Category Archives: Politics

The Data/Human Goal Gap

As I was writing a letter to my third-grade daughter’s principal in support of a change in homework policy (a letter which I’ve posted here), it occurred to me I was making a point about a phenomenon that isn’t unique to education at all, but happens in a lot of other fields, too: baseball, business, economics, and politics.

I don’t know if this phenomenon has a name. It probably does, because you’re very rarely the first person to think of an idea. If it does, I’m sure someone will soon enlighten me. The phenomenon goes like this:

* * *

Suppose you suck at something. Doesn’t matter what it is. You’re bad at this thing, and you know it. You don’t really understand why you’re so bad, but you know you could be so much better. One day, you get tired of sucking, and you decide it’s time to commit yourself to a program of systematic improvement, to try to be good at the thing you want to be good at.

So you decide to collect data on what you are doing, and then study that data to learn where exactly things are going so wrong. Then you’ll try some experiments to see what effect those experiments have on your results. Then you keep the good stuff, and throw out the bad stuff, and pretty soon you find yourself getting better and better at this thing you used to suck at.

So far so good, eh? But there’s a problem. You don’t really notice there’s a problem, because things are getting better and better. But the problem is there, and it has been there the whole time. The problem is this: the thing your data is measuring is not *exactly* the thing you’re trying to accomplish.

Why is this a problem? Let’s a simplified graph of this issue, so I can explain.

Let’s call the place you started at, the point where you really sucked, “Point A”.
Let’s call the goal you’re trying to reach “Point G”.
And let’s call the best place the data can lead you to “Point D”.

Note that Point D is near Point G, but it’s not exactly the same point. Doesn’t matter why they’re not the same point. Perhaps some part of your goal is not a thing that can be measured easily with data. Maybe you have more than one goal at a time, or your goals change over time. Whatever, doesn’t matter why, it just matters they’re just not exactly the same point.

Now here’s what happens:

You start out very far from your goal. You likely don’t even know exactly what or where your goal is, precisely, but (a) you’ll know it when you see it, and (b) know it’s sorta in the Point D direction. So, off you go. You embark on your data-driven journey. As a simplified example, we’ll graph your journey like this:

statsgraph2

On this particular graph, your starting point, Point A, is 14.8 units away from your goal at Point G. Then you start following the path that the data leads you. You gather data, test, experiment, study the results, and repeat.

After a period of time, you reach Point B on the graph. You are now 10.8 units away from your goal. Wow, you think, this data-driven system is great! Look how much better you are than you were before!

So you keep going. You eventually reach Point C. You’re even closer now: only 6.0 units away from your goal!

And so you invest even more into your data-driven approach, because you’ve had nothing but success with it so far. You organize everything you do around this process. The process, and changes that you’ve made because of it, actually begin to become your new identity.

In time, you reach Point D. Amazing! You’re only 4.2 units away from your goal now! Everything is awesome! You believe in this process wholeheartedly now. The lessons you’ve learned permeate your entire worldview now. To deviate from the process would be insane, a betrayal of your values, a rejection of the very ideas you stand for. You can’t even imagine that the path you’ve chosen will not get any better than right here, now, at Point D.

Full speed ahead!

And then you reach Point E.

Eek!

Egads, you’re 6.00 units away from your goal now. You’ve followed the data like you always have, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, things have suddenly gotten worse.

And you go, what on Earth is going on? Why are you having problems now? You never had problems before.

And you’re human, and you’ve locked into this process and weaved it into your identity. You loved Points C & D so much that you can’t stand to see them discredited, so your Cognitive Dissonance kicks in, and you start looking for Excuses. You go looking for someone or something External to blame, so you can mentally wave off this little blip in the road. It’s not you, it’s them, those Evil people over there!

But it’s not a blip in the road. It’s the road itself. The road you chose doesn’t take you all the way to your destination. It gets close, but then it zooms on by.

But you won’t accept this, not now, not after the small sample size of just one little blip. So you continue on your same trajectory, until you reach Point F.

You stop, and look around, and realize you’re now 10.8 units away from your goal. What the F? Things are still getting worse, not better! You’re having more and more problems. You’re really, really F’ed up. What do you do now?

Can you let go of your Cognitive Dissonance, of your Excuse seeking, and step off the trajectory you’ve been on for so long?

F is a really F’ing dangerous point. Because you’re really F’ing confused now. Your belief system, your identity, is being called into question. You need to change direction, but how? How do you know where to aim next if you can’t trust your data to lead you in the right direction? You could head off in a completely wrong direction, and F things up even worse than they were before. And when that happens, it becomes easy for you to say, F this, and blow the whole process up. And then you’re right back to Point A Again. All your effort and all the lessons you learned will be for nothing.

WTF do you do now?

F’ing hell!

* * *

That’s the generic version of this phenomenon. Now let’s talk about some real-world examples. Of course, in the real world, things aren’t as simple as I projected above. The real world isn’t two-dimensional, and the data doesn’t lead you in a straight line. But the phenomenon does, I believe, exist in the wild. And it’s becoming more and more common as computers make data-driven processes easy for organizations and industries to implement and follow.

Education

As I said, homework policy is what got me thinking about this phenomenon. I have no doubt whatsoever that the schools my kids are going to now are better than the ones I went to 30-40 years ago. The kids learn more information at a faster rate than my generation ever did. And that improvement, I am confident, is in many ways a result of the data-driven processes that have arisen in the education system over the last few decades. Test scores are how school districts are judged by home buyers, they’re how administrators are judged by school boards, they’re how principals are judged by administrators, and they’re how teachers are judged by principals. The numbers allow education workers to be held accountable for their performance, and provide information about what is working and what needs fixing so that schools have a process that leads to continual improvement.

From my perspective, it’s fairly obvious that my kids’ generation is smarter than mine. But: I’m also pretty sure they’re more stressed out than we were. Way more stressed out, especially when they get to high school. I feel like by the time our kids get to high school, they have internalized a pressure-to-perform ethic that has built up over years. They hear stories about how you need such and such on your SATs and this many AP classes with these particular exam scores to get into the college of their dreams. And the pressure builds as some (otherwise excellent) teachers think nothing of giving hours and hours of homework every day.

Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, psychological breakdowns that require hospitalization: I’m sure those things existed when I went to school, too, but I never heard about it, and now they seem routine. When clusters of kids who should have everything going for them end up committing suicide, something has gone wrong. That’s your Point F moment: perhaps we’ve gone too far down this data-driven path.

Whatever we decide our goal of education is, I’m pretty sure that our Point G will not feature stressed-out kids who spend every waking hour studying. That’s not the exact spot we’re trying to get to. I’m not suggesting we throw out testing or stop giving homework. I am arguing that there exists a Point D, a sweet spot with just the right amount of testing, and just the right amount of homework, that challenges kids the right amount without stressing them out, and leaves the kids with the time they deserve to just be kids. Whatever gap between Point D and Point G that remains should be closed not with data, but with wisdom.

Baseball

The first and most popular story of an industry that transforms itself with data-driven processes is probably Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. It’s the story of how the revenue-challenged Oakland A’s baseball team used statistical analysis to compete with economic powerhouses like the New York Yankees.

I’ve been an A’s fan my whole life, and I covered them closely as an A’s blogger for several years. So I can appreciate the value that the A’s emphasis on statistical analysis has produced. But as an A’s fan, there’s also a certain frustration that comes with the A’s assumption that there is no difference between Point D and Point G. The A’s assume that the best way to win is to be excruciatingly logical in their decisions, and that if you win, everyone will be happy.

But many A’s fans, including myself, do not agree with that assumption. The Point F moment for us came when, during a stretch of three straight post-season appearances, the A’s traded their two most popular players, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson, within a span of six months.

I wrote about my displeasure with these moves in an long essay called The Long, Long History of Why I Do Not Like the Josh Donaldson Trade. My argument was, in effect, that the purpose of baseball was not merely winning, it was the emotional connection that fans feel to a team in the process of trying to win.

When you have a data-driven process that takes emotion out of your decisions, but your Point G includes emotions in the goal of the process, it’s unavoidable that you will have a gap between your Point D and your Point G. The anger and betrayal that A’s fans like myself felt about these trades is the result of the process inevitably shooting beyond its Point D.

Business

If Moneyball is not the most influential business book of the last few decades, it’s only because of Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. The Innovator’s Dilemma tells the story of a process in which large, established businesses can often find themselves defeated by small, upstart businesses with “disruptive innovations.”

I suppose you can think of the phenomenon described in the Innovator’s Dilemma as a subset of, or perhaps a corollary to, the phenomenon I am trying to describe. The dilemma happens because the established company has some statistical method for measuring its success, usually profit ratios or return on investment or some such thing. It’s on a data-driven track that has served it well and delivered it the success it has. Then the upstart company comes along and sells a worse product with worse statistical results, and because of these bad numbers, the establish company ignores it. But the upstart company is on an statistical path of its own, and eventually improves to the point where it passes the established company by. The established company does not realize its Point D and Point G are separate points, and finds itself turning towards Point G too late.

Here, let’s graph the Innovator’s Dilemma on the same scale as our phenomenon above:

statsgraph3

The established company is the red line. They have reached Point D by the time the upstart, with the blue line, gets started. The established company thinks, they’re not a threat to us down at Point A. And even if they reach our current level at Point D, we will beyond Point F by then. They will never catch up.

This line of thinking is how Blockbuster lost to Netflix, how GM lost to Toyota, and how the newspaper industry lost its cash cow, classified ads, to Craigslist.

The mistake the establish company makes is assuming that Point G lies on/near the same path that they are currently on, that their current method of measuring success is the best path to victory in the competitive market. But it turns out that the smaller company is taking a shorter path with a more direct line to the real-life Point G, because their technology or business model has, by some twist, a different trajectory which takes it closer to Point G than the established one. By the time the larger company realizes its mistake, the smaller company has already gotten closer to Point G than the larger company, and the race is essentially over.

* * *

There are other ways in which businesses succumb to this phenomenon besides just the Innovator’s Dilemma. Those companies that hold closely to Milton Friedman’s idea that the sole purpose of a company is to maximize shareholder value are essentially saying that Point D is always the same as Point G.

But that creates political conflict with those who think that all stakeholders in a corporation (customers, employees, shareholders and the society and environment at large) need to have a role in the goals of a corporation. In that view, Point D is not the same as Point G. Maximizing profits for the shareholders will take you on a different trajectory from maximizing the outcomes for other stakeholders in various proportions. When a company forgets that, or ignores it, and shoots beyond its Point D, then there is going to inevitably be trouble. It creates distrust in the corporation in particular, and corporations in general. Take any corporate PR disaster you want as an example.

Economics

I’m a big fan of Star Trek, but one of the things I never understood about it was how they say that they don’t use money in the 23rd century. How do they measure the value of things if not by money? Our whole economic system is based on the idea that we measure economic success with money.

But if you think about it, accumulating money is not the goal of human activity. Money takes us to Point D, it’s not the path to Point G. What Star Trek is saying is that they somehow found a path to Point G without needing to pass through Point D first.

But that’s 200 years into a fictional future. Right now, in real life, we use money to measure human activity with. But money is not the goal. The goal is human welfare, human happiness, human flourishing, or some such thing. Economics can show us how to get close to the goal, but it can’t take us all the way there. There is a gap between the Point D we can reach with a money-based system of measurement, and our real-life Point G.

And as such, it will be inevitable that if we optimize our economic systems to optimize some monetary outcome, like GDP or inflation or tax revenues or some such thing, that eventually that optimization will shoot past the real-life target. In a sense, that’s kind of what we’re experiencing in our current economy. America’s GDP is fine, production is up, the inflation rate is low, unemployment is down, but there’s still a general unease about our economy. Some people point to economic inequality as the problem now, but measurements of economic inequality aren’t Point G, either, and if you optimized for that, you’d shoot past the real-life Point G, too, only in a different direction. Look at any historically Communist country (or Venezuela right now) to see how miserable missing in that direction can be.

The correct answer, as it seems to me in all of these examples, is to trust your data up to a certain point, your Point D, and then let wisdom be your guide the rest of the way.

Politics

Which brings us to politics. In 2016. Hoo boy.

Well, how did we get here?

I think there are essentially two data-driven processes that have landed us where we are today. Both of these processes have a gap between what we think of as the real-life goals of these entities, and the direction that the data leads them to. One is the process of news outlets chasing media ratings. And the other is political polling.

In the case of the media, the drive for ratings pushes journalism towards sensationalism and outrage and controversy and anger and conflict and drama. What we think journalism should actually do is inform and guide us towards wisdom. Everybody says they hate the media now, because everybody knows that the gap between Point D and Point G is growing larger and larger the further down the path of ratings the media goes. But it is difficult, particularly in a time where the technology and business models that the media operate under are changing rapidly, to change direction off that track.

And then there’s political polling. The process of winning elections has grown more and more data-driven over recent decades. A candidate has to say A, B, and C, but can’t say X, Y, or Z, in order to win. They have to casts votes for D, E, and F, but can’t vote for U, V or W. They have to make this many phone calls and attend that many fundraisers and kiss the butts of such and such donors in order to raise however many millions of dollars it takes to win. The process has created a generation of robopoliticians, none of whom have an original idea in their heads at all (or if they do, won’t say so for fear of What The Numbers Say.) You pretty much know what every politician will say on every issue if you know whether there’s a “D” or an “R” next to their name. Politicans on neither side of the aisle can formulate a coherent idea of what Point G looks like other beyond a checklist spit out of a statistical regression.

That leads us to the state of the union in 2016, where both politicians and the media have overshot their respective Point Ds.

And nobody feels like anyone gives a crap about the Point G of this whole process: to make the lives of the citizens that the media and the politicians represent as fruitful as possible. Both of these groups are zooming full speed ahead towards Point F instead of Point G.

And here are the American people, standing at Point E, going, whoa whoa whoa, where are you all going? And then the Republicans put up 13 robocandidates who want to lead everybody to the Republican version of Point F, plus Donald Trump. The Democrats put up Hillary Clinton, who can probably check all the data-driven boxes more skillfully than anybody else in the world, asking to lead everybody to the Democratic version of Point F, plus Bernie Sanders.

And Trump and Sanders surprise the experts, because they’re the only ones who are saying, let’s get off this path. Trump says, this is stupid, let’s head towards Point Fascism. Sanders says, we need a revolution, let’s head towards Point Socialism.

And most Americans like me just shake our heads, unhappy with our options, because Fascism and Socialism sound more like Point A than Point G to us. I don’t want to keep going, I don’t want to start over, and I don’t want to head in some old discredited direction that other countries have headed towards and failed. I just want to turn in the direction of wisdom.

“It’s not that hard. Tell him, Wash.

“It’s incredibly hard.”

Did David Bowie Predict Obama and Trump back in 1999?

What happens when a monoculture fragments?

* * *

Here’s the big question in politics these days: how do you explain Donald Trump? Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has an interesting three part series on the question. Nate Silver presents three theories of his own. Scott Adams hypothesizes that Trump is a “master persuader“. David Axelrod surmises that voters are simply choosing the opposite of the last guy. Craig Calcaterra thinks it’s worse than all that, and we’re entering a new dark age.

Those are interesting ideas, I suppose, and maybe there’s some truth to them, I don’t know. But I want to throw another theory out there that I got, indirectly, while following the news of David Bowie’s death.

* * *

Bowie was very knowledgeable about music of course, but also visual arts, as well. There are a number of interviews of Bowie in the 1990s where he connects the history of visual arts in the early 20th century to what happened to music in the late 20th century, most notably an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight back in 1999.

* * *

First, some background. Up until the mid-19th century, the visual arts were very much a monoculture. Basically, you were supposed to paint pictures that looked lifelike in one way or another. But the invention of photography about that time changed the nature of the visual arts. The value of realistic paintings came into question, and artist began to explore other purposes for painting besides just realism.

The result of that exploration was that the visual arts in the early 20th century ended up splitting up into multiple subgenres like impressionism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, and abstract impressionism. Bowie said, “The breakthroughs in the early part of the century with people like Duchamp were so prescient in what they were doing and putting down. The idea [was] that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it, and add their own interpretation.”

duchamp

Duchamp’s urinal is the prime example of what Bowie is talking about. Is this a work of art?

…especially since Marcel Duchamp and all that, the work is only one aspect of it. The work is never finished now until the viewer contributes himself. The art is always only half-finished. It’s never completed until there’s an audience for it. And then it’s the combination of the interpretation of the audience and the work itself. It’s that gray area in the middle is what the work is about.

interview on Musique Plus, 1999

The urinal by itself is not a work of art, Bowie suggested. It becomes a work of art when you react to it.

* * *

But why? Why would this become an artistic trend? Bowie suggested that this is the natural result of the breakup of monocultures. When there’s one dominant culture, artists can dictate what art is, and isn’t. But when there isn’t a single dominant culture, breaking through to the mainstream requires the artist to meet the audience halfway. Bowie claimed that the visual arts went through this process first, and it became a full-fledged force in music in the 1990s.

I think when you look back at, say, this last decade, there hasn’t really been one single entity, artist, or group, that have personified, or become the brand name for the nineties. It started to fade a bit in the eighties. In the seventies, there were still definite artists; in the sixties, there were the Beatles and Hendrix; in the fifties, there was Presley.

Now it’s subgroups, and genres. It’s hip-hop. It’s girl power. It’s a communal kind of thing. It’s about the community.

It’s becoming more and more about the audience. The point of having somebody who “led the forces” has disappeared because the vocabulary of rock is too well-known.

From my standpoint, being an artist, I like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown, personified, I think by the rave culture of the last few years. The audience is at least as important as whoever is playing at the rave. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience and what the audience is doing. And that feeling is very much permeating music.

Bowie suggests that it wasn’t just music that this was happening to in the late 20th century, but to culture on a broader scale:

We, at the time, up until at least the mid-seventies, really felt that we were still living in the guise of a single and absolute created society, where there were known truths, and known lies, and there was no duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in. That started to break down rapidly in the seventies. And the idea of a duality in the way that we live…there are always two, three, four, five sides to every question. The singularity disappeared.

Bowie then went on to suggest that the Internet will go on to accelerate this cultural fragmentation in the 21st century:

And that, I believe, has produced just a medium as the Internet, which absolutely establishes and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation.

The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can visage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

It’s happening in every form. […] That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.

Look then at the technologies that have launched since Bowie made these statements in 1999. Blogger launched the same year as that interview, in August of 1999. WordPress launched in 2003. Facebook in 2004. Twitter in 2006. What’s App in 2010. Snapchat in 2011. Technologies such as these, which give broadcast power to audiences, have become the dominant mediums of the 21st century. The audience has indeed become the mainstream provider of culture.

* * *

Bowie didn’t make any specific claims or predictions about politics in these 1999 statements. But we can look at his ideas and apply them to politics, and see if they apply there, as well. It would, after all, be strange if this process which has been happening for over a century in the general culture did not eventually make its way into politics, as well.

First, let’s ask, are we seeing any kind of fragmentation in our politics? (I’ll limit myself to American politics, because I don’t know enough about other countries to speak coherently.) It’s fairly obvious that the two American parties are more polarized than ever, but let’s show a chart to verify that. This is from the Brookings Institute:
congresscompare780

As you can see, the parties were rather clustered together during World War II. In the 70s, you could see some separation happening, but there was still overlap. Now, they are two completely unrelated groups. So Bowie’s model holds in this case.

It could be argued that in the 2016 election, we are seeing a fragmentation of these two groups into further subgroups. On the Democratic side, there is a debate between the full-fledged socialism espoused by Bernie Sanders, and the more economically conservative wing of the Democratic Party represented by Hillary Clinton. (There do not seem to be candidates from the environmentalist/pacifist wings…yet.) On the Republican side, there are also clear factions now: the Evangelical wing led by Ted Cruz, the Libertarian wing led by Rand Paul, the more establishment Republicanism of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich, and the nationalism of Donald Trump.

These factions have always existed in the American political parties, of course. And there have always been subgenres in the arts and the general culture, too. But the difference this time seems to be that each faction is claiming, and insisting on, legitimacy. They are no longer satisfied with mere lip service from the party establishment. The days of the One Dominant Point of View are in the past.

* * *

Suppose that American political parties are indeed fragmenting. What kind of politicians succeed in that kind of environment?

The David Bowie theory would answer: politicians who possess the quality of allowing audiences to project their own interpretations onto them.

Whatever the policy differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it’s hard to deny that both Trump and Obama possess that quality in spades.

The socialist and environmentalist and pacifist wings of the Democratic party seemed to project their fondest left-wing wishes onto Obama, even though his actual policy positions were rather centrist. As Obama’s presidency unfolded, these factions became disappointed, as reality set in. And likewise, in his Republican opponents there arose Obama Derangement Syndrome, where many right-wingers projected their worst fears of a far-left Presidency onto Obama, regardless of Obama’s actual positions.

Now we are seeing similar reactions to Donald Trump. The Republicans who are expected to vote for him are seeing him as a sort of savior to restore conservatism to prominence after a long series of losses in the Obama and Bill Clinton eras. This is despite the fact that, Trump’s immigration policies aside, Trump’s policy positions (that we know of), historically have been more consistent with establishment Democrats. And yet, many Democrats fear a Trump presidency and threaten to move to Canada if it happens.

So there are benefits and drawbacks to this “gray space” strategy. When you give the audience the freedom to add their interpretations to you, you may not like their interpretation very much. There was some pretty strong hatred of Duchamp’s urinal as a work of art. Others see that as part of its brilliance. Similarly, Obama and Trump can’t really control the large amount of people who react to them with repulsion. But it goes hand in hand with their success. That’s what the strategy does.

How do Obama and Trump accomplish this? What are the elements that allows them to interact in that “gray space”, when other politicians don’t? A few guesses:

  • Be vague. Adhering to the specific policy proposals of a faction boxes you into that faction. It doesn’t allow room for other factions to meet you in the “gray space” between your factions.
     
  • Be emotional. Obama and Trump know how to give speeches that rile up the emotions in the audience. You have to give the audience something to connect to, if it isn’t your actual policy positions.
     
  • Step out from political clichếs. Bowie noted that by the 1990s, the standard three-cord rock-and-roll vocabulary had become too well-known to be a source of rebellion anymore. Similarly, the standard vocabulary of the Democratic and Republican parties have also become too well-known these days. The mediocre candidates these days seem to spend too much energy signaling that they know the Standard Vocabulary. We pretty much know what these politicians’ answers are going to be every question before they open their mouths to answer them. Hillary Clinton is a master of the vocabulary, but many people seem to be tired of it. Hence this article: “Hillary, can you excite us?
     

How do you defeat such candidates? I don’t know, but it probably involves forcing them to be specific, to peg them as being trapped inside one particular faction or another. To reduce the “gray space” between them and the audience. Good luck with that. Should be interesting to watch as the primary season begins. Start your engines.

* * *

Postscript: Here’s the entirety of the David Bowie interview with Jeremy Paxman:


Forty-two Boxes

One.

Listen:

When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. . . . But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.

Steve Jobs

Two.

Beginning a story with a quote often implies that the rest of the story will say same thing as the quote, but with different words. This story follows that formula. The opening quote serves as a box within which the rest of the story is confined.

This story is not original. It says what Steve Jobs said in the above quote. It says other things that other people have also been saying for hundreds and even thousands of years. So why bother telling this story?

We tell stories because there are simple approaches that don’t address the complexity of the problem. We tell stories because there are convoluted solutions where people have stopped. We tell stories because sometimes the underlying principle remains, but the old, elegant, once-beautiful solution has now stopped working.

Sometimes the lock changes, and we need a new key. Sometimes we refuse a key from one person that we will accept one from another. Sometimes this particular key won’t work for us, but a different key will click the door open. And sometimes we need to try a different door entirely to get into that room.

We tell stories because we are human beings, endowed by our creator with the delusion of hope. We tell stories in faith, believing, without evidence, that communication will forge a key that unlocks something incredible and amazing.

Three.

I got mad at my kids recently for having a messy room.

It’s such a cliché, I know. In that moment, I was an ordinary parent, just like everyone else, easily replaced by a thousand identical others.

Although, that’s not exactly true. I had my own, different angle on the messy room story. I didn’t really get mad because their rooms were messy. I got mad because their messiness was starting to spread out into my spaces, the common areas of the house that I keep clean. I did not want my space to be a new frontier for their stuff to conquer.

Wait, that’s not exactly the whole story, either. I didn’t even get mad because their stuff was getting all over the house. I got mad because when I suggested that we go to IKEA, like a good Swedish-American family, and look for some solution for where they can put their backpacks and schoolbooks and binders and such, so that I can keep my spaces clear of their stuff, they laughed.

I got mad because they laughed.

Four.

Is a story a kind of technology?

The word technology derives from the Greek words for “skill/craft” and “word”. Since a technology is a set of words about skills, perhaps a story is the original technology, the underlying technology upon which all other technologies are based.

We craft our words into a story, to transfer information from one person’s brain to another person’s brain. The more skillfully we craft our words, the more effectively that information is transferred, retained, and spread.

The most celebrated technologies of our times, Google and Facebook and Twitter, are merely extensions of this original technology. They are the result of stories built on stories built on stories over thousands of years, told orally, then in print, then digitally, all circling back to their original purpose. They are ever more effective tools to transfer, retain and spread information from one human being to another.

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Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters

NigerianEmbassy2

Random Wikipedia sends us today to the Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters, which is a subdivision of the Pan-African Parliament. The Pan-African Parliament was established in 2004, and is similar in scope and goals to the European Parliament, aiming for central banking, unified currencies and free-trade zones. Obviously, to establish free-trade zones, you need rules and regulations regarding trade, customs and immigration between countries. Hence, this committee, probably tasked to create an African version of the Schengen Agreement.

Back in 1988-89 when I worked as a translator at the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm (shown above, with me in the open window), I would not have envisioned that Africa would have come this far in 25 years. But they’re about at the same place the European Union was back then. In 1989, it wasn’t called the EU yet; it was the European Community. There were economic subgroups like the EEC and EFTA, but no common currency. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen, and as a consequence, Sweden and Finland were not yet willing to join such an alliance. The pieces were there, but it had not yet all come together.

Of course, there are some unstable countries in Africa, especially in North Africa after the Arab Spring revolutions. But Europe in 1989 similarly unstable when the Berlin Wall fell. It would have been really interesting to still be working in the Embassy to experience the Nigerian reaction to the Berlin Wall falling, but I left that job in June of 1989, and the Berlin Wall fell in November. My successor as translator worked there in interesting times, to be sure.

NigerianEmbassy1

Wow, look at how serious those young professional translators looked back in 1989!

“Please! Spare me your egotistical musings on your pivotal role in history. Nothing you do here will cause the Federation to collapse or galaxies to explode. To be blunt, you’re not that important.”
–Q, to Jean-Luc Picard, in the Star Trek TNG episode, “Tapestry”

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m living the life of the version of Jean-Luc Picard who didn’t get stabbed in the heart by a Nausicaan in that episode of Star Trek– the one who didn’t become a famous captain, the one who lived life too cautiously, who didn’t take risks, who drifted in life with no particular plan, and who as a result ended up with a decent, but forgettable and unremarkable career. But then I think, wow, I worked in European diplomacy as Communism was falling, and I worked in Silicon Valley as the Internet was starting, I got involved in blogging as social media became a thing, I covered the A’s as Moneyball introduced the world to statistical analysis. I’ve witnessed a lot of history unfolding, even if I never was the one who captained any ships to glory. All those events probably would have rolled on more or less the same without my being there. We can’t all be a Jean-Luc Picard (primary version). It is the nature of hierarchies that most of us, at best, are lucky just to be a Jean-Luc Picard (alternate version). I’ve been lucky.

Interview with My Mom about Life During World War II in Sweden

Last time I was in Sweden in 2012, I interviewed my mom about her experiences living in Sweden during World War II. The 17-minute interview is embedded here:

In it, she talks about:

  • How her grandparents escaped from Norway during the war and came to Sweden
  • How they had to deal with shortages of food
  • How she tried to smuggle some black market pork on a train
  • What it was like to visit Norway after the war was over.

Koro Dewes

The Māori language, the language spoken by native New Zealanders, is a member of the Polynesian family of languages, along with other Pacific island languages such as Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian.

Back around the year 1900, a large majority of people of Māori descent spoke the Māori language, or “te reo”, as their first and native tongue. But then the New Zealand government decided that all schools should be taught in English, and the Māori language was not allowed to be spoken in the classroom. A generation later, when the children of that policy grew up, they were fully bilingual. But as most educational and economic opportunities were in English, many people of that generation spoke Māori to their older relatives, but English to their children. This next generation was also bilingual, but spoke English as their first language, and Māori only passively. As a result, in the third generation between 1950 and 1975, there began a rapid decline in the number of native Māori speakers, and the language appeared to be headed to extinction.

“…the ability to speak te reo amongst Māori children declined from 90 per cent in 1913 to 80 per cent in 1923 to 55 per cent in 1950 to 26 per cent in 1953–58 and to 5 per cent in 1975.”

Waitangi Tribual Report, 2011

Alarmed by the declining state of the Māori language, a movement arose in the 1960s and 1970s among the remaining native speakers to try to preserve and restore the language. At first, they faced a lot of resistance from the New Zealand government. As late as 1979, the New Zealand Minister of Māori Affairs, Ben Couch, said that he saw no need to take legislative steps to preserve the language. However, the movement persisted, and major advances were made in the 1980s. The Kohanga Reo movement brought Māori language instruction to preschoolers in 1982, followed three years later by Kura Kaupapa Māori, which created Māori-language primary schools, as well. They pushed for, and got, native-language broadcasts on TV. And finally, the Māori Language Act of 1987 brought official language status to the Māori language in New Zealand.

These measures brought some measure of success to growing and promoting the Māori language. For about 10-15 years, the decline of the language reversed, and populations of native speakers grew steadily for a time. However, sometime around the turn of the century the growth seemed to stall, and has in the last few years returned to a slow decline. There is more work to be done to keep the Māori language alive.

* * *

The Random Wikipedia of the day is the entry for Koro Dewes, a man who was a key figure in the struggle to promote the Māori language. Mr. Dewes, who lived from 1930 to 2010, did most of his advocacy for the language at the university level. He was a lecturer at both the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington. At Wellington, he helped extend the course catalog so that students could get a degree in the Māori language studies. He was also the first person to submit a post-graduate thesis written in the Māori language without a translation.

Here is a news story on Mr. Dewes’ life, presented in the Māori language, of course, with English subtitles:

Swedish Culture and Why IKEA Is So Confusing

I’m looking to buy some office-type furniture for our home office. So I looked in our IKEA catalog, but I didn’t really see anything that satisfied me. However, the catalog had a pointer to their IKEA Business web site, so I typed in the URL, and clicked around. It was just a bunch of marketing hype. I could not find any actual products.

konfjoosingDo you remember the first time you stepped into an IKEA store? How utterly confusing it was? How you were led into the display section of the store, and the store seemed to just go on and on and on forever? How you had no idea how you would actually decide on buying any of this stuff? And how if you actually did decide you wanted something, how in the heck the process of actually buying stuff worked? How some things you have to order upstairs with a sales person, and then pay for it first downstairs at the register, and then pick it up after the register at delivery services? How other things you can’t order upstairs, and you have to go pick up yourself in the warehouse, and pay for it after you pick it up? And how other things were neither preordered upstairs, nor picked up in the warehouse, but instead were found in a section of the store called the “Marketplace”?

I’ve been shopping at IKEA stores since 1979, so this doesn’t confuse me anymore. But I was thinking about this as I read an article in the Washington Post by Dylan Matthews called “Is Sweden awesome because it mooches off the U.S.?” The article links to a new economic model that predicts that “cuddly capitalist” states like Sweden really only work when there are “cutthroat capitalist” states like the US operating alongside it.

I don’t really have any opinion on how valid or useful that economic model is. I suppose it sounds plausible. But as Matthews points out, Sweden isn’t exactly a good example of cuddly capitalism anymore, while the US isn’t a pure example of cutthroat capitalism, either. Sweden has had a right-wing government for half a decade now, while America has been run by a left-wing president. Sweden isn’t as “awesome” as some American left-wingers seem to think, nor is it as dystopian as some American right-wingers do. I don’t think that the differences between the countries are a simple as a two-dimensional scale of with “capitalism” and “socialism” on the other. There are lots of other differences, too, like culture.

* * *

“Cuddly capitalism” is a weird term. IKEA isn’t cuddly. It’s a user-interface nightmare. It’s designed for the efficiency of the organization, not for the benefit of the customers. And IKEA isn’t alone. When I visited Sweden this summer, I found that the whole country seems to operate on this mentality. It’s a country of the bureaucracy, by the bureaucracy and for the bureaucracy. And I’m not just talking government bureaucracies here. IKEA is as capitalist as they come. It’s everywhere.

I went into a Burger King at one point to get some fast food for my kids who were getting cranky. I tried to see what they had on their menu, and how much my choices cost. They didn’t have a menu, just some gigantic photographs of about five different value meals to choose from. What if I don’t want a value meal, just some hamburgers? What did that cost? I couldn’t find the information. So I said, forget it, I’ll just go next door to McDonalds.

When I went to McDonalds, same thing. No list of what they sell, just five gigantic pictures of their extra value meals. I went up to the counter. “Do you have a menu somewhere I could look at?” I asked. “No, unfortunately, we don’t,” she said.

A restaurant without a menu! The concept had never occurred to me. I guess they just assume that their customers have been there before, and already know exactly what they want, and don’t care how much any of it costs.

Everywhere I went in Sweden, I started noticing the same thing. Buses, subways, airports, grocery stores, convenience stores…a sort of implicit assumption that everybody already knows how their crazy system works. (And trains. Don’t get me started on how horrible it is to interact with the Swedish Railway system.) Every time I tried to ask for help, I got snippy answers from annoyed customer service agents. “Of course, you can’t buy that kind of subway ticket from me, a subway employee, here in this booth at the subway station gates where I sell many other kinds of subway tickets to many other subway customers, you have to go next door into the convenience store to buy that kind of ticket. Don’t you know anything, you idiot?” they said with their tone of voice if not their actual words.

When I complained to my wife about how unhelpful these people are, she said she never experiences that in Sweden. “But I always ask in English. Why don’t you try asking in English yourself next time?”

So I started doing exactly that. Even though I can speak Swedish quite fluently, for the rest of the trip, whenever I needed any customer service at all, I asked in English instead of Swedish. And…magic! All of a sudden, people were quite nice to me! “Of course, I’ll help you, you poor dumb American who has never seen or experienced our advanced civilization before, I’d be happy to help you navigate through the finer details of our wonderfully efficient system.”

I’m sure these Swedish organizations sure are indeed efficient, from point of view of the organization, not the customer. But this organizational efficiency can exist only because Swedish culture tolerates it. As a Swede, you are expected to conform to the way things are organized. If Swedes had a more confrontational and unconformist culture instead of a consensus-driven one, these unfriendly user experiences would have to change, because the confrontations would start costing them too much.

* * *

When I want cheap furniture that I can pick up today and bring home with me immediately, nobody is better than that than IKEA. They are masters at packing large furniture into small flat, car-sized boxes at low prices. As Clayton Christensen points out in his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?”:

It’s fascinating that in forty years, nobody has copied IKEA. Think about that for a second. Here is a business that has been immensely profitable for decades. IKEA doesn’t have any big business secrets–any would-be competitor can walk through its stores, reverse-engineer its products, or copy its catalog … and yet nobody has done it.

I wonder if would-be competitors walk through IKEA’s stores and get as confused as the customers. They somehow think that the whole key to IKEA’s success is this overwhelming, confounding customer experience. Potential competitors can’t understand it or imagine how to replicate it, so they don’t bother.

The customer doesn’t hire IKEA because they want a confusing experience. They hire IKEA because the job to be done is cheap furniture which can be easily transported home. A confusing customer experience isn’t necessary, it’s just happens to be that way, because it’s more efficient for IKEA to do it that way, because Swedish culture let such unusual operational processes grow into being.

But there’s no reason that someone can’t create a furniture company focused on low prices, transportability AND a pleasant customer experience. The potential is lurking there under the surface, like a clerk waiting to be asked a question in English instead of in Swedish.

On Motivation, and the 47%

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has a thought experiment on his blog today. He wonders: what would we do if there was a drug that could increase human motivation? Adams writes:

As a practical matter, it might be cheaper and easier to tweak the motivational chemistry of people who are in bad circumstances instead of trying to fix their circumstances and hope that’s enough to stimulate their natural motivation.

I don’t want to pick on Adams’ essay too much, because it’s a thought experiment, not a serious proposal. But on the other hand, it’s an instructive example to use, because it shows some of the mistaken assumptions we make about human motivation.

Yesterday, I said that I wanted to read Clayton Christensen’s new book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” So I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle, and began reading. And coincidentally enough, Christensen spends an early chapter talking about the latest scientific understanding of human motivation, specifically in regards to the workplace.

The basic misunderstanding that Christensen points out is that most people assume there is a single scale of job satisfaction that looks something like this:

satisfaction
dissatisfaction

But it turns out job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are two completely unrelated things. You can be both satisfied and dissatisfied with your job at the same time. There are actually two scales, not one, that look more like this:

absence of dissatisfaction
dissatisfaction

and

satisfaction
absence of satisfaction

The reason for this, Christensen explains, is that dissatisfaction comes from external influences. Things that cause dissatisfaction are things like an unsafe work environment, not having the right tools to do the job, bad relationships with colleagues and managers, and low or unfair pay. Fredrick Herzberg, a leading researcher on motivation theory, called these things “hygiene factors”.

An impure, or “unhygienic”, work environment makes us dissatisfied. But a pure environment doesn’t make us satisfied. Satisfaction is internal, and it arises from the relationship between the individual and the work. Do you have responsibility over what happens? Is the work challenging? Are you improving? Is the work important? As I mentioned the other day, Daniel Pink calls these motivators “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”

So there’s a function in the brain where “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” are the inputs, and motivation is the output. Can you replace that input with a chemical, and still get motivation as an output? That seems unlikely to me. The input isn’t a mere chemical, it’s a complex set of biological wires.

But whatever — that’s science fiction. What matters is this: even if you could fix motivation with a pill, you still wouldn’t have fixed demotivation, because that’s a completely separate thing. If you want to lift people up, you can’t just make them or tell them or teach them to be more motivated. That’s only half the equation. You also have to fix the external factors that are demotivating them at the same time.

And maybe if we had a two-party system that worked, the party that wants to tell people that they should be more internally self-motivated could work together with the party that wants to fix all the external factors that demotivate people, and we could actually get something done around here.

Old Playbooks, New Playbooks

My mom lives in Sweden, but she worked in the US for 10 years, so she qualifies to get a small little Social Security check each month. When I talked to her on the phone the other day, she complained that she wasn’t getting a very good exchange rate anymore. “That’s because you live in pretty much the only country on earth whose government hasn’t screwed up their economy,” I said. The relative health of the Swedish economy versus the rest of the world makes the Swedish crown stronger and worth more. When she tries to buy Swedish crowns with her US Dollars now, she doesn’t get as much as she used to.

Then we talked a bit about the American elections. I’m finding this year’s elections mostly uninteresting. Romney is trying (not too successfully) to stick to the narrative that Obama has screwed up the economy. I can agree that the US economy has been mishandled, but at the same time, I find that everyone else’s economy around the world (save Sweden’s) has been mishandled, too, and most of them have been mishandled far worse than America’s. I wouldn’t trade America’s economy right now for Europe’s. Or China’s — they’ve got a real estate bubble that’s probably going to burst soon just like ours did in 2008.

So America isn’t doing so well — but the competition is worse. That kinda makes us like a young athlete who is playing in a league that he’s too good for. He doesn’t have to work to improve; it seems pretty safe to just use his same old tricks to win the game he’s playing today. He’s not challenged by outside competition to innovate. And so I see both political parties are pretty much sticking to the same old playbooks they’ve used since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. There are really no new ideas in this election.

I feel, though, that these playbooks are almost all used up. Each party is very near to getting what they have fought hardest for during my lifetimes. When the Democrats finally get gay marriage and universal healthcare on the books, which will probably happen if Obama wins, what will they want next? When the Republicans finally get taxes down as far as they can realistically go, and they’re pretty darn close, what’s their plan beyond that? I don’t see anything. It just looks like trench warfare in America to me after that, pushing the lines six inches here, six inches there, but not really getting anywhere new.

Which is fine, as long as the rest of the world stagnates along with us.

I worry, though, that the technology of the 21st century is producing a tectonic shift in economics itself. These sorts of disruptive technological shifts can punish the old guard who are too slow to change, and create new winners out of those who are less invested in an old way of doing things.

I’ll give some examples of what I mean. Here’s a talk by Daniel Pink about the what the latest science tells us about human motivation:

 

The interesting thing there is that basic carrot-and-stick economics–pay someone more if he does a good job–works remarkably well as motivation if the task is mechanical and/or routine. Those types of tasks formed the large majority of jobs all throughout human history, until the invention of the personal computer.

What has the computer done to those types of jobs? They’ve taken them over. If a job is repetitive or routine or algorithmic, a computer can now do that job cheaper and more effectively than a human being. So human beings have to move on to other types of jobs.

What types of jobs are those? Jobs that require human creativity and complex cognitive thought. And these are precisely the jobs where Daniel Pink points out that monetary rewards suppress productivity instead of enhancing it.

What does it do to the science of economics when higher monetary rewards suddenly start resulting in lower productivity? How do you design economic policy around that? The old playbooks that our political parties use now don’t address that question. Those old playbooks assume carrots and sticks always work. And they did work just fine, up until the time that you could fit a whole network of supercomputers in your pocket.

Computers also affect basic economics by ruining the supply/demand ratio. Throughout human history, up until the computer, anything of an economic nature that was made or done, was done in an environment of scarcity. Anything you can think of, there was a finite, limited supply of that thing. But now, thanks to computers, you can make 7 billion copies of this blog entry with barely any extra added cost to you at all. Scarcity does not exist in a digital environment. Supply is infinite.

This goes beyond just digital media. It affects other areas of human endeavor, like education. Our education system is designed around the concept that information is scarce, and it needs to be transferred from teacher to student, in order to prepare them for adulthood. But now, information is not scarce, students can acquire as much of it as they like for practically nothing. The jobs today’s kids will have when they grow up will not depend at all on what information they have, but on their skills in manipulating an infinite supply of information in creative new ways. How do we set up our educational institutions to function in a world of information plenty?

And soon, as 3D printers become more and more ubiquitous, scarcity will become a thing of the past for many physical objects, as well. What does that do to the manufacturing industry? What kind of policies do we need to manage that transition?

I have no answers to these questions. Neither do any of today’s political parties or candidates. It’s too new, too strange, and there’s not really a competitive threat that is forcing them to try to figure any of this out.

But at some point, if we Americans don’t at least start asking ourselves these new questions instead of re-asking the same old ones, some upstart countries will. And when the upstarts ask themselves these questions, at least one of them will be a Billy Beane-type who figures out some good answers, and moves his little country from an afterthought to a powerhouse. If we’re serious about winning the 21st century like we did the 20th, we should work hard to Moneyball them before they Moneyball us. Otherwise, we’ll wake up one day as the stodgy old rich team needing to scramble to catch up, wondering what happened to the good old days when America did things better than everyone else almost as a mechanical routine, without needing a second thought.

The American Economy, in Half a Sentence

Sam Miller gets my nomination for Sentence Fragment of the Year, for this line in a hilarious piece of baseball satire:

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts: … and that’s how I diced up Alfonso Soriano’s contract, bundled it with other toxic assets, and sold it to public employee pension funds.

I love how that line so concisely skewers both the left and right side of the political aisles for their roles in the current screwed up state of our economy.

…and it’s not even a full sentence!

* * *

I’m beginning to think that the future of politics will be like the future of warfare where people won’t fight people anymore; one side’s robots fights the other side’s robots, and whoever’s robot wins, wins.

In politics, each side hires sabermetricians, and the sabermetricians argue each other to the death before they proceed further. People in politics will have to know how to defeat a sabermetrician in an argument, otherwise they’ll suffer the fate of (oxymoron alert) poor Warren Buffett, running into a uppercut from Phil Birnbaum.

* * *

And speaking of baseball and pension funds, Moneyball author Michael Lewis has a new piece in Vanity Fair called “California and Bust.” In it, he interviews San Jose mayor Chuck Reed. I assume when Lewis met Reed they discussed San Jose’s attempt to woo the A’s, but nothing on that topic appeared in the article. The whole article made me pessimistic that any city anywhere in the country could afford to actually get a stadium built for the A’s, but heck, what do I know? Maybe that’s what’s taking Bud Selig so long to decide the A’s fate; it takes time to find a city that can dice up the stadium costs, bundle them with some toxic assets, and sell them back to Wall Street to complete the circle.

Innovation Pickiness

Neal Stephenson has written an essay called Innovation Starvation, about how we don’t seem to be able to get big stuff (like going to the moon) done anymore.

It was interesting, but from my perspective, it seemed off target, for a couple of reasons.

1. Is the premise true?

OK, so we’re not going to the moon, or Mars. But does that mean we’re not doing big things? To me, the web, Google, Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and such…those are all Big Things. They are all recent high-tech developments that have significantly changed the world we live in. But because they emerged from the wilderness of an unplanned economy instead of some Big Pre-Planned Project, they don’t count as Big Things? I don’t buy that.

2. Does competitive knowledge really reduce innovation?

Stephenson offers this scenario:

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried.

I have indeed witnessed something like that. What I haven’t witnessed is the existence of patents or competitors stopping very many people from moving forward on an idea. Patents can be worked around. Competitors don’t matter if you have access to a market that you think you can exploit first, by leveraging existing relationships with customers or vendors that you already work with. Case in point: the 100 gazillion Groupon clones out there.

So I would disagree that information from the Internet is stifling innovation. On the other hand, I would argue that the success of the Internet is causing certain kinds of innovation to be preferred over others. Innovators these days love the idea of companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter because if a company like that hits it big, they can create gargantuan results with very little capital. Just hire a handful of programmers and: Kaplowie!  Riches galore.

Yes, I’ve sat around tables and thrown around ideas. And every time I’ve thrown around a business idea that involved human beings interacting with other human beings, instead of computers interacting with computers, I’ve been politely ignored. Because there’s no Kaplowie!  when humans are involved. That takes hard work, and who wants to get rich doing hard work, when you could get rich with all this low-hanging Kaplowie!  fruit that still seems to be hanging around to be plucked?

So I don’t think that we’re being starved of innovation so much as we’re experiencing a temporary kind of pickiness. But when things (like innovation investment) cluster in one place, it creates holes in another. Somewhere out there in the business world, there’s a Billy Beane waiting to exploit the gaps in the business ecosystem that are being created by current investment preferences.

What Does a Viable Third Party Look Like?

I want to run a thought experiment. It’s regarding the discussion going on in the blogosphere about third parties, started by a recent New York Times column from Tom Friedman:

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.

Soon after Friedman’s column came out, former George W. Bush political advisor Mark McKinnon confirmed that there were indeed such third-party machinations going on behind the scenes. He published his centrist manifesto as a bit of a preview.

This being the blogosphere, there were also plenty of debunkings of the third party concept, led by Brendan Nyhan. And David Frum makes this point:

But to create a credible alternative, alienated Democrats and Republicans will have to rally around reforms that can make a positive difference to the great American majority – beginning with realistic ideas to accelerate economic growth, generate jobs, and raise incomes. That’s the abandoned ground of American politics, the true No Man’s Land. But there’s no need to wait for a third party to claim that ground. It’s there, waiting, for a Republican party that can liberate itself from the screamers and the haters, and rediscover its tradition of affirmative governance.

All of which is fine. I’m not going to quibble about any particular policy ideas here, or whether there are structural obstacles to a viable third party. But there’s one point that I feel is missing from the debate, which is basically the same point I made in my last blog entry about marketing a statistical approach to baseball. So again, I’ll leave it to Steve Jobs, talking back in 1996 about marketing Apple, to explain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product.

Steve Jobs’ point is this: explaining how MacOS is better than Windows won’t sell Macs. Explaining how milk is healthier than soda won’t sell milk. That’s not how effective marketing works.

Similarly, your Third Party can have all the right policies, they can have the best manifesto ever written, explaining how its policies are clearly better than those of the Democrats and Republicans, but if it doesn’t form a deep emotional connection between the Third Party’s core values and the core values of basic, ordinary Americans, it will fall flat.

In fact, this is probably why the Tea Party movement has resonance. There are no coherent policies. It’s all about the emotional connection.

But to be truly great and successful brand in the long run, you have to have both: great products AND that emotional connection to a clear set of values.

* * *

I’m an engineer, so when I get curious about an idea, I like to start with the question, “What does it look like?” Then once we have a general idea of what we want, we build a prototype. So let’s do that.

What does a viable Third Party look like? Following Jobs’ advice, we have to approach that question by asking, what are its core emotional values? Being “radically centrist” or “restoring sanity” doesn’t really resonate emotionally with me at all. To compare, let’s look at the core values we already know work, from the Declaration of Independence:

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.

This to me is the biggest problem of the viability of a third party in America. This frickin’ brilliant sentence is THE statement of American values. The sentence is divided into two basic halves: the first declaring equality as a core value, the second declaring liberty as a core value. And probably as a natural result, we have two main political parties in America, one which at its core defends and promotes equality (Democrats), and another which at its core defends and promotes liberty (Republicans). The reason a third party like the Libertarians can’t take hold is that they’re competing for a very similar core value with a much bigger competitor.

A viable third party needs to somehow promote and defend a different core value, one that’s not represented in that sentence. But what?

* * *

I’m sure there are probably several candidates for such an alternative value, but I can really only think of decent one. It is represented by this speech by General George Patton:

When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players.

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

The weakness here is that this values statement isn’t explicitly spelled out in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. We can argue that our competitive character is implicit in the Constitution: the First Amendment basically sets up a structure where every idea–whether political, economic or religious–is forced to constantly compete in a free marketplace of ideas, without end. It is that very competitive nature which has driven America to triumph in the past, and can again.

Since we’re just prototyping, we don’t have to get it exactly right, so let’s go with it. This is something that we Americans do feel in their guts. We love to compete. We hate to lose. We want to kick ass.

OK, so we have our prototype’s core value: we’re emotionally committed to focusing on figuring out how to help our communities, our states and our country WIN in a competitive world. We believe in the virtues of fair competition. And we want the BEST everything: economy, military, schools, security, health, roads, space program, air, water, marble players — anything we can compete in we want to compete hard, and compete to win.

* * *

Now, let’s make up some sort of rationalization for this. Why do we need a party like this, and why now?

Americans don’t feel like they’re kicking ass anymore. Why not? Well, partly because we kicked ass in the past. Before, we took our free-market democracy and smashed those Fascists and Nazis in World War II, and then we wore down and wiped out those Communists and Socialists during the Cold War. And we turned all those countries we defeated into countries like us: free-market democracies.

The question for the 20th century was whether free markets and democracies are better than planned economies and totalitarian governments. That’s settled, we won, it’s no longer the issue. But our current politics, with its focus on the left-right axis, still acts like those old issues are still the new ones.

Instead, the real questions for the 21st century are ones like, what is the most effective form of democracy? What is the best way to manage a free market? And how do we set up a system which gets us to the optimal solutions faster than our competition? If we want to compete and win the 21st century like we did the 20th, then we need to be focusing on these questions. And the current two parties, by naturally focusing so much energy on their own core values of freedom and equality, often take their eyes off the ball that’s currently in play. And when we lose our focus, we let our competition catch up to us.

* * *

All right, now that we’ve got some fake reason for its fake existence, what do we call this prototype party? The old Raiders fan in me suggests the “Just Win Baby Party”, but that’s a bit presumptuous. Especially for a third party which, at the start, is more likely to lose than win. So I’m going to suggest the “Competitive Party”.

* * *

Finally, we need to figure out what an actual Competitive Party product looks like. How do we approach coming up with solutions when we begin our thought process from this core value? What kind of policies emerge when we think this way? Does the end product look different from either of the other two parties? Maybe we can debate those questions in the comments here, and then I’ll draft up some sort of prototype platform in my next post.

That Was Burgundy, This is Teal

You know that dramatic cliché where the main character is trying to solve a problem, and some other character says something completely unrelated to the problem, and the main character goes, “Aha!” and solves the problem?  I’m beginning to think that’s not just some artificial plot device abused to death by the writers of House.  As I’m working on trying to spell out my own personal philosophy, I’m starting to find solutions to the questions I’m wrestling with in completely unrelated places.

So along those lines, I finally got around to watching Battlestar Galactica: The Plan yesterday.  I wasn’t watching it as an exercise in philosophy, I watched it to enjoy one final dose of BSG, and to clear out my DVR before the Olympics start.  But as a half-flashback, half Star Trek-ish morality play, the story for me ended up being more philosophically thought-provoking than dramatically satisfying.  So I won’t dwell on the drama too much, but let’s provoke those thoughts.

I don’t think I’d be spoiling much to say the only thing you really learn about The Plan is that it doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy.  Like the US in Iraq, the Cylons thought that they’d just win quickly and be done with it, mission accomplished.  When instead it dragged on and on, they had to start improvising, and that’s when things get complicated.

Every philosophy begins as grand design, and then ends up bogged down in details.  In BSG: The Plan, nothing less than the survival of the whole human race is at stake, yet the plan eventually devolves into a debate about clothing styles.  Cylon model #1 (Cavil) complains that cylon model #5 (Doral) is dressing too similarly to another Doral clone.  Doral disagrees. “His jacket was burgundy. This is teal!” replies Doral, in all seriousness.

BSG: The Plan is essentially A Tale of Two Cavils, two cylon agents, both posing as priests, one copy on the Galactica, one back on Caprica.  Each Cavil ends up with a moral dilemma:  whether to remain loyal to The Plan, or to follow the path of compassion.  Compassion for the enemy can have fatal consequences for the plan.  But the brutality of a plan that lacks compassion can be utterly appalling.

This is the risk we take when we devote ourselves to a philosophy.  We can become so attached to a philosophy, to a plan, to a cause, that we detach ourselves from our humanity.  This is the very definition of evil: a lack of compassion.

If there is one thing in the Bible that I take to be true above others, it is this: compassion is mankind’s most important quality.  When Jesus was asked what we should do when our values conflict with each other, Jesus said, choose compassion:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:36-40

Above all, show compassion for the entirety of creation, and compassion for individual fellow humans.  It seems so simple in theory, but in practice, it’s not.  There’s a reason that the oldest human institutions, our religions, are designed in their ideal forms to promote human compassion. It’s that important, and yet also that prone to failure.  The procedural memory cells in our brains that dominate our normal behavior live or die on repetition.  We need to be reminded of compassion, to practice it, to make it a habit, or else it will too easily be drowned in the other details of our lives.

We saw this play out this very week with the earthquake in Haiti.  Where BSG is the mere fictional destruction of a civilization, the earthquake in Haiti is real.  That country has been destroyed by that earthquake.  For all practical purposes, there is nothing left there.  They have to start over from scratch.  They need help.

I can think of no event in my lifetime that more obviously calls for human compassion than the earthquake in Haiti.  The suffering is immense.  And yet, there were still people so devoted to their own plans that they could not see beyond their plans to focus on the compassion necessary.  Rush Limbaugh wasted no time turning the issue into a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama.  Meanwhile, Pat Robertson blamed the Haitians themselves for the earthquake.  Willpower bias, anyone?

Of course, perhaps I am guilty of the very same thing in the last few paragraphs, using the events in Haiti to further my own cause, too focused on my own details to see the whole picture in its entirety.  Is this sort of behavior inescapable, inevitable?  I don’t think so.  My philosophy will be different.  My philosophy will take our flaws into account.  My philosophy will acknowledge our competing and contradictory ideals. My philosophy will keep the big picture in focus.  My philosophy will not get so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that it forgets to be compassionate.  That was burgundy.  This is teal.

Slight Preference, Extreme Results

You have to look at philosophy from two levels: the individual, and the group. A slight preference at the individual level can result in extreme results when those slight preferences add up at the group level. Here’s an example of that mechanism in action:

In sports, you see this effect in amateur drafts all the time, particularly in baseball where draft picks can’t be traded. Let’s say a baseball team like the Oakland A’s values college players a mere 1% more than other teams do. The A’s may say and believe that they don’t reject high school players, but the effect of their slight preference is that they end up taking almost exclusively college players, simply because the high school players they prefer are all chosen ahead of them, and invariably when their turn to choose comes up, their highest ranked player just happens to be a college player.

In the NFL, where draft picks can be traded, you could create extra value for yourself if you know that you value players differently than others. The Oakland Raiders have a unique valuation on amateur talent, and nearly every year their selections are a complete surprise to those following conventional wisdom. Because their valuation system is so unique, they could probably create extra value for themselves by always trading down. The player they want will often still be available lower in the draft. Sadly for Raiders fans, the Raiders almost never do this.

In crafting a philosophy, we should be aware of this feature of group dynamics. Groups, moreso than individuals, tend to move either towards the middle, or to the extremes. In America, we see this in our politics. Most Americans are rather centrist, but the system of primaries to choose nominees attracts the more loyal partisans at either end of the political spectrum. So instead of a runoff between Candidate 40th-percentile vs Candidate 60th-percentile, our choices in the general election often ends up as Candidate 10th vs. Candidate 90th. The result is a legislature that is far more partisan than the general population, and is far more despised than it would seem necessary.

How do we keep a set of 60/40 preferences from unintentionally turning into 100/0 behavior, or for that matter, turning 80/20 preferences 50/50 behavior? It’s easy to blame the people involved for behaving badly (see my last article on Willpower Bias) and to argue “don’t do that, you bad people”. But it’s hard to change individual preferences, and especially hard when individual preferences are being affected by group dynamics. More often, the solution is to structurally reduce the amplification. In sports, enabling trades of draft picks at least makes it possible for teams to find more accurate values for their picks. In politics, open primaries or ranked voting systems would probably make the distribution of elected officials look more like the general population than the extremes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t possible benefits to 0-50-100 group behavior over the messier alternatives. But it’s hard to believe that this tendency will always yield optimal result. If the optimal solution lies at 33 or 67, we want the quickest, most effective way to hit that optimal result. Ping-ponging between the extremes may get us there in the end, but you have to think it would be better to move their directly if we can. Being fully aware of the differences between individual and group dynamics can help us find optimal solutions in an optimal manner.

Willpower Bias

This past weekend, I pulled out some crates so we could put away our Christmas ornaments.  My two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to pretend she was a Christmas present, and climbed into one of the crates.

“Close the lid,” she said.

I tried, but she didn’t fit.  “I can’t close it,” I said, “you’re too big.”

“Please?” she asked.

“You don’t fit,” I explained.  “Your head sticks out.  I can’t make you fit if you’re too big.”

“Please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

Two-year-olds see the world as entirely a function of their parents’ willpower. Anything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is because mommy and daddy want it that way—even whether or not a particular girl can fit into a particular box.

Of course, we get older and learn that the world is more complex than that, but that bias towards assuming the universe runs on willpower doesn’t completely go away. It’s built into our psychology, because of the very nature of human childhood.

And because it’s part of our psychology, this willpower bias also gets built into the very structures of our societies. Many of our religions believe a larger-scale version of the two-year-old’s assumption: that anything that happens is because God wants it that way. We see it in sports. We thank God if we win a sporting event, then say, “we didn’t want it enough” if we lose. We elect Presidents and Governors hoping for them to be parent-like and fix things through the force of their will. Every election cycle, we make them tell us over and over how they’re going to fix the economy, when in reality, they have very minimal influence on the economy. “Create jobs, please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

And even more insidiously, willpower bias is built into our languages. Consider these two sentences, one of the few examples where you can avoid willpower bias in the English language:

My arm was raised.

versus

My arm rose.

Raise, like many other verbs in the English language, assumes some sort of willpower behind it, causing the action. The implicit full sentence is “My arm was raised by somebody.”

Rise, on the other hand, differs from raise in one key way: it does not assume an agent behind the action. There may have been willpower causing the arm rise, or there may not have been. But by choosing the world rise over the word raise, we are deliberately excluding any information on whether an agent caused the action. In some other languages, you can take any transitive verb and render it agentless with a grammatical marker, but this isn’t possible in English.

If you think, “so what?” then imagine how we’d think of the world if the word “rise” did not exist in English. You could not say, “The sun rises every day”. You’d have to say, “The sun is raised every day.” Which naturally leads you to wonder, by whom? Copernicus? Carl Sagan? Apollo? God?

If we are choosing a philosophy, it would be good if that philosophy possessed the equivalent of that grammatical marker which the English language is missing. We want our philosophy to be able to distinguish between the forces that can and should be influenced by willpower, those which operate independently, and the various shades in between. We want to choose a philosophy that is as effective as possible, and doesn’t leave us crying “Please please PLEEEEEEASE” in vain.

Put on my Linking Cap

I’ve got a blog post that’s about 33% written, and every time I write more, it remains 33% written, because it just keeps growing, and I can’t figure out how to break it up into smaller parts.  So in the meantime, here’s some interesting links that don’t fit into the upcoming monster essay:

Americans are flexible about religious beliefs

Bible literalists are the squeaky wheels of American religion, and so they get a lot of attention.  But a large percentage of Americans personalize their religious beliefs, mixing elements of various philosophies and religions into their own.  Knowing this makes the quest I’m undertaking on this blog seem a little less lonely, if nothing else.

Orchids and Dandelions

Context matters.  Some genes expressed in the brain that may lead to criminal behavior in an abusive environment may also lead to beneficial creative behavior in a rich, loving environment.

Aging Brains

Older brains zoom in on the higher-level main idea, and ignore low-level details.  This has its benefits, but also drawbacks.  Can we train the older brain to pay attention to detail?

Should government take “pursuit of happiness” seriously as one of its primary goals?  Money quote:

Wherever I look, some simple patterns hold: A stable marriage, good health and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce and economic instability are terrible for it. On average, happier people are also healthier, with the causal arrows probably pointing in both directions. Finally, age and happiness have a consistent U-shaped relationship, with the turning point in the mid- to late-40s, when happiness begins to increase, as long as health and domestic partnerships stay sound.

Rooting Interests

Can you watch a sporting event dispassionately, without rooting for one side or another at all? I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. To some extent, I always end up picking sides. For me, it’s impossible to remain objective.

The curious thing is that I can’t help it. I don’t decide that I need to pick a team. I don’t go through some conscious, analytic process to choose a side. It just happens. Even if I try not to pick a side, I still pick a side. It’s subconscious, outside my willpower, and fully automatic.

Few of us choose our sports allegiances through some rational process. Does anyone believe that there exists some objectively “correct” team to root for? While one could probably invent some formula to calculate the “optimal” team to support, most of us would consider such a process silly and beside the point. The emotions, the pure irrationality of our fandom, is the whole point of the exercise.

On the other hand, philosophy feels different to us. We suspect that there exists, if not a single “correct” philosophy, a scale in which some philosophies are better than others. While we have no objections to letting our subconscious passions decide our rooting interests in sports, there’s a sense that when it comes to religion, politics or other types of philosophy, this same decision-making process is flawed.

And yet, can there be any doubt that for the vast, vast majority of people, the decision-making process for picking sides in both sports and philosophy is exactly the same? A large majority of us end up choosing the same religion as our parents, and the same political party. If we chose them by a purely objective process, you’d probably see a far weaker correlation between the people around us and the philosophies we choose.

Suppose we did want to choose a philosophy using some objective method. We’d need to avoid taking sides in advance, in order to avoid letting our prejudgments cloud our analysis. But when it came to sports, we found we usually can’t really help who we choose to root for. It just happens, subconsciously, automatically.

So here’s the big question: even if we want to avoid prematurely picking a philosophy to root for, can we? Is it humanly possible at all? We’ll explore that question next time.

And So To Fade Away

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

— Herman Melville

This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.

Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.

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Beer Run: How to Defeat a Sabermetrician in an Argument

I greatly enjoyed the recent smackdown between Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts and Buster Olney of ESPN regarding the Hall of Fame merits of Jim Rice. If I had to score the fight, I’d say Rich won the argument in a blowout. But I say this not because I think Lederer is necessarily right, but because Olney played the game poorly. Olney was like a fast-break basketball team that let itself get caught in a half-court battle. Lederer was able to dictate the terms, and Olney fell right into his trap.

When one competitor prefers a particular style of play, you can beat them in one of two ways: (1) you can play their style of play better than they do, or (2) you can change the game you play. *

*Permit me a brief Posnanskian aside here, on the eve of Super Tuesday: the current Democratic primary is an interesting contrast of these two choices. Remember back in the 80s how the Republicans changed the meaning of the word "liberal" so that it became a bad thing? How Carter, Mondale and Dukakis got labeled as wimpy and economically incompetent "tax-and-spenders", and just got their butts kicked? And then along came Bill Clinton, who figured out how to play the Republicans’ game better than the Republicans? Look, it’s a Democrat who can manipulate the meaning of words better than a Republican! A Democrat who blames the Republican for being economically incompetent! A Democrat with a mean streak! It’s like the Red Sox and the Yankees: neither one would ever admit it to themselves, but the reason they hate each other so much is that they’re so damn similar. So here’s Hillary Clinton now, playing that same old game, and like her husband, she’s really good at it. But along comes Barack Obama, who says, we’re tired of all this boring, low-post, half-court crap, we’re tired of Red Sox vs. Yankees all the time, we’re tired of the Bush vs. Clinton dynasties, there’s more to this game than just the two dominant teams, we’re playing a completely different game with a completely different point of view and we’re going to take the ball and just run and run and run up and down the court. And of course, Bill Clinton goes out and spouts off and tries to drag Obama into the half-court game of parsing words and defending the low post, and Obama tries his best to avoid it, but he can’t, completely, because if the other team is posting you up you still have to defend it. And so last week, after all this time trying to avoid the dynasty game, goes and makes a mid-season trade for a dynasty-type player (Ted Kennedy), to help him defend the low post. Anyway, this is all a big mixed metaphor that’s about to jump the shark off the deep end, but like the recent Super Bowl, I find the game to be surprisingly fascinating, and probably should be until the end.

Anyway, back to Lederer vs. Olney. The trap that Olney fell into was to let Lederer dictate that the argument must be based on statistical evidence. So Olney tries to say that OPS+ is misleading, RBIs were important at the time, blah blah blah, and deliberately avoided using "fear" in his argument. To all that, I say, phooey. If you’re not immersed and invested in statistical analysis, you’re not going to win a statistical argument against someone who is. You’re like that guy in that movie who pulls out a sword and proudly swishes it around, and Indiana Jones pulls out a gun and blows you away.

If you want to avoid falling into that trap, if you want to avoid becoming fodder for BTF and FJM mockery, you need to learn how to avoid the Sabermetrician’s weapons, and where to hit him where he is weakest. Welcome to your first lesson in Defense Against Deductive Arts.

To begin your study, consider this: what is the most important element of the following photograph: Elijah Dukes’ home run, or the beer?

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