Rian van der Merwe

Rian is passionate about designing and building software that people love to use. After spending several years working in Silicon Valley and Cape Town, South Africa, he is now based in Portland, OR. He also blogs and tweets regularly about design, technology, and software development.

Published Thoughts

Words don’t grasp the truth firmly enough; they slip and slide around. — William Davies​

I grew up around books and languages. I’ve always had an unwavering belief in the power of words to clear up confusion and connect people in meaningful ways. Over the past few years — as I’ve starting taking writing a bit more seriously — those beliefs have only been strengthened as my editors have gently herded me into saying exactly what I mean.

Over time that belief evolved into something more. It became a cornerstone of who I am. I somehow convinced myself that this is how I could play a part in making the world a better place. If I could only show people how to use their words right, if I could just explain to them how easily the wrong tone can derail any meaningful discussion — if they could just see words the way I did… Then things would be okay.

Words became like math. An immovable science I could understand. Equations that could be balanced. A way for this introvert to bring order to a chaotic world. “Words matter”, I would murmur solemnly, almost certainly to silent eye-rolls around the dinner table.

Boy, was I wrong. Language simply doesn’t work that way. And I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

A few weeks ago I got into an online discussion with a good friend about their words, while they were trying to tell me about a hurtful experience they had. Instead of hearing what he was trying to communicate (no, the irony didn’t escape me), I tried to convince him to be nicer, to use better tone, to use different words. It was the worst possibly way to handle the discussion.

The next morning I woke up — after apologizing to my friend — and I realized that something has changed in me. Something big.

I’ve lost my belief in words.

And then a William Davies paragraph about the rise of emoji, tucked away in a pretty weird article called Mark Zuckerberg and the End of Language, came back to me:

These strategies for circumventing language are examples of what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called the “crisis of symbolic efficiency.” Somehow, words no longer seem trustworthy or adequate as ways of representing experience. They don’t grasp the truth firmly enough; they slip and slide around. Best to find some more reliable way of communicating experiences between one brain to another.

This is how I feel now. I don’t trust words any more.

I used to believe if we could all agree on the meaning of a certain word, or the language we use when we argue, everything would be ok. I saw myself as a crusader for this cause, but it turns out I was just being condescending.

I used to believe in words. Now there’s a huge gap in my understanding of the world where that belief used to sit.

For now, I know I need to live with the emptiness a little bit longer. It’s uncomfortable, but I have to mourn first. For my naiveté, for my disillusionment, for the way I treated people unfairly because of that belief. But once that’s over, I hope to fill the void with something else that I’m now convinced is much more important than language: empathy.

I hope to grow strong in my ability to seek the meaning behind people’s words, as opposed to presumptuously telling them what their words mean. That’s where my energy has to go next.

Why the haters gonna hate streaming

With the launch of Apple Music last month it seems as if we’ve reached Peak Opinion Count™ on music streaming services. As dirty as it makes me feel, I’d like to add my own to this growing pile of musical thoughts. Because I see streaming music as changing our behavior in two significant ways, and we should probably think this through all the way before we burn all the CDs on the planet and go all-in on these services.

First, streaming services tend to fill us with some level of anxiety due to its neverending-ness (Craig Mod calls this a lack of “edges”). Picking music for road trips used to be serious business because you can only fit so many CDs in your custom leather case. Now we just start up Pandora and off we go. With this comes a tyranny of choice. If I can listen to 20 million songs, why should I listen to this one? What am I missing because I decided not to skip this particular tune? And why would I ever listen to a song more than once—that sounds like a terrible return on investment, right?

So we keep skipping, keep teaching our algorithms to play us more of what we like, and we never just sit with an album and experience it over and over—how the good and the bad often works together to tell a story, how even the bad can become good over time if we put enough effort into it. Those days are over. There’s always something new to discover. And we’re hungry for it, incapable of resisting the lure of the next great song.

Second, with the loss of ownership in favor of “renting” our music comes some side-effects we probably don’t fully comprehend yet. I’m not a Prince fan, but I’m sure Spotify users are pretty upset that he recently pulled his music from all streaming services except Tidal. What will I do if that happens to an artist I do like?

And forgive me, but let’s please not write off the joy of physical media as a hipster thing. Owning a CD or a record, poring over the liner notes, making it part of our lives… There’s something incredibly grounding about that. Something that renting a digital file just doesn’t get you. Say what you will, but I miss glancing over my CDs, observing the wear and tear of albums that have gone through so much with me. Those CD covers became more than the music they contain. They became reminders of a life well lived.

I’m not saying we should all cancel our streaming accounts and buy CD players again. But we should at least think about the consequences of an abundance of musical choice, and the rental model that enables it. Moving quickly from one song to the next will never be as satisfying as really spending time with an album, with no escape from the artist’s intentions and successes and failures. We can all do with a little bit more of that—even if it means going easy on the streaming radio functions and (gasp!) buying a few full albums for a change.

The discomfort of travel

In The Art Of Travel Alain De Botton describes the biggest problem with travel. If you don’t have time to read the book right now, his theory can basically be summarized by that old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Going away always looks and sounds nice. Sandy beaches, sunny weather, local food and culture… What’s not to like? Well, what’s not to like is the part where you take yourself with you when you travel, and your body isn’t particularly agreeable to sudden changes. So instead of arriving happy and ready to party, you usually arrive at a new place exhausted, disoriented, hungry, and extremely uncomfortable due to the horribleness that we euphemistically refer to as “air travel.”

This makes travel a weird thing. It’s awesome before and after, but not during. The anticipation of visiting a new place is great, and the memory and reflection of how everything fits together make all the discomfort worthwhile afterwards. But while you’re in it you can’t make those connections yet — there’s nothing to connect, except how to get from one place to another without getting lost. So instead of “enjoying the journey” (ugh), you’re just tired and you don’t understand the language or the money or the people. It’s a recipe for disillusionment and grumpiness.

How do we fix this? The solution is definitely not to stop traveling, so what’s the alternative? I’ve had way too much time to ponder this question on long flights. So here goes.

The secret to enjoying travel is to set a realistic threshold for enjoyment during the trip. I find that 30% is a good number. If I can find enough activities and experiences to enjoy for about 30% of the trip (Oh, the food! The sights! The wonderful people!), and the other 70% sucks (Crap, where am I! Why can’t I keep my eyes open! IS THERE SERIOUSLY NO DECENT COFFEE IN THIS COUNTRY!), I usually land back home happy that I took the time to go. Anything below that threshold and I proclaim loudly to everyone around me that I will certainly never set foot in a flying metal tube of discomfort, ever again.

“Lowering expectations” seems like a cop-out, but I just don’t see another way. Most of us aren’t capable of ignoring our body’s messed up clocks (and desire for comfort) to the degree necessary to enjoy every minute of travel. And I’ve found that recognizing — before you go — that you’ll have to work to get to that 30% threshold often increases your focus and ability to look for the amazing moments. So try it next time. And let me know how it goes…

All the small things.

I hope that one day my daughters look back on the countless hours we spend reading stories with the same amount of fondness as I will. It's not always fun, of course — The Great Dora Phase of 2013 comes to mind. But for the most part, children's literature is a wonderful art form. You just have to do a little research. For example, one of my favorite paragraphs in the english language is from Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo:

All was quiet in the deep dark wood. The mouse found a nut and the nut was good.

And speaking of Julia Donaldson, my eldest daughter and I have been going through a Snail and the Whale phase. Ok fine, it's mostly me, but whatever. It's about this snail that doesn't want to spend her whole life living on a rock, so she writes a message to ask for a ride around the world. A whale shows up and they go on an amazing journey together.

There's one page, towards the middle, that I always pause on. Even though I've seen it a thousand times, I stop to admire the scenery, and the composition, and the typography, and oh, those words:

And she gazed at the sky, the sea, the land, The waves and the caves and the golden sand. She gazed and gazed, amazed by it all, And she said to the whale, 'I feel so small.'

— Julia Donaldson, The Snail and the Whale

I was in a meeting the other day with a bunch of very important people and in the midst of it I just texted my wife, "I feel like the snail on the whale." She immediately knew what I meant. I would think (hope?) that any of you would have known what I meant, because we all experience this sometimes. We look around us at the big open world, and all the people with their lives perfectly together, and it's hard not to feel just a little bit insignificant. As if our self-worth is somehow linked to how smart or big or important other people think we are. We know it's not true, and yet... I feel so small.

Of course, in the story the snail goes on to (spoiler alert!) save the whale from certain death. The whale washes up on a beach, and the snail goes to get help. In the end they return to the rock and the entire snail colony jumps on the whale's tail, because they also want a piece of the exploration action.

It's pretty much a perfect story. The moral is clear and uplifting: no matter how small you are, and how big the world is, you can still make a difference in someone's life. And it's universal enough to make emotional parents like me choke up every time I read it.

But yeah, then I close the book and walk out the door and sit in meetings and forget about the lesson because all I can think about is how I'm this tiny speck on a big world's tail and what if I fall off or get lost or say the wrong thing or not live up to expectations or mess up this big project or...

I’m definitely not writing about that

“The deadline for my first essay on The Pastry Box is coming up on Tuesday and I have no idea what to write about,” I tell my wife nervously. It doesn’t take her long to come up with a suggestion.

“Write about the things that are bothering you right now. Write about sacrifice, and moving, and how you feel about your career. Write about the self-doubt and the regrets and the frustrations.”

In general “write what you know” is good advice, but this time I’m going to disagree with her. There’s no way I’m going to let people in on my secret. How 2014 was a terrible year for my career, mostly because of my own bad decisions. How I’m plagued by regret because of those decisions. How strong the imposter syndrome is in this guy. How I moved my entire family across the world only for that world to stop spinning as two weeks into my new job all I could think was, “What have I done…”

I can’t risk people finding out that I often think that I don’t know what I’m doing. That I sometimes wonder if I contribute anything worthwhile to society, that “make a dent in the universe” is just too much to ask of a regular person like me. That other people’s sites and books and blog posts and designs intimidate me to a point where I just want to leave the room quietly and never come back.

I’m not going to write about all that because I’m sure I’m the only one who feels like this and I don’t want to embarrass myself. The internet shows me that everyone else had fabulous years, and the internet never lies. So if I confess to feeling envious of everyone else’s accomplishments they will point and laugh at my insecurities, and I don’t want that. Granted, it would be comforting to know others feel the same way sometimes, but I just can’t take the chance to find out.

I could talk about some of the things I learned, I guess. Like that technology can be as isolating as it is connecting when you listen to the wrong voices. How managers don’t realize the enormous impact they have on the self-esteem and growth of their teams. How, when things are desperate, the only helpful place to retreat to is the company of the people you hold dear — as tempting as social media might be in those moments. But I won’t be able to share that without mentioning that I feel I have to start over again this year and it’s scaring the hell out of me.

I’m going to have to find something else to write about. I hope it comes to me before Tuesday.