Monthly Archives: September 2005

Parents Against Bad Schools: Complaints About Books

From October 2005 Harpers Magazine:

From the "Sample book review documentation form" supplied by the Fairfax, Virginia activist group Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, for use by parents when registering a complaint in a school library:

1. Does the book contain any sexual content? Indicate level of vividness, using the following as a gen’l guide:
    Basic – large breasts
    Graphic – large, voluptuous, bouncing breasts
    Very graphic – larage, voluptuous, bouncing breats with hard nipples
    Extremely graphic – larage, voluptuous, bouncing breats with hard nipples convered with glistening sweat and bite marks

2. Does the book contain any violent content? Indicate level of vividness:
    Basic – cut off his head
    Graphic – cut off his head, blood gushed onto floor
    Very graphic – cut off his head, blood gushed onto floor, splattered on wall, and head bounced on the floor
    Extremely graphic – cut off his head, blood gushed onto floor, splattered on wall, and head bounced on the floor, and his brains slowly oozed out onto the carpet in a purple gray mass

Rethinking the Social Responsibility of Business

Link: Reason: Rethinking the Social Responsibility of Business: A Reason debate featuring Milton Friedman, Whole Foods’ John Mackey, and Cypress Semiconductor’s T.J. Rodgers.

This is a thought provoking back and forth between the Whole Foods CEO, Milton Friedman, and the Cypress Semiconductor CEO. It’s long so print it out if you’re interested in corporate philanthropy; is maximizing profits the means or the end itself?

Book Review: The Bhagavad-Gita

It’s been a hectic and exhausting week, but I finally finished The Bhagavad-Gita: Song of God, the primary Hinduism gospel. After studying Hinduism for the past few weeks I can say that there are a number of things that resonate with me: the yoga of knowledge, the importance of spiritual strength and tranquility, and its tolerance for other religions (they all lead to God). Hinduism’s approach to God is interesting – instead of thinking about it as abstract, they think about it as the "noblest reality they encounter in the natural world." The most troubling part of the faith is the caste system, which is cementing India as a class society one can never escape. The Gita has inspired millions, but for the casual Western reader, there is another, better book for an introduction to Asian religions. I will review that later.

Friends of Ben: Valerie Cunningham

Network: Ben Casnocha > SF Chronicle Article W/ Me > Always-On Innovation Summit > BizWorld > Valerie Cunningham

Google: Valerie Cunningham

I have to keep reminding myself to keep up the Friends of Ben series…And yesterday I had a good reminder at the Churchill Club event Leadership Defined.

Valerie used to be at BizWorld – she was the one who originally roped me in there – and then she did some independent PR work as HighWire Consulting and now she’s teaming up with Tony Perkins and Marc Canter (among others, like my friend, neighbor, and uber-Valley networker/investor Carl Wescott) in launching the GoingOn Network.

Valerie was kind enough to sit in yesterday on a lunch discussion that I was advertised as being involved in (it turned out to be quite the odd arrangement) and offer moral support. She correctly remarked afterwards, "That turned into a ‘let’s grill Ben on what he did when he was 2 years old’ session!"

In any case, Valerie is one of the most high-energy people I’ve met. Always ready to laugh, her personality is large and friendly. She’s a good reminder that energy is infectious and that a single person can change the dynamics of a whole room or conversation in a positive way. I’m also grateful to Valerie for taking me the first time to Bucks of Woodside so I could see myself on the menu (after the AO panel) and meet Jamis.

If you want a more interactive intro to GoingOn, check out this video interview JD Lasica did with Valerie (which I know she’s really proud of).

Why Can't Conferences That Stress Innovation, Innovate Themselves?

This is the great irony of entrepreneurial conferences that talk about innovation and creativity: the conferences themselves are anything but. The big reason is the obsession to have panels. Panels with a moderator and "experts" has been the modus operandi for years and years for any kind of conference. I’ve seen tons of panels and been on panels and I’m convinced that if there’s one way to ensure boring the audience and thus reducing their cognitive intake it’s by having a panel. This is one of those things where I haven’t yet come up with the winning formula, so leave a comment if you have any ideas.

Related Post: Casnocha’s Laws of Productive Confabs

Cognitive Science's Search for a Common Morality

There’s a super interesting article in the Boston Review about cognitive science’s search for a common morality. It discusses the moral sense test (which I blogged about in April), first, and reveals that the results show there is no way to generalize on gender, race, etc. for how someone would resolve a moral dillema. Then it talks about any genetic/cognitive factors that may teach babies "right" and "wrong" as early as age one. Finally it discusses the hot topic of brain imaging – pictures that show which part of your brain lights up when you think about things.

Overall, a very stimulating piece. Below is an example of a moral dilemma. Read the article for more.

Mike is supposed to be the best man at a friend’s wedding in Maine this afternoon. He is carrying the wedding rings with him in New Hampshire, where he has been                staying on business. One bus a day goes directly to the coast. Mike is on his way to the bus station with 15 minutes to spare when he realizes that his wallet has been stolen, and with it his bus tickets, his credit cards, and all his forms of ID.

At the bus station Mike tries to persuade the officials, and then a couple of fellow travelers, to lend him the money to buy a new ticket, but no one will do it. He’s a stranger, and it’s a significant sum. With five minutes to go before the bus’s departure, he is sitting on a bench trying desperately to think of a plan. Just then, a well-dressed man gets up for a walk, leaving his jacket, with a bus ticket to Maine in the pocket, lying unattended on the bench. In a flash, Mike realizes that the only way he will make it to the wedding on time is if he takes that ticket. The man is clearly well off and could easily buy himself another one.

Should Mike take the ticket?

Book Review: The Geography of Thought

Everyone in business is talking about China (and India, Russia, Brazil, etc). I’ve been generally underwhelmed with the commentary on how an entrepreneur should think about the rise of China. That’s why I liked Geography of Thought so much – it’s all about how Asians and Westerners think differently. There are, as this book proves, fundamental differences in the thought process between Asians and Westerners and this difference is the foundation for all the cultural disconnects between the two cultures.

The book starts by comparing Aristotle and Confucius. Confucianism is the basis for the current Asian emphasis on relationships and obligations. Greek philosophy emphasized objects to be evaluated discretely. Next it looks at why Asians focus on context and Westerners do not. There’s an interesting interlude about language – in English we add "ness" to the end of a word to describe something whereas Asians have a different and specific word for a range of emotions, colors, and so forth. Then, it discusses the Eastern emphasis on dialectical thought, which emphasizes rising above a dispute to find a greater truth whereas Westerners like to simply obliterate a contradiction. On and on and on.

The ramifications of such divergences in thought processes are important in international relations, business, and personal relationships with Asians. For example, Westerners think about contracts (both a social contract w/ the government and a business agreement) as discrete and final. Easterners see contracts in a more holistic light. If there’s a flaw in this book it is it could have been done in 150 pages, not 200, so be prepared to skim some parts. But read it nonetheless.

Vote for the Top Intellectuals

Prospect Magazine is asking readers to vote for five folks out of their list of the top 100 intellectuals in the world. I recognized probably two dozen of the names, so mostly voted on familiarity. Go give Lessig, Posner, Rorty, Singer, and others some love.

The Blank Slate and Other Myths About How the Mind Works

Link: Reason: Biology vs. the Blank Slate: Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker deconstructs the great myths about how the mind works.

This was a fascinating interview that appeared in Reason magazine a few years ago. It’s great balancing what people link Pinker are saying in the evolutionary psychology field with what I’m learning about Freudian psyschology. Pinker talks about morality, about free will, Hobbes, and other great stuff. Go read the whole thing. Below are excerpts:

The blank slate [myth] is the doctrine that the mind has no unique structure and that its entire organization comes from the environment via socialization and learning. The blank slate mentality is popular with people who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions. It’s popular in the more radical branches of feminism, although not with the original core of feminism that stressed the drive for equity between the sexes. I think it allies to some degree with Marxist approaches to society. Not that Marx literally believed in a blank slate, but he certainly believed that you could not intelligently discuss human nature separate from its ever-changing interaction with the social environment.

The doctrine of the noble savage is that people have no evil impulses, that all malice is a product of social institutions. The noble savage myth is behind the sensibility that violence is learned behavior, a slogan that is repeated endlessly whenever violence is chronicled in the news. It’s also behind the Romantic idea that violent nonconformists are actually seeing the hypocrisy of society and challenging social institutions from a marginalized viewpoint, as opposed to the idea that such people are psychopaths and that we should prevent them from wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can’t be reduced to a function of the brain. The ghost in the machine [idea] lies behind the religious and cultural right — literally in the case of people who want to couch the stem cell debate in terms of when ensoulment occurs…

Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life — every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory — can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation. Not computation the way your IBM PC does computation, but computation nonetheless — a kind of fuzzy analog to parallel computation. So intelligence, which formerly seemed miraculous — something that mere matter could not possibly accomplish or explain — can now be understood as a kind of computation process.

I don’t really know where the moral sense is located in the brain because, in a sense, it encompasses a number of the different faculties. Morality encompasses a mentality of autonomy and interchangeability of interests. It is also tied to notions of purity and defilement and to notions of conformity to community norms. If you could take any person and tap his or her moral intuitions, you would get this melange of sentiments, not all of which coincide with morality as it would be understood by a moral philosopher.

People, for example, tend to equate morality with high rank. We see that in the language: words like noble, which are ambiguous, [meaning both] high ranking and morally exalted. We see it in celebrity worship: People think that Princess Diana and John Kennedy Jr. were highly moral people, but they were pretty average. People tend to blur good looks with morality. You can give them a bunch of photographs and ask them to judge how nice they think the people are. The better-looking people are judged as being nicer.

All that is to say that the psychology of morality is multifaceted. There is no one answer to where morality is in the brain. Recent research has been looking at the part of the brain called the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex, pretty much the part of the brain that sits above the eyeballs. When that is damaged by early brain injury, you grow up with what looks like defective conscience, an inability to empathize, an inability to think through conflict resolution. But I suspect that it’s a complex system involving a number of parts of the brain….

An extreme authoritarian Marxist would sacrifice all freedom to the goal of the equality of outcome. Perhaps an extreme libertarian position would sacrifice any kind of equality of outcome in favor of equality of opportunity. If those are the terms of the debate, science can’t tell us what’s the optimum point along that tradeoff.

Now, the moral principle regarding equality is simply that people not be prejudged on the basis of certain group averages, the averages of the groups to which they belong. That is, you should not discriminate against someone based on gender or ethnicity. That doesn’t say that all races and all ethnic groups and all genders are indistinguishable, although they may be. It says that you don’t even have to worry about that; you should treat individuals as individuals.

Ben's Golden Touch

"Anything gold, Ben touches."

Corollary: Surround yourself with people who have the true golden touch. Hire above yourself.

The first part is blatantly ripped off Guy’s Golden Touch and the second corollary is my own.