O, Happy Solstice, and Business

Posted by amy on December 23, 2007

Kieran Healy of Crooked Timber, talking about the giant Celtic clock at Newgrange, and the Winter Solstice:

A society—a civilization, if you like—is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, as the overwhelming majority of people did until about two hundred years ago, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge, in Brad DeLong’s phrase, is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it. It’s astonishing.

I am in a post-Christmas-party fog this morning, so I can’t do my usual “really, this is totally related to software development even though it seems to be a cute story about my kid or something else off-topic” thing. Crooked Timber is a group academic blog having nothing to do with software (though some of the academics on it do research on web stuff; here’s a recent note about some research being done on social networking sites, for example.)

Actually, I’ll at least try to relate this to work/software/consulting/business: Sometimes you hear people lament the December slump in productivity, and blame it on the ‘holiday season’. As though if there were no pesky holidays to get in the way, then we’d all be going full-bore on our goals. The other day I read a post about how I could be using this holiday lull in billable hours to get a bunch of really useful stuff done. “Oh man,” I thought, “We totally need to do that stuff.” All the extra stuff on our site, for example, (the non-blog stuff) has not been updated for months, because we’ve been too busy working to change it to reflect more accurately the work that we’re actually doing these days. (And we are rapidly approaching the time when we can no longer claim to be in ‘really-real beta rather than google-style fake beta’, as it says in the sidebar.) And we need a better invoicing process. And so on. But the truth is that, like most everyone else, I’m not that productive right now, even though I don’t have the excuse that I have too many holiday commitments, or that I’m traveling.

People who think that it’s the holidays that cause a December drop in productivity have it totally backwards. It’s the December drop in productivity that causes the holidays.

We don’t live in the stone age anymore. We do not spend the long dark winter starving and freezing, huddled together in our huts. But we are still part of that rhythm. Our artificial lights and central heating and snowplows and de-icers do not entirely erase the feeling we have that now is the time to huddle together around a fire, not go to meetings and launch new projects.

Which is to say that the site will not come out of beta until 2008. Happy Holidays, everyone!

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    1. Walter McGinnis Sun, 23 Dec 2007 15:41:35 UTC

      I was born and raised in Vermont, so I have plenty of memories of getting up, going to school or work, and then coming home after a normal length day all while it’s dark. You can definitely feel pretty low as result. So I understand your point.

      I now live in Wellington, New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s December, summer is starting to really kick in. Wahoo! Guess what? Nothing gets done in NZ for like a month and a half around Christmas and New Years.

      So the result is the same, but the reason is kinda reversed.


    2. amy Sun, 23 Dec 2007 15:50:13 UTC

      Yeah, even as I was posting, I thought “But what about summer? No one gets anything done in August either.” I could make some argument about how we can’t get office work done in August because we’re programmed to be outside getting the harvest in, but since most of us don’t have a harvest to bring in, we go to the beach instead. But that’s stretching it.

      Incidentally, our family visited Wellington a couple years ago, when we were thinking of moving to NZ (applied for and received permanent residency visas and everything). A beautiful city you’ve got there (though I became very fond of Devonport, Auckland, myself). But oh, the distance!

    3. Walter McGinnis Fri, 28 Dec 2007 13:30:55 UTC

      Devonport is a cool spot, but a tad too quant for my day-to-day tastes. Maybe I would change my tune if I had enough money for one of those amazing beach houses on the Esplanade. Auckland has its problems with traffic and sprawl, but pretty minor in the global scheme of things.

      If you can handle weather that sits somewhere between San Francisco and Seattle, Wellington is hard to beat for a small city with lots going on. A bit of a mish-mash architecturally, but somehow that charms me.

      I live in the Island Bay neighborhood on the South Coast and walk my dog along it twice a day. Beautiful place, lovely people.

      Wellington does suffer a common problem in local government though, over-representation of local commercial interests. The mayor is married to one of the biggest property developers in town…

      Lots of techie-oriented expats already here.


    4. amy Fri, 28 Dec 2007 21:05:42 UTC

      Max thought devonport was a bit too quaint too, but I really liked it. I liked the fact that everyone went to the grocery store in bare feet. I liked that you could walk down to the beach for a swim twice a day. We were staying at a guest house owned by some very cool hippie-people who had also lived on that winery island near auckland whose name escapes me right now, and they had avocados, citrus, and apples growing in their garden all at once. Oh, and there was a cat hanging around near the library begging fish and chips off us, and I said “hey, that cat’s always around here, it’s like, the library cat.” And then I saw that it had a tag on it, and I kid you not, the kitty’s tag said “Benjamin. Devonport Library Cat.”
      Also, there was a good bookstore, and I’m a sucker for that classic NZ bungalow house style. And I liked the view across to the port.

      When we were in wellington we rented a car. First ten minutes, we managed to lop the sideview mirror clear off a parked car. Woman who owned the car happened to be there. She completely understood, not a problem, she did the same thing when she was in Hawaii, can she help us find our hotel. could not ask for lovelier people. NZ is also incredibly kid-friendly. And non-litigious. But you know all that, you live there!

      We knew through friends some other techie expats in Wellington. Steven and Tam, they keep llamas.

      Max’s res permit runs out in Jan 2009. We’re not likely to move at this point (family, friends yada yada yada) but if we get stuck with a president guiliani we may well end up down there after all. It’s really an incredible place, our month there was great fun, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a change.