How much should be spent on healthcare?

Given that it's always possible to spend more and get more healthcare, some interesting questions arise:

  • How much of a country's income should be spent on healthcare?
  • How much of your income should be spent?
  • If everyone suddenly made twice as much money, but costs remained the same, then do the answers to the first two questions change?

Chromium & amazon & distributed teams

Amazon wants to open a second headquarters. This means a distributed team, and I've found that not every team or project lends itself well to being distributed.

When I was traveling with Google a few years back I was stunned how every single office seemed to have a Chrome team. When I returned home, I looked for another team at Google that was similarly distributed, and couldn't find one. 

Chrome can be distributed because it's built on properties that work well without much communication. Namely:

- the goals are clear. Speed, simplicity, security
- who to ask for permission to contribute is clear: there is an OWNERS file in every directory and owners comments in every file. 
- the review process is public: https://codereview.chromium.org/
- the code is public and immediately available: https://www.chromium.org/

This structure makes it easier for people to contribute code without a bunch of communication overhead. From what I saw, Chrome engineers tended to communicate less than engineers on other teams at Google. I think this is a direct result of their organizational structure that makes contributing possible without much communication. 

 

A structure for trying something new: commitment, then deciding

Earlier this year I tried 30 days of yoga at home. My instructor never got tired, or expensive, or scary because she was a youtube video. At the end of the 30 days, I decided that I'd rather put more time into rock climbing than yoga. But I'm glad I tried, I've wanted to try yoga for years but never mustered up the energy to do it until now. 

I think this illustrates two important learnings.

First, that having a set time period associated with a new behavior makes it easier to commit to that new behavior even when it's not obvious that it will be good.

Second, that by introducing a decision sometime in the future, you avoid the trap of continuing to do something that's not that helpful just because you started and never really considered whether it was worth continuing.

Reducing danger by increasing danger

Earlier this year I talked about how making streets feel more dangerous can actually make them safer

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman gives an explanation for why this might be. Basically, the high =-energy state of the brain is activated when danger is perceived, and this state is better at avoiding pitfalls that fool the low energy state that the brain is in most of the time. Daniel calls these system 1 (low energy) and system 2 (high energy). 

Interesting to ponder: what happens when all of the streets feel dangerous? Do fewer people drive because of the stress it invokes? Do people become immune to this? Do they become fatigued? It's one thing to be in a high energy state for a few seconds at an intersection. It's quite another to be living in it for hours. 

Fooling computers that see and hear like humans

Computers can recognize traffic signs, but it's possible to fool them by adding some tape. Similarly, computers can understand speech but can be fooled by sounds that are too high for humans to hear.

An active and growing area of research is how to design systems that can't be fooled so easily like this. This will be critical expertise going forward, just like how network security is today. Great for up and coming security researchers wondering what to specialize in. 

Another interesting angle is that the very fact that these systems can be fooled by things that wouldn't fool a human means that these systems perceive the world in a different way than we do. These are the special effects and optical illusions of the computer world, and they look nothing like what we're used to. 

Fear of missing out (FOMO)

I hate feeling like I'm missing out. This feeling is unhelpful because there's no way I can do everything and be at every event. But somehow it persists. 

Originally I thought that an unstructured life leads to more FOMO, because the gaps and decisions about what to do next give time to wonder what I'm missing out on. However, I think this misses some of the nuance.

For me at least, the core feeling of missing out is triggered when I feel present, but not a part of, an activity that I want to participate in. The classic example of this is working out of a cafe on a Saturday. Everyone else is enjoying their weekend, but here I am, working. 

I tested this hunch last weekend by working out of my Wework office. I had drastically less FOMO and got vastly more done. The few other people crazy enough to be here on a Saturday were also working hard, and I surprised myself by staying the entire day.

FOMO is one of the worst feelings because it can give a good activity a sour taste, making life dramatically less satisfying. If you have your own methods for avoiding FOMO, I'd love to hear from you.

Wework, coffee shops, and a bedroom office

When I first started working on my startup, I set up a desk in my bedroom at home. This was cheaper than coffee shops and way cheaper than office space, and I figured that cost was the most important factor.

I knew something was wrong I started sleeping badly. I'm usually blessed with an easy and restful sleep, but suddenly I couldn't fall asleep and woke up feeling awful. I guessed this might be something about not having a separate space for work, so I tried coffee shops.

If you've ever tried to work at a coffee shop you know that it's really awful. Interruptions every minute, with loud noises, music you can't control, and the expectation to keep buying food. Add to that a tiny laptop screen and a different seat every day and it's a recipe for disaster. I don't know how anyone can do it.

Finally, I bit the bullet and spent the money for a private office at a Wework. My productivity went through the roof, and I started sleeping again. It's truly amazing. I estimate I get 3 times as much work done, and still have more energy in the evenings and weekends for studying Chinese and machine learning. Previously I was too exhausted to do these kinds of intellectually-intense activities outside of work. 

The key qualities for a workspace are:

  • Zero interruptions
  • Same space every day
  • Separated from home and other non-work spaces
  • A comfortable environment (temperature, noise, smell, lighting, furniture, bathrooms, etc...)

As my company grows, I'd love to offer everyone her own private space. That might be against the wisdom of open-desk layouts, but it seems critical for productivity.

Revisiting old notebooks

I use moleskin notebooks for most of my thinking and ideas. They're useful because they're durable and I can add sketches in addition to just text. They're also way better for notes in 1 on 1 meetings, because they demonstrate a professionalism missing from notes taken on phones and ipads. 

Unfortunately, once the information is in the notebook it's pretty much locked in there and unless I spend lots of time devising systems to index and retrieve it like Darwin and other scientists did back in the day. But I feel like a computer can do this faster and better than me.

I'd like to see a service where I can mail my finished notebooks/journals. They'd be scanned, with an app to browse and search. I'd also like to be able to add digital snippets and ideas to this app so that it's all in one place when I want to search for something that I've written down. 

Does anything like this exist? Some simple google searches returned lots of photo scanning services but nothing that seems like a good fit for journals. 

Signaling in the herd of bikes

I've noticed that when I ride a bike share bike, everyone gives me a lot of space as they pass me. This doesn't seem to happen when riding my road bike down the same streets. My guess is that people assume bike shares are used by less frequent and less skilled riders.

This serves as two important reminders. First, that signaling matters, but also that signaling can be wrong. If possible, better to watch actual behavior. Watching me cycle a few blocks would probably better identify my skill level than assuming based on the type of bike.

The same holds with business. Think that a startup is hot? Watch how it grows over the next few months. Think that a salesperson is stellar? Look at the sales numbers, rather than how she speaks or how confident she is.

 

Paying for art

When I started offering a subscription to artwork through Home Gallery Project I assumed people would be rational when considering the price. Big mistake. 

First, price anchors are very real. Customer after customer anchored their purchase of artwork to other purchases in their home, like their couch, TV, and bed. However, when considering a monthly subscription to artwork the anchor was always Netflix. $7.99 per month is just too little to pay for shipping, let alone the artist.

This has an important implication: people with more expensive furnishings also buy more expensive art. If as an artist you want to price your painting at $5,000, sell it to someone who has bought a $5,000 couch.

Next, people in apartments guessed (often incorrectly) that they would only be in their apartment for at most another year. This means that when considering an annual plan, they compared it to purchasing artwork directly. And it turns out that owning the art is important, even if it will be thrown out after a year.

The elasticity of demand is also interesting. While a specific piece might be a must-have for someone, an unknown piece is at best a nice to have. This means that there is significantly more price leverage once someone has decided that they want a specific piece. With a subscription that isn't tied to any specific piece, the leverage simply isn't there. 

The successful art sellers all seem to have the same playbook. Build up a list of people interested in art who are in the same socioeconomic bracket and similar tastes, then periodically invite them to events. At these events, have a great salesperson who can convince someone that they want one of the pieces.