Uber-for-X: A different kind of “disruptive?”

A thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic.

Now, you can do stuff that you could already do before, but you can do it with your phone. What it takes to make that work is incredible—venture capitalists have poured $672 million combined into Wag and Rover!—but the consumer impact is small. Instead of taking a number off a bulletin board in a coffee shop and calling Eric to walk Rufus, you hit a few buttons on your phone and Eric comes over. Very successful companies, the Ubers and Lyfts, do begin to shift urban systems—but only once they’ve been operating for long enough. Even figuring whether ride-hailing is taking cars off or adding them to the road is complicated.

It’s not hard to look around the world and see all those zeroes of capital going into dog-walking companies and wonder: Is this really the best and highest use of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem? In the ten years since Uber launched, the phones haven’t changed all that much. The world’s most dominant social network became Facebook in 2009, and in 2019, it is still Facebook. The phones look the same. Google is still Google, even if it is called Alphabet.

Alexis C. Madrigal

But does this characterization sell Uber-for-X services short? The it’s-nothing-new-just-now-on-your-phone angle?

I’m not convinced it does. I’ve used lots of Uber-for-X services just a few times—ones that are designed, really, to replace activities that I’m used to doing. Grubhub, for example. I used it once. I have an account. But I don’t use it several times a week when I probably could. I guess the value added is just too small relative to the hassle (which, I guess, means it doesn’t add value, on net). That hassle being like—30 seconds of button-pressing on my phone? That’s a very small value-added, indeed.

Another issue with these apps is the following (and I mention this a lot):

There’s only so much room on your phone. Apps like Grubhub and even Uber/Lyft can be quite useful, but not for most people most of the time. Airbnb is a great example—I’ve used it, and I downloaded the app. But after a few months of not using, I deleted it. It was just clutter.

I’m guessing most Airbnb users are like me. They use it, and they like it. But they don’t use it that often, because they don’t travel that often. Every few months, maybe.

So what about services (like Grubhub) you might use once or twice a month? Is that often enough to use up space on your phone? And if it’s not, are you going to remember that the service exists next time you order takeout?

Maybe you’ll remember if you reeeeally hate walking/driving 10 minutes to pick up your food. And then, of course, the restaurant (or, generally, product) you chose needs to be integrated with that app. And I don’t think most people like restricting themselves to just one app’s options when picking their food, or most other products (but especially food).

(This doesn’t necessarily have to be about actual hard drive space. I think many people just don’t like their screens cluttered with a bunch of apps they rarely use.)

You get my point.

The question, then: How much has Uber-for-X changed things, fundamentally?

Diminishing “intellectual specialization”

Here’s a quote from this article at The Chronicle Review. I recommend the entire piece. Consider how the ideas here apply outside the world of higher education (they apply everywhere).

As the economist Peter G. Sassone observed in the early 1990s, personal computers made administrative tasks just easy enough to eliminate the need for dedicated support staff — you could now type your own memos using a word processor or file expenses directly through an intranet portal. In the short term, these changes seemed to save money. But as Sassone documents, shifting administrative tasks to high-skilled employees led to a decrease in their productivity, which reduced revenue — creating losses that often surpassed the amount of money saved by cuts to support staff. He describes this effect as a diminishment of “intellectual specialization,” and it’s a dynamic that’s not spared higher education, where professors spend an increasing amount of time dealing with the administrative substrate of their institutions through electronic interfaces. 

We must also acknowledge that the real costs of administrative work are currently hidden in ways that don’t immediately show up on a [company’s] balance sheet. Distracted and interrupted [employees] produce less … and spend less time innovating [in the workplace]. That reality doesn’t directly impact revenue and is hard to measure as a concrete cost and therefore easy to ignore. 

Grief is tough because death is confusing

I used to like watching movies about kids whose moms died.

That’s odd, maybe, but it’s true. My mom died when I was eight. I liked seeing how kids in movies reacted — how they might be like me.

They never were like me.

That’s because movies make death clean. Typically, the whole ordeal appears appropriately sad and involves lots of crying, like in real life. But screenwriters always make clear what’s going on and how it’s affecting everyone involved. When a kid’s not taking it well, for example, that’s made obvious — little Billy doesn’t talk for months after his mom dies, sister Sally literally runs away, big brother might even turn to drugs (so cliché).

But grief isn’t like that. It’s confusing.

When someone you love dies, there’s no telling how it might affect you, and no telling just sad or confused you might be. And if you don’t take it well, no one around you will know what’s going on inside you. They’ll worry about you, be confused about you, maybe even get frustrated with you.

If these things weren’t true, grief wouldn’t be so hard.

When someone you love dies, you might even do weird things.

I can remember trying to smile just a few seconds after my dad told me my mom died. It wasn’t hard. I felt terrible about smiling, but I did it — just for a second, and not where anyone could see me. It was easy. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. It didn’t last long because I almost immediately felt guilty for having the energy to smile after hearing that my mom was dead. I was only eight. For some reason I just had the urge to do it.

I think it was so easy to smile because most of the sadness had already come and gone. Death can be awkwardly slow — especially when brought about by a drawn-out terminal illness. I knew my mom was dying for six months. She told me herself one day at the kitchen table. I cried then. In fact, I cried more in that moment than I did when she actually died. She was barely conscious for the last two months of her life. I remember playing her favorite song on the piano a few rooms down from her hospice and running back in to see that she had slept through it all. She was so drugged up and so skinny and so, so pale. Yellowish, really — the color of the latex gloves her nurses sometimes used when they gave her shots.

So by the time she died, I think I’d cried most of my tears. Maybe I was relieved. It was hard, you can imagine, going through second grade knowing that your mom was going to die near the end of the year. But I honestly believed (and still do) that she’s “in a better place.” Isn’t that worth smiling about?

I digress a little. What I’m trying to say is that death is not clean. If it were, it wouldn’t be so hard. If we knew what was happening, why it was happening, and what it really meant, we’d handle it a lot better. It wouldn’t be so devastating.

In other words, death and grief aren’t awful because we, and those around us, know how awful it is. It’s awful because the whole thing is almost always an ugly, awkward, terrifying mess.

Something else confusing is what to do afterwards. A death happens, but that’s not the end. In some ways, it’s a beginning.

When my mom died, I remember thinking: Should I talk to Grandma and Grandpa anymore? Should I put away the little pictures of mom hanging in my room? When should I go back to school? Tomorrow? Next week? Never? How can I think about her without crying? Would it be wrong not to? Should I just quit playing piano (she was my teacher)? Should I tell everyone who talks to me assuming I have a living mother that my mom is, in fact, dead? No way! That’s the last thing I wanted to do. But then what happens when they find out months later and feel embarrassed and terrible and get overly-apologetic with me and, God-forbid, start ugly-crying in my face?

You see what I mean? It’s confusing. Death is confusing. It’s awful. And grief is unscripted.

I learned that last line in a “grief group” in college. I was depressed and hadn’t really gotten over her death even by then, so I sought counsel with peers who’d also lost a parent (or both). All of them had lost a parent within the past three years. I lost mine 12 years before. My problems were different. Was I welcome there? I didn’t ask questions. Grief group helped, though.

Death is confusing. Grief is unscripted. Read that over and over again. Let it soak in — especially if you’re facing the impending loss of a loved one to some terrible disease, or if your own death is coming up (though I don’t know much about that). Or if you know anyone who might die one day.

Maybe I’ll look back on these comments and regret ever saying them, but I figure it’s better to say something that might help than to say nothing at all. Death is more than just confusing, but it’s definitely nothing less. This is just a good starting point. God knows there’s lots more to say.

Three thoughts on Creation

I believe there is a God and that He created the universe, but that’s about all I’ll say on the matter. I won’t defend the idea that the universe was created in a certain span of time (i.e. six literal days) because I’m not even sure what that means. What’s a “literal” day in the context of nothingness? What’s a “day” if you’re not on earth?

The Big Bang and story of evolution seem compatible, to me, with the existence of God. In fact, the entire framework parallels much of what Scripture teaches about the order of Creation—first light, then matter, then simple life, then complex life.

I’m not convinced Adam and Even were two actual, unique human beings who existed in time and space. To me, the story seems more allegorical than literal. It seems to be about self-consciousness, generally. I’ve heard the Hebrew words used in the Genesis account imply, more or less, that both the “days” of Creation are literal days and that Adam and Even were actual, unique persons. But is it not possible that this was (and is) the only way to communicate what is actually an unfathomably complex story?

An exhortation

It’s so important to listen to those who love you.

Especially when you think they just don’t understand how you feel.

I know this can be the hardest time to listen—when you’re 100% convinced that no one “gets” you. When you’re absolutely sure that no advice or counsel anyone is giving you will help.

But when you’re feeling this way, you’re in a downward spiral. A bad loop. And almost every time, the only thing that will get you out is somebody else.

That can’t happen if you won’t listen.

The older I get, the more I believe the the pinnacle of maturity is the ability to believe others, even with everything inside of you tells you the opposite.

Being able to recognize, in other words, when what you’re feeling inside—no matter how strong—just isn’t a healthy response to what’s going on around you.

Riva-ligion

I think one of the reasons why PC culture took off so vehemently is because it’s unbelievably horrifying for most people to accept that they are nothing more than an imperfect mound of animal flesh full of biases and prejudices.

I think this can only happen in predominantly atheist places, because there, no God loves you to absolve you from your fleshy pathos and offer you a promise of some form of forthcoming eternal perfection.

Perhaps religion was pragmatically necessary. Otherwise, you’re expecting people to come to terms with having the same fate as a biodegradable shopping bag, and spirituality is more unhealthy.

(That’s from Riva.)

You can only control the process

I copied this from this webpage.


Sports is inherently complex.

There are many variables that affect the outcome of the game. Most of these variables are not within the control of players or the coach. There are too many plays, statistics and countermoves for a person to remember them all. To try and control all of them would be sheer madness.

But after speaking with psychiatry professor Lionel Rosen, Nick Saban realised that the average play in football lasts just seven seconds.

It’s impossible to read and execute every play to perfection for the entire game. But seven seconds? Anyone can do that. Execute, rest, repeat and you eventually have a game.

Excellence is a matter of steps. Excelling at the first thing, then the second, and then the next. The process is about staying in the present and laying siege to the obstacle in front of you. It’s about not getting distracted by anything else that comes your way.

Saban’s teams have done that — and then some. They started by winning games. Now, they are winning championships.

My 2019 Goals

I wish I was better.

A better dad. A better husband. Better at praying and seeking God. A better worker, eater, reader, friend. Better helping around the house and sticking to our family budget. Better at listening and empathizing. Better at keeping my word.

I want to be a better version of myself. I think we all do, whether we admit it or not. It’s part of what makes us human.

But where does this feeling come from?

I think we know, deep down, that we’re capable of a little bit more. That we’re not leaving it all on the court, so to speak. That what we have to show for ourselves at the end of each day doesn’t tell the whole story about the passions and ambitions inside of us.

The problem is, we lack those last drops of self-discipline—that evasive “last-mile” effort needed to make any real progress. We start exercising, but give up. We eat better, but only for a few days. We reach out to friends, but quit when things get complicated.

That’s me. I’m notoriously bad at goals and New Year’s Resolutions. I didn’t make any in 2018 because I knew I’d fail.

But I’m done with that. I’m capable of so much more than my 2018. So this year, I’m starting from ground zero. I’m making 2019 about the fundamentals, because I’m still bad at those.

I have three goals for Q1 2019. Come April, I’ll evaluate my progress and decide what to do for Q2.

  1. Jog for 30 minutes every weekday.
  2. Read one book per month.
  3. Get lunch with a friend once per week.

This post is my way of keeping myself accountable. I also want to challenge others to do this with me—DM me on Twitter if you’re interested.

Hartshorne on God

From what I understand, Charles Hartshorne broke the first ground on synthesizing Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy into some kind of digestible theology.

The following selection comes from his book Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984).

In Plato’s Republic one finds the proposition: God, being perfect, cannot change (not for the better, since “perfect” means that there can be no better; not for the worse, since ability to change for the worse, to decay, degenerate, or become corrupt, is a weakness, an imperfection). The argument may seem cogent, but it is so only if two assumptions are valid: that it is possible to conceive of a meaning for “perfect” that excludes change in any and every respect and that we must conceive God as perfect in just this sense.

Charles Hartshorne

I’ve been more or less obsessed with process philosophy/theology lately. I’ll explain why in a later post.

College as consumer good

I had the top comment on a Gary Vaynerchuk LinkedIn post last week. Sparked some good discussion. Thought I’d share here.

“Today, college is about an ‘experience,’ not an education. It wasn’t always this way, but we’re here now. This means the problem is much deeper than finding other ways to educate yourself and become ’employable.’ It’s about addressing people’s deep-set need to enjoy their life and not miss out on ‘milestone’ experiences (like college). We literally go into lifetimes of debt in order to not feel bad about ourselves — to not feel we missed out on an experience that, frankly, many college graduates would give up if they could go back in time.”

To put this more simply, I think college is a consumer good for most kids. Not 100% a consumer good, but more than 50%.

Lots of kids go mostly because they want the experience, and not to become employable or learn real things (beyond “life lessons”).

A test for this theory might be to compare time spent studying with grade trends at major universities. Especially easy-to-get-into state institutions.

This isn’t (necessarily) about the cost of college, the quality of college education, or whether college is a worthwhile investment. I’m simply saying that many kids go just to have an experience. Whether it’s worth the cost is something everyone should decide for themselves. But making a good decision in this regard requires us to be honest with ourselves about our (and our kids’) motives and about what actually goes on at college.

I love my college experience. It shaped me socially, professionally and spiritually in ways well worth the cost, in my opinion. But is that necessarily true for everyone who goes? For even the majority of students?

Those are fair and important questions to ask.

DBH on Religion

I transcribed the below from this video. I like this. It’s a different way of thinking about religion and God—one I find more compatible with my common observations of things.

“I never take any religion as a closed system of propositions, every one of which is true, or true in the same way. I think of all religions as cultural artifacts that express truths, or fail to express them, in ways determined as much by cultural history as by anything else.

It’s not the case, by the way, that after you move away from the basic affirmation that God is the basic absolute that you immediately run into irreconcilable differences. There are all sorts of realms of experience — devotional experience, mystical experience — and other affirmations about moral life where you find commonality of experience and concept.

But we’re talking about the human experience of the infinite source of all that is. There’s no way that could be reducible to a single set of internally consistent propositions that exclude all other approaches. These approaches are going to be mythological, spiritual, philosophical, ethical. They’re going to contradict each other in some details and affirm one another in others. Among the traditions that are serious traditions — not the kind of religion you might make up in order to sell a product — they can all converge upon the same truths, with all the fallibility that every human approach to truth exhibits. In the same way that different schools in the sciences are going to diverge from one another.

Ideally, at some point, there is a theoretical breakthrough that will reconcile the differences, or show that one theoretical path was sterile. In a sense, that’s true also of religious experience, but it’s not going to be in the realm of empirical investigations.

But yes, many religions can be true, in the sense that they are speaking of the truth in the best way the cultural traditions to which they belong allows them to do so, while at the same time differing from one another on specific affirmations which may be right or wrong.”

Percy on present-ness

How did it happen that now he could see everything so clearly. Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself from some dark past he could not remember to a future that did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives the way one can miss a plane?

Walker Percy, The Second Coming

A concise definition of Austrian Economics

I’ve copied these 10 points from Steve Horwitz’s valuable post on this subject. They succinctly define the tenets of Austrian economics.

  1. Only individuals choose.
  2. The study of the market order is fundamentally about exchange behavior and the institutions within which exchanges take place.
  3. The “facts” of the social sciences are what people believe and think.
  4. Utility and costs are subjective.
  5. The price system economizes on the information that people need to process in making their decisions.
  6. Private property in the means of production is a necessary condition for rational economic calculation.
  7. The competitive market is a process of entrepreneurial discovery.
  8. Money is non-neutral.
  9. The capital structure consists of heterogeneous goods that have multi-specific uses that must be aligned.
  10. Social institutions often are the result of human action, but not of human design.

On their own, these points might seem somewhat vague and obvious. But they’re worded carefully here—it’s what’s implied when we take them as fact that gets interesting.

For more on Austrian economics, read this.

What is God?

There’s enough here to ponder for a lifetime, if you take what he’s saying seriously. From the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Best to begin, following Thomas Aquinas, by saying what God is not. God is not the biggest being in the universe, or outside of the universe. God is not a discrete entity, like you or me, or a cloud or an atom or a quark, or (if one can put it this way) the universe itself as a whole. Nor is God the clockmaker, winding up time and matter and letting them run their course on their own.

God is the eternal and immaterial fullness of being and life that is the condition of there being anything at all. Infinitely rich and inexhaustibly beautiful, God is being itself, and as such, goodness and truth. Singular and simple, God lacks nothing yet, out of boundless and inexplicable love, creates what is other than himself, that which is not God. Distinct from God, what is not God — which is to say, everything: creation — is nevertheless bound to God, dependent at every moment and in every respect. Yet this dependence is not debilitating but enabling. It is the source of power and identity and, for living creatures, agency and, for rational creatures, freedom. To be is to depend on God for everything, and to acknowledge and celebrate this dependence is to be alive, fully alive, transparent to the source and end and empowering life that fills and moves all living things.

Brad East (channeling David Bentley Hart)

Einstein on God

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call my self a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

Albert Einstein