Personal

The End of PowerPoint

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Edward Tufte is the father of modern information visualization. If you don’t know who he is, you probably should, and you can get up to speed by reading this profile in Washington Monthly, The Information Sage.

Last year, I attended one of Tufte’s one-day courses in NYC. I even showed him an early, prototype version of Parse.ly Dash. His feedback — even if it came quickly in 5 minutes — was helpful in understanding how to move the product forward.

I thought, when attending his presentation, that my main takeaways would be in the field I associated with him, namely, information visualization. But actually, my main takeaways were about communication, teaching, and journalism.

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The New Novel

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Salon.com has an interesting article about the craft of writing. It’s from 2010, but still interesting.

… far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. “People would come up to me at parties,” author Ann Bauer recently told me, “and say, ‘I’ve been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this …’ And I’d (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read … Now, the ‘What do you read?’ question is inevitably answered, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.’”

When I was younger, I thought there was no greater ambition than becoming the writer of the next great novel. However, this article made me reflect on my own media consumption habits, and what a small audience I would affect even if I did write such a work.

I think similarly about painting and sculpture and classical music. These expressive forms are certainly demanding of skill, but who is the audience?

It would be unfair to consider television programming or film the new novel. Certainly, these media have the capacity to change people’s ideas and have a wide impact. But, even with the technology and cost barriers breaking down on film production, it lacks the visceral nature of writing. Anyone with an idea and a pen (or laptop) can pursue writing, but you have to be a technician of sorts to make a film.

By this disqualification, software — though increasingly recognized as an art form — is definitely not it, either. So, what is?

New-Age Ed Thory in Practice

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Had a short conversation on Twitter with Siva Vaidhyanathan (author of The Googlization of Everything) about new-age ed theory — where professors & students are “managed” for learning. Take a look.

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Idleness

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

NYTimes has a good article today about work and idleness, “The Busy Trap”.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

[…]

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

One of the commenters on this story pointed me toward a much older essay by Bertrand Russel, “In Praise of Idleness”.

If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

[…]

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

[…]

The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

[…]

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

Each essay is very much worth reading.

Turning 27

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Today, I turn 27. Even though I was deep in the middle of a project late last night, I peeled myself away from my monitors, went to sleep, and woke up late to enjoy a day of reading outside.

Parse.ly has an official “take your birthday off” policy, so I made sure to set a good example.

I remember when I was younger, I used to look forward to birthdays very eagerly. Birthdays were when I got a new videogame or programming book. Birthdays were about stuff, and taking the day to play with new toys.

Now, over a decade later, my birthday is much less about stuff. I don’t play videogames anymore, and I already know how to program. I am fortunate to live comfortably and don’t long for stuff any longer. My Nintendo Wii gathers dust (like everyone else’s, it seems). My computer is no longer used to amuse me, but to allow me to work on my passions — building software, building a company, staying informed, informing others. I have a seemingly endless queue of books I’d like to read, movies I’d like to watch, things I’d like to write, software I’d like to build. I’ve come to realize that birthdays, at my age, are more about time.

In my ruthlessly efficient worldview — where I regularly talk of cost-benefit analysis, backlog prioritization, and productivity — my birthday has become about taking a moment to flip my prioritized world on its head. Let’s not pick an item from the top of the prioritized backlog. Instead, let me take something from the backburner, for once. Let me behave — if only for a day — as if I had all the time in the world.

I don’t need stuff. I just need time. Of course, that’s the bittersweet part of one’s birthday. That even as you come to realize the importance of time, the day acts as a reminder of how our time on this earth is limited. 1 day passes, and only n-1 left to make a difference.

The Startup Diet

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Last summer, we got our company, Parse.ly, off the ground at DreamIt Ventures incubator program in Philadelphia. Since then, we’ve talked to a lot of founders about our experience in the program. Many founders are data-driven people who are looking for concrete advice about how to optimize their experience at these programs. One of the most successful runway-extending pieces of advice we have given has been to keep food costs low. We were able to get our food cost down to $4/person/day through some simple planning during that summer, and each of us also lost 10-15 pounds in the process. We felt great, were productive, and made our DreamIt investment last. I think this might be one of the core reasons for our company’s survival and success. This is the story behind “The Startup Diet”.

DreamIt Ventures had just cut us a check for $20K to get our startup off the ground. But my cofounder Sachin and I were worried. $20K seems like a lot of money, but it’s actually not that much. Not when you’re using it for both living expenses and to hire other people to get your company off the ground. So we started planning our spend and rationing the money immediately.

We knew we’d use some of the money for our living expenses. We had just arrived in Philadelphia, and we were living in a startup house with Matt and Burak, the founders of Tidal Labs, and Jack, one of the founders of SeatGeek. It turns out that rent wasn’t that expensive in Philly, especially in this arrangement. Instead, our number one cost, we determined, was going to be food.

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What One Does

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

One of America’s greatest strengths is social mobility. There are several cases of an individual starting with nothing and persevering to become rich, powerful, and influential. Success stories of this kind have become an important part of American business mythology, especially in the world of entrepreneurship. They are strong motivators for individuals embarking on companies of their own.

For those of us who start companies, we see the company as a vehicle to creating something valuable and lasting for society, while also advancing our personal goals. This isn’t usually hubris or ego, though sometimes it may be. Instead, it’s usually an attempt to make your time worthwhile: to yourself, to those close to you, and — if you’re lucky and persistent enough — to the entire world.

The problem with social mobility is that not every individual begins at the same starting line. In fact, the range is huge. Those who start with an influential family or significant capital resources have a much easier time getting to the top. For those who don’t have this head start, things are a lot harder.

Though America is not entirely merit-based, it can reward individuals for hard work. I’ve experienced the benefit both of an advantageous starting point and hard work in my 26 years on this earth. I also believe that with each step and milestone in my life, my potential to create enduring value for society has increased significantly.

Beginnings

The inspiration for this essay was a comment I read online about a successful young businessman who was the son of a successful businessman. “I’d [like to] read a story about a 25-yo [who] made good on the same scale[,] who went to a state college, had screwed up parents who were too busy fighting with each other or gettiing drunk to even have a clue what he was doing, isn’t childhood friends with a celebrity… Just happened to be smart and hardworking and optimistic even despite all those factors. That would actually be an interesting story.”

My parents weren’t screwed up, but they did fight a lot — my Mom and Dad separated when I was in elementary school and divorced shortly after that. I’ve not been childhood friends with a celebrity and I don’t have a trust fund.

I’m not saying I came from a disadvantaged upbringing — in fact, quite the opposite. I went to public high school in New York. To a New Yorker, that may not sound like a huge step up in the world, but I recognize that public school in New York represents one of the top educations you can get.

I grew up in a nice house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I had good, encouraging teachers. My parents were liberal and a positive influence. I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth, but I also didn’t have any serious handicap in my upbringing. Probably my biggest step up in the world, given my current trajectory, was that when I was 10 or 11 years old, my Dad noticed an interest I had in computers. And so, he bought me a PC (running DOS / Windows 3.1) and set it up for me on Christmas Day. From that point forward, I was enchanted by the machine. And once I got a 28K modem and dial-up access to the web (on one of the first ISPs, The Pipeline), I became a citizen of the world before I had even hit puberty.

This I do know — though I had a head start, I also worked hard. I was a geek — as I got older, I built my own servers in my basement, taught myself to program, and discovered Linux and Free Software. But I also kept ahead in “the real world”. I did feel a little disconnected from my peers in my private pursuits; reflecting on my childhood, I realize I “grew up” a little more quickly than my peers.

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Non-native New Yorkers

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Nobody moves to New York because they think they’re just like everybody else. A young kid, fueled by a toxic blend of bravado and wicked insecurity, can expend a truly terrifying amount of energy trying to prove her exceptionalism, prove that she is different (read: better) than the dull hometown peers she left behind, who go to uncreative jobs in uncreative clothes, eat at Chili’s, practice monogamy.

Describes many non-native New Yorkers really well. No offense non-natives, but some of you are definitely trying to prove something! 😀 From Dirty pictures I didn’t want taken

JPMorgan Chase, “valid” $39 overlimit fees, and humanity

Friday, October 30th, 2009

In addition to running Parse.ly, I also run a small consulting business, Aleph Point, Inc. In the course of working on client jobs, I sometimes have to make business purchases, which I always pay in full at the end of every month. I have never carried a balance on my credit card and I never intend to.

When I signed up for a business checking account at Chase, the branch manager who I worked with (and who now no longer works there) encouraged me to sign up for a business credit card, as well. I thought, hey, why not — I’m just going to use it for small purchases like monthly hosting fees and the like.

Recently, I made a relatively large purchase at Best Buy for a client, which I was going to be reimbursed for. It was about $200. I already had a balance of $350 on my account, and a few days later my account was closing for the month.

When I looked over my account information a few days later, I found a strange charge. $39 OVERLIMIT FEE. What’s that, I thought?

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Beautiful Code and a Beautiful Bug

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

I am teaching a technical course on the popular and ubiquitous version control system, Subversion, this Monday. I thought it might be fun to give my class a little “extra credit” reading from the O’Reilly book, Beautiful Code. In it, one of the original authors of Subversion, Karl Fogel, shares what he considers to be the most beautiful internal design within the codebase: the SVN delta editor. Though this API is not directly used in doing Subversion development, I thought it might be cool for students to have a deeper understanding of the thought that went into SVN’s codebase. But when trying to print up some copies of the chapter for the class, I got more than I bargained for…

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