Planned Spontaneousness

This is kind of an interesting story — Sean Parker partially paid for environmental law violations with the state of California (he had a fancy wedding where you aren’t supposed to) by building a mobile app for them.

Parker agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle all the violations from the event, though the bulk of the issues stemmed from the hotel’s misuse of the camping area. For another component, Parker, Lenas and the commission set to brainstorm ideas. The agency said it increasingly seeks out creative solutions to problems in addition to financial settlements. Some ideas, like one Parker had to buy a campground to be used by schools and other organizations to bring disadvantaged children to the coast, never got off the ground. So the group started focusing in on one that would blend Parker’s technological acumen with the agency’s coastal access work: an app.

The Washington Post

Here’s the funniest quote from the piece, though —

He also provided funding for two years of maintenance, after which the state will have to take it on itself. And he will be making a video about the commission that is required by contract to go viral, as the final piece of his settlement.

Oh man, that’s great. I hope he is contractually obligated for it to be a “sensation” and “part of the cultural zeitgeist”. Good luck, civil court judge left to interpret this in 2024.

OMG George Will

I obviously have no idea, but I’d like to assume a non-George-Will person came up with the actual headline here and just tried to come up with the smarmiest possible language, because… George Will.

The Limits of Positive Returns

The last real album — at least by the standards I’ve given myself over the years, which are lower than Beyonce, but a lot higher than the average garage idiot — I’ve worked on came out five years ago, in 2014. That’s a really long time for me, but it’s not a coincidence that my daughter was born in early 2016, and my son in the middle of 2017. It’s not to say that I had kids and gave up on music, because I didn’t. My daughter even got to see me play on stage once! But, unsurprisingly, most of the time I’ve needed to be even a replacement-level parent has come from my favorite hobbies, which are writing/playing music and basketball.

Again, that’s pretty normal. But what’s interesting (and what I want to write about) is that there hasn’t been a linear relationship between the amount of free time I’ve had and the amount of production I get from my hobbies. Instead, there’s obvious some amount of critical mass involved, because with 30% as much time, I’m basically getting 5% of the output.

How I Used to Work

To have appropriate perspective, it’s important to realize that my music has historically come as a response to boredom. While I originally learned to play the saxophone as a kid because I actively enjoyed it, I didn’t really write or produce anything until I was a typical suburban teenager with long, directionless summer days and nights (and chemistry class). And even then, I didn’t start getting truly creative until college, when I had literally nothing to do on my weekends and would just drag a guitar and a cassette four-track to our music building and play and sing until my voice was gone.

I can’t understate the nature of how little I needed to be anywhere else during that process. Literally no one was ever looking for me, interested in what I was doing with my time, or curious if I was being productive with it. Many times I would strike out, recording hundreds of awful, unusable, embarrassing demo ideas I never played for anybody or ever listened to again, and that never mattered. It certainly had no impact on my willingness or ability to continue plugging away the following weekend, or the weekend after that. In the aggregate, I don’t remember all the terrible things I made that didn’t work — I remember the overall process that gave me the demos that turned into songs I loved that we later recorded in the studio.

Once I was out of school (and not even writing for a band), this is still the way I worked. I had two small bouts of unemployment that totaled less than a year (maybe six months right out of school, and then another six when I first moved to Cleveland in ’06), and I used the time in the exact same way. Set up shop, start grinding, and stop when you can’t go anymore. I got similar results; mostly crap demos I’m embarrassed by, and a few things I love that my kids still listen to today and dance around the living room to.

Time and Capital

In theory, I think venture capital is supposed to work the same way. You try to buy time to give the right people and ideas sufficient room to just keep going to work every day, knowing that a lot of things won’t pan out, but the great ideas that do will be worth the overall process. But I’ve been dealing with venture capital for basically a decade now, and I don’t really think this is what happens at all. Sure, a couple big names keep getting absurd amounts of money pumped into them that allow a seemingly endless timeline of exploration — but that’s not actually what’s happening at those companies. They’re actually on a really tight, short-term timeline; it’s just about raising more money or keeping investors happy with what’s going on.

So that brings me to my critical mass problem with music. Like a VC backed startup, certain scenarios open up where I have time and freedom — for instance, I have an hour and a half or so this morning, because my wife and kids went to church. Therefore, why would I not go create an hour and a half of music?

Two reasons:

  1. Sometimes (most times?), an hour and a half of musical production effort results in… no measurable results at all (this is also true of writing, which is why everything on this site is disjointed and poorly edited now). As has always been the case, many times I just walk away with something I don’t really like and found frustrating to make. Compare that to an hour and a half of cleaning up the house, or getting ahead of stuff for work, where I always get demonstrable results and someone important is always happy. It’s tough to make that tradeoff when time is limited anyways.
  2. More importantly, the output of knowing you have an hour and a half to make something is usually something with scope and ambition of something you know you have to finish in 90 minutes. Those songs are very straightforward, unambitious, and often a little sterile. Verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus — crap, is that the van door? I gotta go, export, done. You can try to save it until next week, but I’ve always found songwriting to be very momentum driven. After seven days, the moment you were capturing is often long gone.

The Hour & a Half Business Plan

You’re seeing the startup equivalent of the hour and a half time investment throughout technology these days, and it’s more obvious than ever. Money is available to enterprise software startups that can run the exact same playbook that’s worked a million times, with the same bunch of founders with the same set of experiences and connections. Those startups are expected to hit certain growth patterns based on the success of other enterprise software startups, move up/down market, blah blah blah, rinse, repeat, and either IPO or be sold.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I’ve worked for multiple companies like this who took this path because it made the most sense for the problem they were addressing. But you’ve got to admit that what I’m talking about is a pretty limited problem set.

Every time I have this discussion with either investors or people who spend a lot of time trying to win investors over, I get the same response, which is an immediate pivot to the financial justification for everything — as if I’m not aware of that after ten years of decks and quarterly reviews. But my point isn’t that VCs should start making unrealistic, borderline philanthropic investment strategies — it’s that the effective branding of VCs, the Valley, and “tech” as an industry (versus a concept that slowly moves along, well, everything) as this massive agent of useful social change has actually caused some of us to believe it, and just assume that cloud software for banks, or a variety of narrow systems designed to convert layer after layer of labor into disposable contractors are somehow the appropriate next stages of social evolution. All because they fit a desired exit timeline for today’s VC approach to investment strategy!

Let me say it more plainly.

  1. Capital is time to operate.
  2. Capital only comes from so many places.
  3. Bank loans are too small and too hard to get for most potential solutions/businesses/ideas.
  4. Internal investment at large companies is minimal and often constrained by various innovator’s dilemmas and the general inability of successful companies to grow and spread change and new ideas.
  5. VC money — and this is directly contrary to its carefully cultivated brand — is much too constrained in ambition, timeline, and willingness not for risk, but for actual loss to solve problems that actually matter at this point.
  6. Inherited wealth (as with business capital) mostly goes to people who don’t want things to change (because they are wealthy with things the way they are), or who are idiots and/or unmotivated.

So… what’s left? How did America come up with so many amazing innovations and honest-to-God progress through so much of the 20th century? It’s almost like we had a vehicle for broad, loosely managed but highly directional investment in things that, unlike VCs or banks, didn’t need to worry about capital returns.

Okay fine, have a hint.

Churches

There’s nothing I can write on my little website that will put a terrorist mass-murder into perspective, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that even as basically non-religious person raised outside of any kind of faith community, the idea of targeting a church with an act of violence seems particularly… perverted?

I don’t know what the right word is, and I hope it’s obvious I don’t mean to downplay secular violence, violence against the non-religious, etc. But these are places often built and operated outside of the idea of money, power, control — they are literally safe havens from all of the cruelty and pain of the world, and in that way they are really one of the most amazing things ideas have ever put into practice. I’m not necessarily talking about organized religion or the institutions themselves, even if that’s what enables many of these places to exist. I just mean the places themselves, especially those that are truly open to everyone (which is the vast majority).

We all need places like this. We can and should build non-denominational ones — town halls, squares, even the stupid Panera I go to when I want to get out of the house. But churches are places that, without the force of anything — commerce, the state, etc. — simply provide shelter to the world because it’s there and it’s the right thing to do, and so many of them share that weirdly similar mission across different faiths.

Now, I know basic history. Nothing is truly sacrosanct among every last one of us, and nothing ever really has been. But the fact that this kind of thing — not just mass violence, but mass violence specifically targeting the very idea of sanctuary — could find a community of like-minded support online is hard for me to internalize.

on Dads

Sally Jenkins writes about her father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins, who died at the age of 90 this week:

He acknowledged his absences with the kind of drollery that characterized his parenting style. “Don’t rob old people,” he would say as he headed off.

the Washington Post

I have a feeling that, had I known him, I would have gotten along with Dan Jenkins just fine. Here’s more of his parenting:

He was an unindicted co-conspirator, constantly in trouble with my mother for his scandalously unorthodox child-rearing. One afternoon in our hometown of Fort Worth, when I was about 7, he drove my two brothers and me the wrong way down a quiet one-way street. Delighted, I stared at the baffled drivers and street signs pointed in the opposite direction. “People are easily led,” he instructed.

Just read the whole thing.

What is happening?

I think I got very old, very fast today. Here’s ESPN trying to tell me what happened in a soccer game.

Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar blasted the video assisted refereeing (VAR) decision to award Manchester United a late penalty in their 3-1 Champions League last-16 second-leg win at Parc des Princes that secured a 3-3 away goals success.

http://www.espn.com/soccer/paris-saint-germain/story/3793346/psgs-neymar-blasts-var-after-losscalls-it-a-disgrace

Great news guys, we secured a 3-3 away goals success. As soon as I find out what that is, we can celebrate. But hey, that’s soccer, I never claimed to understand soccer. Tell me what’s going on in football free agency, a thing I’ve cared about for about 20 years.

Keenum has a base salary of $18 million this season, but only $7 million was guaranteed in the way of offsets, which the Redskins and Broncos decided to split evenly, sources said. The Broncos, who would’ve carried $10 million in “dead money” had they cut Keenum, will instead save $3 million by paying only $3.5 million as well as a $500,000 restructuring bonus.

http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/26174723/sources-broncos-trading-keenum-redskins

My God man, what are you doing? How is this level of salary cap information relevant? Who is this coverage even for? Anyways, the moral of the story is that I yell at clouds now, film at eleven.

Facebook + Privacy = LOL

Wired noticed the same thing I did about Facebook’s big announcement it was going all in on privacy as a feature.

Zuckerberg listed six privacy principles, but there was one glaring omission: He said nothing about how Facebook plans to approach data sharing and ad targeting in this privacy-focused future.

https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-zuckerberg-privacy-pivot/

Uh… yeah. This has happened every time something disastrous occurs with Facebook and the way they use people’s information (usually to make money, because America) — they add features or clarify a bunch of existing features designed to keep other Facebook users from seeing the stuff you post.

But the problem isn’t keeping your data away from Facebook users. It’s keeping it away from Facebook, or more importantly, away from the functions at Facebook responsible for turning things Facebook has into money. In other words, it’s a business model problem. Apple can say “hold on, if we do not try to make money off this data, it will allow us to make more money off hardware”. Facebook has nothing like that, and has shown neither the willingness or capability to develop it.

Until that happens, Facebook is going to get more and more aggressive about using your data to make money no matter what their CEO or anyone else says (except maybe, someday, the government), because they are a growth-oriented, publicly traded company in the post-Milton-Friedman world of MAXIMIZING SHAREHOLDER VALUE(tm). They don’t have any other cards to play.

Tom Wheeler, Enigma

I’ll admit to being one of the many sneering technology professionals who assumed Tom Wheeler was going to be a terrible, short-sighted head of the FCC primarily because of his background in telecom lobbying. I guess I’ve always known you could theoretically serve some lobbying interest (as any professional does) and then suddenly switch into the role of principled regulator. I just don’t think it happens very often, and wasn’t hopeful.

But even now, he really seems like an interesting thinker. I am both an internet dork and a Railroad Tycoon II dork, so listening to the guy talk about shared concepts between digital and industrial networks is right up my alley. Give it a read — what he says not to do is just as interesting as what he thinks is necessary.

Channel My Daughter

As you probably know, I have an adorable, hilarious three year old daughter.

I also have a son, but I didn’t make a t-shirt for him yet, so ignore him for a second. Sorry, Sam. Now, about that t-shirt.

Look at this thing! Don’t you just want to adorn your toddler with it? For what it’s worth, I’m doing this through Gooten, my amazing new employer that provides real e-commerce businesses (i.e., not me) with order management, sourcing, and on-demand production of all kinds of cool stuff. I’m largely going through this exercise for my own education, but I’m not gonna lie… I kind of like messing around with this. Wait until you see my line of phone cases.

Anyways, yes, this is a real t-shirt and you will actually get one if you order. I’m just saying.