Assorted Musings

Quick thoughts, cheap shots, and bon mots.

1. One of the most important qualities of a friend or romantic partner is the person's ability to "read" you well — pick up on your body language and cues, detect moods, etc. We want to feel understood. It's critical for inner circle folks to be able to hear in our voice unspoken sadness, or detect in a smile unusual excitement.

2. The true test of whether a story or video or movie is funny is whether you laugh at it when alone. Laughter is primarily a social bonding exercise. When with others we laugh to bond with them more than because of the actual humor of the thing. Being alone, then, provides the best test of innate humor of a product.

3. When observing behavior, I enjoy spotting forced low-keyness or calculated laid-backness. It's, like, so hip to be laid-back!

4. It's easier to edit than to write new words. Similarly, it's easier to critique a plan than to offer brand new ideas. So when you're soliciting feedback from someone, show them something concrete and ask for their feedback. Instead of "What should I do?" ask "What do you think of my plan X?"

5. Would you rather read someone who, when he's good, he's really really good but has some clunkers, or someone who steadily churns out "pretty good" stuff? Tyler Cowen says the former: "You read people for their peaks."

6. Would you rather have a big impact on a small number of people, or a small impact on a large number of people? Most businesspeople seem to say small on big. I'm not so sure.

7. There are two schools of thought around the pace of romantic relationships in college. The first says that when you date someone in college your relationship gets vastly accelerated by virtue of living 24/7 in the same place as your partner. Hence the rule of thumb: double the length of your relationship to get the equivalent amount of time in the real word. That is if you were in a six month relationship in college, due to the extraordinary amount of time you've probably spent with that person during those six months, it probably has the dynamics and intimacy of a twelve month relationship that exists outside of school.

The contrasting view says the length of college relationships should be halved to get a "real world" equivalent because it's so easy in a school setting: you're close by, not working, go to the same parties, etc. You get a pass on many of the challenges real-life couples face. Auto-pilot is easier. Growth and intimacy does not come from autopilot. My view? Somewhere in the middle of these two views.

8. In my post on restaurants I said that waiters should place dessert menus on the table and force patrons to decline dessert after reading the description of chocolate cake. Last week in Mexico City the restaurant did one better: they placed samples of each of the desserts on the table, and then asked, "Which would you like?"

9. "As a country we can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, and sick." – John Steinbeck

10. Say you're feeling sad so you listen to a song that tends to pick you up — a song that you know makes you happy. For awhile, the song will make you happy. But soon enough the association will change. If you always listen to a song when you're sad — in an attempt to make you happy — the association of that song will become sad, and you must find a new song. (Hat tip to Stan James for this theory.)

11. Stickers that say "Made in China" (or wherever) are misleading in this era of globalization and distributed development / manufacturing. Any reasonably complex product consists of many parts made all over the world. The one company that nails the "Made in…" sticker is Apple. On the back of every iPod and iPhone is: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." California! Sun! Beaches! Designed by Apple! In California! I'm surprised more companies haven't copied Apple. Oh wait – Microsoft did. On the back of the Zune is the text "Hello from Seattle…Assembled in China." Crickets.

12. When you wrap something in irony, you don't really mean what you say. Excessive use of irony, then, becomes an act of self-protection, and can be a sign of insecurity.

13. "You" is the most popular person when speaking informally. For example, "I think you gotta work really hard before anything good will happen." People use the second-person even when they are not referring to you (the person on the receiving end of the message). To use third-person ("one") can sound too formal and stuffy. But be careful. Recently at lunch someone casually used "you" to refer to a generic person but it came across as if he was condescending to me, specifically. I try to mix up second and third person and occasionally qualify "you" by saying, "I'm referring to 'you' generally, of course." These are little things but make a difference.

14. In April and May I'll be speaking in El Paso, TX; Kent, OH; Los Angeles; Baltimore; and Reno. Email me for details or if you want to meet up.

7 comments on “Assorted Musings
  • I quite agree with number 5, and I think it especially true with blogging. We often are introduced to a new blog because of a “peak,” and the underlying theme of the “ordinary” posts can sustain our interest until the next one (if they come often enough). An interesting insight.

  • How about 12 + 13: Sarcasm and irony are used as an equivalent of the second person familiar (te or tu) form in English– while we often say exactly the opposite of what we mean to our friends, it would be considered impolite to do so to a teacher, etc.


  • By nature I’m always sincere. Sometimes sincerity doesn’t come across as sophisticated enough and a quick ‘away glance’ will suggest to me that what I said wasn’t perceived as very intelligent or original. In these cases, I console myself that they couldn’t know that I wasn’t being ironic. So you can hide behind irony either way!

  • I’m overly aware of the moments I LOL by myself. In the past I’ve actually jotted down what I was watching at the time so I could remember it and download it online or something.

    I’ve always agreed that LingOL by oneself is the true test of hilarity.

    As far as the schools of thought on relationships: I’ve been in several LTRs in school, the “real world” and a mixture of the two. I think any setting that brings the stark realities of mundane dating life to the forefront the quickest gives the truest picture of a relationship. It’s difficult for college to give the “first best” true picture of “real world” life because of the constant and diverse outside stimulus and distraction that keep us busy (i.e. parties, larger groups of friends, frats/sororities etc.).

    When you enter the real world, sitting on the couch, watching TV after a long day’s work becomes more of the norm. Oh, and it’s really boring.

  • Ben:

    On 3., how can you tell the difference between ‘calculated’ and ‘natural’? Some people (including me) may find initial moments in a bunch of strangers difficult but we are ok once we warm up, so to speak.

    On 5., you offer 3 scenarios but later say “the former’. Um, what? Former implies a latter ergo, two choices, not three. So which one do you mean? No, I did not click on Cowen’s link. :-/

    To 6., I had responded saying I prefer big impact on a small number of people; because if I can enthuse, energise and motivate them enough, I set into motion a spiral of virtue where they can go forth and continue the progress of the idea/ project/ mission etc. I may fit your ‘businessperson’ category (I run a business, have always worked in business, have a business degree etc..).

    On 12., I agree that excessive use can kill the puissance of irony. But the most important thing is that your audience gets that you are being ironic. In my experience, and at the risk of two broad generalisations, I have never seen irony work with two groups of people – Americans and Indians (yes, “my” people).

    On 13., too defensive 😉 It is ok to risk being misunderstood sometimes. If everyone understands you perfectly all the time, where would ‘what do you mean’ or ‘I don’t agree’ conversations come from?

  • As an American-Indian, I suppose there’s no chance of (even unintended) irony working for me! (This is only slightly ironical.. mainly it’s a pun because I know you meant Bhārat.)

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