Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Weekday Newsletter

s4e04: You can’t say no 

0.0 Station Ident

Yes, the blank newsletter episode was a mis-send. Sorry about that. I’ll blame a combination of the keyboard, a lack of coffee, not being awake and the default action being send, not cancel/save. Anyway.

9:50am on Monday, February 27 2017.

1.0 You can’t say no

I can’t point to the exact moment, but at some point after the second Internet boom, and definitely during the First Great Mobile App Explosion, it became increasingly clear that product managers and designers were getting very excited about things like cognitive psychology and persuasion. Here we are now in 2017, and it feels like it’s increasingly rare for an interaction with an app or website to let the user simply say: “no”.

There’s an easy reason for this because we like easy explanations: digital and interactive lets us measure things. We choose what we want to measure, and then we change things so that what we measure moves in the way we want it to move. Most of the things we’re concerned (as a species? As a post-capitalist neo-liberal society that’s optimized itself into rewarding and needing short-term gain?) about, we want to move Up and To The Right, which generally means that they’re increasing because we like numbers to get bigger. There is probably a cognitive psychology paper on why we like numbers to get bigger, along with a whole host of other papers that have failed to replicate the effect.


Because of this, because of things we *can* measure (and because of things we *can’t* measure or choose *not* to measure), it’s easy (I think!) for us to design ourselves and our artifacts into blind spots.

One easy example: mobile apps like it if you turn on notifications. By turning on notifications, that app has a chance to get your attention (which, we’re reminded, is increasingly the only thing we have left to choose what to do with) when you’re not using it. Everything wants your attention. Our wise and benificent leaders, those OS designers who hold more and more power over the interactions that we repeat every minute, every hour, every day, decided that maybe it’s not such a good idea to let apps send notifications to us by default. So they have to ask.

The polite way of asking, of course, is to a) ask nicely, and b) let the person you’re asking decline.

That won’t, and doesn’t, do, in today’s stupendously competitively landscape where if you write the wrong copy in your notification permission dialog you will literally lose your job, your healthcare, the respect of all your peers and the invitation to that conference you’ve been angling to speak at for so long and where you thought you might have a conference hook-up[0].

No, these days, everyone – your peers, your boss and your boss’s boss and those random people who’re going to shit all over your work on Dribble or Hacker News or Hey Let Me Just Slide Into Your Mentions – knows that you don’t get ahead by letting users say no. Your options, when you’ve written that dialog and when the user sees them are: “Sure!” and “Maybe later!”

I mean, the first designer who did this figured out (and presumably that their conversion and engagement rates went *way* up for the thing that was requested that resulted in “Sure!”. And other people noticed and then someone went and actually read a book about things that have happened in the past, and actually *read* it, not just read the link on Brain Pickings or just the first paragraph or even just the headline on Fast Company about how This Amazing Whatever Can X Your Y, and remembered: hey, there’s that sales and persuasion technique where you “get to yes” by literally denying the person you’re talking to the ability to say no.

Remember: we’re mute in modal dialogs. You don’t have a voice. You only have actions. You cannot say No. You can only choose “Maybe Later!”. If you’re lucky, your choice of Maybe Later comes with no additional emotional inflection, not even an exclamation mark or an emoji.

So. You can’t say no any more. You can’t be definitive. You can only say yes, or… maybe yes sometime in the future. Your only other actions are, maybe: delete the app? And you think to yourself, okay, I’m a bit annoyed that this stupid punk-ass app presumes to talk to me in this faux-friendly, fucking *cheeky* manner and I’m the one who’s paying something stupid like *a thousand dollars* and I own this goddamn phone (though the EFF and iFixIt will disagree because you’re not truly Free) and yes, maybe I didn’t pay for any of the labor that went into creating this app but really you’re going to sit there and *not let me say no*.

Well that feels like a bit of a shitty bargain, especially when everyone else is doing it to me.

It’s not like it’s easy to say no in the first place. But now, there’s a whole class of interactions that thanks to This One Easy Hack About Getting Your Users To Say Yes (Clue: It’s Called Denying Them The Ability To Say No), you… can’t say no anymore?

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound particularly healthy to me. It’s as if you’d get a Falling Down moment, but it’s that one person who hasn’t deleted Uber yet who finally gets one more request to, I don’t know, turn on location services for Uber otherwise Uber won’t deliver a zero-hours contract worker car within three minutes powered by software built in a misogynistic environment, and finally decides: *fuck this* and, I don’t know, bad things happen and the US executive and administration remains silently mum on someone being shot again.

If I were smarter and wittier, I’d come up with a better name for this than The Tragedy Of Our Psychological Commons.

It’s not in any app’s interest to be kind, because some other app is going to come in like a complete dick, shit all over you because we have brains that have a certain architecture and are susceptible to certain things and everything’s okay because for now everything’s going up and to the right until, well, we hit a wall.

I used to write a lot about empathy and software and how it frustrated me that technology wasn’t kinder. It still isn’t. Now I’ve noticed that it’s getting harder to say no to software. (Not that it was ever that easy, I suppose).

I suppose someone like Bogost will say, contra Kevin Kelly, is that technology does want to go up and to the right, and it will only go up and to the right for the tangible things it thinks it can measure. It can’t measure the multivariate toll on psyche and mental health of a gajillion interactions that slowly chip away at agency. Google Analytics doesn’t have a tab for that. We’re not interested in solving problems like that. We only measure what we want to measure, and we only create tools for the things that we’re incentivized to measure.

(In that respect, I’m impressed by the countries that have even thought about counting things like breast milk production in GDP. I mean, at this point in today’s newsletter you’d be surprised if I’m even happy with the prospect of GDP in the first place (hah! yes let’s just measure the number of dollars of things!) and yes, I suppose *a* measurement is better than *no* measurement — sometimes) but Jesus Christ.)

Anyway. I quipped on Twitter that it’d be nice to talk to a psychologist about current patterns in app design like the Pattern Of Not Letting Someone Say No and ask: hey, how many of these design patterns would be abusive behaviour in a human relationship? I leave it to the readers to speculate as to my position on this point.

OK. It’s 10:16am. I have like a billion things I have to do today, and some of them are super important and some of them are really really important like: how do you design an organization that can deliver the best healthcare for Californians.

(Note: not how do you *design and deliver* the best healthcare for Californians, but how do you set up the organization and make sure that organization can succeed when it’s embedded in… legacy management and management principles? An idle thought: I get invited in (deployed with prejudice, might be a better phrase) to “fix” legacy technology replacement and modernization projects, but it strikes me that legacy *organization* replacement and modernization doesn’t… get as much attention? Or it does and it’s just regular management consultancy and  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

[0] You know these things aren’t good, but you should also know you’re doing the best you can

Oh, and yes.

Thank you for all the notes about the inadvertent newsletter.

You can.



s4e04: You can’ 

s4e02: So, What’d I Miss? 

0.0 Station Ident

8:34pm, West Coast Time, in Portland, Oregon and listening to Oasis, of all things. I blame an ill-advised jaunt into 6Music earlier on in the day when, recovering from a cold that more-or-less knocked me out (I mean, it didn’t stop me from tweeting, did it) I was subjected to a documentary, of all things, on the musical genre known as Britpop.

Anyway. On with the show, and let’s just pretend that it’s entirely normal to be coming out of hiatus and sliding into your inbox like this.

1.0 Government Technology Procurement: The Procedural

No, seriously, this is what the first fifteen minutes of APB, a new show on Fox here in the US, looked like it could turn into. Spoilers: it doesn’t, of course, turn into that, it turns into something eminently more predictable. But! I can still take this greenlit tv show and connect it to contemporary events! How? Watch me!

APB is, according to the snippet of text that counts as advertising these days if you Google it, a television show about “A tech billionaire. A Chicago cop. Giving justice the reboot.” which I had heard literally nothing about whatsoever until my wife mentioned it to me while I was watching a completely *different* show (Powerless, DC’s show for NBC that’s a bit like Better Off Ted crossed with Community on Hulu).

Spoilers follow for a) the Fox show APB and more depressingly, b) probably events that will unfold during the course of 2017.

APB opens with about 30 seconds of what looks like a junior editor being told to put together some pre-roll that describes Stark Industries without paying money for any good footage. The footage includes: a rocket (SpaceX reference), “computer design” (with footage of a PCB and really, really slow electrons, which in itself is a significant technological achievement I suppose), “robotics” (with robots that literally look like they’re made out of Meccano) and then uh satellites and a bit with a face coming out of a vat of molten metal because HEY DID YOU GET THE REFERENCE TO TERMINATOR 2– Anyway, we interrupt this conceit and, er, cold-open-into-not-very-good-corporate-tech-brand-advertising[0] to… see the surprise! It’s just Gideon Reeves! A wunderkind who founded an amazing company when he was just 20 years old and really really is trying hard to be Tony Stark from Iron Man because he’s a) a West Coast Tech Dude; b) in a suit pitching people and c) trying really hard to emulate Tony Stark, I mean Robert Downey Jr.’s speech patterns. Like… this? You know? With a bit of a wry… pause, every now and then? And that kind of *intonation* that he has. Because he’s… smart.

Reeves has a pitch that he’d like us to see which is all about oil well fires and how we can’t just keep throwing dynamite at them because we are running out of Red Adairs who are willing to throw dynamite at them. Reeves likes to make his point in a very Tony Stark-esque way but instead of detonating missiles to explode impressively behind him, Reeves only has a tv pilot budget so he lights some small fires around his formerly rapt, now somewhat disturbed, audience. Reeves’ big idea is that he’s going to use *drones* to put out oil well fires using concussive charges. No-one in the audience has the thought to ask what *else* you might do with all those concussive charges, but hey, drones! The good news is that Reeves has a CTO (Ada! A woman! Do you get it? She’s a woman and she’s called Ada because Ada was a famous woman in technology and also has a programming language named after her) who will figure out all the details and she’s very excited about this by the way she brushes her hair and tries to obscure her face.

Anyway, we spend the next ten minutes getting to know our one black guy who’s going to get killed because of course someone has to get killed and the lead dude is a white guy, but hey, all we need to know is black dude is white guy’s best friend. Why does black dude get killed? Because selfish white dude wanted to stop to get a smoke. And how did we know black dude was going to get killed? Because black dude pointed out to the white dude that *obviously* this area was a super skeezy area to stop and get a smoke.

Needless to say this does not end well for black dude. I mean I guess it doesn’t end well for white dude either. Although black dude ultimately dies after being shot in the gut twice, white dude *did* get pistol-whipped and has a very traumatic experience with 911 emergency dispatch putting him on hold. Scene!

Next we see white dude – Reeves – in his bloody white undershirt, a nice band-aid on his forehead, looking very tired and doing a good job pretending to be shellshocked about death of best friend black dude. Reeves takes a look around the moodily lit precinct office and we see what he sees:

> Look

You are in a police precinct office. There is a typewriter nearby, which makes you sigh. Ask you ask about access to surveillance cameras and hairs or forensics and the police officer gives you excuses, you see an out-of-order photocopier, another officer making an exasperated phone call about faxing a request for information and two other police officers trying to find the right USB port on their computer.

OK, let me just say this was the most exciting point of the episode for me. As empathic female Latinx officer offers her condolences to Reeves (who spies the officer he was just talking to attempting to replace a toner cartridge in a printer), Reeves’ eyes get that faraway look of someone who…

… sees people just trying to do the best job that they can in a hostile technology procurement environment! I mean, if *only* everyone in this police precinct had access to the latest technology! They’re probably running on an ancient mainframe system! Why, I bet Mr. Reeves is about to storm into City Hall with a proposal to throw out the next procurement of an modernized and replacement Chicago Police Data System and deliver something in a user-centered manner using modern, iterative software development techniques and knows how to tell the difference between what components are commodities and what should be custom developed to meet user needs!

Right? I mean, isn’t that what tech billionaires do when they’re confronted with people trying to do their jobs in hostile or out-dated technology and procurement environments?

Hahahaha no. Of course not. That would be a completely different tv show!

In *this* TV show, Gideon Reeves of Reeves Industries does the following, because modern television in America reflects our dreams and desires back to us in neat 39 minute packages that allow for targeted advertising against lucrative demographics, strong pre-sold worldwide rights and hopefully good ratings in L+7: he goes to City Hall and says that he wants to run the 13th district in exchange for wiping out the City’s ~$89m underfunded pension obligation.

I mean, this is actually a real problem and that’s not a bad solution, really. There are lots of underfunded pension obligations out there. I am not sure though that Mr. Reeves is a qualified person to run a police precinct, but let’s be clear: he’s an exceedingly smart person who has demonstrated over the last 20 years or so that he can lead profitable companies in the areas of (refers back to intro video) er civilian spaceflight and “computer design”, so, as Reeves puts it in his interview on the steps of City Hall: “We’ve all seen revolutions in a lot of industries: computers, telecoms – why not law enforcement?”

Reeves is here to avenge – sorry, obtain justice for – his best friend, and if he has to buy a police precinct to do that, then I guess the B plot for this series is going to be a super interesting look at reforming technology procurement away from high-risk monolithic, waterfall projects and reorienting government departments against meeting user needs while the A plot is going to be a procedural of the week. Or the other way around.   I mean personally I’d go with the procurement stuff for the A plot.

Cut to: our empathic Latinx who (blah blah has a son, with whom she shares custody with what we’re led to be is a Suspicious White Guy Who’ll Probably Be A Foil) heads into work where she meets OH MY GOD IT’S FUSCO FROM PERSON OF INTEREST and then blah blah Reeves is there in the morning with all ahnds and the donuts for the precinct.

Reeves, see, is an *engineer*. And policing, he informs us, is an *engineering problem* and omg I can hear some of you rolling your eyes already which is interesting because you’d have to be rolling them like super hard for me to *hear* it. Reeves has done the math, and he’s come up with the stunning conclusion (that I bet none of these officers have made before, because duh they are not engineers and ONLY ENGINEERS CAN FIX THINGS) that each of these police officers is responsible for protecting and serving around 210 people! Each! How could one do such a thing? How?!

Fortunately Reeves has fixed it because he coded an App. It’s called APB and it “allows citizens to call in real-time GPS located crime reports from anywhere in the district”. All those citizens? “They just became your partners.”

So. Reeves’ engineering mentality has delivered the following solutions for the crime problem of District, er, 13: a) an app, b) better armor and c) TASERs that are about as Batman as you can get in that *in principle* they don’t kill anyone but let’s not actually go look through those explanations of benefits of the treatment of the people who get shot by them, okay?

This is all well and good but I bet our empathic latinx officer is going to have to say something about this and I’m totally right she does, also because I have fast-forwarded this and I know what happens next and you are just reading my recap of it. She wants to know: “Hey, what’s your deal, billionaire startup guy? Why is some rich guy able to buy justice? Is crime only an issue when it touches you? We have like, 10 unsolved murders a  month. Where are their billionaires?”

Reeves says sure, he’s up for justice for his best black friend. But! It’s bigger than that! It’s about “everybody who gets hurt when cops don’t get the resources to do the job” and he’s totally sure that his app is going to fix this everyone. This is a touching moment because Black Police Chief Guy totally nods when Reeves says it’s about making sure the police have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs because hey, no one ever comes down and realizes that with them.

It’s halfway through the episode so we have to set up the conceit of the series again just in case anyone missed it. Reeves (engineer, arrogant, smart white dude) goes up to our empathic latinx officer (Murphy, Robocop, woman who says that tech doesn’t solve cases, cops do) and says that he needs a partner to solve his best black friend’s murder because it’s 2017 and have you seen how hard it is to get a tv show greenlit that doesn’t have a buddy dynamic these days?

The next part is an ad for Cadillac who would like you to know that their cars are really awesome and you should buy one if you have significant affinity for a brand that is allied with technological, engineering-led solutions to social problems like policing.

So, the in-car interface for the APB app is interesting (well, not really, but I can make it interesting for us). Mission Control is set up back at the precinct and Reeves gets to say “and we’re live” when someone turns on the visualization on the big screen which is all any of us really want to say when we turn on the visualization on the big screen. I mean, I’ve even said it when I’ve turned on the visualization on the big screen. So there’s a patrol car driving along in their awesome Cadillac when a “Dude w/ knife. Come quick.” citizen report comes in which is notable because a) it has periods at the end of sentences and b) this would’ve been an awesome opportunity to use emoji. Also also it’s interesting because there are two responses: “Dismiss” on the left and “Respond” on the right and it feels like it could’ve just been briefed as Tinder But For Responding To Crime Reports. The display in the car, of course, is a weird polygonal Tesla-like giant touch screen.

So the first use of the app turns out to be some kids trying to see what happens if you press the button, but the second use of the app is someone reporting a theft *and* also taking a picture of the suspect. This proves extremely useful for Murphy (our empathic latinx officer), who gets to drive her awesome new car and take down the thief and begrudgingly admit to herself just a little inside that maybe she loves the smart engineer dude who wants her to be his partner to solve his favorite black friend’s murder.

Reeves and Murphy do a bit of partner detectiving and – get this! – their combination of street smarts and empathy and technology produce a narrowed-down list of suspects! And Reeves gets to use a drone because hey, why not, who wouldn’t want to use drones when suspects are fleeing on foot.

Anyway, there was a rookie and everyone knows that rookies have to die because technology must learn hubris and that is what happens. The rookie – who had a name! Reyes! – dies, and people are upset, especially desk sergeant Fusco (I SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING THERE FUSCO, KEEP IT UP) and meanwhile Reeves gets to do a really good impression of Tony Stark doing stuff with a box of scraps where he tries to modify the drone so it can help prevent the deaths of rookies next time.

Long story short (man, recapping this stuff takes *time*) is that through the partnership of man brains and woman empathy (but this time remember that man brains isn’t *all* the brains, he has a woman brain called Ada (who’s good with computers! Get it?) help him with the tricky stuff like ‘running a regression analysis’ while man brain also does things like ‘remove the random distribution’) they catch the bad guy who killed favorite black dude friend… but! Killer hook! As the episode closes, we look on in horror at the giant visualization screen as Reeves finds out that *more people in Chicago are using the APB app*, not just in Precinct 13! It’s as if he developed an app that can report crime with GPS but… neglected to geofence it so that it only works in Precinct 13? I mean, sure, there’s only so much you can get done in a weekend and they were probably going to fix it in the next release and *really* I guess you don’t need a geofence in your minimum viable product.

2.0 Stick The Landing

If you’ve managed to make it this far and you’re a first-time subscriber to this newsletter, then this is the bit where you’re patiently waiting for the pay-off. Look, here’s the pay-off:

This tv show is the latest of our attempts to tell stories about solutionism, about how we’re just waiting for technology to be applied (and, maybe, tempered with some humanity, because there’s our dramatic conflict) to Fix Our Problems.

Even as I type, there are Y Combinator partners excitedly chomping at the keyboard to marshal thousands of developers to solve the problem of democracy at places like (down for now, for some reason)[1]. There’s lots of things to unpack here:

a) there’s the *name* of the thing, which as I tweeted to someone just set off a bunch of pattern recognizers in my head because if you call something related to government a or the Digital Service and you’re familiar with what’s already happened in the space, then you can see some sort of association with things like the UK’s Government Digital Service and its related offspring, the United States Digital Service and now things that are unrelated but in the same space like the California Child Welfare Digital Service. If I were still a lawyer, I’d say that calling something “the digital service” is a bit like passing off when you’re launching a new thing and hoping to get on the bandwagon of some other things that have, well, shipped things.

b) ok great so it’s actually at[2] so you know good job on iterating everyone let’s keep going and see what we can do next sprint

c) the portal belies the belief that sufficiently smart people can lend their technological help to other people to solve problems which, you know, isn’t bad in and of itself. The site talks about needing “1 product engineer'[3] to do some more front and back-end programming and also someone with “product management background” because “a lot of the work is actually in refining project proposals before they’re added to the site”. I suspect that a lot of the work is actually in understanding who the users are, what they need, and then iterating against meeting those needs and improving over time. But what do I know!

d) I mean, really, what do I know – the site calls for help to build an immigration application and documents portal[4] which arguably exists already as a USCIS product, some sort of site that will store data entered by immigrants and then be transformed into data that can be used for USCIS forms. This is not a hard problem, as the site states, because all it needs is “Basic front and back-end programming. Can be done in any language.”. I mean, it’s not like you’re looking after sensitive data or creating a single point of failure for what’s potentially an adversarial relationship, right?

e) Part of the issue of course is that personally this feels like some sort of affront where some partners at Y Combinator (who, let’s be honest, *do* have disproportionate influence in the technology sector, but probably not as much as they’d like to think, and probably not as much as the rest of us would like to fear) have decided that They Alone Can Fix Things (they have identified this as a Coordination Problem so yay, let’s get to Coordinating) and have gone out and done so before (apparently) taking a look at what other efforts exist and what could be done to bolster existing efforts.

f) And here we are back with a fetishization of the new. Because the culture of the value concentrates partly on “shipping things” in one respect you can look at this “launch a product and see what happens” attitude uncharitably as a bunch of inexperienced Napoleons (Only I can fix this!) looking to get a power trip on launching their own thing rather than participating in something that already exists. Also! Launching new things is *always* easier than looking at an existing thing and thinking: how can I make this better? How can I help? Another way of looking at this is Silicon Valley’s uncomfortable relationship with libertarianism and prioritiziaton of individual freedoms: it’s better and easier for *me* to do something *on my own* than it is to *work with other people*. The amusing thing about Tech Reserve noting that getting technology people to donate time to non-technology people working in the non-profit and civic space is that there are *already* other ways to co-ordinate time and activity and all they’ve done is increased the *number of ways in which co-ordination can happen*. In other words, now we have a co-ordination co-ordination problem!

There are other ways to help. There’s technicalmajority[5], for example. There are Code for America brigades[6]. There’s TechForward[7] There’s even a bizarre alt-USDS which, to be honest, looks more like a honeypot but is probably just naive enthusiasm[8].

Stick the landing? APB was a tv show where a tech billionaire tried to fix policing and got a rookie killed in the first 24 hours. But that was a made-up rookie! It feels trite to say something about “what will happen when tech gets involved in government” but hey, that’s *already happening* and we’re already on the receiving end of *unintended outcomes due to incompetence* never mind unintended outcomes due to, well, sheer naiveté or stupendous optimism as to technical solutions that completely miss the point on what actual humans need because hey, engineering wins.

I do not know how to stick this landing. I do not know how to get back into things. I do not know how things work after 8th November, 2016. I do not know, today, how to get back to concentrating things and not being distracted after recovering from a shitty cold.

I don’t know.

[0] For those of you who know me, this is the moment where you get jab me in the ribs because Chairs are a bit like Facebook
[3] Tech Reserve
[4] Immigration Application & Documents Portal
[5] Technical Majority
[6] Code for America | Brigade
[7] Tech Forward
[8] Join the alt U.S. Digital Service

s4e01: umbra 

 0.0 Station Ident

8:25am on November 29, 2016. Happy birthday, me. Today, a break from the usual newsletter programming and a continuation of s2e33: Black Design[0]. I am, of course, the kind of person who starts NaNoWriMo at the least best Mo of No. Posting this (of which, I’ll post more… infrequently… maybe?) seems like as good an excuse as any to switch to a new season.

[0] s2e33: Black Design

Have a good day, everyone. It’s okay to feel angry, and the only one who can tell you whether feeling angry is warranted is yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Assume everyone’s trying to do the best they can, until they show otherwise.

As ever, send me notes. See you on the other side.


1.0 umbra


Wednesday, February 10, 2017


Matt was in a foul mood this morning and had shut himself away in One, the meeting room with the large, black conference table and the Polycom with a custom red paint job that in a company with a higher Whimsy Score on Glassdoor (not a real thing, I need to remember to write that down for work) would have a name like Monolith or Kubrick.


Matt being shut away meant that the review we were supposed to be having wasn’t happening. Instead, I slacked a copy of the Emotional Labor PDF Metafilter thread to Rebecca, the agency’s head of creative resourcing because at least part of me thought that she’d get something out of it and the other part of me though that it would be funny. Turns out it wasn’t exactly that funny in the first place.


It’s not like Rebecca didn’t know that she was already acting as a den mother to the creative floor (Top five den mother things that Rebecca does: 1) keeps a list of good doctors as reported by her charges; 2) keeps a list of good psychiatrists and therapists; 3) aggressively reminds people to take vacation; 4) spends (uncompensated) time during the day listening to peoples’ shit; 5) controversially, spends so much time on doing emotional labour for those in her care, she doesn’t have time for her own relationships).




Matt had shut himself away and wasn’t responding on any sort of messaging app. Stacy had even spent a few minutes trying to look up his phone number (no luck), to try calling him as a last resort. Other Tom thought he was hiding because he’d gotten the not-black-enough reaction on our latest review from Karla. The not-black-enough reaction is one of the few custom emoji we run on our instance (Whimsy Quotient, again) and is a high-information-density reminder that a particular piece of work isn’t… doing as much as it could do to make sure that user needs are being met.




I am alanchen@umbra. My business card says that I’m a Senior Designer at umbra’s San Francisco office. It isn’t a fun business card. It’s a very serious business card, and Dan, Karla and Tom have gone on record saying that there’s a time and a place for whimsy, and that those spacetime coordinates won’t ever be found inside umbra’s lightcones.


Just like the business cards, there isn’t anything fun about any of the San Francisco office: unlike most of the startups colonizing Bay Area buildings like a sort of ophiocordyceps unilateralis, our office doesn’t have any esoterically named conference rooms. There’s no pinball machines or arcade machines. (At least, not for free play. There are some, but they’re in labs or reference books). There aren’t any brightly colored hallways adorned with commissioned art. Instead, our building looks like a more professional, better designed and somewhat mentally healthier version of the inside of Lucasfilm’s offices out at Skywalker ranch.


Walking around Google’s campus, you might see a life-size dinosaur skeleton or a replica of the first commercial sub-orbital spaceship; walking around Facebook’s campus, you’d see inspirational poster art about how awesome it is if you break things as quickly as you can and have some sort of ineffable Gehry-ness infuse into your non-duality sense of being. Walking around our office, you’d see a bunch of quiet open working areas, lots of closed office doors (better productivity, right?), an LED-lighting significantly better than the kind most people would only ever see on a Dreamliner, and conference rooms where people still have trouble connecting to the A/V.




These are the applications in my Dock:


  1. Finder (duh)
  2. Siri
  3. Safari
  4. Chrome
  5. Mail
  6. Calendar
  7. Address Book
  8. Notes
  9. Messages
  10. Twitter
  11. iTunes
  12. Slack
  13. Illustrator
  14. Sketch
  15. Photoshop
  16. Terminal


I share a house with Caitlin, Tom and Amy in the Mission. Caitlin owns the house; she’d joined empathy_engine early on enough that when we got acquihired her options were actually worth something. She cashed out enough to buy a place in the Mission when we arrived three years ago, and since then, a) the house has become more depressingly unaffordable and b) the rest of her stock has become even more depressingly valuable. The options that I had in empathy_engine converted to an anaemic amount of stock in our acquirer which means that while they won’t ever be enough to afford a house here, I will be able to visit New Zealand before it’s mostly underwater (Ha: a stock options valuation joke).


Caitlin is just one of many friends who, by dint of luck, have a net worth in the hundreds of millions. I have a net worth that might actually be negative, if I had the courage to properly look.




umbra’s a black design company. “Black design” got coined five years ago when umbra were profiled by Fast Company (the magazine, as the cover story. Not some throwaway piece on the website that serves as Hacker News bait, this sort of thing is important when you’re trying to explain to your parents what you do) as being the design company (like Frog or IDEO but, you know, good at Internet stuff?) behind the then-outrageous Chinese citizen reputation ranking project that had leaked out.


At the time, everyone (that is, the insular industry) was going crazy over design fiction and whimsy and making things playful. umbra aggressively went in the other direction: selling design as a way to control, for greater profit, to the highest bidder.


Those Tide-branded Dash buttons, to make it easier for you to order laundry detergent? umbra. Algorithmic surge pricing, along with opaque driver/rider feedback mechanisms? An umbra patent, licensed by Uber. Automatic license plate recognition systems with a sort of “hello, what would you like to look for today?” cute wizard that’s easy enough to use so system integrator employees can succeed at creating new traffic violation revenue streams, first time, without help? umbra.


*I* ended up at umbra when they bought empathy_engine, the company I worked for, a few years ago in an acquihire. empathy_engine’s founders did well out of it (life-changing fuck-you money, with the four-year earn-out handcuffs that come with it. There are a few people I know who blew away their fuck-you money by being high time preference people. I like to think I’m not a high time preference person, but so far, the evidence doesn’t look good), but the rest of us just got visas (I got an H1B, Caitlin got an O1) our moving expenses, a few months of some really fantastic corporate housing and the chance to make it big in America, where they invented the idea of anyone being able to get rich if you can persuade enough of the money people on Sand Hill road that your idea is going to disrupt everything.


So that’s me. I’m paid stupid money to work at an evil design company and, even then, I live more or less slightly above paycheck to paycheck because I don’t have a problem living in a house share with co-workers.


And this is me doing my escape plan.

s3e35: Interesting Times

0.0 Station Ident


12:09pm on Monday 28th November 2016 on a puddle-jumper from PDX down to Sacramento for the day. I am now the kind of person who irregularly commutes by plane for the day. It takes around 90 minutes to fly down to Sacramento on a prop (turbo-prop?) plane, so it’s a *bit* like, I dunno, going from Brighton to London. Of course, it costs around $150-300 depending on when I get the tickets, but it means that I can get down to Sac, have a meeting and get home and either be around for breakfast with the pre-schooler or bedtime with the pre-schooler.


1.0 Interesting Times


I haven’t written any newsletter episodes since the Event because, well, there’s been a lot to deal with and process, never mind the overwhelming feeling that there’s so much to *do*. And there’s been lots of doing going on. I’m on my way down to Sacramento to present a digital government strategy and, fingers crossed, will be helping to put in place some big, substantive changes that will build upon what I’ve been doing with the Child Welfare Digital Services demonstrator.


I guess there’s a couple big things that I’ll write about in this episode: i) something to do with the digital transformation work I’ve been doing in California and ii) something to do with some recreational whiteboarding I did in response to wondering out loud “what would an ACLU digital services team make?” So, let’s just see what happens when I start typing…


1.1 Fixing Government, Starting in California


(a.k.a. everything I ever learned about Digital Transformation I’m getting to do right now, and I need help)


I’ve a draft Medium (I know) post that I’ve been working on for a while about how a) I’m doubling down on getting things done in California and b) what that means in terms of real opportunities for people who want to build digital services that meet user needs (ie: come work in California and work on stuff that matters for everyone).


The thing about draft posts is that they feel like they require a lot of thinking and then they invariably get bogged down in a sort of how-can-I-make-this-perfect, *despite* me knowing that it’s better that something exists than not at all. So, I’ll try in this medium, the medium of stream-of-consciousness newsletter, to at least get some thoughts out to people who might already be interested. And for everyone who’s new, this is my Short Version of why there’s a big opportunity in California to do good work, right now.


Bullet-point back-story:

  • a long time ago, we (as in: society) decided that it’d be a good idea if we made sure that people who couldn’t afford food had help so that they could afford food. Enough people agreed that it was a good idea that we turned it from an idea into policy into legislation. Thus: food stamps, also known as SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program.
  • these days, if you want to get food stamps, you need to apply for them. The process for applying for food stamps is, more or less, a clusterfuck everywhere. It is not user-friendly. In fact, it’s so user-hostile that you’d be forgiven for thinking, while you were applying, that *maybe the government is actually trying to make sure you don’t get it*
  • enter Code for America: one year, a fellowship team took a look at the process for applying for food stamps in California and saw that it was… not ideal? So they built a better process. Much better.
  • This better process impressed California’s Department for Social Services, who administer food stamps in California, (but the program is itself delivered by counties) so much that they wanted to find out a way to work with Code for America more.
  • As a way of testing that relationship, California’s Department for Social Services asked Code for America to do a review of a request for proposal of their new Child Welfare System, an estimated $500m, 7-year project to replace a 25 year old legacy system.
  • While at Code for America, I reviewed the request for proposal and saw that it was a fairly traditional monolithic (ie: one big project), waterfall (no iteration, spend a lot of time coming up with a spec/requirements, then spend a lot of time building exactly to that spec, then testing it, then… everything works?) project that, given all other monolithic waterfall projects, was most likely doomed to a) not delivering what was promised (not “working”), b) being over budget and c) being late.
  • My attitude in writing the review was one of a take-no-prisoners, “I have no fucks to give”, and following the advice and exhortation of Ed Catmull in his book [Pixar], I decided to experiment with being bluntly candid.
  • In the end, the State decided to throw out the $500m 7-year monolithic waterfall project and go with a modular, iterative, focussed-on-user-needs approach.
  • That project is now the Child Welfare Digital Service and it’s a demonstrator project for state technology projects focusing on meeting user-needs and delivering iteratively.


This new user-needs focused, iterative delivery approach? It’s working. The services have working code. They are working in the open, because it’s better.


In the previous approach, the Child Welfare project wouldn’t even have started working with a vendor until around mid-2017. The new approach has had working code since August 2016.


The timeline that Child Welfare Digital Services have been working to is unprecedented in State government, never mind potentially even Federal government.


There’s more: California now has the nattily named ADPQ, the agile developer pre-qualified pool. It’s a pool of agile software development companies that the State has pre-qualified by getting them to complete a technical exercise. The developers were given a problem and a public data set through a California Health and Human Services Agency API, a deadline, and asked to show their work on Github. Then, the State did a technical evaluation of the quality of their work *and* got users to try each of the services to see if, well, they would meet user needs. Many development companies submitted work that, bluntly, didn’t pass the user test.


We’ve been able to do this in California because right now, there’s unprecedented political will to do things better. Cabinet-level political will. The Secretary for Government Operations, Marybel Batjer, talked about this at the Code for America summit[x].


As an aside: the Harvard Kennedy School is putting together a case study on California’s Child Welfare Digital Service. As part of my interviews with them, they kept saying: hang on, this sounds too easy. If all you had to do to move from the monolithic waterfall model to the user-need focused iterative model was to point out the problems with the former, how come everyone else hasn’t done it? To which, I figured out in conversation – yes, part of this is to do with the fantastic political will to do things better and the recognition that the current way just isn’t working and isn’t delivering upon the social promise and compact of government. But, then I remembered another thing that I haven’t really talked about in public: my give-no-fucks candid review of the request for proposal indicted the entire structure of technology delivery in the State of California. A good way of putting it is this: the RFP that I reviewed was a genuine best-effort attempt by everyone involved *under the constraints they were in*. And ultimately, those constraints were imposed by state technology policy. My final set of recommendations addressed not necessarily the RFP but pointed out that the commissioning department – social services – actually had no power to substantively improve the outcome, even if they implemented all of my recommendations that they did have the power to implement. My final set of recommendations was, more or less, a revolution – not an evolution – of state technology policy. The thing is, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t have a productive (ie: get anything done) conversation about the recommendations with the State’s CIO. So I didn’t. I had a conversation with his boss, instead. Again: no fucks to give. And his boss was someone that I did know was actively interested in finding a better way of delivering technology. In the end, after the decision was made to go ahead with the demonstrator project – the user-need-focused, iteratively delivered Child Welfare Digital Services – that State CIO ended up taking early retirement. California has a new State CIO now.


All of this is to say:


  1. How government works matters
  2. Policy and legislation doesn’t matter if delivery is terrible. That is, when government is bad at technology – horrible user experiences for applying for food stamps, antiquated technology for child welfare case workers, making it difficult to start a business – then for you and me, for citizens and residents, the *intent*, the policy or legislation doesn’t matter. If *in practice* it takes 150 screens worth of forms to apply for food stamps when it *doesn’t need to* then government has failed you and not met its promise in the social compact
  3. In this way, government fails everyone and people lose trust in government
  4. This isn’t just about cheaper technology delivered on time. Yes, government wastes billions of dollars on tech that is late, over budget and doesn’t work.
  5. Government technology that doesn’t meet user needs is an absolute failure of government *for* the people


So. I need help. I’m in Sacramento today for a huge digital services strategy presentation. Part of that presentation is covering how the state fills its talent gap, and making the case that the state people with the critical skills needed to deliver digital services that meet user needs. And yes, delivering those digital services will always involve working in partnership with the private sector.


If all goes well, California will be needing people very, very soon. We have a lot of work to do, and we’ve got a window to do it in. And if California can do it – and they’ll do it open source (most likely viral open source too, if they accept my recommendation) – then all America’s other states have no excuse.


I can’t promise a market rate salary. But, I’m recommending that the State is able to pay something close, I think


You’ll even have to spend some time in Sacramento. This isn’t the kind of work that can be done remote – yet, but it will be. Enough of this job is culture change as much as it is having the right skills and experience. Culture change means you’ve got to be there.


I’m collecting names. If you’re interested and you want to make a difference somewhere where you *can* make a difference, then get in touch. Who are the kind of people I’m looking for? Digital product or service managers. Designers. User researchers. Content designers (aka: writers, content strategists). Technical / architecture leads. People who know about legacy systems and look forward with relish to updating and replacing them. Is that you?


1.2 Recreational Whiteboarding


Ugh, I spent what feels like so long writing that stuff about California above that I’m going to do this one as bullet points as well.


  • I started off by thinking: what if organizations like the ACLU built digital services? What would they look like? What user needs would be in their remit to meet? What do digital services designed to (understand and meet the needs of users who want) protect civil liberties look like?
  • And then: why did I think of the ACLU? Three (in the end, four) reasons:
    • Reach (also known as “brand recognition”): the ACLU are well known and have large earned reach – when they talk, lots of people listen. Lots of people also want to hear what the ACLU have to say.
    • Results: the ACLU are known for getting things done. They take court cases and then take them all the way up to the supreme court to preserve civil liberties. People know that the ACLU are zealous in fighting for civil liberties in court.
    • Focus: they don’t try to do everything. For example, people know that the ACLU cares about first amendment rights and profiling, for example.
  • There’s lots more organizations like the ACLU, then, that you can apply these “interestingness” criteria against: the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Planned Parenthood, the Sunlight Foundation and so on.

Here’s my gut-reckon non-researched user need that I’d go out and get validated through qual research and, you know, building something. Let’s assume that I’m a user who cares about womens’ reproductive rights and making sure that they don’t get eroded. As a user who… cares about women’s reproductive rights and wants to make sure that they don’t get eroded, I want to:

  • understand *what* is going on a) right now, and b) at what level (eg county, state, federal)
  • understand *why* that’s bad or important or how it affects womens’ reproductive rights
  • be able to *do* something about it

For example: right now, Mike Pence may have *said* something about womens’ reproductive rights. What he said is bad or important because he’s going to be VP. Given that I care about womens’ reproductive rights, what can I do to prevent the bad thing that might happen? Is there something better to do than donating some money?


At this point, I defer to Farrah Bostic, whom I hope I’m able to now refer to as a good friend. Farrah and I had a chat about this, about a) building stuff that helps people *do* things and get things *done*, and in particular, b) the role that news and media plays in this. Farrah reminded me about That John Oliver Medical Debt Episode, the one where he a) explained what medical debt was, b) showed how many people it affected, c) explained why it was bad, d) did something about it, e) showed the rest of us how to do something about it.


Here’s a framework of how I think “media” can work better in the environment that we’re in. I’m not necessarily interested in an argument or discussion about whether this environment is a good one or not, merely about being effective in it.


John Oliver’s Medical Debt Episode is a great example of “news” reporting doing three new things packaged together when it only used to do one or two at best. Here’s the three things:


The What: John Oliver explained *what* medical debt is. News media thinks that its job is to do just this. Whatever, it’s a product of when it evolved. But I’d argue that in the end, a way to look at news in satisfying user needs is “I need to understand the world so that I can make good decisions”. Sure, you can drive a truck through “good decisions”. With my never-ever-an-actual-journalist naive reckoning, thinking out loud hat on, this is what happens when the news media sees its job to report facts and, as they say, “all the news that’s fit to print”. But! Facts are only useful to the extent that they inform decisions, right? Those facts, in the end, are useful to people when they help you *make decisions*.


The Why: John Oliver explained – using rhetoric, emotion and so on, as well as facts, why medical debt – as it is right now – is bad from a societal point of view. He did this in a seamless move. He moved from what straight into why. Or, even, he mixed what in with why all along. Traditional news doesn’t do this! It’s why we got a whole bunch of headlines saying Donald Trump has said some things, but none of the papers were able to report on page A1 that those things were Bad and he Shouldn’t Have Said Them. Newspapers are only able to have an opinion about these sorts of things – for historical, structural reasons? – in the opinion section. So you get a headline about a fact, that Donald Trump Said A Thing. And then, much later inside the paper, you get an op/ed that says, Hey, That Thing Donald Trump Said Was Horrible, We Shouldn’t Stand For It.


(An aside: do you know who’s good at the mixing the facts (and, in some cases, not-facts) with the editorial? I’ll give you a clue – it’s the kind of organization whose publisher is now the chief of strategy in the White House.)


(A double aside: the atomization of news and its insertion into feeds means that you lose the context and the brand values when a New York Times op/ed appears in your feed vs the actual story. When you mix news and editorial together in one story, then you retain your “message” when your message appears in the feed. This is Important, for Later.)


The Do: As soon as you’re able to admit that you can a) report facts, and b) take a value position on them (this is good/bad/complicated), then you may as well double down and go through to c) which is Do Something About It. Organizations like Breitbart and Fox News will exhort letter-writing campaigns and so-on, but traditional (liberal?) media will go about as far as having an annual campaign to, I don’t know, raise money for orphans or something I’M LOOKING AT YOU, FINANCIAL TIMES. But! Digital is great at *doing* stuff! Digital makes it easier to *do* things than ever before! So, what’s the do? Each news story can and should become a campaign and a call to action because, hey, you wanted engagement, right? John Oliver, again: the do was him *buying up debt*, forgiving it on TV and *showing you how to do it* too. He could’ve gone even further and made it *really easy for you to do, too*.


So, the open question: what infrastructure is needed to build new journalism and new civil liberties protection services that package up the what, the why and the do, complete with metrics and measurement to measure performance?


That’s what we put on the second whiteboard Jesper Andersen and I recreationally whiteboarded the other day. Maybe time for next episode.


2.0 Grab bag


  • Researchers at MIT have published a paper about a deep-learning artificial neural network implemented in photonic circuitry instead of traditional Von-Neuman/Turing silicon, although there’s a comment on Hacker News that there’s one part of the entire stack that hasn’t been implemented in optics yet. If I read their paper right, their experiments have shown a 2 order-of-magnitude (100x) increase in speed and a 3x order-of-magnitude (1000x) decrease in power.[0]
I was going to put more stuff in the grab bag, but ran out of time.

[0] [1610.02365] Deep Learning with Coherent Nanophotonic Circuits

Um. So. Got to go to a meeting. Send notes! Mwah! Bye!