07 August 2021

The Modern Republican Party and the March of Folly

Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly was published in the mid-1980s. She wrote about how Renaissance popes lost northern Europe to the Protestant Revolution and British royalty lost the American colonies.

One thing she never really addressed was how Renaissance popes lived better than any popes before or since. Did that hurt the church? Yes. Did it hurt them? No. Popes Alexander and Julius had - well Renaissance artists decorating their living quarters, mistresses, ate better than royalty and had enormous power. If Raphael has painted your personal living quarters, can things really be so bad? A similar thing was going on with British royalty. The real issue was that personal possibilities and goals were at odds with the institutions they had control over.

What's going on now in the Republican Party shows a similar kind of divide. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene have no interest in becoming powerful legislators. Members of congress make only $174,000 a year and need to have homes in their district and in DC. That's hardly conducive to building wealth.
Rush Limbaugh died with $600 million and was making $85 million a year. Alex Jones is demonstrably nuts and yet even he is worth millions from his broadcasting.

Will new Republicans who spout conspiracy theories be to the Republican Party what Renaissance Popes were to the Catholic Church or British Royalty was to American colonies? That is, will they cost the institution enormously? Yes.

Will they make enormous sums if they pull off the transition from serious legislator to media personality? Definitely yes.

Perhaps the biggest problem Trump's Republican Party has right now is that the money to be made by promoting conspiracies and odd beliefs is so lucrative that there is little incentive for GOP politicians to play it straight and do the hard - but hardly lucrative - work of crafting policy that could add 0.5% GDP growth each year for the next generation - the stuff of steady progress. Instead they are incented to create controversy that can make them rich now.

27 July 2021

Some mix of history and whimsy and a proposal for rebranding Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley got its name because of employee law that California inherited from Spain. In states back east, if you worked for a shoe cobbler and then left to start your own shoe cobbler business, your former employer could sue you for illegally taking knowledge he'd given you to use in competition against him. In California, he could not.

William Shockley worked for Bell Labs and managed John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain, the two guys who did the research on semiconductors that led to the transistor. Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain shared in a Nobel Prize. (Bardeen went on to share in a second Nobel Prize involving the theory of superconductivity.)
Shockley left Bell Labs, moving close to his aging mother in Palo Alto. He started Shockley Labs and hired some uber-bright people. Turns out that Shockley - who was a crackpot whose theories included an embrace of eugenics - was a terrible manager and one day, eight of his best employees left Shockley Semiconductor Labs to form Fairchild. Curiously, given you could easily leave an employer who you felt you could outperform, people left Fairchild as well, and the companies that sprouted up from those exits were referred to as the Fairchild(ren). The most famous of those was easily Intel, founded by Gordon Moore (of Moore's law fame) and Robert Noyce who proved much better managers than Shockley, who died a bitter and committed conspiracy theorist.

The string of silicon companies led to the nickname Silicon Valley, a description of a new, transformative technology that twice democratized information. Once by its unprecedented processing power and its effect on information technology evolution, an exponential rise in computing power that we've still not fully realized the consequences of. And secondly by creating cultures responsive to the fact that great employees could leave to become competitors so better to give them leadership influence and even equity rather than leave them with incentive to leave your employ to become competitors. This, too, is a consequence we have yet to see the culmination of, a democratization of management and leadership within the corporation.

Silicon Valley is a description that now applies to companies in Seattle. Microsoft, Amazon, Redfin, and Zillow are companies that are casually lumped under the label of Silicon Valley. They - of course - are software companies and rely on, rather than make, silicon. It seems as though Silicon Valley is the wrong label for King County, home to two successive, "richest man in the world" entrepreneurs, Gates and then Bezos.

Perhaps the new label should be Algorithm Alley, a nod to the early 21st century rise of the software that so exploits the potential of the silicon of the late 1900s. Silicon Valley gives way to Algorithm Alley.

26 July 2021

My (and your) Belief in an Afterlife

 I post all the time about politics, policy and stats that seem to describe our world because I have to live with the consequence of your vote and you with mine. There is nothing private about the consequences of politics so I love the notion that we can at least better understand what thinking (or instincts) lie behind particular models of the world. Shared stats and perspectives can make those worldviews - and thus our votes - better.

Religion, though, is a private matter and so I stay away from that. Unlike your choice to vote for someone, your choice to be Catholic or atheist or Scientologist doesn't impact me and is none of my business. But I do want to talk about the afterlife.
I have developed this theory that morality is enhanced by a belief in an afterlife.
"A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of non-existence; he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true."
- Arthur Schopenhauer
By afterlife, I don't even mean that if you live a good life you'll be playing harp on a cloud or be reincarnated as someone's spoiled dog. By afterlife I mean something more simple: after your life, the world will go on and the lives in it will be just as important as those of you and the ones around you that you love. Perhaps even more important because there will be so many more lives.
Years ago I read a fascinating thought experiment. Imagine that you knew with great certainty that at the moment you died, life for all humanity would end. Giant meteor, terrible pandemic ... whatever. Everyone gone. How does that change your own life?
I think for a lot us, honestly believing such a thing would tend to gut you. It would make so much of what animates you suddenly seem laughable. "What does anything matter?" you might ask. And that thought experiment seems to me proof that our lives are generally animated by a belief in an afterlife and a sense that it's important.
Morality is certainly about now, about caring how we harm or help others. I think it's also about later, making provision for the future we'll eventually be excluded from. Believing that an afterlife matters allows us to take actions on what has the highest impact: things that take years, decades, or even lifetimes to play out.
I don't even think that a belief in an afterlife is a religious matter; it seems to me a demonstrably moral one based on a simple premise: what matters most in the world is so much bigger than me or my lifetime.


21 May 2021

We Invent Products That, in turn, Reinvent Us: Lincoln and the Hirsute Republicans

Abraham Lincoln rather famously grew a beard just before he was elected president, apparently inspired by an 11-year-old girl who suggested it would help him to get elected. He was the first president to have a beard.

He was followed by a succession of Republican presidents with facial hair.



Lincoln and the hirsute Republicans championed policies that made America host to an industrial revolution that triggered a parade of new products.

The list of product inventions from around 1900 includes central heating; stainless steel implements; the electric toaster, iron, and oven; the sewing machine; the dishwasher; the electric elevator; the dial phone; the portable typewriter; radium treatment for breast cancer; heart surgery; the psychiatric clinic; contact lenses; toothpaste in tubes; motion pictures; musical comedy; the gramophone; volleyball and basketball; the Ferris wheel; the jukebox; the striptease; breakfast cereals; milk delivered in bottles; packaged produce; Coca-Cola; margarine; the ice cream cone; the refrigerator; the correspondence course; the full-range department store; the chain store; the shopping center; the coin telephone; the traveler’s check; fingerprinting; the automatic pistol; the electric chair; the automobile and the airplane; the underground city subway train; the pneumatic tire; color photography; rayon and other artificial textiles; and chewing gum.

These products changed the human experience in thousands of ways we can hardly describe.
In 1901, King Gillette invented the disposable safety razor that made it easy for men to shave. It took a while to catch on.

President William Howard Taft, who served until 1913, had a mustache, in keeping with the theme of facial hair for presidents. But by 1915, Gillette sold 70 million blades to a public who had adopted the clean-shaven look. This product changed how men looked.

No president since Taft has had facial hair. (Well, other than eyebrows.) We invent products and then they reinvent us.

17 May 2021

1980s Insubordination at Apple - the Curious Team Dynamics Between Jobs and His Engineers

Excuse the language but this is simply too good not to share.

In 1980, Apple had gone public. This meant that Steve Jobs had more money but less power. The engineering team developing the Lisa computer essentially exiled him from their team. At this time, a woman Jobs had been dating claimed he was her child's father. He denied this. The woman named her daughter Lisa; the engineering team decided to name the computer they were developing Lisa, in the hopes that Jobs would also walk away from them.

So Jobs, lurching about for a project to engage in, found Jef Raskin, who was obsessed with making a friendly computer. Raskin didn't want Jobs encroaching on his Macintosh project but, of course, Jobs did, eventually making it his own.

Here is their relationship as recounted by various Apple people, including Jobs.
Andy Hertzfeld: The Mac was initially a skunkworks. At this time it was not an important project at Apple. It was a very minor thing.
Randy Wigginton: And Steve went over to Macintosh where Jef Raskin was, and he and Jef did not mix well.
Steve Jobs: Jef's a shithead who sucks.
Jef Raskin: Steve would have made an excellent king of France.

Apple may have done well to bring in junior high teachers to help with team dynamics. Or maybe that would have defused all the creative energy. Who knows? You live on a weird planet. Apple is the most valuable publicly traded company in the world, now worth $2.1 trillion. It's hard to know how much of this is because of and how much of this is in spite of men who took projects so personally.

These comments are from Adam Fisher's Valley of Genius.

26 April 2021

Heavenly Relics as Means to Raise Money for Earthly Projects

Like many churches, the Castle Church of Wittenberg where Luther would nail his 95 theses had relics. More than 19,000 of them. The collection of relics included a twig from Moses' burning bush, four hairs of the Virgin Mary, five particles of her milk, a piece of Jesus's swaddling clothes, two pieces of hay from the manger, five pieces of the table from the Last Supper, and eight thorns from Jesus's crown. These were put on display once or twice a year.

Each relic had an associated indulgence that reduced the time a sinner had to spend in purgatory by days or years. Added together, the relics in the church collection could bring about a reduction of precisely 1,902,202 years and 270 days in purgatory.

That may have been the origin of the "must see" exhibition.

Oh, and they then used the money collected by people come to see the exhibit to fund bridges, dikes, schools, hospitals, and cathedrals. People were willing to pay for what they imagined and the authorities used that to pay for what was real. That's an interesting governance model and may have actually been more sustainable than the one we have now.

24 April 2021

The Various Kinds of Racism that Led States to Refuse to Ratify the 15th Amendment

The 15th amendment was ratified in February of 1870. It states,
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware refused to ratify it because they did not want Blacks to have the right to vote.

California and Oregon did not ratify it because they did not want Chinese to have the right to vote.

Rhode Island did not ratify it because it did not want the Irish to have the right to vote.

From Eric Foner's The Second Founding.

23 April 2021

Debt, Taxes, Revolution and Americans Curious Relationship with Monarchs

The United States was founded at the expense of two great empires. Each paid dearly to address the debt America left them.

After the 7-year war with France in North America (which ended in 1763), Britain's debt was 137 million pounds. The government's annual revenue was 8 million pounds and the interest payment on this debt was 5 million pounds.

When Britain asked the US to pay more in taxes to help pay down this debt, the average person in London was paying 26 schillings a year in taxes while the average person in Massachusetts paid only 1.

Outraged at "taxation without representation," the American colonies revolted against Britain.
The American Revolution would have failed without help from France. France not only helped the Americans with arms and ships but money - running a huge deficit.

Given their accounting was so poor, it took France a couple of years to realize how deep in debt they were left as a consequence of the American Revolution. Proposed tax reforms to address this debt were one of the big reasons the French decided that - like the United States - it would revolt against its monarchy.

Establishing the American colonies cost Britain half of them (only 13 of the 26 British colonies in America revolted in 1776, as places like Newfoundland and Jamaica remained British colonies) and cost France its monarchy. French taxpayers beheaded Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793.

One curious consequence was that while the Americans did rid themselves of monarchy - replacing King George with President George - the portraits of the king and queen of France continued to hang in Congress in Philadelphia years after the French monarchs had been guillotined in France.

Mitch Hedberg has this brilliant line, "I find that ducks' opinion of me is greatly influenced by whether or not I have bread." Something similar seems true of Americans, whose opinions of monarchs is greatly influenced by whether they are asking for or offering money.

17 April 2021

The Future You're Buying Now Almost Immediately Begins Changing Your Present (Or What To Think About a Mere $2 Trillion Infrastructure Proposal)

1% of household net worth is $1.3 trillion.

Household net worth rose $19 trillion from 1Q to 4Q 2020.

In the Spring of 2021, Biden is proposing an investment of $2 trillion in infrastructure over 8 years.

By no stretch of the imagination is this excessive.

You buy land through simple purchase. You buy the future through investments. The quality and quantity of our investments is an indication of what kind of future we’re trying to buy.

I would love to live in a world in which I feel compelled to holler, "Wait! Don't you think that perhaps we're investing too much in R&D, education, reducing poverty, inclusion, and infrastructure? Aren't we putting too much money into making too many people more productive, creating new knowledge and funding projects to create great new products?"

And if that happens, please just look at me and say, "No. That's a preposterous notion. We would spend even more but for the fact that we've had a momentary lapse of imagination."

One of the many things we’ve learned about these investments? Beyond whatever future education helps kids to create, it creates jobs now. Beyond whatever successful businesses venture capital helps to create, it creates jobs now. Investment doesn’t just change the future. It changes the present. Investments create value twice.

A new highway increases future GDP in the region by making it easier for people to trade and travel. It also increases present GDP as you pay people now to build it. That's one of the more curious things about investments. As you try to change the future, you immediately begin changing the present. And that makes sense. Now was the future just a short while ago.

14 April 2021

A 1962 Doctor's Warning About How Babies Become Socialists

There was an American pediatrician named Dr. Walter J. Sackett Jr. who suggested that you ignore crying babies. He wrote a bestseller in 1962 called, Bringing up Babies: A family doctor's practical approach to child care. And he said that if you didn't ignore crying babies, they would grow up to be socialists.

"If we raise our offspring to expect everything to be provided on demand, we must admit the possibility of sowing the seeds of socialism," he wrote.

If seems fair to say that the Cuban missile crisis reframed how Americans thought about most things.

From Sandi Toksvig on QI

One of the Rarely Reported Ways that Companies Have Transformed in the Last 25 Years

The opening lines of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations are,

"The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour."

I've been working with teams developing new products as varied as computer chips and drugs, medical devices and engines for more than 20 years.

When I started, it was pretty normal for companies to go outside of the company about 10 to 30% of the time to a subcontractor. Most of the time they had a department that handled this one specialty and experts within it who did the work; sometimes they went outside the company for specialists.

In the last few years, the percentage of work that is assigned to an outside company instead of an inside department has been much higher. Often, more than 50% of the work is actually done by specialists outside the company.

Specialization has become even more specialized and departments within a company often can't compete with specialists outside a company. Specialists thrive with other specialists as coworkers and managers. Every molecule is its own universe; every specialty has its own complexity. Organizations that specialize in one thing get more data points and experience that they can translate into more knowledge and better processes. Experience drives evolution and organizations that get more experience have the potential to evolve more rapidly. An organization that is subcontractor to 5 companies has the potential to add more value for less cost than a department within any one of those 5 companies.

As if that is not enough, it is becoming increasingly common that the subcontractor who has been tasked with some subset of the project work to outsource some or all of their task. Your subcontractors have subcontractors.

If you think this is weird, consider this. If you are making a computer, you will outsource the computer mouse. Do you think that the company to whom you outsource the mouse does not turn to outside vendors to provide the ball and / or shell and / or circuitry, etc.? And that those outside vendors don't have their own suppliers?

The same sort of thing is happening in knowledge work that has been happening for an even longer time in manufacturing.

Specialists turn to specialists who turn to specialists who ...

The division of labor that Adam Smith found so transformative is still not done dividing.