My Sweet Setup: writer’s reflections

I’ve got a ton of My Sweet Setup posts drafted and in varying states.

I don’t dig much into engagement or views or anything, but my initial impressions are that no one gives a fuck about my setup.

I’m still reflecting on the writing myself. I think I keep veering too far into trying to write reviews of these products, and that’s not what I am good at nor should be doing. My goal here is to talk about some of my favorite gear and software and what I love about them.

I’m not really doing this for views so I’m not going to A/B test my content within an inch of its life to try to juice up as much engagement as possible; I just want to make sure that I’m writing things that are good in some way, and can possibly be helpful to someone.

I’ve got some queued up to go out throughout the week. I hope you get some enjoyment out of them!

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My Sweet Setup: Apple Magic Mouse

You might think with my fancy keyboard that I might be using some similarly obscure artisan mouse. Nope! I’m a huge fan of the Magic Mouse. I bought one the first day it was available for sale in Apple Stores in 2009.

Most of the entire top surface of the Magic Mouse is a touch-sensitive surface, which allows it to be super functional, without requiring any buttons on the mouse (the mouse itself will click when you press down, but otherwise no buttons). By default you can just use it as a one-button mouse that couldn’t be simpler, but the other gestures are easy to use, and you can easily do things like right-click. It’s Apple at its finest: elegantly simple and not at all intimidating, but sophisticated features for power users are also hiding right there in plain sight.

With the most modern Macs, I have zero issues with latency, and jitteriness is a non-issue as well. The mouse is wireless but it “just works”. I’m sure a hard-core gamer might complain about some latency, but in the age of wireless gaming controllers I think even they would agree the Magic Mouse’s latency is acceptably low.

The mouse is comfortable to use. Some think of its shape as ergonomically unfriendly because it’s flat and not sculpted, but I find that its relative flatness is easier on my wrists. Early in my career I used Microsoft mice and I was starting to notice some pain in my right arm that I think was caused by the mouse’s shape. After I got a job where I used a Mac with a Magic Mouse all day, the pain disappeared.

I use the Magic Mouse 2 now, which is just like the first Magic Mouse, except it replaces AA batteries with a built-in rechargeable one, and it auto-pairs with a Mac or iPad just by connecting the cable (a feature I wish Apple would open up to all Bluetooth devices to make pairing simple).

And yeah, to charge the Magic Mouse you have to turn it upside town to expose the charging port, in an apparent abdication of Apple’s principle of design being about “objects you can’t imagine any other way”.

If you want a real treat, buy a Magic Mouse from Colorware with a custom paint color. I’m thinking about treating myself to a brighter blue/green one this summer to replace the metallic blue/green one I got in 2010.

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The Privilege Behind “Assume Positive Intent”

“Assume Positive Intent”, I assume, is a concept that was created with positive intent (see what I did there?).

It is one of those rules that, on the face of it, sounds completely reasonable and can be used to great effect. In distributed companies or communities where a lot of communication is written, it can be a very good rule of thumb. In written communication especially, it’s easy to assume the tone is more cold than it was actually meant to be, and by adopting the practice of always assuming the writer meant well, you can avoid escalations.

That sounds great on the face of it, but if you let it completely permeate your culture and policy, you might actually be creating a more toxic environment.

Well-meaning people can easily benefit from the practice of being given the benefit of the doubt with their writing, but when your team by default assumes positive intent, you are also unwittingly creating an environment where assholes can thrive. I I often see executives practice this antipattern. They’ll say something kind of inflammatory and when they’re called out for it, they’ll make an appeal to assume positive intent on their part. It weaponizes tolerance. If your company or community is a big proponent of assuming positive intent, keep a close eye on who is benefiting from that. And perhaps more importantly, ask yourself if there is an equal emphasis on being kind in communications. “Assume positive intent” by itself can create a safe space for jerks, but “assume positive intent” paired with encouraging and rewarding kindness can help ensure that you’re creating an environment that is not toxic.

Second, and this I think is one gets a little hairier, is in who we ask to assume positive intent.

Suppose we have two colleagues, one male, one female, named Jens and Sabine. They’re peers, but Jens tends to have an easier go of things compared to Sabine. Their skills are comparable, but Sabine routinely gets interrupted during meetings, and gets negative remarks in her reviews for instances when she’s assertive, whereas Jens’s assertiveness got him noticed earlier in his career and promoted quickly.

Jens and Sabine are having a discussion about how to best move forward with a project, and as they are expressing their differing opinions. Jens is immediately rather dismissive of Sabine’s proposal, and pretty quickly the chat is getting a bit heated. At one point Sabine, having been dismissed one too many times by Jens, makes a salty remark in Slack. Jens makes a formal complaint.

Sabine is taken aside by her manager who emphasizes the company’s culture of “assume positive intent” and is asked to apologize for the remark since Jens wasn’t explicitly saying anything inflammatory. She gets moved off of the project. Interestingly, Jens was never asked to assume positive intent on Sabine’s part when she made the salty remark.

To assume positive intent in practice requires that you’re doing so from a place of feeling psychologically safe. If you ask two people to assume positive intent from one another, but one person routinely lives with a constant baseline level of harassment in their life, setting this expectation is being burdensome on that person in a way it’s not burdening someone who hasn’t had those experiences.

If a woman in a bar hears her hundredth crass pickup line from a man, many of whom have gotten a little aggressive with her in the past, you can’t reasonably expect her to assume positive intent the way that you expect a man getting a genuine and polite compliment from a woman to.

If you’re setting policy, “assume positive intent” is a good guideline for communication, but you shouldn’t codify it into your policy, because it’s not a policy that treats different members of your team equitably.

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My hopes for the future of the iPad

I hope that this year, Apple completely revamps the springboard and app/window management on iPad.

The whole “icons and windows and cursor” based UI the Mac first popularized is a really solid foundation. The fact that most computer OS interfaces today use the same paradigm shows that we finally nailed the overall GUI for desktop computers. We had been experimenting with a handful of concepts prior, but after the Mac, most computers started following suit.

The iPhone’s UI paradigm similarly nailed it. Cell phones had a lot of UIs before iPhone came along, but after iPhone, everything started to act and behave a lot like it. It’s a very good model for phone UIs and is unlikely to change much because it doesn’t need to.

Apple gave iPad a head start by having its OS work basically the same as an iPhone. Apps could be more useful because they’d be bigger but Apple kept with the single-app-at-a-time simplicity of iPhone with the first iPad. The first iPad had no app multitasking. It didn’t even have fast app switching! That didn’t come till iOS 4 later that year.

And iPad wasn’t a lousy product with these limitations; I loved my very first iPad even if I could see that it had a lot of potential it didn’t yet live up to. But 11 years later and iPad is in a weird and awkward place.

Apple has tried to make multitasking on iPad a thing. It sucks. It’s super limited and clumsy. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s based on the iPhone’s UI paradigm, and iPhone wasn’t made for multiple apps on screen at once (and why should it?).

iPad is capable of being a full general-purpose computer, but it’s held back because of the awkwardness of doing tasks that involve more than one application.

Once Apple added trackpad/mouse support to iPad, it’s become clearer than ever that what iPad needs to do is switch to an app windowing interface built for touch first.

We have the pieces! Apple’s been pushing iPad app developers to make their apps work in a variety of sizes. Most iPad apps can probably already handle arbitrary window resizing without any changes.

And we don’t have to lose things like split view or full screen or PiP if you like having your apps arranged like that. App windows can have really easy, consistent and discoverable controls for putting apps into a split or a grid or whatever.

In fact, I especially want full-screen apps to remain a strong suit for iPad because that’s how iPad can really shine as a unique device. iPad is a really special device specifically because you can pick it up and put it anywhere and it can transform based on context. You can stick it in a magic keyboard and it’s a laptop. Hold it in your hands and it’s a great thing for reading articles. On a plane it’s great to watch some movies. Propped up on a table with some controllers it’s a solid casual gaming device.

When Microsoft got really into tablets for a hot minute in the mid–2000s they made the mistake of trying to repurpose desktop Windows for tablet and they failed. Apple feels like they were scared to follow Microsoft’s footsteps so they went the whole opposite approach and put iOS on iPad. Seeing mouse and trackpad support get added to iPad last year leads me to believe Apple is letting go of that fear of iPad being a crappier touch version of desktop macOS and they’re ready to make iPadOS a whole new thing that it is its own, taking the best of iOS and macOS and creating a whole new platform that is radically simple compared to macOS.

And that’s a massive growth opportunity for Apple. Why buy a Chromebook or a cheap laptop when you could get an iPad that is as feature complete as a computer but is versatile like a tablet, and has the quality and long life iPads are known for?

When Apple announced that iPadOS would become a distinct OS from iOS in 2019, it felt mostly like a statement of intent, since there wasn’t much difference in functionality in that initial release. I suspect Apple’s been doing some more fundamental work on iPadOS since then, and we saw the first taste of that with iPadOS 13.4 last year which added trackpad and Magic Keyboard support. I just hope Apple’s bold enough to erase years of missteps with multitasking.

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My Sweet Setup: ZSA Moonlander Keyboard (Black)

a glamour shot of the ZSA Moonlander keyboard in black
If you’ve known me for long enough you know how much I love a great keyboard, and in the last few years my keyboard game has evolved significantly.

I’ve been using Plancks for awhile, but I bought a Moonlander earlier this summer on a whim. Since then, it’s become my daily driver.

I have written entire posts on the subject of my love of clicky keyboards and the advantages of open-source, fully programmable firmware for those keyboards, so I’ll spare you the spiel here. But these keyboards are an absolute delight to the senses, and I feel incredibly productive on them. The Moonlander is quite comfortable and I have outfitted the farther-reaching keys with artisan key caps. They’re silly and whimsical, but they serve a very practical purpose: it’s easy to distinguish them from the keys that are within one finger movement of home row.

You laugh, but when I feel the cherries on the cheesecake key cap, I know that's shift-command-t

I started using the keyboard as a very bare bones setup: I actually took out the top row of keys so it felt more like the Planck, and I used the keyboard flat and without the wrist rests. After getting adjusted to the keyboard’s extra keys, I finally put the top row of keys back on. I also finally started using the tenting mechanism and the wrist rests, and the keyboard feels very comfortable and natural to use.

It’s a mechanical keyboard that uses Cherry MX-compatible keyswitches. The switches aren’t soldered to the board; instead the circuit board has hot-swappable sockets, so you can pop out the keyswitches it comes with and put in any others that you like. It’s an easy and non-permanent way to change the character and overall feel of the keyboard.

I’m currently using this keyboard with Kailh Box White switches. I made one slight modification to the switches: I put in heavier springs (with 70g of actuation force). It’s a delight to type on. And lest you feel intimidated by the idea of taking apart dozens of tiny key switches to swap out the even tinier spring: these Box switches are actually really easy to disassemble and the spring is dead simple to swap out; it took me maybe 25 minutes total to swap them all.

Let me be clear: The Moonlander requires some commitment. If you currently use a fairly conventional keyboard, you may be discouraged by the Moonlander’s considerable learning curve. Of course, this can be mitigated by the fact that you can reprogram the keys to mean whatever your brain wants them to mean, but you’re still going to be looking at a couple of weeks of frustration as you get up to full speed typing. If you like the fact that it’s a split ergonomic keyboard, you might be better served by the Matias Ergo Pro, which will be familiar to your fingers and have maybe an afternoon’s worth of a learning curve. And the Ergo Pro is now programmable as well, and although you can’t hot-swap the switches, the switches it comes with are quiet and delightful to use.

But if you are ready to step into something new and interesting that is an absolute delight to the senses, the Moonlander is incredible. And don’t be intimidated by the learning curve; just be prepared for it and you’ll be just fine.

The Moonlander comes in white and black, can be had for $365, and you can buy at ZSA’s store.

ZSA also sells their own version of the Planck, which I also own and it has similar features to the Moonlander, including a really easy web-based way to configure the keyboard layout.

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My Sweet Setup: Mac Pro (2019)

a 2019 Mac Pro

You take one look at the Mac Pro and you just know it means business.

It’s not the most Mac-like of the Macs out there by any means. The essence of the Mac as a piece of hardware has always been that of an all-in-one computer, and so if you are looking for a computer that is a true spiritual successor to the original Macintosh, get yourself an iMac.

Not long after the 128k Mac made its debut, there were users who saw how powerful the Mac system software was as a platform and wanted more out of their Macs, and Apple soon started to serve that market with workstation-grade machines that would easily set you back thousands (in 80s dollars).

The Mac Pro is a spiritual successor to these Macs. The Mac Pro is for the most demanding of Mac power users and professionals.

When I first got this computer, before I even set it up, the first thing I did was open up the case and look inside.

the inside of the Mac Pro 2019

Ordinary Macs don’t want you opening them up. Apple famously designed the original Macintosh so that you needed special tools to open the case. The Mac Pro practically dares you to open it, with a simple handle on top that you pull up and turn 90 degrees, then pull the top case off. The computer is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.

This sucker is equipped with just shy of 100 gigs of memory (or, as Google Chrome refers to 96 gigs, “about enough”), and it’s rocking a midrange 12-core Xeon processor (which offers you a good compromise between single-core performance and total multi-core processing power). The fans are barely audible at any given time, even with sustained 100% CPU load. Although inaudible, the fans are indeed working to move heat away from the components, as evidenced by my office now being a good 5 degrees warmer than the rest of the house.

If I described my day-to-day workload out loud, it wouldn’t sound worthy of a machine this expensive. But I am a very demanding user of my Macs, and if you see how they act after a couple years of me using them, they start to show signs of age. They will start locking up at inappropriate times, or I’ll see some kernel panics I used to not see. Disk I/O might start acting up after I worked the SSD pretty hard.

I’m not pushing my computers to their limits 100% of the time, but my Macs work hard for me, and the Mac Pro is the first computer I’ve ever owned that truly feels like it can keep up with me, and I don’t ever feel like I’m overworking it.

And although my workloads don’t look like the archetypical kinds of workloads you might see Mac Pro advertised for, my work style takes a computer that isn’t a slouch. Right now I’ve got two massive 5K monitors connected, with the slightly upscaled resolution (because I like my screen real estate). I’ve got 30 apps open right now in my dock. I’ll routinely be running some development environments which involves running app and database servers, maybe some Docker containers as well, and I’ll have at least one Chromium instance running (Chrome, and it’ll usually have several windows open, each with at least a half dozen tabs) and often at least one or two more (probably Slack or GitHub Desktop). I’ll have an email app open checking emails in the background, an RSS reader sitting off to the side, and a Twitter client always at the ready if I’m waiting for tests to run and I need to kill a minute, or if I have a hot take.

If I ever need some validation that this wasn’t a frivolous purchase, all I have to do is plug my laptop into these two monitors, and start using it the way I use the Mac Pro. The laptop’s fans will get quite loud, and switching between apps and general UI responsiveness will be laggy. Something simple like bring a window into focus might take upwards of a second depending on how busy the laptop is. On my Mac Pro? It’s almost always instant.

If I wanted just raw speed with a bunch of memory I probably could have gotten by with an iMac Pro (recently discontinued), or even a more recent iMac. But I absolutely love the flexibility the Mac Pro offers me. Sure, I don’t get the flexibility of working on my couch or on the porch, but I love knowing that it’s got a number of expansion slots available as I want to push it more. 100 gigs might sound like a lot of memory but I have quite a bit of headroom before I’m even close to the 768 gigs this particular model of machine allows. The SSDs on this computer have read and write speeds of something like 3.4 gigabytes per second of I/O performance, but if I want even more, I can stick some SSDs on a PCIe card and double that (and I am tempted to if not for the presumable complexities of software RAID).

There are few people as irrational as I am about getting the fastest computer possible; and I don’t personally know… any. I know of a few podcasters that bought this machine, and I know some famous YouTubers use it because the Mac Pro’s performance characteristics has a pretty big impact on their video editing workflows, but nobody I know was foolhardy enough to drop their hard earned money on one of these. Even more foolish, I knew in late 2019 that Apple was transitioning off of Intel macs, and soon. If I was just willing to wait a couple more years I probably could have just gotten the first Mac Pro made with Apple’s new chips. But this computer will carry me all the way through that transition, and I wanted to show Apple that there are still computer enthusiasts that want a computer like this, and I’m willing to use my dollars to show them that.

A tower Mac like this used to be pretty common. A lot of people who needed a Mac professionally to get serious work done needed the kind of power that only a tower Mac could provide, and indeed in the 90s and early 2000s a tower Mac was a common occurrence (and one could be had for a far more reasonable 2–3 grand). But computers got faster. Laptops got more popular and better. Nowadays the workstation just isn’t needed like it used to be. You can be a pretty demanding user and be perfectly well-served by just about any computer Apple makes. The workstation is a more niche category than it’s ever been.

But the workstation isn’t going away. Some people still need and demand a computer with the thermal capacity and expandability that you can only get with a tower. Apple thought we were leaving that age when they released the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, but the truth is that we will never leave that age, because there are always going to be some pro users who just need a big machine that you can either push to its absolute limits for sustained periods of time, who need to stuff the machine full of extra expansion cards, or both.

And those people should be Mac users, because there is no better OS for doing work like this.

And even though I did struggle with a months-long ordeal of trying to figure out some graphics related issues (spoiler: the Radeon Pro 580x drivers for macOS have a really annoying bug), I absolutely love this machine. It is the embodiment of performance and modularity at any cost (emphasis on the “at any cost” part).

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Graphics Issues on the 2019 Mac Pro

I’m posting this in the hopes that if someone else is running into this issue, this will pop up when they Google it. Shoutout to Erik at AppleCare Enterprise for taking ownership of my case until the bitter end.

Shortly after I got my Mac Pro at the end of 2019, I would occasionally notice some small video annoyances.

Sometimes, my windows would flicker and I’d see something like this:

window rendering issues

Other times, video thumbnails or image views wouldn’t render their contents but instead they’d look like this:

red video thumbnail in Tweetbot

Or this:

weird video stripes

Sometimes weird stuff would happen to my desktop background:

desktop background looks weird

The OS doesn’t even have to be booted up yet; you can see it on the login screen you first see on boot:

login screen stripes

Anyway, it’s weird.

The Troubleshooting

I tried a lot of things to fix it.

  • Like a good sport, I reset the PRAM and SMC for AppleCare. Surprise: that did nothing.
  • I reinstalled macOS. MacOS is installed on a read-only volume and can’t be modified, so I don’t know how it would get corrupted, but AppleCare said it would probably fix things. But it didn’t.
  • I took out my extra RAM
  • I tried a different user account to make sure it was nothing tied to mine.
  • I tried an external disk with a separate install of macOS that shares no lineage with my Mac Pro.
  • I wiped an external drive and installed a fresh copy of macOS on it.
  • I bought another 580x GPU off eBay and tried it out. Same issue.
  • I took it to Apple for service and they replaced the SSD because no other parts failed diagnostics. No change.
  • After some other repair-related mishaps, Apple shipped me a completely new Mac Pro. It had the same issue. (!!!)
  • Questioning my sanity, I wiped the new Mac Pro and put a completely fresh macOS install on it with minimal software setup. Same issue.

The issue always came back. Not always immediately; the issue is particularly insidious. It works fine for a good 24 hours, getting your hopes up. Then a day or two later, the computer’s back on its bullshit.

I researched this a ton, too. There aren’t a ton of Mac Pro owners out there, but if there was a widespread problem I would have expected to see some forum post about it. But I dug around Apple discussions and the rest of the web, and I couldn’t find a single report of an issue quite like this. I would see some occasional reports of users of other Macs seeing solid colors of things, but the nature of the issue seemed different and not nearly as reproducible as mine. Plus, my laptop runs pretty much the same setup as my Mac Pro and it had no issues whatsoever like this.

💸 Troubleshooting

So, at this point the situation seems really dire. But ever the optimist, I realized this is actually good news because we have ruled out a lot of possible root causes:

  • We ruled out some weird piece of software hiding somewhere on my Mac causing this. Now, even if that was the issue, that’s still a macOS bug; it shouldn’t be possible for any software to cause these issues, but if it were, at least we’d know something. But if it is a macOS bug and it’s just happening to me, my chances of getting Apple to fix it are minimal.
  • With a full machine replacement, that pretty much ruled out any chance of defective hardware. Like, seriously, what are the odds that I’d have two machines in a row with the same defective part whose issues manifest in the exact same way?
  • Apple’s special diagnostics never find any issues either (though I’ve always been suspicious of their ability to catch my issue; remember, it only starts happening after a day or so of being on). That creates some evidence the issue lies in macOS itself, or at least macOS’s interaction with some hardware.

Also, there are other things we know:

  • I can boot from an old iMac’s drive clone and the issue happens (and that drive clone shares no lineage with this computer)
  • My iMac didn’t have this issue
  • Neither does my work laptop
  • Both my Mac Pro and work laptop are very similarly configured; it is very unlikely that there is any software installed that might be causing this
  • This issue has been around since Catalina

So it’s not defective hardware, but it is unique to the Mac Pro (at least, my Mac Pro).

I decided that the next logical move is to try not just a different video card, but a different model of video card altogether. The most notable software difference between my Mac Pro and any other Mac I’ve used is different hardware drivers since they’re different computers. I figured maybe the driver for the 580x is the culprit.

The hypothesis is pretty sound! It’s one of the only things that varies. Plus, it’s really my only option of things to try out at this point. There’s literally nothing else I could try swapping out.

I found a W5500x on eBay, and luckily the seller was local so it arrived in just a couple days. I installed this card, and started using my computer (albeit with only one monitor since this particular card didn’t support more than one 5K display).

And it worked! I used it for a week or so, and never had any of my red thumbnail issues or window outline flickering.

I did see some weird Photos app thumbnails that looked like the telltale sign. But I am almost certain that these were cached thumbnails my old video card generated, or a separate bug altogether, because I regenerated those thumbnails by rotating the photos 4 times, and the issue hasn’t surfaced since.

To further test my hypothesis, I bought a W5700X from Apple, the next model up that supports dual monitors. I figured I should test with dual displays. Also, I’m a little salty with Apple since I’ve literally done all the troubleshooting work here, and I have zero guilt about buying a $1000 video card that I plan to return. So far, this card has been working just fine as well.

So, what’s actually broken?

At this point, all signs point to either a macOS driver issue specific to the 580X, or some sort of widespread hardware issue with the 580X itself (mind you, I have reproduced this issue with three different 580X cards so it’s either an issue with every card, or I’m really damn unlucky).

Does your Mac do this?

I can’t be the only one this is happening to. My setup isn’t that unique (a 12-core Mac Pro with the base graphics card and dual LG Ultrafine 5k displays, though the issue can reproduce with just one display), and I could easily reproduce the issue on two Mac Pro machines.

But I haven’t spoken to anyone else with this issue, primarily because I don’t know a single other person with a Mac Pro. This is an expensive, low-volume machine and the people who own them all have widely different needs, so it’s not like there’s a forum we all hang out on.

If you’ve been seeing issues like this on your Mac Pro and your machine uses the base graphics card, get Apple to fix it by giving you a different graphics card! Tell them your friend Aaron had this exact same issue and that they can look at my case notes for reference (case 101238086022) and hopefully save you a lot of trial and error. I would strongly recommend that you grab a different graphics card on eBay and try that upfront so that you can come to Apple and say “I can reproduce the issue using this card, and I can’t using this other card. It must be the card.”

And if you do run into this issue and try to get it solved, comment here and tell me about it! I am seriously wanting some closure on this issue.

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My Sweet Setup: The Office

Before my fiancé and I bought a house in Portland, I found myself feeling particularly stir-crazy in my apartment. I was sitting at my desk in my cramped bedroom, right next to the bathroom door, and I realized I just couldn’t concentrate. I started hunting around on Craigslist and I found myself a private office for rent several blocks away. It was dingy, tiny, and certainly expensive for what it was, but it had fiber internet and it was mine.

seriously, it was dingy.

I loved it.

I’m a deeply introverted person and I quickly fell in love with having a place where I could find solitude. I had a conference talk coming up pretty soon and I remember going into the office one weekend afternoon and finding that hours passed by in seemingly the blink of an eye as I was just focused on working in silence.

Also, once I got my stuff inside there, it felt a little less dingy. I swear there were moments when it was tidy.

my SM office, with things in it

Having a properly walled off room with a door that I can close off to the world makes a huge difference, and when I started doing my after-hours side projects in this office I knew that at some point I wanted to find a job where I could work remotely so that I could enjoy the solitude like this by default.

Now that we’ve got a house, my office got quite a nice little upgrade.

My Portland Office

A step up both in square footage and aesthetic appeal, it’s a fun and quirky space that is my own. The space is kind of old, and I am hoping to do a remodel in the next few years (repainting walls, replacing the built-in shelves with Dieter Rams-style modular shelving, and replacing the nearly 100 year old hardwood floor that’s given me splinters a few times). But it is my happy place, and i love continuously making small tweaks to it to make it just perfect for me. It’s always a mess (seriously, the picture you’re seeing is after I extensively tidied it) but that’s okay, because it’s mine and a door separates the chaos in here from the rest of the house.

But of course, the piéce de résistance is the hammock chair.

Stop! Hammock time!

I absolutely love this thing. I bought this from La Siesta. It’s oversized, which makes it appropriately sized for me, to the point that I can stretch my legs out fully and still be comfortably cocooned in the chair.

In the afternoons sometimes I like to grab my laptop and lap desk, and just snuggle up in the hammock chair, and let time just slip away around me as I fully concentrate on whatever it is I’m doing. The sides of the hammock serve as blinders in a sense, helping me to feel completely enclosed in this little tiny, comfortable space.

And we moved into this house with great timing. Just after we settled in, the pandemic happened, and having a home with ample space for us to each have solitude proved to be essential to our mental health.

To be clear, I do miss freedom of movement, and knowing that the office is the only place I’m allowed to work while we wait out the pandemic is frustrating. I look forward to traveling to San Francisco next year to visit HQ and it will be fun to see my coworkers in the flesh again, but you won’t see me ever running with enthusiasm to work in another open-plan office for as long as I can help it. It is still a small joy every morning to walk downstairs, open the vibrant blue door (Sherwin Williams Hyper Blue C–167 if you’re wondering), and step into this room that is just for me to be me and think and enjoy solitude.

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My Sweet Setup

Remember how I said I was going to post more in 2021, and how I haven’t posted anything since January? Well, that’s about to change!

I’m always on the lookout for the very best equipment for my work and leisure. Having great tools that you love makes you more productive (and even if it doesn’t, at least it makes you happy), and I think that the best craftspeople have a strong affinity for the tools they use. I’d like to share with you my current setup as an exercise in sharing some of my own values.

My goal here isn’t to be exhaustive and list every tool I use; most are super popular and not that exciting to recommend (Chrome, for instance, doesn’t need a post here, nor does iMessages).

I’m not making recommendations; I’m just sharing my setup. I like to think I have great taste, but keep in mind that I’m a nerdy dude who likes to throw money at problems. I aim to share the decision process I’ve taken to choosing these tools. Maybe you’ll see some things in here that might make your life easier.

I’m also not making glowing product reviews here. I’m sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. But at the end of the day, these products remain the ones I stick with, day in and day out. Things aren’t perfect, but they are solid. Reading through my criticisms, you’ll gain a better understanding of my values of what makes a great product, and ideally it’ll help you decide what you care about in a product too.

Oh, also: I’m not providing affiliate links or anything here. That’s not what this is about. This is very much an exploration of the different choices I’ve made over the years to build up a rock solid toolbox. I don’t want you to necessarily buy anything I post about here, and I stand to gain nothing from you buying these things. These are just the items I like to surround myself with every day.

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The “Big” in Big Tech Breeds Extremism

Tech companies hit a turning point this week and have actually started wielding power against far right groups aiming to incite violence. Most dramatically, Facebook and Twitter both permanently banned Donald Trump, and Parler, a “free speech” social network that minimizes moderation and has become a favorite among white supremacists, has been removed from Google’s and Apple’s app stores, and in an unprecedented move, Amazon will no longer let Parler run on Amazon’s AWS infrastructure in the cloud, forcing the entire service offline (as far as I know, Amazon has never banned a company of this size because of the company’s own lack of handling its users’ misconduct).

This has inevitably led to conversations about whether Big Tech has gone too far, and conversations about the role big tech companies should play in moderating what’s on their platforms.

I don’t want to get too in the weeds about whether tech companies made the right move; my longstanding opinion has been that these are their platforms and it’s up to them what they decide to let people do on them, and that I wish they prioritized the safety of their most vulnerable users. I will also acknowledge that as much as Parler had it coming, when you see the entire business get pulled offline in just a couple of days because of a few external companies, it’s only natural to have the panicked realization that these big companies could just as easily do this to your business if they really wanted to. As much as conservatives have been pretending to be oppressed by tech companies (and that’s a whole post unto itself, but I can guarantee you that “anti-conservative bias” is 100% bullshit), it really is true that for most of the tech companies you interact with, they could pull the plug on your account if they wanted, and you would have little to no recourse.

I do agree that it’s complicated for owners of big platforms hosting user-generated content to effectively come up with a set of policies that govern what people can talk about on these sites. These are hard questions because a huge chunk of the world’s communication happens on networks like Facebook and Twitter. If Facebook and Twitter get really strict about what you can say and do on these networks, they could be stifling much of the communication that occurs on the internet in general.

These will never stop being hard questions, but there is one straightforward way we can make these questions less necessary to even ask: take the “Big” out of “Big Tech”.

It’s the Scale, Stupid

Put simply: our society and institutions are not equipped to correctly handle the existence of massive tech companies that have literally billions of users.

Social networks aren’t a super new development; they’ve existed in one form or another since before the internet, and while there has always been some concern for fringe groups online, none of these groups or networks had previously posed an existential threat to democracy in the US.

But that changed when companies that run social networks hit real scale. And when I say “real scale,” I’m talking tens of millions, hundreds of millions, and even billions of users.

Facebook isn’t just a community; it’s a community of communities that is centrally managed by Facebook itself, where Facebook has an incredible amount of data about you. In the US there was a national debate for years about creating a new national ID card to replace state-issued IDs but there was this concern about centralizing control with the federal government. And yet, here Facebook stands as a central entity that tracks the identities of more people than the most populous countries on earth.

A network as large as Facebook is essentially a government. Facebook’s CEO has said as much on the record. But unlike most democratic governments around the world, Facebook’s policies don’t get determined by its users or people its users choose to represent them; Facebook is free to make these decisions unilaterally, and its users don’t have much recourse. “If you don’t like it, leave” is a tough sell when the network has pretty much every online user in the world on it.

Automatic radicalization at scale

On massive social sites like Facebook, you don’t need to find new communities; new communities will find you. Facebook will analyze your profile and activity and recommend new groups to join. On the surface, that sounds perfectly innocent; Facebook helps you find new groups you might like. But in a world where Facebook is home to all of these non-publicly visible extremist groups, that’s super dangerous, because now Facebook is doing the heavy lifting of recruitment for these groups. Facebook knows what those group members are like, so it can identify other people that might be sympathetic to these extremist causes and just casually recommend the hidden group to them. And just like that, Facebook just unwittingly became a tool to radicalize people at scale. Whoops.

It’s not a problem unique to Facebook; I just keep referring to them because it’s easier to point to a concrete example. It also isn’t just a problem unique to social networks. YouTube’s got a similar issue where if you follow recommendations on certain innocuous videos for long enough you go down a rabbit hole that often leads to increasingly extremist videos.

Critically, these tools to radicalize people through recommendations are only possible because companies like Facebook and YouTube have absolutely enormous numbers of users.

Facebook and YouTube are so big, when they make tweaks to their algorithms that promote content, it can destroy businesses and livelihoods. And individual bans can be useful (Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulos a few years ago and he and his toxic fan base haven’t resurfaced meaningfully since), but individually banning people is at best a band-aid when your network overall is continuously producing new extremists.

Scale is hard

For years, there has been sizable public pressure on these companies to do more to moderate. Initially companies seemed to hope they could handle this kind of moderation automatically, but in practice that works poorly; algorithms are bad at understanding the full context behind the content of everything posted and can’t make accurate determinations.

So now Facebook’s moderation is powered by an army of humans that must toil away around the clock, slogging through deeply disturbing content and trying to make human decisions at the pace of a machine. It’s a mentally taxing job.

In reality, the viability of tech companies running networks of user-generated content at scale is a myth. Moderation is a nightmare, and these companies are barely even trying to pretend they can keep up with it, and they really only tread water with moderation by subjecting a team of people to terrible working conditions.

But big tech companies want you to ignore that and just continue to let them exist because they don’t want you to even fathom that it’s possible for the world to exist without companies with billions of users.

But that scale, and that scale alone, is the very core of this problem. If we stop having companies with billions of users, we suddenly stop worrying that there are companies that function as pseudo-governments. If we stop having companies with billions of users that are breathlessly handing out recommendations to get those users to join new communities that are trying to overthrow democracy, democracy can be safer.

The question, then, is how we might do that, and what a world that rejects scale might look like.

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