Traveling the world with Craig Mod: in the first segment of a two-part conversation, Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to the writer, designer, and technologist about his upbringing, his early relationships with computers, and strategy tips for walking through forests. They also take a question from a listener worried over what to do when your values don’t align with the values of your client — or your employer.
Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford.
Rich Ziade: And Rich Ziade.
Paul: And we are your ever-faithful hosts of Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City. Rich, we’ve got a lot to cover on the show today.
Rich: We do, but before we get into the show, let’s just mention, what does Postlight do? Tell me.
Paul: Well you walk in here and you say, “Hey. People. I need help. I need to build a big platform that tracks all sorts of things. I need to do some crazy e-commerce thing that I never thought about before. I need a mobile app that people can use to meditate. I need a new media website. I need so many things.”
Rich: All right, Paul! Get a hold of yourself!
Paul: My GOD I need Postlight!
Rich: So much. In fact, we need to calm down a bit today.
Paul: Let’s calm down. Yeah we do.
Rich: And what we need to do is sit down with a good friend who will tell us exactly how to sort of find our center.
Paul: Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s talk to that friend. But before that, let’s respond to a very interesting email that we received from a listener.
Rich: Sounds great. Let’s do it.
Paul: We got a great question, and it was an ethics question. And I talked to the person who sent it to us, let’s call him “Sam.”
Rich: OK. Sam.
Paul: So Sam sent us an email, and he said, and I talked to him a little bit about the right way to phrase it, because he was a little nervous about the details. So this listener Sam wrote to us, and he asked us to keep his identity secret, but he described a situation where he was being asked to develop a potentially privacy-violating internet product.
Paul: OK? He’s a web/mobile person.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And he was asked to do something at, that would keep track of people.
Paul: And they wouldn’t necessarily know they were being kept track of. And he didn’t want to do it, but his boss wanted him to do it. And he asked us three questions, and the three questions he asked were: how do your values guide the work you take on, when you have doubts about whether your clients value the same things you do? How do you raise concerns with them? And as someone with a little influence but no real decision-making power, how do I navigate the difference in values between my boss and me. So let’s go back to that first one. How do your values, Rich, guide the work that you take on, in a client service agency like Postlight?
Rich: Well the good news is the values rarely get tested. I don’t think we’re gonna be approached by white supremacists who need a flagship mobile app.
Paul: You know, I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who is a banner ad designer, and he’s really known for his political banner ads.
Rich: Uh huh.
Paul: And he never gets approached by Republicans. He’s the Democrats’ guy.
Rich: Right. So I think that frames things a little bit. We’re also in New York, so I think that frames things a little bit, and I think, depending on geographically where you are, and your network, your personal and professional network, probably dictates the kinds of things that are coming through the door. Now what he’s talking about is much more subtle.
Paul: It’s very specific, right?
Paul: For instance, we work for Goldman Sachs. It’s on our website.
Paul: And a lot of people have issues with Goldman Sachs, and I think if you talked to me like five years ago, I would’ve been like, “[concerned hiss] Oooh.”
Paul: But the reality is we had a good contact there, the work was very straightforward, it was about helping people do their trades. One of the thing you figure out as time goes on is that giant organizations have a kind of like multiplicity of functions. Like I used to hate The New York Times, as a good liberal. And one friend of mine, when I was working at Harper’s Magazine, took me aside and said, “Listen — ”
Rich: Why would you hate The New York Times…??
Paul: It’s complicated. It goes back to Noam Chomsky. Don’t worry about it. Just assume that there are parts of The New York Times that upset me.
Paul: Fine. And that I felt were perpetrating really bad things in society. And a friend of mine took me aside when I was at Harper’s Magazine, which is a very lefty pub.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And he went, “Look. The Times contains multitudes. It’s bigger than any one specific position.” And so there’s an element of that when you’re dealing with these giant, globe-spanning, enormous organizations, where you go, “Which part am I dealing with?”
Paul: So that is, that’s a way, and maybe that’s a justification, but that’s a way that I understand things. There are people who are working, there’s big orgs, there are some things they do, I disagree with. Some things they do…
Rich: Well there’s something very specific — I mean, that’s a fair thought process, right?
Rich: Fair rationale. The problem is if you look at the case that’s been put in front of us here, really what you’re looking at is, this is a tool that is going to take in personal information or tracking information or whatever it may be without telling the user that it’s doing it. So I think there’s one of two ways to approach this. I think there are two paths to take. Actually, three paths to take. One is just be subservient, accept that you’ve been asked to do a job, a task, and complete the task. Essentially, just bite the bullet and accept the difficult decision that you’ve decided to make, which is to do your job and to compromise your values.
Paul: And look —
Rich: By the way, it’s worth noting: this is, this individual’s values, he is not representing necessarily any company’s values.
Rich: Or any agency’s values. He has a particular set of values.
Paul: These are his personal ethics that have been challenged.
Rich: These are his personal ethics, which I respect, actually, and acknowledge.
Paul: Well we run into situations, I mean, we’re web development and app development, and there are things about accessibility and privacy and so on. It’s an ongoing conversation.
Paul: One that comes up a lot in our org is when is it appropriate to market to someone. Like, when do you ask someone to give…give you their email. We have these discussions all the time. They’re ongoing.
Paul: But in this case, it’s like, “Hey, we’re gonna get your info and you may not know we have it.”
Rich: Correct. By the way, here’s the hard reality: the terms of service oftentimes will bury that they are going to get your info. Meaning if you read the Facebook terms of service, there are probably a few things in there that’ll make you cringe.
Paul: Yeah, the lawyers have an understanding of where these boundaries are.
Rich: Yeah. “Oh, we communicated it.” You accepted these terms, as if some sort of quasi-contractual relationship took hold when you signed up for Facebook. Which is obviously ridiculous, because nobody’s reading those things.
Paul: You know, it’s true, though, as a, as a concerned citizen in today’s modern world, one of the best things you could do if you’re concerned about your digital identity?
Paul: Is go back and read the terms of service.
Rich: You —
Paul: Because they’re gonna be very clear about the control they have over your life.
Paul: They’re boring.
Rich: There was a leak recently. Not recently. This past year. Where it turns out that every single message you were sending on Facebook Messenger had geolocation data in it.
Rich: So you could actually, someone had actually built a tool that if you logged in, if you authed in with your Facebook account, it would trace your travels on a map.
Paul: I remember that as Apple doing that. Maybe it was Facebook, too.
Rich: Oh, I may be mistaken.
Paul: But the reality —
Rich: I think it was Facebook.
Paul: It’s all blurry, right?
Rich: It’s all blurry.
Paul: Here’s the thing: the actual larger point there is that you and I don’t even know who’s violating our privacy at this point.
Rich: Correct. So it’s out there. Now, the first thing they can do is accept it and just do the work. The second thing they can do is you put a case that is actually a business case, which is, look, if this gets out, it’s bad. Put aside your values and your ethics here: this is bad PR.
Paul: Look at the larger ethical system out there, and if you go up against that, you can expect 100,000 angry tweets.
Rich: And it’s not a good scene, right? So that’s path number two, which is be pragmatic, which really often works. So when, like, talking to a business stakeholder who is thinking about not getting in trouble, or not being the one who’s at the wheel when things went down, they will often shy away from risks like this.
Paul: Well you know, this is the thing: large organizations and small, your brand is kind of all you’ve got. People tend to think and talk about branding in these very positive terms, but social media and the internet in general is the greatest brand-destruction mechanism that has ever existed.
Paul: You can destroy a brand in less time than you used to. I mean, it used to take, like a whole “60 Minutes” interview.
Paul: Now it takes five minutes!
Rich: So if you think about it, it’s a brilliant bit of judo, right? Because cases that protect the brand —
Rich: And protect reputation are very business-driven.
Paul: Here’s the, because you can point to, like, OK, look, here’s my concern, is that Bruce Schneier will write about your security problem —
Rich: And it takes off and…
Paul: And that’ll just be, like, on Twitter and will become the test case for bad internet privacy.
Rich: And then it’s on nightly news, or…nightmare scenario. Don’t do it.
Paul: That’s your worst — that’ll destroy your business.
Paul: Like, Yahoo right now is known as the privacy failure company.
Paul: It’s just leak after leak, disaster after disaster. It’s destroying their value in the acquisition by Verizon. Marissa Mayer looks like she presides over something that’s on fire.
Rich: It’s bad.
Rich: It’s very bad. So that’s probably your most, your most effective path.
Paul: Well because we’re talking about —
Rich: If you want to not do this.
Paul: We’re not talking about your personal ethics, but the business ethics and the larger ethics around product.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: Those exist. I think people often forget that they do. If people knew about this situation and they’re able to identify it, it’s a genuine risk for your business.
Paul: It has done damage to organizations. Sony hadrootkitson its CDs for protection, so you wouldn’t be able to copy them. It would screw up your whole computer. It was a disaster. I still remember it years later, as a reason why Sony can never be trusted.
Paul: It took 10 full years for people to be able to say “Microsoft” and have it mean something good.
Rich: Yes. It took a long time to regain that goodwill. That’s absolutely right.
Paul: And Yahoo, as far as I can tell, is a dead brand. Like, it’s going to get absorbed, and its Mail will go somewhere, and…
Rich: I think that’s right.
Paul: But you can’t just have every single account be compromised.
Rich: Right. So it’s fear.
Rich: And you’re essentially putting fear forward, and, and convincing the stakeholder that you don’t want this happening on your watch. The third path is to make your value-driven case. Make your ethical…
Paul: Well —
Rich: Ethical-driven case.
Paul: Well and this is the second question this person asked. When you have doubts about whether your clients value the same things you do, how do you raise your concerns with them?
Rich: This is tricky. This is really tricky. I think it speaks to the dynamic you have with your client, it speaks to who you are.
Paul: I mean, let’s be clear —
Rich: And when you say “you,” I’m not talking about the individual, but the entity, the company that you work for, the firm that has partnered up.
Paul: I would say, I have profound ethical differences with almost every client that we have, except that the product that we are developing in collaboration with that client does not embody those ethical differences, it embodies something that we share.
Rich: Do you really have profound ethical differences with our clients?
Paul: I would say yeah, I have some running on a list. Goldman Sachs? Sure. I see things different from Goldman Sachs does.
Rich: Well that’s why you’re not Goldman Sachs.
Paul: We’re working with some extremely religious people, in a religious community. I would say I see the world differently than they do.
Rich: OK. Keep going.
Paul: We are working with a large political foundation. I would say I probably see the world very similarly with them.
Paul: Um…some of the media organizations we work with?
Rich: Uh huh.
Paul: I’m critical of their overall structure, how they — you know, there’s all sorts of stuff. As a person who’s engaged, who’s aware of things, who often gets backchannel communication, I have a lot of awareness about how things are running, and I can be really concerned about how things are going.
Rich: Interesting. OK.
Paul: But that’s been my entire career. I’ve always been somebody people come and talk to, and my entire career, including when I worked for extremely do-gooder type of organizations, I’ve been aware that the ethical standards of the individuals often don’t align with the overall organization.
Paul: And so I think this is a constant ongoing puzzle. If you need everyone to be perfect, and if you need things to align with a set of ethics, you are probably not going to be doing that great at product work. It’s complicated, it’s driven by business, it’s driven by revenue, and the set of goals and the set of things that people wanna do don’t align with what…you know, sort of, like, orthodox good ideological thinking about what progress is, right? They’re not always representing progress as people share it.
Rich: Well…agreed. I think, look, some of them are stark examples, where right out of the gate, we’re not gonna do the work. If it was an organization, again, that was, like, pushing a…an ethically supremacist agenda or something like that —
Paul: Well and I think you —
Rich: We’re just not — we’re gonna send them home, we’ll just say, “Look, thanks for calling — ”
Paul: You and I, there’s some veto power here. I think I would —
Rich: I think —
Paul: Anything that promoted firearms, I would be very, I would have a hard time.
Rich: So those…those are obvious. The less obvious ones, I mean, look, your question, you’re bringing into question, you know, how banking systems work, and how the media works.
Rich: The media has worked the way it’s worked for a long time.
Rich: I mean, the truth is if you really followed your heart, Paul Ford, we would never have any business.
Paul: I don’t think that’s true, though, I just, I acknowledge that I compromise. I acknowledge everybody compromised. And I like to be in the middle of it. I’m a human being. There’s no perfect world. Like, if I drew out my utopia, it would be exhausting.I wouldn’t wanna live there.
Rich: I wouldn’t definitely wanna — I wouldn’t, I actually wouldn’t accept business from clients that would come out of your utopia.
Paul: Yeah, I mean it would be horrible —
Rich: Just to clarify.
Paul: It would be so boring, everything would be consensus-driven, there would be, like, a really nice digital platform and everyone would blog. I mean, it would be terrible!
Rich: Yeah. It would be pretty boring. Fair enough.
Paul: No one wants to live there. I lived there, briefly. I was lonely and broke.
Rich: Yeah. I think that’s, that’s what’s in play here. I think you do have some levers. I think what we described so far, in terms of, you know, the business goals of usually who’s in front of you, can probably drive some of the decision making here.
Paul: I think that’s the third question there, is I don’t have, you know, this is a person without a lot of influence, and no real decision-making power, how do you navigate the different values between your boss and yourself? You clearly articulate them. You also have to, you have to know where your boundaries are. Are you gonna quit about this? If you’re not, if you’re willing to go along, but you really don’t want to, you need to be kind of aware of that, internally.
Rich: Yeah, that’s a bad scene.
Rich: You’re just not gonna be, you’re gonna be miserable, you’re probably gonna make others miserable.
Paul: There’s a —
Rich: You’re just not feeling it.
Paul: It’s very tricky in agencies, too. If somebody doesn’t wanna work on something, they can get put on another client, and is that actually the ethical thing to do?
Rich: Right. I don’t know if we’ve ever had that happen.
Paul: No. These are mostly hypotheticals.
Rich: Someone’s walked up to us —
Paul: That’s why I’m glad somebody’s writing about them, because it’s great for us to talk —
Rich: I’m just trying to think, I mean, we’re really, we’re really young, so we haven’t had someone come up to us and say, “Look, I don’t really like these people. I don’t believe in what they’re about. Put me on something else.”
Paul: Yeah, we’ve had people say, “I can’t work on this technology stack anymore.”
Rich: Right. Which is about as religious as anything else. [laughter]
Paul: That’s very religious. No, look, I think that, you know, eventually we will face ethical issues, but the true thing is that we have a pretty strong filter.
Paul: The gun rights’ lobby is not coming to Postlight to build the “register your gun app.”
Rich: No. There are other agencies that will do that for you.
Paul: Yeah. And they’re just, they already have, they have relationships with those agencies.
Paul: They’re not listening to this podcast. Part of that’s the bubble, there’s a filter bubble that we’re all in, that we’re all talking about and dealing with right now.
Paul: We’re part of that. We’re kind of on a tangent, because we’re a product shop.
Paul: So I think that, you know, our advice to this person is to simply declare your ethical position to your boss, and know where your limits are, and if they’re gonna ask you to truly go beyond your limits, then you have a very hard decision to make.
Rich: Here’s what I think: there are things that are just universally ethically agreed-upon. There’s not gonna be a lot of debate unless you’re a sociopath. And there are things that are against the law. Like, if something is gonna, like, trick people into getting into their bank accounts and stealing their money, or stealing information from people, or even, frankly, taking information that people don’t know you’re getting.
Paul: Well the important thing here —
Rich: Is not cool.
Paul: You’re focusing on the behavior of the user and the things the product enables, not what the people who are creating or involved believe.
Paul: That is where the ethics happen. They happen in the product. Like, if somebody came to be and they wanted to build something really good and really interesting, but they were a, a huge supporter of Second Amendment rights in a way that I didn’t agree with, I’d still wanna work with them.
Rich: Yeah. That’s —
Paul: I mean, that’s —
Rich: It’s irrelevant to the work.
Paul: Because we’re focused on a thing together, it’s a little bit like being a lawyer. It’s a little bit, like, it is professional services, and the minute you start to draw artificial lines —
Paul: You block yourself off from both business and, kind of in general, opportunity, opportunity to learn.
Rich: Right. The world’s more complicated. It’s not that black-and-white.
Paul: It’s very complicated. And what I would hope is that if that conversation arose, I would just represent where I, what I believed, and they would represent what they’ve believed.
Rich: Or not.
Rich: I don’t need to talk to them about what I believe, what I do on Sunday. It’s a client.
Paul: It’s tricky though. You go out for drinks with clients. You talk to them. They have lives and they have —
Rich: You can have pineapple juice, though. You don’t have to have alcohol.
Paul: They all like to drink.
Rich: They do like to drink, don’t they.
Paul: Look, ethics are complicated —
Rich: Anyway I hope this was good feedback for…Sam.
Paul: Yeah, and just, it’s always tricky, because you need to figure out where your own boundaries are, and you need to be sure that you’re shipping good stuff.
Rich: Well that’s…universal.
Paul: That’s the baseline, and if this gets in the way of shipping good stuff, that’s…that part is really bad.
Paul: All right, so, thank you, Sam.
Rich: Thank you, Sam.
Paul: Or whoever you may be.
Rich: Whoever you may be.
Paul: We appreciate your email. Any emails, any questions you have, any ethical things you want us to walk down.
Rich: Right. So that was a heavy-duty business discussion.
Paul: We should talk with somebody who’s…
Rich: Gonna take us elsewhere.
Paul: Yeah. You know —
Rich: Gonna take us for a walk, actually.
Paul: Why don’t we —
Rich: Long walk. You know who I’m talking about, Paul.
Paul: I do. This is one of the more interesting thinkers and photographers and writers and designers and all sorts of things. It’s a compound human being.
Rich: A well-rounded person.
Paul: Craig Mod, who is here in the studio with us today.
Paul: Craig, welcome.
Rich: Welcome, Craig.
Craig Mod: Hello. Hi.
Rich: How are you?
Craig: I’m great.
Paul: What kind of name is “Mod”? Besides being three letters. It’s very SEO-optimized.
Craig: It’s, well, what it is, is it fits in a Unix username really well.
Paul: Yeah. That’s right.
Craig: Eight characters. Perfect.
Rich: Tell us the history —
Paul: Oh, so you could, you could be a DOS file.
Craig: I —
Paul: You could be craigmod.bat.
Craig: I was. .exe. .com. [laughter] I was an S3M file once.
Rich: Many people are gonna say, as they listen to our podcast, to this particular podcast, who is Craig Mod. Who is Craig Mod?
Paul: Who is Craig Mod?
Craig: Well this is what I’m here to find out.
Rich: Yeah. Well…
Craig: I —
Rich: We have our own perspective.
Craig: I wanna, yeah, that’s —
Craig: That’s all —
Rich: Well what is your LinkedIn paragraph?
Craig: Oh God. Whatever it is, it hasn’t been updated. [laughter]
Rich: We hear that a lot.
Craig: In a long time. [laughter]
Rich: OK. What is your Twitter bio?
Craig: Well I think I’m just called “a walking man” now.
Rich: A walking man.
Craig: Yeah. That’s…that’s it.
Paul: Like the James Taylor song.
Craig: Yeah. That’s…
Rich: OK. Um…would you consider yourself a designer?
Craig: When I need to be.
Rich: A photographer?
Craig: If necessary.
Rich: A writer?
Craig: On a good morning, maybe.
Rich: You know, I’ve seen the term Renaissance Man tossed around, like, describing people, usually when they’re on the road.
Paul: I don’t think he’s a good fencer.
Rich: Yeah, probably not a good fencer. Again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. [laughter] Now Craig, I’ve been exposed to Craig’s…probably writing, I didn’t know, I didn’t meet him for a long time. And it was writings about design, but with an interesting, always found it to be an interesting perspective, because it was always from, it was never inside baseball. It was always from a macro view of design and culture and how it affects us and how we should think about it.
Paul: I think, also, Craig, you’re a participatory person, like when you write something, it tends to be so that other people can get involved.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of times it’s in response to something that I’ve put together and built, so other people can do the same thing.
Paul: Yeah, reframing. I mean, Rich is saying “Renaissance,” which I think puts a lot of pressure, but an interdisciplinary person for an interdisciplinary medium.
Craig: I’m a kid of the eighties!
Craig: I mean, when it’s like…
Paul: What was your first computer?
Craig: You had video games. Also my family, we, like, we couldn’t afford computers.
Rich: Where did you grow up?
Craig: I grew up in a little airplane-engine factory town in Connecticut.
Craig: So I didn’t know Connecticut was full of yachts and people with pipes until I left Connecticut.
Craig: And then I was — I met all the other people that had left Connecticut. What did you — this isn’t Connecticut?
Paul: So you had thought you were gonna grow up and work on airplane engines.
Craig: Yeah. I didn’t have many archetypes, let’s just say that.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Craig: For, for things outside of airplane engine factories. And so we didn’t have a computer. The first computer I used was, I think, I was in kindergarten, and it was at this time where even if you weren’t in a private school, you were in, like, a normal, sort of barely-funded public school, there would sort of be a computer?
Paul: There would always be one in the corner.
Rich: I had that, too.
Craig: Yeah, we had —
Rich: In the library.
Craig: We had one and I just remember being totally fascinated by it. So I was, I was captivated by video games.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Craig: And I just thought, OK, a computer is even more interesting. I could play video games.
Paul: OK, so you would go —
Rich: Video games on the computer.
Paul: Or —
Paul: Or at an arcade with quarters.
Craig: Or at — oh yeah, oh, I spent so many weekends at arcades with quarters.
Paul: What were you good at?
Craig: I was not very good at pinball. I feel like that was a…that’s a whole other thing, pinball.
Craig: And I think I was too tiny.
Rich: Did you care about winning the game? I didn’t care — I would always go into the settings.
Paul: I cared about not spending another quarter.
Craig: Yeah. That was it. It was like, how to optimize —
Rich: How do I stretch this out?
Craig: Spend as much time in here as humanly possible.
Paul: I never stopped sucking, though. It was just quarter after quarter.
Craig: I just remember, I remember things like, um, like the Tron video game was really…even though it was a bad video game.
Rich: It’s a bad video game.
Craig: It was bad, but, you know, you had the booth, and you had the light stick…
Rich: It was an experience.
Paul: It’s a good designers’ video game. [laughter] No, it is, I mean, it’s all on a grid.
Craig: Yup. [laughter] Khoi — it’s actually Khoi Vinh’s favorite —
Paul: No kidding.
Craig: Video game.
Rich: No kidding.
Paul: That makes sense.
Craig: No, I don’t know.
Paul: Khoi loves a grid.
Craig: He does.
Paul: So you travel the world.
Craig: I try not to.
Paul: You try not to.
Craig: I try not to. Every year I say, OK, today, this year we’re not gonna travel the world.
Paul: What gets you, what puts the backpack on your back and gets you on the plane?
Craig: Anything that’s gonna help me do better work. Or a really good collaboration. That’s about it.
Paul: So why’d you go to…Virginia?
Craig: Virginia was, I got a writing fellowship to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.
Craig: So it was a month residency.
Rich: One month, just a month.
Craig: Just a month.
Paul: You can write a lot in a month.
Craig: You can do — I did six months of writing in that month.
Craig: Like six months of real-world writing.
Rich: Oh so it’s intensive.
Paul: Wait, what are you writing?
Craig: Oh, it’s a novel.
Paul: OK. So you’re working on a novel.
Craig: Yes. Five, it’ll be five years old December 21st.
Paul: That’s a normal age for a novel.
Paul: A healthy kindergarten age.
Craig: Yeah, it’s —
Rich: Wait, what does that mean? You’ve been working on it for five years?
Craig: Yeah. It started five years ago.
Rich: How close are you to getting it done?
Craig: Every year I think I’m done.
Paul: Yeah, no one ever knows.
Paul: Usually it’s when it’s forced out of your hands by external pressures.
Paul: Or there becomes a sense of closure or regret.
Craig: Or death.
Paul: Yeah. Those are the things.
Rich: Is it good?
Craig: It’s getting better, yeah. Well, I also can’t believe that I’m still interested in it.
Craig: You know? It’s been five —
Rich: That takes a lot.
Craig: It’s been five years and I was in Virginia and I was just kind of like, I’m still excited to work on this thing.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Craig: That was a revelation. And then to have a month to just go deep on it?
Rich: OK, cool. So you’ve got a novel going. I’ve seen your photography — it’s very good, by the way. I know you consider yourself, I don’t know, maybe you don’t consider yourself a hobbyist or whatever, I mean, you’re not…
Craig: I don’t wanna…yeah, no.
Rich: You don’t make a living as a photographer, I guess I would say.
Craig: No, no, definitely not.
Rich: Right. But it’s very…it’s really good. Have you seen his photography?
Rich: It’s really good. So there’s that that’s happening.
Paul: So wait, let’s…let’s…nail it down, a couple of things.
Rich: You got to say, this is —
Rich: There are selfish motivations here, because I pretty much want this guy’s life, and I’m just trying to probe into how he’s pulling it off. Like he’s…I’m fortunate enough to be friends with Craig on Facebook, and usually it’s my mom putting up paintings of the Virgin Mary, or videos of Pink Floyd.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: And my brother complaining about something.
Paul: It’s true.
Rich: And then Craig is just walking through the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
Paul: Many the things I’ve seen from Craig do involve a forest somewhere along the line. [laughter]
Rich: Just a lot of forestry.
Craig: This is a new — I mean, this is pretty new, this is the last three years.
Rich: Oh, OK.
Craig: The last three years —
Paul: You didn’t always…?
Craig: The last three years I’ve become Forest Man.
Paul: Yeah, you’re pretty serious about, I mean, you’re just in a forest a lot of the time. I’m never in a forest.
Craig: I…you know, I mean, you just, you choose to be in the forest. I’ve optimized a lot of things around making sure I’m in a forest most of the time.
Rich: Most of the time?
Craig: I try to be.
Craig: I mean, Virginia was…eh, it was an old plantation.
Craig: I was on a farm.
Paul: What is it about the forest? Is it the woodland creatures?
Craig: It is…it’s the bear attacks.
Paul: It’s the bear attacks?
Craig: It’s the dodging the bear attacks. Finding —
Paul: Have you seen a bear?
Craig: Seen a couple bears. I was actually, I had a bear run in front of my car in Asheville.
Paul: OK. Asheville, North Carolina.
Craig: Asheville, North Carolina. One of my favorite areas in the world.
Paul: People looove Asheville, North Carolina.
Craig: I love —
Paul: Bears do, too.
Craig: I love, I love everything kind of around — I like Asheville, I think it’s great.
Paul: It’s good on forests.
Craig: And, well, mountains.
Craig: So we’re saying forests, but really it’s mountains.
Paul: Ohhhh. So the forest is just sort of…
Paul: It’s the gateway —
Craig: I don’t —
Rich: I don’t know where you were —
Craig: You gotta deal with the forest —
Rich: Very beautiful.
Craig: If you wanna go to the mountains, unless you go to the Tibetan plateau, and then…
Paul: It’s all mountains.
Craig: No forest. Yeah. Because the trees can’t grow there.
Paul: Now —
Rich: Have you been there?
Craig: Eight years ago? Eight and a half years ago. I’ve been trying to get back.
Craig: It’s tough. It’s just, like, China.
Craig: You gotta deal with China to go to Tibet. And it means visas, and it means getting shaken down if you’re trying to, you know, get outside of Lhasa. It’s a headache. Go to Nepal. If you want to go to the Himalayas, got to Nepal. A lot easier, everyone is sort of chiller, on a governmental level.
Paul: We run into a very similar situation getting reservations at restaurants. [laughter] OK, no wait: here’s my question: how does one enter a forest?
Craig: With a bear bell.
Paul: Yeah. Do you have a bear bell?
Craig: Well, I didn’t, until…two months ago, I bought my first bear bell.
Paul: OK, how big is a bear bell?
Craig: I wasresistantto them. I was totally resistant to it.
Rich: What’s a bear bell?
Paul: What do you think it is? It’s a bell that warns off bears.
Rich: Is that what it is?
Paul: Yeah, we have one in the office.
Rich: I just never heard the phrase before!
Paul: I use it all the time with clients. [laughter] OK, so you have a bear bell.
Craig: I got a bear — well, it’s a beautiful little design object.
Paul: How big is it?
Craig: I wish I had it with me. First of all, it’s made out of brass. The thing weighs a lot, which is, you know, antithetical to the ethos of ultra-light backpacker people.
Craig: Whatever. I want a bear bell that can take a beating. I want a bear bell that I can beat a bear with.
Paul: Because bears don’t like the sound of bells.
Paul: Because they’re atheists.
Craig: Little-known fact… [laughter] Little-known fact: the only thing that scares a bear is a bell.
Craig: That’s it. Nothing else in the world scares a bear.
Rich: Is that true?
Craig: That is not true.
Paul: Oh. Yeah, because I also, like, they’re afraid of nuclear war, and their children not growing up healthy.
Paul: I mean, they have all the regular fears that —
Paul: That people do.
Rich: Right. Inflation.
Paul: Yeah. Bad for bears…
Craig: Gluten, keep them away. Keep them away from the gluten. No, so the bear bell, do you really wanna know what it does?
Craig: So the way you don’t get murdered by a bear is you let the bear know you’re coming. That’s it.
Craig: That’s all, that’s all you’re doing. You’re saying…
Paul: Does the bear get out of the way, or does the bear go, “Oh, he’s coming. Let’s make…”
Craig: Let’s eat him.
Craig: No, because the bear’s…everyone’s afraid of everything.
Craig: It’s like, it’s frightening in the forest. The monkeys are amazing, in the forest, actually.
Rich: You’ve seen monkeys?
Paul: Not in Asheville, North Carolina!
Craig: In Nagano.
Craig: We’re back in Japan.
Paul: We’re back in Japan.
Craig: Yeah, mainly in Japan.
Rich: There are monkeys in the forest?
Craig: So many monkeys.
Rich: That’s so cool.
Craig: And they just —
Paul: There’s monkeys all over the place.
Craig: I found, I had a stare-down with an alpha monkey the other day.
Craig: Full, like, this guy…
Rich: Wait, are you in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, or…? Where are we now?
Craig: This was —
Paul: Back in Nagano!
Rich: I can’t keep track of where he is!
Paul: I don’t think he can, either. Nagano!
Craig: This was on the old, the Kyu-Nakasendo, the old Nakasendo. And there was monkeys on this pass. It was misty. No one else was hiking — I was hiking in a typhoon. There were leaches everywhere. I was covered in leaches, just, you sort of took off your pants, there was leaches in your pants, it was full-on Stand By Me. Just falling from the trees, and then, so no one’s on the path —
Rich: You’re alone.
Paul: There’s a typhoon.
Craig: And there’s, and you’re in, I’m in a typhoon — well the last time I tried to do it there was a blizzard, and I just said, you know what?
Rich: I’m gonna do this.
Craig: Forget it, I’m gonna do this.
Craig: I’m gonna walk this walk. I wanted to walk this walk. And then, you know, because no one’s walking it, the monkeys think they got the thing to themselves.
Craig: And they come out. They’re brazen.
Rich: Yeah. And they’re staring you down.
Craig: Sta — just the alpha.
Paul: Well it sounds like you forgot your monkey bell. [laughter]
Craig: The mom — the mom ran…my monkey horn.
Paul: Yeah. Monkey horn?
Craig: Monkey horn.
Paul: What scares monkeys?
Craig: Uh, white bread.
Craig: Just white, like, Miracle, what’s it called, Wonder Bread. Not Miracle Whip.
Craig: Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread, you throw it at the monkeys.
Rich: That’s a bad scene. [laughter]
Paul: They just go crazy for it?
Rich: You throw that at anyone, you’re pretty much gonna deter.
Craig: Nobody wants — I can’t believe how much Wonder Bread I ate growing up.
Craig: Did you guys eat a lot of Wonder Bread?
Rich: We’re going on these tangents here! There’s so much I wanna talk about. I did eat a lot of Wonder Bread. It was really good. It had a cake-like quality.
Craig: We didn’t know better. I grew up eating fried bologna on Wonder Bread. That was my main source of protein.
Paul: And now, today —
Rich: OK, so there’s a leap we’re making here, Craig. Sounds like you, you grew up in modest means. I need to understand how you’re making a living now, such that you can go cli — walking through Japanese forests. Is it a lottery? Did you get some stock in a startup that just has taken care of things? You know, I think you did work for Flipboard at one point.
Craig: Yeah. For 15 months.
Rich: For 15 — so that was a long stint for you.
Craig: That was, that was really, that was so long. [laughter] But to be honest, to be fair, though —
Rich: We should pause and reflect on that.
Craig: It was really —
Rich: 15 months is pretty short job!
Craig: But it was dense.
Paul: Dense. Sure.
Craig: I mean that was, that was at least 3 years’ worth of stuff. At least.
Rich: OK, so it was a tense —
Craig: It was, yeah, and that year was insane. Everyone, so almost everyone in my family died that year, of sort of natural means, there wasn’t like a plane crash.
Rich: My goodness.
Craig: And then the earthquake happened in Japan, the Fukushima meltdown happened.
Rich: Were you there?
Craig: I arrived in Tokyo on the day of the earthquake. I was going back to pay taxes.
Rich: Oh boy.
Craig: I paid taxes and then…
Rich: Things went down.
Craig: The quake hit.
Rich: Yeah. Wow.
Paul: You know, let’s hit pause. Because it doesn’t sound like Craig found the resources he needed by stealing them from monkeys. Like, at some point, it sounds like you went to college or you did something. Did you go to college?
Craig: I did go to college, yeah.
Paul: OK. Where’d you go to college?
Craig: I went to UPenn, in the States.
Craig: The Digital Media Design program, so it was like a fine arts and computer science degree.
Rich: Oh, OK.
Paul: So this guy who loves video games, is fascinated by computers, has been —
Rich: Pursues it.
Paul: Around, and he goes to UPenn and just goes deep.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I took a year off, went to Japan, when I was 19. That was how I got to Japan. Studied there intensively, Japanese language, Japanese literature, theology, government, stuff like that. And then —
Rich: Fell in love with it, it sounds like.
Craig: Well, it was just, it was, it was an interesting deep hole —
Rich: Sure. It’s another world.
Craig: To dig into. Well and also the language thing. It’s so much fun really learning another — I’d spent all of middle school learning, quote-unquote “learning” Spanish.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Craig: And, you know, uh…unless you’re in a place to deploy the knowledge, it’s not really…
Craig: It’s not really, it doesn’t stick. So I got really addicted to that. And then when I graduated UPenn, I went back, I was like, all right, I just wanna go back to Japan, do grad school, go deeper into the Japanese language, and…
Craig: And I helped co-found a publishing company at the same time.
Rich: In Japan.
Craig: In Japan.
Paul: And you’re a pretty early days digital media person.
Rich: Yeah, this is, if we’re…I mean, this is what, what is the timespan?
Craig: I mean, hex editing BBEdit software since I was, like, 11 or whatever.
Rich: That’s really early days.
Rich: This was pre-internet.
Craig: It was fun. I wanted to, you know, I mean, I was doing ANSI art with the ANSI art scene. I got my first job in Silicon Valley because of the guy who ran the ANSI art group that I was part of, as like a 13-year-old. He was, like, five years older than me. His name was Mass Delusion. [laughter] And I got an email from Mass Delusion asking if I wanted to be an intern at his digital media startup in, I think it was in Santa Clara.
Rich: That’s a cool email to get.
Paul: It is, although it does sort of show that if you start your network around age 11… [laughter]
Craig: It pays off.
Paul: It does pay off. Like, that’s one of the tricky and confusing parts about our industry.
Craig: So to go back to my first computer, my neighbor got a computer.
Craig: And I heard that my neighbor got a computer, and I started going over there almost every day. So he was divorced, he had a kid, but the wife got custody of the kid, and so he was kind of excited, he was, you know, excited to have this kid coming over.
Craig: Yeah! You know, I was kind of, like, hanging out with him. And he gave me keys to his place and like his security code. And then he ended up buying me a phone line, so I could get onto Prodigy and I could get a shell account —
Rich: Phone line in your parents’ house.
Craig: No, in his house.
Rich: In his house!
Craig: Yeah, so it was just like —
Rich: So you’re hanging in his house every day.
Craig: I’m…I mean, I kind of owe…I owe a lot to this guy.
Craig: I never really thanked him. It made me really sad to think about that. And then the other day I went to go look him up, to go say thank you. He’s the reason I’m doing a lot of what I’m doing today.
Craig: He gave me that. And it turns out he passed away from a heart attack, like, seven years ago.
Rich: Got it.
Craig: It’s kind of a bummer.
Rich: That’s sad.
Paul: It truly happens. It truly happens.
Rich: OK, so wait. You’re in grad school. You finished grad school. You stay in Japan after grad school.
Craig: Stayed there, yeah. Well, you know —
Rich: Started a publishing company.
Craig: Yeah, we were doing the publishing company, and it was —
Paul: And now we’re in the early 2000s?
Craig: Early 2000s.
Rich: What do you publish, like, what kind of books?
Craig: We were doing sort of translations of Japanese people in English. I was sort of the art director. I was just focused on making beautiful books, that was it. I was just working with Japanese printers and paper makers and artists to illustrate these things, and just try to make the most beautiful…
Rich: Most beautiful book as a physical object.
Craig: Mass, yeah, physical object. You know, we pretentiously called them, like, literary objects, or something like that.
Rich: Interesting. What was the name of the publishing company.
Craig: It’s still around. It’s called Chin Music Press. But I haven’t been involved for almost 10 years now.
Paul: So here are the prior, like, the priorities are: making things.
Paul: Being in a culture where making things that are very high quality is a valued concept.
Craig: Yeah. A place where, you know, craftsmanship is not just for people in Williamsburg, right?
Craig: In fact, not only for people in Williamsburg, but the government recognizes it.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Craig: So Jiro, the famous sushi guy, right? Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Craig:I went to photograph him in, like, 2006 or 2007.
Rich: Oh, cool.
Craig: This is before he got Michelin stars. I wanted to go do it because he was just awarded a living national treasure award. So the government recognized his sushi skills.
Rich: It was, he was still in the same spot in the train station, he still had the same —
Craig: Same exact place. And you know —
Rich: Have you eaten it?
Craig: I did. Well when I went to photograph it, I went at, like, 2 pm, and he said, “Well, before we do it, sit down, I’ll feed you before we take some photos.”
Craig: So I got, I had this private one-on-one Jiro sushi thing, but I’m, like, you know, I’m 26 years old, I grew up eating friend bologna on Wonder Bread and macaroni and cheese and SpaghettiOs — let’s just say it was lost on my palate.
Paul: Sure. [laughter] That’s fine. You were there to take pictures.
Rich: He was waiting for a filet of fish.
Craig: But it did, I ate things that I would have never ordered.
Rich: Have you gone back?
Craig: No, you can’t…
Rich: It takes months, right?
Craig: It’s a pain, it’s such a pain. He won’t even remember me, and his son was pretty grumpy, and —
Paul: A lot of grumpiness.
Craig: I went to go — well his son, I would be grumpy, too, his dad just doesn’t give up.
Craig: He’s been waiting for this —
Rich: You’re also trying to live up to —
Paul: It’s like being Prince Charles.
Craig: But his other son, you know —
Rich: You just wanna be, like, you’re trying to get to dad’s love through the way you’re toasting the seaweed.
Craig: Good soy sauce. But the thing is, his middle son, total freedom. So he’s got his own place inRoppongi —
Rich: Ah, I’d heard about this.
Craig: Yeah, so it’s like, he was kind of, like he was a blessing in disguise, not being the oldest son.
Rich: Snuck out…
Rich: Learned a lot, and…
Paul: Didn’t have to spend two years making an egg.
Craig: Well the egg guy is now down the road here in Tribeca.
Rich: Right. There’s a guy here.
Craig: Or near West Village, I guess.
Craig: It’s pretty good.
Paul: It’s all a lot of drama.
Craig: So, but crafts, interested in craftsmanship. Respect — sort of where respect for making good things is not just lip service, it’s not, just, you know, this kind of let’s make an ax in the wood in Portland.
Paul: What do you think, when Americans get all excited about something like Jiro Dreams of Sushi — is it exhausting? Are you like, “Oh God, just shut up.” Or are you like, “Fine.”
Craig: You know, it’s funny is when I went, I saw that movie in, um…the IFC, over West Village. And they put the soundtrack for Ai Wei Wei’s Never Sorry.
Craig: On the Jiro movie.
Paul: That sounds great.
Craig: Because they didn’t know Chinese wasn’t Japanese.
Paul: It got a little mixed up.
Rich: Oh boy.
Paul: But that actually sounds kind of…
Craig: It was sort of like the Pink Floyd —
Craig: With Alice in Wonderland, or one of those mash-ups.
Rich: Yeah. Wizard of Oz.
Craig: 10 minutes into it —
Paul: Dark Side of the Moon.
Paul: Wizard of Oz, yeah.
Rich: Oh. So for you, it was —
Craig: You can also do it with Alice in Wonderland.
Paul: Oh really?
Craig: With the Mad Hatter and the bunny rabbit and —
Rich: You can do a lot of things, given the right state of mind, Craig.
Rich: Just let it happen.
Craig: I was on LSD when I went to see Jiro.
Rich: Oh. He’s got that straight, he’s pretty deadpan.
Rich: And there’s like a zen-like quality about him, so I can’t read when he’s joking or not.
Paul: He’s playing with us.
Rich: OK. Did any of this happen, Craig? [laughter]
Craig: I’ve actually, I’ve never been to Japan. [laughter] That’s the…
Paul: There is a lot going on with that Craig Mod.
Rich: Yeah. So much, in fact, that there’s more.
Paul: We’re gonna hit pause right here, and we’ll come back to more Craig Mod next week.
Paul: I don’t even know what to say at this point.
Rich: Actually, you know what you may wanna do?
Paul: Go for a walk in the woods?
Rich: Take a walk.
Rich: And just take in what you just heard.
Paul: I need a bear bell.
Rich: [inscrutable sigh]
Paul: Well let’s rejoin Craig next week.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Here on Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City. I’m Paul Ford.
Rich: I’m Rich Ziade.
Paul: Anyway: email@example.com. You know how to get in touch with us. Tell us all your worries and troubles. Hire us for building your big complex web apps, platforms, and mobile applications. We’d love to talk to you soon. Anything you need, let us know, and give us five stars on iTunes!
Rich: That covers it Paul. You killed it.
Rich: Have a great week!
Paul: Bye everybody.