Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Sports As Training For War

For no apparent reason, I was reminded the other day of Wellington’s remark that the Battle of Waterloo (meaning, I think, Britain’s part in the Napoleonic Wars) was won on the playing fields of Eton. Now, the closest thing to today’s sports that was probably played on the playing fields of Eton was probably rugby. And that set me to wondering: How have all of today’s modern sports played a role in giving young men skills for war?

I have no idea whether my answers below are correct or even plausible. I just had a bit of amusement thinking them up. You might have some amusement thinking up your own – or you might be happy to correct me.

Let’s start with rugby, since Wellington did. The core of the game, for those who haven’t seen a sample, is the scrum, in which several people on each of two sides lock arms and attempt to maneuver the ball in between them back to their own side so that runners behind can run free, pass back and forth down the field, and if possible kick through goalposts or reach the opponent’s end for points. In the scrum, a lot of things are fair: pushing your opponents back through sheer weight, kicking them, kneeing them, tripping them.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the scrum is in many ways like the situation when two infantries are locked together. In that case, we read often, from the days of the Romans on, of situations where sheer weight or the skill of the infantryman in using whatever weapons are to hand in the melee determines who wins – but note that it is not the infantryman as a soloist who wins the battle; it’s infantrymen in lockstep with their mates on the left and right. It is as if you were fighting with arms locked together.

Note also that in the scrum, the arms are taken out of the equation entirely. It is as if you are asked to fight with both arms tied behind your back; it’s great training for using the rest of your body, and it also makes sure that you can treat fighting with your arms (pikes, guns) separately from fighting with the rest of your body.

So there we are at the Battle of Waterloo, and the English infantry have played rugby, and the French infantry approaching them haven’t. What happens?

Well, in the first place, the British infantry feels very comfortable stretching out into a long thin line, three deep, just like the line in a scrum, as the French approach. That means that there’s lots more fire going at the French than is going at the British. And then, when the French reach the British, you might expect the superior weight of the French as they approach in their square to be able to punch through that line. No; the British are trained in this kind of push and shove, and will give much less easily – just enough so that the outside of the line will wrap around the French sides and maybe even the back. And now the people behind the front line, who thought they were safe, are getting shot from the side, and they are beginning to panic, and all the steam goes out of the forward push, and now it’s one to one at the point of attack as the people behind stop pushing, just like in a scrum, and the British scrum line starts moving forward, shooting, bayoneting, kicking in the groin, in lockstep, and just grinding that front part down, and then the next front line, and the next. Sounds like rugby is pretty good training, after all.


This one seems pretty fascinating to me. It turns out that there’s a record of a baseball game played by the Union Army of the Potomac in the Civil War in the spring of 1864. It wasn’t our modern game; you can tell by the score, because both sides scored more than 30 runs. But that makes a point: at least since that time, baseball has been played widely at the same time the US is waging war. So what’s the training going on?

Well, we can guess some of it from accounts of World War II. Over and over, we read accounts of American soldiers throwing grenades from semi-long distances that clear out bunkers, snipers’ nests, caves, etc. And it’s clear that Americans are pretty superior at that. We don’t hear that many stories of Germans or Japanese doing the same. No, with the Japanese it’s the mass charge at the appropriate moment, and with the Germans, it’s the tank-led advance.

So it seems to me that some of what baseball trains for, at least since the Civil War, is the skill of the long-distance accurate thrower. The batter is 90 feet away, and you have to fit the ball into a box bounded by the knees, the shoulders, and both sides of home plate. First base is about 90 feet away, and you the third baseman have to get the ball to a rough circle representing the range of the first baseman as he is standing on first base. Home plate is 200-300 feet away, and you have to hit a circle around it on the fly from the outfield to catch the runner trying to score. You practice straight fast throwing; you practice arcing slower throwing. A good outfielder can put that grenade in a pillbox from 400 feet away.

Now let’s look at the other possible skill baseball trains for: sharpshooting. I was struck by an account of Sergeant York’s actions during WW I, in which he single-handedly killed about 30 Germans. It is strikingly similar to the actions of a batter facing a 100-mph fastball being thrown from 90 feet away. Over and over, we read of great hitters with superb 20-20 sight, highly trained to pick up the baseball and determine what it is going to do at the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand – 90 feet away. Squirrel hunting may train a youngster to shoot things close up; but it does not tend to train for seeing things 90 feet away.

And so (here I’m conjecturing) Sergeant York assumes he can shoot Germans from 90 feet away – much farther than the baseball-less Germans can shoot him. The moment he reaches that range, he focuses with his baseball skills, and then he shoots where he has focused. And it’s automatic.

But note that it’s not just Sergeant York alone. Otherwise, we’d just read about the Americans being good sharpshooters – ultimately, pretty useless in modern war. No, what this means is that many or most American infantrymen are comfortable shooting at longer ranges than their opponents. Isn’t it odd that, at Guadalcanal, the Marines newly introduced to war wiped out the Japanese mass charges, which had done pretty well against the baseball-less British in Malaysia? I don’t know; but I wonder if part of it was that the Marines could shoot them down at greater distances – because of baseball.


It’s impossible to talk about sports training kids for war without talking about soccer, because it’s so widespread. And it’s also puzzling to me: what is so useful about training kids to run long distances and kick a ball for most of that time?

Let’s start with the areas where soccer is hottest: Europe, Africa, South America. Not so much the US, not so much the Middle and Far East. All the areas where not just Britain, but also other parts of Europe were reaching out and settling in a major way in those societies from 1500-1900.

Now, what is it that running long distances and looking down at your feet as you do so is good for in the wars those Europeans have been involved in? Certainly, the scout. Probably, the skirmish line. Arguably, the long-distance infantry charge. But, again, we are talking about a sport that rose to prominence in the latter half of the 1800s. What has been its value in war training from then on?

Well, let’s start with one fact: in soccer, if you don’t attack, you lose. Whether it is the constant press or the counterpunch, fundamentally every soccer team understands that if you don’t continually keep up the attack pressure, you will be confined in your own end, eventually the ball will be taken away, and sooner or later by statistical chance a goal will be scored on you. When the sport is played at very high levels, this can be difficult to see; but for basic players, even the best solo dribbler can’t win for you; while constantly being able and willing to attack, will.

Now, this coincides with a fact of modern battlefields that, if I understand him correctly, John Keegan has highlighted: you simply have to find a way to attack, to break through, else you are faced with a bloody stalemate that everyone loses. The defenses are that good, now.

So, how does soccer avoid a stalemate? Well, here’s a scenario that I believe is somewhat typical: you get the ball; you feed it to the midfielder. He advances on the middle of the defensive line, and fixes it in place. He then kicks the ball wide to one side or the other, and the speedy wing races down the sideline and catches up to the ball, still typically outside what is now a defensive semi-circle. If the defensive line does not collapse back on the goal, the wing passes to the center forward, with the attackers in front of the goal outnumbering the defenders. If the defensive line does collapse back on the goal, the winger either crosses the ball to the center and trusts to luck, or passes the ball back and a ring of attackers passes the ball back and forth along the periphery, looking for a break in the defensive wall. You are always attacking. Attack frontally to fix in place; go around on the wings to attack from the sides; your opponents fall back, and back – if they can.

Sound familiar? It sounds like a German panzer attack on the soccer-less Russians, to me. And in a panzer or other tank attack, your infantry runs behind the tanks for protection, 30, 40 miles a day, always staying fixed on that tank. For your infantry, what comes naturally? Attack? Check. Run long distances? Check. Keep your eye fixed on something like a soccer ball as you do? Check. And their commanders, if they play soccer? Fix the opponent’s front? Check. Attack speedily on the wings? Check. Pass the ball of the attack back and forth between the center and the wings? Check. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, what I’m describing as a tactic, I have seen in books described as part of the genius of U.S. Grant in the Civil War. To me, what is striking is that no one else among the commanders on either side was thinking that way. Mercifully, apparently, U.S. Grant’s strategy has been enshrined in US military doctrine since then. But it clearly did not spring from any commander’s (or infantry’s) unconscious knowledge of attacking in soccer. Few in the US were getting trained in war by playing soccer.

But then, I ask myself, why was it that the British – who certainly were nuts about soccer from the late 1800s on – were not so good at the panzer attack? Why was it that, according to some accounts I have read, even Montgomery was more cautious and slower in his attacks on the wings than Rommel, so that for the most part Rommel lost to his opponents only because of fundamental weakness in his forces and tank resources? And then I remember reading Stalky & Co., Rudyard Kipling’s semi-fictional account of his stay at a pre-military-command academy in early-20th-century England, and I note that prowess in rugby was met with approval, while playing soccer is not even mentioned. Could it be that the British inability had something to do with the fact that while the infantry was trained in soccer, their commanders were trained in rugby? It’s a stretch, I know. Still, I wonder …

Other Sports

As far as I can see, other modern sports are not so widely trained in that they can affect infantry skills. Polo? That’s a horse sport, and, as someone noted in a discussion of Union cavalryman Grierson, from 1820 on the horse wasn’t a serious weapon, it was just “great bloody transportation.” Basketball and American football? Not really widely played as the primary sport until perhaps the 1950s or 1960s (and, by the way, until the use of the forward pass in the 1920s football was a bit like rugby). Tennis? Golf? Hockey? Give me a break. Auto racing? All right, I can sort of see it for modern tanks.

In fact, the one other modern training “sport” that I see as having a profound impact on one side’s ability to wage warfare is the video game. Again and again, the ability in a battlefield so dangerous that you could die at any moment to survive over hours and days comes from developing your ability to point and shoot really fast while playing a video game that stretches for hours and hours. Yes, sir, that tank battle that “won” the 2003 Iraq war was won on the playing fields of the Internet. Over the rise the American tanks come, as surprised to see the Iraqis where they were as the Iraqis were to see them coming from that direction. Guess who fired first, and more accurately, over and over, every one of those tank gunners? How much do you want to bet me that none of them had ever played video games?

But the one I’m really curious about is lacrosse. As I understand it, lacrosse comes from Indians in the Northeast playing it between villages starting sometime between 1400 and 1700. I understand the long-distance running; but why would they bother with a lacrosse stick? During most of that period, horses were not widely available there, so throwing spears from a horse was not a big factor in war – which seems to be the only obvious use for training in throwing something using a stick with a ladle.

The only thing even remotely approaching plausible I can come up with is that the lacrosse stick wasn’t about throwing at all; it was about training in not getting clubbed to death. I know, bear with me. At least some accounts suggest that what Indians did to win, eventually, was to club their opponents unconscious. Sorry, even with Indians, arrows are low-percentage. You get up close, and you hit him on his head. Now, think about how the lacrosse stick is used when you don’t have the ball. You’re trying to take the ball from your opponent, and you’re clubbing like mad. But you’re not clubbing his head (all right, I know some do), you’re trying to club the stick right next to his head, to jar the ball loose so you can scoop it up. And when you have the ball, you’re trying to avoid your stick getting clubbed. Much safer. Who needs training in clubbing? You need training in not getting clubbed.

And, of course, that means that lacrosse is pretty much useless in training for today’s war. Seen anyone getting clubbed lately?

The Future of Sports Training for War

Well, I think we have one plausible scenario for what future wars might be like: the tail end of the Iraq conflict. The enemy is not fighting in the front line, or even as guerillas; they are fighting house by house, city by city, soldiers and civilians intermingled. Your video game skills, your eyes and ears, are far less useful, because the enemy has been on this ground before you and prepared a death trap for you both that you can’t fully anticipate. And when you make a mistake and kill a trapped civilian, you create a new enemy, and so the resources of the foe are continually renewed. And this might go on, house by house, town by town, until you grow weary of the endless struggle, survey the wreckage, call it peace, and sanely withdraw.

Still, video game skills are not at all useless in this type of war. Clearly, the ability to assess a situation and react on a hair-trigger, hour after hour, situation after situation, at least gives you a better than even chance in each house-clearing. What you don’t have, from any sport popular with young men, is the ability to instantly assess whether it’s better to treat that house as full of civilians to be wooed or combatants to be overcome.

And yet, as it turns out, there’s a computer game that does indeed fit the purpose. It’s called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella.

You win the game not by force or speed (mostly), but by solving puzzles. You are placed in an alien land, and your success is defined by your ability to figure out who should be fought, and who should be befriended and gifted. The rules are the rules of folk tales, universal to every culture. Your protagonist is a woman, so you simply cannot win anything by strength alone.

It appears that girls and women are better at this game. I had some training at folk tales, and I did terribly when I tried it – much worse than at shoot-em-up or even technology-puzzle games.

Which brings up an interesting question. If girls and women are better at this sort of game, should we have them be our infantry and our commanders in this war of the future? Or should we decide not to start this kind of war in the first place?

I don’t know about you, but I know what I’m going to do.

I’m going to go play tennis.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Ode To Not Sticking Out

Recently, I saw a blog post by a published author noting the increase in self-promotion that he had seen in recent years, and asserting that it came at the expense of excellence. And that set me musing on how, in other ways, an alternate strategy of “not sticking out” appears to have major advantages.

It all goes back to a story from Greek history that I ran across when I was a kid. A recently-risen tyrant from one of the Sicilian cities sent an emissary to the tyrant of Syracuse – who had done it for quite a while – asking how to stay in power. The tyrant of Syracuse received the emissary next to a field of grain. When the emissary asked the question, the tyrant walked over to the field, where a convenient scythe was lying. Without saying a word, the tyrant began scything the top off of every blade of grain that stuck up far above the rest. When he had done this for a while, he turned and looked at the emissary, still without saying a word. The emissary bowed, departed, and conveyed the message back to his master.

For me, this is not a theoretical consideration. I remember one year at Aberdeen. Previously, I had done quite well selling and doing one-off contracts to computer vendors, whose combination of new customers and voluntary returnees meant that I could grow my revenues from year to year effectively. This particular year, the Powers That Be decided to focus on yearly consulting contracts, as these appeared to outside advisors more likely to generate return business that made revenues more stable. Whatever the merits of this, it was not likely that I would do as well at getting yearly contracts initially as I had at getting and doing one-offs – I had a lot more practice at the latter. And if I had previously self-promoted excessively or made my actions highly visible, so that everything I did was extremely obvious, I would have been among the first in the line of fire if the initiative lagged.

As it turned out, I continued my one-off selling, quietly, while making careful “training” tries at selling yearly contracts. Sure enough, at the end of the year, the initial impetus had died down, I had brought in the most revenue except for the partners, and nobody really cared any more that I was not 100% focused on selling yearly contracts. I figure I gained myself an extra four years of substantial added income by Not Sticking Out. Yes, I could have gotten more if I had self-promoted and succeeded. Still, I could very well have gotten a lot less if I had self-promoted and failed.

Obviously, avoiding getting your head chopped off – or yourself fired at work – is an advantage of not sticking out; but that seems to pale for most compared to the advantages of successful self-promotion. What about other considerations?

Safety In Numbers

Fundamentally, the argument goes this way. Self-promotion and visibility are aimed at gaining outsized success. If one succeeds, that very visible success attracts attackers – not to mention increasing one’s own paranoia that one is being attacked. That’s a very exhausting way to live.

Think of the way today’s security operates – that is, let’s say, the NSA or the police, or even the IRS. Computers scan your communications, your purchases, your video records from shopping or at gas stations. Yes, the NSA may be looking at certain code words that may indicate a terrorist threat. But they are really looking for unusual patterns of behavior, not just the kind of use of these “code words” or other behaviors that most of us exhibit. If they picked us up every time we used the word “terror” in a sentence – well, you get the idea.

Now you achieve outsized, highly publicized success – say, as the CEO of a major bank. Suddenly, the bank runs up massive losses on your watch, so the government has to step in and everyone in the US is affected. No problem, business as usual – you watch your public statements, and guard your emails, as you have been doing for quite a while. Except that all those unguarded conversations at the golf course or over lunch are now suddenly fair game, as well. You can only go so far before you let your guard down; and now your inevitable increase in attention from being the head of the bank is added on to the scrutiny you received as being the visible head of a major part of the overall financial industry before this occurred. Who are the politicians going to ditch if they have to? Why, the CEOs whose heads the press has been howling for. Who are the lawsuits going to target first? Who is going to find the TV cameras parked outside his or her door?

Let’s be really clear about this. The choice is not about being rich or not being rich. The choice is usually about being more rich, 5-10 years earlier, but with a clear possibility of a lot more aggravation from then on, or being less rich, slightly later, with a lot less threat to one’s wealth. A book in the 1990s called The Millionaire Next Door makes the point. The author was asserting that there were as many or more millionaires out there who were rich because they were frugal. Yes, they were – but they were also self-effacing: drove compacts, lived in a medium-sized Colonial in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, very little self-promotion. It appears that you’re just as likely to reach the status of being rich, statistically, if you don’t self-promote and Don’t Stick Out as if you do. Meanwhile, after you’re rich, your kids suffer less at school from being a rich or famous parent’s son or daughter, you live your life with far more privacy, and you don’t have to hire private detectives every time your spouse, your employer, or the government sneezes.

In fact – and I credit Dorothy Dunnett for this, and call it Dorothy Dunnett’s Law – it’s a good idea in your life to pick only one thing in which you are visibly different from almost all. According to Ms. Dunnett, one little foible can be forgiven; more than one can only be accepted by labeling you a harmless eccentric or a lunatic. One can be visibly outstanding at sports, like an NFL quarterback; but if you also reach the heights in advanced mathematical theory, you are not to be trusted to win Super Bowls, as Frank Ryan of the Dallas Cowboys once found out.


Ah, yes, but the glories of praise! The recognition, the attention, the egoboo you receive when you succeed!

I once had a standard spiel for many of my reports at Aberdeen, because I kept seeing it so often in those entering the computer industry analyst business. I would tell them, for about a year you are going to find that this job gives your enormous satisfaction because of the way you will be quoted in the New York Times, in the Boston Globe, maybe on TV, so that all your friends and neighbors will suddenly wake up and notice you and pay attention to what you say. After about a year, that will go away. From then on, you need to find your satisfaction in this job in the fundamental way you are advancing the computer industry by envisaging and encouraging the right new solutions, and thereby doing good for everybody. That lasts. Egoboo doesn’t.

But, you protest, why then do movie and TV stars seem to keep on wanting such attention? The answer is, they don’t really – unless it’s a bit like a drug that has less and less effect the longer you take it, but to which you are addicted. For the rest, it’s the price you pay to stay at the top – and it’s a steep slide from the top, with every press story looking to complete the story arc of poor little girl makes good, gets corrupted, and destroys herself. And then there are the stories of those who exit the limelight completely and appear to do quite well. Fran Tarkenton, the great quarterback, became the CEO of quite a nice little computer company after football. He was far less visible in the computing industry than he was in football, and he didn’t spend comparable time signing autographs and being harassed at restaurants.

It’s Not Either-Or

One of the difficulties I have at this point is that many seem to think I am going to the opposite extreme; total self-effacement, total lack of initiative, total failure to compete, total failure. On the contrary, I am arguing for a slightly moderated form of self-promotion. You want to be Avis, not Hertz. You want to be Number Two, not Number 13,456. You want to be Spencer Tracy the loyal side-kick in the 1930s who became everyone’s alternative leading man until the 1960s, not Clark Gable the leading man’s leading man who ten years later was not a leading man any longer. Warren Buffett, not Donald Trump.

And now we circle back to the blog post with which I began this. Because I agree with its author in this much, at least: if you are indeed Number Two, you have somewhat better odds of achieving true excellence in the long term, and all of its lasting satisfactions, than does the Number One self-promoted beyond his or her abilities at the time. As it did in my case cited above, the lack of notoriety gives you more room to maneuver, more opportunity to develop skills in things that are excluded by a past history of being paid for just one self-promoted skill. Who spends more time doing the Catskills, the TV or movie comedy star who carves the time out of a tightly packed schedule of productions and promotions, or the comic foil who has fewer promotion burdens and whose absence for an episode or two is less damaging?

The Bottom Line
At the end, I need to refine my message further. It’s not that Not Sticking Out is for everyone; it’s that on average we’re better off if Sticking Out is not the strategy chosen by everyone. Most who try to Stick Out will fundamentally fail. Most of those, I think, would be better off if, as the author suggests, they focused somewhat less on self-promotion and somewhat more on being Number Two.

An Ode to Not Sticking Out. On second thoughts, I don’t want to stick out for my poetry – not that I could. I’ll stick to promoting my computer industry analysis skills. How’m I doing?

p.s. Take a look at my labels for this blog post. Think about other ones I could have chosen. See what I mean?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rules for IT: The 90-10 Rule for SSDs

Over the last couple of years, as disk has gained attention relative to tape and SSDs have arrived as a probably-chosen option in all sorts of hardware, I keep hearing a plaintive question from analysts – including myself – why don’t vendors such as EMC and IBM seem to be giving users guidelines for how much SSD to use? Well, I don’t have an answer for that question as of yet. However, it occurred to me today that my experience holds a guideline that just might be useful to IT. So, as a throwaway on an interesting day, I’ll just sketch it out in this blog post.

What I was taught by reading one of the great computer books of all time, Tanenbaum’s Structured Computer Organization, is that the ratio between fast and slow storage (e.g., main memory and disk) seems to naturally follow a 90-10 rule. Specifically, that rule more or less goes as follows:

Make 90% of the storage slow storage, and you will achieve 90% of fast-storage performance at 10% of its cost.

I realize that the implications of this are not apparent at first glance, so let me try to explain them (as best I understand them from a lifetime of experience): In the average application, 90% of the time the information needed for that application as it is running can, by hook or by crook, be in main memory waiting when the application needs it. The other 10% of the time, the application needs to load that information from disk, and on average that load makes that instruction’s performance 100 times slower. So you have slowed the application by 10% compared with its performance if you have all the main memory that is needed.

However, if the speed is 100 times slower, the cost of storing that piece of information is also 100 times smaller – and so, 10% of your storage is now “full cost” main memory, and 90% is “1/100 cost disk”, for a total cost of 11% of a main-memory-only system.

However, this explanation alone does not capture the implications of the 90-10 rule for IT. Fundamentally, IT budgets run along the lines of: do more at the same cost. And so, the way it translates into IT buying is: switch from main-memory-only to memory-plus-disk and you can handle 9 times the workload at the same cost. And, on average, that’s the best price-performance you can get.

Now, we have a situation in which a new technology, SSDs, comes in between memory and disk, with intermediate access times and intermediate pricing. It would seem that in this case, somehow, the 90-10 rule is thrown completely out of whack: both memory-to-SSD and SSD-to-disk ratios should be 30-70, or some other huge reduction. However, it seems to me that 90-to-10 is still pretty close to the right ratio in both cases. Think of it this way: in the cases where memory goes to SSD instead of disk (81% of all cases), the speedup might mean an optimal ratio of 94-6. However, where memory needs to go to disk instead (9% of the cases), the optimal ratio of disk and memory is 90-10, so the disk-SSD and SSD-memory ratios are around 70-30. Averaging 1/10 times 30 and 9/10 times 6, you come up with a ratio of 90.6 to 9.4 for both memory to SSD and SSD to disk. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist all that math.

So why shouldn’t vendors say 90-10, your mileage may vary, and just have done with it? Because it isn’t just your mileage may vary, it’s your mileage may vary depending on the type of application.
Inevitably, any system you buy needs to perform on one type of application rather than, or more than, others. And the 90-10 figure is an average gained from experience – it is never going to be more than an average. Into the indefinite future, the correct ratio for a particular application may go as high as 95-5, and as low as 75-25 (my vague sense of the likely limits).

So the decision process on SSD that I would follow if I were an IT type would be: what is the maximum “safe” ratio for a given application that must be on this system, or, if you want to figure that out indirectly, what is a safe distance above the minimum average performance for that application? Let’s see, it’s compute-bound, so both ratios should probably be around 93-7 …

But I just want to hammer home the reason why you want to do SSDs in the first place, now that the price is right. Remember, you got 90% of the performance for 10% of the cost when you added disk? Well, if you then add SSDs, the result is like 81% of the performance at 40% of the cost.

Only that’s misleading. What it really means to IT is, compared to an all-main-memory system, you now get 22 times the performance at the same cost.

Gee, you’re not getting as much bang for the buck as when you moved from memory to memory-plus-disk? Well, boo. Hoo. That stuff is so 50 years ago. You’re getting 2.5 times the price-performance you had yesterday – for free.

As far as I can tell, the 90-10 rule lives. Just another free service from us analysts, while those lazy vendors forget to look in their history books.

And if I’m wrong, I’m sure some vendor infuriated by the insult just above will correct me. In which case, you the IT buyer will still have the rule you need. As Alfred Bester said in “The Stars My Destination”, it’s always a lovely day somewhere.

Microsoft Pledges To Go Carbon Neutral. Wow

I just read an article in the Washington Post stating that Microsoft aims to go carbon neutral in its direct operations, starting in fiscal 2013. As I read the details as reported, my reaction was what you see above: Wow.

Why wow? Well, they have reached the point where they have enough information on these operations to measure their carbon impact. Now, they propose to charge a fee to each business unit based on their lack of carbon neutrality. And that’s fundamentally different from what I’ve seen from any business before.

You see, this approach embeds drastic reductions in net carbon emissions in the company financials, and therefore in the company culture – and that is only one of two approaches that have proven to work in situations like this in the past (the other is “World War II in America”, where the whole population is mobilized to fight a global war on carbon emissions). No other company approach that I have seen delivers the potential message: you don’t do this right now, your business (in this case, business unit) goes under. And that message is precisely appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in.

At this point, some readers should be itching to point out that Microsoft is applying this method far too weakly and with far too narrow a scope. And that is true, too. It appears that the fee is not yet strong enough to clearly deliver the “out of business” message. Microsoft needs to apply this to indirect operations, else its units will simply offload the emissions to outsourcers. Microsoft needs to re-source its energy almost entirely to “clean” energy sources – and that doesn’t mean natural gas. Microsoft needs to reduce the net carbon emissions associated with use of its products (almost entirely on PCs) to 10% of their present level. And, last and least, Microsoft needs to reduce its employees’ carbon emissions from travel to and from work to 10% of their present level. Oh, yes; Microsoft needs to do all this (plus what it is doing) starting right now, and be finished within the next 10 years, and keep those net carbon emissions, from then on, level in absolute terms indefinitely into the future.

Yes, all this is true; and it’s also true of every other business I hear of. Even the most aggressive of countries (I think Germany and Norway might qualify) also suffer from these flaws. That is why I typically say, looking at our situation, that our present best-practices reactions to the climate-change crisis are pathetically, disastrously inadequate. But here, at last, on a very small scale, is a long-term company strategy that imho has any probability at all of being adequate in the short and long run.

Microsoft, wow. Take a bow, you deserve it. Now you need to do it a hundred times better. Starting right now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Business Agility and Business Theory in Sloan Management Review

One of the things that has been striking to me about the expanding field of business agility theory is how many things it can be applied to. I thought it might be interesting to share business agility theory applied to the major articles in a recent issue of Sloan Management Review. My apologies to the authors if I have distorted their message in any way.

Getting the Best From Corporate Functions

Campbell, Kunisch, and Muller-Stevens suggest that corporate functions “don’t get enough strategic direction from the CEO.” They suggest a four-step approach to fixing this:

1. For each function, define key sources of corporation value-add.
2. Review function strategies annually.
3. Develop a corporate initiatives matrix so function execs can see how their efforts relate to those of other functions and operating units.
4. Break out corporate services so they focus on unit support rather than control.

From an agility point of view, several things about this strike one. First, in an agile world, all corporate functions should be about service rather than control. Or, more exactly, they should view units (not the CEO) as their immediate customer and they should be mindful of the ultimate customer (the business’ actual customers). This is not to say that no “control” goes on; it just says that at the same time, the function and the unit are exchanging information, the unit seeking information to perform better, the function seeking information (and not just “deviance” information) in order to have the overall corporation perform better.

Second, why is the CEO getting in the middle of this in the first place? Hasn’t the CEO got enough to do? Is it really necessary to impose a process where the function is periodically checking back with the CEO to see if the function is doing the right thing? Shouldn’t we be instead encouraging better understanding of the ultimate customer in each function, and how to integrate with other functions and the unit to respond to and if possible anticipate the needs of the customer? I have been watching the field of agile marketing, and they propose an integrating function for marketers that allows functions and units to interact in just this way on a per-product basis. Since marketing typically does have something similar to the CEO’s strategic vision, plus somewhat of a direct line to the ultimate customer, that sounds like a better model to me.

On the plus side, this approach has the merit of at least establishing a closer link to the ultimate customer via the CEO. On balance, in terms of moving towards business agility, this is likely to be a plus. Business agility theory suggests that any other benefits are primarily a side-effect of that increased agility.

Investments Aimed at Revenue Do Better Than Those Focusing on Cost

Mithas, Tafti, Bardhan, and Goh report a study that suggests that IT investments (especially those aimed at new-revenue generation) offer better return than ad or R&D spending -- and that this return superiority is increasing over time. They conclude that corporate should favor IT spend aimed at new revenue over spend focused on costs.

This finding sounds suspiciously like my analysis (based on an Aberdeen worldwide survey) in 2009 of agile software development. Software continues to become integral to new-product differentiation in more and more industries. Based on the returns of switching to agile development in the survey, we should expect increasing agile software development to increase profits and decrease costs in new-product development, and only decrease costs in the other two categories of the business (risk management aka disaster handling, and ongoing operations). Therefore, permanently improving new-product development agility in IT will increase profitability more than operational initiatives (typically aimed at reducing costs) and risk management initiatives (typically for regulatory compliance or to reduce the negative risk of disaster). And, by the way, agility in whatever area tends to reduce the negative risk of disaster and increase the positive risk of unexpected additional earnings or “free” cost reductions.

Note, by the way, that business-process spending, if it connects to new-product development and the ultimate customer, can have a positive impact equal to that of investing in new-product development agility.

The study itself covered the years 1998-2003, well before agile development was present in significant amounts anywhere. My feeling is that what we are seeing is identification of one of the ways agility works: it maximizes the effectiveness of new-product investment that is already paying off in other ways, and therefore, subtly, shifts ever more investment into the “biggest bang for the buck.”

Growing Into New Countries Case by Case

Bingham and Davis find that companies use both direct and indirect approaches to the countries they enter, as well as starting off “soloing” or “seeding” by using local companies for part of the initial entry. They conclude that key determinants of success are the company’s initial skills in each, plus their ability to adapt their approach to a different requirement of the local market. They recommend, among other things, pre-training in the new countries and learning via local companies.

From a business agility point of view, the reaction would be, I suspect, this is news? Something is amiss in a globalizing company’s agility if they are not already incenting to focus on the next country entry, and the next, and changing to meet the needs of each. Instead of swinging the entire corporate superstructure ponderously around when the new target proves difficult, the corporation at every level should be ready to push their antennae out to the ultimate customer the moment the decision is made to move, and to achieve it by the path of least resistance – whether that be soloing or seeding – always remembering to keep a channel open past the local company to the ultimate customer. Business agility theory suggests that, usually, focusing on the change itself, rather than increasing profits or cutting risks with no change, leads to the most profit and the least risk.

Patent Agility

Kappos and Graham argue that common patents should be applied worldwide in order to speed patent issuance. By all means; such standards will simply speed issuance, not decrease patent quality, more or less. But agility theory sounds a cautionary note here: increased speed without increased effectiveness only provides one-quarter of agility’s benefits, at best, and at worst can actually double down investment on an un-agile process.

I would suggest that today’s patent process is over-balanced in the direction of the intermediate customer, the business, rather than the ultimate customer, the business’ customer, and this will simply exacerbate the problem – the problem being that there needs to be a better mechanism to allow patent offices to move in sync with both sets of customer. A half-measure may be to reward “offensive” (moving towards the future) patent applications more than “defensive” ones. A more proactive one might be to vary patent time frames as the balance shifts between the business’ needs and the ultimate consumer’s needs.

Major Change Requires Major Skepticism?

Johnson, Yip, and Hensmans study companies achieving successful major change (forced and unforced) and find that the best at it have a tradition of challenging the status quo “constructively” (a very vague term) and getting around corporate rigidities by establishing informal channels. Their specific recommendations include some odd ones, including non-intuitive promotions to “spread the worldview” of CEO successors and “encouraging tension.”

This is an area where business agility theory has no clear answers as of yet. System dynamics suggests that, no matter how well patched, corporate processes inevitably fail, sooner or later, catastrophically. Agility theory says that the time to failure can be extended by embedding constant incremental improvements in these processes; but it does not say that the time to failure can be extended indefinitely. It might possibly be that less-agile urges towards major change will indeed be better for the business overall by ensuring more frequent avoidance of this type of failure than more-agile urges towards incremental change that simply decrease this type of failure’s frequency.

What we can say, however, is that steps like “ensuring that decision making allows for [constructive] dissent” do very little if anything for business agility. In the agile business, it’s rarely a matter of “dissenting from company policy”; it’s more a matter among choosing among options for change, with the customer being often the ultimate arbiter. The customer doesn’t care whether you, the CEO, set a business policy or not; they want what they want, and your business policy is simply a constantly shifting guideline on how to respond, a guideline that you want your organization itself to evolve, rather than constantly feeding questions back to you.

Turn the Company’s Beliefs Into Strategic Success?

Goddard, Birkinshaw, and Eccles argue that the beliefs of its employees are a key company differentiator, and therefore should be consciously a part of the company’s strategy. They then suggest ways of evolving these “belief strategies” as needed via such tactics as discovering, discarding, marooning, and neutralizing (the details aren’t pertinent to this discussion). In a sense, this article puts the psychology of the company on the analyst’s couch, identifying the company’s early experiences and their manifestation in the company’s subconscious, and suggesting ways to make these conscious and so understand how to move forward from a frozen neurosis.

Business agility theory sounds an extremely cautionary note about this. One of the real dangers of focusing internally rather than on the ultimate consumer is that the neurosis will turn out to be narcissism: the belief that one’s image of the customer – an image reflecting rather one’s self – is the reality of the customer. Raiding other company’s “belief strategies” is a rather poor patch-up for this: other companies typically have the same problem.
This concern is particularly appropriate when you consider that a recent IBM CMO survey showed that the gap between the way the CEO and CMO viewed what the company should be and the actuality of the way its lower-level employees thought it was, was huge. In essence, the employees saw the company acting, in all sorts of ways, counter to what it wanted to send out as the corporate brand.

What agility theory would suggest instead, I would guess, is that businesses (a) reality-test their corporate function’s belief systems against employee and customer perceptions before they do anything about them, and (b) consider how agile the “belief strategies” remaining after this step are. In other words, how do we set up a process so that we are agile enough to reach the point of being in sync with a new belief strategy, and how do we evolve it agilely after that? If the organization does not do something like this, I would guess, a “new belief strategy” may in fact make the company even less agile, by reinforcing corporate narcissism.

New Business Model or More Agile Customer Interaction Process?

Amit and Zott argue that developing a new business model (which they define as a new system of connecting with the customer) has a much better return on investment today than new-product development. They then go through ways of creating the best business model (not pertinent here), and close by suggesting some fascinating questions (excerpted) that the business should ask itself when creating a new business model:

1. “What perceived needs can be satisfied through the business model design?
2. Who should perform each of the activities in the business model, the company, a partner, or the customer?
3. How is value created through the novel business model for each of the participants?”

The reason these questions are fascinating to me is that they create a new process that specifically requires that the business try to put itself into the mind of the customer (or partner) and ask what value they see. That is fundamentally different from imagining that the customer is like yourself; and it is fundamentally more agile. Bravo to the authors for intuitively understanding the power of such an approach.

The other key point they are making, however, is undercut by their suggested use case – electronic publishing. It seems to me as I examine that use case that what they mean by new business model development and what I mean by new-product development are, at the least, extremely difficult to divide into two separate categories. What they would call a new electronic publishing business model, I think, I would call new electronic-publishing product development that includes a new business model. Had one started with the product and evolved agilely to the new business model that it implies, what would be the difference in the end? And that is what agile new-product development could, if enfolded in an agile cross-product business strategy, have done.

How To Never Become a Better Leader

It was as I read this article that the idea that agile is better struck me with particular force. Toegel and Barsoux argue that incipient leaders should “recognize and manage their strongest tendencies.” Don’t be too composed; don’t be too excited. Don’t be too much of an extrovert; don’t be too introverted. Don’t innovate wildly in all directions; don’t be too conventional. Don’t be too tough-minded dealing with others; don’t be too considerate. Don’t be too perfectionistic and detail-oriented in deciding something; don’t just make decisions immediately. Understand when you are leaning too much one way or another, and then correct.

OK, rather than critique the authors point by point, let me just say what I think business agility would recommend, and recommend with great force: teach the leader how to think agile. Whatever the flaw, it has a counteracting force. Too composed? It’s not a question of being composed, it’s a question of being focused on change. It’s not a question of whether you panic on hearing bad news, it’s a question of whether you immediately pass on to a positive plan to not only deal with the unwelcome change, but make hay out of it. Too introspective? Focusing on change means reaching out to the ultimate customer and others to get the next feedback as you move toward change in a very structured format. Your need to be alone will still be satisfied; your increasing interaction with others will be encouraged and rewarded.

Too innovative? But if you innovate too much before you see the customer, most of it is wasted. Too inclined to make decisions quickly? Then you’ll just have to keep undoing them when you get your feedback from the customer – which will make the decision-feedback loop for you shorter as you try to solve the problem by seeing the customer faster.

The final dichotomy is tough vs. tender; and it gives me another opportunity for talking about a technique I learned back at Prime to ensure the very best agile customer interaction. It’s called “reflection” – no, not that reflection. What happens is that when someone says something to you, you reflect back to them first of all your understanding of what they were trying to say – no shortcuts, no imposition of what you wanted them to say, put yourself in their shoes saying it, and preferably with the feelings they had when they were saying it – and only then say something in direct response to what they said. It’s awkward at first, but over time you learn what works and can telescope your response. Just never try to skip a step at first – because you will inevitably put your own spin on what they are saying, as you have been doing all your life.

Now think about either the tough or tender, but in each case agile, leader applying this technique. There’s no point in being brutal, because what really matters is the change you want to accomplish. Instead, you understand the person’s concerns via reflection, and show them how the change is safer for them, and then expect them to get to it, because they like safe change. Likewise, if you are tender, the very best thing for the person is to do safe change along with you, and it’s a very positive message to give. What feelings to hurt? You’re offering them a way to succeed, and showing that they get the best marks by collaborating with you as you both seek out the best, as yet undetermined, safe change.

Have you noticed the agile way is not “don’t do this, don’t do this”? It’s “make this change, it’s going to be the best thing you could hope for.” Best of all, that’s almost certainly true, if they last over the long run, and probably true in the short run.

Project Baron or Agile Federation?

I’m just going to comment on this one briefly. Gann, Salter, Dodgson, and Phillips argue that organizations of several little very agile groups off doing generally the same things must make sure that corporate serves their interests and integrates them effectively according to the degree they are presently tightly or loosely interconnected. My agile thought here is that the “corporate-barony” dichotomy here is artificial. These are relatively agile groups; and the corporate “brand” should be an evolving umbrella, not a straitjacket constraining each barony to integrate effectively with the others. The “inefficiency” when some groups do not share corporate resources with others is far less concerning than the remaining lack of agility because these groups are not tapping each other for additional sources of insight about their customers. Time to develop your own contacts with the whole gamut of customers to figure out just how far short they are failing, and give them feedback. That’s what corporate is really selling in these situations: cross-pollination. Let’s decrease the control emphasis and increase the corporate information – not resource – value prop to the barony.

Lego as a Model of Involving Customers in Product Development

Antorini, Muniz, and Askildsen hold up the Lego Group as a model of how to save the company by getting your enthusiastic customers involved in designing the extensions they want, and feeding them back into your new product development. From an agile point of view, what’s not to like? Just one thing. It appears from the description that this is reactive agility. Customer comes up with an idea, the company decides if it’s good, if so flows the part that applies into new-product development. Again, just one problem: how does the company get ahead of the customer?

Because, remember, new-product development at Lego is still not like agile software development. It’s more like “hybrid” open-source plus internal development. My studies suggest that because the areas it can improve are limited and it’s not proactively agile, this approach typically returns about one-half or less of the benefits of the average agile development organization.

So how would Lego become more agile? By making its new-product development more agile. The remark by one exec is a dead giveaway: we “hold a dialog with the customer.” It’s clear that it’s a tilted dialog: the customer tells Lego a lot, Lego doesn’t counter every customer suggestion with a suggestion for the customer. Instead, he or she has to wait for the next product release, and hope. What you’d like is to unleash the creativity of the development team in making the new products “orthogonal” – simple and powerful to use – and speed up responsiveness to all customers, not just the enthusiasts, by more frequent incremental product releases.

Final Thought

Rather than go through the last article, which doesn’t add anything in terms of agile theory, I thought I’d make an overall comment. It seems to me that many of these researchers were perhaps not thinking in as agile a way as they might. For example, many of these insights are based on rigid surveys and existing data. Certainly that’s understandable – obviously, agile theory is not widely applied anywhere except in agile software development.

Still, it does make me understand better why I like the customer survey/interview techniques I stumbled on 15 years ago. They let the customer provide an insight into his or her wants or needs, by telling about the product I’m surveying about as a story of a solution to his or her needs. They are open-ended, allowing the customer to take the questionnaire in a direction not contemplated initially, and allowing me to adjust agilely to that change in direction. They specifically ask for important information outside the bounds of the questionnaire. In effect, my research is a bit more agile because I am acting more in an agile manner.

All those who are researching business value-add, might this approach be of help in understanding your work through the lens of business agility? Or do you have agile suggestions of your own? I don’t know the answer. I’m just trying to be agile.

Playing the Lottery Might Be Rational – Only If You Don’t Get Addicted

Recently, I saw a blog post by an author with training in economics, L.E. Modesitt, noting that many female students who sought to make a career out of being an opera singer – something that is increasingly very unlikely for anyone – did not take actions necessary to maximize their chances to do so, and expressing bewilderment at their irrationality. I have seen this kind of analysis frequently in the past – it is, afaik, an accepted part of our beliefs. And yet, there appears to me to be a strong case that certain ways of taking long-shot chances – in one way or another, playing the lottery – are rational, are beneficial for the person, and are beneficial for the economy.

At this point, I have to stop and emphasize that, as I note in the title, this is no way, shape, or form and encouragement of anybody to play the lottery in any way. Not until it is very clear how people in general can avoid gambling addiction as a result of playing the lottery. No, this piece is aimed specifically and only at the non-addicts analyzing this behavior, hopefully so that they will see the rationality of certain types of playing the lottery and shape our policy approach to it accordingly.

At the same time, I have to note that this type of rationality, it seems clear, can be achieved. Once I realized the rationality of certain lottery-playing, I practiced it myself, over 15 years. Once the conditions no longer applied, I stopped immediately and completely, and haven’t played the lottery since, over the last 4 years. Although I didn’t win, the net negative effect on my net worth today was approximately 0.003% -- and if you think that matters, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. So it is doable.

Setting the Stage: The Players

First, let me give you a very crude picture of those who could potentially play the lottery, as I see it, in our society. There are four levels: the rich, the about-to-be-rich, the middle class, and the zero/negative net worth. Approximately, these break out as follows: the rich 0.3% of us; the about-to-be-rich another 0.3%; the zero/negative net worth, according to recent figures, 40% (50% of blacks and, I think, probably Hispanics); the middle class the remaining 59.4%. I am, I believe, probably underestimating the proportion of zero/negative net worth and overestimating the proportion of middle class; but those are the best figures I have.

Now, understand the nature of these four levels. The rich I define as those with about $2.5 million or more in investment wealth, stocks and bonds. According to my analysis, it is extremely hard for them to avoid becoming richer over time. Therefore, they have no need to play the lottery; fundamentally, they are secure and able to buy almost all of what they want immediately, forever. The about-to-be-rich are mostly CEOs; they have effectively guaranteed the income that will land them in the rich within approximately 1-6 years. Therefore, they have no need to play the lottery, either. Playing the lottery, up to extreme limits (such as thinking you can be a poker champion in Vegas), for these people, is not rational or irrational; it’s just irrelevant to their ultimate well-being.

Now we come to the middle class. By this, I don’t mean the traditional definition of middle class. I mean those who have every incentive to save rather than spend immediately in order to reach partial income security once they reach retirement, enough under most circumstances to allow them to live out their lives with prudent money management, but not enough to make them rich and without worries. These would play the lottery, rationally, for one fundamental reason: it is a choice between never getting rich and getting rich right now. It seems to me, based on the numbers, that there is a vanishingly small chance that any of these will get rich without taking a long-shot chance; and a lot better chance than that, if you take that long-shot chance. If, therefore, the accumulation of long-shot chance taking does not cost you a significant proportion of your ultimate net worth, then it seems to me to make a good deal of sense.

Finally, there are those with zero or negative net worth. I feel – I don’t know if it is justified by the facts – that their rationality is vastly underestimated. It seems to me likely that if there were reasonable chances of getting into the middle class without placing yourself under such a crushing psychological burden (e.g., working two full-time jobs as a maid plus bringing up children) that few can be expected to bear it, that these zero/negative net worth folks would take it. Instead, they tend to spend the little money they get immediately, often on relieving psychological pressure: smoking, drinking, betting, etc. Unfortunately, those things tend to lead to addiction – and the lottery is very much of the same ilk. Still, it is on the face of it no better or worse than any other addiction; and the potential payoff, it appears to me from a very cursory study of winners, is to place at least half of those winners firmly in the middle class. A major percentage of lottery winners do start to show saving-instead-of-spending-immediately behavior and do keep positive net worth until retirement. In other words, for this level, playing the lottery in ways that maximize your chances of getting into the middle class forever is entirely rational.

At this point, I have to pause to make sure that people understand fully what I mean by playing the lottery. Seeking out a job in a start-up company is playing the lottery, typically done by middle-class types. The number of those who get rich out of doing so is, sorry, far less than 1% -- and the hit to one’s ultimate net worth is likely to be significant. However, in most cases, it will not kick you down to the next level – you just wind up at a lower pay scale in a “safe” job.

Likewise, for the top of the middle class seeking to become rich, sucking up to the rich or the about-to-be-rich or taking a flyer on company stock options is also a form of playing the lottery. In most cases, the lion’s share of the stock/stock-option profits will be taken by the about-to-be-rich; but if an IPO is a wild success, you may get rich, or very close. It’s a lottery. Likewise, everyone is trying to suck up to the rich and vacuum up their money in order to get rich themselves, so in all likelihood you won’t get enough of his or her time to succeed – not to mention having the rich person fire you if you fail. Still, it’s worth a try. It’s a lottery.

In effect, the real lottery (or trying to break into show business, or win a TV show) is the only realistic lottery available to the lower middle class and zero/negative net worth folks. You simply aren’t likely to get in sniffing distance of a rich person. Your little stock flyer won’t make that much. Nope, it’s the real lottery or nothing.

Addiction and Rationality

Hopefully, the above analysis will allow you the reader to guess most of what I’m going to say here. The object of the rational lottery play, at whatever level except rich, is to move up one level, or move up far sooner than you otherwise would. To maximize the chances of that happening, you have to maximize the odds of success and establish a reasonable lower limit on negative consequences. And one more thing: you have to minimize the chances of addiction.

It may seem that simply setting a maximum amount to be spent per year on a lottery is sufficient to avoid addiction. In fact, it is not. Any time you play the lottery, in my experience, you wind up with an incredible swing in emotions, hovering near a high between the moment you place your bet and the time when the results are down to an incredible low immediately after – all of which lead to a strong desire to experience the high again, immediately.

That’s an addiction. The best way to avoid it, I believe, is to minimize the number of times you bet, and to avoid reminders that the bet is on until the results are announced. In effect, you make a bet once a year, and then get on with your life. And if you turn that approach into a habit, the habit itself will help prevent addiction, as any deviation takes undue effort. As I said, I know it can be done; and that was pretty much the way I did it. Again, I emphasize: that doesn’t mean I’m right. Let’s wait to do more analysis, and explore more ways. Don’t try this on your own.

First additional consideration: the amount for first prize in the lottery has to be enough to effectively move you up a level. Even $100,000 won’t cut it. My own rule-of-thumb cutoff back then was somewhere between $1 and 2 million dollars, since, after taxes and net present value reduction from installment payments, that would wind up being $600,000 to $1.2 million.

Second, one of the most effective ways to reduce the odds is to choose a lottery in which the maximum prize is the only prize. Other prizes simply reduce your odds of getting the maximum prize.

My wild guesstimate of the chance of success for lower middle class types and below over a lifetime is somewhere around 1 in 10,000. For upper middle class types who have more access to rich people and more reserve cash to allow playing lower-odds lotteries, I’d guess it’s 1 in 100. Either way, if you do it right, the alternative to winning is simply no real change in your net worth, so it’s always rational to do this.

From an Economic Point of View

It also seems to me that this kind of lottery-playing is beneficial from an economic point of view, if it does not increase gambling addiction. Thus, if it does not increase the net debt in the bottom level, and does not drive middle class participants into the bottom level, what we have is a significant increase in the assurance that middle class types will not need assistance in retirement, while preserving in most cases their incentive to defer spending partially in order to save – effectively balancing investment and spending. We also have an increase in the spending and investment of some previously zero/negative net worth individuals – granted, only 0.01% of that 40%, but still a nice chunk of change to add to the economy.

One concern is the constraints on the entity running the lottery. Government lotteries, as have often been pointed out, have an unfortunate incentive to create addiction in zero/negative net worth individuals, which, will it does not necessarily make their lives dramatically worse off – it’s just one more straw on the camel’s back – do mean that these individuals get too far in debt, and that decreases their spending on new stuff rather than paying off debt, one way or another – so it hurts the overall economy until you can dig these folks out of their debt that you created.

Large-business lotteries, by contrast, by their nature tend to be less frequent and focused more on the middle class, which can more easily afford to spend on their stuff. So these tend to be relatively harmless – which is not at all to say that a gambling casino is harmless, since it short-sightedly maximizes profit by maximizing addiction, only that a McDonald’s or AmEx lottery game isn’t too bad.

And finally, we may note that lotteries would do themselves and their clientele a favor by sticking to multi-million-dollar prizes – except gambling casinos, which are more often selling entertainment rather than getting rich, anyway.

Summary and Conclusions

Hopefully, this will be short and sweet. I believe I may have found the beginnings of a way to encourage the bottom two levels, acting rationally in their own self-interest, to use lotteries to possibly better themselves and the economy. Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Little Tolkien Music

Over the years, among other things, I have jotted down some notes about interesting writing techniques that Tolkien uses – techniques that, imho, make him a Great Writer worth learning from. I thought it would be fun to share an example of one of these with you here.

One of these of these techniques is the way he approaches his descriptions. He specifically avoids similes and metaphors. Instead, he tries to put us inside the mind (or see from the outside in a similar way) the thing described, as if it were a living, feeling, thinking being like ourselves. Then he suits the language to that – no “clinical” modern words, and the colors are primary ones.

Recently, I ran across an example of another author trying to write the same sort of idea in a fantasy novel (David Weber, War Maid’s Choice – and he’s a pretty good author as authors go): “It was as if her nerves were connected directly to the trunks of the apple trees, as if she could feel them yearning towards fruit, tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind.”

Let’s break down where that goes wrong according to my idea of Tolkien. “It was as if her nerves were connected to the trunks” – no. For such a person, it would be “Her nerves felt the life of the apple tree.” Now we can see things from the point of view of that tree.

“[As] if she could feel them yearning toward fruit.” Excuse me? Yearning means horny. A fruit is the tree’s baby. Does anyone really feel that the physical process of bearing a baby makes a woman more horny? You may feel horny towards someone, apparently unrelated to having a baby, and underlying that is the desire to start the process of having a baby; but the physical process? No way, Jose. Make it about having a baby, and don’t say “as if”. “It swelled towards birth of tiny fruits with pain and love.” If you want to really be the tree, make it “It swelled towards birth of tiny fruits with loving, careful inward regard.” Now add the Tolkien touch: “It grew towards opening to the world small, deep green buds of golden morning fruit.” Morning in this case is standing for the fresh eyes of a newborn or young child. Golden is in the golden sunlight.

“tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind.” Tossing one’s hair is the way a person outside perceives it. Shaking one’s hair is the way the person doing it sees it. These aren’t branches or fingers to the tree, they’re hair; say so. Suddenly we switch our viewpoint to another, entirely different alive personification: the wind. Why? Stick with the tree. “Caress” – that’s the view of an outsider. What does the tree feel (or the wind)? A hug. Except that that isn’t the best description; it’s more like being fanned by someone inattentive. OK, this translates to “It felt the wind disarranging its branches with a cool breeze, a playfully fanning servant.” Tolkien touch: “It felt the keen wind ruffling its gray-green crown of branches, combing them to playful disarray.”

Now feel it. I am a tree. I lie at ease on my bed, and look at the tiny life growing in me, and imagine it bursting forth into the world, and being young and innocent and beautiful. And beside me, my silly husband is fanning me so that I feel cool in the warmth of early summer, and the breeze is making my hair become a nice casual mess. And it feels profoundly wonderful, as if I should save this moment in memory forever.

“It was as if her nerves were connected directly to the trunks of the apple trees, as if she could feel them yearning towards fruit, tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind."

"She felt the life of the apple tree. It grew towards opening to the world small, bright green buds of golden morning fruit; and it felt the keen wind ruffling its gray-green crown of branches, combing them to playful disarray, as it lay at ease in its bower of deep blue lilacs."

Up to you. Me, I prefer the Tolkien.