Monthly Archives: December 2007

Ecuadorian Obsession with the Dead

Ecuadorian culture seems obsessed with the dead. There’s Dia De Los Muertes, a separate holiday. New Year’s, which is being celebrated outside as I write this, is all about burning dolls dressed as people in huge bondfires. The idea is you are burning the unpleasant things that happened to you in 2007. Below is a pic of one such doll, though instead of it being rugged and on a street corner or on a car bumper (both typical places), it’s nicely dressed with a mask, sitting in a chair in a restaurant.


Why oh why does this sign in Mindo start with English and end with Spanish?

Mindo, Ecuador

Assorted, unorganized musings

Mindo is 2.5 hours by bus from Quito. My brother and I went there for a two-day, one-night trip. Mindo is known for their cloud forests, butterfly population, waterfalls, and birdwatching (#1 birdwatching place in the world).

The bus ride was better than I expected — third world buses are always hit or miss. This bus was far better than the one I took from Shanghai to Suzhou; about equal to the one from Beijing airport to downtown Beijing.

Mindo itself is a quant lil’ town serving mostly tourists. Wild dogs roam the streets more than they do in Quito. Not nearly as much as in India, but enough to make you a bit uneasy. My brother and I referred to them as "rabies".

We found a hostel ($8/night/person) run by "Norma" — she amazingly spoke English, which was a surprise, and nicely outlined what there is to do. Her husband is an expert birdwatcher. By western standards, of course, the hostel was a piece of shit — little hot water, word floors that creaked all night, etc etc. But nothing beats next-to-nothing prices, a homemade desayuno the next morning, and a husband-and-wife team who talk to you in Spanish.

That afternoon, against the advice of Norma, we trekked out to the waterfalls. It was about 2 hours of hiking — mostly on a muddy road, then down into the forest / jungle area. Mindo had received rain for the past few days so we were sure it was going to pour at any moment. Luckily, it didn’t. The hike was grueling at times — sloshing through mud, climbing down rickety stairs, crossing three-board-wide bridges over fast-flowing rivers. We finally reached the waterfall area. Lots of people swimming around in the water and jumping off the cliff into the water.

We only rested there for 20 minutes or so before turning around and headed home. Rain seemed imminent and we weren’t well prepared to deal with it, so we hedged our bets and got an early start. The views during our hike to and from waterfalls were incredible — endless forest and brush.

Mindo is called "cloudforest" because the clouds hug the tops of the trees. Its elevation is lower than Quito but higher than the Amazon, so it creates an interesting atmospheric dynamic.

After dinner I read in the awesome hammocks on the deck outside our room — looking out into the forest and the small town below. Peoplewatching is always fun as well.

The following morning — after another disastrous night of sleep — we checked out the butterfly collection. Nice. Then back to town for lunch and the bus back to Quito.

Every interaction is an opportunity to deploy our Spanish language skills. We did so with varying success. Often, we’d remember a better phrase (or any phrase at all) after the fact. Either way, I know I’m very close to being fluent — if I spent 6-12 months immersed in the country, I’d experience quantum leaps in improvement. Hopefully.

Descriptions That Don’t Quite Work

It’s hard to physically describe someone in a way that’s vivid and interesting. Tired descriptions like "Tall, well-built, and blond hair" do nothing for the reader. Stephen King, in his essential guide On Writing, advises writers to pick a single distinctive physical trait, preferably one that in some way illuminates the character’s personality or message.

I always enjoy seeing how writers describe their subject and whether they listen to King. Atul Gawande, in his otherwise excellent article on how ICU doctors use checklists to reduce infections, describes one of his characters thusly:

Forty-two years old, with cropped light-brown hair, tenth-grader looks, and a fluttering, finchlike energy, he is an odd mixture of the nerdy and the messianic.

This doesn’t generate any kind of image in my mind. What are tenth-grader looks? What exactly is "fluttering, finchlike energy"? And when I try to call to mind a mix of nerdy and messianic, I come up blank. For me, the one sentence devoted to physically describing the guy fails to do the job.

By contrast, here’s Nick Paumgarten describing Eliot Spitzer:

Spitzer, who is forty-eight, has a prominent nose, chin, and forehead, a hard jawline, and deep-set eyes whose intensity can give the extremely mistaken impression that he wears eyeliner. When he smiles or gets angry, his jaw juts out, underbitishly. The vigor in his features and in his manner, and his lean frame, tend to inspire descriptions of a man tilting into the wind.

This does more for me. The eyeliner image is effective.

One of my favorite descriptions — I have many — is this David Foster Wallace line:

A slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.

Any favorites of yours?

Day 1, Quito, Ecuador

Random musings from day 1:

  • The popular route to Quito from the US is via Houston. Houston is really halfway to South America. SO much Spanish speaking.
  • Quito is a nice city — various signs of third worldness, but also some surpringsly cleaned up and laid back sections. Not nearly as loud or dirty as Indian or Chinese cities.
  • Spanish – accent neutral – wonderful.
  • Almuerzo – you order almuerzo and they give you the special of the day. No menu.
  • Ecuador uses US Dollars as currency. This makes it so much easier to buy stuff. You know exactly how much you’re paying.
  • Living – my brother has an apartment here (he teaches English) and living in an apt in foreign city is much different than hostel /hotelling it. Obvious, I know, but it really is different, and I like it.
  • Indigenous women are interesting. Much darker skin, wear distinctive hats.
  • Quito as a city is really LONG. North/south. The Andes border the city on either side.

Marketplace Commentary on Gen Y

Yesterday my commentary for NPR’s “Marketplace” aired. It’s called You can’t generalize about Gen Y. You can listen it to here (click the Listen link), or the text of my piece is below. It’s an expansion of a blog post I did a couple months ago. (By the way, I’m in Quito, Ecuador now. Beautiful. Headed into the Amazon jungle soon – should be intense.)

If you listen to the hyperventilation of marketers, you’ll hear a lot about how elusive young’uns born between 1985 and 1995 are, and how this generation — “Gen Y” — will require marketers to rethink their entire playbook.

The consultancy Talent Smoothie, for example, promises unique Gen Y research and insight on their website. By asserting how different we “millenials” are, they tell marketers that understanding us is an undertaking which — guess what! — demands their consulting services.

Yes, Gen Y is different. We grew up online. We won’t get drafted for a war. But our most profound characteristic might be our weak collective consciousness. Our individual identity is stronger and more authentic than our social one.

From the Depression through Vietnam, people the same age grew up around shared experiences. And from these common experiences definable generations were born. People consumed the culture and products directed at their age group. Their social network consisted of whoever lived on their cul-de-sac. And if they needed world news, Walter Cronkite told them.

Thanks to the Internet and globalization, we uber-connected hipsters aren’t constrained by incidental factors the way our parents were. Sure, we might share a faint generational dialect with people our own age. But we’re finding that a common obsession is a better predictor for a meaningful bond between two people. A lot better than the year our parents happened to have unprotected sex.

You can develop obscure passions by joining virtual, ageless communities around your interests. Love Scottish lighthouses? I guarantee that there’s a community for you. Want to start a business selling indie music on MySpace? Nothing’s stopping you.

All this means that it’s harder than ever to generalize about generational behavior. There is no magic “millennial” dust (Facebook! Blogs! Emo!) that you can sprinkle on your marketing to make it appeal to today’s youth. If you want to sell us something, you’re going to have to find us. And then not treat us like aliens who parachuted to earth from the Planet Krypton.

What We Wish We’d Known in College

Keith Gessen of n+1 magazine spoke at Scripps / Claremont a few weeks ago. n+1 a relatively new literary journal and political magazine started by a bunch of 30-something intellectuals. Here’s A.O. Scott’s fantastic profile from awhile back of the editors and their venture.

They give freshmen in college a free copy of their pamphlet "What We Should Have Known," a transcript of eleven editors discussing what they wish they’d known in college, specifically about books. What books should they have read, what should they have read earlier, what should they have not read, etc. It’s interesting if a bit esoteric — I hadn’t heard of most of the philosophers and authors they talk about — but there are some good nuggets which I excerpt below.

On advice to an 18 year-old:

Caleb Crain: If I were speaking to an 18 year-old, I’d say, "Don’t worry. Don’t be precocious." But the flip side of that is, this is the only life you’ll get, and it won’t come again. So, I don’t think you should be precocious, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up for not having published a book at the age of 28, but I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.

On becoming an intellectual, in the postscript by Keith Gessen, love the last sentence:

I am certain that the most valuable parts of these talks lie beyond those debates. They are the moments when the panelists reveal their deep uncertainty — Meghan Falvey walking in a mist of abstraction on the way to her dorm from Phenomenology, Existentialism, and something else with a P — and how each of them has struggled to read and think their way out of that uncertainty. It turns out that in order to become an intellectual, you must first become a pseudo-intellectual. But to have the courage, in the meantime, of your uncertainty — to remain open to things, and serious about them — would be a pretty good way to go through college, and not just college.

One of the more surprising parts of the transcript was when most announced they shouldn’t have gone to college, the very place where they were exposed to most of the books they had been discussing:

Ilya Bernstein: I do have one regret. I regret having gone to college!

Rebecca Curtis: Me too!

Siddhartha Deb: I do too. I think it’s a waste.

Mark Grief: It would be much better if you were released into the world when you were 18, and instead you’re kept in this juvenile  detention for a further four years, in which you’re equipped with things which, frankly, you’d be able to understand much better later —

Ilya Bernstein: I would have done much more if I’d been out of college.

Mark Greif: And to have an entire nation of people going to college, right? That’s ridiculous.

Siddhartha Deb: I think we should go straight to work.

Ilya Bernstein: It was actually like a hiatus in my life. I did stuff before college and I did stuff after college, but what the hell did I do in college?

Benjamin Kunkel: It’s summer camp.

Ilya Bernstein: Four years of summer camp.

Mark Greif: It’s like being buried alive, or something, right?

Ilya Bernstein: But you enjoy it.

Mark Greif: Of course, but you come back from the dead, and you start the chronology over again…It’s life before and after Christ…before and after college. And it shouldn’t be like that.

On the definition of an essayist:

Mark Greif: Essayist! That’s interesting. You know, you go through life not really knowing who you are, and one day, somebody calls you an essayist. Out of all the pathetic categories that I read growing up, I knew there was no bigger joke than an essayist. Someone who couldn’t write something long enough to actually grab hold of anyone, someone without hte imagination to write fiction, someone without the romantic inspiration to write poetry, and someone who would never make any money to be published. I’m an essayist!

What Teachers Can Learn from Prof. Pitney

I took an Introduction to American Politics honors class with Professor John J. Pitney this past semester. He is a masterful teacher and this post will capture the lessons I drew on how to effectively engage a class. I hope it’s useful for other teachers reading this.

Be respected as an authority on the material: In any place where students are intellectually curious, they first want to be assured that you know your stuff. At most good high schools or colleges, it’s assumed teachers know the material. But effective teachers will provide background on how and why they know what they’re talking about. As students, we’re trained to be skeptical, so convince us.

Tell stories. This is a universal Good Thing for effective communicating, no less in formal teaching. His stories are all the more vivid since he was there (earlier in his career) — in D.C., in Albany, in the back room, wherever. 1) Make a statement, 2) Illustrate with a story, 3) Repeat.

Be weird and wacky. Pitney stomped and jumped all over the classroom. He did weird impersonations. He raised his voice, lowered his voice. He laughed. He showed odd videos. All this made him memorable. Weird is good.

Pitney_2 Get personal. He sent us a picture of him and his son over Halloween; he told us stories about family; he opened up. We relate to warm, human beings more than we do to cold, only-business PhDs.

Send email and write a blog – In short, communicate on grounds most comfortable to students, namely the internet. The primary out-of-class communication channel was email. The class had a blog to which we had to post.

Ask for feedback half-way into the semester. He requested anonymous feedback from students on how the course could be improved. It’s astonishing that teachers don’t take student feedback on teaching more seriously: by the time a student’s in college, he’s been exposed to dozens of teachers and varying styles. We have ideas. Consider them. Instead of waiting till the end of the semester, Pitney asked for it early on so he could incorporate the feedback while still teaching us.

Don’t listen to all the student feedback – have non-negotiables. He calls at students at random to answer questions. This makes students uncomfortable and people ask that he not do it, but he says, "I’m preparing you for the real world. People are going to call on you. People are going to make you uncomfortable." Or he obsesses about following Strunk and White writing style. People complain (I, for example, think he should note that minimalist writing is one kind of writing but not always the best). He doesn’t listen to us. He sticks to his principles.

Close each class with questions for next time. Each class ended with, "Next time we’ll discuss X, Y, and Z. Think about the following. [Insert three rhetorical questions here.]" This gets students thinking — even if at an unconscious level — about the next class meeting.

Allow students to personalize the course. Each class opened with, "Anything for the good of the order?" This was an opportunity for students to say something on their mind. Or most frequently, to comment on a story in the news. For essays, he provided multiple topic options and always allowed students to propose their own.

Be knowledgeable about the institution. Pitney knew the College well. If a topic fell outside his area of expertise, he referred us to another member of the faculty.

Let your emotion and passion show. At good liberal arts colleges, the professors love teaching. They’re passionate about it. Pitney displayed this energy at every turn. On the last class of the semester, he closed saying, "I’m going to end this course the way I’ve ended every class I’ve taught since grad school. I’m going to read a brief quote from A Man for All Seasons." His voice started to crack, and he read the quote:

God made the angels to show him splendor, as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man he made to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.

And without another word, he picked up his bag and left. For a few seconds, the class sat silently, contemplating the suddenness with which the class had come to a close. There was an unspoken consensus: We had been in the presence of a master.

Parents Ousted From Their Own X-Mas Card

Another wonderful holiday season (in which my Christmas music playlist has yet to find a rival), another flood of Christmas greeting cards from families near and far.

Oops, I don’t mean families — I mean kids. Invariably, families with kids send only a picture of the kids and not the parents. This is maddening. What’s going on here? Why are parents ousted from their own photo?

1. Kids are cuter than adults, so nicer to look at.

2. Kids change in physical appearance year-to-year more than their parents.

3. The marriage and family in general is really driven by the kids, so a photo of just the kids suitably reflects the power structure.

I suspect it’s a combination. #3 is most worrying and something I touched on in an earlier post titled The Emergence of Kids as Kings.

Analysis: H-1B Visa Issue in America

Below is an adapted version of a paper I wrote on an issue near and dear to us in the tech industry: H-1B visas.

This post will explore one aspect of the immigration debate in America: the temporary visas issued to high-skilled foreign labor. First, I will explain how H-1B visas work. Then I will present the positions of those who oppose and favor increasing the H-1B visa quota. I will conclude by evaluating both sides’ claims and offering my own perspective on the right way forward.

Each year the United States issues 65,000 H-1B visas to employers who can then employ a foreign worker, as a non-immigrant, in the U.S. for up to six years.  Candidates for this visa must possess specialized skills (medicine, technology, biotech, etc.) and at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably advanced degrees. The visa is highly coveted. In April of this year, 150,000 H-1B visa applications – the legal maximum in any year – were submitted within 24 hours of the submission opening. In other words, an entire year’s worth of applications arrived in a single day. Software companies receive the most H-1B visas out of any industry segment. The debate is whether the quota of 65,000 applications is too low. Proponents of raising the quota argue that American technology companies need more bright foreign talent to fill the ranks. Opponents argue that there is no such labor shortage and that foreign workers will harm an American technology worker’s job prospects.

Those pushing for expansion of the visa program include executives such as Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Sergey Brin (Google), and, less formally, venture capitalists such as Brad Feld (Foundry Group) and Jeff Nolan (formerly SAP Ventures). They do so in the spirit of competitiveness, for both their country (America) and their companies. Their primary claim is that American workers alone cannot fill their companies’ labor needs. Gates told Congress that America’s global leadership position is at risk if the 65,000 quota is not raised. Feld, an investor in dozens of software companies, has said: "I believe that we don’t have enough qualified software developers in the U.S."  Nolan, also an investor in software companies, said: "[U.S. companies] aren’t going through this expensive process because they want to avoid hiring Americans for these jobs…there simply aren’t enough Americans to fill these positions!"  The consensus view in the technology industry is that America should welcome foreign, skilled workers to fill gaps in the labor market. They might also point to Andy Grove (Intel) or Sergey Brin (Google) as immigrants who created great wealth.

The interest groups representing American programmers and engineers dispute these anecdotes. According to a congressional report: "Those opposing increases in temporary workers assert that there is no compelling evidence of labor shortages."  Norman Matloff of UC Davis, a forceful critic of H-1B expansion, says that U.S. companies do not import foreign workers to fill a labor shortage. If there were truly a shortage, starting salaries for grads with bachelor’s degrees in computer science or engineering would be rising (they are not), and technology companies wouldn’t hire only 2% of their job applicants as they wouldn’t have the luxury to be so picky.  And they don’t want more foreign workers in hopes of recruiting the best and brightest, according to Matloff. The average H-1B visa employee earns in the $65,000/yr range, far below what top talent commands. Rather, they want more foreign workers because they can pay them less to do the tasks currently done by domestic workers. (The law requiring employers to pay the "prevailing wage" is largely ignored in the industry.) In short, an increase in cheap H-1B talent would probably displace the American IT worker.

What to make of this debate? There isn’t agreement on whether there is a labor shortage in the IT industry. Even if there is not, I believe there are still compelling reasons to allow companies maximum flexibility to hire the "best" (that is, someone who delivers the most value per dollar). The technology industry should supplement its argument for raising the quota with two points. First, if a company wants to cut costs, it will cut costs. If its labor costs are too high, it will reduce them. Perhaps it will hire more workers overseas. Second, the philosophical claim: why should an American have preference over any other person, especially by today’s multi-national corporations? No one should get a job simply because of  citizenship status. The job should go to whoever can best fill it, wherever that person is from. Critics of H-1B expansion express outrage at a company’s desire for "cheap labor," but what’s wrong with cheap labor? What’s wrong with trying to maximize profit by minimizing labor costs? Also, why can’t non-criminals – PhDs, no less – flow freely over borders? Diverse societies tend to be more prosperous than monocultures. (Naturally, opponents of H-1B expansion hasten to say they’re not "anti-foreigner" just "anti-globalism" – something I don’t quite believe. )

Overall, the immigration debate is a hot potato where rational thought is subsumed by Lou Dobbs "patriotism". This makes smart immigration reform politically unlikely. Perhaps this is why the industry talks loudest about a labor shortage: it may or may not be the case, but the other reasons I outline above are not politically tenable.