Who has the right to control your attention? I ask because a friend pointed me to this Bloomberg article claiming that we will soon tire of the trendy group chat applications (namely Slack) and find them just as burdensome as email. I couldn’t disagree more. That opening question is what sets Slack and similar apps apart from email and ultimately makes them so valuable.

Many of the most successful technologies of the early 21st century have been about wresting control of our attention from the mass media broadcasters of the 20th century and returning that control to individuals. DVRs then YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Pandora and Spotify, indeed the web itself and the rising use of ad blockers all empower users with fine-grain control of how their limited attention gets spent.

But one-to-one communication tools haven’t seen the same advancement. We make allowances for phone calls and emails because this type of communication requires that we give control of our attention to others. When the interruptions from these tools are few and far between, it’s easy enough to handle the distraction and return to the original task.

Unfortunately, many have taken advantage of this situation to outright steal our attention. Telemarketing and spam infuriate us because they interrupt us, yes, but also because we have such impotent mechanisms for protecting ourselves from them. We’ve applied fix after fix to make sure we only give our attention to those who actually deserve it. But caller ID, do-not-call lists, custom ringtones, visual voicemail, spam filters, message priority, mailbox rules, and VIP lists are just bandaids that don’t address the core issue: these tools were built without any real protection from attention theft. Telemarketing and spam are the most egregious examples, but we encounter varying degrees of this type distraction all the time. Whether it’s the over-sharing grandmother or the company-wide birthday emails, lengthy voicemails or reply-all storms, despite our best efforts we can’t eliminate these low quality messages because there might be something important mixed in with the mess.

This is the power of Slack: it’s a communication tool that puts control squarely in the hands of message recipients. Don’t want to be interrupted for all-hands announcements? Mute the #general channel. Don’t want to be bothered by cat videos? Don’t subscribe to the #cat-videos channel. Want to be notified every time someone mentions pandas? Add panda to your Highlight Words. Slack gives every user the tools they need to protect their attention from those who would steal it for unimportant gifs, redundant announcements, and yesterday’s news. The burden is placed on message senders to appropriately categorize their messages and the transparency of Slack channels makes it easy to see who isn’t following the rules. Is Slack perfect? No. It’s a new enough tool that there are many rough edges and unanswered questions about etiquette. One of those questions: is it appropriate to invite people to a channel without their consent? And Slack’s relatively new group messaging feature (private messages between up to 8 people) strikes me as a regression that allows message senders to bypass channels and notification settings all too easily.

Despite some shortcomings, Slack is an excellent step forward and has many other awesome features (emoji reactions are a favorite of mine). The fact that Slack protects the scarce resource that is my attention is what makes me an avid user of the product and a huge fan. Thanks for your attention.


Becoming Steve Jobs

I never wrote my standard blurb about the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. It just didn’t seem worth it. The book was a huge letdown: at one level, lacking insight in its analysis of the life of Steve Jobs and on another level, it felt somehow pedestrian, telling the personal story of an interesting person, but never getting around to the impact of his universe-denting achievements.

In contrast, Becoming Steve Jobs is definitely worth spending a few sentences on. It’s by no means perfect, but the business-oriented perspective of the authors (authors who, it’s worth noting, have more than a superficial understanding of computers) enable a depth of analysis that make it clear just how exceptional Steve Jobs was.

What made Steve Jobs exceptional? I certainly don’t presume to be able to distill the nuance of Steve Jobs into bite-sized bullet points, but my take-aways from the book were:

(1) Clarity of vision — Steve Jobs recognized the future when he saw it and managed to put all of his energy into realizing that future. He also had incredibly discerning tastes, reveared quality, and never settled. That restless need to build and improve can only happen when you see flaws clearly.

(2) Persistence — in tackling problems and facing challenges he seems to have had an unmatchable drive that enabled him to acheive his goals. The ultimate success of Pixar and the acquisition of Next by Apple strike me as prime examples of Steve Jobs persisting in the face of adversity and enduring where others would have wilted.

(3) Willingness to change his mind — in some ways this contradicts point 2, but it’s also how he acheived point 1, he was able to cast asside beliefs and pet projects in the face of new information and better ideas. The shift from iMovie to iTunes as well as the eventual creation of iTunes for Windows and the ultimate decision to allow third party apps for the iPhone all showed that despite Jobs’ strong opinions, his mind could be changed and he wasn’t always correct from the outset.

Intriguingly, the thing still missing is how the hell Steve managed to motiviate so many people to do their best work. That strikes me as the still unaddressed and maybe impossible to understand aspect of Steve Jobs’ career. Ultimately this strikes me as the single most important factor that enabled him to acheive his success. From Woz, to the Macintosh team, to the entire organization at Next, and even his dealings with Pixar, he had a sort of Midas touch for getting the most out of people. Perhaps it was the combination of the 3 points above that resulted in a devoted following or simply (not simply) some element of charisma and character.

In many instances, this was also a sort of anti-Midas touch: there were numerous examples of his personality rubbing people the wrong way (indeed this is the oft-cited narrative of a cantankerous genius who merely stole his success).

But history is pretty clear: Steve Jobs made several significant dents in the universe. None of that would have been possible without a team of talented individuals rallied around their fearless leader.



Irrespective of how you pronounce the title of this novel, Daemon tells the story of a near future distopia where AI runs amuck. It’s light-weight but engaging and you can probably finish it in a weekend despite its length (I read so much dense nonfiction that I forget how quickly time passes while reading an engaging novel). Okay, so the plot will hold your attention, but is it believable? Without giving too much away, there appears to be a computer program reaching into the real world from the virtual world and causing real harm to real people. The fundamental problem I have with this premise is that the apparent artifical intelligence runs without bugs and requires zero human intervention or support. In fact, it may have been designed by just a handful of people and set loose on the Internet. And in what seems like an incredibly short amount of time, it has developed an entire supply chain that employs human automatons who, with plans from the AI, have constructed an entire army complete with robotic cars and advanced weaponry.

The idea that just a handful of individuals could build such a robust application, in secret, with such a vast scope of capabilities strikes me as preposterous. Furthermore, even if such an AI could eventually be developed, the idea that such a system would somehow subvert all of the technological security mechanisms currently deployed on the Internet pushes me well past my ability to suspend disbelief.

There’s a bunch of disappointing stuff about character development and protagnosists as well, but I’ll leave that conversation out since it gives too much away. All of that said, I’m still going to read the sequel. On to Freedom™.



I’ve never really thought about how we, as a society, have used computers to aid learning. What makes learning with computers better than learning from a book or a lecture? It turns out, nothing. We’ve been doing it all wrong. The tradition of deploying computers to schools and classrooms as digital textbooks and interactive testing machines hasn’t produced dramatically better outcomes. Sure, early exposure to computers has produced students better prepared to enter the workforce as “knowledge workers” and spend 8 hours a day manipulating digital interfaces. But, at a very fundamental level, the model of educating alongside computers has missed an enormous opportunity.

Mindstorms is more than 30 years old, but the ideas and concepts are more relevant than ever. Particularly in light of the recent push to make programming the new literacy, Mindstorms explains why programming is not merely career preperation for the 21st century, but rather an amazing tool that teaches us how to learn. One specific aspect of programming described in the book that is also integral to our learning process is the idea of debugging.

Debugging is an essential part of programming computers and our natural learning ability yet it remains a concept mostly omitted from traditional education. Debugging allows developers and learners alike to methodically approach the correct solution to a problem by proposing and testing answers that are less and less wrong. Traditional education, however, depends on toxic absolutism: answers are either right or they are wrong. On a test you might get credit for showing your work, but there’s no opportunity for instant real-time feedback that might allow you to better understand where you went wrong. This is the power of debugging: instant feedback that leads to a virtous cycle of analysis, adjustment and understanding.

Overall, a great book that convincingly explains how much greater an impact computers could have in education. The proposed learning methodologies aren’t all that controversial, actually, it's the idea that we need to undertake a significant overhaul to the education system in order to put those methodologies in place that would be contentious. Indeed, in one example shared in Mindstorms, the power of programming depended on a dramatic role reversal: the teacher stepped down from being the keeper of knowledge to become another learner, debugging alongside the students.

On a tangential but related note, check out the work of Bret Victor. His work on creating tools that help us understand is simply amazing and it was his call to action that got me reading Mindstorms in the first place.


The Master Switch

I really enjoyed this book from Tim Wu. It worked especially well as a follow-up to The Idea Factory in that Wu presents a much darker side to Bell Telephone’s unprecedented monopoly. Wu recognizes that Bell was a source for an enormous amount of innovation, but is appropriately critical of the many instances where innovation was squelched in the interest of maintaining the Bell monopoly.

The Bell example is just one of several prominent “information empires,” industries built around products and services the control the creation and distribution of information. Movies, radio, and television are each discussed with strong examples showing how these businesses and technologies fit into Wu’s big idea: The Cycle. Wu explains that every technology built to distribute information goes through a cycle of great openness at the early stages that reverts to massive consolidation as the technology matures.

Wu’s discussion of the Internet and Net Neutrality is both timely and prescient. At the moment, the Internet appears to be at an inflection point in The Cycle: ahead lies more consolidation and control by the major ISPs like Comcast. If the history of information empires plays out again as it has in the past, the Internet of the next 20 years will be far different from what we know today.

Highly recommend.

The Early History Of Smalltalk

Reading about the invention of object oriented programming feels a bit like reading about the invention of the wheel. Not that I’ve read anything about the invention of the wheel, but of course that’s because I take the wheel for granted. I guess OOP sometimes feels like the programming equivalent of the wheel: I suppose I’ve also taken object oriented programming for granted. To be reminded of the fact that someone had to sit down and develop the kernel of that idea and see it through into useable system was refreshing and a little frightening. 

An engineering education requires reading a huge amount of technical literature but very little of what’s read is a first-person historical narrative and that made reading Alan Kay’s account of Smalltalk’s development particularly engaging. A strange byproduct of the technology industry’s rapid pace of advancement is that we rarely have time or inclination to read historical technical documents. We never seem to devote time to the process of how the technologies we use were developed. 


Getting Real

Getting Real is a bit of a classic in the software startup world and as a quick read, it was useful and encouraging. Useful in that the 37signals crew provide numerous specific recommendations for how to build software quickly and in a way that results in a high quality product. The encouraging elements were those recommendations that we’ve already been pursuing on projects at work. That said, while I enjoyed the to-the-point style of the writing, overall I felt that many of the book’s key messages were spoiled by contradictions.

On the one hand they advocate for diving right in to building your product and not to bother with a specification because, “Functional specs are just words on paper,” but then explain how you should start with pen and paper mockups for your design because, “A paper sketch is cheap and easy to change.” Well, a sketch is just lines on paper, so what makes that okay but not a spec? The value of both tools is that they’re cheap and easy to change (unlike the code that will eventually get written to fulfill them).

The other big contradiction is the 37signals quest for simplicity. They recommend keeping products minimal in the interest of code simplicity, but this is the company that built and open-sourced an entire web-development framework from scratch using a relatively obscure language. The complexity of that development has paid off, but that seems like a risky bet for a majority of developers. Surely, working within the limitations of an existing framework would be simpler than trying to build one from the ground up. Of course, someone has to push the limits of what’s available otherwise there’s no progress.

Ultimately, I think the book could be a bit more balanced rather than promoting so many absolutes—some of which are contradictory. Alas, the confidence of “do it this way” is a lot sexier than “you might find success with this method that we used.”

(Free PDF!)