Moving On (Again), but Don’t Panic

So today I’m starting a new full-time position at Truth Initiative®, the anti-smoking nonprofit. They have an internal group there who work on various applications to help people stop smoking, and they needed senior PHP help. When I cofounded mojoLive, a large part of my motivation was to work more on long-term web applications instead of simply more content management sites, and this move helps me do that.

This doesn’t mean php[architect] or is going anywhere. I’ll still be a part owner, but it will become my avocation rather than my vocation. As will surprise no one, becoming a publisher in the 2010s is not the most lucrative endeavor, and try as we might, trying to do that plus doing enough consulting to keep us in regular, albeit small paychecks was beyond our reach. In order to keep things the way we were doing them, I was basically becoming the consultant I’d wanted to take a break from five years ago…and when consulting was scarce, we’d have to sacrifice our paychecks in favor of paying our bills. Hopefully now the magazine, books, training, and conferences plus a little advising will be enough to keep our Editor full time and keep One for All Events producing the conferences. If you know of any senior design jobs, I know a guy.

So I’m moving on, and I expect this job will give me more practical topics for talk ideas. I’ve already confirmed that Truth Initiative has an excellent commitment to career growth, so I’ll be able to be involved in the community one way or another. If you’re coming to php[world], I’ll be there on Monday and Tuesday teaching and will try to stop by the evening events.

If you’re concerned about the future of php[architect], the best way to help is to subscribe to the magazine if you haven’t already, encourage others to do so, and spread the word about our books, training, conferences, and, of course, the magazine.

My First Hackathon

This past weekend, I went to the Washington Post’s Election Hackathon. I hadn’t been to one before, but my friend Oscar had the idea that it would be a good way to possibly get a little more exposure for If nothing else, we’d get a nice portfolio piece.

And we did indeed: Check out Oscar’s piece on its creation and some ideas for going forward. It was a good example for how quickly you can get a site together using Treb, the framework we built for mojoLive.

We didn’t win, partially as there were some really awesome ideas done by others at the hackathon, but partially because we misjudged the criteria for the site and provided something potentially useful but stopped early to polish it rather than really digging into the APIs to uncover some insights. With only a few hours of designer assistance from Kevin, the polish worked well, but the judges went for incomplete ideas with potential. As the Musketeer with the occasional appellation “product guy,” ultimately that’s my fault. On the other hand, I got to dust off some programming chops that had been put on the shelf while I pursued funding at mojoLive and gladhanded for clients for the Musketeers.


We did get selected to present our app. You can totally identify Oscar, right?

One other note: Oscar will expand on it, but I think we did demonstrate good principles if you’re going to design something to be responsive: keep the design clean with simple boxes and rows that could reflow rather than try to replicate the report-ish layout that websites have aspired to since the 90s and that are the bane of the nonprofit world. The site still looks good on a desktop browser, but it also works really well on an iPhone.

Design for your medium, people. Don’t try to force it to be something it’s not. And as “product guy” I will take a little credit for that part.

Help Kickstart BubbleSorter and GridSorter

I’ve always been careful to say that my new company,, is a consulting and product company. Today we’re getting closer to the second (but to us, first) part of our mission. We’re launching a Kickstarter campaign to build two products: GridSorter and BubbleSorter.


GridSorter is best explained by relating the story of how Eli White first created the prototype: ever have a list of things that need doing around the house? Or worse, a honey-do list? Eli had that problem, and he’d already ranked everything by most important to least important. The problem was that when he had some spare time, he would look at the first thing on the list, which was a weekend-long project. So he’d put it down, and go do something else instead, and nothing was getting done. He quickly realized that he needed to categorize his tasks by both how long they’d take and how important they were.

Being a programmer, he naturally sat down and hacked out a solution: put his tasks on a grid, with one axis being importance and the other axis being time required. So now when he had an evening, he could simply look down the “takes an evening” column and grab the first task off the list, knowing he was getting the most important thing he could do with that time.

We’ve realized that a lot of you might have that problem, and the principle is even more powerful than just tasks versus time: you might have any number of things you need to sort by two different categories: for mojoLive we categorized our last push of features by importance versus user engagement, and picked the most important features that would also engage users. So the final product will have the ability to pick your two categories and drag and drop your list accordingly.

BubbleSorterBut what if you’re having trouble figuring out what’s important? Once I was trying to get a client to give us a prioritized list of tasks so we could ensure we did the most important things first, since the budget was tight and the list was long. They came back and said, “Well, everything here is Priority 1.” Not too helpful. But when I started asking, “Would you like to put more effort into Feature A or Feature B?” the client would quickly reply, “Feature B.” Out of that inspiration comes BubbleSorter.

While even just bringing in a list and prioritizing it is useful—and we’re going to give you that for free—it’s really useful when you have groups of people who are having trouble agreeing on a list of priorities. So for a low yearly subscription, you’ll be able to invite others to come in and perform the same ranking, and then using an algorithm we’ll be able to tell you what the group’s collective priorities are. This is really powerful if you’re regularly trying to get consensus in teams.

So help us make these products a reality: watch the video, see what you will get for each backing level, and join our Kickstarter.

Cancer is Boring

The biggest thing I didn’t expect about cancer: it’s boring. As I noted, there’s very little about it that makes for good TV. The diagnosis, delivered in person or over the phone, is just a bit of dialog. It feels dramatic, but unless you’re approaching terminal, there’s very little about it that happens quickly.

Chemo, despite its deserved reputation as a rough treatment, is very boring. Go in, get a blood test, wait for the results, go sit in a comfy chair, and then pass the time for 2 and a half to 4 or more hours as a series of drugs and saline solution are infused through an IV. Afterward, you might pee orange, but the side effects don’t tend to hit if all goes well, as anti nausea meds are the first things you get. But Amy, at least, doesn’t feel very different. Possibly sleepy if she got benadryl during the infusion, but otherwise fine. The effects kick in slowly throughout the next week or two, and some effects are cumulative over that time. It takes a few weeks for hair to begin noticeably falling out.

And if the other side effects are well-managed, the main effect seems to be that she’s too tired for much beyond lying on the couch and watching fairly light TV. (In her case: fashion and police procedurals.)

It sucks, there’s pain, you look different, and the changes are dramatic if you haven’t seen the person in a while…but it’s mainly boring.

That being said: despite the boredom, it’s still stressful. There’s very little acute stress, but a fair amount of low-level, constant stress. This leads to sleeplessness, which makes everything worse…but then again, everything is boring, so it’s hard to find and eliminate a stressor.

Except, of course, for the cancer. That’s what the whole point of this is. And it’s working: the tumor is now extremely hard to find manually. But that’s a long term goal. Amy’s a little more than halfway done with chemo, so we’re in the middle of a boring slog. A boring, stressful, unpleasant slog, which just highlights the surrealism of Cancer World.

All that being said, we’re still terribly lucky. Hell, it’s basically a routine now, and we both do well with routines. People’s support has been great, and I’m continually surprised how many people have experience as a patient or caregiver. Hopefully these posts will encourage more people to be open about it and demystify it a bit.

Because fuck cancer.

Cancer World

Having a loved one with cancer moves you from your normal existence to what Christopher Hitchens termed the “land of malady” but that I call “Cancer World.” It’s a world with its own vocabulary, like any other specialized world, and each cancer has its specifics. You learn about staging, invasive versus non-invasive, and you finally learn how to pronounce “metastasis.” (I had previously only heard the verb form, “…whether the cancer has metastasized.” Turns out, you pronounce the noun quite literally.) As Hitchens notes, you also “fight” cancer, never suffer from it, and people who’ve been successfully treated for a cancer are not “recovered” but “survivors.” While most cancers are in fact life-threatening, and people with the cancer in remission are never 100% sure every last cell has been killed and the cancer can’t recur, the fact is that the flu can also kill you, and there is no guarantee you’ll never get another infection or that it will not flare up again. Then again, the survival rates for the flu are to be envied.

But all that pales against the sudden influx of facts and statistics and treatment options. You don’t talk about mere “survival” but “5 year and 10 year rates of survival and recurrence,” and you can quote them by stage and cancer types. Oh yes, there are many types of even breast cancer. They can even be plotted on a matrix: invasive or non-invasive, ductal versus lobular, which of three possible hormones the cancer might respond to or none of them. You find yourself unconsciously picking up terms from the doctors and nurse practitioners who patiently explain things to you. There is or is not lymph node “involvement.” You don’t ponder surgery to take out all the breast tissue on both sides and replace them with fakes, you consider a “radical double mastectomy with reconstructive implants.” Very quickly, these terms become second nature.

With breast cancer specifically, but also cancer in general, there seems to be a profusion of flower decorations, icons, and imagery. Always white, delicate, and peaceful, possibly in an attempt to balance the certainty that many of the patients around you are facing a terminal illness while others are fighting fear that theirs will be. Still, I find the profusion of white lilies disturbingly funereal.

On the positive side, everyone in those parts of the hospital or office go out of their way to be nice. Perhaps it’s because there is no malingering in Cancer World: it is a disease best detected by blood tests and tissue samples, not subjective patient reports. There is that element, too, but it’s always better when it’s detected without any symptoms on your part. I’ve read that in emergency departments and primary care physician offices, the term “GOMER” is used (Get Out of My Emergency Room) for hypochondriacs (and not only them, but that’s a darker side). There are no GOMERs in Cancer World, either. It’s sufficiently scary and the treatments sufficiently unpleasant that nobody there wants to remain any longer than they absolutely must.

In Cancer World, certain things are understood: food is something to be managed as much as enjoyed, because nausea is a constant part of most treatments. When there isn’t nausea, there are taste changes: things that used to taste good don’t anymore. Certain treatments dry out the mouth and promote sores, so eating acidic things is discouraged. And since anti-nausea meds are going into you constantly, you don’t want to do anything that might further upset your system, so spicy foods are also out. And even if they were in, they might not taste good. Planning activities is a very tentative thing: fatigue builds up through treatment, and recovery from surgery is variable.

Emerging from treatment to walk around the outside world when you know the person beside you has just undergone chemotherapy is an odd experience. No one can tell just looking at her that she’s undergone this: there’s no cast, your hair does not instantly fall out, and the effects take a couple of days to set in. Explaining the cancer to people means educating them on the nuances you’ve just spent a few weeks mastering. And often, people are more devastated than you are, as they don’t know the statistics as well as you. Or in other cases they think it’s less of a deal than it is…because they don’t know the statistics as well as you. Comforting others about your loved one’s cancer is a surprisingly common occurrence.

I don’t doubt that a similar transition happens for transplant patients or members of any other group of people who share a life-changing characteristic and visit a series of institutions designed to deal with that characteristic. It’s just remarkable that there’s so little communication between Cancer World and this world given the number of people it affects. When you announce a diagnosis of cancer, people come out of the woodwork with family members, friends, and colleagues who have had or, worse, died from some cancer, frequently even the cancer you’re dealing with. Yet these don’t come up the way car crashes or even heart conditions do. Maybe it’s that there are no dramatic events around cancer after the initial diagnosis, delivered in an office or over the phone. No one rushes in to give chemotherapy just in time to revive the patient.

Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into Cancer World so you better understand what friends with cancer or who have loved ones with cancer are experiencing when they’re off dealing with it. There’s one last thing that’s surprising about Cancer World that you should know, but that warrants its own post.

2011 Sucks

So good things: I finally got to start on mojoLive, which is great and past time.

OK, now for everything else.

I spent the first three months sick with the flu followed by a chronic sinus infection. Turns out, this was the least bad thing to happen. Antibiotics, once you find a doc who will give you a 30 day supply to beat the little fuckers into submission, work.

Most of the first of the year was also a game of “Any day now” with funding the startup. As anybody who has been through a funding process knows, it’s an extremely stressful process full of promise that you can start followed by a string of disappointments. I ended up having to turn down a promotion and prematurely give notice. Fortunately the funding did finally come through, albeit in drips and drabs, so starting up has been an exercise in contingency plans. Fair enough, that’s how that stuff goes.

Around the time I got well, my cockatiel Squeak got sick. He couldn’t shake it, and I had to medicate him twice a day for several months.

Our CTO has had family issues that have kept him from participating fully, so the startup’s road has been even rockier than normal.

And then Amy found a lump in her breast. A mammogram turned into a biopsy which revealed breast cancer.

Immediately after that, Squeak, my companion since I moved to DC 14 years ago, suddenly got worse and died on the way to the vet. Squeak was my first pet.

Then we found out that Amy has the BRCA-1 mutation, meaning that in addition to a heightened chance for recurrence of breast cancer, she has to watch out for ovarian cancer. Her type is somewhat aggressive, but at least responds to chemo fairly well. She’ll have to have a double mastectomy to decrease the risk of recurrence, and she’ll need to get regular ultrasounds to watch for ovarian tumors.

So the remainder of 2011 will be dominated by chemotherapy for her until December, followed by surgery.

Not directly affecting me, there have been other good things: the Arab Spring and a few friends having children. But then there’s also been a devastating tsunami and the Arab Spring has turned into a bloody struggle. Oh, and Steve Jobs’s long illness from has resulted in him stepping down, which almost certainly means it’s entered a terminal stage. Fuck you, cancer.

The not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been: Amy’s near-term prognosis is excellent–after, of course, the nausea, fatigue, and hair loss followed by major surgery. The startup is functioning, and we’re actually somehow mostly on track. So if you haven’t signed up, do so, and I’ll have happier things to talk about later this year.

But if I’ve been less communicative or social, well, I’ve had stuff going on. So what I’d hoped would be fun blogging about a new company will instead be mostly updates for those who know Amy.

Finally, perspective: We are financially sound, Amy has great insurance and a supportive job and friends, and everybody I’ve talked to has been incredibly supportive. Squeak was in his early senior years, so it wasn’t shocking. While I’m acknowledging the painful realities of what should have been a banner year, I haven’t lost site of the many advantages I have.

Oh, and fuck cancer.