John Galt Writes a Car Commercial

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

When John Galt writes a car commercial, this, John C. Wright suggests, is what you get:

Effective and Costless

Monday, April 7th, 2014

The lesson of Eich’s purging by hashtag advocacy, Handle says, is that it was completely effective and simultaneously completely costless for everyone who wanted it to happen:

That is an incredibly terrifying amount of power, and it guarantees that we’ll see much, much more of this kind of thing in the years to come. There is simply no reason why not. If you can get drunk on alcohol, and not suffer any consequences, you will drink. If you can get drunk on power, and push your opponents around with complete impunity, you will just keep pushing.

But liberalism, as classically understood, with its notions of free and open debate and tolerance of opposing viewpoints which form the basis of the civil society, is not compatible with the exercise of this kind of power, whether it is employed by the state or by a howling mob.

[...]

There is also the historically recurrent and universal human phenomenon of the opportunistic abandonment of formerly claimed ‘sacred’ principles when they are no longer useful or convenient. The party of a minority viewpoint which is out of power will, naturally, publicly and loudly extol the transcendent virtues of maximum effective tolerance for minority viewpoints. They will claim that they will continue to respect these sacred principles should their point of view ever come into majority and their party ascend to power. That the members of a waning majority can, on the basis of the growing-minority’s adamant dedication to these sacred principles, trust the members of that opposition and conclude that they need not resist with all their might and to the last man, and that they can relent and surrender with the confidence that they will be treated fairly and without abuse or retribution.

And then, the minute the old minority achieves enough power to do so, they throw all that away and crush the new minority into powder. They don’t even feel bad about the obvious hypocrisy, which is, after all, so, so easy to rationalize away. After all, they were abusing their power for bad, whereas we are only using it for good. See? Easy peasy. So one should always expect it to happen, regardless of any claims to the contrary.

Mike Judge on Silicon Valley

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Mike Judge graduated from UCSD with a degree in physics and then moved to East Palo Alto in 1987 to work at a company that made interfaces for high-resolution screens, so he has some experience with Silicon Valley:

Everybody uses all this technology every day but very few people know what it’s like to be a programmer and coding this stuff. I haven’t seen engineer-programmer types portrayed the way I’ve known them to be. The only exceptions I’ve seen were “The Social Network,” which was great, and a little movie called “Primer.” The guy made it in Dallas for like $5,000. It looks incredible and the engineers seem like engineers.

[...]

Back then you looked for a job in the newspaper and I remember seeing a giant ad for Sun Microsystems that said “PUSH” in giant letters, and then underneath it said, “yourself harder than you ever dreamed possible, past all existing goals, up to the level of Sun Microsystems.” It just kind of scared me.

[...]

You look at the houses that a lot of billionaires live in, and they’re not flashy the way Hollywood is. I was talking to a very wealthy guy up there who said the last thing you’d ever do is drive around in a Maserati or something. But because nobody wants to show off any wealth, the whole place ends up looking kind of drab. I guess it started from hippie culture, and these are also introverted people, so there’s this code of behavior where you don’t show wealth. You wear a Patagonia vest and jeans and that’s that.

The Expert

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

What it’s like to be the sole technical expert in a client meeting:

Group Size

Monday, March 31st, 2014

An architect by training, then a professor at Arizona State University, and now a business strategy consultant, Kristine Woolsey studies the impact of the physical environment on human behavior:

Numerous anthropological studies show that group size — the number of individuals who live or work together — is key to peaceful collaboration in all kinds of environments. The ideal group size for forming bonds of trust is around six to eight people, Woolsey said.

A gang of four can be easily dominated by one strong personality; any larger than eight, and they’ll to need to elect a leader. But right in the middle, there’s “a sort of peer pressure in terms of expected social behavior” that leads people to act in the common interest, she said.

Effective open-plan offices, such as the ones Google Inc. has designed in Zurich and Dublin, and the ones offered by NextSpace, a California-based company that rents workspaces to freelancers and small businesses, place employees in hubs of six to eight, with nearby common areas accessible to several groups, Woolsey said. Thus, rather than dividing up a giant workforce into “acres of gray cubes,” the office is instead comprised of small groups nested within larger ones.

[...]

Jeremy Neuner, the CEO of NextSpace, said he’s observed that workers naturally congregate in groups of six to eight. Recently at the company’s Santa Cruz headquarters, as a sort of experiment, a 12-seat conference table was moved into an open area of the office. Sure enough, Neuner said, six to eight people gathered there to work.

“Except when they’re up against a deadline, people are not looking for their own closed-in spaces,” Neuner said.

As Woolsey sees it, the traditional open-plan office is no better at adapting to the way people work than the old cubicle-dotted office.

Business Schools Flunk When CEOs Grade the Test

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

A new study from Hult International Business School shows that MBAs may be great with Excel and PowerPoint but not much else:

Hult International Business School interviewed 90 CEOs and other executives to get their take on the current state of business education, and found that the reviews are far from glowing. Respondents, from companies including Accenture, Unilever, and Liberty Mutual Insurance, said students lack self-awareness, can’t work in teams, have poor critical thinking skills and come up short on creativity.

The school initially planned to collect responses from 200 executives. “We were just hearing the same thing again and again. There was really no point in continuing the research much further,” says Hult President Stephen Hodges. He added that he was surprised by the consistency of those negative sentiments.

The Man Who Built The Settlers of Catan

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Klaus Teuber was working, unhappily, as a dental technician when he created The Settlers of Catan:

First published in Germany in 1995 as Die Siedler von Catan, the game has sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide. It was released in the United States in 1996; last year, its English-language publisher, Mayfair Games, reported selling more than seven hundred and fifty thousand Catan-related products. Big-box chains like Target, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble carry the game and its offshoots, such as Catan cards, Catan Junior, and Star Trek Catan. Including all the spinoffs, expansions, and special editions, there are about eighty official varieties of Catan—more if you include electronic versions—and Teuber has had a hand in creating all of them. Paraphernalia in the online Catan shop includes socks and custom-designed tables. Rebecca Gablé, a German historical-fiction author, has written a Viking-era Settlers of Catan novel. Pete Fenlon, the C.E.O. of Mayfair Games, said, “Our volume of sales will be such that, over time, Catan could, in terms of gross revenue, be the biggest game brand in the world.”

[...]

Teuber was born in 1952 in Rai-Breitenbach, a small village tucked beneath Breuberg Castle, in central Germany. As a child, he set up miniature fighters and ancient Romans on the floor, using strings to create mountains and rivers and to build routes through the terrain. He rediscovered games during his mandatory military service, when he needed something to entertain his wife and young son in the barracks. He was still running Teuber Dental-Labor in 1988, when he designed Barbarossa, a game in which players mold clay sculptures and try to guess what their opponents’ figures represent. He had been reading “The Riddle-Master,” a swashbuckling fantasy trilogy by Patricia McKillip about a man who wins a game of riddles against a ghost. “I was sorry to see it come to an end,” Teuber said, “so I tried to experience this novel in a game.” It took Teuber seven years to show Barbarossa to a publisher, but when he did it was a hit. The game won the 1988 Spiel des Jahres award, the most coveted prize in the board-game world. According to Stewart Woods, a communications professor at the University of Western Australia, a successful game typically sells about ten thousand copies in Germany; a Spiel des Jahres winner can expect to sell between three hundred and five hundred thousand.

After Barbarossa, Teuber designed several other games and won two more Spiel des Jahres awards, but he was still working fourteen-hour days in the dental lab. In 1991, after reading histories of Viking life, he became fascinated with Iceland and the age of discovery. “What was it like when they reached this virgin island?” he said. “I wanted to find out.” He tinkered with an island-settling game for four years, testing versions on his wife and children every weekend. Initially, the instructions included lots of complicated mechanics—for example, if you had enough cities and settlements in a cluster, you could create a metropole—but eventually, Teuber said, “I cooked it to the heart of the game.” A breakthrough moment came when Teuber experimented with using hexagonal tiles instead of squares for his board. He said he had a dream that he remembered having once before, the last time he won the Spiel des Jahres: “I was standing on the shore of a pond and saw very big fish, and I angled the biggest of them.”

Die Siedler von Catan was an instant success in Germany and won the 1995 Spiel des Jahres. At the time, Spiel des Jahres winners had been gaining traction in American hobby stores for several years, but Catan became America’s gateway into Eurogames, a genre of tightly designed, strategy-based products. Eurogames—also called German-style games, because most of them originate in Germany—have fairly simple rules and are intellectually demanding but not overly complicated. They are also more expensive: Monopoly’s suggested retail price is eighteen dollars; The Settlers of Catan retails for forty-two dollars.

Target Shooting In America

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Target shooting In America is big business:

Target Shooting in America

Drone Ships

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Rolls-Royce, which gets 16 percent of its revenue from its marine division, is considering unmanned ships:

The company’s schematics show vessels loaded with containers from front to back, without the bridge structure where the crew lives. By replacing the bridge — along with the other systems that support the crew, such as electricity, air conditioning, water and sewage — with more cargo, ships can cut costs and boost revenue, Levander said. The ships would be 5 percent lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel, he said.

Crew costs of $3,299 a day account for about 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship, according to Moore Stephens LLP, an industry accountant and consultant.

I never thought of “life-support systems” on a ship as a costly element, and I didn’t think modern crews were particularly large, either.

I can easily see unmanned ships taking on a crew near shore, in the same way that sailing ships used to take on a pilot.

The military is also considering unmanned ships for sub-hunting.

Prescriptive Planting

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Monsanto, DuPont, and others are rolling out “prescriptive planting” technology to farmers:

Many tractors and combines already are guided by Global Positioning System satellites that plant ever-straighter rows while farmers, freed from steering, monitor progress on iPads and other tablet computers now common in tractor cabs.

Tractor-Mounted Computers

The same machinery collects data on crops and soil. But many farmers have haphazardly managed the information, scattered in piles of paperwork in their offices or stored on thumb drives clattering in pickup-truck ashtrays. The data often were turned over by hand for piecemeal analysis.

Sellers of prescriptive-planting technology want to accelerate, streamline and combine all those data with their highly detailed records on historic weather patterns, topography and crop performance.

Algorithms and human experts crunch all the data and can zap advice directly to farmers and their machines. Supporters say the push could be as important as the development of mechanized tractors in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of genetically modified seeds in the 1990s.

The world’s biggest seed company, Monsanto, estimates that data-driven planting advice to farmers could increase world-wide crop production by about $20 billion a year, or about one-third the value of last year’s U.S. corn crop.

The technology could help improve the average corn harvest to more than 200 bushels an acre from the current 160 bushels, companies say. Such a gain would generate an extra $182 an acre in revenue for farmers, based on recent prices. Iowa corn farmers got about $759 an acre last year.

So far, farmers who use prescriptive planting have seen yields climb by a more modest five to 10 bushels an acre, the companies say.

Prescriptive Planting

Employers Still Care About SATs

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Plenty of employers still care about a job candidate’s SAT score:

SATs and other academic artifacts remain relevant in part because they are easy — if imperfect — metrics for hiring managers to understand. This despite the fact that increased use of personality tests, data analytics and behavioral interviews have given employers more information about a candidate than ever before. Academic research has proved that cognitive ability can predict job performance, but there is scant evidence linking high SAT scores with employee success.

The real question is, why do they care so much about degrees?

Putting too much stock in standardized tests can put minority candidates at a disadvantage. In 2013, SAT test-takers in the “Black or African-American” category scored an average 431 on the exam’s critical reading section, 429 on math and 418 on writing. White test-takers, meanwhile, scored nearly 100 points higher on average in every section. There is a racial divide for ACT score reports as well.

Spiderman and the Trust-Busters

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Alberto Mingardi found himself fascinated by Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

Howe does a superb job in telling two stories at once: on the one hand, he leads the reader into the intricacies of the “Marvel Universe,” that is the narrative world where Peter Parker and The Thing live. I was a huge Marvel fan as a kid, but stopped reading comic books quite a while ago: the amount of creativity put into stories, cross-overs, deaths of characters and their sudden second births, that happened since I stopped following X-Men is just amazing. Howe points out that the greatest innovation of Marvel Comics was the idea of a “continuity” that interlocked all their superheroes. This may seem a rather trivial point, but was key to transforming consumers from occasional readers to loyal fans of basically whatever Marvel published. On the other hand, Howe tells the story of Marvel as a business: how the publishing house kept control of its characters, how authors and comic book artists gained contractual leverage over the years in spite of their work-for-hire contractual arrangements, how superstars of the sector emerged, how the distribution chain of comic books evolved, how tensions typically erupted between those writers, artists and “pure businessmen” who regarded comic books as a trade like any other.

[...]

One of the most interesting stories in Howe’s book is that, at some point, Marvel could acquire the license for Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, which are basically the blockbusters of its oldest competitor, DC Comics. The then-editor in chief of Marvel, Jim Shooter, told the story in his blog here. The project was never to take off because of a smaller publisher, First Comics that “launched a lawsuit against Marvel Comics and others, alleging anti-trust violations, among other things.” “I think it’s safe to say — Shooter notes — that when you’re being sued under anti-trust laws, it’s a bad time to devour your largest competitor.” We typically associate anti-trust with breaking Standard Oil into pieces, or with making impossible to GE to acquire Honeywell. Here’s another great story: it prevented SpiderMan from publishing Batman.

The Invention Machine

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

John Nottingham and John Spirk now lead a team of 70 inventors, tinkerers and support staff out of a decommissioned Christian Science church in Cleveland, where they’ve developed products like the Swiffer SweeperVac, Crest Spinbrush, Dirt Devil vacuum and nearly 1,000 other patented products:

Since 1972, Nottingham Spirk claims, products it developed have generated more than $45 billion in sales.

Nottingham Spirk has proven willing to take equity stakes as well. Its biggest score: Dr. John’s, which sold electric toothbrushes for $5 (based on a spinning lollipop design) when the going rate was $50. Procter & Gamble bought Dr. John’s for $475 million in 2001 (Nottingham and Spirk each walked away with an estimated $40 million on that one). Heady stuff for a guy like Nottingham who, as a college intern, ate lunch by the pond of the General Motors Technical Center, envisioning a corporate life for himself–until one of the company’s top designers disabused him. “He said, ‘John, this is the greatest R&D center in the world,’ ” Nottingham recalls. “ I’m just drinking it in. I’m just saying, Wow, I’m in heaven, feeding the ducks. Then he dropped a bomb on me. He says, ‘It’s amazing that the most innovative ideas that General Motors has come up with have come from the outside, small companies.’ And I stopped in my tracks, the crumbs going to the ducks stopped in midair. And at that point my life changed. I said if I’m going to be effective, it’s not going to be inside General Motors. It’s going to be outside.”

He returned to school for his final year at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he told his first-year hall mate John Spirk about his new dream–reinventing the world’s largest companies rather than joining one of them. After graduation GM came knocking with a job opening for Nottingham, and Huffy Bicycles had one for Spirk. They rejected the offers and became co-CEOs of their own shop instead.

“There’s a famous Bill Gates quote. They asked him where does he worry about competition from,” says Spirk, 65. “They’re thinking all these high-tech, you know, and he says I worry about two guys in a garage. So what do we do? We graduated school, and two guys moved into a garage.”

Their big break came when they approached Rotodyne, an Ohio manufacturer that mainly made bedpans using a cheap-plastic shaping process called rotational molding. Nottingham and Spirk helped the company use its rotational molding process to make not only bedpans but also cheap toys for children. The bedpan company shifted its focus and created a new brand: Little Tikes, whose indestructible red-and-yellow cars have become inescapable landmarks of toddler culture in backyards across America.

Nottingham Spirk's Greatest Hits

The Engine of Consumerism

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

It is impossible to over-emphasise the influence Bill Bernbach (“We try harder!”) had on advertising, Adam Curtis says — and on the whole engine of consumerism:

His central idea was to encourage people to be “different” — and what that led to was a new dynamic in society.

If you want to be different you are always running away from the others who are also trying to be different — and thus become like you. So you are continually searching for something newly different, something Hip.

And that required an endless stream of new — different — products. As Thomas Frank puts it very eloquently in The Conquest of Cool:

“Bernbach’s enthusiasm for the idea of ‘difference’ became the magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself had produced

Hip was indeed the solution to the problems of the mass society, although not in the way its ideologues had intended”

But one could argue that it is precisely that continual search for difference that has led us into the static world of today. If consumerism continually scours the margins of society for rebellious or contrary notions and then immediately turns them into stuff to sell — it ironically becomes very difficult for new ideas to change society. Instead they tend to end up reinforcing it.

How to retire early — 35 years early

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Mr. Money Mustache is 39-year-old Pete’s “slightly bossier and more opinionated” alter ego. He explains how to retire early — 35 years early:

Pete, who prefers not to divulge his last name to protect his family’s privacy, retired when he was just 30. His wife retired with him, and for the past nine years they’ve been stay-at-home parents. Their investment income supports their lifestyle, but they also work when they want, on their own terms.

One secret to their success? They live on very little for a family of three: about $25,000 a year. They own a car, but mostly bike. Dining out is an occasional luxury. And shopping for stuff? That’s best avoided. But their philosophy goes beyond mere scrimping, says Mr. Money Mustache. It’s about enjoying life with less.

[...]

Based on a long-lasting hobby of reading books on stock investing, I realized that you can generally count on your nest egg to deliver a 4% return over most of a lifetime, with a good chance of it never running out. In other words, you need about 25 times your annual spending to retire. So we tracked our spending and our net worth, and when we hit the magic number we declared ourselves “retired.”

[...]

For the last few years, the mantra was “$600,000 in investments, plus a paid-off house.” This is enough to generate $24,000 of spending money, which goes quite far if you have no rent or mortgage to pay.

[...]

For most people, cutting costs is by far the most powerful way to increase wealth. This is because it is easy to burn off almost any amount of money — just ask the 78% of NFL players that have financial problems shortly after turning off the cash fire hose of a pro sports career. It is also possible to cut almost any budget in half, leaving the happy latte cutter saving 50% or more of her income.