I’m not generally a “fan” kinda guy.  But I’ll admit that Terry Pratchett is kind of a badass.  His prose has that dry humor that actually works really well in light fantasy books and it isn’t often you find somebody who can make you laugh out loud while reading.  And in addition to being funny, Pratchett is also deeply insightful in a way that interests not only the psychologist in me but the person.

Take his answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” in a televised interview (also, marvel at how he sounds like a wizard).  Pratchett starts by noting that he thinks people are basically good, and that we are shaped by the universe we live in.  But where he really gets cracking is when he argues that evolution is a far more interesting story than traditional religion.  At its pinnacle, the argument is “I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.”

Drop the mic.

Religious folks around the world tend to paint science as rather bleak compared to religion.  The folks in the white lab coats are all doom and gloom and take all the magic out of life, where religion inspires us with the meaning that makes life worth meaning.  But what if science really does have the more optimistic view of humankind?

In Christianity, everything starts out perfect and eventually succumbs to decay.  The Bible starts with idyllic garden and ends with fiery rapture, and things as basically a linear decline in between, which a fair bit of raping and pillaging and murder and enslavement to humble us as we get closer to the rise of the Antichrist.

But science, as championed by evolution, suggests that things are always getting better.  That’s essentially what evolution is: improvement. The inherent tendency of man and animal is to gradually adjust to their environments in such a way that they’re constantly improving and adapting.  As Pratchett puts it, science teaches us that stars are common and unimportant, and streetlights are incredibly important, because as far as we know, they exist nowhere else in the universe and they were built by ascendant apes.

In no way am I suggesting that science is better than religion on any factual basis.  But when you think about it, we live life on a hedonic treadmill.  We need to be constantly improving in order to simply stay in the same place, happiness-wise.  But while religion has us standing in the same place until we slide off the back of the treadmill, or even worse, running in the wrong direction towards a catastrophic spill, science seems to suggest that the treadmill is OK.  We hold ground because we evolve and when you look at the data, we may even be inching our way up the treadmill: less children are dying, more people are being fed.

Not only does science present humankind as improving on a global, millennial scale, it also suggests that we improve within just a single lifetime.  The very concept of modern schooling suggests that as we age, we learn more things and gain more responsibility.  Human beings, over the course of their individual life spans, generally feel better off when they’re old than when they’re young.  Sure, a 70-year-old might wish he was 20 again periodically, but survey research shows us that virtually none would go back to being 20 if they had to give up all the knowledge they gained.

Religion brings comfort to millions and that’s awesome.  But I can’t help but feel like science could to, if we could just change the way people look at it.  Like Terry Pratchett, I’d rather be a part of something that’s considered imperfect but working towards betterness than a flawed version of something that was once flawless.  Even if it’s not in my lifetime, I’d like to know that I’m part of a race that’s consistently getting better at stuff.  And that I’m playing some small part in that.

In a way, this ties right back to Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society monologue.  “‘Life exists, and identity.  The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’  The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  What will your verse be?”  Regardless of what my verse ends up being, I like the idea that I get to contribute.  And if the trends of science continue, we’ll be headed towards an entirely different Book of Revelations—one where we rising apes are exponentially better at things than we are now.

It is no great secret that I love my work and working in general.  After all, Churnless‘ motto was taken from a Teddy Roosevelt quote (“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”) and I come from a family and community where the culture of work is a strong part of our personal identity.

Which is why this recent iPad commercial featuring Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society speech drives me nuts.  Leaving aside that everything people are doing isn’t unique to the iPad and you could sub in basically any tablet, it is the monologue that really kills me.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, and love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman “Oh me, Oh life of the question of these recurring. of the endless trains of the faithless of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these? Oh me, Oh life.” “Answer…that you are here and life exists….You are here. Life exists, and identity. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Look, I love Dead Poets Society as much as the next person.  And I think this is a powerful and well-spoken monologue.  But it is meant to inspire a room full of school boys who believe that they will all go on to be business mavens and who need to be reminded of beauty.  And it sets up art and work as separate, with art being the valuable bit.  Art is lovely and beautiful. Work is obligation, labor.

“Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life.”  Boom!  Drop the mic.  That’s the power of work right there.  And there is a poetry in all those of those things.  I challenge anyone to watch a surgeon perform a complex surgery that saves a life and not tell me that there is art and beauty in that moment.

What we do with our time is a huge part of our identity.  And the science is incredibly clear: people who don’t work, who can’t find meaning and employment, generally aren’t happy.  Sure, people who work in jobs that feel ineffective and boring aren’t as happy as those who find import in their work, but they are generally still better off than the unemployed (psychologically speaking) and that’s not the same as saying that work itself is fundamentally bad, just that those particular work situations are.  Just because some people get divorced or stay in bad relationships doesn’t mean that all marriages are bad, so why would we suggest that because some work is mundane, all work is necessarily less important than art.

And art and poetry are, more off than not when done well, work.  There is a great essay by Barbara Kingsolver in High Tide in Tucson about her muse, which she envisions not as some loving, wispy figure but as a gent with a baseball bat who comes around immediately after she puts her daughter on the bus and reminds her that she now has six or so hours in which to produce the work that puts food on the table.

Think about the magic marker study.  They’ve just come out, they’re awesome, blowing kids’ minds.  So you give them to two different classes and let them play.  And at the end of the day, one class just goes home, and the other class gets a “good player” award before they leave.  Second day, same thing.  Third day, you don’t give the class the “good player” award.  And on day four, suddenly those kids just aren’t as interested in the magic markers.  Because you replaced all the intrinsic motivation of fun with extrinsic motivation of getting an award.

But work doesn’t have to be that.  Just because we receive a paycheck for doing it, it doesn’t have to be devoid of meaning.  Whitman reminded us all to contribute a verse and the truth, for most everyone, is this: the most powerful verse your contribute to the extension of mankind will happen at work.  It will be that which supports necessity of life.  And it will be beautiful.

Edison once said something to the effect of not failing at making a light bulb, but simply finding a bunch of ways of making a light bulb that didn’t work.  What he didn’t point out is that the reason he got to the light bulb and others didn’t is that they didn’t have access to those mistakes.  Which is great in a world where you want to own light bulb making, but not so great if you actually want to advance civilization (note: if you get a chance, read about Edison and his insane capitalist tendencies).

In academia, we call this the “file drawer problem”.  The basic idea is that studies that show a novel effect get published, and studies that don’t get stuck in a file drawer and nobody knows they exist.  And the reason it is a problem is that those failures may be novel in and of themselves; knowing that somebody else tried something and it didn’t work prevents you from wasting a bunch of resources trying the same thing.

Like Edison, people theoretically have the right to hoard their failures as private data.  But I think more often, people do it out of shame.  We see it in business all the time: failed startups, product flops, rebranding gone woefully, woefully awry and people trying to backpedal and spin and hope that nobody notices. It’s not that the people behind these concepts are intentionally making mistakes; mistakes are a natural part of life.  And by failing to document and share them, we slow down our progress by a significant amount.

If every founder of every failed startup penned a candid, introspective blog post a few months after they shut the doors that detailed what went wrong, we’d be opening the file drawer into a world of knowledge that benefits the community at large.  And even if that moves the needle from “nine out of every 10 startups fail” to “eight out of every 10 startups fail,” that’d be a massive win.

But what about the significant inhibiting pressure of the fact that you have to out yourself as a failure?  First, everyone already knows.  The spin rarely works, especially when your startup shutters, so it isn’t like you’re hiding the embarrassing bit.  Second, you’re helping your community (and what’s the point of being in a community if you don’t contribute to it?).  Third, and most importantly, talking about failures shows maturity.  And as any investor will tell you, investing in mature founders is a heck of a lot better than investing in failures who don’t want to share why they failed in an honest way.

Could your post mortem get a little viral? Sure. There are a few currently making the rounds. But that’s not a bad thing: the whole point here is that other people can learn from your mistakes.  Because when we view startups as fundamental to the progress of civilization, you can learn from the mistakes of scientists.  You can fix the file drawer problem that we are still figuring out, and you can do it with a grace that we will likely never achieve, for reasons of academic ego.  And for once, wouldn’t be better to be smarter than the scientists?

So the first guy on the plane can’t get his bag into the overhead bin.  It’s a puddle jumper, so the bins are small, and he’s got one of those backpack with large wheels.  Clearly frustrated.  Only one flight attendant, chooses not to help, just snaps at him: “Next time, check your bag!”  Awesome.  Clearly going to be a fun flight.

Guy says “I can’t check it.”  Why?  No idea.  Filled with gold.  Has his medicine in it.  Not a clue.  But clearly, this is not going well.

And this, ladies and gents, is how I get kicked off the plane.  Since we’re stuck behind this guy, and I’m standing there anyway, and this flight attendant is badgering him, I ask the following question: “Excuse me, ma’am, what’s your name?”  Yes, I really did say ma’am; I actually talk like that.  I didn’t tell her why I was asking, though having just snapped at a customer, I sort of assumed she knew.  She says “Cheryl”.  Or Sheryl, since I don’t have spelling: she might have been wearing a nametag but I didn’t see it at a glance and was trying to politely not look at her chest in close quarters.

That’s it.  That’s the end of the conversation.  Guy eventually gets his bag in overhead bin, I sit down, he sits down, people get on plane.  Another gent sits down (BriefCase guy) and she tells him case has to go in overhead bin (right, because we’re in Row 1!) so I get up and put my backpack in an overhead, settle back with my tablet, start reading.  The Briefcase guy shakes his head at having to put his bag in overhead and I joke “perils of Row 1” and give him a smile.  Back to reading.

I sort of vaguely overheard her ask for the gate agent, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  I think she may have asked BagTrouble guy to put his personal bag in the overhead (again, Row 1) and he may have complained it wasn’t a bag – can’t honestly say, as I was reading.

Next thing I know, gate agent shows up and she point to me and the guy who had trouble with his bag and says “I really don’t want these guys on my flight.  I think they’re going to make trouble, I’m the only flight attendant, I’m not comfortable.”  I’m a little in shock at this point.  Gate agent asks for more info from her, she says “well they’re giving me attitude, and they refuse to put their bags in the overhead bins.”

“My bag’s actually in the overhead bin back there,” I chime in.  “She didn’t even ask me.  I just asked her name because she was rude to him and I was going to report her.”  It occurs to me that I am wearing a lot of black; I consider whether it is wise to say that I am dressed this way for a funeral and not a threat.  Bad idea.  Don’t say “threat”.  Stay calm.

“See?” she said. “He’s going to give me attitude.  We’re not going to get along.  I want him off.”  Gate agent asks me to grab my bag and presto, I’m off the flight.  No idea if the other guy got to stay on – hope so; he looked like he was having a bad enough day already.

From there, it is pretty routine: gate agent says there is nothing he can do about resolving it now, he wasn’t there, offers to put me on later United flight (can’t do it, supposed to be on a key Bing for Schools conference call with engineering, which is why I woke up at 3am to get on this flight) or Alaska Airlines to Oakland (no idea how to get from there to SFO, but timing works).  I’m totally stunned, ask him what I’m supposed to do, and he tells me to call customer service, they’ll get her side of the story and mine and sort it out and in the meantime, pick a flight.

I opt for Oakland, run across the airport (side note: you can make it from one end of SeaTac to the other in about 8 minutes, if you sprint hard and get the train timing right) and presto – I’m writing this from the plane to Oakland.  How I’m getting from Oakland to San Fran?  No clue.  But I’ll do the conference call, figure out how to get to SF to do my talk, then get back on another United flight to head to my grandfather’s funeral.

Tweeted about it when I finally got on the Alaska Airlines flight.  Why?  Not sure.  I was still a little in shock.  Angry.  Social media means when you’re wronged, you get the chance to tell the whole world and I did.  Not sure how I feel about that.

I do think the gate agent had to trust the flight attendant.  In order for a business to function, in a moment where you don’t know exactly what has happened, you have to back your employee’s call.  I’ve done it with my own employees, Microsoft has done it with me, it happens in every business.  And you’ve got a plane full of people waiting to go, who shouldn’t be held up for me, regardless of the actual situation.

I obviously think the flight attendant shouldn’t have booted me.  But I’m trying hard to be fair and put myself in her place: if she really did think I was going to cause problems on the flight, certainly better to get rid of me on the ground.  And life is about social signals: she is a woman, I am a man; she is quite tiny, I am quite tall; it is 5am and nobody is at their best.  I think of myself as polite and generally non-threatening but in that moment, maybe she didn’t perceive me that way.

Or maybe she’s a tyrant who used her ability to get me booted to punish me or potentially even protect herself.  Certainly my complaint against her is going to be colored now, since Just World Bias virtually guarantees that a large portion of people are going to believe I was in the wrong, since I did get kicked off the plane.  It is much more comfortable to believe that I’m a raving lunatic and their own travel plans are safe than it is to believe that someone could get arbitrarily kicked off a plane for asking the flight attendant’s name.

The real problem is: now what?  Obviously, I’m still feeling angry (though laughing on Twitter with people made it substantially better, thanks in particular to @bdsams, who I now owe a drink).  I don’t even know what United could do to make the situation better.  They could refund the flight, Microsoft would get a little money back, and I’d still be pissed.  They could personally give me some free flight but at the moment, I’m not feeling terribly interested in flying United again; I feel crappy about having to fly them again in a few hours but they are really the only way to get to grandpa’s funeral in a reasonable way.  They could fire and publically flog the flight attendant but what is the point of that, unless she really is a tyrant and not just someone who actually felt threatened, which would be impossible to know unless she has some sort of history?

That’s the rub of a situation like this: it feels entirely lose-lose.   I’m trying to take it philosophically.  No one should get fired, nobody should boycott United, bad days happen.  Unless it is a pattern and needs correcting.  And maybe that’s where Twitter is actually useful in this: it helps us understand the patterns of large, disperse things (like airlines) and their effects on individuals.

In theory, as long as the system was big enough to disguise her behavior, this flight attendant could boot people periodically and it would go unnoticed.  There would be individual injustices but the system would still be OK.  Apparently the NYT has done a deep dive into this and it isn’t happening more often.  I am somewhat reassured.

I can only say how it feels in the moment.  How absolutely maddening it is to be booted from a flight, to feel as though you’ve been misperceived, to have no recourse in the moment.  How I’m still all amped up, even though I’m safely seated on another plane.  How my body can’t quite figure out whether it wants to cry or punch something.  How common an injustice is doesn’t change the way you feel when it is happening to you.  Feels weird to go with the race card, but is this how people feel when they are pulled over because they’re black?  If I had been browner, would they have brought an air martial with them?

Landing now.  Going to be a long day.

I really, really want someone else to be writing this blog entry.  I want it so much I’m willing to pay for it, which is why I’ve been trying to hire a ghostwriter for the longest time.  Seems like a pretty decent gig: I’ll pay you a decent wage, and you spend 30 minutes talking to me a week, then 30 minutes writing up a post based on what we talked about.  Sweet.

Quick privilege check.  Yes, it is profoundly bizarre to me that I am now in a place where I can afford to pay someone to do my writing for me.  No, I’m not asking them to do my thinking for me.  But the entire service industry, from restaurants to cleaners, is based on the idea that we can pay other people in order to save time.  Feel free to think I’m an asshole; let’s move to the fun economic/psych theory bit.

So if I want to pay someone actual money to do this job, why the heck am I still the one writing this blog entry?  Because sending kids to college has created a labor model that prays on some of our worst psychological tendencies and results in many open jobs and many unemployed young people, a state that theoretically shouldn’t exist (and an excellent example of why psychology > economics, when viewed in the classical sense).

It all starts with the lovely economic action “to realize a loss”, a shockingly accurate term, though I doubt it was for the reasons economists intended.  The “loss” part is hopefully clear, so to differentiate a realized loss from an unrealized one, imagine I bought a stock yesterday for $100.  Today, they announced some bad news and the stock went down to $80.  Now I’ve lost $20 but until I actually sell the stock, it is unrealized – it is a loss only in the theoretical sense.  It is the moment when I sell the stock that it becomes realized, when the paper loss becomes a tangible one.

This is what makes folks hold on to stocks for way too long, even when they are in sharp decline: they don’t want to convert an unrealized loss into a realized one, because it is psychologically painful.  So they’ll keep holding the stock, even though doing it means they lose money (this, by the way, is why most unsophisticated investors should not pay too much attention to their stock portfolio and just ride the general up-and-to-the-right trend).  And it is why I said economists got it accidentally right: people are, quite literally, trying not to realize that they’ve lost something.  Desperate tricks we play with our brains FTW.

So why am I nattering on about losses when this rant is supposed to be how I can’t pay someone to ghostwrite these blog entries?  Because theoretically, the person I need is a college grad who doesn’t have a job.  And in massive, massive droves, our college graduates are desperately trying not to realize a loss.

I’m not saying college is a loss; far from it.  What I am saying is that in a purely rational world, it is better to be paid something than it is to be paid nothing.  But if your expectation is that you are going to be paid $40K (because you went to college, after all), then anything less feels like a loss.  And taking a job that pays less is precisely that act of realizing a loss, which has cost people so much in so many financial domains.

Now there are some college grads who are living at home and using their unemployed time to do all sorts of wonderful things.  They’re teaching themselves skills like coding or volunteering in interesting and innovative ways that benefit us all.  They are holding on to the stock not out of a fear of realizing a loss but because they can, through hard work, actually make it more valuable.  They can prevent the loss or at least minimize it, not just on paper but in reality.

But having tried to find a ghostwriter and with a number of false starts with various candidates, I’m rapidly realizing that this may not be the case with all, or even most, of our unemployed graduates.  Instead of making choices that are about investing in the future, holding on to a stock because they can work towards its rise, they are inventing excuses not to accept jobs that don’t pay full-time, high dollar salaries simply because they want to avoid that feeling of loss.

The economic downturn, as it is so politely called, hurt a lot of people.  Families lost houses, jobs, hope.  We all know the stories and I don’t have to belabor them.  But in a desperate attempt not to let it hurt them, there are some young people who are going to make it much, much worse.

So if you’re reading this, take my money.  Or someone’s money.  Even if it is less than you believe you deserve, less than the golden promise that you earned your education for, less than you want or need or deserve.  Work worth doing, for pay worth having, is a loss only if you measure it against the expectations you had.  If you measure it against what you are making now, it is a gain.  Not theoretical but realized each and every time you exchange your meaningful work for meaningful money.  Your challenge is not to avoid the loss but to find the meaning.

(Update: As Matt Dyor points out, this also happens with older workers who refuse to take a step down in pay.)

Amazons, not Amazon (although there were certainly people from Amazon there). Warrior women, in legions, with the young huddled around the old seeking advice and peers talking about battle scars. There was even two victorious festivals, complete with drinking and dancing and wild shouting.  I don’t think there was any mead, but it wouldn’t have been inappropriate.

The actual name for the event was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Long name for a short conference, but it boils down to thousands of technical women geeking out for several days in Minneapolis. Thousands of women and about twenty guys, mostly recruiters. And one random behavioral scientist, which is really Betsy Aoki‘s fault. Months ago, she sent me a note and told me I should apply for this thing so that I could spread the gender wage equity gospel and talk about GetRaised.com. I applied, got accepted, and then promptly got swallowed by Bing for Schools.

My first inkling that maybe this was a bigger deal that I had previously realized was when I started getting organizer emails from people at Microsoft. Apparently, of the thousands of attendees, hundreds were coming from the mothership. And they were, bar none, the most organized troupe of attendees I’ve ever seen at the company. It was suddenly clear that not only was this a big deal, but that for a tremendous number of women, this was something they were immensely excited about.

It isn’t pretty, but truthfully, I don’t get as excited about conferences anymore. If we’re sticking with the battle theme, I’m some sort of young captain at this point, having seen enough to know that my job is to show up, do my duty, and try not to get killed by a random arrow (or question). But this was something different, something even the veterans were fired up about.

I don’t really want to talk about my speech there, other than to say that it was probably the best audience I’ve ever had. It turns out, when there are no men in the room and spirits are riding high, you can get a crowd of a couple hundred to get really feisty about gender wage equity, which generally isn’t a particularly sexy topic. I’d be more likely to watch TED talks if there was that much cheering and shouting and jeering.

And oh, the dancing. I should have known the talk was going to go well, given the tenor of the dance the night before. It turns out, when there are no men around to impress or feel shamed by or nervous about, women can let loose in a very different way. It was lovely to feel permissioned to be incredibly silly to Stayin’ Alive and Love Shack.

I don’t normally do the “overheard” thing, but there were several moments where just listening at GHC made me incredibly happy. Two in particular stand out. One was the first night, where as I was walking to the dance, a woman was excitedly talking into her cell phone going the opposite direction. “I just danced with a VP from COMPANYNAME!” I don’t think anyone has ever been that excited about dancing with me, ever, and I’m actually a pretty good dancer.  Whoever that VP is, my hat is off to you.  And how wonderful is a conference that makes anybody, even if it was just that one woman, feel that way?

Second, and more socioculturally relevant, was “Do you want to, like, umm, go to the mall later?” GHC had a lot of college students in attendance, and a group happened to sit near me, and this came out of a woman who could probably more properly be called a girl. And it is an awesome, awesome statement that makes me hopeful for the future of tech. Because while I love folks that are as nerdy as I am, if tech is limited to just nerds, we’re screwed. We need mainstream people in computing, and while that has been common in the male population for years, this was my first experience with seeing hypermainstream women in incredibly technical roles. And maybe I’m stupid for celebrating a desire to go to the mall but it really does feel like progress. We need that diversity.

There were a lot of lovely moments at GHC and I have to hand it to the organizers; all the hard work they put into making it an accepting, tolerant place for women seems to have paid off. And honestly, having dramatically more women than men around actually made me relax too. There was no implicit competition, no being bothered by obnoxious crowds of guys crowded around the sexually attractive women and ignoring the less attractive ones. For example, casual seating was a bit limited, so I asked a young woman if I could share a table with her and it was lovely for her to be able to say yes without having to evaluate whether I was actually hitting on her. And it turned out that I could make an introduction that her friend needed. At a normal tech conference, we never even would have drilled down to that layer, because the layers and filters would have made it much harder for her to make that ask across age and gender lines.

To be clear, though, I had some privilege at GHC. As a speaker, it felt like I had a very public reason to be there as a male and I’m not sure it would have felt the same if I had just opted to come as an attendee. I talked about this with some friends and it was a mixed bag of reactions: some felt like it would be entirely acceptable and not all damaging to have men attend in larger numbers, while others felt it would interfere if non-speaker/recruiter men were about. This seemed to break a bit along age lines, with the older more confident women feeling like unidentified male allies were a benefit and the younger women feeling like it would mess with their mojo (this may be because the younger women would likely have to shoulder the burden of any unwanted flirting).

I’m not sure I really have an opinion, other than I know I likely would have felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t speaking or at least there in some sort of official role. But I’ll tell you this: as long as GHC keeps inviting me, I’ll keep coming. Because the future of computing is a gender-balanced one and I intend to be there.

In psychology, we talk often about the survivorship bias: the tendency of people to focus on winners, rather than losers, as a way of trying to insure future wins.  The prototypical example is airplanes in war (one used in a great recent post on the topic): if you want to figure out how to keep planes from getting shot down, don’t look at where the holes are, look at where the holes aren’t (because you can presume that the planes with holes in those places didn’t make it back alive).

But there is actually a larger trend here than just losses and wins.  In my traditional style, I’ll call it a true two-by-two matrix: expectation given resources and outcome.  That is, some winners seem to have been always meant to win, like a startup that of experienced people with a solid idea and good funding.  When they succeed, we’re not shocked.  Ditto the reverse, like people born into poverty who stay in poverty.

The problem with those two groups is that they rarely tell us anything interesting: we look at them, apply our existing knowledge of winners and losers, and our expectations are confirmed.  It is the other opposing corners of the matrix that always teach me the most, both with startup teams and individuals.

First, there are “those who lose, despite having everything they need to win.”  Occasionally, I’ll see startups who just seem to have it all figured it out: market fit, resources, team.  And then I watch them struggle and fail to gain traction and die out.  We rarely dissect these losses, as a startup community, often because it is hard to do so: ours is a way in which the bodies quickly disappear as the limbs crawl off in separate directions to do other things.  And yet I think these failures are the ones that are most interesting, because rather than confirming what we already know about what makes teams succeed or fail, it hints at new variables that we should take into account, things we may have missed.  I think of this group as the falling angels, divine right up to the moment that they crash headfirst into the ground.

And there is, of course, the reverse: “those who win, despite having everything they need to lose.”  Here are our rising apes, teams that seem destined to fail so utterly and completely, and then they succeed and leave everyone wondering why they didn’t invest.  They too hint at variables as yet unmeasured, despite our fervent desire to right them off as simply luck.  Luck is actually how most people explain both groups, because a serious study of them would force us to reevaluate our worldview, which is pretty much the antithesis of what our brain is designed to do.  We love the path of least resistance, which is at the heart of the survivorship bias: the winners win because they were always going to win, the losers lose because they were always going to lose, and our desire to confirm that means studying only living winners and dead losers.

Fortunately, we have science, which demands that we draw out the two-by-two’s and investigate all four quadrants.  So look around, all you who say you believe in The Method – there are lessons in the fallen angels and all those rising apes.

There has been a recent spate of folks hating on Hackathons lately that seems, to me, a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  It is part of a larger movement (that I’m mainly in agreement with) to point out the ways in which tech folks these days are desperately trying to “change the world for the better” while also having billion dollar exits, but exists in its own special hate-world.

Before I try to talk about why I think some of the critiques are misguided, a few things to make clear.  For one, I actually met my current employer through a Hackathon: I worked with Bing on prototypes to help kids deal with asthma during the TEDActive conference.  And I’m currently involved in sponsoring, proposing, or running all sorts of different hacks on social problems.  So there are all sorts of biases running around here to be aware of.

As a kid, my father had a knack for explaining things in way that I could grasp.  Take guns: why rifles but not handguns?  Because rifles (of the non-automatic variety) have a purpose, they are a tool.  Whether it is helping to put down an injured animal or hunting for food (yes, lots of people still hunt for food in this country), there is a reason to have a .22 locked away and to know how to safely and correctly use one, in the same way a tablesaw is worth spending some time with.  But handguns have no purpose other than hunting human beings: if they are a tool, they are a tool for only those whose job it is to kill people, which is almost certainly not anyone reading this blog.

So let’s apply that same reasoning to Hackathons.  If they are a tool, what is their purpose?  I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about that question, because I’ve spent a decent amount of time trying to run better Hackathons, and knowing what it is that you’re trying to do is half the battle.  To me, a Hackathon is useful for creating multiple solutions to a single problem, as a way of creatively prototyping potential answers that others can use.  Done well, it should know in advance the specific behaviors it wants to encourage, it should bring all the tools (or at least as many as you can reasonably anticipate) to the table,

Another way to think about this is the variety of ways in which a Hackathon can go wrong.  Like when it becomes an app competition; you shouldn’t be hacking on something to which you already think you know the answer and have built it.  Or when you go in with the expectation that you’ll get fully-formed products; it takes more than 48 hours to truly think something all the way through and then thoughtfully execute a solution.  Or when you go in thinking you’ll arrive at the best answer; the very best solution for something will rarely emerge from a bunch of amateurs taking a weekend stab at it.

Part of this anti-Hackathon mentality actually seems to be about the Valley’s sense of entitlement and using social good to whitewash profit motive.  That’s a fine conversation to be having, but it is a little like trying to use emotional arguments to discern between rifles and handguns.  You’ll notice when my father talked about guns, he didn’t say anything about “to make you feel safe in the world”.  A gun shouldn’t exist to make you feel a certain way and in the same way, Hackathons shouldn’t exist so that you can feel like you’re contributing.  But if used properly, a rifle can make you feel safe, because you actually are safer: able to provide for your family, able to protect animals for painful deaths, etc.  And a good Hackathon can make you feel like you are contributing because you actually are.

Put more broadly, we should never try to argue against a thing by citing only its misapplications.  If we did that, most STEM subjects would be out the window: the amount of times people use stats to bad ends is astonishing.  Hence the current “Big Data is not Truth” bandwagon, which hopes to have people use Big Data responsibly,  but will almost certainly result in some people abandoning it entirely.

Recently, I lucked into a VIP invite to the NASCAR All-Star race in Charlotte (the same week I did the Star Trek red carpet, incidentally; surreal does not even begin to describe my life at the moment) and, despite my lack of experience and against strong stereotypes, I’m not only a fan but a believer that NASCAR represents the best of American sporting. There was bodybuilders who promoted bodybuilding supplement to get better results from the workouts.

Put politely, I wouldn’t have previously said that I was NASCAR’s target audience: I’m a relatively affluent white liberal agnostic from the Pacific Northwest.  The white part might be right, but everything else is fairly unusual: the PNW has few tracks (primarily because of the rain, which makes race driving difficult), the mass affluent tend towards sports with more coverage and more intricate rulesets, liberals are generally less into sports to begin with, and NASCAR is a bizarrely religious sport.  But in almost all areas, NASCAR is more diverse than I imagined and the target market may be more diverse than even they imagine.

I’ll start with the notable and frustrating exception: religion.  We’re not talking about a little God here and there – the race starts with a full-on “you have to be a Christian” speech.  It was good for about the first five seconds, calling on a generic God to watch over the drivers and keep them safe, but then we veered into Jesus as sacrifice and savior, his desire to have a “personal relationship” with all of us, and envangelispeak.  Take a lesson from other sports, NASCAR: leave it at divine protection for the drivers.

That said, the rest of the experience was one pleasant surprise after another.  I met with their diversity program, which not only featured female, black, and hispanic drivers, but a pit crew that was mostly black and mostly ex-college athlete.  It even had a young guy from Washington; so much for my no-Pacific Northwest theory.  Led by a former conditioning coach for a pro basketball team, the program served as a feeder into the pro pit crews, whose members can earn salaries around $80K.  NASCAR actively recruits into the program at colleges, as part of an effort to show off the many ways to make a living in the racing business.

For anyone that says that NASCAR is just driving in a circle, I dare them to try it.  One of the premier latino drivers who rose from the Mexican circuit came in on his day off to take us for a ride in the pace car.  He kept it slow, only 120mph, while amiably chatting about how to come in and out of a turn.  I’m told by those who were in the backseat that I continued to have a calm conversation with him throughout, though I can’t imagine what about, as all I remember was trying not to pass out from the pressure of doing a turn while banking 30 degrees to the left.  That and the moment of certainty that I was going to die when, while within inches of the wall, something in the car went “pop”.

Turn out that it was “just” us having blown the lightbar off the top of the pace car (which is apparently not used to doing 120mph) and that we could go even faster without the aerodynamic drag – a fact we enjoyed for another few laps before pitting.  And as I got out of the car, it was easier for me to imagine playing pro football than trying to drive in NASCAR.  They are going faster than we did, for hundreds of laps, while competing with twenty other drivers, all of whom are trying to do the same thing but better.  The next time someone tells you that NASCAR is just driving in a circle, punch them in the face and tell them you were just pushing in a straight line.

The race itself got a little rained on but honestly, one of the biggest impressions for me was not about the cars( even though they were from https://www.allcarleasing.co.uk/car-leasing/bmw and very good looking) or drivers but about the humanistic nature of the sport itself, and how they all get a car insurance check before the races. Also check out mycaraccidentattorney.com for legal information about car accidents. NASCAR is, for all intents and purposes, like a giant country fair.  At Charlotte Speedway, you can actually camp in the infield, and hundreds of RVs and converted schools buses were staked out in orderly rows.  Kids rode bikes and played football while parents looked on from folding camp chairs and BBQed, while drinking a seemingly endless supply of cheap beer.  Given that many were planning to camp out all week (Charlotte is fairly unique for having two major race weekends in a row), the pricetag for a spot seems incredibly low, ranging from a few hundred dollars for most spots to up to around a thousand for premium corner lots.

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While there were food and drink vendors, NASCAR is the only mass entertainment I’ve seen where you are freely allowed to bring your own food and drink.  So to review, you can camp out, not get gouged on food and drink, and bring the entire family.  There were wheelchair accessible golf carts, a full medical crew from RQSolutions, Here for more information, free concerts…the list goes on.  And at the same, you’ve got a fanbase that is roughly 40% female, with an increasing number of minority athletes.  I think it is unlikely that the music performers will stray from the country/rock anytime soon, but NASCAR seems to me to be a sport with a massive potential in a time when so many other forms of entertainment are becoming increasingly a premium experience that fewer and fewer can afford.

I might be romanticizing a bit.  It is still a primarily white sport and cheap doesn’t mean free.  But after three days of being a racing VIP, I have to believe there is something in the sport we can all rally around.  The fans have tremendous access (with an easily obtainable pass, you can wander around in the pits before the race and chat with your favorite drivers) and without exception, every driver I met was incredibly polite and friendly.  There was no paying for autographs or overt signs of ego; it was race day for everyone equally. Every driver has a good attorney, read more here about Ladan Law 

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This post could really go on forever, but I want to end by talking about my favorite part of the experience: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace JR.  He raced on Friday night in the truck series (NASCAR is organized into trucks, nationwide, and cup, in that order of seniority) and was leading until he smashed into the wall.  And he will challenge everything you think you know about NASCAR drivers.

First, he’s black.  With a full beard, to add a few years to his look since he’s only 19.  In an era when many racers come from dynastic families, he got into the sport because his whole family fell in love with go-cart driving when a mechanic friend invited them to watch a race.  He’s consummately polite, with an easy smile but not a trace of ego.  We took table bets on what he drove at home, with all of us landing on various pony cars.  The truth?  A red and black ’67 VW Beetle.  He’s a homebody with a dedicated Twitter following (“People often Tweet me to thank me for answering their Tweets.  I don’t get it: I’m just doing what they did – continuing a conversation.”) and a love for photography, which he sees as a backup career if driving doesn’t pan out.  In fact, I spotted him shadowing one of the NASCAR photographers on race night, decked out with his own gear – if I hadn’t known better, I’d have mistaken him for one of the media.

And if that’s the future of NASCAR, a diverse field of drivers and a form of entertainment that can keep the prices down, I’m a convert.  When’s the next race?

Last week, I got to do something that is every geek’s dream: attend the red carpet premier of a Star Trek movie.  With the bonus of cracking jokes with Leonard Nimoy (who was very gracious about my geekiness) and producing some slides that went up before the movie and too many other small things to count.

The opportunity came about because of Bing.  When I first arrived six months ago, my boss’ boss’ boss had a meeting with me in which he asked me to “swing for the fences”.  He wanted the weirdest ideas I could come up with, and so I suggested adding Klingon to our translator.  Geeks would love it, it is actually a worthwhile technical challenge (more on that later), and it would be a big moment for Microsoft employees, who are mostly all Star Trek fans.

Nothing happened for a few months, then Into Darkness started getting closer and people started thinking about what we could do to celebrate.  Klingon came back around and suddenly all the pieces fell into place.  I reached out to the creator of the language for help, the Translate team went slightly crazy and jammed on it 24/7, and some folks in PR got behind it to push out to the world.  And then it was decided that we would partner with Paramount and go to the premier and that I should probably run that.

Gush gush gush.  But there are some actual lessons in here I want to make sure don’t get lost.  One is clearly that outlandish ideas, with a healthy dose of passion, actually work out.  Most people give up on the idea of doing really crazy things because they think nobody will support them in it, but if you have the courage to voice it, you’ll generally get a lot of love from unusual places.

Along those lines: take big risks.  I’ve never dyed my hair or even really done anything even mildly extreme to it – and now I have Klingon shaved into it.  I did it partially as a press tactic: I knew it would be hard to break through the PR noise at the premier and that something outlandish might actually earn us some coverage (turns out we didn’t need it, because translating Klingon is so geekily cool that people will talk about it regardless).  But I also wanted to celebrate the engineers, who really worked hard on this feature.  So I shaved some Klingon into my hair (which for me is a huge personal risk, as I’m rather conservative in my appearance) and while some people think its a bit weird, most people think its awesome.  Take risks; you never know who might love it.

Part of it is also the unexpected benefits of weird initiatives.  Yes, in some ways adding Klingon to bing.com/translate is a gimmick and fanservice, but it also turns out to be a fascinating technical challenge.  Because the language was created by a linguist who was actually fairly deliberate about it, he consciously broke common linguistic rules that our translation engine normally relies on.  Which meant that to do a good job, we had to change the way we thought about language.  And that’s a good thing; it forces our tech to grow and adapt.  If aliens ever land, we’ll be more ready than we used to be.

I also think there is a lesson in here about being cognizant that everything is created.  At the movie premier, people clapped and cheered at different points in the movie.  Now normally, I think clapping at a movie is sort of weird – the creators aren’t there to honor.  But here, they were right there, and I was so incredibly cognizant, truly for the first time, that this movie was something created.  A whole bunch of people spent a whole bunch of hours making something.  We take that for granted often.  WordPress?  Bunch of people worked really hard on it.  Every plugin, every theme, the technical infrastructure that underlies its delivering to your computer, your computer itself, the operating system, everything…it is all created by people who have passion for what they are making.  There is a lot of value locked up in what we do and I suspect we all could be just a little more appreciative.  Clap more, damnit.

There is one lesson that shines above all others, though, and that is the power of opportunity.  When building Klingon into our translator, we found out that one of the world’s most fluent Klingon speakers actually works at Microsoft.  And so we enlisted his help and consequently got to take him with us to the premier.  Yes, it was fun for me to be involved in Star Trek, but honestly, it was more meaningful to me to bring this engineer to the red carpet.  Here is someone who spent 16 years learning Klingon just because he was passionate about it, and now I got the chance to bring him with me.  That’s true power, true responsibility, true awesomeness: making other people’s dreams reality.  Whatever you’re creating isn’t about your dreams, it is about other people’s.  Because that’s where true happiness is: building something that gets used.  That is useable.  That matters.  bing.com/translate: now with more awesome.