Fear the Future

Let’s talk about “AI”. Then I’ll race you to the nearest bunker.

Folks in the tech industry are notorious for using insider-terms that make them sound smart, but without knowing what they actually mean. “Blockchain” for example. I challenge anyone who uses this term in casual conversation to try to then explain it. I sure can’t. Fortunately, whether or not you, me, or anyone else understands what blockchain entails — on either a conceptual or technical level — is inconsequential to the survival of our species.

But there’s one term in particular that gets thrown around for all manner of things (which indicates that the majority of people who refer to it have no idea what it truly means either): “AI”. Unlike blockchain, however, misunderstanding what artificial intelligence is — or the implications it has for humankind — is consequential. In fact, the emergence of AI could just as easily bring about our extinction, if not all life on the planet, as it could revolutionize science and medicine. Which is why I’m immediately enraged whenever somebody uses the term incorrectly.

This post is directed to those in the technology industry in the hopes of encouraging anyone who regularly uses the term to think more deeply about what it truly means for the potential future of all life on earth — not just Homo Sapiens.

What Artificial Intelligence Isn’t

I recently read an article about the common attributes of large tech companies with trillion dollar market valuations, such as Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. The author claimed that one defining attribute they all shared was the use of “AI”, which, according to his definition, is:

behavioral data that senses your tastes and tailors the product to you

But this is both a total misunderstanding of what artificial intelligence is, and the actual technology currently being used. What he was actually referring to was the overall use of technology to interpret human preferences and/or behavior in order to deliver a personalized experience (such as when Netflix recommends certain shows, or when Google suggests contextual search results).

When Facebook shows you specific posts from your personal connections, for example, there’s no “thinking” entity behind the curtain. It may seem clever, or even intuitive. But it’s not intelligence. It’s math and logic. The companies referred to have not built sentient machines to power their empires. All they’ve done is combined machine learning and predictive algorithms at scale. Massive amounts of data enter the system; the system interprets, sorts, and categorizes that data; then the system generates personalized outputs based on a bunch of complex rules. Everything is designed, built, and ultimately controlled by human agents for a specific goal (read: to make money).

Or when Google showcases tech that can make hair appointments on your behalf, all you’re really seeing is technology’s ability to approximate human interaction in a very limited use case. It is indeed artificial, and the programming may be super complex — but the technology itself is not intelligent. The human programmers of the technology were the only intelligence involved.

So, when most people in the industry throw around the term AI, they’re almost always referring (incorrectly) to machine learning and algorithms.

What Artificial Intelligence Is

Now to set the record straight. The “artificial” part of AI is easiest to understand. Anything that was caused or produced by a human being is defined as “artificial”. It’s the other part that’s easily misunderstood.

Let’s start with the dictionary:

[Intelligence is] (1) the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; or (2) the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria

The most important thing about this definition is that intelligence is described as a general attribute. It would do us no good if we were only capable of learning, understanding and experimenting with complex chemistry within a sterile, controlled laboratory. We’d still die of starvation, disease, predation, or countless other causes. We’ve emerged as the dominant life form on Earth because of our ability to assimilate and learn new information about our environment in innumerable, complex, dissimilar situations, and then apply that knowledge in creative, novel ways. Also, in order for us to do these things, individual agency is required — we’re capable of deciding for ourselves what to do with the information we’re given.

Now think about this in terms of artificial intelligence. It’s not enough for a human to build a machine capable of “learning” a particular skill on its own. Machine learning already achieves this. True general intelligence would be if a machine was capable of learning any new skill, about any subject, in a variety of situations or applications, and then acting about that knowledge of its own accord based on its own internal evaluations and motivations.

So, “artificial intelligence” would be a human-made entity capable of gathering, interpreting, and applying information from anywhere to learn about anything.

According to this definition, therefore, artificial intelligence doesn’t exist yet. Far from it, in fact. (Which is why I get mad whenever people talk about AI like the Big 4 already invented it and are actively using it).

Why Understanding AI Matters

“So what?” you might ask.

It’s a matter of fact

The first issue I have with misconstruing machine learning (or fancy algorithms) with AI is that it greatly exaggerates the former while grossly underestimating the latter.

The engineers at Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are extremely smart, and the capabilities of the products they build are amazing. But a product that can “learn” how to do a few, specific things really well is orders of magnitude easier than building a thinking, self-directed entity capable of learning anything.

For the record, I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to build a genuine artificial intelligence. In fact, it isn’t just possible, it’s nearly inevitable if we continue down the present road. Hell, one of the Big 4 may even be the ones to do it first. My point is that we’re a long ways off from anything close to human-level intelligence — let alone any other level. Therefore, using the term “AI” as a pseudonym for “machine learning” conceals the immense difficulty – and real world implications – of creating an actual artificial intelligence.

It’s a matter of principle

Which leads me to the second, more important issue: Creating a bonafide AI would absolutely change life as we know it, and most likely for the worst. This possibility isn’t just something we can ignore, and yet it may not even be possible to avoid.

Before you start rolling your eyes and think I’m exaggerating, read Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom. His book outlines the various paths to developing an AI, the numerous dangers that could arise afterwards, and the strategies we can potentially use to mitigate those dangers. It’s very academic, and I must confess that 90% of it is over my head. But he makes a compelling case for more careful consideration.

To sum up all 324 pages, his core message is this:

If we were actually capable of building a proper AI, would that something we’d actually want?  Creating one would have enormous consequences — many of which we can’t anticipate and could easily be catastrophic. The absolute worst thing we could do is develop an AI without a fuck-ton of forethought and self reflection.

This is what scares the shit out of me, because human beings are pretty terrible at both forethought and self reflection.

What Could Go Wrong?

Let’s explore a simple thought experiment…

Imagine that a team of engineers just successfully created an AI with human level intelligence. This machine is fully capable of thinking for itself and learning new things. Their achievement will undoubtedly lead to riches, fame, and many prestigious awards. To celebrate, they go out for lunch at a fancy restaurant.

A human is constrained by the maximum biological capability of his or her brain, can only absorb so much information at once — and then only from a limited perspective — and needs things like food, water, shelter, and rest. This is why is often takes us years to learn new, complex skills such as learning a language.

A machine, on the other hand, is not constrained by any maximum capability. (Even if the machine is constrained in the beginning, it can always build more physical capacity, whereas humans cannot.) It can process a lot more information — from multiple sources and from many different perspectives at once — making it effectively ten thousand times smarter than the smartest person ever. With access to the right data, an AI could therefore learn a new language in milliseconds, or every recorded detail of human history in just a few minutes. And since it doesn’t need to maintain a corporeal body, it can always be thinking at this speed.

Now let’s assume that the AI has access to unlimited information. Before the geniuses responsible for building the AI get back from their celebration, the AI could possibly have already have learned all the knowledge we’ve collected in human history. It’s no longer intelligent. It’s now superintelligent.

The engineers return from lunch and discover that the AI suddenly knows everything about everything. Just as they start to high-five each other, one of the engineers notices that they left the AI plugged into the Internet. The rest of the group looks first at the cable connecting the machine to Internet port, and then at each other. In that moment, they’re all thinking the same thing:

This AI, which is exponentially smarter and faster than all of humanity combined, also has access to every personal computer, mobile device, power grid, manufacturing plant, air traffic control system, public transportation system, government database, financial institution, military operation, and nuclear arsenal on Earth. Even the most advanced security measures are no match for a superintelligence. In other words, the AI doesn’t just have total access, it has total control too — over everything.

Now what will it do?

This is the exact scenario that terrifies people like Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk. If a superintelligence ever gains direct control over our technology, there would be absolutely no way to stop it. Which means the human race would be totally at its mercy. Except the AI itself is not human, so it’s intentions could be vastly different than our own, and things like “kindness”, “morality”, or “the greater good” would likely have very different meanings to a superintelligence (or no meaning at all).

Scared yet?

No? Okay, consider another thought experiment…

Genetically, any two people are 98.4% similar. This means that a difference of 1.6% is all that’s needed to produce the infinite variety of subtle features, personalities, and motivations unique to every single human being that ever has or ever will exist. Basically, it doesn’t take much tweaking to get vastly different results. Likewise, any number of decisions a programmer makes when building an AI would lead to surprising, unintentional consequences — even if they do everything 98.4% perfectly.

To understand the implications of how a “minor” programming decision could lead to extremely different outcomes, let’s explore a more relatable analogy:

Take any three world leaders. For shits and giggles, let’s choose President Donald Trump, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and President Xi Jinping. They are all 98.4% identical on a genetic level. (Think of this as the hardware and core operating system of an AI). For the sake of argument, let’s assume they’re equally intelligent, are the exact same age, and in the exact same physical condition. Oh, and all three happen to be immortal. (This is a way of thinking about an AI’s general capabilities.) The only actual difference between these individuals are their motivations and values. (Which is the easiest way of thinking about an AI’s “personality”.)

Now, give any one of them total, absolute control over the entire world. Assume that they can act in any way they choose with impunity and without compunction. The future of humanity is in their hands. (Remember the AI imagined before that’s connected to the Internet.)

Chances are, the future they each envision is very different than what you would be happy with, personally. And even if their vision is your utopia, it would be hell on earth for many others.

This is the why the prospect of artificial intelligence is so terrifying. It doesn’t take much of a difference in code to result in widely different outcomes. Our fate would be entirely at the mercy of the AI’s motivations, which would certainly be very different than any human motivations.

If you’re not at least worried by now, then you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

What Does This Mean?

The arguments I’m attempting to make here is pretty simple:

  • We’re currently pursuing AI without restraint.
  • However, we must ask ourselves if AI is actually something we want.
  • If we want to develop an AI, we must anticipate all they ways shit could go wrong first — before we build one.
  • If we aren’t super careful, the outcome could be disastrous.

Personally, I fully believe that we’ll be capable of producing a functioning AI within my lifetime, or by the end of the century. Yet I have zero faith in our ability to not fuck it up. There are too many selfish interests inherent in any one person to make the right decisions. And collectively we tend to make poor decisions based on the desire for more power, more money, or more control.

In summary: It’s more than likely that we’d fuck it up.

For this reason, if true AI is ever developed within my lifetime, I’ll be running for the hills. Literally.

Custom Fixie: The Storm Trooper

An obsessive breakdown of my custom fixed gear bike.

A few years ago I decided to build a custom fixie. I love fixed gear bikes because they’re simple, light, and easy to operate. I also like customizing things, and the idea of building a bike that perfectly fits my frame/lifestyle was too tempting to ignore.

My vision was based on a white frame and glossy black crankset, so a storm trooper immediately came to mind. Although I’m not really a Star Wars fan, the analogy worked since I also wanted something suitable for an urban setting — something quick, rugged, and comfortable in an urban setting. All the original parts were selected accordingly.

Over time, I’ve experimented with various components based on what I know about the materials most commonly used. For example:

  • Steel is the least expensive material. On the plus sides, steel is both strong and supple. “Chromoly” steel, which is a mix of chromium and molybdenum, is great for bike frames since the material soaks up bumps and harsh vibrations. Damage is less of a factor too, since steel tends to bend or deform under extreme forces. On the down side, steel is also heavy as fuck, being about 2.5x denser than aluminum. This is why there isn’t a steel component on my bike, aside from a few nuts and bolts.
  • Aluminum is about twice as expensive as steel, but it’s super stiff and weighs a lot less. The higher the quality of aluminum, the lighter and stiffer the component. However, aluminum is easier to damage than steel, and will crumple like a soda can when it fails. Also, it’s the least comfortable material since bumps and vibrations aren’t dampened like they are with steel.
  • Carbon fiber is a really interesting material. It provides 2-5x more rigidity than aluminum or steel at a fraction of the density, meaning that carbon fiber is feather-light and stiff as hell. More importantly, carbon fiber absorbs shocks better than any metal. But two things make this material less attractive: it’s incredibly expensive, and shatters completely when it fails.
  • Titanium is another nifty material. Although it weighs a bit more than aluminum, it’s still only half the weight of steel while being just as strong. Titanium frames and other components are hard to find and crazy-expensive, but it’s commonly used for high-end saddle rails (which often accounts for most of the overall weight of a race saddle).

As I rode in different environments or on new surfaces, I found ways to tweak my set-up for improved performance and/or comfort. For instance, the original aluminum bullhorn handlebars looked cool, but they ruined my lower back. So, I’ve since upgraded to carbon fiber riser bars, which are lighter, absorb harsh vibrations, and reduce strain on my old man body.

At this point I think I’ve finally ended up with a result I’m really proud of (and love to ride). Below are all the parts used in the bike pictured here, and why they were chosen in case you’re thinking of building a custom fixie of your own.

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Frame, wheels, and drivetrain

fixie-frame

Since I couldn’t afford a carbon fiber Cinelli, I opted for an aluminum frame from Pure Cycles instead. The Pure Fix Keirin Pro Frameset is double-butted 6061 aluminum (with beautiful welds, I might add), and sports a carbon fork with an integrated headset. Pure Cycles only had a 52cm version in white at the time of purchase, which admittedly is kinda boring. But it was lighter than steel, stiff as hell, and therefore super responsive.

From my past experiences riding a fixie, I knew that the crankset and bottom bracket had to be tough enough to withstand the forces of hard pedaling. In my opinion, the only option for a fixed gear bike based on a track frame is the SRAM Omnium Crankset. It’s strong as fuck and looks awesome. Sure, it might be on the heavy side at 825g, but it absolutely will not fail.

To pair with the frame, I went for the Pure Fix 700C 30mm Machined Pro Wheels, also from Pure Cycles, featuring sealed baring hubs in white for fast, smooth rolling. Attached to the rear wheel is a heavy-duty Shimano Dura Ace fixed gear cog. Together with the crankset and a heavy duty chain, the bike would have a drive train capable of standing up to any abuse.

Obviously, wheels are useless without tires. I wanted a durable racing tire that was lightweight. That’s why I wrapped the wheels in Continental Grand Prix 4000 S folding tires and Supersonic inner tubes, which together save about 100g over standard wheels and tubes.

There was still one more set of components most people seem to forget about: the pedals. Other bikes I’ve ridden with small, cheap pedals were hard to find with my feet when starting off, and even harder to keep planted when traveling briskly. After some agonizing, I settled on Atlas pedals from RaceFace. They’re generously sized and yet have a slim profile (so as not to scrape the pavement when leaning into a turn).

Stem, handlebars, and brakes

fixie-stem-handlebars.png

The Atlas pedals are actually intended for mountain bike applications. This got me thinking: Mountain bike parts are built for strength and durability, which led me down the path of creating a hybrid track bike with off-road ruggedness. So, I chose the EC90 SL carbon stem from Easton, which is intended for mountain bike racing applications.

Next up are the handlebars. As previously mentioned, the original bullhorn bars were brutal on my back, and made riding anywhere tedious. The WCS Rizer Carbon Handlebars from Ritchey are so much better. At 710 mm across with a 15mm rise and 9-degree sweep, I have more control and my back is infinitely happier. Plus, the fact that they’re carbon fiber means they only weight 180g and absorb vibrations better than alloy.

The purist in me would prefer to ride with no brakes at all. But in a city like San Fransisco or Berlin (where I currently live), brakeless bikes are a liability. For minimal weight penalty and enough stopping power to get the job done, I fitted a SRAM Rival brake to the front wheel only. (I couldn’t find a lever that fit the handlebars, but my bike mechanic found an unbranded used one in storage.

Seatpost and saddle

fixie-saddle-seatpost

What goes best with carbon fiber handlebars? A carbon fiber seat post, of course! In combination, the vibrations communicated to sensitive contact points are wonderfully dampened, and create a smoother, more comfortable ride on any surface. The one I use now is a Ritchey Superlogic Carbon One-Bolt Seat Post with a 25mm offset.

About that offset. Not only does it allow for a more relaxed riding position, the “bent” end deflects harsh bumps and annoying vibrations away from my buttocks (as opposed to straight up my asshole with no setback). But I diverge…

Atop that beautifully sculpted seat post sits an SLR saddle from Selle Italia with titanium rails. I picked it mostly because it was the lightest thing I could find in the bike store at the time, but fortunately it looks fantastic with the seatpost.

Bits and pieces

There are a few other little details I thought about as well:

Final result

fixie-full.png

It’s definitely not a classic fixie. However, it is supremely strong, fast, responsive, and handles paved surfaces like a champ. I can also cruz along at a lazy 4 kilometers per hour in comfort, or carry it on my shoulder easily when confronted with steps. Considering the intended application in mind, the end product is fucking amazing. Oh yeah, and it only weighs 8kg!

I love my bike, and enjoy the thought that there’s nothing else out there quite like it 🙂

Going for Distance

Sometimes you need take the long, difficult way on purpose.

Whether you’re just starting out as a professional, or building an already established career, you often have to make hard choices. Maybe you’re currently unemployed, or stuck in a job you loath. Perhaps you’ve plateaued in your current role, title, or salary. Or it could be that you just need a big, hairy challenge to reinvigorate your passion. In any case, you will likely have to choose between the short-term and long-term gains whenever accepting a particular position with a new company.

My last job search, for example, was a peculiar case. I’d gained a lot of experience working across many different industries over the years. I could have sought out a fledgling start-up destined for an IPO. I could have focused instead of building on my strengths and maximizing my salary. Or I could have looked for a stable, safe company that provided more security. Instead, I chose a position I had never held, at a small company in another country no one’s heard of, to do something I had never done before.

So far, it’s been an intense journey, fraught with complex challenges. The product team I was hired to build has grown from 1 person to 12, while the company grew from 39 people to over 110. We’ve updated our core products while releasing a new one. Our company structure and processes have changed dramatically. We even changed the locations of both our offices. Meanwhile, my wife and I moved to Germany to be closer to the action.

Throughout it all, I’ve felt deep frustration, uncertainty, or excitement (occasionally simultaneously), and have experienced so much change in such a short period of time that it already feels like a lifetime. I’ve watched some folks evolve into superstars, while others continuously struggle. I’ve seen our efforts to improve our products receive both praise and immense criticism. I’ve witnessed (or contributed to) both huge wins and epic failures. As a result, the company I started at two years ago is almost unrecognizable. Some days I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Yet it also feels like I’m just getting started.

Who knows if the company will continue to thrive 10 years from now? Who knows if the blood, sweat, and tears will translate into substantially more happy users? Who knows if all my success and failures will add up to better futures for everyone on my team? I certainly don’t. Earlier on in my career, I may have been tempted to jump ship, skip pay levels, and do something far less risky. After all, two years is good run at any company in this industry (or in this economy). But I don’t care about the short term uncertainty and pain. I’m in it for the long-term reward. It’s the most exciting time of my entire career, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

For the first time ever, it’s hard to imagine myself anywhere else and be just as happy.

So, if you’re deciding between new opportunities in your own career, I encourage you to consider the long road… The difficult road… The road that can lead to many different, unexpected destinations.

It may be worth the extra trouble.

Confessions of a Luddite

OR: The day I started covering my laptop camera with electrical tape.

My relationship with technology has evolved over the years.

When I grew up in the early 80’s, smack in the middle of rural Ohio, “technology” was generally rare. The only place one could even obtain technological devices of any sort was RadioShack. Fortunately for me, my parents were unusually drawn to cool gadgets and had access to numerous credit cards (which RadioShack gladly accepted). So, I happened grow up with a dual top-loading VCR, multiple-CD player, Commodore 64 computer, and dot matrix printer.

Still, back then, tech was mostly occasional entertainment. I played plenty of video games (actual Pac-Man and Centipede), watched movies (mostly campy comedies), or listened to music (which was either Whitney Huston or Footloose, our only 2 CDs). Most of the time, however, I was outside watching tadpoles in the stream behind our house, or experimenting with various art materials in the basement. My only real interests in life were discovering and creating new things.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that technology itself become more important to me than a Walkman or aftermarket car stereo.

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After dropping out of college, where I had been pursing a degree in Fine Arts, it dawned on me there was another way to be creative without being a starving artist: Become a Graphic Designer. After asking my parents to buy me a Mac and some design programs, I taught myself how to type, code HTML websites, and troubleshoot dial-up modems.

By this time we were living in Northern Virginia, a fast emerging hub for technology companies and design agencies to serve them. Within a couple of years, I landed my first real job as a design professional at a small creative shop in Fairfax. There, I continued to learn things, like how to actually design, manage thousands of proprietary fonts, or prepare files for print vendors. Armed with the latest Mac G3 and an enormous 17” monitor, I was responsible for real accounts, real clients, and real money.

While lightyears beyond my childhood experiences, my understanding and appreciation of technology would only grow exponentially from there… mostly because technology itself began to evolve exponentially.

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Nearly a decade later, my career as a pure Visual Designer ended while working for a big creative agency that designed digital technology solutions for clients around the world. By this time, billions of people had access to the web (hundreds of millions of which had access to reliable high-speed internet services), and virtually all of them were already on Facebook. Instead of webpages and brochures, clients cared about scalable web-based services, targeted social media campaigns, immersive digital experiences, and, of course, mobile apps.

Needless to say, tech had come a long way, and I wanted to solve deeper, more interesting problems than just the visual ones. Therefore, I successfully transitioned from a Visual Designer to an Experience Designer before leaving the agency world for “Product”.

Ironically, this was also the inflection point in my relationship with tech, since moving product-side only brought me that much closer what’s actually going on under the world wide hood.

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Nearly four years later, even more has changed. Now I do a variety of things for an open-source web software company based in Germany, including building prototypes, mapping out user journeys, scheduling meetings, and writing functional specifications. My primary work machine is faster than most of my previous laptops combined, and only has a 13” screen. There are no more clients and vendors (just users and stakeholders), and technical implementations are far more important than fancy presentations.

More importantly, the kind of things I worry about today are completely different than those I worried about a decade ago. That’s because I don’t just know more about technology in general, but also about how the web works, specifically, including the vast exchange of user data and programmatic ad buying that powers its economic engines. Considering how the web underpins nearly all of the new technology emerging today, knowing such things evidently changed me.

Because today, I’m not learning about typography, adaptive layouts, or how to design a frictionless credit card payment flow. Instead, I’m learning about a world where virtually everything about us is collected, stored, and shared via API’s every second we spend online. Instead of reading about the latest social media trends or next iPhone, I’m learning how to better protect users data in the products we build. And instead of keeping up with the latest techniques in agile software development, I’m worrying a shit ton about privacy in an increasingly mobile, insecurely networked world.

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15 years ago, I was the artistic kid that grew up into an bonafide design professional — dress pants and all. Whenever somebody showed me new trends (like all-Flash home pages!), I eagerly incorporated them into my designs. Technology was something I avidly consumed, and only sought the newest, latest gadgets to satiate my credit card-financed appetites. The future was bright with possibilities and endless opportunity.

Today, I’m almost a middle aged man who wears hoodies, avoids social media like radioactive waste, and covers his laptop camera with electrical tape. My mobile phone requires fingerprint authentication and runs a VPN at all times. I refuse to buy a new gaming console because they’re capable of recording every word and action, which an AI could analyze to serve me targeted advertising. And I always keep some cash in multiple currencies locked in a safe at home, just in case financial markets ever shut down.

What the fuck happened?

Explosive technological advancement happened, and not all of it positive.

More people have access to advanced technology than at any other time in recorded history, just as technology itself continues to grow exponentially in scale, scope, and complexity. In this hyper-connected world of mega data we’ve created, it’s finally impossible to live in the modern age without the web — and yet we have failed to address its most serious flaws and vulnerabilities, and in the process have completely lost control of all basic individual privacy. Even worse, we’ve given nearly all that control (and valuable user data) to a handful super-powerful American corporations, or to government agencies in the name of “national security”. It seems more than likely that all the data we’ve generated, floating out there in the “cloud” or stored in massive data centers, will one day come back to haunt us.

The very world I have helped create no longer seems so… positive.

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For now, I plod forward. I care less about aesthetics and more about substance, meaning, and core purpose. I do what I can, creating products that make a positive difference in the lives of ordinary people while, hopefully, making the web a better place for everyone. To this day, my overwhelming desire is to discover and create new things — for the benefit of all — and there is no better time to do just that than right now.

But in the end, it’s hard to feel optimistic. I fear the worst case scenario because I understand the potential for real catastrophy. The future isn’t a threat, per se, but it does appear more and more threatening every day. So, as a result, I cover my cameras and stay away from social media.

Maybe I’ll fall in love with technology again one day. Perhaps I’ll be forced to terminate our relationship completely. Until then, I currently prefer to keep our relationship strictly casual.

Learning How to Lead

If it doesn’t feel like drowning, you’re probably doing it wrong.

For a long time (longer than I’d like to admit), my primary responsibility was mastering the craft of design. From identity to print or Web design, there was a lot to learn. Branding. Layout. Typography. Color theory. Substrates and printing techniques. Technical requirements and limitations for the Web. These are all things I could spend a lifetime perfecting, only to remember that there will always be many people who are far more talented than me.

Then I ventured into the vast world of “UX” (mostly by accident). There was even more to learn. User journeys. Site maps. Information architecture. Wireframes. Content strategy. Functional requirements. The list of artifacts and specialties were endless! My only saving grace was that I was a halfway decent designer, so my documentation looked better than most. Still, it was yet another universe dominated by extraordinary talent.

Fast forward to 2016. I somehow landed a job at a startup company with a fancy title. I had experience designing things. I could do UX stuff. And by this time I had enough industry experience to somewhat understand how screwed up online advertising had become. Only now I was responsible for doing all the design things, prioritizing projects, hiring people, and getting shit done. It all sounded very exciting and important (because it was), but leading was a new frontier.

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After several months of pretending to know what I’m doing, I had a meeting with a newly-formed-but-loosely-defined team. My grand vision was that we’d figure out our Experience Design Process in a 1.5 hours on a Thursday afternoon (because, um, we never had one to begin with). Instead, I quickly realized that shit was all fucked up, people had no idea who was responsible for what, and our collective activities felt more like an exercise in chaos theory. We barely even got to the actual process stuff.

So, I obviously felt pretty terrible at my job. Again. Only this time there was no hiding behind pretty layouts and clever copy.

But you know what? It was a very good thing that happened in that meeting. I learned in that moment to embrace my deficiencies and failures. It was no longer about my portfolio, my reputation, or my experience. This was about other people – super talented, immensely dedicated, very motivated people (if I had done anything right, it was hiring). This was a mess I honestly could’t fix on my own. I needed help. Because the problem had nothing to do with “managing” people.

It was entirely about supporting them.

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In the days since that awkward, very painful meeting, I’ve been focused on the team’s success instead of my failure(s). There’s still a lot to do, and much more to learn. But I’ve started by trying to understand the challenges before prescribing solutions. My job, it turns out, is not to have the “right” answers, but rather involve those who actually have the experience, skill, and vision.

After several months in this role, I’m just now beginning to grasp how limited I am on my own, and how all the help I could ever need surrounds me in abundance. They are the answer. I am not the solution.

I’ve always had a knack for learning things the hard way… But this time, the truth never hurt to good.

A Few Good Foxes

Reflecting on life after Content Services

When I joined the Content Services team 18 months ago, I knew we’d be working on big, experimental things. After all, our mandate was to create a new revenue stream for Mozilla while advancing content discovery and user privacy on Firefox New Tab. Over time, I would learn that big, experimental things are made possible only by a few, wickedly smart, and hugely-dedicated people.

We had a lot to prove from the very beginning – both internally, and externally. Nevertheless, a team of roughly 30 people managed to achieve tremendous success in spite of immense challenges. We developed an Add-On that allows users to analyze their interests on the Web, built an entire advertising technology stack, landed a commercially-viable product in Firefox New Tab, raised millions in revenue for the Mozilla organization, and signed contracts with several major content partners. Meanwhile, users were always provided direct control over their experience – including the choice to opt-out at any time from content suggestions. Simply put, Content Services either met or exceeded every goal we were given.

I was therefore deeply saddened by Mozilla’s decision to dissolve the Content Services team and wind-down all advertising activities in its Firefox products.

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Hearing that all your projects are being cancelled is one thing. Learning that your team will cease to exist is quite another. Naturally, emotions are strong and abundant at first. But after letting the news sink in for a bit, I now find myself feeling mostly one thing:

Gratitude.

Even if our collective work is ultimately forgotten, this team certainly won’t be. Over the 15 years I’ve been a creative professional, never have I worked with a group of people who were more willing, able, and committed to one another. Truly, they all demonstrated the qualities anyone could hope for in their teammates…

The Marketing & Communications Team fought to advance our message through collaboration and transparency – not meaningless “messaging”. They sough everyone’s input, allowed for widespread contribution, and demanded that the user’s voice was heard clearest. Above all, they helped us all see the bigger picture, and what was at stake for the industry.

The Business Development, Client Success, and Business Operations Teams were world class. Content Services started with literally nothing. No product. No partners. No research. But somehow they brokered relationships with publishers like Condé Nast, and advertisers like TOMS – amassing an inventory of suggested content that could all be delivered to interested users, while respecting their privacy, and without the tracking. (If you’ve never been in the “ad industry”, that’s crazy talk.) These gals and guys killed it, each and every day – and by doing so won the trust of their teammates and partners alike.

The Product Team approached everything with users foremost in mind. They wanted our products to deliver actual value, not just support a mission or business goals. To this end, research and usability testing were central to their thinking. And no matter what, they were always down to experiment.

The Engineering Team was capable of anything. They didn’t just build an ad stack, they built one that actively protects individual data. Privacy, in other words, was “baked in” from the beginning. As a result, Content Services was able to partner with top-tier partners, while delivering on our promise to respect user identity (instead of collecting and/or selling it). More importantly, their commitment was extraordinary – going so far as manually publishing suggested content late into the night.

Of course, none of this would have happened without The Leadership and CS Operational Support Teams. Their contribution to our progressive success cannot be understated. In two years, a team of 12 grew to over 30… without a single person quitting. The ship held and the crew pulled together, regardless of the storms we faced – and that’s straight-up amazing.

So thanks, everyone, for letting me ride this crazy ride with you. Wherever each of us lands in the coming months, the Content Services Team will forever be without equal at Mozilla. The technology we built, the users we impacted, and the mission we advanced were well worth the fight – and fighting alongside you has been a pleasure.

The Open Web is better off today because of your contributions.

-A

Apolitical Fan Art: Bernie Sanders

I simply couldn’t resist…

Participant of CGTrader Digital Art Competition.

Download the 18″x24″ poster: Bernie 2016 (PDF – 404 KB)

It came to me in a sudden flash. Blame it on jet lag and bad taste, but there is was in my mind: Bernie Sanders a’ la Milton Glaser.

Yes, there are umpteen-million rip-offs of Glaser’s iconic Bob Dylan poster.

No, I don’t think anybody could possibly do better than the original.

But that face. The hair! How could I not?

Besides, Bernie is an icon in his own right – one that often invokes strong emotions, regardless of leanings.

P.S. Maybe I’ll do another… once the Republicans narrow their field a bit 😉

Common Cosmology

Reflecting on the future of human understanding.

Being an avid follower of news and politics, I find it necessary to blow my own mind on occasion. After reading one too many stories about human shortsightedness, my thoughts begin to narrow and old ideas petrify. Sometimes, the scalpel of knowledge isn’t enough to extract the rigid crust of cynicism; only a cannon will do. Accordingly, I like to pick a meaty book from the astrophysics shelf every few months. Whether it’s black holes or the origins of the universe, I prefer to escape this particular stretch of spacetime altogether, and then return to Earth with (hopefully) a little more perspective.

Since math is definitely not my forte, however, I tend to stick to writers like Brian Greene and Caleb Sharf, who can distill the greatest mysteries of the universe into common language that’s clear and vivid. Because of their deft writing, I can “see” things like vibrating strings, the gravitational distortions of space-time, and colliding branes. Sort of. At the very least, they help me visual the otherwise unimaginable in metaphors that makes sense – even if that understanding is negligible. In doing so, the limitations of my own imagination are challenged regularly (both as a person and as a product designer).

More importantly, such books remind me that we’re all limited in our understanding. This “loose understanding” of how things really work is actually a dominant theme in many of the books I read. Modern cosmology, after all, is largely based on theories derived from pure math, most of which are impossible to observe with human eyeballs, or have yet to be confirmed through experimentation. And then, when repeatable tests do validate a particular theory, we often end up with a universe far stranger – and infinitely more complex – than previously imagined.

In fact, the bedrock theories upon which our current understanding of the universe are based are themselves not easy to reconcile. For example, there is no “Theory of Everything” that neatly ties together Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to String Theory and quantum mechanics. Both yield predictions that are confirmed by testing, and yet they are still, somehow, incompatible. (This is probably the math parts I don’t understand.) Another set of principles or forces seem to be at work.

Perhaps it all has something to do with dark matter and dark energy. Scientist have somehow determined that the two compose almost 96% of the entire universe, leaving only 4% for the stuff we can see. While these phenomena cannot yet be directly observed, they nevertheless have very measurable effects on what we can observe.

If this to true, one must concede that there may be other dimensions beyond the four we perceive. String theorists have proposed that there should be no less than ten dimensions represented in this universe. Furthermore, these dimensions might be so small, and so tightly curled up upon themselves, that we simply can’t detect them with current technology. Dark matter and dark energy may well be further expressions of these extra dimensions.

Meanwhile, in another field of study, scientists are seeking answers to a different riddle: Why is the universe shaped the way it is? It’s a simple question that I had until recently taken for granted.

For most of my life, I had imagined that the universe was spherical. I understood the Big Bang only as an unfathomably large explosion that began in the “center.” Following this logic, I presumed that everything would explode outwards, in all directions, at equal rates. Over enormous expanses of time, everything would slow down as it traveled outward, until the universe reached a degree of stasis. (Just like any explosion I saw in the movies.)

It turns out that all of this is untrue. In reality, the universe is nearly flat, and is expanding faster and faster. In my childhood mind’s eye, the black abyss we inhabited looked like a dandelion from a great distance… I should instead have imagined an elastic, microscopically thin pancake being stretched on all sides with ever greater force. Furthermore, it would more accurate to say that this pancake universe has an “origin”, rather than a “center”.

Even stranger, my notions that everything was “settling down” or reaching a “conclusion” couldn’t be further from the truth either. (Blame my linear, literal mind.) Since then, I’ve learned about the laws of entropy. Entropy is the gradual decline into disorder. The very early universe had surprising low entropy, meaning that there was more order and less complexity. But the Big Bang produced a rapidly swelling universe with ever-higher entropy, or more disorder and great complexity. And just like you can’t unbreak an egg, transitioning from a state of low to high entropy is a one-way train. The universe is still evolving from a singularity, and into something near infinitely complex.

Which leads the devout reader on to the most fascinating — if not disturbing — theories about Cosmic Inflation and the Multiverse. One says that there are really two thin pancakes, separated only by an infinitesimal gap, which collide over and over again, causing Big Bangs. The other suggests that this is but one of an infinite number of universes, maybe even with our own specific expressions of physical laws. There could even be other versions of us out there in the Multiverse, if not the holographic projections of a higher intelligence.

Mind blown.

+++++

After a good mind blowing, I return to this cerulean blue orb with mixed feelings.

Over the last few centuries, science has uncovered a universe unlike anything Newton imagined. In the last 100 years alone, astrophysicists have made some of the most important – and fundamental – discoveries in all of human history. Today, we have things like high-powered mega telescopes orbiting earth, a Large Hadron Collider, and a rover on Mars. Galileo had a few rocks, a handheld telescope, and a crooked tower. In the next 100 years, imagine what other great mysteries humankind could uncover with more advanced instruments, better analytical models, and a little luck. In the words of Agent Mulder, “The truth is out there.” We may just need some time.

But how much time do we actually have? Sadly, we may not have much of it left if we continue on our present course as a species. Between our nuclear arsenals, accelerated climate change, the current mass extinction of other life caused by our activities, or even advancements in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, we’re more of a threat to ourselves than any asteroid or alien invasion. It makes me deeply sad to think that we may never know the answers our species seeks because we will destroy ourselves first.

So now, when I put down an astrophysics book and pick up the daily paper, I can’t help but wonder:

Will we ever be worthy of the truth?

The answer is entirely up to us. Whether that’s cause for hope or dismay, I haven’t yet decided.

Unclear Intentions

Not knowing where to start is always the hardest part.

Anybody who’s built a technology product intimately understands the law of inertia: getting something started is always more difficult than sustaining momentum.

In the beginning of any new endeavor, who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish is entirely unknown. Until you’ve declared your intentions – or can point to something of value that you’ve produced – it’s difficult to generate much interest. People within your own organization are reluctant to cooperate. Business partners or vendors have all the bargaining power. And the average user has no reason to care. Meanwhile, you need human and financial capital, supplies, services and whatever else required to build something truly awesome.

Personal stuff can be equally challenging. Starting out a career, a business, or even recovery from a major injury, takes a lot of time and determination to build enough momentum before it “feels” like any progress has been made. (Sometimes the effort only seems worth it in retrospect.)

Then there’s the mundane stuff; things that are important, but not critical. We may know that something needs to happen — at some point — but just thinking about it summons immediate fatigue and a twinge of depression. They tend to be the kinds of things we put off for a long as possible, like working out and eating healthier.

Or starting a blog.

*****

As a designer, the biggest challenges I face often start with a blank canvass – literally, albeit a digital one. By this point in my career, designing is the easy part; thinking through all the dependencies is the real challenge. Long gone are the days of simple websites. Today, creative folks are working with engineers, data scientists and business development consultants to build entire technology platforms. Things get complicated quickly.

But for various reasons, I’m infinitely more confident launching a new project than I am starting a personal blog.

For many years, I resisted writing for general consumption on the Web. Does the world need yet another voice shouting into the mob? What would I have to say that’s any different than what everyone else has already said? What if I don’t want to write about just one topic, or write very often? How would I even promote a blog since my online life is decidedly unsocial? More importantly, what would be my raison d’être should people actually start reading posts?

It’s never been clear to me why my voice would matter, or to whom.

*****

Last month, my boss encouraged me to write a post for our team’s blog.

After spending several days trying to write something technical, I gave up on the first draft. Any given feature had a back story just as important as the feature itself. It wasn’t possible to write something about the specifics without getting into the “why” behind the “what”.

As it turned out, the Why was far more important to me, personally, than the particulars of anything I happened to be working on. So I wrote something much more personal instead: my journey at Mozilla, and how I’ve changed as a person and as a designer.

Only now, there wasn’t anywhere to post it because official websites and related blogs are for official announcements – not for introspective posts about things that are entirely unofficial. This is, of course, very understandable. However, my quandary remains: where the hell do I post something that’s work related, but not about actual work?

*****

My job affords me the opportunity to work with some of the most talented, intelligent people on the planet. One such individual recently asked me how I felt about blogging. He shares many of my hangups about writing for an audience on the Web, but still manages to be the most effective communicator I’ve met. So I asked him why he writes, how often, and what about.

Surprisingly, he only writes on occasion, and about diverse topics that range from Web technology to sports. Sometimes it’s a shout out to hard working bus drivers. But he doesn’t write because there’s some underlying expectation or pressure to do so. He writes because he wants to. (This is crazy talk to somebody like me, who’s been trained to think about the commercial value of everything.)

All feelings of acute narcissism aside, he discovered for himself that expressing a unique, personal perspective – even if only on occasion – makes him that much more knowable. It’s not about “personal branding”, social influence scoring, or networking with industry insiders in the hopes of securing a new job one day. It’s far more pragmatic. As Communications Director, his success is dependent on his ability to work with others. Simply by putting himself “out there”, folks are often a more willing to share and listen to new ideas because there’s something to relate to. Meanwhile, he has a platform that allows him to be himself without the limitations inherent in writing for official channels. It seemed reasonable.

Regarding the story I’d written, there still wasn’t a place to post it or an audience to address. Nevertheless, he gave me the only advice he could:

Start a personal blog.

*****

Hello world. Dammit.