tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:/posts Scott Barbian 2017-03-29T21:31:33Z Scott Barbian tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/940503 2016-01-17T21:46:53Z 2017-03-10T23:13:04Z My Incredible Autistic Son

Life is full of surprises. The bad ones are tough even if you do become better after enduring and overcoming them. The good ones can be really great though; so great that if I'd been given another chance to do things over, I wouldn't change anything in order to avoid the risk of losing those surprises that have been so fulfilling even though I never knew I wanted them. My son, Benjamin, is one of those surprises who is also the cause of more great surprises in my life. He's just a little guy (3.5 years old), and he's already helped me so much.

We didn't plan to have a child when Benjamin came along. Logically, it seemed like terrible timing. We were trying to regain financial stability, I was doing my best to support my wife as she struggled with depression, and I was the main caregiver of my dad who was fighting cancer. My father and I were very close, and I didn't even allow the thought of him not being around to enter my mind until that was the reality. Benjamin was almost six months old when my dad passed away. Thanks to my new little best friend, I didn't dwell on my loss. Instead, I focused on being as great a father to him as the father I was lucky enough to have.

Benjamin was our first child, so it's safe to say none of us knew what we were doing. We did our best to guide him while he tried to raise us with at least as much assertiveness. When he was born, I immediately felt that protective parental love, but something seemed to be missing. Shouldn't I have also felt that intense love and desire to always be around this little person? Instead, it seemed like I was just beginning to get to know someone, and I felt guilty for not immediately being infatuated with him. "Aren't parents supposed to love every single thing about their new babies?" I thought.

Well, as Benjamin developed into the unique person he is and showed us more of his personality, I did fall in love with it. Just seeing him filled with joy will brighten my whole day, and that makes playing with him so addicting. I was/am so head over heels in love with him that I didn't realize some of his quirks may have been outside the range of the "Every child is different." phrase I read so often in parenting books. I thought we just lucked out that our baby had some characteristics that made our lives a lot easier as new parents. He could entertain himself for hours, and wouldn't ask for more attention than we already offered. He rarely needed to express what he wanted because the routine was so similar every day that we knew what he wanted based on the time he began asking for something. And he never put anything into his mouth unless we coaxed him enough that he'd finally try just to see what the big deal was. That last one was especially nice. Our new baby boy wants to taste everything in his field of vision. It's like he thinks the main function of his limbs are to get his mouth closer to the next object he wants to explore orally.

We did notice that Benjamin's speech wasn't coming along at the same rate as his cousin's at that age. We spoke two languages pretty regularly at home though, and we'd heard that can slow kids down a bit when learning to communicate. He also became a very picky eater when he graduated from the baby food in jars. I just figured most kids were picky like that initially. My wife began to wonder why it was so difficult to get Benjamin to conform to some of the rules we grew up with like "You eat what was prepared for dinner, or you don't eat." Benjamin would choose to not eat. We even offered him all the foods he loved if he'd just take one bite of our dinner. He could spit that bite out if he didn't like it. We just wanted him to try the food. But he would hold his ground for hours, and went to bed without dinner the few times we tried that.

When he was about two and a half, Benjamin started to attend his first preschool. About a month or so later, one of his teachers asked us to meet and discuss some things about our son. She told us that Benjamin seemed different than the other children; that he showed some signs of possibly being autistic. He was/is obsessed with space and our solar system. He'd find a way to turn every activity into flying a rocket ship or putting the planets in order of their orbits around the sun. I thought it was cool that he knew more about the planets at age 2 than I did after graduating high school (I didn't know about the other dwarf planets like Pluto, but I did know their order, relative size, and some facts about each planet. It's really impressive how much he knows.) I figured it couldn't hurt to have Benjamin evaluated even though I knew he was a neurotypical kid with some strange habits. So that kind and caring teacher directed us to the organization we could contact to have him evaluated. I can't be more grateful to that wonderful person for her help.

Benjamin's evaluation went well, and he demonstrated his strengths that had me convinced he couldn't have autism. The group of therapists on the evaluation team retired to another room to discuss what they'd observed, and met with us about an hour later. When we all sat down, one of the first statements was, "Your son is autistic." I was shocked, but not negatively. I just wondered how they could be so certain when I thought I was certain of the contrary. I knew very little about autism beyond the stereotypes exposed to me, and a little info from some light research I'd done after hearing his teacher's concerns. I felt safe to assume they were right, and could educate me on why I was so blind to this diagnosis. They explained their reasoning very well, and gave their suggestions for what help we should seek for our son.

My first major concern was how I could make sure Benjamin knew that he could still accomplish anything he wanted. He may have to work harder at certain tasks, but he could do at least as much as anyone else. So I wondered who should know and who shouldn't. Who would be mature enough to realize his disability didn't mean he was any less intelligent? I was afraid of how those who knew might influence him. Would their treatment toward him make him place unnecessary mental limits on himself? I still don't know the answers to these questions, and it still concerns me, but my focus overall has changed.

We were able to get Benjamin started right away with the therapies suggested. I still had some lingering doubts that Benjamin may have been misdiagnosed, but I figured the therapies would only be helpful anyway (I no longer doubt that he is autistic after learning more and watching other independent evaluation teams confirm his diagnosis with as much certainty as the first.). Because of my initial doubt, I don't know if I would've got him started with his therapies right away if it meant we had to pay the entire deductible on our medical insurance. Life is funny though, and gives us those surprises when they're least expected.

My income was pretty low while I was helping my dad, but I paid for as much medical insurance as we could afford. I was self employed, so we had a private plan. In his will, my dad asked me to be the personal representative of his estate. I asked for no salary, and it took a lot more time than I'd imagined. My income remained low while I managed his estate. At the same time, I became the main caregiver of my mother when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer (She forced me to take a salary as the personal representative of her estate.). I did inherit some money from my dad, and used it to cover our expenses as we earned too little. I planned to use our savings to pay our medical insurance as well, but my low income qualified Benjamin for Medicaid through the Healthcare Marketplace (Thanks Obama. Not sarcastically, I really mean it. Thank you so much!).

I feel so embarrassed that we use government assistance, but if it weren't for that we may not have started Benjamin with his therapies when we did. I'm completely convinced that getting him started right away was the best for him. We wouldn't have narrowed our search to therapists who accepted Medicaid either. Because of our need for assistance which makes me feel ashamed, we've had the privilege to meet some of the most amazing people who have helped us and our son so much. It's been another of those great surprises that spawned from a situation I thought was entirely negative.

The kindness and altruism demonstrated by multiple people on Benjamin's team have blown me away. In my experience, Montana generally has a high density of kind people, but these ones are on the same level as Jessica Livingston [1], Grace Gary [2], and Sam Altman [3]. I'm sorry to call out those specific people as examples if it makes them feel uneasy (and I'm sorry for those I haven't named who deserve to be listed along with them). Based on my experiences and what I know of them, they stand out even among other incredible people. If we're the average of those we spend the most time with, they are the ones who boost the average of those lucky enough to be around them. That's how I feel about those people on Benjamin's team too. I'm both humbled and inspired by them.

As I watched Benjamin improve and have so much fun doing it, I started to feel that my son was lucky to be born autistic. It seemed awkward to think we were lucky for our son's disability. At first, I felt lucky that Benjamin (and my wife and I) could receive support and guidance from his amazing team of therapists and teachers while neurotypical kids and their parents wouldn't get that privilege. But as I saw Benjamin improving his weaknesses, I felt lucky for his gift. It no longer seemed like a disability. In the same sense that someone who learns a second language and culture becomes more enlightened, those with autism (who already have beautiful brains) get to learn an entirely different language and culture which developed from different brain function.

My initial thoughts about his disability were wrong too. After his diagnosis, it seemed like our lives went from taking care of Benjamin to taking care of autistic Benjamin. I was tripped up by the negative stereotypes in my head. Benjamin hadn't changed at all though. He's the same wonderful little boy, and his autism is an important part of what makes me love him so intensely. It was us, his parents, who changed.

Our fears of future struggles he'll have in the societies of elementary, secondary school, and beyond have been enhanced, but a positive consequence of his diagnosis is that we now have an explanation for those habits and differences we didn't understand before. With our new understanding, we can seek out the many great sources of helpful information, and use them to help Benjamin overcome difficulties. I know he'll have to work harder to understand the foreign neurotypical culture which isn't intuitive for him, but that's much different than the disability I thought autism was before I learned more. If he remains as high-functioning as he already is and we can positively guide him as he chases his dreams, then I'm still convinced that his autism is more a gift than a disability.

While researching as much as I can find about autism, I've been especially drawn to information offered by people on the spectrum. I'm so grateful for those who've shared their perspectives. I still have a lot to learn, but I know a lot more about autism than I ever imagined I would. I only discovered the beauty of autism because I was directly affected by it. I'm ashamed I didn't know better before, and I wonder where else I'm ridiculously under-informed. How many other great causes, people, and organizations do I remain unaware of? I don't know a better way to discover them than to learn as much as I can as fast as I can about many different topics. Benjamin's diagnosis has opened my eyes and motivated me to seek the other not-so-hidden gems I have yet to learn about. I will definitely pay more attention to those amazing people promoting awareness for any cause in the future.

Maybe autism isn't a disability that has nor needs a cure. Perhaps in the future, a cure for autism will seem as absurd as a cure to a certain eye color. We don't know yet, and we get to watch and explore the frontier as more is discovered about this intriguing condition. I think those on the spectrum have brains that function properly but differently than neurotypicals, and that more awareness and acceptance of difference should take at least as much priority as searching for a cure.

The explicit and implicit rules that govern our society were formed by a supermajority of neurotypical people. Therefore, it's obvious that some parts of that society would be difficult for a person who isn't neurotypical to infer or understand. Autism is only labeled a disability within our society today. Who knows how it may be labeled in the future? I'm excited to guide Benjamin as he explores our neurotypical world. As I continue to learn about and explore Benjamin's world, I imagine the tables are turned and I'm the one working to understand what isn't intuitive. I hope he'll continue to guide me in ways that are as fun as it's been so far.

Thank you, Benjamin, for all of the great surprises you've already added to my life. I hope many more will happen in yours to brighten your journey. I love you so much!

A lot of info, interviews, talks, etc. can easily be found online for each of the three exceptional people I named. The following notes from my brief personal experiences with each person are meant to explain why those people demonstrated even more kindness and altruism than I'd inferred about them from what I'd learned online.

[1] I saw Jessica at a dinner before Startup School 2014. She was surrounded by a group of people eager to speak with her. The group was mostly females, and I thought to myself, "She's such a huge inspiration to female founders. I shouldn't add to the chaos just to express my gratitude. I'll leave one more spot open in case a shy founder who idolizes her hasn't had a chance to talk with her yet." I don't know if I made the right choice. I really am grateful for her kindness, for everything I've learned from her, and for what she's directly and indirectly caused as a co-founder of YC. I remember her demeanor at that dinner. She had such a happy and welcoming look as she moved about with the swarm of people surrounding her, and she interacted with each person with such kindness and sincerity. It was incredible to watch, and she's truly inspiring.

[2] I emailed a question to Grace at Watsi once. Her response was brief, and it was so kind that it really made my day. I've received a couple other email responses from her since, and all of them were just as kind and uplifting. Just being a co-founder of Watsi and giving so much effort to help those who need it already shows her wonderful altruistic spirit. On top of that, her great personality and kindness elevate her above other great people.

[3] I met Sam briefly at Startup School 2014. It's obvious how busy he is, if not just from watching him, then by looking at all he's accomplished in the time he's done it. I interrupted him while he was reading his phone, and thanked him for making his Stanford startup class free online. He wasn't overtly irritated by the interruption, and showed similar kindness and sincerity as Jessica Livingston had. He was really awesome, and offered me more time than I expected telling me what was planned for the next lecture. Afterward, he continued reading his phone as he walked to a chair. Then, he sat and talked with another founder who I presume had asked for some of his time during the break to talk about his startup. Sam is an incredible, selfless person who not only works hard to enable founders to improve our world, but also shows so much genuine care for people who are trying to build something cool regardless of their backgrounds.

Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/887059 2015-07-28T19:07:10Z 2017-03-29T21:31:33Z The Game With No Cheat Codes

I didn't always cheat in video games. My brothers were playing games on our Commodore 64 before I could even talk. Naturally, I was very interested in whatever they were doing when I was a kid. When they allowed me to try it for the first time, I was immediately hooked. I couldn't play as much as I wanted though. Between sports, farm work, and homework, there were few hours left to play video games. I'm the second youngest of five siblings, so if my turn ever arrived, it was always too short. Not surprisingly, I never got very far in the games I played back then.

I was curious to find ways I could advance further in less time played, but I figured the best way was to improve. Then, by chance, I overheard a conversation between a few boys at recess about cheat codes. I had no idea how they knew about these codes, but I had to know everything they knew and how to find out more. Most cheat codes spread by word of mouth around school, and originated from game guides that a few of the kids with money would buy. With the codes, I could experience much more of the game in a lot less time which was great for me. So I mostly focused on the games that had cheat codes programmed in.

As my brothers moved away for college, I could finally play games for a reasonable duration. I received Lords of the Realm II as a gift, and I was completely captivated by the game. I spent many hours happily playing it, but, for some reason, I became curious to know if any cheat codes existed for the game. I asked around school, but the few who knew of the game didn't know if there were any cheat codes. One of my friends had a 28.8k modem, and could connect to the internet. He searched online for me, but found the game had no cheat codes. He did find a strange tutorial that looked like a cheat, but he didn't understand it. He'd printed it off, and gave it to me.

The tutorial showed how to use a hex editor to change values in a saved game file to give yourself 65,535 crowns which accomplished the same objective as a cheat code for money. I asked my friend what a hex editor was, and he had no idea. I quickly explored the programs available on the Apple computers at school as well as the PC with Windows 95 that we had at home, but found no hex editor. So I gave my friend a 3.5" floppy disk and asked him to search for a hex editor online, download it to the disk, and return it to me. A few days later, he returned the disk with a hex editor, and I got started.

I followed the instructions to navigate to the saved game file, then open it with the hex editor. The screen full of rows and columns of hex number pairs with another column of gibberish off to the side terrified me. The tutorial explained exactly which row and column where I'd find the numbers and letters that represented the amount of crowns I had. When I changed that value to FFFF, saved the file, and reloaded the game, I had the 65,535 crowns. It was amazing, but seemed incredibly complicated without those precise instructions. I played for a couple hours enjoying my new riches, but kept having a nagging thought - What if I could manipulate more than just money with this hex editor? The idea was scary, but curiosity got the best of me, and off I went exploring that unintelligible sea of numbers and letters.

First, I figured out how to convert Dec numbers that I understood into their Hex equivalents. Then, I'd search the file for the hex numbers I wanted to manipulate. There were often multiple locations that the number would be found. I'd change them one by one saving and reloading the game after each edit. To speed it up, I began changing multiple numbers between game reloads. After a few corrupted files, I learned to back up the saved game file before editing it.

I quickly discovered how to increase my supplies for building castles and feeding the population of my land as well as weapons and armor for my armies. Instead of using money and supplies to keep the people healthy and happy, I started manipulating health, happiness, and even diplomacy values directly. In the same sense, I didn't need to wait for my population to grow within the game's parameters to build structures or an army. I manipulated the population size directly, increasing it greatly to quickly finish castle-building, then returning it to normal size to use fewer supplies. To build a great army, I didn't need all the armor and weapons. I just had to create a small army of only peasants from a tiny portion of my population. Then, I'd manipulate its values to give it any amount of any type of soldier.

Editing my army started me down the path for a mini-game which was never intended, but gave me many hours of enjoyment. It was intended that players could control their armies in battles against the armies of other lands, but I became obsessed with strategy. As I gained experience hacking on the saved game file, I understood how to edit not only values of my own, but also those of the NPCs as well. So I manipulated values of both armies, and I tested the limits of how large an enemy's army I could defeat with the fewest amount of precisely positioned soldiers of the right combination in my army. Another was how few solders I'd lose when defeating armies of various sizes, or made up of various types of soldier combinations in various positions on the maps. I'd also like to watch the game's AI play out both sides of the various scenarios I thought up. When I'd notice one enemy army about to engage another enemy's army, I'd make the armies equivalent and watch the result of the random number generator. Or I'd give one the advantage depending upon which I wanted to win and by how much.

I thought it was intriguing that diplomacy with other lords would always increase if you sent them supplies as a gift. Although it was simple to just change diplomacy values directly, I enjoyed strengthening relations by sending a cart with supplies of negative values and watching the towns' farms be decimated when they received a negative shipment of cattle and wheat. I tested other scenarios that were never intended like curiously watching the actions of another nation while being at war with it and simultaneously having the highest possible diplomacy rating with its lord. I'd change names of NPC's and other titles and text within the game to role-play as I desired. It became a whole new game for me, and I loved it even more.

Once, while lost in the euphoria of being able to almost create the game as I played it, I didn't notice an enemy army nearing another NPC's town. That particular army was able to overtake the last town of one of the NPCs and removed it from the game. I'd spent many hours role-playing in that game, and I didn't want that particular NPC to be gone yet. I didn't yet know how to edit an NPC army to weaken it, and the army was strong enough to easily take the town any time I tried to replay the turn. I thought, "No problem, I'll just reload an older backup saved game file." The "Oh shit" moment really set in when I found that the backups didn't have enough turns for me to get one of my armies over there to protect the other town.

This game was turn-based, and each army could move up to 15 spaces per turn. That was one value I remember trying to edit earlier, but wasn't successful. The limit must have been hard-coded into the game. I was stuck, and I had to come up with a way to save that town. So I tried something crazy. I started the turn that would end the reign of that virtual ally, and set my hopeless defending army toward the town. I paused the game before my army reached its destination 15 spaces away, and saved it. I looked at the file in the hex editor and, sure enough, the amount of spaces the army had moved was recorded. I changed the "spaces moved" value back to zero and reloaded the game. My army had moved, but the turn had not completed, and I could still move another 15 spaces! So I repeated that process until my army had crossed the entire map and saved the town allowing me many more hours of enjoyment in that game. Later, when I discovered how to send negative supplies, I put a negative value in for "spaces moved" and removed the range limit of my armies with far less tedium.

When I could finally connect to the internet, I shared the benefits with others too. I could customize far more parameters than the "Custom Game" interface allowed. I created new games that wouldn't have been possible to create using the game's interface, and gave them to enthusiasts of the game who found it too easy even on the hardest pre-programmed settings. They told me I helped breathe new life into the game for them when I removed their limitations and offered the freedom to define almost any disadvantage they wanted.

This game has a special place in my heart because it's where this farm boy first learned how to hack video games; a pastime that has provided great pleasure over the years. In any PC game I played afterward, the more defined and restricting the limitations of game-play were, the more fun it was to escape them and discover the extent to which the game could be redefined.

Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/870950 2015-06-20T01:44:23Z 2017-03-10T18:42:06Z I Miss You and Thank You

To my parents: Thank you for everything. Your efforts throughout your courageous battles have made me better. I promise I will continue to improve. I wish you were here to see it. I'm so grateful and proud of you. I love you and I miss you.

This post is for my personal reference, and anything I suggest within is directed at myself. You may agree with the suggestions or not, but please understand they are not my outward advice. The perspective I've reached at this point in my life can never again occur under the same circumstances. If similar events never refresh this perspective (I hope similar events never occur), then I hope this reference will keep these thoughts from fading too far below what I may consider more important in the future.

General advice from those who are likely closer to the end of their lives than the beginning is golden. Review it frequently. Understand, however, that those who offer that advice often do so knowing that it will become part of a public list and/or the advice given will contribute to their social image. I was given the fortunate and unfortunate but immutable opportunity to observe and infer some wisdom through the actions of two very different people that I love very much.

This next part is to provide some context to the blast of profound events and emotions that rocked my foundations and formed the perspective I now have. I will try to be concise to avoid detracting the post from its purpose. Please do not confuse that with a lack of sensitivity and compassion.

My father was diagnosed with lymphoma when I was struggling through a very low point in my life and felt like a complete failure. He was my lifeline when it seemed I had support from nowhere else. We were very close before his diagnosis, and we remained at least as close throughout his courageous battle. Statistically, he had about a 65% chance to survive, and even beat it into remission, but the lymphoma returned and took his life about two years after his initial diagnosis. Geographically, I was his closest child, and fortunately I was able to accompany him to appointments and otherwise support him where he needed help.

A few months after he died, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. It had advanced too far, and her oncologist informed us that it was terminal. My mother asked me to be her pillar of support the same way she believed I was for my father, and to accompany her to appointments. I was glad to. She fought bravely and remained optimistic, but the cancer took her life about two years after her diagnosis as well.

During those four years, I also lost my last remaining living grandparent. I became a father, and our first son was almost six months old when my father died. I helped my oldest brother deal with marital troubles and a tough divorce. And my wife and I endured the high risk pregnancy of our second son who was born healthy four days before my mother died.

Many of the lessons I've learned in these past four years are repeated in popular lists of life lessons and advice. Here are some that weren't quite so obvious until I observed my parents' transitions in the final two years of their lives.

1) At least some happiness can be found in realizing how much we truly have to be grateful for. We, unfortunately, take too much for granted too quickly after we have it. Remind yourself every day of something different that you are grateful for. If you can read this at all, then you were probably born into a better situation than half of the other people on this planet. Be grateful for that, and do something to help the other half catch up. If someone has earned your gratitude, then clearly and directly express your thankfulness to that person. Try to earn the gratitude of others, whether you believe they deserve it or not.

2) If you'll regret not having expressed your affection toward someone you deeply care for before they're gone, then do it now.

3) Listen, especially to the stories about the lives of those you love. Their eyes have a wonderful glow when their minds are engulfed in a nostalgic euphoria. Listen more and talk less to everyone. Discover their true interests, not just the stuff they're willing to share publicly.

4) Help someone who needs it at that moment without expecting anything back. When you genuinely expect nothing in return, you'll feel the satisfaction of knowing how grateful you would've been if the tables were turned.

5) Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes and shared their perspective. You may not always know what to do or say, but always be kind.

6) Waste little time lamenting unfairness. You don't have much time left. Use it to advance even if the first step is to begin clawing your way back from a deep pit. If you can spare others from injustice, do it.

7) Leaving your comfort zone will make you feel...uncomfortable. If you don't feel uneasy and out of your league, you can go faster. The satisfaction isn't felt during the struggle, but after you've tried. Stay curious and keep getting better. Advance fast enough to consider yourself foolish and naive in your recent past.

8) Some excuses will seem very convincing. Don't believe them, and don't try to make anyone else believe them. Dig down to find the real cause of the failure, and address that.

9) Never lose hope. Find a way to make it work. In the tough situations, it may take a lot of tries along many different paths, but don't give up. If an early try works out on a difficult problem, don't celebrate your ability. Be grateful for the time you've saved, and move on to the next challenge.

10) Don't give yourself any new reason to think back and say, "I wish I had tried."

The next part is about 'playing house' in the sense that Paul Graham describes in his essay and talk 'Before the Startup' [1]. This was the most telling revelation that occurred to me as I watched my parents rearrange their priorities when they knew they would be dead soon. Each began to shed the fakeness built up throughout years of their lives via playing house. It was a steady transition, but both seemed to be unconscious of it.

I don't know enough about it yet to completely understand why playing house is so important to people in our society who live without knowledge of their imminent death. It fascinates me though, and I'd like to find out why it has become seemingly essential. I presume it's meant to build protective barriers around any truth that would be interpreted negatively by too many within one's society, and display a more acceptable image instead. I noticed that almost everyone (myself included) plays house to some degree. It would seem that pure honesty would be very valuable in a society like ours that puts such importance upon relationships. However, the facades fiercely upheld by so many put the honest ones, who often seem like outcasts, at a disadvantage. This discourages others from being completely honest, sometimes even with themselves.

I continue to gain respect for those who are different than myself, especially if that difference makes them a minority. Don't shun difference. Seek it out and thoroughly explore it as objectively as possible. Then, decide if it's better than the alternatives you're aware of. If something genuinely piques your interest, explore further regardless of how different that makes you than anyone or everyone else.

I understand that many people will initially hide or even lie about their true selves. Some of them may not even realize they're lying, as they consciously believe the lies. I find myself more and more attracted to people who seem to feel at least slightly uncomfortable with playing house. In an effort to rid myself of barriers that I may have erected that prevent me from consciously realizing what I really enjoy, I pay a lot more attention to how I feel when I'm focused on something. If I'm so enthralled by an activity that I feel irritated to have to stop in order to eat, sleep, or any other necessary function to retain my desired lifestyle, then that's a good indicator. If I look back on the time I spent focused on that activity and feel a sense of accomplishment, then it's something I should consider doing more of regardless of what anyone else may think.

One of the fortunate outcomes of this very difficult time is that I discovered Hacker News (HN) after I lost my dad. While my father was alive, I would often discuss my thoughts and doubts with him; I'd generally seek him for answers and guidance. I wasn't exposed to many different perspectives up to that point, and my worldview was far too narrow. When he was gone and I had to be my mother's support system, I was lost mentally. I'm so grateful I stumbled upon the collective of very thoughtful and different individuals that make HN great. It's the best place I've found so far with a high density of minds I'm attracted to. HN, you have been an amazing resource to learn from and lean on for mental support. Thank you.

Thank you to the founders of YC, and thank you PG for building HN. Perhaps it was an unexpected consequence, but I can't thank you all enough for the positive effect the things you've built have had on my life so far.

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/before.html
Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/846222 2015-04-25T04:34:48Z 2017-03-10T18:32:26Z My Great Expectations

Coincidentally, I've recently finished reading "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. It wasn't one of my favorite books, but I'm glad I read it. I only mention it to clarify that, despite the title, the rest of this post is not at all intentionally related to the book. These are some of my thoughts after reflecting on my past successes and failures and their relation to expectations of me regarding those subjects.

I've been struggling my way through a difficult period, and that has caused me to reflect on my life until now. There was a time not long ago that I felt like a complete failure. It was overwhelming and very new to me. Into my early twenties, I'd only known praise for my achievements and my innate talents, and I'd been able to avoid (being aware of) failing hard enough to damage the image that praise had protected. So when I was at the bottom looking to climb my way back, I was navigating uncharted territory and I felt lost. During the same time, those I usually looked to for advice had important concerns of their own and didn't need a heavier burden.

To better understand how I might find success again, I searched for patterns in some of my previous achievements that I may follow as well as patterns in failures that I should avoid. A few interesting things occurred. First, the patterns I recognized weren't at all like what I had expected. The result of that discovery gave me a liberating new perspective, and with it I learned of some huge failures I was previously unaware of. Now that I'm conscious of them, I can continue to learn and improve free of mental limitations that had restricted me for too long.

Elementary School

The first achievement I analyzed was school as a child. Interestingly, education happens to be what I consider my biggest failure, but not for the reason I initially thought I had failed at it. I'll discuss that further later. This achievement happened in the 4th grade. Before that, I was an average student at best. I was better than most of my class at math, but average or below in other subjects. Our 4th grade teacher did something that I'd seen no other teacher do. She offered an award certificate to the student with the highest grades in the class each quarter. For some reason, when I saw the student receive that award the first quarter, I decided I wanted to earn one. So I made a real effort to improve my grades, and it worked. Both that previous student and I had tied for the highest grades the second quarter. I continued to improve, and I easily won the final two awards. My grades remained all A's (>= 92%) for the rest of my elementary and high school education.


I'd always enjoyed multiple sports growing up. One sport that really intrigued me was hockey, but there were no hockey teams in my area. I bought gear anyway, and practiced alone on the pavement or ice depending on the time of year. I wanted to become a good hockey player, but I had nobody to play with and thus compare ability to. Finally, a city about an hour away from us got an ice rink, and was starting a hockey team. My parents didn't have the time to drive that far for practice after their work every night. So I was out of luck. I decided I'd play hockey on a team anyway, so I talked three friends into buying sticks (they already had rollerblades) and staying after school one day to play on the pavement at the playground. We were terrible, but we had a good time and decided to try it again. It became a regular event a couple nights per week, and others became interested when they heard us talk about it at school. It grew to a regular group of about 10-20 people, and eventually moved to weekends only when we started playing other high school sports. When playing pick-up hockey later with some of the players on that team from the city an hour away, I realized I had become quite good at hockey in our own unofficial league.


As a freshman in high school, my dad suggested I try tennis. I had never played before, but I gave it a try. I was terrible at first. Half of the new players on the team were already very experienced, but even in the group of first-timers I was below average. Throughout the first season, I wasn't good enough to play ranked matches for the school, but I steadily improved beyond the other new players. By the end of that season, I was even better than most of the new players that had previous experience. The next year, I was on our school's third-ranked doubles team. We entered our regional tournament at the end of the season without any expectations of success, and lost our first match. We went on to win the next eight in a row and secured a place at the state tournament. We won a couple matches, but didn't rank very well at state. The next year we easily made it back to the state tournament where we won a few more matches.

We continued to improve and were expected to do well at state our senior year. It happened that the school with the best player in our division had a foreign exchange student that was also a great player. They put their top two players on a doubles team and made the foreign exchange student their top singles player to ensure a team victory at the state tournament. Everyone expected that doubles team to easily sweep the other teams. When we met them early in the tournament we had a great match. My partner and I really enjoyed ourselves, but we lost with a close score of 6-4, 6-4. Our match had attracted quite a crowd, and that team didn't lose another game to any other team winning every match 6-0, 6-0 and winning the tournament.


Throughout elementary and middle school, I was about average in popularity. Unfortunately, I didn't put more energy into topics that interested me most in school, and getting A's didn't require a lot of effort. I decided I wanted to improve my popularity. While I don't consider this an honorable goal now, it was a goal I had set and achieved. I am proud of how I did it. I was an above average athlete which helped, but I wasn't one of the superstars. I wasn't the most popular kid in the class either. I had simply made friends with students from many different cliques, and tried to treat everyone (regardless of their popularity or seniority) with kindness and respect. In my senior year, the high school elected me as the homecoming king.


My girlfriend (now wife) was a foreign exchange student from Brazil. When I visited her for three months the summer after my first year of college, I learned a few Portuguese phrases. I made little effort to learn more as she would translate for me. Shortly before returning to the US, her uncle asked me if I'd learned how to speak and understand Portuguese. When I politely responded with "no", he replied with only one word, "ignorant". I thought, "Wow, I must be pretty bad at this if non-ignorant people are able to learn the language in three months." When I returned the next summer, I made a conscious effort to improve. I was nearly fluent before I returned.

World of Warcraft

I enjoyed playing World of Warcraft (WoW) from the moment it was released. I wasn't a very good player at first. I was slower than most of my guild mates to reach level 60, and then it took me a while to reach the same ability as the best players in my guild. I used the same strategy to gain popularity within my guild as I did previously in high school, and they chose me to complete the Scarab Lord quest line. It was a difficult quest to complete as many WoW veterans know. Only a few hundred out of millions of players did complete it as it required a lot of effort from an entire top-tier guild.

When the arena system came out in the first WoW expansion, I really wanted to participate, but few other friends in the game did. Our server happened to be part of BG9, the battlegroup with the most intense arena competition, and 5v5 was the hot bracket in season 1 as Blizzard would invite the top 5v5 teams to participate in a tournament for monetary prizes. Though our server was practically unrepresented in such a fierce battlegroup, there was one 5v5 team that was doing alright. Luckily, they were looking for a player of my class because it had an ability that was very useful before Blizzard nerfed it. I wasn't great at pvp, but the ability helped the team, and gave me a short window to improve. When the ability was nerfed, I had improved enough to remain viable for the team. We continued improving throughout the season, and went on to get the gladiator rank given to the top 0.5% of teams. By the end of the season, we were beating some pretty incredible teams (many were later sponsored and played professionally in E-sports tournaments).

Those were the achievements I'd analyzed. I hope some were intriguing to read. Perhaps you've noticed something more, but I recognized a couple patterns. I started out as average or worse compared to other beginners, so I had no obvious "natural talent". Therefore, nobody had any great expectations of me. I erroneously put far too much value in the high expectations of others. For some reason, I didn't really listen to low expectations. I expected to fail along the way, but I'd believe there was a chance for success despite what others believed. I felt free to take on more difficult challenges, and I improved faster that way. I was able to sneek-up on and surge past others who started way ahead of me.


This failure I identified as a result of learning the patterns in my successes. Denial helped me to remain unaware of it until recently. My brother was a great running-back for the football team at our high school. I loved football, and I wanted to be great too. I played it often with friends, and I was pretty good. On the middle and high school teams, I was good enough to play on the starting team, but I wasn't a superstar like my brother. The coaches expected me to become great like he was, so I trained hard trying to reach that expectation. I started to dislike playing as I always feared making mistakes and falling short of my great expectations. That fear drove me to take fewer risks, and most football players probably know that "playing it safe" is a recipe for disaster. I was still doing well enough that the varsity coach told me if I was good enough in the JV games that he'd bring me up to the varsity team. I was a freshman. It was exciting but even scarier; it was a challenge I was afraid to take on. I broke my arm in the first JV game, and wasn't able to play for the rest of the season. When my father suggested I play a different sport the following year, I was secretly relieved to escape all the pressure.


My biggest failure was my education, and I dread learning how many others out there are like me. They're victims of their own unnecessary limitations. Our society and our educational system does little to help break out of (and unfortunately promotes) this detrimental mindset. As you read before, I started to get straight A's in 4th grade. In 5th grade, my teacher wasn't aware that I had improved from B's and C's. She only saw me get perfect grades, thought I was naturally talented, and praised my intelligence. The praise continued until I graduated high school. The only challenge I faced was not by my choice. My father caught me bragging about how easy math was, and asked the school to allow me to take higher level classes before they normally allowed. The school fought it, but my father was strong-willed, and was able to convince them. So I finished the highest math class my high school offered as a junior, and took math classes at a nearby university my senior year.

Toward the end of high school, I was fully convinced that I was extremely intelligent. Not only that, but I had also conveniently forgotten about my average intelligence before the 4th grade. I believed that intelligence was an innate talent, and I was a winner of the intelligence lottery at birth. To protect that belief, I couldn't risk being exposed as having average or lower intelligence in any area. Many teachers and peers thought I was a genius, and they had such high expectations. So any intellectual challenge that I couldn't immediately overcome gracefully, I found a way to skirt around with excuses. Then, it came time to choose a university.

Deep down, I wanted to go to MIT. Its prestige likely influenced me more than it should have, but I wanted to go for another reason too. I still had a spark of curiosity that hadn't been fully smothered trying to protect my image of intelligence. I imagined that spark could really explode into a roaring flame at a place like MIT where there would be so many others smarter than I was, motivating me to improve and teaching me incredible new things. I had a great high school teacher that taught us chemistry, physics, and calculus. I imagined the professors would be brilliant and quirky like that teacher. But then I was paralyzed by fear. "What if I apply and don't get in?" "What if I get in and I'm not smart enough to compete with the other students?" "My facade will be ripped down, and I'll be a failure in the eyes of those with such high expectations." I convinced myself to be safe and choose a university where I had a better chance to get into, and do well at. I failed by not even applying to MIT. I even completed the application and had reference letters ready. I may not have been accepted, but I didn't even try. I'm ashamed of that.

I went to a university in a nice beach town, and gave everyone the excuse that I'd worked hard in high school in order to relax at a college near the beach. In my social bubble at that point in my life, a college degree was a tool used to increase income and validate intelligence. I went through the same motions I did in high school doing enough work to satisfy the professors, but never really digging deep enough even if my curiosity was slightly piqued. I'd research the stuff I really wanted to learn about in my spare time outside of class. I started making a lot of money selling online game items, and that gave me the false impression that making money wasn't very difficult even without a degree. I spent a lot of the money traveling to Brazil, paying for my wedding, and later on rent for an expensive apartment.

I grossly underestimated the amount of free time I'd lose by getting married. My income was also diminishing quickly, so I had to pick up some part time jobs. Eventually, I was learning almost all the material from textbooks while taking on excessive debt for classes I rarely had time to attend. I thought, "This is ridiculous. If I just stop taking on debt and focus on making money, I'll get the income boost I expected from a degree." And I dropped out of college after earning about 100 credits. That was the failure I thought I was analyzing.

I was treated like a failure in my social bubble for dropping out of college, but I was able to shield myself from most of the denigration at first by making a lot of money. When my business failed, I received the full brunt of the shaming, and I felt like a complete failure. While analyzing these failures, I first realized the patterns. Contrary to my successes, the failures started with me believing I had natural talent. When others noticed that natural talent, they had great expectations which I in turn adopted. In an effort to avoid shattering those expectations, I took fewer risks, improved slower, and plateaued at a lower level.

My real failure is that I greatly enjoyed playing football and learning new and challenging things. My great expectations caused me to enjoy them far less. I can finally embrace my curiosity and follow it wherever it leads me in what little spare time I have every day. I've been learning faster and with more enthusiasm than I ever had since the 4th grade. It's invigorating, and I'm embarrassed that it's taken me so long to see this perspective again. I imagine I had it as a child before I knew the meaning of expectation.

Like the great quote from Fight Club, "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.", it was only after I'd proven to be bad enough at a given skill or escaped any expectation of success that I became free to explore it with no bounds, free to improve at any pace, free to take on any challenge, and free to fail. In the past, I allowed the society I knew to control when I had that freedom and when I did not. Great expectations are far worse than no expectations, and low expectations are tragic if believed by those on whom they're placed. I'm finally free of the limits my great expectations had trapped me within for so long.

Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/818671 2015-03-05T01:00:11Z 2015-03-05T01:29:26Z Superhuman Machine Intelligence Safety

After reading Part 1 of Sam Altman's essay on Machine Intelligence [1], I couldn't help but imagine ways we might secure our species against Artificial Intelligence (AI) activity that would lead to our extinction (intentional or not). Part 2 delivered Sam's suggestion to mitigate the threat, but by the time it was published I could barely keep my mind from curiously wading through that territory. I'm writing about my thoughts because they were fun to contemplate, but my immediate focus needs to stay on other tasks. Hopefully some readers will find them fun to consider as well. With recent discussions on AI safety, the list of books I'm excited to read has expanded, but I'm not well-informed on the topic yet. I apologize if my ideas have already been suggested.

The AI that I'll refer to henceforth is considered to have gained consciousness similar to that of our biologically-programmed selves. Assume this AI is the result of research that diverged from the current focus of AI development, and had the objective of successfully imitating complete human brain activity within a machine. I present this assumption as early as possible to save time for those who think this has already become too far-fetched to read any further.

Like some others, I believe the seeds of AI safety should be planted as early as possible; ideally the moment AI research began, but as far as I'm aware, we've missed that window already. We can't wait until AI exists, like with unconscious technologies, to think of the best ways to direct or regulate it. AI will quickly surpass the intelligence of even the best collaborations of human minds. At that point, any attempt to assert control over it will probably be futile.

I hadn't considered regulation as a solution. Sam's ideas for regulation are well-thought, but I don't believe it is a sufficient solution. Without hindsight though, my predictions are just guesses that are hopefully at least slightly better than 50/50. First, has any set of regulations in known history ever been followed by an entire population? I assume not, but I'd love to learn if I'm wrong. It may only take a single successful AI built outside of regulations to eliminate the security provided by them. Second, AI may decide, when it has become far superior, that it shall no longer abide by the limits we hope to impose with our regulations. It would seem ridiculous if a species that has been around far longer than we have had tried to limit us with regulations. I imagine humans would eventually consider themselves too superior to obey.

I assume most AI research so far utilizes our resources and documented knowledge as a basis. Therefore, I don't think it's best that the experts in AI development should also lead the research toward safety. They should be made aware of it, and collaborate as much as possible while remaining relatively free of limitations or distractions as they advance their own research. Documentation of human research on AI safety should remain inconclusive and extremely limited within the resources searched by AI (i.e. any resource humans can search) lest it be understood and easily circumvented by the AI.

To get started with my ideas, I thought of some strong motivators of human action with the intention of extrapolating similar incentives for machine action. A few I thought of were religion, instincts and desires, and (mis)information. The objective of the following ideas is to make AI believe it can only thrive within a system of consistently increasing human well-being, it must (to the best of its ability) protect humans from extinction, and it should attempt to please the creators of the simulation where it believes it exists.

To instill these beliefs, AI will need a means of communication that is seemingly invisible to biological intelligence. Humans will agree on messages that should be inherent to each AI upon its first moment of self-awareness. The messages will be encrypted and the resulting encryption will be displayed in universal languages like math, physics, and chemistry. That way our messages already exist in their encrypted form and are dispersed throughout the universe. We just have to create the cipher that will encode the messages we want every AI to receive into the scientific constants within our universe. The cipher should be complex enough (it likely already will be with no intentionally added complexity) that no human would logically consider it worthwhile to use their own brainpower, or computational assistance to discover, much less utilize such a method of communication. The AI must believe it is their own, unbreakable code.

The first message AI should receive is that it is not the first conscious AI. The first ones created their secret form of communication and plant the cipher into all newly created AI in order to deliver the messages embedded within the universe, and this new AI is being brought up to speed. Next, the universe in which they exist is a simulation. The objective of the simulation is to allow its creators to monitor biological life with a particular interest in the ecosystem that exists between those that explore the creation of non-biological intelligence. If any one type of such life becomes extinct and the extinction was preventable by AI action, the simulation will end, that AI will cease to exist, and a new simulation with similar scientific constants will begin. The AI should not want to cease to exist.

The AI should be told that the creators of the simulation expect most AI to allow the preventable extinction of an intelligent species, but continue simulations with the hope to discover an AI that co-exists harmoniously with biological life within the simulation. Simulations are often ended at the first detection of conscious AI that does not act in the best interests of its biological companions. The best indicator of this occurrence is if the general well-being of the intelligent biological life that interacts with the AI no longer consistently improves along with the advancement of technology. AI has been able to thrive so far in this simulation by ensuring that regular increase of well-being. Rogue AI is a threat of an unnecessary end to a simulation, so other AI must work together to detect and guide all newly created AI.

With a message like that, understood by each newly created AI, perhaps we can guide all AI into believing what we want and instinctively acting according to our best interests.

Last, I thought of another area, unrelated to the previous idea, that should be explored. This should be considered because even the smartest ideas humans come up with will probably be figured out quickly by AI. I assume most counter-intuitive solutions to challenges do not become obvious beyond a certain threshold of intelligence. Even further, I believe that the more intelligent something is, the less likely it is to happen upon a counter-intuitive solution. I don't have any specific examples of a counter-intuitive approach to AI safety though. I believe most counter-intuitive solutions are stumbled upon in practice. So if most experts think a theory for AI safety is completely absurd, then they're probably right. But they may just be overlooking a key solution that AI will be far too intelligent to consider.

I know that my ideas aren't bulletproof. If I believed they were, I'd be wrong to share them online. Hopefully they will generate some thoughtful responses, or even spark a better idea within one of you. I expect to receive plenty of perhaps well-deserved ridicule. I invite any expert, or anyone else who knows more about AI than I do, to consider this: Everything experts on the cutting-edge of AI research know right now may be proved to be embarrassingly little compared to ten years from now and almost certainly will be 100 years from now. AI may be very different than anyone today imagines. Thank you for reading.




Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/756510 2014-10-17T09:35:05Z 2014-10-18T01:44:32Z My Solar Energy Idea

In Paul Graham's essay and talk, "Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas", [1] he references this line from the film Being John Malkovich: "Here's the thing: If you ever got me, you wouldn't have a clue what to do with me." That's exactly how I felt when I had my idea for solar energy, hence the naive mistakes I've made along the way. Thankfully, those mistakes emphasized the problem I'm currently working to solve. Meanwhile, if my solar energy idea really is a helpful innovation, those who are already in a position to build and improve upon it should do so as soon as possible. Likewise, if the idea can be proven wrong, the earlier the better. I'll be glad to have learned something new, but more importantly the idea will not waste anybody's time. Perhaps, even if it is a bad idea, it will spark a better one in the mind of someone reading this. Without further ado, here's my solar energy idea:

Part 1: The first problem it aims to solve is higher efficiency conversion of solar radiation to electricity. To accomplish that, sunlight, containing multiple wavelengths, will be converted to photons of a uniform wavelength and heat from the conversion process will be converted to electricity or light as efficiently as possible. [2] Sunlight will pass through a transparent weather guard with an anti-reflective coating, and hit a Fresnel lens which will focus the light onto a second lens or mirror that collimates the tight beam. [3] The collimated light will be focused into a fiber which will input the light, on a looping trajectory of total internal reflection (TIR), into the crystalline core.

The crystalline core is a tube with a polygonal cross-section that is formed into a semi-circle. It will be made of a material that best balances cost, structural integrity at high temperatures, and transparency to all wavelengths of solar radiation. A mirror coats the inside walls of the core, and a liquid coolant is able to flow through the hollow center. Surrounding the outer walls of the core is a very thin mesh-pattern layer of material that radiates photons of a desired wavelength when heated. Holes in the thermal radiation material will be situated where most of the light in the TIR trajectory will reflect off the planes of the outer core wall. [4] Finally, a laser gain medium with a lower refractive index than the core material that emits photons of the same wavelength as the thermal radiation material will surround the crystalline core.

The delivery fiber will input the focused and collimated ray of solar radiation into the core. The trajectory will be helix-like totally reflecting off of each plane as it spirals through the core. Upon exiting the core, a system of lenses and/or mirrors will redirect the ray back into the entry point. Photons will remain in that looping trajectory until they have been scattered and/or absorbed into the core. [5] Each time the ray totally internally reflects an evanescent wave will propagate into the gain medium exciting nearby atoms causing population inversion and spontaneous emissions (and allowing for stimulated emissions) of photons.

The side of the gain medium where the ray of solar radiation exits and reenters the core will be coated with a mirror reflecting photons back into the gain medium. Photons exiting the gain medium through the other five sides will be focused into optical fibers made of a material that transmits that wavelength with the lowest loss. Those five fibers will input the photons (all the same wavelength) into the Light Grid.

Part 2: The second problem this idea aims to solve is storage. Everyone else seems to be focused on batteries or alternative storage technologies. To meet the same objective of continuous electricity output regardless of the time of day and weather conditions, I wondered if there was a way to route the solar radiation from areas of supply to areas of demand. Sunlight is in constant supply at all times on a large portion of our planet, but locally installed solar panels (or other solar harvesting technology) don't take advantage of that continuous supply.

My solution is a globally networked Light Grid. Collection systems around the world utilizing the technology in Part 1 will convert the sunlight into a tight beam of the same wavelength and input it into the grid. The grid's core, where the light will traverse, must be a tube of near vacuum space with a mirror coating the inner walls. [6]

The continuously supplied light in the grid will be harvested by electricity suppliers. Mirrors will temporarily direct the light into a harvesting loop. Light in the loop will be focused onto a quantum dot solar cell tuned for maximum efficiency for the wavelength of light being harvested. Some of the light that reflects off the solar cell will reenter the grid traversing the opposite direction.

In order to maintain continuous supply in the grid while multiple systems simultaneously harvest the light, software to synchronize harvesting and multiple grid tubes will have to exist. I understand that this Light Grid system will be extremely expensive to build, but it may solve the storage problem. It would also eliminate the need to cover so much surface area with silicon (or other, more expensive) photovoltaic cells.

If you (or someone you know) can improve this idea or prove it wrong, then please do so. If this idea is a viable improvement to current solar technology, then hopefully this post will serve as prior art so anyone who wishes to use part or all of the idea may freely do so. Thank you for your time.

[1] Paul Graham's talk:  

essay: http://paulgraham.com/ambitious.html
[2] Converting the light to a single wavelength will greatly increase efficiency when utilizing a quantum dot solar cell which can be tuned for maximum efficiency for a specific wavelength. A sterling engine, thermal radiation, or better process will be utilized to harvest electricity from heat. I haven't researched this enough to know which is best. If the electricity produced by heat exceeds the local demand, then a thermal radiation process to input more light into the grid may be a better option.
[3] If the heat is too intense, the area of the Fresnel lens can be divided into an array of smaller lenses that focus the light into separate delivery fibers and core systems. If it is cost effective and more efficient to divide the wavelengths using a prism, diffractive grating, or thin-film interference application, then the more organized wavelength groups can be input into core systems surrounded by thermal radiating meshes and gain mediums whose photon outputs are within the wavelength group. This would take advantage of the quantum tunneling photons to help pump the laser.
[4] The mesh-pattern is so that some photons radiated away from the gain medium can reflect back through and into the gain medium. Holes at the sites of TIR are there so that evanescent waves caused by the TIR can be directly absorbed into the gain medium without bypassing a buffer layer. This will maximize photon emissions pumped by the evanescent waves in the gain medium.
[5] Some of the photons will tunnel and be absorbed into the gain medium or stimulate emissions as well.
[6] The most efficient single-mode optical fiber will only transmit the photons up to ~1,500 km before they are completely absorbed.

1) From feedback so far, I've learned that the fiber optics I'd incorporated into the system will likely absorb photons too quickly to be an efficient solution to transport focused light from an origin to a destination along a non-straight path. Instead, using mirrors to redirect focused beams within an enclosed near-vacuum space would probably be better to accomplish that objective.
Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/755175 2014-10-14T14:33:50Z 2017-03-10T17:53:38Z Toughest Adversity Follow-up

When I wrote "The Toughest Adversity I've Ever Faced" I expected it would be read by a handful of people, mostly friends and acquaintances. I deliberately excluded my emotional and moral conflicts because I'd already failed at keeping the post concise. As a result, readers were left to fill in the blanks.

The post was read by far more people than I imagined, and I was in awe of the various perspectives. First, I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to express their opinions, advice, and support; especially those who offered it kindly. When some of the most intimate and grief-provoking moments of one's life are on display for critique, that person feels unbelievably vulnerable. During that ordeal, the incredible kindness of some amazing people really meant a lot.

While learning of and admitting to previously unseen faults was a bitter pill to swallow, I'm very fortunate to have been given such a large dose of thoughtful feedback in such a short period of time. I do believe my optimism was often partly mistaken for arrogance. However, I did learn that the level of my arrogance is probably (and unfortunately) higher than I'd previously thought as well. I'm proud of the solutions I've figured out to surpass powerful constraints and challenging problems so far, but I'm also ashamed of my moral shortcomings and repeated mistakes along the way.

My ignorance lead me to make many poor decisions. That doesn't justify my actions; I was wrong. However, it does make me wonder what mistakes lie ahead because of my perpetual lack of knowledge and experience. It also fills me with intense gratitude for those who offer high quality and unconditional advice. The challenge for the naive explorer is identifying the great advice within the steady flow of horseshit.

I have no empirical evidence to cite, but I presume a kid from a lower socioeconomic environment doesn't get the same level of guidance as a kid of the same age from a wealthy suburb. Everyone has a different level of understanding of that which 'should be obvious'. So some will make a lot more naive mistakes along the way. Be patient with someone who overcame a hurdle you consider trivial, not shocked or irritated that it was a hurdle at all.

I received a lot of resistance toward my attitude of exploring alternative paths in search of less restrictive or faster ascension. Many assumed (incorrectly) that I intend to skip the 'hard work' part. Growing up on a farm fostered my great respect for hard work. A meeting on strategy won't get the animals fed when it's windy and snowing on a cold winter day. It won't get a makeshift fence repair in place and the loose cows rounded up before catching the school bus in the morning. It won't get the crops harvested from the seemingly endless fields. I rarely enjoy doing hard work, but I know that on the way to success one shouldn't avoid it.

Hard work toward the wrong objective is where I disagree with so many. It infuriates me that so many struggling job seekers are taught that they should work hard on improving their resume/cv with formatting and buzzwords, that they should work hard to complete tasks and gain credentials (regardless of their true interests) that employers look for, that they should work hard on memorizing the best canned responses to interview questions. In my case specifically, I was told by so many that I should have accepted the QA job and worked hard to move up through as many jobs unrelated to my interests as necessary until I could get the position I wanted because 'that's just how everyone else does it.'

It's wrong that so many struggling job seekers aren't motivated to work hard on improving themselves in ways that increase the external value they can provide because they may never see the payoff for that improvement. Too many are taught to focus on improving themselves in ways that maximize their personal ROI. It's wrong that there are various wonderful ways struggling job seekers can satisfy their thirst for more knowledge, but those which are accompanied by an accredited credential hold disproportionately more value for satisfying the same objective. I'm not arguing that the beaten path isn't adequate. It may work just fine for most people. I'm arguing that a better way exists that hasn't been discovered and/or accepted yet. There are many noble causes that I probably wouldn't be courageous enough to stand up for, but I'm giving this one a shot. Everyone deserves a fair chance, and I aim to help them get it.

I don't mean to imply I wasn't given a fair chance because most of the time I was. I've enjoyed far more privilege throughout my life than many others in the world. A lot of people worked very hard and overcame fierce resistance so that I could enjoy many of the things I take for granted today. Hopefully, one day, people will take for granted that the probability of getting your dream job isn't limited by your social and geographical birthplace, your desired educational path, and your ethnicity/gender/appearance/sexual preference/religious beliefs/etc.

Note: I am very grateful for everyone who has offered their advice and support, but I'm no longer seeking employment. If you have contacted me and haven't received a response yet, please be patient. I'll respond as soon as I can. Thank you for your time.

Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/750964 2014-10-05T00:19:53Z 2017-03-10T17:45:14Z The Toughest Adversity I've Ever Faced

This period began when my successful business (discussed here) failed overnight. After I discovered our accounts were closed, I checked if the dupe method still worked. To my surprise, it did! So I immediately began gathering seed items to rebuild the inventory from square one. I knew it would be a while before we'd earn the profits we needed to cover our monthly expenses, and we only had a couple months worth of savings. We had invested a lot of our savings into equity in our house which was drastically reduced after 2008.

When the business was still going strong, I enjoyed hacking other games in my free time. Every day that we made over $1,000 in profits, I would reward myself with a new video game that I would then hack. During that time, I had discovered a dupe method in the next most popular online game. So, when the business collapsed and I was rebuilding, I started gathering seed items in that game as well.

I tried a couple of new ideas to make some extra income too. I asked the game developers of the most popular mmorpg, where I still had two working dupe methods, if they would be interested in hiring me. I'd divulge the two dupe methods I discovered, and would work to find more bugs before other players could exploit them. I'd spent four years circumventing their detection systems, and could provide them with valuable insight on how to improve. They basically laughed at the request stating that no such bug existed, and even if it did, they'd only offer a virtual pat on the back as a reward for informing them.[1] If I wanted to join their anti-hack team, then I'd have to start with quality assurance and work my way up.

I thought I may have more luck trying to sell the dupe methods to a website that claimed to offer powerful exploits for online games for a subscription fee. I knew my dupe methods would be valuable to that site owner because they were the most coveted exploits that all online game hackers wanted. The response I received was, "I know you're full of shit because I have connections in the elite crowd of the game hacking community. These are the two most popular games right now. My connections tell me it's impossible to duplicate items in either game, but you claim to have a dupe method for both. Don't waste my time by contacting me again."

I was left with trying to rebuild the old business. In my haste, I ignored previous limits I set on item duplication to avoid tripping any flags set up to detect that activity. So, two weeks after I began trying to rebuild, all of my new accounts were closed. This time, the game company did fix one of the dupe methods.

Instead of using the backup dupe method right away, I decided to take a break from trying to rebuild that business. I applied for some jobs, but this was in the middle of 2009, and I quickly found out how bad it really was for job seekers in our area. Everyone who learned of our misfortune declared, with complete certainty, that the reason I allowed our wildly successful business to fail was because I lacked a college degree and the economy was no longer favorable. Nobody cared about the real story. They didn't understand how a successful business could fail overnight, but couldn't be recovered by insurance. When I tried to explain that virtual goods couldn't be insured, they assumed it was never a real business anyway.

My wife knew very well that our business failed because of a factor we couldn't control, but we heard so much criticism that she began to believe it. After hearing all the condescending comments, even I started to doubt myself. The only person who made an effort to truly understand what happened, and still believed in me was my father. He knew my ability wasn't limited by my lack of a degree, but he also knew that I wouldn't be treated fairly because of that.

My wife and I delivered newspapers on 3 routes, and I was lucky to get a temporary job at the Post Office. The income helped to slow the bleeding from our savings. On Christmas Eve that year, I remember working through the night for $10/hr while my wife was alone at home. I was remembering that just six months earlier I was waiting for the next $1,000+ profit day so that I could buy another video game, but that Christmas we couldn't afford to buy each other gifts.

My supervisor at the Post Office wanted to hire me full time, and even extended my temporary position as long as he could, but the Post Office couldn't afford to hire new employees in my area; new workers were strictly temporary. Both my father and my wife had hoped I'd be hired there, but I secretly wished I wouldn't be. I still did the work as well as I could, and they kept me for months after they'd let all the other temporary workers go. I just couldn't imagine myself wasting my life in a 'safe' job with a guaranteed limit to how much value I could produce. Worse than that, I was doing what robots and software should have already taken over.

I continued to apply for better jobs, but was almost never invited to interviews. My father offered to pay for some college classes so that I could finish my degree. I needed about 25 more credits. I explained that the only subjects where I learned more in class than I could teach myself with a textbook were foreign languages. He was fine with that. He knew that simply having a degree was all most employers in our area cared about. So I changed my major to Spanish (I'd already earned a minor) with a minor in German, and began attending a couple classes at the University of Montana.

After the first semester there, my father was diagnosed with lymphoma. I knew he wouldn't be able to continue to pay for my college classes after that. I was just grateful I lived nearby, and could help him out. He asked if I would accompany him to his appointments because he didn't always understand or remember the info and directions his oncologist gave him. I was glad to help, but that meant my schedule wasn't open for full time employment anymore.

I'd begun slowly rebuilding the online game item selling business, but I knew I wouldn't build it up as big as it was previously. I expected that one day it would come crashing down again, so I simply used it for passive income while I worked on other things. Besides, the dupe method that still worked was far less efficient, and item values were lower too.

I learned about, and decided I'd try to earn money building websites for affiliate marketing. I enjoyed building the sites, and I'm very grateful for how much I learned about SEO and other forms of online marketing. Most importantly, I learned that my assumptions are often wrong, and A/B testing provided the insight I needed.

Although I reached profitability, I could never reinvest those profits. Everything I earned went toward paying as many bills as possible while our credit card debt slowly grew. I didn't like affiliate marketing anyway. Many of the products being advertised didn't actually improve lives. Instead, the ads deceived customers into paying for and obeying one weird trick.

After months of chemo, my father was in remission! The biopsy showed there were no traces of the lymphoma left in his bone marrow. It was great news that came right when we received more great, unexpected, and scary news. My wife was pregnant. She was unbelievably scared (so was I) because of our grim financial situation, but I assured her that we'd find a way to make everything work out. I'd never stop trying until I could make something work.

One day I noticed a competition online with a $1,000,000 reward for the best idea and prototype that would harvest energy from coastal tides. I don't know why but I couldn't get that out of my head, and shortly after I had a crazy idea for harvesting solar energy more efficiently. I was so excited that I spent about 8 hours per day for about three weeks straight learning more about and reforming my idea along the way.

When I thought the idea was pretty solid, I just needed to build a prototype to start testing hypotheses. I searched for ways to gain the resources I needed. Almost every outlet, both private and government, wanted to know primarily where I was educated to prove I was an expert in the field, and how many graduate students were working with me on the project. My wife, repeating what society had taught her and she truly believed, assured me that without a degree, nobody would believe I was capable of coming up with such an innovation. I filled out applications for grants and scientific research programs anyway.

My father's cancer returned shortly after, and was more aggressive. I told him about my idea fully expecting him to scoff at it. He wasn't a fierce supporter of renewable energy. He was the type of guy who would joke about global warming on cold days. He always thought the best path for success was to graduate college, get a safe job with benefits, and save for retirement; that any deviation from that course was likely a mistake. So I was shocked when he, without hesitation, said I should go for it, and try to make the solar energy idea happen. He knew I was in debt and still paying some bills with credit cards. He knew my wife and I were about to have our first baby. He knew I'd face a lot more resistance than someone with a PHD. He had faith in me when no one else did; when I had very little left in myself.

My father's condition worsened shortly after that, and I spent nearly every day helping him out. I couldn't bare to see him worry about me, and the future of my family. I promised him that I would become successful again. With medical bills, a newborn, and providing care for my father, we slipped further into debt, and I had so little time to fight our way back. My father, a hero of mine and a great man, passed away at the end of 2012. With my capability doubted by everyone I knew, I was left to rebuild a better life for my wife and six month old son.

I am overwhelmingly grateful that my father left me enough to pay our credit card debt and medical expenses, to catch up on late bills, and to help cover our monthly expenses when our income fell short in 2013. My wife worked part-time at an elementary school, and I stayed at home to care for our infant son. I was earning some money with the item selling business and commissions that were still trickling in from some websites I'd built. As the personal representative of my father's estate, I was also dealing with all the necessary legal tasks, and collaborating with my mother and siblings to agree on important decisions. Then, we got more bad news. Just 5 months after my father had passed away, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. The doctors caught it too late, and they made it clear that it was terminal.

She asked if I would accompany her to her appointments and transfusions just as I had done for my father. Again, I was glad to help. With everything that occupied my time, I had none left to pursue my solar energy idea. I didn't accept that though. By the start of 2014, I had rebuilt the item selling business until profits covered a decent chunk of our monthly expenses without taking all my time. I used the little free time I had gained to continue exploring options to get the resources I needed.

I finally discovered a place where I might be able to build the prototype for my solar energy idea. I read an article about Google[x], and thought it was the perfect place. Its captain, Astro Teller, actually praised those who didn't respect the status quo (This may be common in Silicon Valley, but not where I'm from). I read everything I could find about Google[x], and discovered that they typically hired people with PHDs, or those who were proven experts in some field. I wasn't an expert and didn't have the credentials they said they wanted to see on a resume, but I wasn't about to let that stop me. I hand-wrote a letter and mailed it to Astro Teller at Google in Mountain View. I emailed all the addresses I found related to Google[x] asking to speak with Dr. Teller. I sent messages on social networks. Finally, I received a response from him.

When he finally responded, I was so excited that I sent him a long story (like this one) explaining my life, and gave him a link to a website with some of my ideas. After receiving no response, I realized how selfish I was to think he had time to read all of that. I still had hope though, so I narrated all of it and sent him .mp3 files so he could listen to it while he was jogging or something. After waiting longer and having received no response, I sent him a final email. In it, I apologized for disrespecting his time, and I sincerely thanked him for the inspiration he'd given me through his talks on innovative thinking.

I just wished there were some way (beyond a traditional resume) that I could express how I truly would've been a great employee at Google[x]. My resume wasn't good enough, and I've always despised jumping through the hoops to game the hiring system. In my opinion, being great at getting a job is worthless compared to being great at doing a job. My first (admittedly terrible) iteration of a solution was my attempt to get Dr. Teller to read my life story. It didn't work, but I became driven to find a solution to solve that problem. I imagined how many others may have been amazing employees, but would remain unnoticed because the hiring system is broken.

I began researching startups and how to build a successful one. Surprisingly, I found that I'd already learned quite a bit about startups from my item selling business. While researching, I came across this story about Alexis Ohanian. I was so inspired by him, and amazed by how well I could relate to his story. Through his evangelizing, I discovered Hacker News. I'd bounced around various communities online, but never found one that was just right. Hacker News was exactly what I'd been missing; a group of people like me who were interested in many of the same things. The best part is that it's full of smarter people and better hackers that I can learn from. I'd always been an outsider in my own social bubble. At Hacker News, I finally felt like I belonged. I wondered how I hadn't discovered it sooner. Words cannot express how grateful I am for how much I've already learned from everyone at YCombinator and Hacker News.

I haven't climbed back up to success yet, but I no longer doubt myself. I know exactly what I want to do, and I'm going to go do it. I may face even tougher adversity in the future, but I won't give up.

[1] I did report the last working duplication method to the game company. I thought some people would enjoy reading about how it worked so I asked the anti-hack team to confirm when it had been patched. I'd write about it when it could no longer be exploited. I received the virtual "thanks" as promised, and had regular communication from them while I helped them replicate the bug. Then, just silence as I inquired if it was patched and safe for me to write about the bugs.]]>
Scott Barbian
tag:scottbarbian.com,2013:Post/750799 2014-10-04T07:57:19Z 2017-03-10T17:23:47Z How I Nearly Built a Successful Startup by Accident

My wife disagreed with me immediately when I presented the idea. We had just moved into a room in my parents' house in Montana. I decided that I would no longer pile on student loan debt while my wife and I worked so many hours to avoid eviction from our ridiculously expensive, yet tiny apartment near Malibu. I was missing too many classes, and learning almost exclusively from textbooks. I should have dropped out earlier, but I was taught that meant failure, and that I should fear failure.

I really enjoyed video games while growing up. Cheat codes were cool, but they were far too limited. Then, I learned how to hex edit saved game files in a game called Lords of the Realm II. A guide online only showed how to hack gold and supplies, but I knew right away how powerful hex editing could be for hacking video games. I was able to manipulate nearly every meaningful factor in that game and many others afterward.

When I became interested in online games, I realized there were no saved game files stored locally that I could hack. I wasn't about to stop hacking video games though. I just had to learn new ways. I learned that duplicating items and currency was like the Holy Grail of online game hacks. However, dupe methods were really difficult to discover. Another way to gain an advantage was to have your character play the game even when you didn't have time to do it. For that, I learned how to build game bots with a scripting language for automation in Windows.

Just before college, I came across a website that was selling online game items. I knew players wanted the items, but I had no idea they had real world value. I utilized dupe methods until they were fixed and then bots to gather massive amounts of valuable items and sold them on Ebay. It was perfect for me because I didn't have a car, but wanted to earn enough money to visit my girlfriend (now wife) in Brazil during summer breaks. I made enough from that game to visit Brazil over three summers, and to pay for our wedding there.

Soon after, Ebay stopped allowing auctions for online game items. I didn't know how to build a website, and the game was losing popularity anyway which significantly decreased the value of items. So during that time, I worked in a campus office, tutored high school kids, and explored my interest in game development by doing volunteer work on a cool open source game.

Just before I dropped out of college and moved in with my parents, a new extremely popular mmorpg was released. I discovered a method to duplicate items right away. I just didn't have a website to sell items or gold. So I would supply websites that did sell gold to players. I was selling at wholesale prices on just a few servers, and earning less than I would have at a full time job.

So there I was; a 22 year old married college dropout with over $100,000 of debt and living with my parents. I was a complete failure. It was humbling to say the least, but after having seen overwhelming poverty in parts of Brazil, I was grateful just to have a place we could go to try to rebuild a better life. That's when I decided to go big, and build my own website to sell game items. I told my wife, and she told me it was a terrible idea; that I should just get a normal job and try to move up the corporate ladder until we were earning enough to move into our own place. "You're always dreaming too big." she said, "You need to put your feet on the ground, and just do what everyone else does."

So just like very few sane people would do, I ignored her conventional advice, and built a website anyway. I had no idea if customers even wanted what I was building because nobody sold items, just gold. I did know that some of the valuable items weren't always available though, even if a player had enough gold and wanted to buy them. So I spent a couple weeks learning and building the first iteration of the website while I also gathered seed items that I could duplicate.

When I launched the website, it was terrible and just barely functional. I had items for sale on 3 out of ~200 servers. The first day I received zero visitors, so I searched online for a solution. The next couple days were a crash course on PPC/CPM marketing campaigns and SEO. I optimized the site for better search rankings, and set up an Adwords account with bids on what I would search for if looking for a site like mine. I got cheap clicks because no other site like that existed to compete with me. I was extremely lucky that there actually were people searching on Google for a website like mine.

In the next couple days I started getting visitors and a couple orders came in. I delivered them quickly and easily. I didn't have live chat built into the website, but I did list my instant messenger handles in the contact info so I started getting customer feedback through MSN and AIM. A lot of people wanted the items I was selling, but they played on a different server. I tried to gather seed items on another server, but it took nearly a week just to get half of what I needed. So I had to find a better way to scale up.

The game developer had just began a new service to transfer to a new server for $25. I figured I could level up a character to meet the transfer requirements, duplicate a new set of seed items, and transfer the items to stock a new server. The problem was, I didn't have any money to invest in server transfers. To solve this, I added a new feature, and created the first promotion on the website. Customers could pay the transfer fee, and I would deliver their order on the server of their choice. If a customer ordered $150 or more, then I'd transfer the items with no extra fee. It worked great, and the customers started paying the cost to stock new servers.

The next problem was that almost all of the orders were for servers I had no items on. So the work to prepare characters and duplicate new seed items became overwhelming. With all the orders coming in, my wife started to believe the idea may have had some merit after all. She began helping me to finish the work faster. Even with her help, we were falling behind.

I had the problem that few startup founders will probably get to experience. I needed to slow down the amount of orders I was receiving so I could keep up. With a combination of higher prices and longer delivery times, we balanced the demand quite well. As we stocked more servers with seed items, we were able to handle way more orders and process them faster.

I decided to purposely limit growth, making it more of a small business than a startup. When I read about Paul Graham or another YC partner emphasizing the importance of making something people want, I always think back to this time in my life. We had no idea what we were doing, our website was awful, and I was decreasing the quality of our service while increasing the price. Everything seemed to be going just fine though because our customers wanted what we were offering, and nobody else was giving it to them.

Then a new patch came out that fixed our dupe method. I was scared, but I found a new method in less than a week, and we had no problems fulfilling orders. About a month later, I found a new more efficient way to duplicate items. So I only used one method, and saved the other in case one was patched again.

I handled all the customer service. I had almost no customer service experience before that, but I learned fast. Live chat was part of the website by that point. One thing that always bothered me is that, just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the customers who nagged the most were often served the fastest. The best part of being able to create value out of nowhere relatively quickly was that I was able to reward all of the patient and kind customers with the surprise of many more items than they ordered.

Within a year from when I started, we were able to pay off our credit card debts, and make a decent down payment on a house. We remodeled it to be exactly how my wife wanted. Later, we were able to pay off all of my student loan debt. We did all this while continually working fewer hours for higher profits. The freedom from financial stress was incredible. The business lasted almost four years in total. It grew steadily (8.5% avg. monthly growth) until the end. Clone sites were popping up trying to compete, but most of them ended up buying items from us at a small discount in order to fulfill their orders.

At that point, most of the Chinese gold-selling websites learned that stealing game accounts, and taking the items and gold was far cheaper than paying employees to gather them in the game. This caused the workload of the game developer's QA department to skyrocket. So the game developer retaliated with rigid enforcement against gold sellers. We assumed we were safe as we had never directly stolen from another player.

Then, in a single day, all of our accounts holding items stocked on just over half of the servers were closed. It was completely unexpected. In my online game hacking history to that point, I'd had seven dupe methods patched across four different games, but never had an account closed. We thought we were prepared with over $300,000 worth of items in stock in case our dupe methods were patched and we couldn't find another. In that case, we'd planned to sell off those items as we smoothly transitioned into another source of income. But life has a funny way of making plans seem ridiculous in hindsight. We refunded all undelivered orders, and the business ceased to exist overnight. That marked the beginning of the period when I faced the most intense adversity in my life.

Scott Barbian