Do Something

I see a lot of things in the world that could be better than they are. I’m not talking about the part where we will all get sick and weak and die eventually. That’s unavoidable. I’m talking about the crappy systems that we build for ourselves and then live with rather than changing them. A stew of stupidity and wasted time surrounds most people for most of their lives.

It sucks. Do something about it. Fix some small part of your environment today. It is within your power to make the world better. Please do so.

The example that brought it to mind today was this guy talking about one of my favorite bugaboos: Server side blocks based on an assumption of “browser incompatibility.” The whole point of the web is that publishers expose their documents in a standard format. It is the reader‘s job to find a browser able to display documents that comply with that standard. It is not the web publisher’s job to verify that the reader is using the right tool. The correct behavior is “I don’t recognize your browser, but it’s saying that it speaks the standards that I used. Here’s the document and the version of the standard I need, hope that works out for you.”

It is absolutely not “I don’t recognize your browser, so I’m not going to show you anything.” You may go as far as “I’ve tested how this looks on browsers X and Y, and Z. I happen to know that this page looks like poo on browser Z. Or at least it did for me. Anyway, here is the document, you have been warned. Don’t make me grovel around installing outdated versions of browsers or lying to you to get the document.

This particular one is great because this particular website is frequented by physicians and researchers. It is used to submit recommendations for medical school. It matters to the people involved. A national community of smart, effective, savvy people with access to resources use this website every day. It sucks in a very fundamental, easy to address sort of way. It still lists “Netscape,” for god’s sake. None of the people involved have taken it on themselves to fix the problem.

Would somebody please just throw a grad student at this for a month? Promise them a really nice recommendation for med school.

As individuals, as a culture, and as a metasociety we suffer from Learned Helplessness. We get used to where we are, and we endure. Things are allowed to remain broken because, well, they’ve been broken for a while and hey – not really my job.

I’ve come to understand that this is a mental brokenness that I have: My disfunction (okay, one of my disfunctions) is that I see it as my job to fix what I can. I missed the day in school where I was supposed to learn that I’m helpless, that I’m not smart enough, and that I can’t do anything.

I travel a lot for work – and I meet a lot of people in a lot of different organizations. Most people are unhappy, at some level, with the way their business, lab, or agency works. Trust me, you are not alone in having a boss who doesn’t know how to separate personal issues from business stuff – in having a byzantine purchasing process – or in jury rigging elaborate technical contraptions to get around simple social disfunction. It’s thrilling to see stuff done right, because it’s so rare. One of my professional frustrations is that because I flit from place to place I rarely have time to effect real change. I can spot weld patches in place to get a team through the next year or two – but I can rarely apply the steady pressure that is required to make a real difference over the long haul.

I implore you – please do what you can, where you are, to fix the little stuff that bugs you. Pick something within your power, and do it today. If it doesn’t change, push tomorrow as well. We are the majority. We have the power. Nobody really wants to suffer – but we all need to work together to do better today than we did yesterday.

Geeks: Please start with the browser incompatibility messages. Those really bug the hell out of me.

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