Monthly Archives: January 2008

book: The Math Gene (love numbers)

The Math Gene
How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip
by Keith Devlin

Professor Keith Devlin is really interesting. i’ve gotten to know him over the last two years and have always enjoyed his analysis of science, math, and public policy. Devlin’s book, The Math Gene, is a joy. (it is also a small book … very easy for plane travel)

It is not comfortable to be made uncomfortable

This is a big wave in television comedy programming to make the user uncomfortable. Shows like Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office are trying to be funny and keep you squirming in your chair at the same time. And I guess they work because these are all highly popular shows. To me, however, they make me a little too uncomfortable to enjoy the comedy at the same time.

Being made uncomfortable is often very important for our development. One of the best books I have ever read is We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch — a harrowing story of the Rwandan genocide — a book that continually keeps you uncomfortable through the very last page. But being made uncomfortable in a comedy is another experience. While long been a part of British humor, it seems to be taking the new continent by storm.

As a comedy, I prefer experiences that are funny or uplifting (like High Fidelity — one of my favorite movies) or just absurd (like Seinfeld) and I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy these new crop of high-minded comedies that are designed to make us cringe.

Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (read this book)

The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain
by Simon Baron-Cohen

Baron-Cohen gives a great understanding of autism and the extreme male brain. If you are interested in psychology and many of the tested differences between men and women, this is an interesting book. Baron-Cohen has a lot of deep insights … unfortunately he also draws a lot of unsupported conclusions that don’t seem to add up. To really get a lot out of this book, you’ll have to carefully make your own judgments as to which of the conclusions you should believe.

(also – the second half of the book is FAR more interesting than the first half … so if you are suffering in the first half, just skip ahead)

(special thank you to Courtney Smith for sending me the book)

Higher wine prices boost drinking pleasure (people are sheep)

yet another article in the people-are-sheep category, Jonathan Abrams sent me this article:
Higher wine prices boost drinking pleasure: study

Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology found that because people expect wines that cost more to be of higher quality, they trick themselves into believing the wines provide a more pleasurable experience than less expensive ones.

The researchers said that when 20 adult test subjects sampled the same wine at different prices, they reported experiencing pleasure at significantly greater levels when told the wine cost more. At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for pleasure showed significant activity.

people are hard-wired to believe that things that cost more MUST be better. like a Rolex watch must be better than a Seiko watch (it isn’t) or a low-end Mercedes must be better than a Toyota (it isn’t either). but the brand makes you feel better. and that’s what people are paying for.

I have a friend who owns a very successful club in San Francisco. The number one drink ordered is a Kettle One (high end vodka) and Red Bull. Now most vodka come from the same stock and there isn’t any proof that one vodka is more likely to prevent hangovers than another vodka (unless maybe if it is infused with vitamins). So I can understand if you are going to buy a high-end vodka if you claim it tastes better … but you can’t actually taste the vodka when mixed with Red Bull. So people are buying the brand, the “experience” (whatever that means), the split second when they order that it makes them feel rich and can try to impress the bartender that they are willing to spend 50% more for the same experience.

i admit that i fall for these things all the time.

people bank on price. because price is usually a good predictor of quality and if you don’t know any better, that’s all you have to go on. it makes sense.

in a hotel, price often equals quality (except in an Ian Shrager hotel where the quality and service is quite bad but the brand is strong). in a vodka, people pay more because they feel better … they feel they have a nicer experience (even though Absolute probably ranks just as high as the 2x priced Grey Goose). in a wine, people truly believe a $200 bottle bests a $20 bottle (i’ve done tons of taste tests that showed people cannot tell the difference) .. and they like the experience of buying the best stuff.

stopping sexual predators on social networks

Today it was announced that MySpace made a deal with 49 state attorneys general to put measures in place to curb sexual predators. These are good and sensible measures (and are long overdue).

One of my co-founders remarked today that “I think one real issue here is identity verification. This might be the time where a 3rd-party identity verification service is of extreme use to social networks.”

The question is, how much friction will social networks add to the sign-up process to aid child protection?

My guess is not much — and probably none.
As long as social networks just only require an email (and some don’t even verify that email) to sign-up, there is going to be little movement here and children will only be protected through education and not through technology.

Of course, community sites and social networks could use email look-up systems like Rapleaf to verify each user (and that is something we’ve been pushing) but I’m not convinced that most of these sites (with a few exceptions) really care about child safety as opposed to giving it lip service.

Time will tell how much of a widespread problem this or if it is just a few isolated incidents.

the MVP: people that manage themselves

The most valuable people in any organization are people that manage themselves. That’s right, most people cannot manage up. Even seasoned execs cannot manage up.

It is the simplest thing to do yet it is such a rare trait. Managing up is easy. Just tell your boss (or the board in the case you are the CEO) what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, and then try to do it. If you cannot get it all done, tell your boss BEFORE it is due. That’s it.

It is amazing to me how few people can do this. If you can just do this and nothing else, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a company rock star and you’ll likely be paid we’ll more than your peers because you allow your manager to avoid the very uncomfortable conversation asking you where a certain thing is that is due.

As a manager, interviewing for this trait is very hard. How do you know you know the person can manage oneself? I’ve met some very impressive people who still need active management. I try to find this out by calling lots of references, but I would love other ideas as this is one of the two most important traits in a general hire (the other being critical thinking).

book: King Leopold’s Ghost

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

this is a must read for anyone that wants to understand Africa. The book is about the forming of the Congo and one man’s (King Leopold of Belgium) narcissistic quest, following all Machiavelli’s rules, to build himself an empire.

high recommended.

women and men on social networks

From looking at the data provided by Rapleaf, women are much bigger users of social networks then men. Much bigger.

The fastest growing demographic on social networks are moms between 35 and 45 years old. These women are putting up pictures of their kids (Johnny at baseball practice, Susie at soccer, the family in Disneyworld) and using these social networks (especially MySpace) to essentially make family home pages and share them with friends and relatives. They are decorating their pages, making RockYou slide shows, and using lots of widgets.

Men over 35 are just not that into social networks (yet) except on some rare examples like LinkedIn.

While both younger women and younger men have both joined social networks in drives, the younger women are much more active than the younger men. My hypothesis is that a lot of the younger men are spending their spare computer time playing video games. Women tend to enjoy casual games more and most social networks are essentially a huge casual games network.

traffic in india

traffic in India (I can mainly speak for Mumbai but I heard places like Bangalore are worse) is horrific. Want to go 10 miles? – you’ll need an hour. And there are no highways and no basic auto infrastructure. The two lane roads somehow support 4 lanes.

One of the people who I met there said, “for India driving you need good brakes, good horn, and good luck.”

Pedestrians are constantly tempting fate crossing the street. I count myself lucky that in my one week in India, I didn’t hit anyone (though I sure have if I was driving … Indian drivers must be the best drivers in the planet … they can fit their car in the smallest places).

No Mumbai driver can be commissioned without a great horn – it is a necessity to ensure that pedestrians and motor scooters get out of your way.

Helmets for motor scooters and motorcycles are few and far between (despite the massive danger of getting hit on the crowded road). Luckily, because of the traffic jams, you never can go too fast.

misconceptions of U.S. politics by foreigners

I’m in India right now and many people are talking about the Iowa poll results. But many people here, not totally familiar with U.S. politics, have come to conclusions that happen with cultural barriers.

A few people here told me that they were concerned that the Democrats lost the election. When I asked them what they meant, they said the Hilary Clinton lost so that the Democrats must have lost. They assume Obama is a Republican. It is funny because they so associate the Clintons with the Democratic party … not unlike associating the Gandhis with the Congress party in India.

In India, it was well reported that Clinton lost but the Republican primary was covered below-the-fold. So many people here assume the “Republicans won in Iowa”.

Funny how things often get lost in translation…