a quick call to express regrets, no talk about funeral arrangements… despite, once again, the local tradition of funerary prowess.

And to top it off, the reason why I’m slow at finishing Whiskers is that I’m now reading descriptions of how Qwill, a columnist that prided himself to be able to write a thousand words on the colour green, is having trouble finding new topics, and can’t extract a good column on… viticulture. I mean, sure, he’s not had a drink for half a century by then, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped him before mixing cocktails and talking shop. This is all so out of character that it makes reading the book just painful.

Speaking of out of character… in the last four books, Koko becomes a caricature of himself — while there’s always been the tension and mystery of whether Koko actually had supernatural powers, or just happened to be doing stuff that Qwill would read too much into (which, I found out recently, is called apophenia)… but in the last four books it became much more paradoxical, including suggestions that he would be able to send wrongdoings pretty much unrelated to anyone in the books at all — come on, someone “firebombs” city hall, Koko senses it before it happens, and it’s dismissed with a call of the police chief?

There’s more — the attorney that would rarely be spoken about except when something bad happened suddenly becomes “Uncle George” and appears every third chapter — the multiple young women that appear out of nowhere, drop the answer to the current mystery, and disappear — the young sidekick that joins the newspaper under false name, and then disappears without a trace — Lisa Compton nearly flirting with Qwill, or vice versa, despite them knowing each other for years by then.

I can see why the rumors spread, and I’m willing to believe them. As I said, my impression is that some time during the writing of Turkey (which starts fairly on par with everything else, but then degenerates), Braun started being unwell, and the publisher brought in someone to help. Someone who only gave a superficial reading of the plots of the series, and maybe a character sheet, but couldn’t keep them straight enough to write as well as Braun.

There’s a missing closure for Turkey, there’s missing characters in Bananas, there’s just plain bad writing in Bombshell, and Whiskers feels like a hackjob to the point I ‘m not sure how else to describe it.

Personal Views and Impact

I really enjoyed the “trip down memory lane” with reading The Cat Who… back to back. I wished there was a bit more closure towards the end of the series. I have a feeling that it was planned for it, but it just didn’t manage to materialize.

I can’t say for sure that the books have directly influenced me. But they definitely have left an impression in my memory, with the whole experience of trying to find a copy, writing to the Italian publisher, starting to read English books with it, and so on.

And maybe a bit of a subtle, subconscious influence made me worry less about old age and loneliness — even though I’m very unlikely to inherit billions of dollars like Qwill, particularly after reading the whole series, I can feel that there’s plenty to do in my later years to feel satisfaction, even without kids of our own.

While the journalistic profession is not really something I’m interested in, you can see from this blog that writing is something that I ended up doing quite a bit for. Was I impressed as a kid that from Qwill’s lifestyle? Did I miss the part where he could afford it because he inherited billions and owned the newspaper he wrote on? I don’t think it’s that easy, but I guess it might have been in the back of my mind growing up after all.

And of course, reading this now, that I’m not quite that young, that I can’t be drinking (and don’t care for), and that I share my life with a person I love, with no intention of having kids, I can definitely feel closer to Qwill, although clearly not entirely, and not just for the money.

Generally, if you’d like a reading that “feels” like the early seasons of Murder, She Wrote, then this might be the series for you. For the most part, I’d say it’s also a kid-friendly read, since there’s very little explicit violence – beside the murders, of course – and as I said, not really any explicit sex. Indeed, at most it’s said that Qwilleran and Polly just happen to lose track of time, since at many points Braun wrote they met after dinner for a quick chat, and one or the other left when it was quite dark out there — this was totally lost of ten years old me, since the concept of “after dinner” in Italy would imply darkness anyway. It wasn’t until I lived in Los Angeles, and then Dublin, that I realized how early Anglosaxons eat!

There’s a lot of nice pearls to dig around; Braun seems to have been predicting a lot of the banes of modern life, including smartphones’ autocorrects. And while she sounds a lot like a technophobe, you also need to keep in mind that most of the books predates “modernity” by quite a bit. And is aimed at a generally older audience.

I’m happy I read these books in a binge – and I hope that, if you pick up the series yourself, you’ll enjoy it as well. Given it’s now “winter lockdown” up here, I would suggest reading it while wrapped up in a blanket while drinking a strong, black coffee — just like Qwill would like it!

You can’t program the world to suit you

Last year, I was drafting more notes regarding the Free Software for SMB that I talked about before. While doing so I recognized that one of the biggest takeaway for myself is that successfully making a software project thrive takes a lot more than just good programmers, developers, designers. If you have customers you need people who know how to make a business work, you need people who can market your product, and you need people to remind you what the customers actually want as well as what they need.

It’s not an entirely new lesson — I wrote (in Italian) about helping Free Software without being a programmer fifteen years ago. I also wrote about the importance of teamwork two years ago. And I have spent a good chunk of my opensource and professional careers knee-deep in documentation matters.

I actually want to go back to the tweet that spawned the teamwork post:

Most things don’t work the way I think they work. That’s why I’m a programmer, so I can make them work the way I think they should work.

This is not meant to single out the author of the quoted phrase, but just to take it as an example of a feeling I get from many talks, and discussions, and in general just people out there. The idea that you can tech your way out of a problem. That by being a programmer you can change the way most things work.

And that’s not true, because the world is not running on servers, unless you found the Repository and I don’t know that. Indeed wielding “the power of programming”, thinking of changing the world just with that, sounds to me like a recipe for either failure or disaster.

I heard all kind of possible “solutions” to this — from insisting on teaching ethics in Software Engineering courses (with reasonable doubts about it), to regulating the heck out of any action businesses can take. I think the closest I have seen to something I would like (with all my biases of course) would be to make sure there is a mix of non-programming subjects in every university or high school that teaches programming as well. But even that has its own limitations, and I can totally say that I would probably have been frustrated by that and just ignored everything that’s not programming-related, when I was that age.

To make the example of Italy, that is under political turmoils most of the time, I could see a number of critiques of (in my opinion horrible) politicians based on where they went to school. In particular I saw some left-wing intellectuals criticising ministers (who have enough to be criticised about in deeds) based on the fact that they didn’t study in a lyceum but rather on a technical (or professional) school. Well, turns out I studied at a tech school, and I studied basic economics and (very basic) civic education for two years, and I found out the hard way that I know how VAT works much better than most of my local acquaintances who got an university degree after a lyceum: they never were introduced to the concept of VAT, the difference between types of taxes, and so on.

You could argue that there is no reason to know this particular tidbit, which is where I’m actually going to end up: there is no perfect education, the same way as there is no perfect solution. People need to learn to work with each other and they should know how to play each other’s strengths instead.

What I really would like to see proposed more often is focusing a lot more on teamwork. And not in the sense of “Here’s a topic for research, now work on it with your team”, which I had to do in high school — many of us have had the experience of being the only person working for a group assignment. What I would have loved to have would be cross-school year-long projects. Not competitions, but rather something that requires more than one type of expertise: trying to get three programming students in a room to work together, in my experience, turned to either two of them slacking off, because one of them actually enjoy doing the work, or if you’re lucky having someone with actual leadership skills telling them how to do their job… but still gives the impression that you just need programmers to do something like that.

In hindsight I would have loved instead if I had a project shared with some of my colleagues from electronics, mechanical and business tech-schools. Come up with a solution for a problem, that requires hardware and software, and a product plan that would include optimising the bill of material for small batch production and still make profits.

Sounds complicated? It is. Having had my own company, alone, for four years, made it very clear that there is a lot more than just being a programmer if you want to succeed. If you want to change the world, and in particular if you want to make the world a better place, then it takes even more energy, and a bigger group of people who can work together.

It also takes leadership. And that’s not something that I feel can be taught, and it’s the one that makes the most difference on whether the change is for good or not. I’m not good at leading people. I don’t have the right mindset most likely. I have trouble rallying people towards a common goal. I know that. I just hope that at some point, when I’ll be looking at more meaning in my work, I’ll find the right leader that can take what I can add to a good team, and let me shine through that.

I know it’s going to be repeating myself, but that is also what I mean with “there is no perfect solution”. If we decided that leadership is something that is important to score people, whether it is with school results, or with performance review at work, then we would be pretty much excluding a significant part of the population: not everyone wants to be a leader, are people who don’t want to be a leader worth less to society? Hint: this is not far from the question of how many multiples of a line worker a CEO should be worth.

And if you need a proper example of how “tech will not solve it”, just look at 2020 in general: tech is not really solving the Covid-19 world crisis. It does help, of course: videopresence, social network and chat services (including my employer’s), online “tabletop” games, shared documents infrastructure, online shopping, and so on… they all allowed people, isolating or not, to feel closer together. But it did not solve the problem. Even if we including medical sciences as “tech”, they still have not managed to find a way to deal with the crisis, because the crisis is not just medical.

People don’t ignore the lockdown requirements because they don’t have enough tech: it’s because there are other things in this world! It’s one thing to talk to my mother on the big screen of Portal, and another thing to spend a week at her house — including the fact that I can’t fix her house’s wiring while physically in another country. And then there is the big elephant in the room: the economy — tech can’t solve that problem, people working in industries that had to shut down because of the lockdown can’t just be “teched” into new roles; they can’t magically be vaccinated overnight; they need political leaders to make tough decisions around supporting them.

So no, you can’t program the world to suit your needs. Great for you if you have more tools in your toolbox – and there’s a lot more use for even basic programming literacy that has nothing to do with working as a programmer – but that doesn’t make you super-human, nor it allows you to ignore what’s going on in the world. If “being a programmer” is providing a superiority complex, I feel it’s more related to the fact that we’ve been well paid for a number of years now, and money makes the difference.

But that’s a topic for an entirely new rant, later on.

Why Am I Writing This Blog?

When I decided to take a break from the blog, I decided that the first thing I would be reflecting upon, and posting about, is my reasons to keep this blog running, and to keep writing on it. Because the answer to that should definitely feed into the decision of returning from the break and writing again.

The reasons why I started, continued, and am currently writing are all different. The only constant part is that I always wanted to make something that would be read or used by others. And while I hated writing essays for school, I always liked sitting down and writing on a topic I cared about. I remember before blogs were easy to get a start with, I wrote “articles” in LaTeX and posted it as PDF to the local Linux Users Group mailing list¹.

But the truth is that those “articles” were pretty much the same (low) quality of blog posts — as I already wrote about, blog posts are not very involved. I have written articles for actual publications: NewsForge back when it existed, the Italian Linux Journal (also gone), and LWN.net. The amount of work put on by the editors varied widely, with LWN having taught me lots, and being also the only one who paid for the articles — I feel it’s unfair, they did the most work and they gave money to me rather than the other way around.

Most of the readers of this blog probably know it from my blogging related to Gentoo Linux, but before I held a Planet Gentoo blog, I had a blog in Italian on Blogspot (for which I lost the backups, and only recovered some sparse posts thanks to the Wayback Machine), and in between the two I had a few posts on a KDE-sponsored shared blog (KDevelopers), which I have folded into this site, together with the few guest posts I did for Axant and for David’s Boycott Boycott Novell.

When I started blogging regularly for Gentoo Linux, it was mostly daily updates on the work I had been doing there. Whether it was multimedia packages changes or the Gentoo/FreeBSD progress — and that’s why a lot of the early blog posts look more like Twitter than the current blog, particularly those that predate Twitter. I still use this blog for updating the progress of various projects I’m involved in, but Twitter took over the “daily” updates, and the blog only includes “milestone” updates. Also, I have much fewer public projects compared to what I used to contribute to ten to fifteen years ago, for good or bad.

At some point, in addition to providing a status update, I used the blog also as a “showroom” — as a way to find work. Turns out that when I was a contractor I did indeed find a few gigs thanks to the blog itself — but since I have been working full time for many years now, that’s no longer a reason. Similarly, while before having a stable job, I have experimented with different ways to monetize the blog, from various referral systems to ads — none ever managed to cover the costs of running the blog at all, but in particular they would all now fit into the category of “rounding error”, as a former colleague would call them.

These last two points are important to the motivations discussion — a monetized blog, or a blog of someone who’s struggling to find a job, are very good reason to want more eyeballs on the posts, but both are not reasons I care for, at least not at this point in time. So why am I feeling disappointed that there aren’t more visitors, beside the psychological effects of counters and stats?

I guess the answer is that I have strong opinions, and the main motivation for me to write this blog nowadays is to voice them, and try to sway others — or be proven wrong and be swayed myself to a more positive and optimistic view of the world. Some are more active opinions than other: comments on working from home are very general and with the only action item to please consider the effect of it on others with different experiences and problems, while my repeated rants about licensing have action items that you can all pick up on.

I also still want to write so that other people can find out how to do stuff — because I love finding out how stuff works, and sometimes I even get to make use of that knowledge. I said this some time ago, that there’s significant value to spread the word, and share how things are done with others. Most of the stuff I have produced myself is not an invention of mine — it’s a refinement of someone else’s idea. Yes, even the free ideas that I have thrown out there but never managed to work on myself.

And then, there’s been quite a few personal posts on this blog over time – as I said before when sharing it at work, «there is a whole lot of me in [this] blog» – and those are there for… different reasons. Sometimes it’s personal therapy, sometimes a reminder to myself that I went through stuff, and I don’t need to squander opportunities. In many cases, it’s to share my experiences with others who might go through similar troubles. When I complained the first time about alcohol culture in Free Software, I was a very dissonant voice — nowadays this is a much more common complaint, and a number of conferences replaces beer parties with tea parties, though sometimes more to make fun of the complains… except the joke’s on them.

So what does all of this come down to, when it comes to the blog? Well, not really much to be honest. It means that there will still be project reports, opinions (and rants), explanations, and some personal point of view posts. I’ll also probably keep posting sARTSurday – even if not as regular as I tried at the beginning of the lockdown – including personal reviews of books and videogames, because I did write those before, and I see no reason not to keep doing that.

What it does say to me, is that my focus on the tight two-posts-per-week schedule is misplaced. While it did work great to keep my mind off the pandemic, particularly during the two months sabbatical between jobs, it’s proving more of a chore than a relief now that I’m back working full time and (mostly) ramped up in my new position. The tight schedule would have made sense if I tried to keep as many eyeballs on the blog as possible – which again is not really an useful goal to have for my motivations – but it also can reduce the quality of posts if I’m posting something early just so that I have a paced release of it.

So from now on, the schedule of blog posts will be once per week, on Tuesday, for regular post. sARTSurday posts will not be regular, but will appear when I find something particularly interesting to share with all. I’ll stop chasing timing and opportunities, and will instead post just what is ready to be posted, with no particular regard to scheduling the posts.

While thinking the blog’s motivation over, I also started wondering on whether I should spend more time on doing something… different. You might remember I have now a few times streamed on Twitch (and once on Facebook Live) — that started mostly as me trying to figure out how to convey information over the Internet that I would usually convey on a whiteboard. I still haven’t found a good answer to that, so I might end up doing more of that as time goes by, to experiment and find something that will work as well for work meetings. But it’s not going to be the kind of thing I expect people to care about or follow — after all, I have tried this before, over 11 years ago, and it wasn’t my cup of tea to continue.

What I might want to try is to prepare a “talk” out of some of the knowledge I have. Somewhere between a blog post and a conference talk, with a few of the things that I learnt over time and that might be worth sharing… but the motivation for that is less to become a famous streamer, and more that I might need to do that at work, and it’s worth trying to learn to make content in a way that can be used for training the newbies arriving. But don’t hold your breath on that, and don’t expect it to be any high quality to begin with.

Rather, if you find anything here, new or old that it might be, that is worth discussing further, feel free to bring it up — I might do a whiteboarding session about it, or I might take it for a jumpstart topic for a talk. Or at the very least I might write a refresher blog post to correct mistakes or update information of how things evolved in the meantime. And feel free to share it on aggregation sites like Reddit and Lobsters, just don’t expect me to be proactively there to answer questions — ask them here!

¹ Those articles are still to be found in this blog! I used to keep them on a page of my site, but have eventually folded them into blog posts. Which is how the archives go back to 2004!

It’s Time For A Break

Since before the beginning of the lockdown, I’ve been striving to keep a two-posts-per-week schedule to the blog, talking about my work philosophy, my electronics projects, and even trying a third post a week for a while with sARTSurday. Keeping the schedule was not easy, but I tried and only messed it twice: once when I mis-scheduled a post, and once when Microsoft “stole” my thunder.

About six months later, I’m running out of steam to keep the schedule. It might be because I spent the last few weeks worrying about whether we would have a flat to stay in as a new lockdown started. Or it might be that I’m now engaging gears with my new dayjob and it’s using all of my mental capacity.

I even tried whiteboarding — both with a physical whiteboard and on Twitch with Microsoft Whiteboard. Part of the reason why I did that is that with the lack of an office, I was looking for better venue to engage with my colleagues to discuss ideas and come up with plans. I can’t say it worked.

I have been mulling about options. I even briefly considered figuring out how much it would cost me to hire an editor to make the blog post more… polished. But the truth is that it wouldn’t make much sense — while I have been known for the blog in the past, blogs are the past. I never became a speaker when conferences were at their highest point, and I’ll never be a streamer now that they have been replaced by virtual events. I described myself recently as a C-list blogger – and I meant that. It seems nowadays to be B-list you need to have statically generated blog with no comments, and to be A-list you need to have not your own blog but just a Medium account. I don’t fit, nor I care to fit, into that world.

I guess I’m like a sportsman who’s too old to keep playing, but not well known enough to become a coach or a celebrity. And you know what? That’s okay. I’ll keep focusing on my dayjob as a “software mechanic” for as long as I can at least keep up to date to the new bubble’s stack. And maybe I can still get an idea or two out in the future, even when I won’t be able to do anything good with it myself.

This is not a goodbye, it’s just a “see you later” — I’ve been blogging for over 15 years and I’m not going to fully stopping now. If you have any questions or comments or suggestions on any of my old blog posts, feel free to leave a comment there, as I will be monitoring those, although possibly not as closely as before.

Update 2020-09-25: A couple of weeks into the break, I feel I’m finding myself more relaxed, and trying to get myself into a better position to get back to blogging later. Also in the meantime we finally finalized the paperwork for moving to a new apartment (that will also be a tale for later on in the blog), which means that we have a timeline for when we’ll have even less time.

So the current plan is that I’ll be taking time off posting until November 2020. After which I’ll come back on a one post per week schedule, until further notice. With the post going out likely on Tuesday or Wednesday, not sure yet. The reason for reducing frequency is to give myself some more time to work on content without rushing through incomplete posts.

“Working From Home”

Despite having commented on my continuing lockdown, I have tried extremely hard not to comment too much on the whole WFH debate, at least on the blog. You might have seen me ranting about it a few times over on Twitter though.

First of all, I have to admit I was lucky — when the whole lockdown started, I didn’t have to scramble to find the space to work from home: I already set up a home office, I had a standing desk already, multiple monitors, proper home connection without relying on WiFi, and all the kind of ergonomic setup that many of my teammates had to scramble hard for. I had set this up when I got to London, because I remember how bad it was for me to have a work/life balance separation in Dublin, when I had a desk just sitting next to the sofa, and I would end up working till late instead of just sitting on the sofa to watch TV or play games.

And of course, I’m also counting myself lucky that neither me nor my wife fell ill, form Covid-19 or anything else, that our families – while struggling a bit – had been safe throughout this whole event. And also, since we’re not interested in having kids, that significantly reduced the amount of worry, and of work, needed to switch to the lockdown scenario. I can only imagine how much harder for families it still is and don’t envy them.

But at the same time, I do miss the office, and am hoping not to stay working from home forever. I spent many years working from home, alone and isolated, while I had my own company, back in Italy. And while I can do a significant amount of work individually, I do believe that teamwork brings better results. Thankfully, “telepresence” options such as Portal, Zoom, and Google Meet help significantly to coordinate the work, but they are not quite the same thing. I feel more relaxed working sitting at a desk next to my colleagues than I feel working at my desk with a camera pointed at me while I’m working — it makes me feel self-conscious.

I’m also painfully aware that even with the luck of being able to keep working from home, there’s a lot of things that are left to be desired. For instance, while lots of people are bringing up the fact that you don’t have to pay for commute anymore as a great positive, few go back to point out that you end up paying more for utilities such as electricity, water, and heating. We could see a good 20% increase in electricity usage since I started working from home, and while we’re (again) lucky that this is not a significant difference, I can see how the heating in the winter, for people leaving in cottages, would wipe out any commuting savings for the year.

And while I can definitely find an easier way to get my focus time from home, even taking turns preparing meals with my wife, the amount of time we spend for fixing up two extra meals a day (breakfast and lunch) is noticeable. The whole “free food” perk is not just about not paying for food: it’s about the time it takes to make the food, and the time it takes away from your workday.

There’s a lot more of course, on both side of the equation — and there’s the whole point that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is literally reshaping the way we live. I’m just looking forward to go back to an office, and to have a commute — not because I want to spend an hour on a crowded Tube train, but because I want a little bit of time to mark the end of a workday, stop worrying about the issues of the day, and turn off my work phone, so I can join my wife at the end of the day in full without splitting my mind with work.

It’s tiring, and it’s getting to me, and I’m sure it’s getting to many. Be looking out to your friends and your colleagues. Cut them a break if they are snappier than usual, particularly if they have complicated home situations – kids, babies, sick family (even extended), risks, moving houses, … – as it’s likely they are not trying to tick you off, and it’s more than likely that you’ll need the same before this is all over.

Ode to the five litres tank

You may remember that last year I wrote about a “plastics free” store, selling spices, oil, and even laundry detergent. I have no idea how they are faring with the current pandemic, but let’s just say that unless they turned into a conventional store, there’s no way that I would be interested in going and buy spices, nuts and pasta from huge containers that are handled by dozens of customers per day — and particularly by kids sticking their grubby fingers into the nuts’ boxes to steal a macadamia.

Even if the concept would have been workable before, I doubt that after this whole experience it’s going to thrive — while I care about the planet, I care about not dying more, and I assume the same is going to be true for the vast majority of the public (but not everyone, I’m sure). So what are the alternative options to buying without plastic containers? I can only think of the idea of buying in bulk.

Back at the start of the lockdown, one of the things that was getting harder to find in the local supermarkets was soap — and if you have read the blog post linked above, you know that I’ve been using refills. In particular at home we have a very nice glass, 1L liquid soap dispenser bottle that came with some decent lavender liquid soap we bought in TkMaxx over a year ago, and we’ve been filling it with different brands’ soap, that are usually available around the £4/L mark. We had a couple of litres stashed away, but eventually they started running low.

So looking around we found a 5L tank of hand wash, targeted as commercial users, but easy to get a hold of in the pandemic. It’s a bit more expensive than what we found before, but we liked it better, particularly given the fact that it has not ruined my hands, despite us washing our hands a lot more than before. And that had me thinking that most most likely the 5L tank can be reused, rather than recycled, much more easily. For instance, you can use it to collect waste oil when deep frying, and then bring it to the correct recycling point for that. Or in any case you can throw it with the recycling.

But it’s not just the plastic involved that makes a difference. Just think of how often you would need to get these delivered in half a litre increment. The 5L tank is due to last us just about five months, so you get around two deliveries a year, instead of about two a months (or once a month if you can just order the refills in pairs). And because we liked the quality of the soap, we ended up ordering the shampoo from the same brand, and fill a plastic bottle instead; at least for my hair it works well, and I’m picky — and it costs nearly half per liter than my usual ones.

There’s more than shampoo and soap that can be bought in 5L tanks. Body wash, fabric softener, vegetable oil, … and liter-for-liter they clearly need less plastics, if that’s the main measure we use for pollution, and they require fewer trips to shops and fewer deliveries. They are a bit awkward to use sometimes (thus why we have a 1L bottle we pour the vegetable we use for cooking), but the main disadvantage is that they take space, and while we’re lucky to have enough space for them in our flat, I don’t think I’d have been able to make the space for them in Dublin (didn’t help that the closet had a ton of stuff left over from the landlord and the previous tenants, including umbrellas, 5cm square framed mirrors, and stuff like that).

And I’m taking the 5L tanks as an example, but they are a metonymy for a number of other bought-in-bulk items, many of which are hard to find here in London. Even toilet paper, another staple of lockdown hoarding: Dublin and London got me used to order it in 16- or 9-roll bags, while in Italy I was used to buying 48/64 rolls at a time. It’s non-perishable, and if you do have the space to just get it and stuff it somewhere until you need it, why increasing the number of times you need to order it?

Funny story here: when I moved to London, and found out that my local Sainsbury’s didn’t have anything over 4 rolls bags, I decided that it would be easier to order 60 rolls from Amazon and have it delivered. The cost was meaningfully lower, and at the time I was not setting up for groceries’ delivery, and rather going to the stores myself to pick up just the stuff I needed for the days — bringing toilet paper on the bus is bulky and uncomfortable. Unfortunately i forgot to check where I asked Amazon to deliver it, and I ended up receiving nearly a cubic meter of toilet paper to my office, and had to find a way to bring it home, considering it took me an hour to go from King’s Cross to home, between Piccadilly and bus. Thankfully, two trips with my Filson duffle bag at a late hour were enough to bring it home. I love that duffle bag.

What I’m suggesting is that city living needs to start adapting to the idea that people need storage space. When looking at apartments, you can’t but wonder what’s the chicken and what’s the egg, between the lack of cupboard storage and the just-in-time supply used by most grocery stores in the big cities. Maybe in five years we will all live in apartments that have enough cupboard storage that you only need to buy non-perishables once a month, and the local stores will be providing fresh food and only urgent needs.

There’s also another clear problem with getting people to use bulk-volume non-perishables: beside Amazon, very few sellers carry those as options, at least in the UK. Yes, there’s Costco here just like in the USA, but that’s not common, and you do need to make sure you account for the £15/yr options. In Italy if you have a VAT ID you often end up shopping at Metro, because that’s an option that opens up to you…

Again, this is the type of thing that needs to be adapted for, after this whole pandemic happened. Reducing the frequency of deliveries by buying in bulk should be favourable for both grocery stores and consumers, given how the panic buying broke most delivery systems. So maybe next year Morrisons will have more 5L tanks of stuff available for delivery, not just the vegetable oil.

The Rolodex Paradigm

Silhouette of a rolodex.

Created by Marie-Pierre Bauduin from Noun Project.

In my previous bubble, I used to use as my “official” avatar a clipart picture of a Rolodex. Which confused a lot of people, because cultures differ and most importantly generation differ, and turned out that a lot of my colleagues and teammates never had seen or heard of a Rolodex. To quote one of the managers of my peer team when my avatar was gigantic on the conference room’s monitor «You cannot say that you don’t know what a Rolodex is, anymore!»

So, what is a Rolodex? Fundamentally, it’s a fancy address book. Think of it as a physical HyperCard. As Wikipedia points out, though, the name is sometimes used «as a metonym for the sum total of an individual’s accumulated business contacts», which is how I’m usually using it — the avatar is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Do note that this is most definitely not the same as a Pokédex.

And what I call the Rolodex Paradigm is mainly the idea that the best way to write software is not to know everything about everything, but to know who knows something about what you need. This is easier said than done of course, but let me try to illustrate why I mean all of this.

One of the things I always known about myself is that I’m mainly a generalist. I like knowing a little bit about a lot of things, rather than a lot about a few things. Which is why on this blog you’ll find superficial posts about fintech, electronics, the environment, and cloud computing. You’ll rarely find in-depth articles about anything more recently because to get into that level of details I would need to get myself “in the zone” and that is hardly achievable while maintaining work and family life.

So what do I do when I need information I don’t have? I ask. And to do that, I try to keep in mind who knows something about the stuff that interest me. It’s the main reason why I used to use IRC heavily (I’m still around but not active at all), the main reason why I got to identi.ca, the main reason why I follow blogs and write this very blog, and the main reason why I’m on social networks including Twitter and Facebook – although I’ve switched from using my personal profile to maintaining a blog’s page – and have been fairly open with providing my email address to people, because to be able to ask, you need to make yourself available to answer.

This translates similarly in the workplace: when working at bigger companies that come with their own bubble, it’s very hard to know everything of everything, so by comparison it can be easier to build up a network of contacts who work on different areas within the company, and in particular, not just in engineering. And in a big company it even has a different set of problems to overcome, compared to the outside, open source world.

When asking for help to someone in the open source world, you need to remember that nobody is working for you (unless you’re explicitly paying them, in which case it’s less about asking for help and more about hiring help), and that while it’s possible that you’re charismatic enough (or well known enough) to pull off convincing someone to dedicate significant amount of time to solve your problems, people are busy and they might have other priorities.

In a company setting, there’s still a bit of friction of asking someone to dedicate a significant amount of time to solve your problem rather than theirs. But, if the problem is still a problem for the company, it’s much more likely that you can find someone to at least consider putting your problem in their prioritised list, as long as they can show something for the work done. The recognition is important not just as a way to justify the time (which itself is enough of a reason), but also because in most big companies, your promotion depends on demonstrating impact in one way or another.

Even were more formal approaches to recognitions (such as Google’s Peer Bonus system) are not present, consider sending a message to the manager of whoever helped you. Highlight how they helped not just you personally, but the company — for instance, they may have dedicated one day to implement a feature in their system that saved you a week or two of work, either by implementing the same feature (without the expertise in the system) or working around it; or they might have agreed to get to join a sketched one hour meeting to provide insights into the historical business needs for a service, that will stop you from making a bad decision in a project. It will go a long way.

Of course another problem is to find the people who know about the stuff you need — particularly if they are outside of your organization, and outside of your role. I’m afraid to say that it got a lot harder nowadays, given that we’re now all working remote from different houses and with very little to no social overlapping. So this really relies significantly on two points: company culture, and manager support.

From the company point of view, letting employees built up their network is convenient. Which is why so many big companies provide spaces for, and foster, interaction between employees that have nothing to do with work itself. While game rooms and social interactions are often sold as “perks” to sell roles, they are pretty much relaxed “water cooler” moments, that build those all-too-precious networks that don’t fit into an org structure. And that’s why inclusive social events are important.

So yeah, striking conversations with virtual stranger employees, talking about common interests (photography? Lego? arts?) can lead into knowing what they are working on, and once they are no longer strangers, you would feel more inclined to ask for help later. The same goes for meeting colleagues at courses — I remember going to a negotiation training based around Stuart Diamond’s Getting More, and meeting one of the office’s administrative business partners, who’s also Italian and liking chocolate. When a few months later I was helping to organize VDD ’14, I asked her help to navigate the amount of paperwork required to get outsiders into the office over a weekend.

Meeting people is clearly not enough, though. Keeping in touch is also important, particularly in companies where teams and role are fairly flexible, and people may be working on very different projects after months or year. What I used to do for this was making sure to spend time with colleagues I knew from something other than my main project when traveling. I used to travel from Dublin to London a few times a year for events — and I ended up sitting close to teams I didn’t work with directly, which lead me to meeting a number of colleagues I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with at all. And later on, when I moved to London, I actually worked with some of them in my same team!

And that’s where the manager support is critical. You won’t be very successful at growing a network if your manager, for example, does not let you clear your calendar of routine meetings for the one week you’re spending in a different office. And similarly, without a manager that supports you dedicating some more time for non-business-critical training (such as the negotiation training I’ve mentioned), you’ll end up with fewer opportunities to meet random colleagues.

I think this was probably the starkest difference between my previous employer’s offices in Dublin and London: my feeling was that the latter had far fewer opportunities to meet people outside of your primary role and cultivate those connections. But it might also be caused by the fact that many more people live far enough from the office that commuting takes longer.

How is this all going to be working in a future where so many of us are remote? I don’t honestly know. For me, the lack of time sitting at the coffee area talking about things with colleagues that I didn’t share a team with, is one of the main reason why I hope that one day, lockdown will be over. And for the rest, I’m trying to get used to talk over the Internet more.