February 27, 2020
The more “important,” the more engaging
In 2011, I went to the Verizon store to swap my AT&T iPhone 4 for a Verizon iPhone 4. The sales person got pushy. “But did you know this Motorola has a better camera? It has a swappable battery! It’s cheaper and easier to use.” He pitched me on CPU and GPU power, screen size, and expandable storage.
The sales pitch and pushiness was annoying.
That afternoon, I emailed firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Verizon Needs Help.” In the morning, I had a response in my inbox. “Thanks” it read. Tim Cook was CC’d. Later that afternoon, I received an email from Verizon’s COO apologizing for my in-store experience.
I’ve only been back on Twitter for a month, but one thing I’ve already noticed: the more “important” somebody is, the more likely they are to engage and respond to me as an internet nobody.
Paul Graham, Ken Beck, DHH, Jason Calacanis, Mark Normand and others have all responded to tweets I’ve sent.
And I’ve also noticed the inverse. The people who smell like they’re yearning for a blue check mark? Crickets.
People try to emulate other successful people. Sometimes, this means guessing that “successful people don’t have the time to talk to people with less than 100 followers.” And then they mimic this imagined behavior.
February 25, 2020
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
A year ago, I couldn’t have spelled Kyrgyzstan.
Yet on June 14th, I was on a Boeing 737, flying overnight from Moscow to Osh. The Aeroflot-provided dinner was much better than YouTube reviewers made me fear.
It was still dark when I touched down. I switched Airplane mode off. Elizabeth had WhatsApp’d me instructions for once I cleared customs:
- Walk outside and go past the first throng of “taxi drivers”
- Say you’re going to the CBT Hostel
- It should cost 250 Som
- I’ll give the driver money once you get here
It wasn’t quite as bad as Bali, but drivers swarmed me. I tried to adjust my Osprey as I negotiated. They were saying it’d be 500 Som. I had my work cut out for me. Elizabeth is a good negotiator.
The sun was up by the time we got into the city. The streets were quiet. Everybody was still sleeping at the hostel. I laid down on a small twin mattress and took a two hour nap.
By 8am, I was up again. Elizabeth had bought a loaf of bread and dried apricots and cheese from a nearby market. We sat around a table drinking tea and eating breakfast. It was sunny, but it didn’t feel hot.
I pulled out my laptop and checked in on things. It was Friday evening back in the U.S. I was going to be completely off the grid for three days. Not an ideal situation if servers crash.
We downloaded Maps.Me and had somebody at CBT give us the mapped pins for one of the horse treks. We were going to hike from one pin to the next into the Kyrgyz backcountry.
We purged what we didn’t need from our backpacks, put on our boots, and walked to the city center. We bought water, some Samsas, and almonds and apricots. Then we made it to the “bus station.” We walked around asking for vans headed to Gulcha.
We found ourselves in the back of a white minivan. After enough people hopped in, we were off.
About halfway to Gulcha, after we’d gotten to the top of a long windy road, the driver pulled over. “CBT, here,” he said. We got out, gave him some Som, pulled out our ponchos, and started hiking.
A few kilometers in, it started to drizzle. We climbed to the top of a mountain pass, the first dropped pin, and took a break to eat some fruit. We had to get to a specific valley and find Auperi, who was the mother of a nomadic family and who would host us in her family’s yurt.
We started to get cold, so we put our packs on and descended over the pass. Cell service clicked off.
The next three days were filled with some of the most beautiful mountains and greenscapes I’ve ever seen. The people we met along the way were unbelievably kind.
Here are four pictures we printed to hang on our wall. They just arrived:
February 21, 2020
A group of teens in Maryland is sharing one Instagram account in order to confuse Facebook’s ad targeting. By browsing and posting from different phones in different places, Instagram can’t figure out what ads or interests to show in the Discover tab.
Prolificacy is the reaction to the modern world.
Instead of trying to hide behind “Private Browsing” Chrome tabs, there should be a service that continuously crawls the web in the background to obfuscate your browsing history.
Instead of sweating every picture and comment posted to Instagram for fear of ruining your image, have a “casual” Insta and a “serious” Insta and a “friends” Insta and a “work” Insta.
Instead of worrying about how the news is going to report your press conference as President, overwhelm them with an avalanche of ridiculous gaffes and insane comments.
When Al Gore was asked in Nashville how he sees the balance between privacy and security playing out in the next decade, he noted how the CIA and FBI had all Al Quaeda-related communications prior to 9/11 on record. They missed the attack because the noise:signal ratio was way too high.
We live in a world where everything is on record, things move terrifyingly fast, and people are being “cancelled” every day.
The most effective reaction to this new world is being prolific.
Multiple identities are better than one. An avalanche of thoughts guards your most controversial ones.
February 19, 2020
Constraints breed more than creativity
Every October in college, I had to go to the “Idea Fest” in Louisville. I always dreaded getting on the bus and missing out on a weekend on campus. But Philippe Petit was there one year to talk about life on a tightrope. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ended up playing him in a movie.
This guy Dom, who billed himself as “one of the original creators of Twitters”, met with us after his talk. I remember two things he said. 1. “I never forget a face,” as he stared at each of us intently for 3 seconds. 2. “Twitter is awesome because of the 140 character limit. Constraints breed creativity.”
I knew it was true. It’s one of those fortune-cookie statements that you roll your eyes when you hear.
Despite its triteness, I keep observing how constraints breed more than creativity. Constraints breed friendships, adventures, productivity, and more.
This past weekend, Elizabeth and I wanted to get out of the city for a hike. We sold the Subaru before moving here, so we could either 1. rent a car, 2. take an Uber, or 3. find friends to go on a hike with.
We’re cheap. So we texted a bunch of people asking if anybody was down for a hike.
One of Elizabeth’s friends said he was going across the golden gate bridge for a hike with two other guys. There was room for two more.
If the Subaru was parked downstairs, we would’ve just gone to Point Reyes on our own. But instead, not only did we get a hike in, I also met new people.
Andy casually mentioned this morning, “Us only having one car means I either have to Uber to work, find a ride, walk, or scooter. I decided to walk halfway, then scooter. And I’ll probably end up walking the whole way.”
In the past two days, here are two examples of constraints breeding friendships and exercise. It’s far more powerful than just creativity. Dom was right.
February 14, 2020
Will negative interest rates lead to Marxism?
I got into an email exchange with TP from Shit I Didn’t Know about declining interest rates.
I’ve recently been thinking about this chart of declining interest rates over time:
Chart by Paul Schmelzing at the Bank Of England
Why is it consistently declining? Probably a combination of better technology and increasingly more wealth/capital in the world…
So, now what? Hmmm…
TP sent me this provocative Peter Thiel quote:
There is a Marxist theory that the time for Communism would come when interest rates went to zero because the zero percent interest rate was a sign that capitalists no longer had any idea what to do with their money. And there were no good investments left, which is why the interest rates went to zero, and therefore the only thing to do at that point was re-distribute the capital. It doesn’t mean that zero-percent rates lead us to socialism, but I find it alarming that rates are as low as they are.
Eh, I think that’s over-narrating the fact that there’s just a ton of capital out there in the world. Wealth has increased tremendously over the last 100 and 500 years, but all our scarce resources have stayed about the same.
Capitalism has become a “victim of its very success.” Yet I don’t know who the victims are. Let’s say interest rates go negative. Who’s the loser?
Low interest rates are good for poor people and bad for rich people. Low interest rates should theoretically shift power back toward labor, entrepreneurs, and engineers because more capital is being pumped into companies, boosting wages while simultaneously diminishing returns on investment.
I do agree with Thiel’s “Where are all the good ideas?” worldview. We’re less bold and less energetic and less full of dreams as compared to 50 or 100 years ago. I often think about what it was like in the 1950’s when everything seemed possible, when every new invention was cheered and welcomed, when we thought that curing cancer was not only achievable but was an eventuality within the living’s lifetimes. Now, nobody thinks cancer is even completely curable. It is an absurdity to think.
A few predictions for a low or negative interest rate world:
- Investors will be ridiculed
Determining where to allocate capital gets a lot harder. People rip on startups and VC funds for pouring money into stupid shit like Brandless. But when all investments promise the same meager returns, how do you determine what’s worthy and what’s not? Nobody sane would give Brandless $250 million when you could put $250 million into safe corporate bonds earning 8% APR.
- Resource allocation will become more political and more controversial
How long can the system sustain investment stupidity? Managing funds used to be easy: put money where returns are the highest. Now, there are no returns except for outliers. Everybody is chasing the next Facebook. Power laws have never been so extreme.
The market used to guide where to put money: companies and governments with certain risk profiles needed bonds and offered certain rates. Investments could flow through these different tranches and the market dictated money needs.
Now, everybody “needs” money and all the returns look the same.
Thus resource allocation will become much more politically fraught, with investments needing moral justifications in addition to economic justifications.
- Social mobility will be narrower but more extreme
With fewer economic signals, the economy will become more stagnant. But the winners will be massive winners because valuations will be wild, and those at the top will struggle to grow wealth the way wealthy families grew wealth in the past.
There will be more Zuckerbergs and Bezoses who rose from relative obscurity to massive power overtaking the entrenched political families, yet the average mobility of the average citizen will probably be more static in the next 100 years than in the past 100 years.
February 13, 2020
Cocktail Party Entrepreneurs
I’ve been sick the last few days, hence the dry riverbed of blog posts.
I’m still not 100%, but feeling better. Thankfully I don’t have coronavirus. Just being within one BART ride of SFO gives this amateur hypochondriac all the fuel I need.
I’ve been thinking about how long it’s taken me to learn a simple fact: not everybody is going to like what I build.
In high school, my friends weren’t particularly interested in things I was building. None of my close friends bought the shirts I sold online. None of my close friends were eager to use the (bad) software I built.
I’ve since read stories about Sean Parker meeting all these crazy people online in IRC chatrooms. I didn’t know what IRC was, I’m not sure I knew anyone who knew what it was. But good for him. It’s likely that none of his geographically-close friends thought the hacking he was doing was cool. So he found his community of friends online.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve repeatedly made is trying to convince everyone that what I’m building is cool. It’s an unrealistic and dangerous path.
I call the chronic sufferers of this illness “Cocktail Party Entrepreneurs.”
Most people at cocktail parties run in the same general social circle, have somewhat interesting jobs, and live happy lives commuting to and from work and collecting paychecks and skiing on the weekends. These people are not interested in buying your SaaS. Your SaaS is boring.
When you describe what you do, the best you’ll get is, “Oh that’s interesting.” So it goes.
I used to suffer from this illness. And I’ve observed so many others try to impress the cocktail party crowd with their new shiny idea.
Instead of saying “we help local businesses resell over text,” suddenly the product serves everyone and solves some deep social problem. It involves Maths and machine learning. Cocktail Party Entrepreneurs lean into the need for validation that this problem is worth solving and that they’re wise to work on it.
This is a terrible path.
Only 1/100 people are going to “get it.” You’re better off getting 2/200 people to “get” your product than you are spending incredible energy and wasted hot air trying to get 2/100 people to “get” it.
The goal isn’t to impress the cocktail party. The sample size is too small.