Relative Sanity

a journal

Care instructions are printed on the label

I wonder if they have nicknames for us.

I mean, I certainly do. There's "big loud guy with the ponytail", there's "quiet girl who writes her morning pages", there's "old guy who likes bacon".

I wonder who I am. "Guy with the beard who's always working" sounds about right, maybe occasionally "that scruffy guy with the nice family”.

The world of The Regular is a weird one. You enter that odd limbo world where you know all the people in the place by sight, but never actually know their names. Or maybe that's just me. Maybe all the other regulars are on close terms with the people behind the bar, with the other regulars. Maybe there's a special monthly "regular meet up" that nobody's invited me to because I never talk to any of the other regulars.

Maybe that's the case.

But maybe there's some selection going on here. Maybe the regulars I notice are just a subset of the actual group of regulars, but for some reason they stand out to me. Maybe I sense something similar about them. Maybe I notice them because they're easily spotted: sitting alone, always absorbed in the same activity. It's easy to label them in the same way it's easy to label the people working hard behind the counter: because they're predictable, they do the same things every time I see them.

Maybe it's not the people I'm labelling. Maybe it's the patterns.

Maybe that's really how we label everything. Or again, maybe that's just me.


I find patterns interesting, and I've written about them before. I'm not sure if this is a universal truth (I haven't done my research—you caught me), but a lot of my behaviour is either the following of existing patterns or the search for new ones. Any time I'm presented with something new, I'm immediately looking for the essence of it: what is it really? What makes it tick?

Essentially, this is "what patterns can I spot?". Given two occurrences, what's common, what's different? What is it?

My labels very much depend on identifying the class of a thing, on identifying its type, on figuring out what makes it different from all the other things. People, processes, toys, tools: all the same.

“Hello. Nice to meet you. Now, let me try to classify you.”

And that's not just about putting things in existing boxes. Where I get excited is when one of two things happen: I discover a completely new box, or I realise that a box I already had isn't actually a box at all, but a number of different boxes, and I'd just never noticed the differences.

That's when I get excited. That's when it feels new.


I remember when I first started to get the Internet. I was at university, and a couple of friends were talking about building websites for another couple of friends, and maybe even making some money. At that time, I was known in my group as someone who could make things look vaguely presentable on screen, so they asked me if I'd like to help them design some of the pages.

I said sure. I'd been creating computer graphics since I got a Sinclair Spectrum when I was about 8. There were no "graphics packages" that I could get hold of back then, so I coded. I wrote BASIC that would define 8x8 pixel sprites, and then more BASIC to print each sprite out to the screen in the correct order to fill it with a picture. I animated some pictures, I built rudimentary games, but always the coding was driven by the desire to create something visual.

The web was a great extension of that. Instead of coding up 8x8 sprites, I was coding up 3x3 tables with spacer gifs and borders and all that craziness. It was wild, and it was somewhat exciting.

It was something I knew, but it was new.

But it still wasn't quite "different".


I found different one evening. I was surfing around, looking for some sort of inspiration, when I landed on linkdup.

Good science, it's still up.

It's abandonware now, but back in the day it was all about showcasing innovative design work. And the interesting thing about it was that “innovative” wasn't always just flashy (though back then it certainly was Flash-y). There were sites where navigation was handled by typing, or by solving puzzles, and in a lot of cases the interaction was the absolute key. The technology was interesting, sure, but it was put into service to enhance user experience.

We didn't even have a phrase for it back then.

Different isn't always great

Of course, the vast majority of this was shite, but some of it was good, and the good stuff happened because people put their tools to use in order to achieve something they had come up with.

See, the crap "innovative" sites happened because people started focussing on the tools, and started exploring the limits of what the tools could do. And they started competing with people using other tools, not in terms of product, but in terms of process.

Which is necessary for innovation, but it's rarely sufficient. It’s even more rarely production-ready.

No, what's interesting is when you start to explore the limits of what you can do given the new tools. It's about focussing on what the result is, not on what the tools can do.

New tools can enable new ways of working, but the end result is more about the person than the tools, always.

There's a huge difference between understanding the new limits extended by hooking a guitar up to an amplifier, and being Jimi Hendrix.

I really wish we’d spend less time worrying about whether we’re using the best new hammers, and more time building great stuff. More time using our tools, and less time declaring the ones we've discarded "dead".

I think we’d all be happier and more excited about the world if we did.