R.I.P Dean

Dean Allen, a web pioneer and good man, has passed away. I've been processing the news for a few days and still don't know where to begin. Dean was a writer, who wrote the software he wrote on. His websites were crafted, designed, and typeset so well you would have visited them even if they were filled with Lorem Ipsum, and paired with his writing you were drawn into an impossibly rich world. His blog was called Textism, and among many other things it introduced me to the art of typography.

Later, he created Textpattern, without which WordPress wouldn't exist. Later, he created Textdrive with Jason Hoffman, without which WordPress wouldn't have found an early business model or had a home on the web. He brought a care and craft to everything he touched that inspires me to this day. As John Gruber said, "Dean strove for perfection and often achieved it." (Aside: Making typography better on the web led John Gruber to release Smarty Pants, Dean a tool called Textile, and myself something called Texturize all within a few months of each other; John continued his work and created Markdown, I put Texturize into WP, and Dean released Textile in Textpattern.)

Years later, we became friends and shared many trips, walks, drinks, and meals together, often with Hanni and Om. (When we overlapped in Vancouver he immediately texted "I'll show you some butt-kicking food and drink.") His zest for life was matched with an encyclopedic knowledge of culture and voracious reading (and later podcast listening) habits. I learned so much in our time together, a web inspiration who turned for me into a real-life mensch. He was endlessly generous with his time and counsel in design, prose, and fashion. I learned the impossibly clever sentences he wrote, that you assumed were the product of a small writing crew or at least a few revisions, came annoyingly easily to him, an extension of how he actually thought and wrote and the culmination of a lifetime of telling stories and connecting to the human psyche.

Dean, who (of course) was also a great photographer, didn't love having his own photo taken but would occasionally tolerate me when I pointed a camera at him and Om has a number of the photos on his post. There's one that haunts me: before getting BBQ we were at his friend's apartment in Vancouver, listening to Mingus and enjoying hand-crafted old fashioneds with antique bitters, and despite the rain we went on the roof to see the art that was visible from there. He obliged to a photo this time though and we took photos of each other individually in front of a sign that said "EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT." It wasn't, but it's what I imagine Dean would say right now if he could.

When we first met, in 2006, from Jason.

Thirty-Four

I am very thankful and grateful to have made it through the past year, which was a really special one personally and professionally. I learned to open myself up more to relationships, continued aspiring to be clear and direct with yellow arrows, and worked alongside some incredible people to tackle the biggest and hardest problems, whether it was getting plugin and theme support on WP.com or the start and growth of Gutenberg.

I read a lot more books, traveled 337k miles between 91 cities, spent more time in Texas, kept my health in a good balance with weight training, running, and a better diet including several months of 16/8 intermittent fasting, while still getting in some excellent meals with friends and loved ones (up to 58% of top 50 list). As I'm solidly in my mid-thirties now, and I want to continue to live by: all things in moderation. I consider what I do with WordPress and Automattic my life's work, and hope to continue it as long as I'm useful. Some days I pinch myself.

Thank you to all of you on this journey with me. I am imperfect but trying my darndest, and I'm lucky to have friends and colleagues doing the same.

Previously: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 3132, and 33.

Next to the very real news of the Spectre and Meltdown CPU issues, it was lovely to come across Ken Shirriff's story of getting past password protection on some old Xerox Alta disk packs from the 1970s.

As further proof for why 2018 is going to be the year of blogging, two of the comments are from people who actually know about the old disks!

"I designed chips at PARC as a summer intern. You have a couple of disks from Doug Fairbairn, who was also in Lynn Conway's group."

and

I'm flabbergasted. That's my Alto disk you broke into!

The APL stuff is surely related to some work I did with Leo Guibas, showing why lazy evaluation would be a really good idea for implementing APL: see Compilation and delayed evaluation in APL, published January 1978. (That paper gives me an enviable Erdős number of 3, since Leo is a 2.) I'm sure it's not a complete APL implementation, just a proof of concept. It happens that my very first part-time job at PARC, in 1973, involved writing decision analysis software in APL — on a timesharing system!

Given the AATFDAFD hint, I'd guess the real password is ADDATADFAD. This derives from a project I did with Jef Raskin at UCSD in 1974. (He mentioned it in this interview.) The Data General Nova we were working with produced some garbled message with ADDATADFAD where it should have said ADDITIONAL, and it was a running joke ever after. Strange, the things that occupy some brain cells for over 40 years.

Thanks for an amusing blast from the past.

— Doug Wyatt (Xerox PARC 1973-1994)

Morten on Gutenberg

Morten Rand-Hendriksen's talk and demo on Gutenberg from WordCamp US is an excellent overview of where it is, where it could go, and some VR stuff thrown in there for fun. Definitely worth the watch.

Books in 2017

Here's what I ended up reading this year, in roughly chronological finishing order. (I usually have 3-4 books going on at once.)

A fairly random selection, and hopefully I can get a few more in next year.

Post-Verbal Language

James Beshara has a really interesting read on how communication will change and evolve in a post-verbal world, namely one where human/brain interfaces like Neuralink can more directly transmit thought between people than the medium of language allows today.

After reading the essay I wonder if people's thoughts or the neural pathways they activate, if they could be directly transmitted into another brain, would actually make any sense to someone else with a unique internal set of pathways and framework for parsing and understanding the world. The essay assumes we'd understand and have more empathy with each other, but that seems like a leap. It seems likely the neural link would need it own set of abstractions, perhaps even unique per person, similar to how Google Translate AI invented its own meta-language.

Today idea-viruses that cause outrage (outrageous?) in today's discourse  have been weaponized by algorithms optimizing for engagement, and directly brain-transmitted memes seem especially risky for appealing to our base natures or causing amygdala hijack. But perhaps a feature of these neural interface devices could counteract that, with a command like "tell me this piece of news but suppress my confirmation bias and tribal emotional reactions while I'm taking it in."

State of the Word, 2017

I really enjoyed connecting with the WordPress community in Nashville this previous weekend. On Saturday I delivered the State of the Word presentation alongside Mel, Weston, and Matías. There's always a post-event buzz but I definitely noticed a change in tenor of people's thoughts on Gutenberg after the presentation and demo. The video is above, check it out when you get a chance.

Adam Robinson on Understanding

This is a long quote/excerpt from Adam Robinson I’ve been holding onto for a while, from Tribe of Mentors. Worth considering, especially if you strive to work in a data-informed product organization.

Virtually all investors have been told when they were younger — or implicitly believe, or have been tacitly encouraged to do so by the cookie-cutter curriculums of the business schools they all attend — that the more they understand the world, the better their investment results. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The more information we acquire and evaluate, the “better informed” we become, the better our decisions. Accumulating information, becoming “better informed,” is certainly an advantage in numerous, if not most, fields.

But not in the eld of counterintuitive world of investing, where accumulating information can hurt your investment results.

In 1974, Paul Slovic — a world-class psychologist, and a peer of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman — decided to evaluate the effect of information on decision-making. This study should be taught at every business school in the country. Slovic gathered eight professional horse handicappers and announced, “I want to see how well you predict the winners of horse races.” Now, these handicappers were all seasoned professionals who made their livings solely on their gambling skills.

Slovic told them the test would consist of predicting 40 horse races in four consecutive rounds. In the first round, each gambler would be given the five pieces of information he wanted on each horse, which would vary from handicapper to handicapper. One handicapper might want the years of experience the jockey had as one of his top five variables, while another might not care about that at all but want the fastest speed any given horse had achieved in the past year, or whatever.

Finally, in addition to asking the handicappers to predict the winner of each race, he asked each one also to state how confident he was in his prediction. Now, as it turns out, there were an average of ten horses in each race, so we would expect by blind chance — random guessing — each handicapper would be right 10 percent of the time, and that their confidence with a blind guess to be 10 percent.

So in round one, with just five pieces of information, the handicappers were 17 percent accurate, which is pretty good, 70 percent better than the 10 percent chance they started with when given zero pieces of information. And interestingly, their confidence was 19 percent — almost exactly as confident as they should have been. They were 17 percent accurate and 19 percent confident in their predictions.

In round two, they were given ten pieces of information. In round three, 20 pieces of information. And in the fourth and final round, 40 pieces of information. That’s a whole lot more than the five pieces of information they started with. Surprisingly, their accuracy had flatlined at 17 percent; they were no more accurate with the additional 35 pieces of information. Unfortunately, their confidence nearly doubled — to 34 percent! So the additional information made them no more accurate but a whole lot more confident. Which would have led them to increase the size of their bets and lose money as a result.

Beyond a certain minimum amount, additional information only feeds — leaving aside the considerable cost of and delay occasioned in acquiring it — what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” The information we gain that conflicts with our original assessment or conclusion, we conveniently ignore or dismiss, while the information that confirms our original decision makes us increasingly certain that our conclusion was correct.

So, to return to investing, the second problem with trying to understand the world is that it is simply far too complex to grasp, and the more dogged our at- tempts to understand the world, the more we earnestly want to “explain” events and trends in it, the more we become attached to our resulting beliefs — which are always more or less mistaken — blinding us to the financial trends that are actually unfolding. Worse, we think we understand the world, giving investors a false sense of confidence, when in fact we always more or less misunderstand it.
You hear it all the time from even the most seasoned investors and financial “experts” that this trend or that “doesn’t make sense.” “It doesn’t make sense that the dollar keeps going lower” or “it makes no sense that stocks keep going higher.” But what’s really going on when investors say that something makes no sense is that they have a dozen or whatever reasons why the trend should be moving in the opposite direction.. yet it keeps moving in the current direction. So they believe the trend makes no sense. But what makes no sense is their model of the world. That’s what doesn’t make sense. The world always makes sense.

In fact, because financial trends involve human behavior and human beliefs on a global scale, the most powerful trends won’t make sense until it becomes too late to profit from them. By the time investors formulate an understanding that gives them the confidence to invest, the investment opportunity has already passed.

So when I hear sophisticated investors or financial commentators say, for example, that it makes no sense how energy stocks keep going lower, I know that energy stocks have a lot lower to go. Because all those investors are on the wrong side of the trade, in denial, probably doubling down on their original decision to buy energy stocks. Eventually they will throw in the towel and have to sell those energy stocks, driving prices lower still.

 

Tim Ferriss’s new book Tribe of Mentors is out. I have finished it already, and can say it’s really excellent and I even liked it more than Tools of Titans even though I’m not in this one. 🙂 As I said in a message to Tim:

I learned a lot from it, took a ton of notes to follow up on, and wrote down about twenty more books I have to read.

When I look back over the last 25 years, in some ways what seems most precious is not what we have made but how we have made it and what we have learned as a consequence of that. I always think that there are two products at the end of a programme; there is the physical product or the service, the thing that you have managed to make, and then there is all that you have learned. The power of what you have learned enables you to do the next thing and it enables you to do the next thing better. — Jony Ive

From the Wallpaper article on the new Apple campus.

New Backpack: Aer Fit Pack

As an interim update to my 2017 gear post, I'd like to strongly endorse the Aer Fit Pack 2 as my new primary backpack, replacing the Lululemon bag I suggested before. It has better material, much better zippers, a logical design, more pocket distribution inside, and it's cheaper! I put this bag and its predecessor through all the rounds, including taking it to Burning Man, and it's been a champ. If you're reading this and work for Automattic, this bag is also now available as an official choice for your bag and it'll come embroidered with a cool logo. (Previously we only offered Timbuk2.)

[Gauguin] was penniless and adrift, trying to paint his way through the devastations of his dying marriage, his rejection by the cliques of the Parisian art establishment, and the precarity of his friendship with Vincent van Gogh, who shortly before Christmas had assaulted him with a razor and, after Gauguin’s departure that evening, used the same blade to cut off his own ear […] Despite the promises of the name, it can be a challenge to find actual olives at Olive Garden.

Probably my favorite food writing I've read this year is Helen Rosner's comprehensive review of Olive Garden for Eater.

Matias Ventura, the lead of the editor focus for WordPress, has written Gutenberg, or the Ship of Theseus to talk about how Gutenberg's approach will simplify many of the most complex parts of WordPress, building pages, and theme editing. If you want a peek at some of the things coming down the line with Gutenberg, including serverless WebRTC real-time co-editing.