A place with a view

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Molly ran down the dirt road, squealing with delight. She felt as though if she went any faster her body would break gravity’s hold and she’d be able to soar off into the sky.  She jumped and spread her arms wide imagining it, before landing knees bent and then springing forward again.

Look at me daddy, I’m flying!

Her father came walking behind, heavy backpack weighing him to earth as they slowly climbed the mountain.  Their previous camp spot downtown under the bridge had been a hell of a lot more convenient,  but the police had a habit of waking people they caught camping with a kick to the head and if one of those bastards hurt Molly, things would get very intense very fast.  He wasn’t going to let that happen.  So instead, it was up into the hills.  Less accessible, more places to camp, no cops, and clean fresh air.

Up ahead, Molly was perched on top of a boulder, looking out at the city below.  She had no concept of homelessness or unemployment and if her father had his way she never would.  And while she still cried sometimes at night because she missed her mother, this last summer had been one gigantic adventure and she was thrilled to have her daddy spending so much time with her.

Tom found himself walking the path, lost in thought.  When his wife had been diagnosed with cancer he thought his world was ending and things couldn’t get worse, at least until their health insurance refused to pay for her treatment and they’d had to take out a second mortgage to cover the bills.  He quickly used up all his time off and sick leave driving her to doctors appointments.  His work suffered, but even so, the layoff had taken him by surprise.   Unable to afford the treatment and with his credit cards maxed out, he’d taken Jeanine home; hardly leaving her side for those last weeks.  Molly didn’t understand what was going on and cried constantly, they all did.  A month after Jeanine died, he and Molly had moved in with a friend and put the house up for sale while he continued to look for work.  But the work hadn’t come and there’s a limit to the generosity of even a good friend.

Look at the city daddy!  It’s beautiful!

It’s hard to stay depressed around a five year old, especially one as precocious as Molly.  Tom pulled himself together and bent down to look along her outstretched arm at the city below.

Well, I promised you a place with a view didn’t I?  Only the best for my little girl.

He hugged her like he’d never let her go, his whole world wrapped up tight in his arms.  They watched the sun set over the trees.

Freedom

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The afternoon was cold and foggy – a typical summer day in San Francisco – and Gary was glad he’d grabbed his heavy jacket on the way out the door.  Traffic was a mess, as usual, and he shivered a bit as he carefully wound his way between the lanes of traffic.  Lane splitting downtown struck him as having more than a passing similarity with riding a motorcycle through a mine field, except the mines moved unpredictably and would occasionally vent their frustration by trying to swerve into him to block his progress.

On the one hand, he felt like he should be shocked and dismayed that people would attempt to murder a complete stranger because they perceived him as “cutting in line” even though lane splitting was perfectly legal.  On the other hand, Gary’s opinion of humanity as a whole was low enough that he couldn’t work up anything approaching genuine surprise.  Sure, he thought, most people are decent enough most of the time if they can connect with another human one to one.  But the moment they stop thinking of you as a person and start thinking of you as a “car” or “motorcycle” or “internet comment” the claws and fangs come out and we’re right back in the jungle.  We may claim to value kindness and empathy, but most people just want to get theirs most of the time.

He squeezed his brake to slow down abruptly and avoid crashing into the idiot talking on the phone while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, and let out a sustained blast on his horn as he wove around them and up onto the on-ramp towards the bridge.

To ride a motorcycle well requires being aware of not only ones self, but of everyone around you – the teenager having a screaming argument with her boyfriend on her cell phone and moving erratically.  The trucker who is bigger than anything else on the road and lets his size compensate for the fact that he’s been up for 20 hours straight and is driving like crap.  The middle aged man texting with his mistress while he steers his luxury sedan with his knees, lost in a fantasy that doesn’t involve a grouchy wife and 3 mouthy kids who stubbornly refuse to shut up and do what they’re told.  Bubba in his lifted oversize pickup who might ride dirtbikes on the weekend and let you by with a wave and a smile… or might take out his frustration with his dead end job by casually swerving in front of you.

The whole thing was just ever so slightly terrifying. And since fear can help keep one alert, he figured that was a good thing. Still, if there was an undercurrent of fear the dominant emotion was unbridled joy and exhileration.

As he wove through traffic, Gary couldn’t help smiling as the stress of the day fell away. The rush of acceleration, the subtle dance as he scanned for hazards and deftly avoided them, and – most of all – the knowledge that she was waiting for him at the other end of the ride.

The Peter Principle

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There are managers who you like and even learn from, people who make you feel motivated and excited to be part of a team and who lead by example instead of relying on threats and bribes.  And then there are managers like Roy.  He’s not a bad guy and was a decent engineer, but some people should never be promoted to management!

Robin was trying very hard to be diplomatic and failing miserably.  Roy had been a great programmer and when their boss had retired everyone assumed Roy would be the obvious guy to take over as Team lead, but his skill as an engineer had completely failed to translate into skill leading a group of engineers and he was floundering.  Everyone knew it, including Roy, and his panic at suddenly being bad at his job had made him defensive, which of course only made things worse.

She wasn’t trying to be critical, but things were quickly turning toxic and she wasn’t thrilled to have to contemplate looking for a new job.

Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle?

Jeanine had briefly studied organizational theory before dropping out of her grad program when she had her first child.  Having a career and building a human was all the stress she could handle.  She’d been talking about going back for most of the decade since.  In the meantime, she kept up with the field as best she could by reading on her own and finding excuses to talk over the ideas with friends.

Ok, so basically this guy Lawrence Peter argued that in most human organizations people get promoted based on their competence at the job they were doing previously, not based on how they’d perform in the job they’re getting promoted into.  Which means that over time, everyone who climbs the ladder will eventually get promoted to their position of incompetence where their inability to perform prevents them from advancing further and every large organization that doesn’t actively take steps to prevent it will end up being run by incompetent people.  It’s a side effect of the fact that our brains haven’t adjusted to moving out of a hunter gatherer society where it made sense to have the best hunter lead the hunt.

“So what you’re saying is it’s not Roy’s fault that he sucks at his job and I should just blame biology?”  Robin was obviously skeptical and her laugh dripped with sarcasm.  “Roy doesn’t need my pity, what he needs is a crash course in basic management skills.”

Robin stopped to take a sip of her beer.  It had been a long week and even without an incompetent and defensive manager she’d have been tired.  Her relief at it finally being Friday night was palpable and, as much as she enjoyed spending time with Jeanine, what she really wanted more than anything was to curl up in a comfy chair and read a book.  She started to make an excuse and stood up without looking behind her, and bumped into a couple guys who were walking past.  Robin apologized reflexively as she turned around and was surprised to find herself looking up into a face she recognized.  It took a second to click and then

John!

He laughed at her surprise and she tried not to let the way the crinkles around his smile made her feel register on her face.  They had talked a bit on skype after that first initial meeting, mostly work stuff but occasionally veering off into personal lives, music, sports.  All the standard  small talk.  She thought he’d wanted to ask her out but he never seemed to work up the courage so bumping into him here was as unexpected at it was pleasant.  He’d come out to Oakland from the city to meet a friend, Charles, who he promptly introduced.

Sorry, it looked like you were about to leave,  I didn’t mean to bump into you I should have been watching more carefully…

Oh no!  Nothing to apologize for, I walked into you.  Actually I was just going to get up and get another round.  Want to join us?

The two men looked at each other and it was Charles who spoke first.  “Actually, that would be just about perfect.”  Jeanine quickly chimed in “Well I’m glad that’s settled then!  You two go get us a pitcher” as she playfully shooed them away and motioned Charles to come sit by her.

John pushed through the crowd, Robin following after him, trying her best to not to make the fact that she was staring at his butt overly obvious.  She failed.  He didn’t mind.  It was a good night.

It’s a start

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Getting older is one of the few inevitable’s in life., and yet it’s a constant source of surprise.   I still can’t quite wrap my head around how fast the years since have gone.  9 years in a failed marriage, a house that my ex kept, a pile of songs no one sings on albums no one listens too.  And now even my career is falling apart.  I’ve failed at literally everything I’ve ever cared about.

Grant took another sip of his beer and stared straight down at the table, blank faced.  He was in one of his depressive moods and thought he was being philosophical and honest but as far as the rest of the world was concerned he was just wallowing in self-pity.  Jared looked across the table at his friend and raised his eyebrow.

Snap out of it man.  There’s a difference between failing and not having succeeded yet.  Everyone who knows you respects you – you have courage and integrity and you’re smart.  No one else would have walked into Mark (their CEO)’s office after a major product launch and told him the direction he was taking the company was wrong and would bankrupt us.  And I can’t think of anyone else who could have convinced him he was right.  That takes guts.  You should be proud of yourself, not crying into your beer. Continue reading

For God and Country

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The sound of artillery was thunder, earthquakes, and every bad dream he had ever had as a child rolled into one.  A sound more felt than heard, it made his bones ache as the vibrations poured through him.  He had never particularly wanted to be a soldier, but when you are a young man with no prospects in a nation at war it’s hard to avoid the front lines. Continue reading

Going Home

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“A 20% down payment on a $600,000 house is $120,000.  You’ll need that plus another $20,000 to cover closing costs at minimum to get started.”

Back in India that amount of money would have bought a palace and even elsewhere in the US it would have bought a mansion, but here in the Bay Area it would buy only a modest 3 bedroom in a not-too-bad part of Oakland.  The numbers were so big they might as well be imaginary.   At more than a year’s gross salary just to get started, it was an almost impossible number to raise.  His programmer’s instinct kicked in and Ajay immediately started breaking down the numbers into smaller pieces.  $12,000 for the new motorcycle he had wanted since his bike had died – riding BART into the city every day had tripled the length of his commute.  $15k for a used minivan to get the kids to their soccer games and violin lessons.  Another $6,000 or so to take the whole family to India to visit his grandparents – after all they weren’t getting any younger and he wanted his children to have memories of them and of the village where he grew up.  Those costs had seemed insurmountable on their own but even all together they were only a third of what he’d need to raise here.  All of that and he hadn’t even scratched the surface of this phenomenal figure.  Still, his family needed a place to live and rent isn’t all that much cheaper than a mortgage once you get the down payment out of the way.  Why throw money down a hole? And Pita, his father, had always wanted the family to own land in America.

He and Vedika had saved everything they could for years but still barely scratched the surface of what they needed.  They both worked full time, lived frugally, almost never went out to restaurants or took vacations.  They’d managed to scrape together almost $20,000 over the course of the last 4 years – only to watch housing prices soar, dip temporarily almost into the range where they could  afford something, and then take off again with hardly a pause.  They had made several bids last year only to see all three houses get snatched up with cash offers from property management companies that promptly turned them into rentals.  When their offer for the last one fell through he and Vedika had been so disappointed they sat together and cried.  Their son, John (they’d given him an Anglo name to try and help him fit in) was 5 and had been so frightened to see his parents cry he’d joined in as well.  They kissed his tears away and let him sleep in their bed, the three of them holding each other tight like refugees on a life raft lost at sea.

Last month Ajay’s father had died, his mother had died of an illness years before and he was an only child.  He had been a good father, stern but fair; but they had never been close.  By the time Ajay was a teenager they were more like housemates than family.  He’d hardly discussed his money troubles, only a dutiful nod that “yes father, I am still saving.  We will buy land as soon as we can afford it.”  Pitā was old, but not that old so the death was a shock.  As far as anyone knew he was in good health.  Ajay was doubly shocked to receive a check for $150,000 from an insurance company – apparently his father had signed up for the policy just months prior.  He must have known somehow that it was coming.  And so the money appeared out of the blue, a message of love from the father he had hardly known.  He was alternately moved to tears, overjoyed, relieved, and ashamed at himself for feeling such emotions instead of the grief everyone expected.

The bank manager was impatient, drumming his fingers on his clipboard.  Mister Sampat, did you hear me?  There’s no point even looking unless you are ready to make a bid, the market is moving far to fast.  Do you have your down payment ready?

Yes, the money is all here.  It was a gift from my father.

Alright, I’ll need a signed and notarized letter saying that it was a gift and he will not be expecting repayment…

No, I’m sorry.  You don’t understand, he’s dead.  It was his life insurance money.

The man was caught of guard and stammered “Oh I’m, I’m sorry for your loss.”

It is alright, there’s no reason to apologize.  I will send you all the papers tonight.

A week later they made their first bid on a home, two weeks later they found out it had been accepted.  They kept waiting to give notice to their landlord in case something went wrong and the deal fell through, but all went as planned and a month later he had the keys.  He gave notice the same day.  As he and Vedika loaded up all their things into the moving truck John started to cry and asked “where are they taking our things Pitā?  Where are we going?”

Ajay picked up his little boy, the light of his world, and held him close.  “Dry your tears my son,  today we go home for the first time.”

If you were a painting

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A blank canvass is both exhilarating and terrifying for an artist.  Just think about it – greatness and mediocrity weighed in the balance, an infinite number of images and ideas, all exist in that blank canvass as potential.  Not fact, not even fiction, but potential.  Making that first mark is the most dangerous thing a person can do because from that moment the range of the possible becomes constrained by what is.  And every successive mark further constrains what can be, until the canvass is full, all possibilities stripped away and only bare fact remaining.  From this perspective, the act of creation is the most destructive thing a person can be involved in.

It sounded good, but Tim still thought it was bullshit.  The canvas mounted on the wall in front of him was blank, and despite the best efforts of the artist’s blurb to convince him that displaying a blank canvass was an act of artistic heroism akin to rescuing a puppy from a burning building, he found it impossible to take the “work” seriously.

Gina, however, was enthralled.  Or at least a bit more open minded.

It could be worse, some guys had girlfriends who dragged them to the mall on endless shopping trips.  By contrast the museum was cheap, Gina didn’t beg him to buy the paintings for her, and he never had to reassure her that the sculptures didn’t make her look fat.  If he was totally honest he even enjoyed a lot of the work.  Not this big strip of nothing of course, but a lot of the work was pretty cool.  His favorites were the modernist peices with their bold colors.  Sure they didn’t look like anything, but they didn’t need to; they were intended to represent emotion and not physical objects.  So while he wasn’t always sure which emotion it was the artist had intended (what color is love anyway?), he liked the way they made him feel.

He was startled when she grabbed him from behind, skinny arms flung around him in a big bear hug.

“I love the Monet’s!”  Her tone was jubilant.  “Thanks so much for agreeing to come with me to see them while they’re here.  I know impressionism isn’t your favorite but the museum only has them on loan for a few more days.”

He had left her in the classic art a few minutes prior to go explore on his own and hadn’t realized she’d caught up with him.

“Oh, I don’t mind.”  He gave her a broad grin.  “It’s not that I dislike impressionism, it’s just that a blurry painting seems counter-intuitive.  If I want to see the world as a Monet painting all I need to do is take off my glasses.”

It was an old joke, one he’d made before but she still dutifully chuckled along with him and gave him a look that made him feel like the wittiest guy in the room.    She reached up and took his glasses down off his nose.

“So, how do I look as a work of art?”  Her smile was coy and he didn’t need 20/20 vision to see the sparkle in her eye.

“If you were a painting I would take you home and hang you above my bed so I’d see you every night before I went to sleep and every morning first thing when I woke up. ”  It sounded like a line, but he meant it sincerely.

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Ooonh

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Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!
Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!
Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!
Oooonh Ooonh Ooooonh Oooonh!

The heavy repetitive sound of synth bass came thundering through the floor and try as he might Charles could not tune it out.  Earplugs didn’t help, he could still feel the vibrations in the pit of his stomach churning the cheap chinese food he’d eaten earlier that night into a nauseous boil.  It was 3am and there was absolutely no way he was going to sleep.

He put some water on to make tea, hoping it would help settle his stomach.  The gas burners of his rickety stove didn’t light on their own so he had to use a lighter and a strip of paper from the stack of old newspapers he kept by the stove for exactly that purpose to get the burner going.  He’d moved into this rathole of an apartment barely a week before and the remnants of his former life were strewn about the place, mostly still in boxes.  As the bass pounded on, he ruefully remembered asking the landlord about the bar downstairs and how loud it got – Charles was a light sleeper and had to work mornings.  The old man had assured him that the bar was very mellow and not loud at all.  Lacking any other good alternatives in his price range and needing a place to be as soon as possible, Charles signed the lease.  He got his keys and moved in the next day.

That night, the pounding started.

Charles was not a violent or angry person by nature, in fact if you asked his ex wife Jeanine he was the most spineless useless loser to walk gods green earth.  Jeanine was bipolar and abusive.  Charles was codependant and figured she was probably right about him – or at least she had been right.  Right up until he walked in on her sleeping with their neighbor.  She yelled and screamed and said it was his fault and that if he had been a man she wouldn’t have had to look elsewhere.  As ever, Charles stayed calm.  He didn’t yell or hit her back when she started pounding on him, he simply picked up his car keys and went to the grocery store to ask for whatever used boxes they could spare.  He came home, packed a few things he couldn’t bear to leave behind while she sat in the corner and cried and cursed at him (now exhausted and on the downswing of her bipolar episode).  He did not say goodbye, didn’t look back.  What was there to see?

When he emerged from the house he could see the neighbors peaking through the blinds, wondering what the fuss had been about.  He nodded to them once, put the boxes his car, and started driving.  He couldn’t feel yet, it was too much.  So instead he went into programmer mode and started identifying problems to solve.  Driving from the ‘burbs his commute was terrible so he figured fixing that was the first order of business as a newly single man.  He drove into the city, got fast food, called in to work to say he was sick and wouldn’t be in tomorrow, and slept in his car that night.  That was last Thursday.  He spent Friday and Saturday looking for apartments and (lacking any savings to speak of to use towards a deposit – Jeanine had emptied all their joint accounts within an hour of his leaving) had ended up here.

The memory was still raw and that damn synth bass kicking him in the gut meant he couldn’t relax and let it go.  He couldn’t even think.

Charles grabbed his coat, keys, phone, and wallet and headed out for a walk.

The night air was cold, January had put a sharp chill in the air and he could see his breath.  After the stuffy stifling closeness of the apartment though it felt good.  He walked to the end of the block and couldn’t bear to turn around and go back.  He kept walking.  Despite the cold it had been a remarkably dry winter, the river was far below its normal winter depth and there was a homeless family camped under it – a father and daughter judging from the bald head out of one bag and the mop of curls out of the smaller bag that lay next to it.  “I could have it a lot worse” he thought, walking past them and up the winding pedestrian walkway that led up and over the bridge.  The thought was not particularly comforting.

He made his way slowly to the top of the hill and sat down, back against a tree and looking out at the bay.  From here, the world looked peaceful – almost serene.  He leaned back and exhaled slowly, not relishing the thought of returning to the thunderous noise of his apartment and the bar below it.

Dawn broke slowly over the city and the light woke him up not long after.  Charles hadn’t intended to fall asleep and his fingers were frostbitten from staying out all night, but his exhaustion had taken him unwittingly.  He slowly climbed to his feet, limbs creaking and sore, and made his way back slowly to his apartment, still half asleep.

The smouldering wreckage waiting for him when he finally got there startled him wide awake.  The whole building from the bar on up was gutted beyond repair.  He asked the cop who was taping the area off what had happened.

Fire brigade says the fire started in one of the apartments, looks like some jerk went for a walk and left the stove on.   Thank god no one was hurt!

Charles nodded numbly and stumbled away.  He had literally nothing but the clothes on his back – Jeanine had cleaned him out completely and everything he’d valued enough to take with him when he left was in that apartment.  And of course he didn’t have renters insurance.  As he stood there looking at the smouldering wreckage of his life he realized he was laughing like an idiot, the sound halfway between a sob and a guffaw.  He sat down on the sidewalk, head in his hands, and laughed and cried and then laughed some more until his body hurt.

A short walk and a cafe supplied pancakes thanks to the power of credit cards – the account he’d opened up the last time he almost walked out and never gotten around to telling Jeanine about or closing.  As he sat there eating he pulled his phone out of his pocket.  He couldn’t live on credit forever and he needed a place to stay until he could get on his feet again.  He flipped through his contacts thinking about who he could call – the breakup would mean that most of his friends would have divided loyalties.  Finally, he landed on his old college room mate – they’d’ kept in touch on Facebook but hadn’t spent much time in the years since graduation because their girlfriends didn’t get along.  He tapped the ‘Call’ button and waited while it rang.

Hey John, yeah it’s Charles.  Listen man, I know it’s been a while but I need a favor…

Slaying Dragons

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Hi Robin,

Please do not set up your purchase events so every individual purchase creates a new uniquely named event.  That would break everything.  Or at least lots of things.  There’s at least a 5% chance it would cause the extinction of some unspeakably cute animal that has thus far eluded modern science.  Stars might explode.  Dragons might devour  the sun. Entropy could overtake the universe and plunge the galaxy into eternal darkness and despair.   Worst of all, your tracking will not work.  And that would be bad.  😀

Grab me on skype if you have any questions, ok?  I’m here to help.

Cheers,

John

His tone was perhaps overly familiar but they’d been working together to try to get the tracking on this app up and running for almost 2 weeks and he’d finally realized the issue was an elementary programming error that should have been obvious from jump.  He could either get mad at the universe or make a joke out of it and he knew the joke would be better received.  Besides, Robin was a nice guy and a damn good programmer.  It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know the system as well as John – he had his own app to work on.  And if customers didn’t occasionally need help, John wouldn’t be getting paid 6 figures to help them.

He stopped to rub his temples and looked out the window at the glowing city below.  It had been 8 months since Elaine left.   He’d gone out almost every night at first, trying to find himself in the noise and energy of the city but eventually had settled back into old habits – long hours in front of his computer.  Only now, without her there to try and get him to re-engage with the world, he was spending more and more time working.

He was on salary so the overtime was unpaid (he didn’t want to think about how little he was making an hour once regular 80 work weeks were factored in) but the company didn’t see any need to hire new people as long as the work was getting done and he couldn’t sleep at night knowing there was work to do.  So he wore his busyness like a shield, an excuse to avoid engaging with the world, and tried his best not to think about Elaine.

Still, John was tired.  It’s hard to carry the world and the long hours were taking their toll.  His whole body hurt and his shoulders popped as he leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms. His stomach growled angrily and he realized he’d forgotten to take a break to eat lunch or dinner.  He got up and went to the fridge to make a sandwich.  Stale Bread, a sad looking sausage and some mustard – he was going to have to remember to go get groceries tomorrow, but for tonight it was good enough.

Back at his computer, he started to browse around idly.  There was work of course – there was always work – but after 16 hours his brain was totally fried and he couldn’t focus.  Suddenly, skype started chiming that he had an incoming call – Robin, presumably taking him up on his offer of help.

He accepted the call and was surprised to see a woman’s face pop up on the video chat.  Of course a lot of female programmers don’t advertise their gender – like any male dominated industry the tech world has it’s share of sexists and for someone with an androgynous name there’s no reason not to just let the code speak for itself.   He  was careful not to let his surprise register on his face.

“Good to finally see your face John!” She had a big grin and laughed, “I’ll tell you, the mood around here was getting pretty dire.  Thanks for your humor, it’s exactly what I needed.  And it’s good to be able to laugh when slaying dragons.”

Now it’s a well known fact that a pretty girl’s smile has approximately the same effect on your average male engineer as a pint of coffee.  Especially a smart pretty girl who likes one’s sense of humor.

“Glad to meet you too Robin!  I agree, it’s good to be able to meet one’s allies when battling the forces of evil.  For the night is dark and full of errors, and only we few can hold back the tide…”

He delivered the line deadpan with just the barest hint of a smile on his face.  Much to his surprise, she laughed long and hard.  And John realized how much he had needed a friend.

Super

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The line for the movie stretched around the block but Annette was giddy with excitement.   She had been waiting for years for this film and was in full fangirl mode.  Better yet, Matt had agreed to come with her, even though he wasn’t a fan of the comic.   As the clock struck 11 with just an hour to go before the special midnight showing she took a long pull on her energy drink and did a quick butt wiggle / fist pump / dance of joy.

He looked at her and laughed, shaking his head.  “Should I be worried you’re going to run away with Captain Blammo?”

His tone was joking, not actually at all worried about her eloping with a fictional character.  She loved his confidence.  Matt was no bodybuilder, but he was one of those rare nerdy guys who realized there’s no reason a person can’t be smart and still have muscles.  He could pick her up with one arm and hardly even notice the weight.  That’s not why she’d fallen in love with him of course, but it sure didn’t hurt.

“Hell no!”  Her reply was play-petulant.  “I wouldn’t want to be with a superhero anyway.  Everyone knows the hero’s lover is bait for every bad guy out there who wants some easy leverage.  And I’m just not cut out to be a damsel in distress.”

“So what you’re saying is that if I ever get super powers you’re leaving me then…. good to know!”

He laughed at her quick “Yup” and tickled her as she squeaked with delight.

“Alright,  note to self: I’ll be avoiding gamma rays, radioactive spiders, mutagenic ooze, and bionic implants from here on out then.”

“So you’d choose me over the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound?”

“When I’m with you I already feel like I can.”

He always knew the right thing to say, THAT was why she’d fallen in love with him.

Peachy

Posted in Fiction

The riots had been going on for days and, while Mo disliked the new government as much as the next guy, he was getting tired of living in a war zone.  Every wave of protests brought a wave of repression and new deaths, spurring another wave of protests.  The air was crisp and sharp – electric with the sense that a resolution is coming and it will involve blood on the cobblestones.  Either the government would fall or the police would crush the movement once and for all.  Mo didn’t know which way things would shake out, only that he was running low on food and with most of the grocery stores either locked up tight or looted things were looking bleak.

He picked his way through the streets carefully, doing his best to avoid both the protest encampments and the police who had taken to savagely beating anyone they caught alone who might be even remotely connected to the movement.  The protests and reprisals had mostly been focused in the city core so he figured his best bet was off in the suburbs.  As a student, Mo was nowhere near being able to afford a car and the cobblestones all along here had been ripped up to form barricades anyway – which of course meant no buses.   Fortunately, this early in the morning the sun was barely in the sky and the streets were mostly empty.

A steady walking pace took him out of the city core and into the neighboring town, 5 kilometers in about an hour.  The farmers coming in from the country to sell their produce were as unable to make the trip in as most of the people in the city were of making the trip out and they had set up an impromptu market in an abandoned lot.  Either the local police had been paid off to leave them alone or someone higher up was smart enough to realize police need to eat too and had given permission –  no one was talking about that part of things and Mo didn’t ask.   One stand in particular caught his attention – piled high with fresh peaches from a farm just outside the city, the fruit which had been destined for urban markets was  starting to go soft and over-ripe.

The farmer was desperate to sell and practically giving the crop away.  It was ironic – in past protests the farmers had been key in setting up roadblocks and supporting the movement but this time around the urban unions has declared the strike in response to the murder of union activists without stopping to consider the impact that the timing would have on their rural comrades.  Coming at the peak of the harvest it could hardly be worse!  Mo would have expected the man to be more upset but he seemed resigned to it

“Revolutions aren’t about convenience my young friend.  Sometimes you can choose when to fight and sometimes the fight chooses you.”

Maybe so.  But for now, Mo was more interested in choosing the best ripe peaches.  He picked 6 and handed over the money – both men laughing because there was no way to know if the paper would even be worth anything in a month.

He walked through the market and ate his breakfast (sticky peach juice inevitably running down his chin and into his beard) and almost tripped over a group of ragged children playing tag among the stands.  Many of the merchants had food they knew they couldn’t sell and that was going bad and had turned a blind eye to the little hands that were helping themselves.   A few days of such feasting had put the kids in a fine mood – years of worry and hunger erased from young faces, at least temporarily.  For kids who usually got by on scraps, a crate of fresh peaches was a treasure more precious than anything to be found in the presidents palace.

Watching them play, Mo wondered what future held. Maybe the President’s forces would drown the movement in blood.  And maybe the revolutionaries would win and end up being just as bad once in power.  The world is uncertain and people almost never get what they deserve for good or ill.  But watching the kids laugh, oblivious to all of it, Mo felt something hard in the pit of his stomach start to melt. The cynicism he wore like armor starting to crack.  He smiled.

Opportunity Cost

Posted in Life | Tagged , ,

I’ve been looking to buy a house here in Oakland and the whole experience is a bit surreal.  I’ll save you the blow by blow, but looking at home values, school rankings, and the OPD’s crime map; a few things jump out at me.

Firstly, people talk a lot about crime in Oakland but looking at that map there’s crime almost everywhere (except Albany apparently – it’s a big blank spot on the crime map.  Either criminals avoid Albany like Kryptonite or they just don’t report their crime statistics).

Secondly, the quality of education a child receives in California varies even within a city.  This is not terribly surprising – lower income students whose parents are working two jobs to survive lack the support at home that wealthier kids get and are more likely to require extra resources to thrive.  What is surprising is not that there is disparity, but the degree of the disparity.

To put it bluntly, it is a crime that there are ANY 1-star public schools. Continue reading

Learning to fly

Posted in Life | Tagged , ,

Today is Ride to Work day so I wanted to share the story of how I started riding a motorcycle.

I have always loved motorcycles and I’ve never felt really comfortable on 4 wheels.  I rode a bicycle everywhere through my teens and most of my 20’s and didn’t really start driving a car until I was 26.  I also tend to let my thoughts wander and get easily distracted by music, passengers, etc.  Let’s just say I’ve never been the best driver.  Knowing that about myself, I always figured I was better off to stick to a car since at least I had a seatbelt, airbags, etc to protect me.  So despite being an avid bike-watcher from a young age, I’ve only recently started riding. Continue reading

Perfect

Posted in Fiction | Tagged

A bright green water bottle lay on its side on his otherwise immaculate desk, lid off.  The laptop was almost certainly fried – he hadn’t been fast enough to stop the water from getting into it.

Perfect.  Absolutely f—ing perfect.

The real danger of course with wet circuitry isn’t the water itself – it’s the electricity flowing through the board shorting out; so in theory a machine that’s off shouldn’t be damaged by liquid as long as it was dried thoroughly before being started again.

Unfortunately, he had been in the middle of a video call and the smell of burnt ozone wasn’t a hopeful sign.  Worse, the computer was a Mac and some idiot at Apple had decided users shouldn’t be able to remove their own batteries so he couldn’t just pull the plug and remove the battery to cut power quickly.   Instead he’d had choose between closing the lid to put it in a sleep state (ie not quite off and still a chance of frying things) or going through a shutdown sequence that required running the machine for an additional 30 seconds with who knows how much water  on the motherboard.  He had opted for the former and had the machine bottom-up on a towel.  He couldn’t even open the lid to blow dry it without it turning back on and risking permanent damage.   Literally the only thing to do was leave it alone and hope.

Perfect.

And then there was the news that had made him drop a full water bottle onto his brand new work laptop in the first place – after 6 years together Elaine was dumping him.  She had a whole list of reasons, white noise mostly.  The big one – the real one- was that she was bored with him and she’d met someone new.

There are a million ways for love to die – whether through deliberate hurt or unintentional neglect.  Truth be told, John had often put his work ahead of everything else in his life – including her.  He had always found it easy to lose himself in the work – focus on the task at hand and see it through to completion.  Most times he thought that was a positive character trait but maybe somewhere along the way he’d lost a little more of himself than he’d intended.  And now he’d lost Elaine too.

Not that she was blameless – he and his boring job paid for her lifestyle after all.  And right now he was the one paying for her to spend a week in Hawaii and meet her new lover.  They had planned to go together but, predictably, something had come up and he’d had to cancel at the last moment.  She was livid and declared she was going without him and he’d said that was just fine (it really wasn’t fine) and that he couldn’t deal with her right now anyway.  She had stormed out in tears and he’d spent the night drinking and writing code that – in the cold sober light of morning – he’d been forced to scrap.

That had been 4 days ago and neither of them had reached out to the other since  – perhaps because of despair or fear of appearing weak or just out of reluctance to confront the obvious.  When she popped up on his Skype chat and asked if he could spare a minute to talk he almost said he was busy.

It’s hard to spend time if you don’t make time, and as he sat there staring at the (probably dead) laptop and wrestling with his heart he realized just how glad he was that she was a thousand miles away and that he was completely incapable of logging back on and getting into a yelling match with her.  Maybe a dead laptop wasn’t the end of the world.  If nothing else it meant he couldn’t work any more tonight and he was in no fit state to focus anyway.

He mopped up the rest of the water on the desk that he’d been ignoring while tending to his computer.   A quick search around the disheveled apartment revealed jacket, wallet, keys, hat, and phone – all the necessities of modern life.  On the street below, downtown was alive with people out and about and the bars were already getting crowded.  So many lives, so much life.

Time to lose himself in it.  And maybe find himself as well.

What to track in your Mobile App?

Posted in Tech & Startups | Tagged ,

Brand new blog post up on the HasOffers corporate blog!

Acquiring users costs money and keeping them is hard. Every app has some amount of churn but how much and under what circumstances depend entirely on you and the experience you’ve created. Since it’s impossible to measure uninstalls – on all three mobile platforms uninstalls happen at the OS level outside the app and are thus invisible to the app developer and to SDK-based measurement – the next best thing is to capture key engagement points and measure dropoff based on the number of users who hit each of these. Measuring Data

Since the functionality and flow of mobile apps vary so radically, it’s impossible to identify specific events that everyone should track. So instead I’m going to go through a few common types of events that I see our clients measure and the value propositions behind each.

1. Registration and user info acquisition

Whether you’re a game developer, an mCommerce merchant, a bank, or a lifestyle brand, the moment at which your customer decides they trust you enough to give you their personal information is a key turning point in the user relationship.

Analyzing the engagement rate here can provide critical insight into that relationship. If you’re demanding the info up front and see a large dropoff from Install to Registration you might want to consider allowing an anonymous mode. Conversely, if you see a high engagement rate it means you’re effectively building trust and your users are likely to stick around.

For most apps this is the first major obstacle in the way of monetization and your best opportunity to get an idea of who that end user is so you can customize the user experience and target more effectively. Ask for too much info and you risk alienating people, ask for less and you may pay an opportunity cost by failing to deliver that customization. Fitness, dating, banking, and other apps that have an obvious reason for requiring registration will typically have an easier time getting this info, as will established retail brands, but I can’t think of a single vertical where getting the end user to register (and measuring how many users from each of your acquisition sources complete this step) wouldn’t be beneficial.

2. Tutorial completion or skip

Depending on your app flow this step may happen before or after registration and may be either highly involved or very simple, but there are very few apps that won’t benefit from having at least a minimal “this is where everything is” experience. Measuring whether people complete this step or skip it tells you a lot about how engaging and useful that first interaction with your customers really is. Further, measuring the downstream dropoff rates of your various acquisition sources and comparing that to the tutorial completion or skip rates tells you a lot about the relevance of your app to the demographics being acquired by those sources.

3. First engagement with core value proposition

How you define your core value proposition depends entirely on your app. But every app I’ve seen succeed in the 2 years I’ve spent selling and implementing analytics solutions to mobile developers has offered a tangible value prop, usually something that can be easily summarized in a sentence by anyone familiar with the app.

Let me give a few examples:

For a music service it’s the ability to access a massive library of music on demand without having to buy individual songs first, so ideal metrics are the first time a user plays a song, favorites it, or adds it to a playlist.

For a ridesharing app the core value is the ability to get a ride easily and safely so an ideal measure point is the first time the user searches for a ride.

For a gaming company it’s the fun people have playing their games so level completions are an ideal metric.

For a dating site the goal is a human connection with another user so measuring the first message sent to another user is critical.

For mobile retailers it’s the ability to shop easily from anywhere so favoriting an item or adding it to the cart for the first time is a key milestone.

For a fitness app the core value prop is the ability to track exercise, diet, or similar personal data points so capturing the first time the user goes for a run, calculates their calories, or otherwise uses the tools makes sense.

None of these data points is directly related to monetization (more on that in a moment) but all of them directly reflect on whether this is a user who’s going to stick around or not.

4. Monetization

Of course every developer is ultimately in it to make money, so measuring when and how your users are giving you money is critical. Whether that’s a monthly subscription event that you send to us server side, an in-app purchase, or even buying the app outright in the app store, these are the actions that fill your bank account and keep you in business. Capturing these events in a solution like MAT allows you to compare revenue to the cost of acquisition and calculate ROI across campaigns, acquisition channels, creatives, keywords, or whatever other metrics you’ve decided to measure (look for a future article on how to get the most out of our segmentation tools).

It’s worth pointing out that, unlike some other events which you probably only want to measure the first time, monetization should be captured for every occurrence. I’ve seen plenty of cases where one campaign brought in more initial big purchases but the users dropped off, while a different campaign brought in users who spent less up front but stayed engaged and spent more in the long term – leading to a higher cumulative ROI. The ability to capture end user data for the lifetime of their engagement with your app and trace all of that back to their acquisition point is critical, so make sure you’re using a solution that looks at lifetime value and not just the first few months.

5. What makes your app unique?

There are almost 275,000 games on the Apple store and over 165,000+ on Google Play – that’s a lot of competition! Meanwhile, every retailer, dating site, social media service, etc. who wants to stay in business has either launched, is in the process of launching, or will launch their own app at some point. So what makes your app unique?

This is different from #3 because there I was talking about the core functionality of your vertical which you probably share with all your competitors. Here I’m asking what makes your offering unique and why should people use it instead of one of your competitors?

Obviously I can’t tell you what this killer feature is – it will be different for every app. But if you don’t know what it is for your app or if your users aren’t taking advantage of it, it’s a good sign you need to put some work into your product development.

These are just a few ideas to get you started, depending on your vertical there may be additional events that you should be measuring. What would you add to the list?

Jacob

Posted in Fiction | Tagged ,

Jacob was having a great day. One of those days that you look back on for years and remember as a perfect moment of happiness. After months of thinking and planning about how to ask Katy to marry him he’d just blurted it out as he drove her to work.  To his great surprise, the answer had been an easy ‘of course’ and a smile that lit her face up so bright he was sure astronauts could see the glow from space. Jacob was thrilled. He felt like a kid on christmas morning who’d asked for something incredible, never expecting to actually get it, and found it waiting for him under the tree. As he pulled away from the parking lot and into the intersection he could practically hear his heart beating he was so happy.

He never even saw the other car coming. Continue reading

10 Rules for Startups

Posted in Tech & Startups | Tagged ,

I was hiking with a good friend from a previous company this last weekend and we got to talking about some of the things we’d both learned over the last few years of working in tech startups.  I mentioned that I’ve put together a list of rules that for me determine whether I think a company is likely to succeed or not and he expressed interest in seeing it, so here it is.  I reference these rules both during the job hunting process as I’m evaluating opportunities from various recruiters and to decide if and when it’s time to jump ship and look for something new. Continue reading

An Open Road

Posted in Fiction | Tagged ,

I’ve always found the freedom of the open road to be both terrifying and liberating.

It was the first thing he’d said in hours and it startled her out of her own thoughts.

They had been driving for 2 days straight now and barely spoken a word, each of them intent on leaving their old lives behind and increasingly uncomfortable with the partner whose presence reminded them of it.

“Why’s that?” was the best response she could muster, not really interested but asking mostly for the sake of politeness.

Well it’s like Tolkein said isn’t it? The road goes ever onward and they’re all ultimately connected, really there is only one road with an almost infinate number of beginnings and ends but all of them tied together. And as soon as you step out onto it you’ve gained some degree of freedom and lost some degree of safety because really there’s nothing stopping you from taking off down any of them! If we wanted to we could keep right on driving intil we end up in Peru or Vancouver or just about anywhere else.

“Well, nothing stopping us but our empty gas tank” she replied.with a quiet laugh.

“Point!” was his reply. And as they coasted down the offramp and into the gas station to refuel he relaxed a little. Blue sky, open road, pretty girl, and just enough cash left to get them to the next town.

Dishes

Posted in Fiction | Tagged

When she came into the room he was staring into the mirror with a look on his face like a kid who’d dropped their ice cream into a mud puddle.

Just look at me!  Yellow teeth, flabby gut, going bald in the back.  I’m a complete mess.  If I was a girl there’s no way in hell I’d date me. Why do you stick around?

He was depressed, it had been (another) long day at work and the dead end job combined with their endless money troubles had him questioning everything.  She was the best thing in his life by a long stretch.  And the more he thought about it the harder it was to believe that she’d chosen him of all people.

She laughed and the sound was wedding bells and jet planes and and water rushing down river.

You, sir, are a silly man.

It wasn’t an insult, just a statement of obvious fact.

We don’t choose who we love, it just is.  I love you for who you are.  But I’d love you more if you quit moping around and did the dishes.

Fair enough.

Tacos!

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , ,

Tacos!!!

She said the word like it was the ultimate answer and within it he could find any truth he might seek. Her eyes shone with laughter at the look on his face and he smiled back. He hadn’t been sure about being a father and still lost sleep most nights worrying about whether he was doing a good job, but when Molly laughed it felt right. It felt like home.

“Tacos it is then!” He said it like he was introducing a rock band and the response was no less enthusiastic.

Above them the train clattered along it’s tracks and the bridge shook like an over sized dog who’s just escaped a bath tub. Out beyond the overpass the rain came down in heavy sheets muffling sound and painting the world in great splotches of grey like some monochromatic impressionist painting.   But for now at least they were warm, dry, and had enough to eat for dinner. As far as his little girl was concerned nothing else mattered.

As he pulled the pans out of his backpack and lit up the little butane stove he thought to himself:

One more day. We can do this, just one more day.

Sunshine

Posted in Fiction | Tagged ,

Grey clouds still obscured the sky but the day was finally getting warmer, and about time too!  After months of a spring that felt more like winter, John was ready for a little sunshine.  The weather forecast all week had been sunny but so far the clouds had managed to maintain their grip on the world and shut out the sun like curtains over an insomniacs bedroom window.

Unfortunately, John had been up since well before dawn.  Up at two, at work by three, and hours alone in front of the oven before laying eyes on another human at 6 when he opened the shop.  The early risers weren’t much good for conversation even then – most were barely awake enough to walk in a straight line and grasp their coffee cups like life rafts.  Even with the new Starbucks that had gone in right across the street, his shop was still full most mornings – his bacon and egg croissants were the stuff of legend.  And while his coffee wasn’t as fancy or sugary, most of his customers seemed perfectly happy to be able to order a “Large” instead of a “Grande.”

Today though, John was tired – a crying baby makes a poor room mate and neither he nor Anna had slept much in months.  There’s only so much caffeine can substitute for sleep after all!  And the Starbucks was doing one of their endless promotions, drawing away his customers and leaving him with more than the usual number of unsold pastries.  He gave the leftovers to the guy from the homeless shelter who came by at closing time every day – at least they wouldn’t go to waste!  But with his wife staying home to take care of Molly, every dollar was precious and far too many of them went into the donation bag.

He made his way home slowly, feet tired from standing all day.  Finally, his door, his home.  A wife tired and almost certainly cranky after spending all day with an infant.  Once more into the breach!  And in the door.  Kiss the wife, take off the shoes, take the baby, and sit in his chair by the window to try and rock her to sleep.  To his great surprise, Molly didn’t cry or fuss but settled down and fell asleep on his chest almost immediately. As if on cue, the sun broke through the cloud cover and streamed in through the window like liquid gold.

It was a good day.

Stories

Posted in Fiction, Life

I’ve done a lot of writing over the years but the form has shifted.  I wrote hundreds of songs and poems throughout my 20’s, then a bunch of technical writing and blogging on the tech industry for work starting in 2010, and now I find myself writing a lot of short stories for practice setting scenes while I work on my novel.   Up until recently though, this site has been almost exclusively tech industry blogging.  I think it’s about time that changed.

Starting this Friday at 9am I’m going to post a short story every week.  Some no more than a few lines, some much longer.  The first set of stories all deal with family and looking for meaning but don’t be surprised when I start adding other subject matter as well.   At some point I’ll probably post scenes from the novel I’m working on, we’ll see how it goes.

I have the next 5 weeks all written and scheduled to go and will try to keep up the 1 a week schedule as long as I can – and as long as people keep reading!  I’ll post reminders on Twitter every time a new story goes up with the hashtag #FictionFriday, if you like what you see please share and retweet.  And if you’re not already following me on Twitter, what are you waiting for?  I’m @JedWheeler – why not say hello?

Career advice for my younger self

Posted in Life | Tagged ,

2008’s The Incredible Hulk is – by far – the weakest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it has a few good lines. One of them is when the antagonist declares to General Ross that if he could take the knowledge and skills he has as a forty year old and put that into the body he had in his 20’s he’d be a truly dangerous soldier. It’s a moment that I think most people who’ve dedicated years to something could relate to.

Continue reading