On July 13, 2012, Alex Okrent died from a heart attack. I didn't know him personally, but we both worked on President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, and I was in the office the day he collapsed. He was only 29.
Many readers of this blog don't know about this part of my life yet. After starting a second company, I wasn't getting enough traction in a few things I had been experimenting with. In the middle of starting a new project, a friend of mine, Harper Reed, CTO of Obama for America, asked if I could put things on pause briefly and help with the campaign. There were a bunch of reasons to consider it. But even selfishly, I realized it was probably a good idea for me and my fledgling business to meet some new folks to collaborate with as well as see some more real world problems organizations and people are having that I could solve after the campaign. I've been in a pretty small bubble for awhile working on Inkling.
So I took an unpaid leave of absence from my company of one and joined the Tech team at Obama for America.
There's a great many things I'll remember from working on the campaign.
Most having nothing to do with politics.
Or the moment when he signed his name right above mine on the Technology group's sign that hung above our desks:
But the most poignant memory, the most indelible experience, was when Alex passed away.
A couple years ago I got a new iPhone. It was a pleasant upgrade. The phone was gorgeous as usual. Two panes of glass held together by a ribbon of metal. But because of all this glass on it, I realized it was pretty slippery.
There were a few weeks of near screen fracturing accidents where the phone would slide right out of a sweaty hand when I pulled it from my pocket. Or someone would send me a ton of text messages causing the phone to vibrate itself right off a table.
So I finally bought one of those cases that fit snugly around the phone to give it some more protection and additional friction.
It worked great. Then, one day this summer, a corner of the case got bent backwards and cracked off. I still continued to use my phone with its broken case for awhile. But the corner kept snagging my pants and became too much trouble. So I took off the case and tried to use my naked iPhone again.
What I started to notice was how much care I started to take with my phone.
I'll delicately remove it from my pocket so I don't accidentally throw it across the room now. I'll make sure to place it in locations where it won't slide itself off a table on its lonesome again. I'll make sure not to put it in the same pocket as my keys so nothing gets scratched.
It is after all something like $500 to replace. Right?
It's the most valuable thing I carry around with me. I don't wear $500 of clothes and shoes including all the other stuff in my pockets.
But what's crazy is, as I look at all this care and attention I spend on this phone, I can't help find myself now asking:
Do I spend this kind of time and attention caring for myself or the people in my life that I obviously love infinitely more than this electronic device?
Am I taking enough care of my body?
Am I taking care of my knees? As my mother in law with two recent knee transplants would attest, those are some pretty valuable tools to walking that can grossly deteriorate later in life, but I take for granted today.
Am I taking care of my brain? Am I sleeping enough? Am I drinking alcohol too often?
Am I taking care of my heart? Am I eating well? Am I working out enough?
Am I working on things a future me will be proud of or am I wasting time and missing opportunities I'll regret because I spent too much time waiting for something.
Am I living with too much stress? Too much pessimism?
Am I spending enough time with the people I care about?
Am I taking care of life better than I'm taking care of this fucking iPhone?
And so Alex has me trying to answer these questions more often with better answers.
I've become a walking superfood. I eat my weight in spinach and broccoli every week. At least one giant salad of superfoods for breakfast and another for lunch. I try and drink a half liter of green tea each day. More fish.
I exercise almost every single day.
I signed up for a class to learn CPR and how to use a defibrillator, a word I still can barely pronounce. I refuse to be powerless if a tragedy likes this strikes again and I'm there to try and help.
I've started writing down 3 things each day that were awesome. Life can be insanely difficult and confusing. But forcing myself to find some things to be grateful for is constantly eye opening to how blessed I am and encourages me to be more optimistic.
I know I can't fully control my health and what fate has in store for me, but I can be damn sure I've tried my hardest to stay healthy and given myself as long of a chance as I can to spend time with and help others.
I cringe at sharing these words. I've rewritten this post on paper and in my head a dozen times. Nothing seems to be able to fully process and articulate what happened and Alex's impact on this world. But I wanted to try to open a tiny window on how he's affected me in case it inspires someone else.
Alex Okrent lived an extremely full life working on things he believed in a great deal. He's been working on Barack Obama's campaigns for a decade. He has helped and inspired more people in 29 years than most folks will do their entire lives. From stories that have been shared, he was an awesome friend, a great brother, a son his parents were very proud of.
I didn't get to know Alex personally. But he's had a profound impact on my life. I got a dose of how short life really is and I hope I can use this to keep me pointed in the right direction.
I'll never forget him.
You should get to know a bit more about Alex. You can start at a site dedicated to raising a grant in his name that will support students at Alex's alma mater who are working as Alex did. To make this world more awesome.
Tillman has been gaining more and more fame lately. A big reason for that is his continual record breaking ability to create turnovers from the opposing team, which he still accomplishes at the age of 31 when the average career of a cornerback is just 3 years.
The article was interesting because it opened my eyes to how inspiring this guy's work ethic and values are to folks who have nothing to do with sports.
A couple great bits:
“He 'sucks' in practice early in the week”
Tillman forces himself to find a new peak each week. He and his coaches place him in situations where he's losing and screwing up in practice early in the week. He uses these moments as opportunities to get better each practice session until he's winning again. And then he keeps the cycle going.
To get better, to be better, to be awesome, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We need to make those moments of suckiness opportunities to improve, not opportunities to sulk, feel sorry for ourselves, or complain to our friends about how we don't get anywhere with anything.
Tillman is a tremendous example of getting good by constantly putting himself in situations where he's not that good. Yet.
“I speak it. I believe it. I practice it. It happens.”
You can see in Tillman's interview that he has a deep belief that he'll accomplish whatever he believes he can accomplish.
Over 6 years ago I attended the first Startup School. It was a one day conference hosted by Y Combinator, the folks who turned out to be the investors in the first company I co-founded, Inkling.
The conference was great, but it wasn't the speakers or other attendees that I remember most. The thing I remember most was the fact that I ditched the opportunity to network with other folks at lunch, and went to the Harvard Book Store and bought a book on positive psychology. I devoured the book that same night.
The principles I learned about optimism and visualization were instrumental in accomplishing things I needed to help get Inkling started and to keep going when things were really rough. When you're in month 6 and there isn't enough income or any investment money still in sight to pay some kind of salary for you and your partner (which is the de facto standard for most small businesses getting started), it feels awful and scary. Believing you can get through it is one huge part to actually getting through it.
This isn't some “The universe will obey you, if you just think about it and lay on the couch” garbage. It's the pure fact, that there are so many negative things nibbling away at you accomplishing things in this life. Critics. Friends who don't believe in you. Cash flow. Fickle clients.
Having a method to improve the way you look at yourself and your chances of accomplishing things while you work your ass off is critical to keep going.
There's some other coincidental lessons I've been observing from Tillman recently.
His priority is team above himself
Tillman injured his ankle in the Bear's game last Sunday, which kept him from playing in the second half.
What I often see from players in that position is someone sulking on the sidelines. Maybe staying suited in uniform, and providing an enthusiastic holler if the team does well, but that's about it for participation.
In this case, there was Tillman passionately coaching his teammates while he stood on the sideline injured. You could see him flashing signs to players on the field or giving talks on strategy to others on the bench.
Tillman appears to have figured out that the Bear's winning takes priority over his own chance to play. Even if he's out of commission he finds a way to keep contributing.
But family first
Tillman had another chance recently to show how his priorities are set.
Tillman's wife was expecting a baby on November 11. Problem was that's a game day. Tillman announced he may miss the game if his daughter was born that day.
The announcement sparked a bunch of controversy as you might imagine.
However you want to feel about Tillman's decision, he made his priorities clear. The team is very important to him, but his family remains on top.
That's a decision I know more of us could emulate.
Go Bears! :)
P.S. Who's been inspiring you recently? You could let me know on Twitter: here.
If you're in Chicago and find yourself wanting to share a meal today with some new friends, this was a neat event that's coming to Chicago today from The Laugh Factory.
Our yearly tradition of serving over 2000 turkey dinners along with good spirited comedy performances to the people of Los Angeles comes for the first time to Chicago! The eclectic crowd of Thanksgiving guests include struggling actors, comedians, writers, artisans, & craftspeople of all kinds, old time Chicagoans, newcomers far from home, & anyone who needs a good meal & a family to share it with.
A few months ago, my wife told me something about, “I saw you liked Nest on Facebook.”
“Oh, yeah. The thermostat. I guess?” I told her. When the Nest thermostat first came out it seemed like a pretty neat and innovative idea. I didn't have one myself, or any plans to buy one immediately, but I thought it might be a decent idea to “Like” their Facebook page. After all a like goes into my Facebook stream or the streams of my friends, and helps spread the word that I thought this was kind of cool. Also, liking the page will allow for some Nest news to end up in my timeline so I can follow these folks and the cool stuff they're working on.
But what's weird is that my wife is telling me this now. I think I liked the Nest Facebook page maybe an entire year ago? Whatever. I brushed it off.
Then a month later, my wife tells me I liked the Nest page again. Huh. That's weirder. I brushed it off again. I'm sure it's just some banner ad thing and maybe my name is next to it. No big deal. Ads are everywhere. But I'm sure it's got some border around it and it's easy to ignore.
Then a few weeks ago, my wife tells me “You sure do like Nest.” Ok. WTF? This is becoming annoying for her and for me. I don't even have a Nest product. Liking their page was just a way for me to spread the word a bit, not keep putting “Nest. Nest. Nest” at the top of my wife's Facebook feed in such a way she can't even discern it from stuff I'm actually sharing or liking that I do want her to see today.
So I found that damn Nest Facebook page and unliked it. Sorry Nest.
But then a couple weeks ago I get this Facebook message:
Hey buddy- final days of the campaign- hope you are holding up okay-
I got a notification on FB that you liked a Visa Signature page. I thought that was odd. I assume this was not your idea. Not sure how these things pop up.
Jesus Fucking Christ. Enough with this shit, Facebook.
I remember liking the Visa Signature page over a year ago because they had some contest going on or something and I could enter the contest by liking the page. I was actually experimenting with how these “like gates”, as they're called, work because for my own company we were also playing with creating tools to encourage people to like someone's Facebook page.
I had no intention to continue to spam the top of my friends Facebook feeds with news about the Visa Signature card over a year later.
This has to stop. There has to be a setting to turn this shit off. Took a bunch of clicks to find it, but I finally found something that says “Social ads show an advertiser's message alongside actions you have taken, such as liking a Page”. Sounds about right.
I understand Facebook's need to generate advertising revenue.
But there is a line that's been crossed here.
Let's look at Gmail. Google has all my account info and address book information. Google also knows me very well right now. What if tomorrow Google decided to send everyone in my address book a message like “Nathan likes McDonalds.” So when my friends wake up in the morning, there, in their email inbox is a message from me, Nathan Kontny. Saying “I like McDonald's. Go get yourself some nuggets.”
I mean, it's true. I really do like McDonalds. I love it. :)
But no one would use Gmail anymore if they kept spamming our friend's inboxes with these notes sent on our behalf that we didn't even send.
But that's exactly what's happening at Facebook today.
Facebook and Twitter streams have replaced many people's inboxes. I don't send my friends an email with a link to a blog post anymore. I put it on Facebook for them to see in their Facebook “inbox”.
It used to be bad enough when you'd get to a website and had to put in your email address to get the content or thing behind the website. At least then, the only one to suffer was you, if the company behind the website sent you more email than you wanted. But now?
Just by liking the damn page, you let Facebook spam the shit out of your friends on your behalf.
Facebook, this has gone way too far. Because most people can't tell the difference between what I really “like” or post to my Facebook stream and what's total bullshit, I look like an asshole who's constantly pushing my friends to buy a Nest thermostat or a new credit card.
I mean. I can't get every single person I know to read my occasional blog post every single time I write one. But I don't turn around and email them every single week a link to the same blog post. Over and over and over again. So why would I want Facebook doing that with other items I care about so much less?
So I'm done with liking stuff. I've hopefully turned off the setting to these ads. But I'll never like someone's Facebook page ever again. I still will probably like the occasional photo or link a friend shares, but I'm even wary of doing that now.
Which kind of sucks. I wouldn't mind getting an update from Nest about what they're working on, etc. Liking a Facebook page used to be the way to accomplish that. But now it's been completely twisted. I hope Facebook can innovate from this.
I'd even gladly pay a fee to use Facebook if I could get rid of the advertising and ensure my friends weren't spammed with junk I did on there.
A couple weeks ago, the hip-hop artist Macklemore released an album, The Heist, containing the song 10000 hours.
I've been a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author of a few popular books you've probably read or at least heard of. Things like The Tipping Point or Outliers.
In Outliers Gladwell makes readers aware of the “10000 hour” rule. It's not a rule he invented, and it's more like a “rule of thumb”.
If you want to be great at something, it's probably going to take 10000 hours of practice.
So it was neat to see the 10000 hour rule, Gladwell and a few other names of people whose work is important to me inscribed in a song which describes some of the struggle that went into Macklemore's career and creating the album this song is on.
Even if Macklemore isn't your music of choice, it's still pretty damn cool to see a song inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's work.
Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) is also a real interesting guy. This bit in his bio on Wikipedia struck me:
Interested in reaching a younger generation through his music, he took a job at a juvenile-detention facility.
That seems to be a very innovative way for an artist today to reach new fans and spread a message: getting sober, homophobia, and not the least of which is.
See, I observed Escher
I loved Basquiat
I watched Keith Haring
You see, I study art
The greats weren't great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great because they paint a lot.
The other day walking to the office I spotted this.
I hadn't quite seen something like that before. A truck that has a retractable, accordion-like body that entirely collapses. Seemingly to be able to get at that cargo from every direction you possibly can.
Sounds like a very useful thing even for trucks in smaller sizes like home moving trucks. I've used a moving truck a few times, and the back of the truck isn't always the most convenient place.
For example, the back of the truck sometimes seems to slow people like professional movers down. If you've ever watched a truck being unloaded, there's often a guy waiting outside the truck while others are occupying the back unloading a piece of furniture. It seems interesting what would happen if you removed that choke point and gave movers the ability to get stuff off the truck from all sides.
What's also interesting to me is how difficult it was to find the words people use to describe this truck trailer tarp system online. I fancy myself as being pretty damn good with the Google, and yet it took me about 15 minutes to figure out that people call these things: rolling or retractable tarp systems for trucks. Phrases like accordion/foldable/collapsible semi truck got me nowhere.
A few months ago I blogged about a problem I was having with busting the http caching Rails does. That post had a pretty naive solution, and I wanted to provide an update to raise a bit more awareness of the problem and a better solution.
First, I'm a bit surprised that this isn't a problem folks are talking more about.
The basic gist of the problem is: when you use Rails http caching using something like fresh_when in your controllers, simply deploying your application will break the styling of your application for anyone who has one of your pages already http cached. Let me show you what I mean with a super simple application.
All this application does is render a simple view, and makes sure to set an etag.
class WelcomeController < ApplicationController
In your app the fresh_when likely wraps around an object and uses its updated_at timestamp. And here's what my view looks like after it's been rendered in my browser for a second time.
Notice the 304s that get sent back to my browser for the index action as well as the application.css file it depends on.
Next, let me simulate what a deploy would do. First I change one of my css files to make the body purple. Then I'll delete any old precompiled css files since many deployments (especially on Heroku) don't keep the old files around, I precompile the assets again, and restart my app.
Huh. All my styling is broken. The web inspector says that Rails sends a 304 to the browser requesting the index action, so the browser is using a cached version of the page. However that cached version of the page uses an application.css file that doesn't exist anymore. Even if that old application.css file did exist it would be serving up a grey version instead of the correct purple version that is required.
In real life, this problem won't resolve itself until the updated_at timestamp gets touched on the object my etag is based on.
This is a big pain.
In my previous post I ended up setting the ENV[“RAILS_CACHE_ID”] to a value that changes on deploys. I used Time.now which is a bad idea in deployment environments that use multiple servers/nodes since each server will then have a different RAILS_CACHE_ID and generating different cache keys just based on which server got the request.
Another reason this wasn't a great solution is that all your cache keys depend on ENV[“RAILS_CACHE_ID”], so you'll be invalidating things like your fragment caches which is an awful performance compromise in order to just restart your application.
I've created a gem that adds a new environment variable you can set:
With this gem, that variable gets appended to the stuff Rails uses to generate its etags. If you use that variable in an initializer file and have it change on each deployment you'll get busted http caches.
For example, here's what I could do if I deploy to Heroku. I'll create a bust_cache.rb initializer:
That little bit uses the Heroku api to sniff what the current release version is. And uses that as the ETAG_VERSION_ID. Now on every Heroku deploy ETAG_VERSION_ID will change, and your old etags will be invalidated.
Hope this helps some folks who might be having trouble with http caching. Of course, please let me know if you need any help using it or see any problems.
P.S. I'd be incredibly thrilled to meet you on Twitter: here
I'm always very intrigued by what the people who inspire me read. So I scour the internet to find hints of what books guys like Marco Arment, Jason Fried or Notch might be reading.
I'd also be very interested in seeing a Twitter news stream like they see it. Who's inspiring them today? What bits of information are they glancing at that I might have missed in my own stream?
Twitter used to make this easy to do. There was a feature to read someone else's Twitter stream. No more apparently.
However. Twitter publishes not just the people that follow someone, but everybody they follow. Their “followees”.
And there are lists. Twitter lists allow you to read a different news stream that's just made up of tweets from people in that list. So I can go through the followees of someone and add each of them to a list.
The problem is that it's a shit-ton of clicking to add each and every person Notch is following into my own list.
All it does is ask you for a Twitter username of someone who inspires you. Then it goes to Twitter and asks you for the right permissions (it needs 'write' permissions to create a private list for you), and then it simply creates a private list and adds 100 of that person's followees to the list.
That's it. You can get the source code if you want here. It's just a super simple Rails app of which the core functionality took about 20 minutes to write. If you have any ideas on making this more useful please feel free to let me know on Twitter for Github.
P.S. I'd be incredibly thrilled to meet you on Twitter: here
“What the f#*$ are carrot jeans?” I asked myself while looking online recently.
Ah I get it. I guess they look like these.
They make your legs look like carrots. Huh.
Reminds me of something.
About 15 years ago I was sitting around a dorm room chatting with a friend of mine about a concept.
Why can't pants be square?
If you can't imagine what I'm talking about, let me explain.
Pants traditionally make your legs look a lot like cylinders. That's because the material wraps around your leg in a circle. But who's to say it can't be a square.
What if you could wear pants that made your legs look a bit more like Gumby? (Spongebob wasn't a thing anyone knew about yet.)
I loved the idea. I thought about it constantly and talked to everyone I knew about it.
I remember telling a friend of my mother's who's awesome at sewing. She listened to the concept and laughed. But she did throw out some ideas on how maybe we could use things like material glue to stiffen the legs to maintain their shape. She said she'd make some time to help me create these pants.
That time never materialized. So more time passed. And square pants remained just an idea.
Until one day a year later I met a fellow student who liked to make her own clothes. She was willing to spend some time with me over our Christmas break to make some square pants.
Finally we made something. A prototype.
We ended up using straws in the leg bottoms to get them to keep a square shape. But as I walked the square straw bottoms would bang into each other and the legs would twist. I'd have corkscrew legs.
The straws weren't going to work. I took them out. And in the end this is what I ended up with.
Yes, they look pretty ridiculous.
They turned out quite different then what I thought they'd look like. But they did turn out to look awesome at a rave or Halloween. Just not for real life.
But I'm pretty proud of these damn pants.
They taught me all sorts of lessons. Some I acknowledged at the time, and some I only realize now as I think back about them.
They taught me things like how hard it is to depend solely on others to turn your ideas into a reality. How terrible a place it is to be where you have an idea, but don't have any of the resources to fabricate that idea. You can imagine that's helped me make sure I learn the things I need to learn in order to get things accomplished. I take classes. I read books. I learn a great deal about many things I'm not very good at to start with. Not because I want to exclude other people from helping me. But because if I can't find or afford someone to help, I really, really don't want to be stuck.
Those square pants taught me an idea isn't worth much unless it's executed on. And even then, the first execution is probably going to be terrible. But that first prototype does amazing things. You see the problems your idea is going to have in real life. You start to realize if this is even a project you'd enjoy doing long term. “Long term” being the likely amount of time to actually make something worthy out of an idea.
Most importantly those square pants taught me that the first prototype is actually often a lot easier to accomplish than I first imagined. When you're talking about an idea, a lot of us feel that it's going to take insane amounts of effort to even get started. The truth is that a first prototype often isn't as much work as you'd think. It turns out that actually turning an idea into a business is more work than you'd imagine, but getting started and getting some initial momentum is a place most people seem to get stuck, but really shouldn't be.
So when people ask me for advice about getting started with their idea, it often simply comes down to this.
Stop talking to me about your idea.
Start putting little pieces together to get something, anything, accomplished.
It's probably going to look ridiculous. You might even be sick of the idea by the end of it. What you will have though is a body of work you can continue to learn from and give you momentum to keep going or launch a new project. But you won't have any regrets.
Go out and make your own square pants.
P.S. I'd be incredibly thrilled to meet you on Twitter: here