Firestone in Liberia

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Last month, Firestone’s rubber plantation in Liberia made the news, because it stopped ebola in its tracks:

The case was detected on a Sunday. Garcia and a medical team from the company hospital spent Monday setting up an Ebola ward. Tuesday the woman was placed in isolation.

“None of us had any Ebola experience,” he says. They scoured the Internet for information about how to treat Ebola. They cleared out a building on the hospital grounds and set up an isolation ward. They grabbed a bunch of hazmat suits for dealing with chemical spills at the rubber factory and gave them to the hospital staff. The suits worked just as well for Ebola cases.

Firestone immediately quarantined the woman’s family. Like so many Ebola patients, she died soon after being admitted to the ward. But no one else at Firestone got infected: not her family and not the workers who transported, treated and cared for her.

The Firestone managers had the benefit of backing and resources of a major corporation — something the communities around them did not.

Notice how NPR emphasizes that Firestone managers had the benefit of backing and resources of a major corporation, when, really, Firestone had managers who simply instituted a quarantine and made it stick.

Now that same Firestone plantation is getting a different kind of media attention. The latest Frontline, Firestone and the Warlord, looks at Firestone’s actions during the Liberian civil war. As The Vice Guide to Liberia makes abundantly clear, Liberia is a messed up place today, but when the incompetent gunmen were running the show, it got really bad.

What is the right course of action for the ex-pat managers of an enormous, immobile asset, in a country embroiled in civil war? They were apparently wrong for leaving and wrong for coming back.

Uber Gets the Buzzfeed Treatment

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Uber gets the Buzzfeed treatment, and Scott Adams (Dilbert) is not pleased:

Let’s start with Buzzfeed’s totally manipulative and misleading headline:

Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists

Holy shit! Uber must be evil! They are trying to suppress freedom of the media!

Except… that isn’t what happened, according to Buzzfeed’s own reporting in the article with the misleading headline.

Michael didn’t “suggest” doing anything. Nor did he — then or now — even want to dig up dirt on journalists. Assuming Buzzfeed’s reporting of the details is accurate, all he did was make a dinner party intellectual comparison between the evil of the media that was unfairly attacking them (which I assume is true) and their own civilized response to the attacks.

Michael’s point, as Buzzfeed reports it, was that horrible people in the media mislead readers and there is nothing a victim can do about it within the realm of reasonable business practices. The Buzzfeed business model is totally legal. But, as Michael explained, probably over a cocktail, the only legal solution to this problem would be to use freedom of the press to push back on the bad actors by giving them a taste of their own medicine.

But it was just private cocktail talk. It wasn’t a plan. It definitely wasn’t a “suggestion.” It was just an interesting way to make a point. The point, as I understand it from Buzzfeed’s own reporting, is that Uber does play fair in a fight in which the opponents (bad actors in the press) do not. I find that interesting. It is also literally the opposite of what the headline of the story “suggests” happened.

And Michael made his point in a room full of writers and media people. Obviously it wasn’t a plan.

It’s not as if Michael was talking about manipulating the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Those publications might get some facts wrong now and then, but they don’t have a business model that involves intentionally taking things out of context to manufacture news. No one suggested trying to strong-arm the legitimate media. Michael was talking about the bottom-feeder types that literally manufacture news, hurt innocent people, damage the reputation of companies, and hide behind the Constitution and freedom of speech. You can’t compare the bad actors in the press with the legitimate press. And in my opinion it makes interesting dinner conversation to speculate how one can stop the bad actors without breaking any laws.

And then Buzzfeed proved Michael’s point by taking his words out of context and showing that Michael could do nothing about it but apologize for… Buzzfeed’s misleading description of what he said.

That’s called “news.”

Super Revenue

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

The real superhero money comes not from movies but from licensed products, where the real hero isn’t Batman, Superman, or one of the Avengers:

It’s actually Spider-Man who is the superheroic earner, with licensing profits that in 2013 outpaced those of the Avengers ($325 million), Batman ($494 million), and Superman ($277 million). The Hollywood Reporter lists the data reported by the Licensing Letter.

According to the data, Marvel also sees far more licensed products shipped than DC does.

3 Million ‘Frozen’ Dresses Sold

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

More than three million “Frozen” role-play dresses have been sold this year in North America:

Disney Consumer Products, which released that “Frozen” nugget on Tuesday — an unusual step for the company — did not disclose corresponding dollar sales. The princess dresses, frilly in light blue for the character Elsa, earthier tones for her sister, Anna, sell for $49.95 to $99.95 at Disney Stores.

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2014 Halloween consumer survey, an estimated 2.6 million children dressed up as one of the characters from “Frozen,” an animated musical that took in $1.3 billion at the global box office.

The federation estimated that 3.4 million children dressed up as princesses of some type; the most popular costume for boys was Spider-Man — also a Disney-owned property — with 2.6 million.

Advice that surprises you

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Startups are so weird, Paul Graham contends, that if you trust your instincts, you’ll make a lot of mistakes:

When I was running Y Combinator I used to joke that our function was to tell founders things they would ignore. It’s really true. Batch after batch, the YC partners warn founders about mistakes they’re about to make, and the founders ignore them, and then come back a year later and say “I wish we’d listened.”

Why do the founders ignore the partners’ advice? Well, that’s the thing about counterintuitive ideas: they contradict your intuitions. They seem wrong. So of course your first impulse is to disregard them. And in fact my joking description is not merely the curse of Y Combinator but part of its raison d’etre. If founders’ instincts already gave them the right answers, they wouldn’t need us. You only need other people to give you advice that surprises you. That’s why there are a lot of ski instructors and not many running instructors.

Read the whole thing — and the footnotes.

Behaviorally Fit

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Business schools don’t — but should — teach their students to become behaviorally fit, Lee Newman argues:

It’s a 9 a.m. meeting, Carolina is getting resistance from the team and a rival is trying to derail her with subtle gibes. This is a typical moment of truth, and her success will depend largely on how well she listens, reveals hidden agendas, demonstrates openness to others’ ideas, and controls her emotions.

Business school graduates and rising young professionals are all smart and armed with knowledge and tools. What differentiates them is how well they can think and react, and the quality of what they say and do in these behavioral moments that populate every workday.

Behavioral science has shown very clearly that when under time pressure and stress, we resort to default behaviors. These are automatic ways of thinking and reacting that are too often unproductive. Behind closed doors, when I ask a group of executives or young professionals, “Who in this room thinks they could be a better listener?”–90% or more raise their hands. In my experience, the majority of smart professionals listen too little, micromanage too much, judge too quickly, give too little consideration to the ideas of others… and the list goes on.

Learning best practices in workplace behaviors (e.g., 10 steps for active listening, eight steps for leading change, and so on) is useful, but also easily forgotten. When push comes to shove in a high-conflict meeting at the end of a long day, it’s less about what you know and are capable of doing, than it is about having well tuned behaviors that allow you to actually make things happen.

This is what I call “behavioral fitness.” Business schools and corporate universities need to treat the workplace like a behavioral gym where professionals have a clear training plan for what behaviors they need to work on, and then they need to get down to it. Professionals need to sweat daily, in every meeting, every conversation, and every problem solving session.

Why wait until post-grad business school?

Elon Musk at MIT’s AeroAstro Centennial Symposium

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

At the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department’s Centennial Symposium, Elon Musk spoke.

He considers The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein’s best novel, and he wonders why rocket engines are always mounted on gimbals, and airplane engines never are.

How Palmer Luckey Created Oculus Rift

Monday, October 20th, 2014

If there is a case to be made that unconventional schooling, without busywork or fixed schedules, helps unleash creativity, Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift, might well be Exhibit A for the prosecution:

His mother, Julie, home-schooled all four of her children during a period of each of their childhoods (Luckey’s father, Donald, is a car salesman), but Palmer was the only one of the kids who never went back; he liked the flexibility too much. In his ample free time, he devoted most of his considerable energy to teaching himself how to build electronics from scratch.

No one else in Luckey’s family was especially interested in technology, but his parents were happy to give over half of the garage at their Long Beach, California, home to his experiments. There, Luckey quickly progressed from making small electronics to “high-voltage stuff” like lasers and electromagnetic coilguns. Inevitably, there were mishaps. While working on a live Tesla coil, Luckey once accidentally touched a grounded metal bed frame, and blew himself across the garage; another time, while cleaning an infrared laser, he burned a gray spot into his vision.

When Luckey was 15, he started “modding” video game equipment: taking consoles like the Nintendo GameCube, disassembling them, and modifying them with newer parts, to transform them into compact, efficient and hand-crafted devices. “Modding was more interesting than just building things entirely using new technologies,” Luckey told me. “It was this very special type of engineering that required deeply understanding why people had made the decisions they made in designing the hardware.”

Luckey soon became obsessed with PC gaming. How well, he wondered, could he play games? “Not skill level,” he clarified to me, “but how good could the experience be?” By this time, Luckey was making good money fixing broken iPhones, and he spent most of it on high-end gaming equipment in order to make the experience as immersive as possible. At one point, his standard gaming setup consisted of a mind-boggling six-monitor arrangement. “It was so sick,” he recalled.

But it wasn’t enough. Luckey didn’t just want to play on expensive screens; he wanted to jump inside the game itself. He knew the military sometimes trained soldiers using virtual reality headsets, so he set out to buy some — on the cheap, through government auctions. “You’d read that these VR systems originally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you thought, clearly if they’re that expensive, they must be really good,” Luckey said. Instead, they fell miles short of his hopes. The field of view on one headset might be so narrow that he’d feel as if he was looking through a half-opened door. Another might weigh ten pounds, or have preposterously long lag between his head moving and the image reacting onscreen — a feature common to early VR that literally makes users nauseated.

So Luckey decided to do what he’d been doing for years with game consoles: He’d take the technology apart, figure out where it was falling short and modify it with new parts to improve it. Very quickly, he realized that this wasn’t going to be simple. “It turned out that a lot of the approaches the old systems were taking were dead ends,” he said.

The problem was one of fundamental design philosophy. In order to create the illusion of a three-dimensional digital world from a single flat screen, VR manufacturers had typically used complex optical apparatuses that magnified the onscreen image to fill the user’s visual field while also correcting for any distortion. Because these optics had to perform a variety of elaborate tricks to make the magnified image seem clear, they were extremely heavy and costly to produce.

Luckey’s solution to this dilemma was ingeniously simple. Why use bulky, expensive optics, he thought, when he could put in cheap, lightweight lenses and then use software to distort the image, so that it came out clear through them? Plus, he quickly realized that he could combine these lenses with screens from mobile phones, which the smartphone arms race had made bigger, crisper and less expensive than ever before. “That let me make something that was a lot lighter and cheaper, with a much wider field of view, than anything else out there,” he said.

From 2009 to 2012, while also taking college classes and working at the University of Southern California’s VR-focused Institute for Creative Technologies, Luckey poured countless hours into creating a working prototype from this core vision. He tinkered with different screens, mixed and matched parts from his collection of VR hardware, and refined the motion tracking equipment, which monitored the user’s head movements in real-time. Amazingly, considering the eventual value of his invention, Luckey was also posting detailed reports about his work to a 3-D gaming message board. The idea was sitting there for anyone to steal.

But, as Brendan Iribe put it to me, “Maybe his name is Luckey for a reason.” By that point, no one was interested in throwing more money away on another doomed virtual reality project.

Then, in early 2012, luck struck again when the legendary video game programmer John Carmack stumbled onto his work online and asked Luckey if he could buy one of his prototypes. Luckey sent him one for free. “I played it super cool,” he assured me. Carmack returned the favor in a big way: At that June’s E3 convention — the game industry’s gigantic annual commercial carnival — he showed off the Rift prototype to a flock of journalists, using a repurposed version of his hit game “Doom 3” for the demonstration. The response was immediate and ecstatic. “I was in Boston at a display conference at the time,” Luckey said, “and people there were like, ‘Dude, Palmer, everyone’s writing articles about your thing!’”

The rest, as they say, is virtual history: Over the next 21 months, Luckey partnered with Iribe, Antonov and Mitchell, launched a Kickstarter campaign that netted $2.4 million in funding — nearly ten times its initial goal — and joined the Facebook empire, thereby ensuring the company the kind of financial backing that most early-stage tech companies can only dream of.

The Oculus Rift is now entering its final stages of development — it’s slated for commercial release next year — and this fall Samsung will release a scaled-down product for developers and enthusiasts, powered by Oculus technology, that will clip over the company’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. But Luckey knows that success is by no means assured. “To this point, there has never been a successful commercial VR product, ever,” Luckey told me. “Nobody’s actually managed to pull this off.” Spend a few minutes inside the Rift, though, and one can’t help but believe that Luckey will be the one to do it.

Apple’s Next Big Imitative Leap

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Apple is just buying time until its next big imitative leap:

Samsung debuted its first, much maligned and hugely successful Galaxy Note — the first phone with a bigger-than-5-inch screen — in September, 2011. For two years afterwards, Apple was content to present incremental improvements to the iPhone. Compared with the iPhone 5, the iPhone 5s just added a fingerprint sensor and an improved camera (plus a few other features that most consumers didn’t care about).

Meanwhile Apple carefully observed the “phablet” market, watched other handset makers follow Samsung’s example and erode its market share, and experimented with ways to make a big phone easier to navigate one-handed. It struck just when Samsung started posting lower profits, because of the increased competitive pressure.

It was a perfectly-timed attack and, after setting a first-weekend record — 10 million iPhones sold — iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are continuing their rampage. Apple chief executive Tim Cook said yesterday that the first sales month for the two new phones was the company’s best ever “by a lot. A whole lot.”

The iPad Air 2′s most important improvements on last year’s device are, again, a fingerprint sensor and a better camera. As with iPhone 5s in 2013, it may appear as if Apple is stuck in a rut of timid, incremental innovation. My bet, however, is that it’s watching another innovator collect bumps, get bad reviews, then get things right. Once that innovator’s success is assured, Apple will pounce.

This time it isn’t a Samsung product Apple is watching, but Microsoft’s Surface Pro.

Microsoft hit on the idea of producing a tablet-laptop cross in 2012, incurring losses and writing off inventory as it refined the concept. This year, it finally produced a device that reviewers liked — the Surface Pro 3. It’s reasonably convincing both as a laptop and as a tablet, albeit a large and heavy one. Microsoft has not released numbers, saying only that the Pro 3 was its fastest-selling tablet yet — the company underestimated demand, creating shortages in some markets.

The analysis company Gartner puts the Surface Pro in the same category — “premium ultra-mobile” computers — as Apple’s MacBook Air laptops.

Altucher on Personal Finance

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

James Altucher provides a “real education” on personal finance:

A) Don’t save money. Make more. If you think this is not so easy then remember: whatever direction you are walking in, eventually you get there.

B) That said, don’t spend money on the BIGGEST expenses in life. House and college (and kids and marriage but, of course, there are exceptions there). Just saving on these two things alone is worth over a million dollars in your bank account.

C) But doesn’t renting flush money down the toilet? No, it doesn’t. Do the math. You can argue all you want but the math is very clear as long as you are not lying to yourself.

D) Haven’t studies shown that college graduates make more money 20 years later?

No, studies have not shown that. They show correlation but not causation and they don’t take into account multi-collinearity (it could be that the children of middle class families have higher paying jobs later and, oh by the way, these children also go to college).

E) Don’t invest in anything that you can’t directly control every aspect of. In other words…yourself.

In other words:

  1. You can’t make or save money from a salary.And salaries have been going down versus inflation for 40 years. So don’t count on a salary. You’re 20, please take this advice alone if you take any advice at all.
  2. Investing is a tax on the middle class. There are at least 5 levels of fees stripped out of your hard-earned cash before your money touches an investment.

F) If you want to make money you have to learn the following skills. None of these skills are taught in college.

I’m not saying college is awful or about money, etc. I’m just saying that the only skills needed to make money will never be learned in college:

  • how to sell (both in a presentation and via copywriting)
  • how to negotiate (which means win-win, not war)
  • creativity (take out a pad, write down a list of ideas, every day)
  • leadership (give more to others than you expect back for yourself)
  • networking (a corollary of leadership)
  • how to live by themes instead of goals (goals will break your heart)
  • reinvention (which will happen repeatedly throughout a life)
  • idea sex (get good at coming up with ideas. Then combine them. Master the intersection)
  • the 1% rule (every week try to get better 1% physically, emotionally, mentally)
  • “the google rule” – always send people to the best resource, even if it’s a competitor. The benefit to you comes back tenfold
  • give constantly to the people in your network. The value of your network increase linearly if you get to know more people but EXPONENTIALLY if the people you know, get to know and help each other.
  • how to fail so that a failure turns into a beginning
  • simple tools to increase productivity
  • how to master a field. You can’t learn this in school with each “field” being regimented into equal 50 minute periods. Mastery begins when formal education ends. Find the topic that sets your heart on fire. Then combust.
  • stopping the noise: news, advice books, fees upon fees in almost every area of life. Create your own noise instead of falling in life with the others.

If you do all this you will gradually make more and more money and help more and more people. At least, I’ve seen it happen for me and for others.

Sexual Harassment at Restaurants

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Scott Adams (Dilbert) adds some context to the report that 90% of women in restaurant jobs that depend on tipping report being sexually harassed at work, based on his own restaurant-owning experience:

I believe it is true that 90% of women working for tips in restaurants are sexually harassed by coworkers and/or customers. That fits my personal observations after working in the industry. But let’s put some context on that and see if your feelings about the story change.

For starters, let’s remove from the stats the folks who take jobs at Hooters and other restaurants that position the staff’s appearance as part of the “entertainment.” I would argue that those employees are signing up to be sexually objectified in return for the promise of easy work and good tips. You can make a convincing case that Hooters should not exist, but I don’t think you can lump the servers at Hooters with the servers at Applebee’s and get a good statistic on restaurant sexual harassment in general.

So let’s say the non-Hooters rate of sexual harassment for female restaurant workers is something like 80%. That still sounds terrible. But I’m not done with context yet.

In my experience, attractive female bartenders and servers are completely conscious of trading their sexuality for higher tips. They talk about it freely. They pick blouses to accentuate their best assets. And some will admit they choose jobs that allow them to trade on their looks. If I were in my twenties and could make money in a job that depended on my looks instead of my muscles I would take it in a heartbeat, assuming I had good looks.

My best guess is that if you remove from the stats the women who are intentionally using their sexuality to improve their income, you get about 50% of women in tipping jobs who get sexually harassed and have done nothing intentionally to inspire unwanted attention. That is still a horrible number.

But 50% is also the rate of men who report being sexually harassed in server jobs. In my restaurant experience, when we had handsome male bartenders or servers the female staff and customers were shameless with their non-stop sexual banter, flirting, and direct sexual offers. And if you thought all of that attention was the good kind, you’d be wrong. It was an ongoing problem for the guys. The handsome gay servers had it the worst because they had no upside potential from the female attention.

So here’s the proper context, in my opinion, based on years of direct restaurant experience: 100% of attractive men and women are sexually harassed at work in the restaurant business. And nearly every one of them took the job knowing that would be the case, but they decided it was worth it for the relatively easy money.

Big Med could learn a lot from the Cheesecake Factory

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

It’s easy to make fun of the casual dining sector, but Big Med could learn a lot from the Cheesecake Factory, Atul Gawande says:

One study examined how long it took several major discoveries, such as the finding that the use of beta-blockers after a heart attack improves survival, to reach even half of Americans. The answer was, on average, more than fifteen years.

Scaling good ideas has been one of our deepest problems in medicine. Regulation has had its place, but it has proved no more likely to produce great medicine than food inspectors are to produce great food. During the era of managed care, insurance-company reviewers did hardly any better. We’ve been stuck. But do we have to be?

Every six months, the Cheesecake Factory puts out a new menu. This means that everyone who works in its restaurants expects to learn something new twice a year. The March, 2012, Cheesecake Factory menu included thirteen new items. The teaching process is now finely honed: from start to finish, rollout takes just seven weeks.

Peter Thiel Converses with Bill Kristol

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Bill Kristol has a conversation with Peter Thiel:

CrossFit Preschool

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

CrossFit gyms are now offering preschool programs:

In preschool CrossFit, dangling off hanging bars is likened to being a monkey. Squats are frog-inspired. Box jumps, plyometric leaps long beloved by elite athletes, are smaller and rebranded for kids as superhero leaps.

In Long Island City, a tunnel constructed from red tumbling mats inspired comparisons to snakes and worms. Games and exercises were punctuated by water breaks and doodling. CrossFit Kids instructors are discouraged from telling children to lift weights or move faster, Martin said. High-fives for effort are prevalent.

[...]

For some parents and children, CrossFit has become an alternative to the travel teams and year-round youth sports schedules that can be so demanding.

Creating a Nation of Readers

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Publishers gave away over 100 million books during World War IIgood books, in a disposable format:

Serious books were hard to find before the war. An industry study in 1931 highlighted the book trade’s limited audience. Nineteen out of every 20 books sold by the major publishing houses cost more than two dollars, a luxury even before the Depression. Those who could afford them often struggled to find them. Two out of three counties in America lacked any bookstore, or even so much as a department store, drugstore, or other retailer selling enough books to have an account with a publishing house. In rural areas, small towns, and even mid-sized cities, dedicated customers bought their books the way they bought other household goods, picking the titles out of mail-order catalogs. Most did not bother.

There was another, less-reputable class of books, though, that enjoyed broader distribution. Cheap mysteries, westerns, and comics could be snapped up at newsstands in paperbound editions that cost far less to produce than hardcover books. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, publishers tried to take advantage of this format to publish a wider range of books. Most efforts failed. Then, in 1939, two new entrants changed the equation. Pocket Books and Penguin Books each offered a mix of new titles and reprints of hardcover books, including some of a literary bent. More importantly, they sold these paperback books on magazine racks.

Americans could put down a quarter and pick up a book all over town, from train stations and drugstores. Within a year, Americans bought 6 million paperback books. By 1943, Pocket Books alone printed 38 million copies. “It’s unbelievable,” said the head of Random House. “It’s frightening.”

Old-line publishers had good reason to be scared. They were in the business of selling a premium product to an affluent audience. The sudden flood of paperbacks threatened to swamp their refined trade and erode its prestige. The cheap, disposable format seemed best suited to works of little lasting value. That Penguin and Pocket Books included some distinguished titles on their lists threatened the stability of these categories, even as their sales still tilted heavily toward the lower end of the spectrum. Paperbacks were expanding the market for books, but that market remained divided.

Then, war intervened. The key actors in the book trade organized themselves into the Council on Books in Wartime, hoping to use books to advance the war effort. In February of 1943, they circulated an audacious proposal. They proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just six cents a volume.

Hardcover books could not possibly be produced so cheaply. But magazines could. So the Council decided to use magazine presses, printing two copies on each page, and then slicing the book in half perpendicular to the binding. The result was a book wider than it was tall, featuring two columns of text for easier reading in low light. The real innovation, though, was less technological than ideological. The publishers proposed to take books available only in hardcover form, and produce them in this disposable format.

The plan, breathtaking in its ambition, was sure to engender skepticism among publishers asked to donate the rights to some of their most valuable property. So the chair of the committee, W.W. Norton, took care to appeal not just to the patriotism of his fellow publishers, but also to their pursuit of profits. “The net result to the industry and to the future of book reading can only be helpful,” he explained. “The very fact that millions of men will have the opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in postwar years to exert a tremendous influence on the postwar course of the industry.”

The program turned The Great Gatsby into a success. Apparently A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was hugely popular with the troops.

(Hat tip to Steve Sailer.)