Long Live the Radio

I spent three of the best years of my life working at a radio station. This cemented my love of the medium and made me a fan for life. Although video is the undeclared king of the internet era, radio has the ability to entertain, educate and inform in situations and locations where video is inappropriate or illegal. A prime example is the car; I’m yet to see a technology that allows you to watch video while driving. Listening to the radio, however, is a natural part of it.

I’m addicted to NPR and turn on the radio right after starting my car. In the Bay Area I listen (and donate) to KQED and KLAW, and when I travel I always look for the local NPR affiliate and set the dial to their strongest station. In the rare occasion where there’s nothing good on NPR, I listen to other talk radio or music stations.

And then I saw this article. In short: industry experts say that within 5 years, all new cars will have no AM/FM radio. Broadcast radio is going the way of the Dodo, and much faster than predicted. It’s being replaced by internet radio: Pandora, iHeart, TuneIn, and the like. Signal reception will rely on cell towers.

What’s in it for car makers and boardcasters?

1) They can charge a monthly connectivity fee (like XM radio does today) and car buyers will have no choice but to pay.

2) They can accurately track listening habits and ad exposure, allowing advertisers to optimize ad spend.

Sounds like a great plan for them, but I’m yet to see them execute on it. I, for one, am certainly going to install an aftermarket radio in my 2019 Toyota. A few years later this won’t help me much either as broadcast stations will be evicted from the airwaves with the sought-after electromagnetic spectrum auctioned off to the highest bidder. By then, one would hope, market forces will bring connectivity cost down. Wherever technology takes us, I’m not planning to wean myself from my listening habits – in and out of the car.

Leaving a Working Void


After three years at my job I decided to move on; my position will not be filled for a while. Some people may have a weird feeling about not having another person take their place: after all, if they don’t replace you, you probably haven’t done much. I, however, think it’s the ultimate badge of success for a departing manager. Here’s why:

* Good management requires good planning. Leaving everything in working order with no issues hanging loose reflects positively on your ability to manage people and operations.

* I established processes and built a well-oiled machine that can keep functioning for a while. By training other people – including my boss – on how to maintain these processes I made it possible for them to keep it going after I’m gone.

* The company will take this opportunity to evaluate the need for this role. The value of middle management is always in question, and re-thinking their needs is never too late.

This will not last for long though; they will have to fill in the void eventually. It may be the same role or a combination of a few. They may decide to reshuffle other positions and realign management layers. Whatever they do, I hope they find a better, more efficient way to run their organization. All in all, I believe I made a measurable impact while avoiding the job security syndrome.

Writing Rig

Writing rig

The book business is undergoing a revolution – not only in the way books are produced (electronically) and published (by the authors themselves), but also in the way books are written in the first place. I’d like to describe the “writing rig” I’m using to write my book, a method that could have only been imagined merely few years ago.

I decided to self-publish using LeanPub – an electronic publishing company that treats books like lean start-up products, touting the philosophy of publishing early (before the books is “finished”), getting feedback, publishing again, and repeating. This process arguably leads to better books (given you have readers who provide meaningful feedback). Publishing an e-book first is a no- brainer strategy for testing the market before making a significant investment in printing and marketing. I’m eager to see the quality of feedback I’ll be getting.

LeanPub uses Dropbox to store the manuscript. This allow me to write on any platform I have handy: my iPhone, iPad of Mac using iA Writer (a no-nonsense text editor) or my laptop (using Notepad++). The manuscript is always synchronized between platforms and up to date, and as a bonus I can access previous versions if something goes wrong. When I’m offline for a prolonged period of time (like on an airplane), I check in versions into Git just to be safe.

I’m writing in Markdown, a bare bones syntax that allows me to mark up the text with formatting tags. I can create titles, quotes, footnotes, etc. and add links and images. Unlike HTML, Markdown is designed to be readable as it is, so it makes it much easier to envision how the final version will look like while writing. Most importantly, it allows you to skip the layout phase, typically done using expensive tools like Adobe InDesign. I lay out the book as I write, using a simple text editor. When I want to see how the actual book will look like, LeanPub generates a preview in seconds (in PDF, Kindle, and iBooks formats) and conveniently stores it in a Dropbox folder. After publishing an e-book, it’s possible to use the same content for a print version – self published or not.

Now all that’s left is to finish writing the book… not an easy feat, but not impossible either.

The Meaning of Death

The meaning of death
We are all concerned (obsessed?) with extending our lives and those of our loved ones. I can’t blame us; life is awesome. Saving a life is the most noble cause, and is one of the only notions the entire human race seems to agree on. Some are more concerned with saving the lives of their own kind, but in the hypothetical case of endless resources I’m pretty sure they too would agree.

All religions stress the holiness of life. Judeo-Chrisitian dictums lead to extreme opinions on the part of most believers when it comes to abortion rights, for example. Secular people don’t need a “higher force” to underscore the importance of life. We want to live as much as the next guy. If anyone ought to die, who am I (or anybody else) to decide?

Religious notions of heaven, hell, and the afterlife are implausible and improbable, and in any case only apply to believers of a particular religion or sect. They promise believers a happy afterlife (to infinity and beyond), while non-believers are conveniently doomed to eternal hellish existence. Being a non-believer of every conceivable religion – and some inconceivable ones – I wonder which hell I’d go to. After all, the stories are conflicting and it’s impossible to go to more then one at the same time (or is it?). In any case, I’ll take my chances.

When you die, the molecules that make up your body stop “cooperating” as a single organism and get recycled into other organisms and byproducts. That’s about the most significant contribution you make by dying (life insurance notwithstanding). This is not a lot; therefore even those who believe they’ll go to heaven are in no particular hurry. They too know that if their fantasy ends up in disappointment, they’ll become worm fodder. That’s not very attractive, so they’d rather stay on this side as long as humanly possible.

Humanity’s focus on life extension often ignores the impact on the planet and its depleting resources. At the current rate of technological progress we can probably keep going for another century or so. Our grandchildren will pay the price long after we expire. Life extension technologies are becoming so ridiculously advanced that it is possible to live to an old age, often with major physical and mental handicaps. But how long do you want to live, and in what state?

As much as I can affect it I’d rather not have my life extended if I’m terminally ill or end up in a vegetative state. I’d much rather get recycled than kept on life support for years. When they scatter my ashes from an airplane over the ocean, I want them to acknowledge the fact that I exercised my life’s meaning and lived for the right amount of time – not too much, not too little. And no regrets.

The Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? humankind came up with a variety of answers like being happy, serving a “higher being”, and 42. While some of these may be true, there is one answer that must be true. How can I be so sure? Simply because I exist.

Remember Cogito ergo sum, better known as I think, therefore I am? This pillar of western philosophy stood the test of time and is widely accepted today, hundreds of years after Rene Descartes thought it up. Its beauty comes from its simplicity. You are thinking? good, than you must exist. It is the basis of the Anthropic principle on which my claim here is based.

Charles Darwin taught us about the survival of the fittest, and in contrast, the demise of the unfit. Imagine one of your ancestors millions of generations removed – a mammal that lived 50 million years ago. The evolutionary tree that leads from it to you has many millions of branches. Most of them died off when their genetic makeup proved to be unfit for their environment. Only a few survived, including your grandparents, your parents and you. We can look at the chain of complex organisms leading from that ancient ancestor to you and ask: why did link n exit? It existed because link n-1 strived to stay alive, often against all odds.

If you are link number 2,000,000 in the chain, you exist only because numbers 1,999,999, 1,999,998, 1,999,997 and earlier really wanted to live and were successful at it. The genes you inherited are perfectly suited for keeping you alive at the environment and conditions your parents grew up in (and we can safely assume that you live in a similar environment.) Moreover, they are tuned to make you want to live. Not only are you good at living, you are programmed to strive to stay alive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be alive today. You are programmed to produce offsprings who would want to stay alive as well.

Imagine all these ancestors; they each probably had different perceived goals and aspirations, a different meaning to their lives. However, one thread necessarily connects all of them – surviving just long enough to procreate and (in some cases)  see that their offspring(s) are off to a good beginning. You may argue that this deduction is false for they survived thanks to sheer luck – they all just happened to be at the right place at the right time. This is extremely unlikely, but if you insist I’d argue that chance favors the prepared. This survival talent is shared by all the links in your chain. You should be proud of your evolutionary heritage.

This can be summarized as a corollary to Descartes’ principal: I exist, therefore I want to exist and am successful at it. The opposite is not necessarily true – many have tried to stay alive and failed. It’s only a short leap from here to the meaning of life. If your mere existence implies a strong desire and skill for staying alive, the meaning of life – as in purpose or goal – must be just that – the desire to stay alive and the ability to be successful at it.

Some may say that this is not a real “meaning” in the spiritual or moral sense. I don’t know enough about the spiritual to refute that (and frankly don’t care much about it either.) As for the moral aspects – I’ll leave this discussion for some other time. I can safely say though that the desire to stay alive and the ability to succeed encompasses purpose and progress, not just plain existence. These are necessary parts of staying alive, as improving your condition increases your chance of survival.

So is this all there is to it? just staying alive?

Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will to live” being the only driving force that maintains us is basically what I describe here. Unlike Schopenhauer and other existentialists, however, I’m an optimist. There may not be any objective purpose to life, but this doesn’t prevent us from adopting one of our own. In that respect, it’s a constant struggle to strive toward that personal purpose and direct it inward rather than turning it into a show-off campaign.

Our chains all interlink at some point back, making us – the ones who survived – brothers and sisters in a common cause: the desire to live and reproduce, and the ability to do so. You are here because of the relentless efforts of your ancestors, those who made every effort to get you to this moment. Don’t break the chain.

Endnote: I realize, of course, that these arguments are pretty pretentious and probably suffer from similar shortfalls as the original argument (Cogito ergo sum). However, it’s intriguing to try and capture these lofty ideas in simple catch phrases, isn’t it.

What do Product Managers Wish for?

What do product managers wish for? They wish they could decide what their product should be like without the burden of customer requests, usage data, management dictums, and engineering pushbacks. They wish they could decide what’s best for the customer and get it implemented with no qualms. They wish they could just do it. It’s a very healthy desire: an attractor that keeps them going. Yet it conflicts with 99.99% of product development processes.

Reactive product management goes with the flow, innovating here and there. Active product management, on the other hand, often goes against the axiom “The customer is always right” and sets the tone instead of following an unseen conductor. Active product managers operate by two rules:
1) I know what product to build.
2) I will do anything it takes to make it happen.
They are not slaves to data or subservient to customer whims. They know that while often right, the customer doesn’t always know what they really need. They understand the market and know intuitively what the ideal product should be. They create an action plan and execute on it, beating time and budget records. They don’t get discouraged by implementation woes. They push their vision forward and do whatever it takes to get customers to want the product.

This Holy Grail is rarely achieved by mere mortals. Stave Jobs, Elon Musk, and a few others come to mind, but that’s about it. Virtually all the literature about product management goes against this notion, touting instead how to “listen to the pulse of the market”, “nurture customer feedback”, and “believe only in the data”. Until you reach the level of the aforementioned demigods, you are bound to follow this advice. Or maybe the way to reach that level is to ignore it? Enough daydreaming. Now back to work.

Knowers vs. Askers

Knowers talk.  Askers listen.
Knowers have the answer.  Askers question.
Knowers know everything.  Askers learn about everything.
Knowers try to impress.  Askers try to impress knowledge on their brain.
Knowers are stubborn.  Askers are persistent.
Knowers are complicated.  Askers are simple.
Knowers grow to become grumpy old people.  Askers keep growing.
Knowers believe.  Askers reason.
Knowers are limited.  Askers are limitless.

Sleeping in a Flying Chair

Sure, you can sleep in a plush seat that unfolds into a flat bed in First Class. But can you afford it? me neither. You may also sleep in a wide and comfy chair in business class, but is it worth the steep price premium? Probably not (unless your boss pays for it). So here you are, sleeping in a coach seat. But why? why did the airline industry standardize on minimally reclining seats with limited legroom? Airlines would love to cram as many seats as possible into an plane to maximize their profit. Alas, the more seats you fit in, the less comfortable they must be. Although they may like to, airlines can’t go all the way and install narrow, back-less benches for passengers to sit on or simply leave them standing up.

The more comfortable the seat is, the more money air carriers can charge for it. This is evident by the exorbitant amount often charged for business class tickets. The cost of the slightly better in-flight service can hardly justify it. The bulk of the cost can only be justified by the increased comfort level of the seat. To maximize their revenue, airlines continuously optimize the choice of chairs and the distance between them. They have zeroed in on a certain sweet spot in terms of seat comfort and size. This equilibrium has been maintained for decades, with all air carriers using similar dimensions.

So next time you find yourself dosing off in a chair that clearly wasn’t designed for sleeping, remember that there’s a good reason for that. By twisting and turning in discomfort throughout a red-eye flight you’re helping the airline industry stay afloat.

The Lonely People of 2012

“All the lonely people Where do they all come from? All the lonely people Where do they all belong?”    – The Beatles, Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby spent her lonely days at a church back in 1966. In 2012 she would hang out at a coffee shop, staring at her laptop, pretending to be busy. She’d go there to be around people, but play with herself instead. Later at home, she’d be trolling forums and leaving witty comments no one will ever read. On the train, she’d be reading the 6th version of the same syndicated news story on yet another news app. At the office, she would get automated happy-birthday emails from some Facebook app and feel loved for a brief moment. She would count her virtual friends and pretend to be popular. At home again she would upload a video to YouTube, wishing silently for her 15 seconds of fame. Later, she would get pseudo-intimate with a person from the Ukraine on some shady site.

But there’s a reason for doing all that. We are cleverly talked into working for social advertising companies, busy work designed to make us reveal more about ourselves so they can bombard us with ever-more-targeted-yet-increasingly-annoying ads. We are more connected yet lonelier than ever. Social media is all about sharing. Sharing what? sharing our loneliness. Hey, look at that cute video I found! well guess what, I found it because I was lonely and had no one to connect with in real life. And now I’m sending it to you, so you’ll feel a little less lonely too. We’ll be best friends for 30 seconds, and when the video is done playing go back to ignoring each other until the next link bait comes along. That’s freaking awesome.

“They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness But it’s better than drinking alone”    – Billy Joel, Piano Man

Good Robot, Bad Robot

Barracuda pool cleaning robot

Automatic pool cleaners, known as robots, are out of sight for most people. Even pool owners don’t care much about them – as long as they work. A recent experience with a broken one thought me an important lesson in product innovation and marketing. Although it happened in a niche market, this interesting case applies to other markets as well.

Traditional pool robots are complicated machines with dozens of moving parts. They roam around the pool floor and suck up water and dirt. Some filter out dirt right there, others send the soiled water to a remote filter for circulation. Legacy models of both types typically ride on wheels and have a mechanism that directs them to new territories across the pool, in addition to suction pipes and an assortment of other components. Most robots roam randomly and aimlessly, hoping to land on a new patch of dirt. Some even have a GPS receiver that guides them to places they haven’t been to yet. All in all, these robots have hundreds of components. Operating in a watery and sunny environment, they tend to break – sometimes very often.

And then there’s the Barracuda. A small player in the pool cleaning game, these robots’ cleaning power is as good as the competition if not better, but they have only one moving part. That’s right, one moving part and about ten parts overall. No cogwheels, no electronics, nothing that can break. And therein lies the problem – without parts that need to be replaced often, the business model is not very attractive. No razor-and-razorblade opportunity here.

The company that developed these ingenious robots was eventually acquired by Zodiac, the biggest player in the market. Barracuda robots are now a line of products in Zodiac’s arsenal, targeting the bottom of the market. It’s an interesting case of breakthrough innovation not backed by a solid business case, leading basically nowhere. Failing to make a dent in the market, I sure hope the founders ended up with a nice exit at the least.