When there's only one

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Everything here is my opinion. I do not speak for your employer.
October 2006
November 2006

2006-10-12 »

Today, a collection of random and mostly unrelated thoughts. Oh, how I do prattle on.


Today, while I was considering the sad state of the Quebec construction industry, it occurred to me that unionization, and socialism in general (ie. Canada and especially Quebec) is not as straightforward as it seems.

The idealized American system is a rather liberal everyone-for-himself economic free-for-all, in which "the system" is intended to make it so that if everyone acts "selfishly," it'll all work out for the public good. In Canada, we don't trust that theory so much, so the government gets involved more frequently, and in general people take a somewhat more "moralistic" outlook even in business decisions.

Both systems have their good and bad sides, but the resulting style is very different, which I will explain in terms of my experience at Subway (the food chain) in Canada and in Seattle. In Canada, you go to Subway, and they make you a sandwich according to your specifications. In Seattle, the person who made my sandwich was totally insane and made a perfect sandwich according to my specifications faster than I've ever seen anyone make a sandwich in my life. You could barely even see his hands, he was so fast. I'm not making this up.

Now, I don't go to the U.S. very often, so I don't know if this is typical or not. But imagine it is: the idea is that, because everyone is being selfish, they become hypercompetitive: not only do store managers have to outdo the other restaurant chains, but maybe they try to outdo other Subway outlets as well. If you can get your sandwich twice as fast here as at the place two blocks away, maybe you'll choose their store instead of the other one. So they focus on customer service. Figuring it out was all a bit circular, but in the end it's not indirect at all: being selfish equates to being as good to the customer as possible. That's selfish?

In Canada, people are more laid back and they don't worry about competition as much. The result is nobody particularly cares how fast they serve me my sandwich. In fact, if the Sandwich Ace from Seattle showed up and tried to work here, people would probably look at him funny: he makes the other employees look bad. The unselfish thing for him to do would be to slow down and not rock the boat, resulting in worse customer service overall. That's unselfish?

Which system is more selfish then, really? Is it the one we thought it was?

BarCamp, Advogato, and Self-selection

I went to BarCampWaterloo a couple of weeks ago and it was quite entertaining: a small, interesting group of people, just like I like.

The problem is, that doesn't make any sense.

In general, communities that are good and interesting and widely applicable tend to start off well, and then explode into hypergrowth until they're no longer manageable and most of the people there are just annoying and all the fun is gone. Take the Linux kernel developers (it was possible to follow their mailing list, once, even if it wasn't your full time job), or Debian, or actually even This Whole Internet Thing. Impromptu communities (I wanted to say "online communities", but BarCamp isn't, exactly) tend to be in one of two states: growing or dying, and growing typically leads eventually to hypergrowth. The best you generally hope for is either slow explosion or slow death, so that it can be fun while it lasts.

The typical way to slow your community's growth sufficiently is to limit your topic area, so fewer people are interested. Forget the linux-kernel or debian-devel mailing lists; try linux-fsdevel or debian-apache instead.

What's weird about this is that I have two as-yet-unexplained counterexamples: Advogato, which claims to be a web site connecting "free software developers" (how restrictive is that?) and BarCamp, which generally claims to be "about Web 2.0" (nobody even knows what that is!) but in which anybody can show up and present about anything even remotely relevant.

Why, then, did I find that the majority of stuff produced by both communities was interesting to me? Certainly I'm weird, because the majority of people wouldn't have found them interesting at all. But that's the point. The communities created are self selecting and quite restrictive, but it's not selected by topic area. It's something else. Perhaps BarCamp simply selects for people who don't think deliberately failing to plan your conference in advance is a stupid idea. And that's a pretty small group of people - and they're pretty compatible with each other.

(This concept of people connecting better based more on style than content relates to my earlier comments on literacy.)


    If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.
    -- Isaac Asimov

This is a pre-announcement of my intention to join this year in National Novel Writing Month, in which each foolish participant attempts to write a crappy 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Normally I wouldn't bore you with my plans for such things, but apparently one of the keys to success is setting yourself up to get teased a lot if you slack off (ie. mutual motivation). In my case, this is actually by far the most likely situation since I don't actually have any free time to write a novel in.

But I mean... impossible deadlines and absolutely no quality standards? Hello, count me in! Anybody wanna race?

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