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).

Bike share bikes getting destroyed?

I was in a Lyft talking about the bike shares and my driver said he had heard they were all getting destroyed in the east bay. All I could find was this article from August that talks about a few stations that had flat tires, and a bike that was found in a lake.

3 acts of vandalism that affected maybe 20 bikes tops seems small compared to the 7,000 bikes in the system. And yet it's interesting that this both got news coverage and was enough of an image to stick in my driver's (and my) head.  

Also, check out this article about a Chinese bike share that lost 90% of its bikes. Wow!

Electric bike shares

Maybe it's because I live in San Francisco, but every time I hear about a new electric bike I wish that bike shares used them. This time it's the Copenhagen Wheel, which actually seems better as a retrofit because everything is contained within the back wheel.

A great part about these electric bikes is that they act just like a normal bike, except way easier to pedal. And the docks for these bikes seem like an elegant way to handle charging, no cord to forget to plug in. 

The zero marginal cost model of an unlimited subscription is certainly enticing because it makes it that much easier to grab a bike for a trip that might not feel worth the cost of a Lyft.

Job Portraits helps startups stand out from the crowd to hire to right people.

Startups don't (usually) have the name recognition that large companies do. Someone who is a good fit to work for Google might have Google on their radar simply because they use Google products. 

One way for startups to stand out is to emphasize what's unique about each. When I was researching Remix I stumbled upon a great article that highlighted each team member and the technical challenges that Remix faced. Job Portraits is behind this article, and they do this for many startups. They are a fantastic way to learn more about what it's like to work at these companies and what types of problems they solve. I recommend following their medium feed for anyone looking for a startup job.

Subscribing to people rather than papers

The biggest difference between what I read and what my parents read is that my parents subscribe to newspapers, while I subscribe to individual people. This simply wasn't possible before the internet, but it also took easy online payments (like stripe) to be fully realized.

I get my tech strategy from one person, China-US news from another, California city planning from yet another. My architecture, design, venture capital, bitcoin, autonomous cars, bay area wind forecasts, and startups readings all come from individuals.

This is interesting, but how do these people get paid? Blogs break the typical payment model of buying the daily newspaper or subscribing monthly. Instead, I've found that I start by reading one or two free posts a week from a person. Once I'm hooked, I'm much more likely to purchase an annual subscription for around $100.

If each person I read can be the best at what they do and get 10,000 people paying $100 a year, that's $1 million in annual revenue. If 10% of weekly readers convert to paid, that means this individual might only need 100,000 people reading their content. Granted, that's a lot of people, but it's not anywhere near the order of magnitude needed for an advertising-supported newspaper. 

However, not everything is perfect. There's still an issue with discovery. None of these blogs are on facebook or medium or twitter. I've generally found each because another one of my blogs (or friends) will recommend them. I wish there were a better way to find these people.

Lyft makes a bid to control street design

I've always felt that cities have two important structural advantages over Lyft and Uber. First, cities can run transit at a loss, and second, cities control the design of the streets. From SFMTA:

The SFMTA got the green light to paint red transit-only lanes in 2012 from the California Traffic Control Devices Committee and the Federal Highway Administration as an experimental measure to improve driver compliance with transit-only lanes. If proven to be a success, the red transit lane treatment could become a national standard for transit-only lanes, similar to green bike lanes.  The red paint treatment is already recommended in the National Association of City Transportations Officials Urban Street Design Guide.

For the time being, venture funding allows Lyft to run at a loss just like transit, but no amount of venture money can change the fact that cities can leave Lyft in traffic while buses are given dedicated lanes. Or can it? From CNN:

With the help of architecture firm Perkins+Will and transportation consultants Nelson/Nygaard, the ride-sharing company has reimagined a street for the future. The teams reenvisioned a concept for Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, a notoriously car-centric city. The average L.A. driver wastes over 100 hours a year sitting in traffic.

Wilshire Boulevard's design is typical of the city boulevards -- there are currently 10 vehicle lanes, including two lanes that buses share with vehicles.

But Lyft's design includes trees, protected bike lanes, a loading zone for ridesharing vehicles, three narrowed lanes for vehicles and lanes for autonomous buses. The concept also rewards buses with exclusive travel lanes.

In a classic case of "if you can't beat them, join them", Lyft is pushing its own vision of the future of city streets, complete with features that make Lyft better like loading zones. I expect Lyft to push this hard and get users to add pressure on governments. As long as a Lyft is a superior experience to the bus, they might have the popular support to change street design to create their future.

Detroit's Pink Zones, China's Special Economic Zones, and the upper and lower bounds on critical mass.

Detroit is following in China's footsteps. From the WSJ:

Developers and designers complain that, like many cities, Detroit’s onerous and outdated rules make it too difficult to rebuild or repurpose long-neglected retail areas. To try to reduce those obstacles without a time-consuming and expensive rezoning process, the city is proposing a handful of “pink zones,” where red tape will be cut to help small developers and entrepreneurs open new businesses and revive aging commercial strips. The goal is not to eliminate zoning but to ease some of the constraints faced by new projects, like minimum-parking requirements or environmental-impact reports.

This model of development, reducing red tape but only in certain geographic areas, reminds me of China's special economic zones. From ThoughtCo:

Since 1979, China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) have been beckoning foreign investors to do business in China. Created after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were implemented in China in 1979,  Special Economic Zones are areas where market-driven capitalist policies are implemented to entice foreign businesses to invest in China.

These zones were successful not only because they changed the rules, but also because they provide a strong focusing power. If you were someone who wanted to do business in China in the 1980s, your choice was clear, go to one of the special economic zones. This concentrated all of the economic activity rather than spreading it out across all of China, and concentration is the key to what makes geographically-dependent things (like cities) valuable.

What's also interesting about these policies is that they are examples of experiments that do better when kept smaller rather than larger. This is partly because a critical mass of concentration is necessary for the changes to be effective. Choosing 8 cities rather than 4 would have spread out the influx of investment, and probably would not have been as effective. Similarly, reducing red tape across all of Detroit seems unlikely to spur much development in a city that is already avoided by many developers.

This means that for an experiment like this, there is a tradeoff between keeping it small enough to achieve critical mass, and large enough to achieve critical mass. The conventional wisdom only recognizes the minimum threshold of critical mass, not the maximum threshold.

Startups that make useful niche tools available to a wider audience

My friend recently joined the Grammarly team. One really interesting comparison to Grammarly is the set of tools that help programmers write better code. Programmers have code linters that check for stylistic problems, compilers that check for invalid code, templates that help with common patterns, and more. Grammarly basically does this for the english language.

Another example of this is Dropbox, which took tools well known in the programming community like git and rsync and made them easy enough for anyone to use. 

I wonder what tools and best-practices are hidden in other fields that would be good candidates for simplification.