[VIC – 108] Say it to my face. A means, not an end. Elevator etiquette. The Gates Foundation annual letter.

Business & Money

I’ve noticed that it’s much harder for people to be mean/rude face-to-face, versus over the phone or email. I imagine that is because there’s less humanity when you can’t see the other person. Putting a snarky comment in an email or yelling at someone over the phone doesn’t take much courage. But to look someone in the eyes (especially if you have respect for that person) and say really mean things is hard to do.

The reason I put this in the business & money section is because the idea recently made itself apparent in a business setting. I was on a Zoom call, and the other person was being extremely rude and confrontational for seemingly no reason. Now I don’t want to make assumptions about what might be going on in that person’s life (perhaps a recently lost loved one, rocky marriage, etc), but that still wouldn’t justify speaking to someone the way that I was being spoken to.

So I thought, I’ll turn on my webcam so the person can see my face. So I turned it on, smiled, and reiterated my previous question and the reason as to why I was asking. The other person’s tone and demeanor changed almost immediately.

Fascinating!

Human Progress

The control of information flow has taken on a drastically different appearance of late.

At one time, things were fairly straightforward. A handful of broadcast networks and media companies had a firm grip on the megaphone and popular opinion. If you could control the printing press and the teleprompter, then you basically had a monopoly on information.

And if you wanted to censor or control that flow, simply go to the choke point and apply pressure.

But things look different these days. We still have a few powerful companies controlling the flow of information, both those companies don’t produce any of the content found on their platforms. Instead, they claim to be open and agnostic to all information sources, allowing them to abdicate all responsibility for whatever rises to the top.

And, as a result, censorship has taken on a far more complex form. It shows up as coordinated campaigns of misinformation fueled by content farms and Macedonian teenagers. And due to human nature and our love for all things scandalous, misinformation gets more attention than valid and true information sources. It’s a huge problem when it’s difficult to determine the veracity of information due to the fact that all information sources get the same treatment. If we want a knowledgeable and informed public, it seems obvious that the organizations that control the flow of information should go to great lengths to provide simple and workable tools to distinguish falsehood from truth.

A simple guise of free speech is not enough. Yes, people should be able to say and write whatever they want to say and write, but that is not an end, in and of itself. Instead, free speech is merely a means to other more important ends. Free speech is about encouraging open, honest, and rational debate. It’s about holding people and organizations accountable for their actions. It’s about preserving civil liberties and affording citizens freedom of expression. To protect free speech for its own sake is to not understand what is intended to bring about.

Philosophy

Elevator etiquette is so strange to me. If I had to write the manual based on my observations of other people, it would contain things like:

1. Do not make eye contact (staring at a phone is highly recommended).

2. Greetings and salutations are not permitted (exceptions for when a dog or baby is present).

3. Always press the “door close” button when you get on (despite the fact the door will close on its own within a couple seconds).

And what’s funny is that these rules are the same whether you’re at a hotel or at your apartment building where you see many of the same people every day.

I like to make eye contact and say “hello” when I get on elevators. When others get off, I say “good evening” or “have a nice day.” After I get on, I don’t press the “door close” button. I’m not important enough to the point that a second or two has a large impact on my day.

Why do so many of us let concentrated urban dwelling strip of us our humanity and decency?

My Latest Discovery

Bill and Melinda Gates recently released their annual letter. This year they chose to focus on answering 10 hard questions they’ve received on their website. I think number 5 was my favorite:“Does saving kids’ lives lead to overpopulation?” The answer is so counterintuitive.

“When more children live past the age of 5, and when mothers can decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down. Parents have fewer children when they’re confident those children will survive into adulthood. Big families are in some ways an insurance policy against the tragic likelihood of losing a son or a daughter.”

[VIC – 107] Stepping in puddles. Ars longa, vita brevis. Didn’t need the jacket. The mini-fast.

Business & Money

Earlier this week I was walking towards Dig Inn, my normal lunch spot. Perhaps 30 yards ahead I noticed a fairly large puddle. Another 30 yards ahead of that, there was a young finance type walking briskly towards me. Apparently he didn’t notice the giant puddle between us. He proceeded to step square in the middle of it which, of course, completely threw his world into disarray. As I passed to the side of him, I heard him mutter, “why does shit like this always happen to me?” As he stormed off, I couldn’t quite make out what else he said, but it was definitely other obscenities and consecrations.

On first take, you might say that anyone would respond in a similar manner. But I’d say that, if you want to be a good investor, you have to let go of that type of thinking. You have to completely eliminate the idea that the world is acting on you or that it has some predetermined nefarious purpose for you. Instead, I believe you have to focus on what you can control (not all that much outside of your behavior/psychology) and realize that the vast majority of market forces are completely outside of your control.

Human Progress

I’ve never had the urge to get a tattoo, but I came across a Latin phrase this week that really spoke to me.

Ars longa, vita brevis. It means “art is long, life is short.” It refers to the idea that, while one human life is extremely brief, we have the opportunity to contribute to a body of knowledge and understanding that persists long after the individual has ceased to exist. And that those contributions can help bootstrap the continual progression of humanity.

It’s the idea that men are small, but mankind is massive. And what a beautiful idea it is!

Philosophy

Earlier today, I flew out of Laguardia for a business trip. As I was walking to my gate, I passed by a Uniqlo vending machine. You could buy jackets and shirts in a few different colors. The jacket was really nice and I contemplated buying it. It was only $70. I decided not to buy it.

I decided not to buy it because I have enough jackets. Sure, the one in the vending machine was nice and different than any other I owned, but that’s not the point. I don’t need a new jacket.

We humans are strange creatures. It seems coded in our DNA to want more stuff. More jackets, more shoes, more food, more everything. I’ll call it hedonic adaptation. No matter how good you have it or how much stuff you have, you simply get used to it and want more and/or different stuff. I’m not sure there are any other creatures on the planet that share this feature. And that’s awesome. For those other creatures that is.

What is the purpose of this mode of thinking?

I guess if you think about it from a purely biological perspective, accumulating stuff might give males a higher likelihood of reproducing and passing on their genes. Gather as much stuff as possible, and the females will be impressed by all my stuff and give me an opportunity to mate. Having lots of stuff proves my fitness. My offspring will have a higher likelihood of survival due to all my stuff, so the female, of course, wants to mate with a male that gives her offspring the best chance at survival.
I mean, the logic makes sense, but as I mentioned before, we humans are unique in that our lives have gotten pretty far away from the purely biological. We don’t really follow the laws of nature. We don’t live in equilibrium with our environment. We don’t have any predators (except maybe other humans).

I think the problem is that, despite having broken from the normal biological system, we actually have not. We still have the “lizard brain” at the core. The only difference is that we’ve buried it underneath a bunch of abstractions.

This brings me back to why meditation has become such an integral part of my life. It’s so valuable for me because it helps to peel back the abstractions. It helps me get closer to what is real and what is true. It helps me realize when hedonism is creeping up in my mind and when I have enough jackets. It helps me realize that, if someone else (spouse, friend, family, etc) is only interested in me due how much stuff I have, that’s likely not a relationship worth maintaining.

My Latest Discovery

Over the last few months, I’ve been taking a new approach whenever I feel as though I might be getting sick. Whenever the feeling arises, I will skip eating lunch for a day or two. So after the post-workout protein shake in the morning, I won’t eat again until dinner, which usually occurs around 8 pm. So basically a 12-13 hour midday fast.

At some point between 12 – 2 pm, I’ll have a Soylent or fruit smoothie so that I’m not skipping out on vitamins/nutrients that are, of course, important for recovery and good health.

I haven’t yet spent much time reading into this, but the thought process is to not waste any unnecessary energy on digestion, and instead allow my system to divert that fuel to support the immune system. I’ll update you guys when I have a chance to do a bit of research.

The results seem promising. Every little bug that has started to creep up has receded quickly before becoming anything substantial (knock on wood).

More broadly, I find it important to do these type of experiments, regardless of the underlying science, to figure out what works for my body. Our biochemistries are all slightly different, so if you can find something that works for you, that seems like a good thing.

[VIC – 106] AHS – Amazon Health Services 😷 . Avoiding exploitation in the sharing economy. To understand > to reply. Hostess with the mostest 🍩 .

Business & Money

A few days ago there was an announcement that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase are creating a joint healthcare venture. The press release is pretty vague, but intriguing nonetheless.

To start, let’s look at AWS to get an idea of how the Amazon model works. As Amazon was scaling in the mid-2000s, it decided to build an easy-to-use interface that developers across the company could use to spin up cloud servers, build applications, and access the necessary compute and storage resources as-a-service. And once this system got to scale internally, it offered the whole thing as-a-service to external developers. So now anyone in the world can leverage the front end that Amazon has built (aws.amazon.com), leverage all of the back-end technology (servers, data centers, etc) to deploy whatever app they’re working on far faster and far cheaper than would otherwise be possible.

It’s the same story with e-commerce. Want to sell something? Leverage the interface at Amazon.com and all of the back end tech (fulfillment centers, logistics networks, etc) to be up and running in no time.

So I imagine this will be the plan for healthcare. Build a front-end interface for Amazon employees (and those at Berkshire and JPMorgan) to easily access insurance information, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmacies, and any other players in the ecosystem, while also building the back-end infrastructure to make the whole thing possible. And once they have that figured out, of course, open the floodgates by offering that same interface+infrastructure to other employers and maybe even individuals at some distant point in the future.

The really interesting thing to me is that, while this is all playing out, all of the healthcare suppliers (insurers, pharmacies, etc) will likely be modularized in the process. If Amazon becomes the front end, then it won’t matter to the consumer what insurance company is behind the scenes paying the bills or what pharmacy fills a prescription. And I think it’s this idea that explains why healthcare stocks across the board sold off when the announcement hit the wire. The writing is on the wall.

Now if this hypothetical scenario does play out, it would do so over a very long period of time. Maybe 10, 20, or even 30 years. So the short-term selloff is likely a bit of an overreaction in the immediate term. I imagine short-term traders are taking advantage as we speak.

But speaking of how long this will take, I think that explains why the aforementioned companies are partnering on this initiative. Nothing I’ve mentioned to this point requires anything from Berkshire or JPMorgan. The strategy, approach, and time horizon is purely and quintessentially Amazonian.

However, Berkshire brings something interesting and unique to the table. While they do not play in healthcare insurance directly, they are one of the largest reinsurers in the game. That is, they provide insurance for the health insurance companies. So they wouldn’t be at risk of being modularized by this new platform, but would instead provide a vital piece to the puzzle.

And finally, we have JPMorgan. What are they doing here? Well, one of the lines from the press release says that the new venture will be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” First off, I think it’s highly unlikely that these guys are building a non-profit (if you disagree, I’d love to hear your perspective). Instead, I think that sentence reflects the long-term perspective of the partnership. This won’t be a money-making endeavor anytime soon. If they can be successful with this, and that’s a massive IF, this will take many many years and many many dollars to unfold. And as such, access to capital markets and financing will be a critical component to the long-term strategy. And who better than JPMorgan to fill that role.

Human Progress

The sharing economy fascinates me. It’s incredible how, over a very short span of time, entrepreneurs across the globe have identified ways to better utilize and monetize existing resources.

On the employment front, this brings many new and exciting opportunities to the table. Workers have a new found flexibility to define the nature of work for themselves. Individuals that may have otherwise had limited opportunities can now easily become market participants. And sharing economy platforms generally have the ability to scale in a way that traditional businesses cannot (low fixed costs, network effects, etc). As such, the net benefit to job creation can be massive.

That said, the moral and ethical implications are also significant. There is a chance that workers become completely commoditized by these platforms. When you think of a company like Uber, it’s hard not to think about the low bargaining power of drivers which leads to serious exploitation. We’ve all read about how drivers can be penalized for shutting off the app, the gamification elements that lead to long hours, and how long it took to get tipping implemented. And given that sharing economy laborers are often contractors (as opposed to employees), their ability to collectively bargains is basically non-existent.

So how can we ensure that we benefit from this incredible new business model, without allowing the negative externalities to run amuck?

To start, I think it’s important to think about how the reputation systems are employed. All sharing economy platforms use them, but all are not created equal. For example, let’s look at Airbnb. If you’re a host with great reviews, your listing gets prioritized in search results and you have the opportunity to make more money. So the platform leverages the system to create more economic opportunity for participants. Uber, on the other hand, leverages their reputation system to remove bad actors. I can’t find any evidence that higher rated drivers are more likely to get more fares. Instead, as long as your reputation is high enough to remain on the platform, you are matched based on location and pick-up times. What if riders could see these rating ahead of time and select drivers based on them? That small change might provide more incentive for safe driving and better reward the top drivers on the platform with more fares and more money.

Another thing to consider is whether these platforms encourage repeat transactions between the same buyer and seller. For example, when I was running DogsterApp, I used LawTrades as my platform for legal services. It matches you with qualified lawyers based on what services you need. And when you find the right lawyer, you can basically pay a flat monthly fee for a block of that specific lawyer’s time. It’s like a dedicated and on-demand general counsel. And over time, I can build a relationship with a specific person based multiple interactions and trust. I think this encouragement of repeat transactions between the same people empowers suppliers (the lawyers in this case) to build reputation, a loyal customer base, and again, increases their earning potential. Contrast that with platforms like TaskRabbit where you are just matched with a different random person each time you use the platform. The latter leads to commoditization of labor and exploitation, just like the Uber drivers.

Finally, I think the ability to set the price has a lot to do with the quality of the experience for workers on these platforms. For example, you can use a platform like Thumbtack to secure local services like house cleaning or carpentry, and the workers have the ability to offer their services at whatever price they decide. That type of flexibility allows greater freedom and agency for suppliers, while not allowing the platform to control their earning potential.

These are just a few things to consider, but perhaps we need some form of regulatory checklist by which to evaluate the merits of these platforms and determine if they will produce a net benefit to society.

Philosophy

For the longest time, when other people would speak, I would always listen with the intention of replying. As I took words in, I was simultaneously figuring out what I was going to say next in response. And it makes logical sense. A conversation is an interchange between two people wherein they take turns speaking.

And in sales, it seemed to make even more sense than in normal conversation. When an existing or potential customer speaks, it’s often about why their current situation is working and why they don’t need any help. It’s about how they made an investment with a competitor and their needs are being met. So logically it was my job to find cracks in the story, respond with how our feature set was superior, or elicit fear, which might encourage them to make a change.

But at some point, in both work settings and my personal life, I made a change. I stopped listening with the intention to reply, but rather listening with the intention to understand. I mean really understand.

And funny things happen when you make that change.

First, the pace of conversations tends to slow down. There are often pauses after the other person stops speaking. And I think that’s a good thing. It makes conversations more thoughtful, deliberate, and insightful. (But the silence does take some getting used to.)

Second, I found that my replies, more often than not, would be another question, rather than an answer or statement of fact. Because in reality, only so much can be said with a couple sentences. Word choice matters. Tone of voice matters. Body language matters. And when you really listen and make a genuine attempt at understanding, you start to get curious about why a person uses one words versus another. You start to get curious about what underlying emotions and drives might be coloring the conversation. And everything in life really comes down memories and motives. To past experiences and future desires. The more you can understand those things, it seems the better you can influence or motivate a desired action.

And finally, you end up with deeper and higher quality relationships, whether business or personal. And things basically boil down to relationships, so this seems to be a good outcome.

My Latest Discovery

Last week I touched on the fact that many companies have been giving out these one-off bonuses in response to tax reform. And every example that I had seen to that point was basically the same. Here’s a $1,000 bonus check, spend it wisely!

But this week, I stumbled upon a press release from Hostess.

“Hostess Brands, Inc. today announced that, following the recently enacted tax legislation, the snack cake maker will be providing bonuses totaling $1,250 to its 1,036 hourly bakery and corporate employees. The bonuses will include $750 in cash and a $500 401k contribution.”

I love the 401k contribution angle. Think about it. For hourly workers in retail or manufacturing, there’s a fairly high likelihood that they might not be the most highly educated employee base. And as such, a $1,250 cash infusion might fly out of their checking accounts just as quickly as it arrived.

This is a great example of long-term thinking from the executive team at Hostess and real investment in its people. Good Stuff Hostess! (That doesn’t mean I’ll be eating any of their manufactured poison anytime soon)

[VIC – 105] One more thing on the tax plan. Bye bye cashiers. The happy man that cleans my office. Our World in Data.

Business & Money

Reading through the new tax legislation is woefully boring, so I think I’ll give it a rest pretty soon. But before I do, I’ll just say this. The new tax law was sold to the American people as a job creator and a boon for US investment. I’m not so sure.

On the jobs front, unemployment is near record lows hovering around 4.1%. For the uninitiated, that means we’re closing in on what’s termed “full employment.” So even if US firms invest heavily and create a ton of jobs, where will the new workers come from? And if there aren’t many workers to fill the new jobs, will companies really expand US operations and build new factories?

And now we have all of these companies giving out raises and bonuses after the bill was passed. But I’m not sure I buy the idea that companies are just giving away money out of kindness and generosity.  Feels more like well tuned and well-timed work from PR executives.

And besides, how much money are we even talking about? Maybe a couple percentage points of profitability? It seems to me that these bonuses could have been handed out a long time ago without much trouble. But better late than never, I guess.

So PR coverage, rainbows, and butterflies aside, corporations operate to maximize profits. And their motivations won’t be changing anytime soon.

And oh yea, all of these cry babies complaining about our massive deficit, what do tax cuts mean? An even higher deficit.

Human Progress

Earlier this month, the Amazon Go concept store opened in Seattle. It is the quintessential image of technology and innovation. It is sensors, and IOT, and computer vision, and mobile payments, and cloud computing, and who knows what else.

But then you have the detractors. “What about all those cashiers,” they ask. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts cashiers in the US around 3.4 million. And another 4.6 million working in retail sales more broadly. Safe to say many of those will disappear.

And as much as that sucks, it is simply the way that human progress works.

Karl Marx would probably be rolling in his grave if he knew about Amazon Go. He’d claim this was another case of labor being subjugated by capital. He’d encourage the cashiers and retail workers to revolt and overthrow the tech bourgeoisie. But like the Luddites and factory workers of the industrial revolution, they don’t stand a chance.

But it’s not all bad news. Despite government shutdowns and “my button is bigger than your button” commentary, we can still have hope. In fact, I’d say that 2017 was the best year in human history.

“A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell…. Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000… Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.”

Go humanity, go!

Philosophy

There’s this Hispanic man that comes to my office every afternoon to clean. Every day, he waltzes in with a bubbly demeanor and a big smile on his face. If I happen to walk by him in the kitchen or the bathroom, he always makes genuine eye contact followed by a “what’s up buddy, how are you?” And it’s not one of those “just saying hi because you happen to be two feet away from me” greetings. He stands there and waits for a reply. I think he actually wants to know how I’m doing.

I point this out because he doesn’t have to be that away. I won’t guess at his hourly rate, but I imagine it’s not very much. And I also imagine that my office isn’t the only one he cleans on a given day. He probably bounces from office to office mopping floors, cleaning toilets, and emptying trash cans.

Meanwhile, when I think about walking to the office from the subway in the morning, you see so many people with angry and disgruntled looks on there faces. They don’t say excuse me, they bump into you without as much as a glance, and they definitely do everything they can to avoid eye contact. And most of them are not on their way to clean toilets. They are founders of companies, lawyers, investors, VPs of something or another, or otherwise successful people.

I point this dichotomy our for two reasons.

First, human beings have this uncanny ability to magnify the scope of their own problems, while basically ignoring those of others. And that is irrespective of your station in life. The problems might be vastly different, but the emotional and psychological pain caused by them is the same.

Second, and I believe more importantly, it is completely up to you how you choose to respond to a given situation. You often don’t have control over what happens, but you DO have control over your response. You can smile and whistle while cleaning toilets, and you can be completely miserable and empty inside while wearing a $5,000 suit and drinking a $5 cup of coffee. It’s simply up to you.

My Latest Discovery

If you clicked on the link in the Human Progress section, you may have noticed that the article linked to another site called Our World in Data. It’s absolutely fascinating. You can basically find any subject you’re interested in, and the site offers up tons of statistics and data visualizations about that subject.

If you read VIC 102, I wrote about rising costs in healthcare. This chart, and the associated research, captures that pretty clearly:

[VIC – 104] Pricing power. Take control. Learning to unlearn. Zuck’s 2018 challenge.

Business & Money

In business, there are basically two ways to increase revenues. You can raise prices or sell more volume.

It seems that selling more volume generally incurs an incremental cost/investment. If we’re talking about manufacturing, the machines need to stay on longer or you need to invest in better equipment. With services, you require more time and/or human capital. I guess the notable exception to this rule would be software and platforms where the idea is to drive marginal cost to 0.

On the pricing side, if you can manage it, raising prices seems to be the superior of the two options. If you can raise the price, and don’t suffer any loss in volume, revenue goes up without changing anything else. No incremental capital or cost required.

The archetypical example of this is Berkshire Hathaway’s acquisition of See’s Candies. When Buffett purchased the company in 1972, there were doing about 17 million pounds per year. A decade later, that total grew to 24 million pounds for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.5%. Nothing special. However, revenues grew from $31 million to $124 million over the same period for a CAGR of 15%! All they did, in spite of meager volume growth, was simply boost prices by 10% every year. And because See’s had built a strong brand, they didn’t suffer any loss in volume.

I’m thinking about this due to 2 contemporary examples of the same idea.

The first is Netflix. Over the last 4 years, we’ve seen pricing go from $7.99 per month to $13.99 per month for the premium tier. And we haven’t seen any negative impact on subscriber growth. Netflix has pricing power, so much so that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see more price hikes. I won’t be canceling any time soon.

The second example is Amazon, who just last week boosted the monthly subscription price of its Prime service by 18% (the $99 annual subscription option remains unchanged). I don’t see this having any negative impact on the company, and again probably won’t be the last hike. If anyone has pricing Power, Amazon Prime definitely has it.

Human Progress

On Thursday, HuffPo announced that they’re shutting down their contributor network. I don’t even read HuffPo, but this news caught my attention nonetheless. Specifically, if you are a contributor (or were at any point), you are basically SOL.

I say that because, if you post exclusively on HuffPo, or any platform owned by a third party (Medium, LinkedIn, Forbes, etc), then you do not own your own destiny. You don’t own your content, your archives, your audience, or anything else. You are completely at the mercy of the platform. Incentives will never be aligned.

This is the primary reason that I now blog from my own domain using open source software on a shared server that I can move if I’d like to. It’s a bit more complicated than simply posting something on Medium, but the autonomy and agency is well worth the effort.

And this is part of a much larger storyline, one that centers around the battle between open and closed systems. The battle between the open source protocols from the early days of the internet and the closed centralized platforms of today’s internet giants.

The only way to chip away at that dominance is to start taking back control of ourselves.

Philosophy

I’ve written here many times about how much I value reading and continual learning. It appears, to me at least, that their benefits are self-evident.

However, the opposite is equally, if not more important. The capacity to unlearn or adapt in the face of new information is critical.

When I was in high school, my basketball coach told me that the form of my jump shot was all wrong and should be corrected. After a few weeks of practice and a few games where I couldn’t make a shot, I went back to the old form. I wasn’t willing to put in the hard work and deal with downsides of short-term frustration.

While I spend a good amount of time thinking about what subjects to go deeper on and what sources of information warrant my attention, I likely don’t spend enough time on the opposite. I plan to change that.

My Latest Discovery

Every year Mark Zuckerberg announces a personal challenge to learn something new. Here’s his challenge for 2018.

I’m not sure Facebook can be fixed because the necessary fixes would most likely run perpendicular to the core business model.
That said, Zuck has done a lot of things right and there’s a fair amount of evidence pointing to him being pretty competent, so I’m not sure I’d bet against him at this point.

[VIC – 103] Managing losers. You don’t look so good. New affordances. Check out this lamp.

Before we start, it’s impossible to proceed without giving thanks to the late and great Martin Luther King Jr. Dr King said that “we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” He was talking about non-violent protest, but the sentence is oh so relevant today. I don’t mean to reference physical violence (while there is, of course, plenty of that), but instead, the verbal, emotional, and spiritual violence happening on a daily basis in this country. Intelligent discourse and dialogue are falling by the wayside in favor of identity politics and pejorative verbosity.

Let’s observe a moment of silence together, or perhaps a few moments, to really think about what Dr. King would do today and how he might approach the situation we find ourselves in…

Business & Money

I recently read an essay about achromatopsia (color blindness that results from a brain injury or lesion). The condition was first happened upon by a neurologist around 1888. But scientific thought of the time considered vision to be one continuous and seamless thing. Color, depth, movement, contrast, all were supposedly just parts of one “seeing.” So the research paper published about this new condition were basically disregarded and ignored for 75 years until the anatomy of the visual cortex was revealed in greater detail.
For whatever reason, this essay got me thinking about investing. If you make an investment, being early is basically the same thing as being wrong. In order to make money, you not only need to be right, but you need to be right at the right time. If your right at the wrong time, you either lose money, or wait around long enough to become right. And that waiting can be really hard and painful.
I don’t think most people have the stomach for it.
I’m feeling that right now with Ctrip.com (CTRP). I bought it back in July and it’s now down 20%. But the thing is, I’m still just as confident that I’m right. 20% is often stop-loss territory for me, but I plan to hold it. Perhaps I will be sorry later.
When you’re dealing with a loser, you really have 3 options.
You can sell some/all of the position.
Do nothing.
Or buy more, if you really have a ton of conviction that you’re right.
I choose option 2. For now…

Human Progress

A few weeks ago I celebrated New Years Eve with a bunch of friends. It was great. Leading up to that evening, my best friend was recovering from a long bout with the flu. Selfishly, I hoped that he was feeling well enough to make an appearance, at least for a little bit (in hindsight, probably a terrible idea during an intense flu season). In the end, he came out for a bit and made the night better than it would have otherwise been.

The thing that I wanted to point out though, is that when he showed up, he was visibly under the weather. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what it was, but you could tell he wasn’t himself. The first thing I might point to was that he seemed to be moving at perhaps 60% of his normal speed. Almost like a movie in slow motion. Secondly, his complexion seemed a bit off. Can’t quite remember if it was more pale or flush than normal, but noticeable none the less. Lastly, I’d say there was less expression/emotion in his interactions. None of these things were a surprise given what he’d told me via phone/text over the preceding few days, but I simply thought they were interesting.

I spent the next few days thinking about how that information might be used in interesting ways. Of course, Google beat me to it. After a bit of digging, turns out that just submitted a patent application last week about using “optical sensors [machine vision] to sense hemodynamics [forces and dynamics of blood flow], such as skin color and skin and other organ displacement [I understand that as inflammation].” In other words, they are hoping to use physical appearance to look for signs of cardiovascular conditions.

Another recent paper I read suggests there are also other signs such as “paler lips and skin, a more swollen face, droopier corners of the mouth, more hanging eyelids, redder eyes, and less glossy and patchy skin, as well as appearing more tired.”

And given that the iPhone X + Face ID will soon bring regular facial scanning to scale, it’s not difficult to imagine a day when you wake up in the morning, glance over at your phone to turn off the alarm, and suddenly get a notification that you may want to head to the doctor or load up on certain vitamins/nutrients.

Philosophy

I was sitting at work one day this week when a colleague asked if I had heard of the “squatty potty.”
“The squatty what,” I replied. Apparently one of these things is now in our bathroom at work.

My first reaction was to laugh at the utter hilarity and ridiculousness of anything called a squatty potty. I don’t have any problems going number 2, and that likely applies to most people (assumption based on no data), so why would that even be a thing.

But as I thought about it more, I realized something important. Animals, including humans, basically think by intuiting things from their environment and the affordances it presents. And new affordances only really show up by luck or chance. For example, for ancient people living near the ocean, the water was basically a barrier that was impossible to cross. You wouldn’t simply think I could build a boat to cross to the other side, because you have no conception of a “boat” or “another side.” Then maybe one day someone saw a log floating in the water and realized that pieces of dead trees can float. Or perhaps they fell in the water one day and were lucky enough to grab on to a piece of wood floating by. Then over time you got rafts, then canoes, then sailboats, then motor boats, then submarines, cruise ships, and the like.

So given I’ve never seen or heard of anything similar to a squatty potty, there’s no reason to conceive of its affordances. But it turns out there’s a sort of natural kink in your colon which keeps things backed up while your standing and sitting, and squatting naturally opens things up for evacuation. I’ll need to poke into the science behind this before coming to any conclusions, but seems logical.

This concept of considering and exploring new ideas is so SO important. I’ll lean on Mr. Oliver Sacks as his words are far more eloquent than mine:

My Latest Discovery

Amazon has oh so quietly snuck computer vision and augmented really into their consumer app without anyone realizing. If you open the Amazon app, click the camera, then click “AR view” you can test new pieces of furniture or decorations in your apartment before buying them. Check out this three-headed lamp!

[VIC – 102] Offshore war chests. Moore vs Eroom. Original thinking. When to scroll.

Business & Money

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how much money US companies have parked in offshore accounts. This is especially apparent in tech with Apple holding something like $250 billion offshore, Microsoft holding $100B, and Oracle, Cisco, and Alphabet all sitting on around $50B.
But how can you blame them? I’d leave my money sitting there as well if 35% of it immediately evaporates upon repatriation. You might even make the argument that it’s irresponsible to bring it home. Perhaps even against the fiduciary duty of the executive team.
That’s especially the case when you think about ridiculously low interest rates. It’s cheaper to borrow money at home and leave the cash parked where it is.
The downside, though, of these companies leaving the cash abroad is that they are incentivized to invest abroad rather than at home. They’re building new factories and creating jobs in other jurisdictions. Maybe those investments wouldn’t really be enough to move the needle, but you’d likely get share buybacks or dividends at the very least.
In any case, here we are in the present moment. I imagine these companies have continued to build these war chests to force the hand of regulators to make a change. And it looks like it’s working.

Human Progress

I’ve written about Moore’s Law here on VIC many times. The fundamental idea is that technology gets exponentially better over time, while the costs get cheaper.
For all intents and purposes, it’s a truism that applies across most markets and industries. But the one painfully obvious exception is healthcare. In fact, it’s so untrue in healthcare, people have coined the term Eroom’s Law (Moore’s backward) to capture the idea that drug discovery actually gets more expensive over time, despite our improving technological capabilities.
So I’ve been thinking about this over the past few weeks and decided it was worth writing about.
The first thing I set out to understand is why drug discovery is so expensive. And the simple answer I landed on is that it’s so damn hard and involves a ton of different stakeholders.
First scientists or companies need to hypothesize about what might be a good point for disease intervention. Then, tons of tests and experiments hopefully lead to some fundamental discovery (which takes a lot of time and $).
Then you need to test/prove that the drug is safe and effective via multiple stages of clinical trials (a lot more time and $).
Then you need to convince people to use by dealing with regulators and educating providers and healthcare systems (time + $).
And finally, you need an effective go-to-market strategy that gets it into patients hands.
All of that takes about $2.5 billion dollars and 10-15 years on average to for a new FDA approved drug (not to mention all of the drugs that fail along the way).
So that entire process is really long and messy, and probably too much to tackle for one post, but I do want to go back to that first step about making the discovery. And I want to do that because I believe we’re at a really interesting inflection point (take a look at biotech stock charts over the last few years).
To really innovate in healthcare via making a new discovery, there seem to be a few key steps.
1. You need to determine what outcome are you trying to achieve.
If we think about Sickle Cell Anemia, you want to eliminate the extreme pain that results from the disease, and the subsequent impact on patients’ lives, their families, and the economic impact on our healthcare system.
2. You need to have a pretty good understanding of the underlying disease biology that will enable you to achieve the desired outcome.
Following the same example, we know that patients’ have an error in their hemoglobin gene that causes red blood cells to fold or sickle.
3. You need to know, with a lot of specificity, what you’re going to target to get that outcome.
Here, the best way to address the disease is to repair/replace faulty hemoglobin.
4. You have to be confident that you can make a medicine to hit that target effectively.
We know that gene therapy has a pretty high probability of being able to repair the cells in question and a lot of people are working on that problem.
If you think about Alzheimers, in contrast to Sickle Cell Anemia, it’s a very different picture.
Following the same process, we don’t know the desired outcome. Can we reverse the effects? Should we just aim to halt progression? Or maybe just improve memory recall?
We don’t understand (very well at least) the underlying biology. Is it the plaques in the brain or neural tangles that we should focus on, or are those only symptoms of a larger problem?
And because we don’t understand the biology, we have no idea what to target.
And as a result, most of the recent attempts to discover new treatments have been failures, sometimes in late-stage clinical trials.
So why are we at an inflection point?
First off, we’re doing biology at a speed and scale that is unprecedented. For example, think about what Illumina has done in genomics by making it possible to sequence a genome faster, better, and way cheaper than was previously possible.
Secondly, we can now understand things at a single cell resolution. Scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have created an atlas of various cell types which greatly improves our ability to understand biology with increased granularity.
And thirdly, all of this generates a ton data that’s far too complex for the human mind. But lucky for us, AI and machine learning have reached a point where these tools can aid us in deriving real insights from the data.
I hope all of this can help rid of us of dyslexia and return to Mr. Moore.

Philosophy

A while back I read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. At one point the main character is teaching a rhetoric student suffering from writer’s block. He instructs her to write about her home town and she cannot think of anything to write. He then changes the assignment and tells her to write about the front of an opera house on a specific street in a specific part of that town. He tells her to start writing about the uppermost brick on the right side of the facade. The student begins to write and unleashes a torrent of creativity. The next day she shows up to close with 20 inspired pages of beautiful prose.
Similarly, in The Art of Learning, the author writes about making smaller circles. That is, when trying to master something it’s necessary to simplify practice into the smallest actions. Master the simple techniques. Depth over breadth. He talks about how winning championships is accomplished by complete mastery of fundamentals, as supposed to varied or sophisticated forms.
In The River of Consciousness, there’s an essay about Hellen Keller and her run-in with plagiarism. But the person whom she’s accused of copying doesn’t get angry. She wrote to Keller saying that everything in creative endeavors comes from other sources of inspiration.
I point these example about because I’m thinking about a specific question. Is there really such a thing as original thought? I’m not sure there is. I’m not sure there should be so much cultural stigma tied to plagiarism. Of course, you can’t just copy someone else’s work and submit it as your own, but digesting the ideas of others, then combining them with yet more ideas and some of your own, is really the only way to create anything.
Perhaps this is yet another reason I write here each week. None of the ideas here are entirely new. They are derivations and imitations of things I’ve read, listened to, and experienced. After consuming things in various forms, I spend some time thinking things through and mulling them over, then through the writing process, attempt to reorganize, combine, and pull things apart until I form something unique and personally refreshing.

My Latest Discovery

A few weeks ago I made a small change that has been very refreshing.
When you read an article or piece of content on your phone or computer screen, do you constantly scroll as you go, or only scroll when you get to the bottom? I had always done the former, scrolling little by little after every few sentences. I’m not sure why.
But now I do the opposite. I read everything that’s on the screen, then scroll to reveal the next section.
It’s a small change, but helps me feel more relaxed and less anxious as I read.
With social media and so much content at our fingertips, our digital overlords are trying their best to cultivate a degree of ADD in all of us. So I think small changes like these can go a long way.

[VIC – 101] A look back…

When thinking about 2017, the most obvious trend to talk about is cryptocurrency and the blockchain. And it’s really interesting because regular people are making tons of money by way of a transformational technology, yet most people have no idea what it is or why it’s important. I’ve written about it here on VIC a number of times, but many of you have told me you still don’t get it. So with this year-end post, I will attempt to rectify my mistake and start at square one.

Business & Money

So what is bitcoin and what is the blockchain? I’ll stay away from technical details because it honestly is just not that important for everyone to understand (plus I don’t understand it in great detail). Similarly, I’d bet that many of you have no idea how the internet works from a technical perspective, but you have no problem understanding why it is so important. So let’s start there.
The central idea to understand here is trust. If you think back to the origin of trade and “money,” you basically start out with a barter system. If you live in a small tribe or group of just a handful of individuals, it’s easy to acquire some milk by trading some grain. You give me a few gallons and I’ll trade you a few bushels from my harvest. Pretty straight forward and no need for much trust and security. I know who you are and I can look at the milk and smell it to make sure if’s not spoiled. In order to keep track of these “transactions,” I can just write them down in a notebook that says on such and such date, we traded such and such items. Everything is listed there in one neat column.
When the groups started getting larger, and the items being traded more numerous, the simple barter system started to break. If my farm has grown in size and I want to sell grain to the entire village, it doesn’t make sense to trade different items with everyone and write it all in a notebook. You need a means of exchange, or “money,” in order to transact in an efficient manner. Everyone can use the same beads, shells, or coins to buy and sell whatever they need. Additionally, with a much larger number of transactions to keep track of, my simple one-column notebook entries would be hard to manage. So now I start to keep track of things in two columns, credits and debits. In the milk example, I would add a debit for the cash spent, then a credit for my new gallons of milk (enter double-entry bookkeeping).
Another word for my notebook in the above examples would be “ledger,” the record of all transactions. And that system worked great for a long time, until it didn’t. The glaring problem was that it wasn’t very hard to cheat the system. With only one party holding the ledger, it’s easy to cheat. Simply erase an entry here, or add a 0 there, and there’s no way to prove that something’s amiss.
So as things continued to grow and get more complex, our answer to this was independent 3rd parties that would manage the ledgers for everyone else. Enter banks, brokerages, insurers, accounting firms, and the like. But when you think about it, the problem still persists. A bank is just one company, so you still have the trust issue and the single point of failure, albeit a bigger one.
So what if, instead of one bank tracking credits & debits to your account, what if all of your transactions could be independently verified by 5,000 different parties all across the globe. And for a transaction to be verified, there would need to be a majority consensus across the entire network. Even if you bribed one party to erase an entry, that ledger would be out of sync with the other 4,999, so the majority consensus would remain accurate. It becomes much harder to manipulate this system when the ledger is distributed across so many independent participants.
That’s what bitcoin and the Bitcoin blockchain bring to the table. A distributed ledger system that allows for transactions between non-trusted parties, without the need for anything to be verified by financial institutions or 3rd parties. There are lots of independent parties holding copies of the same digital ledger, and it’s a lot harder to compromise a large number of parties than it is to compromise one.
Hopefully that makes some sense without getting into the weeds.

Human Progress

So why is this technology so transformative and so important for the progress of humanity? Using the US dollar and banking institutions seems to work fairly well. You can easily open an account, transfer funds, transact with merchants, and do basically anything else you need to do with your FDIC insured dollars. However, you have to realize that as one of 300 million Americans, you’re thinking is incredibly biased. As the most privileged 5% of the world’s population, you’re completely insulated from things that most people experience.
If you want to think about the average consumer in the world, that’s probably closer to a Chinese male in his mid-twenties. And in China you have communism, corrupt governments, dictators, totalitarian rule, and serious capital controls. That’s a very different picture.
Or maybe you hail from Greece. In 2013, they had FDIC insurance for banks deposits as well. Then one day the banks closed on a Wednesday (not sure if that was the actual day), and reopened on the following Monday to a different version of reality. 20% of money had evaporated while the banks were closed, and even when the banks reopened there were withdrawal limits. What about the FDIC insurance? What insurance? Never happened. Let’s not talk about that.
Or what about what happened with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the same year. Because the US government was not in agreement with what Assange and his crew were up to, they basically coerced Visa, MasterCard, Amex, PayPal and all of the major payment providers to cut off WikiLeaks from the global financial system. In other words, WikiLeaks was basically deemed guilty until proven otherwise without any conviction or due process. This was a complete perversion of our judicial system. Ironically, WikiLeaks moved to bitcoin as a result and has now made a 50,000x return on their investment.
Global financial crisis anyone? How many examples do you need of financial institutions and governments behaving badly and betraying our trust before you realize that the current system is broken?
The reality is that 90% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to the financial system in the way that US citizens do. 2.5 billion people have no access to banking at all. Another 4 billion are what we refer to as “under-banked.”
What we need is a system where governments and large financial insinuations can’t rig the game. Can’t print money whenever it suits them.
What we basically need is the separation of state and money in the same way that we currently have a separation of church and state. It’s a no brainer why the separation of church and state makes sense. The Crusades, WWII, Islamic Terrorism…. examples of religion perverting politics and politics perverting religion are innumerable.
We’ve arrived at a point where the same is true of money. It has become a system of mass surveillance and control. Financial institutions, payment processors, clearing houses, all of these are political by nature. In order to operate, these companies have made a bargain with governments that they must do whatever they say if they wish to continue operations. It’s not that these institutions can be manipulated or coerced, it is that they MUST.
And what’s really exciting is that we all get to witness this tipping point during our lifetimes. I can’t see how this technology doesn’t fundamentally change things. There’s no turning back.

Philosophy

Of course, it can’t all be rainbows and butterflies. Blockchain technology is far from perfect in its current instantiation, and will surely undergo many iterations before we get it right. Again, I’ll stay away from the technical limitations, in favor of touching on the philosophical.
The one I’m thinking most about of late is the issue of anonymity. People behave poorly when they’re anonymous. The fact is simple and true.
Social networking is a great example. Some of you may have heard of the anonymous and localized social network called Yik Yak back in 2013. It was largely used at high schools and universities and exploded to 1.8 million downloads in a few months. But the dirty underbelly of the app quickly took center stage. Because there was no real identity tied to profiles, the app quickly went from friendly social network to ground zero for bullying, hate space, and threats of violence. This is a big reason why Facebook requires real names and real pictures to create a profile.
When large groups of people congregate together for protests, to celebrate big wins in sports, or any other reason, these events often turn violent and unruly because people lose the sense of individual identity in favor of the crowd’s.
When people rob banks or commit other crimes, they often wear masks. The feeling of anonymity empowers people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
India’s president, Narendra Modi, recently removed the largest bills from circulation to cut down on tax evasion and to eliminate payments to fund terrorism & government bribes.
When people buy drugs, guns, or other people, they use cash because it’s anonymous and untraceable.
It’s an ugly fact, but a true one. Anonymity breeds bad behavior. Not from everyone, but from a lot of people and organizations.
If we move money to a truly private and untraceable protocol (e.g. Monero), I’m not so sure about the future of that system. Would you pay your taxes if there was no way to prove how much money you made or no way to enforce it?
Don’t answer that.

My Latest Discovery

Shortcomings aside, these are exciting times. There’s ton’s of noise and coverage about the leading protocols (Bitcoin, Ethereum, LiteCoin, Ripple, ZCash, etc), but there are tons of other really exciting projects out there.
One that I find especially interesting is Augur. Augur is a decentralized prediction market that’s built on top of the Ethereum network. The most obvious application is betting. You can make a wager on any future event, as long as someone in the world is willing to take the other side of that bet and the outcome is publicly verifiable. Now gambling is fun, exciting, and there’s a big market (~$240 billion in the US), but this application is also somewhat short-sighted.
With Augur, you could basically create a futures market for anything. Today we have future’s markets for commodities and financial instruments. For example, if you grow corn, and you sell a pound of corn for $10 to your customers, you’ll want that revenue to remain flat and predictable. So you could buy a futures contract that says if the price goes to $5, you will still get your $10 and the investor pays the difference. If the price goes to $15, then you would only get the $10 and the investor would keep the additional profits. So it’s pretty obvious and straightforward why futures contracts make sense.
But for many things, there are no futures markets. For example, what if you decide to work for the Trump Whitehouse. If he stays in office, your future is pretty bright. But if he’s impeached, your political career might be over. So perhaps you might want to hedge that bet by wagering some amount that he’ll be impeached. And of course, no one would know about it.
What about foreign stock markets? Currently, as an American, I have no exposure to foreign markets (unless there is an American Depository Receipt [ADR] or something similar). With Augur, you might bet on the appreciation of a foreign security.
Or what about access to private markets. If you have a ton of conviction, you might bet on monthly active users, revenue numbers, or the IPO price for Uber.
So think Vegas + DraftKings/FanDuel + futures markets + anything else you can imagine.
I’ll say it again. These are exciting times!!

It’s a Wrap!

I hope this issue was somewhat useful and that 2017 was good to you. I urge you to spend some time in deep reflection about the past year. I imagine there were a few things that didn’t go as planned, people you grew apart from, and less than ideal circumstances. I imagine there were also a ton of reasons to smile and be grateful. In your reflections, look at those two categories, and think about the actions or events that brought both about. You don’t always have control over outcomes, but you do have control over inputs. Focus on the areas you have control over, and that’s all you can really do. Falcon speed in 2018! (Falcon’s are the fastest creatures on the planet and their existence is provable)

[VIC – 100] Don’t talk 💩 . Heeeeeem (heme). The right questions. Samsung soundbar.

Business & Money

I was listening to an episode of a podcast called Industry Focus this week about Fedex (FDX) and UPS (ticker is the same). Basically the conversation was about whether or not these two stocks might offer attractive return profiles in light of the explosion in global shipping volumes (grew by 48% from 2014 to 2016 across 13 major global markets).
During the 30-minute conversation, the following question was posed, “With Amazon entering the shipping and fulfillment market, do you think they pose a threat to FedEx and UPS?”
One of the analysts on the line responded with, “FedEx and UPS have pretty big moats in terms of the sorting centers they have and fleets they operate. That’s not to say that Amazon couldn’t enter the business. They’ve shown over the years that they’re willing to spend billions when Bezos decides to enter a new market. But I think that FedEx and UPS have massive moats nonetheless, and not too much to worry about.”
I literally laughed out loud as I was walking on the sidewalk.
First off, to doubt Bezos is to dig your own grave. When all is said and done, he may be in the running for the greatest business person of all time.
Secondly, we’ve seen this movie before. Analysts and incumbents making foot-in-mouth statements about startup competitors, only to later fall into obscurity at the hands of those same companies.
In fact, here is FedEx’s Executive VP Mike Glenn talking about Amazon:
“While recent stories and reports of a new entity competing with the three major carriers in the United States grabs headlines, the reality is it would be a daunting task requiring tens of billions of dollars in capital and years to build sufficient scale and density to replicate existing networks like FedEx.”
Or remember back when Siebel was the king of CRM. Thomas Siebel of Siebel Systems told Bloomberg in 2003, “Microsoft will roll [Salesforce] over. They get Zambonied.” I used Siebel when I was AT&T, before adopting Salesforce when I moved to AdRoll. It’s unfathomable to me how Siebel owned that market.
And we can’t forget about Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes when he said “Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition. It’s more Wal-Mart and Apple.”
You almost wince at the incredible hubris coming from these guys and gals. The lesson is simple. Stop talking shit and heed the lessons of history!

Human Progress

All animals either eat other animals, plant matter, or a mixture of the two. As you move down the food chain, it’s primarily plants for food, and perhaps bugs. And same goes for bugs. They either it other bugs, plant matter, or a mixture of the two. So it’s fair to say, if you follow the chain, all of the nutrients start with plants.
It’s a pretty basic idea when you really think about it. So there really shouldn’t be anything that we can’t get from plants, from a nutritional standpoint.
But then why is meat consumption so pervasive? First off, it’s been culturally baked in. Our food pyramids have it, our holidays and celebrations are centered around it, you usually have to call ahead to ask about vegetarian options at restaurants. It’s just the default.
Secondly, and more importantly for most people, it’s delicious! But if we go back to our core idea, there shouldn’t be any reason we can’t recreate that taste with plans. If the cows are consuming a purely vegetarian diet, then it’s only the chemical reactions and bacteria throughout their digestive systems that’s responsible for converting the plant matter into meat. I’m not a biology major so I’m just trying to oversimply this matter for sake of conversation.
In any case, it turns out that a specific molecule called heme is a key catalyst in the chemical reactions that take simple nutrients (fats, amino acids, etc) and turn them into the unique explosion of flavor, aroma, and juicy-ness that is the meat we love. This fact was discovered by Patrick Brown and his team from Impossible Foods, a startup making burgers that look, feel, and taste like the real things, but are made solely from plants.
Patrick recently spoke at Stanford about what they’re up to and thought you guys might like to check it out:

Philosophy

I recently had a friend ask me whether I was for or against net neutrality. Easy answer. I’m for net neutrality. A fair and open internet is a no-brainer. It’s key to innovation, economic growth, fair markets, and much more.
But that’s not really the right question. What’s really at issue is how internet companies (ISPs, tech giants, etc) should be regulated and whether Title II of the Communications Act is the right approach. That’s a much harder question to answer with tons of grey areas. And I don’t want to get into that here, but rather to point out that it’s important to focus on the right question.
Let’s frame it differently. Are you for or against killing human beings? Stupid question. Killing people is wrong. But then again, you could get into tons of conversations about capital punishment, assisted suicide, and self-defense. Another poorly framed question.
The framing of questions is so immensely important, and often not given enough attention. I’d even venture to say that this might be one of the most important challenges we face in everyday life.
Are you a democrat or republican?
What religion are you?
Are you for or against Black Lives Matter?
These simple and surface-level questions often lead to equally simple and surface-level responses, that then result in snap judgments, misunderstanding, and polarization. If only people could spend more time asking thoughtful and well-framed questions.

My Latest Discovery

I was recently in market for a soundbar + subwoofer combination for my living room. The speakers on the TV seemed to be on the fritz, but it’s a great TV and not yet ready to be replaced. After a bit of searching, I landed on this one:

It has far exceeded my expectations and I would highly recommend it! Great bang for not so many bucks.

[VIC – 99] I met Nostradamus 🔮. I present to you, 2U 😏 . Unguided meditation. iPhone X 📱

Business & Money

I was talking with someone over the weekend that said “tech stocks are about to crash.” I wanted to pin a gold star on his/her chest emblazoned with word “Nostradamus.”
Predicting what’s going to happen in the market is easy. I mean seriously easy. Here are a few other predictions that you can take to the bank:
Retail, as a category, will recover from the current slump.
Crypto will see a serious correction.
Facebook will fail, or at least become a shadow of its current form.
All dips in the market eventually bounce, and all high flyers eventually lose steam. The prediction isn’t the hard part. Investing is all about timing. Whether you make or lose money is all about when you buy and sell.
So going back to the person I mentioned at the top of this section, what I’d be really curious to understand is that person’s definition of “about to.” Because I agree, tech stocks are “about to” crash. Valuations ARE quite lofty and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a correction in the short term. However, if I think about Amazon as an example, I plan to hold that stock for the next decade at the very least. And when the inevitable correction comes, I will likely add to my position to take advantage of the short-term drawdown.

Human Progress

Education is one vertical that hasn’t benefitted from digital transformation in the same way that other verticals have. Classrooms and the education system more broadly look much as they did 100 years ago. And it really sucks that this is the case because higher education is likely the best way for an individual to achieve upward mobility.
The most frustrating part of this story is that we have all of the tools to make digital education a reality. Students all walk around with supercomputers in their pockets. We have cloud computing and cheap internet access. There’s no shortage of students thirsty for knowledge and and no shortage of educational resources to quench that thirst.
Now it isn’t all doom and gloom. For years now we’ve seen glimmers of hope from online learning platforms like Udemy and EdX. Their user numbers have grown exponentially and they power the ability for continuous learning in a way that wasn’t previously possible. Then there are companies like General Assembly and Hack Reactor that have built immersive certificate programs allowing people to quickly gain new skills and jump-start careers.
Many colleges and universities are even offering their courses online in the form of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. And while this is a great thing, too many are simply uploading lectures and coursework to the internet thinking that will be enough. But it won’t. True digital education at scale will require an approach from first principles.
I’m happy to say that I recently became aware of a company called 2U that is taking such an approach. 2U takes the engineering prowess and agility of a Silicon Valley upstart, and combines it with the centuries-old knowledge and faculty of top universities. In other words, they’ve built a software platform and suite of services that work to accelerate digital transformation at some of the best universities in existence, including Harvard, Northwestern, NYU, and Georgetown. Take a read of the CEO letter from 2U’s 2016 annual report.
And do you want to know what makes me really gitty about 2U, this is marketplace business with serious network effects. The more degree programs offered by 2U, the more students will be attracted to online education. And more students will attract more schools to participate and more degree programs from existing partners. And to sprinkle a cherry on top, 2U will be collecting tons of data along the way about what markets need what programs, which programs are doing well, which degrees lead to job placements, etc. If Google, Facebook, Amazon, and all the platform businesses have taught us anything, it’s that network effects combined with massive datasets pave the way for machine learning to speed up the flywheel.
And the flywheel has only begun. Founded only 9 years ago, 2U has about $200 million in revenue across 24 degree programs from 18 university partners. Revenue growth has been insane and that degree program number will more than triple by 2020.
Ps this isn’t some small scrappy startup. TWOU is a public company and you can come along for the ride! (disclosure: long TWOU)

Philosophy

I’ve gotten the question a few times recently that asks how to transition from guided to unguided meditation. That is, to transition from wearing headphones and listening to instructions, to simply sitting down in silence left to your own devices. The guided sort are great, but the challenge there becomes the fact that you are reliant on the guide and/or the instructions. So then if your phone dies or you forget your headphones, your meditation practice suffers.
So in response to those questions, I’ll outline my process here (I’m no meditation expert – I’ve simply borrowed bits and pieces from things I’ve read and/or guided meditations I’ve done):
First, I usually just sit down to a few deep breaths to relax my mind and body. I tend to do these loudly enough so that someone could hear them if they were sitting close by. For me, these breaths help to release any built up tension and get settled.
Next, I move to checking in with all of the sounds in the room. Those sounds usually consist of buzzing appliances, vehicles outside, my dog walking around, plumbing, and many other things. But the point is not to identify each sound and it’s source, but simply to notice them. It’s pretty remarkable how many sounds there are at any given moment that we are generally oblivious to during the course of regular life.
Next, I check in with my body. I can usually feel the pressure of the floor on my ankle bones more so than any other point of contact. Sometimes there is soreness in my lower back. I can feel my chest and lungs expanding and contracting with each breath. If I pay especially close attention to my breath, the expanding feeling can even be felt in my shoulders and my back. In fact, you can almost feel it throughout your entire body.
Finally, I move to checking in with my mind. Sometimes it’s restless and thoughts about the coming day try to creep into awareness. Sometimes there’s fatigue and a feeling that I haven’t fully woken up yet. Other times a bit of apprehension if I know my schedule is jam packed. On the best days, there’s just an overwhelming sense of calm, relaxation, and simple presence.
What you’ll notice from reading the above is that there aren’t any special tricks. It’s mostly just noticing what’s happening and being present. Checking in with the sounds, physical discomforts, and the movements of the mind simply point your awareness at the here and now. And with each new sounds or sensation, the idea is to simply notice it and move on. A great meditation session is not the absence of all of those things that creep up, but simply the ability to notice them for what they are, without allowing any fixation, emotional connotation, or the like.
I hope this helps.

My Latest Discovery

The new iPhone is pretty magical. My favorite part is FaceID. Before the haters jump in, Yes, Apple was NOT first to market with this technology. But as usual, they’ve done it perfectly and made it magical. An example of this is when you get those notifications that pop up on your lock screen. I just got a pop-up for an upcoming calendar event, and when I glanced at my phone, it automatically unlocked to reveal the true content of the calendar notification. That feels like magic.
With so many things being awesome, there are also a few things that suck. One of those is that the control panel is in the top right corner. With the added screen real estate, it’s a pretty far journey for my thumb to make it to the top right corner of the screen. I’m hoping one of you kind readers has a trick for me to get around this.