City Zen @ Little Bar, Chengdu

City Zen

The new band of my good friend and frequently collaborator, Kafe Hu.

Published on September 16, 2014
Video

Song of the Day #158: Easy Rider

Action Bronson – Easy Rider
Mr Wonderful

Mr Wonderful cover art

Three years after I started listening to Action Bronson and he remains as much a figurehead of wacky creativity in hip hop as he was then. This song is the first single from his upcoming album, titled Mr. Wonderful. The lyrical presentation of this song is in his established style, which is to say, it’s completely off the wall.

As usual, this video is just fun, and discards many of the tired conventions of rap. The music production, as in all of his music, is unconventional, funk and rock-influened, and oozes character.

An obese blue-eyed, red-bearded Albanian trekking cross country on a chopper, hallucinating on LSD while rapping. Amazing, and roughly in-line with everything else that this guy does.

Read about Action Bronson on Wikipedia or check our Easy Rider on Rap Genius.

Published on September 6, 2014

Book Review #15: Creativity Inc.

Creativity Inc.Creativity, Inc. is about the journey that Ed Catmull, President of both Disney Animation and Pixar, embarked on to create some of the biggest creative successes in the history of film. Journey is the right word to describe this experience that spans over 40 years, beginning with Catmull’s work with George Lucas during Star Wars and the inception of the computer graphics industry.

The journey began with a single goal which would take nearly a lifetime to achieve: produce and release the world’s first 3D-animated feature length film. In 1995, he achieved that goal with the release of Toy Story, which grossed $300 million and received four Academy Award nominations.

Ed Catmull also describes the pain of Toy Story’s success, which left him without a goal. So he adopted a new one: discover why creative organizations fail and ensure that Pixar wouldn’t fall to this fate like so many other once-prolific creators. Build a strong company, but more importantly, build a strong creative culture. Those learnings were the foundation for this book.

How to Be Creative

A significant portion of this book is about how to manage creative professionals without getting in their way. As I’ve learned, this can be a tricky endeavor because providing just the right amount of guidance requires a delicate balance between oversight and freedom.

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull, Pixar CEO and author of Creativity, Inc.

Although they worked together for over twenty years, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull appear to have taken two different approaches. Jobs was famously stifling and authoritarian with his approach to managing creativity. Catmull, in contrast, puts a great deal of trust into the team he’s assembled and holds them responsible for the decisions that they commit to rather than pressing them over every detail.

Ed Catmull describes the difficulty of film production in detail – it’s a laborious, aggravatingly long process. But through Catmull’s description of the reality at Pixar, that creative environment operates without nearly as much fire and fury as Apple did during Steve Jobs’ tenure. If Jobs’ management style is the Raging Fist, Catmull’s is the Buddha Palm.

Both achieved record-breaking success, but to me this story is even more endearing than the Apple story.

History’s First Computer Animation

With such a decorated history of success in management roles, little attention is given to the fact that Catmull created the first 3D computer animation ever made. It’s called The Hand, and it’s a 3D model of Catmull’s left hand. Below is a clip, which includes some footage on how the model was made. This was produced in 1972, five years before Star Wars. Before Catmull was a management guru, he was a technical guru.

Favorite Passages

What had drawn me to science , all those years ago, was the search for understanding. Human interaction is far more complex than relativity or string theory, of course, but that only made it more interesting and important; it constantly challenged my presumptions. As we made more movies, I would learn that some of my beliefs about why and how Pixar had been successful were wrong. But one thing could not have been more plain: Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture— one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became— wasn’t a singular assignment . It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.

Honoring the viewpoints of others sounds impel enough, but it can be enormously difficult to put into practice throughout your company. That’s because when humans see things that challenge our mental models, we tend not just to resist them but to ignore them. This has been scientifically proven. The concept of “confirmation bias”— the tendency of people to favor information, true or not, that confirms their preexisting beliefs— was introduced in the 1960s by Peter Wason, a British psychologist . Wason did a famous series of experiments that explored how people give lesser weight to data that contradicts what they think is true.

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

Conclusion

I pursued this book chiefly to increase my knowledge of managing creative teams. It turned out to be an enlightening book that I took great pleasure in reading. Ed Catmull speaks with authority and humility, sharing details on the losses and mistakes as much as the successes that we all know about. I highly recommend this book.

Amazon link: Creativity Inc.

Rating:

5 Stars

Published on September 3, 2014

Photos: Weekend in Chongqing

Spending the weekend in Chongqing has become an annual summer tradition. This last weekend I played at the new Nuts Club in Chongqing along with Jovian. A handful of photos from my trip are below, the rest are on a page dedicated to the photos, which you can access by hitting the button at the bottom of these photos.

Chongqing

Chongqing

Chongqing

Chongqing

Chongqing

Chongqing

Chongqing

More Chongqing 2014 Photos
Published on September 3, 2014

The Fourth Star

Victory

This was the best World Cup in a long, long time.

And not just because the final outcome suited me personally – it was defined by a record number of goals, the most shocking result in World Cup history, and world-class performances from unlikely threats like Costa Rica. The group stage alone was electric, with the United States emerging past both Portugal and Ghana. Italy, England, and Spain were all left behind, Spain most unceremoniously falling to Netherlands in an amazing 5-1 game.

And most memorably, Brazil’s bitter 7-1 to loss Germany will be remembered for generations. The most surreal sporting event I’ve ever witnessed, made even more dreamlike by the fact that it was 5am local time in China as I watched Brazil haplessly run around in circles while being thoroughly routed.

I had predicted a Netherlands-Germany final, as I thought that Netherlands with their potent attacking trio of Robben, Sneijder, and Van Persie posed too great a threat for Argentina’s perpetually misfiring offense. When the game went to penalty shots, Netherlands was without the substitution it needed and their goal keeping was woefully inadequate. Losing to penalty shots is the worst. Perhaps my most vivid World Cup memory is Germany defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout in the 2006 quarter-finals. Wearing the German jersey, I watched the game amidst a large crowd and directly next to an Argentinian wearing his own colors. His heartbreak at Argentina’s loss was only matched by my jubilation, after 120 minutes of nail-biting tension.

This final was a lot like that. Incredible intensity as both sides failed to capitalize on near-misses. Only 7 minutes from a penalty shootout did Goëtze sink the winning goal, paragon of excellence to punctuate Germany’s unparalleled domination in recent weeks. It was a goal worthy of winning the World Cup. This game was Man versus the Machine. Messi being the man, the be-all of the Argentinian offense, and The Machine being the redundant and well-oiled system that Germany has masterfully engineered with stunning precision.

At last, after 24 years and four consecutive appearances in the World Cup semi-finals, the fourth star falls into place.

Victory

Published on July 14, 2014

Book Review #14: No Exit

No ExitOne of my favorite movies from the past 5 years is The Social Network, which started as an Academy Award-winning screenplay written by David Fincher about the inception and rise of Facebook. What made the movie so exciting was that it captured the excitement and exuberance of being at the early stages of something that would grow to transform the world.

Of course, this experience isn’t more than a pipe dream for the vast majority of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. But we rarely hear about those, or the incredible hardship of chasing dreams in such an unimaginably cutthroat environment. That is what this book is about: the story of the downtrodden, overworked, and bewildered entrepreneurs who come to Silicon Valley everyday by planeload.

The Entrepreneurial Gauntlet

Most of us have our typical grind: wake up, fulfill the responsibilities that we’ve committed to, and spend the rest of our time pursuing personal activities that give our life meaning. This is a relatively carefree existence compared to the average tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, juggling five balls at once knowing the roof can fall on you at any moment, dashing all of your dreams in an instant. As the author of No Exit states, “San Francisco is full of people walking around with their pockets stuffed with 1.2 percent of nothing.”

That’s the price you pay for living the dream and having a crack at the distant possibility of becoming one of the minted legends of the valley. It’s the American Dream of Northern California, and a complement to the American Dream of Southern California: to come from nowhere and rise to notoriety within the impossibly-difficult-to-get-noticed film industry. Los Angeles proudly holds up the Jonah Hills, the Chris Pratts, and the Seth Rogans just as San Francisco has heartwarming stories about WhatsApp, Instagram, and Beats getting acquired for billions.

As the author explains, it’s not about a lack of money available to entrepreneurs. It’s that the money you raise is usually just enough to get you in deep trouble: “It’s pretty easy to get enough money to get in over your head and pretty hard to get enough money to stay afloat. The fact is that the rising tide does more drowning than it does lifting”.

Favorite Passages

Silicon Valley is not a place where one is invited to show frailty or despondence. It is “the place where everybody is killing it all the time.”

Due in part to the rise of startup accelerators like Y Combinator, as well as to the surplus capital washing around the Valley from recent IPOs, it has never been easier to raise a small amount of money, say $ 1 million. And it has never been easier to build a company— especially a web or mobile product— from that small amount of money, thanks in part to the proliferation of cheap, easy development tools and such cloud platforms as Amazon Web Services.

The iOS developer was the only one of my housemates with a university degree from an Ivy. He’d liked the first two years fine, but once he realized he wanted to study computer science, he knew everything else was a waste of time. The kid from Appalachia agreed that there was no longer a point to college. Most of the people at the flophouse had dropped out. “The whole university system,” he said, “is going to be made obsolete because of technology.”

The faster and more athletically they pivot, iterate, and fail, the less time they waste chasing a dead product and the more time they give themselves to develop something that will find or create a market. But the lean mentality demands necessitate a stoic detachment. After all, if you get too attached to what you’re building, you won’t know when to pivot away from it. What’s important isn’t that you make what you thought you wanted to make or that you really give a shit about the quality of the content at all, but that you learn to build the thing most desired by the biggest market.

As the engineer and writer Alex Payne put it, these startups represent “the field offices of a large distributed workforce assembled by venture capitalists and their associate institutions,” doing low-overhead, low-risk R& D for five corporate giants. In such a system, the real disillusionment isn’t the discovery that you’re unlikely to become a billionaire; it’s the realization that your feeling of autonomy is a fantasy, and that the vast majority of you have been set up to fail by design.

Conclusion

The counter point that this book offers to the popular culture Silicon Valley narrative has great value. It’s authored by a disillusioned dreamer on the ground and fighting, which gives this testimony additional gravity. I much prefer this first person perspective to that of a journalist recreating the emotional turbulence that actual entrepreneurs experience in this hectic environment.

We’re all attracted to stories with a happy ending, and there isn’t one here except for this: lesson learned.  There’s a reason why you don’t see people in their 40’s on this grind: the physical and emotional toll that it takes is simply too great.

Amazon link: No Exit: Struggling to Survive a Modern Gold Rush

Rating:

4 Stars

Published on July 8, 2014

Uniting WordPress Websites with InfiniteWP

One of my first jobs out of high school was creating and managing dozens of e-commerce websites in the early 2000’s. Looking back on that time, it was like the stone age of the internet. The tools and processed were arduous and crude, from designing to coding, to maintenance.

I remember having to update header artwork for a single site, and how it required me to manually change code in the header html file for each page on a website, and the relief I felt when I learned that I could use Find & Replace to update multiple header files at once. It saved a lot of time, but it was a hilariously antiquated and painful system to maintain.

Enter WordPress

Adopting Wordpress was a gigantic leap forward. I only had to learn one well designed (and well documented) system and use it as the foundation for every website that I made. Suddenly the production process became so easy that I could create websites in less than half the time that it had taken me. So for about two years I went on a tear and created dozens of websites, some for myself, but most for clients. Since most of my clients aren’t particularly tech-savvy, I assumed the responsibility of hosting and maintnence for the majority of these.

Eventually maintenance became overwhelming and interfered with my actual job. Managing critical updates and performing backup and maintenance took up a lot of my time because there were dozens of disconnected websites to manage. I implemented two solutions to alleviate this problem:

  1. I offloaded sites which weren’t a priority to their owners, instructing them on maintenance, backup, and updates.
  2. I adopted a system to manage multiple WordPress sites simultaneously called InfiniteWP

About InfiniteWP

InfiniteWPTheir own description sums it up very well: Stop wasting time. Never login to your WordPress dashboards ever again. Control all your sites from a single, powerful admin panel.

I login to a single dashboard daily now, instead of multiple sites. I get emails from InfiniteWP when updates are available on any site – be it a theme, plugin, or core update. If a plugin that I use on multiple sites is updated, I update them all at once with a few clicks. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s an incredible time saver.

 

Before InfiniteWP I tried ManageWP, which is a similar service. Although ManageWP was functional, it came with significant restrictions: most notable the number of sites that you can manage. This, along with the inability of ManageWP to work self-hosted, pushed me to try InfiniteWP which I found works much better for me.

As a bonus, InfiniteWP offers useful add-ons which expand functionality. They come at a cost but this service has saved me so much time and hassle that I’m as motivated by contributing to the creators of a great product as I am by the added functionality. The add-ons are for things like managing comments, posts, and pages or scheduling automatic backups on any or all sites through the dashboard. They’ve done a great job bringing in users with no upfront fee and then giving them the option to convert to paid accounts with the add-ons.

Check out InfiniteWP
Published on July 5, 2014