Monthly Archives: October 2008

Should You Start a Company in a Downturn?

Fabrice Grinda writes:

There is no better time to start a company!!

The opportunity cost has decreased as many high paying jobs have disappeared and employment opportunities in general have lessened. If you have a job, companies will have less room to give generous bonuses and/or raises.

It’s going to be harder for entrepreneurs to raise money, but competitive pressures decrease dramatically in downturns giving you more chances to establish yourself as the leader in your field and more time to do so. ….

When I launched Zingy in September 2001, we essentially had no competition. The online advertising market had completely dried up allowing us to buy billions of advertising impressions for $10,000! The lack of competition proved critical to our success given that it took two years for the company to start establishing itself in the marketplace….

One difference between today’s downturn and the 2001 dot-com bust is that the economic woes of 2008 seem to be hitting a wider range of industries. The dot-com meltdown started and emanated out of Silicon Valley. It was a good reason to start a tech company because, as Fabrice notes, there was ample talent, less competition, etc.

Today’s economic challenges are affecting many of the customers to whom a new company sells as well as partners in other industries and manufacturers abroad. Thus the external conditions are a little tougher, I think.

I read one blog post recently where a guy said something to the effect of, "There’s never been a better (or more necessary) time to start a company that fills a customer need, is efficient with cash, and can be profitable right away." Well, yes!

The fundamentals of business have not changed.

“I Support Obama Picking Sarah Palin”

A couple weeks ago I said that if you’re not informed on political issues, don’t vote.

Listen to this MP3 clip from a recent Howard Stern show. A guy goes to Harlem and asks people who they’re voting for. All three say Obama. He then attributes McCain’s views to Obama and asks whether they agree with it. For example, "Do you agree with Obama’s pick of Sarah Palin? Do you agree with Obama that our troops should stay in Iraq? Do you agree with Obama that stem cell research should be banned?" To all, they say yes.

And in this 20/20 clip there’s some nice footage of John Stossel asking people off the street some very, very basic questions about the world and getting blank stares.

God Bless America.

(Hat tip to Bryan Caplan for both links.)

Links from Around the Web

Quick links, cheap shots, bon mots…

1. Larry Lessig, the most eloquent commentator on issues of law and technology, publishes an excerpt from his new book Remix. Worth reading.

2. Is the freemium business model over?

3. Jason Calacainis’ widely read Start-up Depression post was a bit over the top, in my opinion, but contained some great pointers including this line on execution:

Execution is the easiest thing to fix, and you can do it one of two ways: get the people in your organization to perform at a higher level, or get higher-level folks into your organization. It really is that simple: folks can either step up or step out.

4. Soon to be college-grads who were first thinking Wall Street are now studying for the LSATs. Here’s a surprising stat about lawyers and what they make after law school in this blog post:

Nine out of ten law students will make $60-70k after graduation, and only a select few will make $140k…[T]he kids making $140k right out of school have a 10% chance of making partner in their firms.

5. How to fight a rumor. If you want to deny it, don’t just issue a denial — come up with a rebuttal that “will create a new truth, including an explanation of why the rumor exists and who is benefiting from it.”

6. A video of George Bush 10 years ago in the Texas governorship debates. He’s shockingly articulate. What happened? The video is titled “Is George Bush Getting Alzheimer’s?”

Airline Industry News

1. Here’s an interesting Reason Foundation report on the next generation of air traffic control technology. Its premise is that building lots of new runways at airports ain’t going to happen for political / environmental reasons. This sucks because, at least according to this book, 25 new runways would eliminate most air travel delays in America. So, this report asks, “What kind of technology can we implement within our existing airports that would solve our problems?”

2. New York airports are going to auction off landing slots. Notwithstanding airline protests, this is a smart move.

3. The New Republic had a doomsday article recently titled The End of Aviation. It argues that the end of cheap oil and rise of environmentalism (specifically global warming concerns) may mean the end of mass, commercial airline travel. It’s a sobering read. I’m still bullish on the long term prospects of the industry. Here are some stats from Felix Salmon about how airline travel is outstripping population growth.

4. The air taxi model continues to evolve. Here’s the latest from Southern California –on-demand flights from a choice of 40 different airstrips.

Movie Review: Religulous

Bill Maher, the always provocative comedian-cum-commentator, has a new movie out called Religulous, a round-the-world documentary on the irrationality of religion and those who believe in it.

I saw it last night. There were many laugh out loud moments and some truly frightening scenes of religious extremists off the deep end. Occasionally the movie was sad more than anything, such as the scene of John Westcott who was once gay but has “cured himself” and now, in the name of the Lord, helps other gay men rid themselves of homosexuality via Exchange Ministries. The irony is the guy still looks so obviously gay — haircut, voice, etc. Or the man who told Maher he believes in miracles and as evidence relayed a story of how one day he prayed it would rain and 10 minutes later — wait for it — it started raining! Unbelievable!

While I’m sympathetic to Maher’s basic points I have one stylistic complaint and one philosophical complaint. Stylistically, he repeatedly interrupted his interviewees and brought to the conversations a clear agenda for the answers he was looking for. Philosophically, he treated all believers the same — bozos through and through. The movie opens with Maher visiting a “trucker church” — a very small trailer in the middle of nowhere America where truckers gather together and pray. Maher, the smooth talking, blazer-wearing, L.A. comedian berates the overweight, blearly-eyed, not well educated truckers for their lack of skepticism about their faith. Huh? Why not let them be religious in peace?

Here’s the thing: Maher is convinced religion on the whole does more bad than good in the world. I entertain the notion that in the end religion does more good than bad. Take the truckers with whom he opens the film. Sure, I’m concerned about the slippery slope argument (if you’re willing to suspend rational faculties in this area, what else might you be irrational about?) but on the whole I bet these truckers derive a certain comfort and security from their weekly prayer sessions.

Later on, Maher interviews a senator and prominent God-believing scientist with these folks I do share his concern about how they’re letting religious doctrine influence their thinking. I’m totally fine with a trucker talking admiringly about God. I do get concerned when President Bush says God’s will informs his foreign policy, or when a CEO cites God as reason for doing something.

At the end Maher insists that if you’re atheist and quiet about it, speak up! To wit, his prime audience: passive atheists. Hard core believers won’t watch a movie like this, hard core atheists will love it but they were already sold. It’s the light weight non-believers who just might be moved.

One last point. Religulous suffers from the limits of the medium (film). It’s very hard to explore a topic like religion in any kind of depth and near impossible to resist the kind of emotional cheap shots that video and music and animation allow. Just like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a perhaps entertaining but shallow way to understand the lead up to the Iraq war, Religulous is a rather shallow way to explore the atheist argument.

Bottom Line: As entertainment and comedy, Religious is well worth it. If you want an atheist treatise on religion, there are many books which explore the topic better.

Make an Extraordinary Effort

"It is essential for a man to strive with all his heart, and to understand that it is difficult even to reach the average if he does not have the intention of surpassing others in whatever he does."
        — Budo Shoshinshu

"In important matters, a ‘strong’ effort usually results in only mediocre results.  Whenever we are attempting anything truly worthwhile our effort must be as if our life is at stake, just as if we were under a physical attack!  It is this extraordinary effort – an effort that drives us beyond what we thought we were capable of – that ensures victory in battle and success in life’s endeavors."
        — Flashing Steel: Mastering Eishin-Ryu Swordsmanship

Those quotes begin Eliezer Yudkowsky’s excellent post titled Make An Extraordinary Effort.

It’s about the importance of holding yourself to a high standard. Unfortunately, he says, "The slightest effort suffices to convince ourselves that we have done our best." I believe holding yourself to a high standard is one thing you can always control no matter what the circumstances.

Eliezer’s post is also about rejecting ordinariness. Lead an extraordinary life, he says, even if you’re one of the few:

I am not fool enough to make plans that depend on a majority of the people, or even 10% of the people, being willing to think or act outside their comfort zone.  That’s why I tend to think in terms of the privately funded "brain in a box in a basement" model.  Getting that private funding does require a tiny fraction of humanity’s six billions to spend more than five seconds thinking about a non-prepackaged question.  As challenges posed by Nature go, this seems to have a kind of awful justice to it – that the life or death of the human species depends on whether we can put forth a few people who can do things that are at least a little extraordinary.  The penalty for failure is disproportionate, but that’s still better than most challenges of Nature, which have no justice at all. Really, among the six billion of us, there ought to be at least a few who can think outside their comfort zone at least some of the time.

“Tell Me a Story About How Things Will Get Better”

Davidfosterwallace0919_3 It’s been almost a month since noted writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Here is the reflection I wrote the night I learned of his death and another post I did with links to remembrances and my analysis of his Kenyon College speech. My delicious page has a full listing of links.

A few days ago Pomona College hosted a memorial service for Wallace. Jonathan Franzen, himself one of the great American writers working today and a close friend of Wallace, relayed a tragic dialogue. LA Times reports:

"Tell me a story about how things will get better," David Foster Wallace asked his friend Jonathan Franzen last summer. It was a particularly dark summer for Wallace, mired in a depression that ended, on Sept. 12, in suicide….

"He was in a terrible and dangerous place as a man and a writer," Franzen told the writer’s friends and family, colleagues and students. "I said I thought his best writing was ahead of him. He said, ‘Tell me another one.’ "

A month’s time has turned raw sadness into more varied emotions. I’m wondering whether, as one friend put it to me, a brilliant mind knows that suicide is actually a rational option under certain circumstances. I’m wondering why his anti-depressants stopped working and about the pharmaceutical role in dealing with depression more generally. I’m wondering whether the death of a hero of sorts (I don’t have many) has contributed to my own periodic light funks — I have always had a high set point of happiness but the past few months have also included occasional dips that come and go but regardless are new for me.

Most of all, I have a big regret. The one class of his that I attended ended almost an hour early. A few students milled around to chat with him; most of us left. I left, thinking I’d have opportunities to chat with him more in the future one-on-one. Of course, that future is gone and I should have seized the opportunity when it was in front of me.


I’m reading McCain’s Promise — the expanded version of the DFW essay on McCain from 2000 that appeared in Rolling Stone and Consider the Lobster. Will report more once I finish. It’s obviously a pretty timely read.

Can You Be Shy and Still Succeed in Business?

A loyal reader writes:

How does a fundamentally shy person succeed in business? Most people don’t percieve me as shy, but I started out being introverted. I get along pretty well with people at work, and I’m fine in one-on-one situations. But I don’t say much at team meetings, and still have no clue how to give effective speeches/presentations. Still can’t be in group situations professionally without feeling attacks of paralyzing gut-level fear. What do you think I can do about it?

I forwarded this question on to an experienced businessperson in my network. Below is his very thoughtful and helpful response that you might forward onto to shy people you know in business.

There is a difference between shy and introverted. Shy means you are uncomfortable interacting with people generally, particularly strangers, whether one-on-one or in a group. Introverted simply means you are more comfortable by yourself or with one other person.

I think it is very possible to be successful in business as an introvert, but shyness will be an obstacle to success. An introvert (to provide a concrete example) might have no trouble closing the sale, as long as it is a meeting with one decision-maker and not a whole team at once. An introvert is often very good at relationship selling. Success in business is not always about being a visible leader – many F1000 CEOs are introverts, and I believe Jim Collins’ work (e.g. Good to Great) shows that introvert CEOs are generally more successful because (among other things) they don’t have the same ego to feed.

However, it *is* necessary to be able to speak in front of larger groups at least sometimes. I think the answer to this is Toastmasters. There, you learn how to do various kinds of public speaking, and you learn how to do it well without being nervous. Like many things, it’s all about getting used to it, and most people do not get the opportunity to speak publicly very often. This does not mean you end up loving it – it will be hard and sap your energy – but it will allow you to do it well enough to complement your generally introverted style of doing business.

Saying your piece in a group setting where you are not the “assigned” speaker is a somewhat different matter. I think the experience of Toastmasters and other public speaking will mitigate the discomfort somewhat, but not entirely. The real problem in this case is a lack of self-confidence. You may be afraid of ridicule, or of being wrong, or of getting into a debate with someone who has a strong personality and a big mouth. The solution consists of two pieces: appropriate filtering and appropriate handling.

Given that you are not inclined to just blurt out what you’re thinking, you should say something in a group meeting only when (a) you are pretty sure you are right, (b) you have something to say that is different than what everyone else is saying (that doesn’t mean you necessarily disagree – it could be additive), (c) what you have to say is important to the discussion. Oh, if only EVERYONE would filter this way, meetings would be a lot shorter. If you filter in this way, people will be less inclined to beat up on you, because they know you only contribute when it’s potentially valuable (they may disagree, but won’t be as harsh). Appropriate handling is how you position your thoughts. First, be explicit about your level of certainty (but don’t understate it just to hedge your bets). Second, don’t try to persuade, just try to explain. This is more objective and less likely to raise anyone’s competitive hackles. Third, as much as possible, position your thoughts as complementary to the preceding discussion rather than in opposition to it. This does not mean you should be Sarah Palin and *ignore* what was said before, and try to make it seem like you’re on the same page when you’re not. It means you should identify the points of common ground before you begin speaking and include them in what you say. Finally, if the bigmouth in the room *does* come back at you, you simply have to have a good response ready. My inclination, which is subtly sarcastic and wouldn’t work for everyone, is something like “why don’t we take it off-line and I can explain my thinking to you better.”

Shyness itself is simply a manifestation of low self-esteem. You can’t cure it by going to Toastmasters or anything else. Therapy, perhaps, can help with this. But you won’t be successful in business if you are shy. You could be successful as a worker bee, but not as a business person. Beyond a certain point of technical knowledge, business is all about dealing with people. We have different preferences with regard to how we deal with people (some people need to be in a group, some prefer one-on-one; some prefer to write and send email, others find it necessary to talk on the phone or in person). But if one is uncomfortable dealing with people, and in many cases in business they *will* be strangers, then I just don’t see how you can make that work. You have to believe that others will get value out of dealing with you – or they won’t.

D.C. Elites: Middle America Loves Palin’s Folksiness!

Reconciling the attitudes of the wise Few and the uneducated Masses — the elites and common folk — has been a point of contention throughout American political history. In the early days, John Adams was famously wary of an overly democratic democracy, whereas Thomas Paine championed every man’s voice.

This issue has once again come to the fore with McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as Vice Presidential candidate. Political commentators mostly agree that McCain chose Palin not because of her qualifications to be VP or President, but rather to shore up the conservative base and reinforce ties with “everyday” Americans. Palin, a hockey mom and evangelical Christian with no fancy degrees, is uniquely suited for this role.

To this end, folksiness underlies all of Palin’s rhetoric. Oftentimes, her overarching attempt at sounding like an everyman robs her statements of substance. In the VP debate the other night, here’s what she said on education policy:

Say it ain’t so, Joe [Biden], there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced [sic] your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I’m glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he’s a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here’s a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate.

What do people make of this?

Here’s what we don’t know: what “real” people in middle America think about it.

Here’s what we do know: the “media elites” (read: educated people who live in big cities) think that middle America loves it. Here’s what David Brooks said after the debate:

To many ears, her accent, her colloquialisms and her constant invocations of the accoutrements of everyday life will seem cloying. But in the casual parts of the country, I suspect, it went down fine.

In other words, we have latte-drinking, high-income intellectuals finding their own inner-Joe Sixpack and declaring, on behalf of casual America, “You go girl!” To speak on behalf of “real Americans” and imply that those voters place such vapidness at the center of their concerns — and indeed are swayed by the hometown shout-out or “doggone it” references — strikes me as patronizing.

By focusing on how middle America will take to Palin’s rhetoric, these conservative intellectuals get to dodge how they actually feel about it. For the entrenched partisan, it’s understandable. Any thinking person with a brain would find Palin’s inarticulate, anti-intellectual, and embarrassingly ignorant (middle east, supreme court, news media, any type of foreign policy) rhetoric perhaps cute for a small town mayoral race, but horrifying when delivered by the possible President of the United States.

Cal Newport and Ben: IM Conversation

Cal Newport is one of my favorite people. Although his "day job" is that of a PhD student in theoretical math at MIT, most of us know him as author of the Study Hacks blog, or freelance writer, or bestselling author.

In my ongoing quest to engage Cal’s mind in new and interesting ways, I asked him if he wanted to shamelessly copy Tyler Cowen and Ross Douthat who recently took to the Instant Messenger airwaves.

He agreed, and the other day we chatted for 45 minutes online about whatever came to mind. A lightly edited transcript appears below. Let me know what you think of this format. Topics covered in order:

  • Email habits / lifehacking
  • Career pressures induce ill-advised certainty in college students?
  • Why universities try do both research and undergrad teaching
  • The MacArthur Foundation and funding creatives like David Foster Wallace
  • Advice for those just starting college
  • Whether you should focus on something while young, or experiment widely
  • Temporary convictions Cal and I are acting upon
  • The biggest problem in the world

Ben:  So Cal, here we are on instant messenger. You have expressed concern about how email can be distracting. You don’t use Twitter because you say you don’t need yet another short-text distraction. Do you IM?

Cal:  Not intentionally. Though people occasionally find me on gchat. I don’t like the slow pace and partial attention. Do you?

Ben: No. Same. Slow pace, partial attention. I wonder whether I will flip to other windows during this chat, or just watch the screen say “Cal Newport is typing…”

Do you adopt 4HWW habits with email?

Cal: Not really. I don’t do auto-responders, and I check more than twice a day. The big thing I’ve done with mCalnewporty e-mail was move from a single inbox to multiple “mono-typic pigeon holes.”

Ben:  WTF is that?

Cal:  This is sort of the height of unnecessary life hackerish geekdom, but I’ll explain: all of my mail gets filtered into one label or the other, so my “inbox” is always empty. Also, all of my mail automatically gets tagged as read, so there’s no difference between read and unread messages

Ben:  Interesting. All marked as read. Why?

Cal: It prevents me from using my inbox as a big to-do list. Because I can’t really separate the new from the old, the easiest way to clean out a label (what I call a pigeonhole) is to actually have enough time to deal with everything and empty it out. If I read things quickly and then leave them in there, things get cluttered. It’s supposed to cut down on quick, attention-destroying glances at my inbox every 10 minutes.

Ben: A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a documentary on lifehackers and the life hacking movement. Among other things I said that people who are big in life hacking tend to be a certain personality type.

Cal:  What type did you describe for the documentary?

Ben: Super detail oriented. Neurotic. Oddly, sometimes also big procrastinators — setting up sophisticated life hack infrastructure IS their time wasting device. There was a book a few months ago that came out that said sometimes a messy office is the most efficient. I.e., don’t over-optimize.

Cal:  I heard about that. The Perfect Mess, or something… I felt a little dirty, earlier, explaining my inbox setup. It’s something that was kind of useful — like buying a message pad for your phone — but I get uncomfortable focusing too much on those details. I wonder why this is…

Ben: OK. Shifting gears. One thing I’ve been thinking of recently is whether college students interested in journalism and politics, in order to stand out, must prematurely coalesce around a political party or established ideology, and hold certain to those beliefs, in order to get the appropriate internships at those publications.

This worries me because college is the time when you’re supposed to be uncertain and maybe proud of wishy-washiness — and yet uncertainty is often seen as counter to a sophisticated political understanding. Or even on the career front. Not knowing what you want to do in life is seen as bad, when in fact this is the one time when you ought to wander and be unsure. Thoughts?

Cal: This was on my mind when I received a recent e-mail from a Dartmouth student who just started his first semester as a freshman. He was worried that he had no specialized enough to be a computer science of physics major. In other words, to him, it was not just fixing on something right away at college, he had the impression that this decision had to be made much earlier…

It’s a challenging question. To do what I do — professional research — certainly requires specialization. I think the same probably holds for politics — intern over your summers! — or journalism — start working up the ranks at the school paper! And I often encourage students to focus, focus, focus…

Ben:  Right.

Cal:  But I can sense your hesitance…

Ben: Like, if you want to work for the National Review over the summer in college, you need to be bleed Red through and through. So any uncertainty or moderateness is beaten out of you. This is unfortunate.

Cal: Maybe not. If you want reward you need to be better at something than anyone you know. This requires focus. However, this is just one thing. For everything else in your life you can be open-minded. So, sure, the National Review guy is die hard conservative. But it’s probably healthy to have that voice in the conversation. For most other people, who are not focusing on writing for the National Review, they can be open-minded about politics.

Ben:  You earlier called yourself a professional researcher. Why do universities try to both do research and teach undergrads? Why in the world should you be distracted with TAing a class, or worse, a senior scientist who has to teach a class on the side instead of finding the cure for cancer?

Cal:  You sound like an MIT professor. Here’s the thing that a lot of people don’t pick up about elite level research, for many of these hot shots (or hot shot wannabes) teaching is a side show at best and distraction to be avoided at worst.

Ben:  So why have undergrads at all? Why not spin off MIT research group from the undergrads? The theory I guess is that undergrads derive some benefit from being in the holy presence of renowned researcher?

Cal:  They have almost done that. An MIT prof has to teach one class a semester, and one class each year can be a graduate level "seminar." Yes, I think you’re right, it’s good for undergrads to be taught by people who are tops in the field…even if they’re not necessarily great lecturers.

Ben:  That’s arguable. I just read this DFW remembrance. See this part: "He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities." It says that after his first novel came out he spent the next 11 years teaching creative writing….and didn’t write another novel. It argues that he got sucked into the university system which proved ultimately a distraction.

Cal:  For a writer… If you’re a mathematician, for example, you’re much better off at Princeton than a cabin in the woods.

Ben:  True. Most fields require facilities, colleagues, etc.

Cal:  Indeed. And to be fair, I do know many professors that do like to teach undergrads. Some get really into the challenges of pedagogy. (Myself included.)

Ben:  I find interesting the article’s reference to "we need a new patron system" for creative people. It’d be awesome if there were 10 MacArthur Foundations!

Cal:  I agree. Otherwise, you do have to find these slots for yourself that might not be a great fit.

Ben:  The only viable slot for most is go teach at a university.

Cal:  Maybe I would be more useful to the world if my setup was more half-time writing and half-time doing research. This doesn’t really exist.

Ben:  Should the New York Times be in a public trust?

Cal:  You mean, something large enough that could basically support the NYT, as is, with no advertising or revenue needed?

Ben:  Correct.  i.e, a non-profit. The MacArthur Foundation basically says, "People like DFW and other creatives are essential for a flourishing society, so we’re going to support them and not have them worry about business model." Most news organizations spend tons of time thinking about business model as opposed to their main work and the question is their main work integral in some way to democracy or society or whatever?

Cal:  I like the MacArthur approach. Microsoft research labs is like that. So is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.

Ben:  Right. OK anything else we should discuss?

Cal: Last topic: advice for the college-aged. What would you tell an 18-year old arriving on campus about a college life well-lived?

Ben: First, read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Have you read it?

Cal:  We own it. My wife read it. I haven’t.

Ben:  You should. Especially given what you write about! My next piece of advice would be to focus on the “little things” — when and where you eat, meal plan, taking advantage of weather, having an ergonomic keyboard/chair, making sure your cell provider gets good reception in college campus, etc. Day in, day out, these little things make a big difference. Beyond that my advice becomes cliche — meet profs, have lots of sex, experiment outside your expected field of choice, etc.

Cal: What about the big question of “what should I do with my life?” As you know, my approach is sort of “there is no wrong answer, choose something and focus on it so you’ll start reaping rewards, you can always change later.”

Ben:  Your approach is similar to that great Andy Grove quote, “Act on your temporary convictions as if they were real ones, and when you realize you are wrong, change course very quickly.” The problem with what you said is “…you can always change later” is very, very hard. People have problems with sunk costs and inertia. That’s why I’m not a fan of “focus on something and start reaping the rewards.”

Cal:  Do you worry that on the other hand people get too hung up searching for some “right” path that doesn’t actually exist. Getting scared every time anything seems a little boring or annoying.

Ben: Maybe some search for the “right” path that doesn’t exist, sure. But the second thing you said, no. I think people tolerate waaaay too much boredom in their lives.

Cal:  Final follow-up: what are the temporary convictions, if any, in your life right now that you are taking seriously.

Ben: One conviction right now that I’m taking seriously is that travel is underrated and harder to do as one gets older, so I’m trying to travel as much as I can. You?

Cal: I’ve been a big believer in the 10,000 hour rule. Roughly, that being good at anything takes a long time. If you want to be good at something in your 20s, start in college. If you’re willing to wait until your 30s, you can start later. With this in mind, I’ve put my chips down on writing and solving interesting proofs.

Ben:  Interesting. What’s the biggest problem in the world right now?

Cal:  Unstable governments and massive inequity … which go hand in hand.

Ben:  I would say ‘poverty’ more than massive inequity. Inequality is not inherently bad

Cal:  We could put it this way: the low end of the scale is too low.

Ben:  Do either of your two main tasks – writing and solving proofs – solve this problem? Or do you think about that at all, i.e., world usefulness of your work?

Cal: Neither solves this problem. My writing, I hope, helps the small segment it targets. In some sense, I feel like that leverages my particular abilities to their fullest extent.

Ben:  With that, let’s call it a wrap!

Don’t Vote! No, Seriously, Don’t Vote

Chris Sacca just pointed me to this new YouTube video with tons of A-list celebrities urging us, "Don’t vote!" They each talk about different important issues in America and why none of it matters and why you should just not vote.

It’s a clever and funny reverse-psychology tactic to encourage voting. I think it’s Forest Whitaker who sums it up nicely: If you care, vote. At the end it displays information on how to register to vote. I suspect this video will obtain wide circulation.

But why do we so quickly accept the argument that anyone who cares ought to vote? The better advice is: If you know what you’re doing, vote. See Bryan Caplan’s recent three minute interview on CTV where he articulates this point.

Caplan says we don’t insist that everyone drive a car — we demand proof of driving ability first. We don’t want everyone performing surgery unless he/she has familiarity with anatomy. Why do we insist that everyone vote? The usual response is that uninformed voters balance each other out, but as Caplan shows in his excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, this doesn’t actually happen. Illogical policies get passed — oftentimes, I would add, policies that work against the self-interest of the person who innocently voted for them.

So, if you read up on the issues, please vote in November. If you aren’t informed, please voluntarily step away from the voting booth and keep your hands where we can see them!