The People Who Have Shaped Me
My parents. My mother is someone who values honesty above all and has unconditional love for her family. Whenever I did something wrong or made a mistake, my mother was always willing to hear me out. I feel the only times she has been disappointed with me is when I told lies. As I got older, given my intense personality, I got to a point where I would openly tell my mother my all my transgressions, questionable or wrong doings. After nearly inducing several nervous breakdowns she suggested telling the truth didn't require me telling her everything (she is just as intense a worrier as I am an intense do-er). In both ways, my mother taught me how to tell the truth, in all its intricacies.
One thing I respect most about my mother is that when I get upset at her or at something, she lets me be upset and vent in my own way, reassuring me that she understands my actual intentions. She allows herself to be challenged, though she's very hard to convince. Being understanding of people and their circumstances is so important, and my mother taught me that. She has empathy in spades. She is also extremely relentless when she has a goal and is a fantastic strategist and agent of change. She speaks up for what she believes in. She fights for her family. Whether it's confronting a police chief and forcing them to apologize for falsely accusing her son, or making sure I had a laptop I could use in school to take notes, my mother fought for me. If there's one set of qualities she's taught me, it's how to be cynical. How to be skeptical. How to question. How to call bullshit. How to be direct. How to persevere. To seek creative routes. How to plan. Two words to describe my mother are energetic (sometimes anxious) and proactive. There are few things she's wanted to accomplish that she hasn't. Same for my father.
My father taught the me importance of trust, of hard work, of focus, and of being a rock. Of the value of knowing your facts and not speaking if the alternative is spreading potentially false information. When my father broke his back at the age of 19, he continued his PhD in a full body cast. Only in the rarest occasions did I hear him complain when I was growing up, despite knowing he was in constant pain and, due to circumstances of the accident, not being able to take pain medication. This man was at every one of my pee-wee games, soccer matches, baseball games, basketball games, tennis matches, many times as our team's coach. When my mother tried to point me down the "guaranteed" known path, my father was there to nudge me down the scarier path. He wouldn't tell me I would succeed, but that he believed in me to try.
He seemed to know everything. About everything. During a car ride, I'd ask randomly, "Why don't cars run on glucose?" and he'd explain the cost and cleaning complications with a vehicle he had read about. I'd then ask "what's that thing on that bridge?". My father would answer absolutely, "it's an anti-climbing downpipe to prevent people from climbing". My mother and I would say, "How can you possible know that?". He'd mention an architecture elective he took thirty years ago. I remember being tested for ADHD and a Dr. Greene started reading to me out of left field. I had no idea what was going on, I was trying to figure out what the objective of the experiment was. Then he stopped, probably two minutes later and asked what I remembered. I said, "Something about a hot air balloon being invented on such a date... They flew for this many minutes, over some country...But that's unfair! I had no idea I would have to answer what I heard". My mother then said, "Wow, that's much better than I got! Richard [my father], what do you remember?". My father proceeded to recite the entire page-long dialog almost verbatim. I proceeded to blame my ADHD on my mother. Suffice to say, my father made me want to have a good memory, made me want to try hard and overcome my limitations; to be an agent of truth and a purveyor of knowledge. My mother has helped me get there by recognizing the power of enabling technology and strategies.
My parents have given me impeccable values. They taught me respect. How to be generous. How to work hard. To be welcoming of others. To measure twice, cut once. How to be just; to fight for the rights of others. How to be intense. They taught me affection. Culture. Manners. Honesty. Responsibility. Grammar. And passed down through generations, that life is full of ups and downs, our job is to hold onto as many of the ups as we can.
Jennifer Shainess. When I was a young kid, maybe first grade, I wanted a Mongoose bicycle -- one with expensive shock absorbers and other gadgets. I don't even think at the time I was convinced I would use it often. All I know is there was a thing my parents were willing to buy and I didn't have to be accountable to the price; why not get the best? I remember my father becoming really frustrated with me. Not because I was being a greedy kid -- which I was -- but because it was clear that I had failed to consider the values they expected me to have. I'm sure I even threw a fit when my father told me to select something less expensive, but as my selective memory would have it, I can't remember. What I do remember is my father saying, "You know, your when we offered your sister a bike, she found the cheapest thing in the whole building and was almost in tears because she thought it would be too expensive." I was rocked back on my heels. On this day I gained sensitivity towards finance and refused to be a burden on others.
My sister also taught me compassion and the value of family. When I was afraid of the dark, my sister let me bring a sleeping bag into her room. To this day, when life gets overwhelming (which is often) and I need to get away, no questions asked, she has a place for me in Boston. This loyalty is a quality almost all my family and friends have in common. And they've distilled the value in me.
Jen also tries incredibly hard, doesn't cut corners, and is guilty of caring too much. If she found math difficult, she'd invest time with a tutor. If she had a paper due, she would go above and beyond until the quality met her high standards.more
Michael Lostritto. Michael was one of my first true best friends and rivals. I met Michael in 3rd grade in Mrs. Taylor's class. We met at the playground and ate lunch together, often joking that one of the grumpy lunch ladies, Rita, had the same name as Rita Repulsa from Power Rangers. Maturity wise, I was kid, he was an old man. At the time, I had no idea it was a valid strategy to focus exclusively on one thing and "get ahead" of other people. Being better than someone at something made sense to me as a concept, but employing a strategy of directed, focused discipline was foreign to me. The discipline I had was emergent from interest, e.g. tennis (which I began when I was three) and computers (which I started programming in third grade, when I discovered AOL Instant Messenger could be augmented with chat bots) -- both foci born from an almost unhealthy compulsion we might as well call addiction. Michael taught me addiction can pay dividends; granted not always in the direction we want.
Growing up, I wasn't an exceptional student. I didn't have any special skills apart from wiggling my ears. I enjoyed playing music, but I wasn't brilliant at it, and it seemed more like a joyful form of expression than an advertisable skill to use for competition. Michael taught me growth through competition. We played ping pong together, chess together, mario cart, and occasionally fiddled around on the piano (which, like most everything else, Michael was magnitudes better than I). At one point, around middle school, Michael and I became neck and neck at ping pong and I think that is some of the most fun I've ever had. I should mention, right around that age, while I was struggling to find strategies for my poor attention span and programming formulas into my calculator so I could check my work during tests, Michael was taking higher math in college. We're the same age.
Michael is one of the first people who pushed me to be better. I was lucky that he was better than I at things I really enjoyed, like chess, ping pong, and martial arts. I admit, there are some things he strived for, like being James Bond, that were a little beyond my understanding. But on the things we both enjoyed (and understood) I would learn from him and work hard to be the best competition I could. When he won, he would act casually as if it were no big deal and nothing in life really mattered, but behind closed doors, I believe he would put in his dues and train to destroy me. If I came even close to threatening his victory, I would relish in his audible squeal (knowing he was especially disgruntled that it was me). When it was my move in chess, he would take advantage of any rule to defeat me. "You took your finger off the piece". Michael taught me that games and life are not just about our strategy for playing, but the rules and parameters of the system.
And also about our attitudes. I recall one time Michael played without a knight and was too optimistic and dismissive of me during a game of chess and somehow I captured his queen. He immediately resigned and refused to let me play the game out and see victory through, furthermore claiming we have no idea what would have happened if we did -- and he's right. This handicap was the one victory of, without exaggeration, ~500+ games we played. But still it taught me the importance that respecting one's opponents played in Michael's ability to dominate.
I'd like to believe Michael respected me enough to at least use me as a sort of measuring stick by which to make himself better. If he could remain better than I, he'd be better than most who weren't even making an attempt. Michael taught me about winning. About strategy. And about intensity.
Aside from the case of my accidental victory (which I refuse to have challenged) Michael almost always treated (or humored) me as a real competitor, whether I really was or not. I guess that's how you get to be a chess champion like he was, by treating everyone as serious competition. He (likely selfishly) encouraged me to go to chess club, when we were at Highland Elementary. Our friendship was an optimization game of what attribute to level up next and we would feed off each other; he would often ask my grades or scores, taking measurements of those around him who were amenable to the questions. But what I really respect about Michael is that he picks his battles maturely. When we spoke about computers, he would respectfully and humbly defer to me; perhaps because a victory on that front might have been Pyrrhic, or perhaps he had no interest or saw lower hanging opportunities.
It is important to note, Michael doesn't like competing; he likes winning. I remember one time his mother Linda -- whom I adore by the way (I adore his whole family, especially all the times his family had me as their guest for dinner, with open arms) -- had a debate about Michael having sweets which turned into Michael making a bet to not have sugar for, if I remember, a year. After the bet was won, instead of celebrating by having sugar, he kept going without to prove his unmistakable victory.
That's the kind of person Michael was growing up. Dedicated, driven, respectful, kind and generous, funny (if not a bit mischievous), intense, and a true friend... Often eccentric to the point of being peculiar, which only added to my endearment of his original personality.
Howard Dimond. My uncle has several qualities which I respect. First, he is principled. Second, he is generous, caring, and humble (in a style which magically almost demands its own level of respect). Third, he is immaculate with his advice; he gives people suggestions but takes care not to project or impose his ideals on others. Fourth, he is practical and pragmatic. Fifth, he his frugal. My uncle taught me how to plan financially, how to have meaningful conversations, how to question, and on occasion to be dialectical and entertain different opinions than those I believed. Even after becoming wealthy, he would treat himself to knock off ties in NYC and stay with friends instead of wasting money on hotels. He takes a pride in being fiscally responsible. Yet he never skimps with family, friends, or those who needed it. I recall three events which shaped me.
First, Howie took me to FAO Schwarz in NYC (one of the biggest toy stores) and he gave me $100.00 to spend. He told me I couldn't keep the change (which was my first question). And that it must include tax. Unfortunately for him, I spent close to eight hours at the toy store, getting the total pennies from the limit. We didn't do that again. Needless to say, he taught me to optimize and treat every opportunity seriously.
A second time, I was talking to How about principles. That I could understand the stance of not voting within a system which is fundamentally flawed, because a vote is also a vote for this system. Eventually if so few think the system reflects their interests (because it doesn't) so refuse to participate, but do want to vote in a system which does actually consider them, then this becomes a catalyst of real change. He responded, as an example, that he was against senior discounts. I said, "Ok". He said, "I use senior discounts". I said, "That's hypocritical". His answer was (para), "Having a belief doesn't require you to put yourself at a disadvantage.". It's a valid life lesson. Sometimes if you want to make a difference, you have to accept every advantage you can (because they add up). Morally, this can be hard.
Finally, when I was trying to figure out my next move, after winding down Hackerlist, he noted that I, "had resorted to climbing rocks for hours a day". He reminded me of my life goals and priorities, and that life was too short to run away. To the extent it was true, it was something I needed to hear. He continues to teach me the value of radical candor. As does my brother Rob Shainess, liberally (whom I am also love dearly and am extremely grateful and thankful for, though I'll save his stories for later).Dr. Gary Johnson. Hacker spirit and culture. The joy and power of community. It's alright to not know Altruism and giving to others Sustainable life, being humble
Stephen Balaban. Stephen is the reason I'm in San Francisco. I can pretty safely say I wouldn't have ended up out here if it weren't for him. And that I've never worked more effectively with a person in all my life than with Stephen. And there are few people I'd more quickly jump up to fight beside. And fewer still who I could reliably expect to come to my aid if I was facing hard times. I think I realized this would be the case the day I met him. Stephen randomly approached me at the University of Vermont after hearing me mention something about "PHP" on the campus shuttle. He hijacked my lunch and asked me all sorts of questions about building some dark-web music service, explaining how he wanted to learn how to build something like ytmnd.com. Stephen taught me to fearlessly approach anyone. And to take risks.
Yes, I thought he was strange, eccentric; so that was one check in his favor. Stephen and I started hanging out a lot from then on out at the CSSA (computer science student association) lab. We'd talk about all sorts of outrageous business schemes, hack together on perl and python, play nethack, and pull all-nighters in the lab working on prototypes, teaching each other, and sharing culture. Between me, Dr. Johnson, and Andrew Guertin, I am not sure how Stephen survived it. We would come back from class, go straight to the lab, and one of us would give a lecture on computational theory, or bootloaders, or recursive trampolining, until we ran out of things to say and it was six or so in the morning. Stephen taught me you can break into any group so long as you have a good personality, raw ability, and a commitment to learn.
I've gone by Mek for a long while, by some since middle school (at NCC national computer camp). Stephen was one of the first to decide that Mek was my name, and not just an alias for signing emails. This came at a time when I was very sensitive about my identity; specifically about religion and the reality that society would label me as Jewish, no matter what I believed. Not having a choice in who you are feels pretty bad. But it's reality. And there are worse things. Stephen's email at UVM was email@example.com. First initial, middle initial, first 6 chars of last name. Sabalaba (sab) has been my nickname for him ever since the hacker lab days. Sabalaba taught me true friends put aside judgement and let you be who you are.
Stephen is smart. Not often like saying "profound things" smart (though when he says something, the logic and reasoning behind it is often very solid and insightful). But moreso smart like, "I decided to spend today creating a new integer sequence" smart. I remember after Stephen and I moved to SF to try our hand at founding Baybo in silicon valley, he saw a group of triangles drawn on a whiteboard. The author of the figures had used the triangles to demonstrate a point; it was a means to an end in conversation. Stephen, however, got so excited and started describing how he has been drawing patterns like that for years, enumerating it's properties and explaining why it was cool (to my interest, but I am not so sure the captive audience was as on-board). Stephen reinforced my believe that you get further being yourself and being interesting than compromising and conforming to others expectations.
Stephen learns things faster than near anyone I've ever known. And at amazing proficiency. Chinese, mathematics, economics, entrepreneurship, computer science, artificial intelligence. He immerses himself and becomes consumed by it. This is one of the reasons I think we worked together so well; I think we're both very competitive with ourselves, and we both welcomed a brother who was able and willing to match our intensity and help us push ourselves to our limits. Stephen is one of the few people (apart from Matt Lee) who was able to keep my pace throughout my startup years. Stephen taught me what was achievable when two people who amplify each other team up.
He is driven, determined, relentless, and radical. On occasion, he says things which blow my mind. I mean, things involving water buffaloes and RPGs which are so outrageous that no other human could possibly believe he could mean it... And to be honest, half the time I don't know! But damn it, I listen to him, because usually he's saying something someone else doesn't have the courage to say. Or entertaining an unpopular perspective which demands a degree of attention -- even if only an exercise in rhetoric and devil's advocate. The more you listen, are willing to understand and take a chance with Stephen; the more liberties you afford him, the more you let him be his true character, the more unpolished gems you realize are up there. He showed me that you have to give others latitude, let them shine, and not be afraid of the things which may them unique.
He has quirks. We disagree on many things political. He's more willing to hurt someone's feelings and pull the trigger when he knows he needs to. He can get frustrated like any other human. But he has values. Stephen is fair, he's compassionate, he's considerate, he's inclusive, he's generous, and he's one hell of a friend I wouldn't trade for anyone.
I owe nearly all of what I know about business to Stephen's catalysis. He taught me risk during a period when I was most conservative. He believed in me often when I questioned myself. I'm lucky we were able to find each other's friendship and share small successes together. I am betting heavily on his continued success.
Aaron Swartz. When Aaron passed away, I feel a lot changed. I felt there were few people I had come across who believed more trulely and fully in their causes and life-style than he.
- created a website - formulated life mission - found some degree of live-work-balance https://www.facebook.com/michael.karpeles/posts/10101469875838900?match=YWFyb24gc3dhcnR6LHN3YXJ0eixhYXJvbg%3D%3D https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI4Udqk56dI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apH57gkjSFs
- The classics. The Great Conversation - Gave me a respect for liberal arts - The power of someone who shares my life goals - The power of shared context - How to have a good conversation - Being a vulnerable, real person - To do due diligence and read the thoughts of others; curating instead of creating
Mark Carranza. - Eating one's own dogfood - Making an extremely compelling "memex" and one of the best demos I've ever seen - Being a vulnerable, real person Austin Lee. Austin is an excitable, fast paced talker whose high energy is infectious. He is very detail oriented, confident, disciplined, dedicated, and supportive. Sahar Massachi. Politics. Understanding power.