Our increasingly plastic brains

81Iyp32ZH8LWe’ve long thought our brain structure was effectively set in stone past childhood. How wrong we were. Blown away by Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, on the many ways our  brains retain their plasticity well into old age. On the heels of tearing through Ramez Naam’s Nexus trilogy, it feels as though reality is quickly catching up to fiction, when it comes not only to advances in brain-machine interfaces, but also to continuously re-tooling, retraining and unlocking capacity in our physical brains, even as we age. Research on neural dust at Berkeley’s Swarm Lab, dynamic functional mapping by Merzenich and team, oxytocin-driven learning: these are only a few of the many avenues to healthier, more resilient brains Doidge explores.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011


Steve Jobs, 1955-2011 - (c)2011 www.apple.com

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Steve Jobs, Commencement address delivered at Stanford on June 12, 2005

Steve Jobs has passed away today, Oct. 5th, 2011. We lost a true visionary.

How sexy can Mint be?

Or rather, how sexy can you make personal finance management for over 5 million users? We’re looking for someone special, a rock-star developer who can engineer software robust enough our users will feel comfortable managing their budget with, but also compelling enough they’ll want to spend hours learning about improving their finances rather than playing Farmville. We’re gearing up and hiring to bring Mint.com to mobile and tablet devices, and reinvent how we look and feel on the web. Read up on the details and apply or get in touch directly!

TEDx Berkeley: doing the unprecedented

TEDx Berkeley, April 3, 2010

Spectacular speaker lineup at Saturday’s TEDx Berkeley event. Eric Cheng’s ocean imagery: mesmerizing. Amit Deutsch’s first person account of his exploration of identity and group narratives: humbling. And boy, did Eric Lewis rock the house on the piano! Watch him do unprecedented, unlikely, and probably illegal things to the instrument at TED 2009:

What an amazing job on the part of the organizers, mostly undergrad students, who put the flawless event together: you are truly an inspired and inspiring group. Thank you!

Leadership: what kind of conductor are you?

In a recently posted TED talk, Itay Talgam likens the challenges of leading in business to those of conducting an orchestra, by exploring the multiple ways in which the best get, indirectly and with varying degrees of success, musical harmony to emerge out of chaos. Leveraging his own experience as a conductor, he demonstrates the range of unique styles embodied by a handful of world-famous masters, and draws potent analogies to the world of business. Fascinating.

Get in shape!

Jean Sini, Reshaping your business with Web 2.0A few days ago, a weighty package was delivered in the mail. Picking it up, I was briefly reminded I had skipped the gym, again, that week. This isn’t a post about how rarely I get to exercise, though.

The box was from McGraw-Hill, and in it came twelve copies of Reshaping your business with web 2.0. Now, I’m an enthusiastic reader, but twelve copies are more than what I usually get when buying books: this one is the culmination of a year of work, in collaboration with fellow co-authors Vince Casarez, Billy Cripe and Philipp Weckerle. Yes, we wrote a book! In September 2007, we embarked on the following mission: define, dissect, and qualify the applicability of the recent innovations, permeating the consumer web today, to the more structured and rarefied world of the enterprise.

We wanted to bridge and relate the two environments, and show how the tools, the behaviors, and the culture of two-way participation, of collaboration omnipresent in the evolving consumer web could benefit companies hoping to foster productivity, to tighten the social fabric of their organizations, and to share information more efficiently.

Having developed an addiction for wikis, blogs, social networks and mash-ups ever since the early days of web 2.0, to the point of starting a company focusing on social annotations and ambient blog context augmentation, I felt tickled by the challenge of recasting the practices and technologies powering the web at large to address the specific needs of the enterprise, and I couldn’t have dreamt of better partners than Vince, Billy and Philipp, all from Oracle, to do it: they kept things real every step of the way, and I found the combination of our respective view-points most fruitful in coming up with actionable recommendations for CIOs and corporate IT decision makers.

About those twelve copies: I’m giving them away, on a first come first serve basis. Just ask (and promise you’ll write a review, good or bad, of the book on Amazon) and you can have yours now, even ahead of the official release date on October 2.

Speaking of official release, we’re scheduled to talk at Oracle Open World in San Francisco, on Wednesday September 24, at 1:00pm. Book signing right afterwards: come get your signed copy. Exciting!

Apple and AT&T: for better or worse

iphoneLet’s start with a confession: my current phone belongs in a museum. The sheer sight of it has been eliciting laughs from my friends for years, and I have an inkling they’ve been laughing at me, not with me. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when they simultaneously took pity and the bull by the horns last week. My birthday was the long awaited excuse they needed to help me ditch the offending piece of hardware, and finally upgrade. And what better handset than an iPhone 3G to migrate to? You know the drill: after the initial denial phase, I reluctantly accepted that I had a phone problem, and eventually agreed that the solution was to enter the new millennium and become the proud owner of one of the shiny, trendy marvels. Resistance, after all, is futile: however conflicted I am about being manipulated into it by marketing geniuses, I do lust after the gadget like any geek out there. So I mourned the imminent retirement of my trusty Sony Ericsson T616 for an appropriate few more days, and learned to look at it as inadequate, in spite of its having survived more than its share of salt water immersions, falls, and overall careless treatment.

After calling in to check on availability, I finally made my way to the nearest Apple store, credit card and driver license in hand, ready for the fateful transaction. Why is it, then, that the same old Sony Ericsson phone, albeit newly undesirable, is still in shameful constant use?

Before I get started, let’s give credit where it’s due. I came across two posts this morning that prompted me to write: first, today’s New York Times ran a story on Comcast paying attention to customers griping on their blogs about the notoriously bad service they receive from the company. I hope someone at Apple or AT&T finds my rant, and improves the experience of purchasing a phone the next time around! I hear the initial launch, last year, went much better. Second, I read Ben’s post, where he set the stage nicely yesterday with an account of his own trip to the Apple store. He scored one of the prized devices, at least, whereas I didn’t. Here’s what went down.

I had a frustratingly similar experience to his attempting, and ultimately failing, to purchase the iPhone 3G on Tuesday, the 22nd of July. That’s well past the July 11th launch date, and the commotion, understandable on that day, isn’t as easily explained away two weeks later.

The fun began by waiting in line for an hour at the Palo Alto Apple store. The line was deceivingly short, but moved extremely slowly. When I eventually got to the front and entered the store with a sigh of relief, I learned from the employee helping me that the ten of them assigned to selling and activating iPhones at the time had managed to complete all of ten activations in that same hour! In fairness, having read as much coverage about the launch as the next guy, I knew to expect a modest pace. What I didn’t expect was that I’d go home empty ended.

The purchase experience culminated in failure when, as the Apple employee was getting errors from her PDA (ironically, a Windows Mobile Symbol device) setting me up, I ended up having to call the dreaded 611 (AT&T’s customer service) on my own cell phone. I initially tried to piece together from the AT&T agent what was causing the errors, but quickly handed the phone over to the Apple employee, hoping their shared expertise would get us all over the hurdle. She proceeded to spend another 30 fruitless minutes with the AT&T rep at the other end of the line, to no avail.

What broke down? I had checked the online eligibility tool on AT&T’s web site, so walked in confidently: I was the perfect candidate for a heavily subsidized handset. Or so I thought. It turns out I am what they call a Blue customer (or is it Orange?) and not an Orange one (or is it Blue?). Ah, fatal mistake. What on Earth does that mean, you might ask? To me, nothing: it was the first time I heard of the color scheme. But to Apple and AT&T, it seemed like a deal breaker. It appears that the cryptic codename designates me as someone who’s been silly enough to stick with the same carrier, through repeated acquisitions and mergers, for way too long.

If you think loyalty is something to be rewarded, think again: I was told my plan was “no longer supported since 2005”, in spite of its working perfectly well, to this day, for both voice and data, and costing me a hefty sum every month that AT&T seems glad to charge. No problem, just upgrade me, right? Wrong. Neither Apple nor AT&T was able to do so and activate the iPhone. I tried to plea, reverse-engineer the quirks of that black-box of a system, and bend the rules to get to the finish line: no luck.

The only option offered was to drive to an AT&T store, start again from scratch, and buy the phone there, assuming AT&T even had the phone in stock. Needless to say, the prospect of waiting another hour in line anywhere killed any haste I had about impulse-acquiring the mobile phone. I have recharged the old one (it goes for days on one charge!) and am now prepared to wait patiently for inventories to build up at the AT&T store near my place. The revolution will hit me when it hits me.

I certainly blame myself for having foolishly broken my rule of never waiting in line for a gadget and wasted the time! Neither Apple nor AT&T seemed to think any of this was their responsibility, and each politely pointed their finger at the other. I think, though, that their partnership works like a marriage: together for better or worse. Especially after a couple of weeks, they should have ironed these kinds of kinks out, and I am not inclined to cut any more slack to one party than the other when they leave a presumably sizable chunk of their customers (the blue ones? the orange ones?) stranded.

My kite board is famous

Susi Mai, Jean Sini, Plinsi KiteboardThat’s a start, I guess. The funniest thing happened last month while I was at Mai Tai Kite Camp ’08, the fantastic event put together by Bill Tai and Susi Mai. We were chatting at dinner, when I mentioned to Tom Court that I had a great board built while on a summer kiting trip to Cabarete a few years back.

I was going on and on, about how I loved the board, about its extraordinary ability to ride upwind (it’s a super compact 115cm yet heads upwind better than most 135cm boards I have ridden), about how great it pops during jumps and about its durability (yes, I have come in close proximity with my share of sand and rock). He interrupted me and asked whether the shaper was, by any chance, German. He was. After a few more questions, Tom figured out that I had unknowingly bought a board shaped by Susi’s dad, no less. We quickly produced the board and confirmed its origin with Susi: unmistakable. Here’s what Bill had to say after carefully scrutinizing the board:

I was looking at it, and it is one of the few I’ve seen that have a true concave bottom. Susi’s and yours are sculpted, the entire board has the curve, not just the bottom surface. At speed, the rail of the board itself acts like a fin and gives you a lot of stability and upwindedness. Susi was placing in course racing with that twin tip against others on surfboard directionals. Quite amazing.

The good news: I have been using the board exclusively for three years; it’s absolutely fantastic. The bad news: all this time I thought it was me getting better, and now I have to come to terms with the fact it was mostly in the gear. Oh well, more time on the water is in order. The best part: if you want one of those, drop me a line in the comments or email and I’ll try to put you in touch.