Rafe Furst: Accelerating Possibilities

The biggest impediment to people’s success is that they oftentimes forget that the external signs of success–the external validation–has nothing to do with you as a person.

Rafe Furst has started businesses, studied cancer, and earned degrees in Computer Science and Symbolic Systems. We started off by talking about our shared past–professional poker.

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Poker is really a zero sum game. For me to win, somebody else has to lose. What we see is, the market for poker has become very efficient. You don’t have to spend thirty years of your life on the road risking life and limb. In the course of a year, you can play the same number of hands online and learn to become a world-class player.”

“It’s more like a video game. The kind of skills you need are more geared towards young video game players. It’s become more quantitative. In a similar way, you can look at what happened in Wall Street to mutual funds when eTrade and Schwab came in.”

“Over time, when you have a zero sum game and open up the market, it becomes more efficient. The edge that I used to have [in poker] is gone. A lot of my friends–they can’t compete anymore.”

But can anyone compete? Poker has become an increasingly fluctuative, painful career for most players due to the hypercompetition.

“There will always be some great games…to get into the juicy games, you have to be likable. There is a unicorn game effect.”

Why aren’t there more new games? Why are we still playing with 52 card boring decks?

“With new games, the edge can be bigger as people are figuring out the rules.  It’s hard to be a world-class expert in every single game. There’s always an evolution and invention of new games. This leaves an opportunity for people who are really good thinkers.”

 

“Humans have a risk aversion bias. We would rather not lose $100 than take a coin flip for $200. Enough people have to be comfortable enough with a risk to play it together.”

Are there situations in poker that cannot be thoroughly solved? Does a player have to make mistakes sometimes?

“You can’t fully solve some problems analytically. You have to take a probabilistic or heuristic approach. Over time you get more confidence in your strategy.”

“In Artificial Intelligence, there are a range of techniques that are probabilistic. Bayesian reasoning, for example. At the end of the day, you have a to do as good a job as you can at making a probabilistic conclusion.”

Crowdfunder is Rafe’s fourth company.

“We’ve been operating Crowdfunder to bring investment funding to everyday citizens. This is not for idea stage–it is for actual companies. On Crowdfunder you can offer people investment opportunity and tell them why its a good opportunity.”

“Neil Young had a vision for bringing back high-definition audio. He created this product called Pono, a high-definition digital music player. He launched it on Kickstarter and validated the marketplace. Several months later, they were ready to raise investment. In a matter of several days they had millions of dollars of investment interest.”

Rafe concluded by offering a broadly applicable piece of wisdom.

“The biggest impediment to people’s success is that they oftentimes forget that the external signs of success–the external validation–has nothing to do with you as a person. You can remind yourself, when things are not going well, to not beat yourself up.”

“I’ve had many ups and many downs. I’ve learned it the hard way. When you’ve had big setbacks and big failures, it’s hard not to take that personally. But I come back to–there’s always folks that know you best, who love you and support you.”

Inna Vishik: Academia and Industry

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“The way it actually works is that you have an idea in mind, and science throws something in your direction and you have to pivot.”

Between the university and the corporate world there are as many tensions as there are synergies.

Inna Vishik is a physicist finishing up her postdoc at MIT. Among other things, she writes about how research priorities within academia differ from those within a corporation.

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“In some ways academic research is fundamentally different from industrial research. The main difference is the degree of openness. In industry, there are trade secrets. In the current dichotomy between academia and industry, where they are fairly separate–they sort of have distinct roles.”

“This is not the only workable paradigm. In the early part of the twentieth century, there was more basic research happening within industry, within Bell Labs for example.”

“Another model is private foundations. That is kind of an intermediate model that is closer to academic research, but I guess the distinction is where the money comes from and how the institution arises.”

“I study exotic materials. The way people decide to study a new exotic material is that a new one gets discovered randomly, or theorized. ”

“Everything I do would not be done in industry. The fact that it doesn’t have applications in a five year or twenty year horizon is a problem. The way it actually works is that you have an idea in mind, and science throws something in your direction and you have to pivot. I don’t think that would fly in a situation where an end product is required.”

What are the fundamental problems in academia, whether or not they could be fixed?

“There are scientific problems and there are personnel problems. On the scientific side, funding is often very trend-driven. There is more funding for the latest, hottest topics. It is important to push the boundaries of science and be open to new things, but at the same time there are unsolved things in the older topics.” When funding leaves one area, sometimes it never comes back.

“The personnel problem is bigger. The job market is sort of like professional sports. There might be one or two job openings, and you might need to go anywhere in the country where there are those jobs. That was great back in the day when scientists had portable spouses, but in modern times that isn’t a reality. Furthermore, in America, what we have seen in the past century is an increasing urbanization. More people live in cities, but universities are often in little podunk towns.”

Bill Gates is incentivizing publications to tear down their paywalls. Science Exchange allows you to offload experiments to a marketplace.  Will these types of developments affect how research is conducted going forward?

“Paywalls are a big deal. There was a move in congress recently that if you receive grant money, your publications must be open to the public. Open access seems like a good idea and potentially it is, but there are some things to keep in mind.”

“Most publications are very arcane. They are directed to a specific group of people. How many people would be reading these? Most people would rather read journalism, or a more digestible piece written by the scientists [who are publishing in the paywalled journal].”

“If all of the publications were free, it would come down to the authors, or the scientists to get things published. When pushing for open access, people need to think about the negative consequences that might have on the authors of the papers, and weigh that against the fact that most people would not read these scientific journals.”

“Crowdfunding of science is another idea that sounds great–if you are not in science. How much can you actually earn in a Kickstarter campaign, especially for something esoteric? A couple thousand dollars?”

“It’s similar to people who have educational startups and are trying to disrupt the education system without consulting with teachers, and seeing what’s feasible in that space. The change may have to come from within.”

According to Steven Weinberg, particle accelerators incubate and stimulate technology as much as war does.  Inna expressed skepticism that this is true, but gave the quote some credibility.

“Throughout history we have seen that war pushes technology in every single conflict. But who wants to wish for more war? The best thing you can hope for is some concerted effort among thousands of scientists to solve difficult science and engineering problems. It might not yield the same degree of positive returns, but it has almost zero negative consequences.”

What causes scientists to leave academia for industry?

“The calculation is more about the relative quality of positions, where quality is measured by all sorts of metrics–freedom, income, family life.”

“For me personally it’s almost exclusively about quality of position I can get hired for, as well as geography. Within academia, there is a sort of inaccurate idea that people leave mostly for the money. That’s not necessarily true. It’s a host of personal reasons.”

Inna also gave her take on why Quora is so useful.

“Information is fundamentally a social construct. To qualify as information, someone needs to share it one way or another. In that sense, the idea that someone will read what I write and be able to understand a concept better is very empowering. This connection between information and social is one of the reasons why Quora works so well.”

In closing, Inna discussed a problem that plagues both academia and industry.

“There’s a big discussion of women in STEM. Within academic Physics, one of the biggest problems is how much it is talked about. It has a negative impact on how women perceive the field. Whenever I tell a female I am a physicist, they say ‘wow, there are not a lot of women there.’ That’s all they have heard about the field, and it really colors how they think about entering it.”

“Implicitly within that, there is some message that women are not as good for some biological reasons.”

Mahbod Moghadam: Founder of Genius

Mahbod Moghadam

“In brain surgery, there are no winners, there are only survivors. I didn’t die, and I’m grateful. As far as I’m concerned I’m supposed to be dead.”

Mahbod Moghadam is a founder of Genius, a platform for annotating the web.

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“Genius was originally an art project. Then it got traction. We did Y-Combinator and raised money from Andreeson-Horowitz. I was the first full-time employee.”

“Then I had health problems. I had a brain tumor and I had to have brain surgery a year and a half ago. After that, it started to be too much to me. Then I got in trouble for writing annotations on Elliot Rodgers’ manifesto, and I decided to resign.”

Mahbod’s humorous, distinctive personality is not always understood or well-received.

“I’m always trying to be funny. In tech especially, there are a lot of people who have never been funny in their entire lives–and they’ve never even tried. It’s kind of tricky–you have to put stuff on the line. In Czarist Russia, the czar would kill his court jester every couple of months. It was the most dangerous job you could have.”

“I’m not the only one who suffers from this.” Mahbod referred to Trevor Noah, the new host of The Daily Show, who has been raked against the coals for vaguely antisemitic joke tweets.

In a TechCrunch interview a few years ago, the Genius founders joked about taking prescription stimulants. I asked him whether drugs were significant at Genius, and about the acceptance of drugs in the wider technology culture.

“This is more of jokes and rhetoric taken seriously. Everyone keeps quoting our TechCrunch Disrupt interview. We weren’t even taking it seriously. We wore sunglasses onstage as a joke. Nobody in the audience was listening, nobody was paying attention. We made some jokes about Vyvanse, it’s not indicative of anything in the culture.”

“Everyone got carried away about our jokes and three and a half years later people are still talking about it.”

“Here’s a thing about tech culture. It’s supposed to be about challenging hierarchies and disruption. Tech has turned into dinosaur worship and nepotism. We’re all sitting around worshiping these rich old guys. To keep up the facade of disruption, we talk about drugs. Doing drugs doesn’t make you rebellious, it makes you part of the system.”

Mahbod told the story of his brain tumor.

“I started getting the serious symptoms in April 2013. The brain surgery happened in October 2013. That whole summer I was a mess. My left hand was shaking uncontrollably. The left side of my face was paralyzed. I had a full batch of interns to manage. The shaking of my hand made it really hard to type.”

“The week before I finally went to the doctor, I was a mess. I was sleeping 14 hours a day, had dark circles under my eyes.”

“They had to try the MRI 3 or 4 times because I was shaking so much. Immediately they said to go to the emergency room right now. I was such a mess I didn’t even have my cell phone. They let me use the hospital phone to call my co-founders. The first thing I said was ‘hey guys, can you bring my cell phone?'”

“At that point the tumor had deteriorated my mind so much that I didn’t know what was going on. When the anesthesiologist was explaining to me how the anesthesia was going to work, I was on Tinder.”

“They said the tumor could blow up at any moment.”

“In brain surgery, there are no winners, there are only survivors. I didn’t die, and I’m grateful. As far as I’m concerned I’m supposed to be dead.”

We talked about a variety of other topics–venture capital, streaming music services, and whether musical innovation has stagnated. In closing, Mahbod provided some wisdom, and lamented that many of the people tech are misguided.

“Don’t sit there and quote your heroes. Let’s get rid of this gerontocracy, this kissing-old-person-ass in tech. I’m a huge fan of technology, but I’m hoping that the tech bubble crashes just to get rid of all these fakers. I think it’s going to be really good for the Internet when the current bubble crashes.”

Cristina Hartmann: Stringing Words Together

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“I’m a storyteller and I believe that the best way to change someone’s mind about anything is to tell them a story.”

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After abandoning a career in law, Cristina Hartmann is pursuing a career as a full-time writer. She is also deaf and blind. We corresponded over a shared Google Document where she gave me long-form answers to my written questions.  Because everything was already written, the entire conversation has been copied to this post.

Thanks to Jessica Su for reading her answers and doing a great job.

Jeff: I want to start off with a quote from one of your answers. You write: “Most people have never met anyone like me. I’d go as far as to say a lot of people are afraid of me. The worst thing is that I understand why. I’m their walking nightmare: someone whose perceptions are so different that they can’t possibly start to relate. Funny thing is, I understand them far better than they understand me.” Tell me more about this quote, and how this sort of interaction affects you.

Christina: The thing is that … most people assume that others’ perceptions are similar if not identical to theirs. They depend on auditory and visual cues for many social interactions. For example, before talking to a stranger, you tend to make eye contact. It gives you implicit permission to talk to that person.

When people encounter someone like me–which isn’t often to begin with–whose visual and auditory perceptions aren’t all that great … they don’t know what to do. They don’t know if they should shake my hand. They don’t know how to talk to me. They don’t know how to touch me. What most people perceive to be ordinary quote-unquote rules for social interactions aren’t there anymore.

I make people uncomfortable because the rules no longer apply. They don’t know what to do. A lot of people hate not knowing what to do, so they either resent it or avoid it.

Other people just assume that a life without sight or sound is a terrible life. I’ve even had people suggest suicide to me as a viable option, which, by the way, isn’t really good advice for anyone. I don’t think they were trying to be cruel, but some people are just so attuned to the sensory worlds that the prospect of losing their sight and hearing is too awful to even consider. From their vantage point, no life seems better than life without sound or sight. I think they’d think differently if they were actually in my shoes.

Jeff: How do you feel about those interactions, where people suggest suicide?

My first reaction is always anger. To blithely suggest suicide to anyone is really an insensitive thing to do. Suicide isn’t something anyone should take lightly, particularly when they don’t know a lot of facts about that person’s life.

My second reaction is a deep sense of sadness that there are people out there who assume my life isn’t worth living, that nothingness is better than what I have. It’s a depressing thought that I try not to indulge in very often.

My third reaction is disgust. These people who have such cavalier attitude toward suicide see it as an easy way out. It’s not. Even if a person stop living, that person leaves behind others who loved them. If I decided to commit suicide, I’d be leaving behind a family who’d be crushed by my choice, friends who would question what they could’ve done to save me, and two cats who won’t get fed because I’m gone. Even if I wanted to off myself, I couldn’t do it in good conscience. I’d leave behind a lot more hurt than I’d cure.

I don’t take these people seriously, but the mere existence of those people depresses me a bit.

To be honest, I hate the fact that I make people uncomfortable and afraid. That’s the last thing I want … I’d just like people to be relaxed and cheerful around me. I also hate the fact that people think my life isn’t worth living. I just want a toned-down and easy interaction, but that’s not always possible.

But, there’s not a whole lot I can do about other people’s discomfort toward me. I can’t change what I am.

If I want to get all psychoanalytic on myself, I’d suppose a lot of my drive comes from the desire to prove people wrong, to prove that my life is worth something. Maybe I won’t ever become Picasso or a master cellist, but I can do some stuff.

And … you know, I’ve done a lot of things that I’m proud of. I’ve traveled to a lot of places. I’ve learned a lot of things. I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I’ll have to get off the psychologist’s armchair and settle for that.

Jeff: I understand that your deafness and blindness have affected who you are, and I do want to talk about that–but I also want to talk about who you are outside of that. What are you doing day-to-day as an occupation? What are your goals and pursuits?

Christina: Well, I’m a writer … or, more accurately, trying to be one. In a weird way, my disability has given me the freedom to do what I want with my life. I get enough money from the government to survive, so I write.

My life is tediously ordinary. I get up, feed the cats, make breakfast. I read a little before I write … and sometimes I end up writing more on Quora than I should. Bad for business. I cook a lot–and right now I’m really into braising meats–and try to keep my place reasonably tidy and clean, which I’m usually not so successful at. Boring, ordinary stuff, really.

Right now, I’m finishing up a book that has been a long time in the works. It’s called “The Formula,” which is about a nerdy computer science student who becomes … da da dum! … a pick-up artist! I’ll admit that I had entirely too much fun creating my own pick-up technique, which I hope is an improvement on existing PUA approaches. There’s also a lot of other things in this book, like gaming and the financial industry, but pick-up is at the heart of this novel.

I took a lot of wrong turns and ran into a few dead ends with this book–which is my second, by the way–but I think I’ve found my niche in terms of stories I want to write. I discovered that science fiction is something I love to read, but not necessarily something I’m good at writing. I’m more into contemporary issues that relate to the Internet and our culture.

In terms of my goals and prospects, I’ll admit to being entirely too single-minded.

My shorter-term goal is to finish “The Formula” (probably in the next two weeks) and shop it around for traditional publishing. I’d absolutely love it if I could get this one on the bookshelves somewhere.

Jeff: Why don’t you self-publish? Isn’t that more lucrative and straightforward? Dealing with gatekeepers seems like a big negative of the publishing industry.

Christina: I self-published The Secret Value of Zero, so I’m pretty well-aware of the upsides and downsides of self-publishing in general.

Self-publishing is great if you’re good at publicity and are targeting a niche audience. For example, that’s how Fifty Shades of Grey jumped ship from self-published to commercial publishing … the author had a pretty concentrated audience of erotic readers who liked Twilight fan fiction. If you have a niche audience, your publicity push is much easier since you can go to speciality websites, contact certain blogs, et cetera.

Self-publishing is a do-it-yourself project at its biggest. You’re not just the writer, you’re also the publicist, you’re also the one handling the fomatting, you’re the one managing the different sales platform. It’s great for people who can do many of those things very well and I’m not really one of them.

The thing about my book, The Formula, is that it has a more general audience. It’s more of a coming-of-age story of a nerdy computer science student who desperately wants to quote-unquote better himself and gets involved in the pick-up artist and seduction community. That’s more of a general fiction kind of book, so I’d have a really, really hard time marketing that as a self-published book. Not just that, but I think this book has a shot at making it big since there’s not very many–if any, since I can’t find any–fiction books out there that takes a hard and in-depth look at the seduction community. Of course, you could argue that a lot of the PUA manuals are fiction, but we won’t go there. I really believe in this book so I want to get it out there to as many people as possible and commercial publishing is–bar none–still the best way to do that, distribution-wise and publicity-wise.

Publishing–either self-publishing or commercial–is kind of a devil’s bargain. With commercial publishing, you sacrifice some profit margins for a far bigger audience reach and a more polished product. With self-publishing, you maintain a higher profit, but you’ll have a smaller audience size and it’s very difficult to turn out a product that is equally polished and diversified as a commercial publisher’s. It is indeed possible–some self-published authors do this–but I don’t have enough patience or attention to detail to be able to do a smash-up job on formatting, marketing, and all that. Being self-published can be very rewarding, but it’s also very, very hard and requires a lot of overhead … and it’s just not something I’m skilled enough at.

I’m rather curious to see how agents and publishers will react to this book. Hopefully, it’ll be a positive reaction, but we’ll see.

My longer-term goals are in the same vein. I’m a storyteller and I believe that the best way to change someone’s mind about anything is to tell them a story. What I need to figure out is the best avenue for my storytelling. I’ve been fiddling around with the thought of working more in non-fiction, maybe even chronicling my own life as I lose my sight. I definitely want to write more books, though, but I want to do more than just write novels, but I’m not sure exactly how yet.

Jeff: What are your goals with writing? Is it a selfish pursuit, for catharsis? Do you feel a need to confer your way of viewing the world to the reader so that you feel less lonely? Or do you try to cater to the reader and provide solidarity?

Christina: In a weird way, I write to give back to the world, to make myself more valuable.

One thing I hated hearing when I was growing up was that I wouldn’t amount to much because of my disabilities. They would constantly point out the high unemployment rates of the deaf, the blind, and most especially, the deaf-blind. Most deaf-blind people I knew who were employed were working with other deaf-blind people, which is great, but I always wanted … to do something that would change people’s minds.

I love changing people’s minds, and stories are the best way to do that. My stories are both fiction and non-fiction.

Yes, I could be more directly useful to people if I worked as a lawyer or somewhere else. I’ve tried that already, and I realized that I didn’t really change people’s minds. I was always an exception, an oddity. When I worked at a white-shoe law firm during law school, I felt incredible pressure to be like everyone else, to act fully hearing and sighted. I couldn’t make any mistakes, or people would shake their heads and say, “Well, of course she failed.”

When I write, though … I feel like I have a genuine chance at changing some people’s minds about a lot of different issues including, disability, culture, and all those neat stuff.

This might sound like bragging, but I don’t mean it to be … but I’ve lived an incredibly unique, interesting, and weird life.

I mean, think about it. My parents are immigrants from Brazil when I was born profoundly deaf. I entered a culture that uses deafness as a point of pride, not a disability. Then I received a cochlear implant, a bionic ear, that endangered my membership in the culture. With that cochlear implant, I learned how to listen and speak and went on to attend top-tier schools, including an elite boarding school where I was the first ever–and as far as I know, the only–deaf student to attend.

I’ve had a lot of experiences that 99% of people don’t have and will never have. These experiences have definitely given me an interesting perspective on a lot of different groups of people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’ve rubbed elbows with the rich and the poor, the ultra-educated and high school dropouts. I’ve been treated very well and very poorly by others.

I want to amount to something in my life. I want to make the world a better place. Writing is the best way I know how to do that. With writing, I can reach millions of people and tell them stories. Considering how extreme my life has been, I have a lot of stories.

So, I guess it’s a mixture of a selfish desire to prove myself valuable and the genuine desire to help people understand others. Hey, none of us are entirely selfish or entirely selfless. I want my writing to matter to people–to give them a fresh perspective on things–and I hope to achieve that someday.

Jeff: Are you trying to engineer something that will go viral? What does it take for a piece of fiction to go viral? It seems extremely difficult. When you think about the books that have gone viral, you have like Fifty Shades of Grey on one end of the spectrum, and then Hunger Games and Harry Potter on the other…

Christina: I don’t believe that those things can be perfectly engineered, so I would be foolish to try.

Sure, I could try to come up with some kind of crazy concept that would grab people’s attention, like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games. But that’s no guarantee of popularity. I’d probably end up coming off as fake and opportunistic if I tried to engineer virality, so I’m not going to try.

I’m going to write the best stories I can. I want to write stories that are entertaining, but have substance. I want to tell stories from unique perspectives. That’s all I can do. I just write the best I can, get it out there, and hope for the best.

I’m not writing to become a bestseller. I’m writing because I want to, and I think I have something valuable to say. If that takes off, great! If it doesn’t, at least I know I tried.

Moreover, a lot of the books that have gone viral have done so through pure dumb luck. There’s no way you can engineer luck. You can definitely increase your odds of getting lucky, but it’s still arbitrary at the end.

So, I’ll write the best story I can, increase the odds of getting lucky, and go from there.

When I spent some time writing fiction in college I found it to be tremendously fun but also extremely difficult, and not very gratifying because—ultimately, not many people want to read fiction. There is too much competition for the modern human attention span, and it’s nearly impossible to please a reader with just a wall of fictional text.

Yes, it’s easy to despair when you think about everything competing for people’s attention. There’s the Internet. There’s TV. There’s the doggy across the street.

But .. so what? Fiction writing has always been an unrewarding profession in terms of instant gratification. A lot of authors only got famous after their deaths.

Nobody should become a writer if they can’t take the idea that their work might be in vain. I accept it and expect it.

I think that everyone talks too much about distraction nowadays. There are definitely more things competing for one’s attention, but there are more ways to access a story, too. For example, you used only to be able to buy a book if they stocked it at the bookstore, but now you can buy almost any book you want online … or pirate it. You used to have to always have a book with you to read it, but now you can read it on your phone, tablet, computer … whatever. You used only to be able to sell your book in limited areas, but now you can reach a worldwide audience. (There is a caveat for traditional publishing, though. Major publishers still enforce country-based publishing rights, but … the basic premise still stands.)

So, I consider it all a wash.

Fiction writing is and always will be an uncertain affair. You have to roll with it or you’ll be miserable. I’ll let you guess which choice I’ve made.

Jeff: How have you changed as a writer over time? Does Quora help?

Christina: That’s a tough question. I’m not sure if I have enough self-awareness for this.

I guess I would have to say that I’m now more comfortable with writing about deeply personal issues. Quora was instrumental in this evolution, since it gave me a platform and a positive feedback cycle.

Four years ago, I was pretty much like most other people. I thought that showing weakness–in any shape or form–was forbidden. I thought that I should only write about things that made me look smart or good or fill-in-positive-attribute. I thought that was the only way to earn respect and become a good writer.

How silly I was!

I’ve learned to be unfailingly honest in my writing. I won’t gloss over things. In fact, I’ve written about some very unpleasant things from my past, such as my stint as a schoolyard bully, my occasional bouts of depression, my failures in the employment sector. I haven’t always been a good person, nor have I always had good things happen to me, just like everyone else.

Facing up to the truth, however unpleasant it might be, has made me a more realistic an
d honest writer, which has made me a better writer. Well, I hope so..

This has translated into my stories as well. I’ve been getting less and less sentimental, and I wasn’t particularly sentimental to start with. I think this is a good direction for me.

Jeff: Do you have any sense of bitterness towards the world about not having the full benefit of senses that other people have? Or does it end up making you feel more grateful?

Christina: Here’s the thing, I don’t really have anyone to resent. Nobody’s responsible for the fact that I inherited a rare genetic disorder that causes deafblindness. It’s a relatively rare disorder, but someone has to have it. One of those someones just happens to be me, that’s all.

Well, I guess you could blame my parents since it’s their genes, too, but they had no idea. I was born before genetic testing, after all. Also, they did a lot for me growing up. I can’t even begin to emphasize how much I owe my parents–especially my mother–who went to hell and back to get me the education and tools I needed, regardless of the politics around disability. They always encouraged me to do what I wanted and still do. Not everyone is that lucky.

I know exactly how lucky I am because I’ve met many deafblind people whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t give them access to a language and social interactions. They never got a chance to do a lot of things like I did. They had to struggle a lot more than I did to graduate high school, to communicate with anyone, and so on. It would have been very easy for me to turn out just like many others if I had different, more negligent, parents. Having a kid like me requires a lot of energy, and I’m well aware of that and grateful to my parents for the effort they put into raising me.

Does that count as gratitude? I suppose so, but it’s a bit complicated.

Jeff: Recently I interviewed James Altucher, and something that he says often is “gratitude is the same as abundance.” I find that to be profound. It’s the type of thing that is a cliche because it is true—if you zoom out and say, it’s pretty fantastic to have running water and a warm bed and all these material comforts that are easy to take for granted, and make a habit of it, it can make a real positive impact on your life. On days that are going poorly, do you have any internal tactics like that? To turn things around?

Christina: I’m afraid that I have no insightful maxims to give you. On these days where I just feel like crap, nothing is going right, and I keep stubbing my toe … I just try to get through the day and do something–anything–that makes me feel semi-useful.

On those days, I try to do something that gives me a small sense of accomplishment. It’s different each day. Sometimes, it’s writing a few Quora answers. Other days, it’s cleaning the toilet. Still other days, it’s working on something for my book.

Progress, even if it’s infinitesimally small, is still progress … even if it’s cleaning the toilet.

I won’t sugarcoat things and say that every day I wake up thinking of sunshine and rainbows. Some days just blow. There are some days where I break several things, cut myself, or something stupid like that. There are some days where I just don’t feel like making a huge effort to the gym and being nervous that someone’s talking to me when I have my cochlear implant off. On those days, I’m not feeling grateful at all, although I don’t really feel resentful either. It’s more frustration that I feel. It’s frustration that things aren’t easy or simple for me, and that I have to have to be on high alert when I go outside. And yeah, sometimes I get pissed off that small things are harder for me than for others. Sometimes, I just want to be able to go to a restaurant without thinking about how I’d get there, how I’d read the menu, and how I’d communicate with the server. Those are the bad days.

But, I have good days, too. Some days, things go my way and I don’t break things. I write something that people like. I read something fun. On those days, I feel a bit more grateful and content.

Being deafblind definitely doesn’t make me a better person … or a worse person. I’m just myself, doing my best. It’s not like I can snap up new eyes or ears at the local Wal-Mart, so I’ll make do with what I have, which isn’t nothing.

So, I wouldn’t say I feel either resentment or gratitude. I just feel like this is the only life I have, and I might as well make the best of it. It’s a good thing, I guess, that I don’t believe in reincarnation.

Jeff: Do you believe your body has compensated?

Christina:  It’s interesting how many people seem to think that losing one or more senses turns the remaining senses into superpowers. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case.

I think it’s more fair to say that I’m more aware of vibrations and smells than a person with average sight and hearing does. It’s more of a matter of fewer inputs than heightening, really. I’m sure you or anyone else smell and feel the same things I do, but you’re just filtering them out because you get so much visual and auditory information.

The thing about having one or more quote-unquote missing senses is that you use different stimuli to infer the things sighted or hearing people perceive. For example, if I’m upstairs in my apartment and I feel a short and sharp vibration under my feet, I know that someone has come in or left since I’m standing above the doorway. It’s not really all that different from someone hearing a door close and making the same inferences.

If you frame it simply as deduction using different senses to reach the same conclusion, it doesn’t seem all that amazing. It’s not a superpower … it’s just taking different stimuli and figuring out what they mean … like everyone else does with their senses.

Rather than say that my senses are heightened, I’d just say that I can make some reasonable deductions based on the senses that I have to know what’s happening around me.

One thing I think is important to note is that nothing is really a perfect substitute for what sight and sound allow you to perceive. I can perceive a lot of things with my cane, my sense of smell and my somewhat limited inputs through cochlear implants, but I can’t quote-unquote see far away. I once read that blindness and low vision are simply not being able to see far away, and I think that’s a pretty accurate assessment. I can perceive a lot of my immediate environment, but maybe not much 200 meters away.

On a second thought, there is one way that my body–well, my mind, really–has really compensated. My spatial memory is much, much better nowadays. It’s funny since I was always kind of scatter-brained and forever leaving things behind me like a Hansel and Grettle trail. I’ve left my purse at Taco Bell, which thankfully, I got back. I’ve also lost everything from glasses–yeah, I know–to shoes.

Now, I don’t do that anymore. In part, I’m far more methodical about what I carry with me and how I carry things. The other part of it is that I just remember where I leave things far better. I’m glad to report that I’ve stopped losing purses and wallets, which is very good for my sanity.

Jeff: What are some benefits of being deaf? Do you think you can focus better on what is important to you? Do you have an easier time with signal-to-noise ratio just by virtue of the fact that you receive less signal and noise?

Christina: Absolutely. There are many benefits to being deaf. Mind you, I’m a rare example of someone who has no natural hearing, even with hearing aids. Most people, even those who are profoundly deaf, have some kind of sensation. I don’t.

When I need to focus on something more intellectual, I always turn off my cochlear implants. It’s more relaxing for me that way, since I don’t have to listen to my fingers typing or my cats meowing for food, which they do entirely too often. I put them on a diet and they won’t let me forget it.

That being said, the focus and relaxation are great, but I need to be careful when I go offline, especially since I’m also visually impaired. I won’t be able to hear an alarm or a knock at the door. I try to contain my relaxing and silent moments to times when there’s not much of a risk of an alarm going off or someone coming by.

I’ve often commented to people that having my cochlear implants turned off feels more natural to me. I suppose it’s because I spent the first six years of my life not hearing a thing, so I find that more comforting than hearing. To me, hearing is something I do to ease my interactions with what many in the Deaf community call “the hearing world.” It’s kind of a chore sometimes, to be honest.

There are a lot of other tangential benefits. I can sleep more easily in noisy environments as long as there aren’t any vibrations. Although, I’ve had roommates who took advantage of this a bit too much. I remember when I woke up in the middle of the night my freshman year to see my roommate and three other people playing DDR in our room. There game playing created enough vibrations to wake me up, which is saying something considering that we had concrete floors. Needless to say I cursed at them and told them to go to sleep since it was 3 AM.

Other benefits include being able to join in with the Deaf community. I grew up and still maintain contact with the community. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Deaf community and culture are one of the rare places I’ve seen people from all races, reds, socioeconomic classes, and religions, interact quite as closely. It was a pretty good place to grow up in.

Jeff: You write that “many people assume that you need a voice and hearing to communicate. You don’t. You just need two people who want to communicate, and the rest will work out.” I like this quote–I’ve noticed that when I am interacting with people who don’t speak English as a first language, I tend to simplify what I’m saying. Not in a way where I’m limiting what I am saying, but I will put more effort into using more common words and less ambiguity, fewer idioms. I think it actually helps me speak better in general.

Christina:  Yeah, I think a lot of people think that more words will get more information across. I’m not so sure that’s true. This is one thing that drives me nuts about some hearing people … that they don’t say what they want straight out. I remember a few times when I asked someone if they wanted coffee or water. He hemmed and hawed for so long that I lost track of what he was saying, so I ended up asking, “Yes or no? Coffee? Water?” And .. well, that was it. People make things too complicated sometimes.

There is some contrast between this type of simplified, unambiguous speech, and how English is taught in high school English class. In high school English, we are encouraged to use flowery language, like we get extra points if we use more syllables. But in the real world, people that talk with more simplicity reap more rewards.

Exactly. Like my coffee example, most of the time, we just need to get something done or convey something fairly straightforward. There’s really no need to complicate things with tangents and euphemisms. Well, mostly.

I noticed that you capitalize the word “Deaf” in a lot of your writing. What is the difference between the capitalized version of “Deaf” and the uncapitalized? Is it the difference between “Deaf” as a culture and “deaf” as a symptom?

To put it in simplified terms, yes. Capitalized D-deaf refers to the Deaf culture and people who belong to it. Lower-case d-deaf refers to the physiological state of deafness or hearing loss.

Of course, when you look at how people use it, it’s not as simple. Since upper-case D-deaf refers to the culturally Deaf, the lower-case d-deaf refers to people who might qualify as physiologically deaf, but don’t belong to the culture. So, what does that mean? It can mean that the person subscribes to the idea that deafness is not a point of pride and a burden, a medical condition to cure. This belief is inimical to everything that the Deaf culture stands for, and is called audism. At minimum, lower-case d-deaf refers to people who don’t associate themselves with the culture. It’s not a compliment if you’re called a lower-case d-deaf by a Deaf person.

Reality is more complicated. There are varying levels of involvement in the Deaf culture … just like any other culture. For example, I wouldn’t consider myself very culturally Deaf, since I chose not to go to a Deaf university, and most of my friends are hearing. I use my voice to communicate every day. But .. I’m fluent in American Sign Language, and I use it whenever I have the oportunity. I grew up in the community and subscribe to many of the beliefs.

Am I a big-D or a little-d? I don’t know. It’s an issue of identity and cultural politics … something that I prefer not to take sides in. This is definitely not always a popular stance, but I suppose that that’s the price I pay for refusing to take sides.

I just found out a few months ago that there’s a movement in Deaf studies to use capitalized D-deaf to refer to all physiologically deaf people regardless of their cultural membership. That’s definitely more inclusive, but it might be a bit confusing when talking about cultural membership. I’ll wait and see what happens with this movement.

Jeff: What piece of wisdom can you give me that I am unlikely to hear from anywhere else?

Christina: Geez, way to put a girl on the spot there, Jeff. Well, I’ll give it my best shot, and just remember .. I’m a terrible shot.

I’d have to go with … you can’t manufacture luck, you can only increase or decrease your odds.

The way I see it, a lot more in the world happens because of arbitrary luck than most people want to admit. Everyone wants to think that there’s a rhyme and reason to everything. Sometimes, there’s not.

I like to use college admissions as an example. You can increase your odds of getting into Harvard by doing really well on the SAT’s, getting great grades, doing extracurricular … but you can’t ever guarantee it. You’re still competing for a few spots with people who have great records, just like you. You might get in or you might not. It’s kind of arbitrary about who gets in and doesn’t get in after a certain point.

Life is kind of like that. You can do everything you can to get–or avoid–an certain outcome, but at the end, it’s still arbitrary. You could eat lots of vegetables, exercise five days a week, avoid smoking, but still get throat cancer. And vice versa. You might eat twinkies for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and smoke like a chimney … and not get sick. It’s a game of odds either way.

It sucks when you’re on the losing end of capricious luck, but it’s also wonderful when you’re on the winning end. Heck, even being in the middle is better than a loss. I think more people should respect luck and the role it has in our lives.

I’m not sure if this is a terribly new concept, but that’s all I got.

Jeff Nelson: Chromebook Inventor

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Jeff Nelson had a problem.

“In 2006 I was working on the Google Accounts team. I was writing a browser extension, and what I was finding over and over again was that restarting Firefox in Ubuntu was a particularly slow operation–like 45 seconds. At the time, there wasn’t a way to reload an extension and dynamically start the extension without resetting the browser, and this was really slowing me down as a developer.”

“What I did was find a way to restart Firefox faster.”

Jeff forked a Linux distribution called Puppy Linux and began using it for his development.

“Puppy Linux is designed from the ground up to run in RAM entirely, and this is different than other Linux extensions. That has enormous advantages from a performance perspective, because you eliminate I/O as a bottleneck. The Firefox restart went from 45 seconds to less than 2 seconds.”

As with many innovations, what began as a narrow solution to the inventor’s problem showed broader promise over time.  Starting in 2006, Jeff led a campaign for his vision of a webtop. Repeatedly spurned by management, he left the company in frustration before his ideas reached fruition.

His vision has been carried out by other people. A modern Chromebook is a laptop running Chrome OS as its operating system. The device is selling exceptionally well.

“It’s more of a system than a device. When you are using a Chromebook, you shouldn’t need an offline Unix environment. That was never the intent. It is this online environment that allows you to access all of the services on the network. It is the hardware in your hands, plus all of the services we are delivering to you.”

Jeff feels he has been written out of history. The most vocal Googlers who have addressed Jeff’s complaints claim he deserves no credit. They believe that his thread of innovation was disjoint from that which birthed an actual consumer product.

“A lot of this controversy where some people are saying that I shouldn’t get credit comes from the fact that people feel like I am taking credit away from them. That’s just not the case. I’m putting an accomplishment that I did on my resume.”

“After I had built the initial prototype, I was so impressed that I brought it in and showed it around to some of my coworkers, as well as the director of consumer products I was reporting to, David Jeske. He kind of resisted it.”

“It was developed as a raw prototype, that had to be online all the time.” You couldn’t use Chromebook on an airplane.

“Because the team didn’t want to pursue this as project, I ran it by myself.” After several more months of solo pursuit, he sent a prototype of his operating system around the company.

“At that point product management got involved, because there was a powerful response. It did become a project. The main guy on the Chrome team, Mike Jazayeri got involved [as a PM]. Eventually we presented to Larry Page on the whole concept.”

This momentum proved temporary.

“It was December 2007 where I made the decision that it wasn’t happening. I was getting too much pushback from my own boss.”

“My own boss didn’t like the concept and didn’t want me to keep working on it. We had presented to Larry Page, Jeff Huber, Brian Rakowski. We had even taken it outside of Google, to HP and ASUS. It was going extremely well, except that the person who didn’t support the idea was my own boss.”

“I did attempt to change teams, and that soured my relationship with my direct manager even more. He wanted me to stay on the team and keep doing what I was doing. My own manager didn’t want to let me go.”

“It was company politics. People have this amazingly high regard for Google, but in the end, it’s a company. The same kind of corporate interplay nonsense that you have to deal with at any other company still occurs at Google.”

Michael O. Church’s description of “software politics” echoed in the words of Jeff Nelson.

“Some of that amazingly high regard for Google as a perfect company is not entirely well-placed. It’s still a real company with real problems and real people working there.”

“I had exhausted all of my options. I knew that without going over the head of my manager, I couldn’t change teams. It came down to the fact that I wasn’t having fun anymore, so I left Google.”

Since Jeff Nelson left Google, Chrome has taken off as a browser and an operating system. In the meantime, Jeff has taken criticism for trying to claim credit for his work.

Were the Chrome team’s efforts completely agnostic of Jeff Nelson’s work? That is unlikely. Mike Jazayeri worked closely with Jeff Nelson when the product had positive internal momentum at Google. Jazayeri  also worked with the Chrome OS team. At a minimum, the cross-pollination between Nelson and Jazayeri has impacted the trajectory of Chrome.

“I don’t want to claim that when I invented Chromebook I wrote every line of code.”

“I worked on it for a year and half, I wrote two patents on it. I left Google in 2008, and those patents were actually filed in 2009, a year after I left the company.”

“If there is any animosity coming from the Chrome team about why I have this accomplishment on my resume, all it would take is two words from Larry Page and it would clear this up. I am getting slammed by these one or two guys that seem to think they know what happened, when they really don’t know what happened.”

“To some extent, the only reason we are even talking about this is that I happened to write the patents and Google decided to file them. If not for that, we wouldn’t even be talking–everyone would think I am this crazy guy who claimed to create this project. The purpose of a patent isn’t to back up your resume, but in this case it has become that.”

“People in software don’t think about intellectual property ownership as the guy who created technology, they think of the guy who is working on it right now.”

“The guy who worked on it eight years ago–they ignore that. There is that disconnect because people in software don’t view innovation in terms of the guy who started the idea, who wrote the first version.”

Jeff emphasized that he is not looking for a zero-sum form of credit. He doesn’t want to subtract from the claims of anyone else. “The other innovations–the people that created them deserve credit as well.”

A crucial question is whether Chrome would be as successful if not for Jeff Nelson.

“I don’t think so. I was the first person to build this project. We had meetings up and down management.”

“I called my initial prototype Guppy. When the Chrome team got involved, we created a new project called Google OS. In sometime around March 2008, there was a new project created called Penguin, which was similar to Google OS, but didn’t use a window manager. It ran entirely in a browser.”

“Around July 2009, they launched Polar Bear. It brought back a window manager, and looked more like Google OS. Offline mode came around 2009 as well.”

“My theory is that Google may be concerned with something like an intellectual property battle. I think they are worried that they will lose ground if they give me credit for this.”

“They should just clarify exactly why these patents are in my name, why they filed them. It would be a non-issue at that point.”

Since leaving Google, Jeff Nelson has recalibrated his career goals toward starting a machine learning company.

“I’ve been working for the man for a long time, and I want to go back to my roots of trying to start my own company, take an idea to fruition, and know that I’m building my own company and can take it to the next level. I’m trying to build a team of really exceptional people.”

“The market as a whole has started to appreciate machine learning. What a lot of companies are doing now is kind of naive. I think that there’s a next level that a lot of companies–even Fortune 500 companies–haven’t appreciated at this point. Over the past month, I’ve been trying to meet with as many companies as I can to identify the big problems that aren’t being solved yet.”

“A lot of companies jumped into this Big Data hype without understanding that they actually had to do something with that data.”

“After leaving Google, I didn’t want to just go get a job. I wanted to try to build my own company. That’s a very big decision to make. It’s easy to get a job in Silicon Valley. It’s not easy to start a company.”

“Google has this extraordinary mythology of being the best company to work for ever. When you make the decision to leave, it’s to some extent difficult to recover and decide where to go next. You are leaving this company that has been perceived as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Michelle Roses: Wonder Woman

Michelle Roses writes on Quora about motherhood, relationships, Judaism, and life lessons.

“Quora has been pretty therapeutic. It’s been a way to write about experiences and connect with people who like reading them, or who can relate to them.”

“I don’t usually write answers or share unless it is something significant. I don’t have many joke answers–I have to feel some kind of connection to the question, that I can either add to or comment on in a different way.”

We compared our respective Jewish experiences. Though both of us have had our conflicts with the religion, we differ in that she has found a Jewish identity she is comfortable with.

“I was raised Jewish in the south. It’s not as prevalent, so growing up I was a minority when it came to religion. That’s affected me a lot. What was hammered into me was: you have to learn these traditions. You have to learn all this stuff so that you can carry it on.”

“The thing that was missing for me was spirituality.”

“I still don’t hear a lot about the spirituality. It’s still all about learning the traditions, learning the prayers, learning the holidays and history. It never becomes about a relationship with God. I think that’s why there are so many Jews that find a different path.”

Michelle told me about her experience as a television anchor. It was a good excuse for me to ask for some advice around interviewing.

“It’s about having a conversation more than asking questions and getting answers. You are leading a person on a specific train of thought. When that happens, people actually say more than they would if you asked them questions that are very specific.”

“People just want to have a conversation, and the more comfortable you can get them, the more information they will give you.”

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