Monthly Archives: October 2009

Knock-Offs in North Cyprus

North Cyprus has no IP laws. So there are knock offs galore. Two restaurants are particularly amusing examples. One is a restaurant called “Big Mac” which sports the golden arch and identical set-up as McDonald’s. Except it’s not McDonald’s. The second is called “Burger City” — replica of Burger King.

China has plenty of knock-off goods sold on the street, but at least there are laws so companies have some legal recourse if the fraudulence is egregious. In North Cyprus there are not even laws to begin with — so McDonald’s can do nothing but watch an entrepreneur copy every aspect of its store and logo.

Book Review: Truman by David McCullough

479px-Harry-trumanDavid McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman is one of the best books I’ve read in 2009. At over 1,000 pages, it is a complete examination of Harry Truman’s life and presidency, including blow-by-blow accounts of the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, the pivotal meetings with Churchill and Stalin at the finish of WWII, the Marshall Plan, the decision to send troops into the Korean War, his improbable re-election in 1948, and the crafting of America’s anti-communist foreign policy.

McCullough is a masterful biographer. His characters become larger than life, he describes historical scenes with gripping detail, and he interweaves just the right amount of subjective analysis with objective facts and events. The result is that you not only get a sense of Harry Truman the man, but you also learn an enormous amount about the period of history in which he led.

Biographies of presidents are portraits of leadership. They are instructive. From Truman I learned about how far decency, straight talk, cheerfulness, and grittiness can take you.

Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear.

It is said that George W. Bush read about Truman and his presidency while in office. I now understand why. Both had massive foreign policy decisions thrust upon them early in office; both were war-time presidents; both showed enormous resolve in making difficult decisions in face of criticism; both left office with very low approval ratings. Of course there are differences. On domestic policy, they had little in common. Truman was a common man of Missouri; Bush was born to the silver spoon. And while history has vindicated Truman, I don’t think the same will happen to Bush 43.

Assorted Excerpts:

  • To Hopkins, he advised using either diplomatic language with Stalin or a baseball bat, whichever would work.
  • As American as anything about this thoroughly American new President was his fundamental faith that most problems came down to misunderstandings between people, and that even the most complicated problems really weren’t as complicated as they were made out to be, once everybody got to know one another.
  • He is a most charming and a very clever person — meaning clever in the English not the Kentucky sense.
  • Dewey, it was cracked, was the only man who could strut sitting down.
  • There was something in the American character that responded to a fighter, said the Washington Post on its editorial page. “The American people admire a man with courage even though they don’t always agree with him.”
  • He ranked NATO with the Marshall Plan, as one of the proudest achievements of his presidency,
  • For the first time in history, a world organization had voted to use armed force to stop armed force.
  • In seventeen days of savage fighting, American and ROK forces had fallen back seventy miles. It was, in many respects, one of the darkest chapters in American military history.
  • that the greatest part of a President’s responsibilities was making decisions. A President had to decide. That’s his job.
  • His insistence that the war in Korea be kept in bounds, kept from becoming a nuclear nightmare, would figure more and more clearly as time passed as one of his outstanding achievements.
  • But Mamma could also observe that “Being too good is apt to be uninteresting” a line they all loved.
  • Here, he thought, was the eighth natural wonder of the world, a politician who didn’t take himself too seriously, a friendly, likable, warmhearted fellow with a lot of common sense hidden under an overpowering inferiority complex.
  • “You give a good leader very little and he will succeed,” he said, looking at the chairman; “you give a mediocrity a great deal and he will fail.”
  • And clearly he delighted in talking about himself. He was his own favorite subject, yet nearly always with a sense of proportion and a sense of humor.

The Best Time to Have Sex (and Do Other Things)

Best time to have surgery: Morning (4x less likely to have complications in the morning than between 3-4PM)

Best time to get a human being on the phone when calling a company's customer service line: As early as possible (lowest call volume)

Best day of the week to eat dinner out: Tuesday (freshest food, no crowds)

Best day to fly: Saturday (fewer flights means fewer delays, shorter lines, less stress)

Best time to fly: Noon (varies but pilots say airport rush hours coincide with workday rush hours)

Best time to exercise: 6-8PM (body temp highest, peak time for strength and flexibility)

Best time to have sex: 10PM-1AM (skin sensitivity is highest in late evening)

The nuggets are from Mark Di Vincenzo's Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That and Go There which I expect the fun-facts-at-cocktail-parties crowd is buying by the bucketload. The pointer is from Barking Up the Wrong Tree, via Andy McKenzie.

Note that the worst time to do anything is immediately after lunch.

How to Kill It: Passion and Patience

Gary Vaynerchuk delivered a highly entertaining 15 minute "keynote" at last year's Web 2.0 conference which is ostensibly about "how to build a personal brand" but is really about passion, hustle, grit, not making excuses, and wanting to win. His authenticity is what comes through most of all. He's all over the place, but it works. Embed:

(thanks to Rob Montz for sending)


I'm teaching a free one hour class on entrepreneurship tomorrow (Wednesday) on Edufire. Only 15 spots left.

Impressions and Lessons from Cyprus


I spent the last two weeks in North and South Cyprus. It is a beautiful country! I had the opportunity to meet many businesspeople, government officials, journalists, and students. Here's what I learned:

1. A Divided Country. The first thing to say about Cyprus, both because it's the reality and because the locals talk about it constantly, is the political situation. It is a divided country: Turkish Cypriots in the north, Greek Cypriots in the south. A U.N.-controlled "green line" divides the two sides. Like any disputed territory, each side has a different interpretation of history. This I.H.T. op/ed from last week does a good job at briefly describing the two historical narratives.

2. Will There Be Re-Unification? In 2004 citizens of both sides voted on a referendum on the Annan Plan which would have re-unified the country. The north (Turkish) voted yes and the south (Greek) voted no. Why did the Greek Cypriots vote against? Wikipedia offers several reasons. My impression is that there was in general a distrust that the north would fulfill its obligations in the plan and specifically that Turkish troops would ever leave. But the bottom line was economic self-interest: Why absorb a poorer per-capita neighbor? Why would you want your tax dollars to prop up a people who speak a different language and whose history on the island you resent?

Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. This creates even less incentive for the Greek-Cypriots. Had re-unification been a condition of EU membership, the island would have found a way, I think. Cyprus got into the EU as a divided country because Greece threatened to veto the Baltic countries' membership unless Cyprus gained admission. An obvious weakness of the EU is every member country wields veto power over new applicants.

3. Victimhood Narratives. I was impressed with the businesspeople and students I met in North Cyprus. There is so much to say in praise of their resilience. But I worry about one thing: self-pity, no matter how justified, is an unproductive endeavor. And the victimhood narrative seems to run deep in the North Cyprus psyche.

If you see yourself as a victim, by definition there must be a victimizer. For many Turkish-Cypriots, it is the Greek-Cypriots and the international community which recognizes the South. Victims also usually have saviors or protectors. This is Turkey. Thus emerges an easy formula for both excusing and explaining the past (the victimizer) and excusing and blaming failures of the future (the would-be savior). Missing from the equation is a sense of personal responsibility for the present and a spirit of self-determination to create a better future.

4. Leviathan and Santa Claus. ~ 50% of the people in North Cyprus work for the government. The government then, is both Santa Claus and Satan. When good things happen, thank the government. When bad things happen, blame the government. Individuals depend too much on the government. The government in turn depends on Turkey. We need a stronger and more active private sector. We need more entrepreneurs.

5. "We" vs. "I." Victimhood narratives and a bloated state chip away at individuality. If I were facilitating conversations in North Cyprus, I would prohibit anyone, on the topic of politics and national improvement, from starting a sentence with "We." Sweeping diagnoses of society at large fix nothing and distract attention from the one thing an individual can control: his or her own actions and beliefs. In the language of the collective we can forget that a "society" is comprised of individuals, and "society" only changes when each individual first changes himself. "We" proclamations in politics make for stirring rhetoric, but can stymie individual change. The unity sought by collectivist language, absent a foundation of independent individual minds, is rather brittle. Think Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world.

6. Should a Congressman Represent America or His District? It is in the U.S. national interest for Cyprus to be a unified country, not because of Cyprus per se (although a more stable country and larger economy benefits all countries, in the non-zero sum game of economic growth), but because a unified Cyprus is helpful for Turkey's admission to the E.U., and the U.S. wants Turkey in the E.U. Turkey is, after all, a majority Muslim country of 74 million with a secular, democratic government that stands at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.

Congresspeople don't necessarily hear this story, though. There are about three million Greek-Americans in the U.S. and they comprise a formidable lobby. They oppose unification and regard the Turkish presence in Cyprus as an illegal occupation. This muddies U.S. foreign policy and raises a question about democracy: Should a congressman put the desires and needs of the country ahead of the desires and needs of his particular district? If they conflict, should the national interest trump those of the district whose voters elected you?

7. The Physical and Psychological. It's easier to be a small island, economically speaking, in a globalized world: air travel is easy and cheap, and technology sends bits and bytes over the air regardless of whether it's land or sea below. But I still believe psychological boundaries erect when freedom of movement on your own two feet is limited. The American west worked so well an an idea because it lay physically far away. When the frontier opened, it was possible to get in your car in the east and drive for hours and hours into desert and red clay and canyons and forest. The west lured easterners who wanted to re-invent themselves. The new physical geography sparked new identities and modes of thinking. A small island cannot offer this as easily.

8. Good Food, Good Weather, Good People. There's so much pleasantness on the island. A stroll down Lidra street in Nicosia feels like the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, except more hip. The October weather I experienced was extraordinary. It's too hot in the summer, but fall and winter delight. The local food is delicious, if Mediterranean / middle eastern cuisine is your thing. For spicy girliemen like myself, the mildness of the cuisine meant I faced none of the "will this food burn my mouth?" anxiety that I faced in China in August. Don't forget baklava for dessert. Cypriot people are hospitable, friendly, interested.

9. Tourist Suggestions. 50% of tourists to Cyprus are Brits. It's a hot spot in Europe. I've never been to Turkey or Greece, but I've heard more enchanting stories about Turkey than Greece; so, if you wanted to stick to a single currency and language, a terrific itinerary would be a two week trip to Turkey and Northern Cyprus. In Cyprus, spend most of your time lounging around the harbor in Kyrenia and sitting on the stunning beaches. Devote a day or two to Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world, and soak up the history and observe the U.N. peacekeepers. Eat kebabs, drink Turkish yogurt, and if ancient history is your thing, marvel at relics of a 9,000 year old place.

10. Students Thinking Differently. I had the opportunity to address over 1,000 people on the island, and I have been touched by some of the emails and relationships I have struck up. It is inspiring to see people there thinking big things.

(The views above are mine, expressed as a private citizen, and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.)


On-the-ground lessons and impressions from:

My travel blog has over 250 on-the-ground dispatches from 25 countries.

Creativity: Loving, Knowing, Doing

‘…the most useful definition of creativity is the following: people are artistically creative when they love what they are doing, know what they are doing, and actively engage in art-making. The three elements of creativity are thus loving, knowing and doing; or heart, mind and hands; or, as Zen Buddhist teaching has it, great faith, great question, and great courage.’

Loving, knowing, doing. The secret behind becoming excellent at anything is loving one thing deep and hard enough to do it for a very long time. To continue to learn and know it.

That's Eric Maisel via Justine Musk, in her epic post on why you have to read like a maniac to develop a writer's intuition. Later she says:

Don’t just read because it will make you a better writer – although it will. Read because you love to read, you love stories of all shapes and sizes, you love the flow and rhythms and innovations of language, you love to learn stuff about people, you love to learn stuff about the world, you love to form relationships with individuals who don’t exist. Read because you love to write. Read because you love fiction and nonfiction and their pirate chests of treasures.

I can't imagine being interested in writing and not subscribing to Justine's blog.

Obtaining Honest Feedback

Earlier this year I was lucky to participate in a group dinner with five accomplished, interesting people.

One guy at the table you’ve probably heard of — let’s call him Unaware Big Man — began dominating the dinner conversation. He kept bringing the conversation back to his own experiences. He made great points — he is an exceptionally smart person — so at first we all went along with him playing professor. But soon enough people wanted to hear from others.

Unaware Big Man didn’t get this. He did not possess, for example, the social awareness to notice the body language of someone “getting in line” to speak next. Halfway through the dinner, an older gentleman semi-forcefully interrupted Unaware Big Man: “I want to hear what John has to say,” pointing to John across the table. Unaware Big Man had no idea he was being asked to simmer it down; he let John speak for 30 seconds and then jumped in with a friendly rebuttal.

I was astonished to witness someone so successful be so oblivious to the social dynamics of the dinner.

Here’s the kicker: everyone knew what was going on but none of us gave him feedback afterwards. None of us knew him well enough to say, “Hey man, you really talked a lot at dinner — let’s hear what other people have to say next time.” That might seem like easy feedback to give, but not when it’s to a high status person. I have no vested interest in his personal growth, but I do have an interest in him not thinking ill of me. It’s possible he takes the feedback the wrong way, or takes personal offense. The potential upside vs. potential downside calculation doesn’t compel me to deliver honest feedback.

Here’s the second kicker, a more general point: I’m sure all of us at one point or another have been the Unaware Big Man or Woman. Undoubtedly there have been times when one or more other people I’ve interacted with, in their heads, thought: “Gosh, Ben is annoying right now.” And yet, they don’t give me the feedback. The feedback loop breaks down.

Obtaining honest feedback is hard. Some CEOs tell me it’s the hardest part of their job. Without feedback you can’t improve. But as you acquire more power and status, people sugarcoat and are reticent to volunteer constructive criticism.

Four thoughts on this topic jump to mind:

1. For feedback on specifics — such as your participation at a dinner or a piece of writing — I think you have to proactively ask for it. It still might not come, honestly anyways, but if you don’t ask it almost definitely will not come. The rub, of course, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. It didn’t cross Unaware Big Man’s mind to ask me for my feedback on his dinner participation. I suppose the solution is to solicit feedback even when you think you did a good job and to do so without seeming needy or insecure.

2. It’s harder to get feedback on more permanent personality traits or long-standing habits. My friends Maria and Colin have solicited this type of feedback via the Nohari and Johari exercises, but it’s awfully hard to ask someone to assess your character in the abstract. If you’re looking for this kind of what-do-you-think-of-me-as-a-person commentary, here’s an idea from a friend. Tell someone: “I’m having a hard time dating. Why do you think people are not that into me?” This will prompt a range of “ideas” about what might be unattractive about any and every aspect of your being.

3. When I ask people whether they get honest feedback, sometimes they say, “Of course I do. I always give people honest feedback, and they know this is the case — and so I have no problem receiving it in return.” Not only does this not logically follow, but these types of bull-in-china-shop people are exactly the personalities which intimidate potential feedback-givers. My theory: If you give blunt feedback, you are actually less likely to get blunt feedback in return. The law of reciprocity does not apply here.

4. Should we value feedback less when it comes from people who don’t know us than feedback that comes from people who do know us well? Intimacy to a person means you are more likely to be forthright but also more biased and invested in a relationship. Also, how much does anonymity increase honesty and is the tradeoff of not being able to contextualize feedback worth the honesty boost that comes from anonymity?

We Like to be Shocked Because It Means We’re Innocent

The other day, sitting in a cafe here in Nicosia, Cyprus, I glanced at CNN International on the TV as the anchor ran through the headlines. Serious dispatches from Africa, from Europe, from Colombia, and then…from the leader of the free world…balloon boy!

Lee Siegel, on the incident that dominated the headlines, writes:

Along with the primal terror of a threatened child, there is something about the ordeal of innocence that strikes deep in the American soul. We are still shocked by everything, by sex scandals, by marital infidelity, by corruption, by violence, by public displays of anger—not an hour goes by when society is not rocked, briefly, by alarm, and then hysteria over Something That Happened Out There. We like to be shocked because we like to think of ourselves as innocent enough to be shocked. So in the spectacle of a child endangered and of all the country’s law-enforcement, and military, and technological resources used to try to save the child, we perhaps see our innocence put to the test, and our strengths and virtues fully on display in response.

It recalls Robin Hanson's interesting essay on Innocence vs. Insight. Why are we so taken with innocence, an apparently attractive form of ignorance?


I have yet to find a series of insults and defenses more impressive or hilarious than those that Lee Siegel-in-disguise hurled against his detractors.


Here's Robin Hanson on why people do not care about inequality of beauty (while we do care about inequalities related to genders or ethnicities). Should we compensate ugly people for their bad luck?

Here's Hanson, in response to David Letterman's forced admission that he slept with female producers on his show, in praise of blackmail.

What I’ve Been Reading

A politics kick:

1. The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy by Joe Mathews

A stupendously researched account of the first years of Schwarzenegger’s governorship of California. It is sufficiently detailed as to only probably interest those who follow California politics, but then again, isn’t everyone intrigued by The Governator? After reading you feel sympathetic to Arnold’s attempt to reform California and newly cynical about the prospect of anyone being able to effect meaningful change. The title of the book refers to Arnold’s strategy of governing via ballot initiatives and circumventing the legislature. His success in office has depended on whether the people vote up or down his many ballot initiatives. Voters are influenced by the interest groups which run California. When the teachers’ unions came out against his slate of initiatives a few years ago — spending millions of dollars to flood the state with ads bashing Arnold and his proposed reforms, which included such insane ideas like lengthening the time it would take for teachers to gain tenure from 3 to 5 years — his initiatives went down, along with his governorship.

2. Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough

A good look at TR‘s childhood and early influences. McCullough is masterful, as ever. Here’s Edith Wharton on TR:

…he was so alive at all points, and so gifted with the rare faculty of living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passed…

Living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passes: not a bad goal.

3, 4. Dead Right (1992) and Comeback (2008) by David Frum. Frum is one of the wisest conservative commentators. I support his new project, Newmajority, which (unofficially) stands to rebuke the Sarah Palin wing of the Republican party — and her talk radio side-kicks — and instead promote a smarter renewal of a conservative movement. Dead Right is more serious and comprehensive and I recommend it to anyone interested in an insider’s take on the conservative scene in the 80’s and 90’s. Comeback is positioned as a playbook for the Republican Party in the coming years but it struck me as rushed and not terribly persuasive. I am intrigued at Frum’s evolving view on the role social issues should play in the Republican Platform. His shift is evident when you read his two books back to back. Myself, I am not at home in the Republican Party because of the social views they espouse and so I am always interested in how GOP commentators position their party on this front for the future, given changing demographics and related views on gay marriage and the like.

Language Learning in Cyprus

Turkish-Cypriots in school study Turkish and for foreign languages usually choose from English and French.

Greek-Cypriots in school study Greek and for foreign languages usually chose from English and a European language.

Remember that the Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots live right next to each other on the island.

Neither government has its public schools teach the language of the other side.

It’s hard to come to a resolution of a dispute when you can’t understand who you’re talking to!