Talking Politics

Most people I know have hated this election season for one reason or another. Not me – this has been my favorite election cycle that I’ve experienced by quite a wide margin. The reason? People are talking!

From the very beginning of the primary process, I have heard people talking about candidates and issues with a conviction that seems quite different from years past. The emergence of Trump and Sanders meant there were plausible candidates with real differences in both primaries.

If you remember the Bush v Gore election, you might remember the popular complaint that there were no meaningful differences between them (I never agreed, but it was a popular complaint, at least before the election). I don’t think we’ll hear much of that complaint this year.

I’ve always held a soft spot for Michael Jordan’s response when he once refused to endorse a Democrat. “Republicans buy shoes, too,” he said. When you’re a public figure, you can’t communicate a nuanced position. Whatever you say will be twisted into a soundbite that may or may not summarize your point. That’s why I don’t really care what this or that celebrity thinks.

I do care what my friends and family think – and that’s why I love this election. People are talking. Turns out about half the country disagrees with me, and since I am friends with a broad enough sample of the population, about half of my friends disagree with me as well. When we talk, that gives us the opportunity to change each other, although it happens very, very slowly and in ways that we don’t always expect or even notice.

You know what that is? That’s democracy working. I love it. Keep talking!

PS, I mean actual talking, not writing … writing has its place, but talking is better – so if you try to engage me on any specific issue in the comments to this article, it’s unlikely I’ll take the bait 😉

Vacation

Last week, I was on vacation – absolutely, completely on vacation and totally removed from any work activities. It was great.

I haven’t had a vacation this thorough in quite some time. Usually I still have work thoughts in my head, even if I’m disengaged from day-to-day activities. Not this time – for some reason, I was able to let any hint of responsibility or ambition drain from my skull. My mind was nearly blank.

We spent this vacation in Texas with Paula’s family. The trip was even a bit longer than my actual vacation – we left on Tuesday the week before last, and I worked support from Texas Wednesday to Friday (June 15-17).

I think that was a big part of my ability to detach – we spent the normal amount of energy leading up to our travel date, and then we spent a day traveling (always a bit tiring). Then I “recovered” by working for a few days. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, all I had to do was close my laptop, and I was somewhere other than home for a full week. When I got back home a week later, I recovered again with a normal day of racing Saturday and a final day with minimal responsibilities yesterday (thanks Paula).

It’s time to get back to work. It was nice to empty my brain, but now it’s time to put stuff back in it.

Microsoft Office vs Google Docs

Microsoft Office is better than Google Docs in almost every way.

The Office interface is fresher – it looks and feels better. Office has way more features, and the native apps are way more sophisticated on Windows, Mac, iOS, and even Android. Heck, even the Office web apps look better than Google Docs. Again, it’s just better.

EXCEPT for one thing …

I remember my friend Rory riffing on the stupidest question in all of software: Do you want to save? Rory would practically yell at his screen, “Of course I want to save! You’re a computer – just save the damn thing and then make me work to delete it if I need to!”

That was two decades ago, and Office apps like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint still ask me if I want to save the damn file. Google Docs does not. I know it’s difficult to change features that are entrenched with users, but c’mon, Microsoft!

This particularly becomes an issue when you move between devices. I have a few spreadsheets that I use on my computer and on my phone. This is maddening with Excel, because I have to remember to save and exit the file on one device (even on my phone!) if I want to use it on the other.

For that one simple reason, I’ve mostly switched to Google Docs, an app I like less in every other way.

That’s a humbling reminder to me … what one feature in Moraware could cause our customers to bolt? What one feature in your product could cause your customers to leave?

Mmmm … Tasty

Growing up, I was quite a picky eater (my dad still is, so I suppose I have him to thank for that).

When Paula and I moved in together (26 years ago!), I watched her cook some basic foods that I thought I didn’t like, such as meatloaf, stir fried vegetables, and lasagna. Seeing her make these foods demystified them – it made them approachable, and so I tried them and soon started liking them. These days, I wouldn’t exactly call myself an adventurous eater, but I’m not terribly picky, either (still hate pickles, though).

I was reminded of the evolution in my taste buds when “Tasty” videos started becoming popular on Facebook.

These videos have no narration and little text. They show delicious-looking food and how it gets made. They don’t just show you that you can eat this food – they show you that you can make it. When you watch one of these, you can almost hear yourself saying, “I should totally make that.”

The people at Tasty excel at one of the most fundamental movie-making rules: show don’t tell. The videos are quick and easy to watch, so they seem simple, but they’re anything but simple to produce. I saw a behind-the-scenes video a while back that revealed a team of several people working hours to create that perfect 30-second clip.

Tasty’s videos are so good that they all go viral. I don’t think I can make training videos for our software that go viral, but I at least want to copy Tasty’s basic approach for making videos accessible: about 30 seconds long, no audio needed, and show don’t tell. Oh, and a whole lotta work. We’ll see.

Innovations usually come from the low end

The other day, I saw a segment of How It’s Made (great show … it’s like Baby Einstein for grownups). It showed the dozens of steps that go into making a dental crown. No wonder they’re so expensive!

I doubt crowns will be made this way 20 years from now … but I don’t think they’ll be made better. I predict that some enterprising dental entrepreneur will figure out how to scan the tooth gap without making a mold. Then they’ll figure out how to 3D print a “good enough” crown, perhaps right in the office.

Such a crown wouldn’t last as long as current tech (at least at first), but it would cost 10 times less. If your dentist gave you the option of a $1,000 lifetime replacement or a $100 replacement that lasted a year or two … a lot of people are going to settle for the dodgy replacement, because it’s so much cheaper right now.

In his groundbreaking book Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen points out that most disruptive innovations don’t come from improvements on the state of the art – instead, true innovations usually look like toys to the incumbent players.

The makers of high-quality table radios didn’t see the threat from crappy little transistor radios. Mainframe computer makers scoffed at minicomputers, just as minicomputer makers scoffed at PCs, and PC makers scoffed at tablets. Time and time again, innovation comes from the low end, not from the high end.

I could very well be wrong with my prediction about crowns. Medical stuff is highly regulated, which complicates things, and a big part of the cost of a crown is time spent with a dentist’s hand in your mouth – so maybe it’s not worth it to make cheaper crowns … but I bet it is, and I bet someone figures it out.

Regardless, it’s worth remembering that disruptions usually happen at the low end of a market. One of my favorite examples is Dr Chrono, a medical software company that started out as a simple app (must have looked like a toy to the big players) and is now hugely successful, gobbling up more market share every day. Bob and I talk more about the success of Dr Chrono on our podcast this week.

The Joy of Music

Last week, Gus had his 7th grade spring band concert. He plays percussion and seems to enjoy it. Here are the 4 songs they played:

Just as I developed a good musical foundation from violin lessons (thanks, Linda!) Gus developed a good musical foundation from piano lessons (thanks, Eileen!). Playing one instrument makes it easier to learn another, so he picked up percussion pretty quickly.

At home, we have a set of practice bells (like xylophone but metal). Gus will frequently walk over and play a song or two. I love hearing the sounds, but for the most part, Paula and I stay out of it. While it was important to us that he gain a foundation, now his relationship with music is all his. If he wants to play, that’s great, but I can’t make him want to.

Quieting our reactions (and reducing our encouragement) was a conscious decision we made after reading something my mom wrote. It’s a chapter about me and my difficult relationship with music from her slowly evolving book, Walden Three (here’s the same story from my perspective). In that chapter, my mom talks about my musical successes and comes to this conclusion (bold mine):

“Knowing oneself” includes being able to distinguish between … what one does because of human encouragement and what one does because of effective interaction with the environment. Unless one can make such a distinction, it is very difficult to make life choices based on ones skills and preferences. With respect to Patrick, I believe that the very consistent positive reinforcement he received for playing the violin prevented him from learning his own reactions and relationship with it.

I couldn’t agree more – hearing how great I was from others actually got in the way of my own musical explorations. The only reason to be a musician is because you love it … if other people like the way you sound, that’s just a bonus. When you start getting more nourishment from their praise than your own love of music, that’s a problem – one that I still haven’t resolved for myself.

Since reading my mom’s words, we’ve tried to dial back our praise for anything Gus does. Obviously, we’re proud of his successes and we support him through his struggles, but we want them to be fundamentally his, not ours.

Why Facebook Rocks for Small Businesses

Facebook is an amazing creation. As a Facebook user, you can post pictures or thoughts, and all your friends get the opportunity to see them, partially on their own terms. Some of your friends will unfollow you, but that’s cool, actually – Facebook makes it easy to choose what you don’t want to see and it learns what you want to see over time.

If you post something that you want even more people to see, you can pay about $5 to have 500 or so additional people see it (Facebook calls this “boosting” your post). It doesn’t go to 500 random people, though – it shows up on more of your friend’s feeds as well as their friends’ feeds (there are more options, but this is the most compelling). More money => even more people.

Think about that … if you have a message you want to spread, the friends of your friends are probably the perfect people to reach. Facebook lets you reach them for as little as $5. Amazing.

That’s vaguely interesting for a person, but it’s genuinely useful for businesses. That’s where Facebook Pages come in. A Page is the organizational equivalent of a person. When you Like someone’s Facebook Page, it’s a lot like becoming their friend. Some of their posts will show up in your feed, but more importantly, the owner of the Page can pay to reach you and your friends.

For example, friends of mine own Grand Rapids Popcorn Company, and I like their Page. If they had a special event or sale they wanted to promote, they could post about it, and I might see it. But then they could pay to boost that post, and not only would I probably see it, but many of my friends would see it, too (they have 3,000+ likes, so they could probably reach 30,000 people or so with about $100). They could even restrict the boosted post to people living in Grand Rapids if they wanted to. Where else can they get targeted advertising like that for such a low price? Nowhere.

Facebook even makes it easy to embed a Like button in another page – click Like below to show my friends at grpopcorn some love!

My company, Moraware, has a Page as well, but unless you work for a countertop fabricator (our target market), I don’t want you to Like it. When you ask people to Like your page who aren’t in your target market, you just made it more expensive to reach your target market! More isn’t always better … if you want people to Like your Page, give them a reason, and then be patient. There’s an art to growing a Page, but that’s a topic for another day.

My point for of all this today is that you probably are the target market for Foley Racing, the Page I made for our family’s go-karting adventures. We’re going to be posting updates for the next 15 weeks or so, but I don’t want to bombard my personal friends with that each week. By posting to a Page, we’re letting you choose whether you want to hear about it each week or just once in a while (hey, we’ll still post the big milestones like our first win to our personal timelines!). It also makes it really easy for Paula and me to post pictures to the same place and always know where to find them, which is quite handy. So if you want to follow our race team’s progress this year, just click Like below or visit our Page once in a while.

Start your engines!

Go-kart season starts tomorrow, and I can’t wait to see everybody in our karting club. Karting is remarkably supportive, and it’s a family activity – so our competitors have become our good friends. You should see for yourself – come check out the track in Ravenna on a raceday sometime this summer (tomorrow is “rookie day” and practice – the first time we can get on the track).

I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done on Gus’s kart to get it ready. Check out these knuckles:

knuckles

That’s not a scrape, it’s a burn – I was using a cutting wheel to fabricate a bracket, and the sparks burned through my gloves! The bracket’s awesome, though.

I can’t thank my friend Chuck enough for all his help in getting the kart simplified. With his help, I’ve learned how to use a chop saw, grinder (soft and hard pad), cutting wheel, sanding belt … he thinks I’m even ready to weld now.

The main benefit of all this work is that the kart won’t require so much work on race days. When I do need to work on it, everything is easy to remove and put back. I’ll take pictures showing the difference over the summer.

Now all I need is a bit more grease under those fingernails, and I’ll be a real gear-head.

Self-driving cars

In case you haven’t heard, self-driving cars are coming – it’s a matter of when, not if. When our kids grow up and look back at today, they’ll laugh about how quickly the technology was adopted, the same way we shake our heads today, remembering life without smartphones.

The transition will be fascinating. This technology will evolve, and while it seems likely that we’ll have more non-human drivers than human drivers at some point in the not-so-distant future, it’s unclear how we’ll get from here to there. It’s complicated, because autonomous cars can kill you, just as regular ones can. 

If we could magically replace all human drivers with non-human drivers in a day, tens of thousands of lives would actually be saved … even with today’s technology, computers are statistically way better drivers than humans. However, humans are irrational, and the first time a self-driving car is involved in a fatal accident, we will freak out.

I think we need to get humans used to the idea of self-driving cars in stages. Currently, Tesla is leading the way with real-world results – if you’re on the highway, you can let your Tesla take over the steering, but you’re supposed to be vigilant and ready to take over again if needed. That’s super impressive, but I worry about the first failure. Again, it’s the humans who have to get used to the behavior of computers, not the other way around.

What I’d like to see soon is a self-driving car with no human driver at all – but one that’s limited to 25mph. I think it should have a flashing light on the top to warn other drivers that something is different about it. Use it in cities as an automated taxi. Avoiding the highway would be an acceptable limitation, since the trade-off would be lower prices over time. That’s exactly the market Uber is going after. Once our society gets used to that early-adopter technology, THEN people will realistically start asking: “Why do I ever drive at all?”

That was embarrassing

Like many people, I can be frozen by embarrassment – or even worse, frozen simply by the fear of embarrassment.

For example, recently I made an embarrassing goof during a podcast interview (one that insulted my guests), even though I’ve been working pretty hard to get better at interviewing. This goof affected my sleep for a couple of days – I’d wake up breathing slightly heavily and beating myself up: “How could I be so stupid?”

Whenever I experience something like that, I have an impulse to run away. For example, in this case, I had minor thoughts about quitting podcasting or dialing it back: “I guess I’m just not cut out for this.” However, I also knew that I had been working hard and improving, so I didn’t take that impulse too seriously. I observed my typical embarrassment reaction, but I knew instinctively that this was simply a bump in the road, and I’d eventually get over it.

This time, I took one additional step … I said, “I’m embarrassed” out loud. I was recording a test episode, and as I was pitching the next show, I mentioned my mistake. Instantly, I felt quite a bit better. At that point, I realized that it was simply a fact of my life: I did this, and it was embarrassing. I didn’t lose any more sleep. I’m still a bit embarrassed by it, but it’s not debilitating. 

I’ll probably take one more step and simply apologize directly to my guests when I announce the show. They clearly noticed my gaff, and if I were in their shoes, I’d be insulted – I might as well not shy away from it.

This seems like a repeatable approach to me, although I hope I don’t have to use it too often. If you want to know the specifics of this particular faux pas, you’ll have to listen to my podcast.