Lost Faith In Humanity

Today has been a generally dark day for me. Today, for the first time in almost 6 years, I lost faith in humanity completely. This sounds terribly pompous of me, but this is my blog and I can say whatever the fuck I want, although these sorts of posts are usually kept private and later deleted. Today will be different. Today my rant will be public.

I am not Miss Universe looking to win a silly little crown, but I have long since reasoned that as long as I live, I might as well do the things that will benefit humanity in the long run. I came to this conclusion a little over 8 years ago, being lost and not really knowing what I want to do at 18 years old. I went on to read economics in university, to which I looked at the mathematical formulae and thought to myself, “hey this can be put to good use”.

I have not been the high achiever that people seem to always cluster me into. In fact, truth be told, I have hardly achieved much. Were I to die today, my legacy will merely be a string of failures that I have learned from. I may boast that I have an IQ off the charts but really, that isn’t much use to me.

In the past 8 or so years I have consciously streamlined my actions, my thoughts towards my final goal: benefiting humanity. Everthing I do, I thought to myself, had better lead to the embetterment of humanity. I realize that by writing this in a public space, this is a form of self-aggrandizing.

And I would not even contest that. Perhaps I am self-aggrandizing. Perhaps it was through a series of introspection that I decided to stop writing so much about me. Perhaps that is why I stopped going out to investors and stopped pitching 200 year plans. Today is different. Today I am sufficiently motivated to write, and write about how and why I lost faith in humanity.

I have been trying to optimize and streamline my life choices and actions to things that will benefit humanity in the long run. I believe there are things that will have high impact and things that will not (for example, being a volunteer is a low-impact, short term plan. Being Bill Gates and funding cure for Malaria is a high impact long term plan). Every large decision I make, I try to be conscious about the impact on humanity. It’s something my brain has always been capable of doing – thinking in terms of probability trees and extrapolating from thereon. Imagine my joy when I was first introduced to the concept of markov chains in the second year of my A levels (or first year of uni, the event is hazy but the memory of the feeling is not).

If you subscribe to the Jeff Hawkins school of intelligence and consciousness, what I am talking about is similar to his propsed Heirarchical Temporal Memory framework.

But enough of that. When Pressyo was founded 5 years ago, we set ourselves a grand goal – matching good information to the right people. We each had different ideas of how to do so, but we were and still are to this day, unified by this goal. A number of people have since asked me to join their startup as a co-founder, or asked to partner with me. I have been dead fast on the three other people in Pressyo. Simply because our individual goals are coherrent and I have yet to find another person with similar goals.

Pressyo the product turned out to be a failure. We had put in our personal monies into research and development of a product that could never have performed. Never mind, we told ourselves, Let’s shoot for a lower target, one that isn’t so lofty, we told ourselves. And so we created edgeyo, which was a matching platform to match investors and entrepreneurs. edgeyo would fit into our bigger picture of the Pressyo Universe.

edgeyo did not succeed. It had initial traction but ran out of steam towards the end. There were a number of reasons why it did not succeed but this is not the blog post for it. At the same time of edgeyo, we were quietly developing a number of smaller products, to test our ideas and see if they could ever work in real life. Project Spelltrade was an experimental marketplace for Magic the Gathering cards that used novel auction methods to gauge information exchange. That was a failure to launch because we could not settle the deals with our suppliers. Project Tee(something, can’t remember) was an experimental system to gauge the value of art on t-shirts – didn’t take off because we couldn’t agree on the terms with the supplier. Project Communication(something, can’t remember) was an attempt at unifying all digital communications – it looked like Google Wave before Google Wave came out. The project never got past the initial development phase, but I certainly did learn a lot about communications protocols. Project Storyboard (or something like that) was essentially an idea similar to Storify – we quickly killed the project when Storify was launched. Strangers for Dinner essentially used the same matching algorithm we used to match entrepreneurs and investors to match strangers up for dinner parties.

You see, we had an idea – all these projects would fit in what we called the Pressyo Universe, of which is has its goal of bettering humanity. At one point, our goal stretched out over a span of 200 years with the sole aim of improving the wellbeing of humans on this godforsaken rock. I love my team in Pressyo. We do argue but we do stick through thick and thin through our similar goals.

In September last year, we had our annual retreat in the Sunshine Coast – one week of nothing but beer and coding. And we talked a lot. Originally the agenda was to find ways to revive edgeyo, which had been limping along, not doing anything for over 3 years, but after the week had gone, we decided to kill edgeyo. We decided a fresh approach was needed. All the small projects were killed (if they were not already dead). This year, we told ourselves, we would have 3-4 projects go out of the door, and limit ourselves to a maximum of four projects. They were all highly separate projects this time, unlike the highly interlinked projects in the past, but can still be linked together to form the Pressyo Universe.

Fork the Cookbook was the first of these projects out of the door. Fork the Cookbook has a goal in mind: to radically change the recipe sharing world online (I deign to use the word “disrupt” because I think it is way too overused). The idea is simple: treat all recipes like open source projects. Anyone can fork a recipe (that is to say, make a copy, and then work on it separately). In short, like VentureBeat puts it, it’s like Github for recipes.

Github for recipes… that sounds like a strange term. We had in fact consciously not refer to ourselves as Github for recipe because our target market would not get it. The mommy bloggers, the food bloggers and recipe bloggers all would not get the concept of Github.

For the past two weeks at work (I work in online advertising as my day job), I have been hitting dead end after dead end after dead end with regards to my machine learning algorithms. That’s the funny thing about statistics and machine learning. As time goes by, more and more effort is required to marginally improve a model. And I will admit, despite all my confidence in my skill, there has been more than once a day where I seriously doubt if I am cut out for the job.

Today is Chinese New Year’s Eve. Typically what my family would be doing as I write this rather long rant is to have a reunion dinner: a large family gathering not unlike Thanksgiving in US or Christmas over here. Though I have not been with my family for Chinese New Year for almost 8 years, it is still somewhat customary and tradition to at least think of them.

The past 1300 words has been the background as to why I lost faith in humanity today. Yesterday, Fork the Cookbook received its first DMCA takedown notice. There is a long and convoluted story behind what actually happened and I sat down to blog about the whole DMCA process, which I will admit has been rather exciting and I had been expecting it even before Fork the Cookbook was built.

As I sat down to blog about the DMCA process, I frequently referred back to the email back and forth I had with the claimant. I had explained the concept of forking a recipe (which is to say, make a copy of it, and then work on it locally), and that Fork the Cookbook was a site where users submitted content. I had been feeling rather hurt when the claimant had compared Fork the Cookbook to what we in the advertising industry call a flog (fake blog), but no matter. I typically approach these things with a fairly buddhistic behaviour – which is to say I’m not really attached to the things I build.

I had thought at the point in writing the reply to the claimant that the claimant had not understood that Fork the Cookbook was a user-submitted site. I also explained to the claimant that the goal of Fork the Cookbook was to revolutionize recipe sharing. I shared three links about Fork the Cookbook and how it pertains to the recipe blogger (The Explorer vs the Treasure Hunter; The Subscriber vs The Seeker; The Principles That Fork the Cookbook Was Built On). I wrote a long email, which I personally felt was quite well thought out, explaining why it’s good to fork recipes and allow other people to fork recipes.

However as I sat down this morning to write the blog post, I had a fresh look at the email back and forths. It suddenly became clear that my blog post highlighting what we did, dissecting our first DMCA process would be useless. It suddenly became clear to me from the claimant’s response post explanation, that the claimant didn’t care at all. All the claimant cared was getting the claimant’s recipe off Fork the Cookbook.

Here I made a mistake of continually going back to the email back and forths. The more I read, the more I became disillusioned with the habits of humanity. There is a truism amongst entrepreneurs that nobody cares about how cool your product is, and that you have to make people care about your product. This thought rang out louder than any others today. I honestly doubt if the claimant had even read my long-ass email about Fork the Cookbook.

In economics, we always assume human beings to be selfish, and will seek to maximize their utility. Academic understanding is fine and well, and I have always known it, at least intellectually/academically. People don’t really give a shit. But to actually for once experience said apathy, it really shook me to the core. I took the rest of my day off after a late lunch, leaving Fork the Cookbook in the capable hands of my team mates.

I have sacrificed quite a lot of time, effort, money and relationships to attempt to change the world to be a better place. And as I explained to the claimant, I am not really driven by money. And yet all I do is in vain. All because some little bitchy blogger cares more about her shitty advertising revenue (and given what I know about the online advertising industry, that site does not have a high eCPM anyway).

I agonized for the whole day, thinking my efforts – 5 years of failed Pressyo products, all the frustrations combined – have so far yielded no result and are therefore in vain. I think about how much strain working on all Pressyo products as well as my day job has put on my relationships with other people. While I don’t really enjoy the company of other people, I value good relationships. I realized when I was driving to acquire ingredients for dinner, that should I be randomly arrested, I would have absolutely nobody to call to bail me out (since the missus is out of the country). This is a rather personal flaw of mine – that I do not know how to maintain relationship. I am even surprised that I have a loving partner and that I have managed to sustain a relationship longer than 4 years. She really has all the qualities of a saint.

I tried going back to creating a dish for dinner, you know, to spite those idiotic recipe bloggers. I could not do it, even though I loved creating recipes in my spare time. My mind was too noisy thinking about things. I ended up having Hungry Jack’s for dinner. I sat down at the computer to continue writing the dissection of what happened during the DMCA process. I could not do it without wanting to throw up. Humanity had disgusted me to that point.

I had finally become the antithesis of what I want to be. I was so attached to the idea that Fork the Cookbook was a great idea. I had mentioned earlier that “Github for Recipes” will not resonate with the target market. Turns out the target market hates what I built and is actively working against my larger goals. In my mind, the rejection of the concept of forking (and indeed sharing) would lead to worse-off societies. I hate to turn into Richard Stallman on this, but that man has a point. In all conceivable branches of humanity’s future, the one with the most freedoms (to tinker, to free speech, etc) would be the most well off of futures.

I felt sick when I started thinking about the hypocrisy of this whole snafu. Indeed, this was further piled on with news like the Israeli football club being torched for singing up a muslim player. I may not be the most empathetic of peoples (in fact you would probably find me the opposite), but almost everything on the news today made me feel disgusted about humans.

I hate the fact that human beings easily form factions, and easily move out of the Core. The worst part is I have what I would consider to be significant knowledge on how cliques/coalitions form. I know the math behind it and I often feel useless and helpless that I cannot do anything to change that self-destructing behaviour of humanity.

I hate the fact that human beings are so short sighted, and that personal utility maximization is more important than a global utility maximization. I hate the fact that people who actually care about these things are maligned as weirdos (Richard Stallman on free software, for example. Bill Gates on Africa had initially caught a lot of flak too for being ‘fake philantrophy’, Aaron Swartz was treated like a common criminal in his civil disobedience). And those were the prolific ones. For every Stallman/Swartz there were hundreds like me, who have yet to achieve anything.

Over the day, I started from that into thinking “so why does humanity need me anyway”. At that point, I had a quick realization I was on a very very dangerous path of self destruction. I had lost faith in humanity, my one anchor in life. I had those thoughts before, a long time ago. It was not a pleasant experience for me and I knew what I had to do. I stopped all my work and went to take a nap to arrest the situation. I ended up taking 4 short powernaps over the day and night and I am feeling slightly better, though still rather bitter and angry.

When I was a child, I often imagined myself as an alien (usually a Time Lord), often one who decides whether to destroy Planet Earth. I occasionally felt like that today, and the verdict would have been to destroy all humans. In this case I’d be more Dalek than Time Lord.

I know that by writing this I sound like I have delusions of grandeur. Who knows, I probably do. But it’s cathartic for me to finally be able to sit down at my computer and not feel ill about humanity. Sometimes I envy those who can just call up a cathartic crying session. I cannot do that. And so I write.

TL;DR: in this post, a probably delusional yet strangely introspective middle-class kid from a first world country rants about how everyone does not get his trying to be an entrepreneur and saving the world and how nobody gives a shit about the product he created.

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