(I’ve been reading the Ender’s Game books recently, so I feel like everything I want to write somehow springs from there.)

I think competition, of the sort that is anything more than hedonic, is bad for startups. And that may just be that I’m not a terribly competitive person and therefore try to justify my own natural inclinations. But I think it is more than that.
“…she had no particular interest in competition because she always started from the assumption that, if it mattered, she would find a way to win.” – Peter’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card

A good founding team believes in its own abilities. Not cocky, but confident (which is a fine line and people can be both). In believing in those abilities, the team doesn’t feel the need to have rivals or to compete against others, because it is confident that if it is neccessary that only one startup team will win in their space, it will be theirs. Knowing this, they may realize the value of being the strong second, of good partnerships over standing alone, of a good race over a Pyrrhic victory.

I know some excellent founders that lead companies that are not the biggest or highest earning in their category. Sometimes, they’ve chosen second place because they prefer that their team have a life: kids, laughter, significant others, enough sleep. At other times, it is because in order to be first, they would have to tear down a company that would ultimately reduce their own profit, by casting doubts on the category as a whole. Thrive would have been a much harder sell had there been no Mint, and the only way to truly stop Mint would to have been to challenge the entire concept of PFM in the first place.

And not competing doesn’t always mean taking second place. Sometimes, you can be less interested in competition and still end up winning the race, purely because you are already naturally setup to run it faster than anyone else. The point of the quote is that if you know what you are capable of, you can make more intelligent decisions about the tradeoffs.

Not enough teams think about themselves. Their products, their market, their profits; all these rise to the top. But critical thinking about what actually makes them work, or not work, as a team? As individual leaders? If I were running an incubator today, I’d spend real time with each founder helping them understand what leadership is about. Not managing investors and outside expectations, but understanding the true nature of their own army.

It is one of the things I loved, and love, most about working with Avi Karnani. He is unafraid to sit down and have an honest conversation about his own leadership style and where he can make adjustments. And it makes him, when he wants to be, one of the strongest leaders I know.

And yes, he’s read the Ender’s books too.

Having just spent a week or so with my bright, shiny new nephew (eight weeks and already twice his birth weight), I think that part of what makes relatives magical is that you are allowed to delight in them completely.

I’m sitting in SeaTac while I type this and next to me is playing a little girl, maybe four or so.  Old enough to play the “I’m playing by myself, but really, I’m playing with you” game.  Which is actually a fun game, as an adult, because young kids are actually really terrible at it and we take special delight in how naive they still are it and playing together is fun!  In ten years or so, I’m sure she’d be able to manipulate me in ways I wouldn’t be able to detect as readily and it won’t be for our mutual benefit, so I’m glad for this earlier version.

That said, I can’t really play with her directly or with too much attention.  I doubt that her parents would leap to the judgment of “pedophile!” but it still makes American parents vaguely uneasy when a stranger takes undue interest in their kids.  Undue, of course, being an entirely socially constructed boundary.

After all, with my new nephew, I am allowed to take full advantage of my own desire to connect.  We can play for as long as he’s awake, I am allowed full access to his full schedule (sleep, wake, poop, eat, play), and my interest isn’t in any way tainted by the negative; if anything, my fascination tends to make strangers infer things like “he’s going to be such a good dad some day”.  With random children in airports, however, that inference doesn’t hold, for reasons I understand but lament.

There is a Counting Crows’ lyric: “I wish I was a girl, so that you could believe me”, the implication being that men are not able to say some things to women and have them be taken as honest and sincere and not with an alternative sexual desire.  I feel the same way about the woman that is playing with her adorable kids right now.  I WANT to play.  It looks fun, I love kids, and both my book and this journal entry are not nearly as interesting.  I want a sign that says “I am not thinking about you as a MILF or your children as targets; I have love for them, but only of the appropriate, speciesist variety.”

Until I manage to get that sign, however, I have my nephew.  Who is awesome and puts up with my singing, off-key, while he’s so patiently trying to sleep.  And anybody willing to do that is OK in my book.  Plus, he’s extra special and extra beautiful and I love him.  Which doesn’t need any kind of sign at all.

Imagine the moment when you can wear Google’s Project Glass spectacles.  Real-time information, all the time.  The ability to take video and audio, and transmit it wirelessly to another storage medium.  Which means, in theory, the ability to remember absolutely everything, forever.

And while I doubt many scientists at Google have thought about it, that might be the end of mankind.

The ability to remember everything, called eidetic memory, has never been shown in a human, so we cannot say with complete confidence that we know what will happen.  But considering the thousands of experiments that demonstrate the ways in which humans adaptively misremember, misinterpret, and misplace, there has to be an adaptive strategy at work.  After all, we know we have the technical ability to remember many things accurately, and yet our brain has adapted so that we don’t.

Human beings thrive on ambiguity, on the ability to manipulate our memories, beliefs, emotions, and decisions in order to serve our sense of well-being.  When we do that manipulation badly, we grow depressed and self-destruct.  And it is a manipulation only made possible by the fact that we do not have perfect recall.

Its true that Project Glass cannot record our emotions (yet), so we can still manipulate the meaning of the audiovisual that will potentially now be saved.  But how far can that really take us?  Could it be that in developing technologically the ability to precisely record and replay everything, we’re opening ourselves up to a type of mental-like abilities that we are not adapted to handle emotionally?

The examples are endless.  A couple fighting about what someone said, with no catharsis of apology and acceptance, just the cold finality of someone being factually (but not emotionally) right.  A buyer who can play back the entire buying experience, perfectly accurately, and is thereby denied the cognitive dissonance that makes him happy with his eventual purchase.  Two brothers who witness a gruesome event, that morbid fascination allows them to repeatedly view.

There are just as many examples of the ways in which perfect recall can help society.  But while many will consider those, psychologists need to start now in considering the potential negative effects and how products need to be shaped in order to avoid them.  Project Glass is certainly going to exist in the mainstream at some point – we psychologists need to start thinking about what that means.

And Google is the natural place to do that, or any tech company that is starting to change the way we actually structure and deal with information in real-time.  As the producers of the product, they will be the ones most tied to its adoption…and the ones held most responsible.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Billy Collins: It wasn’t shocking when Collins got a standing ovation – you don’t get to be the American Poet Laureate for two years because people hate what you do.  Like most good poets, Collins was good at getting in touch with his own feelings and then sharing them with the audience in a pithy way.  For those who hadn’t seen him before, I think it was a revelation that poetry could be funny and still insightful.  For me, it was a) a reaffirmation that yep, I still like his poetry and b) we agree on a surprising amount of what poetry is and does and should be.

For example, Collin’s spoke about how badly attempts to put his poetry to music had gone (I remember an incident in which someone tried to arrange one of my poems for a chorus and just designed to change the words wherever she saw fit) and his resistance to putting visuals to his poetry, because isn’t the whole point of being a poem that it isn’t a picture?  He showed off some animations that he finally consented to and enjoyed, but for my part, I watched the talk entirely with my eyes closed.

Michael Tilson Thomas: I may be fairly naive for having not paid attention to this before, but classical musical is highly recognizable, without ever having been consciously paid attention to.  Tilson Thomas told the story of an old man who was futilely trying to tap out on the piano something he had heard and his joy when Tilson Thomas recognized it and played a bit of it.  A lovely moment, certainly, but also I think a wider truth about the place that classical music occupies in our minds.  Entirely without paying any attention to classical music, and probably professing to hating it, almost every 10-year-old in America could hum the 1812 Overture for you with near perfection.  Indeed, you could likely get the same effect in most countries in the world.  What other form of music has that kind of penetration, that entirely without liking it or wanting to have it in your life, it still manages to be a part of the dominant consciousness of pretty much everyone?

I’m sure there is other music that has done this: The Beatles, Bob Marley.  But most people would say they like The Beatles and Bob Marley – the interesting part about classical music is that it has had this effect entirely without people liking it or even caring enough to form an opinion.  It just…invades.  And it has its own unspoken language; as Tilson Thomas puts it, the difference between happy and sad (major and minor) is just 37 vibrations.  Sometimes I think we forget the subtlety of our musical palate and our complex relationship with sound: in a world of “interactive”, it is sight that gets most the attention.  I may be wandering a bit here from Tilson Thomas’ examples, but seriously, how often have you actually sat and thought about the two tones that play when you plug in and remove a USB device?  They so clearly say “plugged in” and “removed” without ever saying a word…two notes, either in rising or falling, are simple enough to convey the entire message.

Bravo, sound.

So I’m on a plane to Seattle. Middle seat, between a business guy (you can always tell who has a corporate card, they’re the only ones who buy food) and a woman in her mid-40’s with incongrously sparkly green nails.

And we’re all crying. Repeatedly. To “We Bought A Zoo”. And of course we’re quiet and polite and we all have our headphones on and we don’t talk to each other about it. But we’re still all crying here together.

I have an interview with some folks tomorrow and I’m nervous. Which isn’t unusual, though I generally wouldn’t talk about it publicly. And it is somehow tied up in this movie and the adventures that people take and the fear that all the apps and electronic companies in the world won’t matter if they don’t inspire real human behavior.

It isn’t worry about getting the job; it is worry about whether it is the right job. What if they don’t share my vision? What if it is just a bunch of people who want to play the game of building companies and investing in things and being technorati?

It is a “nice problem to have”, in that most people my age are just worried about putting food on the table. But I don’t apologize for the fact that it isn’t that problem, and I know that once they solve that problem, they’ll have the same problem, the desire to do something bigger and greater than themselves. The search for meaning (or the search for the meaning of Meaning).

Until it can be hooked directly into my nervous system, no computer can replace the real world. But it can augment it. So how do we use technology to help people put food on the table, so that they can run zoos and take adventures and persue something more than the beginning of things?

I love to reread books, because as you change, what you get from the book changes. And so I was rereading Ender’s Game and I was stuck by something one of the mentors says, about the demand of humanity being only survival. Humanity doesn’t give a shit whether I’m happy or challenged; it cares that I survive and/or help others to survive.

And yet a shocking number of people each year commit suicide. Even if we just count the folks we actually record as suicides and leave aside all “accidents” and other polite ways we have of dealing with that, I cannot help but think that happiness is also about survival. That at least some core level of happiness is required by humanity, because it is only when we believe in happiness that we will ourselves into life. Not at the moments of plenty, but in times of famine, living is about the will to live.

So maybe that’s one aspect of technology. When tech helps people be a little happier or more satisfied, gives them a momentary delight, helps them form a real bond, enables some offline behavior, then what we’re actually doing is affecting a real survival trait. It certainly is worth thinking a bit about, sorting the online behaviors that leave people net happier and more productive from the ones that have the opposite effect.

We Bought A Zoo is a story someone was passionate about. Sure, plenty of people got involved in order to make money, but somewhere, someone really believed in three crying strangers on a plane and the importance of touching us in some emotional way. And of course the zoo itself really exists, and is admired the world over for its practices, and it touched the lady at Home Depot and the people who visit it.
And is any business really that different? I mean, isn’t that the point of Dirty Jobs? Mike Rowe’s whole point is that every job, no matter how “menial”, has a story and grandure. The guy who scrapes gum off the sidewalk can always find a better way to do it. And does. And that’s interesting and honorable.

(All of my blog entries ramble if I don’t edit them carefully. I’m going to try to start being more OK with that.)

Other thoughts: we drank all three variety of Coke (Zero for me, Diet for the green nails lady, Classic for the fat guy). And whatever was playing after the movie was insane: I saw some sort of buffalo-like animals run away from wolves, and one buffalo ran another down as a sort of sacrifice to the wolves, who stopped to eat it as the others ran away. Humanity. Survival as the only demand. Which doesn’t neccessarily mean the survival of any particular individual.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein/Steven Pinker: This was a perfect example of how you can love a TED topic for its content and not its presentation.  Newberger Goldstein and Pinker had basically a Socratic debate: entirely scripted, a conversation meant to show us the superiority of a particular line of thought.  Which is ironic, since the topic was reason versus compassion.  I’m sure Socrates would have approved.

This is a topic near and dear to most social psychologists’ hearts, so we deal with System 1/System 2 discussions all the time.  At least in this scripted conversation, reason wins out as the best long term path to a better moral future but I’m not so sure I agree.  Newberger Goldstein claims that compassion tends to dispose itself towards people like us and fuzzy animals, and that is in part true – when the downward pressure is sufficiently high and you have to choose where to lay your compassion down, it has its preferences.

But so does reason.  It brings to mind the experiment in which people are told to move from one location to another, and along the way they encounter someone who is hurt.  The difference between the two groups is that one is told they are late, another that they have plenty of time, and that strongly influences who stops.  It is reason that allows us to justify passing people by when they are hurt (I cannot help them and I am in a hurry to accomplish some other end); compassion may make us choose the cute animal over the ugly one, but it also makes us choose stopping over hurrying onward at all.  In a land of plenty, it is compassion that makes us care.
In the discussion afterward at “the dinner table” (a format that needs refining, but that I rather like – certainly seeing smart people react to smart people is enthralling, although whoever invited Seth Godin should have their head checked), slavery came up and Newberger Goldstein pointed out that before emotional arguments were made, it was John Locke who argued that it was against reasoned principles.  Which may well be the case, but I doubt very highly that when Americans came together against slavery, they did so because John Locke said so.  People don’t follow reason, they follow compassion – indeed, I would argue it was reason that that clouded their emotions and set Locke up for the argument in the first place.  It was reason that said, to begin with, that slavery was natural thing.

Julie Burstein: I honestly can’t say I was able to follow the dominant thread of this talk, other than that Burstein seems to feel that creativity is a function of the everyday.  Certainly I agree with that, but I’m not sure this is a novel idea (as evidenced by the lack of “dinner table” conversation after; I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one with nothing to contribute).  Yes, it is true that failure and imperfection is part of creativity.  Yes, it is true that we experience creativity on an everyday level.  Burstein may have been arguing against the idea that some people are “creative” and some aren’t, favoring instead an environmental approach.  If so, I can get behind that, although I don’t think there are many people running around that truly feel they aren’t capable of being creative.  I could be off the mark, but certainly my everyday experience is of people who truly believe they can be creative, and they express it in what they do, even if it isn’t an inherently “creative” field.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Reuben Margolin: This was almost painful to watch, as Margolin literally looked like he was going to die of stage fright at any time.  He might have just been going for artistic effect, but all it did was make me want to leap on stage and try to save him.  That said, the sculptures themselves were beautiful and lovely and kinetic.  They reminded of the complex wood sculptures I used to see on the Oregon Coast as a kid; I don’t really want to buy them as much as I want to figure out how to build them.  A handy shortcut for getting engineering/science kids into art.

Andrew Stanton: So now I’m actually interested in seeing John Carter, which I didn’t know was coming from the Pixar folks.  It is a fact that it is difficult to make me cry but that movies seem to consistently do it – I tear up at Monsoon Wedding (specifically when the father makes the difficult choice to protect his family), as regular as clockwork.  And Pixar movies tend to do it more than most.  When I flew my father out to NYC for his birthday a few years back, we want to see Up together in the theater, which may seem like a strange thing to do after going cross country, but is actually perfectly in keeping with my relationship with my father.  And of course we both cried at the beginning.

Stanton’s talk wandered a bit, but like many things Pixar does, I was sort of OK with its non-traditional nature.  The crux of his talk seemed to be about different modes of storytelling, and what makes different styles tick.  It wasn’t especially academic or engaging, and I ended up paying more attention to the story of the talk itself.  The Pixar guys seem to me to be incredibly courageous – they made animation relevant to more than kids, when lots of people had written off the genre, and they did it over the stiff opposition of plenty of studio execs that weren’t believers.

So what gave Stanton the courage to do it?  He tracks it back to his parents, who were willing to tell him that he was special, as much for his weaknesses as his strengths, and to back his plays.  Which ultimately is the best gift an adult can give a kid: you may be wrong, you may be weak, but I’ll come along on the journey towards strength with you.  My parents were steadfast in that, as were many of my teachers, and I should probably go give them a call and tell them so.

Which is pretty much my takeaway from the talk: call all the people who supported you and tell them how awesome they are.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Susan Cain: This was one of those talks that everyone loved and 90% of the crowd started immediately proclaiming themselves an introvert.  And while I didn’t love all her examples, I agree with her calls to action.

I never could quite grasp what Cain meant by introversion, as even psychologists have a fairly hazy definition.  I, for example, am very outgoing and gregarious, but am considered by most to be a relatively private person – I prefer being alone to being with people, especially when upset, and get edgy when I’m forced to be around people all the time.  I think she got a bit bogged down in searching for what it meant, and that’s why so many people suddenly started calling themselves introverted after this talk: it isn’t that we exist along a spectrum, but rather that they are orthogonal needs that people have varying amounts of (you could have a high need for socialization and a high need for private time, for example).

Taken that way, it nicely sets the stage for Cain’s action points, which were roughly a) stop forcing people to work in groups, b) spend some unplugged time, and c) make sure you don’t forget to share.  I think C is actually a part of A, in that the surest way to shut someone up is put them in a group.  As someone who hates enforced groupwork and is most productive when working alone, I’m certainly happy to take to the field in defense of private time, especially in the workplace.

Quick side note: I love how TEDsters simultaneously loved this talk and anything that involves crowdsourcing.  They aren’t actually incompatible (crowdsourcing could be seen as many introverts simultaneously expressing their opinion, and therefore an improvement on actual groupthink) but if the wisdom of the individual can potentially be high, why force them to water it down?  Cain named a bunch of shining star introverts who had done great things for the world, and by and large, they did it as independent thinkers and actors.

Quixotic: This should have been called “a crash course in making dance relevant”.  The wonderful thing about the move from live theater to movies is that it used technology to allow new ways of telling stories: multiple viewpoints, cinematography and light, non-linearity.  Very few people in the United States want to go watch dance, because it feels dated and/or inaccessible.  But when technology allows for visual aids that can draw people in.  Having someone dance like a bird while showing the movements of the bird itself helps us be amazed at the story they are telling through movement.  Dancers, take note – I would go to watch this.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Paul Gilding: It is probably not surprising that I didn’t much enjoy Gilding’s talk.  For one, I don’t agree with his central thesis: that the earth is full.  Indeed, writing from a small apartment in NY and thinking home to Oregon, I know just how much farther we have to expand.  Anyone who says the earth is full needs to take a flight across America and contemplate the vast reaches where essentially no one lives.

But even if earth was full, we would simply expand outward.  We will find new tech, compete with new species and with ourselves, and grow.  Or we will die out, as other species have.  And all of these will be natural outgrowths and acceptable ends.  Gilding asked us to question what our children would think, but as I look back at the generations before me, I don’t have the same “why didn’t they do anything?” sensation.  I have argued for years that the bombing of Japan was unnecessary and resulted from the misunderstanding of Japanese culture but I look at it as a mistake, a terrible and tragic one, that taught the world lessons that have helped us become better.

Gilding’s lesson only works if we suppose that the earth will really “go dark” and hit a low so terrible that we simply cannot recover.  But I cannot imagine what even it is that he imagines that would cause that.  Even terribly apocalyptic views, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, have within them a continued human civilization that will re-evolve.  I’m just not on the same page.

Peter Diamandis: In many ways a rebuttal to Gilding’s talk by someone I think is better informed, Diamandis points out over and over again how things are actually getting better (despite the media’s perpetual coverage of disaster).  The standard up-and-to-the-right trend talk isn’t really the interesting bit unless you’re unfamiliar with all the many sources of information that point to things getting better for mankind.

The part where I get interested is not about state but rather trajectory.  Diamandis’ argument against Gilding is essentially this: why would we assume that doing more or less the same thing (advancement and consumption) would result in radically different results than it has previously harvested (the downfall of mankind)?  That’s a dramatic over-consumption and of course there are reasons to pay attention to consumption, but I can’t help but think about Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It may seem like a step, but in the iconic series, the moment of transcendence for humans was when we figured out how to get around the resource barrier and we could create almost anything for anyone.

I don’t think we’re really all that far from that, at least in the basic sense.  If we take the long view on technology, there is every reason to believe that we’ll figure out fusion in the next 100 years.  And with virtually limitless power, a great many other things become possible, like transportation of crops across long distances and the fabrication of materials at high energy costs and low waste.  Instead of focusing on pulling back, let us proceed ever onward, for the good of all those who are not sitting at the top of this hill.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Brian Greene: One of the nice things about this talk was the imagery, in particular the point about the degree to which we may not be able to see or study some phenomenon because the evidence no longer exists.  Imagine, he suggests, a future in which all the stars and galaxies have moved so far away from Earth that the night sky is no longer full.

Some TEDsters were saddened by the idea, but I’m rather drawn to the prospect of change.  After all, imagine the beauty of a night sky with just a moon, full and pregnant, hanging alone.  Might that not have its own unique kind of beauty?  Different isn’t always worse and the undercurrent conversation about moving into the future versus holding onto the past I think became a theme this year.

Sarah Parcak: My takeaway here was basic – science is fucking awesome and Parcak is fucking glad to be a scientist.  Which I entirely agree with; having just complete another round of psych studies (and yes, I’ll talk about them when I’m ready), science is awesome.  She talked about how 90% of Egyptian ruins remain uncovered and I know that at least that much of what is interesting about human behavior remains just as buried.  Which is daunting, inspiring, and generally awesome, on both counts.

Peter Weyland: First of all, I loved that they were willing to do something “fictional” as a way of looking at what the future could be.  I’m not sure I felt the character really said that much, in that I don’t think humanity actually is anywhere near the kind of hubris that makes us challenge “the gods”.  Individuals may have pride, but if there is anything I take from human history, it is that competition and cooperation force even the most strident individual voice back into alignment.  Villains always manage to find heroes.