Storytime is a series of brief videos focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life.
This is a brief story about discovering a business model that allowed us to remain a two-person company with a product we could make once and sell multiple times. The full version of this story is told in my book Big Enough.
Storytime is a series of videos that are usually brief and focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life. This episode is about how our video “Twitter in Plain English” ended up on the front page of Twitter.com for over a year. The full version of this story in my book Big Enough.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Forget, for just a moment, the lines on a map that separate counties, states, and countries. Without these lines, North America looks fundamentally different. The desert southwest bleeds into Mexico. The Rocky Mountains rise up into Canada. Waterways and rivers flow through huge swaths of the continent.
If you take a closer look, the soil, geology, wildlife, climate, and biodiversity are the true markers of our regions. These natural factors, which are mostly timeless, represent a valid way to think about where we live, whether that’s in the Great Lakes, Appalachia, the Gulf, or the Pacific Northwest.
This version of North America is what Native Americans experienced before the arrival of settlers and their neatly drawn maps. From this perspective, maps seem arbitrary because they don’t represent the natural lines of how the continent fits together. Maps are drawn by man, regions are created by nature.
It’s within this perspective that a movement has been growing in the Pacific Northwest. Like other regions, we share a natural environment or “bioregion” that stretches across state and national boundaries. The bioregion is called “Cascadia” and many are adopting it as a way to think about the true territory of our home.
Cascadia, of course, has boundaries. But unlike our standard maps, Cascadia’s lines are based on the natural world rather than the imaginary lines of longitude and latitude. It encompasses over 500k square miles from southern Alaska to Northern California.
The purpose and goals of the Cascadia movement depend on whom you ask. The movement started in the 70s and 80s as an environmental movement and it remains environmentally-focused today. By defining and understanding a bioregion, the thinking goes, we can work together to protect and restore it. In the Cascadian context, this means Washington State and British Columbia should be aligned and collaborating as if they were a single region and not two countries.
Recently, the idea has become more mainstream, providing PNW citizens a new identity and way to think about our corner of the world. We are proud Cascadians, even if we’re not yet sure what that means.
Like our friends to the south in Texas, Cascadia does have secessionist tendencies. Some see it as an independence movement and future sovereign state that encompasses parts of Canada and the US. If this happened, it would have a population of over 16 million and an economy producing US$675 billion worth of goods and services annually. While there are zealots in every group, I don’t think succession is on the horizon. Besides, I’m not sure what would compel British Columbia to participate. Most people I know just love the idea of Cascadia as a bioregion.
Every movement needs a good flag and Cascadia is no different. “The Doug” was designed by Alexander Baretich in 1995 and sports a Douglas fir tree and colors representing blue for water, white for snow, and green forests. These are the unofficial colors of the PNW.
The Doug has quickly become a cultural icon and has been adopted far and wide. It is flown at MLS soccer matches between PNW rivals in the Cascadia Cup. The Seattle Sounders even have The Doug on their jerseys.
For me, the flag is a symbol of regional solidarity. In Seattle, we may have feelings about Oregon and their subpar soccer team, the Timbers. But we are all Cascadians. The same is true for British Columbia. Whatever differences our nations have, we are all Cascadians.
I love the idea of Cascadia being an independent state with its own laws and perspectives but I know it’s not reasonable. I also believe a kind of PNW utopia is possible, but we have so many other problems to solve. For now, I’m happy to be a part of the Cascadian bioregion and ready to work for its goals, even if they happen within imaginary lines.
This will be a good time! Two lively Brits, Grant and Paddy, host a live show called The Visual Jam. I will be their guest on July 8th to discuss The Art of Explanation and Common Craft videos. Register for Free.
Have you ever had a great idea for a product or a service or maybe an improvement to your business, but people just don’t seem to get it? More often than not it is because your idea has an explanation problem.
Well, fear not because Lee LeFever, co-founder of Common Craft and author of The Art of Explanation, is going to join us for a fun, interactive session where he will give us a sneak peek into the process that Common Craft follow to produce their world famous explainer videos – from script to storyboard to final content and animation!
I hope to see you there!
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Our part of Orcas Island is called Deer Harbor and in the harbor, you’ll find Fawn Island. On the other side of Orcas is Doe Bay and in between, there is Buck Mountain. These names are well earned as Orcas Island is (or was) overpopulated with blacktail deer. For as long as I can remember, encountering them has been an everyday experience, on the side of the road, in the yard, or anywhere there is food.
Last month, just after we moved in, something changed. The deer became noticeably absent from our property and for a while, we shrugged it off and hoped they would stay away. But then neighbors started to report finding dead deer in their yards and strangely, in ponds.
The cause of the deaths was a mystery and the island was abuzz with theories. People worried that they were getting into household chemicals or fertilizers, or that someone was poisoning them. Fewer deer would suit my tastes, but I didn’t like the idea of a human causing it.
Soon enough a tissue sample was sent to the lab and came back with surprising results. The deer were dying of a fast spreading virus not unlike COVID-19 in humans.
From a Seattle Times article:
A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian said the disease, called adenovirus hemorrhagic disease, poses no risk to humans, but also that the infection could soon spread to the mainland and carve out a permanent home in the state.
First discovered in California in 1993, the disease had been seen in Washington just once before this year. In 2017, about a dozen animals fell ill near Goldendale in Klickitat County.
The San Juan Islands are serving as a nice petri dish for the disease to spread, which it does through close contact among deer. Like humans, the deer spread the virus by simply being together and from what I’ve seen, social distancing is not their priority. In fact, the deer swim between islands, so the disease is able to hop efficiently to new and relatively captive populations.
I was relieved that it wasn’t a bad actor causing the deaths, but a natural phenomenon that just needed to run its course. But at the same time, death by hemorrhagic disease is a terrible way to go. The sick deer often have foamy mouths and bloody diarrhea, as their blood vessels start to hemorrhage. Ebola, one of the most feared human diseases, is a hemorrhagic virus. Poor deer.
In 2019, a similar hemorrhagic virus swept through the rabbit population on Orcas. The virus only impacted domestic rabbits and domestic rabbits that were feral. A sad event, but one that did benefit island gardens for a while. Anecdotes suggest rabbit populations here are growing again.
In the short term, the island is dealing with many dead deer and everyone has stories of how they’re disposing of them. The county will pick up deer that are on the sides of county roads, but that’s a fraction of the island. Everyone else has to dig a hole or wait for the scavengers. Thankfully we have plenty of bald eagles and turkey vultures.
We haven’t seen any dead deer on our property but did see a sick one. However, the stench is widespread. A nice evening outside might suddenly feel different as the wind shifts and carries with it the unmistakable smell of a carcass.
Perhaps this is nature doing its thing. The island had too many deer, which have no natural predators aside from humans and car bumpers. Something had to give and in the long run, the deer and the island will be better off with a natural correction, albeit a sad one. Sachi likes to point out that the surviving deer may be the strongest ones and will create a new gene pool that could build back quickly.
The deer have always shaped the Orcas landscape by mowing through tree seedlings that might otherwise grow into trees. This is true for our beloved madrona trees that, like our gardens, must be kept inside a fence to grow to adolescence. Some worried that the ever-growing deer population could prevent wild madronas from getting a foothold and eventually lead to a lost generation of the iconic trees. Maybe the virus will give the trees a break, too.
Right now there are no solid data on the decline of the deer population, but my guess is that our sightings have dropped by at least 75%. We now go a week or more without seeing one, which makes them more of a novelty. The unfenced property around us is noticeably bushier and some of my supposedly deer resistant plants are more resistant than before. Silver linings, I suppose.
From this experience, I take one big lesson. Whether they impact humans or wild animals, these viruses are real and do incredible damage, very quickly. While our experience with COVID may be on the wane, there’s a good chance more pandemics will follow. Unlike the poor deer, we are only helpless in the fight if we choose to be.
Storytime is a series of videos that are usually brief and focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life. This episode of storytime is about how we worked with our competition to grow the market for our services while remaining a two-person. I share a full version of this story in my book Big Enough.
I sometimes wonder what it is about British TV that we find so entertaining. Sure, there are charming hosts with funny aphorisms and accents. But the sheer abundance of quality shows that are unlike anything we see in the US is confounding. My guess is that it has something to do with funding from the BBC, which operates a bit like the PBS in the US.
🌱Gardener’s World (Amazon Prime) You can’t talk about British gardening without mentioning Monty Don and Gardener’s World. It’s a British institution that’s been going for 165 episodes. We also enjoyed Monty in Big Dreams, Small Spaces.
🚜 Clarkson’s Farm (Amazon Prime) Like Monty Don, Jeremy Clarkson is a British legend, mostly due to his long-running and much-loved show, Top Gear. This one-season show is about him buying a huge farm and learning to make it productive with the help of local farmers in the Cotswolds. His ornery sense of humor along with the colorful locals make this show very entertaining. I now know much more about the challenges of “real” farming.
🥦Grow, Cook, Eat (Amazon Prime) This isn’t British, but Irish, and features a master vegetable gardener and charming sidekick who sticks up for the amateur gardener. The couple focuses on one vegetable per episode and the viewer gets to see it grow from seed to harvest to being cooked by a chef. Very practical and easy to watch, especially if your climate is like theirs.
☘️Fredrick Law Olmstead: Designing America (Amazon Prime) – This documentary is about Mr. Olmstead, but also the evolution of Central Park in New York. Our neighborhood parks in Seattle, including the boulevard in front of our house, were designed by his son and nephew and I always wanted to know more about the family and their approach to landscape architecture.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I clearly remember watching my father in his tunnel-shaped greenhouse on the hill behind our house in Kernersville, NC. On my frequent visits, I’d wander around in the humidity as I inspected his tools and projects. The air was a musty mix of soil, fertilizer, and him. He had long tables full of plants, mostly flowers, organized into sections with carefully placed labels and tags. A spiral-bound notebook with a dirty cover kept his barely legible notes. Little film canisters, each with their own labels, seemed to be sprinkled about and stored in a tiny refrigerator along with a couple of bottles of Yoo-Hoo.
When he wasn’t inside the greenhouse, he was somewhere on the property digging a hole, moving a plant, starting a sprinkler, pruning, weeding, and more. As a child, I never understood what he was doing in the greenhouse and garden, but I knew it came from a place of passion. At dinner time, I would often have to go find him. Left alone, he would stay in the garden until dark.
Now that we’ve moved and built garden beds, our garden is our next big project and I can’t help but feel that I’m becoming a version of him in his garden. We are putting down literal roots on a landscape that has been stripped of life in the course of construction and building it back feels like a lifelong pursuit. Aside from the vegetables in the garden beds, the garden and landscape around our property won’t develop fully for many years and that’s part of the beauty of this project. We will bring life back to the rocky ground.
In my book, Big Enough, I shared this quote in a chapter on long term planning:
The success or failure of any design comes down to the goals you’re trying to reach and I take inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York, who often ignored the need for short-term success and took the long view of landscape architecture.
In a letter to his son Frederick Jr., he wrote: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than 40 years.”
Forty years. That’s how long he thought it would take to see results. The distant effects of our garden will hopefully take fewer years, but I am prepared for the long term. As much as I want to snap my fingers and transform the sword fern by our front door into its full prehistoric splendor, I must water and wait.
In our division of duties, I am the landscaper and Sachi is the vegetable gardener. In Seattle, we had a backyard planter bed where Sachi grew veggies for years. I was always interested in the challenge, which I didn’t fully comprehend going into the process. Gardening seemed like a nice hobby where you put seeds in the ground and a few months later, harvest a cornucopia of big beautiful vegetables. And in some cases, that happened with minimal effort (I’m looking at you, tomatoes!)
What I witnessed then, and now understand, is that tending a garden is more like an arms race or a puzzle than a set-it and forget-it hobby. It took Sachi multiple years to learn how to optimize the garden for maximum sun and what plants worked best in our little corner of Seattle. She was always at war with pests, like slugs, snails, aphids, birds, and squirrels who used the garden like a buffet. Then there was the weather, which can be uncooperative and the all-too-short summer season in the PNW. If it doesn’t get warm enough for long enough, gardens can remain puny. No season is ever the same. And that’s also part of the fun.
The rush in building our raised beds at Flattop was an effort to get seeds in the ground before it’s too late. Now that we have them in, the real learning can begin. I’m sure we’ll have successes and failures, but for the first year or two, the real goal is experimentation. Our garden, like most, has a sweet spot between the spring and fall when the plants don’t need to be protected or covered from chilly winds and low temperatures. Finding that sweet spot is the goal, and it may take years.
Orcas Island has multiple micro-climates and ours, on the west side, is known for being warmer and sunnier. Some say it’s Mediterranean. I’m not so sure, but taking advantage of what sun we have is high on our list. With its pests and wily weather, we have a lot to learn.
Today the beds are approaching full, with squash, french beans, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, and more. It feels like the calm before the vegetable storm, which gathers strength each day.
The vegetable garden is Sachi’s happy place. She spends mornings and evenings tending it and watching it grow. Yesterday she was excited to show me that the Hubbard squash was starting to show fruit. Unlike the landscaping and ornamental plants that I tend, hers are productive. They feed us and that surely adds to Sachi’s attraction.
Flattop has large spaces to fill in terms of landscaping and it sometimes feels daunting. I have plans for filling each space, but the lower priority areas are slowly succumbing to weeds and grasses. We’re hoping to establish ground covers that, over time, prevent other plants from growing. It will take years, but will hopefully provide us a natural, low maintenance, and beautiful way to wrest control of the soil from invaders.
One of my favorite projects is a relatively modest one. The west side of our house slopes down precipitously and the north corner is barren and rocky. Over time it may start to erode and one of my first goals was to plant ground covers that would beautify it and keep the ground in place. So far, like most of my landscaping, it looks puny, but I’m keeping it watered with high hopes. Thankfully, the rocky slope is not a place deer like to tread.
For me, the garden has become a place of refuge. I jump at the chance to take a break from work and inspect the plants. In the evenings, I look forward to the meditative feel of watering. Looking back, I think that was also true for my Dad. His garden was his refuge and place to do what he wanted.
He turned a few acres of family property in North Carolina into an expansive garden that became a stop for bus loads of garden tourists. Those greenhouse projects, notebooks, and film canisters were his tools in creating and naming hybrid varieties of daylilies, hostas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons. One of his best-known varieties is a hydrangea named after my mother called Dear Dolores. Like most members of the family, I have a daylily named after me: Forsyth Lee LeFever.
Today he’s 86 and his best gardening days are behind him. But he still reads gardening books and loves to talk about what we’re growing out here on the west coast. Someday, we’ll have a space like his greenhouse for our garden projects and experiments. We’ll grow what we can and hopefully, our garden will be a lifelong source of happiness, exercise, beauty, and food. Who knows what we’ll see in 40 years?
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
This might seem strange, but please follow the instructions below…
Imagine an apple that’s floating in the space in front of you. It’s red, has a small green leaf and a stem. Now, using your imagination, look at the top view of the apple. Imagine what it would look like if you sliced it into two parts. Can you see the seeds?
There is a good chance that you completed this exercise with ease. You were able to use your mind’s eye to conjure an image and “see” it using your imagination. This seems natural to most people.
This ability to see an image in your imagination is not the same for everyone. In fact, there are people, like Sachi, who cannot do it. The images simply do not form. No images do. Sachi and people like her live in a reality that is fundamentally different from most people because their brain does not generate mental images.
This is called aphantasia (lack of fantasy) and it’s a relatively new field of study. Most experts agree that it’s not a disability, but a different form of human experience. Ed Catmull, the former president and co-founder of Pixar, wrote about having it. So does Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome.
My friend, Austin Kleon, recently wrote about it and his wife, who edits his blog posts, responded by saying, “I think I have that!” So it goes with aphantasia. People can live their entire lives with it and never know it. These people often respond to my apple exercise by saying, “Wait. People can see the apple in their minds?” They think “counting sheep” is just a metaphor and not something that people can actually imagine.
When I learned about aphantasia a few years ago, I talked to Sachi about it and learned she was an “aphant” and didn’t know it. This fascinated me and I set out to learn as much as I could. The more I talked with people about it, the more people I found who shared the same experiences as Sachi.
For example, Sachi and I have worked closely together since 2007. In our work, I often propose ideas for changes we could make to the Common Craft website, for example. I could easily imagine the new feature in my mind; how it would look and work. When it came time to discuss the idea with Sachi, I often became frustrated because I couldn’t seem to relate the idea clearly enough for her to understand it. Once I learned about aphantasia, I realized that she needs to see the feature on paper in order to see what I see. I was living in the abstract world of imagination and she needed something concrete.
I also started to see how aphantasia likely played a role in our past experiences together. I love traveling with Sachi, but we are very different travelers. The best way I can describe it is that I am a romantic traveler and she is a logical one. We both want to soak in experiences, but I come away with lasting memories that are filled with color and fragrance. These memories lead to nostalgia and daydreams that stick with travelers like me. I can place myself nearly anywhere I’ve been and imagine the experience.
Sachi, on the other hand, remembers being in Tuscany, knows she enjoyed it and can place herself at a specific location, but can’t reminisce. She can’t conjure the experience in her mind. There are no visions of olive trees blowing in the wind, even though she saw them in person and tasted the olives.
I didn’t understand why Sachi never seemed to have the same experience as me. We’d see the world’s most impressive architecture, like the Taj Mahal, and she’d come away shrugging her shoulders. She seemed incredibly difficult to impress and I was at a loss as to why. Now, I understand that these travel experiences don’t become embedded in her mind. They’re fleeting, and as such, have limited future appeal. What Sachi wants most is to sit and watch people in an Italian cafe, probably because it’s life happening in real-time. For her, this has far more appeal than being asked to imagine ancient Romans in the ruins of The Forum.
Think for a moment about how you read books. The words on the page help me imagine characters and events as the story is told. When Sachi reads a book, there are no representations of the characters in her mind. All she has is the words on the page and that’s probably why I’ve never seen her read fiction. Aphants are often attracted to technical and scientific fields (Sachi has a degree in microbiology) and my guess is it’s because they are more concrete than other fields. She loves a good spreadsheet.
Sachi’s phone currently has a photo of our dog, Bosco, on the lock screen. Bosco died in 2016 and I always thought it was odd that Sachi wanted to keep his image on her phone for so long. But then I learned that aphants are not easily able to conjure the faces of loved ones in their minds. She can’t imagine the faces of me or her parents. She recognizes photos as easily as anyone else, but can’t create them in her mind. If she witnessed a crime and was asked to help with a sketch of the suspect, she would not be helpful. I started to see that photo of Bosco as a workaround. She wants to remember his face, but can’t without an image that’s constantly in front of her.
I could go on. The aphantasia onion is one with many, many layers. I have described a few examples in the context of something that is missing, but the reality is that aphantasia is also additive. Sachi has many strengths and some, I believe, relate to aphantasia.
Craig Venter says that his experience with aphantasia meant that he could focus on the big picture because he wasn’t distracted by memorization:
I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches. By understanding concepts vs fact memorization I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.
For Sachi, this seems to manifest in an intense focus on planning and details. I’ve never met anyone who is more detail-oriented and aware of her surroundings. On the water, while I’m gazing at the grand scenery, she’s aware of it, but also notices the waves are getting higher and the tide is ebbing. She starts to check our depth and ensure that all our belongings are secured. She’s also an incredible planner who approaches events with everything in its place. For that reason, our events run flawlessly. I, on the other hand, long for a bit of chaos.
Sachi describes her experience as constantly looking for the signal in the noise. From her perspective, the world is filled with distractions that aren’t productive for her. Perhaps that’s what Venter experienced, too. She doesn’t care about hearing a musician describe their inspiration in an interview, she just wants to hear the music. There are parts of pop culture that don’t stick to her and she’s learned to discard them. Why should she care about the noise? A scientific discovery or a looming financial crisis, on the other hand, is a pure signal in her mind.
I think this is one of the reasons we make a good team. Like any couple, we are different people, but aphantasia seems to take it to a new level. I’m romance and noise, she’s logic and signal. Together, we can cover a lot of territory.
What fascinates me the most about aphantasia is that people can go their entire lives not knowing that their brain works differently from other people. It makes me think about all the other differences in the human experience we don’t yet understand. Do we all have blindnesses and sensitivities that seem normal to us, but aren’t? I have to wonder:
- Do I perceive the world in a way that is rare, unique, or undiscovered?
- Is there a part of me that is a strength or weakness I don’t understand?
I’m sure all of these things are true to some degree, even if they don’t yet have a name.
If you’d like to learn more about aphantasia, the links below are helpful:
- Carl Zimmer wrote about it in the NYT here and here.
- Someone with aphantasia did an “Ask me Anything” post on Reddit
- You can take this quiz to better understand your ability to see mental images
- Here’s an animated video by someone with aphantasia that’s helpful
- This post by Blake Ross was one of the first that caught my attention and goes through a nice and funny FAQ.