Category Archives: Philosophy

Bad Driving, Sysco Edition

People who know me in real life know how much I hate double parking. Those who double park are putting their convenience ahead of the literally dozens of people who get jammed up behind them. And double parking when there is a space you could actually pull into? That just makes me crazy. It’s so rude. So here is the first of a series of photos of egregious double parkers. This series will appear sporadically, and the photos will not be of great quality. But you’ll get the idea.

Sysco Delivery Truck

Sysco Delivery Truck

This Sysco foodservice truck is making a delivery on Hyde Street in San Francisco. Note to the right that there are at least two yellow parking spots, reserved specifically for loading (that’s what yellow means), sitting empty. This driver just couldn’t be bothered to pull into those reserved spots, and instead blocked one of three lanes on this major southbound thoroughfare.

There is only one word for this behavior: ASSHATTERY!


Multinational Corporations and the American Commons

Harvard Business School recently launched what it’s calling the US Competitiveness Project, which is “a research-led effort to understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States.” To publicize this effort, Harvard Magazine just published a series of interviews with some of the professors involved. I don’t normally like reading interviews, because they tend to have a ridiculously high length to content ratio, but these were quite dense in content, and I recommend the whole set of interviews as important reading for anyone interested in the state of US business or multinational corporations operate.

The interviews ran to almost 20 magazine pages, so I won’t even try to summarize them. But I will note a recurring theme, which was about American companies investing in America. The professors called this America’s “business commons,” which they defined as “a skilled workforce, an educated populace, vibrant local suppliers, basic rule of law, and so on.” They pointed out that “historically, American businesses invested in these resources deeply, and that helped to build many of America’s strengths.”

Copyright 2012 Thoughtbasket

Interestingly, the professors went back and forth between reasons to support America’s business commons, from what I call “hard” reasons (those that drive profitability) to “soft” reasons (patriotic calls to support America).

Hard reasons included:

  • Outsourcing calculations often overestimate cost savings
  • Local manufacturing can drive product and process improvements
  • For most multinationals, the US still makes up the majority of their business

Soft reasons were more vague, with a desire of “many in the business community to roll up their sleeves and do things in their communities” being a typical statement. Michael Porter (a giant in the strategy and competition fields) and Jan Rivkin define US competitiveness as including “raising the living standards of the average American.”

This all raises an interesting dilemma. If the role of corporate executives is to maximize returns to shareholders (this is how most US managers operate, although there is in fact disagreement regarding shareholder v. stakeholder approaches: read relevant articles here, here, here and here) then they shouldn’t care whether they build America’s business commons or China’s business commons or any other business commons, except to the extent that any given commons supports their business. In other words, if Jeff Immelt at GE thinks that investing in China’s educational system will generate higher returns than investing in America’s, that is what he should do.

However, I suspect that most executives at big US companies would feel uncomfortable with that. Since most of them were born in the US, raised in the US, and live in the US, there is probably some part of them that feels a loyalty to the US, that wants to build America’s commons even if building China’s commons has a higher ROI. How do these CEOs reconcile their duties to shareholders with their inherent patriotism? I don’t know. The professors in the US Competitiveness Project would suggest that the disconnect is not as great as many think; that building the US commons DOES have a high ROI. But based on my reading, it sounds like they would also give executives permission to foreground their patriotism over pure shareholder analysis, at least on borderline cases.

In addition to Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, other professors interviewed included Willy Shih, Rossbeth Kanter and Thomas Kochan (who actually teaches at MIT, not Harvard).


First of all, how come nobody told me that Richard Posner and Gary Becker had their own blog? I have never referenced Becker in this blog, but he is a big hitter economist of the Chicago school. But I have … Continue reading

Education Trumps Entrepreneurship

There is a growing trend among universities to devote resources to studying entrepreneurship. This trend is primarily focused in the business and engineering departments, but it is spreading inexorably across campus. It seems as if everyone wants to create a new class of entrepreneurs. This impulse is understandable; after all, if you are the university that graduates the founders of the next Google, there are big donations in your future.

But this focus on entrepreneurship doesn’t come without costs. Universities generally don’t have limitless budgets, so if increased resources are flowing to entrepreneurship studies, that means resources aren’t flowing into other departments. At my alma mater, Stanford University (see below), our alumni magazine seems to be constantly writing about new initiatives to train entrepreneurs, but it almost never talks about a new program in English or history. I think that universities’ movement toward entrepreneurship has gone too far.

Not that entrepreneurship is a bad thing. If people want to start companies, that’s great. I’m happy that companies like Google exist. And Amgen, and Hewlett-Packard, and even General Electric, all of which were started by entrepreneurs. But notice that none of those companies were started by people who had studied entrepreneurship. In fact, they were all started before this trend in teaching entrepreneurship had even begun. It’s not as if this country had a serious lack of entrepreneurs before universities started training them.

But more important to me is the fact that there is more to a university education than just training for a future job, whether as an entrepreneur or engineer or ethicist. College is also about producing well rounded people, who can analyze life in a variety of ways, who are prepared to be good citizens of their country. And I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Thomas Jefferson founded UVA with the goal of “elevating the views of our citizens generally to the practice of the social duties and the functions of self-government.” John Adams thought that education was so important that he put it in the Massachusetts constitution:

Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country.

If people want to start companies, they will certainly do so. They always have. So let’s not waste their four years of college making them “better entrepreneurs,” as if we even know what that is. Let’s just make them smart, well-educated people, and the entrepreneurship will inevitably follow.

CEOs: Imagine You Are The Janitor

OK, I promise this will be the last entry on cultural change. At least for a while.
But I wanted to return to the topic that started this arc: changes in corporate culture. You might recall how I postulated that a company could change its culture only if that change started at the top. The CEO needs to live the culture that he wants the whole company to have.

But that raises a question: can a CEO, from his top of the heap position, even successfully think through cultural issues? Go back to my prior example, where there is a culture of being late to meetings because the CEO is always late to meetings. If the CEO is always late, but nobody is late to the CEO’s meetings (because he is the boss, after all), then maybe he doesn’t even realize that this culture exists, and that it wastes everyone’s time. His time isn’t being wasted, so perhaps he doesn’t even see the problem.

If this is true of the CEO, it is likely true of other high level executives, depending on the size of an organization. So how can these oblivious executives work to develop a functional corporate culture? Here I turn to the work of John Rawls, a titan of political philosophy.  Rawls tried to develop a political system that maintained the liberty of markets while countering the tendency of market economies to perpetuate economic disadvantages.

In his masterwork, A Theory of Justice, Rawls balanced these two competing strands through an invention he called the veil of ignorance. Rawls suggested that policy makers devise policies via a thought exercise in which they ignored their actual station in life and imagined how the policy would affect the least advantaged person in society. By operating behind a veil of ignorance as to how policies would affect them personally, they would develop policies that were fairer to everyone.

Maybe CEOs and other top executives should sometimes step behind a veil of ignorance. As a thought experiment, it’s not really that hard. Ask yourself “How would the average employee feel about this? What about the lowest ranking employee?” Only a CEO whose ego has been stoked to l’etat c’est moi proportions will not be able to imagine how his underlings might feel. In the case our always late CEO, surely he will recognize how people feel when he is always late to their meetings.  And if he is so Louis XIV that he is truly unable to imagine how others might feel, then that company’s culture is utterly doomed and everyone should just leave.

The Calculus of Romance

I’m not using calculus metaphorically in that headline. I really want to talk about calculus and romance, specifically differential calculus and romantic relationships. But this needn’t be a math lesson; you can follow the links to Wikipedia for the full details on how calculus works, or take lessons from the Khan Academy.

Generally speaking, a derivative is a measure of change, and you can take derivatives of derivatives. So a first derivative describes a function, measuring the rate of change of that function. In the graph below, the first derivative is the tangent that measures the slope of the function. A second derivative describes the rate of change of the first derivative, a third derivative describes the second, and so on. You get the point.

Illustration of derivatives

How on earth does that relate to romance? Well, consider a romantic relationship to be a function, moving along the X-axis of time. When you are discussing your relationship (which you hopefully do sometimes), that is like the first derivative – describing the trajectory of your relationship. Sometimes you may talk about how you talk about your relationship, improving your communications skills. That is the second derivative. But if you are having real problems communicating, you may talk about how you talk about talking about your relationship. That is the third order derivative, and it’s bad.

Nobody likes higher order derivatives, and nobody likes talking about talking about talking. So make sure you get those second derivatives right!

Are Successful Religions Just Lucky?

Religion scholars have long said that what separates a religion from a sect is success. In other words, religions all start as small sects; if they stay that way, we never hear about them, but if they grow, then over time they become a religion. But these scholars haven’t really discussed what makes one sect succeed and one not, or if they have, it’s in the context of ex post facto justification of the success. History is written by the victors and all that.

Adherents of most faiths say that their religions have grown because they are right. The religion is the word of god, and so naturally it gains more and more followers. Non-believers, and even some adherents who see a religion as metaphor rather than the literal word of god, would say that their church has grown and lasted because it provides wisdom and values and spiritual succor.

But what if they are all wrong, and the successful religions were simply in the right place and the right time. What if religions succeed purely based on random luck?

This hypothesis of religious randomness is based on the work of Duncan Watts, a sociologist who I’ve mentioned before, in the context of showing that Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point theory of “influencers” is fatally flawed.

Watts studies cultural phenomena and social networks, especially how trends and memes spread across a culture. He is perhaps best known for his work on “hit” music, in which the popularity of a song in an experimental population is self-propelling. People like a song because they see that other people like it. So once a song gains some initial popularity, in Watts’ experiments that song was almost certainly going to become a hit, because its early popularity propagated itself across the culture.

More importantly, what Watts discovered was that the initial burst of popularity, which destined the song for hit status, was not due to the musical quality of the song or the votes of initial “influential” listeners or any other objective measure. It was random. Watts ran his experiment over and over and over, and which songs became hits was a random walk. Here is the money quote from an NY Times article:

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors.

So let me break it down for you: purely at random, a song gets an initial burst of popularity. Not because it has a great melody, or words that speak universal truths, but because for whatever reason a bunch of people chose that song one day. Based on that initial popularity, other people start to like the song (“it’s popular, so it must be good”), and soon enough, the song is a hit. To wit: Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.

The application to religion is pretty straightforward. Any religion – Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, whatever – has to get an initial burst of popularity. A few people start following the leader. Other people notice the following and start to tag along (“old Mr. Dalrymple is following, and he hates everything. It must be good”) and next thing you know, the small sect with a single leader becomes an established religion.

But why do people start following that one leader? Our traditional reaction is that it’s because he had something great to say. But if we follow Watts’ work, maybe it’s just random. Maybe Jesus gave an early sermon next to a lemonade stand on a hot day. Maybe Joseph Smith’s talk about his golden tablets attracted the prettiest woman in town, who then attracted a bunch of men.

Certainly there were plenty of other preachers right around Joseph Smith. His part of New York was called the “burned over district” because it was so frequently swept by religious fervor. So why did Smith’s story stick, and lead to a worldwide faith, when other preachers fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s because Smith’s story of the angel Moroni was the direct word of God. But the experimental data suggest that it was probably just random.

Are there examples of religions that didn’t have the lucky jump to popularity? I’m sure there are, but we don’t know about them. If a preacher only gets to 10 followers, then he is unlikely to make it into the history books. Religions that we know have disappeared – the Greco/Roman pantheon, for example, or Shakers – were reasonably successful in their day; they just suffered from conquering and celibacy problems. But go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, or listen to the speakers on sidewalks in America, and you might see a preacher who has great ideas but just hasn’t caught the lucky break that will turn him into the next Joseph Smith.

Street preacher

Readers have undoubtedly noticed that for established religions there are two concepts at play here: success and longevity. Not only are the established religions successful, but they have been around for many, many (sometimes MANY!) years. A religion could be successful in terms of popularity, but then not have what it takes to last. The success that I’m talking about in this post is the growth from tens of followers to thousands. This is the equivalent of going from an average song to a hit song and thus is, as Watts demonstrated, random. However, the extension from a popular sect to a long-lasting religion is more than just popularity; it’s like the difference between being Fountains of Wayne with Stacey’s Mom and being U2. Longevity demands continued provision of a quality experience, whether that is through great songwriting or spiritual relief.