Category Archives: Thinking

What’s that got to do with the price of ads in Russia?

I’ve been reading comments on articles about the Russian intelligence effort to influence the US election by social media subterfuge. I know this is a dumb idea. It directly goes against Matt Groening’s advice: “No matter how good the video on YouTube is, don’t read the comments, just don’t, because it will make you hate all humans.”

But, against my better judgment, I’ve come across an argument a few times that I want to discuss. It goes something like this:

“Clinton and Trump spent $81M dollars on Facebook ads, but we’re supposed to believe that Russia spending just $46K made an impact? Yeah right, libtards, har har
har.”

Fair enough. The candidates spent a butt-load more money than the Russians did, as they should have. The basis of the argument is real: Facebook’s lawyers came right out and testified those exact numbers to Congress. It would be naive to argue equality of effort.

But if we permit ourselves some historical context, I think it’s worthwhile to come up with an analogy for Russia’s long game.

Let’s take a brief look at the history of small change vs. big money:

In 1997, Amazon was a baby with a market capitalization of less than $1B.

The year before that, KMart and Sears were two different companies that had a combined market cap sixty times larger than Amazon’s, each around $30B.

Where are we now, 20 years down the road?

KMart went bankrupt, restructured, and ended up merging with Sears in 2004. The consolidated Sears Holding Company hasn’t done much better, now posting a market cap of about a half-billion. Yawn.

And Amazon, the little company that wasn’t even in the Fortune 500 twenty years ago, while Sears and KMart were the 800lb gorillas… what happened to that scrappy bookseller?

Amazon’s market cap in 2017 is FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE BILLION DOLLARS.

That’s 535x more than what was once the ‘real thing.’

What does a story of retail market capitalization have to do with the price of Facebook ads in Russia?

Nothing, if you aren’t willing to think about it. But if you are, it’s just one example of many that prove looking at investments over the long haul is how you measure success – not analyzing them a few months later.

I’m willing to bet that Russia didn’t spend $46K with the expectation that in six months their effort would be complete. Isn’t it more likely they were spending $46K to find out what would be possible in six YEARS, or longer?

So, you can make the argument that a hostile foreign government spending a few thousand dollars on divisive Facebook ads in 2016 isn’t a big deal, because hey, the actual candidates spent way more than that.

Or you can remember those people who in 1997 said “Oh, Amazon isn’t very big, nothing to worry about. Sears and KMart are where we should invest!”

I could be stretching the comparison beyond its merit, but honestly, this story makes me nervous.

What kind of money does Russia have to spend for people to take them seriously? What if in the next election they spend $500K? $1M? $5M? At that point, could it be too late to undo the damage?

If Facebook and others don’t address this problem now, where are we going to be in 20 years?

On Running #2

I’m not sure when it happened – but I crossed a line somewhere along the way, and became a morning person. I’d regularly find myself sitting by the window, waiting for the sun to come up, watching the steam rise from my coffee, letting the quiet and the wakefulness and the possibility of the day course through me. And then… I would run.

On one of those mornings this Summer, I was about six weeks into a marathon training plan, and halfway into an eleven mile run along the Potomac River. On some runs, I just listen to my own ideas. I think about what I see, or I think about myself and assess what’s going on in my life. But on this particular morning, I was listening to an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” – going for the meta-experience, forcing reflection into my morning’s effort.

I put on the brakes when one particular line struck me. Meditating on his own training, Murakami shared a mantra he repeats to himself on hard runs: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

There are moments of clarity on some runs, lingering beneath the surface of the repetition – simple truths that bubble up, instigated by a few words, a melody, or some dormant experience.

I started repeating Murakami’s mantra to myself. I pounded the trail, counting my paces. One step, two, three, four.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

A week later, on a tennis court: the “inevitable” pain came, along with the “optional” suffering: a torn calf. I couldn’t stand or walk. My wife had to leave me on the curb while she found a car to drive me home in.

Three weeks of physical therapy went by before I could even think about stepping on a treadmill, another three weeks before I could comfortably log a few miles. I still had a marathon to run.

Running does something to the brain. It lights up cannabinoid receptors, a part of the nervous system that regulates physiological processes like memory, mood, and pain sensation. If cannabinoids sound like cannabis, you’re on the right track. “Runner’s High” is not just shoe company marketing bullshit – it’s science. Running gets you high. High enough that you don’t listen to your body, that you give it a heavier beating than it can withstand, and that you don’t really care.

When I was a teenager in gym class, and we had to run “the mile” – it was death. An entire mile might as well have been a trek across the Sahara. I was not an athlete. Candy bars, soda. Video games and smoking. Those were my things, my highs. Not running. I never let myself go far enough to feel the runner’s high.

I gave up smoking during college, but I didn’t adopt any healthier habits in its place. Instead, I learned to love traveling. It took me a while to connect the dots, but now, when I lace up my running shoes and start going, the relationship is clear. Travel is the essence of running.

A run is a journey like any other – for joy, for necessity, or for any of the infinite reasons people choose to move their bodies from one place to another. The name of the race isn’t an accident: In 490 B.C., following the battle of Marathon, the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens – 26 miles – to announce that the Persians had been defeated. To run has always had a purpose.

A few years after graduating, I was working in an office and a group of colleagues invited me to sign up for a 10-mile race with them. I considered it, and running 10 miles somehow didn’t seem any crazier than the other things I was doing that once seemed inconceivable: being an adult, traveling, having a job and an apartment. OK, I said. Let’s run.

I trained for that race with focus and discipline I hadn’t known I was capable of. That I had never run more than a mile before wasn’t important. I inched my way up, night after night, on the treadmill in the gym that overlooked the parking garage. Two miles, then three, then four. Running felt like an easy problem to solve. The equation was simple. Keep adding.

Years later, I’ve grown as a runner and a person. I finished that race and I’ve run lots of others, of various lengths, in a variety of places. Despite the injury, I crossed the finish line of my second Marathon last weekend.

My memories of different runs stretch across the palette of human emotion: from indescribable euphoria, to complete suffering and misery. Anything can happen as my body nears its tipping point; my knees screaming, my feet black and bruised, and under several grimy layers of dirt and sweat, my mouth twisted into a grimace.

Running is a rush of something… a feeling… what is it? I look up into a beautiful cloudless sky, a breeze shushes Spring cherry blossoms, the right song plays. I jog across a car-free bridge, look up at a skyscraper, at a waving flag, or over to the sea. My skin is freezing, or it’s scalding. An old man passes me going uphill, a child in a Superman costume hands out a high-five.

Everything else stops, except for me. I am in motion, I am motion, and my heart pounds. My feet ache, my mind smiles.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

#ShowYourWork

I read Austin Kleon’s book “Show Your Work!” last week.

It presents an idea that seems pretty basic on the surface, but is actually pretty challenging: “You can’t find your voice without using it.”

According to Kleon, creative people have to show what they’re doing for it to be meaningful. Showing the work is as important as doing it.

I used to have a good habit of doing that with this blog. Until a few years ago, I was posting regularly, and it seemed like people other than my Mom were actually reading it. (Thanks for reading, Mom!) Things I wrote about here turned into the things I talked about with people out in the world.

Then life caught up. I started grad school. I got engaged. We got a dog, moved, got married, bought a house, and moved again.

Amidst all that, I also changed jobs – and in doing so, had to significantly refocus my energy on learning a new organization and becoming a useful part of it.

Some people use their work experiences as material to write about, but I’ve never thought of this blog as connected to my professional life. In my mind, blogging is separate, a kind of mental ‘safe space’ where the drudgery of work can’t encroach, where I can let my creative brain run free without any requirements or deadlines or connection to the stuff that pays the bills.

Reading Kleon’s book had me thinking about that differently.

A few months ago, my wife and I had an awesome night out – we went to see Bonobo in concert. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that I interviewed Jack Baker, Bonobo’s drummer, almost three years ago. (That interview continues to be, by far, the most read thing I’ve ever posted here.) After their amazing show, we hung out with Jack and the group for a little while. I was embarrassed when Jack and some of his bandmates asked about what I’ve been writing lately – and I had nothing to say.

To me, Bonobo et al. are artists who are right up there where Michael Jordan was when I was a kid – legendary and truly inspirational. They make the world a better place by doing something beautiful that they love (#LifeGoals.) When they seemed to be genuinely curious about what I’ve been writing, it hit me like a brick – I have not been writing or doing anything else creative lately, and that’s a huge missed opportunity when people I admire are asking me about it.

Me, Jack, & Wifey

I quickly resolved to get back into a creative routine after that night. Freshly motivated, I’ve been rekindling my interest in art… drawing, trying to learn how to paint, challenging myself to write at least 500 words everyday… and relishing anytime I can spend away from a glowing computer or phone or TV screen. It isn’t easy. Life is busy, and there’s always something to do. But I’ve found when I make the time for it, the rewards of creating something… anything… are abundant.

Getting back to Kleon’s book – I haven’t been showing anything that I’ve been up to. There’s always a voice in the back of my head, whispering… “This isn’t real work. No one needs to see this. This isn’t what you get paid for.”

After reading “Show Your Work,” I’m starting to think that voice might be right… as long as I don’t show what I’m doing, it won’t be real work. No one will want to see it if I don’t have a story to tell about it. If I don’t show it, it will never be something I get paid for.

So… ahem. Fuck that voice.

Here’s a watercolor I’ve been working on. It’s a work in progress. I had fun doing it – it’s the first time I’ve tried anything like this. I started with a photo I took of Circular Quay, in Sydney. I put the image on a lightbox, traced it into a grid, then reproduced the grid on watercolor paper with pencil. I mixed up some paints (without knowing nearly enough about color) and did some work with my poor student quality brushes. Viola! Now I have a painting of Circular Quay to show the world:

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

So, that’s that. I’m showing my work, and I hope anyone who finds this enjoys it.

I’ll close with some wisdom from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, who is quoted in “Show Your Work.”

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

About today in Charlottesville…

When I was a “younger lad”… 14 or 15, maybe? The cops picked me up one night when they found me spray-painting anti-Nazi graffiti on the back of a building. I don’t remember much about the political climate of those days because I don’t even remember specifically when those days were, just that I was a younger, less risk-averse version of my current self – but I do remember that there weren’t any Nazis marching through the streets of Virginia at the time.

And now, there are.

As an adult who used to be a kid who used to tag anti-Nazi graffiti on the back of buildings (when I didn’t even have Nazis around to show it to) what’s the law abiding, responsibility-having version of myself supposed to do about the current state of affairs?

The most saddening and immediate thing that I feel obliged to do… since some of my newer friends didn’t know that teenager that I was, and maybe all they know about me is that I’m a white, 30-something male who lives in Virginia… is to state publicly: unlike those other white, 30-something males, who marched through Virginia today spewing Nazi hatred & violence – I think racism, xenophobia, white supremacy and Nazism are disgusting and have no lawful place in our society.

Now that I’ve gotten out in front of the ambiguity surrounding who these dipshits are, and hopefully distanced myself adequately, the next step, I think, is to acknowledge what’s going on – no easy feat. How is this happening? What world am I living in, where in 2017 Nazis are marching through the streets of Charlottesville? Where I feel the need to digitally wave an “I’m Not a Nazi” flag? I don’t know, I can’t explain. But it’s happening, and letting that sink in is the first step.

So with acknowledgment and denunciation accomplished… how can I help stop these ideas from spreading? My first instinct (resting dormant since I was that 14 or 15-year-old kid) is to grab a baseball bat, hop in the car, drive to Charlottesville, and swing until it lands on the face of the first pig-fucking racist I see… but over the years I’ve developed a passable capacity for restraint, along with a few critical thinking skills that lead me to believe turning that feeling into action isn’t an appropriate long-term solution.

I’m not sure what the collective response to today should be. But I know that part of it should be to speak out, to let everyone that I’m capable of communicating with know what I think:

Nazis are bad. The fact that I have to remind anyone of that, something definitively established half a century ago, is embarrassing and sad. That they are marching through local communities is also bad, embarrassing, and sad. The hateful and racist ideology promoted by these people does not represent real American values. They hide behind a warped sense of patriotism.

I guess, for now, fellow Virginians… be aware that this is, unfortunately, a thing that is happening, and it needs your attention.

Please be resolute in denouncing it at any and all opportunities to do so.

Weather review ★★★ Tysons, VA

The moon, a bleached white cork, hangs low on the short horizon, plugging the night inside a bottle filled with lightning bolts. In a flash, the heat shatters it – carbureted clouds steamroll in; all the garage doors on the street stand like bare teeth, grit against the interrupted silence, braced by yellow curbs, yellow corners, and dutiful yellow hydrants.

★★★ Three of Five Stars

Weather review ★★★★ Vienna, VA

★★★★ Four of Five stars

The birds are euphoric this morning, carousing like late-night drunks who found the advancing sunrise as a challenge to keep making noise. Beneath their chorus, the bulldog stops cold in his tracks, the day after his first birthday, dumbfounded that a season has changed. His little wrinkled face had been despondent for weeks, completely unaware that the air would ever warm again; now he snorts in Spring’s miracle through a not-frozen nose, happily. Yesterday, high temperatures set historical records across the region. Today the tips of Summer’s sweaty fingers continue prodding early March, as blustery clouds grumpily settle, then artlessly blow away, mumbling about when they might return.

Reflecting on Leaders

Reflect on past and current leaders you have interacted with. Identify and describe the top three positive leadership characteristics you have observed – and the top negative characteristics you have observed.

Top three positive characteristics

– optimistic attitude

The best leaders and managers I’ve worked with have been optimistic. They may be stressed, or have a million things to deliver and not enough time, but they keep their composure, remain light-hearted, and exhibit confidence that things will get done, and the world won’t end. They don’t spend all their time talking about how impossible tasks are, or complaining about the workload to people who can’t change it.

– listening, listening, listening

To really engage with the people around them, the great leaders I’ve worked with have relied on being available, being open to ideas, and listening to everything their employees have to say. They don’t just want to know how projects are going, they want to know how life is going, what you think about the new artwork in the hallway, and if you’ve already eaten lunch yet today.

– persistently trying to improve

The great leaders I’ve worked with don’t settle. They didn’t reach a plateau in their project or career and decide that was enough. They treat all accomplishments and failures alike, as opportunities and experiences to learn from, build and grow. They’re life-long learners who infect everyone around them with their curiosity, and they always strive to do work better than they did it the last time.

 

Top three negative characteristics

– delegating work without understanding it

Bad leaders and managers think that the only step to solving a problem is giving it to someone else. Once they’ve successfully delegated a responsibility, they don’t care to hear anything about it until it’s finished, and once it is, they’ll take responsibility for it, without ever understanding what the solution to the problem was.

– being ‘too busy’ to say hello

The worst way for leaders and managers to engage with colleagues is to only open conversations when meetings and calendars mandate that they need to. They project an attitude of distance from everyone around them, and create obstacles to communication. They may exacerbate the problem by being friendly only with people they consider to be ‘higher up’ than them, without spending time building relationships with those lower on the ladder.

– relying on past performance to justify current position

Bad leaders may have been successful in the past. But when they refuse to take on new challenges, assuming that they’ve already ‘done enough,’ they block the way for others who are eager to try new ideas and attack bigger problems. They coast through new projects, putting great effort into trimming all the hard work out of them before they even begin. They rely on their past achievements being ‘good enough’ and never feel inspired to improve what was done before.

Welcome Home, Charlie Brown

We’ve had Charlie Brown for two full weeks now.

I started writing the second sentence to say something like “he’s quickly become the center of the family,” and as I was typing, he peed on the floor.

That’s what having a puppy is like so far. Mid-congratulation, he does something he’s not supposed to, and I say “No,” and he is sorry for a moment. The hiccups are mostly a reminder that he isn’t a supreme being – a notion that without occasional reminders to the contrary, his human-mom and I might be spun up into believing. Something about having a face with enough wrinkles to be mistaken for an ethereal 150 year old wise man must be the connection.

Charlie’s French Bulldog mouth is an ugly thing, pocked with hundreds of  little bumps that signal eventual whisker growth. It’s often clamped on an innocent teddy bear, or octopus, which he tosses about with a blind rage that can be instantly followed by lights-out sleep of the dead. His bunny-hop running veers off to the right after a few steps, possibly because one of his legs hasn’t caught up in length to the other. For a creature of only about 11 pounds, his flat-nosed snores rival a grown man’s in volume.

Having been a cat person since I was a kid, what’s surprised me the most in these first few weeks is how human-like Charlie is. My cats have never seemed even slightly similar to people in their instincts or preferences, and that’s what I’ve loved about them. As Neruda wrote, “yo no conozco al gato.” Dogs, however, seem to occupy a hybrid realm of human-like social needs mixed with the inherent poop-eating habits of a beast. (He hasn’t actually eaten any poop, to my knowledge – but not for lack of trying.)

Cats have never listened to me. The first cat I had never once sat on a human lap. The second cat does often, but the notion that he would perform any actions on command is a hilarious fantasy. The dog, however, has learned how to sit, stay and come when his name is called within the first ten weeks of being a dog. He’s not listening with a chip on his shoulder, either. After being told what to do, he still loves us enough to lick our faces right off of our heads.

Before his arrival, I crammed in as much dog book reading as I could, including “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. The monks live on some magical dog-raising farm in New York, where they pass all their time training German Shepards. Some of their practical advice doesn’t fit with a 9-5er’s lifestyle, given that they are monks, but their overall attitude and suggestions have been beneficial in gracefully making Charlie Brown a member of our household. After reading, I think that if I had devoted my life to being a dog-monk, I too could train Charlie to walk by my side without a leash.

Charlie stops every few feet during a walk to smell and taste whatever is in his path. He needs the walks, but dislikes the simple decisions that accompany them – when to turn, when to cross, when to go home. The taste of this grass, that grass, that pole and this rock are of much greater importance to him than maintaining any kind of regular route or schedule. He seems to enjoy company without order, not unlike a human kid. Maybe, like with human kids, this will change. Maybe not.

It’s a strange thing to have an animal capable of listening and understanding – and also blatantly choosing not to listen or understand. When he blankly stares at me while I plead with him to come, or sit, there’s a fleeting moment of recognition that I’ve seen his facial expression used many times before by people during uncomfortable discussions – when I’m saying I need a day off from work, or that I don’t want to donate to their fundraiser. The capacity for being perplexed seems to be what puppies and people most commonly share. Cats, on the other hand, never appear to be confused. They are certain everything they touch is a trifle, and every person they know is a servant.

When the dog isn’t around, I find myself appropriating some of the lessons he’s teaching me into my human relationships. I’m more aware now of when someone is slyly telling me what to do. At work, I pause, realize I’ve been issued a command, and wonder what the dog would do. This awareness of power-relationships was something I never developed while living with a cat. Now that I have a dog, all of my actions are seen through a filter of “what command has prompted this behavior? do I need to listen to this person? …is it OK to pee here?”

Charlie’s excitement is easily contagious, he can get his people riled up with a single ‘yap yap yap.’ But, he’s only ten weeks old, and it’s our responsibility to usher his enthusiasm for life into adulthood. Apparently, that’s a common failure point – after the novelty of puppyhood wears off, many owners lose interest, and dogs end up in shelters.

Whether we decide to ‘keep’ Charlie or not isn’t a realistic question. Instead, we are looking for answers to things like ‘how do we train him to be the ring bearer at the wedding?’ and ‘would he like the mountains or the beach better for vacation?’

Although he and the cat haven’t yet become snuggle buddies, the cat has accepted his existence, and like the humans, he seems to understand that there’s a new person in the house (no matter how much he looks like a dog), and he’s going to be here… farting, snoring and peeing on the floor… for as long as he wants to be.

on Tomato Time

It may be a stretch to write about productivity on a Friday (the Friday before Christmas holiday, at that) but I’m going to give it a try anyway.

If you’re a human who must use a computer for any more than a few hours a day to do your job, chances are you probably struggle somewhat with staying on task. It is in the internet’s DNA to make jumping from one thing to another really easy. The purpose of hypertext (you know, that http thing in a web address) is to transfer you from one text to another… and do it at hyperspeed!

I’ve lost a lot of productivity when I encounter a frustrating problem, and instead of forging through decide to take an internet ‘break’ which stretches into hours. It’s difficult to keep a disciplined work routine when you’re face to face with a ‘distraction machine’ all day.

For the last several weeks, however, I’ve been using a method that’s something like the dragon slayer of wasted time – the Pomodoro Technique.

Named after a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro) the technique was invented by some guy in some place some time ago. That’s not important. What’s important is the method: work a solid 25 minutes, with no interruptions or distractions. At the 25th minute, a bell chimes, and you take a five minute break. Get up, stretch, pour coffee, whatever. Then another 25 minutes. Repeat the cycle, and after completing four cycles (or ‘pomos’) extend the break to 15 or 25 minutes.

Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 15.

There’s some psychology or other sciencey stuff that explains why this works so well. I think you can read all about that in the ‘founders’ original paper on the technique, available here. There are also functions to improve the cycles, like planning out tasks before beginning a ‘pomo,’ estimating how many ‘pomos’ a task might take, and ‘dropping’ any pomo which is interrupted beyond repair.

I wish I could remember where I first heard about this technique so I could give credit to whoever has bumped up my output over the last several weeks. As I’ve faced deadlines for end-of-semester projects in graduate school, been tasked with a new project at work, and continued trying to read & write in my own time, using the pomo method has been invaluable.

Aside from keeping me disciplined about getting shit done, the pomo technique has also made clear to me that the 8 hour workday is a myth. For anyone working in an office, actually getting 8 hours of solid work done is difficult and unlikely. The most pomos I’ve been able to complete in a single day is 16 – almost equal to about 8 hours of work – but it took me from 9:30 in the morning to 11:15 at night to do it.

There are a variety of apps for smartphones, desktop & the web that make following the process a breeze. Most will display a countdown on your display, at the end of which a small bell chimes, reminding you to take your break. I recommend the ‘Pomotodo‘ app, which also lets you write a short statement about what was accomplished with each ‘pomo’ and displays nice charts and graphs to help you visualize your work.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 7.23.31 AM

I gave myself approximately one pomo to write and publish this blog post – and knowing that I have only a limited amount of time to accomplish it is making me work a little bit harder and a little bit faster. Hopefully I’ll be finished on time, and get to have a 5 minute coffee when I’m done!