Aziz Ansari on Technology

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Freakonomics Radio recently rebroadcast a year old episode with Aziz Ansari. I’ve always been a fan of Aziz as a role model and generally all around decent human being. His Master of None show on Netflix is also excellent. I’m copy pasting my favorite part of exchange between him and Stephen Dubner, but check out the episode in it’s entirety.

DUBNER: I’ve just asked Aziz Ansari one of our FREAK-Quently Asked Questions. It goes like this: What’s something that you own that you should probably throw out but never will? Considering that his new book, Modern Romance, is about finding love in the digital age, his answer might surprise you …

ANSARI: I’ve been trying to throw out my email address, in a way.

DUBNER: Are you like Hotmail or something?

ANSARI: No I had, like, an email address, like a work email address, and I would just get so many emails. And then when I started filming my TV show I just set up a thing that said, this email is dead. I’m not checking email. If the world’s gonna end you can call me. And I had an assistant on my show and I was like, you can call her. She’ll tell me what’s up and we’ll figure it out. And you know what you realize is, all that shit people email you about all the time, all day, none of it is important. None of it is pressing. And if you just focus on the work you’re doing instead of focusing on it for like two minutes and then getting distracted to answer some question that isn’t pressing at all, you do a worse job. So I found that I’m much more focused when I don’t have those little questions. And then at the end of the day I just have someone fill me in on everything or I call someone on the phone. Or I call someone in the morning. And then I can focus on what I’m doing throughout the day, and my head is much clearer when I do that. So I’d love to just throw out, if I could throw out the Internet as well, that’d be great. I never read anything. I’ve never read all these novels that are like these beautiful stories that have continued to have a resonance with people for so many generations, like beautiful works of art that I could read at any point. But instead, I choose not to read them. And I just read the Internet. Constantly. And hear about who said a racial slur or look at a photo of what Ludacris did last weekend. You know, just useless stuff. It’s like, I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m on page a million of the worst book ever. And I just won’t stop reading it. For some reason it’s so addictive.

DUBNER: So that’s interesting because…you’re a pretty disciplined person overall. It sounds, like you do a lot of work…Do you think that you really wish that you didn’t read the Internet all the time and would read books instead? Or do you think that, you know what, you just like it and you kind of feel guilty about it and so you say that because it sounds like the thing that you want to be true, maybe?

ANSARI: Well I’ve thought about this stuff a lot. Here’s what I’ll say. I’ll say, the times where I haven’t read that stuff, the stuff that I normally read on the Internet, just nonsense blogs or whatever, the next day I’ve felt like I’ve missed nothing. You know? I deleted Twitter and Instagram off my phone. I mean I use them to like post stuff but I don’t have them on my phone. I don’t have, like, a feed. I don’t follow anyone. And I used to read that stuff a lot. And now I don’t read it. I don’t see those pictures. And I don’t miss it. And I feel like a lot of people do a lot of this stuff. And if they cut it out I don’t think they’d miss it that much. I really don’t. I mean when I don’t check in on those blogs and stuff, if I miss it I don’t go back and, like, if you don’t read your blog for a week, right, do you go back and like, not your blog in particular, I’m saying like a blog that you check, right? If you don’t read it for a week, right, and you come back, you don’t go back and read Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Cause you’re not reading it for the information. What you’re reading it for, and this is just my personal theories about this stuff, what you’re reading it for is a hit of this drug called the Internet. The phone world. You just want a hit of it. Like when you scroll down and you see a new blog post you’re like oooh! That gets your brain excited. It’s like, oooh! There’s something new! And you click it and you read it and you’re like, oooh, but it’s garbage… Somebody dropped an N-bomb. Great. Alright. I mean that is kind of a cool story, but, but you’re just searching for this new thing. When you look on your Facebook feed and you see these pictures it’s like, none of that shit really matters. You just want to see a new thing on there and it just gives you something to do. I’ve sat at my computer. I still do it. And I go on like Facebook or whatever and I’m like, what am I doing? I’m going on a loop with these same four sites for no reason. I’m not genuinely interested.

And, now, the BEST part:

Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. 

Takeaways:

Email sucks. Check it twice a day. The Internet is the worst book ever. Put it down and cut your losses. When we browse, we’re looking for a hit of dopamine. As we keep browsing, it takes more and more to give us the same rush, so we keep chasing it, but it’s vicious cycle, as it will never be as good as the first peek.

The Internet is a drug. Use it wisely.

Paychecks are Comfortable

Most people like to feel comfortable. Feel safe. Like they have nothing to worry about, because they have so many other worries that they cannot afford to have a paycheck to worry about.

Fair enough.

That’s why most people have jobs. That’s also why most of them miserable. That’s why most do not have as much money as they would like, and why they spend their best hours making a corporation, not owned by them, rich.

In exchange for golden handcuffs and the illusion of accomplishment, we instead have a subservient population that chooses to express its freedom in other, less beneficial ways (cycling the same morons in and out of Washington every few years, renting space just to store their crap, etc.).

A paycheck is less than ideal not just because it makes you feel safe, but because it makes you complacent. Complacency is the enemy of success, and should be everyone’s biggest fear. Complacency is something you occasionally snap out of an annual basis when you’re up for a raise.

Think about this: what if you could give yourself a raise every single day? And none of the 3% bullshit cost of living raise. Legit, 10, 50, 100% raises, based purely on merit and market demand (how hard you work, how smart you work, and the market that exists for your work).

You’re never complacent, ever, because someone is trying to eat your lunch all the time.

And isn’t that sense of accomplishment the ultimate reason for living? You don’t need reality TV, or social media, or any other bullshit. Your life is reality, and you’re the lead actor!

Khizr Khan Says What’s on the Mind of 100 Million Americans

The Muslim father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan absolutely laid into Donald Trump on the last day of the Democratic convention. The DNC encouraged him to give a different speech than the one he did, so while the teleprompter ran a speech, he spoke from the heart. After recalling the sacrifice of his son, Khan spoke the most memorable lines of the year, decade, and maybe century. Even in our jaded, hot take environment, his words will be remembered a la “I have a dream” and “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev.”

He asked Trump if he had ever read the Constitution, offering him his own personal copy, straight from his breast pocket (This was an important reminder that immigrants actually value the Constitution because that’s the very reason that they came here. The document symbolizes everything that is great about the US, and allows them to prosper every single day.)

Then, he made a very definitive statement: “You’ve sacrificed NOTHING.”

He didn’t yell, but the emphasis was clear. Trump was handed north of $100 million, and wriggled his way out of bankruptcy multiple times. A strong business record would be a qualifier for becoming president; unfortunately, his record is terrible. Sacrifice is something that most Americans can relate to on some degree, but it is clear that Trump does not know the definition of it.

The speech was a good reminder that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss American exceptionalism. We can be exceptional AND not interfere with other nations. The two are not mutually exclusive. Khan’s speech was so powerful because he had the courage to speak what at least  100 million people were thinking, if not more. But it is important to note that these words of common sense can not be spoken via the filter for bullshit only that the media has. Fox, MSNBC, and CNN should be held responsible for Trump’s potential victory, not deluded voters.

Clearly, speaking completely from the heart is rare, but its impact is unmistakable. Khan followed up with making a direct appeal to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, two “patriotic, decent men.” He pointed out that every so often, situations arise where politics is transcended by decency—this is one of them.

Finally, Khan made sure to point out that Republicans, along with Democrats, help make this country what it is. While we laugh constantly at our political gridlock, others would literally kill for it.

RIP Humayun Khan, your parents may have just saved our country.

Innocent Men Killed

It is difficult to see two more innocent black men gunned down without reason. To see it livestreamed may shock many, but provides the evidence that so many (falsely) felt was necessary. A certain percentage of people will always feel like cops have a justification for their actions, while a similar percentage feel like the use of weapons is never, ever justified. Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But this is the hole that America, as a country, has dug for itself. As Jeremiah Wright would say, the chickens have come home to roost. When we collectively ignore racism, pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it’s been overcome, we are telling all those who have been affected that they don’t exist. Maybe you haven’t seen anything in your sanitized bubble, but the reality is much different. And to say, “I’m not racist,” is just blatantly wrong, because you have not accounted for your unconscious bias. When you treat people like second class citizens, they will act like it. The statistics bear out that minorities are disproportionately singled out, but they also commit more crimes, due to their economic situation, residence, etc.

What ails America is something so deep seeded that no single policy, law, or decree can change. We need a hard reset of our mentality, perspective, and views. Barring that, we must make a concerted effort to understand the views—literally, we must ourselves put ourselves in others shoes.

Which brings us to Dallas, where a sniper trained their weapons on officers, killing five and injuring seven. A small part of me understands why Micah X. Johnson did what he did, because it certainly feels like the world is at war. But if we turn it into a civil war we have already lost. The same compassion that is deservedly extended to police officers and their families should also be extended to the innocent men that are shot daily.

Nobody should sit here and be surprised at what’s occurring; in fact; they should be surprised that it took this long. And many more incidents of the like are on the horizon. Until all lives are given the same respect, this country will remain broken, and shortly will become irreparably so. The divide across race, class, income, political affiliation, and opportunity is the hallmark of a deadly and lethal revolution, but it seems as of those in power are only concerned with the retention of it. No surprise there.

HustleCon

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HustleCon, the conference for nontechnical entrepreneurs, occurred last Friday in Oakland. An overall great experience, HustleCon perfectly encapsulates the Bay Area—warts and all. Providing plenty of free booze, swag, food, a beautiful space, etc., turning a profit was likely foreign to the Hustle crew. At the same time, they brought the value! Top notch speakers providing actionable insights delivering real value to—let’s be honest, most of the time, people leave these things feeling pumped up and motivated…and go back to doing the same shit they always did. The motivation is short lived. But to those that don’t need a conference to be motivated, and quickly absorb lessons and do something with them? Well, you’ll find value in the takeaways below.

  1. Reframe the Narrative

-Andy Dunn of Bonobos gave an inspiring talk (he was the only speaker to thank his parents) on the importance of having tenacity and sheer belief in yourself and your company. Bonobos took three years to even find a single VC that would invest, but Dunn kept at it because he knew the pool of available capital in the Valley was infinite. Dunn made another great: we spend over 99% of our energy on ourselves; imagine the possibilities if we even allocated 2 or 3% of that time to others?

-Amanda Bradford of The League gave the talk that most resonated to the college student that I am: how to have an excellent pregame. But she applied it to creating an app, which was an unique metaphor. Essentially, The League, an exclusive dating app, invested most of its time in creating a waitlist of “perfect” people, via meetups, partnerships, and other events. This makes sense because it’s value proposition is literally the quality of people, but the lesson can apply to other companies as well. A lot of hype doesn’t hurt if you have the substance to back it up.

-Danielle Morrill of Mattermark recounted how she gave a giant middle finger to the rest of the industry. Collecting data on every startup out there, and then selling it to VCs, made her less than favorable among her peers. But it didn’t matter, as she continued to scale the company to now what is one of the premier data providers on private companies.

  1. Be Different

-Jason Calacanis, premier angel investor, had a brief Q&A session which boiled down to this: you make the most money when no one else believes your thesis. Having been the third or fourth check in Uber and Thumbtack, he knows what he’s talking about. And it’s not novel information. But very few people can feel comfortable without social proof, whether in building a product or writing a check, so those who can have a serious competitive advantage.

-George Zimmer and Tom Montgomery of Generation Tux and Chubbies, respectively, provided an interesting contrast between advertising styles. Part of the old guard, but also understanding of the current reality, Zimmer said that traditional TV advertisting valued repetition and consistency rather than creativity, whereas the inverse is true in our social media age. This fact is clear to most, but because everything is cyclical, it will be interesting to see when the pendulum swings back in the other direction.

-David Renteln of Soylent talked about the importance of embracing the weird. Soylent has embraced it’s eating people reference, GMOs in the all organic Bay Area, and understands that their product looks like semen. They don’t care, and they turn all these seeming disadvantages into advantages.

  1. Timing is Everything

-Jeff Chapin of Casper discussed the importance of having solid supply chains, which doesn’t sound sexy, but was mostly interesting. However, what struck me was that Casper was the first online only mattress company to nail their execution; now they’re tons of imitators on the market, but Casper’s first mover advantage has been massively helpful to their growth. (Sidenote: Jeff had a great story about his co-founder; when they went to meet the workers at the factory, he wore a “Jobs Blow” t-shirt. Don’t do this.)

-Danae Ringelmann of Indiegogo has enjoyed a similar first mover advantage

-Sam Yagan of OkCupid was CEO of Match Group when they IPO’d. However, he wouldn’t have even made it if he hadn’t sold SparkNotes (my high school savior) to another company at the peak of the dotcom bubble (3 weeks before the Nasdaq hit its high water mark). Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Take even one of these lessons, and you’ll be ahead of 99% of your fellow wantrepreneurs.

How to be a Contrarian

                             Qasar Younis

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Qasar Younis, COO of Y Combinator, come into one of my entrepreneurship classes. Qasar is a genuine human being. It was evident that he was largely self made, as only someone who has similarly had to pull themselves out of working class conditions can understand. The main part of his presentation consisted of 10 ways to be contrarian while being a startup founder—some were obvious, some were not, but it is always enjoyable to hear confirmation that the actions I am taking are “contrarian.” Hopefully everybody else in class will only listen, instead of acting 🙂

  1. Be weary of instincts Don’t go through the motions that other people have ascribed you to do (e.g. getting a perfect SAT score, proceeding to major in computer science at Stanford, becoming an engineer at Google, etc.)
  2. Be technical As we age, we have less and less bandwidth to devote to learning, so it’s easier to learn at a young age.
  3. Access is not important Capital will find you, as there is “an efficient market.” In the same vein, networking can be a waste of time, as entrepreneurs spend all their time having coffee and going to conferences that they forget to build their product.
  4. Location matters The Valley is the place to be; San Francisco can be a distraction, and anywhere is a waste of time.
  5. Frugality influences success For some, this can be a personal competitve advantage. Given the choice, investors will invest in the entrepreneur with a 20 year old caar rather than a brand new Tesla (“Who’s hungrier?)
  6. Coworking spaces don’t work Besides engaging in water cooler talk, the seemingly stupid ideas get shot down quickly; unfortuantely, the best companies are usually started from the worst ideas (Who’s going to leave strangers alone in their home??”). At coworking spaces, the ideas are bound to regress to the mean.
  7. Pitch practice is overrated Have a strong team, period.
  8. Experts are usually wrong Always a step behind, experts are ideal for listening, and then doing the exact opposite thing they recommend.
  9. Be ready for an all consuming experience According to Qasar, the median age of a YC founder is 30. If not now, then when?
  10. Nice people win Nobody wants to work with assholes.

Book Recommendations

Gandhi: An Autobiography

Making of America

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Cory Booker

Frivolousness, as defined by the IRS

Around tax time, any creative person attempts to maximize the deductions they can take on their taxes…or they vote for the candidates that want to abolish the IRS. Thankfully for us creative types, the IRS has published a list of “frivolous” arguments

Yes, the IRS has an actual definition of “frivolous.” In layman’s terms, it means “bullshit, don’t even try to pull this on us.”

Below are the top 5 best (?) arguments the IRS has thoroughly debunked, listing the misconception and relevant case law to counter it.

  1. Taxpayers can reduce their federal income tax liability by filing a “zero return”
  2. Contention:  The Internal Revenue Service is not an agency of the United States.
  3. Contention:  Compelled compliance with the federal income tax laws is a form of servitude in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.
  4. Contention: Taxpayers can refuse to pay income taxes on religious or moral grounds by invoking the First Amendment
  5. Taxpayers are entitled to a refund of the Social Security taxes paid over their lifetime

Click through to be as entertained as taxes can make on be, because one can easily imagined the paranoid, heavily bearded survivalist banking on one (or all) of these to escape paying taxes.

 

Rationality Checklist

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Rationality is one of the most misunderstood (and misapplied) concepts, because it is impossible to be 100% rational. We are human. What’s rational to one person is likely not rational to someone else, but before either party knows it, the irrational insults get bandied about it, and it’s all downhill from there.

Suffice to say, I was excited to see a rationality checklist (with excellent examples!), published by the Center for Applied Rationality. I’ll let you dive into it right here, but I wanted to highlight the most vital points from the list, with direct quotes italicized.

  1. “When I see something odd – something that doesn’t fit with what I’d ordinarily expect, given my other beliefs – I successfully notice, promote it to conscious attention and think “I notice that I am confused” or some equivalent thereof.”

If I had to pick one item out of the entire list, it would be this one. Challenging ourselves to broaden or adjust our beliefs is crucial part of the personal development process. To see the consequences of not doing this, just look around at any bigoted, narrow minded, and prejudiced individual. Do you want to end up like that?

      2. I look for the actual, historical causes of my beliefs, emotions, and habits; and when doing so, I can suppress my mind’s                search for justifications, or set aside justifications that weren’t the actual, historical causes of my thoughts.

I loved this one. Many of our current fears or superstitions stem from our experiences as children, or traumatic experiences in general. The problem is that many of these experiences only exist in our subconcscious, tucked away from the day to day part of our brain. The easiest way to access these experiences is talking with the people you grew up around; they’re bound to remember some of the things you don’t.

       3. I notice when I and my brain seem to believe different things (a belief vs. anticipation divergence), and when this                            happens I pause and ask which of us is right.

This happens to us a lot; it’s another way of describing our natural fight or flight response. Too often, we offer weak justifications to support the side we are naturally inclined to agree with (usually the side advocating the easier way out). Do some second level thinking here, even if it takes longer, and you’ll likely arrive at the more ideal outcome.

  1. I try to come up with an experimental test, whose possible results would either satisfy me (if it’s an internal argument) or that my friends can agree on (if it’s a group discussion).

This is an easy one. If it’s an internal issue, a simple thought experiment can suffice. With the latter, go solicit feedback from others, but present the question you ask in a yes/no format. That way, you won’t waste their time, and you’ll get easily quantifiable feedback.

  1. I quantify consequences—how often, how long, how intense. 

Again, not too difficult to do this, especially with some practice. Too often, we overexaggerate potential consequences, jumping to the worst case scenario. Instead, work in degrees, and assign probabilities to potential outcomes. Addressing each dimension (even in a relative format) will be a vast improvement on the current self fear mongering we perform.

  1. I use the outside view on myself.

This is the hardest one, but the most effective. Sometimes, I feel this is a superpower, because truly understanding how others perceive you is like stepping into their mind. If your knowledge is accurate, you can dynamically adjust your behavior to get the outcomes you desire. Boss think you’re motivated, but still underperforming? Focus on simply blowing their mind on the next project. Part of this is intuition, but it can definitely be learned.

Taking 20-30 minutes and really digesting the entire checklist is time well spent, and if you’re short in a few areas, focus on implementing just one item a week. You’ll be surprised at the results you get.

 

Pros and Cons of Betterment

Like many young people looking to invest, when I found out about Betterment, I was all over it. The sophistication of their marketing is commendable, from plastering BART, to their now somewhat creepy TV commercials featuring Jon Stein. For 95% of people, Betterment is a smart, low cost alternative for managing your assets. But are you in the other 5%? Read on to find out.

Betterment is not for those who want to exercise control. All you can do is select your stock/bond allocation, and you’re stuck with the (low cost) ETFs that Betterment provides. Personally, I find some of their asset classes redundant (like their midcap funds) but they nevertheless focus on value, which has been proven to work over time.

The tax loss harvesting feature that they tout is really only applicable to large taxable accounts ($50,000+) in high income tax states (CA, NY, etc.), but it can be beneficial if you have the right profile.

I’m a cheap bastard, so the .35% fee they charge on top of the fees of the underlying ETFs seems like a ripoff to me, because I can choose ETFs and rebalance periodically all on my own. For many, however, this is far too much work, and .35% is dirt cheap to pay.

For these same inexperienced investors, Betterment does not offer any direct consultation. When the markets get choppy, like they recently have, these investors may pull their money, not realizing it is simply par for the course. However, Betterment offers great education via their blog; people just need to read it.

Two things would make Betterment more competitive: matching their competitor Wealthfront on not charging fees on accounts under $5,000, and offering the ability to not automatically reinvest dividends (instead transferring to a bank account). This last point has really rankled me, and brought me close to withdrawing the ~$2,000 I have invested with them. Yes, technically cash is the worst investment over time, but it should not be anathema. A portfolio should always have some cash, as there are almost always investing opportunities available. I’ll leave this for another post, but cash has actually been shown to boost the overall returns of a portfolio.

Overall, I still respect Betterment as a company. Their marketing is slightly misleading (take a look at their portfolio projections, pictured) but like any other company, they need to make money. Given the choice between hiring a traditional advisor, sitting in cash, or using Betterment (or another roboadviser), the latter is still the way to go.