Evan Prodromou's Blog

Some things I wrote

Year boundaries are imaginary

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I was thinking this morning that a year is real; it’s the period of revolution of the earth around the sun. But New Year’s Eve is an imaginary and arbitrary boundary point in that revolution. That got me wondering if there are any more natural and observable year boundaries.

The solstices and equinoxes are good candidates, but they are kind of secondary to the cycle of the year. They happen because of the tilt of the axis of rotation of the earth. Solstices happen when the tilt of the rotational axis lines up with the radius of the sun to the earth.

If you were watching the earth go around the sun from some place outside the solar system, the solstice would be hard to detect.

Two other important parts of the year cycle are the perihelion (furthest point from earth to sun) and aphelion (nearest point). Because the earth’s orbit is an ellipse, not a circle, it gets closer and farther from the sun during the year. It’s a difference of about 5 million kilometers, or a few percentage points, but it’s noticable. About 6% less solar energy reaches earth at aphelion as at perihelion.

There’s a common misunderstanding that perihelion and the winter solstice are at the same time. It’s not true! They’re independent phenomena.

As far as I can tell, no current or historical calendar uses the perihelion or aphelion as the year boundary. I thought this might be because they’re hard to detect from earth with the naked eye. We didn’t even figure out that the earth’s orbit was elliptical until Kepler’s time in the 1600s.

It might also be because the perihelion and aphelion are totally undependable. They apparently vary by a day or two every year, and not just because our calendar has leap years.

Irritatingly, the perihelion in 2020 will be on January 5; very close to the arbitrary year boundary. This is a real but coincidental hazard to my thesis that our year boundary is completely made up.

In addition to bopping back and forth a day or so, the perihelion gradually moves through the year; in the 1200s it lined up with the December solstice, and in the 6000s it will line up with the March equinox. It’s apparently on a roughly 25,000 year cycle, moving through the calendar year.

This happens because the other planets, moons, and other chunks of rock in the Solar System influence the earth’s orbit. Honestly, I’m not sure I understand how they can wing the earth’s orbit this way and that without changing the period of revolution. I also don’t get why the equinox and solstice cycle isn’t influenced the same way.

But suffice it to say that aphelion/perihelion are bad year boundaries. I think the best we get are the solstices and equinoxes, which although not strictly related to the shape of our elliptical path are at least pretty reliable and observable.

It’s also worth noting that imaginary things can have real meaning and effect. The December 31/January 1 boundary is made up and arbitrary (and there are about 24 of them), but they are powerful enough to make us all chant the numbers from 1 to 10 backwards, and wear funny hats and oversize numerical sunglasses, and kiss and drink champagne.

Happy imaginary boundary to all my family and friends. I hope the fictitious point introduces real and positive change in your real and wonderful lives.

Written by evanprodromou

December 31, 2019 at 2:22 pm

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Birthday Inventory 2019 Addendum

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I realized after my Birthday Inventory 2019 was up that I had left out a few things. In the interest of completeness, here they are.

  • I didn’t mention that I’m becoming a hugs guy. Yeah, I know. But I recently read a quote attributed to psychotherapist Virginia Satir: “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” I don’t think that’s based on any research, but I believe that human touch is a basic need. In particular, my two teen/pre-teen kids are moving into a time in their life when physical touch from adults starts to become taboo. I want my kids to get loving human touch from their parents, the two people who it won’t feel weird from. So I now give hugs in the morning, when people get home, and before bed. It’s good for me and I think it’s good for them.
  • I also didn’t mention that I play Minecraft almost daily. A few years ago I started a realm (online shared world) for me and the kids to play and build in. The kids grew out of it; I didn’t. Our realm is now a huge area with multiple continents and many castles, farms and villages connected by roads and subways and bridges. I think the last time I checked I was closing in on 1000 hours played. The kids still visit, and we have a great time.
  • We’ve also been getting our financial life in order for this next stage of life. Startup life is one of short term planning, where you think months or a year ahead. A founder is supposed to go without salary if necessary and put savings towards the company as investor of last resort. Since I started a new job, I get a regular paycheck, and we are thinking about what else we want out of life. We usually invest in experiences like travel. But what about something else? A second house? A sailboat? A third floor on our house? It’s been good feeling like we can invest in ourselves.

That’s it! I think I’m done for this year. See you in 2020!

Written by evanprodromou

October 16, 2019 at 9:52 am

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Birthday Inventory 2019

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It’s early on a sunny warm Saturday morning at my home in Montreal. I’m the only one up. I made waffles for my family because that’s what dads are for; they’re warming in the oven while everyone dozes. We’re leaving for a weekend trip to the Maine coast in a couple of hours. I realize that if I want to leave my laptop at the house, and still get my now-traditional birthday inventory done before Monday, I’ll need to write it up before we leave.

I’ve done a couple of these over the last few years, in 2018 and before in 2017. It’s a good and bad exercise for me. Good, because I get to appreciate my state of living, and acknowledge what I need to work on. Bad, because looking back I see problems that I still haven’t addressed well. I’m going to see what I can do about that.

Anyhow, here’s the inventory. I break it up into sections based on loose areas of my life.

  • Family. My immediate family — wife and two great kids — remains the hub of all my life activity. The rhythm of my day is about coming together and separating, eating, cleaning, fixing, breaking. We spend a lot of time together, and a lot of the things I want to do and see in my life, I couldn’t imagine doing without my family.
    • My relationship with my wife continues to grow. Our work situations have almost reversed (see below for work stuff): I now work out of the house primarily, and she most often goes to the office. We both travel a lot for work, which leaves the other partner home alone, as a single parent. That used to seem daunting to me; now it seems very normal. Our time spent in the same city is good, but very family focused; we’ve really had to fight to find time to spend one-on-one. And often that time gets used up on family and household business.
    • My daughter is now 14, and she looks like she’s 21. She’s mature, funny, cynical, and kind. She has become very deeply involved in our city’s Pour le Futur (Fight for Future) school strike for climate movement. It’s been hard in some ways (see below), but I’m proud of how hard she’s working on it. I think she’s finding out what kind of adult she’s going to be; I think she’s going to be a great one. It’s hard to get her time; but when I do, it’s precious. Right now, our quality time is watching LOST together when everyone else in the house is asleep.
    • My son is about to turn 11. He’s still the person I spend the most time with during my day; still addicted to YouTube; still sweet and funny and wild. His moods continue to be difficult, but we work on how to turn his “big feelings” into an advantage for him. He’ll still walk down the street with me holding hands, if he doesn’t want to race to the corner. He continues to love school, and visiting high schools for his transition next year has him imagining what his next page turn in the book of life will be like.
    • Time with my extended family is happening less and less. I’m trying hard to keep up a regular schedule of calls with my parents, and I see my brothers and niblings and some cousins on Facebook and Instagram, but they’re farther away than I’d like. It’s a continuing issue that I regret a lot. I can’t help feeling that my political positions, which lean towards the green side of the spectrum, might be alienating more conservative family members. I’m trying to keep my heart open to all of them, and let them know I care more about real friends than imaginary ones.
    • My genealogy and heritage have become very important to me this last year. My trip to Jerusalem (see travel) last October brought home how important it is to know your family history. When it comes down to it, who’s done more for me in my life than the people who made sure I’d ever exist? Their work and courage have been hugely important to me, and I want to be more mindful of it, and let my kids know about where they come from. I’ve been working on tracing my family tree, and I did some DNA analysis that found distant cousins in other parts of the world.
  • Life’s work. I was talking to a coworker about my mission statement recently, and re-reading it made me feel distant and strange. Who is this person? Why do they talk so much about technology, when that’s not what my life is about now? Where’s the family time, children’s growth and development, travel, learning about and enjoying the world? Are those part of some other mission, left unstated, or have I just not been accepting that my life is multi-faceted in a lot of ways? I’ve made a point to update my mission statement with more focus on what really matters to me.
    • Artificial intelligence was for half a decade a central part of where I saw my purpose. Making AI something accessible to normal people, rather than an unfair advantage wielded by only the biggest governments and corporations, seemed like a necessary thing for me to do. Since we shut down Fuzzy.ai last December and released our code as Open Source, I’ve found it less compelling. My work (see below) isn’t directly AI related, so I’m not living and breathing the technologies every day. I still advise a number of other AI startups, and I work as a mentor for TechStars AI here in Montreal, but I haven’t been as active talking about and working with AI as I was before. I’d like to get more involved in AI in my current organization; there is a lot we can do to be helpful.
    • Federated social software is another place that I put in a decade of work, culminating in the ActivityPub standard we released last year from W3C. The network around ActivityPub, led by Mastodon, has exploded, with dozens of implementations for all parts of the stack. The project I continue to hack on, pump.io, doesn’t yet support the full standard, and I haven’t had the energy and time to put into it. I hope the other pump.io hackers and I can get it going soon. My role with the W3C has changed over the last year, too; I’m no longer chair of the Social Web Working Group; I now am the Advisory Committee member for my organization. It’s a good relationship, but different.
    • Climate change has become a big part of my thinking today; in that I think I’m not alone. The release of the IPCC report for 1.5C requiring about 45% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030, as well as the Green New Deal proposal have made many people realize that we need to transition our economy from fossil fuels quickly and immediately. In our house, my daughter’s involvement in Fight for Future has been a source of pride and hope, but it’s also made the generational political divide pretty stark. It’s clear that my generation, which took no for an answer from climate change deniers and astroturfers, didn’t do its part to fix the economy while it was easier. Now, the time is getting short, but we can still avoid the worst outcomes. I am excited by the Pact for the Transition, but I continue to wonder what my role will be in the next 10 years.
      • One place I think I might be helpful is in encouraging the use of trains not planes for regional travel. Where I live, in North America, train travel is expensive and inconvenient compared to air travel. There are a lot of low-hanging improvements that some attention might help with. As the co-founder of a major Website glorifying global travel, I think I might have some karmic duty to promote a lower-emission lifestyle. I’d like to spend more of my time advocating for better train service, and encouraging my friends, family and coworkers to use trains when they can. My trip from Paris to Stockholm in August (see Travel below) by train was a challenge, but also invigorating. My wife and I are planning a cross-Canada train trip next summer; I’m getting pretty excited by it.
  • Health. This has been a mildly rough year for my health. On the most obvious side, my weight has climbed up to 29 BMI, partly because of increasing muscle mass, but partly because I’m all over the place with diet. I’ve stopped eating low-carb, since I found it was a crutch that I was using to justify overeating. I also found the hunger attacks intense and overpowering. I’m now incorporating complex carbs into my diet, like fruit and some grains. I’ve also been drinking more, like 3-5 drinks per week, which is adding on the kilos. I’m still exercising seven days per week, for an hour or two a day, but without more food discipline, it’s difficult to see improvements.
    • I tweaked my back snowboarding in February, and it realllly hurt for a few weeks. Then, I did it again this summer, tripping over some luggage on a train platform in Italy, which made it rough to sit or lie down for any long period of time for another few weeks. I’m working more on incorporating stretching into my workout routines, to make this kind of thing less frequent, and I also had my first in a series of what I hope will be regular massages last week.
    • Mentally, my meditation practice continues. I’ve been in a time of deep reflection over the last year. One of my favourite lines from the great biographical play about Buckminster Fuller, The History and Mystery of the Universe, goes something like, “The universe consists of everything that is physically real, plus everything that we have imagined, plus everything we can imagine.” Partly driven by my changes in work, and partly driven by reading books like Sapiens and the Power of Now, I’ve been really trying to meditate on the boundary between the real and the imaginary, and how they influence and change each other. It’s fun and interesting work.
    • My worries about mental health and aging aren’t entirely assuaged, but I think I’ve gotten through the hard parts of turning 50. Part of that has been taking a more realistic look at my life and my place in the world, and doing more of my work and planning based on that perspective. Part of it has been the financial stability of a new job. I’ve been more content with my achievements, and more realistic about what I need to do to be happy and help my kids become happy adults. I’m not sure what this year and next will bring, but so far I’m in a good place.
  • Work. I started a new job at the Wikimedia Foundation in December 2018, working as Product Manager for APIs. It’s very different for me than my previous decade of work as a startup founder, but it’s also been really satisfying. The impact I can have in this job is huge; Wikipedia alone is a top-10 Web site, with a powerful mission that is helping people around the globe. The organization is small and sometimes chaotic, but it’s also been satisfying to be part of the team’s reorganization and process streamlining. It’s been hard sometimes, but mostly it’s been fun. I’d really like to keep doing this for a while.
    • One thing I’m worried about is sabotaging myself in the job; being too stubborn or egotistical to work with other people effectively. I’m used to being at the top of a small group; being a smaller player in a bigger organization has been a tough adjustment. It feels like a tightrope walk; on one side, losing my ability to be effective by alienating people on my team, and on the other side, failing to support my users by not advocating for their needs. I’m trying to direct a lot of my mindfulness to carefully negotiating this balance. I hope that as I clock in years two and three of this job, I can settle into the role. In the mean time, I’m trying to be compassionate and keep cool.
    • I work at home primarily now, which is comfortable and fun, but also stressful. My team is worldwide, so my workday stretches from 7AM to 7PM or even 10PM on occasion. But I’m encouraged to set my own hours, so I’m able to take a long lunch and run or work out or get errands done. It’s been good being the main person in our house.
  • Friendships. This is the part of the inventory that I’m most frustrated with; year after year I’ve noted that this is something I need to work on, and yet I haven’t been able to get much traction with it. Social network sites like Facebook and Twitter give me the simulation of social interaction, deferring my drive to seek people out in real life. My social interactions with wife and kids are rich and satisfying. Working at home has kept me out of the areas where I used to bump into startup acquaintances, so I’m not even getting that kind of interaction, however limited. I get occasional bursts of friend-seeking activity, but they get overpowered by the inertia of work and home life. I hope I’ll find more organized ways to make friendship part of my routine in the next year.
  • Hobbies. It’s disappointing seeing the list of hopeful hobby-starting from last year’s inventory. I wasn’t able to keep the momentum of keeping headgames.blog going, nor have I been able to find time to record my personal podcast for more than six months. But others are still holding on. Taiko drumming is still a regular weekend activity, and I’m even finding time for some weekly practice.
    • I’ve been playing role-playing games with my group for more than a year, and although we have a hard time scheduling, I think we still enjoy the process. I’ve also been trying to play one-off games, like the one I did at Wikimania in Stockholm this year. I think it’s a great mechanism for exploring ideas and people.
    • It was a year of great travel. Last October, I had a life-changing trip to Jerusalem, where my father grew up. I had a chance to explore that side of my family and learn about the Greek community in Ottoman and British mandate Palestine in a much more visceral way. It was wrenching in some ways, but I want to go back and explore more in the future.
    • My son started a bullet journal this summer to help him stay grateful and appreciative of the things he gets to do. I’ve been doing it in solidarity, and I’ve found it amazingly helpful. We don’t follow strict “BuJo” protocol; we just do three bullet points at the end of the day, plus a drawing, to remember what we’ve done. It’s been really helpful.
    • We did a six-week family European trip through Italy and France, staying in home exchanges from Venice to Florence and Genoa, then Marseilles and Paris. There were some transcendent experiences, like the Venice Biennale or walking up the Eiffel Tower with my kids or birthday dinner for my wife on a bateau mouche on the Seine, and some quiet splendors like running on the coast of Marseilles or eating black vanilla ice cream at our favorite spot in the city. I worked through most of the trip, except travel days, which made for some hard scheduling.
    • I also had a lot of work travel in Prague, San Antonio, San Francisco and Stockholm. I had a great train trip from Paris to Stockholm, stopping to see my good friend Ben in Amsterdam for an energy recharge.
  • Politics. Things have been chaotic again this year, and thinking about politics has taken up a lot of my thought space. I’m worried about the encroachment of right-wing populism around the world, but also hopeful that a more secure, just world for everyone is about to emerge. I’m not sure which way things are going to break, but I’m trying to stay hopeful and do what I can as an individual citizen to push things toward good outcomes for the next generation.

Wow, that ended up being a lot of thought! One thing that strikes me is how much I felt the need to add photos or other visual media to this inventory; I think the changes in our on-line self-expression make it seem strange to say “I went to Jerusalem” without a photo to prove it.

Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate your attention to this self-reflective process. I feel like it helps me a lot to do these; I hope it’s also interesting for you to read.

Written by evanprodromou

October 12, 2019 at 10:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

“Aspects Are Always True” Considered Harmful

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I recently wrote a long piece on Reddit for a role-playing game system I love, FATE. People there use a shorthand for a part of the game, and I think that shorthand is not helpful to new players. My post got downvoted to obscurity, so I copied it here for safekeeping. You can safely ignore it if you’ve never heard of the game or probably even if you have.

One of the frequent aphorisms in the FATE community is that aspects are always true. Clearly intended as a guideline for using FATE, the term has too many problems to be really useful. I don’t use it in my games, and I think you should avoid it in yours. Here’s why.

It’s not true mechanically

Aspects are changed periodically throughout the “long game”, at major and minor milestones. Early in the game, players can add aspects to their characters to round them out and provide focus for play. They can modify their characters’ aspects to clarify them. They can replace aspects with new ones, or just remove them if that narrative element has been resolved.

It’s not true narratively

The character who is the Captain of the good ship Discipline was not born that way. She may not die that way. There was a time that she started Seeking the Northern Passage and there may be a time that she stops. She won’t be Dying of the Catarrh forever, and although she may Trust my First Mate Davies for now, he had to sign on, become first mate, and earn that trust at some point. Whether he loses that trust in the future is up to him (and her).

Human lives have a limited extent in time; they have a start and an end. So do important elements of their stories: jobs, relationships, philosophies, obsessions. Stories about humans and human-like creatures will have elements that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t extend infinitely into the past or the future; they are not “always true”.

It confuses people

Many of the posts on r/faterpg are about trying to figure out the logic problem about something being “always true”. “If the knight is the Wearer of the Dragon Helm, can he take it off to eat or sleep?” “If the detective is the Sworn Enemy of the Gemelli Syndicate, is he immune to amnesia, since he wouldn’t remember to be their enemy any more?”

“Always true” locks props, characters and places into unnatural poses and positions, as immovable as Thor’s Hammer. Except in extreme cases, that’s not how real or fictional worlds actually work. Nobody wants to play the character whose helm is stuck eternally to his head, who can never kiss or swim or cut his hair. That’s not why players choose aspects, and it’s not how they want to play.

It’s occasionally interesting to explore the logical paradoxes around absolute terms like “always true”, but it’s not good for playing games or telling stories.

It’s not necessary

It’s easy to describe the importance of aspects without relying on them being “always true”. In a game that is about telling stories together, aspects are the story elements we want to talk about. They are your elevator pitch for the character; the supporting structure that everything is built around.

You can get players to come up with good aspects without resorting to the “always true” idea. “Why do you want to play this character? What about them would the other PCs notice or care about? When the songs are sung by the minstrels, what will they say about your character?”

If you are finding yourself and your players getting wrapped around the wheel over what is or isn’t “always true”, you should steer clear of the concept, and just concentrate on what parts of the story are fun and interesting. That’s what we’re all here for, anyway.

One thing that’s been pointed out to me is that the FATE core rulebook has some wording that is similar to “Aspects are always true”, to talk about how to role-play in a game.

Finally, aspects have a passive use that you can draw on in almost every instance of play. Players, you can use them as a guide to roleplaying your character. This may seem self-evident, but it should be called out anyway—the aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times, not just when they’re invoked or compelled.

From Using Aspects for Roleplaying

That’s very reasonable, but I think the distilled wording that “aspects are always true” gets people confused. A search for “always true” on the FATE sub on Reddit shows dozens of people getting confused by the phrase. So, maybe there are better ways to say it.

Written by evanprodromou

February 6, 2019 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Building the next product at Mozilla

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When I applied for a product manager position at Mozilla Corporation last year, the group I applied to asked that I write up how I would launch new product if I joined. I did a pretty traditional SWOT assessment to guide strategy and evaluate risks. I didn’t end up joining, but I’d still like to share this unsolicited advice to people at Mozilla and similar orgs who might be thinking about their next steps.

Technology products have a limited lifetime. Technology companies often use revenue and market presence of a mature existing product to support development of their next generation of products. Mozilla is due – probably overdue – to use Firefox in this way.

The Mozilla Corporation has some key strengths that make it especially fit for new product launches.

  • Large population of desktop Firefox users. There are hundreds of millions of users of Firefox on desktop operating systems. These are a key potential market for future products.
  • Revenue necessary to build next generation of products. The company has annual revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars, primarily from its agreement to provide search engine and home page space to Google, Yahoo, and other companies.
  • A mission that matters. The company has established a brand and lived up to that brand both inside and outside the organization. Its mission to support the Open web, with open source software, using open standards, is one that resonates with users and partners alike. This mission’s mindset can be a strong differentiator for future products.
  • Reputation with developers. Web developers depend on Firefox and Web sites like Mozilla Developer Network (MDN). They use Firefox as a primary browser and debugging tool, or as a secondary browser to test cross-browser compatibility of their own software. Author Stephen O’Grady calls developers “The New Kingmakers” in his book by the same name; having developers on Mozilla’s side can be a key advantage.
  • Momentum coming off a product re-launch. The release of the Quantum rendering engine and related technologies in 2017 has given the market a sense that “Firefox is back”. The company has established a reputation for technology leadership that can be used to promote future products.

The technology world in 2018 provides some important opportunities for new products built with Mozilla values.

  • Users are exhausted by abusive practices. Weary users are tired of how their technology uses them, and not the other way around. Software, particularly mobile software, depends on constant engagement and uses intrusive notifications and UIs optimized to keep them scrolling and clicking against their own best interests. Press stories of privacy violations by bigger players have made users angry at the incumbents, but gives them feelings of helplessness in being unable to walk away from the platforms. User-aligned software that works well could flourish in this environment.
  • Few other companies are fulfilling the Mozilla mission. Open source and standards strategies have worked well for infrastructure companies, but there are few companies that take a Mozilla attitude in user-facing technology. Open Source projects or community efforts face funding problems that make it hard to compete against well-funded competitors.
  • Collaborative product development has gone mainstream. Crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter have brought end users into the product development cycle much earlier than in previous models. Users are used to thinking of a product launch as something with explicit milestones necessary, which they can participate in and help make successful.
  • Good business models exist that are compatible with Mozilla’s mission. The freemium SaaS business model works well for many companies. In this model, basic service is free, but upgrades are paid. For example, up to a limit of storage or uploads are free on Flickr or Dropbox, but going past the limit requires a paid membership. For other systems, like Github or Gitlab, open content or Open Source service is free, but private usage is paid. E-commerce or marketplace business models could also work well with Mozilla’s needs.
  • End users are familiar with browser-cloud integration. Google’s Chrome browser has helped make end users familiar with using a browser that integrates and supports cloud services.

Mozilla does have some structural weaknesses that may make it difficult to launch new products.

  • A single large, mature product with a few large customers. Firefox, the primary product for Mozilla is mature, launched in 2002. It is almost the only source of revenue for the company, and the customers for the product are very few – search engine and large Web platforms. This is a situation that can destabilize quickly; one or two customers choosing not to renew could cause significant turmoil in the company and make it impossible for Mozilla to invest in new products.
  • A high bar for success. The company makes hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the existing Firefox product, with few other sources of revenue. The company may be reluctant to nurture and support products that bring in no revenue, or even revenue in the single digit millions, long enough for them to grow into a significant part of the company’s bottom line.
  • The existing revenue stream depends on partners with different business practices. Customers like Google provide services to end users that don’t support Mozilla’s core values, especially with respect to privacy. There may be organizational resistance, conscious or unconscious, to launch new products that compete with customers’ products, especially if the differentiation is based on business practices that cast the customer in a negative light.
  • Long-term, market share of Firefox is dropping. In this decade, user share of Firefox has dropped from highs in the 30%-40% range to the low teens. The launch of Quantum has helped reverse this somewhat, but Firefox is probably a less attractive product for its current customers because of this drop in usage. Its ability to support future products depends in part on its user base, so loss of market share hurts that development.
  • Small presence on mobile. The Firefox browser has a single-digit percentage share of the mobile browser market, and Mozilla has only a few other products available for mobile users. Since a growing majority of Web usage now comes through mobile devices, this further marginalizes Mozilla.
  • The ambitious Firefox OS project was cancelled. This large-scale project was costly for the company and has probably caused some internal lack of confidence and risk aversion. The organizational motivation needed to make new products might be lacking. There may be a tendency to stick to what they’re good at, even if that market is shrinking.
  • Short-lived labs projects have muddied the waters.Mozilla has launched multiple “experimental” products over the last decade that have existed for 1-2 years or less. End users make an investment in the services and software provided to them, and having those tools taken away is difficult for them. It makes them reluctant to try new products.

There are external threats that could make new products difficult, too.

  • Some scalable revenue streams are at odds with the brand. Although there are business models that can work for new Mozilla products, there are others that would go against the mission and the brand. Proprietary software licensing is a bad match. Advertisement-supported services, especially ones that aggressively target users, could be at odds with Mozilla’s commitment to privacy. Conversely, collecting personal data to sell to third-party advertisers would also be hard to justify.
  • Some growth strategies are at odds with the brand. Modern growth marketing can depend on intrusive notifications, intrusive emails, and aggressive advertising with 3rd-party data. Just as these make poor business models, using other companies’ services for growth might be a problem.
  • In competition with established brands with network effects. One way to develop products may be to go into existing markets and provide a solution with Mozilla style and user alignment. However, in some cases this may put the product in direct competition with difficult network effects. For example, a photo-sharing service would need to compete with popular services like Instagram and Snap. The large number of users already on those platforms makes them attractive for users and brands.

Given these existing factors, I propose the following strategy for launching new products for Mozilla.

  • Use Firefox. The Firefox brand should be front-and-centre for any new products Mozilla launches. It is well-known and well-regarded; the most powerful tool in the toolbox. New products should integrate with Firefox technically, using Firefox accounts for authorization and, where possible, deploying as Firefox extensions. Promoting new products through Firefox channels (email, extensions directory) should be used judiciously.
  • Stay on brand. Building with Open Source software, open Web standards, and open data, with a commitment to privacy and user alignment, should underlie every product launched.
  • Be “great artists”. As Steve Jobs and others have said, good artists copy and great artists steal. New products that solve existing problems with well-established solutions, but with a Mozilla approach, should be encouraged.
  • Focus on developers first. This doesn’t mean making developer tools like programming editors; it means building products that developers would like as users. New products should be hackable, with APIs and data exports, as soon as possible. Encouraging participation in Open Source projects, SDKs, and the product ecosystem to turn developers into team members and advocates.
  • Lower users’ stress levels. New products should solve real problems for the users. Users who are queasy about existing software and services should feel confident investing their time and data into Mozilla products. They should understand that there is no hidden agenda and that Mozilla products work “the right way”. Make it easy and fun for users to experiment with new products.
  • Be explicit and collaborative with users about lifecycle. New products should come with an explicit pre-defined time limit and a milestone metric for taking the product to the next level. For example, “We will be developing Firefox Photos for two years starting Jan 1 2019. If at the end of that time we have 100,000 monthly active users, we think we’ll have proven the thesis for the product and we’ll schedule a next milestone.” Users can count on the product to be around for that period and can work together with the product team to reach milestones.
  • Build in end-of-life for products from the beginning. Make sure users are able to get their data out of the service. Back up data to existing cloud services, the Open Archive, or other third-party storage. Users shouldn’t have to watch for end-of-life emails to preserve their data.
  • Be explicit about business model. New products should have revenue-generating features enabled ASAP, possibly at public launch. How the company makes money from the product should be clear to users.
  • Multiple, frequent, inexpensive experiments. In order to contribute to Mozilla’s bottom line, there should be multiple products launched frequently. Getting to tens of millions of dollars of revenue will mean trying a number of different product areas, approached in different ways.
  • Use iterative development; double down on winners. Initially products should be created as cheaply as possible, moving up the cost range: from manual processes or using off-the-shelf software and services, to Web sites and/or Firefox extensions, to mobile or desktop apps. Software development shouldn’t happen on a more expensive platform before the functionality has been tested on a cheaper one.
  • Use opt-in metrics and feedback. Users should be able to opt into analytics in software to support the product, and give feedback within the UI itself.

I see the following risks that Mozilla will take on with this strategy; there are mitigations that we can apply for each risk.

  • Financial risks. Launching new products costs money. Some products will not generate revenue that covers their costs. Using iterative methods, with inexpensive experiments that lead to further development on proven success points, can mitigate these risks, but there is always the option that some money will be lost on these new products.
  • Tarnished brand. New products that go strongly against brand could hurt the organization’s reputation. One way to mitigate this is to measure new products and features against a “values check”. Does the new product or feature match Mozilla’s mission? If not, don’t deploy, even if it’s a small feature “nobody will notice” (because somebody will).
  • Alienate allies. Launching products competitive with existing Web services could alienate those companies towards Mozilla and the Firefox browser. This might be compounded if the differentiation is based on how the competitor treats users. They may not work hard to support Firefox, may ignore bugs for Firefox, and may have flagging support for open Web standards. There are a few mitigations here; picking the right product area is important. Also, building in features or APIs that allow collaboration or data sharing could ease tensions.
  • Dilute advocacy messages. Mozilla has led a strong campaign critical of Facebook’s privacy practices in 2017 and 2018. As a relatively neutral browser company with a social mission, it has been able to speak from a place of moral authority to this and other topics. If Mozilla launches one or more products competitive to Facebook’s, for example, this advocacy may be perceived as self-serving advertisement instead. To mitigate, new product launches should coordinate with advocacy programs to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.
  • Organizational impatience. It’s unlikely that even a suite of new products launched in 2019 or 2020 will reach Firefox’s level of revenue within 5 years. If the organization steps back from launching new products because they’re not meeting Firefox’s high bar for success, it may be back to square one. To mitigate, the organization should agree up front on a new product plan and milestones for success ahead of time.

Written by evanprodromou

February 4, 2019 at 2:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

New Job at The Wikimedia Foundation

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 I have accepted an offer from the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to become Product Manager for the next-generation API for Wikipedia and the rest of the Wikimedia sites.

For non-tech people: I’m going to make it easier for programmers and companies to make tools that use and improve Wikipedia information.

It’s an opportunity to extend the reach of Wikipedia and related wikis into new domains and make the information on the site available and relevant to whole new audiences.

Working at Wikipedia scale is a huge challenge but also an opportunity to make a real difference in the world. I feel like the work that Wikimedia Foundation does jibes very well with my personal mission to make technology more accessible and evenly distributed.

I’m excited about the new position. I’ll be working remotely from Montreal, starting next Monday, December 3 2018. I’ll let you know how it goes!

My other commitments

My company Fuzzy.ai is shutting down at the end of December 2018. We are releasing our fuzzy logic engine and API server as Open Source, and I expect that I’ll be working to make that project successful in the new year.

I will also continue my work with the Social CG at W3C on ActivityPub and Activity Streams 2.0, as well as the pump.io social networking platform.

And, as usual, I’ll be meddling in a handful of startups in Montreal and elsewhere as mentor, adviser, consultant or avuncular sounding board.


Thanks to my patient and supportive wife and children who have put up with my turbulent transition over the last two years.

Thanks to the WMF for taking a chance with me. I think we’re going to do great things together!

And thanks to everyone who helped with job search references over the last couple of months. I’ve talked to a lot of fascinating companies and organizations because of the doors you opened. I appreciate your confidence in me.

Written by evanprodromou

November 30, 2018 at 10:53 am

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Birthday Inventory 2018

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Tomorrow is my 50th birthday. It’s a big one; about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through a North American man’s life. I’m at the point of the baking show where the host comes around and says, “Five minutes left!” and the bakers all try to cover up their mistakes with frosting and get something presentable for the judges.

Like, I think, a lot of people, I’ve always felt like my real life was going to start “soon”. It’s hard to accept that it started a long time ago, the clock has been running for five decades, and I am who I am going to be. What I do next with my life will likely follow closely on what I’ve done before. This is the vehicle I’m driving; I just get to decide where to go.

Last year I did a birthday inventory which was really helpful for me to write and to re-read. I’m going to try to follow a similar format here, although the same headings and bullet points might not come as quickly to mind. People change over a year; priorities change. What you want to look at changes.

  • Family. My immediate family remains the foundation of my life. We eat together, sleep under the same roof, watch TV, read, do projects, take trips together. We are about as close as I’ve ever been with anyone.
    • I continue to have a sweet partnership with my wife, tinged somewhat with guilt that she has to carry so much weight. She has travelled less frequently this year, but worked a lot. We have had to make sure to carve out time one-on-one together, like many married couples. And often our talk is about our shared project, creating a family and a household. We have been lucky to have some extra time to talk about ourselves and our lives.
    • My daughter turned 13 this year. She’s finding her place in the world, and it’s been amazing to see her do it. I have a relationship with her that’s halfway between a parent-child one and a relationship with a younger peer. She loves to talk about books and music and the world. I’m glad to have the chance to see things through her eyes.
    • My son will be 10 in a few weeks. He has had an incredible year; a change of schools last fall has helped him to blossom. He is skilled with math and spelling, loves to sing and dance, and is funny and charming. He gives hugs without hesitation. He has not yet caught the reading bug like his parents and sister. He remains stormy in his moods, but they come less often now. But he also has an almost addictive relationship with his tablet, watching YouTube gaming videos whenever he can and reluctantly putting the device down for meals or homework. It’s one of my main worries; I want him to continue to flourish and be expressive, and I don’t want him to fall into the toxic culture of online gaming without some better armour. I’m trying to engage him with some of our common interests: building models, playing video games, exercise outside, role-playing games. We’ll see how it goes.
    • My extended family remains a source of joy. My brothers and their families are all doing well, and although we’ve had a health scare or two in the last year, I feel content. But they are far away, and it continues to sting that I don’t have as much time with them as I’d like.
  • Life’s purpose. This has been a big topic of thought for me over the last year. I wrote a personal mission statement last winter, partly inspired by discussions with my friends Ben and Boris while boating in Amsterdam. I’m still behind my mission, to make the future more evenly distributed. But I feel like the statement leaves out so much about what I want out of life and what I owe to people close to me.
    I’ve been thinking a lot in the last 12 months about Stoicism versus Epicureanism. In my mind, this is the difference between dedicating your life to being valuable versus being content. I’m feeling more and more that the joys of everyday life are only here for me for a moment longer; family trips, red and orange leaves, weddings, new babies. I need to savour them while I can, and if that means not getting down to the Forum to give a speech that defeats my rivals in the Senate, well, I can live with that. I’d like to work on my (metaphorical) garden.

    • On the other hand, my work with the W3C on social networking standards has been really fruitful. We completed the last of our standards this year and shut down the working group we had built. Now, the same community is working on promoting the standards in software like Mastodon. The process remains difficult but I am hopeful.
  • Health. I continue to keep a trim figure, although I’ve put on some muscle mass this year. I’m at a BMI of 27 and the last time I did my BFI, I was at a very healthy 11%. But my diet and exercise take up a lot of my attention and time; I still do about 1-2 hours of exercise a day, plus walking or biking around town on my personal business. I don’t know if I can keep this level of commitment up forever, but I haven’t yet figured out an easier path.
    • Mentally, I’ve continued a meditation practice, although I’ve been slacking off lately. What used to be a daily practice has become more of a 2-3x per week practice. I kind of hit a wall with meditation; it felt like more of a maintenance process. But it remains important to my sense of calm and awareness of the world.
    • I realize that I’m heading into one of the most mentally hazardous periods of a man’s life. It’s a time when depression and anxiety can overwhelm men; a time when our minds turn against us. I’m trying to keep my eyes open and my principles firmly anchored.
  • Work. It’s been a bad year. I’m in flux. There’s no other way to say it. After a number of pivots and redirections, my co-founder Matt and I have decided we can’t make Fuzzy.ai work the way it needs to, and we’re going to shut down this year. That’s been a hard decision to make, not least because so much of the business has been oriented towards making AI more accessible to more developers.
    I haven’t got the will or the incentive to dive back in and start another company. In a way, I feel like that 17-year-old kid who’s still going to the same summer camp as he did at 12, with a lot of 12-year-olds. I think I need to move on to my next thing, and stop trying to fill the same role in the tech ecosystem that I have for 15 years. I need something different.
    Finding work that aligns with my purpose, that keeps me and my family in our home in Montreal, and that pays the bills has not been easy. Applying for jobs instead of making up my own has been uncomfortable.
    On the plus side, I’ve had a chance to consult with and work for a number of different amazing companies on a part-time basis this year while I figure out next steps. I’m inspired by their work, and I’m hoping to give what little help I can to help them be successful.
  • Friendships. It’s been an OK year. I have kept my cards close to my chest about work life, which has made it harder to connect with friends. It’s hard to take the limited free time I have and apply it to my friendships. I’ve tried to do more to engage; we’ll see how it goes.
    • One thing I’ve made a point of this year is reducing the number of one-way friendship relationships I have on social networking platforms. I realized that I was putting a lot of mental energy into tenuous relationships with people who I don’t matter to. I cut down my networks to people who are interested in me and who I can be myself around.
    • I’ve had some changes in my feelings about communities, too. I have long felt a congeniality with a loose group of people clustered around maybe a “social software” or “Web 2.0” concept. I’ve sought this community’s company at alphabet soup events like FOO, XOXO, YXYY, and SXSW, but I’m coming to realize that it’s an abstract concept. I need to spend less time trying to connect with a cloud of people, and more time connecting with people themselves. This year, I decided not to go to XOXO because I didn’t want to waste time with it. I hope to put that time into other trips and deeper connections.
    • Similarly, I’ve had a rough time with the Montreal tech community. I have a lot of friends who work here, and I have felt recognized and rewarded for the work and energy I’ve put into making this a place where interesting technology happens. But it’s not a cause I can dedicate myself to forever; I’m letting it go somewhat, and I hope to see it continue to flourish without me.
  • Hobbies. It has been a good year for these! Maybe because of my change in work situation; maybe because I need more areas of exploration in my life.
    • I started doing taiko drumming last year. It’s fun and challenging and involves banging the shit out of huge drums, which is immensely satisfying. I’m having a hard time getting good, and I normally put in zero hours of practice per week besides my Saturday workshops, but I’m glad to have this practice in my life.
    • I also started a regular role-playing game with a group of friends I really like and admire. We do a call once every 2-4 weeks and spend a couple of hours making maps and rolling dice and telling stories together. I’m finding it really rewarding.
    • I spent some time working on a blog about role-playing game podcasts, but it hasn’t really worked out. I don’t have the time to write reviews for the 5-10 major weekly or biweekly RPG podcasts, and I haven’t had the energy to recruit other writers. And, frankly, the feedback on the blog has been poor; fans have been displeased with my critical take on entertainment they remain unquestioningly supportive of. I might give this another try soon; or I might just shut it down.
    • I also started doing regular recordings of my voice and thoughts over the last year. I’ve got about 20 episodes, which have been great to do. I hope to continue into the next year (watch for a birthday episode), but I think I’ll need to do it on a regular day of the week rather than trying to get to it haphazardly.
    • It has been a year of incredible travel. My family spent 2 weeks in the south of France this summer, which was enriching and rewarding. We made memories; we are committed to going back. And next week I take my first trip to Jerusalem, the city where my father was born and my grandparents lived. I’m nervous and excited.
  • Politics. It’s been a year of hope and fear. I’m looking forward to a more balanced US political landscape after the mid-term elections of 2018. But our Quebec elections have put a party into a parliamentary majority who’ve been more than happy to use Islamophobia, anti-semitism and race-baiting to gain votes. And the source of a lot of our hemisphere’s stability, Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal government, is headed into an election in the next year. That feels like a potential catastrophe.
    • I feel like my friends and family are politically more polarized than ever before. I try not to talk about politics with my friends, but many have disappeared from my social networks, down the rabbit hole of their own social media echo chambers, as I go down the rabbit hole of mine. I hope I can keep my lines of communication open with people I care about who want the same things as I do but who see other ways of getting there. I’m not sure how easy it’s going to be.

I’m sure there’s more I should write; I’ll think more about it today. I have to get back to my house now; my friends Frank and Robyn have come up from Cleveland for my birthday, and I need to get some bread in the oven and get pancakes going. Then to taiko, a run on Mount Royal, and dinner tonight with 20-30 of my closest friends. Life is pretty good for me.

Written by evanprodromou

October 13, 2018 at 9:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A personal clock

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Daylight saving time just switched over in Canada and the US, which always elicits collective shock that our system of telling time is arbitrary and kind of unhelpful. It made me think about other ways of measuring time that might be better.

One option is to use a simple decimal time system with a universal meridian. I’m fond of Swatch Internet Time, because it’s simple and based in the cyberutopian marketing mess of the late 1990s.

Another option is to use hyperlocal astronomical information on a local clock. When is sunrise, solar noon, sunset and solar midnight, where you are right now? What phase is the moon in? How many days since the last equinox or solstice?

A hyperlocal clock or calendar might also include natural phenomena. Here in Montreal, for example, the time when the maple sap starts to run is an important local event, which makes all the papers and the TV news. Really! Or when the amaryllis blooms in Northern California. Or maybe the frequency of buses and trains, which surge at commute times and go to nearly zero after midnight.

I think there might be an interesting next step of refinement – a personal clock that measures time according to your personal daily rhythm. It could measure things like

  • What time you “naturally” wake up
  • What time you fall asleep
  • What times you eat
  • What times you go to the bathroom
  • What days you menstruate and ovulate
  • What time is best for you to focus
  • What time is best for you to exercise
  • What time is best for sex

Knowing your own body’s regular rhythms, and your mind’s, would help you know when you are scheduling in conflict with those rhythms.

Can you realistically work 11 hours straight tomorrow? Should you plan on an 8pm dinner with a client? When can you find time to work on your latest painting?

It’d also be interesting to compare your personal clock with those of other people you live and work with. If someone on your team is on a four-meal cycle, maybe inviting them for lunch at noon doesn’t make sense, and you should instead take a walk mid-afternoon when you both need exercise.

It’d be tough to get the numbers right, though. When is the “natural” time for you to eat your first meal? The haphazard times you do it now? The time you pick on weekends or vacation, when you don’t have other time constraints? The time that you eat the most, or the time that you eat the least? Or the time that your circadian rhythm spoots out the most hunger hormones into your bloodstream?

Regardless, it feels like a personal clock indexed to your own physical and psychological needs and abilities would be a great way to look at time.

So that makes 3 clocks:

  • Decimal and universal
  • Local and astronomical
  • Personal

I think the first two might be easy to program, and the last one will be hardest. I’m interested to see if this is a project I want to put time into.

Written by evanprodromou

March 12, 2018 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My 28-day 30-day challenge

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I’ve been trying to focus my side projects into discrete 30-day challenges. This is less about keeping going, and more about keeping bounded. EvanCoin is a good example of a 30-day challenge I pulled off last year.

In February 2018, I decided to focus on one of the side-projects I’d been toying with for months: headgames.blog. I’d been thinking about developing a blog about actual play RPG podcasts for a while, and concentrating that effort into a 30-day challenge would make it a little easier. (What’s an actual-play RPG podcast? It’s a podcast where people actually play a role-playing game or RPG.) Concentrating on a short month, like February, makes it even easier.

I decided to try to write a full blog post each day of the month. On Head Games, I’ve been writing reviews of episodes, explainers for podcast series, and opinion pieces on actual play RPG podcasts. I only managed to get things written 19 out of the 28 days, but it feels exhausting nevertheless.

One thing I learned is that time is of the essence when you’re trying to write for an audience. Review blog posts I wrote in the 24 hours after a podcast episode dropped were much more popular than ones I posted a few days later.

There also seems to be very focused fandoms in this area. Even though the podcasts often cover similar territory, it seems like fans of one podcast don’t really want to read about other podcasts.

It was hard doing this much writing. I got a lot less sleep in February than in January; I spent 2-3 hours a night on the computer, writing or researching each story.

And for the reviews, I only covered a half-dozen podcasts, and it felt like an effort to make them all work. I really had to listen to each episode 2-3 times in order to get detailed reviews worth writing, and sometimes I had to go back and listen to parts of old episodes to get facts straight.

But I found it really rewarding. I listen to podcasts a lot, and I don’t often talk about them. Having readers with opinions about my opinions made for some worthwhile conversations.

Now that the month is over, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing. Ideally, I’d find some partners who love a particular podcast and would like to take over the section for that one. I’m not sure how well that will work, but I think it’s the only way to make this project keep going forward.

My next 30-day challenge? Home repair. Gonna try to get some of the TODOs I’ve had for the house out of the way as we go into Spring here in Montreal.


Written by evanprodromou

March 1, 2018 at 3:53 pm

Posted in 30day

Dollar-cost Averaging for Cryptocurrencies

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I recommend to most people interested in investing in cryptocurrencies to use a dollar-cost averaging (DCA) strategy. DCA makes it easier to weather the volatility of cryptocurrency markets. It’s also a simple strategy that doesn’t require a lot of time or attention from the investor.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Budget an affordable amount of money from your monthly budget for each cryptocurrency you’re interested in.
  2. Choose a fixed time period for the investment, say, six months or two years.
  3. Spend that amount, each month, around the same time of the month, for the full time period.

That’s it! So, if you think you can afford $25/month to buy EvanCoin 😉 or Monero, set up a reminder for yourself in your calendar. Buy that much of the cryptocurrency you want to get.

There are a few main advantages to this strategy:

  • Ups and downs in the price of the cryptocurrency matter less to you than if you’re day trading. When the price is down, you can buy more with your $25 or $100 or whatever. When the price is up, you can’t buy as much, but your investment is also doing well. Either way, you’re happy about the investment.
  • You don’t have to watch the prices that closely.
  • You don’t find yourself worrying about buying the next new fashionable coin. You are only buying if the investment fits into your budget and you’re committed to it for the long term.
  • You gradually build up a nice cryptocurrency portfolio without breaking the bank. You’re not trying to make one big score; you’re diversifying with affordable investments across different currencies.
  • Bounding your investment for a time period means you don’t have to stress about when to continue the investment. After the time period is up, you can make the call whether to sell or hodl. If the investment is doing well, you can “reenlist” for another 6, 12, 18 or 24 months.

There are downsides, of course.

  • You’re not going to make a big score by buying at just the right time a currency that jumps 1000% over night. But that happens so rarely, it’s not worth trying to make that happen. More often, there’s a lot of stress and over-spending by people who are trying to make one big score.
  • Exchanges for buying cryptocurrencies suuuuuuuck. It’s really miserable to do any kind of trading, what with bad software and Know Your Customer anti-features. Having to make one purchase per month for each currency can feel like a real chore. Finding a good exchange can help this a lot.
  • Transaction fees can be high, and you’ll pay them multiple times. This can be pretty painful if the fees are a high percentage of your monthly investment amount.

Cryptocurrencies are risky investments based on new technology. Never invest more in any asset than you can safely afford to lose. Dollar-cost averaging can help avoid some of the risk.

Written by evanprodromou

January 23, 2018 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized