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Elon Musk
May 29, 2015

One of my earliest memories of Elon Musk dates back to an interview he did where he is quoted as saying that he planned to retire on Mars. I remember thinking at the time how bizarre it was that at times one hears seemingly brilliant people say really dumb things.

In the last 12 months, I've seen Elon in more and more headlines, and in the last 6 months or so, I've become quite captivated. I watched the "Revenge of the Electric Car", which I hadn't realized focused on Tesla, watched a Bloomberg documentary on him on Netflix, and more recently read the Ashlee Vance book on him. I have been especially mesmerized by the rocket landing attempts.

A few months ago I came to realize that Elon and his companies are like a super-concentrated formulation of the kinds of things that I find interesting and inspiring. Where to begin...

I think what I find most inspiring is that there are strong indications that he is being successful at making rocket re-usability a reality. When you see it happening, it's a kind of forehead slapping moment. Like duh, why haven't people been working hard on this for decades? When someone can provide the kind of leadership that turns an industry on its head -- and rocket science at that -- you have to sit up and take notice. It's inspiring.

The second aspect that I find inspiring is that he has succeeded at so many different things. Not just SpaceX, but Tesla as well. Not just those two, but SolarCity. And not just those three, but PayPal. It's mind boggling. When you see a pattern of success like that, there aren't really any modern comparisons. As even Elon points out, people tend to notice precedence and superlatives, and perhaps not coincidentally, Elon is the poster boy for both of those things in the tech world.

Of course, when people see patterns, they are tempted to extrapolate into the future. If he has done this much in 15 years, what might the next 15 years look like? Obviously no one knows, but if the pattern continues, it could make for an interesting ride.

There is a long laundry list of aspects of his approach and products that I admire, so here is somewhat of a rambling through them:

Best Car Ever

In a world that is increasingly "winner takes all", I am extremely impressed with a company that produces a vehicle that is rated by respected reviewers as "the best car ever" as well as "the safest car ever". If Tesla can achieve scale and bring prices down, who knows where that could lead. (again, the increasingly "winner takes all" nature of the world these days is important there)

Fastest Sedan Ever

Watching videos of the sheer terror or glee of people being accelerated from 0-60 mph in about 3 seconds is some great entertainment. As a guy, I can relate to the general feeling -- even if it's just the joy of a V6 engine. Comparatively, I remember the feeling of a 1998 V6 Honda Accord as being "wow" when you accelerated onto an expressway... and it apparently has a 0-60 time of almost 8 seconds compared to the 3.1 seconds of the Tesla P85D. While almost functionally useless, we run into the phenomenon of superlatives again. What is it about superlatives that captures our imaginations?

Cheap Space Prices

The US government is working on a super heavy lift vehicle and a space capsule right now with a price tag of something like $18 billion. I think some people are estimating that development + flight costs could total $40 billion. Kind of staggering. When you compare that to the development and flight costs of SpaceX hardware, it's mind boggling. Even compared to ULA, SpaceX's prices are hugely cheaper. In a world that has little patience with government waste and huge corporations that are bureaucratic, slow, and wasteful, the SpaceX prices are a huge breath of fresh air, and they set an example for what can be done with good vision and execution.

Long Term Thinking For The Win

Most people probably thought that SpaceX was unlikely to succeed at putting something into orbit. But not only did they do that, they are on the cusp of demonstrating rocket reusability. How did that happen? How can a company go from being an under dog to a savant over achiever? I think a big part of that is that the vision is long term. Not just long term, super-long-term. And when you think about it, of course long term thinking is best. The problem is that we sometimes associate long term thinking with failure, because it can be hard not getting bogged down in the complexity that long term thinking can incur. But Elon seems to be demonstrating that long term thinking (+ execution) is perhaps one of his greatest gifts. And if you really are brilliant at that, then watch out.

Part of what makes it fun to watch is that you know that in any given year, he is thinking about things 5 years, 10 years, 15 years on the horizon. And likewise, in any given year, details are released on something inspiring, and you realize that it has been 5 or 10 years in the making. (in terms of vision + planning + execution) Every time it happens, it's kind of exhilarating. Perhaps it's like watching a grand master chess player, and as the game progresses, you start to sense of much careful forethought has gone into moving the game state to where it is now, for this move.

Cars + Computers = ?

As I've reflected on before, kids like me who grew up in the 80s saw computers, realized how much potential they had, and then saw cars, which were kind of "dumb" but also very cool, and wondered in the back of our heads what it would be like if you could combine the two. And better than any other effort, Tesla has achieved that. The Model S is essentially a computer on wheels. Everything from its millisecond response times to traction control and braking to its huge touch screen panel to its automated system for routing you from point A to B to make use of supercharger stations. (not yet to mention that it runs on electricity) And of course, the cherry on top: That Tesla has recently emerged as one of the leaders in the race to autonomous vehicles, showing off some really impressive capabilities this year. For guys like me, my eyes bulge at this stuff. Any time you take the wistful imagination of a once 15 year old and turn that into reality, it's a rather powerful experience.

Automation

I've always been a huge fan of automation, scripting, efficiency, etc, but this year especially I've been thinking about automation and its long term consequences. When I hear Elon speak, I get the sense that he's on the same page, and I think that bodes extremely well for the future of his companies. (I think it applies profoundly to all three of Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity)

To use one example, imagine a fully automated factory for producing high efficiency solar panels, paired with a fully automated solar panel installation robot/system, paired with an automated order placing system. While that's a ways off (especially the installation robot), it could be as little as 2-3 decades before it is a reality... and I'm curious what that would mean for the future of electricity generation.

Beautiful Factories

This seems somewhat meaningless in a way, but there's something about the sparkling, clean, white and red Tesla factory that captures my imagination. I've toured a car factory before, and it was somewhat dark, somewhat dirty. It is something deeply psychological that I can't quite put my finger on, but perhaps there is a certain genius behind it.

The Machine That Makes The Machine

Elon often says that manufacturing is hard. I like how he says "it's the machine that makes the machine". He talks about the Gigafactory as a "product", as a "machine". I resonate strongly with that mentality. It may seem trivial, but there's something to it that feels important. Perhaps it's as simple as taking pride in or having passion in not just your product, but also how you make your product, which is also hugely important. He gets it.

Hyperloop

When the Hyperloop was first revealed, I didn't pay much attention. Perhaps it was yet one more insane idea that, yawn, would never see the light of day. But as Elon's accomplishments have stacked up in the last couple of years, and as he has established a pattern of saying crazy things that wind up being true, suddenly the Hyperloop is something that my psyche has needed to reconsider.

I think the Hyperloop is important, in part, because it is the "outer most" node in Elon's idea sphere that he has put forth as a near-medium term possibility. It's so on the outside that he hasn't taken it on as his project to manage. So why is that important? It's important because if it is successful, it acts as a new data point for his ability to ideate something crazy (really crazy), not even manage it, and still have it manifest into reality. Which cycles back to our tendancy to extrapolate... at which point the Hyperloop works, we're left to wonder what his limits are for ideating things and having them turn into reality. (again, without him even needing to do the work) Taken to the extreme, you could imagine a genius who establishes such a track record that any time he spurts a hyperloop-like idea, there's a 90%+ chance that it is in fact a great idea that will be turned into reality. Perhaps we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves, but you can see the entertainment value in that. Already, the mere mention of just about anything far-out by Elon Musk is an instant news story. How far will it go?

Reinvest

I'm not a fan of rich capitalists spending insane amounts of money of themselves. Ugh. For the most part, Elon's companies have not been about making people rich, but instead reinvesting all of the capital into furthering the companies visions. When that happens, it feels somewhat "ideal", that is if the vision and execution are excellent.

That said, Elon does live in a completely excessive house now, so he doesn't fit the ideal as well as he once did.

Something I loved was hearing about how during university he figured out he could live off of a dollar a day by eating hot dogs and oranges. This fits my personality so well -- figuring out how simply one can live for various reasons.

Closing Thoughts

I'm obviously very inspired by Elon's successes and potential. Who knows where it all goes.

I have to say though, I'm still somewhat appalled by the thought of 80,000 people moving to Mars this century. That still sounds completely insane, and I'm sticking with that assessment even though Elon's track record is becoming increasingly impressive. We shall see where all of that goes...


Apple Everything
February 23, 2015

I can't say that I was predicting Apple to make a car... and although this rumor may turn out to be something much less ambitious than all-out designing and manufacturing a car, it seems like the grander ambition just might be the reality.

Regardless, the rumor is a reality check in a way: It reminds us that Apple has a colossal pile of cash, and that it will likely continue to grow, as all businesses do. If you sit back and think about that, it really makes one wonder where it could all lead to. Certainly (I hope?) my couch will not be an iCouch in 2030, but if one considers a very aggressive Apple-ey future, it's hard to know where to draw the line with respect to what they might attempt.

Here is a list of possibilities.

The strong or reasonably strong possibilities:

1.Cars (as of this month)
Could include a strong push into autonomous tech
In the future, could involve autonomous taxis and package delivery
2. TV sets
3.Streaming services for movies (like Netflix)
4.VR
5.Cloud services (AWS, as an example)
6.AI

More possibilities, but less likely:

Financial services (deeper than Apple Pay)
Education content & "services": "Apple School"
In-house electronics manufacturing and R&D
CPUs
Memory
Screens
Robotics (home automation, etc)
Even less likely, but possible: Industrial robotics
Home appliances
Producing TV shows and movies

Would-be surprising possibilities:

Furniture
Space, satellites
Unless Apple were to buy SpaceX or buy a large stake in it
Energy production (solar, etc)
Designing buildings, such as homes and offices



Smart Home Use Cases
January 11, 2015

One of the obvious trends at CES this year, and connected with the IoT, is the smart home. I read an article today that reminds us that many people are still scratching their heads, a bit, at what the smart home will really do that is actually compelling, and whether it's going to be worth the money. For example, if you're willing to pay $100, you can teach an otherwise $10 lightbulb to listen for commands over Wi-Fi. Am I going to pay 10x the price so that I can remotely tell a light bulb to turn itself on or off? Never. Or how about my washing machine? Am I going to do back flips of excitement to be able to remotely connect to my washing machine to see where it is in its cycle? Kind of cute, but pretty uncompelling. (a classic novelty thing)

So where is all of this going? And will it really deliver value to the home? I figured I'd go the other way around -- not what technology can do today, but what the use cases are that I'd be delighted to see it be capable of.

(Many of the following things are at least a couple of decades away, etc, but I'll include them in the list anyway.)

The big three are pretty obvious, and they're a ways off, but ultimately, I think this is where much of the value lies:

Tidying

I think the most alluring smart home technology would be devices that can tidy the home. For example, putting away toys in the proper bin, picking up clothes of family members that don't seem to know where the laundry bin is, etc, etc. The reason I would value this so much is that an untidy home is something that psychologically wears on me a lot, and it can take a lot of mental energy to keep on top of it. I expect we're at least 20 years a way from systems that are both capable of this and not a ridiculous amount of money. But let's be clear -- when we scratch our heads and wonder "will this ever be compelling", the self-tidying home, for me, is one of the ultimate use cases that for me says "absolutely"!

Cleaning

This is actually something that we started to see a few years ago -- systems that can vacuum carpeted and hard floors. But if and when this expands to include dusting furniture, cleaning kitchen surfaces, cleaning bathrooms, etc, it's obvious that customers will place high value on it.

Laundry

Another high-value category. And machines are already delivering huge value in this area -- washers and dryers. But when the day comes that you drop your underwear beside your bed in the morning and it automatically finds its way into the laundry to be washed, dried, and put away, I think we can all agree that people will throw their money at the solution.

...

Beyond these big three, here is a long list of little things, some of which are much closer to being plausible:

Lights that automatically turn themselves off when people aren't in the room. This sounds simple, but I would really appreciate this. The number of times I've had to turn off Eli's light or the bathroom light is a bit depressing. Not having to think about turning lights off would be pretty nice.

Sometimes we put something in the washing machine but don't hear it beep, or don't attend to it immediately, and then we forget. We then discover it a day or two later, and the wet laundry stinks and needs to be re-washed. It would be great if the washing machine would send me an email after 4 hours, and again after 8 hours, etc, if not attended to yet.

Last year (?) I left the BBQ on for 19 hours on high. It sure would have been nice if our smartphone beeped shortly after we emptied the BBQ and left it running. On a similar note, it would be nice if we would be notified anytime *any* gas-using device was left on accidentally. (by monitoring the gas line itself)

Sometimes (3 times a year, perhaps), I forget to close the garage door and we go to bed with the garage wide open for the whole night. Wouldn't it be nice if the house let us know we had forgotten to close the garage door?

I'd like it if every device in the home internally measured how much energy it was drawing, and kept track of that in terms of when and how much it used. A master system could then aggregate that data to show you what devices were drawing what amounts of energy, and answer one-off questions such as "what percentage of our electricity bill does our TV account for", or "what devices use the most electricity", or "how much money would we save each year if we purchased such-and-such dishwasher", etc, etc.

Ultimately it would be nice if every physical thing in the home had a minuscule tag built into it so that the home knew its x/y/z coordinates. Can't find the remote? No problem. Can't remember what box such-and-such is in? Easy. Not sure whether you left something at the cottage? Just ask.

Self-diagnosing devices: Wouldn't it be great if devices had self-diagnostic abilities so that when they went caput, they could communicate to you and to the service agent exactly what went wrong, reducing the cost and time it takes to fix it, and in some cases, to allow you to fix it.

On a related note, wouldn't it be great if along with self-diagnosing devices, things were also self-documenting. So, when something goes wrong with your device, you could tap into detailed instructions that would show you how to fix it if you had the basic skills required to do so. (and if you didn't it could even link to how-to's and youtube videos to teach you how to do the basic skills required to fix the device yourself) If you didn't have a certain tool, wouldn't it be great if your family and friends were connected in such a way as to be able to see the closest friend that had that tool?

Measure waterfall and soil characteristics and recommend intelligently when it is critical to water the lawn to prevent it from dying, etc. Likewise, tell the homeowner when soil characteristics (and season, etc) are such that a fertilizer should be applied, or a grub treatment should be applied, etc.

Ping the homeowner when the furnace filter needs to be replaced, or any other seasonal thing that people tend to forget.

We had a leak in our basement this year, but I think it first started a few years ago and we didn't notice. Now we're left with a basement that sometimes has a bit of a musty odor. It would be great if homes had sensors that could detect and report any issues of this kind before they did damage, and to help localize where exactly the problem is and how bad. If sensors become cheap enough, perhaps one day this kind of thing would be feasible.

Kids eventually get to the stage where they play outside on their own. Sometimes when I peek out the window I happen to see Eli doing something unsafe, and I go outside to talk to him. It would be nice if cameras on the exterior of the home were watching everything going on, and would ping parents if something dangerous was going on that they themselves hadn't noticed. Obviously there's a danger with anything like this, where a parent might come to simply rely on the danger-detection device to catch everything, when it wouldn't.

It would be nice if a home was able to see (via infrared cameras, etc.) where thermal issues were, etc, and to be able to recommend if asked how to improve the thermal characteristics of the home, etc, or to warn the homeowner if door seals had degredated, etc, in order to be replaced.

Another very difficult but extremely valuable use case is the management of the kitchen. Namely, what meals are planned for, and what food is purchased. I worked on this one a bit in 2008. Here's the notion:
The fridge and cupboards know what is in them because food items have RFID (etc) tags.
You can therefore have the computer recommend a supper recipe based on foods in the kitchen.
You can also be walking through the super market and see what commonly used foods you recently ran out of.
This could be tied into a system that would plan your meals for you. It would optimize nutrition, cost, preference, etc, and would stay within dietary concerns, etc. It could also help reduce waste.
This could again be further automated by having the system do the ordering of the food once the meal plan had been OK'd by the home owner.
Food could be delivered rather than purchased manually at the grocery store.

...

Anyway, no shortage of compelling use cases, I think. But many of them will take years, and in some cases, decades, to become common place, I think. That might make for a bit of a yawn-fest in the next 10 years as the things that become available seem a bit head-scratch-worthy... I guess we'll have to wait and see how quickly things unfold.

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