Product Management Technology

On Amazon – A Peculiar Company

Disclaimer: I worked as the Head of Banking for Amazon Web Services. This writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but took a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon’s culture is embedded in its 14 Leadership Principles that are a common language and framework that form the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to everyday decisions. You can get a good feeling of the Amazon culture by watching videos of Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. A few good ones are from the Economic Club of Washingtonan interview by his brother Mark,  the Axel Springer Award, and a 60 Minutes Story about Amazon from 1999.

Product Management Technology

The Future of Payments

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

When I was working at Citi Cards, I was under the impression that people were spending a lot of time figuring out what credit cards they should have. Were they going to get points or miles? Weren’t they going to be so excited that they could redeem their points with Amazon? Of course, working in a credit card company I was thinking about this all day and I lost sight of the fact that my customers had far better things to do with their time.

Kids Technology

Growing Up Alexa

A few months ago, I wrote about how Alexa and Google Home are used in our house. In my experience, these devices are a better way for kids to use the internet than a mobile phone. A phone becomes an extension of a person, isolating her from the group. Interacting with Alexa is more of a family activity with Alexa acting like another person in the room.

Some people think it’s odd to treat Alexa humanely. As a machine, she doesn’t have any feelings. But think about the way we refer to Alexa. It feels more natural to refer to Alexa as a “her” than an “it” because that’s the way we interface with her. And if we interface with her as a person, we should be polite and say please and thank you.

Ideas Technology

Why Do People Think That Wearing a Hoodie to Work is a Status Symbol?

I spotted a technology executive walking down the street. He used to wear expensive tailored suits. Now he’s coming to work in high-end jeans and a polo shirt. Then it hit me. Jeans and a turtleneck or jeans and a polo shirt (or really jeans and anything) is the new innovation wardrobe. On one level, it makes sense because everyone wants to dress like Steve Jobs. But when you dig a little bit deeper, using Silicon Valley clothes as a status symbol doesn’t make any sense at all. 

Learning Technology

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.”

Product Management Technology

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 I Set It Up

Note that Google Contributor no longer works this way so this is here for more historical reasons.

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.
Product Management Technology

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.


The Best Technology Articles Ever Written

I’ve always enjoyed first person accounts of the beginning of the computer age. What was it like to be there? How did people view new technologies before they became part of our everyday lives? I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite magazine articles that capture that feeling. My previous blog post on The First Computer Interface captures that sentiment and here are 5 more. Most of the articles are on Kevin Kelly’s list of Best Magazine Articles Ever (with the exception of  Inside The Deal That Made Bill Gates $350,000,000).  Here are five articles about the beginning of…

  • Silicon Valley (The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce by Tom Wolfe, Esquire Magazine, December 1983) Robert Noyce founded two of the most important startups in Silicon Valley — Intel and its predecessor Fairchild Semiconductor. Tom Wolfe (yes, that Tom Wolfe) wrote about Noyce exporting the Midwestern Congregationalist ethic to create the modern culture of Silicon Valley. Noyce believed in a strict meritocracy. Wolfe writes “Noyce’s idea was that every employee should feel that he could go as far and as fast in this industry as his talent would take him…. When they first moved into the building, Noyce worked at an old, scratched, secondhand metal desk. As the company expanded, Noyce kept the same desk, and new stenographers, just hired, were given desks that were not only newer but bigger and better than his.” At the same time that Noyce was founding Silicon Valley, another set of small town Midwesterners were sending men into space. After the success of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA’s administrator, Tom Paine, happened to remark in conversation: “This was the triumph of the squares.” This may have been the first reference to geeks conquering the earth (and space).
  • Hacking (Secrets of the Little Blue Box by Ron Rosenbaum, Esquire, 10/1971) The original hackers were called “phone phreaks.” These were kids who figured out a weakness in the AT&T telephone system that they could exploit. By putting a 2600 hertz tone to their mouthpiece, they could trick the phone company into giving them free calls. The most famous of the phone phreaks was John Draper (aka Captain Crunch) who discovered that a whistle given away in the children’s cereal gave off the magic tone. He also taught Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak how to phone phreak. The phone hackers exemplified the original hacker ethic — to explore a giant system to see how  it worked. Of course, like modern hackers, some got a little carried away by the exploration. By the end of the article Rosenbaum writes a little bit about many of the phone phreaks started getting into computer hacking — which was quite a feat in 1971. There was a great documentary on the history of hacking from Captain Crunch to Steve Wozniak to Kevin Mitnick that does a great “where are they now” of hacking.
  • Video Games (Spacewar by Stewart Brand, Rolling Stone, 11/7/1972) Stewart Brand wrote a fantastic piece on Spacewar — the world’s first video game. Spacewar was written before anyone had  thought about putting graphics on a computer. Its hardware didn’t even have a multiply or divide function. Brand talks about the computer geeks at Stanford and MIT who were writing the first computer programs meant to be used by other people (as opposed to writing programs to solve a specific numeric problem.) One of the most entertaining program names was a word processing system called “Expensive Typewriter.” At the time, the intranet only had 20 computers but people were starting to understand that if it took hold, this would be the transformation of the news and recording industries. As a side note, there is computer code at the end of the article — probably the only time code was ever published in Rolling Stone magazine.
  • Microsoft (Inside The Deal That Made Bill Gates $350,000,000, Bro Uttal, Fortune, 7/21/1984) You don’t hear much about Bill Gates these days — a man who seems focused on his privacy. The Guardian published an interview with Gates this summer where the most interesting tidbit was that his children liked to tease him by singing the song Billionaire by Bruno Mars. But Microsoft was a very different company in 1984, when a 30 year old Bill Gates invited Fortune Magazine to spend five months with him while they went through their IPO. This is one of the few journalistic tales of an IPO ever written. The editor’s note reads “I doubt that a story like this has been published before or is likely to be done again.” It’s amazing to see an early Microsoft where Bill Gates used part of the $1.6 million cash he made on the offering to pay off a $150,000 mortgage. He also decided to keep the stock’s initial IPO value below $500MM which he felt was uncomfortably high. But the most interesting insight that Uttal has into the young Gates is that he was “something of a ladies’ man and a fiendishly fast driver who has racked up speeding tickets even in the sluggish Mercedes diesel he bought to restrain himself.” 
  • Blogging: (You’ve Got Blog, Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, 11/13/2000) When I first read this article in 2000, I was introduced me to many things “Blog” including the word “Blog” and “Blogger” as well as some of the original bloggers: EvheadMegnut and is still one of my favorite blogs after a decade. Like many start ups, Blogger was a side project that was written over a weekend. Pyra (their parent company) was supposed to be making project management software. It’s interesting to see how early bloggers were the mavericks of modern social networking (though some ideas like putting themselves on webcams 24/7 have thankfully gone away). Blogs made it easier for “regular” people to post — and Social Networking makes it even easier. Facebook in many ways is just the extension of that — allowing everyone to have their own webpage. 

As an added bonus, it’s worth reading the book Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson. Po gives a wonderful history on what it was like to be part of the Silicon Valley tech boom of the late 90’s. Po’s book was so compelling that it pulled many newcomers to the Valley. He felt slightly bad about this after the bust and started apologizing.  

Product Management Technology

Why the iPad Beat Out the Chromebook

In 2010 we saw the release of the iPad along with the announcement of the Chromebook. I clearly remember my original thoughts on both. I thought the Chromebook was genius. In fact, I’d practically built one myself the previous year. My wife had insisted that her computer was too slow even though she had a pretty fast machine that wasn’t even 2 years old. So after trying a number of solutions, I settled on bringing out a laptop from 2003 and not loading anything on it other than Google Chrome. It was blazingly fast at browsing the web. I thought that many other people would love to buy an optimized version of this machine (my grandparents for instance.) The Chromebook would boot up immediately and have everything needed for an optimal web experience. For the iPad I had almost the exact opposite reaction. I remember listening to an Engadget podcast that asked  Who really wants a giant iPhone and I heartily agreed. Case closed.
But how did things turn out? The iPad turned out to be a transformative device — completely creating the category of the mass market tablet. Apple sold over 15 million first generation iPads and had 96% market share until Q4 of 2010. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that companies have been trying to make a great tablet computer for years but no had been successful at it. An interesting side effect of Apple creating the tablet market was that there is now no need for the Chromebook. Why would anyone buy a PC just to browse the web when an iPad does that so spectacularly. I suspect that Chomebooks might still have a role in businesses — especially when you can lease one for $20/month. An optimized Chromebook would go well with Google Apps if your company were totally committed to the platform.

But the iPad has allowed others to transform the product landscape. One product that comes to mind are online news readers. RSS readers is a great technology but have a number of failings. They feel more like email readers with unread messages more than a newspaper. But look at the iPad’s best take on the newsreader: Flipboard. There are some really great talks online by Evan Doll, one of Flipboard’s founders that talk about what makes Flipboard a great news reader. You can find them at iTunesU in the lectures Designing for the iPad (which was given before Flipboard and the iPad itself were released) and Designing Flipboard. Evan talks about some key things that make Flipboard great:

  • Creating something beautiful that combines design and editorial (like a great magazine)
  • Preventing information overload (an issue of Time Magazine doesn’t overwhelm and scare you like your Facebook News Feed might)
  • Leverage the personal nature of social media to create a magazine personalized magazine

After spending time with Flipboard you realize why Flipboard is a fundamentally different (and better) way of consuming online news.


Lessons From the First Computer Interface (E-Mail)

Errol Morris, the famous documentary director of The Thin Blue Line and other films wrote a great piece in the New York Times called Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? (Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5). As it turns out, Morris’s brother, Noel Morris, worked at MIT on CTSS, which was the predecessor of Multics, which was the predecessor of Unix, which was the predecessor of all the computers that run the internet as well as the Mac OS. Noel was also the person who (along with Tom Van Vleck) wrote the first email program on CTSS.

Morris writes an homage to his brother that looks at some of the very early history of the human computer interface design. In fact, CTSS was the first human computer interface to really exist. These were typewriters jury rigged to a computer to allow interactive input. Before that, programmers had to write programs on punch cards which wasn’t much of an interface at all. Fernando Corbato, one of the founders of time sharing computing systems describes frustrating computers were at the time:

FERNANDO CORBATÓ: Back in the early ‘60s, computers were getting bigger. And were expensive. So people resorted to a scheme called batch processing. It was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You’d take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes. The magnetic tapes would be run by the computer. And then, the output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours, or at worst, 24 hours. And it was maddening, because when you’re working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up — you left out a comma or something — and the program would crash. It was maddening. People are not perfect. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn’t always make it. You’d design a program. You’d program it. And then you’d have to debug it and get it to work right. A process that could take, literally, a week, weeks, months — 

But visionaries like J. C. R. Licklider realized that computers could be more than a processing device but an extension of a person’s abilities. His paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis” with one of the first descriptions of the interdependence that humans and computers would eventually have:

The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorum. The larva of the insect lives in the ovary of the fig tree, and there it get its food. The tree and the insect are thus heavily interdependent: the tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree; together, they constitute not only a viable but a productive and thriving partnership…

Man-computer symbiosis is a subclass of man-machine systems. There are many man-machine systems. At present, however, there are no man-computer symbioses… The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.

In this post, I’d like to point out how the creation of the first time sharing machines and email are to many of the  product management challenges that people still have today.

1. Showing is more powerful than telling:

FERNANDO CORBATÓ: “So that was mostly to convince the skeptics that it was not an impossible task, and also, to get people to get a feel for interactive computing. It was amazing to me, and it is still amazing, that people could not imagine what the psychological difference would be to have an interactive terminal. You can talk about it on a blackboard until you are blue in the face, and people would say, ‘Oh, yes, but why do you need that?’ You know, we used to try to think of all these analogies, like describing it in terms of the difference between mailing a letter to your mother and getting [her] on the telephone. To this day I can still remember people only realizing when they saw a real demo, say, ‘Hey, it talks back. Wow! You just type that and you got an answer.’”

The article does a very good job of showing vs. telling by creating an email simulator that provides an interactive demonstration of how the original email program worked on the CTSS. It’s much more arcane than you would imagine — even to the point of using typewriters. Try hitting the backspace button when you’re typing a message and  see what happens.

2. Give an early version to your users because you never know how they might use it 

The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and start using it on a daily basis, using it to make a buck and using it for criminal purpose and all the different things that people do.
— William Gibson, interviewed in The Paris Review, Art of Fiction #211

The original time sharing machines were created to make programming and debugging much easier. But to the engineers surprise, people wanted to share data with each other on the machine. In many ways this was the first computer mediated social network. 

TOM VAN VLECK: The idea of time-sharing was to make one big computer look like a lot of different little computers that were completely unconnected to each other. But it turned out that what people really liked about time-sharing was the ability to share data. And so one person would type in a program and then he’d want to give that disk file to someone else. And this was a surprise to the initial CTSS developers who didn’t realize that was going to happen. It’s one of the things that led us to build a new operating system after CTSS — Multics — which was able to do that better. When we wanted to send mail the idea was that you would type a message into a program running on your account and then mail would switch to your addressee’s account and deposit the message there. Only a privileged command that was very carefully written to not do anything bad could do that. And so we had to become trusted enough to be able to write that thing.

3. Incumbents often miss the boat in a big wayIBM Missed the boat on the computing technology but they eventually recovered.

MARVIN MINSKY: Marvin Minsky, one of the early members of Project MAC and director of its AI group, provides an account of an early meeting about time-sharing at IBM. IBM was committed to batch processing. It was part of their business model. “In fact, we went to visit IBM about using a computer with multiple terminals. And the research director at IBM thought that was a really bad idea. We explained the idea, which is that each time somebody presses a key on a terminal it would interrupt the program that the computer was running and jump over to switch over to the program that was not running for this particular person. And if you had 10 people typing on these terminals at five or 10 characters a second that would mean the poor computer was being interrupted 100 times per second to switch programs. And this research director said, ‘Well why would you want to do that?’ We would say, ‘Well it takes six months to develop a program because you run a batch and then it doesn’t work. And you get the results back and you see it stopped at instruction 94. And you figure out why. And then you punch a new deck of cards and put it in and the next day you try again. Whereas with time-sharing you could correct it — you could change this instruction right now and try it again. And so in one day you could do 50 of these instead of 100 days.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s terrible. Why don’t people just think more carefully and write the program so they’re not full of bugs?’”

A far bigger loser was the Post Office

TOM VAN VLECK: Well, I remember vaguely discussing it with people and worrying about what the U.S. Post Office would think of [e-mail] and whether they would tell us not to do it, or tell us that they had to be involved in it. 

ERROL MORRIS: Well, secretly, you were trying to put the post office out of business. 

TOM VAN VLECK: We didn’t realize that at the time, but we were afraid that they would want us to destroy a first class stamp every time we sent a mail message. 

ERROL MORRIS: Really! There would be Noel Morris and Tom Van Vleck stamps.
United States Postal Service 

TOM VAN VLECK: We didn’t want to ask them because we were afraid they would say, “No, of course not.” Or, “We have a monopoly on that.” Which they did. In those days if you sent a box by UPS and you put a letter in the box, you were supposed to destroy a first class stamp. 

ERROL MORRIS: Is that true? 

TOM VAN VLECK: Oh, yes. The U.S. post office had a monopoly on sending mail. So, we didn’t ask until finally some years later, one of the professors at MIT ran into somebody from the Post Office advanced development organization, or whatever it was, at a conference and said, “Hey, we have this thing. Are you concerned with that, are you interested in it?” And he said, “Oh no, forget it, we’re not interested in that.” And we said, “Great, thanks. That’s what we were hoping to hear.” We didn’t ask again.