Friday, July 08, 2016

We Are Not Enemies

This is been a difficult week in the United States, as the tragic murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have been followed up by the murders of at least 5 police officers in Dallas, including Brent Thompson, a grandfather who had just gotten married two weeks earlier.  Normally, I don't comment too much on this kind current event, because I fear that I have little to add to a discussion that is already filled with loud voices.  However, this time it's personal.

My wife and daughter have been in Dallas all week for the USA Fencing National Championships; Marissa competed yesterday.  Their hotel is a block away from the shootings, so close that when the attack began, they could hear the shots ring out and the screams of the crowd from the hotel swimming pool (needless to say, they got inside as quickly as possible).  They had walked through the scene of the crime several times earlier that day, and could easily have been out there during the attack.

Many people think that living in Silicon Valley is like a bubble, and they are largely correct.  As I drive from gleaming corporate campus to gleaming corporate campus, or up to the boardrooms of Sand Hill Road, it's easy to think that my little corner of the world is separate and protected.  But ultimately, we are still part of the larger world, as this week's events demonstrated to me.  These aren't someone else's problem, they're all our problem.

And the root cause of the problem is that as a society, many people have chosen to emphasize our differences rather than what we share.  These people, including prominent politicians, but also private citizens, and, even if you're not willing to admit it, probably you and me at some point, have portrayed other Americans as "the enemy."

"They just don't get it."

"I just don't understand those people."

We seem to have lost the ability to separate disagreements from hostility.

Let's be clear.  We are not enemies.  Police officers are not enemies.  The Black Lives Matter movement is not an enemy.  Even Donald Trump is not an enemy (though he sometimes talks like one).

America has real enemies, who wish to harm our country, its citizens, and their way of life.  These enemies don't recognize or care about our disagreements; the simple fact that we are Americans is enough to make us a target.

And even when engaging in combat with our enemies, regardless of their level of evil and atrocity, we should behave honorably.  We should not terrorize civilian populations, or torture prisoners.

It is human nature to want revenge.  It is our great challenge to rise above that desire to seek justice instead.  Crime should be punished, but using due process, not vigilante justice.  And if the criminal justice system is biased, it should be reformed, not circumvented at gunpoint.

In that sense, Dallas represents what's great about America as well.  In the wake of the dreadfully unjust murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the protesters in Dallas assembled peacefully to advocate for reforming the system.  The officers of the Dallas PD were there to facilitate the protest, closing off streets and respectfully working with the protesters to help the rally run smoothly.  And when the shooting began, both protesters and police officers showed their heroism and bravery.  Police officers moved protesters to safety, and rushed towards the shooting to address the threat.  One protester, Shetamia Taylor, threw herself on her sons and shielded them with her body when she heard the shooting begin (she was shot in the leg, but is recovering in the hospital).

The shooters apparently targeted police officers in a misguided attempt to avenge the deaths of Castile and Sterling (and so many other black men) at the hands of police officers.  The irony of targeting innocent members of a group simply because of their membership in that group appears to have been lost on them.

We need to remember how much we share, and see each other as individuals, and groups of individuals, rather than as "the other."  We need to humanize, not dehumanize, our fellow Americans, and to work within the laws (to which we've all implicitly agreed by living here) when we want to seek change, whether that change is to reform policing practices, or to loosen restrictions on gun sales.

Laws aren't always just--Southern segregation laws were only overturned 50-60 years ago.  Law enforcement isn't always fair, and clearly wasn't in the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.  Yet vigilante justice is a poor and poorly-thought-out alternative.  Cops who won't play by the rules, and vigilantes who deal out justice to those who have perverted the system may make for entertaining movies, but they are a terrible model for real life.  Steven Pinker notes that throughout most of human history, when we lived in tribes or in a feudal system, about 15% of people died violent deaths.  Compare that to the homicide rate in the United States today, which is about 4 deaths for every 100,000 people per year, and we're orders of magnitude safer than than the bad old days of might makes right.

(Note that even this rate is a disgrace; our homicide rate is 4X that of the United Kingdom.  Also, black people are 3X as likely to be killed by police as white people.)

I doubt my words will convince those who derive power, prestige, and/or money from divisiveness to eschew their harmful tactics.  But we don't have to listen to them.  They only have power when we allow them to change our hearts and minds.  So the next time you're tempted to blast "them" on Facebook or write an angry tweet about "those people," try to resist.  They are not your enemies.  You may disagree with them, you may dislike them, but they are still fellow Americans.  You should try to change their minds peacefully, and if they react with violence, don't seek vengeance, seek justice.  Gandhi famously said, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."  The protesters and police officers in Dallas understood this.  The attackers did not.

UPDATE: Here are the names of the five officers who died in the attack (via the Washington Post):
Brent Thompson, a 43-year-old transit police officer; Patrick Zamarripa, a 32-year-old police officer who served three tours in Iraq with the U.S. military; Michael Krol, a 40-year-old officer who joined the Dallas police in 2008; Lorne Ahrens, a former semi-pro football player and 14-year veteran of the Dallas police; and an officer identified in media reports as Michael Smith.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali (1942 - 2016)

When Cassius Clay was born in 1942, it would take 12 more years for Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas to order the desegregation of public schools.

When Muhammad Ali died in 2016, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, tweeted, "He shook up the world, and the world's better for it. Rest in peace, Champ."

I take great heart from the demonstrated fact that the world can change a lot in three-quarters of a century.  Not only did Muhammad Ali live to see many injustices righted (though many more certainly remain), he played a major role in bringing those changes.

That's why, when he dubbed himself "The Greatest," the country came to agree with him.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Tragic Death of Blogging

I come not to praise blogging, but to bury it.

Blogging is dying a tragic death, killed off by the inexorable and irresistible force of Adam Smith's invisible hand.

When blogging first emerged, it promised a better way to consume content.  For avid readers like me, it was a dream come true.  Finally, people could publish content that would be universally available, and content consumers could easily subscribe to content they wanted to read.

Instead of having to constantly check the front pages of various websites, readers could simply wait for their RSS readers to deliver a personalized, curated subset of the Internet, consistently formatted for reading.

And for a while, blogging prospered.  But the same things that made blogging such a godsend for readers made it a nightmare for commercial publishers.  Curated subscriptions made life easier for readers, but also depressed pageviews, and more importantly, advertising impressions.  Plain formatting made it easier to read and comprehend writing, but didn't provide opportunities for pop-ups, pop-unders, takeovers, and all the other fearsome members of the modern advertiser's bestiary.

Google's decision to kill off Google Reader was the key symbol of this shift.  Even Google, which is perfectly content to invest billions of dollars in pursuing nuclear fusion and immortality, was unwilling to support a medium which actively worked against its hunger for advertising impressions.

Today, commercial publications have either dropped RSS feeds entirely, or hide them away in obscure corners.  They'd prefer to act like slot machines, using unpredictable rewards to encourage readers to visit on a regular basis for dopamine hits, wasting time but generating valuable impressions.

Facebook's dominant newsfeed is non-deterministic; Facebook's algorithms decide what we do and do not see, in part based on what will allow Facebook to better integrate the sponsored posts that generate its revenues.

With the death of RSS, blogs no longer have subscribers; they must rely on social media for distribution, which means focusing more on clickbait headlines and popular, shareable topics.  Astonishingly, the last refuge that writers have for building a faithful audience is the 30-year-old technology of the email list.  And email, as remarkably durable as it has proven, isn't public like a blog.

Yet I intend to keep blogging in this space.  I still want the ability to create the content I want, and to allow people who are interested to read it, without forcing them to check back multiple times per day or to suffer through takeover ads.

You see, I'm not a commercial publisher.  I don't make any money from this blog.  And that allows me to keep producing content for the sake of readers, not advertisers.

It may be that the golden age of blogging was simply a fleeting dream, and that this end result was inevitable.  But it still produced an amazing amount of content and public good, and even if true blogging is now the province of hobbyists, it's still important that individuals have the ability to publish whatever they want and have it be accessible to the entire Internet.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Goal Of Communication Is To Be Understood

I often warn people that it's shockingly hard to communicate your thoughts to someone else.  Far too often, I speak with entrepreneurs who are frustrated by how their employees or even co-founders don't understand what needs to be done.

That's when I tell them, "The goal of communication is to be understood."  Your responsibility goes beyond making the effort to state things clearly (or so you believe); it extends all the way to conveying the meaning of your words and confirming that your conversation partner has understood them.

This is one of the reasons I often recommend that people short-circuit lengthy email chains by picking up the phone.  It's easy for people to think that all they need to do is hit "Reply".  After all, then their response is on record.  And they get to feel good that they "did something" about an issue.  But writing a good email doesn't mean that the recipient will understand.  If you're a leader, you should hold yourself to a higher standard.

That's why I was interested it read some of the scientific backing for my advice, from Heidi Grant Halvorson:
"Most of the time, Halvorson says, people don’t realize they are not coming across the way they think they are. “If I ask you,” Halvorson told me, “about how you see yourself—what traits you would say describe you—and I ask someone who knows you well to list your traits, the correlation between what you say and what your friend says will be somewhere between 0.2 and 0.5. There’s a big gap between how other people see us and how we see ourselves.”
This gap arises, as Halvorson explains in her book, from some quirks of human psychology. First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion”—the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.
Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment."
The transparency illusion explains why so many people think they've been clear, and yet have communicated far less than they believed.  It affects everyone, even the very intelligent.  Sometimes, someone will be talking about an important issue, and it's clear to me that they think they've been crystal clear, and I'll have to tell them, "I have no idea what you just said."

If you think other people are getting what you're saying, you're wrong.  Don't stop communicating until you've confirmed that the other party understands what you've said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Grappling with mortality and meaning

I'm not certain what precisely led to my contemplating my death.

Several of my good friends recently lost their fathers.

I was also on an airplane flight, which, all statistics on safety aside, always makes me think of the Grim Reaper.

Whatever the reason, I found myself at 35,000 feet, my eyes closed during the middle of a very full flight, thinking about life and death.

I'm dying.  You're dying.  We're all going to die, including all the ones we love.  And after we die, after the grief of our surviving family and friends, most of us will soon be forgotten.

(Ironically, all that will be left of most of us in the "physical" world will be our social media posts, however long Google, Facebook, and Twitter last.)*

In the grand scheme of the universe, all of us are petty and insignificant.  It existed for billions of years before me, and it will likely continue to exist for billions of years after me.  And even during my actual lifetime, the vast majority of human beings will never be aware of my existence; the wider universe beyond our small planet will be completely unaware.

Sobering thoughts, especially when crammed into a Southwest Airlines coach seat.

I wasn't content to leave my thoughts in this somber place.  I'm a happy person, not an existential philosopher, and I couldn't bear to walk off that plane in a state of angst!

Here's what I concluded:

As long as I'm alive, I'm going to keep going until I can't.  What's the point of giving in to angst and despair?  How does it help me or anyone else that I care about?

(Not to mention the high cost of black sweaters and cigarettes.)

We get to decide whether this struggle is meaningful or meaningless.  Whether we're so tiny and insignificant that nothing we does matters, or whether the opportunity to overcome our insignificance and make a dent, however small, against the odds makes it a fight worth fighting.  There's really no way to prove that one of these approaches is truer than the other, but I can tell you that believing that my life is meaningful seems a whole lot more useful to me.

Since there is no proof, perhaps it is a matter of faith.  If so, I believe in meaning.  I believe in the struggle.  And I believe that however much time we get, we should make the most of it.

* Note that I specifically refer to the physical world.  The question of whether there is a separate spiritual world that does not follow the laws of the physical world is essentially unknowable, so I'll leave it to you to decide what kind of deity and/or afterlife in which to believe.

P.S. I think it is altogether characteristic that even when writing about death and existential angst, I couldn't resist making a joke.  I think fun is another one of those ways to bring meaning to our lives!

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Psychology of Slavery in the South

We all know that the Civil War happened because of slavery.  The South fought for the right to keep African-Americans as slaves, the North fought to outlaw slavery.  While this is a bit of an oversimplification, it isn't wrong.

Here's the funny thing: Only 25% of white Southerners held people in slavery (I chose not to use the term "owned," because we shouldn't be allowed to own other human beings).  Only 12% of those slaveholders held more than 10 people in slavery.

In other words, slavery was only economically dominant for about 3% of white Southerners.  And yet, the South went to war, and over 260,000 Confederate soldiers died (out of a white population of 5.5 million).

In other words, nearly 5% of the white Southern population died in a war which was fought for the economic interests of about 3%.  The equivalent death toll for today's US population would be over 15 million, or greater than the population of any state other than California, Texas, Florida, or New York.

The antebellum South had a level of wealth inequality that would shock Piketty.  And yet, the 97% went willingly to fight in a ruinous war that offered them little economic benefit.

One explanation that strikes me as both sad and terribly plausible is that focusing on keeping slaves in an inferior position in society allowed poor white Southerners to feel better about their own situation.  Rather than highlighting the gap between rich and poor, Southerners chose to cast the spotlight on the gap between free and enslaved.

Today, more than 150 years after the end of that terrible war, and the even more terrible institution of slavery, we still have politicians trying to divide us, and offering to make some groups feel better by demonizing and denigrating others.  Hopefully those who follow these kinds of politicians stop to ponder the fate of the antebellum Southerners who allowed their prejudices to carry them into disaster.

UPDATE: The statistics cited above come from "The American Civil War," from The Great Courses.  The professor for the course is Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bachelor Parties and The Business Model of Objectification

I spent the weekend in South Beach at a bachelor party for one of my HBS classmates.  It’s hard for me to count the number of people who, when notified of these plans, either A) noted that I wasn’t the bachelor party type, or B) commented, “Wow, that sounds just like ‘The Hangover.’”

My responses were, A) “You’re right.  Bachelor parties involve spending money, cigars, spending money, alcohol, spending money, and scantily clad women without advanced degrees.  There’s pretty much nothing that appeals to me about a bachelor party except spending time with old friends.  Fortunately, that’s enough.” And B) “Dear God, I hope not.”

(Personally, my idea of a perfect bachelor party would involve great food, playing sports, visiting a museum or two, then lounging around and having small-group and 1:1 intellectual discussions before retiring early to get a good night’s sleep, but I understand that I’m a bit atypical in this respect.)

Fortunately, the weekend went off without any major hitches, except for damage to our wallets.  As our fearless leader noted to me afterwards, “We partied as hard as it’s possible to do without making any truly bad decisions.”  Nonetheless, I suspect it’s better not to go into any detail about how Johnnie Walker Blue Label and “El Diablo” played a role in the weekend.

What I will do is to comment on business models—specifically, the male willingness to pay to spend time with attractive young females.

On our first night, we went to popular dance club, and were ushered to our private booth, which came stocked with a dedicated team of servers (attractive young women scantily clad in black uniforms with a lot of fishnetting) who then brought us copious amounts of ridiculously overpriced alcohol.  I had never gone to a club or experienced bottle service before (this is probably the first and only bachelor party I’ll ever attend where all the men are financially successful 40somethings trying to recapture their youth), so I found the concepts mystifying at first, but gradually I was able to unravel the business model.

Unlike a straightforward gentleman’s club, where men directly pay exotic dancers for specific services, a club caters to two audiences: Attractive women, and men with money.  I had supposed that men paid for overpriced alcohol to please the attractive servers (a minor variation on the gentleman’s club transaction), but the actual dynamic is more complex.  In fact, the club’s primary asset is its ability to pull in attractive women.  Most clubs actually seed the market by paying attractive women to go to the club.  These are not escorts or performers—in fact, their amateur status is what makes them valuable.  An attractive woman might be paid $500 to go to a club for the evening; her role is simply to enjoy herself.  Don’t even ask how much the bottle service “girls” are paid.  The club’s revenues come from the men who are then willing to spend money on overpriced alcohol in an attempt to attract the women in the club to their table.  To get a prime table, you might have to commit to spending thousands of dollars on alcohol which you might otherwise purchase for a total of $500 at Costco.  The club is dark and disorienting, with music playing at ear-splitting levels.  The poor lighting helps the participants appear more attractive by hiding physical flaws, while the noise forces men to rely on their spending to convince women of their worth.  (The disorientation is probably similar to the strategy of a Vegas casino—disorient patrons so they lose track of time and what they’re spending)  When I shouted into one of my friend’s ears to ask how on earth he ever managed to have a conversation in a club, he shouted/replied, “I don’t.  I say something, but I understand that I’m essentially talking to myself.  You can’t possibly hear what the other person is saying, so you both just nod and pretend to understand.”  Personally, I see no appeal to meeting people in an environment where you can’t have an intellectual conversation, especially members of the opposite sex, but that’s obviously not a stance that is shared by the majority of clubgoers.

(Side rant: Why is it okay to call women "girls?"  It seems insulting and infantilizing.  I certainly wouldn't want to be referred to as a "boy".)

Men who don’t spend a lot of money have to rely purely on their physical attractiveness and dancing skills to meet women, assuming they’re even admitted.  Because of their lack of contribution to the bottom line, these men are tolerated so that the club can maintain the appearance of being a hot spot for the young and beautiful, rather than the young and beautiful of the female gender, and the older but wealthier of the male gender.  A club is essentially a real estate developer on steroids—each night, the club has to convince people that it is a good neighborhood, then sell off its real estate as dearly as possible.  The good news for the club is that the dynamic ensures a continuous flow of irrational alcohol purchases—as soon as a table runs out of alcohol, the men have to spend more or lose the women they’ve managed to attract to their table to others tables which are more plentifully supplied.

I didn’t enjoy my club experience, not just for the reasons above, but also because I was repulsed by how we might be seen.  If I were to look at our table through the eyes of an attractive 25-year-old woman, I would see a bunch of 40something men with greying and/or thinning hair, not nearly as attractive in their eyes as younger, fitter, more stylish men their age, but who are willing to provide free alcohol in exchange for being around me.  Now I’m an old married guy who has no need to impress single women, but even if I were single, I would want to attract companionship based on what I view as personal merits such as intellect, sense of humor, and conversational skills, not simply my willingness to open my wallet.  (Side note: This is a fundamental problem for the wealthy, and one of the reasons they like to associate with each other. One of the only ways to be sure that someone isn’t spending time with you because of your wallet is to spend time with people who are equivalently rich)

Yet as we’ll see, this business model repeats and repeats itself.

The next day, we spent all afternoon in a private cabana at our luxury hotel.  Each weekend, this famous hotel transforms one of its pools into a giant beach party.  As with the club, we secured our prime real estate by committing to spend thousands of dollars on alcohol and food, which were delivered to us by attractive young women wearing skimpy uniform bikinis.  As with the club, the hotel carefully curated the guest list to obtain an optimal mix of the young and attractive, and the older and wealthier.  As I looked around the pool, I noted that the people with private cabanas were disproportionately male and older (there were parties of older women as well as older men).  Again, conspicuous consumption was a key communication tool.  One of the options was for a champagne spray.  When you ordered this option, four bikini-clad servers would come out, each riding the shoulders of one of the young male employees of the hotel (who, while young and handsome, were dressed in shorts and polo shirts) and carrying a bottle of champagne.  They would then parade around the pool to the cabana that had placed the order, open the bottles, and shake the contents onto the people at the cabana.  In other words, this was conspicuous consumption in its purest form—the champagne wasn’t even being drunk, and could easily have been replaced with $1 seltzer water.  The cost of this performance was an even $1,000.  The benefit is that it would attract the attention of everyone at the pool, and thus convince more attractive women to make their way to the cabana. (I will note that we did not purchase this option, considering it wasteful.)

As with the club, I pictured how attractive 20something women in bikinis would view a cabana full of older, largely-out of shape gentlemen.  It’s also a matter of perspective.  At one point, bespectacled gentleman in his 60s, bald and pot-bellied, sauntered past, and I joked, “Look guys, it’s Rupert Murdoch!”  This got a good laugh, but then I realized that while he looked old and fat to us, we probably looked the same to the young women of the pool, who were exactly as far from us in age as we were from “Rupert.”

Finally, one of my friends related to me his take on private equity and hedge fund conferences.  At these conferences, potential LPs such as family office managers, travel to Las Vegas, Miami, or some other vacation destination to meet with fund managers, who send their investment professionals (who are largely older men) and marketing directors (who are largely younger, attractive, well-educated women).  As my friend put it to me, “Fat, balding family office guys are allocating 10% to alternative assets anyways.  It doesn’t really matter who they give it too, especially if they have a good brand.  They just want a pretty woman to take them out to dinner and pretend to flirt with them.”

What all these stories have in common is a simple theme: Men are willing to pay money to be around attractive women who wouldn’t otherwise spend the time.  This isn’t prostitution; none of these examples include sex (at least in the case of our bachelor party).  In fact, I suspect that the men who are a party to this transaction would never consider patronizing a brothel or paying a sex worker.  They would see it as either immoral or reputationally disastrous (think of Eliot Spitzer AKA the “Luv Guv”).  Yet social hotspots and business meetings are seen as perfectly acceptable (or at least acceptable enough to admit to patronizing, while still trying to hide the receipts from their wives).

Needless to say, this is sexist, atavistic business model, whose only virtue is that it is voluntarily entered into and viewed as attractive employment.  I believe in freedom of choice, and that people should be able to pursue business options as long as they aren’t illegal.  Yet I can’t help but feel that the world would be better off with fewer such transactions. 

Back when I was an undergraduate studying philosophy and literature, we often discussed the problematic way in which works and institutions tend to objectify women.  The business model I describe above objectifies women by using their physical attractiveness as the coin of the realm in what is essentially a financial transaction, aided and abetted by environments that are carefully designed to reduce the participants options until all they can do is participate in those (lucrative) transactions.  But the irony is that the same thing is happening to the men that provide the money that fuels this model.  They too are being objectified, reduced to a disembodied wallet with no intrinsic non-financial value.

If you’re currently a man who participates in this economy, you might want to consider how the rest of the economy sees you.  I know that I wasn’t very comfortable with how it looked on me.

P.S. This criticism doesn’t mean that didn’t enjoy the weekend.  Our fearless leader and the various hospitality professionals we worked with got the weekend to run like a well-oiled machine (the grease, by the way, was copious amounts of money).  I had a great time catching up with old friends over fine meals and while enjoying the Miami sun.  I even enjoyed the various cab rides, because they gave us more chances to talk.  I also had a number of interesting conversations with the women we met, including one far-ranging talk about what we thought of different philosophers.  We touched on Socrates, Plato, Kant, Mill, Locke, and many others.  I dwelt on my concerns above because they made for a more interesting and important intellectual discussion.

P.P.S. I’m also not criticizing the individual participants.  As I noted, the environments are carefully designed to reduce their freedom of action.  I just want to help them be more aware of the implications of their activities.

P.P.P.S. If you think it’s inappropriate for married guys to go to clubs or pool parties, might I recommend that you read Mark Twain’s story, “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg”.  If you’re short on patience, skip to the end for the punchline.

UPDATE: This Reddit AMA from a Miami nightclub doorman gives you good insights into the mindset of the club:
"If a well dressed fat woman and an equally proportioned well dressed fat man go into a club, which one do you think is going to make the club more money? The woman, who is probably expecting someone to buy her drinks and will likely be disappointed, or the man who will be buying drinks like they're bringing back Prohibition next week in an attempt to blunt a physical shortcoming during his social interactions?"

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Melancholy of the Happy

I am probably one of the happiest people in the world, but even I feel melancholy every once in a while.  While I'm lucky enough that these feelings are both rare and invariably transitory, I'm struck by the fact that I feel like I shouldn't write about them.

It's not because I'm afraid that revealing that I'm not always happy will negatively impact my image or be bad for "the brand" (since everyone in Silicon Valley is contractually required to have a specific personal brand!).  Rather, it's the sense that I shouldn't voice my feelings when I have so little to complain about.

The irony, of course, is that I've written about the need to have compassion for the fortunate:
"I find this lack of compassion appalling. The thinking seems to be that we need to compete on our miseries, and that ultimately, we must all defer to a starving genocide victim somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t believe that compassion is a zero-sum game.
Having problems, even first-world problems, is emotionally draining. Having difficult choices, even if all the options are enviable, is still difficult."
Yet somehow, when it comes to showing compassion to myself, my brain decided to take a holiday!  I also advise many entrepreneurs to reach out for help, and not to struggle alone.  In our glossy Facebook-driven world, it's easy to believe that everyone is happy.

It's funny how we often fail to take our own advice!

So if you are both happy and fortunate, consider this post your permission to feel a little down from time to time, and to talk about it.  You'd be surprised how many people will be relieved to discover that you're human after all.

P.S. I'm not actually sure whether I was melancholic, or just had gone too long without writing a blog post.  Writing this one certainly made me perk up!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Effort-Outcome Model For Evaluating Your Portfolio Life

One of the perils of living a portfolio life is the need to decide how to allocate your time and energy among potential initiatives.  The challenge is that most initiatives are full of uncertainty.  In an effort to structure my thinking about my own life, I decided to create a classic chart, with one axis representing the level of personal control I had over the outcome, and the other the expected value.

I dealt with the uncertainty over outcomes by creating a bar that I thought was roughly equivalent to the 20th and 80th percentile outcomes, and added a yellow star to indicate the median outcome.  Here is the chart:

As you can tell, I've anonymized the different options.  It's not surprising, therefore, that I've chosen to focus more effort on the top outcome, which offers both the greatest personal control, and the highest median expected value.  But I can envision plenty of other cases where I might need to make a tradeoff between expected value and personal control over outcomes.  Personal control matters, because it indicates how much your efforts are likely to help; going "all-in" in terms of effort on an initiative where you have little personal control over the outcome is wasteful.  But expected outcomes also matter; you might personally control an outcome, but if the value of the outcome is negligible, such effort is also a waste of time.  Note that this is necessarily an incomplete picture--it doesn't take into account total effort/investment required, or how much you enjoy the work--but most useful tools focus on a subset of the situation.

How does your own life look?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris, ISIL, Evil, Law Enforcement, and War

We stand with Paris.

Like everyone else, I was appalled and saddened by the recent attacks in Paris.*  One of the strange things about modern life is that the news media intimately acquaints us with vivid images of atrocities and suffering even as their geographical distance makes it nearly impossible for us to do anything to help.  We're human, and when events make an emotional impression on us, we feel the need to act.

After the attacks of 9/11, people around the globe lined up to donate their blood.  Blood banks in America collected an extra 600,000 units of blood after 9/11.  But since blood is a perishing commodity, more than 200,000 units were discarded, unused.

I'm no more immune to this urge than anyone, but I'm cognizant of how the hot surge of emotion can overcome reason, which is why I'm going to try to work out my thoughts about the attacks with as much caution as I can muster.  Hopefully this essay will help people think through these issues as well, rather than being discarded, unused.

The attacks seem obviously evil, but I think it's useful to examine why they seem so to us.

The first thing is that they involve killing.  It may seem obvious, but death is generally the greatest ill we can encounter in life, and it is permanent and irreversible.  This means that we should strive to avoid taking human life.

Indeed, the basic function of a government is to keep its citizens safe.  We grant the government a monopoly on the legal use of force, and in return, we expect fair treatment and protection.  This is one of the reasons why we react so strongly to police officers who murder innocent people.  It is a violation of the basic prohibition against killing and a breach of the implicit contract with the state.

As a side note, this principle explains why gun control is essential.  Giving citizens unfettered access to guns means giving people the power to kill other people.  I don't know about you, but I don't trust the average citizen with the power of life and death.  I'm not sure I trust any citizen with that power.  Most arguments against gun control boil down to the ability of armed citizens to deter crime.  Yet arming citizens to take on criminals is like swallowing a spider to catch a fly--it might work, but it's a pretty suboptimal alternative.

Thee second factor that speaks to the evil of the Paris attacks is that they targeted the innocent.  The people killed weren't criminals, combatants, or even aware of being targeted.  They were simply attending a concert, dining out, or attending a soccer game.

In a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIL said Paris was targeted because of France's role in the airstrikes against ISIL, and for being a "capital of adultery and vice."  These two justifications violate two different principles--the first being that military force shouldn't target innocent civilians, and the second that disagreeing with social mores does not justify violence.  We'll discuss the issue of war later on in this essay, so I'll focus on the issue of "morality" in general.

In a world with a multiplicity of philosophies and religions, it's difficult to talk about morality.  Difficult, but not impossible.  Whether you subscribe to Mills/Bentham utilitarianism, Kant's Categorical Imperative, or the teachings of Buddhism, the most fundamental right is that of freedom and self-determination.  You don't have to be an enthusiastic fan of Bitcoin or dream of owning your own island to appreciate the importance of freedom.

Groups and cultures that seek to restrict individual freedom are generally in the wrong.  It is wrong for certain cultures to require women to wear restrictive clothing.  It is wrong for France to bar women from wearing restrictive clothing.  Let people wear what they want, have sex and marry whom they want, and inhale what they want.  It's none of our business.  If there are externalities like the healthcare costs of alcohol or tobacco usage, tax the heck out of those substances to pay for those externalities.

Sometimes, freedoms come into conflict, as with abortion, where a woman's right to control her own body conflicts with the rights of the unborn child growing in her body (and those of the father).  Here, we have to decide on what we think is a fair process for making a decision (passing laws, judicial review) and accept that humans and their compromises are imperfect.  If you agree to the process (e.g. by remaining a citizen of the United States), but you don't abide by the resulting compromise, you're essentially like a spoiled child on a playground who tries to take his ball and leave.  This doesn't mean obeying every law, but it does mean accepting the consequences of civil disobedience in service of a cause.

Yet none of these careful nuances matter in the case of the Paris attacks because ISIL plays no role in the laws and behaviors of French citizens!  Using deadly force to punish the people of another nation for behaviors that have no impact on your own life is both meddlesome and foolish.  Any group or culture that believes in taking such action is irrational and evil on the face of it.

Law Enforcement and War

Given the evil of the Paris attacks, the question is, how should one respond?  The French government responded with airstrikes on ISIL's "capital" (more on this later) after President Hollande called the attacks "an act of war."

A key part of any such response is to decide if your actions are law enforcement or war.

Law enforcement consists of the state taking action to apprehend criminals and put an end to their crimes against individual citizens.

War consists of the state taking action against an enemy that represents a threat to the state.

Law enforcement officers should avoid the use of deadly force unless there is no alternative.

War is predicated on the use of deadly force, and assumes that diplomatic alternatives have been exhausted.

Given that ISIL claimed state-level responsibility for the Paris attacks, I think the French government has the right to consider it an act of war.  Yet the process of defending against such attacks has far more in common with law enforcement than war.  Terrorists aren't like armies massing on your border; they are hard to detect and often hide inside your own population.  Even the world's most powerful military struggles with nation building, as the US military has found at great cost over the fast 14 years.

The other problem with war is what is euphemistically called "collateral damage," because it sounds better than "innocent people killed in the process of trying to get the bad guys."  The desire for vengeance is deeply human and instinctive, but airstrikes are likely to kill innocent civilians, most of whom probably hate living under ISIL rule.

The reality of war is that lots of innocent civilians die.  The question is whether the alternative is worse.  During World War 2, the Allies didn't bomb the Nazi concentration camps.  Doing so would have killed innocent prisoners.  But doing so might also have prevented many deaths.

If President Hollande and other world leaders decide to invoke the concept of war, I hope they commit themselves to their chosen course of action and have the fortitude to see it through.  ISIL has done a remarkable job of making enemies of nearly all of the surrounding states in the Middle East, the United States, Europe, and Russia.  This gamble will pay off if ISIL's enemies content themselves to minor moves and overheated rhetoric; the resulting morass will let ISIL congratulate itself for standing up to "corrupt Western powers" and help it recruit more fighters.  I hope it turns out to be a bad gamble.

What You Can Do

On the one hand, I know that changing a Facebook profile photo is a small gesture.  On the other hand, millions of small gestures add up.  Each time someone sees a tricolored profile photo, they feel a sense of collective purpose.  I don't see anything wrong with that.

In addition, I think that one of the best things we can do in the coming days is to stay calm and try to act with patience and reason.  One of the great things about democracy is that it generally reflects the will of the people.  One of the awful things about democracy is that it generally reflects the will of the people.  ISIL is an evil force that we need to fight.  But we need to fight in a smart, disciplined, effective way.

* There is an entirely different discussion that we could have about why attacks in Paris have a global impact, while similar attacks in Beirut, and worse atrocities perpetrated by the likes of Boko Haram attract little comment or outrage in the Western world.  I suspect that the reasons are a combination of affinity and shock.  Affinity in the sense that most Americans identify more with Paris (especially those who have visited it) than Beirut, let alone Nigeria (this is part cultural and yes, part unintentional racism), shock in the sense that Paris is generally thought of a safe, cosmopolitan city, far from war and suffering.  Perhaps I'll take up this subject at greater length another time.