Tuesday, April 28 2020

automation, poop stress, and too much mustard

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Dear Journal,

Good morning, everyone! Welcome to Tuesday morning. Today, I hope you've found some resolve, even this deep into the long and lonely quarantine. And if it's getting you down today, maybe you should take a walk - even if it's raining. After all there are much worse things than rain and getting wet.

I'm feeling good today. I'm not trying to show off or anything, but I found time to shower this morning. And while I took in the first cup of coffee of the day, I put away dishes and brought the laundry up, all while demonstrating the most elite levels of self-control in not opening the lid on the ball of bread dough that has been resting in the cold oven overnight. I think the bread turns out much better when you don't peek on the dough, although that may just be superstition.

Work has been good this week. My team has been tasked with migrating environment variable sets from our old deployment tool to the new one. Each set is probably seven manual steps, including running a script, committing the generated file, making a pull request, punching the path name into a web UI, and finally, doing a dry run on a deploy to make sure nothing changed. And did I mention there are probably over a hundred of these to do?

You may be wondering, couldn't you just write a program to do all this? Not a bad thought, but regrettably, writing a script isn't always the answer, and it hearkens back to a struggle that has probably plagued computer professionals since a time before computers existed. The struggle is in time to automate vs time saved automating.

We could absolutely write a script complicated enough to traverse our deployment tool, push the results to github, circle back and publish the path back to our deployment tool. Everything is possible, if given enough time. The script would probably take about three or four days to compose, test, and send around for review - not to mention an extra day to clean up the mess it would make when it inevitably fails the first time. But after a grueling 4-5 day cycle of research and development, our script would be finished, and we'd exchange fist pumps and air high fives over webcam.

But meanwhile, if someone was just working at this the tedious way, following all seven steps to completion for each of the hundred or so environment variables, they probably would have finished in two days. They wouldn't have a fancy script to show for, but then again, what's the point of a script that does something you'll never do again?

This all may sound pedantic, but it's a huge part of working in computers. Every time you sit down to write a new program, it's a struggle hampered by dozens of maddening little problems, and there's a sense of profound urgency to redeem the time you spent automating something over the time it would have taken to do it the old fashion way.

Sip. We made quesadillas for lunch yesterday. Quesadillas have become an unofficial Recker family quarantine staple. A flaky, buttery crust. Gooey cheese suspended in a warm pocket of happiness. And it's a fine excuse to slather your quick homemade lunch with your favorite hot sauce.

"I'm struggling today," said Marissa, sitting down in front of her quesadilla still draped in a cloud steam. "I feel so pregnant. Everything hurts."

"You know in this moment, you might be the most pregnant you've ever been," I remarked.

"I liked what you said in your blog that I was hella pregnant," replied Marissa. "Today I feel hella pregnant."

Rodney was seated at the table with us in front of his own food. But for Rodney, lunch is more of a social event that happens to take place around food. His eyes darted between us as he talked. Rodney fidgeted in his seat, kicked his legs, and shoved sliced wedges of his quesadilla around his plate like a buttery, gooey caravan.

"So he hasn't pooped in a while," said Marissa in a more confidential tone. "What do you want to do about nap time today?"

"I can stay on him," I said. "I just have a bunch of busy work, it doesn't actually take that much thought."

I set up Rodney in his room, this time leaving the door open. "OK dude, we're going to try to poop during this nap. Let me know if you feel it, and we'll go try together." Rodney listened, nervously nodding along.

"I'm even going to leave the door open, OK dude?" I gave him a wave from my chair. Rodney disappeared into his room, and I set a timer on my phone for ten minutes - my best guess for how long it would take for a four year old boy to mount an unsuspecting bowl movement, and also just enough time to get started on another environment variable set.

After ten minutes, we sat on the potty. Rodney flipped through the pages of a comic book while I worked on my laptop. After a few minutes of trying, I sent him back to his room. "See you in ten minutes, dude."

The cadence continued through the afternoon. Rodney started to get anxious. He became too preoccupied to enjoy the toys in his room. Instead, he waited in the hallway, aimlessly twirling, holding the waist of his pants.

I decided to pad the next time interval with extra minutes to give him more space to relax. I used the extra time to move a loaf of bread to the pan. As I was downstairs, I heard a cry through the baby monitor.

"I think he had an accident," said Marissa rolling off the couch from her nap. We found Rodney upstairs, quietly crying in the middle of his room.

"Can you get this one? I'm just too exhausted from quiet time," I said gruffly.

After Rodney was cleaned up, Marissa found me in the kitchen getting ready for dinner. "Are you upset?" she asked.

"Yeah, not with you though. I'm frustrated at myself," I said, plopping down a yellow onion onto the cutting board. I paused to search for words.

"I was trying to figure out how often to check on him during his nap. I wanted to check on him often enough to catch a poop, but not so often that he became restless. I don't think I got it right. I'm frustrated with my own miscalculation," I explained.

Marissa nodded.

"And it's just a little demoralizing - after all that effort of working him with, to end it with an accident. And I felt so bad for him," I continued.

"I know it's hard," said Marissa. "But I think it's progress. Remember that last week, we were arguing with him over where poop went - he was perfectly happy having accidents. This is the first time he's ever been upset over an accident."

"You're right," I said. "I just feel so bad for him. Everybody deserves to have a happy poop - it's such a fundamental part of life. And I don't want to mess this up."

Marissa hung out with Rodney while I finished dinner. I seared some polish sausages and sauteed a mount of onions to make some sandwiches. I cut open the fresh loaf of bread and prepared to assemble the sandwiches.

First came the mustard. A good maxwell street style polish sausage has to have a nice coating of bright yellow mustard. I squeezed the bottle onto the bread and began smearing.

At this point, things went off the rails. I don't know if the homemade bread deceptively hid some of the condiment, or if our near-empty bottle subconsciously coaxed me into adding an excess, but our sandwiches were already turning into a full blown mustard party. I added sausages and onions, hoping it would round everything out.

Seated at the table, I took the first bite. Yes, this is way too much mustard, I thought. Globs of mustard. Pools of mustard. Even mustard bubbles. But I saved face, waiting for Marissa's reaction.

Marissa took a bite, and her face made an imperceptible wince. As she chewed, I leaned in close.

"Is there enough mustard for you?" I asked. Marissa broke into laughter.

"I'm so glad you said something!" she chortled.

"It's way too much - I don't know what happened, I'm sorry," I laughed.

Marissa peeled her sandwich apart, using a knife to scrape the mustard off. It pooled off to the side of her plate. She began to cough from laughter.

"Oh that's just the mustard coughs," I chimed in. "Just power through it, that's part of the territory when you eat this must mustard at once."

Marissa laughed harder. Tears falling from her face. "You literally have mustard on your glasses!" she roared, pointing to a bright yellow dollop stuck to my frames.

It felt good to laugh. Thanks for stopping by this morning, I hope you have a wonderful day today.