Book Notes: Superforecasting

Just finished reading “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” by Philip Tetlock. The book is similar to Nate Silver’s “The Signal and The Noise” in many ways.

I’d definitely recommend this one if you’re interested in the application of the scientific mindset to forecasting of future events.

Here is a quote to give you sense of what to expect:

“Suppose someone says, “Unfortunately, the popularity of soccer, the world’s favorite pastime, is starting to decline.” You suspect he is wrong. How do you question the claim?

Don’t even think of taking a personal shot like “You’re silly.” That only adds heat, not light. “I don’t think so” only expresses disagreement without delving into why you disagree. “What do you mean?” lowers the emotional temperature with a question but it’s much too vague. Zero in. You might say, “What do you mean by ‘pastime’?” or “What evidence is there that soccer’s popularity is declining? Over what time frame?” The answers to these precise questions won’t settle the matter, but they will reveal the thinking behind the conclusion so it can be probed and tested. Since Socrates, good teachers have practiced precision questioning, but still it’s often not used when it’s needed most.”

Book Notes: Chaos Monkeys

Enjoying reading Antonio‘s Chaos Monkeys now. The book is a rather honest account of launching and working at tech startups in the Valley.

Here is a quote on math behind Facebook growth, for example:

“The reality is that Facebook has been so successful, it’s actually running out of humans on the planet. Ponder the numbers: there are about three billion people on the Internet, where the latter is broadly defined as any sort of networked data, texts, browser, social media, whatever. Of these people, six hundred million are Chinese, and therefore effectively unreachable by Facebook. In Russia, thanks to Vkontakte and other copycat social networks, Facebook’s share of the country’s ninety million Internet users is also small, though it may yet win that fight.

That leaves about 2.35 billion people ripe for the Facebook plucking. While Facebook seems ubiquitous to the plugged-in, chattering classes, its usage is not universal among even entrenched Internet users. In the United States, for example, by far the company’s most established and sticky market, only three-quarters of Internet users are actively on FB. That ratio of FB to Internet user is worse in other countries, so even full FB saturation in a given market doesn’t imply total Facebook adoption. Let’s (very) optimistically assume full US-level penetration for any market. Without China and Russia, and taking a 25 percent haircut of people who’ll never join or stay (as is the case in the United States), that leaves around 1.8 billion potential Facebook users globally. That’s it. In the first quarter of 2015, Facebook announced it had 1.44 billion users. Based on its public 2014 numbers, FB is growing at around 13 percent a year, and that pace is slowing. Even assuming it maintains that growth into 2016, that means it’s got one year of user growth left in it, and then that’s it: Facebook has run out of humans on the Internet.

The company can solve this by either making more humans (hard even for Facebook), or connecting what humans there are left on the planet. This is why Internet.org exists, a vaguely public-spirited, and somewhat controversial, campaign by Facebook to wire all of India with free Internet, with regions like Brazil and Africa soon to follow. In early 2014 Facebook acquired a British aerospace firm, Ascenta, which specialized in solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles. Facebook plans on flying a Wi-Fi-enabled air force of such craft over the developing world, giving them Internet. Just picture ultralight carbon-fiber aircraft buzzing over African savannas constantly, while locals check their Facebook feeds as they watch over their herds.”

Book Notes: How Google Works by Eric Schmidt

How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt, despite being quite self-congratulatory and maybe even prone to confirmation bias, is full of inspirational ideas and bids of practical wisdom to learn from. I took a few (ok, quite a few) notes on smart creatives, decision making, hiring, innovation, strategy, career, management and even managing email.

On smart creatives:

“And who, exactly, is this smart creative? A smart creative has deep technical knowledge in how to use the tools of her trade and plenty of hands-on experience. In our industry, that means she is most likely a computer scientist, or at least understands the tenets and structure of the systems behind the magic you see on your screens every day. But in other industries she may be a doctor, designer, scientist, filmmaker, engineer, chef, or mathematician. She is an expert in doing. She doesn’t just design concepts, she builds prototypes. She is analytically smart. She is comfortable with data and can use it to make decisions. She also understands its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.

She is business smart. She sees a direct line from technical expertise to product excellence to business success, and understands the value of all three. She is competitive smart. Her stock-in-trade starts with innovation, but it also includes a lot of work. She is driven to be great, and that doesn’t happen 9-to-5. She is user smart. No matter the industry, she understands her “get it right the next time around. She is self-directed creative. She doesn’t wait to be told what to do and sometimes ignores direction if she doesn’t agree with it. She takes action based on her own initiative, which is considerable.

She is open creative. She freely collaborates, and judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance. If she were into needlepoint, she would sew a pillow that said, “If I give you a penny, then you’re a penny richer and I’m a penny poorer, but if I give you an idea, then you will have a new idea but I’ll have it too.” Then she would figure out a way to make the pillow fly around the room and shoot lasers.

She is thorough creative. She is always on and can recite the details, not because she studies and memorizes, but because she knows them. They are her details. She is communicative creative. She is funny and expresses herself with flair and even charisma, either one-to-one or one-to-many.”

 

HIPPOs:

“Hippopotamuses are among the deadliest animals, faster than you think and capable of crushing (or biting in half) any enemy in their path. Hippos are dangerous in companies too, where they take the form of the Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion. When it comes to the quality of decision-making, pay level is intrinsically irrelevant and experience is valuable only if it is used to frame a winning argument. Unfortunately, in most companies experience is the winning argument. We call these places “tenurocracies,” because power derives from tenure, not merit. It reminds us of our favorite quote from Jim Barksdale, erstwhile CEO of Netscape: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

When you stop listening to the hippos, you start creating a meritocracy, which our colleague Shona Brown concisely describes as a place where “it is the quality of the idea that matters, not who suggests it.” Sounds easy, but of course it isn’t. Creating a meritocracy requires equal participation by both the hippo, who could rule the day by fiat, and the brave smart creative, who risks getting trampled as she stands up for quality and merit.”

 

On technical insights as a driver of innovation:

“Bet on technical insights, not market research. Product leaders create product plans, but those product plans often (usually!) lack the most important component: What is the technical insight upon which those new features, products, or platforms will be built? A technical insight is a new way of applying technology or design that either drives down the cost or increases the functions and usability of the product by a significant factor. The result is something that is better than the competition in a fundamental way. The improvement is often obvious; it doesn’t take a lot of marketing for customers to figure out that this product is different from everything else.

For example, at that time Google was experimenting in applying some of our expertise from online advertising to other advertising markets, including print, radio, and TV. These were clever efforts, supported by smart people, but they lacked that fundamental technical insight that would shift the cost-performance curve non-incrementally and provide significant differentiation. All three ultimately failed. And when we look back at other Google products that didn’t make it (iGoogle, Desktop, Notebook, Sidewiki, Knol, Health, even the popular Reader), they all either lacked underlying technical insights from the outset, or the insights upon which they were based became dated as the Internet evolved.”

Continue reading

Stanford Class: How to Start a Startup by YC

Free, open to everyone and highly educational Stanford class “How to Start a Startup” has just ended. But all the materials, including talks by star speakers, such as Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Ben Horowitz, Sam Altman, Brian Chesky and others are going to be available online. For quick reference, here is the complete collection of all course materials:

Lectures

Date Speaker Topic
9/23/14 Sam Altman, President, Y Combinator
Dustin Moskovitz, Cofounder, Facebook, Cofounder, Asana, Cofounder, Good Ventures
Welcome, and Ideas, Products, Teams and Execution Part I
Why to Start a Startup
9/25/14 Sam Altman, President, Y Combinator Ideas, Products, Teams and Execution Part II
9/30/14 Paul Graham, Founder, Y Combinator Before the Startup
10/2/14 Adora Cheung, Founder, Homejoy Building Product, Talking to Users, and Growing
10/7/14 Peter Thiel, Founder, Paypal, Founder, Palantir, and Founder, Founders Fund Competition is For Losers

Continue reading

Book Notes: What Technology Wants

Here are some notes from What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly:

On inter-dependancies:

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels.

On evolution of the scientific method:

The classic double-blind experiment, for instance, in which neither the subject nor the tester is aware of what treatment is being given, was not invented until the 1950s. The placebo was not used in practice until the 1930s. It is hard to imagine science today without these methods.

On games:

The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.

On sacrifices as a form of  investment:

As Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City (about Mumbai), says, “Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?” Then he answers: “So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment.

On using older technology as a statement:

Who would have guessed anyone would burn candles when lightbulbs are so cheap? But burning candles is now a mark of luxuriant uselessness. Some of our hardest-working technology today will achieve beautiful uselessness in the future. Perhaps a hundred years from now people will carry around “phones” simply because they like to carry things, even though they may be connected to the net by something they wear.

Continue reading

Venture Lab: free Stanford University online courses

I devoted some of my time to self-education in September-December using the opportunity provided by Stanford University Venture Lab‘s online courses. In this post I would like to briefly describe my impressions and share some useful materials from the courses. Venture Lab courses are somewhat different from other online courses in that they take place during a specific time with specific deadlines, and you need to enroll in order to participate.

I’ve tried three courses: Technology Entrepreneurship, Crash Course on Creativity, and Finance. As they are very different, I’ll talk about each one separately.

Technology Entrepreneurship

This is probably the best one. Although, there are multiple opinions on whether entrepreneurship can be taught, there are a lot of useful materials.

Lectures certainly vary in content. Some are quite theoretic and contain, for instance, large charts showing, how probability of team’s success depends on the number of members or on their background. Others are more about anecdotal. There was, for example, a story about history of skateboarding culture. I didn’t know that it originated from dry Californian summer during which many Californian pools were empty and people started using them to ride inside instead of swimming.
Aside from theory, there is also a team work that is highly encouraged and is in fact an integral part of learning process. Working in teams you are supposed to do market research, create and test the business model. Participants are very diverse. There are people from Pakistan, Belarus, Serbia, Russia, Canada and many other countries. You can pick any of already existing teams (hundreds of them) or create your own and invite other students to join.

If it is too late for you to participate, you might still benefit from these materials:

I think it takes about an hour a week or so to keep up with the lectures. But if you want to do more, for example communicate on forum, read recommended books, and actually try to apply ideas to some project, it will take longer, of course.

By the way, if you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend you these recent notes from Peter Thiel’s lectures. They also happen to be in Stanford. Computer Science dep. It will save another hundred thousand dollars. 😉

Continue reading

Listening to music for the first time

Austian Chapman was born deaf. But recently he got a new a type of hearing aid device which allowed him to listen to music for the first time.

Here is how he describes his experience:

“When Mozart’s Lacrimosa came on, I was blown away by the beauty of it. At one point of the song, it sounded like angels singing and I suddenly realized that this was the first time I was able to appreciate music. Tears rolled down my face and I tried to hide it. But when I looked over I saw that there wasn’t a dry eye in the car.”

 

I wonder how would it feel to listen to music for the first time. Or see for the first time. Or smell for the first time. Or just after a week-long “break”? Probably, it would be 100 times more vivid than what we are used to.

I wonder whether in the future people will incorporate short intermittent “breaks” using technology in order to sharpen these feelings.

 

via mashable