Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Books vs. Experience? Part II

This is a small continuation from Part I.

I found a really nice example on how books and experience don't conflict, but complement from Rules for Radicals:

"...I walked down the road from Argentieres to Chamonix after a snowfall, and suddenly from the abyss of unconscious memory a line of Virgil rose into my mind and I found myself repeating

Sed iacet aggeribus niveis informis et alto
Terra gelu

I had read the words at school and no doubt translated them glibly 'the earth lies formless under snow-drifts and deep frost'; but suddenly, with the snow scene before my eyes, I perceived for the first time what Virgil meant by the epithet informis, 'without form,' and how perfectly it describes the work of the snow..."

He couldn't visualize or understand the book completely, but with experience he was able to see the Virgil's description. Without the book he might of just seen snow, but with it he was able to appreciate it deeply.

That's what I'm talking about.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Imaginations and Beginnings

I can think ahead very well when it comes to some things. For some reason I'm absolutely terrible at Chess, but in Go I can see entire games play out within a couple of moves. Unfortunately while thinking so far ahead, I often forget where I am and make simple mistakes.

I already mentioned that I have a pretty cool idea for a website. I've set up some things and have begun learning HTML all over again (wooohoo...). Instead of grasping the basics though, I keep thinking ahead about logistics of the site in micro format.

What if this happens?

What if that happens?

What should I do to respond?

Should I just bail out now?

In some ways this is good. I can see a lot of overall strategy being planned out. However, while doing this I begin to get stressed out when I see the enormity of it. Webs of thoughts grow upon each other and tangent off to even more complicated webs.

It's a bit overwhelming.

I remembered some advice about being a Dad to help me. When someone becomes a Dad and realizes the enormity of it, they being to think about the responsibility they now hold. They have to pay for the kid's school, food, lunch, shelter, college, cars, etc. They have to love the child unconditionally. They have to cut off certain parts of their life that couldn't fit into the family they now have to foster. A life, a child is in their hands and the pressure bears down on them.

Once they're at their breaking point, someone eventually tells them some old sage's advice:

"One day at a time. It's a lot of stuff but you’ll break it down into small steps and it’ll come together. Just take it one day at a time."

It helped me.


If you're curious, yes I did just compare a child's life to a website. I'm a terrible person.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Small Praise

I recently finished Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It was a brilliantly in depth book. I wrote more notations in it than I've done with any other book and it will guide me in how I conduct things. It's irreplaceable.

That being said, Clay Shirky isn't too much of a writer. It took me a long time to get through it. I'd read it then find myself just staring at a point in book, not absorbing anything. It's not so terrible I wanted to burn it, it's just not that good. The only reason I bring this up is not to insult Shirky (I would be honored to even meet him), but to praise Saul D. Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals.

Alinsky can fucking write. I'm only a couple pages in, but the guy had the ability to make words simply flow. Perhaps I've been reading too many non-fiction books, but this is a really nice change.

I'm sure there will be more to come.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Clarifications, Part II

Continuation from Part I.

I'm not going to talk trash about American Apparel. They do some amazing stuff. They treat their employees fairly, provide good wages and support a great work environment. I could not bring myself to be vicious against them especially since they don't bullshit. What I do want to talk about is their wage system and clarify how it works.

For employees they have a base pay and production goals they can reach for bonuses. The group decides how much it wants to make. This is cool because it creates an incentive for the employees. This wage system, however, should not be confused with thinking that employees have much choice or are empowered. They don't and they're not.

The group's decision is one made with limited options and variance.

If the group had more options in the choices they could make, it wouldn't exist. If they could decide on what to work on such as Green shirts or Red shirts, there would too many conflicting opinions. It would take a much longer time to decide on whether the merits of making of the Green shirts is better than the Red shirts or vice-versa. Work wouldn't get done and production would be bogged down.

If there was a greater variance on how much they want to make, it wouldn't exist. The average voter is the only one with the "choice". The majority decides and decides quickly because they are in small groups. Whether or not they choose to reach the production goals, there will be some people that didn't want that option. It isn't and never will be a perfect "work however much you want" type of system.

The idea that the workers are empowered is nice, but a bit inflated. Only the mode vote has a "choice".

What's also important to remember is that American Apparel is a huge company. If they have excess production it's not a big deal because it is mass produced. Variance on output is a minute factor on cost. This sort of "open" management could not work in a small, non-mass producing company. Where supply can be determined by the employees in American Apparel, supply MUST be determined by public demand in other companies.

If a small, non-mass producing company decided to give controls to the employees, they would lose huge amounts a profit through surplus or shortage. They have to take control of the output in order to function. American Apparel has the option while many companies don't.

American Apparel is a great company because it takes advantage of its options to create a friendlier work environment, but it's still necessary to look at things objectively.

Irony

By the time I was in 8th grade I had consumed two HTML books, one XHTML, one Java and one more of PHP. I was a guru among the young nerds, mocking their "Hello World" type web pages. I loved creating and programming. Hell, I even liked the reclusive nature of it. It came natural.

As I entered high school however, all I saw was a cubicle. Office Space was an eye opening experience on what I thought the computer science world was like. I started fearing a life of being told what to program and what to do. I could see my future of deteriorating into loneliness, self-hatred and tons of hentai porn, so I decided to get out. When my CS teacher tried to get me to join in competitions I said no.

What did I want to do? I had no idea, but it had to be creative!

Lately I've been thinking of a big open source platform (when it's up and running I'll talk about it). It involves a ton of creative effort and I can see it being one of the most fun things I've ever done. I love it because it's my idea. I was never told what to do.

To get it started however, I have to program the website.

I suck.


Part II of Clarifications will be up tomorrow, Apparel email or not.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Forest

I needed to escape.

Typical young teenager. Angry at everything, fueled by testosterone and a desire to find myself. Some parts of my life were fucked up, some parts I just imagined were. At times I'd get so furious, when I clenched my fists my nails would cut into my palms. When I had to work at not raising my arms to hit that's when I knew I had to visited my forest.

I walked past the developed houses. Walked past the ideal "perfect homes". Walked passed anything that reminded me where I was at. There was a small patch of trees past it all that was going be torn down soon for more perfect homes, but I could enjoy it for a while longer.

At the center of it there was a chalk white, circular stone for me to sit on. Fallen twigs mixed in with the orange and red leaves surrounding the rock. A moat of sort. The dark brown trees were thick enough to block anyone from seeing me, like giant protective sentries.

Burying my head in my hands, I'd stop pulling my hair. A calmness would come over me. I'd listen to movements of the few remaining creatures. Feel an ant crawl up my leg and not even care.

After a bit of peace I could come back home, good as new.

_____________________

"I'm going to open up a business with some awesome product. I'm going to start in some Podunk town and then once it's profitable I'm going to expand..."
----
"Your grades aren't good enough to get into a top law school so you probably won't get into a great firm. What are you going to do after attending the lesser law school?"

He barely even considers what I've said before replying, "Well, I'll probably just open my own firm. Then I can just expand and get tons of money. I need the money because I want a really big family..."

These are my friends. Verbatim. With semi-rich parents they have aspirations of great wealth and power because that's what they think they're supposed to do. Since it's not a self realized desire they have no heart in it. They have no enthusiasm in what they do. They don't think their interests can be compatible with their careers. They think happiness is college -> business/law school -> accomplished life.

The reasons why they are like this have already been expanded upon. Whether it's fear of failing, not following through with their passions or being scared of success, my friends encapsulate what my generation is going through.

I've tried to help. I've given them as much material as I possibly could, but nothing has gotten to them. They blow me off like I'm naive or idealistic saying they've "got it figured out." Perhaps I'm failing in selling the idea correctly or maybe no one could yell loud enough for them to hear.

Maybe it's not my place to try to change their course, but it's terrible to watch. They're not smart enough to simply coast through college with A's and accomplish their "goals". They don't really care about what they want so they're not willing to put forth the effort. One has already failed a semester and is trying to raise his GPA to stay in school. Inevitable they will eventually crash into their built up illusions of the "right" life. I can only hope they can discover themselves and pick up the wreckage.


The sad truth is that my friends and this environment are my forest now.

Trees never moved me. Roots, branches and leaves never made me change. My forest was a place of stagnation that perhaps only Thoreau could make anything out of it. It was a place where I could heal before heading out to what mattered. I went there to escape the pressure of an overbearing life. Now I feel trapped in it. My forest was once my fortress and now it's my prison.

I'm trying to escape.

Again.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Clarifications, Part I

I love Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I love how American Apparel has created a great work environment instead of abusing their employees. I think they're revolutionary and I wish them all the success in the world.

That being said, the ideas they say are the entire reason for their success are flimsy. They explain it with a pretty idea and try to fit it snugly into place. By doing that they create a Garden of Eden sort of imagery where everything is perfect. And when it's not, it causes inflation. Which causes bullshit. Which brings me to one of my points:

The Rule of 150 in a work environment is bullshit.


Here is the definition for Dunbar's number (what the Rule of 150 is based on):
"Dunbar's number is the supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person."
In The Tipping Point Gladwell paints the Gore Association's business as a glorious, free environment where everyone knows each other well. No overall strategies are planned and salaries are decided as a group [1]. They are all called "Associates" on their name tags, with no bosses but "sponsors" or "mentors". They attribute this great work environment to the Rule of 150.

It's bullshit. If the Rule of 150 applies perfectly to this situation then it stands to reason that these workers know no one outside their workplace. If they did, it would be surpassing the 150 stable relationships they could maintain. If an employee did have friends he would lose "contact" with several of their co-workers and according the the Rule of 150 (in a workplace), it would wreak havoc and nothing would get done. Management would have to be implemented and freedom would be stifled.

This hasn't happened though.

So how does Gore Associations function then?

It functions because 150 is an arbitrary, small number for the work place. The size is the most important factor here. Not everyone at Gore Associations knows each other, but because the size is kept down, people can address small groups of people easier than addressing a giant workforce. It's small enough that the pressure situation still exists. It's not a situation where everyone there knows each other well enough to "sit down with them at a bar without there being anything uncomfortable," [2] but a situation where communication costs are low enough to get things done effectively.

There could be 170 workers or 130 workers. Perhaps Gore Associations just found 150 to work perfectly. If they did though, they can't entirely attribute it Dunbar's number. It simply isn't a perfect Utopian workplace Gladwell makes it out to be. Some workers are bound not to know everyone and that's okay. What's important is that they are kept small.

Half of this company's success is based on low communication cost. Half of it is about group pressure. The group pressure could have been used by Gladwell for a point about context, but he decided to try to cram it all into the Rule of 150.

Which made it bullshit.


------------------------------------------

[1] Gladwell never goes in depth on how the process works. I would LOVE to hear more about it.
[2] I remember reading this, but for the life of me I can't find it to point out a page number.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Books vs. Experience?

A comment from crake on Ryan Holiday's blog:
"Lately I have been thinking that you can't learn anything from a book that you don't already know.

The only thing that has ever changed me is experience. I think getting your heart broken once teaches a person more than reading about it a dozen times. Or when you really are down and out, that experience I would not trade for even my favourite most definitive book."

At first this seems like a decent argument. Experience can shake your core, it's personal and it happens immediately. Books are not written specifically for every individual and it might not be relevant right now. Taking a stance one way or the other, experience might win out. The problem with this argument is that books were never meant to compete. They were made to complement.

Take for example my problem with Meditations. While some of the book has had a big impact on me (See the header quote), about half of it doesn't resonate with me. I haven't experienced some of the evils and trials Marcus Aurelius talks about, therefore I can't connect with it as much as I can the rest of the book.

Does that mean I would be the same if I haven't read it? That I haven't learned anything?

Absolutely not. It's simply prepared me for what's ahead.

Books help explain your experiences. They crystallize the ideas and themes. They take your raw emotions and confusion about why things are going wrong and explain them. They give you a guide to how to live your life to the fullest. You might not have experienced the lessons yet, but if the book is any good you will and you'll be more prepared and objective than if you just went into it clueless.

The idea that you can't learn anything from a book that you don't already know is ridiculous. Books about life add perspective that is near impossible to get from only experience.

Reading and experiencing combined is the only way you'll truly know who you are.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oscillations

From Donika:
"It seems like lately I've been debating a lot of people over whether intelligence dooms you to a life of misery. It seems most people agree on this, citing 'ignorance is bliss' and arguing that you have a greater capacity to appreciate how miserable life is if you're really smart. I find this to be insanity. If an intelligent person has a greater capacity for sorrow, then it stands to reason that they also have a greater capacity for joy."

Perhaps I've been smoking too much lately because when I saw this very nice post from Donika, I couldn't help but think of it in this format:
















Weird, huh?

When I first started studying economics I thought it was insane that in a competitive marketplace over the long run there is 0 economic profit. Makes complete since of course: when a market is profitable, new firms enter and drive down the profit till it reaches an equilibrium. When a market isn't profitable, firms exit and the profit stabilizes to the equilibrium. Up down up down up down. Simple, but the idea was still jarring to me.

I've seen the idea replicate itself everywhere ever since. Empires, sports teams and now Joy and Sorrow. For whether you experience only mild sorrow or extreme joy, you'll always keep touching back to the equilibrium where you are just you. Soon enough the oscillations shorten, flat line and then it's over. No real impact. Just a small firm in a never ending market.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Something to Say

I rarely post or interject especially when it's a unfamiliar topic. I consider this a good quality in some respects. It has made me listen and learn more than if I just rambled like a jack ass. But as I've spent more and more time listening a question keeps bugging me: "When will I know enough to speak?"

I don't think there will ever be a time. For me to get anywhere I have to move, even if I don't have all the requirements. I will spout ignorance. I will say nothing (see first post). That being said, out of the rubble of crap, maybe I'll say something good. Hopefully it'll be worth it.

This might not be the best time to start. I might not have the perfectly required experience. But it's time for me to face the fact that I might never reach that point. It's time to start stumbling, willing to break my teeth on the ground to get moving forward.

Rethinking Messages

From Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point:
"The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."

George Mankiw's The Pigou Club Manifesto. The abolishment of minimum wage. Getting rid of apartment price ceilings. Why these obvious solutions aren't in effect are because of two reasons: they sound counter-intuitive and they aren't marketed well.

It's hard to get people to listen to numbers. It's hard to get people to take the time to comprehend even relatively simple concepts. It's hard to make people give a fuck.

In Made to Stick there is a point about trying to get people's attention about unhealthy popcorn. Trying to attract consumer's attention about something as seemingly negligible as popcorn health was difficult to say the least. It's not a pressing subject. They couldn't get people to care about the numbers and facts. So they changed their message. They presented it in a more visual and startling format. They forced their idea through unconventional means.

That's what has to be done with all of these unpopular ideas. They need to be presented in different, more startling ways. They need to convert their facts into a pulling message.

EDIT: [See also this for a list of things that could be marketed differently]