Politics and people

I’ve noticed I seem to have a different take on politics and people than most people do. I think there are a few books that I’ve read which have shaped my thinking. I wasn’t necessarily trying to learn about politics when I read them, I didn’t read them in any specific order, and they’re not really political books either. The ideas in them just seem to come up a lot.

The first book is Society of the Spectacle, which is a mind-blowing book. It was written in 1967. I don’t read French, so I read the English translation. It’s the sort of book where you make it through a sentence and you genuinely have to stop and think about what you read, not just because the ideas themselves are interesting, but you constantly have to stop and think about how it was written in 1967 and you think about the past 50+ years. There’s a digested version if you want.

Society of the Spectacle practically predicts social media, Instagram, cable news, “fake news”, and more. I think it goes beyond that in predicting things we can’t see like the phenomenon of clickbait headlines, information/filter bubbles, and addictive technology like that described in Hooked (and also predicting the followup, Indistractable). I think it’s worth really considering how these things affect politics and how we talk with each other as a nation.

On the “fake news” subject, Amusing Ourselves to Death nails it. I read this in 2003, and I know this because I liked the book so much that I looked up the author, Neil Postman, only to find out that he had died the week before. It’s never cool to find out about a new band right before they break up.

If you’ve spent any amount of time thinking about fake news and the problems with entertainment-as-news, you should read Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s similar to Society of the Spectacle, but is much easier to read.

This next one isn’t exactly a book, but more of a subject area: Semiotics. This is some of the most mind-bending stuff of all. The official explanation is that semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, but this doesn’t do it justice. The best way I can explain it is that it’s about how Sherlock Holmes sees the world. It’s almost like a book that’s not about the meaning of things, but how things could mean anything in the first place.

I think semiotics is a foundation for Society of the Spectacle and Amusing Ourselves to Death. Knowing how we create meaning for ourselves seems useful in thinking about how the media affects us. I personally bought an introductory textbook, but there could be better books out there. For me, a big part of the point is about how people interpret the same thing differently, which happens all the time in politics. It seems to require a very careful separation of opinions and facts, and semiotics seems like a way to unwind these.

Onto a different subject with Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s a book written by psychologists that won a Nobel Prize in Economics. That’s like winning in two sports at the same time — not easy. I think it even dips into being a sociology book in a way with discussions about what the authors call WYSIATI — our brains do a bad job at remembering, and I think this is worth keeping in mind when thinking inside our own heads, as well as when dealing with other people as individuals and as groups.

Another sort-of-a-book-but-really-a-subject recommendation is systems thinking. I personally read a book called Thinking in Systems, which covered the subject from an environmental angle, but is really useful when thinking about social programs and how we should think about trying to change things.

I’ll end this with one of my favorite things Obama ever said. This is solid, level-headed advice.

“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Mr. Obama said.

“And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,” he continued. “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.”

“You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment,” he said.


Biden on judgement

When the subject of Trump came up aboard Air Force Two, Biden referred to a well-worn story about how, as a freshman senator, he saw Jesse Helms, the archconservative North Carolina Republican, ripping into a piece of disabilities legislation. Biden was furious about it and began attacking Helms to Mike Mansfield, the Democratic Senate majority leader. Puffing on his pipe, Mansfield asked Biden if he knew that Helms and his wife had adopted a disabled 9-year-old boy no one else would take. “Question a man’s judgment, not his motives,” Mansfield instructed.

I wish to hell I’d just kept saying the exact same thing – Joe Biden

Hard Work

I think this is a great representation of the hard work that goes into producing great results, and the lengths that it takes. This guy is working on a commercial for cereal, and to make sure that it looks good for the camera, he’s sorting pieces of cereal by hand.

I think that more often than we realize, great results are a matter of working hard at the most obvious stuff. Do you want a bowl of cereal to look good? Then sort through a few boxes until you have enough great-looking pieces of cereal to make a bowl. There’s no genius-moment-of-inspiration here, there’s no clever trick…just hard work.

Sorting cereal for commercial shoot

Time management for fathers

This is for the dads out there…

I read Getting Things Done years ago, and it had an immediate impact on my life. One of the tips saved me so much time each day that I decided to work out the savings over the course of my life. I found that with this one tip, I would save over two years of my life, a number that surprised me.

If a doctor walked into a room and told you they had found a drug that would, with no side effects, give you an extra two years of quality life, they would be hailed as a hero the world around. As a result, I’m always keeping an eye out for ideas that might help me get a happier, healthier, and more productive life.

I recently had my first kid, and while being a father is awesome in many ways, a child does require a lot of time, especially in the first 5-6 years. I quickly found that there were some ways in which I wasn’t making the most of my time.

I want to clarify — I don’t mean “making the most of my time” in an unpleasant sense of “grinding maximum productivity out of every moment”. Sometimes making the most of time can include drumming, watching TV, going for walks, or playing games (have you seen the new Arkham Knight?). These things are considered by some to be wastes of time, although there is a material benefit to them if they bring you joy. Even Steve Jobs went home and sat in front of the TV.

Given that being a parent has many unique constraints, a new book caught my eye that seemed like it might be relevant to me. The thing that surprised me a bit was that it was a book written for women: I Know How She Does It.

To me, there are many similarities when it comes to women and men who are trying to be successful in business and in their personal lives, so I decided to read it. I’ve got to say, it’s worth a read, even for men.

Any sociologist will tell you there’s a difference between how people self-assess their own behavior when compared to a more objective measurement. This is what made me so interested in this book. The author, Laura Vanderkam, gathered time logs from a large group of women who were both mothers and successful in their careers.

These time logs are recorded by her subjects every 30 minutes during their days, of what they were doing during that time. There’s no right or wrong here, just simply recording what it was. This is far more objective than anecdotal stories of how people spent their time, and in some cases, the women keeping the logs were surprised to find out how they spent their time.

Laura then takes this data, and presents her analysis of it, as well as some great case studies that both support her conclusions, as well as giving the reader an opportunity to mirror the techniques.

I don’t want to attempt to reproduce the contents of her book here, only to share how fresh and valuable I think her approach is, in taking hard data and applying it to the question of how to live a happy and productive life as a parent, for mothers and fathers.

When a jack of all trades wins

Everyone knows the expression “jack of all trades, master of none”. I remember a talk by Adam Savage of Mythbusters, where he brings that phrase up, and says that the real phrase is “jack of all trades, master of none, though often better than a master of one”.

During the 90s, the term “T-shaped individual” became popular, and the tech industry fell in love with the concept. The idea there is that while a person might have a wide breadth of skills in many areas (the horizontal part of the T), there is one area that they have deep knowledge of (the vertical part of the T).

Technology and business are areas where I think being aware of (and respecting) other areas of expertise is important, because it’s possible to go very, very deep. It’s impossible for one person to be really deeply aware of all areas. To me, the solution is to cultivate a respect for other domains. A sign of someone who deeply respects other domains is that they try to build relationships with experts in those other areas.

This came to mind the other day, when two different articles popped up on my radar. One was about integrating salespeople into the rest of the business, and the other was about how designers need to understand the full depth of a business, and not just make nice looking pictures.

It’s all too easy to shoehorn a business function into “just do your task and don’t worry about the rest”. Unless you’re exceptionally world-class at one skill (and even then!), it’s worth being mindful of the others.

When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

Hat tip to Chapelle.

Well, there was a lot I didn’t know 10 years ago. The decision…is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else.

from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/308654/

The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.

from http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/12/the-next-status-game.html

Ms. Bédat says people love being a part of an authentic brand because they aren’t just buying into a logo — but also “buying into a set of values.”

from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/28/business/quenching-consumers-thirst-for-authentic-brands.html?src=me&ref=general

Also, I still cannot believe that Tito, of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, is actually “Mr Beveridge”

The Interview and economics

I typed up this whole reply, and then VentureBeat’s commenting system didn’t work and redirected me back to the homepage instead of actually posting. 🙁



HI Chris,

I’ve got to disagree. This may not be a single key moment that changes online video distribution for Hollywood, but it is a hugely important one. A widely known movie was distributed online and it generated returns similar to one in theaters, while charging far less per viewer. That changes the conversation. Every online distribution discussion is going to reference this movie.

Of course, we’re all speculating until Sony sits down at their Q1 numbers. Still, speculating is fun, so I’m joining in too 🙂

In this case, the movie benefited from extraordinary publicity. By the time Christmas rolled around, it was safe to say just about everyone in the U.S. had heard something about the movie given that even President Obama felt compelled to weigh in on the drama surrounding its release. A typical release online would have an incredibly difficult time getting such attention or even much respect given that people tend to view movies that get VOD-first releases as a sign the movie is weak.

The Rogan&Franco&Greenberg style has been around for a while now. They’re a known quantity. People who like them know it, and people who don’t like them know it too. The movie may be unimaginably famous, but the fame may be a red herring. Since they are such a known quantity, the publicity is not likely to have made someone who wouldn’t have been a customer become one. On top of this, if you are a fan of the trio, you already knew this was coming out, so the added publicity from the hack may not have affected the actual returns. My gut says there’s no more than a 15% bump, which still leaves the current returns over the $15m mark.

“…given that people tend to view movies that get VOD-first releases as a sign the movie is weak” — perceptions of VOD-first is a trailing indicator. “The Interview” is a leading indicator. Imagine the discussion: “would I watch a movie on my PS4/Apple TV/Kindle Fire? Yeah I would. I remember my friend telling me how much cheaper it was to watch that Interview movie at home. They sat on their own sofa and got to eat their own food…cheaper and healthier!” — how many cultural trends just got tapped there?

More than that, the actual amount of revenue generated is a meaningless measure. What matters is the underlying terms of the revenue deals that Sony struck with distributors like Google and Apple.

As to the economics of the distribution: you’re right. No one knows what the revenue split was between streaming services and Sony. I’d venture a guess that the services were excited to make this deal happen, and were willing to offer nice terms. That being said, the more important issue is that running a streaming service costs far less than operating a physical movie theater. The streaming services have a structural advantage in the long run when it comes to offering desirable terms.

Again, let’s all wait and see what happens once viewer’s wallets have had their time to vote over the next few months.