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Archive for the ‘Theories’ Category


The Best Cogblog Posts of All Time – 2010 Edition

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The Problems With Startup Digest

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I get Startup Digest every week and at various points when I traveled a fair bit, I got it for many cities at the same time. One thing I realized was that, despite it’s popularity, quality varied widely and coverage tended to be lopsided. Dave Troy runs Startup Digest for Baltimore and the result is that it is filled with Rails events and the various things that Dave is involved in directly such as Bicycle Baltimore.

I thought that the lists that I saw felt very driven by the owners: either the types of events were slanted or a paucity of events implied that the list owner was not as wired into the community as one might like.

Here is a graph of the number of activities listed in Startup Digest. There are data problems here. Assume that empty weeks were, in every case, weeks that I lost the email as opposed to weeks with data points that were actually zero.

New York’s list tended to be not much bigger than Baltimore’s. That cannot possibly be right. Further, in DC, the list had virtually no items. What that says to me is that the volume of items in Startup Digest is really a proxy for how “at the epicenter” a given locations author is. Finding more events is not too hard: go on Meetup.

How Chinese Mothers Are Like Bad Bosses

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Everyone is moaning about the Wall Street Journal article/book coming out explaining why calling your kids “garbage” will make your kids better. Let’s share some excerpts:

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

I have to say, and obviously a key part of a her argument is, this all sounds hard to disagree with. For my value system, I would say:

  • Academics is good, therefore stressing the value of academics does not sound bad.
  • Learning can be fun or not fun, but it must be done. There are classes and subjects that are hard. It is nice if it is fun. If is more pleasant if you have a good attitude towards it.
  • Academic achievement is related to successful parenting. I think you can’t take all the credit for it, but study after study shows that better parenting situations drive better academic outcomes.

Here is another great quote:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.

That is a good point. Hard work is required to become good at things. Things you are good at are more fun.

But that last area is a critical area where I diverge.

Here is my leap: Teaching your children the value of working hard – and that they must work hard on things they do – is critical. The “Chinese Mother” approach she takes is implying correlation where there is only the tiniest bit.

Before I start down my winding road of parenting tips, allow me to caveat: My wife is Chinese. Her parents are Chinese. My wife turned out great and our kids are working hard to become great (!). My wife and I have a shared value system on this stuff and that is what I am discussing. The concept of “Chinese Mothers” as discussed here is an extremely broad stereotype and we are all reasonable people that understand the context of this discussion.

When I became a parent, I became a connoisseur of the literature, as do many parents. The study I homed in on was a study published in Scientific American that indicated, in short, that teaching your child the value of working hard is critical for success in life. Allow me to quote:

…our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The classic study looked at in this article was so simple that a child could do it. Longer quote:

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far moreoften than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.
This is great stuff. It directly explains that if you tell your child, “You are so smart”, s/he shies away from challenges due to fear of failure and fear of disproving your statement, but if you tell him/her, “You worked so hard on that”, s/he becomes eager to demonstrate further his/her desire to work hard. Your kids want to impress you, so let them know that what impresses you is hard work. If they work hard in life, only good things can possibly happy.
That is an incredibly constructive path forward. Now, a Chinese Mother would clearly imply, according the WSJ article, “you could get the same result by telling your kid he is garbage if he doesn’t take on the harder challenge”, and maybe that is true, but my point is that you can get a similar outcome in a constructive fashion. “Garbage” is simply an ad hominem attack.
Getting your kid to focus and work hard on things is a challenge. Very young children struggle to hold focus. But teaching your child that working hard yields positive outcomes is a leading indicator of long-term success.
Hey, I had a boss that tried to get my best work out of me by yelling. I never respect a yeller. I feel like people that yell at their kids are abusing their built-in authority because the kid can’t quit this job. I did great work from him to stop his yelling, but I didn’t like that guy. He offered me a great job at one point and I passed. The best boss I ever had commanded my respect. Everyone of his direct reports worked incredibly hard because they knew that their boss worked harder and could do their job in a heartbeat if he wasn’t busy being their boss. He was constructively critical of everything we did in a way that made our work better. That is the kind of boss you want to work for. Hence, these lessons are applicable outside of child-rearing: Are you growing your brain? Are you working hard? Are you a Chinese Mother? Is your boss?
I left the links out to let you focus, but here are some linky-links:

The Best Cogblog Posts of All Time – 2009 Edition

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

The Best Cogblog Posts Of All Time

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Many people have done retrospectives on their blog, I am no different. I always thought some of my best work went unnoticed because this blog is not super high traffic. With that in mind, let me review a few highlights from years past that I wanted to share with you. If you are a new or relatively new reader and never sifted through the 300-odd posts on this blog, this is the post for you.

2007 Best Blog Posts

2008 Best Blog Posts

Actually, I recognize this is information overload. I will break this into two posts and bring you 2009 and 2010 tomorrow.

Etacts Sells Out, Proves Something

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Etacts should send me some schwag for all the good love I gave them that they did not give back.

After my post lauding their service, within days acquired them. As always, we are on the bleeding edge of technology here at Cogblog. The comments in the TechCrunch post lead one to believe that Etacts was acquired for $6m. Nice exit for Y Combinator and Ron Conway and further proof regarding my long standing theory that raising a lot of money makes it hard to do a small exit. It is nice that a company with great products and poor traction can find a way out that leaves investors “not unhappy” and is ok for the employees as well.

Congratulations to Etacts, now I have to find a new technology to use since I didn’t like the others.

Task Management 101 – Theories and Practice of To-Do Lists Plus Product Reviews

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

This is going to be a monster post. Great post to start a great year.

Let’s put an end to suspense: I am using Google Tasks today for To-Do lists. Here is the story of how I got there:

Different people have different needs in Task Management and To-Do Lists and an understanding of your needs is important in aligning expectations and picking appropriate tools to support your work. Quick example that illustrates the point: believed in Franklin Covey. They were bananas for Franklin Covey and it was fairly obvious why: They were an organization driven by delivery managers. Delivery managers at had incredibly transactional jobs: They would come in every morning, look at the 30 campaigns they were managing, and take away from it a list if 50 things that had to get done that day. They probably had a few meetings that day with product management or sales, but that was it. They had to get those 50 things done. And then they did it again tomorrow. Franklin Covey is fantastic for this kind of transactional environment. It focuses on daily to-do lists and the intra-day prioritization of those lists.

Franklin Covey typically doesn’t work well for engineering jobs. Engineering jobs daily to-do list typically looks like:


  • Code Feature X

A hard core Franklin Covey lover might say, “Decompose that”, but then it simply looks like:


  • Think About Feature X
  • Code Part X of Feature X
  • Code Part Y of Feature X

Bottom-line, these jobs are not heavily transactional so the intra-day prioritization of to-do’s loses importance.

I had used a nice leather binder and it had worked well previously, but I became a Franklin Covey guy at I used a Franklin Covey for three years, then I switched rather abruptly. When I took over New Product Development at AOL Advertising, I suddenly realized that Franklin Covey was no longer working: I was in so many meetings that I never sat still for 10 minutes. Also, I had transitioned from executing to leading. I have always found it hard to be both a leader and clipboard guy. Any project manager will tell you that leading a meeting and taking notes on the meeting is an exercise in folly, so I generally made sure that I had someone following me around with a clipboard as we went from place to place. Now they were taking the actions and following up on them and as long as I had a couple of those people to alternate meetings with me, stuff got done.

At this point, I went paperless and it worked incredibly well. I used Remember The Milk and any to-do that I had went into it. I chose RTM at the time because it appeared they had the best combination of iPhone and desktop platform (in their case, the web app) that I could find. I used RTM for two years to take relentless to-do’s in meetings and it was great.

Last year, I left AOL to start my own company. I quickly realized that I had to bring Covey back, but not for why you think: My job didn’t become transactional. I could have continued to use RTM, but I found that meeting with customers works better with paper. It annoys the crap out of clients if you are mucking with your phone while they talk to you. They assume you are playing brickbreaker. It is that simple. So for a year I was a Covey guy.

Now I am going digital again and I thought it was a good time to re-survey the market. Here were my requirements:

  • The ability to make multiple to-do lists
  • The ability to associate a note with a to-do
  • iPhone && (Mac Desktop || Web) && (optionally iPad)— Syncing + off-line iPhone
  • I wanted it to be free. I had used RTM Pro to get iPhone syncing, but they just made 1 sync per day free and I actually thought that was enough for me. And I knew RTM was good enough to meet my needs, so unless a product was mind-bogglingly over the top, no point paying.

I don’t need to schedule to-dos: I have always simply put those in my calendar and it works fine. I don’t need to prioritize to-dos. If I can rank order them that is fine. One of the things that always annoyed me about RTM was that I couldn’t drag and drop to-dos, I had to use priority to set the order I wanted. Okay, but a little annoying. Many of my to-do lists are not really to-do’s in a classic sense, but rather lists: A list of feature ideas for Application X, a list of ideas of new companies I could start, a list of potential gifts for my wife. Things I keep track of in to-do form, but I don’t need to schedule them, just prioritize them and maybe hide a note with them (requirements for the feature).

On to the showdown; I looked at a few products. Let me talk about some popular products I dismissed out of hand:


Evernote is a note-taking product. I am actually excited about using Evernote to fill the gap in my toolset for recording meeting notes electronically. Alas, they are not technically a to-do list and this is manifested in how the product works. They suggest that people that want a to-do list should make a note called to-do list and keep their list in it. A text file is not good enough for my to-do list.


Things looks awesome. It is a Mac desktop app with an iPhone app that looks great. It costs money both for the desktop app and the iPhone app (and the iPad app). Didn’t look great enough to justify shelling out for it. There you go.

Ta-Da Lists (from 37signals)

No offline support for iPhone, end of story.

Now let’s talk about the finalists:

THE WINNER: Google Tasks

Google Tasks started out as a to-do list that I saw whenever I was looking at my gmail. That worked surprisingly well for me as I started to use it. Then I wanted to take it to my iPhone. Google doesn’t have an official iPhone app for tasks, despite the friendly mobile web interface, but because it is Google there are APIs and many people have built iPhone apps. This allows you to take Google tasks offline, which is great. I tried about 4 different Google Tasks iPhone Apps and the one that was hands down the best was GoTasks. I am not going to rehash that process, just trust me on this one. Or don’t and go try yourself. Whatever.

GoTasks was the best for three reasons:

  1. Easy to add new tasks
  2. Easy to access notes associated with a task
  3. Easy to reorder tasks and check off completed tasks

GoTasks Screen

“But that web interface sucks!”, you say. There is a secret interface to Google Tasks that makes it much more awesome: The Canvas interface. Give it a try. I found it met my needs as well as Remember The Milks web interface.

Google Tasks Canvas Interface

Remember The Milk

One of the most popular task management systems, I felt like it had jumped the shark a bit for me.

As you can see from the web interface, they make it really easy to access the notes, which I like, and easy to add a new task, but it seemed like the focus in how they evolved the platform was scheduling to-dos. If I wanted to-dos scheduled, I wanted it integrated with my calendar. I lose a lot of screen real estate on the iPhone to the ability to view completed tasks (never used it, never will), and look at scheduled tasks (don’t have any). Also, they had focused on things like priorities and location-awareness and these features never helped me. My priorities are all relative: I like re-ordering, not re-prioritizing.

Also, I tried all the desktop widgets people had written for RTM and didn’t like any of them. FWIW.


Wunderlist is the new hotness right now, but I found the product quite 1.0. I liked that it was a Mac Desktop app and that it had a lot of sex appeal, but there were problems. The iPhone app made it really hard to re-organize lists. You had to go to a separate screen after you had made a task to re-order it. I might have been able to live with that, but the real crime was this: The app did not support notes, it just kept to-dos. Of course, 3 weeks later, it supports notes. So yay for them. I think this app is really evolving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, I decided that all the sexiness of this app was not a completely good thing. GoTasks UI is incredibly utilitarian. Screen space is utilized in a very iPhone way to help me read things more easily and interact with things quicker.

Wunderlist iPhone Screenshot

And I don’t want to hit “Edit” to re-order, don’t want to waste space on the stuff at the bottom.

I will definitely check back with Wunderlist in a year, but I felt like Google has a ton of room to grow in this area and they don’t care about the money. They will just invest crazy resources until they are the default to-do list manager for everyone. Seems like a no-brainer idea for them.

So there you go, the to-do list showdown of 2010 and how it all worked out.

How To Put Twitter Into Your Email

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

A review of Gist, Rapportive, and Etacts

Everybody wants their email to be better. I recently tested a variety of email plugins that focus on bringing social data into gmail. The short answer is: Use Etacts. Here is what I saw:

Three companies are the market leaders in the space:

  • Rapportive
  • Etacts
  • Gist

Rapportive has raised $1m from an impressive group of angels: Dharmesh Shah, Jason Calcanis, Paul Buchheit, Dave McClure, David Cancel, CRV, etc..

Etacts has raised $650k from Y Combinator and Ron Conway.

Gist has raised $10m+ from Foundry and Vulcan Capital.

Interestingly, I think this explains why Gist has seemingly much better marketing, but it fails to explain why Gist’s product seemed not as good.

Disclaimer: I was looking for a specific kind of added value. It could be that these products do other things that I just fail to appreciate. Most specifically: I am not interested in spending any time on other web sites, I just want my gmail to be better. Caveat emptor.


Anyway, here was the Gist UI in my gmail inbox.

I was looking at an email thread with my lawyer, so it shows his latest tweet and my latest tweet. Links to our facebook and twitter.

It also put the whole thing in an iframe out to the side. It felt like it loaded a lot slower than other things. While I bet owning an iframe is a lot easier from a backend support perspective – you don’t break when they change gmail, it felt a lot more web 1.0 than the other solutions.


Rapportive was well implemented, but had no features. It successfully found that I am LinkedIn to Mike, but didn’t include tweets. All it really lets me do is easily click through to Twitter/LinkedIn/Facebook and record a note about a person – kind of CRM-ish.

Both Etacts and Rapportive integrate neatly into the gmail pane so I barely notice they are there unless I want data.


Etacts is the easy winner, hands down. It identifies that we are LinkedIn and shows me shared connections. It shows me several of his last tweets, and it shows me other related threads. Finally, they offer me the “Remind me to contact” feature (a note feature similar to Rapportive was below the fold here), which I am actually intrigued by – I should stay in contact with people better than I do.

Winning the Baltimore Hackathon

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010
I participated in the Baltimore Hackathon this past week and had a ridiculously awesome time. How great: we won!
I wanted to talk about my experience and our strategy, although it will probably not be instructive to anyone.  I had had a weekend project sitting in my queue for more than a year.  As is well documented in other places, I had read a story about how the Huffington Post split-tests headlines for their articles and had thought, “WordPress blogs should have that!” A little research had implied that such functionality did not exist, but I thought it seemed easy to build using the WordPress API.
When I read about the Hackathon, I thought it sounded like a perfect place for me to try and scratch the itch: If I could get one good coder for 2 days, we could probably get it done. In spite of this, I assumed that I probably would not be able to attract a developer to work on such a simple project, but I figured I should take a shot so I could knock this off my to-do list.
When I got there and did my chat about my project, only two people self-identified as PHP developers – both college students that seemed uninterested in the small scope of my project compared to other ambitious plans to build entire web apps. Then, right as I despaired at attracting sufficiently skilled talent to be able to bang this out, Pete Bessman jumped in and said that he loved the idea and wanted to work on it. What did Pete love? As he said repeatedly, “The reach to grasp ratio on this project is very good.” Pete and I hunkered down in the quietest corner of the Hackathon (hence I think there are fewer pictures of Pete and I working than any other project at the Hackathon, I suspect) and got to work. While Pete started working on the basic infrastructure of the app, I dissected some WP plug-ins to understand how WP handled things like namespaces. I found the first few API calls that Pete needed to implement and I wrote the algorithm we would use for testing headlines. Pete then implemented everything lickety-split. By the end of the first night, I had realized two things:
  1. My wife wasn’t going to let me disappear all weekend
  2. We would finish way ahead of schedule
Our project was far less ambitious than most of the other projects going on, so I started thinking at the end of the first night about how we win and my answer was “user adoption”. Certainly, we could have added many more bells and whistles, but I have always had a “ship early and often” philosophy, so Pete and I agreed that we should tightly limit the feature set and get it out there. After spending the morning of the second day writing code for the admin menus, I then moved onto marketing the plugin while Pete finished making it sing. By Saturday night we had established a relationship with prominent WP plug-in blogs and had an account on the WP plug-in official site. By Sunday, we had positive reviews of our product, some tiny level of adoption, and the look of something with some traction.
While I did not attend at all on Sunday, Pete presented our success on Sunday afternoon and by all reports was awesome. He has a nice flair for showmanship and we were able to turn our story of rapid user adoption into a successful Hackathon victory. As Pete told me when I asked him about our performance relative to other Hackathon projects when it was time for the judging, “every project there was more ambitious than ours in some dimension but many of them had last minute problems completing their work that made it hard for them to win and none had the 24 hours of rapid adoption to endorse their product like we did.” Further evidence that tightly controlled scope was very effective.

Huge thanks to all involved – having events like this to help people like me scratch an itch is awesome. Also, I got a much bigger job done: As I told Chris Brandenburg when I saw him the first night and he asked what I was doing there, I said: “Scouting for talent”. His response: “Yeah, me too.” Pete Bessman has a job for life. He is awesome. Thanks to all my friends at Millenial. I would like to think that when Millenial doubled the prize money, that was really Chris hooking me up as he anticipated my victory. Thanks Chris!

Obviously, I should thank my wife as well.  She watched the kids Friday and Saturday while I indulged my inner geek. It is very tough for old guys like me to do things like this, but supportive significant others are critical for career success and we saw further evidence here.

Three Sentence Email Rule is Silly

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

One of the new meme’s I have seen sweeping the Internet is the new concept.

Here it is:

Tim Ferris blogged about it, TechCrunch wrote about it, I have seen people email me with this as their footer.

It is kind of silly.


If people want to start sending emails like they text, they can, but I have to say: I don’t think I would text my boss or my customers. People deserve well-crafted sentences and coherent thought.

This policy is actually dodging the real fact of the matter: You cannot convey content using this policy, so you are basically saying I will only communicate via phone unless you want a decision – which you could not possibly ask for in three sentences, so you will have to call me if you want to (as is implied by the footer) meet my expectation of sending incredibly brief emails.

People write dumb emails all the time, but getting religious is even dumber.