Monthly Archives: March 2007

For Whom Do Colleges Exist?

Seth Roberts poses a fantastic question:

I had never heard it put so clearly. We can ask if governments exist: 1. To improve the lives of the governed. 2. To employ the governors. 3. To help other governments. Similarly, we can ask if colleges exist: 1. To teach the students. 2. To employ the teachers. 3. To help businesses who will eventually employ the students (the signalling function of college).

Suppose we believe that the main function of colleges is to teach the students. How, then, should we improve colleges? By giving mini-grants to teachers (as is done at UC Berkeley, where I teach)? By giving awards to the best teachers (as is done at UC Berkeley)? Or by doing something quite different?

Reminds me of the provocative book What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?.

The Biggest Secret Knowledge in Business

Is the stuff that ought to work, but doesn’t.

So says GMU economist Arnold Kling in this interesting TCS Daily article. Kling hits on something I think a lot about which is how common and repetitive the “best practices” of business are. It’s hard to find original insights, even if the insights come after years of research. Perhaps it’s because people focus on too much on success cases instead of failures:

Articulating what works, even for someone as successful as Charles Koch, can have surprisingly little value. Taken out of context, what works will seem obvious. What readers need to know is the larger context, especially what ought to work, but doesn’t.

(hat tip: Jeff Nolan)

Quotes of the Day from Around the Web

“Take no pride in your confession that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-awareness of your flaws… [W]e should not gloat over how self-aware we are for confessing them; the occasion for rejoicing is when we have a little less to confess.” – Eliezer Yudkowsky

“For us Germans, the Americans are either too fat or too obsessed with exercise, too prudish or too pornographic, too religious or too nihilistic. In terms of history and foreign policy, the Americans have either been too isolationist or too imperialistic.” – Claus Christian Malzahn, another take on the silliness of anti-Americanism.

“Principle #4: Feed and Starve. All good writing conveys necessary information while simultaneously feeding a hunger for more information.” – From Barry Eisler’s excellent 10 advisements on writing.

“I like meditation, but I worry that buying into a full-on ethos of meditative mindfulness can turn you into a passive milquetoast with no creative edge.” – Will Wilkinson

“There are three types of books in this world: those that make you want to befriend the author, those that make you want to slap the author, and those that make you want to fuck the author.” – Julia Allison in opening her book review of Mergers & Acquisitions. I wonder what kind of author I will be? Hopefully the first, maybe the third, depending.

Gavin Newsom Fo’ Shizzle My Nizzle

Our beloved San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom recently demonstrated a strong grasp of ebonics. In this hilarious YouTube video, Gavin joins Hillary Clinton in "talking black" in front of African-American audiences. Hat tip to SFist.

And for those wondering about the title of my post, I can only refer to Urban Dictionary:

"fo shizzle ma nizzle" is a bastardization of "fo’ sheezy mah neezy" which is a bastardization of "for sure mah nigga" which is a bastdardization of "I concur with you whole heartedly my African American brother"

Bush Humor Monologue at Radio and TV Correspondent’s Dinner

President Bush delivered a 5 minute humor monologue last night at the Radio and TV Correspondent’s dinner, as is the tradition for the standing president. It’s hilarious. He begins:

“Well …where should I start. A year ago my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn, and my vice president had shot someone.”

It has special resonance for me since a few years ago I read Clinton & Me by President Clinton’s humor speechwriter, Mark Katz, who described in detail how he crafts the jokes the president delivers.

Here’s an analysis of the monologue at Humor Power.

Road Trip USA: Seeing America from the Car

Roadtrip_graphicGreetings from Monticello, Utah, where I am spending the night after logging 500 miles on Day 1 of my USA Road Trip.

The "road trip" is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and my first day fit all the stereotypes: beautiful open highway surrounded (in Utah at least) by red, majestic canyons; trucks dominating the roads; side-of-the-road burger joints; and "We Belong Together" by Mariah Carey blasting from the speakers.

Without even knowing it, on day one I seemed to have ticked off a number of essential road trip experiences: piss on the side of a lonely highway, accidentally look a trucker in the eye in a local diner and fear for my life — those haunted, tired eyes somehow spit fear, and miss a turnoff and therefore wait 20 miles until the next exit.

Throughout my trip I reserve the right, as always, to make broadsweeping generalizations about entire pockets of America based on small details such as the local cafe’s menu.

I’ll be on the road — or on a plane — for the next 45 days before returning to San Francisco in May.

See you on the highway!

Design Puzzles – Why Do Outdoor Coffee Tables Have Four Legs?

Prof. Steven Postrel has a good post over at Organization and Markets about why some entrepreneurial opportunities go unsatisfied. His example is why outdoor coffee tables have four legs instead of three, when it’s “obvious” that three legs would make the table rock less. He concludes with the following design puzzles, which reminded me of the book Why Not?.

“Pick a horse” checkout lines (e.g. in supermarkets), instead of standing in a common queue and getting the next available clerk.

Multi-piece towel racks, where the bar can slip out of the mounting brackets if they loosen up and flex a bit over time, instead of single-piece racks where the bar is permanently attached to the brackets.

Standard spring-loaded paper napkin dispensers, which invite overloading to the extent that the first five or six draws produce only shreds, and which are occasionally loaded with the napkins oriented so that there is nothing to grab onto. Alternatives include the vertical one-at-a-time dispenser recently deployed at some McDonald’s.

Auto-numbering in Microsoft Word, which behaves like a peevish poltergeist, randomly changing number and letter headings, creating and destroying tabs, etc., instead of almost any other numbering utility I can imagine.

Medical bills and insurance forms, which go out of their way to obscure what was charged, what was allowed to be charged, what was paid, what you owe, etc., instead of almost any other reasonable design.

Mustard packets, which for some reason are much harder to tear open cleanly (the tear tends to go too deep) than ketchup packets.

CD jewel boxes, which are hard to open, expensive to make, and fragile, instead of cardboard sleeves sealed in plastic wrap.

(Hat tip: Virginia Postrel)

Tips of the Trade for Various Occupations

The Morning News has a great page with tips of the trade for a variety of occupations. Helpful rules of thumb. Favorites excerpted below.

Every actor eventually is called upon to act drunk. Most do this by slurring their speech, stumbling around, and perhaps drooling a bit. This is what a freshman drama teacher calls “indicating.” A better way to appear drunk is to act very, very sober. Walk very carefully, and try not to let anyone see that you’re inebriated. This is much more subtle and will register on a level the audience won’t immediately recognize.

Do whatever it takes to fit your contracts onto a single page: Format with single-spacing, use a 10- or 9-point font, and reduce the margins to less than an inch. Most people assume any contract that fits on one page will be simple and straightforward, and even sophisticated negotiators can be charmed by the lack of a staple.

When you’re twisting balloons for children, never tell them what you’re making. The majority of the finished products—despite your best attempts—almost always look like a dog, a blastula, or something vaguely phallic. If you identify what you’re actually attempting to make, the children will respond to your finished product with, “That doesn’t look like a [insert animal name]…” But if you make the animals and then ask, “What does it look like to you?” the child’s imagination will take over, turning the blue, four-legged balloon into Blue from Blue’s Clues, the blastula into a Pokemon, and the phallic object into an elephant.

Mapmakers will often use “copyright traps,” bits of information in their maps that are purposefully wrong. They might label a body of water “Lake Strongbad,” for instance, and then examine the next editions of competitors’ maps to see if the incorrect information makes an appearance.

Desktop Support
When desktop support technicians resolve a ticket, they are usually required to document the cause and solution to the problem. Supervisors see these records, so you have to be professional, but can usually get away with using the acronym “PEBKAC” in situations where the user caused the initial problem. PEBKAC stands for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.”

Never walk behind another person in the woods, because yellow jackets build their nests underground. The first person in line will disturb the nest when they walk over it, but it’s the poor suckers trailing behind who catch the wrath of the stirred-up bees. You can generally tell the more experienced forester in the group because he’ll be the one in the lead.

Graphic Designer
If you have a client who is unable to approve a proposed design without putting her stamp on it, just put an obvious error in the proposal: a logo that’s too large, a font that’s too small, or a few judiciously seeded typos. The client requests the change and feels she’s done her part—and your design, which was perfect all along, sails through to approval.

With any routine under seven minutes (which is almost all of them), you only really need one thing: a good closer. And there are only two things you really need to know about a great closer. First, it needs to be impressive. That sounds obvious, but most beginning jugglers think “difficult” and “impressive” are synonymous. Your closer must look hard, but there’s no real reason it has to be hard. Secondly, you should intentionally blow your closer on the first two tries. If you get it on the first try it looks too easy, but if you “miss” it a few times it looks harder and builds tension.

When paramedics arrive at a car crash or similar accident, they very, very rarely announce any casualties at the scene—almost all deceased will be pronounced “dead on arrival” at the hospital. This is because it involves about 10 times more paperwork to announce someone dead right in situ than it does to say they expired in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Technical Support
When helping someone fix their computer over the phone, and you want them to see if all the cables are plugged in correctly, don’t ask, “Have you checked to see if the cable is plugged in?” because the customer will always say, “Of course I did, do you think I’m a moron?” Instead say, “Remove the cable, blow the dust out of the connector, and plug it back in.” The customer will most likely reply, “Hey, it’s working now—I guess that dust really builds up in there!”

When you realize you have forgotten to submit an order to the kitchen, go to the table and mournfully say, “Did you just hear that crash?” Nine times out of 10, the customers not only will say “yes,” but actually will believe they just heard a noise of some sort. You can then sigh sadly, and say, “Unfortunately, that was the chef dropping your food,” and then scurry back to the kitchen to hand in the neglected order.

(hat tip: Ramit Sethi)

Upgrading My IT Infrastructure

Over the past few weeks I’ve undergone a serious upgrade in my IT infrastructure, thanks in large part to the wizardry of Ross Carlson. Always good to do some spring cleaning.

Domains: All my domain names and DNS hosting now reside at GoDaddy.

Mobile Device: It was time to put the trusty BlackBerry 7750 aside. I’m now using a T-Mobile Dash as my SmartPhone. So far I’d give the Dash a 6 out of 10. Windows Mobile 5 is pretty slick and integrates fine with Mac OS X via The Missing Sync. If you get a Dash, be sure to spend $25 and buy a “shield” for it to prevent scratches.

Porting my phone number from Earthlink/Verizon to T-Mobile took a lot of work — after several days of fighting clueless Indian call center reps from Earthlink, I started filing a lawsuit against Earthlink in California Small Claims Court. Amazingly, they woke up, ported my number, and refunded nearly $1,000.

Handsfree Headset: Since I’ll be driving so much next month, I got a Bluetooth wireless headset. With voice commands I can dial into my address book without touching the phone.

Email Server: This is the most substantial. I’m now off my POP3 accounts and on a Microsoft Exchange server. Pushing my data to the sky makes sync much easier. My Dash, webmail, and desktop email are all synced with Exchange. If you use POP3 now, I highly recommend asking around to see if you can get on Exchange — especially if you tote a mobile.

Spam: Spam is no longer part of my reality. Up until this point, I received a few hundred spam messages a day. I used a local spam client to manage this, but this still meant my mobile device and webmail would be inundated. Enter Postini. With Postini laying on-top of the Exchange server, spam is gone. Toast. See ya later.

Email Processing: This is a process issue. I keep my emails. Most people don’t. I like having an archive. I finally got around to archiving my messages since toting 25k+ emails and 30k+ sent items in Entourage was slowing me down. On a going forward basis I will be much more judicious about keeping emails. Most quick messages I will delete. I hope I don’t regret this.

Next up? Consolidating my web hosting onto one Linux box.

Your Favorite Quote from a Recent Book

A New York Times blog is soliciting your favorite quotes from a recent book. Below are some of my favorites from the page. The first one below isn’t on the page but should be. I will submit it — hat tip to my Mom for sending to me (love you Mom!).

"Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor.  And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go someday.  It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire.  It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills.  It is where you go to grow up with the country.  It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go." 

-Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

“You gave your life to become the person you are right now. Was it worth it?”

– One by Richard Bach.

-"What’s it like to be Asian?"
-"What’s it like to be Jewish?"
-"I’m not really a practicing Jew. I sometimes eat pork."
-"I’m not really a practicing Asian. I sometimes use a fork."

Still Angry Little Girls by Lela Lee

"People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another level of yourself to you, and then they leave. And thank God for it."

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

"Scattered among them were a handful of soldiers sprawled on their backs as if sleep was a car that had hit them dead on, their necks twisted sideways, their mouths wrenched open, their rifles resting in their open hands like ripe fruit.”

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine a future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”

This Boy’s Life By Tobias Wolff