I started this section so I coud write a few spontaneous posts without the pressure of following any essay-esque articles. By their name you can assume they'll be short and it's likely they will be free of any ongoing narrative, including the web industry.
When I walk up the steps from Brixton tube station to street level I drop my headphones. The sound of steel drums rains down on me and wide grin is guaranteed to grow across my face. Few things are more certain.
Sometimes, if you time it right, the sun shines down the street opposite, past the David Bowie mural and directly down into the station: a blinding gold exit flickering with dreadlocked silhouettes. It wraps you in a comfort blanket of familiarity reminding you why you chose to live there in the first place.
We all have that one particular pleasure we get from where we live. That piece of nostalgia that you will take with you through life and that has the power to bring so many other memories flooding back. For me, for Brixton, that will always be the sound of the steel band.
Unfortunately Brixton is a changing place bearing the rapidly spreading scars of gentrification. There are no guarantees of permanence for anyone: resident, publican, proprietor or steel band player. Last year we saw the loss of Kaff, an affordable bar that consequently couldn’t compete with unaffordable rents. So too, the continental deli was forced out by Network Rail’s visible hand and Nour Cash and Carry only survived because of a large on and offline campaign.
After Kaff Bar was forced out, my girlfriend and I were bemoaning the loss of a great venue. Then, remembering how infrequently we had been there in the past six months, we realised we had no right to complain. It brought home the certainty that businesses need our help if they are going to survive this torrid wave of gentrification which has brought champagne bars to the doorstep of a council estate.
The epitaph of the powerful film Food Inc. is that you can personally force change in the food production industry by changing what you buy, that each time you go to the supermarket you are implicitly voting. Voting with your wallet. The same can be said of preserving what you love in your local community.
If you buy everything from Amazon don’t be surprised if your local book shop closes down. If you buy your cycle gear at Rapha at twice the price because they also serve great coffee you have no right to be upset when the co-operative cycle shop has to move further out of town to cheaper premises. Pubs are closing down at an alarming rate yet cocktail bars are popping up left and right, one day you’ll want to play a game of pool over a pint and there’s a good chance you won’t be able to.
The pop-ups will come, enjoy them, but they’ll also go. When they do they’ll either take all the personality with them or the old town will remain, preserved underneath them. If it’s the latter, it will be because people didn’t forget why they moved there in the first place.
I’m going to make more of an effort to spend my money in places I’d hate to see disappear. It’s by far the easiest and most enjoyable way you can make a difference. To start with, I’ve begun paying off those smiles by dropping more change in my favourite open drum case.
I hear the same story all the time and the issue confuses me as much as it does others. I feel like I’m the person guiltiest of this crime, yet a lot of people I talk to will beg to differ.
“Why can I hit deadlines imposed by others, but not those imposed by myself?”
I’ve tried and failed at so many projects in life be they vertical leap training (we’ve all failed Air Alert 2 right?) and gym programs or building apps and learning a new piece of technology. When the only person holding me to account is myself, suddenly all these other things appear causing me to skip a day, or two, or decide to start again next week, or next year.
Currently I have two half-written novels, a half-baked app, a folder full of draft blog posts and a handful of side project ideas I’ll likely never get started on but which I wish I could. It’s not a lack of time: it’s a lack of accountability. It’s a lack of momentum.
It’s not surprising that people who go to a gym with a buddy do so more consistently. In December I joined in with something called Advent Running: a simple enough concept which aims to get you out and running every day for thirty minutes as we approach Christmas. Thousands of people get involved each year. They post their runs on Facebook and Instagram, log their mileage on Strava, and slowly start to build this streak of consistent run days.
Prior to Advent Running I’d never run more than two days in a row yet I found it relatively easy to run twenty-five days. Collectively it just felt so much more achievable. Sure, there were some tougher days but I forced myself to lace them up again and head out: knowing I could lie to myself but I couldn’t lie to Strava. I didn’t want the community (of people I’ve never met) to see the missed day, that empty bar on the chart, standing out like a missing thumb. That alone was enough accountability to keep up the momentum.
I was chatting to a friend about it afterwards and he asked if I was going to keep going, keep running each day every day for thirty minutes. I told him that for me it was really just an experiment and that the experiment was now over. I was mostly just stunned that I’d been able to start and actually finish something.
But I started to wonder what I could have achieved if I’d been doing something other than running? What if I’d written 30 minutes a day, or worked on an app? How much would I have to show for it?
And so maybe the experiment does continue? But maybe it takes new forms instead. I have the program: 30 minutes a day for 25 days and then a week off. I have plenty of projects to work on. What I don’t have is accountability or communal momentum. That’s the one thing missing and, clearly, the most important part as I sit writing this on day three having just missed the first two days where I had vowed to spend thirty minutes learning Polish.
How that community forms and how it can hold me accountable I am yet to figure out. For now I’ll continue through January solo but if anyone wants to work on a project of theirs next month I’d be eager to connect. Collectively we stand more of a chance.
There isn’t much you can’t buy in Ciudad del Este. Three borders meet above one of nature’s most powerful spectacles, Iguazu Falls, itself cutting a crescent through the two most affluent countries in the region. Left out of the party, Paraguay seems to have forged an identity antithetical to its neighbours and whilst it fell short on wealth it far exceeded them on edge and intrigue, at least in that small corner of the world.
When I arrived there I had been on the road for a couple of years already and was again running low on cash. I’d been contacted by a friend from back home asking if I could make them an e-commerce site. For cash. I didn’t know how to and I had no computer, but of course I replied and said yes immediately.
Ciudad del Este is a marketplace town with few rules. I crossed the border into Paraguay from Brazil on a mission to do two things: help buy enough alcohol, cash registers and sound equipment to get my friend’s bar up and running, and to use some of my last remaining cash to buy a laptop I could travel and work with.
Four hours later, after an afternoon sweating and haggling under the subtropical sun, we loaded the car full of our cut-price spoils and set off for the bridge across the border. We knew, as the hundreds of others alongside us did, that it could all be impounded by the Brazilian customs officers.
There are two ways to get goods across the border into Brazil from Paraguay: hide them in your car or wrap them up and float them across the river. Walking through the streets you see bales of consumer goods sandwiched in Styrofoam and swathed in plastic ready for their trip across the 100m wide river. Down on the banks the locals run ropes across the river and keep their eyes peeled for the authorities. High above them, on the white concrete arched bridge, we sat pondering our decision to take the route by car.
Up ahead there was a disarray of vehicles being turfed of people and boxes of all shapes and sizes. Life savings were being gambled and lost; the winners kept their eyes straight and their muscles tensed until they were beyond the bridge and approaching the bar. Our turn came and the seconds turned to minutes as our passports were triple-checked and then accepted, waved forward with thousands of dollars wrapped up in the boot in bottles and electronics.
A hazy night later I took a 36 hour bus back across the border, up towards Bolivia, and began building the World’s worst PHP e-commerce site and a career in Web Development.
Flow, a state of total immersion in a task, was researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pronounced - “six-cent-mihaly”), and first presented in his 1990 paper: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He describes flow as:
A state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. […] The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill.
He goes on to describe that the key to attaining flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake rather than the rewards it may bring. Like writing something you have no desire to publish, or completing a r/dailyprogrammer task that will never leave your editor. We’re all chasing that feeling of being in the zone, where your fingers dance across the keyboard effortlessly and it feels fantastic just to be creating something, anything.
That’s a great feeling but how often do we attain flow when we’re writing code that does have a greater purpose? I find it quite easy to do so when it’s on a personal project. There, the goals of the project are clear in my mind and how deep I go on each part is up to me. I also set the standards of the code and the project and don’t need to worry about a linter’s approval.
Is it possible to attain flow in an environment where standards are set by committee? I started a new role four months ago and have yet to really feel like I reached that flow state yet. On the other hand, I definitely was able to achieve it in my previous job: in part because of a sense of familiarity from being there for three years. I could quickly tell if a developer was serious or joking; I knew their code quality and trusted their ability to improve mine; I had internalised our JSHint and JSCS preferences so they had become second nature to the way I wrote.
Something else we had, and the aspect I think is the most important to achieving flow, is a deep understanding of the goals: of the code, the feature and the product.
Performance, accessibility, reusability and lifespan are all spectrums on which your code lies. Knowing where it needs to sit in advance allows you to make your decisions at a higher level and trust your own judgement on whether or not it is “correct” when completed.
Understanding the feature will allow you to know what is required of you and also how much time you think is worth spending on it. If it’s a critical piece like implementing authentication then you’ll want to spend time on it up-front and ensure it has a great test suite. If it’s a feature to add a map to a page perhaps you want to just get it out as fast as possible to see if your users will actually even use it before spending more time on it.
And understanding the goals of the product are crucial. Who are you building it for? Who are your competitors? Having a mission statement can help but can often be too vague and ethereal. Simple tangible goals such as: “It must be easier to complete for a first time user than product X” or “It doesn’t need to be extremely performant because it’s only accessible from the office” lets you know that what you’re writing at a micro level actually contributes to the eventual success.
Riding a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour and playing a competitive game of chess are certainly very effortful. In a state of flow, however, maintaining focused attention on these absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.
It needs effort from everyone to achieve this but could be crucial to getting the most out of yourself and your team. Good products are also products of a good development environment and this goes beyond the purchase of headphones or beanbags for each employee. If it’s possible to achieve flow on your own projects it must be possible to achieve it in any project given you are able to craft the right environment.
You know them. You hear them around your office, often locked away in meeting rooms but occasionally let loose to roam around behind your backs: eager to be heard and expert at unleashing their unknowing but paralytic tension.
HIPPOs - The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. You know them.
You were hired to represent your user and for what you can bring to the product. You were hired because other people didn’t have the skill or the time to invest as much in the user as you do.
However, if your user research is carried out and falls on deaf ears, if design expertise is requested in meetings and then silenced, if feedback is blocked from ever even reaching its target: then you are probably aware of the dangers of HIPPOs. And you’re probably also aware of a culture of apathy and a vacuum of morale.
So when you’re told to put the logo in a ridiculous place, when the priority is for the site to be optimised for your boss’s device and not the users’: grab some data. Tell them, in the politest way possible, to leave you alone. To trust you. You’ve got this.
…this phrase came through on the radio: ‘And the hippos were boiled in their tanks!’ So we used that as the title. - William Burroughs