Category: Startups

Theories of Leisure, Past and Future

img_0028I am at leisure. Specifically—and many may not regard this as leisure—I just ran 17.71 miles in Yosemite Valley. I dropped the car along the road near the 41 junction and then just started running. I went south for a while, then circled back to Bridalveil Falls (lightly flowing), then up to the Glacier Point loop, then back down to El Capitan, then up to Yosemite Falls (not flowing). Lunch was at the Village and then I tracked down the car again.

Now, then, I am at leisure. The barman has set me up with a martini. I have a Fresno Fig flatbread on the way: goat cheese, bacon, arugula, and the critical figs. I am showered all the way down to between my toes. The late afternoon light is filtering through a mild haze onto the muddy belly of the lake. There must be bass out there somewhere. Let the bass live. Let them be at leisure.

A must-read on this topic is Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article, The Free-Time Paradox in America. I don’t agree with the thesis, though. It’s not really a paradox. It’s just an unknown. You should read Derek’s original, but I will comment briefly on some of his points. He argues that John Maynard Keynes forecast a reduction in work requirements by the 21st Century. Mechanization would take the drudgery out of most things and we would get to 15 hour work weeks with the management of our leisure time an increasing burden on us.

The present didn’t work out that way.

Instead, educated high-earners work ever harder. The only leisure class is the non-college-educated male youth who don’t work much these days but instead play video games (75% of their spare time) and are happier than when more of them worked. Derek rolls up several theories about why this might be the case. First, maybe it’s because the industry jobs disappeared and young men don’t like to work in retail and health care. Second, perhaps it’s because the wealthy workers are trying to keep up with the Joneses, though not exactly in the way that the Thorstein Veblen imagined it. Instead of conspicuous consumption, it is conspicuous activity. Finally, maybe it’s because work and leisure have blurred too much; entertaining ourselves on our smartphones is just too close to responding to an email from work.

I agree partly with the suggestion that economic productivity can be a very high level of creative action that is implicit in some of Derek’s commentary. Is there really much difference between landscape design and watercolor painting? Both require an understanding of materials and methods that result in an aesthetic outcome, though the former has more of a pragmatic impact than the latter. Is this a significant deviation from past economic efforts? Perhaps. The modern startup doesn’t have the dark satanic mills of the past, and is based, generally, on technological advances that are intellectually interesting. Sometimes this was the case historically, but not consistently.

Ultimately, what constitutes leisure activities rather than productive activities is inherently blurry. I suppose the golfing set might claim otherwise, but I do work-related thinking while running, and may intertwine writing efforts with other actions without harm to either of them. Leisure is fungible.

The future of leisure is similarly fungible. We can guess that virtual gaming will be even more compelling than existing gaming options, pulling young men and others even further away from engagement with the traditional economic sphere. Yet, even here there are opportunities: toolkits for virtual world design, the designs themselves, monetizing the experiences in compelling ways. Even my Yosemite experience can be virtualized. Fly drones around, mapping and imagining every square inch in ultra-4K resolution. Yes, drones are currently illegal in National Parks, but they could be used by licensed content producers, I’m guessing. Then everyone could fly, run, hike, walk, boat, and swim this little, leisurely experience.

I am at leisure.

Startup Next

I’m thrilled to announce my new startup, Like Human. The company is focused on making significant new advances to the state of the art in cognitive computing and artificial intelligence. We will remain a bit stealthy for another six months or so and then will open up shop for early adopters.

I’m also pleased to share with you Like Human’s logo that goes by the name Logo McLogoface, or LM for short. LM combines imagery from nuclear warning signs, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I think you will agree about Mr. McLogoface’s agreeability:

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You can follow developments at @likehumancom on Twitter, and I will make a few announcements here as well.

The Retiring Mind, Part 1: Clouds

goghcloudsI’m setting my LinkedIn and Facebook status to retired on 11/30 (a month later than planned, alas). Retired isn’t completely accurate since I will be in the earliest stage of a new startup in cognitive computing, but I want to bask ever-so-briefly in the sense that I am retired, disconnected from the circuits of organizations, and able to do absolutely nothing from day-to-day if I so desire.

(I’ve spent some serious recent cycles trying to combine Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as an intro to the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station”…on my Line6 Variax. Modulate B-flat to C, then D, then E. If there is anything more engaging for a retiring mind, I can’t think of it.)

I recently pulled the original kitenga.com server off a shelf in my garage because I had a random Kindle Digital Publisher account that I couldn’t find the credentials for and, in a new millennium catch-22, I couldn’t ask for a password reset because it had to go to that old email address. I swapped hard drives between a few Linux pizza-box servers and messed around with old BIOS and boot settings, and was finally able to get the full mail archive off the drive. In the process I had to rediscover all the arcane bits of Dovecot and mail.rc and SMTP configurations, and a host of other complexities. After not finding what I needed there, alas, I compressed the mail collection and put it on Dropbox.

I also retired a Mac Mini, shipping it off to a buy-back place for a few hundred bucks in Amazon credit. It had been a Subversion server that followed-up for kitenga.com, holding more than ten years of intellectual property in stasis. And I mean everything: business records, PowerPoints, source code, release packages, artwork, manuscripts, music. The archives were recorded to a USB drive and then tarred and dropped into Dropbox. A few of the more personal archive collections were transformed into Git repositories and stored on a OneDrive account.

And the new startup will exclusively use Microsoft Office 365 for email, calendaring, and productivity (yes, I tried Google Docs). Yammer will help with internal knowledge management. Atlassian’s Confluence, JIRA, and Bitbucket will support code development. Lync and Skype are collaboration tools. Products will launch in Amazon EC2 instances. Financials, HR, and talent acquisition will go to WorkDay. Then we have LegalZoom for legalities, USPTO.gov for trademarks and patents, GoDaddy for domain registration, iPage for WordPress hosting, and so on. And the absolutely critical 1Password for keeping all these credentials straight across dozens of web properties and online systems (I have 178 separate logins stored in 1Password!), with the 1Password archive encrypted in Dropbox and accessible from phones or laptops as needed.

What an incredible change. In just a few years we have erased or reduced to a trickle the frictional costs of doing a modern software business. Even travel has become easier with TripIt Pro. I just forward any itinerary I get from any airline or online booking service and it gets incorporated into a master itinerary. I check in for flights online and the boarding passes appear on my Apple Watch for scanning. I’m taking off for two weeks of backpacking and trail running in New Zealand as some kind of psychological commitment to the concept of retirement so travel optimization is weighing on me right now.

Cord-cutting for cable and landline (except broadband) is coming soon. Television is bad enough that surfing it should not be an option. Also, one of the interesting consequences of cloud everything (including installed software assets in the Apple App Store, Steam, music, movies, etc.) is that the compute platform can be swapped as needed. I keep disposing of compute platforms and I’m now down to just an iPhone 6 and 2015 Macbook with a curved 34” LG 4K display. The Macbook might get swapped for a next-gen Air within a year, or something else (I’ve tried every gen of iPads and also forced myself to live with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, but ended up selling each because of non-use). If and when I swap platforms, it just takes a day or so to get everything synced up and working again.

The flexibility of the operations back-end of this new startup world demonstrates an odd fact about Silicon Valley: we are getting close to being able to turn ideas directly into tangible products with little or no capital investment. Our OPEXs become predictable and manageable ($12/month per user, for instance). We have no CAPEX. With Obamacare even the mind-numbing opaqueness of the health insurance market breaks open for independent contractors and contributors.

It’s feeling very warm and comfortable in the clouds.