29 June 2008

Your Blog Author Visits Japan

In early 2001, I made a couple of business trips to Japan. I flew through Osaka and stayed and worked in Kobe for a total of about 3 weeks. At the time, I tried to describe some of what I noticed. Here are a few excerpts.

Kobe gets larger every day. They continuously expand available land by dumping dirt from the mountains into the bay – regularly creating new islands. Eventually this small mountainous island may be a large flat continent.

If you live in Japan there is about a 99% chance that your race is Japanese. Even with odds that high, it still turns out that I’m not.

The Japanese have made more progress learning English than we have at learning Japanese. The drawback, of course, is that once you do something you risk doing it poorly. From a piece of stationary I took away a new mission statement that I wished I’d had when teaching for Covey: “I will be a gladdest thing under the sun. I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick off.” By contrast, I could feel superior because my Japanese was flawless: nonexistent, of course, but flawless. I was told about a sign over a toilet that said, “After using, please remember to flash.”

I was shopping in a department store in a mall and was a little surprised to hear American rap played as background music. I was even more surprised to hear lyrics like, "Where are my bitches? Where are my whores?" I looked around the store but the whores and bitches didn't seem to be there: I found myself surrounded by diminutive, older women, who were modestly dressed and seemingly unaware of the questions that had just been posed.

I learned that one ought not to check into a “Love Motel,” even though they are more common than regular motels. They charge by the hour and expect you to provide your own love. The use of such motels is reportedly quite common among co-workers, particularly boss and secretary. This kind of team building could explain the high levels of cooperation and teamwork evident in the Japanese work place. It might even result in more bonding than the ropes exercise.

My client figures that it costs 2.5 times as much to live in Kobe as it costs to live in Cincinnati. Housing is 7 to 8 times as much. Even electronics made by Japanese firms cost more in Japan. That might be why they feel obligated to give you more than 100 yen for every dollar: just think how bad it would be if they didn’t.

Reportedly, many Japanese rent and have little or no hope of owning a home: this in the second largest economy in the world. The average apartment is about 600 to 800 square feet and may well house three generations. It might be enough to drive you to seek refuge in a love motel.

Kobe is full of pachinko parlors. These are crammed with noisy machines, some of which look like electronic slot machines and others of which are designed to take ball bearings in one end and (if you win) send more ball bearings out the other. I guess that the really big winners set up a machine shop. These parlors are not just full of extremely loud machines; they pipe in even louder music in a vain attempt to drown out the loud machines. It is the audio equivalent of using far too much cheap perfume to cover up perfectly hideous body odor.

The Japanese are rarely fat. Apparently they consider obesity a specialty and expect sumo wrestlers obtain this state for them, the way we expect certain groups of people to take out our trash or issue stocks. There is none of this wandering around moaning about being 20 or 30 pounds overweight; one is either lean or able to break a bull’s back in a single sitting.

I wander through every experience confident of two things: I’ll do the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing is what they expect of me as an American. I find this to be such a calming belief that I’m thinking of adopting it in my daily living when I return to the States.

In the nicer restaurants the chopsticks are quite significantly tapered. This means that squeezing the middle together still leaves a significant gap at the end, making it quite difficult to actually grasp pieces of food smaller than a quarter-pound hamburger. They must do this for the amusement of the waitresses who stand discretely off to one side watching.

Stay in an American Marriott and you have by your bed a Bible and the Book of Mormon. Stay in Osaka and you have beside your bed a New Testament and the Teachings of Buddha. I wonder if you were to stay in the Galapagos Islands if you’d find a Bible and The Origin of Species.

Many Japanese practice Shinto. It is not a religion as we think of it, with rituals and regular times and days for services. Rather than believe in a God they believe that spirits from past lives are scattered throughout the living world and ought to be reverenced. This decentralization of spirit means that there is little conformity in worship. Such a religion contrasts rather starkly with the conformity in every day living. Compare this with our Christianity and a single God to worship in a society full of non-conformists and diversity. Perhaps the opposite of our daily living is what seems to us most heavenly. That might even explain the growing number of people in urban centers who have adopted environmentalism as their new religion.

While watching some older Japanese perform their rituals at a temple – a very open affair given that the temple was outdoors at a popular tourist location – I wondered what they thought of modern science. I turned from this temple to see a sign directing me to the “labatory.” Whether they’d misspelled lavatory or laboratory or simply seen the two as interchangeable, I took it as a clue as to their opinion of modern science.

The Japanese have a network throughout the country that allows one to purchase most anything. It’s not the Internet – it is vending machines. These vending machines sell hot and cold coffees and teas, and soft drinks (Calpiss and Sweat are a couple of the more popular brands – apparently they even drink with the end in mind, a very results-oriented country). I’ve been told that you can even buy such oddities as crickets and underwear through them. They also sell alcoholic beverages through vending machines. Imagine an unmanned machine dispensing beer only a block from a high school when the drinking age is 21. Imagine no students using the machine. Imagine it isn’t even imagined to be an issue. Either you have a very weird imagination or you live in Japan. The glasses and cups in which they serve drinks are enormously small – maybe 4 ounces or so. The apparent benefit to this is that, in a country with lines and congestion in even the hallways and elevators you can at least be alone at the urinal.

Red heads are more common than I would have guessed. Japanese women spend three to four times more on cosmetics than American women (measured as a percentage of income). Many of them highlight their hair, which results in a reddish tint. Add blue tinted contact lenses (and some of them do) to the blonde hair (and some do highlight it that much) and looking on you might almost think you were in California.

There is a lovely odor to this country. In a sit down restaurant they give you hot towels to wash your hands and face after you sit down. The aroma from them is subtle but quite lovely. The floors are cleaned before they even come close to getting dirty, as opposed the floors in public places in the States that are dirty before they ever get close to being clean.

Even in fast food restaurants (yes, I confess to eating at there partly for speed, partly for the sense of knowing just what to do with the food and partly to avoid paying more than $20 for a meal) they serve you with precision and grace. The napkins are neatly folded. The bags are neatly folded. The fish sandwich is neatly lined up – meat, lettuce and bun. I suspected that even the ice in my drink was floating in a neat row. These people pay more attention to a routine task than some American men pay to an entire marriage.

On the trains in Japan people face the age-old question of what to do with the eyes in such close quarters. Do you stare at strangers? Do you look beyond them through the windows to the scenery that flashes by every day? Do you look at the floor, paying more attention to your peripheral vision than to the center of your gaze? In the last few years the Japanese have solved this problem: they stare at their cell phones. At first I thought this a curious answer to the question of where to place one’s gaze. Then I learned that they were checking their email – even surfing the web. [A practice that has become common here since 2001.] Although they are repeatedly instructed to avoid using cell phones on the train, many of them do so rather compulsively. The cell phone has become the modern rosary beads of travel, worried by a motion similar to what little Italian women engaged in while traveling on horse-drawn carriages. Now, instead of receiving spiritual messages of dubious content and origin these modern travelers receive error-free transmissions of dubious value and relevance. They call it progress. And the reason that they are asked not to use their cell phones on the train is because in such close quarters the signals interfere with pace makers – occasionally causing an incident, triggering arrhythmia or even an attack. Changes in technology and culture do not take us beyond this simple truth: communication affects the heart.

28 June 2008

Heil Leader

Richard J. Evans writes in The New York Review of Books:

Almost as soon as the Nazis came to power in Germany, they made the greeting 'Heil Hitler!' a compulsory part of national life. Civil servants were legally obliged to sign documents with it, and anybody writing a letter to officialdom would have been well advised to do the same. Schoolteachers had to greet their classes with a 'Heil Hitler!,' raising their right arm stiffly in the 'German greeting' as they did so; train conductors had to use the greeting when they entered a compartment to collect tickets from passengers.

I can't help but wonder if we aren't doing something similar at this stage of elections.

The election is, for me, coming into the boring period. Gone is the plethora of choices that I found so interesting. Even when they weren't choices that I liked, I liked the fact that, for instance, the Republicans had such a wide variety of characters, I mean candidates, who represented very different segments of the American right.

But even worse than the sudden lack of variety is this deification stage of the election process. The right has to continually defend an old conservative who likes to pretend he is a maverick; the left has to defend a young liberal who likes to pretend he's led something before. These are real people and real choices (not even bad choices), but Obama and McCain are as far removed from flawless as the rest of us. And yet their supporters see fit to elevate their candidates, gather in circles around them, and then chant like primitive natives before the god of volcanoes.

"Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion," John Gray writes in the opening line of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. Sadly, it doesn't seem as though we have to put in place true despots to feel compelled to deify leaders. There is something more tribal or religious about this stage of elections than rational and open.

We carry our psychoses into every arena we play in - from family to business to community; I suppose that there is no reason that politics should be excluded from this weight. But does politics have to be based on such psychoses? It just seems to distract from the larger and more important question about what kind of world we want these leaders to help us to create.

I suspect that one of the reasons we do this is that if we could convince ourselves that these leaders really are omnipotent, we won't have to take responsibility for our world. And in this cycle - deification, disappointment, and vilification of leaders - we have the electoral process that never once forces communities to be accountable for creating the world that we all love to complain about.

27 June 2008

The Momentum of Tradition in the Media - Or Why You Hear So Much About Political Unrest and So Little About Business

Listen to NPR and you’re more likely to hear news about Palestine than what is going on in the corporate headquarters of your area’s largest employer. If the news offers a context for daily life, this suggests that the news is moving towards irrelevance.

Like all sectors, the media is as defined at least as much by tradition as current reality. A free press grew up coincident with the evolution of modern democracies. The major story of the free press was politics and that remains the main story, the meta-narrative.

This can be good during a time of elections and political crisis. But it rests on an implied assumption: issues played out in the political sector matter and are the biggest determinants of quality of life for the average person.

If you live in Darfur or Palestine, this assumption is valid. In such places, it is not obvious that anything has more impact on quality of life than political issues played out through policy or battle. But if you live in a place like Germany or the U.S., this assumption is not so obvious. I would argue that quality of life for the average person in the developed world is more determined by corporate policy and strategy.

If you live in a democracy, it is obvious that changes in fiscal or monetary policy or laws DO make a difference. But this difference is secondary to what happens at work. If your employer makes a decision to radically change health coverage, needs to consolidate operations and layoff, or is expanding and has great opportunities for promotions, you will notice a real difference in levels of stress, income, and hope. Reducing taxes by 5% does little to offset a loss of job.

Yet business news still tends to be a side note, whereas real news is inevitably focused more on disasters and politics.

But it is time for business news to become more central to the main stream media. Issues like environment, quality of work life, income growth, and benefits coverage ought to be covered within the context of policy implications. What kinds of corporations do we want? What balance of environmental and economic concerns should they navigate? What sort of work experience do we want for our kids? For ourselves? Political reporting is invariably made within such a context, the context of what should be as an overlay to what is. There is a great deal of debate about the ideal political policies, but the press and readers have real ideas about what kind(s) of government and policies ought to be pursued. By contrast, it seems as though most business reporting is done as if one were reporting on the weather: these are facts (e.g., layoffs or expansion) that simply need to be accepted, seems to be the subtext.

The time for the mainstream media to cover business policies and issues as a more central part of the news is long past. If we want our media to help shape a better world - and for hundreds of years it has - it has to shift its attention to the new constraint to progress. What is central to progress now is significant change in the corporation; believe it or not, this will make even more difference to the life of the average person than will additional changes to government policy.

25 June 2008

7 Words You Can Never Write in a Blog

"The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization."
Sigmund Freud

George Carlin is gone. One of the saddest things about this is that our grandkids will never quite understand what he did. We now live in a post-Carlin world where FCC regulations against thought and expression are largely irrelevant rather than central to how people can express outrage or whimsy. In fact, the very notion of words that you can never write in a blog seems absurd. It seems to me, the words that can never be written in a blog are quite different from the ones that you could never say on radio. They might include the following.

"My editor." We do this without assistance, in ways that might well make our high school English teachers cringe. We have no one to blame for or rely on for awkward language or poorly chosen words. And we cannot write, “my editor” on our blogs.

"My blog advance." All of the money I earn is being deposited to a secret Swiss Bank account. The problem is, the account particulars are also kept secret from me. There is money in the Internet – lots of money. Most of us simply don’t know where it is kept.

"Our sponsor." As in, "we'll be right back after a few words from our sponsor." We don't take commercial breaks in the blogosphere. (But we do take breaks. The bloggers' union may not have done much on wage or benefits negotiations but they have done a wonderful job of ensuring job security and flex time.)

At least in the blogosphere, we really are moving towards a world in which "adult" content is as likely to refer to conversations and topics that would bore a child as it is to the words and images that the FCC could once shield us from. It is a world in which each person gets to be his own censor. It is a world in which George Carlin's early humor now makes little sense.

And maybe that’s a measure of a social reformer’s impact: if they’ve made their outrage meaningless to the next generation, their work is done. Thank you George and farewell.

24 June 2008

Today's $100 Idea

Okay, so maybe this idea won't generate the same revenue as last week's million dollar idea, but the possibility amused me nonetheless.

At a certain age, infants are fascinated by their own toes. As near as I can tell, they've yet to figure out that the movement of their feet is connected to anything they do, and at times kids will watch enraptured by the movement of their feet. So, why not a product that takes advantage of this?

I'm proposing a new use for the familiar sock puppet. Why not put character faces on the socks and / or shoes of kids who are stuck in car seats? Their dramatic experience can be enhanced by sound effects - it shouldn't take too much technology to make either a "POW!" sound of violence or the "SMACK!" sound of romance whenever the two feet collide. Done right, I suspect that this could keep kids of a certain age amused for tens of minutes.

22 June 2008

A Tale of Microsoft In Which Your Blog Author Narrowly Avoids Fortune

I had inside information on Microsoft a couple of years before they went public. Based on this, I chose to not even apply to work for the company.

In my first job out of college, I managed a ComputerLand store in southeastern Washington. I started in 1983 and this was an exciting time for the industry. During my year, the first Macintosh came out and Microsoft had no obvious grip on the personal computer industry.

I was proud of our store. Of the hundreds of ComputerLand stores, only one on Wall Street had posted a bigger month than our own biggest month. But my sales people made more than the CFO for the mother store up north and so they lowered commissions. As you might guess, the salespeople left. I built up the store again (not to the same heights, but up again nonetheless) and again the salespeople began to make more than the CFO who wrote the commission checks and again senior management lowered the commissions. Again I wearily built up the store, assuring my new bride that these 12+ hour days would payoff soon. But the third time that senior management pulled the rug out of from under me by lowering commissions and again prompted an exodus of salespeople, I quit.

I thought that I’d explore an option an earlier manager from my store had exercised: move west to Redmond, WA and work for Microsoft. Before I decided to pursue that, I called Brenda – a friend who had worked for Microsoft.

“Brenda,” I said. “What do you think about me applying to Microsoft?”
“Oh, Ron!” she exclaimed. “Don’t do it. I have never worked for a company that was more out of control. It is so poorly managed.”
“It is?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s insane there.”

As it turns out, when Brenda had resigned shortly before this, Bill Gates walked into her office and said, “Brenda, you really should stay. I’m taking the company pubic soon and all the employees will have stock and stock options. It is a really good time to stay.” Brenda did not share this information with me. Not knowing any better, I was just glad that someone in the know had kept me from making a mistake.

This was 1984. In 1986, Microsoft went public at what was (backwards adjusted for splits) less than 10 cents a share; within the last year, it has traded at between $27 and $37 a share, going up about 300X from what it was a couple of years after I turned my nose up at them.

It’s too bad, really. I think that I could have been a really interesting person if I were rich.

This week, Bill Gates leaves Microsoft and will, for the first time since its founding, not have a day to day role in the company. He’s going to focus on ameliorating the world’s woes – poverty and illness. Take it from Brenda and me: nothing good will come of this.

21 June 2008

The Me Mosiac

I found this meme from Jennifer Harvey oddly intriguing. Here is my mosiac and then the instructions that she gives.

Here’s how it works . . .
• Answer each of the questions below.
• Surf over to Flickr (set up an account if you don’t have one–it’s quick and easy AND I DON'T THINK YOU ACTUALLY HAVE TO DO THIS - SET UP AN ACCOUNT) and type your answers (one at a time) into the search bar.
• From the choice of pictures shown only on the front page, click on the one that moves you.
• Once the page with your picture opens, copy the URL.
• Surf over to the Mosaic Maker, set up your mosaic, and paste your URLs.
• Click “Create!”

The Questions:
1. What is your first name?
2. What is your favorite food?
3. What high school did you attend?
4. What is your favorite color?
5. Who is your celebrity crush?
6. What is your favorite drink?
7. Where would you go on your dream vacation?
8. What is your favorite dessert?
9. What do you want to be when you grow up?
10. What do you love most in life?
11. Choose one word to describe you?
12. Your Flickr name? (Substitute a nickname if you don't have an account.)

Photo credit:
1. Behind the Scenes: Ron Mueck, 2. Potentially so rich, practically extremely poor, 3. 300, 4. Crayola 64*, 5. JULIE DELPY, FRENCH ACTRESS, 6. Pouring Coke, 7. Villa Saluzzo Bombrini, Genoa - Italy # 16, 8. k., 9. The second floor under the restaurant. La Habana, Cuba., 10. beach workout, 11. One Of These Buttons Will Get Me Out Of Here, 12. A lovely day for a... slither?

20 June 2008

Your World - A Social Construct

My inspiration to begin blogging traces back to two things: my outrage at George Bush’s policies and wanting a forum in which I played with my 4th Economy ideas. It seems as though, of all the things that interest me, this 4th Economy idea – my one big idea – is the one that provokes the least interaction and interest when I write about it.

Going over ideas of Werner Erhard’s about how our own personal narratives are constructs, I wonder if one of the obstacles to my explaining the 4th Economy don’t trace back to this still elusive notion of social constructs. Foundational to the ideas is the notion that even terribly large constructs – like Renaissance thinking or the modern, dominant pragmatist way of thinking – are themselves social constructs.

If one were to doubt the claim that any culture’s dominant world view is a social construct, one would only have to look at the inordinate amount of time and attention we give to “civilizing” a baby to become a member of society. The gross effort it takes to recreate our society in each child should be testament to the fact that any culture is not a "natural" or spontaneous state; it is, instead a social construct that takes great effort - every time. Language and manners, what we question and what we accept, social roles … all of these end products represent the myriad tasks of parents and teachers and are essentially tasks that work to construct a world view and assert the place of the individual in it.

Instead of being seen that way, we more often see social constructs as “the way things are,” rather than a choice that is carefully and painstakingly chosen and supported. Mothers in particular have to be aware of how tenuous is this social construct. The curious child, the rebellious child, the stubborn child, the lazy child (and really, which of our children are not all of these things at various stages of the day / week / childhood / adulthood?) all question the social construct in ways that don’t readily suggest easy answers.

It might be too much to expect parents and schools to add to their list of admonitions and lessons the label: “Warning: contents of this society have been known to create feelings of anomie and alienation, provoke wars, homicides, and suicides, and pollute the habitat you need for survival. Most of what we tell you should be questioned and improved on. This is, really, just the best we’ve been able to do up until now and it could be that improvement will actually overturn much of what we now accept and advocate. Learn about your culture and your place in it, but don’t cling too tightly to it.”

It does seem like a stretch to expect communities to see their culture as a social construct when, as Werner Erhard and others have seemed to prove, even accepting the notion that our own life, our own life's story is a construct is elusive, a notion we tend to resist. As long as we continue to believe that even our own lives just represent "what is" rather than a construct that we might change, it'll be hard to build a consensus that it is time to break out of the consensus trance. And to give you some idea about my own level of optimism, I actually think that this is a task we can do.

To quote from the bumper sticker, just sign me, "another dopeless hope fiend."

Maddie Defends Hollywood

Bernard, Maddie and I were sitting together quietly, waiting for our breakfast to come, reading sections of the paper. I, for one, was not quite awake and was glad for the opportunity to stare at newsprint while waiting for the cobwebs to clear. Once I got a few bites of food I’d likely feel more up to conversation.

Suddenly, Bernard punched his paper with a loud snap, making me jump, and said, “Ha! These movies are so predictable. So formulaic. Look at this list – Ironman, Indiana Jones …. These movies are pap. They offer resolution to even the most impossible of situations in just an hour or two.

Maddie did not even look up from her society page, “100 minutes.”

“What?” asked Bernard, blinking at her.

“In 100 minutes," she repeated. "Hollywood resolves issues in 100 minutes.”

“Whatever, Maddie,” Bernard said contemptuously. “The point is, they make solutions look too easy. It’s utter nonsense.”

“Well, it is the least that Hollywood can do for people,” Maddie said, looking up at him reprovingly. “Someone needs to offer resolution.”

“What do you mean?”

“People can go their whole life, Bernard, and never once get things resolved. Look at you and your love life, Bernard. You’re in your 70s and you still haven’t gotten that figured out.” She sipped her coffee and then continued as Bernard looked on in disbelief. “Life just sits there in a swirl of uncertainty, as if there is a perpetual ‘to be determined’ sign hanging over everything. The least that those folks in Hollywood can do is to distort life into some kind of plot line for us.”

“Distort?” Bernard asked.

“Yes. Distort. Life goes on for much too long for any real plot to emerge. You say that Hollywood resolves open issues in the space of 100 minutes like it is a bad thing. But what else are they going to do? If we wanted things like real life, we’d just stay in real life,” she finished her little speech and neatly folded her section of the paper.

Bernard sat there quietly for a bit. I took another sip of iced tea, intrigued with this drama between the siblings. “Maddie …” Bernard began hesitantly.

“Don’t you Maddie me,” Maddie cut him off. “I need my occasional dose of easy resolution, Bernard. Now if you’re done with the entertainment section, I’d like to see the movie times for Sex and the City." As she reached for the paper, a little grin played across her face. "I think that I’m a lot like Samantha.”

I had never seen Bernard looked quite so stunned. As the waitress brought our breakfast, I could only hope to hear her elaborate. It sounded like it might be a good morning for stories – the kind of stories that Hollywood overlooked for the simple reason that it as a visual medium, one that didn’t encourage the notion that septuagenarians might still be romantically inclined. A sucker for stories, I could only hope that Bernard’s apparent incredulity would cause him to prompt her for more.

17 June 2008

A Convenient Lie About Leadership

“What if leadership is not a phenomenon determined by the ability of an individual? What if the leader does not actually cause outcomes? What if the central role of the leaders is designed to perpetuate a myth of control and to provide false hope for salvation?”
- Rick Barker

McCain has made a name for himself in part by advocating for campaign finance reform, and yet his campaign has been plagued by the scent of little scandals; his campaign manager and chief adviser have taken heat for their prior lobbying work. Conflict is inevitable when people pretend to have control over forces larger than they are.

Obama, although cleaner on the issue of contributions from corporations, is nonetheless in his own kind of denial about market forces and the power of corporations.

McCain and Obama have joined the parade of well intentioned politicians who simply haven’t admitted the central fact of our time: the corporation is today’s dominant institution. The corporation defines the norms and goals of our modern world as surely as the church did medieval times or the state did the 18th and 19th centuries. The state has about as much influence over the corporation as the early guilds had over the medieval church.

McCain, like Obama, has tapped into the fact that most 70% of Americans tend not to trust big companies. (In the EU, about 60% of Americans tend not to trust big companies.) By contrast, only 44% of Americans tend not to trust the UN.

Fortune 50 (not 500) employ nearly 8% of the American workforce even though they make up, by raw number, only 3/10,000th of a percent of the companies in the US.

Americans tend not to trust big companies for a variety of reasons but still find themselves reliant on them for jobs, products, financing, and services.

Big companies define more than the workforce. They define the work norms, the products we use, salaries, the media products we consume, and the focus of anyone intent on success. If they chose to relocate overseas, communities lose jobs and tax revenues; states and countries compete for corporations and are increasingly unlikely to dictate terms to corporations.

The dominance of the corporation is big deal that doesn’t get mentioned. If politicians did mention it, they’d be unable to sustain the myth of control over the events that control people’s lives. People continue to prefer the story that evil doers (be they terrorists or greedy CEOs) are making our lives bad to the more probable story that every period of history is defined by forces and trends larger than any individuals. As any surfer will tell you, sometimes it makes more sense to ride waves than fight them.

16 June 2008

In the Aftermath of Father's Day

My friend Glen sent me the transcript of his son's commencement speech. (His son is Jeff Lee, pointed to in the blogs listed on the side and found here, just graduated from UC Davis.) I found his speech unsurprisingly amusing and well done, but will just excerpt this:

It took me my first year of college to figure out that I wasn't going to pursue the line of study I originally thought I would. When I first announced that I would major in English, not life sciences, my disappointed and well-intentioned father sent me an e-mail which consisted solely of a link to a CNN article titled, "Most lucrative college degrees." It prominently featured a table of starting salaries according to major, and - as expected - "Liberal Arts majors" were listed dead last.

Understanding that my father, an Asian dentist, would want his son, not surprisingly also Asian, to receive a degree that would lead to a medical profession, I had no choice but to ignore my family's helpful input on my life decisions.

This is the catch-22 of parenting, what it means to be a father or mother. If parents do their job right, they'll give their child autonomy. And, of course, it would not be autonomy if the child could not - did not - choose to do things with his or her life that the parent would rather they did not.

Happy Father's Day Glen.

14 June 2008

Today's Million Dollar Idea

It seems to me only fair to reward faithful readers of R World with the occasional million dollar idea so, here goes.

Sell "hybrid" metal decals for people to stick onto their cars. Even though this wouldn't change their actual mpg or carbon footprint, it nonetheless would do a great deal to impress the neighbors. Personally, I look forward to being able to buy one to stick onto my 1964 Rambler. I know that the guy down the block would like one for his Hummer.

What Might Have Been

To enhance learning, humans and other moving things have the capacity not just to learn from what happened but what might have happened. Gambling plays on our tendency to over-estimate what might have happened, drawing us in to play again even when the odds are still against us.

My friend Rob's little brother came up from North Carolina to visit him for the weekend. As they bounced around on Saturday, Rob suddenly "noticed" that the Massachusetts lottery was worth tens of millions and suggested that they buy a ticket. The next morning, Rob got up before his brother, opened the Sunday paper to find the winning numbers, ran out to buy a ticket with exactly those numbers, swapped it out for the one they had purchased the day before, and then waited for his brother to wake up.

As his brother ate breakfast, he read through the paper. After awhile, Rob casually suggested that his brother grab the ticket and compare it to the winning numbers printed in the paper. As you might imagine, his little brother was, er, kind of excited about the fact they'd won millions. In fact, after Rob told him what he'd done, his little brother was still insistent that he really did have the winning ticket.

Printing lottery ticket winning numbers is, of course, necessary in order to find the winners. But it also encourages people to "learn" how close they came to matching the numbers. ("4! I had 5. I was so close!") It might just encourage people to play again, in spite of the terrible odds.

As it turns out, multivariate equations armed only with real data do a better job of diagnosing patients than doctors or even doctors armed with these same equations. One reason is that doctors too quickly converge on a diagnosis and tend to ignore contravening data. Perhaps another reason is that doctors too easily invoke what might have been (or, what could be) scenarios.

This is, it seems to me, one of the problems of learning from policy. Facts can be disregarded because people who are bought into a particular ideology are able to construct what-if scenarios that demonstrate - at least to them - how this could have gone well if only. Marxists are still gaining adherents in universities and neocons are still finding supporters for invasions in the Middle East (Iran instead of Iraq this time). Not because the empirical evidence has suggested that these are wise moves but, instead, because of a kind of imaginary nostalgia, reminiscing about what might have been.

One of the most promising things about voting for change is that it suggests doing away with nostalgia and beginning, instead, with data. I, for one, have my fingers crossed that we can get past reliance on silly superstitions and nostalgia, relying instead on data.

12 June 2008

Love or Something Like It

I'm going to miss Thomas at "Living Next Door to Alice." His computer was taken out by lightning and he decided to use that as reason to stop blogging. Thomas had this delightfully unique blend of outrage and whimsy, idealism and practical that inevitably made me smile when I stopped in to visit. And he found gems like this:

Thomas, I hope that your travels beyond the Internet off-ramp treat you well and I'm glad that we got to be neighbors for a time here in the blogosphere.

10 June 2008

Too Much of a Good Thing Could Lead to a Good Thing

Capital investment since 2001 has dropped more than it has at any time since the Great Depression. As a background to this, central banks around the world (particularly our own Federal Reserve) have continued with stimulatory monetary policy, ensuring that the world is flush with cash. Private banks and credit card companies have done their bit as well; consumer debt in the US is about $2.5 trillion.

When all this money sloshing about drives up the price of equities or homes, people feel flush. When the money goes after commodities like rice or oil, people feel pinched. Money has continued to go after what already exists, driving up prices. Until we get better at exploiting all this money to create what doesn’t already exist (using money for public, private, and charitable entrepreneurship), stimulatory monetary policy will just result in various kinds of inflation.

A glut of money can be a good thing if it goes into start ups as varied as a new retail outlet or alternative fuel or new school or welfare program. These ventures are destined to fail. At least some of then. A glut of money can be used to cover those losses until new ventures emerge that more than compensate for the failures. This is the strategy for turning credit into jobs and progress rather than goods and debt.

By 1900, an abundance of capital had laid the foundation for a new economy: an information economy led by advances in knowledge and knowledge workers. One key to keeping this economy in motion was the periodic Keynesian stimulus, injecting credit into the system, and unprecedented funding for education and information technology.

By 2000, an abundance of knowledge and knowledge workers had laid the foundation for an entrepreneurial economy. Key to this will be unprecedented funding in new ventures, in IPOs and government projects (like the interstate highway program or human genome project). We’ll need massive amounts of capital to realize this potential. The good news is that we have the capital already and once it is diverted into start ups that introduce something new rather than existing equities, homes, and goods in a way that feeds inflation, we’ll be back on track for genuine progress.

09 June 2008

The Internet is Re-Wiring Your Brain

In the latest Atlantic, Nicholas Carr provocatively asks, "Is Google Making us Stupid?" The point he makes is that our new style of search, hypertext, and scanning rather than "deep reading" is actually changing how our minds are wired. He speaks to it as a problem of diffusing attention, and I agree that there is an element of that. But, as I tend to be, I'm an optimist on this score. I think that the Internet is changing how we attend to issues in a positive way.

The Internet has created a new kind of communication that facilitates understanding, coordinating, managing, and participating in systems. Such facility with systems - from ecosystems to economic systems to technical systems to social systems - is emerging none too soon.

The last century or so has been characterized by the emergence of specialists. We have experts who can improve the design and performance of products like combustion engines, bombs, and financial derivatives. They are heads down focused on parts of larger systems but their actions have implications that spill outside of their products. Getting here has been a journey characterized by "deep" reading, drilling down to greater nuance and detail and understanding. The problems created by their success has created a need for a different kind of thinking and communication, a communication that looks shallow at first glance.

Going further down the rabbit hole on these specialties won’t necessarily improve our world. The issues that matter are those that spill across domains, that don’t neatly fit into Cartesian boxes of categories that say more about what we project onto reality than reality itself. “Deep” reading and thinking promises less in the way of progress than “shallow” reading and thinking that make connections and perceives system dynamics.

The Internet is changing how we think. By raising our awareness of connections, it raises the probability that we will properly understand and manage the systems that define our world. This, it seems to me, is a good thing.

On a related note, Milena pointed me to Hyperwords - a program that allows you to make any word on a page searchable, as if it were all hypertext. Talk about connections! Economist article here.

07 June 2008

Recently Seen & Heard

Behind me on the plane, the flight attendant colleting garbage was asked, “Do you take newspapers?”
“I prefer cash,” she responded, “but I’ll take newspapers.”
In a distinctly southern drawl, he said, “Well, I would but all my money is tied up in change.”

On T-shirts

Q: Do men over 50 wear boxers or briefs?
A: Depends.

I’m out of my mind
(Please leave a message)

Bumper sticker in employee parking lot.
(All in pictures):
Nixon minus Brains = Bush

Gods on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

So, what does happen to gods once people stop believing in them ...

The apartment is cluttered, crowded. Take out food containers are piled in one corner. The place smells of stale sweat, smoke, and mold. A big guy in t-shirt and sweats with the look of a former athlete who has gained weight and lost muscle, sits on a stool, puffing a cigarette. His name is Zeus.

“These gods today are pathetic. They don’t even know how to intimidate,” spit out Zeus
“Well, they’ve learned their lesson,” said Guan-Yu, formerly employed as the Daoist god of war and now dressed in t-shirt and jeans.
“What lesson?” If looks could hurl thunderbolts, Guan-Yu would have been singed.
“That you can ‘poof.’ Disappear. Become nothing. People can turn you into a myth, a curiosity of literature, without so much as a backwards glance. Suddenly you’re trapped in high school lockers. Poof.”
Zeus let loose with a string of profanities that made the pictures rattle.

“Why do you have to be so crass?” asked Ek-Chuah, the former Mayan god of business and chocolate, a god still uneasy around the more violent gods even after centuries in their company.
“Of course I’m crass,” spit Zeus. “I didn’t have to be gentle. I relied on force and intimidation. I threw lightning bolts.”
“Now he just smokes,” said Loki, the former Norse god of mischief.
Zeus let loose with another string of profanities. No one batted an eye.

“What if we don’t exist at all? It is one thing to be demoted, but what if we don’t even exist?” asked Soma, the Indian god of alcoholic beverage and supreme truth.
“Oh, here he goes with that crap again,” said Zeus.
“Well of course we exist,” said Ek-Chuah.
“You think that you exist. You might merely be a figment of imagination.”
“You’re drunk again,” Zeus said.
“Of course he’s drunk,” said Loki. “He was the god of drunk.”
“The god of truth. Truth. I did not invent the path to enlightenment, I just pointed the way,” and Soma sipped again. “Don’t you remember Descartes? ‘I think therefore I am?’”
“Oh that!” spat Zeus, who had been in a bad mood for about 1500 years. “I hate those philosophers. Who are you going to believe? A philosopher or a god?”
“You are not a god,” said Soma, blearily eyed.
“I used to be.”
“But you aren’t really one now.”
“Well, no, nobody was really a god after they’ve stopped being one,” said Loki, while Zeus fumed.

Thoth, the former Egyptian god of liberals arts, said, “It is so unfair to be lumped in with people like Dickens, Proust, and Faulkner. I never meant for my words to taken as literature. And I wasn’t even properly quoted. Those mystics who actually listened to me never did listen particularly well. I’d say a few things and they’d go off on some tangent, a riff on my throat clearing, and suddenly there were 5 stories falsely attributed to me. It is so demeaning to be judged by someone else’s intent, to find your pronouncements suddenly dismissed as poor poetry. It is like being told after the fact that you had farted in the wrong key.”

“Being mis-quoted is not so bad. I just hate not having money,” said Ek-Chuah, the former god of business. “It is so humiliating. Especially for me.”
“Money is not a problem for me,” said Soma.
“How do you get money?” asked Ek-Chuah.
“I borrow heavily from novelists. I mean, it’s only fair. They borrow heavily from us.”
Zeus hollered, “Damn Joseph Campbell. He would not loan me a dime.”
“I would have thought that he, of all people, would have been willing to loan money to a demoted god,” said Thoth.
“Let’s not start that argument again,” said Loki, the unemployed Norse god of mischief. “If you want money, you just have to invest.”
“Please! I don’t want to hear it!” Zeus said.
“But you need to hear it,” Loki said. “This is one of the advantages of immortality. Compound interest makes even the most measly investment turn into a fortune over a millennia.”
“Oh, sure,” Zeus said. “Like your sure-fire plan for world peace? The can’t lose investment?”

“The worst is to be a god of war,” said Guan Ya. “There are too many of us now, all unemployed.”
“It is not as though there aren’t still lots of wars,” said Loki cheerily.
“Actually, there has been a drop off, but you’re right. That’s not it,” said Guan Ya.
“So why are so many gods of war unemployed?”
“Now they all worship technology and big defense budgets. They don’t sacrifice to gods. They hire scientists and lobbyists.”

“I just miss being worshipped,” said Thoth sadly.
“They never really worshipped us anyway,” said Ek-Chuah. “They always just worshipped the fame and fortune they thought we might give them.”

With that, a gloom fell over the apartment. Soma belched. Zeus lit up another cigarette. Loki opened his “Investment Schemes for Deposed Gods” book. Ek-Chuah looked up and said, “So, does anyone know what Aphrodite and Astarte are doing tonight?”

05 June 2008

RFK - 40th Anniversary

I was sitting in the tree with my sister and next door neighbor Jeff. I must have been about 5. I blurted out, "LBJ is an SOB!" I don't have a clue where I had heard that and although I remember saying it, I don't remember whether I had a clue about what either of the acronyms meant. It did have a certain sound to it, though.

My sister jumped out of the tree and into the house, reporting my disrespect to mom. It was the only time that I ever remember getting my mouth washed out with soap. "You do not talk about the president that way," my mother scolded. (And mom and dad have not, to my knowledge, ever voted for Democrats.) I soon realized that talk about politics carried a certain weight one couldn't get talking about cars or careers.

I was 7 when Robert Kennedy came to our little town of Yuba City to campaign for the California primary. I went down to watch him with dad and my sister. I had never seen such a crowd in our little town. After, fascinated by him, I broke away from dad in this big crowd and weaved through the crowd to see him up close.

RFK was in the back seat of a big, black convertible. He was leaning out into the crowd to shake hands while assistants held him, keeping him from being pulled into the mob. I was shocked that people were literally trying to pull off his cuff links, pulling at his sleeves, wanting a souvenir of the man. I pushed through, using my small size to get close. I reached up to shake hands and for a moment, he stopped, looked at me - the kid - made a wry smile, touched my hand briefly, and then rode through, continuing to touch and shake hands as the car drove off, his sleeves in tatters.

My dad came up to me, yelling, "Where were you?" When I found Kennedy, I lost my dad. When I told him what I had done - not having thought to explain my impulse in advance - he looked mollified.

Days later, RFK won the California primary, gave an acceptance speech, and was shot and killed. That was 40 years ago.

How could the kid who was me not grow up to find politics fascinating?

04 June 2008

The Obama Kennedy Ticket

About 8 years ago, Bush appointed Cheney head of a committee to find him a vice president. Cheney could not find anyone better for the job than himself. (This might have been the first clue that he was going to govern with smoke and mirrors: he looked out at the possibilities and could only see himself.)

Today, Obama set up a 3-person committee whose job it is to find him a running mate. One member of that committee? Caroline Kennedy. Obama - Kennedy. How interesting would that be? Man and woman. Political dynasty and political destiny. Black and white. Past and future.

But then again, I'd be surprised if Caroline turns out to be a Dick. I would like to think that she does not confuse conviction and evidence as does our VP. Still, it is hard to imagine a VP selection that would get more coverage. (And should this happen, let the record show that the coverage began here at R World, where idle speculation and a lack of editorial standards beats investigative reporting and careful editing every time.)

The Radical Incrementalism

One of the many reasons that Darwin's ideas were rejected is that people simply didn't have a good sense about how much time had passed in the evolution of mice and elephants. It is obvious that tiny changes don't make much difference if you only pay attention over the short term.

Financial planners like to show the effects of compound interest, shocking people into saving. ("If you save only 36 cents per day every day from the time you are 8, assuming 11.4% interest, you will have amassed 7.4 billion dollars by the time you are 113," they might say, or something like that.)

The more history I've read, the more of a radical incrementalist I have become. It is rare that any one year offers much in the way of change. And yet the lives of 20 year olds in 2008 are so vastly different from the lives of 20 year olds in 1008 as to nearly qualify as life on another planet.

This long-term view has made me an optimist twice. Once because I know that an individual may not experience any real change and yet society may change. Science proceeds by the death of scientists, is the quip I believe. But I'm also made an optimist because the rate of change has continued to (incrementally) change: it has accelerated. We're living in a period of time when change is increasingly experienced by individuals across decades and not just by societies across centuries.

Last night, this country nominated a black as a major party candidate for the first time in its 200+ year history. It came about from fairly incremental change and progress. But it is, if you think about it, a pretty radical thing.

02 June 2008

As the Debt Mounts Up

Memos from the future....

Fellow American.

We in the FBI have been forced to make budget cuts and are no longer able to continue our previous surveillance programs. We've turned them into do-it-yourself programs. We're asking you to do your bit as good Americans and spy on yourself. If you should do anything that looks or seems suspicious, please contact us.

Thank you.

01 June 2008

ANWR is a Distraction

This evening, for the second time in about a month, I heard conservative friends and family decry the ANWR (Artic National Wildlife Reserve) fiasco, where environmentalists were standing in the way of oil that would allow us to stop buying from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This makes about as much sense as re-electing George Bush.

If we pumped out ALL the oil from ANWR in one year, it would meet about 30% of global demand. In one year. This might halve oil prices. For one year. And then we would be back to our current situation. More reasonably, the output from ANWR would dribble out in smaller quantities - probably increasing global supply by about 1 or 2% over a period of 10 to 20 years and have a negligible impact on oil prices.

Further, the oil from Alaska does not change our dependence on oil from the Middle East. Oil is a global market. The Saudis will still sell oil, as will the folks in Russia, Iran, China, Mexico, Canada, UAE, Venezuela, and Norway (which, along with the US, constitute the list of the top ten oil producing countries). Imagine water being pumped into one pool by ten hoses. The level of the water is determined by the collective efforts of the ten hoses, but you cannot swim in just one hose's water. You swim in the pool or do not. Oil markets are made up of output from many countries: once the oil is on the market, it is all sold at the same price (adjusting for different refining costs, etc.) and goes into the same pool. Using a bit more oil from Alaska does not hurt existing oil producing countries that much.

Oil prices have gone up by 6X in the last decade. (From less than $20 a barrel to $127 a barrel.) It is hard to believe that a price relief of, say, even 5% would be noticed much in the context of 600% oil price increases.

The truth is that ANWR would supply oil for about 6 to 25 months of US consumption. The problems of oil supply and climate change are problems that will play out over decades. I'm working with one client now who is developing a new drug from a molecule: they are currently projecting a launch date for the drug in 2017. This is, by comparison with energy, a very simple project for which only one team in one company is responsible. Energy and climate change are problems that will take decades to address and, ultimately, coordinating the activities of millions of people. In this context, the 6 to 25 months that ANWR could buy us is noise. And to the extent that it mitigates the problem of oil supply, it exacerbates the problem of climate change. It is, in short, a non-issue and this will be the last time that R World addresses this issue. (And if that does not settle it, well then ...)

In truth, we could flip a coin on the issue of ANWR. I think it would be a mistake to drill there, but it won't make much difference whether we leave it alone or exploit. What will make a difference is if we move past oil and aggressively into alternative energy sources. If we could harness even 1/10th of 1% of the solar energy that hits the planet every day, we could replace all the oil we are now using. Unlike the distraction of ANWR, that is a promising possibility worth pursuing. To waste more political time and effort on an issue like ANWR is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Exxon Valdez.

Meanwhile, as long as oil companies can convince people that high prices are because of environmentalists they can distract us from the real issues. In that sense, ANWR is a distraction.