Saturday, August 19, 2017

Violence is (almost) never the right answer

Like Indiana Jones, when confronted by Nazis, most of us want to punch them in the face.  American white supremacists like Richard Spencer are so obviously and cartoonishly evil that the temptation is to treat them like movie villains, and dispatch them with heroic fisticuffs.  However, it's critical that we resist this temptation to go Captain America on their smug supposedly-Aryan features.

There are obvious reasons for restraint, ranging from a moral opposition to violence, to thwarting these loathsome creeps' strategy of inciting violence so that they can appear to be the aggrieved party.  But the most important reason is the fundamental corrosiveness of violence on civil society.

In his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Steven Pinker uses historical evidence to argue that our modern society, news broadcasts nonwithstanding, is the least violent time in human history (based on the chance that the average individual will perish due to an act of violence).  I would argue that the force behind this decline is the fundamental bargain of modern civilization: Granting the government a monopoly on legitimate violence, in exchange for protection and the fair administration of justice.

The role of the military is to protect the residents of a nation from external violence, while the role of the police is to protect us from violence committed by other residents.  All of us effectively give out the right to mete out justice ourselves in exchange for a less-violent society.

This bargain is incredibly effective.  Imagine if our disputes, rather than being resolved by the courts, were still settled by exchanges of gunfire.  Actually, we don't have to do too much imagining; this is why life as a criminal is so dangerous.  Rather than going to the police to resolve their inter-gang disputes, rival gangs murder each other (and innocents suffer in the process).

This is why it is so dangerous to advocate violence as a solution to political problems.  While it may feel good to talk tough (just ask President Trump), legitimizing violence outside the military or the police attacks the fundamental underpinnings of civil society.

Recently, history Professor NDB Connolly of Johns Hopkins University (and the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Backstory) came dangerously close to doing just that (though possibly by accident) in a Washington Post editorial.  In this editorial, he used the metaphor of rock-paper-scissors as a guide to fighting white supremacy.  He argues that the "paper" of what he characterizes as "liberalism" cannot defeat the "scissors" of white supremacy:
"For a long while, we’ve been throwing a lot of “paper.” Liberalism — our paper — preserves our country’s long commitment to contracts. Under liberalism, citizens stand in contract with their government. The government’s job, in turn, has been to enforce contracts between individuals and groups. Truly, when people ask for rights, be they women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, or rights as people of color, they are asking for contract rights."
In other words, Connolly argues that the fundamental underpinnings of civil society are insufficient to defeat white supremacy, which historically has been based on denying minorities their contractual rights (either through direct means such as slavery itself, or indirect means such as unfair policing).
"Resistance, be it forceful or clandestine, threatened or explicit, stands as our “rock.” Rocks can look like armed self-defense or nonviolent direct-action campaigns. They appear, too, as blunt, bald public speech about the hatred arrayed against the dispossessed. Our rock against racism has also included the sacrifice of people like Medgar Evers, a black World War II veteran and civil rights organizer, dying in Jackson, Miss., in 1963; or Viola Liuzzo, a white Northern Unitarian Universalist, dying for the same cause in Selma, Ala., two years later.... 
...No matter its form, rock breaks scissors. A half-century ago, nothing less than radical anti-racism could reduce white supremacy to an outlaw religion. Paper could not do that. The contract logic of liberalism, on its own, was not built for that. On matters of racism and discrimination, capitalism can never serve as the great social fix, because in many instances, the very sectors of the economy that have historically been the most profitable in American history — for instance, slavery, real estate — have also been the most discriminatory..... 
...Then, in April 1968, amid a flurry of other “rocks,” riots shook American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It took that rolling unrest, not the promise of further economic growth, to spur President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to action. Within a week they had passed the Fair Housing Act.
Over the past century, liberalism, vexed by an ever-sharp, ever-cutting white supremacy, has needed these rocks....
Consider that the Klan and neo-Nazis are again out and about in daylight, wielding not so much torches as scissors. We can keep on throwing paper. Even after a couple of centuries of trying, we can keep hoping a commitment to commerce can still be the great fix. We would do well, however, to wise up and start throwing rock — public denunciations of white supremacy, clear anti-racist institution building, and fighting for policies that undo the money made off racism, especially with an ancient hatred now standing unhooded. 
Segregationists have again assumed their pedestals in the Justice Department, the White House and many other American temples. Paper alone won’t drive them out. Start throwing rocks."
There's a lot to unpack in these excerpts, so let's go point by point.

First, I think it is dangerous to do what Connolly does when he includes a huge continuum of actions under the "rock" of resistance.  He describes "rocks" as including everything from public speech to the riots of 1968.  To me, that sounds dangerously like saying that violence is necessary to defeat white supremacy.  Even our fundamental bargain makes some allowance for violence, since the police aren't everywhere all the time.  That's why we excuse violence committed in self-defense.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for protesters who are facing a set of armed opponents to make preparations to defend themselves.  The tricky thing is that this logic applies to both sides, which results in two heavily armed mobs that really don't like each other, and makes it far more likely that a fight will break out by accident.

But characterizing rioting as necessary is both wrong and dangerous.  At least a fight between opposing protesters is a fight between voluntary opponents.  Riots harm many innocent bystanders and cause economic harm to businesses and homeowners who have nothing to do with the conflict.

Second, Connolly seems to argue that capitalism cannot fix discrimination.  I strongly disagree.  Capitalism, with its amoral focus on returns, tends to reduce, rather than increase discrimination.  The evidence is clear that more diverse companies do better than their peers in our current capitalist system.  The discrimination that Connolly appears to be referring to, such as the abhorrent practice of redlining and discrimination against African-American home buyers, is a distortion of capitalism, caused by racist individuals who are willing to make less money for the "satisfaction" of carrying out their bigotry.

Finally, intentional or not (and given his profession, I am inclined to believe that this was his intention), using the phrase, "Paper alone won’t drive them out. Start throwing rocks," is both dangerous and inflammatory.  Certainly, Connolly's previous paragraph defines rock as "public denunciations of white supremacy, clear anti-racist institution building, and fighting for policies that undo the money made off racism," but I believe that nearly any objective reader would read "start throwing rocks" as an incitement to violence, especially considering how often throwing real (rather than metaphorical) rocks often leads to riots.  If a white supremacist had used the same metaphor, but in reverse, describing "left-wing violence" as the scissors and "heroic Aryan resistance" as the rock, we would rightly condemn him for exhorting his audience to, "Stop throwing paper, and start throwing rocks."

What is particularly disappointing about this is that Professor Connolly is a well-respected academic working at a flagship university, which means that A) his words carry considerable weight with those who are inclined to agree with him, and B) the white supremacists he opposes can use his words to accuse academia and the mainstream media of being pro-violence, "Just like President Trump said!"

Confronting evil is important, but we don't live in a Hollywood movie, where violence solves problems and leads to a happy ending.  As the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind." (Note: This quote is often attributed to Gandhi, and Gandhi's family believes he may have spoken it, but there is no written evidence that he ever used these words.)  Meeting white supremacists' violence with violence will exacerbate the conflict.  And if you are willing to follow the advocacy of violence to its ultimate conclusion of killing all those who hold a particular belief, at least be willing to admit your purpose so that others can see you for who you really are.

If you believe in the value of peaceful civilization, don't argue for actions that attack its fundamental principles.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Why Diversity Increases Meritocracy

Too often, diversity and meritocracy are presented as opposites, when in fact, the two go hand in hand.

The grand irony is that many of those who use the concept of meritocracy to argue against greater diversity are in fact working against the interests of a true meritocracy.

The biggest logical fallacy that most pro-"meritocracy" advocates make is assuming that the current status quo reflects the natural/objective order of things.

If you assume that the status quo reflects the rewards of true meritocracy, by definition, any change to the status quo reflects a retreat from meritocracy.

This core assumption is fatally flawed, and it is easy to provide numerous counterexamples.

In 1946, Kenny Washington became the first African-American to sign a contract with an NFL team.  Today, nearly 70% of NFL players are African-American.

Since professional sports teams are evaluated based on wins and losses on the field of play, they are arguably the truest meritocracy in our society.  Are we to assume that before 1946, African-Americans lacked football aptitude, but developed these skills in the decades since?

Ah, the pro-"meritocracy" advocates might say, but that was due to racism!

Precisely.

Did the NBA become less meritocratic when its player demographics shifted from predominantly Jewish to predominantly African-American?

Did Major League baseball become less meritocratic when its player demographics shifted from 100% Caucasian to 30% Latino?

The point is that it is highly unlikely that any field of endeavor is a perfect meritocracy.  And if professional sports is any guide, increases in diversity tend to correlate with greater meritocracy and performance.

So why do the pro-"meritocracy" forces argue against diversity?  The classic argument is that encouraging diversity requires organizations to "lower their standards."

What are these much-cited standards?  Years of experience?  Demonstrated ability?  This is a classic Catch-22; how are people who have been shut out of an industry supposed to acquire the experience that would make them worthy of being hired into that industry?

Or perhaps it's about going to the right college or university?  Despite the fact that the undergraduates in Stanford's Computer Science department are 30% women, and Harvard Business School's incoming MBA class is 41.5% women, women still make up far less of the technical staff and leadership levels in corporate America.

Why do young white men have "potential," while others "lack experience"?

And of course, numerous studies based on publicly available data show that women-led companies perform better financially, and that quotas increasing the number of women politicians increase the average quality of male politicians.  Even if there are other studies that fail to show these effects, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that increasing diversity in an organization leads to poorer performance.  (And if you want to argue that university research and Google's search engine are biased sources that have a hidden agenda, feel free to provide links to other sources that are scientifically valid; I'm guessing you won't find them.)

The LSE Business Review article on the effects of gender quotas for politicians is especially revealing.  It's title is, "Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man."  The paper argues that the reason increasing the number of women politicians improves the quality of male politicians (as measured by prior income level) is that these new entrants crowd out lower-quality incumbents.

This has two implications, both of which should be noted.  The first is that any losses to incumbents (generally speaking, white men) tend to be felt most by the least-capable incumbents.  If organizations hire more women and underrepresented minorities, or universities admit more women and underrepresented minorities, all other things being equal, they must be hiring or admitting fewer men (or overrepresented minorities--more on this later).  But these losses to incumbents are not evenly spread; the very best men are still hired/admitted.  It's the marginal men who suffer most.

This might lead diversity advocates to adopt a smug attitude of, "Those incumbents deserved to lose their positions," which I think is also a mistake.

The second implication of the disproportionate crowding out of lower-tier incumbents is that those men are facing very real losses.  The pain is especially great for those who are just starting out; they suffer the brunt of losses to incumbents, without having the opportunity to benefit from any previous lack of diversity.

It's not surprising, given this fact, that pro-"meritocracy" advocates from the ranks of the marginal men are opposed the notion of diversity hiring.  Supporting diversity hiring would directly harm their own interests.

Imagine if someone told you that a new policy was going to hurt your financial interests, and that if you spoke up against this policy, you would reveal yourself to be immoral and reactionary.  Would you be upset?  I know I would be.

As much as we would like to believe that every change for the better is win-win, and that life is a non-zero sum game, the fact is that even in a non-zero sum game there are usually individual winners and losers, and simply telling the losers to "suck it up" doesn't work very well.

So what can we do about these conflicting interests?  There is no magic solution, but I'd like to suggest an approach:

1) Tell the whole truth about diversity, including its downside.  Diversity improves the meritocracy because it increases the total pool of qualified candidates.  Because diverse hires haven't had the same opportunities to acquire relevant experience and prove their worth, we have to treat diversity as a positive externality, and account for it as an asset in our hiring practices, otherwise we are likely to maintain the status quo.  However, while increasing diversity is better for society/humanity as a whole, it results in poorer outcomes for some, just as globalization and free trade are better as a whole, but distribute costs and benefits unevenly.

2) Be sympathetic to people whose expectations aren't going to be met.  Acknowledge the distress felt by the marginal players who are being crowded out, rather than treating them as though they personally designed and built the system of bias that resulted in the current status quo.  But acknowledging that distress doesn't mean halting progress.  Instead, even though they are unlikely to graciously accept this explanation, explain that their pain is helping society/humanity as a whole.

3) Recognize that we are dealing in shades of grey, rather than black and white issues.  We are fortunate to be living in times where many of the worst instruments of discrimination have been eliminated.  Policies like apartheid, separate-but-equal, and the color line have been rightly dismantled and discredited.  Now we live in an era where the instruments of discrimination are subtler and nuanced.  Voter ID laws reflect a reasonable principle of making sure that only legitimate votes are counted, but tend to depress voter turnout among legitimate voters in certain demographics.  Corporate cultures may impede the progress of women and underrepresented minorities, but don't take the form of absolute barriers like, "Whites only in the executive suite."  Treating diversity as a crusade (word choice absolutely intentional on my part, with apologies to my Muslim friends) is a mistake.  Specifically, treating these issues as purely black and white, with an inhuman enemy with fewer rights, is counterproductive, not to mention pretty asshole-ish.

Before I conclude, I want to spend a little bit of time on a topic that is almost completely overlooked in all these debates, and one with which I have personal experience, which is the situation faced by Asian-Americans.  As the "model minority," Asian-Americans are wealthier and better-educated than the average American.  The explanations for these results are varied, but include a cultural emphasis on education, strong family structures, and the fact that many of the Asian-Americans who immigrated to the United States in the post-WW2 era were the highly-educated elites of their countries.  My own parents came to Los Angeles to obtain a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at UCLA, and a Masters in Library Science at USC, which made them fairly typical for their generation of highly-educated Chinese immigrants from Taiwan.  Imagine if the only American expatriates/immigrants in a country were graduates of Stanford and Harvard; what conclusions might the natives of that country draw about the nature of Americans?

Many of the efforts to increase diversity, such as affirmative action, have harmed the economic interests of Asian-Americans.  Within the University of California system, which is barred by law from applying affirmative action to college admissions, 32% of the undergraduates at UCLA, and 42% of the undergraduates at UC Berkeley are of Asian descent.  CalTech, which might be the most selective college in the country, comes in at 41% Asian.  In contrast, these numbers are 23% at Stanford, and 22% at Harvard.

As a result, many might expect Asian-Americans to oppose increasing diversity.  I think that, from a self-interested standpoint, Asian-Americans should be in favor of increasing diversity, but that diversity needs to be tackled at a broader level.

First, affirmative action is not a practice that harms Asian-Americans in favor of African-American/Latino minorities.  Rather, it is a practice that harms Asian-Americans in favor of marginal Caucasian students.  Let's compare UC Berkeley and Stanford, which are in the same geographic region.  At UC Berkeley, 3% of undergraduates are African-American, and 14% are Latino.  At Stanford, the equivalent numbers are 8% and 13%.  17% and 21% are pretty close; there may be some marginal impact on Asian-American admissions from affirmative action in favor of underrepresented minorities, but it seems small.  In contrast, UC Berkeley is 28% Caucasian, and Stanford is 43% Caucasian.  Conveniently enough, if you do the math, the delta between Asian-Americans at UC Berkeley and Stanford is 42% - 23%, or 19%.  The delta between Caucasians at UC Berkeley and Stanford is 43% - 28%, or 15%.  Add to that the 4% delta between African-American/Latino students between the two schools, and it appears that 15% of the 19% delta (79%) in Asian-American admissions can be attributed to affirmative action discriminating AGAINST Asian-Americans IN FAVOR OF Caucasian applicants.

Second, Asian-Americans continue to be vastly underrepresented in key areas such as elected politics, or the senior management levels of large corporations.  Quick--name the highest-ranking executive of East Asian descent at a major Silicon Valley corporation who wasn't one of the founders of that corporation!

The proponents of diversity would do well to acknowledge and support the diversity hiring of Asian-Americans, including Asian-American men, despite their "overrepresentation" in the ranks of elite universities and Silicon Valley engineering departments.  And it certainly wouldn't hurt to stop using the term "minorities" to refer to "non-white people other than Asians."

Meanwhile, Asian-Americans would do well to voice their support for diversity initiatives, rather than assuming that those initiatives would be used against them.  Increased diversity hiring will likely harm the economic interests of Asian-Americans in some areas, but those losses are likely to be offset by gains in other areas.

In summary, unless you assume that we are already living in a perfect meritocracy, which is almost certainly a false assumption, increasing diversity ought to increase "true" meritocracy by broadening the pool of qualified people, and thus improve society/humanity as a whole.  However, increasing diversity has uneven effects; some people (e.g. the marginal men) do lose out, and we should treat those people with compassion, rather than blasting them for not graciously accepting policies that act against their self-interest, but not confuse compassion with abandoning good policy.

Links:


P.S. I expect that this essay will draw the usual reaction to my political/policy writings; I will be attacked by both sides of the debate for being on the opposing side, and a few folks in the middle will criticize me for mushy indecisiveness.  To all of those people, I say that dealing with issues like this is hard, and that I'm not convinced that I'm some sort of genius that can solve all these problems with Solomon-like wisdom.  I think that everyone could do with a little more hesitancy and empathy for the other side.  And if that isn't a ringing call to action, so be it.

P.P.S. While this essay was informed by the current Google diversity memo controversy, I didn't want to focus on that controversy.  I will add the following comments:

  • The diversity memo is correct that shaming people risks creating an ideological echo chamber
  • The memo's author was very naive; he thought that if he explicitly said he was tackling the extreme position that all differences in outcome are the result of discrimination, and acknowledged that population-level differences are small and tell us little about specific individuals, he would be safe from the echo chamber.  He was wrong.  A similar mistake forced Larry Summers (Sheryl Sandberg's mentor) to resign as President of Harvard.
  • The fundamental problem with the argument against diversity advanced in the memo is that the author assumes that diversity lacks inherent value.  Otherwise, why would he argue against programs aimed at people of a specific gender or race?  This is the "begging the question" logical fallacy--and it is embarrassing that someone who prides himself on logic fell into this!  Once you make this (false) assumption, the rest of the argument against diversity follows naturally.  But that's like assuming that compassion lacks inherent value; once you make that assumption, every act of compassion makes no sense.
  • By firing the author of the memo, Google provided evidence that he was correct in his characterization of the company as an ideological echo chamber, and missed out on the opportunity to correct the obvious flaws in his argument.  Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, "First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.  The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”  This strikes me as rank hypocrisy.  Firing the author of the memo would seem to indicate that Google takes a zero-tolerance approach to any discussion of gender differences, which seems to me like it is a clear example of the "intimidation" that Google claims to want to prevent.  Instead of a debate, Google's actions indicated that expressing the wrong opinions can get you fired.  Go ahead and read the memo; while the author's arguments are weak and illogical, and he comes off as tone-deaf, it hardly rises to the level of "harassment" and "intimidation" that justifies termination.  Just ask yourself the following question: If the memo hadn't been leaked, would Google have fired its author?  Yeah, I thought so.  By firing the author, rather than actually addressing his arguments by explaining why diversity is valuable, Google made itself part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Common ground between those who favor and oppose diversity hiring

Those who favor and oppose diversity actually share very similar concerns. This thought occurred to me when I read the end of this interview with Slack developer Kaya Thomas:

The interview ends with the following exchange:

"Brown: As one of the few black women in the industry, have you ever felt tokenized?

Thomas: Yeah. It’s something I struggle with. I think it’s related to imposter syndrome. Did they pick me because of the work I did and my accomplishments, or do they want me to fill in these boxes? You can never know whether or not that’s the case, being a black woman. Most times, there isn't anyone else like me in that space. It can be detrimental to my mental well-being if I always think that I’m a token. I do know that I’ve worked hard. I've earned my spot, but even if I am [a token], at least I’m still here and providing the space for women like me to get here."

None of us want to feel like we don't deserve our success. Kaya struggles with these feelings because she worries, despite the fact that she's earned her place (as is amply apparent from the interview) that she's been picked because she fills in certain boxes.

The mirror image of this is the deep emotional reaction that some well-off Caucasian men feel in reaction to diversity and inclusion. By definition, if we say that white men are overrepresented, it means that we're also saying that some of them don't deserve their place.

It's one thing to be in favor of diversity in the abstract; it's another to support diversity to the detriment of your own career.

This is a difficult subject to grapple with, and none of us can be disinterested.

My own approach is twofold. First, it is important that we seek to eliminate false negative stereotypes and biases. We need to hire based on reality, not inaccurate perceptions. Second, we need to recognize that diversity is valuable in and of itself, not just as a remedy for past injustice. Diverse teams are more innovative and productive; we should seek diversity and inclusion for economic, as well as moral reasons.

It's important to acknowledge that these changes do impact some white men in a negative way. If one group previously held a disproportionate share of high-tech jobs, and society corrects that distortion, the overall benefits to society will be positive, but the local impact on that group would still be negative. We shouldn't expect them to be cheerful about the situation. But we also shouldn't let that stop us from doing what is right.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

35 Words

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's probably hard for us to imagine, from our modern perspective, how revolutionary these 35 words were.  When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, some monarchs still ruled by the divine right of kings, millions (including many in what would become the United States) lived in the bonds of slavery, and the pursuit of survival was the best most people could hope for.

To paraphrase Hamilton, despite all the many troubles in the world, we are incredibly lucky to be alive right now, especially here in the United States.

Yet if there's one thing I'd like us to learn from the lessons of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, Abigail Adams would point out) it's that we must continue to fight and make sacrifices for these ideals.

Our society is far from perfect.  We have institutions that continue to deny certain people equality, life, and liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness.  To form a more perfect union, numerous individuals have to choose the hard path of standing up for these ideals, rather than the easy path of least resistance.

Here in Silicon Valley, we've seen a week that was unprecedented in my decades of experience here, where women publicly detailed the sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior of wealthy, powerful male venture capitalists.

In the past, many of the women who were subject to this kind of behavior did what must have seemed rational and kept quiet.  Just in the past half decade, women might look at the examples of Ellen Pao, Adria Richards, and Gamergate (Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu), consider the harassment (including death threats) that women suffered after speaking up, and conclude that speaking up would bring hardship and not justice.

And yet, the women who came forward this week persisted.

Fortunately, these women got some measure of justice, as men like former Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck lost not just their reputations, but millions of dollars.  And that has encouraged more people to come forward.  While I am worried that this enthusiasm could go too far (calls for establishing a blacklist don't seem aware that most such blacklists have a pretty bad connotation), progress is still progress.

I saw another item today that speaks to the 35 words.  "Hawaii Five-0" actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left the show after the two Asian-American actors refused to accept contracts that paid them 10-15% less than their Caucasian co-stars, Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan.  It's probably worth noting that the population of Hawaii is 26.7% Caucasian, 47.2% Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 23% mixed-race.

Being a lead actor in a television series is one of the greatest jobs in the world, and Kim and Park were likely making around $100,000 per episode, which means that they walked away from roughly $2.5 million per year to stand up for the principle of equality.  I admire their willingness to put ideals ahead of paycheck; I would have a hard time making the same decision!

One of the favorite criticisms that reactionaries level against people who speak up is that, "They're doing it for the attention."  If only that were the case.  Sadly, speaking up generally costs people money, which means that it is often "unreasonable" to stick with your principles.

But as George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

On this 4th of July, we celebrate the unreasonable men who signed the Declaration of Independence, complete with those 35 amazing words.  But we should also celebrate the unreasonable men and women who continue to strive for the ideals contained in those words, despite the cost to themselves.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Silicon Valley in the Mirror (a Trump Silver Lining)

It's safe to say that Silicon Valley's reputation hasn't been having a good year.  Uber has reached the point where the number of pages that claim to be "the definitive list of Uber scandals" runs off the first page of Google results, with widespread sexual harassment and discrimination resulting in the termination of over 20 employees and the resignation of co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.

Personally, I'm partial to The Guardian's list: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/uber-travis-kalanick-scandal-pr-disaster-timeline

Meanwhile, this week saw a bright light shined on a number of male venture capitalists' propensity to sexually harass female entrepreneurs and colleagues, starting with an Information story about Justin Caldbeck, formerly of Binary, sexually harassing female entrepreneurs:
https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/23/female-founders-accuse-vc-justin-caldbeck-of-making-unwanted-advances/

The week concluded with a bombshell story in the New York Times that revealed that prominent VCs Chris Sacca and Dave McClure had admitted to inappropriate behavior (though not to the level of Caldbeck's alleged actions, which included explicit text messages, sexual propositions, and grabbing a woman's thigh): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/technology/women-entrepreneurs-speak-out-sexual-harassment.html

(Full disclosure: I have previously pitched Justin Caldbeck during his days at Bain Capital.  I've known and liked Dave McClure for many years.  I never witnessed either of them behaving inappropriately towards women, and am relying on the published journalism rather than any personal knowledge.)

Many people feel rightly disgusted by these revelations, which make for an ugly contrast with Silicon Valley's self-image as a progressive industry, that is changing the world for the better.  One of the things that has often irked me is the tendency by people in Silicon Valley to look down on other industries, such as Wall Street or Madison Avenue for being knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, confident in being oh so much more evolved.

But while the temptation might be to wait for these scandals to die down, and to go back to business as usual, these revelations are in fact a good thing for Silicon Valley.  We are being forced to look in the mirror and confront issues, that, frankly, we've ignored for too long.

It was only two years ago that Kleiner Perkins defeated Ellen Pao's long-running sex discrimination lawsuit in a decidedly pyrrhic victory.  Even though Kleiner technically won, the testimony included descriptions of numerous instances of sexual harrassment perpetrated by former Kleiner partners against female staff.  Yet perhaps because Kleiner "won" the case, it didn't seem like much changed in Silicon Valley.  Nobody at Kleiner lost their job, or were punished.

So what changed?  Ironically, I think it's possible that we can thank Donald Trump for convincing women to step forward and testify.

During his campaign (and after his election), Trump repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny by denigrating women's appearance (Alicia Machado, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz, and Mika Brzezinski were only the most famous recipients of this abuse; full disclosure, Heidi Cruz was an HBS classmate and friend), admitting to sexually harassing women ("grab 'em by the [vagina]"), and using insults and name-calling to attack his opponent, Hillary Clinton.  By the way, I found this website, which claims to track all of Trump's offensive sexist comments; I suspect it's incomplete:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/politics/donald-trump-sexism-tracker-every-offensive-comment-in-one-place/

The result was the Women's March on Washington, the largest single-day protest in US history, and what seems like an increased resolution to call out sexism and sexual harassment.  The behavior I outlined at Uber and on the part of certain venture capitalists date back years.  Heck, it's not even "he said, she said," since in nearly all of these cases, there was written evidence of the bad behavior!  We just simply ignored it until now!

One of the worries that people--including me--had about Trump's election is that it would normalize bad behavior.  This may still occur, but it seems clear that it has also sensitized people to that same behavior.  It's as if Trump were an infection that produced antibodies to the kind of sexism that comes so naturally and instinctively to him.

This is the opportunity before us.  Thanks to the bravery of the various women who are coming forward, we can work to root out and punish this kind of bad behavior.  In the case of Uber and the VCs, there have already been real consequences.  Kalanick was forced to resign by his investors.  Binary lost both its most recent $175 million fund, and the additional $75 million that it was scheduled to close, just days after the Information story came out.  At a standard 2.5% management fee over 10 years, that's a $60 million loss even before considering the lost potential carried interest.  McClure has turned the running of his firm, 500 Startups, over to new CEO Christine Tsai (his female co-founder) and is undergoing counseling.

Men also need to play a role.  For example, look at my co-author Reid Hoffman, who wrote a widely-read post condemning Caldbeck's actions and calling for the VC industry to take a "Decency Pledge" and to stop doing business with any VCs who engage in such behavior: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/human-rights-women-entrepreneurs-reid-hoffman

His willingness to step forward and condemn this behavior in no uncertain terms seems to have encouraged other male VCs to step forward, and to encourage other people who have been harassed to speak out.  By lowering the perceived risk of speaking out, we can help more people to come forward and tell their stories.

It is important to note that we have to avoid getting swept up in what Donald Trump would surely call a "witch hunt."  This is not the time for vigilante justice, or accepting claims without evidence.  There is no such need--as the Caldbeck story shows, there is plenty of evidence of wrongdoing, and there are immediate punishments available, such as LPs invoking morality clauses and pulling out their funds, and those who have been wronged seeking civil judgments.

There's an old saying about cockroaches; there's never only one.  Sure enough, Caldbeck's story has already uncovered others, and I suspect that more are soon to come.  One prominent investor estimated that around 5-10% of men are sociopathic enough to commit these kinds of acts...IF THEY THINK THEY'RE GOING TO GET AWAY WITH THEM.  Think about it--people like Caldbeck sent explicit texts and emails.  That's hard evidence.  The only reason you would do such a thing is if you thought you would get away with it, regardless of the existence of a smoking gun.

Fortunately, this belief has been proved wrong.  Unfortunately, this belief was apparently right for many years, and it is disgrace that it took so long, and the election of a harasser-in-chief in the White House to get us to actually hold these bad actors accountable.

We can't change the past.  But we can change the future.  Don't let these antibodies go to waste.  Call out bad behavior when you see it.  Make it safe for those with less power to present their evidence against powerful evildoers.  In other words, make America great again.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Travis/Trump: What Uber Tells Us About The White House

The fall of Uber's Travis Kalanick offers an interesting gloss on Donald Trump. If anything, Kalanick had a stronger position than Trump. Rather than narrowly winning an election in which he lost the popular vote, Kalanick had absolute control over Uber thanks to his super-voting shares. And unlike Trump, who is a mediocre real estate developer with a questionable record, Kalanick actually accomplished something by building what was once the world's most valuable startup (though admittedly, it is also the world's most unprofitable startup). Just six months ago, even though it was already apparent based on publicly available information that Kalanick had presided over a great deal of legally and morally questionable behavior, it seemed like his position as CEO of Uber was unassailable. And yet, despite his super-voting shares, Kalanick gave in to pressure from his board and resigned this week.
Let's be clear; the actions of Uber's board were not driven by moral outrage. It's not like anyone who was following the news would believe that Uber was a paragon of ethics and responsible treatment of women. Rather, Uber's board acted for what is nearly always the reason for action in the world of high finance and high politics: self-interest. Uber's investors pulled the rug out from under Kalanick when it became apparent that his leadership was reducing, rather than increasing, the value of their investment.
I often joke that if baby-eating aliens came to Silicon Valley, and built a successful, rapidly-growing startup, their investors would say, "You know, it's culturally insensitive to judge someone else's beliefs and habits. And besides, it's not like they're eating human babies." The line gets a laugh, but it is often an uncomfortable laugh, because they can picture the talking head in their mind already.
Kalanick didn't eat babies, but the people whom he brought into Uber did regularly break the law, and tolerated horrendous behavior towards their own people. In many cases, rather than feeling the proper shame for their actions, they gave off the sense that their only mistake was getting caught. And none of that mattered as long as Kalanick's people delivered their numbers. (In fact, that was the justification for ignoring sexual harassment complaints--the perpetrator was too valuable to the company to discipline!)
Over in Washington, Trump is Kalanick and the Republicans in congress are the Uber board. To date, they have largely gone along with Trump because he is more popular than they, and because they think it's in their self-interest to support him, largely because they fear the wrath of loyal Trump supporters who feel more loyal to him than to the GOP.
Each morning, Republican Congressmen/women and Senators ask themselves, "Will I be better off if I support Trump or oppose him?" The answer differs depending on their particular district or state, but by and large, what drives the answer is not whether they think Trump has behaved illegally in covering up his campaign's collusion with Russia (which he probably has) or whether they think he is a liar, bully, and sexual predator (which he definitely is). What drives the answer is mainly summed up in a single number: Trump's approval rating.
Richard Nixon held an approval rating of nearly 70% after his landslide victory over George McGovern. But the revelations of Watergate took their toll. In just a single year, his approval rating dropped to 24%, and it stayed between 20-25% until Nixon's resignation. While a core of loyal Nixon voters continued to support the embattled President, it became apparent to the leaders of the GOP that Nixon was going to turn the 1974 mid-term elections into a slaughter for the GOP. Key leaders like Barry Goldwater went to Nixon and told him that if he resigned, he would be pardoned, but that if he did not, he would be impeached and convicted. Nixon took the deal they offered and resigned.
Three months after Nixon's resignation, the Democrats gained 49 seats in the House (pushing them past a 2/3rds majority) and held a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate. Of course, the results might have been even worse if impeachment proceedings were going on during the election.
Trump's power, like that of any elected politician in the United States, ultimately rests on his ability to win votes. The less popular he gets, the less power he'll have. And when he crosses some critical threshold, those Republican Congressmen/women and Senators will wake up in the morning and conclude, like the Uber board did, that while both alternatives would be bad, letting a compromised leader stay in power would be worse. At that point, just like super-voting shares didn't prevent Kalanick from being forced out, it won't matter if Trump still has a vocal core of supporters. The President cannot stand alone.

Friday, June 16, 2017

If Words Matter, Use Them Responsibly

As someone who makes a living with words, it bothers me that so many choose to use them wastefully, extravagantly, and paradoxically enough, cheaply in today's political discourse.

Many have argued that our politics are at the most polarized point in recent memory.  To date, I've scoffed at the alarmists, pointing out that the invective of our early Republic was more inflammatory than even today's feverish exclamations.  During the presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the following things were said:

Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind."

Yet the events of this week demonstrate that things have gone too far.  The attempted assassination of the GOP baseball team, which resulted in serious injury to Congressman Steve Scalise, and gunshot wounds to staffer Zach Barth, lobbyist Matt Mika, and heroic Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner (Officer David Bailey was treated for a minor injury and released from the hospital), could be seen as the work of a single mentally unstable man, James Hodgkinson, but I find it hard to believe that he would have acted as he did without the current feverish atmosphere of national politics in America.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, for which I am glad.  People have a right to use inflammatory rhetoric, but that doesn't mean that they have an obligation to us it.  How you choose to use words is your choice.  If words matter that much, shouldn't we use them responsibly?

I've noted how a number of the things I've written have drawn criticism from people on both the left and right.  What this tells me is that many people are spoiling for a fight when they turn to Facebook or Twitter; otherwise how could a post about Attorney General Sessions' boyhood experiences draw accusations from the right of slandering a civil rights hero, and from the left of excusing racism and discrimination?  People want to fight, because getting angry makes them feel good, however temporarily.

Trump is an exemplar, and perhaps the trigger of this new tone.  He may very well be the first president impeached based on the evidence found in his angry Tweets!  Yet he has no monopoly on inflammatory language.

The recent production of "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare in the Park sparked controversy by dressing Julius Caesar like Donald Trump, and going out of the way to make the comparison obvious--Caesar's wife Calpurnia speaks in a heavy accent (an obvious nod to Melania Trump) and another character even speaks of Caesar's supporters, saying, “Had Caesar stabbed their mothers — on Fifth Avenue — they would have done no less.”

This is free speech, but it also strikes me as both reprehensible and poor theater.  Poor Julius Caesar was a great military leader and politician; to compare him to a real estate developer who rode a populist wave to the highest office in the land is an insult to Caesar.  Portraying Caesar as Trump and staging a bloody assassination might be wish fulfillment for his opponents, but it's also dangerously close to advocating violence.  While the director tells the audience, "Neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination," this seems awfully close to the kind of "wink wink" verbal gymnastics that Trump engages in.

I can already hear the torches being lit: "He's apologizing for Trump!  He's calling for censorship of legitimate criticism!"  Never mind that I've carefully balanced the examples I use; both sides will no doubt use this post as more evidence that I'm a tool of the other side.

But let me ask you this--if you believe that inflammatory rhetoric is helpful to your cause, can you explain why?  Does symbolically assassinating Trump, or holding up his fake severed head help convince any of his supporters to change their minds?  Does loudly proclaiming your love of guns and hinting that you'll "do something" about your opponents convince them to switch to your point of view?

I'll accept that inflammatory rhetoric might fire up the base, but I suspect it turns off the even greater number of people who are stuck in the middle, and it doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy for winning elections (Trump's victory should be chalked up to Hillary Clinton's weakness as a candidate--partially due to her poor skills and bad strategy, and partially due to sexism and unreasoning hatred of her).

And if you still think that the best way to convince people is to yell louder, well, to quote the Bard, "A pox on both your houses!"

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Notes from Doha: Building Silicon Valley in the Desert

I just spent a fantastic week in Doha, Qatar, working with the researchers and entrepreneurs of the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) Research To Startup program.  In this program, the first of its kind in Qatar, we brought together about 20 entrepreneurs from around the world (including a couple of local entrepreneurs) to work with the researchers of the Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI) to decide if they wanted to build companies to commercialize QCRI technologies.

It was an awesome experience for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, I got the chance to work with an incredible group of people.  The entrepreneurs included three of my HBS classmates, as well as serial entrepreneurs, experienced executives, and top talent from around the world.  The researchers were an equally impressive crew, albeit with more PhDs and fewer MBAs.

Second, all the other people we interacted with were warm and welcoming, from the QSTP staff to the various VIPs who attended the various proceedings.  I was even invited to visit a number of people's homes.

Third, Doha was full of interesting attractions.  Even though we were kept very busy, I did manage to sneak away to visit the Museum of Islamic Art and the markets of Souq Waqif.  Alas, since I had to get home in time for a family commitment, I was unable to participate in the final day of the program, where the team got to ride camels, fly falcons, and hang out on Doha's famous beaches.

Finally, Qatar presents a combination of fascinating challenges and opportunities, which definitely engaged my mind.  Qatar has incredible oil and gas supplies, which have made it one of the richest countries in the world.  As a Middle East novice, I've always thought of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as rich; Qatar's per-capital GDP is nearly triple that of Kuwait and nearly quadruple that of Saudi Arabia.  Add in the fact that 90% of Qatar's population consists of expatriates (mainly low-paid construction workers and service industry professionals), and the GDP per Qatari citizen is a mind-blowing $750,000 per year.  The figure is even more astounding when you adjust for purchasing power parity (PPP); this roughly doubles GDP again, making Qatar the richest country in the world. The government distributes this largesse like a benevolent patriarch--Qataris are given cushy, well-paid jobs, cheap housing loans, free utilities, and massive cash gifts for getting married and having children.

However, Qatar's leadership also realizes that the oil and gas which have provided the country's wealth are finite and non-renewable--a fact that has been hammered home by the free-fall in oil prices over the past few years.  The fact that Qatar is still the richest country in the world despite a 20% drop in GDP is remarkable.  Qatar is investing heavily in an attempt to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy; the QSTP cost some $800 million to build; the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) which funds institutes like the QCRI, dispenses some $100 million per year in grants.

The strategic challenge is for Qatar to use its current wealth to build an asset base that will allow it to maintain a high quality of life in a post-carbon world.  In many ways, the simplest approach would simply be to build an enormous sovereign wealth fund; Qatar is in fact doing this--the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) now owns $335 billion in assets around the world, or well over $1 million in assets for each Qatari citizen!  That's double Qatar's GDP.  But in order to provide complete current income replacement at the standard 4% withdrawal rate that most foundations use, the QIA would need an endowment of 25X Qatar's current GDP, or roughly $4 trillion.

Qatar's bet on transforming itself into a knowledge-based economy is that investing in human capital will deliver better long-term returns than simply investing in financial capital.  This is challenging and riskier than simply building up the QIA, but offers a much bigger payoff, not just in terms of money, but also human happiness.  The big vision that QSTP Managing Director Maher "Dr. Maher" Hakim laid out is that Qatar is trying to spark an Arab renaissance; to hearken back to the Islamic Gold Age, when the Muslim world led the globe in science and technology.  Not only would this generate wealth, it would also offer hope and purpose to the young people of the Muslim world.  Qatar's current wealth can provide luxury to its citizens, but it cannot provide meaning--that has to be earned, not given.

The road will be challenging.  The "edifice complex" is very real; the buildings in the QSTP were magnificent, but also operating at a fraction of full capacity.  Institutions can be rigid and resistant to change--the two running jokes of the trip were that the security gates never worked, and that the cafeteria in our residence refused to let us have omelets, which were "reserved for students."  Workers live in fear of being fired, since doing so would force them to leave Qatar almost immediately.  Low oil prices have impacted the economy; we ate at a number of high-end restaurants, all of which were nearly empty, as was the student center in Education City (an American student getting his masters told me that while things were emptier than usual thanks to recent exams, the facilities never got close to being crowded).  Yet there was still plenty of excitement on the part of the QSTP and QCRI staff, Qatari and ex-pat alike, and the markets of Souq Waqif were bustling with natives and tourists.  I even got the chance to mentor some local entrepreneurs, who were just as energetic and optimistic as the young people of Silicon Valley.

Many of the leaders in Qatar realize the need for change; for example, the QSTP is a "free zone" where businesses can be 100% foreign-owned and tax free (I must admit, I was pretty tempted to set up my own entity there!), and Qatar is starting to increase the number of non-Qataris it accepts as citizens (although at this point, most of these lucky folks are still football/soccer stars).  If Qatar opens itself up, and allows a thriving community to develop, it could see its vision of a knowledge-based economy become a reality.  Not only does it have immense carbon wealth to fund investment, it also has a central location and premier airport that makes it a crossroads of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  I'm excited to see what comes next, and to play some small part in this story.

P.S.

Special thanks to QSTP's Maher Hakim and his hard-working staff, my Wasabi Ventures Global business partner Jeff Abbott, and fellow mentors Tim Taylor, Katherine Glassey, and Scott Johnson, as well as all the hard-working researchers and entrepreneurs in the program!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South Is A Dumpster Fire

This past Saturday, my wife and daughter traveled to Santa Rosa (home of the Charles M. Schultz museum!) for a fencing tournament (FYI: Marissa won her first medal, and everyone is very proud).  Since it was a two-day tournament, and since Santa Rosa is about two hours from Palo Alto, they and most of the rest of the fencing club decided to stay up in Santa Rosa.

One of the other moms prepaid for rooms for the traveling party at the Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South using Hotwire.  Take a gander at the Yelp page--I'm not sure I've ever seen a 1.5 star rating before!  (My wife swears the ratings were better last month when they booked the rooms.)

Shortly after receiving a picture of the girls on the medal stand (again, very proud moment), I received the following text:

OMG hotel is overbooked. They don't want to give us a refund.

A bit concerning, but essentially an unpleasant nuisance.  Then a few minutes later, I received the following:

This hotel doesn't want to help us book somewhere else.  They called the police.

Okay, that's reason for concern!  Fortunately, that was followed up with:

Police are cool.  They understand.

Finally:

I want you to write a scathing review.

Done.

I won't bother writing about the poor condition and cleanliness of the hotel.  After all, my family never even stayed there, and the Yelp reviews more than have that issue covered.  I particularly appreciated the review where the reviewer posted photos of the rash she developed on her arms from staying there.

Rather, I'd like to write about the unhelpfulness of the staff.  Overbooking is unfortunate, but it happens.  When it does, hotels have to "walk" some of the guests.  But that's where the Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South really distinguished itself on unhelpfulness.

Here is what is supposed to happen when you are "walked" from the article linked to above:

If you’re in the unlucky position of being walked, there are a few things the hotel must provide. First, they should cover the cost of one night at a comparable, alternative hotel. If necessary, they should also pay for a cab to the new hotel and the cost of a phone call to inform loved ones of your new location.

Or how about these guidelines from USA Today:

If your hotel is overbooked — either in advance or when you attempt to check in — ask the hotel to find you a room at a nearby property. The hotel should also pay for your first night there, plus the cost difference if the new room is more expensive and you stay there on subsequent nights. It should provide you with transportation to the other hotel. It should also give you a free phone call to notify your family or office of your lodging change.

In other words, if a hotel can't honor a reservation, it should a) find you a room at a nearby hotel and b) pay for it.  If you need transportation, it should provide it at no charge.

Instead of following these standard procedures, the front desk at the Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South (got to get the name right for Google's spiders so that this review comes up on all future searches) opted to a) say it wasn't their responsibility to help find other accommodations and b) refused to refund money that had already been paid (albeit via a third party like Hotwire).  But the coup de grace is that when the traveling party asked to speak with the manager, the front desk clerk actually called the police, and when the police arrived, claimed that the overbooked guests were verbally abusive and threatening.  Fortunately, the police appeared to be used to this sort of thing, apologized for the inconvenience, and quickly left.

The traveling party also called Extended Stay America's main line, explained the treatment they had received, and were told that these decisions were up to the front desk.

Extended Stay America is a NYSE-traded company with a market cap of over $3 billion.  CEO Gerry Lopez (a fellow Harvard Business School alum) is a well-respected executive who was previously CEO of AMC Theatres, and also held positions at Starbucks, Pepsico, and Procter & Gamble.  There's no good excuse for the company to treat paying guests so poorly, and to allow disgracefully bad front desk service.

Normally, I'd write a letter to the CEO, but I'm afraid that even if they offered me vouchers to stay at Extended Stay America, I'd be reluctant to risk the mysterious rashes, unclean sheets, and rude service that would apparently await me, so I'm settling for simply leaving this warning to other potential customers who might be considering a stay.  Don't.

In the words of Charles M. Schultz's most famous character, "Good grief!"

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Punching Down Is A Matter Of Perspective

One of the comments on my post on conservative comedy made an argument that I've seen a lot:
"Someone (can't remember who) said that comedy is about kicking up, not kicking down.  Republicans kick down. It's not funny."
I generally see it referred to as punching up, rather than punching down (I think my reader was either mixing up this metaphor with "kissing up and kicking down," or, like Lloyd Dobler, is into kickboxing) but the general argument remains the same.  Liberals are funny because they are sticking it to the man, Conservatives are unfunny because they are beating up on the little guy.

There's an argument to be made that this statement about comedy is, in itself, untrue, but since Ben Schwartz did so quite well in this Baffler piece, I'll focus instead on the fact that punching down is a matter of perspective.

I don't think that the majority of conservative comedy punches down. The primary targets are the media and cultural tastemakers in the media, who are "above," not below, since they are the ones rendering judgment on what is and isn't of value.

I may not be a fan of NASCAR or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but their actual fans have every right to enjoy them without being mocked for their taste.  It's not that surprising that "Red State" residents resent how they are portrayed in the news, on television, and at the movies, since they are often the subject of criticism, or worse, the butt of jokes.

(Side note: I'm not arguing for total relativism.  It's just important to unbundle and criticize specific actions, as opposed to dumping on an entire demographic.  If you want to criticize a racist, criticize his or her words and actions, not his or her ZIP code.)

In this sense, things like mocking Donald Trump for ordering steaks well-done and topping them with ketchup plays right into his (unusually small) hands. Medium-rare steaks with a red wine reduction are for effete coastal liberals who look down on honest, hardworking Americans who get their steak at the Sizzler well-done. (I exaggerate, but only slightly!)

Liberals think they're better than conservatives, who are reactionary troglodytes. Conservatives think they're better than liberals, who are godless perverts. Very seldom does either side praise the other's virtues, such as a respect for tradition, or compassion for others.

Rather than worrying about punching up or punching down, let's focus on punching people who truly deserve it, like that Martin Shkreli guy.*

* By the way, did you know that Martin Shkreli grew up the son of working-class immigrants who came to this country and worked as janitors to give their children a better life?  Or that he opposed Donald Trump's presidential bid?  Even the most punchable guy in the world has sympathetic elements.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Situational Shyness

Very few people would characterize me as shy.  Based on the classic "Big Five" personality factor model, I score heavily on the extroversion scale.  Yet there are definitely times in my life when I have felt shy, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and I've concluded that there is a pattern.

First, I'm more likely to feel shy in unfamiliar settings, when I'm surrounded with unfamiliar people.

Second, the level of shyness I feel is generally inversely proportional to the level of status I feel in that setting.

Here are a couple of examples, that help illustrate these principles at work.

Over a decade ago, back when I was still an unemployed bum during the dot com bust, I attended the Silicon Valley Forum Visionary Awards.  Since I was a volunteer, I got to attend the invitation-only event, which took place at some successful entrepreneur's luxurious estate, and was packed with famous and wealthy.  On the bus ride up to the estate, I sat next to one of the honorees for the evening, legendary founder and investor Andy Bechtolsheim, who was both incredibly smart and probably one of the nicest people I've ever met.

It was an unfamiliar setting, filled with unfamiliar people, and I was clearly one of the lowest-status people there, other than the catering staff.  While I had a good time and chatted with a lot of people, I felt much shyer than I would have at a less high-faluting event.  A symptom of this is that I spent much of the evening hanging out by the food with other low-status volunteers in attendance, like Jonathan Abrams, who told me about a startup he was about to launch called Friendster, and some developer relations guy from PayPal named Dave McClure.

Fast forward to last year's Visionary Awards, which I also attended.  This time, I was there in my capacity as a member of the Silicon Valley Forum board, which meant that I was now a host of the event, imbued with positional authority and status.  It was now my job to work the crowd and make sure people felt welcomed to the event.  Quite a change from being an unemployed bum filling up on crab cakes!

It was the same event, full of famous and wealthy people, but thanks to the twin factors of familiarity and status, I now had a very different experience (though I had a good time both years).

(Incidentally, if you're interested in attending this year's Visionary Awards, reach out to me, and I'll try to get you an invitation.  I promise, I'll introduce you to interesting folks!)

There are very few occasions on which I feel shy these days, but I would argue that this is due to environmental changes, not psychological ones.  Most of my time is spent here in Silicon Valley, where, even if I don't know the folks I'm meeting with, I'm very familiar with the mores and customs of their tribe, and we likely have a host of mutual friends and contacts even if we don't know each other yet.  In addition, even without Silicon Valley's primary marker of success (starting a billion-dollar company) I have enough secondary markers (best-selling author, teaching at Stanford) that my status is high enough to allow me to feel comfortable in most company, despite my embarrassing lack of private jets, vacation homes, etc.  I'm sure I would feel very different at an Oscar party in Hollywood, where I would be in an unfamiliar millieu with essentially zero status (imagine being at a Silicon Valley party without any knowledge of the industry, and without even appearing in Crunchbase or Angel List).

So if you do have a tendency to feel shy, maybe the answer isn't to try to change your personality, but rather to change your situation.  Develop a familiarity with the millieu; you might use your first year in attendance at an event to familiarize yourself with the customs and layout, and then return the next year with greater confidence.  You can also use the technique that I did (intentionally or unintentionally) with the Visionary Awards, by acquiring official positional authority and status.  Maybe you can volunteer for the organization that puts on the event, or if you're really gung-ho, organize your own!  This will also help you with your status at the event, and maybe even boost your overall status.

As I'm fond of saying, if you know the world is rigged, why not rig it in your favor?  You might be naturally shy, but if you rig the situations you find yourself participating in, you can arrange your environment so that you never feel shy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Come with me to Doha in April (all expenses paid)

The week of April 23-27, I'll be working with the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in Doha to run an all-expense-paid program for entrepreneurs.

The QSTP has a host of promising technologies in its labs around which entrepreneurs can build startups.  The "Research To Startup Program" lets entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world apply to spend a week in Doha checking out the technologies, meeting the researchers, and getting mentored by experienced entrepreneurs and investors like me.

The QSTP will pay all your expenses, including 4-star travel accommodations.  If you find a technology you like, and the QSTP likes you, you get to come back for a 2-month accelerator program in Doha to actually build your startup.

At the end of the accelerator program, you'll present at a Demo Day where the QSTP's associated venture fund will invest $500K in the seed round of each promising company.

Since we're only accepting about a dozen entrepreneurs into the April 23-27 program, your odds of being invited back and, ultimately, receiving that $500K investment are very good!

Plus, even if you aren't picked for the accelerator program and/or seed investment, you still get to spend a week in Doha with yours truly and other similarly fun and helpful mentors.

If you're interested, you can apply on the Research To Startup Program website here:

Be sure to mention that you were referred by Wasabi Venture Global so that I can stack the deck in your favor evaluate the effectiveness of my outreach efforts!

Conservative Comedy

An oft-made observation is that comedy in the United States tends to be overwhelmingly liberal in its politics.  Despite the existence of a small number of Republican funny men and women (and most of those are more in the Libertarian bent anyway, e.g. Adam Carolla, Larry Miller, Vince Vaughn), there is no conservative equivalent of The Daily Show, This Week Tonight, or Full Frontal.

I've often pondered this puzzle myself, but never came up with an adequate answer.  Maybe it's just inherently difficult to make jokes about school voucher programs and tax breaks.  But just yesterday, I was struck by a different thought:

What if the polarization of society has reached the point where liberals and conservatives simply have different senses of humor, and don't find each other's comedy funny?

The realization hit me when someone described the importance of Rush Limbaugh's use of humor on his talk radio show.  I freely admit that I've never listened to Rush Limbaugh's radio show, but I've seen the occasional clip, and I never found him funny.  So I looked up "rush limbaugh funny" on YouTube, and found a recording of his performance at the CPAC conference from a few years back.  You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf4iwfkzbK4

I watched the entire clip, and never laughed once.  Not even close.  And I wasn't trying to suppress laughter; I just didn't find Rush funny, though he had an energetic and amiable delivery.  At one point, he even tells a joke about Larry King going to heaven--Larry King is God's gift to comedians--and even that wasn't funny.

But, during the clip, you can hear the audience rolling in the aisles.  It's full of genuine belly laughs, and the clip is from CSPAN, so you know they didn't have the budget to add in a laugh track.  Limbaugh's audience found him hysterically funny.

Conservative comedy might not be funny to me, or to the effete, coastal, liberal, Ivy-league educated television and film critics of the country, but it appears to be very funny to its chosen audience.

I thought Dennis Miller was hilarious back when he was on Saturday Night Live, and crashingly unfunny as a conservative pundit.  But my taste isn't the final arbiter of humor; the audience is.  Many people love to trash the comedian Carrot Top, but he continues to play to sold out shows.  Many others mock "The Big Bang Theory," but it remains the top-rated comedy on television.

More to the point, saying, "I don't find Rush Limbaugh funny, so he obviously isn't funny," is the semantic equivalent of saying, "I don't enjoy listening to rap, so it obviously isn't any good."

I don't have to agree, approve, or even condone someone else's point of view.  I can and should contest mistaken beliefs with facts and logic.  But I (and you) should start with the premise that most of the people you disagree with have honest and sincere reasons for their beliefs, even if they are wrong--after all, shouldn't they assume the same about you?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How To Change The Minds Of People Who Voted For Trump

I know that many people are frightened and angry because of the actions of the Trump administration, and rightly so. It's very tempting to express that fear and anger by insulting or verbally abusing those who voted for and/or support Trump. But doing so, while it might make you feel better in the moment, is not going to have any positive impact. Have opposition criticisms of a leader you support, be it Obama, Bush, or Clinton, ever convinced you to change your mind? Or did the attack on "your" leader simply cause you to harden your heart further? It may take a while, but I think the most effective approach is to simply ask, and keep asking, consistently, continuously, and in many different ways, "How does this specific Trump administration policy make you personally better off? We are not going to change minds by calling Trump a racist, a misogynist, or a demagogue. Many of his supporters may very well prefer a whiter, more male-dominated America, where educated "elites" exercise less power. To put it in terms my Silicon Valley friends will recognize, to Trump's supporters, these are features, not bugs. But many people voted for Trump because they felt that he was the only candidate offering them potential solutions that would better their lives--less globalization, fewer immigrants, more jobs for "real" Americans. Trump's solutions are unlikely to work. Cajoling a small number of companies to preserve a small number of American factory jobs is not going to help more than a infinitesimally small proportion of people who voted for Trump. I believe that Trump and his team realize this, and believe that their best chance to keep those voters from realizing that the Trump administration is going to make their lives worse, rather than better, is to keep them distracted by trying to focus their attention on "enemies," be they foreigners or those coastal liberals who look down on "real" Americans. I'm not arguing against protests or condemnation of the Trump administration. These seem to me to be justifiable and potentially useful. But reaching out to people who voted for Trump requires a different approach. And in a year or two, when they are still working the same job (or not working) and their lives have not improved one iota, I think they may very well start to listen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Mathematical Formula for Success

If failure is more likely than success, what is the formula for success?

If you're really lucky, you might succeed right away.  In that case, you could retire immediately and rest on your laurels.  But this seems unsatisfying.  Very few people have the willpower to walk away from the roulette wheel right after they win, and even if you do, you have to put up with hearing the "L" word (lucky) being used to describe you for the rest of your life.

Most people concentrate on maximizing their chances of success.  "If I just think hard enough," these folks say to themselves, "I can plan my way to success."  Yet while intelligence, hard work, and brilliant insight can increase the chances of success, they certainly don't guarantee it.  As the smart, hard-working, and very-successful Mark Pincus likes to say about his startup Tribe, "I started one of the first three social networks, and I still managed to fail."  There doesn't seem to be a way to tilt the odds fully in your favor.

The best strategy seems to be to increase your number of attempts to succeed, or "shots on goal" as they might say in soccer (football) or hockey.  Yet while this increases both your expected number of successes, and reduces the chances of getting ended up with zero successes, the numbers game doesn't change the expected value of each attempt.

To make the numbers game work, you have to do two other critical things, in additional to increasing your shots on goal:

First, you have to reduce the cost of failure so that even a string of failures doesn't take you out of the game.  If you're forced to leave the table when you're down, you'll never end up in the black.  Reducing the cost of failure can also improve your expected value.

Second, you have to aim high (though not so high as to eliminate the chances of success) so that the rewards of each success far outweigh the costs of the failures along the way.

We can write this equation as follows:

Success = Sum (1 to N, where N = #Attempts) for f (Chance of Success * Benefits of Success - [1 - Chance of Success] * Cost of Failure)

(Feel free to offer a better mathematical statement in the comments; I'm not a mathematician!)

Successful venture capitalists try to solve for this equation.

VC funds invest in 20+ companies per fund, giving them a very good chance that they'll have at least one success, and a good chance to have more than one.

But funds also reduce the cost of failure by investing smaller amounts up front and doubling down on what appear likely to be the winners in the portfolio.  The option value to abandon investments that don't seem to be working helps reduce the average cost of failure in the portfolio.

Finally, venture capitalists focus on "venture scale" investments--startups that could conceivably be worth billions of dollars.  These outside outcomes (such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook) can make up for a multitude of failures.

(Note that VC firms also try to increase the chances of success by providing useful advice, key introductions, and useful services, but these efforts supplement, rather than replace, the three principles outlined above).

Nor do you have to be a wealthy venture capitalist to follow this strategy.  I'm employed it in my own life, by being open to interesting and unusual opportunities, avoiding any that risked my financial or professional ruin, and prioritizing potential upside over what I believe is the illusory sense of safety.

I have failed many more times than I care to remember, but because I kept the costs of my failures low and stayed in the game, people only seem to remember my successes!