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I never became a speaker when conferences were at their highest point, and I’ll never be a streamer now that they have been replaced by virtual events.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.

Amazon, AliExpress, Can You Even Tell The Difference?

You may think that the title is intentionally inflammatory, but I think it’s getting to be a valid question, at least in the UK, and I’ll try to explain it with a bit of humour.

AliExpress is a Chinese-operated online marketplace, which basically acts as a giant online mall with… hundreds, I’d say… of “small stores”, factory outlets, and so on. To me, it reminds me going to Xingguang Photographic Equipment City in Shanghai — which is a number of connected buildings crammed full of small-and-medium shops that sell… well about everything you can think of that has to do with photography and a whole lot that has nothing to do with it. The stuff you can find varied so widely, but in between “gray market” lenses and likely fake equipment, you can find very good deals on Chinese equipment — and I don’t mean just stuff that is “made in China”, but designed and fully manufactured by Chinese companies. I bought a carbon fiber tripod for my camera there, and it’s probably one of my favourite pieces of equipment… and I paid half of its listed price in Europe, since I didn’t go through customs and distributors to get it.

For those who have not been to Shanghai, AliExpress might be known better for Foone’s threads (warning: parts not safe for work and not recommended to minors). Or the random YouTuber reference to them. They are not particularly well looked at, particularly in the United States, because the shipping between China and the US seem to consistently take months. In the UK, this is significantly different: while there’s been stuff that has not arrived within the expected 60 days, even during the huge Covid-19 lockdown, most of the orders I placed arrived within a month. I know that Ireland approximates closer to the US than to the UK, and in general I have been not-quite-relying on AliExpress as a way to get stuff on the cheap if I have no urgency for it to show up. This had been much easier when I didn’t start planning for not living in the same apartment within a few months.

There’s also another important thing to note when talking about AliExpress: unlike most of the store brands we’re used to in Europe and in the United States, they act more like a “stores-only” eBay, in that they don’t actually involve themselves in the quality of the products they sell. This makes the “buyers beware” saying being even more important than usual to keep in mind. On the other hand, if you know what you’re buying and the limitations of possibly non-existent quality assurance, it’s a nice way to gather a bunch of, say, electronics components, acrylic lamps, and it seems for some, even glucometers.

Now, I remember Amazon when it was known for being a place to find the good stuff — recommendations based on what you bought (or evaluated) before, a good review system you could count on, and inventory limited to the stuff that is actually useful. But that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. The quality of products you get from Amazon varies widely, particularly because they are making it increasingly difficult to opt-out of Marketplace, which is pretty much the same concept as AliExpress, except for the fact that Amazon usually takes over the logistics again. And I’ll get to the reviews in a moment.

  • A screenshot for Amazon UK searching for "hot air solder station"

You can see above a partial results for me searching “hot air solder station” on Amazon. This is not a random search per se, but rather tha main trigger for me being ready to complain about Amazon (most other searches follow the same pattern, by the way). A few months ago I decided to order a hot air solder station for home, to make it easy to solder some of the boards I have been working on. I ended up getting a Yihua-branded station for £90, which sounded like it had decent reviews from YouTube electronics folks… except that when I tried using it to desolder the DisplayPort connector I damaged from my old U2711, the plastic around the hot gun melted, releasing toxic fumes in my office… which made me discover the Dyson fan has a purple level of air quality, which approximates to “run away”.

I sent the station back to Amazon pointing out how the CE mark on the box looked very suspicious in light of what happened, and they did refund me no-questions-asked, but… I couldn’t leave a review about it. Despite me sending it back after two weeks, the item I bought was already removed from the store by that point. I didn’t get any notification about it being removed for safety concerns, so I assume that it was the seller deciding to run with the money instead. I replaced the station with a £25 one from AliExpress, which… turned out to perform significantly better, given that it did not burn down after nearly a month using it.

Now, let’s look at the picture I added above. The first four results are “Sponsored” — that means they are ads. Yes, you do get ads on Amazon when you search for something. Of the eight results, no two are reporting the same brand… but if you know what to look for you can see the Yihua logo on two of the sponsored entries and one of the “organic” ones, although none of them are reported as Yihua (except for the one that says MMOBIEL). How does this even fly? Well, it seems like the “brand” you see is the one that is putting together the “kit” of the soldering station with a bunch of vaguely related accessories.

But can we find more Yihua from these eight? Of course we can!

Preciva being a “white label” brand, akin to Silverline, is literally photoshopping away the Yihua brand in their main listing image, but keeps it in the “what’s in the kit” image later on, including for the “Brand carton” (whatever that is).

The end result is that sifting through Amazon listing is getting tedious — if you’re lucky, you get a British-based white label company sourcing their stuff somewhere in China and selling it back to you. If you’re not lucky, you get someone who has bought a pallet of AliExpress-level goods, possibly changed the box (in many cases not even that), and then sold it back to you at a mark-up. The “baseline luck” is finding someone who’s not even trying to hide that they are selling already-imported AliExpress goods, which makes Amazon pretty much just a rapid-delivery option of AliExpress-quality items.

And even for stuff that you may think you’re better off getting at Amazon, there’s some risk. Last year I bought a new camera (a Sony A7 first generation), and I ordered an USB-based charger with two batteries branded RAVpower — it’s a brand that is at least known for their mobile powerbanks, so I thought I would be safe. A couple of months later I definitely noted that one of the two batteries didn’t hold anywhere near the charge it should have, despite the charger saying it charged it in full. A couple of months ago I ordered two Palo-branded chargers for both my cameras, the A7 and the Canon 80D, because they had a decent price and supported both microUSB and USB-C — turns out that these will show you the actual charge detected on the battery, and indeed showed one of the two RAVpower-branded batteries as only holding 50% capacity constantly, which suggests one of the two cells inside is dead.

So what about the reviews? Well, there’s more than a few problems with reviews. As I noted earlier, the hot solder station SKU I ordered before was already removed from Amazon by the time I figured out how terrible it was, so I had no option to leave a review. And even if you were to leave a review, the appeal-based moderation will unlikely let negative, realistic review live. April King reported an example recently, and I had a similar experience with a review for a phone battery being removed because I said they faked the capacity. So unless you want to play the game finding the right set of banned words, you’re pretty much stuck — to continue with the Chinese connection, trying to leave a negative review on Amazon starts feeling like being part of Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence.

So can you just find the right stuff by looking solely at the positive reviews? Absolutely not!

It’s not just my opinion, by the way. The UK consumer association Which? reported this, FT Alphaville (free after registration) reported on it, and the FT proper (paywalled) reported on it last week as well! It’s not a secret that effectively every other marketplace order you place end up with you receiving a message from the seller asking you to contact them instead of leaving bad reviews, or suggesting you leave a good review for activating a 1-year warranty (which in EU and UK you have by law), or suggesting you can get a voucher if you leave a good review. Some are more blatant than others — another common “trick” I’ve seen them use is to send you an “invoice” (which contains none of the legally required information for being an invoice at all, nevermind the fact that you haven’t paid them, but paid Amazon).

But there is another issue. A few months after starting to order stuff from AliExpress we started receiving packages from Amazon that we didn’t order. At first it was a pair of “gaming headphones”, then it was some clothes hangers (that were dirty in their box so went straight into trash) and a flashlight, and this keeps happening to this date. It’s called brushing.

I have contacted Amazon, twice, about these packages, and provided them with the order number. But instead of speaking reasoning, the poor folks at the Amazon customer care find themselves acting as mechanical turks themselves, and said they’ll contact the person who ordered them, since they can’t discuss it with me. Despite the fact that they seem to have my PII and GDPR should require them to delete my information off their system.

The worst part is that sometimes the packages come together with the stuff I actually ordered, possibly because they don’t order it with Prime delivery, so Amazon bundles them to the next delivery in the area. I can tell which one is my actual order versus the one that is coming in from a scammer: the format on the address is different and it matches the one that I provided AliExpress.

Again, let me repeat that nobody at Amazon cares, despite this brushing scam being well documented for over a year at least. Even the delivery person who I showed the different addresses to told me «Well, I can bring it back, but just so you know, someone will just take it anyway, as they don’t want it back.» Which basically means Amazon doesn’t care about the fake reviews left by these scammy sellers.

So why am I even using Amazon at all? Well, it’s not an obvious answer. Sometimes it’s a matter of price: when Argos sells the same brand-name goods for a good 10% on top, plus shipping, it’s hard to justify avoiding Amazon for that. And with most supermarkets still not having recovered from the limitations of lockdown, a number of household products are also easier to order from Amazon than, say, Boots. And Amazon has usually better customer focus despite all of this — if somehow they send you only two items of a bundle of three, they don’t take two weeks to admit that they are out of stock, and you don’t have to suggest them to give you a partial refund at that point, which is what happened to me with Ryman.

Of course that is not fair — Amazon can afford the no-question-asked returns because they are a pile of cash, and they don’t need to be afraid of scammy customers. They can afford the low margins, because Marketplace appears to be making up for it by not making it their problem. Any newcomer to the scene will have issues fighting such a behemot, which is what makes it unfair. But I already complained about Europe as a market, and why I don’t expect an European alternative with fairer practices to ever become interesting.

Newcomers, Teachers, and Professionals

You may remember I had already a go at tutorials, after listening in on one that my wife had been going through. Well, she’s now learning about C after hearing me moan about higher and lower level languages, and she did that by starting with Harvard’s CS50 class, which is free to “attend” on edX. I am famously not a big fan of academia, but I didn’t think it would make my blood boil as much as it did.

I know that it’s easy to rant and moan about something that I’m not doing myself. After all you could say “Well, they are teaching at Harvard, you are just ranting on a c-list blog that is followed by less than a hundred people!” and you would be right. But at the same time, I have over a decade of experience in the industry, and my rants are explicitly contrasting what they say in the course to what “we” do, whether it is in opensource projects, or a bubble.

I think the first time I found myself boiling and went onto my soapbox was when the teacher said that the right “design” (they keep calling it design, although I would argue it’s style) for a single-source file program is to have includes, followed by the declaration of all the functions, followed by main(), followed by the definition of all the functions. Which is not something I’ve ever seen happening in my experience — because it doesn’t really make much sense: duplicating declarations/definitions in C is an unfortunate chore due to headers, but why forcing even more of that in the same source file?

Indeed, one of my “pre-canned comments” in reviews at my previous employer was a long-form of “Define your convenience functions before calling them. I don’t want to have to jump around to see what your doodle_do() function does.” Now it is true that in 2020 we have the technology (VSCode’s “show definition” curtain is one of the most magical tools I can think of), but if you’re anyone like me, you may even sometimes print out the source code to read it, and having it flow in natural order helps.

But that was just the beginning. Some time later as I dropped by to see how things were going I saw a strange string type throughout the code — turns out that they have a special header that they (later) define as “training wheels” that includes typedef char *string; — possibly understandable given that it takes some time to get to arrays, pointers, and from there to character arrays, but… could it have been called something else than string, given the all-too-similarly named std::string of C++?

Then I made the mistake of listening in on more of that lesson, and that just had me blow a fuse. The lesson takes a detour to try to explain ASCII — the fact that characters are just numbers that are looked up in a table, and that the table is typically 8-bit, with no mention of Unicode. Yes I understand Unicode is complicated and UTF-8 and other variable-length encodings will definitely give a headache to a newcomer who has not seen programming languages before. But it’s also 2020 and it might be a good idea to at least put out the idea that there’s such a thing as variable-length encoded text and that no, 8-bit characters are not enough to represent people’s names! The fact that my own name has a special character might have something to do with this, of course.

It went worse. The teacher decided to show some upper-case/lower-case trickery on strings to show how that works, and explained how you add or subtract 32 to go from one case to the other. Which is limited not only by character set, but most importantly by locale — oops, I guess the teacher never heard of the Turkish Four Is, or maybe there’s some lack of cultural diversity in the writing room for these courses. I went on a rant on Twitter over this, but let me reiterate this here as it’s important: there’s no reason why a newcomer to any programming language should know about adding/subtracting 32 to 7-bit ASCII characters to change their case, because it is not something you want to do outside of very tiny corner cases. It’s not safe in some languages. It’s not safe with characters outside the 7-bit safe Latin alphabet. It is rarely the correct thing to do. The standard library of any programming language has locale-aware functions to uppercase or lowercase a string, and that’s what you need to know!

Today (at the time of writing) she got to allocations, and I literally heard the teacher going for malloc(sizeof(int)*10). Even to start with a bad example and improve from that — why on Earth do they even bother teaching malloc() first, instead of calloc() is beyond my understanding. But what do I know, it’s not like I spent a whole lot of time fixing these mistakes in real software twelve years ago. I will avoid complaining too much about the teacher suggesting that the behaviour of malloc() was decided by the clang authors.

Since there might be newcomers reading this and being a bit lost of why I’m complaining about this — calloc() is a (mostly) safer alternative to allocate an array of elements, as it takes two parameters: the size of a single element and the number of elements that you want to allocate. Using this interface means it’s no longer possible to have an integer overflow when calculating the size, which reduces security risks. In addition, it zeroes out the memory, rather than leaving it uninitialized. While this means there is a performance cost, if you’re a newcomer to the language and just about learning it, you should err on the side of caution and use calloc() rather than malloc().

Next up there’s my facepalm on the explanation of memory layout — be prepared, because this is the same teacher who in a previous lesson said that the integer variable’s address might vary but for his explanation can be asserted to be 0x123, completely ignoring the whole concept of alignment. To explain “by value” function calls, they decide to digress again, this time explaining heap and stack, and they describe a linear memory layout, where the code of the program is followed by the globals and then the heap, with the stack at the bottom growing up. Which might have been true in the ’80s, but hasn’t been true in a long while.

Memory layout is not simple. If you want to explain a realistic memory layout you would have to cover the differences between physical and virtual memory, memory pages and pages tables, hugepages, page permissions, W^X, Copy-on-Write, ASLR, … So I get it that the teacher might want to simplify and skip over a number of these details and give a simplified view of how to understand the memory layout. But as a professional in the industry for so long I would appreciate if they’d be upfront with the “By the way, this is an oversimplification, reality is very different.” Oh, and by the way, stack grows down on x86/x86-64.

This brings me to another interesting… mess in my opinion. The course comes with some very solid tools: a sandbox environment already primed for the course, an instance of AWS Cloud9 IDE with the libraries already installed, a fairly recent version of clang… but then decides to stick to this dubious old style of C, with strcpy() and strcmp() and no reference to more modern, safer options — nevermind that glibc still refuses to implement C11 Annex K safe string functions.

But then they decide to not only briefly show the newcomers how to use Valgrind, of all things. They even show them how to use a custom post-processor for Valgrind’s report output, because it’s otherwise hard to read. For a course using clang, that can rely on tools such as ASAN and MSAN to report the same information in more concise way.

I find this contrast particularly gruesome — the teacher appears to think that memory leaks are an important defect to avoid in software, so much so that they decide to give a power tool such as Valgrind to a class of newcomers… but they don’t find Unicode and correctness in names representation (because of course they talk about names) to be as important. I find these priorities totally inappropriate in 2020.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that writing a good programming course is hard, and that professors and teachers have a hard job in front of them when it comes to explain complex concepts to a number of people that are more eager to “make” something than to learn how it works. But I do wonder if sitting a dozen professionals through these lessons wouldn’t make for a better course overall.

«He who can, does; he who cannot teaches» is a phrase attributed to George Bernand Shaw — I don’t really agree with it as it is, because I met awesome professors and teachers. I already mentioned my Systems’ teacher, who I’m told retired just a couple of months ago. But in this case I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to have to review the code (or documentation) written by that particular teacher, as I’d have a hard time keeping to constructive comments after so many facepalms.

It’s a disservice to newcomers that this is what they are taught. And it’s the professionals like me that are causing this by (clearly) not pushing back enough on Academia to be more practical, or building better courseware for teachers to rely on. But again, I rant on a C-list blog, not teach at Harvard.

Digital Artist Spotlight: Seerlight

Given lockdown continues, we’re effectively not expecting to join other fans for conventions for quite a while longer. This also means not finding new artists in person, for a while, and instead relying on more… modern options. Indeed the artist that I’m going to write about today is one that I found on Facebook, thanks to a share from an acquaintance who shared the post of a page that (for once!) credited the original author.

Seerlight is a digital artist that draws extremely detailed scenes. Many are inspired by popular anime, including Studio Ghibli or (as shown to the right) 90s anime like Sailor Moon and Card Capturor Sakura, but also games such as Final Fantasy and Zelda. A number of others are original, and are just as cute and interesting.

One of the main thing that piqued my curiosity with Seerlight is that is the first artist that I have found that provides a lot of their focus on animated wallpapers for phones and (it seems more recently) desktops. And indeed, the animated wallpapers are what you get access to by subscribing to their Patreon (and since it’s an up front charged Patreon, now is a great time to subscribe, if you’d like them.)

As an aside, it seems like animated live wallpapers on Android are… very manufacturer specific. On my Huawei P30 Pro, I ended up getting this app, which has in-app upgrade to ad-free, and didn’t request any risky permission beside file access to load the video. I can’t guarantee it’s perfect, but it seems to do the job.

Another thing that I found very interesting as an option (and one that I have not ordered yet, but I’m sure thinking of ordering soon), is that they sell credit card covers — not travel passes, which we’re totally used to in London (and possibly UK), but stickers to put on the actual credit (or debit) cards. This is something that I had seen in Japan before, particularly for IC cards, but I have not seen as being popular in Europe, which is not totally unexpected, as credit cards have typically had the owner’s name and 16-digits PAN, and covering those up would be… strange.

To be fair, the store (Cucu Covers) does sell half-height covers that are not meant to cover the information area, which depending on the colours on your credit card might make it still feasible. But more interesting, a lot of credit cards nowadays have stopped providing embossed names and numbers, and quite a few of them decided it’s cheaper and easier to print everything on one side of the card.

Revolut for instance now only put the cardholder name on the front, and the rest is all logos. Curve does something similar, although if I remember this correctly, they don’t even put the cardholder on the front. Admittedly, both me and my wife have gotten used to just relying on Google Pay at least here in the UK, and have not bothered taking the card out of the wallet for, well, a really long time now.

But if you have something that you need to keep with you and use daily, for instance a travel pass, or a building access pass (well, after the lockdown is over at least), and you want to give it a bit of a spirit, you may want to take a look at these covers, I find them absolutely gorgeous.

So, if that’s your cup of tea, consider subscribing to their Patreon, or at least follow them on Instragram or Facebook to see when they’ll release a live wallpaper you’ll be ready to pay for!

Cultural Diversity

I would say that in most cases, I’m the worst person to talk about diversity as, like John Scalzi said, I’m playing at the lowest difficulty setting. There is a small exception to this when the matter relates to cultural diversity in a vastly USA-based environment, which is what I would like to spend a few words on this time.

Let’s start with language. For open source developers, working with people from different countries, and for which English is not the native language, is not uncommon at all — indeed, projects such as Gentoo and VideoLan tend to have overall more people for whom English is a second (if not third) language. There is a difference, though, when it comes to work environments such as my previous bubble, where you have to speak English a lot — impromptu, on the spot.

It took adjustment when I moved to Dublin, despite having spent most of the previous year in Los Angeles: on one side, South-Californian English and Dublin English are significantly different in tone and intentions, and on the other hand, it required “checking the gain” on what people coming from other languages meant with certain words. Again, not something totally new for those who spent time in various Open Source projects, but even IRC allowed you to take a moment to type an answer back, or to re-read what the other person said. And while the voice tone and body language help, it’s still harder to process, understand, and form a reply in your second (or third) language in real-time than it would be over asynchronous medium.

London was another kettle of fish altogether — maybe because I have listened to enough Radio 4 to grasp many Londoners expression fasters than I picked them up in Dublin, or maybe because I have built up the experience there. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard — indeed in my experience I found that British-born-and-raised people tend to be (unwittingly) less forgiving for mis-speaking, expecting every word used to having been carefully chosen by the speaker, including any obvious-to-them rude turn of phrase. This doesn’t appear to be my impression only — the FT’s Michael Skapinker wrote about it, more than once, and I would suggest reading his articles to both the English native speakers, and those of us “second-languagers” that find it hard to work productively with them.

Now, before somebody says that I’m painting the whole group of native English speakers with a single brush — that is certainly not the case. I already singled out the Dubliners before, and I have plenty of friends, colleagues, and ex-colleagues that have learnt not to assume that every word is perfectly weighted beforehand, particularly in spoken lines, and have asked me more than a few times if the word I used was meant to sound as aggressive as it did.

There’s another fun interaction that I learnt to appreciate: talking shop with people coming from cultures that are very direct, such as some of my Romanian friends — we can start cussing and repeat the word shit many times in a row, get excited, and maybe even disagree vehemently on concepts, solutions, and decisions, … and then go grab coffee together like nothing happened. At least once I’ve been asked not quite directly whether I have been a hypocrite — but no, it’s just that for me (us) technical disagreements among friends are just that… technical disagreements.

If all of this boggles your mind and sounds like me trying to justify my tone or behaviour, I would suggest you to read The Culture Map. The book is a fascinating read, and goes into a lot of examples of how different culture “baselines” differ — with repeated reminders that the fact that a culture baseline does not mean that everyone in that culture behaves exactly the same way, we’re not in a world of hats.

Another point that I feel should be spelled out explicitly is about general (popular) cultural references — they don’t really translate very well, under different axis. I have a friend who gets annoyed at Harry Potter references in documentation and service naming, because they didn’t actually care for the series, and so anything that feels “obvious” to a fan goes straight over their head, and I sympathise.

I know of similar complains with most other “big fandoms”: Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Dragonball, Naruto, … it’s a type of gatekeeping that is subtle, but still present: if you don’t happen to have at least dabbled in most of these, things will be slightly harder for you, and give you a feeling that you’re not welcome. Also it turns out that those who read/watched some of those big names in another language might be just as annoyed, because a lot of times names and terms got translated to something different, maybe closer to the target culture, that makes the reference even harder to grasp.

Also, let me be clear that this is not only a problem within the tech spaces dominated by white male geeky engineers. A few years ago I found myself having an argument over the fact that I missed the window of time to submit intern projects ideas, because I went on to check the old site, which was handily named “iwantanintern”, rather than finding out that they switched it over a new one named “redfishbluefish”. When I pointed out it’s a very opaque name to me, I was informed by a surprised HR person that they were expecting everybody to know the book by Dr. Seuss – which turns out it doesn’t even appear to be translated in Italian according to Wikipedia – and that it fit perfectly well with the companion Waldo website, named after the North American name of the protagonist from Where is Wally? As it turns out, I at least knew Wally as a kid, but most of the other children books I was given were either Italian or Disney, or both, so Dr. Seuss never figured into my upbringing.

So what’s the point of bringing up all of this? Well, I wanted to point out that there still is quite a bit of discrimination that can be felt among those of us that are otherwise well into a privileged class — with the hope that this can both make it easier to empathise with those who are less privileged, and as an answer – that I should have provided there and then, and out loud – to those I have heard before saying that I shouldn’t complain, since I can completely pass for British if I wanted to (cannot, and will not!) and so I have nothing to fear from drunk right wingers at a pub the day after Brexit deadlines.

Lockdown Is Not Over For Me

It’s July 2020, and after a number of months of somewhat absolute lockdown, London appears to be breaking free from the chains of coronavirus, at least on the surface. Indeed, the lockdown rules have been eased, and things are, supposedly, going back to normal. Except…

Except this is not true for everyone, and in particular, it’s not true for me. Long-time readers probably remember that 13 years ago next month I’ve ended up in the hospital with an acute pancreatitis from which I already nearly died. It also left me with secondary diabetes — that is, a diabetes that is neither of the “usual” types. And given that there’s multiple reports of Covid-19 attacking the pancreas, that is making me feel particularly paranoid about the situation. Indeed, my understanding of it at this point is that it’s very likely that Covid-19 would just be deadly to me with a probability close to 1.

What this means is that I still haven’t left the flat since May, and I don’t expect to go anywhere until a vaccine is found and I received it. This would be much easier if it wasn’t that everyone else out there has forgotten that this pandemic kills people, and decided that everything must reopen. We live across from a hotel, and it was much easier to spend all your time at home when you didn’t have random guests looking into your apartment at all times. And it was easier to enjoy’s one apartment when the short-term let on our floor didn’t have different groups of partying people every weekend, being loud in the early morning hours. And even working from home was easier when we could go to bed before 3am — because there was no work being done on the flyover of the motorway we live next to until that hour.

I’m extremely fortunate that my new job is not expecting me to get back to the office until it’s absolutely safe to do so. But I’m also sad about all the events we’ll now be missing — because a number of those won’t be rescheduled to next year, and so will likely be taking place well before the vaccine is available. The one that makes me the saddest is the wedding of my best friends, in Italy, who will be getting married in September, way too soon for the vaccine to reach me.

As you can tell from the various electronics projects, I find myself having a lot more time on my hands than I would generally have, and since I’m an awful baker, I left the breadmaking to my wife. Instead I’m taking up the whole office space between work and the various terrible results of PCBs. It is a learning experience, and in that regard I shouldn’t complain, but it also feels sad that out of the original run of prints I made for Birch Books I’m barely keeping one design around (the actuator board — barely because I had to bodge it).

But the fact that I have time on my hands doesn’t mean I’m being particularly productive either. There’s been days that after spending the whole day in meetings to meet new colleagues I could only drop myself on the sofa to watch Murder, She Wrote. And despite maintaining my two-posts-a-week schedule for the blog, my sARTSurday series ended up drying up because I was running low on artists from which I actually bought something, and it started saddening me more than cheering me up.

It’s tough, and it’ll remain tough for the foreseeable future. There’s not going to be a vaccine before next year, and by then, I might as well have turned into a misanthropic recluse — although I sure hope not. It reminds me a tad too much of how lonely it was when I was running my own company back in Italy — living in my mother’s big house, but with no easy way to go anywhere unless someone would pick me up (no public transport, no easy cycle lane either). And let’s just say that I’m not looking forward to go back there, much as I miss seeing some of my friends and spending late nights playing Magic the Gathering.

Hopefully, this will be a one-off blog post on this topic, and more of the future will be filled with me posting project updates, notes, and pictures of cutesy stuff…

Diagonal Contributions

This is a tale that starts on my previous dayjob. My role as an SRE had been (for the most part) one of support, with teams dedicated to developing the product, and my team making sure that it would perform reliably and without waste. The relationship with “the product team” has varied over time and depending on both the product and the SRE team disposition, sometimes in not particularly healthy way either.

In one particular team, I found myself supporting (together with my team) six separate product teams, spread between Shanghai, Zurich and Mountain View. This put particular pressure on the dynamics of the team, particularly when half of the members (based in Pittsburgh) didn’t even have a chance to meet the product team of two services (based in Shanghai), as they would be, in the normal case, 12 hours apart. It’s in this team that I started formulating the idea I keep referring to as “diagonal contributions”.

You see, there’s often a distinction between horizontal and vertical contributions. Vertical referring to improving everything of a service, from the code itself, to its health checks, release, deployment, rollout, … While horizontal referring to improving something of every service, such as making every RPC based server be monitored through the same set of metrics. And there are different schools of thought on which option is valid and which one should be incentivised, and so it usually depends on your manager and their manager on which one of the two approach you’ll be rewarded to take.

When you’re supporting so many different teams directly, vertical contributions are harder on the team overall — when you go all in to identify and fix all the issues for one of the products, you end up ignoring the work needed for the others. In these cases an horizontal approach might pay off faster, from an SRE point of view, but it comes with a cost: the product teams would then have little visibility into your work, which can turn into a nasty confrontation, particularly depending on the management you find yourself dealing with (on both sides).

It’s in that situation that I came up with “diagonal contributions”: improve a pain point for all the services you own, and cover as many services you can. In a similar fashion to rake collection, this is not an easy balance to strike, and it takes experience to have it done right. You can imagine from the previous post that my success at working on this diagonal has varied considerably depending on teams, time, and management.

What did work for me, was finding some common pain points between the six products I supported, and trying to address those not with changes to the products, but with changes to the core libraries they used or the common services they relied upon. This allowed me to show actual progress to the product teams, while solving issues that were common to most of the teams in my area, or even in the company.

It’s a similar thing with rake collection for me: say there’s a process you need to follow that takes two to three days to go through, and four out of your six teams are supposed to go through it — it’s worth it to invest four to six days to reduce the process to something that takes even just a couple of hours: you need fewer net people-days even just looking at the raw numbers, which is very easy to tell, but that’s not where it stops! A process that takes more than a day adds significant risks: something can happen overnight, the person going through the process might have to take a day off, or they might have a lot of meetings the following day, adding an extra day to the total, and so on.

This is also another reason why I enjoy this kind of work — as I said before, I disagree with Randall Munroe when it comes to automation. It’s not just a matter of saving time to do something trivial that you do rarely: automation is much less likely to make one-off mistakes (it’s terrifyingly good at making repeated mistakes of course), and even if it doesn’t take less time than a human would take, it doesn’t take human time to do stuff — so a three-days-long process that is completed by automation is still a better use of time than a two-days-long process that rely on a person having two consecutive days to work on it.

So building automation or tooling, or spending time making it easier to use core libraries, are in my books a good way to make contributions that are more valuable than just to your immediate team, while not letting your supported teams feel like they are being ignored. But this only works if you know which pain points your supported teams have, and you can make a case that your work directly relates to those pain points — I’ve seen situations where a team has been working on very valuable automation… that relieved no pain from the supported team, giving them a feeling of not being taken into consideration.

In addition to a good relationship with the supported team, there’s another thing that helps. Actually I would argue that it does more than just help, and is an absolute requirement: credibility. And management support. The former, in my experience, is a tricky one to understand (or accept) for many engineers, including me — that’s because often enough credibility in this space is related to the actions of your predecessors. Even when you’re supporting a new product team, it’s likely its members have had interactions with support teams (such as SRE) in the past, and those interactions will colour the initial impression of you and your team. This is even stronger when the product team was assigned a new team — or you’re a new member of a team, or you’re part of the “new generation” of a team that went through a bit of churn.

The way I have attacked that problem is by building up my credibility, by listening, and asking questions of what the problems the team feel are causing them issues are. Principles of reliability and best practices are not going to help a team that is struggling to find the time to work even on basic monitoring because they are under pressure to deliver something on time. Sometimes, you can take some of their load away, in a way that is sustainable for your own team, in a way that gains credibility, and that further the relationship. For instance you may be able to spend some time writing the metric-exposing code, with the understanding that the product team will expand it as they introduce new features.

The other factor as I said is management — this is another of those things that might bring a feeling of unfairness. I have encountered managers who seem more concerned about immediate results than the long-term pictures, and managers who appear afraid of suggesting projects that are not strictly within the scope of reliability, even when they would increase the team’s overall credibility. For this, I unfortunately don’t have a good answer. I found myself overall lucky with the selection of managers I have reported to, on average.

So for all of you out there in a position of supporting a product team, I hope this post helped giving you ideas of how to building a more effective, more healthy relationship.