From Under the Rubble of Egypt

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Mencius Moldbug cites Solzhenitsyn’s From Under the Rubble to explain the situation in Egypt:

The intelligentsia proved incapable of taking action, quailed, and was lost in confusion; its party leaders readily abdicated the power and leadership which had seemed so desirable from a distance; and power, like a ball of fire, was tossed from hand to hand until it came into hands which caught it and were sufficiently hardened to withstand its white heat (they also, incidentally, belonged to the intelligentsia, but a special part of it). The intelligentsia had succeeded in rocking Russia with a cosmic explosion, but was unable to handle the debris.

The Race for the Keys

Monday, January 31st, 2011

As the Mubarak regime goes into the last stages of existence, Richard Fernandez says, the race is on for the real treasures of a great state:

Not the relics of antiquity, valuable as these may be, but the intelligence assets of a government which for decades traded them in exchange for Western financial and political support. With the ultimate fate of the Egypt uncertain, and the final extent of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence uncertain, the disposition of those assets will assume the utmost importance.

What happens next?

When a dictatorship falls and replaced by election, two large groups of people often find themselves making policy. The NGO-niks, who are largely well intention but inexperienced, and the stone killers of the long-term resistance.

The key dilemma facing any US administration is how to defend its interests within a system that it cannot control, because that is the definition of accepting an Egyptian democracy. The best course is probably to take whatever intel stuff you can under direct or trusted control and wait to see how it shakes out. At this point no one knows for sure.

The Army will remain a player simply because it has the guns. But since it may contain a substantial number of sympathizers belonging to this, or to that faction a lot is up for grabs. Historically the end of Great States is a goldrush time. The people who know where the good stuff is hidden do best.

And this is where preparation for a regime change pays off. The assets that are out there can be used in two ways, they can be evacuated or they can be used in the post-Mubarak play. Of course the other side will not be sitting idle and may in fact be doing a symmetrical thing.

Paper Microfluidics

Monday, January 31st, 2011

For years, paper has been used in relatively simple medical diagnostics, like pregnancy tests, while more complex analyses have required expensive lab-on-a-chip technologies, with channels created in glass or plastic and tiny pumps and valves directing the flow of fluids for testing.

Now researches have developed “microfluidic” devices from ordinary wax paper:

A laser is used to burn off the hydrophobic coatings in lines, dots and patterns, exposing the underlying water-absorbing paper only where the patterns are formed.

“Since the hydrophobic agent is already present throughout the thickness of the paper, our method creates islands of hydrophilic patterns,” Ziaie said. “This modified surface has a highly porous structure, which helps to trap and localize chemical and biological aqueous reagents for analysis. Furthermore, we’ve selectively deposited silica microparticles on patterned areas to allow diffusion from one end of a channel to the other.”

Those microparticles help to wick liquid to a location where it would combine with another chemical, called a reactant, causing it to change colors and indicating a positive or negative test result.

Having a patterned hydrophilic surface is needed for many detection methods in biochemistry, such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA, used in immunology to detect the presence of an antibody or an antigen in a sample, Ziaie said.

To demonstrate the new concept, the researchers created paper strips containing arrays of dots dipped in luminol, a chemical that turns fluorescent blue when exposed to blood.

“Then we sprayed blood on the strips, showing the presence of hemoglobin,” said Ziaie, whose research is based at the Birck Nanotechnology Center in the university’s Discovery Park. “This is just a proof of concept.”

Puppy Mills

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Gerry Garibaldi was an executive and screenwriter in Hollywood before becoming an English teacher at an urban high school in Connecticut, where the pregnant students say things like,  “Nobody Gets Married Any More, Mister”:

Thanks to the feds, urban schools like mine — already entitled to substantial federal largesse under Title I, which provides funds to public schools with large low-income populations — are swimming in money. At my school, we pay five teachers to tutor kids after school and on Saturdays. They sit in classrooms waiting for kids who never show up. We don’t want for books — or for any of the cutting-edge gizmos that non–Title I schools can’t afford: computerized whiteboards, Elmo projectors, the works. Our facility is state-of-the-art, thanks to a recent $40 million face-lift, with gleaming new hallways and bathrooms and a fully computerized library.
Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.

None of this is lost on my students. In today’s urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant. Other girls in school want to pat their stomachs. Their friends throw baby showers at which meager little gifts are given. After delivery, the girls return to school with baby pictures on their cell phones or slipped into their binders, which they eagerly share with me. Often they sit together in my classes, sharing insights into parenting, discussing the taste of Pedialite or the exhaustion that goes with the job. On my way home at night, I often see my students in the projects that surround our school, pushing their strollers or hanging out on their stoops instead of doing their homework.

Connecticut is among the most generous of the states to out-of-wedlock mothers. Teenage girls like Nicole qualify for a vast array of welfare benefits from the state and federal governments: medical coverage when they become pregnant (called “Healthy Start”); later, medical insurance for the family (“Husky”); child care (“Care 4 Kids”); Section 8 housing subsidies; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; cash assistance. If you need to get to an appointment, state-sponsored dial-a-ride is available. If that appointment is college-related, no sweat: education grants for single mothers are available, too. Nicole didn’t have to worry about finishing the school year; the state sent a $35-an-hour tutor directly to her home halfway into her final trimester and for six weeks after the baby arrived.

In theory, this provision of services is humane and defensible, an essential safety net for the most vulnerable — children who have children. What it amounts to in practice is a monolithic public endorsement of single motherhood — one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock.
As do most of my 11th-graders, Nicole reads at a fifth-grade level, which means I must peruse the articles and statistics along with her, side by side. She groans each time I pick out a long article and counts the number of pages before she reads. With my persistent nudging, she and Maria begin to pull out the statistics for the children of single parents. From the FBI: 63 percent of all suicides are individuals from single-parent households. From the Centers for Disease Control: 75 percent of adolescents in chemical-dependency hospitals come from single-parent households. From the Children’s Defense Fund: more than half of all youths incarcerated for criminal acts come from single-parent households. And so on.

Self-control in childhood predicts health and wealth in adulthood

Monday, January 31st, 2011

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study found that self-control in childhood predicts health and wealth in adulthood:

The Dunedin Study is the brainchild of Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi, a husband and wife team who work at Duke University and King’s College London. Way back in 1975, the duo recruited 1037 children who were born in Dunedin, New Zealand between April 1972 and March 1973. Moffit and Caspi became their occasional companions through most of their lives, up till the age of 32. At 11 separate points, the duo measured the recruits’ health, wealth and more. And amazingly for a study of this sort, 1014 of the children are still alive and involved.

Thanks to their unique study, Moffit and Caspi have found that children who show high levels of self-control within their first decade of life do better in adulthood. Even after accounting for things like intelligence and social class, those who had a tighter grip on their behaviour as children are now in better health as adults. They’re also less likely to be abusing drugs, have a criminal record, or suffer from financial problems.

Moffit and Caspi assessed the children’s self-control at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11, by looking at their hyperactivity, attention, impulsiveness, aggression, and more. The children did the same evaluations, as did their parents and teachers. All the scores were a good fit for one another, so Moffit and Caspi combined these numbers into a single measure of childhood self-control. Finally, they adjusted the value according to the volunteers’ family background and IQ.

This childhood score proved to be a portent of things to come. Children with lower scores (poorer self-control) had poorer health at the age of 32. Their lungs didn’t perform as well. They were more likely to have gum disease, be overweight, or depend on drugs like tobacco, alcohol or cannabis. Among those with the highest levels of self-control, 11% had multiple health problems, compared to 27% of those with the lowest levels (see graph below).

Those with poorer self-control were also more likely to run into financial or social problems. As teenagers, they were more likely to start smoking, leave school with no qualifications, or have unplanned pregnancies. As adults, they had more credit problems and troubles with money, and fewer tangible assets like a home, savings or a pension. They were more likely to have been convicted of a crime, and their own children were more likely to be raised in a single-parent household. And in fact, their childhood self-control was a better predictor of these financial worries than either their IQs or social backgrounds.

How to Tax the Rich

Monday, January 31st, 2011

The way our political system is designed, Scott Adams (Dilbert) says, politicians are not free to float bad ideas — or even to support good ideas that fall too far from the norm.

TV writers, on the other hand, routinely present the bad idea version of something to their team, to spur further thinking toward a good idea version.

With that in mind, he presents his bad ideas for how to tax the rich:

Time. It’s useful to keep in mind how the rich are different. When you are poor, you are willing to trade your time to earn money. When you are rich, you trade your money to get more time. For example, the rich hire people to clean their homes, and they don’t waste time shopping for bargains. In business school I learned that when people have different preferences, you can usually find a way to engineer a deal.

Suppose we change the tax code so that in return for higher taxes on the rich, we figure out a way to give the rich some form of extra time. The bad version is that anyone who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a passenger. Or perhaps the rich are allowed to park in handicapped-only spaces.

Ridiculous, you cry! Remember, this is the bad version. And if the rich are only a tiny percentage of the population, they would have almost no impact on the traffic in car pool lanes or the availability of parking spaces for the handicapped. You wouldn’t even notice the difference.

You could imagine a host of ways the government could trade time for money. Suppose all government agencies had a mandate to handle the affairs of the rich before everyone else. You wouldn’t even notice that your wait at the Department of Motor Vehicles was 2% longer.

As a bonus, what happens to the economy when the people who are most skilled at making money suddenly have extra time? My bet is that they stimulate the economy by spending more or by earning more.

Gratitude. Imagine that the government arranges to provide genuine person-to-person gratitude to the rich in exchange for higher tax rates. Suppose (bad idea alert) the government makes it a condition that anyone applying for social services has to write a personal thank-you note to a nearby rich person who, according to a central database, hasn’t lately received one. Gratitude goes a long way. It’s easy to hate the generic overspending of the government. It’s harder to begrudge medical care to someone who thanks you personally. It’s a bad idea, I know. Don’t judge it. Just let it nudge your imagination to someplace better.

Incentives. Another approach, also a bad idea, might be to treat the rich more like venture capitalists than sources of free money. Suppose the tax code is redesigned so that the rich only pay taxes to fund social services, such as health care and social security. This gives the rich an incentive to find ways to reduce the need for those services, which would in turn keep their taxes under control. Perhaps you’d see an explosion of private investment in technologies that make it less expensive to provide health care. You might see rapid advances in bringing down the cost of housing for seniors.

Meanwhile, the middle class would be in charge of funding the military. That feels right. The country generally doesn’t go to war unless the middle-class majority is on board.

Shared Pain. Happiness is a relative thing. That’s how humans are wired. And we’re just screwed up enough to feel comfort when our pain is shared. So how can we make the overtaxed rich feel as if the rest of society is feeling a little extra pain?

I doubt that the rich will agree to higher taxes until some serious budget cutting is happening at the same time. That makes the sacrifice seem shared. The rich will feel unfairly singled out unless everyone is taking a hit. And budget cuts make the government seem better managed. That matters.

The bad idea here is to change the debate from arguing about which programs and how much to cut, and instead to do what the private sector has been doing for decades: Pull a random yet round number out of your ear, let’s say a 10% cut, just for argument’s sake, and apply it across the board. No exceptions. Everything from the military to welfare to federal pensions to government salaries would take the same hit. Managers in the private sector have been handling budget cuts this way for years. They know that their subordinates are all professional liars, so there is no reliable information for making cuts in a more reasoned way. They also know that any project can get by with 10% less money if there is no alternative.

Power. Everyone loves power. I’m guessing that the rich like it more than most people, on average. Another bad idea is to give the rich two votes apiece in any election. That’s double the power of other citizens. But don’t worry that it will distort election results. There aren’t that many rich people, and they are somewhat divided in their opinions, just like the rest of the world. And realistically, is the candidate who gets 51% of the vote always better than the one who gets only 49%? That’s a risk I’ll take.

What was supposed to happen to Germany

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

The use of spetsnaz (special forces) in the Manchurian offensive of 1945 illustrates what was supposed to happen to Germany if she had not attacked the USSR:

Japan had a peace treaty with the Soviet Union. But Japan had gone to war with other states and had exhausted her military, economic and other resources. Japan had seized vast territories inhabited by hundreds of millions of people who wanted to be liberated and were ready to welcome and support any liberator who came along. Japan was in exactly the situation in which Stalin had wanted to see Germany: exhausted by war with other countries, and with troops scattered over expansive territories the populations of which hated the sight of them.

Thus, in the interests naturally of peace and humanity Stalin struck a sudden crushing blow at the armed forces of Japan in Manchuria and China, violating the treaty signed four years earlier. The operation took place over vast areas. In terms of the distances covered and the speed at which it moved, this operation has no equal in world history. Soviet troops operated over territories 5000 kilometres in width and 600-800 kilometres in depth. More than a million and a half soldiers took part in the operation, with over 5000 tanks and nearly 4000 aircraft. It really was a lightning operation, in the course of which 84,000 Japanese officers and men were killed and 593,000 taken prisoner. A tremendous quantity of arms, ammunition and other equipment was seized.

It may be objected that Japan was already on the brink of catastrophe. That is true. But therein lies Soviet strategy: to remain neutral until such time as the enemy exhausts himself in battle against someone else, and then to strike a sudden blow. That is precisely how the war against Germany was planned and that was why the partisan units, the barriers and defensive installations were all dispensed with, and why the ten airborne corps were created in 1941.

In the Manchurian offensive the spetsnaz detachments put up their best performance. Twenty airborne landings were made not by airborne troops, but by special reconnaissance troops. Spetsnaz units of the Pacific Fleet were landed from submarines and surface boats. Some spetsnaz units crossed the frontier by foot, captured Japanese cars and used them for their operations. Worried about the railway tunnels on a strip of the 1st Far Eastern front, the Soviet high command created special units for capturing the tunnels. The groups crossed the frontier secretly, cut the throats of the guards, severed the wires connected to the explosive charges, and put the detonators out of action. They then held the tunnels until their own forces arrived.

In the course of the offensive a new and very risky type of operation was employed by spetsnaz. Senior GRU officers, with the rank of colonel or even major-general, were put in charge of small groups. Such a group would suddenly land on an airfield close to an important Japanese headquarters. The appearance of a Soviet colonel or general deep in the Japanese rear never failed to provoke astonished reactions from both the Japanese high command and the Japanese troops, as well as from the local population. The transport planes carrying these were escorted by Soviet fighter aircraft, but the fighters were soon obliged to return to their bases, leaving the Soviet transport undefended until it landed. Even after it landed it had at best only one high-ranking officer, the crew and no more than a platoon of soldiers to guard over the plane. The Soviet officer would demand and usually obtain a meeting with a Japanese general, at which he would demand the surrender of the Japanese garrison. He and his group really had nothing to back them up: Soviet troops were still hundreds of kilometres away and it was still weeks to the end of the war. But the local Japanese military leaders (and the Soviet officers too, for that matter) naturally did not realise this. Perhaps the Emperor had decided to fight on to the last man…

In several recorded instances, senior Japanese military leaders decided independently to surrender without having permission to do so from their superiors. The improvement in the morale and position of the Soviet troops can be imagined.

Rethinking the Future of Board Games

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Jonathan Liu is rethinking the future of board games:

We aren’t at the stage described in the Science Daily article yet, with bits of cardboard that respond automatically to placement and movement. But since last February I’ve played Carcassonne on my iPod with friends hundreds of miles away. I’ve gotten to see a very cool implementation of Settlers of Catan on a Microsoft Surface table. I’m intrigued by early descriptions of the Duo Device that works in conjunction with an iPad to play a party game. I’m still not entirely ready to give up my cardboard and wood and paper, but I am ready to concede that the future of board games will incorporate technology more and more.

Germany was the first target for revolution

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

After the Soviets solidified control over Russia, Germany was the first foreign target for revolution:

It is interesting to recall that, as early as December 1917, a Communist newspaper Die Fackel, was being published in Petrograd with a circulation of 500,000 copies. In January 1918 a Communist group called ‘Spartak’ emerged in the same place. In April 1918 another newspaper Die Weltrevolution, began to appear. And finally, in August 1919, the famous paper of the German Communists, Die Rote Fahne, was founded in Moscow.

At the same time as the first Communist groups appeared, steps were taken to train terrorist fighting units of German Communists. These units were used for suppressing the anti-Communist resistance put up by Russian and Ukrainian peasants. Then, in 1920, all the units of German Communists were gathered together in the rear of the Red Army on the Western front. That was when the Red Army was preparing for a breakthrough across Poland and into Germany. The Red Army’s official marching song, ‘Budenny’s March’, included these words: ‘We’re taking Warsaw — Take Berlin too!’

In that year the Bolsheviks did not succeed in organising revolution in Germany or even in ‘liberating’ Poland. At the time Soviet Russia was devastated by the First World War and by the far more terrible Civil War. Famine, typhus and destruction raged across the country. But in 1923 another attempt was made to provoke a revolution in Germany. Trotsky himself demanded in September 1923 to be relieved of all his Party and Government posts and to be sent as an ordinary soldier to the barricades of the German Revolution. The party did not send Trotsky there, but sent other Soviet Communist leaders, among them, Iosef Unshlikht. At the time he was deputy chairman of the Cheka secret police. Now he was appointed deputy head of the ‘registration administration’, now known as the GRU or military intelligence, and it was in this position that he was sent illegally to Germany. ‘Unshlikht was given the task of organising the detachments which were to carry out the armed uprising and coup d’etat, recruiting them and providing them with weapons. He also had the job of organising a German Cheka for the extermination of the bourgeoisie and opponents of the Revolution after the transfer of power…. This was how the planned Revolution was planned to take place. On the occasion of the anniversary of the Russian October Revolution the working masses were to come out on the streets for mass demonstrations. Unshlikht’s “Red hundreds” were to provoke clashes with the police so as to cause bloodshed and more serious conflicts, to inflame the workers’ indignation and carry out a general working-class uprising.’ (B. Bazhanov: ‘Memoirs of a Secretary to Stalin’, pub. Tretya volna 1980, pp 67-69.)

In view of the instability of German Society at that time, the absence of a powerful army, the widespread discontent and the frequent outbursts of violence, especially in 1923, the plan might have been realised. Many experts are inclined to the view that Germany really was close to revolution. Soviet military intelligence and its terrorist units led by Unshlikht were expected to do no more than put the spark to the powder keg.

There were many reasons why the plans came to nothing. But there were two especially important ones: the absence of a common frontier between the USSR and Germany, and the split in the German Communist Party. The lack of a common frontier was at the time a serious obstacle to the penetration into Germany of substantial forces of Soviet subversives. Stalin understood this very well, and he was always fighting to have Poland crushed so that common frontiers could be established with Germany. When he succeeded in doing this in 1939, it was a risky step, since a common frontier with Germany meant that Germany could attack the USSR without warning, as indeed happened two years later. But without a common frontier Stalin could not get into Europe.

The split in the German Communist Party was an equally serious hindrance to the carrying out of Soviet plans. One group pursued policy, subservient to the Comintern and consequently to the Soviet Politburo, while the other pursued an antagonistic one. Zinoviev was ‘extremely displeased by this and he raised the question in the Politburo of presenting Maslov [one of the dissenting German Communist leaders] with an ultimatum: either he would take a large sum of money, leave the party and get out of Germany, or Unshlikht would be given orders to liquidate him.’ (Ibid. p. 68)

The New Arab World Order

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

The most telling aspect of the anti-regime demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world, Robert Kaplan says, is what they are not about:

They are not about the existential plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation; nor are they at least overtly anti-Western or even anti-American. The demonstrators have directed their ire against unemployment, tyranny, and the general lack of dignity and justice in their own societies. This constitutes a sea change in modern Middle Eastern history.

Of course, such was the course of demonstrations against the Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979, before that revolution was hijacked by Islamists.

The differences between 2011 in Egypt and 1978 in Iran are more profound than the similarities, Kaplan says. Importantly, there’s no Khomeini in Tunisia or Egypt, and the current leaders of Tunisia and Egypt aren’t seen as toadies to American and Israeli interests.

American interests aren’t safe though:

Were demonstrations to spread in a big way to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a catastrophe could be looming. A more enlightened, pro-American regime than the one now in Jordan is hard to imagine. As for the Saudi royal family, it is probably the worst possible form of government for that country except for any other that might credibly replace it. Imagine all that weaponry the United States has sold the Saudis over the decades falling into the hands of Wahhabi radicals. Imagine Yemen were it divided once again into northern and southern parts, or with even weaker central control issuing from the capital city of Sanaa. The United States would be virtually on its own battling al Qaeda there.

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)

Crimes of Conscience

Friday, January 28th, 2011

The recent assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, by an assassin with public support, reminded me of the various “incidents” in Imperial Japan leading into WWII, like the May 15 Incident, in 1932:

The May 15 Incident was an attempted coup d’état in Japan, on May 15, 1932, launched by radical elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy, aided by cadets in the Imperial Japanese Army and civilian remnants of the League of Blood Incident. Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated by 11 young naval officers.
The eleven murderers of Prime Minister Inukai were court-martialed; however, before the end of their trial a petition arrived at court containing over 350,000 signatures in blood, which had been signed by sympathizers around the country to plead for a lenient sentence. During the proceedings, the accused used the trial as a platform to proclaim their loyalty to the Emperor and to arouse popular sympathy by appealing for reforms of the government and economy. In addition to the petition, the court also received a request from eleven youths in Niigata, asking that they be executed in place of the Navy officers, and sending eleven severed fingers to the court as a gesture of their sincerity.

The Russian Tsar faced similar troubles:

Many of the first leaders of the Red Army had been terrorists in the past, before the Revolution. For example, one of the outstanding organisers of the Red Army, Mikhail Frunze, after whom the principal Soviet military academy is named, had twice been sentenced to death before the Revolution. At the time it was by no means easy to get two death sentences.

For organising a party which aimed at the overthrow of the existing regime by force, Lenin received only three years of deportation in which he lived well and comfortably and spent his time shooting, fishing and openly preaching revolution. And the woman terrorist Vera Zasulich, who murdered a provincial governor was acquitted by a Russian court. The court was independent of the state and reckoned that, if she had killed for political reasons, it meant that she had been prompted by her conscience and her beliefs and that her acts could not be regarded as a crime.

In this climate Mikhail Frunze had managed to receive two death sentences. Neither of them was carried out, naturally. On both occasions the sentence was commuted to deportation, from which he had no great difficulty in escaping. It was while he was in exile that Frunze organised a circle of like-minded people which was called the ‘Military Academy’: a real school for terrorists, which drew up the first strategy to be followed up by armed detachments of Communists in the event of an uprising.

How Jurassic Park got Velociraptors wrong

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Maggie Koerth-Baker shares one of the Great Moments in Pedantry — how Jurassic Park got velociraptors wrong:

Discovered and described by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom in the 1960s, Deinonychus had a large sickle-claw on each foot, long arms with grasping hands, and a stiffened tail that would have helped the animal keep its balance as it ran after prey. The genus changed how people thought about dinosaurs, suggesting that they were much more active and dynamic than had been supposed previously.

This new view of dinosaurs, in part, inspired the 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World by paleo-artist Gregory S. Paul. Not only was the volume chock-full of illustrations of feathered dinosaurs, but it also attempted to revise some dinosaur taxonomy. Paul noted the similarities between the skeletons of the Velociraptor from Mongolia and the Deinonychus skeletons from North America. They were so similar, in fact, that he decided to group the Deinonychus fossils under the name Velociraptor, as the older name took precedence according to the rules by which organisms are named.

Paleontologists did not agree with this change — Velociraptor was kept distinct from Deinonychus — but Paul’s book was a hit with the general public. And one of the people who read the book was author Michael Crichton.

From First TV to Dr. Oz

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Tim Ferriss, who knows a thing or two about self-promotion, explains how to get local, then national, media attention:

The time was mid-February, 2007. The 4-Hour Workweek was slated to publish on April 27th, and I had a problem: no one in television knew who I was, and I wanted to be on national TV for the launch.

The chicken-or-the-egg problem was simple: big TV doesn’t want you on until you’ve proven yourself on big TV. What to do?

My answer was: look for a local affiliate of big networks like ABC, CBS, or NBC, and find something controversial and timely to discuss. I began to read the news (a rare event) and realized that a soon-to-be-published book was making waves — Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports.

I knew a few people directly involved with BALCO, and — as a sports nutrition company CEO at the time — I was in a qualified position to talk about drugs in sports. Digging into advanced excerpts of Game of Shadows (GOS), which was billed as a “drug-by-drug account” of high-level athletics, I formulated a simple and valid position: far from decreasing drug use, the book would end up serving as a how-to guide.

GOS was going to be published on March 1, 2007. The week before publication, I reached out to all local San Jose or bay area-based big networks. I called the switchboard or main number, requested “the newsroom,” and started the pitch, which was written out on paper in front of me and never lasted more than 20 seconds:

“My name is Tim Ferriss and I have a timely pitch for you. I work with professional athletes and… [establish credibility as CEO and someone with experience in drugs in sports]”

Game of Shadows, about Barry Bonds and BALCO, comes out next week and it’s getting a lot of attention. Most of the world is viewing it as an exposé that will decrease drug use. They’re wrong. I can discuss why it will actually increase steroid and drug use.”

Most calls went to voicemail, a few people said they’d get back to me, and only one did: NBC 11 in San Jose.

But one is all it takes. The short NBC clip ended up being the social proof later needed to get me on The Today Show and others for The 4-Hour Workweek.

Remember: make it timely and controversial. “Controversial” doesn’t necessarily mean scandalous; it means a position that runs counter to the mainstream or expectations.

The Anatomy of Revolution

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

With recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, it may be time to turn to Crane Brinton’s 1938 work on The Anatomy of Revolution, which studied the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, and found that revolutions tend to move from the Old Order to a moderate regime, and then — typically — to a radical regime:

The revolutions being studied first produce a “legal” moderate government. It vies with a more radical “illegal” government in a process known as “dual power”, or as Brinton prefers to call it “dual sovereignty”. In England the “Presbyterian moderates in Parliament” were rivals of “the illegal government of the extremist Independents in the New Model Army.” (p. 135) In France, the National Assembly was controlled by the “Girondin moderates”, while the Montagnard “extremists” controlled “the Jacobin network,” “the Paris commune,” (p. 136) and the Societies of the Friends of the Constitution. (p. 162) In Russia, the moderate provisional government of the Duma clashed with the radical Bolsheviks whose illegal government was a “network of soviets.” (p. 136)

The radicals triumph because they are

  • “better organized, better staffed, better obeyed,” (p. 134)
  • have “relatively few responsibilities, while the legal government “has to shoulder some of the unpopularity of the government of the old regime” with “the worn-out machinery, the institutions of the old regime.” (p. 134)
  • The moderate are hindered by their hesitancy to change direction and fight back against the radical revolutionaries, “with whom they recently stood united,” in favor of conservatives, “against whom they have so recently risen.” (p. 140) They are drawn to the slogan `no enemies to the Left.` (p. 168)
  • are attacked on one side by “disgruntled but not yet silenced conservatives, and the confident, aggressive extremists,” on the other. The moderate revolutionary policies can please neither side. An example is the Root and Brand Bill in the English Revolution which abolished the episcopacy, angering conservatives and established institutions without earning the loyalty of radicals. (p. 141-43)
  • are “poor” leaders of the wars which accompany the revolutions, unable to “provide the discipline, the enthusiasm,” needed. (p. 144)

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)

The Customer is the Company

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I didn’t know the story of how Threadless got started:

Nickell had no such vision as he put the finishing touches on a T-shirt design in late 2000. It was for the New Media Underground festival, an informal gathering of Web designers in London. He had no intention of attending the event, but he cared about it deeply. At the time, Nickell was 20 years old, living in a tiny Chicago apartment. He spent his days on the sales floor at CompUSA; at night, he was a talented if unenthusiastic part-time student at the Illinois Institute of Art. Though his girlfriend visited him each weekend, he had few close friends.

When he wasn’t working or studying, Nickell was tinkering with Web design, a hobby he indulged in on, an Internet forum for illustrators and programmers. He would spend hours at a time cruising the forum, talking with his online friends and engaging in a pastime called Photoshop tennis. In it, designers pass digital photographs back and forth and challenge one another to manipulate the images in the most outrageous way possible.

Nickell’s design for the New Media Underground festival — three lines of gray text that mimicked the layout of the Dreamless website — was an entry for a contest that the festival’s organizers were holding online. The design was simple and not quite pretty. But it was strikingly clever — a physical representation of their digital community. The Dreamless members agreed. Nickell won the contest.

In concrete terms, this accomplishment meant exactly nothing: He got no money or even a copy of his winning shirt. But the experience was exhilarating. Dreamless members spent a lot of time batting ideas back and forth, but their creations rarely made it out of the digital realm. Suddenly, Nickell had an idea: What if the best designs were printed on T-shirts and sold in the real world? He suggested as much to Jacob DeHart, one of a handful of friends he had met on Dreamless. DeHart, a student at Purdue University, loved the idea, and each pitched in $500 — enough to pay a lawyer to set up the business and print the first round of shirts.

Nickell and DeHart held their first contest in November 2000. They asked the designers on Dreamless to submit their best work and to pick their favorites. The grand prize: two free shirts and the promise that any proceeds would be reinvested in future contests. They called the competition Threadless, a play on thread — either a clothing item or a discussion topic on an online forum. In all, they printed two dozen copies of five shirts out of slightly fewer than 100 submissions with in-joke titles like “Evil Mother F—ing Web Design” and “Dead Sexy Designer.” The shirts went on sale in January 2001 for $12 each and sold out quickly. In the months that followed, Nickell and DeHart ran regular competitions using an automated rating system that allowed users to score designs on a scale from 1 to 5, but it never occurred to them that they had a real company. “It was just a hobby, a way for people to get their artwork out,” Nickell says. By 2002, the hobby had surpassed $100,000 worth of T-shirts and attracted more than 10,000 community members, mostly artists in their teens and 20s. Even so, Nickell, DeHart, and Kalmikoff — who joined the company that year — spent much of their time doing freelance Web design to pay the bills.

Shortly after founding the company, Nickell and DeHart began awarding small cash prizes to the artists whose T-shirts were selected. Initially the prizes were $100 per winning design, but they gradually climbed to $2,500, plus reprint fees. But the appeal of Threadless to artists has never had much to do with getting paid. “It wasn’t so much the money,” says artist Glenn Jones, who won $150 in a contest in 2004, at age 29. “It was how cool it was to get your shirts printed.”