Category Archives: Biographical

We Didn’t Mean For It To Turn Out Like This

Looking at the net today, I can’t help but reflect on how it’s turning out so differently than we imagined:

We wanted to exchange information, not play games.

We wanted expected open conversation and idea exchange, not constant drama, anger, and angst.

We wanted insight into the world outside ourselves, not have the world know everything there is to know about us.

We wanted freedom from oppressive governments, not the creation of a new security state.

We expected the web to either be free or paid, not monetized based on how long it could hold our attention.

Browsers were just one way of accessing the net. We expected there to be lots more.

We expected technology to empower us as individuals, not create some kind of hive supermind.

We expected human, face-to-face relationships to be augmented and thrive based on new silicon helpers. We’re finding people staying online and disconnected for most of their lives, texting somebody sitting 10 feet away instead of attempting a conversation.

Man is a social animal evolved to operate semi-autonomously as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. What we are creating is a technological system that is adapting to, emphasizing, and taking advantage all of the weaknesses of the species while not emphasizing our strengths. Another way of saying this is: we’re not getting what we expected, we’re getting what we wanted.

They say that kids growing up in a new system automatically think that system is just the way things are supposed to be. It’s really important to tell this to whoever will listen.

I was there with some of the first commercial users on the net. (Heck, I was on before that, but as a college student I had no idea of what the net was). I was there as developers and content creators started piecing together the future. I was there when Google figured out the ad model, when the average MMORPG gamer was spending 35-hours online each week, when the NSA revelations came out, when Farmville took Facebook by storm. I was there before that. I remember where we were headed.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

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Microconf Takeaways

Rob Walling and Mike Taber at the kickoff of microconf 2014

Rob Walling and Mike Taber at the kickoff of microconf 2014

Just had a great time in Vegas with some other small startup guys talking about how to create something that has real value for people — how to help folks in the world. As a side-effect, the goal is to work from home, spending lots of time with your family. It’s no get-rich-quick scheme: everybody has to find their own path. But there are a lot of common things too. Most of us use the internet, most of us either used to program or program now, most of us are part of something called the Micropreneur Academy, and most us, well, are nerds.

Here are the three things I learned (or re-learned) about myself this year:

I don’t know enough about the customer. Yes, I know the job of people I’m helping. Yes, I know the subject area I’m trying to teach. But while I have general and in-depth knowledge, that ain’t cutting it. I need to climb inside my customer’s head, spend time with them doing their work from their point of view, not mine. I keep wanting to jump ahead to the business-building part of things, instead of product-market fit. If I get the right product-market fit, the market will “pull” the rest of the business from me. People will be clamoring at the door demanding that I take their money. If I don’t? Then I’m building something and trying to beat people over the head with it. Don’t do that, Daniel. It hurts.

Hey, I actually know this stuff. Since I’m trying to help people create, maintain, and optimize their to-do lists (backlogs), it would help if I knew what I was talking about. The more I interacted with fellow startup guys, the more I realized that I actually could help these folks too. I’m actually on to something very useful across a broad market. In fact, because book 3 is going to be on backlogs and startups, I can start “eating my own dogfood” and use the things I know in the work I’m doing. It sounds like I am an idiot for not knowing/doing this already, I know. But a lot of times there’s really obvious stuff right in front of you that you miss because you’re in the weeds. Jesse Mecham gave a great talk yesterday about this. He was running a profitable startup for years and still afraid to quit his day job because of his desire for security. It took going to a minister for somebody to convince him he had the answer all along.

Teach more to make more friends. This is one of those things that I understand intellectually, but I don’t think I really get it. Plus, as somebody who took years to learn a few things, I’m seeing these guys become experts in stuff that took a month or two, and then overgeneralizing what they know and saying things that aren’t necessarily true. This makes it tougher on the next guy who comes along who tries to take the reader to the next level. But I understand that taking somebody on a journey of learning with you is good for both of you. I need to keep banging this against my head until it sinks in.

My three action items:

Start talking to people on the phone. Once they sign up for the email course, ask them if they have a few minutes to chat. Get to know why people are interested in learning more about helping Agile teams. There’s no agenda: I’m not trying to sell or push products. Simply trying to gain as much loosely-formatted and unstructured data as possible that I can then go back and find themes and put some structure around.

Use my backlog principles to organize my own startup work. Hey, if the goal here is to complete a series of books that wraps up value creation from customer development to 20,000-person enterprises, time to put the stuff in book 3 to the test personally, instead of just reading about it and watching it. The startup part is probably part of the series I’m weakest on, so nothing like the present to fix that. Not only does this make sense, it’s only an hour or two of work, maybe every month or two. No biggie. (Which is one of the beauties of getting this out to folks, it should take a tough thing and make it much easier)

Revamp my email strategy. Right now I have an Agile Tune-Up email series that runs every week over a period of a year. The purpose is to get to know folks, start a conversation, let them know who I am and that I know some stuff that could help them. That’s about it. I really should 1) offer a free multi-part course or something else of value in return for folks joining the list, 2) re-vamp my weekly series so it’s more useful to the readers, 3) manually test out the emails that go out before I automate the process so that the formatting, message, and timing is exactly what I want, and 4) add in a bit of data around segmentation when people join the list so I can help them better. Are they coaches? Guys working at a big corporation? A startup? I need to create a trial scoring system and hook that into the people I interact with. Powerful idea from Brennan Dunn yesterday. Looking forward to implementing it.

As soon I finish creating the 17 clones I will need to do all of this.

But wait! There’s more! I have a couple of strategic bonus problems that need to be solved right away.

Videos or books? I’m halfway through Backlogs 2, and I only have an early version of the first of eight videos completed for the Backlogs 1 series. Looks like completing either of those two projects should take a solid 3 months. I can’t do both — or rather if it’s possible I don’t understand how. So what to do? Finish the video series so that folks can have the hard-nosed, detailed, deep-dive down on personal and team backlogs after they finish the first book? Or go ahead and continue the story with Smith and the plant, giving people more entertainment — perhaps even finishing the final book — then swinging back for the videos? Maybe neither? Maybe I just stop now and go start marketing the hell out of the book I’ve already completed. Beats me, and I’m the one supposed to be figuring this stuff out.

All-in-all, it was a great conference. Lots to think about, great folks, and some terrific tactical advice that I didn’t even get into here. Good stuff.

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Like Star Trek, The Original Series? You’ll Like This

Bunch of fans got together and wondered “So the Enterprise was on a Five-Year Mission, right? What happened the last two years?”

With lots of folks donating time, labor, and materials, they’re creating a new, internet-only fan work about Star Trek.

If you approach this the correct way — a continuation of the original 1960s TV series using new actors — this is pretty cool. Amazing set work, a passable script, guest stars returning from the original series, even relatives of the original actors playing in the cast. All because they love the show.

In the startup world, you’re supposed to go out and show people what you’re doing to see if they like your solution. You know you’re golden when, while you’re showing what you’ve got, the other person says “Shut up and take my money, dammit!”

I felt this way watching this series. Heck, I’d pay 40 bucks for a DVD with a new season of shows on it — as long as they all had this quality. Here’s hoping these guys continue to pull it off!

Star Trek Continues E01 “Pilgrim of Eternity” from Star Trek Continues on Vimeo.

If you liked this review, liked the episode, and want to do the whole fan thing, here’s the Star Trek Continues page.

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San Francisco Memories

Several years ago, for many months I had a client in downtown San Francisco. As part of that job I had a corporate apartment located right at the top of Nob Hill.

I have really found memories of living there. I’d walk the long walk down the hill into the financial district in the morning, stopping at 24-hour fitness for a workout. In the afternoons I’d hump all my gear back up the hill. San Francisco was a beautiful city, and, except for the bums they kept around everywhere, my stay there was pleasant.

I understand the word “bum” may appear insensitive or demeaning, but after many months of watching the same folks camping out in the same places, and being accosted dozens of times on each of my walks, my sympathy for these folks has waned. Considerably. Certainly many should be hospitalized. Many are in need of half-way houses, and many simply choose to make a living by begging. I guess “urban campers” might be a more acceptable term. Don’t know.

All I know is that during the first month of schlepping my gear all around the city, I grew an envy of those healthy folks that ditched the system and expected me to help them deal with the natural consequences of those choices. Especially once I learned that the city, each month, had police go around and give each homeless person over four hundred bucks. No wonder they were everywhere.

But I digress.

My fond memories of San Francisco was watching Chinese New Year, or the fog rolling in off the bay, or the view at the Embarcadero. On Saturday mornings all the sailboats would venture out into the bay, play about, only to return later.

Some of the things that you would think I would remember fondly I do not. Like the sound of cable cars. At first, I found these quite pleasant, but, since my apartment was right off their track, they got more and more annoying. There’s nothing like the DING! DING! DING! of a cable car at 8am on a Saturday morning when you’re trying to sleep in.

After a while, I gave up walking up and down the hill and started taking the cable car. What the heck. How many other times in my life will I be able to say I took a cable car to work? So I guess we made our peace.

When I say nothing is so annoying, I misled. There was always the fire department. Somehow or another my apartment was almost directly over a fire department, and I swear those guys would get tanked up on the weekends and go riding around in the firetruck around 2am. I’m sure it was great fun for them. Not so much for somebody trying to sleep.

There were a bunch of touristy things to do on the weekends, and I tried to do them all. Tour Alcatraz. Tour wine country (Wow! What a great adventure! Especially when you go with somebody who knows what he’s doing.) Drive up the coast to see the Redwoods. Visit some of the wonderful museums.

I had a blast living in San Francisco. After a while, though, the memories for me got dimmer and dimmer. I would tell people about my time there, but it didn’t seem so real.

So I was very happy to find a video a couple of weeks ago shot from my apartment. Somehow having the pictures or the video makes the experience much easier to remember.

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How Can I Help?

I’ve decided the most important conversational phrase in the English language is “How can I help?”

I don’t come to this decision lightly. There were several others that almost made it.

“I love you” was a top contender, but it says more about my own personal feelings than my relationship to the world.

“Let me help” also didn’t make it. It focuses more on my taking control of things.

“Try this” was big, but it was more of a plea for validation than anything else. I know more than you. Listen to me and you’ll do better. Nope, at times this might be true, but it’s backwards. My relationship to knowledge is nowhere near as important as my relationship to the person I’m talking to.

“We can do better” was also easily in the top ten. I think I’ll put that at #2. It reminds me that we are all in this together, and that there is always room for growth.

Nope. “How can I help” says it just the right way. If you will tell me how you think I can help, I’m willing to give it a shot. I subvert my own interests to yours. Tell me what you’d like. How can I help?

I do a lot of things — write, speak, train, consult, coach, manage, and so forth. I find most all of them are some version of “How can I help?” I also find that when I start drifting to any of the other phrases, such as “Let me help”, or “We can do better”, I always start drifting away from the true core of what I’m doing. I become a lesser person.

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Hacking an Election as a Voter

I tried something very interesting this year: I refused to participate in the election.

Not the voting part — I’m a big believer in voting. I simply refused to allow the candidates to directly speak to me. I didn’t watch the debates, I didn’t watch the news, and whenever I heard either of their voices on the radio, I turned it off. I limited my entire contact with the campaigns from reading the reactions of others on the internet.

Boy, was it an interesting experience in human nature.

We have a president who prides himself at being able to explain things at sort of a 20-something collegiate level. He prides himself in caring for the downtrodden. He’s considered a bit aloof. Some referred to him as Mr. Spock. As a result, his followers either tend to feel themselves as victims needing special help or astute managers of the human condition. They tend to either rant at others about not caring or to belittle them for being uninformed.

The other guy had a fairly religious background. Did a lot of charity. A bit of a technocrat. He prided himself in being able to understand and manage complex systems. He prided himself in his ability to both care and make tough choices. As a result, his followers either tend to be people with a religious bent that feel the nation has lost its way or those who feel that the structure of the system itself is poorly understood by the other side. They would rant about the end of western civilization as we know it.

Editorials and OpEd columns were pretty much total garbage. All the same partisan guys saying the same partisan stuff. A few times I clicked on titles that I thought would lead to more balanced coverage, only to get pitched one way or another. I found the best opinion pieces, oddly enough, in the financial sections. The finance guys have to make things work no matter who gets elected, so their main goal is to describe honestly what they feel the economy will be like under each guy. There was still bias, but nothing like with the other opinion guys. (Self-promotional plug: I created a personal site to consume opinion pieces without ads. It’s Newspaper23, the next generation of newspapers. You’re welcome to try it out.)

I found it was very difficult to stay away from direct reporting of the politicians. Of course I don’t consume entertainment/political media. But even with radio news, it seemed like any kind of news story at all (I didn’t watch TV) would lead into an angle about the campaign. Off goes the radio. I think the beat reporters got so caught up in the hysteria over the election that it colored everything they did. Fire in Dallas? How’s that impact the latino vote? It was pervasive.

There was one exception to my rule: I watched “Reliable Sources” on CNN at times. Howard Kurtz has a show about how reporters work, and that kind of thing fascinates me. How do you pick a story? A hook? What are the rules for anonymous sources? And so on.

What I found was that even that show turned into a political slugfest. The last couple were just reporters arguing their own politics whenever a question about journalism was asked. The election simply pervaded all social interactions.

Facebook and other social media was fine, since I was okay with hearing how other people reacted to the campaign. And boy, did they ever. I have around 200 friends and over the last month I was getting dozens of political cartoons and memes a day. Some were funny. Some were snarky. Some were just hateful. Most of my friends tend to associate in cliques, so nobody much argued with them. All their friends just told them how awesome their opinions were. At times somebody or another would post something like “Can we just stop it with the political stuff! I know where you guys stand!”

But then the bickering would start back up again almost immediately. Over time, I came to view this social sharing as a sign of insecurity. Folks were not sure their guy was going to win, they had a lot emotionally invested, and they just wanted some kind of validation. So they’d post whatever made them feel better and what they thought their peer group would praise.

The greatest benefit of doing things this way, by not exposing myself to any direct media messaging (including news) from the candidates, was that I felt more truly free to vote however I like than I have in years. I did not buy into the notion that one party or another was the answer to all of the country’s problems. Instead I could evaluate candidates both on their positions, their personalities, and the impact they had on others that I could observe. Plus I got a great lesson in human nature from my friends on both sides of the aisle. I also did not feel I had to either gloat or lash out after the entire thing was over.

This is the way I want to do elections from here on out.

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Random Pictures

Haven’t been blogging much lately — been doing a lot of writing for another project and it’s just tapped me out — so I thought I would share some personal pictures from the last few months.

Family picture at the beach
We had a great time during our beach vacation in May

Continue reading

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An Open Letter To Virginia 5th District Representative Robert Hurt

On tax day 2012,

Dear Congressman,

I’m writing you this for two reasons. First, due to circumstances out of my control, there have been times in my past where I have owed more than 50K in federal income taxes. I feel horrible about it, but I made amends as best I could. I served in the Marines, and I’m not about to let my country down. These things happen, especially when you are self-employed.

I read today, however, that there is new legislation proposing to prevent international travel for those owing sums like that. As a consultant, some of my clients are overseas. For people like me with international clients, they could easily get into a spot where the government prevents them from traveling overseas in order to pay back the money that the government is owed. That’s crazy. It is in neither party’s interests for the law to be structured like this. People who are flight risks will just leave. I don’t understand what the point here is, unless it’s to further stress people already in a bad situation. Surely because somebody got sick or you had a family crisis it isn’t the time to further stress them, is it? Remember — we’re not talking tax fraud or evasion. We’re simply talking about people who owe money. Not even that. About people the IRS says owe money.

But the second reason is more dear to my heart. I simply do not understand my country restricting travel because of owing money. To me, to restrict freedom of travel is like taking away the ability to own a gun or vote — it happens, but only under dire circumstances. Perhaps if there was some criminal aspect like tax fraud or tax evasion, I could understand it. But simply because the administrative system says so? Where are we living again?

When I was 25, due to a mistake the State of Virginia made, they thought I owed 20K in child support. In actuality I owed nothing. After four years of chasing them around, I finally made them reimburse me for everything they took. But let me assure you: they did everything they could during those four years to make my life living hell. They ruined my credit, they garnished my wages and my taxes, they hurt my reputation with employers, and so forth. It was a nightmare.

And now we are seriously considering giving the federal government more ability to hassle people along basically the same lines? Have we thought through the public and sometimes tragic impact this is going to have on real people? Just wait until little Susie needs an operation in Britain but her parents can’t go with her, or marines sent to combat aren’t allowed to go because of tax responsibilities. Or — heaven forbid — one of the Administration’s staff that owes so much on taxes isn’t allowed to travel with the president. The false positives will be legion. It’s a PR nightmare waiting to happen.

I don’t know if you’re much on constitutional law or natural rights. I used to read quite a bit on it. This law fundamentally changes the nature of my relationship with my government. Up until now if I didn’t like things I was free to leave. Now my government is telling me I am no longer free to leave, and it’s not because I have committed a crime or am some kind of danger to others. It’s simply because they think I owe money. I love my country and I have served my country. Unless I am guilty of some crime, I do not understand my country telling me I am no longer free to leave. This is not the country I was born in.

We don’t have debtor’s prisons any more, and we don’t put people to work at hard labor to pay off creditors. This is a terrible idea not because of my personal story, but because of what it says about the people’s relationship to their government. As Reagan said, It used to be that the people told the government what it could do. We are entering an age where the government is actively and aggressively telling the people what they can do. It’s about much more than my sob story: this is structurally very bad and sets a dangerous precedent for the republic. Please listen! If you lose consent of the governed, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions were.

Thanks for your time and for listening to my story. Best of luck in your Congressional career.

Daniel Markham


P.S. No mailing lists, please.

Note: For those Americans living overseas, including people who were born in the U.S. but have never lived here, the bullshit is even worse. We have truly created an insane nightmare of a taxation system and no amount of increased enforcement is going to make it any better.

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Dead Programmers Aren’t Much Fun

Two years ago my step-dad died. He was fine up until close to the end, so the family came down and he took us on a tour of his things. There was a truck, a car, some tools, and things that had sentimental value. More so than a will, this was more a tour of his physical possessions; where they were and what to do with them.

It got me to thinking. Today I’m doing something most of you older programmers out there should do as well: I’m sitting down with my oldest son to talk about where all of the family’s “digital inheritance” is.

You know, that partial app you wrote five years ago and put on GitHub, the one you still get emails about, what’s going to happen to that? Or the web site about dancing turtles you created that makes five dollars a month from AdSense. Should that stay up or be abandoned? What other choices are there? Or how about what you’re reading now? Perhaps you have a blog out there that you spent a few years tinkering with. Maybe nothing serious, but still, you spent a hell of a lot of time with it. Is it all just data to be deleted? If not, where should it go?

Who moves it? Where do they put it? Who controls the content? Who receives the income, if any? Who responds to any emails?

What happens to your email account after you die, anyway? You don’t want to shut it down immediately — there are correspondents that may only write once a year, and it might be important for somebody to respond to them when they do.

Source code on places like GitHub should probably be flagged. Something like “This person is no longer alive and the project will probably receive no updates.” So should blogs — no matter what else happens to them. People deserve to know that the person they are reading is no longer with the living. This might also be a good idea to do with professional forums, such as HackerNews. If a person has spent many years contributing to a social site, there are probably people that want to know if they’re gone. At least you’d hope so.

How about social networks? I’m starting to see family members log on to Facebook accounts and post something like “Joe died last night in his sleep. A memorial service will be held ….”

That’s nice, so somebody should be sure to do that. Then what? Leave the account active? Delete it after 90 days? If you’re a programmer it’s certainly possible you might have some pre-canned scripts to run — perhaps telling nephew Susie she should have a great birthday and life once she turns 18. Maybe you have something to detect jokes your Uncle tells and add in a “lol” in a comment. Aside from being weird, is that socially acceptable? Should relatives help you do this?

The pieces of a digital life are a lot more complicated than a physical one. When my step-dad took us for a tour, it was a very easy thing to do. If he would have died suddenly, we still could have made do by simply showing up at his house, reading his papers, and wandering around. We live in a different age. All his possessions were static. They just sat there. The things I create often interact with real, living people — without my having to be alive for them to do so. And they are all invisible. Sometimes hidden. Picking up digital pieces is nothing like sending a car off to auction. Yes, right now programmers and tech people are ones feeling the pain, but we’re always the outliers, the ones who get to these problems ahead of everybody else.

Are you going to spend money on life insurance, writing a will, and making final funeral arrangements only to leave a digital disaster to some poor family member who is both technically unable and unaware of how to handle it all?

Don’t do that.

ADD: Some folks are offering up sites that store information and/or send emails upon your death. Thanks for this, but I don’t think they’re going to work for me. Being a programmer, my stuff is complicated. I have several domain registrars I’ve used, for example. Programs can be in various languages. From time-to-time I’ve used pseudonyms. Sometimes proxies or key files are required to get to certain assets. Different source repositories were used, and so on. To simply access all of my stuff, it’s more like setting up a complex development environment from scratch. You have to write a script and then test it out. A simple email or a list might be missing key details that seemed trivial at the time but is impossible for the reader to figure out. And it’s not like anybody can ask you questions if your email doesn’t work.

Great idea, though. These various services are doing a great job for what they do. Perhaps they’ll evolve as time goes on to cover more paycheck-type items (ie, complicated and purposely difficult to access and configure) and less email or to-do-list-type items..

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When I Grew up I Ended up Being a Writer

I hated English class in school. The diagramming sentences. The reading stuff by guys who couldn’t write a grocery list without using a thousand words. The political and personal interpretations by the teachers. The endless lists of words to learn. I had a lot of dreams as a kid, and none of them involved writing. Blech!

I hated creative writing. I was in a special creative writing group just for gifted children. The other kids — mostly girls — would write about their feelings in such a mushy and saccharine manner that it made me want to barf. Lame poetry. giving each other fake praise. It was all just too much. When I had a chance to critique these girls my analysis was carelessly acerbic. There is no theme here. Your meter is off. What is the point of this sentence? This adjective doesn’t work here. You’ve wasted my time. You suck. Go away. Learn to sew and have kids — there’s no writing in your future.

I was kind of a class clown. What can I say? Tact was never my strong suit. Engineering and math seemed a lot more practical to me than fluffy prose.

My own writing for the group — I had to write as well — consisted of whatever I thought would mess with the other kid’s heads the most. I remember one short story I wrote about a moose, from the moose’s point of view, that told the story of his quest to find water, instead falling into a temporal rift that transported him back in time to where he was eventually eaten by dinosaurs. I’ll never forget the look on the other kids’ faces as they read my story. They had absolutely no idea of what to do with it.

I liked taking pictures, though, and ended up being a photographer for the school newspaper. That was a lot of fun! And from that job I was approached by the editor of the local weekly newspaper after I graduated and asked to do some lightweight photojournalism. Then, after the Marines, college, and BigCorp, I ended up writing for the local daily newspaper as a stringer and doing some national magazine work on the side.

There was a time in my early 20s that I seriously wanted to be a writer, but it never worked out. Computers and technology always called me back. The money was simply too good.

Twenty years later I get up today, update my funny picture collection, post to my blog, and then start working on my new short e-book. On my larger stack is another couple of blog posts I want to do for some other folks, another two short e-books, about a dozen websites that are in various stages of completion, and a larger e-book which I’ve been working on for a year.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a secret agent. I wanted to be a entrepreneur. Once those childhood dreams evaporated, I wanted to work with something substantial. Something with a deep set of logically-consistent rules. I look around at my friends in the tech community and I see a lot of me when I was a kid: easy criticism of other people’s creative work, disdain of the “soft” sciences, and a desire just to focus on technical things. Like me, they find comfort in the certainty of hard science.

What I found was that no matter what you do in life, written communication is a critical part of your job. In fact, the more important you are in your field, the more important it is for you to be able to communicate. And I’m not talking about simply relating facts, either. The best part of writing is letting somebody else inside the way you think. That’s the real value, whether you’re writing fiction or fantasy. Writing, like managing and like manipulating technology, is a fundamental skill that must be mastered no matter what else you do. It’s not optional. I wanted to do a lot of things. I did those. What I ended up being was a writer.

I miss that moose.

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