NYT on Google & A.I

Found this to be really riveting exploration of how Google used machine learning advances (AI, neural networks, and other fun buzz words) to dramatically improve Google Translate.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/magazine/the-great-ai-awakening.html?ref=magazine&_r=0

It’s a brave new world and exciting times. From the age of 15 when I first started messing around on the Internet, I knew this was the space I wanted to work in and be a part of.

 

what apple music should be

Om Malik on Apple Music in The New Yorker.

April 28, 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, saving the music industry from the scourge of piracy while creating a large and steady source of revenue for Apple. Thirteen years later, however, what started as a simple and intuitive way to find music has become a cluttered festoonery of features. As Apple begins competing with focussed streaming services like Spotify, the company’s strategy of tacking new services, like Apple Music, which became available last year, onto already bloated software has made the experience of using the application more and more unpleasant.

It totally sucks. I did the free trial of Apple Music. During it, and after, I’ve been so confused how to do basic things between my iPhone and iTunes on my MacBook. Holy Hell.

Does this need to be so hard? How about this:

Apple Music is the new sole Apple Music service (Creative, huh?).

iTunes is the designation for Music that you own (designated by an infinity symbol?)

Beats is the designation for Streaming (the beats logo, obvi?)

Stations is designation for both their Radio and personal playlists with a toggle.

That’s it.

(For those who say kill/sunset iTunes, I don’t think it’s practical. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and market leader in song sales. Why kill that? Keep it for those who want music “forever.” It also makes the whole Apple Music thing more holistic. You can subscribe/unsubscribe and your Apple Music is still useful. It just works.

stimulus withdrawal.

A few days ago I decided that I’d start 2014 with a pretty simple change: To seek less stimulus. I wrote a blog post and a status update sharing my impending Facebook absence. I sent an email at work to no longer expect immediate email responses. The changes ended up being:

  • No more Facebook.
  • Conditions allowing, moving to limited windows of checking & responding to emails.
  • Limiting  Twitter + daily consumption of news, RSS, etc  to a couple of slugs a day.

Why? Listed in order from most tangible to the most abstracted:

1) Productivity – I’ve chosen to give up these things so that I can be more productive. I feel like I can use time better, specifically towards more directed tasks and projects. I’ve ended every year not accomplishing as much as I had hoped and with a vague notion that I’d left “opportunity on the table.”

2) Stillness – Reducing noise. Constantly checking email, twitter, facebook, espn, techcrunch, et al, did satisfy my curiosity and staved off boredom. But I was never allowing my mind to sit still. Instead I was constantly feeding it stimuli, which caused to to feel constantly “on the go.” At one point I might have considered that a feature. Today that’s very much a bug.

3) Substance – Finally, as explained in my previous post, I did this because I have a number of doubts as to the “realness” of my virtual relationships. Going further, I wonder if rather than being accretive to my life, if they actually hinder the progress I’m trying to make in being a better, happier human.

Since the new year, I’ve read a few blog posts from others trying something similar. Clearly these feelings go beyond me. I don’t think I’m doing anything complicated. I’m just trying to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of my everyday using the most basic of concepts: focus. I’m trying to stay focused on being present in the moment. It’s an ancient and probably overused phrase. My only resolution was to focus more on whatever I chose to experience that day. That partially manifests itself in that above list.

Making this change obviously comes with a cost. After all, nothing’s free. I’ll see many less news stories, pieces of market data, internet memes, and all the rest, making me less well-informed. I’ve always thought my consumption of all this information was a key strength. That my creativity was fueled by connecting the frameworks of all these disparate topics. Yet I think this is tradeoff is worth it. What I’ll gain from thinking more deeply on fewer projects, by being more present in each of my daily experiences, and having more whitespace, will result in its own kind of knowledge, creativity, and happiness. I guess we’ll see.

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

Prodded by the overwhelmingly good reviews, I saw Her last night. The most positive reviews called it was the best movie of 2013. The concept of a human falling in love with a smarter version of Siri sounded kind of ridiculous. But since writer-director Spike Jonze is uber-talented and the trailer looked good, I went.

It’s actually not a movie about the future or technology. It’s a classic story about being human: Relationships, connection, loneliness, struggling with life, and, most obviously, love. It’s funny, beautifully shot, features terrific acting + pacing, and works off a great screenplay. Loved it.

There’s a particular line in the movie that I was really struck by:

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

(after some googling, I’ve discovered that Chuck Palahniuk, among others have served up some variation of this insight for years).

Like all things, there’s great variation here. Some people are better than others at not being pre-occupied by their past and letting their today and tomorrow become derailed by it. I am not one of the better people. Anyway, I loved this line because it distilled the truth that the past isn’t merely a set of facts or past events that is black and white. We imbue the past with the weight of story. Like a wound in our mouth, we then incessantly tongue that story  – feeling its texture, its shape, its pain, wondering if it’s still there…if it’s still the same. We don’t realize it’s a story. We accept the past as fact — it already happened…it had implications…of course it is what it was — when the past is actually a concoction of fact and emotion. The past is merely facts, like you and I are merely atoms and molecules.

It felt so welcoming. To hear the line, was to ease into a warm, freeing embrace. I walked out of the theater mesmerized by it.

I’m looking forward to more people seeing it so I can discuss.

facebreak?

I gave up Facebook for the first few months of 2012. Cold-turkey stopped reading my feed + posting. In the lead-up to my summer of traveling, I got back on the Facebook-train and probably posted too frequently. Since then I’ve settled into a steady routine of trying my best to “like” pictures of friends’ children , important events, etc. I basically stopped posting, though. I found it hard to untangle my motivations.

I feel like I have reached a point of being paralyzed by self-consciousness: Why am I posting this? Who am I trying to impress? Why do I want/need people to “like” it?

I’ve loved and hated Facebook. I’ve hated the distraction of it. I’ve loved the quick hit of seeing a familiar face. I’ve hated that twinge of jealousy that might strike from a random post. I’ve loved feeling a bit more connected to distant family + friends.

Tonight at 11:59 PM, I’ll start 2014 on another open-ended Facebook break. I will miss the cute photos of my friends’ kids and such. I will definitely miss those “in-between” moments and stories.

I wonder, though, if this might be a healthy thing for me. Maybe Facebook is like aspartame or saccharine. It feels sort of like a connection to the people I care about. Sort of like Diet Coke tastes sweet-ish. But without being lulled into this (false?) sense of connection, might I be more likely to try and create real connection? To send an actual substantive email? To make a phone call? To physically be present with the person? Is Facebook like the empty calories that just make me feel like I’ve eaten something filling and nutritious?

Like everyone else, I have hopes for 2014. I’ll use this arbitrary point as a reset for all the little ways I’d like my life to be different and that I think can be a better human. No big changes or promises for me. Instead, a handful of little tweaks, dropping Facebook among them.

Goodbye for now, Facebook friends.

Google, P&G, and Insidious Interviews

Interesting article in the NY Times about what Google has learned about hiring over the years. The highlights:

1) GPA & standardized test scores were uncorrelated with employee performance.

2) Ability to answer brainteasers was uncorrelated with employee performance.

3) Behavioral interviews were effective in predicting employee performance.

In 2007, I shared with Google my SAT scores, transcripts, and sat through multiple brainteasers. Given that experience, I was intrigued to learn they’ve since abandoned this approach. Three personal reactions:

1) Behavioral interviews have long been the gold-standard. My alma-mater, Procter & Gamble, used the behavioral framework as their interview centerpieces. “Tell me about a time when you…” I think it’s great that Google has come around to this method. I agree w/the Googler’s quote that they are a great view inside the candidate’s thinking process, standards, and past behavior. More so than pointing out that Google apparently eschewed a well-known practice in their early years, I wanted to tip my cap to P&G for getting this right since back in the day.

2) Interviews often reveal more about the company than they do the candidate. When Google asked for SAT scores, transcript, and brainteasers, they revealed a lot about their culture. In the past 6 years since I interviewed at the big G, I’ve come to know dozens of ex-Googlers. They’ve pretty consistently shared stories of a culture that valued intelligence above all else. At the time I thought it was kind of myopic/snobby how much they focused on where I went to school, my high school class rank (!), etc.  But based on what I’ve heard since, I guess that was part of the culture of the place; it reflected their view that they only wanted the smartest folks, and that those folks got the highest SAT scores, best grades, etc. By contrast, in interviews P&G obsessively looked for strong predictors of leadership and teamwork. Naturally, P&G paid attention to where you went to school and how you did,  but only as a minor consideration compared to what you had done. That very much reflected how the company worked. P&G cared much less about who the smartest person was, and much more about teamwork and running effective processes. (Of course, this rigorous focus on process is why P&G can also feel suffocating to some.)

3) Interviews should focus on asymmetric topics. “[Brainteasers] don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”  This is a key plot point in the article. Many interviewers focus on topics where there’s a large knowledge asymmetry. It’s natural for interviewers, like all humans, to prefer to feel smart. Ironically, this is something that I thought Google did well in my experience. In my phone screen, I was asked the classic Google question: “Teach me something.” I saw it as a good window to the candidates communication skills, how difficult of a task they chose to explain, etc. Personally, I like a hybrid approach: a lightweight case study merged with the candidate’s area of expertise. Interviewing a college student for P&G, I might ask: “If you were the Brand Manager of Cascade and wanted to target college market, how would you think about that?” Instead of using interviews as an opportunity to get confirmation of knowing more than the candidate, use as an opportunity to learn from them while assessing how they go about it.

Final thought: Square peg, round hole. The interview process is really just the endgame. When a company doesn’t really know what it’s looking for, it’s not going to know how or when they find it. Understanding that it needs a 2” round peg is the same as understanding what the desired employee needs to accomplish, the kinds of skills they’ll need, the personality traits to work effectively in that organization, etc. Else, the company ends up picking the shiniest square peg, in the coolest color, that has the right “feel” to it. Hiring can be random without a strong grasp of what’s needed. That’s probably why it’s so easy to cheat and focus on the person’s likability, or some other random criteria.

One reason P&G is so good at hiring is because it’s a completely known quantity: for close to 200 years they’ve looked for talented, driven folks to plug into a system. Since they know exactly what they need, they’ve close to perfected that process. In hyper-growth companies in rapidly changing industries, it’s a lot harder. That’s why Google is doing this analysis and why hiring seems like such a crapshoot in Silicon Valley. This makes Google hiring such strong talent, at massive scale, even more impressive. Always room for improvement, and the referenced article shows that Google agrees/is getting even better.

square and starbucks.

What’s in it for Starbucks?

That’s the question I was asking after I digested the big news from last night that Square signed a deal with Starbucks to power their payments. I won’t detail the deal, because if you haven’t read about it already, you definitely don’t care about this post.

First, I’m surprised at Howard Schultz’s level of involvement in the deal: Joining the Square Board after recently leaving Groupon’s BOD. Some people don’t see Square and Groupon as competitors. I’m not one of those people. Groupon’s aim is to become the ecosystem for local businesses. That most decidedly includes payments, loyalty programs, POS, and obviously deals. The evolution of deals is likely to be in 1)targeting based on what you actually buy and 2) delivery, potentially in real-time based on time, location, weather, who you’re with, etc.

Groupon aspires to be a lot more than just an email deal company.

Square, too, has much larger aspirations than processing payments. Firing up their Cardcase app or their Point of Sale system you quickly see that w/this level of integration, Square will own the data on where you shop and what you buy. All of this will be used to get you to try new places, to come back more to existing favorites, and to buy more (everywhere).

Square aspires to be a lot more than just a dongle-based payments company.

That establishes why I see overlap between Square & Groupon.

With this deal, I just don’t see what’s in it for Starbucks. Obviously they get the Square software and the resulting experience. It’s a great experience on its own and some think that’s why Sbux did this deal. I find that hard to believe because I’ve been religiously using the Sbux card & app for the past few years. They’ve worked great. I can see my balance, quickly pay, and how close I am to my reward. I find it hard to believe that Sbux couldn’t just add the geofencing functionality for pay by name. Starbux isn’t adopting Square CardCase because it has scale — Square’s hope is that this deal will give them that scale and adoption. Outside of SF, my friends have never even heard of CardCase, and based on everything I’ve read, this is true across the country.

Maybe Sbux added Square just to give customers more options? That would be fine, if it wasn’t so potentially harmful to Sbux in the long-run. Why? Data. Square will now have data on how often you go to Sbux and what you spend. If the integration ever goes all the way, they’d also know the kind of drinks you get, etc. This data is massively valuable in the future.

Example: I always get Venti Chai’s from Starbucks. (If I’m feeling fancy, I go extra-hot, no water, & whole milk.) In a future CardCase world, it’d make sense for me to get offers from other shops to try their Chai’s. Or maybe since I always get a beverage on my way into the office, I start to get offers between 7-7:30 AM because that’s exactly my purchase window. Or maybe it’s been 3 weeks, and I haven’t been back, so Starbucks sends me an offer to come in for a free drink to re-start my habit. Any of these, or some variation, are all powered by the data. And Starbucks is now sharing that data. As the gorilla with scale, Starbucks was in a position to dominate this game on its own. This is something it’s smaller coffee/tea rivals can’t do with out the help of  the Square/Groupon/Google/PayPal’s of the world, through aggregation and building scale. With this deal, Starbucks euthanizes that advantage.

Starbucks is a smart company. So let’s assume they thought this through: They don’t want Square using any of the data from any of their transactions to be used for competitive targeting of any kind (no poaching!). Best case, they got this included in the deal. But assuming that Square/CardCase gets traction, helped by this deal, Sbux is helping to create a really powerful marketing program for coffee shop’s everywhere. Increasing trial, driving up repeat visits, encouraging referrals — are all the promise of what only Starbucks could create on its own given their scale, but now will be available to all because Starbucks helped drive adoption of CardCase by consumers. So even w/an exclusion for its data, this puts them in a tougher competitive environment. They go from having a strong competitive advantage to a level playing field that they helped level.

It’s clear what’s in it for Square. If Starbucks puts their back into it, this is a grand slam for Square. It drives massive adoption of CardCase by consumers, which in turn will drive adoption by smaller merchants, which drives more usage by consumers, and so on. The flywheel takes off.

For Starbucks? Here’s the best I could come up with:

– Starbucks thinks they won’t be able to create a consumer experience anywhere close to Square’s, so why not embrace the inevitable. (Find this hard to believe). Though as Owen points out, maybe this is a “stick to your knitting” strategy.

– Starbucks is desperate for “cool” and Square is very much that. (Schultz is too savvy for me to believe this)

– Starbucks got some kind of massive savings from Square on all the fees on the backend that makes this all worthwhile. This would mean Square is going to eat a ton of $ in fees in the coming years. (This seems to be the most likely, even if it doesn’t make much sense to me. At Sbux scale, this is a very serious amount of money for Square to eat indefinitely)

I could also just be giving Starbucks way too much credit:
– Starbucks got way caught up in the “magic” of the CardCase “experience” and made a deal without thinking through the long-term implications of what it was signing up for. From reading his books (which are very good), you clearly see how much Schultz cares for and values the magic of in-store experience.

I’ll end with a prediction/guess: In the near future, there will be a ton of handwringing internally at Starbucks over all of the above. I wouldn’t be surprised if Starbucks doesn’t end up promoting Square and this goes away. Then again, Pay w/Square is a pretty awesome experience so maybe they’ll put their full weight behind it and it’s going to be huge. I just think that’ll be a big mistake for Starbucks. But huge for Square. If this turns out to be the case, I believe it’ll be a textbook example of how a large, successful “old-school” company didn’t get how technology was eating the world and they’ll pay the price for it. Technology isn’t an adjacency or a feature for almost every business today, it’s core-competency for the successful ones.

the less discussed, other sinister plot at groupon.

I love Silicon Valley. Love almost everything about the technology ecosystem. I grew up in New Jersey watching with extreme envy and wonderment as the ‘95-01 boom-bust played out. Like most, I also share a certain reverence for Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, the Valley tends to indulge in one of the less enviable Jobsian traits: the shithead/hero rollercoaster. People and companies are always one or the other. We glorify when it’s smooth sailing and bash mercilessly during turbulence.

Groupon has taken the entire ride. From wonder boy CEO and “fastest growing company ever” to becoming the evil company out to defraud merchants/investors. Now that I’m no longer directly affiliated with the company (other than being a locked-up shareholder), I thought it would be nice to provide a little balance. There’s plenty that’s been said on the negative side of the ledger — no doubt inspired by a righteous desire to protect the little-guy merchant and investor and not at all fueled by a desire for twitter followers or endless TV appearances.

Outside of karmic balance, Continue reading

the deal with manufacturing.

A few years ago I was obsessed with manufacturing. While not an expert, I have read thousands of pages on the topic and hundreds of articles. In my campaign for Congress, I tried to make jobs, and as a result, manufacturing a cornerstone. All that to say, that this is something I find interesting and care deeply about.

In the past few days I came across two must-read articles on the topic.

1) The NY Times dives into the topic through the lens of Apple and the iPhone. How the US lost out on iPhone work; Apple, America and a squeezed middle class. Must Read.

2) The Atlantic Monthly absolutely blows the doors off with a great dissection at the high-level of American manufacturing and weaving in the human face. Making It in America. Phenomenal.

I recommend starting there. There are a slew of topics that every citizen should understand, Manufacturing among them. It drives the wealth and stability of nations and the type of society you have. At least until now it has. It was arguably the main building block of a prosperous and triumphant America. Our mercantilist policies and inherent natural advantages largely contributed to the sole superpower position we held.

I want to lay out 3 important things about manufacturing that are not well understood or known. I’ll do a separate post on why manufacturing matters — but the fact that it has historically been a primary source of work for the masses should be enough for now. (That shouldn’t be controversial.)

1) Automation. Robert Reich is the one who first drew my attention to this in 2009. Essentially, global competition aside, technology was rapidly cutting into the humans you needed for production. This trend has only accelerated, as robotics and software improve at scale, the costs of automating repetitive tasks continue to decline sharply. We’ll see more automation everywhere in the world. It will literally take a shortage of the natural resources (again, another post) to cease this inevitability. So, net, automation has cost a good chunk of American jobs. This is also true for Chinese, German, Japanese, South Korean, et al jobs.

2) Training. I blame politicians for why this is so little understood. Since the days of Bill Clinton, “Move up the value chain. Education is the key. etc, etc”  has been one of those safe ubiquitous lines everyone parrots. It’s led us to the “sacred truth” that everyone needs to go to college and then they’d be OK. I think this is total bullshit.  (Google “Thiel Higher Education Bubble” for an excellent background on the counter to this “truth”). In reality, “educated workforce” meant a very complex, diverse truth. It meant a great liberal arts education for some, a rigorous math, science/engineering education for others, and the missing one — was a highly valued vocational training. Germany has long known the importance of this and has a variety of vocational training. Both articles linked to above touch on the need for this. Over the past decade we have all but given up on this kind of training. While part of a more complex point, I believe that we should aggressively be retooling our community colleges to focus on this kind of vocational training.

3) Industrial Policy. Automation aside, the Apple story talks about foreign governments that targeted specific desired industries and how this resulted in an unbeatable combination. This is  called industrial policy and is rarely talked about in America. Countries that have heavily used industrial policy: Japan, China, Germany, South Korea. It’s a list of the powerful, triumphant manufacturers of the world. America once had a very muscular industrial policy from the 1800’s going through World War II. With Europe in shambles and our industrial and economic might seemingly infinite, foreign policy and political concerns prevailed over any kind of industrial policy. The result has been a consistent (with a surge this past decade) overseas build-up of industrial capability that has led to the realization of Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound of jobs going away.” Industrial policy can be a combination of tax benefits, cash and natural resource subsidies, calculated currency manipulation, and protectionist trade restrictions to protect a fledgling industry. While there are examples of America focusing here (agricultural) we’ve sat out this “game.” While industrial policy has its share of valid skeptics (can the government really pick the right industries that matter?) — it really does matter. The rise of most of China, Japan, South Korea, etc is the blinding proof that an intellectually-honest person can’t ignore.

There are a lot of other important things to join. The importance of building a cost infrastructure that supports manufacturing vs consumption. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most geared towards production and jobs — China is a 10 towards supporting jobs (manufacturing, etc). The US is close to a 1. On the scale of 1 to 10, with focused on consuming as much as possible, America is a 10 and China is a 1. We’ve focused on consumerism and the amassing of boundless crap. By the way, lately that crap has been debt. Unfortunately we’re not having a real conversation about where we’re headed, what we’ve been doing, and where want to go, nor discussing the actual impact on Americans’ lives. Both the NYT piece and The Atlantic do these things on some level.

I’ll end by saying that while I loved the articles, I found Davidson’s closing line in The Atlantic to be a bit disingenuous:

For most of U.S. history, most people had a slow and steady wind at their back, a combination of economic forces that didn’t make life easy but gave many of us little pushes forward that allowed us to earn a bit more every year. Over a lifetime, it all added up to a better sort of life than the one we were born into. That wind seems to be dying for a lot of Americans. What the country will be like without it is not quite clear.

In so far as the future is always hard to predict, fine. That aside, I think it actually is fairly clear. In fact, it’s the strength of the article. He lays out the clear arc:
1) People like Maggie, who the article opens, with are quite rare. A great very many “Maggie’s” across the country don’t even have the opportunity that she has.
2) Even for Maggie, the basic ideal of a middle class life eludes her reach on a salary of sub-$30K.
3) The writing is on the wall that with automation, even what the lucky ones like Maggie have, is likely to be gone in the foreseeable future.

The “very lucky” in this story, Luke, is shown as a clear anomaly. In fact the NY Times story on Apple presented the other side of Luke, in the well-trained Eric Sargoza an engineer who can’t find a job because he’s been replaced by someone in Shenzen who makes nearly what he did.

The obvious outstanding variable left is that we live in increasingly chaotic times. In times like this you can’t predict the future, because there are just too many variables. In the absence of predicting the future, you have to at least connect the dots and prepare best you can. Sadly, the dots have clearly been there since I was born (30+ years). We’ve chosen mostly to ignore them and, I fear, the chickens are coming home to roost.

what is quora?

The best site you (probably) have never heard of.

I started playing around on Quora a little over a year ago. In that time I’ve become addicted. However it’s one of these sites that’s contained to Silicon Valley + a few people connected to Valley’ers. So let’s talk about it.

So what is Quora?

1) It’s like Twitter. But for people who want to learn things and/or have intelligent discussions.

On twitter we can follow celebrities and other high-profile folks to get a view into their world (+ our friends). On quora we can follow the folks who are experts in areas we want to learn about and follow specific interesting topics (+ our friends).

Assuming you’ve followed enough topics/people, pulling up the site produces new questions and answers about people and topics that interest you. It’s addicting if you like to learn new things or to answer questions.

2) It’s like blogging. But directed. Blogging answers questions that you have, while Quora is about answering questions other people have.

Typically I blog about things that I’m asking myself or that I find really interesting. It’s really “answering questions no one asked”. Like say this post, “What is Quora?” It has it’s place, but there’s something cool about answering a question that you know someone definitely cares about. I can’t speak for all bloggers, but there’s a large satisfaction that I get when I know that a post of mine is appreciated and well-read. I get that feeling a lot on Quora. I believe bloggers have a “contributor”-mindset, and Quora is sort of a utopia for this.

3) It’s like Facebook. But not really.

It’s like Facebook in that it gets social design very, very right. Facebook is killer because the whole process of sharing updates, photos, and many other forms of information with your friends is frictionless. Quora has designed a *terrific* social experience around asking and answering questions. The use of the Facebook connect feature encourages you to invite key people to the service, the “voting up/down”  rewards people who contribute awesome answers (while also improving the experience for everyone else so the best answer floats to the top), and so on. It’s amazing social design which we’ll likely increasingly see in every web service in the coming years.

So check-out Quora! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. You’ll also see a bunch of answers from me on technology, politics, marketing, and other things I’m interested in. I’ve been meaning to blog more, especially about the campaign, but am struggling with where to start. So I’m jumping in with thoughts that I’ve been meaning to write up for the past year.