Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why America Is Lucky Donald Trump Was Elected President

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of President Donald Trump.  I think that he is lazy, ignorant, incompetent, and as a result, a danger to our country and our world.  But I think it is entirely possible that we may someday look back upon his election as lucky accident that strengthened the United States of America.

What do I mean?

In a word, Donald Trump is cowpox.

In the late 18th century, smallpox was one of the deadliest plagues that humanity had ever faced.  Smallpox was so deadly that it is estimated that it accounted for 10% of all deaths, and over 20% on cities where it more easily spread.  Even those that survived were often disfigured for life.

Oddly enough, however, one group of people seemed to be immune: milkmaids.

The British physician Edward Jenner hypothesized that the milkmaids were resistant to smallpox because many of them contracted cowpox, a much less virulent and deadly disease, from the cows that they milked.

In 1796, he tested this hypothesis by inoculating his gardener's eight-year-old son, James Phipps, with cowpox pus from a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had in turn had been infected by a cow called Blossom.  After Phipps developed, then recovered from a mild fever, Jenner exposed him to smallpox and found that he too had become immune to the disease.  To prove the efficacy of his approach, Jenner made 20 different attempts to infect Phipps with smallpox, all fortunately unsuccessful.

Being used as a guinea pig for experiments with the most deadly disease known to man seems like it would be beyond the call of duty for a doctor's gardener, let alone his young son, but Jenner did end up giving James Phipps, then grown, and his wife and children a rent-free lease, so there is that.  When he was 34, Phipps attended Jenner's funeral in Gloucestershire.

Donald Trump is cowpox--a messy but non-fatal infection that may end up inoculating the country against a far greater threat.

Donald Trump is a terrible president, but thanks to his remarkable incompetence, he has inflicted relatively little harm on the country.  Yes, he has encouraged racists and bigots, discriminated against Muslims, wreaked havoc on long-standing bipartisan projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, largely because of his complete lack of understanding of and regard for truth and complexity.  He has had a corrosive effect on political discourse, both because he has no regard for traditions and norms, and because the hatred he has engendered in his enemies has caused many of them to become deranged themselves, and to traffic in the sort of hyper-partisan truthiness that ought to inspire disgust in all.

But, at least to this point, he has not caused irreparable harm.  The only actions he has taken which cannot be undone by a future president are to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (a fact, which, while maddening to Democrats and constitutional scholars alike, should rightly be attributed to Mitch McConnell) and to sign a tax bill (which should rightly be attributed to Paul Ryan).  And these actions are both actions than any Republican president should be expected to take, and which Trump did not assist, but rather generally hindered.  As for his various executive actions, one might disagree with his chosen appointees (many of whom are incompetent and/or corrupt) or policies (many of which seem to ignore reason), but he is well within his constitutional rights to make these choices.  Our republic works because we should all respect the process, even if we disagree with the results.  Many of those who rage against the imperial presidency as wielded by Trump were conspicuously quieter when Barack Obama made policy via executive order, a tradition which stretches back to the dawn of our nation.

If you want to see a true case of smallpox, turn your eyes to Russia, which is holding its presidential election today.  After the inevitable results come in, Vladimir Putin will have won another six-year term, which means that A) Putin will have ruled Russia for this entire millennium to date, having taken over for Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999 and B) he will be in striking distance of Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from roughly 1927 (when he removed his rival Trotsky from the Central Committee) to his death in 1953.  And while the Russian constitution prohibits Putin from running again, I will happy bet money that when 2024 rolls around, if Putin is still in power, the Russian constitution will be amended to remove that barrier.

In comparison to Donald Trump's cowpox, Vladimir Putin is true smallpox--virulent and deadly.  Trump blasts his enemies on Twitter with impotent threats; Putin has them assassinated with deadly poisons.  Trump's cronies try to enrich themselves with favorable treatment; Putin simply takes what he wants, and if an oligarch defies him, has him arrested and his property confiscated.

The rise of Donald Trump demonstrates that today's electorate is susceptible to the charismatic appeal of a would-be authoritarian "virus," but his election is the very thing that is producing the antibodies to help us fight off future infections.  I would argue that you can trace a direct line from Donald Trump's election to a host of social changes such as #MeToo and #BoycottNRA and the fall of figures such as Harvey Weinstein.

If we had elected an American Putin in 2016, things might very well be very different.  We should remember that America is far less vulnerable to a would-be dictator than Russia in 1999.  Among other things, America is the world's longest-lasting democratic nation, with a centuries-long history of rejecting would-be tyrants like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy.  In contrast, Russia has experienced roughly eight years of democracy during its entire existence.  But I'd rather not take that chance.

America is lucky that Donald Trump was elected president.  He has exposed the hidden racism, sexism, and authoritarian leanings that have always been there, and the country will be stronger for it long after he has left the Oval Office, thanks to an energized and activist citizenry.

Background Reading:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Be Civil

Regardless of where people lie on the political spectrum (graph?), one thing I find remarkably unappealing is when people treat those who disagree with them with angry contempt.

Since doing so doesn't persuade or change minds, I fear that people behave that way because deep down they don't believe in their own worth, and feel the need to belittle others to make those feelings go away.

This is a vicious cycle; pretty soon, the only way people can feel good about themselves is to fight with others.  And that means, paradoxically, that someone who behaves in this way craves two audiences: Those who agree and reinforce their bad behavior, and those who disagree and provide fodder for a self-esteem boosting fight.

If you agree with my take, I believe the right response is to model civil behavior, even when you are attacked.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Selfish and Giving

One of the paradoxes of my personality, which I think is actually a strength, is that I'm selfish and giving.

I'm selfish in that I'm quite aware of my self-interest, and frequently take actions to better my self-interest.

I'm giving in that I genuinely want to help people, and are quite happy to share my good fortune with the people in my life.

This combination may seem paradoxical, but I would argue is stronger than either trait alone.

The purely selfish are experts at losing friends and alienating people.  The purely giving are often pushovers who destroy their own lives.

By balancing selfishness and generosity, I seek ways to create massive value, but am then willing to share it with the deserving.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Email Product Ideas: Inbox100 and InboxNow

Random Product Idea #1: Inbox100.  It's an email inbox where it has a hard upper limit of 100 messages.  Once you hit 100 messages, until you archive or delete some current messages, no new emails come in.  This forces you to deal with emails rather than allowing them to pile up.  And the instant you deal with emails, you get the positive reinforcement of seeing new emails appear.  You would probably still need to allow the user to search emails, even the ones not being shown, so that the user could look for super-important, super-urgent emails.

This leads me to Random Product Idea #2: InboxNow.  It's an email inbox where it only shows messages that are less than 12 hours old (because presumably you have to sleep).  This forces you to deal with emails rapidly, or they disappear.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Bye Bye Bitcoin Bubble

It's all about the mackerel.

In the American prison system, prisoners use packages of mackerel as a medium of exchange because 1) the supply is inherently limited because prisoners can only buy 14 "macks" per week, and 2) no one wants to eat it.

In other words, prisoners collectively decided to use a useless item as a medium of exchange and store of value because its supply was inherently limited.  Sound familiar?

In a real sense, Bitcoin is even more useless than prison mackerel because at least prison mackerel is used to process transactions.  Bitcoin is barely used as a means of settle transactions; all the action is in speculative investing.

As I write this, Bitcoin just past $16,000 in value.  I would bet any amount of money that on December 7, 2018, the price of Bitcoin will be below that value.*

Everything about the situation just screams bubble.  I'm very bullish on blockchain, but Bitcoin?

Now, just because a medium of exchange lacks any inherent value doesn't mean that it's doomed to crash.  Gold remains a valuable (though bad) investment even though its usefulness as a conductor and jewelry material doesn't justify its price.  But gold also has millenia of history as a valued medium of exchange, a luxury Bitcoin does not.

In contrast, mackerel became a prison currency because the prior currency, the cigarette pack, ended up getting banned by the prison system in 2004, which means its history is barely a decade old.  Which is why it wasn't surprising when the value of the "Mack" crashed at one prison:

"I'll never forget the day where the macks lost all their value almost overnight. Someone had a huge amount of money macks and they got confiscated and the administration left them sitting in a bucket. They essentially introduced hyperinflation. They flooded the market with money macks."

Bitcoin prices have been rising because speculators are buying Bitcoin in hopes that prices rise further--the greater fool theoryDuring my current trip to Japan, Bitcoin has risen from $10,000 to $16,000.  Not coincidentally, I was pitched two different ICOs at an event where I spoke.

Inevitably, Bitcoin is going to hit a limit as the market runs out of greater fools, a point that I think is fast approaching, and some of the big holders (the Winkelvii?) will sell, flooding the market, and setting off a downward spiral.

There's even a catalytic event--on Monday, the Cboe will start trading Bitcoin futures, meaning that people will finally have a chance to bet against the currency, once again proving that Trading Places is both one of the funniest and most educational movies of all time.

I'm off to buy some futures contracts!

* UPDATE: Someone must have posted this to Hacker News, because it went viral.  Scott Walker even offered to bet me $1,000,000.  I admire his conviction, though I disagree.  But he does make a good point that I'm not *really* willing to bet any amount of money; I just didn't think someone would offer to bet me $1,000,000.  Therefore, I'm going to cap the bets I take at $10,000 per bet.

** UPDATE: I have received legal assurance that this doesn't count as illegal gambling, provided no money is "pooled" up front, so it's game on!

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Adventures in Tokyo

I'm currently in the middle of a week-long trip to Tokyo where I'm speaking about my books and meeting with startup and finance folks on behalf of the Women's Startup Lab.  While I'd been to Tokyo once before, in 1982, I was so young then, and the city has changed so much since, that it's really been like visiting for the first time.  Here are some of the adventures and observations from my time in the land of the rising sun:

Story Time: My visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

One my first morning in Japan, I found myself awake at 3 AM (which is 10 AM California time) and started catching up on phone calls.  During one of those calls, I was strongly urged to go check out the Tsukiji Fish Market and its famous tuna auction, which takes place at 5:30 AM.  Fortunately, the Women's Startup Lab founder, Ari Horie, was both awake and willing to indulge my quixotic desire.  Little did I know that it would become an object lesson in entrepreneurship.

You see, what I didn't realize is that Tsukiji had just announced that it was not going to be allowing non-professionals to visit the auctions from December 1 through mid-January.  And of course, I was going there on December 4.

Tsukiji is an accidental tourist attraction; it's a commercial fish market for fisherman and wholesalers, with millions of dollars changing hands every day.  So when we arrived, there was no entrance or signs.  I believe the assumption is that anyone who has a legitimate reason to be there already knows where to go and what to do.

Were I by myself, I probably would have skulked around the perimeter, and ended up slinking back to my hotel room.  Fortunately, I was with a real (and Japanese-speaking) entrepreneur.  "Follow me, and don't make eye contact with anyone," Ari said.  She then began striding purposefully into the dark, industrial-looking complex, which, I should point out, was covered with signs that read things like, "Do not enter.  Unauthorized personnel not allowed."

We made our way without having any idea where we needed to go, dodging both security staff (each time we saw an officer, we changed direction to avoid him) and the ubiquitous electric cards that zoom everywhere at about 20 MPH, carrying boxes and whole fish.  Each cart had a semi-circular metal cow-catcher to absorb impacts, and a distressing number were dented and worn.  I suppose I should be glad they weren't blood-stained.

Eventually, we made our way to the center of the complex, where, by peering under partially raised garage doors, we could just make out the preparations underway for the tuna auction.  Whole flash-frozen tuna were being lined up for inspection by an army of Japanese men with wicked-looking fish hooks.

Again, were I by myself, I would have contented myself with saying, "Well, I guess I got to see the fish!  Pretty cool.  Now I'd better get out of here before they catch me and beat me to death with their hooks."  Ari had other ideas, walking along the building until she found a door marked, "Do Not Enter" which opened when she tried it.

Once inside, we got a much better look at the tuna, laid out like a giant set of fishy chess pieces all over the concrete, ice-strewn floor.  That's when Ari went up to a fisherman and began speaking with him in Japanese.  After about 5 minutes of conversation, the fisherman reached into his pocket and gave us two paper badges to put around our necks.  I found out later from Ari that she had told the fisherman that I was a very important visitor from Silicon Valley, who had come to Japan to observe the tuna auction.  The fisherman told her that you weren't allowed in the building without a badge, so she simply asked if he could give us some badges.  She told me that she had addressed him with the traditional rural Japanese honorific for "father," appealing to the ingrained parental instincts of any older Japanese man when addressed by a younger woman or girl.

Now armed with official badges, we got to wander the entire fish market while waiting for the auctions to start. (Ari purchased both a fresh giant scallop and a 1-pound block of fatty tuna, which I then stuffed into my jacket pockets)  It was astounding to see the variety of fish, from fugu to live octopi (I felt bad for them).  I watched blocks of tuna being trimmed to perfection, then being misted to glistening perfection via spray bottle like a Hollywood star being prepared for a close-up.  I watched eels being slaughtered, with their heads jammed on a metal pin on a cutting board so that they could be properly filleted.

Once the auction started, the sounds of ringing bells and constant sing-song auction chanting filled the air, and fishermen hurried about with hooks, loading 400-pound tuna onto wooden carts to be carried off to market stalls, high-end restaurants, or to be whisked to the US on cargo jets.  At one point, a security noticed us (which was hard not to, since Tsukiji is essentially 100% Japanese men, with no women or non-Japanese to be seen anywhere) and told us (Ari told me later) that we had to leave.  So we left the room, circled around to the other side of the auction, and re-entered.

All told, we watched the three different tuna auctions, then found the actual tourist-accessible part of the market and had a breakfast of fine sushi at 6 AM.  The fish was very fresh and very delicious.

The moral of this story is that even in Japan, the most orderly and rule-following nation I've ever seen (more on this later), an entrepreneur who won't take no for an answer can still work wonders.

Japan: Land of Detail

Japan is the cleanest, most orderly place I've ever visited, and I've visited Singapore:

  • I still haven't seen a single piece of litter on the ground.  This fact is even more astonishing because there literally are no garbage cans anywhere.  Ari told me that the lack of garbage cans reminds people that they are responsible for their own trash.  If this were America, there would be litter everywhere, as people said, "Fuck it," and chucked their trash whenever no one was looking.  In Japan, it simply means that people will carry their trash until they get home to throw it out.
  • The busy parts of Japan are as crowded as Manhattan, but the experience is totally different.  Everything is clean and polished.  The crowds of people move purposefully, obey all the traffic signs, and make barely any noise.  I eventually realized that the thing that seemed to be missing the most was the constant sound of honking and cussing that characterizes Manhattan.
Even the most minor thing is crafted with incredible care.
  • The first thing Ari and I did after getting through customs was to visit a Japanese convenience store for snacks.  I selected a tuna roll, which cost about $1.  When I opened the packaging, I was surprised to find that the rice and seaweed were carefully separated by a layer of plastic; when you want to eat a roll, you open the package, and roll the rice into the perfectly sized and aligned sheet of seaweed.  The result is a satisfying crunch when you eat the roll that would be impossible if it were presented, as it would be in the US, completely assembled, which would lead to soggy seaweed.
  • As I've already posted on Facebook, the instant coffee in my hotel room is a marvel of craft.  Rather than a cumbersome paper pouch or a sealed K-Cup, poured into a styrofoam cup, the coffee package folds out with origami-like precision to precisely fit the delicate, fine bone china cups provided in my hotel room.  It makes instant coffee somehow elegant and refined!
  • At my various meetings, my hosts presented me with coffee and tea.  Instead of the American system of a heatproof disposable cup with a cardboard sleeve to prevent burns, the Japanese way is to have disposable cups that fit into a plastic adapter that holds the cup, protects the drinker's hand, and offers a handle so that you can grasp the cup with a few of your fingers and drink your tea in a civilized and genteel manner rather than barbarically holding a cardboard cup with your whole hand.
  • After my talk, I was presented with a present--a special fruit package, which, when opened, proved to hold the most beautiful grapes I had ever seen, and a whole cantaloupe.  The grapes were all clustered perfectly on a single stem, were large and perfectly ripe, and were somehow perfectly clean and dry and ready to eat.  It wouldn't surprise me if they were hand washed and dried with tweezers.  They were delicious.  Later, I found out that the fruit package probably cost $100-200.
Here are few of the final quirks and observations that either amused, impressed, or horrified me.
  • Years of reading gave me the impression that all of Tokyo looked like a cleaner Blade Runner, with brightly colored lights illuminating a neon wonderland where all the women dressed as schoolgirls while Hello Kitty ruled from on high like a fierce overlord.  For the most part, Tokyo looks like a much cleaner, much more elegant, much more Japanese Manhattan.  Though we did visit Shibuya one night, and it did look like a neon wonderland that rivaled Times Square for garishness.  That was the night we went to a trendy "meat sushi" restaurant with pictures of horses on the menu.  I did not partake.
  • At one point, I visited a very traditional bank.  The lobby was titanic in scale, and had an army of uniformed receptionists who all looked and dressed identically.  When I went up to my appointment on a higher floor, I encountered a secondary lobby with its own army of uniformed receptionists, who would stand and bow any time any employees walked past.  I still haven't figured out when I'm supposed to bow, so I just bow anytime everyone else does and hope for the best.
  • People keep taking me to eat non-Japanese food.  I've already had Chinese food twice!  The food is excellently prepared and delicious, but I feel like I'm visiting Japan to enjoy Japanese culture, not Chinese or American culture.  That being said, not everything translates precisely; I saw New England Clam Chowder being advertised in a supermarket, complete with its traditional topping of mounds of cheddar cheese.  An Irish pub advertised its traditional beef salad.
  • Tokyo may be considered an expensive city, but restaurants are much cheaper than in the US, and tipping is not allowed.  We had a dinner in a high-end tempura restaurant at the top of a luxury office tower, complete with plenty of sake, and the total bill was about $50 per person.  I had a quick-service sashimi dinner for about $10.  On the other hand, nuts are expensive as hell (I guess they're all imported), and there is no peanut butter!
  • I feel like a hulking giant in Tokyo.  Everything, including the food, is designed for people who are much smaller.  I can only imagine what it is like for someone like Ben Casnocha, who makes me look tiny in comparison.  I found the taxis cramped, and my large American gluteus maximus spilled out of some of the chairs.  Once, I noticed that an elevator was rated for 1,000 kg/15 people.  In America, it would be 2,000 pounds/10 people, and even that might not be enough of a safety margin.
  • In the business districts, the vast majority of men wear suits and ties.  Dressed in my most formal attire, including Brooks Brothers blazer, I look like I'm wearing business casual.
  • I feel completely safe from crime wherever I go.  The contrast with San Francisco is devastating.  In comparison to Tokyo, we live in a third-world country.
  • The major auto manufacturers have many more models in Japan than in the US.  I don't even recognize most of them.  One person told me she had a Honda that was very short but very wide, and had three seats in the front, and three seats in the back.
  • Spoken Japanese is incredibly fast and very melodic and animated.  We think of the Japanese as reserved because their English is slow and formal, but their Japanese conversations make most English conversations pale in comparison.  Of course, I don't speak any Japanese, so in a number of meetings, I resorted to nodding my head when everyone else did, and trying to look sage and wise each time my name was mentioned.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Hopelessness Behind Trump's Support

I get a lot of crap from people because I argue that those of us who oppose the policies and behavior of Donald Trump should try to understand and empathize with his voters.

If I were to summarize the criticisms from fellow Trump opponents, it's that Trump voters are racists and bigots who made a conscious decision to vote for a lazy, racist, bigoted blowhard, and that expressing sympathy for them or pointing to reasons for supporting Trump other than prejudice is "letting them off the hook."

I think it's hypocritical to call for compassion and understanding, except for when it comes to your political opponents.

This profile of Trump's continued support in western Pennsylvania argues that despite their increasing suspicion that Trump isn't going to help them economically, people still support Trump because they view him as "on their side" culturally.  (I would define that culture as rural, blue-collar, white Christian conservatives)

On the one hand, progressives and liberals might tear their hair out, since it indicates that Trump supporters basically support him regardless of the impact of his policies, as long as he keeps up his pugnacious, bullying style.

On the other hand, I think explains why compassion is so necessary.  When people are so desperate and angry that they'll vote for and keep supporting a politician who shares almost none of their background (I'll grant that Donald Trump is white, but he is definitely not rural, blue-collar, or Christian) simply because he expresses their anger at the establishment that presided over 30 years of their declining fortunes, while other groups, especially the hated coastal elites saw their lives improve.

If your life is so hopeless that you've given up on improving your lot, and are now focused on seeing other people feel the same hurt that you feel, you're not going to be persuaded to change your mind when your opponents shower you with further anger and contempt.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Balancing Kindness and Rightness

"Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible." (The Dalai Lama)

I recently read this longform New York Times piece on Amy Cuddy and the replication controversy in social science.  The basic summary is that two big trends came together--the first was the rise of social science in popular culture (think Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Gilbert), and the second was a movement within the social sciences to recognize that many studies were not replicable, and that the results they reported were probably the result of poor data hygiene.

In the case of Amy Cuddy, the first trend made her a star, by making her "Power Poses" work a TED Talk sensation, which led to her bestselling book, Presence.  The second trend essentially destroyed her academic career, when it turned out that larger follow-up studies failed to show that power poses actually impacted people's testosterone and cortisol levels (though they confirmed Cuddy's finding that power poses made people feel more powerful).

What you conclude from the controversy probably reflects your point of view.  Was Cuddy guilty of profiteering based on poor science?  Or was she singled out for criticism because of her fame, and attacked because of her gender and appearance?

The tragedy of this episode is that it didn't have to happen.  The different parties involved had good intentions, but a simple misunderstanding--only uncovered by the Times reporter's work--let them to wrongly assume bad intent.  Here is the crucial passage:
When Simmons and I met, I asked him why he eventually wrote such a damning blog post, when his initial correspondence with Carney did not seem particularly discouraging. He and Simonsohn, he told me, had clearly explained to Cuddy and Carney that the supporting studies they cited were problematic as a body of work — and yet all the researchers did was drop the visual graph, as if deliberately sidestepping the issue. They left in the body of literature that Simmons and Simonsohn’s P-curve discredited. That apparent disregard for contrary evidence was, Simmons said, partly what prompted them to publish the harsh blog post in the first place.
But the email that Simmons and Simonsohn had sent was, in fact, ambiguous: They had explicitly told her to drop the P-curve and yet left the impression that the paper was otherwise sound. At my request, Simmons looked back at his original email. I watched as he read it over. “Oh, yeah,” he said quietly. He had a pained look on his face. “We did say to drop the graph, didn’t we?” He read it over again, then sat back. “I didn’t remember that. This may be a big misunderstanding about — that email is too polite.”
Cuddy and Carney had taken their advice literally. Simmons stood by his analysis but recognized that there was confusion at play in how they interpreted the events that transpired. Simmons says he harbored no ill will toward Cuddy before criticizing her paper; if anything, he remembered her warmly. “She was great,” he said, smiling at the memory. “We published the blog post despite my history with Amy. Because I realized that once we pulled the trigger on this. … ” He did not finish the sentence. Cuddy had, in fact, become the poster girl for this kind of work, which even he thought was not fair. “The original study wasn’t particularly egregious,” he said. “It was published in 2010 before anyone was thinking about this.”
For a moment, the scientist allowed the human element to factor into how he felt about his email response to that paper. “I wish,” he said, “I’d had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call Amy.”
In other words, Cuddy had corresponded with her critics, had listened to their feedback, and thought that she had done what they had asked of her.  Simmons' misunderstanding of his own email, followed by his mistake of interpreting Cuddy's actions as defiance of his advice, led him to publish a piece that he knew would harm her career.

In these troubled times, it can be difficult to balance kindness and rightness.  Both are virtues that I value; I believe that we should try to treat people with kindness, and I believe that we should rely on facts and evidence.  What the Cuddy episode shows is that the two virtues can easily come into conflict.

I believe that when they do, we should err on the side of kindness.

The problem with unkindness is that it is like a genie that can't be put back in a bottle.  If you destroy someone's career because of a misunderstanding, you can't make it up to them.  I'm reminded of the Book of Job, who loses his entire family while being tested.  Sure, God gives him a new family, but I'm pretty sure he would have strongly preferred not to see his first wife and children killed as a test of his faith.

If Simmons had called Cuddy, her career might have been spared, even if they both eventually concluded that her original study was flawed.

Erring on the side of kindness means being willing to defer the savage, addictive joy of being right, with the knowledge that if your kindness proves misplaced, you can usually get the facts right later.

Even if you are convinced of your rightness, I believe you should acknowledge the possibility that you might be wrong, and consider being kind before pulling the trigger and causing irrevocable harm.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Donald Trump, Race, and the GOP

Ta-Nehisi Coates' cover essay for The Atlantic, "The First White President," explores the role of race and racism in Donald Trump's election as President of the United States.  Coates' essay, has been widely read, and drawn praise and criticism (a sign of success; the goal of nearly every writer is to elicit a reaction from readers).  My personal summary of its main argument is that the attempts to explain Trump's victory as the result of economic dislocation among the so-called "white working class" are glossing over the impact of race and racism, specifically white racism against African-Americans.

Here is the key paragraph that I think is the heart of Coates' piece (extra paragraph breaks added for emphasis):
"The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed. This presented the country’s thinking class with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton simply could not be correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry. 
The implications—that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos; that Calhoun’s aim of a pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists still endures—were just too dark. Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism. 
Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion—the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry."
To summarize:

  • Trump may have succeeded because of his racism
  • The United States is still subject to systemic bigotry
  • Rather than deal with the bigotry, liberals have focused on the ability of economic policy to win over the "white working class"

Some of the most powerful arguments in the essay point out the underlying bias in how issues are perceived in this country.  For example, why would an opioid crisis call for compassion, while a crack crisis calls for harsher prison sentences?  Why are we outraged that life expectancy has declined for less-educated whites, but accept that African-Americans still have lower life expectancies?

While I agree with Coates on his second point, I'm not going to examine it deeply in this post.  If the arguments in the paragraph above don't cause you to consider the impact of systemic bigotry, my writing more isn't likely to either.  Demonstrating to those who believe otherwise that systemic racism affects minorities in this country is a challenge I don't want to take up right now.  I will note from my personal experience that even Asian-Americans, the so-called model minority, face racial discrimination on a regular basis.  Being Asian is not the same thing as being white, regardless of how well Asian-Americans have done economically in this country.

Instead, I'm going to focus on the first and third points.  I would argue that despite the fact that Donald Trump appears to be a racist that favors white superiority, that this is not the primary factor that led to his election.  I would agree that economics alone do not explain white voting patterns, but I don't believe that convincing racists not to be racist is the optimal path to changing those voting patterns.

In his piece, Coates cites a series of statistics that illustrate that Trump won the white vote across many different demographics.  The implication is that Trump rode a wave of white racial resentment, catalyzed by Obama's presidency, into the White House.  But what he doesn't do is to compare Trump's performance to his GOP predecessors.  It's always dangerous to argue from a single data point, because you ignore the context.

Let's correct that error by looking at the vote breakdowns for a variety of Republican presidential candidates over the past 35 years.  All data comes from Cornell University's Roper Center:

First, consider the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections.

Contrary to Coates' hypothesis, Donald Trump did not win a significantly higher proportion of the white vote than John McCain or Mitt Romney.  In fact, proportionally more whites voted for Romney.  In terms of percentages, Romney outperformed Trump across the board, with only two notable exceptions: Trump did better than Romney with men, and with African-American voters (!).  My guess is that this can be explained by the fact that Trump was running against a white woman, rather than a black man.

Nothing about Donald Trump's performance appears anomalous in comparison to traditional GOP candidates like McCain and Romney.  His weakness among women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and the young, are simply the extension of long-term trends for the GOP.

In fact, if we look further back to two GOP electoral triumphs (George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004 and Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984), we can see that while Reagan and Bush did better among African-Americans, the absolute numbers are minuscule.  The GOP has always been strongest with men, whites, the wealthy, and the old.  But popular GOP candidates like Reagan/84 and Bush/04 were able to perform substantially better with women, minorities, the poor, and the young.

(As a side note, the GOP should be terrified by these trends, which show the party's increasing weakness among the young and Hispanics, the two demographic groups that represent the future of this country.  George W. Bush actually managed to win 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, exceeding even Reagan's 84 landslide results, compared to an anemic 29% for Trump in 2016.  The GOP was correct to try to pivot on immigration to win over Hispanics, but Trump's rhetoric will likely make this more difficult in the future.)

It might be that Trump's racism was successful at turning out some white voters, but a) whites made up 70% of the vote in 2016, 2% less than in 2012, and b) he still attracted a smaller share of white voters than Romney's more traditional campaign.  Remember, Trump did more poorly than Romney with nearly every group other than men and African-Americans.

It seems far more likely to me that Trump's victory was due to his remarkable luck in running against Hillary Clinton, one of the few public figures in American more disliked than he.  Clinton combined unpopularity with a complacent and incompetently run campaign which devoted resources to trying to flip "Red" states rather than simply winning Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and thus the election.

While Trump probably benefited from racism, it does not appear that he benefited any more than traditional GOP candidates like Mitt Romney, who didn't go around making racist statements.

(It's worth pointing out that appealing to white voters, in theory, is no more racist than appealing to African-American or Hispanic voters.  When white people vote for someone with the same skin tone, it's racism; when non-whites do the same, it is perfectly acceptable.  In practice, of course, I can't recall Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz attacking white people or supporting black or brown supremacists.)

In many ways, the lack of difference in Trump's poll results makes Coates' point about systemic bigotry even more relevant.  The real revelation of Trump's campaign is not that white men tend to vote Republican; it's that you can openly espouse racist and sexist beliefs, mock the disabled, lie constantly, and still win pretty much the same share of those voters.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Lessons On Writing A Book

On Thursday, we turned in the manuscript for Blitzscaling.  While there is still a lot of work to go before the book appears on shelves (physical or virtual), I wanted to write and share some of my thoughts about the experience of being an author while they were still fresh in my mind.

The story of Blitzscaling stretches all the way back to the class that I, my co-author Reid Hoffman, and my friends John Lilly and Allen Blue, taught together at Stanford in the Fall of 2015.  Since then, Reid and I have been hard at work refining our ideas based on what we learned from teaching the class, as well as everything that's happened in the nearly two years since the class began.  After all, the world is a very different place in September 2017 than it was in September 2015, and that is probably an understatement.

Rather than talk about the content of the book (which you'll be hearing about soon anyway), I want to focus on the experience of being an writer.  In many ways, I know that I, in particular, have it very easy.  Not only do I get to work with a brilliant co-author who can seemingly produce wisdom on demand, but the regular course of his life brought us in touch with so many accomplished people that a "regular" author would have trouble even booking a call with.  Yet there is a reason that such a small percentage of those who want to write a book end up doing so--it's a lot of hard, mostly solitary work.  Here are some of the experiences I had along the way, and what I learned from them.  (I won't speak for Reid, though I suspect that he would say some of the same things.)

1. Sometimes, the only way to figure out what the book is about is to write the book.

The version of Blitzscaling that Reid and I turned in wasn't the first version we wrote.  In fact, the final manuscript has only about 10% in common with the first rough draft that we wrote.  And this was true even though we spent many hours planning out the structure of the book.  It turns out that no matter how carefully you outline your work, the process of writing generates new ideas and insights, which then require you to change the book.  We set out to write a playbook for blitzscaling, only to discover that we really needed to write the prequel to that book first, so that people who understand when and when not to blitzscale.

2. Books, especially those about recent events, benefit from a gestation period.

In my naive mind, I had planned on the writing process for the book to take less than a year.  Even though this flies in the face of most authors' experience, things had gone so smoothly when we wrote The Alliance that I figured that's how every book worked.  In the end, I think that the gestation period made Blitzscaling a richer, more interesting book.  It's like the difference between a snapshot and a movie; a moving picture provides you with a better basis for understanding trends and predicting the future.  Of course, the power of gestation has limits; as Steve Jobs said, "Real artists ship."

3. Writing, like doing your taxes or visiting your dentist, requires willpower, or better yet, good habits.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was purely internal--making the leap from not writing to writing.  As William Zinsser wrote in his classic book, On Writing Well, it's very difficult to sit down to commit an act of literature.  When the appointed time arrives, all of a sudden, your house seems like it needs a cleaning, or the dog needs walking.  Or maybe, you decide, it's not worth it to start a writing session if you only have an hour.  Better to wait until you have an uninterrupted block of two hours.  Or four.  Or eight.

All this is rot, of course.  I find that once I get started, I enjoy the writing process, and usually have to remind myself to take breaks.  Even wrestling with thorny problems like tricky transitions has its own appeal.  It's like when I'm asked a question, or presented with a problem.  I feel a compulsion to answer or provide a solution.  But that still requires that I get started.

Oddly enough, the advice I found most helpful came from Mel Robbins of CNN.  Mel, whose name brings to mind a gravelly-voiced, cigar-chomping newspaper man from the 1930s, is actually an energetic, blonde, former criminal defense attorney.  I didn't actually read her latest book, The 5 Second Rule, but she did a great job of summarizing it in 24 words:

"The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will stop you."

Thinking is a very important part of writing, but when it comes to buckling down and starting the writing process, I find that it's better not to think.  I just tried to minimize the friction between the moment when I think I ought to be writing, and the moment when my finger hits the first key.

Some of this friction minimization takes the form of preparation--preparing outlines, punch lists, and other supporting material that helps when I actually start typing.  But it is all too easy for preparation to become procrastination, which is why the 5 second rule helps.  Sometimes I have to invoke it multiple times to get down to work.

The 5 second rule also informed my toolset.  For the last sprint to the finish, we transferred the manuscript to a Google Doc, so that we could both work on it at the same time, and never have our versions get out of sync.  This actually helped with the 5 second rule, because I just left the Google Doc as an open tab in Chrome, so that all I had to do to start writing was sit down at my computer and click the appropriate tab.  And once the text appeared in front of me and I started reading it, I would quickly fall into a flow state and start working.

4. Context is a powerful way to invoke the power of habit.

One of the most effective things I did was to try to define a very specific context for my writing sessions.  Here's what I mean:

  • I didn't write at my desk, which I associate with doing email and reading the internet.  Instead, I either wrote in a conference room, at the library, or at my wife's seat at the kitchen table (much to her annoyance).  This allowed me to build an association between these locations and writing, which helped make following the 5 second rule that much easier.
  • I always listened to the same music while writing.  My family can be pretty loud.  So can office environments.  To prevent distractions, I'd put in my earbuds and listen to music...and I'd listen to the same music every time.  I should probably thank Pandora in the acknowledgements of the book!  Since there is evidence that suggests that listening to the music of one's youth actually makes you act younger, I'd often listen to 80s music, though I ended up relying more on Pandora's "Thumbprint Radio" feature, which plays songs you've thumbed up, and ones that are similar. (Many thanks to Kristen Robinson for teaching me about this feature!)
  • Naturally, I also tried to use the Pomodoro Technique.  By committing to work for 20 minutes without taking a break (and then committing to taking a break), I was able to work in short chunks when no more time was available, and for long stretches, when it was.
Many people ask why I don't write in coffee shops; the simple answer is that in most Palo Alto coffee shops, I'm likely to run into someone I know, and I'm too polite to tell them, "Go away!  I'm writing right now!"

Are you also a writer?  Do you have any favorite lessons or techniques you're willing to share?  Leave them in the comments below!