Curation trumps creation in a connected world

[Originally posted elsewhere November 2011]

We have become accustomed to being astonished nearly every day. Without even exerting much effort, we are exposed to the most amazing feats of strength and agility on YouTube videos, and read about the most outrageous exploits of men, women, and children the world over.

And why not? We have the entire world’s events at our fingertips to choose from. The Internet has made it possible to disseminate interesting and astonishing content with such ease, that none of us give it a second thought. In other words, the sample size has increased from a single village to all the villages in the world.  This is largely because the tools of creative capture and production have been put into the hands of ordinary people the world over – the cameras that most of us carry around in our pockets, attached to our phones, are more powerful than any cameras on the market were just 10 or 15 years ago.

The result? We have become completely accustomed to being astonished.

I happen to believe that many of these “astonishing things”will continue to be astonishing no matter how many other amazing things we encounter, because they tap into our innate beliefs about the ways that the world should work. When we see or hear something that conflicts with these innate understandings, astonishment is the result.

However, there is probably also something like “astonishment habituation”. In much the same way that the quiet hum of a fan in the room disappears after we are exposed to it for a minute or two, we are so used to astonishing things that the nearly amazing does not register quite the way it might have otherwise.

One really important result of this is that it’s very difficult as an individual contributor to astonish an audience on a regular basis. In fact, those that are most successful at astonishing audiences do so by honing a single astonishing feat and repeating it over and over again, rather than astonishing the same audience time and time again.

In this environment, being a creator of interesting things is a difficult proposition. However, with such an explosion of interesting things to sort through, the job of filtering for the truly astonishing is an important one – curation really matters.

The bottom line – unless you have an astonishing act that you can take, circus style, from town to town, maybe the best role for creative types today is curation, or finding amazing things that touch you in interesting ways and sharing those with some commentary with others.

Why the paper notebook is making a comeback

I’ve noticed a funny thing over the last five years or so: paper is making a comeback. Go to a meeting just about anywhere, and you’re more likely to see paper notebooks than digital ones, especially among the primary participants in the meeting.


Some suggest that its anti-technology backlash, but I don’t think that’s the case. My theory is that with the ubiquity of wireless data connections, there is no way for a meeting notetaker to convince everyone else in the meeting that he is not looking at Facebook or surfing the web – paper is the only way to communicate to other attendees that I’m really paying attention.

One other interesting result of the trend is that people who do use devices for note-taking tend to go out of their way to signal to others that they are not using the devices for other purposes.  Watch how many comments there are, from “Can you say that again so I can capture it here?” to the more explicit “I just want everyone to know I have wifi turned off and am just using the laptop to take notes.”

One beneficiary of the trend is a company called Moleskine which is doing very well in tech circles, selling (gasp) paper to the digerati.

Pay attention at the meetings you attend over the next month – is there more or less paper than there used to be?

The end of vintage as we know it

Instagram became the photosharing site bought by Facebook for $1 billion not by helping its users produce the most realistic photos of the world, but by supplying users with filters that serve mainly to reproduce the feel of vintage photos. In our nostalgia, we go out of our way to avoid reality rather than trying to reproduce it perfectly.

And this kind of nostalgia isn’t limited to photos – anyone who has paid any attention to music over the last 30 years will easily be able to pick out the vintage sound of the 80s or 70s. Modern bands go out of their way to reproduce these sounds.

What’s more curious to me is that everything we consider to be vintage – to be evocative of an earlier era – seems to have looked or sounded the way it did because of the limitations of technology at the time.  The good people at Polaroid who made the first instant cameras probably weren’t trying to create images that were oversaturated, with fading at the edges.  I have to imagine that they were trying for perfection, and oversaturated images with fading at the edges was just the best they could do with the technology of the day. Sometimes I forget that the 70s wasn’t an oversaturated decade – it just looks that way based on the photographic evidence.

This idea holds true for music as well – when the first keyboard synthesizers were created (think 70s classic rock or 80s pop), they had certain hard technological limitations.  So they were capable of just a few sounds, like the square wave, which most of us will recognize immediately as a staple of 80s pop or the only sound most early computers were capable of making. Another early limitation that defined the sound of the era was that early synthesizers were only capable of playing a single note at a time (which is to say they were monophonic).  This led directly to the classic sounds of bands like Rush and Steve Miller (listen to Rush’s Tom Sawyer at about 1:32 for a great example of monophonic, square-wave based sound). Contemporary musicians who want to reproduce these sounds have polyphonic synths with filters and settings that make them mimic the limitations of earlier monophonic synths.

So what I’m curious about is where we go from here.  If vintage is all about viewing or listening through the filters of old and imperfect technology, and new technologies have allowed to to essentially reproduce reality perfectly, what kinds of images and sounds will evocative of 2013 in, say, 30 years from now?  Or is this the end of vintage as we know it?

Are we living in the Matrix?

There is serious science exploring the question of whether we are living in the Matrix, and scientists think they have a way to figure it out.

Interesting side note: Descartes was one of the first to explore this question.  Following shortly on the heels of “I think, therefore I am,” he argued that the world is essentially the way that we experience it through our senses but that our senses can be fooled, and he could not be sure that we are not living in a simulation (described through either the “brain in the vat” or the “evil demon” metaphor).

A better personal password solution

A lot has been written recently about people getting hacked and having their digital lives (and sometimes real world live) thrown into turmoil as a result.

Most of the time, people report that they were too lax in their password systems – the biggest culprit is reusing the same, easier-to-guess password everywhere.

Here are my suggestions for finding the right balance between security and sanity.  This takes all of an hour to setup across all of the primary accounts you use, and is a great way to get yourself more secure to kick off the new year:

  1. Use Gmail, and apply the two-step verification.  Google has a security feature called “two step verification” that changes your login process so that besides a password, you must also enter a 6 digit code that is texted to your phone when you try to login.  This dramatically increases the security of your Gmail account, because an attacker would need both your password and your phone in order to access your account.
  2. Make use of Gmail’s “.’s are ignored” convention. My email address is  But emails sent to,, etc, also get to me, because Google treats those email addresses as equivalent to  This is handy, because on other sites, where the “.” is not overlooked, I can use a version of my email address that includes a “.” as the username.  That way, if someone knows my email address, they don’t automatically also know my username at other sites I use.  This is particularly useful for services like Apple where obscuring the username may help to deter hackers (for example, I use as my username at Apple).
  3. Create two random 8-character passwords, the only things you will need to remember.  This is best left to a computer to create, but in any case make sure both passwords have a mix of letters and numbers, are not English words, and have at least one punctuation mark in the middle.  One of these passwords will be your Gmail password.  The other will be your “root” password and will form the basis of the passwords for every other site you visit.
  4. Create your own “hash” to build passwords for every site you use.  Let’s pretend that our root password from step 3 above is “alDk7!ru”.  I will need to commit that character combination to memory.  Then each site that I visit gets a unique password based on this root password, where (for instance) the first letter of the password is the second letter of the site URL, and the last letter of the password is the second to last letter of the site URL.  As an example, using this scheme, my password for Amazon (with a URL of would be “malDk7!ruo”, since “m” is the second letter of the “amazon” part of the URL, and “o” is the second to last letter of the “amazon” part of the URL.  Of course, you could choose any similar scheme for generating your passwords, as long as you apply the same scheme to any site you use.

Now you’re pretty secure.  You have:

  • Unique passwords for every site you visit
  • Passwords that you can actually remember (or rather “re-generate”) anytime you visit a site
  • A random password, not connected to any other site you visit for your Gmail account
  • Two-step verification on Gmail, which makes it much more secure
  • Obfuscated usernames and/or account reference IDs by virtue of using the “.’s are ignored” convention in Gmail email addresses

While this won’t guarantee you will never have your accounts compromised, it goes a long way towards discouraging would-be attackers.

Have fun!

Infinite bandwidth, for free

One of the hardest things about predicting the future is knowing where to set the “dial”.  If you’re trying to understand how highspeed internet is going to affect your business in five years, where do assume the average household speeds land?  20mbps? 50? 1000? 10,000?  All of those are technically feasible, but there is a 500x difference between the highest and the lowest – and that really, really matters a lot.

We face this problem other places too – what are competitive costs going to be like in a few years?  How high will the price of oil go? How low will the price of online storage go?

Here’s a simple rule of thumb – turn the dial to the extremes and see what happens.

For example, what happens if bandwidth goes to infinity? What happens if storage costs go to zero? What happens if the price of oil goes to infinity?

This isn’t necessarily a way to plan a strategy that depends on market timing, but it’s a thought exercise that opens the eyes to possibility and helps to see around corners in ways that aren’t possible when you’re trying to guess precise prices and values and dates.

When Netflix was founded in 1997, there wasn’t enough bandwidth nor were prices reasonable enough to deliver “flix” over the “net”. And yet they chose the name Netflix.  Why? Likely because they did some version of this thought experiment and realized that over time, bandwidth prices would be effectively zero and speeds would effectively be infinite.

Is bandwidth infinite? Are prices zero? Of course not. But the point is that they have increased and dropped respectively by orders of magnitude, and this kind of thought experiment helps to illuminate what opportunities open to a business when those orders-of-magnitude changes happen.

How much would you pay for a video of the goal you scored in 7th grade?

Or maybe it was the swim meet where you came in first, or the school play in middle school, or the speech you gave freshman year.

The point is that whatever it was, the chances are good that for certain categories of event (basically, any event with a decent sized crowd) footage exists somewhere out there in the world on video tape or (depending on your age) on film.

So how much would it be worth to you to have that video?  If I look back on all of the events of my life, I suspect I’d pay as much as $20 for certain events, and in aggregate several hundred dollars to get my hands on footage of the key moments in my life.

My guess is that the average American home has the equivalent of 100s of potential dollars of footage on video tapes and other media — all we need is a clearinghouse where all of those videos could be uploaded and buyers could come to review and buy.

There are 100s of reasons why something like this wouldn’t work, but just for a minute, isn’t it fun to imagine what might happen if it did work?  What event would you go look for first if you could?

Paleo everything: why you should care about what the cavemen did

Much has been made of the paleo diet, and for good reason.  It’s a compelling idea: our ancestors evolved for 10s of thousands of years under some pretty strict environmental constraints, and as a species we adapted based on those constraints.  If we want to figure out the optimal fuel for our bodies, the reasoning goes, we need look no further than the foods that our ancestors consumed.

There is a fair amount of controversy around how far its reasonable to take this logic, and the purpose of this post is not to join in that conversation.

But even paleo diet naysayers tend to agree on a couple of important points: the evidence suggests that we did evolve with exposure to a fairly limited variety of foods, and those constraints undoubtedly did shape the way that our bodies (and in particular GI systems, teeth, etc) evolved.

This got me thinking — the savannah and the lifestyle our ancestors developed based on the constraints of that environment led to very specific biological and cultural adaptations.  If we don’t feel good today, and look to our ancestors’ diet as one place to start feeling better, what else can we learn from the caveman?

What I found in digging a little was that there is almost no “personal betterment” practice around that doesn’t intuitively seem to have its roots in life on the savannah.  I should be careful to put the usual disclaimer here about correlation vs. causation, and to admit that I’m making a logical leap by saying “because life on the savannah was such-and-such a way, we will have good results if we duplicate those conditions today.”  But the connections between all of the pop-health trends and life on the savannah are striking nonetheless. To whit:

  • Sleep. Relatively closer to the equator, the savannah has little variation in daylight vs. nighttime hours throughout the year, as compared to the extreme northern and southern latitudes.  Most of the year, darkness hovers around 12 hours and when its dark, its really dark.  So it makes intuitive sense that going to bed at the same time every night someplace that’s very dark, and staying down for 8 hours is healthy — it’s what we were programmed for.
  • Socialization.  We evolved in fairly small, tight-knit social groups that didn’t vary much over a lifetime.  And indeed, studies have shown that strong social ties — and the persistence of a strong social support network over time — have positive impact on longevity.  On a day-to-day basis, these groups tended to form-up evenings, around the fire, for story-telling and recounting the day.  Should we perhaps have more story time before bed?
  • Exercise.  Whether hunting or gathering, our ancestors spent very little time sedentary.  In fact, most of the “work time” was spent working physically as well as mentally.  Upright, treadmill desks anyone?  Also notable — we likely spent most of the day lightly to moderately active, with only short bursts of high activity.
  • Meditation.  This one surprised me when it occurred to me — but its hard to imagine anything more meditative than waiting quietly in the bush near a water hole to ambush an animal coming to drink, or walking through the grasslands identifying and collecting the right plants.  Or perhaps the best example: who hasn’t gotten lost in thought staring into the embers of a fading campfire?  These are all forms of meditation, and its easy to see how having an ability to be mindful might have led to better results on the game trails or in the fields.

The bottom line is that we may have benefited, from an evolutionary perspective, by doing these things, and so it would make sense that doing them well today will feel good — by aligning our behavior with our genetic programming (or at least by aligning it with the behavior of our ancestors), it makes sense that we would get a lift in mood and maybe in longevity too.

As an entrepreneur and a technologist, I think the implications of this kind of thinking are significant.  In particular, I wonder how many of our products are built with our paleo-heritage in mind?  My guess (for a later post) is that products that are most aligned with our paleo-heritage do better in the marketplace.

So maybe the next time you’re working on a new product you should ask yourself — how would a caveman use this?