Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist

Does Amanda Palmer’s model of asking scale?

February 20th, 2015

A friend asked in response to my last post whether I thought Amanda Palmer’s model of asking could scale. Could everybody find success that way? Do you have to be a rock star public figure to make it work? Does the “doing your work for free and then asking people to give you money” model generalize to housecleaners or programmers?

I think her approach does scale to many artists, and it’s getting easier with companies like Patreon allowing artists to make a livable wage from a relatively small number of supporters. It’s certainly much more scalable and democratic than the previous system of record labels for musicians and publishers for books – there are so many more ways for artists to get known and build their following now than there were 20 years ago. At that time, Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content wouldn’t have been able to support himself doing comics unless he gets a newspaper syndicate deal. Yes, it is very much the “do your work for free and then asking people to give you money” approach that he did, but it is more and more possible for artists to support themselves that way, which I think is a positive trend.

And I think it does scale, because we all have different tastes. I support Questionable Content, Pomplamoose, Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, etc. via these various crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter. Somebody else would support different artists. There are lots of dollars out there being spent on entertainment, and I think more artists have a brighter future in a world of democratized access, since now they can find fans who like their specific art anywhere in the world via the Internet. Again, Amanda Palmer’s label dropped her because her album “only” sold 25,000 copies, but that’s enough for her to be a massive success as an artist from her perspective, and we can support a lot of artists if that’s the necessary scale.

Does this model work outside of art? In some ways. “Do your work for free and then ask people to give you money” describes entrepreneurs starting a company. Or interns. Or programmers – the canonical advice for programmers trying to break in these days is to do good work on an open source project in github so that companies can see your work and then decide to hire you. Or even house cleaning – many services offer a discount on the first cleaning to get people to try them, in the hopes that they will stick around and be a recurring customer going forward. When breaking into a new field, the best way to get experience is to offer to do it for free and then parlay that experience into a job. It’s a little different than the artist model as it’s more about trying to get a job than to create a job, but I think similar principles apply.

Now, that doesn’t scale to everybody because you have to be in a situation where you can afford to work for free until you do find customers and/or investment, so it helps to have well-off parents or an understanding spouse to support you while you make that transition. But what most artists do is have a day job, and do their art (music, comics, sculpture) on nights and weekends, and try to build enough of an audience so that they can quit the day job. And that doesn’t happen for everybody, but I feel like it is happening more and more, and I see that as a positive trend.

I think one distinction that I didn’t mention in my previous post is that people can’t just ask without doing the work. She has a discussion in the book about the difference between asking and begging. But if one has found an audience that is getting value from one’s work, then asking for them to pay for that value is a reasonable step. And it doesn’t have to be in the flamboyant public way that Amanda does it. I am seeking out opportunities to mentor startups on strategy and business modeling these days. At some point, I will convince myself that I’m “good enough” to charge people for that advice and potentially start a strategy consulting business. That’s very different from what Amanda is doing as a rock star musician, but I see the processes as being similar – do what you love for free outside of your day job, but look for ways to turn it into something where people will pay you money (admittedly, as my friend pointed out, it helps to have a high paying day job). At some point, you have to take the leap of faith and trust that the people with whom you have built a connection will catch you. And that doesn’t require a huge audience – just a dedicated one (c.f. Kevin Kelly’s discussion on 1000 True Fans).

And part of asking in this model is figuring out who your audience is. Amanda decided she cared more about staying true to her artistic vision and to her eclectic fans than sticking with the label, writing pop songs and trying to make it big in a more traditional way. And she found success that way. In my own career, I spent years trying to be something I wasn’t (first, a specialist in physics or programming, and more recently, an operations/process guy in finance), because I thought that’s what I had to do to “be successful”. And it turns out I’m more successful (both professionally and socially) when I stick to the quirky generalist traits that differentiate me. I should also note that I’m inspired by Seth Godin’s work in Linchpin and his latest book “What to do when it’s your turn (and it’s always your turn)” (as an aside, I just ordered a 3-pack of Seth’s book, so if you want a free copy, let me know).

Anyway, lots of interesting thoughts inspired by my friend’s questions, so I thought I’d share. What do you think?

The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

February 19th, 2015

Amazon link

Given my last post was about charity, I thought it was appropriate to follow up with my long overdue review of Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking. The book is an amplification of Palmer’s TED talk with the same title, discussing the connection between an artist and her fans. But it’s also a chance to curl up and spend some time with Amanda telling stories from throughout her life, from her music career to her courtship with Neil Gaiman to the remarkable ways in which she connects with her fans.

For those that don’t know of her, Amanda Palmer is a woman that defies description in many ways. She is known primarily for being a musician (she recently created the Amandalanda webpage to direct people who only know her through the TED talk and her book to learn about her music) (the picture at the right is when she spoke at Google and was asking the audience whether they’d rather hear a song or a reading), but she is so much more – I consider her a force of nature. She is unapologetically who she is, and she is fighting hard every day to make the world bend to her, rather than the other way around. She fought to get control of her music back from the label she originally signed with, she makes her music (and associated videos) according to her vision, and I think it’s interesting how she is experimenting with new ways for us fans to fund artists, from pay-what-you-want to her record-setting Kickstarter.

The central question the book addresses is why is it so hard for us to ask for help? One of the stories she tells over the course of the book is how difficult it was for her to ask for a loan from her husband, Neil Gaiman, even though he could afford it and wanted to help. And this is from a woman who has been supported by her fans all the way back to her days as a living statue in Harvard Square. But she couldn’t bring herself to ask her husband for help because of all sorts of voices in her head saying that it wasn’t right, that she was an independent woman, that she would find her own way, etc. Many of us have this narrative going in our head that asking for help is equivalent to giving up – it’s an admission of weakness, and a permanent stain on our character.

One of the passages she chose to read at Google was about discussing with another musician about whether they “deserved” the money that their fans were giving to them. And she related it back to Thoreau, whose story of Walden is well known as a story of living with nature in solitary self-reliance. Except that, according to Amanda, Thoreau was not in solitude at all. In fact, his mother and sister stopped by once a week to deliver fresh baked goods, including doughnuts. Amanda’s point is that we can all aspire to self-reliance, but when somebody wants to give you doughnuts, take the fucking doughnuts. In other words, don’t turn down help because you don’t feel like you deserve it – if somebody wants to help you, that’s their choice, and you should accept it gratefully and gracefully.

But it’s hard. There are cultural norms against getting help, especially in America, going back to the Protestant work ethic. It’s a little funny, considering that the Puritans wouldn’t have survived the winter without the help of Squanto and the Indians, which we celebrate each year at Thanksgiving – in that sense, you’d think that getting undeserved help would be literally as American as apple pie. But that’s not the case, as evidenced by the continued culture wars against welfare and food stamps – there is a strong feeling that people should have to “earn” money rather than being given it (a topic I’ve struggled with myself).

We have a similarly complicated relationship with artists in that some people feel that artists don’t “deserve” money because they should enjoy making art for its own sake. Money should only be “earned” by doing unpleasant “work”, which is why some people also take umbrage at athletes getting paid millions of dollars to play a “kid’s game”. I think such people are missing the tautological capitalistic assumption that that people are “worth” whatever others choose to pay them. In part, they don’t like that assumption because it forces them to confront what we actually value – if athletes are millionaires and teachers are not, then we as a society value athletes much more. This makes such people uncomfortable, forcing them to say that the athletes don’t “deserve” the money – that the money is not representing true societal value.

These are difficult questions to grapple with – Amanda refers to the voices in her head that she calls the Fraud Police, asking her “Do you really deserve this? Did you earn it?” and telling her to “Get a job!” And we all have those voices, which is why asking for help is so hard. And yet, asking for help is also an opportunity to connect in a real way with other humans. We all deserve help, so it is okay to ask for it. In fact, it is a gift to others.

In a coaching class I took a few years ago, the facilitator asked at the beginning of the class, “How many of you like to help other people?” Everybody raised their hand; after all, why would we be taking a coaching class if we didn’t want to help others? Then she asked, “How many of you like asking for help?” Nobody raised their hand. And she waited for us to make the obvious connection that none of us can get the desirable experience of helping others if none of us ask for help.

Palmer mentions Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift (my terrible review of this excellent book) which traces out the gift economy and the idea that gifts must continue to circulate. By giving more, you will get given more. But if you hoard a gift, the value disappears. I think that’s the attitude we have to have about asking for help – it is an ongoing network. You pay it forward and have no idea of how you will get paid back, and yet having that generous attitude will ensure that you do.

I loved reading The Art of Asking, and highly recommend it. Amanda Palmer does a great job of telling wrenchingly personal stories while weaving in these larger questions that many of us grapple with.

Dan Pallotta’s TED talk “The way we think about charities is dead wrong”

February 12th, 2015

A friend of mine had recommended I watch this TED talk by Dan Pallotta, titled “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. I finally got around to watching it last night and wrote up my notes in an email to my friend and then figured I might as well post them on the blog as well.

Pallotta’s main point is that the metric of “overhead” in charity is a misleading one at best, and is actively damaging in some cases. Givers want their money to go straight to the cause they are trying to support, so they want “overhead” to be as low as possible. But he points out that if that money can be used effectively for fundraising, then there will be a multiplicative effect such that more money in total goes to the cause. He gives this example: “We launched the AIDSRides with an initial investment of 50,000 dollars in risk capital. Within nine years, we had multiplied that 1,982 times into 108 million dollars after all expenses for AIDS services.”

I think the idea of growing the pie is one that people tend not to instinctively get, not just in charity work but everywhere. People assume that if a job goes to an immigrant, that’s one less job for an American, as if there is a fixed set of jobs, and it’s a zero-sum game such that if you get a dollar, I don’t. But the world doesn’t work like that – we regularly see vast new sources of value being created, which have benefits for everyone (I recently read Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, which makes a similar point). It is so much more powerful to think in a non-zero sum way, and realizing that by working together to grow the pie, everybody is better off. Play the infinite game, people!

I also think his point about how we expect people to work at non-profits to work for cheaper is fascinating. I loved his example of the Stanford MBA who makes $400k a year is better off donating $100k/year to charity and getting the tax writeoff than actually going to work for a non-profit where he or she would have to take a $300k/year paycut. It’s similar to the conflicted attitude people have towards artists making money, as illustrated in Amanda Palmer’s recent article.

At the same time, I also know how easy it is to waste money in fundraising and marketing – I was the finance manager for Google Offers, Google’s Groupon-like product. We definitely pushed marketing dollars into that, and…not so successful, despite those Stanford MBAs. He was very successful at multiplying the impact of his fundraising dollars exponentially but I don’t know how generalizable a case that is – it is _hard_ to gain visibility in today’s fast-moving complex world, as there are just so many entities competing for people’s attention.

I also thought it was funny that he cited the stat of giving in the US staying at 2% of GDP a year for decades, and says that they can’t compete with companies spending on advertising. One of the stats I use at Google is that the advertising business as a whole has averaged around 1.3% of GDP for a century, according to Bloomberg – nothing has moved that dial. It’s moved from radio to TV to the Internet, but the total pie has not grown despite everybody in advertising extolling the virtues of growing the pie. So I don’t think giving is doing as badly as he thinks it is :)

It was an interesting talk, and I agree with his point that we should treat charities more like we treat companies – give them the time and the resources to invest in themselves such that they can grow and be more effective. I’ll have to think more about how to choose which charities to donate to.

Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo at the Interval

February 11th, 2015

A couple weeks ago, I went to see Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo give a “salon talk” at the Interval (recap and audio of the talk here). It was a packed house – the talk had sold out in less than an hour, but I was lucky enough to be checking email when the tickets went on sale and bought one immediately, as these are two of my favorite thinkers. Stewart Brand is legendary for the Whole Earth Catalog, How Buildings Learn, the Long Now, etc. And I have been a fan of Paul Saffo since seeing him speak at Xerox PARC a decade ago.

The topic of the night was Stewart Brand’s framework of pace layers – he posited that change happens in civilizations at different levels and at different speeds. Fashion is changing all the time, as people try new things – most fashion trends are fads that we forget, but some get absorbed into the culture. At the other end, nature is relatively slow-moving which is why it is difficult for us to create urgency around it (e.g. global warming).

I was jotting down notes throughout the talk, especially quotes that were good soundbites, so I’ll share those below and annotate, but I also recommend reading the official recap.

Brand: “Like all good things, this was stolen.” (commenting that pace layers were inspired by Frank Duffy’s “shearing layers”)

Brand: “Why do architects keep making, at higher expense, buildings that people detest?” He went on to note that over the lifetime of a building, only one third of the cost is in initial construction – the other two thirds is from doing remodeling and reskinning – he has a friend who realized this and started a company to do remodeling, which turns out to be more profitable than doing the initial construction.

Brand: “The fundamental problem of buildings: they are always trying to tear themselves apart.”

Brand: “Architects want to design buildings to stay the way they designed it. So they make it hard to change without tearing down the building” by putting the infrastructure of the building like pipes and electricity in hard-to-reach places. Instead of designing the building to be modifiable so it can adapt as needs change, architects want the building to remain true to their vision, even if it no longer suits the inhabitants of that building. I think there’s a deep concept here as designers, engineers and architects too often will prioritize their ego (in the form of their brilliant design at a point in time) over the needs of their users, which can change.

Brand showed a great set of two photographs of San Francisco, one from the 1800s and one from today. And the street layout was the same, even though the buildings inhabiting those streets were much bigger. As he put it, “Huge skyscrapers have to dance to that choreography” (of the streets that already exist).

Brand moved on to talk about the pace layers framework itself.

Brand: “Fashion is about fashion – that’s why the curly line as it is about itself and is going back on itself.” Fashion is not for something – it is purely about experimentation and trying new things and commenting on itself.

Brand: “There has to be slippage between layers.” Layers are not independent – what happens in one layer can affect others. So when a big event happens, it has impacts on multiple layers – Saffo later gave the example of the earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco (a surprisingly big change in the Nature layer) which led to the chance to remake the city (the Infrastructure layer) but also, because it cost so much to re-build SF, led to the Panic of 1907 (the Commerce layer). So big events reverberate at different timescales among the different layers, making causality sometimes difficult to track.

Brand: “If you’re young or live in cities, you are focused on the quick stuff.” (Like fashion) Young people thrive on change and action, so they are focused more on the fast layers – I would posit this is why so many smart people go to Wall Street straight out of college, both for the Fashion layer of New York as well as the Commerce layer of Wall Street.

Brand: “We are now at peak children.” I thought this was interesting – he says that as birth control gets more widely spread, and as societies become richer, they will have less children. We have been relatively successful at reducing infant mortality, which means more kids are surviving now than ever before, and soon culture will reflect that and people will start having fewer children. I don’t know if I believe it, but it’s an interesting idea.

I liked this slide to summarize the difference between the fast and slow layers. It reminds me of my framework of learn and latch, where certain elements of society are off trying new things, and then the successful ones get built into society so that the next generation doesn’t have to re-learn the same things. If we were experimenting all the time, we’d never make progress, but if we only did what had been previously successful, we couldn’t adapt. It’s the balance between the two that has made humanity so successful.

Brand: “The layers are a sifting device to figure out what matters to people.” He noted that hula hoops and jogging started in the same summer, but only one lasted. Fast layers are about trying lots of things, and seeing what sticks around.

After Brand’s description of the pace layers concept, Paul Saffo came up to offer some thoughts.

Saffo: “Slow layers catch up to fast layers.” He gave the example of the Internet innovating fast (in the Commerce and Infrastructure layers), but then starting to slow down now that Congress (the Governance layer) has caught up and is starting to get involved. He commented that this is why exponential growth decays into an s-curve.

Saffo discussed the idea of “productive turbulence”. Not only is there slippage between layers, but there is friction and turbulence between layers. “The boundaries of pace layers are more interesting innovations and change than the layers themselves.” The boundaries are where we as a society decide what we value – these conflicts can sometimes take decades to work out.

Saffo: “Layers don’t just vary in speed but viscosity.”

Saffo: “Think of silicon valley as a standing vortex.” He posits that Silicon Valley is an interface between layers, where fashion, commerce and infrastructure are all iterating fast, and then coming into conflict with the governance and culture of the US. He also noted that the San Andreas Fault lurking beneath our feet brings an awareness of instability even in the Nature layer.

Saffo: “An early adopter is somebody who pays too much for something that doesn’t quite work yet.” He said that the government was the early adopter for the space race, which drove technology like digital computing.

In response to a question of where the governance layer is responsive, Brand said it was at the city level, especially with regard to services like fixing potholes. In general, Brand believes that cities and city states are the future of governance, as they are at the right span of control to be effective for their constituents. But he also noted that we need a global government to manage problems like global warming.

Saffo recommended the book “A General Theory of Bureaucracy”, by Elliott Jaques, as it describes the timespan of discretion, and whether decisions are made with regard to consequences of 20 minutes or centuries.

Somebody asked where technology fit into the pace layers framework, and Brand said that he originally had technology as its own layer, but eventually realized that technology was in all of the layers – it was a component of fashion, commerce, governance, infrastructure, etc. It was an enabler, not a layer in itself. He said that institutions are similar in cutting across layers.

I can’t remember the question, but Brand noted that he thinks there is a values crisis in China (a crisis of the Culture layer). For decades, the Communist party was both governance and culture, but people now see that the party is outmoded, so they have flipped to the opposite extreme of prizing capitalism over all else. Everybody is pursuing wealth because they have nothing else to believe in. Commerce has taken over the Culture layer.

Brand: “Bear in mind this is a data free diagram” (in response to whether the layers are logarithmic)

Saffo at one point got on a rant about exponential literacy. We don’t have a good sense for power laws and how quickly things can blow up in exponentials (the example of the rice on the chessboard). But he also noted that there is “great folly and error” in too much belief in exponentials – the population bomb never detonated because other factors (other layers) smoothed out the exponential. He thinks the Singularity is “exponential horseshit” for the same reason.

One question was “Why does some art end up in culture rather than fashion?” Brand quoted Brian Eno, who said “Art is doggedly nonfunctional, as is fashion” and went on to comment that “Surprise and innovation are things we need to be braced for. The way we get practice in dealing with surprises is by dealing with art. Art keeps us exercised with radical originality in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Interesting ideas. I think the pace layers framework can be helpful in thinking about how society changes. I’m not sure it makes much difference which layers one chooses to consider, as the essential idea to me is the friction between layers, where some elements of society are trying new things, and other elements are trying to preserve the way things are, and the conflict between them is where we decide (discover?) what we as a society value. Fun stuff – I’m glad I made the trek to the Marina for the talk.

One step at a time

February 10th, 2015

I was helping an entrepreneur friend with his investor pitch last week, and something was bugging me – the pitch didn’t feel right, even though I think the idea is good. He is passionate about how to run a company, so he was describing his philosophy of management in the pitch. And I realized that the issue I had with the pitch was that he was getting into the details of running the company before he had even gotten the investor on board. He was forgetting that pitching is selling – his job in the pitch is to get the audience interested in investing.

In any sales pitch, it is important to treat the process as a series of incremental steps. If you skip steps, you make it harder to close the deal. In my friend’s case, he was talking about running the company before he had convinced the investor that his idea would make a viable company. It would be like talking about how one would raise kids together on a first date, or telling a recruiter how you would change the job on your first phone screen. It was too soon to get into that.

So let’s talk about the steps of a few processes. I’ve already described how I see job hunting in my post on writing resumes: the resume gets you the phone screen, the phone screen gets you the in-person interview, the interview is what gets you the job. You need to tune each step to get you to the next step – the resume is not to get you the job, but to interest the hiring manager in talking to you on the phone.

Similarly in an investor pitch, the prospectus gets you 10 minutes with an investor, but even that 10 minutes is not really 10 minutes. If you haven’t caught their attention in the first 30 seconds, they’re often already checking out. The first 30 seconds earns you another 2 minutes of attention and those 2 minutes earns you their attention for the full 10 minutes. In other words, get to the point immediately. I tell people that any pitch needs to start off with three components: who the user is, the problem that user is facing, and why they will pay you money to solve it – telling a personalized story is an effective way to do that in that first 30 seconds. I’ve seen too many pitches where the presenter takes 10 minutes to get to their idea, and by that point, the audience has long lost interest. Earn the audience’s attention quickly or you lose them forever.

Speaking of forever, part of what tripped me up about dating for the longest time is that I would treat every first date as beginning a relationship that could lead to marriage and a life together, making every first date tremendously stressful. I cured myself of that in 2013 by going on lots of dates and realizing that the goal of a first date is to determine if there is the potential for a second date. That’s it. By just focusing on the immediate next step, the entire process was less stressful. Admittedly, my single status probably means I shouldn’t be giving dating advice, but whatever.

I think this approach to sales is generally applicable to life; all too often, we have ambitious goals that seem too intimidating to attempt. But the way to achieve them is to break them down into a set of incremental steps and then start doing one step at a time. I talked about this in my post on challenging oneself with regard to biking and working up to signing up for the Death Ride. I couldn’t wake up in July and just go do the Death Ride, the same way my friend can’t expect somebody to invest in his company on first contact. You have to map out the necessary steps to get to the goal, and go through each one, rather than trying to skip to the end.

Admittedly, there is no guarantee of success even if one follows each step. And some people are in the fortunate position to be able to accelerate through or even skip steps due to accumulated advantages. But the process of breaking down larger processes into steps and thinking of the goals for each step was a useful framing for me, so I thought I would share.

Setting the context

January 30th, 2015

Sometimes I wonder about the value of what I do at Google 1. In the search ads organization where I work, there are hundreds of people building new features and products. And then there’s me wandering around, looking at big picture business metrics, and thinking about long-term trends and how they might affect Google. I’m not developing product ideas, I’m not writing difficult code, I’m not doing sophisticated statistical analyses. I don’t produce anything tangible, other than a couple decks with observations on the business.

And then I have a meeting like the one I had yesterday with the metrics team. This is a team of PhD statisticians that does amazing quantitative analyses of our ad systems – I can’t even understand the one-page summaries of their analyses. But their director invited me to their team meeting to share my thoughts on what’s going on with Google’s business as they brainstorm about their planned analyses for 2015. And they were all super engaged and excited to get my big-picture view on Google and how it fits into the business ecosystem – several members of the team stopped me today in the hall and told me they really enjoyed my talk and then asked me more questions.

One of them asked a great question at the end of the meeting yesterday – he noted that I had given them this 30,000 foot view of the business, and then he has his 10 foot view of the business in his day-to-day work, and he asked how we could do a better job of connecting those. Understanding the big picture doesn’t add value unless it translates into day-to-day work in the form of new products and features. And that’s one of my ongoing challenges with being a generalist – I struggle to translate my viewpoint into action (as I discussed in my understanders vs. fixers post).

But one thing I’ve realized over the past few years is that by talking about the big picture repeatedly, I am helping to set the context for the people doing the work. When they make decisions in their day-to-day work, maybe they make different decisions because they have heard the big-picture story I told. They might prioritize things differently – the engineer might implement a feature differently because they know better how their code fits into the larger system. In the ideal case, different results start to happen because of the stories I tell, even though I myself don’t do any of the work; for instance, the metrics team I talked to will be thinking about how their analyses can answer some of the big questions the business is facing in 2015.

This is the value I feel I bring to a team at work. By helping to set the context, I hope to make everybody on the team more productive. This is also the role that managers and leaders play in an organization – it’s why companies have all hands meetings and the like. Getting everybody onto the same page and focused on the same problems is one of the biggest challenges of an organization, and figuring out more scalable ways of creating that alignment is one of the questions I’m most interested in these days.


  1. To be clear, my manager values the work I do at Google – I just sometimes question myself

2014 Year in Review

December 31st, 2014

After 2013 was the Year of Yes for me, I would characterize 2014 as the Year of More. I didn’t start any new activities in 2014, and instead did a lot more of what I was already doing.

Job: I am still in the same job as last year (Chief of Staff to Product VP of AdWords at Google), and have an ever-growing set of responsibilities, including presenting a comprehensive set of business metrics to the SVP twice a quarter, being the point of contact for regular updates on the search ads business to the rest of Google (including Board of Director updates, investor relations updates, etc), thinking about the 3-5 year strategy for search ads, and doing revenue analyses and business modeling as needed.

Generalisting: As mentioned in my recent Generalist is In post, I’ve been expanding my work with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and trying to be a useful sounding board for friends and colleagues with their business and strategy challenges. I also restarted SF Salons as suggested in last year’s post, and had several enjoyable evenings out discussing ideas with friends. I also joined a design/business book club, which has met twice so far.

Singing: I continue to sing with the Collage Vocal Ensemble, with the highlight of the year being my solo in this PDQ Bach piece, which begins at 2:22.

Skiing in BaldfaceSkiing: I went all-in with skiing this year – since there was minimal snow in Tahoe this past winter, my ski house crew did two international skiing trips, one to Niseko in Japan, including my first helicopter ski day, 3 days of touristing in Tokyo and a day in Kyoto, and one to Baldface, a cat skiing lodge in British Columbia (pictured right). This sparked my interest in backcountry skiing, so I bought all the gear this summer, and took an intro to backcountry skiing and an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche course with Richard Bothwell of the Outdoor Adventure Club in Lassen National Park the past two weekends, which was awesome. I’m excited to start doing my own backcountry trips this winter!

Moab ridingBiking: I also went all-in with biking this year – I went on 53 bike rides for 2000 miles and 165,000 vertical feet in 2014 (Strava captures most of it) (up from 22 rides for 622 miles and 26k vertical feet in 2013), and that doesn’t count the 172 times I bike commuted to work (another 850 miles or so). The highlight of the year was doing a mountain bike tour from Durango, CO to Moab, UT, via a hut-to-hut system run by San Juan Huts, about 222 miles and 22k vertical feet of climbing over 7 days of riding (not included in Strava). The scenery was amazing and it was really satisfying to travel on human power alone. Levi's Gran FondoAfter I got back from that, I finished off the year by doing two centuries, the Marin Century and Levi’s Gran Fondo and am aiming for the Death Ride next July. Other biking highlights from 2014 include bike camping on Angel Island, and my first mountain biking experiences in Tahoe (Memorial Day and the Flume Trail and Hole in the Ground trail in September).

Other stuff:

  • I got more into volleyball, playing 58 times in 2014 compared to 35 times in 2013. I have been playing with the same set of guys for a year and a half, so we are pretty evenly matched with each other, but it was gratifying when I played with other people this fall and realized I have gotten a lot better in the past year – my group was just all getting better together.

  • In general, I exercised 161 times in 2014 compared to 125 in 2013 and 80 in 2012, which has definitely gotten me in better shape over the past two years.
  • I went to Dublin for work in October, and popped over to visit the London office as long as I was across the Atlantic, which was useful.
  • I went to Overlap’14 in Almont, CO, which was a great weekend of getting back to the basics with a group of people I really enjoy hanging out with. I’ll write more about Overlap at some point, as I love being part of that community.
  • And lastly, I turned 40 this year. I had a great birthday weekend, with friends flying out for the event. We took over Hog and Rocks on Friday night, had a huge BBQ on Saturday (80+ people including kids – see below), and hung out some more on Sunday. It was delightful. I am thankful to have so many awesome people in my life and look forward to spending more time with them and to making new friends in 2015!

Group Photo 2014

The challenge of humanity

December 22nd, 2014

[This is a response to an email prompt from a design-y list I’m on, where the original poster posited that “Computing is all around us” and “we are a part of the computer”, but after writing the response, I thought it was general purpose enough to post here]

I think it is a mistake to think of computers as separate than human, something that we are integrated into. I believe computing is, in many ways, like any other technology, and it’s one that we choose to incorporate into our lives. This is why I tend not to believe in techno-determinism (e.g. the Singularity), where engineers want to believe that technology will change how we live and interact quickly. It takes time for new technology to be integrated and accepted, and often that timing happens on the scale of human generations (shades of Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions).

So I think you have it flipped when you say “We are part of this machine”. I think the machine is part of us. Computers have no volition (at this point) other than what we give them. When computers do something, it is because they were designed to do it, or because they were poorly designed and behave in ways that surprise their creators. It’s not like we consider people to have become cyborgs when they get pacemakers (which are little computers embedded into people), or artificial limbs, or any of the other medical technology that have been developed.

Computers are different than other technologies in one key way, as I see it. They allow layers of abstraction to build, creating exponential growth in impact (Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, etc), and through that, that means that a designer’s intent can be massively amplified in terms of its impact on others. The choices Zuckerberg makes, ten years after he was a college student, affect the way hundreds of millions of people interact with each other.

In grad school, I saw a talk by Jaron Lanier, where he talked about this impact, which he called “karma vertigo”. Because the layers of abstraction build on each other, the design choices made in each layer of technology have huge impacts on the future path that technology takes. He felt, back in 1997, that as computing became ubiquitous, that the choices made by those designing the technology would change the direction of humanity, and it was dizzying (hence vertigo) how much control we had on possible futures. His talk was one of the factors that got me to drop out of grad school in physics and start my wandering generalist path to get involved with these more interesting questions than the breaking of CPT symmetry.

responding to one other bit of your email:
“software (and computing) is becoming environmental. This is to say, that our built environment, in as much as it is now shot through with ubiquitous computing and the pervasive computing of our time and space (Internet + sensors), is computing all of the time.”

I don’t think this is new. Stewart Brand’s book “How Buildings Learn” was published 20 years ago, and was not about computing. Our built environment is always learning and adapting to how we live and work, because we change it. The difference with ubiquitous computing is that this learning is accelerating, but it’s not clear to me yet that this accelerated change is qualitatively different. I did have a conversation with an architect friend at one point where he described that one of the current challenges in architecture is to have buildings adapt and learn faster – a building’s lifetime of use used to be described in decades if not centuries – now it may need to be repurposed in less than ten years, and it’s a design challenge to make the building able to adapt more quickly.

I don’t know – maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but I have not yet convinced myself that computing is qualitatively changing humanity. It makes things faster and explosively amplifies our tendencies (both positive and negative). But is it actually different? I argued the other side a few years ago, wondering whether we have yet matured to handle these exponential impacts we can now have – are we ready to wisely use these godlike powers technology grants us?

It depends. It always does. Within every human is contained potential for both good and evil, and computing technology that amplifies our impact is going to reflect that eternal challenge. But to me, that’s the real challenge – it’s not about designing the technology, as all technology can be used for both good and bad purposes – it’s about how to design humanity to be able to handle having this sort of impact, to be the thoughtful wise users of technology that can handle these increased powers. A tough challenge.

The Generalist Is In

December 14th, 2014

The Generalist Is In
I really enjoy giving feedback to people on their ideas and thoughts. In the past week alone, I have:

  • Given feedback to an architect friend on their entry into a memorial design competition

  • Talked through customer segmentation and business plans with a new startup as part of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service
  • Talked through engineer recruiting and culture with a friend who is a COO of a startup

I have also recently given advice to a friend on pitching their startups, and career coaching to friends and colleagues.

I love doing this and helping people to see new angles on their questions, so I’m putting the call out there – if you think my perspective would be useful to you in some way, please reach out and we can talk through your question and see if I can be helpful.

Challenging oneself

December 3rd, 2014

In my last post, I talked about instigating unhappiness as a way to spur change at organizations. I’ve also been thinking about it in a personal context of challenging myself, and when I should be satisfied and happy with where I am vs. stretching myself for the next goal.

One of the reasons for the introspection is that I am thinking of signing up for the Death Ride next year. The Death Ride, for those that don’t know, is a bike ride that is 130 miles, and climbs 15,000 vertical feet through 5 mountain passes in Tahoe. When I first heard about it 13 years ago, I thought it was completely insane – I had a couple coworkers who did it every year, but it was inconceivable to me, as I had never ridden more than 40 flat miles at that point. But here I am, thinking about signing up, and believing I can do it. So what changed?

Well, this year has been a year of leveling up in bicycling. I started the year in April with an Old La Honda ride with some other Googlers (40 miles – one hill: Strava), where I went all out and was still left in the dust, and bonked so hard that I was late to work. But I trained hard for the rest of the spring, and got in shape for my week-long mountain bike tour from Durango to Moab in July. I had already decided to cap the summer off by doing my first century bike ride (100 miles), but my friend said that I would be in such good shape after the tour that I should do the climbing century (8000 feet of climbing) up and over Mt. Tam in August. So I did (Strava) and it was actually pretty easy. So I signed up for Levi’s Gran Fondo in October, and went all out in that (averaging 20 mph for the first 30 flat miles) and still felt good (Strava).

So I figured if I can do 100 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing in 8 hours (including breaks), I should be able to do 130 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing in 12 hours, right? Right? Okay, it’s a stretch, but it seems like a good goal to aim for next July.

And this is where I wonder about myself. There are many who would be impressed and satisfied with where I got this year, from struggling to ride 40 miles, to being able to ride a climbing century. And I’m happy with that progress, but my first thought is “If I can do that, what else can I do?” and immediately move onto the next challenge rather than taking time to savor what I’ve accomplished.

I see this tendency among many of my friends as well – we end up continuing to push the limits of what we can do when we could easily rest satisfied with what we’ve accomplished. In the Steven Kotler book on extreme athletes, he describes communities as social triggers that help push us to try things beyond what we might on our own, so it is perhaps not surprising that my MIT friends tend to share this limit-pushing tendency and that such a community helps normalize such behavior.

What I find interesting about this is that I change which communities I associate myself with as I get better at an activity. The first time I did the SF to Google 40 mile flat ride in 2012 was the longest I had ever ridden to that point in my life, and I was really proud of myself. Now I’ve done that ride on a fixie, and am using people who do double centuries as a comparison point. Or in volleyball, I used to be content just being able to keep the ball in play at doubles, but after playing a bunch this past year, I compare myself to the A-level players, who can consistently put points away and regularly get incredible digs. I keep moving the goalposts on myself so I’m never satisfied.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d be happier if I let myself be content and happy with what I’ve accomplished, rather than continually striving for more. I do enjoy the continued challenges and the fact that I can do so much more than I thought was possible even last year. And in other areas, I don’t challenge myself as much – I’ve gotten better at being content at work over the years, rather than beating myself up about why I haven’t accomplished more. Chorus is another example where I hit my limits, felt I had done all I could, and accepted that. So maybe it’s just in areas where I feel I still have considerable upside that I keep challenging myself?

Another aspect is that it is only possible to have a couple challenge areas at a time. If I wasn’t secure in my job with a comfortable income, I wouldn’t be able to challenge myself in other areas, as I would be too focused on basic needs. But because I’m in a good situation, I can afford to focus on other challenges such as sports (biking, skiing, volleyball) and socializing (especially in 2013). I’m fortunate to have that freedom to take on those challenges.

As the year winds down, I’ll be thinking ahead to next year and deciding where my next challenges lie – if I do sign up for the Death Ride, biking will definitely be one :).

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John Wick was as awesome as my friends' reviews suggested. Super fun action sequences. Plus Keanu! Whoa!

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