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Bike sheds and C. Northcote Parkinson

Matt Linderman
Matt Linderman wrote this on 8 comments

Bike shed – a discussion that pointlessly dwells on details and wastes time

Example: Someone posts a variation on a screen and one person offers .02 on the copy, another wants the header color changed, another wants a different image used, etc. Too many chefs on something that doesn’t even matter much.

It’s something we have to watch for in our Campfire chat room where it’s easy to have pile-ons that don’t really accomplish much. Someone has to blow the whistle every once in a while and say, “Is this conversation really helping?” Calling out “Bike shed” is a quick way to do that.

About the term
Poul-Henning Kamp used the term in “A bike shed (any colour will do) on greener grass…” and gives credit to C. Northcote Parkinson, a management guru who compared building an atomic power plant to building a bike shed. Kamp’s summary:

Anyone can build [a bike shed] over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is here.

More Parkinson wisdom
Parkinson is also the namesake of Parkinson’s law: “work expands to fill the time available.” He observed that the total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rose by 5-7% per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”

Some more interesting quotes from C. Northcote Parkinson:

Delay is the deadliest form of denial.

Expansion means complexity and complexity decay.

Expenditures rise to meet income.

The Law of Triviality… briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take.

When any organizational entity expands beyond 21 members, the real power will be in some smaller body.

Men enter local politics solely as a result of being unhappily married.

The chief product of an automated society is a widespread and deepening sense of boredom.

Billy Collins action poetry and Alan Watts gets the South Park treatment

Matt Linderman
Matt Linderman wrote this on 2 comments

Billy Collins action poetry: Former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, reads his poetry with accompanying animations. Forgetfulness is a good one to start with.

billy collins

South Parkers animate words of religious expert and philosopher Alan Watts:

Trey Parker, one of the creators of South Park, was raised in Colorado, where his father attempted to teach him Buddhism. Now, years later, Parker and his animation pal Matt Stone have brought to life the teachings of Alan Watts, the comparative religion expert and philosopher. Under the FurryCarlos Productions banner, the two tapped South Park animators Chris Brion and Todd Benson to keyframe three of Watts’ recordings…

prickles and goo

Related: Animation of a Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction speech in type

[Sunspots] The single-take edition

Basecamp wrote this on 8 comments
Fans turned photographers at indie rock shows
Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell on fans who take pictures at the band's shows: “You see it getting progressively worse. It’s almost like the skateboarding community, where everyone’s a fucking photographer now. You look at shots, and it’s hard to keep the photographers out of the shot, you know? It kind of seems like the same thing with indie rock; everyone’s got a fucking camera in their hand and, I don’t know, is there no sanctity left for live performance with going to a show and seeing it with your own eyes and remembering it? Do you have to tape every second, or even just your favorite song?”
The “Xylophone” wine & food tasting method
“Xylophone is a useful analogy for thinking about wine and food pairing…Before sitting down to taste, arrange your wines in a manner inspired by the percussion instrument of graduated wooden bars: from light-bodied to full-bodied, using the wine’s alcohol level (low to high) as an estimate. When taste-testing wines of similar alcohol levels, you might line them up by color (yellow to pink to red), which can suggest a crescendo of flavor intensity. Either way, it’s then easier to make generalizations about the styles of wine you enjoy best with certain foods: often lighter wines with lighter foods, and fuller-bodied and -flavored wines with heavier foods. Prepare a tasting sheet for taking notes. Listing the wines down one side of the page and the foods across the other, create a simple grid. Into each of the boxes, note your impression of each pairing using a five-point scale, from +2 (perfect) to 0 (neutral) to -2 (awful). After a few glasses of wine, you might skip numbers in favor of smiley or sad faces, a technique we learned from restaurateur Danny Meyer: The broader the smile or frown, the more intense the judgment.”
Design lessons from the kitchen
“Chefs organize their cooks and their space with a few key principles in mind: maximizing consistency of product, ensuring creative freedom to experiment, and encouraging effective problem solving under incredibly stressful conditions… For those who manage creative organizations, the professional kitchen can provide inspiration for how to balance these principles effectively.” [via AP]
iPhone fix request list
“The Macworld editors have all weighed in with a list of things they’d like to see the iPhone do or, in some cases, do better…It’s these consensus items that appear below—and that will make a great mobile device even better.”
BusinessWeek: The Best Product Design Of 2007
“This year’s awards run the gamut from ‘split-head’ hammers to ultralight jets to savings plans for shoppers.”

An under-the-hood look at the new Backpack

Sam Stephenson
Sam Stephenson wrote this on 23 comments

Backpack’s Pages tab has been completely rewritten in the new version. We moved nearly all of the application’s UI logic out of hand-written JavaScript files and into Ruby using RJS templates. This resulted in approximately 1600 fewer lines of application JS, and let us deliver pages with substantially less markup, since the edit states are now loaded on-demand instead of included in bulk with each page load.

Keep reading for more details on how we’ve improved Backpack’s internals, and for a look at several JavaScript libraries we’ve developed in the process.


Little CSS print stylesheet tip

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 23 comments

I’ve seen printer stylesheets designed a variety of different ways. But any way you slice it, the most common element in a print stylesheet is usually the display: none; rule. Printer sheets are usually about printing less rather than printing more.

What I do is gang up all the things we don’t want to print in a single block at the top of the sheet. I always know where the “don’t print” stuff is, and removing another thing from the printout is as easy as adding the class or ID selector to the common display: none; rule.

Here’s the “don’t print” block from the Backpack printer stylesheet.

And here’s what it all means:

Screen version

Print version

No header, no sidebar, no utility links, etc. Just the content in the page. Clean and clear.

If the Freakonomics guys and Malcolm Gladwell hosted This American Life...

Matt Linderman
Matt Linderman wrote this on 9 comments

radio labRadio Lab (iTunes podcast link) is what you’d get if you put Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, and This American Life in a blender.

Each episode of the folksy science show is “a patchwork of people, sounds, stories and experiences centered around One Big Idea.” The banter between hosts Jad Abumrad & Robert Krulwich can be slightly grating at times, but, overall, they do a great job of boiling down complex subjects and keeping things interesting. The way they use sound is intriguing too.

A few recent episodes:

Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire,” and it’s as close a definition as we have. But maybe if we slow time down enough, or speed it up enough, we can unlock its secrets. On this week’s Radio Lab, we’re using our hour to try and do just that.

What happens when there is no leader? Starlings, bees, and ants manage just fine. In fact, they form staggeringly complicated societies, all without a Toscanini to conduct them into harmony. How? That’s our question this hour. We gaze down at the bottom-up logic of cities, Google, even our very own brains. Featured: author Steven Johnson, fire-flyologists John and Elizabeth Buck, biologist E.O. Wilson, Ant expert Debra Gordon, mathematician Steve Strogatz, economist James Surowiecki, and neurologists Oliver Sacks and Christof Koch.

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? We peer inside the brains of people contemplating moral dilemmas, watch chimps at a primate research center share blackberries, observe a playgroup of 3 year-olds fighting over toys, and tour the country’s first penitentiary, Eastern State Prison. Also: the story of land grabbing, indentured servitude and slum lording in the fourth grade.

More show descriptions at the Radio Lab archive. If you’re a pop science fan, check it out.

Design Decisions: Permissions in Basecamp

Ryan wrote this on 20 comments

I’m working on a new Permissions screen for Basecamp. All the hard stuff is done. The layout, the reorganizing of actions and flows, the templates, and most of the Rails side of things. With 90% of the work done, the last 10% is where I pull out the magnifier and tweezers to finesse the details, check my assumptions, gild the lillies and ready the “DONE” stamp.

You’re definitely in the 10% when you keep flip-flopping designs. I went back and forth on this one three times before moving on:

On this screen, companies appear with people whose access can be toggled (“candidates”) underneath. My first inclination was to cycle the shading on candidate TRs to make it easy to know who’s permissions you are affecting. But two things bothered me about this design.

The first factor is noise. I found a black border was necessary beneath the company headline in order to overpower the candidate rows and group them. The combination of black border and shading all over is just a bit much for me.

The second factor is conceptual. It’s important for people to understand that you add and remove companies from this screen in order to give or modify access for people in those companies. You can’t just add one person without regard for the company they belong in. I won’t get into the legacy and practical reasons behind this, we’ll just accept it as Fact for now. This noisey design doesn’t emphasize the company groups enough, and puts more weight on candidate tables.

Those factors in mind, here’s the subtle redesign:

Now the emphasis is on the companies. The border is removed and the page feels less noisey without the row shading. The redesign feels smarter, cleaner, and more modular. So after three rounds of flipflop, I’ll give it the champion belt.

Product Blog update

Basecamp wrote this on 2 comments

Some recent posts at the 37signals Product Blog:

PackRat 1.3 supports new Backpack and adds in some more features too
The latest version supports the new Backpack and adds in some new, exclusive features too.


Use Backpack as a source control system for writing
“Backpack has become the equivalent of a source control system for my writing. Before I leave in the morning, I send myself the content of my pages. While I’m on the subway or waiting in a movie line, I edit the text and give it a new title (‘CodeZoo 2.0 rev. 4’) and then send it right back to Backpack. At the end of the day I delete the stale versions.”

Ta-Da List for iPhone: “Brilliant”
“It’s fantastic. The pages have been built to fit so well on the iPhone’s screen that you forget you’re on the web – it feels like a stand alone application on the iPhone. If you’re a GTD freak (and even if you’re not), you ought to check this out.”

Raves pouring in for new Backpack
“We recommend Backpack more than ever for anyone from casual users who need a simple web-based locker for storing bits and pieces of their daily adventures, to power users with a serious case of GTD or project management on their back.”