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Why it’s important to learn how to speak tech

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For six weeks between junior and senior year of high school, I went to the Governor’s School for International Studies, where I took an immersion class in Japanese. The first week, we learned the words for chair, teacher, and bathroom, and verbs. The second week, we weren’t allowed to speak English. As much as I enjoyed learning the cadences of Japanese, what I enjoyed even more was the getting rid of the nuances that made me sound American.

For example, Japanese has a special stop sound that people make instead of “umm.” It’s either “anoo” or “etoo”, depending on context. I spent the six weeks of my Japanese class consciously replacing every time I said “umm” with “anoo.” It is damn hard to catch yourself making unconscious noises.

Later, when I was in Israel, I forced myself to practice my rhotic Rs so I could get the Israeli discount at falafel shops.

I was insufferable in high school. (Ed. note – only in high school?)

I love languages, but what I love more about languages than the mechanics themselves is they allow you into someone’s culture, and if you speak the right phrases, knowing a language beyond its bones is like a lock that opens a key to a different, deeper level of that person, and that culture.

What’s really cool is that you don’t have to leave English at all to experience this. silicon-valley-hbo

Truck drivers have different slang than doctors (just read the archives of one of the first blogs I started following 8+(!) years ago, the Underwear Drawer, when its author was still in med school), who have different slang and worldviews than stay-at-home moms . If each of these different communities could  understand that when we’re communicating with someone they’re perceiving it from their lens rather than ours, it would reduce all miscommunication by half.

Unfortunately, culture is one of the things you can’t learn from a classroom.  You have to learn it by living it and absorbing it through your skin.

Mike Judge is one of the best people at thinking this way today.  When he created Office Space, one of my favorite movies of all time, he brilliantly captured the feel of corporate America with even every single nuance accounted for. Even just the tiny things like the printer not working (printers never, ever work in offices) and the pieces of flair that are so prevalent in places like TGIFriday’s and Ruby Tuesday add to the overall experience so much so that thousands of people swear Judge worked at their office.

He’s made it clear that he can speak different languages in his latest show, Silicon Valley, on HBO.

Part of this probably has to do with the fact that he worked a stint in Palo Alto before moving on to TV, but it doesn’t matter, because  startup culture today has its own special nuances different than the culture decades before it, and he was able to grok it as well.

Judge nails the way startup culture, and to an extent, tech culture works today, and in doing so, shows how ridiculous it is.

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In the show, the main character, Richard, is a mild-mannered beta-geek who works at Google-like giant Hooli manned by a charming psychopath visionary (played by the same guy who was creepy Albie on Big Love.) In his spare time, he lives in a startup incubator with a couple other guys, working on a lossless compression algorithm that scans all known media to see if the music you own is out of copyright compliance.

The brogrammers at Hooli make fun of him, but word of his startup eventually gets to the CEO, who starts a bidding war for Pied Piper with a Peter-Thiel/Paul Graham-like figure who drives in a compact car that’s the size of a bicycle to reduce his carbon footprint. By the end of the episode, Hooli and Peter Graham are in a bidding war for equity or a buyout of his company, and Richard’s on his way to becoming a millionaire.

Does any of that seem funny? If it does, you probably work in tech or read Hacker News.

To me,  it’s perfect.

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All the right signals, the ones that say, “Trust Mike Judge, he knows what he’s doing,” are there. For example, the main character constantly wears a hoodie. This is  a blatant nod to Zuckerberg, but also signals the fact that Richard is very insecure. Or, it could mean that he’s just wants to be like every other dude from 25-50 working in tech, all of who wear casual clothes as much as possible.  The way everyone else on the show dresses also gives signals. People who wear jeans but really nice shirts that make it seem like they’re not really wearing jeans are executives. People wearing shirts with startup logos are broke and don’t have money to do laundry.

Second, the technology is correct. When I saw the teaser trailer, I did a double-take. A guy had an HTML5 shirt. HTML5 is an actual thing! It’s not something that the producers made up! And what’s even cooler is that HTML5 is the new hotness right now, so it’s actually relevant, as well.

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It shows how most of us use tech on the go: not pristinely, glamorously sitting on a counter. Usually, it’s  juggled on our laps, in thick cases, with our work badges splayed out for everyone to see.

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And, they write code just like the rest of us!

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I couldn’t get a great screenshot of this, but it’s obvious that the show put up real code editors: SublimeText and Powershell. This seems really stupid and pedantic, but to geeks, it matters, because we’ve been subjected to decades of bad code on TV. Hollywood doesn’t care about portraying code correctly because code doesn’t make for good action shots. But it should, because if you get the little details right, you’ll be the larger ones right, as well.

And, the culture. It’s just so right, and it can be summed up by this one picture:

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I guess what I like most is that Judge made a smart show filled with accuracy to the people like me who are pedantic about it. He’s trying to appeal to a mass audience, but he’s really speaking to people who know the industry and can vouch for it. Details matter.

Compare this to supposed favorite nerd-festival Big Bang Theory, which is so popular not because it glorifies smart people, but because it’s coming from Penny’s point of view. “Look at these geeks,” Penny says to the audience, snickering, every time Sheldon or Leonard do something. The scientific facts they spout aren’t meant to educate or further the plot, but just serve to point to the fact that these nerds are talking way too much about stuff regular people couldn’t care less about.

What’s really interesting to me on a personal level is that, a couple years ago, half of this show wouldn’t have made any sense. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of jobs in the tech industry. The tech industry is going to save America.  But for all its luster, it’s still incredibly hostile to newcomers, not because of any inherent bias, but because it’s still largely merit and knowledge.  There is a LOT OF STUFF to know, and the more you know, the more regarded you are. Some people will be encouraging and teach you things, but sometimes, it seems intimidating to ask questions, especially of people who have been programming since they were fifteen. Some of these people programmed in assembly language. Some people were so hardcore that they didn’t even wait until computers came out. They were writing programs on notebook paper and running them by burning the pages.

But, all of a sudden, tech an economic boom and everyone and their sister wants to get into it, which is great, because it means more people making more great stuff. But, how to get into it? A couple weeks ago, I had coffee with someone who’s looking to get into analytics and was looking for advice. ”What should I do to understand the tech industry,” they asked.

And I thought for a minute. How do you learn a language that you can only learn by being exposed to the culture? There are books for learning Italian. There are no books for learning to speak tech. I mean, sure, there’s O’Reilly.  But reading is one thing.

You can only learn what a server is by that feeling in your stomach when one goes down, what rm -rf does when you wipe out a directory you didn’t mean to, and how much space in gigs things take up when you run out of memory and can’t back up your data.

So I thought for a minute and said, “Read Hacker News. Read it every day.  You won’t understand 90% of it to begin with, and you won’t care about 95% of it. (I didn’t. As I write, the top ten stories are on two-factor authentication, DOMS,Tarsnap, and Lispy Python. I’m excited that I know what all of these are, but it took months and months of reading to absorb. ) But the more you read it, the more you’ll get. Look up words you don’t know. Ask me questions. Click on comments. Read people’s experiences. Wander loose around the Internet, your mind open like a sieve, and let the writing wash through it. Some of it will stick. Later, more of it will. ”

In addition to being in the thick of the action, it helps to have a second place that reads, kind of, like a dictionary.  It took me over three years to “start getting it”, and I’m still learning by reading, and less frequently, by breaking things.  So maybe what I really appreciate about Silicon Valley is that it’s obvious that someone else knows stuff because they broke stuff, too.

So, I’m curious how both tech people and non-tech people perceive this show that I think is so great and so spot-on, and does it matter? And what is it saying about where we are as an economy, as a culture?I’m don’t know, but like I said, I do appreciate the full-on cultural and linguistic accuracy.

Here’s the pilot episode, in full for free from HBO. You can Judge for yourself:

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The best books are conversations

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I like to read so much because I’m an introvert.

In real life, I find it hard to get into in-depth conversations with interesting people I’ve just met  because I’m too embarrassed to ask probing questions and come across as a dork.  But in a book, it’s like the author is having a private audience with me on their own volition, and I don’t have to say a word.

A good writer can make you feel like you’re sitting beside them in the passenger’s side of a car, on a road trip, or in a cafe, sitting over cups of coffee. A terrible writer makes you feel like they’re the only person you know at a cocktail party, and you want to jump out the window.

In addition to looking for generally-interesting books to read, I also specifically scan the landscape for books written about being Russian, partly because I want to confirm and validate my own experiences, and partly because I want to learn something new about Russia that I haven’t already learned from hundreds of family stories and GIFs of Putin riding a bear.

So, I got excited about Anya Von Bremzen’s book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking early on. Von Bremzen has been a food writer for most of her career and decided to write a memoir about growing up with Soviet cooking.  The cover looked lively and snappy, and I was interested in what she had to say about Soviet food: a genre ripe for memories.

The American press thought so, too, because  As soon as she came out, she was first covered by the Jewish-oriented sites, then the Russian-oriented sites, then, of course, NPR and literary sites glommed on.

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I went into this book with huge expectations, both to validate my experiences with Soviet and Russian food. I was also looking for a friend who I could relate to, to share immigrant horror stories with me.

I did find Von Bremzen to be a skilled writer. She does an interesting thing: going through each decade of Soviet history and offering a recipe, as well as parallel stories about how her family survived the time period.

She starts by making a kulebiaka, a tasrist-era food, with her mom, and works her way through the 30s, the war-torn 40s, gray 50s, all the way to the 70s and 80s, when she and her mom left and immigrated, interestingly enough, to Philadelphia.  She describes food with all the necessary gustatory descriptions. “Crispy brains in brown butter”, “burnished-brown lamb and potatoes enlivened with an angry dusting of paprika.”

She also talks about interesting movements in Soviet food history- did you know that the humble kotleta was taken directly from the American hamburger after Anastas Mikyoan, a party leader close to Stalin, took a trip to the U.S. in the 30s?  Both me and my parents, who also read the book, were blown away by this.

However, in spite of all of this, I just wasn’t sympathetic to her experience.

Her writing is the perfect tone for Food and Wine magazine. Check out the first paragraph of the prologue, which is titles “Poisoned Madeleines”, a literary allusion to Proust.

Whenever my mother and I cook together, she tells me her dreams. So rich and intense is Mom’s dream life, she’s given to cataloging and historicizing it: sleek cold war thrillers laced with KGB spooks; melodramas starring duty-crushed lovers.

Her writing is interesting when talking about food, but when she uses the same types of phrases to describe her family, I check out. The chapters about her family seemed interesting on the surface: they were involved pretty deeply in the Soviet government, and her dad worked on keeping embalmed Lenin..well, embalmed.

The chapters on food were more interesting: Salat Olivie, sosiski, and all that fun stuff, were stripped of their nostalgic aura and examined at the root. If all the personal chapters were excluded the language toned down, it would have made for a great read.

But check out that first paragraph! I already had to struggle to care about this paragraph, and I was on the author’s side! I love the KGB. I love Soviet cooking. But,  I felt like I was sitting on a couch, glass of terrible-tasting hipster tea cupped meekly in my hands, while Von Bremzen was starting what would be a very long, proselytizing lecture that I couldn’t get out of.

On the other hand, there’s Lenin Lives Next Door. It was sent to me gratis by Jennifer, whose blog I’ve been reading for a couple years now,  but I would have definitely paid for it.  Although I know Jennifer a bit through her blog and Twitter, from the moment I opened the cover, I was sitting next to her on a couch, gossiping. I was involved in her adventure.

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Her style is light, conversational, and easily-accessible. “Hey, here’s a crazy thing that happened to me,” she says, “and I’m sharing it with you.”

To give you an idea, the first paragraph of the book is,

You have to really want to go to Russia. The briefest of visits involves a lot of paperwork, and if you want to hang around for any length of time, they make you take a leprosy test.

Eremeeva started a tsar-struck student in the U.S. and worked her way through Russian classes, arriving just as the Soviet Union collapsed. That would be historic enough for anyone, but she decides to stay in-country, eventually marrying and raising her daughter there.

What’s even more interesting than any of that (Americans choosing to live outside of America are always a perennial interest of mine,) is that she doesn’t enclose herself inside the diplomatic/expat bubble that many North Americans abroad tend to.

She knows about blat, the best place to get cigarettes in Moscow in 1993, how to work the corporate ladder at a shady Russian conglomerate, and how to plan a party for 400 people.

She knows everyone foreign in Moscow, and a lot of Russians, too. She speaks Russian. All of this lends itself to chapters rich in experiences and joie de vivre and a life that reads like a novel bursting with colorful characters: HRH (Her Russian Husband), who is ex-military and steadily more involved in Russian business, Joe Kelley, a “six-foot-four, three-hundred pound Irish-American former Ohio State linebacker, who came to Moscow on a hunch, spoke no Russian, and knew exactly one person,” and Jesus Arismendi, who is Venezeulan, gay, and somehow wound up in Russia, drinking Kir Royales.

Some of her adventures include trying to get HRH to buy life insurance (something Russians don’t believe in) in a chapter called “The Preexisting Birkin”, watching as HRH pays for a suit on Saville Row in London in cash, helping her daughter with Russian geography, and being disinvited from the tyrant-run “depressing-books book club on Prechistinka.”

In spite of the fact that Russia in the 90s was gray and depressing, you never get that sense from the book. It’s hard, for sure, but also interesting, and has plenty of things to laugh about.  It’s a different Russia from the one I know: exciting, frustrating, and, most importantly, interesting and lively.

I used to want to write a memoir about my family’s immigration, but then I realized, after a certain point, that I had nothing interesting left to say, and if I did, it would probably come out like Von Bremzen’s book: overloaded with family sob stories, sappy cliches, and some overwrought descriptions of terrible Soviet food.

I’m more than happy to sit quietly on my couch, spiked  and listen to Jennifer tell me about her Russia, the Russia of the present and the future, which is a little less gray, and gives me some hope that not all is lost.

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Use cases

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I read a lot of tech news to keep up with work. One of the things people in tech who want to sound hip always talk about is “use cases.” What’s the use case of the 10-inch tablet-phone?”  People who want to make important business calls from the bathroom while reading the news.   “What’s the use case of the iPhone 5c?” People who want a phone that’s cheap and colorful and makes a good paperweight.  ”What’s the use case of  Twitter?” People trying to be funny but just coming across as jerks.

Companies do use cases to figure out which technologies work best for what kinds of purposes, but I am betting you a million dollars companies will never be able to figure out my parents.

Since I force-gifted my mom an iPad for her birthday last year (“It’s too expensive! I don’t need it! Why are you giving me this thing! It’s too complicated! Oh wait…do you have WiFi in your house? I need to sync my iPad…just a minute, I think I forgot my iPad and I can’t leave the house without it”), she has been becoming progressively more technical.

She’s been reading Kindle books (that I buy and force-gift her through the Kindle lending library,) listening to Russian radio through TuneIn, and generally doing crazy things like using Yelp.

On the other hand, If there’s anyone the NSA won’t be able to find, it’s my dad, because, although he is extremely smart and has repaired non-working televisions from start to finish, he is too lazy to internet. “Google me up some information,” he’ll tell my mom from the couch.He has checked his email probably once in the last six months (“too much work to log in. Just tell me over the phone.”)

“Google it yourself,” she’ll say, not looking up from Flipboard, and he’ll sigh and wonder why he married her.   Even though he’s lazy, he still needs all the latest information about Mashina Vremeni, so he’ll get up and find the laptop.

Things have been progressing in this manner for a couple of months, with the iPad really fueling some new use cases for them. For example, last week, my mom called me on Skype from vacation in Costa Rica to tell me that A) This was the most awesome hotel she’s ever been in and B) I needed to call my grandfather.

My dad, while refusing to learn how to use the iPad has, on the other hand, been lovingly accessorizing it, like a pet. “This is a good case,” he said, lovingly showing me the leather stand-up folio he purchased. “It will protect it. I also got Bluetooth speakers.”

“But what are you going to use them for, Dad? Have you used the iPad at all? Downloaded any guitar apps like I told you to?”

“No, and I don’t intend to. But I want to see if I can connect to HDMI.”

One of my dad’s burgeoning fantasies has been to hook up the iPad to TV  so they can watch movies off their WiFi.

I’ve never heard of the iPad-movie use case before, and this problem gets more interesting with the fact that, although I bought them an iPad with 3G capability, they refuse to pay the monthly fee for it, partly because it seems expensive to them, and partly out of principle, because paying for things is for suckers and Americans.

Between the laziness, the payment workarounds,  and the technology splurges, things finally came to a head a couple weeks ago, when they decided to get smart phones.

“We’re getting smartphones,” my mom told me via Skype.

“We’ll see,” I said. I have been hopeful that they’ll convert to 21st century for the past five years so I can finally send my dad texts in Russian and email my mom stupid articles people are posting online so we can judge them in real-time.  That’s MY use case for my parents.

But they’d been talking hazily about smartphones since 2011. The only thing stopping them, really, is that you have to pay for them.

“We’re really going to do it. Even I’ve decided it’s time,” my mom said. “Maybe the iPhone? Or the LG?”

“Really,” I perked up. She was talking specific models. This was serious.

“Yeah, we need a phone that’s compatible,” my dad yelled in the background of the chat.

“Compatible with what,” I asked.

“The iPad,” he said.

“Why would it need to be compatible with the iPad?”

“I want to hook up the phone to the iPad and watch movies on it for free.”

“Let me get this straight. You won’t get 3G access on the iPad, but you’re willing to get a cell phone, connect it somehow to the iPad, and pay for the streaming data anyway, because you think it’s more free than just paying for the iPad?”

“Yes.”

Companies, take note to design your use cases around my parents. And Verizon or AT&T, watch out. You have two new super users coming on board. (Maybe.)

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Interview with the only person on the planet who hated The Goldfinch

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Interviewer:So. Vicki. You hated The Goldfinch.
Vicki: That’s correct.
Interviewer: Do you also murder small household pets?
Vicki: What?
Interviewer: You must hate humanity.
Vicki: No, I just…did not like this book at all.
Interviewer: Are you a secret Nazi?
Vicki: What? No! This interview became inflammatory very quickly.
Interviewer: I just find it hard to believe that someone doesn’t like one of the most-well-regarded books of 2014 so far. Donna Tartt took ten years to write this thing (probably wearing pantsuits the whole time), she sweated, she labored over Theo, just so you could have this thing to read. Do you have a soul?
Vicki: I gave it a real try, honest. I read over 600 of the 700+ pages!
Interviewer: You didn’t try hard enough. Donna Tartt died so you could have this book.
Vicki: I’m pretty sure she’s still alive and doing VERY well off her book sales.
Interviewer: The book is on Amazon’s bestseller list. It was hailed as a “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade” by Stephen King. “With a Dutch master’s attention to detail” by the Washington Post.  And a “stunning success, one of the most striking novels I’ve read in years” by some dude on Amazon.
Vicki: I know, I know, I know. I tried to get into it! I liked some of the characters! I liked Boris, the creepy Eastern European dude, and Popper, the dog. But I had to slog through every single page. But there is no feeling, nothing interesting, in ANY of the characters. I didn’t care that Theo’s mother died or that he was trying to get back to the East Coast, or about that stupid Goldfinch painting. I was just BORED. I was waiting for someone to die in a horrible fiery death again. Only if I didn’t have to read about Kitsey. KITSEY. STOP TALKING. SHUT UP KITSEY. I HATE YOU. I ALSO HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT FURNITURE, I DON’T CARE ABOUT FURNITURE AND I DON’T CARE ABOUT HOW DRUNK THEO GETS EVERY FIVE MINUTES.
Interviewer: You have no taste and you’re never allowed to blog again.
Vicki: But I LOVED her Secret History! I stayed up late at night reading it! I had high hopes!
Interviewer: You don’t know how to read English.
Vicki:  I’m not alone! I can’t be! PLEASE SOMEONE OUT THERE WHO HATED THIS BOOK.
Interviewer: The English-speaking Society for Classy Guys and Gals Who Read Pretentious Books on the Train hereby outsts you. Hand in your badge and your condescending smirk.
Vicki: I love that smirk. It’s how I know I’m better than  Danielle Steele.
Interviewer: You’re done.
Vicki: Am I allowed to read The Luminaries? Or my Yiddish book?
Interviewer: You can’t handle allegories, allusions, or explanations of art and society. You can’t empathize with characters, and you don’t understand the pains of real Authors. I hereby only allow you to read Dan Brown from now on.
Vicki: *quietly sobs in the corner*