Category: Technology

February 4th, 2015

Here’s a bit of truth.

Time is limited. The things we want to do require time, and that time is not infinite. Our bad habits take time. Moving from place to place takes time. Sleep takes time. Eating. Sulking. Living. Ambition. It all takes time.

Aspirations, however. They don’t take a lot of time. They just require an active mind. Aspirations lead to great things. Aspirations lead to groundbreaking projects and pure joy and unbridled excitement.

Aspirations are timeless.

Putting them into reality, though. That takes time.

The value of those aspirations, the quality of our eating and sulking and living, the strength of our ambition – these things are all varied. They can all be debated and fought over. But time is limited. That much is truth.

I’ll go on.

A Problem

Over the past decade, I’ve seen a pattern in the people I respect.

They look for good. They admit when they’re wrong. They challenge things, and they further great causes – and when they can’t, they support those who can. They get less prolific, but they get more focused. Quality over quantity. Signal vs. noise.

They don’t feel the need to be everywhere at once. They admit when they’re overwhelmed. They balance their life. They make time for the right things.

They know when to disengage.

Me, however? I was having a hard time disengaging. I was part of the mid-00s blogosphere. I found a voice before I had learned moderation, and I loved being a part of something so big that I couldn’t bear to lose it. I was too afraid to disengage.

I wanted to connect with everyone. In doing so, I never formed a real connection with anyone. I pinned things in maps.

Some of those pins were valuable. They became friendships.

Some of those pins were redundant. They were my existing support, and they’d have been there without the map.

Some of those pins angered me. They angered me with their assumptions. With their transparent lousiness. With their pretentiousness. Things you can’t comment about on the internet, because even the most well meaning grapes seem sour when spelled out in 140 characters.

But the pins that angered me stayed on my board out of obligation. If you ask me what I’m most embarrassed about in the past five years, it’s that I kept my friends close, but I kept my unrelated annoyances even closer.

A Solution

I have aspirations, and those aspirations require action, and that action requires time, and I was spending too much time was spent wondering how in the hell that person has the nerve to be so transparently arrogant and why is this person actively channeling what seems like an overly sexist and naive line of thinking and oh my god I can see through the mindlessness and carelessness of this messaging so why can’t anyone else.

My aspirations were taken hostage by people who I thought I needed to care about. There was so much noise.

And then I had a weird and obvious moment of clarity, when everything came together – a few minutes after a rant about someone I barely know on a social network I barely liked. That’s when my friend Eileen asked a simple question.

“Why don’t you stop following that person?”

I mean…


So I did.

An Action

I unfollowed one. And then another.

Every time someone would raise my ire, I would examine that ire. Is this a one-time disagreement? Or is this just another in a long line of things that I’m irrationally angry about, another drop in the bucket of a relationship that, while beneficial or important in some superficial way, is ultimately bound for failure.

If I found myself getting frustrated over and over again? I unfollowed them.

I left Facebook altogether, which meant I left Foursquare. I left Timehop. I left everything that was tied to Facebook, and with that noise cancelled I began looking further out. I stopped worrying about everyone else.

I started worrying about me. Not selfishly, but practically.

And, with the support and backing of my friends and family, I have transformed that worrying into productivity. No longer comparing, fuming, fighting fights that weren’t worth winning. So much more time to do the things I love. So much more peace.

Change came not from new insights, but from the absence of some old ones.

A Resurgence

I have started writing again. I have started booking speaking engagements. I was on a year hiatus that, in some part, was fueled by the frustration of being a part of a toxic rat race of being The Most Right.

I am thankful that I am still an unknown entity, because I can use Twitter to my own specifications, unencumbered by random responses and thread-jacking.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I can somehow balance being both unapologetic and deliberate. That I can let go of someone and not care. That I can give myself space. That I can turn things down without guilt.

I have aspirations, and I am turning those aspirations into action. Because time is limited. Because my attention deserves more. Because I don’t need to be a part of everything.

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January 12th, 2015

If I could find a good quote, I’d put it here. Something smart from some science fiction writer about the future – about losing ourselves in documentation, about how our technology captures us and keeps us from enjoying life. Something from Le Guin. Something from Bradbury.

Instead, all I have is a few words about quitting things.

This post originally appeared January 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

Last year I quit using Facebook. It changed things, but not in the way I expected. I assumed I was going to have more time to do things; more attention and focus.

I still don’t have those things. Quitting Facebook didn’t make the day longer. It didn’t sharpen my attention. To be honest, Facebook wasn’t even really my problem. It’s a sharing and documentation system – it’s hard to blame it for my squishy inability to let go.

Still, losing the system mattered. I found myself losing connection with tons of events and updates. I no longer knew what was happening. I would learn things second-hand. I was out of the loop.

It could be argued that I was already hearing things second-hand, though – the Internet itself serving as the conduit, my life collecting a series of updates and images and feeds, everything being filtered not through the eyes of experience but through selective representation. Only the things worth squirreling away were presented. I didn’t live: I collected and posted.

My relationship with social media is less about communication and more about collecting. Each experience becomes little more than a pin on a map – a single point of data free of any connection, the metadata stripped away. I had lists of past vacations and folders of photographs. I had a pile of Foursquare data that I could view a year later on Timehop. I had touch points but no feeling.

Getting rid of Facebook – which in turn forced my hand on several other social apps connected via Facebook – allowed my mind to ease off a bit. I stopped collecting, and became more deliberate with the few social networks I still enjoy. I’ve started writing again – the one data collection method that actually enhances my experience of an event or feeling.

More than that, I’ve finally been able to get a bit of clarity. I know that engaging with the web – posting status updates and making Twitter jokes and checking in on Foursquare – doesn’t approximate a life lived. Experiences and relationships and laughter and rage and the bruises I get from the knees of my children – these are a life lived.

I knew this. But I never acted on it. Until I had no choice – until I pulled the trigger and stopped judging things based on whether they’d make a good post.

It’s more clear, now, when I stop and think, “What makes this moment worth documenting?” knowing that when I put that thought into the world it’s not just another pin on a map.

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July 7th, 2014

I joined Facebook on October 24, 2006, on my 28th birthday. Why I joined is pretty boring: I joined because it was the thing you did. I joined because I wanted to be part of a larger society, and it was this network that allowed me to reach out to all of those people I had long forgotten or missed since graduating from high school.

In the seven-plus years that followed, I saw Facebook go from what felt like the newest version of MySpace to a multi-billion-dollar company that relied on my data and the data of those around me to sell ads, curate content, and promote events and causes from those who are marginally close to me. My friend number went up and down and up and down. I struggled to maintain relevance, gave up trying to be heard, pared back my social circle, and fought with what had become a more and more irrelevant feed.

I got tired of Facebook – of the site’s weird algorithm and of my network’s passive aggressive messages, but I couldn’t let it go.

My relationship status with Facebook? It’s Complicated.

News Feed: Most Recent (A History)

I was like everyone else when Facebook launched: thrilled with the ability to connect with people around me, to share my thoughts and likes, to get closer to people I had only met a few times, or strengthen the bonds between old friends and far-away family members. Facebook was a way for me to live globally, to move beyond Sioux Falls without losing my community.

But, each year, that freedom shifted. Pages were downplayed. My feed was shifted out of order. The idea of a “News Feed” shifted from a river of current content to a curated web of what an algorithm though I wanted to see. And while I love how algorithms have created better search results and more relevant sidebars and a feeling that I can make quick scans of content without subjecting myself to everything, I still have fundamental issues with someone doing that to my friends and family.

When “News Feed” became a euphemism for robot-curated content, I felt betrayed. “Most Recent” became the only way to see a real-time feed of news from your friends. When “Most Recent” was further buried – a seemingly defensive mechanism to force users lock step into algorithm – I felt angry. And when news of emotion experiments surfaced last week, I felt exhausted.

Listen, I get it. I’m getting dramatic and railing against a corporation that is responsible for thousands of jobs and has business goals and all of that. I’m raging against a machine and not offering any answers.

But the content presented by Facebook isn’t just a series of stories written by authors I don’t know, or videos pitched based on what I most recently read. It’s the life and thoughts of the people I know. For some people, it’s the equivalent of a conversation at the bar, or a look into a diary. It’s personal. It’s not anonymous; it’s deeply connected in a way that no other network can claim.

If Facebook actively wandered into a face-to-face conversation and assumed the best lines, rearranging them for maximum impact, what would we think? If they took our stack of Christmas cards and determined who would be the best recipients, what would we think?

The Public Dislikes Facebook’s Link

So then this whole Facebook social experimentation thing happened. To very grossly summarize, Facebook’s research department was using the feeds of 700,000 Facebook members to perform experiments on the effects of positive or negative comments. (“Emotional contagion through social networks,” it was called.) What do we do when things are going great – or horribly? Were we more likely to post if we saw positive things in our feed? Were we less likely to share if we saw too many negative posts?

Rightfully so, Facebook opponents rose up in arms. This was thought experimentation without consent, the flimsy (and vague) terms of Facebook’s terms of service used as some kind of crutch. Who was Facebook to control the output of my friends and family, of my feed, of the organizations I chose to follow? Who was Facebook to use my data in a way that was less than ethical?

In the midst of the discussion, we talked about the morality of A/B testing, the separation between social networking and marketing, and the possibility of opting in to data mining and experimentation. We talked about best practices in research. We talked about “business as usual.” We talked about how maybe we were just blowing this out of proportion.

That last point stuck with me – in the grand scheme of things, is this really something I wanted to raise my ire about? In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?

Do I care?

Disinterest Has Sent You a Friend Request

I’ll be honest: I don’t. I don’t care about the experiments. I don’t care about the data they’ve used, because I assumed they already used it. I’ve threatened to quit over it before, but I haven’t. Which shows I probably don’t care. Not really.

I do care, however, about Facebook’s assumption that they know better than I do what I want to look at.

As danah boyd writes in her wonderful article about the growing anxiety around data manipulation, “What does the Facebook experiment teach us?”:

I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see.

This was never an issue of experimentation and consent – this was a clear reminder of what I don’t like about Facebook. This was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, but a catalyst for my justification. This was what would send me, finally, after years of threats, away from Facebook.

Facebook’s algorithmic adaptation of my friends’ lives is a model unlike any other used on the web. News sites and blogs use algorithms to force certain stories to the top, but that is the type of editorial curation we expect from a journalism source. Search uses algorithms to assume solutions, but in those case we’re typically not sure of the solution we’re looking for in the first place.

But this? This is full-scale reinterpretation of actual lives: a kind of dramatized version of my social circle, like a classic book being remade into a film with a happier ending and a few extra sex scenes. This is not what I signed up for; I signed up for the full feed – the flaws, the bumps, the happy and the sad. Internet, you can go ahead and curate and editorialize the things that are not directly connected to me: the world of search, the editorials on TechCrunch, the assumptions of movies I might want to see.

Just don’t fuck with my friends.

Corey Vilhauer Has Updated His Relationship!

The reason I still cling so closely to Twitter is that they do not depend on Facebook’s algorithms of assumed value – that I need someone else to filter through my friends’ thoughts, like a warden pre-screening an inmate’s mail. Twitter gives me a running feed of everything my friends say. It is up to me to negotiate that feed – to pare it down and curate in order to retain some value. Instagram does this too – it’s just every picture from every friend – and despite the hypocrisy of fighting Facebook and keeping Instagram, I’m still okay with Instagram.

Facebook is where the worst opinions are surfaced. It’s where platitudes go to die, where everyone has an opinion, where long rambling diatribes are all the rage, where companies compete to pay their way to my heart and friends compete to gather sympathy. This is not the fault of Facebook. This is not the fault of my friends. This is simply what the ecosystem has become, and it is an ecosystem that I no longer feel the drive to be a part of.

Yeah. The experiments matter. They are news that we need to focus on. They are a betrayal of trust, and while most people don’t care (and only a very small portion of people awere actually affected) they still represent the first step toward wanton abuse of personal data.

But the experiments are not why I’m quitting Facebook. They are just the reason I remembered to do it in the first place.

Category: Technology

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August 19th, 2013

A professional photographer might take 1,000 shots over the course of a week, saving only a handful of those for future use. This is the first rule of digital photography: the more pictures you take, the better chance you have that some might turn out.

Life in FoldersI’m no photographer. I’m just a guy with a camera, two kids, and a heart for the sentimental. But I still take a lot of pictures, and I hold each of my photos dear — all 25,000 I’ve taken over the life of my camera, and thousands more over the life of my phones. The portraits, the action shots, the mistakes, the over-edited Instagrams, the fading blurs that my children turn into as they scatter from the sound of the shutter. Click. One more. Click. And another.

This article originally appeared in issue five of Offscreen Magazine.

I save about one of every three pictures I take. I edit a small percentage of those, and I post an even smaller percentage for the public — enough to curate a sort of public account of my family, from our first house to our first kid to our first major accident. In this way, my photos form into a loose hierarchy of archived history. The high points that are captured are strengthened by the white space in between, where no camera was present, but memory continues to cling to some details.

I began organising information not out of boredom or pickiness, but out of necessity. My memory often fails me, so I was driven to construct a sort of scaffolding through the organization fo tasks and terms, lists and calendars, sketches and memoirs. A rough draft of what I should probably remember, if my mind wasn’t so busy wandering through itself.

Because human memory is unreliable, to say the least, we have benefited from the invention of computer memory. Aided by technology’s ability to create a concrete organisation of our thoughts and achievements — files go here, folders go there, organised by date and relevance — we’re able to let our mind wander without fear of losing something important. We can focus on the important details because we have outsourced the process, with each idea safe and sound under several layers of machine technology.

We’ve always done this. We organise our recipes and we alphabetise our books. We go through mental checklists in our head as we invite friends to a summer barbecue, invisibly marking each name as they’re invited. We place similar dishes in the same cupboard to help our minds remember where they’re located. Now, these things are increasingly being handled with us.

Here’s where the great debate rages. Is this auto-classification causing us to lose our ability to remember menial information without the aid of a machine — phone numbers, appointments, even our own thoughts about a restaurant? Are we letting go of this information and allowing it to be filed away because we enjoy the convenience? Or have we stopped regarding personal details like birthdays and addresses as “things worth remembering”?

There was a time when I could tell you the phone number of everyone I knew. Now, I file them way, organised by last name, split into device and used only as reference. Those phone numbers are just details. Individually, they represent a single person’s contact information. Together, however, they represent the story of my social circle. They represent my family. Certain groupings remind me of conferences I’ve attended; other groups bring to mind college life.

My reliance on organisation is constantly battling my attempts to live in the moment. But there’s no way I could do one without the other. My life is organised so I can be free to live it, free from anxiety and disarray. Free to create something worth saving. Worth organising. We often think of organisation — whether through site architecture or classification or simple groupings — as a way of finding things, as a road map toward hidden ideas and actions. But we rarely think of organization as a form of memory, using the connections between items to form a better understanding of the things we’ve already experienced.

I love being a human. I love the emotions, the pain and the unpredictability. But I also love being able to rely on a system. A system that allows me to think lessa bout where my memories have gone, and more on how I can continue creating new ones. Our systems might distract us from living in the moment, but they also help preserve the moment long after we’d have otherwise forgotten it.

Folder by folder. Idea by idea. Memory by memory.

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August 6th, 2012


From Discover Magazine:

The news these days is filled with polarization, with hate, with fear, with ignorance. But while these feelings are a part of us, and always will be, they neither dominate nor define us. Not if we don’t let them. When we reach, when we explore, when we’re curious – that’s when we’re at our best. We can learn about the world around us, the Universe around us. It doesn’t divide us, or separate us, or create artificial and wholly made-up barriers between us. As we saw on Twitter, at New York Times Square where hundreds of people watched the landing live, and all over the world: science and exploration bind us together. Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people.

Science. It rules.

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January 13th, 2012

My daughter is four years old. The other day, as I was leaving the house, she asked me why I needed to go to work. “Why can’t you stay home?” she said.

My simple answer was, “Dear, you see, I need to go to work so I can make money, so we can have nice things and eat nice meals.” She accepted that answer as truth.

What I didn’t say was that I enjoy going to work. That there are days when going to work is a break from the kids, as much as I love them, and that while I would certainly rather spend the day with her and her brother, there are times when I need to get out and think at an adult level.

I didn’t mention that I don’t work for the money, but for the challenge – for the drive, for the thrill of making things, for the rush that comes with collaborating with other people.

I just said I was going to make money. It was the easy answer. Because I didn’t have the time – nor did she have the attention – for me to tell her truth: that it’s much much more complicated than that.


If there’s one thing that fuels today’s grab for pageviews, it’s opinions. Hard ones. This or that. Nothing in between. Nothing that veers into the hazy grey field of compromise.

“Summarize that,” they say. “Give me the bullet point version,” they demand. Time is of essence. Boil it down so it no longer needs thought.

So when we talk about whether the New York Times should be more vigilant in their fact checking, or whether yoga will cause you irreparable harm, we’re predisposed to boil it down to the most simple argument. I know I do this. We all do, in some ways.

Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe we’ve been taught to believe that the ability to create concise descriptions of complicated things is a sign of success when. Really, it’s the opposite. You’ve succeeded when you can explain a complex subject without losing the nuance. I know: that’s hard to do. So we summarize. So we cut corners. We ignore the complexity.

It’s not a matter of missing the forest for the trees – it’s that we’re cutting down all of the trees and wondering where the forest went.

On Argument

A year and a half ago, during the 2010 South Dakota Festival of Books, I watched Michael Hart – the late founder of Project Gutenberg – and Michael Dirda – Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic – present a panel on “Reading in the Digital Age.”

As one might expect, Hart spoke at length about how the printed book was dead, that all writing should be done digitally for the benefit of mass consumption and for those who may not be able to afford a printed tome. Dirda, on the other hand, spoke about the necessity of aesthetics, of the tactile nature of holding a book in your hand, of the feeling of being that you cannot recreate in an e-reader.

Both made some good points. But the title of the panel is misleading. This presentation was no more about reading in the digital age than it was about koala mating habits. Where we expected some sort of solid discourse on where print vs. digital may eventually compromise, we instead received a kind of ribald sniping. It was a battle between two opposing viewpoints, both refusing to admit middle ground, incapable of giving an inch.

While the answer lie somewhere in the middle of the pitch, these two men fought over which side of the field to enter.

Respecting Complexity

If a single idea has followed me around this year, from politics to art and work to friendships, it’s been this one: “it’s more complicated than that.”

It’s centrally important to seek simplicity, and especially to avoid making things hard to use or understand. But if we want to make things that are usefully simple without being truncated or simplistic, we have to recognize and respect complexity — both in the design problems we address, and in the way we do our work.

Erin Kissane, “What I Learned About the Web in 2011” via A List Apart

My experience at the South Dakota Festival of Books is no different than any experience one might find watching cable television, or at a political debate, or when discussing which Led Zeppelin album is the best. We’ve been trained to take a side and dig in for battle.

When we go to battle intellectually, we find comfort in absolutes. They afford us a bit of security. There are no holes to be poked in our theories.

Part of the challenge of art and science and rhetoric is in finding the nuances; there is no topic worth discussing that doesn’t hold some grey area, and there is no grey area that is worth ignoring. But grey areas? They’re hard. So we ignore them. And that’s how misinterpretation seeps into our lives.

Naming Things

Take, for example, the industry in which I work: web design, development and strategy. For the past several years, people have tried to put together a simple, concise description of content strategy – what is it, and how do we quickly explain it to our bosses? We understand that there’s a need for that description in a business sense, but our answer is often lacking in nuance. We trade length for clarity; we discard the messy details to gain a certain level of buzzworthiness.

Truth is, content strategy means different things to different people. What’s more, THAT’S OKAY. Just as “web development” means different things to different people, we still have freedom to interpret our work in a way that makes sense to us.

So we stick with “content strategy” – an awkward word that barely captures the extent of what we do. But we’re not alone in this: language is hard, and though we struggle to assign simple words to complex arrangements, and though they may seem trite and inaccurate, oftentimes it’s the best we can do.

Communication isn’t perfect. Again: THAT’S OKAY.

This is not an industry-specific thing, either. Ask someone to explain the scientific method. Depending on their field of expertise, you may hear several variations of the base process. Ask someone to explain something with a clear purpose and structured set of rules – baseball, for instance. Ask a baseball fan. Ask a baseball historian. Ask someone with no connection to the game. To some, it’s a game. To others, it’s a past-time. To the haters, it’s a distraction.

Black. White.

Words allow us to communicate. But they also fail us, in that we’re driven to compress theories that should, in fact, become more robust. We’re taught to say more with less, to edit and edit until there’s nothing left to chance, to push things into a smaller box. So we cut the non-crucial elements. And we lose the nuance. And we wonder why this seemingly complicated theory has been boiled down to a Cliff’s Notes version – all solution, no reasoning.

Sure, most things should be said in fewer words. But there are a lot of things that should be said in more.

We’re challenged to understand the future in as complete a way as possible. To shy away from absolutes, and to embrace the grey area, charging in full speed and making sense of the fray. There are discoveries there. There is truth. There is completeness.

We can’t take one side or the other – not in good faith – without understanding that, regardless of the subject, it’s often more complicated than that.

War is good. War is bad. It’s more complicated than that.

We should be liberal. We should be conservative. It’s more complicated than that.

We should fight to stay neutral, and we should always look at all angles of a subject, and we should stop trying to sum up incredibly complex processes and concepts and feelings into simple, single-serving soundbites. We should run to the middle and be implicit in our embrace.

Except, let’s be honest.

It’s more complicated than that.

October 5th, 2011

This isn’t about Steve Jobs, except that it is. It’s not about technological advances or sleek design or Toy Story 3, because things like that would have been created eventually, by someone, if not in their current form then at least in a form we’d recognize.

This is about us.

Within minutes of the news of Steve Jobs’ death, Twitter exploded in an outpouring of solidarity. Sports sites posted the story. The President made comments. We all cared in a way that we never thought we would, and a mixture of respect and inevitability pushed any glimmer of snark from the room.

People began tweeting a corporate logo. Speaking large about passion and creativity and death. Making grand claims. Reminiscing. All for a billionaire businessman who none of them had met. During a time when we bemoan the rich and claim our place in the nation’s 99%, we stopped to salute a man who was richer than most and who until recently had helmed the most valuable company in the nation.

Except this time, it felt different.

Because this isn’t about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs himself wasn’t even about Steve Jobs; after Apple’s phoenix-like rise, Steve Jobs shifted from a normal human to a symbol of impossibility-made-possible.

This IS about passion. This IS about creativity. This IS about death. This is about recognizing innovation, seeing it at work, hoping that the impossible will continue being so damned possible. This is about the aura of creation and the lives we now lead in a shrinking world; barriers broken not through force but through the optimism of modern technology – that bravado that says, “Sure, why the hell not, of COURSE that can be done.”

Today, a man died. We are sad about that and for his family, of course, and we should be. His company has been built to continue on, and the things he’s created will continue to work, and we will spend a week or so wondering how things will change before understanding that nothing’s going to change. We’re all going to continue moving forward. We’re all going to see things we never thought possible and we’re going to marvel at them. Most of all, we’re never going to stop wondering what else can be done. Just as he taught us. Just as the space program taught us. Just as our childhood counselors taught us.

Want a legacy? There it is.

What did people say when Thomas Edison died? Or Marconi? Benjamin Franklin? Eli Whitney? What do you say when someone who you never met, but whose work you touch every single day, stops being a part of our world?

You can say thank you, I guess.

Or, you can strive to make things better. Because this death, and this outpouring, and this sudden swell in solidarity, is not about Steve Jobs. It’s about seeing someone we admire suddenly go away and understanding how short life can be, and how much can be done. You may not like his products, or his attitude, or his politics, but you can’t bemoan the guy’s drive to improve, his inability to waffle and his undying quest to make things perfect in a world that’s long since given up on perfect.

It was never about the products. It was always about the ability to package passion and drive and beauty in a way that exceeded the technology within. It was a conquering of spirit that went beyond a device. The things are just things. It’s the will to improve and stay relevant that shaped our love for Steve.

All that being said, there’s still one thing will never be conquered: time. Even through decades of remission and treatment and healthy living, time was always there.

Steve knew it. And now, we know it as well.

So let’s go make some great things. And use that time while we have it.

Category: On..., Technology

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