hey web-talker, talk web to me

Mozilla is hiring a technical evangelist to help the world get the most out of the web. It’s a position with a scope as broad as the web itself, bringing Mozilla’s keen sense of the web to people learning, building and pushing the envelope.

If you can write code and prose, listen as well as you explain, and you want to spend your days changing the web for billions of people, peep this link.

or bpd2 to its friends

For almost 20 years I thought I “just” had depression: monopolar, occasional major episodes. I was well-known in my circle of friends for crying at weddings and in movies. (There is video of my convocation address at Seneca a couple of years ago that I still don’t have the courage to post — in spite of very flattering requests — during which I blubbered like a toddler with a skinned knee.) I was on anti-depressants, and they took the edge off well enough I guess. I didn’t realize that I was also suffering from a lot of anxiety, because it was my baseline. In 1993 I was off of school for a couple of months, and in 2000 I was off of work for about 2 months. Winter was the worst, Christmas the worst of the winter.

For the last 3-4 years, I thought I had ADHD. A doctor told me so! Sure had the focus and procrastination issues, as anyone who has spent 15 minutes with me can attest.

Here’s the thing about mental health diagnoses: with a few exceptions, you are a bunch of blind guys feeling up an elephant. There aren’t blood tests; the brain scan stuff is still really immature. The diagnoses are really tautological descriptions of symptoms, and if it impairs your life it’s a Condition. Some of the diagnostic criteria are such that, by definition, you can never get better: if you’ve ever had the episodes it describes, you have the condition. 21st century psychiatry, ladies and gentlemen. If you have symptoms that overlap with the area of focus of your doctor, you are pretty much going to draw that card. Other issues are probably just co-morbid, a delightful medical word for “also”, or you might not even mention them if they’re not solicited in the right way.

I don’t mean to demean the work psychiatrists do — they have done some great work on me! — but it’s clear that there are some pretty significant limitations.

So what do you do in the absence of a clear test for something? Well, when it comes to a diagnosis, I care about it to the extent that it directs us towards effective treatment. (Us, almost always — if I’m not working with a doctor, I’m damned sure working with my wife.) And it should explain a meaningful number of symptoms, like back-testing a model of any other system. I like long walks on the beach and evidence-based medicine.

I have the good fortune to have found a doctor in the Bay Area with very broad clinical range, in both diagnosis and treatment. In her opinion, ADHD was a “soft call”, and I am a pretty textbook case of bipolar disorder, probably type 2.

Bipolar disorder is ups and downs, to the point that they interfere with functioning rather than just being part of the normal ebb and flow of life: severe depression and moderate-to-severe mania. It used to be called “manic depressive”, but apparently that name had a stigma, so they started using a phrase with the word “disorder” in it. Well-played. The main difference between type 1 and type 2 is the severity of the mania. I joke that BPD1 is “why isn’t shaver wearing pants?” rather than BPD2′s “why did shaver stay up for 3 nights writing that code?”, but if you are living with BPD1 in that form it is categorically not a joke. On the other hand, if having a mental illness doesn’t let you make jokes like that, why even bother having one? Anyway, since the Type 1 vs. Type 2 distinction can be related to duration of manic episodes, or their severity, or having mixed episodes, I could probably also be classified as Type 1 (I get mixed episodes, and I’ve had week-long hypomanic periods). Most of the difference in treatment seems to relate to how careful to be about triggering a (hypo)manic episode, and we’re not too worried about that, so Type 2 is the guideline of the day.

BPD2, then, is “bad depression with periods of awesome”. Seriously, the hypomanic (mild) episodes are fantastic, and mine are not hall-of-fame episodes. Apparently there are drugs that can make you feel like that, and I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was growing up. Like “Roger” in Ben Horowitz’s story of “the flake”, I had made some great stuff happen in that state. Being treated effectively for the depression part may mean that I give up the episodes of awesome. That sucks, and it’s a bit scary, and if I weren’t badly depressed I would probably not have been willing to start a course of treatment that could mute or eliminate them. You can have both mania and depression at the same time, called a mixed episode, and I’ve had them, including for part of this little adventure. That is some confusing shit right there: you feel driven to DO SOMETHING, but have no actual energy or motivation; fatigued without being able to sleep much; incredibly distracted and irritable; very likely to keep buying games during Steam sales without ever satisfying the novelty craving. The last one may not be in DSM-IV.

BPD2 + maybe an anxiety disorder (“but just living with BPD2 can cause a lot of anxiety, so let’s wait and see”) would explain not only what I’ve lived with but also how it’s been arranged in my life. But the test is in the treatment effectiveness, because boy is that not a vanity label.

On that front, the diagnosis is a home run in overtime for a 6 from the Russian judge. Though holy-shit-this-can-stop-any-time and so forth, and it has been SEVERAL EARTH WEEKS since I could work, my improvement has been the fastest I’ve ever experienced, and the broadest. For the first time since I was…10? I am sometimes waking up without a tight-band-across-the-chest weight of anxiety. I feel like an idiot saying it, but I thought that was pretty much normal for 20 years. I’m at the point now where, during previous severe episodes, I returned completely to work. That proved to be a horrible idea, but also took at least twice as long as is did this time to reach that “I could play hurt” state.

Adjusting to this knowledge about myself hasn’t been easy. As part of the initial treatment, I’m taking a drug known as an “atypical antipsychotic”. I do not like the sound of that phrase AT ALL. Bipolar disorder is one of the 3 major conditions — along with schizophrenia and ADHD — that modern psychiatry has found really needs medication as part of effective management, so I am probably signing up for a lifetime of “mood stabilizers” — another phrase that has a little too much of both A Brave New World and Arkham Asylum for my tastes.

Here’s the thing, though, about BPD2: I know I can live a full life with it, because I have been. This isn’t something I just contracted, it’s something I’ve just discovered, and that knowledge seems a lot like power right now.

Unless I chicken out, I’m going to keep writing about how it goes, in part because it’s oddly cathartic, in part because it will have me actually keeping track of things, and in part because I wish there’d been something like this for me to read when I was a teenager, and then an adult, trying to dodge the traffic of my brain.

CUSEC books

A quickie to list the books I plugged at the CUSEC conference:

making progress

[I wrote most of this a little while ago, and then remembered/found it yesterday, so the timeline is a little weird.]

Several weeks ago, I stopped working because, put simply, I was not able to work. My depression had gone right through its usual winter intensification, and all the way to basically rendering me non-functional. I was unable to muster the energy, or usually even the motivation, to start to get better, and even once I was no longer able to work it took me several days to go through the process of finding a doctor to work with. Merely digging up my phone and telling people that I wasn’t going to work was such effort that I would literally collapse crying after.

For a couple of weeks, I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t enjoy playing with my daughter. I didn’t enjoy eating good food. I didn’t enjoy reading, playing old video games, playing new video games or chatting with my friends. (As my Steam friends will know, I really tried pretty hard with the new video games.) It was easy to give up alcohol as part of my treatment, because I didn’t really take much pleasure in it anyway. There was never a feeling of accomplishment or progress, even when I intellectually knew that I’d done something, or that I was taking the right steps.

I was ashamed: ashamed that I couldn’t function as well as those around me, that I had let my condition progress this far, that I was letting down the people I work with and the people I love. I was afraid that I would feel like that for the rest of my life, though I could make myself not think that if I got lucky on a given day, and I would cling to the remembrance of the thought of a feeling like the sickeningly cliched liferaft of all depression analogies. It hurt so much that I’m crying a bit as I sit on a plane and write this.

Kinda sucked; I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

Since then, I have been fortunate to learn more about myself and how to take care of myself, with the help of an incredible network of support. I’m the luckiest person ever to feel crushing despair, of that I am certain.

Getting better has been hard, it has hurt, and it I know that there are people reading this who are going through the same pain, or a pain like it only in degree. More still have a friend or loved one who suffers this way, or who they fear might. I know this because people I don’t know — and even people I do, for whom it’s even harder — have been brave and kind enough to share their empathetic encouragement. You have done me the most solid of solids, and I hope to never have the opportunity to repay it in kind. I’ll see being able to write proper thank yous as an important milestone in getting better.

I’m good at what I do: technologist, father, friend, husband, manager, competitor, entertainer. When I am at my best, I can be great. I’m going to be that again, and I can feel (feel, a major upgrade from “think”) it starting to happen. Sometimes when I cycle back a bit, or when I juxtapose how little energy I have against how hard it’s been to get back to this state, I get discouraged. But I have a lot to look forward to, and I don’t plan to squander the blind, stupid luck that has gifted me with such a helpful community.

Right now, I measure my improvement by how long I can sustain energy and “be normal”. It’s stupid and probably a bit self-destructive, but I have a lot of practice at it. (You can’t keep me from doing it, so make the most of the energy you get from me, and try not to judge me too harshly when I turn into an exhausted asshole without much notice.)

I have a mental illness that will be a part of me forever. We believe that it’s called bipolar disorder (type 2), and I still find it a bit scary. I’m still learning about it, but I also have a lifetime of experience with it that I’m mining for lessons and strategies and even hope. I have a lot more to say about BPD2, and I hope I’ll have the strength to say it, because it will help me a lot and maybe help some other people a little. I sure don’t have the energy for it right now.

I’m going to get better. I’m going to be fine. Thank you all for helping me do that, and thank you for your patience.

PSA: If you aren’t sure you’re going to get better, please tell someone. Practice saying “I’m depressed, I need help” in the mirror until you can blurt it out to a loved one or a co-worker. If you’re in the Bay Area, and you don’t know how to find a doctor, use mine, or go to a hospital or walk-in. (My doctor is fantastic, and I am going to miss how fantastic she is when I go back to Toronto.) You can heal; you can actually be better than ever.

another step forward for open video on the web

Today, Google announced that it is joining Mozilla and Opera in exclusively supporting open video codecs — to wit, WebM and Theora — in their Chrome browser.

It’s a great move, and one we at Mozilla are obviously glad to see. It’s been a great first 8 months for WebM: multiple browser implementations, hardware support, an independent implementation from ffmpeg, performance improvements, support from lots of transcoding services, and content growth on the web. Organizations like Google, Mozilla, Opera and others who really believe in the importance of unencumbered video on the web are putting their products where our mouths are, and the web is going to be stronger and more awesome for it.

Congratulations and thanks, Google.

out of service

I suffer from depression, and some related issues like anxiety. I was first treated for it in high school, though my condition predates that treatment by some unknown amount. Since that time, I’ve had varying success managing that aspect of myself, but most of the time I can keep it from interfering much with my personal and professional life.

The severity of my condition varies, and lately it has varied…against me. I’m not really functional, due to a combination of random-onset crying, incredible fatigue, (even for me) very high distractability, and virtually no motivation or enjoyment of my usual pleasures and rewards. Because of this, I’m taking some time off work to recover, and during that period Damon Sicore will be assuming my duties. I have complete confidence in Damon, and knowing that he’ll be ably running things is a source of no small comfort.

I am 100% certain that I’m going to be OK. I’ve been through episodes like this before — though it’s been perhaps a decade since the last one of this severity — and I have always come out the other side with a better understanding of myself and improvements to my life. I am intellectually optimistic, even if my emotional state doesn’t often match these days. I could not wish for a more supportive family, circle of friends, and set of co-workers. I’m truly touched by the kind notes and words from so many people already, even though I know that my absence will make their lives harder for a while.

I’m writing about this in some detail because my absence will affect a fair number of people in the project and community; because I want to encourage everyone to help Damon sort out the things I’ve dumped on him; and especially because I think that people don’t talk about mental illness enough. If we could discuss mental illness with the same candor as we do our diets, food allergies, back pain, or diabetes, I think that it would be much easier for people to get the help they need. It is very hard to make good decisions about treatment (like to get some!) when your very mind is working against you; doing it alone is terrifying and for many people virtually impossible. I am incredibly fortunate to have the support, experience, and resources that I do, and it is still a very difficult thing for me to work through. Even as I write this, part of me worries how it will reflect on Mozilla. I just wouldn’t worry about that at all if I had a “physical” ailment.

I’ll likely post more on my blog about this, but not likely syndicate to planet; it’s not really Mozilla-related, other than the fact that Mozilla, like most communities, is probably more affected by mental illness than we realize.

free as in smokescreen

The web is full of headlines today like this one from MacRumors: “MPEG LA Declares H.264 Standard Permanently Royalty-Free”. It would be great if they were accurate, but unfortunately they very much are not.

What MPEG-LA announced is that their current moratorium on charging fees for the transmission of H.264 content, previously extended through 2015 for uses that don’t charge users, is now permanent. You still have to pay for a license for H.264 if you want to make things that create it, consume it, or your business model for distributing it is direct rather than indirect.

What they’ve made permanently free is distribution of content that people have already licensed to encode, and will need a license to decode. This is similar to Nikon announcing that they will not charge you if you put your pictures up on Flickr, or HP promising that they will never charge you additionally if you photocopy something that you printed on a LaserJet. (Nikon and HP are used in the preceding examples without their consent, and to my knowledge have never tried anything as ridiculous as trying to set license terms on what people create with their products.)

H.264 has not become materially more free in the past days. The promise made by the MPEG-LA was already in force until 2015, has no effect on those consuming or producing H.264 content, and is predicated on the notion that they should be controlling mere copying of bits at all! Unfortunately, H.264 is no more suitable as a foundational technology for the open web than it was last year. Perhaps it will become such in the future — Mozilla would very much welcome a real royalty-free promise for H.264 — but only the MPEG-LA can make that happen.

because no respectable MBA programme would admit me

I read (and talk) a lot about various “management topics”. I’ve been doing this since long before I managed anything more significant than my own clothing choices, because part of my brain was swollen in a childhood bicycle accident; it deprives other parts of my brain of blood and nutrients, explaining in part why I know a lot about how decision-making processes can fall apart, but usually can’t remember to have lunch. (Part of that is true.)

I have made some important findings over the last, uh, 17 years of reading and thinking about groups. Let me show you them.

Business and management books, which are latterly bleeding over into the self-help and pop-economics spaces, have terrible names. It is not a useful filter, just as it is not for science fiction. You are as likely to find a worthwhile read in a book titled “Monkey Fighting and Tomato Plants: How To Rebuild Your Team For The Digital Economy” as in any other.

Again as in science fiction, you can apparently get published if you just have a kernel of a good idea, even if it doesn’t benefit from more than a 5-page treatment, or you can’t communicate concepts clearly to save your life. Out of every, say, 10 books I start reading in this space, fully 9.7 of them have me asking “why is this a whole book?”, or even “why is this a whole chapter?” I guess this is why there are so many of those “summarize the hot business books in 1000 words each” services around.

If you’re not reading the citations, you’re not really reading the book. (If the book doesn’t have citations…yeah.) You don’t have to read all of every paper, but you should skim the ones that pertain to the parts that are most interesting to you. That probably means the parts that trigger the strongest “wow! yeah!” as well as the strongest “no way!”. (I am sometimes not really reading the book, especially where I can’t get my hands on the papers in question.)

Sequelae (“More Monkeys Fighting More Tomato Plants: How The Social User Economy Makes Left-Handed People Obsolete”) are either a) not really sequels, just named that way, not that names matter per above; or b) terrible. There are exceptions, but you should not count on finding them.

If there aren’t people on Amazon pissed off enough to 1-star in 10-paragraph denunciations, you’re probably not going to learn anything you don’t already know, though you might find a useful reframing of something. That can be pretty valuable, in my experience, and is also the most common silver lining from trudging through the first few chapters of an otherwise lame book.

So far I’ve found at least 3 books that I would recommend strongly to people, whether they have plans to manage or not. Links are to Amazon, which I’m sure shows some sort of cultural insensitivity. They are also not affiliate-tagged, because I’m not really very smart.

“Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”: a lot of management, in my perhaps-too-telling experience, is overcoming cognitive dissonance and otherwise getting from questions to assumptions to data to decision to understanding to execution. This book is a really accessible treatment of cognitive dissonance and some other common biases; it has made me painfully aware of my own such dissonance episodes, and made me much more sympathetic in a lot of my interactions. When I find myself clenching my jaw and wondering “why does he do that? so illogical! wtf!”, most of the time I can tie it back to this sort of thing. Also, the book has a pretty decent title, as long as you stop before the colon.

“Influencer: The Power To Change Anything”: making change possible/successful/kinda-pleasant is the other “a lot of management”, for me, so I have read…more than one book in this area in the last year. While this one does occasionally fall back on the “magic in step 2″ formulation of “create rewards”, I found it to be a pretty great treatment of different change contexts, and different ways of approaching various change efforts.

“The Checklist Manifesto”: this book in one sentence: “make a checklist and use it”. Why is this a whole book? IMO because of the amount of cognitive dissonance involved in the idea that a simple tool can make a difference in sophisticated processes, and because making a good checklist and getting people to use it are really the valuable and hard parts. Also because Atul Gawande is a great, great storyteller. (Thanks to John O’Duinn for turning me on to his previous books, which are also great.)

Bonus, not quite as good as the previous three IMO: “Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard”: a pretty interesting dissection of why some kinds of change are hard, and what successful change efforts tend to have in common. The presented framework sounds a little hokey (“Elephant, Rider and Path”), and the example case studies sometimes feel like they’re being stretched a bit, but still pretty good. I might like it more on a re-read, even.

Comments are open, unusually.

[Updated: I didn't mean to imply that these were the only books that I felt were worth recommending!]

HTML5 video and codecs

Recently, Vimeo and YouTube announced that they were moving to support the HTML5 video tag, as DailyMotion did last summer. This is an important step in making video a first-class citizen of the modern web, and that is great news. Unlike DailyMotion, however, Vimeo and YouTube chose to rely on the patented H.264 video encoding, rather than an unencumbered encoding like Ogg Theora. This means that the <video> pages on those sites will not work with Firefox.

Vimeo and YouTube seem to believe that reliance on proprietary plugins for video is a problem on the web. Mozilla believes that reliance on patent-encumbered formats is a problem on the web. Who’s right? Both groups are, in this case; that we can attack, from different perspectives, the multifacted problem of freeing video on the web is an example of the distributed innovation that has made the web such a powerful and popular platform.

For Mozilla, H.264 is not currently a suitable technology choice. In many countries, it is a patented technology, meaning that it is illegal to use without paying license fees to the MPEG-LA. Without such a license, it is not legal to use or distribute software that produces or consumes H.264-encoded content. Indeed, even distributing H.264 content over the internet or broadcasting it over the airwaves requires the consent of the MPEG-LA, and the current fee exemption for free-to-the-viewer internet delivery is only in effect until the end of 2010.

These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content.  And if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development.

Some companies pay annually for H.264 licenses, which they can pass on to users of their software. Google has such a license, but as they have described, it does not extend to people building from their source or otherwise extending their browser. (Apple and Microsoft are licensors to the MPEG-LA’s AVC/H.264 patent pool, so their terms may differ substantially.) Personally, I believe that it is completely their right to make such a decision, even if I would prefer that they made a different decision.

Mozilla has decided differently, in part because there is no apparent means for us to license H.264 under terms that would cover other users of our technology, such as Linux distributors, or people in affiliated projects like Wikimedia or the Participatory Culture Foundation. Even if we were to pay the $5,000,000 annual licensing cost for H.264, and we were to not care about the spectre of license fees for internet distribution of encoded content, or about content and tool creators, downstream projects would be no better off.

We want to make sure that the Web experience is good for all users, present and future. I want to make sure that when a child in India or Brazil or Kenya discovers the internet, there isn’t a big piece of it (video) that they can’t afford to participate in. I want to make sure that there are no toll-booth barriers to entry for someone building a whole new browser, or bringing a browser to a whole new device or OS, or making and using tools for creating standard web content. And I want that not only altruistically, but also because I want the crazy awesome video (animation, peer-to-peer, security, etc.) ideas that will come from having more people, with more perspectives, fully participating in the internet. The web is undeniably better for Mozilla having entered the browser market, and it would have been impossible for us to do so if there had been a multi-million-dollar licensing fee required for handling HTML, CSS, JavaScript or the like.

I very much believe that Google (both the Chrome and YouTube teams), Vimeo and many others share our desire to have a web with full-featured, high-performance, unencumbered, natively-integrated video, and I look very much forward to us all working — together and separately — towards that end.

People have raised questions about using existing support for H.264 (or other formats) that may already be installed on the user’s computer. There are issues there related to principle (fragmentation of format under the guise of standardized HTML), to effectiveness (about 60% of our users are on Windows XP, which provides no H.264 codec), to security (exposure of arbitrary codecs to hostile content), and to user experience (mapping the full and growing capabilities of <video> to the system APIs provided); I’ll post next week about those in more detail, if others don’t beat me to it.

[A translation of this post to Belorussian has been provided by PC.]

five by five, in the pipe

A little more than eighteen-hundred days ago, I and many others held our breath as the much-anticipated Firefox 1.0 was released to the world. A million downloads in the first week pushed our server infrastructure to the brink, and left me reeling: we had come so far from the days of Netscape 6 and the drive to Mozilla 1.0. Our message of a better browser experience, exemplified by the security and performance and personalization and open source and standards-friendliness of Firefox, had found a welcoming audience.

We faced, then, a daunting series of challenges: shifting focus to our most promising product (Firefox) while maintaining the energy and contribution of the Mozilla community; making the project sustainable over the long term, within the inviolable parameters of our mission; navigating new waters of commercial-non-profit-hybrid-community-mainstream-competitive software. We’ve had success at all of those so far, by my lights, though surely not without our bumps and scrapes.

The world is very different today than it was when Firefox was born. Microsoft has rebuilt its browser team, and released two major updates to its browser — at the time, I counted IE7 as one of Mozilla’s greatest achievements. Two other software Goliaths, Apple and Google, have joined the browser fray with gusto. Where once only Opera dared to tread, the browsing experience is now seen as a defining characteristic of a mobile phone, and we are ourselves getting ready to rock it.

Even in this savagely competitive environment, Firefox and Mozilla continue to thrive. Of our 330 million users world-wide, more than 100M of them are in the last year, and 30M in the last two months alone. We’ve continued to grow incredibly even since the latest competitor entered the scene, because we’ve continued to relentlessly improve Firefox and the web in ways that matter to people around the world. Every day we, along with our incredible and essential mirror partners, ship almost twice as many Firefox downloads as we did in that incredible release explosion from five years ago.

In January, I’ll have been involved in Mozilla for a dozen years. It has been a lot of work and a lot of fun, a professional and personal opportunity that I think makes me one of the luckiest software professionals ever to whine about their debugger. Thank you to everyone who has helped make Firefox what it is today, and what it will be tomorrow. There’s lots more to do, but please take at least a few minutes today to sit back and relish the impact you’ve had on the web, and on the people who use it.

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