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This is what 'going viral' looks like

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Sometimes I blog about something and it goes nowhere, much like this girl's domino:

Sometimes I blog about something and it continues to weave its way to the many corners of the internet, much like this:

But, sometimes I blog about something and it starts a chain reaction that looks more like this (I looked for a domino video that featured fireworks and confetti but came up short):


In other words, it goes viral. Now, on November 11, I blogged about Tim Klein's "puzzle montages" and I believe it's the most-viral post I've written in my over-seven-year professional blogging career. While I don't have the exact numbers, I have been watching it quickly spread across the planet and I feel certain that it is. Today, I thought it would be fun to pull back the curtain a little to show you what "going viral" looks like from "backstage."

[TL;DR version (and, warning, this post IS entirely TOO LONG): The post I wrote about Tim Klein's puzzle montages went nuts! Media outlets from around the globe picked up the story (digital, print, TV), some linked back to Boing Boing, some didn't. Tim got TONS of fan mail, all of his art sold, and now he's being offered gallery shows. Well... he and I talked and we plan to take it to the next level together (note: we didn't know each other before all of this). We first want to build a community of people who love puzzle mashups. Want to learn more? Subscribe to our brand new (monthly?) e-newsletter called Pigjaw Suzzles!]

Still here? Good. Tim helped me build this chronological timeline of how the "viral explosion" (his words) happened.

Friday, November 9
A new friend, Marcia Wiley, shows Tim's artwork to me on her phone during a visit. I am immediately blown away by it. I know that, from experience, if I get really excited about something, so will others. Well, I was so excited about this that I could barely wait to start writing it up. But it's late, so I start researching cool puzzles on eBay instead because I'm inspired to make my own puzzle mashups. I also check to see if Tim's ever been written about (he hasn't) and I look to see if anything similar has been written about before (there has, though not exactly the same way: 2008 and 2011).

Saturday, November 10
9:16 AM: Marcia introduces Tim and me via text. We are soon communicating and he's great (one of us! one of us!). We learn we have mutual friends in the art car world.
2:16 PM: He grants me permission to use his photos and share his story. We then connect on Facebook and realize we have even more mutual friends. I then spend my afternoon writing the post.

Sunday, November 11
7:38 AM: The post goes live on Boing Boing.
8:26 AM: I text both Tim and Marcia to tell them that it's up. Tim texts me back ("Woo hoo!").
11:19 AM: Tim texts me again to say that he's already getting "a few happy fan emails" from people he "doesn't know." I tell him that it's likely that other blogs will pick it up too. He replies, "I hadn't even thought of that!" [Insert foreshadowing]
3:07 PM: John Overholt, a curator at Harvard's Houghton Library, tweets the image of Tim's "Iron Horse" and it starts blasting off:

Monday, November 12
Morning: Nag on the Lake is the first blog to pick it up.
4:18 PM Miss Cellania of Neatorama is the second.
Sometime this day: THE Stephen King retweets (to his 5M+ followers) John Overholt's tweet.
Sometime this day or the next: John Overholt's tweet becomes a meme:

The meme starts spreading on Facebook and Twitter through various "viral" sites with no ties to Tim whatsoever. The one started on the "Texts From Last Night" Facebook page currently has over 23K shares. Because Tim is not mentioned in the meme, people start thinking John Overholt is the person who discovered that you can mix-and-match pieces of puzzles from the same manufacturer.

Then, someone creates a meme that strips out John Overholt's name. Tim writes about that,

"Later I started seeing an even more highly edited image with Overholt's name also edited out. And that version got shared around ad infinitem as well. Maybe that's when full "memehood" is reached -- when there's no attribution whatsoever, just an eye-catching picture along with an anonymous caption."

Tuesday, November 13
Morning: Pee-wee Herman posts it on his blog, commenting Tim's art is "SUPER COOL."
Later: Hacker News.
10:22 AM: MetaFilter.
Sometime the same day: A redditor posts the image of Tim's "Iron Horse," but does not link to his site or Boing Boing. As of this writing, that post has 74,200 upvotes (!). It gets posted in a different subreddit this same day with only 608 upvotes.
11:26 AM: Tim writes me, "I'm getting fan mail and purchase offers from faraway lands, from Turkey to Trinidad."
3:26 PM: A reader of my inbox zine sends me a tip. He's seen something cool in Dan Lewis' Now I Know e-newsletter and is sharing it with me because he knows I'm "always on the lookout for new interesting art." The "something cool" is Tim's puzzle montages and the link in Dan's newsletter goes to my post. I tell Tim. Turns out he's a patron of Now I Know. I also know Dan, so I remark, "Small world!"

8:07 PM: Tim writes, "Meanwhile, a number of friends have told me they encountered a post about puzzle art and thought they should forward it to me... only to discover that it IS me. :-)"

Also this day: theCHIVE, TwistedSifter

Wednesday, November 14
First thing in the morning: I share the story of me learning about Tim's montages in my inbox zine.
Later this same day: Kottke picks it up, using John Overholt's tweet as its source. Then, Facebook page "Nerds with Vaginas" posts a grainy version of the Overholt meme and gets almost 11K shares.

Thursday, November 15
3:43 AM: Archaeologist David S. Anderson tweets Tim's "King of the Road" as so:

Later the same day: Tim's puzzle montages land on the much-coveted Twitter Moments. To this, I email Tim, "Wow. Your montages went mega-viral. This is MY top post...ever. Very cool to experience this with you :D"
Sometime this day: Bored Panda publishes Tim's art, with permission, but adds the "clickbait" headline, "Artist Comes Up With Genius Way To Use Puzzles, Sells The Result For Up To $650." About this, Tim comments:

The author mentions my acknowledgment of Mel Andringa as the originator, and never mentions the prices that I was selling my artwork for. But the clickbait headline, which I'm guessing came from someone other than the author herself, implied that I came up with the idea myself and that I'm doing it in order to make a lot of money. These two implications sparked lots of indignation among commenters.

That Bored Panda Facebook post has over 1K shares.

His art then lands on a Hungarian site called Femina.

Friday, November 16
Austin Kleon includes a link to my Boing Boing post in his e-newsletter (yay).
Same day: My Modern Met covers it. Their Facebook post has over 2,392 shares.

12:26 PM: Tim writes me, "I have a few dozen purchase requests to answer, plus journalist inquiries from England and Italy. Something called the Interactive Museum of Games and Puzzlery wants to organize an exhibition."

5:24 PM: After telling me about the long list of media outlets that want to feature his work, he writes, "Meanwhile, the sink is full of dirty dishes, the cat is hungry, and I haven't shaved in a week. I gotta walk away from the computer and take a break."

Also this day: A Romanian TV station airs Tim's art set to some English-language soft rock. Then three new sites run with it: WhatTheyThink?, a Russian site, and an Italian site called FrizziFrizzi.

Saturday, November 17
Tim reports that his images have started showing up in strangers' Facebook cover photos.
Tim also reports that John Overholt wrote him and expressed remorse for not including his name in the original tweet ("If I’d had any idea 3 million people were going to see this tweet, I would have put your name in it...").

Sunday, November 18
The Jealous Curator adds Tim's art to their blog. Later, a Turkish site called listelist runs the story (the first one to use a photo of Tim himself). On this same day: The montages land on a site by psychonauts called Acidmath.
Later: Tim is approached by an agent at a major literary agency headquartered in New York, who writes "I love your puzzle montages and think they could make for an interesting art book!"

Monday, November 19
Italian site Linkiesta covers it.
2:01 PM: So does an Indonesian site called Brilio.

Tuesday, November 20
Colossal grabs it. They credit Kottke who, you may remember, credited John Overholt.

Wednesday, November 23
A website called Awkward (they're somehow related to "Awkward Family Photos" -- their post had over 3K shares) posts Tim's art without permission (many sites did not ask to use his images), does not link to his site AND replaces the titles of Tim's artworks with titles of its own. They've since updated the page to at least link to Tim's site.

Thursday, November 24
11:00 AM: Japanese site IRORIO grabs it.
Tim comments on Facebook:

"When I was constructing my puzzle montage "Mountain Plantation" from two thrift store puzzles during my limited spare time as a computer science grad student in 1993, the World Wide Web barely existed, even within the USA. So now, in the distant future year 2018, it's pretty darn wild to find myself looking at an image of it beamed to my home computer from a website in Japan."

Saturday, November 26
12:26 PM: Tim: "I've made the jump from the lightning-fast propagation of online media to the slow slog of traditional print publications." He's referring to two newspapers that will cover it soon, the French bi-weekly Society and the British Sunday-only The Observer. They both have promised to send him hard copies in the mail.
6:52 PM: A designer office furniture company in Thailand named WURKON blogs about it on Facebook, after getting Tim's permission. Tim chuckles at how the translation software on Facebook has changed his name, it "can't decide whether my name is "Timberlake" or "Tim coli."

Tuesday, November 27
Seattle TV station KING includes Tim's work on their "headlines" segment with Chris Cashman. A blog called Compulsive Contents also covers it.

Wednesday, November 28
10:30 AM: A Hungarian site called Index picks it up.
12:20 PM: Another Hungarian site grabs it.

Thursday, November 29
Tim's montages continue to move around the globe. On this day, a (what looks like a neat) Australian publication called Smith Journal added it to their blog.

Saturday, December 1
Society magazine sends Tim a screenshot of the digital version of the article that features him:

OK, so what's happening now?

Well... will soon be publishing their story and a different online media brand wants to do an instructional video. They want to record Tim as he makes puzzle montages in his studio (he notes that he does not have a studio). Additionally, a major magazine (that cannot yet be revealed) has contacted him for inclusion in a future issue.

On top of that, Tim and I have decided to join forces to take all of "this" to the next level. We talked and felt we had a good match. I have some ideas, he has some ideas, and we believe that together we can create something super cool! Again, we'll start by building a community of people who love puzzle mashups. Is that you? Then, subscribe to Pigjaw Suzzles, our brand new (probably monthly) e-newsletter!

Plus, I've been working on a mashup of my own. It's fun, though harder than it looks. Not only do you have to find puzzles that have pieces that can be mixed and matched, you have to find puzzles that lend themselves to be mashed up together.

Want one of Tim's pieces? Get in line. He's sold every single one of his current pieces (he delighted in selling his art to STRANGERS for the very first time) and there is a waiting list for future ones. (Pssst... if you subscribe to our e-newsletter, rumor has it that you'll be the first to know when new puzzle montages are available.)

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2 days ago
What a cool breakdown. Congrats Tim.
15 hours ago
San Antonio, TX
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Welcome to Our Modern Hospital Where If You Want to Know a Price You Can Go Fuck Yourself

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Welcome to America General Hospital! Seems you have an oozing head injury there. Let’s check your insurance. Okay, quick “heads up” — ha! — that your plan may not cover everything today. What’s that? You want a reasonable price quote, upfront, for our services? Sorry, let me explain a hospital to you: we give you medical care, then we charge whatever the hell we want for it.

If you don’t like that, go fuck yourself and die.

Honestly, there’s no telling what you’ll pay today. Maybe $700. Maybe $70,000. It’s a fun surprise! Maybe you’ll go to the ER for five minutes, get no treatment, then we’ll charge you $5,000 for an ice pack and a bandage. Then your insurance company will be like, “This is nuts. We’re not paying this.” Who knows how hard you’ll get screwed? You will, in three months.

Fun story: This one time we charged two parents $18,000 for some baby formula. LOL! We pull that shit all the time. Don’t like it? Don’t bring a baby, asshole.

Oh, I get it: you’re used to knowing a clear price for products and services. The difference is that medicine is complicated and scary — unlike, say, flying hundreds of people in a steel tube across an ocean, or selling them a six-ounce hand-held computer that plays movies and talks to satellites. Anyway, no need to think this through rationally while you’re vulnerable, right? Your head is really gushing, ma’am.

Sure we could start posting prices and discussing our costs, but then it turns into a public debate about transparency, and people get all huffy and self-righteous about $15 pills of Tylenol, $93 to turn on a single goddamned light, or $5,000 worth of sanitary gloves. We’d rather just mail you a bill later for $97,000, full of obscure medical codes you can’t understand. Oh, you like understanding things? Here, maybe this will help:

Hit your head, and talk to a doctor for one minute? $2,500, you idiot.

Want your pesky appendix out? That’ll probably be $33,611. Or it could be $180,000. Shrug. Don’t know. Don’t care.

Need an hour in the ER? How does $15,000-$50,000, sound? Hint: we don’t give a piss how it sounds you stupid fucking helpless human wallet.

Our medical system strikes you as “insane?” Well, you can’t do much about that now. Except of course to go fuck yourself. Yes, ma’am, as a matter of fact, we do have a special room where you can go fuck yourself. Yes, it does cost money to use the room, and no I cannot tell you how much. Want a hint? It’s between $1 and $35,000 per minute. Will you be reserving the go fuck yourself room?

Oh, you think you think we’re cruel and illogical? Well, no one forced you to come here. It’s your decision, you head-injured meatball. Feel free to go out into the parking lot and just die. I suggest you do that out in section F. Try to lean your corpse against a light pole. Our dead body disposal fee is $3.75 and is not covered by your shitty, confusing, out-of-network medical plan.

So, will you be dying in our parking lot today, you pathetic, impotent, walking insurance code? Okay, great! Your husband will get a bill for that soon, and if he doesn’t like it, he can fuck himself too.

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15 hours ago
San Antonio, TX
4 days ago
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5 public comments
3 days ago
I am never ever going back
4 days ago
Thankfully, dental procedures are the opposite, in my experience. I usually get provided my out of pocket expenses when I'm being told about the work that should be done.

If only medical could catch up to what's done on the dental side...
4 days ago
number one reason i might move away from the US.
New York
4 days ago
My wife is having a procedure done that isn't covered by insurance. She was referred to a place that was going to charge $1,600. She shopped around and found a different place that will do it for $4-500. She had to go back to her referring physician to have a second referral for the procedure sent to the other location. On top of that, my wife and her referring physician are coworkers, so it is not as though her doctor was trying to screw her over. Doctors just aren't aware of the costs for procedures or the differences in cost between facilities. That there can be a 3x cost difference between providers, even in the same region, for the exact same procedure is ridiculous.
4 days ago
thanks for sharing that. I feel like we all have some version of these stories at this point. a dentist that gives you a bunch of care you don't really need. Or an insurance company rep that says something is covered but then it isn't, and there just doesn't seem to be any real recourse unless you feel like litigating. The other thing that surprised me is that it seems a lot of americans don't realize it doesn't have to be like this, plenty (arguably most?) other countries don't have these issues.
4 days ago
The only thing that is wrong about this piece is that a lot of the time people don't have a choice and are taken against thier will, unconscious or not, and they still get the bill.
5 days ago
Yet again, McSweeney's hits it on the head. (no pun intended)
Louisville, Kentucky
5 days ago
That'll be $150 or $15,000. Don't know. Don't care.

Give Me a Man with an Open Bible!

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It’s the age of the expert, the age of the specialist. And sure enough, there’s a growing theme in the Christian world that experience is a necessary prerequisite to authority. If you want to know about parenting, you need to talk to a parent. If you want to know about marriage, you need to talk to someone who has been married. If you want to know how to suffer well, you speak to someone who has suffered.

This theme is prevalent and attractive. And while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, I think it carries a subtle danger. It tells us that authority comes through experience. Yet as Christians, we must insist that authority is not derived first from experience, but from Scripture. Greater than our need for people who have experienced it in their lives, is our need for people who will teach it from the Word.

Now, let’s be careful. Let’s not over-react. I believe in the value of people committing themselves to studying and understanding a particular area of life or theology. I believe in the value of books and conferences and other contexts for specialized teaching. There is tremendous benefit in learning from someone who has been there and done that. But we don’t need such people. And it’s not like they are not qualified to teach or lead or counsel because of the experiences they’ve gone through. Their experience is valuable to us only to the degree that it is consistent with what God makes clear in his Word.

You may need to know how to resolve conflict. How can you pursue peace with someone who has harmed you? How can you repent and bring about reconciliation with people you’ve harmed? You could turn to advice columnists or experts in human relationships. You could even turn to a distinctly Christian reconciliation ministry. But your first instinct should be to find a man with an open Bible! Have him lead you verse-by-verse through Matthew 18 and teach you divine wisdom for healing broken relationships. He may not have much experience, but he can teach with authority because he is going to the best and highest source.

You may need to know how to raise your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. You could go to the bookstore and get some reading on the subject. You could sign up for a conference. Well and good. But first and better, turn to a woman in your church who will open her Bible with you, who will take you to the relevant passages, and who will help you understand what God says.

It’s a joy to attend a marriage seminar led by a man who speaks with wisdom earned by long experience. But it’s even better to speak to a man who has great confidence in his Bible. It’s far better to hear a sermon on marriage by an unmarried man with an open Bible than an experienced husband who brings nothing more than his own wisdom.

The fact is, an orphan can teach how to care for aging parents. An unmarried man can teach on marriage. A childless woman can teach on parenting. A poor man can teach about the temptations that come with being rich. God’s Word speaks to every one of these issues and authority in these matters does not flow from experience but from Scripture. Any Christian can teach these things confidently and powerfully because the confidence and power come not through experience or accolades, but from the source. The job of the teacher is not first to speak of or out of his experiences, but to speak of and out of the Word.


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8 days ago
San Antonio, TX
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The Moon Is Flipped Upside Down in the Southern Hemisphere

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How old were you when you learned that the Moon in the Southern Hemisphere is upside down? I was today years old…this is my head exploding —> %@*&!$. Ok, the Moon isn’t upside down (that’s Northern-ist) but its orientation changes depending on if you’re north or south of the equator.

Moon Flipped

“From our perspective, the Moon and the night sky is actually rotated 180 degrees compared to our Northern Hemispherical friends,” Jake Clark, an astronomer from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, explained to ScienceAlert.

“In the south we see the Moon’s dark ‘Oceanus Procellarum’ sea in the south-east corner compared to in the north-west corner for a northern observer.”

But why does it look like this? Well, because physically, we’re actually upside down compared to someone standing in the opposite hemisphere.

That makes perfect sense & the explanation is quite simple but it’s still messing with my head. How did I not know this? Here’s how the Moon appears in the Northern Hemisphere (from Wikipedia):

Moon Flipped North

And here’s a photo from Brendan Keene in Australia:

Moon Flipped South

Tags: Earth   Moon   space
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17 days ago
Explain that, Flat Earthers.
13 days ago
San Antonio, TX
17 days ago
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6 public comments
16 days ago
And how does it looks from the equator? Why people is always discriminating Ecuadorians?
15 days ago
I think that as you get closer to the equator, the moon takes a more elevated path across the sky. The farther north or south you travel, the lower in the sky the Moon is, since it orbits over the equator. I'm at about 45 degrees north, so there's always a "top" and "bottom" to the moon because it never goes right overhead. It moves sideways in an arc in the southern sky. At the equator, it still moves sideways, but goes directly overhead so there's no strong visual indication of what pole is top or bottom.
16 days ago
How have I never considered this before?
17 days ago
Washington, District of Columbia
17 days ago
Yep, I'm in this camp too. Today years old, just learning this incredibly obvious thing.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth
19 days ago
What? I was In Australia and I did not know this.
Minneapolis, MN
20 days ago
Louisville, Kentucky

What if your house is too ugly to be smart?

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A smart-lit bathroom mirror, in an elegant bathroom. Where did this woman get this robe!

The high-tech, connected homegoods of the future would look terrible in a lived-in place like mine.

Maybe you’ve encountered the idea of the “smart home” and wondered if it’s for you.

We hear about it plenty, and Ori, a company that came out of an MIT-funded research project in 2014, is the one making headlines for it this week — asking us to ask ourselves if we can have this fantasy of a home that is smart. Ori’s robot furniture is not on sale until next year, but you ought to think about it in advance, and and next year, if you are ready for robot furniture, you can buy a “Pocket Closet,” which is a robotic cube full of hidden compartments, including a secret desk, and a “Cloud Bed,” which is a robotic bed that can Transformer itself into a coffee table and a couch.

Having watched the GIFs of them doing their thing several dozen times each, I have to admit they are impressive, like YouTube videos featuring kangaroos that carry themselves just a little bit more like people than you might expect.

They’re also a little uncanny, in part because they’re advertised in pristine renderings of apartments that feature floor-to-ceiling windows, white counters, dozens of right angles, and nary a stray object or trace of human life.

I am interested in a future in which small homes in overcrowded cities are more livable and people who might not be physically equipped to haul their furniture around all the time do not have to. Yet something I think about every time a large new smart home device or otherwise high-tech piece of furniture hits the trade publications and gadget blogs is would this look bad in any house that doesn’t look like it could also be a Muji store? Would this look really bad in, for example, my house?

Nobody cares and nobody should, but my house is hideous. It’s what they call a good deal in a great location: It’s a creaking, disintegrating three-bedroom apartment with two roommates, two cats, a boiler that breaks like clockwork each November, windows that are itching to fall out of their frames, and hardwood floors coated in a hearty, nearly sentient layer of grime that I don’t know if I’m technically or emotionally equipped to deal with.

Obviously, some of this is specific to my status as a 25-year-old living in an expensive city, but a lot of it is not. Most homes I’ve been inside — whether in New York, the suburbs, or a farm town — are also shabby. They are lived-in, as in full of stuff that doesn’t look new anymore, covered in stains that don’t respect “elbow grease,” and pockmarked with failings that aren’t so much impossible to address as they are non-urgent to address.

In his 2014 essay “The American Room,” journalist Paul Ford used YouTube videos as a window into the homes of the 100 million Americans who live in the suburbs and noticed much of the same. The houses were beige and ugly, built from the same cheap, AutoCAD-generated architectural plans. In response, he wrote, “You could judge those rooms and say that America has a paucity of visual imagination, that we live in a kind of wasteland. Or you could draw another conclusion, and note that America might be a little more broke than it wants to show. The painfully expensive 2,000-square foot home is furnished with cheap big sofas and junk from Target.”

Where, in homes like these, do you put robots?

A smart slab that teaches you how to be fit.

Seriously, where do you hang a 40-inch vertical display with a personal trainer inside it? Taking our cues from the item’s promotional image — the type usually sent to members of the press in a folder labeled “lifestyle imagery” — the personal trainer slab is appropriate to hang on a blank white wall in an apartment that has nothing in it except three plants, a light fixture, and a glass coffee table with two magazines on it.

It’s hardly differentiable from the bright-white home in Canary’s smart security camera promotional images, which is displayed in a foyer decorated with little other than an animal bone and a copy of a hardcover catalog of specialty paint finishes. A weather-checking, text-displaying block of wood released by the Japanese touch-sensor company Nissha last year is, apparently, at home only when it’s hung in a room so well-kept you can set a full French press directly on top of the freshly made, platform-raised bed, trusting that gravity would never be so rude as to allow a drop of coffee to hit the spotless comforter. And that’s a block of wood, not even a washer-dryer that talks to Alexa.

Smart block of wood, stacked-slate wall treatment.

Over the phone, I describe these images to Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, who has written about the “myth” of the bachelor pad (made up by Playboy to sell ads!) and is working on a book about the phenomenon of man caves. He says it’s not unlike the motivation to invent the idea of the bachelor pad in order to sell things that go in a bachelor pad: “Sometimes, to sell people something that they don’t actually want or need or have any context to value, one thing that behavioral economists will do is provide context to people to make sense of it, so they can justify spending more than they would imagine.”

I also describe the images to Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives. She makes a guess as to what these clean, elegant minimalist staging sets and renders are meant to connote: “Being able to have emptiness in a home, you have to be able to afford this in the first place. Minimalism is only affordable to the affluent, because if you don’t have a lot of resources, you’re unlikely to get rid of stuff. You need it.” Nothing we didn’t know instinctively, but it’s nice to have it laid out for us in repeatable words!

Most people have a “real mismatch of things” in their homes, Bridges says, but companies are trying to sell you something to put in your house they are first trying to sell you “on the idea that everything will match and it will be connected.”

I also ask him about my real concern, which is that someday the people who have the means to live in smart homes will have a completely different vocabulary around basic household items, creating this bizarre, uncrossable gap between the rich and the people who still have to brush their own teeth. How will we even talk to each other? One of us won’t remember what steel wool is!

Meural’s smart art canvas, and an all-white room no one has touched.

“If the smart home wins, and some people have smart homes and the rest of us have dumb homes, it will radically alter the rhythm of daily life,” Bridges agrees, making really no effort to be comforting. “If you don’t have to clean or make food, that contributes to what I guess you can call ‘time inequality.’ As in, people with smart stuff get more time, and that would allow them to exacerbate other kinds of inequality.”

Janning tells me what I am complaining about is nothing new: “Clothing works this way. Cigarettes worked this way. If you buy this product, your life will be one of amazingness. That’s not that weird, to have it be a mismatch between a product and the places where people actually put the product.”

But I am also not wrong. “This is a little bit different,” she says. “It’s not just a new table in an old apartment; it’s this amazing high-tech piece that seems so different than the cracking lead paint from 1927, or whatever. The gap feels so much wider.”

This Panasonic fridge will come to you when you call it.

Here are some things I would maybe consider putting in my house if it were the prototypical backdrop of a connected home, aesthetically inspired by a close-up photograph of Gwyneth Paltrow’s front tooth: A smart canvas that displays a library of famous artworks. A smart oven that can cook prepackaged Whole Foods meals. A multi-room smart lighting system from Philips Hue. A smart fridge with a 29-inch touchscreen. A vanity that connects to Spotify and pulls up my Pinterest boards and tells me the weather and my upcoming appointments as well as what is wrong with my skin.

These objects are expensive, obviously, and that’s the first reason I don’t buy them. But many of them aren’t cost-prohibitive in the strictest sense: If I made an effort to save up $250 for a modestly smart smart mirror, I could do it. It would just feel ludicrous and possibly criminal to hang it in a bathroom that, on a good day, still has mold spots on the ceiling and a shower that hasn’t been updated since the ’90s. Another reason I don’t buy smart home devices is that I don’t feel they would measurably improve my quality of life, which is what tech is supposed to be for and is increasingly not convincingly for.

So rather than a connected thermostat that will send me a push notification informing me that it’s cold in my apartment and I should consider checking my windows, I think I’d just like ... some new windows.

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25 days ago
Since I'm also too ugly to be smart, it'll be fine.
23 days ago
San Antonio, TX
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1 public comment
24 days ago
I mean, sure, but the sentence that most resonates with me is this, right near the end:

"Another reason I don’t buy smart home devices is that I don’t feel they would measurably improve my quality of life, which is what tech is supposed to be for and is increasingly not convincingly for."

What's a senior engineer's job?


There’s this great post by John Allspaw called “On being a senior engineer”. I originally read it 4ish years ago when I started my current job and it really influenced how I thought about the direction I wanted to go in.

Rereading it 4 years later, one thing that’s really interesting to me about that blog post is that it’s explaining that empathy / helping your team succeed is an important part of being a senior engineer. Which of course is true!

But from where I stand today, most (all?) of the senior engineers I know take on a significant amount of helping-other-people work in addition to their individual programming work. The challenge I see me/my coworkers struggling with today isn’t so much “what?? I have to TALK TO PEOPLE?? UNBELIEVABLE.” and more “wait, how do I balance all of this leadership work with my individual contributions / programming work in a way that’s sustainable for me? How much of what kind of work should I be doing?“. So instead of talking about the attributes that a senior engineer has from Allspaw’s post (which I totally agree with), instead I want to talk here about the work that a senior engineer does.

what this post is describing

“what a senior engineer does” is a huge topic and this is a small post. things to keep in mind when reading:

  • this is just one possible description of what a “senior engineer” could do. There are a lot of ways to work and this isn’t intended to be definitive.
  • I have basically only worked at one company and this is just about my experiences so my perspective is obviously pretty limited
  • There are obviously a lot of levels of “senior engineer” out there. This is aimed somewhere around P3/P4 in the Mozilla ladder (senior engineer / staff engineer), maybe a bit more on the “staff” side.

What’s part of the job

These are things that I view as being mostly a senior engineer’s job and less a manager’s job. (though managers definitely do some of this too, especially creating new projects / relating projects to business priorities)

The thing that holds all this together is that almost all of this work is fundamentally technical: helping someone get unstuck on a tricky project is obviously a human interaction, but the issues we’ll be working on together will generally be computer issues! (“maybe if we simplify this design we can be done with this way sooner!“)

  • Write code. (obviously)
  • Do code reviews. (obviously)
  • Write and review design docs. As with other review tasks, I think of “review design docs” as “get a second set of eyes on it, which will probably help improve the design”.
  • Help team members when they’re stuck. Sometimes folks get stuck on a project, and it’s important to work to support them! I think of this less as “parachute from the sky and deliver your magical knowledge to people” and more as “work together to understand the problem they’re trying to solve and see if 2 brains are better than 1” :). This also means working with someone to solve the problem instead of solving the problem for them.
  • Hold folks to a high quality standard. “Quality” will mean different things for different folks (for my team it means reliability/security/usability). Usually when someone makes a decision that seems off to me, it’s either because I know something that they don’t or they know something I don’t! So instead of telling someone “hey you did this wrong you should do X instead”, I try to just give them some extra information that they didn’t have and often that sorts it out. And pretty often it turns out that I was missing something and actually their decision was totally reasonable! In the past I’ve very occasionally seen senior engineers try to enforce quality standards by repeating their opinions more and more loudly because they think their opinions are Right and I haven’t personally found that helpful.
  • Create new projects. A software engineering team isn’t a zero-sum place! The best engineers I know don’t hoard the most interesting work for themselves, they create new interesting/important work and create space for folks to do that work. For example, someone on my team spearheaded a rewrite of our deployment system which was super successful and now there’s a whole team working on new features that are way easier to build post-rewrite!
  • Plan your projects’ work. This is about writing down / communicating the roadmap for projects you’re working on and making sure that folks understand the plan.
  • Proactively communicate project risks. It’s really important to recognize when something you’re working on isn’t going well, communicate it to other engineers/managers, and figure out what to do.
  • Communicate successes!
  • Do side projects that benefit the team/company. I see a lot of senior engineers occasionally doing small high leverage projects (like building dev tooling / helping set policies) that end up helping a LOT of people get their work done a lot better.
  • Be aware of how projects relate to business priorities.
  • Decide when to stop doing a project. Figuring out when to stop / not start work on something is surprisingly hard :)

I put “write code” first because I find it surprisingly easy to accidentally let that take a back seat :)

One thing I left out is “make estimates”. Making estimates is something I’m still not very good at and that I don’t think I see very much of (?), but I think it could be worth spending more time on some day.

This list feels like a lot and like if you tried to do all those things all the time it would consume all available brain space. I think in general it probably makes sense to carve out a subset and decide “right now I’m going to focus on X Y Z, I think my brain will explode if I try to do A B C as well”.

What’s not part of the job

This section is a bit tricky. I’m not saying that these aren’t a senior engineer’s job in the sense of “I won’t help create a good work environment on my team, how dare you suggest that’s part of my job!!“. Most senior engineers I know have spent a huge amount of time thinking about these issues and work on them quite a bit.

The reason I think it’s useful to create a boundary here is that everyone I work with has a really strong sense of ownership/responsibility to the team / company (“does it need to be done? well, sure, I can do that!!“) and I think it’s easy for that willingness to do whatever needs to happen to turn into folks getting overwhelmed/overworked/unable to make the kinds of technical contributions that are actually their core job. So if you can create some boundaries around your role it’s easier to decide what sorts of work to ask for help with when things are hectic. The actual boundary you draw course depends on you / your team :)

Most of these are a manager’s job. Caveats: managers do a lot more than the things listed here (for instance “create new projects”), and at some companies some of these things might actually be the job of a senior engineer (eg sprint management).

  • Make sure every team member’s work is recognized
  • Make sure work is allocated in a fair way
  • Make sure folks are working well together
  • Build team cohesion
  • Have 1:1s with everyone on the team
  • Train new managers / help them understand what’s expected of them (though I think senior ICs often actually do end up picking some of this up?)
  • Do project management for projects you’re not working on (where I work, that’s the job of whatever engineer is leading that project)
  • Be a product manager
  • Do sprint management / organize everyone’s work into milestones / run weekly team meetings

Explicitly setting boundaries is useful

I ran into an interesting situation recently where I was talking to a manager about which things were and weren’t part of my job as an engineer, and we realized that we had very different expectations! We talked about it and I think it’s sorted out now, but it made me realize that it’s very important to agree about what the expectations are :)

When I started out as an engineer, my job was pretty straightforward – I wrote code, tried to come up with projects that made sense, and that was fine. My manager always had a clear sense of what my job was and it wasn’t too complicated. Now that’s less true! So now I view it as being more my responsibility to define a job that:

  • I can do / is sustainable for me
  • I want to do / that’s overall enjoyable & in line with my personal goals
  • is valuable to the team/organization

And the exact shape of that job will be different for different people (not everyone has the same interests & strengths, for example I am actually not amazing at code review yet!), which I think makes it even more important to negotiate it / do expectation setting.

Don’t agree to a job you can’t do / don’t want

I think pushing back if I’m asked to do work that I can’t do or that I think will make me unhappy long term is important! I find it kind of tempting to agree to take on a lot of work that I know I don’t really enjoy (“oh, it’s good for the team!”, “well someone needs to do it!“). But, while I obviously sometimes take on tasks just because they need to be done, I think it’s actually really important for team health for folks to be overall doing jobs that are sustainable for them and that they overall enjoy.

So I’ll take on small tasks that just need to get done, but I think it’s important for me not to say “oh sure, I’ll spend a large fraction of my time doing this thing that I’m bad at and that I dislike, no problem” :). And if “someone” needs to do it, maybe that just means we need to hire/train someone new to fill the gap :)

I still have a lot to learn!

While I feel like I’m starting to understand what this “senior engineer” thing is all about (7 years into my career so far), I still feel like I have a LOT to learn about it and I’d be interested to hear how other people define the boundaries of their job!

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42 days ago
San Antonio, TX
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