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Welcome to My Site!

About Me

I’m a devoted husband and father to an awesome family. For work, I’m a Product Manager who looks at the goals of the business and uses technology to deliver those business and customer goals. I’ve driven transformational change at Citi, AIG, and Amazon Web Services. For more information about what I do at work, please visit my LinkedIn profile.

My Blog

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. Some of these ideas are so powerful that they hit me like a bolt of lightning. It’s my job to capture that lighting and put it in a bottle to share it with you. I want to capture that feeling that Archimedes had when he had an insight sitting in the bathtub screamed “Eureka!” and ran naked down the street. I know that I’ll rarely if ever make it there, but that won’t keep me from trying!

My Virtual Library

I wanted a place to put all the stuff I think is awesome. Growing up, I always wanted to have a great library in my house. I remembered the excitement when I learned that I could buy the entire collection of The New Yorker in bound volumes and put them in my house. I’d imagined that I would collect great encyclopedias from the past to peruse whenever I pleased. They would live in mahogany bookcases that looked like they’d belonged to JP Morgan. Then I realized that a New York City apartment doesn’t have the space for a physical library. So I did the next best thing. I’ve created a virtual library that includes lots of the things I enjoy, like my favorite books, words, and humor. You can check it out on the menu at the top of the page.

Blog Highlights

My Time at Amazon

Product and Design

Technical Articles for My Mother-in-Law

Human Behavior

Things I’ve Built

My Adventures and Explorations

  • Taking the Red Pill of Art. Here’s my love letter to art. It’s a story about the red pill and the blue pill, opening your eyes, and what art means to me.
  • The Joy of the Hunt. While I haven’t been outside on any new adventures in the last few months, I wrote about some of my favorite adventures, from finding a hidden castle on top of a library to discovering an old historical text from one of Yale’s secret societies.
  • What a Wonderful Word. A story of untranslatable words from around the world.
  • Carpe Diem! How to Live Like an Emperor. I realized that no matter where I am or where I go, I can live like an Emperor by seizing every moment.
  • Capture Better Memories Without a Camera. How technology is preventing me from building great memories and some techniques I’ve come up with some ways to use my brain to capture special moments instead of my phone.

Life Lessons

Math and Logic

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What We Really Need

Human beings want more of everything. We are on a hedonic treadmill that says, “What I have now is OK, but I really want more—more stuff, more money, and more friends. That would make me happy.” From a societal perspective, the hedonic treadmill has some benefits. It keeps us on our toes and moves society forward. It also gives lots of people jobs. If people didn’t want more Oreos, no one would have jobs selling Oreos at the grocery store, or stocking the Oreos on the shelf, or making new kinds of Oreos.

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Taking the Red Pill of Art

I don’t know exactly when I took the red pill.(1)Red pill and blue pill: I’m referring to the red pill in the movie The Matrix. Neo takes the red pill to see the world for what it really is. He had a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, which would have left him in blissful ignorance. It’s much easier to talk about a time when I’d taken the red pill and was talking to someone who hadn’t. I was at the Whitney Museum of Art with my friend. We saw the exhibit fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad.

Footnotes

1 Red pill and blue pill: I’m referring to the red pill in the movie The Matrix. Neo takes the red pill to see the world for what it really is. He had a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, which would have left him in blissful ignorance.
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My Ideal Retirement Plan

I know that money wouldn’t make me happy, but I still had dreams of being an early retiree. I dreamt of being that person who quit their job, moved to Hawaii, and sipped margaritas while I cashed my dividend checks. But as I got older, I realized that it’s not about the age of retirement but the quality of that retirement.

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Guest Post: Blake Schlaff on Fortnite Friendships

Guest Post: My 10-year-old son Blake is an avid Fortnite player who often plays with his friends. I thought it would be good for him (with my help) to tell everyone about the world of social gaming. 

Fortnite is not just a game about fighting. Yes, there is a lot of shooting, collecting guns, and exploring the world. The most exciting part isn’t about fighting it’s about spending time with friends online. Even though my parents only let me play Fortnite with people that I know, playing Fortnite with them is different, and in some ways better, than playing with them in the real world. Playing Fortnite is a lot like being in a virtual world together with my friends, like the Oasis in Ready Player One.

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Carpe Diem! How to Live Like an Emperor

I also presented this as the speech as How to Live Like an Emperor in the Age of Coronavirus

At the end of last year, Bubbie, my last living grandparent, was fading away. She couldn’t see, could barely walk, and her kidneys were failing. It was becoming clear that we needed to savor each moment with her. So we created some great memories — like the last time we had a steak dinner with her and needed to push her on her walker around the corner to the restaurant. Or the last time she came to our house and Ari asked if he could snuggle her because he really likes snuggling people. We spent those last months finding special moments with Bubbie. And it was exciting because Bubbie was always up for some good fun.

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Life Lessons

Fiction is the Lie That Tells the Truth

When my Bubbie died in January, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. People kept telling me that, “She lived a good long life” and “Her memory will live forever” but this wasn’t helpful. I know that she lived a great life and I know that I was very lucky to be 41 when my last grandparent died. But how should I deal with her death? What do I do now?

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Ideas Life Lessons

How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class

This year Professor Laurie Santos created Yale’s most popular class of all time. The class is titled Psychology and the Good Life but it’s really a course on how to be happy both in the short and long term. I was excited to hear that Yale was offering the course but even more excited to see that the class is available online. She expanded on the class with her Happiness Lab Podcast. While there’s little I hadn’t heard before, it did a great job of focusing me on what’s important and helped me get into the practice of being happier.

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Watching Clubhouse Get Built in Real-Time

There’s something special about being an early adopter. There are obviously painful things like capacity limits and features that don’t work quite right. But the wonderful thing, if it’s done right, is that the community and the founders work together to build something magical.

That’s the feeling on Clubhouse now. I’ve been playing around with the platform for a week. I’ve been in these unfiltered rooms with Joe Rogan, Marc Andresson, and Guy Raz. The rooms are currently capped at 8,000 users because of platform constraints. Back when I started on the platform last week is was 5,000 users. Then 7,000 users. Then, on Friday night when I joined the Joe Rogan Room (which maxed out at 7,000 users on Joe’s first day), and Paul Davison, one of the founders of Clubhouse, said, “Oh, during this call it looks like we’ve raised the limit to 8,000 users.”

There’s been a lot happening on Clubhouse in the last week. Marc Andresson seems to be on constantly. His VC firm a16z is a backer. I even saw him in a Torah Study room with Rabbi David Wolpe, which I’m puzzled about because I don’t think Andresson is Jewish. I learned that he pronounces Jeff Bezos’s name wrong, saying Bee-zos instead Bay-zos. I was in another room when Lev Fridman started talking about wanting to moderate a conversation between Elon Musk and Vladimir Putin on Clubhouse. It’s not such a crazy idea because Fridman, an AI researcher at MIT who speaks fluent Russian and English, has already hosted a podcast with Musk.

But the best thing at Clubhouse is how the founders work with the community to build the platform. The founders host a Town Hall on Sundays at Noon Eastern and Wednesdays at 9 PM. As small company, they need to relentlessly prioritize and focus on a few key features. So they’re prioritizing things like Direct Messaging because people are currently using “backchannel” apps to coordinate. At last week’s Town Hall, someone asked about anonymous browsing, where you could enter rooms and your boss wouldn’t get notified. Paul was excited at this use case that he hadn’t thought about.  

I love that I can hear from the founders what they’re not planning on doing right now. Joe Rogan asked Paul when Clubhouse would add video and Virtual Reality. As it turns out, there’s no plan for that. Clubhouse is meant to be used in the background, as something that you can listen to while you’re doing the laundry. VR is the exact opposite of this—a totally immersive experience where you can’t do anything else. What about recording? It seems like a no-brainer for Clubhouse to become a podcast creation platform. However, adding a recording feature to the platform would change the nature of these ephemeral conversations. So Paul is putting that one on hold for now.

This has been a crazy week for me and my obsession with Clubhouse. It’s a platform that specializes in FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) because there are constant alerts that say, “There’s this awesome conversation going on right now. If you don’t join right now, you’ll miss it forever.” And while Paul talks a lot about using Clubhouse to make use of “found time” when doing something else, many people find that they no longer have any quiet time to think. For me, in the coming weeks and months, I’ll enjoy watching how the founders and the community define this new and engaging platform, but I know I’ll have to work on my FOMO.

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Zaid’s Unopened Hannukah Present

It was December 19, 2012. I’m horrible with dates but I remember this one. My grandparents, Bubbie and Zaid,(1)In Yiddish Bubbie means grandmother and Zaid means grandfather. had come over. They came over about once a week. We had these good Jewish grandparent/grandkid fights around how much food they should bring. They wanted to bring 2 chickens a week, some pastrami, some latkas, a quart of matzo ball soup, and then maybe something for us to eat that night when they came over. We had to explain that the fridge was already full from last week’s delivery so maybe they could just bring one chicken that week.

I was excited to give Zaid his Hanukah present. I’d gotten him a limited edition “subscription box” box from a company called Quarterly. We were getting a box curated by John Maeda. Maeda is my favorite digital artist/designer who has a wonderful way of looking at the world. When he was the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) he said, “America is a weird country. It’s like I was a waitress somewhere, and now I’m in a movie—a futuristic astronaut cast in a new kind of Wild West picture. [At RISD] I get to make, like, a Space Western.”(2)Maeda’s box was part of a RISD initiative called STEAM. STEAM = STEM + Arts & Humanities.

I got two boxes, one for me and one for Zaid. We both enjoyed design. Zaid never graduated college but enjoyed taking art classes when he was young. He was also an engineer. So design was a good mix of the two.

When I ordered them, I wasn’t sure if he would like the boxes (or if I would). I do know that he would have appreciated the gift. When I was in my twenties, I had an artist friend make a card with a big red sportscar. Zaid loved red sportscars. Inside, for his birthday a decade before, I wrote that “While I can’t afford to buy you a real car for your 73rd birthday, please accept this card for being the world’s best grandfather.” It was cheesy but isn’t that what all grandfathers want?

My 73rd Birthday Card for Zaid

I opened my Maeda box and I found three small jars of Indian spices, some pixie sticks, and a sesame seed grinder. Maeda explained that these were all different powders from around the world. It was pretty awesome and I knew Zaid would be excited by it.

After dinner, on his way home, he called me to tell me that he’d forgotten to take the package. I told him not to worry and that I’d be seeing them soon—right when we got back from our vacation from Florida.

The next day we left for our family vacation to Miami. They would have come, but Bubbie was afraid to fly and they were getting too old to drive down. We were on the plane when my father got a call. We never got calls on the airplane. My stomach dropped. Zaid was dead. He had a heart attack at the bagel store. Even though there was a fireman at the store giving him CPR, there was nothing that could be done.

We immediately came home, had a funeral and a shiva,(3)Shiva is the Jewish mourning period. and then continued on with our lives. But there was still this unopened UPS package. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. So I left it in the box.

At the time, I left a number of things in boxes when I didn’t know what to do with them. I remember one time I bought my brother-in-law a GAP sweater for his birthday. He was coming to visit soon so I left it in the UPS box.

When he came to visit, Abigail said, “Where’s that sweater you bought Josh.” I looked by the door where I’d left Josh’s box. Nothing was there. Also, all of the other boxes—the boxes that I’d brought down to recycling—were gone too. We never did find Josh’s sweater.

So I needed to do something else. I couldn’t just keep Zaid’s gift in the shipping box forever, waiting to be discarded. So I opened it up and found a happy medium. The different components—the indian spices and the pixie sticks—were tied together with tissue paper. So even though they weren’t in a cardboard box, they were still wrapped.(4)JJ Abrams has a TED Talk about the magic of unopened “Mystery Boxes.”

The box of John Maeda gifts. The opened pieces are from my box (I think). I’m still not 100% positive what’s in the wrapped parcels and I like it like that.

After Zaid died, we went to pack up his things. I learned that the things that I thought were important weren’t necessarily what everyone else thought was important. There were some beautifully written, simple greeting cards that Bubbie and Zaid wrote to each other that I’m sure were thrown out. As I was looking around, I found the little racecar card that I gave him for his 73rd birthday pinned to his mirror. I took it and saved it.

Just like the red sportscard card, I keep Zaid’s unwrapped John Maeda gifts, on a shelf in my bedroom. The same way that card reminded Zaid of my love for him, these unwrapped gifts remind me of his love for me.

Footnotes

1 In Yiddish Bubbie means grandmother and Zaid means grandfather.
2 Maeda’s box was part of a RISD initiative called STEAM. STEAM = STEM + Arts & Humanities.
3 Shiva is the Jewish mourning period.
4 JJ Abrams has a TED Talk about the magic of unopened “Mystery Boxes.”
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Dolly and Me: Dolly Parton’s America Podcast

Abigail and I rarely listen to the same podcasts or read the same books. We watch TV together or movies together but that’s more about sharing the experience—especially in the pandemic. But I like play snooty public radio podcasts and Abigail really likes reading about history and politics.(1)This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.” Abigail, coming from East Tennessee, kept trying to get me to listen to Dolly Parton’s America. She told me it’s this amazing podcast about Dollywood and Tenessee, where she grew up.

Then I was looking at the recent Peabody Awards (again, big media nerd). Dolly Parton’s America won a Peabody for excellence in broadcasting. Also it was produced by Jad Abumrad, of Radiolab, one of the best radio producers in the world. Between Abigail and Jad, I had to listen to it and I’m so glad I did.

Growing up in New York, I never understood the appeal of this high pitched singer with absurdly large boobs. We would visit my in-laws in Knoxville, Tennessee a few times a year and about a decade ago, on a lark, I convinced them to take us on a visit. They’d never been, thinking that an Appalacian-themed experience couldn’t be much fun. Appalachia is red-neck moonshine coal country so I don’t blame them. But when we went, we found a magical place and have been making annual pilgrimages ever since. I’d never realized what made Dollywood so special, but after listening to this podcast, I realized it was because of Dolly.

Dolly Parton is one of the most popular celebrities in America. No one has anything bad to say about Dolly. She’s truly cross-generational. 80% of her fans used to be over 55, now 80% of her fans are under 55.(2)Dolly Attributes her young fan base to her on Hannah Montana with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus. They talked about the breadth of Dolly’s fan base:

I remember just standing out in the lobby and just people watching, because it was the most diverse place I’ve ever been. I was seeing a multi-racial audience. People wearing cowboy hats and boots. I was seeing people in drag. Church ladies. Lesbians holding hands. Little girls who were there with their families.

The people who were tweeting were all women. And one woman in particular, she said, “That majestic bitch just started playing a goddamn PAN FLUTE.”

Dolly Parton’s America. Sad Ass Songs.

But why is Dolly so popular. Why do so many people connect with her? If I had to make a recipe of Dolly’s popularity, I’d put in one part authenticity, one part entertainer, and one part charity.

Authenticity

Dolly was authentic before it became a marketing buzzword. She doesn’t like to ascribe to any labels she doesn’t choose to. She’ll describe herself as a Christian, a Southerner, and a Singer but doesn’t link herself to political views. Even in her Christianity, she isn’t dogmatic. She says, “If you try to shove that down people’s throats or you come on goody goody, that ain’t going to work. You live by example. You teach by example, you learn by example, don’t you think?”

She refuses to identify as a feminist even though she worked with Jane Fonda to create one of the world’s great women’s empowerment movies: 9 to 5.(3)The podcast explains that 9 to 5 was a movie that grew out of an organization fighting for women’s rights. Dolly is a feminist closer to the millennials of today than those of her generation. Though Dolly grew up in the 60s and 70s, she wasn’t a feminist of those times, rejecting the traditional feminine roles.

She went, like, in the opposite direction. It was like, “You have a problem with my tits? Then here they are hanging out.”

“My tits hanging out, pushing ’em out there. ‘Course I played it up,” said Dolly.

And you can deal with it while I make you my employee. And there is something about that—that is sort of like, I think a more kind of millennial spirit of approach to feminism.

Dolly Parton’s America. Dollitics.

Entertainer

For that dash of entertainer, Dolly isn’t just a great singer-songwriter, she’s also a great storyteller. In the middle of the Podcast, Jad mentions how Dolly started talking for an hour and a half telling stories and he couldn’t interrupt because he fell into what he called, “The Tennessee Trance.” And Jad is one of the best interviewers on radio but he was so enamored with the stories that he couldn’t speak. Dolly would just tell a story and transport us into the past.

JAD: Do you remember the first time you left home? Or left …

DOLLY: Well, the first trip I ever made about my music, and the first trip I ever made. And I was young, I was little then. 12? 11? Was to go to Lake Charles, Louisiana, from Knoxville. And it was a long trip. They put us on a bus.

JAD: Do you remember how that felt to be on that bus?

DOLLY: Yeah, it felt—I liked the wheels. I remember loving the motion. So there was this studio there, and so Uncle Bill thought I should come down there and make a record. And oh, I saw Spanish moss for the first time. I thought it was the strangest, most wonderful, mysterious thing I’d ever seen because it was so different. You know, that swamp and the cypress trees and the drive. I just remember that’s the first time I ever seen like, the sand and the beach and the ocean. First true love, too. It was my first record, and I got a crush on Johnny. Little Johnny. His daddy owned the Gold Band Records and that studio. And he was so pretty and brown. Never seen a boy so pretty. And that’s the first time I also had a banana, and I loved them. Then I wanted a whole bunch of them. Then I got sick on them. It’s like it was just a whole bunch of feelings that I still remember like it—you know, just like it was yesterday.

Dolly Parton’s America. Neon Moss.

Charity

In her commencement speech at the University of Tennessee, where she received the Unversity’s second-ever honorary degree, Dolly encouraged the students to dream more. She says that she got her imagination from her mother who read to her as a small child. Illiteracy became a cause near and dear to her as her father never learned to read. So Dolly created the Imagination Library, a charity that gives one book a month to all children before they reach kindergarten. In 2018, after expanding well beyond Tennessee, the Imagination Library donated its 100 millionth book which was placed into the Library of Congress.

Dolly grew up poor like much of the rest of East Tennessee. She and her 10 brothers and sisters grew up in a two-room home. My wife Abigail says that when she grew up in the 1980s, the area had single lane roads. Dolly said “I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area.”

Bringing It All Together at Dollywood

All three parts of Dolly, authenticity, storytelling, and charity come together in Dollywood, a physical embodiment of Dolly. It even has a replica of her childhood Tennessee Mountain Home. It’s a celebration of Appalachian culture but it’s also a huge employer in the area. It employs 4,000 people to serve 4 million visitors a year. It’s the largest employer in the area and the biggest tourist attraction in Tennessee.

Dollywood is a theme park like Disney World but more genuine. The original idea of Disney World was to re-create the feeling of Walt’s home town of Marceline Missouri. I remember visiting Disney World in the 1980s and buying magic tricks from the store on Main Street. There was a magic store and a watch store on Main Street. Today it’s been replaced by a giant souvenir store. That’s not to say that Disney World is a bad place but it’s a far cry from Walt’s childhood.

Dollywood is that hometown fantasy. It’s the fantasy of backwoods Appalachia and America. It’s built in the same mountains where Dolly grew up. It isn’t about kids spending a semester in college to play Minnie Mouse. Almost all the employees are local from the local county, a poor Appalachian area. If you want to have authentic Appalachia, you have to hire a blacksmith. I remember asking the Dollywood blacksmith about his background and he said he’s been a blacksmith at Dollywood for 25 years. I once got a Fast Pass at Dollywood from a 65-years-old woman in a blue checked dress who needed to put her reading glasses on to show me how it worked.

In one episode, Jad goes to a University of Tennessee class called Dolly Parton’s America (where he borrowed the name for his show.) A couple of the students talked about how Dolly was unapologetically … well … Dolly.

Student 1: There are all these different things. We were having to choose between two things all the time and I was watching her just say forget that I’m going to be both. I’m going to be both things. I’m going to be adored by church ladies and the gays. It’s like such a wild concept that I still can’t wrap my mind around how exactly she does it. But I think it was really important to me to have a role model who is unapologetically where she was from and also like she was not apologizing for where she was going either.

Student 2: For me, Dolly has always been sort of a validation of the Appalachian identity, if that makes sense. Because to see a woman be so ambitious and so unapologetically Appalachian, and see her rise to such heights, it just made it feel better to be Appalachian

Dolly Parton’s America. Dolly Parton’s America.

To me, Dolly Parton’s America is about living up to the values that Dolly believes in. On the surface, it’s about authenticity, entertaining, and charity, but three’s a deeper Dolly. She believes that we all can come together, love our neighbors, and appreciate the differences between us. Instead of fighting about politics and getting increasingly divisive, we can put our (physical and verbal) guns away and have a civil meal. I’m reminded that I don’t have to express and defend my politics in every interaction. I don’t need to help “change the world” by aggressively reading about politics and thinking about things I have little control over. Dolly’s America is about being good to your neighbor, coming together, and changing minds through what you do, rather than what you say.

Footnotes

1 This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.”
2 Dolly Attributes her young fan base to her on Hannah Montana with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus.
3 The podcast explains that 9 to 5 was a movie that grew out of an organization fighting for women’s rights.
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Book Report: Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov

Do you remember the legend of John Henry? John Henry was a steel driller in West Virginia or somewhere thereabouts in the late 1800s. He was the best there ever was. Then one day the railroad bought a big steam drill that they said could drill faster than any man. Henry, secure in his abilities (and trying to avoid the unemployment line) challenged the drill (and the company) to a famous battle of “man against machine.” Using two 10-pound hammers, one in each hand, he pounded the drill so fast and so hard that he drilled a 14-foot hole into the rock. The drill, unable to clean off the bits of rock, got stuck nine feet in. But John Henry couldn’t celebrate for long, dying quickly of exhaustion. (1)Here’s Johnny Cash’s The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.

I’m in the middle of the modern-day battle of John Henry and the steam engine. I’m a product manager. It’s my job to find out what customers want and what technology can deliver. Then I figure out how to get the computers to do the job that people need. So you’d think I was on the side of the steam engine, trying to make computers more intelligent so that they can just do everyone’s jobs.

Making computers smarter so they can do things like people is called Artificial Intelligence.(2)Artificial Intelligence is actually more complicated but humor me. A lot of people get very excited about Artificial Intelligence but it’s not as important as you’d think. While there are some things that computers can do better than humans (e.g., recommending movies, finding the quickest route), there’s a far larger and more important set of things that computers aren’t great at—at least by themselves.

In his book Deep Thinking, Gary Kasparov details his battle with Deep Blue and how computer chess, like many other forms of AI, go from laughably bad to incredibly good in just a few years. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997. He outlines a whole host of reasons including getting flustered in game 2 and IBM hiring a Russian speaker to spy on him. But he concedes that it was only a matter of time before computers were going to beat him.

With Deep Blue beating the world’s best chess player, you might think that would be the end of human vs. computer chess. But Kasparov had a question, “What if instead of playing against each other, the computers and humans could partner?” This eventually turned into a competition called “Advanced Chess” in Lyon, Spain in 2007. People could compete in teams and use computers. Kasparov called them centaurs. Traditionally the use of computers by human players would be considered cheating. With substantial prize money at stake, there were entries from the world’s greatest grandmasters and IBM’s newest supercomputer “Hydra,” which was many times more powerful than Deep Blue.

As it turns out, grandmasters with laptops could easily beat Hydra and the other supercomputers. The laptops could check the work of the Grandmasters and keep them from making stupid mistakes. But one team was a break-out winner. Many people assumed it was Kasparov himself with a supercomputer. Surprisingly, this 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. This led to something calls Kasparov’s law:(3)Kasparov, like many people with laws named after them, would rather it be named something else. “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”(4)Kasparov actually does a better job of discussing this collaboration in The New York Review of Books and this TED Talk than in the book.

Kasparov holds a view that Augmented Intelligence (5)J. C. R, Licklider discussed Augmented Intelligence a long time ago in a paper called Man-Computer Symbiosis. Interestingly, Licklider thought that once computers could do all his calculations, he’d have fewer things to do and could focus on more strategic questions. is more important than Artificial Intelligence. Take the example of email. Artificial intelligence can do some cool things like spam filtering and sentence completion. But look at the far more powerful system of Augmented Intelligence. This is the system of human-computer email, where a human and a computer work together to communicate, organize, and act on information.

Computers and humans are good at different things. Essentially machines do the grunt work really well, allowing humans to focus on strategy. Here are two examples from the book:

  • Computers are great at calculations. Kasparov quotes Charles Krauthammer in Time Magazine about the match with Deep Blue. Krauthammer said, “Blue ignored the threat and quite nonchalantly went hunting for lowly pawns at the other end of the board. In fact, at the point of maximum peril, Blue expended two moves—many have died giving Kasparov even one—to snap one pawn. It was as if, at Gettysburg, General Meade had sent his soldiers out for a bit of apple picking moments before Pickett’s charge because he had calculated that they could get back to their positions with a half-second to spare.” But Krauthammer points out that this would be a perfectly sane thing for Meade to do if he could calculate, and really know, that he had that time.
  • Computers are bad at undefined strategic questions. In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the computer Deep Thought calculated “42” to be “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.” Unfortunately, no one knew what the question was. Deep Thought was the original name of the computer that beat Kasparov before IBM bought it and renamed it Deep Blue.

The story of man vs. machine has morphed significantly since John Henry. It was once the story of horses being replaced by cars. Then it was weavers and other artisans being replaced by factories. Now it’s computers coming for white-collar workers. But to me, it’s not a battle if man vs. machine where you can bet on the winner. As a product manager, I believe that the bigger opportunity is about getting them to work together to do something truly great.

Note: I wrote a version of this as my Idea of the Year in 2015.

Footnotes

1 Here’s Johnny Cash’s The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.
2 Artificial Intelligence is actually more complicated but humor me.
3 Kasparov, like many people with laws named after them, would rather it be named something else.
4 Kasparov actually does a better job of discussing this collaboration in The New York Review of Books and this TED Talk than in the book.
5 J. C. R, Licklider discussed Augmented Intelligence a long time ago in a paper called Man-Computer Symbiosis. Interestingly, Licklider thought that once computers could do all his calculations, he’d have fewer things to do and could focus on more strategic questions.
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Book Report: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Kesey’s Bus

Growing up, I remember hearing the term “Writing the Great American Novel” and not quite knowing what it was. I thought that it was a quest to write the best book ever written. But I later learned that The Great American Novel isn’t about writing the best book ever, it’s about creating a book that captures a point in American history so crisply and clearly that you can freeze-dry it, put it in a time capsule, and take it out fifty or a hundred years later to examine.

Many of these books are the classics we read in school like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye. But something strange happened in the 1960s and 70s. The Great American Novel was replaced by the great American non-fiction book. In his essay Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore, Tom Wolfe writes about how novelists at the time were trying to write “important” and “thoughtful” books that were too removed from real life. This created an opening for Wolfe and his fellow writers to write non-fiction books to fill that void.

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test(1)I thought I’d never get to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test because I don’t read books, just listen to audiobooks. In a miracle of the audiobook world, Audible recently released the audio of 5 Tom Wolfe books including The Right Stuff, my favorite. is a monumental book of this sort. It’s one of the first books that uses the storytelling skills of the novel, the capturing of the tiny little details to transport the reader directly into the moment. And it has an advantage over novels—it actually happened!

Wolfe writes with such a literary flair and attention to detail that you’re transported into the moment. Like when Richard Alpert,(2)Alpert would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass and wrote the iconic book Be Here Now. one of Timothy Leary’s friends, was teaching a girl about raised consciousness through the example of a baby “blindly” crawling around the room:

He said “Blindly? What do you mean, blindly? That baby is a very sentient creature… That baby sees the world with a completeness that you and I will never know again. His doors of perception have not yet been closed. He still experiences the moment he lives in. The inevitable bullshit hasn’t constipated his cerebral cortex yet. He still sees the world as it really is, while we sit here, left with only a dim historical version of it manufactured for us by words and official bullshit,” and so forth and so on, and Alpert soars in Ouspenskyian(3)Ouspenskyian is a reference to P. D. Ouspensky who taught that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. loop-the-loops for baby while, as far as this girl can make out, baby just bobbles, dribbles, lists and rocks across the floor … But she was learning … that the world is sheerly divided into those who have had the experience and those who have not.

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

But this isn’t fiction or a poem meant to paint a picture. Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were the proto-hippies, with free love and drugs before we even had the word hippies. They were some of the first people in the country to get their hands on LSD. The book features such characters of American culture as Neal Cassidy, the model for Jack Keruak’s Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Carolyn Adams, known as Mountain Girl, the future wife of Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead. Gary Trudeau even names his token hippie “Zonker” in his comic Doonesbury after on the pranksters.

He spent a relatively short time with the Merry Pranksters, mainly to capture the tone and feeling of being there. From the way the book is written, you think he was actually on the bus with them the whole time. With such key characters and such attention to detail, you’d think Wolfe must have taken significant license with the truth. But when Kesey was asked about the book, he said:

It’s a good book. Yeah, he’s a—Wolfe’s a genius. He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks. He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent. He just watches very carefully and remembers. And so what he’s coming up with is part of me, but it’s not all of me.(4)There’s a lot that you miss when you boil Kesey down to this god-like leader of the Merry Pranksters. In the interview, Kesey points out that he’s far more patriotic than Wolfe captures. He made the pranksters wear red, white, and blue all the time to show their patriotism. When he first tried LSD he was training from the Olympics as a wrestler, never having tried drugs. He thought he was joining a US Government study to “enter this new spot of space and we wanted someone to go up there to look it over.” It was only 20 years later until he learned that this was a CIA project that wasn’t being done to cure insane people, it was done to make people insane and make them easier to interrogate.

Ken Kesey on Fresh Air. Ken Kesey Discusses His Life and Career at 6:00.

The book captures the small moments of the time in such a lasting and ubiquitous way. Wolfe talks about “The Beautiful People Letter” that “attuned” kids of the time, and later virtually every hippie, would send to their parents:

“Dear Mother,

“I meant to write to you before this and I hope
you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los
Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian
Reservation!!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de
Allende, Mazatlán, Mexico!!!!! and it is really
beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here
a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it
happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted
me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college,
my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it
a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry
about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

… and in the heart of even the most unhip
mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the
adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades—dope.

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The book captures these moments of this key moment so well that Wolfe may well have written a non-fiction Great American Novel. As Michael Lewis says in How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe, the book leaves you with the question:

How the hell did he do that? How did he get them to let him in, almost as one of them? Why do all these people keep letting this oddly dressed man into their lives, to observe them as they have never before been observed?

Michael Lewis. How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe.

Note: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were obsessed with making a movie and took enormous amounts of footage of their exploits. Eventually, this footage was made into the movie Magic Trip which gives a glimpse into this world from another angle.

Footnotes

1 I thought I’d never get to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test because I don’t read books, just listen to audiobooks. In a miracle of the audiobook world, Audible recently released the audio of 5 Tom Wolfe books including The Right Stuff, my favorite.
2 Alpert would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass and wrote the iconic book Be Here Now.
3 Ouspenskyian is a reference to P. D. Ouspensky who taught that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential.
4 There’s a lot that you miss when you boil Kesey down to this god-like leader of the Merry Pranksters. In the interview, Kesey points out that he’s far more patriotic than Wolfe captures. He made the pranksters wear red, white, and blue all the time to show their patriotism. When he first tried LSD he was training from the Olympics as a wrestler, never having tried drugs. He thought he was joining a US Government study to “enter this new spot of space and we wanted someone to go up there to look it over.” It was only 20 years later until he learned that this was a CIA project that wasn’t being done to cure insane people, it was done to make people insane and make them easier to interrogate.
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Rebuilding a Foundation of Trust

We had a sad day for America this week. Rioters stormed the capital to disrupt the election. Everyone has a right to protest but it’s the way you protest that matters. At its heart, a good protest is about getting your voice heard while letting other people give their voice as well.(1)The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this. This wasn’t a protest, it was an attack on the infrastructure of democracy.

Democracy starts with having a good heated discussion. There are arguments and passion but that’s good because these things are important. Then we come to a vote and we all agree to follow that vote even if we disagree with that outcome. We hold this principle sacred and have faith in this process. This is like the faith that the dollar in our pocket is really worth a dollar in purchasing power. As a country, we all agreed to the fact that these electoral ballots have real power. These ballots are really just pieces of paper, and if the mob had been able to get to them, they could have easily destroyed them.(2)This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.

In order to be successful, you need to be able to trust other people. This is the basis of community and how we arose from hunter-gatherers. We need to trust that the people who grow our food aren’t selling us harmful food. Because we can’t trust each individual farmer, we have regulations at the FDA to do it for us.

Working with computers I think about trust a lot. This is what cybersecurity and hacking are all about—who do you trust and who is trying to abuse that trust. Ken Thompson, one of the pioneers of computing, discussed this in his 1984 lecture Reflections on Trusting Trust.(3)Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science. Thompson said that in software, you always need to trust the people that you’re buying software or getting software from. If you don’t trust some underlying foundation of what you’re building upon you can’t be sure that your software is secure.(4)When I wrote this I didn’t think that the code itself was infected. Now it looks like it was so of course other people are quoting the same Ken Thomson speech.

Just as Thompson said, we need to be able to trust each other in order to trust the infrastructure that we’re building. We need to come together and reconfirm the basic facts and processes that run the government. Without that, we don’t have an election, we just have some pieces of paper.

Notes: NPR has a good article on the sanctity of the capitol. Stratechery wrote about how when we think about what should be moderated on the internet we need to separate discussions with each other vs. attacks on the infrastructure.

Footnotes

1 The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this.
2 This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.
3 Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science.
4 When I wrote this I didn’t think that the code itself was infected. Now it looks like it was so of course other people are quoting the same Ken Thomson speech.
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Book Report: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

This is a book about trying to find your place in the world as you try to mimic someone else’s journey. Lulu Miller was always looking for a tried and true path through life. She had a hard time as a kid. Her father was a scientist who had very strong beliefs about his atheism and the beauty and value of science. Though he thought that there was nothing special or holy about other people, he said that you still had to pretend like there was and treat other people well.

Lulu became enamored with the story of David Starr Jordan, the original president of Stanford University. She tried to figure out how this nerdy taxonomist was able to conquer the world. He was a man who categorized things. He was the world expert on categorizing fish who somehow became a university president. Even when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his entire collection, he didn’t let that get him down. He just sewed the labels on to as many fish as he could find(1)Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off! and built an even greater collection.

This inner confidence is what made him so attractive. While Jordan claimed to be a humble professor, he had his portion of hubris. Thinking he knew better than other people about the world, he did some selfish things. Miller makes the case that he may have poisoned Mrs. Stanford, the matriarch of the University, and if not, he definitely covered it up.

Later in his life, this confidence turned evil. Jordan was an early proponent of eugenics and the theory of a master race. While we think of creating a master race as being something the Nazis invented, the United States built much of this theory. As a taxonomist he specialized in categorization and he thought that he could organize a better human race. Miller realizes that self-confidence has it’s own problems. She quotes psychologists who believe that building too much self-confidence in kids is over-rated and even harmful. She says, “I think of these psychologists as the quiet, ragtag troop of Cheerleaders for Low Self-Worth. Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!”

Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!

Lulu realizes that there is no best person. The whole point of evolution is that we’re always changing. It’s the variation that makes evolution worth—that makes it so robust. You can’t create a better human population by manually culling it and trying to get better results and sterilizing people that you think are inferior. You need to let nature and variation play out.

As Steven Pinker says in How the Mind Works, variation has a huge benefit. That’s why we have sexual reproduction.

From a germ’s point of view, you are a big yummy mound of cheesecake, there for the eating. Your body takes a different view, and has evolved a battery of defenses, from your skin to your immune system, to keep them out or do them in. An evolutionary arms race goes on between hosts and pathogens, though a better analogy might be an escalating contest between lockpickers and locksmiths. Germs are small, and they evolve diabolical tricks for infiltrating and hijacking the machinery of the cells, for skimming off its raw materials, and for passing themselves off as the body’s own tissues to escape the surveillance of the immune system. The body responds with better security systems, but the germs have a built-in advantage: there are more of them and they can breed millions of times faster, which makes them evolve faster. They can evolve substantially within the lifetime of a host. Whatever molecular locks the body has evolved, the pathogens can evolve keys to open them.

Now, if an organism is asexual, once the pathogens crack the safe of its body they also have cracked the safes of its children and siblings. Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against the local germs. Its molecular locks have a different combination of pins, so the germs have to start evolving new keys from scratch. A malevolent pathogen is the one thing in the world that rewards change for change’s sake.

Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works.

It’s easy for us to look in the past and think that ideas about genetic selection are behind us, but let’s consider the banana. Did you realize that every banana you’ve eaten looks similar? That’s because they’re all the same variety: the Cavendish banana. This is a banana that’s quite firm easy to ship and relatively tasty. It has a strong case to be made as the world’s best banana from an economic perspective. However, a disease in Australia caused all of their banana trees to be destroyed.(2)Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.

We’re starting to cull our own genes. That Atlantic magazine recently published The Last Children of Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is the canary in the coal mine of genetic selection. Genetic testing has its benefits. Having a baby with a horrible genetic disease is definitely something that should be avoided. However, Down Syndrome is something else. People can live long and sweet lives with Down Syndrome. In a few generations, there won’t be any people with Down Syndrome left. It’s very much on the edge of what we should be allowed to select for, and I’m sure that things will only get more interesting and dicey.

Right now, if you have in vitro fertilization you can choose some of the characteristics of the child, like whether you want to select for a boy or a girl. I have a friend who is in this situation. For her first child, they chose the strongest embryo—the one most likely to survive. It’s hard to blame her there. But for the second child, there were five embryos in a freezer in the Midwest. How was she supposed to decide which embryo would be given the kiss of life? I told her this is a good time to just accept the power of G-d. To me, G-d created randomness and variation and we should let it do its thing. Science has given us an enormous number of benefits, like in vitro fertilization for people who can’t have kids, but we need to do our best to not squeeze all the randomness out of life.

Footnotes

1 Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off!
2 Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.
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Book Report: The Speculative Future of Ready Player Two

Imagine a world where nothing is real. A world where you plug yourself into a simulated environment and you can have everything you’ve ever wanted. Once you plug in, you’ll be able to eat the most fantastic foods, travel everywhere, and do everything you’ve ever wanted. This is the world of Ready Player Two.

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Making the Most of This Ugly Year

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— The opening line to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Ziba’s Holiday Gift 2009. Featuring Ugly.

I still have a holiday gift I got in December of 2009 from the design firm Ziba. They created six brochures on trends for 2010: me, we, happy, human, old, and … ugly. (1)Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.

Footnotes

1 Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.
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Why I Write

Someone recently asked me, “Why do you write this blog?” As I didn’t have an answer ready at hand, I figured I’d write it out on this blog.

I’ve always viewed blogging as my own personal publishing platform, putting out my best material to the world. This might come from my history as a magazine writer. I want to avoid writing for an imaginary audience who maybe isn’t as smart or curious as I’d hoped. So instead, it’s written it for me and for my friends. And by “friends” it’s everyone from the people I live with to the people who just like what I write online.