Monthly Archives: June 2010

World Cup USA vs. England

At the British Ambassador's residence in Santiago. Quite a crew came out, including local TV cameras. Here's the US Ambassador with British Ambassador:

29966_134172229932800_100000200713929_368964_5395024_n

Singing the national anthem:

29966_134172269932796_100000200713929_368969_5587719_n

Shanghai: 1990 vs. 2010

Shanghai-china
Shanghai-china2010

Wow.

As Tyler Cowen once said, if you're not thinking about China at least once per day, something is wrong with you.

Age Matters to Multitasking and Information Diets

Tyler Cowen continues the discussion about internet information culture and multitasking:

Do law partners and top investment bankers multitask?

Yes.

I won't quite write "end of story" but…

Of course top CEOs don't multitask all the time, they multitask selectively, combined with periods of extreme focus.  Still, I would say that multitasking is passing the market test… It's one thing to think that a seventeen-year-old teenager will multitask too much; it's another thing to make the same claim about an extremely valuable executive, surrounded by assistants, time management specialists, and so on. [BC: Emphasis mine.]

It's true that virtually every high-performing CEO I know multitasks. To the extent they are as effective as ever, and I think they are, who's to tell them to stop multitasking?

The harder question is about the 17 year-old. Arguably, the over-30 CEO has developed a "foundation" of focus — by that I mean he has experience from pre-internet pre-iPhone life of not multitasking as much and thus he knows when to turn off the background noise and do the extreme focus Tyler mentions. The 17 year-old, by contrast, has no such experiences. Multitasking is all he's ever known and all he's ever doing even as he is "immersed in a developmental stage where impulse control is dangerously weak and the brain is at a peak of malleability." Will he be able to do extreme focus when he must?

A different but related issue is about information consumption in the age of the web. Some of the most successful consumers and producers of intellectual bits on the Internet — guys like Tyler and Andrew Sullivan — spent 30-plus years pre-Internet reading long books and establishing the foundation of knowledge upon which their bits sit. Me? I've grown up on the web. I haven't read all the Great Books. My model is more a mix of books and bits. I do believe the bits will cohere in the long-run into a kind of foundational knowledge of the sort Tyler got from books, but perhaps the books/bits ratio for me should be different than his at this stage.

A Personal Letter from Steve Martin

A letter of reply Steve Martin sent to a fan in the early 80's, written on his production company's letterhead. Click to enlarge.

4666137264_1b9aa8b64d_b

Ha! It's hard to go wrong with self-deprecating humor when you are the higher status person in an interaction and both parties know it. Here's the source, and I thank J.Y. for the pointer.

What Happened in California Yesterday

Totally depressing.

Meg Whitman doesn't vote for 28 years straight, spends $71 million dollars, and wins the Republican gubernatorial primary. In the U.S. Senate Republican primary, Carly Fiorina trails Tom Campbell, who I strongly supported, and so in the final weeks writes herself another $2 million check, floods the State with TV ads, and lands Sarah Palin's endorsement who robo-calls voters. Almost immediately, she takes a 14 point lead to the finish line.

In the Democratic Senate race, Barbara Boxer easily beat Mickey Kaus. No surprise there, but the fact that Kaus garnered nearly 100,000 votes on the platform "I'm a Democrat who will not be a whore to unions and will not let them bankrupt our State as they have been doing" is itself a depressing indictment of the Democratic mainstream.

There are other reasons to find a tall building and jump. The grotesque amount of personal wealth involved. The fact that Sarah Palin, a Great American Embarrassment, has sway with so many voters and remains such a fixture on the GOP stage. The fiscal recklessness of San Francisco voters who easily approved yet more bond packages for school facilities despite zero evidence from the last 20 years that the city government is at all capable of managing money.

There's more. There's Fiorina mocking global warming by calling it "the weather"; there's the New Yorker profile of Tom Campbell that spent several paragraphs on whether Campbell way back when voted against taking aid money from the neediest in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and re-appropriating it as economic aid to Israel as was proposed, and whether that means AIPAC hates him forever; there's Steve Poizner's lockstep convictions that the way to solve California's fiscal problems is to lower taxes, lower taxes, lower taxes, because we all know that lowering taxes increases revenue!!!

There's politics for you.

###

"So Ben, seriously, why do you vote? You know your vote doesn't change the outcome of the election, right? Voting is irrational," asks the economics undergraduate. Why yes, I respond, my single vote won't decide the election, but studies show that when I vote it increases the likelihood my friends and family vote, and they will likely vote the way I do because people imitate the other people they know. It's magnified in my case because of The Blog and The Twitter. When I say, "I'm voting for John Doe," many thousands of other people may vote for John Doe as a result. And dozens or hundreds or thousands of additional votes — the chances that that decides an election go way up.

Disintermediation in Education: The Kahn Edition

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great piece on a self-appointed teacher who runs a one-man "academy" on YouTube: "The most popular educator on YouTube does not have a Ph.D. He has never taught at a college or university. And he delivers all of his lectures from a bedroom closet."

Salman Kahn has recorded 1,400 10-minute lectures on a range of topics. Over 16 million people have watched his videos.

The Khan Academy explicitly challenges many of higher-education's most sacred assumptions: that professional academics make the best teachers; that hourlong lectures are the best way to relate material; and that in-person teaching is better than videos. Mr. Khan argues that his little lectures disprove all of that.

The Kahn Academy has become so popular that it has attracted the attention of folks like John Doer, who donated $100,000 to Kahn's venture to allow him work at it full-time.

What I love about the story is it shows the impending / in-progress revolution in education on both the production and consumption side. A smart, motivated man wants to use technology to present knowledge in a new way. Done. Millions of people around the world are hungry for knowledge and want it in a form and style that works for them. Done. No middlemen.

Now, how to credential those who have acquired such knowledge? This remains a huge barrier to new education efforts. (Speaking of credentials, how crazy is it that colleges do both the educating of students and the evaluating/credentialing?!)

Thanks to Hunter Walk for the pointer.

What the Net is Doing to Our Brains

The conversation is back with the release of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I haven’t read it yet but you can get the gist by perusing the reviews, following Carr’s blog, or reading RSSted Development where I briefly contrast Carr and Cowen. To see some back-and-forth on what the studies actually say about technology and distractability, read the comments section of Jonah Lehrer’s post.

I continue to try to figure out how I can improve my ability to concentrate, and I worry about how the internet is adversely affecting that mission. In the end I fall into the pro-internet camp, if such a crude distinction can even be made, but I do not think this is mutually exclusive with whole-hearted support of the broader conversation Carr has ignited or this Alain de Botton quip:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is how we can relearn to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything.

Recent steps I’ve taken to improve my ability to concentrate: a) track my time more rigorously, b) use self-control to block access to twitter, facebook, and other time sink sites; c) turn off email for hours at a time, d) don’t use mobile email, e) wear Bose headsets to block out noise and to remind myself I’m supposed to be working.

###

  • Speaking of books I haven’t read yet, The Authenticity Hoax sounds interesting.
  • Here’s a clip showing what not to do if you’re a PR person faced with an inquisitive reporter via SF’s Laguna Honda hospital.
  • AEI crunches the numbers on how much money U.S. airline consumers would save if Open Skies were global.
  • Colin Marshall asks how much human energy is wasted on personal relationship re-engineering (aka therapy).

Cool, Calm, and Collected

I don't watch TV but I do watch a good number of videos online, and there's plenty of fascinating stuff out there on bloggingheads.tv, Charlie Rose interviews, The Big Think, fora.tv, and more. I study interviews in particular to view how people at the top of their game carry themselves when they are not in complete control of a conversation.

Recently I watched two videos in which I noticed one person present him/herself in a more polished manner than the other. Both of the more impressive-seeming people stayed cool, calm, and collected throughout the conversation. Sounds basic, but during emotionally tense or argumentative situations, it really is a talent.

First, a 20-minute interview between Noam Chomsky and a TV journalist. Whether you agree or disagree isn't the point and don't interpret this as an endorsement of Chomsky's views. I don't have opinions on these issues until I become more informed. What does matter is how coolly and calmly Chomsky disputes the interviewer's assumptions. The interviewer's early aggressive tone morphs into a stilted, panicked one. Chomsky is relaxed the whole time and occasionally firmly raises his voice but only when it's necessary. Instead of responding to sharp-toned questions with sharp-toned answers, he stays leveled, and it comes off well on-camera.

Second, Jonah Goldberg and David Frum recently did a 65 minute bloggingheads.tv conversation. It is pretty inside baseball to the cause David Frum has taken up about the the state of conservatism, but again, the actual issues aren't the point. There is an interesting contrast in manner and demeanor between the two. Frum is the whole time impeccably polite, calm, and when he disagrees, very professional. Charming, even. Goldberg is no chump either when it comes to polish, but a few times begins his answer with an emotional yelp, bemused face, and "Well….". Frum asks several questions, Socratic-style. Backed into a wall on the definition of socialism, Goldberg stammers a "Look," too many times. "Look…", used rarely, bestows authority. Obama begins many sentences with it. But used too much it sounds overly defensive.

Finally, if you're ever looking for tips and tricks on the rhetoric front, just watch a Barack Obama press conference. The guy's a master, not that this is exactly news. In this most recent press conference — why I ended up watching half of it online is a mystery even to me — he deftly handles a probing question from a journalist with a laugh, smile, and a "Come on, Jackie, I don't know." Again: cool, calm, collected.

#

If you want an example of a talented rhetorical response that's not exactly cool, calm, and collected, but still extraordinary, watch this 50 second clip of Bill Clinton responding to a heckler in 1992 when he ran for president for the first time. Goosebumps.

La Serena and Valle de Elqui

Pisco
We spent Wednesday through Saturday the other week in La Serena and Valle de Elqui in the north of Chile. We were debating whether to rent a car, bus or fly to La Serena. We drove a rental car six hours and so glad we did — it's a beautiful coastal part of Highway 5 north, unlike in the south where the highway is inland. Plenty of rest stops along the way to deal with both the call of nature and the call of hunger. It felt like Highway 1 in California.

La Serena and its beaches are popular in the summer. In the winter, not as much, so tourists were sparse. Fortunately, the sun was out. We had the beach all to ourselves!

The town itself is nice and sleepy. There's a big mall that we frequented twice for the ice cream store and bathrooms and awesome American music they play on the speakers. There's an all-you-can-eat Peruvian buffet restaurant along the beach that was unbelievably tasty, authentic, and, of course, all-you-can-eat, so hard to go wrong.

After two nights in La Serena, we drove to Valle de Elqui, a more rural region most famous for being where pisco is grown / produced. Beautiful scenery. Mountains like those of Colorado, canyons like those of Arizona. The tourist thing to do in Vicuña is star-gazing but (for the second time now for me) it was canceled at night due to fog. Still a cute, small town to witness, with a very different vibe from Santiago.

Car

'Everyone talks about the south of Chile, but so far, I've enjoyed the north more.

The Chessmaster and the Computer

Gary Kasparov’s essay “The Chessmaster and the Computer” in the New York Review of Books is really excellent.

How has the rise of computers changed the game of chess? This is the focus but there are broader lessons. Here’s an excerpt relevant to my post a few days ago on technological change:

Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.

I am intrigued by the word “incrementalism.” VCs and other commentators sometimes criticize entrepreneurs for focusing on incremental improvements — a slightly better Facebook app, say — and not enough on revolutionary inventions. But aren’t most revolutions simply the last evolution in a long process?

#

I played a lot of chess as a kid. It is one of my fondest memories of childhood and I wish someday to take it up again. A few reflections:

1. Being good at chess is not a reflection of general intelligence, as Kasparov points out. Like the SAT, chess stresses certain capabilities — mostly ability to work hard and practice — but not the whole picture.

2. Of course the self-discipline to work hard and practice is itself noteworthy. Kasparov: “The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is a talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is a talent.” This is the best reason to encourage your kids to play chess!

3. There is one winner and one loser (barring a draw) in chess. In life you want to create win-win situations. Non-zero sum situations. This is the most glaring reason why chess strategy does not translate to life strategy completely. Although there are still many ideas that do transfer well.

4. Searching for Bobby Fischer ranks as one of my favorite movies of all-time. I recommend it. The most interesting life theme is whether you must hate your opponents, as Fischer did, to win.