Jiaaro

…on life, the universe, and everything

Social Skills Education

In my post, “Why we got 140 characters instead of flying cars,” I made a throwaway comment about how enterprising individuals should focus on communication skills instead of delivery. My podcast cohost Mik, was disappointed that I was writing about economics and not communication. So today I’ll talk about the economics of education instead =P

I’ll cut to the chase. Teaching communication skills is not a very good idea for a startup.

This isn’t news. I said it in the last post too. Communication skills are valuable, but capturing that value is difficult. Education startups aren’t debuting to multi-billion dollar IPOs. Not Learn-to-code startups. Not Learn-to-write startups. Not learn-a-new-language startups. Not even learn-to-make-friends or learn-to-influence-people startups.

People just don’t value education in that way. Universities have managed to jack up the price, but even they focus on prestige, job prospects, facilities, and connections.

Conspicuously absent: the stuff you will know when you graduate.

In fact, those parts seem to be losing prominence as a larger trend in education. The focus is on opportunity, not knowledge.

And selling knowledge is getting harder. The Internet is socializing us to believe information should be free.

So… where does that leave you, the social entrepreneur?

Delivering communications – no matter how inane the content – at least has a business model: insert extra communications (ads) into your pipe in exchange for cash.

I hate that business model, but c’est la vie.

Some education startups have innovated in the business model department. Duolingo teaches you a language, and when their students become advanced they translate documents for practice. They sell translation services.

At first blush, you’d expect a high-value skill like computer programming to be something where you can sell education for a high price. If a professional programmer can earn $100k/year for the next 10 years – that’s a million bucks! – surely you can charge $5k to teach someone that skill. After all, that’s only half a percent of the earnings.

But that math only works if you assume that you’ll only want/need to learn one career skill. That you’ll like the first one you learn. That the skills will remain valuable for a long time. That’s not how people work.

If you’ve never tried computer programming, you really have no idea what it’s like to be a programmer (take it from me). Would you simultaneously choose a career you know nothing about AND hand over $5k to someone whose expertise you are completely unable to evaluate? I wouldn’t. Even without the risk of some asshole running off with my five grand.

Could a learn-to-communicate startup work (be profitable)? Maybe. First they’d have to settle on an approach. Will they teach people to write? to speak? to unravel the mind of their audience?

So far these sound like classical academic topics – literature, theater, psychology – and not exactly a bunch that are associated with high-paying careers either.

Much like technology, these things can be tremendously valuable when used in conjunction with another skill. It almost doesn’t matter what that other skill is. But that makes the value proposition even harder than the computer programmer one. “Want to learn a skill which will make you marginally more successful in whatever other career path you choose? I’ll teach you, that’ll be five grand.”

Now add the fact that people generally don’t think of themselves as poor communicators, and generally underestimate the benefits of good communication skills. How are you going to sell that?

Back to the drawing board. Each education startup will have to find a purpose-made way to capture value (a la duolingo).

And if they can’t? Screw it. Slap an ad on top and IPO.

Hard problems and Sex appeal

My Biz vs Dev cohost, Mik Pozin,

Yes, the problems that aren’t 140 characters are the really hard ones. But we now have to make that be the sexy thing. We have to make solving hard problems sexy.

Hard problems are sexy. Solving hard problems makes you a god damn super hero. My nascent interest in writing software was kickstarted by an intense curiosity to understand, “What is this sorcery and how does it work?”

Google Search is sexy. The iPhone is Sexy. SpaceX Rockets are sexy.

I want us to get there too, I think we’re in complete agreement on that. But saying that everyone is working on meaningless crap instead of solving real problems just isn’t true. There are a few people working on things like twitter, and a small cult of wannabe entrepreneurs following what looks like easy money.

But it’s not easy money. You can count the number of truely successful social networks on one hand. Social networks are an intensely hard problem themselves, but the hard part is the business model.

Innovating on business models is an underappreciated art. Business models are the difference between Android and iOS. Farmville and Minecraft. Gillette and Harrys.

Nobody is going to Mars until there’s a business model. And it’ll need to be a new one; I don’t think indentured servitude is going to cut it this time.

Mailbox for Mac

I tried Mailbox for mac recently.

It’s nice. Excellent design.

I was surprised to find that I had a slight, subconscious distrust of dropbox. When I found out the app was made by dropbox I briefly reconsidered whether to even try it. I’m glad I did. I owe Peter Crysdale for the beta invite (and for coming on my podcast!)

I’ve been a long-time user of Gmail + Mail.app, which… aren’t the best integrated pair of apps. In fact, I’ve tried a lot of different email setups. Juno, AOL, vanilla POP3 and IMAP with Outlook, Thunderbird, then back to Outlook, then terrible web-based email (squirrel I think) provided with web hosting. Finally ending up with 2 Gmail accounts and iCloud account.

Being able to send email using the appropriate address is important, it’s not super professional to have people emailing my business address and getting a reply from my personal Gmail account. Doing everything through the Gmail web interface is a bit of a non-starter. I’m not going to switch between 2 Gmail accounts all day. It’s a pain, and it means I don’t see new stuff for a lot longer if I forget to check each one. Every time.

I also just don’t like the new Gmail interface. Leaving me with one option: a third-party mail client.

Mail.app served me well for a long time, but it’s never been a great companion to Gmail. The way Gmail does email simply doesn’t fit the IMAP mold very well. That impedance mismatch has been the cause of much unpleasantness. Mail I meant to archive ended up in the trash (and was deleted). Searching my archive has really only ever worked from the Gmail web interface. I’m still not sure what happens when I flag something as spam in Mail.app – does Gmail get the memo, or not?

Don’t get me started about filters and rules - that all has to live on the Gmail server, and I have a set of rules for each Gmail account. And the iCloud account? Well I’ve just stopped giving out that address due to useless search, lack of filters, and having to use an “@icloud.com” address. Luckily I don’t get much email that way.

Enter Mailbox

Mailbox for Mac

  • Hooks into all three email accounts (supports Gmail and iCloud)
  • Clear, understandable interface (and bonus: beautiful)
  • Supports keyboard-only workflows
  • First-class support for archive/delete/mark-as-spam
  • Free download for Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android
  • Lists that are actually useful
  • “Snooze”

Now, I haven’t had an empty inbox in years. Those last 2 are a much bigger deal than you’d first think.

Gmail “tags” are weird. Many of them are hidden in the web UI, and using tags as an organizational tool is clunky. So I’ve more or less settled on starring everything important and leaving anything that still requires action in my inbox.

Now I have 5 main lists where I put things I would have starred:

  • “Photos” (family pictures, etc)
  • “Tax” (liberally - anything related to finances really)
  • “receipts”
  • “travel” (itineraries, reservations, tickets, etc)
  • [Work] - Ok I cheated this last one is actually one additional list for each work project where I put business related email chains I may need to reference in the future.

Now I keep my inbox nearly empty. The [Work] lists are my todo list. Anything I want to spend more time on, but not right now gets “snoozed.”

Snooze works just like your alarm clock. Makes the message go away for a little while, then return to the top of your inbox. How long can be “later” (3 hours), “tonight” (6 pm), tomorrow, this weekend, next week, among other options. Almost all of them are configurable. Snooze is simple. Snooze is great. Snooze is why my inbox is now empty.

I’m was surprised that Mailbox is a Dropbox product. I’m concerned about their motivation; how do they make money on this? They’ve made versions for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Android, which is an impressive level of dedication. But is automatic dropbox integration for attachments enough to keep this going?

Still, I think I’ll keep it. For now.

Why We Got 140 Characters Instead Of Flying Cars

For entrepreneurs aiming to solve humanity’s communication problems, here’s some free advice: give people communication skills, not another way to distribute their half-baked thoughts. We’ve got plenty of ways to send text around the internet. But communication skills – they haven’t improved much since the proliferation of the internet (if at all).

The problem is that it’s not easy to monetize someone else’s communication skills (who will fund you?). Aside, of course, from hiring them to solve some pressing communication problem. But we can’t all work in PR.

It’s easy to see how we got 140 characters. Advertising. But where are our flying cars? You can barely spend 10 minutes reading or talking about startups and technology without a reference to how we still don’t have flying cars.

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters

I appreciate the sentiment, but the problems we really need to solve to get flying cars are economic ones. Flight uses a lot of energy. Energy is expensive. The real obstacle is the cost of flying cars – we’ve already figured out air travel – it just costs too much to be practical for day-to-day use.

I have a hard time imagining the founders of twitter thinking to themselves, “Let me go work in BP’s research division so we can eventually have flying cars.” But that’s the reality of it. That or find a way to break the laws of physics, but the prospects aren’t looking good for that. There’s a Nobel Prize waiting for you if you succeed on that front though.

Let’s focus on the hard problems.” Yes, let’s! But let’s also be honest with ourselves: the hard problems we need to solve are in energy, agriculture, and biology. And hey! What do you know‽ We, as a global society, are spending a lot of resources in those areas. The problems are just really hard.

I don’t mean to say everything is fine or that there aren’t other things to improve (as a species, I disdain nationalism), but I think the problem is overstated.

It’s great that SpaceX is trying to get us on Mars, but again, a huge factor in why there isn’t much investment in that area is cost. Before any number of people are going to go off and colonize mars, we need to reduce the cost to a level that is affordable at scale.

Musk understands this well:

Elon states that he wants to make a trip to the Red Planet affordable for an average American Family. Affordable, he later said, is “no more than half a million dollars”.

Because as long as it costs millions (billions?) of dollars – which we could otherwise spend saving lives here on earth – a mission to colonize Mars is going to be unpalatable. Same for those fancy flying machines you’re yearning for.

Safari Web Content using all my CPU and RAM

This post is a bit of a departure from my normal style, but it took me hours of searching to finally nail this down and resolve the issue.

I’m using OS X 10.9.1 on a Mid-2010 MacBook Pro, Safari is version 7.0.1.

Activity Monitor

Edit: I’ve also experieced this issue now on OS X 10.8.5 on a Mid-2010 iMac, in Safari 6.1 (Pretty much the same version of Safari)

The Problem

At some point a few days ago I noticed that my CPU fan was blasting for what seemed like no reason at all. So I did what any rational person would do. I opened Activity Monitor.

Safari Web Content was using 100% CPU over 1GB of RAM and was “Not Responding”.

I tried killing the little bugger, but to no avail. Every time I went back to using Safari the problem resurfaced.

I found a very helpful, but unfortunately also very long thread on Apple’s Support Community.

Turns out this is a side effect of things going badly with Top Sites.

Solutions

You can disable Top Sites all together:

  1. Go to “Safari” > “Preferences” > “General” and change new windows and new tabs to open with a blank page (or anything besides Top Sites)

  2. Try to figure out which of your top sites is causing the issue. I suspect that if there is one with no preview (having the black background with a grey safari icon overlaid instead) it is probably the culprit, but I can’t verify that. [update]: I have confirmed this to be the case.

Safari Top Sites

Another theory I have about which sites to remove from Top Sites is ones that use a lot of JavaScript or Flash.

Safari has to run and render all code in the website in order to generate the preview. The more code it has to run, the more potential for problems.

Anyway hope this helps some poor person with this problem :)

edit: I’ve just discovered that if you hover over the “Safari Web Content” item in Activity Monitor, the hover text will show the url of the page being rendered!

edit 2: The trick mentioned in the previous edit is nice, but doesn’t work on the Safari Web Content process that hangs, only the ones spawned for browser tabs. Doh!

edit 3: OSX 10.10 Yosemite has greatly improved Activity Monitor’s reporting of Safari processes