Inspiration and Institutions

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of several best sellers including a favorite of mine The Tipping Point, wrote a New Yorker article last week about the bonds of Social Networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. To explain his point he describes the fears and risks of the “sit in” generation of the 1960s. Social change at that time required a particular type of nerve: courage and restraint. It was needed because the threats, occasionally deadly, were often carried out. They knew they had to endure because their weakness would lead to weakness in others. Gladwell calls these strong bonds.

6.2 million people have been unemployed for more than six months. Being without work for that long is troubling to the mind. Being available in case something comes up and the instability of simply not knowing is tough. Plus it’s lonely. But 6.2 million is a big number and it means there’s probably someone within your community who is in the same predicament. That is where a site called Unemployed-Friends.com comes in. It’s a means for those without work to exchange messages, thoughts, and prospects. But besides the fringe benefits of venting, it’s a market for helping each other. That’s the genius of it, these people have time and unused skills available. And this is just the short term benefit. Strong bonds might be the long term benefit.

When I was about eight years old, I remember the pull the professional wrestling. “Who won Wrestlemania?” I’d ask my dad because it was too late for me to stay up. This was the ’80s and wrestling wasn’t obvious about the scripted action yet. People like Hulk Hogan would get the crowd going with their back stage interviews. In the late ’90s a resurgence followed and people could smell what The Rock was cooking. The camera would pan the stands and see signs with clever sayings like “Hogan was a Flintstone” and “This Space for Rent.” Everyone would chant the catch phrases and nothing would be better than Jerry Lawyler’s high pitch announcement of a surprise wrestler “WHAT?! That’s Stone Cold Steve Austin’s music!” Simply exciting.

But this type of connection is weak. It’d only last while the entertainment was going and then it was time to move on to something else. I think this is what Gladwell was trying to get across with his New Yorker piece. That Twitter and other Social Networks are forms of entertainment and have no lasting kinship. But we are also in a society where the threat of an act is all that is needed. It’s pretty powerful. So getting a few thousand signatures via facebook isn’t the same as a “sit-in” but it sends the message to the offending party that they could be in a costly confrontation. And then they have to decide if it’s worth it.

I mention all this because I think a real test of these tools is underway. The US election cycle for 2012 will begin in about six weeks. About a year later we’ll begin to see a lot of movement around a third party candidate. Thomas Friedman in the NY Times writes about the idea in a Op-Ed piece called Third Party Rising . He should have used a former wrestler as an example – Jesse Ventura ran a grass roots campaign in the mid ’90s, about the time the Rock was cooking, and became governor of Minnesota. Michael Bloomberg might give it a shot, we’ll see, but I don’t think a third party can win, but he can get close, and the mere threat should send shock waves to the Democrat and Republican Parties. From a business perspective, the time is right to capitalize on the on coming need and use of the strong and weak bonds.

Working Thoughts 10/4/08
September 2008 Jobs Report and Wages

How Pleasure Works – A Book Review

Quick Take: This book goes into the depths of the mind and looks for what feeds the source or core of happiness. There are stories of art theft, belching contests, bed pans, and cannibalism and I bet none of these you’d put on par with a birthday cake. And that is the point of the book, pleasure is not a straight forward emotion. A man paid $772,500 for a set of golf clubs. It makes you wonder why?  Hint – they were John F. Kennedy’s (if you’re still thinking “so what” then this book is really for you). Either way, I enjoyed it.

Detail Review: Paul Bloom is a psychologist at Yale University. He’s the author of other books, but those have a slightly different take on the brain: how it develops in regards to language. I think because this isn’t his first take, he writes in a style that is easy to read. His narratives are clear and support his point very well. In a world where books are taken in 15 minutes at a time, this is a good quality to have.

I normally start with the aesthetics. The hard cover has a simple white sleeve with the title, the subtitle, the author’s name and then a picture of an oyster with a pearl. I think that’s a metaphor for cracking open the mind and finding treasure. I like the less is more approach, but I’ve heard white is the worst choice because it shows smudges and dirt easily. That may be true, but I like it. The font is medium to large in size and the book is a solid 227 pages counting the preface.

How Pleasure Works Cover

The book ultimately is a cross between psychology and philosophy and it centers on something called essence. And as a psychologist he has many studies supporting his argument. But essence is as much a philosophic topic as anything. You can refer to it as the life force, the soul, or the mass effect of billions of neurons firing in a self aware brain. Cultivating one’s own essence is the basis of pleasure. Whether it’s through the adoption of other people’s essence or the exercise of your own. As Bloom states in the preface:

     There is an animal aspect o human pleasure. When I come back from a run with my dog, I collapse onto the sofa, she onto her dog bed. I drink a glass of cold water, she laps from her bowl, and we’re both a lot happier.

This book is about more mysterious pleasures. Some teenage girls enjoy cutting themselves with razors; some men pay good money to be spanked by prostitutes. The average American spends over four hours a day watching television. The thought of sex with a virgin is intensely arousing to many men. Abstract art can sell for millions of dollars. Young children enjoy playing with imaginary friends and can be comforted by security blankets. People slow their cars to look at gory accidents, and go to movies that make them cry.

Some of the pleasures that I will discuss are uniquely human, such as art, music, fiction, masochism, and religion. Others, such as food and sex, are not, but I will argue that the pleasure that humans get from these activities is substantially different from that of other creatures.

 

There’s great analysis of the value of art, particularly how a copy, or forgery, is no where near as valuable as an original. If I know Paul Cezanne painted a piece in my collection, then I know it’s worth more than if someone else painted in a similar style. The reason is because I know Cezanne was an artistic genius. The means in which he assembled color, stroke, and arrangement shows a mind – an essence – that no one else originally came up with. Jackson Pollock is the ultimate test for this. His art is labeled abstract expressionism. I see paint splats, but others see a chaotic reflection of the subconscious and because of that, he is heralded.

And the author doesn’t really get into it, but I think portraits are the ultimate in revealing essence, especially if they are self portraits. For the Seinfeld fans out there, you’ll remember an episode where Jerry dates a painter. The painter does a portrait of Kramer and when George asks Jerry why, he responds “She sees something in him.” Kramer has an essence and the painter captures it. Later in the story an older couple is viewing the portrait, “The Kramer,” and has this exchange:

Seinfeld Comments 4

Although this is comedic, it’s true. Art isn’t only about beauty. There’s a pull of something greater than a cloth with ink on it. Performance art and shock are continually testing society.

There’s a story called Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s about a couple of coon hound dogs befriended by a little boy. It’s an early adolescents tale. My sixth grade English teacher read it to my class of 14. It’s over 20 years later and I can’t remember her name, but I do remember the entire class welling up in tears as the story unfolded. We were saddened by what happened, but this fictional story was enjoyed by each one of us.

This pleasure resonates in the imagination of everyone, be it sappy love stories, video games, horror movies, or some other mental escape. I agree with the author that this is a hold over from the evolution of planning. He doesn’t really discuss it, but the way the brain is structured is by layers, somewhat like it grew from the center out. The center is the emotional core. Emotion is great for survival, so it makes sense. The prefrontal cortex and other cognitive regions evolved on top of the emotional engine. It’s kind of like we take in all this data via our senses, but the brain needs a way to answer the “so what?” Stories are powerful because they tap the emotional center and push for action. Imagination is a means for practicing these situations and the strange pleasure it elicits is motivation.

I devise fantasy lands of unicorns and I dream of taking over the world. Each of these escapes adds to my essence.

——————

Lulled Into a Sense of Ever Improving Job Prospects

Autumn begins at Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 11:09 PM ET, but I’ve already felt it. I recently sat at a family friend’s bare dining room table. I looked out the window to avoid seeing the pain in his eyes. The setting sun created an epilogue hue – uneasy and fated.

My friend was mentally torn down. He said “I don’t know what to do? I’m 51 years old and without a job.” I slowly nodded my support. “I wish I had known.” His words trailed off and a deep breath was taken.

He’s a divorced father of two: a boy who’s six and a daughter all of nine. He has debts from the divorce, but mostly he has fears for the future. His daughter is a sufferer of a rare childhood disease. It isn’t life threatening, but it’s life altering. And it’s costly.

I don’t know what he wish he had known. I think it’s about his decision making over the last 15 years. But I think it’s less about the decisions made as it is about the opportunities missed. He was lulled into a sense of ever improving job prospects. He was a senior member at a medium sized company. The Vice President was a friend of his. All things seemed good. He did his job day and day out without any hiccups until 2008 came. His company, like many others, had to make some tough choices and he was given a severance package.

In my eyes he became too good at his job. He could do it half asleep. He didn’t challenge himself and take classes or training that would push him out of his comfort zone. He became as memorable as a Tuesday morning commute. That is one moral of this recession – constantly improve your skills, think about how you think, and shake things up.

Taking On Tests

I’ve been on an education kick lately since it’s back to school time. I often comment that I believe tests are overused as an evaluation tool. I think they have a time and place, but programs like No Child Left Behind are making the test the apex of the curriculum.

I often argue that most tests are designed to assess memorization and not problem solving. I’d like to see students create something. That is how the world improves, through the value of creation. This effort requires the student to apply the learned material plus it reinforces real world skills like managing time and resources.

Tests have positives though. They are efficient in their use of time and measurement. And as I learned from Benedict Carey’s article Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits tests act as another associative method for learning. Over the last few years I’ve read books like Geoff Colvin ‘s Talent is Overrated and Drive by Dan Pink which have hammered the point that if you are motivated to practice and to practice novel approaches with immediate feedback you will succeed.

The article also talks about the use of association. In other posts , like Using Fables , I talk about the use of stories as a learning tool. Stories provide a narrative for later recall of the material. If you are studying mental fortitude and strength while routinely looking out the window at some oak trees you are going to subconsciously relate the two. During the test, I suggest you gaze out the window, it might trigger the association.

The use of tests are themselves both a narrative and a practice method. They require the test taker to consider the topic in an abstract sense and with different combination of scenarios. They also provide immediate feedback. In this way, tests are great.

If I were a teacher I’d start teaching the material with a story. I’d then require the students to create something related to it. I’d finish the lesson with a series of small tests. Why a series of small tests? I’d make it like a golf handicap – the top 10 of 20 are the ones that count. The others just create the pool of eligible scores. I feel this is most optimal because it allows for each test to be a teaching aid while  reducing the all or nothing effect.

Now, if I can only remember where I put my keys.

He Quit His Job and the World Got Richer – The Khan Academy

There are 1440 minutes in a day. That’s 120 opportunities, in one day, to consume a video from Salman Khan. He’s a game changer for education. He started The Khan Academy , a video tutorial service using only Youtube and his knowledge base. There are 1600+ videos and each one usually runs a little more than 11 minutes.

I often rebuke the notion we are failing at math and science. We can improve, that is for sure, but testing memorization isn’t really learning. Videos like Khan’s help students get their feet on the ground. They can rewatch it, ask questions of their teachers, and cross reference it with Google, Wikipedia, and other traditional resources.

Bill Gates has taken notice as well. The reason is because the teaching methods are simplistic. And because of that, the distribution can go wide. The relative cost and investment is so low that it creates a novel not-for-profit business.

I’m curious about the net positive effect of this type of education. The aggregate benefit of short videos for tutorials, video games for problem solving, music for creativity, and blogs and twitter for cleverness is immense. The structure of learning is not only a class room.

TED Talk: David McCandless from Information is Beautiful

My last post was from the Information is Beautiful website that I’ve used in past. Well coincidentally, David McCandless did a TED talk and his sentiments about the value of data are right on par with my thoughts on it. I recommend watching the video below. You’ll see some interesting stats about fear, military size, and volcanoes.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Working Thoughts 8/27/08
Eventually Globalization Comes Back to Us

Well Said Leadership Characteristics

Every Sunday the NY Times runs an interview of a business leader called Corner Office. The questions are about leadership, hiring, and career advice. The answers are usually insightful. For example, this past Sunday George S. Barrett was the interviewee. He’s from Cardinal Health – the Chairman and CEO to be exact. Adam Bryant asked a question about Leadership and got a response I wholeheartedly agree with. Leadership is essentially about particular characteristics and how they are conveyed. He sums it up well below:

Q. What’s your philosophy of leadership?

A. Articulating it in a single sound bite is hard for me, but I’d say this. I do think leadership is largely about trust, and trust has a couple of dimensions. It starts with competence. People have to believe that you really know what you’re doing. They have to really trust in your judgment because the data is so complex out there that they have to believe you can see through all the silliness and have some sense of the right course.

People have to trust that you have a point of view about what this enterprise is going to look like. What do we seek to be? And they have to trust that you understand them, that you get them. Not necessarily that you know them personally, but you understand what it’s all about to work here and that you have their interests at heart. I think that when you can do those things, it can be a powerful combination.

I think people sometimes equate leadership with charisma and decisiveness. I think those are powerful tools, and I hope I have both,but they’re not to be confused with leadership. I know a lot of very charismatic people who lack judgment and competence, and they’re not great leaders. They’re just fun to be around. And I know some very decisive people who lack judgment, which is terrifying.

Also, I think a leader has to be comfortable with having the weight on their shoulders. And that’s not for everybody. It can be hard, and it’s a different experience if you haven’t had to experience this. That’s not for everybody, but I like it because I don’t feel like I’m alone. I windup bringing the group together, and we own the weight. I love that part of it.

I also believe that leadership is a two-way street. I tell my team, “I expect to learn from you as well as you’ll learn from me.”

Working Thoughts 8/17/07 (this is a seminal belief of this blog)
At What Point Does It Stop Being Education?

Working Thoughts 8/17/09
Job Losses and the Self Employed

Different Ways to Climb the Steel Stairs to the Top

I went to a Catholic elementary school. It was the type of building that was stately from the front with massive doors and an elongated walkway to the entrance. However, if you took the profile from the side, it was just a rectangle box. As you opened the doors you were presented with a climb to the second floor. It was about 80 steel stairs up. Once you got to the top you were presented with a long dim hall with class rooms on each side. The first to the left was sixth grade, next on the right was fourth grade. Back to the left further down was fifth grade. Second and third flanked the ends. The hall culminated with the door to first grade. This building was old: steel and concrete with little or no insulation. Every morning to start school we’d all gather in the big hall and say parts of the rosary. A classmate of mine, Rhiannon, once passed out.

I have plenty of stories about this school and here’s a couple.

  • In third grade I was put in charge of the heat. Being an old school it had a massive furnace in the basement. Occasionally the submarine style door would be open to it and I’d swear it was 120 degrees in there. Anyway, the heat was distributed to each classroom through coils near the windows. I sat next to the nob that allowed heat to come into the room. If someone was cold they had to come see me so I could turn the nob on. I have no idea why I was put in charge, but I performed the job well.
  • In fifth grade we had daily spelling tests. Each student had a cheesy single month calendar taped to the wall near the windows. They were hot air balloons. Every time someone got a 100% on a spelling test they would get a small hot air balloon sticker to go along with the day of the week on the calendar. As the month would end, Kristin on her calendar had just about every day filled up with stickers and Jason had none. It was a visible cue about who scored well on the spelling tests and who didn’t. I looked at those balloons quite a bit and they motivated me to be near the best. I wanted to beat Kristin. The spelling test was practically secondary, it was just a means to an end – beating Drew, Patrick, and Kala.

Its 21 years later and I can vividly see those balloon stickers. They were the only colorful things in the school.

I wasn’t motivated to score well on the spelling test just for the sake of it. I didn’t care about it. But I was motivated by getting a sticker. A site called Ultrinsic.com is doing a similar thing with college student’s grades. The site allows you to open an account and make small wagers about your performance in different classes you are registered in. Think you’re getting an A in biology – bet $20 on it. The amount of the bet practically doesn’t matter. I’m so much more interested in a football game if I have $5 dollars on it. I normally wouldn’t care, but with $5 on it I want to see if I’m right and I will pull for whatever team reinforces my opinion.

I think a site like this can work out, but the problem I see with it is the time horizon is too long. Gambling is so powerful because of the immediate feedback of it. If I had to pony up money in September, by the time December rolls around I’ve considered it a lost cause. I had an opportunity at a sticker every day.

Unfortunately for my Catholic school, it didn’t pass a few of it’s own tests. The cost to keep it viable was too high and it’s now a green field… nevertheless, I can still see it.

“The Gap is Between Doing Nothing and Doing Something”

Clay Shirky in the video below hits on themes that run throughout this blog. His 13:08 of audio/video is time well spent. He mentions:

  • Free Time
    • Couch Potatoes
    • Good at Consuming
  • Creativity – People like to create
    • Cats
  • Intrinsic Motivations
    • Kenya
    • Design for Generosity
  • Tacit Information
    • Crisis Map
  • Communal Value
  • Civic Value
  • Humor

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

The blog Information Is Beautiful did a fun illustration using a stat from the speech – 200 billion hours of Watching TV a year and the time spent working on Wikipedia. Quite the comparison.

What Do You Know about Your Produce?

My last entry talked about how the unemployment numbers were not evenly distributed across education bases. I don’t imagine anyone thought it would be, but my point is that those who lack an education, especially younger workers who lack experience, should be the focus of job programs. I’d like to see education and training programs help this group get meaningful jobs .

But the second part of my last entry was about how many illegal immigrants are doing agricultural work, specifically field work. There’s an idea that illegal immigrants take jobs from American’s. It’s true, but not in every case. The farming example is one where many unemployed American’s haven’t applied.

What I observed about my own thinking on the subject is that I had little idea how produce reaches my grocery store. Some of it could come from local growers and some can come from China or somewhere like that. I’m not trying to sound ridiculous, but for some reason I also think of farming like I do manufacturing – automated. For grains that is probably true, but for fruits it isn’t. Someone has to bend over and pick the strawberries, blueberries, or tomatoes .

I was recently reminded about a NYC law requiring menus at some eateries to display the calories of the dish. The idea being an informed public would make better eating decisions. The notion is correct but the implementation is off. If someone is out to eat, they are purposefully out to enjoy a meal. Calories are down the list of considerations.

What I’d like to see is a narrative on the produce like a label on a cereal box. A short factual story about how the fruit arrived at the grocer. For instance, if it came from 20 miles away I’d like to know. I;d like to know the day it’s picked. If the person who picked it is 34, a female, and works a 35 hour work week, I’d like to know that too. The idea is that if I compared a subsidized bag of apples from China, which is 30 cents cheaper to a locally grown bag, I’d probably go with the locally grown. Even if I’m price sensitive I’d still have to assume the local produce is fresher and therefore higher quality.

Narratives with data in it will help guide decisions. Once the market adjusts to this digestable (pun intended – ha ha) data format, the local demand should increase and jobs too. A win-win for everyone.