Wednesday, December 21, 2016

(Yet More) Things To Do In Palm Springs

This year, we've continued our practice of using Palm Springs as a convenient getaway during our standard winter vacation in LA.  Despite Palm Springs being a small town (population 43,000), we're still finding new places to visit.

The highlight of the trip was our visit to the Palm Springs Air Museum.  For an aviation and history buff like me, it was a great way to spend the day.  While this museum is small in comparison to, say, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, its tight focus on American military aircraft from WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War allows it to cover its chosen topics in much greater depth than I've ever seen elsewhere.

Throughout the museum, I learned things that I never knew before.  As an example, despite having read seemingly endless books on military aviation in my childhood, today was the first time that I learned why the Dauntless dive bomber went by the designation "SBD" (the program that developed the plane called for a Scout/Bomber, and since the plane was produced by Douglas Aircraft, a final "D" was added).

The museum also benefits from its laser focus on the actual airplanes.  I've never seen so many historic airplanes in one place, including almost every major American warplane from WWII.  It even features lesser-known planes like the PBY Catalina.  The only planes missing were the B-24 and B-29 bombers (the B-24 is very rare, with just 7 remaining examples in the US; the B-29 was probably too massive to fit into the museum).

While the entire day was awesome, two highlights stand out.  First, the museum has dedicated one of its hangers to its B-17 Flying Fortress, one of just 10 flight-capable B-17s left in the world.  Not only was it amazing to see a piece of history in person, we were even able to climb into the plane and crawl from the cockpit, through the bomb bay, all the way to the tail of the plane.  It was difficult for me to clamber through the fuselage while it was standing still in a well-lit hanger; I can only imagine the challenge of doing so while the bomber was flying at 35,000 feet, engines droning at deafening levels, wearing an oxygen mask, machine guns blazing while Luftwaffe fighters attacked!

Second, the museum is well-staffed with volunteer docents, most of whom are veterans of the US military.  One of the docents, Jim (USN, retired) spent about 45 minutes with us, answering questions and telling stories.  Essentially, we got a private tour!  Another docent coached me through a takeoff (successful) and landing (almost successful) on the F-22 flight simulator.  If you visit the museum, definitely take advantage of the knowledge of the docents!

The museum is busy building its newest hanger, which will house its Korea- and Vietnam-era jets (which include an F-4, F-100, F-102, F-104, F-105, F-14, F-16, and F-18).  I'm looking forward to returning to see the new hanger and exhibits when they're ready.

Of course, no vacation would be complete without eating.  We had two enjoyable, new dining experiences this time.  For lunch, we visited the El Paseo Grill in Palm Desert.  It's not fancy (though it does have a lot of cool art on the walls), but it is quite tasty.  I had a spicy chicken sandwich with Jamaican jerk sauce.  The chicken was perfectly cooked, the sauce was spicy but not too spicy, and the bun (I indulge in carbs when I'm on vacation) had a satisfying surface crunch, but was soft and chewy on the inside.

We also had an early dinner at TRIO Restaurant.  TRIO offers a great deal--the three-course prix fixe meal, which is available from 11 AM to 6 PM every day, is just $19.95.  We had their fried calamari, roasted beet salad, steak frites, and steak salad, with bread pudding and brownie for dessert.  The food and service were excellent, which helps explain why the restaurant was busy, even at 5:30 PM on a Wednesday.  It's a very canny business model; the prix fixe deal helps maintain high utilization at off-peak times.  Meanwhile, when we left the restaurant at around 6:15, it was approaching capacity as the less price-sensitive crowd streamed in.  They even offer a separate happy hour menu, which we will have to sample another time.

The only disappointment was that rain started pouring down shortly after dinner, which caused us to cancel our trip to the WildLights festival at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.  As much as I hate to let our tickets go unused, getting drenched is not my idea of a fun vacation.  Hopefully we get a chance to go next year!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Are you doing everything in your power to win the game you've chosen to play?

Little known fact: I am the Michael Jordan of family game nights.  Over decades of gameplay, I am undefeated across a variety of games, ranging from Trivial Pursuit to Cranium.  And like Michael Jordan, I play to win with a ruthlessness that borders on the pathological.

(This, by the way, is why I've vowed never to play Risk again--every game of Risk I've ever been involved with ends in a fight.)

But I normally don't think about the rest of my life as a game.  Maybe I should.

I just had a mind-expanding conversation with the redoubtable Rob Siegel, the Teaching VC.  Rob asks his students at Stanford's business school a very pointed set of questions:

What is the game you've chosen to play?

What is the unfair advantage that gives you an edge over everyone else?

Are you doing everything in your power to win?

Rob's questions hit home for me.  I'm pretty darn lucky in terms of what I get to do with my life.  The work I do is pleasant, prestigious, and rewarding.  I have everything that money can't buy.  But maybe because of that, I've been content to be an incrementalist.

I tinker with the levers in my life, making small changes here and there, trying to make things just a little bit better.  Since my big picture is pretty good, I've focused on the little picture.

Rob's questions have me thinking that I need to make sure that I periodically think about the big picture--specifically, how I intend to spend my next decade.

What is the game you've chosen to play?

What is the unfair advantage that gives you an edge over everyone else?

Are you doing everything in your power to win?

Rob points out what another wise friend, Kashi Tahir, has also expressed.  I generally do things I'm comfortable with.  Fortunately, doing things I'm comfortable with has delivered pretty good results so far.  But the question isn't whether I've had an impact--the question is whether I've maximized my impact.

Why am I Michael Jordan on game night, and Mr. Rogers in my professional life?  Maybe it's because this is how Michael Jordan acted at times.  But there's plenty of room on the continuum between asshole and Care Bear.

What is the game you've chosen to play?

What is the unfair advantage that gives you an edge over everyone else?

Are you doing everything in your power to win?

These are questions I'll be pondering for a while.  What feelings do they evoke in you?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hard Work AND Decisive Moments

When it comes to telling the story behind their success, most people will either tout the value of hard work, or tell the story of how a single decisive moment changed their life forever.  In reality, you have to do both.

If you focus solely on hard work, you overlook the importance of being ready to be decisive when the right opportunity presents itself.

If you focus solely on decisive moments, you feed the notion that success is based on luck rather than effort.

This past week, I went on a Paly High freshman trip to Yosemite with my son, Jason.  Long-time readers and friends will probably know that camping is just about the only thing I'd be less likely to attend than Burning Man.  The things we do for our children....

Along the way, I had the pleasure of sharing a car and a cabin with Will, one of the other parent chaperones.  Will has led a fascinating life, with plenty of hard work and decisive moments.

In 1967, he was drafted into the Army.  During infantry training, another trainee foolishly tried to pry open a misfire and triggered an explosion that sent shrapnel into Will's knee.  After reconstructive surgery, he wasn't able to continue his training, so he was assigned to night guard duty at the base's computer center.  One night, the warrant officer in charge of the computer center was having trouble getting an important report to print.  Will saw what he was doing wrong, and broke protocol to offer his help.  The officer, who really needed that report right away, forgave the breach and accepted the help, then told Will to report to him the next day.  The officer promptly pulled Will out of the infantry, promoted him, and put him to work running the computer center.  He spent his entire tour of duty working on computers, and never did ship out for Vietnam.  When he was discharged, he got a job at IBM, and worked there for nearly 40 years.

On the one hand, Will clearly experienced a decisive moment.  If hadn't spoken up that one night, he might never have caught an officer's eye, and he could have been sent to fight and possibly die in Vietnam.  That moment changed the course of his entire life.

On the other hand, that moment was only possible because of hard work.  Will's dad was one of IBM's top scientists, and Will had spent his entire childhood playing with electronics and IBM computers.  The only reason he was in the Army was that, like many a hacker before him, he found school boring, and flunked out of college, losing his draft deferment.

(Will experienced another key decisive moment, which led to him becoming the world's leading expert on color calibrating high-end projectors and televisions, which in turn led to his working with Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and many of the world's greatest directors, but that is a story you'll have to get from him!)

In my own life, I've experienced decisive moments, like being asked to collaborate with Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha on the ideas that became The Alliance.  Like Will, that was a single decisive moment that changed the course of my life.  But it was only possible because I had spent the previous decade thinking about those ideas and writing over 2,000 blog posts.

Success is about hard work AND decisive moments.  The hard work builds your skills and brings you the opportunities.  But you still have to have the courage to seize them when they present themselves.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Donate to a Great Cause and Talk With Me

On September 17th, my son Jason will be swimming in the Aquathon to benefit Abilities United, a great organization with a great mission--helping adults and children with disabilities be included and appreciated.

As usual, I'm going to leverage the power of the internet to advance this cause!

If you go to Jason's Aquathon page and donate $100, I'll be happy to schedule a phone call with you to discuss whatever topic you choose (your startup, the state of the Los Angeles Lakers, or any other topic that doesn't violate the laws of the United States).

If you donate $500, I'll meet with you in person in general vicinity of Palo Alto.

If you donate $10,000, I'll be happy to fly to your location and meet with you! (No war zones, please)

You can find Jason's Aquathon page here:

Happy Labor Day!

Saturday, August 06, 2016

What I Think About The 2016 US Presidential Election

I'm not going to waste time explaining why I think Donald Trump should not be president.  That dead horse has already been thoroughly pulverized.  Instead, I'd like to discuss why Trump's candidacy matters, and what we ought to learn from it and do about it.

Even though the press narrative this week is that Trump's support has "collapsed," he is still currently projected to receive 42.6% of the popular vote, to Hillary Clinton's 49.1%.  And this is despite running an incompetent, amateurish campaign with almost no local organization and no advertising spending.  Clearly, his message resonates with a significant number of voters.

Trump's strongest base of support are white voters without a college education.  After the Republican National Convention, his lead over Clinton with this group approached 40%, better than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, which he won in a historic landslide.  The difference is that in 1984, these voters made up 62% of the electorate; today, that figure is about 34%.  So why does his message resonate so well with them?

I would characterize Trump's message as largely negative; he is anti-immigration, anti-globalization, and anti-establishment.  The message he sends to his voters is that the establishment has betrayed them, and has pursued policies that hurt their standard of living.

The scary thing is that he's right.  Immigration does appear to hurt the wages of low-skill workers.  American manufacturing jobs continue to decline, and globalization appears to play a role.  And the two major political parties tend to focus on issues that just don't help uneducated whites.  They don't believe in the pro-business policies of the Republican Party, or the identity politics of the Democratic Party.  Even if they agree with some of the socially conservative positions of the Republican Party, these are far less important than the economic pain they feel.

The fact is, whites without college degrees have had a terrible couple of decades. They have declined economically ("From 1979 to 2012, the median-income gap between a family headed by two earners with college degrees and two earners with high-school degrees grew by $30,000, in constant dollars") and demographically ("Since 2010, racial and ethnic minorities have accounted for 91.7 percent of all population growth in the US. The share of the US population that is foreign-born is four times what it was in 1970, having risen from 4.7 percent then to 13.1 percent in 2013").

And most of the wealthy, educated elites of the country don't seem to care.  Or more precisely, we don't have any exposure, and thus empathy for this group.  In 2015, the unemployment rate for Americans with a professional degree (like, for example, a Harvard MBA) was just 1.5%.  The figure for a those with just a high school diploma was 5.4%, and for high school dropouts, it was 8%.  The median income for professional degree holders was nearly four times that of the dropouts.  That's like the proportional difference in per capita GDP between the United States and Bulgaria.

The problem is that the wealthy, educated elites, who are concentrated on the coasts, and in big cities, are a tiny minority.  Educational attainment in the United States is at an all-time high, yet only 32% of those 25 and older have graduated from college.  College graduates are a minority, and by a wide margin.  Yet this minority controls the media, the government, and most of the wealth of the country.

Imagine if you lived in a country where a small minority controlled all the wealth and power, dominated the media and entertainment world, and seemed to revel in looking down on you as if you were a lower form of life that deserved nothing better than your squalid existence.  I suspect that's how it might feel to be a white person without a college education in the America of 2016.

Now imagine that you had a chance to stick it to that stuck-up ruling class, simply by voting for a particular candidate.  Yes, their propagandists might write endless editorials about why no one should vote for this candidate, but why would you listen to them?  They don't seem to care about, respect, or even consider you an equal.  Screw them.

It's at this point that many people start muttering about the dumb, "information-poor" voters who vote against their own economic interests.  The implication seems to be, "Isn't it a shame that we let those dumb hicks vote?"  If you believe that, you're betraying the very principles of democracy.

True democracy is based on a simple rule: One person, one vote.  You don't get more votes for being rich, or for having a fancy degree, just like you don't get more votes for belonging to a particular ethnic group.  Disenfranchising people for their education level is no better than disenfranchising them for the color of their skin.

This is as it should be!  This is the way that democracy reflects the fact that all humans have equal rights, even if they don't have equal abilities.  When we say that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the right to vote is what helps them keep that right.

If 42.6% of people plan to vote for Trump, the answer isn't to belittle them and try to berate them into changing their minds; it's to try to actually understand their motivations and desires.

People are voting for Trump because they feel like the system is rigged against them, and thus they don't see it as legitimate.  That's no different than feeling like the police are targeting you because of the color of your skin (because they are), or that you're less likely to get a promotion because you're a woman (because that's also true).

I believe we need a better social safety net, including higher-quality public education, and universal healthcare.  This doesn't mean socialism; mankind has tried socialism and capitalism clearly kicks its ass.  It makes zero sense to pay taxi drivers vastly more than doctors.  But you don't have to take away the incentives to excel in order to treat those who don't excel with compassion.  The United States is one of the richest countries in the world.  Our per-capita GDP of $53,000 is more than sufficient to reward the creators and builders, while keeping people from starving in the streets.

Donald Trump's supporters believe the system is rigged.  They're right.  The question is what we're going to do about it, since voting for Trump obviously won't help.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Miserly Safety Net: Another Modest Proposal

In the past, I've extolled the virtues of the miserly safety net, especially when it comes to housing.  It just occurred to me that it might be possible to expand this net to cover all the essentials of life.

When I think about the essentials of life in the United States, it boils down to four simple things:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Healthcare
  • Education
We have specific programs aimed at food, healthcare (Medicaid), and education, which is why I concentrated on shelter in my last modest proposal.  But what if we aimed for an all-in-one solution?

Imagine public housing developments with the following characteristics, in addition to providing free (if spartan) accommodations:
  • Unlimited supply of Soylent-like nutrition products (this would allow people to get a free and nutritionally complete--if bland--diet)
  • Weekly clinical visits by a nurse practitioner for basic and preventative healthcare
  • Unlimited access to MOOCs, with weekly visits by an educational "concierge" to help take advantage of those offerings
Socialism?  Perhaps.  But this seems like the kind of socialism that would save money over our current, all-too-porous safety net.  It also seems like a more interesting experiment to run than a basic income program.

Friday, July 08, 2016

We Are Not Enemies

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

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

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

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

"They just don't get it."

"I just don't understand those people."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali (1942 - 2016)

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Tragic Death of Blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Goal Of Communication Is To Be Understood

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Grappling with mortality and meaning

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

Several of my good friends recently lost their fathers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what I concluded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Psychology of Slavery in the South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bachelor Parties and The Business Model of Objectification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Melancholy of the Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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