Double Down – A Review

March 3, 2014

“Double Down” is a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. 2012 election and primaries.

We already know the broad outlines – Romney was the best of a bad bunch of Republican candidates, but limped from gaffe to gaffe.  Obama had a lackluster performance in the first debate, but landed a knockout punch on Benghazi in the second, and cruised to a big victory.  So the book reads like a director’s commentary on a familiar movie.

What do we learn?  Obama’s heart was not in the debates initially, and his mocks were consistently bad.  Partly this was because of his general ambivalence to the whole process, and partly because he didn’t feel his second term agenda had anything big worth running on.  But with a lot of drilling and prep from his team, he was able to get the job done in the end.

During the campaign, Biden came out for gay marriage before Obama.  It turns out that this was a simple blunder rather than a move in five-dimensional chess – the administration had planned for the President to make a big announcement at a particular time, but neglected to let Joe in on the plan.  Biden comes off reasonably well – not the most polished, but ferociously loyal to the President, realizing that their fortunes are inextricably linked.

Also interesting in the light of recent events – Romney had considered Christie as a VP, but rejected him as there were too many unanswered questions in his background.  Romney felt mistreated by the media, and this book indirectly claims he had a bit of a case, whether it be the NYT writing the misleading “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” headline for his op-ed, or Candy Crowley breaking debate rules to fact-check him over Benghazi.  On the other hand, he should have known that going in, and been more cautious in wording his article, or finding out just what Obama said.

What does the book miss?  It only touches briefly on Obama’s hugely successful analytics team, and Romney’s analytical fiasco.  Nate Silver is not mentioned, though he is arguably the most important non–partisan figure of 2012.

Indeed, the central puzzle of the election is why Mr. Fix-It Romney was unable to fix his own campaign.  Partly it’s that hostility to mainstream media blinded him to useful truths (e.g. that he was losing, or that independents didn’t think of Benghazi as a big strike against the administration), partly that he had to run against his moderate record (e.g. Romneycare), and partly that his success in business didn’t signify as much as you might think.  Having worked for would-be Romneys, there is often less to them than meets the eye.

Should you buy this book?  The main argument against is that we should not be encouraging this type of personality-driven narrative – fundamental demographic forces, and data-driven fundraising and microtargeting were much more important to the election than anything Clint Eastwood or Valerie Jarrett did.  I’m sympathetic to this view, but feel it misses some important points.  First, Obama’s initially poor debate performance had a noticeable impact on the polls.  Without at least a reversion to average, Romney would have won.  More fundamentally, it’s not enough to just have the ingredients for victory – “dust does not sweep itself”, as Mao said.

Will you enjoy this book?  If you’re a Democrat, and follow political trivia enough that you could recognize Axelrod or Messina, then you will love it.  If you’re a Republican, then you will hate it.  Everyone else will bored.

“Double Down” is the sequel to the successful “Game Change” and includes many of the same characters.  The authors are probably tossing around names for their 2016 book right now.

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Memoirs by Rachel Dratch, Julie Klausner – review

February 15, 2014

Rachel Dratch’s “Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle” and Julie Klausner’s “I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated” are similar – memoirs by modestly successful Jewish comediennes.  Rachel is a bit more successful and famous, having broken into the vernacular as SNL’s “Debbie Downer”.  The big difference is that Rachel is in her forties, Julie her thirties.

Julie’s book mostly recounts her misadventures in dating, of which there are many.  Typically she falls for a man who treats her badly, but who is great in bed.  There is the occasional dalliance with someone she connects with (or at least likes the same music as), but who won’t sleep with her.  Dollar-book Freud would say that the important thing for her is to avoid the combination of physical and emotional intimacy at all costs.  At the very least, something strange is going on if you’re a New Yorker looking for dates in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as she once does.  But she generally resists such self-examination, and for most of the book you wonder “Will Julie really sleep with this clearly unsuitable person?  Even if she doesn’t really like him?  Or find him physically attractive?”  Yes she will.

Making it as a writer is clearly important to Julie, but we don’t get to hear much about this.  A misjudgement – many of us have dated crazy people, but few of us know what it’s like to write for a TV show.

Rachel’s book is similar, but those extra ten years or so give it a bit more depth.  She is more self-reflective than Julie – at one point deliberately changing her dating pattern to avoid guys in show business.  This turns out to be a good move, and she meets a nice guy and accidentally gets pregnant when she thought she had no chance.  She talks more about her career in general – after SNL, she was on 30 Rock in guest roles for the first season, but then the work dried up, leaving her only with offers to play “comic” old and obese lesbians.  And there are some inside insights – what is interviewing with Lorne Michaels like?  What’s working for SNL like?  Her behind-the-scenes skewering of the allegedly dreadful film “Her Minor Thing” in which she had a “wacky lesbian” role almost makes you want to watch it.

Rachel and Julie come from similar backgrounds, but have different public personas.  Julie is the cool kid who cuts class, makes fun of lots of things, and expects you will too.  Most likely she will casually trash one of your favorite bands before the end of the book.  Rachel is the A student who works hard, tries to do the right thing, and really wants you to like her.  You would probably go to more exciting parties with Julie, but be more comfortable hanging out with Rachel.

Should you buy these books?  Rachel seems like a genuinely nice person who would put the money to good use.  Julie can be a bit mean at times, but some of that is an act.

Will you enjoy these books?  If you like 30 Rock, then you will like Rachel’s book.  Not that it mentions 30 Rock that much after the first chapter, but the sensibility is pretty similar – comedy, dating, and showbiz, with Rachel being close to Liz Lemon, but without Tina Fey’s leading-lady looks.  Rachel was originally considered for the Jenna Maroney role on 30 Rock, and if that fact doesn’t interest you, then you probably won’t like the book.

What about Julie?  Her book falls more squarely into the vicarious experience genre – here’s what it’s like to go to law school / enlist in West Point / date a bunch of crazies.  Useful if you’re curious but don’t have the LSAT scores, upper-body strength, or lack of self-respect required.  If you haven’t dated enough dysfunctional people, and are interested in learning what that would be like, then this is the book for you.

One note: Julie also writes the “How was your week” podcast, which largely consists of superficial industry snark delivered at a slow pace.  Very different feel to the book, and not recommended.

Rachel Dratch and Julie Klausner’s books are available at the usual bookstores, or as audiobooks read by the authors.  They are generally light listens suitable for the commute, and they do good jobs reading them.

21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com – A Review

November 6, 2013

“21 Dog Years” (alternatively subtitled “A Cube-Dweller’s Life”) is a book by Mike Daisey about his experiences working at amazon.com, first as a customer service grunt, then as a business development executive.

You may know Mike Daisey for his recent piece on public radio’s “This American Life”, about horrific working conditions in an iPhone factory.  It was moving, eye-opening, and largely made-up.  TAL investigated, and disgrace followed, with Daisey being interviewed and condemned on-air by host Ira Glass.  At the end of each episode of TAL, Ira has a little jokey aside, saying “Management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says…” and he uses some humorous quote from the show to gently make fun of his boss.  I only remember him deviating from this formula twice – once when Torey’s father died, and once for the Daisey-excoriation episode.  The shame was so great that Daisey considered suicide, but is now back onstage story-telling in NYC.

All this is to say that reading this book is like watching the first episode of a TV show after you’ve seen the series finale.  Can we look at it on its own terms, or do we have to read it in the context of what’s happened later?

Is the book truthful?  Daisey says that “Some facts were injured in the telling of this story,  The truth, however, remains unharmed.”  Who knows what that means?  Were there really sirens that went off in the customer service department whenever metrics fell below a certain level?  Or is that like the armed guards Daisey invented for the iPhone factory – something that paints a vivid picture and gets to the essence of a situation without being “true” in the sense of having actually happened?  The problem is compounded by Daisey’s being admittedly untrustworthy – he shortens his average customer response time by simply hanging up on people after a few seconds, and is promoted to BizDev on the strength of a PowerPoint using completely fictitious data.  When someone explains their deceptions to you, are you sure that they’re not just playing a long con?

Truthful or not, Daisey does know how to tell a story, and the main thrust of what he says matches what’s more recently described in Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”.  It makes an interesting complement to that book, with Daisey giving low-level details that Stone doesn’t talk about from his C-level perch.  Daisey also skillfully incorporates another point of view via the skeptical interjections of his fiancee, who likes that he finally has a job, but not that he works so hard at it.

When Daisey wrote the book, just after the dot-com bubble burst, amazon.com looked to be on the verge of collapse.  His writing reflects this, painting amazon as just one level above a scam.  The overall tone is “How could we have been all so blind?”  Of course, with hindsight he underestimated the company, but was not out of the mainstream in this.  “21 Dog Years” is not a business book, but using his experience at BizDev, Daisey quickly and entertainingly demolishes CueCat (a forerunner to QR code scanners) and pets.com.

Should you buy this book?  Daisey is a liar and con artist, but so are many people with interesting stories to tell.  Your surfing the web probably generates as much revenue for many more unsavoury types.

How do I rate this book?  Following amazon’s review system, I give it 4 stars out of 5 – dropping a star because it’s not quite clear what’s fact and what’s fiction.  But perhaps we should view it as a novel in the same insane-workplace genre as “Microserfs”, “The Circle”, or “The Devil Wears Prada”.  For this I give it 5 stars.

“21 Dog Years” is available at Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, and other online bookstores.

How To Be Black – A Review

October 18, 2013

“How To Be Black” is a satirical book by Baratunde Thurston, a comedian best known for his work at The Onion.

Well, actually, it’s about one-third satirical.  The book has three main strands – satire (example sections – How to be the Black Employee, How to be the Angry Negro), memoir, and ruminations on various black-related topics by groups of his friends (including the white Canadian author of “Stuff White People Like”),

The satire is very good, and I wish there were more of it (“Skiing, my sister?  Are you so obsessed with whiteness that you must frolic in it?”).  The memoir is O.K.  Baratunde has led an interesting and varied life (father killed in drug deal gone bad, lily-white private school in the week, Afrocentric youth group on weekends, Harvard, strategy consulting, and comedy), but one which lacks the access to important events you might find from a Barack Obama or a Spike Lee.  He is also a little guarded.  For example, as a teenager he was completely opposed to the military (and kind of obnoxious about it), but he implies that his consulting work included Defense Dept. business.  It would have been interesting to learn about his maturing (or selling out, from his original point of view).  And what is it like to write for The Onion?

As for the ruminations, these are generally skippable.  The friends are nice enough, but don’t generally come up with much more interesting than “If a black person does it, then it’s a thing that black people do”.  Maybe this is the “No False Scotsman” argument?  One of his friends is a (the?) black woman libertarian, who explains that she just loves liberty (as opposed to the rest of us Stalinists?)  We shouldn’t expect somebody to give a probing interrogation of his friends, but some questions could have been useful, such as “Is government action useful to remedy past injustices?”  “Should businesses have the freedom to racially and sexually discriminate?” and “Did you vote for Obama, or should we just tear up your black person card now?”

So should you buy this book?  The answer is yes, because black writers could use the sales (and, as the author notes, it will count as one point towards your Black History Month obligations).

Will you enjoy this book?  I suspect the answer depends on how close you are in background and outlook to Baratunde.  Are you black?  Do you like The Onion?  Are you proficient in Excel?  Do you remember Lynx and Pine?  The intersection of these sets is much smaller than it should be, but to delver deeper into that would take us into Angry Negro territory, and Baratunde has already done that, in a pitch-perfect satire suitable for all races.

Why TV will be around for a while

January 5, 2013

Suppose you were predicting the future of media, politics, and culture in 1963.  You would note that television was clearly the medium of the future, of the young.  Radio was dying – unable to compete against the new and superior technology.  Ad dollars were moving en masse to TV, and TVs were becoming more affordable and higher quality all the time.  You would point to JFK’s TV-assisted debate victory and declare that radio would have almost no role to play in the new world – everything would be based on images.

Well, here we are, fifty years later.  Who is the leading political figure on the right?  Rush Limbaugh – a physically unappealing radio demagogue.  And who’s the leading cultural figure on the center-left?  Ira Glass – host of the radio show “This American Life”.  And what would our prophet of 1963 have made of podcasts – people listening to radio shows of lower production quality than available in the ’60s, even when huge Hi-Def TVs were available?  Somehow the medium that was supposed to die, didn’t.

In 2013, advertising experts claim that TV is doomed, and the future is mobile.  But they are making the disruptor’s error – they see an exponential change, but overestimate how far it will go.

So what can save conventional TV from obsolescence?  A few things:

1) Big screens are big.

People like big TVs, and they’re prepared to pay really big money for them.  Until Apple comes up with a way to make iPads that you can unfold and put on your wall, you can’t do big on mobile.

2) The mass market is massive.

We hear so much about microtargeting and the long tail these days that we forget that there are plenty of advertisers that just want to reach a lot of people.  TV does that, and in a finely-tuned brand-safe way.  And, even better, people want to watch what everyone else is watching, at more or less the same time, so they can talk about it, like a book club or a movie opening.  And best of all, everyone likes the same things anyway.  You would only need ten different well-chosen TV shows to make sure that 95% of people in the U.S. loved at least one of them.  With fifteen, you could get 95% of the world.

3) TV just works.

Press the on button, and something will appear on your TV.  If you’re in the right demographic and do this at the right time, it’s pretty likely to be something you like.  And that’s all you have to do.  No passwords, no search terms, no network connection, no playlist, no seeing what your Facebook friends recommend – just press one button and there it is, and many highly-paid people work long hours to make sure that you will like it.  What could be simpler?  What could be better?

Now, you might object that these obstacles could be overcome – companies could produce videos for iPads with high production values and mass-market appeal that could be quickly and easily seen on a big screen with minimal selection required.  This will be a revolution, but of the Animal Farm variety, where at the end we will look from TV network to internet media company, and not be able to tell which is which.  Or, as I expect to hear at advertising conferences shortly – “Small Screens Good, Big Screens Better”.

Grandpa, what’s a Republican?

December 4, 2012

– Grandpa, what’s a Republican?
– Republican? I haven’t heard that word in a long time. Where did you hear it?
– It’s for a school project. We have to talk about something from old-people times, like record players or dial phones.
– I see. Well, the Republicans were a big political party once.
– Like the Democrats?
– Kind of, but more right-wing.
– What did they stand for?
– Well, they were pro-life, for one thing.
– You mean they were vegetarians like the Greens?
– No, people didn’t really think about food politically in those days.
– So they were for gun control and against the death penalty?
– No, not usually. They thought everyone should have a gun, to be safe.
– They thought we shouldn’t have an army, like the Libertarians?
– No, they wanted a very big army, and they used it to invade some other countries.
– Grandpa, I think you’re confused. Maybe you mean they were pro-death?
– Maybe. It was kind of confusing.
– What did they want to do about global warming?
– Well, they really didn’t think it was a problem.
– You mean because people didn’t know about it?
– No, I mean they didn’t believe in it. It was before the Great Fires, you see.
– Oh. OK. But everyone else believed in it?
– Kind of. But nobody really thought it was a big deal. Back then you could do all sorts of things. Everyone had a car, even poor people, and they could drive it whenever they liked. And there were machines which would give you as much water as you liked – even ice – even in the summer.
– It sounds pretty wasteful, Grandpa.
– Maybe it was. But things were very different then.
– So how come there aren’t any Republicans any more?
– I’m not sure. I think they just started winning fewer and fewer elections, and eventually they just gave up. We could ask your other grandpas, or we could Google it.
– That’s OK. I think I have enough to write about now. Oh, but Grandpa?
– Yes?
– What’s a Google?
– Let’s talk about that some other time.

Republican political correctness

August 15, 2012

The latest mini-flap? Biden’s saying to a partly black audience that Republicans want to put them in chains by reversing Wall St reform. Team Romney has vigorously objected, but it’s hard to see why. First, there’s plausible Bidenability – the VP has such a gaffe-prone reputation that nobody cares what he says. Second, the audience didn’t object. Third, Republicans should be spending all their time talking about the economy, and avoiding this sort of distraction. But most importantly, Republicans never look good when they play the “political correctness” card. Republican Meg Whitman’s campaign for California governor was generally uninspired, but her complaining about Jerry Brown’s associate calling her a (political) whore did her no favors – it just made her look whiny. Unfair? Probably. But Audre Lorde told us that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Republicans are learning that you can’t build the master’s house with the slave’s tools.

Civ game 236 years old

June 12, 2012

I have been playing a game of Civilization for 236 years now, and have got somewhat stuck.

My country is running out of money, and has a lot of citizens sitting around doing nothing. Production has fallen, I’ve abandoned the space race, and most of my tax revenue goes towards luxuries and maintaining a large military. I’ve tried to increase taxes, but the Senate keeps overruling. Pollution is not too bad at the moment, but there are a few ice cap squares that have melted.

Any suggestions? I’ve thought about a military victory, but all the major AIs have nukes, so I’m reluctant to do that. Should I be changing governmental type?

Thanks in advance.

(See playing same civ game for 10 years)

Lying and Economists

June 7, 2012

Heard behavioral economist Dan Ariely on the radio the other day. He was discussing economic research into when people cheat. In his study, they gave people 5 minutes to do some math problems and then gave them a dollar for each one they got right. The subjects would score themselves and then shred their worksheet, so they could claim more correct than they actually got without fear of being caught.

Except… the experimenters had rigged the shredder so that it would only shred the sides of the paper, so they would keep the true results, unbeknownst to the subjects. They found that on average people cheated about two dollars.

Ariely’s work is interesting, and he was able to get some intriguing results on what happened if you varied conditions slightly (e.g. introducing an intermediate step of being paid in a token makes people more likely to cheat), but he and the interviewer seemed blind to the irony – that they were lying to people in a study to find out why people lie. When presidents, CEOs and their apologists lie and cheat as a matter of course, is it any wonder if ordinary people do the same?

Command and Control in Computer Strategy Games

May 19, 2012

The computer game Civilization starts you off quick and simple, with just one unit.  But it gets more complex as you build more units, cities, and discover more of the world and other civilizations.  Using all of your forces optimally takes a lot of time, and towards the end of the game it becomes a long grind.

Civilization is an extreme example, but many other games follow the same pattern – Sim City, for example. How an we maintain a quick pace throughout a game?

One solution is to think more closely about who the player is representing (an idea outlined in Nicholas Palmer’s books on board wargaming).  In Civilization, you play the leader of a nation, so should be making high-level decisions such as what to research or where to attack, not minutiae such as how many air units should attack Kiev.  That decision is left to capable generals or ministers.

In the old days of boardgaming, this sort of separation was not desirable – why make the player go through a lot of automated gruntwork?  But a computer can easily perform these chores, with its AI making all the trivial decisions.

Computer games often do have an AI that will run some things on auto-pilot, but the part they generally do not think about is making the AI an integral and necessary part of the system, rather than a crutch for lazy players.  So perhaps you could only give direct orders to four units a turn, for example.  This would make things go quicker and might well be more challenging – choosing 4 out of N units to control is a more intellectually challenging (but often quicker) task than giving routine orders to each of N units.  Ironically, card-driven wargames such as Memoir ’44 or We The People have already adapted this mechanic (although without the ability to auto-pilot unordered units).  And, of course, the early wargame of chess only lets you make one move a turn.