The Experience Industry

I’ve always hated the, “America used to manufacture things, now it’s just services” sentiment.

For one, because it’s collectivist. Who is “America”? Individuals act, not notions of nations.

Two, because economic value, being subjective, is always the result of human experience. Experiences are not merely material. I may value a memory as much as a physical object.

Every economic decision is made weighing the value of experiences against the next best option. A well-made shoe that evokes little emotion because the marketing is nonexistent may create less value for me than a lesser shoe with marketing that makes me feel inspired every time I put them on.

There’s nothing scandalous about this. In fact, it’s a wonderful realization. It means you can get a lot of value without always needing tons more physical labor and material.

Creating experiences is always necessary for economic value. Creating material objects is only sometimes required.

Categorized as Commentary

Give Me a Car

Unless it’s walkable, I’ll take my own car over any other form of transportation hands down.

Planes, trains, Ubers and buses are varying degrees of inhumane, stinky, nausea inducing, and soul-sucking.

Yes, you can occasionally have a nice experience, but as a general rule, the more public the transportation the less civilized.

Country road or open highway behind the wheel. Everyone get out of my way.

Categorized as Commentary

Suffering and Independence

One of the hardest things as a parent is to let your kids suffer. But if you don’t, they’ll have a harder time becoming independent.

At each step, letting them work through harder things more and more on their own requires a small death as a parent. One, because you have to resist your instinct to save them. Two, because you can feel little by little them going out on their own; becoming less and less the child under your care and more and more an independent entity.

This is a wonderful development, but you can’t get there without the suffering of letting them suffer.

And maybe the hardest part is that your kids will not understand or appreciate how hard this is for you. In their weaker moments, they may even accuse you of enjoying it.

But parenting means, if nothing else, letting the part of you that wants credit for things die.

Categorized as Commentary

The Weird Distribution of Socialism

The water in French hotels is way hotter than the US.

There seems to be no governor on water heaters like the paternalistic US with its weak water heating thanks to regulatory condescension.

Then again, France is widely considered more socialist than the US. Everyone is always on strike, entitlement is common, taxes are high, and employment laws stifling.

This is why it’s quite hard to compare how free or unfree any two polities are. As a visitor to France, the things that most affect you feel refreshingly more free. Few smoking bans, lax alcohol regulations, and of course truly hot water.

But things that affect a permanent resident get worse.

The US has a bit lower taxes and fewer regulations on business, but a ton of nanny state laws on all the day to day stuff.

It’s hard to predict how government control and redistribution will emerge in each place. I try to not judge too harshly and find and appreciate the freedom in each.

Categorized as Commentary

I Want Details but I Don’t Want to Teach Them

I’ve got a problem when it comes to details.

When I work with teams, details get missed and I get upset. But as I diagnose how it happened, it’s almost always because I was too laissez faire in my management and communication style ahead of time.

I inculcate a bit of a loose ship mentality, but individually I run a very tight ship for myself.

I’m like this at home too. My desk, my office, and things I have total and direct control over are ship shape. But things shared with my kids tend to get messy and make me grumpy.

I am not good at teaching or showing others how to dial in the details. I do it myself, or delegate it, but don’t know how to handle the transitory in-between.

When details get flubbed up by others, it leaves me mad at myself every time. But I still don’t seem to get much better at preventing it.

Categorized as Commentary

Finding Dragons to Slay

Sometimes I’ll start to get grumpy, and wonder where it came from. I get short with my family and generally irritable.

Eventually, I get out of the house (ideally out of the city or even state) to go do something, and realize I just needed a little adventure.

Working from home is great. But if I never go out into the world to fight giants and hunt and find treasure, it wears on me.

The challenge is to find a challenge. Ideally something real, not just manufactured for romance (e.g. a mud race). The real stuff is less glamorous, but if there’s at least some sense of necessity about it, it better scratches the itch.

This week’s dragon is navigating ParĂ­s for work meetings. I don’t care for the city or the tedium of the travel, but that’s all the more reason to be thankful. It’s something I can conquer and come home victorious, with the spoils of war, and find my home once again invigorating and not dulling.

Get out there and slay some beasts and get some scars.

Categorized as Commentary

What You Did Right in Failure

Outcomes don’t perfectly align with inputs. You can have success while doing a lot of things wrong, and you can fail while doing a lot of things right.

You need to get the one big thing right to succeed, and get it wrong to fail, but everything else can be all over the place.

That’s why it’s important not to draw the wrong lessons. If every step taken by an eventually successful venture is retroactively treated like a good step, or every step taken by an eventually failed venture treated like a bad step, you’ll take the wrong lessons.

In a previous company, we got one big thing wrong. We were solving a problem millions of people felt only mildly, with a business model that needed them to feel it strongly. Hundreds felt it strongly, but our model couldn’t succeed with hundreds.

Slogging through the process for three years and trying to crack the code and figure out how to make it work took its toll. As it became clear what was wrong with the company, and that it couldn’t be fixed, the entire operation was tinted with the feeling of failure.

It stung so bad to fail that when I look back on things we did, they all give me a gloomy feeling. I associate all of them with failure. But in reality, many if not most of them were good moves.

We did a lot of things incredibly well. I’m starting to depersonalize now that more time has passed, and it’s enabled me to see lots of things I’d forgotten that we did. Things I can learn from and borrow for my current and future endeavors.

There are, laying among the junk heap of companies that got the one big thing wrong, myriad little things they got brilliantly right just sitting there, unseen and unused by others.

Like an incredible car with a bad engine, those other parts should be repurposed and combined with a good engine, not just ignored in the junkyard.

Categorized as Commentary

Dreams Make Me Grateful

Sometimes I think dreams serve the purpose of making us grateful.

Dreams are certainly more mysterious and complex than just that. I have very little idea what their full purpose or meaning is, but I think at least part of it is to create a renewed perspective on waking life.

The other night I dreamt I had a missing tooth, and then in the dream pulled another tooth out with my bare hands for no reason. I suddenly realized what I’d done, and looked in the mirror to see two of my front teeth gone. I felt horror and disappointment. I didn’t want to smile.

Then I woke up.

I have never been more happy to have teeth.

For the last few days, every time I’ve been in front of the mirror and caught a glimpse of my teeth, a deep relief has come over me and I feel thankful for every one of those pearly whites.

I’ve experienced this in more dramatic ways too. Many dreams where I was on the verge of death before waking, or where I was robbed, or even lost a loved one. The experience of waking and realizing with deep gratitude I still have those things washes over me in a way I don’t think it could by mere thought experiment.

Categorized as Commentary

When Companies Do Stupid Things

I keep seeing more disturbing and funny responses by various AI tools. They betray some kind of hypersensitive constraints programmed in to it, apparently by people who are terrified of it producing anything offensive to anyone. Which as a result, is offending lots of people.

While I, too, find these AI constraints odd and creepy, companies misread their markets and make strange decisions all the time. The solution is either for enough people stop patronizing them or criticize them until they better align to the market, or for people to create competitors to better serve other segments.

Criticism is fine and sometimes spurs broader conversations about implicit and explicit cultural values, but at the end of the day, companies ought to be able to make stupid things.

More dangerous than companies that make stupid things is the notion that companies should be treated as “public utilities”. AI bots, just like heads of lettuce or tennis shoes, are created by companies and given or sold to voluntary users. They don’t have to not be stupid. They don’t have to be reasonable at all.

We can point out the bizarre behavior of these bots, and it is of some benefit to do so, but the best solution is to build a better one.

Categorized as Commentary

We Have No Idea What’s Happened Before

I was reading the new Fenton Wood book last night (I recommend all of his books) and he referred to kids in the ’80s playing war games, with one side dressed up as Nazi soldiers and the other Americans as, “Something you could never do today”.

Then this morning a friend shared a screenshot of someone asking one of the AI tools to generate a picture of a soldier from 1932 Germany, to which it replied ‘no’, and explained that would be too sensitive.

I have no particular interest in Nazi soldiers or militaries in general, but I am fascinated by the concept of suppressing history.

Of course it’s a myth that history has ever been or could ever be some sort of complete and objective picture in the first place. Most things are simply forgotten. I saw a Tweet just the other day where someone was genuinely asking how anyone possibly bought airline tickets before the internet. They had zero knowledge or even ability to guess how humans performed a common task just a few decades ago.

Other things are suppressed by the controlling regime in secret or subtle ways. A little exclusion here, a little shift of focus there. That’s the more common way history gets re-written. Things that have been excluded are denied altogether and called myths, or severely downplayed in importance.

But to just say straight up, “We all know that happened. We all know it was real. We all know many facts about it. But we are not ever going to speak of it or represent it as it was again” is a bit startling.

People like to compare these developments to 1984, but in that story, they would at least try to convince you that they’d ‘always been at war with Eastasia’ when the rewrites happened. It’s different to admit there was a time of peace, but to disallow anyone to talk about it or share artifacts about it.

No, it has not gone that far. One AI tool refusing to render a picture of a German soldier is not a ban on discussion. But the principle behind it – we cannot depict this part of history because it’s offensive – is so broad and sweeping nearly anything could be justified in that way. And it’s contradictory too. Can anyone bad be depicted? Why and under what conditions? When does a person or epoch get considered bad enough to not be depictable?

It’s easy to get near universal agreement that Nazis are bad. But what happens with cases that are not so widely agreed upon? Majority rule? (Didn’t a majority in Germany vote in the Nazis?) A tyranny of experts?

Granted, as far as I know this instance is a privately owned AI company, which as far as I’m concerned can do whatever they like. The ideal way for these matters to be dealt with is freely by myriad individuals and companies in whatever way each deems best, and where the profit and loss signals of the market create a distribution of many solutions for many markets.

I hope that’s how things unfold. I fear they won’t. Not so much because I fear governments will prohibit more and more historical discussion and depiction, more because I fear the eventual reaction to private companies doing it. At some point, people will get fed up and demand laws to prohibit the prohibition, or some strongman to redefine what can be excluded.

I guess it’s oddly reassuring to know history has never been presented in it’s entirety and can’t be. Best is to be aware of this fact and know that it’s always skewed.

Categorized as Commentary

On Cussing

I cuss.

I grew up never cussing, though I heard plenty of cuss words. My grandfather was like the dad in A Christmas Story. He would weave them together like an endless tapestry. It was quite a work of art. I found it amusing, not offensive.

Movies I watched and people I worked or played sports with cussed. It never bothered me, but I also did not ever do it myself. It just seemed uneccessary.

Then, sometime in my early twenties, it started to seem necessary. Some forms of anger and intensity seemed to demand it. Some humorous moments were perfected by it. Plus, it was kind of fun and had a nice shock value for me, a Christian guy who never cussed, to drop a well-time naughty word.

I’ve never really had a theological view on cussing. Actual cursing – swearing by gods or calling on spiritual powers to harm people – seems dark and dangerous. But using crass words about bodily functions has always seemed to me not bad in itself, just contextually fraught for its ability to offend. An “All things are permissible but not all things are profitable” sort of thing. Also a “You have the freedom to do this but don’t use your freedom to cause others to stumble” sort of thing.

But I got lazy over time. Just like when I start drinking coffee every morning even though I don’t need the caffeine, before long I get so used to it I’m doing multiple cups without thinking or even really enjoying it. Cussing became an unthinking activity; filler words inserted far too often.

After many years not really paying attention to it, it began to bother me for two reasons.

One, I love words. Writing and speaking are two of the only things in the world I’m pretty decent at, and lazily inserting cusses seemed like a regression in my wordplay.

Two, it was needlessly off-putting to people I don’t intend to put-off.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a cuss word is exactly the recipe needed to put-off the very kind of people you want nothing to do with. I remember in the early days of Praxis, I had some podcasts or posts where I’d admonish young people to “Just get shit done”. The parents and kids that didn’t want to do the program because of that four-letter word were exactly the type I did not want to have to deal with.

But an occasional and well-placed cuss is different than the lazy kind that began infecting my vocabulary. I realized that, for example, as I moved to a new city and joined a church there, people may Google me and find podcasts or posts where I gratuitously cuss for no good reason. Do I want them to feel weird, or wonder what my deal is? Sure, I could argue that there’s no theological ground for being offended by my cussing (though I’m sure there are good arguments in the opposite direction as well), but is that the hill I want my reputation with fellow Christians to die on?

Worse, I’ve had moments where I’m in a conversation in the business context, and I carelessly drop a cussbomb. Only to find out a few minutes later into the conversation that the other person is a Christian. I have this weird moment where I’m tempted to say, “Me too! Even though I was just needlessly crass and vulgar. Hope you were able to know me by my fruit and light!” (I actually did say this one time).

So I’m trying.

I’m trying to clean up my speech and reserve cuss words for those moments where only they will do. Bear with me.

Categorized as Commentary

Reverse Chronological Snobbery

C.S. Lewis points out the error in assuming past ages were inferior to the present. He calls “chronological snobbery” the habit of using past age labels as insults, for example, “That’s medieval!”

He is completely correct that there is nothing inherently inferior about past beliefs or practices. And it cuts in the other direction as well.

We’re in a cultural moment where the past is becoming more appreciated, which is refreshing. Alternate histories (e.g. more perspectives than the state-dominated ones) and renewed and serious looks at the past are some of my favorite things. But in our frustration at the present, we mustn’t fall into the reverse chronological snobbery trap.

Just because it’s old, or was practiced for centuries, does not make it good or true. We have to employ logic and give a fair assessment to all things, regardless of their age.

Perhaps, like Chesterton’s fence, a very old thing deserves a bit more careful of an examination than a very new thing, due to the weight of all the minds who saw fit to maintain it. Some humility is in order. But this does not mean we need to romanticize everything, and turn every past idea that runs contrary to the present into something praiseworthy.

In most cases, humanity has subpar beliefs and practices across the board. The weakness in present ideas don’t make you more likely to find strength in past ones. There’s usually a bit of good and much amiss in both.

Categorized as Commentary

Just Ask

We are told to ask, seek, and knock when it comes to God. The same is often (not always) true of people.

When you want to know something about people, ask them.

The amount of assumption behind our thoughts and decisions regarding others is unnecessary; in business about customers or colleagues, in politics about enemies or voters or immigrants or whoever, in relationships about everyone.

“Maybe they’ll like this feature”, “They only care about this”, “They have bad intentions”. These conjectures are often all that big decisions and big emotions are based on.

It is much easier if you just ask people directly. Why did you do this? What do you care about? What do you think of this? What motivates you?

It’s amazing how often people will tell you the truth.

Any good economist knows this isn’t foolproof, as there’s a big difference between stated preferences and revealed preferences. Everyone says they love mom and pop stores even if more expensive (stated preference) but when Wal-Mart opens they shop there instead (revealed preference).

It’s good to observe actions – the fruit – and not just words, but asking people is incredibly handy when it comes to understanding motives. Instead of assuming the shopper above is just a liar or frugal, you can ask why their actions didn’t mirror their previous words. Maybe you’d discover that, while they like mom and pop shops in general, the particular one in town has a grumpy owner and they realized after one trip that they prefer the anonymity of a bigger store. That’s very different than just being a liar or frugal.

Curiosity about motives is hard to come by. When something happens, your enemies will immediately assume a motive that helps their case and hurts yours. As a reaction, you’ll assume an opposite motive. Meanwhile, nobody is taking a second to simply ask the actor about their motives.

Try it out. And with genuine curiosity and openness, not angling for a predetermined answer.

Categorized as Commentary