Essays on Technology and Culture

Sudden Deceleration Trauma

“Nobody ever got hurt falling,” my Dad likes to say. “It's the sudden stop at the end that gets you.”

I recently parted ways with the startup I've been working at for the past year, and not on good terms either. I'll take the blame for a fair share of this, tempering it with the fact that I'd been running into conflicts with a co-worker on the company's direction and focus, and that I'd lost the sense that I was helping to make an awesome tool that helped people do their job better. Now, I've been let go. I'm falling, slowly now, but acceleration is an exponential curve.

This has happened before. Two and a half years, and a lifetime ago, I was unceremoniously fired from a job I didn't like, doing work I didn't like. I fell for a year, working part time, struggling to find work, or build work for myself. I never hit the ground. I was saved by taking a civil service test, and landed a menial job as a welfare clerk. The rest of the story you may know, and that worked out okay.

Until now.

“Up, down, turn around, please don't let me hit the ground.” — New Order – “Temptation”

No matter how many times I fall, I worry about that sudden deceleration trauma at the end. It hasn't happened to me yet. There's always been a safety net somewhere, often multiple ones, in case I'm falling too fast. The problem is that I close my eyes. I'm always so concerned about falling, and that sudden stop at the end that I often forget those nets exist. I also forget that, as I grow older, and as more people become part of my life, those nets have increased.

One day, hopefully a long time from now, those nets will shrink in number. I'll need to be prepared for that day, but until then there's almost always going to be some net to catch me, be it family or friends. That doesn't mean I shouldn't try to keep myself from falling, or to find a safe place to land without those nets. It just means that the nets are there, should things get bad enough. There's too many people who won't let me hit the ground, and they know I'd do the same for them.

Until I land, there's just some uncertainty. I don't need to embrace that uncertainty, but I do have to accept that it's there. Uncertainty is the wind blowing past my head, and echoing in my ears. Try as one might to attach significance to it, it is just wind. Everyone hears it when they fall, and everyone falls at one point or another.

Just open your eyes and aim for the nets.

Flipping the “Don’t Care” Switch

Part of writing the tech beat, even when you’re not focusing on news, is that there’s a lot of crap that gets posted and that you end up reading because its vaguely relevant. Particularly in the lead up to WWDC and E3, there’s a prevalence of prediction and analysis stories that mean absolutely nothing beyond endless speculation. Speculation that—at least in the case of Apple—is as likely to pan out as betting on a sloth in the Preakness. [1] Because there’s no real news, technology news sites are churning out endless rehashed articles and none of it is stimulating. I don’t want to step on Harry C. Marks’s toes here, he’s far better at tearing up the tech news bullshit than I. Fact of the matter is, the Internet is a void, and a void demands to be filled. If your niche is churning out ten articles about two stories, well, so be it. I’m not going to read them, and I’m certainly not going to write about them.

The thing about writing is that, “you are what you eat.” When all I have to eat is garbage, I’m not going to be putting out much of value. This site isn’t my job, though I wish it was. Because of that, when I’ve faced down the blank page for the last week or two, it’s been a struggle to find something inside me to put out. So, I’m writing about that. Not to pin all the blame on the news cycle—there’s been enough mental stress and strain of my own to keep me from writing too. It’s just that it’s harder to make anything good when all the best building blocks have been used up.

On an early episode of Crush On Radio, my co-host Matt Keeley coined the phrase “the don’t care switch” to describe the reaction when exposed to things that provoke neither a positive or negative reaction. I’m at the point where most work-a-day technology journalism flips that same switch. I don’t care about the latest mockup of what iOS 7 will look like, the latest prediction of corporate doom, and which company will finally dominate the living room with their set-top box/video game console/Smart TV system. It’s not interesting, and so many of the prediction stories seem to be a mix of bias, wishful thinking, and one-upmanship.

What interests me are the stories that actually try to explore what these new technologies and devices are doing to us, are allowing us to do, and the impact they have. Or, as in the case of a recent episode of Enough, the lack thereof. This amazing article, “The Philosophy of Google Glass” is a perfect example of what I’m on about. Some other good stuff lately is Tobias Buckell on survivorship bias and electronic publishing, “How Facebook and Brooklyn Killed America’s Obsession With Cars” by Brian Merchant, and James A. Pearson’s David Foster Wallace-tinged essay on binge watching TV. That’s three whole meals of technology journalism and nutrition. That’s what I’m aspiring towards.

  1. We “know” there’s an iOS redesign in the works, but all your mockups and demo videos are bound to be wrong, wrong, wrong.  ↩

A Battlefield Promotion to Social Media General

Recently, I inherited the role of managing social media and community building for the startup company I work for. It happened quite suddenly—my boss found another job, and I got a battlefield promotion. As I’ve tried to find my bearings in the short time I’ve had this role (about 48 hours as of this writing), I’ve had one main, nagging, concern above all the others, even the “can I actually pull this off?” question. That concern is: How can I do social media and get people to use our product without being the canonical “Social Media Douchebag.” I’ve been paranoid enough about it that I even Asked MetaFilter.

The fears are twofold. First, a major part of our product’s target audience are not exactly tech-savvy. We’re not exactly talking the “have my secretary print out my email” types, but that’s not far off. Social media and social networking are not things they’re terribly up on. If they have a profile anywhere, it’s probably on LinkedIn. And, to come clean here, I don’t know much of anything about how to reach people on LinkedIn. The second fear is that, if I push too hard, or do the wrong thing, I will destroy any good will my company and its product has earned in this community.

By way of example, a user of our product sent us a very angry email after we linked to him in a broadcast that we send out to all of our users each week. It was merely his name, a link to his profile, the firm he works for, and his title—all required, and public information on our product that anyone could see. The pull quote from his e-mail is “I do not do business that way.” If so, then he clearly signed up to the wrong service. This is comparatively minor, but it’s a good example of the sort of slightly-paranoid, slightly technology-phobic audience I’m looking to woo.

There’s plenty of people who love us and what we do, but more who have only heard of us, but don’t know what we do. I’m making it my job to increase the number in the first column. However, I want to do it in an ethical, sane way that steps on as few toes as possible. This may be the initial problem. One way to know you’re succeeding is when you’re making people upset. It’s possible that my fears in this regard are an obstacle. Maybe I should ruffle a few feathers. No such thing as bad publicity, right? On the other hand, if I’m doing something I’ve explicitly railed against on this site, or elsewhere, [1] there’s an “it’s okay when I do it” moral relativism that chafes me when I see it in others.

I think it’s possible to do this. It’s not boiling the ocean. We can increase people using our product, actively, win paying customers, and maintain a good reputation, but it’s going to take some thought, some time, and some patience. I have all the tools at my disposal I need, including a small number of people who love our company and product passionately. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian made a brilliant observation about those passionate users of any sort of technology product in the modern era: “They are your website, not you.” The trick is to find them, and listen.

  1. Which I’m not, and haven’t. I’m just covering bases, here.  ↩

Learning to Write Code All Over Again

When I went off to college for the first time, I was set on studying Computer Science. The plan was to learn how to program, and maybe get a job creating video games or even start my own video game studio—a dream shared by almost every geeky teenager in the early 2000s, I suspect. Three semesters later, I decided English was more to my liking, and that the higher math required in a CompSci program was beyond my grasp. My grades in CompSci weren’t great either. I passed my first course by the skin of my teeth, and begging my professor to regrade a misgraded assignment.

I got started with programming like many people my age, with QBASIC, though my first real exposure to programming as a concept came from Apple II LOGO in grade school. In QBASIC, the furthest I got was discovering how to write trippy graphical screen savers using random number generators and drawing primitives on screen. In 8th Grade, I got ahold of a copy of Microsoft Visual Studio 6 that, er, fell off the back of a truck. [1] In high school, I switched to Visual Basic, thinking it would be the best step up from QBASIC.

There were two pet projects I had in high school. One was a simple game: “Whac-A-Mac” where the player had to click to smash Macintosh computers that popped up on screen in the style of Whac-a-Mole. I completed this, but it was a bloated, ugly mess. The next project was “NerdQuest,” an RPG inspired heavily by System’s Twilight, a Mac-only puzzle game. This never got off the ground. My understanding of how to do graphics in Visual Basic was non-existent, as illustrated when a friend offered me the code to his isometric graphics engine that he wrote in Visual Basic. One look at the code made my head hurt.

I had exactly two successes as a teenage programmer: a Visual Basic database-based app on the various animal kingdoms I wrote (barely) for a High School biology class, and teaching myself TADS, the Text Adventure Development System. Ultimately, I focused on learning HTML and CSS, with a tiny bit of JavaScript, and enough PHP to design WordPress themes, and be dangerous. I did, with help from a book, write a very basic PHP and MySQL based blog and database for Booji Boy’s Basement, but after a previous webhost was hacked, I lost the source code.

Lately, however, two things have me thinking it might be a good idea to try and learn how do program again. The first is that I am now part of the technology startup economy, albeit in a non-programming role. [2] The other is listening to tech podcasts like the now defunct Build and Analyze, Back to Work, and Quit!. Regular topics of discussion on all of these shows has been learning to program, working for yourself, or changing your role in a job to a technical one—and doing so without expensive education.

The barrier to entry to a programming job has been lowered, significantly. If you have the chops, and have the code to back it up on GitHub, you can find work. Xcode, the tool used to create software for the Mac, and iOS, is free. To become an iOS developer costs $99. There are free and paid classes on how to program in the languages that make our modern tech go, including JavaScript, jQuery, Python, Ruby, and Objective-C. It couldn’t hurt me to learn. So, the other day, I downloaded Xcode, installed a Python development environment, and reinstalled MAMP, with the full intention of getting back into programming, at least as a hobby. We’ll see how it goes.

  1. There was a minor underground economy of software trading in my middle school, which was also a high school. This was back in the days when the fastest home internet connection was a 128kbps ISDN line, and BitTorrent didn’t exist. It was a miracle we even had these CDs of Photoshop 7, Bryce 3D, and Visual Studio floating around.  ↩

  2. Creating e-mail newsletters involves no programming. It’s simply HTML and CSS, albeit HTML and CSS done with standards circa 2002. Thankfully, I haven’t needed to use spacer GIFs. Yet.  ↩

A Personal History of Personal Computing, Part 3—PDAs, iPods, and iOS

As a kid, I loved reading computer magazines. I was the only 11-year old in the world, I think, with a subscription to PC/Computing. When the magazine stopped talking about hardware and software, and then became a crappy business magazine, I was miserable. Reading these magazines was terrible for a budding geek. It gave me ideas, especially about portable computing.

Somehow, Christmas 1999, I’d convinced my parents to get me a Palm IIIe. I think I sold it as a way to help me do better in school, remember my homework, and so forth. In actuality, it became a pocket Minesweeper device. Still, I was the only kid in my high school with a pocket computer. The best anyone else could do was a TI–83 Graphing Calculator, which I also had. I rarely used the Palm for note-taking, or to-do list making. Eventually, when I went off to college and got a laptop, the Palm stayed at home. I think I sold it off for $20 on eBay.

I went without a pocket computer until 2003, when I got my first iPod, a 40GB 3rd Generation model. The original iPod did serve as a rather basic PDA, albeit one that could only be updated when connected to a computer. It could display contacts, and a calendar, or play Solitaire. Really, though, it was my MP3 player, and I used it heavily for three years, even replacing the battery. [1]

However, the darn thing took one too many falls from my pants to the ground. The hard drive crashed, and the iPod would not boot, just make whining and clicking sounds while getting very, very, warm. I unplugged the battery, shipped it out for parts, and bought a black, 60GB 5th Generation iPod. That one lasted a year, before the headphone jack broke, and I replaced it with the 6th Generation model, with the anodized aluminum face—also in black. Within a month, I’d dropped it on the road, and stepped on it, while running to the bus, cracking the screen and scratching the aluminium. Still worked like a champ.

In 2008, tired of my damaged iPod classic, I took some bonus money from work, and bought my first iOS device, a second generation iPod touch. I’d lusted after the iPhone, like all good Apple fanboys, back in 2007, but was stuck on Verizon for the forseeable future. The iPod touch was my first taste of the future, and I was hooked immediately. Then, in 2009, when my Verizon contracted ended, I got an iPhone 3G. Omnipresent internet! I finally had the one device to rule them all, even if it was on AT&T. The iPhone served me well, despite being damaged in an attempted mugging on Christmas Eve, 2010. [2] While I considered keeping the touch around as a secondary device, even jailbreaking it as an experiment, I decided it was superfluous. Come October of 2011, I replaced the 3G with the 4S, which I have today, and serves me well. Its big brother, a refurbished, 3rd Generation iPad, came into my possession in November, and quickly found a niche.

  1. Back in the day, you actually could replace the battery in an iPod, though it wasn’t easy.  ↩

  2. It wasn’t even a good attempt. Someone tried to snatch it out of my hand on the subway, but I had a death grip. When the kid realized he couldn’t get it, he tried punching me, but not very hard, and ran off at the next stop. As I was on my way to get a bus to NYC, I declined to give chase. All I was out was a pair of (good) headphones.  ↩