Monthly Archives: March 2008

Assorted Links

I wish I could go in depth on some things, but it’ll have to wait for another day, so until then just some quick shots and bon mots:

1. We Read the News to Signal Intelligence. Robin Hanson makes this good point that any daily newspaper reader should consider:

It seems to me that in our world most track the news to talk intelligently with others who track the news.  By coordinating to talk on the same recent news topics, we can better evaluate how well connected and intelligent are those around us.  If we tracked very different topics, it would be much harder to evaluate each other.  If our conversation topics were common but old, it would be harder to distinguish individually thoughtful analysis from memorized viewpoints, and harder to see how well-connected folks are to fresh info sources. 

But if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news.

2. The Glue That Holds Together Our Online Life. Michael Arrington, at TechCrunch, offers a nice reflection on how FriendFeed is trying to become yet another centralized silo of data. It was inspired by Loic Le Meur’s post on his scattered social data. Here’s Foundry Group’s thoughts on the "glue" that needs to hold together our online life. All interesting stuff.

3. The San Francisco – Brooklyn Shuttle. Do San Francisco and Brooklyn have a sisterly relationship? Maybe so. By the way, San Francisco is #1 on Richard Florida’s creativity index in his new book, Who’s Your City?, which I’ll be reviewing soon.

4. Cities and Entrepreneurship. A new report out from Kauffman on how cities can foster entrepreneurship. It notes the importance of "clusters" (a university, big companies, small companies, etc. in one place), but also says that a big research university is by no means necessary for entrepreneurship. Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft had little to do with the University of Washington in Seattle.

5. The Power Paradox. Obtaining and using power is important if you want to get stuff done. In this interesting article, some Berkeley profs talk about why Machiavellian approaches to power are wrongheaded. Instead, "nice guy" approaches can often be more effective.

6. Film Version of David Foster Wallace writing. A quick update on the film version of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Rejoice, DFW devotees, rejoice.

7. How to Write Conversationally. Some good tips here. For example:

Kurt Vonnegut.. advised writers to have a specific reader in mind, and write as if you’re talking to that person. His ideal reader was his sister. Who is yours? If you are talking to the world in general, you’ll probably write more like a speech, rather than like a conversation.

8. Entrepreneurship in Latin America. A good take on what the state of things is down south for entrepreneurs. I intend to study Spanish there this summer and will be interested in doing some fact finding myself.

Don’t Pick up the Soap

In his LA Times op/ed titled There’s nothing funny about prison rape, Ezra Klein includes this quote from Bill Lockyer:

When Enron’s Ken Lay was sentenced to jail, for instance, Bill Lockyer, then the attorney general of California, spoke dreamily of his desire "to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’ "

Sorry, but I laughed. Shame on me.

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This old post on Instapundit interestingly proposes that the main reason we turn a blind eye to the prison rape epidemic is because men are the chief victims.

Cocktail Party Factoid of the Day

A piece in the New Republic reveals that after an economist proposed etching a black fly near the drain of toilet bowls in a men’s restroom at an Amsterdam airport, "spillage" was reduced by 80 percent—"It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it."

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a woman who can fully appreciate the unique aerodynamics and visual distractions which, together, make the male urination experience more challenging than one would expect.

(hat tip: Slate)

Paralegal Jobs: It Will Be Worth It, Right?

On the Drunkasaurusrex blog, the author writes about how his higher education broadened his horizons, sparked intellectual curiosities, and basically did all the things that it’s supposed to do. But then (cue horror music) he took a paralegal job after graduating. What happened?

I was very much on that path until I settled into a well-paying paralegal job right out of college that required long hours and very little critical thinking. My first assignment was to put 75,000 printed out emails in chronological order and remove the duplicates. It took four months and a piece of my spirit. A year later, I was charged with assembling the Plaintiffs and Defendants trial exhibits from a previous case into binders for review. Each side had 2500 exhibits. By this time I’d earned enough leeway in my position to make certain executive decisions. It was up to me, and me alone, to determine which set would go in blue binders and which set would go in black binders. The Defendants exhibits would go in the black binders, I decided, because the Defendants were bad and black is the bad guy color. This project took two months to complete and culminated in a knockdown, drag out scream fest in my manager’s office during my review when she told me the main reason I wasn’t getting a full raise was because the exhibit binder project took longer than it should have. Shit like this went on for close to four years.

Why oh why do class after class of smart college graduates put themselves through this misery in their early go-go years? It will all be worth it, right? 80 hour-work weeks in NY doing i-banking will be worth it, right?  Right? Hello?

Explaining Complex (Economic) Ideas in a Simple Way

The current financial / credit crisis in the U.S. exposes an ongoing societal need: people who can understand complex ideas and then translate them for consumption by the quasi-informed and curious but non-expert segment of the population.

Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has made a living out of reading hard-to-understand psychology papers and writing about them to the lay audience. Michael Pollan is the Gladwell of food science. Pollan’s books on agriculture, farming, and eating have been bestsellers. He once boiled down all nutrition advice thusly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple but right.

Who’s the Malcolm Gladwell of finance? Who is translating the macro-economic gibberish into concepts the average person can understand, without offending economists?

As anyone who reads Brad DeLong knows, the economic literacy of the average journalist is not very high. There’s a big difference between “simple but right” and “simple but wrong.” Ben Stein, in the New York Times, is often simple, often wrong. Jim Cramer, often simple, often wrong.

On the contrary, James Fallows on China and the deficit, David Leonhardt on how even experts are confused about what’s going on in the markets, or James Surowiecki on real estate and foreclosures, are all examples of solid explanations that are simple and clear. Michael Lewis is also a reliably thoughtful lay-person’s explainer on business issues.

I read lots of economics blogs, and blogs are good for in-the-moment analysis, but they rarely can afford to step back and offer a higher level overview. Also, professional economists, by virtue of being professional economists, can struggle to translate economic jargon.

In an old post of mine titled When to Think Hard, When to Outsource, I talked about how I rely heavily on certain people’s insight for certain types of issues (in effect “outsourcing” some parts of the critical thinking process to them). To wit, I’m trying to construct my “dream team” of people who are following the macro-econ scene, following the credit markets and mortgage situation, and conveying their thoughts in sound, simple prose.

Any ideas for who should be in the starting lineup?

How to Get a Book Deal

My friend Cal Newport, with whom I am collaborating on a new writing project, has a post on his blog titled, "How to Get a Book Deal: Lessons From My Adventures in the World of Non-Fiction Publishing." Cal is a successful multi-book author and has a great perspective on things, especially if you’re young. His steps:

  1. Don’t write the book first.
  2. Become a non-bad writer.
  3. Identify a first-timer compatible idea.
  4. Pitch the right agent.
  5. Practice proposal yoga.

Check it out if you’re trying to write a book.

The Gritty Reality of the Publishing World

I contributed a post to the Los Angeles Times Jacket Copy blog. It’s a brief caution to the many, many people who are considering trying to write a book. Opening graf:

Do you have a book in you? Imagine: Late nights pecking furiously on the keyboard with a glass of red wine by your side, animated conversations with your editor and agent and, eventually, the final, beautiful product: a hardcover book with your name on the cover. Then your publisher sends you on a book tour where you sign books, do readings, hobnob with literary types and generally feel very writerly. Dream on, baby!

I go on to say that while there are still good reasons to write upon dead-trees, the publishing process is much grittier than advertised.

I got extremely lucky with my book and publisher. So this sentiment is based more on what I’ve observed in the industry over the past year while meeting and brainstorming with dozens of authors. It can be a tough slog, and people ought to know this before committing themselves to the particular medium of book.

Clarity Matters Above All Else

Effective leaders don’t have to passionate. They don’t have to charming. They don’t have to be brilliant. They don’t have to be great speakers. What they must be is clear. Above all else, they must never forget the truth that of all the human universals–our need for security, for community, for clarity, for authority, and for respect–our need for clarity, when met, is the most likely to engender in us confidence, persistence, resilience, and creativity. Show us clearly whom we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions must be taken today, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true.

That’s Marcus Buckingham, via Chris’s summary. There are so many good nuggets. Here are just a few more:

  • To combat arrogance and carelessness, don’t tear down the person. Instead, build up the size of the challenge. Emphasize their scope, their complexity, their "no one has ever pulled this off before" quality. The state of mind you should try to create is a fully realistic assessment of the difficulty of the challenge and an unrealistically optimistic belief in his ability to overcome it.
  • The one thing all great manager know about great managing is this: "Discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it."
  • The most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear; to define the future in such vivid terms, through your actions, words, images, pictures, heroes, and scores that we can all see where you, and thus we, are headed. Adjustments along the way must be communicated with great vividness; clarity is the antidote to anxiety and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader.
  • "It is always showtime." However trivial or boring a transaction might be, you are still making an impression.
  • The best way to succeed is through a disciplined process of stress and recovery. Impose on your life a series of routines that allow you to stress yourself, then recover, stress, then recover, and you will find that, over time, your capacity, your resilience, and your energy will all expand.

He also excerpts Buckingham’s five universal human fears and needs that are relevant to leadership:

1) Fear of death (our own and our family’s) / The need for security
2) Fear of the outsider / The need for community.  We are herd animals, and we organize ourselves to keep the herd strong.
3) Fear of the future / The need for clarity. In every society, we give prestige to those who claim to be able to predict the future.
4) Fear of chaos / The need for authority. Every society has devised its own creation myth in which the world was created out of chaos. The need to classify things is universal. The reason creating democracy from autocracy is hard is that we dislike chaos and thus like strong leaders.
5) Fear of insignificance / The need for respect.

Assorted Pet Peeves

I recently met with a blog reader. She wanted more emotion on this blog. She said, "Get angry. Get pissed." OK guys. Get ready. My owner let me out of the cage. I’m angry. PISSED! I’ve been keeping a list of pet peeves. They’re not on the level of Things I Hate, but it’s a starting point. Here goes.

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Experts suggest repeating the questioner’s first name when answering a question. I ask you a question, and you answer, "Ben, I think that…"

I don’t dispute that it’s a good technique when used sparingly. But it’s annoying as hell to hear this in excess. For a perfect example, check out the Marketplace interview between Tess Vigeland and Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson. He begins his first three statements with "Tess." In all, he says "Tess" nine times in the course of the interview. One time he even said, "Tess, that’s a very good question." Double-whammy – never start an answer with "that’s a very good question"! Argh!

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When otherwise rational people who do not believe in a higher power say: "Things happen for a reason." When I probe on this, they don’t mean that things happen for a reason due to basic cause and effect (I have to pee after drinking lots of water – I have to "pee for a reason"). They often mean it in some vague, karmic sense. You meet your future lover at a library one Tuesday evening and you say, "We met for a reason. Things happen for a reason." Well, yes, you met at the library because you both were researching for your dissertation – or whatever.

Either you believe in randomness generally and basic cause-and-effect of your actions, or you believe in some higher power (with a long, gray beard) animating the world. So what in the world do people mean when they fall in the middle of these two poles with "things happen for a reason"?

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Saying "You know what I mean" does not help you communicate what you’re thinking. Sometimes it can work if you’re very confident that you’ve expressed a point and you don’t want to re-hash it, or it’s an obvious point. But some people say "Ya know what I mean?" as a substitute for actually saying something. Um, no, I don’t know what you mean, but I will once you tell me. Words exist for a reason: use them.

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If I’m 15 steps away from the door, please don’t hold the door open for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to start jogging or fast-walking to get to the door out of guilt because you’re standing there holding the door for me. It’s not a big deal to open a door. So before you hold the door open, judge to see if the person is right behind you. If not, let the door close.

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If you’re exercising in a gym full of other people, and everyone else is listening to an iPod or the equivalent, don’t blast a boombox! That’s rude. It’s harder to listen to an iPod when a boombox or other loud, non-headphone stereo-system is playing. Get a personal music device or else don’t listen to music — respect the music norms of the gym.

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When two people are trying to make a decision and neither expresses a preference about logistics because they want to be fully deferential. Like, "Where do you want to grab lunch?" Both people say "I don’t care, your call." It’s astonishing how many times this circle of "indifference" can spin round and round. We get it: you want to accommodate the other person. But in the name of decisiveness: express a fucking preference and move on.

You Can’t Give Advice Until You’ve…

Thoroughly acknowledged the difficulties of their situation, acknowledged that they are very busy, etc. In other words, you need to actually listen to them and proactively appreciate them before you play the role of advice-giver.

A friend told me this today and it rang true.

Suppose you tell a busy person: "You should check out this museum — they have a great Asian Art exhibit." A busy person’s first quiet thought might be, "I’m a busy person, I can’t just go to museums whenever I want." He will discount your advice because you haven’t acknowledged a basic fact about his life.

Now suppose you preface your suggestion: "I know you’re really busy. But you should check out this museum — they have a great Asian Art exhibit." I would expect a higher follow-through rate.

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Most people think they are busy. Many people annoyingly make a big deal out of how busy they are. Whether it’s self-delusion or reality, it’s important to acknowledge the busy-ness of those we work with — both verbally ("I know your time is valuable…") and in our actions. Chronic tardiness to meetings with other busy people is a sign of arrogance as it implies one does not respect the other people’s time.

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The giving and receiving of advice has long fascinated me. Here’s my post on overvaluing advice when the problem is hard and undervaluing advice when the problem is easy. Here are more general thoughts of mine on the topic. Here’s my post on how disclosure of one’s bias doesn’t cancel out its effects — ie we don’t account for the bias of an advice-giver as much as we should, even when we know it’s there.