“Paradox of Choice” Video

I saw this excellent video lecture by author of “Paradox of Choice” (I didn’t read the book), Barry Schwartz, a few months ago.

Briefly, the “Paradox of Choice” means that the more choices people are offered, the less satisfied they tend to wind up with their decision. For me it is maybe the most important insight I learned in 2006. This is one of those ideas who are so valuable that once you understand them they seems obvious, almost self explanatory. Don’t we all know it from our own experience? As a child, you got one chocolate ice cream and you were happy, but when you had to pick 2 scoops from 10 different tastes you always ended up regretting your choice. And yet we build products and shopping malls and societies where we see choice as a core requirement of freedom.

Maybe the tools being built now with the Long Tail in mind will eventually help counter the Paradox of Choice, filtering choices on a single person’s interests resolution? This is starting to read like something out of Wired Magazine, so I’ll stop now. Favorite video of 2006: Paradox of Choice

Web 2.0 Checklist

So, as I established (to the great awe and astonishment of the technology world) that Web 2.0 is a bubble at least in part, here’s what I think I learned from Bubble 1.0:

1. Getting rich is at least %99 luck.

Don’t let what you percieve as a company’s chance of striking gold affect your choices too much. Companies that seem like a sure success often fail and vice versa (though unfortunately somewhat less often).

2. People matter most.

A company with smart people and good athmosphere can eventually fix a flawed product or business model. A company ruled by office politics will ultimately ruin a good product/business through bad support, reputation and future versions.

3. There will be some backlash, sooner or later.

Don’t obsess about it, just keep in mind there will likely be a time where you won’t be able to pick between jobs, or maybe even get a job. Prepare for that (see 8)

4. While you can’t do much about 1 or 3, you can try to make sure to get the following items from your experience:

5. Knowledge.

A startup is an intensely educational experience. Learn as much about technology, business, people and life as you can. Take notes.

6. People.

Work with people you respect and value. See 2.

7. Meaning.

Work on a product you like. Startups demand a lot of energy. Don’t spend it on something you don’t think is worthwhile. Remember 1.

8. Some cash.

Keep some cash aside for the slow period. It may be a good time to learn to appreciate single malts, but keep in mind this is a bubble situation – there’s no guarantee your income levels will stay the same. Remember 3. Drink responsibly.

9. Most importantly, it should be a fun experience.

If it’s not – think why. I met wonderful, intelligent people who were miserable sitting in front of a computer all day. Don’t go working in this industry for the money – finance will probably give you a much better offer for your soul, anyway. If you don’t enjoy the journey itself, reconsider your career choices.

Unique Currency and Resumes

gapingvoid writes about Unique Currency: basically it’s about the type of value proposition you’re building for yourself as an employee/freelance/business (your knowledge, skills etc) and the importance of it being unique.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone this week. He said he hated his job, but he’s doing it for the CV value. That is not always a good idea: your CV is a major way to determine your Unique Currency. Do you want to build your value to fit a type of work you don’t like?

Web 2.0

My first job in software was with a company that built an online price comparison service. There were about 10 engineers there, some of the most brilliant and dedicated people I ever worked with. The company built its own crawler software for gathering data, its own client software, downloaded by users to get this data on their desktops and its own server software for feeding that client (the client was quite complex in its own right, doing web crawls etc itself). We worked long hours, grew eventually to almost 100 employees, got a little fame but missed on the fortune, then dot.com went south and the company closed.

That was Web 1.0.

About 4 years later, myself and another friend from that company built a similar app for another company. We used LAMP to power the server side, XML to communicate to a very thin client embedded in the users’ browser, another company’s service for the actual price data and had the whole thing working in about a month or two, working about 3 days a week from our homes. The product started generating money as soon as it was launched, the company never grew beyond 5 or 6 people and as far as I know still sees nice profits.

There was no tagging folksonomy nor even an RSS feed in sight, and yet this for me is Web 2.0. It was a completely Web-based business that made more money than it cost.

Art and philanthopy and just cool work have a well deserved place in this world, but when you want to find out if a business is a bubble or not, there’s a time honored way to judge that: products that are valuable to people tend to generate some money.

It seems odd to me people are wondering if Web 2.0 is a bubble. Just read Techcrunch any given day and ask yourself how many products mentioned there you will ever use. Then ask how many of those you would pay for using. Then think how many of those left your friends that don’t know what RSS is will pay for. The only question is the size of that bubble. Thankfully, it seems these are multiple small bubbles, of a few $100K each, and many of them are run by people who survived the first bubble, so they do realize the need to make their products pay in the near future.

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. It is a lot of fun and you can get to do good stuff that will outlive any bubble, just don’t take it all to heart too much.

Price of Green

I’m trying recently to look more into different disciplines in order to get better perspective of my own field, especially architecture and product design which I find are pretty related to building Web apps, in a way (I’ll write about it some more soon). I’ve been interested in architecture, especially sustainable architecture, long before I got into software, actually. Well, one really cool thing about living in New York is that there are so many opportunities to hear smart people talk about interesting stuff, and I took one of those today and heard Buzz Poole, Alex Marshall and Shin-Pei Tsay talk about environmentally friendly cities, buildings and products.

But as the talk proceeded, something started to bug me. The attitude seemed to be that people should buy “green” products and live a “green” lifestyle as a sort of sacrifice one makes for the greater good. The solar panels might be a bit pricey and the electric car won’t go very fast, but it’s good for the planet.

This seems a defeatist attitude to me. I thought about the iPod in my jacket’s pocket: if it were more energy efficient, the battery would last longer between recharging. If it was recyclable, it might cost less because the materials can be reused. And yet, if Apple were to launch a “Green iPod” tommorow you can pretty safely bet that it would cost more than the other models, and that most people attending that discussion would actually pay the extra price, genuinely believing they are doing the right thing.

I’m beginning to think they’d be doing the wrong thing. Think back to the early days of PCs, or cars or airplanes. They were all expensive, hard to operate and generally pretty worthless. But they didn’t improve by people saying “buy that PC, it’s good for the planet”. Maybe the opposite – they improved because people did *not* buy them, as they weren’t very useful, and therefore people who built PCs and airplanes had to put a lot of effort into making them into something you could afford and wanted to have.

I know such views are suspect today in the US, and not without reason. I’m very much aware this is a simplistic view and that, for example, we’re all ultimately subsidizing polluting technologies when companies producing them are not being charged according to the true cost of using it (i.e, the damage to people’s health caused by car emissions is covered by the public, not by the car companies) . I’m still paying my monthly shekels to Greenpeace because political action is necessary. But still, it makes me wonder whether we’re hurting eco-friendly tech’s advance by cheering it so much.

The Long Now Talks

The Long Now Foundation was set up in 1996, to promote thinking in really long timeframes: its most well known project is to build a clock that will run for 10,000 years.

I recently discovered the Long Now Seminars – free mp3s of talks about long term thinking, presented by truly brilliant, thoughtful people. It is really really good stuff. I feel especially lucky, being able to hear these talks while walking with our dog through a landscape that looks like this: :)

Judea Desert