Jun 19, 2022

even if it's fake it's real, tom cruise edition

I’ve yet to see the new Top Gun, but I honestly can’t get enough of the takes about the movie, and Cruise, and his career. The one from Alex Pappedamas in The New Yorker is my current favorite.

Last year, the visual-effects artist Chris Umé and the actor Miles Fisher used deepfake technology to create a series of somewhat terrifyingly realistic TikTok videos of Fisher as Cruise, doing things such as biting into a Blow Pop and remarking, “Incredible—how come nobody ever told me there’s bubblegum?” They’re effective in part because the actual Cruise’s own affect has become so indistinguishable from the way an advanced artificial intelligence might go about talking to reporters. Cruise’s own laugh is the best Tom Cruise impression you’ve ever heard.

The original “Top Gun” came out in 1986, 36 years ago. I’m looking forward to the third in the trilogy 36 years from now in 2058, when that perfect Cruise smile and that perfect Cruise laugh are fully powered by deepfake tech.

Jun 06, 2022

it's LEGO all the way down

Maggie Appleton gave a great talk at Sanity’s Structured Content Conference a couple weeks ago titled The Block-Paved Path to Structured Data. I missed it in person, but caught up with the YouTube, and her well-designed site for the talk, which includes the text of her talk presented alongside her slides (oh how I wish more people did this).

Way back in the olden days, I was part of the crew involved in “microformats,” the precursor to JSON-LD. All the apps that we envisioned that would take advantage of all of these little snippets of structured data never really materialized, and instead we were just doing all that markup work for the Google to improve SEO. This is still the case, almost 20 years on. Why do JSON-LD? For the googlebot. Ah, the power of platforms.

Appleton, instead of trying to rehash all the battles over the semantic web, shifts the context. What if the problem isn’t about the applications consuming the data, but the applications producing the data?

How do we make it easier for everyone to create structured data? Or put more specifically, what type of interfaces might enable non-developers to create structured data?

Appleton makes a compelling argument that the “block UI” that you see in apps like Notion, Coda or Craft, is a potential answer here. That UX pattern, combined with a protocol like the one proposed at blockprotocol.org, opens up the possibility of a richer ecosystem of connected applications that can discover and share structured data. Not just from document editors like Notion, but low code “DIY Saas Tooling” apps like Fibery, Retool or Hash (where Appleton works).

Blocks allow end-users, meaning anyone who is not a professional developer, to create, edit, and delete the data within these blocks. All without writing any code. The users are in control of the data rather than the developers.

Blocks also enable what I call modular, composable interfaces. Open canvases where users can drag and drop blocks into place like legos. These are easy to use and accessible to a much wider audience than any markup or syntax could hope to be.

I hadn’t really been following the Block Protocol work until now. The “new” (now 5+ years old) generation of document editors initially differentiated themselves from the competition with their block UX (hit that slash key to format your block), but I love this line of thinking around composable interfaces and tools that can adapt their behavior based on a set of interoperable blocks.

And because I’m that old, all of this reminds me of the bits in Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, where the team of protagonists were buliding “Oop!” (an imaginary product Grantland said “anticipated Minecraft more than a little bit”). Of course the whole text of the novel has ended up online; this paragraph is pitch perfect.

As the Lego Generation ages (and as the Oop! product invariably grows more sophisticated), Oop! becomes a powerful real-world modeling tool usable by scientists, animators, contractors, and architects. Object Oriented Programming design allows great flexibility for licensees to develop cross-platform software add-ons.

As always, it’s LEGO all the way down.

Apr 29, 2022

it's messy

Wilco has a new record coming, Cruel Country. Jeff Tweedy, in his newsletter, shares some of the background promo material, which includes this gem of a graf.

The whole record is comprised, almost entirely, of live takes, with just a handful of overdubs. Everyone in the room together with a leaky drum booth and no baffles. It’s a really great way to make a record. But due to artistic curiosity and no small shortage of challenging logistics, it’s an approach we haven’t used in years — maybe not since Sky Blue Sky. It’s a style of recording that forces a band to surrender control and learn to trust each other, along with each others’ imperfections, musical and otherwise. With no “one” person in charge, the goal can be vague. But a certain type of faith emerges. A belief that we’re all heading toward the same destination, and we either get there together or not at all. It’s messy. Like democracy. But when it’s working the way it’s supposed to, it feels like gathering around some wild collective instrument, one that requires six sets of hands to play. An instrument that forces one to communicate wordlessly and sprout deep tangles of roots, like an old forest.

Emphasis mine. I’m not sure about the democracy analogy, because I’m not sure we any longer share a belief or faith that we’re all heading toward the same destination. But there’s a reason I’m obsessed with music documentaries (including the recent 8 hour Beatles-fest), which is that bands making music can feel an awful lot like 0 to 1 product development. Either we get there together or not at all.

(Originally published on Medium.)

Mar 29, 2022

fast brain, slow hands

Dan Hon’s Things that Caught My Attention is one of my favorite blogs / newsletters, because it’s just chock full of Dan-ness. This is a good thing. The past few days he’s been responding to a challenge from Robin Sloan, who wanted him to “try writing about something that had nothing to with technology.”

And today’s is excellent. It’s a story about brains and hands. I’m just gonna quote a few grafs of this; saving it for me and sharing it with you.

This brain thinks it’s a fast brain: it sees patterns and pieces of things and jumps from place to place and then suddenly, snap, there is a new thing made from those pieces of things that is not quite the same as one of the old things: it’s subtly different and then boom we’re suddenly at one of those large maps in the situation room where troop deployments are being planned and the fast brain is pushing things around using a large wooden stick to get things into the right hands.

But the fast brain is hooked up to slow hands.


The fast brain is just a massively complicated computing engine for taking in input and then performing operations on it and when it looks at itself it doesn’t even know if there’s an itself there’s just: a giant sphere. A solid, impenetrable, giant sphere.

Go read the whole thing.

(Originally published on Medium.)

Oct 29, 2021

ken norton on art and science of pm

Ken Norton, who always brings the donuts, delivers some wisdom from his career in product management.

The “art” of product management matters more than the “science” over the long term. In product management, there’s an art and a science. The science is all of the stuff you read about: managing a backlog, writing a PRD, KPIs, marketplace dynamics, growth metrics, analytical thinking, the latest agile whatever. The “art” gets dismissed as soft skills: communicating, empathy, leading without authority, having difficult conversations, storytelling, making decisions when you don’t have all the information, dealing with ambiguity, inspiring others, and connecting deeply to customers and their problems. The thing is, science gets more attention because it’s easier to understand, and therefore better for hustling boot camps and selling software tools. This trend is troublesome because it implies there’s one “right way” to do product management, and all you need to do is learn the technique or buy the right tool, and you can pass the interview, get the job, and win.

I’ve been working with Reforge the past few months as an “Executive in Residence,” helping to teach two fantastic courses: Product Management Foundations, and Mastering Product Management. Both of these courses are packed full of incredibly useful frameworks for developing product strategy, working through a product design process, developing a roadmap, setting and evolving OKRs, etc. But in the weekly case discussion I’m leading with the Reforge members, what I’m trying to do is bring the “art” to the science — helping the hundreds of people on our Zoom calls understand that learning most often comes from making mistakes, and getting things wrong. I think that approach working? Some people dig it…some people want more framework time. 🤷‍♂

Frameworks and tools can improve your chances of getting things right, but the longer I do this job the more obvious it is to me that a massively underappreciated role of the PM is how you make people feel when you’re side by side with them, shipping and iterating.

Go subscribe to Ken’s newsletter. It’s consistently excellent.

Oct 28, 2021

what's a computer?

Robin Sloan, in The slab and the permacomputer, puts a finger on what makes deploying a contract to the Ethereum blockchain feel so…different.

Even so, I can’t deny that Ethereum’s “world computer” is interesting and, even more than that, evocative. The Ethereum blockchain is one entity, shared globally, agreed upon by all its participants: that’s what makes it useful as a ledger. The Ethereum Virtual Machine, a kind of computer — simultaneously sophisticated and primitive — is likewise one logical entity, even if it’s distributed in space and time.

As with a lot of things in crypto, the feeling is as much mystical as it is technical. I understand why people get excited when they deploy an Ethereum contract: it feels like you are programming not just a computer, but THE computer. That feeling is technically wrong; it is definitely just a computer; but since when did the technical wrongness of feelings prevent them from being motivating?

One of the “mystical” Web3 things that is delightfully breaking my brain is that the EVM is forcing us ask the question (again): What’s a computer?

Sep 18, 2021

Max Fischer's clubs, ranked

It’s college application season, and I can personally attest that there are a lot of high school seniors that are currently stressing about their GPAs, their standardized test scores, their essays…and their extra-curricular activities. As a reminder of just how absurd this whole process is, here’s a list of the club activities of possibly the greatest extra curricular film participant of all time, Rushmore’s Max Fischer…ranked by potential attractiveness to college admissions officers.¹

  1. Max Fischer Players, Director
  2. Yankee Review, Editor-In-Chief, Publisher
  3. Astronomy Society, Founder
  4. Trap & Skeet Club, Founder
  5. Debate Team, Captain
  6. French Club, President
  7. Calligraphy Club, President
  8. Yankee Racers, Founder
  9. Fencing Team, Captain
  10. Rushmore Beekeepers, President
  11. Bombardment Society, Founder
  12. Kite Flying Society, Co-Founder
  13. Stamp & Coin Club, Vice President
  14. Model UN, Russia
  15. 2nd Chorale, Choirmaster
  16. Lacrosse Team, Manager
  17. Track & Field, JV Decathlon
  18. Kung Fu Club, Yellow Belt
  19. Piper Cub Club, 4.5 hours logged

¹ Also, I had this list kicking around in my Notes app, just begging to be shared.

(Originally published on Medium.)

Aug 23, 2021

the optimism of modernists

Lorin Hochstein has a great, short post about the distinction between modernism and post-modernism, and the connection to software engineering. In short, modernists believe that the world is turbulent and dynamic, and can be constantly remade anew; while post-modernists believe that “we can never cast off our history and start from scratch.” He writes…

We software engineers are modernists at heart. We see the legacy systems in our organizations and believe that, when we have the opportunity to work on replacement systems, we will remake our little corner of the world anew. Alas, on this point, the post-modernists were right. While we can change our systems, even replace subsystems wholesale, we can never fully escape the past. We ignore the history of the system at our peril.

Thought experiment: define “our organizations” in the paragraph above at different scales: individuals, teams, teams of teams, companies, industries, states, nations, the planet. Where can you escape the past? Where must you have the modernist’s optimism to believe you can?

(Originally published on Medium.)

Jun 02, 2021

"I assumed that this will fail"

Marcin Wichary on The Making of Four Laps:

“Why did I do this? It seemed like a weird gimmick and a fun challenge. Like with many of my weird creative projects, for most of the time I assumed that this will fail — after all, I have heard of anyone doing something like this, and I had no idea if the tech was even available — but at least I will learn something.”

If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. I won’t spoil it for you.

(Originally published on Medium.)

Jun 01, 2021

20 years of personalization at Netflix

Gibson Biddle has an amazing retrospective of 20 years of personalization at Netflix, and its role in the company’s product strategy. The screenshots alone are worth the trip down memory lane.

It took Netflix more than a decade to demonstrate that a personalized experience improved retention. But consistent growth in this proxy metric convinced the company to keep doubling down on personalization until many years later, Netflix proved that personalization improved retention in a large-scale retention test.

This is an interesting proposition…

Here’s the long-term personalization vision: twenty years from now, Netflix will eliminate both the “Play Something” button and its personalized merchandising system, and that one special movie you’re in the mood to watch at that particular moment will automatically begin to play.

…not necessarily because of what this means for personalization (given a 20 year time horizon, this feels achievable), but what this would mean for creators. If the only decision is “Do I keep watching” how might that change the first few seconds of any new show or movie you’re watching? For better or worse, our next generation of filmmakers are currently learning and evolving these creative strategies on TikTok.

(Originally published on Medium.)

May 06, 2021

it has to be a team

Matt Levine, how does he do it? Seriously, there must be a team of people that are “Matt Levine.” There’s no way it’s just him, right? Every day with things like this, a graf from today’s newsletter about Dogecoin.

Just imagine traveling 10 years back in time and trying to explain this to someone; just imagine what an idiot you’d feel like. “There’s going to be this online currency that people think is a form of digital gold, and then there’s going to be a different online currency that is a parody of the first one based on a meme about a talking Shiba Inu, and that one will have a market capitalization bigger than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500, and its value will fluctuate based on things like who is hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and whether people tweet a hashtag about it on the pot-joke holiday, and Bloomberg will write articles and banks will write research notes about those sorts of catalysts, and it will remain a perfectly ridiculous content-free parody even as people properly take it completely seriously because there are billions of dollars at stake.”

What a timeline we’re on.