Today I went to a shelter to adopt a cat. I had never actually been to the pound before and now I know why. You can literally feel the pain of dozens of animals, as they sit in their prison cells, waiting to be adopted (unlikely) or die (much more likely). Some squeal, some bark. All look at you with sad and hopeful eyes. A lot of them are pitbulls, bred for fighting and thrown out, but some are “owner surrenders” (I cannot understand how someone could give up a 10 year old cat/dog, but if they absolutely have to - why the fuck would you give it to a pound? Find a rescue!)
As the lucky kitten we adopted lays on my lap, warm and fed, I feel horrible for every other animal I couldn’t adopt, lying alone in the cold. And suddenly a depressing thought pops in my head: there is so much pain in the world, that we are sheltered from.
In these last couple of weeks, as the election campaigns heat up, I’m reminded of the incredible power of beliefs. I suppose all of us (myself included) are guilty of this, but I certainly hope I do an above-average job of dissecting the situation objectively.
When it comes to politics in particular, I have found a lot of people I know leave aside any logic or facts and think entirely based on what they’ve believed in for years. On multiple occasions friends of mine were convinced they sided with a certain political party. But when faced with looking at the actual issues, they realized they had no idea what they’re talking about.
A friend of mine started a really awesome site called www.iSideWith.com. It’s a short quiz, asking you to rate where you stand on key issues in this election. I was surprised to find where on the political spectrum I actually am. So were several of my friends. I strongly recommend you invest 30 seconds of your time to potentially open your eyes.
Today I caught myself thinking that I don’t really know where the federal money is going. Luckily a 5 second search on Wikipedia was able to shed some light.
3 line items immediately catch attention: Health and Human Services (which includes Medicare and Medicade), Social Security and Defense. Together they make up 71% of the budget.
While most people agree that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be reformed, I find it extremely difficult to understand why the defense budget shouldn’t just be cut (especially considering it’s part of discretionary spending). Medicare and Medicaid help sick people. Social Security keeps old people out of poverty.
Defense… well, defense from who? Keep in mind, Dept of Homeland Security is a separate agency with a $54 billion budget. Another 5 seconds on Wikipedia showed than US spends more than the next 14 countries combined, out of which only Russia, China and Saudi Arabia could ever realistically go to war with the US. It’s also interesting that as % of GDP, the only country that spends more on defense is Saudi Arabia (other countries average at less than half of what US spends).
A better way to describe Defense would be “Offense”. But the failure of Iraq and Afganistan wars should signal that something is completely broken even in that world view. In the last few weeks there was a lot of noise about the proposed budget cut of $500 billion in the military budget over the next decade. It sounds like a large number, but it’s really only 7% of the current defense budget (i.e. peanuts).
Helping sick and old people is something any civilized country should be doing (albeit more efficiently). But how can we justify spending this much on fighting with a nonexistent enemy, while spending a fraction of that on education, science and literally everything else that doesn’t involve killing people?
My friend Fred has written a great post about the importance of getting the next generation registered for this election and future ones as well.
Your vote does matter for this country and for this planet. Don’t believe the haters that claim your vote doesn’t count. It does.
So please register to vote (super easy and quick to do) and make your voice heard.
I’ve been hanging out with my grandpa for a week. His stories from World War II days made me realize what a bunch of pussies we all are. He, along with pretty much all of Europe, had to deal with a great deal of discomfort (putting it very lightly) for several years. We complain about having to fly red-eye in economy.
As an 18-yr old he (and his entire school class) tried to join the army in the first week of the war. They declined, asking him to go work in a military plane factory instead. In a couple of months the factory had to be evacuated to Siberia. The cargo train (no heating or running water) took 1 month to get there. When they arrived, there was no factory, nowhere to live and -30 Celcius (-22 Farenheit). So they built everything, and spent a year living in horrible conditions, working 18 hour days.
In late 1942 he joined the army, and spent 3 years walking through Eastern Europe, with people shooting at him, bombing him from planes, and losing friends along the way. Some of the stories are mind-blowing, and would make for an awesome movie.
There’s a story about an old lady who *volunteered* to let the soldiers to dismantle her house to build a bridge across a river. People didn’t complain. They had a common goal. They celebrated small victories, like grandpa’s platoon finding a cow somewhere and making cereal with milk, instead of water for once.
Today we (non-homeless, employed people living in first world countries) cannot deal with the slightest bit of discomfort, like when a flight is delayed an hour. But comfort doesn’t equal happiness. I’m not suggesting a major cataclysm is needed to show us what’s important, but it would certainly help.
I hang out with a few of my old friends in Moscow this weekend, and realized that childhood friends are very different from other friends. As a child you start with no filters, and actually develop together with them.
My best friend and I shared a desk in school from day 1 of first grade. We have a ton in common. Some of the other guys and girls are tied together with me in a way that most people I met in the last few years can’t. This is regardless of whether I liked them as kids, or like them now (and I certainly like some of them even less now than I did as a kid). But the connection I have with someone I don’t like for over 20 years is very different from someone I don’t like for just 1 year.
One of the reasons I love physics is the line between theory and mindblowing practice is pretty thin. The recently discovered Higgs Boson gives everything mass. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without mass, but here’s a glimpse.
According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, massless particles (like electrons) are destined to forever travel at the speed of light. And for anything traveling at the speed of light the past, present and future are the same thing. So the Higgs actually makes time possible.
If you’re not familiar with the Higgs Boson, check out this video
It is sickening that in a country that claims to be the leader of the free world, the chances of winning an election are directly tied to the amount of money raised. It would be ok if fundraising success was just an indication of popularity, but unfortunately that’s not the case.
Money flows into politics for 2 reasons:
1) Politicians need money to campaign (i.e. twist the truth to convince those undecided that they are the best choice). Since each side is paying the same amount of money per ad, it’s akin to the old joke where 2 friends take turns giving each other $10 bucks to eat a piece of shit. In the end they each just ate shit for free. Except in this case, it’s the public that’s eating shit.
The prudent solution would have been to just “cancel out” the lowest common denominator. Let’s say Democrats raised $500 and Republicans $600. Then each side should give $500 back, and let Republicans spend $100 on campaigning.
2) “Interested parties” need to buy politicians’ loyalty (i.e. corruption). While political contributions are legal, they will remain the rational thing to do for any smart person/company. It’s just like tax loopholes - it’s dumb not to use them.
The only solution that would solve this is to make money in politics illegal. Not sure if this will ever happen, but until then I don’t see how the situation will fix itself naturally.
Jon Orlin's Blog: InBox To Zero Achieved -
I’ve finally achieved Inbox To Zero. It’s a state of bliss that probably won’t last long. A big part of getting to here involved not using Email as a To Do list. I’m a big GTD groupie (Getting Things Done, by David Allen) and following those ideas really helped.
Here are some of the tools…
Look who's on New York Times
Here’s a reprint of my first guest post (in Mashable, nonetheless). Since they took out some of the juicier points (particularly why the App Store doesn’t offer refunds), here’s the original version.
There’s a psychological barrier to paying for online services, and it’s hurting both consumers and businesses.
We pay for things in real life every day. We easily spend $5 on a vanilla latte, but agonize over paying $5/month for a really valuable web service. Freemium business model has emerged as a solution to this unfortunate customer behavior.
There are a many shiny examples of widely successful Freemium companies. With Evernote’s billion dollar valuation, more people will point to Freemium as the business model to strive for. Unfortunately it’s an exception and it sets a bad example. Companies like Evernote and Dropbox are the poster kids for VC-backed success, but not necessarily an ideal model for every online service.
In my experience there are 3 main cases where a Freemium model works:
1. Evernote-like paywall
The way the product is designed, a significant portion of the users will inevitably cross the paywall. The longer you use the product, the more value you derive from it, and the closer you are to hitting the free upload limit. WriteThat.Name is another great example of this, and one of my favorite products. It extracts contact info from email signatures and creates/updates your Google contacts. The free version gets you 40 new contacts per month - 1.3 per day. Since I get more, paying $3/month for this service is a no-brainer.
2. Dropbox-like network effects and viral lift
Dropbox has inherent virality, and it’s value increases with more users (in order for you to share a folder, the other person has to be using the product). It also doesn’t hurt that you have an additional incentive to invite them - permanent extra storage. This is the classic Fred Wilson “free users are your marketing cost” argument. Most network effects businesses have to offer some form of value for free.
3. Spotify-like super annoying ads
Five bucks a month is a small price to pay to avoid the anger you feel after hearing the same commercial every 3 minutes. Of course, it’s a fine line between being a) valuable/annoying and b) just annoying. In case of (b) the user is much more likely to stop using the service than pay. From business standpoint, ad monetization sucks because it requires huge scale to generate significant revenue. So you’re much better off charging a user $5/month, instead of blasting him with ads that may get you a $5 CPM if you’re very very lucky. Sparrow, for example, gets away with charging $10 to remove an ad unit in a particularly annoying spot.
Of course, if your cost structure doesn’t support lots of free users, neither of the above will work, but for most of us user acquisition cost outweighs support cost by orders of magnitude.
The problem is most consumer internet startups want to be in the above 3 categories and probably lie to themselves just a little. But by charging $0 you’re actually anchoring that value in your customer’s mind, making it harder to raise the price later. One approach that seems to work is staying in free beta (or offering $X credit) while you figure out where to put the paywall.
Long live the Free Trial
So what if you don’t satisfy one of the 3 cases above? The model we went with at our company is the free trial after which everyone has to pay. It works beautifully - more than 25% of our free trials convert to paying users, and we don’t even ask for a credit card upfront. The remaining 75% leave, and we don’t have to support them.
“But isn’t this a kind of freemium?!” you might say. Not really. Freemium is when there’s a free and premium versions of your product. A Free Trial is more like a “no-questions-asked” returns policy for the web. I’m fine paying $120 for Microsoft Office upfront - I’ve been using it for 2 decades, and know exactly what I’m getting. But it’s harder for me to shell out even $1.99 for a product I’ve never tried.
“How long should the trial be?!” That depends on how quickly your product can show value. The more the value increases with time, the longer the trial should be. On the flip side, the shorter the trial, the faster you can optimize user acquisition (and the less free users you have to support). For us, the value is seen almost immediately, so we are currently experimenting with shorter trials.
What boggles my mind is that the Appstore hasn’t introduced a Free Trial model. There’s no real reason NOT to do it. If you try an app, and don’t like it, you should be able to uninstall it and not have to pay. It would probably increase sales for paid apps significantly. The lack of a reasonable return policy actually feels kind of scammy. I wonder how many people paid for crappy apps they don’t use, and what the active users/downloads ratio is for most apps?
Death to Freemium
There’s a lot to be said for creating something of value and charge money for it. If you’re not charging for your product, then your users ARE the product. This actually screws the user in the long run (when the company dies or gets sold to somebody who can monetize your users). It also forces you to focus on 2 unrelated efforts: 1) growing your user base, and 2) figuring out how to monetize it. (And please don’t use Facebook as an example of waiting to monetize your audience. You are not Zuckerberg.) There are many benefits to having free users and focusing on hyper growth. But the decision to go with Freemium should be based on math specific to your business - not a pricing philosophy.
And do your part as a consumer - stop being cheap. Just because something is virtual, doesn’t mean it should be free. As we spend more time online, we should get more comfortable paying for value delivered there.
I hate these articles. X either does cause Y, or it doesn’t. If you don’t know, it just isn’t news. Grrr…