Google [X], Part III

Here’s me, a year ago, sounding crazy:

I bet the Google self-driving car never becomes the market leader. It’s possible it’s not even the first to market for public purchase. It’s even possible that it never makes the market at all.

I bet Google rolls back into a software partner role in its alliance with Ford. I bet Google distributes its software for cars the same way it distributes its software for phones.

And here’s the news this month:
Google has refocused its autonomous driving efforts away from developing its own car without a steering wheel and pedals … Instead, the company is said to be partnering with automakers on more conventional cars
Shortly after that news broke, Google spun its car division out into Waymo, which still sorta promises to make self-driving a reality. Turns out I was a little wrong — it may wind up being Chrysler or Honda who partners with Google, not Ford. But I’ll still call the harder prediction, that Google won’t be market leader or even first to market, a success so far.
It turns out cars are pretty hard to make.

Don’t Vote, Part II

In Don’t Vote, I wrote about how you could multiply your voting power by not just voting, but campaigning to get others to vote — and that thanks to modern technology, it’s now cheaper and safer than ever to campaign.

Scott Adams, a better writer (debateable) and a bigger asshole (certain) than me, points out that the reverse is also true: You can also convince people to not vote. Ten extra votes for your candidate of choice and ten missing votes for the opposition are about the same currency.

(PS: if you’ve somehow registered to vote but are as of yet undecided on whether you’re actually going to do it or who you’re going to do it for, please vote for hillary, the election is still closer than it seems, and your vote matters. thanks)

Google [X], Part II

I wrote here about how I thought Google [X] isn’t really a research company, but subterfuge employed by Google for entirely different ends.

John Gruber’s Daring Fireball links to a pair of articles which add some supporting color. The focus is on [X]’s reported 2nd quarter loss of $859 million which at first sounds kind of bewildering… but check out the far more interesting quote near the end of his wrap (emphasis mine):

The combination of big ideas, lofty rhetoric and a strict code of secrecy has made X a source of endless speculation and conspiracy theories. The one you hear most frequently, usually from competitors and venture capitalists, is that X is a giant public relations plan to distract regulators from Google’s search business, which is under scrutiny around the world. 

Not precisely the ruse I had in mind (to be fair I don’t often run in circles of VCs), but also not incompatible with the theory I proposed.

Worth illustrating:

Google executes 60.4% of all desktop searches. On the Herfindal-Hershman Index, which measures market concentration, an industry score below 1,000 indicates adequate competition and a score above 1,800 means you should expect scrutiny from the Justice Department.

… The HHI score in desktop search: Juuuust a tad over 4,700.

So knowing that Google made $20.1B revenue in Q2 2016 in a search advertising industry that is screaming for antitrust intervention… I’d say that an $859mm loss (just 4.3% of revenues) is a pretty justifiable expense to keep regulators off your tail.

Barack Obama has normal ears

For this blog post, I am going to disagree with President Barack Obama.

This is what he looks like:



And here are a few examples of what he sounds like:

1) His visit to Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (if you’re impatient, skip to the 05:40 mark).

2) His goof for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (in particular, the 01:02 mark):

There’s more. There’s tons more. Here Obama says he was bullied. Here his daughters are mocking him. Here he says his look inspired Shrek.

Barack Obama insists that he has “big ears.”

I feel like this is like a reverse The Emperor’s New Clothes. In the classic, the Emperor exclaims that his clothes make him look fantastic and nobody cares to point out that he should be embarrassed about being naked. In Obama, the leader of the free world describes how embarrassed he is about how he looks, and nobody cares to point out that the dude looks totally fine.

I looked up some stuff about ears. The average adult male ear is 6.4cm tall. Barack Obama is 6’1, or 185.4cm. In the photo above, I found Obama to be standing 514 pixels tall, while his right ear stands 18 pixels tall:



185.4cm :: 514px. Therefore, 18 pixels :: 6.49cm. *Slightly* above average. Not to mention the fact that the reported average height for an American male is somewhere from 5’7 to 5’10. So with Obama being 6’1, we should expect some modest increase in ear size.

Wait, what’s going on? Why is this important? Who cares?

Well, Obama’s tricking you. You’re being actively deceived by the standing US President. Aren’t you offended? Shouldn’t we impeach him and send him to the Supreme Court, or ask for his birth certificate or his tax return? …Probably not.

Here’s the thing. Obama almost definitely knows he doesn’t have big ears. What makes this cool is that he sounds all humble and relatable, when really, he’s not conceding anything negative about himself at all. I mean, Jerry Seinfeld once ended a relationship with a girl for having big hands… among a litany of other obtuse reasons for break-ups… and I don’t even think he would dump a girl because her ears were too big.

There’s morals to this story about modesty and about self-conscience. Being modest and humble is nice. But if you’re going to self-deprecate, why attack your self-confidence in doing so? Might as well pick something that either you really don’t care about, or that totally doesn’t matter in the first place.

Don’t Vote

Most people (in the USA) believe in voting. The truth is: Don’t bother voting. Your vote doesn’t matter, and your time can be far better spent elsewhere.

As usual our prompt:

Q: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

A: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

I think voting isn’t a good use of time.

You’re probably inclined to say “but Josh, this isn’t really that uncommon a belief! There’s 320 million people living in America, plus the whole electoral college thing; at some level we all kind of know that our votes don’t really matter. It’s more the principle of the thing.”

I agree.

But my argument is a little more specific, and a lot less defeatist, than just the above. It’s not so much that your vote doesn’t matter; it’s that in 2016, there are way more valuable things you can be doing than just voting.

Let’s look at an extreme example: Hillary Clinton.


We all agree that my vote doesn’t matter, but have you considered the notion that that Hillary Clinton’s vote doesn’t matter either?

It’s true. Even though she’s got everything in her world on the line, she could vote for anyone on the planet come general elections and it wouldn’t matter one bit.

Any individual’s vote is unimportant. The only thing that’s really valuable is getting all of your peers to vote.

To do that, you need two things:

  • Credibility
  • Campaigning

On a purely practical basis, Hillary has to appear to have voted. We (her peers and extended-peers) have to believe that she votes, otherwise we won’t bother listening to her tell us how to vote. She has to make an appearance at a polling booth, and step behind the curtain for a reasonable amount of time — Bill Clinton could be waiting back there to surprise her with a Smirnoff Ice, wouldn’t matter — Hillary will appear to have voted and her credibility will be intact.

From there, the real thing that matters, the real thing that’s worth her time, is campaigning. Hillary’s vote will only move the popular election results by 1. Her speeches, her advertisements, and her tweets will move the popular results by millions, and will move the electoral results by dozens and could conceivably swing the election in her favor. Which is the whole idea of running for President in the first place. (Her campaign, of course, falls flat if we don’t believe that she believes in voting. That’s why credibility came first.)

This seems kind of obvious when we lay it out in terms of Hillary, but let’s bring it back to me and you.

You and I are tacitly supposed to keep our votes private. Most of my peers leave the political prognosticating to TV pundits and to insane people who feel like they have to share a new Bernie Sanders / Feel the Bern / 420BlazeIt article every 5 minutes, and we formulate our own opinions in the isolation of our own homes.

Part of this is that it’s taboo to talk politics. Our feelings on politics can be pretty central to our personal beliefs, and pretty divisive. People get into fights, breakups, and worse over differences in political alignment. Safer to not bring it up and ignorantly enjoy your friends’ company and the 999,999,999 other things you could be talking about instead of the government. So we tend to keep hush. I myself only have very limited ideas on the political alignments of my close friends — just not a metaphorical crocodile I’ve really ever thought about prodding until I decided to write this essay.

The other part of this voting privacy situation is by manufactured design: In the early days of voting, people were pretty susceptible to being bullied and intimidated into voting differently. If you kept your feelings private, and you voted behind a curtain in a 1-person capacity booth, it was substantially harder for the Al Capone-types to really exert much influence. Some polling booths I’ve used will physically disable the voting buttons until the drawstring on the privacy curtain is pulled all the way shut.


But now it’s 2016 and a couple things have changed:

  1. I could be wrong, but I don’t really think organized mobster crime is that big a deal anymore
  2. You now have way, way, way more power than ever to express yourself and exert broad (positive, not-mafia-like) influence in your network

You could probably very safely get away with voting without drawing the privacy curtain.

On election day, you could spend the ~3 hours finding a local polling place, commuting there, farting around in a line for an eternity, and voting — not to mention first registering to vote months beforehand, if you haven’t done that yet — and all that effort will move the popular election by 1.


Or you could spend 3 hours writing a blog post, or a facebook thing, or an email thing, or a Snapchat thing, or whatever, and send it to your friends. If you do that, you might convince ten, or a hundred, or ten thousand people to register to vote, and to consider voting for your side. If you’re public about your voting preference, you’ll be orders of magnitude more powerful. I’d argue this might even make you a better American.

If we’re being candid, I (Josh) don’t actually have to go do the voting thing come November 8th. I just have to insinuate that I’m planning on doing it, and after the fact, tell you that I did. If I skip voting, but convince 10 friends to vote, I’ve still used my time 9x as effectively. (Hillary, by contrast, does at least have to appear at a polling booth because a camera crew will be following her. But again, as soon as she’s on the other side of the curtain, she might as well fire up Angry Birds or Neko Atsume.)

I do, either way, at this point have to tell you who I’m planning on voting for (and hope that you’ll disregard my threat of free ridership in that last paragraph).

As of July 2016, I’m planning on voting for Hillary Clinton.

I’m not so crazy as to try my hand at voting for a third party / runner up like Bernie Sanders.

As for Trump… he’s always felt like a bad idea, but it’s taken months for me to stumble upon the correct, succinct, educated argument for why he actually is a bad idea. That argument is here. The argument is not “his hair is goofy and his face is orange!” or “he’s crazy!” which are relatively worthless petty arguments that stoop to Trump’s preferred flavor of debate. Rather, the argument is a tremendously worthwhile 7-minute read on why, with laser-precision, regardless of Trump’s actual policies, his candidacy undermines what it means to have a country like America.

I have some other thoughts on Trump in this indented section here:

Could I be convinced to change my mind and vote Trump in a few months?

There are facets of Trump’s campaign that I honestly find likeable. I really like the idea that a guy who has no background in politics can launch a platform and succeed — through that lens, Trump seems like he’s a better representative of the American people than someone who’s spent their life laboring and networking in upper echelon government and social circles.

For me to be convinced to switch, it might take a complete heel-turn on Trump’s part. Think, like, the reveal in The Wizard of Oz, where the Wizard turns out to be just a regular dude who figured that nobody was going to listen to him if he behaved normally, so he put on a show in order to get people to pay attention, but in the end it’s blatantly clear he’s just a regular dude. That’s probably what it’d take. But I dunno; maybe you can surprise me with a better argument.

Failing that, I think the very best thing Trump could do for America would be to lose the general election by like a 70/30 split. Any closer than that and next election someone even crazier is going to show up to try and out-Donald the alpha model to get over the hump. Less than that and the collective conscience will feel that the political outsider model never really stood a chance and it’ll be back to business as usual. But if Trump lands 30% as the Bad Cop outsider, he’s paved the way for a Good Cop outsider to reap the benefits in 2020. And in that way, he could actually deliver on his promise of helping to make America great again.

If you think you want to vote for Trump, that’s okay. I think Hillary is a better representative model for what I believe is good about America. I hope that I, and the very articulate argument in the article above, can convince you of that. This whole essay is kind of a risky thing to publish and I really hope it doesn’t devolve into a political shit storm.

Anyway. If you’ve only got a few hours to spend on the American Way this year, I don’t think you should vote for Hillary Clinton come November 8th. Instead, before November 8th, take those few hours and talk with your peers about it. Don’t bludgeon anyone with clickbait and finger-pointing and rage-inducing pabulum. Talk about it. Make a clear & intelligent case, listen open-mindedly, accept the possibility that some people will disagree, and encourage your counterparts to vote — or not just to vote, but to register to vote, because telling unregistered people to vote is worthless. Then on the 8th do whatever you want.

(I promise you that I’ll be voting on the 8th, but maybe… just to be on the safe side… you shouldn’t ask me too many nuanced questions about my whereabouts that afternoon.)

Most people believe that voting is the most important way you can participate in the American government & presidential election. The truth is that campaigning is far more powerful — and in 2016, we should feel empowered to have sane, open-minded, persuasive discussions about politics. 

Tell your friends.

Peter Thiel, Part II

We’ve got to talk quickly about Peter Thiel.

All year I’ve been using Thiel’s key interview question as a writing prompt.

Q: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

A: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

Thiel’s been in the news quite a bit lately. Specifically, we found out that he’s a supporter of Donald Trump, and that he’s been secretly backing Hulk Hogan’s company-crippling lawsuit against Gawker because of a grudge he’s held for about a decade. As it turns out, he might be a megalomaniac, or a cartoon supervillain, or something, depending on who you ask.

Several of my readers have sent me links to these sorts of articles, with appeals along the lines of “You can’t write about him anymore! He’s a madman!!”

So here’s today’s important, controversial truth: You can still learn tremendously good things from bad people. Bad people can have good ideas.

That’s not to say you subscribe to the whole of their philosophies or their practice. And it’s not to say you are, or will become, a bad person yourself. It is to say that flatly rejecting a person’s ideas in one field because of something disagreeable they did in a far different arena is technically illogical. (“Some ideas are bad” and “all ideas are bad” are correlated, but the former doesn’t automatically predict the latter). It may even be immoral.

This is not to say that I agree, or disagree, with the things Peter Thiel has done. Extolling or condemning his virtues are not crusades I care to join, and to that end, I’ve gone back and edited out unnecessary references to Thiel in my other essays on the subject.

Nonetheless: I believe the question and the search for answers are no less profound and meaningful today than they were before. I plan on continuing to think and write accordingly.


My sister wrote a book

Sometimes, a terrible thing happens when you have a younger sibling.

As the elder statesman, you spend your entire life learning, working hard, and creating an identity for yourself, while paving the way to make it easier for the new kid to get along.

What a mistake.

Because then, if you do that, you one day wake up and find definitive, conclusive evidence that they’re better than you. That you’re no longer the most adventurous or the most experienced or the bravest or the one with the most to share. (Or maybe, you never were.)

That day happened to me. It was March 22nd, 2016.

Before March 22nd, I’d tease about this idea to friends. I’d conjure the image of a DNA lottery draft, like the draft at recess when you picked sides for kickball. “Alyssa,” I’d say, “as the youngest of three siblings, had the last overall pick in the Petersel genetic lottery. I got music, Zach got sports, Alyssa got stuck with caring about people, having a moral compass, and wanting to save the world.”

Before March 22nd, I’d prided myself on my worldliness and my journalistic tendencies: I started and ran a music magazine. I’ve written up coverage of music festivals in strange, foreign lands. I’ve maintained this blog for over nine years.

But on March 22nd, 2016, my sister dropped a book. A full-length, edited, publisher-approved book. The culmination of almost a year abroad, and almost three years of effort. I thought I was leading the way around the track; it turns out, Alyssa’s nearly lapped me.

(For what it’s worth: Zach’s no slouch either.)

Having lived with Alyssa during her formative years, I can share some unique insight and perspective on this book in addition to the above confessions of my own nascent inferiority complex.

First: As a kid, she was ceaseless and terribly effective in lobbying for control of the TV. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to sit through the movie Spiceworld (on VHS!) as a result.

Second, and far more importantly & relevantly: I don’t think we grew up in a particularly Jewish household.

Accordingly, it was kind of strange and unsettling to me when Alyssa announced she was writing a book about “searching and belonging in Jewish Budapest.” Honestly, my most vibrant “Jewish” memories only tangentially register to me as “Jewish.”

  • We got Bar and Bat Mitzvahed, but in suburban Long Island, this roughly equates to six months of extra homework, which I already did a lot of, followed by a massive birthday party. I have a far better recollection of the walk-up music I chose for my friends and family than I do of the prayer songs I actually performed at the service
  • We visited Israel once as a family for New Years, but we took family trips annually to all matter of beautiful and historically significant places — to Mexico, to celebrate dad’s time spent living there; to Italy, to appreciate the history of art (and Zach’s love of pasta)
  • We went to Aunt Clara’s house every year and had a big family dinner (called a “Seder”) to celebrate Passover… but this wasn’t really all that materially different from the big family dinners we had at Aunt Barbara’s house in November to celebrate Thanksgiving

Then again… on further reflection…

  • We always knew our dad’s mom was an immigrant who fled Europe around the time a particular German regime was coming to power. It wasn’t until later, but Dad eventually revealed to us that our great aunt was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, and that many of his aunts and uncles were holocaust victims
  • I got bullied in high school for being jewish
  • I wore a Star of David necklace for a while growing up. I stopped; I liked being jewish, but I no longer wanted my religion to be such a visible part of my identity

For whatever reason, despite all the skepticism proffered by intellectual friends and modern philosophy classes, I still identify as Jewish. I believe zealously in the power and pleasure of traditions — not just the stereotypically “Jewish” traditions like that aforementioned Passover seder, but much simpler, modern traditions, too. Like always drinking a Mountain Dew when I play video games with Matt, or checking in at the Sweet Hollow Diner, ordering a Belgian Waffle, and eating it as fast as possible every time I go out to Long Island and visit my parents and high school friends.

To me, that’s the reality of modern Judaism — if not modern religion in general. And that’s what Alyssa captures brilliantly, and beautifully, in her book. Somehow I Am Different speaks to the power of creating and celebrating spirituality in your own unique way. And I’m tremendously relieved that Alyssa’s shown me that I’m far from alone in that endeavor.

Check out Somehow I Am Different on Amazon, if you want to read more.

Alyssa and I briefly toyed with the idea of doing an interview for this blog post, but I think we effectively covered everything she and I both wanted to cover after just one question:

Josh: What is Judaism?

Alyssa: I wonder if we should leave it at that.

Jenrry Mejia vs. Daniel Bryan

Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia recently got banned for life from Major League Baseball for testing positive for steroids three times.

The internet wasn’t kind in its response.

WWE super-duper-duper star Daniel Bryan recently prematurely retired from professional wrestling after testing positive for concussion-based health issues.

The internet, in this case, was overwhelmingly supportive.

Both athletes were effective and popular. Both pushed their bodies to their human limits. Both are out of work way before a healthy career would otherwise dictate.

Our thesis, as usual, is:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

For a casual observer, Mejia faced a very straightforward rule, “Do not take steroids,” and then broke it, and then broke it, and then broke it. It draws to mind a 2nd grader who, despite being scolded by his teacher, can’t stop pulling girls’ hair. How can a grown man, a 26-year-old young adult, fly so brazenly in the face of the law?

Most of my peers believe Mejia, like all steroids users, is a bad guy. The truth is that if you write incentives a certain way, you can get almost anybody to behave badly.

Most of my peers believe that taking steroids is wrong. The truth is that if I were in Mejia’s shoes, I don’t know that I’d pass up the opportunity.

This idea is important, because it’s bigger than steroids, and bigger than personal health, and bigger than rule-breaking. It’s about incentivizing behavior of all kinds.

Let’s think critically about what might make Jenrry Mejia tick.

I found a profile on Mejia here. It explains that Mejia started shining shoes at age 11, and made the equivalent of $8 a day. He didn’t even grow up playing baseball; he only started at age 15 when he learned about Pedro Martinez’s $53 million dollar contract with the Mets in 2004.

Flash to 2015 where, even in light of his second outstanding steroids offense, Mejia signed a 1-year contract with the Mets worth $2.5 million. (He’d only receive a portion of that while serving his 2nd ban.) Here’s his professional earnings history. He earned $2.6 million in six years with the Mets. Think about this: If Mejia stuck to shining shoes, earning $2.6 million would’ve taken him a little over 890 years. If Mejia even lasted three more years in baseball before getting caught, he’d more than likely walk away with a millenium’s worth of shoe shining commissions.

You think Mejia is a bad guy for taking steroids?

Stanozolol, the drug Mejia got twice suspended for, can be consumed in a tablet or dissolved in water.

By comparison:

  1. Do you know what the active ingredients are in Advil? Do you know or care about the long-term health effects? Ibuprofen has long been closely linked to increased risk of heart failure, kidney failure, and liver failure. I’ve taken Advil. I didn’t have $2.5 million on the line; I had a headache.
  2. In 2011, Bradley Cooper starred in a movie called Limitless. “With the help of a mysterious pill that enables the user to access 100 percent of his brain abilities, a struggling writer becomes a financial wizard.” Limitless is actually the story of Jenrry Mejia. And it’s such a popular story that, in 2015, it got adopted into a successful TV show that’ll probably get renewed for a new season later this year.
  3. I’ve been casually offered Adderall, a pill prescribed for attention deficit disorder. I’ve never taken the stuff, but I know plenty who have; sometimes because it was prescribed to them, but other times to help with studying, exams, or work. These remarkably intelligent, relatively health-conscious peers of mine chomp prescription meds not because they have 890 years of working salary to gain, but because they’d rather get an A than a C.

Really, you still think Mejia is a bad guy for taking steroids?

Mejia looked at the situation around him, the possibilities in front of him, and the pills his friend in the white jacket was boosting and promised were fine, and he made a choice: Can I push my body a little bit more for this? Is it worth the risk? He looked back at his home town of Herrera, described only in the profile above as “mucho pobre” (“very poor”), and I think the answer was pretty obvious. “Yes.”

Speaking of “Yes,” this is almost the same exact decision that Daniel Bryan faced multiple times — and answered the same way. (You might say, his response was YES! YES! YES! YES!)

Bryan has a history of severe health issues. At one point he lost all strength in his right arm — for months — which required multiple neck surgeries to recover. Forget the nebulous future health ramifications that we’re trying to protect athletes from by banning steroids. THE DUDE’S ARM STRAIGHT UP WASN’T WORKING.

That’s not even what caused him to retire!

Bryan retired because of concussions. He’s had TEN — and that’s only the ones that have been documented.

Bryan walked away from his sport. Perhaps he reached a point where his success was enough. He was a world champion, he’s authored a book which will sell well, he married a beautiful WWE diva. He probably (unlike Mejia) doesn’t have many friends or family living in desolate poverty to support, having grown up as a middle-class kid in the US pacific northwest.

These are the same young men facing and making the same hazardous decisions. And they both acted very much in their own best financial interests at the expense of their health.

There is one meaningful difference between steroids and concussions, and it’s the idea of “fairness.” It’s not fair when some athletes have access to and abuse PEDs while others don’t. It can fundamentally unbalance and undermine the “tossup” nature of a sport. The same problem as when an athlete gambles on their own sport — even when they’re only betting on themselves. If one side has an advantage, physical or intellectual, the game is broken. There’s a reason why Pete Rose is the only other major league baseball player besides Mejia facing a lifetime ban.

What’s unclear to me, though: Is uneven access to steroids really so much worse than uneven access to healthcare providers? Like this one doctor in Phoenix who Bryan somehow found, who was willing to clear him to return to wrestling after 10 concussions, who Bryan insists “it’s not like he’s a quack doctor”. Maybe we should’ve banned Bryan from wrestling years ago.

I think one thing that most of my peers underestimate is how the majority of professional athletes are wildly under-educated. There are Jeremy Lin and Ryan Fitzpatrick who’ve graduated from Harvard, then there’s the fact that for the 2012 season, only 39 of the 913 people to appear in a Major League Baseball game had a college degree.

With that all said: I don’t think we should rush to evangelize Bryan or vilify Mejia. We’re no saints ourselves, though we hold our idols to higher standards. I don’t think we need better protocols to test for steroids or concussions; we need better education for our athletes about the ramifications. It’s a moral hazard problem. Mejia and Bryan advance themselves and see big green dollar signs overshadowing small red crosses, without any consideration for how their selfish decision-making could unravel the entire companies they work for.

And that’s a lesson I think we can all apply not just to sports but to our lives, where our peers, our subordinates, and sometimes we ourselves make morally hazardous decisions on a regular basis. Don’t just read the label, or the rulebook, but understand how the system itself is benefited or hindered by your actions.

The steroids and concussions problems in sports aren’t about the rules or about personal health, they’re about decision-making in moral hazard. The solution won’t be found in harder rules or more rigorous testing, but in better education.