Redemption for the Dallas Mavericks

I love how our favorite sports movies inevitably involve the triumph of the underdog. Rudy. Hoosiers. The Water Boy. Victory. (That bunch of POWs escaping in WWII by playing soccer against the guards as a ruse movie, where though they had Pele, he wasn’t violating time-space by being Pele in 1944. He was just Pele playing some dude who turned out to be as good as Pele).

It’s a theme we all seem to be able to agree on.  And then we go back to ‘real world rooting’, which inevitably involves dealing with the legion of Lakers, Yankees, Manchester United and Chelsea fans, all of whom claim to have supported those teams ‘when they sucked’, most of whom are lying. I know this because

  1. As a serial supporter of ‘almost there but never going to quite make it there’ teams and athletes, the mid 90s Lakers ‘slump’ was at best a brief aberration. In fact, to some fan bases, those Lakers results would still count as momentous achievements.
  2. If you’re a Chelsea supporter under the age of 35 and you have no geographic links to the area of London they’re from, I mean, come on. You really expect people to believe you rooted for the Graham Spencer / Gavin Peacock teams? Like really?
  3. Manchester United has not sucked since at least 1989. Seriously.

I have these flashbacks where I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if I had just ‘sold out’ and chosen to support present day championship caliber teams. But nooooo.  I bought into the ‘underdogs can make it if they have heart’ koolaid and latched my own thwarted ambitions on to teams that played entertainingly and had players who showed heart. The disappointment never gets old.

Spring of 2003. I try to explain to a friend the kind of gratification I got watching the early 2000s Sacramento kings teams and how Bobby Jackson was probably my favorite player on that team cos I thought he played with the most heart (I know…). She looked at me funny and said ‘what kind of reason is that for supporting a player?!’

Bobby Jackson (

Post-1980s Tottenham Hotspur fan? Don’t even get me started. Don’t trust this guy with your money or your kids’ futures. What a retard. Oops.

Thankfully the people you root for do sometimes finally grab at the second chances life throws their way. Peyton Manning finally got over the hump and won one in the 2006 season, making it back to the Superbowl three years later. I sure would have liked to have been aware of and rooting for John Elway back in the day (a Stanford guy who’s clutch!)

Even Tottenham Hotspur won a couple shitty cups along the way and finally made the Champions League last season, resulting in me caring about the Champions League for the first time in my life.

Peter Crouch scores for Spurs against Milan (The Guardian)

And last week, at the end of an improbable playoff run that hardly anyone gave them much of a chance in, the Dallas Mavericks finally won the NBA championship and exorcised the ghosts of their 2006 meltdown to the Heat.

I should say that geographically, I have no links to the aforementioned teams. But I’m huge on people fulfilling their potential and earning a shot at redemption. I’m just a sucker for second chance stories. And I of course wasn’t alone in cherishing these sentiments. And as the Mavs got deeper and deeper in the playoffs, it finally dawned on me how many second chancers there were on that team and in that organization. All of this is common knowledge but regardless, here goes my hurry up tribute to the Mavs’ redeem team.

The Mavs win the championship (Getty Images)

The players and staff

  • Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, owner Mark Cuban: These were the 3 guys left over from the 2006 Mavs (probably Donnie Nelson too?).  After watching folks like Dirk and Steve Nash (who regrettably was not part of either the 2006 or 2011 Mavs finals teams) get on with excelling and leading without the ego trips, it’s hard to not root for them to finally get their championship ring.  For Dirk to do this by getting mentally tougher, developing a post-up game, and closing out really tight games throughout the playoffs is just a joy to behold.  I’ve previously written about learning more from Jason Terry than from many other “experts” in leadership positions and I continue to think it’s true.  And as for Mark Cuban, apart from admiring his sharp thinking as a blogger and businessman, this win for the Mavs also takes me back to when I first learned about Cuban’s ownership style through his multiple tirades and record fines.  Besides the sheer entertainment he’s provided as an individual, his ability to build a great team and organization to win for the long term (the Mavs have something like 11 straight seasons of 50-plus wins) has also been remarkable.  And as noted by many media observers, this time round, he kept his comments to himself and let his team do the talking.  Overall, a much deserved reprieve for Cuban, Dirk and JET.
  • Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd: These guys and Steve Nash all played for the Suns and Mavs, who had their own heated rivalry of sorts going on earlier in the decade.  For Marion, it’s his first finals and first ring.  Interesting that he should be the one out of the core group of him, Nash, and Amare Stoudemire from the mid decade Seven Seconds or Less Suns teams, but very much deserved too.  Always a versatile player, Marion upped his game at this stage of his career, defending well on the wings and carrying the Dallas offense through some dry spells.  As for Kidd, I remember the early 2000s Nets teams he was on (as well as my Jersey friends who would go, “Yay! We don’t suck anymore!”).  Those Nets teams were never quite good enough to really challenge the Lakers and Spurs teams they met in the finals but you could perhaps make the case that this Mavs team wasn’t that much stronger or that much of a shoo-in either.  Kidd did much more than just land on a stacked team as a crusty veteran, rediscovering his shot and getting it done on defense.  After spending a long career making his teammates better, he thoroughly deserves this one, too.
  • Peja Stojakovic (kinda vs Mike Bibby): So yeah, how bout those old players from the early 2000s Kings teams?  First, I learned the Mavs had signed Peja at some point.  Then I realized Bibby had signed with the Heat.  So when both teams made the finals, it occurred to me that no matter what happened, one member of that old Kings team would win a ring.  Wonder what C-Webb was thinking watching from the studios (and if he did say something, we have ESPN Asia here so I couldn’t have caught it anyway, sorry…) There was the old Peja heats up in an early round game thing when the Mavs swept the Lakers.  And maybe it was for the best that he didn’t play much in the finals, else good old not quite so clutch Peja might have stolen some moments.  Apparently John Hollinger’s analysis says Bibby has some historically crappy playoff PERs (player efficiency ratings).  Guess it was past his time, but hey, he got to play in the finals.
  • Coach Rick Carlisle: I remember Carlisle taking the Pistons and Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals some years back and then getting booted shortly after.  And there was nothing he could have done about the Palace of Auburn Hills melee.  More informed observers of the game have raved about his great coaching adjustments in these finals but again, given his personnel and the Mavs’ historic defensive deficiencies, this has to rank as a pretty sweet accomplishment.  Together with Dirk and Kidd’s wins as players, he’s ensured that he won’t end up on lists of best coaches not to win a championship.
  • Brian Cardinal, Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson: Chandler and Barea were key starters for this Mavs team but in general, the theme of redemption runs really strong with this group of players even though none of them played in the 2006 finals.  Barea has been around the Mavs for awhile but his points in the paint, “little guy” dribble penetration, and that iconic and-one off the Andrew Bynum flagrant won’t be forgotten for awhile.  Much has been made about Chandler’s defensive intensity and how much he gained from this Team USA Olympics experience.  I think we should extend the trip down memory lane and remember he was once a young, out of high school seven footer next to Eddy Curry (!) who we weren’t sure would make it.  Stevenson makes the list for his 3 triples in Game 6 (oh and hey, he and Brendan Haywood have now won rings after being the less heralded players around Arenas, Jamison and Butler in those Wizards teams).  Brian Cardinal! Warriors fans shoutout!  Big minutes and big charge taking on Dwayne Wade that may have further swung the series.

And here are some other (methinks) great reasons why this Mavs win was memorable in the sports ecosystem

  • They swept the Lakers: Even if the Lakers were much more out of sync that anyone might have guessed, they were still the defending champs and people still expected THEM to sweep the Mavs out of the series.  That the Mavs had to go through them and did so in such stunning fashion adds to the weight of this championship.
  • They beat the Heat: There is obviously great redemption value here given that the Mavs had the opportunity to win one over the same team they collapsed against in 2006.  But apart from that, there’s also of course the fact that this was a Heat team formed by “The Decision”.  Personally I just took in The Decision as a neutral.  And where LeBron had previously been much more of a media darling and supposedly had to confront being the villain this year, I had something of an opposite reaction.  I have a little told story of running into LeBron in 2003 in Portland shortly before his NBA career began.  He was with some friends in a department store and he joked then that he wasn’t LeBron.  That was fine, but I always felt a little slighted by that.  Then when people turned on him this summer (and obviously Cleveland fans have every right to feel betrayed), as a neutral, I thought, oh ok he’s not that irrationally popular anymore.  Let’s see what him, Wade and Bosh can accomplish.  Funny how sentiments work.
  • Steve Nash couldn’t be along for the ride: There was this Bill Simmons podcast where Charles Barkley talked candidly about being on the shit list of the Greatest players never to win a ring.  It’s really unfortunate that Steve Nash missed the boat so many times with the Suns.  And of course him, Dirk, Finley, Van Exel; those were the guys who first helped the Mavs get it done.  Here’s hoping he ends up somewhere good in the twilight of this career.
  • Caron Butler didn’t play: Butler was the Mavs’ next best offensive weapon and they didn’t get to use him for the second half of the season.  Oh well.  He gets a ring, right?
  • True team performance: As Rick Carlisle emphasized in many interviews, this was an old school team that wasn’t more athletic than their opponents but managed to conjure up a true team performance where the starters and a very prolific bench all chipped in and all had key moments.  A very heartening sight.
  • The role of owners in professional sports: I’ve already sung Cuban’s praises but what I find of note is that good owners in the NBA and NFL tend also to be good sports businessmen.  This is probably in part because they’re forced to work with salary caps, and probably also because they’re red in the tooth American capitalists.  But no one said you couldn’t have great leagues and great performances while being fiscally sound.  Ahem, European football, any takers?
  • Jason Terry embodies (quite literally) a lesson from motivation 101: Jason Terry had a tattoo of the championship trophy on his bicep done at the start of the season.  Amazingly the Mavs made it all the way and he now gets to keep that tattoo there.  But hey, as a motivational strategy, this would be way up there as an extreme but ultimately effective example in the vein of telling your friends what you’ve committed to do so that there’s no turning back.

I think this recap sums up very nicely just how special this season has been.  There’s just something about storytelling in American sports…

So thanks, Mavs, for seizing the moment and giving us underdog / redemption softies something to cheer about. A little timeout of escapist romanticism before the 800 pound gorillas return to shove us back on the treadmill.

We’re not so different, You and iPad

So I should probably explain the radio silence. I fell victim to a month long cough of the tropical variety. And a couple weeks out became a couple months. And work, yes, work…

I’m not proud of it. I mean, consistency aside, the last entry was me attempting to poke fun at a book of little relevance to my life. Even more irrelevant than my college commencement speaker was to my life then, bless her soul. And the next year, they rolled out Steve frickin’ Jobs!!! Ok, fine, I feel like I’ve complained about that before…

But now that I’ve mentioned Steve Jobs, it behooves me to share that one of my ‘solutions’ to writing more consistently, or so I tell myself, has been my recent purchase of an iPad 2. I’m actually typing this out on the iPad now. And I hope to dawg that it plays nice with the WordPress web interface. WordPress and Blogpress apps? Downloaded. Didn’t seem that great.

(Post-posting update: Ah yes, the iOS doesn’t do rich text editing.  So I wrote this in Evernote on the iPad and pasted it into Firefox at home.  Oh well, more transitioning to iPad to come)

In truth, I (or more specifically my right shoulder) had gotten tired of lugging a MacBook around almost daily on long commutes on this island where cars and centrally-located housing cost an arm and a leg minimum. So I decided to pony up for the sake of the long run, seeing as I have no health insurance. Either.

This is actually a pretty big deal for me. Being the natural bred cheapskate I am, my personal consumer electronics buying approach has mostly involved the ‘wait it out till the end of its time in the sun, then buy when a new version is imminent and smile like the Asian that I am’ tack. So this iPad 2 purchase is definitely a departure from recent history.

That said, I’ve come around a little more to the idea that some experiences and productivity enhancers are worth paying for earlier. Out of curiosity, I’d be interested to see what economics has to say about my ‘rational’ decision making here.

Ok, I actually have a longer wish list of economic studies i’d love to see. Of the more immediate wishes, one has to do with the impact of housing and office space rentals on startup creation in cities and countries (planning to cold email Richard Florida on that).

Another has to do with consumer electronics life cycles and the satisfaction we get from buying early in the cycle (and at premium pricing) versus waiting it out till near the end of a product lifecycle and gaining the satisfaction of saving money (while dealing with soon to be labelled obsolescence).

Anyway, while I search for those economic studies (leads, anyone?), one thing I’ve become convinced of is the iPad’s suitability for magazine consumption. I’ve been taking advantage of More Intelligent Life’s ‘limited time’ offer of free access to the magazine on the iPad (long may that continue). And the pictures are downright luscious!

Sure looks good on paper... I mean iPad...

While browsing through back issues, I came across this fascinating article by a Robert Lane Greene (hey, an Economist magazine has bylines?) on the preponderance of ‘i’ and ‘you’ in product names. While that phenomenon is hardly news, what jumped out at me was the Greene’s observations that

  1. Companies are in a moderate paced land grab for product names starting with the 5 vowels, with ‘e’ being slightly past its prime, and ‘i’ and ‘u’ sharing flavor of the moment status. (Poor Os and As. Will their time ever come?)
  2. There actually isn’t much of a difference between the focal points of ‘i’ and ‘u’ products. They’re all about the individual users. As Greene points out, no one really believes the ‘you’ in ‘YouTube’ refers to the plural “you”. ‘You’ is just another name for ‘I’.

Which I guess is the cue for all those ‘Generation Me’ laments.

We’re not so original, you and I

Realistically, this you-me-I / it’s all about you wordplay and customer service masquerading as philosophy meme goes back much further. We gotta give credit where credit is due. Drumroll, please. Ladies and gents, the annals of navel gazing consumerism present…

  • There is no ‘i’ in team…
  • You scream, ice cream

In sUm

I am reveling in the notion that iPad typing may help avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.

And I am / is back.

In the meantime, instant gratification indulgers, and jokes-in-bad-taste brothers-in-arms, we’re not so different, you and I.

Well apart from our varying degrees of confidence in the explanatory power of math.

We now have Spousonomics. And an -economics books bubble?

So in my recent surfing, I came across this article on a new book, “Spousonomics” by Paula Szuchman of The Wall Street Journal and Jenny Anderson of the New York Times.  Apparently what it does is examine marriage through the lens of economics.

Your marriage is an economic transaction. No, no, I wasn't referring to the oldest profession in the world.

The article says there’s stuff like using comparative advantage to allocate resources for domestic chores.  I suppose that would be like “me Tarzan carry heavy stuff, you Jane do the rest”.  And there’s also apparently “how to have more sex” by lowering, what, cost and entry barriers maybe?

Good god.  The dismal science enters the bedroom.  Where we thought it already resided!

Anyway, I’m sure the book will do good, and I might even read it for, err, my next relationship.

But more importantly, it got me thinking…

Haven’t we seen a little too much of this “Economics explains a certain field and we’ll take the first few letters of that field or something related and then splice that with -conomics to produce a brand new bastard child of a bestseller” type things?

Think about it.

Here are actual current titles that play on the “name of category plus -conomics” naming game

Of course, who could forget…

And there must be easy stuff like…

  • Beeconomics!

Actually, as it turns out, Beeconomic was the name of the Singapore discount group shopping site that got acquired by Groupon, and is now  But then they were Beeconomic, not Beeconomics…

So if “Beeconomics” is still viable as a title for a would-be publisher, on face value it could be about the economics of beekeeping.

But why stop there?  There’s another interesting bee and business related story to be told.  “Beeconomics” could be the business success story profile of Burt’s Bees and their personal care products.

They actually have a really interesting origin, complete with a down and out, rags to riches story for co-founder Roxanne Quimby.  More in this video from CNBC’s “How I Made My Millions“.

And while we’re at it, got this off a friend’s Facebook feed.  Frickin’ hilarious.  You can now generate your own next Malcolm Gladwell bestseller title (click on sample title generated below).


So in the spirit of our current mini-tulipmania “-conomics” title craze, I thought I’d offer up some suggestions for…

Possible future books  in the “Economics Explains” tradition

Feel free to disagree or offer more suggestions.  In the time between my writing and your reading of this, some of these titles may already have been published!

  • Gleeconomics… where aging stars thank the show for reviving interest in their songs.  While simultaneously cursing the new downloaders, maybe.
  • Deaconomics… managing a religious congregation is big business nowadays, whatever you might make of it.
  • Free-conomics… does the homonym of a title kill it off, though?

“Hey, while you’re at the bookstore, could you grab me a copy of Freeconomics?”

“Wait, this isn’t the one!”

“I thought you wanted Freakonomics!”

“No, no, that’s so last month.   Freeconomics!”

Titular problems aside, “Freeconomics” is surely something many content providers are concerned with today, what with Freemium and other business models in play.  So we might be on to something.

It could also be a case of Freakonomics meets Free by Chris Anderson.

Chris "Birdman" Andersen 2009

Oops. Wrong Chris Andersen.  Though how’s this for perseverance?  The Birdman went undrafted after a year of college and is an alumnus of Jiangsu Nangang in the Chinese Basketball League.  I kid you not.)

Chris Anderson 2007

Err, not this one either.  This is the TED curator.  Though initially I thought they were the same guy.  Guy edits WIRED, guy starts TED?  Seems like it could be the same enterprising individual.

Etech05 Chris

Ah-ha! This Chris Anderson.  Editor of WIRED magazine and also author of The Long Tail.

  • Beaconomics… if you’ll pardon my stretching the soundalikes a little too far…  “To The Lighthouse!  The Dismal Science psychoanalyzes Virginia Woolf.”
  • Brieconomics… This could work.  The travels of a cheese in the Global Economy?
  • Bakeonomics / Baconomics (Sorry)…  This could be a book by comedian Jim Gaffigan on his favorite thing on earth, a business analysis of the old Michael Moore film, or even more on everyone’s favorite nexus of network analysis and celebrity culture, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!
  • Me-conomics… This actually could be interesting.  The business of narcissism.  Blame Time Magazine and their Person of the Year choice for endorsing it all.
  • Eek-onomics… The business of squeamishness and mild disgust.  Or the reaction of people who wish they hadn’t majored in Economics.  Some would say the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Update Feb 15 2011:

Unlike me, reviewers like Slate’s Annie Lowrey have gotten their hands on the book and appear to have read at least some of it.  Lowrey’s review concludes that the book is indeed driven by economic concepts like asymmetric information and nash equilibria, but serves much better as an economics primer and window into relationships in an economist’s household than as relationship advice.

And I realize I had a go at “new perspectives” on love previously.

What our predictions say about us (part three)

The previous two posts in this series looked at our obsession with predicting the future and what predictions do for us psychologically even when they’re totally off the charts.

Today I want to share one final (for now) framework and set of readings for thinking about predictions and inaccuracies.

Are predictions puzzles or mysteries?

Uh oh.  I’m referencing everyone’s favorite nice guy lightning rod who doesn’t have a PhD again.  Experts, do carry on.  Haters, get your bashing equipment ready.

Yes, it’s one of my favorite guys again, Malcolm Gladwell.  (*Dodge hate-filled tomatoes*)

In this series of articles, which I’m not sure he produced with the intention of filling out a theme or just as manifestation of his own curiosity, Gladwell takes us through recent history and how people have dealt with making conjectures about the immediate future with the use of limited information.

In many of the examples, people, even experts, made the wrong call, with catastrophic consequences.  So the elements of dealing with the unknown that is yet to come and of failing often appear to map very well onto our investigation into the nature of predictions.

i. The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns

In this piece from 2007, Gladwell references the distinctions made by national-security expert Gregory Treverton between problems that are “puzzles”, and problems that are “mysteries”.

Briefly, puzzles are logical and those that aren’t solved remain unsolved because some information is missing.  “A puzzle grows simpler with the addition of each new piece of information.”

Mysteries, however, “require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.”

Gladwell looks at some famous historical problems and divides them into puzzles and mysteries.  Conveniently, perhaps, the ones that were solved through dedicated legwork get classified as puzzles and those with open files are mysteries.

Thus, whereas Watergate was a puzzle, which required the dedicated legwork of the young and energetic Woodward and Bernstein (with help from Deep Throat), finding Saddam Hussein and Osama bin laden, as well as finding the true explanation for how many folks missed Enron’s problems, were more like mysteries.

And it’s not for want of trying, either.

“The more you know, the less you understand, with mysteries.”

The future?  It might be more than the challenges of both put together.  But if we had to pick one side, the future would have to be a mystery because we’re already swimming in data but we haven’t necessarily made better predictions all around.

Puzzle? Mystery? Both? Doh! / CC Flickr horiavarlan

ii. How do we know which one of a million pieces holds the key, and how many of us does it take to screw in that darn light bulb?

In an older piece from 2003, which appears in his compilation, What The Dog Saw, Gladwell tackles the paradoxes of trying to reform intelligence services.

Drawing on the experience of Israeli military officials in “failing” to pick up on warnings of impending attacks before the Yom Kippur War, Gladwell fills us in on how the “correct” warnings that the Israelis received were none too different from the many false alarms in the years leading up to the actual Egyptian and Syrian invasions.

Another case where the slippage was not for want of trying.

The solution in terms of organizational psychology is similarly vexed.  On the one hand, there was the relative success Franklin Roosevelt had with having competing teams of advisers to debate and come to “correct” solutions.

On the other hand, the perceived failure to cooperate among the various intelligence agencies before the Sept 11 attacks practically begged for centralization of decision making.

There doesn’t seem to be a permanently correct answer.  Have a look at this essay by Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond, where he talks about finding “optimal fragmentation” for healthy group functioning based on historical case studies.

iii. Sometimes, even with successful sleuthing, it’s all a fluke

The tangled mess of predictions is echoed in a more recent New Yorker piece where Gladwell revisits his favorite stomping… theme.  The story begins with the recounting of a succesful intelligence hoax from World War II and the varying interpretations of its success and replicability.

Chiefly, the hoax in question might have succeeded mostly due to a series of flukes and selfish actions that were not anticipated by planners. Espionage in general is also complicated by problems of asymmetric information, such as the mind boggling chess moves of “Do you know that I know that you know that I know…”

Gladwell again points to murkiness in concluding that intelligence finds are like poems, replete with duality.

And who doesn’t remember those heated discussions of “what the poet meant” from school days.  No wonder some of the most believed predictions reference divine intervention, casting out human fallibility and malleability.

Looking forward

Robert Shiller, who we met in Part Two, has an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the likelihood of future housing bubbles.  He, um, predicts, that the possibility is of course, out there, but says that surveys he and Karl Case have been running (they of the Case-Shiller index fame) show a waning of speculative interest in real estate.

In the meantime, he tells us that housing bubbles are a relatively recent thing, but land resource bubbles have been going on in the US since early in the 19th century.  These bubbles (and the recessions that accompany their eventual burstings) are partially triggered by human responses to changes in government policies.

And most importantly,

Stories of fortunes in land speculation captured the imagination, and led to bubbles.  That is typically how bubbles form, by titillating the public imagination.

Resisting urge to reference adult interests…

Tangentially, there are some great resources out there on the history of bubbles.

1. Markets, Mobs, and Mayhem, by Robert Menschel

I confess that I’ve only read the first chapter of the book, because that was what was licensed for my Econ policy writing course in college.  It’s a great summary though, capturing the flavor of historical bubbles from Dutch Tulipmania and the South Sea scandal through to the crash of 1929 and the Internet bubble.

My favorite quote from the chapter, hands down, is a line from that great cynic John Kenneth Galbraith.  It’s a caption to a picture of a panicking mob in the midst of a run on a bank.

We are informed that runs on American banks in the 19th century took place about once every twenty years, “just enough time for people to have forgotten about the previous one.”

Anyone saving up for 2028?

2. Niall Ferguson’s “The Ascent of Money”

Comes in both book and PBS documentary form.  Haven’t had the chance to read the book but the documentary is excellent.

The second episode contains detailed portraits of the colorful characters involved in pivotal historical episodes of financial collapse.

Niall Ferguson narrating the documentary based on his book (link to episode 2)

Also worth watching simply to hear Ferguson enunciate things like “money can maaake us, or it can breaaak us“.

3. I will commence reading “The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction, by writer and mathematician David Orrell.

Yet another book in the legions of unread in my home.  Review to come when I’m finished.

But seriously, the piquing of public interest and seduction by appealing to emotions must be part of the root cause of our continued fascination with predictions, if we’ve learned anything from the readings.

Recap: If at first you fail… no one remembers anyway.  Just make it exciting.

Here’s what I think we can glean from this mini series on predictions.

We can’t predict the future very well because

  • Technology continually splinters into new branches which come at us hard and fast.  The Hydra would have been jealous.
  • In seeking the general, we can’t avoid the personal.
  • There are cognitive limits to what we can imagine.
  • The green movement may have trouble getting some people to recycle, but in its own way, life keeps resurrecting that ghost of technologies past we thought we vanquished on Level 47.
  • Beyond a certain point, deja vu fades and the fish out of water phase takes over.

We can’t let go of obsessing with predictions because

  • It helps us make sense of who we are, by guesstimating “what would we be”.
  • Poor predictions can still lead to important work being done.  At any rate, morality aside, it’s hard to tell what’s right and wrong about a prediction sometimes.
  • Hard Science and Soft Literature are sometimes spot on in delivering predictions, leading inevitably to more publicity and more interest.
  • We all like to dream of simpler lives as an escape from reality. Some of just want luxury for ourselves, others want everyone to feel “the pain, THE PAIN…”
  • We like the unknown, and the sexy.  When these two converge, look out, Coyote Ugly!

Post-script: Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star

So, what’s to be done about this future business?

When it comes to the long run, we might all be dead, but if we or our descendants aren’t, we might heed that old adage, past performance is a poor predictor of future outcomes.

So live and let be.

Either that, or we really have to look to building recursive loops of infinite power to deal with the Brave New (Unsimplified) World.

What our predictions say about us (part two)

In Part One of the series, we saw that due to a combination of information overload, personal biases, and re-purposing of old forms, our predictions about the future can often be premature, and sometimes even become walking parodies of themselves coming out the gate.

All that should give us pause, and cause us to wonder what our collection of seers, talking heads, prediction markets and magic 8 balls are for.

  • If we adopt a “history is told by the victors” approach to forecasting and predicting, and can only pompously declare success after the fact, why bother predicting in the first place?  Is there a greater social purpose to future mongering?
  • Does anyone ever get his / her predictions right on a better than fifty percent chance basis (painting in the broadest “yes it will / no it won’t” strokes possible)?
  • Might we do better at predicting by committee, ala The Wisdom of Crowds and the accuracy of the Iowa Electronic Markets?

What’s with the prognosticating?

As it turns out, some of these questions are answered and some great insights put forward in a Room for Debate series by the New York Times, “Why Do We Need Predictions“.

This is a mega circle of experts they’ve assembled, and somewhat thankfully, they’ve opted for storytellers, technologists, and an eclectic mix of academics, rather than a straight up panel of frat boy athletes wielding math models that their geeks behind the scenes wet dreamed up.

It’s an incredibly stimulating debate, which should be read in full (click the picture below to go to the debate’s home page).

Room for Debate: Why do we need predictions

I just want to highlight a few pertinent observations from the panelists, grouped thematically.

On Being Overwhelmed

Edward Tenner, author and researcher, adds his vote to the camp that says technology outpaces our ability to work with and philosophize about it.

“Our ability to design new objects and organisms has been growing geometrically, while our skill at modeling their long-term risks increases only arithmetically”

Tenner also presents a case of almost Heisenbergian uncertainty, where the economist Irving Fisher, in forecasting a stock market plateau, had to contend with the possibility that his saying so might actually make it come true.

You want the future? You can't handle the future!

On the bright side, Tenner sees that even failed predictions give us inspiration for future work that may prove more practical.  He also credits the unbridled optimism of the 1920s with giving us such architectural masterpieces as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the Waldorf-Astoria.

Robert Shiller of the Case-Shiller index fame says that “Forecasters can get the direction of an economic trend right, but be off by a mile as to the level” due to their inability to predict major revolutions and breakthroughs, which naturally can’t be built into models.  There is also a compounding effect over time, as being off by a few percent every year really adds up.

On Identity

Innovator Jaron Lanier affirms that we’re unable to detach ourselves from our own lives and make original predictions because

“We have built careers and empires around old technologies, and defend them by disadvantaging the development of new and better ones.”

Even prognosticators are attached to their favorite parts of the status quo.

Irony, indeed.

Author David Ropeik says our insatiable need for predictions will continue, and that at its heart lies the need for knowledge, power, and control over the uncertain.  Solace in projections, right or wrong, you might say.

Author Elif Batuman says it’s all about finding yourself.

“In prognostication, identity and destiny are inextricably linked. This is because we can only understand human identity as a narrative — and the meaning of a narrative depends on its ending. Without knowing what happens to us, we don’t know who we were all along.”

This duality of discovery and destiny is certainly a theme the ancient Greeks wrestled with, and Batuman gives a nod to both Oedipus Rex and Dido in the Aeneid, who, gazing at the entrails of sacrificed sheep for signs from the gods, “sees the answer to two questions: What will happen to me? and, still more terrifying, Who am I?”

On History and Purpose

The historical roots run deep, as Stacy Schiff, author of “Cleopatra: A Life“,  reminds us of similarly sophisticated superstition in the Roman Senate’s superstition.  We’ve been looking to omens since time immemorial, though in a familiar way the omens have only been obvious on hindsight, with “history being a sort of omen-in-reverse business“.

She does think, justifiably, that hard sciences are better positioned than social sciences to have predictive power.

Personally, I think that’s unlikely to sway those model builders who make excuses like “ohhhhh, economics is like trying to fix a car while the engine is running”.

Are you ready for your next economics class taught by a barely-didn’t-make-it-as-a-math-academic-with-physics-envy-often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt instructor?

For that matter, are you ready for the next economic meltdown, which could come um, as early as 2015?

On a side note, since we’re on the topic of the Romans, you figure at some point in the future, some of us will have to have seen the writing on the wall…

"et tu brute?" / "well, I mean, err, whaddaya expect, ya know?"

On Accuracy

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and inventor, does seem to have a formula for predicting technological progress.

“If you plot the basic measures of the price to performance and capacity of information technologies [...] they follow remarkably smooth — and foreseeable — trajectories”.

He finds a trend that goes beyond the vaunted Moore’s Law and into the power laws that tend to describe the fastest growing technologies, products and services today (think adoption of Facebook, eBay, CityVille…)

“What’s predictable is that these measures grow exponentially, not linearly, though our intuition about the future is linear, which is hard-wired in our brains… This “law of accelerating returns,” as I call it, tells us that any area of information technology will grow enormously in power while becoming ever smaller in size.”

And as a sign of how far we’ve come (and should continue to go)…

“A computer that fit inside a building when I was a student now fits in my pocket, and is a thousand times more powerful despite being a million times less expensive.”

So certain measures of performance we have may not be giving us the full picture.  Your market share may be dropping but you might well be doing the best you can.  It’s just that the inexorable expansion of technological products makes it look like you’re not keeping up with the competition.

This might well apply, say, to the storming success of the iPhone and iPad, and their inevitable relinquishing of the “only show in town” mantle as strong competitors emerge.

As Pogue mentioned in the link in the previous post, no one can keep up with anything.

On being Anti-Modern and Pro-Simplicity

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor and author of the fascinating “The Power of Babel” makes a thought-provoking claim that

“Visions of the future that catch on are typically evasions of modernity [...] if even in a gruesome way. In their simplicity, these visions are antimodern, pointing backwards to the womb: quiet, predictable and undemanding.”

I found this really interesting, because many dystopian texts set in the future seem to be about our inability to handle how complicated the world has become. 

Perhaps the lingering question is whether the authors intended their visions of thought control and pre-cog justice as protests or grudging solutions.

McWhorter detects in these visions an unwillingness to engage with the juggling act of modernity.

“Orwell’s alternate vision of the 1980s depicted a mind control that prevented engagement with complexity and nuance [...] Just as likely a future is one where life is as maddeningly difficult to parse as ours.”

There lies in the inaccuracies of predictions an unsatisfied yearning for escapism…

On Literature

Finally, for all us long suffering English majors out there, Lanier points us to an unexpected group of visionaries, who did indeed paint accurate pictures of the future, through perception rather than quantitative deduction.

For example, “The Machine Stops”, E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story, “described our present Internet with more accuracy and insight than most contemporary scholarship on the topic”.

He also finds that…

“Writers like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Karl Marx and Forster articulated more vibrant sensibilities about technology and the future of mankind than we can easily find in today’s gigantic online chatter.”

So rejoice, English majors!  Now let’s just concentrate on getting the people with the money to listen to us sometime before it has to be “posthumously”.

Stay tuned for Part Three.

What our predictions say about us (part one)

In an earlier post, I talked about the limitations of our attempts at looking into the future.

I’ve come across some other readings lately that may help to shed some light on

  • Where we get inspiration for our future projections
  • Which popular delusions about the future keep resurfacing
  • What our often laughable inaccuracies say about human nature

1. David Pogue says the explosion of new technologies makes prediction an even less exact science

On the tenth anniversary of his Personal Tech column first appearing in The New York Times, columnist David Pogue wrote a piece distilling some of the major observations he’s had on the evolution of technology and futurology.  Here are some of the highlights.

i. Things don’t replace things; they just splinter.

The history of consumer tech is branching, not replacing. TV was supposed to kill radio. The DVD was supposed to kill the Cineplex. Instant coffee was supposed to replace fresh-brewed. But here’s the thing: it never happens. You want to know what the future holds? There will be both iPhones and Android phones. There will be both satellite radio and AM/FM. There will be both printed books and e-books. Things don’t replace things; they just add on.”

I think in a broad, immediate sense, this is a very pertinent observation.

Over the long haul, of course, things disappear.  VHS vs Betamax was convincingly concluded, and DVDs are teetering on the edge.  Mass transportation of people and items has undergone multiple transformations, and it’s kinda hard to argue that a bullock cart and an oil tanker are really the same thing because it’s all about moving something from point A to point B (guess you could try…).

Paper hasn’t disappeared from use and probably won’t but we’ve come a long way from stone tablets and papyrus scrolls.  Continuing improvements in digital displays and environmental concerns will likely push us toward more paperless commerce and reading.

But with that said, it is indeed interesting to see some of yesterday’s technologies soldier on.  We continue to shop at physical stores and sail the seven seas as descendants of the first seafaring islanders.

Perhaps even more so than for radio, there was a feeling that computers would replace televisions almost completely.  Yet TV is going strong, and that merger of TV screens and computer monitors into one box doesn’t seem to be gaining steam.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who made his money in technology and currently owns a HDTV company, has some interesting thoughts on why It comes down to our wish for convenience and current limitations on the scalability of Internet broadcasting.

At some point, the plethora of choice is sure to bring about a growth in analysis paralysis.  But for now, the greatest beneficiary of things not dying out is probably the storage industry, which has experienced tremendous growth as a result of our accumulation of all that splintering stuff.

And maybe there’s something evolutionary and ergonomic about all this, as these widely circulated graphics attest.

Rock vs Mouse, courtesy of Matt Ridley's TED Talk

iPad vs Stone Tablet, courtesy of

ii. There is a highly personal aspect to how we judge new products and developments.

We not only make projections on the future based on our own personal biases, we also project our self image onto the things we love.  This was made clear during the recent rebranding fiasco with Gap, Starbucks and other corporate symbols of identity.

In this sense, there can’t be a completely unbiased vision of the future.

iii. Some concepts’ time may never come

Pogue cites several examples of technologies that don’t sound that cranky but struggle to gain traction.  Notably, there’s the on and off story of Surfing the Web on your TV and watching TV on your networked device (Google and Apple TV etc).

So if there’s one thing we know about envisioning the future, it’s that for all the inventions we perceive as blatantly obvious on hindsight, there’s no telling what we want and don’t want.  The future may not even be written in the stars.

iv. Nothing lasts forever, or even for a year, and no one can keep up

We have all those great comparisons saying that Henry VIII’s household had fewer items than today’s average American household, and how one current copy of a major newspaper may contain more words than the average vocabulary of someone living a century ago.

So as the pace of development quickens and its scope widens, it’s likely we’re going to encounter more and more things that even the experts can’t wrap their heads around.  Perhaps we’ll have models that can distill the essence, perhaps we’ll just be buffeted by Black Swan events daily.

We’re on an inexorable course toward a future of knowing very little about everything or knowing everything about very little.

2. More Intelligent Life magazine sees an extension in the afterlife of your average motion picture, and a stay of execution on old media forms

You know all those horror stories about your drunken musings on Facebook and Twitter leading to you getting the can?  If only we were all major motion pictures.

Just like our online identities and musings, movies might never go away again.  Unlike our online identities, the worst that can happen to a crappy movie is an eternity of laughs.  And earnings from rentals.

So infinite information retrieval may well be one accurate and somewhat nebulous prediction that futurology got right.  Fifteen minutes of fame, then an eternity of lingering.

For this, we can thank the proliferation of DVDs for sale and rent, and legitimate movie streaming services like Netflix and Lovefilm, as well as torrents and pirates, of course.

The magazine is bullish on the business prospects for the upstarts (“the choice is almost unlimited, and there are none of the late fees”).

Business Insider is more cautious, citing rising licensing fees and levels of competition.

And as to whether this really democratizes filmmaking, the jury is still out.

“There’s still a lot of debate about the reality of the long tail, whether it will be good news for indie films and the like [...] It may not exist. If you have a lot of marketing muscle you can get your title up to the front page.”

One interesting twist is that unless and until Netflix and co. switch to a 100% streaming delivery model, there will still be a need to send DVDs to customers via snail mail.

And with that continued need comes the continued relevance of the US Postal Service, Japan Post, and other purveyors of what we were all certain had been crushed by electronic mail.

The Postman Always Still Rings.

3. Even if our predictions seem staid, new ways of doing old things can be life changing

The writer Nicholas Carr has a brief review of Marshall Poe’s recently published “A History of Communication“.  He cites an excerpt from the book, where Poe suggests that in spite of technology changing interactions, we continue to do the things we always did, like eat, shop, and play with others.

Carr counters that the big idea may be the same, but the experience, when put through a radical makeover, can be tangibly different, and therefore tangibly a new thing.

“The texture of our lives is determined not only by what we do but by how we do it. And that’s where media play such an important part: they change the how.  Just as the dishwasher (along with the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, and all manner of other electrified household appliance) altered in profound ways the rhythms and roles of home life during the last century, so the internet changes, in ways small and large, everything it subsumes. The same shit, when routed through a different medium, becomes new shit.”

I’m with Carr on this one.  It isn’t easy to draw the line dividing “same old” and “fundamentally altered” but we do know from personal experience, science fiction becoming reality, and the bewilderment of those isolated from “modern civilization” that there comes a point where an old model of interaction with our surroundings becomes obsolete and a whole new way of life begins.

I call upon our roll of expert witnesses

i. Hank Morgan

ii. George of The Jungle (around the 3:10 mark)

iii. Austin Powers (around the 0:52 mark)

iv. Yali of “Guns, Germs and Steel”

v. Moisturizer

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Same old storylines at the movies (xeroxing continues)

In an earlier post, I wrote about the copying of ideas, in light of recent developments in consumer electronics.

Thought I’d add to that with a tribute to some of the same old same old we have on TV and at the movies.

Read it again, Daddy

I remember being devastated during one English class in college, when our Prof highlighted the analysis in this book by writer and academic Margaret Doody.

Actually, many things were said, but the main takeaway for me was that structurally, all the stories we tell today were pretty much already told thousands of years ago back in ancient Greece / China / Japan / you name it.  So wipe that smirk off your face, automaton.  Your originality existed in the collective unconscious long ago.

Kind of reminds me of the simplified “three types of stories from a guy’s perspective” meme.

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, man kills whale.

Full disclosure:  I haven’t actually read Doody’s book myself.

And even though it looks like it would be really dense and cerebral, the nerdy English major in me could probably handle it.

Nope, the real reason is it was too expensive for me in college, then I came back to Singapore and couldn’t find it in Borders, and I realize I could buy it online but between my piles of unread books and the horror of international shipping…

You get the drift.  But with that said, if anyone would like to sponsor my reading of it for the good of all mankind, you know where to find me.

The comfort of familiarity

So if literature, with all its insights, philosophies, pretensions, and err MODERNISM! supposedly can’t come up with structurally new stories, what hope is there for originality in other forms of mass entertainment?

The answer, it seems, is it doesn’t matter.  In entertainment, familiarity does not breed contempt.  It is the passport to our collective comfort zone.  Better the devil you know?  You betcha!

Repetition is such a pervasive feature of successful storytelling that we have moved past the point where we take it for granted, and are now at the point where literary heavyweights comfortably parody it by drawing parallels to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence.

Malcolm Gladwell, in reviewing Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You”, says of Johnson,

“He’s perfectly capable of using Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence to discuss the new creative rules of television shows”.

That is, the same sh*t happens over and over again.

There’s even a wonderfully sublime construction of recurrence and futility in Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being“.  The protagonist, Tomas, realizes at the end of the first chapter that he has been unable to escape an imperfect love affair, and as he heaves a quiet sigh of exasperation, the narrator closes with the sentence, “He had returned.”

Thar she blows (again)

There must be tons and tons of repeated plotlines out there (Daytime soap operas, anyone?), but if we were to hold a runoff to determine the king (or queen) of recycling stuff that works, I’d be surprised if the finalists didn’t include folks like Danielle Steele and every adolescent boy’s favorite director (whether he’s aware of the guy’s name or not)…



Ah yes.  The man behind such testosteronic pyrofests as Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys.

I read a comment on some site a while back (which I am again struggling to find) about how The Rock was probably Bay’s best movie plot-wise, because he had Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery to work with, and they wouldn’t just let Bay blow things up.

And since I know next to nothing about Danielle Steele novels (for obvious reasons, and also because none of my kids has read Danielle Steele like they’ve read Jodi Picoult), here’s a tribute to Michael Bay’s explosiveness, courtesy of mainstream entertainment vehicles ripping on him.

For the record, Bay is still going strong, to the relief of teenage boys and action junkies everywhere.  As they say, at least in the entertainment business, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

1. YouTube leads the way with clips showing the essence of Michael Bay movies

Hint: Explosions

Something even Bay critics might not have noticed… helicopters…

2. Team America says “Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you”

It’s a laugh out loud funny parody that makes zero logical sense?  It’s gotta be from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the South Park guys.

In this sequence from their marionette movie, “Team America: World Police”, the protagonist gets his heart broken and rides around forlorn as the song in the background compares his lovesickness to Michael Bay’s moviemaking decisions.

In a longer clip that can’t find, they actually have a line before the final one you hear in the clip, with the singer whining, “Why does Michael Bay get to keep on makin’ movies…”

Full disclosure:  I think I first learned to care about Michael Bay’s name when I watched this movie.  Just sayin’.

3. HBO’s Entourage has a dig

I’m currently catching up on the episodes of Entourage that I never saw (all of them) and having a rollickin’ good time.

In an episode from Season 3, Vince, Eric, and Ari are debating whether Vince should do the sequel to his fictitious James Cameron-directed comic hero epic, Aquaman.  Ari breaks the news to the boys that James Cameron didn’t sign on to do the sequel.

“So who’s directing Aquaman 2?”

“Michael Bay.”


There doesn’t seem to be a publicly available clip of the scene, so all I can give you is my word and the word of this forum member, and this blog post.

4. South Park skewers the one trick ponies out there

Can you tell I have an unhealthy affinity for South Park?

  • Anyway, in the first clip, from the Imaginationland series of episodes in season 11, the authorities sit down with caricatured versions of M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Bay, and Mel Gibson to see if they have any ideas on how to solve the existential crisis at hand.  They do, but those ideas sound a tad familiar…
  • In the second clip, from season 8, Cartman, pretending to be the robot Awesom-O, summarizes every Adam Sandler movie.
  • In the third clip, from season 6, overhyped movie announcements and recent Rob Schneider films are condensed.
  • Where do we go from here?

    Back to the drawing board that has last season’s ideas on it!

    So don’t feel bad about it.  Better to have one role and do it well than be a jack of all trades.  Even if that role is an uproariously crappy one.

    Here’s Sigourney Weaver’s character telling it like it is in the 1999 space movie lampoon flick, Galaxy Quest (starts around the 4:38 mark)

    And hey, the world’s most powerful thinkers outside of Davos do the same.

    Here’s an old TED talk from self-help maestro Anthony Robbins.  Robbins

    Robbins polls the audience to see who rents the same old movie ‘cos they know it’s good, and proceeds to tell them to get a, um, copulating life.  Around the 11:50 mark.

    In the final analysis

    “If Yan can cook, so can you.”

Income Inequality part one – Davos

Image found on CNET's "The Social". Credit: CC Andy Mettler/World Economic Forum

The 41st meeting of The World Economic Forum at Davos is currently underway.  While the usual mix of business, politics, millennium goals, and hobnobbing abound, there’s an undercurrent of concern over widening income inequality that’s bubbling up to the surface in some media coverage.

Here’s a quick reading list and some thoughts on the items…

1. The New York Times’ DealBook pages have full coverage of business highlights

2. For Technology, Read Access

If you thought Davos was as clubby as you could publicly get, there are actually even more exclusive events out there, like the Bilderberg conference mentioned in The Economist’s Special Report on Global Leaders series below.

With that said, the man on the street has never had greater access to the movers and shakers.  The 2009 meeting (and possibly earlier ones) featured liveblogging.  And the World Economic Forum has its own channel on YouTube, complete with hour long sessions.

There’s also this 60 Minutes feature from the 2010 meeting (40th anniversary edition), with Queen Noor and Martin Wolf espousing the merits of Davos.  Well, ya know.

Would letting Julian Assange access the breakaway private sessions be like releasing a kid in a candy store?

3. Membership has its privileges fees

Naturally, Davos attendance isn’t open to just anyone.  The Davos Man is a business, political, and / or media leader.  Still, DealBook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin notes that even for the elite, the cost of entry to Davos is nothing to scoff at.

Highlights include the various tiers of membership, going from a “Basic” level membership and ticket for US$ 71,000 (you wonder how those folks get treated… elitism among the elite?) to the “Strategic Partner” level, for US$ 622,000.

The latter still allows only a maximum entourage size of 5, and from this year reportedly requires at least one member of the entourage to be female, for diversity’s sake.

Just can’t help chuckling at that last one.  For sure, women have to be represented, and having the old boys’ club do so on their behalf doesn’t quite cut it.  Still, knowing how life works for the empowered… “Diversity”… is that what the kids are calling it these days :P

Also, I’d be really curious to meet the lowest members of those entourages there on professional concierge duty.  What a wrecking ball of admin support work that must be!  Any civil servant friends out there in the know?

Then again we’d be like the dirt underneath the feet of the dirt underneath the feet…

Incidentally, for more inequality among the unequals,

At the moment, the forum says it is not accepting applications to become a Strategic Partner unless the company is from China or India and it must be one of the 250 largest in the world.

4. A World of Their Own

Chrystia Freeland of Reuters profiles the new global elite in a DealBook feature and a longer essay in the Atlantic.

There are the usual striking signs of a new Gilded Age, including how “from 1980 to 2005 more than 80 percent of the total increase in income went to the top 1 percent of the population.”

But as The Economist notes below, in spite of the continuing prevalence of oligarchs and plutocrats, an increasing number of the global elite have earned their fortunes through old fashioned work.

Common paths include rising up the corporate ladder, increasingly through emerging markets, and leveraging access to Western capital and methods to develop and bring to market industrial innovations.

Another interesting observation from the article is how Davos, for all its well-intentioned meetings, has quickly come to be associated with the elitism and inequality of the Globalized age. Perhaps as a result, the World Economic Forum’s “Young Leaders Forum” was recently held in Tanzania, away from the glare of the anti-globalization movement.

5. The Economist has also picked up its coverage on Economic Inequality

First, a 14 page Special Report on Global Leaders, ala “The Rich and The Rest” from last week’s issue.  Things to look out for include:

  • The tired old stories of the rich turning to philanthropy and really being in the service of the common man (in democracies)
  • The rise of brainiacs and the working elite of entrepreneurs, CEOs, and professionals
  • The pecking order of exclusive world forums (the mention of the much smaller one in Bilderberg which invites a couple journalists who AREN’T EVEN ALLOWED TO REPORT ABOUT IT)
  • A mention of the Seattle-based Intellectual Ventures (also covered in SuperFreakonomics)
  • Continually evolving perspectives on the limits of social mobility
  • Harnessing the Chinese and Indian diasporas as one big rolodex

Then, echoing Tejpreet Singh Chopra’s comments from Freeland’s DealBook entry above, this week’s Economics column looks into recent academic research on oligopolies in India, with an increase in concentration ratios and a decrease in the birth rate of new firms.

It suggests, however, that exposure to competition has made the entrenched corporate giants earn their keep.

Interesting parallel on friendliness (or lack thereof) to new firms and what it says about a country’s dynamism can be found in this article on Japan’s cold shouldering of its ever dwindling working young.

What with the balance sheet recession, demographics, and less than welcoming immigration policies, an entrenched silver vote and hostility to upstarts is further holding back any chances of a renaissance in economic innovation in Japan.

And The Economist’s blogs continue the discussion

Democracy in America” recalls an older interview by Freeland with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, her noting of the indifference and lack of rootedness among the global elite, economic incentives devoted to luring the super wealthy, and Russian literary imaginations of the fields of vision of the super rich.

Free Exchange” seeks (and is possibly comforted by) the sources of wealth of today’s elite and ponders what the middle class makes of it all.

6. A Touch of Glass

Finally, DealBook steals a glance into its crystal ball, with some tongue in cheek predictions about familiar areas of concern, including

  • The inexorable BRIC upswing
  • Reserve currencies
  • The US and fears of deflation
  • The extent of global warming
  • The fading of the Euro

Some things stay the same, with both Vladimir Putin and Nouriel Roubini still going strong.

All in all, a good set of reading in our quests to defend equality of opportunity, and to determine whether, in Orwell’s words, some are indeed more equal than others…

Update: The Continuing Saga of Parenting and Makeover Spats

That roaring sound you hear over the blogosphere?  It’s not Tiger Mom, it’s the reaction to Tiger Mom.  Or it could be your router / modem getting fried to a crisp by errant coffee, which needs to be disciplined.

Tiger by Flickr User fPat / Creative Commons

Tiger Mom, of course, is a reference to Yale Professor Amy Chua, whose reflections on parenting are being published in “Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother” (seriously).   The title of which draws to mind another horror I was put through, “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston.  They made it the Stanford IHUM book of the year or something like that.  It was one Chinese ghost story after another.

Just makes you want to bust out the old Yue Fei costume and sing a song about mountains and rivers.

I mean I’m all for Asian writing in English; I practically live for it, and so do millions of other people.  Only thing is, I think people who actually live in Asia feel the need to espouse their mothers’ ghost story telling a little less since that default identity isn’t really challenged day to day.

So, respect, but I just said “when” a couple centuries ago.

And if you think that’s disrespectful, go talk to all your snobbish, colonized Asian friends who won’t even read American-influenced Asian writing ‘cos they think there’s something purer about British-influenced Asian writing.  (You know who they are.)  Ohhhh the irony!  Then get back to me.

The Jungle Writes Back

Anyway I first shared my thoughts on Tiger Mom when they published an excerpt of the book in The Wall Street Journal.  Think I happened to catch it the day it was published.  Since then, the flood of outrage (in several directions) has practically grown to biblical proportions.

Dammit, KT, you’re not using enough Asian metaphors.

Yeah I am, there are hella Asian Christians.  Oh.  True dat.

Let me summarize the majority of those reactions for you.

1. She’s crazy. (All ethnicities)

2. She’s not. (All ethnicities)

3. I’m a similarly “crazy” Asian parent and my kids are still healthy and breathing. (All Well…)

So instead of rehashing all that again,

I thought I’d highlight some commentary that isn’t the same old same old

1. Someone shares the opinion that social interactions matter! :)

Actually it’s David Brooks of The New York Times.

Although Brooks’ initial assertion that he thinks Tiger Mom is going too easy on her kids may call to mind images of academic gulags, his real argument is that social interactions are just as demanding as studying solo, and activate a different set of skills that kids should develop.

“Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”

Brooks invokes the “collective intelligence” or “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” argument to show how important reading others and knowing when to take the lead and when to STFU are key to group success.

I think that’s especially pertinent as we move toward an era of open source collaboration, with, at the very least, enemies turning to frenemies.

Guan Xi, anyone?

At any rate, Brooks notes that Chua and her Asian parent posse are hardly alone:

“She is not really rebelling against American-style parenting; she is the logical extension of the prevailing elite practices. She does everything over-pressuring upper-middle-class parents are doing. She’s just hard core.”

This, I think resonates with the studies about differences in rich and poor parenting.  Malcolm Gladwell talks about it in Outliers, calling attention to what psychologists have labeled “concerted cultivation”.

Upper middle class parents have structured plans for their kids’ development and teach them how to interact with adults on level footing, and how to change the game to suit their needs.

Most striking in that chapter is the story of how Robert Oppenheimer uses his “practical intelligence” to get off lightly (counseling) for attempting to poison his tutor at Cambridge.

There’s also that Forbes Billionaires interview from a couple years back (which I can’t seem to find the link to), where among other things Donald Trump says he learned all he needed to succeed in real estate from his father.

Incidentally, as an indicator of the degree of passion this discussion has incited, I tried to post a comment on The Times’ site and was told comments were no longer being accepted.  The article had been posted less than a day and there were only about 10 comments displayed.

That would be because the automators behind the scenes were still sorting through the deluge.  By the next day, you could see there had been hundreds of comments and they could only display “representative” ones.

Again, great PR score, Tiger Mom ;)

2. The Economist’s Banyan column has a tentative go

I love reading Lexington, Schumpter, and the Book Reviews in every week’s Economist.  Banyan (the Asia column)… is somehow underwhelming at times.

In its take on the Tiger Mom debate, Banyan gives us interesting factoids about Mencius (the old Chinese philosopher) and his mother moving house several times to get to a good school district (some problems are timeless), references those recent OECD test scores where Shanghai kids placed first, and concurs that driven parents exist in many skin tones.

It concludes that disagreements over parenting are as old as China itself.

Way to go to say nothing at all, Banyan.  Seriously.  Probably the best line of the column was

“Criticising someone’s fitness as a mother is worse than calling her a bad driver”

3. And here’s the Straits Times with a feature on Singaporean mums in America going “oh, we don’t do that”.

I wonder how the Straits Times paywall is doing.  Might not be that bad, given that local / niche is in (think Groupon and its clones).

As for the article itself, how exactly does one spell “D-O-N-’T C-A-R-E”…

Thankfully, if you don’t like the parenting obsession…

There’s More on Makeovers

1. The Economist joins the logo change discussion

Apparently Starbucks is facing a certain degree of uproar from its loyal followers for setting the nymph free.  Seems that way in both the article’s analysis and the comments section.  The negative reactions weren’t quite so manifest when I first wrote about logos and makeovers.

One interesting point the article considers is what a “brand” means to a consumer, and why people might care so passionately about symbols of the corporatocracy.  It surmises that true “communities” grow up around brands, and that brands help consumers make sense of the dizzying array of options around them.

“These days there are so many choices available to Western consumers [...] that they are in danger of being overwhelmed. Homo economicus may be capable of carefully considering all available products. But poor, fumbling Homo sapiens seizes on logos as a way of creating order in a confusing world.

Ah yes, Homo economicus.  He of “marginal utility”.  And Homo sapiens.  He of “woman, I’m trying to concentrate here.”

2. And even more on old media trying to ride through the times

As newspapers continue to juggle print and online circulation and revenue generation, that old paywall is making a comeback.  The New York Times experimented with one about 3 to 4 years ago.

Times Select, they called it.  I was really miffed back then, ‘cos the Opinion columns all went behind the paywall.  Then they ditched it and I rejoiced.

Now, The Big Picture reports that the Times could be at it again.  Though interestingly enough, even if the paywall does work, the Times still derives a large part of its advertising revenue from its print edition, so that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.  The post also delves into comps with the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.

I’d hate to see bad things happen to The New York Times.  Where would I get my old-school news from? Where else could I procrastinate and possibly learn something?

On the business end of old media, the future may feature more divergence and less silver bullets.

The Atlantic, another intellectual’s publication, has taken a more drastic but profitable step forward.  It merged its print and online departments and returned to profitability by recasting itself with a focus on digital ad sales.  Full story from, um, the New York Times.

Over in Britain, which has always had a more vigorous magazine and tabloid business, newspaper websites have seen robust traffic growth, but similarly modest revenue generation.

The Daily Mail
, which reportedly finds itself in the “middle ground” between serious publications and low-end tabloids, has embraced the digital domain with SEO optimized headlines, different focus areas for its print and online versions, and, in a move completely opposite to what The Atlantic has done, separate print and online staff.

“Rather than talking about synergies, The Mail is being honest about this: These are very different products, with very different audiences and very different business models,” said Douglas McCabe, an analyst at Enders Analysis in London.

And you wonder where all the bipolar confusion comes from…

What’s in a name

Freak of Nameture

The first Freakonomics had a pretty interesting discussion of the naming of children, finding in naming trends the aspirations of well-intentioned parents.  From the chapter “Would a Roshanda by any other name smell as sweet”:

“There is a clear pattern at play: once a name catches on among high-income, highly educated parents, it starts working its way down the socioeconomic ladder.

Amber and Heather started out as high-end names, as did Stephanie and Brittany. For every high-end baby named Stephanie or Brittany, another five lower-income girls received those names within ten years.”

Memorably, in an unintentional natural experiment, one family named one of their sons “Winner” and later named a younger son “Loser”, only to have the life trajectories of the two become the exact opposites of what their names might have predicted.

The book also provided a list of “whitest” and “blackest” boy and girl names, and in honor of Asian American identity issues, I’m still waiting to meet my first DeAndre Kim or Jamal Wu.  There have to be some out there.  Walk the walk, people!

Confucian Confusion*

*Which was actually the title of a Chinese movie, I believe.

The earliest non-WASP immigrants to America anglicized their names in the hopes of integrating better.  But, as the New York Times reports, this trend is now in decline, with many opting to keep their original romanizations intact.

The article attributes the move to increased multiculturalism, and for all the challenges of multiculturalism, I find the trend encouraging.

With that said, the one thing I’m still not very comfortable with is Asian English naming mashups.

For example, purely hypothetically, it’s one thing to go “I’m an early immigrant and I’m going to modify my name to Gary Locke so people don’t look at me funny.” And then a couple generations later, a descendant says, “Never mind, in today’s world, Gary Lok” is fine.  Or its equivalent.

(I know it didn’t quite play out that way for the current US Commerce Secretary, people, I know.  HYPOTHETICALLY.)

But it’s quite another thing to spice up an existing variant of a standard English name and expect to hit a home run instantly.  You have to tread carefully.

At the very least, follow these guidelines*:

1. Not all boys’ names can be converted to girls’ names by adding “a” behind them.  The Ivanas, Paulas, Ericas, and Daniellas of the world seem to have fared okay.  The Damienas?  Not so much.  Rabid feminists, now is not the time…

2. Some materials, like Jade, Sand, and Ice make for acceptable names.  Or nicknames.  Certain elements of the periodic table, however, might still be stuck in the “screening for ridiculous names” process.

3. Remember the “Winner” and “Loser” story above?  Hold back on those concrete, material aspiration names.  Like car brands… I just don’t know.

4. Some months of the year (April, May, June) and some desirable character traits (Grace, Faith, Joy) are viable options.  There are even some days of the week running around.  But hold off on the “February”s and “Leader”s, I say.

5. Just because some people out there have “interesting” names and are doing okay doesn’t necessarily mean the first one you come up with for your child is going to be brilliant.

*all examples mentioned above purely hypothetical as well.  If somehow your past, present, or future name appeared and you don’t like the opinion, leave a change request in the comments section, and I’ll have my assistant, qwertya, get back to you.

But seriously, folks, I understand it’s a daunting undertaking.

So parents and second chancers, take a page out of the Freakonomics naming playbook above.  If you’re going to try something new, make it good.  Run it by your friends.  And your enemies.  Or have a DeShawn Tan, and make my day!

Otherwise, just do yourselves and your kids a favor, leave the creativity to other things, and keep it simple.  The 20 million Michael Lees of the world have been doing just fine.

I think.

Name that act!

Perhaps the most interesting testing ground for naming is the music industry.

  • Who can forget when Prince decided to change his name to that symbol, and commentators found it far more convenient to refer to him as “The artist formerly known as Prince”.  Which kinda defeated the purpose of his name change, which eventually led to him reversing the decision?
  • You could also look to rappers for a super pun time.  I remember getting into a spirited (huhuh) discussion with some students a couple years back on wordplay rapper names.  Think Chamillionaire, Flo-Rida, Ludacris etc.

Unified theory of pre-incarnation

Since people evolve (yeah huh), and since technology supposedly “evolves” similarly, I’m pining for someone to come up with a theory of band name evolution. Since I don’t have a PhD in namecology and will therefore be too easy a target for hater bashing, all I can offer is the anecdote that follows…

You know that band Starship?

  • Before being “Starship”, they were “Jefferson Starship”.  Before that, they were “Jefferson Airplane”.  This is all true.  I marveled at how their name kinda traced technological development (skipping “Jefferson Zeppelin”, perhaps, for obvious musical reasons).
  • Makes you wonder what the band would have been named if they’d been around for even longer.  “Gustafson Railroad”?
  • And before that, “Iohannes Bulluc Cræt”?
  • That last one was the closest old English rendition of “Jefferson Bullock Cart” I could obtain from  Yes, you should check it out.

A couple years ago, I read in a short story compilation that “When you change your name, you change your destiny.”  I couldn’t agree more.   That’s what’s in a name.  Destiny.

Except, perhaps, if you’re “Destiny’s Child”.

With more on that, here’s comedian Mike Birbiglia.  Enjoy!
Mike Birbiglia – Having Kids
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