Monthly Archives: September 2008

Relative Perception Differences in Hotness and IQ

When you’re out on the town and want to solely optimize on picking up a woman/man for sex, travel with friends who are slightly less attractive than you. If they’re more attractive than you, you look relatively less hot. If they’re absolutely ugly, you might look relatively good but such relative benefits are outweighed by being associated with ugliness.

When you’re at a meeting or in a professional function and want to solely optimize on being perceived as impressive, travel with the most impressive / smartest friends possible. Unlike in a sexual physical attraction situation, when you’re surrounded by really smart people the net gain is higher than any relative effects of perceived lower intelligence. Why?

One reason is when you’re around smart people they bring out your own intelligence. Active conversation — the interplay of two bright minds (even if the levels of brightness differ) — can raise your own perceived IQ, versus the passive sexual situation where your looks are set in stone from the moment you walk in the bar. Agreed?

Bottom Line: Relative perception effects differ in the sexual atmosphere of a bar than in the intellectual atmosphere of the boardroom.

(hat tip Chris Yeh for helping think through this theory)

Is It Better to Have No Ideas Than False Ones?

Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have said the following:

It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.

Now contrast that with this great quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt seems to imply that it doesn’t necessarily matter what the man in the arena is fighting for, but that he is fighting, and this alone elevates him to a higher pedestal than the spectator.

That’s all fine and well in, say, a sporting event. But apply this logic elsewhere.

Should we think higher of the politician who believes he is fighting for a worthy cause — but a cause we virulently disagree with — than the citizen bystander not running for anything?

Should we respect the person who has taken the time to come up with ideas — but ideas you think are dangerous — more than the person who has produced no ideas at all?

Do you respect the ignorant voter more than the one who chooses not to vote at all?

Lead an Idiosyncratic Life and Envy of Others Goes Down

That “funny feeling” of envy / jealousy only exists when the subject of our envy resembles us in some way. I don’t get jealous if Bill Gates has a big success, but I do get jealous if someone close to me in age / race / location does something very similar to what I’m trying to do. I don’t get jealous if a good friend becomes a marvelously successful chef, but I do get somewhat jealous if he becomes marvelously successful (or at least more successful than me) in my field of choice.

People who lead traditional career paths, then, have more people to compare themselves to. A young attorney has thousands of other attorneys around the same age and pursuing the same type of law against whom he can measure himself.

One reason I think envy is less pronounced in entrepreneurship circles is that entrepreneurs tend to lead idiosyncratic lives. It’s hard for a life entrepreneur to find another person whose path overlaps in a major way. Hence, fewer people seem directly competitive.

This has its downsides. Loneliness. You feel like few people can appreciate how you got here and where you’re going. And you lack easy benchmarks on how you’re doing in life relative to peers.

But there are upsides. You more frequently can Bask in Reflected Glory of your friends’ successes. Your drive to soar higher can come from genuine inspiration at others’ success instead of raw jealousy. The latter can incite action, but the former is more pure and sustainable.

Bottom Line: If you carve a unique path in life, fewer people (especially in your friend set) will seem directly comparable / competitive, and this will allow you to genuinely revel in their successes as opposed to being privately consumed by jealously.

(hat tip to Ramit Sethi for helping spark this theory)

Karl Rove and James Fallows Up-Close

Last year, I did two posts summarizing a few dozen speeches I heard at the Athenaeum, including those by Gregg Easterbrook, Bono, Bill Kristol, Anderson Cooper, Orville Schell, Peter Wehner, Orhan Pamuk, David Gergen, David Brooks, and Jonathan Rosenberg.

This time around I will try to post some of my notes and impressions in real-time, when my thoughts are fresh. Today: Karl Rove and James Fallows.

Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff in the White House, advisor to George W. Bush

Rove had such a high profile in the Bush administration that most people are predisposed to the guy in one way or another. The usual media accounts call him "Bush’s brain" or "The Architect" — I for one had an image of some evil mastermind tapping his finger tips together while plotting how Republicans can take over the world. In real life he comes across as a normal, folksy, nice guy. There’s something about the flesh which strips larger-than-life figures of their aura.

His speech, which was occasionally supplemented by the din of protesters outside chanting "War Criminal," was long on anecdotes and short on real substance. Usually these types of speech are annoying. But when the anecdotes are, say, how Vladimir Putin melted in awe when he stepped into the historic Oval Office, or the father of a Navy Seal who cried in a meeting with Bush, or just the blow-by-blow "day in the life of the President," you can get away with it. The sheer proximity to power that Rove enjoyed for many years affords him a well of stories that can keep even skeptical audiences entranced.

Rubinkarlrove1h When he did speak on policy issues, he was predictable. History will judge Bush favorably – just look at Truman’s low approval ratings when he left office. Iraq will prove ultimately worthwhile. Etc. In one section he delivered a 3-5 minute non-stop "defense" of the Bush presidency, dwelling on some of the lower-profile Bush initiatives like aid to Africa. In the end all that matters in terms of the Bush legacy is Iraq, but it was interesting how Rove painted a broader picture of the eight years. I don’t blame him for wanting the legacy to rest on ground wider than Iraq.

He also demonstrated subtle political cunning that would be expected of someone in his position. When referring to Obama, he plainly framed Obama’s experience in the Senate as all of "143 working days," not the "two years" that’s often cited. He reviewed the Republican and Democratic parties’ strategies and noted how the Democrats have outspent the Republicans in all the recent elections and will do so again this year. It’s not the points themselves that demonstrate a certain savviness but how he delivered them — by not making them "points" but rather sentences as commonplace as "Nice weather today." It implies a certain unquestioned truthfulness to them, even if they are actually surprising, like in the case of Dems outspending Repubs, or actually damaging, like in the case of Obama’s non-record in the Senate.

All in all, college drop-out Rove struck me as a quick thinker, well versed in all aspects of both the ground warfare that is politics and high level strategy that animates campaigns, a true student of U.S. history, and more personally, somewhat bemused at his standing at go-to punching bag for Bush bashers. Insofar as I understand Rove’s influence in the Bush administration, I can’t say I’m a fan of his policies, but I was happy to see him up close, if only to help me process / rebut / agree with the countless media portrayals.

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic

There are maybe a half dozen people whose work I always read. James Fallows is one of them. For about four years, I’ve read or skimmed all of his articles in The Atlantic and all his blog posts. There are many smart people writing today. Fallows is different due mostly to his range — aviation to Iraq to economics to technology / software — no stone is left unturned in his reporting. The product of a mind that’s lived at the intersection of ideas and industries consistently stimulates me more than the product of a monoculture / niche. Who else is qualified to interview on-stage (at different times) Bill Clinton and Larry PageFallows and Sergey Brin? Along with interdisciplinary thinking Fallows’ writing style strives for clarity above all. Showboating or literary experimentation rarely enter into the equation and thus never distract from the idea at hand. Finally, unlike many pundits on politics, Fallows actually reports. He’s lived in many countries overseas (currently Beijing), for example, and did a multi-month programming stint at Microsoft to aid in his tech reporting. I love a clever turn of phrase, and adore many Washington columnists, but isn’t it heartening to know that someone is actually immersing himself out there in the big bad world and writing back to us about what’s going on?

Of course, enjoying someone’s writing from afar doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy him in-person. We all know the super successful and super smart asshole. Fallows, by contrast, is a commensurate professional, classy, gracious with his time. He took a genuine interest in students’ ideas, betraying not a hint of condensation. My notes from his talk I re-print below:

  • As a journalist you must talk to people who know more than you about a topic, and then explain it to people who know less than you. Challenging!
  • The Atlantic has the richest readership of any magazine. It’s a "high end" publication. This in some ways will make it endure more the general economic hardship afflicting mainstream media.
  • Vis-a-vis the New Yorker, a competitor, the Atlantic’s entry point to big ideas is via the "conceptual scoop" as opposed to the profile of an individual.
  • Youth: travel and live abroad as much as you can! China wouldn’t be a bad place. A strong, influential China will be part of your adult lives, so see what it looks like and get comfortable with its existence.
  • Speaking of China, there’s no "one China." China is made up of a billion plus individuals and many distinct cultures. We need to recognize it for what it is, rather than one big blob "China."
  • He quoted David Foster Wallace twice — in particular DFW’s brief missive on the meaning of the American idea.
  • "When meeting foreigners I’m impressed by their willingness to be re-seduced by the American idea."
  • What will matter in the presidential debates? The candidates’ temperament and bearing.
  • The "global war on terror" unites factions that would otherwise be not united. Saying "the terrorists" unites terrorists that would otherwise be disparate.
  • We needn’t worry about China militarily. There are greater military worries elsewhere. For now China is still consumed by Taiwan.
  • As a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, Fallows knows how to organize a speech. He laid out the road map for what he was going to talk about over the 40 minute time frame and then regularly gave an update as to where he was ("Ok, that’s point #1, XYZ, now let’s go to point #2 of 4"). In the many keynotes and sales presentations I’ve given I’ve found this a very important rhetorical device to orient the audience and display a command of the clock. Also, during Q&A, Fallows wrote down the questions as they were asked, prior to answering to prevent "Now what was your second question again?" time wasters. I need to do this.
  • His first and main foreign policy point was that the next U.S. administration needs to "think big." This surprised many of us, I think. Most commentators grimly lay out all the international entanglements President Obama or McCain will inherit (and a domestic economic and political situation that’s not much better). Thus, their prescription is, "Hold tight and deal with existing crises." Fallows’ guidance, however, is that we need to think big, fight harder for our ideals. What the "big idea" should be is unclear. During Q&A Fallows said, contra Bush’s 2nd inaugural, it’s not democracy around the world, although it might be "liberty around the world."

The Remarkably Prescient Jim Cramer

I hate Jim Cramer. His stock picking mania on TV horribly misleads individual investors who think they can beat the market. Heck, even he admits that, yet that hasn’t changed his behavior on CNBC.

But I have to say that this clip of Cramer about one year ago saying, "Bernanke has no idea how bad it is out there" and predicting the demise of Wall Street firms and the nuttiness of the mortgage market is remarkably prescient. Of course, Cramer being Cramer, the emotional outburst behind such prediction proves highly entertaining:

Speaking of the Wall Street crises, here are a few links (American Scene, Freakanomics, Daily Dish) that are excellent brief summaries of what is going on.

Twitterings and Odds & Ends

I’ve posted nearly 900 messages on micro-blogging service Twitter. Each update is limited to 140 characters. I use it to post quotes, single sentence thoughts, and more personal updates. It also serves as my Facebook status update.

Here are some recent Tweets:

  • Reading the Bible. No, not The Economist, the religious one.
  • Not everyone should include a middle initial when signing their name. Generic names must. For others it depends – sometimes it’s pretentious
  • I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve inspired to close social transactions with "take care." It’s a great all-purpose line.
  • Small airports don’t sell water after security, which tortures waterholics like myself. TSA should require a water vendor after sec
  • I find listening to music rarely changes my mood but can intensify whatever mood / emotion I am already feeling at the time.
  • "I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan." – Charles Barkley
  • "We are in the business of kicking butt and business is very, very good." – Charles Barkley
  • Minneapolis airport en route to Wisconsin to give a couple talks. Do twin cities have big Japanese pop? Signs in eng and jap
  • idea for what to name a bar: "Pacific Standard Time" – patrons could abbrev to PST.
  • Great ad placement by Zappos: the bottom of TSA bins that go thru x-ray.
  • Co-founder of RealClearPolitics today at Claremont: Obama and McCain have 14,000 lawyers btwn them ready to litigate on election day.
  • Just got back from dinner where Karl Rove spoke. He’s been on campus all evening. Not surprisingly, a smart guy.
  • I think I called a wrong number, but got this hilarious voicemail greeting. Call: (906) 875-6770. Spoof mental hospital.
  • Especially in teenagehood, girls heavily discriminate in favor of similar physical attractiveness when picking friends.
  • People who wear glasses and fancy themselves smart like adjusting / touching the frames.
  • Testimonials with just the first name or just initials look worse than no testimonials at all.
  • Christopher Hitchens in a debate on the existence of God: "There are no statements worth arguing here; all you can do is underline them.”
  • Every time I read the FT I think of and pine for int’l traveling — it was my main source of news while overseas.
  • Philip Roth, Tom Friedman, Bob Woodward, Stephen King, and Malcolm Gladwell all have bks coming out in the fall.                        
  • When you expose yourself to an expert’s work, you feel both inspired by what can be and depressed by your own lack of natural ability.             
  • "Once you have a mission you cant go back to having a job." – Shai Agassi, frmr SAP exec
  • "The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." – Pascal, Pensées, 136.
  • Zinger from Palin: "I guess being a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have real responsibilities."                            
  • "In part, conservatism believes you can’t perfect humans or society. Suspic of do-gooders who think they can, who underrate complexity."                            
  • Facebook has rendered the "happy birthday!" note un-special. People get inundated on their b-day. Unexpected greetings are best.
  • September in non-coastal Southern California: waaay tooo hot. Am I really doomed to only being able to thrive in SF-like, foggy climates?
  • Southern accent in children is endearing.                              
  • I’ve seen more fat people in last hr in Pigeon Fordge, TN than in last month in all SF.
  • Just ate hickory smoked pig shoulders (smoked for 11 hours) with BBQ sauce. Feeling very Southern.
  • Participated in Laughter Yoga session today — totally bizarre and very amusing. You laugh with others for 30 minutes:


I’m speaking in Waterloo on October 4th and have some time for dinner in Toronto that evening before my flight. Email me if you want to meet up.


I’ve been blogging for more than four years. Check out the "Best Of" page of selected posts from the archives. Some good stuff.


You can access a mobile version of this blog by visiting on your phone to get a stripped-down site with just the posts.

The Social Lubricant of Self-Awareness

When I meet someone new who seems interesting, I tend to ask him or her a lot of questions. My attitude is, I already know about myself and I know nothing about this person, so why not try to learn more about the unknown?

If someone tells me she flew somewhere, I ask what airport she flew out of, about her flight route, her experience on the plane, how she bought her tickets.

If someone pulls out a credit card to pay for a meal, I ask about the card, the point system associated with it, why he chose it, how he tracks expenses, where he banks, etc.

If someone asks me what books I’m reading, I’ll answer quickly, and then ask him what books he’s reading, whether he buys or rents books, whether he takes notes or scribbles in margins, whether he reads fiction, how he decides what to read, etc.

Here’s the problem: it can make people uncomfortable. Once a friend took me aside and said, "Ben, you’re, like, interrogating the guy."

Here’s how I’m dealing with it: if I feel like the conversation is too one-way, I say something like, "I’m not trying to play 20 questions, I’m just really interested." This tells the other person that I’m aware of what’s going on and am, in fact, genuinely interested, not interviewing her for a police report. Even a simple one-liner of this sort lubricates the social interaction in a helpful way.

Aren’t you more accepting of someone who says, "Sorry I’m a backseat driver!" before or during her criticism of your driving skills? Or more accepting of a long-winded person who at least acknowledges his tendency to be verbose? This principle applies in various situations.

Bottom Line: Showing an ounce of self-awareness around potentially annoying / intimidating behavior goes a long way to making people comfortable with it.

The Best Three Paragraphs I Read Today

They’re from Freeman Dyson’s article titled The Question of Global Warming in the New York Review of Books. Andrew Sullivan called this the best piece on global warming he’s read in months. I skimmed it but slowly read the last three paragraphs, which I think are spot-on.

In a sentence: Some members of the environmental movement think the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet is fundamental to environmentalism in general, and this is not necessarily so. Many global warming skeptics are passionate environmentalists.

There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

Networking: It’s Too Late to Get to Know a Fortune 500 CEO

It’s too late to buy Google stock. You’re not going to make much money buying it at its current high price.

I think the same attitude should apply when trying to meet new people. If you’re a relative no-name trying to build a network it’s too late to reach out to Mark Zuckerberg to talk about entrepreneurship. He’s too busy, too high profile. If you’re an aspiring writer and want to meet other writers, you can’t reach out to an author after he’s become a New York Times bestseller. Either you won’t reach him, or if you do, he’ll assume you have an agenda or want something from him.

Better, in my view, if your goal is to develop long-term relationships with interesting people, to focus on those whose “stock prices” are low but long-term potential high.

Compared to the already rich and famous, no-names can be less egotistic and often more insightful. Plus the value flows bi-directionally (you can help each other).

How to find a hidden gem? Hints from my post on de-emphasizing popular filters: seek out introverts. Seek out people under age 30. Seek out people who are bad at marketing.

Recognize and discount the celebrity effect. Spend time with people who also have time to spend with you. My bet is you’ll have a more rewarding relationship.

Bottom Line: The only reason to try to meet with Mr. Busy and Rich for 10 minutes is if you have a very specific request or need. If you’re just trying to “network” or build a relationship, don’t waste your time.

The Peter Thiel Worldview

In his 2007 speech at the Singularity Summit (this year’s event is coming up in October in San Francisco), Peter Thiel offered insight into how he makes sense of the world. Worth reading. I’ve bolded certain sections of my excerpts below.

(Here’s my post about Thiel’s Hoover article on "The Optimistic Thought Experiment." Also, at the TechCrunch 50 conference Thiel was widely quoted as saying the best predictor of a start-up’s success is low CEO pay.)

His fundamental premise, vis-a-vis the Singularity:

I suppose the basic intuition that I have about it is very simply, this is a world in which there is a possibility of things going extraordinarily well or extraordinarily badly, where both the good things and the bad things are bigger than people think. If you have a bell curve distribution of possible futures for the world, the tails on that bell curve are much fatter than people think. There is far more that can happen at the far edges. This would lead to a very different behavior in markets from a normal bell curve of distributions where nothing that interesting or extraordinary is going to happen. In particular, the Singularity will either be very successful, in which case we are going to have the biggest boom ever, or it is going to blow up the whole world and there will be nothing left to invest in whatsoever.

Something that resonates more than ever after these past few crazy days on Wall Street, about the bottom falling out of economic textbooks:

The alternative to a good Singularity is the apocalypse, and we don’t really know where it is going to happen. You would expect the world to be full of massive manias, booms, and busts on a scale unprecedented in all of history. Interestingly, if you actually look at the world’s financial markets over the last 25-30 years, that is exactly what they have manifested. It is one of things that I think is very striking. All of the conventional theories say that markets should be getting more smooth and efficient as there is more and more information out there. Somehow everything smoothes out, the volatility gets suppressed, and stocks should move up like 6% a year in a smooth, monotonic function. Instead, we’ve seen bigger booms, busts, bubbles than ever before.

On the internet boom, Thiel wonders whether the late 90’s mania actually represented enlightened thinking:

What if March 2000 in some sense represented not a peak of insanity but a peak of clarity, and that at the peak of the boom people could actually see the furthest, and what they could see was that in the long-run, in the next 20 years, 30 years, the entire old economy was going to be doomed and that all sorts of businesses and ways of doing business were no longer going to work? Therefore, and this is the tricky part, you had to bet on this one way that was going to be the way out. And that was the internet.

Want to make money? Thiel says predict the next boom:

It is very difficult to know where one necessarily goes from there, but the point that I would stress is, probably the best thing to try to focus on are these sort of incipient booms that people have not yet realized. My guess is that we will see a whole series of booms, bubbles, and busts for the next ten, twenty years as we are getting closer to this. It’s not at all clear that it will be any of the ones we’ve seen. If you look at the historical info, we had Japan, the internet, we now have financial engineering on Wall Street, we have emerging markets, even the boom in the late 1960’s, it was outer space. It was basically thought that the Singularity was going to be driven by whoever controlled outer space. Maybe we’ll have a combination of all of those. If I had to bet, I think it will probably be something completely different that people are not expecting at all. That makes it quite difficult to figure out. I would say that as a baseline, it’s going to happen and it will be none of the above.