Space continues to boggle my mind

To get people to notice, you're often looking for that one thing that boggles the mind. And sometimes, nature does that for you on a cosmic scale. Matt Strassler has one such example:

Visualize that if you can: objects a few dozen miles (kilometers) across, a few miles (kilometers) apart, each with the mass of the Sun or greater, orbiting each other 100 times each second.

All I can say is, wow.

Long drives and longer conversations

I love taking an hour or more drive with someone. It's a wonderful opportunity to catch up or get to know somebody from scratch. It's free from distractions, with just enough happening out the window to be interesting. It's a form of intentionally taking time for a discussion.

What's even better is when this type of casual discussion is ritualized. A phone call on the way to work, walking the dog together in the morning, and making dinner together are a few good ways. Rather than dulling the relationship, these rituals make the connection stronger. 

In a way, this is the point of recurring meetings at work. It seems to work pretty well for one-on-ones, not quite as well for larger groups.


Investing in a known space

I recently finished reading The Millionaire Next Door. Super interesting overall and still relevant 20 years later. One topic, in particular, stands out. The authors found that wealth builders tended to invest in stocks related to their job. For example, doctors investing in drug companies.

This is a nice way of reusing specialized knowledge. However, because technology companies move so quickly, publicly traded firms tend to be in the mature stage. It's possible that the equivalent strategy in the tech industry might be angel investing. 

Getting a standing desk, getting older

I spent Friday alternatively putting together a Jarvis standing desk and cursing myself for not buying one earlier.

After moving into the wework my back started hurting. This must be a sign of getting older, because when I previously used a sitting desk my back didn't hurt. At Google, I used a standing desk and loved it. At home, I converted a set of dressers into a makeshift standing desk. And now my back is happy again at the wework.

A commitment to learning

School is a generally accepted thing to do for the first 18 years of life. But then what? After leaving high school, or college, or grad school there is no longer an expectation of learning and a structure to encourage it. 

How much of a 30 year old's week should be spent learning? How about a 50 year old? Zero feels like the wrong answer, but I suspect for many people that's exactly how much time they spent actively learning like they did growing up.

Running wasn't really a thing 50 years ago. From Vox:

The men profiled — the piece only featured men — said they ran in the morning because police became suspicious if they ran at night. The biggest theme was self-consciousness: The Tribune cited neighbors who "only see folly in the sight of a grown man running."

And yet now there are as many Americans running as there are kids in America. 

We lack the structure for this to happen to education overnight, but it's starting. Moocs like Coursera are one piece of the process, but they mostly ignore the social pressure that makes a college student drag herself to class even after a long night spent partying. A curriculum can also be hard to find. There is an abundance of online ways to improve your Mandarin, but which is the right thing to do right now?

I'd like to see most people spend four 3-hour dedicated learning blocks every week. Two can be during the workday learning how to better do the job, and the other two can be after work on any topic. This is more than most people's exercise commitment, but I argue that it's far more important.

A few radicals go a long way towards recognizing characters

Learning to read Chinese characters is a good example of an extremely steep initial learning curve that gets easier over time. When faced with this kind of learning curve, I try to find a way to see the progress I'm making, because otherwise it's easy to get demotivated.

In this case, learning some of the components (radicals) that make up characters is a good way to start, because then even if I don't know a character I can at least point out the radicals inside the character that I do know. It also helps with looking the character up in a dictionary, or describing it to a friend.

Wildfires in Napa, effects felt in SF

The past few days have been very smoky here as wildfires destroy homes and kill people 50 miles away. Even though 50 miles feels far, I've also seen the impact of the fires as friends and friends of friends are evacuated. It's a good reminder of how the city is an integrated part of the surrounding area rather than simply an island. The health of the entire region matters.

Consistency of experience

Imagine if every time you went to get a haircut your stylist did things differently. One time they washed your hair, another time they didn't, a third time they swapped scissors for an electric razor with no explanation. Even if your haircuts were equally good, the inconsistent experience would feel uncomfortable.

Really this is about setting and then keeping expectations. By following the same process for every haircut a stylist sets and then meets expectations.

This applies to software too. One classic example is the profile photo. Does tapping a photo always do the same thing? It probably should, but at Google, we often broke this consistency accidentally, especially across apps. Getting this right was one of the small details that helped bring consistency to our experience.

How to follow people and not be distracted by the web

One thing left out of Subscribing to people rather than papers is how I actually read the stuff these people write. This might seem like a small detail, but it impacts how much time I spend reading and how I find new people to follow.

My current process is to have a very limited Feedly that contains only the publications of the people I follow. I read this daily, and it usually takes less than 15 minutes. When I find a new person to follow, I give them a trial run by adding them to my Feedly, and I am ruthless about unfollowing people when they're not a good fit. 

This process works, but it's clunky. I have to actively ignore Feedly's discovery section because it's a black hole of content. Feedly's app is not great, especially with poor connectivity. And sometimes the formatting of a blog gets lost in the translation to RSS. Even worse, some publications only publish a snippet of their content in their RSS feed, and make you click through to the website to get everything.

I want a reader for people who are concerned by how much of a distraction their phone is but want to follow and discover interesting people. Here's how I think it should work:

  • Has a target maximum time per day for reading. Helps the user prune content when they go over time because of too much content.
  • Supports any publication that can be viewed by a link.
  • Shows original websites in a browser view for correct formatting and to avoid the dreaded snippet-only problem
  • Has intentional discovery. When the reading time is much lower than the daily target, insert discovery stories into the feed, clearly marked. The user can then choose to add that author if they want.
  • Makes it easy to annotate and save snippets.
  • Search that works over the existing content and the annotations

I haven't yet found any app that comes close. If you know of something, please point me to it.


What pet healthcare can tell us about human healthcare

It's easy to blame subsidies and insurance providers for making healthcare expensive. Another possibility is that people simply prefer to spend on healthcare versus other needs. But how to isolate the impact of this possibility? From Vox:

Economists cannot strip Americans of their health coverage for the sake of a research paper. But what economists Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, and Atul Gupta were able to do is look at another group that has a health care system but low rates of insurance: pets.

Most American pets don’t have health insurance, which means that their owners foot the entire bill. Even so, spending on pet care has grown really quickly over the past two decades. In fact, it has gone up even more than health care spending.

Granted, this is growing from a far smaller base. Even assuming that all pet expenses go toward cats & dogs, Americans still only spend $350 per year per pet total, with some smaller portion of that as healthcare. Compare this to almost $10,000 per person on healthcare, and there's clearly a ways to go before these are directly comparable. However, the growth appears to be from people spending more on pets (up 130% since 2000), rather than having more pets (up 30% since 2000).