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Eugene Marinelli and Quinn Slack

We don't know much about Eugene Marinelli and Quinn Slack, or their new startup, Blend Labs.

But we have heard this much: It has just raised $2.5 million from Facebook investor Peter Thiel and venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, according to a source.

It makes total sense, given that Slack and Marinelli are both former software engineers at Palantir, a secretive Thiel-backed company which processes massive amounts of data for corporate clients and government agencies.

We couldn't find an SEC filing showing the investment, though there are ways for companies that want to stay stealthy to avoid such filings (by, for example, filing with state regulators).

From what we can see, Marinelli and Slack are interested in the following hot areas:

  • Big data. They just gave a presentation at Stanford about using technologies like Hadoop, HBase, and Scala to handle huge quantities of information. Or as they put it, "you have a ton of data, need to handle a lot of users, and want to perform heavy computation over the data."
  • The social graph. They posted code to GitHub, an open software repository, for "Facebook social data modeling." And their Stanford presentation shows an example of handling data about individuals including email addresses and groups they belong to.
  • Mobile platforms. Slack has contributed some code to the Play 2.0 platform, which is used for mobile applications.

Okay, so that doesn't give us many clues to what Blend Labs is doing. But big-data applications for social and mobile platforms seems like it hits just about every investing buzzword.

Andreessen Horowitz, Slack, and Marinelli did not respond to emailed inquiries about the investment.

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Peter Thiel

Through notes from Peter Thiel's CS183: Startup class at Stanford University, we have a unique window into the mind of the venture capitalist and hedge fund manager. He's fascinated with human nature, and integrates what he learned from his former career as a chess master into his lectures. 

Chess is a contained universe: there are only 32 pieces on the board and 64 squares those pieces can occupy. But starting up a company takes much more than raw intellectual ability; it requires what Thiel calls "The Mechanics of Mafia," or the understanding of complex human dynamics. Linking the two worlds is Thiel's passion. Here are some of the chess concepts he highlighted in his class, thanks to notes from one of his former students, Blake Masters

Know the relative value of your pieces: 

In chess, the queen is the most valuable piece on the board. In the standard valuation system, it is given a 9, whereas the rook (5), bishop (3), knight (3), and pawn (1) are lower. In his lecture Value Systems, Thiel mentions Guy Kawasaki’s equation on how to assess the value of a company based on the types of people you have:

Pre-money valuation = ($1M x Number of Engineers) – ($500k x Number of MBAs).

So engineers are more valuable pieces than MBAs.

From his lecture If You Build It, Will They Come? Thiel points out that within any group, there is a wide range of talent. This goes for engineering as much as it goes for sales. “Engineering is transparent … It is fairly easy to evaluate how good someone is. Are they a good coder? An ubercoder? Things are different with sales. Sales isn’t very transparent at all. We are tempted to lump all salespeople in with vacuum cleaner salesmen, but really there is a whole set of gradations. There are amateurs, mediocrities, experts, masters, and even grandmasters.”

“But if you don’t believe that sales grandmasters exist, you haven’t met Elon [Musk]. He managed to get $500m in government grants for building rockets, which is SpaceX, and also for building electric cars, which is done by his other company, Tesla.”

The take-away lesson: Just like with chess pieces, people are not of equal value when it comes to your organization. You must be able to accurately assess their value. And within any field there are amateurs, mediocrities, experts, masters, and grandmasters.

Know how your pieces work best together: 

In his lecture The Mechanics of Mafia Thiel discusses two personality types: “nerds” and “athletes.”  “Engineers and STEM people tend to be highly intelligent, good at problem solving, and naturally non zero-sum. Athletes tend to be highly-motivated fighters; you only win if the other guy loses.” A company made up of only athletes will be biased toward competing. A company made up of only nerds will ignore the situations where you have to fight. “So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes.”

The take-away lesson: You need some athletes to protect your nerds when it’s time to fight.

Know the phases of the game and have a plan:

In chess, there are three phases: the opening, the middle game and the end game.

From his lecture Value Systems Thiel notes: “People often talk about ‘first mover advantage.’ But focusing on that may be problematic; you might move first then fade away. The danger there is that you simply aren’t around to succeed, even if you do end up creating value. More important than being the first mover is the last mover. You have to be durable. In this one particular at least, business is like chess.  Grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca put it very well: to succeed ‘you must study the endgame before anything else.’”

From his lecture War and Peace: “A good intermediate lesson in chess is that even a bad plan is better than no plan at all. Having no plan is chaotic. And yet people default to no plan.”

Take away lesson: Moving first isn’t always an advantage. Think about poker. If you’re the last to bet, you have the most information. The endgame is where the most decisive moves are made. Study it and make sure you’re around at the right time to make your move. Have a plan.

Talent matters; there is more to success than luck: 

In chess, talent clearly matters. In business and life, both talent and luck matter.

From his lecture You Are Not A Lottery Ticket, Thiel said that “when we know that someone successful is skilled, we tend to discount that or not talk about it. There’s always a large role for luck. No one is allowed to show how he actually controlled everything.”

In his lecture If You Build It, Will They Come? Thiel explained that "since the best people tend to make the best companies, the founders or one or two key senior people at any multimillion-dollar company should probably spend between 25 percent and 33 percent of their time identifying and attracting talent.”

Take away lesson: Some people hold more value and control more resources than you realize. Invest your time in finding those talented people for your organization.

Chess is a brutal mental game. So is life. Make your moves carefully. 

According to chess grandmaster Danny King's interview with 60 Minutes, “Chess is a really brutal game. I think because it’s so contained. It’s all going on in the head. And if you lose to your opponent, you feel stupid. You can call someone all the names under the sun, but if you call someone stupid, that’s the worst thing you can say to another human being. And that’s a bit what it feels like when you lose a game of chess. It’s all intellectual.”

Take away lesson: In the words of King: “You can’t take your moves back. Once you play your move you could be stepping into some horrible trap.”

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on TwitterFacebook, or G+. Read my Psychology Today blog Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative here.

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Locus Magazine has announced the winners of its annual Locus Award poll, a popular choice award for science fiction and fantasy. As always, it's a great guide to some of the best genre material from the preceding year. Here's the top novel lists, with links to some of my reviews:


Science Fiction Novel

* Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
* 11/22/63, Stephen King (Scribner; Hodder & Stoughton as 11.22.63)
* Embassytown, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
* Rule 34, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK)
* The Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge (Tor)

Fantasy Novel

* A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
* Snuff, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)
* The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss (DAW; Gollancz)
* Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente (Tor)
* Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)

2012 Locus Award Finalists

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From "A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity" (by Poh, M.Z., Swenson, N.C., Picard, R.W. in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol.57, no.5), a chart showing a single student's electrodermal activity over the course of a week. Note the neural flatlining during classtime. As Joi Ito notes, "Note that the activity is higher during sleep than during class." He also adds, "Obviously, this is just one student and doesn't necessarily generalize."

A week of a student's electrodermal activity

(Thanks, Joi!)

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Udacity

Using Khan Academy as inspiration, Sebastian Thrun decided to bring his Stanford class on artificial intelligence online. Anyone could sign up for free. And 160,000 people from around the world did. He saw the power of creating interactive lectures and distributing them for free. He left Stanford and launched Udacity, a company focused on bringing free university-level education to the world.

In the interview above, Sebastian Thrun, Co-Founder of Udacity, talks about how he will help students improve their careers, whether or not the goal is to replace traditional universities, how the classes are different from iTunes U style taped lectures, and why some of his Stanford students preferred to watch him online.

Sebastian used to think that becoming a Stanford professor was the pinnacle of achievement for a computer science teacher. Then he discovered Khan Academy was reaching millions of students. Suddenly, his popular lectures drawing upwards of 200 students didn’t seem so impressive.

Classes are currently focused on computer science since that’s what the team already knows how to teach. Examples include: Building a Search Engine and Programming a Robotic Car. As one of the inventors of Google’s self-driving car, Sebastian is perfectly suited to teach a class on how to program one. Udacity plans to expand to other subjects with the goal of building a full university online.

All classes are currently free, and the goal is to keep it that way. When asked how it will make money, Sebastian pointed out that recruiting good technical talent is something that companies pay for. Udacity knows who the best students are and could pass them along to companies looking for new hires.

The classes are different than watching a recorded lecture that you’d find on iTunes or MIT OpenCourseWare. Classes are interactive and stop to quiz you on what you’re learning. And one of the benefits is that you go at your own pace, unlike a traditional lecture.

Of course, there are drawbacks to teaching a class to hundreds of thousands of people online. It’s more difficult to form connections with other students in the class. And the one-on-one attention from a professor is practically non-existent. Udacity has been using Google Moderator to let students submit questions, but the experience is very different.

Udacity is aimed at bringing education to everybody, especially those who can’t afford it or are too busy working to attend classes. Since the classes are free, you’re getting an amazing value. But, someone with the time and money would probably still want to attend a traditional school (or accredited online program) to get a degree. If Udacity were to develop a worthwhile accreditation system, that could change.

With free courses in programming and web application engineering (taught by Steve Huffman, founder of Hipmunk and Reddit), you now have one less excuse not to pursue that startup idea that’s been bouncing around in your head.

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mikejuk writes "Online Computer Science classes that have attracted tens of thousands of students have been put back for a couple of weeks. Is this on account of Sebastian Thrun's resignation from Stanford? Whatever the reason, providing certificates for online students seems to be a real point of contention. James Plummer, dean of Stanford's School of Engineering, said 'I think it will actually be a long time, maybe never, when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wishes to register for the courses.' The good news is that the delay means that there is still time to sign up."



Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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