[VIC – 71] Monopoly vs Monopsony. Metadata. He’s just hungry. Shower thoughts.

Business & Money

The monopolies of yesteryear were scary behemoths. They gained their power by putting a stranglehold on one or many points in the value chain. They controlled infrastructure (a la AT&T with phone wires), supply (a la Carnegie with US Steel), and retail/distribution (a la Luxottica with glasses).
Within a business environment as such, it’s fairly easy to calculate the costs incurred by society. These companies are famous for price gauging, limiting supply and other nefarious means to pad their coffers.
Today’s internet monopolies though are very different for a couple key reasons.
First, these are largely monopolies by self-selection. By that I mean that consumers actually have a choice of multiple options, but the choose the monopolist due to a superior experience. You could choose to strictly use SnapChat, but if Facebook offer the same features and all of your Friends are already on Facebook, why make the switch? No reason to build a brand new social graph. You could choose to use a search engine other than Google, but Google is better. They have far more data from more searches, which allows them to better optimize the experience. Thus, people choose Google.
Second, these monopolies happen to offer free products. So it’s much harder to calculate and implicit cost to society of their monopolistic position.
So, due to free products and self-selection, antitrust legislation has a tougher time sinking its teeth into today’s internet giants.
All that said, what might make sense here is to think about monopsony vs monopoly power. If you think about Facebook and Google as Monopsonies in relation to content producers, here things are clearly out of whack. Musicians, publishers, blogger, video producers, writers… all of these parties have one game in town if they want distribution. Thus their profitability can be seriously constrained when they have no choice but to distribute via these massive digital platforms.
I think regulators may need to spend more time focusing upstream towards suppliers instead of downstream toward consumers to get a clear picture of what’s happening.

Human Progress

I have no idea how many pictures are posted to social media sites every day, but I know it’s a lot. When many people may NOT know, however, is how much metadata you’re uploading along with the picture. You probably know some of the basics: location (GPS coordinates), date, and time. Not so scary right? But how about these: phone make, phone model, wireless carrier. Ok, slightly more creepy, but still not too worrisome. What really starts to freak me out is thinking about each photo in the context of every other photo. For example, if you compare GPS coordinates of all of the phones within a city, you start to develop a sense of which phones are going to which places, and thus placing people in groups. You’re much more likely to be Chinese if you are always in Chinatown. Now this data becomes valuable for advertising purposes. What about how fast your location is changing relative to other people. With speed, acceleration, and deceleration, perhaps this could have implications for your insurance premiums. What if you are a homosexual in a Muslim majority country. If you are frequenting a location known to be a gay bar, this might impact your employment status or social standing.
Next time you go to post, keep in mind that you’re uploading a lot more than just a photo.

Philosophy

A few weeks ago my fiance was on a short vacation to visit a friend that just had a baby. While we were catching up one night via FaceTime, she switched the camera angle to show be the baby. While adorable, he was in the middle of a temper tantrum.
“I think he’s tired,” I heard from his mom in the background. She swooped in to take him off to rest.
Why is it that babies always get the benefit of the doubt? Whenever they act up, we immediately assume they’re tired, hungry, or need a diaper change (which is usually the case). But at some point, while they mature, we stop giving them the benefit of the doubt and just assume they have ulterior motives. I guess growing up removes the innocence.
Once we become adults, all bets are off. You’re simply a rude/mean/(insert adjective here) if you are nasty to other people. And with good reason. As an adult, you’re expected to be able to be respectful regardless of your internal state.
But the funny thing is, not much changes in adulthood. Fatigue and hunger still cause people to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.
So the next time you get bumped in the subway or someone cuts you off on the road and yells some obscene phrase, just remember, they’re probably tired or hungry. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt.

My Latest Discovery

If you own an Amazon Alexa enabled device (Dot, Echo), then you probably know about “Shower Thoughts”. It’s an Alexa skill that offers of witty bite-sized morsels that one might ponder while taking a shower. On Saturday I was at a friends place when he decided to test it out.
“Alexa, play random shower thoughts!”
“In the age of Google, knowing the right questions to ask become far more important than knowing the answers.”
I thought that was rather profound.

[VIC – 70] Disagree and commit. Visit to the doctor. Sugar coating. Sea salt caramel.

Business & Money

I’m working on a big deal at work. The kind of deal that, if it closes, could knock out 50-75% of your annual revenue target in one fell swoop. Us sales people call this type of deal a “whale.” Whenever whales present themselves, my best practice is to loop in my leadership team so it becomes a team effort. As such, I sent an email to our executives asking for thoughts and feedback about my approach. To my dismay, the response I got was that the deal was unlikely to close and the prospective customer likely wasn’t serious about wanting to work with us. At the same time, they offered any support and/or resources I needed to try to close the business. They basically said “we’re doubtful that this will close, but we we’ll support you in any and every way.”
For a while I was a little disheartened by the seemingly cold response. After thinking about it more though, I think there’s a huge leadership lesson hidden below the surface. It didn’t make itself truly apparent to me until I read Jeff Bezos’ annual letter to shareholders yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

“Disagree and commit.” It’s so powerful! In a simple three word phrase, he is acknowledging his disagreement, but simultaneously letting his team know that they have his full confidence and support.
It’s the same thing I got from my leadership team. They weren’t quite as excited as I was about the opportunity at hand, but also have enough trust and confidence in my ability to give me freedom and support for whatever deals I choose to pursue.

Human Progress

I went to the doctor’s office this week for the first time in a long time. When I arrived they asked for my insurance card. I had previously taken a picture and uploaded it to ZocDoc, which then aided me in finding a doctor and booking the appointment. My assumption was that my insurance information would then be shared with the doctor’s office. Wrong! Luckily I have the picture saved on my phone so it wasn’t an issue. Why is that, in the era of the internet and instant digital information sharing, insurance info can’t be sent quickly and securely between relevant parties?
Once I made it to the examination room, I was asked the same 1000 questions that we’re always asked at doctors offices. Any allergies to medications? Family history? Bla bla bla. Can’t the answers to all of these rote questions be stored in some central repository on AWS that’s easily accessible by certified medical professionals?
When I was leaving, I asked how I would receive my results? “The doctor will call you in about a week.” Send be an email for Pete’s sake! If the companies in this space won’t centralize all of my data (or perhaps can’t, due to regulatory red tape), at least give it to me in a digital format so I can do it myself!
You all know that I’m a techno-optimist, but sometimes I wonder whether the healthcare industry will ever catch up to every other vertical.

Philosophy

A few weeks ago I had a slice of pie from the local grocery store. It was incredible. The crust was baked to the perfect crispiness and it had sugar sprinkled on top.
This got my thinking about sugar coating in more general terms. In most cases that I can think of, sugar coating is a great thing. Take a delicious food item, sprinkle some sugar on top, and it generally gets better. There is, of course, one downside. Whatever you’re eating automatically becomes worse for you due to the added sugar. Moreover, if you think about most of the food items that have sugar sprinkled on top, most already offer exorbitant amounts of sugar in the first place. So it’s really just insult to injury.
I think this idea also applies to sugar coating in the less literal sense. That is, using indirect or gentle language to deliver a difficult or stern message. Sugar coating the message will make it easier to swallow for the recipient, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. There are times, when dealing with children or overly sensitive people for example, when it’s necessary to soften the blow. But in general, I’m a fan of being direct and blunt. It might sting a bit in the moment, but I find that people come to appreciate honest and forthright feedback. You actually build more trust and value into your relationships.
Best to leave the sugar coating for yummy snacks and desserts.

My Latest Discovery

This stuff is incredible!!! Go try it immediately!

Hasta la vista baby!

Jeremy

[VIC – 69] Early stage investing. Everything is digital. We can do better. National Poetry Month. Flattery or plagiarism?

Business & Money

When thinking about early stage investment opportunities, conventional wisdom says that these are generally reserved for silicon valley elites. There’s a small cabal of elite VCs that get access to all of the best deals and companies, while most are shut out. Thus the astronomical returns that accrue to these firms far out pace what the average person can expect to make while investing.
While mostly true, there are a few other ways to get a foot in the door for early stage opportunities. Here are a few:
1) You can always invest in startups yourself. Title III of the Jobs Act opens up the opportunity for regular retail investors to get their turn at startup investing. Regular people can create an account with any number of equity crowdfunding platforms (e.g. SeedInvest, MicroVentures) to participate in startup fundraising. While Title III is a good thing in general terms, it’s very unlikely that I’ll try my hand at picking individual companies. Chances are, all the best deals will be picked through by the VCs, angel syndicates, or individual angel investors. In other words, the equity crowdfunding platforms likely offer the bottom of the barrel in terms of investment opportunities. The platforms do take on some of the due diligence work to de-risk things a bit, but chances are you’ll still lose your money.
2) More realistically, you can try to take advantage of early stage opportunities by investing in public companies. For example, take artificial intelligence. We’re clearly in the hype cycle for AI and every company, both large and small, are trying to participate in the “AI gold rush”. To understand where the investment opportunities lie, we first need a bit ot context. Without getting into the weeds, deep learning is a subset of machine learning that uses computational systems loosely modeled on the human brain. Deep learning systems require a lot of processing power and thus require advanced GPUs (graphical processing units) which are far more powerful than their CPU (central processing unit) brethren. There are basically 2 companies that own the GPU market, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices, and both are publicly traded. NVDA is up 285% this year and AMD is up 481%. Not bad at all for a public market returns.
3) One slightly more esoteric way to get involved, and somewhat similar to above, involves investing in underlying technologies. Not investing in companies that produce the underlying technology, but the technology itself. I’ll give you two examples. First, think about the early days of the internet. Everyone and their mother were building internet based businesses and every one of those required a website. If you went on a buying spree in the 90s purchasing as many domain names as possible, you would be incredibly wealthy today. The average domain back then sold for around $0.50 – $5.00. Today, the average 5 letter word in the dictionary will cost you anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 if you want to purchase the domain. That multiple is (you guessed it), 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌! Secondly, I’m betting that cryptocurrencies will explode over the next 5 years. The value has already gone up over 100x since inception, and I’d say were in the first inning with no outs. I’ve been purchasing modest amounts of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the two leading cryptocurrencies, betting that they will be far more valuable in a few years. I’m less worried about these as digital currencies or stores of value, and more excited by the applications that will be built on the underlying technology. We’ll have to wait to see how this last one pans out.

Human Progress

If the 20th century was an industrial century, the 21st will be a digital one. Absolutely everything is going (or has gone) digital. Money, media, communication, commerce, conflict… everything. This transformation will, of course, bring great progress. But, it will also bring unprecedented risk. Cyber security risk that is. As the number of connected devices goes through the roof, so too do the number of vulnerabilities. I’m no cyber security expert, so I won’t try to delve into the details of the myriad vulnerabilities. Instead, I’d like to suggest 3 simple ways to greatly improve your digital security profile.
1 Turn on 2-factor authentication (2FA) for your email. For those unaware, 2FA is the process by which you use a second device to verify your identity. So when you log into your email account on your laptop, it will ask you for a password that you need to retrieve from your phone (SMS). As a result, you have a second layer of protection from someone trying to gain unauthorized access. And, while you can also enable 2FA on many other applications, email lies at the crux of everything. Anytime you need to reset a password, the reset link is sent via email. Thus, if someone gains access to your email, they likely have access to everything.
2 Use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs offer a simple way to protect the data being transmitted over wireless networks by forcing all of your data through a server run by a VPN provider. These providers encrypt all of the data providing, again, another layer of protection. These require a simple, low-cost software download from any of a number of reputable providers. This is especially important if you regularly use public wifi networks (e.g. coffee shops, NYC parks & subways, etc). Anyone on these networks can access your data if it’s unprotected.
3 Use a secure browser (e.g. Opera). These run security checks in the background while you browse (checking for phishing, malware, etc) and many also include free built-in VPN software.
None of these will guarantee that you’re 100% safe, but you’re far better off with them than without.

Philosophy

You know that philosophical question, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’ve been thinking about my own version. “If a person apologizes for a certain wrongdoing that they’ve committed, but the victim is not around to hear it, did the apology actually happen?” I would answer “no” to both questions. In the first, the tree hitting the ground would clearly disturb the adjacent air creating sound waves. But “hearing,” that involves those same sounds waves interacting with an ear drum and the associated nerve endings that translate those vibrations into an intelligible signal. In my own version of the question, the same logic applies. Yes, the apology is spoken, but the act of apologizing, if it is to be at all meaningful, involves both the speaker’s message and the listener’s reception and interpretation thereof. So even if the apology is heard, but there is no eye contact or a lack of conviction in the voice of the apologizer, we’ve adulterated the content of the words.
I began thinking about this when someone posted on Facebook about what’s often referred to as the Apology to Native Peoples. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it (I had not before coming across this post). In essence, this was a resolution signed by President Obama in 2009 as an acknowledgment of the depredations and mistreatment of Native Americans by the US government. A formal apology of sorts. I see two glaring problems right off the bat.
First, the delivery. The resolution was quietly passed, buried deep within the Defense Appropriations act of 2009 (not an obvious location for such a resolution). But no attention was drawn to it. It’s almost like the apology was whispered under the breath so that no one could hear it. Not an apology at all if you ask me. If no one can hear it, it’s safe to assume that the act itself is narcissistic or inward focused. It serves to remove some guilt or responsibility, without putting the speaker at any risk or empathizing with the listener.
Secondly, the language.
“Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.”
A new chapter?!?! Are you kidding me?? Let’s drop the warm and poetic language and call a spade a spade.
“Whereas while establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place.”
Peaceful and mutually beneficial? 😂😂 What a joke!
“Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.”
Innocent lives taken on both sides? More like genocide or extermination of one side and flourishing on the other.
There is so much power in language. What is said is often less important than how it is said.
All of this makes me think about my own progress in delivering apologies. I, for one, can say I have a long way to go. I’ve often delivered apologies while staring at the floor, using defensive language, voice raised, arms crossed, and no eye contact. If I can’t do any better, our nation and our federal government likely can’t either. 😩 Come one! We’re better than that!

My Latest Discovery

On the same topic of native peoples, Layli Long Soldier is both a US citizen and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation (a Native American Tribe). She is also an incredible poet. And, I’ve discovered that April happens to be National Poetry Month. I thought I would share one of her exquisite yet painful compositions called “38.”

I would highly recommend you listen, but if you prefer to read, you can do so here.

Question Of The Week

When is it ok to copy?
I’m thinking about this in the wake of rampant copying by Facebook. After seeing the success of SnapChat, Zuckerberg has basically copy/pasted SnapChat’s best features, pixel for pixel, into all 4 Facebook properties (WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, And Facebook).
I’m specifically thinking about this in relation to other great innovations that have been copied and commoditized. In the digital realm, think about the like button or the news feed. Basically every social application now has both. Someone had to be first. In cars, what about sunroofs? Whoever came up with the sunroof is a genius. Now every car on the block has one. The inventor must be pissed!
When does copying stop being the sincerest form of flattery and become plagiarism? Should there be more IP protection for digital products? Would this impact innovation in a negative way? So many questions!

[VIC – 68] Amazon vs the 🌎. Mnuchin off his 💊💊. Let her finish. Via 🚙.. Which identity comes first❓❓

Business & Money

Amazon has an incredible business model. Start by building an e-commerce platform to sell books. Once at scale, allow anyone selling anything to leverage that platform to sell their own goods for a nominal fee. In the process of building this massive marketplace, create a powerhouse of a logistics network (warehouses, software, supply chain expertise, etc) to facilitate all of this activity. Once at scale, allow manufacturers and retailers to leverage these same logistics services and facilities for a nominal fee. In the process thereof, build out world-class cloud infrastructure for all of your own storage, processing, and computing needs. Once at scale with these efforts, allow any other company to leverage these same cloud services for a nominal fee.
It’s an absolutely genius model that continues to pour more and more gasoline on the fire that fuels growth. One hell of a flywheel!
This model shows no signs of slowing down. You may have read about how Amazon is experimenting with physical grocery stores where customers can simply walk in, grab what they want, and leave without stopping at a cash register. Or perhaps you’ve come across the fact that they’re leasing planes and investing in their own cargo hub in Kentucky. I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that, once they figure out the model, the self-checkout technology will be offered to other retailers and the cargo hub will service the other logistics companies (of course for that not so nominal fee).
So, despite Amazon shares being crazy expensive (P/E ratio of 180.56), it may yet be undervalued. The company accounts for only 5% of retail sales (half the share of Walmart) and e-commerce still accounts for a single-digit percentage of all retail sales.
If you couldn’t tell, I am looooong Amazon!

Human Progress

Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary of the US, might be off his 💊💊.
“I think that is so far in the future – in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs – I think we’re like so far away from that, that uh [it’s] not even on my radar screen. Far enough that it’s 50 or 100 years away.”
Are you f*&%$* kidding me??? I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed more with a single statement. This guy must be off his rocker.
Now, I don’t want to spend valuable time deriding this guy, but let’s focus on the crux of the issue. Why is artificial intelligence, or machine learning (ML) more specifically, important? Computer scientists have been touting its power and potential for decades and we have nothing to show for it except for movie recommendation algorithms and autonomous vacuum cleaners. Why is this time different?
I’ll tell you why this time is different. It has to do with something very fundamental to where we are with regards to this technology.
First, a definition. Now, I’m no engineer or machine learning expert, so I won’t even attempt to get technical here. In my own laymen terms, ML involves computers learning from lots and lots of data. You’ve likely taken a basic statistics class at some point. Do you remember covering probability? Simply calculating the likelihood of a future event based on historical data points? For all intents and purposes, that’s ML. Whether you want to talk about facial recognition, translation, product recommendations, self-driving cars, or anything else. It’s just looking at a bunch of data and past events, and using that to predict the future.
With that out of the way, we can get back to why this time is different. Throughout the history of technology, we’ve been building machines to work for us. Steam engines, the printing press, cars… All of these things burn fuel to do work so that we don’t have to and faster than we would be able to on our own. But, as wonderful as they all are, these machines are not “creators.” By that I mean, they have no ability to create anything outside of what is hard coded by human beings. Once you turn on the printing press, it will continually print things exactly the same way over and over again until the energy source is depleted or the machine breaks down. At no point will the machine figure out a better way to print something. Only a human being can design a better machine to replace the old one. This has been the model for technology since time immemorial.
With machine learning this changes. Take speech translation for example. When early translation programs were developed, the software was very simple. Here is the English dictionary. Here is the Spanish dictionary. Replace each word with its equivalent in the opposite language and voila. Translation! Of course, this fails because that is not how translation works. It isn’t a word for word type of thing. Different languages have different ways of conveying tone, capturing tense, etc. With the latest incarnation of Google translate, however, we have a whole separate ball game. The algorithm can look the entire library of books, articles, speeches, web pages, etc that have been translated into another language and start to predict how a sentence should be translated. What’s more, as the system takes in more translation examples and receives feedback, the algorithm can actually learn and improve mid-flight. That is, without human intervention, the translation service actually improves over time. That’s bananas!! 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌
This is what Mr. Mnuchin is not understanding. This is not like other technologies where we invented something new that was better at doing a job. We have computers getting “smarter” by themselves.
Now I don’t want to overstate this. The capabilities are still very narrow. Each ML system is very good at one specific thing, but completely incompetent with regards to every other domain. None the less, this is a big deal.
Further, in addition to the fundamental difference just described, the speed of proliferation will be unprecedented. If we go back to the printing press and steam engine example, once these technologies were developed, it might take years or decades for the technology to spread across the globe. In the digital era, this is not the case. When talking about software and other digital goods, things can spread instantaneously, the cost of distribution is 0, and the marginal cost of creating another unit, also 0. When a new algorithm or application is created, you click a button and it is available in every corner of the globe. Again, 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌!!
With these two fundamental differences, that is the machines playing the “creator” role and the speed at which these things can spread, we’re in uncharted territory.

Philosophy

A few days ago my fiancé made Tteok-bokki (pronounced “duck-bogi”). It’s a stir-fried Korean dish with fish cakes, rice cakes, boiled eggs, onions, and red pepper paste (among other things).

While she was cooking, she was multitasking with a few other things, so asked me to stir the pan. As I began to stir, the dish seemed overly watery. I opened my mouth to ask the question, “It’s a bit watery, no?” But then I paused. There was a slight a fear of being punched in the face, but more so, a realization that I should wait to ask the question. She’s made this dish countless times and perhaps it congeals as it cooks.
That’s exactly what happened. it was absolutely perfect. In fact, probably the best she has ever made!
This got me thinking about asking questions more generally. There are many times when I’m in a meeting at work or having a discussion with a friend and something that’s said doesn’t sit well with me. I either don’t fully understand or I simply disagree. But, usually, it serves me well to let someone fully articulate an idea or complete a thought before butting in with a question. Often times the idea makes a lot more sense in the full context of what’s being said, or at least you can see the other’s perspective with more clarity.

My Latest Discovery

I’ve been using the Via ride sharing app as of late. It’s essentially Uber Pool or Lyft Line, without the option to take a ride by yourself. It’s “ride sharing” in it’s purest form. They operate a fleet of Mercedes vans that seat up to 6 passengers. Due to the purely “shared” model, prices are far lower than they are with Uber & Lyft. It cost me $8 for a ride from Long Island City to the Flatiron district. The only downside is that you occasionally have to walk a few blocks for pickup in order to best optimize routing. Not a big deal if you ask me. If you’d like $10 in free ride credit and want to help me out as well 😊, my referral code is “jeremy2e7”.

Question Of The Week

We all have so many identities. I myself am a friend, soon-to-be husband, dog parent, salesperson, black, American (purposely separated those 2), student, NYC resident, etc.
How do you prioritize your various identities? Is there a rank order? What happens when two of these are in conflict?

 

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! Onwards and upwards amigos(as)!

[VIC – 67] 👔 Company culture. 💻 👀 Computer vision. 🐝 We’re so busy. 📰 Email newsletters. 😊 💸 How to reconcile happiness with ambition?

Business & Money

At my last company, the kitchen was filled with snacks. There was a ping pong table in the middle of the main workspace and beer constantly on tap. Sleeping around with coworkers was not only fair game, it might as well have been encouraged. We also had paintings of the company spirit animals on the wall, each of which represented a core value. These were values like “be open and authentic” and “do more with less”. Basically the typical things you would expect from a mid-late stage startup. This is where I first began developing my conception of what it means to have a company culture.

At my current company, snacks are an endangered species. We have beer on tap, but it’s locked until 5 pm. We don’t burn copious amounts of cash on unnecessary travel or lavish parties. We’ve just hit 200 people, and our CEO is just now thinking about formalizing core values. Based on my old conception, you might even say we lack a company culture.

But then I started to think more deeply about this. Over time I realized that there is a difference between culture and perks. Snacks and free lunches are perks. Unlimited expense accounts, massages, yoga… Same story. Even formalized company values, while seemingly the most overt example of culture, often solely play lip service to it.

What I’ve come to realize is that company culture is not about what perks are offered. It’s not even about what the core values proclaim. It is more about the decisions you make and what you do on a daily basis.

Take my current boss for example, our SVP of sales. When I started almost two years ago, I shadowed him to a lot of meetings. I generally arrived early, but he was always there first. After the meeting, a follow-up email was always sent within a few hours. It doesn’t need to be said out loud to convey that punctuality ranks high in his mind, as does customer follow-up.

Or take our chief strategy officer. I used to think she was cold and mean during meetings. What I realized over time is that she’s just brutally efficient with her time. While a normal person might block off an hour for a meeting, she often skips the pleasantries, gets straight to the point, then walks out of the room before you’ve had a chance to confirm next steps. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I’ve never met a more efficient human being in my short 28 years.

The way people carry themselves, the way they respond to disrespect in the workplace, the way they speak to one another, how they prioritize, how they deal with poor performance, how often they communicate with the rest of the company… These are the things that make and define a culture. And whether or not you write them down or shout them from a mountain top, they will persist and pick up momentum as the company grows. As our friend sir Isaac Newton said, any object in motion will remain in motion.

Human Progress

There is an area of computing known as HCI, or human-computer interaction. This field describes the interaction of an information processing system (e.g. a computer) and the outside world, often a human being. For most of the history of computing, input methods have been limited to mouse and keyboard. While these 2 inventions were revolutionary in their own right, they’re also defined by major limitations. I’d say the most notable of these is input speed. All the sources I’ve checked say that average professionals type somewhere between 40-50 words per minute. If only I could type as fast as I can think or speak.

This partially explains all of the hype today around voice interfaces. We have Amazon (Alexa), Google (Home), Apple (Siri), and Samsung (Bixby aka Viv Labs) all competing for supremacy in this category. And with good reason. While none have nailed a killer application, the potential for speech dictation combined with natural language processing is massive.

More interesting than voice, though, is computer vision. Here we have “intelligent” cameras as the input method connected to powerful computers for information processing. And the amount of data that ingested via a camera, as supposed to text or speech input, is greater by several orders of magnitude. Let me provide 3 examples of really compelling computer vision applications:

1) The most mainstream example would be autonomous vehicles. And it’s clear why. Computers can recognize problematic driving conditions and respond appropriately with much greater speed and accuracy than a human being ever could. That’s why Uber, Tesla, and all the incumbent car makers are all competing to incorporate computer vision systems into their cars in an effort to not be left behind when self-driving cars become a reality. Intel, one of the major pioneers in chip technology has even jumped in the ring with it’s recent $15 billion dollar purchase of MobileEye.

2) Remember VIC 47 when I spoke about selling shovels in a gold rush? Computer vision is the gold rush in this example and applications will be frequent and far-reaching. Enter Clarifai. They’ve built a computer vision API so that other developers can quickly integrate computer vision into their own applications.

3) What about baby monitors? It turns out you can find out far more information than whether or not your baby is crying with computer vision enabled baby monitors. Nanit brings baby monitors into the 21st century by tracking sleep patterns, movement, breathing, and much more using advanced cameras and machine learning.

Before we know it, we might all be living in the Minority Report.

Philosophy

A few days after the recent snow storm in NYC I was walking on 23rd street behind a family of 3. It was 2 parents and their young daughter pushing her own small baby stroller. The path through the snow on the sidewalk was not very wide which didn’t allow much room for passing. I became a bit frustrated as the families progress down the street was slow-going. As a glanced to the right and left for glimpses of an opportunity to make my move, my frustration only grew.

When I finally saw a break in oncoming pedestrian traffic, I quickly sidestepped the dad, hurdled a small ice mountain and was safely in the lead. Then I hit a group of tourists who were gazing upwards at buildings and taking pictures. Great! As a dodged selfie sticks and foreign phrases, I made little progress. When I finally made it through the mayhem I was at the next traffic light. I looked to my right and realized that the family I made so much effort to pass, was arriving at the same moment. All that hard work for nothing.

When the light turned green I decided to switch to a leisurely pace, walk contently behind the family, and gaze around at the beautiful snow-capped trees in madison square park.

Why had I been in such a rush? I wasn’t late for a call or meeting and no one was holding their breath waiting for me to return. It wasn’t uncomfortably cold out and I wasn’t being chased by a maniacal homeless person. As it turned out, there were a grand total of 0 reasons to be in a rush.

As I reflect on this more, I’d say we’re often in a rush due to the modern cult of busyness. We’re always so busy. As I glance over at my phone now there are 5,335 unread emails (most of which will never be opened). My to to-do list grows every day with many items that will never be crossed off.

It seems likely that it would serve us well to occasionally appreciate the architecture of the city, to take in the myriad sounds and smells, admire the beauty of our fellow human beings, laugh at the silliness of the child in front of us as they march through the snow.

In the words of Omid Safi, “when did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?”

My Latest Discovery

2016 was the year I discovered email newsletters. I’ve told you all before about Revue (the platform I use to send this weekly newsletter), but I thought I would share a collection of my favorites in case you’d like to check them out.

Letter from Loring Park is a weekly digest from Krista Tippet. Here’s a recent sample (you can subscribe via the link in the top left corner). Krista is incredible and this weekly digest “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? We explore these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact.”

Fortune CEO Daily is a daily digest from Allan Murray at Fortune. It’s the must-read business news of the day for anyone hoping to keep abreast on major issues facing the enterprise.

Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View is delivered every Sunday as a finely curated collection of top news and stories withing the realm of artificial intelligence.

Howard Lindzon is a fintech (financial technology) investor and entrepreneur and has been neck deep in this space for over 20 years. His daily updates are simultaneously witty and insightful. They’ve become a much loved part of my morning commute.

Question Of The Week

I came across a Dale Carnegie quote this week.

“Success is Getting What You Want; Happiness is Wanting What You Get.”

Every wise person ever has explained that, the more you strive for happiness, the more elusive it is. You need to let go of the striving itself in order to truly be happy.

Sure, I’ll buy that at face value. But ambitious people would be hard pressed to give up striving altogether. With the goal of building value for others, and simultaneously capturing some of the value for oneself, it would seem that some level of striving is necessary.

So, my question is, how do you reconcile these two? How do you effectively relinquish striving while maintaining some ambitious pursuit?

With Love! ❤️️

Jeremy

[VIC – Issue 66] Frequent & big problems. Republicans vs Merriam-Webster. Say hello to the undercover plumber. Grammarly is dope!

Business & Money

In thinking about what side project to work on next, I’m trying to decide what problem to tackle. That is, every business needs to solve a problem. Customer’s don’t even need to realize they have a problem. Think about Nike. Customers already had a lot of alternatives when Nike came on the scene. But they didn’t realize that wearing a certain brand of sneaker could make you cool while playing a sport, could fill an aspirational void, and perhaps even increase your odds of becoming a superstar. They created a market out of thin air.
But back to the point. We can agree that every business needs to solve a problem. That said, not all problems are created equal. In general, I’d say there are 4 different categories. I’ll bring out the top-notch drawing skills to represent these:

I’ve created two axes here:
The Y-axis represents size. Some problems are big and some problems are small. Searching to buy your first house is a massive problem. Conversely, buying tooth pics at the grocery, not so big.
The X-axis represents frequency. Some problems need solving all the time and others are more rare. I like to talk to my friends on a daily basis. I haven’t purchased a personal computer in almost a decade.
If you plot all problems on this plane, they fall within one of four categories. I’ll list them in ascending order from the perspective of which seem to make for good businesses.
1) Infrequent and small. Every now and then there is a water main break in NYC which causes the water to come out brown from the faucet. Thus I’m forced to head to the deli to buy bottled water or even shower at a friends place if the problem persists. This problem, however, is so rare and so small (at least in developed cities) that it would not make any sense to start a company centered around on-demand water bottles or mobile showers. This quadrant is the graveyard and I’d say most should steer clear.
2) Infrequent and big. Perhaps once ever 3-8 years you need to buy a new car (ride-sharing aside). An extremely expensive purchase that takes a considerable amount of time. This category, while good businesses can definitely be built, tend to be hard and capital intensive. Not only are the products themselves very complex, but the customer journey is itself complex. With cars, you are researching online, asking friends, taking test drives, etc. Marketing budgets need to be substantial since you need to stay top of mind in between purchase decisions. You also need to charge customers a lot of money to cover the cost of building the product and acquiring customers. All in all, this category, while better than the first, is still rather hard for startups.
3) Frequent & small. I like to read news about technology and business on a daily basis. It’s incredibly easy to acquire this information from a plethora of email newsletters, websites, blogs, apps etc. If you can build a compelling product in this quadrant, which inevitably becomes a habit, you’ve hit gold, though these can sometimes be fleeting such as mobile games or apps.
4) Frequent & big. You have to talk about Apple here. People will purchase a new iPhone whenever it comes out. And these things are not cheap. You simply NEED to have the best phone whenever it becomes available. Not many companies are lucky enough to hit the sweet spot, but when they do, you get lasting, defensible, cash-rich juggernauts.

Human Progress

I’m pretty sure progress by definition connotes moving forward or in a positive direction. So whether or not you like the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare (some apparently don’t know these are synonyms for the same thing), it’s an objective statement to say that millions of Americans were able to obtain coverage that was previously outside their means. Seems safe to say that this qualifies as a move in the right direction. How we fund that or how this is implemented is surely up for debate, but we’ll leave that for another day.
The plan now being proposed is trying to completely dismantle the AAA and regress to a time when millions of Americans couldn’t afford healthcare. This seems like a clear step backward. And what happens when people can’t afford healthcare? They don’t seek out preventive care (which is far more effective) and show up in hospitals with incredibly severe conditions that are for more difficult and expensive to treat.
Don’t get me wrong, our healthcare system is in serious need of reform. I’m not sure it should be a mandate that everyone should be forced to obtain coverage (though I don’t see a downside).
Technology and digital health records should pay a much larger role. But hastily throwing away legislation without a legitimate alternative does not seem to fit the definition of progress. And last time I checked, political affiliation has no power over Merriam-Webster.

Philosophy

Every day around 3 pm I have to see a man about a horse (that’s the ridiculous phrase my grandfather used for heading to the bathroom for a #2). This past Wednesday was no different. As I made my way to the bathroom and inside the stall, I came upon an unsettling discovery. The toilet was clogged.😩😩 Luckily it wasn’t one of the gross ones, but instead looked as if someone was on a personal mission to sabotage future visitors by simply unraveling the entire roll of toilet paper into the toilet for no reason at all.
I promptly pumped the breaks, turned around, and made my way into the other stall. All good to go in this one. Then I saw a small plunger inconspicuously sitting in the corner of the stall. I stood staring at it for a few moments not sure what to do. I didn’t clog the other toilet so why should I go out of my way to fix it? Especially when there’s a perfectly functioning one right in front of me. I stood there contemplating for what seemed like ages, but more realistically was probably 10 seconds. I had to make a decision quick. The last thing I wanted was for someone to walk in while I was busy plunging the toilet, which would, of course, give off the impression that I was the guilty party. And you can’t say “I didn’t clog this toilet. I’m just being a good samaritan by clearing it for the next person.” Yea right! 😂😂 That’s totally believable.
So I quickly grabbed the plunger, went back to the original stall and had the thing cleared in about 10 seconds. Easy peasy!
If I had to put a figure on it, I’d say that probably 5% of people would do what I did. Maybe less. In any case, the point here isn’t to seek out a thank you or an acknowledgment for my services, but instead, bring to light the idea itself. Human beings are inherently selfish creatures. Our own affairs are all consuming, especially when being considerate of others will go unnoticed. This is not a good thing. We need more undercover plumbers walking around if we want to collectively flourish!

My Latest Discovery

I approach this newsletter as a rather informal communication channel. As a result, grammatical errors, typos, and other miscues are all too common. And I’m honestly not so concerned about it.
That said, Grammarly has been a godsend. You know the spellcheck functionality within Microsoft Word, Grammarly is basically spell check embedded within your browser. It calls out mistakes in the same way Word does while you write emails, blog posts or comments on social networks. If you head to the Grammarly site and log in, there’s even a browser based document editor. Now that I think about it, I can’t believe that it took until 2017 for cloud-based word processors. It’s still the norm to purchase software licenses from Microsoft and download a local version to your computer. Bananas!! 🍌🍌

Shout out to my loving grandmother for always pointing out my mistakes! 😍

 

It’s a Wrap! ✌️ & ❤️️ in the upcoming week!

[VIC – Issue 65] The product + marketing symbiosis. No need to fear the machines. We’re failing our women. Raising brave girls. Know any eye people?

Business & Money

When I was in college, I completed a brand management internship at Johnson & Johnson. I worked within the baby products group. This was the first time that I became exposed to the fact that product development and marketing were integrated functions. It was astonishing how much research and planning went into the color of the box, the size of the text on packaging and how an open/closing system worked. Testing these things through focus groups and customer surveys was huge, then translating the findings into messaging and marketing activities.

With digital transformation, this becomes even more true. The lines between product and marketing continue to blur. One example I love is Dropbox. When you open a free account, you are encouraged to invite your friends. And this isn’t some random ploy to get users. Both the inviter and the invitee get free storage space within Dropbox, a clear mutual benefit. Here we have core feature of the user experience serving as an incredible marketing and growth tactic.

Facebook is another phenomenal example. Throughout the company’s lifetime, they’ve done very little paid user acquisition. The very use of the product constitutes all the marketing they’ll ever need.

As companies grow, it becomes harder and harder to maintain an effective interplay between product and marketing as functions become increasingly siloed. However, it serves those well that hold dear this symbiotic relationship.

Human Progress

With so much technological progress its easy to fall into the trap of thinking about problems far removed. Artificial intelligence is clear example that comes to mind. At the summit of the hype cycle, there’s a lot conversation about how machines might take over the world and how afraid we should be. The “paperclip maximizer” thought experiment is a great example of this. In this fictional scenario, a super intelligent machine is tasked with maximizing the number of paperclips in existence. While a seemingly harmless goal, the logic purports that, as the AI system continues to improve at an exponential rate, there would be an intelligence explosion of sorts wherein the system begins to self improve and constantly expand its paperclip acquisition capabilities. Over time, this system might get away from its human overlords and use all of the resources on planet earth towards solving its own narrow paperclip maximizing goals.

I find this kind of thinking to be stupid and quite frankly a waste of time. Clearly AI will have far-reaching implications in many areas of our lives, but we’re not anywhere close to artificial super intelligence. Just ask Siri a few questions and you’ll have an idea to where things stand at the present moment. Narrow AI systems are incredibly proficient within their areas of competence (think Facebook’s news feed, Netflix movie recommendations, IBM Watson’s Jeopardy performance, Google’s Alpha Go, etc), but we have a long way to go with more general systems.

What’s more, in the last 6 months, we have much more serious problems to deal with regarding technology and software. Forget about AI, what about human bad actors using software and technology for nefarious purposes. I’ll provide a few examples in case you missed them.

The most recent example is Uber with its “Greyball” software. Here the company used software to figure out who might be an undercover cop in cities where it was operating illegally. Whenever an undercover tried to summon a car, they would instead see fake cars on the map and be unable to secure a ride. As a result, the company could scale to new markets without interference from regulators and law enforcement.

Then we have Zenefits. This insurance tech startup wrote code that allowed employees to skirt the normal certification process for insurance brokers. Thus, the company could hire sales people rapidly who could, in turn, start peddling insurance products much faster than would otherwise be possible.

We can’t forget about Volkswagen. They used software to dance around emissions inspections. During testing, their diesel engines would automatically switch to “energy efficient mode” giving the impression that they were far more energy efficient than was actually the case. In this instance, there’s a real cost to society in terms of pollution and people that may suffer health complications as a byproduct.

With examples like these, it becomes clear that we need to focus more on the human beings operating in the realm of technology than the technology itself. Technology is a tool. How we choose to bear responsibility in the usage of these tools needs serious consideration.

Philosophy

I’ve largely been very lucky in my life. Despite being black, the number of times I’ve had to deal with overt discrimination have been fairly limited. Of course, the systemic problems and unconscious bias are always present, but those are par for the course.

I’m very sad to say that it is painfully obvious that this is not the case for women in the workplace. Following National Women’s Day this week, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why is it that, in 2017, gender discrimination is still so pervasive? Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber is just one recent example in what seems like a constant deluge.

To our female community members, I’d love to hear from you on this. What has been your experience? If (more likely when) you’ve been a victim, how did you respond? Did you say something? How did your leaders respond? Perhaps most importantly, how did you stay motivated to show up and perform at a high level? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like a catch 22. Say nothing and deal with it, or speak up and suffer retaliation, marginalization or worse yet have your words fall on deaf ears.

We’re failing our women and it’s disgraceful. While I’ve never been a preparator (not intentionally or to my knowledge at least), I feel ashamed to function as a part of a society where this is ok.

My Latest Discovery

Following on the thread above, I stumbled upon an incredible TED talk this week called “To raise brave girls, encourage adventure.” In case you can’t spare the 12.5 minutes, here’s the conclusion:

“Finally, when your girl is, let’s say, on her bike on the top of the steep hill that she insists she’s too scared to go down, guide her to access her bravery. Ultimately, maybe that hill really is too steep, but she’ll come to that conclusion through courage, not fear. Because this is not about the steep hill in front of her. This is about the life ahead of her and that she has the tools to handle and assess all the dangers that we cannot protect her from, all the challenges that we won’t be there to guide her through, everything that our girls here and around the world face in their future.”

Shouts to Tim Ferris for sharing this one in his “5 Bullet Fridays” email newsletter.

Question Of The Week

Huge favor to ask this week. Within your networks, are you close with any optometrists or ophthalmologists? Hoping to connect with professionals in this space and would be very appreciative for any introductions you can provide.

It’s A Wrap! Have a wonderful week everyone! ❤️️ ❤️️