Category Archives: random thoughts

A Problem with Online Communities

We use the phrase “online communities” quite a lot. But we do not think much about what we mean by it. We do not, of course, mean “community” in the sense that we understand the word in the physical context. Real world communities are stable, mutually supportive places where folks get to know each other. In online communities, none of that happens.

Something does happen there, but we do not have a word for it. Nor do we have good tools to make online communities a more value added experience. Fred Wilson’s warning to his one online community speaks volumes about that.

Will these things evolve? I hope so. If they do, the “wild west” of the internet could be a much more valuable space. If not, the web will not deliver on its promise of revolutionizing how we live.

Stay tuned!

Deep v. Shallow Living

Here is a question for you: How much work are you capable of doing in a day? By “work” I do not mean running errands or answering emails or such things. I mean creating value. So how much can you do?

According to Clark, Michelangelo carved marble faster than any man alive.  But Schama says that Rothko often would sit in a chair the whole day smoking cigarettes staring at a blank canvas. He only started painting when the vision was clear. Both were hard at work, even if they worked in different ways. Both had a vast capacity for work.

The average person ha a much lower capacity. We are easily distracted. Indeed, we crave distraction.  We fill up our calendars with appointments and meetings and deadlines. And then we have no time to work.

Of course, we could change. We know that we could do better. We even have resources to help us. And yet, we often do not.  But in a post career setting, understanding the happiness one gets from deep work is essential.

Putin and the New Stalemate with the West

Ed Walker is scared. Why? He writes

I believe Kremlin decision-makers when they tell us that they consider NATO’s eastern flank deployments, and NATO’s growing military cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland, are a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. (What matters here is not whether those beliefs are warranted, or what Russia did to provoke NATO’s deployments, but what Kremlin decision-makers believe.) I am likewise convinced that the Kremlin believes that its deteriorating security environment is the result of Western, particularly American, actions that are directed at establishing hegemony over Eurasia and at weakening, humiliating, and even destroying Russia.

Finally, it is not just the Russian elite that believes this. The Russian public does as well, which suggests that a change in leadership – which is in any case unlikely – would probably not produce much change in Russia’s strategic culture.

In light of these beliefs, Ed writes

I think the crisis in Russian-Western relations is very dangerous. While a direct NATO-Russia clash is unlikely, it is possible, and the consequences would be awful.

Writing from Tartu, I obviously have a bias here.  But I do take issue with some of Ed’s thinking. Ed leaves out that the rupture between Russia and the west that precipitated the sanctions regime is directly related to the unique set of events that took place in Ukraine a short while ago. The Ukrainian president — a Putin ally — was chased out of office by revolution. This was an extraordinary event. and it called for an extraordinary response from Mr. Putin. Why? Because it was a direct slap in the face of Mr. Putin himself. And Putin, who survives politically as a man who will not be slapped without a response, had to respond or appear weak.

Indeed, the key to understanding what is going on is that it has nothing to do with long term fears of NATO. It has everything to do with the fact that Mr. Putin and his cronies are riding a tiger. They must stay in power or lose what they gain from power. That was done in an earlier time by delivering prosperity (made possible by high oil prices). Providing prosperity has not been possible for a while and it is not possible now. Nor is it likely to become suddenly possible in the near term. When hopes of ongoing prosperity began to fade, Putin et al fell back on propaganda about Russian nationalism and exceptionalism to justify staying in power and hoped that they have made it unlikely that any credible political alternative could emerge.

Then the Ukraine thing blew up in their faces. They had to react, and they had to make their reaction look credible — that it was consistent with a coherent strategy. I emphasize that they had to make the intervention seem as if it were part of a bigger strategy or appear to have been caught off guard. But was it? I don’t think so. I think that they were caught off guard.

If I am right — and I believe that I am — the saber rattling in Moscow is at least in part, a ruse. Just enough to justify Putin’s claims of “la patrie en danger” but not too much to trigger a suicidal military confrontation. Consider as well that the events in Ukraine have demonstrated that Mr. Putin may be a bit muddle headed but that he is not a lunatic. He may have caused the insurgency in the east and kept it going, but he did not openly invade. That would have been lunacy and he didn’t do it. And as his strategic options narrowed, Putin has toned down the conflict. While things are far from normal, they are also not exploding into broader fighting, even though one could argue that key military objectives were not achieved.

Based on the above, my sense is that the risk of nuclear war has not ramped up as much as some analysts would argue. For sure, the the intensity of the game has changed. But it is essentially the same game that Putin et al have been playing for some time. That game is not based on historic fears of encirclement or grandiose visions of expansion. It is instead, political theater.

At the same time, I do agree with Ed on one point. Unless something dramatic happens in Russia , the current status quo is likely to remain for some time. We should accept it as we do bad weather. Giving in to Russia a little at a time is not likely to solve anything. Nor is trying to pursue some sort of grand deal. Why not? Because Putin et al need a low level conflict with the west to hold onto the reins of power. For the west, standing up to Russia is the only strategic option left. So let’s just do it and stop moaning about how scary Russian decision makers are. That is what they want us to believe.

Myths and Dangerous Myths

This will be a quickie as I will be attending a jubilee celebration all day followed by a dinner. What is that all about? My training partner, Marju Unt is celebrating her 25th year of running her training institute. Impressive!

Part of her success is based on a mythology. A good one. The mythology is about personal achievement. We believe deeply that we can become better people and that training can help us get there. This is a myth because our belief is stronger than the reality. Even if the real training that we get is not perfect, it is still good enough to sustain the belief. Myths work that way.

But they do not always work in a positive manner. They can be dangerous. And the last years have brought out an example of a very dangerous myth about American history. BTW; I was first exposed to this myth a long time ago — when I was a grad student in London. A young Harvard grad said at a dinner party in a rather pompous manner (that only recent Harvard grads think is cool) that the Civil War was not about slavery at all. It was about states rights. This young guy was not a southern apologist, but he felt that he was setting the record straight.

Well, he was not. The appropriate question is “states rights for what?” What did the southern states want to do that being in the Union might prevent them from doing? Of course, there is only one answer – owning slaves.

Lincoln understood that this myth would probably fester even if the North won the war. He understood that after the war was over, some would accuse him of starting the war. And he did all he could to be sure that as a factual matter, he did not start the war. Indeed, he did not.  And he did what he could to end the war without freeing the slaves. That was not because he liked slavery. It was because he understood that the transition from slavery would have to be made in the face of myths about it. The Civil War was not just a military campaign but a battle for the hearts and minds of future generations.

And here we are. The undertones from the debate that led to the Civil War rear their heads again. A brutal mass execution of blacks in the name of  white supremacy and the confederate flag. And Donald Trump’s ridiculous assertion that it is time to” make American great again”, Why was it not great? As Bob Cesca points out, the statement is vague enough for those who would say “Because we have had a black president” to wink and nod their heads.

I I am not sure how this will play out. The good news is that the above does not represent the majority view, or even close to it. The bad news is that one of the major political parties — ironically Lincoln’s party — seems to endorse the lie.  Will we be able to finally move on? It is an  open question and I am on the edge of my chair waiting to see what happens. Stay tuned.

Writing off the 70’s?

I went to university back in the 1970’s so this quote from the Atlantic caught my eye this morning

Since 1976, when Tom Wolfe branded the seventies as “the Me Decade,” Americans have tended to write off the era as a socially and politically barren time during which millions of people descended into mindless self-absorption. Standing in sharp contrast with the turbulent ‘60s, the ‘70s seem to have given rise to a popular repudiation of the high-minded spirit evident in the civil-rights, student, and anti-war movements.

The article goes on to discount that characterization, using the Bruce Springsteen story to bring out the complexities that were at work, especially for the working class.

Well, the truth is that I, for one, was pretty self-absorbed back then. And I was being schooled to be self-absorbed by gurus like Joe Campbell (who exhorted me to “find my bliss” — not to do what was good for society or others, but what I needed for me). And the media reinforced this sense with waves of entertainment about “who we are” – remember Annie Hall (1977)?

The seventies brought in a new standard for entertainment — the idea that we ourselves are entertaining in our silliness. And I would defend this type of entertainment. It was humanizing. So while Bruce did represent a heroic rejection of the more seedy aspects of poverty, I just don’t think his story represents the mainstream.

Should this be written off now? To the extent that it was escapist, perhaps it should. But in fact, it might have been less escapist than one might think. It embraced a certain reality of modern life. That real life is pretty funny without the bells and whistles of the stereotyped story lines we were fed back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The tough guy as hero mythology (John Wayne sort of thing) gave way to stories about success in as a real experience.

What do you think?

Wow! A Primer on Forgiveness

Over the past several days, I have deviated a bit from my normal posting. Normally I write about things that capture my attention and that I want to share. Sort of like starting a conversation. That is what “buzz” was supposed to be. The topics could be anything from images or restaurants or cars or history or people or opinions. But over the last several days, I have delved into some more serious stuff about cognition. And if you don’t like this, Ooops! Sorry!

But it is late August and late August is a great time to let the mind wander. To let the mind wander into areas that we don’t normally explore. And today, I had that experience. I read a pretty fascinating article by Megan Feldman Bettencourt about the physical effects of forgiving people. What is the big deal? This first idea floored me

The fact (is) that forgiving is a healthy resolution of the problems caused by injuries

We are talking here about physical injuries – like burns. I find this to be mind boggling. If you are skeptical, read the article for the evidence. And this is just the start. Forgiveness doesn’t just help heal a burn. It has powerful overall effects on the body and mind.

After reading this, I began to reflect a bit about people whom I know, who hold onto anger and people who do not. I began to see them in a different light –  in terms of their health. I began to think about myself as well. How much do I actively forgive? How much do I hold on to pain? I realized that I have not been as aware of these issues as I might.


Alan Turning’s Tragedy and More

The recent film, “The Imitation Game” offered some insights into the life and mind of one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century – Alan Turning.

The film may not have got the story exactly right, but it did get an essential element of the story right. Despite all that Turning had given to society — and perhaps because of what he gave —  he was treated brutally at the end of his life by a society that could not accept his sexual orientation.

The truth is that our history is loaded with examples like this. Society has rarely made significant efforts to protect let alone nurture folks who are considered “marginal”. Sir Kenneth Clark pointed out that it was not until Victorian England that a culture of compassion began to take shape at all. Dickens et al played a huge role in this. But the culture of compassion was not so well developed that it would protect outsiders like Oscar Wilde or Alan Turning or many others who would be dehumanized and obliterated.

Some letters written by Turning that have been recently published give us a glimpse into Turing’s emotional world and I think help to re-humanize him. Are they important? I think so. And I think so because they remind us that people need to be understood for who they are . not just who we think they should be.

Some might argue that we have come a long way in doing that. Certainly the recent US Supreme Court decision that recognizes gay marriage is a fundamental right evidences movement. But beyond this single issue, there is troubling ongoing evidence of a stubborn lack of human compassion. Consider how awful the scandals about police brutality have been over the last year or so starting with Ferguson. And the problem is much larger than just police brutality. The old “get tough on crime” political agenda in the US has led to the long term incarceration of a huge number of persons – disproportionately black and poor. And now we have dreadful rhetoric in the Republican presidential race de-humnaizing undocumented immigrants.

So while I do not want to rain on the parade, I would argue that progress in advancing a humanizing agenda — at least in the US — has been limited.  This status quo should not be accepted as normal. And I think history will frown on those who think that it is.


Thinking with Charlie Munger

Yesterday I did a rather long and perhaps confusing post on how to think. This is a pretty fascinating topic for me. I find the main point of the post to be especially fascinating — that we see things more clearly by focusing on small details rather than brooding on broad abstractions.. What you see in a tiny moment opens your eyes to eternity.

If this topic fascinates you as well, then you might take a look at a blog post on “25iq” about how legendary investor Charlie Munger thinks.

One thing in particular fascinates me about Munger. Charlie starts off by re-stating something we know very well, but usually fail to act upon — that humans really suck at understanding the future. Worse still, we think we are good at it but we are not. It is just not easy for us to do future thinking with the cognitive resources that are at our disposal.. For that reason, we need additional tools that enable us to anticipate the future. Charlie’s point is that these tools are mainly for minimizing the biases that our emotions impose on our view of the future — to be more rational about the future value of our choices. Consider this quote

The reality is that no one has a fully rational mindset. It would not be possible to get out of bed in the morning if every human decision had to be made based on careful expected value calculations. Heuristics have been developed by humans to get through a day which sometimes cause decisions to become irrational, especially in a modern world which is very unlike most of history.  In other words, no human is perfectly rational because everyone is impacted by emotional and psychological tendencies when making decisions. As a result, thinking rationally is a trained response. (emphasis added)

Perhaps this can be stated more simply. As we race into the future, the temptation is to try to hold on to everything we value now. Like packing enormous suitcases for a mountain climbing. This is poor strategy. Instead, it pays to recognize the bias to hold on for what it is and learn how to focus on what few things should be nurtured.  Doing that is enough to build a great life.