Hi, I'm Allen Pike. I run Steamclock, where we design and develop polished apps in beautiful Vancouver. At least monthly, I write an article and publish it here.

6 Months in the Closet

September 28, 2020

A famous notion in the business world is the “Curse of the new HQ”. The theory is that companies tend to build out a swanky new office just as their success peaks, at which point a fancy space full of potential becomes an expensive millstone.

I saw this happen up close when I was first starting out in technology. I watched a growing company design and build a beautiful new office building, only to lose a client that was too big to lose. Within a year, I was helping them move out to a much more modest space. Although there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for this being a statistically significant phenomenon, I’ve long been cautious about building out any kind of office for Steamclock.

Eventually though, after ten years in business, last year we finally committed to building out an office space that fits our needs. A place we could call our own. It’s nothing monumental, but I think it’s a nice place to work. By February 2020, we’d settled in.

Working from home every Wednesday was already tough for me with a 3 year old bouncing off the walls, so with the impending arrival of our second child and a pressing bedroom shortage, I decided I was done working from home. I sold my home desk, assembled a crib in its place, and poured one out for remote work.


Within a month, our entire industry was working from home, as we waved goodbye to ye olde precedented times. Like everybody else on earth, I started searching for small desks online.

On account of our new space limitations, I didn’t have a lot of options for where to put a desk. Initially, it seemed there were no options. But as they say, “Desperate times call for removing the wire shelving from the closet near the baby’s crib and cramming a tiny standing desk in there.” A standing desk, not just for ergonomic reasons, but because there wasn’t room for a chair.

So there I was, six months ago today, wiring up a bedroom closet. Half CEO’s office, half sundress storage. Population: me.

At first, I resented it. It had no ventilation. Standing all day was tiring. The nearby breaker panel interfered with electronics. My elbow would often hit the doorknob. Getting in and out of the “office” was a mild feat of acrobatics.

This was all just slightly more annoying due to the fact we had literally just finished building a wonderful office that I loved to work in. Depending on our local advisories and statistics, I am still able to work at Steamclock from time to time, which was nice for a change but didn’t make the closet any more comfortable.

In time though, I came to terms with it. I made it nicer over time. I set up lighting and art so it wasn’t totally obvious I was working from a closet. It started to actually feel like a productive place where work gets done – a key station in my Spaceship You.

And work did get done. Our one-day-a-week working from home culture adapted to the new world. Since the initial “reorient and refocus” period, we’ve been productive and effective. We lost business in the travel sector, but gained more business in e-commerce. We kept the band together, and even have a new employee starting next week. Our work is far from over, but so far Steamclock’s doing well for a company in a world of turmoil, run from a closet office.

Still, it’s a very small office.

It’s so small that after a couple months I noticed out of the corner of my eye that I could see myself in the doorknob. Often, polished doorknobs get dull from frequent use, but this was the inside doorknob in a closet so it had rarely been touched over the years. Not only could I see my sorry mug in the reflection, I could see the entire 9 square feet I was working in.

I could see the tiny desk, and the various things I’d raised above it so there was enough space for a keyboard. I could see the lights in front of me, and the art behind me; the sundresses beside me, and the luggage above me. A 360° view of where I spend 30-50 hours a week.

Today, six months from the day I wired it up, is my last day in the closet. Like many people around the world, my family is moving to a new place that’s a bit bigger and a bit more suited to spending time at home.

As grateful as I am to be leaving the closet behind, there is a part of me that still feels the need to kind of say farewell. This space wasn’t what I wanted, but I’ve been very lucky to have it.

It was here that I learned how to work remotely, and how to make any space into a productive one. It was here that we turned lemons into lemonade. I almost feel like hiding a little commemorative plaque somewhere, tucked behind the clothing rack.

In this spot in 2020, somebody steered a business through a pandemic. It was dumb.

But it worked out.

The Case of the Missing Tuna

August 31, 2020

Fairly often, when I order food from DoorDash, I find that an item is missing. Of course, this should not be surprising, since DoorDash is a bizarre capitalist Rube Goldberg machine where every party – the restaurant, the driver, and DoorDash itself – seems to be having a bad time. It’s only fair that by patronizing and enabling this system, I should have a bad time too.

In their defense, DoorDash has long had a system for handling missing items. In the early days, they’d specially dispatch a driver to bring you the absent dish. This was impressive, but rather slow and hideously expensive for DoorDash.

In modern times, they scaled back to refunding the whole order if a part of it was missing. This leaves you a bit hungry, but it’s easy to get over a missing dragon roll when you’re eating free salmon nigiri. And let’s be honest, those dragon rolls taste so good that eating them might not have been advisable in the first place.

Still I’d often wonder, after receiving a notification that my dinner would be free, “How can this be sustainable?”

The answer will surprise you: it was not sustainable.

If you’re the sort of morbid person that likes to follow financial news about food delivery and other “gig economy” companies, you might have seen that, like its competitors, DoorDash has a margin in the range of negative 50%. That’s Wall Street speak for “giant cash-fuelled bonfire”.

As you may know, cash is not the ideal fuel for a bonfire, and as such it was only a matter of time before things changed. This year, the inevitable happened: DoorDash switched to only refunding the missing item. This is patently reasonable – I can’t fathom how many orders it would have taken for them to make up the cost of refunding me $40 when they missed a single salmon roll – but it can still be a downer.

For example, a few months back I ordered two personal pizzas – one for me and one for my wife. Only her pizza came. They refunded mine, but we still paid the full fee and tip, and I ended up eating cereal for dinner. My experience was not five stars. (For those keeping score, the cereal was Nature’s Path Flax Plus® Cinnamon Flakes, which are five stars.)

So it’s not great, but whatever. I shouldn’t be using a delivery app anyway. This is reasonable penance.

Something’s fishy

This week, things changed yet again. As it happens, my latest order was missing a mango tuna roll. Whether it was due to a policy change, a magic threshold, or my stubborn ass being too willing to keep ordering from restaurants that leave out items, DoorDash’s system flagged me as a problem customer. Perhaps the algorithm found it suspicious that anybody really wanted a mango tuna roll in the first place. I really can’t say.

In any case, the app informed me that I wasn’t getting the roll, and I wasn’t getting refunded for it, and if I was unsatisfied I should contact support. Eyebrow firmly raised, I politely informed their support chat about this injustice. The agent apologized, offered to “check what happened”, then after 60 seconds closed the chat.

A second attempt led to a message that they would no longer compensate me for missing food due to my account history.

The nerve! After the dozens of times I’ve offered them the opportunity to deliver me food at a loss, after all the money they’ve spent on me, they just toss me aside. They clearly don’t appreciate what a critical part of their business I am. I can only hope my tuna went to a good home.

I must say that it’s hard to justify using their service anymore if they’re going to continue charging me for food I didn’t get. From here on out, Doordash isn’t going to get any more chances to lose money on me, no sir.

Now, in theory, I should start ordering our sushi directly from the restaurant, but there’s a little complication: our preferred sushi place doesn’t have their own delivery.

Luckily for me, there are other fish in the sea. Not other sushi restaurants – there are hundreds of those, but any Vancouverite knows that finding the right sushi restaurant is a serious undertaking. But there are a variety of other delivery apps, eagerly waiting for a chance to bring my family sushi using their VCs’ money.

So for now, I’ll switch to another app. Maybe they’ll have a better system for helping the restaurant ensure the whole order is in the bag before it’s picked up. Or maybe they’ll find a way to earn enough money to comp the occasional wayward tuna and still stay in business. Or, most likely, they’ll just implode, one by one, until my entire generation starves – or at least becomes tragically deficient in Omega-3 acids.

In any case, so long DoorDash. Thanks for all the fish.

Being Good at Roulette

July 31, 2020

The first time I visited Las Vegas was on a business trip. I was 21. My official mission: train a large customer on our new software. My unofficial mission: try my hand at a Vegas table game.

Now, I’m a pretty logical person. Given that there is no such thing as luck, I knew that betting at a casino is irrational – unless perhaps you’re cheating, or you’re very good at poker. Still, I thought it would be fun. Pay $20 to say I lost some money in Vegas.

So on my first night, once I was happy with my slides, I ventured down to the casino floor of our hotel. I observed the various games as I passed by, but I knew where I was headed: roulette. It seemed to me that there was no simpler, no purer a way to lose your money in Vegas than roulette. The nakedness of its terrible odds were part of the charm.

I approached a table, and watched the guy ahead of me play, studying the etiquette. When he cashed out, I sat down and turned my $20 into 4 chips, $5 each.

Nervously, I reached out and made the simplest bet I could. $5 on black; I won $5. I put another $5 on black, and again won $5. “Okay, I get how this works.” But I wasn’t there to try and beat the house. I was there to lose my $20. So I took $5, and put it on 17. And won $175.

Of course, I made the next logical move: I cashed out immediately. I had gotten temporarily lucky, and I cashed out feeling like king of the world. I bought a hideously expensive whiskey cocktail and felt proud for trying something new.

The next day, as I was gearing up to fly home, I found myself passing near that casino floor again. Remembering how much fun I had last time, I thought I might as well take a second crack at my goal of losing $20. I sat down at a different table, but this time went right to my patented strategy: I bet $5 on 17. And holy shit, I won $175.

Now, this is not a great thing to happen to somebody. I mean, in one way it was extremely great – sweet, another $175! And cerebrally, I knew that hitting two single bets in a row is an extreme fluke, a 1444 to 1 chance. But the emotional high from that hit, the endorphins and adrenaline, it messes with you. You can enter a casino a logical human being, yet next thing you know you’re asking yourself, “Huh. Am I… good at roulette?”

You will be surprised to learn that I am, in fact, not good at roulette.

After promptly losing $100, I cashed out and headed to the bar. This time I felt less like king of the world, and more just a participant in the human condition. Still, I suppose, $100 was a small price to pay to learn conclusively that I am not good at roulette.

Luck tends to cause problems. When I say luck in this context, I don’t mean the fostered luck that results from being open minded, observant, and keeping a positive mindset. It does seem that people who think of themselves as chronically lucky do have more positive things happen to them, partially due to how they approach life.

Random luck, though, that just happens. Random luck is something you stumble upon. It’s the privilege you were born into, and the coin flips that have gone your way since. While it’s certainly nice to receive random luck, it’s not all roses. When something goes your way, your instinct is to feel like you’ve earned it. Random luck can initially make people feel guilty, and that cognitive dissonance often leads to people reframing their good fortune as the product of skill or hard work. The next thing you know, people feel entitled to the spoils of chance.

Besides the thorny problems of entitlement, if you’re not careful random luck can also make you a less effective person. At best, an unearned windfall can make you less motivated, less hungry to make things better. More dangerously, a lucky success can make you overestimate your skill, leading to a kind of luck-generated Dunning-Kruger effect.

As it happens, most great leaders seem to intentionally stay mindful of the role luck has played in their successes. When luck comes up, Barack Obama is eager to acknowledge the factor it played in his life – skill and hard work were necessary, but not sufficient to achieve what he did. Meanwhile, if you ask his successor about luck, you’re more likely to hear about how luck just amounts to hard work, or that success is not due to luck at all. Such are the differences between a thoughtful leader and a lucky idiot.

In fact, the majority of the highly successful CEOs they study in the book Good to Great name luck as a key factor in their success. While that is kind of strange – the whole point of the study was to determine what objective factors lead to successful companies – luck-awareness seems to actually make people more effective. Correctly attributing some of your success to luck seems to inoculate you against arrogance, and foster that lucky mindset, which we know can itself be helpful.

So, it seems, that’s the formula. Next time you have an unexpected success, don’t let it rob you of your humility. Don’t let your mind trick you into believing you’re somehow good at roulette. But do try to be mindful of your good fortune.

I bet you can think of five reasons you’re lucky right now, and you can create even more luck just by adopting a positive and open perspective on things. All because you happened to read some blog post about roulette.

I suppose you’re just lucky.

The Secret Rules of iOS Development

June 30, 2020

Two weeks ago, news broke that Apple rejected the iOS version of Hey, Basecamp’s highly anticipated new email product. The reasoning? Like many apps on iOS, Hey didn’t support Apple’s in-app purchase system. Not long ago, Hey’s app would have been approved, but a recent change to the secret rules – not the public guidelines, but the actual policies Apple uses to selectively enforce those guidelines – resulted in a surprise rejection.

As he often does, Michael Tsai compiled quotes from various articles and stories that resulted. The first comments were from pundits and observers, but they quickly gave way to a catalogue of greivances, unpleasant surprises, and weird injustices developers have faced over years of App Review, often due to rules that have never been publicly acknowledged by Apple.

In response to the ensuing bad press, Apple allowed Hey onto iOS – despite it still violating the guidelines – and announced that developers will be getting a mechanism to challenge Apple’s review guidelines.

Which is definitely something. The idea seems to be that Hey will have a chance to challenge Apple’s public guideline about multi-platform apps, which says that apps can only allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired elsewhere if they are also available via IAP.

While it’s great that Apple is open to these rules being challenged, it seems that the things most worth reconsidering about App Review aren’t even part of the public guidelines. Will Hey be able to challenge the secret rule that says they need to follow the IAP guideline, but that Slack doesn’t? What about the policy that iOS apps can’t be distributed directly to customers? Or Apple’s habit of quietly changing the undocumented approval policies, without notifying people that apps that used to be approved will now be rejected?

Or the existence of secret App Store policies at all?

I suspect not. Chances are, iOS app development will continue to depend on reading tea leaves and following other developers’ tales of surprise rejections, never fully knowing exactly what can and can’t be distributed on iOS at any given time.

But hey, a developer can dream.

Half Here, Half There

May 31, 2020

There is a lot that needs fixing right now. There is a lot of injustice, a lot of suffering, and a lot of inequity. A lot of work to be done.

If you’re lucky enough to be in a position that you can donate something to organizations doing that work, there is no time like the present. But it can be difficult to decide exactly which organization to contribute to. There are a lot of good fights, and countless groups fighting them.

Do you fund activists in Minneapolis because you’re rightly furious about what is happening, or relief efforts in your own backyard because your community is your responsibility, or organizations fighting climate change because it’s a species-level threat, or groups distributing mosquito nets because Bill Gates says they prevent the most suffering per dollar, even though you’re watching a nation tear itself apart and really don’t care about mosquito nets right now?

It can cause a bit of analysis paralysis.

Maybe you give to all the causes you care about, or the first one that hits home for you each month, or you use some other philosophy that guides what you donate when. If you have an approach that is working for you, then awesome.

But if the paradox of choice has fuelled a bit of procrastination or inconsistency in your charitable acts, I have a suggestion that may help get you unstuck: Choose an amount to give. Give half of it near, and half of it far.

The parameters are up to you. Maybe you give $5,000 to Doctors Without Borders, and $5,000 to an indigenous rights organization in your city. Maybe you give $20 to a group in Minneapolis, and $20 to fighting climate change. The point is to break the loop of being overwhelmed by choice, and pick a couple places you can put your money to work.

As a bonus, you could consider evaluating how much impact your dollars – or euros, or whatever – might have. There are organizations that attempt to answer this question. For example in Canada, Charity Intelligence attempts to score charities on factors like demonstrated impact, financial transparency, need for funding, and what percentage of donations go to overhead costs. This is of course an inexact science – it’s a lot easier to demonstrate a local outcome like housing somebody in need than than a historic outcome like helping get a law changed. Still, it’s worth considering where your dollars are going, and avoiding a loop where donations primarily fund a marketing machine, rather than a change engine.

That said, the most important step is doing something. When we’re overwhelmed, making simple rules for ourselves can help. Don’t let the size of it all push you into doing less than you can.

The Unified Theory of Cereal

April 30, 2020

I like cereal.

It’s quick, it’s easy, it tastes good. Who doesn’t like cereal?

Recently though, I’ve been at home more than usual. What was once a weekend treat is now always available, often appealing. Cereal is there, whether I’m trying to kick off the day quickly, tiding myself over until bedtime, or diligently attempting to bury this month’s distinctive blend of angst.

Which is great, don’t get me wrong. Cereal’s great! But I have come to suspect that eating Honey Bunches of Oats 10-15 times a week is going to eventually have some negative consequences. The cereal reckoning was nigh.

I set out with a specific goal: I wanted to find the tastiest cereal that wouldn’t inspire gluttony. The healthiest cereal that was still appealing. The One True Cereal that was exactly the right amount of good.

So, I did what anybody would do in my situation: I collected the full nutrition info and ingredient breakdown of over two dozen cereals, and concocted a system for scoring each variety using a formula that I could then iterate and refine.

I built a Unified Theory of Cereal.

The Challengers

I started my list with the most popular cereals in the US and Canada, forming the bedrock of the system. Then, I added two cereals that could serve as bookends: an extremely healthy one, and an extremely unhealthy one. For the nutritious end I chose All Bran, since it’s so healthy I can’t even bring myself to eat it. For the epitome of trash I chose Fruity Pebbles, which aren’t even available in Canada but to me they’re the quintessential bowl of bad decisions.

To further my goal of actually finding well-balanced cereals that were pretty good, I added in a number of fairly healthy-seeming but potentially palatable cereals like Special K Low Fat Granola, Alpen, and some promising-looking cereals from Kashi and Nature’s Path.

Because I couldn’t help myself, I also revisited the archives of professional new candy evaluator Cabel Sasser, and found one last cereal for the gauntlet.

The Formula

For each cereal, I tabulated the nutrients that, based on my nutrition goals and common sense, were most concerning: calories, fat, sodium, and especially sugar.

I also recorded the nutrients that I believe have the biggest impact on making a cereal satisfying: fibre, protein, and being made from whole grains. While a lot of fibre, protein, and whole grains still aren’t exactly going to make a cereal “good for you”, they should mitigate the fact you’re basically eating a carb bomb, and make you less likely to be inclined to having seconds.

One big hurdle to comparing cereals is portion size. Honey Nut Cheerios and Shreddies both have 9g of sugar each, but wait a minute… the nominal serving size for Shreddies is 55g but for Honey Nut Cheerios it’s only 29g?! Are you really likely to eat half as many Cheerios as you do Shreddies? Luckily, food labels are changing in many countries to have stricter serving size standards – for example in Canada, starting in 2021, a portion will always be 30g for most cereal, and 55g for fruit/nut/granola cereals. In the meantime though, you need to convert the nutrition info into quantity per gram, which is not a convenient operation in the grocery store.

After a normalization pass, I simply gave each nutrient a weight to indicate if it was good or bad. Since this part is heinously arbitrary and the right weights vary depending on you talk to and the health theory du jour, I made the weights easy to edit in the spreadsheet, which I link to below. A heartening observation though: even if you, for example, make fibre half as good or sodium twice as bad, the relative ranks of the cereals don’t change much.

One final caveat: in an ideal world, you would also adjust for what size serving you would in practice serve yourself. I tend to pour myself more Vector than I would pour Cheerios, because Vector is goddamn delicious.

High Level Observations

Behold the full spreadsheet here. You can make your own copy to tweak the weights, try different formulas, and add the cereals you love or hate. I have comments on each cereal in the spreadsheet, but here are some of my favourite observations:

  • The cereals broke down naturally into four tiers: Pretty Good, Reasonable, Treat, and Candy. You can guess which category Cabel’s cereal fell into.
  • The Kashi and Nature’s Path cereals did generally quite well, though there is quite a bit of variance between them. I’ve started trying these and some are quite good.
  • All Bran isn’t all bran? That is literally its name, people, what is going on
  • I did not expect Frosted Mini Wheats to do so well. It’s 20% sugar by weight. It turns out, though, that almost every cereal is at least 16%.
  • If your go-to cereal is Honey Nut Cheerios, I have some bad news for you.
  • There is a bit more variation in the garbage-tier cereals than I expected.
  • The weights I chose gave Corn Flakes a natural score of zero, which is what it deserves. In case you tweak the weights (for example to make fibre and protein less important, or penalize sugar even more) there’s a field where you can enter the Corn Flakes Score to calibrate the scale back to Corn Flakes Zero.

Part of a Complete Breakfast

Cereal is good. I’m gonna eat it, you’re gonna eat it. My proposal is simply that you be thoughtful about what cereal you want to be bringing into your home. There’s never been a better time in our lives to buy 5 different random types of cereal you’ve never tried before because a spreadsheet on the internet said they’re less bad for you than Corn Flakes.

Seize the moment. Level up your cereal.

Explain Like I'm 3

March 31, 2020

Parents of young kids do a lot of explaining.

“Do hippos exist?” Surprisingly, yes!

“Does Totoro have a brain?” I don’t know! I don’t think spirits have brains.

“What does ‘remiss’ mean?” It’s… when you didn’t do something you were supposed to do.

“Do letters exist?” Yes! Well. They don’t exist in that there’s no… actual A, B, and C out there somewhere. We just draw them ourselves. So… no? Hm.

It’s delightful how as strange as the truth may seem, young kids just take it in stride. They’re constantly collecting new and surprising information, processing it, and promptly moving on with their new reality.

Often, explaining like they’re 5 – or like they’re 3½ in the case of my daughter – forces you to think think surprisingly deeply. What is the difference between sneaky and tricky? How can I explain London in terms of what she already knows? As a bonus, the tricky questions are frequently mixed in delightfully simple ones.

What is a guarantee? Was Hamilton real? What does “being cheesy” mean? Is Queen Elizabeth old? When baby brother is born, will I be a grownup? Where do goblin sharks live?

Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun. One hitch, though, is that occasionally a kid’s question will land with a wallop. Your guard will be down – you’ll be in the middle of something else – and with no warning, they’ll knock you off balance.

“Where will I live when I grow up?”

First you go to give the simple answer – wherever you want to live, kid. But you pause. Who knows if she’ll decide to live nearby when she grows up – or if she’ll even be able to afford to? But those are my hangups, not hers. For the most part, the naive answer is true. “You get to pick where you want to live, Ellie.” It’s true enough.

Kid questions like this aren’t hard because the answers are unclear, but because they bring up big feelings. What do nurses do? Who is Mama’s mama? Is Gran so old that she’s going to die? What is a soul?

“Why can’t we see Mama and baby brother anymore?”

I picked Ellie up, and we sat down on the floor, across from the sign that said “NICU Reception”.

“Well Ellie, you know how we get our flu shot, so we don’t get the flu? Well there’s a new germ, and they don’t have shots for it yet. So the hospitals made a new rule where they don’t have visitors, because they want to make sure the babies and nurses don’t get the new germ.”

She had a couple follow-up questions. No, we don’t have the germ, and yes, we’ll see baby brother again. Of course we’ll see baby brother again. Within seconds, she’d absorbed this surprising information. I was still reeling, but she was ready to move on with her new reality.

She reassured herself aloud: “We’ll be able to see baby brother when he comes home.” Heck yes we will.

“Is he such a cutie baby?” He really is.

“Can we play now daddy?”

As two rambunctious extroverts, social isolation doesn’t come naturally for my daughter and I. I know it’s for the best, but that doesn’t make it easy to wait around until baby brother can come home.

This wasn’t the plan, back when March 2020 commenced – many years ago.

But it’s clear now that all pre-existing plans are obsolete. The name of the game is adapting to being surprised.

And you know who’s used to being surprised? A 3 year old.

You see, a kid’s entire life, their daily existence, is about being surprised. Any plans a 3 year old makes are at best tenuous. Often, they’re literally impossible. But kids know their plans are fleeting, since their world turns upside down every time they learn something. So they process, and adapt. They might kick up a fit briefly, but then they adjust. By the next day their world is different, and they’re moving forward. It’s a goddamn miracle.

So my daughter and I made lemonade. We had long bath times, we moved to a deserted island. I taught her about blanket forts and pillow fights, and we watched quite a lot of My Little Pony. I even slept, which is not something I expected to do much of in the first 3 weeks of our new baby’s life.

And eventually, things worked out. Or, at least one specific thing, which was very important to me. At 3 weeks of age, baby Thomas Pike was given the green light and discharged from hospital. In fact, he’s hanging off of me right now. Say hi, Thomas.

He’s not much of a typist yet. We’ll cut him some slack.

Just like that, something that would have sounded like purgatory a month ago – isolating from the world in a 2-bedroom apartment with a newborn and a 3 year old – now feels like a gift from the gods. The world is still very weird, and things keep on changing. But being asked to explain each change to a 3 year old helps me feel ready to move on with each new reality.

“Is the aquarium closed because of the new germ?” Yup, you guessed it kid.

“Is baby Thomas a cutie cute boop?” He really is.

“Can we play now daddy?”

Heck yes we can.

Don't Drink the Cream

February 28, 2020

As I was told, some years ago a team of contractors were visiting the office of a big potential client. Hoping to impress, the sales lead on the deal brought a skilled product designer along to the meeting, as well as a software developer who was well versed in the relevant tech. The hope was that they’d be well-equipped to answer any remaining questions, put the client at ease, and finally seal the deal.

Now this was a pretty fancy client, and in preparation for the meeting a tray of refreshments had been laid out. Some pastries, tea, and even a little pitcher of cream for coffee. It was perhaps a more refined environment than the team was used to, but the discussion was going well.

After a time, the developer pointed to the pitcher of cream and interjected, “Is anybody going to drink that?”

A moment of surprised silence followed. Then, the answer: “No..?” Nobody is going to drink that.

So the developer nodded, said “Okay,” picked up the little pitcher, and drank the cream.

This was an unexpected turn of events. The client raised an eyebrow, but what was there to say? “Hey you, stop drinking that cream”? It was just established that nobody else wanted it. Who says you can’t drink the cream?

Well, nobody says that. Nobody says you can’t drink the cream, because “we all know” that you don’t drink the cream. We use observation, pattern matching, and sensitivity to social cues to conclude that even if you kind of want to drink the cream that’s been set out for coffee, you’re supposed to not.

No matter how much preparation the sales manager did before the meeting, it’s unlikely he would have thought to brief the developer on the etiquette around imbibing condiments.

I often think about this story for two reasons. The surface lesson here is that while most skills can be taught, there is a baseline level of EQ that is worth looking for when you’re recruiting a team, especially for people who might present with you in a high-stakes situation. It’s easy to underestimate how helpful it is to have team members with strong self-regulation and social awareness.

The second lesson, which to me the more interesting one, is that performing as expected in social situations is really complicated! Who cares if somebody drinks a pitcher of cream? It was probably going to get warm and go to waste anyway! For people who are predisposed to having lower social awareness, including many people on the autism spectrum, the implied rules of social etiquette are a minefield. Rather than picking up social cues instinctively, some people need to learn them one by one, by trial and error, and many of them are completely arbitrary.

The good news is that social awareness can be learned. In fact, it can be really helpful for some people to get a note or heads up when they’re out of sync with social expectations. Some folks may get defensive, sure, but you’d be surprised how often people simply appreciate the tip.

Even a well-meaning person may wonder to themselves, “Hm, I like to drink cream, but I’ve never seen anybody else do this before – is it considered okay to drink the cream?” But as of today, if you type “is it okay to drink the pitcher of cream” into Google, you just get a recipe for making a pitcher of White Russians, and a discussion on the health consequences of drinking whipping cream.

So, for anybody out there searching for the answer, a helpful tip. Despite there being no logical reason for this rule, even if you’re thirsty – even if nobody else is using it – don’t drink the cream.

Ode to the Beginning

January 31, 2020

I first got into technology in the 1990s. I started out by writing Windows games in BASIC and C++, which helped me start building a sense for what goes into making software.

Then, everything changed. The web overturned the software world. Many of the most important companies and apps of the era were washed away in the sea change. Excited by the huge new opportunities, I dove into designing and developing web apps.

Then, everything changed. Mobile overturned the software world. Again much was washed away, and entire new categories of software business became possible. Excited by the huge new opportunities, I dove into designing and developing mobile apps.

The more I saw the progress of technology, the clearer it became that this is a fundamental process in the software industry. As long as there have been computers, there has been a generational pattern, where waves of new companies sweep in to build the newly possible. Periods of creative destruction, with new paradigms blowing away the old, have created awesome opportunities every decade or so since the 1960s. It seems everything old will soon be new again.

As I’ve built a career in software – and Steamclock’s business – I’ve taken pride in expecting the unexpected. I’ve tried not to get too comfortable in the now, avoided bets that things will stay the same, and tried not to depend too much to the platforms of today, since prophecy tells us all will soon be destroyed by the next Great Reset.

It would seem, today, that a reset is nigh. Mobile platforms have aged and become remarkably stable, and the big tech companies have slowed and matured. It feels like the next big thing is due on set imminently. Honestly, it’s felt like that for years now. Is it chatbots? No. Blockchain? No. AR? I don’t know, but it has to be something. Right?

Ben Thompson, prolific writer of thought-provoking perspectives on the technology industry, recently wrote a thought-provoking perspective on the technology industry titled The End of the Beginning. In it, he argues that no, it doesn’t have to be something:

There may not be a significant paradigm shift on the horizon, nor the associated generational change that goes with it. And, to the extent there are evolutions, it really does seem like the incumbents have insurmountable advantages: the hyperscalers in the cloud are best placed to handle the torrent of data from the Internet of Things, while new I/O devices like augmented reality, wearables, or voice are natural extensions of the phone.

In other words, today’s cloud and mobile companies — Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google — may very well be the GM, Ford, and Chrysler of the 21st century. The beginning era of technology, where new challengers were started every year, has come to an end…

My initial instinct is that this has to be wrong. There has to be something fundamental about technology and software that will continue to drive change, and sustain the “continual beginning” that makes our industry so interesting. Right?

Although there’s always reason to be skeptical of any argument of the form “this time is different,” Ben’s theory is unsettlingly plausible. Over the last decade, more and more of the product ideas and problems we see in technology are problems that would be 100x easier for Apple, Google, or Amazon to fix in their existing products than for a new business to try and address. Maybe today’s giants are the GM and Ford of our industry – the final survivors of an early period of chaos.

While there is something sad about this, if true, I must admit there is some appeal to the idea that I might not wake up one day to find that mobile apps have become irrelevant. I don’t relish the idea that our expertise building on Apple’s and Google’s ecosystems may soon be unceremoniously demoted to “experience with legacy platforms”.

And it has been helpful to consider such a world. When the beginning does end in technology – when what we build today is liable to still matter in 25 or 50 years – how would we think differently about our work? What does it mean if you can no longer count on generational change eventually sweeping away your technical debt or other weaknesses in your company and product?

It seems then that longer term thinking might become more established, driving more full-hearted investment in teams and teaching and documenting and various nice things companies know are important in theory, but can feel quaint in an environment where everything is blown up every sixteen minutes. It wouldn’t be all bad.

It also seems that in a tech industry where the beginning ends – where waves of technical change no longer drive renewal – the onus would fall on us to make the new beginnings we want to see, both in our teams, our companies, and our work.

All that said though, it would be nice if Ben is wrong. It would be cool if there was still at least one more revolution left, something that would completely reshape how we think about technology and how we write software forever.

You know, for old times’ sake.

Two Spies

January 16, 2020

Two Spies, the turn-based spy strategy game I’ve been iterating on and off for ages, is now live! So far, the initial reception has kind of blown us away: almost a million rounds played, featured by Apple in 100 countries, hit top 25 board and strategy games, more than a thousand five star reviews already.

Admittedly, I try not to put too much stock in app reviews. Once in a blue moon though, when the stars align, they can be a source of positivity. For example, I did enjoy this recent one:

Simply put, well done, good for you, here’s my support, like this, wow, amazing, mind blown, I’m crazy about this, and finally: HECK YA!

Thanks, MrKatFace. I’m glad you like it.

Guide to the Cold-Industrial Complex

December 31, 2019

It’s cold season. Yes, that time of year where, despite your best efforts, you have recently contracted one of the over 200 viruses that cause the annoying but survivable group of immune responses we call the cold.

Naturally, you are familiar with the baseline approaches to managing cold symptoms. You drink copious amounts of water, and you get enough sleep. You wash your hands religiously – both to avoid passing the cold on to family and coworkers, and to avoid contracting the dreaded and lengthy compound cold.

In the likely event that you drink multiple coffees a day, you may also want to avoid giving yourself the double-whammy of head cold and accidental caffeine withdrawal.

You know, super simple stuff.

But while self-care is a great start, unfortunately it won’t do much to actually shorten the duration of cold symptoms. Chances are high that, depending on the exact miscreant of a virus that has you in its grasp, you will be mildly suffering for 5-10 days. After a couple days of honest rest, you’re probably going to want to get some stuff done. Thus, you’ll likely find yourself thinking, “Hey, maybe one of the 73 cough & cold medications available for sale at my local pharmacy might make me less of a useless snot-sponge?”

A pharmaceutical black hole

Warily facing 73 different cold remedies in my local Shoppers Drug Mart, I found myself thinking exactly that. I know anecdotally that some of them are ineffective, and some make you feel like a zombie. Unfortunately, none of the packages were willing to admit their ineffectiveness or proclivity for zombification.

So, I started looking for symptoms. This one says it’s good for sore throat, this one mentions a dry cough. Quickly, I got bogged down in noise.

Things came to a head as I was trying to work out which was better: Tylenol Cold, or Tylenol Flu. Exasperated, I pored over the boxes, looking back and forth. As impossible as it seemed, there it was, printed in the legally required black and white: Tylenol Cold and Flu are… identical? The same three active ingredients in the same quantities.

The more boxes I looked at, the more I saw combinations of the same few ingredients, in the same dosages. I saw identical products with different branding. I saw “Day” capsules with the same ingredients as the corresponding “Night” capsules. I saw, for the first time, the deep conspiracy that is the Cold-Industrial Complex.

Now to be clear, I am not a doctor. Nor am I a pharmacist. I’m just a guy that makes apps. A guy that makes apps who, in frustration and congestion, created a sprawling spreadsheet containing the active ingredients of Tylenols and Advils, Sudafeds and ‘Quils, name brands and store brands, hoping to find an answer.

Fortunately, I did find an answer.

It’s the ingredients, stupid

We know in theory that brand names mean little in medicine. There are only a handful of medicines approved for relieving cold symptoms in the US and Canada, and store brand medications pull from the same ingredients and dosages as the household names. In general, cold meds contain 2 to 4 of the following components:

  1. Decongestant
  2. Analgesic
  3. Antihistamine
  4. Cough medicine

What is maybe more surprising is that even within a name brand, the ingredients are not consistent. Sudafed, for example, has no consistent ingredient across all its variations. I reviewed a half-dozen cold medicine brands and found that each varied in which components it would use, even between similarly named formulations. Worse, some brands used ingredients that can cause substantial drowsiness in what were ostensibly “daytime” formulas, leading to the regrettable zombie effect.

So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to understand not the brands, but the drugs. Given your symptoms, recruit one drug each from the following four categories. If you do, you may actually have a chance.

1. Decongestant – Congestion, stuffiness

This may be the ingredient you care the most about. If you’re not congested, you’re probably not looking at cold medicine anyhow. For better or worse, are basically two decongestants worth knowing about:

  • Phenylephrine. In theory, phenylephrine causes blood vessels to constrict, relieving stuffy nose and sinus pressure. In practice, it’s unclear how effective it actually is at treating cold symptoms. Multiple studies have questioned its efficacy compared to the fairly large placebo effect of cold meds. While this makes it effectively the backup decongestant, it is increasingly common in cold meds.
  • Pseudoephedrine. Yeah that’s right, the hallowed stuff Walt and Jesse first used to cook their first batch. Pseudoephedrine is a vasoconstrictor, reducing tissue swelling in the nose and face, which helps drain out congestion. Given the fact that the evidence generally indicates that it’s more effective at treating congestion than the alternative, why do so many cold medicines have phenylephrine instead? For one, pseudoephedrine can exacerbate certain conditions like blood pressure and insomnia, making it a no go for some people. The bigger problem, though, is meth. In many jurisdictions, pseudoephedrine is a controlled substance as a precursor. In the US especially, you’ll likely need to ask a pharmacist for it, who probably needs to log your personal information to track how much you’ve purchased over time. This is a nuisance, and makes it harder to compare and consider cold formulas that contain pseudoephedrine. Consequently, the majority of cold formulas, even many from pseudoephedrine’s namesake Sudafed, have switched to phenylephrine. Still, if you don’t have a health reason not to take it, it’s probably worth looking into the good stuff – especially during daytime.

2. Analgesic – Pain, headache, fever

This is the component of cold meds that you are probably most familiar with. Most cold meds contain one of the two most common pain killers.

  • Ibuprofen. Famously sold as Advil. As an anti-inflammatory, the current literature seems to slightly prefer ibuprofen as the painkiller for cold medication, especially if you have muscle aches. That said, chronic ibuprofen use has been linked to heart and especially stomach issues, so read up and be aware.
  • Acetaminophen (Paracetemol). Popularly sold as Tylenol, acetaminophen has an unusual property for such a common drug: it is surprisingly easy to accidentally overdose on. The primary concern is liver damage, which can be compounded when combined with alcohol. For example, you may take a cold medicine which contains acetaminophen and some Robax for a back spasm which also contains it, plus you have a couple beers. Three things that seem innocent could result in liver damage. That said, acetaminophen is generally considered safe when dosed correctly, and ibuprofen isn’t great when taken for long periods of time, so read up and pick your poison.

3. Antihistamine – Sleep aid

Ostensibly, antihistamines might help with congestion. This is certainly true if you’re ill-fated enough to have cold and allergies simultaneously. However, it seems that cold medicines incorporate antihistamines less for their theoretical decongestive properties, and more for the fact that they cause drowsiness.

As it happens, the only drugs approved by the FDA for over the counter sleep aids are so-called first-generation antihistamines. These are also the antihistamines used in cold medicines, as they tend to help people sleep – which is surely something worth doing when you have a cold.

However, unless your cold is so bad that you’re just lazing in bed for the day – for example, if you actually have the flu – you probably don’t want to be drowsy during the day. As such, most cold medicines have a “Day” variant that has no antihistamine, and a “Night” formula that causes drowsiness.

Unfortunately, it is not always that clear from the branding which medications cause drowsiness. For example, I’ve found Advil-brand cold medications to be particularly egregious for having antihistamines in packages that are not branded as “Night” formulations. In my opinion this is reckless. At least one study found a standard dose of first-generation antihistamine to be equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 in terms of driving. Watch out for antihistamines if you’re hoping to do things during the day, especially for Advil-branded cold meds or anything without “non-drowsy” on the label.

Of course, if your cold is keeping you from sleeping, an antihistamine can be a welcome companion. “Night” or “PM” formulations of cold meds almost always have an antihistamine in them. In my research, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence that any of the approved antihistamines in cold medicines caused more or less drowsiness than one another, nor that any was especially effective at relieving cold symptoms on its own.

  • Diphenhydramine. Sold popularly as Benadryl.
  • Doxylamine. Sold, interestingly, under the brand Unisom as a sleep aid. Also interestingly, doxylamine is generally considered safe during pregnancy, and is often used together with vitamin B6 to treat morning sickness.
  • Chlorpheniramine. Sold in many store-brand allergy medicines, chlorpheniramine is included in a number of Advil cold formulations that are ostensibly for “Day” usage. ಠ_ಠ

4. Cough – Stimulate or suppress

A cough can be one of the most frustrating parts of a cold, and is liable to spread the virus to those around you. Luckily, the story on cough medicine is simpler than the other components of cold meds – there is basically one popular ingredient that helps you cough, and one that helps you not cough.

  • Guaifenesin. Sold popularly as Mucinex. Guaifenesin is an expectorant, meaning it helps thin your mucous so you can cough it up. If you have a productive but stubborn cough, you probably want this to help clear your lungs. Generally it’s only included in the daytime formulations of cold meds, since coughing more at night isn’t exactly desirable.
  • Dextromethorphan. This is the key ingredient in Robitussin, and any medicine branded as Somethingorother “DM”. The idea with Dextromethorphan is that it’s an anti-tussive, meaning it reduces the urge to cough. It’s not entirely clear how effective it is, but in theory it’s particularly helpful if you have a dry, nagging cough. Interestingly, in large doses it can be psychoactive. As a result, in some jurisdictions it’s a somewhat controlled substance. Some daytime cough formulations include both Guaifenesin and Dextromethorphan, with the idea that you’ll cough less, but if you do cough it’ll be easier. 🤷‍♀️

Choose Your Fighter

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it – especially if you have any conditions that may interact with medications. Use this as a starting point for research, and consult a doctor before choosing pharmaceuticals based on a glib rundown from a tech blog.

The key takeaway is that while cold medicines’ brands may provide a helpful placebo boost, the underlying medicines are very much worth knowing and understanding.

There are only a few moving parts here, so consider your symptoms and make an informed choice about which meds you want during the day and at night. With a little research, you too can have cold medicine that may actually help – and avoid becoming a snot zombie.

Although this article is hardly meant to be formal medical advice, if you spot any errors or key omissions, please let me know.

The Coming Supremacy of AR

November 29, 2019

An annoying thing about the future is that, at first, it sucks.

The original iPhone was, to many people, obviously great. Although even the most optimistic iPhone users of 2008 mostly underestimated the impact smartphones would eventually have on work, play, and society, the iPhone was still clearly a product that mattered. A product from the future.

But that was in 2008. If you were to go back in time a bit further, say to 2002, you might encounter the Handspring Treo. The Treo was not obviously great. To optimists, early smartphones were exciting and promising. But optimists get excited by dumb shit all the time. To most people, reasonable people, early smartphones seemed like a sci-fi novelty. And who can blame them? Statistically, it was a sci-fi novelty.

It is brutally difficult to distinguish the next big thing from the last big fad. For every smartphone, we have 100 netbooks. For every electric car, we have 100 jetpacks. Product ideas often seem like they could change everything, but once they become possible, they often turn out to just not be very compelling. So we learn to be skeptical.

At this point, it’s well known that Apple has big plans to develop an augmented reality headset. What’s got people talking recently is not that Apple is working on it, but that they’re reportedly so committed to the project that they’ve disclosed 1000 people on it. According to The Information, Apple leadership believes AR glasses could replace smartphones within 10 years.

Replace the smartphone? Who would want to replace their iPhone with a screen strapped to their face? John Gruber summed up the common sentiment crisply:

Why would people who don’t need glasses want to wear thick glasses all day? And they think it will replace phones in a decade? Do we really want our phone display in front of our eyes all day? I just don’t get it.

No matter how well they pitch it, the Apple AR headset is going to get this kind of reaction from most people. Just like current VR headsets, it is going to be kind of like a phone display in front of your eyes all day, with a bunch of compromises most people don’t really want to make, and it will kind of suck.

Based on Bloomberg’s claim that the initial headset will “focus on gaming, watching video and virtual meetings”, and talk of a dimming function to provide enough contrast for the display, it seems like the initial AR capabilities aren’t even going to be dramatically different than current-gen VR headsets: a 360 degree display on your face, integrated onto your view of the real world in a way that may only be marginally useful.

But Apple’s projection, it seems, is that their integration between virtual and reality will become useful. Incredibly useful. Apple may be optimistic in thinking that the timeline will be only 10 years long, but it seems clear to me that if physics really do make a good AR headset possible – glasses that can usefully and practically render information interleaved with our natural vision – it will change everything. A good AR headset would naturally displace the smartphone as the most useful device in our lives.

Truly good AR

Replacing the smartphone will require going way past strapping an iPhone display to your face. It involves moving far beyond showing video and pretending to be in meetings, and requires delivering on the promise that’s right in the name of the product: augmented reality. Enhancing what you see in the real world.

Now, if you’re cynical about technology – which after the last 5 years I would not blame you for being – you may imagine a future augmented by smart eyewear to look something like this.

Advertising, gamification, constant distractions and chaos, interruptions – basically a Black Mirror hellscape. And to be clear, in the event that high fidelity AR becomes possible, some company will attempt to make such a hellscape, filled with crapware and covering your gaze with nonsense for the lowest possible price.

I challenge you, though, to imagine not the worst that a future AR experience could be, but the best. Imagine instead an AR experience not designed by advertisers, but by Apple – or even better, Apple’s successors. A team obsessively focused on people, taking a distinctly human approach to designing how your glasses could augment what you see.

An augmented thought experiment

Consider what would be possible if your AR glasses could subtly, non-invasively, and pleasantly add any extra information to your field of vision in a tasteful way. If instead of showing messages and popups, they could augment your world in a way that made you happier or more effective. What would you ask them to show you?

A lot of peoples’ minds first go to wayfinding. For example, if you were getting around town, you might ask your glasses to:

  • Indicate the ideal route on the road while I drive
  • Highlight all parking spots that are currently available
  • Show the Lyft that’s coming to pick me up, through buildings
  • Ask, “Dude, where’s my car?”

That’s a start, but not a very creative leap from what smartphones do today. AR’s ability to enhance, coupled with the ability to work hands-free, could be really useful for getting things done. You might ask them to:

  • Highlight all the wooden studs in this wall
  • Show me how to disassemble this bike
  • Open my computer display here, at 34” wide
  • Highlight the location of this kind of screw, the one I’m looking at right now, when I get to Home Depot

Task-related instructions could certainly be helpful, but things get really interesting when you consider standing orders. Rather than just being a platform for notification popups, AR has the potential to provide calm, context-relevant reminders:

  • Whenever I’m at the grocery store, highlight any items that are on my grocery list
  • Whenever I open the fridge and something is expired, highlight it
  • If I haven’t picked up the mail in the last week, make the mailbox glow
  • Rather than popping up an interruption to take out the recycling at 8pm on Thursdays, just highlight the bin until I take it out

With gentle nudges, AR could help make you a more competent human being. Drawing your attention to things that need to be done is a start, but it could also draw your attention to things you want to improve, or things that are potentially unsafe:

  • Indicate whenever I pick up a packaged food item with more than 15% of my daily salt intake per serving
  • When I’m at a crosswalk, highlight any cars where the driver doesn’t seem to be paying attention
  • Show a little orange reminder light whenever I say “you guys”
  • If there’s a bear on this trail, in any direction, flag it with a giant red arrow and a flashing label that says “HOLY CRAP A BEAR”

Going beyond adding information, AR glasses could also transform information into a more useful or pleasant form:

  • Translate all Japanese into English
  • Mute all Avengers spoilers
  • Block any ads that animate, anywhere
  • Replace that awful painting Grandma loves with a photo of a cute sloth

Finally, just like our smartphones, AR glasses will get additional abilities over time that could slowly make us superhuman in ways that will feel perfectly natural:

  • Turn on heat vision, so I can find where the cold is leaking into my living room
  • Turn on night sight, so I can find my way down this path without turning on my flashlight
  • Put a rear view down in the corner of my vision, so I can live up to my reputation as a parent for having eyes in the back in my head
  • Zoom in on the sweet bald eagle up in that tree, so I can behold its majesty

It’s easy to think of AR as just adding a display in front of your face. That’s probably how it will start, and that may have some value in its own right. But if AR is going to replace the smartphone, displaying information in any way similar to a smartphone or smart watch of today would only be an evolutionary link in the chain. A stepping stone.

Where AR has the potential to change everything is the ability not to be “in your face”, but to blend into the world around you. The capability to seamlessly augment your vision is so powerful that if Apple – or anybody else – ever pulls it off, it will upend how we interact with technology as much or more as the smartphone ever did.

Many of the use cases I’ve outlined above may not be feasible for decades, but if seamless AR becomes practical, it will create entirely new uses, behaviours, and capabilities that my dumbass pre-AR mind can’t conceive of yet.

It’s almost enough to get a cynical technologist excited.

To be clear, I don’t know if AR really will replace the smartphone in 10 years. The future will get here on its own time. But it is, I’m pretty sure, just that: a matter of time.

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© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.