A Better User Interface for Math

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

I recently stumbled upon this amazing article on how an ex-Apple developer is using the iPad to create a better user interface for math.

Better than what?
Better than numbers and symbols and equations.

It’s quite an insight really — symbolic systems as a “user interface” — and it’s absolutely true. 

I’ve been noodling on this one for quite some time now. I have always been “good at math” — good enough that I was always a step ahead of my teachers in high school when we were learning calculus or geometry, and I later majored in math in undergrad. However, I’ve always sucked at arithmetic. Give me a bill and it will take me several minutes and a pencil to calculate and add up the tip.

If you ask me why, I’ll tell you that my brain has a bad user interface when it comes to math.

I just don’t think about it the right way. I can add double digits intuitively, and then I have rely on a small set of memorized facts to get me the rest of the way… simple multiplication tables, adding zeros to multiply by 10… Armed with this limited tool box, I try to break down complicated problems into smaller ones and then recombine them. But the process is inefficient and requires a lot of working memory. I keep forgetting where I was and having to start over.

Math needs a better user interface. A visual one.
And we should teach it to kids early in school so that they get into the habit of using it. 

Indeed, several people with exceptional arithmetic abilities report interpreting numbers as having visual qualities that might seem strange or foreign to ordinary people like me. A former colleague of mine was like that — he could multiply 3-digit numbers without difficulty. When I asked him how he did that, he said that numbers in his mind were organized in a huge visual grid and that he used it to solve complex calculations.

I wish I carried around a visual math grid in my head at all times.

Some people go even further. Check out the Wikipedia article on Daniel Tammet who has high-functioning autism, synesthesia, and savant-like math abilities:

"Tammet’s unusually vivid and complex synesthesia has been widely reported. In his mind, he says, each positive integer up to 10,000 has its own unique shape, colour, texture and feel. He can intuitively "see" results of calculations as synaesthetic landscapes without using conscious mental effort and can "sense" whether a number is prime or composite. He has described his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and Pi as beautiful. The number 6 apparently has no distinct image yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9 which he calls large and towering."

How fascinating is that?

Not all of us are gifted with natural synesthesia to supplement our math skills (most synesthetes aren’t either), but how amazing would it be if an outside tool or a piece of software like an iPad app could provide that synesthesia-like interface for us, turning numbers into something that we can instinctively understand and manipulate? 

That is an innovation I would love to see happen, and a company I would be thrilled to work for.

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What NOT to do after you ship that MVP

MVP, MVP, MVP… For the uninitiated, that’s “minimum viable product” and it’s something that every entrepreneur should always keep in mind.

Always look to ship the minimum viable product that you can possibly go to market with. Then iterate and improve based on real customer feedback and usage data.

But here’s what not to do, and I admit I am guilty of it. Don’t be tempted to move onto the next shiny thing.

Yes, it’s tempting.

While before you launched, your MVP seemed just barely adequate to you, somehow none of your users seem to mind so much.

It’s not like users are complaining… And then there’s that other exciting (though only marginally related) feature that we’ve been meaning to build… Maybe the MVP is really good enough as it is and we can just move onto the next thing… Maybe it’s time to pivot already…

Stop. Don’t go there. Resist temptation.

On my first start-up, I was practically cringing with embarrassment when we launched our beta product. It seemed slow and clunky, and some of its features didn’t have the polish that we wanted them to have.

But we rightly launched with what we had and, guess what, nobody complained. We had some early sales, and some good reviews, and in no time all those issues and unfinished details that once seemed to weigh so heavily on our product consciences started to fade away.

In their place were thoughts about new features, new markets to tackle, new directions to go in. And that was a bad thing.

Big changes, and the trendy myth of “pivoting”, can be dramatically distracting in the early stages of a company. You’re still proving your market, and while your hunch might be that you need to refine and improve your current product to see if it sticks, every start-up blog out there is telling you that all successful start-ups pivoted… So maybe it’s pivoting that you need — changing your model, addressing a different market, building a different UI entirely.

The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. You need both. You need to refine your product while considering different possible directions to determine which will be most fruitful.

But definitely don’t abandon your MVP and get lost in idle talks about pivoting.

If you do that you risk doing what we did at my start-up: let 6 months pass without a single release. Or, if you’re good at executing, you’ll simply spend the next 6 months building a bunch of other MVP’s without ever giving one enough attention to really gain traction.

Find that balance, and unless it’s an obvious flop, don’t abandon your MVP.

Image credit: Vator News.

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Why eBooks Are Cheap and Kindles Are Not

For a while there was something I didn’t understand about Amazon’s e-book strategy. Why make Kindles expensive and e-books cheap?

The way I saw it, it made more sense to opt for the traditional razor-and-blades model: sell the hardware cheap and make all your money on the software. Had Amazon charged $29.99 for the Kindle, we would all have bought it (after all, why not) and then it could have made up whatever loss it generated on the sale of the hardware by selling us e-books at a premium. It seemed to me like the most sensible way of establishing a large installed base and then growing profitably.

But Mr Bezos, as it turns out (see: Amazon Web Services), is pretty smart… and he had a plan.

Going with the razor-and-blades model with the Kindle would have been a bad idea, and that’s because building a large installed base of cheap hardware is worth very little. It has no staying power, especially if the books are expensive. If you bought a cheap e-reader and then found that the books were too expensive to be worth it, you’d probably toss it without a second thought.

What creates switching cost and loyalty to a piece of hardware like the Kindle is all the content on it. It’s the books.

So Amazon’s plan, as I think I finally understand it, is designed to work on two levels:

  1. Expensive hardware creates a sunk cost fallacy in people’s minds – i.e. “Since I spent so much on this thing, now I’d better use it.”
  2. Cheap e-books entice users to build up a large content library on their Kindle, which in turn will make them less willing to switch.

The e-reader battles are far from over, but I’m starting to think that Amazon has a good plan.

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Do what you love and the rest will come.
- Dennis Crowley


Do what you love and the rest will come.

- Dennis Crowley

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Facebook, Google, LinkedIn… The Talent Wars

Here’s an amazing infographic, posted by Fast Company, showing the winners and losers of the Bay Area talent wars.

Facebook > LinkedIn > Apple > Google > Microsoft > Yahoo

My hunch is this might be a better metric for future growth and success than just about anything else out there.

It’s also interesting to see what company draws talent from where.

Definitely worth checking out the whole article. It’s a good read. 

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NYC Supports Immigrant Founders through THRIVE Competition


NYCEDC, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, And Baruch College Launch Competition THRIVE, A Business Plan Competition to Help Reach Immigrant Ventures And Entrepreneurs

“New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, and Baruch College today launched the Competition To Help Reach Immigrant Ventures and Entrepreneurs (THRIVE). The purpose of Competition THRIVE is to generate proposals which will assist immigrant entrepreneurs to start, operate, and expand their businesses in New York City. All organizations which have ideas of how to facilitate entrepreneurial business and better serve the immigrant community are encouraged to enter a proposal. Organizations will be able to submit their proposals to the competition through August 31, after which a judging panel will select five finalists to receive seed funding of $25,000 to pilot their program. The pilot period will last 6 months after which, the program recognized as the most scalable and sustainable by the panel of judges will be selected as the winner and receive funding of $100,000 to further implement their program.”

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Farewell to space, I hope, just for now

Today the last shuttle launched and I feel sad. It feels like the beginning of some sort of end. What end, I’m not yet use of.

A tweet came my way today:

It rang so true. 

I’m not American. I’m an Italian immigrant. I came here for undergrad and the U.S. — even with all its faults and shortcomings — has always maintained some sort of magical quality in my mind. And somehow that has always been linked with space.

My father moved to U.S. for a year when he was in his late 20s to work as an astrophysicist at NASA. He remembers it as an amazing time. Unfortunately it didn’t last — pressured by his family and worried about the risk he thought he was taking by staying in the U.S. (sounds crazy in retrospect to think of it as a risk…) he returned to Italy, pursued an evening program in business administration, and got a management consulting job.

I think he still regrets it. I somehow empathize very deeply with him.

The U.S. for me is like NASA for my dad. It’s about dreams and ideas so big that in most other places don’t even dare to think them, let alone pursue them. 

I am sad that we’re abandoning space. It’s like my father returning to Italy. It’s a choice to stop looking skyward and to turn our gazes downward and inward.

Did something just end here?

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How to Beat Groupon

Network effects, network effects, network effect… oh, and the tipping point.

That’s what makes Groupon tick right?

They can bring together enough people to make a steep discount worthwhile for customer-starved venues. They have the user base, and that’s their source of competitive advantage. Nobody can match their scale.

But just how big does that network have to be? The tipping point for a local restaurant or store is probably just a hundred people, a few hundred at most. Too many and it starts to cannibalize existing business if only because the place is too crowded with Groupon-holders to accommodate customers willing to pay full price.

Slap a conversion rate on that (even a really low one) and it would seem you need only a few hundred thousand users to reach the tipping point. Probably less. And at those rates there are more than enough people in most big cities to sustain not one social coupon company, but dozens, especially since people can sign up for more than one.

Groupon will argue that copycats are no threat to it, but I think that’s just the party line. The myriad copycats might agree.

Here’s how other social discount sites can beat Groupon:

  1. Better curation — I’ll sooner buy a deal from Daily Candy than Groupon if I don’t know the venue
  2. Better deal for the venues — 3rd party distributors (agents, like Groupon, who provide access to customers) in other industries usually get more like 10%-20%… not 50%

Question is, how many copycats will it take to undo Groupon? What’s the tipping point there?

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So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn. Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
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The clouds are doing some crazy things in Chicago today… Looks foreboding!

The clouds are doing some crazy things in Chicago today… Looks foreboding!

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