Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Little Review of Google Fiber

I learned last April that Provo was getting Google fiber, and accordingly I set my calendar to kick Century Link to the curb in the fall of 2013. (Century Link had billed me incorrectly a few times, and I was excited to be done with them.)

It turns out that the announcement for fall 2013 wasn't at all accurate. We just got Google fiber yesterday (a full year after the announcement), and it seems that we're among the first groups in Provo to get it.


I can't complain.

I currently have a faster internet connection than I had with Century Link, and instead of paying $52.99 per month I'm paying $0 per month. I am not a math whiz, but even a non-whiz can see that this is a great getup.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

“Always enter into any discussion with the belief that there is a 50 percent chance you are wrong." - Quotes from Hey Whipple, Squeeze This

As I talked about in my last post, I've been reading a series of books about marketing. The one shown above (Hey Whipple, Squeeze This) takes the premise that an old commercial about squeezing Charmin toilet paper is catchy and obnoxious:

Well hey, it is!

Hey Whipple, Squeeze This asserts that advertising can be catchy and not murder your soul. Of course, achieving this balance is tricky. Here are some tips from the book on how to create great work:

“Always enter into any discussion with the belief that there is a 50 percent chance you are wrong. I mean, really believe in your heart that you could be wrong.”

“Extensive research has proven that extensive research is often wrong."

“Testing rewards commercials that are derivative because commercials that have a familiar feel score better than commercials that are unique, strange, odd, or new. The very qualities that can lift a finished commercial above the television clutter.”

“The product, the product, the product. Stay with the product.” - Bill Bernbach

“Ask yourself what would make you want to buy the product.”

That last one is simple, but every day I see ads that obviously overlook its advice.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Reading List of Marketing Books, With My Favorites In Italics

I've been digging into marketing/management books lately, with the goal of becoming an expert in the field. Here's what I've read so far this year. 

What should I add to the list?
101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising
The Guerilla Marketer’s Handbook
Hey Whipple, Squeeze This
Tested Advertising Methods
Confessions of an Advertising Man
Ogilvy on Advertising
The King of Madison Avenue
Scientific Advertising
Write On Target: The Direct Marketer’s Handbook
Writing That Works
Winning at the Sport of Business
Internet Marketing for Smart People
A Content Marketing Strategy That Works
How to Craft Compelling Copy
SPIN Selling
Steal Like An Artist
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
The Ultimate Sales Machine
How to Advertise
Show Your Work!

Currently Reading
Breakthrough Advertising
The Challenger Sale
The Everything Store

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I Went to Austin Kleon's Book Signing this Past Week, and He Persuaded Me to Start Blogging Again

Austin Kleon 
This is Austin Kleon. He's 30, and so am I. A few days ago he came to Salt Lake City and said something that struck me. He said that when you start to establish a presence online, you know that what you share isn't as good as what your artistic role models share. As a result, you sometimes stop sharing altogether. But what you should do is find the best stuff from your role models and share that. Then you're sharing top-rate stuff and developing a community all the while. 

Shine a light on your role models, he said, and then you can eventually share your own stuff.

This resonates with me because I want to share stuff online, but I consistently recognize that what I share isn't anywhere near the quality of the stuff I admire. Sharing content from my role models will give me the chance to shine the light consistently on top-quality content.

So, I'll start with this quote from Kleon's book, Show Your Work:

If you're in the very early stages, share your influences and what's inspiring you. If you're in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share works in progress. If you've just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned. If you have lots of projects out into the world, you can report on how they're doing—you can tell stories about how people are interacting with your work.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Three Languages of Politics, or: How To Not Get Mad When Discussing Big Issues

Arnold Kling's new book The Three Languages of Politics contains an idea I hope catches on.

Kling asserts that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians typically think about politics according to three different axes, or spectrums:

Oppressor/oppressed [naturally preferred by progressives] Civilization/barbarism [naturally preferred by conservatives] Freedom/coercion [naturally preferred by libertarians]

In other words:

Progressives primarily care about helping the oppressed, and they therefore can't fathom why other people would oppose something like gay marriage. 

Conservatives primarily care about maintaining the strictures of civilization, and they therefore can't fathom why someone would oppose banning late-term abortion.

Libertarians primarily care about freedom, and they therefore can't fathom why someone would oppose free markets.

Understanding Political Opponents

Kling's main point is that most of the time when we speak at cross purposes or get into heated political arguments, it's because we frame our political opponents in a way that they wouldn't frame themselves. In other words, we use a different axis than they do when talking about a political idea, and according to our axis our political opponents look like idiots.

We don't have to do this, though. Kling says that if we step back and see an issue as an opponent frames it, then we can better understand them, and they don't seem so ignorant.

It's a simple theory that opens up lots of possibilities. The first is that in light of the theory it doesn't make sense to be strictly progressive, conservative, or libertarian. Instead, it seems ideal to be open to the possibility that there are times when helping the oppressed is the best choice, or times when maintaining civilization is the best choice, or times when fighting for freedom is the best choice.

Additionally, it opens up the possibility for political opponents to discover commonalities. For instance, an issue like gay marriage can be framed as not only helping the oppressed, but also as supporting family values (i.e. civilization) and freedom. Once an issue is convincingly framed in light of all three axes like this, then it will likely overcome the status quo and be supported by a majority (just as gay marriage is supported by a majority in many places now).

Narratives That Exemplify the Three Languages

The theory can also help us understand how different narratives are framed, which can in turn help us better understand make use of the theory.

I'll start with Cloud Atlas, which is one of the most progressive narratives I've encountered. 

The story tells of oppressed people in six different time periods and places, ranging from mid-18th century England to tribal islands in the 24th century. In each case the central tension is oppressed vs. oppressor. (You can see an oppressor in the picture above looking down at his oppressed slaves in 22nd century Korea.)

"There is a natural order to this world," one of the oppressors says toward the end, "and those who try to upend it do not fare well." It's a key quote of the narrative, a warning that it's safer to adhere to the demands of established institutions than to buck against them. Of course, the heros in each time period don't listen, and they buck against the institutions anyway—something they're later admired for doing. 

The narrative takes the view, then, that the oppressed people of prior ages become the heros or gods of the next (mirroring Christ in Christianity, who was pitted against civilized Pharisees). It's a very progressive narrative. One that pits the oppressed against oppressors.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is a more conservative narrative, with a central tension of civilization (Batman) vs. barbarianism (the Joker). 

In this case, the villain isn't a long-established institution. Instead, he's an underground psycho, motivated solely by chaos, making statements like "the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules" and destroying the symbols of power and greed (piles of cash, for instance) that drive other villains.

What's more, Batman uses a surveillance apparatus to catch the Joker, and even though the movie doesn't reduce the message to "surveillance = good," libertarians likely balk that the apparatus is shown as useful in tracking the Joker and restoring order to Gotham.

It's a narrative where we root for the hero to return the people to civilization, a city without barbaric villains.

And of course a classic libertarian narrative is 1984, a story where the central tension is freedom vs coercion. The narrative is well known: the protagonist realizes that his government is totally coercive, and he desperately tries to break away and be free—even if it's just the freedom to think what he wants! And yet [spoiler alert] the coercive powers are too powerful.

The story that doesn't hide its message even a little bit. The heros are those who want freedom; the villains, those who are coercive.

So What? 

The point here is that people of all stripes enjoy these narratives and have no problem imaging these worlds centered on different axes. 
I mean, there are progressives, conservatives, and libertarians who admire all three stories. 

And so when it comes to storytelling most of us seem totally willing to buy into different ways of viewing the world. 
When we read a book like Cloud Atlas or watch a movie like The Dark Knight we typically don't have our political hat on, and we just enjoy the exploration of ideas and storytelling. 

But something happens when we start talking about politics. When we talk about politics we generally assume that the world functions only according to one axis (our own). Kling's point is that we should be more willing to imagine how each political issue falls along multiple axes, including oppressor/oppressed, civilization/barbarism, and freedom/coercion.

If we did that, I imagine we'd discover a truth very similar to this quote from Justin Freeman: "Your opponent in any debate is not the other person, but ignorance." And then political conversations would turn from a matter of so-called idiots talking at cross purposes with each other, and instead become something more productive. That's the hope, at least.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Coming of Age in the Aughts & the State of the Union

In much wisdom is much grief. - Ecclesiastes

It's better to be naive than jaded. - Jenny Holzer

Coming of Age in the Aughts

I first saw the smoking wounds of the World Trade Center buildings while sitting in a desk, first period,  my senior year of high school. In a word: bewildering. I stayed in the classroom after the bell rang, watching the TV, skyscrapers collapsing on repeat.

One month later, Enron fell—the largest bankruptcy in US history, an implicated president, the destruction of one of the largest accounting firms in the world.

War in Iraq and Afghanistan (the longest war in US history) followed swiftly, and almost every day in college I opened the paper and read about body counts in the Middle East. By now most Americans realizing what a waste those wars were.

Then, just as I'm graduating, the starkest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Bad markets, bad policy, billion-dollar bailouts ensue. The national debt nearly doubled. And a president-elect who said he ran to revamp the system demonstrated—to close out the decade—that although he said he'd like to change the corporate interests, he is in fact entirely in their pocket.

Ah, what a pity party! In reality, it's not so bad. After all, I've got a place to stay, enough to eat.

If I just hadn't followed the news, that siphon of sorrow, I would have no reason to be down about this American life. It's not so bad, I remind myself again. I go to the store, there's food. I have heat during winter. A car, a computer, family.

Nothing to complain about.

The State of the Union

Yes, it's not so bad. I believe that. And yet I can't ignore the events and characters in the backdrop of my life: the back and forth of war, Washington, and Wall Street. It's another world, almost fictional, affecting the psychology of my own.

Sometimes I think I should just ignore those problems entirely. But ignoring them would be the same as ignoring a chronic yet curable disease, wouldn't it?

The phrase I keep repeating to myself—"it's not so bad"—can be tremendously helpful for alleviating psychological pain, but it can also lead diseased people to avoid seeking a cure until it's too late.

You'll forgive me, then, I hope, for expressing what's eating me.

It's this: Part of me (should I call him J1?) wants to divest myself completely from worrying about the state of the union ("Let the union do what it will, I've got a life to live!"), but another part of me (J2?) says that if I don't try to something I will regret it deeply.

That second part of me is increasingly convinced that without substantive reform, conditions in my lifetime will deteriorate to something on par with the Great Depression, or something akin to contemporary Greece.

Here is my internal dialogue:

J1: This is where you start to lose me, riffing on about some global cataclysm and molotov cocktails. You've become a crotchety young man, a paranoid basement blogger, wanting so much to be right about your gloom that you're unable to see that America is still exceptional.

J2: That's what I'm afraid of.

J1: That America is still exceptional?

J2: No, I'm afraid of being crotchety. I don't want to die and have my description on my tombstone read: CROTCHETY. Nothing else.

J1: Well, then, stop worrying about some global meltdown. For one, there's no way you can know that it'll happen. For two, even if you could know, there's nothing you could do to prevent it.

J2: I know. I'm not saying it will happen. There is no way for me to know. We could see new leaders rise who haven't been bought by corporate interests, or we could see tremendous breakthroughs in science and ethics that take humanity into a new era of lasting peace. I'm only saying that the state of the union isn't looking good, a thought heavily colored by coming of age in the aughts and by the 2013 State of the Union address, wherein Obama conclusively proved to me that even in his second term he will do nothing serious about reforming the problem of money in politics or the rule of Wall Street in Washington.

J1: It's too early to tell...

J2: No it's not. Even you know that.

J1: Maybe. But here's what I have to say to you: Don't expect perfection. Don't worry about what you can't control. The aughts weren't as unique in their tragedy as you might think. Wars and economic fiascos face every generation. Don't think that these times are particularly bad.


And that's how it goes. It's better to be naive than jaded, I tell myself.

But one doesn't have to be naive OR jaded. There is another option: to act on knowledge in the hope of fixing the problem. Jaded = inaction. It means complaining at the TV about the problems rather than  trying to do your best to enact change. Educated activism can't be considered jaded, so long as the activist doesn't lose hope that reform is possible. I hope that's where I am now.

If you're interested in what worries me, I've created three posts that summarize a portion of my thoughts.

A timeline of derivatives fiascos
Financial crisis reading list

Also, a quote from Charles Ferguson

Like everyone, I'm worried that what little I can do will make no difference—or worse, that writing about these things will merely make people jaded or push them toward paranoia. That's not my intent. Sometimes I worry which is worse: doing something, or doing nothing.

But since I see a chronic yet curable disease,  I want to do something to help heal it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why We Should Be Using Nassim Taleb's Neologism, Antifragile

Nassim Taleb has coined a useful word, antifragile—a word that will be permanently lodged in our lexicon. 

Here's how to explain it. When you send a box of glasses in the mail, you write fragile on the box. When you send something robust, you write nothing. So robust isn't the opposite of fragile, as some might suppose. The opposite of fragile is something that gets stronger when it's broken—something antifragile. 

It's a useful word for many reasons, but I'm primarily interested in how it applies to politics because it allows us to bypass many typical (boring) partisan arguments about whether regulation is inherently good or bad. 

Taleb starts with the premise that we will never eliminate volatility (i.e. Black Swan events, or random unforeseen changes). From that premise it follows that we should only pass regulations which will make the economy more antifragile (that is, stronger after the inevitable future volatility).

That may sound simple-minded, but the implications are important. For instance, this rule of thumb would eliminate endlessly complicated regulation like the Dodd-Frank Act (which may eventually sprawl to 30,000 pages of rules—creating loopholes ripe for cronyism), but it would leave open the possibility for simple, market-wide regulations like breaking up the banks, or banning credit-default swaps.

In other words, an antifragile economy is one that implements
 only regulations that aren't needlessly complex, don't pick winners and losers, and never add hosts of bureaucrats. By this token an antifragile economy also favors diverse, simple, small and medium-sized governments over the concentrated hive of bureaucrats that Washington has become. (Taleb's uses early America and Switzerland as models to follow, and I agree.)

What's more, an antifragile economy is full of entrepreneurs and small/medium-sized businesses instead of megacorporations. We know that entrepreneurs fail frequently, over and over, but each failure makes the future economy stronger as it quickly learns from their/our mistakes (thus, it's antifragile). This is the opposite of "too big to fail," a system where each recurring failure weakens the future economy for years to come, with losses spilling over to unrelated parties (i.e. taxpayers).

So here's a word that breaks the pro-regulation/anti-regulation dichotomy: antifragile. It provides us with a useful rule of thumb, a new and better way to frame debates about the intersection of business and government. It's a word we should start using.

Here's a link to an interview with Taleb from a year ago that I've listened to (perhaps embarrassingly?) more than half a dozen times. You can get a feel from the interview about whether you'd like the book (which is divisive and admittedly off-putting to some people).

Monday, January 07, 2013

Why I'm Terrified--and Hopeful!--about America's Financial Future

This morning I discovered a quote (pictured above) from an economics professor at Stanford, Anat Admati, and Martin Hellwig, director of the Max Planck Institute.

It's startling, the way these two professors flatly claim we shouldn't believe that things are better now than they were prior to the recent financial crisis. And while I'm sure people could quibble about details, I couldn't agree more with the quote's general assertions.

I say that because recently I've been involved in a terrifying project—helping out at I've read through the reading list (which is by no means enough to qualify me as an expert on the ever-complicated financial crisis), and I've generated the site's content. As a result, I'm strung between a sense of terror and hope.

The conclusion I've come to (unsurprisingly?) is that our financial is fragile, and that the 21st century could repeat the early 20th century, bringing with it a second Great Depression.

But I also have hope. There are enough good and smart people in America that we can solve these problems. We'll just have to drop old ways of thinking.

Old way of thinking:

Republican: "If the government would just get out of the way and not load us with burdensome regulation, then we'd finally see real market growth."

Democrat: "If we'd just had more regulation in the markets, then we would have avoided the financial crisis and we'd be in good economic shape."

To get more specific, the choice seems to have been—speaking generally—between no regulation at all vs. regulation like the 800 pages of the Dodd-Frank Act (an act which could eventually grow to include 30,000 pages of rules).

That old dichotomy needs to go away.

We need government to reign in potential excesses of industries that can negatively affect taxpayers. But we don't need 30,000 pages of rules to do it. Indeed, Matt Taibbi, in his newest take-down of the megabanks, says that the Kansas Fed found that these Wall Street banks are so enormous that "it would take 70,000 examiners to inspect such trillion-dollar banks with the same level of attention normally given to a community bank." What a mess.

I plan to keep writing on this topic. What I mean to say (and I hope it sparks conversation) is that we need regulation but we don't need thousands of pages of it, or thousands of regulators.

Regulation that counters fragility—a limit on bank size, capital requirements, safeties against exotic derivatives—doesn't necessarily require thousands of bureaucrats.

The solution isn't being presented by either political party, but it can be presented by the people. I think (hope) we'll do it.

*If you want to understand what's going on in the financial industry right now this month's cover story from the Atlantic and the latest from Taibbi are two good populist-minded places to start.

Flickr image from othermore

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guns, Tragedy, and Team Politics

Did you know that not everywhere on earth has frequent school shootings?

Here are the number of school shootings since 1999's Columbine tragedy. 

United States: 31
Rest of the world: 14

See the interactive version of the map here.

People talk about American exceptionalism as though it's always a good thing, but on this issue we're exceptional in the most twisted way possible, and we had better reform quickly. The frequency of the shootings is on the rise.

What's our problem?

People say that if we were just nicer to shy people, just said "hi" more frequently, then these killers wouldn't do what they've done. My response to that is: Look at Russia on the map above. You think Russia's a land of remarkably happy, smiley teenagers? I haven't been there, but I have my doubts.

Of course, being nicer would help. I'm only claiming that niceness alone won't solve our problem.

To be honest, I don't know what exactly will solve our problem.

But I do know that team politics isn't helping. In reaction to these tragedies, people choose a political team, and then they play the "either/or" game, just like sports teaches them to do. There's little nuance in sports, after all. It's one team vs. another, with the fans deciding before the game who to cheer and who to boo.

Likewise after every major tragedy, people line up according to their pre-chosen alliances.

"The problem isn't a lack of gun control; it's the crazy news coverage."
"The problem isn't the crazy news coverage; it's Hollywood."
"The problem isn't Hollywood; it's video games."
"The problem isn't video games; it's lack of mental health facilities."
"The problem isn't a lack of mental health facilities; it's American culture."
"The problem isn't American culture; it's a lack of gun control."

Why does the debate have to be a matter of either/or? Why can't the starting point be: There's good reason to believe that each of these things is playing a role in our problem, and I'm willing to judge the importance of each point according to the evidence I find rather than according to the team I belong to.

To solve our problem, I would start by looking at the data in the map above and then finding what is different about the United States. Do we have more sensational news coverage? Do we have more relaxed gun laws? Is our mental health coverage worse? 

I'd guess the answer to most of those questions is: Yes.

So I'm willing to fight passionately for all of the above. Got a good idea for how to get the news to tone things down? Let's try it. Got a good list of ways to improve mental health facilities? I'll fight for it. Know some ways to improve gun laws? Yes!

Unfortunately, what happens too often is that the teams end up canceling each other out. So we don't get mental health reform or gun control reform, and when the next school shooting happens we're still saddened, but less surprised.

Why not break from the "either/or" game and say something like, "I think that gun control is the primary issue, but I'm willing to join you in the fight for mental health reform, too"?

Monday, November 26, 2012

This section from INSIDE JOB keeps playing in my head as Obama gears up for a second term

Have you seen Inside Job yet? I recommend it. 

Though it waxes sensational at times, overlooks Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and neglects to critically analyze Barney Frank and George Soros, it's an amazing film.

Lots of interviews with smart people, plus an astonishing narrative. I've seen it 4 times.

Here's the section that talks about appointments in Obama's first term.


NARRATOR: After taking office, President Obama spoke of the need to reform the financial industry.

BARACK OBAMA: We want a systemic-risk regulator; increased capital requirements. We need a consumer financial protection agency; we need to change Wall Street’s culture.

NARRATOR: But when finally enacted in mid-2010, the administration’s financial reforms were weak; and in some critical areas, including the rating agencies, lobbying, and compensation, nothing significant was even proposed.

ROBERT GNAIZDA: Addressing Obama and, quote, regulatory reform: my response, if it was one word, would be: Ha!

There’s very little reform.


ROBERT GNAIZDA: It’s a Wall Street government.

NARRATOR: Obama chose Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary. Geithner was the president of the New York Federal Reserve during the crisis, and one of the key players in the decision to pay Goldman Sachs 100 cents on the dollar for its bets against mortgages.

ELIOT SPITZER: When Tim Geithner was testifying to be confirmed as Treasury secretary, he said, I have never been a regulator. Now that said to me, he did not understand his job as president of the New York Fed.

{Timothy Geithner declined to be interviewed for this film.}

NARRATOR: The new president of the New York Fed is William C. Dudley, the former chief economist of Goldman Sachs, whose paper with Glenn Hubbard praised derivatives.

Geithner’s chief of staff is Mark Paterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman; and one of the senior advisors is Lewis Sachs, who oversaw Tricadia, a company heavily involved in betting against the mortgage securities it was selling.

To head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Obama picked Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive who had helped ban the regulation of derivatives.

To run the Securities and Exchange Commission, Obama picked Mary Shapiro, the former CEO of FINRA, the investment-banking industry’s self-regulation body.

Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, made 320,000 dollars serving on the board of Freddie Mac.

Both Martin Feldstein and Laura Tyson are members of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. And Obama’s chief economic advisor is Larry Summers.

ELIOT SPITZER: The most senior economic advisors are the very people who were there, who built the structure.

WILLEM BUITER: When it was clear that Summers and Geithner were going to play major roles as advisors; first, uh, I knew this was going to be status quo.

NARRATOR: The Obama administration resisted regulation of bank compensation, even as foreign leaders took action.


This section of the screenplay explains the reason I created a petition, which is (slowly) gaining traction, on the WH petition page. You can sign it here, if you'd like.

Full screenplay 
here. Official site here.

You can borrow the DVD from me anytime, or you can look it up on Vimeo. However, I'm not sure whether the producer, Sony Classics, endorses the fact that it's on Vimeo, so I won't link to it.