June 19, 2014
Last Wednesday evening, a big thunderstorm passed over Bethesda. I mean very big, and I mean right over. I mean that a deafening crash of thunder was accompanied by power going off for a second or so.
Then most electrical stuff came back to life. But internet service was conspicuous by its absence. The kids were horrified to be deprived of streaming TV shows. We don’t have TV as such, but with internet and wireless, the amount of TV content available is staggering.
It turned out that our fioS box was fried. So lightning can strike twice. Or rather, it can strike our internet service twice, without having to strike the same location. A storm knocked out our internet service at our previous house; the photo shows where the cable came into the house, and the lightning’s attempt to come in as well.
Verizon has now replaced the fried internet box, and the damaged wireless router. A few other things were also fried by last week’s storm: a desktop PC; a couple of LED lamps; a USB hub, attached to a laptop (but not the laptop itself); and either a printer or the cable connecting it to the laptop (haven’t had time to check it yet).
But we can relax now, since a third internet-destroying storm cannot possibly strike us…
May 14, 2014
There are many explanations of what net neutrality is, and why it’s a good/bad thing. It’s a good thing, as this video explains.
Perhaps I should be more specific. It’s a good thing for me. It’s probably a good thing for you, unless you are a large internet service provider, or are in the pay of one as a lobbyist, politician, or whatever.
April 7, 2014
Dan Pink is a five-star author, but To Sell is Human is “only” a four-star book. Having started with that sentence, I should explain it. The best start to the explanation is a quote from the book itself. “Clarity depends on contrast… The most essential question you can ask is this: compared to what?“
To Sell is Human (TSIH) is a four-star book compared to other books by the same author, and to other books about the same thing. Now, what is TSIH about? The answer, obvious from the title, is: selling. It is less obvious from the title that this is a book, not only about sales, but also about “non-sales selling”.
“Non-sales selling” is Dan’s term for “moving other people to part with resources—whether something tangible like cash or intangible like attention—so that we both get what we want.” A survey commissioned for the book showed about 40% of respondents’ work time devoted to non-sales selling. (I did a far smaller and less formal survey with a graduate school class, with a similar result.)
So non-sales selling is very similar to influence, and Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human shares its subject with Influence: Robert Cialdini’s classic account of the psychology of persuasion. Dan is explicit about his knowledge of, and respect for, the earlier book, especially in his chapter on clarity: Influence tops his list of favorite books on the subject. Dan’s judgment is sound: if I were to recommend one book on non-sales selling, it would be Influence (rather than TSIH).
The contrast with Influence may be more harsh than it is fair: TSIH does in some ways go beyond Influence, rather than attempting to go head-to-head with it. Most important, To Sell is Human is a book, not only about non-sales selling, but about sales selling and about change. Selling cars provides a salient example. In the past, the seller was much better informed that the buyer. That information asymmetry has been eroded over time, particularly by the internet. Dan argues that it is now better business, as well as better ethics, to sell based on empathy with the buyer than to attempt to exploit the (potentially well-informed) buyer.
However, sales selling and non-sales selling seem like strange bedfellows, or bookfellows: they don’t fit into the same book as naturally as they perhaps should. This is one of the reasons why To Sell Is Human isn’t in the same five-star class as Influence, and some of Dan’s other books. I could list a few other reasons, but none is major, and it’s time for a shift toward the positive.
TSIH is very much a Dan Pink book, with all the good things that implies. Dan explains convincingly why his subject is interesting and important. He makes each topic engaging with practical examples, draws on and clearly explains relevant research, and provides practical implications. It sounds easy, and Dan’s books make it look easy, but many similar (i.e. popular social science) books end up being superficial, stodgy, or both.
TSIH does not need to be pushed off a bookshelf by Influence and by Dan’s other books, however much this review might have so far put it up against those strong competitors. TSIH complements those other books as much as it competes with them. For example, Influence’s Epilogue warns of the threats lurking in an environment rich in content, when much of that content comprises attempts to influence us, and many of those attempts are deceptive or worse. TSIH is very much about the content-rich environment, but is more positive, and not just because this environment provides buyers with information previously reserved for sellers. The very volume of content provides opportunities for curation: to select from the abundant content, to share the selection, and thus to add value.
With TSIH, Dan also complements his best book: Drive. Drive is about motivation: what drives us. TSIH is about how we can move others. There can be few aspects of psychology as important, or as mutually complementary, as what drives us, and how we can move others.
One last complement is Dan’s website, since it complements his books well. One last compliment: To Sell Is Human is a very good book, and one that I might perceive to be even better were it not for the comparisons invited by a Dan Pink book about influence.
March 24, 2014
This is a game with two players, Arboma and Berckle. They are politicians who have agreed not to tap each other’s phones (or otherwise to spy on each other).
Each has a choice between sticking to the agreement, which will call cooperating, or breaking the agreement, which we will call defecting. Each would prefer to be able to make private phone calls. Each would prefer to be able to listen in on the other’s phone calls.
If we assign numbers to the possible outcomes, we can specify the payoff matrix for the game. Each player faces the same decision—cooperate or defect—although it is possible for each to decide differently. For example, if A cooperates and B defects, A gets zero, and B gets five (of whatever unit A and B are playing for).
|A cooperates||A defects|
|B cooperates||3 each for A and B||5 for A, Zero for B|
|B defects||Zero for A, 5 for B||1 each for A and B|
As A, how would you play? In other words, would you cooperate, or would you defect? Note that B faces exactly the same question, and the same payoffs. You will each choose to cooperate or to defect; you will do so simultaneously and without conferring.
Now you and the same person will play the game again. The only change is that you will now play it three times in succession, rather than just once. How did this change (three rounds) to the game change your thinking? Did it change your decision? What other changes to the game might change the players’ thinking?
You may have recognized the Politician’s Dilemma. It is the Prisoners’ Dilemma, with the prisoners disguised as politicians; I’ll shorten the name of this game to PD.
Why call PD a game? Because the study of models involving interdependent decisions is called game theory. Game theory terms include payoff matrix, used above, and Nash equilibrium. The latter refers to a combination of decisions in which each player’s decision is the best response to the other player’s. Not every game has an equilibrium, but PD does: defection by both players.
One of the interesting things about PD is that its equilibrium does not yield the best outcomes for the players. Both would fare better is they both cooperated. But, as we can see from the payoff matrix, if A cooperates, B will do better by defecting than by cooperating.
A player may think differently if they play PD multiple times against the same other player. (This is known as the iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma.) A player may cooperate, hoping that the other will reciprocate by cooperating in future rounds.
We might think differently about PD if we question the assumption that cooperation is “good”. For example, we can: change the setting of PD to business; have A and B represent firms (Arboma Inc and Berckle Werks?); assume that A and B control the supply of a product (i.e. assume a duopoly); and focus on the form of cooperation known as price-fixing. Then mutual cooperation would constitute collusion; it would maximize the outcome for both firms, at the expense of consumers.
Defection would mean competing on price. This would maximize market share for the price-cutting firm, and would also benefit consumers.
Should government act to prevent collusion between firms? If the answer is “yes”, the government can “change the game.” It can reduce the payoff for collusion in one or both of two ways. First, it can increase the penalties for colluding, by increasing fines. Second, it can increase the probability that collusion will be detected, by allocating more resources to investigation of corporate wrongdoing.
The government can change the game more radically by making sure that there are at least three major competitors in the industry. This moves us beyond PD, to what I’ll call the Peasants’ Problem, and addresss in the next post.
If you want to read more on PD, the classic book is Robert Axlerod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. Note about links: to Amazon; to Kindle edition, where available; I’m an affiliate, so there’s a danger I may earn a commission.
If you want to read more on game theory, I recommend Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life, by Dixit and Nalebuff, as accessible without being superficial. (I understand that their more recent book, The Art of Strategy, is rather similar, but I haven’t read it.)
If you want to read my favorite business book, go for it: Co-Opetition. It’s about the mix of cooperation and competition. Appropriately enough, its two co-authors were at rival universities: Harvard (Adam Brandenburger, now at NYU) and Yale (Barry Nalebuff, still at Yale).
.If you want to an illustration of old-school PD, here you are, thanks to Giulia Forsythe, Flickr, and Creative Commons.
March 3, 2014
Do you have any superstitions? I have one: the jinx. The NY Times reassures me I’m not alone: “people… tend to believe that negative outcomes are more likely after they “jinx” themselves.”
So when, just after I posted approvingly about Kickstarter, the site’s security was breached, I felt a little guilty. I knew I was being irrational. I also knew that I would feel less guilty if I backed something. I backed the boardgame Lagoon: Land of Druids.
Lagoon went on to meet stretch goal after stretch goal, closing with 3,503 backers and more than seven times its initial funding goal of $20,000. No jinx there. But my irrational belief in the jinx lingers. That’s not an entirely bad thing: it provided an excuse to get an excellent deal on what looks like a very good game.
February 10, 2014
One of the problems with restarting posting is that there are so many things I intend to post about. Kickstarter is more appropriate than most for the restarting phase. KS is “a funding platform for creative projects.”
I have backed a few projects on KS, most of them in the Tabletop Gaming category (i.e. boardgames or cardgames, videogames go in the category next door). One of my first was Eight-Minute Empire: Legends. As its KS project page shows, it met its funding goal of $10,000, and so was produced. It also met several stretch goals, attracting over $40,000 in funding. So I feel a little foolish that one of my reasons for funding was to make sure this worthy project got produced. Another reason was to get an early copy. Yet another was to get extra boards, and so I went up to the funding level at which they were included.
More recently, I backed Tangram States, in the Illustration category. I’ve always been fascinated by maps, and this one seems particularly cool.