Dec 11

Boomerang, by Michael Lewis

This is a collection of essays on the financial state of several countries – I believe most of them have been published in some form previously, but this is the first time they’ve been collected like this. He starts with Iceland, which he profiled in Vanity Fair a while back, and goes through how they became a massively overleveraged nation several years ago before collapsing. Then goes through the recent histories and situations in Greece, Ireland, Germany and the United State.
I enjoyed the book, like all books by Lewis. I had some trouble with the overarching generalizations about each culture – I found them to be caricatures and borderline offensive – more useful for telling an interesting story than for real help in understanding what’s going on.
But understanding the basics of the financial situations in each country, in a comparative way, really helped me think about what’s happening in Europe overall right now, and to think about the implications in the United States as our state and local governments run out of money. (Lewis’ analysis, or at least implication, is that sooner or later, in spite of our Federal laws and the Fed itself, that we will start to see the sort of fiduciary divergence that Europe is seeing between Northern and Southern Europe – where California is our Greece and the other, more fiscally conservative states get tired of bailing it out.)

I don’t totally buy that point of view, but very useful in thinking through why it’s reasonable, why things here hold the way they do, and why one path for Europe is a more united polity. Nothing is ever apples-to-apples in something like this, but definitely worth reading and thinking about, and an enjoyable read like everything Lewis writes.

Dec 11

Wasting Data

As I wrote up yesterday, my new Jawbone Up bracelet died on me. I was bummed, but customer service did a great job, and got me a replacement in about a day.

But I was surprised about the feeling I had yesterday, which is the first day I hadn’t worn the Up in about 3 weeks: I felt like I was wasting data, since I didn’t have the bracelet on to collect it. Let me say that again: I felt kind of weird, because I was going to all this trouble (you know, by walking around, sleeping, etc) and none of the data I was generating was getting logged. I was just blasting it into the ether.

This is not totally how I expected to feel. So naturally I tweeted about it, and Chris Hogg, founder of 100plus, replied in a surprising way:

And when you think about it, of course this is correct, but my first reaction was: “This is kind of messed up — we need to get credit for living now?” Obviously not a perfect state of being for humans.

But I thought about it some more on my drive in this morning, and it seems to me that a couple of different things are happening. On “getting credit,” we’re talking about taking an intrinsic motivation (living well) and replacing it with an extrinsic motivation (someone giving you credit or status). Now, that happens all the time — it’s a lot of what happens in schools, weight loss programs, sports, etc. But I think it’s not the most durable kind of behavior change mechanism.

And, honestly, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what was happening with me. Because while I like to think that everyone cares about everything about me, it’s really tough to imagine that anyone reading this (except for maybe my mom – hi mom!) gives a damn about how much I walked yesterday. And it’s even tougher to imagine that I would care much about what you thought about how much I walked.

So for me in this particular case, I think it was my OCD nature kicking in. I didn’t really like imagining the graph (of whatever data it is that I may, some day in the future, create a graph from) having a void spot in it. I want things to be smooth lines, no drop outs. I think that can be a motivator for folks, too — completeness of the data report, but I think it’ll motivate a far smaller set of folks.

I think where you get to in the end is that there is something very important about tracking data, because it changes your relationship to the activities you’re measuring pretty fundamentally. (some ways good, others not good.)

And that collecting data about how you live, in particular, will always have holes in it — for lots of reasons.

Anyhow, was an interesting set of thoughts — some important things going on here.

Dec 11

My Thoughts on Jawbone’s Up


I’ve been wearing my Up bracelet for about 3 weeks now and wanted to write a few things down about the experience. This particular writeup is a little jumbled up — it’s a mix of reflections on the Up specifically with some of the thinking I’m doing about health systems in general. Will follow up with another few posts as I’m able to articulate more and more clearly.

[update: as luck would have it, as I was writing this yesterday, my Up ran out of juice — after a night of recharging, it’s unresponsive, so after a 20 minute call with Jawbone customer service, am getting it replaced with a new one. Making great hardware & software is hard.]

Overall summary: I like the hardware a lot, and think the main breakthrough is that it’s a fashion accessory that you’ll generally want to wear all the time. I think there are some problems with the hardware that will mostly get solved over time. I think the software side of things is not very good, though — very constrained, pretty quirky in operation, very incomplete. Beyond that, I think that it’s not giving me a ton of information that I can actually do anything with, and that’s a huge problem.

But now let me get into some of the details a bit. First, my basic orientation towards health sensors is hugely positive. I’m pretty convinced that, more and more, we will all have sensors that are with us all the time, collecting the information that we generate just by living. Where we are, our activity level, what we eat, our body temperature, how we sleep, etc. They’re pretty nerdy right now, but they’re coming, and coming quickly. That’s the first step. Once that happens, you need to be able to mash all the data from various sensors (and larger data sets such as weather, etc) to get a coherent picture of your own life, and beyond that, we’ll start to be able to build population sensor information as we start to aggregate data from many people. And that will lead to being able to actually derive insight about ourselves and the people around us.

I’ve got another blog post in mind to talk about all that stuff in context, but for now, we’re in the first stages of the story, which is really mostly about collecting the data.

At one time or another, I’ve tried out a lot of different sensors: the Zeo, the FitBit, the SportBrain (a while back), Nike+, and now the Up. I think the Up will be the stickiest for me of the bunch, but it’s got issues.

The physical bracelet is terrific, I think. Comfortable to wear, not too heavy, doesn’t really bother me when I’m typing or working out. I generally wear it all the time — it’s waterproof, which helps a bunch. The only time I really take it off is to charge it for an hour or two every week or so. (It actually feels a little weird to take it off to charge, since it means that there’s a period that I’m not collecting data — a small thing, but  interesting emotional reaction.) It’s not wireless, which is disappointing — you’ve got to plug it into your iPhone’s headphone in order to pull the data off. I assume that’ll get addressed in a future version by including low power Bluetooth or something like that.

I think that the physical form factor is the most significant breakthrough here. In terms of sensor functionality, I think it’s essentially the same as the Fitbit — a pedometer, sleep monitor, vibrating alarm clock — I can’t think of anything the Up can do that the Fitbit can’t. But the main difference is that I actually have the Up with me all the time. I like wearing it — it helps me to be somewhat more mindful of what I eat and how I act. With my Fitbit, I always forgot to keep it charged, forgot to wear it, had it knocked off my clothes or broken.

So that’s a significant breakthrough — you can’t derive insights from data that you don’t collect. With Up, I’m collecting more consistently, and that’s huge. It’s because it’s fashion (in a nerdy sense, but I think that will change over time) and because it’s well-built.

The software, though, is a pretty big challenge at this point — it’s just not very good. There are lots of UI issues — 3 clicks to do a sync, hidden functionality, lots of bugs in modes — but that stuff will get fixed over time, so it’s not a huge concern. My bigger problem with the software, which is essentially a combination of pedometer, sleep tracker, and foodspotting app, is threefold. The first problem is that the social stuff is all very thin — both hidden in the UI, but also just not very deep in terms of changing the way you interact with others and how you can help each other be healthier. The second problem is that it’s very limited functionality and is a closed system — I’ll expand on that in a minute.

But the biggest problem I have with it is just that it doesn’t help me figure out what to do at all. If you look at the screen shots at the top of this post, the one on the left tells me I walked a lot that day (was the Oregon @ Stanford football game day). The one on the right tells me some surface level statistics about how I slept. So what? Is that good? Bad? How’s it relate to what I usually do? Should I be doing something different? Am I doing it wrong? My essential issue with the Up software right now is that it’s just data porn. Lots of data points, but no behavior change enablement.

The lack of a Web UI is also a head scratcher. My developing view is that we use different size screens for different contexts and types of tasks. I use my phone when I’m on the go, but also because it’s more personal/intimate in terms of collecting data and checking out status of friends (and myself in the case of sensors). But when I’m trying to do more analysis/thinking about the big picture, I really want to do it on a screen like a tablet or my laptop. Going through the UI day by day, not being able to correlate anything with anything else, without transcribing it all in my notebook — just seems ridiculous to me, and essentially unhelpful.

Which brings me back to the open/closed problem. My basic belief is that building great hardware is really hard. And building great software is really hard. And building great social systems is really hard. If you look hard, you can find many companies that have been great at one of those things. And you can find a few that have been great at 2 of them. But I think it’s nearly impossible to find organizations that have been able to build great hardware + software + social systems — building the systems is just very very tricky, and requires a broad set of knowledge, and a surgical set of decisions about how to make tradeoffs between vastly different sets of concerns.

So I conclude from that starting point that it’s going to be tough — very tough — for any one company to build a great experience overall — and it seems to me obvious that there are zero examples of superior experiences overall in the market today.

But in the emerging space of sensors & monitoring, there’s another problem: there are lots of different sensors around, the number is growing, and to really figure out what’s happening, you need to correlate among several. Nobody makes the sensor to rule them all yet. You need your weight (withings scale), diet (lots of apps), sleep (up, fitbit, zeo), etc etc.

So you’re left with the conclusion that what you really need is an open system. Or, rather, several open systems — you really want great devices from a lot of different folks feeding into some data collection system that allows you to do some data analysis, all fronted by user interfaces that help you actually understand things and (hopefully) change the way you live your life.

Right now, I think that (save for the hardware glitches) Jawbone makes probably the most useful sensor around, and certainly the one that’s most attractive that you’re likely to wear all the time. The software on the iPhone is limited and frustrating at present, for me and most folks I’ve talked with, and it’s missing a major component by not being available for larger screens. I like my Up, and plan to wear it, but am going to have to figure out how to get it to play better within the overall personal health/sensor ecosystem that I’m building up over time.

Nov 11

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, by Douglas Coupland

A biography of Marshall McLuhan, one of the smartest media thinkers ever, written by Douglas Coupland, one of my very favorite authors, was going to be pretty much a no brainer for me to pick up and read and enjoy. And I really did, although I think this book probably is only for a particular type of nerd. (Pretty sure you know who you are.)

As you’d expect from Coupland & the subject, the style of the book is sort of meta. Bits & pieces about McLuhan, mixed up with other bits and pieces. I didn’t love the style, but I did find a bunch of the book thoughtful & provocative. And it really is amazing how clearly McLuhan could see the future — I think he & Neil Postman figured out decades ago things we’re only just now figuring out together as we all converge online.

Here’s what Coupland had to say to start the book:

Life becomes that strange experience in which you’re zooming along a freeway and suddenly realize that you haven’t paid any attention to driving for the last fifteen minutes, yet you’re still alive and didn’t crash. The voice inside your head has become a different voice. It used to be “you.” Now your voice is that of a perpetual nomad drifting along a melting landscape, living day to day, expecting everything and nothing. And this is why Marshall McLuhan is important, more so now than ever, because he saw this coming a long way off, and he saw the reasons for it. Those reasons were so new and so offbeat and came from such a wide array of sources that the man was ridiculed as a fraud or a clown or a hoax. But now that we’ve damaged time and our inner voices, we have to look at McLuhan and see what else he was saying, and maybe we’ll find out what’s coming next, because the one thing we can all agree on is that the future has never happened so quickly to so many people in such an extreme way, and we really need a voice to guide us. Marshall identified the illness and worked toward finding ways of dealing with it.

Amazing. But here’s the really odd bit:

And one must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or IBM, but rather by studying arcane sixteenth-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.

And any book like this would be incomplete without a little Canuckiana, so here’s a quote from McLuhan: “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” Interestingly, I think that while that would be considered pejorative to most in the US, I don’t think that’s how he meant it.

One very strange fact that floored me: McLuhan’s brain was supplied with blood through not one but two arteries at the base of his skull. In case you’re not up to date on your human physiology, that’s not normal. Sometimes happens in cats. Very rarely in humans. But you have to think that it had a real effect on how he thought and lived (and probably how he died ultimately, since he had many small strokes and blackouts throughout his lifetime).

Anyway, fascinating.

And one last thought to leave you with by McLuhan himself: “Our ‘Age of Anxiety’ is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools– with yesterday’s concepts.”

I think we live in a complex, rapidly evolving, unfamiliar time now — so much — technology, mainly — feels like it’s changing so quickly that it’s hard to integrate all the changes in our lives, let alone to really understand them and their impact. It’s comforting to know that at least a few people felt the same way nearly 50 years ago.

Nov 11

Why I’m Anti-Social on Instagram

I really love using Instagram — use it every week to take, process & share photos, use it a lot with my wife to share what we’re up to, etc.

But as I was using it tonight, I realized that I’m using it in a decidedly anti-social way — which is a really stark contrast to how I live practically every other part of my online life — in general I live pretty much in the open on my blog, Tumblr, Twitter, etc etc.

So I thought it would be worth a quick explanation.

One of my working theories about mobile apps is that to get any real adoption, the app has to be on your home screen (and mostly not in a folder). People use apps on 2nd & 3rd screens, but not that many, I think — I think usage of apps on the home screen probably completely dominates usage of all other apps. But there are only 20 slots on the home screen, and a bunch of those are already populated by things like your e-mail, SMS, phone, calendar, Safari, etc. So there’s a working set of maybe 4 or 5 slots for completely novel apps (for me the most important are Tweetbot, Facebook, Tumblr, Read It Later, Things & Kindle). For all other apps, they’ve got to replace an app (and its functionality) that already has a spot.

Instagram, for me, replaced the camera app a long time ago, initially because of filters, but over time because it let me share pictures with my family and friends really easily.

But over the summer, I realized a pretty serious problem: my follower count was rising, and I was taking more and more pictures with Instagram — the problem was that the photos were of my family vacation, so were both pretty personal in nature, and were also like a big advertisement that our house back in the Bay Area was unattended.

I still wanted the sharing & filters & streams, though, so ended up making my stream closed, instead of open. I uninvited everyone I didn’t know and started building up the access list from scratch. Now I’ve got a relatively small, private set of followers, and it works well enough.

But it sort of turns the model inside out a little bit, since Instagram is really built for sharing. Instead, I’m using it more like a private repository, then sharing out pictures to other networks like Facebook, Tumblr & Twitter when I want to share them broadly. But back to my apps-on-home-screen theory, the only way that Instagram can replace my Camera app is if I do it this way, making most of my photos private and only sharing a few.

The main problems are sort of obvious: (1) I share a bunch of things with fewer people than would actually like to share with, (2) it’s hard for me to completely replace the built-in Camera app right now, and (3) it actually just feels pretty unfriendly when I do share something on Twitter, people click through to see the shared photo and aren’t allowed to follow my stream automatically. (There’s a follow on problem in that I never look at the news feed on my account in the mobile app at all — and so I had hundreds of follower requests right now that have gone ignored for months.)

What I’d really like is the ability to, at minimum, have a private stream and a public stream — I think that would let Instagram completely replace the Camera app for me.

Anyway, that’s why it’s closed for me, and why I may not have turned on access for you — it’s a combo of how the system works and my own neglect of the access list for a while.