1 hour meeting or 1 summary email

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As soon as I disconnect from a conference call, my mind goes blank. "What was the call about?" In a pandemic, it has become the popular/fun way of communicating for companies. The idea of a group of people all communicating together in a call is a technological feat. But when it comes to practicality, it is a mess.

With a video feed of each member of the team, you can see people popping in and out, muting and un-muting, connecting and disconnecting. It's easy to zone out when one person is talking, especially when they are talking about something that doesn't relate to you. Many times, I hear my name on the call, I have to shamefully ask to repeat the question because of... connection issues.

I can't help but think that, the conference call is about the conference call. It's not about solving a problem. If meetings are hard to argue for, then the conference call is the thousand dollars HDMI cable. It's shiny, it looks important, but it adds nothing to the conversation.

The same way the internet turned conversation into smart and witty comments with the proper GIF, the conference call turned meetings into appearance competition.

You can argue for meetings or conference calls. But if a one hour call can be replace with a single bulleted list email, then the argument is weak.

Before starting a meeting or a conference call, check if you can summarize the point you are trying to make in an email.

Working with broken software

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It always comes as a surprise when you see someone use the software you wrote. The intuitive handcrafted UI leaves them confused. The main feature doesn't work. A specific order of clicking on buttons crashes the application.

But this isn't a cause to give up. It's only the first step. The next step is to improve it. Not adding new features, but improving the ones you have.

When we only have a blank canvas, it's easy to make assumptions on how things will work. You think the architecture you came up with is unbreakable. The application framework is versatile. The code will be reusable. But, once you have another person test it, you will start seeing the flaws. And you will also realize that you are stuck with some flaws. Changing the architecture might mean drastically rewriting the application.

The solution is not necessarily to put everything on pause until you can rewrite it. Instead, it's to learn to work with the broken system.

At every job I had, the breadwinner application was broken in fundamental ways. But it didn't stop developers from working on it everyday, and get paid. The question is not whether the application can be rebuilt better, but it is how we can use it in its current state.

WordPress powers more than a 3rd of the web, it is at version 5 now. At version 3, the developers had 1,217 bug fixes. They knew that they had made ground breaking architectural changes. They created something 1217 times better. But then there was version 4 where 250 bugs were fixed before adding any features. No matter what the code says, there are still bugs to fix.

The only perfect application is the one you haven't written yet. The moment you type, you introduce a bug. You just have to make peace with building broken software.

We forget about the reward

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There is a beautiful Chapter in the children's book The Little Prince. Chapter 13, if you want to read it. Here, the little prince arrives on a planet where a businessman is working:

Business man, the little prince

The Business man

The businessman's job is to count the stars and enter them in his ledger. When the child asks him what he will do with the stars, he doesn't want to answer. When the child insists, the man answers:

Nothing, I own them

The prince asks what it does to own a star. The man answers:

It does me the good of making me rich.

The then businessman continues to count the stars.

The reward of owning the stars is the thought of being rich. You don't get to have the stars, or do something with the stars. It's the thought that counts.

I'm reminded of Steve Jobs who worked so hard to become the greatest innovators of our time. What did he do with his riches? He fell sick, and the cancer ate at him for years until it consumed him. According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, he hated most food. He didn't have a good time eating, didn't have a good time drinking, he didn't have a good time with his family. Instead, he worked. He may have loved working, but it did not seem that the work itself was the reward.

Personally, I think his real reward was the yacht that he wanted to design at the end of his life. It had nothing to do with work. It was purely for the joy of it and to be in it with his family. He died before the yacht was ready to ship.

He has worked, he has changed the world, but he never got his reward. Only when it was too late he thought about it. Work is important, but let's not forget about the rewards.

It takes time to form an argument

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In 1958, then presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln debated his democrat opponent Stephen Douglas in what is now dubbed the The Great Debate in 1858. The notable thing, other than the content of the discourse, was its length. It lasted 7 hours.

Douglas delivered a 3 hours address. He presented his ideas and arguments for his candidacy. Lincoln listened quietly while taking notes and pondering. When Douglas finished, Lincoln asked the audience to go home, have dinner and come back refreshed. He warned them that his rebuttal would take at least 4 hours.

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, contrast this with modern political debates that last only a fraction of the time. Here is what they asked the President:

President Bush, what is the problem in the Middle East and how can it be solved? You will have two minutes to answer.

No matter what his idea to solve the problem is, it is fair to say that it should take more than two minutes to come up with a plausible answer. Of course, the rebuttal by the then Governor Clinton, was just one minute long.

The age of television shrunk the debate into a one-sitting digestible form. And Neil Postman thought this was too fast. But what would he have said about the Internet age?

The internet reduced politicians to delivering their plans for the country in a single tweet. In comparison, that's enough time for a glance. This is not enough for any thing meaningful. TV gave us soundbites. The internet gives us a the meme.

It also affect regular people. We start to think complex problems have simple solutions. In the length of a tweet, you can only say things are good or are bad. There is no room for deeper understanding. There is no room for an argument.

The more I take part in social media, the more I have the impression that I understand different problems. But the moment I try to open my mouth to give my two cents, my argument falls apart. All I have are memes, soundbites, and the first result on Google.

It takes time and effort to form an argument. It requires absorbing information, and then thinking about it. When you see a one liner online that makes sense, take the time to understand it. Most often then not, it doesn't make much sense in the grand scheme of things.

Keeping your mouth shut in the age of social media

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When I first came to the US, I went to high school. One day, two students started to banter with me. I didn’t speak English well enough, so I followed as much as I could. But then we were in class, so I ignored them and continued reading the American History book.

The next day, I came to class, sat at my usual seat, said hi to them. The room went silent. Everyone else in the classroom turned to look at me, then they whispered among themselves.

What I didn’t know was that the day before, the banter had escalated to much more than being playful. Apparently, I had signed up for a fight after school. In fact, after class these guys went to put their affairs in their car, and stood in the parking lot right where we, apparently, had agreed to fight. I am hot-blooded by nature, but I counter it by reading Of Anger by Seneca. I try to remember the futility of anger as much as I can.

But I genuinely did not know I had agreed to a fight. They waited for an hour, then decided I was a coward and left. But I was sitting right next to them now in class. Why weren’t they doing something about it now? How come they never mentioned this again for the rest of the school year?

There are two possibilities to what happened. One is, they won the fight. I was too much of a coward to show up, so they win by default. But it’s hard to celebrate a victory when your opponent did not fight back. Even if my reservation was accidental.

The second possibility is, I won. I showed no fear, no hate, no emotion, and most importantly, I gave no response. They moved on. I defeated them at their game, even if it was accidental. This became a rule for me and I apply it everyday when browsing social media.

When you see a poignant post online designed to make your blood boil, and you will see those, ignore it. It doesn’t matter if it has one like or has been retweeted a million times. Ignore it. When you see a comment designed to start a virtual fight, you don’t have to weigh in. Ignore it.

When someone writes a public message targeting you, don’t respond. They probably spent hours or days crafting that message. You should take the same time or more before you consider responding to it. And not responding is a perfectly valid response.

Giving a quick emotional response is the easy thing to do, but not the right thing. In age of real time public communication, the number one skill of a winner will be the art of keeping your mouth shut.

The Climate Change Story

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What is the difference in temperature within a day? What's the difference in temperature between 6am and 12pm? How about between 12pm and 6pm? My weather app shows that it was 50° at 6am, and 67° by 12pm. At 6pm, the temperature dropped to 60°. In the span of 12 hours, the temperature went up by 17°, and then fell down by 7°. That's a 24° change in one day.

Living in Los Angeles, how does that change affect me? Only slightly. When I get out of the shower in the morning, I'm a little cold, so I quickly dry myself. When I go out, I take a light jacket with me. I don't even get to wear it throughout the day. When I come home, I resume playing with my children never thinking about the weather again.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the global average temperature has been on the rise. Counting from 1975, 45 years ago, the average temperature has increased by 0.9° Celsius or 1.62° Fahrenheit.

What this means is glaciers are melting at a faster rate, water levels are rising, coral reefs are dying. There are more heatwaves, more hurricanes, more floods. It also means agricultural crops are not yielding or less food for us. Wild animals are dying due to less water sources. In other words, it is terrible. This will lead to our demise.

But, what is 1.62°? In a single day we can go through 24° of change, why worry about a measly 1 degree over the course of 45 years? That's why climate change is still something we ask if you "Believe In".

We are human beings and we only care about things we can relate to. It's very hard to see the connections between a small rise in temperature and the actual effect, even if it is there. Selling climate change with a measly degree is not something most people can understand or relate to. It is time we change that narrative.

The first time I landed in Cairo, Egypt, the second they opened the airplane's door, I knew something was amiss. It smelled like something was burning. Cairo, is one of the most polluted cities in the world. In Cairo, no one asks if you believe in pollution. You smell the horrible smog every single day. This is what man-made pollution looks like. It's not something that will affect you in a distant future, you smell it right now.

A smoker hardly sees the connection between a cigarette and lung cancer. It takes ~25 years to build the chronic effects of cigarette. Climate change takes even longer for the effect to become chronic. In the mean while, we need to change the narrative to talk about the effects that are already here.

Code for the sake of code

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The first time I read through the source code that powers jquery, I was fascinated. I decided to open a new file and code something just as amazing. The only problem was, I wasn't sure what I was coding, just that I had to code it.

I typed on the keyboard for a good while before I realized that I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what the code was doing either. However, the browser was happy to run my code and show no errors.

Programming for the sake of programming is not only a waste of time, it is pointless. Computers do what they are told through a programming language. When we don't have a purpose, then the program doesn't have a purpose. That's when you often see people posting about the weird way JavaScript handles 0.1 + 0.2 When you are solving a real problem, the quirks of floating point operations is rarely an issue.

If you are only learning programming, have a goal. "I'm gonna build a program that does X." Start there. Whether you succeed or not, you will learn something new. Otherwise, you are only telling a compiler to validate some bytes.

Those who power the web

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I loved Office ‘97. I thought it was the most intuitive application with straightforward usability. You can understand my surprised when I first saw that meme that made fun of the toolbar. It had hundreds of icons spanning a dozen lines, and shrank the writing space to only a couple of lines. That's not how it looked like on my computer. I had customized my toolbar to include only the icons I used the most, and memorized dozens of shortcuts.

I could do so because I didn't have the Internet. Not having Internet access forces us to find solutions, and that's what I did. I got a notebook, drew and documented every single icon. In a couple of months, Microsoft Office products had no secrets for me. At age 11, I helped the Embassy of Guinea properly format their official documents.

When I started learning to program, I didn't have Internet at home. I had to learn to read errors in my code and debug them myself.

But now that the Internet is so prevalent, we don't have to try as hard to learn anymore. If you don't know how to turn the text green in your editor, don't try to find the icon that does that. Instead, google "how to change text color in my editor". Your format is not pretty? Google "How to make my document pretty". Your computer is slow? Google "how to download more ram."

Now that it is easy to find information on the web, we no longer spend the time and energy to work our brain muscles. That's a mistake. Those who don't exercise their brains, only get by. But those who choose the hard path of learning, these are the people who create all the tutorials. They are the people who power the web.

Is it possible to build a YouTube competitor?

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A lot of people complain about the way their videos are handle, but YouTube has a point. It's their platform. You adhere by their rules or you go build your own platform. But is it even possible to build a YouTube competitor today?

The simple answer is no. There are two reasons.

  1. It is expensive to host videos on a large scale.
  2. It is even more expensive to deal with copyright issues.

YouTube started small. I remember not being able to upload my video because it was 11 minutes long. The longest allowed was 10 minutes. Also, there was a limit to the video's resolution. 640 by 480 was a luxury. If you started a video platform today with these limitations, people will laugh at you. Even Disney with its deep pockets had a hard time serving content at a much smaller scale. When they launched Disney+, their servers crashed.

In 2005, the web was young and naive. Hollywood and the music industry thought that YouTube was a fad. Who would have thought it would become the number one media consumption platform in the world. Today, YouTube is eating their lunch money. When you upload copyrighted content, it takes all of a couple minutes for your account to be flagged. The system that flag videos was a 30 million dollars research and development. Your cool new video app doesn’t have this kind of money, does it?

It may not be possible to build YouTube in your garage, but people still build video platforms. Snapchat, Vine, Tiktok. They all used the limitation of resources as a creative challenge. Short videos where quality is not the most pressing thing. In fact they took control away from their users to allow for a controlled experienced. They handle the copyrights issue by being small. Only when they became huge they settled by inviting copyright holders to use the platform to promote themselves.

It's too late to build a YouTube clone from scratch. The bar is already set too high. Instead, there is room for platforms where quality doesn't matter, as long as it is fun.

Build it and they will come

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Just because you built it doesn't mean people will come. Everyone knows that. But then we stop there. What comes next?

OK. I built it, no one came. Now what?

Is it my fault? Did I do it wrong? Did I miss a step? Or does this adage exist only to make you feel terrible about yourself then offer no solution? I don't think so!

One motivated evening, I wrote 5 blog posts, then I built a blog engine. I set the date for each post to self publish with 2 days intervals. No one came to read it of course.

I remember that I was humble, and very patient. But records show that I wasn't. I removed the date check and published everything on day two. Records also show that I immediately started spamming reddit and hackernews until one of those banned my domain for good.

I built it, not only they didn't come, but they made sure no one else would.

That was seven years ago. What does it feel like to write in the dark? This is what it feels like. This blog doesn't have regular readers like other blogs do. Yet sometimes, people show up and read. Sometimes, they even send me a little thank you email.

They said build it, and they will come. I built it. No one came. But after I wrote for a little, some of you came.