Thursday, July 31, 2008

I've Been Godin'd!

I love Seth Godin. I think he is an innovative genius for his ability to simply express remarkable ideas. (He really likes the term "remarkable," maybe I can score some points with him if I use if a few times in my blog.)

I subscribe to his blog and read it daily. But this one I just didn't get, maybe you can help me:

"Imagine that half the cars in the US get 10 miles per gallon. And half get 40 miles per gallon. Further stipulate that all cars are driven the same number of miles per year.

Now, you get one wish. You can give every low-mileage car a new set of spark plugs that will increase fuel efficiency by 5 mpg, up to 15. Or you can replace every 40 mpg car with a car that gets 75 mpg, an increase of 35 miles for every gallon driven.

Which is better?

Here is his answer:

It turns out that the 5 mpg increase is far better for overall mileage than the 35 mpg increase, even though it's smaller both as a percentage and absolutely. That's because the 10 mpg hogs use up so much gas. They're the low-hanging fruit, not just easy to fix, but worth fixing.

OK, math wizards, here is what this question looks like to me. You have 100 cars. 50 of them get 40 mpg (car X) and 50 of them get 10 miles per gallon (car Y). You can add 35 mpg to car X or 5 mpg to car Y. To me you get a higher overall mpg if you add 35 mpg to car A and you are saving more gasoline. So Just Don't Get It. Learn me something here.

Now, if you want to talk about what might be more efficient or what might get you more bang for the buck, that is a different question. Buying a $5 spark plug to improve 5 mpg rather than spending $20,000 for half of the cars might make economic sense, as well as an easy way to make an improvement that matters.

So I get the point that we can look for easy ways to improve what we are doing. I'm all over that point. And this is my easy way to improve my consternation - rather than spending weeks fretting over it (OK, I really wouldn't do that but it helps with my point), I can do the easy thing and ask the knowledgeable readers out there.


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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

You Bought What?

How do you choose what you are going to buy? Let's face it, you didn't just buy that _________ because it was the only one available and you desperately needed it. Did you realize that you just participated in building meaning into a cultural symbol? All those cliques and groups from high school are alive and well, with maybe a few more wrinkles and scars. You're still trying to take your school lunch and sit at the table with the geeks/jocks/cheerleaders/kickers/goths/etc. No one likes sitting alone.

Rob Walker, in Buying In (5), says that there are basically only a few rational (rational is a big assumption, but let's just go with it) ways to choose a product:

1) Price
2) Convenience
3) Quality
4) Pleasure
1/2) Ethics (more on this later)

What happens when there is very little difference between the products among these rational ways of choosing? For example, how much difference is there really among handbags? At, there are 32,363 choices. Is there a clear choice of number one based on quality? Apparently there is:

"Buying a $5,000 handbag just because it's a status symbol is a sign of weakness," states fashion icon Miuccia Prada (5).

Most of what you purchase, if you live in the USA, is based on your perceived identity, and thus brands. You might as well tattoo them on your head, Stephon Marbury style, 'cause you're already wearing them, carrying them, talking/listening to them, driving in them.

You can't really escape it, but you can be aware of it, and choose thoughtfully rather than as if you're trying to push your way onto that last seat at an already crowded table.


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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A New Word For Our Times

Occasionally I've posted on my daughter's creativity (such as here and here). But the other day she came up with a good one that seems appropriate to describe everything from presidential elections and Olympic fervor to teen-age girls. The word:

"Drama-matic." I really don't know if she meant to say it, but I like it. Rather, I like the word, but I'm not usually up for automatic-drama. Such as:

  • Telling my three kids to pick one movie - drama-matic
  • Leaving a cake in the office fridge with a note to leave it alone - drama-matic
  • Going shopping. Period. Drama-matic
I'm sure you can come up with a longer list of drama-matic moments. They're like appendicitis - something useless that hurts anyway.


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Monday, July 28, 2008

White Knights?

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight:

Bruce Wayne: That man in Burma, did you ever catch him?
Alfred Pennyworth: Oh yes.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Alfred Pennyworth: We burned the forest.

One of the big questions in the movie is: Do the ends justify the means? Perhaps you've heard of that question before. Honestly, I'm not sure many of us are sure of what ends we are even surely heading for.

When you think of Enron, when you think of the Rwanda genocide, (you should think of coltan), when you think of oil, its easy to see that sometimes we make deals with the devil so we can have what we want.

Hey, I know it's easy for me to say. I complain about $4/gallon as much as anybody. But maybe it isn't an either/or situation. Maybe there are ways that we can continue to grow in wealth without it being at the expense of others. Maybe there are ways that we can have our industrialized society without it being at the expense of the earth. Maybe we can still have good and fast transportation without fighting over a finite commodity. It's possible, and it's happening in some corners. Maybe we could do something great without having to be famous.

There are no ends that are worth sacrificing the value of people and our environment. But maybe we don't have to. So often we justify our own darkness to use it against the other darkness. We need more "white knights" out there that can help us with the ends without sacrificing our humanity with the means.


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Friday, July 25, 2008

You Are In Control

In the book Buying In, Walker quotes the experts as saying that the "new consumer" is now in control of the marketplace. We have all the information, we have the power to choose rather than a brand being foisted upon us. Really?

Walker goes on to ask:

So what would constitute proof that the consumer is "boss" and "in control" in some way that's new and unprededented? Lower credit card balances? A conspicuous absence of logoed apparel on city streets and in malls? A disappearance of consumer fads, trends, and crazes? A decreasing amount of advertising? Shrinking landfills? Bigger and more effective boycotts of unhealthy or ethically suspect products? Increased saving rates? Maybe - but of course, none of this is happening. Instead, one thing did happen between 2000 and 2006 - right as the new consumer was said to be bossing corporate America around like never before - was that the profits of Fortune 500 companies soared; indeed, companies in the "consumer staples" category of that famous index saw their profits more than double. This despite the fact that the real wages of most Americans were, at best, flat. During precisely the same period, the personal savings rate actually fell into negative territory for the first time since the Great Depression.

I don't know about you, but that depresses me. I think I need to go buy some Twinkies, or maybe some new jump-man sneaker, to make me feel better...

But here is the thing - you are in control. No, really. I may not be the trendiest guy ever (probably not even in your top 25 trendiest people you know), but my guess is that buying practically may even be its own trend. In a future post, we'll chat about Walker's point that there really isn't much difference between the products, so then it becomes a matter of which brand do I want to associate myself with.

We have so many choices, that sometimes it can be paralyzing; this is the subject of the book The Paradox of Choice. Apparently, the thought never enters our head that we don't have to buy at all.

How many boxes of stuff do you have that you never use anymore? What if you got rid of everything you didn't use in the last month? Heresy! Next week we'll chat about how to decide to buy something.


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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Addicted To Secrets

Every week I go to PostSecret. The basic gist is this: people send in an anonymous postcard with images and words that tell a secret of their life. I'm not sure exactly how I feel reading these deep secrets - the closest thing may be like how you stare at an auto accident as you drive by.

Some of the secrets make you just hurt for people, some are joyful, and some make you cringe. But you almost can't help but wish that your secret was right there with them.

Reading that blog is like being at an archaeological dig, uncovering a culture. Except that culture is your neighborhood, maybe even inside your home.

Telling your secrets isn't a new thing. It's mandated by the letter from James in the New Testament! The problem is trusting the people around us with this part of us, that part that isn't the smiley face and "How ya doin' Just fine."

What's the worst that could happen if you really just told people that secret? Rejection. It's just another indicator of how much we need community, yet at the same time we hold back from full communal envelopment.

Do you have someone that you feel you could tell anything? Do it. If you have to, send a postcard first. You are definitely not alone.


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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's A Dark Knight

Wow, just saw the movie and it was stunning. I didn't think I would go see a movie based on a comic book hero and it actually make me think. It's a good thing, and a great movie. But it was dark and disturbing.

Definitely not one for the kiddos. The Joker is not just a weirdo with makeup, but a demon trying to help people off the ledge. I could understand why someone would have a few nightmares filling in his shoes for a while. They outdid the last movie (we are a long way from Mister Mom wearing a cape!); it will be interesting to see how far they go the next time.

It was interesting in that it explored just how depraved we as a society are, and it barely gives a glimmer of hope (we don't ultimately blow each other up, but we would like to). It seems to want to bring up that old question - is humanity getting better or worse? - but I don't think it goes in one direction or the other, or even sits in the middle. It is not an either/or answer, but a both/and. We have our moments when we have that spark of goodness light up, but there is an ocean of darkness around it.

The Joker may get the spotlight, but TwoFace is the symbol - we want to be good, but sometimes it's just easier not to.


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Monday, July 21, 2008

String Theory and My Lost Socks

I've enjoyed listening to a number of TED talks lately, and today was no different. Brian Greene, a physicist, gave a talk on string theory. It is basically the search for a unification theory for the universe. Apparently, the answer doesn't revolve around ice cream sundaes on a warm summer evening. At least, for physicists.

Being a former physics genius (I once taught, or maybe a better word is "stumbled through" a basic physics lab for one semester), let me give you a basic summary: there are more dimensions out there than the three dimensions of space + time. How do we know this? Because it makes our cool looking calculations work if there are 11 dimensions.

I'm all for it. I mean, those socks go somewhere. And they reappear as lint in places that must come from some freaky dimension. If anyone asks me why I'm investing in the company Little Miss Matched, I say it's because there are too many dimensions for me to keep track of.

As if 4 wasn't enough. Just watching people drive should convince us to at least go back to 3.

Anyway, apparently below the atoms and within all that empty space of neutrons and protons and those zippy electrons, there are vibrating strings at the core of everything. These strings vibrate in different ways to produce what we are. This is actually a pretty cool image - Jimmy Hendrix is himself a complex guitar. It also gives me something to say the next time I blow it: "I'm just a little out of tune at the moment."


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Dialogue With Stuff

I've had previous posts about dialogue - a must for us humans. But I've just started reading the new book Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are by Rob Walker.

I really haven't thought about having a dialogue with stuff. When I go to the grocery store, I don't think "Sorry Kellog, but General Mills and I have been having an affair - I'm secretly addicted to those Lucky Charms." It is somewhat of a boring chat at times, but I suppose what I buy not only says something about me, but I'm communicating something back to the marketplace and to the public. It is certainly true that I'm communicating something when I wave my new iPhone in front of my jealous Mac friends.

Listen to this quote (p. xii):

I use the word dialogue because what I'm talking about is not a one-way process. It's not simply about the intrinsic elements of, say, Red Bull. It's not just about what a product is made of or what it's supposed to do. Nor is it just about a brand image that is invented by experts and foisted on the masses, who swallow it whole. Any product or brand that catches on in the marketplace does so because of us: because enough of us decided that it had value or meaning and chose to participate. Because of the dialogue between consumer and consumed.

What if you made a list of what you've bought over the last week or month and handed it to someone? What would they deduce about you? It might be a fascinating social experiment to post that list and see what people have to say; and it might not be what you are trying to communicate.


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