the right stuff

I’ve been reading post-election analysis all day. It’s exhausting, infuriating, debilitating … and necessary. When an outcome is wildly off expectations, it’s important to understand what really happened, otherwise you could expend a lot of effort “fixing” the wrong things. There sure are a lot of people who are confident that they know what happened, I’ve been reading them all day. Then I suddenly realized that these are precisely the same people who turned out to be so spectacularly wrong in predicting the outcome. Hey, maybe I should pay attention to people who were right all along …

There were some early, correct predictions, by a prescient pollster (March 2016), a hack blogger (May 2016), a partisan policy expert (August 2016), and a politics professor (Sept 2016), but two sources stand out for their entertaining writing and strong post-election advice.

Michael Moore predicted a Trump victory in July. He precisely identified the four critical “Rust Belt” states that were vulnerable to a Republican flip. Everything he said in his analysis turned out to be exactly correct. So we should probably take his post-election advice pretty seriously, you should read it on his page but I’ll paraphrase here:

  1. Reform the Democratic Party nomination process.
  2. Ignore the media sources that got stuck on their false narrative before the election.
  3. Get active in telling Democratic Congresspeople to obstruct the Republican administration.
  4. Get over your surprise and stop treating Trump like a joke.
  5. Remember that the popular vote went to Clinton. The populace wants liberal policies.

Solid advice, pretty straightforward. The tone overall is combative and spirited; I’m a little unhappy about how it implies we need 4 more years of complete legislative gridlock, but I suppose that’s the fight we must sign up for if we fear that Trump will try to fulfill his campaign promises.

But … why would we assume that? Trump never fulfills promises that aren’t to his advantage, why would he start now? This is the perspective of the other guy who got it right in a really interesting way, Scott Adams. Famous as the creator of Dilbert, he’s become an oddly narcissistic but really entertaining blogger. He predicted a Trump victory in August 2015, by far the earliest correct prediction. He says that President Trump will preside over the most direct democracy in the history of our republic. In Adams’ view, campaign promises mean nothing to Trump. He says what he says to get what he wants. He got elected by one set of people, now he’ll govern another set of people. He’ll say whatever is needed to placate the largest set of those people that he can, regardless of whether they elected him, and that generally that set will lead to kind outcomes. Trump is a con man, which actually makes him a safe choice for President, because he has no intention of hurting his real-estate interests around the world, or his self-centered media business.

Reading Adams is going to be infuriating for many, but the practical advice there is actually pretty similar to Moore’s: be active with your neighbors and representatives, especially on social media; ignore the pundits who were wrong all along; remember that the majority of the country wants good outcomes for as many people as possible. I kind of want to slap him upside the head, but I can’t say he’s wrong.

American experimentalism

I’m proud to be an American, always have been. What I’ve always loved about this country is that the truest test of citizenship is about ideas, not history or genealogy. The USA is special in this way, that you can be most authentically American by internalizing and adhering to certain ideals. You can’t become more French by reading Sartre, more Irish by drinking whiskey, or more Korean by eating kimchee. In nearly all countries, the strongest claim to belonging is made by tracing family lineage. Only in America can you make an insuperable claim to belonging merely by believing the right things.

Though a popular view, the idea that the United States is special in this way is strongly disputed in academic circles. “American exceptionalism” is regarded as a naive worldview that has served primarily as a rationalization for imperialism, discrimination and arrogance. While I don’t agree with that critique, I have finally come to understand that the American experiment has always included genocide, and always will. The nature of pursuing ideals above all apparently includes the plowing of actual humans into the ground like so much fertilizer.

There’s no disputing that the establishment of this country by European settlers included the genocide of Native Americans. There’s no way of excusing such carnage; the best anyone can say is that the founding of the nation in blood was regrettable but unavoidable. As if one original sin weren’t enough, our country additionally built its economic strength on the backs of slavery, perhaps the most profitable genocide in history, one that continues to pay dividends to some privileged classes up to this very day.

This carnage can’t be defended. We can only promise to do better in the future. In looking ahead, we try to draw a through line to the past, saying that our nation was founded on the correct ideas, those of liberty and equality, freedom and justice. Although only a very few truly participated in the American ideal at the start, the course of bloody history has painfully expanded the benefits as we’ve expanded our understanding of common humanity. The most charitable view is that we’ve always had the right ideals, but the challenge has always been improving our implementation. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The hope is, I suppose, that each successive genocide is less bloody than the last.

Fleeing Europeans established this country by killing Native Americans. Early Americans grew the country with the slavery of Africans. We are getting closer and closer to a country where our ideals are truly extended to African-Americans, along with previously disenfranchised and disadvantaged women and LBGT people, immigrants and religious adherents of all kinds and creeds. Life is getting better for everyone, on average. And though our conflicts may be impassioned, they are no longer openly murderous. Perhaps genocide is no longer part of the cycle of the American experiment.

But as life gets better for everyone on average, it gets worse for some in particular. Now it seems that many male Americans of European heritage, in losing their privilege, are suffering a kind of slow death. “Genocide” may be too dramatic a term, held too dear by those who have suffered the most from it. But we can still talk about death, we can see that the greatest increase in suicide rate in recent years is among uneducated white male Americans. Here is a class of people who will slowly lose everything they hold dear.

And who will miss it – when what they hold dear is so often tribalism, jingoism, racism, all manner of deplorable -isms – doesn’t such savagery deserve extinction? They deserve to be left behind, for they are malformed and often malicious, substandard and nearly subhuman … Never mind that these are the same judgments that “true” Americans have always made in the name of reforming this nation ever closer to the deathless ideals. Let’s ignore the echoes of of our bloody past, for this time we are so sure we are right.

That is the price of progress, we say, those of us who are on the winning side of the historical moment. Like every other set of Americans who believed that the evolution of our country requires regrettable-but-unavoidable bloodshed, we believe that this is the last forced extinction of a way of life. Once the deplorables are finally put in their place, surely we will have justice for all.

Is there an end to the American experiment? What would that look like? American ideals may outlive America. The institutions of statehood may only be a temporary infrastructure in the eternal pursuit of abstract ideals. For example, democracy outlived and evolved long beyond the historical city-state of Athens.

Stranger still would be an end involving expanded recognition of consciousness. There have long been a tiny minority of people who would extend consciousness and its attendant rights to certain animals, or even plants. If this notion ever becomes mainstream, what are the consequences to expanding American ideals to all conscious beings? More fantastically and yet more plausibly, what will happen when machines have processing capability such that their operations are indistinguishable from human consciousness? Our notions of liberty and equality, freedom and justice, even the pursuit of happiness, may continue to become increasingly abstract, until these ideals are no longer be tethered to any particular people, or to any people at all.

The repeated refrain in the American songbook is the collapse of the way of life of those who thought they controlled the music. Custer had his last stand. The South lost the Civil War, and really isn’t rising again. MLK Jr. is more alive than his assassins, Trumpism is the last gasp of a dying breed. Today we seem to be in yet another war for the soul of our nation. No matter who emerges as the victor, I doubt it will be the last.

product management, destroyer of worlds

God I hate tech hyperbole. And I literally hate the use of “literally” to mean its opposite … but let me explain how bad technology product management can literally lead to the end of the world.

Donald Trump represents an existential threat to humanity. To put such a man at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation is like handing over the controls of a nuclear submarine to a petulant baby. That’s a poor simile only because it’s not an analogy but a nearly literal description.

What can I do about this? I’m just one person, one vote. Moreover, I’m in California, which will surely vote Clinton anyway, so my vote won’t sway the outcome. I could advocate, I could preach to everyone around me, but really most of the people in physical proximity to me already agree with me.

What about technology? I’m in the center of Silicon Valley, I know me some techmology, can’t I do something wizardly to extend the power of a single voice? Nope. I mean, I can write this little essay, and maybe my fifty readers will like it, but those fifty people and everyone they’ll share it with already agree with me.

But about twenty miles from here, there are a couple of dozen people who literally hold the fate of our political conversation in their hands. In fact, it’s been in their hands for quite some time now, and they’ve made decisions which, only in retrospect, appear to have been disastrous for our nation’s politics.

At Facebook, the News Feed is the main stream of information that people see when they use the service. It has become the single most important source of news and conversation for many if not most Americans. It is designed to show people information that they want, which largely means showing people what they already agree with, from people who they already are inclined to sympathize with.

At Google, the search results page answers billions of queries each day, from billions of people. The results are carefully shaped not just with regard to each query, but as much as possible conformed for the particular user, so that the user sees results they are more likely to want to click, which in essence means showing them information they already agree with.

I’m not the first to note that the creation of these echo chambers only serves to reinforce existing biases, and isolate people from diverse opinions that could broaden their horizons and enrich our society. I might be among the first to charge that the product managers who now lead Facebook News Feed and Google Search are failing at their jobs.

On its face that’s a ridiculous statement, as we are talking about two of the most successful products in history, literal world changers. And who could argue against the general strategy of conforming experience to user tastes? But there comes a time in the life cycle of even massively successful products, when the product has attained a use and effect that were never anticipated through all of the prior success. Product managers who do not grapple with what their products have become, in all dimensions, are not doing their jobs well.

News Feed and Search are unique in landscape of all products. These are no longer simply things that people use, and therefore need to be designed to be as pleasant and popular as possible. These products now form the infrastructure of political conversation, they have become the backbone of our polity, they are the means by which citizens of our nation engage with each other on the essential ideas of community. The success of these products must now be judged on how well they serve beneficial outcomes in our society, especially our politics.

There are plenty of people at Facebook and Google who are deeply invested in denying this responsibility, which is so self-evident to all of the rest of us mere users. They would like to say that their products are designed to be “neutral,” to simply follow algorithms that have no sense of society or humanity. They want to hide their power behind obfuscating explanations of math and probability.

Some of this may be a difference in perspective. Some of this may be benign short-sightedness. But some of it is moral cowardice. I hate to make such an inflammatory charge, but when you have the ability to shape a product in a way that would reduce the likelihood of a fascist from taking the reins of a country with the firepower to end life as we know it, and you deny that you have this power, I have a hard time calling this anything other than what it is.

Facebook and Google know that their products contribute to a stifled political conversation that only hardens lines of hate and allows well-meaning people to isolate themselves in their own safe spaces. Will they continue to build their products in a way that divides our society? Or will they take real moral responsibility for how their products shape our political conversation, and make their products a conduit for uncomfortable ideas that could improve our world? Will they break down the barriers between hardened positions, expose ignorance to truth, measure hatred and inject love? Or will they claim that these goals are too soft, and anyway achieving them is too hard?

When Philip Morris discovered that their product was killing their customers, they hid the evidence for as long as they could, and they denied the truth even after it was apparent to everyone else, all so they could squeeze out the last dollars from their death-dealing empire. When Coca-Cola realized that sugary drinks were contributing to unprecedented rates of obesity, they diversified their product lines to include healthy drinks as well as sugar bombs – not exactly admirable, but at least preparing for a shift where people who could watch out for themselves would continue to contribute to the company’s bottom line. At this point, I would be okay with lesser evils, but I would prefer to see moral courage. Product managers at Facebook News Feed and Google Search: Do Your Jobs.

black and blue

I began writing this in the morning of July 7, disheartened by the killing of Philando Castile, struggling to make sense of this ongoing slaughter of black lives. I have a lot of respect for law enforcement as well, and I wondered how we will rebalance the scales of justice to make a better world. I sat down to write that Black vs Blue is a literal tradeoff of lives, not just a one-sided injustice, and it will only get worse if both sides cannot explicitly acknowledge this. Then I paused my writing, checked the news, and saw that it’s already gotten worse. I won’t change anything I’ve written so far, and I’ll call out where I paused and restarted …

#BlackLivesMatter is the apotheosis of hashtags, arguably the mark of separation between the Internet as merely united information and the Internet as truly united culture. Uniting the world doesn’t happen with the ties that bind – those ties were always there, if we had the eyes and heart to see and feel them. Unity comes with a force implacable enough to sink us if we can’t acknowledge what’s been there all along.

In dusty eons past, the world’s knowledge was stored on fragile dried plant pulp, stacked up in schools, libraries, churches and palaces, separated by uncrossable oceans, vast and hostile distances. Fast-forward a few centuries and everything is instantly connected, world knowledge is united, human progress progresses in a coordinated manner that, if not moving in lockstep yet, fairly resembles loosely bound rafts strapped together on a common ocean. At the bleeding edge of the modern evolution of common knowledge, participants in the exchange of information must form a common culture, at least to the extent they are forced to deal with the vast gulf that yet remains between us all despite swimming in the same waters. #BlackLivesMatter is the iceberg that must be reckoned with, ignore it at the peril of having our boats wrecked by the rocky mass underwater. It is a call for the absorption of information at first, but more deeply it is a call to grapple with history, with the experiences of another, with the immediate reaction and grief, the defensiveness and guilt, the raw emotions of others all paddling in different directions to pull our own rafts out of the way of the iceberg, futilely ignoring the unbreakable ropes that bind us together.

… I am hoping that high-falutin’, fantastically florid introduction has gotten rid of the idiots, before I get to the point, if there is one. Because I’m not engaging with the #AllLivesMatter or #WhiteLivesMatter crowd. As entertaining as it can be to methodically unpack the ignorance, fear, guilt and willful blindness of those reactionary hashtags, they are nothing more than the impotent flags flown atop the largest rafts whose inhabitants see the iceberg and ignore it, not seeing that the ropes between the rafts are indeed unbreakable, and no hull or armor will protect their own raft from the sharp rocks beneath the water. #AllLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter are false flags to be ignored. #BlackLivesMatter is the iceberg.

But #BlueLivesMatter is not so easily dismissed, although its standard bearers can seem similar to the false flag brigade, in being across such a great divide of cultural understanding that the good instinct to dismiss false flags casts its shadow over this hashtag as well. And a call to value police lives seems absurd as we watch, over and over again, the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile … at this point the despair of listing so many names is swamped by the certainty that we need wait only weeks to add another to the list. The volume of clear police crime and misbehavior may lead one to believe that #BlueLivesMatter only defends individual and institutional racism, corruption, appalling training and criminal collusion.

Hashtags, like people, aren’t monolithic. Different people mean different things when they post, tweet, instashare, snapblog, or whatever we do to cry our digital tears in the electronic ether. But in the best interpretation of #BlueLivesMatter, it really does spring from a concern for life, and there are the utmost consequences for the lives that will be affected when #Black meets #Blue. For #BlackLivesMatter to be given its full due, #BlueLivesMatter will have to make the ultimate sacrifice in some instances.

The question here is how to share the burden of mistakes. On my best days, I can imagine a world without racism (or at least, without the level of racism that directly or indirectly leads to death), as idealistic and distant as that world may be. But I can’t imagine a world without mistakes, which are so fundamental to the human condition, and necessary to human progress, that we ought to fear a world without mistakes more than one with racism.

So in a world with mistakes, where we also have deadly weapons and criminals, unless we want criminals to be able to kill with impunity, we must have police or accept vigilantes. And if you have police in this world, some of them must be armed, and some of them will make mistakes. (I suppose we can imagine a world without deadly weapons, or one without criminals, but if all we do is imagine a world without problems, there isn’t much to discuss.) So the police will make mistakes involving deadly weapons, and someone will die as a result. Who should it be, an innocent suspect, or an innocent police officer or bystander?

#BlueLivesMatter says that the innocent suspect must die. This sounds horrible, but it isn’t hard to envision math that makes this seem rational. Say there are 1000 life-or-death suspect vs police confrontations per year. Say that 10% of those confrontations will end in a mistake, so we count up the number of lives at stake as something like:

  • 100 suspects
  • 300 police officers
  • 500 bystanders

Again, we are assuming that all of these actions will be a police mistake, but we’re not yet deciding where the burden of mistakes lies. Let’s say that the mistake in every instance is that the police show up and start shooting – they shoot all of the suspects (100), 10% of the bystanders (50), and 5% of the cops (15). That’s 165 dead, all of them innocent.

Now let’s say that instead, the mistake is that the cops never shoot. They’re unarmed, or even if they are armed, they never unholster. But again, this is a fatal mistake. In this type of mistake, the suspects are not innocent, so all of the cops and bystanders die. That’s 800 innocent dead.

Obviously, this is not the actual data – the point here isn’t to examine the data, but to question the concept. If #BlueLivesMatter is saying that they’d rather see innocent suspects die than innocent police and bystanders, that is not an argument that can be dismissed conceptually. It is at least worthy of discussion. An informed discussion would require actually examining the data. It is wrong to say that #BlueLivesMatter is a conceptually nonsensical response to #BlackLivesMatter, as we can say about #AllLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter. #BlueLivesMatter has conceptual integrity, but lacks data.

Coming out of the conceptual world and back to reality: much of the data that would be needed is never collected, and probably can’t be reliably collected. How exactly do you count lives saved? How exactly do you count mistakes made by police inaction? In addition, the sad reality is that many elements of police culture are devoted to hiding what little data we might have. And then the truly despairing reality is that in the vast majority of innocent suspects who are killed, the victim is black, and some of those killings are less properly characterized as mistakes than as manifestations of direct and institutional racism.

Nevertheless, conceptual integrity matters. #BlackLivesMatter demands that …

This is where I paused. Check news. Eleven officers shot, four confirmed dead. What the fuck was I doing in the conceptual world? What the fuck is happening in the real world? Where the fuck is all this heading?

#BlackLivesMatter demands that we reduce the slaughter of innocent black lives, without explicitly recognizing the treacherous mass of iceberg beneath the surface. In a somewhat more perfect world, one without racism but still with crime and guns and deadly mistakes, to reduce the killing of one set of innocents will increase the killing of another another set. We don’t know if the tradeoff is 1-for-1, 10-for-1, or 1-for-10; we’ve never seen the data and may not be able to get it. But if police officers are trained to be slower on the draw, to err on the side of caution, that means that they must be trained such that more police officers will die. Maybe it’s worth it. Maybe 1000 innocent black lives will be saved in return for 1 police officer’s death. But what do you say to that one police officer’s family?

It’s easy to object, “Well how about we just get rid of racism in the police force first, and then go from there? No one here is asking cops to die, dummy!”

Get rid of racism in the police force? Do you have a formula for that? How about we get rid of racism in the classroom, in the workplace, in the legislature, in the entire world while we’re at it? We don’t know how to do this within a group of kindergarten kids, how are we going to do this for the more than 1 million police officers in the United States? Why do police officers bear the responsibility for curing racism more than any other group, how can we ask them to sacrifice even one of their own?

This is not to say that we can do nothing. Of course we can. Of course there is better training, better hiring, better testing, better evaluation, better management. And when there is still racism, there can be better recognition, better correction, better enforcement and true and swift punishment. Nevertheless the package of all of those things is going to mean, in addition to less racism and sundry other benefits: more caution. Saving innocent black lives is about changing the balance of mistakes. It is about erring on the side of caution so that fewer innocent black lives are ended – and it therefore also means that some more innocent blue lives must end.

This is a mortal conflict. It is black lives against blue lives, there must be a tradeoff. I don’t know where the tradeoff is, and although we don’t have sufficient data, I feel we will need to act without all of the data in order to prevent greater carnage. Because if advocates, thought leaders, legislators, and well-meaning citizens on both sides don’t admit this is a mortal trade-off, and make the hard decisions to force those trade-offs, then the formula will continue to get worse. More lives will be lost on every side.

More innocent black men will die. In response, there will be more outrage. We no longer live in a world where this outrage can be suppressed by a combination of obfuscation, brutality and social pressure. It will only grow until there is outright war in the streets. And here is where we are now. Two innocent black men dead this week. Four innocent blue lives ended in Dallas today. This isn’t slowing down, it isn’t blowing over, it isn’t getting better.

That’s all I can manage right now, an uncharacteristically unedited dump of thoughts. #Black vs #Blue is an ever-growing river of red. 

trump card

Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States. And technology is to blame. If you disagree with either of those statements, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Why is Trump about to win the Republican nomination? Do you blame ignorance, stupidity, racism, sheer anger? Do you blame the cynicism and greed of the Republican party over the last 30 years? All of these answers are rooted in an ungenerous assumption about the many millions of voters who have voted for Trump and will continue to do so. You would be saying that these people are fools, ignoramuses, racists. I think that is wrong substantively, but I know for sure that is wrong for you as a person. Always choose to be generous and empathetic in your assumptions about people, so long as that serves you just as well as your lesser instincts toward mean-spirited judgment.

The generous and empathetic view here accepts that the political system of this country is incontrovertibly broken for the majority of people. And since this country is ostensibly a democracy, that majority is understandably willing to vote for the person that most loudly claims that they will revolutionize the existing system. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, taken together, represent the vast majority of this country’s voters.

Trump won his party’s nomination (and Bernie will not) because Trump received billions and billions of dollars worth of free advertising. In a democracy, getting the message out to the people is the fundamental lubricant of the polity, which is why for nearly all of our nation’s history, the media have been regarded as the Fourth Estate, an equal peer to our functioning government alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

But in the last twenty years, intensified in the last decade, the media have undergone a tremendous upheaval, all wrought by technology. And here is where we, all of us in technology, have been so proud of how we shaped the future, so unbearably, insufferably proud. We were proud to destroy Old Media, to disintermediate the gatekeepers, to revel in the creative destruction. Pride goeth before the fall.

What we didn’t realize, didn’t take seriously, is the real value of media as an institution in a properly functioning democracy, the Fourth Estate that keeps the others honest. We destroyed the gatekeepers without any foresight that we were replacing them with monsters much more insidious: the tyranny of the click, the plutocracy of the pageview, merciless metrics. Technology has become a dominant force in our culture over the last twenty years, and we as technologists were wholly unprepared for the responsibility.

If you think Hillary Clinton is going to win the general election, you have an optimism that is wholly unsupported by the slow-motion train wreck that has unfolded before our eyes these last few months. What could possibly support that optimism? Would you deny the obvious truth that this is a representative democracy, and that the majority of voters have stated their preference for overthrowing the current system? Hillary is a creature of the system, she cannot win over those voters.

The only hope is that the will of the majority will become disengaged from this election. They will not do so in the face of the billions and billions and more billions of free advertising that the media will continue to lavish upon Trump because they are no longer gatekeeping bastions of the Fourth Estate, but slaves to the clicks and advertising dollars that the technology revolution have left to them as the only form of viability that they have left. Believing that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency is like believing the New York Times is still The Paper of Record.

Bury your head in the sand if you must. I’m making plans for 2020.

dear prudence

When I joined Google in December 2010, my friends didn’t think I’d last six months. I’d been working in startups for over a decade, and my experience and predilections had given me an enormous appetite for chaos, joyful appreciation of uncertainty, and incorrigible disdain for authority. Joining the world’s largest Internet company didn’t seem like a long-term move.

I lasted five years. It’s still a bit of a wonder to me how I stayed so long, but the attractions are undeniable. Google is routinely ranked as the best place to work, and it’s all true: market-leading products, smart colleagues, admirable leaders, outstanding perks and outsized pay. The list of reasons to work at Google is long and enviable.

Usually “great culture” is on that list, but it’s not on mine because no culture is great for every person. Only insane zealots would seek to impose a monoculture on the world, and to claim there’s just one way to have a great workplace culture is similarly indefensible. If chaos makes you hungry, if uncertainty brings you joy, if authority makes you want to punch up – you probably don’t want to work in a culture of extremely refined processes, luxurious reaction times, and deference to position. None of these are bad qualities in the abstract; it’s not inherently disadvantageous to be wild or deliberate, only the context makes it so. The context can vary from company to company, and even within companies.

I was in the right context, even at Google, for the first couple of years. Then I spent three years learning valuable things that nevertheless weren’t skills I wanted to have. Despite all the benefits, I feared becoming dependent on the enormous generosity of the leviathan, reduced to a remora suctioned to a whale for so long that it forgets how to swim. Unfortunately, I’m constitutionally incapable of adopting the prudence required to enjoy stability and luxury. I don’t think I’m irrational, I just value the parts of my personality that strain against these bounds. Prudence is expensive, unbearably dear, when it comes at the cost of your hunger, your joy, even the double-edged sword of your pride.

So finally, I’m out of the longest and most comfortable work relationship I’ve ever had, finally a fish without a host in the ocean, flapping the atrophy out of my fins. The water is deep and wide, filled with fearsome predators and cold currents, and the friendly coves are as yet hidden to me, but still it feels like home.

dan the man

The last time I saw Dan Fredinburg, he was heads-down in a tray of food at the cafeteria. I tapped him on the back as I passed by and mumbled some routine hello. A reflexive “Hey we should catch up” caught in my throat when I saw his haggard stare and the robotic shoveling of food into his mouth. He wasn’t really there, and that was very unlike Dan, who was usually so present, so effervescent with pleasure at seeing people and connecting with them in the moment.

I thought I understood: he was about to leave on his second attempt to summit Everest. The first attempt had ended in the most lives lost in a climbing accident on the mountain, when sixteen sherpas died in an avalanche that befell a commercial expedition in April 2014. Dan was acutely aware of the difference in risks for sherpas and expedition customers, and I think he’d been haunted by his contribution to the burden carried by the men who had died trying to help him achieve a dream. I saw the difference in his training this time around, when I’d occasionally spot him in the gym – he moved the heavy weights with a serious sense of purpose, dedicated to raising himself to an even higher level of fitness, without the jokey repartee that we had shared during his training the previous year. This time the journey was about more than just getting to the top because it’s there, more than making the world’s highest StreetView.

Dan died in an avalanche on Everest last Saturday, triggered by the powerful earthquake that now has a death toll of over 4000 people. The cynical will ask why anyone should remark on just one death among these thousands, just the death of a rich, powerful, famous playboy.

Dan wasn’t rich in money. Of course anyone with a good job in Silicon Valley may have wealth in comparison to much of the less fortunate world, but Dan wasn’t a jackpot entrepreneur flaunting his success with expensive hobbies. Instead he was rich in spirit, a wealth far beyond the norm even though it’s accessible to all. He was rich in vision, seeing a way to make his job into his passion, pursuing personal enrichment that’s not about money at all.

Dan wasn’t powerful in the org chart. A talent like Dan could never be a mere cog in a giant machine, but he wasn’t an executive commanding thousands of peons to do his bidding. Instead he was powerful in his presence, in his sheer joy at living, in the force of his will to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

Dan wasn’t famous in the media. He happened to date an actress, but he never saw people as what they did for a living; he responded only to who they are inside. The memory of Dan will live like a star in all who knew him, surviving well beyond the transitory and dull illumination of the names and faces of the merely famous.

Pablo Neruda often told an anecdote about a hole in the fence of his childhood backyard. It was just a hole in a fence, a tiny view into the landscape beyond, until one day there suddenly appeared a boy’s hand. When he got closer to the fence the hand had disappeared, but in its place was a gift of a marvelous little toy, and this toy touched his heart so much that he left his own in return. The chance view, the momentary and partial encounter with another emerging spirit, the exchange of common but magical gifts – the great poet marks this as the beginning of his understanding that there is a bond between strangers that is greater in its way than the bond between intimates.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together… This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.

People say “I’m sorry for your loss” when they hear that someone you know has died. It was really something to know Dan, but I’m not among his closest friends, family and loved ones, so I cannot truly grieve as they do, I have not lost as they have. For me, Dan was a gift spotted through a small hole in the fence that separates us from each other as we wander through our own life paths. I came close enough to see the joy he made of life, and to understand that we are united by something deep and indestructible inside of all of us. I’m grateful for the gift, lucky to have it, and determined to give it to all who pass by and see that these fences are truly no barrier at all.