PyCon 2012 Notes – Paul Graham Keynote

Here are my raw notes from the keynote.
Update: PG posted this talk in essay form. It’s not much longer than my notes; you should probably read that instead. 

big startup ideas are actually terrifying – threaten your identity

1. making a new search engine to compete with google

seems almost impossible

knew that msft had peaked when it got into the search business. now google is getting into the social network business…

find the tiny thing that turns into the gigantic idea

dinosaur egg – make a search engine that all the hackers use. (top 10,000). don’t worry about doing something constraining in the short term, because if you don’t succeed in the short term there won’t be a long term

2. replace email

inbox is a todo list. email is the protocol for putting stuff on it

it’s not a good todo list. anybody can put something on it.

will have to make a new protocol (“todo list protocol”). could degrade to the old protocol. should give more power to the recipient. control who can put something in your inbox

powerful people are in pain because of email. that’s an opportunity.

whatever you build, make it fast. gmail has become painfully slow.

3. replace universities

heading down wrong path last couple decades. not fun for students or professors.

universities won’t be replaced wholesale but will be replaced piecewise – lots of little things. pycon, ycombinator are examples.

universities are now a credential. if they go away, credentialling will have to be supplied separately.

4. kill hollywood

internet is the winning delivery mechanism (not cable – esp. bc of cable’s client, the TV).

how do you deliver drama via the internet?

will have to be on a larger scale than youtube clips

delivery+payment – maybe something like netflix will be the “app store” for entertainment

5. a new apple

his friend from apple: there will be no new good stuff post-steve jobs.

if apple is not going to make the next ipad, who will?

none of the existing players will – not run by product visionaries.

only way to get a product visionary as the ceo of a company is to start it and not get fired.

so next apple will have to be a startup.

someone taking on the problem now has the advantage of having the example of apple.

just have to be better than samsung, hp, motorola – not so hard 🙂

6. bring back the old moore’s law

old moore’s law used to mean that if your software was slow, you could just wait for the next gen of processors. hardware solved software’s problems.

now, you have to rewrite it to do more things in parallel.

it would be great if a startup could make a lot of cpus look to the developer like 1 cpu.

most ambitious: do it automatically with a compiler.

really hard, but is this really impossible?

if so, prove it 🙂 if not, the expected value of working on it might be really high.

why high: web services. programmers like convenience.

this boils down to being a new intel.

less ambitious: start from the bottom. build programs out of more-parallelizable lego blocks. programmer still does most of the work.

middle ground: build something that looks to the user like a sufficiently-smart compiler, but in the middle there are humans doing optimization. could have a marketplace for optimization. write bots to do the optimization. if you ever got to the point where all the bots could do the work, you’d have created the sufficiently smart compiler. (but no one would own it)

7. ongoing diagnosis

one way to get startup ideas: imagine the way we’ll seem backwards to people in the future.

e.g. heart disease – what % blocked are your arteries? someday we’ll know this number as well as we know our weight.

same for cancer.


– some from medical profession

a lot of doctors worry that if you start testing people all the time, you’ll get a lot of false alarms that make people panic, cost a lot of money, etc.

but if you scan people all the time, it won’t be alarming.

Tactical advice:

do not make a direct frontal attack on the problem. don’t say that you’re going to replace email, because employees and investors will ask “are you there yet?” and you’ll attract lots of haters.

start with small things and grow them bigger.

maybe it’s a bad idea to have really big ambitions initially. the longer you project into the future, the more likely you are to be wrong.

don’t try to identify a precise thing in the future. better model: columbus. “there’s something west. i’ll sail westward”.

empirically, it’s probably better to have a blurry vision of the future instead of a precise one.

what is property has been defined by what’s convenient to be property.

can’t charge for copies of stuff anymore – doesn’t work anymore.

instead of getting a degree from an institution, get it from a person. (sorta like phds). this is actually how universities used to work – you’d get certified by someone from the guild.

Not enough food on the plane

On my weather-delayed flight from Boston to San Francisco tonight, I watched a frustrated flight attendant deal with a situation out of her control: there wasn’t enough food to feed everyone on the plane.

The flight was scheduled for 5:40pm but didn’t take off until almost 7, and it was after 8 by the time the service carts made it to the back quarter of the plane. My row got the last few items on the food cart, so the flight attendant had to explain to the 6 rows of hungry passengers behind me that there wasn’t anything left. To one passenger, she said:

Let me give you some advice: never trust the airlines to give you anything. Nothing is free anymore. Buy your food at the airport and bring it with you because you can’t count on there being anything on the plane.

Ouch. And this was just one of a series of comments exchanged between flight attendants about how under-equipped they were to do their job. It can’t be good when your most customer-facing employees are so fed up with the resources they’re being given [1] that they’ll open disparage their company in front of the customers they’re trying so hard to serve.

More broadly: this is a great reminder that one of the most simple and powerful things you can do as a manager is give your employees the resources they need to do their jobs, then get out of their way and let them do it. And when you don’t… things get ugly.

</rant>. You can follow me on twitter here.

[1] Practically speaking… how hard can it really be to make sure there’s enough food on the plane? This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the food cart run out of food, but even if it really were uncommon, I have to believe that it’s better to over-stock and deal with a bit of spoilage than under-stock and deal with hungry passengers.

Pinterest is a Categorized Stream

I found Elad Gil’s recent post about Pinterest and the general trend toward curation quite interesting and insightful. However, I think this point is a bit off the mark:

All of the social services continued to serve content as a time ordered stream.  Moving from a stream to a structured collectible set of content was the next innovation in social media.

Pinterest boards provide structure, but they are still a stream that has a concept of time. They are not a “set” that is fixed in time. This distinction is important, and I think Pinterest (and most of the other curation sites) made the right decision to stick with a time-based stream rather than a static set.

The problem with a static collection that builds over time is that it gets stale. The Facebook friend list is one example (as Michael Arrington recently blogged). When I first joined just before coming to college, every person I met and friended was relevant and fresh. The total value of my Facebook network was high and rising fast. Over time, the value was brought up as I accumulated more friends, but brought down as I lost touch with some of my early friends and as the audience for my content became more varied. At some point the total value peaks and starts declining, and then I have to either remove friends or start over.

The stream model that’s worked so well for blogs, Facebook posts, and Twitter avoids this problem because the time aspect makes it very easy to tell what is fresh from what is stale. Old content doesn’t bog down the new content because it’s out of sight unless you look for it.

Pinterest, Quora’s Boards, and Snip.It follow the same model. On the Pinterest front page, pins are sorted most-recent first (left-to-right, then top-to-bottom). The same is true on an individual board’s page. This means curators can continually add content and the collection never feels stale because the newest content is always the most visible.

I’m going to label this class of product the categorized stream. A categorized stream is simply a stream with a name, like Places I want to go on Pinterest or Economics of Sports on Quora. Categorized streams are not entirely new: we’ve seen this before with tagged blog posts (Blogger) and bookmarks (, and to some extent twitter hashtags.

A categorized stream provides:

  • Built-in context for every post. On Facebook, the context is just “me”. On Pinterest, the context is “me + Places I want to go”. Every post automatically has more meaning and requires less explanation.
  • Consumer-side filtering. You can follow just the boards you like on Pinterest instead of every board of every friend; following someone’s board on Quora just follows that board. This is a different approach to the problem Google+ is trying to solve with Circles and Facebook is trying to solve with Friend Lists. It’s consumer-side filtering based on interests instead of producer-side filtering based on privacy. And that allows me, as a content creator or curator, to post content that appeals to only a subset of my connections without worrying about spamming the rest.

I think these effects, especially the second, could end up being as important to curation as the push-button element.

It will be very interesting to see how the curation sites evolve over the next year and if we start to see categorized streams cropping up elsewhere, in longer-form content than pure curation–perhaps on Google+, Facebook, or Twitter as they work to solve the relevancy problem. How would it change my Twitter experience if I could subscribe to @parislemon’s posts about tech but not to his posts about football?

Many thanks to Alison Johnston for reviewing drafts of this post.

You can follow me on Twitter here.