My last hundred dollars

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

When I was younger, I bought into the idea that I deserved to be where I was, and that by extension, everyone else probably did too. I was one of those abused kids who practiced Kendo without armor. Mercy is for the weak.

Then one day I got into it with my parents and got kicked out—again—only this time, there was nowhere to go. Door after door was closed in my face. I ended up sleeping on my ex’s front porch in what is definitely one my top 5 lowest moments.

Laying there, shivering on the concrete, I reflected on how suddenly my world fell apart. The thing that eventually saved me was a friend who, when faced with my predicament, had the strength to overcome his own disdain for altruism, to give more than he had gotten.

True story: years later, I hired his company to do game design on what would become the #1 game on the App Store, giving him the ultimate bragging rights. With a history like that between us, I knew I could trust him with my baby.

Now I am self-made among the self-made, and the greatest friction between me and my peers is my commitment to beneficence in system design. Many people take my altruism as a sign of weakness or naïveté, and send me condescending email insisting I read books that I have long ago collected first editions of.

The advantage of dehumanizing philosophies is that they’re easy. The disadvantage is that they don’t actually work. The reason I am so nice to people all the time is that I’ve seen where “every man for himself” fails. In fact, it was abandoning that idea around the epoch of the lemurs that lead to our humanity.

On the other hand, my philosophy of “be kind, work hard” has been tested again and again, and has worked every time. In fact, it was just tested again, and I want to show you what a different world I live in now than when I was a selfish, narrow-minded child.

I ran out of money over the weekend. I was thousands of miles from home, attending the 360|MacDev conference in Denver. The out-of-pocket expense of international travel combined with giving the vast majority of my time to the community this past year finally sapped my reserves until I had overdrawn accounts on two continents and the Benjamin in my wallet was the last $100 to my name.

While quietly panicking over things like rent and bills, I spent 22 hours of each day working on my presentation and meeting the community. Finally I found the one I was looking for, the reason I go to these shows. I found my diamond in the rough, what we in the industry call a “Mike Matas.” Some undiscovered talent trapped in a life ripe for changing.

What does someone like that look like? They’re the one who had to take time off from their minimum-wage job to blow their savings on the chance to meet the people who they want to be. Someone who doesn’t flinch at attending a dinner that will take them a week to pay for, because that’s what it takes to hang.

That kind of thing impresses me, because it shows that they don’t just talk good game, but actually have the passion to do something about it. That’s what I and every hiring manager worth their salt is looking for. When you find someone like that you either hire them or you give them to a friend to hire, who will one day do the same for you.

But I went one further than simply giving him free advice and recommending him for a life-changing job. I also gave him my last $100. Before you start screaming at me, understand my reasoning.

  1. I only had that money because other people had picked up a couple of tabs
  2. It takes me an hour to make that much, compared to two day’s labor for him
  3. I genuinely believed it would work out better for me than selfishness

When it came time to check out and go home two days later, I realized that I had two problems. First, I had to get to the airport, which in Denver is an expensive cab ride. That $100 definitely would have come in handy there. Second, the organizers only covered two nights in the hotel, which meant I had an unexpected $400 bill to settle.

For those keeping score at home, I gave away my last $100 and was now $500 from home. The scientific word for this starts with an F and is not polite to say in mixed company.

I had one more thing, which I keep in my back pocket for things like this, and that’s karma. People often misinterpret karma as some cosmic bookkeeping system incompatible with atheism, but that’s typical misinterpretation. Really, it’s just phenomenology. If you take care of people when you can, they will inevitably take care of you when you need it, and vice versa.

I didn’t end up homeless this time. Instead, the conference organizers were more than happy to pick up the tab for the extra nights for a speaker who does so much for their attendees, and a kind soul on Twitter took the trouble to pick me up and deliver me to the airport.

We like to believe that there is something natural about the way things are, and that things will never change. The reality is, we’re all just playing the hands we’re dealt. Sometimes you get Aces and Eights. Other times you’re staring down the barrel of an inside strait. The only thing you can rely on is that things will change, and the next hand will be different.

Experience has taught me, and taught me well: be generous when you’re up, because one day, inevitably, you will rely on generosity. To believe otherwise is to believe a lie.

All that being said, today might be a good day to hire me.

Look For America

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

It took a trip to Denmark for me to understand Occupy Wall Street. I was at the GOTO conference in Århus, talking to another attendee from the States about the protests, which were still quite new. I expressed the common concern that the protestors hadn’t defined a win condition. What was their deliverable? What did they hope to gain?

His answer resonated with something I believe Dr. King said about the purpose of passive resistance. It is a kind of meditation, a non-action that could only irritate someone who hates you, intended to bring that hatred to the light of day, to show the world as their hatred washes over you in waves.

The government, he assured me, will demonstrate the contempt it has for its citizens. How eerie that promise seems in hindsight, yet how empowering. It is with memories of batons and pepper spray fresh in our minds that we proffer the next empty protest, a vessel to be filled with hatred.

And fill it they have, as Wikipedia and other sites go dark today to protest the Anti-Internet bills before Congress. Everyone’s favorite new Twitter feature, Dick Costolo, jumped in early to further demonstrate his inability to communicate by calling the idea “foolish.”

Senator-cum-MPAA CEO Chris Dodd stepped up with some nice inflammatory rhetoric, accusing protestors of trying to “punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns” with a protest that “is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals.”

How my heart bleeds for the hardworking men and women of power! When the people who actually do things for a living refuse to do those things because they don’t like the way you treat them, that’s communism isn’t it? If the world’s current and former communist countries are any example, I think we can say that’s the opposite of communism, which is what America is meant to be all about.

I finally got around to watching Ben Kingsley’s epic Ghandhi biopic on a flight back to the Netherlands from Australia, and I reflected on the common misconception that I’ve abandoned the United States, or am some kind of “anti-American socialist.” The truth is, it’s hard to see something when you’re standing on it.

The Other 99%

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

One of the problems the Occupy movement faces is the fact that most of the “other 99%” of Americans typically fall well within the 1% by world standards. I think the only way to reconcile this is to press for change not just for the first world, but for the whole world.

The same group of unindicted criminals who used junk securities to steal pensions from American workers after shipping their jobs overseas also stole pensions in countries like Greece and used offshoring in countries like China to set working conditions back a hundred years.

As I listened to This American Life’s excerpt of Mike Daisy’s investigation on conditions at Foxconn and others’ factories, I couldn’t help but wonder why this was specifically marketed as an Apple problem when the same factories are churning out goods for Apple’s competitors.

Ten years ago it would have been expressed as a Dell problem or a Gateway problem, and the Apple faithful would have felt a certain unjustified smugness. Now Dell is an also ran and Gateway is a footnote. The Apple folks are in control, which makes that smugness difficult.

We are in an uncomfortable position when our favorite electronics company is called out by name, but we need to see it not as an attack, but as an opportunity. We could easily miss that opportunity by taking refuge in the fact that every other brand’s manufacturing stories are just as bad.

We could do that, if we are ready to admit that Think Different was nothing more than a marketing campaign. But I ask you, when was the last time we allowed ourselves to be “just as bad” as the next guy? We have always, and should always, demand more from Apple.

When we hold Apple’s products to be the best on the market, we point at their usability and the impact it has on our experience. We point to their durability and the impact it has on our environment. Should we not expect to point to their manufacture and the impact it has on our humanity?

Enter the Dragon

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

The other day I had one of those realizations that is inevitably followed by a deep yawn and a pop of the ears. Not too long ago, there was a piece of data produced that was so powerful, so undeniable, that anyone who saw it and took a moment to truly ponder its meaning was forever changed. While it arrived at a time of great change and to a certain extent, great liberation, it didn’t have the long-lasting effects that it should have.

The picture that should have signaled the dawn of new age.

That piece of data was a photograph, popularly known as “Earthrise,” that was taken 43 years ago, on 24 December 1968, by the Apollo 8 astronauts, of the Earth from the Moon. To see our situation, seeing all that we have for what it is, a rock floating in the middle of a vast and almost entirely empty space, so small in the grand scheme of things, so frighteningly fragile—how could that not forever change who we are?

We’ve been looking down at the Earth ever since, reproducing that same idea in higher resolution with greater detail. In 2002, NASA produced the most spectacular image yet, the famed “Blue Marble.” It is baffling to me that we can look at that picture, with an impossibly thin layer of gas that is all we have, and continue to behave the way we do.

That layer of gas that is all we have is so impossibly thin.

The information coming from space in 2011 has been the kind of incredible stuff that makes me grateful to be alive to see it. I can’t help but notice these incredible videos coming out of the International Space Station, like the one huge time-lapse of Earth from Michael König on Vimeo.

Electric lights, fires, and lightning, all go whizzing past the camera. Thunderstorms, as experienced on Earth, are monumental occasions, inspiring an entire pantheon of gods for myriads cults and superstitions. Now they are so many tiny electric crackles, harmless and beautiful. The everyday bickering and ludicrous materialism of life on the surface seems so petty.

When I was in elementary school, we were taught that there were no other “solar systems,” no other planets like Earth, that we were alone in the universe. It seems like yesterday the Drake Equation described impossible odds. Then we got better at looking at the sky and suddenly the heavens lit up. It seems pretty obvious now that we’re not alone.

Quite the opposite. With what we now know about extremophiles, meteors, and the tenacity of life in general, it seems clear that life or its precursors are scattered around the galaxy like the seeds of a great tree. Every time the seed of life lands in a habitable zone, it sets off a timer as evolution races to reach a stable state before exhausting the available resources. Those that do get to move to the next level. Those that don’t….

There is a threshold and we are very close to not making it. There’s a non-zero chance the carbon dioxide we pumped into the air has set off a methane cycle that accelerates global warming, that we’re already too late, and that we might not have 100 years. We need to start thinking on a global scale about our place in the galaxy. Who cares what kind of sneakers you’re wearing? Why are we still killing each other?

We cannot move to the next level until every person on the planet has the same opportunities, enjoys the same liberties, and controls their own destinies. As long as people live at the suffering and expense of others, as long as the system is geared toward turning us against each other, as long as we remain distracted by every glittering thing, we will remain stuck in one place while the timer keeps ticking.

So much of what we are surrounded by is the people in control trying to distract us from reality in a vain attempt to delay the inevitable. Change is coming. The system is obsolete. Feelings of anger are misplaced. It’s not a question of good or bad, it’s simply a feature of the universe. We would all do well to refrain from pettiness, cruelty, and violence. History is watching.

Life has its waves. There are ups and downs. My not insubstantial gut and my lucky stars both are telling me 2012 is going to be an upswell. Let us do as we do where I grew up and catch that wave. Put aside your fear and cynicism. The future is ours to create. The system is ours to debug and refactor.

Here’s to a bold new year and a bold new age!

Assume Positive Intent

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

Today, as I began carefully sifting through the emotional minefield of my inbox, I got this:

Absolutely Unacceptable

Clearly the person tasked with sending this email was so distraught over the news that they accidentally typed the thing foremost on their mind into the subject field and forgot to fill in the other fields before, overcome with grief, they hit send.

I understand completely.

Inevitable Update

Today I received the inevitable follow-up to what was obviously someone’s goof.

Inevitable Followup

These guys also reached out to me personally to let me know how incredibly sick they were at their mistake. The good news is, it was just an honest-to-goodness error and not something more sinister. This is why we always assume positive intent.