Conflict, at work

  • I had a conversation with a coworker that reminded me (again!) of this Foreign Affairs essay. It was about receiving feedback that seemed to focus on minimizing interpersonal conflict over things like achieving goals and strategy and impact; it felt familiar.
  • I’ve had coworkers and executives in other jobs that were like “people need to be more comfortable with conflict”. I’ve also been screamed at in a postmortem at a different job. So like, my feelings are mixed. Like are we talking about the absence of psychological safety, or too much of it? I dunno, I could never draw out specifics. I’m now thinking it was actually about the previous bullet point.
  • Schulman makes the point that you’re either in a relationship with someone, or you aren’t.
  • I read this Harper’s essay about working at Wired UK by Hari Kunzru with the line:

    The political economist Albert O. Hirschman famously characterized the choice that is faced by people within declining institutions as being between “voice” and “exit.” Either you speak up to change things, or you leave and look for something better.’

  • Which led me to find this essay about the book which pulls this lovely quote from Hirschman:

    The ultimate in unhappiness and paradoxical loyalist behavior occurs when the public evil produced by the organization promises to accelerate or to reach some intolerable level as the organization deteriorates; then…the decision to exit will become ever more difficult the longer one fails to exit. The conviction that one has to stay on to prevent the worst grows all the time.

  • But this is maybe now more about disfunction than exit. But I’ve also been in the position of being in difficult conflict when explaining that a certain set of strategies will lead to difficulties in attracting and retaining talent. And then most of my favorite people were gone. And then so was I.

2022 in review

  • Family: My mom passed away; first parent to go. Of a plus, we spent a lot of time with my brother and his young family. We had to cancel a big family trip to Europe, but hope to make up with a trip in 2023.
  • Community: Turned 40 this year; celebrated 11 years in SF; coming up on 3 years on Nob Hill. Things feel good. We were approved as a foster/adopt Resource Family, but with everything that happened with my mom, we haven’t yet begun hosting children yet. I’m going into year three of strategic planning committee at St. Francis.
  • Work: Started at GitHub after five years at Code for America. Still feels a bit like a dream that I get to continue to do what I want technically (Ruby and Rails) while also working with good people. I’ve continued to work with my leadership coach, which has been nice continuity.
  • Projects & Consulting: It’s now been 10 years since I registered as a small business in SF, which I did when I first started earning money with Day of the Shirt and doing various consulting jobs. GoodJob is floating along, and become a small source of GitHub Sponsors funds. The other constellation of projects continued in maintenance: Brompt, Panlexicon, etc.

Liberatory accountability

From Lee Shevek’s “Is Punishment ‘Carceral Logic’?”:

…the difference between carceral logic and liberatory accountability is not the presence/lack of punishment. Rather, the difference lies in how much power the person who has done harm has. Carceral logic aims to strip them of their personal power, while liberatory accountability processes require that they take ownership of that power. That is, ultimately, what accountability is: taking responsibility for your power as well as for the consequences of your use of it. Recognizing your own agency in having made a choice that resulted in harm, facing the people you hurt, giving them answers and apologies, and claiming your ability to do differently. This is what the carceral system does not allow. It strips people entirely of their agency, requires of them no meaningful repair process, and locks them in a cell where they are ritualistically abused by the State. This is a process that heals no one, nor was it ever even intended for healing or repair. It is a system only of control.

Liberatory accountability processes, on the other hand, demand something incredibly difficult for people who do harm: acknowledgement of their own power, their own responsibility to the harm they do with that power and their obligation to use that same power to make amends. Taking that responsibility also means acknowledging and respecting the consequences for the harm they do. If I truly take a harm I’ve done seriously, if I genuinely see it as harm, then I also will respect that the person I harmed may need to put more boundaries up between us to feel safe again. If the harm is more extreme, I will see the steps the surrounding community takes (closing my access to certain spaces, demanding my participation in ongoing accountability processes, etc.) as important responses to re-establish safety where my actions ruptured it, even if those responses are painful or uncomfortable to me. Absent of these consequences, the people most adept at doing harm while maintaining community support have free reign to continue perpetuating cycles of harm that will reverberate through years (often generations) to come, and survivors flee into solitude because there are no communal norms in place to provide them any real or trustworthy sense of safety. This is, in fact, the status quo of the world we live in now.

The real distinction between carceral logic and liberatory accountability is that one process violently strips someone of their humanity and agency, while the other demands that people who do harm take full command of their humanity and agency to atone for that harm and become better members of the community in the process. The carceral system says: “You are a criminal and you deserve to be subject to constant harm and control because of it.” Liberatory accountability says: “You are a person who chose to do harm, we believe in your capacity to choose to face the consequences of that harm and do what you can to repair it.”

This reminded me of SorryWatch’s “How to apologize: a short checklist”:

APOLOGIZE – Say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Take responsibility. Talk about what you did, not just “what happened.” Avoid “if,” “regret,” and “it’s unfortunate.” Try “I shouldn’t have done that,” “That was rude of me,” or “It was wrong.”

TO THEM – Not just to the twitmosphere, but to the person harmed.

FOR WHAT YOU DID – Be specific. Not “hurting you” but, for example, “calling you a slimy swivel-eyed creep.”

ACKNOWLEDGE THE EFFECT – If you know it. “I embarrassed you by calling you a slimy swivel-eyed creep in front of everybody at our dinner table, and at the nearby tables.”

EXPLAIN, BUT DON’T EXCUSE – “I called you a slimy swivel-eyed creep to try to make you be quiet because I didn’t want to be thrown out before dessert came. I was a jerk.”

STOP TALKING AND LET THEM HAVE THEIR SAY – “I wasn’t upset that you called me a slimy swivel-eyed creep. I was upset that you interrupted my song. It made me feel like you don’t respect me as an artist.”

And accountability (giving an account) fits into themes in Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which I’ll requote:

… everyone deserves help when they reach out for it. …the collapse of Conflict and Abuse is partly the result of a punitive standard in which people are made desperate, yet ineligible, for compassion. … people who have suffered in the past, or find themselves implicated in situations in which they are afraid to be accountable, fear that within their group acknowledging some responsibility will mean being denied their need to be heard and cared for.

Environment, at work

Screenshot of Sim Earth's Daisyworld


I played a lot of Sim Earth as a kid. It had a mode called Daisyworld based on the “Gaia Hypothesis”:

proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.

In Sim Earth’s Daisyworld, that was simulated by populating the Earth with different shades of flower. Darker flowers survived at lower temperatures and absorbed sunlight, warming their immediate environment; lighter flowers survived at warmer temperatures and reflecting sunlight, cooling their immediate environment. Running the simulation would, eventually, usually, lead to a dynamically changing, but still steady-state environment; in Conway terminoloy: still lifes and oscillators.

Usually your Earth found a steady state, unless:

  • geographical barriers prevented regulating changes from spreading, like mountain ranges or island archipelagos; or
  • disasters like volcanoes or meteors significantly disrupted the environment before the flowers could adapt and moderate it; or
  • you plopped some bunnies or herbivores that ate the flowers, because the Gaia mode didn’t lock-out the other Sim Earth tools. Sandboxes!

Usually your Earth found and could recover a steady state! That’s homeostasis:

Homeostasis is brought about by a natural resistance to change when already in the optimal conditions, and equilibrium is maintained by many regulatory mechanisms: it is thought to be the central motivation for all organic action.


From Vicki Boykis’s “The Art of the Long Goodbye” :

A few years ago, I read the Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff Van Der Meer….

One of the main concepts of the books is the idea of a terroir, a self-contained natural environment that shapes everything inside of it. Usually when we talk about a terroir we’re referring to wine: a wine from a given region tastes like wine from that given region should taste because of the grapes and the soil and the way the sunlight hits that particular spot. Since I left my last job, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of terroir as it relates to the workplace.

Every workplace, like every Tolstoyan family, is unique in its own way. When we start a job, we enter that terroir with the intent to shape it. But in turn, we are also shaped by it.


A landrace is:

a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species.

As I’m now in the land of big companies, it’s very common to hear someone described as “from Amazon” or “from Microsoft” and like, I know what they mean!

One of my challenges as an engineering leader during the pandemic was this: how much do we adapt our values and practices to be inclusive to the current fucked-all-over situation while preserving what made us, as an engineering organization, us. I think my results were mixed.

An example: pair programming. We were a lot of people from Pivotal labs (there it is!) with a strong belief in Extreme Programming: shared ownership, an active-closeness to the users of our software, and closeness to each other through frequent pair programming. And we went from largely in-person pairing, to remote pairing. I find pair programming to be exhausting in the best of circumstances, and the ongoing pandemic didn’t help. So we adapted our values and practices, and de-emphasized pairing and went from an expectation of “most of the time” to “a tool that’s available some of the time”. It was a stretch (aide: it wasn’t just pairing that got stretched either, the whole XP thing)

A team is never static. People were leaving, we were hiring, teams were forming and reforming. It was tenuous for everyone, to test out the limits of inclusion and identity. And as an engineering leader, it led to a lot of tough conversations about how… we… work… together. It was hard; I think we lost that cultivar.


Will Larson writes about this idea of a “Values Oasis”:

A few years ago, I heard an apocryphal story about Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Google to Facebook. In the story she apologizes to her team at Google because she’d sheltered them too much from Google’s politics and hadn’t prepared them to succeed once she stopped running interference. The story ends with her entire team struggling and eventually leaving after her departure. I don’t know if the story is true, but it’s an excellent summary of the Values Oasis trap, where a leader uses their personal capital to create a non-conforming environment within an wider organization.


The relationship between people and environment is a problematic metaphor.

I was a member of the Boston Pubic Garden’s Rose Brigade for number of years, taking care of the roses. The Boston Public Garden’s style is Western, specimen, ornamental: large, well-spaced bushes with well-defined blooms. They’re gorgeous. And.

There’s a lot of waste. Trimming, dead-heading, opening up, clearing leaf drops. A lot of waste.

There is a trope, Cincinnatus, in which the tyrant/general/magnate retires (or desires to retire, after the present crisis, of course) to tend garden. I think it usually appears to soften them: see they can be gentle too. But I dunno, gardens aren’t gentle. There’s a lot of centering the gardener, and a lot of will to be exercised in a garden. Other people aren’t plants, don’t take it too far.

I’m reminded of Nirgal’s (spoiler!) fated ecopoetic basin in KSR’s Blue Mars:

Nirgal wandered the basin after storms, looking to see what had blown in. Usually it was only a load of icy dust, but once he found an unplanted clutch of pale blue Jacob’s ladders, tucked between the splits in a breadloaf rock. Check the botanicals to see how it might interact with what was already there. Ten percent of introduced species survived, then ten percent of those became pests; that was invasion biology’s ten-ten rule, Yoshi said, almost the first rule of the discipline. “Ten meaning five to twenty of course.”

And close on it out with a quote from Seeing like a State:

Contemporary development schemes… require the creation of state spaces where the government can reconfigure the society and economy of those who are to be “developed.” The transformation of peripheral nonstate spaces into state spaces by the modern, developmentalist nation-state is ubiquitous and, for the inhabitants of such spaces, frequently traumatic.

Worknotes: November 13, 2022

Let’s go!


This past week was GitHub Universe. Local SF Hubbers were invited to volunteer and I did: I worked the info booth and the swag shop. It was nice meeting lots of other local Hubbers that don’t regularly frequent the office.

Performance Review Season

It’s here again. As a manager, I have a template for how I like to receive self-reflections that I’ve been dragging around with me for the past 15 (?!) years.

  1. Laundry list all of your projects, contributions, and accomplishments during the time period [if this seems difficult, have some sympathy for your manager]
  2. What future growth areas (lined up in phrases from the Career Ladder) would you like to focus on developing?
  3. What specific project/work opportunities exist (or you’d like to create) that would help you develop the growth areas you described in the previous question? (or you would really, really want to work on).

And then it’s a matter of trying to shoe-horn those questions into the invariably slightly different organizational template. I wrote up a big document for my reports.

Here’s what I drafted for myself on the opportunities question:

Improve predictability of team output. I would like to better develop a proactive ability to predict team output. Two focuses:

  • Tactical Planning: Improving my short/medium-term project management skills to improve how work is defined, broken down, and scheduled with target dates.
  • Strategic Planning: Planning and championing high-impact projects that would be engaging for both the team and engineering leadership.

The end result of this, in addition to expanding impact, is growing the Ruby Architecture team and ensuring there is sufficient capacity (and buffers) for our core Areas of Responsibility.

Further develop “out”-ward communication. Improve my ability to brief and influence across teams and leadership at GitHub. Particularly focused on reinforcing the position and importance of Ruby and Rails within GitHub.

What is “Platform”

In my new department, UI & Monolith Platform, all of my sibling teams are platform, but look very different. We’ve been working on a document to share with the rest of the Engineering team about what we would say we do here. As part of that, I’ve been thinking about Maturity Models as an explanation for why our teams look so different. Some teams are early, where they’re still focused on adoption and “fit”, and other teams, like mine, that are so mature that I think our internal consumers are not always fully aware that they’re using the platform we’ve built with huge intention.

A universal playbook

The past week at Universe, continually responding to the question “oh, what do you do?”, has helped me reflect on what I’m working towards. And realizing it feels like the same playbook I’ve run at other jobs. Lots more to it than this, but man, write your end-to-end tests people.

I read "Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity" by William J. J. Gordon

| Review | ★★★

This book has big ’60s energy, believing in the creative potential of a group of men openly jawboning in a room (but the prompts!) to solve problems. I’ve also read The Practice of Creativity and The Innovator’s Handbook too; the former probably being the best of them. They all are mainly persuasive theory and leave me trying to figure out the actual facilitation plans between the lines.

The book as a whole is engaging and has a lot of transcripts of people talking over eachother to solve a problem, as good as any pulp hard/heroic science fiction of the period.

What is synectics?

The word Synectics, from the Greek, means the joining together of different and apparently irrelevant elements. Synectics theory applies to the integration of diverse individuals into a problem-stating problem-solving group. It is an operational theory for the conscious use of the preconscious psychological mechanisms present in man’s creative activity. The purpose of developing such a theory is to increase the probability of success in problem-stating, problem-solving situations. This increase depends on awareness of the mechanisms which must be worked through to arrive at solutions of fundamental novelty.

And play:

Three general types of mechanisms for play have emerged from these studies: (1) play with words, with meanings and definitions; (2) play in pushing a fundamental law or a basic scientific concept “out of phase”; and (3) play with metaphor.

Demo or die:

The most important (and most underrated) single aspect of a Synectics project is the implementation (in the form of working models) of those concepts developed as solutions. Such model building is vital to the success of a new product or invention program. Moreover, we have observed that unless a teaching program includes the experience of “getting the hands dirty” by actively implementing conceptions, the program is threatened with incompletion and impotence precisely because it is limited to over-abstract discussion. …[30 pages]…Exciting as it is for Synectics groups to succeed in making the familiar strange, it is hardly an end in itself. The end is a functioning, working model of the invention product, just as the end result of a narrative idea is not the idea but the novel into which it is transformed, or as the end result of a visual insight is the painting into which it is evolved.”

The general idea of a Synectics group (“in the Industrial Model”) is having the company psychologist pick a small group of [men] to go live and cook together and solve problems for the firm. This is interesting:

In the selection of personnel for Synectics activity, if we are faced with a choice between two individuals of different intellectual backgrounds, but of similar emotional orientations, our tendency would be to choose only one. On the other hand, two individuals having the same intellectual background but different emotional patterns of response could be included in an integrated group which is designed to reflect extreme diversity.

How do you choose? Lots of bias here:

1. Metaphoric Capacity: The candidate’s language is carefully watched for signs of metaphor and analogy as described by the operational mechanisms: Personal Analogy, Symbolic Analogy, Direct Analogy, and Fantasy Analogy. The candidate is encouraged to speak metaphorically…

  1. Attitude of Assistance: Because some characteristics of a candidate can’t be identified from conversation alone, the interview includes taking a walk in the woods, inviting the candidate to participate in a project on the property (pipe is being laid or a little bridge is being built over a stream, or a new timber is being fitted to the bam); in the evening the candidate meets with the Synectors for a cook-out. If his attitude of assistance has not revealed itself before, the cook-out preparation is used as the ultimate test. In general there are three kinds of response to this activity:

    1. The candidate sits and watches the fire being laid.
    2. The candidate asks if he can help.
    3. The candidate observes what is needed and supplies it.

    Building a fire is such a universal function, known to everyone, that it serves as an excellent test of assistance attitude. Obviously, for the purpose of Synectics, a man who sees how he can help and does it is the most acceptable. Part of the fire making technique is to make sure that there is not enough kindling on the spot so as to guarantee ample opportunity for the candidate to reveal himself.

3. Kinesthetic Coordination: Although clumsiness is not inconsistent with creative potential, Synectors guard against selecting a man whose extreme lack of coordination implies a lack of self-confidence. [jesus christ]…

  1. Risk: In the course of talking to the candidate, Synectors must determine whether he enjoys taking risks and, if so, what kind of risks. Is the candidate a self-destructive gambler who is unconsciously trying to injure himself? Is he willing to risk because he knows it’s the only way to accomplish certain tasks? Does he enjoy risking or does it frighten him?…

5. Emotional Maturity: Creative people tend to have a childlike quality about them, but this childishness is not necessarily a sign of emotional immaturity. The emotionally immature childlike person does not use his childlike surprise, wonder, and infinite curiosity about the world as a psychological basis for creative acts. It is the capacity to integrate childishness into constructive acts which the Synectors look for in their interviews with candidates….

  1. The Capacity to Generalize: What are the candidate’s thinking habits? Can he take three or four facts and construct from them a straightforward, conversational, coherent generalization? Can he oscillate from particular facts to theories which embrace and integrate the facts? A generalization is a hypothesis describing and including diverse and sometimes conflicting data. Can he tolerate the ambiguity with which he must live until a soothing, all-ordering generalization explains the data? And then can he act on the basis of his generalization?…

  2. Commitment: If the candidate believes in something—product or a concept—can he commit himself to bringing it to life? Or is he self-protectively analytical and falsely sophisticated? The personality characteristic of enthusiasm is not by itself a guarantee. The candidate must identify with a project so that its success is crucial to him…

  3. Non-status Oriented: There are traditional symbols of status in American industrial society: carpet on the floor, large clean desks, prints on the wall, name on the door, in charge of a large number of men, conservatively natty clothes, new car—these symbolize the position of a man. Minor variations are permitted within the conventions of this framework to describe the residual differences in personalities. People chosen for Synectics activity must be beyond status as defined by the traditional symbolism because their group will develop another kind of status based on contribution and independence…

  4. Complementary Aspect: No candidate can get a perfect score in all the criteria but the group as a whole should make up 100% of the characteristics implied by the list of criteria. Also, there are certain special personality traits within the candidates which must be balanced. Assume two men who score high, one from research, one from sales. The researcher, introverted and studious, rates the salesman as flamboyant and loud. The salesman calls the researcher mousey and secretive. Each man distrusts the other, yet both are necessary to the success of a Synectics operation. [o_O] Someone must be found who can bring together the researcher and salesman. The Synectors, on the lookout, decide on a man who had been in research but now, for instance, is in sales engineering. This “integrator” is interviewed, not only on the basis of the criteria, but also to learn whether his personality can resolve the conflict between the researcher and the salesman.

But what do they do?!

The Synectic process involves:

  1. making the strange familiar;
  2. making the familiar strange.

…Synectics has identified four mechanisms for making the familiar strange, each metaphorical in character:

  1. Personal Analogy [how would you live/feel if you were the subject under study?]
  2. Direct Analogy [“the actual comparison of parallel facts, knowledge, or technology”]
  3. Symbolic Analogy [“views the problem qualitatively with the condensed suddenness of a poetic phrase.”]
  4. Fantasy Analogy [“How do we in our wildest fantasies desire the subject to operate?”]

Oh brother.

Every mature institution or organization—industrial, governmental or educational—functions according to laws which make up its policy. For example, every company has its own “laws” about personnel, procurement, borrowing money, sales, production, salaries, quality control, customer relations, product line, budgets, advertising, etc. If the laws represent a true response to reality, they will be useful. But often, particularly in the case of an old established company, the laws are habits carried forward from a glittering past. Long-term employees from a middle management level up constitute an intra-organizational community which derives comfort from these familiar laws—obsolete or not. This community is the keeper of the scrolls. The laws are the anthropological shibboleths by which the industrial tribe conducts its ritual of business. A Synectics group is a fifth column acting from within the organization community to make the familiar “laws” strange.

Productive Struggle

From Logic #17, in “The Edtech Gold Rush” by Kevin Miller (emphasis mine):

One of the companies, Imagine Learning, distinguished itself by claiming that, on their platform, students could demonstrate their knowledge of English language and literature by “com-posing a rap song or creating a TikTok.” Some students seemed intrigued. Others groaned over their laptops. Yet another edtech firm was promising to uplift marginalized students by filling the classroom with the kind of entertainment media they consumed at home.

Such products can make educational content more accessible, especially at home, but they cannot actually address academic shortcomings any more than pen and paper. This is because learning happens through what educators call “productive struggle,” not merely the consumption of educational content. Productive struggle is the profession’s term for problem-solving at a level that is difficult for a student, but possible with effort and limited assistance. Educators refer to this magical window of learning as the “zone of proximal development.” Any education technology that is able to employ entertainment to transcend the difficulty inherent in learning ceases to be educational.

But even if such a technology is able to elicit productive struggle among students, it still runs up against a deeper challenge: pov-erty. The real reason that students have difficulty in the classroom is not due to the lack of thoughtful UX design, but because the trauma and instability wrought by the material circumstances of their home and community make engaging in productive struggle difficult. This does not mean that edtech products are useless. But they are not able to address the core cause of educational inequality any more than traditional instruction.

The recent growth in school funding from Covid relief measures gives educators a long-overdue opportunity to confront the material roots of educational inequality. But this influx of public money also represents a potential payday for a fast-growing edtech sector. The edtech market in the US is expected to grow to about $60 billion by 2026, according to an estimate from Global Industry Analysts, more than doubling its 2021 valuation and drastically outpacing the growth of the education sector as a whole. At a moment when governments are committing real resources to public education, companies touting disruptive digital approaches see a gold rush. They plan to win lucrative contracts by promising to solve a problem they can’t possibly solve.

Worknotes - October 23, 2022

  • During my absence, my team was reorganized and I moved under a new director and from developer experience to the product development organization. It’s been exciting (new people, new relationships, new opportunities) and also tiring (new people, new relationships, new opportunities). My team was an odd duck in the old structure, and less-so but still odd in the new structure. My verdict is out if that’s an improvement. I think it can be sometimes be easier to stick out hugely instead of subtly: it’s called whackamole, not whackagiraffe.
  • My team, Ruby Architecture, moved from “Build & Test” within DX, to “UI and Monolith Platform” within Core Productivity. In my old group I was figuring out collaborations with the testing and CI platform. With the new group, we’re figuring out how to better explain “platforms” ourselves. I see a lot of “Shifting Left” in my future and I’m here for it.
  • “A feeling you don’t act upon isn’t real.” I’ve picked up this quote from nearly every Kim Stanley Robinson novel I’ve read. I shared it with a few of my reports this week; I’ve been (gently, I hope!) pushing people to share feedback more actively outside the team.
  • “It’s ok to be mad, it’s not ok to be mean”. Angelina and I had dinner this week with family friends who have a 10-year old and they’ve been a resource during our foster parenting journey. This phrase came up and I have been thinking about this as a better alternative to “Assume good intent.” I’m a big fan of Non-Violent Communication and it fits right in there.
  • Performance Review Season is kicking off again. I’m eligible. It feels like no time has passed but this week is my 6 month anniversary at GitHub! It’s still fun.
  • With my leadership coach, we’ve been talking about Moral Mazes, which led to Meditations on Moloch. The overall theme, and I’ve now been working with the coach for three (!) years is (my words): taking action authentically. And then exploring different shapes of that. Ikigai.

Impenetrable legal language

From the paper “What did I sign? A study of the impenetrability of legalese in contracts” via Assaf Arkin’s Labnotes.

The description of “Center-embedded clauses” was particularly interesting to me in regards to plain language.

Each legalese text was drafted to contain the following language properties that have been identified as difficult to process and common to legal texts:

(a) Low-frequency legal terms – Words that are infrequently used in everyday speech provide processing difficulties for readers relative to higher-frequency synonyms (Marks, Doctorow, & Wittrock, 1974). Legal texts are laden with “archaic words” such as aforesaid, herein, and to wit (P. Tiersma, 2008), which have been shown to be frequently misunderstood by laypeople (e.g. P. M. Tiersma, 1993). Each legalese text was constructed to contain several instances of legal jargon, which were replaced with high-frequency synonyms in the plain-English versions.

(b) Center-embedded clauses – Center-embedded structures have long been observed to pose processing difficulties on a reader (Miller & Chomsky, 1963; Gibson, 1998; Pinker, 2003). The tendency for lawyers to “embed” legal jargon “in convoluted syntax” has been observed not only to be prevalent in legal texts but as a potential badge of honor for those who wish to “talk like a lawyer” and be accepted by their profession (P. Tiersma, 2008). Each legalese text was constructed to contain multiple center-embedded clauses (“Artist and Tour, said parties being hereinafter referred as…”), which were written as separate sentences in the corresponding plain-English version.

(c) Passive-voice structures – Relative to their active-voice counterparts, passive-voice structures are acquired later by children (Baldie, 1976), and may continue to pose difficulties for adults (Ferreira, 2003). Gozdz-Roszkowski (2011) found passive structures to be more prevalent in contracts relative to other legal and non-legal genres (such as newspapers). Our legalese texts each contained multiple passive-voice structures (“This agreement has been formed by the parties”), which we converted into active-voice structures in the corresponding plain-English versions.

(d) Capitalization – Non-standard capitalization is ubiquitous in provisions such as warranty disclaimers and limitations of liability, which “must be conspicuous” in order to be legally upheld (American Law Institute and National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, 2002). Arbel and Toler (2020) found that most standard form agreements used by major companies contain a provision in all-caps. Although the use of all-caps provisions is ostensibly for the benefit of the reader, evidence suggests that they do not aid comprehension (Arbel & Toler, 2020). Here we included at least one chunk of all-capitalized text in each legalese passage (“THE WARRANTY IS HEREBY DISCLAIMED”), which was replaced with standard capitalization in the simple version.

From the set of legalese materials, each passage was encoded in terms of legally relevant propositions. From these propositions, each passage was then translated into a “plain-English” version, which differed only with respect to the four surface properties described above, resulting in 24 total passages.

For each contract pair, 12-15 comprehension questions were drafted. The questions were multiple choice with four options. These questions both targeted comprehension of specific important legal propositions, as well as more general understanding of the legal content. To reduce a response bias for a given register, we controlled the overlap in form between contract excerpt and comprehension question. Both types of comprehension question were drafted in a “neutral” register. Passive/active structures were replaced by nominalizations. For example, “shipment of the goods on the part of merchant” instead of “the goods were shipped by merchant” or “merchant shipped the goods”). High or low frequency synonyms were replaced with a third synonym (e.g. “renter” instead of “lessee” or “tenant”).

Persian Tahchin-inspired crispy chicken rice


This is a Milk Street recipe, but because I detest their instructional design, I redesigned it here. I like this dish because:

  • It can be made with ingredients from Trader Joe’s.
  • It has currants.
  • Crispy, buttery starch is great.
  • It’s resilient; the second time I made it with indirect heat on a propane bbq grill because my oven was on the fritz. Still great. Also I’ve tried brown basmati rice, tried doubling the eggs, tripled the garlic, I’m not measuring the butter and currents. Still great.


  • 1.5 cups basmati rice
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 12 ounces boneless skinless chicken thighs. I think this would also work with seitan or tempeh just mix a bit more oil in.
  • 1 lemon, for juice and zest
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 0.5 cups whole milk greek yogurt
  • 1 large egg (yolk only)
  • 3 tablespoons dried currants
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
  • Parsley, to garnish
  • Roasted Pistachios, to garnish
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

A pie plate. Milk Street spends a paragraph saying why glass is best (you can see the browning), but I’ve been doing ceramic and it’s fine.

30 minutes to 12 hours ahead

Soak the rice. Place the rice in a bowl with enough water to cover by 1 inch and let rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 12 hours. Drain and rinse the rice again.

To begin

  • Place the oven rack at lowest position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees
  • Prepare a large pot of salted boiling water to cook the rice.
  • Thoroughly oil your pie plate.

Prep the ingredients

  • Melt the butter and set aside.
  • Crumble the saffron threads and soak the saffron in 2 tablespoons of boiling water in a small bowl. Set aside.
  • Zest the lemon resulting in about 3 teaspoons of lemon zest, to be divided between the chicken and the yogurt sauce. Put the rest of the lemon aside to be wedged later.
  • Grate the garlic.
  • Trim the chicken thighs into 1 to 1.5 inch pieces and in a medium bowl combine the chicken with 1 tbsp of oil, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, and garlic Salt and pepper it.
  • Separate the egg yolk (discard the white) and mix the yogurt, egg yolk, remaining 2 teaspoons of lemon zest, and saffron water in a bowl large enough to eventually hold the rice too. Salt and pepper it. Whisk to combine well.


  • Add the rice to the pot of salted boiling water and cook for 5 minutes until par-boiled; the rice will still be slightly crunchy. Drain the rice.
  • Mix the par-boiled rice with the yogurt mixture and stir to combine.
  • Add about 1/3 of the rice mixture to the bottom of the pie plate, pressing it into an even layer on the bottom and halfway up the sides.
  • Mix the currants and the yogurt-chicken mixture into the remaining rice and yogurt mixture and then transfer the mixture to the pie dish. Do not compact or press the rice, but do distribute it evenly.
  • Drizzle the melted butter over the rice mixture.
  • Tightly cover the pie dish with foil and bake for 1 hour covered.

While it bakes, clean up and prepare

  • Chop the parsley and reserve for serving.
  • Chop the pistachios and reserve for serving.
  • Slice the lemon into wedges for personal squeezing.

After baking for 1 hour

  • Remove the foil and then uncovered, bake for an additional 10 minutes until the bottom is golden brown.
  • Remove from the oven and rest for about 5 minutes.
  • Run a knife or spatula around the edge to loosen the rice from the pie plate, then invert onto a serving plate.
  • Sprinkle with the parsley and pistachios and serve with the lemon wedges on the side.