Identity

Identity is one of the strongest concepts of both life and technology.  Identities define who we are, what we can – and cannot – do.  They are extremely powerful, but with all power comes the potential for abuse.

To be honest, I’ve written this post many times before, yet, deleted them over and over again.  By the end, I either failed to clearly get my message across, or simply tried to say too much in 1000 or so words.  This is such a critical topic, that I wanted to do it justice.  I wanted to make sure that my words were clear, my story complete, and that people came out with a better understanding of the power of identity and how it can be used to make themselves better and to make their creations better.

The best place to start is probably the beginning.  When I was a kid, I was different from others.  And I had an ego to boot.  That combination made me an easy target for bullying.  At the time, it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I can happily say that I made it out alive and with no physical scars and minimal emotional scars.  In fact, I’d even say that if it weren’t for the teasing and the bullying, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

It was either the summer before my junior or senior year of high school that I realized maybe it was something I was doing that brought about all the teasing.  At the time I couldn’t quite grasp that I wasn’t perfect, but I clearly saw that people didn’t see me as perfect.  The question became – how do I bridge the identity crisis I had that the identity I had for myself was different from the identity that others had placed on me.  This disconnect lead to miscommunication, and probably a large amount of bullying and teasing.

So began my yearly quest to re-evaluate my identity.  It started small – I tried to go through a week in my life in third person.  I watched my mannerisms, my words, and how they affected others.  Annoying traits that I had, I tried to suppress, and things that people enjoyed, I tried to accentuate.  It made things a little easier, but it didn’t get to the root of the problem – the identity I had given myself was not in tune with reality.  No amount of acting would change that.

After a few years of re-evaluation, I came across a crazy programming concept of the completely-mutable object.  This is a concept/object in which you do not predefine any functions or attributes.  They are all defined when the application is run.  This allows for great flexibility, but arguably, too much.  Imagine a car being able to transform into a plane, then a house, then a horse.  A drive down I95 becomes a bit more complex, no?

I discovered this concept around the same time as I was taking my yearly re-evaluation and I had an epiphany – maybe humans have a completely mutable identity, we just refuse to change the values.  This thinking took me down a path of complete mutability.  I mirrored the personalities of whomever I was spending time with.  I tried to give up the attributes that I thought were me while taking on new attributes.  The experiment had interesting results, but ultimately ended in failure.  For those who didn’t know me, they accepted my identity as whatever I showed them, which was very much a mirror of themselves.  For those that knew me, my changes caused confusion and uneasiness.

Ultimately, a mutable identity made me lose a sense of self, because I never knew if I was a car, plane, house, or a horse.  But, the experiment showed me that I don’t have to live in a box, and that I can have fun if I just let go.  It also taught me the power of perception.  Following this experiment, I quickly fell back into the old me, mainly because that is how others saw me and it was easier for me to accept that identity than to try to forge yet another.

Identity is a powerful force.  It is what leads to racism, hate, and mislead ignorance.  Evolutionary, it probably has some strong purpose.  We can learn which animal species we can trust, and which we must avoid.  We can learn behavioral patterns and apply them to other animals of the same species to best capture them or avoid being their prey.

Ultimately there are three identities in play when dealing with another human.  There is the identity that person believes, the identity you have formed from your interactions, and the identity you’ve inferred.  Inferred identity is where bias and prejudice comes from.  Someone wears a specific type of clothes, therefore they must be in a gang.  If they are in a gang, they are dangerous.  If they are dangerous, they should be avoided…  All of that inferred simply from an article of clothing.  Unless it’s a shirt with a gang slogan or emblem on it, with gang colors, in an area where that gang resides, it’s probably off base.

But then there is the more subtle identity crisis.  The one between the identity you’ve given someone and the identity they believe is their own.  Chances are, neither of those matches with reality, which increases the chances that those two identities differ.  It is true that first impressions are amazingly strong.  The identity you associate with someone when first meeting them sticks hard.  Meet someone when you’re having a bad day?  Chances are it will take you a long time for them to update their identity of you.

These disconnects lead us to fear and miscommunication.  How many times have you thought “X will may this person happy” then done X, and it didn’t make them happy?  From their side, they think, “How did they not know Y makes me happy?”  Everyone feels dissatisfied, simply because there was not an acknowledgement of the identity gap.  Worse is when we refuse to accept that an identity has changed.  Treating an adult like a child, or a smoker who wants to quit as still a smoker.  By pushing your concept of an identity on someone else, you could make it more difficult for that person to change their own identity.

I used to think it was love that would save the world – compassion.  While we need compassion, the only thing that will save the world is education, understanding, and an acceptance that identities are both mutable and powerful.  There are religious zealots who cannot let go of words spoken over 1500 years ago and continue to fight and kill an enemy that they cannot possibly reason with.  The identity gap is simply too far.  Around the world, there is conflict everywhere that stems so greatly from identity gaps.  Pride and the inability to accept that the identities you have for people and yourself may not match up with reality have held us back from such great progress.

This is normally the point where I read through what I’ve written, and delete it all, because I’ve failed to convey my message, or worse, failed to come up with a conclusion that tied it all together.  While a better writer would have done a much better job, this message will reach your eyes, and hopefully the message will be clear.  I have no conclusion, and by far I have no solution.  But, I hope to continue to educate, and to share my insights and maybe even inspire people to be happier, and to help others be better.  It’s hard to think of myself as a grown man, because inside I feel like a child, still searching for his purpose, searching for his identity.  I’ve spent years refining, chipping away at the ego I hated so much, and trying to bolster the good.  I’ve come so far, but my journey has barely begun.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

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Responsibility

Zen Digest

  • We have a responsibility to do the right thing
  • Our responsibility is derived from a desire to persist the human race

The Whole Picture

When we produce, we affect the world around us.  Every action we have has consequences.  Every plant we plant reduces carbon in our atmosphere, while every mile we drive in our car increases carbon.  Every mile we walk instead of drive saves potential emissions.

But there are less black and white cause and effects.  I started my corporate life in the Finance industry.  For the most part, the products we created helped the rich get richer.  At the end of the day, I wanted to have a more positive impact on the world around me, so I got back into the start-up world working on products that provided more value to general consumers.

But, on an even smaller scale, the decisions we make – such as build or buy – when it comes to software or technology make a great difference.  You could upgrade your phone every 2 years, or every 3.  The amount of waste saved by upgrading every 3 truly adds up.  Also, when faced with having to create your own solution to a problem, if you can find an existing solution, you can save yourself days of work with simply a small amount of up-front research.  This time can be spent solving bigger and more complex problems.

Education is the crux of all of this.  We must constantly learn about how our world works.  Everything we do has a cost, and it isn’t always in dollars.  In fact, it’s often the items that cost the least amount of money that have the greatest overall cost to the world.

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One Size Does Not Fit All

Zen Digest

  • You cannot be all things to all people
  • You can only solve one problem at a time

The Whole Picture

Last week I attended a Think Tank of sorts who’s purpose was to create the perfect bookstore.  It was a two-day event for which I was a passive participant (I listened in to the live-stream) on the first day, and attended the second.  The first day was full of excitement and grandiose ideas.  Terms like “zero-click reading” were being tossed around, and the team seemed to believe that they were about to create this world where authors were well paid, readers were getting the best prices, and everyone was perfectly happy.  While all of these goals are great, reality set in on day two.

The first thing we realized was that, assuming all our assumption were correct, to build this new bookstore would take resources far beyond our means.  As we tried to narrow down the purpose into an MVP (minimal viable product) we started to realize the struggle between what is good for one party, what the current publishing ecosystem supports, etc.  Ultimately it can be summarized by noting that there is no perfect bookstore for all players.

In attempting to create something that is meant to solve too many problems, you are often left with something that doesn’t completely solve any problems, and tries to fit in places it should not.  This isn’t to say that everything you create should be a single-purpose device, but think of the best multi-tools (leatherman, swiss army knife, etc).  They have eight to ten tools, but all of them solve common and different problems.  They are small enough to comfortably fit into a pocket.

One final note – you don’t even need to solve a problem of the masses.  There are plenty of under-served demographics, such as people with disabilities, where technology could greatly benefit.

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Compression

Zen Digest:

  • Basic breakdown of different types of compression

The Whole Picture:

If you’ve ever worked with images (either by sending digital photos, or building anything with a graphical component) you’ve probably encountered some of the major image file formats such as GIF, JPEG (jpg) or PNG.  Those are some of the most common ones, but there are probably a few dozen different image file formats.  They are all a little different and what differentiates them is compression and quality.

A digital image is essentially a list of colors.  Each color maps to a pixel, and when those pixels are put next to each other, they comprise the image you see.  Since today’s cameras (even on your smartphone) take pictures in megapixels (the latest iPhone takes pictures that contain 8.7 million pixels).  If you wanted a rich set of colors, such as 16-bit color (about 32,000 unique shades), you’d end up with a 16 megabyte image for every picture.  That would be unnecessarily huge.

(If you want to know which image file format is best to use, check this out)

Now we get to compression.  So much data is redundant.  For example, instead of the full 32,000 colors, you could limit the amount of color choices and greatly reduce the file size.  This is obvious – less options, less size.

Then, we get a little more thrifty.  Since frequently, two pixels that are next to each other may be the same color (or very very similar) you could simply combine them into one pixel.  Now, if you had 3 or 4 in a row, you could just say “repeat this color 4 times” and use 30% of the space that repeating the color 4 times would use.  If your image frequently re-uses the same color, this could lower the file size from 16 megabytes down to 3 or 4.  At this point, this is where “lossy” and “lossless” compression come in.  Lossless would require that the two pixels be exactly the same color (hence no actual information was lost).  Lossy would say “as long as the colors are close.”  Most of the internet uses lossy compression for images.  It is much more efficient at reducing file size, yet it produces a bit of a blurring effect.

The last way to compress an image is to create an index.  For this method, a program analyzes the image and comes up with a set number of colors – usually 8, 16, or 64 (although any multiple of 2 is possible).  It scans the image and assigns every pixel to be the closest match to the 256 colors it chose.  This allows the image to remain fairly crisp, but reduces the color range greatly.

The final isn’t really compression, but it’s about reducing file size.  Often a 10+ megapixel image is simply gigantic (3000+px by 2000+px).  This is extremely large and more than what most monitors and screens can even display, so what you see is the image shrunk down.  By simply reducing the file size (although always try to do it by a factor of 4), you can reduce the file size greatly without losing much quality (although you lose the ability to zoom in with high quality).

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Reduce Unnecessary Dependencies

Zen Digest

  • Limit what you absolutely need
  • Know your alternatives
  • Recognize when dependency could lead to catastrophe

The Whole Picture

No man (or woman) is an island.  We depend on others and their expertise to make our lives easier.  This is the reason we have skyscrapers, the internet, and cheesecake.  But, it’s important to understand when you are being helped by someone and when you are dependent.

For those who are unfamiliar with computer programming, a good analogy would be to equate it to building something with Lego.  All the pieces are there, and you really only have a limited number of pieces, but the way you put them together makes a castle, a space ship, a monorail, or a jungle hut.  Coding is the similar.

When programming, you also rely very heavily on external services and code written by other people.  For web developers, there are Javascript frameworks like jQuery, Backbone, and Underscore (to name a few), and for HTML/CSS developers there is Bootstrap.  There are also plenty of hosting solutions that will store and run your code for you.  The value these services and frameworks offer is immense.  jQuery took hundreds of developers contributing over many years to get it to the state it is in today.  Developers are still working on it.

But all of these frameworks and services have pros and cons.  To be as useful as possible, these frameworks include a large amount of code that takes up space (and sometimes processing time) that your application may never use.

In code, and in life, I’ve found myself relying very heavily on certain services, and code.  Some riskier than others.  For example, if the jQuery foundation were to close up shop tomorrow, I’d still be able to use the code on my sites now, and it would remain relevant without updates for a few years to come.  But, there are certain retailers I purchase from, and service providers that I depend greatly on and spend quite a bit of money.  Are these businesses good in the long run?  In my quest to save a few dollars, am I potentially taking a job away from a neighbor?  Or, if Gmail decided to start charging for personal email (they won’t) would I have a plan to find another email service?

I recently switched from having an iPhone and a Mac (I still have a Macbook Air for my laptop), to having an Android phone and a Windows-based desktop.  The biggest change was that things were less integrated.  At first, it seemed a bad thing – an annoyance.  But, after I found a few pieces of software to address most of these issues, I actually realized it was a wonderful thing.  By separating out services, I now reduce the risk of catastrophic failure.  It’s the difference between pouring 10 glasses of water, and spilling one, or spilling the entire pitcher.

 

 

 

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500 Year Plan

Zen Digest

  • For everything you make, think about it’s affect on the future
  • The future will outlive you

The Whole Picture

Back in business school, I learned about W. Edwards Deming.  Back in the 1950s, he tried to woo US businesses with his strategy of Plan-Do-Study-Act (which is the basis of Six-Sigma for anyone who’s involved in project management).  American businesses – flush with great success following World War II didn’t take well to his ideas.  But, Japan, having been devastated by the war welcomed him as one of their own.  He revolutionized the Japanese industrial complex and is often credited with helping to make them the superpower they are today.  One of the things he learned while there and brought to his teachings was the concept of a 500 year business plan.

There are companies in Japan that are over 1000 years old.  Deming was fascinated by this and determined that it was very common for Japanese businesses to have a 500 year plan.  Something insane for an American business to determine when America was barely 300 years old.  While there was always a focus on both today and tomorrow, with a look into the deep future, these businesses were playing a strategic game of chess while others were playing checkers.

Science says we won’t live too much past 100.  Chances are, only a small percent of us living today will break the 100 mark (although, science often proves it’s prior self terribly wrong, and could create immortality, but for today, we’ll assume 100 is a reasonable cap).  So why have a 500 year plan?  The reason is – our children, our neighbors children, and our community will survive 500 years – if we make it part of our plan.

Technology is about creating and destroying.  Hopefully you’re destroying the things that are bad and unnecessary, while creating things that are good and create positive value.  But we always need to ask ourselves – what is the 500 year impact of my choice, and what are my 500 year goals.

Imagine a large coffee shop chain that was making a decision to overhaul the cups they give out with their beverages.  They could choose the cheap plastic non-recyclable cups, the slightly more expensive paper recyclable cups, or to ask all customers to use reusable cups (even more expensive).  If you are looking for quarterly results – the cheap cups will boost your profits.  But, when you look at the 1 year costs, the increased garbage, land use, and environmental impact of the cup creation, things start to add up.  Look out 5 years, and things are pretty messy.  20 years and it becomes a non-option.  Even looking at the recyclable cups, you realize that there is environmental impact from shipping the cups (which may take 5-20 years before the cost becomes a real factor).

The same goes with technology.  Do you upgrade your phone every year?  What do you think happens to your old phone?  Is your new phone environmentally friendly (let me answer that for you – no, it’s not.  If you have an iPhone, you should probably plant a few trees to offset the negative effects of it’s creation/disposal.  If you have a different smart phone, you should probably still plant a few trees, but maybe a tad less).

Every decision we make – from the cars we drive, the devices we use, to the software we write – will have an impact on the world around us.  Often it’s a mixture of positive and negative.  But, we should always ask – what is our 500 year goal, and will our actions today make that goal possible.

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Upcoming Book!

Zen Digest

  • I have a mini-guide (ebook) coming out soon
  • It’s “Stress Free Email”
  • Will be free for subscribers of this list (donations welcomed)
  • Price will be $4.99 – First week special of $1.99 – please help spread the word

The Whole Picture

One of my personal goals is to publish.  I work in the publishing industry, and I feel the best way to learn is to dive right in and experience it as both an insider and a cog in the machine.  My goal is to engage in different methods of publishing – self publishing, traditional publishing (were I get backed by a publisher) and non-traditional publishing (such as using this mailing list).  I’ve also created a small publisher named “Zen of Technology Institute” which will cover all Zen of Tech books I self-publish as well as other books of friends and family (do you have something that would be good to publish under Zen of Tech Institute?  Let me know!)

The difference between writing a book or mini-guide as opposed to writing for the mailing list is that concepts need to be coherent and the story needs to flow.  I wouldn’t dare just organize these emails into a book, slap a cover on it, and expect anyone to buy it.  Not that the content isn’t good, it’s that it lacks a story, it lacks glue holding it together.

Each mini-guide I produce will cover a single topic and tie things together.  Beyond the information I’ve provided here, I’ll provide additional context, and put forth information in a way that is more memorable and more enjoyable to read.  The guides – with few exceptions will be shore.  The first guide will come out July 15th and is “Stress Free Email.”  I will be providing it free to subscribers.  I will send you all a special link to download the ebook which will be active for 1 day.  Others will have to pay $4.99.  As an additional promotion, I’ll be offering it for $1.99 for the first week.  It will be available on every platform and DRM free.

If you have any requests for topics, please let me know!

Thank you for reading.

 

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Sex, Religion, and Politics

This is not a post about technology – but a post about humanity, doing what’s right, and making the world a better place.

I was taught – as I’m sure many others were – not to talk about sex (gender, or the act of love making), religion, or politics.  They are supposed to be taboos.  The reality is – if we don’t talk about those things, we are doomed to let those in power make decisions for us.  Just yesterday, the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of The United States) made a ruling that businesses can decide not to pay for contraceptives for women.  There has been much buzz and talk about this, so I hope to address a more wider issue (but it was this specific ruling that lead me to write this.)

Many of the people I look up to in life and in business are women.  Many of them have been open with me about the atrocities that women place in the workforce and on the streets.  I’ve always wanted to help, and while I believe I treat women equally in business and personal life, I don’t think that’s enough.  I’ve tried to engage in conversations – yet humorously enough, was told I was “mansplaining” things.  I guess a white male could never offer advice or perspective – or could I.

What not many people know about me is that I have a deep passion for business, ethics, politics, and social order.  Part of the reason I took such an interest in Taoism and Zen was my interest in learning about different cultures and religions when I was younger.  What’s great about history is that we can look back on it objectively.  We can dig into the ruling class – because none are still in power to reciprocate – and we can pity the unrepresented because we can distance ourselves from them.

The best means of control was education.  Keep people in the dark, and show them your light.  It’s much easier to accept the food that’s being spoon fed to you than to learn how to grow your own food – especially when there are others who may stomp on your crops for doing so.  Education is the key to freedom and equality.  Look how well it has done to advance society.  We have the internet, cell phones, irrigation systems, indoor plumbing, and netflix!  Truly we are a society of great achievements, but there are scientific gains based off scientific education – we still lack the ethical and moral education.

Education comes from freely, calmly, and openly engaging in conversation.  Science discoveries aren’t made from scientists screaming back and forth about the right way to do things, they happen when scientists work together and come up with hypothesis and test them over and over.  In science we can be proved wrong, change our knowledge and that is seen as a good thing – but why is a change in moral compass bad?  We chastise a political candidate for agreeing with something one day then disagreeing the next.  If there is sound logic for his or her change, we should celebrate that.

For a long time, I’ve wondered what I can do to help promote equality.  Every politician who’s mailing list I’m on tells me that I can help them by donating $5 or more.  But, I’d rather put my money where my mouth is.  Supporting a candidate or cause with money is fine (and scientific causes that need research money need your money more than your mouth :)), but social causes need your words.  Open up a dialog with your friends and your family.  Discuss politics.  Discuss gender equality.  Discuss religion.  Remember that a discussion is two ways.  Starting out by telling a person how they feel is wrong is not the right way to start a discussion.

Ask them their opinion, and why they feel that way.  Personalize things and ask if they have ever been discriminated or have discriminated others.  Talk about their views on local and global politics.  What’s their feelings on guns?  War overseas?  Immigration?  Some of these conversations may not be easy, but they are important.  Many beliefs are imbued on to us – a person of authority (religious figure, parent, mentor) told us we needed to feel a certain way or think a certain thing, therefore we do.  Until we actively question it in ourselves, we cannot possibly change our view.

Education takes time, patience, and persistence, but it is worth it.  Imagine a world where science stopped learning in the 1900s.  We’d be dealing with a serious horse manure problem, that’s for sure.  The reality is, we learn from our friends and our loved ones as well as people in authority.  But, if the only ones speaking are those in authority, we are letting the voices of few control the minds of the masses.  Only when we learn to approach those taboo subjects and have open dialogue can we hope to create a more educated and respectful populous.

Thank you.

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DIY or Maker?

Zen Digest

  • Be a Maker – focus on creation, collaboration, and the process of making.
  • Listen, interact, and give back to the maker community.

The Whole Picture

The use of DIY (Do It Yourself) started as early as 1910s and was commonplace in the 1950s.  It is associated with many things, from home improvement projects, crafts, and technology.  It has centered around making yourself the primary doer – the one who buys the parts, puts them together, and does the work without the aid of a professional or expert.  Lately, there has been another movement in a similar jest called the maker movement.  While communities have been created around the DIY space, the maker movement has been built and centered around communities which aids creativity, education, and success.

Back in 1995, I discovered something called BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems).  It was something like a pre-internet internet.  You would use your computer to dial in to another computer from which you could send email, play games, write messages on a message board, and if the BBS had multiple lines (which few did) – chat.  It was here that I met a bunch of individuals who were the DIY types with computers – they built their own machines, wrote their own software, etc.

What always struck me as funny, is that while it was called Do It Yourself so many people were there as a support group.  You were never alone in a project, and learning was a collaboration.  You would write a bit of code, post it, others would comment or post changes, and you’d learn from that.  It was like collectively solving a puzzle, where working together cut the time-to-solve ten-fold.

DIY is like looking at history and giving Thomas Edison credit for every patent he put his name on and not crediting the hundreds of workers in his lab.  Additionally, by assuming you have to do something alone (be it a new project, or learning a new skill) is a terribly limiting thing.  The internet has enabled millions of different communities to exist on any and all topics.  Use those communities to bolster your skillset and give back to those communities.

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Checkpoint

Zen Digest

  • Every month or two, have a checkpoint to reassess priorities, schedule, and habits
  • Haven’t had a checkpoint in a while (or ever?), do it today!

The Whole Picture

By nature, I’m a pretty scatterbrained person.  If thrown off my schedule, priorities, etc, I’d end up only doing the most important few things, and letting other things fall.  Beyond that, after a day of working on the most critical item, chances are I would have lots of difficulty finding motivation getting anything else done.  Oddly, I’d be perfectly contented being that way (in fact, it’s in my nature).  I wouldn’t be very productive, and that would also put a pretty big burden on those around me.  Despite this chaos, I actually perform very well with a schedule.  If I have a regular sleep time, wake time, meal times, etc, I tend to sleep better, feel better, and am ultimately more productive…  But, no matter how good of a schedule I get on, life always has a way of throwing that out the window.

In comes the reset button.  In highschool, a friend of mine used to tell me that when she was upset, she would sit down and press her reset button (when recounting the lesson, she would point to her nose).  Once she was reset, she could start from square one and figure out where to go.  I’ve always used that advice whenever I was feeling unmotivated.

I recently had to do this as my schedule got thrown off for a bunch of reasons.  I started with the basic – I set an alarm so I wake up at the same time every day (a little early) and with the weather getting nicer, I’ve decided to take a walk every morning to get some exercise.  Additionally my list of things to remember/do at work as well as at home was getting long (again, making it hard for me to get motivated to get it all done) so I’m currently going through an exercise to create a paper list of everything I need to do, and prioritizing and giving myself goals of eliminating a few tasks every day.

I’ll scramble for a few days, and often that leads to super-productivity until I get into a good rhythm and things will be smooth sailing.  But, one day, things will get crazy again, but, I will just reset and that is ok.

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