Most parenting advice is mostly worthless – Vox


THIS: advice is worthless

Key graf:

Remember the research, though. Most of your parenting choices pale in significance to who you are, how much money you make, and where you live. Within those parameters, your choices are unlikely to substantially affect your kid’s Adult Success at all. Whether she succeeds as an adult has to do with her genes, her friends, and a whole boatload of luck and circumstance.

You’re not on the hook for her Adult Success. You can relax.

It’s a weird way to look at things anyway: parents as program managers, kids as important projects with growth targets and deliverables. Nothing is more likely to make parents miserable than that kind of illusion of control, the idea that they can or should be managing their kids’ development, shaping, directing, and maximizing it. Those expectations make parents and children both anxious and unhappy.

Work hard to shape children but don’t labor under the illusion that you alone will ‘change their destiny for the better’. We’re all just not that powerful as individuals. Or parents.

Brain Modes

Brains think differently. You would think this is an uncontroversial statement until you test it. Go ahead, ask anyone. I’ll wait around.

You see most people have a sameness bias – they seem to think that most people experience the world like they do. We think most people see the world as sharply, hear as well or even see the same things that people around us see. This extends to aggregate experiences like that great music evokes the same emotional and physical response in everyone or assuming that police treat black and white people the same because we don’t have the opportunity to observe the difference directly.

Now people generally do acknowledge differences; but only on the edges. Someone is better at math. A few people are color blind. Some people are great at artsy things while others are more logical. Physical ability we distinguish but largely dissociate from brain function (we shouldn’t). On the whole while these should seem like big differences by themselves, most people tend to think on the whole that these are minor deviations from the mean. In reality there are probably major swings in brain modes (note, I did not say cognitive capacity – that’s a more controversial and probably more inaccurate statement). There is a lot of evidence that different brains integrate sensing differently and also process  those inputs differently – a convenient example is synesthesia. It appears these variations can be pretty wide*. Empirically this seems to stand to reason: the brain is basically the original neural net; built from the organic connectivity of neurons through time, that is likely controlled by DNA and nurture. As a result, no two brains are exactly alike even though by some miracle they produce a mean of cognition and a sense of reality that makes us all recognizable as human beings*.

Science has always catalogued brain differences. In memory – eidetic ones; in cognition – IQ; in procession of senses – synesthesia, prosopagnosia. Lately I have come to know one of these that appears to affect me – Aphantasia. Each one appears to be a minor deviation from the mean. However, taken together, you get the impression that a) Brains really do function differently across the population to a surprising extent. b) Some of these variations are clustered in what I shall call Brain Modes – think of this as a collection of variations that seem to apply together and produce a certain kind of experience for those who have it, distinct from the mean. All of this is to say that perhaps it’s about time that we invert our assumption of sameness and think more in terms of statistical variation or just plain assume we’re all different until sameness is proven. In other words, variation is the norm. Maybe this will help us all offers a presumption of empathy instead of being dismissive of people’s way of thinking. This has many implications for pedagogy, dating, working – our entire society.


A few days ago I decided to see if my favorite radio show would help contribute to my understanding of brains by exploring Aphantasia. This is what I wrote to them:

I’d love for you to do a story about Aphantasia and other ‘brain modes’. I don’t know if you have tackled Prosopagnosia yet; but that’s a bit of old news in terms of obscure brain conditions. Aphantasia is the new hotness – the inability to see visual images in the mind’s eye. I think I have it. I’m curious about how my mental life has differed from other normal people. Does it confer any real disadvantages, advantages? For example: I’m very rational and very hard to scare. If you zoom out a bit, there might be a bigger arc about the fact that we all sort of assume that everyone is similar cognitively but we keep finding these weird ways that brains are very different and cogitate very differently in the population. I suspect that Prosopagnosia and Aphantasia are likely just a couple of ‘sia’s and there are probably many more ‘brain modes’ that are statistically significant in the human population

* Actually this might be a trick of the brain. We might just simply keep cataloging new evidence of variation and recognizing them as part of the new normal. Each time a new variation is found, its simply added to the list in order to create an aggregate sense of society and equilibrium. The poor fools who exhibit a new variation are generally sacrificed before it pops up in more places and is recognized as ‘normal’ over time.


I’m going to pre-apologize for being super nerdy, bear with me, it’s my training. Information theory basically says that when message complexity increases or the channel narrows, errors will increase as well. And to fend that off, you deploy error correction strategies. In layman’s terms this means that when the information you want to get across is a lot or complicated. Or when you have limited ways of communicating; you are bound to have more problems getting your message across. And you need to account for that.

What seems obvious to electrical and software engineers seems not so obvious IRL. This nerdy stuff is true. As you grow older, the burden of communication increases. When you’re a kid, you start by communicating what you want and what you need. And then graduate to explaining your wants/needs to your parents and negotiating with them. Soon you have to evolve negotiating play with other kids. Add your teacher and mentors. Soon you’re including employers in the mix; girlfriends, wives, extended family and your own kids. And the weird thing is that the level of difficulty keeps increasing because at every point the stakes are higher than the last time you had breath. All of this constant communication brings the possibility of being misunderstood. And the price of being misunderstood gets expensive because the stakes are higher now and getting higher every day.

I was chatting with my CEO the other day. Hours after I was agonizing about whether something I mentioned was too racial for what I intended. Just intention is no longer enough, in my role you have to have the presence of mind to deliver communication like a surgeon or a ballet dancer – with precise control and to achieve the right impression. The margin for error is so small sometimes (cumulatively, you do get to slip up now and then).

But it’s not just career stuff. Your personal life is even more pressing. My own communication style verges on the blunt and direct. I’m sure people who don’t know me well could describe me as curt and impatient. In my head I charitably refer to it as curmudgeonly. I can be charming but for me that’s a choice and not an ‘always on’ situation. The point being that those close to you are even more worthy of care and attention about your style and content of communication. Especially since they constantly stay in proximity to your bullshit and vacuum up an inordinate amount of your vocal and expressive emissions. And here’s the rub – nonverbal communication also becomes crazy important to the health of your relationships. And who can keep that s&@! together all the time amiright?

However, this blog post isn’t to burden you with one more of the many terrors of the grown up life. Instead it offers a reprieve. One thing I’ve crystalized as a good communication strategy to help me cope with communication complexity is Telegraphing:

a. To make known (a feeling or an attitude, for example) by nonverbal means: telegraphed her derision with a smirk.

b. To make known (an intended action, for example) in advance or unintentionally: By massing troops on the border, the enemy telegraphed its intended invasion to the target country.

In electronics, once error is introduced into systems, they can stop working. Imagine your fancy large screen TV winking out occasionally in the middle of a high definition broadcast; the digital equivalent of a signal storm. Remember that show is usually transmitted from half a world away on satellites, fiber and finally cable. For YouTube, its coming over the same network where your kids are streaming Call of Duty on the Xbox 360. To deal with this, information systems use error correction strategies. They have ways for the sender and the receiver to check to make sure the signal that is received is the one that was sent. Either they do it through talking to each other (called a handshake) or including a part of the signal that will change if there are errors and by changing lets you know that the rest may be inaccurate (called a checksum). In reality information systems usually contain both strategies at multiple layers in order to make sure Tom Brady beats Eli Manning in glorious high definition on your Tee vee.

Telegraphing is a bit like error correction. The kind of telegraphing I advocate is the verbal kind. The conversion of non-verbal cues into explicit verbal statements. This sort of follows the principle of ‘no surprises’. With Telegraphing I try to explicitly remove any of the various vacuums that can be left in the detritus of daily communication – your attitude, your intentions, your frame of mind, the meaning of your elevated voice range, etc. Usually in personal life it looks like the following: “My voice may be a bit angry because I’m feeling a bit attacked right now but …” or “This is coming out more confidently than I intend….”. At work I even try to telegraph things that would take months to learn about me that are core to my style but I can’t afford to be discovered organically: “I have a resting bitch face when I’m trying to solve a problem, I get pensive. It’s nothing personal, I still like you when I get like that…” or “My style is direct and questioning. I’m not attacking you, just really getting into the problem, ok?”. Even in intimate situations, Telegraphing can be a good way to have a good relationship and make sure you get an affirmative ‘yes’; “Here’s what I am going to do to you…”. For kids here’s an example of what works – “…my voice is raised right now because I’m really angry but I still love you.”

Half the problem in communication is vacuums – people using past history or their own orientation to draw conclusions about intentions, tone and style. Things that can be pretty involuntary to most people except maybe actors and psychopaths. I find that Telegraphing gives me a fighting chance to head off some of these vacuums. Obviously good communication is not just up to us, it takes at least two. But explicitly acknowledging that its hard and deploying human forward error correction will help you cope.

I hope. What do I know?!, this stuff is hard.

Why I never bought a Kindle device

I remember the original kindle with the blocky edges. My boss, at that time, @rickeames bought one. As a fellow early adopter, I was sorely tempted. But I had my reservations. I already loved books to pieces and the Kindle was NOT going to replace the sheer joy of rustling paper and dog earing a hard cover or a paper back. I also had philosophical problems with the issue of ownership. My Dad’s library was a big factor in my love for books and I wanted to make sure I could leave a legacy of a library to my offspring and I wasn’t sure I could do that with the Kindle.

So I waited for the next gen. And while I was waiting, the kindle went cross platform on Windows, iPad, Android and more. So I could dip my feet into the Kindle store without buying a device and that is what I have done since then. Because when it comes down to it, e-readers have underwhelmed me. They took away a ton of the tactile pleasure of reading & owning a book and replaced it with conveniences that I only had a so so appreciation for – lugging a book around is not that painful and you can only read one at a time really. What I really wanted was adding more value along non-traditional dimensions:

How about embedding the sounds from a scene into an e-book to make it more immersive? Almost like a light score that changes from chapter to chapter or scene to scene inside a book… Or how about olfactory sensors that can help you smell the grit in a scene? Of course these advances should be subtle and tastefully expressed and the file formats for e-books should allow easy encoding of these additional elements. Additional advanced features could include social reading. Why can’t lovers who are a continent apart or even a block apart read a book at the same time and share their enjoyment in real-time? Or a group even.

It just seems like there should be more™. And when it comes, then it will be easy to make the decision to buy a dedicated e-reading device instead of emulating it on a phone or a tablet. Now, it’s more a toss-up.

Save us from “Save”!

We really should do away with the ‘Save’ button when authoring things. Every creative computing surface should auto save the content its working on. When I worked on an editor many years ago, there were some performance penalties related to CPU cycles and disk that made ‘auto save’ an expensive operation, but I bet those considerations have been wiped out by the latest advances. I understand why we should have a button like ‘name this document’ or ‘name the file’, but why should we be doing ‘save’ in 2015, 40 odd years into the PC revolution? Makes no sense.

And I’m not even talking about throwing away the ‘file’ concept. That’s a story for another day….

We’re all racists (because our brains are made that way)

Ok, I admit it, that title is a bit of a hyperbole. What a measured person should say is that we’re all susceptible to prejudice because our brains are wired that way. But doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way, does it?!

If you believe some compelling contemporary theories of brain function1, then the human brain is a pattern recognition machine with a bunch of memory. We essentially constantly classify all the sensory input we get and attach it to cognitive or emotional memory. For example: Aluminum sheet – bendable; Steel bar – not bendable, will crack my knuckles. These innocuous categorizations are based on both direct observation/experience or teaching. When the brain recognizes the physical properties that identify the object [Aluminum sheet; Steel bar], then the properties learnt are assumed to be true.

What this means when you’re tackling issues like racism, is that the human brain is predisposed to the classification of people of all types based on some identifiable physical attribute (skin color, hair color, face shape, eye color, sexual orientation, face structure, height, etc.). In short we’re already ‘pre-suggestive’ because we automatically classify things, including people and label them. So when external input gives us a cue with which to classify a set of people, it’s easy to absorb and adhere because this is already how our brain works, regardless of whether the cue is accurate or not. This is why prejudicial views and behaviors is common in any population. It’s not hard to get a kid to hate a certain kind of person they can visually identify consistently. We’re just more quickly filling in classification and labeling holes (with false data) that the brain would fill in anyway, usually over a longer period of time with more factual and accurate observation.

There is natural counter programming for false classification in the brain: personal experience or data that disproves this can put a crack in prior classifications. However because people’s access to contradictory personal experience is limited physically (for e.g. a bigoted kid may never meet a representative subject of his hate under pristine conditions), it’s usually a poor antidote to manufactured bits of classification spread as truthful ideas via parenting, pedagogy, media, etc. The tendency of people to socialize with people who represent their specific world view makes counterprogramming even more implausible for most people.

While prejudice is common and can be transmitted via culture, entrenched versions of it (like racism) are not. This is because entrenched prejudice needs to be paired with a political, economic or cultural system, to enforce those prejudicial views related to physical attributes. This takes effort and planning.

So where does this leave us? Well just with some facts that are uncomfortable, and some truths that may redeem:

  1. Fact: We’re all susceptible to prejudicial (some of which are racist and tribal) ideas by definition. It’s a shortcut we’re all pre-wired to be susceptible to.
  2. Fact: The extent of racist and tribal effect in society is directly related to how those ideas are conjured and disseminated in any given society. In other words, the architects of society and the culture they produce are responsible for prejudicial societies.
  3. Fact: A previously harmonious society can be ‘fractured’ or partitioned around racist and tribal lines if new racist ideas are introduced, combined with physical attributes that people can identify related to those ideas. In other words, even those with a harmonious society can be quickly made disharmonious if they do not remain vigilant.
  4. Truth: The only way to combat ‘ideas that partition’ is to:
    1. Make everyone look physically the same (so distinguishing markers cannot be related to prejudicial ideas) and erase distinguishing familial history from social memory.
    2. Reduce the number of ‘partitioning’ ideas circulating in society.
    3. If a society has entrenched prejudice, its needs to dismantle that system used to prop up the prejudice in society.

1On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

Time for a Consumer Router Internet Bill of Rights

There is an undervalued and critical piece of equipment in almost any home in any advanced country – an internet router. This thing is big business because every home and business needs one (although the ones for business are a slightly different and better) to get online… AND most people are now online in most advanced countries.

So to recap, every home has a little piece of equipment that gives people access to the internet. As you can imagine, in this current world of hackers, the NSA and pervasive cyber security threats, the router is like a golden key. If you can exploit it, you basically can control what a person who is using it to browse on an iPad, play a game or watch Netflix…can do. You can do real damage to the security of a home if you can exploit the router.

The router itself tends to be basically a small Linux PC configured to get traffic to the internet for all your devices, wired or wireless. As such, it can become vulnerable to emerging security threats and viruses and just like your PC, it needs to be occasionally updated and refreshed. So let me ask the internet: how many times do you think regular Joe and Jane Blow update their router? Well look, your guess is as good as mine, but basically I think it’s very little. In this case, the aphorism, “out of sight, out of mind” pretty much applies. One of the first things I check when I go to the homes of family is whether their router has a default SSID, default password and default settings. And if it does, I change it.

This is because the defaults are toxic – anyone who is familiar with defaults can get in and subvert the internet access of your entire household. And trust me, all the default passwords are just a google search away.

You know that old prayer…? “….God grant me the wisdom to know the difference.” Ordinary people will not be fussed with updating their routers. This is a simple back calculation from the fact that ordinary people don’t update their Personal Computers either (so much so that Microsoft and Apple, try to just configure it to update itself without intervention). So they will def not update something sitting in their basement room somewhere. But all these millions of routers collectively are the foundation of home internet use security. So what to do?

Just like OS and PC makers, router manufacturers need to take some responsibility for making their customers secure by default and the internet as a result. This is the only way. If you agree with this premise, we then need something like a set of rules that will govern this new (and logical) responsibility. A consumer router bill of rights if you wish. I’ve basically divided these common sense rules into 2 categories – smart defaults and automatic updates.

Router bill of rights:

  1. Auto update – update firmware when available

    The microcode that drives the hardware of a router will occasionally need to be updated because of new wireless standards or fixing bugs in hardware like the implementation of wireless standards and other link layer protocols. A side effect of this capability means that routers can serve longer as it scales to new standards for customers.

  2. Auto update – update the router OS automatically

    Most of the functionality in a router is in the software at this point. And this software just needs to be updated automatically to cover software vulnerabilities and updates. This update has to be seamless and automatic and require no user intervention.

  3. Auto update – auto security updates as often as needed.

    Most operating systems have regular security updates. For example Microsoft releases updates every Tuesday. Routers should have a similar automatic security update regime.

  4. Smart defaults – randomize admin passwords

    One of the biggest problems with routers is that customers don’t change the default router password. And these defaults are well documented on the internet. Access to the router usually means game over for the computers on your home network. The fix is simple – in the same way that WPS PINs are unique, router passwords should be unique by default. The user can then update the password. Or not. But the likelihood that they will be comprised will be much much less.

  5. Smart defaults – no remote access

    Under no circumstances should an internet router have remote access over the internet enabled by default. Period.

  6. Smart defaults – no information leakage

    Information about the router should be obfuscated as much as possible – it should not return ping udp packets. It should not expose router manufacturer and model information. Maybe even do some mac address obfuscation…

  7. Smart defaults – best encryption, best wireless security by default.

    Wireless security usually has 2 layers – the security protocol and the encryption regime. Routers should have the strongest on by default.

There are probably a few more rules we can add to these, but these are the main ones? Can you think of any that I missed that are important. Send it to me at

Virtual Reality Uncertainty: An Update

To get a refresher, read this post – I’ve basically been thinking through how large the market for Virtual Reality tech can get from first principle. Is it another game console or will it be as big as the web or mobile? So I was talking to someone I respect a lot about platforms – someone responsible for some of the largest chunks of some of the most scalable platforms EVERYONE uses today. He made a smart comment that I want to repeat here:

New large tech markets are created in 2 parts:

  • The incremental user value in the platform itself that creates a pull for customers – e.g. it does novel things (web – followed you around from PC to PC), it’s better than what came before it (mobile + touch – simpler and more personal).
  • Developers have to build new innovative apps to take advantage of the platform, not just modify their existing applications.

The second piece is pretty important, but developers mess around all the time, how will you know if the shift is large enough? So here are 2 canaries (in the coal mine) to look for:

  1. New computer languages – the old languages become a little too inefficient for the new platform. The web saw the rise of HTML, ASP, , Javascript, etc. Mobile saw the modest rise of objective C and Java, but even more so in UI related technologies to take advantage of touch.
  2. Existing UI tools don’t suffice anymore – this one makes sense, genuinely new platforms generally mean new interaction or new display requirements. The web saw the rise of responsive design and the infinite scroll/pagination. Mobile saw the rise of rapid prototyping tools and chromeless design (to optimize space), etc.

The reader might ask – why do you care how big the market for virtual reality will become? To address this and other questions, I’ve put together a handy Q&A below


Q: Why do you care about this? A: Well simply because it’s a question of corporate, venture and product strategy. No-one really knows how things will evolve and examining emerging tech from first principles and strategic insight, helps all sorts of companies be prepared for the future – startups can legitimately get excited and dream of new products. Existing companies can divert resources to new emerging markets instead of being stagnant. If you think something will be the next ‘web’ and it turns out to be just the size of the graphics card market, that will be a lot of wasted investment. Let me illustrate:

Gartner emerging tech hype cycle2010 [top] vs. 2014 [bottom]

Not even on the map in 2010 – Virtual Reality, Big Data, Internet of Things. Stuff on the map in 2010 not in 2014 – Micro payments, Interactive TV, Mesh networks, Pen-centric tablet PCs, Augmented Reality, Wireless Power. You can bet some people lost a bundle on some of these technologies.

Q: So if you’re right so what? Good question, even if the expected size/value of a technology misses, it doesn’t have to be a complete loss – SOME people are bound to do well, at least for a while. For example if VR is about the size of the graphics card market or is just another gaming peripheral technology, Oculus Rift will likely still make a bundle. However the size of a market will mean that lots of other people will not get succor from it and will lose money. It may also mean that some companies will see initial success but will flame out and be unsustainable. If people think something is the next big thing and ramp up investment and it turns out not to be…. a lot of money will be lost.

Q: Why are you obsessed with BIG markets? No idea – it’s a bit irrational, like most obsessions. There are a lot of low-hanging fruit out there even in established markets and most returns will remain in Web and Mobile for the foreseeable future. So yeah, I take the hint, don’t be distracted by shiny objects.

RIP: Bob Woodward’s credibility forevermore

I won’t bother paraphrasing Charles Pierce, so go read:

What I don’t understand is why these giants of journalism are imploding at the same time? Sy Hersh was quite strident about Bin Laden’s death being fiction about 2 weeks ago. It’s not clear if he is right or wrong, but it’s clear that he couldn’t make the story stand outside his own personal halo.