Backward-looking or forward-looking?

History is an angel being blown backwards into the future.
History is a pile of debris,
and the angel wants to go back and fix things,
to repair things that have been broken.

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise,
and this storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future.
And this storm is called Progress.

— From the song “The Dream Before” by Laurie Anderson, based on a quote by Walter Benjamin

One lens that I find useful is whether a project is backward-looking or forward-looking. A backward-looking project is one that attempts to fix something that is broken. A forward-looking project starts with a fresh slate and attempts to create something new.

Both kinds of projects are important and necessary. For example, a backward-looking project might be to tackle corruption in politics. If government doesn’t respond to citizens’ desires and needs, that’s a long-term threat to our society. Likewise, a lot of regulation is backward-looking because it reacts to events. Another example: ton of startups succeed by fixing things that are fundamentally broken today.

An example of a forward-looking project might be to build a self-driving car. With many forward-looking projects there’s an inherent bet that you’ll make something useful enough that when society’s mores and regulations catch up, people will see the value in your project.

An example of forward-looking views is Peter Diamandis, who argues that our future is abundance.

Take something like climate change. A backward-looking approach might try to figure out how to improve coal plants to make them cleaner. A forward-looking approach might be to try to figure out how to build a practical fusion power plant. Projects like smart grids or improved solar cells could be backward-looking or forward-looking depending on the level of granularity.

I don’t really have a good ending to this blog post–this is just a way of looking at the world that interests me. Society will always need people fixing things that are broken. I feel like forward-looking projects might be a little more fun (or at least leave you feeling more optimistic). But unless you choose your project carefully, you run the risk of rushing forward, only to suffer major pain if society disagrees with you.

The four cities that matter most in the United States?

If you had to pick the top four cities that matter the most in the U.S. based on the industry that they represent, which cities would you pick? I’d argue for these four:

– New York City: money/finance/Wall Street
– Los Angeles: culture, such as TV and movies
– Silicon Valley (taking San Jose up to San Francisco as one mega-city): technology
– Washington D.C.: power

Beyond those four areas, things get murkier. Other cities like Chicago or Philadelphia are clearly important, but they’re diverse enough that they’re not synonymous with a specific industry. A city like Las Vegas is well-known for gambling, but would you rank gambling as more important than money, culture, technology or power? And frankly, you could also choose New York City for other industries such as publishing or journalism.

Likewise, you can absolutely have an impact in (say) technology outside of the Bay Area–think Boston, Seattle, or Austin–but it’s probably easier to drive technological change in the Bay Area.

Looking at it from the other direction, if you consider other large areas of the economy like energy, health care, or education, you don’t immediately think of a specific city associated with those industries.

I find this “four city” theory interesting. For example, you might consider politics or current events through the four city lens for insights about how the different areas interact with each other. Or you might look at a city like Detroit that has been known for the car industry, and consider what causes a city to thrive or not. Or you can look at how the United States interacts with other countries, and break down that interaction by money, culture, technology, or power. Or you might ask yourself whether you want to live in one of those four regions, or decide that you deliberately don’t want to live there.

Do you agree or think I’m crazy? I’d be curious to hear what other industries or cities people would propose adding, or if you think I’m completely off base.

Dial tone moments

Googlers love to discuss and debate things within the company. As a rule of thumb, the internal discussion is civil and respectful, but can be passionate. I may take a few of my favorite internal posts that I wrote, tweak them a bit, and publish them here just so I can refer to them more easily down the road.

Here’s something I wrote in 2012:

Recently Google has been shooting for more “magical” moments, and that’s a noble goal. But I think our first priority has to be “dial tone” moments. On a basic level, that can be as simple as uptime and reliability–if Google Voice or Google Music or some other product is too flaky, people won’t use it.

But we should also strive for dial tone moments in terms of consistency or utility or latency. Here’s a simple example. Saturday night in Mountain View I wanted to check how hot it would get on Sunday. I got three different answers from Google. Google Now claimed the high would be 88 degrees. Doing a mobile search for [weather mountain view] predicted a high of 82 degrees. And the News & Weather widget predicted a high of 81. I got those results all within a minute of each other.

If we can’t tell the user whether it’s going to be closer to 80 or closer to 90 tomorrow, how can we expect users to trust us for magic moments?

I think a lot of Google’s reputation or “brand” comes from being a useful, functional tool. Magical moments are fine (great even), but overall the most important thing Google needs is to nail “dial tone” moments, where people just assume that Google will always be up, always be fast, and always get them exactly what they need. If we can do better, great, but we have to nail those dial tone moments.

At Charlie’s, the main cafe at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, there’s a door that uses an electric eye to automatically open as you walk up. When the automatic door is working, it’s a smoother experience than walking 10-15 extra feet and pulling open the regular doors yourself.

Unfortunately, the automatic door seems to be broken about 5-10% of the time. Either someone forgets to unlock it when the cafe opens up, or it’s broken, or it takes too long to open. Then you’re left standing and feeling silly waiting for a door that might or might not open. I noticed that over time, lots of people stopped using that door and went straight to the regular doors. It took 3-4 extra seconds to walk over to the regular doors, but they always consistently worked. The automatic door was optimizing for magical moments when it needed to optimize for dial tone moments. The automatic door had to walk before it could run.

What does this mean for you or your company? Look for dial tone moments or rough edges where you could improve. I had one colleague at Google who I swear could walk from his car to his office and find six different things that needed to be improved. There’s stuff all around you that could be much better if you just lower your annoyance threshold enough to notice it.

Just as an example, I’ll pick on tivo.com because I love TiVo. One annoyance: when you tell tivo.com to keep you signed in for 45 days, and then come back a week later, you have to sign in again. Another annoyance: you can only search for shows happening within the next two weeks or so.

I would consider the first annoyance to be a dial tone issue: it shouldn’t be hard to stay signed in to a website. That’s a very fixable issue. In fact, when I come to tivo.com, the message at the top knows my name even while another part of the page is telling me that I have to sign in:

Tivo sign in required

The second annoyance–only searching two weeks out–might easily be a multi-month project or even impossible, depending on how and where TiVo gets their data from. But you’d get almost as much goodwill from fixing the easy, dial tone issue as you would from fixing the really hard problem.

If you’re not using (“dogfooding”) your product every day and looking daily for annoyances, snags, or rough spots, you’re missing out. If you run a website, pay attention to the uptime and speed of your site. Monitor your vital metrics and trigger an alert if something goes seriously out of whack. Your product should probably be reliable before you shoot for flashiness.

Choosing an ecosystem for your data

You have many choices about where to put your data (email, docs, calendar, contacts): Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, open source/self-hosting, etc. One big consideration for me is how hard it is to export my data. In essence, I’m looking for the exits before I even sit down in any company’s virtual room.

For example, my wife bought an iPhone soon after it came out in 2007. Within minutes of playing with hers, I knew I’d soon be upgrading my flip phone to an iPhone as well. But I had to decide where to put my contacts, my calendar, and so forth.

At one point, my wife ran into a problem with her Apple calendar that gave a weird error. When I searched for more information on that error message, I only found five matching web pages. Eventually, I figured out that the data on Apple’s calendar server had gotten mucked up and I needed to re-push a clean version of the data from a client. That stuck in my mind because Apple can be a pretty closed ecosystem. If something stopped working, it would be harder to fix the issue not only because the ecosystem was closed, but because the ecosystem was smaller at that time.

I’m not a complete Google loyalist about my data. Most of my MP3s are from Amazon because they were among the first to offer a wide selection of music without DRM. I use CrashPlan to back up our family’s computers. I post public micro-updates on Twitter more often than on Google+. And I chose WordPress for my blog instead of Blogger in part to emphasize that this was my personal blog.

But in general, I like that Google’s ecosystem promises not to trap user data, and Eric Schmidt recently reaffirmed that principle (it’s about 29:30 into the video). In essence, if you don’t like how Google handles your email, docs, calendar, or contacts, it’s easy to take your data out and go somewhere else.

Because Google works to avoid data lock-in, it has to earn your loyalty. I like that a lot. The ability to export my data really matters to me. That’s why I’m comfortable using Twitter. And that’s one of the reasons that I deactivated my Facebook account 4.5 years ago–Facebook just didn’t feel as committed to letting me get my data back out of Facebook.

Recently my wife got the new iPhone 6. It was easy for her to pull in my Google Calendar info, but Apple doesn’t allow their calendar data to flow directly into Google Calendar. That means that Apple’s ecosystem isn’t a good match for me. Apple’s choices for their ecosystem still work well for hundreds of millions of people though.

No one ecosystem is right or wrong or best, only best for you. There’s a lot of reasons to choose a particular ecosystem, and everybody should decide what they care about for themselves. For some, it’s something that “just works.” For others, it’s the ability to tweak every single setting or directly control their own data, like with open-source. For others, it might be the size of the ecosystem. Or how much they trust the keeper of that ecosystem. Or the security of that ecosystem. For me, I usually prefer a reasonable user experience, a lot of security protection, and an escape hatch to take my data with me. That’s why I believe the Google ecosystem is the best fit for my data at this point.

Some running tips

Before 2011, I had never run farther than eight miles. Then I found a program called USA FIT which helps runners across the country train up and run a marathon. My goal was to run one marathon and then stop, but I found some friendly folks and so I just kept running. It’s been wonderful.

If you’re able-bodied and in moderately good shape, it’s very doable to train and run a marathon. I’m just a regular guy–if anything, I’m a slower runner than most people. I’ll never place in the top three on a competitive race; heck, sometimes I’m happy to finish before the cutoff time. Yet I’ve run at least six marathons, plus a 50 mile run and a half Ironman triathlon. If I can do it, a lot of other people can too. Perhaps you’d like to run a marathon or half-marathon someday too?

In putting my time in, I’ve collected a few tips for running that I wish I’d known when I started. Warning: running is basically just you and your body, so some of this stuff will be about bodily functions. With that disclaimer in advance, here’s some things I’ve learned:

– Chafing sucks. Any time I’m running more than 5-6 miles, the friction of running can cause chafing. I recommend Body Glide for your thighs and Chamois Butt’r for your butt. You can use Body Glide for anything else that might chafe from friction, from nipples to the waistband of your running shorts. For a full marathon, consider using band-aids to protect your nipples if you’re a guy.

– Blisters suck. In 2010, I learned a secret that many hikers use to avoid blisters: wearing two layers of socks. A thin sock liner between you and regular/wool socks can help prevent hotspots and blisters. A company called Wrightsock makes socks with two layers built in. Over hundreds of miles of running wearing Wrightsocks, I’ve never gotten a blister. Your mileage may vary, of course, so do what works for you, but I love my Wrightsocks.

– It sucks to run well, then wait for a Porta Potty as you watch all the people passing you. Assuming you have a healthy gastrointestinal tract, consider taking an Imodium an hour before the race starts. Imodium is meant for diarrhea. It slows the muscles contracting the intestine, so it reduces bowel movement. Everybody is different, and you should do your own research into the issue. If you have any medical concerns at all, either talk to a doctor or don’t do it. Don’t hold me responsible if you try it. I’m just saying that it works well for lots of people.

– Friends rock. It’s so much easier to exercise if you find someone to do it with. That’s why I love USA FIT, but there’s plenty of other groups: Team in Training, or check with friends or your company. Getting up early on a Saturday morning is so much easier when you know that other friends are counting on you to join them.

– Music rocks. Running a race is a lot easier with music. I love these Sony headphones because they stay attached to your ears really well. By the way, it’s important not to start your race too fast. I normally listen to a podcast at the beginning of a race, then switch to high-energy music after the podcast is over.

– Don’t worry about your time. Regular people will never ask how fast you ran a marathon–only other runners will! Besides, even if you finish dead last in a marathon, you’re still doing better than folks who never trained for a race, and that’s the vast majority of people.

– As a slow runner, I like to start at the very back of the running pack. Then I get the thrill of passing people without as much dejection from when someone passes me. 🙂

– When I’m preparing for a race or a long run, I find it useful to make a checklist of things to bring with me. I use a Google Doc so I can scan my list quickly on my phone. For a long run, here’s my checklist: Body Glide, clothes (shoes, socks, shorts, shirt, hat), heart rate monitor, Fitbit, Garmin 620 watch, phone with tunes/podcasts, headphones, water bottle + gel or gummies for energy, Chamois Butt’r, and sunscreen. I’ll tweak that if I’m doing a run in cold weather or a really long run. I have a slightly longer list for races and triathlons. The point is that it’s easy to forget something unless you have a checklist.

– I really enjoy Fitbit and Strava as far as apps that encourage me to move more. Strava is also good for biking, not just running. Both apps include a social component where you can get your friends hooked as well.

Those are my running tips that might not be as obvious to someone who is just starting out. If you’re reading this and you’re a runner, are there good tips that you’d like to share? If so, please leave a comment!

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