Readers and Writing.

#HappyNewYear and Thank You to our readers

Ranjan here. Today we talk about you, our readers, and why we write.

Writing these Margins newsletters is a labor of love. My co-host Can and I stress over this on a weekly basis, even though we're both working full-time jobs. But forcing myself into a regular act of writing was one of the best things I did in 2019 (thanks Can!). Ideas that had long been relegated to draft folder purgatory were finally put to pixel (I had been trying to write that Sweetgreen piece since the 2016 election).

While regular readers know about my professional obsession with email analytics, for this project I don’t kill myself on growth and engagement. We judge ourselves on whether the ideas we care about making their way into the world, in a longer format than a tweet. A post doesn’t need to go viral, it just needs to be posted.

Looking back at all the ideas we were finally forced to wrangle into some semblance of coherence is just damn rewarding. TikTok! Taboola! Startup Options! Peloton! Popeyes! Passwords! WeWork! Can’s Data-as-a-Liability post even played a part in him getting set up with his new job.

Image result for typewriter

146,896 words.

That's what was written in 2019 in the Margins (and we can't forget our guest post’ers Blair and Andrew for helping out).

I am including this graph of word count, partly because I spent a while getting word count data into a spreadsheet so needed to create some kind of graph, but also as a reminder that, the hardest part of writing, remains to just write, and it feels great to see that we didn't stop. This side project began as an agreement between two friends to force each other to write once a week. 

Note: We are given one "pass" per quarter, and life sometimes has gotten in the way.…early readers might remember one of my earliest editions ending abruptly as my wife went into labor with our 2nd child.

The Word count per month

We write these ramblings and rants, not for traffic, but just to write. However, writing to no one is a lot harder than writing to thoughtful, smart, and generally interesting people.

So thank you to everyone who reads these newsletters (disclaimer: #ClicheComing), you all make it worth it.


And thank you for your insanely brilliant replies. Many of you know that I'm #TeamNewsletter (over social media) all the way, and there is nothing more worthwhile than an insightful reply from a reader. Especially the kind which makes you think critically about your own entrenched views (we are the folks who ended 2019 talking about what we got wrong).

A few weeks ago I had written about how I was skeptical about the pace of innovation in the 2010s. As the decade ended, to me, life looked relatively the same as when it began.

I wanted to include a few of my favorite responses to end this post because it's still only the third day of the new decade, and we can all enjoy just a bit more decade-long thinking before it’s back to weekly, monthly and quarterly planning. 

Note: I’m not including any names of readers out of respect for privacy.

The main thing brought to my attention was how much things have radically evolved in areas completely outside of my own day-to-day. Farming. Traveling as a woman. Multiple notes on cars, including avoiding Teslas on weekend nights. And even a reference to Londonium.

First up:

So it’s an under the hood thing- but I started the decade traveling alone, and remember the challenge of maybe having a phone connection. Maybe finding a hostel online. Maybe finding a decent map. Guesstimating trains/planes/ and automobiles.

I’m finishing with another trip- where between hopper, Airbnb, lyft and my what’s app groups- I’ll barely plan before I step off the plane. This freedom is nice, especially as a woman who travels alone.

We can all continue to have a laugh at Google+ and Google Glass references, but it is the true Margins reader that busts out a Google Wave reference! 

I would also say, the last decade has seen the rise of user experience as discipline, which has lead to software companies stepping back from big-bang design changes in favour of incremental improvements and reliance on familiarity and known heuristics. So Apple, Google and Facebook do a lot of work behind the scenes to radically improve searchability and quality of photos (for example), but the interface itself doesn't radically change. Compare Google's approach now to ten years ago - they'll build powerful tools to replicate human speech which seems quite simple (auto-complete, voice assistants etc) vs obviously 'techie' but wildly unusable products like Google Wave.

I am including this one because, I remember getting my first George Foreman Grill in college, and it really felt like a democratizing revolution. Also, living in NYC, I am not in tune with mainstream car culture, but this current-day Tesla anecdote blew my mind. 

We already have the beginning of self driving cars. I’ve already heard stories of Tesla owners driving “buzzed” after leaving the bar because the car is in control. I’ve heard it so much that I avoid Tesla’s on the road late Friday or Saturday night. But the basics are here. 10yrs from now commercial truckers will be phased out entirely and self driving taxis will be a common occurrence that your kids won’t think twice about jumping into).

I’m going to this Virtual Reality experience next weekend. It’s done by dreamworks.....so high expectations. I fully believe in the next 10 years I’ll have a holodeck in my house Star Trek style. (Okay not that far...but movies at home in theater level/immersion style will be here. Avatar part 10 will have dinosaurs flying through my living room)

Those are just two I’m expecting off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s way more. And you can never count out simplistic brilliance like the George Forman Grill....we’re overdue for an invention of that magnitude :)

Once again, cars, and now, saving piglets via audio detection.

This is a fun thought experiment. In my opinion the theme of the 2010’s tech is software changed the world. The democratization of x gets thrown around a lot but it seems apt here. Sure, in Singapore mobile tech was available in 2010, but in Iowa, where I live getting a taxi on demand still seems amazing. Some examples: My wife and I have Subaru we bought for $27k, hardly a luxury vehicle. But it comes with lane keep assist, variable cruise control, blind spot detector, and CarPlay. Sure, the sheet metal around my car doesn’t look different from a 2010 Forrester, but the experience is very different having autonomous features. I don’t know, maybe that’s more iteration than anything else but it blows my mind I can drive 100+ miles without ever touching the brakes or gas pedal. 

And being in Iowa, I’m seeing some incredible technology that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. There are drones to spray your field! Instead of paying for a plane to fly over your own field you can now get a drone to spray the exact part of your field that needs weed control. Or a company that puts microphones in pig pens to detect when a piglet is in distress and get the sow to standup, saving piglets that were previously crushed by the sow. 

Then the jump to engineered meat alternatives! And wind power! Iowa is a conservative State but something like 35% of Iowa’s generated electricity comes from wind with wind mills dotted all over the state. The adoption of these has changed the landscape of the land as you drive through our beautiful state. To sum it up, the change is there, we just don’t have the hoverboards we were promised.

And finally, an 1800 year perspective:

I really enjoyed this piece (although I really enjoy most of your pieces) because as an amateur economic historian I like to think about the nature and sources of innovation. Let’s play some thought experiments: If a resident of Londonium circa 200 AD was magically teleported 1500 years in the future to London how shocked would he be…Not very. Although a lot has changed the fabric of daily life is pretty similar. Mostly rural population, same basic levels of health (probably worse in the public health arena but the same issues of child mortality, infection, disease). And everything is still ultimately animal powered with some minor contributions from wind and water.

Lets roll that forward 200 years. WOW!!!! Density, rapid urbanization, railroads, steel mills, factories, maybe even a horseless carriage. An explosion of manufactured consumer goods. Clean water is back! And germ theory with the attendant plummeting of infection. Disease is still a killer though. Lets take him (aboard a steamship) across the Atlantic to have a look at some Steel framed buildings in an entire new continent (from Londonium) in New Amsterdam.

My Grandmother was born in 1902…in the Ukraine…under the Czar. She lived to see a man walk on the Moon and flew in a jumbo jet. From her birthday to mine (1965, the day Johnson ordered ground troops into Vietnam) saw the rise of the automobile, It spans the gap from Kitty Hawk to Apollo. It largely catches electrification and the completion of urbanization in developed world. In 1900 over 50% of Americans lived on a farm, today 3% do. Even in the 30s many households lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Real starvation. And lets not even begin to sing the praises of Vaccination and Penicillin

But in my lifetime…yeah cable and the internet is cool. Amazon is easy. But is that on the same life altering scale as electricity, the Interstate and the 707? I like email but the phone was almost as good, even with a rotary dial. I suspect getting a phone in the first place was a bigger breakthrough. TV seems a more radical step in mass media culture than Youtube and the Gram. None of it quite measures up to clean water and antibiotics.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the pace of change has been slowing for a while and seems to be continuing to slow. A lot of what occurred in this decade has been trying adapt our existing systems to the breakthroughs of the last half of the 20th century. Stuff has gotten better/cheaper/faster more widely distributed. But it does not feel so radically different in the way that I think the proceeding period felt.


Here’s to a wonderful 2020 to all our readers, and if you’ve been enjoying these newsletters (in descending order of ‘meaningfulness’):

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