Why Prop D is a dumb idea

Prop D is a small tax on ridesharing rides in San Francisco that varies from 3.25% for a regular ride to 1.5% for a shared or EV ride. Proponents say it would reduce congestion and increase revenue for public transit.

Both ideas are totally wrong. This ballot initiative is a wrecked remnant of political infighting.

I believe in creating new laws that actually accomplish something useful. New laws that are half-baked just gum up the works of government like old legacy software code, or like that overpriced shirt that you really should get rid of because you never wear it but feel guilty for doing it. Voters should reject lazy lawmaking like this. (also, clean up your code and get rid of that shirt)

Brass tacks:

First, this won’t help congestion. Think of the longest ride share you ever took in San Francisco. This tax would add about 78 cents to that ride. An average ride would cost about 50 cents extra. Would 50 cents really change your mind about whether to take a ride? No. Didn’t think so. So much for reduced congestion.

Second, this won’t help public transit much. Yes, it would raise about $32M per year. But consider that the budget is almost $1 billion … that is about 3% of the total budget. Plus, I generally hate pigeon-holed funding like this. There are better ways (see below).

Apparently this flat tire of an idea is the compromise between a higher tax proposed by a supervisor (Aaron Peskin) and Uber and Lyft lobbyist. Win-win for the politicians & lobbyists. Loss for us, the citizens.

Better ideas:

How about putting a big tax (like $2 per mile) for cruising without a passenger in the car? That would put heat on both the companies and the drivers to pull over when waiting for a fare.

How about just a tax per mile? While not as good, at least it would stand a shot at reducing congestion.

Uber and Lyft will hate these ideas of course. But so what. This is our city, not theirs. If they want to put up a stink and fund a big campaign like Juul, let ’em.

Join me in rejecting this stupid ballot initiative. I would love it if someone wanted to put up an alternative next time around.

Sunil Paul is a San Francisco resident with his wife and two kids. He helped invent ridesharing as co-founder and CEO of Sidecar.

Photo credit:  Pablo Guerrero on Unsplash

Trump, WeWork and Uber (and don’t forget VW and Boris)

I looked at the front page of the Wall Street Journal today and the headlines told a tale of executive power being checked. Trump finally faces impeachment. WeWork’s board fired it’s founder-ceo. The former CEO of Volkswagen faces criminal charges for faking emissions controls. And Boris Johnson was rebuked by the UK Supreme Court. I don’t know what the deal is with craft brewers drinking light beer but I’m sure it is amusing.

We may be having a moment. The pendulum is swinging back to accountability to voters, shareholders, and established rules. 

At the risk of over indexing on recent news, though, let’s look into how we got here. 

The problem of the executive taking liberties is a long one. Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius all grappled with it. They recognized that in time of fast-changing conditions like war, countries need to entrust the executive with more powers. But they also knew that unchecked power leads to tyranny. Plato dreamed of benevolent philosopher kings.

While the founders of the US wanted three equal branches of government, the dynamic shifted in the 20th century with the expansion of the executive branch through world wars, depression, and the cold war and war on terror. One crisis after another seemed to call for a strong and expansive executive branch.

The relationship between the CEO and boards also shifted over time. The shareholder movement that started in the late 20th century had a long term impact of expecting boards to be more muscular representatives of their shareholders. If they didn’t, they risked being replaced by activist shareholders.  At least that was the case for conventional public companies.

Meanwhile Silicon valley was building the case for more executive control.

We discovered founder CEOs are really good at exploiting new technology and painting a compelling vision of what was possible if we build something. Think of the founders of companies like Intel, HP, Apple, Microsoft. They led their companies with vision and were willing to challenge the establishment.

Jobs returning to Apple was an example that resonated particularly deep in Silicon Valley. It as close as you could come to a controlled experiment. Founder-led Apple flourishes in the early years. After the founder departs, the company flounders. He returns and it turns into a jaggernaut.

Then came Google. Their founders seemed to get it right with an experienced executive as CEO while they matured as company executives. Importantly, when they went public, they copied founder control share structures copied from family-controlled companies like the Washington Post. It gave the founders unprecedented control.

By the 2000s it was simply the way you did business if you were a smart founder CEO. The combination of plentiful capital and the precedent of Google, then Facebook, and many more made it easy to justify. Before then, it was an accepted practice to bring in the “adult” CEO to replace or augment the founders. As companies stayed private longer, the level of accountability of boards declined.

In both government and business we’ve had the rise of the “imperial executive” – CEOs and Presidents who have massive discretion with little accountability by boards of directors or Congress & courts.

Now it feels the pendulum is starting swinging away from the imperial executive. After being entranced by the magic of founder CEOs and ground breaking Presidents, we are learning what happens when we don’t get the benevolent philosopher kings. And rediscovering the truth of, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

The rise of the “people”

Here is what else these three have in common. The downfall begins with loosing the confidence of key members of a broad group of individuals. There is a widespread narrative about the boards of WeWork, Uber, and Nancy Pelosi rising up to re-establish the checks and balances of good governance. That’s because there is drama in these stories and they involve individuals. In other words, an easy to digest and report story.

The real truth is that these individual actors are channeling the signals from lots of individual actions. It was only when their CEO’s behavior was hurting the board members’ investment did they step in to fire their CEOs. Did these boards not know about questionable financial deals or a screw-the-rules culture earlier? Of course they did.  WeWork and Uber boards were willing to put up with all sorts of bad behavior by their CEOs until potential public shareholders balked for Adam Neumann’s overreach, tanking their IPO. Uber’s board suddenly got religion after consumers revolted against Travis Kalanick’s toxic behavior with campaigns like #deleteuber. 

The case of Trump, it took the recent Ukraine-Biden scandal for Nancy Pelosi to support impeachment. What changed? Moderate Democrat House members in swing districts, themselves reading the mood of their voters, voiced support for it. I found it especially interesting that a group of House members who all served in the military or intelligence branches described it as a national security concern. I agree. But weren’t any number of other previous Trump scandals threats to national security? Of course they were. The difference is that the sense of the voting public is changing.

This is a way that democracies and shareholder-consumer constituents should be operating. They can check the power of the executive through representatives.

Oh, and what about Boris and the VW CEO? The courts are having their day in Europe. It isn’t quite the same situation, but also a major check on the function of private and public executives.

It feels like we are having a critical moment in the accountability of executives in our society. There has been a wave of support for a stronger executive in business and government for decades. It feels like it may have crested. It will be an interesting theme to watch.

The Moon Landing and Me.

I remember being rousted out of bed by my father fifty years ago today. I had just been re-united with him in Oklahoma from Punjab, India. Of all the experiences in this new land, that morning is etched into my brain. Here was a man on a grainy black and white video image stepping onto the moon, where no one had ever gone before.

I was an explorer of a new world, too. A little four year old boy in a strange land. When I arrived a few months earlier, I paused on the way to my father’s door to touch the white fluffy stuff on the ground. It was cold. Snow! An avalanche of new experiences followed like learning English, making friends with a boy with blonde hair, catching lizards, and the joys of pecan pie.

Space and the moon continued to be an inspiration through my life.

Later, in middle school, I learned about European explorers and fantasized about seeing a land and being the first in our recorded history. What was the opportunity to do that now? Space was the obvious answer.

In college, as I struggle with my classes and questioned whether to continue in engineering, I looked up and saw a poster of the space shuttle. If I wanted to be a space pioneer, an engineering degree was a path.

After college, I was not happy with the job options I had – one offer from the Tennessee Valley Authority. I read an article about the design of a space station in Virginia. I decided I would move there and try to get a job working on space station. It took my several years but I did land that job and helped design the information systems on the space station.

Decades later when I heard about the success of Bert Rutan’s Scale Composites and Branson’s Virgin Galactic, I realized I could fulfill a dream of going into space. I was told I made the fastest decision of any Virgin Galactic “founder” — I applied on a Friday and signed up on a Monday. Despite being behind schedule by about ten years, I am still looking forward to that experience.

Today, as I hike in Armstrong park in California (the name is coincidence but still…), I’ll be thinking about that small step for a man. It inspired a four year old immigrant boy in Oklahoma for a lifetime. Along with the rest of the world, I follow in that foot step.

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

In Praise of Meetings

I know. I know. We all hate meetings...But should we?

I’ve been thinking about meetings lately as I read social science work. It has helped me understand and appreciate meetings.

Conversational size is four. 

I’ve often wondered why the best work in a meeting occurs when it’s just four people, sometimes five.

Anthropologists who observe social situations have observed the natural size of group conversations is four or fewer. Notice next time you are at a party notice what happens when a fifth person joins a conversation. At first there might be an effort to keep one conversation, especially if there is a person with high status who is speaking. But fairly soon, the group breaks up into smaller conversational cells. 

When I was younger and less certain of my status, I took it personally when this happened. It turns out we’re all just humans. Wish I’d known that when I was 20.

Meeting as ritual.

Another insight comes from reading The Evolution of Human Cooperation by Charles Standish. He puts forward the idea that the more group coordination required, the more ritual associated with it. He cites examples of different types of activities and the associated rites and magic associated in ancient Polynesian and other civilizations. The central ritual of modern organizations is the meeting. And it is true that the more coordination required for a project, the more meetings. Rites and magic are optional.

Meetings as deep work.

I am reading Deep Work, where Cal Newport advocates for more time spent in contemplative work away from the distractions of email, text, Slack, and shared office space. 

Twice in my career I worked on my own (in the mid 2000s and again in 2016). Each time I found myself pulled into other people’s agendas through email, text, and other media (in the 2000s it was voicemail; today it is Slack & social media). Turns out I use meetings to keep me focused.

A good problem solving meeting (4 people or less) – is like deep work. We keep each other on task. We are focused for 30-90 minutes on a small set of related topics.

Within a company, it is important to have a combination of deep work meetings and deep work of individuals. Too many larger coordination meetings is either a sign of excess complexity or poor meeting management. Or maybe inadequate magic.

Larger coordination meetings can be effective, however, for communicating goals and solving internal logistics problems. They even help build creativity by cross fertilizing ideas, problems, and solutions. A study to observe how scientist work found that lab meetings were crucial to effective & creative research. Turns out big breakthroughs in science are more likely a result of a staff meeting than being hunched over a microscope.

It seems, though, that these meetings are also the ones at highest risk of someone falling asleep. I wish I had words of wisdom to eliminate this problem. I suppose one is: don’t do these meetings more than once a week. Second: if someone falls asleep, don’t invite them to the next one.

Natural breaks in meeting sizes

Work by Robin Dubar (you may have heard of the Dunbar number) seems to show that our social networks exist in layers of intimacy with about 5, then about another 10, followed by about another 30, then a total of about 150 people.

I think these numbers also correspond to the rough size of different meetings. If you want to solve a knarly problem or brainstorm effectively, don’t have a group bigger than five.

If you want to have a conversation among a larger group where one or two present information and others ask in depth questions, 15 people is about the max. It is a useful limit for a coordination meeting, corporate boards, and most committees. It is the maximum size of meeting that has direct decisions and results in cooperative learning.

If you have a meeting with roughly 50 people, you can only have one presenter at a time and limited questions and comments. These meetings can be used for updates and community building, but not for decisions or creativity. They should be short and infrequent.

Meetings to build identity and shared values

Really large meetings of 100 and more are not about decisions or “real work.” They are important and can be effective, however, as long as they are done with the right goals in mind. These meetings are about creating a sense of connection and identity of the group. Also, they are best done at the end of the work week, preferably with beer.

Meetings of thousands and larger are about broadcasting and instilling shared values. Both are used to communicate high level goals and get the organization aligned on the same objectives. Most leaders are terrible at these types of meetings and it makes them a huge waste of time.

What makes for an effective large meeting? The most important are stories that connect what the organization wants with what individuals do every day. That is why skilled politicians use stories so often. A second insight I learned from reading Harari’s books (especially Sapiens). A big meeting is about building shared mythologies — by “mythology” I mean epic stories, not fake stories — that help define the culture of a company, non-profit, or state. That is why speeches for big audiences so often invoke the founding of a country, company, or organization.

I’ve learned to appreciate meetings that are well executed, right-sized, and well timed. A well run organization will have lots and lots of opportunity for deep work for individuals and small groups, occasional large meetings of about 45-50, and rare very large meetings over 100 people.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

A Nuanced View on Automation & AI

Automation won’t be as gnarly as the apocalyptic views. A more nuanced view from Brookings and McKinsey. Photo by Katarzyna Pe on Unsplash

I read through the summary of the report on automation by Brookings and McKinsey. It is worth reviewing because it is a realistic, nuanced view of the dangers and opportunities of automation.

It feels like the conversation is moving closer to what we had before the big advances in neural networks. Those advances, especially Alpha Go Zero, set off a frenzy of speculation that all our jobs were doomed and an AI superintelligence would subjugate us puny-brained humans. I think we are realizing that while the latest advances are amazing, they are still brittle. Alpha Go Zero can’t drive a truck or even tie shoelaces, even if it can whip anyone’s ass at Go.

It feels more likely that ten years from now we will have really powerful pattern matching machines that can do things like drive trucks and tie shoelaces. Yet those machines will probably suck at playing Go.

Are You the Reason it is “Art?”

The reason art moves you might connected to your thinking about yourself. Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Brain science is uncovering clues on what makes art a moving experience and it is pointing to you. Turns out that when people report having the most moving experiences with art — albeit while inside a machine with powerful magnets whirling around them (an fMRI machine) — they activate their default mode network. That circuit in the brain has been shown to also be activated during self-reflection about oneself, the past, the future, and social relationships. I think of it as the daydream circuit.

This paper, “The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network” is one that goes into the detail of the findings. It is part of a new field of neuroaesthetics that aims to understand why we find things beautiful and moving. It is an integration of psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory.

I recently read a related book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science [excerpt here] that goes into the core questions of why we are attracted to art. Eric Kandel points out the importance of the bottom up and top down processing by the brain. Bottom up processes are ones that favor symmetry, certain colors, and shapes. Top down start with culture and ideology and continue through influences of family, peer group and personal experiences.

These are fascinating results coming out of the integration of fields that used to be totally separate. I’m excited to watch this space develop.

Taking the Nature Pill

There is growing evidence that spending time in nature is good for us. I first learned of this research through a Hidden Brain episode, then Mera looked up some of the research for a Whisky Papers, and recently researchers at UMich showed evidence of dosing.

How much nature is enough? The answer was that stress hormones decline a lot after 20-30 minutes but much after that “dose.” (Note: this was a 1st study with small sample size, so it is still, you know, early science. I.e. could be totally wrong) The idea is to get to a recommended dose for a “Nature Pill.” In the study, they took the pill 3 times a week.

This morning I decided to try it out for myself. Instead of working out, I took a slow, mindful walk through Golden Gate Park. It was a tiny stroll. I purposely slowed down. This was not about exercise, I reminded myself. This was about … something else that is also important. Connecting w/ nature and simply being there. What is the experience of nature? What is the experience of me? And of me in nature.

Some things I noticed:

It is hard to disconnect from the mechanical world. In San Francisco, even inside a park, there are sounds of cars, trucks, and rail from the roads only hundreds of meters away. Jets roar overhead. You have to walk into the woods to allow the bird song and crunch of the trail compete with the crunch of the mechanical.

It is hard to disconnect from the information world. I have gotten better about setting borders from info tech and my life, but it was so hard to resist the pull of the smartphone. The early part of my walk was fine — great really. There I was, walking slowly among the trees, the grass, and flowers listening to birds. What were these small birds I saw? They seemed different from the buntings and other small birds I’ve seen in my yard. After about ten minutes, my curiosity turned to a kind of mild anxiety. Couldn’t find out? I have a bird identification app. Surely I could violate my tech border for this. It was something connected to nature after all! I pulled out my phone, fiddled with it a bit and in the process realized that just that small act removed me from the experience. Even the few photos I snapped on my phone pulled me out of the experience of being there.

In the University of Michigan study, subjects were asked not to use their phones while taking their nature “pill” (they also were not allowed conversations or reading). There was no control of people just sitting for 20 minutes without using their phones, reading, or talking. I wonder if that intervention alone can improve stress levels.

The experience of being in nature really is calming. I know this sounds obvious to most people. Yet, I don’t build a nature pill into my week. I bet most people don’t. Today’s experience was enough to convince me. I’m going to try 3-4 days of nature pills into my weekly habits.

Borders >> Productivity

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash

I am trying to create more borders. In today’s world, laptops, smartphones, email, Slack, and text make it so easy to merge our work lives and off-duty lives. It really requires discipline to wall off portions of my life from the pressure of being online, on email, on Slack, and on social media. I can’t say I’m doing great, but here are things I’m trying:

  • Check email only once or twice a day. Importantly, setting expectations by putting a footer on each email, “Text if urgent – I aspire to check email once a weekday.”
  • Do a shut down process at the end of my work day where I assess what went well and what is high priority for the next day.
  • Setting a timer when I engage in social media and other fun diversions.
  • Establish a day during the weekend when I avoid email and being online.

I find my life is more creative and focused when I create time away from the computer. It opens up space for fun, family, & friends.

I think I can also make the case that it makes me more productive and focused. Obviously, it reduces the total time I spend “working” but the real question is what kind of work. With this approach, I end up doing more deep work.

How Tesla Insurance Could Work

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

It is simple, really…More Autopilot = Less Accidents

Most commentary [pay wall] about Tesla’s new insurance point to the data that the company can gather from customers’ cars, an idea pioneered by other insurance companies like Progressive and Metromile. Could Tesla know even more? Of course. They probably can not, however, improve dramatically on other insurance companies who have been measuring car data for over a decade. Also, personal insurance is often limited by states like California in how they can use that data. There will be some information, like video from cameras, that should make it easier to identify who is at fault, which would be a minor advantage. Claims adjustment is a minor cost for an insurance program.

Everyone, however, is missing a basic insight. As Tesla cars become more autonomous, they will get in fewer, and more minor accidents. That is a big deal. The biggest costs in insurance are collisions, especially major ones, and especially the ones involving injury and death. This is an advantage that Progressive et al will never have unless they join with an autonomous car company.

There is more to the story. As more people use autopilot for more and more miles, the liability for those miles is going to accrue mostly to Tesla, not the driver. Just like anti-lock brakes and other safety equipment, the maker of autonomous features will be liable in case it doesn’t perform properly. Less liability for the driver means less liability for their insurance company.

It all adds up to declining risk for the insurance company that stands behind the driver. It does, however, mean more risk for Tesla shareholders, but if I’m Tesla, I might as well get a benefit from that that additional risk. Tesla Motors can offer it’s customers cheaper insurance while Tesla Insurance can profit from declining claims.

Oh, and perhaps another bonus to having Tesla Insurance. Guess who often pays for the lawsuit when there is a dispute between the driver and the automobile company? Yup, the insurance company. There might be legal limits on how cozy that relationship can be (and if there aren’t there should be). Even with regulation, though, it seems inevitable that Tesla Insurance will be biased against bringing suit against Tesla Motors.

I’m a bit surprised that most observers don’t get the obvious connection. This is likely a fruitful direction for Tesla and it plays to their focus on autonomy.

About the author, Sunil Paul. He was co-founder and CEO of the company that invented ridesharing (Sidecar), helped incubate Getaround at Singularity University, sponsored the first law to protect peer-to-peer car sharing, and was on the board of one of the first car sharing projects. Disclosure: I own a small amount of Tesla stock, which is not material to my net worth.