Thinking out loud 05: loonshots & roofshots

This weekend I read “Loonshots: How to nurture crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries” by Safi Bahcall and I really enjoyed it. It reminded me a lot of of “How to Fly A Horse” (HWTFA) by Kevin Ashton. However, while they’re basically about the same idea (where does “innovation” come from?) they’re also very different: Loonshots focuses on the transformative new ideas that are dismissed as utterly crazy, HWTFA is much more about how crazy ideas happen incrementally. 

In a nutshell, Loonshots talks about how you need to have phase separation of artists & soldiers — crazy ideas need their own environment for nurturing and growth. Leaders should focus on managing the transfer between the two environments. New movie studios and franchises need different leaders and structures to grow: the former nurtures artists and the latter needs soldiers that build the machine to franchise them. Managers need to manage the transfer between the two and need to love artists and soldiers equally since the franchise is needed to pay for the nursery.

How to fly a horse also focuses on how innovations happen but takes a different tack. “Thinking is like walking” is one of the main tenets . “Creating is ordinary” is the name of the first chapter. The book posits that “innovation” is more about starting and moving and creating while avoiding some fundamental “blocker” mistakes. Two chapters I really like focus on (1) instead of tearing ideas down by talking always ask “show me” - visualizing / low-fi prototyping helps to actually evaluate more crazy-sounding ideas: (2) the 3 most dangerous words in the english language are “Before I begin…” just begin! All of these suggestions imply just a pattern of behavior vs. corporate structure as the key.

Thrown into this mix of books I recently started reading “How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. One of the ideas mentioned here is that there are moonshots and roofshots. Moonshots 10x while Roofshots 1.3–2x. The book posits that both are important… However, you can grow 10x through roofshots alone — if you do one or so a quarter in a few years you 10x. Roofshots are way easier to find so don’t underinvest in them… 

These are all different ideas on the same topic. They analyze similar companies and similar outcomes. What’s going on?

What I think HTFAH and Roofshots add is something that Loonshots misses (or at least doesn’t really focus on since I don’t think it fits the narrative arc) — a ton of growth and innovation can happen through roofshots which in aggregate and retrospect, look like loonshots. Tying this to HTFAH, the way that you do roofshots looks a lot like deduction and the scientific method / unblocked creative processes. Adding in some broader structural improvements described in these books and you can get a pretty good growth engine without any idea of Nobel Prize-generating caliber. This is not to say Loonshots isn’t right, just that it’s only a piece of the puzzle…

The narrative arc of best-selling books is treacherous. Survivor bias is rampant and the world is complicated. These books are all basically right at some level and also wrong in others and yet I really do have enjoy the stories.

Until next time

📇 Thinking out Loud: 04 — Phone pickups

Reflections on screen time and forgetfulness

I pick up my phone. Lift, unlock, and then what?

More likely than not I end up doing something automatic. Often I enter via notification. Check it. Scroll. Browse…. But weren’t there other notifications on the lock-screen too? I should check…. Oh and slack has a badge. Oh and I should check the latest on Twitter. Email? Definitely. But what about personal email? Done. Pull to refresh. Nothing there. Great. Put the phone down.

Sixty seconds pass by… Clock-hands tick. And they tock.

Phone goes back up and the cycle repeats itself.

When I’m truly tired I’ve sometimes had the urge to check my phone *when I’m using my phone!* — that’s bananas.

Like the good productivity junky that I am I’ve tried a ton of things to reduce phone usage: greyscale mode (worked for a few weeks), screen time alerts (future self != past self), notebooks (complementary but not sufficient)… I’ve recently come to the conclusion that there’s only really one thing that works for me : I need to make a a conscious, purposeful goal to minimize phone pickups per day. 

The reason this is the only option is because more often than not, 30 seconds into using my phone, I’ve forgotten what exactly I was supposed to have been doing in the first place.

A frequent occupational hazard for Twitter designers, engineers and product managers is that they pick up their phones to check a specific thing on Twitter for work and very quickly forget why they opened it in the first place. They scroll for a while, close Twitter, and then remember what they were supposed to do thus reopening the app.

There is a physical world analogue to this: entering a room to look for something and forgetting what it is you were looking for... Here’s a passage from “Remember It” by Nelson Dellis (4-time US Memory Champion):

“Dr. G. A. Radvansky, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Notre Dame, published the results of his research on this exact phenomenon in a paper titled, “Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Further Explorations.” What he discovered is that our brains tend to compartmentalize events or thoughts and attach them to a room or space — typically, the place where the thought was initially conceptualized. So when a person has a thought in one room and moves to another, the brain basically creates a file containing all the details about the first room, what you did there, and what you thought there, and stores it away. When you move to the second room, your brain creates a new file, making it harder to remember what was in the file for the previous room. This happens subconsciously, so there isn’t any way that we can be aware of it and control it. But it is interesting to point out that you are more likely to remember something when you simply walk from one side of the room to the other, rather than walking through a doorway into an entirely new room!” (emphasis added)

In other words, since our brain was evolutionarily formed while moving physically through places (hunting, gathering, walking, etc.), we use places as memory schema. When we move into a new room / new place our brain says, “new place! new memories.” Thus new rooms lead to forgetfulness of rooms past.

The main techniques to avoid new room forgetfulness involves paying more attention. This is the basics of most memory improvement techniques — be more conscious about not forgetting (aka increase “motivation to remember”) and supplement with various mnemonic techniques. 

Back to our phones: I posit that every time we open our phone it’s like entering a new room. And similar to entering a new room, when we unlock our phones our brain compartmentalizes the memory schema. Without clear motivation to remember what we do/do not want to do when we open the phone, we’re prone to meandering. In fact it might be even more extreme — every time we change apps, it’s like changing rooms. This phenomenon then leads to time dilation and absent-mindedness.

This is why I think that screen time interventions are only mildly helpful. While they do remind you in the moment that you’re likely dithering, it’s like someone stopping you in the new room and asking you why you’re there. If it’s even a mildly entertaining room, this is all too easy to ignore. “Do you really want to be in this fun room?… Yes phone. Yes I do. Now stop bothering me.”

So if screen time isn’t a useful metric, what is?

For me, it’s phone pickups — this is the clearest metric of phone use efficiency. On weekends I sometimes try something I call “Secular Sabbaths” where the goal is zero pickups per day - it’s a real luxury for me nowadays given my job but when I can do it, it’s amazing. On days where I don’t do sabbath but do low-usage I can get down to the 10s or 20s (usually can only do on weekends). Without having clear motivation to reduce pickups though, I can easily get to 140 pickups per day which is… a lot.

The struggle is real.

Efficiency per phone pickup — that’s my metric. Godspeed.


Other suggestions on phone use? Thoughts on the newsletter? I’m on Twitter @gasca.


digital footprints & bit rot

Hello! Let me time-box this again. Let’s talk about digital footprints, that which we leave in our wake as we do whatever else it is we are doing with our lives.

Everything we do online (and increasingly offline) creates history. Most of it is boring and useless and not worth the disks it’s stored on. But much of it is. And so it lives… “forever”. Of course, caveat regulations and purposeful deletion which are helpful but only if you know what is being stored about you in the first place. If I go to Bank of America to get cash, how much information is stored about me during the walk from my car to the bank, let alone, at the bank? How many video cameras? How many phones? And how exactly would I know what to do to have it removed and/or if it was legally recorded?

I know we often take it for granted but the most striking thing to me about our growing digital footprint is that it will only grow. It’s inexorably exponential. 

Think of how many pictures you have now vs. how many used to exist when you were growing up. I remember having “a lot of family photographs” when I was a kid — it was at most a few cupboards, some albums and a few shoeboxes. Today, I probably record more in a year than my entire family tree ever had before. Add in video, Whatsapp, iMessage, Facetime, etc., the total is vastly higher and growing. Much of this is permanent, much of it is not. Some of it matters, most does not. A bit will be accessible to my kids, most will rot. It just is…

Benedict Evans tweeted, “It’s possible, indeed likely, that more photos will be taken this year than were taken on film in the entire history of cameras.” This was in 2015.

Martin Wichary had a large thread on Twitter a while back about “accidental memories”: “Fascinated by UIs that accidentally amass memories. One of them is the wi-fi “preferred networks” pane — unexpected reminders of business trips, vacations, accidental detours, once frequented and now closed cafés.” He then added: “The alarm page and its history of painful negotiations with early mornings. (One of these, I’m sure, was for a lunar eclipse; another for sending a friend in Europe a “good luck” text.)” Others replied with more examples: Amazon address lists with every place you ever lived, old computer settings like language keyboards, the weather app locations, reminders, Google Maps history, old Nintendo Wii avatars, Gmail drafts, screenshots, pictures of parked cars, bookmarks, “open recent” lists, and more. (thread)

I delete Tweets. This is my small attempt at reducing my footprint. I tweet, think about all the negative scenarios it could trigger / get bored with it / have other things to do with my night and then delete. I realize it’s a losing battle since this is but a small fraction of my total footprint. But it’s a small spark of control in the broader losing battle. A bit of ephemeral agency.

MySpace accidentally deleted 12 years’ worth of music this week. I believe this is what my friend Sara Haider refers to as bit rot:

def. bit rot (aka software rot): the degradation of a software program over time even if “nothing has changed”; as if the bits that make up the program were subject to radioactive decay. (edited from Wikipedia)

Bit rot is like moths eating clothes in a closet or paper pages exposed to the sun, but for software. Without upkeep and maintenance, software decays. “Maintenance mode” requires active upkeep to really maintain it. The half-life of most is really quite short: software is more butterfly, less crocodile.

And so the ebb of accidental data creation meets the flow of its void that spreads chaotically through bit rot, bankruptcy and neglect.


PS - I changed the name of this newsletter to “Thinking out loud” from “Just another newsletter” - still figuring out what “this” actually is.

Thoughts/comments: On Twitter: @gasca

On speed...

I have 20 minutes so let’s Kerouac this newsletter… Only instead of benzedrine, it’s LaCroix. And instead of an all-nighter, it’s before watching TV and hoping kids stay in their beds. But I digress.

The oddest part of this newsletter is that you, dear reader, primarily read this in your email inbox. I’m used to Twitter where there is an immediate feedback loop between hitting “Tweet” and everyone’s reactions. I didn’t realize how much I’d grown used to this until I hit send on my last newsletter and received no dopamine in return. Putting aside the fact that that is probably not a good thing for my neurotransmitters, I found it a good reminder about how weird the “online world” really is. The fact that I’m connected to so many other people by electromagnetism, electronics and glass is something that I don’t know how to fully grasp: If I tweet that I’ve been arrested, I’m pretty sure I’ll get a faster response than if I call my family. What does it mean that I can tweet a question and get the pulse of the world?

Now, I realize it’s not fully “the world” but a biased sliver. But it’s way more than I’ve ever had access to… The online world is my intellectual home.

When I grew up in Mexico City I had about as good a setup as a kid in the 80s could have. We had a school library, a bookstore about 30 minutes away with a pretty good book selection in English and Spanish, I had some pretty smart adults around me and the Encyclopedia Brittanica that was only a few years old. Between my set of adults, their friends and the encyclopedia I had basically all I needed to answer most questions. My main source of novelty was TV (then satellite TV) and the broader knowledge of my school friends… When we’d visit Texas we’d go to Borders and stock up on books… I was a lucky kid.

Fast forward a few decades, the way I access and consume information is completely unrecognizable. Many of you reading this, I’ve never met, you’ve never met me and yet here we are. The scale, variety, immediacy, and quality of information are all beyond my wildest dreams from growing up. Hell, they’re beyond my wildest dreams 10 years ago. Remember the first Kindle and how crappy it was? Remember trying to use the mobile browser on an old Blackberry?

It’s so easy to forget how vastly different the world we live in has become. It moves faster than we can comprehend. Caught in the gyre… Only thing I feel certain of is it will go faster. The speed of creation, consumption and feedback will only increase. Our modes of communication will evolve.

I keep returning to the concept from this story, Glyphish from the book “A history of the future in 100 objects”. A quote to entice you to read the full thing:

“Glyphish began as a very basic system to convert physical gestures into symbols by means of electromyograph sensors woven into active clothing. These sensors, like the ones I'm wearing right now, detected the precise movements of wearers' fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, and facial expressions, and abstracted them into glyphs that would accompany silent text messages (SMSes). Let’s turn it on. Ah, and there I've made the glyph for 'amused tolerance'. (full story here)

And of course with the increased immediacy will come an extra need to disconnect. We need mental boundaries or we’ll burn out. Maybe it’s “mental time zones” that are recognized and respected. Complementary elements. Periods of feast and famine. Or maybe it’s more balance… We’ll see.

Until next time…

Scale & Bureaucracy

From Charlie Munger's "Mental Models" speech

Hello newsletter friends! For my first post, I’m dusting off something I started a few years back but never finished… it’s on the topic of bureaucracy. It’s a bit dense but hopefully thought-provoking heading into the weekend. Thank you for reading!

I was finally able to get through Charlie Munger’s speech on Mental Models from USC Business School in 1994 (Full speech here). The sheer brainpower is something to behold... What struck me most was the section of his speech on scale versus bureaucracy:

The benefits of scale are clear: the larger an organization becomes, the more power and resources it has with which to accomplish its objectives. However, the larger the scale, the larger the bureaucracy. The more bureaucratic you become, the less productive work occurs in the organization and then nimbler rivals rise and take over only to repeat the cycle.

One key insight though is that the costs of bureaucracy aren’t just slower work but a corruption of what work actually is. Two key quotes from Munger:

“[In] a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else’s in-basket. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s not done until AT&T delivers what it’s supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.”

 “[Bureaucracies] also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I’ve got a department and you’ve got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there’s sort of an unwritten rule: ‘If you won’t bother me, I won’t bother you and we’re both happy.’ So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They’re too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.”

The key example that Munger provides of a company taking advantage of other’s bureaucracy is Wal-Mart:

“On the subject of advantages of economies of scale, I find chain stores quite interesting. Just think about it. The concept of a chain store was a fascinating invention. You get this huge purchasing power — which means that you have lower merchandise costs. You get a whole bunch of little laboratories out there in which you can conduct experiments. And you get specialization.

“[Sam Walton] played the chain store game harder and better than anyone else. Walton invented practically nothing. But he copied everything anybody else ever did that was smart — and he did it with more fanaticism and better employee manipulation. So he just blew right by them all.

“And it’s also an interesting model on the other side — how with all its great advantages, the disadvantages of bureaucracy did such terrible damage to Sears, Roebuck. Sears had layers and layers of people it didn’t need. It was very bureaucratic. It was slow to think. And there was an established way of thinking. If you poked your head up with a new thought, the system kind of turned against you. It was everything in the way of a dysfunctional big bureaucracy that you would expect.”

Of course, Wal-Mart is now suffering a similar fate a few decades later but Munger’s points still hold. While the Innovator’s Dilemma is often seen as more thorough view of how companies get disrupted, I think this is a bit simpler: bureaucracy is a necessary evil that needs to constantly be put in check. Organizations that let it grow indefinitely become zombies.

How much of Yahoo!’s fall was bureaucracy? How much of Egypt’s? Brazil’s? Take any organization that you see falling into disrepair and there is almost always a bloated bureaucracy going down with it.

One drastic and problematic example is from the United Nations’ work on climate change. To quote from Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent piece, “The Weight of the World” (2015):

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or U.N.F.C.C.C., has by now been ratified by a hundred and ninety-five countries, which, depending on how you count, represents either all the countries in the world or all the countries and then some. Every year, the treaty stipulates, the signatories have to hold a meeting — a gathering that’s known as a COP, short for Conference of the Parties. The third COP produced the Kyoto Protocol, which, in turn, gave rise to another mandatory gathering, a MOP, or Meeting of the Parties. The seventeenth COP, which coincided with the seventh MOP, took place in South Africa. There it was decided that the work of previous COPs and MOPs had been inadequate, and a new group was formed — the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, usually referred to as the A.D.P. The A.D.P. subsequently split into A.D.P.-1 and A.D.P.-2, each of which held meetings of its own. The purpose of the U.N.F.C.C.C. and of the many negotiating sessions and working groups and protocols it has spun off over the years is to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In climate circles, this is usually shortened to D.A.I. In plain English, it means global collapse.

It’s hard for me not to read this and get angry that our species is so bad at solving large problems. I find comfort though in thinking of bureaucracy as a consequence of scale - a natural phenomenon to be understood and mitigated.

I’ll try to write my next post again in a week.

Comments/Thoughts? On Twitter @gasca

Loading more posts…