Is there such a thing as a “healthcare fiduciary”?

I don’t mean the kind of people who make sure that our health-insurance “payers” are holding back reimbursements long enough to add shareholder value.  There are names for them, but probably best not printed.

I’m talking about a discussion my wife and I had the other day about sleep apnea.

I made the mistake of honestly answering a sleep-apnea screening questionnaire a few years ago, and found myself on the slippery slope to using a CPAP machine.  I have “borderline” sleep apnea, which means I stop breathing many times during the night, but not enough times to have a full-scale intervention.

Which I don’t want.  The CPAP machines look awful,  invasive, uncomfortable, and unfashionable.  I’d do almost anything to avoid them.

So my wife and I got in a discussion the other day.

“You stopped breathing last night,” she said.  “I heard it.  It was awful.  I don’t want you to get hurt.  You’ve got to do something about your sleep apnea.”

“Like what?” I said.  “One of those CPAP machines?”

“Are they so awful?” she said.  “<A mutual friend> uses one.”

But I did think they were awful.  I started lying on my sleep-apnea screening test to avoid hassle.  And here it was coming at me from my life partner.

We got in a bit of a fight about it, and she ended up saying, “OK, I won’t bring it up again.  I’ll just let it take its course.”

Which brings me to my point.  She can’t do that.  She has a healthcare fiduciary relationship with me.  And I with her.  We can’t let one another just do what we want when it comes to health.

And little as I want to use a CPAP machine, it feels good to know someone has that relationship to me.

Trump, Clinton, and Democratic “smart wins” fallacy

I was born the year Adlai Stevenson first lost to Eisenhower for President.  Eisenhower, like Trump, had never held public office (although it could be argued that his D-Day invasion at least didn’t go bankrupt).  Stevenson was a clever, intellectual, and even witty Governor, so he had run a state (something that voters think well of historically in the U.S., better, say, than being in the House or Senate).

Yet Stevenson lost to Ike, lost badly.  Ike’s slogan: “I Like Ike.”  No rocket science.  No “fitness for office”.  No “I’m way more qualified than he is.”

Democrats for my entire life seem to have not gotten the message from this: smart doesn’t pay in politics.  Quals don’t pay in politics.  Experience doesn’t pay in politics.

Likeable pays in politics.  “Good guy” (or good gal) pays in politics.  “I get where he/she’s coming from” pays in politics.

It looks like this Democratic idiocy is going to play out again this election season (or I guess I’m worried it will; hope it won’t).

Hilary will emphasize her brains, her experience, her fitness for office.  She’ll get no more likable than she is now.  And guess what?  I’m worried she’ll lose.

Trump is a master of the Homeric epithet.  “Lyin’ Ted”.  “Little Marco.”  “Crooked Hillary.”  He coins them, and then he works them over and over, until his audience absorbs them.  In the era of the sound byte, the byte has to be repeated over and over until it sinks in.

The Clinton campaign needs a Homeric epithet against Trump, one that doesn’t have to do with fitness for office, or intelligence, or capabilities, and one that will sink in.  “Nasty Trump”?  “Tiny Trump”? (hands, other parts, smallness of personality and vision.)

Techie Illiteracy Quiz (and its converse)

Many years ago when I was just starting out in Silicon Valley, I dreamed up a “Techie Illiteracy Quiz” to rub my fellow engineers’ noses in how little they knew about the humanities.

It had 3 questions:

  1. Who was Napoleon, and what was his relation to the French Revolution?
  2. Who wrote “Paradise Lost”, and is it a poem, a novel, or a play?
  3. Name one philosopher and one of his or her beliefs

History, literature, philosophy.

Techies didn’t do well on this quiz.  They did best on Question 3 because of philosophers like Bertrand Russell whom some of them knew from his propositional calculus side.

I was surprised that most techies knew nothing of Napoleon or John Milton.

Recently I told this story to a friend, and he said, “well maybe there should be a ‘non-techie innumeracy’ quiz to level the playing field.”

Question is, what would be in such a quiz?

I’m thinking math/physics, computer science, life science, although that may just reflect my areas of greater experience (I don’t know much about geology, chemistry, materials science (if that’s even a separate science)).

Well, here’s a draft:

  1. Name or describe one of Newton’s Laws of Motion
  2. Who was Turing, and what was his relationship to cryptography?
  3. How does DNA replicate?

Welcome your thoughts…

“Software Business and Product Strategy”, by David Black. A Thoughtful Book

I just finished my friend David Black‘s book “Software Business and Product Strategy”.  A thoughtful book and, thanks to the stories, a good read.

David’s thesis is that software businesses are somewhat different from other businesses in that:

  1. Software is intangible
  2. All meaningful software projects are really building something for the first time
  3. A software spec is almost the same thing as the software itself (try that for an injection-molded plastic part!)
  4. The substrate for software — computer hardware — is still doubling in power something like every 18 months

He then draws out the implications of these differences.  He says that the principles for building a successful software business are well-understood and even simple, but, like many simple things, are quite hard to execute.

There are a lot of riches in this book.  He talks about “positioning” and “execution” as the two major sources of sofware-business woe, and says some great things about both.

And he talks about sources of failure in software executive teams, the main one being a kind of noble hubris that makes tech innovators want to solve the biggest, most complex, most general problems first when the game is to solve the simplest, most pressing specific problems first.

This is “noble” hubris because wanting to solve big problems is a great and lofty aim.  But in order to solve them one has to build up a track record of solving specific problems first, and that requires — see it coming — attention to “positioning” and “execution”.

The richness of the book is in the scads of stories.  David has lived through more software businesses than most of us and has thought deeply about what went right and wrong with them.

Check it out.

Two (Possible? Only Possible?) Failure Modes for AI

I’m an old AI guy — back from the ’70’s and ’80’s — and am often blown away by what “deep learning” and statistical approaches are accomplishing nowadays.  I never would have predicted an AI like Watson that could win at Jeopardy.  Or Go.

But some things are still the same, and when AIs fail, they fail in the same couple of ways.

I’m not talking about them turning the universe into a paperclip factory and eliminating us because we get in the way, a la “SuperIntelligence”  Maybe they’ll kill us someday, but that still seems a long ways off.

Today’s AIs disappoint us in one of two ways.

  1. Explanation.  Sadly, almost no humans will trust an AI’s conclusions without some account of how it reached those conclusions.  And most AI’s can’t account for their conclusions, especially the modern AI’s that are based on statistical weights and neural-style nets.  “I reached the conclusion that your cancer will respond to Treatment Cocktail A because I increased the weights on Nodes 1120-3388-692A-QRST and VVTX-8338-QQ94-AAAA from 10 to 30.”  Yeah, right.
  2. Turing Gulf.  This phenomenon, also called the “uncanny valley”, has a nice explanation here.  It’s often used to talk about an AI that’s kind of creepy because it’s near-human, but it can also be used for an AI that’s almost good enough but peeves you when it fails to make the grade.  Imagine an AI that needs to be “90”, where 90 is “90% accurate” or whatever.  And the AI is only “89” (again, whatever that means).  That AI is useless for the task because it will only peeve and frustrate its users.

Are those the only possible ways AIs can fail?  Welcome your comments.

Next Thing Co. and CHIP

I had breakfast with Alden this morning, always an eye-opening experience.  And he was most excited about Next Thing and CHIP.

CHIP is a credit-card sized computer with mainstream Linux, built-in WiFi, BlueTooth, composite video output, 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of flash…

For $9.

Alden’s excited because he can target his IoT development efforts towards this chip with no compromises.  He’s been working with other single-board computers, but the power, specs, ease-of-programming, and price are all there with this.

(I think I’m allowed to show the picture of CHIP… at least I can’t think of any reason why Next Thing wouldn’t want me to.)chip1

In any case, very cool stuff, even to a coming-back-into-the-software-world guy like me.  I have to admit I was having a tough time getting worked up about coding for Arduino.

Complexity — and simplicity — in a PIM

My to-do lists get more and more complex over time.

I’ve explained here why I like My Life Organized (or “MLO” for short).  Briefly, MLO allows you to organize your tasks into a hierarchy, so that bigger tasks can be divided into smaller tasks and tasks without an organizing principle can be grouped into higher-level “projects” or simply “folders”.

But a consequence of this for me — and I think for any PIM-head who takes this stuff seriously — is that the list of tasks invariably grows and becomes more complex.

Most PIM software has a way of ranking or sorting tasks: by “importance”, by “urgency”, by overdue-ness, by all of the above.  It would be nice to build in to the PIM software some kind of scoring for simplicity as well.  One PIM tree is simpler than another if it isn’t as deeply nested, or if there isn’t a large degree of co-dependence between the various tasks, or <pick your simplicity function here>.

You could then have the software detect and warn you if you were adding on complexity at an alarming rate, and give you some tactics (or even semi-automated processes) for simplifying your PIM tree.

Be careful what you wish for, I guess.  I used some PIM software for a while which would actually put your tasks into the calendar based on the importance sort (and available time slots: each task had to be assigned a length).  Tasks could be split up to some extent, and it was nifty for a couple of days, but then it really got like Dr. Evil’s “unattended killer machine” that was supposed to do in Austin Powers and never did.  It was a major task trying to re-jigger the tasks so they would fit into the schedule where I knew they should go anyhow.  And finally, to achieve simplicity, I threw the software overboard and moved on.

Maybe a simplicity automaton would work better than an automatic scheduler, but I suspect it too could be become a tyrant if wholly automated.  Best to make software our companion and not our master.

Three “Value Promises” I like

I’m not crazy about new jargon, but when old jargon completely loses its luster it’s time to replace.

“Awesome” certainly needs replacement.  So, IMHO, does “value proposition”.  It’s like when you repeat a word over and over until it sounds meaningless?  That’s what’s happened to me with Value Proposition.

So let’s try a new term for it, a “value promise”.

Arguably it’s a slightly better term.  A “proposition” is an entire proposal, a “business plan”, if you will.  In this era of Lean this and Lean that, a “value promise” is a Lean “value proposition.”  It’s part of a complete package.  It’s an element.

Here are three Value Promises I think are quite interesting in a business:

  1. The “Amazon” Promise.  Amazon got its start by promising that you could get any book in the world at the site.  Now they kind of promise that you can get anything at all in the world at the site.  Any business that promises “all of <x>” is a powerful promise:
    • “Everything you wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask”
    • For my future website on “Intelligent Pitching”, I want to promise “everything you need to know about pitching”.
    • Zappos: “every kind of shoe”
  2. The “Progressive” Promise.  Progressive Insurance made a big impression on me by promising to get you the best price on insurance, even if it’s a competitor’s offering.  Extremely useful in new markets where the very form of a solution is still not understood and there are competing approches:
    • “We’ll help you understand the best solution to your problem, including our competitors'”
    • “We’ll help you evaluate your timeshare agreement regardless of its form and tell you how to renegotiate it if appropriate”
  3. The “Hammacher Schlemer” Promise.  Hammacher Schlemer is a gadget catalog (grandmother of SkyMall or Sharper Image), and every item in the catalog is either “best” or “only” in its category.  “Best Turkish towel bath robe”.  “Only infrared drone taser.”  This value promise is very important for establishing competitive differentiation.  Compared to your competitors, where are you “best” or “only”.  And if your “best or only” is some squirrely little niche, how do you pivot?

What to do with books that don’t spark joy?

In the wake of moving on from @ValhallaVC, I brought home a bunch of books.

Which brought to the fore how many books I had in my home study.

So I pulled the trigger on Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.

Well, I didn’t follow her Rx 100%.  She wants you to take all the books in your house, put them in one pile, and go through them.  I wasn’t even about to pile all the books in my study into one pile.

But I _did_ do what she said next, which is pick up the books, one at a time, and ask “does this item spark joy in me”?  If not, out it goes.

Well, an astonishing 150 or so books didn’t spark any joy in me, so out they want.

Life-changing magic in my study.  Lots of empty space now on the bookshelves and lots of new books to imagine there.

But, meanwhile, what to do with the non-joy-sparking losers?

I looked on the InterTubes, and found the advice to go to Powells (the Portland, OR treasure) online and sell the books.

Cool.  All I had to was paste a list of the ISBN numbers into a text box at, and they would tell me which ones they wanted to buy (for PayPal or store credit).

So I got a nice ISBN-scanning Android app (XScanPet).  I got the paid version on Google Play for $1.49 because it had some features I liked and because, well, I wrote software for a living for 20 years and think people who pump code should get paid.

And I went through the stacks of books, batch by batch, and pasted the ISBNs into  Powells has wanted maybe 15 of the 80 or 90 I’ve processed so far, so the hourly rate on this label is abominable, but so what, it’s the principle of the thing!  Those books were valuable once so they should be valuable now.

In any case, almost done.  Next joy target in the study is junk in my desk drawers.

Leaving Valhalla, Experimenting with car replacement

Well, the news is I left @ValhallaVC after 12 years.

I had been thinking for some time of ways to expand my writing, speaking, teaching, coaching, and mentoring, which have given me more and more satisfaction in the past few years.  When the opportunity presented itself, my partners at Valhalla and I worked through an amiable separation, and, since April 30, here I am.

Lots of food for thought in this, and I’m talking with friends and business buddies about the implications and the next steps.

But, unexpectedly, I’ve begun to wonder about keeping 2 cars in the family.

I had toyed with alternative commutes to Tysons (some 13 miles each way) over the years.  I tried the Silver Line several times (apologies to non-DC audience for these local details) and found it was pretty good in the morning and routinely problematic in the afternoons.  There was, as Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “always something.”

I also looked into a ZipCar at the Tysons end of the commute, figuring that I could get out there by public transportation and then use the ZipCar for errands.  The arithmetic never seemed to work out: it was way too much per putative errand.

Now that I’m not commuting at all, however, the arithmetic looks a little different.

If I could bike around for a batch of local local errands and then use either Car2Go or ZipCar for less local trips, it might actually work out.

First, the bike.

I trotted out my hybrid bike from the garage last weekend and found that it has a broken spoke.  I’ll either fix it or have “them” fix it.  My (Valhalla) partner Harry says that a spoke replacement is either easy or it isn’t.  That makes sense to me.

Car2Go and ZipCar are not entirely competitors.  The wisdom of the InterTubes seems to be that Car2Go is more like a taxi and ZipCar is more like a rental car.

Car2Go cars are small and relatively useless for anything besides getting your body someplace (or back from someplace).  New Yorkers I know will schlep groceries or plywood or even (in the case of my friend Ellen) 50-lb bags of sand in a taxi, but that’s extreme.  It’s mostly about personal transportation.

ZipCar is for longer trips, with a more varied selection of cars/trucks, and the possibility of doing some serious hauling if necessary.

Car2Go has one fee for a lifetime signup, and then hourly usage fees.  ZipCar has an annual fee (as well as — how lame is this? — an “initiation” fee) in addition to hourly fees.  And apparently Car2Go pays out for short trips, ZipCar for longer ones.

So I signed up for Car2Go, and am waiting for them to approve my membership (based, they say, on my driving record, which is decent).  And then I’ll see about ZipCar, which has those Other Fees.

Benefit from my 35 years of tech industry experience