The Most Wanted Man in China

May 19th, 2016

Freeman Dyson reads Fang Lizhi’s memoir and concludes Chinese reeducation camps worked:

Fang’s book is the personal story of a scientist whose life was shaped by Chinese history. From the evidence provided by this book, I am led to believe that communism survived in China because the brutal reeducation of the elite, by exile to coal mines and villages and forced sharing of hardships with dirt-poor workers and peasants, was to some extent a genuine reeducation. A great many members of the elite endured a period of gross abuse and humiliation, so severe as to drive many of them to suicide. Fang—who died in 2012—describes four of these personal tragedies that he remembered vividly when he wrote his book thirty years later. But the majority of the victims, like Fang, survived the physical and mental battering, and returned to pursue careers as leaders of society. They became a privileged and corrupt class, but had acquired some indelible firsthand knowledge of the real needs and desires of the Chinese people.

In Russia there was much talk of reeducation of the elite, but the reality was different. In Russia the purges killed large numbers of the elite and condemned others to long years of imprisonment in the gulag archipelago, but those who survived were not re-educated. The intellectuals who survived in Russia remained isolated from the realities of working-class existence. The working class in the minds of the rulers of Russia remained an intellectual abstraction, detached from contact with reality.

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Fang became a dissident. His reeducation was too successful, pushing him all the way to a final rejection of communism. But he was the exception who proves the rule. The rule is demonstrated by the majority of Chinese intellectuals who climbed back into the system after reeducation, not by the small minority who became dissidents. The historical fact is that reeducation generally succeeded in its avowed purpose. It produced a governing class that combined a formal acceptance of the regime’s Communist dogma with some understanding of the people it was governing.

Diversity is Our Vibrancy

May 19th, 2016

As the slogan etched on the blade of every Obama Youth dagger says, Diversity is Our Vibrancy:

Friday was a red-letter day for both of the motivating principles of the modern United States as the Army announced, in a Friday data dump, that they were commissioning 22 women as Infantry and Armor officers. A large percentage of them are West Pointers; a few are ROTC scholarship foundlings.

They have not yet passed any of the requirements, but what’s most important is how everybody feels about it, unless they don’t feel totally awesome about it, in which case they will be punished suitably. Of the 22 greatest 2nd lieutenants ever, 13 will bring their light to the dank of the tank, as operated by the Armor Branch; and nine will be the only officers that ever mattered in the previously unfashionable Infantry Branch.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has now checked one of his highest priority boxes.

Absolute Harrison Bergeron equality-of-results is not upon us yet, unfortunately. True, the women need to pass their courses, but having announced their success already makes that a mere formality. But still, some problems remain.

To start with, the women will have no subordinate women to command, at least, not yet. So far, exactly one woman has volunteered to serve as an enlisted infantry entity, and none has signed up for enlisted armor duty. Of course, neither the cat pack of officers nor the one female infantry entity has passed and been Distinguished Honor Graduates of their respective courses, yet, but today’s announcement makes it clear it’s the merest of formalities.

All right-thinking people know that the only reason women haven’t been infantrymen everywhere, taken over the offensive line of the Seattle Seahawks, and broken all the mens’ Olympic records, is because of false consciousness, and because they don’t have incredibly awesome female officers yet to show them the way.

If enlisted women don’t start signing up in larger numbers, the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Combat, that is, self-actualization of the upper class female officers, will require them to be drafted. Self-actualization of upper class female officers is, after all, the reason we have an Army in the first place.

It should stop evolving

May 18th, 2016

Nick Land shares this passage from Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye (from the end of Chapter 3):

“They used to teach us that evolution of intelligent being wasn’t possible,” she said. “Societies protect their weaker members. Civilizations tend to make wheel chairs and spectacles and hearing aids as soon as they have the tools for them. When a society makes war, the men generally have to pass a fitness test before they’re allowed to risk their lives. I suppose it helps win the war.” She smiled. “But it leaves precious little room for the survival of the fittest.”


“You were saying about evolution?”

“It — it ought to be pretty well closed off for an intelligent species,” she said. “Species evolve to meet the environment. An intelligent species changes the environment to suit itself. As soon as a species becomes intelligent, it should stop evolving.”

He adds:

It makes you think (or rather, the opposite). The original sin of intelligence — falling back in blind homeostatic antipathy against its own conditions of emergence — isn’t so hard to see.

Demonstrated Intellectual Superiority

May 18th, 2016

As their Wall Street Journal piece was going to press, Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim received a copy of an astonishing letter written in 1969, from Macklin Fleming, Justice of the California Court of Appeal to Louis Pollack, the dean of Yale Law School:

The immediate damage to the standards of Yale Law School needs no elaboration. But beyond this, it seems to me the admission policy adopted by the Law School faculty will serve to perpetuate the very ideas and prejudices it is designed to combat. If in a given class the great majority of the black students are at the bottom of the class, this factor is bound to instill, unconsciously at least, some sense of intellectual superiority among the white students and some sense of intellectual inferiority among the black students. Such a pairing in the same school of the brightest white students in the country with black students of mediocre academic qualifications is social experiment with loaded dice and a stacked deck. The faculty can talk around the clock about disadvantaged background, and it can excuse inferior performance because of poverty, environment, inadequate cultural tradition, lack of educational opportunity, etc. The fact remains that black and white students will be exposed to each other under circumstances in which demonstrated intellectual superiority rests with the whites.


No one can be expected to accept an inferior status willingly. The black students, unable to compete on even terms in the study of law, inevitably will seek other means to achieve recognition and self-expression. This is likely to take two forms. First, agitation to change the environment from one in which they are unable to compete to one in which they can. Demands will be made for elimination of competition, reduction in standards of performance, adoption of courses of study which do not require intensive legal analysis, and recognition for academic credit of sociological activities which have only an indirect relationship to legal training. Second, it seems probable that this group will seek personal satisfaction and public recognition by aggressive conduct, which, although ostensibly directed at external injustices and problems, will in fact be primarily motivated by the psychological needs of the members of the group to overcome feelings of inferiority caused by lack of success in their studies. Since the common denominator of the group of students with lower qualifications is one of race this aggressive expression will undoubtedly take the form of racial demands–the employment of faculty on the basis of race, a marking system based on race, the establishment of a black curriculum and a black law journal, an increase in black financial aid, and a rule against expulsion of black students who fail to satisfy minimum academic standards.


The American creed, one that Yale has proudly espoused, holds that an American should be judged as an individual and not as a member of a group. To me it seems axiomatic that a system which ignores this creed and introduces the factor of race in the selection of students for a professional school is inherently malignant, no matter how high-minded the purpose nor how benign the motives of those making the selection….

The present policy of admitting students on two bases and thereafter purporting to judge their performance on one basis is a highly explosive sociological experiment almost certain to achieve undesirable results.

The Lazy Way To Kill Bad Habits

May 18th, 2016

Eric Barker summarizes Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit:

One at a time. Beat one bad habit per month and in a year you’ll be awesome.

Don’t stop. Just count. Don’t eliminate the bad behavior just yet. First, be consistent in your awfulness.

Don’t change you. Change your world. 20 second rule. Make it harder to engage in bad habits.

Chill, dude. Stress makes the bad stuff tempting. Relax and you’ll behave better.

Don’t eliminate. Replace. You can’t kill bad habits but you can swap them out for new ones.

“If” and “Then.” A simple plan for how you’ll beat temptation helps you beat temptation.

Forgive yourself. Beating yourself up makes you behave worse. Self-compassion keeps you going.

OkCupid Study Reveals the Perils of Big-Data Science

May 17th, 2016

A recent OkCupid study reveals the ethical perils of Big Data:

On May 8, a group of Danish researchers publicly released a dataset of nearly 70,000 users of the online dating site OkCupid, including usernames, age, gender, location, what kind of relationship (or sex) they’re interested in, personality traits, and answers to thousands of profiling questions used by the site.

When asked whether the researchers attempted to anonymize the dataset, Aarhus University graduate student Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who was lead on the work, replied bluntly: “No. Data is already public.” This sentiment is repeated in the accompanying draft paper, “The OKCupid dataset: A very large public dataset of dating site users,” posted to the online peer-review forums of Open Differential Psychology, an open-access online journal also run by Kirkegaard.

The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class

May 17th, 2016

In The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class sociologist Alvin Gouldner explained that the highly educated were on their way — this was in 1979 — to becoming a major political force in American society:

As a man of the left, he had mixed feelings about this development, since he thought the intelligentsia might be tempted to put its own interests ahead of the marginalized groups for whom it often claimed to speak.

Today, with an ideological gap widening along educational lines in the United States, Dr. Gouldner’s arguments are worth revisiting. Now that so many people go to college, Americans with bachelor’s degrees no longer constitute an educational elite. But the most highly educated Americans — those who have attended graduate or professional school — are starting to come together as a political bloc.

Last month, the Pew Research Center released a study showing that nearly a third of those who went to graduate or professional school have “down the line” liberal views on social, economic and environmental matters, whereas this is true for just one in 10 Americans generally. An additional quarter of postgrads have mostly liberal views. These numbers reflect drastic change: While professionals have been in the Democratic column for a while, in 1994 only 7 percent of postgrads held consistently liberal political opinions.

Dr. Gouldner’s “new class” wasn’t exactly the contemporary intelligentsia, with its Washington policy analysts, New York editors and Bay Area biotech researchers. But it was close. Dr. Gouldner observed changes in the American occupational structure that he thought were altering the balance of power among social classes. As he saw it, beginning in the early 20th century, increasing complexity in science, technology, economic affairs and government meant that the “old” moneyed class no longer had the expertise to directly manage the work process or steer the ship of state.

Members of the old class turned to scientists, engineers, managers, human relations specialists, economists and other professionals for help. As these experts multiplied, they realized the extent of their collective power. They demanded fitting levels of pay and status and insisted on professional autonomy. A “new class” was born, neither owner nor worker.

A distinguishing feature of this new class, according to Dr. Gouldner, was the way it spoke and argued. Steeped in science and expert knowledge, it embraced a “culture of critical discourse.” Evidence and logic were valued; appeals to traditional sources of authority were not. Members of the new class raised their children in such a culture. And it was these children, allergic to authoritarian values, who as young adults were at the center of the student revolts, finding common ground with disaffected “humanistic” intellectuals bent on changing the world.

Dr. Gouldner assumed that as the student radicals aged and entered the work force, they would retain their leftist sympathies. But he conceded that they might also work to shore up their privileges. He characterized the new class as the great hope of the left in a period when the American labor movement was in decline, yet also as flawed.

Dade County Shootout

May 16th, 2016

Massad Ayoob shares some lessons learned from the most studied gunfight of the Twentieth Century, 30 years later:

The killer who shot first had a Ruger Mini-14 .223 rifle, which proved to be a terribly efficient force multiplier. He used this gun to inflict every serious wound suffered by the good guys. This incident, probably more than any other, gave impetus to make the .223 patrol rifle the almost universal standard issue for police patrol that it is today. Only two of the agents even had a shotgun, and only one was able to deploy it.

At that time, only the agents assigned to FBI SWAT had semiautomatic pistols; the remainder were armed with revolvers. Two of the good guys, McNeill and Hanlon, were permanently injured while they were hopelessly trying to reload their empty revolvers after having sustained wounds to their gun hands or arms. By the early 1990s, most American police had switched to higher capacity, faster-reloading service pistols from the traditional service revolver.

Early in the fight, a bullet from Dove’s 9mm pistol pierced the opposing rifleman’s arm and into his chest, slicing an artery and inflicting a “fatal, but not immediately neutralizing” hit when it stopped short of his heart. It was after that, that he inflicted most of the deadly damage. FBI subsequently adopted a standard requirement that their handgun ammo penetrate a minimum of 12” into muscle tissue-simulating ballistic gelatin, a standard most law enforcement and many lawfully armed citizens subsequently adopted.

Ben Grogan, said to be the best shot in the approximately 200-person Miami FBI office, would likely have been voted “most likely to dominate the gunfight.” Unfortunately, he was extremely myopic and lost his glasses in the car-ramming crash that preceded the shootout, and this undoubtedly hampered his performance. He died at the scene. Prior to that, this writer had occasionally shot with uncorrected vision; for the last 30 years, I’ve made a point of shooting at least one qualification course a year that way.

John Earl Haynes on Soviet Subsidies in America

May 16th, 2016

John Earl Haynes describes his research in Soviet subsidies in America:

My research colleague, Harvey Klehr, and I were extremely fortunate to be the first historians to explore several major long-closed archives: the Communist International and Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) records in Moscow, the decrypted Soviet cables of the National Security Agency’s Venona project, and the KGB archival notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev.

Among the most surprising discoveries was that the Soviet Union’s secret subsidies of the CPUSA were much larger and lasted much longer than we expected, only ending in 1988 with a $3 million secret payment. In addition, the number of American sources recruited into Soviet espionage between 1935 and 1945 was much larger than we had earlier expected, and the extent of the CPUSA’s direct involvement in that espionage, making itself into an auxiliary of Soviet intelligence, was much more extensive than we expected.


Too-large of a segment of the academic world is inclined to a benign view of communism in general, and of the CPUSA in particular. They prefer to think of Communists as idealists interested only in social justice and peace. They resent historical accounts such as those Klehr and I produced that present archival documentation of the CPUSA’s totalitarian character and its devotion to promoting Soviet victory over the United States in the Cold War.

In particular, many historians resent our finding documents that firmly establish the guilt of certain Americans accused of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union such as Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Harry Dexter White. Even after the superb books by Ronald Radosh on the Rosenberg case and Allen Weinstein on the Hiss case, convincingly showing both men guilty, there remained in the academic world a vocal minority proclaiming their innocence and a larger group saying there was still doubt as to their guilt. Many textbooks for high schools and colleges promoted the doubt position. The documents Klehr and I found in the Venona decryptions and the Vassiliev notebooks closed both cases: they were guilty.

Today only a few pro-communist fanatics in the academic world hold for their innocence. However, in too many cases, the recognition in the academic world that Hiss, Rosenberg, and White were Soviet spies is given grudgingly. It interferes with the ideologically preferred narrative that Hiss and Rosenberg were liberal innocents wrongly convicted by evil anticommunists. They don’t like it that the documents Klehr and I found made maintaining that narrative impossible, and they certainly don’t thank us for establishing the truth.

Jocko and Tim Kennedy

May 15th, 2016

Jocko (@JockoWillink) recently had Tim Kennedy (@TimKennedyMMA) on his podcast, and they answered a few of my questions — or, at least, they talked about them:

0:25:30 – Bayonet Training thoughts.

0:35:46 – Green Beret VS Navy SEALS?

1:19:33 – Combatives with Full Kit on / multiple attackers.

What really happened in Belize

May 15th, 2016

John McAfee explains what really happened in Belize:

My most prominent act of civil disobedience occurred in Belize, when I refused to be extorted by the government. This led to a series of events that to this day, no fictional movie has matched.

Politics has again raised my Belize experience into public awareness. My opponents in the Libertarian party have cloaked me yet again with questions about Belize.

I would like to put this issue to rest, and I will do my best, now, to do so. Belize, by any standards, is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Its officials are intimately connected with the illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and money laundering. For all practical purposes it is barely distinguishable from the Sinaloa Cartel.

Into this morass I inserted myself.

I moved to Belize in 2008, thinking I would retire and fish, scuba dive, sail and otherwise enjoy my declining years.

I was 63 at the time. My retirement lasted just a few months. I moved to the North Island of San Pedro, where the roads were impassable and all residents depended on the one ferry service — Island Ferry — whose dozen or so boats ferried people back and forth to town from the 30 mile coastline of the North Island. The boats were unreliable and schedules were seldom kept.

This annoyed me so I started my first business in Belize — the Coastal Xpress.

I charged less than half of what the Island Ferry was charging, ferried school children back and forth from school for free, charged one quarter of Island Ferry prices for local Belizeans, bought a fleet of brand new covered boats, kept to a strict schedule, and put Island Ferry out of business within three months. The owner of Island Ferry was a Canadian with friends in high places within the Belizean Government.

Needless to say, I made no friends with my first business venture, other than the Belizean citizens working for my new company, who shared whatever profits were made. I never took a single penny out of Coastal Xpress. My benefit came from having reliable transportation to and from town.

I formed more than a dozen other companies in Belize, from a water sports rental company, to a coffee producer to an antibiotic research lab. They were all staffed by local Belizeans and from no company did I take a single penny.

Doing business in Belize brought me quickly into direct contact with the corruption that is Belize. Government officials frequently expect a piece of the business, a share of the profits or regular bribes, which I, foolishly perhaps, declined to co-operate with.

I also foolishly began to speak openly about the system of corruption and how it kept the majority of Belizean citizens in abject poverty.

In 2011, I caught wind of a government plot to kill me. The following two secretly taped conversation between an agent of the Belizean government and a number of conspirators details the options that the government was considering to get rid of me. The conversations are in Creole — a barely understandable form of English, but written translations accompany each tape. The assassination methods considered ranged from a sniper attack to planting explosive devices in my car. They are very entertaining tapes (tape 1 and tape 2).

It takes more than a simple assassination plot to cause me to run. I instead beefed up my security and, again, unwisely perhaps, stepped up my verbal attacks on the government.

In April of 2012, a local representative visited my jungle compound in the interior, and discreetly suggested that a $2 million dollar donation to the ruling party could cause our impasse to simply go away. I declined.

One week later, on May 2, 2012, my jungle compound was stormed by 42 paramilitary soldiers of the universally feared GSU.

They shot my dog in front of eyes, destroyed a half million dollars worth of my property, subjected me to indignities, and arrested me on false charges which were dropped a few hours later.

The following day, I was contacted by the same representative that had originally asked for the $2 million dollars and who now asked whether or not I had changed my mind. I told him to f— off.

Thus began a war between myself and the government of Belize that went on until October of 2012, when my neighbor was murdered. To this day I believe the target was myself, and that the incompetence of the government caused the assassins to enter the wrong house.

Punished by the Universe

May 14th, 2016

Are you being punished by the universe?

Mishaps make people feel anxious and uncertain, and often lead them to look for patterns as a way to regain a sense of control, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University.

At these moments, it is worth remembering that misfortune is often a random event. There is always a probability that several bad things will happen at once, says Jane. L. Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a researcher on judgment and magical thinking.

Many people, however, have a tendency to see cause-and-effect relationships where there are none. They might interpret neutral events as negative or fall back on a magical belief, such as, “I’m being punished by the universe.”

People who see themselves as lucky might also engage in counterfactual thinking of a different sort. They imagine worse things that might have happened but didn’t, and feel grateful, according to an oft-cited study of 400 people years ago by British researcher Richard Wiseman. If another car crushes your back fender, soften the blow by thinking, “I’m lucky my car wasn’t totaled.”


At times we get so rattled by a bit of bad luck that we make things worse. A belief that you are unlucky has been linked to deficits in decision-making skills, self-control and shifting from one task to another, according to a 2013 study led by John Maltby, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England.

In a series of four studies, the researchers asked 334 participants whether they believed they were lucky or unlucky, then surveyed or tested them on several cognitive tasks related to executive functioning, the high-level mental processes involved in pursuing and achieving goals.

Participants who believed they were unlucky saw themselves as lacking in executive-function skills. They performed poorly on timed task-switching tests, which required them to classify letters, digits or symbols in a random stream of characters, as well as on a test of their ability to control impulsive responses and a gambling task that tested their ability to learn from mistakes and make wise decisions. It wasn’t clear which condition–feeling unlucky or lacking mental skills–caused the other, but researchers wrote the relationship might go both ways.


Research has found that thinking about cherished values can allay stress and improve performance on challenging tasks. Participants in the UT-Northwestern study were less rattled, and less likely to see imaginary patterns in their misfortune, when they were given an assignment that allowed them to affirm values that were important to them, researchers found. Other studies have shown that students who write about things they value before a high-stakes exam tend to perform better.

Another helpful technique is mental time travel, Dr. Risen says. Imagine yourself in the future; think about how, after the misfortune is over, you’ll have a good story to tell.

Superstitious rituals, such as knocking on wood, can actually help, by instilling positive expectations. Some rituals encompass a phenomenon called embodied cognition, wherein a person’s thinking is shaped by his or her physical movements. The pushing-away motion involved in knocking on wood, or simply throwing a ball away from one’s body, causes people to visualize anticipated misfortunes as less likely to happen, according to a 2013 study co-authored by Dr. Risen. Similarly, wearing a good-luck talisman or picking a four-leaf clover may create positive expectations, as if you’re shielding yourself from bad luck or drawing good fortune your way.

Hard Truths About Race on Campus

May 14th, 2016

Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim address some hard truths about race on campus:

A basic principle of psychology is that people pay more attention to information that predicts important outcomes in their lives. A key social factor that we human beings track is who is “us” and who is “them.” In classic studies, researchers divided people into groups based on arbitrary factors such as a coin toss. They found that, even with such trivial distinctions, people discriminated in favor of their in-group members.

None of this means that we are doomed to discriminate by race. A 2001 study by Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that race was much less prominent in how people categorized each other when individuals also shared some other prominent social characteristic, like membership on a team. If you set things up so that race conveys less important information than some other salient factor, then people pay less attention to race.

A second principle of psychology is the power of cooperation. When groups face a common threat or challenge, it tends to dissolve enmity and create a mind-set of “one for all, all for one.” Conversely, when groups are put into competition with each other, people readily shift into zero-sum thinking and hostility.


But as practiced in most of the top American universities, affirmative action also involves using different admissions standards for applicants of different races, which automatically creates differences in academic readiness and achievement. Although these gaps vary from college to college, studies have found that Asian students enter with combined math/verbal SAT scores on the order of 80 points higher than white students and 200 points higher than black students. A similar pattern occurs for high-school grades. These differences are large, and they matter: High-school grades and SAT scores predict later success as measured by college grades and graduation rates.

As a result of these disparate admissions standards, many students spend four years in a social environment where race conveys useful information about the academic capacity of their peers. People notice useful social cues, and one of the strongest causes of stereotypes is exposure to real group differences. If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other schools are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.

And racial gaps in classroom performance create other problems. A 2013 study by the economist Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University found that students tend to befriend those who are similar to themselves in academic achievement. This is a big contributor to the patterns of racial and ethnic self-segregation visible on many campuses. If a school increases its affirmative-action efforts in ways that expand these gaps, it is likely to end up with more self-segregation and fewer cross-race friendships, and therefore with even stronger feelings of alienation among black students.


In their book All That We Can Be (1996), the sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler describe how the U.S. Army escaped from the racial dysfunction of the 1970s to become a model of integration and near-equality by the time of the 1991 Gulf War. The Army invested more resources in training and mentoring black soldiers so that they could meet rigorous promotion standards. But, crucially, standards were lowered for no one, so that the race of officers conveyed no information about their abilities. The Army also promoted cooperation and positive-sum thinking by emphasizing pride in the Army and in America.

Theodore Dalrymple explains how Britain went down the drain

May 13th, 2016

While working as a pyschiatrist in a prison and in a hospital serving the poor, Theodore Dalrymple “saw almost straight away that raw want was not the explanation” for the poor behavior of the poor in Britain:

Blame is reserved for the intellectual class that made all this happen. Not through the indifference of the 1930s, but overindulgence. Trendy 1960s social theories have run amok and caused endless harm to the people they are supposed to be helping, he says. Academics, writers, artists and journalists tore down old values like personal responsibility and civility, replaced by ideas that “society is to blame” and a moral relativism that says that nothing is wrong.

“It has disastrous effects on those worst off,” he says, “those least able to withstand the practical results” of that moral anarchy.

Zero self-control and zero connection between effort and reward did not make people happy, but left them trapped in “cheerless self-pitying hedonism and the brutality of the dependency culture”, he wrote in the book, Life at the Bottom.

The Tim Ferriss Effect

May 13th, 2016

Ryan Holiday discusses the “Tim Ferriss Effect”:

In publishing circles, something called the “Tim Ferriss Effect” has been known for some time. The concept refers to the power of a single author and his blog to drive the sales — in some cases in the tens of thousands — for books he chooses to recommend to his army of fans. I, myself, happen to have been a beneficiary of this effect on a number of occasions. In fact, I felt it before I was even an author. A simple article I wrote on Tim’s site in 2009 prompted the first inquiry I ever received from a book publisher.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the decline of what most people used to refer to as “blogs.” Most companies have shut down their blogs, some popular bloggers have closed up shop. But somehow, the Tim Ferriss Effect not only still exists — it’s become something bigger than I think anyone could have imagined.

I’m not an impartial observer of this phenomenon. Tim is someone I have worked with and a friend (he’s even published my books — one of which he turned into a runaway hit that changed my life and another one on the way soon). Even so, I’ve been continually shocked with his ability to predict trends and master new technologies. Many of us have friends that start podcasts — not very often do those shows turn around and do 70 million downloads. Plenty of us agree to appear on our friends’ podcasts — what’s unusual is recording the episode and then getting emails from NFL coaches, A-list actors and multi-platinum music titans because they “heard you on the podcast recently.” As one of the first guests on The Tim Ferriss Show, it’s been strange and humbling to watch myself get utterly eclipsed by every subsequent guest over the last two years — from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sophia Amoruso to Jamie Foxx — and listen to each one, riveted, just like every other fan.

It’s like being friends with Oprah from when she had a small morning show in Chicago. And that’s really what Tim’s podcast has become. He’s the Oprah of Audio. Is there a more fitting moniker for someone whose show can sell 50,000 copies of a book or drive a product out of stock at Whole Foods nationwide? I don’t think so.

Which is why I wanted to interview Tim to get him to explain how exactly the hell this all happened. How does one create one of the biggest podcasts in the world with essentially no advertising or promotion? How does one expertly interview huge stars, introverted authors and enigmatic artists with compelling ease? How does one build a potential $2-4M a year business — as he recently described it in an article — but decide not to fully monetize it because he doesn’t want to exploit his fans?

I had so many questions and thankfully, he had plenty of answers.

Why are you excited about podcasts? Are they the future of media?

I love podcasting because it’s a mass-audience format that offers 100 percent creative control with low production cost. My last few books and TV show were created alongside a lot of committees and corporate complexity, which exhausted me. This is a return to basics — focus on content, period. No internal debates, no design by consensus, none of that. The CPMs ($20-80 CPM) and rewards for experimenting have also never been greater.

Politics-ridden publisher models are antiquated and reflect an old paradigm of pushing content via distribution oligopolies (e.g. the first 20 feet of a retailer effectively being owned by Coca-Cola, Simon & Schuster, etc.). I know startups that have had to sell to larger companies simply to increase distribution footprint. In podcasting, it’s totally different: you pull people into your content. The quality attracts audience, SEO, and more audience; this is a sharp contrast to distribution forcing audiences to consume only a handful of options (e.g. old network TV).

Starting around 2008, I began experiencing the power of podcasts as a guest. People like Joe Rogan, Marc Maron, and Chris Hardwick (Nerdist) produced ripple effects that blew my mind. This inspired me to try it myself on the other side of the table.

I think podcasting — or audio more broadly — is one element in the future of media. Unlike video or print, audio is a natural secondary activity. Audio can be consumed while you commute, cook, exercise, walk the dog, etc. The more smart phones and broadband blanket the globe, the more powerful audio will become.

Last but not least, good long-form content will be around forever, so it’s part of the future. Despite the masses of people trying to emulate BuzzFeed, and despite the chorus of “long-form content is dead” or “long-form content can’t be monetized,” I see exactly the opposite. The Kindle has made it possible for people to impulsively buy two to 10 times the number of books they did in 2000. My techie friends in SF and NYC binge watch hour-long TV series on Netflix more than ever.

Long-form content isn’t dead; it’s simply uncrowded and neglected. I double down when formats are out of favor.

You’ve said you started your show as a six episode experiment with Kevin Rose, but clearly it’s grown into something much bigger than that. What do you see it becoming now that you’re on the verge of hitting 100M downloads?

I’d like it to become a clearinghouse for thought leaders who want to go deep, or set the record straight, or leave an interview they’d want their kids to remember them by. Sadly, two-minute TV interviews and other sound-bite media just don’t allow smart people to be smart.

I want to showcase intelligence and record a legacy-worthy interview. In brief, this is the response that I’d love every guest to have:

For guest selection, I’ll continue to mix super celebrities (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Edward Norton) with world-class experts who don’t normally do interviews (e.g. Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, master interviewer Cal Fussman, tech investor/founder Naval Ravikant).

From an audience perspective, I’d like The Tim Ferriss Show to become the default “second activity” for many tens of millions. I want a few months of listening to my podcast during commutes, cooking, dog walking, etc. to trump a full-time year at any MBA program in the country.

One of things that I think has driven quality in the podcast market is that they’re listened to by subscribers. Most blog posts are competing on social media for attention, whereas podcast episodes are about delivering value to loyal listeners. You seem to have doubled down on podcasts as well as on email as a way to communicate with your army of fans, why was that? How has it worked?

E-mail and the podcast are my two highest priorities at the moment, and they work in tandem. Let’s touch on e-mail first.

Unlike, say, Facebook or Twitter, I own this communication directly and it’s less subject to the whims of algorithm changes (e.g. “Oops! Now you only reach 20 percent of your audience.”). Some people insist that email is dead for younger generations, and they’re right… until those young people get jobs. E-mail will stick around for a while, despite our attempts to kill it. It’s still the most reliable broadcast delivery mechanism.

The podcast, much like e-mail, is a free subscription. Although people can choose to listen a la carte, the subscription is most desireable.

At the risk of stating the obvious: subscribers subscribe to things as a habit. I use the podcast to promote my newsletter (specifically, 5-Bullet Friday) and I use email to increase the podcast listenership. The goal is subscription in both cases, but I’m not adding a new behavior. This has a much lower CPA than shotgunning on Twitter, for instance.

This pairing of email and podcast has been a revelation. The podcast is already typically a top-25 podcast on iTunes overall, and I expect to double its size in the next six to 12 months. Having a fast-growing alternate subscription (5-Bullet Friday) is critical to this. It’s 100% necessary but not sufficient. PR, paid acquisition, and many other elements round out the execution. Some (e.g. paid acquisition) are directly useful for audience growth, whereas others (e.g. PR features in name-brand outlets) is a powerful indirect contributor that makes high-profile guest recruitment easier.

At the same time, something that folks like Gretchen Rubin and others have pointed out, it’s hard for a one hour audio file in iTunes to go viral or get shared the way a blog post can. How have you managed to promote and grow your show so quickly given that reality?

Longer shows can absolutely go viral. We just need to define terms and ask a few additional questions. It’s easy to chase “viral” without stopping to ask: What is the goal? What are we measuring? Why do those metrics matter?

For instance — What communities, demographics, or psychographics are you targeting, and what is the measurable objective? For me, it’ll be specific for each episode or post. Hypothetically: I want evergreen content that will hit 1,000,000 downloads by X date, spread like wildfire in the spec-ops communities (because I have future goals involving that world), and continue to get at least 100,000 downloads a week for 3 months. I can look at historical data and reverse engineer an outcome like this.

If you’re chasing the phantom of “favorites” or “shares,” etc., it might impress a boss who loves vanity metrics, but I personally track fan acquisition in new verticals, predictable revenue (MRR) growth, and a few other things that move needles I care about.

The virality profile — or kinetics of contagion — are different for long-form content than for a 60-second YouTube video or 300-word “11 reasons your dog hates you”-type list. As with real viruses like influenza and ebola, the onset, duration, means of transmission, persistence, etc. vary widely.

For long-form examples, look at Serial, or even my episodes with relative non-celebs (compared to, say, Edward Norton) like Seth Godin and Derek Sivers. These shows take longer to initially spread, as they rely on 90- to 180-minute content versus 30 seconds or name recognition, but they have far greater permanence than the shorter content, in my experience.

Spread can be increased by creating assets like extensive show notes with links, highlighting short audio sections via Overcast for rushed people (see “If you only have a few minutes…” here), and crafting related blog posts that link to multiple episodes (e.g. The Unusual Books That Shaped Billionaires, Mega-Bestselling Authors, and Other Prodigies). I have perhaps a dozen more tricks that enhance “transmission” of long-form viruses.

Keep in mind that I’ve tried very short content. My “how to peel hard-boiled eggs without peeling them” YouTube video has 7M+ views, and it’s far less valuable to me than a good, in-depth podcast with even 500,000 listens. The former is a drive-by viewing; you’re one more shout in the noise. The latter can turn casual listeners into long-term listeners and devotees. I can’t out BuzzFeed BuzzFeed, and that would be the wrong goal for me.

Mass “virality” is overrated for a minimalist outfit like mine. Would you rather have 100,000 people in the US, selected at random, consume your content once and know your name, or the entire audience at TED and Davos listen to your podcast at least once a month? I’ll take the latter every time.

When in doubt, read Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” and niche down. If you want to be widely known later, focus narrowly first.

Even though episodes might have trouble spreading, some of these bigger shows like yours have the power to send an immense amount of traffic or interest to a guest or a product. What’s been the most powerful example of that on your show? Have you seen the “Tim Ferriss Effect” work in audio as well as it has on your blog?

It’s exceeded all expectations. I didn’t expect audio to be as powerful as it is. Text, after all, has plenty of direct links. And no one will listen to a 2-3-hour podcast, right? Well, let’s consider some history.

The “Tim Ferriss Effect” from the blog (it can outsell CNN TV spotlights, major op-eds, etc.) took a long time to establish, perhaps 4-5 years.

The podcast hit the “sell out” impact in less than 12 months. Just a few example that come to mind: It has helped launch a book to #1 New York Times bestseller (e.g. SEAL Jocko Willink episode), it can outsell full-page features and ads in the NYT or Esquire (e.g. sponsor Mizzen+Main), it can take used book prices to nearly $1,000 on Amazon (e.g. billionaire Chris Sacca episode), and — my fave hilarious example — my episode with Dom D’Agostino sold out Wild Planet sardines in Whole Foods around the country (one typical tweet). This is fun for guests, too. One A-list actor told me the impact matched a big studio movie launch. Eric Weinstein, a well-known Silicon Valley mathematician-investor, mentioned his favorite movie was Kung-Fu Panda in our conversation, and the writer reached out to him that same week on Twitter. It’s wild.

My theory is that more media — and busy people, in general — listen to the podcast as a second activity (e.g. during commutes) than would consume my usual five- to 20-page blog posts. It’s a blast to see text pieces in the NYT and WSJ that mention the podcast and its guests, or to get contacted by CNN after an episode on psychedelic research, which turned (in that case) into a huge nationwide TV segment, which then helped me fuel research at Johns Hopkins.

As a follower of your site, I notice you tend to write less now. You’ve done short episodes that I imagine in the past would have been blog posts. Do you think podcasts are a replacement for blogs?

No, I think they’re complementary. Either can lead to the other. These days, I’m writing fewer posts but ensuring they’re comprehensive (e.g. my “startup vacation” post, podcast business post), which gives them evergreen staying power. I’m focusing on audio largely because I’m enjoying it and fans are asking for more.

One of the things that struck me after appearing on your show was the people I heard from. It wasn’t so much the quantity — though it was a lot — but much more the quality. I heard from NFL coaches, managers for some of the world’s biggest bands, authors, even people I know really well but didn’t peg as podcast listeners talked to me about it. The only similar experience for me was when I did a big NPR show. Is it just that smart people listen to podcasts?

This happens to nearly every guest, and there could be a few explanations.

First, both NPR and I take our time. I don’t dumb things down, and I go as long and as deep as necessary to uncover good stories and tactics listeners can use. Smart content, which I try and create, attracts smart people.

Second, at least 50% of the celebs, power brokers, and experts who’ve appeared on the podcast were regular listeners of the podcast first. In other words, the type of people who appear on The Tim Ferriss Show also listen to it…just multiplied thousands of times over.

That begs the question — why? It was partly luck and partly by design. The 4-Hour Workweek first became popular among tech startup founders and investors in Silicon Valley and NYC, and they were the tipping point, sending it to #1 NY Times and keeping it on the NYT business bestseller list for more than 4 years straight, unbroken. These readers were also kind enough to rebroadcast my work into every imaginable industry and subculture. Subsequently, I realized this could be done deliberately in different worlds to create an interwoven network of thought leaders. If The 4-Hour Workweek immersed me primarily into the business and travel worlds, then the content of The 4-Hour Body spread me into the highest levels of sports, nutrition, and military (as they obsess over training). The 4-Hour Chef did the same for culinary, but also for media and publishing due to the buzz and controversy surrounding Amazon Publishing, the launch of which was announced in the NYT with the acquisition of my book.

This combination of good luck and planning has led me to the most incredible audience I’ve ever been exposed to. I learn 10x more from them each week than I put out.

Marc Maron and Simmons have both had Obama on. Who is your dream guest for the show? You’ve had some amazing ones, obviously, but if you could get anyone on the show, who would it be?

This one is easy — Oprah.

I’ve followed her since high school, and she’s been a force for good for decades. She’s stayed that course, even when it’s been incredibly difficult. Not many people can walk that walk when their feet are to the fire.

To have tea with her and really connect would be a dream come true.

I’m not in a rush to pitch her, and I’m happy to let the universe decide timing, but it could happen. I’ve been fortunate to interview some wonderful people who know her, including Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, and others.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone asking themselves: “Should I start a podcast?” what would it be?

Do it, but commit to doing SIX episodes.

Even if they’re short and you never publish them, this volume is enough to learn lessons that transfer elsewhere else. It’s a minimalist experiment for improving overall thinking: improving your ability to ask questions, fixing verbal tics (e.g. “ummm” “ahhhh”), getting better at listening without interrupting, learning to sit with silence until someone else continues, etc. Even if your format isn’t interviewing, perhaps like Hardcore History (my fave), you’ll improve your ability to craft good narratives, tell stories, and be a better human. We are hardwired to be story-telling and question-asking machines; you might as well be good at it.

One to two episodes isn’t enough to hit the hockey stick in the learning curve, so commit to six.

Just be forewarned: you’ll likely hate listening to yourself. I was mortified. I’m very insecure about my own voice, but over a few episodes, you learn to curse, exhale, smile, and say “What the hell…let’s try it again.” This is what we want — by facing your own rough edges, you polish them or eventually accept them.

Rule No. 1: Relax. No one’s going to die. Just get a little better each time.

Rule No. 2: Keep it simple. This applies to format, gear, editing, everything. Constantly ask yourself “What would this look like if it were easy?”

Rule No. 3: Be yourself — weirdness, warts, and all. In podcasting, this is a huge competitive advantage… and a huge relief. Have fun with it.