Prince on Arsenio in 2014

Apparently Prince was the very first guest on Arsenio Hall when he came back to Late Night in 2014.

An amazing interview. People are rapt... listening so closely you could hear a pin drop in the gaps while Prince is speaking.

He talks about technology being a double edged sword and that artists don't always get paid.  That is a malady of our age and people who love art and artists need to find it within themselves to make sure that they do not deprive artists of pay by their short sighted choices.

The Day I Didn't Buy Magazines On My Porch

My brother has a "No Soliciting" sticker posted by the front door of his house.  I don't, but I do have a sticker that indicates how many pets the emergency crews might try to save if there was a fire: 0 dogs, 1 cat.

A "No Soliciting" sticker would be handy if I didn't want the doorbell to ring unexpectedly.  But then I wouldn't have a story like this one to tell.

It's Friday afternoon.  I'm making lunch at home.  Grass-fed burger a la Viet.  My default way of cooking meat, which involves generous helping of fish sauce and a smidgen of vinegar, and either honey or brown-sugar.  

I was in-between helpings... microwaving my rice and long-beans: the perfect bed for my Grass-fed burger.  I see this guy walk up to my door.  Dreadlocks and khakis are a rare combination so I decided in an instant that I was going to open the door when he rang the bell.

The bell rang and I swung the door open to a wide-eyed Dudeguy who was caught off guard.  

"Oh wow!  I wasn't expecting you to answer so quickly... my that smells good!" said the Dudeguy.  

I stepped outside.  It was hot out there so I stood in the shade and leaned against a post on the porch as we talked.  I prepared myself for a sales pitch with one twist... I wanted to hear him out and to see how he does what he does.  

You don't jump out of a plane without a parachute and you don't talk to a sales Dudeguy without picking all of your plays ahead of time.  I recommend it.  You will be immune to nearly all of the curve balls that will be thrown at you.  And believe me when I tell you, they're practiced.  They have run through this script hundreds of times and seen what has worked and what hasn't.  You're never ready for *everything* they have to throw at you.  

Here were my plays: No buying or donating anything no matter what anyone says.  You're here to observe and learn.  Quit when you're bored.

Hook and Build Rapport

"Would you agree..." he started, "that you can look up and read anything on your phone these days just by talking to it."  

I paused... a bit too long.  It was a trivial question designed to have nearly 100% agreement. The first hook.  It didn't suck.  "Yes," I said.  

"Alright... knuckle-up!" said Dudeguy offering me a fist-bump.

So far, he had gotten me to answer a question in agreement and to bump his fist.  These actions are designed to establish rapport.  And it is a really good thing to do when you're a sales Dudeguy coming in cold.  Look at how much we already agree on!!!

Dudeguy now moves to describe why he's talking to me on my porch on a hot day.  

He is going door-to-door selling magazines.  An absurd concept in today's age of everything at your fingertips.  His opening question was a well-designed acknowledgment of the absurdity of this entire situation.  And yet here we are.

He changes our flow with another question.  "Where did you go to college?"  

"Just down the street form here," I answered, wishing not to give away anything identifying about myself.

"How much would you say that college help you to have discipline?"

"I suspect that for most people college isn't where you learn discipline."

"I agree.  That why I'm out here.  I came from Michigan and I am here going door-to-door to sell magazines.  It's something I do to develop discipline and it helps me to support my son back home.  It's... (blah blah blah)".  Dudeguy pulls some papers from his back pocket and hands them to me.  He continues talking but I zone out while inspecting the small bundle of papers in a folder.  The first sheet describes who this man is and includes a full physical description of the person.  The second sheet has some description of points and magazine subscription sizes.  

The third sheet is a short list of people on honey-colored cardpaper.  The list is hand-written by a few different hands.  Each line has a name and a number of points and a comment.  One comment says that the sales person was well-spoken.

"...Oh you can have a look at that!  Those are your neighbors who decided to buy."  said Dudeguy.  This gentleman is here on a disciplined act to build himself, take care of his son, and he has social proof of acceptance from my own neighbors!  Actually, I don't know most of my neighbors so they could have been anyone from any town.  But maybe they start a fresh sheet each day.  

The pitch so far involves rapport, social proof of the local sort, and your impulse to be helpful toward someone who is trying to do something right.  

The Pull of Moral Gravity

The killer-combo of the pitch is what comes next.  Dudeguy knows that the last thing anyone in my neighborhood needs at any price is a magazine.  He knows no one is likely to pay for magazines on their porch for themselves.

An indirect approach is what is called for here.  A story is called for here.  A story about my own good deed for someone else who might really appreciate a magazine.

What he offers is a chance for me, the buyer, to be magnanimous:  If I don't need magazines myself, I can donate magazine subscriptions to a local hospital for veterans or burn victims or children.  They'll take care of all of the details.  All I have to do is write a check.

This is pretty smart, actually.  A geniune, crafty, curveball.  A LOT of people feel some amount of respect for veterans.  In fact, one might even say that there is a debt that can never be repaid for veterans.  And burn victims are just helpless poor souls.  Who wouldn't want to give them a break?

We often hear the term "moral highground" used to describe when a person occupies a position and makes an argument that has advantages given the cultural and moral ideas that are in fashion.  I think that term is close to describing the situation here but usually when we speak of the moral highground it's because someone is taking a swipe at someone else.  This isn't an attack, it's just a bit of manipulation.

We need a new term.  Let's call it, Moral Gravity.  Moral gravity when a position has a favorable moral positioning (because of the ideas that are already in your head about good and evil) for something they want you to do or stop doing.  Being on one side or the other of moral gravity is the difference between rolling a large stone downhill vs. uphill.  

Donating to veterans or victims has the benefit of moral gravity on its side.  Veterans and victims are easy to imagine.  We may not all imagine the same thing but we can picture something.  And they are easily placed in the category of being worthy of generosity for most people.

Most people would rather think of themselves as generous than stingy.  They like to think of themselves as altruistic rather than selfish.  Hello, Moral Gravity, my old friend!  And if I, as a person, haven't thought too hard about this, then I will tend to compensate for my usual pattern of self-interested behavior with poorly thought-out random acts that are specifically designed not to benefit myself.  Hello, altruism!  

But the devil of altruism is always in the detail of whether the act is a clear benefit to the my designated beneficiary.  And frankly, I don't have the time to give this a lot of thought on the porch.

And this is why you don't make decisions on your porch with some sales Dudeguy chewing on your ear.  (Frankly, this is why altruism is a trump-card of sales Dudeguy manipulation)

Three Parties Are Better Than Two

The person who created Dudeguy's pitch was smart to invoke the power of veterans and victims in hospitals as an easy-to-visualize beneficiary.  **And** he/she was also smart to make this a three-party transaction and to put themselves at the apex of the three parties.

  • Uber is a three-party transaction: you, driver, uber.  
  • AirBNB is a three-party transaction: you, homeowner, airbnb.
  • Google is a three-party transaction: you, search-engine, advertiser.
  • The examples go on:  Ebay, Visa/Mastercard, Facebook

The middle-man consistently makes a lot of money in these three-party transactions.

 

But here's where the final bit of genius is.  The sales pitch has been refined so that we now have three parties and good will toward each.  

Toward the sales Dudeguy, for doing what he can to be "disciplined" and take care of his little boy rather than "making trouble on the streets".  Why wouldn't you want to help him?

Toward the beneficiary, because of their service or victimhood.  Why wouldn't you want to help them?

Toward myself, most of all, for being generous and unselfish.  Why wouldn't you want to be this idea of yourself.

Everyone wins!  Right?

The Dudeguy was closing on me and so it was time to end this exchange.  

I told Dudeguy that I never buy or donate anything last-minute without planning for it.  And immediately, he started to extract and move on.  As he was backing off, I noticed the beads of sweat on his forehead.  I praised him for being out there in the heat trying to do what he was trying to do and offered to "knuckle-up" again for how awesome it was that he gets out there to do his thing.  But he wasn't interested anymore.  

I guess we had moved beyond the need for any rapport.

He moved quickly to chat up my neighbor, who had just arrived home.

Who Did You Say You Work For?

I didn't really get to ask the Dudeguy about his employer.  But I did remember a "D" and a "T" from the badge around his neck.  So when I went inside to eat the second helping of lunch, I punched in a search for "d t door to door".  What I found isn't very flattering.  

Yelp has review after review of confused and angry wondering aloud if they were suckered by "high-pressure" sales tactics.  Many of them report issuing stop-payment orders on their checks after doing the research.

The Atlantic has a troubling story entitled, "Trapped Into Selling Magazines Door-to-Door". It doesn't mention D&T by name but it describes a scenario which could easily be what this young man faces:

...Young was hundreds of miles from home, and she worried that if she failed to deliver, she wouldn’t earn enough to make it back to her kids. “If you sell too low or you’re a troublemaker, they’ll leave you,” she said. “And I ain’t got nothing.”

Young is one of tens of thousands of people working for door-to-door magazine crews, and the fear of being left behind is nearly universal. “I’ve been working on crews for three years, and I’ve been abandoned 11 times,” said Stephanie Dobbs, a mother of three who worked with another company, Young People Working, LLC, until being stranded in Cloverdale, Indiana, last month. “But I keep going back. I’ve got to do something to support my kids, and this is fast, easy cash if you’re a good seller.”

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw about this except to say that trying to provide direct help to people that you don't know can be complicated by exploitation and unintended consequences.  You just can't suspend your judgment and you have to have your own reasons for doing things.

As someone who has read Ayn Rand and did not find the ideas repellant, I can say that a person who represents their long-term self-interest will always have a clear story for why they are doing something.  And blind acts of hit-and-run helping of others don't pass muster.  

This doesn't mean that you have to forever swear off random acts of kindness.  

Even with my cold, calculating reason making all of the calls, there was one night on the way home that I encountered a person and his car pulled over just outside my neighborhood.  This person had a flat and no clear idea of how to deal with it.  

There was no risk of exploitation or unintended consequence this scenario.  The biggest risk was that I'd get hit by a car.  So I pulled over and gave up some sleep to lend a hand.  I walked him through each step of how to change his tire but I made him do all of the work so that next time he has a flat, he will have been through the steps at least once.

The thing about random acts of kindness is that helpful action may not be benign.  It's not always easy to get a clear idea of whether any action you can take will be help or harm.  Help your daughter to tie her shoes every time and you deny her the opportunity to practice her motor control.  

I think a good rule of thumb is to take no action to help unless you're clear about the help/harm balance.  Act responsibly, and always with with kindness.  Sometimes even act on impulse, but never at random.


The Hidden Costs of Things (Total Cost of Ownership)

Determining the total cost of any thing isn’t something that we, as human beings, are automatically good at being able to figure out.

At RailsConf 2012, Rich Hickey is recorded saying that:

Programmers know the benefits of everything and the tradeoffs of nothing.

This is a reconstruction of the Oscar Wilde quote but as applied to programmers.

Lord Darlington. What cynics you fellows are!
Cecil Graham: What’s a cynic?
Lord Darlington: A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.
Lord Darlington. You always amuse me, Cecil. You talk as if you were a man of experience.

  • Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

As programmers, we do get excited by technology and conventions and ways of doing things. And we are really bad at considering the total cost of the things we put into practice.

Hickey’s talk is about simplicity and complexity... not prices and total cost. He describes complexity as things being interwoven and simplicity as things being independent of one another.

We are staring at some universal truths here: Total cost is harder to determine when things are interwoven.

What follows is a collection of vignettes (or drive-by-shootings if you prefer) on examples of hidden costs I notice when I look around at my life.

Credit Cards and Cash

Total Cost of Ownership is behind my reduced use of credit cards.

The 2-3% transaction fees are really hard to perceive. They are built into the prices of everything these days. Because it is built into the price, people who pay cash end up paying toward those expenses even when they use cash (exceptions go to those places that post a different price for cash transactions).

Part of the cost is also in habit-formation. Rewards programs want you to swipe as often as possible. And rarely do we stop and ask questions like these:

  • Do I spend more carelessly with a credit card?
  • Am I less able to notice how quickly the total grows?
  • Is it easier to notice how quickly my wallet shrinks if I use cash instead?

And, finally, for those of us who use credit cards to borrow money. OH. MY. GOSH. Paying the finance charge each month is loss of money for no reason and if you don’t pay enough to reduce the principal balance, your debt will grow and compound.

Here is an attitude to internalize: You don’t have to borrow money from credit card companies. EVER. If you’re carrying a balance month-over-month, you can be certain that your life would be improved if you cut up your credit card and pay down the balance as quickly as possible.

Cash is simple. It is crude. And it will help you to manage your money better. And it will never become a compound debt.

Vehicles: High Price, Tendency to Rot, Maintenance Cost, Societal Cost

Vehicles rot when they sit there. They bake in the sun. The batteries die. Water separates from the gasoline and the tank may rust out. Tires may become warped from sitting too long.

The cost of a car (or motorcycle), especially any vehicle beyond a single car, is that you must operate it from time to time.

The total cost also includes paying insurance premiums, property tax, registration fees, and the costs to keep inspections current.

Depreciation is a cost we know well but spend a lot of time trying not to think about. It only matters when you try to sell the car so people who drive a vehicle until it is not maintainable have an advantage.

The cost to maintain roads and parking lots and to police the streets is a huge hidden cost that we don’t think about very often because it is something that is “provided” by the government. There are economic costs and ecological impact that are difficult to fully comprehend.

The Free Internet’s Costs: Time, Privacy, and Fraud Risk

Facebook.

Oh, Facebook. We spend so much time on you. We feed you. And you give us less and less and less.

We pay nothing for Facebook. So it seems like it’s free. But it takes enormous amounts of time and entails large-scale habit formation.

Like Google, they have gotten into the business of selling our attention in a very targeted way with an understanding of our likes and interest. Free isn’t free. It never was and never shall be. It’s either paid for by you or paid for by someone else. There are NO exceptions.

Google and Facebook are paid for by advertisers. Wikipedia is paid for by donations. Advertisers seek to modify your behavior for their profit. Which of these will do less harm to your long-term interests?

The question is whether you want to accept the trade when you consider the total cost.

Some free services from Google have also been phased out. You may spend a lot of time to adopt a free service only to find out that the service provider is not going to provide the service any longer. Free isn’t free. It never was and never shall be.

Mint.com offers you deeper insights into your finances. The price is "free" but they use your financial information to sell you financial products. It also requires a login to all of your online financial account so that they can acquire your monthly statements. Part of the total cost is your increased exposure to risk of having your accounts compromised by others.

Applying This Broad Mind to Everything

Getting yourself into a practice of seeing what is not easy to see is a hard trick. Not only are there hidden costs to things, there are hidden benefits.

Things That Have Hidden Layers of Cost

Really, just about anything we can look at has a hidden cost to it.

  • Any kind of financing
  • Gmail / Facebook / Blogs
  • War
  • Chinese Manufacturing
  • Anything You Can Buy
  • A Desk Job
  • Eating Out
  • Exercise or Sedentary Lifestyle
  • Torrenting Copyrighted Materials

Types of Cost

  • Price / Maintenance / Depreciation
  • Habit formation (especially habits that don’t serve you)
  • Time / Opportunity Cost
  • Money
  • Space (in your house)
  • Presence
  • Connection
  • Awareness
  • Capability
  • Rot/Deterioriation
  • Optionality
  • Underpaid and Discouraged Artists

Types of Benefit

  • Money
  • Automation
  • Skill Development
  • Discipline / Practice
  • Convenience
  • Consistency / Uniformity / Standardization
  • Insights and Analytics (think Mint.com)
  • Novelty / Shiny New Things
  • Opportunity to Connect/Reflect

Voting Pro

Rights ought to be simple to explain, fundamental to living as a human among other humans, and applicable equally to all persons. They ought to describe the things you don't have to seek permission to do and the things one may never do to another.

And neither of the major parties gives a damn about them if you look at their actions rather than their rhetoric.

The simple kinds of rights: life, liberty, property aren't sexy. No one talks about them much. They don't slice people into voting blocs that take to the streets. They are a subtle sort of thing you only notice when they are absent.

A rare event in American elections occurs whenever you choose to vote for a candidate because that candidate most closely represents your values. The "pro" vote. Most of the time we get convinced that defeating a candidate is more important than who gets into office.

But consider who benefits by getting people to think that every election balances the nation on a knife's edge. Consider who gains when you put principle aside, time after time, to deal with each threat of disaster. And, looking back from a point years in the future, consider what would we give to have voted our values all along.

We can choose the game we are playing. And if we do, we can honestly tell ourselves, "this is not a problem I will struggle with. I'm playing the long game. I'm voting 'pro'."

References

Gary Johnson Makes Pitch to Burned Sanders Supporters

Ending Racism by Enrollment Rather than Privilege and Guilt

Following is the latest from another round of replies on the same thread on Medium that I posted about yesterday. This is a rich discussion even though there is a bit of talking past one another.

  • I am challenged on whether I am diluting the original author's experience
  • I claim that writing about racism implies a goal of changing the system
  • I lay out my ideas on how discussion of privilege is often, "an underhanded way of slandering people and “being right” without affecting any real change"
  • Why I think guilt is not enough to affect change and instead we need to enroll everyone

I’m going to start by talking about what we agree on.

Miss Matti’s piece as written is perfectly fine as it is and no one is asking her to change that piece. As written, it moved me to care enough to respond.

My response isn’t neutral. I did challenge a perception. And I did make a suggestion. It’s my right to do this just as it is her right to put into words how she felt about her direct experience. It’s also her right to ignore me if she thinks I am a waste of time.

I would like to clarify that if Miss Dominique Matti feels discouraged or diminished in any way, by any word of what I have written, I will gladly apologize to her directly for this. Not that she should care about what I think other than the extent to which I make sense (which is exactly the extent to which I care about people).

You are right also that Miss Matti may not be interested in changing the system with her piece. But her writing isn’t neutral either. And it just so happens that we are agreed: We do not care to have racism exist at all. Let’s squash it.

And what good would it do to end racism if the system remained exactly the same? Changing the system is implied. This is what I see as the larger purpose.

Yes, I am presumptuous to assume she would care to hear my thoughts on the matter. I am fine with that.

You are right that I have my own purposes. I desire to defeat tyranny in all its forms, including the tyranny imposed upon Black Americans. And I intend to be really nosy and I get involved in discussions that don’t concern me directly but are interesting nonetheless. I intend to challenge perceptions when I think they do not serve the larger purpose.

Maybe I need to check this, because maybe I’m being discouraging or shutting people down. I am taking that to heart as a part of your message to me.

A Pet Peeve: Privilege and Guilt

I will also own that discussions of privilege and guilt are generally a pet peeve of mine. This is not always the case, but I find that it is common: discussing privilege is used as an underhanded way of slandering people and “being right” without affecting any real change.

Here’s how this game works: I declare someone in power and comfort to be privileged. I talk about how my people are suffering. If the privileged react, I know I’m right and I shut down anything they say as [xxx]-splaining. If they don’t react I say that they’re ignoring me/us because of their privilege.

It is sophistry: Heads, they lose. Tails, they lose.

But… The system stays the same. No one grows. No one learns. No new connections are formed. No compassion granted. None given in return.

Well, I don’t say that all Muslims need to change because of the actions of the militants who decide to kill. (Though I do try to encourage that they live-and-let-live more loudly).

And I don’t say that all White Americans deserve to feel guilty because of the actions of police officers, but I do encourage them to take on the system and challenge their own default perceptions.

Some White Americans will read Matti’s piece and experience guilt, as we see in the comments. Others will blame a system they didn’t choose, and accept no personal blame for it, and move on to the next article. I can’t say that they are totally wrong to feel this way.

Most discussions of privilege qualify as half-truth at best. And the act of name-calling detracts from the goal of offering an opportunity to reflect and change and act. It detracts from enrollment.

Enrolling Everyone

> Why should “white Americans” be included in a struggle that only people of color, especially Blacks are engaged in everyday?

Why do straight people go march in the pride parades? Why do Christians speak out in defense of Muslims after a deadly attack?

Compassion.

Humanity.

The best within us.

Squelching racism and changing the system needs to happen diligently and on all levels of society. Your words.

They are good words.

We, who care enough to combat racism, should be enrolling everyone to challenge their own racism and to care enough to work to change the unjust outcomes in the system.

Some people will need to be convinced that it is urgent and actionable to join the cause. This is why I made my suggestion in the first comment. I stand by my choice.

Matti’s voice reaching across all divides will be stronger than mine because her struggle is not one I am engaged in everyday.

Closing

You are as thought provoking as ever, Mr. Clay Rivers. I don’t expect you to agree with everything I have said. Ultimately, that’s what’s interesting about discussion.

I hope you can grant to my bits of writing the kind of open acceptance that you grant to Miss Matti’s original piece. These are my authentic responses and they come from what I hope are the best parts within me. I have no intent to shut anyone down.

I know I am not neutral, but hopefully you won’t mind if I take your advice also and write “whatever I want in any way that I want for whatever purposes I choose” as well.


If The Antidote To Rage Includes Compassion and Empathy...

Following is a reply I made on Medium on the topics of race, unequal protection of fundamental rights, whether our fundamental American values are to be vilified as lies or half-truths.

I like what I wrote so I am reposting it below.


…watching the lie (“America is a free country!” + “Liberty and justice for all!”) that aids many white Americans in ignoring our struggle entirely is equally painful and infuriating.

But this section where she talks about “watching the lie”, suggests who her core audience is not: white Americans. And I think that is a harmful choice if you don’t like the way things are. You won’t change the system unless you enroll some of them to the cause.

Why do I say that Matti specifically excludes white Americans? Because of her use of active voice: “white Americans **ignore** our struggle”.

My opinion: You can’t observe “ignoring”. But you can observe “inaction”.

Another opinion: Just as I cannot look at Matti’s article and know her full intent in writing it, she cannot look at inaction and determine the intent of white Americans.

Per the top hit on my google search, America in 2016 is:

  • 62% White
  • 18% Hispanic
  • 12% Black
  • 6% Asian

I will wager that the level of **inaction** in regards to the struggle of black people is about equal for all of the non-black categories: White, Asian, Hispanic. I don’t think that Asians, Hispanics, or Whites deserve special blame for **ignoring** the equal protection of the fundamental rights of Black Americans.

So in regards to calling out white Americans specifically, saying that they “ignore” actively is a provocative generalization which undermines the strength of any communication. It creates an opportunity to dismiss her writing as biased in spite of the many truths within. And we cannot begin to think about modifying the system without enrolling a large chunk of that 62%.

If the antidote to rage includes compassion and empathy, here are some things I notice about people, no matter what their race:

  • They feel fundamentally unable to change the system and, even though it is clearly not designed for Black Americans, it is also not designed for anyone who doesn't happen to be wealthy enough to buy a legislator.
  • They are, daily, fighting through struggles of their own. They have to pick their battles. They may not have chosen ours. (And if we think they ought to, it is up to us to persuade them to do so, taking full responsibility for the outcome.).
  • They have limited attention spans and **ignore** most of everything that goes on around them because that’s one of the key functions of their brains in order to manage all there is to notice.

These are true for whites as much as anyone else. It’s true for Muslims. It’s true for gays.

We are all human. Most of us are more worried about the world than we admit.

Most of us are too caught up in some kind of game, trying to learn and cope with rules for a game we didn’t choose but started playing somehow anyway.

Most of us never even ask if the game is worth playing.

Most of us don’t even notice that we’re playing a game.

A final opinion — This is the real battle: We’re not trying to get people to stop ignoring injustice, we’re trying to get them to notice it. To understand the importance of turning their attention toward fighting it in spite of their own pressing struggles. To take the time to patiently talk and come up with ideas about where to begin. To craft a long-term vision which will inspire persistent action.


Affirming Your Inherent Worthiness By Turning a Question into a Statement

"I achieved X today. Is it enough?"

The answer will depend on your criteria. And if the answer isn't an obvious "yes", it's worth noting that the question is an anxiety inducer that doesn't entail any kind of decision. You might just as well be asking, "Do I have permission to feel good about my day?"

If you're asking, by the way, I'll grant you permission: the answer is "yes". (From whom exactly are we seeking permission anyway when we ask silly questions?)

You can always decide to feel good about your day by choosing your criteria. Here's an example: Any day above ground is a good day.

More importantly, you can choose the game that you are playing. A game I am fascinated with is turning useless questions of evaluation into a statement of assessment and inherent worthiness.

"I achieved X today. It is enough."