The Takeaways: Week 35 of 2021

A periodic review of articles, newsletters, and podcasts that I found interesting, inspiring, or otherwise worth remembering.

Closed Tab of the Week

I always have many tabs open. A good number of them hang around because of the mismatch between my interest in engaging with them and the time I have available for that engagement. Here I pick one to review, think about, and close out.

Dan North, Dan North & Associates. In praise of SWARMing (January 26, 2018)

SWARM is Scaling Without A Religious Methodology. A "religious" methodology would be one where process and ceremony take the place of autonomy and value-creation. For North, a variety of "Agile at scale' frameworks earn this desiption.

On a broader scale, "most lean or agile transformation initiatives will fail, because they challenge the very fundamentals of the organisation: how the money works, how governance works, how management works, how accountability works." A religious methodology tends to fail in predictable ways, because their scope is too broad, too top-down, and too shallow and thus their leverage against the set of assumptions built into what North calls "the traditional organization."

There is a fundamental mismatch between the desired output, the typical scope, and the kind and quality of leverage required to effect meaningful, lasting change. To envision a total transformation carried out on the whole-enterprise scale of each and every team is to envision a kind of alchemy. It also likely neglects the ability of organizations to absorb and neutralize change.

North lists a number of areas that any methodology would need to address and makes suggestions for how to use them as the ground for preparing to make real, lasting change.

There are a handful of ingredients without which you are unlikely to achieve lasting change. They are by no means a formula for success. Rather, you should consider the absence of one or more of these a danger sign, a significant risk to be managed and mitigated.

  • Time
  • Investment
  • Communications
  • Influence
  • Education
  • Practice
  • External help
  • Consistent, invested, resilient leadership

Without effort and attention at each of these areas, any improvement initiative is more likely to run aground. Given the work required, North questions the validity of any framework that fails to get a purchase on any of them. But luckily these areas are all framework-agnostic. To SWARM, then, is to work consciously at these levels in the light of a defined goal, without waiting for the consultants to show up.



Tyler Cowen (host), Conversations with Tyler. Zeynep Tufekci on the Sociology of The Moment (Live) (Ep. 130) (August 25, 2021)

Tufekci: In the past, if you wanted to have a movement, you necessarily had to build a lot of tools because you were out of power. You had to build a lot of tools. If you wanted to organize, let’s say, the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and ’60s, during that time, or the March on Washington, you had to spend a lot of time. The March on Washington took, I think, six months just to do the logistics. You don’t have Excel spreadsheets and things like that. From an idea to a march was about 10 years.

That kind of preparation work — arduous — and it kept these movements weak because you had to build that before you could do anything. But if you did build it, you had something to stand on. Whereas right now, with social media, you can overcome censorship like this, especially if the government is not really very up on it, which at the time they weren’t, but you’re not ready for what’s coming. I feel like it’s coming into a curve, going from 0 to 100 miles an hour, and you’re coming into a curve, but you haven’t built the car. You don’t have a steering wheel. You just know how to speed up.

You see this in many other aspects of society as well, where digital technology lets people scale up very quickly. If you’re Instagram, and you go from zero to a million users or 10 million users, well, Facebook can come buy you, and you’re great. That kind of speedy exponential growth is not a problem in many other areas. Whereas if you’re a movement, that kind of speedy exponential growth, without having built other parts of the infrastructure, means that when the government does come for you, you don’t have even a decision-making system. You don’t even know, “How do I respond to it?”

Des Traynor and Paul Adams, Intercom on Product. Keeping the momentum going as you scale (Augiust 19, 2021)

Paul: One good example that might help people is something we do here pretty well, which is to kill things and then feel the pain. For example, we will say, “Hey, we’re going to kill this meeting. It’s become a bit bureaucratic or not that useful. We could do this stuff in better ways. Async, written docs, Slack, whatever.” So we kill it. We know we’re going to probably feel some pain and then we’ll bring back a new version of it that’s lighter, better.

Des: But more designed to solve the new pain, in a sense, right?

Paul: Yeah. But you’ve got to feel the pain. What we don’t do is try and redesign the thing to be slightly lighter. You just delete and feel the pain for a few weeks. It just takes a few weeks or a month or two. You’ll feel the pain, and then you’ll go again.

Des: You don’t inherit any assumptions of the old solution. You let the pain represent itself and design something that solves the new problem.

Paul: Exactly.


Gordon Brandner, Subconscious. Composability with other tools (August 27, 2021)

So, interoperability is an emergent outcome. It doesn't exist in any one mechanism or standard, but rather emerges from the interplay between the actors in a system, and the structure of a system. Some system designs are more conducive to the emergence of interoperability than others. Files are one such example. Yet, even system designs which favor interoperability are not guaranteed to produce it. The actors in a system have their own goals.

Nikhil Krishnan, Out of Pocket. Answers: How should physicians get paid? (August 30, 2021)

The running theme seems to be figuring out the difference between fraud, unnecessary/low value care, and business as usual. If we were able to do that effectively and penalize properly, would we be more comfortable with physicians directly making money when they deliver care to us?

Ernie Smith, Tedium. I love LAMP (September 1, 2021)

Development paradigms are constantly evolving and changing, and if you’re a full-time developer, keeping those skills up to date is important. But many people aren‘t, and these shifting paradigms, while generally good for the modern web, leave amateurs who just want to create something useful behind. The LAMP stack, for all its modern-day weaknesses, lowered the bar to entry in a way that modern technology stacks often have not.


Sammy Caiola, Capital Public Radio, KHN, and NPR. How Rape Affects Memory, and Why Police Need to Know About That Brain Science (September 1, 2021)

Scientists who study trauma and memory say it’s common for sexual assault survivors — as well as survivors of other serious traumas — to be unable to recall an attack fully. They might remember certain facts but not others, or struggle to recall events in the correct sequence.

Traditionally, law enforcement officers are trained to conduct an interrogation that may involve drawing out specific details, usually in chronological order... [By contrast,] the overarching goal of trauma interviewing is to first “collect the dots, then connect the dots.” In other words, simply interview the victim about what happened. The sharper, more aggressive investigative tactics can wait.

Renee Diresta and Beth Goldberg, WIRED. ‘Prebunking’ Health Misinformation Tropes Can Stop Their Spread (August 28, 2021)

In the age of high-velocity information, there are clear benefits to a preemptive defense against misinformation tropes. Consider the challenge of fact checks: At any moment, innumerable pieces of content are Wrong on the internet. False information goes viral while the facts are still being rigorously vetted. There’s the complementary problem that fact checks address only one claim, not all of its adjacent theories or likely subsequent claims. Prebunking at the trope level avoids the need to perfectly time the message and to counter every piece of propaganda individually.

Scott Jenson, Exploring the world beyond mobile. The future needs files (August 30, 2021)

The power of files comes from them being powerful nouns. They are temporary holding blocks that are used as a form of exchange between applications. A range of apps can edit a single file in a single location. On mobile, the primary way to really use files is to “Share” between apps. This demotes files from a powerful abstract noun into a lackluster narrow verb.

Jenson doesn't extend the noun/verb metaphor in his essay, but I think it supports a point he makes later about file contents and file metadata. When you lose the concept of a file as a noun and think only of it as the dumb object a verb, you're giving up on adjectives, on attributes.

Files encapsulate a ‘chunk’ of your work and allow that chunk to be seen, moved, acted on, and accessed by multiple people and more importantly external 3rd party processes. It is a fever dream to think mobile is adequate today. It isn’t adequate and we desperately need the power of files to unlock the future on mobile.

Kat Jercich, Healthcare IT News. Study: Scheduling systems lead to longer wait times for Black patients (August 27, 2021)

For this study, researchers took a closer look at patient no-show probabilities, citing previous studies that found individuals in underserved populations were more likely to no-show due in part to encountering barriers to care. In turn, scheduling systems based on no-show rate disproportionately affect patients in those groups.

Nils Leenheer. Why Electron apps are fine (August 31, 2021)

Users don’t care. If you made a great app that is valuable to your users, they wouldn’t care about the underlying technologies. The only requirements are: “Does it do what I want? Does it solve my problem?”.

Users only care that it works, not how it works.