We Require More Minerals

Lately I’ve been somewhat obsessed by Starcraft. It’s a computer game that’s comparable to chess, except played at insane speeds and with a greater range of strategies available. I’m not much of a gamer, but this game has my attention.

  • Speed of play is measured by Actions Per Minute (APM). One player controls an economy, building construction and an army. Professionals are capable of performing well over 200 discreet game movements per minute. That’s really fast. Games usually last from 3 to 15 minutes.
  • In Korea, Starcraft is taken very seriously. Top players make very good livings off the game and there are TV stations that only show Starcraft games.
  • Fun fact: in 2011 I went to Korea to watch a Starcraft tournament. Weird, I know.
  • Scientific American has reported on scientists studying Starcraft to learn more about human performance.
  • At any given time you can watch Starcraft being played online on Twitch. Good, personable players make several hundred dollars a day from subscriptions and donations.
  • The story of the rise of Starcraft and the creation of Starcraft II and its storyline and art is a great read. It’s a small empire of interesting characters and huge sums of money.
books Software Technology

The Slow Death of Digital Books

In 2007 Amazon released the Kindle. It was never a beautiful device, but it solved a problem with reading on screens–the discomfort that some people feel after looking at a lit screen for a long time. Still, it is a very flawed device. Browsing a Kindle book is tedious. Page refreshes are jerky, and just like in the old days of TV, everything is black and white.

In 2010, Apple released iBooks. At the time, the realistic page curl animation was pretty hot stuff. Apple wasn’t the first to do it, but iBooks popularized it the effect. It felt like the beginning of a digital book renaissance. It was a small step, but surely the innovation would continue with Apple at the lead of the pack?

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Something happened though. Since the introduction of the Kindle and iBooks there have been only incremental improvements.  A lot of similar software and hardware has come out, but almost no real innovation has made its way from prototype to production.

Maybe the halting pace of innovation is why we are now seeing a resurgence of paper books. Innovation in robotics, virtual reality, and AI are announced almost daily. Yet the technology around something as prevalent and important as books has almost completely stagnated.

A Light in the Dark

There are however, some good examples of people trying to make digital books better.

Check out this concept video from a Korean company called Kaist back in 2012. It’s far better than anything available today but years later, hasn’t made it to market.

Or, this prototype of a phone that turns pages when you bend it:

Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?

I’m not really sure why things are this way. The closest parallel to the stagnation in ebook technology I can think of is PC laptops. Despite the enormous market, there are very few PC laptops that approach the quality of Mac laptops. This might finally be changing over the last couple years, but it’s been a very slow change.

I don’t think we can dismiss digital books by saying that people are happy with the state things are in now. Look at all the attention that the Kindle gets every time they release an update. If it’s a sign of consumer interest, it seems to indicate that a company who came in and really shook up the ebook hardware and software market would potentially do very, very well.


The Simplified World of The Thing Explainer

The hottest Christmas book around our house this year has been The Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. It explains complicated stuff using only the thousand most common words in the English language. A helicopter becomes a “Sky Boat with Turning Wings” and a dishwasher is a “Box that Cleans Food Holders.” This has had the kids cracking up every time they open the book. If that’s not a good enough recommendation, maybe Bill Gates can convince you that it’s worth checking out. If you want to try your hand at writing with only the 1000 most common words, Munroe has created a tool to help you do it.

And, if you haven’t encountered Munroe before, you’re in for a treat. His comic XKCD is a gem. Here’s a good place to start.

Science Technology

String Wars

String Theory is a 30 year old theory that, if proven, would provide a unified way of explaining the four fundamental forces of nature. It combines the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism with the very elusive force of gravity.

String theory has problems though.After 30 years an unproven theory would usually be counted a failure and scientists would move on to something more promising. However string theory still isn’t finished and, even if it were, there is no way to test it. Not only that, but strings, if they exist, are too small for us to measure now, or any time in the conceivable future. This has led some to accuse string theory of not even being a true scientific theory. Yet scientists spend a lot of time and money on it. This is a topic that heats up every so often. Now is one of those times.

  • Peter Woit, a math professor at Columbia University is, and has been for the last 10 years, the most forceful critic of String Theory. He has a book called Not Even Wrong and writes very frequently about it on his blog, also called Not Even Wrong. Another book that covers some of the same ground is The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. It’s an accessible book for a science amateur like me.
  • Brian Greene, Woit’s colleague at Columbia University, is a huge proponent of string theory and has written some very readable explanations on the state of the theory and of theoretical physics in general. I’ve read and highly recommend The Fabric of the Cosmos. According to this Nautilus article, Woit and Greene have never actually gotten into a fist fight in the halls of Columbia.
  • Quanta Magazine has an awesome graphic representation of all of the current, major Theories of Everything mapped with basic explanations of what the theories are and what we stand to learn from them.

Breadth after Depth: Don’t Set Yourself Up to Fail in Software Projects

It is very easy for software product owners to be lured into the trap of designing software to solve a broad problem for many people right from the start. This is a mistake. Most ideas start to scratch an itch or build something that is unique to a particular company or group. Then as you think more about solving it, the natural tendency is to go bigger and think “hey, this could also solve these similar problems!” You increase the scope of your project to encompass those problems as well. After all, it’s software, there’s no cost to make your product just a bit more generalized, right?

No. Again, this is a mistake.

Build to solve the smaller problem. Learn the domain by focusing on solving the problem you started off with from A to Z. Once you have done that, expand to similar problems or refactor your software to a higher level of abstraction.

For example, say you rent a house and find it tough to communicate with your landlord. You decide you want to build software to help landlords communicate with their tenants. Great. As you start thinking about it you realize that you could also solve the problem for people who rent out their houses to vacationers for the summer or for commercial apartment building landlords to communicate with many tenants in a building. After all, they’re basically the same problem, right?


They require different models, different abstractions and different user interfaces. Solving everyone’s problem means solving no one’s problem. Instead it means getting bogged down in creating software generic enough to not exclude any potential customers. It may seem like you’re making big fancy plans and building elegant software models when in reality you are severely lengthening your time to market and setting yourself up to build a product that doesn’t fully solve any one of your potential customer’s problems.

Here’s what not to do:

  • Don’t try to solve a problem that can be described in two words like “Project Management” or “Travel Guides” or “Technical Training” or “Note Taking.” Your first product should be much more specific. “Note taking for software developers,” for example.
  • Don’t start trying to sell something that has even the smallest geographic considerations to customers globally. Instead, pick a country or state and go from beginning to end with just that segment of the market.

An example in the software world is Ruby on Rails. It didn’t start as a broad framework. It started as a product–Basecamp. It wasn’t until after Basecamp was successfully built to completion (depth) that 37 Signals extracted Rails as a general framework that could be used to build other web applications (breadth). Contrast that with Meteor or These are frameworks built to solve huge problems for many people. They are promising but have been extremely expensive to build and growth has been quite slow, in fact for, it seems to have stopped completely.

Resist the temptation to start by building for a broad market. Focus. Build a product that completely solves a small problem, then expand it.

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Myth and Matter

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Join me, a natural, habitual collector of information on a random journey through languages, spoken and coded, literature, culture, science, learning and many other topics. This is a casual, infrequent email conversation that will point you off in fun & interesting directions.


rien ne tient en place

rien ne tient en place. A few of my favorite things: literature, French, JavaScript and Ruby beautifully joined together in this essay about language and meaning.


Conscious Consumption

A couple weeks ago I posted about “Radical Creation”–stopping reading, watching TV, listening to podcasts etc. to re-focus on creating content and move away from constant consumption. It was a successful experiment. I came away from it refreshed and with a more conscious approach to media. I’m no longer cold-turkey, and have moved back toward the middle; toward what feels like a better place. This has resulted in me setting a few informal rules:

  • Give time to think, write and process anything you consume. If you haven’t done that for the last thing you read, listened to or watched, don’t start something new.
  • Write about it. Even if it’s just jotting down a quick note, write something about everything you take in. This is to help remember it later, but more importantly, to remember it now. 
  • Triage. Consume all types of information, but be aware of the relative value. It’s not always easy to put something down midway through, but do a gut check. If it’s not working out, move on.
  • Avoid “The Shallows“. It’s easy to spend all available time reading Twitter or Hacker News, but there is more out there. The best fish aren’t found in shallow water.

Since taking that approach, I’ve been writing significantly more, have re-started some side coding projects and have generally felt more in touch with the present and more conscious of how what I consume affects me. It’s been a good reset.


Tips for Interviewing and Telling Good Stories

Telling stories is hard. Getting people to tell them can be hard too, but once you do, there is nothing as captivating. Recently Tim Ferriss interviewed Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media on how to tell and elicit engaging stories. The interview is specifically geared toward giving advice to podcasters on how to get people to tell good stories, but can also be used to help you relate information in a way that people will identify with.

Blumberg’s goal when editing a podcast is to draw in his audience with memorable stories. We’re “hard-wired” to want to hear a story and if you can do that with your content, people will listen. He suggests learning to “listen to your own boredom.” In personal interactions we try to meet people halfway to understand their perspective and maintain interest, but the Internet isn’t a personal interaction. If you’re feeling a twinge of boredom or drifting while editing your content or speaking, chances are, you have already lost your audience.

In the same vein, when you are reviewing your content, be aware of any feelings of confusion. The axiom applies here as well: don’t assume people will meet you halfway. Even a subtle feeling that what you are working on might be confusing is an indication that it will be very hard for your audience to follow. Stop and clarify.

Blumberg also has a couple specific techniques and questions to use when interviewing to help get you to that moment where someone tells a story with real emotional appeal. A question he finds useful is “what do you make of that?” It is a little awkward to ask, but it is open-ended and tends to draw out people’s feelings on a subject. He also asks “why is this story meaningful to you?” After using these questions he suggests you “sit back and shut up.” Let your interviewee talk, give them time and you will the story you are looking for.

Part of the interview comes from a Creative Live class that I haven’t seen ($99), but looks interesting.

Software tangle Technology

Evernote’s Strengths and its Fatal Flaw

I use Evernote heavily. It is an innovative product with a great design aesthetic from a company that seems to have a very good business model. All this has rightly earned Evernote an avid user base and a growing ecosystem. The problem with Evernote though, is that it was made for storing a specific type of information but in reality, it is used in less effective ways for storing much more than that.

First, let’s talk about the information that Evernote is really good at storing. I’d place this in two categories:

  1. Ephemera. Things like grocery lists, blog entry drafts, quick reminders. Anything that you will keep around for awhile, then be fine with it disappearing forever, either literally (being deleted) or practically (being replaced by other, newer information and only found by search.)
  2. Chronological data. Journal entries, receipts or bills come to mind. Anything that is primarily organized by the date it was created.

For these two categories, Evernote is practically perfect. Its native apps are nice and ubiquitous, its web app is amazing. None of the problems with Evernote stem from execution of its core functionality.

So that’s what it does well, what’s the problem? The problem is that for most things, people don’t think in lists and we don’t want to retrieve information that way.

Once something is saved in Evernote, really the only way to find it is by searching. If you’ve tagged your entries, you can browse by tag, but that is a seldom used feature. If you use notebooks, they can aid in finding notes, but after awhile, the lists become difficult to manage and it is hard to find and surface things you’ve stored further back than the recent past. Evernote has one other feature for premium users that surfaces related notes. This is getting much closer to solving the problem I’m talking about, but it relies completely on their AI (which is pretty good!) and is limited to just a few related notes.

What if you could take the is related notes concept and apply it much more predictably, more rigorously, to all your information? It would make notes easier to find, a feature that is hugely important. After all, why bother writing something down if you’re almost certain to never see it again. Still, as important as discoverability is, an even more important problem that a better connected way of storing notes would solve is enabling you to see patterns in the information that you care about. Patterns are at the root of creativity. Patterns are what enable us to take two or more different ideas and combine them in novel ways. This is where art and business are born.

This very type of pattern finding facilitated by good tools for information storage and retrieval is something I’m very interested in and something I’ll be writing about here more.