Saturday, December 29, 2012

Oh, the Old "Competitive Pay" Saw

I woke up very early this morning and had some quiet, quality time with my hard copy Wall Street Journal, Weekend Edition.

A story on the front page talked about the rise in college costs (specifically, this was all about U of Minnesota-Twin Cities).  The article pointed to the growth in non-teaching staff and other administrative bureaucracy as major culprits behind cost increases, which have galloped far beyond inflation but even beyond rises in health care costs.  Now that's a worthy benchmark!

I will keep this blog post short, and I won't wade into waters that I don't fully understand.  I don't know all the details about how much better -- or not better -- the Golden Gopher students are served by these extra staffers or other overhead.

What I do know, however, is that as I read, I was eagerly waiting a quote from some official offering a defense of certain high salaries via the "competitive with industry" canard.  U of M employs 353 people who make more than $200,000 per year.  The school's new President, who is introduced early and hailed throughout the article as a cost-cutter, is quoted towards the end of the article as saying his $610,000 salary "is competitive in the marketplace."  (His Chief of Staff, by the way, makes a sweet buck ninety-five).

Again, I won't presume to be an expert -- or even to have a clue -- about how to run the University of Minnesota.  One article, even a full-length WSJ feature -- doesn't change that.  I don't know which offices and staffs could be trimmed down.  I also won't talk about the work ethic of people I've never met (particularly in light of the past 7+ years which I've spent working for Uncle Sam).

But here's what I do know:  Government jobs, non-profit jobs, and university jobs are NOT comparable to private sector jobs in a simple apples-to-apples sort of way.  You can't simply say, "Well, the average Fortune 500 CEO makes [x], so therefore we should pay our "CEO" [y]."  And it works even less well once you start moving down the line.  

Yes, they're both leaders.  Yes, they're in charge of people, and yes there are significant pressures and stresses that come with Senior Executive positions anywhere.

But how often do you see people come from a solely government, non-profit, or university background STRAIGHT into the C-Suite of a Fortune 500 corporation?  Not that often, right?  Because the skill sets aren't directly transferable.  You could throw statistics out there that show the average Fortune 500 CEO making something near $13 million, which is way more than 20 times higher than the average University president, but that just doesn't mean much in and of itself.

Now, perhaps by "competitive in the marketplace" the guy was referring to the marketplace for University Presidents (average salary just shy of $500k).  Given that his University is one of the largest in the country, that would make way more sense.

I guess to tie it back to my original point, though, here's what I wanted to say with this entry: You often hear people in the government, non-profit, or university sectors defend high salaries with vague claims about 'private sector pay' or 'what they could make in industry.'  

The reality -- a VERY small number of people in the private sector make VERY high salaries.  Whether they deserve them is a question for another day.  There are lots more people in the private sector who make very quotidian salaries to work very hard.

If the people who earn incomes in the "very comfortable, but not quite 1 percent" range (say, between 150k and 400k) in those aforementioned sectors were to try to walk right in the door at State Street, or JP Morgan, or General Electric and think they could earn those sorts of salaries right away (excepting those with prior backgrounds in those areas), they might see the weakness in the sector-to-sector comparison argument).  

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Person of the Year Vote? Mayor Murphy

I just voted in this contest:  Lowell Sun's Person of the Year.

I voted for someone who represents a lot of what people say they want in a politician:  independence and originality of thought, ability to work with others when needed, and ability to tell others to put it [where the sun doesn't shine] when needed, too.

Probably no surprise that I voted for Patrick O. Murphy.

Oh, and MERRY CHRISTMAS from Market Street!  We're about to get going on a stockings-on-Christmas-Eve tradition, so time to close the laptop for the next day or so..

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gettin' Nonlethal With It..

Amidst all the hoopla, partisan wrangling, and attempts to jam square pegs into round holes, I heard what sounded like some pretty serious wheat coming out of the chaff via a Facebook post from Lowell blogger Renee Aste.

She raised the issue of non-lethal measures, which I'm surprised isn't being thrown around more in the post-Newtown debate.

I'll leave the specifics out of this post (can only justify so much procrastination today) BUT think about it...non-lethal measures can save the lives of would-be victims, avoid the problems of collateral damage and training requirements that come with the 'just arm everyone' solutions, and allow us to gain better insight into why these things happen (presuming here that the would-be shooter will survive until the cavalry can arrive and arrest him).

Some of the obvious non-lethals include things like Mace and Tasers, but there are way more interesting and sophisticated options that school security personnel could use.  With Mace and Tasers there are issues about stand-off (in other words, how do you get close enough to effectively use it without exposing yourself to too much risk?), but as I said, there's way more on the palette than just those.  Believe me, the US military is VERY interested in these sorts of things...

Many would serve a "just enough" sort of purpose -- they would incapacitate an aggressor "just enough" to keep things steady until a more heavy-handed response (i.e. law enforcement) was possible .  

Whuh Whuh What???

I just saw this blurb from an MIT Press Release (via the Office of Undergraduate Admission):
"Another change this year was the addition of an optional application question asking students to describe their sexual orientation and gender identity. MIT is now one of just a few schools to offer this question on its application; Elmhurst College, a private liberal-arts school near Chicago, became the first to do so last year."

Before I start to sound like just another straight white conservative mossback male, let me lay my creds on the line:  I fully believe in FULL equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.  I have been consistently in favor of DADT repeal and gay marriage for as long as I've written this blog.  If you read this blog, you already knew that, but I felt like I had to say it.

...And now that I have, I'm wondering, "What the heck is this?"  Why is this being asked of 16, 17, and 18 year-olds, who may not be sure of all this themselves? 

As a late bloomer with a sarcastic wit, I might've tried to answer this one cheekily: "Hopeful but frustrated."  Or perhaps, "Thinking about the girl in front of me in Physics class but wouldn't know what to do if push really came to shove."  "Living vicariously through the football team."

But before I get back to my day job (last final of Core is tomorrow...and the trial-by-fire semester will all be over in just 21 hours), I will try to get serious for a second.  How does a pimply, gangly kid with only vague concepts of 'this stuff' answer that?  The easy answer is just to leave it blank, as it is optional. 

But does that create a disadvantage?  Is some future clean energy scientist with 800s on her board scores, but without the 'crazy weekend at Smith' story now less 'competitive' than someone with 750s but some precociously bi-curious tendencies?

Furthermore, will some applicants try to 'game' this question?  Is it better to say that I'm into girls (can't help it, I really was just born that way) but that I'm an unequivocal "Straight Ally?"  That seems better than leaving it completely blank, right?  Should I wax eloquent about the gender spectrum?  Or should I go even further and hint that something that might not even be true in the first place but could help put my application in a certain pile OTHER than the one for the plain vanilla people from upper middle-class public high schools?  Then, if called out on it afterwards, could I plausibly cite "confusion about budding sexuality at the time?"

I'm all about LGBT equality.  In fact, I'm SO MUCH in favor of LGBT equality that I think MIT could best practice it by eliminating this question from all future applications.

Monday, December 17, 2012

So What's the What's the What's the...Scenario?

I recently posted on about how I was tired of the bumper sticker-isms flying around.  I noted that none of the people bombarding the airwaves imploring people to "do something"  had articulated a "something" that would've prevented the recent massacre, and that I had nothing to offer, either.

I take that last part back...sort of. 

One thing you really can do -- and should do -- is take 5-10 minutes to talk with your co-workers about a ROC (Rehearsal on Contact) drill you can have ready in case of a Live Shooter scenario unfolding.  If you work in a government office place -- particularly one with easy street access -- this concept is particularly relevant.

I'll leave the details to you and the specifics of your situation but I can tell you that huddling up defenselessly in the corner is probably NOT your best option.  Based on pattern analysis, you can  surmise that there is almost always a single shooter in these scenarios.  Make that assumption part of your ROC drill. 

Do you work on the 1st or 2nd floor near a window?  If you do, I would HIGHLY recommend that you consider a window egress as your first and best option.  If you are sure the shooter is inside the building, crouching behind most objects is not going to provide you with adequate cover.

You might know that the quickest way to end a firefight is to return fire.  However, I will assume you are unarmed (and don't recommend you modify that posture).  Something you might not know is that an effective way to gird yourself against certain "out in the open" threats (i.e. snipers) is to constantly remain in motion.  A tenet of urban patrolling is just to never stay too still in any one place for too long -- you don't know if someone is drawing a bead.

If it's a "crazy guy with a rifle from an elevated vantage point" scenario, keep good cover if you have it; otherwise, RUN.  Don't lay down in the open.  Don't think an object like a regular automobile is going to stop a bullet.  If the shooter is inside the building, and you've successfully made it out, don't be a hero -- RUN.  Don't stop anytime soon.

If exiting is simply not a viable option, you should know that the Live Shooter is going to be most vulnerable during a magazine reload.  Of course, it's preferable to wait until police arrive, but if you are truly cornered, and it comes down to being a sitting duck or taking a chance, this is when you would do it, particularly if you have a size advantage.  (This is how many lives were saved in Springfield, OR in a high school cafeteria in 1998...wrestlers took the kid down...he begged them to shoot him...they didn't, but held him until police arrived).

The odds are strong that none of this will ever apply to any of us.  But the 5-10 minutes you take going over this basic ROC drill might give you some peace of mind..and if, God forbid, something like this did unfold, you would be far more confident if you had a plan to fall back on.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Analogy I Wish I'd Used

Two entries ago, I talked about the at-first-blush unconventional advice a friend had given for new business founders:  don't spend too much time around other entrepreneurs.  Of course, 'too much' leaves plenty of room for interpretation and subjectivity, but his general point was that with limited time, it's better to use it to a) actually build your business, and b) talk to your actual or prospective customers, rather than c) go to the nightly founder networking night events in Boston.

Of course, balance is what makes sense -- some of that stuff is really useful.

Anyway, here's the analogy I shoulda coulda woulda used in that entry:  a band.   I know virtually nothing about how anyone promotes a band for either live gigs or recording contracts, but I think this analogy will hold some water, just based on general principle.  Here goes:  Let's say you and your friends are trying to start a band.  You guys think you have the special sauce needed to be awesome.  Whether it's the uniqueness of your sound, the soul with which you play, or something about the way you look, interact with the crowd, etc. you think you've got something that could "blow up."

How should you test your hypothesis?  

It stands to reason that you would start out playing in front of small crowds to gauge the reaction from the audience and the management.  See if you get asked back.  See if you can go bigger.  See who notices you, etc.  If you're trying to get a recording deal, well, then put your demo together and try to get some time to borrow the ear of whoever makes that decision.

What should you probably NOT spend most of your time focusing on? 

Other musicians.  Think about it -- not only are they not your audience, but they're trying to do what you're doing (even if there's no 'market overlap' and no direct sense of competition).  Add it up, and you're way more likely to hear stuff that's steeped in negatives, rather than honest feedback or encouragement.  Obviously, there's a lot you can learn from someone who's been around the block a time or two before you got there.  And obviously, it seems wise to wear whatever shoe fits.

However, there is a point at which that value tapers off, and maybe even starts to curve downward.

That's why there's no substitute for the most honest form of feedback -- are people willing to pony up their dollars in exchange for whatever you're offering?

Critics will criticize, Thomases will doubt, and armchair know-it-alls will, well, know-it-all.  Great.  And dogs will bark while cats meow.  Got it. None of that should surprise anyone.

But separate from all of that, a band that draws a big following, much like a business that draws real live customers, is doing something right.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Psy's Rights, My Rights

If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you might want to skip this one.

This is going to be one of those recurring entry themes -- since the subject is the recent revelations about inflammatory remarks made several years ago by the Korean rapper Psy, you might already know what I'm about to say.

If not, here goes:  Psy absolutely has the right to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  He spoke out against the US military presence in Korea at a time when tensions were very high (following the accidental deaths of two Korean schoolgirls from a US military vehicle).  At the time, anti-US feelings were strong around the world due to the invasion of Iraq...and feelings in Korea were particularly intense given the kidnapping of a Korean citizen in Iraq.

His words were rather strong.  He advocated the death of US soldiers and their families (specifically, wives, daughters, and mothers).  Whether he "just" meant the US soldiers responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses, or US soldiers in general, does not seem entirely clear.  Regardless, I know what I need to know about whether I will ever consciously support Psy (by watching his videos, paying to see him perform, wearing anything associated w/him, etc.)


I will respect Psy's right to speak his feelings through songs.  That is probably one of the oldest forms of human expression, and it should never go away.  There are very few places in the world where that right does not exist [and yes, I will point out that one of them happens to be a place where many US soldiers perished in the early 1950s while fighting Communism].

I hope his supporters can understand that my decision to never listen to Psy's music, to never support him financially, and to never see him in the same light again is just another side of that same coin.

Freedoms of speech, thought, and expression should mean what they sound like.  None of those freedoms are jeopardized when people disagree with the words or thoughts of others...but they ARE when people want to arbitrarily decide where the line gets drawn, and where disagreement stops being okay.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One Entrepreneur's Not-So-Off-The-Wall Advice

As you know, I'm a sucker for anything that sounds counterintuitive at first, but then seems obvious later in a palm-slapping-the-forehead sort of way.

My buddy, who is the CEO of a company based in Allston (but who shall remain nameless for this entry), said this over coffee the other day: "The biggest thing I'd tell anyone who is about to start, or who just started a business, is not to spend too much time around other entrepreneurs."  

I gave him my puzzled look.  Yeah, but isn't all the conventional wisdom about how you should be constantly networking, constantly learning about best practices, staying looped into the "ecosystem?"

"Sort of," he replied.  "Some of that is worthwhile.  But it's almost never a better use of time than talking to your actual customers and building your business."  He went on to say that many people lose sight of this -- they become obsessed with the start-up "scene" and completely ignore the fact that businesses are, at their core, all about dollars being transacted.  He added that the start-up scene is like any scene -- it has its own insular lingo, faddish concepts, groupthink, etc.  There's a big obsession with homeruns as opposed to solid hits:  if you're pitching something that involves a) mobile devices, b) the cloud, c) the developing world, and d) scalability, then many will think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You could stand up and say, "I'm going to bring streaming educational software to Uganda through a scalable app that tracks student progress with a proprietary algorithm," and people might line up to buy you drinks and shake your hand.

But guess what?  Unless you can somehow monetize that, it's less of a quality business idea than that of someone down the street with half your formal education who thinks he knows a great place where a car wash could go.

That second guy might not use all the right buzzwords, and he may not know or care about mobile user interfaces for orphanage locator apps in Burma, but if he can get the attention of people with dirty cars who seek clean cars, he will be in business.

He went on to explain that other entrepreneurs are more likely to act like restaurant critics than kitchen line staff when they hear about what you're doing...makes sense, right?

He wasn't pooh-poohing the idea the CEO-to-CEO networking.  I'm not trying to, either.  Everything in its place, and to everything, a season.

It's just that the execution side of things -- the moment in which someone says, "I would rather have [that service or product] than [this money in my hand or account]" is where business actually happens.  

Amidst a lot of jargon and buzzwords, people can lose sight of that.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Help Schoolchildren in Colombia...From Right Here in Lowell

Via Beatriz Sierra:

I am here again asking for your collaboration in helping the boys and girls of the school Centro Rural Corcovado of Titiribi, Antioquia, Colombia.
Friday, December 7th, will be our annual event- Viejoteca 2012. It will help raise funds for this cause in which 100% of the proceeds will be used to help buy the children’s school utensils for the 2013 school year.
If you are not much of a dancer, come anyways and bring friends, enjoy good music and a few drinks. By attending the event you are helping many young boys and girls stay in school and continue learning.
To watch the video of the children receiving the school utensils for the 2012 school year, click the following link:

Place: La Pradera - 1717 Middlesex St, Lowell MA
Time:  8:00 p.m to 2:00 a.m
Price:   $10 dollars  
Date:  Friday, December 7th

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bring Yer Food to Room 50...See the Pats Squish the Fish

Starting on Monday December 3, every pound of non-perishable food you bring to the Mayor’s Office (Room 50 on the 2nd Floor of City Hall) will earn you a raffle ticket entering you into a drawing for two tickets to the New England Patriots/Miami Dolphins game on Sunday December 30 at 1 p.m.

All food collected will be donated to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. Items needed include: Peanut butter and jelly, canned tuna and chicken, pasta, rice, soups and stews, macaroni and cheese and canned ravioli, bottled juice and juice boxes, canned veggies and canned fruit.

When you do your grocery shopping pick up a few extra items to fill someone else’s belly this holiday season and you may just find yourself at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 30.

Food will be collected until 4 p.m. on Thursday December 13. The winner will be announced at the Mayor’s Holiday Reception that evening from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Mayor’s Reception Room.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Agreeableness? Sure, I'll Have Some of That...

Imagine, if you will, that you're setting up a room for an event that will be catered.  Your answers are in italics.

A co-worker says, "Let's put the drinks on the left side of the room, and the food right nearby there, over towards the window." 

"Sure, sounds good."  

The co-worker: "On second thought, the drinks should probably go closer to the window, but the food would be better off tucked over on the table to the left."  

"Okay, that works."  

Again, co-worker: "You know, I think it would be easier if people could access the food and drinks together.  Let's put them both on the table in the far corner on the right."

"Yeah, we could do that."  

By this point, the co-worker might say, "Well, what is it that you REALLY think?  You were fine with all of the options, but I can't tell which one you think is best.  You're just agreeing with whatever I say!"  [The implication is that you're just 'going along to get along' or being passive-aggressive.  How, otherwise, could you be okay with the drinks being on the left side or the right side?].  

If I had to listen to a transcript of the conversation above, here is how I would interpret the italicized responses: The person doesn't really have a dog in the fight, and is trying to be cooperative and help move the chains ten yards down the field.  Period.  

Sometimes when someone is being "agreeable," even though that might have a bad connotation to some, it's really just that simple:  when the matter at hand is deemed to be inconsequential, it's not that the person responding doesn't care or isn't listening.  It's that he or she doesn't see any real difference between the alternatives.  What's the best way forward in those situations?  In my opinion, it's whatever it takes to help get that proverbial first down.  If someone says paint the wall white, then YES! Let's whitewash it.  But now they're leaning green?  Let's break out the Forest primer!  If it's just arbitrary to me, then yes, I am going to be *with* whatever is going to get it done. Especially if the alternative is a lot of truly worthless dithering...think back to the example of the story about the donkey who was hungry and thirsty, came upon food and water, couldn't decide which one he wanted more, pondered for days, and then died from starvation and thirst...don't be that ass!  

And that is what I REALLY think about being agreeable!  But if you disagree, I suppose I could see it from your perspective...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Very Quick LDNA Summary

Tonight's LDNA meeting had no formal agenda, but the LPD report and some related issues took us well past eight.  In the interests of time (my own, that is...I have to study non-linear optimization models and then wake up in a few hours without turning into a zombie), I will keep this short.

Sergeant Michael Giuffrida (LPD) led off with a crime summary for events downtown this month.  They included:

  • An unprovoked robbery/beating by 4-5 assailants against a single victim at Middle and Shattuck;
  • Disorderly conduct and vandalism incidents in the John/Paige/Lee areas;
  • An armed robbery of a female UML student near the ATM at Warren/Central;
  • A shoplifting incident at Kenner Shoe (189 Market);
  • Vehicle break-ins.  We were told that city-wide, the overwhelming majority (70 percent or so) of thefts from vehicles take place when the vehicle is left unlocked;
  • Recently, a man who was "not of sound mind" made quite a scene at Palmer and Middle.  LPD handled the situation and a drunken punching of a Centro patron simultaneously.  The LPD Captain present at the meeting credited the Thurs-Fri-Sat overtime force authorization, which is allowing LPD to quickly respond to incidents downtown.  He also emphasized that although petty crime incidents may appear higher in some categories, the activity itself is unchanged...but the response is swifter.  The Centro incident had a two-minute response time;
  • Incidents in the Kerouac Park/Mass Mills area have come down a bit because of the stronger LPD presence and because of the colder temperatures, which make youth less likely to congregate in the area;
  • An incident in which vandals were jumping on the roofs of cars (and causing serious damage to at least two cars) on Market Street.  Building residents were able to shoo the vandals away and get the license plate of the "getaway" car (details pending on this);
Henri Marchand, Asst. to the City Manager, was present on behalf of the city. Issues that came up included: scaffolding and poor lighting in the area between Canal Place I and Canal Place III; the status of the Victorian Gardens/Bacigalupo Park; downtown voting location alternatives (handicap accessibility to Masonic Center and proximity of political sign holders to building were mentioned by Craig Himmelberger); the Enel status update on the E. Merrimack Bridge (recently updated to LDNA site by Corey Sciuto); flood insurance policies being forced onto downtown condo owners; and some issues surrounding the crosswalk on Market Street near the Natty Park Visitors' Center.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Military Budget: Keep the Circumstance, But Let's Go Easy on the Pomp

We will hear quite a bit in the coming days about the defense budget.

Yes!  It is not comparable to those of other nations because of our unusually high personnel costs.

Yes!  It is not comparable to those of other nations because of the amount of government research and general programs that fall under DoD.

Yes!  It is not comparable to those of other nations because of our unique worldwide training engagement requirements and our role in sea lane protection.

So when someone starts off with, "Our DoD budget exceeds our nearest competitor by..." or plays sound bite bingo with "combined total" "other nations" and "surpasses" you can rein them in a bit.

But...that doesn't change the fact that we're tremendously bloated and ripe for cuts.  Every time someone stands up and proposes specific cuts, the supporters of [insert name of program or department] will inevitably cry "But what about the troops?"  The people yelling that will likely be thinking about anything but the "troops" on whose behalf they cry.

Well, here's an area ripe for fixing:  General Officer Creep.  By using the term "Creep," I'm not referring to any particular General's behavior, but am instead adapting the way we say "Mission Creep" to refer to gradual expansions in a mission's scope that eventually lead it to grow to an unwieldy size.

We have more Flag Officers today (that's Generals and Admirals...rank O-7 and above) than we had in World War II.  That statistic is really all you need to know.  The ratio of Admirals to Ships in the Navy is the highest it has ever been (it's not quite 1:1, but it could conceivably get there if we contract the ship fleet further without pulling back on the # of Admirals).  If you look back at our last huge RIF (Reduction in Force), back in the early 1990s after Desert Storm, you can see that the combined number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines is much lower...but the number of Flag Officers has GROWN.

Why is this such a big deal?  Because it's not *just* about those Officers themselves.  Anytime an Officer with two or more stars on his collar breathes, there is a phalanx of OTHER servicemembers complimenting him on the magical way he converts oxygen to carbon dioxide...and how he makes it look so natural and easy.  One General's salary isn't going to make your eyes pop out (base pay could be in the range of 10k to 12k per month) but when you start adding up all the accoutrements and then you add up the pay and benefits of the dedicated staff, you can start to see the size of the problem.  If we can get rid of that Flag billet, we can repurpose those enlisted folks and mid-grade officers in another direction.

Don't be deceived by the people who say that any cuts to our military budget will weaken our national defense posture or hurt the troops.

Any honest assessment of our defense spending has to begin with this statement:  For all its wonderful attributes and capabilities (and they are legion), the force is way too top-heavy.

Gates had the guts to say it, but he already had an eye on the exit door when he did.

Can Leon Panetta (or whoever might be about to replace him) muster up that same courage?  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Name Changes and the Future

Several years ago, Google's then-CEO Eric Schmidt said that in the future, name changes would become much more common.  


Because of the Internet's long memory, that's why.  Changing your name is never going to let you *really* escape from things like the law, the Social Security Administration, and the IRS, but it will offer you the opportunity to escape from amateur-level Google searches by people who might want to learn about you.  The reasons for a name change could range anywhere from someone's desire for greater *uniqueness* in search results, to embarrassment over youthful high jinks, to actual attempts to mask previous criminal behavior.

Thankfully, Jeffrey Curley's killers, including the one featured as the protagonist in this article, received life sentences (though this guy does have parole eligibility fairly soon).  The article caught my eye because this convicted murderer is attempting to change his name, and Curley's father is working to stop it from happening.

The ostensible reason for the name change is because of his affiliation with Wiccanism, but part of me wonders whether it might have anything to do with whether he thinks he'll someday be paroled, and how his current name carries the stigma of the truly heinous act he committed in the late 1990s (and of course the now-public connection between his desired name and his real name means that any future searches for the new name will tie right back to the slaying).   

Regardless, expect to see more stories like this in the years to come.  As Eric Schmidt predicted, expect more interest in name changes; in turn, expect a backlash from those with reasons to oppose the desired changes.  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Game Theory as Laughing Matter?

I met up with a buddy named Justin on Saturday who has been pursuing a career in stand-up comedy for the past ten years.  He truly started from the bottom -- amateur nights with homeless comedians in San Francisco, and performances everywhere from laundromats to frat houses to hole-in-the-wall coffee shops.  Now, he "gives them a stand-up routine in LA" (h/t to Billy Joel) but also spends much of the year on the road, traveling around the nation's college campuses to tell jokes, and earning a comfortable living in the process.

I asked him a few general questions about "the industry," and he shared a few observations.  One that he hit on right away is that many young, upwardly-ambitious comedians maintain an obsession with creating "something that will go viral."  They might not be sure what it is, whether it would fit their style, or whether it would even be funny, but they know they want to become a big name -- quickly -- and see some kind of viral video as the way to do it.  Oftentimes, that comes with an obsession of knocking some other comedian off of his or her perch in order to snag more popularity, or perceived zero-sum market share.

Instead of holding a single-minded focus on instant popularity, or on going after the competition, he has carved out a niche that lets him pay all his bills while doing something he loves.  And as to that last combination, how many people in ANY job can say that?

In Microeconomics, we've started to hit on Game Theory in the last couple weeks.  Throughout the Game Theory classes, our Professor has emphasized and re-emphasized a central point:  It's a junior varsity-level error in game theory, or in business, to obsessively focus on the competition.  When companies build pricing decisions solely on *getting one over* on the other guy, they get into self-destructive pricing wars that may bring about their own downfall.

What people forget is that the central purpose of a business is to make a profit.  If your business makes $5 million in annual profits, and another firm in your industry makes $10 million in annual profits, you're still making a profit.  By most people's definitions, you're still successful.

The parallel between pricing strategies and publicity strategies isn't really perfect, but I would say my buddy is a major success with a sound overall strategy.  As a one-man "business," he turns a tidy profit, even if he's not someone you've ever heard of [that could change, though...he's pitching a special on a major network].

I'm not saying competition doesn't matter.  It does.  It really matters when you consider over-saturated markets (i.e. freelance photography).  But it's a JV move to focus more on undercutting or destroying someone else than on building the basic fundamentals that will make you profitable.  Going off on a slight tangent, I would also posit that it's a JV move to respond to an entrepreneurial pitch with "But doesn't somebody already do this?"  Ceteris paribus, I'd be more worried about a start-up in a totally unpopulated industry than one in an existing field with a real live customer base [insert cliche about mousetrap quality].

In other words, if a beauty salon or Irish bar opened in downtown Lowell next to an underwater juggling studio, the latter concept would certainly be more original.  However, I would never bet on it against the salon or the bar, no matter what odds you gave me.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thinking Globe-ly, Living Lowell-y (Globe North Feature)

I picked up a Sunday Globe this morning at Brew'd, and my eyes got twice as big when I saw a picture taken on Market Street gracing the cover of Globe North.

This article about veterans and business features Glenn Morales of L & I (the military store that moved to Market from its old spot at Bridge & French).  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Downside of Unlimited E-mail Storage

Personal e-mail storage is mostly unlimited these days.

Back in the pre-Gmail era, most people had accounts with Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, or other major providers.  These accounts had pretty strict storage limits, so you had to either store your e-mails (and the information they contained) in a separate, "dummy" e-mail account, file them on your hard drive or an external device, or just delete them.  As a result, users would not have been able to keep very many personal photos or large .pdfs sitting around in their primary inboxes.

The advent of Gmail changed all of that.

Gmail tore the roof off in terms of storage capacity, and other commercial providers followed suit.

This is a MAJOR convenience for anyone who uses e-mail.  It means we can put sub-folder in our inbox to store e-mails that don't require immediate attention, but that we don't want to delete "just in case."

However, it completely changes the game in terms of the risks associated with an account breach.  It means there is virtually NO LIMIT on the amount of personal data or company data that could be left out in an "unauthorized access" event.  The FBI would be interested in a potential breach of the CIA Director's e-mail anyway, but the era of unlimited commercial storage accessible from anywhere just raises the degree of *care* that many notches higher.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Everything You Need to Know About American Politics....In One Graph

If you understand the graph here to the right, you basically grasp everything you really need to know about the Big Big Picture in American Politics.

No hyperbole intended.  

We can talk all day about specific policies -- Medicare, Social Security, defense spending, foreign policy, gay marriage, balanced budgets, capital gains taxation, hurricane readiness, or whatever other issue is on the current radar.  All those things are very important in and of themselves.

But let's get back to the graph:  A national "Winner Take All" Presidential system like the one we have in the U.S. is always going to do one particular thing:  it's going to push the national parties towards the middle.  

Why?  Because they're out to capture votes, that's why.  

A winner-take-all system doesn't lend itself to extremist parties finding their way into power, because it means that another party could capture the entire "rest" of the spectrum (remember, the first horse past the post takes the whole enchilada here).  If any party parked itself right along the Liberal or Conservative "hash marks" above, it would only capture voters at that point and further out towards the fringes.  

That's why some of the gloating editorials you're seeing today are so completely off-the-mark.  I read a particularly bad one in the NY Times at oh-dark-thirty this morning that implied the Republican Party O'White Male Dinosaurs is ready to just be taken out behind the barn and put out of its misery (never mind its 30+ governorships, several of which are held by people who aren't middle-aged white males).  

Some of the going "wisdom" suggests that demographics are going to morph the nation's political landscape into a long-term era of one-party rule.  [N.B. Any time you hear anyone heralding a coming period of 'long-term one-party rule,' you should be reasonably worried.  In case you need to know why, go stand at the corner of Branch and Coral, and ask anyone over the age of 30 how they feel about a single-party that knows what's best holding all the reins and not letting go].  

What this so-called "wisdom" ignores is that the pendulum will swing along with the demographic landscape. Inevitably, in order to capture votes, the national GOP will adopt policies that are popular across a wide range of the spectrum (look at what Clinton did so well in 1992 to break a 12-year GOP reign in the White House).  This will in turn attract new voters, and new leaders, which will eventually weaken the grip of identity politics on party affiliation in the U.S. 

In some particular states, there are factors that lead certain parties to dominate (i.e. Dems in MA legislature, Repubs in Wyoming, etc.)  However, the median voter theory basically means that many still govern from the center...(notice the prevalence of DINOs on Beacon Hill).  

Nationally, the party that can capture that proverbial Median Voter is going to win the day.  Sometimes that means parties will co-opt the other party's most popular ideas (look at Clinton, look at welfare reform, and look at how he sailed to victory in 1996).  When that happens, the co-opted idea essentially comes "off the table" because it stops being a wedge between the two sides.  

The Republican Party of 2042 isn't going to look or sound exactly like the Republican Party of 2012.  Ditto for the Democrats.  New allegiances will be made, new coalitions will be formed, and new leaders will be elected.  Voters who are currently ignored by both major parties will find themselves being courted by both major parties as the landscape shifts.  

So if you run into anyone today who is stocking up on champagne bottles, plastic top hats, and noisemakers in order to herald some coming era of a benevolent, utopian, one-party rulership, I would ask you to ask them to hold the phone on that celebration.  Should they come back at you with almanacs, statistical registers, and other forms of demographic "proof" that this is truly happening, I would start by presenting the median voter graph above, and then ask who anointed them to speak on behalf of such huge swathes of people who are apparently incapable of choosing between alternatives.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Three Quick Thoughts

Happy post-Election Day!

(1) I'm looking forward to seeing some in-depth post-mortem analysis of the Brown-Warren race.  Here's the big question I'm hoping to better understand: How much of this result centers around the candidates themselves?  Specifically, how many people who might otherwise have tipped to Brown were put off by the negativity of his campaign, the frequent 'put-downs' (i.e. the "I didn't need a GPS to get here" line that he pulled out at every campaign stop), and the candidate's positions and statements?  Then, how much of the result can *just* be attributed to the fact that it was a Presidential election year and the strong union support for Warren?

As others including Gerry Nutter have pointed out, the fact that Tierney still hung on and beat Tisei out on the North Shore helps point toward the latter explanation.  Still, I'd like to think the former matters, because then I'd have more faith in the electorate.  In the end, I still voted for Brown...but after having had the chance to meet both of them in Lowell in one-on-one settings, I blogged here on this site to say that the whole "Brown is a man of the people" and "Warren is an elitist out-of-touch academic" was completely turned on its head for me.

(2) Seeing the diversity last night at the Masonic Center (my polling place) was awesome.  It spanned huge differences in terms of age, ethnicity, appearance, language, etc.  It is my hope that the election and re-election of President Obama -- someone 'other' than a middle-aged white male, helps increase the sense of 'buy-in' that many Americans who might otherwise be disengaged feel toward the political process.  One of the most disheartening things I heard in the run-up to the 2008 vote was that "they won't let him win," with the 'they' referring to a small, mysterious cabal of WASP males pulling all the nation's strings, and the 'him' referring to then-Senator Obama.  Then Obama surprised them all -- he won.  In the run-up to this election, I heard a lot of chatter about 'the difficulty of re-electing a black President.'  (Aside:  Has anyone considered the difficulty of re-electing ANY President?)  For the second straight time, Obama then went and defeated a wealthy, middle-aged, Protestant white male.

It's one thing to say "the system isn't rigged, I swear!" to people who are stuck on the outside while you're perched up on a balcony inside.  It's quite another to be able to show that, and then take the wind from the sails of the racists on both sides of the aisle (the right-wing fear-mongerers and demagogues who make a living trying to scare people into keeping others out, and the left-wing fear-mongerers and demagogues whose living depends on a huge group of people believing they are not really allowed to participate in the system).

The Obama re-election undercuts both of those groups of people in a way that I love.  Once all of the major voting groups feel like true stakeholders, we'll be much closer to eventually seeing a system in which monolithic group voting patterns are broken, and those same people aren't taken for granted anymore.  
That has huge implications for both major parties, and for the whole country, and I love it.

(3) The last time we had a marijuana-related ballot initiative, there was a lot of Chicken Little-ism immediately before and after the vote.  Still, life went on across the Commonwealth, pretty much the same as it did before (minus all the time and energy spent treating small-time marijuana possession as a criminal offense).  Here, again, there were a lot of dire warnings...and yet again, the people spoke to the contrary.  Many of the same nonsense arguments (the 'marijuana is bad because it is illegal so should therefore stay illegal' tautology) and the old 'gateway' standby (how many Ph.D's do you know who didn't finish 12th grade, eh?  Motorcycle riders who started with two-wheeled bicycles?) were brought out, but the crowd spoke.  Loudly.  I am predicting a sky that will remain fixed in the firmament much as before, save for the perspective of some suffering glaucoma patients or maybe chemotherapy patients in need of 'appetite stimulus.'  They might see some relief. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Concrete Advice? Trying Staying Mum

I have come to learn that guest lectures from CEOs and other VIPs are often a waste of time.  Even though the people speaking may be incredibly interesting, and their jobs may be incredibly interesting, they sometimes succumb to the temptation of getting bogged down in platitudes (i.e. Always maintain integrity, stay flexible, keep a global outlook, etc.)  The worthlessness of these sayings can be proven by asking whether their opposites would ever make sense in a speech (i.e. Sometimes integrity needs to go out the window, be rigid and unyielding, view the world through a soda straw, etc.)

If they spoke in a frank way, and offered real "lessons learned" (i.e. lessons they found out about the hard way, after making major screw-ups) the speeches might be more interesting.  The problem is, when you have  $180 billion on your balance sheet, and another several trillion (with a t!) in custodial assets, maybe you don't feel the need to speak off-the-cuff 'just cuz' for a bunch of inquisitive late twenty- and early thirty-somethings.

Fair enough.

One useful lesson I've learned along the way is be extremely careful about saying anything remotely negative regarding others.  The basic supporting reasons are that good things you say tend to be 'lost in the sauce' whereas bad things tend to be repeated, that people often feel betrayed when they hear such criticisms through a third-party, and that your personal feelings about someone might change, but the 'out loud' comments you made are essentially frozen in time.

That last point is extremely important -- hence the italics.  If I'm angry about Person A today, and I go vent to Person B, that might be the only frame of reference that Person B has about my relationship with Person A.  My relationship with Person A might be very complex, however.  Weeks, months, or even years down the line, Person B could potentially poison the well by simply repeating something that was said in a context he or she never initially understood.

You could use other examples -- you get a bad first impression, you share that opinion...but YOUR impression evolves for the better over the course of time.  The problem is, unless you went back and covered your tracks, whatever you said initially is all that anyone heard at first.  If you make a habit of not saying bad things about people to begin with, you never have to worry about covering your tracks, or about who said what, etc.

You could do endless twists on this, but you get the idea.  To tie this entry up, I will explain that I think extreme caution is also needed whenever you are asked/forced to provide some sort of mandatory feedback that includes a 'constructive' or 'corrective' component...especially to peers or superiors.

My "Core Team" has to do an Intra-Team feedback session on Thursday, and let's just say I'm not looking forward to it.  After that initial hiccup (I tried to get some things clarified/organized, there was some pushback, I retreated to my shell) things have really smoothed out and gotten better.  I have actually kind of enjoyed my subdued's more of a learning opportunity, anyway.

If you really forced me, I could probably recall some occasions when people dropped the ball on something, or knocked down a suggestion without offering a better alternative, didn't listen clearly before offering a dissenting view, etc.  But that could be pretty obnoxious.  I wouldn't want to go through life having people critique me for specific incidents that occurred in the past, so I'm not going to do that in this situation.  Instead, I'm going to opt for much blander, more general themes (i.e. 'you could show more enthusiasm in presentations' or 'you could participate more in class').

I would do the same thing, willy nilly, if someone stopped me 'cold' and said something like, "I'm soliciting feedback about myself, and I want you to identify something that I need to work on."

If that comes off to you as being phony or disingenuous, I'll go ahead and accept the charge.  Seriously.  I'd rather plead guilty to possession of an ounce of conflict avoidance than have to deal with a pound of strife and hurt feelings for weeks afterwards.

Why am I so cynical about constructive feedback?

Because it's subject to the one of the purest Catch-22s out there:  The people who would be most receptive to it are the ones who need it the least, and vice versa.  

The world around us is constantly providing feedback -- some people can instinctively separate the signal from the noise, and really listen.  Others, not so much.  Anyone who takes it upon himself or herself to 'educate' or 'enlighten' the latter group is in for a long, uphill slog.  And a very lonely existence.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricanes and Climate? Data, Shmata

I am going to paste in a response I just posted on Facebook to a buddy I haven't seen in a while. I'm giving no context, but you'll figure it out:

Ben: To your first point, well said. I will answer those questions, provide links, and then tap the proverbial mat (but pls respond back if you'd like). To both of our credit, we've already broken the Unwritten Rule of Internet Debating (by going a full round of back-and-forth without either of us resorting to an ad hominem or straw man teardown of what the other person is saying). From Roger Pielke, Environmental Science Prof at UC-Boulder: "While it's hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane "drought." The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century." From NOAA's National Hurricane Center (dated to the mid-1990s, but longitudinal data is still relevant: "In summary, contrary to many expectations that globally tropical cyclones may be becoming more frequent and/or more intense due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, regionally the Atlantic basin has in recent decades seen a significant trend of fewer intense hurricanes and weaker cyclones overall. In addition, the maximum intensity reached in each year has shown no appreciable change." As for dollar-value-as-proxy, in some areas like Florida, in-migration and coastal buildup account for big changes in the value of whatever would be in a hurricane's path. From Pielke: "There are more people and more wealth in harm's way. Partly this is due to local land-use policies, partly to incentives such as government-subsidized insurance, but mostly to the simple fact that people like being on the coast and near rivers." For population-stable areas like greater NYC, it's less about in-migration than it is about land and property value. [sound of hand tapping a mat] If you are ever in Boston and have some time, drop me a would be great to catch up.

So that's what I said.  I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not (i.e. climate expert).  I also won't deny that man-made activity can make storms worse (how much of Katrina's impact could've been blunted if all those wetlands had still been there?) BUT for all the people who are spouting off about "increased frequency and strength" of hurricanes, there are some pesky facts that could get in their way.

My late great boss Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to love to say, "Everyone is entitled to his opinion.  But everyone is not entitled to his facts."

Should we be concerned about greenhouse gases?  Yes.  Should we worry about beach erosion?  Of course.  Do human actions impact the world around us?  All the time.

Sandy was a terrible storm.  So were Carol, Hazel, and Diane, all of which hit the East Coast between 1954 and 1955...and would've caused twice as much damage than Sandy had they hit today.  So when you hear someone yapping today about "The New Normal" in reference to bad storms along the U.S. East Coast, you might consider stopping and asking if he or she prefers the Old Normal.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So Why the Big Pivot?

As I've written about in this here blog before, I started b-school with some entrepreneurial thoughts.    

Specifically, those thoughts spring from a basic observation:  The way people live, share information, and connect with others has shifted from analog to digital way faster than our society has learned to understand or manage the change.  [If that sounded like a bunch of gobbledygook, or if it didn't but the monetization plan doesn't seem clear, don't worry...I will return to this concept ad nauseam in future entries].

Then I stared into the debt abyss and thought, "No way."  [I will break this down in a future entry, too, with a detailed explanation of how the post-9/11 GI Bill works].

Then I got swept up in the entrepreneurial culture and thought, "Way."  (h/t to "Wayne's World")

Founding a start-up can mean doing something I love, carving out my own path, and lots of other neat intrinsic benefits.  It also means either a) raising money through traditional routes, like venture capitalists, or b) bootstrapping -- getting the business off the ground while working on the side to earn just enough to break even on basic expenses.

Now that I've got a more complete picture of the landscape, neither of those options seems as daunting as it once did.  A wannabe entrepreneur who is really playing the cards right can pursue those options while still in school.

This Boston Magazine article by Chris Vogel doesn't hurt, either.  It gets to the heart of the Sloan environment and culture that fosters and promotes entrepreneurial pursuits.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

People...and Things

"If everyone demanded peace rather than another television set, then there'd be peace."  - Lennon

If you've read this blog for a while, there's nothing new coming with this entry, because I more or less write the same thing after each major natural disaster that consumes the national media beyond the time of its actual impact.

I care a lot about people.

I don't, however, care a lot about things.  In fact, that's putting it very mildly.  If I were to really tell you what I think about things, it would probably require some rather graphic language that I don't typically use on this blog.

If someone you love -- a friend, a relative, or anyone else -- died as a result of Sandy, that is a terrible tragedy.  I know what it means to lose people, just as you do, and I empathize.

But the panorama shots of the flooded out houses near the Jersey Shore, or the cars floating around in Lower Manhattan, just aren't enough to sustain me.  Seriously.  I can skip all that stuff for the new Netanyahu-Lieberman government, the Hillary Clinton visit to Algeria, or even the economic slowdown in India.  I can read those stories and maybe just maybe learn something.

Someone in Point Pleasant or Seaside might have some flooding in their house.  All those things are replaceable.  Those homeowners are almost certainly insured.  And even the "irreplaceables" (i.e. old wedding photos, 8mm of the kids' first steps, family heirlooms, etc.) are really just things when you get down to it.

I have all the time, energy, and interest in the world for people.  I will continue to think about and pray for the people whose lives are still hanging in the balance due to the storm.  I learned today that a Sloanie (Class of '13) just passed away.  I have no idea what the cause was. I did not know her at all, but already have (and will continue to) think and care more about her than I will about all the stuff that was damaged or broken in this storm -- or any other future storm or natural disaster I will hear about, ever.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Thousand Words, Sure. Thousands of Dollars? That, Too.

It's an old truism that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Well how about several tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars?  The picture you see here to the right is the result of Sandy-inspired hysteria at a supermarket in the American Northeast (I'm not sure of the exact location...I snagged it from a high school buddy's Facebook post).  What it shows me is that Pepperidge Farm Pumpkin Swirl Bread is being roundly rejected by shoppers at this supermarket.  So why is this picture so valuable?  It's because companies spend lots of money on focus groups, market surveys, and sample tests before they launch products.  And even after spending all that dough, they STILL sometimes don't get it right.  
Why not?
Because people aren't always honest about they way they respond to those things.  It's not that they're intentionally deceitful, but there's an inherent bias we have when we're asked about a theoretical idea (How would you like to take a cruise to Bermuda this winter?  What about a road trip to Niagara Falls and a Bills-Pats game?  Would you try a loaf of Pumpkin Swirl Bread?  Would you pay for a satellite radio subscription?) We sort of naturally just say "sure" to some of those questions because, well, why not? 
What we wacky consumers actually DO, though, is an entirely different story.  Trying to divine consumer buying habits in advance of real data is kind of like long-term weather forecasting, or thinking you have a system that's going to make you rich in betting on football games.                            
I acknowledge there are 3-4 loaves of something at the bottom of the shelf -- not sure what that is.  But any supermarket retailer knows that the eye-level and arm's reach stuff is what's going to move first. If there were just onesies and twosies of several other brand loaves on the shelves, this picture wouldn't be saying nearly as much.  However, the COMPLETE emptiness around the Pumpkin Swirl shows that whatever consumers came AFTER those other brands sold out preferred to risk going without bread rather than buying Pumpkin Swirl. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Well Is It? Or Isn't It? I'm Shrugging My Shoulders

I caught an interesting Facebook exchange today involving several mutual friends and acquaintances that went something like this:

"University of Florida is considering charging more tuition [or giving fewer scholarships] for less 'lucrative' majors." 

"Whoa, that's terrible."

"An appalling shame."  [x2]

"But is it really?  If taxpayers are footing the bill, maybe this stuff matters."  

I am badly paraphrasing here.  The commenter who offered the opposing viewpoint brought up several interesting thoughts to support what he was saying (he was ultimately middle-of-the-road but was the only one of the four people involved to even concede any ground on whether this was the 'right' thing to do).

I've seen a lot in print and in the media in the past several years about the so-called "Higher Ed Bubble."  Obviously, I'm in a tricky position to start opining about this, because if I veer too far in either direction, I could be tarred pretty quickly with the 'hypocrite' brush (for starters, I'm 32 years old and a full-time student, which certainly raises some eyebrows at times).

One thing that has NOT changed is my skepticism -- which borders on something closer to hostility -- towards highly-successful people with multiple degrees who go around opining that "college isn't really worth it" for other people.  Peter Thiel is a case in point.  He is a gazillionaire who actually pays talented young people not to attend college, but has a B.A. and a J.D. from Stanford on his wall (and again, there's the bias thing coming in...but I'd like to think he learned a thing or two at the Farm...or at least thought it meant something to cross paths with the guys who would ultimately co-found PayPal -- they probably weren't hanging around at the public library in Menlo Park..but maybe Thiel is so rich that he can just write off all the cognitive dissonance going on there).

As Kad Barma says, quoting Ogden Nash, "People who have what they want are fond of telling others that they don't really want it."  If you're a huge fan of that quote -- as I am -- you should get in the habit of throwing a yellow flag onto the field every time you see it unfolding in practice.

And of course it's bigger than just Peter Thiel.  Plenty of journalists and other talking heads have raised this issue lately.

Although I disagree with them about the value of a Bachelor's Degree (just look at how much tougher the job market is for those without that education level), I would concede some ground as it relates to certain post-grad programs.

If we're going to define a 'bubble' as a situation in which the price of something spirals upward far beyond its value (and we'll define 'value' in the way that omniscient beneficiaries of hindsight would define it after the fact), I think that REALLY does apply to some programs.

I bumped into a buddy last week who is working towards a Certificate program at UML.  Just to be enrolled in one class this semester, he pays full freight on student fees.  Those fees, plus that class tuition, add up to nearly $2k out of pocket.  Bear in mind, that's not for some advanced computer programming thing that's going to translate into big bucks on the back end...this is for something very social science-y (and I'm not naming the Dept. only to respect/maintain some anonymity here).

With the explosion of online degree programs, there are increasing opportunities to enroll in programs in some pretty squishy areas that don't seem, IMHO, to make most of their graduates *more* employable.  Only if we blindly buy into the idea that "education is good, so more education must be better" would some of these make any sense.  When a third-party payer (such as Uncle Sam, in the case of many veterans) is picking up the tab, the economics can get pretty distorted, pretty quickly.

The ultimate "Are you a big fat stinking hypocrite" test should probably be "Would you apply what you're saying to your own kid?"  (Oh, and I have a big hunch that a lot of these op-ed people who are spouting the 'just forego the Bachelor's' drivel would never accept that standard for Madison and Aidan).

But back to the standard:  I hope that within the next 16 years I am able to earn/save enough money to be able to support the lion's share of my daughter's undergrad costs wherever those might be incurred, regardless of major or program.  Even if I can't do it 'out of pocket' I will still bear that cost through my own loans, home equity, or whatever other source.

However, post-grad is a different ballgame.  A top-50 law or business program?  I'll support it if I can.  Med school?  To the best degree possible.  A Ph.D. program?  I'm here for ya.

Where I would start to draw the line, though, is when it's "school...just because."  If it's a substitute for looking for a job, or a time-holder because of a lack of a job, or just a flight of fancy for some other reason, THEN I will join the chorus of the naysayers who question the value.

Terminal Master's Degrees in the Social Sciences and the Humanities?  Graduate "certificates" with hefty price tags?  An online Master's Degree in Social Media?

If there really is a bubble going on, those are the first places where I think you'd hear the *pop.*  I'm not expecting to hear it anytime soon, though:  First, because of the deeply ingrained American ideal that education is the path to upward mobility/more is automatically better than less/etc. and second, because many of the policymakers in a position to speak out on this risk sounding like elitist hypocrite a-holes.  

Just look at the current contentious rhetorical climate:  Romney, a man who holds an MBA and JD from Harvard, of all places, and Brown, holder of a B.A. from Tufts and a J.D. from Boston College, have questioned the idea of a high-volume financial aid spigot that never shuts off.

In both cases, their opponents didn't waste the chance to pounce.

This is a thorny issue.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Congrats, Boys

I just heard some pretty awesome news:  RallyPoint just received 100k in MassChallenge.

Maybe somewhat ironically, since I just wrote here to complain about LinkedIn, I will mention that RallyPoint is designed to be a LinkedIn for the military (only much better).

For our Entrepreneurship & Innovation Team Project, we have to meet with start-up co-founders in the Boston area.  RallyPoint is the team we chose, and its co-founders, Yinon and Aaron, have graciously offered us their time and expertise on multiple occasions.

I am elated to hear this good news.

And now, good night.   

Et Tu, LinkedIn?

I was pretty excited to check my Yahoo inbox last week and see that a Lieutenant Commander I had worked with many moons ago had "endorsed me on LinkedIn."  I have a grand total of one LinkedIn endorsement* (plus a pending one from someone who I worked for last year...I just need to get on his case about it - gently), and it means a lot to me.  It's a paragraph long, it's heartfelt, and it could only come from someone who worked with me very closely in a very intense environment.

So when I checked my profile, I was eager to see what this Navy O-4 had written.  What I found was that it was...nothing.  LinkedIn has cheapened itself with the equivalent of Facebook "likes" in the sense that you can now mindlessly and effortlessly "endorse" people in area with a single, simple mouse click.

On my LinkedIn profile it now shows "Military," and "National Security."  Just that.  No explanatory bullet points or words, or anything to substantiate that.  Someone has taken the one second or so to officially acknowledge that I was indeed once serving on active duty in the military.  Then two other people who I don't even know from the military have seconded the notions, so to speak. 

I will admit that my LinkedIn profile could use quite a bit of touching up/fleshing out, but this is certainly not what I had in mind.

I feel like going back and "endorsing" the ability of people I know to magically turn oxygen into carbon dioxide.

* I had blurred the distinction but here it is.  A LinkedIn recommendation is where you can actually take the time to write something original and meaningful about a person you've collaborated with professionally.  An endorsement is the cheap-o equivalent of a Facebook "like" that means less than nothing.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What Founders Say, Continued

As I've written before, the most interesting and practically-applicable class I have this semester is called "Entrepreneurship & Innovation."  I take pretty detailed notes during class, and I particularly try to hone in on the common themes that I hear from startup founders.

The one that I wrote about previously concerns founders' agreements, and the one I want to quickly write about now is related to personnel. 

The relevant Lesson Learned basically boils down to this:   "You cannot 'fix' problem personnel who do not perform, do not fit with your organizational goals, organizational culture, etc.  Your ego may tell you otherwise:  it may say you're a great leader, a great motivator, a great coach, etc. and you can turn things around...but you can't.  Once you've finally exhausted all your other options and decided to fire someone, you're never going to look back and regret it.  In fact, your only regret may be that you didn't do it sooner."  

When I heard it the first couple times, I thought maybe someone was just trying to project their own unique experiences into something broader, but after hearing it nearly a dozen times, I'm listening extra closely when the subject arises.  For a cash-strapped startup built around a 'service' (as opposed to physical hardware) your personnel are likely your biggest cost.  Unlike a major public or private bureaucracy, you simply can't afford to keep 'dead weight' around breathing your air and burning your investors' cash.

If you take this advice to heart (as I do), it means that your hiring decisions are among the most critical.  And because resumes and interviews don't always tell the story, that's a whale of a challenge...and the subject of several future entries.

But back to the major lesson:  My own life experience informs a pretty similar opinion to what all these founders keep saying.  Generally speaking, a person who's happy at [insert name of place or organization] would be happy somewhere else.  Conversely, someone who is miserable at [insert name of place or organization] would be just as miserable elsewhere.

Two days ago, in fact, I caught up with a Division Officer at one of my old Navy commands.  I asked her about two sailors who used to report to me, and she basically summed up how they were performing -- high points along with the warts.  Guess what?  Nothing had really changed.  Time had moved forward, a new Officer was in charge...and you could keep changing those variables but getting similar results.

I don't think I'm any different.  My personality, work habits, traits, and foibles would be pretty much the same if you dropped me just about anywhere.  I bet yours would, too.  

Regal Passing: It's Complicated

You probably heard the news this week about the passing of King Sihanouk in Cambodia.

There will be a ceremony at City Hall Saturday morning at 9:30, which I plan to attend in order to listen, learn, and observe.  One thing I want to mention in the meantime is that there are a lot of intense feelings about King Sihanouk among Khmer-Americans living in Lowell, and not all of those feelings are warm and bubbly.  I asked my father-in-law about it this morning over the phone as I boarded the train...the conversation started in Lowell, ended in West Medford, and included maybe five or so words from my end.

I'm not schooled enough in Cambodian history to fully understand what King Sihanouk's life meant, what his decisions in the 1970s meant, or what his death means.

But I wanted to write this entry just to let people know there is a lot of sensitivity surrounding the subject.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mitt, Thanks for the Reminder

For the record, I am eagerly looking forward to voting very soon in two important elections.

For one, I will be voting for Sen. Scott Brown.

In the other major election, I will be writing in the name of a Yankee Republican who I greatly respect: "Clifford R. Krieger."

I am certainly not voting for the anti-business President, but I'm ALSO not voting for Mitt Romney.  As I write my Marketing report due tomorrow, I've got the debate going in the background.  I just had the pleasure of hearing Mitt Romney interrupt and talk over the moderator twice, to include a smarty-pants explanation of "the rules" during which he completely overrode her guidance and then spun into a long spiel as she was trying to regain control of the debate.

If he's got an image problem as a smug jerk, maybe 50 million Elvis fans aren't wrong this time.  Every time the President can stay quiet and let his opponent slam the ball into the net, he just looks better and better.  

MIT Graffiti

"Graffiti worth reading / Rarely is written / On walls that are worth writing on."  -- Barrett

This was too funny not to post.  A simple "don't leave your stuff alone, or it might walk away" public service announcement posted in the john turns into a debate about the computing power used by astronauts 40+ years ago, a critique of the relative sizes of the laptop and smart phone depicted on the poster, and then an accusation leveled against Apple.

As the token liberal arts guy, I could point out the way "gorilla" was incorrectly used by the guy who scrawled at the bottom, but I'm not quite sure how effective that would be.

The other day, someone who I barely know walked up to me and asked, "Hey, are you still doing investment banking recruiting?"

I was like, ""  In a friendly way, I pointed out that I was never on that track, so to speak [the question came from an international student, and I had (wrongly) assumed he mistook me for 'some other white American guy'].

When he then persisted a bit with that line of questioning, I asked what made him so sure I was, or had been, on the path towards bank recruiting.

"Oh, it's because I always see you carrying or reading the Wall Street Journal."  

Right away, I realized that he had correctly identified me, but I cringed a bit when I thought about what the whole encounter meant:  he didn't see that there might be any other reason why someone might be reading a daily newspaper.  Yikes.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cheating At Solitaire

"What gets measured, gets done."  - Anonymous

So it's officially midterm week now.  It's actually reduced op tempo for me, because a lot of our classes aren't being held this week...still, a walk through the main building (E-62) reveals even more students doing the "Sloanie Shuffle" with an oh-so-slight increase in the pace, staring just-so-slightly more intently into their Smartphones, with brows just a bit more furrowed.

I could probably stop to let them know that their idols like Gates, Buffett, Thiel, Zuckerberg, and Page (Larry, not me) don't bounce through their corridors like that...but I'm not sure I'd be able to get a word in edgewise (I'll save more observations of the 'Sloanie Shuffle' for a future entry).

Anyway, back to the midterms.  One of the things that theoretically takes a lot of the pressure and pain away from the whole ordeal is that MANY previous midterms are freely available on OpenCourseWare, and then many others are posted on an internal course website.

Given that the material doesn't change much year to year, this begs an important and obvious question: "Well then why doesn't everybody ace all the midterms?"

This was asked at one our recitations, and someone older and wiser explained it like this:  "Well, you've got three main culprits there.  First, some people just don't have time to study.  Whether it's from recruiting events, clubs, outside social distractions, or whatever, they don't prepare, and it shows.  Second, people study the wrong stuff.  Yes, studying the old midterms is the best way to do it, but some people will review unimportant chapters from the book, or cases from the course reader that we've told you would not appear on the test.  But third, there's a more interesting phenomenon that occurs when you put so much material out the way we could refer to it as the 'cheating at solitaire' effect.

Boiled down quickly, what he meant was this:  If you use the practice tests and answers in a way that challenges yourself (i.e. answer the questions first, then look at the answers, then retake...rinse and repeat, with time taken for dissection and understanding along the way), you're doing it right.  However, there's a natural and easy tendency to just sort of glance at the questions, then glance over at the answers and say to yourself, "Oh, okay...I got it."  That's what most people have a tendency to do.  It sort of makes sense, too -- it saves time, and if the steps taken to get the answer seem logical, then maybe you really do 'got it.'

The problem, though, is that just like a quick rearrangement of cards in solitaire can be done because that's what you 'really meant' and because no one else is watching, a quick glance that yields an 'I got it' may stand in the way of gaining actual, deeper understanding of the material. It's really easy to just do that in an offhand way while you're preparing, but then when the test throws you the slightest curveball, you're bound to stumble.

I thought that principle was interesting enough to take the time to write about and it ties in with the reason a buddy of mine who wanted to learn programming signed up for some actual CS classes.

He knows several Computer Science wizards who assured him the classes weren't needed and he could just breeze through a manual, but he still opted to spend some money on the courses. Because he did that, he was forced to learn enough of the material to get through all the problem sets and other words, he couldn't just take a quick glance at a manual, casually declare "I got it" and walk away.

I think that basic concept helps to explain why classes can be a great way to learn for anyone...even someone who is a natural autodidact with lots of self-discipline.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

But Isn't That, Like, Where Astronauts Go?

The midterms that are looming next week remind me that I've now made it one-eighth of the way towards receiving my yuppie union card.

While I'm quite happy to be on that path, there are some ways in which I refuse to conform.  Whether the proper culprit is my relative age, my military background, my love for the English language, being a commuter at a non-commuter school, some combination of all of the above, or perhaps none of the above, I'm not entirely sure.  

I could write about 'hic-a-doo-la' "fun" events (die-hard Family Guy fans will know that reference) or about how I think a lot of people could use a dose of that "take your work but not yourself seriously" advice, but for now I just want to quickly write about the word "space." 

Almost from the day things got rolling, I began hearing the word 'space' thrown around quite loosely in places where I would've said something like 'industry' or 'field' or 'area.'  I don't think it was the word itself that bothered me (I'd like to think I canadapt to new usage and forms now and then!) but the pretentiousness with which it was used.

A quick Google search tells me I'm not alone.  First, from the blog "Polandia:"

Where it goes horribly wrong is with phrases like “reach out” or the current favourite, “space”. I was listening to a podcast, I think Harvard Business Review, and the lady being interviewed was using space so often it was genuinely hard to follow what she was saying. I forget the details but she would say something like “We were testing atheletes who were operating in the basketball space.”instead of saying “We were testing basketball players.” and as the interview went on it was clear that the word space, in its new role, had almost unlimited applications. I might have let this go as a one-off nutty professor moment but it has been cropping up with annoying regularity so it would be great to head this one off at the pass!

From "The Office Life:"

Space [n.]A consultant's designated area of expertise or focus. The term is normally used with some form of the verb 'play.' "Our SME plays in the outsourcing space."
Suggested by w3.
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Space [n.]A really douchey way to refer to a market or industry. "We're looking at full saturation in the tablet space by Q3."
Suggested by Corinne F.

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