Grandma Rozzie

October 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

When my grandma was 17 years old, she made up her mind that she wanted to leave her friends, family, and home in Munkacs, Hungary, and emigrate to America. Her parents wouldn’t have it. So she did it anyway. It was 1937.

Here’s the photo from her US Certificate of Naturalization:

IMG_20141019_140718 (1)


I could spend the entire rest of my life trying, and I’d never catch up to being this poised, this collected, this cool.

Self-Driving Cars, Part 0.5

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

This past week Tesla unveiled the “D” model, which has a lot of cool features — but as per the post title, I want to talk about its advances towards our future self-driving reality.

Check out the demo here (particularly, the second half of the video):

On the one hand: It’s pretty incredible to actually see these sorts of features in real life as opposed to just in fantastic theoretical prose about the future. It’s definitely a little intimidating — the reviewer for TheVerge actually titles his piece “My Lap of Terror.”

I’m terrified, but for entirely different reasons.

As should be clear at this point from my recent update history, I’m rather zealously looking forward to the day when cars are driving themselves around the road. It’s worth noting that assisted driving features have been publicly available in cars since around 2003, when Toyota began selling a car which could parallel park itself. I have the same level of confidence in car technology’s ability to safely and effectively navigate both Toyota’s parking and Tesla’s lane changing and speed limits.

What I have very little faith in is people.

For example: How long do you think it’s going to take for some lunatic to post a video to YouTube of himself turning on Assisted Driving and then just completely abandoning the drivers seat?[ref]We already had the Ghostride fad circa 2006.[/ref]

You think it’ll take a few weeks? A few days?

What if I told you… someone actually already did exactly this over two months ago?

Scarier than that, because I think it’d be far more commonplace: Just simple lapses in human judgment. I think assisted driving leads us to being lazier drivers. We already have a hard enough time checking our blindspots when we switch lanes.

Say you’re a little groggy and happen to be taking your wife’s car to work instead of your Tesla one morning. Or say you get comfortable enough with assisted driving that you justify it as a good time to take out your phone and sneak in a few text messages from behind the wheel. All it takes is one second.

I don’t want to start sounding too much like your nagging, paranoid parents here. But no question about it: Lazy driving and distracted driving lead to accidents.[ref]Tangentially: It’s worth reading up on the European cities which made their streets safer by removing every single form of traffic signal, on the premise that without all of the crutches of traffic lights, stop signs, and so on, drivers would intuitively be relegated to be hyper-aware of their own safety, so they’re more careful. Accidents have gone down precipitously.[/ref]

We’re in sort of a treacherous valley right now — at the far end of the horizon, the utopian fully-autonomous vehicle. One view of the world was that we might just make one big gigantic leap across — say, Google just deploys its self-driving car and we all hope it clicks. What it looks like, though, is that we’ll be crossing the valley baby step by baby step — inching closer to the future and deploying the self-driving car on a feature-by-feature basis over several years. There’ll be growing pains either way; I can only hope that we make it across quickly.

Advanced Email Tactics

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

A few techniques I’ve grown fond of employing lately:

1. I put the greeting, and my recipient’s name, in the email subject rather than in the first lines of copy.

I think this helps email stand out in a mountain of inbox jargon. The sweetest music to anybody’s ears (err, eyes) is their own name. My sense is that my messages get turned around more quickly — especially notes to people who I haven’t spoken with in a while or who maybe weren’t expecting to hear from me.

The result looks something like this:

hey mark email


(Hat tip to Cy, who first brought an idea like this to my attention.)

2. I leave the period off the last sentence in the email.

A slight grammar offense, sure, but the benefits make up for it.

Here’s an example:

hey natalie email no period

By leaving off the last period, I find my emails are far easier for recipients to quickly respond to. It’s more casual, but no less formal because the ease in prose doesn’t arise from the use of conjunctions or colloquial diction. It evokes a sense of briskness, but stopping well short of the childish overzealousness that was the hallmark of, say, vintage Dugout-era Jim Thome.[ref]Maybe my most obscure internet reference on this website to date.[/ref]

This is the same sort of hastiness that you’ll see in, say, Mark Cuban’s weblog. He goes a bit farther — employing haphazard capitalization, formatting, and so on — than I’d feel comfortable with in a formal email setting. I think his goal is to exude a sense that he’s not really spending more than 17 seconds on any given rant, but also, in a weird way, it makes his work easier and faster to read and react to. And that’s precisely the sort of behavior I’d generally like to extract from my email recipients.


3. Things I don’t do.

A) Email signatures. These started out as an okay idea. At one point, in fact, they were a huge contributing factor to the viral growth of Hotmail.

Now, they’re just stupid. Gmail (and I’d assume other modern email clients too) has figured out that they’re a waste and will clip the bottom of your message off as soon as it’s figured out you’re in the signature zone.

What’s the point of a signature? It’s not to convey important information. Most people include the following three things in their signatures: Their name, their email address, and their phone number. Any time you’d need my phone number, I’m going to be sure to write it out again for you. Something’s truly amiss if you should need to be reminded of what my name and email address are.

A signature in a hand-written letter is more a token or authenticity and care. “This was definitely me who wrote this letter, and I put thought into it.” None of that sentiment comes through when you’ve got a signature set to send automatically with every message. In fact, you’ll often see people conclude emails with an individually written “Best, Charles” — so now they’ve got two signatures.

B) Separate signature from your smartphone. “Sent from my Samsung iPhone S1000 by VeriSprint Mobile.” This was an important thing to have, but only back in like 2003 when people were sending emails using T9 Messaging on flip phones and errant words were potatoes knife like text grade dad not all that uncommon.[ref]Sent from my 2003 Mobile Device[/ref]

First of all, “Sent from my iPhone” signatures make you a participant in an Apple viral marketing campaign which you didn’t sign up for. Second, if you’re on a smartphone, you’ve been afforded an ample screen, a Qwerty keyboard, spellcheck, and every other convenience any modern computer might possess. Any errors in your message are entirely your own fault.

…Then again. Suppose there is something to the idea of “Sent from my smartphone” exuding and prompting a sense of hastiness. I wonder what’d happen if I just set my desktop email signature to “Sent from my smartphone.”

C) Legalese.

This e-mail message and all attachments transmitted with it may contain legally privileged and/or confidential information intended solely for the use of the addressee(s). If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any reading, dissemination, distribution, copying, forwarding or other use of this message or its attachments is strictly prohibited. If you have received this message in error, please notify the sender immediately and delete this message and all copies and backups thereof. Thank you.

My reaction when.

On the iPhone 6

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Trigger Happy TV (over a decade ago!) has already succinctly conveyed everything I could possibly have to say.


Berkshire Hathaway

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

A quick moment of reflection and praise for one of my favorite boutique sites on the internet:

Which, for posterity’s sake, looks like this:

herkshire bathaway


That’s it. 127 lines of HTML code.

You can almost imagine the conversation that took place:

Warren Buffett: “We don’t need a website! The hell do we need a website for?”

Advisor: “Sir, it’s the internet. It’s important. We need a website.”

WB: “Fine. Just shut up. Here’s a website. I hope you’re happy.”

And you know. I think these two imaginary figures came to the right conclusion. Berkshire Hathaway doesn’t really need stuff on its website. You’re there because you already know who Warren is and what he’s about — he doesn’t need a blog to explain himself.

The design is a little extreme — and my designer friends would murder me for coming anywhere close to paying the site a compliment in this arena — but I’ll take it. The site has no frills, no nonsense, probably costs nothing to maintain, and it pretty effectively surfaces all of the content I could conceivably have been looking for upon my arrival. They say good design isn’t “what more can you add” but “what more can you take away.”


The Insanely Unique Thing About Movie Trailers

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Movie trailers are almost universally enjoyed. There’s lots of things which make movie trailers great.

That’s not what I like best.

The thing that I like best about movie trailers is a little different. It’s not a feature within the movie trailer, but a fact about the trailer itself: Movie trailers are all…actually just advertisements.

I think this combination (A: They’re ads, and B: everybody likes them) is positively one-of-a-kind. Nowhere else do consumers share the same universal joy about advertising.[ref]The Super Bowl, maybe?[/ref] The ads aren’t even all that difficult to avoid, if you just decide to show up a few minutes late to the theater or linger at the snack bar. But no! To the contrary, missing the ads at the beginning of a showing is almost like missing the best part of the entire movie-going experience.

There’s a handful of things which contribute to the success of the movie trailer. It certainly helps that trailers are advertising for pure consumer entertainment. It’s possible that consumers are more tolerant because there’s a fairly equitable ad-to-content ratio (3-4 trailers vs. 90+ minutes of movie). They don’t really have to bring up the pain point of pricing since “find your local theater and pay the cost of a movie ticket” is pretty universal knowledge.[ref]You might readily imagine how trailers would become distasteful if they all ended with “Buy your tickets today! Just $14.99 plus shipping and handling!”[/ref] But what I think deserves the lion’s share of the credit is the notion that more than almost anything else, movie trailers are incredibly articulately targeted.

With a movie trailer, you’ve got:

  1. A very strong idea on demographic (theater full of self-selected people suitable for G, PG, PG-13, R)
  2. A great head start on behavioral factors (viewers have already established they like going to the movies)
  3. A great head start on psychographics (viewers who are settling in to see a horror movie are highly primed for other horror movie trailers)

It feels like the entire modern consumer economy is fueled by advertising — our apps, our websites, our shows, our blogs. And more often than not, that advertisement is treated as a nuisance — some disruptive noise to put up with which helps your service provider to pay its bills — which we’d all avoid if we possibly could. There’s a reason AdBlock Plus is consistently among the top-rated add-ons for Chrome and Firefox. Companies like Spotify and Pandora hedge their entire business around freemium services which basically say “Hey! If you like the product but don’t want to put up with the crappy, ad-riddled version, you can pay us money!”

There’s research which suggests we consumers see an average of 5,000 ads per day. That’s crazy. Five thousand disruptions on a daily basis. 1.85 million annoyances annually.

Movie trailers give me hope. They prove that it’s possible for ads which fund the world around us to be something much, much better than the pesky bother we halfheartedly put up with today. That’s exciting.

On a related note: I’m joining a company today which aspires to do more or less exactly that.

Self-Driving Cars, Part III

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last month I wrote about my favorite aspects of Self-Driving Cars. I explored more deep-future stuff… not just empowering disabled people to use vehicles, but the implications of autonomous vehicles on real estate and city infrastructure.

In the first week of July, Google Co-Founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin sat down for a 40-minute chat to discuss their vision of the future. Watch the video or read the full transcript here.

Here’s a quote from Brin:

“If you look at the self-driving cars, for example, I hope that that could really transform transportation around the world, and reduce the need for individual car ownership, the need for parking, road congestion and so forth.”

And another:

“I hope [self-driving cars] can be a really dramatic change. Off the bat, of course, there are the many people who currently cannot get around if they’re too old, too young, disabled and so forth. But that’s still just a fraction of the population. I think the bigger changes can come to the community, the lifestyle, the land use. So much of our land in most cities, about 30 to 50-percent is parking, which is a tremendous waste. Also, the roads themselves, which are both congested and take a lot of space are just unpleasant. So with self-driving cars, you don’t really need much in the way of parking, because you don’t need one car per person. They just come and get you when you need them. … Fundamentally, they can just make much more efficient use of the space and therefore, people’s time. So I think that can be really transformative.”

And a quote from Vinod, the interviewer:

“I love the car, because it’s such a radical transformation economically. The way I look at it, it costs $300 a month to lease a car or hiring a driver is $300 a day. A driverless car is a 97-percent cost reduction in the cost of a driven car, making it cheaper than a car you own probably. So it completely changes economics.”

Glad to see we’re all on the same page.


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