Saturday, July 7, 2018

On Ethical Leadership and Keeping Us Great, Again…

Who is James Comey?  When a future history book  is written, will he be the pivotal character in American History that caused the fall of our great country? Or is his new book, “Higher Loyalty” destined for the ash heap?  I guess that will depend on if we survive, as a country.  As empires go, we still have a few more years in us before someone has to write the book about our fall. Some days it feels we are closer than others.  Maybe it will all turn out to be a bad dream.  Comey’s book, however, reminds us that it’s not a dream.  What’s happening is very real and it's very bad.  This, from the once top cop in our country.  The former Director of the FBI.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it...but I dove in, trying to make sense of our current administration and the events surrounding the election of President Trump.  It’s all there.  Step by step, page by page.  Why there was no criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton.  Why Director Comey reopened the investigation on the eve of the Presidential election and then quickly closed it.  But perhaps more important, his personal conversations with Trump, for which he took notes, and then of course his spectacular firing--perhaps the most outward, brazen, and morally bankrupt acts of a US President since Watergate.  Yet here we remain.  Trump in charge and a country divided.  It should be noted that Comey is not whining, he’s providing the facts, just the facts.  He’s letting his readers decide.

Just like the book, I do not want this review to be divisive. Most who support Trump will have stopped reading at “Who is James Comey?”  But that’s Ok.  This book isn’t going to change a single mind.  His book isn’t about impeaching Trump. Rather his book is a call out to all who serve in the public eye to be ethical leaders with a higher sense of loyalty. Not to a party, not to a cause, but to our Union and a belief in our Justice system.  A system that demands truth.   

Oddly, Comey is the last person one might think to be on Hillary Clinton's side. Many in law enforcement lean to the right.   Everybody thought he leaned to the right when he opened the  the investigation into her email, and then they reversed their opinion when he failed to indict her, and then reversed their opinion again, when he reopened the investigation, only to reverse it again, when he closed it, only to sing his praises (or damn him) on the morning of Trump's election, and then, of course, only to reverse it again, when it looked like, in Trump's eyes, he was leading an investigation into Trump on Russia.  The left was neutral on that one, their necks had already been snapped off.   He wasn't opening that investigation as many thought.  Nevertheless he was fired just in case and because he wouldn't show a lick of loyalty to the Don (or Donald) in Washington (my word’s not Comey’s).  Does that sound a bit schizophrenic?  That’s what happened.  And, oh by the way, it’s not Comey with the mental illness.  Yes our Country’s  head was spinning like Linda Blair's.  And I think, that it why, the book was necessary. At least we have Comey's side of the story.  Which is helpful.  Each of us have our own story, what we thought, what we decided to do about ti.  But it’s helpful because now we know what the guy in charge was thinking, and at a minimum, why he did it.  And I can tell you from reading his book, that his side is far more rational than your side...whatever you were thinking, because he had the facts.  None of the rest of us did.  Even though the evidence was staring us in the fact.

So what does Comey think?  First, he thinks Donald Trump has leadership skills that parallel the crime bosses of NY.  The Mafia, The Cosa Nostra.  And he speaks from experience having prosecuted many cases of organized crime.  Trump demands loyalty, manages by transaction, and truth is irrelevant.  A modern CEO of a publicly traded company could never survive in such an organization.  Such a leader would never be elected to the job by a public Board of Directors to begin with.   Or if he was, he would be replaced fairly quickly. 

Something happened in Russia and he lied about it.  That should come as no surprise. He doesn’t know what exactly, he also doesn’t care if there were prostitutes in his hotel room, or what that prostitutes were doing. He cares that Trump was obsessed with telling him it’s not true and that nothing happened.  That obsession is a tell tale sign of having something to hide.  And if you have something to hide,  that means someone can blackmail you, in this case Russia.  If he would come clean, he would no longer be under the risk of blackmail.  Something happened.  If nothing happened, there is nothing to obsess over.  How do you obsess over something that didn’t happen?  If someone accuses you of robbing a 7/11 and you didn’t and they never produced camera footage, because you were never there, you have nothing to anchor your obsession.  Your brain has nothing to recount, nothing to remember, nothing to say over and over again (if you’ve ever obsessed over something)  if only I hadn’t done this or that.  A man who has spent his life time investigating crime, as Comey has, knows human nature. He knows how people react in these stressful situations.  Something is not right. Something happened.

The next part of the book details the Linda Blair period of our history running up to the election.  No indictment for Hillary.  Why?  Because no one gets prosecuted for mishandling classified the way she did.  You get fired.  You get walked out.  But you don’t get prosecuted.  If it makes Trump supporters happy, they got their day.  Hillary was fired.  Hillary was walked out.  The case should be closed with regard to prosecution.  Why can’t they lock her up?  There still is no case.  But he reopened the investigation, days before the election.  Why?  New evidence emerged.  Emails they never had access to previously.  If you don’t open the investigation it’s a cover up.  He had to reopen the investigation.  And of course, no smoking gun.  You still can’t prosecute.  In our Country, you can sue, you can scream and cry, you can protest, but you can’t prosecute without a sufficient evidence of a crime.  We all should be thankful for that fact.  That’s the heart of our Justice system.  So Hillary never lied, but she mishandled our secrets, and the American people fired her.  Even those who didn’t like her, but supported her, over Trump, believe justice was served in this case.  Now we have to deal with the aftermath of not having alternative.  It’s bad for us, but this is the annoying situation that arises from having to tell the truth.  And a boy scout, like Comey, is going to tell the truth.  It’s not unlike when your wife asks you the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?”.  A boy scout tells the truth, Comey tells the truth, and deals with the awkward aftermath.  The rest of us choose the little white lie in order to maintain peace and tranquility.

The end of the book describes the four conversations Comey had with Trump leading up to his firing.  Following the first conversation Comey knew immediately he had to write things down.  Believe what you want to believe, but I believe the red flags that were going up all around him, the bizarre nature of the circumstances and the conversations that ensued, would compel any normal person to take a few notes.  Comey has convinced me he was the normal person in these conversations.  He was the adult.  He was the guy without a bias, without an ax to grind, and with everything at stake...his job, for starters.  Trump was obsessed and irrational.  As we all know, the firing of Comey and the things that Trump said in the aftermath, lead to the logical conclusion that Comey didn’t mislead, or misrepresent those conversations.  Again, however, you will have to read the book and judge for yourself.  I can tell you I’m convinced.

Maybe one day Comey will return to public service.  His book has convinced me, not only is his version of the story reliable and accurate that he is indeed a true public servant.  We need more like him in the service of our country.  That is what will continue to keep us great.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

An Evolution Too Far

Sociopath. Harsh words. But in the closing pages of “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup”, Pulitzer Prize winning author John Carreyrou, suggests Elizabeth Holmes might actually be a sociopath. After reading his book, and watching a few videos of Elizabeth Holmes in action, speaking about Theranos, I don't think she is a sociopath. She is definitely lying, even though the power to believe her is as compelling as her blue eyes, blonde hair, and black Job’sian turtleneck. She was living the Silicon Valley dream of “Fake it till you make it” and giving her the benefit of the doubt, she brought this brand of business ethics mainstream like no other. Is she a lying, sociopathic scam artist? Or is she faking it, till she makes it, Silicon Valley Extreme Makeover Edition style?

Theranos was the quintessential Silicon Valley startup that at one point reached a $9B dollar valuation and her the cover of Forbes magazine. Given all that, it’s hard to believe Carreyrou is telling the truth. Let me say that again. It’s hard to believe a Pulitzer Prize winning author at the Wall Street Journal is telling the truth. Investors, wealthy men, and women, who we all respect, would also find it difficult to believe Carreyrou. Does that sound familiar? The false narrative we all want to believe is true, a disruptive, game changing technology, making health care affordable, taking on the titans of the medical industry is a story we all want to believe. But it all turns out to be a lie. Carreyrou, in fact, has the facts. Yet we still wish it it to be the other way around. We wish that it can be made to be true. If only Holmes had more time. Some investors wanted it to be true so badly they invested $100M of their personal fortunes. Rupert Murdoch the owner of the WSJ for example. How’s that for putting Carreyrou in a pickle? That fact alone might win Carreyrou another Pulitzer. It’s important to note that Carreyrou has reported that Murdoch was approached by Holmes, not once, but twice to put the kibosh on his story. Both times Murdoch trusted his editors to get the story straight and allowed it to go to press. That might be the single most important fact in the mountain duplicity that surrounds this case.

Even though now in hindsight, her behavior seems to defy logic. Her motives, while the facts of this case have been well sourced and recorded, remain as secretive as she the elusive nature of the technology behind the patents with her name on them. As it turns out, literally, one day after I finishing the book, Holmes and her boyfriend were indicted as criminals in a Federal court. It’s possible that over the course of the criminal trial, all of the facts in the case will finally reach the light of day and we will get our answer...maybe. But I still don’t think she is a sociopath.

So, how does, a 19 year old, Stanford dropout, with no biomedical engineering, software, or healthcare experience, raise $700M in venture capital? That is the phenomena that Carreyrou reports in this book. It is a compelling as any business book I have read. And it’s easy to see how it may also top the charts of best business books of the year...or “How Not to Run A Business” book of the year if there were such a category. Thug tactics are not the best way to run a business. But it’s easy to see how she did not run her business like a true Silicon Valley unicorn. She was no Peter Thiel or Elon Musk where the inspiration and perspiration goes into the technology. Her inspiration and perspiration went directly into raising capital and covering up for the non-existent technology until they could invent it. Which again raises the “what if?” question. What if she would have focused on the technology? Could she have invented something, while well short of the Theranos dreamstate, could still be defined as medically useful? I think the answer is no. Gates wrote MS-DOS. Job’s invented the Apple in his garage. Zuckerberg banged out the code for FaceBook in his dorm room. Similarly, Elon Musk banged out the software that would become Paypal. Holmes didn’t like needles. That’s insufficient knowledge to change the world. It’s easy to see that wanting to be like somebody else is also insufficient motivation to change the world. I don’t think she is a sociopath. I do think she believed in her vision, she just didn’t spend enough time in the lab to realize that her vision was an evolution too far. She was chasing a unicorn that didn’t exist and was unwilling to listen to her people simply because she didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand the technology. Unlike other Silicon Valley startups, a few cans of Red Bull and an all night coding session doesn’t change biomedical science.

On Amazon book reviews I have said I’m giving this book 5-stars because it’s a page turner, it’s well written, well researched, and a necessary story about the ethics of a Unicorn start-up. I will deduct 1-star because the term sociopath, as applied to Holmes, seems like a personal attack and an easy out when trying to find the motivation behind her actions. There is a far less complex answer starring Carreyrou in the face which in my mind is an even more damning indictment of Holmes given that she started Theranos. She is not an engineer and simply the worst biomedical scientist ever to run a biomedical company. No one has figured that out yet. But they will. Case closed.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Utopia means many things to many people.  Certainly none of those meanings have anything to do with the Utopia that Sir/Saint Thomas More wrote about when he penned “On the Best State of a Republic on the New Island of Utopia” late in the 15th Century.   My Utopia includes endless lush soccer fields with plenty of cold beer in the aftermath.  Others may view their Utopia quite differently.   Very quickly, however, should you randomly approach people on the street, you might find answers to Utopian question that run the gamut from such things as the end of hunger or the end of unemployment to the more controversial things such as universal health care--heaven forbid.  

Those answers would be closer to More’s Utopia than mine, but I can’t help think soccer would be one of More’s favorite pastimes, had it been around back then.  Soccer, you see, is far more akin to a balanced state of social justice then the economic dominance of the winner take all mindset always at the root of capitalism.  American football, for instance, is capitalism at its finest and more closely related to the philosophy of Conan the Barbarian, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”  Which, ironically, is also more akin to another book, published at about the same time as Utopia.  “The Prince”, by Niccolò Machiavelli, which was  published in 1513, about three years ahead of Utopia, would never be referenced in any bill on universal health care.  But to continue the analogy of soccer, low scoring games, well played, are superior to the breaking of bones.

More was well ahead of his time.  And that, perhaps, cost him his head.  Yet he was on to something big.  Something bigger than the governments of the day, something bigger than the Church of England, or the Catholic Church.  He was talking about justice.  Was talking about equality.  He was talking about happiness.  Institutions, such as slavery, were impossible to reconcile with his view of justice and thus, had to play a role in his Utopia.  Slaves, were not thus, slaves, but rather the incarceration of those who committed crimes against society.  That was an easy fix for the injustice of the day.  But so too were the inequities of commerce when the rich were in a powerful position to exploit the poor.  Fast forward 500 years. It’s now 2018.  Would anyone dispute that living in a democracy, be it in the United States or any other modern democracy, is Utopian?  I think despite our political differences we all can agree modern democracies figured most of it out.  Yes we have flaws but the precepts of More’s Utopia foreshadow most of our American values for justice and the value of human life.  We also work hard, wish to create as few laws a possible, and try to only engage in just wars. We do not commit criminal acts and we are free to worship as you please.  Above all, More believes that  an overarching principle of Utopia is to be happy. Bob Marley would echo that sentiment. 

Yet Utopia, despite the fact that we live in a very Utopian USA, is riddled with criticisms stemming from what can only be described as Marxism.  It’s communist at worst and  socialist at best.  Well yes, the Utopia that Thomas More envisioned had many flaws, but if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness equals socialism, then yes, socialism is what he wrote about...that, and an unfailing love of God and the Catholic Church.  Which isn't so bad either, and no would would argue the impact of the Christian theology on Western philosophy.  The Golden Rule is a prominent feature of Utopia, to name but one of the many ties.

We should all drop to our knees and thank Thomas More for writing this book, 500 years overdue. There can be no doubt his influence on our forefathers showed up in our constitutional framework.  We credit Hobbes and Locke...but perhaps we fell 100 years short of the real inspiration found in many of our textbooks.  Most likely because the common good of the common man flies in the face of profit the past 200 years.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

John Depp, Early Adopters, and the Best a Man Can Get

Have you ever used a disposal Bic razor? Single blade, hard plastic? I have. In the aftermath I look like Edward Scissors Hands [1] just completed a topiary. To avoid this look, my dad opted to use of an electric razor, presumably in the 60's. I've never seen him use anything else. He's used it all of his life having been, in my mind, an early adopter. Although Schick invented the electric razor in 1930 it required several modifications, with the introduction of the foil razor, and later the Norelco three-head, to really become mainstream.

Many men still prefer the electric razor. I suspect for the following reasons. One, men do not like to look like Johnny Depp. Two, they are still on the market being gifted and received under many Christmas Trees annually. And three, I saw a dude shaving with one in the car the other day. Gross. The women in the passenger seat had the vanity mirror down and was applying make-up. Maybe they fight over the bathroom mirror in the morning and this is their compromise? Still gross, but I digress.

Maybe this ability to shave in the car is the attraction. Not for me. I tried the electric razor. It never worked for beard just isn't my dad's beard. He has a five o'clock shadow by noon. I guess that's why I've never been able to grow a full beard either. It takes a special kind of beard to work with the modern technology..which isn't so modern anymore. My technology, the old technology, remains the same. Cold steel. And if you can avoid the lacerations, I much prefer the wet shave. When twin blades became ubiquitous, I never tried the electric razor again. I've been wet shaving every morning since. No improvement, over the twin blade, seemed necessary. Yet, when the twin blade was introduced, it was ridiculed by Saturday Night Live. When will it end...they mocked the multiple blades. Yet here, in 2018, six blades are available. 

I've been a twin blade purist for most of my shaving life. I resisted the urges to move to the triple. But in recent times it's been another force in the market place that has pushed for change. Mail order razors. New start-ups like Harry's and Dollar Shave Club sensed that men no longer had the available time to spend picking out razors at the CVS. Rather, for a monthly subscription, their razors would arrive in the mail. And the cost would be so low, rather than scraping your face with a dull blade, because you forgot to run to the pharmacy, you would have a fresh blade whenever you needed one. 

As mentioned in previous blogs, I am an early adopter, not an innovator. So I spent some time observing the mail order razor phenomenon before I took the plunge. I studied the business model. But studying the business model doesn't allow you to actually know what you are missing. You actually have to use the product. So here is the trade. Can the new companies keep the cost and convenience of using a new blade on a weekly basis undercut the well established companies dominance in the wet shave market. The business model makes sense, but are they sending you a quality product. Does the promise of a new blade every week provide better performance than the performance of a quality blade? This is not a quality guarantee you can trust the butcher on. You really do have to stick your head up the bulls ass and have a look around [2]. Dollar Shave Club and Harry's are competing with several titans of industry...well really only two because Bic razors suck...they should stick to cigarette lighters. So Schick and Gillette are really at the top. Harry's and Dollar Shave want to topple these dynasties with their business model. I've been a Gillette man for as long as I can remember. Why? Because it's the best a man can get. I believe that in my soul, but I also believe 4 out of 5 dentists survey recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum. 

Regardless how I got here...I logged into a monthly shave club and joined the buzz. I've spent about a year evaluating their product. Bottom-line. Despite the business model, mail order shave clubs are a scam. Quality blades from Gillette are far superior to whatever bullshit manufacturing process (and their German steel) these clubs are using. And if you are following their advice though to the inevitable end, you will ultimately be paying a ton more money for your morning shave, wasting more product and resources and getting a less quality shave. 

Over the course of my test period I tried all the razors they had to offer. The twin blade, the quad, and the boss (6 blades). The twin blade is what you get for $1 a month. The quad cost's you $6 a month. And the boss will cost you $10 a month. If you stick with the $1 a month plan, and change the blade 6 times a month (they give you 6 blades) you will save money. But you will not be shaving with a quality twin blade...nicks and cuts come easy if you don't go easy with these blades. I shave quick...not like Edward, but I like to throw the blades around in the morning. By comparison, you can buy the top of the line Gillette Fusion razor, with five blades, and all the technology Gillette has been working on. That will cost you $42 for 12 blades. Gillette wants you to use each blade for 4 weeks. So that's the essence of the trade. Pay $12 a year, get 72 twin blade cartridges, or pay $42 for only 12. Seems intuitive that the shave club wins. Except you cannot compare the shave with the twin blade to the shave of the Fusion razor. To compare the experience you need to elevate to the Boss. And thus, without much thinking about are now paying $10 month for 4 blades, or 48 cartridges a year, versus the paltry 12 blades of the Fusion from Gillette. Per cartridge, that's $10 x 12 / 4 = $3 for the club and $42 / 12 = $3.50 for the Fusion. You think that price point is a coincidence? The club is contending their blades are cheaper...they are, slightly. But you need to buy more...a lot more. Last time I checked, $120 / year was more than $42 / year. And you don't have to take any trips to the pharmacy. So is $10 / month worth it? What about performance? 

So...the shave club estimated their performance correctly. Their blade quality lasts about a week. After 4 or 5 shaves their blades are dull. So much for German steel. If you proceed to week two, and try to stretch the life of their blades, you run the risk of nicks and cuts. On the other hand, Gillette wants you to use their quality Fusion blades for a full month. Can you shave 4 full weeks with one cartridge? The answer, probably not. I can't stretch them that long. But you can get a quality shave for three full weeks. Which means you need more than 12 cartridges. But not too many more...just four. So doing the math...$3.50 x 4 = $14 for the extra cartridges. So for $56 a year you can use Gillette, the Best a Man Can Get, all year long. And if you buy them all at once, that's a single trip to the pharmacy. 

Now for you tree huggers out there...who tend to be early adopters of technology, thinking they are saving the environment by not going to the Pharmacy every week. Well, one, you are going to the pharmacy anyway. So buy your razors. And two, with the shave club you are disposing of 48 razors into land fills a year vs 16 from Gillette. And that's not to mention the packaging from the shave club...monthly boxes and postage. 

So I'll admit. I tried to work this all out in my head, a head of time, and it seemed like the shave club was the way to go. It's is not. Unless you like the twin there is no reason to switch methods.

As an aside, the club I joined also offered other products. I choose a tooth brush. Here again, for these items, one must stick to the companies who actually put some engineering into their products. Colgate makes the best tooth brushes. Unless you like brushing your teeth with a stick, stick to Colgate. 

1) Image:
2) Tommy Boy

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Yes Men and Echo Chambers

So here we are, 11 March, 2018 8:42 am (feels like 7:42 am). Flat Earthers are on the rise and drinking coffee will extend your life. With regard to the Flat Earther’s, Neil Degrasse Tyson blames free speech and a failed educational system [1] . With regard to coffee, apparently, even if you smoke, you get the beneficial effects of a lower mortality rate by drinking coffee daily [2]. Don’t mind if I do...

OK, in these two ideas we have a perfect example of the twisted life we lead inside current social media spheres. The flat earth belief is widely ridiculed but nevertheless promulgated, specifically, perhaps, because of its worthiness to be ridiculed. Yet some still really do believe and the number grows. And the other tidbit concerning coffee is music to our ears. Specifically, since so many of us drink coffee and eschew the criticism of caffeine addiction brazenly because it’s one of the very few indulgences that is politically acceptable to both the left and right. And now it may be good for us. It’s less clear that we have the same views politically on a failed educational system, but certainly, criticizing education is less a third rail in polite society then is gun control for example. Of course it’s not the parents’s not the parents who have failed (read with deep sarcasm). So it must be the dumbing down of society and our long fall from Biblical principles that has eroded our moral base and directly precipitated the necessity to arm teachers inside our failed public schools. After all, guns don’t kill people...let’s say it together everyone...people do. Thus the 2nd Amendment remains good and inviolate. 

So is Neil Degrasse Tyson actually suggesting that the 1st Amendment is bad? I like Tyson and I don’t like Flat Earthers (FYI I don’t know any Flat Earthers). I definitely believe something is wrong with our educational system (and our parents). But I disagree with Tyson as I don’t think it’s our educational system that is producing Flat Earthers. And I have a lot of trouble believing it’s our 1st Amendment that is producing them either. I don’t see many 1st Amendment speeches about the right to believe in a flat earth. I do see a lot of speeches about other weird things...thus I have concluded that weirdo’s really do exist. But haven’t they always, even without Twitter? Just ask someone from 13th Century about the Cathars and who the weirdos were at that time. And they didn’t have a 1st Amendment to hind behind or the excuse of a failed public education system to complain about. Yet they existed--past tense “existed” because the Catholic Church was both ruthless and successful in their extermination. About all that remains as household knowledge of the Cathars is the famous line from the siege of Béziers, “Kill them all, God knows his own” [3]. And of course they did...kill them all. Every single weirdo. But the question remains, where did these weirdos come from? Those that would be different. Those that dared to think outside the normalcy of society. They must be the product of something...perhaps a flipped gene, or better yet, a left over gene from the Neanderthal. Part of the DNA we all share if you happen to believe that it was ever possible for a homosapien Capulet and a Neanderthal Montague to successfully copulated.

So where do weirdos come from? I write this blog freely acknowledging that there will be a cult of weird that I am insulting. I fully anticipate a backlash of hurt feelings from both the clans “Weir” and “Doe” asking me to cease my assault on their 1st Amendment protections and right to exist in society. Should they appear to protest I apologize in advance and expressly state that I do not mean “you” specifically, and will say snowflake under my breath. This is nothing new and weird has been around for a long time. Long before the Flat Earthers, long before the Cathars, and long before the Neanderthal. Unfortunately the Neanderthal boyfriend was just a little too weird for the homosapien father who couldn’t stand idly by and watch it happen. Thus, in an act of fatherly rage (and ownership of both a .45 and a shovel) dad put the hairy boyfriend with elongated forehead to the stone. Alas his protection of the family tree was a little too late to avert the preservation of the Neanderthal gene and so here we are with a little Neanderthal in all of us. Weird isn’t new. We, as homosapiens, are a pretty weird lot since the beginning. We’ve managed to survive and move to the top of the food chain, a place we don’t actually belong if you’ve ever spent some time with a lion, a tiger, or bear in the wild. Oh my, it’s weird that we are even here. Isn’t it an abomination to the natural order of things? Thankfully, the natural order has a way of adjusting for things out of balance. Just look around. Call it God. Call it the Anthropic Principle (either weak or strong), or call it evolution. Balance is maintained. Yet imbalance is still necessary. In chemistry the equivalence point is when the ratio of acid to base is 1:1. Rarely do you find this ratio. Most of the time things are reacting with one another. So too are humans reacting to other humans. Some violently. Some less so. We react more violently to the weird...or is it the different. Maybe we are just a bunch of acidic chemicals with an approximated street value of $4.50 [4] reacting the the base chemicals around us?

So what really brings me to my rant today? It’s two movies straight out of Hollywood and popular culture. The first, “Wonder Women”. The second, “The Shape of Water”. Wonder Women brought in close to $400M at the box office last year. The Shape of Water won the Academy Award for Best Picture although with significantly less revenue. Wonder Women didn’t get a single nomination but was widely acclaimed. The movie was packed with the same story we’ve been told for decades, Diana is the daughter of the Queen of the Amazons, etc. Her first telling in 1941 by DC Comics [6] long before Gal Gadot was cast in the role. The fish story, however, was a bit different, and seemingly new to many people. But not really. Guillermo del Toro was just retelling the story of a lonely creature that has also been around for a long time, since 1954 [5]. This lonely creature, of course, is “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, and was one of my favorites as a kid back in the 1970’s. All of the monster films back then had a similar theme. The monster always falls in love with the beautiful woman. King Kong, Dracula, etc. Yet whereas Wonder Woman struck a cord of mass appeal, del Toro’s new creature drew aversion is some circles, even though, like Wonder Woman, the creature was portrayed as a deity. And this brings up the familiar theme of hypocrisy. Why are we such hypocrites? It’s ok for Chris Pine to bed a goddess, Princess of the Amazon, but it’s not OK for Sally Hawkins to make her own choice. Even though, at the end (spoiler alert) Hawkins is revealed to have a bit more fish DNA in her then was previously known. That aversion, more than anything else, is what divides us as a nation. Things that are different, things that are weird to us, even though hypocritical to our principles, is what divides us. It is what has always divided us.

We are all hypocrites. Admitting that we are hypocrites is the step one. That’s actually a pretty easy step to take because no further action is necessary. But should we want to take action, what is the next step? Those of us familiar with any “12 Step” program know that Step 2 is to believe a higher power could straighten things out. Well, in this case, our aversion to things different is deeply seated in our DNA. Aversion is an instinct. It keeps us safe from harm. Things more like ourselves are less likely to kill us...even though...history tells us the exact opposite is true. Most murder is committed by someone we know. Not the stranger. Even the school shooter, most of the time, is someone known by or connected to the victim. Is arming more people we know with guns the solution? The right says yes. The left says no. The right is comfortable with guns. The left is not comfortable with guns. Having a gun is normal. Not having a gun is normal. We are at a standoff.

What needs to happen if for both sides to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. Easier said than done. Here on social media some attempt to post things hoping the other side will see their perspective and change their mind. Some conversation ensues. A few thoughtful people try to keep the peace. Ultimately we retreat to a safe corner where a friend with our beliefs will give us a comforting pat on the back. Keep up the good fight and all that...

You should surround yourself with perspective. Not yes men and echo chambers. You should surround yourself with things that make you uncomfortable. Not so that you can eventually feel comfortable but so that you can understand what’s really going on when someone says they believe in a certain way. If someone is doing something repeatedly they are doing it because 1) they like it 2) they have always done it that way 3) they don’t know another way to do it. I am reminded of the story of the young person who left their small town for the first time and went to the big city. They saw a very familiar looking sign in front of a restaurant and explained, “Oh wow! They have a McDonald’s here, just like us!”. Now many of us would laugh, I would laugh, and the young person would probably not know why. To them that sign reminded them of their hometown, their parents, their friends, their first cheese burger, or their first McBreakfast (Pancakes and sausage, Bricktown New Jersey, circa 1975). They would have no way of knowing, or ever seeing the 69 million daily customers or 37,000 other McDonalds signs in front of all the other restaurants in over 100 other countries [7].

That said, an expanded worldview is not enough. You have to walk a mile in the other person's shoes. Which means to start you have to get out our your own small mind and at a minimum leave the echo chamber. It’s an echo chamber of lies. This goes equally for both sides, it’s a echo chamber of lies. And yes men make it worse. Just because Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity don’t look like you fools you into thinking you’re not looking in the mirror. You are. Just because Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher doesn’t look like you fools you into thinking you’re not looking in the mirror. You are. It’s the same lie, just reflected back to you off the walls of ignorance. 

And now the danger, and of course here is where I leave the winding road of independent thought and show a little of my bias and reflection of an echo chamber. You can tell me it’s not true. You can tell me I’m listening to my own reflections on this issue. But I ask you to consider it at least a little bit two things from another persons perspective.

1) In my echo chamber of a mind the National Rifle Association is out of balance. It has become isolated and it’s own source of truth...which of course is self perpetuating. And once truth becomes rooted in it’s own echo chamber, with no input from the surrounding environment, it may deviate from the truth. It’s easy to tell from the external observer, who’s standing in the surrounding environment, why what they say is no longer true. For those standing in the echo chamber, it’s impossible for them to see anything but truth. What’s important here is to simply recognize that the echo chamber at least question if what you are hearing is an echo and maybe just look for another perspective.

2) In my echo chamber of a mind President Trump is becoming more and more isolated and is now almost completely surrounded with Yes Men? He is now deep within his own echo chamber. Some supporters, very few, have broken ranks. Again, I’m not asking that you believe me, I’m just asking that you consider the possibility that an echo chamber exists and the recognize the dangers of perpetuating echos above truth.

Shared perspective is what we need. Because weird is necessary.  Different is necessary.  Different perspectives could unify us because they help us survive when the world is changing around us.  When the water is rising it's the weirdo who knows how to live in the mountains that will lead the way. But reading a paper doesn’t actually allow you to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. You need to go live in the mountains. Neither does watching the news or going to the movies. You have to actually do the walking.  You have to go meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  And that’s extremely difficult to do inside social media...I suggest, at a minimum, take a mile walk outside of the echo chamber...and when you do, please do not carry an electric cattle prod...

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Expected Value of Gun Used in School Shooting

Here is something completely unexpected.  I set out to determine if my proposed buy back of an AR-15 from a friend was too much money.  Was I paying too much for the weapon?  It appears that at least a few of my friends were laughing at the notion, and further, if someone took me up on the offer, they would be laughing at me all the way to the bank.  My original thought was that they are probably right.  I didn't do much research to come up with the $750 as I was more or less taking what appeared to be a fair market value for a rifle that was legal, operational, and in fairly good condition.

By estimating the value based on probabilities I learned something more important than the concept of fire power...or more specifically that we should restrict the amount of lethal fire power that any single person could tote into the public square.    What I've learned is that beyond fire power there is a draw to these weapons that transcends most descriptions of simple inanimate objects.  The draw to these weapons is the potential for each weapon to cause damage.  It's the opposite of the value of tools.  Go into the Home Depot and you can rate tools on their ability to build something.  To create something useful out of nothing.  Yes, a circular saw is an inanimate object, but in the hands of a home owner becomes a tool that enables some pretty sophisticated carpentry.  So reversing again back to fire arms, the damage potential that any single gun will possess is directly  related to it's ability to inflict damage. Can I kill a wild boar with a single shot at range?  Can I stop an intruder at close range before they can harm my family?  Each of these things carry value that is hard to quantify.  The wild boar could be calculate based on damage to agriculture and the amount of time and money spending to eradicate the pest.  The value of home defense is almost impossible to place a number value on.

But I was doing different math.  I was trying to determine the probability that any single gun, of the 300 Million plus currently in circulation in the United States, would be used in a school shooting.  And from that, assess the Expected Value of that weapon.  Until I did the math I couldn't put a number on it.  Of course these numbers really don't mean a lot in a practical sense, but they do show something more tangible, dollars, numbers we can all relate to in a way to get some insight on value.

The number that emerged was $2,161 in Expected Value.  I define this value as the expected dollar value that is associated with any single weapon used in a school killing to take a single life.  This should then be the dollar value we, as a society, should be willing to pay to take that weapon off the street.  What is immediately clear is that I underestimated the dollar value of a weapon  potential use in a school shooting.  What is the exact number?  That's unimportant.  What's fascinating is that it's clear that the destructive value of these weapons will always far exceed their "street" value.  This is an intangible that's almost impossible to grapple with.  But if you've ever held a fire arm in your hands and have been unable to grasp it's draw....not unlike holding a precision tool (but not being a carpenter and knowing with to do with it) or a musical instrument (but not being a musician and knowing what to do with it) we all know we are holding something that should be taken care of, something of danger that should be respected, and something of value.  I now have another number, beyond energy in Joules, to talk about this subject.

Saturday, March 3, 2018