That Which is Perfect

My name is Edward Norton. Last year, I had a car accident with a vehicle that was transporting an experimental substance for the DoD, and got covered in the stuff. As a result, trillions of devices a few nanometers in length course through my bloodstream, repairing my body, healing any injuries faster than is humanly possible. The first thing they did was coat my bones with a tiny layer of a very hard, very flexible metal alloy. The second thing they did was break down all of the muscles in my body and replace them with a dense fiber, custom designed to provide more force per square inch than the original.

In short, I’ve got superpowers. I can punch through a brick wall with very little effort and no lasting harm to myself, and I can bounce back from pretty traumatic injuries quite quickly.

I have superpowers, and it has ruined my life.

Seneca the Younger once asked, “What can be added to that which is perfect?” My life may not have been perfect, exactly, but it seemed that way to me at the time. And adding superpowers to it was definitely a loss rather than a gain.

I had a beautiful, wonderful wife, and three perfect little girls. I was a product manager for a small video advertising startup in DC. I had a good relationship with my boss, the owner of the company, formerly a coworker at a previous job who had brought me over. It was not an exciting life. We had no need for it to be.

Then the damn accident happened, and everything got screwed up.

For one thing, I am terrified to hug or grasp my daughters now. I am so strong; I haven’t really been able to get my ahead around how much stronger I really am. I’m terrified that I’m going to hurt them, or Anna.

One time, Andrew—my boss—and I were at Fast Eddie’s for happy hour after work. Some frat bro asshole started hassling us. He got a little too up close and personal, so I gave him a little love tap—and it broke his jaw. I mean, fuck. I didn’t mean to hurt the guy, I just wanted him to back off!

But that isn’t the worst of it. The people who were driving the car I crashed into were not actually part of the DoD or the government at all. They were some group that was pulling off a heist on the stuff that ended up making me what I am. And now they’re after me. They want to take me, probably want to dissect me like some lab rat.

They tried to take me directly not long after the accident, but I’m too strong for them now. Bullets hurt, but don’t kill me, and I was able to make quick work of the guys they sent after me.

So they took my family hostage.

That was the worst day of my life. I have never been so terrified.

I managed to get my family out, with some help from the Department of Homeland Security. But not before I beat the everloving shit out of some of those terrorist assholes in front of my wife and kids. The sick part is, some part of me enjoyed it. I hope the kids couldn’t tell, but I think that Anna could.

She took the kids to her parents’ place for a while after that. Almost a year went by where I only got to visit once a month or less.

But she came back, bless her. She still loves me, and she wants the girls to be with their father, and DHS is providing us with protection. I don’t know if she made the right choice, but I’m still so relieved, and grateful.

People are way too quick to take a normal, boring life for granted. They don’t know what a blessing it is to have a good job and a family that loves you. I’m holding on to those at the moment, but just barely. I can only hope that my superpowers don’t screw things up for good some day.

If you have people in your life that you love, take it from me. If you see a radioactive spider, or cosmic rays, or superpower science goo—turn the other way and run as fast as you can.

The Storyteller

There was once a boy who wanted to tell stories. These were exactly the sorts of stories you would expect a little boy to tell; they involved video game and cartoon characters that he thought were cool. They spent most of their time getting into fights that the boy would contrive some reason for. Sometimes the boy could be bothered to write these stories on paper, but most of the time he simply acted them out with an ever-growing army of action figures.

As the boy grew, he aspired to write down more of these stories, but was never very dedicated to the task. Every so often he would spend a lot of energy on an idea for a story and then drop it before he was finished. Long after he had become a man—to the extent that one could call him such a thing with a straight face—the number of completed works of fiction he had seen through in his lifetime could be counted on his hands.

However, he had been far from idle as a storyteller. At some point late in his childhood, he began to tell stories about things in the world he had heard about, and read about, and talked about, particularly the things he had talked with his father about. Current events, history, philosophy, and every sort of idea filled the thousands of stories that he told. Though he had never had a trouble writing essays for a grade, still he was quite bad at telling a good story to begin with. But he enjoyed it, and he kept at it. After more than a decade of such storytelling, he began to find that the number of stories he produced that he was proud of was beginning to exceed the ones he considered duds.

Yet the fact that he never spent any of that energy telling the kinds of stories that excited him as a boy ate at him. He thought, surely, as I have been telling stories all along, it would be a simple matter to switch over and start doing the other sort. But domain dependence turns out to be far narrower than he had thought; writing fiction was hard work, while writing nonfiction came as easily to him as breathing.

Finally he came to terms with the fact that there was no shortcut for rounding out his abilities as a storyteller. If he wanted to tell the stories he had so loved growing up, he would have to start in the same place that he had started with the stories he could now tell so effortlessly. He would have to commit to stories that he could finish, no matter how small. He would have to keep at it, rather than writing one story and then not doing another for months or years. He would have to accept that it would be a long time before he was ready to write stories that he could be proud of on a regular basis.

So, afraid that he might be setting himself for another false start, he began. He began with the simple story of how he got here, because it’s a story he already knew well and knew how to tell. And that is the story you have just finished reading.

An Homage to the Wimp Turned Badass

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The eldest of the superhero icons, Superman and Batman, are badasses through and through. Superman was born stronger and faster than is humanly possible, along with having the ability to fly (among other things). Batman has no powers, but is well-rounded in his mortal badassness—not only is he fit and strong and capable of kicking your ass with ten different types of martial arts, but he’s also smart and mega-rich.

Spiderman came later than these two, and he is emblematic of a different sort of hero. Peter Parker was scrawny, a nerd, and—let’s be honest—something of a loser. How did he gain his powers? He was hanging around some boring science demonstration and pretty much got bit by it. Peter Parker was a wimp, but his powers turned him into a badass.

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Spiderman was my hero of choice growing up. It was the 90’s, and comics in general and Marvel in particular were going through a weird time. But Spiderman nevertheless remained true to Stan Lee’s original vision of a superhero that had a lot of problems. Most of them were boring, normal human problems.

Perhaps it is because I grew up on Spiderman, but I am a huge sucker for the wimp to badass genre. After my consumption of Spiderman and American (non-web) comics in general fell, my main source for these stories has been Japanese manga and Korean manhwa.

Manga has a specific genre called shounen that is targeted to teenage boys that is rife with wimp to badass stories. The most emblematic is probably Naruto, current king of the manga mountain, about a ninja who has no skills at all but manages to achieve greatness through hard work.

As my teenage years are now nearly ten years behind me, it’s a bit embarrassing how addicted I can get to this formula in these settings. My current obsession is a manhwa series called The Breaker that comes out every Friday. Come Friday morning, I am eager to wake up so I can read the next 18 or so pages of Shioon Lee’s adventures. I sometimes get so impatient waiting for the next installment that I go back and reread a few hundred pages of the earlier parts!

By far my favorite work in this genre is the manga Holyland. Holyland has a great deal to recommend it: it doesn’t use super powers to spice up the fights, the artist actually knows a great deal about boxing and martial arts and the human body, and the female characters are actually proportioned like human beings, rather than some teenage boy’s deranged idea of a sexpot.

But the real draw is the main character, Kamishiro Yuu. Yuu is not like Spiderman. He doesn’t crack jokes, and his rise isn’t what you’d call a feel good story—though it has an excellent resolution. Bullied and marginalized socially, Yuu becomes stronger purely to overcome the feeling he has of being utterly pathetic. Once he is strong, the resentment he felt from being made to feel like garbage does not simply go away.

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Mori Koji (the artist) introduces this darker element quite slowly and tactfully. At first it truly appears that Yuu is just an innocent bystandard who is defending himself from people who underestimate him. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that he takes a dark enjoyment in beating the shit out of people. The manga follows his character as he grows stronger, discovers this side of himself, is terrified by it, and fights against being consumed by it entirely. At the same time, the character is genuinely likable, as are the friends he makes along the way who help him resist falling into violence entirely.

I am not ashamed to say that I find it to be a masterpiece in the wimp to badass genre, and anyone who enjoys stories along this line owes it to themselves to give it a read.

Read from right to left

I have to say, as I get older I really wish that there were more stories in this genre that were set somewhere other than a High School. Even Spiderman started out there! But perhaps there’s something inherently juvenile about wanting to see scrawny nerds go around beating people up.

If so, my content consumption would seem to imply…a rather juvenile tendency in my tastes.

Oh well. If growing up means giving up my wimp to badass stories, then I don’t want to grow up.

Moving to Manhattan

Exactly one year ago today, Catherine and I took a Bolt Bus up to New York. The trip was one we had been saying we would take for a long time; more and more of our friends had moved there, and we had promised all of them that we would be coming to visit at some point. We were finally making good on those promises.

We arrived around lunch time, and headed over to Murray Hill, to our friends Peter and Jordan’s apartment, where we would be staying. Peter, Jordan, and I had gone to high school together, and Peter would be my best man at our wedding later that year. We’re close, and we were happy to have the chance to spend some time together.

It was a lighting tour, as we came up Saturday morning and returned to DC Sunday evening. Other than a trip to the MoMA, we did basically no tourist activities. We had lunch in Peter’s neighborhood, and walked around a bit. That evening, we went to an Italian place called Bianca that had a two hour wait, but it was worth it. We met up with our friend Laura, who Peter and I had gone to middle school with. The next day, we met up with our friends Alanna and Nasira for brunch; Catherine had gone to middle and high school with both of them. Alanna would be her maid of honor at our wedding, Nasira one of her bridesmaids.

As we sat on the bus ride home, our minds drifted to the same thought. We had never really seen New York as a place you could live, in all the times we had visited it before. It just seemed too big, too fast, too overwhelming. Great place to visit, but live there? Forget it.

But spending time there with residents, rather than as tourists, had shown us a whole other side to the city. Both of us could, for the first time, imagine living there. The idea even seemed a bit appealing. I, personally, had had this curiosity growing since we visited San Francisco the year before, about what it would be like to live in another city.

But at the end of the day, we had no reason to move. Nearly all of my friends and family were still in the DC metropolitan area, and Catherine had been there for about eight or nine years. Her family was mostly concentrated in the Boston metropolitan area. And we both had jobs already. Neither of us are the kind of people to just pick up and move because we felt like it.

That very week, Eric Litman reached out to me about the possibility of working for his company, Medialets. A company based in Manhattan.

Intercity Commuter

The recruiting process ended up taking about a month. Since I was leaving a very small company, I set my start date for Medialets at about a month after that, on June 4th, 2012.

That week was the first time of many that I would take Amtrak from Union Station in DC to Penn Station in Manhattan, and then spend my nights at the Yotel near Hell’s Kitchen. It was one of only three times that Catherine would come up with me, during the four months between when I took the job and when we moved up here.

We stayed that whole week, and after that, I would work from home for a week, then come up for two or three days, and repeat. It was an exciting, but difficult time. I was caught between two cities and Catherine was dealing with the logistical run-up to our wedding. At first it was quite fun to come up, maybe see Peter every other time or so. But it got to be very tiring, and—I learned—there are few things more depressing than going to a tiny (but so efficiently designed!) Yotel room alone. More than once I monopolized Peter and Jordan’s time far too long because I didn’t really look forward to heading back to my room.

In DC, we had only ever needed to look to Craigslist to find a place to live. As far as we could tell, it was totally unreliable for Manhattan, and we weren’t too confident in what we could see in the alternatives, either. So on the advice from a few people I worked with, we got a broker. The results were mixed. Since we weren’t in New York yet, it was good to have someone to arrange viewings for us before I was in town. I think I saw over twenty apartments, something like fifteen of which I saw in a two day span in September in which we finally picked a place and jumped on it.

In case you had any doubts, the New York rental market is insane. No one lists square footage, because the buildings are so old that the information isn’t readily available. And in the time that it would take the broker to go in and measure the place manually, they could have already rented out the place. I saw so many places there were 40% more expensive than what we were paying in DC but only about a quarter the size, with ancient appliances and few amenities (other than location, of course).

As a result, we ended up very, very upper west, but the place is quite good (especially compared to most of what I saw) and it’s basically the same amount that we were paying in DC (not as big a place, of course!).

The broker cost a small fortune, and the broker on the other side of the transaction took forever to process everything. We ended up having to pay for movers and arrange a move out date with our DC building before we even had a signed lease! It was…stressful. But we made it, and my intercity commuting days came to a merciful end.

Adjusting

It is a very, very different place than anywhere I have lived before.

To begin with, I sold my car before coming here and commute entirely by subway. The Metro in DC is just incomparable to the subway system here. You can get almost anywhere in Manhattan so quickly from anywhere else there. In DC, ten minute waits are not uncommon, even at rush hour. In Manhattan, when you see that there is a four minute wait it often means that you only just missed a train. You also get the life experience of more than occasionally being packed into sardine can-like subway cars during rush hour, something you do not really experience in DC.

Nearly everywhere I’ve been in Manhattan has so many amenities within a couple of blocks. Our apartment is two short blocks away from a ton of stores—including a grocery store—for instance; there wasn’t anything that close to us in DC, and we were in a fairly dense neighborhood. There are an enormous number of lunch options literally on the same block as the Medialets office.

Living in the Upper West Side also means we have great access to parks; Riverside Park is right across the street from us and Central Park is five long blocks away. We enjoyed this to some extent when we first moved here, though it got to be winter quite quickly. Looking forward to spending more time walking around these parks—and the different neighborhoods around the city—as it starts to actually feel like spring.

The level of intensity is several notches up across the board. People here will run you over on the road and walk over you on the sidewalk if you do not get with the program and move your ass. Catherine was interviewed and given a job offer within the space of a week and they insisted that she start almost immediately. The sheer level of energy and churn in the business world here is astonishing.

It’s only been six months now that we moved here. Some things came more easily than expected, but it’s safe to say that we still have a lot of adjusting to do.

Is it Worth it?

After we got back from our trip a year ago, and before Medialets was on my radar, I wrote the following:

We spent the weekend in New York City. Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you were living it in another city? I do that more and more lately, and this trip to the Big Apple just served to fuel that all the more. I think it really started after our trip to San Francisco last year; that city really worked its charms on me. In the end, it’s just fantasizing—the people I care about are more important to me than the particular attractions of particular cities. Still, who doesn’t wish that they could take everyone they care about and relocate them to their ideal city?

My friend Lauren reblogged this and added:

There are a lot of cities I’d rather live in, but my family is here. Life is too short and I already see my family too little for me to intentionally do something to put more distance between us.

I agreed with her at the time, and in many ways this is still how I feel. I am very close to my immediate family; for most of my life my family would have dinner with my paternal grandparents and my aunts and uncles on that side every Sunday. I miss being able to do that. We both miss our friends in northern Virginia and in DC who we could see a lot more often than is practical now that we’re up here.

However, we have a lot of friends and I have a fair amount of family both in and near Manhattan. It is nice to be able to see them more often. And we’re much closer to Catherine’s family, who live in the Boston area, so we can make more quick weekend visits than was practical when we were down in DC.

One thing I can say is that there are more career opportunities in New York for both Catherine and myself. A lot more. She’s in market research, and I’m in digital advertising—there is just nowhere on this coast that can compare to New York in those industries. And of the alternatives, DC does not rank high.

All of life is trade-offs, and it’s not always easy to say when you’ve struck the right balance, if such a thing exists. But we were aware of the trade-offs coming into this decision, and however long we end up staying here–whether it’s a couple of years, five years, or more–I know we’ll have gained something from it.

RSS is a Tool for Living in the Long Tail

Over a year ago, I talked about my information diet and Google Reader was a central part of it. Today, Google has announced that Reader is being shut down. I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss some of the big changes I’ve made to how I make use of RSS, and to my information diet more generally.

These days I don’t read any big sites at all in my RSS reader; instead I use it to keep up with lower-volume, interesting long tail content.

Drowning at the Head of the Tail

This time last year, something like 300 “items”—blog posts or comics—were going through my Google Reader account each day. And that was after already cutting back a fair amount, after reading Clay Johnson’s book.

This is exactly why RSS reading has never really taken off the way that a lot of other sexy web 2.0 things from the same era did—the people who tried it would subscribe to their favorite websites, see “100+ items unread”, get stressed out about it, and never return.

I always just thought those people were wimps. I was perfectly happy living in a perpetual stream of content; I could glance over most of it and pick out the ones that looked interesting. I was aggressive about marking whole folders as read if I didn’t feel like dealing with it. It worked for me.

After reading Johnson’s book, however, I started to rethink the matter. What was I really gaining by staying on top of everything that was posted by sites like The Verge, Gizmodo, and Boing Boing? Any big story blows up on social media. They put out dozens and dozens of posts a day, most of which I don’t even remember glancing over. I could just as easily check these sites once a day, or every so often, and there’ll be plenty for me to choose from then. Meanwhile, they crowd out the low-quantity feeds that constitute the overwhelming majority of my subscriptions.

So I eventually unsubscribed from all the professional, high-quantity posting sites.

What surprised me was how much of a relief I found it. After defending this approach and saying I could handle it, it felt absolutely awesome to give it up. Some days I don’t even bother to check The Verge. It’s been a pretty big validation of Clay Johnson’s argument.

I don’t use Google Reader anymore—I’ve been using NewsBlur for a few months now—so I don’t know exactly how many items are passing through my account on a daily basis anymore. But it is an order of magnitude fewer than it was a year ago.

RSS Readers Were Made for the Long Tail

Imagine all the time lost going to sites when they haven’t updated. This was the original argument for RSS readers, one that I’ve made throughout my usage of them. With RSS readers, that time is not wasted. You only interact with a site when it has updated.

It’s precisely that argument that demonstrates why it’s so pointless to subscribe to a site like The Verge. You know that The Verge will be updated every day. Even during the slow days of the weekend they’ll update two or three times at least. During peak gadget release season, in the middle of the week, they will sometimes post over 70 times in a single day. If you want to read new posts from The Verge, you can go there. There will be new ones.

Right now I would say that the upper end of posting for the feeds I follow is 10 posts a day, if that. The greatest value comes from the feeds that post once a day, or less than once a day, or even less than once a month. There are feeds I’ve subscribed to that have gone dark for years and then suddenly started up again. It costs me nothing to continue subscribing, and if they start up again it becomes a wonderful surprise.

I currently follow dozens of webcomics. The post rate for these varies from 5 times a week, to 3 times a week, to once a week, to once a month, to whenever the hell the artist feels like updating. There is no way I could keep up with the amount of webcomics I do without RSS. It would become unmanageable.

Despite the fact that Google has abandoned the playing field, I think that RSS readers are a phenomenal way to explore the gems that exist out there on the open web. The stuff that is more personal; the stuff that people are doing because they love doing it.

The head of the tail is basically inescapable; why not work a little harder at mining the long tail?