SOME INSPIRING THINGS
It’s the new year! After taking Yale’s happiness class this year, I learned that happiness lies in appreciating what you have — not wanting for what you don’t have. While there’s a lot wrong with the world, take a step back and realize that this year was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity. There’s less hunger, higher literacy and less death from disease than ever before.
Here are some great things that put a smile on my face and inspire me for the new year:
- Drew Dudley gives a quick TED Talk about how giving a stranger a lollypop can change someone’s life.
- Sarah Kay wrote the poem If I Should Have a Daughter that highlights the magical bits of parenting.
- Tania Finlayson has cerebral palsy. She worked with her husband to create a Morse code interface so she could talk.
- When Michael Bloomberg was mayor, he spent $650M of his own money helping run the city.
- When I’m looking for inspiration, I can always find it in Ze Frank’s work. There’s a great retrospective of his work in this TED talk. When I need some courage to get up and do something, I can always rely on this kickoff to his 2012 web series.
- And don’t feel you can only love “important” things. Take a look at this great book review, How a Book About Grover Revealed to Me the Wide World of Literature.
MY WEBSITE — WHY I WRITE
I collect stories. There are so many amazing things happening every day. I need to spend some time writing them down before they slip away. Madeleine L’Engle said that every writer needs to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. But some of this stuff is too good to keep to myself. So I share it.
When I’m writing, I picture having a conversation with some of the world’s smartest and most interesting people — you, my friends. I picture us all sitting around a table telling stories and having fun. I’d like to think we’re a digital version of the Algonquin Round Table. Throughout the 1920s, some friends would meet daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. They included the founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross, the playwright George S. Kaufmann and the writer Dorothy Parker. This group, called The Algonquin Round Table, would meet to tell stories and share quips in a bustling city that was finding its place on the world stage. They were the original raconteurs of New York, getting together to share stories that would enlighten and entertain. In an age when we no longer have two-martini lunches, I wanted to humbly bring that sensibility online.
2018 POSTS ON MY SITE
Before I started at Amazon, I had some more time to write. The most important thing I wrote about this year was How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class. Because isn’t happiness what life is really about? I also really liked In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness . While we say we praise humility as a virtue, we rarely remember the people who practice it. Finally, I have a short bit on mid-life crises in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at 40.
Below are some of the other pieces I’ve written in 2018.
- Alexa and Google in Our Home. How Alexa and Google work with our family (vs. phones that work against it). I also have a post on specifically how kids interact with Alexa.
- How Airbnb Changed the Meaning of Hotel Branding. In the past, trusting a hotel brand meant trusting Marriott or Starwood. Now it means trusting Airbnb.
- The Hidden Thirteenth Floor. How my children found the hidden number 13 in our elevator.
- Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts. How a bunch of male engineers decided on the makeup kits for the first female astronauts.
- How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt. When I was in college I saw a T-shirt that was attractive, geeky and protested government policy. No one had produced it since 2000. So I recreated it.
- Alexa Blueprints: Personal Alexa Skills in Minutes. My history building Alexa Skills and how Amazon made this much easier with Blueprints.
- The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Cloud Computing. I explain Cloud Computing through an analogy to retail checkout lines.
- The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Software Testing. I write about two different ways to test software for errors.
- The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Chaos Engineering. A guide to how Netflix and others plan for failure. I also dig a bit deeper into how software needs to be built to solve human needs — not just optimized for machines.
- “Saving Money” by Paying More for Netflix. With subscription pricing, some people feel like they’re getting a deal when they are actually paying more.
- What Do You Mean by “Film?” An interview with kids about film cameras from 2010. Spoiler alert: They’re confused.
- Prospect Theory: Losing Feels Bad More than Winning Feels Good. An example of how our biases in interpreting gains and losses cause us to make bad decisions.
Math and Logic
- How Numbers Work in the Real World. In school, we were taught that math is linear; however, in the real world, distributions are more likely to be exponential.
- Why Today Can’t Be an Opposite Day. How the statement “Today is Opposite Day” is mathematically inconsistent.
- Game Theory for Parents. Game theory provides some interesting lessons on how to equitably share a piece of pie.
Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.
Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but took a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon’s culture is embedded in its 14 Leadership Principles that are a common language and framework that form the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to everyday decisions. You can get a good feeling of the Amazon culture by watching videos of Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. A few good ones are from the Economic Club of Washington, an interview by his brother Mark, the Axel Springer Award, and a 60 Minutes Story about Amazon from 1999.
Having such a strong culture can actually seem peculiar to outsiders. At my first interview, I was asked, “Why do you want to work at our peculiar company?” At first, I didn’t understand. Over time I’ve learned that peculiarity is a good thing. Jeff Bezos says, “As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.” At Amazon, we’re dedicated to driving forward innovation even if it makes us look different from others. We pride ourselves on doing the right thing (the smart thing) even if it looks peculiar to others.
Here are some peculiar things about Amazon, including the Amazon vocabulary.
- Narratives. Amazon doesn’t use PowerPoints in internal meetings to make decisions, we use written documents called Narratives. Before joining I thought this was something Amazon was just trying out, but the company has been doing this for over a decade. PowerPoint is a tool for selling. At a company you don’t want people selling each other on ideas, you want people to discuss ideas to come up with the best possible solutions.
- Working Backwards. This may be my favorite peculiar concept. At most companies, a product is created by employees based on what the company wants to build. Product managers take into account all the stakeholders decisions including customers and senior leadership. Working Backwards starts with what the customer wants. Amazon starts with a mock customer facing press release, answers to questions that the customer might have and user documentation. This creates the core requirements because if it’s not relevant to the customer, it shouldn’t be built. For more details, Forbes did a pretty good job of describing the Working Backwards method.
- Day 1. Amazon is obsessed with Day 1. Jeff Bezos works in a building named Day 1. In each shareholder letter, Jeff includes his original 1996 letter which highlights that Amazon, and the internet, is still at Day 1. It’s an important concept for Amazon because customers will never assume that things are good enough. Companies that rest on their laurels and assume they’ve “made it” will eventually fail because customers will continue to look for something better. Jeff writes about this in his 2016 letter to shareowners. At Amazon, it’s always Day 1.
- Two-Way Doors. In the 2015 letter to shareowners Jeff defines the difference between one-way and two-way doors. “Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly — irreversible one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. But most decisions aren’t like that — they are changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. These decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.”
I’m part of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) business. We are an enterprise software company that enables other companies to build things. You can learn more about AWS in this recent interview that our CEO, Andy Jassy, gave about the business. Also, if you’re looking to interview at Amazon, there’s a great official guide and unofficial guide to interviewing at Amazon.
Here are some cool things I’ve found for the kids:
- The Chompers Podcast was created specifically for morning and night tooth brushing. It’s engaging and exactly the right length to brush your teeth.
- Chemistry Fluxx is a wonderful game for kids and adults that teaches basic chemistry concepts.
- The Kid Should See This is a weekly collection of videos that’s inspiring for kids and parents. They also have a great holiday gift guide.
- The Slow Mo Guys show what happens to various things in slow motion like a fire tornado or a 6-foot balloon popping.
- Steve Spangler is this generation’s Mr. Wizard. I especially like his work on Ellen and his series DIY SCI that’s available on Amazon Prime.
- This is a great video that shows what it means for gravity to bend space.
- Comic books aren’t just about superheroes anymore. Jim Ottaviani has done a series of graphic novels as science biographies. The kids and I have enjoyed Primates (about the path-creating female primatologists) and Feynman.
- Listen, we’re all *possibly* Frank Sinatra’s son — Ronan Farrow’s Twitter Post after Mia Farrow hinted that Frank Sinatra might be Ronan’s father
- When a girl sits down to do math, she might be more likely to say, “I’m not that good at this!” She actually is just as good (on average) as a boy at the math — it’s just that she’s even better at language arts — Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later
- I try so hard to teach my kids about self-control. And then I get really upset that Trader Joes doesn’t have organic strawberries in January. — Overheard at my kids’ school
- A Rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar and the bartender says, “We don’t tell jokes like that in 2018 anymore.” — My friend Joe Tieg
- In a wonderful send-up of the “Ted Talk” trope, Will Stephen shows how to sound smart at your TED Talk even when you literally don’t have anything to say.
- Before Alexa and Google, we had corporate telephone systems to talk with. In 2002, NPR had a Valentine’s Day story about Tom, the United Airlines telephone system, getting set up with Julie from Amtrak.
- Camille Fournier, the former CTO of Rent the Runway, has a great parody called The Very Model of a Modern Exec-Technical set to the theme of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major-General song.
- My friend Aaron Gertler played a good prank and became the expert on Microsoft Word on LinkedIn.
- Spurious Correlations is a great place to remind you that just because two things are correlated, doesn’t mean that they have anything to do with each other (e.g., Nicholas Cage films vs. Pool Drownings).
- Michael Hearst created a music album with lyrics written by famous people. When Michael Chabon sent a rejection letter, Hearst set that to music.
ALMANAC — THINGS TO STOP DOING
- Stop Paying for Things You Don’t Need. When buying a subscription on the iPhone App Store, they often default to auto-recurring. This means you can be paying for things forever and never use them. I immediately turn off the recurring subscription. Then, when I need to use the subscribed service again, I renew it.
- Stop Asking People “What Do You Do?” at Cocktail Parties. In New York, everyone likes to ask “What do you do for a living?” as their cocktail party question. I’ve found that “What are you passionate about?” to be a much more fruitful question to ask.
- Stop Using Q-Tips to Clean Your Ears. Did you know that Q-Tips are absolutely not for cleaning your ears? Take a look at the strange history of Q-tips, the most bizarre thing that people buy.
- Stop Tying Your Shoes Wrong. Watch this old three-minute TED Talk shows the right way to tie your shoes. For the courageous, take a look at how to properly tie running shoes. And if you want to learn more about knots in general, there’s a site for that as well.
- Stop Refrigerating Your Butter. I always envied how the bagel store managed to have such soft spreadable butter. I learned that if you leave your butter out in a butter dish you can do the same thing at home. According to the USDA, butter can stay on the countertop for a few weeks before having any health issues.
ALMANAC — MENTAL MODELS
In ancient times, people had wisdom, aphorisms and rules of thumb they would put into Almanacs. In the current lingo, they’re called mental models. Here’s a list of some of my favorite bits of knowledge from around the web — some because they are useful, others because they are just fun.
- Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. The feeling that something you just learned about seems to appear everywhere
- Bechdel Test. A method for evaluating the portrayal of women in fiction taken from a comic from Alison Bechdel from 1985. The test states that the movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man
- Betteridge’s Law. Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. There’s a great Betteridge’s Law Twitter feed.
- Dunning-Kruger Effect. The term comes from the article “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” It’s a scientific description of someone who is too dumb to know it. Here’s John Cleese with a video explanation of the effect.
- Godwin’s Law. If an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler. The corollary is that the thread immediately ends and this person loses the argument.
- Goodhart’s Law. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Anytime a metric becomes a target, people will try to game it.
- Hanlon’s Razor. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity
- Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest solution is most likely correct. Though they’re historically unrelated, I tend to think of Occam’s Razor with the Gordian Knot. This was the story of Alexander the Great who untangled an impossible knot by cutting it with his sword. I always think of Occam’s Razor as the act of cutting the Gordian Knot
ALMANAC — HOW TO DO THINGS
- How to Communicate About Your Dishwasher. Let’s get to one of the most important questions about marriage, “Is the dishwasher clean or dirty?” My friend Quentin introduced me to the Clean|Dirty refrigerator magnet that elegantly solves this problem.
- How to Cut the Cord with Amazon Fire TV Recast. We stopped our cable about a year ago, saving over $100 a month. The one thing we miss is live, over-the-air events, like the Superbowl. Then we found the Amazon Fire TV Recast. This is a DVR for the over-the-air TV signal that comes into my house. I can watch live TV or record programs and then stream them to Fire TV Sticks connected to the TVs in my house or to my phone.
- How to avoid losing your laptop at the airport. Put your business card and cell phone number on your luggage and your laptop to avoid losing them at the airport.
- How to Order a Chicken McGriddle. I’m a big fan of chicken and waffles so I was excited when McDonald’s started selling a Chicken McGriddle sandwich. They’ve stopped selling the sandwich but you can combine a chicken patty and two McGriddles from the all-day breakfast menu. If they are confused, show this receipt to the cashier and have them type it in.
- How to Remember Things with Siri. On an iPhone, you can have Siri remind you of something at a certain time just by speaking the sentence. For instance, just say “Remind me at 8AM tomorrow that I need to file my taxes.” The reminder will come up tomorrow and you’ll have it right on your phone.
- How to Avoid Being Stuck Without an Umbrella. This one is from Mark Hurst. Buy two umbrellas, and keep one at home and the other at work or school. (Perhaps store another in the car.) Then grab an umbrella whenever it’s raining, — and this is the only hard part — remember to put the umbrella back in its place afterward. I find it best to leave the umbrella with my bag or whatever I’m taking back in the other direction.
OK. We’re almost done. I wanted to add some additional reading that you might enjoy. It’s not light reading but it’s worthwhile.
- The Best Magazine Articles. It’s easy to get sucked up into the most recent news articles. But it’s useful to take a longer view on the more important articles of the year. David Brooks does a good retrospective in his annual Sidney Awards. If you want an even longer view of the best magazine articles, take a look at Kevin Kelley’s Best Magazine Articles Ever. Here are what I consider the best tech articles ever written.
- Online Learning. The Floating University was a Yale class that aimed to provide a liberal arts education in 12 hours. I don’t think they quite hit their goal but the lectures are pretty great.
- Blockchain. I finally understand a little bit about blockchain! Professor David Yermack, head of the Finance Department at NYU gave a great overview of the technology. In brief, blockchain changes the way we trust each other.
- Data Science. Alfred Spector of Two Sigma gives an insightful speech on the opportunities and perils of Data Science. He discusses the most promising areas for the field and where data science is not the right solution.
- Writing. At Yale, there’s a famous century-old class called Daily Themes. It’s a simple but powerful class where everyone writes an essay each day. My friend Aaron Gertler has some great information on the class including some writing prompts.
Thanks for making it through all of this! As I sign off from this email, I wanted to leave you with one of my cards. There’s a story behind these cards that you can read, but the message stands by itself. Thanks for being my friend. You’re Awesome. Let’s Talk.