Fullstack is a Fallacy

Rockstar. Ninja. Guru. All these bombastic adjectives have been used when employers and especially IT recruiters have been searching for talented new blood to join their teams. They’re also essentially meaningless. A term tacked on to job titles to make them look relevant and ‘with it’. They’re not. You can now add “Fullstack” to that list. Like “Rockstar” employers are trying to get something for nothing.

Fullstack as a principle is meant to describe that the developer who should be applying to the position has a solid grasp of all the technologies from the server, through the middleware, to the front-end and can write applications securely and safely across all of them.

Which stack are we talking about? Node, Mongo, Redis, Elasticsearch? Angular, Python, NoDB? PHP with PostgreSQL? Your stack might be incredibly different to mine. LAMP, WAMP, MAMP was a standard for a long time and of course things must change as all things do but without industry definition “Fullstack” is just another square to mark off on your BS bingo card.

This is why I think it’s a damaging precedent to set. I don’t want the guy who grinds my keys to be the guy that fixes my car, or my window cleaner to examine a sick pet. The same is true with technology. If you want a fast well-maintained server you get a sys-admin or sys-ops person to do it, you don’t get your database engineer to build you a responsive front-end and so on.

In an industry where personnel are already expected to keep up-to-date with the current latest tech as well do their job and sometimes even learn old tech to fix problems from the past it’s demoralising to see listings for Fullstack only positions and be made to feel that one might be under qualified among their peers. In many cases, I would say the majority, it’s just not true, it’s the greed and ignorance of recruiters trying to seem hip.

So no, I’m not “Fullstack”, I’m a specialist. And so are you.

Demonology & Data Reduction

Imagine that your job is to describe all the ways things go wrong with the human psyche. And that you’re alive during the 16th century, or even the 11th. You have to describe how people are dangerous to themselves and others for the good of a society that is wracked by injury, disease, and rampant structural unfairness. Your system must be comprehensive, easy to understand and remember, and effective despite the fact that you have essentially no experimental data, very little in the way of diagnostic survey work, and basically you’re running off of shaky collective memory and folklore that is, itself, frequently destroyed or distorted by large scale civil trauma.

There is a system of mental disorder and civil unrest in the world, you have a minimal amount of information about it, and your goal is to represent it in a way that is useful to an ignorant populace.

Welcome to the world of demonology, and Data Reduction 101.


The Lanterne of Light is a 15th Century text that establishes, for the first time, the systematic hierarchy of Christian demons organised by sin. It existed as part of a social movement to interpret the Bible into the language of the uneducated (i.e., English), and has been so effective that to this day most of the secular west understand Lucifer as emblematic of Pride. By telling stories about the fall from heaven through this lens we have gained a surprisingly sophisticated view on how an emotional state functions and how it can destroy a life. Almost every westerner knows that there are seven deadly sins in total, even if they don’t comprehend that the movie “Seven” is essentially an interpretation of this anonymously sourced, early 1400s, English Lollard tract. What the Lanterne does is to systematise social threat, and to then represent that system in a way that is so compelling, it remains remembered while 2010 was it’s 600th anniversary.

This is, at its core, the exact same process that drives modern psychology. An understanding of the need and mechanism behind the Lanterne directly helps us to understand modern statistical practice. The only thing that has changed is a matter of degree: The amount and reliability of data available, the minimal level of complexity which retains utility, and the size of the community which can utilise the output. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), now in its fifth edition, is THE main tool for the categorisation of psychiatry. And it is, essentially, the Lanterne of Light (1410), Binsfield’s (1589), Michaelis’ (1613), and Barrett’s (1801) classifications of demons, and “Hierarchical Cluster Analysis: Comparison of Three Linkage Measures and Application to Psychological Data” (2015). These texts are all illustrative of the problems that plague (the demon “Merihem”) data reduction, and can be utilised to illustrate the misconceptions (“Pythius”) and temptations (“Mammon”) of trying to describe complex systems in simple terms:

  • Systematic scope (where does the body end? Pestilence and the hereditary condition)
  • Data resolution, sampling error and measurement bias (what is left unseen)
  • Reliance on surface condition (active psychosis and possession)
  • Validity and mutability of categories (seven sins, three lies)
  • An assumption of normality (psychological utility vs. anomaly)
  • Under-dispersion, overrepresentation, and other distributional limitations (how wide is hell? How dull are its legions?)
  • Interstitial domain and interpolation (everywhere there are faces, pareidolia)
  • Data reduction for communication (lies, damned lies, and statistics)
  • Cultural bias (the redefinition of gender and sexuality)
  • Motive (witch hunts of the 15th and 19th centuries)

Statistics, particularly when deployed systematically, are often misunderstood, but the manner in which they both succeed and fail are easily described in a huge number of contexts. Demonology is just one of the most fun.

The satnav is my shepherd

So this happened recently.

For the TL;DR crowd: an elderly couple got into a car in Rio, thought they were going to the beach, put in the address and the satnav they were using led them to a neighbourhood that had a street by the same name as the one they were looking for. Except this neighbourhood was controlled by a violent drug gang, that shot the woman and rifle butted the man. The woman later died.

Some discussion has emerged about the satnav company being “responsible” for leading these people to the wrong place. If so, what does that mean? If companies are now responsible for the information they give people and the way that information is used, what’s the logical end? Will there come a time of digital ghettoisation, when Google Maps and satnavs send an alert when you stray over a certain digital border, saying “you’re in a bad neighbourhood!” Will there be entire areas that are considered by the corporate entities that run the internet to be “the wrong side of the tracks”? Will real time data sets of crime statistics push and nudge these borders around dynamically throughout every day? Will the borders of the “bad areas” shift at night? What the fuck is a “bad area” anyway?

This seems ridiculous and misguided, but the history of shitty decisions by internet companies makes me regularly hold the bridge of my nose and close my eyes for a moment.

Perhaps a better question to ask is not one of responsibility, but one of geography.

Satnav means that you know where you’re going. You don’t have to ask anyone for directions. You just send your wish out into the ether by typing it in a little box, and *ping*, down comes a magical treasure map that leads you were you need to go. The satnav does its job. If you’re not specific enough, or you don’t know you’ve made a mistake, or there’s some kind of clash because two places have the same name, or or or, then you’re on your own and in the hands of human error (which is the reason satnav was invented in the first place).

However, if forced to stop at a petrol station and find someone to ask, they’ll give you nuanced, localised information such as “There’s a place with the same name that’s a bad fucking neighbourhood, avoid that place.” This is because, of course, Google Maps and satnav do not contain all knowledge.

We assume they do. We put our faith in these devices and services, whisper an incantation and hope our prayer is heard and wish granted in the way we need and expect. The answer is always delivered with a kind of “trust me, I’m a TomTom” certainty that we just accept it at face value. It’s your own personal oracle on the dashboard temple. You will be guided by a loving force with your best interests in mind.

But sometimes, as we have seen, the oracle leads you to your death. At those time the grime of human frailty comes peeking through the chromed techno surface, and this faith – and it is faith! – that runs Uber and guides us around cities and is in every taxi these days seems silly, misplaced, childish; these services don’t have all the answers, even though they are so good at looking like they do.

My alter (Gmail) ego

For a number of years I have had a gmail address for spam-catching purposes. This address included the world “grey”, spelled the British way.

Someone else on the internet has a gmail address with the same name, except hers has the word “gray” spelled the American way.

What this means:  I get a lot of email that is meant for her. This has been ongoing since 2006. At first I used to write the person back and say that I wasn’t who they were looking for, but stopped when it didn’t seem to dissuade them. Every couple of months I get an email or two meant for her, and these make up little glimpses into her life an goings-on that have added up to a hazy picture. Here’s what I know:

  • She grew up about 30 minutes from where I grew up (coincidentally)
  • She is a Jehovah’s Witness
  • She lives at Bethel, the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Brooklyn
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses give out Watchtower magazine, and they don’t manage to hand out as many as you might think (like, 4 or 5 for a day’s work, on average)

I get party invitations for her. I started out ignoring them, but now I click on the RSVP link if it sounds like something she’ll enjoy. (These invitations always say “Keep in mind Scriptures when it comes to dress and grooming”, and I am curious to know what exactly this means – are we talking modest dress, or are we talking no mixed fibres?)

Recently I got an email meant for her that mentioned her fiancee. Aw, good for her.

Backing up

You get one get out of jail free card. Mine was used up when I thought I’d lost two of the most important scripts in recent memory. I looked through all my emails, every SD card I could find (mostly RPi drives now), a bunch of laptops… nothing. I was beginning to get the panic sweats.
Luckily I hadn’t actually checked my main work machine.
There they were. They’re now backed up to BitBucket and my NAS whilst they get tied to a larger repository of moving parts to become something greater.
Remember kids, if it ain’t backed up it ain’t safe.