Sunday, November 24, 2013

To An Aspiring Programmer

If you asked me what advice I would give to a young person who is planning to spend their career in a technology-related field, here is what I would offer:
  1. Take initiative.
  2. Make things.
To elaborate on these two points a little: put yourself out there. You have no idea what you are capable of until you do. Start things. Persist in them even when they get difficult.

Sure, that is not all you need to do in order to be successful. There are other things to consider. You need to figure out how to earn a living. You need to figure out how you work best with other people in the various settings you will find yourself in. You need to figure out (warning: thought-stopping cliché ahead) what you are really passionate about. And so on.

The details will depend on who you are and your environment.

But if you do the two items listed above, you will have no trouble figuring everything else out when you need to.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


In the movie Solaris, psychologist Chris Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting a distant planet to investigate an odd phenomenon: deceased loved ones of the crew members are appearing on the ship. So, the planet they're orbiting reads Kelvin's mind, learns everything it can about his late wife, and replicates her.

What makes this story really interesting is that the replicants are not complete recreations; they are based merely on the memories of those who remember them. I generally don't pay any attention to movie critics, but I found the following except from Roger Ebert's review of the 2002 remake to be surprisingly poetic:

"In other words, Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. She has no secrets because he did not know her secrets...The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that...We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them."

Friday, August 31, 2012

"I Am Determined to Make this Work"

There are two different flavors of creativity.

The first is the one with which most of us are both intuitively and empirically familiar: the "aha" moment. It is the spark that comes from talking to a bunch of strangers in an evening with varying interests. It is no secret that cross-germination of ideas between people with different professions is a good way to generate ideas. And we are delighted when something shiny and new arrives in our head, seemingly out of nowhere. (Even though most ideas are derivative of something that has come before, whether we know or readily acknowledge this.)

The second kind: focus. It is picking a particular "aha" moment and running with it. It is the attitude of "I am determined to make this work". It is a willingness to stare a difficult problem in the face, even when it seems insurmountable, and to refuse to back down. This is the kind of creativity that builds careers and companies.

If you need ideas, go engage people who are different than you in conversation and listen to what they say. Ideas will eventually come; that is the easy part. It is much harder to commit, to move past the one-night stand brand of ideation, to asking a single idea out on a series of dates.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When Business Ain't Great

In attending meetup groups and business mixers, you meet a lot of people. I'm fortunate enough to meet the kinds of people who have upped and started their own small businesses, whether they're full-time or just a hobby on the side. I learn a lot from these people.

The tone of these conversations is generally extremely positive, but sometimes, you will meet someone who is complaining about how tough it is out there. It might be the purveyor of a used bookstore talking about how people are just reading everything on their Kindles these days, so for their shop, business is suffering.

When I encounter this kind of conversation, I have a question that I like to ask: "Over the course of the past year, what have you learned from your customers, and what are you doing differently now as a result of that feedback?"

It's a selfish question. I don't offer it in order to send a subtle message to the person I'm talking to. (I'm not the guy who should be giving advice about how to run a business.) I offer the question because it changes the tone of the conversation from a gripe session to something structured from which I might be able to learn something. If the person offers a story about customer feedback that changed the way they ran their business, there could be a great takeaway for me in that.

And if they don't have an answer to the question, then it brings about an end to the conversation. Just as well...if that's the case, then I'm not convinced they've earned the right to complain.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Unbottled Water

Bottled water, as an idea and as a reality, is ridiculous. I know this. So does everyone else.

And yet, there are several empty and full plastic bottles of water in my home and the place where I work.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the bottled water industry, which seems to be insanely profitable despite the fact that they're packaging something that any of us could get for free. So where's the value added? Why buy?

I think there are two answers: convenience and esteem. It's easier to pop into a 7-Eleven, buy a bottle, and carry it with us than to have an empty container that we must fill from a publicly available source. And we do feel like we're spoiling ourselves, in a good way. It's a minuscule psychological reward we treat ourselves with for good behavior.

The "Unbottled Movement" has a long uphill battle ahead of it, because the power of social marketing, in the name of environmental sustainability, is very weak compared to the net benefit to each individual. It's a liquid tragedy of the commons. And the industry itself is large enough that any legislation designed to curb the advance of bottled water is unlikely to be implemented or very effective.

So how to push back? I'd like to see more people standing up in their communities and asking their mayors for more drinking fountains. If publicly available water, free of charge, is readily available, people are less likely to buy a bottle.

I'd like to see the manufacturers of drinking fountains push models that make filling a water bottle easier. Have you ever tilted a bottle with a tiny mouth over a traditional drinking fountain and attempted to fill it from that tiny stream with an arc of three inches? It's hard to do. There should be a separate spout on the side of all drinking fountains that allow you to fill a bottle without doing that inconvenient dance.

I'd like to drink tap water, make it known without having to explicitly tell people, and not have to appear pious in the process. Deciding to forgo bottled water in favor of tap water is an invisible activity, and the only way to make it known is by telling other people that you're doing it. This almost always comes off as righteous indignation, which is very unbecoming behavior for most of us.

Lastly, I think finding a good use for all that extra plastic helps. I think this town in Lithuania and the artist they commissioned are brilliant.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Looking For Validation

Make no mistake: validation is what almost everyone is looking for with almost every action they take.

If someone shares an opinion with you, more likely than not, they're looking for confirmation that you agree with them. Or that you think they're smart. Or, at the very least, they're asking you to hear them out and acknowledge that you've at least considered their point of view.

You can read any number of "How to Make Other People Like You" type books, and most of them are elaborating on that basic idea: when people talk, validate them. (This is not to reduce the content of these books, but that seems to be the essence.)

This is why social media, like Facebook and Twitter, works so well: validation is quick and easy. You can post something quick and short to a receptive audience, and people validate you by clicking the "Like" button, commenting, retweeting, and so on.

This explains why the world is growing more "chunky". A sentence is better than a long, multi-paragraph version of your own opinion, because if you post something short, more people will consume it, and this proportionally increases the number of "validation hits" you're going to receive.

If you write a research paper, there's a chance that only a small handful of people will ever read it, and those that do might all hate it. If you write a novel as a new or obscure author, it's the same dilemma: small potential audience, and the chances that anyone is going to validate your work is next to zero.

This is why word processors sit open and empty with people staring at them, while they're thinking, in the backs of their minds, "I wonder what's happening on Facebook?"

This is why students in classrooms are more attracted to what's happening on their smartphones than what the teacher is doing on the blackboard. Their phone connects them to all the people who like them and validate them. The teacher, in my experience, represents the antithesis of this: a menacing authority that could call on you to answer a question, and if you don't know the answer, you'll feel like a fool.

It should be easier for me to write a paper for a class and get quick validation on some pieces of it. It should be easier for me to work on a math problem and feel like someone is proud of me for having attempted the problem, even if I got it wrong and I have to start over.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying, and that makes the solution seem easy. It's not. But I firmly believe this: that sociotechnical systems have to evolve so that grander aspirations are easier for our peers to discover and validate for us. As human beings, when we do stuff and we're validated, we do more of that stuff. (Will the real B.F. Skinner please stand up?)

Here's the executive summary: if you want me to do it, make it clear to me that someone else gives a damn.

And in most cases, this is extremely difficult, because the world is desperately short on people willing to take the time to express how much they give a damn.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Death of Trivial Pursuit

The name "Trivial Pursuit" was likely coined to be tongue-in-cheek. No doubt they were playing to the fact that "trivial" contains the word "trivia", but someone at Hasbro must have intended the self-deprecating connotation. Namely, that pursuing victory in a board game with random trivia questions isn't an achievement with any real substance.

In an era when most of us have a computer in our pocket, capable of looking up the answers to any of these questions, what is the point of this game? Sure, the one thing that keeps us from cheating is the fact that we're playing with friends or family. They keep us honest, because if we tried to pull out our smartphone to look up an answer, they'd balk. "Where's the fun in that?" they'd ask.

If someone asked me to play Trivial Pursuit, that's the question I'd ask them. If it's just as easy for me to look up the answer, why bother memorizing it?

A worthwhile pursuit (as opposed to a trivial one) is one with higher stakes. It's one that involves self-expression instead of merely spewing memorized facts. It's entering a painting into an art competition to be judged by peers. When it really matters, there is no card to tell you whether you were right or wrong.

The name "Trivial Pursuit" wasn't just a joke at the game's own expense; it was prescient nomenclature. The name was way ahead of its time.