Not Everyone Has a Grandma Flora

4 Generations: My Grandmother, My Mother, My Wife, My Daughter

Four Generations: My Mother, My Wife, My Daughter, My Grandmother

My grandmother, Flora, might be the reason I ended up the CEO of Wealthfront. When I was a teenager and first became interested in investing, she walked me through everything. CDs, Mutual Funds, Stocks, Bonds. She not only explained the basics to me, but walked me through the details of how to research different mutual funds, find their expense ratios, and ask the right questions about their performance. I opened my very first mutual fund account with her help.

You see, my grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, does this tirelessly for a lot of people. If a family member has questions about their finances and investments, she is always happy to make time to sit down, review their accounts, and help them figure out where they are paying too much in fees and whether they are diversified properly. At one point or another, she has probably sat down with at least a dozen different family members and friends, with carefully organized manila folders filled with statements, and helped explain the problems with their accounts.  Her dedication to financial education is probably one of the sources of my passion for the topic.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a Grandma Flora. But thanks to the hard work of the Wealthfront team, I am proud to announce that, as of today, the Wealthfront Portfolio Review is now available.


I’m proud of the Wealthfront team for this launch, but I’m hoping my Grandma is too.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

On Thursday evening, my maternal grandfather, Douglas Churnin, passed away surrounded by his wife, his four children, his closest friend and his oldest grandson.

Family Man

My grandfather met my grandmother in a surprisingly familiar story. At 15, his mother asked a neighbor if their daughter, aged 13, could help tutor their son in French and Math. Smitten with his tutor, five years later they were married. Sixty nine years later, they had four children, seventeen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Work with your hands

Douglas Churnin was always a man who worked with his hands. Though educated at NYU, he was always more comfortable and confident with any project or activity that involved working with physical material. Generous and selfless, his favorite expression was to respond to a request with “no problem”.

He was a big man, with old fashioned strength. Interestingly, he would never admit to being six feet tall. He would always insist he was just “five eleven and three quarters”.

When I think of my grandfather, and all of the projects he helped me with over the years, I can’t help but reflect on the parables and expressions that were his favorites:

  • Measure twice, cut once
  • With the right tools, any job is easy

I ended up being an engineer myself, and although I spend the dominant share of my time working with ethereal, virtual software, those who know me know that I find incredible comfort in working on projects in the physical world. It’s one of the reasons I make far too many trips to Home Depot, and why I’m always eager to not just read about how things work, but actually take the time to build them.

Measure twice, cut once

They say it’s impossible to really know your parents as people, and thus imagine the difficulty trying to really understand the life of someone born two generations before yourself. But while I may have only had the opportunity to really know a sliver of my grandfather’s life, I find myself shaped significantly by him.

When I’m rushing through designs and organizations in the incredibly fast paced technology world, it’s useful to remember that some changes can’t be undone. For those, you should truly measure twice and cut once.

When I’m struggling with a problem, based on some sort of ridiculous, MacGuyver-inspired, “fix it with paperclips and bubblegum” solution, it’s worth remembering that investing in the right tools can make any job easy.

When I’m thinking about how I want to live my life, it’s worth remembering that Douglas Churnin married the woman he loved, built a life together for sixty nine years, and passed away surrounded by the large, vibrant family he helped build.

It’s wonderful to know that it can and does happen, even in 2012.

The Combinatorics of Family Chaos

For those of you who read this blog regularly, you’ve likely noticed a lull in my posting.  That’s because, about two weeks ago, my wife & I welcomed a new addition to the family.  Given that the most common response to our decision to add a fourth child to the family has largely been “borderline insanity”, I felt it was appropriate to share some of my thinking on the complexity that comes with every new addition.

The Wrong Model: Linear

When a couple decides to have a second child, you are quickly inundated with advice on how to manage the complexity.  The most common refrain you hear is: “Don’t worry, you can still field man-on-man coverage.”  Another popular version of this advice is: “At least you’re not outnumbered.”

The implication here is that managing the family is fundamentally a relationship between parents & kids, like this:

Parental Ratio = # of Parents / # of Kids

With the implication that somehow, as long as the parental ratio is greater than or equal to one, you’ll be able to manage.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that this description of complexity dramatically understates the drama of real family life.

The Right Model: Combinatorics

Instead 0f focusing specifically on the number and types of nodes in the family graph, I think it’s more useful to think about the nature of emotional entanglements (aka “drama”) and understand that they tend to require at least two people, but can easily involve more.  As a result, the complexity of family life can be more accurately modeled as the number of two-party relationships in a family that can engage in drama.

Initially, a couple has exactly one potential pair:

  • Adult 1 <-> Adult 2

However, once you add a single child to the mix, you immediately add two more vectors of potential drama:

  • Adult 1 <-> Child 1
  • Adult 2 <-> Child 1

It’s worth noting that it’s sometimes unclear whether a three-party argument is truly a single argument or actually a combination of two or three two-party arguments, but let’s just roll with the simplified assumption for now that all drama can be decomposed to pair-based drama.

Pascal’s Triangle actually makes calculating this number for any size family trivial.  This means that:

  • Two family members (0 kids): 1 drama pair
  • Three family members (1 kids): 3 drama pairs
  • Four family members (2 kids): 6 drama pairs
  • Five family members (3 kids): 10 drama pairs
  • Six family members (4 kids): 15 drama pairs

It’s combinatoric, specifically in the form of:

family complexity  = # of family members  choose 2

Which is a fancy way of saying each new child adds a new relationship to the mix for every existing family member.  This sequence is also known as the triangular numbers.

For those of you who have or come from large families, let me know if this lightweight graph theory matches your experience.

Julia Elizabeth Nash

Julia Elizabeth Nash
Born 10.0 lbs, 21 inches
Single handedly increased Nash family complexity by 50%

Goodbye, Newton

Today, we had to say goodbye to a very special member of our family, Newton Nash.

On December 2, 2002, I came home to find my wife waiting for me in the parking lot of our apartment complex.  I was immediately whisked away to pick up a surprise gift, a new beagle puppy.  There were a few puppies left in the litter, but I chose the one who peed when he saw us.  He was about eight weeks old at the time.

We picked a beagle because we lived in a small apartment at the time, but didn’t want to get a “toy” dog.  At the time, Star Trek Enterprise was still on TV, and I had asked Carolyn what type of dog Captain Archer had.  After meeting a few beagles at the local Starbucks, we were sold.

Newton was named based on an arcane naming convention matching three criteria: had to be a scientist, had to be an apple product or codename, had to end in “N” to go with Nash.

Newton was the first addition to our little family, which eventually added a second beagle (“Darwin”), and three children.  He was a 13″ beagle who grew up to be nearly 17″ at the shoulder.  He didn’t have a huge tolerance for party tricks, but could sit, stay, lie down, roll over and on a good day, do a military crawl.  Despite a somewhat extreme fondness for licking ears, he was incredibly gentle and playful with friends and strangers alike.

We knew our time with him was short, but didn’t realize it would be this short.  He will be missed.  I’ve posted a selection of photos from the last nine years below.  Many thanks to Eric Cheng, who took a few of the best shots over the years on his regular visits to suburban madness.

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The Ultrasound Tells the Tale

Funny thing happened to me over the weekend.

My immediate family (parents, siblings, etc) were visiting to see the new baby, Jordan.  My mom is holding the baby in the yard, sitting under the plum tree.


All of a sudden, it hits me.  I’ve seen that picture before.

Sure enough, I whip out my iPhone (yes, I have a lot of photos on my iPhone), and quickly flip to the photo.  It’s the ultrasound from January (when the baby was about 20 weeks along. I loved seeing my baby inside me so much that I bought a womb music heartbeat monitor for myself and maybe to lend out to a future mama!

2009.01.09 Baby 3 Scan 5

Kind of amazing.  I remember remarking back in January about that little sharp nose.

Jordan: My First Twitter Baby

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or who received an email), this blog post is about old news.  But I thought I’d share here, for posterity, the fact that last Wednesday, my wife & I were blessed with the birth of our third son, Jordan Gabriel.  He weighed 9 lbs. 1 oz., and was 21 inches long.


While we’re still adapting to life with three kids in the house, I thought I’d note the tech milestone as well.  When my first son was born, we had a birth blog to commemorate the event.  That was less than five years ago.  Clearly in just that short time we’ve moved on to newer modes of obsessive documentation.

I guess that answers the question on whether Twitter competes and/or substitutes for blogging.

In any case, welcome to the world Jordan.  Our first Twitter baby.  (In fact, one of my colleagues at LinkedIn was kind enough to reserve @jordannash for him…)

Jordan Tweet

Holiday Gripe: Family Picture Digital Camera Paparazzi

Since it’s just a few days before New Years, I thought I’d share my absolute, number one pet peeve from this year (and every year’s) big family party: the family picture digital camera paparazzi.

No, my family isn’t so famous that actual Paparazzi stake out my grandmother’s house and hound the streets and yard for photos.  In my family, we are our own paparazzi.

You see, every year, we have a huge family party, and there is a distinct moment in the party where everyone gathers to take photos.  This family.  That family.  The cousins.  The aunts & uncles.  The kids.  The grandkids.  Etc.  It’s a complex form of set theory.

In any case, instead of there being just one camera (a good one) with a photographer, everyone has to have the shot taken “with their camera”.  Sometimes, you get 10 cameras taking the picture at once, with everyone in the shot looking in a different direction, like some sort of carnival funhouse picture.  Other times, one person has several cameras dangling, saying, “OK, now with this one!”

Ridiculous.  At first, it was just annoying.  Then it became upseting.  Now, I just get pissed off.

You see, digital cameras should have solved this problem.  But they didn’t.

One camera.  Many shots.  Files can be shared for free.  Everyone can get their pictures.  There is absolutely no reason for multiple cameras to be used (especially when you have iPhone cameras without auto-focus competing with full digital SLRs).

Yet there they are, every year.  In fact, every year, it seems to get worse.

One theory is that most people don’t know how to download or get digital photos developed.   So they use their camera because they know how to get those pictures.  Problem is, in my family, I know for a fact that many of the people with cameras have never, ever successfully downloaded or developed their own pictures either.  But maybe it’s a safety net… they know that someday, they’ll figure it out.  And then they’ll have those pictures on their camera.

Historically, the only way to really get a picture was to have the negative.  You couldn’t count on someone else getting the role developed and sending you the shots you were in.  So that could explain why baby boomers express this behavior – it’s an anachronism.

But what explains my Gen Y cousins and siblings doing the same thing?  (Besides the obvious upside of irritating me, of course.)  My guess is that the current social assumption is that everyone has a camera, all the shots are terrible, but all are uploaded and shared.  In this worldview, not having “your photos” to share almost means you don’t have an opinion, a voice, something to contribute.   So, once again, everyone has their camera, even in situations like group still photos, where one camera is a much, much better solution.

I’m probably more irritated than most because, in general, as long as Eric isn’t around, I typically am the one that everyone depends on for “high quality” pictures from these events. And it’s sad to find out later that, because everyone was looking a different direction, there is no good picture of one of the families this year.

When I am not irritated, however, I do think about how, despite all these integrated photo editing and uploading services, we’ve still failed as an industry to really solve the photo sharing problem for families.  They are all too techie, all too hard to really use.  And that’s a piece of why, to this day, everyone insists on getting “one more with my camera!”

I’m thinking of banning any other cameras in 2009.  Too heavy handed?  How do other people solve this problem?

How LinkedIn Saved My Wedding Photos

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts that I originally wrote for the official LinkedIn corporate blog, but decided they were more appropriate for my personal blog.  The first was Should You Be Eating Your Own Dogfood?, about incorporating your own experience into user experience design.

This may not sound like a typical LinkedIn success story, but it’s an important one.  LinkedIn saved my wedding photos.

In all fairness, the great folks at ScanCafe actually saved my wedding photos.  I read about ScanCafe in a great piece in Money magazine earlier this year.  ScanCafe provides a service where you send them negatives, slides, or photographs, and they scan them and return them to you in digital form.  They even have very high end services, like photo restoration or professional-caliber TIFF file support for true enthusiasts like myself.

After reading about ScanCafe, I was intrigued.  Our lack of wedding photos is a tragic story, dating back seven years to a extremely poor choice of wedding photographer.  Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that my wife and I ended up thousands of dollars poorer, with no wedding album whatsoever.  However, as a ray of hope, we did eventually get the original negatives.

Scanning single-cut medium-format negatives is not for the faint of heart.  It can take 5-10 minutes per photo, and that’s without touch-up work.  We had 400 negatives.  ScanCafe seemed like our savior, with affordable rates and support for all sorts of negatives.  But could they be trusted with our only hope for wedding photos?  Our original negatives?

Fortunately, trust is exactly where LinkedIn shines.  I typed “ScanCafe” into the search box on, and was delighted to find out that an old colleague of mine actually works for the company.  I sent him a LinkedIn message, and within a week I had his assurances and help in submitting my order.

Last week, for the first time, ScanCafe posted the results on their online website for me to review.  It was truly an emotional moment.  Wonderful photos and memories captured and restored, and now, with digital images, the freedom to finally share and publish wedding albums.  As we speak, 81.4GB of high quality TIFF and JPG images are on their way to my house.

I don’t think I would have had the courage to send our precious negatives to anyone without a personal reference and assurance, and I never would have known I had such a close contact at the company without LinkedIn.


Father’s Day 2008

Another wonderful Father’s Day this year.  Simple pleasures.  We did manage to make it out to the mall for some updated photos of the family.  Here are some shots that capture a bit of Father’s Day 2008 for me.

Here is a particularly funny shot, that I didn’t even realize was funny until we saw the photos.  What can I say, it was a Zoolander moment…

Why Everyone In My Family Has Blue Eyes, Except Me

Today, I discovered “The Spitoon“, the blog from 23andMe, the company dedicated to personal genomics.   Really interesting material.  I found this article particularly eye-catching:

SNPwatch: One SNP Makes Your Brown Eyes Blue

I’m curious about this, of course, because while I have green eyes, my wife Carolyn & my two sons have blue eyes.  It seems that this isn’t even due to a single gene – it’s literally a single nucleotide pair.  From the article:

Three recently published papers (here, here, and here) report that a single SNP determines whether a person’s eyes will be blue; every blue-eyed person in the world has the same version. The findings also suggest that the blue-eyed version of the SNP can be traced back to a single ancestor that lived about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

It’s been known for a while that eye colors like green and hazel (deviations from the brown color found in the majority of people) can be explained by SNPs in a gene called OCA2. The protein made by this gene is involved in the production of melanin, a pigment found in the cells of the iris. This is the same pigment that gives your hair and skin their color. Darker eyes have more melanin than lighter colored eyes.

But none of the known variations in OCA2 could explain blue eyes. The new research seems to have solved the mystery. A SNP near OCA2, but not in it, determines whether a person will have blue eyes.

The SNP, rs12913832, is actually in a gene called HERC2. Scientists think that instead of affecting HERC2, the SNP controls how much protein will be made from the nearby OCA2 gene. Low levels of OCA2 protein, caused by the G version of the SNP, lead to lower levels of melanin, which in turn leads to blue eyes. 23andMe customers can check their genotype at this SNP in the Genome Explorer or in the Gene Journal (Note: In the Gene Journal you’ll see other SNPs also associated with eye color. The combination of these SNPs with the blue-eyed version of rs12913832 can end up giving a person green eyes instead of blue).

What a great blog.  Sign me up for that feed.

As a side note, Michael Arrington has posted his account info from 23andMe on TechCrunch, so you can live vicariously through him in case you are short $1000.  I have to admit, seeing those results makes me jealous – I’d love that kind of genetic detail on myself & my family members.

Memories: Apple ATG Summer Picnic, 1997

Thursday night, Carolyn & I went out with a number of close friends to celebrate her birthday.  Eric Cheng brought a very nice little present for us – a snapshot from the Apple Advanced Technology Group (ATG) Summer Picnic in 1997.

This snapshot is now the earliest known couple photo Carolyn & I have.  Friday, August 22, 1997.  At this point, we had been dating all of 12 days.

This is also, I believe, the very last Apple ATG Picnic, since this is also the year that Steve returned to Apple and officially disbanded ATG.

So a little nostalgia on the blog tonight.  Big thanks to Eric for the great picture.

A Far-From-Anonymous Birthday

So, today is/was my birthday, and as usual I celebrated it with my close family.

What was interesting this year is that this may have been my first “Social Networking” birthday.

Normally, I’d expect to get 10-20 notes, email and cards, from the subset of close friends and family who decided to take the time to do something.  This year was different, however.  I think I got over 100 messages, at least.

While I’d love to say it’s because I’m getting more popular, I think that there is something else at work: the social networking effect.

Let’s say you have about 50 close friends.  If about 25% of them remember your birthday, then you get about 10-12 messages.

Social networking, however, has changed that.  Skype knows my birthday.  Geni knows my birthday.  Facebook knows my birthday.  Even InCircle knows my birthday! (LinkedIn does not know my birthday… yet.)

If these sites let people keep track of 100, 200, even 1000 friends, then even a 10% sampling from these groups can lead to over 100 messages.  What’s more, these sites and applications make it incredibly simple to send a note, post on a wall, etc.

The strange effect is this:  On the one hand, you get more messages than ever before.  On the other hand,  the notes from your really good friends are obscured somewhat by the avalanche of notes from more distant friends who now can more easily keep up on these things.

So, overall, I’m feeling pretty good today.  It was quite a few notes to go through, and my apologies to everyone if I didn’t respond to them all yet.  But there is a little part of me that misses the implicit intimacy of knowing who actually took extra time to remember my birthday, the old-fashioned way.

I guess that nostalgia is a sign that I am getting old.  🙂

The Writers’ Strike: Why We Fight

Since I got some attention with my last post, here is the YouTube video put out to explain why the Writers Guild of America is striking.

The argument in the video is largely predicated on what other artists get (authors, song writers), as well as the idea that there was an agreement to raise residual rates eventually in the 1980s agreement.  Mostly, it plays to the issue of “what is fair” by making the amounts sought by the writers as really trivial (always good to show little bars vs. big bars in these type of diagrams).

It’s really well done.