⇗ When Will the Planet Be Too Hot for Humans?

Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — a helpful perspective, in a way, since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime.

Fascinating required reading about all the environmental disasters facing us over the next several decades. In reading this, I wonder what effect emotionless terms like "global warming" and "climate change" have had on public apathy about the existential dangers facing us. "Warming" (and arguably even "Change" to a certain degree) are words with positive connotations. It seems like the right time to move to something like "self-induced extinction" or "boiled earth". There's probably a better term out there, but the way we talk about it now isn't cutting it.

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How To Give Helpful Product Design Feedback

It may seem hard to believe, but only a couple of decades ago, it was nearly impossible to provide feedback on new or redesigned products. Take for example, Crystal Pepsi. One day in 1992, while you were looking for your favorite dark brown soda on the shelves, here was this new clear thing! You tried it, shrugged it off, and likely never bought it again. Because the process of providing feedback to companies was so difficult back then, you simply voted with your feet.

If you were intensely motivated, you’d pick up a phone book, call Pepsi headquarters long-distance, hope to get routed to anyone close to the Crystal Pepsi “user experience” division, and then come up with some sort of feedback smart enough to justify the amount of effort you just exerted. Or maybe you’d handwrite a letter and mail it off to a possibly unmonitored mailbox.

Barely anybody did this, and the end result was that a lot of products, including Crystal Pepsi, failed without their creators knowing quickly enough why people were rejecting them.

But now we have Twitter! And evvvvvverybody has feedback.

On evvvvvverything.

Always.

Read more…

Combine: A Design Studio and Venture Fund in One

Today, a couple of friends of mine, Soleio Cuervo and Adam Michela, took the wraps off of their new design studio/venture fund Combine. I almost never make announcements about investments because I’m not much of an investor, other than boring municipal bonds and index funds, but I’m really excited about this for one reason:

Design, as a discipline, is very often brought into startups only when founders feel like they can no longer do without it. We are still at a point in our industry where those who have never worked with a great product designer before believe design is there to animate things, or make decks look shiny, or write blog posts about the geometry of a new logo.

The cascading effects of this sort of thinking are many. Products don’t end up evolving as quickly as they otherwise could. Design, as an industry, continues to struggle with uneven perceptions and expectations. And finally, designers themselves end up with very little equity in the companies they join because they didn’t join early enough.

There are a lot of ways that compensation in the tech world needs to change, but speaking from my own experience only, the clearest line between who makes life-changing money at a company and who does not comes down to when you started and at what level (the “when” part being more important usually). The difference between being a day zero founder and a day one employee is significant. The difference between being hired the day before a Series B round and the day after is significant. The difference between being hired the day before an IPO and the day after is significant. We are talking about, in many cases, one day or one week or one month being the difference between never having to work again when you’re done and barely even noticing a difference in your life.

Is getting in early just being “lucky?” Sure, to a point. But I would argue it’s hitching your horse to the right wagon that is the lucky part. Getting companies to value design and designers at the very earliest stages of product and company development is something we can change if we put some effort into it, and that is the part of Combine that I am most excited about.

If Adam and Soleio’s vision of assembling the best established and emerging designers in the world and helping place them inside of well-funded, early stage companies pans out, we will benefit from both better designed products and more designers who share financially in the success of what they help create. That is something I am happy to be a very small part of.

I am not a spokesperson for Combine, so any questions you might have should be directed towards Soleio or Adam. Actually, I can answer one question: it’s pronounced COM-bine. Anyway, if you are a designer or researcher interested in finding out more about the program, I encourage you to get involved. If this sort of thing was around ten years ago, I would have jumped in head first.

(This post also available on Medium.)

The Harder They Fall

The best thing about aging is that with each passing year, you are less vulnerable to what life throws your way. The things that affected you deeply as a teenager — both good and bad — are now just manageable parts of your life, to be dealt with as any adult would.

For the most part, I’ve enjoyed this transition, and you couldn’t pay me enough to be a teenager again.

Except…

The music.

Not a month goes by when I don’t feel incredibly thankful to have grown up in the cradle of the early ‘90s Seattle music scene, but Chris Cornell’s passing this month really made me think extra hard about what music is and how it fits into the lives of those who perform it and those who enjoy it.

The fact of the matter is, other than my wife and my health, there is nothing I value more in my life than having gone through my teenage years in a city as it gave birth to a musical movement. I imagine this is also how people felt in San Francisco or London in the late 1960s, but the examples are few and far between. Even when new genres appear, it is rare they are so concentrated in one region.

I remember vividly the first time I saw grunge in person. On January 17th, 1992, a couple of my friends — Chris and Chuck — asked me if I wanted to go see this band called “Pearl Jam” at the Moore Theatre that night. Since we usually just spent our weekends getting baked in parking lots and listening to reggae, this sounded like as good of an idea as any. I was into Zeppelin and a bunch of other bands at the time, but as far as I knew, no great music came out of Seattle.

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Very Short Book Review: “Seeing Like a State”

This is part 4 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The fourth book in this series is called “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”.

This book falls into the same category as quite a few non-fiction books I’ve read recently: educational, but a bit longer than it probably needed to be. At 468 pages, it’s not exactly War & Peace, but better editing could have imparted the same lessons in half the pages.

This book explores the pitfalls of centralized government planning when it comes to agriculture, forestry, architecture, and civil engineering. It explores what happens when authoritarian power structures impose their will on environments without a deep understanding and appreciation of what things are like on the ground.

To give a few examples:

  • In Germany and in other places, the government used to prescribe the clearcutting of forests to allow for monocropping. When you grow only one crop, you can optimize yield more easily. The end result, however, is a forest lacking in diversity and thus more susceptible to disease.
  • In cities like Brasilia, the government set out to create a perfect metropolis from scratch, paying no attention to how people actually live their lives. The result was a city that looked visually considered but was a pain in the ass to live in.
  • In the Soviet Union, the fathers of communism sought to collectivize farms and other drivers of the economy in order to maximize grain output and overall production. The result was a system that worked more poorly than the one it replaced and cast aside decades of local knowledge about how to farm and produce creatively.

The overall lesson of the book is essentially that human beings are great at accumulating local expertise (“metis”) and using it to great advantage, and thus any schemes designed to improve things need to start with this knowledge and not some utopian ideal created out of thin air. This lesson also carries with it a warning against looking at people toiling within a current system as somehow “backward” and in need of technological rescuing (I believe this is the “conservative” angle of this book).

The most interesting bit of the book, in my opinion, is the discussion of “High Modernism”… a term I hadn’t heard of before. High Modernism is essentially a philosophy that says it doesn’t matter what currently exists, but only what can exist in the future. High Modernism turns a blind eye to why people might like small, windy streets and instead prescribes strict 90 degree grids. High Modernism never considers that people might enjoy co-mingling where they work and where they live and instead carves out distinct areas of cities for each. High Modernism looks great from an airplane but works terribly on the ground. The best chapter of the book goes into great detail on one of High Modernism’s chief proponents — someone quite oddly named “Le Corbusier” — and one of its chief detractors — Jane Jacobs.

In thinking about where else we see High Modernism in life, I go immediately back to my own profession: product design. How often do we create products or interfaces that look squeaky clean but don’t actually match how people might best use them? High Modernism seems like one of those concepts that once you see, you can’t unsee.

As for this book, I recommend it if the above topics sound interesting to you. However, given its uneven level of interestingness, don’t be afraid to skim a little when you need to.

Very Short Book Review: “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War”

This is part 3 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The third book in this series is called “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War”.

I will not bury the lede here: I hated this book.

I do not recommend you waste your time with it. It is 779 pages of economics, written by an economist, ostensibly for consumption by other economists. I hesitate to call it “bad”, because the author knows his stuff and it’s entirely possible that I am just not the right audience for it. Strange though, considering I’ve studied economics and read plenty of enjoyable books on the subject in the past. Also strange because plenty of Amazon reviewers seem to have enjoyed it, as well as places like Bloomberg and the New York Times. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Here is a sampling of what you’re in for should you decide to dive into this tar pit:

Now we take a closer look at the behavior of TFP growth for the years since 1970. Shown by vertical bars in figure 17-2 are the growth rates of TFP for 1890-1920, 1920-1970, and three subperiods since 1970. The first of these intervals, 1970-94, exhibits TFP growth of only 0.57 percent per year, less than a third of the 1.89 percent growth rate achieved in the fifty years before 1970. Then the two most recent decades between 1994 and 2014 are shown separately, with TFP growth notably faster in 1994-2004 than in the other two post-1970 intervals. Black is used to fill in the bars for the two periods with relatively rapid TFP growth 1920-1970 and 1994-2004. Light grey is used to show the contrast with all the other intervals in which TFP growth is below 0.6 percent per year.

Imagine 778 more pages of that and you’ll be roughly where I am at today. On the bright side, I was able to brush up on my speedreading skills, tapping through page after page as quickly as possible, slowed only by the occasional accidental tap on a footnote link.

I did learn exactly one memorable thing from this book: if you lived in Boston in 1844, you needed a doctor’s note to legally take a bath. So there’s that.

As far as I can tell, the point of this book was to provide a mind-numbingly comprehensive economic history of the United States and explain why 1870-1970 will never again be repeated in terms of economic growth. Because that period contained so many “one-time inventions” like indoor plumbing, electricity, and the combustion engine, the author contends that every year thereafter will be pretty marginal in terms of impact. He points to a group of “techno-optimists” (that I guess I am part of) who think that technology will continue to propel us forward in dramatic and unexpected ways, but he doesn’t seem to share that view.

This book was supposed to be one of the “books to change conservative minds”, but there isn’t any material even remotely provocative until the final 30 or so pages, and by then, you just want to throw this thing in the fire already.

I did not enjoy reading this book at all and I’m trying to think of a single type of person I would recommend it to, other than professional economists maybe. Really hoping this is the only book in the series of ten that is this much of a slog. So far, the list is 2 for 3.

(deletes from Kindle)

Very Short Book Review: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”

This is part 2 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The second book in this series is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

I’ll be honest. The thought of reading a book that attempts explain conservative ideology did not seem the least bit enjoyable to me. I was worried I’d give up after only a chapter or two. After finishing The Righteous Mind, however, I have to tip my hat to Jonathan Haidt for both the substance and the style of this book. Although a lot of the best stuff is towards the end, the author skillfully opens your mind to accept foreign ideas by building a bridge throughout the early and middle sections.

At its core, this book is about all the different ways various people define morality, and how to understand people who define it differently than you choose to. As a liberal, I’ve always used something resembling the utilitarian version mentioned in the book, which is essentially “morality is the set of principles that provides the greatest amount of good and the least amount of bad”.

The book provides a couple of different lenses to morality that help explain the differences between liberals and conservatives. The first lens splits up morality into three ethics: autonomy, community, and divinity. In liberal minds, autonomy usually dominates. The wants, needs, and rights of individuals come first. In conservative minds, however, community and divinity are often more important. Things like putting family units and religious beliefs above the concerns of individuals are common.

The second lens splits up morality into a moral matrix of six “senses”: Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. The author contends that liberals use only three of these senses (with Care/Harm dominating considerably) while conservatives use all six. When you first hear a statement like this, your immediate thought is “wait, that makes it sounds like liberals are less moral than conservatives”, but that’s not really what it means. It just means that conservatives, when weighing morality, use more ingredients… which you could say is either a good or bad thing.

Another great insight from this book is the role religion plays in creating evolutionarily advantageous hive behavior. Groups of people working in lockstep with each other — suppressing selfish instincts — should be able to outperform and outlast random collections of self-serving individuals. You can see why some people believe so deeply in the importance of religion — even from a purely evolutionary perspective.

There are a lot of other great tidbits in this book including how genetics play a role in how open to change (liberal) or reactive to threats (conservative) you are, but I will let you discover them for yourself.

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it for people who are interested in how conservatives view morality as well as how emotion and reason act together in determining the way humans make decisions.

Very Short Book Review: “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”

This is part 1 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The first book in this series is called “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”.

This book, being on the liberal side of the spectrum, was not much of a stretch for me. It uses the common format of loosely intertwined case studies and social experiments to paint a larger picture of the lesson it is trying to teach. That lesson is simply that scarcity itself changes the way the brain works and has profound implications on the credit and blame we assign to different people in society for their triumphs or problems.

The simplest example is if you take the exact same person and have them perform an IQ test (or any other mental exercise) once while they are flush with money and once while money is scarce, they will perform measurably worse under the scarcity condition.

The macro point of the book is something I’ve only become aware of in the last several years but seems lost on many people from the right side of the political spectrum: poverty itself causes people to be less productive and not the other way around.

Poverty puts people in situations where so much of their energy must be spent just keeping the lights on that whatever is left over can scarcely compete with the almost entirely discretionary energy of the more comfortable classes. A child from a rich family gets home from school and can decide exactly when to do their homework and what other activities they might want to undertake in order to get further ahead of their peers. A child from a poor family might need to cook for their siblings because their parents are at their second jobs, do hours of chores to keep the house in order, or even take on a paying job themselves. If they have any energy left over after that, maybe then they can think about homework.

We love to make examples out of the tiny percentage of people who pull themselves out of poverty because of their hard work, incredible intellect, or athletic prowess, but in doing so, we fail to properly appreciate the injustice of how tilted the playing field is from birth. If we are ever going to live up to the promise of every person being created equal, we need to appreciate — and hopefully correct for — all of the hidden ways that society is not actually equal at all.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it for people who are interested in appreciating the pervasive societal forces that push people upwards and downwards in the world.

How To Ask for the Truth

“I’m really sorry to hear you are leaving. I wish I would have known you were unhappy.”

Every leader who has been around long enough has probably had a conversation like this after one of their team members resigns.

In an ideal world, people are open about every problem they face in the workplace, but great leaders know that we don’t live in an ideal world. There are a lot of reasons you won’t always know what might be brewing inside your team. People can be shy. People can be afraid of confrontation or retribution. People can blindly obey power structures because that’s how they’ve been taught. People can feel like “telling on someone” is disloyal.

A trip to the dentist’s office (!) yesterday reminded me how important the concept of proactively asking for the truth is.

Read more…

The Five-Tool Designer

As someone who has managed and worked with designers for most of my adult life, I get a lot of calls from people looking to check references on someone I’ve worked with or find out from me if there are other designers they should be talking to.

When I think about the range of critique I’ve provided in these situations, the term I always use to describe the very best designers I’ve ever worked with is five-tool designer.

Five-tool player is actually a baseball term used to describe someone who can hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, throw, and field. It’s the highest compliment you can pay to a player and is generally reserved for only the most complete athletes, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays. In fact, Major League Baseball estimates there are only 8 five-tool players in the game today.

Everyone looks for slightly different things in the designers they hire, but for me, there are five tools that stand above the rest.

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