All posts by Chris


I’m anti-advertising. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that here before, but it drives a lot of my behavior. It also tends to infuriate companies. I opt out of being their product, opting instead to do things the slower, less-convenient, expensive way.

Luckily we live in a time when that’s a choice. I don’t just mean Youtube Premium or the ad-free tier of Disney+; most of the Web is built on delivering content without conditions on how I use that content.

Wait, hold on, I hear you say. That’s not the web I see at all. And you’re right, of course. Everything you see has ads: embedded in the paragraphs, floating alongside, popping up to play you a video, hijacking every link. The content being delivered has ads along for the ride.

But I was talking about what the Web is built on, at least for now. When you’re reading something like you are now, you’re looking at a copy I sent you. Your browser asked my server what it has, and my server sent you an HTML file, some images, a few other bits and bobs. Your browser then chose to combine those in a way that suits how you read. Is this page thin so it fits on your phone? Is it wide so it fits on your 4K monitor? Is it read to you by text-to-speech? That’s all possible because the Web is built on me sending you the components of what you want, and you rebuild them to suit.

So where are the ads? Not in the standards (or not yet). I could choose to send you an ad along with the components for this post. A particular image, some HTML to describe how to display it, how to pop it up, how to make sure it gets onto your phone screen or your 4K screen or (less commonly) into your screen reader. But here’s the thing: your browser still chooses whether to display it. Just like it can ignore the Windows-specific instructions, or ignore the night-mode display values, or the super-large-screen background images. It’s making choices all the time. So why choose to display the ads?

A physical example: when you get the (postal, physical, snail) mail, it has things you want to read (or have to read) alongside things that were sent to you as advertisements. Grandma’s card and a Jiffy Lube offer. The water bill and Disney On Ice at the Civic Center. When you sort out the mail (which I’m sure you do diligently), you probably toss the things you want to read in one pile, the things you need to read in another, and the other stuff goes… yep, in the recycling. You don’t open Grandma’s card feeling guilty that you “blocked” the flyer for 20% off an oil change you don’t need because you don’t own a car. You don’t pay the water bill by carefully placing it behind Elsa (on ice!) and then removing it after 15 pre-defined seconds. You toss the stuff you don’t want. You focus on the stuff you do. Why would anyone expect anything different?

So when I look at updates to the Web that threaten to take that away, that force Grandma’s card to be glued to the flyer, that shred your water bill if you don’t pay Elsa her due… I’m against those. I’ll avoid them, I’ll stop using them, I’ll support whatever’s not that.

less magic, more infrastructure

My day job is to build automation. Some of my best work is when a person can show their intent with a small effort and automatically marshal hideously complex processes to carry out that intent. I show them the hideous guts of the process once to prove that I’ve done work – a standard wizard tactic to avoid being taken for granted – but after that, it should work like magic.

Or should it? As an individual, I actually dislike magical interfaces. I groan when I read setup documentation, because it always has 3 steps that fail somewhere between step 2 and 3. “Take the device out of the box, place it next to the main device, and it will pair.” Right. And if it doesn’t? (For me, it rarely does.) Then suddenly I’m in 300 more steps that are spread out over a dozen sites, hidden among the worst documentation interfaces possible. I’m pushing the one button on the device in a staccato rhythm while reinstalling the operating system of the other while draping a mylar blanket over both to block stray radiation, and… I realize I’m on the wrong end of the magic.

What I prefer in a case like that is good old fashioned* infrastructure. Plug A into B, tell B that A exists, tell A that B is what you want. Once they’re paired, remove the plug and you’re in the same situation the magic would have left you after step 3. Except! If you run into a problem, you know how to drop into the infrastructure and perform the same set of steps to get you back where  you need to be.

(*It’s not actually old fashioned. We just get used to the infrastructure that works, and it feels like it’s always been there. Infrastructure that doesn’t work is technology, and we get used to it not working and route around it.)

To design infrastructure vs magic, the difference is asking, “what happens when this goes wrong? How can someone using this get to the part that isn’t working and direct it manually?” That’s where the difficult work of engineering comes in, because you need to ask not only how your system works when it all works, but how the whole system it relies on behaves when it doesn’t. What does the process do when there’s no internet? What does it do when the signal from the other device is too weak? What does it do when the list of devices it sees is too long? When the device doesn’t speak the right protocol?

A lot of that design deals with falling back. If the latest protocol doesn’t work, is there an older one that might? If the signal is weak, is there a way to connect that doesn’t use radio? And above all, how do we communicate this to the person looking at it, so they know which part needs help?

So it’s hard work, but really it’s doing the work needed to create full automation. It’s not just automated when it works; that would be magic. Putting me in a place to fix it when it doesn’t work automatically is good infrastructure.


This week’s airline disaster – and in particular the engineering and procedures that got everyone out of the plane alive – reminds me that I’m attracted to preparing for the worst. I’m the one on the plane who checks where the nearest exits are and what kind of flotation device is available. Not that I want the worst to happen, but I feel better knowing Plan B in case Plan A goes south.

Being prepared is also a challenge, a way to think deeply about the infrastructure I rely on even when it’s practically invisible. (Yes I am still thinking a lot about water thank you.) What would I do if the power went out? What would I notice? How would I change so I could keep doing the things I need? The answers let me design alternate systems that take effect when things go wrong, or (in the absolute best case) replacement systems that keep working despite the trouble.

So let’s talk about preppers, though. I grew up loving trips to the army surplus store. Survival gear and wilderness-focused preparation strategies are attractive because they involve stuff that feels tough and adventurous even if I can barely operate a can opener. Now, though, I reject the idea that my survival has to be set up in opposition to other people. It doesn’t just feel wrong, it completely contradicts how I’ve seen a good community operate in a time of crisis. People help each other to survive and recover.

The moment that convinced me was a multi-day power outage when I lived in San Diego. It’s the classic example of what preppers are prepping for: the city is without power, everything shuts down, no one has any of the things they need, and… well, what’s supposed to happen is chaos, looting, folks barricading themselves in their neighborhoods and trading with gold. What actually happened is folks took the day off work, emptied their fridges and freezers, went outside to be in the evening light, and had block parties. Want some ice cream? It’s just going to melt. Need to charge your phone? Here’s  a brick and a solar panel, go ahead. Need a spare flashlight? Let’s share.

It’s hard to describe the feeling in our neighborhood over those couple days. It was a time out of time. People really didn’t want it to end. Which is better than survival, isn’t it? It’s something different. It’s resilience. And it wasn’t even planned, it’s what we all fell into when there was a pause in television broadcasting.

More recently, the state of Washington has talked about resilience centers (or resilience hubs, I’ve also heard), which are places that people can go for essential things during a disaster or an outage. Each center builds up the infrastructure it needs to keep the lights on, to keep the wifi going, to keep the water running, to keep cool or keep warm. I love the idea, because it’s just as attractive a prepping opportunity but it assumes we’re going to find each other, to work together, to form community when something goes wrong. A resilience center doesn’t need an arsenal, it doesn’t need a way to bug out. It still has challenges, though, but they start to look like resilient infrastructure. How would we keep the wifi on? How much power can we produce? What does at-hand food storage look like in the long term?

So now when I prepare for the worst, I think about resilient infrastructure. How about you? What would you build? How could you share it? What helps when we all know how to do it?

greywater all-stars

I think a lot about water.

Our sewer system stopped working properly. A few weeks ago we had a major rainstorm, and something about the 50-year-old system gave in. (We suspect it’s because a neighborhood of houses were built on top of it.) Long story short, we can bring in as much water as we want, but we have to be very careful about how much we emit. Ahem.

So I’ve been carrying a lot of water lately. K worked out a manual system for greywater recycling – one of the benefits of having a big property with trees and zones and such – and it keeps us going while the sewer gets repaired. But even a short shower is a lot of water to schlep. A lot. Every extra minute is something I’m going to feel later.

I often think of a Lunar visit like a camping trip, and I imagine others do too. You do without, you make do with limited supplies, you put up with the extra time it takes to clean anything, to cook anything, to carry water. You rely more on disposable things, bags of trash and waste. But what happens after a week of that, when you need to live there permanently? How do we get from camping trip to sustainable, without shifting to use even more water? And where does all that water go?

K and I actually talked about greywater systems when we first bought this house. It seems so logical: rather than lumping all this water in with the sewage, give it a (relatively) quick rehabilitation and use it to keep all those trees happy. But like the geothermal heat pump (so logical), the solar panels (still logical), the battery backup, the drip irrigation system… the actual project to build the thing gets mired in planning, financing, hiring capable people, and interfacing with 50-year-old systems. (OK, the drip irrigation wasn’t that complicated. Still enough work to last the entire summer.) I get so excited about the idea and the design, but the execution just makes me tired.

So for now I carry water. And think about it. A lot.



Time to fix the blog

Hello again, friends.

This site is the default page on my phone, so if you were tired of looking at a headline about Twitter when you visited here, rest assured I was feeling it every single day. I actually have had a post (title only) sitting in drafts for over a year, titled “a requiem for twitter”. I won’t be writing about that today, because we’re all tired of that place.

Instead, let’s get an early start on getting a new start. It’s the day after Solstice, which is either midwinter or the start of the new year (depending on how you do calendars). Time to dust off this site and get writing again.

Do I have a topic? Nah. You get a ramble today. I have a dozen different things on my mind, and perhaps the trouble comes from waiting for them to be fully-formed. The last thing I wrote here was before all this *waves hands*, and it’s weird that all those thoughts I had since about covid, working from home, working from work again during the apocalypse… all went unremarked here.

Am I writing because of Substack? Perhaps. Catching up on Mastodon today I discovered that they’re the new Main Character, for saying out loud the quiet parts about taking white supremacy money because they’re colorblind. The hypocrisy is transparent, in a way that’s becoming too common. We’re A because we’re committed to B. We’re B because we’re committed to not being A. If we say it in GPT-approved prose it sounds good enough, right?

So am I writing because of GPT? Maybe. I’m a technology fan and I want talking computers more than folks might realize, but something about the milk-toast marketing garbage that comes out of text generators bugs me right down to the nervous system. Seriously, my spine aches and my head hurts when you include those paragraphs that GenAI spat out, like blurry JPEG artifacts in a family photo or autotune in an aria. I don’t want it. It makes me want to write something from the heart, idiosyncratic and dumb and ultimately meaningful. (Doesn’t help that my style is already too stiff. Seriously, this is an unedited first draft. Imagine thinking thoughts like this in your head. It’s like an NPR podcast in here.)

So why am I writing? To reach out to you, dear reader. This’ll pass through a thousand mechanical apparatuses to reach you, but I hope it finds you. Well. Any time it does, and especially if you can find a way to reach back, on Slack or Mastodon or Discord or a postcard or just saying hi on the street or in the hallway, then I think it’s worth the time. Time to start again.

Happy Solstice, everyone.