Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Case For Nothing

The TSA announced this week that they are going to start being more aggressive with their pat-downs. This, in addition to the virtual strip searches they want to perform, has made me want to stop flying commercially forever.

Folks seem to enjoy this kind of abuse of my freedoms, though — folks from all sides. When I’m in a conservative room and I complain about conservationists taking away my private property rights (or government telling me I have to buy insurance), everybody agrees. When I’m in a liberal room and I complain about the TSA or internet monitoring, everybody agrees.

Everybody seems to agree: whatever they want to do is more important than my freedom of action and my personal property. They know better than me, and they are very willing to decide that I need to make sacrifices to make them happy about something or another.

But I don’t want to talk about politics. Or at least not directly. I’d much rather try to go meta and talk about general principles. What I would like to talk about is the reaction of individuals when organizations do stupid things, because I see people doing this same thing to each other at all levels of organization, from tiny teams of a dozen or so up to the size of the United States Federal Government. And the response is always the same.


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The Hell with Happiness

Sometimes you just feel one of those old-cranky-guy-posts coming on.

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a bit of time reading and thinking about happiness. I’ve read a couple of books, one of which was “How Pleasure Works“. I’ve read a couple of WSJ articles, and participated in a couple of discussions on various boards.

Plus I’m a happy guy! Except for today, when I’m a bit cranky.

For anybody who has studied the subject, happiness is about experiences, social interaction, and expanding your horizons. It’s not about possessions or status — although we seem to keep thinking it is.

What’s bugging me is the increasing number of people who seem to chase happiness just for the purpose of being happy. And that’s crap.

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What’s a Startup, Anyway?

Over the past couple of years I have dramatically changed the way I look at startups.

It used to be, when I thought of the word “startup”, I thought of a couple guys and a dog in a garage making a cool tech product that will change the world. You know, like the Apple guys did. Or the Google guys.

But then I started learning a lot more about it. Paul Graham and others describe parts of a startup as a new venture with the ability to scale rapidly.

I’m not so sure that it has to be a new venture, however. Folks have made a persuasive case that “stick-to-it-ness” is one of the huge factors in startup success. Take a look at the MailChimp guys (Hey guys! Love the product!) Everybody thinks they’re a startup because they’ve got that cool web look and freemium model, but hell, they’ve been around for a long time.

There are a lot of guys who have products they have made who are still working on them after years Yet they have tremendous scaling potential, so I’m beginning to think the ability to scale massively is probably the best indicator of a startup.

Would somebody selling rubber ducks be a startup?

It depends.

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Programming is for Stupid People

I had to give a presentation on F# last week at Code Camp and boy, was I afraid.

You see, I have been learning F# — and functional programming — for the last year or so, and it’s different. I mean way different from “normal” C# programming. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I had a hard time getting my head around it. Unlike C# and OOP, it seemed that no matter how much I learned, there was always some next level that I hadn’t reached.

I find that immensely rewarding. But I also find it pretty scary when I’m giving a presentation called “F# Ninja” Folks are going to be expecting a master of space and time, uber-lord of F#. Instead, they get me.

The day came, and I went out there and started my presentation. On the very first example, a guy raised his hand in the audience.

You know, you can do what you’re doing simply by using library X, he said.

I managed to get by the question — after all, the point wasn’t whether there was a library that could do something, the point was showing how the language worked — but the guy seemed to enjoy pointing out my “mistake”

It was an awkward moment.

Afterwards, several participants approached and asked questions. A couple even said it was the best presentation they had seen at Code Camp that day (I was last). But my friend was there too, and he had a whole bunch of questions about F#.

I was happy to answer. He had heard a few things about the language that were not true. He also pointed out how there were many other methods in many other libraries that do the same thing that you can do in F#. After all, all of Microsoft’s programming languages run on the same CLR, so it makes sense that if you can do it in one .NET language you can do it in another.

I got one of those feelings — it seemed to me that this guy had some attachment to justifying his not learning F#. Perhaps I misread him — but then again perhaps not. Either way, that’s fine. I’ve worked with really smart guys, and he seemed top of the pack. Amazing recall of various libraries and such.

Finally, out of exasperation, I said something like “Yes, I know you can do it like that, but you know what? I am an old and simple-minded programmer. If I don’t have to remember 4000 libraries — if, instead, I only need to remember the few dozen functions I’ve written — it’s easier on my mind”

That seemed to pacify him, and it also hit me as accidentally touching on a really deep truth:

Programming is for stupid people.

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Angry Yet?

I both love and hate this time of year in America.

I love it because Americans, unlike people in many other places, are passionate about their right to vote. Even folks who haven’t voted in decades will, if asked, explain to you why they refuse to participate in the system. Usually it’s either because the system is broken beyond repair or that things are going so well as to not require their participation.

I hate it because especially now, in the final few weeks before the election, politicians try their best to get you angry about something. The dirty little secret in politics is that by now most folks who haven’t decided either have decided and don’t want to talk about it, or they are incapable of deciding anything. So you’re not going to win votes telling people about how good and noble you are. Right now the only game in town is to get your supporters angry enough to turn out at the polls. If you’re lucky, in the process you can depress the other team’s turnout. So if you find out that your opponent abuses farm animals — even if the charge is untrue — now is a good time to unload it on the public. The airwaves are full of accusations, fear-mongering, hate, bile, falsehoods, and angry people either yelling at or making fun of each other.

And so we have what we call an American Election.

It’s tempting to go on how in the “good old days” it wasn’t like this, but it was. Jefferson was accused of being a unfaithful father of a bastard child. Adams was called a hermaphrodite. For a great short read on how things haven’t changed, check out this interview with Joseph Cummins.

My love/hate feelings are further exasperated by watching myself and my friends get sucked into the maelstrom. About a year ago, people were pretty much feeling the same way about things as they normally feel, but they were a lot more amicable about it. But, slowly, over the months, the political parties continue to push their buttons and the tension rises. Sadly enough after years of detailed polling the politicians definitely know where your buttons are. So, slowly but surely, the things that tick you off or make you upset increase, gaining in tempo until these last couple of weeks. The tension rises.

I’m not going to get into this year’s politics. It really doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing every election year.

As I’ve gotten older I find that I watch less TV, listen to less radio, and consume less news, mainly because of this narrative/self-reinforcing nature of American politics. After the last election I didn’t watch any news for almost a year — I wanted the new president to get a good chance of making a difference without my forming an attitude about him. Or course I still read political commentary — I love hearing passionate people make a reasonable argument about how to solve tough problems. But I find that at 45 I am much more detached about it all than I was at 25. At 25 everything was terribly important. At 45 I realize that everything is always terribly important. That’s how the game is played. That’s how you are played.

I think the saddest part of all of this is the purposeful manipulation of folks. Sadly it’s usually the intelligent and sensitive voters who care the most that get the most ensnared. Yes there are folks, let’s face it, that thrive on political drama and intrigue. Several friends talk ominously about this or that political cause from time to time. Even for them, though, the tempo (and the outlandish nature of some of the concerns) increases as election day nears.

And so it becomes difficult in certain circles to have polite discourse. Subjects or key phrases which might not elicit anger at any other time during the year incite anger now. Why? Because folks are getting primed for anger. The temperature is rising. Usually such gaffes don’t result in outright arguments — although I think it would be much better if they did. Back in the 1800s election day usually meant dressing up, going to town, getting drunk, and yelling (or fighting) about politics. Today, with the internet and cable TV you aren’t forced to talk about politics except to people who feel just like you.

And so folks bite their tongue and take their feelings back to their “home” group of friends where they can self-reinforce their worldviews. I think, perhaps, the kegger and fistfight method of problem dispute was better for the fabric of society. But I could be wrong. We’ll see.

After watching several of these election cycles — each one about the same as the other, the names and issues and parties in power just rotating around in various configurations — I’m left with a feeling of both deep sadness and odd hope. I’m sad because the system itself seems to be fundamentally broken: as an expert and observer of how organizations work, I can see that the country I love slowly spinning out of control. It’s like watching bathtub water spin down the drain, starting slowly, slowly building up momentum. It’s not a matter of what my opinions are or what you want to the law to be. No matter what you want the country to do, it’s reaching the point where it can’t do it. And that just makes people’s anger even worse. Not good.

Hope because where there are people who care, there is always a chance. No, I don’t think electing some magic leader is going to solve anything, and I don’t think either party is interested in solving most of our problems as much as they are gaining and keeping power, but constitutional amendments might change things. A third party might change things. People getting together and realizing they have more in common with each other than their political causes indicate might change things. These are outside shots, sure, but with as many people on all sides of the issues caring as much as they do, with so much anger, it’s worth having a bit of hope.

Anger is both a really good and a really bad thing.

An oldie but a goodie. Vote for me, or my opponent will destroy the planet in a nuclear holocaust

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Towards Ethical Hacking

Over the past few years, Paul Graham, Eliezer Yudkowsky, a few other writers and myself have pushed the idea that while technology is a great and wondrous thing, it also has some severe side-effects that we are not considering. Many millions of people spend their time everyday with technology and later on regret it. Yes they were doing things they found pleasing at the time, but looking back it’s not something they would have chosen to spend so much time on.

If you think about it, the video game in some ways has become the 2-martini lunch of the 2010s. It used to be, 70 or 80 years ago, that drinking during lunch wasn’t as unacceptable as it is today. Watch a few old movies, and somebody has a liquor bottle around somewhere in an office. Of course, that still happens today, and there’s nothing wrong with it — but nowadays we realize that drinking during work might not be the greatest thing in the world to do. Afterwards, perhaps, but not in the middle of the day.

Back then, however, folks felt like they “deserved it”.

I got an email from a video game player who told me basically “so what if I spend 6 hours every evening playing video games? I work hard all day. I deserve it.”

As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Instead of getting into particular people or situations, is there a way to come up with some general system of ethics for hackers? Is there some rulebook we can use to determine whether or not we’re actually providing real value in the world with what we do?

As it turns out, although no system of morality has dealt with this question directly — after all, we’re the first bunch of schmucks to make it this far — there were some really smart guys in history that may help us out here.

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The Great HackerNews Book-a-thon

A few days ago I wrote a post pulling in books from HackerNews that hackers had recommended to each other.

Well, it hit the front page (thanks guys!) so I thought folks might be interested in seeing some real-world stats on how articles like this perform.


Hits Uniques
14,525 13,341

Entrance Sources

Source Hits 8482
direct 3429 418 413 339 303 223


Source Amount
Adsense $3.60
Amazon Affiliate Link $56.29
Total: $59.89


Yesterday there was some concern that I was just posting a huge amount of links in order to make a quick buck. Well, for those of you looking to make a quick buck like this, it’s not much of a plan. In return for spending an entire day typing in links, you get 60 bucks.

You’d make easier money working at the local McDonald’s.

Also, for those of you looking to start a blog or startup, pay heed: tens of thousands of visitors, visitors who are interested in your product, visitors wanting to buy — and you make maybe a buck for every 300 folks. And these are serious customers — average time on site was over 5 minutes. In the real world you’re lucky to get a minute.

This is reality.

Now for the good news.

Actually a buck per 300 folks isn’t bad. It’s a pretty good number. If this were a startup, the question here is whether or not you can drive enough folks to the website to pay for expenses.

Now just for a hobby — something to kick around — domain registration is maybe 20 bucks and server hosting another 30 bucks a month. (Prices can vary wildly here, but hosting a site is anywhere from free to around 50 bucks a month). How much traffic is reasonable to expect for a hobby? Assuming I do something interesting with the site one more time in the next year and the HN’ers like it, it looks like revenue could be 120 bucks. (stocks or gold futures, always so hard to decide) Subtracting out the domain registration, it probably makes sense, as a hobby, to move the list over to its own domain. Maybe add in sorting. Lots of folks wanted to be able to sort and filter — just too many books in there.

As a startup? Mabye. Maybe not. I posted a question where I asked if people would be interested in such an app, and it got around 20 votes. A couple of people said they thought it was a great idea.

But it’s easy to support something in word only, and it’s also easy to wave your arms around wildly and believe that you have the next huge startup idea. What do I have here that is invaluable? Numbers. Hard numbers on how traffic would translate into sales. That’s probably the coolest thing about the entire post (aside from the total awesomeness of the books, of course)

So I’ll set up a small site with the same list. Perhaps I’ll take a risk and spend some more time adding some functionality. Perhaps not. But each little step I’ll be looking at numbers like this to decide what makes sense and what doesn’t. Things run on numbers.

At some point, yes, your hobby can become a business. But a cool idea, even a cool idea with 15,000 people who are visiting, isn’t enough. A real startup is a lot more than that.

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Secret Hacker Bookshelf

I received an email two weeks ago from a guy in the Philippines. He wanted to learn how to program and didn’t know where to start. Last week I was talking to a family member — he wanted to get into computers but didn’t know where to start. This week, 2 people came up to me and asked me questions about which books to read to learn startups and marketing.

It’s a common pattern. On the forum I visit, HackerNews, every few weeks somebody asks the same question — what are the best programming books? What are the best startup books? What are the best books on marketing? There are a lot of people asking, and the same questions are asked quite frequently. A quick search on Google lists dozens of questions about programming.

So. What do hackers recommend to each other?

Frankly, it gets old having to post comments recommending the same books over and over again. I know others feel the same way. But still, I’d like to help. So I decided to take all day today and find the best books from hacker discussions and list them here. Next time somebody asks me, I can just point them to this page. Who knows, if enough folks like the list, maybe I can keep it updated and expand on it.

Caveat Emptor: reading a good book on something fuzzy, like marketing or starting a business, is like having a beer with somebody at a bar. There’s lots of great ideas and great experiences to be learned. It’s also important to note that it’s you, not the authors, who is responsible for your life. Don’t fixate on any one book or author and go off hell bent for leather on what the author said. Instead, sample broadly, compare notes, learn both sides of the argument, then figure out how to use this new information to do things you want to do.

Having said that, this is a pretty incredible list and a pretty cool bunch of recommenders. If you have time, you should follow the conversations around some of these books. Many of the people commenting and many of the people writing these books have made millions or billions of dollars and would like to help you succeed too. And they’re not the traditional get-rich-quick, business porn, or self-help books that clutter up the marketplace. Lots of value here.

These books are listed by how hackers rate them, the vote count — books appearing higher on the list were voted by hackers as better than those lower. The programming section has several sub-sections that I haven’t broken out yet, but you can easily spot where one section ends and another begins.

As for some meta advice, if I were interested in buying one of these books, I’d probably read the pro and con reviews on Amazon, taking careful note of the con reviews (many times the pro reviews are fake). I’ve had pretty good luck using this technique, especially when I get there from a recommendation from a friend. And now you just gained a thousand hacker friends :)

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How to make a million dollars blogging

  • write because you must, not because of anything else
  • write only for yourself
  • organize your thoughts by writing
  • make friends by blogging
  • don’t stop

Too simple? What? You wanted me to sell you an e-book?

Blogging is about making friends by writing out your thoughts so you can organize them. Because writing in a long format helps organize your problems and observations in a way that speaking, tweeting, or making list does not. Blogging has to first and foremost be about you, not the audience or the market or the cash flow or any of that junk. Perhaps you’re the one guy who can write 1000 articles on pigeon-farming and make them all sing, but odds are you aren’t. Odds are you will write crap and get disgruntled and quit. So, oddly enough, if you’re getting into blogging to make a million dollar chances are you will never make it.

Have I made a million dollars? Nope. But I haven’t quit yet either. (wink)

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