Bill Gates on the Importance of Measurement

Writing in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates underscores the importance of measurement:

In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.

The essay touches on many issues, including vaccinations and education. Here is Gates on education reform in America:

I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K–12 education, with America lagging countries in Asia and Northern Europe when it comes to turning out top students, is to create teacher-feedback systems that are properly funded, high quality and trusted by teachers.

Strong points throughout. As I highlighted entry #2 in my best longreads of 2012, I believe the science of measurement will become the norm in the future (especially that of self-measurement/analytics).

James Lasdun on Being Stalked

“I Will Ruin Him” is a haunting story by James Lasdun, who found himself a victim of stalking by a former M.F.A. student of his:

It’s one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.

Along with the accusations of theft, Janice had also received details of my supposed (but equally fictitious) affairs with Nasreen’s former classmates, complete with descriptions of various kinky sexual practices that Nasreen claimed to have heard I went in for. (She had an uncanny way with that transparent yet curiously effective device of rumor, the unattributed source: “I’m told he …” “I hear he …” “Everyone knows he ….”)

The abrupt ending, though? It’s because the essay is a prelude to Lasdun’s new book Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked.

Eric Schmidt’s Daughter on North Korea

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie has posted a lengthy account with photos of their recent trip to North Korea. Some highlights from a post titled “It might not get weirder than this”:

  • The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of “killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
  • None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
  • The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
  • Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
  • The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service.

This was my favorite highlight from her trip:

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village…

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

Sophia’s takeaways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2.  If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3.  Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Worth reading in entirety, especially for the photos. The only thing that sucks is the formatting of the post (google sites, what the heck?).

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Also worth seeing: these photos from North Korea.

On Details, Imagination, and Living

A wonderful post on details and imagination from James:

When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.

This is an interesting point, and I think it comes about for two reasons: 1) fiction is more readily available to us today, now than anyone in our real lives 2) it takes a certain amount of vulnerability to become invested in someone on a proactive basis, and so we choose to go with the easier world of fiction:

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.

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(hat tip: Cheri Lucas)

Tessa Hadley’s Short Story “Experience”

Tessa Hadley’s short story “Experience” is my fiction read of the week. It’s about a twenty-eight year old narrator, Laura, who moves into her “friend of a friend” Hana’s house while Hana moves away for a while. Rummaging through the attic one day, Laura discovers Hana’s diary. One day, Hana’s former lover, Julian, pays a visit and things escalate (but not in the way I expected):

I’d never have picked Julian out as a sensuous type if I hadn’t read Hana’s diary; he seemed too busy and prosaic, without the abstracted dreamy edges I’d always imagined in people who gave themselves over to their erotic lives. And yet, because of the secret things I knew about him, I was fixated on him the whole time I watched him cook, and then afterward, while we sat opposite each other eating at the little table he pulled up to my armchair. I told myself that, if he left without anything happening, then I had lost my chance and I would die. I wasn’t melting or longing for him to touch me or anything like that; the desire wasn’t in my body but wedged in my mind, persistent and burrowing. I didn’t even like Julian much. But liking people and even loving them seemed to me now like ways of keeping yourself safe, and I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to cross the threshold and be initiated into real life. My innocence was a sign of something maimed or unfinished in me.

The ending is a bit anti-climactic, which is something I’ve come to expect from a lot of these fictional stories in The New Yorker.

How High School Stays with Us

Jennifer Sieger, in New York Magazine, pens a thought-provoking piece titled “Why You Never Truly Leave High School”:

Not everyone feels the sustained, melancholic presence of a high-school shadow self. There are some people who simply put in their four years, graduate, and that’s that. But for most of us adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories, which to some degree is even quantifiable: Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name—the “reminiscence bump”—and it’s been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained. (Which perhaps explains Ralph Keyes’s observation in his 1976 classic, Is There Life After High School?: “Somehow those three or four years can in retrospect feel like 30.”)

 To most human beings, the significance of the adolescent years is pretty intuitive. Writers from Shakespeare to Salinger have done their most iconic work about them; and Hollywood, certainly, has long understood the operatic potential of proms, first dates, and the malfeasance of the cafeteria goon squad. “I feel like most of the stuff I draw on, even today, is based on stuff that happened back then,” says Paul Feig, the creator of Freaks and Geeks, which had about ten glorious minutes on NBC’s 1999–2000 lineup before the network canceled it. “Inside, I still feel like I’m 15 to 18 years old, and I feel like I still cope with losing control of the world around me in the same ways.” (By being funny, mainly.)

This was a key paragraph:

Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.

Like the author, last year I attended my high school reunion. I didn’t know what to expect. But the biggest take-away from the event was this: of the people who showed up, many were still building a path, not certain where they’re headed. It felt incredibly reassuring to know that a lot of us haven’t figured out what we want to do with our lives, and that it’s okay to be in this company.

The Value of Self-Awareness

Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield write on the value of self-awareness for success:

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to acheive them.

The tennis champion Martina Navratilova, for example, told us that after a galling loss to Chris Evert in 1981, she questioned her assumption that she could get by on talent and instinct alone. She began a long exploration of every aspect of her game. She adopted a rigorous cross-training practice (common today but essentially unheard of at the time), revamped her diet and her mental and tactical game and ultimately transformed herself into the most successful women’s tennis player of her era.

The indie rock band OK Go described how it once operated under the business model of the 20th-century rock band. But when industry record sales collapsed and the band members found themselves creatively hamstrung by their recording company, they questioned their tactics. Rather than depend on their label, they made wildly unconventional music videos, which went viral, and collaborative art projects with companies like Google, State Farm and Range Rover, which financed future creative endeavors. The band now releases albums on its own label.

This is great, but it all comes with the benefit of hindsight. This kind of advice isn’t useful to the person still struggling with their business, personal goals, or indeed anything worth pursuing. But if you found the advice useful, the authors have a book to sell you.

On Aaron Swartz and Martin Luther King, Jr.

One week after Aaron Swartz’s suicide, there are still many questions. Larry Lessig, ahead of the MLK holiday, reflects in this post titled “A Time for Silence”:

His motive was political — obviously. His harm was exactly none — as JSTOR effectively acknowledged. But he deserved, your “career prosecutors” believed, to be deprived of his rights as a citizen (aka, a “felon,” no longer entitled to the political rights he fought to perfect) because of what he did. 

Yet here’s the thing to remember on MLK weekend (even though my saying this violates a rule I believe in firmly, a kind of inverse to Godwin’s law, because though I believe these two great souls were motivated by exactly the same kind of justice, King’s cause was greater): How many felonies was Martin Luther King, Jr., convicted of? King, whose motives were political too, but who, unlike Aaron, triggered actions which caused real harm. What’s that number? 

Zero. 

And how many was he even charged with in the whole of his career?

Two. Two bogus charges (perjury and tax evasion) from Alabama, which an all-white jury acquitted him of.

This is a measure of who we have become. And we don’t even notice it. We can’t even see the extremism that we have allowed to creep into our law. And we treat as decent a government official who invokes her family while defending behavior which in part at least drove this boy to his death.

I still dream. It is something that Darrell Issa and Zoe Lofgren are thinking along the same lines. On this anniversary of the success of the campaign to stop SOPA — a campaign which Aaron helped architect — maybe I’m right to be hopeful that even this Congress might do something. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll surprise us. Maybe.

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Related: Lessig’s earlier much-circulated post, “Prosecutor as Bully.”

Dissecting Bilbo’s Contract in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

James Daily, a lawyer and co-author of The Law and Superheroes, typically focuses his legal critiques on the superhero world at the Law and the Multiverse website he runs with fellow lawyer and co-author Ryan Davidson. And in this piece for Wired, James Daily dissects the lengthy contract between Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Two clauses describe Bilbo’s primary obligations:

I, the undersigned, [referred to hereinafter as Burglar,] agree to travel to the Lonely Mountain, path to be determined by Thorin Oakenshield, who has a right to alter the course of the journey at his so choosing, without prior notification and/or liability for accident or injury incurred.

The aforementioned journey and subsequent extraction from the Lonely Mountain of any and all goods, valuables and chattels [which activities are described collectively herein as the Adventure] shall proceed in a timely manner and with all due care and consideration as seen fit by said Thorin Oakenshield and companions, numbering thirteen more or less, to wit, the Company.

All contracts require some consideration from all parties to the contract.  Consideration, in the contract sense, means a bargained-for performance or promise. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 71(1). Basically, this is something of value given or promised as part of the agreement. This can be anything that the parties agree is valuable; the classic example is a single peppercorn.  Whitney v. Stearns, 16 Me. 394, 397 (1839).

Here, Bilbo is promising to go with the Company to the Lonely Mountain and performing various services there, including extracting the treasure, plus a few more services we’ll get to later. In turn, as we shall see, the Company promises to pay Bilbo one fourteenth of the profits, plus a few other obligations. Thus we have “a promise for a promise,” otherwise known as a bilateral contract.

There are some other details to notice in these clauses. One is the use of defined terms (e.g. “referred to hereinafter as Burglar”). The parties to a contract may define terms however they wish, even in ways that contradict the definition used in statutes or regulations.

Continuing:

Next we have a non-disclosure or confidentiality clause:

Confidentiality is of utmost importance and must be strictly maintained at all times.  During the course of his employment with the Company, Burglar will hear, see, learn, apprehend, comprehend, and, in short, gain knowledge of particular facts, ideas, plans, strategies, theories, geography, cartography, iconography, means, tactics and/or policies, whether actual, tangible, conceptual, historical or fanciful.  Burglar undertakes and agrees to maintain this knowledge in utmost secrecy and confidentiality, and to neither divulge nor make known said knowledge by any means, including but not limited to speech, writing, demonstration, re-enactment, mime, or storage and retrieval within means or apparatus currently known or unknown or as yet unthought of.

(It is a plain drafting error to refer to “the course of [the Burglar’s] employment with the company”, since a later clause specifies in no uncertain terms that “Burglar is in all respects an independent contractor, and not an employee … of the Company.”)

This confidentiality agreement is a little overbroad, since by its strict terms it requires Bilbo to keep confident anything he learns on the journey, not just things he learns in confidence.  The fact that information is already publicly known is usually a defense to a breach of confidentiality, since the information wasn’t actually secret.  Overbreadth probably isn’t fatal to the clause, however.

What’s really unusual about this part of the contract is that it doesn’t appear to include a clause acknowledging that monetary damages alone would be inadequate compensation in the event of a breach of confidentiality.  The purpose of such a clause is to make it easier to obtain an injunction ordering the breaching party to stop disclosing the confidential information.  Ordinarily breach of contract results in a payment of monetary damages, and getting an injunction usually requires showing, among other things, that those damages are insufficient to remedy the harm done.

Recommended reading if you’re a fan of the book. I saw the film in late 2012, but must admit that it was too long for my taste. And they’re making The Hobbit a trilogy!?

Zack Arias on Signal, Noise, and Social Media

Zack Arias, an Atlanta-based photographer, pens a guest post on Scott Kelby’s blog about signal and the noise, social media hiatus, and finding inspiration. It’s worth reading in entirety, but here were my favorite bits:

– Build an inspiration wall :: I had stacks and stacks and stacks of magazines and photography books. I would thumb through them every now and then. Most of the time they just collect dust. I keep them for “inspiration” but they aren’t in front of me all the time. Since opening the lab I have started to rip out all the stuff that inspires me and have started taping this stuff to the walls in my production office and hair and make up room. Everyday I walk in I’m confronted by walls of stuff I find cool. At first I thought I was building a wall of intimidation but I see that it is a wall of inspiration. I see a picture, something about it speaks to me, I rip it out and tape it on the wall. Do this in your garage, basement, garden shed, hallway, somewhere.

Maybe I like the colors. Maybe I like the pose. Maybe I’m responding to the light. Whatever it is I tape it up and recycle bin the rest of the zine or book. It is cutting down on the clutter on my shelves and giving me cool stuff to look at each day. It starts to tell you some things about yourself as well. Currently my inspiration wall is about 90% black and white. Much of it is dramatically lit. There’s a lot of multiple exposures, motion, and projection.  It’s also nice to have it hanging up in a client area (hair and makeup room) because you can easily point things out like styling cues, posing ideas, emotional aspects of what you are wanting to make, etc. Don’t rip stuff out and put it in a binder. Get it on the walls in a place you’ll see it every day.

The nice thing about seeing this stuff everyday is you can begin to build ideas that you’ll start with on your next shoot. Grab one photo that you like for the light. Grab another that has a color palette you respond to. Another shot is a pose that you like. Another one has an idea for a background or location. You then start to build a shot with that light, this pose, that color palette, at this location. Signal. Showing up on a shoot with zero ideas can be a lot of noise.

For a different type of inspiration wall, try this.

On my recent trip to New York City, I took this to heart. I walked around with only the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 35mm prime lens:

– One lens. One light. One something :: Simplify your gear. You pick up a camera for the photograph. You pick up a camera for the photograph. It’s the photograph stupid. Not the Nikon. Not the Canon. Not the 8×10. Not the new 24-70 whatever. Not the new Octabank. Limit your gear usage for a week or for a month or for a year. One camera. One lens. One light source. Master it. MASTER it. Know it. Inside and out. Do everything you can with that one camera, one lens, and one light. My thing right now is one background. I shoot on a white background all the time. ALL the time. What else can I do with it? I know, from looking at my inspiration wall, that I can do more with a simple white wall than what I’m doing now.

Using only one set of gear is both constraining and liberating. Constraining because you can’t, for instance, get everything in the frame. But once you get over this barrier, it becomes liberating because you’re forced to think a bit more about getting the shot.

Lastly, something that I’ve only been able to do with limited success but plan on trying harder in 2013:

– Turn off facebook / twitter / flickr for awhile :: Get offline. Say adios to everyone and go make stuff. Work on a personal project. Get all the honey-do stuff off your list. Clean your basement. Organize your crap. Get all that stuff that lingers over your head off your plate. All those loose ends are noise. Social Media, as much as I LOVE it, is filled with noise. Social Media plays an important part in my life. It’s also a time suck. It’s a place where ideas, questions, and thoughts scatter in a million different directions from a million different sources 24 hours a day. Turn it off. Clear your plate. Let your brain quiet down.

Read the entire post here and don’t miss Zack’s video, Signal & Noise: