Tag Archives: Opinion

my unscientific work from home tips

my qualifications: i have been working mostly from home since 2014 or so.

productivity / quality of life things:

  • have a window behind your computer screen if possible, so you can look out once in a while to change the distance of your eye’s focus, it’s good
  • the pomodoro technique works pretty well for reminding you to get up every 25 minutes to take a break (there are apps if you want)
  • play good upbeat music that will keep your energy up (e.g. i love this old BT album)
  • make a list of the “3-5 things i must get done today” – IMO it helps if it’s on a 3×5 index card you can prop on your desk or tape to your monitor. keep it pointed at your face so you can’t ignore it (stolen years ago from pmarca on productivity)
  • other people mentioned this: taking walks is good
  • ignore slack as much as possible, it is frankly terrible for productivity/focus. it’s even worse as a todo list. redirect people to your official input channels as soon as possible from slack. i like to check in 2x per day, same as email. some people like to schedule this – for me it’s first thing AM, then mid-late afternoon
  • avoid interactions with other family members in the house (if any) as much as you are able during work hours. lunch together can be nice though, or walk in AM/PM
  • don’t do “house things” that pop into your brain during the work day. write them down and do at night/weekends
  • try hard to set a 5-minute timer before checking something on the web “for just a minute”
  • set up a dedicated workspace that is only for work, even if it means you spend 10 minutes in the morning/evening doing setup/teardown in your dining room. it creates a psychological entry/exit point for the work day.
  • similar to the above using different words: keep the work computer in one place that is just for work, don’t bring it around the house with you
  • finally, and this is important: work your scheduled hours and only those hours

computer opinions:

  • if you type on a laptop all day you are gonna die. buy a keyboard (i like this specific old msft ergo and/or the kinesis freestyle 2, some people have other opinions)
  • if you use a laptop trackpad all day you are gonna die. buy an external mouse (i like trackballs, especially the kensington expert, they give big scrolls with little movement / energy expenditure)
  • if you can’t get (or fit) an external monitor, get a Roost laptop stand as many people on the internet have already mentioned (or the cheaper Nextstand knockoff, which I have – it’s fine)
  • (only applies if work gave you an apple laptop) if you are buying an external monitor right now, IMO the ~2012 era apple display with multiple built-in USB ports is STILL the best one to get (i can’t believe i’m saying it, but it’s true). they are on ebay for like $400. using those weird usb-c dongle adapter things sucks. if you get the apple display, you will need to buy a thunderbolt to usb-c adapter, which also sucks, but it sucks less. the apple display will allow you to plug in your external keyboard and backup drive (see below) to something solid, not a flimsy dangling wire that will wiggle your laptop’s usb-c ports until they get loose. bonus: apple display has built-in speakers, microphone, and camera that work well for remote meetings
  • buy an external hard drive and back up your stuff. best option for non-nerds is to plug in a big external drive and use Time Machine. see also: jwz on backups

It’s all about the BATNA

(Image courtesy Ismael Celis under Creative Commons license.)

It seems like there is a constant stream of articles being turned out about how we’re all going to be working in Amazon fulfillment centers and holding in our pee for 12 hours while we dry-swallow bottles of Aleve and live in fear of our slave-driving lower-level warehouse managers.

You can read a lot of these types of articles on sites like the Verge for some reason. (I am beginning to think of them – at least in part – as “nominally ‘tech’ but actually ‘tech pessimism'” sites.)

Meanwhile, there is another – perhaps-less-frequent but still influential – stream of articles about how companies “can’t find” good employees, they “can’t hire”, millennials want “too much” from their employers, Americans “won’t work hard” and “don’t have the necessary skills” for “the future” ™, and so on.

You can probably read these articles in the Wall Street Journal.

The NY Times, that bourgeois rag, will happily run both types of article. (Parts of its demographic hold both views, in some cases simultaneously, and hey, the ads pay either way.)

Unfortunately there is an important concept taken from business negotiation called BATNA that is almost never even mentioned in either type of article – even though it usually explains the behaviors chronicled in the article! I could almost forgive this if the writer had studied journalism and not economics (although not really), but if they have any economics or business background at all it’s just criminal.

What is BATNA though, really? Well you can read the wiki article for more information, but it is an acronym that means “Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement”. In other words, it’s a way of thinking during any type of negotiation about questions of the form “What’s my next best option if this deal falls through?”

For example, if you are an employer with a lot of cash on the balance sheet you can afford to wait a few quarters (or years) until employee wages come down to a level you find more appealing, maybe. If you are a wage-earning employee, you probably cannot. (Not to mention that it’s probably cheaper for companies to have their PR people push articles in the WSJ about how hard it is to hire than it is to just raise wages until hiring picks up.)

P.S. Special thanks to Andrew Kraft, who gave a great talk on BATNA and other related topics a few years back at AppNexus. Without his talk, I might never have heard of this magical acronym.)

Some thoughts about privacy and networked computers

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, privacy is:

a : the quality or state of being apart from company or observation

b : freedom from unauthorized intrusion

Historically, the most common use of this term was around one’s physical space. If you go into a room in your house and close the door, you are experiencing privacy. You are “apart from” others. They cannot see you, hear you, etc.

If you go and sit in your back yard, then depending on the visibility of your back yard to neighbors and passersby, you are experiencing some degree of privacy.

If you send a letter to a friend (the kind that is written on paper and wrapped in an envelope), you have an expectation of privacy in that you expect that your letter will not be read.

In each of these cases, there is a physical barrier that separates the space that you (or your communications) occupy from space that is available for other people to see and observe.

In each of these cases, the physical objects in question do not broadcast information. There is visual information available to any passersby or other residents of the home, but the passerby must take action to look, to seek it out.

It seems that historical notions of privacy have to do with physical presence and a third party must make an effort to transgress a boundary that you have explicitly put in place (a door, wall, envelope, etc.).

Networked computers do not have any of these characteristics!

A networked computer is, in essence, a beacon that is constantly shining in the night. Networked computers constantly transmit information to other computers, and you have to do a lot of work if you want to keep that from happening (and you will probably not succeed anyway, even if you have a lot of relevant expertise). To use the beacon metaphor, it is shining all of the time, you have to do a lot of work to keep it covered up, and any slip of the covering means you will be visible from many miles away.

This flips the notion of what we historically think of as “privacy” completely on its head. Rather than a third party being forced to transgress a boundary to see you in a private room, tear open your letter’s envelope, or jump your backyard fence, the third party running the computer network that you connect to, or the server that your browser connects to, would have to explicitly take action to drop information on the floor that they have already been given.

This is a fundamentally different thing to ask for. In the first case, you are saying, “please don’t cross this physical boundary”. In the second, you are saying “I am sending you this information, but please don’t read it. Well actually, that won’t work — you will have to read it to provide me the service I’m asking for. But after providing the service, please go back and erase the information. Definitely don’t store it anywhere.”

Whereas in the first case you were asking the third party to simply avoid a behavior, in the second case you are asking the third party to do work on your behalf. This is going to be fundamentally harder to accomplish, and you really need to understand that you are asking someone else to do something for you. Implied in asking someone else to do work on your behalf is that they are not obligated to do that work, except under certain conditions or relationships.

You almost certainly do not enjoy these conditions or relationships with network operators, computer manufacturers, the writers of web browsing software, web applications, or advertising technology. You are not in a position to demand extra work from these entities.

Another way of looking at it is: given a possibility space of all behaviors in the physical realm, traditional privacy just carves out a small area of the total space and says “don’t go here”. It looks like this:


Given the possibility space of all of the behaviors that can be engaged in by networked computers, “privacy” carves out an area of the total space and says “you will have to go here at least once to provide me with network connectivity and other services, but I want you to then take a second pass over that area and erase/drop the information you collected during the first pass”.


I hope the above explains why I do not really like or agree with the use of the word “privacy” in discussions about computers. It’s the wrong word. I don’t know if we even have a word for what we need going forward.