Game Theory for Parents

When I was in business school I had a wonderful teacher Adam Brandenberger who wrote a book called Co-Opetition. The book is chock full of lessons on how to apply mathematical game theory to business.

In the book, I learned how to fairly divide things between two companies. But it also works for dividing things between my two kids without them getting upset (formally called Envy Free division). If you have kids, you know that this is a non-trivial problem. Let’s use the example of a cupcake. The most obvious thing is to split the cupcake in half and distribute the two equal pieces to the children. Of course, because you can never cut the cake directly in half, one of the kids is going to complain of unfairness.

The book explains a better way called I cut, you choose . One child (normally the older one who’s better with a knife) makes the cut and the other child gets to choose the one he prefers. This forces the cutter to create two pieces that are as close to as equal as possible because he knows that he’s going to get the piece that’s second best.

This worked well and inspired me to try other systemic solutions to child problems. Here’s the way I solve the problem of two kids sharing an iPhone (or iPad) when watching a movie. Normally the child who’s holding the iPhone will slowly and unconsciously move the phone closer to him, ignoring his sibling. Eventually, the phone gets so far away that I hear, “Hey, I can’t see the phone!”

I’ve been able to solve this problem by having each child have one hand on the phone. Instead of one child controlling the phone, they are sharing control of the phone. This imperceptible pulling between the two children tends to leave the phone nicely spaced between them. You’d think you’d have constant fighting between the two kids — and you do! But the fights are so small that neither kid noticies.


Stories of Great Product Managers

Marty Cagan is one of the great Product Management Gurus. His book Inspired is the bible of product managers. Product Management is a field with lots of advice and best practices but light on practical examples. In this talk, Behind Every Great Product (summary here), Marty shows what how great product managers deliver great products. He gives 6 examples of product managers who embody the art and science of Product Management.

Product Management is really about two things: defining what you want the product to be and then executing against it. Jeff Bezos says it’s about being “stubborn on vision and flexible on the details.”

Marty tells the story of 6 great product leaders who are stubborn on vision and flexible on details. They all see a huge opportunity, run into unexpected challenges and manage to come out of it with flying colors.

Take, for example, the story of Kate Arnold. In 1999, Kate was a Product Manager at Netflix. At the time, Netflix was renting DVDs by mail. They were being pummeled by Blockbuster, the industry’s 800 pound gorilla. Kate worked to move Netflix to its first subscription model. While the model worked great, it created a problem because now everyone wanted to borrow the newest (and expensive to Netflix) movies, putting Netflix in the red. So Kate needed to convince people to watch some older movies. She created classic features like recommendations and queuing that got people to watch a mix of both old and new movies they loved, making them happy and allowing Netflix to stay profitable.


How to Avoid Losing Things at the Airport

I was travelling today, having a quick breakfast in Charlotte, NC, before heading into to work. When I left the hotel room, I had a roller bag with me. I finished breakfast and started heading to work. A minute later my phone rang.

“You forgot your bag at breakfast,” said the super nice Charlotte woman. I went back the 50 feet and picked up my bag.

This reminded me of the most useful travel tip that I know:

  1. Always make sure that your luggage tag has your cell phone on it.
  2. Stick a business card onto your laptop (with your cell phone on it). This is mainly for security at the airport. It’s easy to forget that you’ve taken your laptop out of your bag when you’re in a rush to catch a flight. And if you do remember, it’s easy to accidentally pick up someone else’s laptop.

Bonus trivia of the day! On an airplane, I always hear them talking about “Putting your rollerboard bags in the overhead compartment.” I just learned that the pilot is saying “roll aboard” not “rollerboard.” Now that makes much more sense.


Technology Through the Generations OR What Do You Mean by “Film?”

Alan Kay said, “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” While that makes sense intuitively, it’s hard to see in real life. To make this more tangible let me take you back 8 years.

It was early 2010 and we were in Key West for Jeff and Debbie Katersky‘s wedding. Debbie’s niece Carly was about 8 at the time and was given a single use film camera to take pictures at the wedding. This was her first experience with a film camera.

“How do I know what I’m taking a picture of?” Carly asked, pointing to the back of the screen.

“You look through this viewfinder right here,” I said.

“OK…” said Carly, squinting to look through the viewfinder. “But how do I see the pictures once I’ve taken them?”

“You won’t be able to see the pictures. They’re stored inside the camera,” I said.

“Oh, so they get emailed automatically?” she says, excited that she’s starting to understand things.

“No. They don’t get emailed. They stay on the film in the camera. Then between each picture, you have to turn the knob at the top to wind the film.”

“Why do you have to do that?” she asked, thoroughly puzzled.

“Because all the pictures are stored on film, which then needs to be developed. Because of the film you need to be very careful not to open up the back or all the pictures will be destroyed,” I said.

“So that means they get deleted?” she says as she starts opening the camera.

“No! Don’t do that!” I yelled, running to stop her. “They won’t get deleted. If you open up the back all the pictures will be ruined!”

Carly made it through the wedding taking her pictures. And like all photographers with film cameras, she got 1 or 2 good shots on her roll of 24.


You Can’t Learn Everything Online

I was looking online and saw an ad for Master Class, an online site that has celebrities like Steve Martin teaching you comedy and Annie Leibovitz teaching you photography. It seemed interesting. Then I saw the videos about basketball and tennis, and I lost all hope that this was a good idea. Here’s why.

A few years ago I had this guy working for me, let’s call him Jim. Jim was a wonderful worker and would always present the most important information at our meetings. His one problem was that he wasn’t a dynamic speaker. This wasn’t a big problem.  I’m at a big company and we have public speaking classes. I myself had learned how to be a better speaker at this company. So I called HR.

“I want to get some public speaking training for Jim. Maybe he could take a public speaking class? I took one last year,” I asked.

“We don’t offer that anymore,” she said.

“You don’t offer the class anymore? What do you have instead?” I asked.

“We have decided to move to more online training. The world is moving to much more of a ‘training-on-demand’ culture — like YouTube. We have a number of online classes that teach you how to speak in public from the basic to the advanced level.”

“You realize that public speaking is something you need to practice,” I said. “It’s not something you can learn from a book.”


I learned that there was a Toastmasters group at work that met informally and told Jim to join that instead.

When I told a co-worker this story, he said that it’s like saying “You don’t know how to swim? I have this fantastic PowerPoint deck on swimming. Once you read it just jump into the deep end of the pool. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”


Pictures at Weddings OR Experience the Moment Don’t Capture It

I just left a wedding and I saw the most amazing thing. The bride and groom made sure that people were not going to take pictures during the wedding. It’s mixing enormous amount of sense because:

  1.  They will be taking the world’s worst pictures of the bride and groom.
  2.  It’s also distracting to everyone who sits there.
  3. They aren’t really even experiencing the wedding there just spending a lot of time figuring out how to take the best picture.
  4. The bride and groom have hired a professional photographer

This also reminds me of a picture of how people change in the way that they experience life due to mobile phones. When the pope was chosen in 2005 everybody was there actively awaiting the decision. Also it must have been pretty a pretty wonderful experience. Everyone was probably talking to other and being in the moment and just having this wonderful communal excitement. In 2013 when the pope is chosen everybody had their mobile phones out my does it take a picture to post on Facebook. It feels like that moment was memorialized better but at what cost?


Can Web Advertising Make You More Productive?

Note: Right after I posted this, Google Contributor completely changed so this is no longer possible.

The Idea in 150 words:

  • When I’m surfing the web I want to get something done — but ads want me to do something else (like buy something). I can’t get upset at the ads because that’s their job
  • My attention is a valuable and scarce resource that marketers want to purchase. Essentially I am paying for content with my attention
  • Paying for content with micropayments might be a solution but that just takes the ads away — getting people to “pay for nothing” (or the elimination of something) is a hard value proposition
  • I figured out how to use micropayments to replace Google Display ads with my To Do list. Building on an idea Matt Cutts had on his blog, I used Google Contributor and Remember The Milk to substitute advertisements with my To Do list
  • Now I have my To Do list follows me around the Internet. It’s just like a persistent targeted ad that won’t leave me alone. It’s Awesome!
  • Here’s what it looks like:

Now for the extended version

The Problem

When I’m browsing the web, I’m trying to learn something or get something done. Advertisers are looking to get me to buy something. South Park did a great (NSFW) send up of this where the boys are investigating the advertising industry and keep ending up at the ice cream parlor and instead of finishing their task.

We’re in an attention economy right now. Time is our most valuable resource. As Randy Pausch of Last Lecture fame said in his Time Management Lecture, “Americans are great at managing their money, but significantly worse at managing their time.” Which means that most Americans would rather pay for their content with their time (free with ads) than their money.

Why Are Ads So Annoying?

Because it’s their job. An advertisement’s job is to change behavior and convince people to buy something. This can be in increasing awareness, interest or desire in the product. However it’s being done, it takes me away from my task and thinking about the product.

Sometimes my goals are in line with the advertisers. If I’m looking for cool toys for my kids, a suggestion for a similar product from Amazon or an ad from Google could be incredibly powerful. Unfortunately, many advertisements are low quality and look more like the ads in the back of old comic book magazines.

What most web advertisements feel like the ads in the back of comic books

Fixing the Problem

A Page Starts by Looking Like This

The Page Without Alteration

Option 1: Eliminating Ads

In order to avoid these annoying ads, many people have switched to ad blockers — essentially taking the content but avoiding paying for it with their attention. This doesn’t work long term as the ad supported sites will be starved by revenue.

A better model is micropayments. Instead of advertisers paying for each page view, the consumer would pay for it. These models are very hard to put together, requiring both the consumer and the website to buy in.

Ad Blocker

Option 2: Replacing Ads with Something Else

One of the most promising micropayments platforms is Google Contributor. Google Contributor allows consumers to “buy back” their ads from Google. This allows Google to leverage its massive relationships with websites. Matt Cutts has a great description of Google Contributor on his blog, but the key points are:

1. You support the sites you visit
2. You see fewer ads
3. (And this is the cool part) you get to decide what to show in that ad space instead of ads

Google Contributor still feels like a bit of an experiment at this point. The main reason is that there’s nothing that people are really replacing their ads with of value. Right now Contributor defaults to a “Thank You” message that’s blank with other options like pictures of cats. People don’t seem to like the absence of paying for things very much — it feels too much like paying to be bored. Even though there’s a huge amount of value in actually being bored.

Standard Google Contributor

Option 3: Replacing Ads with Something Useful (My Favorite One – This is Where Things Get Really Cool)

As I said before, the purpose of advertising is to get you to change your behavior. But instead of letting the ads change my behavior to buy things, why don’t we use ads to focus me on what I want to do. Wouldn’t it be great to have your “To Do” list follow you around the internet instead of ads. These work for 2 reasons:

  1. Advertisements are great at following you around the web and interrupting you. Instead of interrupting you to buy things, you get your To Do list — reminding you of what you need to get done
  2. To Do lists can be context sensitive (e.g., when you’re at your computer, these are the things that you’d like to do)

Google Contributor With My To Do List!

What I’ve Learned:

While this is just a small prototype, there’s a lot of things I learned from it:

  1. It’s quite useful. I’ve only been using this for a few weeks but it really does get me laser focused on my To Do List — especially when I’m mindlessly surfing the web
  2. There are a few issues with using Google Contributor for this purpose but net-net for $5 a month to get less distracted by extraneous things AND actually let me focus on the things I want to get done — that’s HUGE. All this while contributing to the media that I want to thrive.

How to Set It Up

Detailed Instructions for Connect Google Contributor to Remember The Milk:

Create a List
  • Log in to from your web browser to set the cookie to access your URL. Note: You will not be able to log into Remember The Milk from inside a Contributor window — this seems to be a security feature to avoid capturing data from an ad.

  • Find the URL of your To Do list by going to and displaying your To Do list

· Point the Google Contributor custom URL to the Remember The Milk list

· Now your To Do list follows you around the web!

Some Further Improvements

  • Some sites like the New York Times get a very high CPM and have pretty good ads. You can eliminate contributor contributions by clicking on the + sign…

  • Finding the right To Do list is difficult. Remember The Milk is pretty good at this but there might be better ones. doesn’t seem to follow a drag and drop prioritization, so you’ll need to move items up and down in your list using the “prioritization” flag. This is particularly important because most ads will only show between 2 and 5 list items.
  • The trickiest thing is finding a To Do list that will display nicely in the ad space. m.rememberthemilk does a nice job by using very little room on the top and no navigation. To get this really right, you’d likely have to call and API for RTM and do a custom display.
  • Ideally, it would be good to customize the way that the To Do list displays based on the display size (e.g., if the space is too small, don’t try to display the To Do List).
  • I only need to see my To Do list once per page. If I have more than one ad on a page, I might want to have an inspirational quote in the other ad space.

Man Computer Symbiosis

Earlier this year I was working on our online banking platform and kept thinking about the question, “Will we need people in the finance function in the future or will it all be done by computers?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that people will be around for a long time. Humans and computers can do a lot more together then they can alone. J. C. R, Licklider (the founder of the internet) discussed this concept a long time ago in a paper called Man-Computer Symbiosis. Essentially machines do the grunt work, allowing humans to focus on things that are more important. Today humans work together alongside computers almost constantly. Think about driving to dinner by using the computerized maps and GPS on your phone. Or making a call on that phone (another computer). Or even driving the car that is stuffed with tiny computers to help with steering and measure your tire pressure.

I found a wonderful example of Man-Computer Symbiosis from Garry Kasparov — one of the best chess players ever. He gave a lecture on how humans and computers can partner together when playing chess. I’ll summarize the key points below or you can also view a great piece that Kasparov wrote in the New York Review of Books or watch a video of Kasparov’s lecture.

  • The End of Human/Computer Chess? In 1997 the IBM computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. This was the first time that the best computer in the world beat the best human in the world. Most of the world considered this the end of human/computer chess. Computers would continue to get better each year much faster than people — leaving human players in the dust.
  • But A New Type of Competition Emerged: The website held a “Freestyle” competition in 2005. People could compete in teams and use computers. Traditionally the use of computers by human players would be considered cheating. There was substantial prize money offered which enticed many of the world’s greatest grandmasters and IBM’s newest supercomputer “Hydra” to enter.
  • A Surprise Winner: As it turns out, grandmasters with laptops could easily beat Hydra and the other supercomputers. But the overall winner was a pair of amateur players with 3 laptops. These were neither the best players, nor the best machines, but they had the best process. As Kasparov writes, “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”

Another example is the company Palantir — a software startup that helps “good guys” (e.g., governments, banks) catch “bad guys” (e.g., terrorists, fraudsters). Most people attack this problem from the perspective of “How can we get computers to find the bad guys?” Palantir takes man-computer symbiosis point of view by providing a tool that makes the good guys much better at their job.

Considering how pervasive computers are to the very fabric of our lives, thinking though the model of Man-Computer Symbiosis is critical to both building the best machines and also deploying and training people most effectively.