Monthly Archives: July 2010

I Know That You Know That I Know

Malcolm Gladwell's article this past May examined the "I-know-they-know-I-know-they-know" regress as it relates to spying and national intelligence. If country X knows that country Y is intercepting their communications, isn't country X likely to communicate intentionally wrong information? It's an interesting read.

On a more personal level, social situations where I know the other person knows something about me but they are not aware that I know that they know, or variations thereof, are always intriguing and challenging. Interactions bulging with meta data.

Andre Aciman, in a long, interesting essay in The American Scholar, touches on similar themes when, as an aside, he talks about his favorite French novels which have sentences or paragraphs like:

Her lover knew, by the way she showed every conceivable proof of love for him, that she was determined to say no to him.


Her future husband could tell, by the way she blushed whenever they were alone together, that she felt neither love, nor passion, nor desire for him; her blushes came from exaggerated modesty, which in her coy, girlish way she was pleased to mistake for love. The very means meant to conceal her blushes is precisely what gave them away. Her husband guessed by how happy his wife was when she heard that their friend was not going to join them on their trip to Spain that he was the one with whom she’d have betrayed him if only she had the courage.


The frown with which she seemed to dismiss the man she wished she didn’t love told him everything he longed to know. Even the abrupt, rude manner with which she snapped at him as soon as they were alone was a good sign: she was more in love with him than he had ever hoped.


I thought that if anything could rekindle your feelings for me, it was to let you see that mine too had changed, but to let you see this by feigning to wish to conceal it from you, as if I lacked the courage to acknowledge it to you.

A Question Men Ask Themselves


Elsewhere in the world of gender:

  • Marty Nemko on how men don't have it easy in society.
  • The always-funny Kelly Oxford tweets: New numbers: 100% of girls with good posture are called 'bitches'.
  • Here is how to give a great man to man hug. Highly informative. I would just add that if you're doing a goodbye hug it should be at the very end of the interaction. Any sooner, and you risk having to pass time with the person you just hugged / said-goodbye-to — could it get any more awkward?


Elsewhere on the web, and on completely different themes: I was moved by Tony Judt's reflection in the NYRB about trying to sleep with Lou Gehrig's disease. Eric Falkenstein's detailed critique of Nassim Taleb in general and Black Swan in particular was interesting — I'm not qualified to comment on the more technical finance / math points, but I do agree that Taleb's (and many others') constant bashing of "experts" has gone way overboard. I learned quite a bit about the history of American foreign policy from George Packer's review of Peter Beinart.

Book Review: How to Be a High School Superstar

Cal Newport’s latest book is called How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).

This is a book with loads of original ideas for any student at any level on how to do remarkable things that will favorably attract the attention of others, and in particular college admissions officers. Cal details his various philosophies such as:

  • Why doing less is the foundation for becoming more impressive.
  • Why demonstrating passion is meaningless, but being interesting is crucial.
  • Why accomplishments that are hard to explain are better than accomplishments that are hard to do.

Woven into effortless prove, compelling personal examples, and rigorous academic research, are boxes such as the following:

The Laundry List Hypothesis: Adding to your schedule an activity that could be replicated by any student willing to sign up and invest a reasonable amount of time in it can hurt your impressiveness.

The Goodness Paradox: Most people assume they know how to become good. Yet most are not good at anything. (He goes on to explain how exactly you can get good at something.)

Cal is probably the most rigorous and eloquent writer in the student success space. Because of the sophistication of his ideas — clearly presented as they may be — I expect this is a book only the best high school students (though all parents) will fully appreciate.

For purposes of full disclosure, in addition to Cal being a good friend and collaborator, there’s a chapter in the book on me. He focuses on how I used the “law of under-scheduling” and “law of randomness” to build a gap year after high school that turned out to be the most phenomenal 15 months of my life.

This is not a book I could have or would have written. He starts from the premise that admission to a selective college is the goal of high school. By emphasizing how one can seem impressive to college admissions officials, Cal addresses the millions of high school students and parents for whom this task is foremost. He wisely ignores folks like me who sit on the radical fringe and start from the premise: “Why college?” Fortunately, many of his philosophies have broad, general application, regardless of the path you choose. So come one, come all.

I highly recommend this book to parents and driven students. Cal and I will do something special for readers of this book later in the year. So if you’re interested go ahead and buy the book and hold onto your Amazon receipt.

How to Think About Money

"Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don't want to run out of gas on your trip, but you're not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn't be about the money." — Tim O'Reilly

The Feel-Bad Effect from Not-So-Close Facebook Friends

My good friend Stan James writes about how social networks amplify the feel-bad-in-comparison effect when you see people raving about how glorious their lives are:

In my trips back to Colorado, I have been struck each time by the discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private. On Facebook they have been on an amazing vacation to exotic beaches. In person they confess that the vacation was a desperate attempt to save a marriage. On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven’t been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company

What’s interesting is that this feel-bad Facebook effect seems to come from a distinct source: not-so-close Facebook friends.

In the case of true close friends, you know about all the crap that is going on in their lives. From deep interaction, you know the specific pains and doubt that lies behind the smiling profile picture…

Since TV was invented, critics have pointed out the dangers of watching the perfect people who seem to inhabit the screen. They are almost universally beautiful, live in interesting places, do intereseting work (if they work at all), are unfailingly witty, and never have to do any cleaning. They never even need to use the toilet. It cannot be pschologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms.

So it’s interesting that social networks have inadvertently created the same effect, but using an even more powerful source. Instead of actors in Hollywood, the characters are people that you know to be real and have actually met. The editing is done not by film school graduates, but by the people themselves.

In the end, my friend’s strategy seems to be the right one: don’t spend too much time purusing the lives of people who aren’t in your life. And spend more time learning about the uncut, unedited, off-line lives that your friends are actually living.

Very true when reading other people's public content. People tend not to share their warts in public forums. Keep that in mind if you feel shitty in comparison when reading about the apparent charmed life of a blogger you don't know well in real life.

Four years ago I wrote a somewhat similar post but from the perspective of a person who writes generally upbeat tweets and blog posts. When you know you are going to blog about an experience before you have the experience, you want it to be good so that you can write a positive post that's fun to write and read. It changes the actual experience to be more positive. After writing about the (positive) experience, it's in the historical record. When you read old posts to remember your past, you feel happy about all the positive experiences you accumulated and recorded. It's not just about whitewashing the past or selective memory (though this is part of it); there's an anticipatory effect of sharing the experience in a public forum that changes the actual experience for the better.


I just told a friend I was writing this post. She said, "This is a litmus test I use for how close I am with a friend. If s/he doesn't tell me anything bad about their life, I assume we're not very good friends."


Note to readers: Blogging will be light for the next month due to extensive travel, and probably more sporadic than usual for the rest of 2010. If you don't already use an RSS reader I encourage you to do so, and subscribe to this feed. You can also get my posts via email.

Five Nights in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Rio airport is pretty dinky. First impression is not of a global city that's hosting the Olympics in a few years.

Exiting the baggage area there's a booth where you can secure a pre-paid, government authorized taxi. As we approached the desk, three different ladies from three different tables screamed at us and tried to get our attention. I stopped and asked them, "What's the difference between you guys?" "No difference, just different companies" they said, and then kept on waving us to their desk. Of course, I thought, there had to be a difference — why else would there be competition stationed right next to each other?

In fact there was no difference. Three official companies, offering the exact same taxi service, for the exact same price, to the exact same locations — and each vigorously competing for your business. It was rather unnerving to encounter the sales theatrics. They would do better to at the least alternate / take turns in securing customers. Or, better, do as Chile does: have just one official taxi company or have multiple companies that offer different services.

After buying the pre-paid voucher, we left the secure area and entered the main airport terminal. Zero taxi touts. It was calm and quiet. A man came up to us and politely pointed us in the direction of the taxi. Far less chaotic than the Santiago international arrivals section.

The first Saturday morning the hotel breakfast was packed with Brazilians and other foreigners but noticeably few gringos. This set the tone — throughout our time in Rio we've seen only a few Americans / English speakers. Where are the Americans? Perhaps they come during the U.S. winter…

Our first days walking around Rio were spectacular. This is a beautiful city. We're staying on Copacabana beach. It's huge, stunningly beautiful, and behind the beach are jagged mountains which makes it seem all the more tropical. Unlike in Costa Rica, the big, bustling city of Rio bumps right up against the beaches — it's truly an urban beach city, and the city is substantial.

An iconic mosaic tile promenade continues all along the beaches. Free of cars, it's a lovely multi-hour stroll. At one point in the promenade there's a "Muscle Beach" weight lifting area, Venice Beach style.

On Sunday J. ran The Rio half-marathon with some blog readers and then we all met up for a massive all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet. Delicious.

Safety — no problem. Even though everyone I know seems to have been robbed in Rio, the Leme and Ipnemna neighborhoods seemed safer than B.A.

Dogs — no stray dogs in Brazil. Beats Chile on this front.

Beauty stereotypes — about women are true.

Chris Sacca on How International Travel Informs Entrepreneurship

My friend Chris Sacca, micro-VC and former Googler, in a recent interview on TechCrunch TV says he prefers to hire people in Silicon Valley who've traveled / lived outside the United States:

Folks who have been exposed to [the developing world] tend to be a lot easier to work with here. They see the bigger picture, they feel lucky to be in such a privileged setting, and they go after what they're doing not just as a for-profit entrepreneur but they see a much more whole approach to business.

He goes on to talk about how traveling abroad forces humility on you. It also builds patience, in my experience.

On Silicon Valley, Chris says:

Silicon Valley is a way of thinking about business: it’s a way of focusing on end users and their problems; it’s a way of hiring smart people, paying them relatively little, but giving them equity in the company; it’s a way of sharing information with the people that you work with, flat transparent organizations… peers working side by side to solve problems; it’s a lot of optimism, it’s a lot of focusing on big problems and audaciously trying to pursue solutions there.

Below is the embed. In other clips, Chris talks about The Next Big Thing (mobile), Twitter, and other topics.

The Secular Church, Continued

French 19th-century sociologist Auguste Comte started one in his time. Here's how it worked:

He observed that conventional faiths usually cemented their authority by providing people with daily (and even hourly) schedules of who or what to think about – rotas typically pegged to the commemoration of a holy individual or supernatural incident. So he announced a calendar of his own, animated by a pantheon of secular heroes and ideas. In the religion of humanity, every month would be devoted to the honouring of an important field of endeavour – for example, marriage, parenthood, art, science or agriculture – and every day to an individual who had made a valuable contribution within these categories.

….in Comte's religion of humanity, there were classes and sermons to help inspire one to be kind to spouses, patient with one's colleagues and compassionate towards the unfortunate.

Because Comte appreciated the role that architecture had once played in bolstering the claims of old religion, he proposed the construction of a network of secular churches or, as he called them, temples of humanity. …Inside the temples, there would be lectures, singing, celebrations and public discussions. Around the walls, sumptuous works of art would commemorate the greatest moments and finest men and women of history. Finally, above the west-facing stage, there would be an aphorism, written in large golden letters, invoking the congregation to adopt the essence of Comte's philosophical-religious world-view: Connais-toi pour t'améliorer ("Know yourself to improve yourself").

…in London, where secular services were held every Sunday morning. "We gratefully commemorate the beauty of mother earth," began one example, which Congreve delivered in a white tunic with a chain around his neck bearing Comte's image on one side and Plato's on the other. "We meet as believers in humanity. We use all that the past can offer us by way of wise utterances – poems or music, the religious writings of the east or west – but we admit of no revelation and no being outside of man."…

My previous secular church round-up post.

Tim O’Reilly: A Splendid Life

Tim O'Reilly:

  • Runs a $100 million dollar book publishing and conference business
  • Runs a venture capital fund that invests in tech entrepreneurs
  • Owns a pair of white Icelandic horses that he enjoys taking care of
  • Bakes scones and serves them with a strawberry jam that he makes himself
  • Happily married for 35 years
  • Lives on a 14-acre apple orchard in beautiful Sebastopol, CA

More from the profile of him:

O'Reilly says he has tried to use his company to demonstrate that being an entrepreneur can represent a means of exploring the world, one that is just as profound as religious inquiry or Greek philosophy or New Age introspection. "Business doesn't have to be separated from the rest of life," he says.

A Jr. MacArthur Foundation and Colin Marshall

There needs to be a MacArthur Foundation that focuses on emerging talents. It should give no-strings-attached grants to emerging talents in the same way MacArthur does for established talents. The grants would be given regardless of type of talent, though it would emphasize those demonstrating extraordinary creative potential yet who do not have much money. (I support economic affirmative action at young levels; I do not support racial affirmative action.) The current MacArthur genius grants are terrific in that they're given to individuals instead of causes or projects, but oftentimes the people don't really need the money or recognition. This "Junior MacArthur" program would involve placing riskier bets on still unproven individuals who nevertheless display great potential and tremendous self-direction. Grantees would use the money however they see fit to make the world a better place.

The first grantee should be Colin Marshall. Colin is a talented artist. He is one of the clearest thinking writers on the web. He runs a successful radio interview program. He runs a site about podcasts. He writes columns. He writes essays. He writes blog posts. He makes films. He tweets prolifically. He's 25 years old.

But there's a problem: his work doesn't generate much money. It's always been hard to make a living as an artist or self-employed intellectual. Especially so when Colin, by his own admission, knows nothing about making money:

Kinda trippy that I've biologically persisted nearly to the age of 25 without any idea whatsoever of how to make enough money to buy a car, isn't it?…I react to the mechanics of moneymaking with the same befuddlement that many of these well-heeled vehicle owners do when they stare at the dark, occult forms under their hoods.

At present, Colin has to spend some portion of his day doing bullshit work:

…[W]hatever one could call my "creative daily routine" turns out to be highly variable, since I have to wedge it in around "regular work," that is to say, the stuff that pays me cash bucks but is not broadcasting/interviewing, writing/essayism, film/video or sound/music. (I'm not sure how much sense it makes to organize life this way at my age, but bear with me.)

He knows the bullshit work could, if he's not careful, become the real work:

I've seen more than a few people fall into this basic scenario: get some McJob or cultivate an unengaging "fallback" career to support whatever it is they "really" do; grow dependent on the entity providing said McJob/fallback; build up a lifestyle whose monthly expenditure requires said employment; gradually, imperceptibly forget about real endeavors in the name of shorter-term concerns; become some hideous institutional creature, like a blind fish that feeds whatever nutrients happen to float across the ocean floor.

In any event, some extra money would go a long way for him:

…I personally reside at the point on the curve where an extra few grand — or, say, a double sawbuck left in the ATM — can greatly widen the smile on my face. Maybe this is a bad sign for someone my age, but when I saw Sibilance link to a WSJ article about how a 22-year-old girl managed to make it in NYC on $30,000 a year, my reaction was not "Woah, how'd she swing that?" but a series of elaborate fantasies about all the things I could do with the impossible dream of $30,000. Hell, what couldn't I do? That's "thousand" with a T, people. (And yes, when I think about how Ira Glass famously made "only" $60,000 a year for a long time while working hard on the radio, my inner voice becomes Robin Leach's.)

Of course, Colin could (and should) learn more about how to monetize his talents. But beyond a basic increase in entrepreneurial savvy — which would not require selling out by the way — beyond that, it becomes difficult to do the kind of work that he does (esoteric film reviews, for example) without spending a huge amount of time trying to raise money or work dull side jobs.

If Colin could focus on his art and not worry about the cash bucks, the world would be a richer place. I realize there are a million other people who think of themselves as falling into this category. Many writers, for sure. I'm highlighting Colin because a) he's a friend, b) he's young, c) a small amount of money could go a long way for him.

Bottom Line: Someone should start a program that gives no-strings-attached grants to high potential individuals under 30 with extraordinary creative potential (yet little money), and a demonstrated ability to self-direct and self-manage. Person-driven philanthropy.