Cancer Sucks

I’m in Japan this week to visit my father. He has colon cancer and just checked in for surgery.

This is not a total shock. He is getting old after all and I’ve come to accept a time when something like this would happen. He’s taking it well. He has openly embraced his body slowly falling apart like the owner of an old MG learns to deal with a tricky carburetor.

He could have gone in for check-ups and caught the cancer earlier and addressed it. Maybe he could have put some time between now and where we are today but that’s not Rick Kennedy’s style. He is not really a doctor kind of guy. He proudly tells the story of how, when diagnosed with a kidney stone he, “somehow managed to piss it right out.” I’m told that is extremely painful, most opt to dissolve it with drugs or other treatments. He has a high tolerance for pain and the cancer grew in him as an annoyance until it became something he couldn’t ignore. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

My father influenced me in many ways. As I am raising a son myself, I have an appreciation for how he was able to plant seeds of interest that lead me to take the path that I’ve chosen in life.

My early interest in cycling gave me love for the sport that I experience everyday as I ride to work. He was there in the late-70s with a fixie back before anyone heard of such a thing, an original hipster. I fondly remember watching grainy video tapes with him of European coverage of Paris-Roubaix and other European classic bike races as we learned about the sport together. Part of our weekly grime clean routine was to disassemble our chains, wash them off with an old toothbrush and kerosine, then dip them into a coffee can full of oil warmed up on the kitchen stove. My mom hated that. We were bike nerds.

My dad had a nose for the eccentric that would drive my mom nuts. For two years he somehow convinced my mom that we should live in a commune. It was fun for me and my sister because there were always lots of kids to play with but the shared chore list made my mom crazy because most people slacked off and she ended up having to do a lot of it. We moved out shortly after a lady named, Tomorrow nearly burned the house down after one particularly memorable party.

Dad was a writer. (Good Tokyo Restaurants, Little Adventures in Tokyo) Originally an editor at Random House, we moved to Japan when he convinced Sony they needed someone to help make their user manuals less laughable. He took great care to chose the right words and was quick to criticize sloppy use of the English language. To him, bad writing shows a carelessness that offends him.

We have an on-going debate about the craft of writing, often about the merits of print vs. online. He will never understand hashtags or data-journalism. “I’m just a print guy,” is his refrain. On his way into today’s operation, he insisted on carrying a copy of The Spectator and New Yorker to read just in case he got bored. The nurse had to remind him that he’ll be under while they operate on him. His books were his security blanket. He loves to read and has a hundreds of books he’s collected over the years at great expense. When I asked if I could bring him anything new from the US he declined, “Some people save up money for retirement, I’ve been saving books.” He has a stack of 15 books on the table next to his hospital bed and I’ve been asked to bring with me several more. AJ Liebling, Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly.

Dad was incurably optimistic. To a fault perhaps. I remember seeing the book, “A lazy man’s guide to enlightenment” on his shelf. That was very much his philosophy. The secret to happiness is being at peace with what you have, not pushing for more that you might not get. He doesn’t like anyone to fuss over him but I think he is secretly enjoying his time in a Japanese hospital. The nurses are angels and are so gentle and kind. Japanese society is coddling to begin with so you can only imagine what this place is like.

I have no idea what to expect of Dad’s operation. As can be expected, he is brushing this off as an annoyance but also says things like, “It’ll be good to know you’re here,” which sounds ominous. My mom tends to suppress bad news by ignoring it and she hasn’t really been asking many questions. Keep your fingers crossed. We’re all hoping for the best.

Thanks to everyone who has already sent along their wishes. Thank you to all those at GigaOM who are filling in for me while I’m away. I am thankful to my managers who, when they learned of the news, told me to absolutely, without question, take as much time as I needed. Stand up folks at GigaOM they are, I feel your support and it means a lot.

I’ll update this post when I hear more. He should be getting out in a few hours.

UPDATE: All good! After five hours doctors where able to cut out about 20 cms of his colon and a big, ugly looking lump of evil. He’s resting in the ICU now and doctors say he’ll be wobbling about on his feet tomorrow. He’ll stay there for a week or more depending on how he heals. Luckily they were able to do the whole thing through a few tiny incisions so at least the outside will heal quickly.

The first thing he said? He wants a few more Anthony Powell books!

Compromising with Lawyers

True Story.

A large consumer internet company where I worked sent in a team of lawyers to check over the fledgling social network I was building. The registration flow concerned them. There needed to be a check where the person registering was required to submit their date of birth so that we could ensure they were over 13.

The advice of the lawyers was to throw an error if someone underage tried to register.

“What kind of error?” I asked.

“A generic error, something like, Your registration has failed or The system is down for maintenance.

As a product guy, if there is one thing I hate more than a generic error message it’s a deceptive one. I want to give the user a specific error message that tells them what went wrong.

“Can I just tell them that they are too young to use the service?”

“No, then they would just adjust their date of birth and re-register,” said the legal department.

We all know this is what happens anyway, it’s one of the great collective nod and winks of the internet along with checking the [I understand and grok completely] boxes on the End User License Agreements we find across the web.

I argued that we must give them a more specific error so it doesn’t look like our service is broken. Legal didn’t want me to tip our had too much. What to do? We compromised.

The new error message? The agreed upon language?

You cannot use this service . . . at this time.

 

Serendipity in the Strangest of Places

It’s gone now but someone that I follow on twitter pointed out that it’s been six years since Adrian Holovaty posted, A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change In this post, Holovaty, the man behind the micro-news site everyblock.com, and, as far as I’m concerned, the original data-journalist, speaks to the new landscape in which newspapers sit and how they need to change to serve their new readership that is used to links that let them dig thru to the original source of information.

He also speaks of an ancillary value to taking data out of the content blob which is a newspaper article and storing it as meta-data alongside a story.

Then there’s the serendipity advantage. When I worked for LJWorld.com, we worked with the local weathermen to create a weather site that displayed the weathermen’s forecast for the next few days. I made them a Web interface that let them enter the predicted high temperature, low temperature and sky conditions — all in separate database fields. There really wasn’t any reason to use separate fields for these values other than the fact that the site’s design called for presenting the temperatures in a different color than the conditions, and we didn’t want the weathermen to have to remember to insert the HTML coloring codes in the right place. But it wasn’t until several months later that we reaped some real benefits of databasing the information, when we were putting together Game, an exhaustive database of local little-league teams and games. (Yes, you read that right.) We created a page for every little-league team and every little-league game, and when it came time to create the game pages, one of us said, “You know, these games tend to rain out a lot. It’d be really cool if we could somehow display the weather forecast for each game.” And, boom! One of us realized that we already had weather forecast data, in nice, sliceable-and-diceable format, thanks to our database populated by the weathermen. Ten minutes later, our little-league pages displayed weather forecasts. Serendipity.

This is the fundamental lesson so-called old media is still learning. There is hidden value in saving your content into a form that machines can read. SEO is more than just a “black art” to help goose traffic coming from Google, it’s also an important part of your editorial workflow that will pay off dividends in the future when you respond to new opportunities.

Giant Steps Visualized by Michal Levy

We all have run across link rot, you know, that sudden panic when something you used to count on is no longer there at the end of a trusty purple link? Like forgotten memories of our past, as the web gets older, the synapses that link to dusty old internet memes is passing into an offline past.

I recently went looking for an old .swf file that I used to show my son when he was a baby. The animation below is over 10 years old so that dates him but back in the day, this 4mb file enjoyed millions of views. I almost didn’t find the file so I took the time to download it so that I could archive it on my public Dropbox account for others to enjoy.

Giant Steps by Michal Levy

If you want to read more about this visualization and how it was made, there is an interview with Michal who built this for her BFA degree, “I worked on this film from morning to night, doing only this, for 4 months,” says Levy. Yes, times have changed since 2001.

For a more recent work, see her latest work, One from 2010 as well as a recent video interview with her at the DLD conference in Tel Aviv.