s3e15: First Rule In Government Spending 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

10:56am on Thursday, 21st April 2016 sat outside a cafe in shorts and a t-shirt because it’s a pleasant 64 degrees fahrenheit / 18 degrees celsius and the Brit in me sees the sun and is completely freaking out. I am not melting, not like the last few days when it was above 80f/26c. Also I have a cold brew and there is a NASA sticker on my laptop (not the worm, the swoosh one) because it turns out that when you get Apple to replace the screen on your laptop, they replace *the entire screen* which I kind of suspected, but that means you lose all your stickers. So, uh, if anyone wants to mule me a WHAT IS THE USER NEED sticker, I would totally appreciate that some time.

It is also getting harder to keep the theme of Contact-related episode titles.

1.0 First Rule In Government Spending

I’m continuing a teardown that I’m jokingly naming HULKSMASH because it involves me figuring out how to do business in the State of California. Lest we forget, the State of California has a population 39.1 million, with a gross state product of around $2.2 trillion[0]. I was born in the United Kingdom, a country that has a population of 64.7 million and a gross domestic product of around $2.6 trillion[1]. The thing that is getting me to HULKSMASH today is that “doing business with the State of California” has so far involved at least three phone calls, six PDFs of which at least three were forms, at least two hyperlinks in PDFs that led to 404s that also led me to reverse-engineer the correct URL to find the appropriate form (cue: joke about the basement, toilet, beware-of-leopard sign) and then literally give up and *speak to a human* who transferred me to another human who then told me to call a different human who then didn’t turn out to be a live human but was a pre-recorded human asking me to decide to press a button so then I looked at a website which is when I found out that YOU CANNOT CHECK OR RESERVE THE NAME FOR A CORPORATION IN CALIFORNIA ONLINE AT THIS TIME.

Which is why the “codename” for this particular teardown is HULKSMASH. Apparently, if I want to register my Oregon LLC in California (again, a concept that is unfamiliar to me because shouldn’t I be able to conduct interstate business without all of this form-filling? Or is that just my European privilege showing?) then I have to register as a foreign (ie: out of state) LLC in California which I can do by a) mail, or b) at the counter at the office in Sacramento with a special $15 handling fee, or c) using a preclearance/expedited filing service.

Oh wait I just want to say again that if I want to CHECK THE AVAILABLITY OF A NAME then I can do it by *mail* or, I can do it by phone *IF* I have separately established a prepaid account with funds, the minimum opening balance of which is $100.

At this point, I begin to sympathize with those individuals who have the opinion that government may be slightly unwieldy and perhaps unfriendly if not hostile to people who have Jobs To Be Done.

Let’s be clear here. We’re talking about a state whose gross product is nearly as much as the United Kingdom’s, which means: a) California makes a lot of money, or b) the United Kingdom certainly isn’t as important as it thinks it is, but even more importantly, there’s a register of company names in California that CANNOT BE SEARCHED ONLINE AT THIS TIME. I mean really. How many businesses can there even be in California? How is this even possible? There’s like at least a thousand CS grads standing in line waiting to tell you how to ingest all those businesses into a trendy Node.js, noSQL cloud cluster so you can search them all from apps or swipe left or swipe right on funky business names but OH NO  this is only California and you only can’t QUICKLY SEE IF A BUSINESS NAME IS ALREADY IN USE.

[0]  California – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[1] United Kingdom – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

2.0 A Group Messaging State Of Mind

Slack, of course, doesn’t fix a broken organization. Just like every other piece of technology, it’s a tool. It might bias you toward working in certain ways, but that’s only a bias, and not complete behaviour change, right? So when Agilebits talks about curing their Slack addiction[0], I’m not trying to be a Slack apologist, but some of the hype about Slack is about how it makes communication easier, which is all well and good, but then you need to think about *what kind of communication* and *what the communication is for*. In other words (repeat after me, like some sort of Church liturgy) What Is The User Need?

I’m pretty sure that Butterfield (not Brand! Ha!) has written about this before, but I see Slack as *really* working when it empowers a *certain way of working*. That way of working includes a number of attributes like devolved power, trust and candidness (If you haven’t already, please read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.) as well as a certain discipline. The truth of the matter is that Slack makes communication *quicker and more fluid* and that requires knowing when and what to communicate and also being able to reduce the cognitive overhead. There will always be times when decisions need to be made quickly or slowly or amongst lots of people or amongst few. What’s interesting to me here is that Slack is a product built on Slack in the same way that Facebook is (and maintains) that it’s a product built on Facebook. Slack usage creates Slack-ish companies. It’s as much about a working style as it is about a communications tool because – in some organizations where I’ve worked – there are those who’re happy to do stuff over email and use email in a conversational way (which is fine, apart from where those conversations are siloed) and those who use email, at a worst case, intermittently and only when it’s printed out and handed to them so they can scribble a reply on it.

Slack only really works – to me – in the same way that any other communications network works – its utility increases in proportion to the square of the number of connected users, as in Metcalfe’s Law[1]. You don’t just get a linear increase in value of the network when people get added, you get a disproportionately large increase when each additional user is added. But! This law is only an approximation, right? At the upper bound, your value increases by the square of each additional connected user, but the lower bound is that value in the network might only increase marginally because each additional user is, well, what we’d call Not An Active User. Or just a passive participant. There are and will be some super users and some less-active users. So a potential challenge for Slack is documenting and making spreadable *successful organizational behaviours* – ie case studies – that are intertwined with the usage of Slack. How do successful organizations use Slack? Because at this point, they’re not selling saddles, they’re selling making better decisions faster[2] (hello Slack, I am available for future consulting and employment opportunities in the product management space). It is *absolutely* worth reading, at this time in Slack’s growth, and re-assessing what AgileBits has encountered and what Slack wants to achieve with its product.

The other thing about this is that there might be the possiblity of Slack trojan-horsing in an “it just works” technology into the modern workplace. Hands up if you’ve ever identified with:

– Did you get the attachment? No? Can I email it to you? It’s too big to be emailed?
– OK let’s do a hangout. Wait, hangout’s not working for you? OK. Skype then? No?
– Who’s on mute? Can you unmute yourself?
– Calendaring still sucks
– No really, it does. Have you tried calendaring or trying to get a meeting.
– Using the projector. HOW IS THIS STILL A PROBLEM IN 2016.
– Printing shit out.

Honestly at some point I just want someone to fund a significant time-and-motion study to document the benefits *and the costs* of the current digital condition. Yes, I get that we all suddenly have access to multiple news sources *for free* instead of paying for *one* newspaper if we’re lucky and getting it delivered in the morning and *some* news from *some* TV providers. But are we just playing a shell game and moving all the costs around? Getting my news for free from multiple providers now means that instead of paying the local newsagent to deliver my paper and the news publisher getting a cut, I pay Comcast and I rent a modem and a wireless router (or don’t, if I’m smart), but then if it doesn’t work I get *no news* and I spend about twenty minutes on the phone with Comcast and someone has to come out to fix my internet which isn’t just how I get my news but *a whole bunch of other digitally delivered things now*. What’s the cost there? A whole bunch of previously visible costs have just been externalised into packets of EM radiation in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz range. Who bears the support burden? I do! So yes, I can pay my bill online. But when I can’t, I have to fix it.

I Am Not An Economist (IANAE) but a whole bunch of this extra stuff has been externalized into unpaid labour. The stuff that I used to pay for, or all the new stuff that I’m getting has a cost in time that isn’t paid for (or is paid for, if I use the fax machine OMG THE FUCKING FAX MACHINE at work to send in a rent application) or accounted for but still has to come from somewhere because hey, while some people might think our economy isn’t zero sum and is resource unbounded (hey, just keep punting those costs so that they’re Somebody Else’s Problem) TIME happens to be bounded and there’s only so much of it and only so much of it is compensated with money. Something something value exchange, I suppose.

There are a number of strands here that are whirling around in my head. One of those is that there’s an analogy in the massive slow-motion breakdown that infrastructure in the Western world is experiencing [citation needed?] thanks to radically lower levels of percentage investment post the Boomer investment during the Reagan/Thatcher era of proto-neo-liberalism [seriously, I have no idea what I just wrote] and what I think *will* happen to all of the digital infrastructure that we’re building. We *see* the bridges that are crumbling and closing or collapsing, we viscerally *feel* every time we get onto a cramped train or when we *can’t* get onto the cramped train or when BART or the Metro or whatever breaks or that people are getting poisoned with lead or that there are delays in flight control, but we don’t *see* quite as much yet what happens when our digital infrastructure breaks down, for whatever reason. Is it breaking down because it just wasn’t that good when we made it? Because we didn’t invest in it? Because we haven’t continually iterated upon it? Because it was always insecure? Because technology and software just changes? Because we were missold? And, at the bottom of that: brands and advertising and marketing don’t fix that. Better things that work fix that.

[0] AgileBits Blog | Curing Our Slack Addiction
[1] Metcalfe’s law – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[2] We Don’t Sell Saddles Here — Medium

11:58am and that was a total ramble. Sorry.

Oh, and thank you to the readers who wrote replies about what you’d do with a FLIR/infrared camera, the best suggestion of which was from Steve Burnett who said that he’d go out and play Predator vs. Human which I wholeheartedly agree with in training our children to avoid a) Hunter-Killer drones or b) an alien invasion, whichever you think is more likely. NB: You don’t get to say that Hunter-Killer drones accidentally hard-takeoffed through a corporate artificial intelligence are alien. At least, not today.

Notes, as ever, appreciated.

Best,

Dan