Do you like boxes in boxes?

Happy New Year, Normcore Readers!
Here’s to a happier, and most important, healthier 2021. 

“That’s it”, my husband said, as I unpacked a box of kipple from Amazon, to reveal yet another set of clear plastic containers. “You’re on alert. All future container purchases have to go through me.”

I looked guiltily at the pile of  containers already on our kitchen table. It was true, what he said, that I had too many containers. But I couldn’t stop. I was obsessed with acrylic boxes.  What happened to lead us to this tipping point was that over the New Year break, I finally got some time to myself and used it to sneak into Barnes and Noble for half an hour. 

I didn’t mind that, like every store visit these days, the atmosphere was somewhere between boring dystopia and sanitation ward, with everyone in masks, signs to stay six feet apart in corporate fonts, and announcements emanating from unseen speakers reminding everyone to keep their distance because of local safety regulations. 

I also didn’t mind that Barnes and Noble, once a powerhouse for reading, literature, and culture, is now looming on the precipice of an irrelevant twilight. It has been bought by a private equity firm which, like most things private equity touches, will be strip-mined and sold for parts.

The Home, Edited

It was still the holidays and I was alone in a bookstore, and I was cherishing the moment.  In perusing the shelves, a coffee table book called The Home Edit caught my eye.

The Home Edit is a “system” run by two very upbeat women from Nashville, 

Both had recently moved to Music City because of their husbands' jobs and were unemployed coming off a handful of career upsets. Teplin, 41, had launched and then shuttered several one-woman businesses, including a wedding invitation service and a greeting card company. Shearer, 38, had been turned down for her dream job at a home organization company. 

Then a friend who knew they both had a gift for creative categorizing introduced them. “I reached out to Joanna and was like, ‘This is fate. This is perfect.’ And Joanna was like, ‘No.’” Shearer recalls with a laugh. Teplin begrudgingly agreed to a lunch and everything changed.

They knew their playful style (think rainbow-order bookcases and hand-drawn labels in Shearer’s loopy script) was perfect for Instagram and made a plan to get a handful of high-profile clients to let them organize their space and then share their work on Instagram.

Luckily, Teplin had an in: “Christina [Applegate]’s daughter and my daughter had gone to preschool together and we became good friends.” Through Christina, they met Selma Blair and their network of actors and influencers started to grow.

The vibe of Home Edit seems to be, “If you are scared by the Kondo method and optimistically believe that you can organize your socks by color,” this is the system for you. I’d already been ambiently exposed to the popularity of the Home Edit system through a show on Netflix and their imminently instagrammable content, but the book pushed me over the edge. 

I was immediately drawn in by the idea that, if you have clear containers that are the exact size of the thing you’re storing, and you can cull at least some of your kipple, you can make your home look as good as Reese Witherspoon’s.

In theory. 

In practice, my own attempted home edit started to grow in complexity.  Because, first I needed to do an inventory of all my items. We threw out, donated, or gave away about 30 bags of kipple over the past month.

Then, I needed to buy the exact containers I needed for all my items, doing measurements of cupboards and refrigerator shelves. Then, I needed to manage the arrival of the containers in larger, cardboard Amazon containers that are impossible to get rid of, leaving me with piles of cardboard boxes on my back porch. 

Finally, I now need to constantly monitor the containers to make sure all the items stay nice and orderly in them. Sometimes, it’s my fault for not keeping up with them. Other times, my son tries to eat my daughter’s organized chalk and throws it in the toilet. 

There are a lot of containers to keep up with, constantly organize, and buy. 

In the process of buying, organizing, and throwing out stuff, I realized something about this Home Edit process that chilled me to the bone.

I had tried to Dockerize my house. 

Boxes in Boxes

If you are not familiar with Docker, I am tremendously happy for you. The best way to explain it is that Docker is a technology you’re running a computer inside your computer that’s not like your actual computer. A matryoshka computer, if you will. 

Let’s say you write some code on a Mac laptop. But you need to run that code on hundreds of thousands of servers inside your cloud. Most of these servers likely run Linux. 

How do you make sure the code works across operating systems? 

You create, essentially, a box, a container, that acts like a Linux operating system, and write your code in there. Then, you run your code in that box. While it’s using your computer’s power, and systems, it’s actually running on Linux, so to speak. You can then neatly ship that code, in a box, to any other computer that runs Docker and run it there. (Please do not reply to this newsletter telling me that Docker is more like a process than a full VM, and please absolutely do not mention hypervisors, c-groups and union mount. We’re trying to be simple here. Acrylic container-level simple.)

Docker very neatly removes a lot of problems that developers used to have, which was namely solving the common “it works on my machine problem” of having to integrate their code across multiple machines and environments, managing the ever-growing complexity of the modern software stack.

Docker is a fantasy world, because as soon as you have Docker, you have a different set of problems. Now you have to host the containers somewhere, manage the containers, be able to run them at scale, and *shudders* figure out port egress from them. Now, granted, it’s a beautiful fantatsy world, and I prefer to use it every time I’m developing an application. It definitely solves a lot of problems, but it also creates a lot of them that we now have to figure out how to manage. 

Society in Boxes

We are all, it seems lately, trying to figure out how to containerize our lives. We are all looking for contained simplicty. Whether it’s getting rid of the constantly arriving kipple,  the New Year’s resolutions to try to spend less time staring at screens (ha!), reorganizing our lives as a result of COVID (new jobs, cross-country moves, Peletons), or delegating some of our decision-making that has become more complicated.

One area this has been clearly evident over the past week, especially is the recent conversation around bans on social media platforms.  The issues related to Trump’s social media ban seem, at first glance, very simple and clear-cut.

But, I am worried that we are in a bit of a quandary when it comes to the function of social networks. Is it ok to ban people? If so, how should people be banned? What is acceptable and where are the limits?  What should the processes be? How should content be examined?

I think we are just thinking about these things now because our networks are being stress-tested in a way they never were before, and of course, more importantly, because it affects the companies’ current and future percieved revenues.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for years, but I still don’t know what the answers are. This stuff is really, really hard. It took us probably 30-40 years to figure out how the telephone worked and what it should be used for.  Facebook is sixteen years old, and good lord what a terrible teenager it is. 

What I do know, is what I wrote briefly on Twitter a few days back: 

I’m being somewhat intentionally vague about the actual problems I see here because I think they are much, much larger than just the issues of the past several weeks, much larger than the political issues that have come up, and that solving them will not be small, quick fixes, but a liftetime’s worth of work (if none of these companies get broken up as monopolies under the next few administrations, of course.)

What’s happening this minute, though, is that these companies, in order to stay attractive to advertisers and stay in business, are trying to containerize, compartmentalize, and create clean, neat, labelled containers to hold our thoughts. They’re trying to make our public discourse instagrammable.

Unfortunately, we’re years beyond that point.

It turns out that it’s MUCH harder than we thought, because humans themselves are complicated, messy, and often hold contradictory opinions, particularly on how moderation should work.

I’m sorry to start off the new year with a low note. It’s gonna be a mess for a long while to come. 

In the meantime, you’ll find me on, searching for acrylic boxes. Acrylic boxes are easy. Acrylic boxes are good. Just don’t forward this to my husband.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Connecting Papua New Guinea to the internet

  2. What’s a message queue?

  3. 45 years in the software industry

  4. People don’t believe Hellen Keller existed anymore

  5. The early days of the web

  6. Predictive modeling: a retrospective

  7. What glue languages do you like?

The Newsletter:

This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out onceish a week. If you like it, forward it to friends!

Swag: Stickers. Mug. Notepad.

The Author:

I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a kindergartner and a toddler, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.