Breck Yunits' Scroll

Some writing about probability, programming, economics and life.

An Angel Investor's Data

September 1, 2022 โ€” There's a trend where people are publishing real data first, and then insights. Here is my data from angel investing: There's a trend where people are publishing real data first, and then insights. Here is my data from angel investing:

Sigh. I am sharing my data as a png. We need a beautiful plain text spreadsheet language.
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How the public domain can win

August 30, 2022 โ€” Public domain products are strictly superior to equivalent non-public domain alternatives by a significant margin on three dimensions: trust, speed, and cost to build. If enough capable people start building public domain products we can change the world. Public domain products are strictly superior to equivalent non-public domain alternatives by a significant margin on three dimensions: trust, speed, and cost to build. If enough capable people start building public domain products we can change the world.

It took me 18 years to figure this out. In 2004 I did what you would now call "first principles thinking" about copyright law. Even a dumb 20 year old college kid can deduce it's a bad system and unethical. I have to tell people so we can fix this. I was naive. Thus began 18 years of failed strategies and tactics. It took me 18 years to figure this out. In 2004 I did what you would now call "first principles thinking" about copyright law. Even a dumb 20 year old college kid can deduce it's a bad system and unethical. I have to tell people so we can fix this. I was naive. Thus began 18 years of failed strategies and tactics.

One of the many moves in the struggle for intellectual freedom. Aaron Swartz is a hero whose name and impact will expand for eons.
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The Three Byte Fix

June 9, 2022 โ€” This is a fun little open source success story. Code that was taking 1,000ms to run took 50ms after a coworker found a 3 byte fix in a popular open source library. Who doesn't love a change like that?

Map chart slowdown

In the fall of 2020 users started reporting that our map charts had become slow.

Suddenly these charts were taking a long time to render.

k-means was the culprit

To color our map charts an engineer on our team utilized a very effective technique called k-means clustering, which would identify optimal clusters and assign a color to each. But recently our charts were using record amounts of data and k-means was getting slow. Using Chrome DevTools I was able to quickly determine the k-means function was causing the slowdown.

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Upstream of Everything

A rough sketch of a semi-random selection of ideas stacked in order of importance. The biggest ideas, "upstream of everything", are at the bottom. The furthest upstream ideas we can never see. A better artist would have drawn this as an actual stream.

February 28, 2022 โ€” There will always be truths upstream that we will never be able to see, that are far more important than anything we learn downstream. So devoting too much of your brain to rationality has diminishing returns, as at best your most scientific map of the universe will be perpetually vulnerable to irrelevance by a single missive from upstream.

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December 15, 2021 โ€” Both HTML and Markdown mix content with markup:

html A link in HTML looks like <a href="hi.html">this</a> markdown A link in Markdown looks like [this](hi.html).

I needed an alternative where content is separate from markup. I made an experimental minilang I'm calling Aftertext.

aftertext A link in Aftertext looks like this. link hi.html thisContinue reading...

Write Thin to Write Fast

October 15, 2021 โ€” I'm always trying to improve my writing. I want my writing to be more meaningful, clearer, more memorable, and shorter. I would also like to write faster.

That's a tall order and there aren't many shortcuts. But I think there is one simple shortcut, that I stumbled upon the past year:

Set your editor's column width very low

36 characters for me, YMMV. This simple mechanic has perhaps doubled my writing speed and quality.

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User Methods

August 11, 2021 โ€” In this essay I'm going to talk about a design pattern in writing applications that requires effectively no extra work and more than triples the power of your code. It's one of the biggest wins I've found in programming and I don't think this pattern is emphasized enough. The tldr; is this:

When building applications, distinguish methods that will be called by the user.
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Scrolldown now has Dialogues

hey. I just added Dialogues to Scrolldown.
cool. But what's Scrolldown?
Scrolldown is a new alternative to Markdown that is easier to extend.
how is it easier to extend?
because it's a tree language and tree languages are highly composable. for example, adding dialogues was a simple append of 11 lines of grammar code and 16 lines of CSS.
okay, how do I use this new feature?
the source is below!
chat hey. I just added Dialogues to Scrolldown. cool. But what's Scrolldown? Scrolldown is a new alternative to Markdown that is easier to extend. how is it easier to extend? because it's a tree language and tree languages are highly composable. for example, adding dialogues was a simple append of 11 lines of grammar code and 16 lines of CSS. okay, how do I use this new feature? the source is below!Continue reading...

The Intellectual Freedom Amendment

May 12, 2021 โ€” This post is written for people who already are "partisans" on the issues of copyrights and patents. Here I am not trying to educate newcomers on the pros of Intellectual Freedom. I am writing to those who are already strong supporters of open source, Sci-Hub, the Internet Archive, and others. To that crowd I am trying to plant the seed for a new political strategy. If you think that copyright and patent laws could be a root contributor to some of the big problems of our day, like misinformation (or fake news) and inequality, this post is for you.

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Some old blogs

May 7, 2021 โ€” I found it mildly interesting to dig up my earlier blogs and put them in this git. This folder contains some old blogs started in 2007 and 2009. This would not have been possible without the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine heart โค๏ธ.

August 2007 - Running Wordpress on my own domain

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It looks like I registered on August 24th, 2007. It appears I used Wordpress ๐Ÿ•ธ. There's a Flash widget on there. The title of the site is "The Best Blog on the Internet". I think it was a good joke. I had just recently graduated college, and had not yet moved to the West Coast.

July 2009 - Two years of Wordpress

About two years later, my Wordpress blog had grown to many pages ๐Ÿ•ธ.

August 2009 - Switched to Posterous

Looks like I started transitioning to a new site ๐Ÿ•ธ , and moved my blog from my own server running Wordpress to posterous ๐Ÿ•ธ.

After I moved to posterous, I put up this homepage ๐Ÿ•ธ.

December 2009 - Switched to Brecksblog

In December 2009 I wrote my own blog software called brecksblog. Here's what my new site looked like ๐Ÿ•ธ.

I kept it simple. My current homepage, now powered by Scroll, evolved from brecksblog.

December 2009 - My "Computer science" blog

It looks like I also maintained a programming blog from December 2009 to January 2012 ๐Ÿ•ธ. Here is that blog migrated to Scroll.

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Wisdom: a Tiny Language for Great Advice

May 6, 2021 โ€” I am aware of two dialects for advice. I will call them FortuneCookie and Wisdom. Below are two examples of advice written in FortuneCookie.

๐Ÿฅ  Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
๐Ÿฅ  Talking to users is the most important thing a startup can do.

Here are two similar pieces of advice written in Wisdom:

๐Ÿ”ฌ In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didnโ€™t read all the time โ€“ none, zero. Charlie Munger
๐Ÿ”ฌ I don't know of a single case of a startup that felt they spent too much time talking to users. Jessica Livingston
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April 26, 2021 โ€” I present a new word. Logeracy. I define it roughly as the ability to think in logarithms. It mirrors the word literacy.

Someone literate is fluent with reading and writing. Someone logerate is fluent with orders of magnitudes and the ubiquitous mathematical functions that dominate our universe.

Someone literate can take an idea and break it down into the correct symbols and words, someone logerate can take an idea and break it down into the correct classes and orders of magnitude.

Someone literate is fluent with terms like verb and noun and adjective. Someone logerate is fluent with terms like exponent and power law and base and factorial and black swan.

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How to fix the CDC

March 30, 2021 โ€” The CDC needs to move to Git. The CDC needs to move pretty much everything to Git. And they should do it with urgency. They should make it a priority to never again publish anything without a link to a Git repo. Not just papers, but also datasets and press releases. It doesn't matter under what account or on what service the repos are republished to; what matters is that every CDC publication needs a link to a backing Git repo.

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How James Park built FitBit


March 11, 2021 โ€” I have been a FitBit user for many years but did not know the story behind the company. Recently came across a podcast by Guy Raz called How I Built This. In this episode he interviews James Park who explains the story of FitBit.

I loved the story so much but couldn't find a transcript, so made the one below. Subtitles (and all mistakes) added by me.

Transcript of How I Built This with James Park

Guy: From NPR, It's How I Built This. A show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists, and the stories behind the movements. Here we go. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, how the Nintendo Wii inspired James Park to build a device and then a company that would have a huge and lasting influence on the health and fitness industry, Fitbit.

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"Insist on Focus" - Keith Rabois describes working at PayPal

February 28, 2021 โ€” I read an interesting Twitter thread on focus strategy. That led me to the 3-minute YouTube video Insist on Focus by Keith Rabois. I created the transcript below.

One of the fundamental lessons I learned from Peter Thiel at PayPal was the value of focus. Peter had this somewhat absurd, but classically Peter way of insisting on focus, which is that he would only allow every employee to work on one thing and every executive to speak about one thing at a time, and he distributed this focus throughout the entire organization. So everybody was assigned exactly one thing, and that was the only thing you were allowed to work on, the only thing you were allowed to report back to him about.
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The Public Domain Publishing Company

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February 28, 2021 โ€” I thought it unlikely that I'd actually cofound another startup, but here we are. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

We are starting the Public Domain Publishing Company. The name should be largely self-explanatory.

If I had to bet, I'd say I'll probably be actively working on this for a while. But there's a chance I go on sabbatical quick.

The team is coming together. Check out the homepage for a list of open positions.

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Scroll Beta

February 22, 2021 โ€” Today I'm launching the beta of something new called Scroll.

I've been reading the newspaper everyday since I was a kid. I remember I'd have my feet on the ground, my body tilted at an angle and my body weight pressed into the pages on the counter. I remember staring intently at the pages spread out before me. World news, local news, sports, business, comics. I remember the smell of the print. The feel of the pages. The ink that would be smeared on my forearms when I finished reading and stood back up straight. Scroll has none of that. But it does at least have the same big single page layout.

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2019 Tree Notation Annual Report

December 9, 2020 โ€” Note: I wrote this early draft in February 2020, but COVID-19 happened and somehow 11 months went by before I found this draft again. I am publishing it now as it was then, without adding the visuals I had planned but never got to, or making any major edits. This way it will be very easy to have next year's report be the best one yet, which will also include exciting developments in things like non-linear parsing and "forests".

In 2017 I wrote a post about a half-baked idea I named TreeNotation.

Since then, thanks to the help of a lot of people who have provided feedback, criticism and guidance, a lot of progress has been made flushing out the idea. I thought it might be helpful to provide an annual report on the status of the research until, as I stated in my earlier post, I "have data definitively showing that Tree Notation is useful, or alternatively, to explain why it is suboptimal and why we need more complex syntax."

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Musing on the Future of Healthcare

March 2, 2020 โ€” I expect the future of healthcare will be powered by consumer devices. Devices you wear. Devices you keep in your home. In the kitchen. In the bathroom. In the medicine cabinet.

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Medical Records to the Moon

March 2, 2020 โ€” A paradigm change is coming to medical records. In this post I do some back-of-the-envelope math to explore the changes ahead, both qualitative and quantitative. I also attempt to answer the question no one is asking: in the future will someone's medical record stretch to the moon?

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How Old Are These Keys?

February 25, 2020 โ€” One of the questions I often come back to is this: how much of our collective wealth is inherited by our generations versus created by our generations?

I realized that the keys on the keyboard in front of me might make a good dataset to attack that problem. So I built a small little experiment to explore the history of the keys on my keyboard.

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An Unpopular Phrase

February 21, 2020 โ€” One of the most unpopular phrases I've spoken, so unpopular that it has won me many negative karma points online and in person causes some people to turn and walk away, is the phrase "Intellectual Slavery Laws".

I think perhaps the best term for copyright and patent laws is "Intellectual Monopoly Laws". When called by that name, it is self-evident that there should be careful scrutiny of these kinds of laws.

However, so many people insist on using the false term "Intellectual Property Laws." Instead of wasting my breath trying to pull them away from that analogy, lately I've decided to go the other way and complete the analogy for them. So let me explain "Intellectual Slavery Laws".

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Integrity and Perseverance in Business ensure success (1853)

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February 9, 2020 โ€” Richard Brhel of placepeep shared a great quote the other day on StartupSchool. He saw the quote on a poster years ago when he was helping a digitization effort in Ohio. I had never seen this exact quote before so wanted to transcribe it for the web.

In 1851 an instructor named Ezekiel G. Folsom incorporated a college in Ohio called Folsom's Mercantile College. Folsom's taught bookkeeping, banking, and "Railroading", amongst other things.

The image above is a screenshot of an 1850's poster promoting the college. The poster includes a motto (which I boxed in green) that I think is great guidance:

Integrity and Perseverance in Business ensure success

Guess who went to Folsom's and presumably saw this poster and was influenced by this motto? John D. Rockefeller.

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Building a TreeBase with 6.5 million files

January 29, 2020 โ€” In this long post I'm going to do a stupid thing and see what happens. Specifically I'm going to create 6.5 million files in a single folder and try to use Git and Sublime and other tools with that folder. All to explore this new thing I'm working on.

TreeBase is a new system I am working on for long-term, strongly-typed collaborative knowledge bases. The design of TreeBase is dumb. It's just a folder with a bunch of files encoded with Tree Notation. A row in a normal SQL table in TreeBase is roughly equivalent to a file. The filenames serve as IDs. Instead of each using an optimized binary storage format it just uses plain text like UTF-8. Field names are stored alongside the values in every file. Instead of starting with a schema you can just start adding files and evolve your schema and types as you go.

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Dataset Needed

January 23, 2020 โ€” The phrase "citation needed" needs to go. In its place we should use the far superior "dataset needed".

Whether it's an academic paper, news report, blog post, or marketing ad, citations linking to text summaries should be frowned upon.

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Type the World

January 20, 2020 โ€” In this post I briefly describe eleven threads in languages and programming. Then I try to connect them together to make some predictions about the future of knowledge encoding.

This might be hard to follow unless you have experience working with types, whether that be types in programming languages, or types in databases, or types in Excel. Actually, this may be hard to follow regardless of your experience. I'm not sure I follow it. Maybe just stay for the links. Skimming is encouraged.

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If stories are lies why do they work?

January 16, 2020 โ€” I often rail against narratives. I think stories always oversimplify things, have hindsight bias, and often mislead. I spend a lot of time trying to invent tools for making data derived thinking as effortless as narrative thinking (so far, mostly in vain). And yet, as much as I rail on stories, I have to admit stories work.

I read an article that put it more succinctly:

Why storytelling? Simple: nothing else works.
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Dreaming of a Data Checked Language

January 3, 2020 โ€” Speling errors and errors grammar are nearly extinct in published content. Data errors, however, are prolific.

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English cannot encode Real News

The Attempt to Capture Truth

August 19, 2019 โ€” Back in the 2000's Nassim Taleb's books set me on a new path in search of truth. One truth I became convinced of is that most stories are false due to oversimplification. I largely stopped writing over the years because I didn't want to contribute more false stories, and instead I've been searching for and building new forms of communication and ways of representing data that hopefully can get us closer to truth.

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June 23, 2017 โ€” I just pushed a project I've been working on called Ohayo.

You can also view it on GitHub:

I wanted to try and make a fast, visual app for doing data science. I can't quite recommend it yet, but I think it might get there. If you are interested you can try it now.

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Show HN: Programming is Now Two-Dimensional

June 21, 2017 โ€” Eureka! I wanted to announce something small, but slightly novel, and potentially useful.

What did I discover? That there might be useful general purpose programming languages that don't use any visible syntax characters at all.

I call the whitespace-based notation Tree Notation and languages built on top of it Tree Languages.

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Big Data Notation

A Suggestion for a Simple Notation

September 24, 2013 โ€” What if instead of talking about Big Data, we talked about 12 Data, 13 Data, 14 Data, 15 Data, et cetera? The # refers to the number of zeroes we are dealing with.

You can then easily differentiate problems. Some companies are dealing with 12 Data, some companies are dealing with 15 Data. No company is yet dealing with 19 Data. Big Data starts at 12 Data, and maybe over time you could say Big Data starts at 13 Data, et cetera.

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NudgePad: An IDE in Your Browser

September 23, 2013 โ€” Making websites is slow and frustrating.

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Software Should Save People Time

April 2, 2013 โ€” For me, the primary motivation for creating software is to save myself and other people time.

I want to spend less time doing monotonous tasks. Less time doing bureaucratic things. Less time dealing with unnecessary complexity. Less time doing chores.

I want to spend more time engaged with life.

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Two people in the same forest, have the same amount of water and food, Are near each other, but may be out of sight, The paths behind each are equally long. The paths ahead, may vary. One's path is easy and clear. The other's is overgrown and treacherous. Their paths through the forest, in the past, in the present, and ahead are equal. Their journeys can be very different.

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Why 10,000 hours?

March 30, 2013 โ€” Why does it take 10,000 hours to become a master of something, and not 1,000 hours or 100,000 hours?

The answer is simple. Once you've spent 10,000 hours practicing something, no one can crush you like a bug.

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Money is Meant to Circulate

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The crux of the matter, is that people don't understand the true nature of money. It is meant to circulate, not be wrapped up in a stocking - Guglielmo Marconi

March 30, 2013 โ€” I love Marconi's simple and clear view of money. Money came in and he put it to good use. Quickly. He poured money into the development of new wireless technology which had an unequal impact on the world.

This quote, by the way, is from "My Father, Marconi", a biography of the famous inventor and entrepreneur written by his daughter, Degna. Marconi's story is absolutely fascinating. If you like technology and entrepreneurship, I highly recommend the book.

P.S. This quote also applies well to most man made things. Cars, houses, bikes, et cetera, are more valuable circulating than idling. It seemed briefly we were on a trajectory toward overabundance, but the sharing economy is bringing circulation back.

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Minor Epiphanies

March 16, 2013 โ€” A kid says Mommy or Daddy or Jack or Jill hundreds of times before grasping the concept of a name.

Likewise, a programmer types name = Breck or age=15 hundreds of times before grasping the concept of a variable.

What do you call it when someone finally sees the concept?

John Calcote, a programmer with decades of experience, calls it a minor epiphany.

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The Booster Design Pattern

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March 8, 2013 โ€” If your software project is going to have a long life, it may benefit from Boosters. A Booster is something you design with two constraints: 1) it must help in the current environment 2) it must be easy to jettison in the next environment.

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Startups and Planes

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February 24, 2013 โ€” It is a popular misconception that most startups need to fail. We expect 0% of planes to crash. Yet we switch subjects from planes to startups and then suddenly a 100% success rate is out of the question.

This is silly. Maybe as the decision makers switch from gambling financeers to engineers we will see the success rate of starting a company shoot closer to 100%.

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Save Your Money for Great Values

February 16, 2013 โ€” Some purchasing decisions are drastically better than others. You might spend $20 on a ticket to a conference where you meet your next employer and earn 1,000x "return" on your purchase. Or you might spend $20 on a fancy meal and have a nice night out.

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Infinite Futures

save-your-money-for-great-values.html ยท infinite-futures.html ยท prove-it.html

February 12, 2013 โ€” You shouldn't plan for the future. You should plan for one of many futures.

The world goes down many paths. We only get to observe one, but they all happen.

In the movie "Back to the Future II", the main character Marty, after traveling decades into the future, buys a sports alamanac so he can go back in time and make easy money betting on games. Marty's mistake was thought he had the guide to the future. He thought there was only one version of the future. In fact, there are many versions of the future. He only had the guide to one version.

Marty was like the kid who stole the answer key to an SAT but still failed. There are many versions of the test.

There are infinite futures. Prepare for them all!

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Prove It

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December 29, 2012 โ€” I love that phrase.

I want to learn how to program. Prove it.

I value honesty. Prove it.

I want to start my own company. Prove it.

It works with "we" too.

We're the best team in the league. Prove it.

We love open source. Prove it.

We're going to improve the transportation industry. Prove it.

Words don't prove anything about you. How you spend your time proves everything.

The only way to accurately describe yourself or your group is to look at how you've spent your time in the past. Anytime someone says something about what they will do or be like in the future, your response should be simple: prove it.

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The Great Bank Robbery

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December 23, 2012 โ€” If you are poor, your money could be safer under the mattress than in the bank:

The Great Bank Robbery dwarfs all normal burglaries by almost 10x. In the Great Bank Robbery, the banks are slowly, silently, automatically taking from the poor.

One simple law could change this:

What if it were illegal for banks to automatically deduct money from someone's account?

If a bank wants to charge someone a fee, that's fine, just require they send that someone a bill first.

What would happen to the statistic above, if instead of silently and automatically taking money from people's accounts, banks had to work for it?


Moebs via wayback machine

FBI from here

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December 22, 2012 โ€” Entrepreneurship is taking responsibility for a problem you did not create.

It was not Google's fault that the web was a massive set of unorganized pages that were hard to search, but they claimed responsibility for the problem and solved it with their engine.

It was not Dropbox's fault that data loss was common and sharing files was a pain, but they claimed responsibility for the problem and solved it with their software.

It is not Tesla's fault that hundreds of millions of cars are burning gasoline and polluting our atmosphere, but they have claimed responsibility for the problem and are attempting to solve it with their electric cars.

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There's a man in the world who is never turned down, wherever he chances to stray; he gets the glad hand in the populous town, or out where the farmers make hay; he's greeted with pleasure on deserts of sand, and deep in the aisles of the woods; wherever he goes there's the welcoming hand--he's The Man Who Delivers the Goods. The failures of life sit around and complain; the gods haven't treated them white; they've lost their umbrellas whenever there's rain, and they haven't their lanterns at night; men tire of the failures who fill with their sighs the air of their own neighborhoods; there's one who is greeted with love-lighted eyes--he's The Man Who Delivers the Goods. One fellow is lazy, and watches the clock, and waits for the whistle to blow; and one has a hammer, with which he will knock, and one tells a story of woe; and one, if requested to travel a mile, will measure the perches and roods; but one does his stunt with a whistle or smile--he's The Man Who Delivers the Goods. One man is afraid that he'll labor too hard--the world isn't yearning for such; and one man is always alert, on his guard, lest he put in a minute too much; and one has a grouch or a temper that's bad, and one is a creature of moods; so it's hey for the joyous and rollicking lad--for the One Who Delivers the Goods! Walt Mason, his book
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Black Swans and Technology

December 19, 2012 โ€” For the past year I've been raving about Node.js, so I cracked a huge smile when I saw this question on Quora:

In five years, which language is likely to be most prominent, Node.js, Python, or Ruby, and why? - Quora
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Probability Makes Planes Fly

December 18, 2012 โ€” My whole life I've been trying to understand how the world works. How do planes fly? How do computers compute? How does the economy coordinate?

Over time I realized that these questions are all different ways of asking the same thing: how do complex systems work?

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Can't Lose. Could Win Big.

December 18, 2012 โ€” One of Nassim Taleb's big recommendations for how to live in an uncertain world is to follow a barbell strategy: be extremely conservative about most decisions, but make some decisions that open you up to uncapped upside.

In other words, put 90% of your time into safe, conservative things but take some risks with the other 10%.

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Simple is...

December 16, 2012 โ€” Concise but not cryptic. e = mc2 is precise and not too cryptic. Shell commands, such as chmod -R 755 some_dir are concise but very cryptic.

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Narratives Misrepresent Complex Systems

December 16, 2012 โ€” When I was a kid I loved reading the Family Circus. My favorite strips were the "dotted lines" ones, which showed Billy's movements over time:

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Introducing Note

December 14, 2012 โ€” Note is a structured, human readable, concise language for encoding data.

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Planets and Pebbles

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November 26, 2012 โ€” For todo lists, I created a system I call planets and pebbles.

I label each task as a planet or a pebble. Planets are super important things. It could be helping a customer complete their project, meeting a new person, finishing an important new feature, closing a new sale, or helping a friend in need. I may have 20 pebbles that I fail to do, but completing one planet makes up for all that and more.

I let the pebbles build up, and I chip away at them in the off hours. But the bulk of my day I try to focus on the planets--the small number of things that can have exponential impact. I don't sweat the small stuff.

I highly recommend this system. We live in a power law world, and it's important to practice the skill of predicting what things will prove hugely important, and what things will turn out to be pebbles.

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Publishing More

November 25, 2012 โ€” I published 55 essays here the first year. The second and third years combined, that number nosedived to 5.

What caused me to stop publishing?

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November 20, 2012 โ€” "Is simplicity ever bad?" If you had asked me this a year ago, I probably would have called you a fucking moron for asking such a dumb question. "Never!", I would have shouted. Now, I think it's a fair question. Simplicity has it's limits. Simplicity is not enough, and if you pursue simplicity at all costs, that can be a bad thing. There's something more than simplicity that you need to be aware of. I'll get to that in a second, but first, I want to backtrack a bit and state clearly that I do strongly, strongly believe and strive for simplicity. Let me talk about why for a second.

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Naming Things

October 20, 2012 โ€” I love to name things.

I spend a lot of time naming ideas in my work. At work I write my code using a program called TextMate. TextMate is a great little program with a pleasant purple theme. I spend a lot of time using TextMate. For the past year I've been using TextMate to write a program that now consists of a few hundred files. There are thousands of words in this program. There are hundreds of objects and concepts and functions that each have a name. The names are super simple like "Pen" for an object that draws on the screen, and "delete" for a method that deletes something. Some of the things in our program are more important than others and those really important ones I've renamed dozens of times searching for the right fit.

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What can a Programmer learn from Rock Climbing?

March 30, 2011 โ€” Railay is a tiny little beach town in Southern Thailand famous for its rock climbing. I've been in Railay for two weeks. When the weather is good, I'm outside rock climbing. When the weather is bad, I'm inside programming. So naturally I've found myself comparing the two. Specifically I've been thinking about what I can take away from my rock climbing experience and apply to my programming education.

Here's what I've come up with.

1. You should always be pushing yourself. Each day spent climbing I've made it to a slightly higher level than the previous day. The lazy part of me has then wanted to just spend one day enjoying this new level without pushing myself further. Luckily I've had a great climbing partner who's refused that and has forced me to reach for the next level each day. In both rock climbing and programming you should always be reaching for that new level. It's not easy, you have to risk a fall to reach a new height, but it's necessary if you want to become good. In programming, just like in climbing, you should be tagging along with the climbers at levels above you. That's how you get great. Of course, don't forget to enjoy the moment too.

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Look for a Line

March 5, 2011 โ€” A good friend passed along some business advice to me a few months ago. "Look for a line," he said. Basically, if you see a line out the door at McDonald's, start Burger King. Lines are everywhere and are dead giveaways for good business ideas and good businesses.

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Backpack the World with Zero Planning

March 4, 2011 โ€” i haven't written in a long while because i'm currently on a long trip around the world. at the moment, we're in indonesia. one thing that really surprised me was that despite our best efforts to do as little planning as possible, we were in fact almost overprepared. i've realized you can do an around the world trip with literally zero planning and be perfectly fine. you can literally hop on a plane with nothing more than a passport, license, credit card, and the clothes on your back and worry about the rest later. i think a lot of people don't make a journey like this because they're intimidated not by the trip itself, but by the planning for the trip. i'm here to say you don't need to plan at all to travel the world (alas, would be a lot harder if you were not born in a first world country, unfortunately). here's my guide for anyone that might want to attempt to do so. every step is highlighted in bold. adjust accordingly for your specific needs and desires.

the plan (see below for bullet points)

set a savings goal. you'll need money to travel around the world, and the more money you have, the easier, longer, and more fun your journey will be.

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The Economy Explained

September 18, 2010 โ€” I was an Economics major in college but in hindsight I don't like the way it was taught. I came away with an academic, unrealistic view of the economy. If I had to teach economics I would try to explain it in a more realistic, practical manner.

I think there are two big concepts that if you understand, you'll have a better grasp of the economy than most people.

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You Can't Predict the Future

August 25, 2010 โ€” I've been very surprised to discover how unpredictable the future is. As you try to predict farther out, your error margins grow exponentionally bigger until you're "predicting" nothing specific at all.

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August 25, 2010 โ€” Ruby is an awesome language. I've come to the conclusion that I enjoy it more than Python for the simple reason that whitespace doesn't matter.

Python is a great language too, and I have more experience with it, and the whitespace thing is a silly gripe. But I've reached a peak with PHP and am looking to master something new. Ruby it is.

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Recommendations Are Far From Good

August 25, 2010 โ€” Doctors used to recommend leeches to cure a whole variety of illnesses. That seems laughable today. But I think our recommendations today will be laughable to people in the future.

Recommendations work terrible for everyone but decently on average.

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Nature Verse Nurture

August 25, 2010 โ€” Genetics, aka nature, plays the dominant role in predicting most aspects of your life, in my estimation.

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Kids are Neat

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August 25, 2010 โ€” Maybe I'm getting old, but I'm starting to think the best way to "change the world" isn't to bust your ass building companies, inventing new machines, running for office, promoting ideas, etc., but to simply raise good kids. Even if you are a genius and can invent amazing things, by raising a few good kids their output combined can easily top yours. Nerdy version: you are a single core cpu and can't match the output of a multicore machine.

I'm not saying I want to have kids anytime soon. I'm just realizing after spending time with my family over on Cape Cod, that even my dad, who is a harder worker than anyone I've ever met and has made a profound impact with his work, can't compete with the output of 4 people (and their potential offspring), even if they each work only 1/3 as hard, which is probably around what we each do. It's simple math.

So the trick to making a difference is to sometimes slow down, spend time raising good kids, and delegate some of the world saving to them.

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How is Intelligence Distributed?

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August 25, 2010 โ€” I've been working on a fun side project of categorizing things into Mediocristan or Extremistan(inspired by NNT's book The Black Swan).

I'm trying to figure out where intelligence belongs. Bill Gates is a million times richer than many people; was Einstein a million times smarter than a lot of people? It seems highly unlikely. But how much smarter was he? Was he 1,000x smarter than the average joe? 100x smarter?

I'm not sure. The brain is a complex thing and I haven't figure out how to think about intelligence yet.

Would love to hear what other people think. Shoot me an email!

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Critical Thinking

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August 25, 2010 โ€” I have a feeling critical thinking gets the least amount of brain's resources. The trick is to critically think about things, come to conclusions, and turn those conclusions into habits. The subconcious, habitual mind is much more powerful than the tiny little conscious, critically thinking mind.

If you're constantly using the critical thinking part of your mind, you're not using the bulk of your mind. You're probably accomplishing a lot less than you could be.

Come to conclusions and build good habits. Let your auto pilot take over. Then occasionally come back and revisit your conclusions.

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Circle of Competence

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August 25, 2010 โ€” Warren Buffet claims to follow an investment strategy of staying within his "circle of competence". That's why he doesn't invest in high tech--it's outside his circle.

I think this is good advice. The tricky part is to figure out where to draw the circle.

Here are my initial thoughts:

1. Start with a small circle. Be conservative about where you draw the circle.

2. Do what you're good at as opposed to what you want to do. Our economy rewards specialization. You want to work on interesting problems, but it pays better to work on things you've done before. Use that money to explore the things you want to do.

3. Be a big fish in a small circle.

4. Spend time outside your circle, but expand it slowly. Definitely work hard to improve your skill set but don't overreach. It's better to have a solid core and build momentum from that than to be marginal in a lot of areas.

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What Percentage of the Brain Does What?

August 23, 2010 โ€” Note: Sometimes I'll write a post about something I don't understand at all. I am not a neuroscientist and have only the faintess understanding of the brain so this is one of those times. Reading this post could make you dumber. But occasionally writing from ignorance leads to good things--like the time I wrote about Linear Algebra and got a number of helpful emails better explaining the subject to me.

My question is: how are the brain's resources allocated for its different tasks?

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The Recency Effect

August 23, 2010 โ€” Your most recent experiences effect you the most. Reading this essay will effect you the most today but a week from now the effect will have largely worn off.

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The Ovarian Lottery and Other Side Projects

August 11, 2010 โ€” I've had some free time the past two weeks to work on a few random ideas I've had.

They all largely involve probability/statistics and have no practical or monetary purpose. If I was a painter and not a programmer you might call them "art projects".

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What I Want

August 6, 2010 โ€” Figuring out what you want in life is very hard. No one tells you exactly what you want. You have to figure it out on your own.

When you're young, it doesn't really matter what you want because your parents choose what you do. This is a good thing, otherwise kids would grow up uneducated and malnourished from ice cream breakfasts. But when you grow up, you get to call the shots.

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August 6, 2010 โ€” In February I celebrated my 26th Orbit. I am 26 orbits old. How many orbits are you?

I think we should use the word "orbit" instead of year. It's less abstract. The earth's 584 million mile journey around the sun is an amazing phenomena, and calling it merely "another year" doesn't do it justice.

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Happiness is in Mediocristan

August 6, 2010 โ€” Three unexpected things have happened to me during my two years of entrepreneurial pursuits in California.

First, I have not gotten rich.

Second, I have met many people who have gotten rich. I've even had the pleasure to witness some of my friends get rich.

Third, I've yet to meet someone much happier than me.

I've met a large amount of people who are 6, 7, even 8 orders of magnitude richer than me and yet not a single one of them was even close to an order of magnitude happier than me.

The explanation, I finally realized, is simple.

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The Do You Know Game and Why We Need Celebrities

August 3, 2010 โ€” Last night over dinner we had an interesting conversation about why we care about celebrities. Here's my thinking on the matter.

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Design Matters. A lot.

July 2, 2010 โ€” A year ago I wrote a post titled "The Truth about Web Design" where I briefly argued that "design doesn't matter a whole lot."

My argument was: "you go to a website for the utility of it. Design is far secondary. There are plenty of prettier things to look at in the real world."

I do think the real world is a pretty place, but about design, I was completely wrong.

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Competition and Specialization

June 28, 2010 โ€” Competition and specialization are generally positive economics forces. What's interesting is that they are contradictory.

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Simple, but not easy

June 17, 2010 โ€” Doing a startup is surprisingly simple. You have to start by creating a product that people must have, then you scale it from there.

What percent of your customers or "users" would be disappointed if your product disappeared tomorrow? If it's less than 40%, you haven't built a must have yet.

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Flip Flopping

Every Sunday night in college my fraternity would gather in the commons room for a "brother meeting". (Yes, I was in a fraternity, and yes I do regret that icing hadn't been invented yet). These meetings weren't really "productive", but we at least made a few decisions each week. The debates leading up to these decisions were quite fascinating. The questions would be retarded, like whether or not our next party should be "Pirate" themed or "Prisoner" themed(our fraternity was called Pike, so naturally(?) we were limited to themes that started with the letter P so we could call the party "Pike's of the Caribean" or something). No matter what the issue, we would always have members make really passionate arguments for both sides.

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The Churn Rate of Data

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June 15, 2010 โ€” I think it's interesting to ponder the value of information over it's lifetime.

Different types of data become outdated at different rates. A street map is probably mostly relevant 10 years later, while a 10 year old weather forecast is much less valuable.

Phone numbers probably last about 5 years nowadays. Email addresses could end up lasting decades. News is often largely irrelevant after a day. For a coupon site I worked on, the average life of a coupon seemed to be about 2 weeks.

If your data has a long half life, then you have time to build it up. Wikipedia articles are still valuable years later.

What information holds value the longest? What are the "twinkies" of the data world?

Books, it seems. We don't regularly read old weather forecasts, census rolls, or newspapers, but we definitely still read great books, from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Mill.

Facts and numbers have a high churn rate, but stories and knowledge last a lot longer.

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Culture and Complexity

June 14, 2010 โ€” Have you heard of the Emperor Penguins? It's a species of penguins that journeys 30-75 miles across the frigid Antarctic to breed. Each year these penguins endure 8 months of brutally cold winters far from food. If you aren't familiar with them, check out either of the documentaries March of the Penguins or Planet Earth.

I think the culture of the emperor penguins is fascinating and clearly reveals some general traits from all cultures:

Culture is a set of habits that living things repeat because that's what they experienced in the past, and the past was favorable to them. Cultures have a mutually dependent relationship with their adherents.
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The Invention of Free Will

Or..We Think we have Free Will because we only Observe One Path.

March 24, 2010 โ€” "Dad, I finished my homework. Why?"

The father thinks for a moment. He realizes the answer involves explaining the state of the world prior to the child doing the homework. It involves explaining the complex probabilities that combined would calculate the odds the child was going to do the homework. And it likely involved explaining quantum mechanics.

The father shrugs and says "Because you have free will, and chose to do it."

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Why is it best to do one thing really, really well?

March 22, 2010 โ€” Google has a list of 10 principles that guide its actions. Number 2 on this list is:

It's best to do one thing really, really well.

This advice is so often repeated that I thought it would be worthwhile to think hard about why this might be the case.

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The Hidden Benefits of Automation

March 17, 2010 โ€” If you automate a process which you repeat Y times, that takes X minutes, what would your payoff be?

Payoff = XY minutes saved, right?

Surprisingly I've found that is almost never the case. Instead, the benefits are almost always greater than XY. In some cases, much greater. The benefits of automating a process are greater than the sum of the process' parts.

Actual Payoff = XY minutes saved + E

What is E? It's the extra something you get from not having to waste time and energy on XY.

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Metrics for Programmers

March 16, 2010 โ€” I wrote a simple php program called phpcodestat that computes some simple statistics for any given directory.

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HackerNews Data: Visits as a Function of Karma

March 8, 2010 โ€” If a post on HackerNews gets more points, it gets more visits.

But how much more? That's what Murkin wanted to know.

I've submitted over 10 articles from this site to HackerNews and I pulled the data from my top 5 posts (in terms of visits referred by HackerNews) from Google Analytics.

Here's how it looks if you plot visits by karma score:

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Don't talk about what you will do, talk about what you have done

February 19, 2010 โ€” All the time I overhear people saying things like "I will start excercising everyday" or "We will ship this software by the end of the month" or "I will read that book" or "I will win this race." I'm guilty of talking like this too.

The problem is that often, you say you will do something and you don't end up doing it. Saying "I will do", might even be a synonym for "I won't do".

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Why it's worth it to buy the book

February 17, 2010 โ€” If a book is worth reading, it's worth buying too.

If you're reading a book primarily to gain value from it(as opposed to reading it for pleasure) you should always buy it unless it's a bad book.

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The Least You Can Do

February 2, 2010 โ€” My room was always messy. Usually because clothes were strewn everywhere On the floor, on the couch, anywhere there was a surface there was a pile of clothes. Dirty, clean, or mostly-clean scattered about.

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Four Tips to Improve Communication

January 29, 2010 โ€” Good communication is overcommunication. Very few people overcommmunicate. Undercommunication is much more common. Undercommunication is also the cause of countless problems in business.

Instead of striving for some subjective "good communication", simply strive to overcommunicate. It's very unlikely you'll hit a point where people say "he communicates too much". It's much more likely you'll come up a bit short, in which case you'll be left with good communication.

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Network Effects

January 22, 2010 โ€” Network effects are to entrepreneurs what compounding effects are to investors: a key to getting rich.

Sometimes a product becomes more valuable simply as more people use it. This means the product has a "network effect".

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If you can explain something logically, you can explain it simply

Is there any subject which cannot be explained simply?
What about quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, or rocket science? Surely these cannot be explained simply.
Any and every subject that can be explained logically, can also be explained simply.
So you are saying that even I can become an expert at quantum mechanics?
No. I am saying that every logical thing there is to learn in quantum mechanics can be explained simply. This holds for all subjects. However, that does not mean that every person can master every subject. Only people that master the basic building blocks of human knowledge can master any subject.
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With Computers: Don't Repeat Yourself. With People: DO Repeat Yourself

January 15, 2010 โ€” In computer programming, one of the most oft-repeated mottos is DRY: "Don't Repeat Yourself."

The downside of DRY's popularity is that programmers might start applying the principle to conversations with other humans.

This fails because computers and people are polar opposites.

With computers, you get zero benefit if you repeat yourself. With people, you get zero benefit if you don't repeat yourself!

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When forced to wait, wait!

January 14, 2010 โ€” When a problem you are working on forces you to wait, do you wait or switch tasks?

For example, if you are uploading a bunch of new web pages and it's taking a minute, do you almost instinctively open a new website or instant message?

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How to Buy Low, Sell High

January 12, 2010 โ€” Whether you're an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, a casual investor or just a shopper looking for a deal, you should know how to buy low and sell high. Buying low and selling high is not easy. It's not easy because it requires too things humans are notoriously bad at: long term planning and emotional control. But if done over a long period of time, buying low and selling high is a surefire way to get rich.

Warren Buffett is perhaps the king of buying low and selling high. These tips are largely regurgitated from his speeches and biographies which I've been reading over the past two years.

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Flee the Bubble

January 5, 2010 โ€” Possibly the biggest mistake a web startup can make is to develop in a bubble. This is based on my own experience launching 13 different websites over the past 4 years. The raw numbers:

Type Count Successes TimeToLaunch CumulativeGrossRevenues %ofTotalTraffic CumulativeProfits EmotionalToll
Bubble 3 0 Months <$5,000 <1% -$10,000's High
NonBubble 10 5-8 1-14Days $100,000's >99% Good None-low

What is "the bubble"?

The bubble is the early, early product development stage. When new people aren't constantly using and falling in love with your product, you're in the bubble. You want to get out of here as fast as possible.

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Checklist for New Products

December 28, 2009 โ€” At our startup, we've practiced a diversification strategy.

We've basically run an idea lab, where we've built around 7 different products. Now we're getting ready to double down on one of these ideas.

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Diversification in Startups

2021 Update: I think the model and advice presented here is weak and that this post is not worth reading. I keep it up for the log, and not for the advice and analysis provided.

December 24, 2009 โ€” Over the past 6 months, our startup has taken two approaches to diversification. We initially tried no diversification and then we tried heavy diversification.

In brief, my advice is:

Diversify heavily early. Then focus.
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Thoughts on Setting Goals

December 23, 2009 โ€” It is better to set small, meaningful goals than to set wild, audacious goals.

Here's one way to set goals:

Make them good. Make them small.
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Problems Worth Solving

December 20, 2009 โ€” Programming, ultimately, is about solving problems. Often I make the mistake of judging a programmer's work by the elegance of the code. Although the solution is important, what's even more important is the problem being solved.

Problems are not all created equal, so while programming you should occasionally ask yourself, "is this problem worth solving?"

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Make Something 40% of Your Customers Must Have

December 16, 2009 โ€” If you combine Paul Graham's "make something people want" advice with Sean Ellis' product-market fit advice (you have product-market fit when you survey your users and at least 40% of them would be disappointed if your product disappeared tomorrow), you end up with a possibly even simpler, more specific piece of advice:

Make something 40% of your users must have
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SEO Made Easy: LUMPS

December 15, 2009 โ€” The best Search Engine Optimization(SEO) system I've come across comes from Dennis Goedegebuure, SEO manager at eBay. Dennis' system is called LUMPS. It makes SEO dead simple.

Just remember LUMPS:

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Don't Flip the Bozo Bit

December 13, 2009 โ€” Do you "flip the bozo bit" on people?

If you don't know what that means, you probably do it unknowingly!

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December 11, 2009 โ€” Jason Fried from 37signals gave a great talk at startup school last month. At one point he said "software has no edges." He took a normal, everyday bottle of water and pointed out 3 features:

  1. The bottle held the water.
  2. The lightweight plastic made it easy to carry, and you can tell how full it was by picking it up.
  3. The clear bottle let you see how much was left and what was in it.

If you added a funnel to help pour the water, that might be useful in 5% of cases, but it would look a little funny. Then imagine you attach a paper towel to each funnel for when you spill. Your simple water bottle is now a monstrosity.

The clear edges of physical products make it much harder for feature creep to happen. But in software feature creep happens, and happens a lot.

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Get Stuff Done By Setting Arbitrary Constraints

December 10, 2009 โ€” Employees and students receive deadlines, due dates, goals, guidelines, instructions and milestones from their bosses and teachers. I call these "arbitrary constraints".

Does it really matter if you learn about the American Revolution by Friday? No. Is there a good reason why you must increase your sales this month by 10%, versus say 5% or 15%? No. Does it really matter if you get a 4.0 GPA? No.

But these constraints are valuable, despite the fact that they are arbitrary. They help you get things done.

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Why You Shouldn't Save Blogging for Old Age

December 9, 2009 โ€” A lot of people have the idea that maybe one day they'll become rich and famous and then write a book about it. That's probably because it seems like the first thing people do after becoming rich and famous is write a book about it.

But you don't have to wait until you're rich and famous to write a book about your experiences and ideas.

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6 Specific Ways to Find Programming Mentors

December 8, 2009 โ€” Finding experienced mentors and peers might be the most important thing you can do if you want to become a great programmer. They will tell you what books to read, explain the pros and cons of different languages, demystify anything that seems to you like "magic", help you when you get in a jam, work alongside you to produce great things people want, and challenge you to reach new heights.

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Orders of Magnitude

December 7, 2009 โ€” Do you think in Orders of Magnitude? You should.

If you think in orders of magnitude you can quickly visualize how big a number is and how much effort it would take to reach it.

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The Many Worlds Law

December 6, 2009 โ€” Imagine you are eating dinner with 9 friends and you all agree to play Credit Card Roulette. Credit Card Roulette is a game where everyone puts their credit card in a pile and the server randomly chooses one and charges the whole meal to it.

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Twelve Tips to Master Programming Faster

December 4, 2009 โ€” Do you want to become a great coder? Do you have a passion for computers but not a thorough understanding of them? If so, this post is for you.

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What's Linear Algebra?

December 3, 2009 โ€” What would happen if instead of writing about subjects you understood, you wrote about subjects you didn't understand? Let's find out!

Today's topic is linear algebra. I know almost nothing about vectors, matrices, and linear algebra.

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Fiction or Nonfiction?

December 2, 2009 โ€” What books have changed your life? Seriously, pause for a few minutes and think about the question. I'll share my list in a moment, but first come up with yours.

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Experience is What You Get

Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want.

December 2, 2009 โ€” How many times have you struggled towards a goal only to come up short? How many times have bad things happened to you that you wish hadn't happened? If you're like me, the answer to both of those is: a lot.

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I'm Back

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December 2, 2009 โ€” Decided to blog again. I missed it. Writing publicly, even when you only get 3 readers, two of which are bots and the other is your relative, is to the mind what exercise is to the body. It's fun and feels good; especially when you haven't done it in a while.

Also decided to go old school. No Wordpress or Tumblr, Blogger or Posterous. Instead, I'm writing this on pen and paper. Later I'll type it into HTML using Notepad++, vim, or equivalent(EDIT: after writing this I coded my own, simple blogging software called brecksblog). It will just be text and links. Commenting works better on hackernews, digg, or reddit anyway.

Hopefully these steps will result in better content. Pen and paper make writing easier and more enjoyable, so hopefully I'll produce more. And the process of typing should serve as a filter. If something sucks, I won't take the time to type it.

I'm writing to get better at communicating, thinking, and just for fun. If anyone finds value in these posts, that's an added bonus.

Written 11/30/2009

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