Airbnbs, Bowing, and Tinted Windshields

Staying in an Airbnb is hands-down one of my favorite parts of living in the future. The comfort of being in an actual home where a real person lives entirely changes the experience of travel. It’s much easier to masquerade as a non-tourist when I walk out of a non-hotel, and being able to text the host with casual questions and get custom recommendations from someone who feels like a friend kind of makes it feel like I do actually have all these friends who just happen to have places empty and available.

It’s a perfect example of how the internet has allowed new lifestyles to exist by creatively re-using resources. That said, it doesn’t seem like the world has yet figured out how to deal with it on a legal level. As usual, governments and big businesses lag behind technological progress, and every place I’ve stayed so far has had some sort of warning that I “should tell everyone at the building that I’m a friend of theirs, and never mention Airbnb.”

I’ve been doing that, but it’s become obvious that these places are starting to catch on. In the building I’m in currently, there’s a large sign in the lobby that says “THIS IS NOT A HOTEL.” I’m not sure what the legal ramifications are for renting out your place illegally, but it doesn’t seem to stop anyone. There are thousands of places in this city alone up for booking, and seemingly more each day. Perhaps all apartments will slowly become apartment/hotel hybrids, and when we sign leases in the future, they’ll have built-in policies surrounding how to deal with Airbnb-like services in their terms.

My latest favorite cultural nuance is that every time I pay for anything (or especially if I tip someone) they give a small bow and put their hands in prayer position. I get bowed to 5–10 times per day, and it feels much nicer than just being thanked. When someone bows, they smile and it feels as if they’re personally happy to be keeping the tradition alive. I reflexively give a little bow back, and we leave the interaction feeling mutual positive feelings.

This is unlike casual American thank-yous, which often don’t feel genuine. I think the key difference is that bowing is actually a show of respect, while a thank-you is just a common courtesy. Someone who thanks you doesn’t necessarily respect you, they’re just pleased you did something for them. If someone bows, it feels like they’re bestowing a miniature honor on you for existing in the way that you do. Is paying for my Pad Thai worthy of deep admiration? I don’t know, but it feels good.

Bowing also shows itself in other ways. New Year’s Day was some sort of holy day in Thailand, and after being driven around by a hard-charging tuk-tuk driver who was stopping short and blaring his horn at every turn, we passed a temple and he instantly took his hands away from steering, turned towards the temple, lowered his head, closed his eyes, and gave a little prayer. Eight seconds later, and he’s back to fighting the battle that is Bangkok traffic. The juxtaposition of chaos and divine respect is the most unique aspect of the culture so far.

Many vehicles in Thailand have their front windshields tinted pitch-black. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to tint your windshield in the US, and it’s actually noticeable from a pedestrian standpoint. Given the aggressive traffic, it’s kind of terrifying crossing a crosswalk and seeing an oncoming car with an all-black windshield. It’s impossible to know whether the person can see you and will stop, or if they’re fixing their makeup and will mow you down. I wonder if this desire to tint all the windows has any deeper meaning — are people inherently more private in Asia, or are they just exercising their enhanced rights to privacy because they can? If given the opportunity, would everyone tint their windshield?

One last small detail I noticed today is that even though people drive on the left side of the road and have drivers seats on the right side, people don’t observe this same orientation when walking. People always seem to walk to the right side, just like American traffic. Maybe the tendency to stay to the right is an aspect of humanity, and would always exist if laws didn’t mandate that people use the left-side.

I’m getting a better feel for the urban culture by the day, but I need a break from the congestion of the city life for a while. Tomorrow I’m off to an island, stay tuned!

Resolutions, Bangkok, and Social Media

One of my main resolutions this year is to re-commit to a habit I attempted (and failed) to begin a number of months ago: writing a bite-size essay each morning that I spend no more than an hour on, then sharing it. The essays will always be kind of a ramble, since the goal is just to capture a snapshot of my mindstate each day, not create a masterpiece. So here I am, on a fresh, blank January 1st, putting fingers to keyboard.

I want to do this because there’s something about daily creativity that feels good. It’s a record that a day actually existed, a first-person remnant that’s more than just a memory. If I stick to this, and actually have 365 mini-essays at the end of the year, I’ll hopefully have a pretty accurate little book of what I was thinking about.

Today was my first full day experiencing Asia. I flew into Wuhan, China last night, then had a 3-hour layover before a connecting flight to Bangkok. During the layover, I wandered around the airport and felt that first tinge of dizzying confusion that comes from not being able to remotely decipher the language. When you suddenly can’t read, you start noticing other things more. The visual tonality, the typography, the context. A yellow and black sign with exclamations…some sort of warning. An overly-happy anime child with glistening eyes holding a chocolate duck…some sort of ad.

I tried to pay for noodles with my debit card (which I’ve done without issues in other countries) and was told that they only accepted cash, specifically the Chinese RMB. I went to the currency exchange, and they said that American debit and credit cards cannot be used in China. I couldn’t believe that that was true, but every person I asked told me that ATMs wouldn’t work with my cards, and that I was simply “out of luck” if I didn’t have actual US dollars. They turned out to be wrong, and I found an ATM that worked just fine.

In the moment before finding the ATM, it really hit me just how much easier life is going to be once the world runs on global cryptocurrencies. It’s ridiculous that I can have money, but can’t use it because a country prefers their fancy paper and plastic to another country’s fancy paper and plastic. Value is value, and soon enough all these esoteric currency exchange systems will be seen as totally unnecessary and wasteful. Countries should not control money.

I’m on this trip both working and traveling, testing out the “digital nomad” lifestyle and seeing if it works for me. One day in, and I’m enjoying it. I like the freedom and sense of adventure, but there are definitely new logistical challenges at every step. I spent the day exploring Bangkok. My first impressions are that it’s an extremely colorful place, full of life and history, and that the people are extraordinarily friendly. The aesthetic is entirely different from the West. Everything is gold-accented in an ancient sort of way, and intricate curved-line patterns are on most surfaces. The written language itself matches this curved, flowy feel, and looks kind of like somebody attempted to write English in cursive, but was terrible at it.

As I was walking through an ancient temple in the center of the city, some locals approached me and asked if I would take a picture. I said I’d be happy to, and reached out to take their camera from them. They looked confused and laughed, then made it clear that they wanted to take a picture with me, not me take a picture of them. I guess being non-Asian here is seen as exotic.

While the city is beautiful, it’s also noticeably dirty. The beautiful waterways that run through the streets have lots of trash in them, and the air feels thick and smoggy. Instead of using a taxi to get around, I took two rides in a “Tuk-Tuk” (a three-wheeled motorcycle with a little roof and bench in the back) and both rides were fun, but also felt pretty dangerous. There are no seatbelts or doors, and it seems like there aren’t many traffic rules beyond “don’t die.” That said, the locals seem very at ease flowing through the chaos. I guess being able to navigate the traffic of a city is the surest sign that you know the place.

My other two (non-work-related) resolutions this year are to develop a social media presence that feels authentic, and to release my first music EP of songs I’ve written over the last few years. I’ll get to the music stuff on another day though.

I’ve spent the last 6 months mostly quiet on social media. To be honest, it was nice. There’s a certain pressure that comes from posting regularly. The “I need to post, everyone is waiting for me to post” type of thoughts (in reality, absolutely no one cares if I post). So I stopped posting for a while because it felt fake, like I didn’t really have anything important to say. I was just posting things because other people were. But now with the actual content of these little essays, I feel like I’m creating something that feels a bit more genuine.

Okay, that’s one hour. Until tomorrow.

Cent: Income from anywhere.

At the end of this summer, my co-founder Cameron and I began testing the beta version of Cent, an ambitious project we’ve been conceptualizing and building since February of this year. Cent is a complex technology with a simple interface and an even simpler mission: to enable anyone to earn money from anywhere. Simply put, it’s the evolution of the social network into an income source.

Most of us spend hours each day working for free. We pour our creative energy into networks that give us no direct economic value in return. Statuses, Tweets, Instagrams, and Snaps all take time to create and provide unique value to many people. Yet nearly all the value they generate is directed to the singular profit of the corporations who maintain these services.

Before blockchains, there never really was a viable alternative. Given the technology available, internet companies had to create centralized codebases, and since they created and maintained this software, they could easily reap the financial rewards of its use. But in the last decade, an alternative substructure of the internet has begun evolving — one that allows for new types of user-compensating networks to exist.

In the same way the web democratized access to information, blockchains are democratizing access to value and trust. We are moving towards a world where networks are the predominant sources of connective, rather thansubstantive value. Cent is built on the notion that the connective value of a network is what should earn it profits, but the substantive value — the content coming from individuals within the networks — should be redirected autonomously to the users within the network who benefit most from that value.

Cent was born from a few key ideas — the first being that social networks aren’t really social networks — they’re content networks. You have an existence on Facebook because you’ve created content and put it on Facebook.Whether that content takes the form of photos, statuses, comments, or videos, any mainstream social network would be a blank page without the content creators that give it life. We are “social” on these networks only to the degree that we are consuming, liking, commenting on, and sharing the content of others.

Given that social networks are actually just content networks, it’s odd that Facebook is valued at over $400B while nearly all users of the platform make $0 for producing its content. If writers still make money while their publisher rises in value, shouldn’t content creators make money while the networks they share on rise in value? Is the technological value that Facebook provides truly worth all of the creative value of the nearly 30% of humanity who post their content on it? We don’t think so. We think the future of the economy (and the world) rests with the creator, and the history of the internet is a slow march towards this inevitability.

For many, this march can be scary. Autonomous systems, code, and robotics will continue to replace human jobs (and thereby sources of income) that do not rely directly on labor that is uniquely human. But what labor is uniquely human?

The only labor that is uniquely human is labor that computers can’t (currently) do. The more an occupation requires an algorithmic workflow, the faster that job will become an actual algorithm (pour coffee, add sugar, swipe card, repeat). Given that trend, the foundation of tomorrow’s economy must rest on things that are difficult to turn into algorithms. This foundation must be composed of mechanisms that directly monetize the aspects of humans that are non-algorithmic — perspective and creativity.

Perspective, in this context, is your unique angle of view on the world, your subjectivity, your personal feelings. Creativity is what you make when you use your perspective.

When critics of rapid technological progress warn that this rampant global unemployment will lead to chaos and economic depression they are often conflating two separate ideas — “employment” and “income”. As long as society requires money, mass unemployment is only a catastrophe if there aren’t other sources of income available.

It’s nearly always assumed that “unemployment” itself is an inherently bad thing — but is it? Is mass employment really the crowning achievement of an enlightened society? If humans invent robots to do jobs they don’t want to do, is it really a tragedy that those jobs are no longer required of humans?

In many ways, the opposite is true. Rising unemployment can be seen as a sign that we are entering a new age of automated productivity — that our species is being liberated from the types of labor that were inherently sub-human to begin with.

As we’re unshackled from the chains of cruel, pre-digital industrial processes and set free to explore the unpotentiated creative landscapes of our psyches, new octaves of human flourishing are suddenly made possible. Just as the moral progress of the 19th Century abolished most racial slavery, the technological progress of the 21st Century will abolish most economic slavery.

Cent is built to help ease our transition into this less-employed future. It’s designed to become a core layer of the future creative economy — one that directly monetizes the creative- and perspective- based value that single individuals provide.

The way we’re building Cent is unique, and we want our process to be transparent. As the network evolves, it will take the form of an interconnected constellation of “contracts”. A contract is a decentralized piece of code designed to align incentives among multiple users. By “decentralized” we mean that the code runs on a programmable, open-source blockchain(currently, Ethereum).

In the simplest terms, a blockchain is a communally shared database that uses advanced math to make sure that no one can lie to each other. Crucially, this architecture also allows for the creation of scarce digital assets that enable us to use decentralized digital currencies to align incentives in far more intricate ways than fiat currencies ever could. Incentives are what make us get out of bed in the morning. Economic incentives give us a reason to care about a particular thing, and do so in a way that is logical, rather than emotional.

Digital incentive structures allow programs to crystallize new social patterns for humans to live within, creating new types of interpersonal interaction and possibility. Cent derives its name from the fact that it runs on these two core principles — in(cent)ivization and de(cent)ralization.

When we started testing our beta product a month or two ago, we deployed one relatively-simple contract onto Ethereum. It allows people to “request” anything of the network and provide a financial bounty in ETH (ether — the cryptocurrency of Ethereum) to incentivize the best responses. A key differentiator of our system was that the userbase (not the requester) voted on which responses get the bounty.

 

Originally, we hypothesized it would be used predominantly as a Q&A service. Users would ask questions and get answers. However, we quickly realized that users were using this bounty principle in many ways we didn’t originally consider. Users were asking questions, but they were also commissioning custom content to be created and driving incentivized traffic to their projects.

We realized that bounties, at their core, incentivize behaviors. Specifically, our bounty contract began to be used for three categories of behavior: Answer, Make, and React. Answering questions, making custom content, and reacting to someone’s project/music/video all seemingly provide enough value for people to place a financial bounty on them.

Beyond that, a community surrounding the network has begun to form. It’s named itself and begun to evolve it own nouns and verbs. Users call themselves “Centians” and refer to “centing” something as putting a bounty on it. Need someone to Photoshop your friend’s face on a giraffe body? Cent it and you’ll get a few choices within a couple hours. Need 50 people (who aren’t your friends) to listen to your new song and give you some honest feedback today? Cent it. Need to know how people are thinking about an upcoming Bitcoin fork? Cent your question and learn.

As we release new contracts, users will be enabled to participate in different implementations of incentive structures that allow for the exchange of creativity- and financially-based value. Future contracts be custom designed will allow for entirely different types of media to be shared and monetized between users — such as music/listeners, videos/viewers, and writers/readers.

We started with our bounty contract because the infrastructure in place for blockchain applications is fairly underdeveloped. We wanted to build something that could actually get used out in the real world — today. Most blockchain applications are still in an imaginary state, with only a website and whitepaper. We wanted to take a different approach — one inspired from the old-school startup wisdom of iteration and leanness. Rather than release our whitepaper and funding strategy upfront, we released a beta product and are growing a userbase that is informing us about what they actually want. When the time is right, we will release our paper and go public with our plans for funding.

In our whitepaper, we go into detail about our yet-to-be-released platform token, CENT. At a high level, CENT is an (ERC-20) token issued to users when they bounty something. The larger the bounty, the more CENT you receive.It’s more complex than that, but on a basic level, this issuance model incentivizes users to continually add significant bounties to the system. The token can then be used to enhance the exposure of content that is posted within the system, enabling the creation of an internal attention-economy that we will go into much more detail on in a future post.

The ultimate vision for Cent is to become an income source for anyone who wants to provide their value to society via a digital network. We see Cent becoming a foundational, legitimate source of decentralized income for anyone. If you can provide creative or perspective-based value to networks of people via technologies like Cent, you are future-proofing your value-add to society by making certain it is non-algorithmic. All this while supporting structures of mutually-beneficial value that reflect humanity’s best intentions.Eventually, we see a future where each user (or each value-generating entity) becomes something like a currency that can be invested in. But we’ll discuss that more as time goes on.

Even though you currently need some amount of technical knowledge in order to use Cent (understanding the basic use of Ethereum, etc.), that will soon no longer be the case, and the user experience will become as seamless as any other mainstream application.

Until then, do whatever you can to create valuable things and share your knowledge. We’ll help you turn that into income.

Blockchains, Society, and Truth

It seems like most people who really understand blockchains are adamant about them. If you’re dystopian, you can reasonably be anti-AI or anti-VR or anti-biotech, but there really is no basis for being ‘anti-blockchain’. The decentralization that is possible with blockchain technologies puts humanity on the exact opposite historical trajectory as 1984Once the inherent fallibility of centralized systems is truly comprehended, continuing to believe that centralized structures will dominate society becomes impossible.

Decentralization began with the mysterious release of Bitcoin in 2008, and the bestowal to humanity of the underlying blockchain idea. This idea describes a new type of inter-computer connection that enables new types of human interaction that were previously inconceivable. It mathematically creates real trust between anonymous strangers with no intermediary. It doesn’t connect servers to clients, but all computers to all others. It doesn’t need (and can’t have) a leader. It doesn’t require our core services like email, social networking, and search to be run by profit-machines like Facebook or Google, and it doesn’t give services the ability to own or control your private information.

In every experienceable metric, decentralized systems transcend centralized ones. They are simpler, stronger, safer, and more scalable. They enable a new era of human organization to begin, and in this era we will dismantle and re-build the systems we exist within. All man-made “agreement structures” will be re-created in ways that allow for assured mutual collaboration without the possibility of betrayal. Agreement structures like money, laws, contracts, voting, and investing are already being re-designed by the emerging decentralized workforce.

These concepts can be inherently difficult to understand because they are so purely abstract. It’s a revolution not in computer chips or molecules, but in how data is passed between computers. Those who first understood the impact of blockchains were mainly those who understood the code they were composed of, and many of those early adopters gained incredible amounts of financial wealth because of their prescient understanding.

Bitcoin was the first currency to exist only as data, which is a tricky idea. For decades, currency had been tracked digitally in computer databases around the world, but that data had always been only a reference to physical currency. The numbers in the databases were not the currency itself, but a symbol of it. The $1,200 listed on your bank account webpage referred to $1,200 in paper money that you could instantly obtain by walking to your local branch or ATM. Bitcoin was revolutionary in that now the digital numbers were the currency. Each bitcoin was soon seen as a genuine scarce resource, even if it wasn’t issued by a government, did not refer to anything physical, and allowed transactions to occur practically for free. Today, one bitcoin — a random array of bits on a hard-drive somewhere — is worth more than a cheap used car.

But the most important thing Bitcoin did was eliminate the need for any amount of trust between two individuals. “Trust” is one of those words that is easy to use, but requires some unpacking to fully appreciate. Trust doesn’t just exist between you and your loved ones, but exists as the basis of nearly every relationship in your life. You trust your mechanic to fix your car so it doesn’t break down, you trust your bank to not lose your money, you trust the police to keep you safe, your doctor to keep you well, and your dog to not bite you. In return, you receive trust back — your dog trusts that you will feed it and your doctor trusts that they will be paid.

The problem with trust amongst complete strangers is that it often requires some sort of middleman. Since there is no immediate social cost to breaking a stranger’s trust, there often needs to be someone whose job it is to verify that each stranger is doing what they said they would do. Things like escrow agents, lawyers, contracts, and legal consequences must exist in order for each party to feel comfortable interacting. The problem with escrow agents, banks, and lawyers is that they are expensive, and they don’t actually eliminate the need for trust — they move your trust onto them.

Bitcoin eliminated the need for these types of middlemen in financial transactions of any scale. Transferring $1,000,000 worth of Bitcoin requires no more effort or fees than transferring $0.25 worth. And why should it? They’re all just numbers anyway, and financial transactions are the source of most action in our world. Allowing financial cooperation to occur instantly, without the possibility of fraud, the cost of a middleman, or the revelation of identity is beginning to have a massive impact on the way humans interact with each other.

Most of this innovation was centered around monetary systems until 2013, when a 20-year-old named Vitalik Buterin gave us the ability to write and run any program on a blockchain. His creation, Ethereum, enables the development of decentralized apps (or dapps) that use a new type of digital agreement called a “smart contract” to leverage the enhanced capacities for trust we now have access to. In many ways, Ethereum is far more important to the future than Bitcoin.

Unfortunately, the impact Vitalik is having on humanity is not as obvious as someone like Elon Musk; innovations in data structures aren’t as photogenic as electric cars or spaceships. But Ethereum seems to be emerging as the basis of the new internet era. It is backed by a never-ending list of technology visionaries and has increased in value over 1000% in the last several months, with no signs of slowing down.

This all matters because the structures we exist within define what we are capable of doing. Global society is a giant structure made of individuals and organizations, and organizations are just agreements among individuals. If the agreements that weave us together exist with the same certainty as2+2=4, then the possibility of what we can mutually create is truly infinite.Society can finally trust itself.

Sunny Days, Religion, and Ancient Oysters

It’s sunny today, so I’m in a good mood. It’s odd how much weather effects emotions. It feels weird to be really sad on a sunny day, or really happy on a cloudy day. It’s almost as if weather patterns are the expression of planetary moods, and those planetary emotions provide a frame within which we can feel our range of daily personal emotions.

Weather is also one of those things, like the stars, that provide a gentle daily reminder that we’re all still on some sort of sphere we were told to call a ‘planet’ in 2nd grade. We get so caught up with all the self-important minutia yelling at us — the news feeds, emails, sirens, advertisements — that we forget we are mysteriously existent organisms wandering around somewhere trying to make sense of why we’re here. Distraction is existentially so0thing.

In less-distracting times, these questions were more apparent. It’s easy to see that so much has changed since antiquity, but less easy to see that most of the fundamental stuff has stayed exactly the same. Sure, we’ve worked out how to make editable logic pathways for flowing electrons, and invented ways of understanding the mechanics of interdependent biological structures, but all of that knowledge gets at the what of things. It’s not often enough acknowledged that the why is the only question which gives any whatknowledge the context it needs to fit into a coherent worldview.

Historically, religions attempted to answer why, but it seems like religions (in the form of shared mythical cultural narratives) have become an outdated why-answering mechanism. I don’t know many young religious people, and I think it’s because there isn’t an inherent acknowledgement of our fundamental epistemological bound as human knowledge-seekers like there used to be.

We used to have no idea where the rains came from, so it opened the door in our minds to the humility of saying “we don’t know everything, there is mystery out there.” Now, we have a clearer idea of where rain comes from, and if that is no longer a mystery, we believe that inevitably nothing else is a mystery either. There no longer exists a patience and flexibility of cognitive interpretation required to chew through the difficult mystical ideas of past cultures. Instead, we get hasty comparisons to some vague notion of ‘modern science’ and choose to not truly engage with those ideas. But science and spirituality are apples and oranges. They are attempting to answer different questions and comparing them directly will always lead to confusion. Composition and purpose are not the same. Knowing how every component of a combustion engine and wheel-axel system works doesn’t tell me the purpose of it is to move humans around.

As I get older, I find my answers to all fundamental questions becoming less-binary then they used to be. The philosophical immaturity of being a staunch fundamentalist is just as apparent as the immaturity of being a staunch atheist. Both groups are claiming to know things they just cannot know, and like all fundamental disagreements, they represent an endless back-and-forth over the precise definition of a cultural word — in this case, ‘God’. And sure, the “old guy in the sky” definition is easy to dismiss, but the “underlying energy and causality of all things” definition is a bit more difficult to. It’s rarely clear what actual definition someone is referring to.

There have been so many geniuses throughout history that have chosen to use that word in their understanding of reality, and so many other geniuses who have chosen not to. It doesn’t have a clear objective meaning anymore, but only relative, specific meaning within each person’s own personal scaffold of understanding. Going forward, my guess is that it will continue to fade out of usage because there is just too much cultural baggage associated with it.

This only matters to me because I have an infatuation with the psychology that humans held in ancient times. If the time is taken to really understand their ancient mindsets, inevitably a different octave of nuance is apparent. They simply thought in far more subtle ways than we do in 2017, and our click-bait attention spans don’t know how to interact with it. The holistic interconnectedness of all systems was fundamental to most ancient knowledge, followed by less-developed understandings of component parts. In our era, we have the opposite condition. We understand the parts, and forget to acknowledge the whole.

The scientific method is perhaps the greatest pearl of humanity, but we had many pearls before it. The problem is that ancient pearls are in ancient oysters, and ancient oysters require more effort to open.

Perfectionism, Casey Neistat, and Creativity

I’m trying a new experiment. Each morning, I’m going to begin my day by writing a 30-minute mini-essay on whatever is on my mind. I’ve started an actual timer, and I’m going to see how it goes. Because of the time-bound, these will largely be streams of consciousness with minimal editing. So I’m calling each one a Stream.

29:42…

The reason I’m doing this is to try and tackle my procrastination & perfectionism around sharing my creative output. Like many creators, I’m hesitant of letting anyone actually see anything I’m working on until I feel it is in some elusive, finished, “polished” state. The problem is that state always exists in the future, so I never actually share anything in the present.

One of my favorite little creatively-motivating coffee-table books is Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. It’s simple and authentic. One of the most helpful tips in that book is that creativity needs bounds in order to be truly completed. Painters need to choose only a couple colors to work with, or a defined size of easel. With no bounds, everything is infinite. Infinity is indistinguishable from nothingness. Edges bestow existence.

So I’m giving myself a bound — in this case, time. 30 minutes. No matter what, each day, I will publish what I write. I will do my best to have it be well-written and not have errors, but surely some will get through. But I’ll actually be publishing, which is all that matters. Ultimately, it’s a practice in will and fear.

The other main impetus to this exercise has been watching Casey Neistat videos on YouTube. I stumbled onto Casey a few weeks ago when I was researching electric skateboards. He’s basically a guy who makes daily video logs of his life, and then edits them into entertaining mini-movies. I’ve now come to realize I’m quite late to the Casey-train, and he’s one of the most popular YouTubers in the world.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what makes Casey’s videos so entertaining (they all get millions of views), and I’ve narrowed it down to a couple things. One, Casey is just an interesting dude. He’s smart and lives an exciting life. He’s always traveling, speaking at events, running his tech company, and zipping around NYC on his skateboard running into people who know who he is. Watching his videos kind of makes it feel like you’re living his life for 10 minutes. Second, Casey’s a great videographer and editor. He knows what not to include in his final upload, so all you get is one entertaining clip after another, with awesome music and drone shots interspersed.

But more than anything, he actually does these videos everyday, establishing a daily connection with his audience. For many of his viewers, watching his vlog is part of their daily routine. And therein lies what I’m most fascinated about. He treats his life as art, and it appears to give him a state of consciousness where he attempts to maximize all his moment-to-moment experiences in order to share them with the world.

I want to do something similar. I don’t know if I’ll ever get into video-making, but I do want to get into posting creative work daily. So I’m starting with writing. Raw, unfiltered thoughts for an increasingly raw, unfiltered world. I don’t want to look back at life and see flawless emptiness, but instead see it filled with flawed (yet honest) expression.

I only have a minute left. These will always be short because I don’t have much time, but I’m curious to see who reads them. Until tomorrow.

00:01…

I'm on a podcast!

Recently I was asked to be interviewed on a podcast for Patrick Daniel's series "Pensive".  We talked about a lot of things, from my work on Cent, to college stories, to my basic philosophy of creating and having an impact on the world.  Click here to check it out.

 

 

New York City

There's a feeling of raw scale to New York you don't feel in California.

The volume, the height, the magnitude.

Older, bolder, grander, heavier, louder.

Solidity, cynicism, pragmatism, all somehow cradled in enough optimism to support millions of dreams.

The sharp attitudes of industry ricocheting off the smooth structures of modernity.

The grit of the streets canopied by terraces floating just high enough to blur the imperfection below into a romantic concept.

The homeless, the priceless, the unknown and the well-known, all within a few breaths.

A cosmos of man-made lights reflecting nature's from above.

You are a Unicorn

In Silicon Valley, if you code and design you’re sometimes known as a ‘unicorn’. It was actually the official title of my first job. The term is meant to be endearing and complementary, but I hate it.

It implies that to learn to design and code you need to have some sort of superhuman ability, when in fact it’s what most people should already be doing. The precedent of separating these fields stems from misguided thinking, and it creates efficiency bottlenecks that inevitably hurt productivity.

Inspired from the apprenticeship model of the Middle Ages, our pre-Internet education system split all knowledge and skill sets into subcategories. You could either study art or you could study science, but not both. Unless you were da Vinci, you had to choose.

This requirement of choice was a symptom of the disconnectedness of the old world. It was necessary that a certain amount of physical human experts commit their whole lives to teaching one specialty, because interactive learning was a scarce resource. If there wasn’t a teacher there wasn’t a class. This model was essential, but it isn’t anymore. Interactive learning is everywhere, and it’s virtually free.

In today’s world, setting as standard the idea that you can do only one thing merely assures that you will be unexceptional in your field. You can’t color outside the lines if you can’t see them. I’ve found from experience that everyone is capable of learning to code and design, and that over time they come to reinforce and strengthen each other. The best coders design, and the best designers code.

My story of learning to do both is really unexceptional. I just wanted to be able to make things on the web. I was entranced by the idea that I could make something in my room and it could be instantly available for everyone on Earth to experience. The Internet, to me, was the ultimate creative platform. I was young and blind to the conventional divisions of the tech world, so it seemed obvious that to actually make anything you needed to learn to do everything.

If I wanted to make a pizza, I’d have to roll the dough and put the sauce on. If I wanted to make a program, I’d have to write the code and give it an interface. No one told me I was supposed to separate the functionality of a program from it’s visual representation, so I didn’t.

Specifically, I desired to be able to make stuff by myself. I didn’t want to draw a pretty picture of what something could look like and then have to convince someone to make it with the wizardry of code. On the flipside, I didn’t want to learn how to code and have everything I made look like Craigslist.

I was a passionate philosophy major in college so I didn’t have an official education in either CS or design, but the metal box on my desk contained all knowledge. It’s really not all that hard to teach yourself once you know some strategies and where to find the best information. The single most important thing (which I learned after a year or so of struggling) is that it is always best, no matter what skill you’re learning, to have an initial mini-goal in mind to serve as a proof of progress.

Coding

If you’re learning a new (or your first) programming language, your first step should be to think of some simple application that you’d like to make with it. A grocery list. A bouncing ball. A big red button that goes boom when pressed. Start as simple as feels comfortable. Then go and learn whatever you have to learn to make that simple app a reality. Don’t give up until you’ve made it work exactly how you planned, and look exactly how you envisioned. Along the way, you’ll pick up all sorts of concepts you’d never have realized were necessary and you’ll slowly gather the gold of real experience.

If you’re stuck, try to the best of your ability to verbalize your question into Google. You’ll be astonished at how nearly any problem you’re facing has been faced by thousands before you, and has been eloquently answered by those with experience. As you continue to develop this app (and yourself as a programmer), you’ll organically develop a personal workflow, which will provide much-needed context for whatever you learn next. And, after you’ve finished your app, you’ll be more comfortable making anything because you now understand what the process of ‘making something’ actually entails.

Then rinse and repeatGet a new idea in mind—something completely different yet only slightly more complex—and do whatever you must to get it working. While it’s okay to begin with books on whatever language/framework/system you’re trying to learn, just going through the concepts chapter-by-chapter won’t make you a good practitioner.

The only way to become a good practitioner is through practice. As soon as you can, begin making actual stuff. Even if it sucks, you made it, and if you know it sucks then the next thing you make will be slightly less sucky, guaranteed. This is because a huge part of both designing and developing is simply learning to recognize what’s bad. If you can learn to precisely identify just what is wrong with something then you are already 50% of the way towards improving it.

After a long enough time, most of your initial suckiness will evaporate and you’ll be endowed with the gift of a new skill. You’ll be on the level of most coders, who (as a rule) just figure things out as they go along. The best coders are simply the best at figuring out how to do what they don’t currently know how to.

As you progress, you’ll see that coding is more than a skill you use to make stuff. It’s a system of thinking. It’s an external practical tool and an internal exercise of the mind. It trains your consciousness to habitually break down problems into component parts and reorganize those parts into a coherent solution. This ability obviously helps in all of life. Many coders simply become more logical people because they reinforce their left brain connections so regularly.

Design

On the other side of this is right-brain thinking, or designing. Ideally, this exercises the complete opposite aspect of you. It’s the free, curvy, feminine, spontaneous, intuitive part. It’s the curious child, the passionate perfectionist, the free-flying, pre-potentiated, imaginative essence of existence.

Everything in the universe follows this same dualistic schema as design and code, and it’s important to recognize the essential polarity in all things in order to see how design and code need each other.  “Hot” only exists because “cold” does, and the same is true of all descriptive words: up/down, masculine/feminine, old/young, black/white, hard/soft, 0/1. We all necessarily have both aspects of everything within us, just as we all have right and left biceps.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
— Tao Te Ching

While that’s true, not everyone exercises their biceps equally.  There is still a gender divide instilled in us through cultural conditioning that makes certain things naturally easier. If you’re a guy, work to become comfortable with your intuitive, feminine aspects. If you’re a girl, embrace your pockets of logical masculinity. The more you choose to systematically develop the divergent aspects of yourself, the more balanced and secure anything you create will become.

If you just don’t think you were born with a sense of design, you’re wrong. Yours is currently just very weak. All muscles atrophy without use, and your design sense is no different. You haven’t exercised this muscle because you don’t know how, and you don’t know how because you don’t have the slightest idea what it actually is.

Well, it’s actually simple. The design sense is really just another term for visual intuition. Intuition is the subtle ‘knowing’ you occasionally have about things. It’s your subconscious bubbling up and popping into conscious awareness. It gives you answers but doesn’t reveal it’s method.

You’ve experienced it sometimes when you don’t know why you feel something but you just do. You feel like you should stay in tonight for some reason, or you sense that that person is trouble. The problem is that people too often dismiss this information as background noise, and rationalize it away as the random firing of chaotic neurons in an imperfect system. You were taught to ignore this information from a young age so you’ve slowly withered your perception mechanisms to it. Your conscious mind has told your unconscious: “this isn’t valuable data”, and your unconscious has responded by ceasing to provide you with apparently useless information.

Luckily, this can be reversed. By consciously flipping this reaction, you’ll redevelop your design sense. Internalize the fact that the ‘random’ feelings you have towards certain things are not background noise, but the main show. They’re not random chaos, but hyper-intelligent insight from sources you don’t need to understand to benefit from. The more you listen to this minute data, the more you tell your unconscious to provide more of it and the stronger your perception and understanding of it becomes. As this happens, you’ll increasingly just know what the right decision is.

But even still, intuition has it’s place. From a pure, zen, Apple-ish design perspective, the amount of free stylistic choice should be minimized and the pure functionality of the product should determine most main decisions. If it’s more usable (yet slightly less aesthetically-pleasing) to have a large button to the right, then that is still the correct decision.

Most of the time you’ll be building some sort of tool that does something, and tools exist first to be used, not to be seen. When every decision that affects overall usability has been made, you’ve plotted out the creative space where you can make free stylistic choice.

When you can choose over a range of compelling options, the golden rule is, as always, to choose whatever feels most right even if you’re not sure why. As I’ve written previously about typography, there are certain times when there is no clear logical reason why one design choice is better than another, but it undoubtedly is. These choices provide added dimensions of meaning, and should be made with the utmost care.

Pay extremely close attention to initial feelings about what you’ve made after it’s been a few days. If you’re ecstatically happy about it and think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done, congratulations, you’re finished. If you just feel..meh..then it’s now your task to identify what about it is making you feel that way and try to correct it. After you think you have, take some days off, and only when you return with excessively positive feelings do you know your work is actually complete.

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll leave you with one final thought. Learn from children. Children don’t discriminate between finger-painting and tree-forts, between playhouses and paper-mache volcanoes. They just create for the pure process of creating; because it’s fun. They want to finish a project so they can show it to their friends and know it was them who made it. They don’t follow rules and they don’t think in paradigms. They just make something until they’re proud of it, then fiddle with it until it’s better. All children are unicorns. You’ll learn more from watching a kid play than in any university course.

Coding and design depend on each other. What type of wood a bench is made of effects how it is painted. Specialized workers were once needed for each stage of a product’s creation, but now that’s just no longer the case. The only thing holding you back from being whatever you want is your choice to label yourself as something specific.

Don't be a designer or a developer or a unicorn.  Just create stuff and let people decide what you are.

Why Typography Matters

I design for a small startup. I spend most of my energy thinking about things like user-flows, colors, layouts, and (of course) typefaces. When I explain what I do to most people outside the Bay Area, one of the common reactions is a mix of confusion, condescension and sarcasm:

“So you pick fonts? Yeah man, sounds vital.”

When I don’t take this as a cue to change the topic, I pry into the mind of this non-designer to try to uncover what makes this topic so polarizing. As I’ve done this more systematically, I’ve realized that typography is a lot like philosophy: people are either semi-obsessed or completely indifferent. Some can talk for hours, others didn’t realize the topic existed as a standalone concept.

But what creates this binary distinction between otherwise-aligned individuals?

Awareness. People who are aware of how much of an effect type subconsciously has on their perception of meaning can’t help but be drawn to its elusive subtlety and quiet power. People who aren’t just see words — or think they do.

Take yourself back to the last time you were in a public subway station. How do the people around you tend to look and act? They aren’t smiling or frowning; they’re just standing without much emotion. The phrase ‘strongly neutral’ comes to mind. But zoom-out for a moment and observe the details of your surroundings. More than likely, there are many informational placards, posters, and screens denoting the train routes and arrival times. And, chances are, most of this information is set in Helvetica Bold. This may seem like an innocuous detail, but Helvetica Bold tends to add a ‘strong neutrality’ to text. Somehow, the soul of the typeface is defining the vibe of the space, while masquerading itself as an innocent content delivery system.

And it’s not just subway stations. Now you’re in an elementary school. All visible words are set in Comic Sans Medium or some equivalent. Though despised by designers for less-than-rational reasons, Comic Sans generally evokes associations of playfulness, youth, and curiosity. The informal type perfectly exudes the intentions of the space.

The pattern continues: go to NASA and you’ll see some sci-fi-inspired lettering, go to a bank and you’ll be greeted by a trustworthy Roman serif. The values, meaning, and purpose of a place are, intentionally or not, expressed as the shapes of the letterforms it communicates through.

From a pure linguistics perspective, however, there is no difference between a word written in Helvetica and a word written in Comic Sans. Flower is Flower is Flower. Through this lens, a word’s only importance lies in its referentiality to a cultural concept. But, linguistics is at fault here. That’s not how we experience written language. The visual representation of words gives us additional layers of meaning beyond the sentence’s pure content or structure. The way something looks affects how it is perceived. Ben Franklin would only allow his writings to be printed in Caslon because he knew that books are judged by their covers and words are judged by their font.

Or, maybe I have it backwards. Maybe it’s not the typography that is influencing the space, but the space that is influencing the typography. Maybe — but you’d be forgetting the simple fact that places, websites, brochures, and street signs are made before people interact with them. They cannot possibly be influenced by the space because they are of the space. They were there before the place was alive to have the essence that it has. There is, however, a back and forth. The exact same font could be both an example of awesome and terrible typography depending entirely on the situation.

Try it for yourself. Imagine the word ‘cat’ written in your mind. Just as you can’t imagine a colorless chair or sizeless car, it’s impossible to imagine ‘cat’ not set in a particular font. Whether in ink or pixels or neurons, we alwaysexperience words materialized into a specific typeface set at a particular size, spacing, and weight. The visual representation of letters is an essential element in the transmission of their content.

These details are known as ‘aesthetic’ and secondary to the content, even though oral language’s equivalent — vocal tone — has been long revered for its importance. If you’ve ever been to a comedy show and tried to recall the highlights for a friend, you know how essential accurate delivery is. Louis C.K.’s jokes just aren’t funny when I tell them. The artistic use of vocal tone and body language patterns provides a dimension of meaning that is required to appreciate the funny.

Typefaces are the same way. They add additional information that, if done thoughtfully, can provide clearer meaning and a deeper emotional resonance. There are even some 1:1 relations between oral and written language. Italics exists as the visual counterpart to orally emphasizing certainwords more than others. When in body text, boldness exists to slow your reading speed. The sudden increase in contrast reduces your processing speed, giving the bolded words relative temporal emphasis. That’s my theory at least.

This matters in visual language because it matters in audible language. There is more to communication than pure content, and because of this, typography marks the precise intersection of science and art. Science cares solely in distinguishing the world of fact from non-fact. “Energy is mass times the square of the speed of light” is a fact. “Avenir is really clean” isn’t. By definition, science doesn’t deal in subjective experience, but in objective, provable, physical reality.

But this inherent subjectivity is what gives typography its tremendous communicative power. Each typeface is imbued with unique associations for each individual, creating what feels like a personal connection to the observer. After all, there are no real reasons why certain letter shapes make us feel certain ways. It falls just out of the purview of science into something that transcends it, just as art does.

As you increase your awareness of type, you’ll start to realize how every place and object is provided with its essential soul by the letterforms it uses. You’ll be able to ‘see into’ companies, books, albums, and facilities to understand what values they hold dear. You’ll be able to express yourself through shapes that match the tone of what you are saying, while building your immunity to the geometric hypnosis clever designers regularly use to hack your subconscious. Typography has been kind-of-a-big-deal since antiquity and will only matter more as our lives are gradually sucked into screens — that’s why it matters.