Monthly Archives: September 2006

dynasties and American politics

Whill26I’ve been think a lot about dynasties … and I don’t think it is good for America …

Particular the Clintons and the Bushes. If Hillary Clinton wins in 2008 (I would say that is a good possibility) and goes two terms … and then she is followed by Jeb Bush for two terms (another possibility) …

In every presidential election from 1980 – 2020 (or 32 yrs), either a Clinton or a Bush will have been on the winning the presidential ticket. That makes us look like a development nation with a struggling democracy.

Already a Bush or a Dole has been on the Republican presidential ticket since 1976 (28 yrs).
And are we ready for a Chelsea Clinton vs George P Bush in 2032? (they’ll both be about 50 then).

Do we really want presidential politics dominated by just a few families? This isn’t to say that a member of a family dynasty can’t be a good President. It is only to be very wary of concentrated power.

Our founding fathers were very concerned about dynasties. It isn’t coincidence that out of our first five Presidents, only Adams had a son. And Adams was very telling. He was the only one of the first five Presidents to last only one term and, to prove the power of dynasties, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth President.

ipod disaster

i finanally gave in and bought an ipod. yeah … it’s awesome. until it crashed three days after i bought it (a combo of upgrading to itunes 7 and unplugging it from my computer too fast). well … many hours later after trying a gazillion different things to no avail … i finally tried defragging the ipod’s hard drive and that did the trick. now it connects just fine (at least for the next few weeks)….

book: Stumbling on Happiness

ShlStumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

It is my great pleasure that I listened to this book. Yes, I loved it. Loved it. One of the best books I have EVER read. Read it now.

I have been evangelizing this book ever since I was 1/3 of the way through … and have convinced a lot of people to make the leap … and the read.

Happiness is not what is seems. It is about predicting your future self and understanding your past … things we, as humans, do not do very well. Even kids do not make us as happy as we think.

We tend to justify things to ourselves. If we spend a lot of time on something, we think it makes us happy.

We accent endings. The book discusses an experiment of men getting rectal exams (not something very pleasurable). The control group was given a normal exam that took X time. The experimented group had an exam that took 20% longer … but the last 20% was not as bad or as painful (though it was still bad). … amazingly enough, patients from the experimented group claimed that their exam was not as bad as patients from the control group — even though the experimented group had the same exam and then an extra 20%! And the proof was in subsequent behavior: the experimented group had a much higher rate of getting future exams than the control group.

And people are really bad predicting how things will make us feel. We tend to over-emphasize how bad things will make us feel sad or how good things will make us feel happy. There was a great experiment at USC where they asked students how they thought they would feel if the football team lost on an upcoming Saturday. Students tended to think that they would be really sad or really happy depending on the outcome. What they did not realize was that there are other factors (fun parties: happy, studying for tests: sad) that also factor into one’s happiness. In fact — even if a really horrible tragedy happens (like your child dies), you will likely eventually get over it. Humans bounce back well.

Even more interesting … people tend to remember events as they thought it made them feel … not as they actually felt. These students from USC who were asked about the football game and then followed-up with … when asked about the event many months later they tended to remember the event as they thought it would make them feel. This is really amazing.

And these thoughts are from just a few pages in the book. Read this now. The book it thought-provoking, easy-to-read, very witty, and funny too. (and thanks to Gwen Campbell, Courtney Smith, and others for convincing me to read it). You’ll love it. Definitely my favorite book of 2006 and one of my all-time favorites.

practice being an entrepreneur

I know a lot of people who want to be an entrepreneur, want to open their own business, but their not sure if they are right for it. They’ve been at a large company or have been in government.

My past advice: do it.

But I have been thinking about it more and realized entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It is for a lot of people and maybe even most people, but not for everyone.

My new advice: practice.

Yes … practice being an entrepreneur.

Before having kids (which are a lot of responsibility), many couples first might try getting a plant. Then seeing how they handle the watering responsibility. Then they might get some fish. And then a dog. And then, after they get a hang of it, they might chime in with some kids.

Practice first

That same concept could apply to being an entrepreneur.

Maybe you’re in school — start a small student club. If that goes well, start a student movement.

Or you’re working full-time … so start a blog or some small web site. See how it goes. See if you like the responsibility of constantly adding to it and marketing it. Then maybe put advertising on it.

It is a good idea to try to walk before you run. For many people, you might want to practice being an entrepreneur by doing something small yet tangible before jumping into it.

On commonalities, communities, and edamame

About two and a half years ago I did what every entrepreneur does when taking a break in-between companies … I took a stand-up comedy class.

After years of giving speeches at tech conferences, finance conferences, and staffing conferences where people were evidently laughing at my jokes … I thought I was actually funny.

Turns out comedy is harder than I thought. Yup … really hard.

So I decided to take a class where I wouldn’t know any of the students (easier to fail in front of a bunch of strangers) so I took an artsy class deep in the San Francisco’s Mission District. Sure enough, I knew no one. In fact, of the 12 students, only one other was in technology and one didn’t even use email.

For the class we had to write jokes and perform them. I wrote a long punchy shtick about edamame. I love the name edamame … I think it sounds really funny. Just say it five times in wacky voices … edamame, edamame, edamammeh … you just can’t help but laugh.

But my class did not find it very funny. In fact, pretty much no one laughed (I think one person actually laughed at me). So after the shtick was done I asked the class why I bombed so hard and … and …

No one in the class had ever heard of “edamame”

Now before I took the class I would have never guessed that someone living in San Francisco could not know what edamame is. My guess is that 96% of my friends and family not only know of edamame but they’ve tried the tasty beans and salt. Mmmmm.

But we all live in our own self-made bubble. It is actually not that odd at all that people don’t know what edamame is. Actually, as I sit here and type this, even my Microsoft spell-checker doesn’t know “edamame.” So the crazy engineers at MSFT might not get my jokes either (though I bet they at least order the seaweed salad).

So now you know why all jokes are about relationships, sex, and going to the bathroom. Because these are commonalities that bind us all. We all go through that (unless we’re experiencing extreme constipation).

It is very tough to bring a community together. We see that on the Internet (where communities are often very narrow … like Dogster (people who have dogs and really love dogs). And most diverse communities, like MySpace, are about sex and relationships.

So I sit here … pondering … munching some very tasty edamame

Biz idea: Stop smoking, help society, make money

PirateIn theme of putting up crazy business ideas … here’s one … Let’s create a new cigarette brand.

I know what you’re thinking … ehhh Hoffman, you’ve got a few loose screws. And while that is probably true … indulge me for a second …

We’ll call our brand of cigarettes “Death”

The slogan will be “smoking WILL kill you.”

And instead of a cowboy or a hot model or a crazy cartoon camel, this cigarette mascot will be a skull and cross bones. Yes, stay away. It is Death.

We’d put something like this on the packaging: “We suggest you do not smoke. All the executives at Death do not smoke because we know smoking will kill you and it will kill others around you.”

792Would this sell? Not sure. But my guess is that there is a large enough audience of smokers out there who are tired of big tobacco lying to them and pushing cigarettes on kids. Death would be just the opposite. We’d be very up front with our customers — we will probably kill you and we don’t think you should buy our product.

“Death” might encourage people not to take up smoking or to quit.

Truth in advertising might actually work.

risk aversion in intelligence analysis

One of the things I have been doing for Rapleaf is talking to people that gather and analyze intelligence. We’re very interested in systems that gather discreet pieces of info and put them together to find patterns and good intelligence.

while talking to intelligence officers (mostly those in the US govt) i found something very interesting: an incredible fear of failure. the fear for a false positive (falsely identifying something) is so incredibly high that these officers err on the side of massive false negatives (in this case, not going out on a limb or being creative).

essentially, they seem highly risk averse … and there seems to be very good reason to be risk averse as a false positive is often a career ending move in many intelligence services (often yielding to career stagnation or even firing).

somehow … and i’m not sure how … we need to reward people for being wrong. and then protect those people. encourage good mistakes (not stupid mistakes — there is a big difference).

of course, i’m not an intelligence expert … but the fear amongst analysts is so pervasive that it MUST be a signal of an endemic problem.

The ‘starfish model’ for the war on terrorism

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom have published an interesting article in the SF Chronicle today on facing and combatting terrorism:

The ‘starfish model’ for the war on terrorism …. How to counter a decentralized foe

i highly recommend reading this. it is from the authors of the new upcoming book Starfish and the Spider.


In the 1980s, headlines told of radicals waging a secret war, of hidden cells and of the FBI’s inability to do anything about them. They weren’t talking about al Qaeda, but about the Animal Liberation Front, which took direct action on behalf of animals (i.e., broke into labs). Some applauded the ALF’s efforts; others condemned them. But the FBI wasn’t able to contain these tofu-eating activists. The more aggressively the ALF was pursued, the more easily it recruited new members.

Like AA, the ALF lacked formal leadership, top-down hierarchy and structure. It was just a loose collection of informal circles linked by common beliefs. But its seemingly chaotic structure made it incredibly resilient to attack. The ALF drew its power from its decentralization.

fake flavoring phonies

TwizzlersbigI was talking to Angie Schiavoni the other day and she said something profoundly interesting:

Why don’t grape candies taste anything like grapes? Fruit flavoring tastes really nothing like the fruit … strawberry/cherry/watermelon/grape/peach/pineapple/etc flavoring is totally different from the real thing.

Isn’t this weird? Even more odd … why have I never thought of this before?

Even more odd:
Every candy seems to use the exact-tasting fruit flavors. Eat one strawberry candy and it will taste almost identical to another strawberry candy — even though they are from very different brands and even though neither of them actually taste the same as a strawberry. (and I love both real strawberries and strawberry candies)

And the flavors are totally arbitrary. Angie pointed out that if the initial Wizard who created these flavors switched the strawberry and cherry flavoring, we’d would have probably conformed to the flavors in the same way. But now, many years later, we’d all freak-out if the powers that be suddenly switched the cherry and strawberry flavors. “That’s NOT a cherry candy, it is strawberry,” we’d say. And we’d be right.

Book: Complete Adventures of Curious George

039575410001lzzzzzzzThe Complete Adventures of Curious George by H. A. Rey and H.A. Rey

When I was in nursery school, my favorite books were Curious George. I mean, the little monkey is so curious — he always gets into trouble, causes a ruckus, but ultimately all is well.

So I decided to reread the series and bought The Complete Adventures of Curious George.

I found that though this is a great bed-time story for a 3 year-old immature boy, it is also a great bed-time story for a 32-year-old immature boy. I loved it all over again.

memories of 9/11

today is a good day to look back and reflect. 9/11 seems like a long time ago to me … much more than five years. yet it also seems like yesterday.

a few days after 9/11, i had an odd and somewhat humorous experience … i was visited by the FBI. the agent was extremely professional and curteous and i’m glad we have people like him helping our country.

back in october 2001 when i was still doing Summation push-style (in an old-school email newsletter), i sent out this summary of my one and only FBI encounter [see original here]:

MY VISIT FROM THE FBI (published October 1, 2001)

On Friday, September 15, just three days after the horrible terrorist attacks, I got an e-mail from my roommate.

“Subject: You had a visitor.”

“A FBI agent just stopped by the house and would like to talk with you. He said he was following up a lead where your name was referenced. I don’t think it is a big deal – he was alone and not super pressed to talk with you.”

“I have his card. His name is XXXX XXXX. His phone number is ####. He will need to talk with you face to face and said he would meet you anywhere in the city.”

I got the e-mail at 2:47 pm and wanting to help in any way I could, I immediately called the FBI agent and left a message. By 3:30 pm he was in my office interviewing me.

He flashed a badge. I’ve never seen an FBI badge before, but this one looked legitimate. He gave me his card. His title: “Special Agent.” He took a seat on my couch. I sat back in my chair.

My first inclination was that this was about one of the many security references I’ve done for former employees of mine that went on to work in sensitive areas of the government. The FBI does background checks on anyone who gets an offer for a sensitive job. Was my friend who used to work for the NSA in trouble? Unlikely. What about the quiet woman who now works for the Justice Department? Who could it be?

Then he pulled out a copy of an e-mail I sent on Sunday, September 9, just two days before the horrible attack. The e-mail was an advanced copy of a future Summation article (will be in next month’s Summation) comparing the Israeli terrorist situation to a fictional scenario in America.

Also, you might remember in the last issue of Summation (see letters below) I wrote a column entitled “U.S. Homeland Security Agency is Unavoidable” (see I wrote this column in July and wrote the paragraph:

“The occurrence of a major terrorist act on U.S. soil within the next ten years is almost a certainty. I’m not just talking about the bombing of the Twin Towers. I’m talking about something more serious, something that would result in the killing of thousands of people, is inevitable. This is the dangerous world we live in.”

I have never been more sad that one of my predictions came true. Of course, my ten year time horizon was far too optimistic. Turns out it was more like 10 weeks.

Read the last Summation — my thoughts which were released just eight weeks before the event seem like they were written today. I guess that’s why I was visited by the FBI Special Agent.

Agent: “Did you have any prior knowledge to Tuesday’s actions?”

Auren: “Absolutely not.”

Agent: “Do you know or have any connection to Osama bin Laden?”

Auren: “No. I’m Jewish.”

Agent: “Do you have a criminal record?”

Auren: “I don’t think so.”

Agent: “Correct — I checked your criminal record. You don’t have a record.”

The interview only lasted 20 minutes and the agent was only following-up on a lead. Normally I’d be mad at someone taking time out of my day to interview me. But I understand he had to interview me that Friday. I’m glad he did — we should follow-up on every lead possible.

I hope we never have a day like September 11th again. Unfortunately, I know another day of terror is going to be extremely difficult to prevent.