These are a Few of My Favorite Words

To start with I found an amazing etymological podcast called The Allusionist by Helen Zaltzman. She has some great episodes on cursing [NSFW], Mountweazels (fictional words used in dictionaries for copyright purposes), portmanteaus (combination words like “brunch”) and eponyms (words named after people). She also had a great TED talk on how the letter i got a dot on top of it. Continue reading “These are a Few of My Favorite Words”

How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt

Read in the voice of the Mission Impossible announcer: This t-shirt was originally created as a protest against US Export laws. Until 2000, US export law considered the computer code on the shirt as a “munition” that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to re-create this shirt.

The T-Shirt

When I was at the GEL conference in 2016, I met a woman who worked for the website Design a Shirt. We started talking about the most creative t-shirts we’d ever seen. This brought me back to the late 1990s when I discovered one of the most innovative shirts ever created — a t-shirt that the US government classified as a weapon.

Oddly Necessary Background on US Encryption Export Policy

This t-shirt was created as a protest against the way the US government was treating the export of encryption (i.e., secret codes).  Until 2000, US government considered encryption as a munition that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national.

It seems a little odd that software that’s embedded in everyone’s iPhone today used to be illegal to export. Put in historical context it makes more sense. For centuries, encryption was used to allow military organizations to pass messages. The most famous of these devices was the German Enigma machine from World War II. The capturing of an Enigma machine allowed the allies to break the German codes and win the war.

The German Enigma Encryption Machine

In the 1990s, US government policy still hadn’t veered from this idea. Any secret codes that were used by foreign governments should be breakable by the US government without too much effort. At the same time, encryption was becoming a critical part of internet communications. The issue here was that the exact same technology that was powering the internet was also used to send secret government and criminal communications.  This led to internet browser companies like Netscape to create two different browser versions. They distributed a “strong encryption” that was only available in the US and a “weak encryption” that could be exported everywhere else.

Some internet activists were upset about weak encryption. You see something similar in the fight today between the US government and Apple on the right to be able to break into criminals’ iPhones. The government was claiming that it was dangerous for people to have secrets that the government couldn’t see if they needed to. The protesters were saying weak encryption creates a weak internet.

Making The T-Shirt

This is where t-shirts make their appearance. Some encryption advocates had the idea to create a very small but strong encryption program whose entire code could be put on a t-shirt. Therefore, anyone wearing this t-shirt to a foreign country or even seen by a foreign national would be exporting a munition would be breaking a law.

That’s a creative t-shirt! I really wanted one. However, I ran into two problems. First, most of the t-shirts are pretty ugly. Secondly,  since the law changed in 1999, the demand for this t-shirt has plummetted and it’s no longer sold.

With no one making these t-shirts anymore, I needed to do it myself. First, I needed to find a design of the shirt that I really liked. Second, I needed to find a way to print it.

For the design, Vipul Ved Prakash made a wonderful version of the computer code in the shape of a dolphin.  The company ThinkGeek printed the shirt back in the 1990s.

So then I needed to make the t-shirt. Most t-shirt printers want you to buy in bulk but Design a Shirt works well for one offs.  Making the shirt is easy. I just uploaded the image and choose a shirt type. The benefit to making your own shirt is you can pay the $5 more for a super premium quality shirt. I also chose to pay another dollar to print the dolphin in blue. If you want to print the shirt, it’s still available on the Design a Shirt site.

Here’s the Final T-Shirt
And Here’s the Image I Used in the Shirt

I really love this t-shirt and proud I re-created it. The world needs more of these shirts — clever, interesting and pretty designs that tried to change the world. I thought someone would recognize it when I wore it; however, even at technology events, I haven’t met anybody who mentioned it. I even added the last paragraph to the shirt to explain it to people. If you want to print one for yourself, it’s still available online.

Note: In the unlikely event you’d like to learn more, there’s a good Wikipedia article on US encryption policy that even mentions the t-shirt.

Why I Love My Fitbit Alta HR

The Fitbit Alta HR is one of the few technology products that gives me almost everything I need and very little that I don’t. It’s a tour de force of good design. When I look at what I need on my wrist, it’s not really a smartwatch or even a fitness tracker but something else (maybe a “smart wristband”). Let’s take a look at the 3 features of the Fitbit Alta HR that are most important to me.

3 Features I Love About My Fitbit

  1. EASY Sleep and Exercise Tracking. I need to track how much I sleep and how often I go to the gym. I used to have a Fitbit Flex, which while being a good product, made me manually track my exercise and sleep. For example, to track sleep I was supposed to tap on the band when I went to sleep and when I woke up. This meant that I forgot many days and didn’t have good data on my sleep patterns. The Fitbit Alta HR makes use of its heart rate tracker to guess at when I go to sleep (my heart rate drops by a lot) and when I’m exercising (heart rate goes up). It can even figure out the type of exercise I’m doing (i.e., bicycling, walking, sports).
  2. Vibrating Notifications. For about 20 years, since I got my first flip phone, my friend Seth Gilbert and I talked about how difficult it is to make sure that we got our phone calls. We would put our phones on vibrate in our pocket and occasionally miss calls. Women had it worse because their phones were in their purses. With the Fitbit Alta HR, the wristband connects to my phone and will vibrate when there are calls or text messages. But notifications are limited to ONLY calls and text messages so I’m not bothered or even tempted by anything else (e.g., app notifications).
  3. Tactile Alarm Clock. A wise man once said, “The hardest thing about being married is not having your own alarm clock.” Not really. I like to wake up earlier than my wife so I can relax and let my mind settle. But if I set off an alarm clock, then everyone wakes up. Having a vibrating alarm clock allows me to wake up with a vibration that’s much nicer than the buzzing of the alarm and wakes me up without waking up the rest of the house.

How I Might Improve These Features

As a product person, it’s fun for me to think about how to make these features even better.

  1. Exercise Guidance (building on the feature EASY Sleep and Exercise Tracking). It would be great if my Fitbit could offer me sleep and exercise guidance in addition to tracking. Fitbit’s certainly going in this direction after having bought Fitstar and renaming it Fitbit Coach. Trying to put all of Fitbit Coach into something without a screen is difficult so I don’t think it’ll be done in the near term. However, I can see something simple like the Seven Minute Workout coming relatively soon.
  2. I Need You NOW (building on the feature Vibrating Notifications). In an emergency, you really want to get someone’s attention. For example, parents want to know where their kids are but they’re not checking their phones. One way that I’ve seen parents get their kids attention is to set off the “Find My Phone” alarm on their kids iPhone. The “Find My Phone” alarm is normally used when the phone is missing in a large house so it puts out a piercing screech which cannot be ignored. One way of bringing this to the Fitbit would be priority vibrations. For example, if someone calls multiple times in a row, the vibrations would increase in intensity so that the wearer could not ignore them. If we wanted to bring this to the next level we could add a small shock to the wristband though I’m not sure how well that would sell 🙂
  3. Wake Up and Relax (building on the feature Tactile Alarm Clock). The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is turn on my meditation. It would be great if my Fitbit would wake me up and then go right into a 5-minute breathing exercise. The Fitbit Charge 2 HR already has a clever meditation routine for a small screen called breathing sessions. I imagine that my experience would go something like this:
    1. The alarm rings
    2.  I wake up and tap it to tell the watch I’m awake
    3. The guided breathing exercise starts. In … Out … In … Out
    4. If I’m not breathing at the guided breathing rate for 30 seconds, the Fitbit assumes I’ve gone back to sleep and tries to wake me up again.

Reasons I Like My Fitbit More Than an Apple Watch

The obvious comparison here is to the Apple Watch. “Why not just get a smartwatch?” you might say. Then you’d only have to have one thing on your wrist. Here are the reasons that my Fitbit is better than an Apple Watch — at least for me.

  • It’s Not a Watch. I really like my watch. It’s beautiful and far nicer than an Apple watch. Wearing both watches looks a bit silly because hey, how many watches does a person need? It’s also a bit annoying because it has the feeling of “Go Apple or Go Home” —monopolizing my wrist. It’s one thing for my technology items in my life to be Apple. I mean I love my iPhone and I love my MacBook Air but I don’t need everything in my life to be Apple.
  • Long Battery Life. Because it’s not trying to do too much, the battery can last a week without charging. This lets me wear it to sleep which gives me half of the features that I want in my wristband (sleep tracking and alarm clock). The Apple watch needs to be charged every night so misses these features.
  • Small, Light and Fashionable. Because it doesn’t have these Apple Watch features (especially as it doesn’t need a full screen) the Fitbit Alta HR can be small, light and fashionable. I can wear it to the sleep, to the gym and even do vigorous exercise I don’t notice it.
  • Limited Notifications and Features. While there’s another feature or two that I’d love to have, I like the fact that I’m not distracted or even tempted by them. I’m sure if I had an Apple Watch I’d be tempted to read the newspaper or check my appointments on my watch — which I really don’t need to do.

Overall the Fitbit Alta HR is an awesome device. It gets me 90% of the things I need and little else. When I started writing this post I thought about how weird it was that I was talking about a fitness tracker that I don’t really use for fitness very much. Then I came across Wearable’s Top Fitness Tackers of 2017 and saw that they rated the Fitbit Alta HR as their top choice. One of the top features for the favorite “fitness tracker” was sleep tracking!

A Very Brief History of Mixed Reality and Disney

When we think about Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality, we’re tempted to think this is a very new thing. Take The Void for instance. You can walk through a space that’s literally “painted” with virtual reality textures. I experienced The Void at Madame Tussauds in Times Square last year and it was awesome!

But mixed reality has actually been with us for quite a while. Take a look at a typical Disney experience. Mickey Mouse literally opens the Magic Kingdom to guests each morning. Of course it’s a man (or woman) in a costume dancing around while the virtual voice is piped in through speakers. This lets you really be part of a Disney experience!

But this combination of real life and cartoons is nothing new for Disney. Take a look at this early Disney movie where a real life Alice is transported in a cartoon wonderland.

But it goes back even further in animation. I just came across the first mixed reality movie The Enchanted Drawing. Not only is it the first mixed reality movie, it’s also the first animated movie!

Malcolm Gladwell’s Favorite Writers and Storytellers

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best writers of our generation. That’s not to say he’s always right. As he likes to say, “I hope you find my work entertaining even when it’s wrong.” Gladwell has done some amazing stuff as a magazine writer, book writer, speaker, and even podcast host. If you want to watch some amazing talks, check out: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. But who are the people that Malcolm Gladwell thinks are the best writers and speakers?

The Spaghetti Sauce Talk:

The Coke and Pepsi Talk:

On Great Writers

From the Longform Podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell (starting at 28:18. Transcript provided by Longform)

My great hero as a writer is Michael Lewis. I just think Michael Lewis, believe it or not, is the most underrated writer of my generation. I think he is the one who will be read 50 years from now. And I think what he does is so extraordinary, from a kind of degree of difficulty standpoint. The Big Short is a gripping book, fascinating, utterly gripping book about derivatives. It blows me away how insanely hard that book was to do, and it’s brilliant. The Blind Side, I think, it might be the most perfect book I’ve read in 25 years. I don’t think there’s a single word in that that I would change. I just think it has everything. But he uses no science, right? Very little.

It’s all story. But he does more work in his stories, makes much more profound points than I do by dragging in all these sociologists and psychologists. He’s proved to me that, if you can tell a story properly, you don’t need this kind of scaffolding. You can just tell the story. And so, I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, but trying to move in that direction over the last couple books.

I don’t think people realize how hard it is to do a single narrative book. That’s one of the things I admire about Michael Lewis. He seems to be able to do it effortlessly. I don’t even think I could pull it off. Maybe it’s because I’ve never found an individual whose story is rich enough. But, maybe I’m just not as good at developing a single story. I just think that’s kind of beyond me a little bit. … I would lose faith in my ability to keep the reader engaged. I’m much too nervous a writer. Whereas the amount of self-confidence you feel in Michael Lewis’s work, or Janet Malcolm’s work … she’s so extraordinarily sure of her gift, she’s not in any hurry to start and she knows you’ll stick with her because she knows she will deliver. To use a sports metaphor, Janet Malcolm and Michael Lewis are the people who are quite happy to take the last shot. I’m going to pass.

Apparently, Lewis and Gladwell are friends and appear together often.

In addition to being a compelling author, Gladwell also makes phenomenal speeches. My favorite Malcolm Gladwell speeches were given about 10 years ago: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. Both of these are brilliant examples of storytelling and really show the difference between reading an article and giving a performance.

In his interview with Tim Ferris (starting at about 28 minutes), Gladwell talked about how difficult it is to give a great speech. It’s not about reading an article in front of a group, it takes a lot more work than that. Then Ferriss asks Gladwell, “Is there anyone in the world of speaking alive or dead who is the Michael Lewis for you.” Below is Gladwell’s answer. Note that I used YouTube’s transcript function  and tried editing it so it makes sense on the page:

I once went to a birthday party for an old friend of mine, Anne Applebaum, in England.  Now first of all the English are way better at giving speeches than we are. And secondly, we were talking about the creme de la creme of English speech givers.  Like serious Cambridge and Oxford debating society kind of people.

Niall Ferguson, the historian, gave a birthday toast which is just the best toast I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean it was like so much better than anything I had ever heard — like on another level. I was like oh my god that’s good. And part of what made it genius was he really gave you the impression he was making it up on the spot. Now he might actually have done that. He may be so good he could do that.

The conceit was that it was totally spontaneous. It was so cleverly done and so hilarious. And one of the ways it was so charming was the ways in which he was wrong. Part of the joke was he was going to make this elaborate hilarious argument about Anne who was turning fifty. And half of the stuff that he was going to say was not right. He spun a theory about the weekend and about her birthday and about her friends that was like hilarious because it was not accurate. And he did it with such panache. First of all that would never have occurred to me to make stuff up in such a dramatic way. But also I can’t do off-the-cuff. Ever since then I just worship the guy. I just think I think he walks on water.

I had Niall as a professor when I was at NYU for business school and he was just amazing. His books (like The Ascent of Money) and television programs (like The Ascent of Money) are really amazing. If you want to see him giving more of a speech like Malcolm mentioned, though a lot less funny, you can watch his speech at the Sydney Opera House.

The Worst Consultant OR My Favorite Consulting Joke

A man in a hot air balloon comes descending on a meadow where a shepherd is tending his flock. After he greets the man he asks him “If I tell you how many sheep you have without having to count them, will you give me one of them?”

The shepherd agrees.

The man in the balloon says “You have 100 sheep.”

A bit surprised the shepherd says “How did you know?”

“Well,” says the man, “your field is about 5 km by 5km and in this part of the wilderness you can graze 4 sheep on each square km of land. So 5×5 is 25 square km times 4 is 100 sheep.”

“Wow, you’re right,” said the shepherd, “please take your pick of the sheep.”

After the man in the balloon selects his sheep, the shepherd turns to him and says “if I tell you what you do for a living, will you give me my animal back?”

The man in the balloon agrees. The shepherd says “You are a consultant.”

The man in the balloon is amazed at the insight that the shepherd has shown and says “How on earth did you know I am a consultant?”

The shepherd answered, “You showed up here even though nobody called you. You want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked. And you don’t know a thing about my business … now give me back my dog!”

For an example of a great consultant read up about the great refrigerator repair experience I had.

Questions OR Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at 40

Yale has a wonderful writing class called Daily Themes. This class has been taught at Yale for over 100 years and requires students to write a story each day of about 500 words. I always wanted to take the class but never did. So I started to do some of the writing on my own based on the prompts my friend Aaron Gertler online from the 2015 class.  My favorite one so far is:

Create a conversation between two characters in which everything said on either side is in the form of a question and every question advances the conversation. Avoid rhetorical questions and repetitions.

I hadn’t realized this but the instructor had put in a link to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s “Questions” game — which was what popped into my head as well. With that preamble, I now give you…

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at 40

How did we get here?

Weren’t we promised a happy and fulfilled life if we just gave our life to the company?

Isn’t that why we went to business school?

Wasn’t that the promise once we got out?

Do you feel likely we have climbed a giant mountain up through the clouds only to see more mountain?

Do you think we are at the top of the mountain and can finally see clearly?

Are we getting close to the end?

Do you feel like we are in that Tom Stoppard play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead?”

Or maybe Godot?

So what do we do now?

Should we change our focus and get off the hedonic treadmill?

But what would we do then?

Don’t Zen monks talk about this problem?

Could we leverage some of that?

Why do you always have to talk in business speak?

Aren’t you afraid of death?

Aren’t we dying every minute?

Do you think that’s the secret – living completely in the moment?

Is there any other way?

Why don’t we treat every moment as our last by being fearless and vulnerable and not afraid to fail?

Are you saying failure is good?

How can you have anything valuable without failure?

What about love and courage and accomplishment?

Isn’t that what I’m saying?

How Numbers Work In The Real World

I really like numbers. I understand that not everyone likes numbers as much as I do and that’s OK. I still like you.

Radiolab did an awesome podcast on Numbers a few years ago. There’s a lot of great stuff in there and it’s accessible even to people that are afraid of math. One of the most interesting bits is how our natural sense of numbers is different from formal math. Come to think of it, that may be why some people have a problem with math.

The core idea is something they refer to as natural counting. We’ve all been conditioned by math classes to think of counting as 1,2,3, etc. However, in the natural state, people act differently. On the show, they told of an experiment with an Amazon tribe where people do not count and don’t have numbers beyond five. They showed the tribesmen a line. On one side they placed 1 object and on the other side, they placed 9 objects. The experimenter asked, “What number is exactly between 1 and 9?” The response was “3.” The reasoning works like this:

  1. First person has 1 stick
  2. Middle person has 3 sticks (3 times as many as the first person)
  3. Last person has 9 sticks (3 times as many as the second person

So the second — the one in the middle has 3 sticks.

Let’s look at another example. Imagine you’re giving out bonuses at work and you have a pool of $500,000 and you want to fairly distribute the pool. You could give everyone the same amount of money. But what if someone made $1 million and 4 people made $100,000. You could give everyone $100,000 as a bonus. But that doesn’t feel fair. To be fair you’d give everyone about the same percentage of their salary as a bonus — which in this case would be about a 36% bonus for everyone.

Another non-intuitive concept on Radiolab is Benford’s law.  Benford’s law says that in the real world, you’ll see the number 1 appear many times more as the first digit than the number 9. This happens for naturally occurring phenomena like money in your bank account, size of countries or views on YouTube.

Radiolab has a great story on how this is used in the real world. Say someone was trying to commit a fraud on tax returns. They would be trying to create “random” numbers by having the first digit of each number evenly distributed (equal numbers of 1,2,3, etc.) But Benford’s law says that you should have more 1’s as the first digit than 9’s. So if numbers end up looking more random than they would be in the real world, that’s a sure sign of fraud.

So why does this happen? For the same reason that we saw above, things like to grow by percentages rather than units. Think about the bonus example. Say things are growing by 10%. If you start with the number 1 the next numbers are 1.1, 1.21, 1.33. 1.46, 1.61, 1.77, 1.94. That’s 8 numbers that start with a 1. For 9, you have 9 and 9.9 so that’s only 2 numbers that start with a 9 (and then you’re back to another number that starts with a 1).

For a more detailed explanation of Benford’s law including a pretty technical mathematical explanation, check out Singing Banana.

So why is this important? Even though we think about the world in 1, 2, 3’s, it’s actually more about the changes from where we are now. It’s 10%, another 10%, another 10%, etc. By understanding the world in these terms it’s more intuitive and more useful.