Monthly Archives: October 2013

Practice vs. Practice That Leads to Refinement

Herbert Lui writes:

As Ira Glass so famously put it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.

To which the always-worth-reading Will Wilkinson responds (in a post that seems to have disappeared):

This strikes me as correct, incorrect, and boring. That practice makes perfect is not news. But perfect is unlikely to be made unless one practices toward it. It’s not possible to do or make something really well without a huge investment of time and energy, and most of that has to be spent on what amount to mundane excercises. Writing thousands of blog posts is good practice for writing generally, and I believe it has improved my prose. Yet this sort of thing is not good practice for refining one’s writing unless one tries to write with increasing refinement. Otherwise, one develops ingrained habits of shittiness. Perhaps the greatest hazard of journalism is that one accedes sooner or later to the norm of clarity, to the debased idea that the aim of style is efficient communication. The perfection of prose lies in the music, energy, and intelligence of expression, and one doesn’t approach it by hammering out volumes of airplane magazine writing.

That said, one can’t write oustanding stories or outstanding books  just by polishing sentences, or fixating on any other single element of the larger craft. One must write stories and books, and the more of them one writes, the better they’ll get. But, duh.

As he says, duh, but worth remembering. I was “practicing” my public speaking for several years, but until recently (!), wasn’t actually refining my skills in an intentional way. Probably the same with my writing — I’m ingraining whatever habits I’m ingraining. I’m not actively improving. I’d like to change that, as I’m doing with speaking.

Speaking of writing, here’s an interesting couple paragraphs on whether Updike was an artist or just an expert craftsman with words, on whether good writing is good enough:

One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.

The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to [critic James] Wood’s question [“of whether beauty is enough”] is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.

San Francisco’s New Entrepreneurial Culture

My old friend Nathan Heller has a new piece in the New Yorker about how youthful go-getter entrepreneurs, and the companies they’re founding, are remaking the culture of San Francisco. I am quoted in the piece. It’s impressionistic — it gives you a feel of the place — more than it advances a single overriding thesis. This sentence caught my attention:

[San Francisco contains a] rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.

 Worth a read.

Nassim Taleb on Living in the City vs. Country/Nature

On Facebook, he writes:

I have a question about true vs constructed preferences, wondering if some of my personal observations are general. Feel free to share your own.
Places held to be touristically either uninteresting or unattractive (or not particularly special) are associated in my personal memory with a lot better souvenirs than places held to be attractive. These “attractive” places evoke boredom (after the first contact and “wow! how beautiful” the scenery), rich farts, gold-diggers, Saudi “princes” in convertible Italian handmade sports cars, tourists being fleeced by locals, etc. This is easily conceivable based on habituation: inside a café, trapped in conversation, you forget that you are in West Philadelphia. Kahneman had a paper indicating that people who live in California are not really happier than those in the rest of the country, but don’t know it, and live under self-sustained myths. After a brief period, you treadmill to baseline. But as with people who are in California telling themselves that they have to be happier, because that’s the prevalent belief, we end up living in a postcard-like system of constructed preferences.
I agree that being exposed to natural beauty, once in a while, brings some aesthetic contentment, or episodic visits to the country bring some relief. And I accept that it is better to have some fractal dimension (trees, nature) in one’s permanent landscape. But I wonder if, for day-to-day life, one needs much more than ample sunlight and view of trees outside the window: beyond that, no postcard life can be a tradoff for absence of trusted and warm neighbors, plenty of relaxed friends, stimulating conversation, ability to walk places, and a consuming activity.
When I look into my personal raw preferences, I feel I prefer Brooklyn to the South of France, ugly West Philadelphia to the scenic Amherst (Mass), Milan to Florence, and Clerkenwell to Kensington. Question: Do we tend to follow the current culture as punishment?

(Hat tip: Ted Gonder)

Who Today is Driving a Herd of Symbolic Bulls Through the Gardens of Convention?

The best opening paragraph to a profile of someone that I’ve read in awhile:

The most important thing about artists is that they should behave like artists. Who wants a creator who sounds like a real estate agent when you could have one who walks his pet lobster through the Palais Royal gardens on a blue silk ribbon? Responsible behavior in an artist is like modesty in a stripper: unbecoming, dispiriting and not at all what you signed up for. Today they often appear like business gurus or politicians, slick with financial nous and deep into the yoga of modern public relations, and it’s possible to forget that we once looked to the artist to ridicule our common pieties. We once had Salvador Dalí teasing his mustache and the public’s unconscious. We had Andy Warhol creating a scene, producing movies, art, fashion, offering himself as a strange and wonderful embodiment of the idea that the artist could be a work himself. Who is the Picasso of today — driving a herd of symbolic bulls through the gardens of convention and changing our idea of how to see?

His name is Not Vital.

Book Review: In the Plex by Steven Levy

plexSteven Levy’s 2011 book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives is very much worth reading for anyone in or around the tech industry, or for an outsider who’s seeking an accessible description of what makes Google’s business magical. In other words, even if you know a lot about Google already, there are dozens of interesting nuggets about the creation of the various products. And if you don’t know the first thing about AdWords or why Google search is better than other services, you’ll find a jargon-free yet still sophisticated description.

My Kindle highlights from the book are below.


Google even had its own version of the Learning Annex, called Google University. Besides a number of work-related courses (“Managing Within the Law,” “Advanced Interviewing Techniques”), there were classes in creative writing, Greek mythology, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and, for those contemplating a new career funded with Google gains, “Terroir: The Geology & Wines of California.”

‘Do the right thing’ or something more positive?” she asked. Marissa and Salar agreed with her. But the geeks—Buchheit and Patel—wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be evil” pretty much said it all, as far as they were concerned. They fought off every attempt to drop it from the list. “They liked it the way it was,” Sullivan would later say with a sigh. “It was very important to engineering that they were not going to be like Microsoft, they were not going to be an evil company.”

But then Eric Schmidt revealed Google’s internal motto to a reporter from Wired. To McCaffrey, that was the moment when “Don’t be evil” got out of control and became a hammer to clobber Google’s every move. “We lost it, and I could never grasp it back,” she says. “Everybody would’ve been happy if it could’ve been this sort of silent code or little undercurrent that we secretly harbored instead of this thing that set us up for a lot of ridiculous criticism.” Elliot Schrage, who was in charge of communications and policy for Google from 2005 to 2008, concluded that “Don’t be evil” might originally have benefited the company but became “a millstone around my neck” as Google’s growth took it to controversial regions of the world.

Bo Cowgill, a Google statistician, did a series of studies of his colleagues’ behavior, based on their participation in a “prediction market,” a setup that allowed them to make bets on the success of internal projects. He discovered that “daily stock price movements affect the mood, effort level and decision-making of employees.” As you’d expect, increases in stock performance made people happier and more optimistic—but they also led them to regard innovative ideas more warily, indicating that as Googlers became richer, they became more conservative. That was exactly the downside of the IPO that the founders had dreaded.

Around 2005, Google determined a simple formula to distribute its engineering talent: 70–20–10. Seventy percent of its engineers would work in either search or ads. Twenty percent would focus on key products such as applications. The remaining 10 percent would work on wild cards, which often emerged from the 20 percent time where people could choose their own projects. For all the talk about its other, well-publicized fraction—the 20 percent of free time that supposedly gestated Google’s big innovations—70–20–10 became Google’s magic allocation algorithm.

not just to identify what one wants to do but to break down the task into measurable bites (“key results”). In his book High Output Management, Grove imagined the OKR system applied to Christopher Columbus. The explorer fell short of his objective of finding a trade route to India, but he did carry out some subsidiary OKRs: he gathered a crew; he bought supplies; he avoided pirates; and by discovering the New World, he brought riches to Spain. Doerr had Google at metrics. “Google did more than adopt it,” says Doerr. “They embraced it.” OKRs became an essential component of Google culture. Every employee had to set, and then get approval for, quarterly OKRs and annual OKRs. There were OKRs at the team level, the department level, and even the company level. (Those last were used sparingly, for important initiatives or to address gaping failures.) Four times a year, everything stopped at Google for divisionwide meetings to assess OKR progress.

What’s more, OKRs were not private benchmarks shared only with managers. They were public knowledge, as much a part of an employee’s Google identity as the job description. The OKRs appeared on every employee’s biographical information on MOMA, Google’s internal website. (The name didn’t stand for anything in particular—according to Marissa Mayer, Larry Page just wanted something fast and short and easy to type.) You could even see Larry and Sergey’s OKRs.

For a number of years, Brin and Page drew organizational and clerical support from a pool of four sharp young women known as LSA, or Larry and Sergey Assistants. (Googlers referred to LSA as if it were a single organization. You would say, “I’ll check with LSA to see if Sergey can come to this meeting.”) The system seemed to work well, but Brin and Page felt constrained. By having assistants, they noticed, it was easier for people to ask things of them. “Most people aren’t willing to ask me if they want to meet with me,” says Page. “They’re happy to ask an assistant.” When a meeting request came, an LSA would have to see if Page or Brin actually wanted to do it. In truth, the founders almost never wanted to do it. So one day, Brin and Page abruptly dissolved LSA. They would thereafter have no assistants. Whatever they felt was important at the moment would be their work. Sergey sometimes liked to move his workplace right in the middle of a project he found

Of all of Google’s secrets, this massive digital infrastructure was perhaps its most closely held. It never disclosed the number of these data centers. (According to an industry observer, Data Center Knowledge, there were twenty-four major facilities by 2009, a number Google didn’t confirm or dispute.) Google would not say how many servers it had in those centers. (Google did, however, eventually say that it is the largest computer manufacturer in the world—making its own servers requires it to build more units every year than the industry giants HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Nor did Google spokespeople deny reports that it had more than a million of those servers in operation.) And it never welcomed outsiders to peer into its data centers.

In May, the impatient YouTube founders took out an ad in craigslist offering “hot” women $100 for every ten videos they’d post displaying their charms.They set up a series of meetings at the Denny’s in Redwood City, between Mountain View and YouTube headquarters in San Mateo. The YouTubers told Schmidt that their goal was to democratize the video experience online, and they felt that the idea resonated with him—after all, wasn’t that what Google wanted to do for the whole web?

as Eric Schmidt told a reporter when asked just how Google determines the application of its famous unofficial motto, “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.”

“Just tell me it’s not Google,” said Ballmer, according to Lucovsky’s sworn testimony. Lucovsky confirmed that it was indeed Google. Lucovsky testified that Ballmer went ballistic: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy! I’m going to fucking bury that guy! I have done it before and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” (The reference to having “done it before” seemed to refer to Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions during the browser war, when Schmidt was aligned with the Netscape forces.) For good measure, Ballmer threw a chair across the room, according to Lucovsky. (Ballmer would later say that Lucovsky’s account was exaggerated, but the CEO’s denials were not made under oath.)

With nowhere else to turn—and the economic downturn making the company a less attractive takeover target—Yahoo’s new CEO, former Autodesk head Carol Bartz, arranged to turn over Yahoo’s search business to Microsoft for a bargain price of a billion dollars. Microsoft got the main prize it had sought in the merger for barely 3 percent of its original offer.)

The Materialism Trap

In an interesting profile earlier this year of Rajat Gupta, the former head of McKinsey who was caught up in the insider trading scandals on Wall Street, there’s this:

Bankers and private-equity founders, like Pete Peterson, were getting extraordinary paydays by taking their firms public. Speaking at Columbia University around this time, Gupta reflected on his new ambition. “When I look at myself, yeah, I am driven by money,” he said. “And when I live in this society, you know, you do get fairly materialistic, so I look at that. I am disappointed. I am probably more materialistic today than I was before, and I think money is very seductive.” He continued: “You have to watch out for it, because the more you have it, you get used to comforts, and you get used to, you know, big houses and vacation homes and going and doing whatever you want, and so it is very seductive. However much you say that you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”

The last sentence caught my eye. Self-awareness of the phenomenon isn’t sufficient. People say they won’t, know they shouldn’t, and yet still do.

Why Older People Fire Friends More Aggressively

Younger people tend to maintain cliques of friends. Their social networks are interconnected — their friends know each other.

Older people tend to maintain bilateral friendships. Cliques are harder as people spread out and get busy and enter different stages of life. Time for friends shrinks as kids are born and work gets busy. You get choosy and confront logistical realities. The result? More 1:1 meals and double date outings; fewer group trips to Spring Training or Vegas.

In the past few years, I’ve seen several older people in my life fire friends — explicitly end a non-romantic relationship with another person, sometimes a person they’ve known for quite some time, over an argument that spiraled out of control. Cold turkey. Not a slow fade, not a shift from ally to light acquaintance — actual outright, silent hostility.

I’ve been puzzled by this trend. You lose friends as you get older, and friends are key to happiness and well-being, and it’s harder to make friends when older…so why wouldn’t a 50 year old be flexible during disagreements so as to hold on to every friendship he or she has?

Here’s one theory: When your social network is interconnected, as when you’re young, the consequences of firing a friend are broader than just that one friendship. You might rupture the clique. You might lose the person you have an argument with and some of that person’s friends who picked him instead of you. So you have an incentive to be on at least speaking terms with everyone. You bury the hatchet and don’t let a bilateral interpersonal issue spiral out of the control, lest you lose more than just that one friend.

By contrast, when your social network is less dense, when your friendships are more bilateral in nature, you are emboldened to end things with a friend who pisses you off as you rightfully believe that it won’t have a ripple effect in your other relationships. It’s still generally unwise, probably, but there’s a rationale that your action is contained.

A completely alternative theory is that with age we become more stubborn, more set in our ways, and more “brittle” in terms of our worldview — and so any violation, even a slight one that may have simply peeved our younger selves, sets us off so much that it results in cold turkey hostility.

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Here’s my older post on How Friendships Evolve Over Time and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy. Here are my other posts on friendship.