Monthly Archives: October 2008

Quote of the Day

"It's never that I didn't send child support. It's just that I didn't send the amount that was said to be sent by the courts."

Jason Caffey, 35, former player for Chicago Bulls and holder of two world championship rings. Caffey has fathered 10 children with 8 women and they are suing for child support payments.

Hat tip to Andrew Hess, whose sports blog is titled Just Trying to Feed My Family in honor of Latrell Sprewell turning his nose at a $21 million contract offer by insisting "I'm just trying to feed my family."

Of course when I was growing up I knew Sprewell as the player who choke strangled then Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo to the ground and threatened to kill him because Carlesimo asked Spree in  practice to "put a little mustard" on his passes.

Welcome to the NBA.

Accepting a High Failure Rate for Creativity

The Onion is consistently hilarious. For those who don't know, The Onion is a spoof newspaper with satirical headlines and a few paragraphs of fake quotes and commentary.

The radio show This American Life recently reported on how The Onion does what it does. Bob Sutton picks up on this interesting factoid: to get the 18 quality headlines needed for each week's edition, the writers have to propose 600 headlines in total. That's pretty refined filter, and as Bob notes, not unusual for a successful creative operation. At IDEO's toy group only 3% of proposed product ideas survive.

To come up with good ideas, you need to turn off the self-censor and crank out as many ideas as possible. Most of them will suck. But that's part of the process.

For the more visually inclined, here's what creativity at The Onion looks like:


Explain Your Opponent’s Perspective

Here’s one of the simplest ways to test someone’s knowledge of an issue: ask them to explain the other side of the argument.

Ask the person who’s pro-choice to explain the pro-life perspective.

Ask the person who’s in favor of spending more money on marketing project X to explain the thinking process behind those who oppose the budgetary move.

Ask McCain supporters why in the world someone would support Obama and see if they give an answer beyond, “He’s a good speaker.”

Ask those who deride the bailout plan in Congress to explain the argument for the bailout plan.

Bottom Line: I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.

Tom Peters and Seth Godin On Stage

Two of the most interesting business thinkers around, Tom Peters and Seth Godin, were on-stage together at a recent event and jointly answered questions about "the entrepreneurial mind." Here's a page with all the labeled two minute clips. The best ones:

  • Let's hear it for the blog. Seth says that blogging is not about the size of your audience but the "meta cognition" of thinking about what you're going to say and then saying it, having to explain yourself. Tom says that blogging is the most important professional thing he's done in the last 15 years. Note: Seth says "blogging is free." Not true. Blogging takes time. Time is money.
  • What's first: loyal employees or loyal customers? Tom says loyal employees, and relays the story of Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) writing a letter to a verbally abusive customer saying, "You do not have the right to treat my employee badly."
  • Has technology killed customer service? Seth says an angry customer is an opportunity to deliver a Wow! experience.

Some other random links:

  • Andrew Sullivan has a nice meditation on why he blogs in the latest Atlantic. Scott Rosenberg notes that Andrew is coming at it from the perspective of a trained print journalist, and not all bloggers are alike.
  • The New York Times as a business is running on fumes. Here's one plan for how it can save itself: sell the Boston Globe, sell its stake in the Red Sox, cut 20% of the newsroom, etc.
  • Is there a more articulate guy in live oratory than Christopher Hitchens?
    • In that Charlie Rose interview Hitchens says he's never had a gift for writing fiction. One proxy for fiction writing ability, he says, is a deep understanding of / appreciation for music.
  • Women, have you ever made this request to your man? [Warning: Not safe for work.]
  • Half of U.S. doctors use placebo treatments…and many do not even tell their patients that they're giving a placebo instead of a real pill.

Trusting Your Friends vs. “The Authority”

You’re trying to decide what computer to buy. Who do you ask for advice — your tech friend who knows your particular tastes or The Authority (CNet reviews for example)?

You’re trying to decide what restaurant to eat at. Who do you trust more — your friend who has historical insight into other restaurants you like or The Authority ( aggregated reviews)?

You’re trying to decide what movie to watch. Do you ask your friend or check IMDB to tap the wisdom of crowds?

Many web 2.0 products hype the “social graph” — all the things you can do when you’re intimately connected to what your friends are doing, buying, recommending, etc. in real time.

When pondering the potential applications of these products, it’s often assumed that we will rely more and more on people who actually know us since we will be connected to them in a regular and comprehensive way. But I’m not so sure.

People are deferential to authority. We glorify experts. There’s no doubt that I want to hang out with my friends on the weekend rather than The Expert on Having a Good Time on the Weekend. But when it comes to buying a computer, or finding the best political commentary online, or any number of other transactional goals, I prefer to tap into a larger, anonymous sphere called The Google or the collected wisdom of qualified strangers.

Bottom Line: Just because the web can make us more connected with our friends this doesn’t mean we will necessarily want to rely on their personal opinions more.

[Related Post: Advice on Giving Advice. When you seek advice, should you consult the domain expert or someone who knows you best? Your mother may know you best but she may not know the industry you’re considering going in to.]

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Yes: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert Cialdini et al. I’ve recommended Cialdini’s book Influence to dozens of people — it belongs in everyone’s library. Yes is his latest book. It’s 50 short chapters with 50 easy social psych lessons on persuasion. Think of it as a compendium of all the recent findings in the field, and a brush-up on the more classic studies that Cialdini cited in his first book. I found this book quick, entertaining, and stimulating. Recommended.

2. Questions that Sell: The Powerful Process for Discovering What Your Customer Really Wants by Paul Cherry. On the surface this appears to be just another cheesy sales book. It’s not. Insofar as you believe that asking really good questions is a key part of success in sales, then this book should absolutely be part of your toolkit. Cherry reviews what makes a good question by categorizing them and offering tons of examples around each. For example, if you want to uncover the customer’s real problem, what do you ask? If you want to overcome a price objection with a question, what do you say? I posted full notes and examples over at Book Outlines.

3. McCain’s Promise by David Foster Wallace. The expanded version of the essay he wrote in 2000 for Rolling Stone magazine about John McCain’s campaign against Governor Bush. This is not Wallace’s best essay but there are still some outstanding points made about John McCain’s story and the paradoxes of his Straight Talk Express: Can you sell the fact that you can’t be sold? “Is it hypocritical that one of McCain’s ads’ lines in South Carolina is ‘Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically,’ which of course since it’s an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit?”

4. The Entertainment Economy by Michael Wolf. Nearly nine years old, this is a bit dated but still was interesting coming from one of the more influential thinkers on the intersection of web and traditional media. The paragraph below about the distracting nature of sexual imagery was hilarious:

On March 21, 1997, between 12:32 and 12:36 PM, in the midst of a heavy trading period, volume on the New York Stock Exchange fell by a stomach-jolting 37 percent. What could explain this nosedive in the daily trading frenzy? There were no assassinations, no wars, no earthquakes, not even a peep out of Alan Greenspan. What happened was a feature story on CNBC. …At 12:32 it aired a four-minute special [graphic] report on cybersex. Wall Street pretty much stopped dead in its tracks, so much so that the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange called Bill Bolster, the president of CNBC, and said, “If you guys are ever going to do something like that again, please give me a heads up.

5. A Matter of Interpretation by Justice Antonin Scalia. A very accessible introduction to Scalia’s originalism and textualism, with response essays from eminent scholars and a final reply by Scalia. Worthwhile for any novice interested in constitutional interpretation or the jurisprudence of the modern Supreme Court.

6. Active Liberty by Justice Stephen Breyer. This was meant as a reply to Scalia’s book and presents a contrasting judicial philosophy. While I’m not sure where I stand on the content of either Scalia’s or Breyer’s book, I found Breyer’s book harder to read. There are probably better written books on the topic.

Nurture Matters: Inter-Household Conflict Mail

Imagine growing up in a family where your parents took turns reading Ulysses to each other while holding hands in bed, where the bookcase was the hero of the house, and where temper tantrums had to be channeled into written letters:

The family developed a sort of interoffice conflict mail. When his mother had something stern to say, she’d write in up in a letter. When David wanted something badly — raised allowance, more liberal bedtime — he’d slide a letter his under parents’ door.

So was the upbringing of David Foster Wallace, as recounted in what is the longest and most detailed account of his life that I’ve seen, in the October 30, 2008 Rolling Stone magazine. An excerpt is online but the full version is print only. The author, David Lipsky, draws upon a week’s worth of interviews he conducted with Wallace 10 years ago supplemented by more recent conversations with friends and family.

The piece traces the arc of his life and hits on what are emerging as dominant themes: his towering talent as a writer; his life-long struggle with clinical depression and occassional struggles with drugs and alcohol; his conflicting emotions around success and fame and feeling like he’s just “fooled” everyone; his intense devotion to his students. Well worth a read if you can get your hands on it.

One additional nugget: In an online interview with Lipsky about his reporting, he relays an interesting theory of Elizabeth Wurtzel:

She said that the flipside of depression is curiosity. I don’t know if she’s right, but I could see what she meant: I think depression is examination you can’t turn off: Once you start the examination you can’t stop it, and it kind of settles on you. But if you can somehow change the spigot you get incredible curiosity. Because if you’re examining things all the time, when you’re depressed, the hard thing is you’re examining yourself and your life and how many things can fail. The Nardil let him turn that outward. The one thing I think is reductive about that thought is I don’t think Wallace’s talent had anything to do with being medicated.

Hail Charlie Rose

Seriously, why don’t more people watch / talk about Charlie Rose? His interviews with big name people are consistently the best on television. This is due not only to his spirited, soulful interviewing style but also to the fact that since he’s on public television each interview lasts 20-30 minutes. Say goodbye to vapid sound bites and hello to in-depth discussion.

Of late, no one has covered the financial crisis on TV better than Charlie Rose. Who else has had in-depth discussions with Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett, Hank Paulson, Maria Bartiromo, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Peter Thiel, Martin Wolf, and so many others? There’s a reason people of these caliber go on his program — they know it’ll be a conversation of substance and length.

The diversity of his guests shows a real intellectual curiosity. I have recently enjoyed his interview with David Foster Wallace (a rare video appearance) and Adam Gopnik (interesting thoughts on having kids), Chris Rock, and many others.

As a plus, his web site is wonderfully organized, videos load fast and are clearly labeled. I don’t watch TV. I only know Charlie Rose on the web. Just search for a name or browse the guests page.

If you wanted to spend a Saturday watching stimulating video, you could do worse than watching Charlie Rose online, then heading over to TED Talks, and finishing with a few good Bloggingheads episodes.

Prop 8 on California Ballot: Gay Marriage

A couple weeks ago I had dinner with a friend who delivered an impassioned critique of the most visible item on California’s ballot in November — Proposition 8 — and asked for support for the No on 8 campaign. I told him I’d study the issue and blog what I learned. Even if you do not live in California, if you believe in civil rights it is something you should be following because its passage or defeat will affect the momentum of similar initiatives around the country. If you do live in California but are not gay (like me) and think it doesn’t matter, think again.

Here’s what the Initiative is:

  • Changes the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
  • Provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Currently, gay marriage is legal in California thanks to a State Supreme Court ruling in May. It is also legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut. If Prop 8 passes in November, the State Constitution will be amended to ban gay marriages and undo existing benefits currently offered to same-sex, married couples.

Some people oppose gay marriage because they oppose homosexuality. There’s no point arguing with people about gay marriage if, at their core, they believe being gay is a sin (or even a choice or “lifestyle decision”).

Then there are those who do not oppose homosexuality but oppose gay marriage. I’ve heard three main arguments from these people:

1. Gay marriage harms the institution of marriage (and children). “Once we abandon marriage to the whims and desires of adults seeking validation of their sexual lifestyles, we denigrate children and their needs – legally validating relationships that would deliberately leave them motherless or fatherless.” Say what? The idea that homosexual marriages threaten heterosexual couples is just absurd. Gays have married legally in California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and I don’t see any straight couples’ lives falling apart. The most coherent point in this vein is that children who are raised by gay couples are harmed by not having a daddy or mommy. Yet data around kids being worse off when raised by a mother-mother or father-father couple are questionable at best.

2. Gay marriage will lead to polygamy. Here’s the logic. Currently marriage rests upon two assumptions: it’s man and woman and one-to-one. Ie, one man and one woman. If you re-define the “man and woman” part (man and man or woman and woman) why can’t you re-define the one-to-one part? Who says one man and two women who all love each other dearly shouldn’t be able to marry? Here’s a good Charles Krauthammer column which explains this logic. A longer Weekly Standard article is subtitled “Plural marriage is waiting in the wings.” I have to study this more, but I’m sympathetic to William Saletan’s response to Krauthammer (and others) which is that one-to-one is not arbitrary but rooted in human nature — hence the frequency of polygamous unions breaking up. I would also imagine that the abuse so common in polygamous unions would produce society-wide negative externalities in ways gay marriages do not.

3. Children will be taught about gay marriage in schools. This issue has grabbed the headlines in the California Prop 8 campaign. The Yes on 8 side (again — this is “yes” to ban gay marriage, not “yes” to gay marriage) has been bombing the State with TV ads such as this which say Prop 8 will make it so even elementary school kids will learn that men can marry men. It’s true that California’s education code says that if sex ed is taught to students in the classroom, it ought to include curriculum on marriage and cannot discriminate on sexual orientation (ie, must list gay marriage as an option). But it’s also true that if a public school is going to teach sex ed, they must notify parents beforehand, show the content that will be taught, and allow parents to opt their child out of sex ed. So — gay marriage can be taught in sex ed, but since parents can opt-out nothing is being forced on children. Hence, Yes on 8’s scare ads are deceptive.

Those who support gay marriage — and therefore oppose Prop 8 — have their own set of arguments. The two that most resonate with me are:

1. Keep government out of private life. Good libertarians would say, “Why is the government amending the constitution to regulate individual behavior that does not negatively impact others?” It’s a little more complicated of course. Here are two pages which more clearly define this position (and distinguish between civil and religious law), and here’s an amusing satirical video ad about the government becoming “gender auditors.”

2. Maintain California’s — and America’s — competitive advantage by welcoming all people and promoting a culture of tolerance. Richard Florida has somewhat famously used openness to gays and gay culture as one proxy for predicting the overall competitiveness of an area: “When [talented entrepreneurs or engineers] are sizing up a new company and community, acceptance of diversity and of gays (and lesbians) in particular is a sign that reads ‘non-standard people welcome here.’ ” Here’s an op/ed that has more. I suspect this is one reason why California’s governor and the mayors of the three biggest cities, as well as many Silicon Valley CEOs I know, all are voting No on 8.

There are far better analyses and articles on this issue. I’m simply relaying what I’ve learned and letting you know which side I’ve come down on: No on 8! Unfortunately, No on 8 lags in financing. Much of the other side’s money has come from out of state and from Mormons. Another twist is Obama’s candidacy — it will likely bring blacks and other minorities to the polls in record numbers, but these groups also tend to be the most homophobic. Current polls suggest Prop 8 is in a dead heat.

Bottom Line: Vote No on Prop 8 if you live in California. If you live outside of California, contribute financially or by emailing your California friends. It’s important to keep out actively homophobic and discriminatory language from our constitution and keep in the state the people and culture which make this place so great.

Is It Worth It To Preserve Dying Languages?

This is an under-explored question.

Preserving near extinct languages has broad support for the main reason that if a language dies, presumably some part of the associated culture dies too.

I don’t doubt that some unique culture exists in language, but what, exactly? And is it worth preserving even when considering the costs?

First, there are the opportunity costs of people encouraged or force to learn a language that’s just not that practically relevant. For all the time students in Ireland spend studying Gaelic it’s time not spent studying English, the language of the world. For all the time people in Mumbai spend having to learn that city’s new official language — Marathi — it’s not not spent studying Hindi or English. In America, the 22 children in on this Wyoming Indian reservation are being taught exclusively in Arapaho so as to preserve the language of their elders. The cultural interests of the adults come at the cost of competitiveness of their children.

Then there are the real costs of preserving a minority language in a society. The EU spends millions translating official documents and sessions all to pay due respect to cultural diversity. Canada spends an astromnomical amount translating everything into French all in the name of preserving Quebec culture.

Bottom Line: I question the assumption that preserving a near-extinct language is worth it. At the least, we need more discussion of what exactly is being saved and weigh those benefits against the costs.