Accents and Blowhards

Each time I get in a cab in San Francisco, I make it a point to talk to the driver, not just because I believe it’s awkward otherwise but I as a somewhat assimilated Turkish person living in the U.S., I enjoy conversations with cab drivers who a lot of the time happen to be foreigners themselves also. As we speak and they ask me where I’m from, a lot of the time, they tell me how surprised they are that for someone living in the US for 7 years, I have almost no accent.

Similarly, at bars and other places where I meet new people, especially if I explicitly try and slow down my speech just a bit (and I speak pretty fast), I am able to maintain a non-discernible American accent, or so I am told. In fact, for a long time, I considered having an accent myself a failing as I was leaking information the moment I started speaking; there have been times where I’d have preferred if the people I’m talking to didn’t necessarily know I was a foreigner.

Recently, Paul Graham, the founder of the prime Silicon Valley capital firm Y Combinator, made some comments in an interview about how, according to his data, a strong accent in an entrepreneur is strongly correlated with their companies failing. Unsurprisingly, as the notion of an accent is tightly correlated with nationalities and races, a big kerfuffle arose so much so that Mr.Graham himself had to write a piece explaining himself to people calling him ugly names.

As someone who has been interested in languages and accents, both personally and academically, the entire debacle has been a fascinating one to watch, somehow reminding me about the Turkish saying “a mad man throws a stone into a well and thousand clever men can’t get it out”. But as I read more and more of the blog posts and comments and tweets, I decided that it is now my turn to throw a stone into the well of the internets.

Before I came to U.S. in 2006, I attended an American high school in Turkey where the primary language of instruction was English. During my time, I was heavily involved in the Model United Nations club, which meant that I had to be speaking English outside of school and I was lucky enough to give public speeches, in English, when I was 17, to thousands of people.

When it was time for me to pick a college in the U.S., my choice of CMU was partly driven by the fact that it had a small Turkish community which would allow me to make more American and international friends, which I did. I’m assuming that since 2006, I have spoken and read more English than Turkish by orders of magnitude; most of my close friends in the U.S. are Americans and at this point, I find myself even slurring my speech in Turkish, speaking certain words with an English tonality. Moreover, I have actually studied cognitive science (not computer science!) during college, specializing in linguistics, so this puts me in a special place to strategically aim stone, like no one else can get it out.

Let’s first look at what venerable Paul Graham actually said about accents, before making any judgements.

One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it’s a strong pattern we’ve seen.

Taken verbatim, or parsed like a computer, this is a benign statement. Paul Graham and the folks at Y Combinator have probably worked with more startups than most people in Silicon Valley and it’s a natural tendency to look for patterns and explanations for interesting phenomena when you are exposed to so many of the similar things at once.

Nevertheless, what Paul Graham is seemingly missing is that communication doesn’t happen just through words we speak but the context in which such words uttered also matter equally, if not more so. The context brings along all sorts of prejudices, preconceived notions and especially for a semi-public figure like Paul Graham himself, who owns part of his fame to his eloquent essays, it’s the author’s responsibility to somewhat adjust his narrative to the audience.

There’s a curious and slightly frustrating tendency in people with scientific backgrounds to assume their audience they are speaking to has to have the same level and type of sophistication and it’s simply “phony” to adjust the way they speak, both in tone and content, to make themselves easier to understand or maybe just not horribly offend the other party. It’s also curious that this tendency, or social oddity if you will, seems to be amplified in people working with computers, where it’s tempting to reduce all sorts of information to its pure essence while actually losing information that’s not so easily coded in terms of words and phrases, but actually is more transient and context dependent, meaning that in order to represent a specific piece of information, you’d have to code the entire state of the world, almost literally speaking.

Note that Paul Graham mentioned not only people with accents but actually said “people with strong foreign accents”(emphasis mine). Surely, you can argue that I’m nitpicking words but hey, Mr.Graham is the native speaker here himself and one could only assume (or care) he’s picking his words with utmost care and precision, given we are talking about languages here and I’m just giving him and his words the respect they deserve.

So, as soon you start talking about “people with strong foreign accents”, you immediately bring race and nationality into play, which even, or maybe especially, in the Land of True and Unadulterated Meritocracy that is Silicon Valley, is a third-rail. Thus, after those words were published and publicized, just like on cue, people of all sorts started calling Paul Graham racist, a xenophobe, a hypocrite, and many other unspeakable things. I’m sure his fame, his wealth as well as the “rich, white men” stereotype that he unfortunately seems to fit in didn’t help the matters much and his close ties to the technology sector where there’s seems to disproportionate number of people with accents and foreign born individuals made it an even juicier subject.

I have no reason to believe that Paul Graham is any of those things people call him. If anything, from what I can tell, he’s passionate about allowing more foreign born nationals to U.S., for one reason or another. It could be an altruistic motive but for this discussion it could simply be that he wants more labor force available to his companies. In either case, Paul Graham, argued many times on Twitter, on comments section on Hacker News and his response, that he is on the founders’ side on this debate and he actually is trying so frantically to help people and I believe him. But sometimes, there seems to be some room for improvement in his tone, delivery, and the actual content of his messages.

Take into account the second part of that sound byte where Mr.Graham argues that “anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so [the entrepreneurs] must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent”. Now, we are at a point of not just calling out people with strong foreign accents, but essentially saying that people who haven’t actually gotten rid of their accents are lazy and stupid because they aren’t able to understand how people are perceiving themselves. That’s very, very hapless coming from Mr.Graham (and is pretty offensive to people who had lobotomies for medical conditions, they are surprisingly normal). And there’s another underlying implication here is that not only you aren’t as smart as a person with half a brain if you haven’t gotten rid of your “strong foreign accent” but also it’s sliding scale where the common decency, mind you, of getting rid your accent is strongly tied to your intelligence.

The more surprising thing is that Mr.Graham seemed shocked at the response such a sound byte seem to have generated. While a significant chunk of the responses have been simply people being angry, a couple of smart people have touched on how someone as notorious as Mr.Graham is still propagating stereotypes and providing more ammo for those who are truly racist and short-sighted. My personal qualm has been more about the haphazard way Paul Graham seems to throwing around phrases with a false sense of authority without realizing their implications or really grasping the content matter at hand fully.

Going back to the aforementioned quote, Mr.Graham himself mentions that he’s not sure what actually causes entrepreneurs with strong foreign accents to fail and enumerates a couple possible explanations. In other ways, we have an interesting phenomenon, a couple possible explanations, and some preliminary data. This is an interesting pattern that should be familiar with anyone with a half a brain but a college education would help too. This is where a person would simply engage in what’s a battle-tested way to solve this problem; apply science! Or more specifically, simply apply the scientific method, test your hypothesis, measure your data, rule out other possible explanations such as confounding variables, rinse, repeat, until there’s a reasonable level of confidence.

And in fact, Mr.Graham does seem to understand this also. Reading his response piece, he alludes that he has in fact some data on this:

We have a lot of empirical evidence that there’s a threshold beyond which the difficulty of understanding the CEO harms a company’s prospects. And while we don’t know exactly how, I’m pretty sure the problem is not merely that investors have trouble understanding the company’s Demo Day presentation”

Note the phrases like “empirical evidence” and “threshold”. I’ll give you a freebie; while common among the nerderati, regular people don’t generally speak with such scientific terms. In fact, anytime someone invokes jargon, you can assume that they are trying to raise the level of conversation to a higher plane, where they are either trying to make a better point or simply coming down to crush you (although in common conversation, it’s a pretty big faux pas). It’s admirable that Mr.Graham is trying to argue that he’s basing his arguments on evidence but when he comes up pretty short when he tries to draw the all mighty scientific sword to cut over the controversy which has surely has been hurting him, personally and financially.

Scientific method, while far being perfect, is simply the best tool we have at hand so far to establish some resemblance of truth and figure out causal relations (Although you’d be surprised how many big areas with rich scientific evidence are still very highly contested). But scientific method requires not only using the correct terminology, but actually doing the walk also. More specifically, the empirical evidence Mr.Graham mentions is worth next to nothing unless he’s willing to share the data he has collected publicly, along with his methods and have them peer reviewed. Again, if you think I’m actually creating a straw man where there’s none (since Mr.Graham never actually said that he’s doing “science”), I’d just urge you to look at the definition of the word “empirical”, read that sentence to yourself couple times out loud and come to your own conclusion as to why Mr.Graham used such language.

Paul Graham, in his response, clearly argues that he has no problem with accents per se but it’s actually when people have such strong accents that it’s hard to understand them, it’s an issue.

Everyone got that? We all agree accents are fine? The problem is when people can’t understand you.

Putting aside the curiously defensive tone with those question marks, this again makes me think that Mr.Graham doesn’t fully understand how accents work or how people will inevitable understand his messages.

Over the course of my life, as my Turkish accent has become less noticeable, I noticed that some people are simply better at understanding different accents and some people even understand different accents than others; in other words, it’s pointless to argue that there’s a discrete point after which an accent becomes less or more understandable to anyone. After a strenuous workout, even my college girlfriend had hard time understanding me while my Mexican roommate never missed a beat. I still don’t fully understand some Southern accents and neither do my friends who have never left California their entire lives. Some people’s Russian accent still trip me up but I am a sucker for French accent and the New England accent is still bit of a mystery to me (I kid, kind of) but I’m getting better at it.

Attributing any perceived advantage or handicap in understanding different accents is itself an interesting problem in itself; putting my cognitive scientist hat on, I can tell you that the list of phonemes you can both speak and hear are determined by what you grow up hearing, when you are as little as 6. In other words, it gets progressively hard to simply hear different phonemes than those spoken in your native language (and more interestingly, babies who have no language yet seem to be able to hear and produce all these phonemes). The most dramatic and well known manifestation of this a lot of Japanese people not hearing the difference between “beer” and “beel”, and I personally have hard time pronouncing “wedgie” and “veggie” differently, unless I’m trying, which makes for funny moments at BBQs. Again, this phenomenon is part of the reason why you have people who have seemed to spent 20 years in a different country but still speak with an accent whereas their kids start speaking two languages with no accent when they are 10.

Again, that’s not to say someone can never get rid of their accent; anyone with cursory knowledge in statistics know that statistics don’t apply to individuals and most natural phenomenon fall within a bell curve. There will undoubtably have outliers on both ends of the spectrum.

So, now, everyone got that? We all agree that sometimes people can’t meaningfully get rid of their accents and even if they do, there’s no point where they become universally intelligible at the same level?

Every once in a while, while I’m on the subway or in a movie theater or somewhere there are a lot people with different nationalities, I realize how U.S. and Bay Area in particular is such a diverse land, where everyone is accepting of all cultures, all races, languages, nationalities.

But unfortunately, even in the U.S., a nation of immigrants (and the unfortunate natives), there’s still much road ahead when it comes to understanding and accepting of differences. Luckily, we all realized having accent monitors in our classes was a bad idea pretty fast. There are many studies (the scientific ones) that document that having an accent is simply a handicap when it comes to hiring. Similarly, many studies show that people find people with certain accents “smarter” and inevitably, other ones dumber. Even world-renowned celebrities aren’t immune to such thinking. Famous German supermodel and America’s Got Talent hostess Heidi Klum herself received significant amount of criticism because of her accent. Judging by how her accent has changed over time, I find it pretty likely she received a lot of speech classes, which she could fortunately afford, to make her accent more palatable to American clientele.

When you hear people of such respect and influence like Paul Graham make such audacious claims with such seemingly such great authority, even if he is unaware of how he’s perceived, it’s a great reminder to everyone that human communication is a wide, fascinatingly complicated field, an area of very active research where there’s already significant debate between established scientists on how it works on all levels, with all sorts of public policy, social, and many other great implications.

All in all, I believe Mr.Graham’s heart is in the right place and he’s simply trying to help people be more succesful. In the same vein, as someone who has experienced problems and couple unpleasant incidents even, with my accent back in the day, I can attest to that even in the great melting pot that’s U.S., to this day, there are benefits to being able to communicate clearly and effectively. But we should strive for better, help find ways to help people communicate clearly, and make social progress towards inclusion, not exclusion, as a humanity. And when it comes individuals, everyone should certainly strive to make themselves understood better but really, that’s an advise we can give to not just people with strong foreign accents but to simply everyone, including Paul Graham himself.

Turkish Protests of May 2013 for the Uninitiated

AKP, the current ruling party, came into force 2002 following a disastrous market crash in 2001. While they were a newly formed party at the time, its founders have been politically active for years and have their roots in radical Islam; many of the founders of the party have come from previously banned political parties for threatening the secular order and the PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has spent several months in jail for reciting a poem which was claimed to incite religious hatred.

While Turkish economy made great strides between 2002 and now, AKP has essentially switched Turkey’s course from being part of the modern western world to being the regional leader in the middle east and the Islamic world while socially engineering a conservative, heavily Islamist society.

It’s hard to describe the current situation without going too much into the past, but, in a nutshell, Republic of Turkey has been founded as an aggressively secular nation one of whose core principles was to “advance to the level of modern societies” where modern is really “western”. I’m not very sure as to why those ideals didn’t stick with the populace as a whole or how we unfortunately regressed; theories range from being modern, secular people just not being in our blood to religion being reintroduced to Turkish politics as a distraction from the looming threat of communism.

For a long time, there was this untold (being liberal with this word here) war between the seculars and the religious conservatives. The secular bureaucracy always considered themselves the rightful owners of the country and were relatively harsh on maintaing that secular status quo which wasn’t a popular proposition for the Islamic minded. So there’s a lot of pent up anger there.

I’ve glossed over like decades of Turkish political history here (mostly because I know most of what I know by the way of osmosis instead of studying it formally and you probably don’t care) but so when AKP came into power in 2002, they somewhat straightened the economy out by heavy liberalization (I’m kind of for this) and ridiculous and reckless privatization (not so much for this). And since Turkish economy was in such shambles, it didn’t take much for people to like them a bit more and they straightened their stronghold in the parliament in the further elections.

But going back to the pent up anger and these guys just being religiously motivated, they have systematically started to not only take revenge for their past oppression (they surely were oppressed, no doubt) but also steer the direction of Turkey to a more Islamic state. I could count tens of things; from tens of journalists being jail on farcical charges to world-renowned artists being on probation for essentially being a fervently militant but overall harmless atheist.

Come to think of it, it’s pretty fascinating how systematic and determined they have been in this. For example, not only they jailed journalists left and right, they also essentially waged a legal war on couple of the media conglomerates and couple of millions-of-dollars worth of fines later, they have reduced the most of mainstream media to their propaganda tools. And of course, he who controls the information, controls the universe.

And more seriously, there has been an increasing lack of tolerance to alternate lifestyles and outright social retardation of the populace during the reign of AKP. While there has been always been who didn’t like how others dressed and acted and all that but it was always within limits; today it definitely feels more dangerous for, say, a young woman to be herself on the street late at night not because she might get assaulted (which she might) but actually she might get harassed as to how on earth she could do such a thing in a Muslim country, shame on her. Utterly sad stuff all around.

So, now, the conservative lawmaking has gained serious momentum in the last couple of years and especially the last couple months and it finally started to grate on the more socially liberal types like yours truly. Recent debacles include proposing a new ban on abortion (seriously?), reinstating capital punishment (this is more of a nationalistic play since there’s a Turkish terrorist org leader in jail who a lot of people want dead), ban on retail sales of alcohol, calling kids to be “act more appropriately in public” and such.

And surely, it’s not just the interference into the secular lifestyle that has started to get on people’s nerves but the reckless attitude AKP has been approaching not just law-making but also privatization, which include selling off culturally and economically important assets that belong to Turkish public (by the way of Turkish government).

Of course, there’s also Turkish foreign policy that has recently become another pain point for the government. For all its booming economy and charismatic leader, Turkey is now in a weird spot with all its neighbors and close allies. US and Turkey were (and still are) strategic allies but then Turkey is one of the countries with the highest anti-American sentiment. Turkey’s relationship with Israel, one of the few countries in the region with a functioning democracy, has never been that rosy (aside from military cooperation) but that relationship has essentially been severed when Israel saw Turkey’s highly provocative bluff and 9 Turkish citizens.

Of course, what’s been on everyone’s mind recently is Syria and AKP certainly played the wrong cards there. While Syrian and Turkish leaders were on good terms for a while, once Essad lost control of the country and went berserk against his people, AKP decided to take a pretty active stance against him and started supporting the rebels. There are a lot of reasons why AKP did that, actively interfere with Syrian internal affairs; ranging from being altruistically interested in overthrowing a killer to being involved in rebuilding Syria. And of course, there’s that undeniable religious tension; while Syria is mostly of the Sunni sect, the same Islamic sect most Turkish people are, the ruling class is mostly Alawites, which the ruling Turkish religious figures aren’t a big fan of.

Why is Syria issue significant in this context? The biggest reason is big part of Turkish public consider AKP’s actions as Turkey interfering with another country’s internal affairs and especially Turkey supporting the armed rebels just bring up way too many bad memories to Turkish people who have fought years on end against Kurdish separatist organizations. Essentially, for a lot of Turkish people, Turkey is doing exactly the same thing that it has been complaining about for years. Things got pretty tense when Syria downed a Turkish reconnaissance jet flying too close to Syria (or in its airspace, not sure) but the real blow came two weeks ago. In Hatay, a city that Syria always historically considers a part of Syria, not Turkey, two simultaneous car bombings killed 51 Turkish citizens and many signs seem to point to Syria as the culprit. The Turkish government, in its regular ways, tried to downplay the event by forcing the media to self-censor (irony of that statement isn’t lost on me) which only made the people blaming AKP for those deaths angrier and made people even warier of the growing authoritarian attitude of AKP.

And speaking of the Kurdish issue; this is one area I can give some credit to AKP. For most of 90s, Turkey has been in a war with the Kurdish minority in its eastern region which cost the country tens of thousand lives on both sides, took a huge toll on the economy and made Turkey an unnecessarily “militaristic” state, for my liking at least. It was only during AKP’s that the Turkish government meaningfully acknowledged the issue officially and restored some of their rights to the Kurdish minority living in Turkey. That being said, they have certainly been somewhat tactless at it at times and since a lot of the wounds from years of fighting are still fresh, it’s not something a lot of the Turkish populace is taking too well or internalizing properly. Hence cue the rise of nationalism and MHP, the nationalist party.

Lastly, during all this, it’s been interesting to watch the actions (or the lack thereof, depending on who you ask) of the major opposition party, CHP. CHP considers itself the founder of modern Turkey, a dubious but technically correct claim. Ironically, while a leftist party (their name translates to Republican People’s Party but the word they picked for “People” has some socialist connotations) CHP is really seen as the party of the educated, somewhat better off, “white” Turkish elite. It’s not clear to me (or anyone, really) what their stance has been the past 10 years; For example, there have been times where they sided with the rising nationalism and scared a some chunk of its original voter base away, not surprising considering the previous violent tensions between leftists and nationalists have resulted in martial law in Turkey for years.

I mention this opposition party because now, for progressive, socially liberal yet globally minded Turks are really left without much choice; you either vote for one of the fringe political parties and see your vote go to waste (since there’s a barrier to entry to parliament) or vote for a leftists party who refuses to take a proper stance on anything and fail to represent the progressive Turkish values. I’d comfortably say that a lot of CHPs votes not really come as people want to vote for them but they just consider them the only viable alternative to a increasingly conservative ruling party.

So, those Turkish people, or most of the relatively well-educated, left-leaning slice of it, got more and more frustrated with AKP, they would occasionally take it to the streets; mostly during one of the surprisingly many of the national Turkish holidays, a remnant from the founding days of the Republic. In fact, most of those holidays for the past couple years have lost all their meaning has become a nationally agreed upon days to protest the government and get tear gassed in return.

And now, we come to what has happened in Gezi Parki (Promenade Park). Back in the day (like Ottoman back), there used to be a military barracks there and at some point it got demolished and now it’s a green park (admittedly, not the nicest of parks). And now, the government wanted to actually rebuild the old barracks building back as a backhanded historical gesture but they have also admitted that they envision building a shopping mall and a residence building as part of the complex.

It’s kind of a perfect storm for many reasons: a lot of Turkish people see these malls popping up left and right as a symptom of some unsustainable, reckless and thoughtless economic growth that will come bite back at us. Moreover, Gezi Park is right in Taksim, which is akin to Times Square but is also the “cultural” heart of Istanbul and Turkey, even. It used to be (and mostly still is) home to a lot of artists, foreigners, religious figures, embassies, bars, Raki places, galleries, foreign schools and such. It’s the place where I take my hot foreign dates to show off the Turkish coolness to seal the deal; it’s that cool.

So now you have tons of people who dearly hate you, (sadly less than those who like them) and you say you want to build a mall, which people hate (or they say they do but then I’ve yet to see an empty mall in Turkey), and you want do that right in Taksim which is like a slap in the face because nothing is lamer than building a mall in a hot cultural district.

And the rest is what you have been seeing on TV. People tried to prevent construction crew from uprooting the trees in the park, police wanted to kick them out and police and a couple hundred people started fighting in Taksim, which is the protest central and shit kind of hit the fan. As police reacted with disproportionate force, the protests became more fierce. And things have been escalating since then with people actually walking across the Bosphorus bridge that is normally closed to foot traffic, a lot of celebrities lending their influence to the protestors which is ballsy for a lot of them because AKP does tend to retaliate to that stuff a lot.

While mainstream media has been uncharacteristically (even for them) nonchalant about the entire thing, apparently showing cooking shows instead of, say, couple hundred thousand people gathering on the streets, people have been organizing and distributing news on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr. In fact, at least based on what I hear from Turkish and foreign journalists, Twitter is the main source of news for a lot of people, which of course is a mixed blessing.

While this sounds all great, by some generous interoperation of the word “great”, and an atmosphere ripe for revolution, that would be kind of far fetched, at least at this point. For better or worse, the current political party is a democratically elected one that had almost half the people’s support in the last election. Of course the legitimacy of the elections are always in question (AKP seems to overplay their incumbent card at times and there are tons of creative things you can do when you are running both the government and election organizations) and even in the case of an legitimate election, you have a populace that is greatly misinformed because you have a mainstream media that is reduced to churning out soap opera after soap opera and press that is anything but free.

Facebook and Uncanny Valley

I grew up with Facebook, in all senses of the word. The first time I was in the US for summer school in 2004, Facebook practically didn’t exist. Just a year after, in 2005, when I was again in the US for a different summer school and actually got a .edu email address from a major college, I remember my friends being really excited that they could join this service called The Facebook. I remember vaguely looking at it, not really getting what the big deal was and casually ignoring it.

Fast forward yet another year, in 2006, I am on CollegeConfidential forums, a forum frequented by high school seniors applying to colleges in the US and I see that virtually everyone in the CMU forums are freaking out about getting their @cmu.edu email addresses simply because it’d allow them to get on Facebook.

And during the course of my studies, in a relatively short span of 4 years, I have seen Facebook evolve from this website where you would go to see if that girl in your Econ class was single or not to an alternative, second internet for a significant part of the world’s population. And maybe more interestingly, while “the-company-to-work-for” for computer science majors at CMU was definitely Google in 2006, Facebook was definitely became a much more appealing option in 2010, especially for those who wanted to work more on the consumer side of things, like yours truly.

It is not just because a significant part of my young-adult life evolved alongside of Facebook that I get more value from Facebook than the average user; I am a Turkish native who went to an American prep school in Turkey. Now a significant chunk of my friends are scattered across the world. While we maintained a Yahoo! Group for some time,for some intra-class communication, that group died a pretty quick death as people’s lives got busier, other things took priority and most importantly Facebook simple became easier to use for same purposes.

That is all to say that Facebook is very important to me, probably more so than it is to a nerd who grew up with BBSes and dial-up or casual user on it.

There is however something way more essential for me, something so valuable that I can’t put a price on it and would do anything to keep it mine; my personal life.

Those two realities, that I value my interaction on Facebook as well as my personal life would of course be irrelevant to each other had it not been for Facebook simply taking a much bigger part in both my personal and my social circle’s life. And even that would be fine; culture and our way of living will undoubtedly change with each advancing technology; but seeing the effect on Facebook my own personal life and mental well-being, I have started to actually think about how to handle this new technology better.

Moreover, I have been always interested in how technology actually changes people’s lives. While computers and all things high-technology has always been fascinating in their own right, the biggest reason I started doing what I am doing is and living where I am living is that I wanted to be around when technology when it not only it changes our lives as individuals but also as a society.

While I am not as multi-cultural as I wish I have been, I am lucky enough to have a good grasp of not just Turkish and American cultures but also the “internet” culture that I grew up with as a kid who had spent more time on his computer than being outside for a significant part of my life.

So over time, I have formed some well informed, some not so well informed, opinions about Facebook. As culture and technology are two of my favorite topics, it’s something I have talked a lot to many people about and those people have told me many times I should share those thoughts with others.

This is all those thoughts, unabridged.

Facebook is public.

This is the guiding principle of my activity on Facebook.

It should be very clear to anyone with some knowledge of advertising and marketing works is that the more data Facebook has on you, the more money they can make. So it is definitely in Facebook’s interest to get you to both put in as much as data as you want as well as making it more available to others. In fact, this horse is so beaten to dead by everyone, that I almost find typing all this pointless.

But the thing that is really worth mentioning is that I actually believe that Zuck and Co believe that they are doing something good and worthwhile, inducing us to obsessively catalogue and index every inane activity happening in our lives. Sure, it’s easy to point out how this will all make Facebook the next AOL, it takes a different, slightly twisted but in that amusingly twisted, mentality to build features so that you can mark the first time you got a tattoo on your timeline or when you recovered from chemo. While the nerds among us would pour hours and hours to organizing our Winamp playlists and no one else seemed to care, it somehow became acceptable, if not outright “cool”, to be the person who checks in not oneself but everyone around him to the hot spot that none of your friends are at, without a single care about how it might be used or abused.

However, you don’t need to look any further than the privacy kerfuffle Ms.Randi Zuckerberg raised to understand the implications of actually putting any content online. Ms. Zuckerberg posted a picture of her family, including her brother Mark, chatting around a kitchen counter. While the photograph itself wasn’t “public” in the Zuckian sense, one of Ms.Zuckerberg’s reporter friends, probably thinking it was a benign enough photograph posts it on Twitter, resulting on Randi Zuckerberg first saying how “uncool” it is, posting a couple more angst-filled tweets and then deleting them right after.

The irony of the whole situation notwithstanding, the point I am trying to get across while there is already something a bit disturbing about how a single entity having so much personally identifiable information about you, the more nuanced issue is that as long as you put any sort of information on Facebook, be it an image or a relationship status or a simple comment, you are in fact sharing that all that information with not just the Facebook’s evil privacy-hating overlords but also practically every single person who might see it on their Newsfeed. And sure, even if you somehow made your way out of the Escheresque privacy controls and you have limited the your online exposure today to your socially capable friends, you are still making a ton of assumptions, from what private means to each of your friends to their actual well-meaning, if we are going to get a bit dark.

And then what happens when Facebook actually changes their privacy policy so that you new actions don’t adhere to your old controls and your friends can now share the content if they sacrifice their youngest new-born to the gods? And of course, there’s the problem with Facebook inventing even more new ways to expose more of your activity not only on Facebook but also on any other application with their frictionless sharing. Are you going to now trust not only the judgement of the seedy app developers who’d do anything to get their user numbers app, as well as their technical competence in addition to everything else you already had to keep in mind?

Sure, it’s somewhat of a stretch for most people to be embarrassed by a photo of their dinner to be posted on national news, the chances of you having posted something on Facebook having made its way to someone other than its intended audience is higher than you’d think. I’m sure your off-the-cuff racist joke is hilarious but do you think all your friends and your-friends’s friends share your appreciation for Louis CK? And yes, you do look great in that bikini but have you ever made your way to the darker corners of the internets where creepy men share them with the rest of the other creepy men, pretty much legally?

So do the easy thing and ask yourself: would you be OK with whatever you are posting on Facebook (or any other social network, for that matter) being public one day? It’s only 2 months ago that Facebook removed the feature where you could truly hide yourself from all searches.

Facebook has more privacy controls than ever before but arguing that as Facebook hasn’t become more “public” over time or simply won’t be fully public at some point in the future is a futile discussion.

Privacy isn’t dead.

I find the new-fangled “privacy is dead, get over it” rhetoric utterly misinformed, if not outright stupid.

It’s easy, and fun if I say so myself, to be overly excited about a new way to check-in places, share your feelings and thoughts, or maybe snap a picture of a particularly attractive sunset (or a bike, if you are like me). You can argue until you can’t on Hacker News whether or not such things constitute as innovation but what you cannot argue is that mere mortals, people like you and me, enjoy them a lot.

It is however naive to think that the more of our lives we put online for others to see, the less we care about privacy. In fact, if anything, I’d say that most people I know are more aware of that nasty feeling you get whenever your privacy is infringed because it happens more and more every day.

And make no mistake; the moment when someone infringes on your privacy, when it comes to stuff that really matters, you will find yourself feeling the same way too.

Not to take any more cheap shots at Ms.Zuckerberg’s misfortune –though she probably deserves a lot more for producing the world’s most horrible show on TV–, if one can get angry over a picture of her family, just sitting around a kitchen counter being posted online, saying that we should just simply give up on privacy because it’s too damn inconvenient is not just wrong but actually dishonest.

In fact, one need to look not any further than the tech scene to find stories of people doing the craziest things, things that you’d not expect them to do, just because arguably someone invaded on their privacy. While some of them, like Google not talking to CNet for a year because they unearthed some publicly available information about its CEO is more entertaining than not, some others like the famous Ruby developer _why collecting his things and quitting the internet is more damning and dark. Barbara Streisand might not have been as foolish as we thought she was, after all.

And sure, you can again make the argument all this doesn’t apply to you because you are essentially a nobody on the internet. But simply imagine how you’d feel if one day you find a notebook on your friend’s desk where he lists the times that you leave and enter your building. And moreover, he also lists every single thing you told him, the boring stuff like your favorite book as well as the awkward stuff like what kind of skin cream you have in your closet.

Are you going to argue that he can’t sit at the cafe across the street from you and watch you literally get on the public street or simply work as a cashier at the grocery store?

While you should go ahead and reconsider your friendship with that sociopath, you might as well come out of that traumatizing relationship with an epiphany about how much you cared about your own privacy and how much it matters to you. And while it is easy to flex it here and there every once in a while, it hurts a lot, more than you think, once you lose it. And by definition, it is one of those things that you’ll not easily get back after it’s gone. So might as well keep it as close to your chest.

It is not real life.

As we spend more and more time online, digital, cyber or whatever we call it these days, our well curated online presence slowly slips into the uncanny valley. You look at someone’s online profile and get this feeling that person is living the life you wish you had been living; some shots by the beach that you will never go to or the concerts that no one invites you to.

Surely, it might just be my Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO as it is lovingly called, talking but there is something utterly non-human and almost disturbing to see someone’s life in such great detail without the perfections.

It reminds me of this time they were shooting a movie on campus, back when I was in college. As some scenes in the movie took place in a dorm room, the film crew actually build a “dorm room” in the common area of our dorm. What was amazing about the dorm room was that it was so much of a stereotypical dorm room, with the casually discarded clothes on the bed to the random containers of Cup-Noodles to Harold and Kumar posters and the Macs and every other detail being picture-perfect that you could definitely tell that it wasn’t an actual dorm room but something that was actually manufactured.

That is not to say everyone is constantly putting out an act on Facebook. The real issue is that it is very hard, if not impossible, to actually create any resemblance of documentation of one’s social world using bits-and-bytes online. Maciej Cegłowski describes the technical issues around the issue (as well as the utter pointlessness of it) much better than I ever could in his post. I am simply approaching the issue from the other, psychological end.

Ask any social psychologist and you’ll hear about how self-reporting studies are extremely hard to validate. It turns out it is surprisingly get people to give you the answers you want (or not) but extremely hard to actually get them to describe to to you how you feel. In fact, if you look at enough social psychology studies, you might very well think that the entire field is about finding a more ingenue and clever ways to trick people into giving you the true answers, instead of doing any “science” work.

And there is of course the social pressure which muddies the waters even further. Are you actually going to post about your horrible break-up when you see your friends are having the time of their lives in Malibu? Maybe fish for some easy likes and compliments by posting a joke or an Instagram. But then, why would you let anyone know that you are spending your valuable time, that time you’ll never get back, being on Facebook? And now we are back to where we started. Shouldn’t you actually be out and about in a tropical island or just be simply out to meet some new people? Maybe becoming a true Lawnmower Man and playing Farmville all day, every day is the answer, after all.

When I was looking for a new job, couple years ago, someone who I consider a good mentor told me that a lot of the really cool jobs aren’t actually public. They are not posted on companies’ websites or job boards. The only way you’ll hear about them is if someone actually reaches out to you because they think that is the right job for you and you are the right person that for that job.

I find the phenomenon extends well into social life as well. As I mentioned before, my social circle on Facebook is pretty fun and I definitely learn about new stuff happening around me. But more often than not, I get notified about the really coolstuff that is happening through boring mediums like hearing it from a friend over some beers or someone actually reaching out to me personally thinking that I’d really enjoy that really cool thing.

And I haven’t even touched upon the actual living aspect of it all in this meta-noise. Now that you have excommunicated your sociopath friend and are now shooting the shit with your best friends in Malibu; everyone is having a great time. You think this is what happiness must be like, just enjoying your friends company without a single care in the world other than your drink being a little too cold.

Would you rather be the person who’s actually having that great time or the person who is obsessively documenting everything that is amazing happening around you? Just like most things in life, there’s a line in the sand (no pun intended) that one draws here; we all want to remember the good times and have memoirs but there’s a point at which the whole enjoyment becomes a simple vehicle for documentation and the reality becomes irrelevant. Of course, this is nothing new to Facebook, but there’s no denying that Facebook’s permeance in our lives took it to unprecedented levels.

Facebook should do better.

As I mentioned before, I have no beef with Facebook, as a company or a product. In fact, I have even applied there 3 years ago for a job opportunity and have a good deal of friends, including one of my best friends from college, work there as engineers, designers, and product managers.

As an engineer myself, the fact that Facebook even works amazes me day and night. I have always considered their design team on top of their stuff, working with challenges that would make a regular designer’s head explode in a second. And moreover, I have high admiration for the speed and fervor with which they are able to ship features and change things.

In fact, I believe Facebook in and of itself is one of the places that has been operating relatively consistent and coherent manner as well as consumer focused companies go; there are deviations and distractions (looking at you, Poke) here and there but you can’t blame Zuck & Co. for doing what they said they’d be doing.

If anything, given its sheer size and how much it permeated into our lives, I am surprised that Facebook hasn’t made as much of a cultural dent as many other online properties. Granted, it has created a never-ending stream of amusing stories (mostly caused by privacy blunders) for bored journalists to sift through and the vast amount of data Facebook generates should feed generations of sometimes slightly misguided but mostly well meaning social scientists and marketers, Facebook The Company simply feels like it has been busy building features that you think it should have (as in, for example, seeing a list of all things you have “liked”), instead of doing something world-changing or jaw-dropping.

As I touched on before, Facebook did all this while creating a culture that not only nurtures but also attracts very high-caliber talent. I might be alone in feeling this way but I hope that the company actually continues on that culture after its eventful IPO, finds its true calling (and by that I mean revenue source) and invests all that back into its technology and talent and become a true tech company instead of a media conglomerate that everyone loves to hate.

End.

One friend I asked to proof-read this essay told me that there’s no point to all this. And I agree, there isn’t. These are simply my thoughts on Facebook, just like I said, some are well-informed and some not-so-much.

But there is something I want to convey and that is that your online activity, be it on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, matters as much as you want it to.

Just think about what you are doing, every once in a while.

Progress of Happiness

By most measures, including of course the physical ones, I was fat when I graduated from college and moved to San Francisco. Sure; I wasn’t you-need-to-buy-two-seats fat but I was definitely I-am-not-giving-you-my-number fat.

Just like most people, I have confused excuses for the reasons; Pittsburgh was cold all the time and it was easy to order food than to go out, buy groceries, come back, cook. Also, I happened to have a girlfriend who seemed to not mind it thatmuch. And probably, the biggest reason of all is that while I knew I had a couple pounds extra, I still felt like I wasn’t that fat.

While I am not sure what exactly was the trigger that made me realize I let things get out of hand, my hunch is that having a picture of me taken and published on a semi-prominent blog, along with all my co-workers.

See, I think during all that time when I was fat, I think I successfully avoided my picture taken. Not so much consciously, but more with the knowledge that it would come out not particularly flattering.

So when that photograph was published and I sent it to one of my friends, I found myself prefacing her exposure with “oh my god, those are most horrendous looking muffin tops ever”. I hope to never string together more offensive, childish yet true set of words together about myself.

I thought, or rather believed, that I could make some basic adjustments to my diet and see what happens. Particularly because it was a big part of the culture at the boarding school I went to, I had a big affinity for pizza and probably ordered one or two or more every week. I decided that if I could just stop ordering pizza and go out and eat something else, that would be hopefully make a difference. In fact, I even started a wager with my one of my co-workers; if I could not go without eating pizza for several months, until some deadline, he’d have to buy me a really good one at a fancy place. We both knew the irony but it was all in good will.

I am not sure how long this went on. I am sure, however, that I did lose some weight but nothing to write home about.

During all this, on one particularly boring Saturday, I found myself somehow looking at pictures of road bikes online; I think the train of thought went like me reading about a really high-tech, obnoxiously expensive bike on one of the many blogs I followed; then wondering what the state of the art that is accessible to mere mortals was.

Like many kids, I had a slight fascination with all sorts of transportation devices; I had posters of French fighter jets on my walls, I made model planes of Concorde planes, knew basic details about all different types of Airbus jets. (The more uncommon fascination with French engineering can be probably attributed to my dad selling Renault automobiles). I would read up about trains, ships, submarines. Surprisingly, bikes or motorcycles, however, never made the cut for me. Not that I found them primitive; but for the most part I just didn’t know.

So when I was actually looking at those road-bikes on Trek’s website, I realized these things actually looked really cool. I had a basic understanding of how bikes worked, of course, but I really didn’t know that they looked that cool; everything from the slick fonts they used on the liveries to electric shifters seemed like there was some advancement in technology and slight nod to futurism that I was missing out on. That just could not happen. I had to get in on this.

Since I had nothing better to do, I actually hauled my fat ass to a local bike store that specialized in road bikes across the city. While I am sure the people working realized I wasn’t particularly a road-cyclist material at the time, I really had nothing to do and told them that I wanted to test-ride one of the carbon bikes that I thought looked “cool”. It wasn’t the most nicest (or in other words, the most expensive) one but it wasn’t the bottom of the barrel either. The guy happily obliged; he asked for my ID and credit card, took the bike down from the rack and off I went.

I knew how to ride a bike and I did actually ride a Walmart grade bike pretty regularly in Pittsburgh; but this was something that I never experienced before. Literally, I lacked the words to describe how I felt after riding that bike for a mere 10 minutes. I remember taking the bike back to the store, just being speechless how amazing of a feeling it was. I think I described it as “I felt like a ninja, going down those streets”. While that description more speaks to my shallow vocabulary, I have actually heard the same feeling from others pretty regularly.

And there I was, couple hours after reading a random blog entry on a random blog with significantly less money in my bank account and a road-bike that I didn’t even know to how to even change the tire of.

Truth to be told, I think the first couple of rides have been mainly to justify myself the ridiculous expense than to actually enjoy biking. And having lived in Potrero Hill at the time, both because it was close to where I worked and it had gorgeous views, not all those rides were very enjoyable. Since I lived at the bottom of a hill, almost at the center of a “bowl”, I had to climb up a really steep hill both ways. Sure, it wasn’t snowing but it still sucked.

It sucked horribly. The first hill I had to climb was so steep that the first couple days, I had to walk up my couple-thousand-dollar bike up, like a savage. One of the first times I tried to climb up that hill on bike, I actually ran out of stamina, power, or whatever you call it, and literally fell to the side, sliding down the road with scratching my hand pretty terribly.

But I kept at it.

I distinctly remember the first time I actually made it up that hill, I remember feeling that if I could do something that I sucked at so bad couple weeks ago now, I could do apply that to anything. You suck, you fail, but if you keep trying, one day, somehow, you’ll do it.

And from that point on, the same thing kept happening. I found myself being able to do things that I couldn’t do before.

The first time biked a whopping 5 miles from my apartment, and back, all in one go, I remember coming home, and calling and texting all my friends to share my excitement and of course brag about my achievement, though that part kind of went over their heads. Then it was 10 miles. Than 15. Than a whopping 25 mile ride, which I thought was going to kill me. The opposite, turns out.

And of course, while I was slowly becoming a better cyclist, I started shedding all those pounds. In fact, I knew I sucked at climbing hills so much and wanted to get rid of any extra weight as fast as possible. So I signed up for a gym and even hired a personal trainer; telling her that I wanted to lose weight, damn it, because it was keeping me from climbing the hills I want.

Progress, of course, wasn’t without its minor setbacks. As I got sucked in to the world of never-ending bike accessory purchases, I also decide that it was time to get proper biking shoes with clips. Essentially, these shoes attach directly to the pedal, which helps a lot of transfer of energy. However, there is a slight elbow maneuver that you need to master slightly before you can comfortably take off your shoe off the pedal.

Turns out, I sucked at mastering that maneuver also. Maybe not that surprising given that the only sporting activity I have ever did in my life was playing tennis for a few years in grade school, but it was frustrating. And dangerous, to the point of being life-threatening.

I knew that falling a couple times practicing getting the shoe in and out of the pedal was par for the course. Normally, falling would just mean that I’d slowly fall the to side (if you see this happen, it actually looks pretty hilarious) try to laugh it off, maybe pretend to check my chain to act like it wasn’t my fault, and be on my way. One specific time, however, I was unable to take my shoe off the pedal at a red light. Unfortunately, this particular red light was at the top of a hill and I was still on the slope, not on flat surface. So when I fell to the side, I actually started sliding down and to the left into the way of incoming traffic. And I was very, very close to getting seriously hurt by incoming traffic that just started to go downhill and had the worst possible viewing angle to see anything, like a cyclist who had just fallen and was very close to the ground.

Luckily, I managed to skid to the right enough and the drivers noticed something was wrong with enough time to turn right and nothing happened.

And I mean that in all senses of the word; pretty much nothing has changed. I didn’t make it a big deal out of it that I almost died because I was half a second slow then usual at taking my shoe off the pedal. It didn’t traumatize me that I had to stop biking. I didn’t tell anyone how scary it was to know that a minivan who can’t possibly see you is fast approaching you while you are under a bike. I particularly didn’t want to tell my parents or close friends because I knew they’d tell me to be more careful or, god forbid, maybe find a better hobby.

Fuck that. I have found what I loved and I wasn’t going to let it go.

And I got better. The better I got, the better I wanted to get. Sure, now cute tourist girls were catcalling me when I was climbing up those hills in North Beach, I barely even registered them as hills, but there was always one old guy with a 20 year-old steel bike who’d just whizz by you on the way up from Sausolito, both humbling and frustrating you. But I looked at as how no matter how good you think you are, there is always a room for improvement.

But no matter how I did on a ride, no matter if I fell I found myself much, much happier than I started after hours of sweat and yelling and swearing and snot, a lot of snot.

One day, I did reach the both proverbial and the literal peak.

A popular route for cyclists in San Francisco is the Paradise Loop; a route that goes all the way from the city, up Golden Gate Bridge, to Sausolito, and then Tiburon and then climb up a few hills and loop back. Going to Sausolito from Golden Gate bridge means that you essentially turn “right” after the bridge.

One Sunday, I missed the early window of opportunity in the morning when the weather isn’t too hot but since I wanted to do the Paradise Loop, I decided to do it later in the day. So around 4 or 5 PM in the afternoon, I took my bike out, made my way to Golden Gate bridge.

Now, turns out, among many things, I also suck at estimating when it sun sets on a given day (probably because San Francisco has no seasons). So as I was biking on the bridge, I realized it was getting dark and it would be outright irresponsible to try to do the Paradise Loop without my headlight. And that left me two options; I was either going to bike back or just bike up the Marin Headlands, which I never thought about.

That hill, for one reason or another, always remained as this one hill that I never even bothered trying. Not because it wasn’t just steep (which it is) but also because it was really, really long and I just didn’t think I’d be able to find the motivation to finish it. Writing these words, it is outright clear to me that I was just scared of it and finding reasons to avoid it all this time but at the time, for all that time, I was able to have convinced myself enough that I was at peace for not doing anything about it. Mind over matter, indeed.

Well, that night, stars somehow aligned and I decided to just “fuck it and climb it”. So there I went. And I went and went.

The hill just seemed like it wouldn’t end. The first couple minutes wasn’t too bad; I was having a hard time keeping my speed but I was able to do it. But it just looked like no matter how much progress I made, the hill wasn’t ready to give way. And a couple minutes in, I started to feel the pain in my legs. And then, the pain started creeping up. My calves, my thighs, my abs, my shoulders and even parts of my body that were seemingly unrelated to biking.

It just wouldn’t end. I thought about giving up; I did. But not only I was too vain to get off my bike (or really, just lower a gear and go slowly), I was just too steep on a hill.

And then I made it all the way up, saw the amazing view of San Francisco from all the way up and I cried.

And it wasn’t the exasperation, or that the view was so beautiful that I couldn’t hold my emotions in -I do have a soft-spot for breathtaking views- or maybe something else altogether different. It was that at point in my life, I felt the happiest I have ever been in a long time. It didn’t matter that I almost blew out my knee or that I was so spent that my mouth tasted funny, seeing that view as a reward of my hard work made me feel happier than I have ever been, in a very long time.

So here I am today, a mere 2 days before 2013.

I wanted to write all this up because I wanted to remind myself of two fundamental things I learned from a year or so of biking.

The first is that sucking at something is the first step of getting better at it. And that trying really hard isn’t supposed to be easy. In fact, getting better at anything isn’t supposed to be easy. You are bound to get fail, get hurt, fail again before you succeed.

The second and the more profound thing is that what really makes one happy isn’t always what we think it is.

I am not an American but I know enough American history to know that “pursuit of happiness” is right there as unalienable right in founding document of United States, right next to “life” and “liberty”.

While that phrase itself sounds “deep” and thoughtful enough to be universally true, it’s also worth noting on as a side note that the “pursuit of happiness” is replaced with “property” in the U.S. Constitution and “security of person” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But going back to pursuit of happiness; while the scientific literature about happiness is full of examples of what canactually make us happy, we seem to be willfully ignorant of even the smallest things that can bring us incredible joy; things like setting a high goal and doing whatever it takes to achieve it.

As I mentioned; that time I made it up the hill was such a happy, joyous moment for me that I immediately list that as one of my “happiest moments in my life” whenever somebody asks that question. And while enumarating life experiences and talking in superlatives is vain and juvenile but there aren’t many times in my life where I felt as much accomplished, and proud, yet peaceful in my life.

Of course, there are many, many other ways to be happy.

Interestingly enough, the other time I can immediately recall being that happy, so happy that I was speechless and tearful, again includes a similar breathtaking view of a gorgeous city but this time in the company of a woman I held very close to my heart.

Here is to all of you finding your happiness in 2013.

On Being a Builder

One of the recurring themes in any technical team is the tension between designers and developers. Many designers complain about how their beautifully designed and well-thought out mocks aren’t faithfully implemented but merely considered as guidelines. A lot of the time, the design details takes a back seat to the ease-of-implementation and how detail-oriented the developer is. While there are a lot of developers who don’t mind going the extra mile to get the design “just right”, most of the time, the result ends up less than satisfactory to the designer.

On the flip side of the coin, a lot of the developers complain about the seeming disconnect of designers from the realities of building an application. Sometimes this happens in the form of designer designing something that can take an inordinate amount of time to implement or simply impossible. Other times, while the design looks great on the mocks where every piece of data is the way it is supposed to be, when the design is built and tested against real-world data, it just breaks down in unexpected ways and has to change dramatically.

While I have been mostly been on the developer side of this conundrum and definitely did my fair share of my complaining, it’s clear that this is a common problem with a lot of negative effects like inferior products that don’t feel right, unnecessary tensions between designers and developers, and wasted iteration cycles.

Different companies seem to be attacking this problem in different ways; some companies require their “designers” to actually code their designs, with Quora being the one of the well-known proponent of that approach. Quora’s job description for their product designer position explicitly lists “Ability to build what you design” amd their product designer Anne Halsall’s answer on the topic pretty much argues that the most important thing is being a builder.. Similarly, 37signals’ David Heinemer Hansson notes in a blog post that “all 37signals designers work directly with HTML and CSS“.

Yet another approach seems to be the rise of the “front-end engineer” position. As more business and consumer applications that were once desktop applications are built as web-applications where the meat of the interaction happens in the browser, people who were once simply considered “webmasters” have rightfully claimed their titles as real developers and became front-end engineers. While this position is generally considered an engineering position, it’s also always assumed (and implied in the job descriptions) that these people will have strong design sense, attention to detail to bring those intricate designs to reality as faithfully as possible.

I think both of these approaches, which aren’t mutually exclusive, are valid and have their uses. Especially in a sizable organization where there are tens or hundreds of people working together, some extreme specialization is not only desired but almost required to make sure people can work without stepping on each others’ toes.

However, I think the distinction between those who design and build application is an arbitrary one that is one that is slowly eroding. As there are better abstractions are built, the barrier to entry for realizing your idea and sharing it with the world becomes much, much lower. For developers, this means that they can prototype things out much faster and iterate on things themselves.

The real benefit, of course, is for the designers. For them, this means that they can just build what they had in mind without having to convince or wait for someone else to do it for them. I believe this is a game-changing freedom and it will only get better from here.

As we keep building better frameworks that encapsulate years of decision making, abstractions that hide things under the hood under under another plastic cover, and have simply better tools to get our work done, more and more people will be empowered to do things that once were within the technical reach of the few.

Today, anyone who can open up a Terminal window and type rails generate scaffold Post name:string title:string content:text can have a very basic blog up and running in less than a couple minutes. Top this off with some Heroku action and you have a live site running on a real database on a server somewhere in a minutes.

While the iOS space is a lot younger than the web and its reach is a lot less limited, better tools and abstractions that lower the barrier of entry are coming up fast. The XCode 4 interface is a huge improvement over the XCode 3 interface that make building an app require interacting with 1 app instead of 2; story boards are making building basic, brochure like applications essentially a drag-drop exercise, appearance proxies and callback based animations are making building iOS apps feel a bit more like using stylesheets and those familiar jQuery animations. For those who are more adventerous, tools like Pixate and RubyMotion are taking the abstraction to a whole new level where building an iOS app is essentially no different than building a web app.

Discussing the pros and cons of using abstractions over specialized tools is beyond the scope of this essay; I think while abstractions built in the name of cranking out more products faster result in subpar products, abstractions and frameworks that come out of real-world needs end up getting real traction.

Essentially, I believe we are moving to a world where we will see more builders like Sam Soffes who can churn out an iPhone app, a web application and an externally available API all by himself. When a single person can both “design” and “build” an entire product by himself, it’s clear that our nomenclature hasn’t fully caught up with people’s newly-found abilities.

That is not to say we should abolish all specialized tools; I think there will always be need for going really under the hood and actually replacing some carburetors but today, it is possible to push that need a lot further down the line. Similarly, that is not to say there’s never going to be designers who will be working away from technical tools; establishing a brand and visual identity will continue to be a job that requires professionals. Nevertheless, I believe the role of a designer as as it stands will change.

I think a lot of the responsibility will lie with the designers who will be expected to comfortable with the technology they are working with. While this seems like an exact opposite of the argument I am making, it will be more due to the adjusted expectations. Just like we are expecting better times from our Olympic athletes, designers will be expected to simply do a bit more.

As for developers, they will be freed from working as pure implementors of other people’s ideas but instead work on things that they find exciting. It is hard to make a general statement as to what this could be as it’s very domain specific but in general, I think in the future a lot more development effort will be focused on both building better abstractions for those who build on them and solving brand-new problems such as personalization and mining huge amounts of data.

It is an exciting time to be working in the tech industry right now. As we have built ourselves better tools, it is getting easier to simply work on the problems themselves. We’ll all have to learn a couple new tricks but hey, to me, that’s a small price to pay for progress.

Ode to Humility

 

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably heard that the smart fellows at Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed to land a rover on Mars. Or more accurately, the scientists and engineers managed to program a robot to successfully enter the Mars atmosphere, guide itself towards its landing destination and then lower a 900 kilogram rover from 7.5 meters while it is suspended in the Martian sky by rockets. JPL, headed by Lebanese born Charles Elachi, did that with a budget of $2.5 billion dollars.

In fact, it has been a good couple of weeks for the world of science. Just around a month ago, on July 4, 2012, scientist at CERN have announced that they have most likely confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, so called the “God particle”. Scientists have managed to achieve that feat by the help of Large Hadron Collider that sits underground between and literally spans across French and Swiss borders 4 times.

And of course, the 2012 London Summer Olympics. For the first time in history, a disabled athlete, South African Oscar Pistorius is running alongside able-bodied athletes using his prosthetic legs made by a Icelandic company. Another first in this olympics games is about women; with Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia sending female athletes this time, 2012 games is the first Olympic event ever where all countries have sent female athletes.

While Hans Rosling would –rightfully– argue that the world is much better than it used to be, sometimes it is hard to believe that. Right near my home country, the Syrian regime is literally killing its citizens by the hundreds on their way out. Egypt, one of the poster boys of the Arab spring, is dangerously close to adopting Shari’ah law.

The world is changing, every day.

More importantly, especially for those who are fortunate enough to read this, there is not a shortage of important or really hard problems in any given part of the world. However, somewhere along the line, we have conflated “changing the world” rhetoric with simply “making a lot of money by exploiting a new market”.

There is nothing wrong, in my mind, with wanting to make a lot of money, being famous, or gaining the respect of those who we look up to. We owe many of our modern conveniences that make our lives easier, the medical advancements that keep us alive to those who simply aimed to make money.

Nevertheless, not everything that effects a lot of people changes the world. And on the flip side, you simply do not have to touch millions of people’s lives to make a meaningful difference in the world.

There’s a irony in that while we made the world interconnected than ever, we actually just make it possible to simply ignore those that we don’t want to connect to. In other words, we have just made it possible, for virtually everyone, to live in a world of their own choosing.

While it might feel like we are all living in our own worlds, there’s nothing like a little humilty to remind oneself of what truly great achievements could be, how it can affect many lives in very small ways of just a few lives in huge ways. And that humility, is what I’d really love to see more of.

What was it like to work at Digg during Digg V4?

Unique.

I joined Digg pretty late in the product cycle of Digg V4. Eagle-eyed followers of Digg might have noticed that the version of Digg V4 was somewhat different than the Digg V4 that was shown around in Diggnation in SXSW 2010.

When I started at June, right out of college[1], V4 was pretty much finished feature wise and most people were tasked with actually building things up to scale and start thinking about how to launch it. As Digg V3 was actually live at the time too, there was a lot of technical work that needed to be done for moving the data and of course there were some launch-related features like the invite system. For example, my first projects were related to building the parts of invite system and supporting short URLs generated in V3 on V4.

There was definitely a lot of unknowns before launch. Every single person was ready for some sort of backlash. We knew some people would simply not like it because, as the consumer product vernacular goes, people hate change. But more than that, we knew that Digg had a very vocal user base, who rightfully believed that their contributions, their time on Digg made Digg what it was.

As nervous as people were, there was a lot of excitement for the launch. On the product side of things, Digg had been pretty stagnant for a while and there were more places where people could find and read news, like Twitter and Facebook. On the engineering side, there was a lot of effort put in to make a really scalable infrastructure using some brand-new tools and in general, a lot of things were done the right way.

Anyway, launch.

I can’t remember how we exactly set the date. I think it was a combination of marking off the bugs we definitely wanted fixed and some sort of “we should get it out” for sure.

On the day of launch, we have reorganized the engineering floor (which was a silver-painted warehouse, which used to be a church though you could’t tell) to have one big table and put the couches around too. There was some nice food being served, couple lights and and projectors were set up for the Twitter feeds and metrics. An hour or so ago, most of the engineers were set up so that everyone was on IRC, which remained the main form of communication at Digg, people who needed to were tailing the production logs from Scribe, the procedure for immediately triaging and assigning bugs were all discussed.

I certainly was scared as someone who did mostly front-end work so I cannot imagine how people who worked a bit lower to the ground felt like. All in all though, people were excited to see their work go live.

The few hours right after launch were tough. We did have a couple technical challenges, though probably the extent of it was a bit amplified by the press. Sure, the site worked a lot slowly than we would have liked and when it came back up, it had some trouble staying up. I will be voting along the party lines here as an engineer and I am probably diluting the technicalities of building a service like Digg at that scale as a measly front-end engineer, but once everyone good a grasp of the performance characteristics of a lot of the backend stuff, the site became reasonably stable.

As I mentioned, people were ready for some sort of backlash and we knew the press would be watching like a hawk. There were, however, couple instances that I personally wasn’t ready for. At the time, the list of employees were visible on our Team page and couple people searched for each individual’s name. So I had a couple reaching out to me on my personal email and Twitter, and, errrr, express their discontent in colorful terms. It wasn’t scary or annoying, just unexpected.

The most important thing right after firefighting and cleaning up some of the fallout after the launch was figuring out what the next thing would be. The driving force behind a lot of technical decisions was building a platform; the Digg website and the API all ran on Thrift services (which was super nice, in my opinion [4]). So there was the idea of building more features on top of the platform in line with the grander vision but also some pressure to bring back some of the old stuff. If I had to pick one thing, I’d say that’s one thing I wasn’t very excited about initially was that we’ve decided to bring on more of the old features.

There were a couple high profile features like the RSS imports that made a lot of users feel like they lost the ownership (which everyone knew would receive a lot of feedback) but the more interesting things were like how tons of people were upset about things like changing the things buttons on comments from Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down to arrows. I can probably count several of such seemingly small things that turned out to be big deals, in terms of user sentiment.

Anyway.

While all this was happening, Digg had a new CEO, whose search has long begun before the launch. Some people were excited about it, some people weren’t but I think. For a lot of people, Digg meant Kevin Rose and vice versa. I was more on the side of “eh, who is this guy?” initially. I think I saw it as having a tenured CEO coming from a Big Company would soon change the workplace. That’s not to say we didn’t need some change but I think I wanted things to be more “fun”. Ah, the young me. I couldn’t be more wrong as Matt turned out to be not just a great mentor who I looked up to pick up some C-level tricks but also who is very clever, direct and a keen sense of humor.

There was the layoffs, which of course wasn’t pleasant. I was lucky enough to be not laid off, considering my visa was sponsored by Digg and that could technically mean I would have to leave the country. [3] The day of layoffs, I don’t think anyone did any work.

The next day, however, was the polar opposite and was probably one of the most teaching days during my time at Digg. The day after layoffs, we’ve all sit in a room and assigned project to people and everyone started working.

See, I think I went to work that day in all sorts of existential thoughts in my head, contemplating whether or not I should stick this one out or just go back to Turkey or maybe find another job or something else. I knew there would be shit ton of press that I could probably spend the entire day reading. I had long since removed Twitter from my computer as I knew it’d be nothing but a source of misery.

However, 40 minutes into that day, I had a project assigned to me and I was working. To this day, I remember the day after the layoffs as the day where I learned how once you are excited and have a goal to strive towards, none of the other crap matters. More eloquently, “focus or die”.

Soon after the layoffs, there was a considerable paradigm shift and honestly, productivity went up. Part of is was definitely the significantly shrinker overhead; it was easier to just push the code to production and individual teams, whose sizes went from 6-7 to 2-3 at most, were more empowered. There was also the other part which was that people who had stayed kind of felt like it was now on them to turn things around.

As the team size went down, the engineering team moved to the other part of the Digg HQ –we were separated between 2 floors of the SF Guardian Building and the warehouse-church the engineering building–. It felt less like a hacker warehouse but it was actually a really nice office space and had actual windows.

My memory goes a bit less vibrant as I think further. As a much smaller team, we have worked on a lot of different features and I certainly felt like I was very empowered.

As days passed by, I personally have risen up in the company and had a lot more say, even on the executive level. Everyone believed in the original mission of Digg, I felt like, which was getting people the news they cared about. Digg, for me and many others, was never about the digg counts or the subculture it created. Both were extremely essential, for sure, but I think I always looked at them as tools to get people to the news they cared about.

For me, I knew it was time for me to try something different was the way I believed on how to do that wasn’t the way others wanted to do that.

From what I could tell Digg didn’t really have a lot of pressure from the VCs to do this or that but internally, everyone wanted to move the needles up. Digg had a lot of technical assets, brand recognition and the talent to execute on many of the ideas.

So, I have argued rather colorfully with a lot of the executives on why I didn’t want to work on the upcoming projects as I believed they’d distract us from what I believed were the right things.

On top of that, couple of the people I was working very closely with had left and I was interested in working at a different kind of a company made me soon leave. People knew as much as I did that I’d not be very happy and productive working on some of the new stuff so everyone understood. As I am on a visa and changing jobs is an ordeal while on one, everyone again went out of their way to accommodate me more than the usual 2 weeks just to make sure I am never in a legal gray area.

This answer became way longer than I imagined and I am very slightly tearing up as I am writing these. I have teared up many times talking about Digg (or even at Digg). At the end of it all, it was my first real job outside of college. There were times I felt miserable enough to just leave work at 4 and ride my bike for hours (which did help me lose a lot of weight) and other times where I was scared to death about how much responsibility I was given on a site had millions of people visiting.

I haven’t had a lot of jobs so I can’t reasonably judge but I can’t imagine being at Digg before, during or after V4 launch being the easiest job. Technical challenges were huge, and dealing with an extremely vocal user base who are almost as invested in the product as you are while taking shit from the press left and right was pretty taxing. But you know, everyone loves drama and pretty much everyone loves to watch Rome burn. I personally enjoy bitter chocolate.

V4 was a different product than anything else out there and had it worked as we’ve liked, it’d have been an astounding success story. It didn’t. But that’s fine. Digg pushed on, and even invented, some of concepts that we take for granted now like those sharing buttons, building communities across many different interests. It pioneered technologies, contributed heavily to open source, created not a subculture on the internet but also a very open and fun culture among its employees also.

I feel damn lucky I got to be part of a special company like Digg at a very special time.

1: It was almost too right out of college. Before preparing my offer letter, they asked me when I was graduating and I put in May 16, as that was the day I was getting my diploma. And the start date on my offer letter turned out to be May 17. Due to the sheer excitement of getting a job at Digg, I didn’t really notice that, until I was getting my plane tickets. I called up the office, told them that I really couldn’t move across the country in a day. Fortunately, they were more than understanding –though they did push from the month I wanted to 2 weeks–.

2: Digg V3 and V4 technically shared no code, they were entirely separate projects with V3 being all in PHP + MySQL and V4 being a brand-new PHP app running on Python (and very little Java) services on Cassandra and Redis. I did actually copy-paste 20 or so lines of advertising cookie from V3.

3: In reality, had I been laid off, I had a feeling that they would go out of their way to make sure I wouldn’t actually get kicked out of the country. One common theme among all the sensitive issues at Digg, the management always went out of their way to help the employees or even the former ones out.

4: To give perspective, I had my laptop set up done in less than half a day and submitted a code for review before I left work that day. I was also really big fan of how our deployment worked. In general, shit ton of operational magic just worked.

    Learning vs. Doing

    Sometimes I wonder the sheer amount of knowledge that can be found on the internet is creating a culture where some sort of shallow learning is encouraged over anything else.

    I am definitely guilty of this too but I see more people reading blogs explaining some sort of trivial or only theoretically important stuff about, say, web development than people who are working on creating web applications.

    It really is another form of procrastination, if not a more dangerous one in my opinion, than randomly starting to play a video game. The fact that you can fool yourself, for the most part, into thinking that you have done something really valuable with your time is really dangerous.

      On Work

      At the end of the day, it’s the ownership that determines the quality of work produced. You either have this emotional connection to whatever you do, or not. Everyone has seen a video of some craftsman who produces an amazing product after an inordinate amount of effort and is moved by it.

      It all reminds me of an essay by Ben Pieratt that was making rounds a few weeks about how work is personal for some people. Some people don’t just work on things; they own them. Grinding, refining, to the last proverbial bit. And it just shows.

      Having the same kind of emotional connection to your work when your work is mostly some text on a file somewhere is looked down upon or at least not as romantic, which is unfortunate. It is understandable, given how less accessible certain professions and artifacts of such professions to others, but still a shame.

      Visual vs. Interaction Design

      I for one generally hate getting into discussions about titles, especially in the realm of design. However, I’ll mention this one. Before you venture further, I’ll also disclaim that I am not a designer by trade but merely an interested, somewhat educated bystander.

      As fluffy and pretentious as the name may sound, interaction design is a skill that is very, very different from visual design. The thought process that goes into creating an application that is going to be used is a lot different from the one that goes into making a jaw-dropping mockup or illustration.

      In one sense, the term designer is definitely overloaded. Beyond the obvious technical differences between designing for print vs. designing for digital there is a certain overlooked difference between designing an application where people click on things, type in data; where things seemingly appear out of nowhere, change colors and designing a visual look.

      That is not to say you can separate one from the other in a clean cut fashion; you definitely cannot. A great user interaction can go a long ways by itself but if you want to delight your users, you will want to couple that interaction with some great aesthetics of your own.

      However, the point I am trying to make is that interaction design is a whole different animal that can be sub par no matter how good your product looks.

      I do not know what makes a good interaction designer –and I still have moral qualms about using the term interaction designer–. However, I’ll make a few relatively educated guesses:

      • You need experience. This is a no-brainer. You just cannot learn this stuff in school (trust me, I tried). The challenges that you face when you actually create and support a product that are so weird, for the lack of a better term, compared to what your problems would be, that you’ll try to design things better the next time round.
      • You need education. This seems to counter the previous point but not really. I am not arguing that everyone needs to go to a HCI or design (I did but I was in the right place at the right time) but you need to know some hard facts to back up your intuitions. You need to know what an ideal line length is or if people care about below-the-fold. You can definitely make shit up as you design and probably convince yourself and people around you that your opinions are right but where’s the fun in that?
      • You need to iterate while designing. Again, a no-brainer, if you ask me. This stuff just takes time.
      • You need to work on your target medium. This is me saying, in a fancy way, that you need to be able to build your designs. A lot of people disagree with this. I think the best analogy I can think for this is translations, although that fails to capture the full breadth of what I am trying to say. Translation implies that as more touch and tweak an artifact, the more it will lose some of its initial value, which is correct. However, the real value in building what you design is that you’ll have a better feel for what works faster, which ties back to the previous point.
      • You need to get out and look at how people use other things than just a computer. I know this sounds a bit pretentious but watching people operate physical things just reinforces the importance of things like affordances, gestures, how people make mistakes, why Fitt’s law matters, what frustrates people.

      Again, I’ll reiterate: a great designer (or product designer, whatever term you want to use for yourself) will need to have both good visual design skills and good interaction design skills.

      The point I am trying to make here is that great interaction design is not something that is just a natural extension of great visual design.