Category Archives: Ideas

The giving pledge

Jeff Bezos is a clever guy with unique approaches in business. Now he’s reached out through Twitter for philanthropy ideas to address problems “here and now,” it could be a new direction for philanthropy.

Some people feel like alleviating  misery better use of their money than promoting joys – like orchestras, university programs, and the like. Both are doing good and sharing wealth with society at large.

Lots of the very wealthiest people join Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, promising to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime.

As part of their pledge, they write letters describing their giving philosophies. For example, George B. Kaiser, an Oklahoma oil and finance guy purportedly worth about $8 billion wrote this

“I recognized early on that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics … and upbringing.”

He feels “morally bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth. Though almost all of us grew up believing in the concept of equal opportunity, most of us simultaneously carried the unspoken and inconsistent ‘dirty little secret’ that genetics drove much of accomplishment so that equality was not achievable.”

By channeling a lot of his giving to early childhood education he hopes to promote kids’ genetic endowments.

As Bezos’s wealth climbs, it’s around billion and growing, it’ll be interesting to see what impact his philanthropy has.

It doesn’t matter who gets shot

It doesn’t seem to matter who gets shot. A congressman and others were shot while practicing baseball and nothing much has come of it so far.

I guess looking back at Sandy Hook, America decided, through its inaction on gun control, that killing children was ok. So what’s the big deal if a congressman gets seriously wounded by being shot in the hip? Was the lack of response to the Sandy Hook killings the end of the debate over gun control?

Why is it so hard to implement any solutions to what is really a public health issue. Probably because the vast majority of gun owners are behaving within the law. But when a few act out (killing and injuring innocent people) it reflects badly on the majority. There must be some acceptable controls that can be put in place.

The extra cookie

I ran across this interesting metaphorical story on Kottke.org that uses a cookie to illustrate the connection between luck and privilege. I’ve shortened it a little:

In 2012, Michael Lewis gave the commencement speech at Princeton, his alma mater. Near the end of his speech, Lewis, who wrote Moneyball and The Big Short, addressed luck’s role in rationalizing success. He told the graduates, who’re already winners in so many of life’s lotteries, that they “owe a debt to the unlucky.” 

A few years ago, a psychology department staged an experiment using students. They broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams into a room, arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader and gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there.

It should’ve been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group.

Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.

Industrialized communication

I don’t generally use social media because there’s just not much that’s interesting enough to make scrolling through worth the bother. But I do realize  most people like it.

What happens when you take a break from it? Here’s what a heavy user found after taking a break from social media for a week. “Not a single person noticed that I had stopped using social media. (Not enough to tell me anyway.) Perhaps if it had been two weeks? For me, this reinforced that social media is actually not a good way to “stay connected with friends”. Social media aggregates interactions between loved ones so that you get industrialized communication rather than personal connection. No one really notices if a particular person goes missing because they’re just one interchangeable node in a network.”

One-on-one communication is degraded a bit using electronics because some context and so many subtle physical cues become unavailable. Most effective communications happen best in person, then by phone, and finally via email.

When an author was asked how he was able to gather so much material for his book, he said his secret was, “The lesson I’ve learned again and again is this: when you see folks in person, they’re motivated to look for and pull out old things, and that doesn’t happen when you simply call them on the phone.”

When you can do it, personal communication trumps industrialized communication. Here’s a good talk on conversation with NPR host Celeste Headlee.

Whitehouse woes

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s the phenomenon in which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Looking at the situation in the Whitehouse from the outside and without all the data, President Trump looks like the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So is Trump the orange tapeworm of American politics or a victim of an enormous witch hunt?  It seems like we’re getting ready to find out.

If he is a problem, I hope the medicine required to expel him isn’t too disruptive to the system. Maybe he’ll step down to save face, which will be the least disruptive medicine.

A generational shift

How many people under 30 use a wristwatch? Not many. They grew up using a cellphone for a time piece. These snippets of info about US golf courses shutting down might be another interesting generational shift:

”Playing golf was once a celebrated pastime. But today, many of the country’s golf courses are on the brink of shutting down or have already closed. Over 800 golf courses have shuttered across the US in the past decade, and data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has shown that millennials between the ages of 18 and 30 lack interest in playing the game.”

Do the closures reflect changing preferences for leisure activities? Since 2003, participation in golf is down 20% according to the National Golf Foundation. Plus, Nike and Adidas have stopped making golf clubs. I haven’t met many young people who play golf, most golfer I know are well past fifty.

What happens to the real estate occupied by those shuttered 800 golf courses? Maybe there’s a higher or better use for land than as golf courses. Some have donated golf course land to nature trusts and local parks, taking a tax break in return for preserving the open space. That also alleviates the fertilizers and pesticides that are needed to maintain a golf course.

The golf industry went through a building boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, driven by developers using the golf courses to help sell homes. Many shuttered courses were built on land that’s protected from redevelopment either by local zoning codes seeking to preserve open space, or by deed restrictions intended to protect homeowners who paid a premium to live near a golf course. What will they do?

I’m not for or against playing golf, but I’m curious to see how this will unfold.

Plants reaching out

We can’t perceive changes in plants because any position changes they make are too slow to be notable in realtime.

By using time-lapsed photography, some plant “movement” can be sped up. I don’t know the best descriptive word to use, but there seems to be some intention, plan, or drive behind some plant movements.

Check out Michael Pollan discussing how time-lapse photography reveals the hidden life of plants, pretty interesting.

 

Tyler Cowen and reading

Here’re a couple of observations from Ryan Holiday about Tyler Cowen the bestselling author, economist and thinker. Tyler has a blog called Marginal Revolution that I check daily.

Read However You Want — People are amazed at how much Tyler reads (it’s a lot) but they miss that he has his own set of rules for doing it. He skips around. He quits books he doesn’t like. He might read a novel from only the perspective of one of the characters. He’ll ruin the ending. He just does whatever—and so should you. This isn’t for a test. It’s for your own enjoyment (he does the same with movies apparently).

Knowledge Compounds — I think what he’s also saying there is that the value of reading compounds over time. Reading more makes you a better and faster reader, learning about stuff makes it easier and faster for you to learn more.

I read a lot, but I haven’t found that I’m reading faster as time goes by.

How to be a stoic

The stoic philosopher  Senaca said, “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Elif Batuman wrote “How to be a Stoic” for The New Yorker last year. Here’s a shortened version of it:

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, was born a slave, around 55 A.D., in present-day Turkey. The first line of his manual of ethical advice, “Some things are in our control and others not”—made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we’ll live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ ”

Most of the pain in my life came not from any actual privations or insults but, rather, from the shame of thinking they could’ve been avoided. Wasn’t it my fault that meaning continued to elude me or that my love life was a shambles? When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.

Epictetus also won me over with his tone. If you want to become a Stoic, he said, you’ll suffer losses and humiliations and yet every setback is an advantage, an opportunity for learning and glory. This is a very powerful trick.

Epictetus’ advice about not getting angry at slaves is this simple exercise: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ”

Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. Now cognitive-behavioral therapy is based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.”

If you want a good place to start checking out Stoic philosophy try Ryan Holidays’ book “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.” It’s a daily bite sized nugget from various Stoics accompanied by a short discussion of the quote. In a nutshell, use your own judgment about what’s good and ignoring what’s beyond your control.

 

 

Who gets to complain?

There’re lots of Americans  unhappy with what President Trump is doing.

If you take a look at this infographic, it’s easy to see the portions of Americans that voted as well as the portion that couldn’t be bothered to vote.

So if you’re complaining about Trump and you don’t fall into either the blue or red group, please stop.