Monthly Archives: June 2006

Back Home — In Zurich

I’ve spent the past three nights in Zurich, Switzerland. It feels like home — I was here for three weeks last summer.

When I arrived at the Zurich train station I first had to withdraw Swiss Francs, since they’re too special to be on the Euro, and then sought out some flowers. I hadn’t seen my host brother, his sister, or his parents in a year. I had already given them some San Francisco gear last summer. I purchased a single rose for 6.50 francs. I have to say it felt more awkward just handing a rose as opposed to a bouquet, but it worked out since she put the rose in with some other plants in a pot on the dining room table.

The City of Zurich hasn’t changed a bit. Still beautiful, still distinct. All my Swiss friends haven’t changed at all either. Nor has the house I stayed in changed. In short: nothing has changed. This made for a good time. Only for these three days am I truly familiar with my surroundings, familiar with what makes the Swiss tick, knowledabe of all the public transit offerings. The rest of my journey is more fumbling.

During my first full day I woke up late, took advantage of my family’s blazing wi-fi, and feasted in the morning light pouring through the French windows. Then I headed downtown and re-traced a route I did often last summer. I bought the Financial Times — which has really impressed me the past couple weeks — and settled in on a bench in a park near the main train station where I had taken German lessons. Soon the sun turned to clouds and clouds turned to showers. Caught without my umbrella, I started looking for shelter. None of the locals moved, however. I should have taken this as a sign: the showers cleared and sun and heat re-appeared within 15 minutes.

A lazy few hours in the park did the job for me. I hopped back on the tram, came home, rode the stationary bike, rowed, stretched, did crunches, showered, and spent another couple hours catching up on stuff online. Then dinner. I love meals here. My host’s mom is an excellent cook. She was out for the night, though, so simply prepared an excellent meal and I dined with my host Patrice, his sister Nadine, and his sister’s ex-boyfriend Massimo. We talked about all that’s happened in past year. We shared a common observation that we’ve all changed quite a bit, but at the same time we haven’t. I totally feel this dichotomy — in the past 12 months I think I’ve grown enormously and had many huge events take place, but I’m still "me." I listen to same type of music, my writing style is more or less the same, I dress the same. Interesting.

The following day I visited the school I attended last summer, had an excellent lunch with my Swiss teenage friends, and shared memories about times of yore. It was during these reminiscent moments when I realized memories rooted in people, not buildings, are immortal. We talked about what we’re doing after high school. The Swiss told me about their required military service, about their higher education choices, about their allegiance to Zurich over Switzerland.

Along the way, I caught a talk by Tyler Cowen. I wasn’t able to hook up with my Microsoft contacts nor a business friend of a friend, nor a school friend. Alas.

Here is me with my Swiss friend and then my host and my friend Massimo sporting their Haight Ashbury t-shirt and Barry Bonds jersey.
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Can Non-Engineers Run Software Companies?

That’s a question I haven’t seen discussed in blogland, even though it’s one many early stage companies grapple with.

I received an anonymous comment on my post Visit to Microsoft in Dublin:

are you one of those non-technical people who think they can manage a software company?

the idea of a non-programmer bossing around programmers is retarded and very common. you’re already spewing bullshit at the tender age of 18!

talk to me about adding closures to C# (do you know what a closure is?) or dynamic vs. strongly typed languages (do you know what that means?) for implementing web applications or something. don’t say "web 2.0 will be all about collaboration in the enterprise" or other meaningless garbage.

Putting aside his assertion that age 18 is tender — ah, what a lovely thought — he does bring up a legitimate point about non-programmers.

One ideal set-up in a start-up software company is to have a few technical guys and one straight shooting business guy. Some guys like Paul Graham like to say every start-up should be employed by "hackers" or "geeks" but I don’t share this view because I don’t think great functional software products is what makes a software company successful. Moreover, hackers tend to share a certain worldview (such as perfectionism, a deadly path for any start-up) which can shut out other perspectives.

The reason why I think there’s a legitimate role for the non-technical person at a software company is that evaluating the quality of the raw code (sort of what Anonymous Commenter is asking me to do) is not, I think, what dooms most software development projects. Communication and management seem royally important, since so much rides on managing and meeting expectations.

The non-engineer must have meaningful expertise and experience in his/her "shallow" area of technology, but doesn’t have to be able to write code. What does this mean?  He could have a reasonably detailed discussion about the application’s architecture and programming methodology. He neither would accept such programmer bullshit as "It will be done when it’s done" nor pull off such business-suit bullshit such as "Hey, add a feature that does X" without detailed specs. He could have conversations about collaboration among programmers, about source control, about deadlines and specs, about cost estimates. And when necessary, he could roll up my sleeves and get dirty (like I tried to do a few months ago when I built a PHP/mySQL simple web app that processed movies).

Likewise, for a technical person to have meaningful expertise in his shallow area, it would mean understanding that it’s not about the software, it’s about the customer problem. It’s not about perfection, it’s about "good enough." It would mean realizing that businesses make promises based on deadlines. Most important, it would mean the technical person could communicate effectively to his co-founders and to other programmers. Since so much of software development seems to be about managing and meeting expectations, the most motivated and effective programmers are often those who communicate the best.

So to answer the question. From my vantage point, non-engineers can indeed run software companies, assuming three things:

1. They have co-founders or colleagues who can assess the raw quality of the code.

2. They have meaningful expertise and experience in their "shallow" area — software development, managing engineers, specing projects, such that they can effectively bring to bear strong communication and management skills in this kind of environment.

3. The company is not selling its wares to programmers or any other highly technical market, in which case an all-coder lineup could work since coders are the customers.

What do you think?

Memories Rooted in People Are Immortal. Buildings Are Not.

It’s a common letdown.

Graduated students visit their old school and see new buildings, different classes, unfamiliar faces.

People visit the town they used to live in and discover that the stores they visited as a kid have gone out of business, the book store is no longer on the street it used to be on, and that friendly neighbor grew old and died.

Early founders of large companies no longer active in the day-to-day management make a triumphant visit to the company’s headquarters and find a completely different corporate culture, "unnecessary" bureaucracy, and so forth.

The point is that places change. Buildings are destroyed. Shit happens. Ultimately, the most lasting memories are those rooted in people.

When I arrived in Zurich a couple days ago, I found a city virtually unchanged from when I spent three weeks here last summer. But as I reconnected with my wonderful friends and "family" here, it struck me that the reason why I love Zurich is only partly because it’s a great city. Mostly it’s the people. Zurich, for me, will be the personalities I spent time with, not the City’s museums, parks, or physical contours.

I’ve been on the road for only two weeks and the places I’ve been are already starting to blur. But not the people I’ve met.

The best way, then, to rekindle old memories is to stay connected with the people who had those shared experiences. The process is more physic than physical. Memories rooted in people are immortal.

Tyler Cowen's Talk: Sponsoring of Culture in U.S. and Europe

Every day I am reminded of the role luck and randomness / serendipity play in my life.

Yesterday morning I was reading one of my top 10 blogs — Marginal Revolution, written by Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason — and saw that Tyler was in Zurich for a day to give a speech. I emailed him saying I was in Zurich, too, and asked where he was giving his talk. He responded a couple hours later and by 6 PM I was at a fancy Zurich hotel where he was to give a talk titled "Sponsoring of Culture in the U.S. and Europe: Empirical Findings and Normative Reflections." What an amazing coincidence!

Loyal blog readers know Cowen has influenced my thinking in significant ways, especially on the areas of globalization and in particular its cultural effects. His article in Slate prompted the lengthy debate on this blog about independent book stores. His book Creative Destruction informs my admittedly minority viewpoint that commercialism and trade produce richer and more varied cultural options. And of course he writes prolifically on his blog, in the New York Times, and in various journals, providing near daily thought food.

So, I was quite excited to meet Cowen in person. I did. We had a nice, brief chat beforehand, and I also met his wife.

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His talk, not surprisingly, engaged me all the way through. His remarks touched on the U.S. funding and attitude toward the arts, compared and contrasted the U.S. to Switzerland in this respect, and then posed some general questions applicable to Europe and to the world. My notes are below.

The American system of sustaining the arts involves three prongs:

1. Low subsidies — The government provides some $120 M in arts funding nationally. This is a tiny figure. It’s important, but not that important. U.S. citizens give way more to charity per capita than any other country, though. Extremely philanthropic.

2. Strong incentives to give — Our tax system doesn’t discriminate how we give our money away, making it attractive to donate to the arts b/c of tax breaks.

3. Indirect influences — A strong science policy. Cowen made a big deal about this: strongly supporting the sciences leads to much creative blooming. He cited the computer, internet, and airplane as three major scientific inventions which have had a direct and positive impact on the arts. Other indirect influences include American universities, which house thousands of museums and the like.

Cowen made an interesting point about young people. He said America empowers youth as influencers — college students sit around and listen to music, start fads, build web sites, etc. They may not be "working" per se, but they are contributing enormously to American popular culture. Indeed, most of our popular culture is created by young people, and this is the culture that is exported abroad. If a country cares about the influence of its culture abroad, they should ask how much power is given to youth. He noted that Latin America and Asia have huge youth populations, making it prime for a lot of cultural influence in this next generation.

In comparing Switzerland to the U.S., Cowen said Switzerland has had great success within its own borders in creating arguably the richest culture scene per capita of any country in the world. This is because of their emphasis on local funding and direction (at the canton or "state" level). However, Swiss culture has not been very successful in its export. Why is this? Is this important?

When debating the funding of the arts, Cowen thinks too much time is spent on the size of government subsidies, when really some of these indirect causes are perhaps more important. A few questions to add to the debate: Will the internet remain neutral? Will broadband become ubiquitous? Cowen believes this may be the single most important question when thinking about the future of a vibrant cultural arts scene. Another: How can philanthropy work better and be more effective? Tax incentives are not enough. Somehow we need to encourage more and smarter philanthropy.

Last Stop in Germany: Munich

I spent one day and one night in Munich. It’s a good city, though I liked Berlin and Dresden better.

Check out their Science and Technology museum, the largest of its sort in the world. Also don’t miss McFit, a gym in Munich which offers guests their first visit free. I had a headache going into the workout, and it all melted away two hours later. One interesting observation in the gym: I was the only person listening to an iPod in the entire gym (which was huge!). In America every person has some personal audio device. There, no one was listening to anything (well, I guess the main gym music, which was on pretty loud and playing good songs, but still).

Munich, like Zurich and Paris and probably other European cities, has a tourist gig with different kinds of animals donated by patrons (and ultimately sold for charity) that you can pose with. For Munich, it is lions. When I first started seeing them on every street corner I had a weird sense of deja vu. A minute of thought and I knew why I thought I’d "been here" before — I had seen the beautiful Amy Batchelor pose in a moment captured by The Lion of blogging. Amy — I may not be wearing lion-colored mittens, but at least I didn’t need an umbrella!
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Thanks Bow Tie Club

I have great difficulty completing certain basic tasks in life. Tying knots. Using a map. Pronouncing certain words (I had a speech therapist when I was younger). My Mom would also claim I have difficulty hitting the toilet during standing bathroom sessions, but on that I think my fellow men can agree that no woman will ever understand the complex physics involved.

In any event, tying ties has always been a challenge, but my unwavering dedication to the bow tie supercedes any inherent impediment. I just love bow ties. And now I love them even more. The Bow Tie Club just sent me a free bow tie after they saw me wearing one and linking to their site on my blog. Thanks Kirk and Bow Tie Club!

I guess this means I’ll need to Photoshop myself into an Armani suit and see what happens…

Comment of the Day: Where Are References to Non-Professional Emotional Events in My Life?

Steve Silberman of Wired left a poignant comment on my post Partitioning the Emotional Events in Your Life:

That’s all true in a professional sense, and is a valuable insight. But one notable thing about reading this blog is that, for documenting the internal and external process of a passionate 18-year-old guy, there are remarkably few references to emotional events that don’t somehow involve work, your career trajectory, and other practical matters. It’s a little too easy I think for people to see that and say, “Well, thank God! Ben is not one of those kids who waste their days mooning about failed or potential romances. It’s a sign of his advanced maturity.”

Maybe you should also be thinking about discovering and cultivating the emotions that you are capable of with others, as you also develop the ability to strictly “partition” these feelings?

I am blessed to have Steve in my life, not only for his intelligence but because he tells it as he sees it and frequently challenges meon points (which I love much more than simple agreement!).Steve is extremely empathetic and projects a high level of emotional intelligence, a capacity I’ve repeatedly argued more important than mere IQ. I’ve found it impossible to be dishonest with Steve — not that I’m dishonest with others, but I have this sense that he sees right through me, can anticipate what I’m about to say, and if I don’t say what I’m truly thinking, will continue to dig. He is, after all, a journalist for a reason! I say this for two reasons. First, it’s because I think Steve identified something spot-on, not unusual for him and me. Second, it’s because I think Steve is projecting how he deals with these topics in life (and how he would if he were blogging) — openly and honestly.

I think I write so prolifically about professional stuff – if you count things like effectiveness or general intellectual banter as “professional” – because I think I’ve figured a bunch of things out in this domain. And I can share them and refine them. On the personal level, I still have many questions. I have never fallen in love, felt intense grief or sadness, or even figured out the rules and regs of physical attraction. These aren’t things I want to blog about – yet. (Side note: I rarely think about personal and professional as split — work and fun are usually the same for me!)

I concede that discovering and cultivating emotions of the heart-tugging sort is not something I’ve done a lot of in my brief time on this planet. Intellectual camaraderie has been the primary driver in my relationships (as well as humor – I love funny people). No, I don’t spend all day every day engaged in serious discourse about worldy things. God no. To the contrary, I tend to enjoy carefree moments with friends, relish the interpersonal rapport I have with them, and take a serious interest in their lives and the emotional ups and downs we experience together. I have close personal relationships. But the spirited pursuit of ideas and intellectual growth is my overarching consumption right now, and I’m loving every second of it.

But, you say, these are not mutually exclusive ideas: Ben, why can’t you be equally committed to intellectual life and to emotional life, such as a romance, crying with a friend, and so forth? Get a girlfriend for Christ’s sake! Well, I still have a ways to go in terms of personal growth. Give me some time! But mainly, I’m really really happy and excited about life right now. I do subscribe to the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway” but I also know that adolescence is a crazy, psychotic period in people’s lives, and I’m not terribly interested in changing a formula that’s worked well so far.

I’m not convinced, by the way, that the more stereotypical teenage routine of sitting around and “waste[ing] their days mooning about failed or potential romances” is particularly useful if the goal is developing and cultivating deep emotions.  I know teens who do this and I’m not sure they’re any farther along on the “emotional development” continuum than me. More, so much of “failed or potential romance” is cheap shit, not the real stuff, at least from my vantage point. Romance, in most teenage culture, is analogous to TV dinners. See: fuck buddies.

I should also note that this is a blog. It is a personal blog, far more personal than most, but it is still a blog. Thus it’s not the totality of me, it’s simply the me I choose to write about. Which is most of it.

Finally, I have posted a little on these topics. “Ben Is Insensitive and Like a Machine” or I’m Going to Break Ben’s Shell or How Do Hyperambitious Workaholics Get In Touch With Their Sensual Side. I’ve posted on sadness being the most underrated human emotion. I’ve posted on never having felt deep sadness or grief (a double edged blessing).

Thanks Steve for bringing this up!

Days 10 and 11: Dresden, Germany

Dresden is a city in Germany most known for being pummeled near the end of WWII by British and American warplanes, but as I experienced over the past two days, they’ve done a remarkable job rebuilding the city from scratch. Though their tourism industry is growing, Dresden is still somewhat off the beaten path, providing the freshest look at true German culture and everyday life for me so far.

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You visit Dresden to soak up the amazing architecture. It glimmers with old style charm while still being newly built, thus making it nicely devoid of any decay typical of old buildings. It is a bit odd to think about building new buildings in an old style. See my post on cultural authenticity for more on this.

There are four bridges which span across a river which runs through the city. Walking over the bridge with the sun beating down on all the buildings has proven to be one of the prettiest moments of the trip.

My Mom did a day trip to Meissen (home of the factory which produces the china by the same name) which she really enjoyed. It’s a 2 hour boat ride with plenty of bike trails to boot. I spent the second day at a conference, exercising, catching up on some work, and thinking about globalization.

A couple days in Dresden is well worth the train jaunt from Berlin.

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Cultural Authenticity: Moroccan Cuisine and New Old Buildings

My position on the beauty of cultural globalization hinges on a difficult word: authenticity. Some critics think any kind of synthetic culture is not authentic, not real. I have two interesting real world examples from my recent travel which illustrate the complexity of this part of the argument.

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This is a restaurant in Dublin, Ireland which boasts "authentic Moroccan cuisine." What exactly makes it authentic? Do they have Moroccan chefs? Does it taste as good as it does in Morocco? Since I’m not familiar with Moroccan cuisine, I will use another food I’m more familiar with: sushi. I’m fairly confident I could find sushi at the best sushi bar in San Francisco that’s as good as most sushi in Japan. Is my sushi less authentic? Another example. At Denver Airport a few months ago I bought Chinese food served by Arab immigrants staffing the restaurant. The Chinese food was as good as your basic Chinese food you’d find in any average restaurant. Does the fact that the food was served in an airport by non-Chinese workers mean anything?

In Dresden, Germany they have spent hundreds of millions of euros rebuilding all that was destroyed in WWII. They are rebuilding in the "old" style of the early 20th century. So the building may be built in 2006, but to someone who wasn’t aware of the reconstruction effort, you could easily guess from its architecture that it was built in 1920. Is this "new oldness" as authentic as the building in the next own over that actually was built in 1920 but looks identical to the Dresden building?

How the Response to the Italy vs. U.S. Soccer Game Explains Some European/U.S. Differences

After the U.S. tied Italy in the World Cup in a bloody match that left several players with red cards (kicked out) and various injuries, the commentary fell in one of two camps: a) the Americans displayed heart and valor in the surprising effort or b) “The U.S. team makes its own publicity true and turns the game into war” in an effort that shamed the country and the sport. Roger Cohen, who writes the “Globalist” column in the International Herald Tribune, had a great analysis a few days ago (TimesSelect) about how the two reactions speak to the differences in European and American vernacular and values. He writes, “Europe lives in a post-heroic and post-militaristic culture” whereas “Wars, warriors, blood, and military bases: such images, and locations, are the stuff of everyday American life.” Indeed, the American players were housed at Ramsein Air Base prior to the match and striker Eddie Johnson said the American team is “here for a war” while the goalie Kasey Keller said the nine men left standing in the game “bled today for our country and our team.”

From advertising to the metaphors of high-school sports coaches, the message of life as a battle inseparable from valor, individual heroism, sacrifice, grand dreams and allegiance to the Stars and Stripes is often insistent. In Europe, of course, the vernacular is a very different one. It is, in general, that of a continent that saw too many of its own cut down in the 20th century to see in military heroism anything but a destructive illusion. For Europe, peace is a core value; Americans see the world another way.

Hmm. He doesn’t say “Americans see it the opposite” — which I think is accurate delicacy. It’s not as if peace isn’t a core value for America, it’s one of a few. Cohen continues,

In this age where America cannot go anywhere without stirring controversy, it was inevitable that a football game would stir some more. And the arguments have led me to ponder whether I would rather live in a heroic or post-heroic culture, whether I prefer guileless enthusiasm or sophisticated cynicism. The American quest for heros can easily turn tacky. Hero itself is an overused word…But the instinct behind the tackiness should not be scorned. Europe does scorn very well. It is a reactive power, and what it principally reacts to is the United States. Being the chief protagonist of history is more difficult; you ahve to put yourself forward and you are going to conspicuous mistakes. But I prefer the risk-taking culture that is ready to commit those errors in the name of big ideas to the one that derides the mistakes.

Naturally, Cohen concludes he thought the Italy-America game had an “elemental magnificence.” I didn’t see the game, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the analogy, but I do I think some of the cultural contrasts work. What do you think?