Monday, March 31, 2008

Dith Pran Death

Follow this link to read the piece from today's Sun about one of the most prominent Cambodian-Americans, Dith Pran, who died last weekend in New Jersey. Since coming to the U.S., Dith worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the millions of atrocities committed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the late 1970s.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

No Love Lost for Stop-Loss

If I wanted to spend my own hard-earned dollars to feel belittled or degraded, I'd go to a nudie bar. But because I prefer not to do that sort of thing, I stay away. And I'll quite happily stay away from "Stop-Loss" as well.

I recently saw a headline stating that "Stop-Loss" performed terribly in its first weekend at the box office. Of course, Hollywood will offer up a million explanations for its poor performance (America isn't ready to talk about the war yet, too serious, too painful, etc.)

But what if Americans are, collectively, just too darned smart? What if American moviegoers are way more sophisticated than Hollywood gives us credit for? What if we see through the veneer of the silly thousand-and-one negative stereotypes of returning veterans that are jammed into "Stop-Loss"?

I have no idea if the average American personally knows someone who has come back from Afghanistan or Iraq. But I would bet the farm on the idea that the average American is way more likely to have a close, personal connection to the war than is the average person in Hollywood who writes, edits, produces, or directs these movies.

If Hollywood made a movie about a platoon, a company, or, heck, a brigade that deployed to Iraq and gave it a reasonably accurate portrayal of the daily victories and losses, the campaigns to win hearts and minds, the heartbreak of escalation of force incidents at checkpoints, the strain on marriages and families, the loneliness of long deployments, and most of all, the daily heroism of the American soldier who earnestly and honestly puts in endless 16- or more hour days alongside the buddies to his right and his left, people might take it more seriously.

In other words, show people the good alongside the bad.

I've spent lots of time side-by-side with young, junior enlisted marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen. None of them met some Hollywood stereotype of a dumb kid with no options or goals in life who just wants to "waste hajjis." In fact, most are far more plugged in to the nuances of Counterinsurgency (COIN) than is most of the chattering class back here in America.

If the Hollywood crowd actually went to see this for themselves, they might be surprised. In the meantime, they can keep churning out garbage like "Stop-Loss" and keep being surprised when American moviegoers say "no thanks."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Men's Health Article on Navy in Fallujah

Well, it looks like Men's Health just ran an article on Navy SOF operations in al-Anbar. There aren't too many operational details, and it's sort of a psychology piece about stress and fear management. But it's still pretty neat that they did this. Article link is below:

Hamilton Canal District Link

Well, the big news here is that I closed on the condo on Market Street today. So yes, I am officially a homeowner. Great stuff -- now I just have to figure out how to lay the place out.

I also checked out the YMCA and the VFW -- both seem like great spots.

Here's the link to the planned Hamilton Canal District site: I think this will have a strong spillover effect onto "old Downtown" assuming that the commercial spaces in the new district aren't too redundant with what's already there in the area near Central and Merrimack.

Time to run to Boston for some March Madness with the old Dutch Oven crowd..

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Whale Turd on the Ocean Floor

With all the business book reading I've been doing lately I've come across a really neat parallel between the financial world and military -- the doers are king, and the support folks play second fiddle.

I've known for some time now that this is the case in the military. At an F/A-18 squadron, for example, there are actually over 100 people. But if there are only 12 planes, that means either 12 or 24 total actively-flying aviators (depending on whether the model is configured to have a backseater). So what is everyone else?

Essentially, a window-wiper.

Whether you're the mechanic, the supply guy, the corpsman, the imagery analyst, the admin clerk, or any of the other (many) people it takes to get Goose and Maverick up in the sky, at the end of the day you're down a few rungs on the totem pole if you're not in the cockpit. Your options are either to accept your fate, get out, change your rating, or go work for a different community.

Strong-willed people are going to choose one of the latter three options, but never the first.

I had no idea it was like this in other realms, but this is a theme I keep coming across in financial literature. Several books I've come across have stated that the best talent in finance is always "closest to the money" or "running the money."

Last night I hit up Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker" in which he describes the hierarchy among traders, salesman, and analysts at Salomon Brothers in the mid-1980s. Traders are the kings, he says, while everyone else is about as low as "whale [expletive] sitting on the ocean floor." He describes the nature of the relationships in vivid, outstanding detail.

Burton Malkiel says the same thing when he disparages analysts -- essentially, he writes, the best analysts are going to jump ship to portfolio management or hedge funds.

In one of our late-evening, beer-fueled bull sessions back in our old office in Virginia Beach, my former boss (Lieutenant J.S.) explained to me why most of the strongest members of our (support) community get out -- they don't want to be the towel-holders on the sidelines while someone else is playing the game.

In my case, I'm switching over to Civil Affairs for the rest of my career mainly because I think it's a better fit for my skill set and interests. But on some level, I realize that part of my reason for the switch is that I want the opportunity to lead.

I can definitely see the parallel in finance, and I'm sure it could apply to myriad other communities as well.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Virtues of Adult Ed

I have anywhere from 1-3 years to figure this one out, but I'm still not entirely sure what I'll do as a full-time civilian career when I transition over from active duty to the Guard.

One idea that's really growing on me, though, is Adult Education -- ESL, GED, other skills, community college, junior college, etc. For the same reasons that drew me into Education after college, I'm still interested in pursuing some type of career in the field. But at the same time, I'm put off by a lot of the administrative hoopla that teachers are forced to go through and not exactly thrilled by the percentage of time teachers have to spend on disciplining students as opposed to actually teaching them.

Adult Ed might be a great way to go -- the students are more mature, they're there voluntarily, and the positive effects of the work might be even more readily apparent.

I'm going to keep this idea on the backburner. It would be a great fit with freelance writing, which I would love to get into but wouldn't exactly pay the bills, at least at first.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Phone Tree Mystery

I don't like phone trees, and neither do you. No one does. I could write here, "I'm one of those people who always hits "0" to speak to a live human being," but you are, too, and so is everyone else -- so no one can really say he or she is "one of those people."

But here's what I really don't get about phone trees -- they ask you a million questions about your account, the type of service, your shoe size, immunization history, etc. and then when you finally get to speak to a real person (your goal from the beginning) they ask it all back to you anyway. It seems like all those annoying questions and prompts haven't really gotten you anywhere.

I don't get it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Tao of Frank Lucas

I watched the film "American Gangster" last week. It was fast-paced, it was interesting, and best of all, it was a true story.

There was one quote from the movie that really resonated with me. It comes as the main character, Frank Lucas, is admonishing one of his crew for dressing too "loudly" (think Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Conway coming down on his boys in the bar just after the Lufthansa Heist).

Anyway, here's the quote: "The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room."

I love this quote because of the many ways it applies to the communities in which I work, or have recently worked.

I currently work in a Fleet Support capacity for the Navy (this means I don't have one single community but I bounce from one to another with each tour). I am coming from a community that equates professionalism with subtlety and silence. I am coming to a community that literally treats operational silence as a life-and-death matter.

But I think one of the great aspects of that quote is that "loud" can be interpreted in any of a million ways.

I think that with anything you do, it's absolutely incumbent upon you to give your best. But at the same time, it's also important to do it in a somewhat smooth and subtle way. I think the Frank Lucas quote has very clear implications for the social capital/community building stuff that I blog about so often; slow and steady is a better way to tread than is loud and over-eager -- seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

It also makes me think of a Maggie Thatcher quote that I love: "Being powerful is a lot like being a lady; if you constantly have to remind everyone about it, you're probably not."

I think the same could be said for humility. I can remember a person I knew who just went on and on for what seemed like a day talking about how humble he was. Because of our differences in rank and position, I just bit my lip...but I thought, "If you really want to be humble, just live it. Be it. But if you have to keep talking about it, you're not."

Last night I read Mira Kamdar's "Planet India." On page 207, she quotes Nita Ambani, who runs the DAIS School (a super-elite preparatory school in Mumbai). Ambani talks about the work the school does with the (many) destitute in Mumbai and her goal that "our kids come to have the spirit of compassion and caring as part of their character. They should never feel like they are doing someone a favor. It should be part of who they are."

It's the same idea, just in a totally different realm. But when I read Ambani's quote I instantly saw the connection. They're trying to raise India's next generation of leaders to have a sense of caring for their community that's just ingrained in their character -- they won't have to be "loud" about it or obnoxiously self-conscious about it.

It will just be part of who they are.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Power of Pairs

Hewlett and Packard. Gates and Allen. Buffett and Munger. Filo and Yang. Brin and Page. Wozniak and Jobs.

What do these people all have in common?

Locations? Alma maters? Almost maters?

No. The big idea is that many of America's most successful entrepreneurs and innovators work in pairs. Clearly, there are some great counterexamples (Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all quickly spring to mind) but it's somewhat striking that several of those at the pinnacle of the American high-tech or investment sectors got there with a partner.

Here's why these particular pairings are important -- it's not just that they're smart, or driven, or talented (of course, they're all of the above), but that each member of these pairs knew the other before they had 'made it.'

Why is that so important? Because frank exchanges of ideas matter. And because no one wants to tell the emperor that he's in his birthday suit. But if you knew the emperor before he was the emperor, you'd have no problem saying it. Hewlett and Packard really were 'two guys in a garage' just as Filo and Yang really were 'two guys in a dorm room.' They'd never appear that way to us, but on some level, they'll always appear that way to each other.

Most Americans immediately associate Bill Gates with Microsoft, with Seattle, or better yet, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We treat him with the same awe that we treat rock stars or other celebrities. But for the small percentage who knew him as the dorky, awkward kid from the Lakeside School (and Paul Allen happens to be a member of this group) it's a wholly altogether different image.

So when the two of them get in a room and collaborate, it's just two guys talking. If one has a bad idea, the other can call "BS!" without batting an eyelid.

But tell me who, other than Charlie Munger, is ever going to call "BS!" on an idea that comes from the revered Oracle of Omaha? No one, that's who. Not academia, not journalists, not the chattering classes, and not even the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

Everyone -- no matter how powerful or successful -- stands to benefit from something or someone who grounds them. When that's lost, the emperor is set up for a fall.

Sometimes I wonder whether the Lewinsky Affair could have been avoided if Mack McLarty or Webster Hubbell had still been in the Administration at the time. We'll never know.

We'll also never know if someone who might have had the power to prevent the self-destruction of a New York governor who had just won a true landslide victory had been pushed away before he could have had the chance to say, "Don't do this."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Brad Myles on Human Trafficking

The link below will take you to an Anderson Cooper report that features human trafficking expert Brad Myles. If there's anything to take away from it, just remember that despite the "Pretty Woman" myth -- the way popular culture makes light of, or even glamorizes, the sex trade -- the reality for the overwhelming majority of those involved is a far darker one.

There's nothing funny about that.

Being Lois Weisberg

I was just re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg" which he reprinted more or less verbatim in The Tipping Point in his chapter on "Connectors."

Who is Lois Weisberg? She's an elderly Jewish woman in Chicago who wields no tremendous financial power and holds no elective office. Yet she's one of the most powerful women in the city.

What makes Lois Weisberg powerful is that she knows, or seems to know, everyone in the city. As a result, she has a constantly updated pulse on what's going on. She can introduce people who might benefit from knowing each other but just don't know it yet, she can help point people in the right direction to help their business or non-profit ideas, and she has automatic "kingmaker" power just by virtue of the fact that she's so well plugged-in.

What makes someone a Connector? According to Gladwell, it's not what you might think -- Connectors aren't the grubby, glad-handing characters that remind you of the Tracey Flick character from Election. Connectors aren't even necessarily trying that hard; it's just sort of in their nature to take an interest in people.

Gladwell writes:

The secret to Roger Horchow and Lois Weisberg is, I think, that they have a kind of social equivalent of that instinct -- an innate and spontaneous and entirely involuntary affinity for people. They know everyone because -- in some deep and less than conscious way -- they can't help it.

I first read The Tipping Point almost five years ago but I still strongly remember the way the "Connectors" chapter inspired me to become a Connector myself. Here are two personal takeaways not explicitly mentioned in the chapter:

First, I think to be a Connector you MUST have some type of geographical root. I can't emphasize this enough -- people like Lois Weisberg become who they are only after years and years of living in more or less the same area. In the same essay, Gladwell starts to get at the idea of the proximity-friendship connection, but doesn't go on to connect the importance of place in the connecting career of a Lois Weisberg or a Paul Revere:

In one well-known study, two psychologists asked people living in the Dyckman public-housing project, in uptown Manhattan, about their closest friend in the project; almost ninety per cent of the friends lived in the same building, and half lived on the same floor. In general, people chose friends of similar age and race. But if the friend lived down the hall, both age and race became a lot less important. Proximity overpowered similarity.

My friend Nick and I were talking about communities the other night and about how there are some things that modern technology can't change or replace. One of these things is the emotional connection that real human interaction brings; of course, modern technology like cell phones and the Internet helps facilitiate this type of stuff but it can't replace it. So, if you're trying to build a community for yourself in Hartsdale (as one of our mutual friends is) he'd in many ways be better off focusing on Hartsdale and the area immediately surrounding it (say, that whole portion of Westchester just over the Tappan Zee) than using the Internet to meet people in southern New Jersey or central Connecticut. That's way harder to do in the first place, and then even harder over time to sustain. Plus, by spreading yourself out so thinly, you would lose the "cascading effect" that significant social capital in Hartsdale might bring you.

Another thing that's valuable is an ability to recognize the tremendous power of acquaintance. Mark Granovetter famously wrote about "The Strength of Weak Ties" in his seminal work "Finding a Job." Gladwell and Robert Putnam cited it a lot in their work, and the basic idea is that people find jobs not so much through immediate, close friends, but through looser acquaintances and friends-of-friends.

Both Gladwell and Putnam give similar explanations for Granovetter's findings -- because friends occupy similar spheres, they are likely to only know about the job opportunities, housing opportunities, etc. that you already know about. Your acquaintances, however, may have access to entirely different networks and the benefits they'd bring.

But here's a far more realist (though you can call it cynical if you want) interpretation: Eventually, familiarity really will breed contempt. The big idea here is that you are pretty much going to like everyone you meet at first. Lacking full information, you'll just fill in the gaps with positives and get along just fine. However, as you get to know someone, you will see a fuller range of both their virtues and faults. In addition, intense relationships (like siblings and close friends) can be breeding grounds for envy, jealousy, and resentment. So sometimes it may perversely be those closest to you who are not necessarily "rooting" for your success.

As a result, acquaintances may be the most likely sources of vital information (not to mention that usually, there are just more of them).

Before I conclude, let me say that I am in no way disparaging the idea of friendship or of deep, meaningful relationships with people. But I will say that for the vast majority of people you meet, the best plane for you both to co-exist on is some type of unstated but mutually understood loose acquaintanceship with few expectations or demands. A small number will become good friends, and a very small number will become very good friends. That's just the practical reality, given your varied tastes, interests, and perhaps most important, time constraints.

And that's okay

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Casino Plan: First Reaction

I will start this entry by admitting I have very scant knowledge of Gov. Patrick's casino plan. But here's my first reaction:

As House Speaker diMasi joked at the St. Patty's Day breakfast, "The House always wins." Hopefully, the State House, and not any would-be casino owners will win in this case. Because when "The House" is a small number of people, and the losers are a large number (presumably a large percentage of whom are Bay Staters), the net cost to the Commonwealth will be greater than the gain in tax revenues.

How much will the social losses from gambling and gambling-related problems affect the Commonwealth's social services? Its banks? Its families?

My first instinct to all this is just to say that I don't want it here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Balkanized Parishes?

On the one hand, it seems like a great idea for churches to offer services in multiple languages. It enables them to say - rightly - that they have a diverse group of parishioners. But one negative effect I think it has is that it basically splits the congregation up into disparate groups.

If you break down the word "congregation" into its roots, it's supposed to refer to bringing people together. I think you do a better job of that with a single service.

I'm open-minded to what that *single service* would be. I think churches could be creative with the way they do this -- they could alternate from week-to-week with all-English, all-Spanish, all-Khmer masses, etc. Or they could mix up a single mass with elements of each. But I think the real key has to be one central weekly event (or the same event held at different times) that unites the group.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hamilton Canal Meeting

I went to the Hamilton Canal Meeting at Memorial Auditorium this morning. The plans (as laid out by Trinity Financial) are pretty phenomenal. It's going to take a few years before it becomes reality, but I really believe the plan is going to remake downtown.

But more than anything, I was impressed with the meeting itself. The room was literally standing-room only and there were tons of questions at the end from the crowd. There were downtowners, out-of-towners, UMLers, developers, city employees, city councilors, and even a city manager. Tocqueville himself would have been proud.

That reminds me of something -- a couple people have asked me why I call the blog "The New Englander" even though I'm not really *from* New England. Well, my initial response is that as a voluntary immigrant to the region, I am no less a New Englander than anyone who comes to the U.S. from a foreign country is American.

But there's more to it, of course. Having grown up in the mid-Atlantic and having lived in the South for a few years, I can tell you I haven't seen anything like this before -- either in terms of seriously thought-out urban planning or real civic engagement.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Lowell's Uniqueness

Today, Dick Howe and I were at Brew'd Awakening talking about (among other interesting things in the world) New England's small cities.

It's a common theme among many small cities here in Massachusetts -- blighted, under-served downtowns that were once vibrant and still maintain some of their physical beauty (if you can look past the vacant buildings and some of the urban decay). The story is usually the same, and it involves a lost prosperity after [insert name of industry] left town.

Dick made a great point about how geography plays a big role in how cities are coping with change. And by geography he meant more than its proximity to other things (i.e. Boston) but the actual layout and physical size of the city.

Because Lowell has a large downtown AND several middle-class neighborhoods AND a couple neighborhoods with beautiful Victorian homes worth close to a million bucks, it's a great long-term option for a lot of different types of folks. As a result, you've got a strong core of people who stay in the city (for good reason) for years and years -- these people have a vision for the city's future, a clear stake in its success, and they've got civic pride. They also maintain their "street cred" as decisionmakers in the city by maintaining a residence within the city limits.

Other, comparable Bay State small cities, on the other hand, are far more limited in actual space. So, when you've got your Acre but without your Belvidere and Upper Highlands, or even a Pawtucketville thrown in there, it's less likely that residents will stay as their families and incomes expand. Their equivalent of a Belvidere probably falls within the limits of an entirely different municipality.

I've driven around Lowell's nicer neighborhoods and some of the properties up there are as breathtaking as any I've seen in places like Bergen or Westchester counties.

This seems like a great selling point for the city, and I'm not sure how many Bay Staters who sneer at Lowell realize that you can essentially buy a mansion here for what a townhouse might cost you in Cambridge.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Offer is In...

Well, it took some searching but I think I found my ideal place -- 6th (top) floor of the building, end unit, two stories, tons of room (1500+ sq. ft.), and barely over $200k. Not shabby, huh? Oh, and there's a view of all of downtown. And the maintenance fee includes heat, so I'm protected from crazy energy bill-related surprises during any cold New England winters.

Lots of stuff going on in town for St. Patrick's Day, as you might imagine.

Monday, March 10, 2008

See What I Mean?

Well, look what runs in the Sun at the same time we learn about Mr. Spitzer. Please note that none of the johns or prostitutes mentioned in this story had any special privacy right.

Dear Mr. Spitzer

Dear Mr. Spitzer,

I would like to start by reminding you that if you really wanted to be a *private* citizen, you could have -- but you have chosen a public life. So don't hide behind some imaginary cloak of privacy now.

Secondly, I just want to remind you that for ANY citizen to engage in criminal activity is not a 'private' matter. Yes, what you and your family do behind closed doors really is private (within legal bounds, of course), but you should be held to that same legal standard that any other citizen would for engaging in illicit activity outside of the home.

Please just go away. Use your half-billion dollars for the legal protection you'll need, retreat to your *privacy,* and don't tell me about it.

Yours truly,
The New Englander

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Unfunniness of Private Jokes

To revisit the subject of "unfunny" I wish to point out that groups of friends often fail to realize that their own private jokes are not funny to others.

If you and your friends think it's hysterical that you go out and make up outlandish stories about what you do (i.e. "We're the Olympic luge team" or "We move in-ground outdoor pools for a living") good for you. But no one else finds it funny. No one else cares.

Also, don't embarrass the groom at a wedding with an off-color speech based on some private joke of yours. It's inappropriate (remember, there are families at weddings) and it doesn't serve any purpose. It's just not funny.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Will Ferrell and Dane Cook as the Unfunny

As my profile and some past entries indicate, I'm a huge fan of stand-up and sketch comedy. I love a lot of the great comics and also admire a lot of what SNL alums have done since the show, to include most of what's come from Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, and of course Phil Hartman before his untimely death.

However, as a connoisseur of comedy I am offended by cheap "insta-humour" [sic] in probably the same way some wine snob somewhere cringes when he sees people buying Boone's Farm or something out of a box.

My public enemies #1 and #2 are Will Ferrell and Dane Cook.

Will Ferrell relies almost exclusively on sight gags, insta-humour, and overdone slapstick. He's not doing or saying anything original or subtle, but he's playing the same over-acted character who throws out popular expressions and wears insta-funny getups (HAHAHAHA! Will Ferrell is wearing knee-high socks and sweatbands!! HAHAHHAHA!! Does that outfit really say Wonder Bread?!?!? Oh no he didn't!!! Hey, it's the tighty-whitey gag again!!)

Dane Cook is possibly even worse. His observational 'comedy' is neither insightful nor even funny (Did you ever notice when you take a girl to the movies, she'll walk past the candy once and say 'I don't want any,' and then later she changes her mind...What's up with that?) And his physical comedy isn't really funny, either. Jim Carrey, by contrast, did some AWESOME physical comedy stuff in the early to mid-1990s by bringing a unique energy and passion to his work (just think about the greatness of Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, and the Mask). Dane Cook relies on these unfeeling 'outbursts' and sudden bodily contortions that don't really flow with the rest of what he does or add anything to the routine itself.

I am working on my own Dane Cook parody that I will happily perform next time I see you in person.

As for Will Ferrell, I would literally rather listen to two seventh-graders just repeat stuff they heard on Family Guy or South Park than watch his new basketball movie.

Badgering the Single: A Recipe for Annoyance

Want to learn how to annoy the living heck out of your single co-workers and friends? It's actually quite simple:

1. Continually badger them with unsolicited advice and offers of consolation. Never mind the fact that you're in your twenties and are already married or almost-married to someone you first met before you could legally drink a beer -- just put on some rose-tinted glasses and hearken back to your imaginary 'macking' glory days and remind said single friends about 'how easy it is...really,' with a special brand of condescension that's absent any true self-awareness.

2. Continually annoy them every time you're out in public by poking them in the ribs and making a scene every time an attractive member of the opposite sex walks by. Remember, you must be unyielding in exercising your power to annoy. You must somehow find a way to do this even when the comments are totally inappropriate and/or un-called for. Never mind that your single friend(s) may be enjoying whatever other activity is going on, and never mind the futility of pointing out the mere presence of a complete stranger walking in the opposite direction 50 meters away. Pausing to consider either factor would be to shirk your sacred duty.

3. Yap away at will, but be sure to turn off your 'I'm listening' button every time one of your single friends opens his/her mouth. Be really over-aggressive and fidgety every time you go out by constantly saying "We're totally going to find you someone," but be sure to remain unresponsive when you hear back, "...But I'm just here to have a good time." Readily offer all your 'theories' -- both original and borrowed -- to show your complete mastery of the social sphere (remember, you may not be 'book smart' but you sure are 'street smart.') However, should you pause the verbal oscillations long enough to take a breath, be sure to ignore whatever comes back to you, especially if it's of the nature "Hey, man, just relax, I'm looking to.." or "I'm hoping to find x via y..." etc.

Just remember, when all else fails, just throw equal parts 'overbearing' and 'condescending' into the mix while sprinkling on your 'original folk wisdom' as appropriate for flavoring. Baste in a lemon-based sauce for tartness and add a dash of paprika before serving.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Let me start this entry by saying that I'm a huge fan of Dan Ariely's book and his blog. I am going to continue to follow his research closely because I think a lot of what he does with behavioral economics (basically, the intersection of economics and psychology) can have serious implications on public policy.

However, one experiment I didn't *buy* from his book "Predictably Irrational" is that of the gift certificate giveaway. Here's how it works:

At a local mall (I'm guessing he did this at the Galleria in Cambridge) Ariely's MIT minions presented shoppers with two choices: a) a FREE! $10 gift certificate to Amazon, or b) a $20 gift certificate to Amazon, for which they'd have to pay $7.

Amazingly, he reports, many shoppers chose option (a), which he implies was an irrational decision. [His larger point is supposed to be about how the FREE! label leads consumers to make irrational decisions (i.e. buy THIS car and I'll give you FREE! oil changes for a year, or waste an hour standing in line for a FREE! otherwise inexpensive item)].

Ariely finds option (a) to have been irrational, because it puts the consumer "up" $10 whereas option (b) puts the consumer "up" $13.

I'm not sure I agree. If I had been one of those mall shoppers, I know I would have chosen the first option because of the problem of slippage between cup and lip. With the $20 certificate, I'm dropping $7 on something I didn't necessarily want in the first place. I don't know if it's part of some scam, but more likely, knowing myself, I'm afraid I'll either lose it, or not use it before it expires (if it does).

I know I'm not alone in saying this -- my personal track record with mail-in rebates, gift certificates, cards, direct-mail coupons, etc. is not perfect. On top of that, I'm not a frequent Amazon shopper.

If I were both a frequent Amazon shopper and I were more meticulous with personal paperwork, I might view option (b) as a clearly superior alternative. But because I'm neither of the above, I don't view an Amazon gift certificate as the equivalent of cash.

If I were a frequent Galleria patron (say I ate there for lunch every day with a friend and we collectively spent $20) and were approached just before eating with the alternatives of either a FREE! $10 food court gift certificate or a $20 food court gift certificate for $7 (or $3.50 apiece), I believe that in that case we'd choose option (b), because only then would both options be as good as cash.

Monday, March 3, 2008

9/11 Conspiracy Theories: All the Fun Without the Work!

Well, it turns out that some idiot French actress who just won the Academy Award for her Edith Piaf portrayal believes -- hold on to your hats here -- that 9/11 was perpetrated by American business interests because "it was less expensive to demolish" the towers than it would have been to perform needed structural upgrades. I am not making this up.

Here's the "Inconvenient Truth" that the 9/11 nutjobs on the Internet need to learn -- on September 11, 2001, 19 Arab men hijacked four commerical, domestic flights and rammed those planes into three buildings and one field. The U.S. Government did not 'invent' these people. All the 9/11 hijackers (plus Zacarias Moussaoui) lived well-documented lives and received well-documented training before, during, or after their process of radicalization.

The 9/11 attack was masterminded by a man named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He is a real guy who is really the uncle of Ramzi Yusuf (First WTC attack planner, also a real guy who is really sitting in the real Supermax in Colorado). KSM was also a close associate of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni who was also involved in the 9/11 planning and organization.

You can read about all of these individuals via the copious amounts of open-source literature easily available at your local Barnes & Noble or Borders. You can read about their ideologies, their education, family background, etc. You can read about the exact details of their plans as they unfolded. You can learn about Operation Bojinka and several other of their plans. You can do this by reading books written by Americans, Brits, Pakistanis, Afghanis, and numerous other authors -- none of whom are employed by Dick Cheney or Halliburton or Unocal.

But that would take effort! Think about all the hours that would cost you, let alone the cost of the books and articles themselves! That doesn't sound like any fun. Just think about how much easier it would be to watch one or two misleading Internet films that spout pseudo-intellectual babble like the ponderous rhetorical question, "Who benefits?" You can use one corner of your mouth to talk about government incompetence and stupidity (after all, a person of your intellectual grandeur would never work with those plebeians), while using the other corner of your mouth to talk about a bizarre science-fiction fantasy that would literally have required thousands of talented operators, somehow all sworn to secrecy!

If you're interested in learning what really happened on 9/11, all the information is out there.

But why make the effort?

A Globe Op-Ed on Clinton, Obama

Elinor Lipman wrote an outstanding op-ed in the Globe today about her decision to favor Senator Obama over Senator Clinton in the Democratic primary race. Her main point? Stop overemphasizing identity politics when determining individual voter decisions in 2008. Here's how it concluded:

Am I not allowed to gravitate toward that baseline human trait? That's how we live our lives, favoring the even-tempered over the snappish, the deft over the tone-deaf. Advantage, Senator Obama.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Lowell Film Festival

To everyone in Greater NW Boston reading this -- check out this link for the film festival downtown next month --

Dick, thanks again for sending the link -- this looks like it's got some great stuff.

The Great American Middle

The American government has an actual statistical measure by which it defines poverty -- it's based on half the median household income and it's adjusted for the number of people in the household. However, there is no standard definition for "rich" in American society, so we are left on our own to figure it out.

Well, what's the mirror saying back to us? According to a recent poll, 7% of Americans consider themselves "poor" while 1% consider themselves rich. That means a whopping 92% of Americans consider themselves "working-class" or "middle class."

Impossible, you say? How can this be? Shouldn't we have some kind of a neat 33/33/33 split? Not necessarily. The Richter scale (earthquakes) and the Saffir-Simpson scale (hurricanes) don't work that way, and America doesn't have to, either.

The Richter scale is logarithmic, not arithmetic -- a 5.0 is 10 times stronger than a 4.0, 100 times stronger than a 3.0, 1000 times stronger than a 2.0, etc. Not only do "10 Scale" earthquakes not represent 10% of all seismic activity, there's never been one. And a "9 Scale" earthquake only happens on average every 20 years.

To be much cruder, just imagine a bunch of guys rating girls at a bar. They're not going to hand out "9" or "10" ratings to 20% of the women, are they? No way. A clear mode rating will fall somewhere around the middle with ratings like "1" and "10" used extremely sparingly.

So now that we've established that not all scales have to be arithmetic, what do we do about class?

Well, let's start by acknowledging that we're dealing with something extremely complicated and touchy -- because the American mythic ideal is based on a rags to riches story, having started a few yards ahead when the gun went off is somehow seen as 'bad.'

But we need some baseline to separate super-upper-extreme special middle class from flat-out "upper class." Here's what I propose: the line between upper-middle class and upper-class should be based off the difference between wealth and income. People who depend primarily on income to sustain their standard of living are middle-class. And by that definition, it's totally within bounds for most people who live in places like La Jolla, Scarsdale, Bronxville, Short Hills, Wilmette, Potomac, or Dover to refer to themselves as upper middle-class. Even if it seems ridiculous to you, someone there with a healthy six-figure income is still dealing with a significant tax burden and high overhead. If they were suddenly cut loose from their income, their lifestyle would become unsustainable.

By contrast, someone like a Getty, a Bass, or a Dupont could legitimately be called upper class -- they could spend all their days staring at their walls or golfing and it would take generations before their net worth was even dented. They are basically impervious to outside factors like market vicissitudes or corporate layoffs. And despite they way others might see them, that's not necessarily the case for people trying to support their families in places like Lexington, Andover, or Brookline.

For the record, I come from a leafy suburb where I was always physically safe growing up and received a top-notch public k-12 education. My parents saved and paid the lion's share of five years of higher ed (bills from the university only) before they cut the line from the rod. I make no bones about any of that -- I am and always will be grateful for it. I'll never lie about that or hide it (except to joke about the military being my degree from the 'school of hard knocks'). In fact, I am literally wearing Luke 12:48 -- "To whomever much is given, much will be required" -- over my heart.

But I won't allow any of that to be caricatured, either.

I haven't taken a dime since finishing school in '03 -- not for a car, a down payment, or anything else -- and don't ever plan to. I try not to get defensive about it but I find it curious when my personal situation/background gets caricatured into something it's not (possibly because of what the Behvorial Economist Santosh Anagol calls the "All or Nothing Bias"). Curiously enough, this comes almost exclusively from peers who have been given and/or now have even more -- in some cases, far more -- materially. I'm not even going to get into why this is (it shouldn't take Carl Jung to figure out), but just try to be even-handed and not defensive in my correction of the caricature.

And to wrap this entry up, here are three facts about the Forbes 400 you probably didn't know:

1. 4 of the 5 richest Americans do not have a Bachelor's degree (all are self-made, too)
2. 7 of the 10 richest college-educated Americans went to public universities.
3. 70% of the Forbes 400 as of 2006 are self-made. That number is up 15% from 1982 when the list first came out.

I don't know how those numbers compare to other advanced democracies but I would suspect we're way ahead in terms of mobility/flexibility among this elite group.

Social Capital and Active Duty

The passage below is lifted from the website

What does "social capital" mean? The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"].

How does social capital work? The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and - at least sometimes - for bystanders as well.

I'll give more examples of this value as time goes on but if you want any single go-to authority on the subject, I'd recommend Robert Putnam, who authored both Bowling Alone (which describes the effects of lost social capital in American society) and Better Together (which describes real-life examples of how communities have benefitted from renewed social capital.

Being on active duty means constantly being uprooted from whatever community you're in (hence my desire to eventually switch over to become a Civil Affairs Officer, i.e. 'nation-builder' in the Massachusetts Army National Guard -- they can deploy me but never make me move). And constantly moving means always being a stranger.

The dictionary defines stranger in a very neutral-sounding way: a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance. However, anyone who has ever been to elementary school knows that this word is far from neutral -- strangers are something you are taught to fear (and possibly for good reason!) In popular American culture, everyone from the Doors' Jim Morrison to whoever wrote the 'Cheers' theme song knew that being a stranger is never ideal.

For some people, however, anonymity may be totally okay -- they value their privacy above interpersonal relationships, they may already have their 'community' in their own immediate family, or they can always find instant 'community' wherever they are via a distinct ethnic identity.

I am not one of those people. I don't know if it comes from being a complete extrovert, from a lifelong intense interest in interpersonal behavior, from what David Brooks calls 'the need for recognition' or maybe just the comfort of knowing there's someone I actually could call if I were broken down by the side of the road at 3 a.m. Maybe it's the feeling of wanting to belong to something bigger that drove me towards the military in the first place. When I explained this to my friends Steve and Liza, they captured it as "not wanting to start from scratch every time you leave your house."

The 'whys' are interesting but they're not necessarily super-relevant or possible to uniquely identify. What I can identify, however, is how frustrating the past five years of living without any social capital or other appreciable sense of community have been.**

** The one stark exception to this has been the time spent actually deployed...but that represents only 15 total months of this period.