Philosophy and Life Pearls

Working Copy is a great git editor

The future is upon us. I have always run my blog off of a git repository. But I have never, before today, edited that git repository from my phone. In fact, I am dictating this git commit this blog post using Siri!

Get working copy in the app store today!

The nature of intelligence: brain bowls, cogniphysics, and prochines

Consider the machine, which takes inputs and produces outputs, embodied theoretically as the Turing Machine, but taking many possible forms.

Your brain is just a soup bowl of machines. For clarity, we will distinguish machines of the brains by calling them "prochines" (a portmanteau of proteins and machines). The way prochines interact is studied in the field of cogniphysics.

We can describe the machines, write out their source codes precisely, and predict how they interact. The defining movement of the 21st century will be the understanding, discovery, explicit codification, and creation of myriad machines and prochines.

This proces has been fomenting subliminally since the beginning of time. Your body, your tools, morality, the Internet, philosophical ideas, and emotions are all examples of machines. Your dreams and ideas are reality.

A few immediate and many more distant conclusions spring immediately from this theoretical foundation. In particular, IQ tests lack theoretical grounding and The Bell Curve book is fundamentally wrong and misguided.

over 6 years ago on October 9 at 11:59 pm by Joseph Perla in brain bowls, cogniphysics, prochines, intelligence, philosophy, tech, overview

Today is Internet Freedom Day! DRM-free book about Aaron Swartz's causes

My good friend Marvin Ammori, a board member of Demand Progress, the foundation that Aaron Swartz founded, just published a book on the causes that ended up putting immense pressure on him. Aaron Swartz is on the first page, and his work mentioned throughout. You need to learn about the legal issues, the history, and what you can do to be a part of this important conversation. Get and read it: On Internet Freedom. Marvin's been working on the book for months, and on the cause for a decade. It's free today only, because today is Internet Freedom Day (the 1-year anniversary of stopping SOPA). You might want to buy it tomorrow, though, because all the proceeds go to Fight for the Future and Demand Progress.

I've been thinking about this all week. I'm tearing up just typing this. I've had anxiety all week, I've never known anyone who died. I don't know how to handle it. Aaron Swartz felt like a good old friend to me. I have never met him, but I've been following his life, his startups, and his blog for years. He is my inspiration for this very blog. I saw another kid, my age, writing eloquent thoughtful prose and getting great feedback. He began his life on the Internet, in suburban areas far away from the centers of power. The Internet and his blog gave him access and purpose. He dedicated his life to ensuring that everyone else have that very same access.

His article How to be more productive I read regularly once every year lest I forget. I remember when he renamed his blog Raw Thought.

I can't believe I won't read anything else he writes. He's never replied to my cold emails (he's written many times about his email overflow and business). I'm disappointed by that, so in many ways he's not even an an acquaintance. But I know he's read my writing, my blog, my quora posts. He's commented. In some ways we've had conversations in this cosmic universe.

I was in no rush to meet him because I felt I had decades to get the opportunity to know him. Maybe I felt I needed to learn more, build more, accomplish more in order to deserve the opportunity. I built weby because of the inspiration of his framework. I've imitated his articles, scraped millions of academic papers, followed him in startups, absorbed his ideas. He is a part of me. I sometimes feel like just an echo or shadow of his work.

I hope that, in some way, by promoting the causes that he so dearly loved right now, I can help continue his legacy and continue his spirit and life.

over 7 years ago on January 18 at 3:49 am by Joseph Perla in tech, news, life

MailPlus simplifies your inbox

MailPlus asks you, your colleagues, and your friends to add a simple expected action to every email you send. MailPlus makes it clear what you are supposed to do with every email you get (read something, reply with details, forward, etc).

MailPlus is simple. Just add "MailPlus: read" or "MailPlus: event" to each email on its own line at the bottom or top. There is no set template, but most common actions are suggested below.

MailPlus encourages you to send emails which require only one action by the recipient. If you have multiple actions required, please send multiple emails.

MailPlus makes it easier to filter urgent emails from non-urgent emails. This means you can better spend your time going through emails in the right order and the right frame of mind. MailPlus makes it easy to sort which actions you can do now versus later.

We recomend that you copy and paste the following as part of your email signature to (1) remind you to add a MailPlus action to all emails you send (change "idle" to anything else), and (2) tell other people about MailPlus.

MailPlus: idle

MailPlus is simple. MailPlus states the action expected for each email.

Learn more about MailPlus:

Suggested Actions

  • read

    • I thought this article/link would be interesting to you. Please read it. Let me know your thoughts, if you'd like.

  • yes or no

    • Please decide yes or no and reply to this message.

  • event

    • I am inviting you to this event. Please reply on the event page yes/no/maybe or reply to me if there is no Facebook, EventBrite, or other event link.

  • call

    • Please call me now (or whatever time is stated in the message). My phone number is detailed in the email or my signature.

  • fyi

    • For your information. Just letting you know about this information or link. There is no need to reply.

  • confirmation

    • Just archive this message for your records. No need to reply. This is useful for credit card purchases or other notifications.

  • introduction

    • I am introducing you to this person, who is cc'd on the email. Please reply promptly and decide to communicate more over email, phone, or in person. Please bcc me so that I know you received the email, but I don't receive all your correspondence.

  • idle

    • Just checking in. I haven't talked to you in a while, or I am bored. I'd like to talk to you, but it's not urgent. Feel free to reply when you have time. Emails by default, with no MailPlus line, are expected to be "idle". Add a different line if you have a more urgent or specific action.

over 7 years ago on October 12 at 1:11 pm by Joseph Perla in life, tech

Skip traffic, fly to work

James Franco attended 4 graduate schools in different places).

How might one pull that off in the coolest, most flexible way possible? Well, one way is to fly your own plane around everywhere.

For specificity, let's say you love boating around Nantucket on the weekends, but you got into the top English program at Yale. You want to have your cake and eat it too. The not-so-obvious solution is to buy a small airship and fly it to and from school as needed. How do you become a pilot and what are the costs?

You can obtain a Private Pilot license with 40 hours of instruction for $5,000 - $12,000. A flight instructor might cost $50-80 per hour to teach you, and each hour on a plane costs $100 (give or take) for small, old planes. There are other costs (like textbooks and logbooks that are minimal compared to these other costs). Therefore, if you are a sharp, hardworking student, you might get a license for just around $5,000. If it takes you longer, it may take over a year and cost more like $12,000.

You can do the training in under 2 months if you try hard. Try to log at least two hours of flight time each week because otherwise you forget your training each week and it will take you longer and cost you more. Because you can only begin training in clear, bright conditions, it can be much easier to learn to fly in places like Florida or California.

Alternatively, think about first obtaining just your Sport Pilot license which requires only 20 hours of flight time. This can halve your costs and training time. With your Sport license, the FAA lets you fly during clear, bright days with up to 1 other passenger at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet (basically the max altitudes of small planes). A Sport License has no requirements except that you must have a driver's license (and thus passed a rudimentary eye exam). You can always log the next 20 hours of training to obtain the Private Piot license so that you can fly at night with more people in more airspace later. The Private Pilot license has the extra requirements of accurate color vision and a full medical exam.

Then you can buy or rent a plane to fly between Nantucket and New Haven. Small planes cost about the same as expensive cars. You can buy a small, old cheap Cessna 150 for a round $20,000. They no longer produce these models, but they are reliable and common. The Cessna 172s are still in production and can be $40,000 used. These planes can achieve max speeds of ~150 miles per hour with ranges of over 800 miles. Other small ones that carry 1-4 passengers might go up to $80,000. Bigger or luxury planes can cost millions.

You can rent a plane cost effectively. Planes rent by the number of hours that you actually use them in flight. So, if you fly to Nantucket in the morning in 2 hours, go fishing all day, and then fly back at night then you only pay for 4 hours of flight time usage. The cheapest planes might cost only $80 per hour "wet" (with fuel included in the hours rate). More pricey small planes might be only $100-150 per hour wet. Even much larger planes that seat 10 or dozens might cost only $2000-$5000 per hour which is comparable to driving on a per person-mile basis. Note that you can rent a plane for multiple days, but most charge a minimum number of flight hours per day (like 4/day).

The advantages of your own plane include the flexibility of choosing your own schedule and the fact that you can fly into any airport you want. For small or secluded areas with infrequent travelers (like Nantucket and New Haven) this can save you a lot of time and car traffic congestion. Cities run small municipal airports for free just as they do roads for free.

Flying your own plane is a fun and safe (but expensive) way to travel or commute like a badass James Franco. It's not any more dangerous (it's safer with the right care, since a drunk driver won't hit you in the sky) than driving the same distance on a road trip.

I found it surprising how easy and attainable in price (though not cheap, unfortunately) it is to become a licensed pilot. It doesn't take millions to reach the heavens and fly like a bird, just a little saving up and a few weeks of training.

over 7 years ago on September 6 at 12:15 am by Joseph Perla in life, travel, art

Why don't I write more?

Maybe I don't write because I'm afraid to challenge the validity of my beliefs. Often, in writing, I find flaws in my reasoning.

So I avoid it entirely. I hide my irrationality from myself. Maybe that is why others don't write. They find their scripts not only aesthetically distasteful (ungrammatical and drole) but also illogical. They wake up the next day and ask, "who wrote this nonsensical drivel?"

Me? No. I dare not pick up the quill.

over 7 years ago on September 5 at 12:15 am by Joseph Perla in life, writing

The Yale System of medical school

The Yale System: reponsibilities all too often assumed by teachers are thrown upon the student. If [the student] is interested and wants to work, he has the fullest opportunities for study and guidance; if he is not himself interested, he will find no one to pull him along. This freedom is not desired by the immature student, or by the one whose primary interest is in the acquisition of a degree and not in the subject matter; but it is an advantage to the independent, thinking student generally interested in medicine and anxious to be rid of those pedagogical procedures and routines which have no bearing upon the acquisition of knowledge [38].

over 8 years ago on March 15 at 4:54 am by Joseph Perla in life, advice

Work is a Card Game

I have been procrastinating heavily recently, for the past few months actually. I was not entirely paralyzed, but I did have a constant generalized anxiety about not doing work. It persisted and irritated me at all times. I decided to read everything I could about productivity systems, work methods, and procrastination. Reading excels as a procrastination tool.

Yesterday, I believe I have solved my problems (yea, right). I invented a card game. How do you play? You go to CVS to buy some index cards, colorful ones. Perhaps stickers or photographs would work even better. The more fun the better.

The Game

Write a task you want to complete on each card. Be specific if you can, although if at a loss you don't have to be too specific. I wrote down tasks like "finish problem set," "learn the PCP Theorem proof," and "finish my midterm". Throw in a somewhat fun task like "write a blog post." This post is a product of the Card Game.

Shuffle the cards well. Keep shuffling. Shuffle some more. Make sure everything is nice and random and you think you can easily get any task. Do not think about the probabilities of getting one card or another. You will work on a task either way, and you will finish all of the tasks in a reasonable time period. The purpose of shuffling is to mix up your day, add a dash of unexpected, and create intermittent rewards like all good games do.

Cut your deck, then choose the top card. Set a timer to work on the task for some time, say 10 minutes. As your focus and concentration increases, you can increase this work period (but no more than 30-60 minutes). Try to keep it short as you just begin getting into the zone, because your focus has not built up yet.

Work on your task! Go full at it, since you only have to work for a few minutes. Delve into the problem, you won't finish in so little time anyway, so just get an understanding of what you might do at least. Deeply introspect, look at things different ways, write thoughts down.

When your timer rings, take a break for, say, 5-10 minutes. It sounds like a lot, but you need it. A regular 5-10 minute break prevents Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other Repetitive Strain Injuries. Eyes away from the computer regularly also avoid vision damage. You can meditate or do yoga or calisthenics. These exercises increase blood flow to brain, and the focus restores mental clarity that can be lost in details. Do not work, do not stare at a computer screen, and do not write unless it is artistic (and you don't work as an artist in that medium). Do not stress out if your mind keeps thinking about your task. Do not try to keep thinking about your work, but do not force it away if it strays there. Let your mind float to where it lands. Take the full break, even if you become bored. You will need it. Try to meditate.

When your break is over, shuffle the deck again and choose another card. What color will it be this time?! Fun! Maybe it is the same task again! Probably not! Repeat the work/break cycle. At one of your break periods you will know if it is time to stop.

If you finish a task completely, rip the card in half. Make a loud sound. Feel the relief. Pin the card to a poster board as your trophy. You conquered a task, and this will hang for all to see.

Regularly review your deck of cards to ensure that these are in fact necessary tasks. Maybe they are not. Unnecessary and boring tasks poison the game. Eliminate them to keep the Card Game fun and productive. Productivity is rewarding. Fun is rewarding. Unnecessary thumb twiddling is not, and will ruin the game if not effectively pruned. Focus on the good.

Keep one deck of cards separate and sorted and call them your Tickler. These are tasks you are not doing now, but you might want to do some day. These are ideas and inspiration. Every night, manually choose 3 cards from your Tickler and turn them into a new deck for Tomorrow. Use that deck for your game the next day. Try to limit the number of cards you play with every day in order to focus and get consistent amounts of work done. Slow and steady.

If you get to a task card that looks too big or complicated or daunting, crumple it up and break the task down into several new task cards. Try to make them all the same color for fun. Put the first of your new task cards into your deck, and leave the rest in the Tickler. Try to make the first card, the first step at the least, take just 10 minutes.

Theory and Explanation

What is the theory behind the Card Game? It turns work into a bit of a game. What will I do next? I don't know. It could be drudgery. It could be a fun blog post. I add the natural game element of random rewards.

I also add the benefits of the Pomodoro Method. I invented the Pomodoro Method independently 3 years ago. I used the timer on the iPhone app to help me focus for short bursts of time, and I used the break to do yoga, meditate, relax, or think about my problem at a high level.

The timer frees the stress that comes with being forced to do something that I do not want to do. The timer limits my undesirable work time down to 10 minutes.

I also get to churn through tasks. The pile of cards gets thinner and thinner, which shows achievement. Ripping the card in half as I finish is fun and a physical act and reward in and of itself. I should collect the piles of trash and build a stack. That would help me build progress toward something. That feels good too, like a collection.

All the cards are different colors, which adds a bit in terms of organization, but mostly just makes it a little more fun. The collection of defeated tasks becomes a colorful montage. It is a trophy case.

I can easily decide that a task is actually not a priority at all (i.e. it should not be done). I can destroy the card (but not mount it as a victory), or archive the card in a Tickler.

I think one really great part of my system is that as I come upon a card that is a complex task, I can break it up into chunks on the spot. First, I observe how much time I allocated to work on this problem. Then, I break up my card into chunks of approximately that time period. Instead of creating an outline of my plan all at once, I can do it piecemeal as I come across the card. Or, I can just outline the first step or two, and leave the remainder of the project to be outlined later. This helps avoid the problem of making problems too big, or keeping them too big, without thinking about small concrete steps that will help along that path.

How do you decide whether a card is actually important? Is it important? Is it important? People often avoid to-do lists because they are actually unimportant. You will too if you leave in cards that you subconsciously actually don't want to do ever. Just eliminate the card, do not do the task.

The tasks become more physical, with weight. This can work much better than a to do list. I don't know if this would work on an iPhone app. I imagine not so well. It's easy to review and rank and order your cards. The Card Game is versatile.

You need to call it your Card Game. It needs to be a game, you need to call it a game. You need to call it fun, and put in a few fun things to do. They are rewards. You will always hope that the rewards come up. And sometimes you will hope that one of your hard projects comes up. You just need to commit to working to whatever comes up. The way to do that is to feel it is a game, not work. If you say you "should" play with your cards, then you will get stuck. You want to play your Card Game every day.

over 8 years ago on March 15 at 4:54 am by Joseph Perla in life, advice

How to win a Nobel Prize

Richard Hamming, who made Hamming Codes among other things, once gave a famous talk about how to do good research and become a great scientist. His talk is often passed around research circles to introduce new grad students to the process.

The printed version is an exact transcript of his talk, so it rambles. It's not as tight as a proper essay, and it's a little long and repetitive for today's blog age. It is, however, a classic, so I am posting some notes with the major points here. If you like it, I recommend you read the whole thing since it has many interesting anecdotes.

You might notice that a lot of this advice works well in business and startups, and even life in general as well (like "don't get angry").

You and Your Research Notes:

First, decide that you want to do significant Nobel Prize -level work. It's okay to reach.

It's not all about luck, since lots of great scientists (Einstein, Shannon) made many great contributions. They got many hits, so it doesn't seem like pure luck. "Luck favors the prepared mind."

One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. Einstein challenged ideas about the speed of light when he was 12.

You need brains, but only a certain amount, and you probably have enough.

You need courage to dare to think through some impossible thoughts and follow through. Perservere.

People worry about age, but that might be a social effect. It is hard to work on small problems after you win a Nobel Prize young. You need to plant acorns that will become oak trees.

What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks - they did some of the best physics ever. Not having enough programmers can force you to invent automatic programming.

You have to have drive, work hard. Knowledge grows like compound interest.

So, effort is important, but you have to apply effort sensibly, or you just spin wheels.

Great scientists can tolerate ambiguity. They know that a theory works, why it works, but also where it doesn't work, and they live in a balance between believing it and not believing it. Darwin wrote down everything that contradicted his beliefs, lest he forget.

Great scientists are committed to their problems, emotionally, so as to not drop them.

Creativity comes out of subconscious, so focus all your conscious efforts on a problem so that your subconscious also works on the problem for you.

You should be working on the most important problems in your field. Why aren't you? Important problems have an method of attack (unlike, say, teleportation). Most scientist work on problems they do not believe to be important.

Great scientists keep 10 or 20 important problems in their heads and are prepared to attack them when they come across new techniques.

Keep your office door open. You have less short-run efficiency, but achieve more in the long run by learning more from others.

By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class. The mathematician knows that the business of abstraction frequently makes things simple.

You need to sell your work. There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.

You can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.

Drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day.

One problem is the problem of personality defects, like trying to control everything yourself.

You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer.

You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.

Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody's has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be?

On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. Originality is being different. You can't be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some.

Don't get angry.

Another thing you should look for is the positive side of things instead of the negative.

Don't give alibis for why you can't do something. To yourself try to be honest.

If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven't got enough manpower to move into a direction when that's exactly what you need to do?

In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I've told you how easy it is; furthermore I've told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!

QA Section:

If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one.

How to avoid the Nobel Prize effect: somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field.

The moment that physics table I always ate at lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.

over 8 years ago on November 21 at 1:46 pm by Joseph Perla in research, life, philosophy

You don't want to be Instagram

Everyone doing startups wants to be Instagram. They want to win the lottery, the tech lottery. But do you really? In fact, you don't.

Michael Norton has a great TED talk. He begins with a story that CNN covered: people who won the lottery do not end up happier.

Very often, they end up dogged by friends and family asking for money. They isolate themselves. They waste it and spend it surprisingly quickly. Yet, many billionaires in companies make money without the same problems. Why?

One reason is that they are not prepared for the lottery money. Working day to day and then suddenly being in a new environment where they have more money than you've ever had to manage is jarring.

They did not earn it, so they are not prepared for it. They did not put in the hours required to understand finance as a businessperson who works decades does. They do not have strong skills in other areas to occupy them once they have more idle time. They did not build strong support networks of family and friends to help them during stressful long hours and years of work.

They did not build up their wealth gradually and manage each stage of growth with expectations of the people they know. They won it all at once and it forcefully created an alien environment.

The same would happen to you if you buy your startup mega-millions ticket and win without having first spent years working on developing your design, tech, UX, marketing, and business skills. You will have overnight success without a compensating feeling of deserving it.

Many successful entrepreneurs try to do it again, feeling that they didn't deserve it. One psychological condition is called Imposter Syndrome, where one does not feel like they are worthy of their success. They agonize over their success, and try to replicate the payout to no avail.

Maybe it is better to win slowly and fail many times first. Experience suggests that will make you happier when you do win.

over 8 years ago on October 21 at 5:41 am by Joseph Perla in life, business

Who are you? You are everybody. You are nobody.

Who are you? Who am I? Do you think you control what you do? It makes me sad to think about, but if you watch very closely, if you take special care to be aware of every little situation, you realize that you don't. Why did you do X yesterday? Because you chose to? Nope. Everyone in that same external situation would have done the same thing, probably.

My friend gave me a thought experiment once. What if, in 1000 years, someone built a machine that could do quite a lot to your brain and specifically your conscious thoughts. What if it could do the most intrusive thing: what if it could literally plant a thought in your head? What if a machine could let anyone make your conscious think about a certain thought? It makes you think.

And then I realized, that is already the case. Yellow banana. Banana banana. Mmm, Bananas! You just thought of a banana. Maybe multiple bananas. Maybe you could taste them a bit. I planted that in your mind. When you read a book, those thoughts root themselves in the forefront of your consciousness. Books work because they are the raw stuff of thought fed directly into the brain. The sum of the things that pass through your consciousness define you and your actions. Language is a super mind-control machine. That's what makes it so powerful. And so dangerous.

Language is not quite the same as the posited machine. The brain is sophisticated enough to be able to select its inputs. You can cut out hearing someone. You can avoid reading a book. You can even absorb language in a negative state-of-mind so that the ideas pass through your consciousness pre-criticized and undigestible. Instead of being absorbed those ideas are scorned.

Some people live life this way, but that inhibits learning. Such people do not grow, they miss out on new ideas which are correct because they leave this critical filter on over everything. Sadly, these people saw an idea that said they should be critical and always have their filter on. This was the last thing they ever learned. I used to always have my filter on. Now, I don't.

And, usually, we don't have this filter on. We are open to the people around us. We read books without remembering to turn on the filter, so that the ideas reprogram our very thinking. Maybe we should, maybe not. Nevertheless, it has strong implications on our free agency.

The New York Times writes of some strong meditators who learn to observe external stimuli dispassionately. Whereas some might be distracted by an event, enough to miss another event, these meditators merely objectively noticed the event, and then the following one. The thought was not forced into their minds, but merely presented in front of them. Don't think "banana", instead think "he just said banana." Maybe this is the answer.

Maybe we can both grow and learn and also have control over what we are.

over 8 years ago on October 11 at 9:21 am by Joseph Perla in life, philosophy

In praise of praise

The most interesting and successful of my blog posts are ones I wrote for myself. I wrote them because they clarified thoughts that I had or judgments that I had reserved but never finely expressed. Not every one of the essays of such kind has been fantastically successful, but many have.

I wrote about Facebook in a passion one hour and posted it to let off some steam. It became fantastically viral. Why? Does it matter why? Why do I try to replicate that?

In fact, whenever I try to copy elements of that explicitly I fail. Rather, there is something about the emotion I had in that topic that was conveyed in the essay. Emotions can be hard to fake.

But I get praise for some of my posts, the impassioned ones I write for myself. The praise externalizes a reward for writing. I seek out more external rewards like a rat in a cage. But it never genuinely comes. I demotivate, stop writing for months.

Spontaneously, I graze the lever of internal gratification with a piece for me, with an audience of one. I feel complete. But the emotion impacts others, and praise rolls out.

It's as if I finally figure out how to run the hampster wheel out of the pure joy of running, but every time I do a treat rolls down the chute. Perhaps this is the nature of success. The treats must be resisted, but this is very difficult when you are hungry. I always fail. Success always leads me to fail.

Even now, I feel as though I write this for someone else.

over 8 years ago on October 10 at 9:21 am by Joseph Perla in life, writing

Make news, don't read news

I used to read the news all of the time. It seems so productive. It seems great because you are learning something you don't know about, very often (though not always since sometimes you seek out that which confirms your biases). It seemed most useful for conversations. Whenever I meet someone, I can have a conversation about the latest thing that we both read about. We have a common base to talk about something that we both know little about, so we are on equal footing. Also, we can talk about this interesting piece of news instead of the weather.

There are a few problems with this, though. Very often, the conversation just involves us repeating the details to the other person, who already read it and thus knows exactly the same details. We listen carefully, or at least pretend to, because that's what we're told to do, and then we nod and say, yea, and this to prove that we are intelligent and heard about the news already.

But this is dumb. It would be much better to have it explained to you, actually, fresh.

I had this experience recently. I had been working so hard on various projects, that I literally could not waste any time learning about things happening around me. Weeks later I found out about this oil spill somewhere. Movies came out, had big runs, and then went on DVD before I had heard about them. I had a conversation with someone the other day where he mentioned a piece of news, and I said I hadn't heard it. He looked at me dumbfounded. How could I not have seen this?

How? I was busy getting work done and learning. The funniest part is that he probably, not consciously, but somewhere in his mind it seemed as though I was not quite that smart. I could not keep up and converse on the latest topics. In fact, I could not, but topical fluency only correlates with intelligence, it does not define intelligence. Moreover, reading the latest news outside of your industry, for most professionals, is a time-killing activity that only signals intelligence. It is possible for someone to signal intelligence and trick someone into thinking that you know something without knowing anything actually useful.

One day, I saw that a friend of mine's friend was very into classical rock. He had vinyls upon vinyls hanging on his wall. I realized that I knew nothing about classic rock, or music in general. Classical rock would be a good place for me to start learning music.

So I read some Wikipedia articles, and I found a torrent with the "top 500" classic rock songs of all time. It started with Stairway to Heaven, moved on to Freebird, the Beatles, etc. I downloaded and listened to it from the top of the charts. I listened over and over, looked at the songs, the artists. In a few hours, I knew the top songs and artists and I could even recognize and sing along to some of them. The next time I met my friend's friend, I mentioned some of these songs, and we talked a bit about them, maybe argued about whether Freebird or Stairway to Heaven is better.

Anyway, years later, he mentioned some classic rock I had never heard of. He was surprised I hadn't heard of it. He thought I was really into classic rock and listened to it and followed it closely. I did not. I just learned a tiny tidbit, enough to signal intelligence in the music. I confessed that I knew next to nothing, not that I was trying to mislead at all.

News helps you signal intelligence in this way, falsely. It's much better to make the headlines, learn something deeply and create something. Make the news, don't read it.

Unfortunately, I still read the news all of the time. It is really hard to stop. I'm not sure why.

over 9 years ago on October 7 at 10:59 am by Joseph Perla in life, learning

How to drop out of college and start a funded Social Network

I will tell you how drop out and start a social network that grows into, ironically, the leader in the college admissions space. I will tell you how to start a social network for scientists whose lead investor is Peter Thiel (who also funded Facebook and started PayPal). Finally, I will tell you about how to help launch the hottest new rival to Facebook, also funded by Peter Thiel and SoftBank, the Google of Japan, and move on to work on Stickybits, to revolutionize how people interact with everyday consumer products.

Step 1: Read Paul Graham's essays.

The story starts my freshman year at Princeton. I had read all of Paul Graham's essays, which are not only thoughtful and information-rich, but also inspiring. Paul's essays described his own experience starting ViaWeb, which he eventually sold to Yahoo! for tens of millions. It is now called Yahoo! Store, one of the few examples of successful '90's bubble companies. He talks about every step of the process, a process which seems very unique and peculiar, and yet surprisingly all startups experience basically the same sets of problems, setbacks, successes, disagreements, and emotions.

In fact, in general, read good books. Blog posts are useful and timely, but books have much denser concentrations of information and they are more insightful. The best blog posts on the web are often just slivers of individual chapters of an existing good book. Blogs give you tiny tidbits of information, one interesting aspect of a complicated story, but a good book gives you that plus the other side and the whole picture, the future and the past, all at a deeper level. A well-written book will not waste words. Those hundreds of pages are worthwhile. Read Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston, also at YCombinator and also a brilliant entrepreneur and interviewer. The book's stories are inspiring: James Hong's amazing viral growth of HotOrNot will make you want to do the same and become an overnight millionaire.

These writings are inspiring. They inspired me. I started to itch to start something, anything. I started to build things and talk to more people about these interests.

Step 2: Be friendly.

Through a friend and my work, I met Mick Hagen and Jeremy Johnson in the spring semester. If you are lucky enough to meet them, Jeremy and Mick are two of the nicest, most thoughtful, and most ambitious people you will be lucky to meet. We shared a common interest in technology startups. We started talking about what we could do together, drawing on all of our skills.

Some of the best friends you make will be in college: life-long friends. These tight bonds are forged from living very close to each other, possibly in the same room, every day for years. In the real world of apartments and houses, a friendly visit can easily take a half hour commute each way and is centered around a big event. In college, you walk down the hall and just hang out. Moreover, in your classes, you learn both the quality of your friend's effort and how well you work together. A mutual trust is formed over these months and years that are hard to form in the real world. In college, you will find your cofounder, whether they be friends or friends of friends.

Jeremy was interested, as he still is, in the college markets. What can we do to help improve college admissions, the student bodies at the colleges, and the college experience? His plan was more ambitious, but I proposed a simpler one: let students form a social network with ties to college admissions officers. Let students display their scores, interests, and activities online, and let admissions officers at Princeton and Harvard search for them. Charge per student found. Would this work? I reasoned that the College Board already does the same thing with PSAT scores, so I called them (abbreviated transcript):

Step 3: Test your assumptions.

Me: Hello, is this the PSAT office?  My name is... um... Mark Westerner at the Marbur College.
CB: Which college?
Me: Um... (*will they look it up?*) Marbur College, a small liberal arts college in New Jersey.  
CB: Marbur, can I help you Mr. Westerner?
Me: We are interested in purchasing some student PSAT scores and mailing address information. 
CB: Yes, we do that here.
Me: How much would that cost?
CB: Let me see, you can buy 1000 names and addresses for $280.  
Me: Thank you. Goodb—<I quickly hang up>

Gold mine. We would sell student information to colleges, completely willingly and enthusiastically on the student's part. Colleges already pay lots of money for very similar but incomplete, noisy data. We could sell the same information over and over again. Colleges get to target and recruit in a way that they have never been able to before. Everyone wins. This would be our primary business model, and in fact still is used today at Zinch.

Step 4: Use university resources to get feedback and advice.

With a business model in place, we went to all of the professors we knew who might be able to help. We talked to Ed Zschau who helped us write a business plan. We talked to the dean of admissions. She said she would love something like this. She told us a story where the school musical director told her that we needed an oboe player, since all of the oboe players were graduating seniors. This endangered the diversity of the school, and the annual Mozart concert. She looked and recruited and found nobody. On the last day, Princeton happened to receive 3 applications from oboe players with excellent academic records, and they all got in. She got lucky, but she would have much preferred an electronic way to target individual students to recruit and encourage to apply.

Armed with a business model, a plan, and this story, we entered an undergraduate business plan competition. We won 2nd place, and, more importantly, we received valuable feedback from the experienced venture capitalist judges. We tweaked the presentation, and then entered the Princeton alumni business plan competition. You have to understand that the alumni business plan competition is open to all Princeton alumni. This includes seasoned financial professionals and Harvard MBAs. We won first place to a raucous applause.

Step 5: Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

Now, we needed to reach out to more admissions officers to learn more about what, exactly, they wanted, and how to sell it to them. How could we do this? There just happened to be a conference on college admissions in June at Harvard with all of the top admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke, and others attending. This would be a perfect place to make connections.

Jeremy: Hello, we are students interested in learning more about college admissions.  
Harvard: Hello.
Jeremy: Is it possible for us to attend this conference with a free or reduced price?
Harvard: No.
Jeremy: We want to make a product to make admissions better. We won't take up anybody's time.
Harvard: No.
Jeremy: But, really, please we have no intention of...
Harvard: No.

Jeremy: (to us) Let's go anyway and crash it.

So we drove up together to the conference. We figured that we would probably not be allowed in, but we might get a little information and trade business cards. When we got there, we saw that the conference was just in a hotel lobby. We walked up, put on name tags, and started mingling. Note that most of us were freshmen, so we barely looked post-pubescent much less like admissions officers.

Step 6: Do your research.

We sat at the back of a panel discussion with the admissions officers at Harvard and UPenn. They would literally say to everyone, to us, "It is just really hard to find good students which are the right fit for our colleges. We would love to able to find a student with these exact interests and academic record, pick them out of this area of the country, and just recruit her." Everyone we talked to loved us. Mind you, if asked, we would always tell them the truth that we are Princeton students passionate about and interested in learning more about college admissions. We never ate any of their food or interrupted any classes. We merely observed and met our exact target clients who basically begged us to make Zinch for them.

One piece of research we did not do was where to stay that night. We figured we would be kicked out, so we hadn't planned on anything. We tried calling people who we knew in the area, but nobody answered their phones. We asked friends, friends of friends, people our friends met on the Subway. We were a poor startup with barely the money for the gas. We sat in Qdoba waiting for a call. Looking out the window, we saw a Sports Authority. "That's it! We'll buy a tent, set up camp at some park somewhere overnight, and then return it tomorrow." We were desperate. So we went in, started figuring out the measurements. We went over to the register, credit card in hand. Then, an aunt's friend called us back: we could stay at her house. Too bad, would have made for a good story.

The next day at the conference, we met even more people, and they loved us. Suddenly, this woman walked up to me with a very stern face. She organized the conference, and had told us not to come in the first place. She kicked us out, but not before we already had the contacts and market research we needed. We drove home happy. There are a lot more unbelievable stories from the formation of this company, but they will have to wait for the memoirs.

Step 6: Don't drop out of school.

For most students, this advice is correct: you should not drop out. It only makes sense to give you this advice, all responsible adults will. There are a special few students, though, who, at exactly the right point in their lives, will understand that this advice does not apply to them. There will be no shadow of a doubt that school would just be too boring and unmotivating. When the time comes, those students know who they are.

I had shadows of doubts. Jeremy, Mick, and I disagreed a bit about direction. I decided to stay in school and stop working on the company, which was the right decision for me at the time. Mick and Jeremy continued on a different path from me. As an epilogue, Mick is now in California with a terrifically growing company, Zinch, which is so big that it is now expanding to students in China. Jeremy co-founded and now runs 2tor, which is leading the online college education space. Many people come to me with ideas for allowing students to take classes online. They ignore what has come before, and they do not aim high enough. Jeremy and John Katzman (founder of Princeton Review) put real, leading universities online, like USC, so that top students around the world can take classes entirely online and receive a full diploma equivalent to someone who spent time on campus. You will be lucky to get to know these guys.

Step 7: Integrate into your local community of entrepreneurs, or, lacking that, build it.

Back from my startup adventure, I wanted to evangelize the gospel of Paul Graham. Unfortunately, the Entrepreneurship Club was defunct. Instead, financial firms were hiring in full force, and almost no students knew anything about starting a business. I decided to resurrect it, and start it anew. I grew it from 0 members to hundreds, and made sure that the new leaders in every year learned how to run the club and teach the following year's posterity. It continues itself now in a virtuous cycle. It has grown every year, and in fact, now, the Entrepreneurship Club transfers more tens of thousands of dollars through its account than any other organization on campus. The first year that we bought back the TigerLaunch business plan competition, we ignited the career of another successful drop-out Princeton entrepreneur: Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR. The network of people at Princeton now involved in startups is growing, and we have helped each other succeed in innumerable ways.

Step 8: Talk to other students from your school who have taken time off.

The club, one day, invited someone to give a talk, James Currier, who started which sold to for an incredible amount of money. James stood before me. His eyes were shot open. They had a purple glaze that lit them afire, still bleeding from the red-eye flight he took from California. James had taken time off of Princeton to start his first company, which failed, but he doesn't regret it at all and learned so much. His hair burst out atop his skinny head. Gaunt and fearless, he embraced the air as he swung his arms widely to make his point: "Silicon Valley is absolutely the place to start a company", he said. "That is where all technology happens. That's where Google started, that's where Yahoo, Intel, Oracle, and so many other technology companies started. Some of the smartest people in the world lived there at Stanford, Berkeley, and PARC. It is a magical forever-sunny wonderland where dreams come true and it rains investments and acquisitions." (not exactly what he said...)

He was inspiring. He didn't have a smarmy kind of charm so much as sheer hurricane-force energy. He was insightful and learned. He talked about his great times. He talked about his toughest times. And so he inspired me to do it. I had to see it. What is so special about the Bay Area? How can it actually be that great? What exactly gives the air such power to breath life into world-changing tech empires?

Step 9: Pick a startup hub like Silicon Valley.

It was a school break the following week, so I bought a ticket for that weekend. I bought an incredibly cheap ticket on Hotwire and asked my high school friends in California schools if I could crash on their couches. I also emailed every single company on TechCrunch which stated that its company is in any city in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, or Berkeley to ask for an interview. It was tight scheduling.

If you haven't been to the Bay Area, then you don't understand how it is possible that literally almost everyone is involved in startups. I go to the basketball courts to play some pickup. After a sweaty game, each one in turn introduces their crazy new web2, hardware, or biotech startup to you, each one the founder or CEO. Multiple lunches and talks happen every day, with free food and drinks, you cannot possibly go to all of them or even meet everyone. And everyone wants to help you. I walked down University Ave and saw Facebook, I talked with the CEO of Azureus for 2 hours one-on-one, to the CEO of StyleHive and so many others.

The fact is, these hubs do not crowd you out. They have an overwhelming amount of resources to help you both in early stages and in later stages. Be friendly, learn what you need to know, and everyone there will do everything they can to help you be successful. If you stay in your hometown, as Jeremy, Mick and I almost did in New Jersey, we would have certainly failed. Now, Mick is in San Fransicso, and Jeremy is in New York, enmeshing themselves in the startup scenes and reaping the benefits. If you stay in your home town, understand that you do so not to maximize the success of your startup, but for some other reason, like comfort. Startups are risky, not comfortable. Get a job at Microsoft for comfort. I was done with comfort, I wanted to start a startup.

Step 10: Ask a dean about how to take a leave of absence, and how long you can take one.

Just grab or email your nearest dean, who will point you in the right direction. Princeton has a very lenient leave policy. You can take 3 years off without a problem. You do so by filling out a 1-page form, and you can do this all in a day. You can leave as late as the day before classes, or even after classes start (although you have to pay some tuition). To get back in a year or 3 later, you send an email. Financial aid is unaffected. Every dean you talk to will be very supportive of your decision; they will not question you. This is an excellent policy that encourages students to figure out what they want to do without pressure. Certainly, they would prefer a student to learn in a different way for a year rather than drown in school or do something worse.

Other schools have less lenient policies. Yale only allows a 1-semester leave, which limits the potential for student startups at that school. Their entrepreneurship club would do well to lobby the administration to relax the policy.

Step 11: Reach out to your friends and brainstorm.

I contacted some friends I had met on my trip to California, asking them if they knew of any other people interested in a new startup. I talked to Mark Kaganovich and Jeremy England, and we talked about making a social network and practical tools for managing research for scientists. Mark and Jeremy went to Harvard and are hard-core scientists. Mark is friends with Mark Zuckerberg, and was the 6th person on Facebook. If you get a chance to meet them, you will be blown away by their brilliance. They think analytically and carefully. I only met them from a friend of a friend, but we quickly got along well and we are very good friends and trust each other about everything.

So we started Labmeeting, led by an investment from Peter Thiel, who met the Labmeeting team randomly at one of the many events at Stanford. He saw the quality and depth of thinking of the team, and made his trademark quick decision. These kinds of lucky coincidences happen all of the time in the Bay Area. Now, thousands of scientists love and use Labmeeting to manage their labs and do research. We were the first, and we have the largest number of users from Stanford and Harvard than any other imitation network.

Step 12: Help other entrepreneurs.

In the mean time with Labmeeting, I was helping another young entrepreneur start up his own company, Josh Weinstein. He refused to drop out, but I did help him get GoodCrush off the ground and launched. Since that launch, GoodCrush has renamed and has now been funded by several notable people and venture firms (including Thiel of Facebook). It will rival Facebook at its own game: the college market with CollegeOnly.

One key to Josh's success is public relations. When launching GoodCrush, we were given the contact information of someone at the Huffington Post who could write about GoodCrush. We called them the day before Valentine's day, the big launch, but we mis-dialed:

Josh : Hello, is this the Huffington Post?
Chris: No, you must have the wrong number.
Josh : Oh, I apologize... <almost hangs up>
       By the way, who is this?
Chris: Chris, I write at MediaBistro.
Josh : <excited> I'm Josh, we are launching GoodCrush.
       It's a new dating wesite for college students
Chris: Is this a new startup? Tell me more...

An hour later, Chris Ariens posted a story on MediaBistro, all from mis-dialing and taking advantage of opportunity. Serendipity is the essence of startup success.

Through the Entrepreneurship Club, I've advised and helped set up half a dozen different companies. They may or may not do well, but the students will certainly learn a huge amount of work. In just a few years, we have seen a tremendous amount of new interesting startups coming out of Princeton, far more than I thought could happen in such a short time. For example, will transform the way that high-end art is sold. I encourage you to research more and help them out if you can.

Step 13: Let others help you.

Josh introduced me to Billy Chasen at Stickybits. Stickybits is an iPhone app that lets you scan barcodes, and then attach images, video, or text to the barcodes. It's like a virtual bulletin board, so that people can have conversations around products. We have exciting new ideas for how to transform the way you interact with consumer brands, but I can't talk about those yet. We are funded by none other than Mitch Kapor, Chris Sacca, First Round, and Polaris Ventures. My limited experience and skills and the people along the way have helped me do well here. The amount I'm learning from other team members is tremendous. We are the leaders in the social barcode scanning space.


Peter Thiel just launched a new program that will give you money to drop out and start a startup. Startup business is on the rise, the economy is improving. Facebook and other companies are enabling newer business models. More people are on the Internet than ever. This is really the perfect time to start a company, consider doing it now, but don't drop out of school. Meet people, make friends, brainstorm, build a community, help others. You will know when to leave and do startups.

over 9 years ago on October 6 at 4:54 am by Joseph Perla in entrepreneurship, life

How to drop out of college and start a venture-backed Social Network

A quick google search reveals that there are no good guides online that tell you how to drop out of college. So, this will be a first. There are many opinions about whether you should or should not, but none which really tell you how.

For example, Jason Baptiste just wrote an excellent blog post about why you should stay in college. He is right in many ways, but you should also look at the other side in detail and how well that can turn out.

I will tell you how drop out and start a social network that grows into, ironically, the leader in the college admissions space. I will tell you how to start a social network for scientists whose lead investor is Peter Thiel (who also funded Facebook and started PayPal). Finally, I will tell you about how to help launch the hottest new rival to Facebook, also funded by Peter Thiel and SoftBank, the Google of Japan, and move on to work on Stickybits, to revolutionize how people interact with everyday consumer products.

You can read about these stories on the new article page.

over 9 years ago on September 30 at 6:01 pm by Joseph Perla in entrepreneurship, life

Travel Naked

I like to travel light. Anybody who has traveled significantly understands the importance of staying lean. A heavy bag, or series of bags, can ruin the experience of hopping from city to city, which can color the whole trip. Practically, it can cost extra money to move extra bags on a flight or drop off the bags at a bag holding service. Waiting for a checked bag can add more than an hour to your commute time at some airports in certain seasons. Every time I traveled to Miami airport, I waited for at least half an hour and once 2 hours for my checked bag to circle around the carousel.

Some people think that they travel light, but they do not. One checked in bag is not light. Checked bags are the bane of the traveler. You do not want to wait for your bag to come out a turnstile. It is boring and tedious and you never want to do it.

One carry-on is much closer to the ideal. My friend the other day went to Hungary. He decided to travel light, and just bring one duffel bag. He bought some clothes, and other essentials. But if you are running around a city for a whole day, say on a 12-hour layover in Milan, rolling a bag around can sta