The Question Being Asked

I went out for lunch with a friend the other day and he told me a story about how they had a session at his workplace to teach people how to communicate effectively. About 10 minutes into the talk, the presenter asked if anyone had the time. Someone said “I think it’s 2:10;” someone else shouted out “It’s 2:11.”

“No,” The presenter said. “The correct answer is ‘yes’.”

I told that story to another buddy and he reminded me of the scene in The Wire when a captain asks a rookie patrolman where he is.

The rookie replies something to the effect of “I’m at Johnson and Mclean” and the captain counters sternly with “No you’re not: you’re on East side of the 100 block of Johnson facing North.”

Both reminders that the correct answer to any question really depends on who is asking it…

The Ur And The Horn

Yesterday I came into work to find a horn lying on the ground. Some animal had its horn chopped off and it had found its way onto the third floor of our building. It was there because my coworker has a dog and this is one of the many treats we offer it to not annoy us all day (she’s actually a very cute dog).

I was overcome with a sense of something primal. Like this scene – a dog eating a bone in the midst of several people in a circle – had been played out for millennia. Except that instead of us being hunters sitting around a fire with our dog feasting on a recent kill, we are product managers sitting at door desks with a hypoallergenic puppy who is tithed with gifts to abate her ADHD.

I couldn’t help but think that English lacks a great word to capture that fleeting instinct I felt. I was reminded of the German prefix ur-. It translates roughly as “primeval”. But because it’s a prefix, Germans can combine if with words like Wald (forest) to get Urwald. Urwald refers to the primeval forest found when humans were nomadic or in small settlements. Much for fun to say Urwald than “primeval forest found when humans were nomadic or in small settlements.”

So I propose a new term: the Urinstance. This is when you find yourself doing something and get a flashback to what the same moment was in ancient times. Enjoys Internets.

2014: Rear View Mirror Edition

So, it’s a wrap. 2014 has mere hours left; 2015 has actually already arrived for most of the world’s population.

As I look back, 2014 is the year that kicked my ass. This blog reflects it: a whopping 4 posts, year-to-date with the most recent one being over six months ago. I also checked the goals I made for the year – and I accomplished 1 of 21. A spectacularly low success rate.

So what happened? Why did nothing turn out as planned in 2014?

One hypothesis: I had a second child. On my daughter’s second day of life in mid-December 2013, we took her to get her inaugural tune-up checkup. The doctor was a true expert: 55 or so & head of pediatrics, on the top of his game like he’d just walked out of Ian McEwen’s Saturday. He grinned and told us “Oh, two kids under three years old? You’re about to enter what most people consider to be the hardest year of their life.”

Right. But what does he know? He’s only been doing this for 30 years. He doesn’t know our family…

And of course he was right. I was destroyed this year by the act of child rearing. The simple act of trying to keep two children alive turned out to occupy an almost unimaginable amount of time. They really do both need 100% of your attention, they don’t understand the concept of sleeping in and why, oh why, would they ever forgive you in the unlikely event you found yourself hungover.

Hence the 1 of 21 goals achieved.

However, all was not for nought. I feel like I still got a lot done. Both of the two above-mentioned children are not just alive, they’re healthy. To the best of my knowledge, my wife is no planning to divorce me and considers our relationship a success.

More seriously, I got a new job mid-year (no more worrying about getting paid) and we bought a house. I started running again and managed to do two 50km races. I learned how to cook sous vide. I picked up a new programming language (R). I raised $750 for charity and helped out with Seattle Coderdojo. I squeezed in a night photography class. And I built Cam a blinkybox.

And I read a few books: The Everything Store. The Bone Clocks. The Peripheral. Hooked. Scarcity. Your First 90 Days (guess why). Invisible Engines. Influence. Elements of Japanese Design. Too much seriousness; not enough fiction.

All in all, a year that kicked my butt. But not a failure. Tomorrow I’ll write about what I hope to do in 2015.

More importantly: happy new year y’all.

And let me close with a ridiculous photo from the fundraising period.


Things Are Getting Faster

One of the common themes of life today is that it’s getting faster. It’s not that time has actually sped up, rather the rate of change in society has sped up.

This is really happening; it’s not just crotchety old men pining for the days of martini lunches. One way to measure this trend is through technology adoption rates.

This chart from somewhere on the Internet shows how long it took for different technologies to reach the same portion of America’s population:
You don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s getting faster.

If you’re a science fiction fan, the acceleration continues inexorably until it’s infinite and we hit something called The Singularity. Who knows what happens then; perhaps we turn into pure energy (Didn’t realize Powder was a documentary) or we all upload our brains to computers and colonize the stars. Or maybe the rate of change stabilizes and we just end up in a period of constant – but not accelerating – change (I’ll bet on that).

This trend has some unique implications. We see, for instance, that it’s harder to stay successful. How many overnight Internet celebrities have appeared over the past few years? Similarly, the Fortune 500 lost is turning over faster then ever. Glory is increasingly fleeting.

Some more evidence of this:

  • ebooks-a category that basically didn’t exist six years ago-have almost stopped growing. We went from no one having them to saturation in the blink of an eye
  • Apple’s iPad sales are flat; they’re selling tons but the rate’s not accelerating. It may be that everyone who needs a super high end tablet has one-and it only took 3 years

I find this fascinating. You’d think the iPad is a growth hit that you could take to the bank for 10 years; now it looks like some dramatic rework is required. Ditto if you’re Amazon with your Kindles.

What I take away is that we’re in an era where we can’t rest on our laurels and we’ll have to constantly adopt new ideas and learn a lot of new things. In fact, resistance to new ideas (or at least technology) could potentially become a leading indicator of future o failure.

I’ve given up trying to predict what I’ll be doing in five years time and instead focus on learning lots of new things and meeting interesting people. We’ll see where the journey goes.

We Live In The Future

When I was a kid, there was this elusive thing called The Future. It was this beacon visible just over the horizon where things would be different. Technology would bring knowledge and power to the masses. Poverty would disappear. We’d have lots of leisure time. Or maybe the world would collapse into a dystopian nightmare powered by that same technology.

But there was no date when this would arrive. Authors and actors provided the imagery (a lot of white and robots) but there was no ETA or it was so far in the future that it was laughable.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that we’re living in The Future.

I’m writing this blog post on a wireless keyboard that’s communicating with a tablet that’s connected to billions. If I desired, I could reach out to most of those people. I can order a near infinite number of physical goods to my house from any connected place on the planet; and I can get an update on where the good is every step of its journey to me. If I didn’t want to wait, I could order a design instead and print or mill the good myself with only the push of a few buttons. If I hunt around, I can watch or listen to almost any popular music or video ever created.

I can turn the lights of my house on and off from this tablet; ditto for adjusting the temperature. If I wanted, I could connect multiple cameras to watch live what’s happening in my backyard. Or I could use a $200 robot controlled by this tablet to be my camera instead.

I can go to work in a fully electric, zero emission car. I can pull out my phone and, with one tap, summon several different types of cars to my current location and not have to pull out cash or card to pay. Several billionaires are competing to get me into space at an affordable price. I can purchase a kit that lets me build a basic brain-controlled robot. And there’s a revolution in biology underway that could redefine how we think of the living world (think heartier crops that use less water and personalized medicine).

Plus this world isn’t restricted solely to the rich West. The recent rise of Indian and China has brought The Future to literally billions (and done more to alleviate poverty than anything else in history). And they’re building their own version of The Future.

But this blog post isn’t meant to be some hagiography of technology and capitalism. The combination of pollution, inexorable warming and increasing wealth inequality (despite rising absolute standards of living for everyone) means that The Future is not guaranteed to be all unicorns and rainbows. I worry about governments spying on everyone and armed drones are truly terrifying; it’s also not clear what social compact we’ve created by trading entertainment for privacy with large corporations.

In fact, The Future is a lot messier than what was promised by those actors and authors mentioned earlier. Their future was a beacon that shone because it had emerged from a world that did not exist. There was no path from the then-world to that future; it was more like a schism had occurred and a new, shinier, better future had emerged from some void.

But real life doesn’t work like that. We’re surrounded by 500 year old buildings and crappy condos just went up and be antiquated in 25 years. We have wireless broadband but can’t always get the physical kind. Regulations can mean that inventions stop at a an artificially created physical border. The Future emerges from what exists today; it evolves.

The Chinese never actually had a curse that said “may you live in interesting times” but we really do. I, for one, relish it. I love living in The Future even if I don’t fully know what it’s going to bring. In fact, I know that as I write this more of it’s arriving; I just don’t know what it is yet. And I can’t wait to see it.