The Dip, by Seth Godin

“The Dip” by Seth Godin is a good example of how motivational success books work. The Dip offers this list:

Seven reasons you might fail to become the best in the world [at something specific]

1. You run out of time (and quit).
2. You run out of money (and quit).
3. You get scared (and quit).
4. You’re not serious about it (and quit).
5. You lose interest or enthusiasm or settle for being mediocre (and quit).
6. You focus on the short term instead of the long (and quit when the short term gets too hard).
7. You pick the wrong thing at which to be the best in the world (because you don’t have the talent).

The Dip presents this list as part of a crisp package suggesting success (however defined) is guaranteed, if you follow the program.
Guaranteed success!? Sign me up, right?
Here, however, are seven more reasons you might fail to become the best in the world

1. You are paralyzed by analysis (and miss a critical window).
2. You have health problems that interfere.
3. You have great luck in some other category (say, parenting) that is inherently non-“best in the world” but diverts your attention. And you rededicate.
4. You avoid taking the kind of extremely leveraged positions that could result in “best” with the result that you are rewarded, but not extremely. Maybe Seth Godin would define this as being the “best in the world” at satisfying the market demand for an affordable accountant, say, if you do not become the very best accountant, or would define it as becoming the “best in the world” at satisfying market demand for a local accountant in a particular geographic market, but realistically you’re not different than the higher-priced, more highly sought-after accountant in a bigger city. You just made different choices and accepted less risk.
5. You did take a risk, say an 80% chance of becoming the best choice for a candidate for a local office, but the 20% turned out to happen in this universe, and you’re stuck with being an also-ran.
6. You succeed in becoming the best… but not before the world changes and the thing you’re best at isn’t in demand anymore. E.g., somewhere in the world is the best cab driver in the world. But given how soon we are likely to see cab services taken over by automated driving, if you set out now to be the best cab driver in NYC, and give yourself five years of aggressive work to get there… well, you’ll fail, and that’s something you and I know because we know about self-driving cars. But someone in Tegucigalpa who doesn’t know much about the venture finance money pouring in to fund self-driving cars won’t necessarily know what you know, and what I know, and they may set out to become the best cab driver in Tegucigalpa… and a fat lot of good it may do them.
7. You get sucked into a financial trap, taking on way too much student debt, via the promise of “guaranteed success” and spend the rest of your life falling behind as you have more debt to service than other people who, the wonders of education notwithstanding, are still about as smart and hard-working as you.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Here’s a short post about The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte.

What I found most striking was the way Tufte’s precision prose exemplifies the austerity-is-power philosophy he takes to graphical communications. His opening line is, “Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency.”

Tufte goes on, “Graphics reveal data. Indeed graphics can be more precise and revealing than conventional statistical computations. Consider Anscombe’s quartet: all four of these datasets are described by exactly the same linear model (at least until the residuals are examined).” [Anscombe’s quartet are a set of four datasets, each consisting of eleven points on (x,y). All four sets have the same median and mode for both x and y, the same sample variance for both x and y, the same regression line, and yet, well, just look at them:


Tufte’s book then makes a systematic argument for his philosophy of data graphics. Concluding different sections, Tufte offers these rules for graphical excellence:

  • The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graph, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.”
  • Clear, detailed and thorough labeling should be used to defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity. Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data.Show data variation, not design variation.
  • In time-series displays of money, deflated and standardized units of monetary measurement are nearly always better than nominal units.
  • The number of information-carrying (variable) dimensions depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data.
  • Graphics must not quote data out of context.

I quite enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone as a bracing illustration of how a puritanical insistence on precision is a prerequisite of excellence.

A closing, enjoyable quote:

[T]he only worse design than a pie chart is several of them, for then the viewer is asked to compare quantities located in spatial disarray both within and between pies, … [g]iven their low data-density and failure to order numbers along a visual dimension, pie charts should never be used.

Edited to add: elsewhere, Tufte noted that no matter how finely a rule may cut, for every rule there will be an exception. Following on the suggestion of a commenter, I offer this as an example of the rare exception where a pie chart is the crispest communication of the relevant data:


Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days

Who doesn’t want to be perfect?

Well, this is a short, imperfect post, so perfect isn’t something I’ve got figured out. This fun little book, “Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days” will take a third- or fourth-grader a couple hours, tops, and walks the fourth grader through three days of “becoming perfect” via simple instructions. The first two days offer good lessons:
1. Learn to stand up to external pressures, such as by persisting in wearing a large hunk of broccoli for a necklace, and you’ll find a much wider range of choices available in your life.
2. Learn to stand up to internal pressures, such as by persisting in not eating anything but water for 24 hours, and you’ll find you can get what you really want.

The third day’s lesson is a cop-out. Perfect doesn’t necessarily mean “doing nothing at all except drinking weak tea.” But heck, nobody is really that wise to aim for perfect anyway.

A third, lurking lesson, about the key to persuasion and persuasive writing, is left as an exercise for the more advanced reader.

True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart

Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced “tick not hon”) needs a better introduction than he’ll get here. I’ll just pull out the mantras and other tidbits I set aside from reading this book today.

I. “To love… is above all to be there.”

“If you are not there, how can you love? Being there is very much an art, the art of meditation, because meditation is bringing your true presence to the here and now.”

“Without mindfulness, we live like the dead.”

“Camus says that there are thousands of people moving about around us, carrying their own corpses.”

II. Four Elements of Love

In the Buddhist context, there are four parts or elements present in true love: kindness, compassion, joy, and freedom. If the love I give another person is real, they experience me as a source of kindness, healing, joy, and freedom.

Kindness (Maitri): To be a source of kindness to another person, requires understanding them.

Compassion (Karuna): To be a source of healing for another person, requires understanding them.

Joy (Mudita): If there is no joy in love–if I am suffering all the time, or making the person I seek to love cry–this is not love.

Freedom (Upeksha): A person who is loved feels free, outside and inside. A wise question to ask is, “Dear one, do you have space enough in your heart, and all around you?” If they feel constrained or imprisoned, you are not loving them.

III. “To love is to be; to be loved is to be recognized by the other.”

Some mantras:
“Dear one, I am hear for you.”
“Dear one, I know that you are here, and it makes me very happy.”
“Dear one, I am suffering, please help.”
“I am determined to practice deep listening. I am determined to practice loving speech.”

IV. The importance of a disciplined community

“The sangha is a practice community in which the brothers and sisters in the Dharma practice the cultivation of mindfulness daily… if the practitioner of meditation does not take refuge in a community, in a sangha, he will abandon his practice after a few months.”

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

Here’s a post about The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (TCOACJ) by then-Harvard Law Professor Bill Stuntz.

Stuntz does a really great job of looking at the history and economics and politics of criminal justice, and really gets at a big piece of why the system can be so depressing. The central theme of TCOACJ is about the unexpected consequences of modern procedural protections (such as the well-known requirement that police read arrestees their rights) in the American criminal justice system. The main source of these new protections is judicial; these procedural protections are the result of the federal judiciary applying the Bill of Rights to state governments via the Fourteenth Amendment (passed in 1868), which crucially includes state police and local prosecutors. These new protections make it much more expensive to bring a prosecution against a defendant, especially a rich defendant. As a result, state legislatures have created other, more cheaply enforced categories of crimes, such as the modern drug laws where possession implies intent, and where sentencing is strict–and even nakedly disproportionate–and mandatory. The result is a system where most power resides not with judges and juries, but with police and prosecutors whose principal levers for enforcing crime are to use minor offenses as predicates for searches and seizures, and to use the threat of disproportionate sentencing to extract confessions and “flip” petty criminals into testifying against each other. And that, in turn, is why the system produces more than 90% of its jail sentences by plea deal, not trial and conviction, and helps explain why the system has been described as “The New Jim Crow” because it offers such widely disparate outcomes for poor or minority arrestees as compared to rich, white, or well-connected arrestees.

(As an aside, the application of the Bill of Rights to the states is a judicial doctrine known as “Incorporation.” Originally the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but beginning with Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad v. City of Chicago (1897), the Supreme Court started recognizing a doctrine that many aspects of the Bill of Rights would apply to the states because the 14th Amendment applies to the states, and because the 14th’s Due Process Clause means that anything in the original Bill of Rights which is entailed in “Due Process” will apply to the states. The incorporation of the Bill of Rights proceeded incrementally over many decades, principally in two large spurts, the first starting with Gitlow v. New York (1925), and the second including Malloy v. Hogan (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966). You can read a lot more about the judicial doctrine of incorporation on Wikipedia, or make a career out of it by becoming a criminal law attorney.)

So what’s an example of a “modern procedural protection”? The simplest example of a modern procedural protection is barring use at trial of evidence extracted from a criminal defendant by force by officers of a state government. It used to be that, if state police officers beat a confession out of you, while they might be guilty of a crime, and while you might be able to bring a tort case against them, the confession you signed to get them to stop hitting you could still be used against you in a criminal trial. You can see how, in the Jim Crow south, that was a serious problem! White police officers could, and fairly commonly did, use coerced confessions from black defendants as a routine part of “investigating” crimes. A bar on compelling confessions with force is one of the most uncontroversial applications of the bill of rights to protect criminal defendants; other modern procedural protections are more controversial.

For an example of a more controversial procedural protection, consider the rule that excludes from trial physical evidence obtained by a police officer who conducts an illegal search or seizure. (Say a police officer breaks into the garage of a man the police officer unreasonably and without basis suspects of growing pot, and the officer finds a headless body and the man’s hand-written journal of the killing… how do you feel about letting that man go free?) In some cases, this rule results in manifestly guilty–and dangerous!–criminals going free. Or the rule that every person in police custody must receive a Miranda warning, informing them that they have a right to remain silent, and to speak with their attorney, and so on… would it really be so awful if police could just go right to asking questions, without first telling people under arrest that they are free to ignore the officer and not answer anything? Arguments like this are a big part of why the law around the procedural protections for criminal defendants are a controversial, and changing, area of law.

One consequence of an elaborate, controversial, and changing set of procedural protections for criminal defendants is that successfully prosecuting a case, including litigating the evidentiary motions and post-conviction motions, has become much more expensive for prosecutors. Criminal defendants with money can pay attorneys to lob dozens of different arguments in their defense, in hopes that something sticks. (A process abetted by criminal defense attorneys who charge by the hour, and who are ethically bound to zealously defend their clients.)

However, the new expense of successful prosecution–while it is a boon for rich defendants–is generally very bad news for the criminal justice system and especially for poor, minority defendants. The reason is, as some crimes have become extremely expensive to prosecute (especially against rich defendants), legislatures and prosecutors have compensated by creating and prosecuting offenses that are cheaper to prosecute, and much more likely to produce quick plea deals. And what’s the simplest way to make sure plea deals are likely? Make the sentence disproportionate, and tie the jury’s hands by removing any “criminal intent” component.

(In case there are readers who aren’t familiar with the term, here’s how a plea bargain works: A prosecutor’s office gets word from the police department that someone was arrested in connection with a crime or suspected crime. The prosecutor faces a choice of what charges to bring, and whether to offer the defendant the ability to accept a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty (and thereby sparing the prosecutor’s office the expense of a trial.))

TCOACJ is great for its level of historical engagement. E.g. I had no idea criminal prosecutors were usually private hires until long after the Constitution was written. Stuntz also considers how things could have (and in other countries, actually have) gone differently, e.g. most constitutions written after ours have substantive protections written into their equivalent of the bill of rights, while ours does not. (Except for the proscription of “cruel and unusual” punishment, which our courts have interpreted into almost no proscription at all.) He also looks at the racial elements in another “tough on crime” moment in American history: the Irish immigrant experience in the decades where the potato famine caused a huge influx of Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the late 1800s.

More than 90% of sentences are plea bargains, not tried to a jury at all.

Overall, the result seems to be that the very people the modern procedural protections were intended to protect (minority defendants and poor people) are the clear losers in the new system. Sure, plea deals save money on prosecutions, but the upshot is a criminal justice “system” of police officers’ and prosecutors’ discretion, rather than a system of judges’ and juries’ discretion. Just like draft boards’ discretion tended to mean that well-off folks got out of going to ‘Nam, discretion in the U.S. is a big part of how we put 1/3 of black men between 20 and 30 in jail without the rest of us thinking there was a war going on.

But the central theme is about how legislatures have adjusted to the insane expense of excess procedural protections by creating new kinds of violations and tougher sentences for existing ones, and by disempowering judges and juries with mandatory sentencing and crimes that don’t have a “criminal intent” component, but rather merely an “intent” or even merely a “possession implies intent” component, which empowers prosecutors to bully plea bargains from defendants. The upshot is a criminal justice “system” of legislative, police, and prosecutorial discretion for newly created categories of crime, rather than a system powered by aggressive prosecution and traditional sentences for the “big five” (murder, battery, rape, arson, fraud/perjury) and judges and juries.

Stuntz also looks at electoral checks on police and prosecutors. TCOACJ looks at the parallel between the post-Potato-famine Irish communities that built electoral machines and took over city electoral politics in response to excess incarceration of Irish young men, and a similar (but less successful) effort by African American communities in response to a wave of incarceration of African American men. In both cases, the wave of incarceration was itself tightly connected to a large group of newly arrived young men without opportunity–whether young Irishmen escaping the famine, or young black Americans fleeing Jim Crow.