History of Distributed Teams

The concept of Distributed Teams is not a recent invention. Militaries have long employed the best communication technologies of the day to strategize with and command distributed teams of soldiers across great geographical divides. Two hundred years ago, the Battle of Waterloo was directed with the use of flags and bugles communicating prearranged sequences of coded messages. Later developments in radio technology allowed soldiers to communicate more complex messages, over longer distances. This granted a greater degree of managerial control on battlefields.

Over time, communication technologies evolved further, and recent advances have made it easier than ever to keep teams connected virtually. The widespread availability of high-speed internet creates a platform for applications specially tailored to connect people regardless of location. Many companies now take advantage of these advancements to save themselves the cost of physical offices. For example, companies like InVision and Automatic have decided to forgo offices altogether and staff their companies entirely with remote employees. In 2018, a Facebook official was quoted saying that the company wanted as few employees as possible to work from home, because they were concerned productivity and accountability would suffer. Facebook recently changed their philosophy though and are expecting over half of their workforce to go remote by 2025.

Many employees favor this arrangement as it saves them commute time, but also because it is inline with the current cultural practice of constant job-hopping. Previous generations were more likely to stay at one company for prolonged periods of time, and companies often frowned on applicants who were shown to change jobs rapidly. However, younger generations are more likely to change jobs frequently, and companies can make themselves more attractive to prospective applicants by offering virtual positions. These virtual positions not only open companies up to a larger pool of applicants, but it also allows employees the freedom to change jobs without the expense and frustration of relocation.

O’Duinn, J. (2018). Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart. Release Mechanix.

Gupta, A. (n.d.). The History of Remote Work: How it Came to be What it is Today. Sorry, I was on Mute! https://www.sorryonmute.com/history-remote-work-industries/

Hokusai Reimagined

For a class project, I decided to reimagine Katsushika Hokusai’s seminal “Red Fuji” as ASCII art. Essentially, I wrote a Python script that converted Hokusai’s “Red Fuji” into text art using only the letters in Hokusai’s name. Since different letters have different visual weights, you can use them for gradations of shading. The script converts the image into black and white, then assigns a numerical value to each pixel depending on how dark the shading is. Then it replaces each pixel with the letter assigned to that shade range. I like how it turned out.

Red Fuji

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849). South Wind and Clear Sky (Gaifū kaisei), also known as Red Fuji, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830–1832, Edo Period. Size: 15 3/4 x 10 1/2 in. Color woodcut; ink and color on paper.

This print can be viewed at several museums, including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Harvard Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The British Museum.

Katsushika Hokusai’s seminal “South Wind and Clear Sky”, commonly referred to as “Red Fuji” for obvious reasons, was made in the Edo Period (ca. 1830-1832) as part of the artist’s series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”. Red Fuji contains a depth of meaning, both historical and cultural, that may be missed by a casual observer who is unaware of Japanese history. Strangely enough, this piece also owes its existence in large part to tourism. In previous periods, casual travel in Japan was not common as Japanese citizens by necessity were focused on the harsh demands of their daily lives, with little time or resources leftover for leisurely pursuits. However, in the Edo period, Japan now enjoyed an unprecedented economic prosperity and political stability, which allowed them a degree of newfound leisure. Even though travel was technically illegal during the Edo period, there was a simple workaround: a would-be tourist only had to declare that they were on a pilgrimage to a holy temple and then they could travel freely. This led to an increase in travel and tourism became a popular activity for the first time in Japan. Along with the increased popularity of tourism also came growth in the tourism market. Publishers realized the potential of commissioning art that could be easily copied as woodblock prints. These could be sold to tourists for a relatively low cost and allowed travelers a physical representation of their experiences traveling. Thus, woodblock prints became a popular souvenir for this new tourist demographic. Scenes from the infamous Yoshiwara Pleasure District were popular choices for prints, as were Kabuki Theatre scenes and portraits of beautiful women, however tourists were also attracted to landscapes depicting Japan’s natural beauty and iconic destinations, such as Mount Fuji.  

Hokusai was seventy years old when he began to artfully depict Mt. Fuji. In the next five years, he created 46 designs for the print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. The mountain, located near Fujinomiya, is an active volcano, although it hasn’t erupted since 1708. It is notable for being the tallest mountain in Japan (12,389 feet), and on a clear day it can be seen as far away as Tokyo. In Japan, Mt. Fuji has long been cherished as a sacred site for the Shinto faith, oftentimes being a recurring motif in Japanese literature and poetry. Many artists and writers have tried to capture the power and epic beauty of the summit; however Hokusai’s woodblock print series showing the summit through different seasons and weather conditions is perhaps the most famous attempt. Hokusai was a ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period, and is the most famous of all Japanese artists. In a long and successful career, he produced over 30,000 paintings, sketches, and woodblock prints. None were so successful as his Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, which contained his most famous prints: Red Fuji and The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. These now iconic artworks secured Hokusai broad recognition in Japan and overseas.

Japanese printmakers in the Edo Period used a limited range of colourants. This is because, when creating woodblock prints, colourant particles need to be fine enough to sufficiently penetrate the paper when they are applied, but not so fine that they run through the paper and bleed out the other side; this leaves a limited amount of colourants that are suitable for the purpose. Hokusai created his Red Fuji using only four colors: bright red was used for the mountain, contrasted with a bright blue sky, a soft white was reserved for clouds and snow, and deeper shades of green were used to create foliage at the base of the mountain. The colors are bright and punchy, as if the day recorded here was bathed in sunlight that over-saturated the scene. The image has a flat, static quality. Though rows of overlapping clouds dipping behind the mountain and a strong hierarchy of color do create some sense of depth, the overall impression of this stylized piece is that this is a depiction of a flat two-dimensional space. The focus of the artwork is Mt. Fuji itself, which is placed off center to the bottom right of the image, cutting diagonally up, and takes up an even half of the visual space. The cloudy sky is a balanced element that uses up the remaining visual weight, diagonally controlling the top left quadrant of the piece. As such, the piece is quite balanced and symmetrical. Each individual element is depicted simply with minimal detail, to an almost cartoon-ish effect. Fuji isn’t being recorded in all it’s fine detail, rather the idea of Fuji is the subject here. The emotion of witnessing Mt. Fuji is invoked by this piece, but maybe Mt. Fuji’s symbolic meaning in Japan is what Hokusai was really focused on. The artist successfully captured the depth of meaning of Mt. Fuji in a way that a photograph perhaps could not.

Though the summit is colored in a bright, fiery red (a color that is typically used to express anger or danger), this piece somehow remains a calming, tranquil image. There is a sense of peace and stability in the artwork that is a somewhat ironic method of depicting an active volcano. This is no doubt intentional though and is typical of how Japan symbolized Mt. Fuji as an enduring, unchanging entity. In fact, the summit was often associated with the notion of everlasting life. Hokusai, who himself was obsessed with finding eternal life, may have found a source of inspiration here. That may explain his intense fascination with Mt. Fuji. In his colophon to Volume One of One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, Hokusai describes his ambition:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the forms of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false.

Hokusai sadly did not live quite long enough to achieve this lofty goal, his life finally reaching it’s end at the age of 88. However, he achieved in his lifetime a sort of immortality, as his work lives on and has only grown in popularity over the years. His Red Fuji is still the most recognizable artistic depiction of the mountain, even after all this time. It’s historical and cultural relevance endures as steadily as Mt. Fuji itself.  

“Hokusai’s Mount Fuji.” RISD Museum. August 17, 1991. https://risdmuseum.org/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/hokusais-mount-fuji.

Jamieson, Anna. “Iconic Hokusai Prints: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Japan Objects. May 18, 2018. https://japanobjects.com/features/hokusai-fuji

Korenberg, Capucine et al. “Developing a systematic approach to determine the sequence of impressions of Japanese woodblock prints: the case of Hokusai’s Red Fuji.” Heritage Science. February 26, 2019. https://heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40494-019-0250-5

Thompson, Sarah. “Hokusai.” Boston: MFA Publications. 2015.

Slack Versus the Competition

Slack is an internal communications hub that conveniently connects teams together, regardless of physical distance. I worked for several years as a web application developer in a department that relied heavily on Slack for all employee interaction, as our team was distributed across a large college campus and it was rarely possible for employees to have any face-to-face conversations. My team needed to be able to communicate quickly and easily, so we began using Slack exclusively for this purpose. We found that it was a great benefit to the unity of our team.

Essentially, Slack acts as an instant messaging system, with the added benefit of optional add-ons. There are two methods of chat in Slack: channels (group chat), and direct message (person-to-person chat). Direct messaging is a great way to connect one-one-one with colleagues, while channels allow the right people to get the right information in the fastest method possible.

When Slack came along, there were no real competitors in the market, however as the popularity of digital communication in the workplace grew, so did competition in the communication tools market. One current alternative is RocketChat, a communications platform that allows users to tailor its look and feel to their own requirements. Both platforms allow users the option of one-on-one and group chatting. However, unlike Slack, Rocketchat is a free, open-source solution. One of RocketChat’s most prominent features is how easy it is to migrate to: a user can export their existing files from Slack and upload them directly to RocketChat, making them a convenient option for dissatisfied Slack users.

Another popular Slack alternative is Chanty, a simple team chat tool for small and medium-sized teams that doesn’t limit its searchable message history. Chanty organizes a user’s files, links, tasks, and conversations into folders in a feature called Teambook. Compared to Slack, Chanty is also faster and more affordable (up to 75% cheaper) and it offers twice as much storage compared to Slack. Also, while Slack limits users to 10,000 messages in their free plan, Chanty offers unlimited messages in all their plans.

Regardless of which digital communication hub one employs to stay connected to their respective team members, the fact remains that no point in history has had such an abundance of choice when it comes to long distance communication options. Users can now select whichever platform suits their particular needs best.

Fallavena, L. (2020, December 14). We’ve Tried 4 Different Slack Alternatives & Here’s Our Conclusion. https://rocket.chat/blog/learn/slack-alternative/

Mykhoparkina, O. (2021, February 5). We’ve Tried 8 Slack Alternatives. https://www.chanty.com/blog/using-slack-alternatives/

Benefits of Distributed Teams

One of the costs of maintaining a physical office space rather than a distributed team is a limited pool of job applicants. The business must settle for job-seekers who happen to live within a convenient commute to the company’s physical location, and those candidates may not be as suitable or talented as applicants in other parts of the world. It is even possible that a company cannot find any suitably skilled candidates in their area, and this is especially true for positions that require very specific niche skills.

By employing a distributed team instead, and thus removing the geographical boundaries imposed by a physical location, a company has a much larger pool of applicants to choose from. This allows for greater diversity of experience and potentially more talented employees. A distributed team approach also lessens the risk of a company having trouble remaining adequately staffed, as some physical locations may not have the populace required to maintain staffing needs and could thwart company expansion.

However, there are also benefits to maintaining a physical location that cannot be replicated with a distributed team. For example, physical locations anchor a company to a local community. In some fields, that anchor is required for creating brand loyalty and awareness. Employees who live together in a certain community are also uniquely aware of the community’s needs and wants, and those employees are more likely to share some cultural experiences that could aid with communication and relationship forming within the company. Building and maintaining relationships within a distributed team is uniquely challenging; Sometimes communication is more easily achieved in close physical proximity rather than digitally, and a sense of shared community certainly aids the process.

O’Duinn, J. (2018). Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart. Release Mechanix.

Breu, K., & Hemingway, C. (2004). Making organizations virtual: the hidden cost of distributed teams. Journal of Information Technology, 19, 191–202. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.jit.2000018

Digital Privacy Policies

Humans are naturally entitled to a degree of privacy in their lives, and that applies to the digital sphere as well. However, data has an inherent value, and unfortunately in the pursuit of valuable data certain threats have evolved. For instance, both personally identifying information and non-personally-identifying information (such as your behavior on a website) may be collected and analyzed by interested parties. Hackers can also gain access to a user’s accounts and data with nefarious intent. These threats require users, and by extension workplaces, to take action to protect their digital privacy.

Some digital threats include: tracking cookies, government surveillance, and identity theft. Users may fall prey to these threats when they use the same password on multiple websites, fail to logoff sites, don’t read service terms when creating accounts, or open email attachments from addresses that they don’t recognize. These threats can be greatly minimized with a few simple precautions. For example, users can block Flash Player as it has many vulnerabilities hackers can take advantage of to steal information from a device. Blocking JavaScript, a programming language that allows browser interactions, can also enhance security as hackers often make use of it as well. Using the browser’s Privacy Mode can protect users from Tracking Cookies that exist to collect user data for various purposes. Turning off the browser’s password storage feature makes it more difficult for hackers to gain access to your accounts. Finally, using a strong antivirus program that includes real-time scanning and protection can protect users from malicious downloads.

By carefully adhering to strict digital privacy policies such as these, both users and workplaces can enjoy a degree of safety as they make use of the amazing technological tools that are currently available.

Shahid, H. (2021, September 22). What Is Internet Privacy & Why It Matters so much in 2021? PureVPN.  https://www.purevpn.com/blog/what-is-internet-privacy-scty

Shahid, H. (2021, March 22). What are Internet Cookies and How They Invade Your Privacy? PureVPN.  https://www.purevpn.com/blog/all-about-internet-cookies-scty

Shahid, H. (2020, June 22). A Beginner’s Guide to Web Browser Security. PureVPN.  https://www.purevpn.com/blog/browser-security-scty

R.O.B. Robot Hack

This was a fun electronics project that I did a few years ago. I hacked an old Nintendo NES R.O.B Robot to be controllable from a PC via a webpage (I ended up selling the robot to someone who wanted to use it in a commercial).

I used a Teensy micro-controller soldered to the robot’s original circuit board and a bit of code to interpret serial input. Then I made a PHP file that sends serial data to the Teensy’s port and made an gui with a bit of Bootstrap. Here is the code if you’d like to try this yourself: R.O.B. Robot Controller