Tag Archives: Pop culture

The University Isn’t Going Anywhere

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There is a lot of talk going around about how universities are broken, and Silicon Valley is going to put the Ivy League out of business. Certainly change is afoot, and continued tuition hikes at twice the rate of inflation are ridiculous. Online universities like Udemy and the Miverva Project are interesting, and may even succeed, depending on whether success is measured in teaching students or in making tons of money. But if success is measured in pushing the existing elite universities out of their current position, don’t hold your breath.

Kevin Carey wrote a piece in The New Republic saying how the roster of leading companies has completely changed over the last century but the roster of leading universities has not. American Cotton Oil is gone, but Harvard remains. Carey states that this is unsustainable; education should be as prone to disruption as business.

But there is a deep flaw in Carey’s analogy. Companies go out of business mostly because people no longer want their products. When was the last time you bought cottonseed oil, or film for your camera? But people still want what universities are offering, especially elite universities. Is education still valuable? Yes. Is a Harvard degree still valuable? Yes. I don’t want any cottonseed oil, but I sure want my kids to get a Harvard education and diploma. And as long as the desire for education and prestige remains (ie. as long as human nature still rules), the elite universities will remain so.

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.

Is Corporate Culture The Same As Country Culture?

I recently posted about corporate cultures, and how the only way a corporation can change its culture is from the top. Based on some of the feedback I received I’ve decided to expand my scope and explore a larger cultural change: how the United States might change some parts of its culture. For example, one aspect of America’s current culture that seems problematic is that we want all kinds of services (Medicare, Social Security, strong defense, good roads, etc.) but we want the lowest taxes possible. Those two desires are incompatible; a culture that emphasizes taking without giving will prove challenging in the long run.

In my prior post, I discussed that a change in corporate culture requires a CEO who is willing to push that change. In the case of a country, who might play that role? You would naturally think the president, but we know that won’t work. Plenty of recent presidents have talked about changing the culture, but none have succeeded. Hell, none of them could change the culture of a few hundred people in Congress, let alone a whole country. And that’s not really surprising; a country is not a hierarchical structure the way a company is, so people have no reason to necessarily follow what the leader says.

The president could try to lead by example, or by using the bully pulpit, but I can only imagine the furor  that would erupt  if a president (or governor, or senator, or mayor) announced that “OK people, your constant desire to get lots while paying little is complete crap; going forward we are all going to be more realistic.” No, that wouldn’t work at all.

What if all our leaders teamed up? Suppose a whole slew of politicians – national and local, democrat and republican, male and female – got together to announce an initiative aimed at realism. This could be risky, since taking a stand isn’t really what politicians do; they hate being out on limbs by themselves. But that is why they would team up with members of the other party. After all, as I noted in my prior post, cultural change requires leaders to actually lead. Then they could get business leaders on board; everyone from Warren Buffett to Charles Koch. Throw in some celebrities – nothing happens in America without celebrities – and then maybe we’d have something.

It’s possible that this is nothing but a pipe dream. Can we really expect politicians to team up in order to lecture voters? Probably it will never happen. But maybe we should expect more from our leaders.

More on Tipping Point Flaws

A new study out of RPI shows that when 10% of a population shares a belief, that belief will inevitably be taken up by a majority of society. And when less than 10% has a belief, it will never be taken up. This conclusion was reached by running many scenarios through various computer models of societies. Most interesting, and most daggerly through Malcolm Gladwell’s theoretical heart, is that no matter what sort of connection scheme the researchers put in their models — equal connections, some highly connected “influencers,” promiscuous connections — the results turned out the same. Yet again, Gladwell’s concept of important trend setters falls under the weight of experimental data.

No More Tipping Point

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!

Cupcakes Anyone? Yes, Please!

As long as we are talking about bubbles (which I did here and here and here), I should note that some people also think we are in a cupcake bubble (like this person and this person and even this person). I can’t disagree; here in SF there are three cupcakeries in just a 10 block area, each selling pretty much identical over-priced cupcakes with too much frosting.

And yet, there is something special about a cupcake. Look at this photo (taken by me, in case you thought I was just a pretty writer):

The cupcake trailer, in Austin TX

Seriously, how fun does that cupcake look? Really fun. And that, I think, is the key to the cupcake’s success. They are so little and whimsical and colorful that you can’t help but smile when you see them. Most important, they have that dollop of frosting on top. Of course it’s too much, and too sweet, but it looks like a swirly party hat, a pastel pillow of creamy goodness that you could jump right into. No wonder you can’t resist a cupcake on your plate.

When you see a full cake, it looks delicious, but also kind of serious, maybe even intimidating. You have to slice it, and share it, and then probably store what you didn’t finish, and then you have the pressure to keep eating the leftovers so that you can finish them before they start to get hard and crusty in the refrigerator. A cupcake, on the other hand, has none of those difficulties. No slicing, no leftovers, no pressure. Just pop it in your mouth (one, two or three bites…it’s up to you) and be transported back to your childhood.

So yes, there is definitely a bubble in cupcake bakeries, but the cupcakes themselves will continue to crowd out cakes, as long as we prefer fun to dour in our desserts made out of flour.

 

Great Singer/Songwriter

http://www.myspace.com/sharonvanetten

Questions and Comments About Words

Why is the word “emasculate?” Wouldn’t it be better if it was “demasculate?” And then you could reverse it, with “remasculate.”

And speaking of improving words, “nefariousness” is just a lame version of “nefarious,” which is a great word. My proposal: “nefarity” as the new noun version.

Final comment: “adequacy” is merely adequate. “Adequacity” is a much fuller and rounder way of describing the state of being adequate. And wouldn’t we all be better off if we were more accepting of things that are simply adequate?

US: Religiously Diverse, Tolerant and Turning Liberal

As I pointed out in a previous post, Robert Putnam has a new book out describing the current status of religion in America, based on a large survey he conducted. I recently heard Putnam give a lecture about his new book. One of his key theses is that America is highly religious, but extremely diverse and tolerant.

Putnam’s survey, like others in the field, reveals that most Americans describe themselves as religious and many go to church regularly. The numbers in America are significantly higher than in other developed countries. This religiosity is spread across a wide diversity of faiths and denominations. Interestingly, although the vast majority claims to be religious, there is a strong polarity in how seriously they take their religion. When asked whether they said grace regularly, sometimes, or never, the responses were 44%, 10% and 46%, respectively. In other words, people either practice hard or not at all, with very little in the middle. This matches the polarization of politics that is tied to religion.

However, unlike the political polarization, in which the two sides seem to hate each other, when it comes to religion America is highly tolerant despite its polarization. When asked whether they had positive views of other faiths, most Americans said yes. The most popular faiths: Judaism, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Only 13% of Putnam’s respondents said that their faith was the only path to heaven, and 80% said there was some truth in all religion.

Why such tolerance? Putnam, who thinks like a sociologist despite being a political scientist, provides a social explanation: diversity breeds tolerance. With all the different faiths in America, and more geographic mobility than in the past, we are all more likely to know, and like, someone of a different faith.  Putnam supports this with data showing that more people change religions now than ever before, and pointing out that the majority of marriages are now interfaith, at 51%, compared to 25% a century ago. Putnam calls this the “Aunt Susan” phenomenon. We all know someone, perhaps our aunt by marriage, who is of a different faith, but who is totally awesome. How can Aunt Susan not go to heaven just because she is Methodist rather than Catholic?

An additional reason for the tolerance, which Putnam didn’t point out but I will, is that while Americans are broadly religious, they are also somewhat shallow about it. In other words, and despite the data on saying grace mentioned above, many Americans don’t take the teachings of their faith that seriously. For example, not only do 87% of Americans believe people of another faith can go to heaven, but 54% of evangelical Protestants believe that non-Christians can go to heaven. This means that 54% of evangelical Protestants are rejecting (or don’t understand) a basic tenet of their faith. Catholics, at 22% of the country, should alone swamp the 13% figure, but they clearly don’t. In other words, Americans’ willingness to ignore (or ignorance of) some of the key teachings of their faiths allow them to be more tolerant of other faiths.

Religion and Politics is a New Mix

I recently went to hear a lecture by Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is best known as the author of Bowling Alone, a book about the decay of civil institutions in America. Putnam has a new book out, called American Grace, about religion in America and its intersection with politics, and his lecture was a summary of that book. The book is based on both historical study and a large survey of US citizens, and has two main theses:

  1. The mix of religion and politics in America is new and massively polarizing
  2. American religion is so diverse and tolerant, especially among the younger generation, that the above polarization will likely moderate over time

This post is about Putnam’s first thesis; I will add another post soon summarizing his second thesis.

Putnam started his lecture by describing the rise of the religious right and how this is a new development in America. Of course the founding fathers were – mostly – deeply religious men; that’s how people rolled 250 years ago. But historically you could not correlate a person’s religious belief with their political beliefs. There were devout Christians who were liberal and secularists who were conservative. The Democratic and Republican parties each contained a mix of religious beliefs and commitments.

Things began to change in the 1960’s, with the rise of hippies and free love and drugs and rock & roll (all the stuff my parents dug, man). In reaction to this libertine environment, conservative people moved toward more bedrock values, generally in the form of evangelical Christianity. These people got more serious about their religion and then certain church leaders (eg. Jerry Falwell) saw an opportunity to turn that movement into political power. As the religious right gained power there was something of a backlash, and non-evangelicals moved further toward secularism.

Thus you have significant movement to the poles – the religious right and secularism – without any growth in the center. And now you have, according to Putnam, significant correlation between religion and politics. Putnam says the best way to understand how someone will vote is to ask about their church-going, or vice versa. This plays right into the polarization that we are seeing in modern American politics. Of course, Putnam’s theory of religious trends is not the only explanation for the rise of the religious right and political polarization. There were also geographic, economic and racial trends at work. But religion clearly played a role, and this is Putnam’s bailiwick, so I give his theories some weight.

An interesting side note: Putnam says that according to his research, if a person’s politics and religion don’t match, they are more likely to change their religion than their politics. In other words, conservative people move to more conservative churches and liberals move to more liberal churches or to none at all. Given that religion controls your soul whereas politics affects your pocketbook, this is surprising, but the surveys say what the surveys say. Another, less interesting, side note: the waves of religion and backlashes toward secularism described by Putnam could make for a classic dialectic, with their thesis and antithesis, but there is no synthesis. Instead, the movement trends apart rather than together. This is further proof of my pet theory that Hegel was an idiot.

Here is a photo of someone bowling, possibly alone:

Nixon bowls, possibly alone