Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, in a prescient 2012 appearance, said “I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military… What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed… some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’

“That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.”

Worrisome words, as we are now “about to hand over power to a man who has spent his whole adult life trying to build a cult of personality around himself.”

But the seeming similarity between Donald Trump and Augustus really is only seeming. Augustus took care to discourage his personality cult.

Perhaps it’s our luck that Trump is no Augustus. Augustus and his wife Livia put a stop to a century of civil war and ruled together for 40 years, restoring Rome to considerable prosperity. They were the ultimate power couple. Many believe Augustus genuinely intended to restore the republic. But thanks to them the justification of tyranny in the eyes of the Roman people was so total that the republic was never restored, and a succession of awful emperors eventually led to Rome’s downfall.

There’s nothing more un-Trump-like than Augustus’ emphasis the ancient Roman virtue of “pietas”, the key quality of any honorable Roman: reasoned judgment and a devotion to the gods, the homeland, and one’s family. He is quoted once telling his stepson (later emperor) Tiberius: “you must not give way to youthful emotion or take it to heart if anyone speaks ill of me.” Leaders still aspire to match his modesty and magnanimity.

History is rife with cronies, lunatics and megalomaniacs usurping power, but in the grand scheme of things their reigns haven’t tended to be very long, and unlike Rome after Augustus, republics have sometimes restored themselves pretty quickly.

Could it be that Trump gives the U.S. enough of a whack over the head to make this country more resistant to future attempts to strip it of its democracy?

Last night, at the premiere of Werner Herzog’s documentary on the internet, someone asked Herzog what he would say as advice to young filmmakers. Herzog replied: “Read, read, read, read, read, read.”

It reminded me of this 1916 quote from Henry Hazlitt, in his Thinking as a Science:

“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”

Replace thinking with making movies, writing code, creating whatever it is you create.

boatIn his book Cognition in the Wild, Ed Hutchins published what is probably one of the most fascinating analyses of ship navigation ever written. I was reminded of it when we took the M/S Silja Serenade from Helsinki to Stockholm.

Hutchins explores how systems that are larger than an individual person “think”. He is concerned with how these larger systems operate and how such a system computes by propagating representational states across its parts.

The Silja boat is a good example. It’s so big, its four corners occupy different GPS coordinates on a map. Steering it successfully through one of the densest archipelagos in the world is impossible for any single individual. It requires what Hutchins calls distributed cognition.

The boat is huge–well over two football fields long, and there are cabins for 3,000 passengers. Our cabin was on the 11th floor!

Early in the morning we got a special invitation to visit the bridge. Our hostess explained it would be like visiting a church. She was right! After climbing a series of restricted-access stairs and passing through several well-locked doors, we emerged beside the captain and his first mate, high above the rest of the ship.

We saw a full panorama view of the hundreds of islands that make the archipelago so spectacular, many of them startlingly close. And the blue water somewhere far, far below. The passage ahead seemed impossibly narrow.

I asked if anything unexpected ever happened. The first mate said almost every time something does. For instance, that night the stabilizers hadn’t been working as expected. Still, in the last 25 years he said there had only been a single occasion when the ship had not made it to port.

The most unpredictable element is the wind, he explained. The ship is 32 meters wide. But in strong wind it lists and goes diagonal. Suddenly it needs 70 meters to pass through a narrow passage. The narrowest strait (Kustaanmiekka) is only 81 meters wide! I checked.

According to Ed Hutchins, “the members of the navigation team form a flexible connective tissue that maintains the propagation of representational state in the face of a range of potentially disruptive events.”

That’s why there are always at least two pilots on the bridge.

Right now consumer internet is expanding in two interesting ways.

On the one hand, we can dispatch small sensor-packed devices into the world around us – the air, oceans, even space.

On the other hand, connected sensors are beginning to probe the microscopic world inside our bodies. They track our blood, stress, sleep, brain activity and even our digestion.

There’s a secondary industry forming around making sense of all the data these probes spew into the cloud.

Last year I tried to woo data visualization geek, designer Anand Sharma to come work on Set, but he was too busy working on his personal website. I didn’t think more of it at the time, but when he launched his site a few weeks later, I was among the thousands who were blown away by his stunning real-time visualizations of where he went, what he ate, and how he exercised.

When Anand decided to make the technology he’d developed for himself accessible to everyone, I invested in it, as did True Ventures, where I am right now an entrepreneur in residence. Yesterday Anand and his co-founder Eric Florenzano launched their company, Gyroscope. It pulls together streams about your life and health from your various sensors and apps, and publishes everything in one visual, personal profile.

Before everything converged on Twitter and Facebook, social media went through a phase of multiple apps. The health and wellness space seems like it’s now in that early pre-convergence phase. Several sleep and activity trackers, blood pressure monitors, body scales, and other sensors are duking it out.

And just like with social media, there’s also a desire to bring all that wellness data together in one place.

This is the most interesting thing about Gyroscope. Once you’ve connected all your apps and devices, it starts showing you the different data sets side by side. For instance, looking across how you work, eat, sleep, travel and exercise during a given day, it’s suddenly obvious that each affects the other.

It’s early days for Gyroscope and the quantified self industry is still nascent. But when the data is put together and starts telling a meaningful story, it could become just as important to people as Facebook is today.

Today, Wired published an interesting article by Jason Tanz on “The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids.” Our micro-school, Sesat, was also mentioned (not pictured).

What consequences the homeschooling trend will have in the long run is subject to debate, but one thing is certain: compared to us, our children will grow up with more peers who have eschewed some part of traditional school, or even acquired their education entirely outside conventional classrooms.

We’re used to work becoming distributed, yet people are surprised when the same happens in education. Wouldn’t it be odd if education was immune to this trend?

Being a homeschooler dad, I see opportunities for new education startups that forego traditional school. For instance, I could see myself using a TaskRabbit-like service for teachers on-demand. A friend of ours recently hired a fireman off TaskRabbit to babysit. He arrived in full uniform and demonstrated his equipment to the great delight of her kids.

I am convinced we will see a successful startup in this space, run by an entrepreneur who takes advantage of the widening gap between test/audit-driven public schools and expensive private schools.

1. Make the conference room feel like a living room: use natural materials and colors, and plants
2. Put a bookshelf behind the speakers, not a screen
3. Put the screens on the sides of the stage
4. Make the first row sofas instead of chairs
5. Pick a room that’s a lot wider than it is deep; that way more people get to sit in the front rows
6. Use curtains and carpets to muffle sound
7. Pick a room with windows and let in natural light

I built Set with Ulf to use with my own family. We’re opening up in limited beta today so you can try it too!

It’s email photo sharing. Perfect for grandparents who don’t use Facebook, or if you don’t want to spam all your friends with your kid photos.

Use the code JYRI to get 6 months free. Tell me what you think!


Ted Lin, my skate instructor from the 1980s, posted this photo on Instagram today. It was taken right before my first dropin attempt on the UCSD halfpipe, circa 1988.

Dropping in on a 9-ft vert was scary!

The ever-patient Steve Villarreal, founder of the UCSD skate club, is giving last-minute tips.
The next summer Steve and Ted came to Finland to teach skateboarding. The Ministry of Education gave them a bus, and we toured around halfpipes and parks on the outskirts of Helsinki. There was a crowd of excited kids waiting everywhere the bus went.

There’s a new generation skateboarding now, and us old fogies are re-learning our old tricks.

Altruists appear to have bigger brains that are better tuned to reading others’ emotions.

Psychologist Abigail Marsh, who ran a study on ultra-altruistic kidney donors, was quoted in the LA Times saying:

“Because we are mammals that give birth to these very helpless young, we’re predisposed to respond to anything that reminds us of a vulnerable, helpless infant.”

This reminded me of a particularly apt turn of the plot in J. M. Ledgard’s excellent novel Submergence. In it, an Arabic-speaking British spy captured by a homicidal Jihadist band in Somalia is forced by the group’s leader to translate Disney’s Bambi to the younger fighters as they watch the DVD.

Ledgard is a political and war correspondent for the Economist in Africa. The Bambi incident is absurd yet weirdly logical. You’re left wondering if it really happened.

We spent two-and-a-half months in Finland this summer. The kids love it there because they can roam freely. After breakfast they told us where they’re going — to their grandmother’s, who lives next door; to their friends’ house, two houses down; to the park, a block and a half away.

They would play in the woods. They rode their bikes. They showed up at mealtimes or when they needed a parent to get something done. They occasionally needed band-aids.

They were calmer and acted – not older, but more mature. One of their grandparents joked that there’s no Finnish translation for “melt-down”.

Returning to the U.S., I was reminded of an article in the UK Daily Mail entitled How children lost the right to roam in four generations.

The article describes how the grandfather of an eight-year-old boy in Sheffield, a couple of hours north of London, was allowed to walk six miles to go fishing at a lake in 1926 when he was a boy of eight.

Today, his eight-year-old grandson enjoys none of that freedom, being entirely confined to their fenced-in back yard. And sadly, the article says, “Even if he wanted to play outdoors, none of his friends strays from their home or garden unsupervised.”

Here in the U.S. our children are dependent on us parents or their nanny to take them places and connect them with their friends. Their day is pre-programmed, and for many of their friends, a lot of it is spent doing homework.

The author of the U.K. study believes without access to nature, “children’s long-term mental health is at risk”. Our children love Finland because they can come up with meaningful things to do on their own there. They feel in charge.

Nowadays, the only world many American kids can roam freely in is a virtual one, such as Minecraft (which is popular in Finland, too).

It’s hardly a replacement for the real thing, though.

I originally posted this on our learning log.