How technology is changing everything

I recently wrote an article for the Houston Chronicle on the future of personal technology. Re-posting it here so I have an easy-to-link-to copy of it:

How technology is changing everything
By Rakesh Agrawal
October 26, 2016

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Late one night in the first days of 2013, a California delivery truck unloaded my new all-electric car, a Tesla Model S, in our driveway. Our then-4-year-old daughter observed the scene and openly wept, saying through tears: “Everything’s changing!”

As a Houstonian, an investor in innovative companies and a technology enthusiast, it’s fun to consider the question: How will technology shape the future? To answer this question, I enlisted the help of a few fellow Houstonians.

Transportation

Among the topics I polled friends about, transportation and self-driving cars came up the most. Between Uber launching self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Tesla’s Autopilot feature and General Motors buying a self-driving car startup, Cruise, for $1 billion, autonomous vehicle technology seems to be at a tipping point.

There is no doubt: Fully autonomous vehicles will radically transform our cities, including Houston. Car utilization will go up and the amount of real estate required for parking will go down. And many commuters, especially those in Houston, will reclaim the one resource that we all have a limited amount of: our time.

John Long, the executive director of Bike Houston, believes that “driving and parking your personal car will be less desirable than other options – including the use of electric, self-driving and ride-share vehicles.” And John points out that this is already happening. “Many of today’s young urban dwellers already eschew automobiles, opting instead for a smorgasbord of transportation options including bicycle, light rail, bus, walking and ride share.”

Christof Spieler, a Rice engineer, a Houston Metro board member and a public transportation enthusiast, believes more information will mean new ways of getting places. “In the future, I’ll be able to find out if there’s an empty parking space or how safe the sidewalk is. This will make it easier to use multiple modes – walk sometimes, Uber sometimes, transit sometimes – as opposed to, say, driving everywhere.”

Education

Education is also poised for transformation. Much of our education system traces its heritage back to the industrial revolution, often referred to as the “factory model of education.”

Tory Gattis, a native Houstonian, Rice University graduate and founder of the Talent Unbound school for children ages 5 to 18, believes education will become “extremely personalized through eLearning technology, allowing each student to progress through the material at their own pace and achieving mastery before moving on to the next level.” Gattis believes this personalization will lead to students spending more time “engaging in project-based learning where students learn real-world skills like collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurship.”

Money

Money will also change, thanks, at least in part, to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and the technology that underlies them known as the blockchain. Blockchain enables a software-based system for currency and transactions that is decentralized, meaning it does not require any government or bank to uphold or maintain it. As blockchain tools become better and gain more adoption, they could eventually eliminate large financial institutions. Blockchain will also drastically lower the cost and logistics involved with money moving across international borders since it enables a system of money not tied to any government.

Grace Rodriguez, one of the co-founders of Station Houston, a coworking space that focuses on early-stage software startups, had this to say about blockchain: “I think blockchain will change the face of information storage and exchange, and completely disrupt how all transactions are done, in general.”

Food

One thing that will remain the same is the love Houstonians have for eating good food. Yet, the entire value chain of food will change, from farming being affected by data and artificial intelligence to food preparation using robotics, to apps and drones transforming food delivery. Many Houstonians are already enjoying the benefits of apps such as UberEats, Favor, DoorDash and, most recently, Amazon Restaurants.

I recently walked into the Freshii in Midtown Houston at lunchtime on a weekday and heard an iPad behind the counter repetitively making a “ding” sound – it sounded like a slot machine that had hit the jackpot. I asked the server behind the counter what was going on and he told me, “Oh, those are lunchtime orders from UberEats.” More restaurants will optimize around delivery, lowering their costs of real estate and staff for delivery orders and accordingly lowering prices of delivered food for consumers.

Scott Tranweaver, co-owner of Jenni’s Noodle House, cautioned against too much technology at the counter: “You may be able to order and pay for your food from an iPad and have zero employee contact, but do you really want this? Our staff is dynamic, kind and memorable and they make an effort to get to know our customers. At Jenni’s Noodle House, we will avoid technology that gets in the way of making personal connections with our customers.”

Drones

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are another personal technology that will transform our everyday lives. Amazon has been conducting drone package delivery trials for a few years now, promising deliveries in 30 minutes or less. At the same time, drones are getting smarter and cheaper, with computer vision and other algorithms allowing them to automatically navigate from point to point and avoid obstacles. Maybe in the future, when you’re in a classic Houston traffic jam, you’ll deploy your personal drone to fly ahead of you so you can see what what’s causing the back-up.

But like any technology, there are potential negative consequences of drones. When cars became popular people bemoaned the noise and visual pollution of cars. And today, this is something we simply accept about urban life. With an increase in popularity of drones, the same could eventually be true of our skies. While we are used to clear and quiet skies today, in a few years we may look up to a horizon that is dotted with Pizza Hut and Amazon drones.

Conclusion

In 2011, Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the web browser and co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Software is Eating the World.” In the article, he lays out the case for software companies taking over large swathes of the economy ranging from financial services to oil and gas to education and health care. And five years later, we are seeing this play out, with every sector of the economy being altered by software. And with the rise of entrepreneurship in our culture, from hit TV shows like “Shark Tank” to movies like “The Social Network” (about the founding of Facebook) to startup accelerators that focus on different vertical markets, I can only imagine that the rate of change is going to increase.

To conclude the story of my daughter, who had shed tears as I replaced my internal combustion engine car with an all-electric car: One week later, the Tesla was the only car she would ride in because it could play all her favorite music on-demand via Internet radio.

Weird bubbles (air, water?) in my Tesla Model S screen

These bubbles (not sure if they are air or water? If I had to guess I’d say air) showed up last week. Service said they had seen the issue before, asked me a bunch of questions about where I park my car (inside or outside, shaded or unshaded) and they have a screen replacement scheduled for later this week. Screen functionality is 100%.

As they say on the Internet: ¯\_(?)_/¯ 
   
 

A quick review of Blue Apron (in Houston)

Earlier tonight, I tried Blue Apron, which just started operating in Houston. Delicious home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients. Here’s my experience.

I signed up on their website, I chose the option for 3 weekly meals for 2 people for $60. I chose their vegetarian menu. Great options, these are this week’s and next week’s menus:

   

 
So 10 days later, this past Tuesday, I got a Fedex package in the mail on with ingredients thoughtfully labeled for 3 different recipes. 

 
The recipes are printed on this nice heavy cardstock.
  
It took me about 45 minutes to prepare.
  

And then 15 minutes to bake.
  
And it was very tasty– it needed some more salt, but, hey, operator error.

There’s a lot I like about Blue Apron: These guys make it easy for non cooks to make fresh home cooked meals. No having to figure what to buy at the store or how much. No extra ingredients at the end of the process. They solve the problem of, “What should I make?” And the meal was delicious and fun for me to make. We cook a lot of fresh food at our house (and by “we” I mean people other than me!) so I’m spoiled where it comes to fresh home cooked food. But even still I could see us doing Blue Apron regularly.

But I’m not sure about the distribution model. I ended up with these two big ice packs with the packaging which seems wasteful. Maybe that’s temporary as they get started in Houston, a way to bootstrap this market? Also though, it seems like this is a product, a way of delivering a recipe, that would be very successful it if it was available in grocery stores. Right? And the grocery store, it seems, would have a significant cost advantage over someone shipping all that stuff to you. (I think Central Market here in Houston does a bit of this, though it’s not as well “kitted” there.)

Ok now I need to go clean the kitchen. Make a product for that, THAT would be magic 🙂

Quick hack for parents with 3 children

My wife and I have 3 children, ages 11, 7 and 3. Going from 2 children to 3 children hasn’t been the easiest thing.

Here’s a little hack for three children families:

One of us takes one of the children out for an activity (1 adult + 1 child) and the other parent takes the remaining two of them (1 adult + 2 children) and we go do things separately.

One of us and one of the children get 1-on-1 time together, which is something we missed when we went from 2 children to 3 children.

The other fun thing about doing this is every pairing of the children has a unique chemistry — for example, our middle child and our youngest child interact in a very particular way when it’s just the two of them. And the youngest and oldest have their own chemistry. And the oldest and the middle child have their own equation too.

Shonali and I always come back from these outings having learned new things about our children.

Of course, we do things altogether too– all the time– but this is always a refreshing change to the rhythm of all the relationships.

How I got past the “iTunes could not restore the iPad because the backup was corrupt or not compatible” error message

I was using a Windows 7 box with the latest version of iTunes and I kept getting this error message when I tried to do a restore (from one iPad Mini to another iPad Mini):

iTunes could not restore the iPad because the backup was corrupt or not compatible

How did I fix the issue? I switched to my iMac and the backup and restore went without a hitch.

Moral of the story: use your Apple device to do backups and restore.

iTunes for OS X > iTunes for Windows

Hacking AngelList notifications

In the last couple of years, I’ve made a number of investments through AngelList (I’m number 3 on the Houston Investors leaderboard).

Early on, there was a deal that I wanted to invest in that I missed out on because I didn’t see the email in time.

So I hacked a simple “notifications” mechanism:

Setup up a gmail filter to forward all emails from “closing@angel.co” to my cell phone as a text message.

For your carriers email to SMS gateway, see this blog post.

Google Photos search is magic

I’ve been excited about the separation of Google Photos from Google+ for a few months now:

And Google did not disappoint with the initial launch of Google Photos, with the goal of being to online photos what Gmail was for email.

As Fred Wilson shared this morning, some Google Photos features feel like magic. I had a “magic” experience with Google Photos too:

I was out of town with family a few weeks ago and the topic turned to pool safety. My cousin shared a tragic story of a young child in their school who drowned in the family’s pool and I talked about how my parents have their pool secured with perimeter iron gate and a self-closing child-proof lock. I wanted to show it to them so I went into the Google Photos app and searched on “pool” and got this:

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A few more swipes and clicks and I showed this to them:

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It was like magic. I can’t wait for Google to incrementally improve this facet of Google Photos. I don’t think I’ll be able to use my photographs without it in the future.

Flying the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+

I recently got a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ at the recommendation of TheWireCutter’s “Best Drone” article and I’ve been loving it. I keep it with charged batteries in my car now and yesterday I flew it up above the flooded area of Houston outside of downtown (see photos and videos below):

Why it’s a good recommendation:

  • It’s easy to fly– it’s got some sort of gyro stabilization mechanism which means it does a good job of hovering without any work on your part as the pilot.
  • Camera video is incredibly (and eerily) smooth: the gimbal the camera is attached to stabilizes the camera and does an amazing job. Everyone that sees the videos comments on this.
  • Camera is included so the package is all-in-one– no need to pick a drone and then figure out the right camera.
  • Image quality is really good– but not great (like not SLR great). I don’t know how it compares to a GoPro, but I’d imagine the quality is similar. It’s a little telephoto thing, not a lot of glass/plastic in the lens so one can’t expect that much. I’ve been shooting with SLRs all my life, so my standards are high.
  • Hardware is pretty robust: I’ve crashed this thing once or twice and surprisingly didn’t break any blades or the body. Once I managed to land it in grass upside down– no damage. Another time I ran blade first into a brick column and it subsequently hit a brick laver driveway (falling from only about 5 ft). Again, no damage. I don’t want to encourage you to be reckless with it. Since these two incidents, every landing has been super smooth for me (one learns). But I’m pleased with how the hardware can take a lickin’.
  • Video files are standard MP4s and can be played back in Windows Media Player, Quicktime or VLC Player (then again, what *won’t* VLC player work with?)
  • Auto return-to-home feature: the Phantom 2 has a cool feature where it senses if you won’t have enough battery to return home, and flies itself back to it’s starting GPS position. I’ve had this kick-in once and was impressed with how accurate it was (it landed about 2 feet from where I had taken off from).

Other commonly asked questions:

  • How far can it go? If I read the manual right, about 800 meters or half a mile.
  • Can you carry it on an airplane? In fact you can! I traveled with mine from Texas to Lousiana.
  • How long does battery last? The drone battery lasts 23 minutes. The controller battery lasts a while, probably 20 flights? And the range extender battery lasts probably about the same 20 or so flights. Yes, there are three separate batteries. Yes you have to charge two of them (the latter two use micro USB, the former is charged with the custom charger that comes with the kit)

Drones are going to get smarter (more computer vision for object tracking and collision avoidance and other crazy features such as those found on the recently announced Lily) but the Phantom 2 is an excellent starting point.

Here are some images I took today flying my drone over Houston buffalo bayou park where there was massive flooding yesterday:

And here’s the actual video: