Write a tweet before you write a book chapter

When my publisher’s very smart and talented publicist suggested I post about my book weekly for four weeks, I decided to do one better. Or nine better, really. “I’ll do one post about each chapter,” I confidently said to my kanban board. This turned out to be great advice that I wish Past Ben had.

I don’t know how much of an effect it had on sales. The feedback loop is far too long there. But even if I’ve tapped out the buying (and sharing) power of my network, the thought process is useful. I wish I had done it before I started writing. If you can’t explain a chapter’s value in 240 characters, is it worth including?

When you’re writing a non-fiction book, you’re in a bit of a race against time. Particularly in tech, the longer it takes you to write the book, the more likely it is that the earliest content is out of date. One of the ways to keep the writing time low is to not include material that doesn’t matter. If you can concisely express why a chapter (or section, even) matters, it’s probably good to include it. If not, you either need to cut it or think a little harder about why it’s important.

One suggestion that my editor gave me early in the process is to state a problem that each section solved. This was mostly for the reader’s benefit: it told them why they should care about a particular section. But it also made me think about why the section should be included. More than once, I cut or reworked a planned section because I couldn’t clearly express a meaningful problem.

Plagiarism in music

Last week I read an LA Times article about allegations of plagiarism leveled at Olivia Rodrigo. Rodrigo is a very talented artist (“good 4 u” gets stuck in my head for days at a time), but is she a thief? I haven’t heard the songs mentioned in the article, so I can’t say in this specific case.

But in the general sense, my bar for “plagiarism” in music is pretty high. The entirety of popular music is based on artists incorporating things they’ve heard before to varying degrees. Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel rant is a great demonstration. I’ll grant that “Canon in D” has long entered the public domain. But imagine if musicians had to wait a century to reuse a few bars of music.

My personal view—which may or may not match copyright law—is that unless it’s taking audience from the previous song/artist, it’s fine. This is similar to one of the factors in fair use. As a concrete example, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” definitely takes from Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”. And that’s fine. The existence of “Ice, Ice Baby” hasn’t stopped anyone from listening to “Under Pressure”.

Cultural works, particularly in music and Internet discourse, rely inextricably on remixing. We should embrace a very permissive paradigm.

Seek first to understand

One of the lessons that I’ve had to repeatedly re-learn over my career is “understand the problem before you fix it.” I try to fix a problem as quickly as I can. It’s a laudable goal, but a fix without understanding may not actually fix the problem. And it may not prevent future occurrences. If you’re particularly unlucky, it will make the problem worse.

I learned this lesson late last week. On Thursday, someone reported some HTML appearing in some Fedora documentation on translated pages. “Oh! It was probably that PR I merged yesterday,” I thought. So I reverted it.

Then I started digging into it some more. And I realized that it’s probably not that change at all. In fact, it worked locally and on the staging server. It was just broken on the production server. It’s not clear to me if both staging and production sync the translation data on the same schedule (without getting too sidetracked, the staging environment isn’t really a staging environment. It needs a better name). But I became convinced that it’s not a problem in the docs infrastructure, but in the translations. So I reverted my reversion.

This is not the first time I jumped in to fix something before I took a look around to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last.

Here’s the thing: most of the time, a slight delay doesn’t matter. No one’s safety was at risk. We weren’t losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a minute. There was no real harm in spending 10 minutes to figure out what was going on. Perhaps I could try to reproduce it. After all, if you can’t reproduce the error, how do you know you’ve fixed it?

Hopefully the next time I go to fix a problem, I’ll understand the problem first. As astronauts do, I need to work the problem.

Thoughts on unlimited PTO

The idea of unlimited paid time off (PTO) has been around for a while. I wrote about it in 2015 shortly after my then-employer changed from a traditional PTO policy. But unlike many practices in the tech sector, unlimited PTO has not become ubiquitous. It’s still a matter of debate, especially since it can result in pressure to take less time off because there’s no signal about the appropriate amount.

The joys of unlimited PTO

My old company was small, engineering-focused, and fully-remote. Everyone wore a lot of hats and there wasn’t a lot of redundancy to go around. But the unlimited PTO model worked for us. Employees that were there a full year before and after the switch used, on average, about half a day more of PTO in the unlimited model.

We had a minimum policy: you had to take at least two one-week periods off each year. This helped make sure people did take time off and established that “unlimited” wasn’t a way of saying “don’t actually take time off, we just don’t want to carry this liability on our balance sheets”.

For me individually, I didn’t take much more time off than I had previously (I’m pretty bad at taking PTO to begin with). What I really liked about it wasn’t the lack of a limit, but the lack of having to think about it. Need to take a day off? Just do it. There’s no “hm. Well, should I only take half a day so that I can make sure I have some at the end of the year if I need it?”

After Microsoft acquired our company in 2017, we were back to a traditional model. We received about the same number of days off as I had been taking under the unlimited policy. But now I had to think about it. At Red Hat, we also have something like the traditional model. And I’m bad at taking it. In part because I tend to flex my work time in order to attend off-hours community events. In part because I’m just bad at it. I long for the day when I can just take time off and not worry about whether or not there will be any left for me at the end of the year.

To track or not to track?

Over the weekend, Alyss asked about tracking unlimited PTO:

I can understand the hesitancy. If your manager can reject PTO requests arbitrarily, then you don’t actually have an unlimited PTO policy. But the request/approval process can be useful for coordination. You don’t want to show up one morning to find a dozen people in your team have decided to take off for two weeks. In that sense, what’s needed more is acknowledgement than approval.

Tracking can also be abused, but I think it’s good on the whole. As a manager, if you can see that someone isn’t taking PTO, you can kick them out of the office for a week. (Not really, of course. But you can encourage them to find some time to not be at work.)

How I use speaker notes

At Nest With Fedora last week, someone said “I also gave my presentation without speaker notes. It’s like doing slideshow karaoke with one’s own slides.” That sparked a discussion of the different ways people use (or don’t use) speaker notes. So I thought I’d write about my own practice.

Speaker notes, if you’re not familiar, is the feature of most presentation tools that allow for additional notes not shown on the slides. These are usually displayed on a second screen that might also include a timer, the next slide, etc. The idea behind speaker notes is that it gives the speaker a reference for what they want to say. This avoids the speaker having to memorize the presentation—or worse, make slides full of text that they read to the audience.

How I don’t use speaker notes

I have never gotten in the habit of using speaker notes. Perhaps it’s because my formative slide deck years were ones in which I had but a single monitor? Even now (well…in the Before Times™), I occasionally end up in a venue where the second screen option doesn’t work well. And if you have to fall back to a PDF of your slides, then the notes won’t be visible either.

So how do I avoid the wall-of-text slides? Sometimes I don’t. But mostly I do it by preparing. For most presentations, I start by building an outline. Then I write a long-form version. This is sometimes useful with minor edits as an article or blog post. From there, I build my slides. Then I practice a couple of times. So by the time I get on stage, I’m pretty familiar with what I want to say.

How I do use speaker notes

Where I find speaker notes useful is for people who are looking at the presentation after the fact. I’ve been told “the slides shouldn’t be useful on their own.” That advice isn’t about intentionally making a bad experience, but because the slides should reinforce what you’re saying. Otherwise, you should just hand out a document.

This means if anyone looks at your slides later, they need the greater depth that you’d speak. This is where speaker notes come in handy. And that “anyone” can also be Future You. I gave a talk earlier this year that I hadn’t delivered since fall of 2019. I used my speaker notes to remind myself what the images were supposed to represent. Speaker notes are also a great way to add additional citations, etc.

So long, LISA

In 2010, I attended my first conference. My friend Matt—who I met because we read and commented on each other’s blogs—was leading the blog team for USENIX’s LISA conference. He wanted to add a few people and asked me to join. I was thrilled.

That fall, I went to San Jose not knowing what to expect. I was a system administrator (in a large installation, no less), but there were so many things I didn’t know. Would I fit in? Yes, as it turns out.

The community was large, but incredibly welcoming. I got to have dinner with some of the Big Names in system administration, all of whom were kind and gracious. For six days, I woke up early (because time zones), attended sessions all day, went to BoFs and social events in the evening, then stayed up late to write a couple of posts for the conference blog. By the end of the week I was exhausted, but having the time of my life.

For several years, I was a regular attendee and blogger. In 2016, I served as co co-chair of the Invited Talks track. In 2018, I was on the program committee. Since then, I haven’t been involved with LISA (except for a lightning talk this year) because my career has taken a different direction.

But even though my job is no longer system administration, I’m still friends with so many people I met through LISA. And it’s not a stretch to say that being on the LISA blog team set me up for success as a writer. Of course, it gave me a lot of practice writing on tight deadline. But it also helped connect me to people who have since given me a boost in my career. I doubt that I’d be working on a book right now if it weren’t for the LISA conference.

So you can imagine how sad I felt when I saw the news that the LISA conference has come to an end. All good things must end, of course. LISA had a terrific run. But the field—and the world around it—has changed. So we must bid goodbye to the conference that started me on conferences. I learned so much and met so many wonderful people. And I’ll always have that.

Lafayette School Corporation’s COVID-19 plan

At the end of June, the Lafayette (Indiana) School Corporation sent parents its 2021-2022 school year COVID-19 plan. After a reasonable approach to 2020-2021, I’m disappointed with this plan. This plan seems to embrace the “pandemic’s over!” mentality. The pandemic, of course, is not over.

The pandemic is particularly not over for children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccines. LSC, being a K-12 school district, has roughly half of their students ineligible for vaccination. Thankfully, the effects on children have largely been minor-to-none, but there’s no guarantee that this will continue to be the case as new variants develop. In addition, students may live with adults who cannot get vaccinated or have compromised immune systems.

The district dropped the mask requirement on July 1, regardless of vaccination status. And vaccination is not required. I hope that changes when the vaccines receive full (not emergency use) approval from the FDA. I am not optimistic it will. Masks will still be required on buses.

The district says “Social Distancing will be a high priority.” But how? When ~20 percent of students were e-learning, this allowed for additional spacing. Now that all of the students will be back in the building, this is going to be very difficult. I doubt that the district has overhauled the ventilation systems in schools, and with no mask mandate, I expect we’ll see a lot more transmission in the schools.

An e-learning option will be available but only if a doctor says it’s “in the student’s best medical interest” and the school administration approves. This offends me. If a doctor makes a medical decision, who are the school administrators to say otherwise? I wouldn’t go to my kids’ pediatrician to override the curriculum.

The state legislature has been remarkably stupid in response to the pandemic. I suspect the school district is just trying to avoid the wrath of the legislators and Attorney General. Unfortunately, they’re doing it by giving up on any meaningful protection of the students.

The relationship between managers and corporate culture

My friend sysadm1138 recently wrote a post titled “managers are more important than company culture.” I don’t disagree with anything she wrote, but I wanted to “yes, and” on it a bit. An employee’s immediate supervisor has the most impact their experience. This is true for everyone, but particularly for underindexed folks. But I would go on to say that managers are a reflection of the corporate culture.

I’ll grant that some people are better managers than others (indeed, some people are better people than others). Well-intentioned managers can still result in hostile and damaging work environments. But just as actions speak louder than words, the behavior of an organizations management at all layers is a more accurate reflection of corporate culture than anything else.

Even if 99 out of 100 managers are terrific, that one bad manager can taint the whole culture. If the organization doesn’t improve or remove harmful managers, then the culture is clear. Similarly, if the organization doesn’t enable and support employees identifying harmful managers, that says volumes about the culture.

This isn’t to say that you should only work at companies that have perfect management. I doubt any such place exists. But you should be aware of what the bad managers say about your culture. Corporate cultures, as expressed in words, are always aspirational. And when something is aspirational, you expect to fall short of it. Probably frequently. The question is how short do you fall? And what are you doing about it?

Bo Burnham’s “Inside”

I recently watched Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special. “Inside” is…something. It brings to mind two movies I’ve seen several times. But first, I want to talk about it as art. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s an excellent work of art. It evoked a lot of emotion, including confusion and discomfort.

The discomfort comes from the intimate feel it has. Burnham has been open about his struggles with mental health. “Inside” is not always clear on how much is Burnham being sincere and how much is him exaggerating reality for effect, as art often does. In this way, it brings to mind Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

“The Wall” came about after Roger Waters spat on noisy audience members and expressed a desire to build a wall between the audience and the band. But I seriously doubt that Waters actually wanted to shave off his nipples or create a Nazi-like following. “The Wall” took a sincere feeling and made art out of it. Is “Inside” the same?

I hope so. There are definitely times where it felt sincere enough that I was uncomfortable with the awkwardness of watching Bo Burnham have a breakdown. Was that the goal?

“Inside” also reminds me of the Monkees’ flop of a movie. “Head” is just plain weird. It’s full of mostly unrelated bits that occasionally call back to each other. After a few viewings, I’ve started to feel like I have an idea of what it’s about, just not one I can articulate. It’s easier to express what “Inside” is about, but it’s still a weird mish-mash of content without a coherent arc.

I can’t say that I enjoyed “Inside”, but I did appreciate it as a work of art. Of course, it’s not perfect. It’s a little self-important and masturbatory. But it’s entirely Bo Burnham, and you can’t ask anything more than that.

On the “commercial side of cancel culture”

Writing on his blog last week, Evan Brown said about “morals clauses” in contracts:

These clauses provide the means for the commercial side of cancel culture to flourish.

Evan Brown

Evan is a fellow 812 native and a person for whom I have tremendous respect. I wouldn’t think to argue with him on a matter of law, but this is a matter of culture, so I will.

We’re starting from different points. Evan clearly believes that “cancel culture” is a real concern. I don’t. I’ll grant that there is a possible extreme that would be a problem, but I do not believe we are there or that we are approaching it. What is called “cancel culture” is often “facing accountability for one’s improper actions.”

To that end, I proposed that the “commercial side of cancel culture” could also be called “the free market”. This specific case—Jeep pulling use of an ad featuring Bruce Springsteen after news came out that he recently had a DUI arrest—is a particularly bad example to use to make the point, too. First of all, it is very reasonable that a vehicle company would want to dissociate from someone who recently had a drunk driving arrest. Secondly, the harm is not on the person “canceled” (to the degree that Bruce Springsteen can be canceled).

Springsteen presumably got paid already (although there may be a clawback clause or a payment structure that has not fully completed yet). He doesn’t need the money or the fame. Meanwhile, Jeep produced an ad and purchased air time for it. They probably planned for a much longer run over which to recoup their expenses. I’m not suggesting we feel sorry for Jeep, but I also don’t think we need to shed any tears for The Boss.