Thursday, February 12, 2009

Quote of the Day: The great success of the GOP over the last 8 years

From Will Wilkinson by way of Andrew Sullivan:

"The great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why Marriage Matters

Image courtesy of Hammer51012

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has an interesting post about why he and his partner aren't married (this is an older post; I found it because of a more recent post by Ross Douthat):

As much as I can recall, there were basically three reasons for us to get married. 1.) I might leave. Marriage would force me to do the right thing. 2.) To declare our commitment to each other before a community of people whom we loved. 3.) The business reasons--the legalities of your estate and guardianship. I found--and still find--the first two reasons were utterly unconvincing. The third held some sway, but with the help of a lawyer we've managed to take care of that. The first turned marriage into a kind of insurance policy, and I just believed that if you felt you needed insurance for the person you were having kids by to stick out, you needed to reconsider the whole proposition. The commitment and community reason held some appeal. But I believed, and still believe, that long-term romantic partnerships are between the two people entering into it.

I hated the idea of public declarations, because the life blood of the relationship--what bills to pay, how to raise your child, your love life--all of that happened when no one else was around. Kenyatta knows more about me than any human being walking the earth--and this is as it should be. No one knows more about my strengths and my weaknesses, my failings and my successes. I trust her to the end. But that trust was worked for--it was not declared or conjured by the presence of other people ...

That gets at the essential truth for me--a relationship couldn't be about talking to other people. It couldn't be about telling other people what I was gonna do; it had to be about the actual work. From that perspective, a wedding was abominable to me.

While I agree in principle that a spousal relationship depends far more on the relationship than on any legal fictions surrounding it, Coates' view strikes me as
unnecessarily purist and counterproductive.

The fact is that human beings are predictably irrational. You might think that keeping your options open is the best move, but research consistently shows that you're better off reducing the number of options facing you.

Marriage does several very useful things. It's a public statement of commitment (which tends to reinforce that commitment). It imposes clear penalties for defecting (which tends to discourage cheating). It's a social norm that provides a positive penumbra (marriage is highly correlated with a lot of things, including increased sex and improved happiness--probably not a coincidence).

I don't think that love is something that is cheapened by marriage. Saying that a wedding is abominable because it distracts from the real work is like saying that we should ditch seatbelts because they don't help us be better drivers.*

* Yes, I realize that safety advances tend to make drivers less risk-averse...but they still save lives. Similarly, marriage might make you more complacent about your relationship...but only because it actually strengthened it.

How The Arnell Group Botched the Pepsi Logo With Crimes Against Design

Aaron Perry-Zucker at Fast Company describes the new Pepsi logo as "branding lunacy," and I could not agree more. If you have time (and a lot of bandwidth--it's over 10 MB) and want to either laugh or cry, you should download the Arnell Group's design brief, which invokes the golden ratio, the Mona Lisa, the Parthenon, the Gutenberg Bible, the earth and its magnetic fields, and the entire universe...all to justify a multi-million-dollar fee.

This is not a serious document that explains the logic behind this design. Rather, it is an abomination that invokes real design principles like the Golden Ratio to justify a terrible design and even more outrageous fees.

Real designers don't need to cloak their explanations behind a wall of self-important mumbo-jumbo. Real designers can explain everything they do in simple words that anyone can understand.

I have a design degree from the Stanford Product Design department, and I can assure you that this "design brief" is nothing more than the addled rantings of a witch doctor attempting to hoodwink a client.

"Believe in each other, not causes."

A few random thoughts on the statement above:
  • This is another way of stating Kant's Second Maxim to treat people as ends, rather than means. After all, what is a cause other than something that you're supposed to treat as more important than a single human being

  • Viewed through the lens of corporate management, this implies that one should build loyalty to the team, rather than to an abstract "company"

  • Many historians have noted that soldiers sacrifice their own lives for their squad-mates, not for their country. Dying for your country may sound noble, but when it comes down to it, more people are likely to die for their buddy.

  • This also reinforces the need to select your companions carefully; if you fall in with bad company, belief in those around you can lead you astray.

  • In the end, is there any cause that cannot be measured in terms of how it benefits individual human beings? Free speech isn't valuable on its own, but rather for its ability to help us govern ourselves justly.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"And Then They Died": The Inevitability of eBooks

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

John Siracusa, a veteran of eBooks for the Palm Pilot (!!!), has a great piece in Ars Technica on "The Once and Future eBook."

It's a fascinating piece, and it doesn't hurt that I'm a long-time fan of ebooks. Back in 1999, I even organized a panel on "digital products" for the HBS tech conference, Cyberposium. One of the speakers, David Gettman, founded Online Originals, one of the earliest ebook purveyors (and, amazingly enough, he's built it into a real business). One of his titles was the first ebook nominated for the Booker Prize!

Side note: David was kind enough to meet up with me when I was vacationing in London later that year; our wives were forced to put up with us spending an extended dinner at Mash discussing our entrepreneurial dreams. The lesson, as always? Don't marry an entrepreneur.

While the entire article is thoroughly enjoyable and informative to boot, here is the best passage:

"Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word "horse" for "book" and the word "car" for "e-book." Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.

"Books will never go away." True! Horses have not gone away either.

"Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome." True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don't go everywhere, nor should they.

"Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can't match." True! Cars just can't match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn't. I'm sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a "horseless carriage"—and they never did! And then they died."

Put that in your pipes and smoke it, skeptics.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Four Secrets of Lucky People

Photo courtesy of babileta

From childhood, I've always thought of myself as lucky. Good things seemed to come my way, and bad things stayed away.

At Stanford, I even adopted a special t-shirt as a lucky talisman. Whenever I wore it, no matter how dire the circumstances, I always seemed to be be able to pull out an A on my final exam. It became part of my pre-final ritual, along with getting a good night's sleep. "Lucky t-shirt, never fails," I'd mutter to myself as I pulled it on.

Even today, I often tell people, "My fond hope is that people will call me lucky. Nobody ever calls broke, unhappy guy lucky."

Yet on some level, I always assumed that luck was either an illusion or a mystical force beyond comprehension. It turns out, however, that scientists have shown that luck exists. Moreover, they know how you can be lucky.

And I found out about this in Newsweek of all places (thanks to Ben Casnocha for the link).

When it comes to hidden messages, lucky people perceive more of the world around them. "It is not that they expect to find certain opportunities, but rather that they notice them when they come across them," Wiseman writes in his book "The Luck Factor." This ability (or talent) "has a significant, and positive, effect on their lives."

Wiseman, who holds Britain's only professorship in the public understanding of psychology, at the University of Hertfordshire, has devoted a decade to exploring the secrets of serendipity. He discovered that some people actually do have all the luck, while others are a "magnet for ill fortune."

"Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods," Wiseman writes. "Instead, it is a state of mind—a way of thinking and behaving." Above all, he insists that we have far more control over our lives—and our luck—than we realize. Going back to the Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, great thinkers and writers have argued that 50 percent or more of what happens in life is determined entirely by chance (or Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune). Wiseman says no way. He believes that only 10 percent of life is purely random. The remaining 90 percent is "actually defined by the way you think." In other words, your attitude and behavior determine nine tenths of what happens in your life. Wiseman has concluded that there are four reasons why good things happen to certain people.

First, lucky people frequently happen upon chance opportunities. "Being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind," Wiseman writes. As his newspaper experiment shows, lucky people are more open and receptive to unexpected possibilities. They tend to be more relaxed about life, and they operate with a heightened awareness of the world around them. Quite simply, they spot and seize upon openings that other people simply miss. They also tend to be more social and maintain what Wiseman calls a "network of luck." Most of us know around 300 people on a first-name basis. According to Wiseman, that means you're only two handshakes away from 90,000 people who could bring chance opportunities into your life.

Second, lucky people listen to their hunches and make good decisions without really knowing why. Unlucky people, by contrast, tend to make unsuccessful decisions and trust the wrong people. "My interviews suggested that lucky people's gut feelings and hunches tended to pay off time and time again," Wiseman writes. "In contrast, unlucky people often ignore their intuition and regret their decision." In survival, this kind of instinct can make all the difference.

Third, lucky people persevere in the face of failure and have an uncanny knack for making their wishes come true. They're convinced that life's most unpredictable events will "consistently work out for them." Their world is "bright and rosy," Wiseman writes, while unlucky people expect that things will always go wrong. Their world is "bleak and black." When Wiseman gives lucky and unlucky people a puzzle that is actually impossible to solve, the reactions are very telling. "More than 60 percent of unlucky people said that they thought the puzzle was impossible, compared to just 30 percent of lucky people. As in so many areas of their lives, the unlucky people gave up before they even started."

Fourth, lucky people have a special ability to turn bad luck into good fortune. Of all four defining factors involved in luck, Wiseman believes this one plays the most important role in survival. Wiseman's conclusion echoes the work of Dr. Al Siebert, one of America's foremost authorities on survival psychology. After more than 40 years investigating what he calls "the survivor personality," Siebert believes, "life's best survivors not only cope well, they often turn potential disaster into a lucky development."

Let's see...relaxed about life and open to opportunities, check.

Maintain a social network of luck, check.

Get good results out of trusting hunches, check.

Convinced that life will work out, check.

Ability to turn bad luck into good fortune, check.

Maybe I was onto something with my childhood belief after all.