Interesting Books In 2020

There have been a lot of things we haven’t been able to do during the last nine months. But it’s been a good time for reading ebooks and listening to audiobooks. So my on-again-off-again tradition of highlighting interesting books that I have read in the year is on again.

These books have not all been published during the last year, but are ones I’ve read this past year and thought worth mentioning to other folks who read this blog.  You’ll note that this is an eclectic combination of books on technology, government, the economy and other non-fiction – but that’s the range of topics that my blog is about.

Anyway, here’s my list for 2020 and a blurb as to why each book is on the list.  I have obviously eliminated from the list the many other books that I’ve read, which I would not recommend you spend your time on. ?

Technology, AI/Machine Learning and Science

  1. David Carmona – The AI Organization: Learn from Real Companies and Microsoft’s Journey How to Redefine Your Organization with AI (2019). Perhaps too many examples from Microsoft, but it is a really good book from A to Z on artificial intelligence.
  2. Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant – User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play (2019). Very interesting review of the leading good (and sometimes bad) user interfaces.
  3. Matthew O. Jackson – The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors (2019). Good, understandable explanations of network measures and phenomena in various domains.
  4. Damon Centola – How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions (2018). Provides a nuanced view of the best time to use weak or strong ties, especially in leading changes in an organization or community.
  5. Eric Topol – Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again (2019). Although it is mostly about the ways that artificial intelligence can re-humanize the patient-doctor relationship, it even has a pretty good, understandable review of general artificial intelligence and machine learning concepts.
  6. Lisa Feldman Barrett – How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (2017). The title highlights emotions, but this book is not just about emotions. It instead offers a paradigm shift about how the brain works.
  7. Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers – The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel (2016). interesting book, better and more nuanced than the usual summaries about machine learning models to predict the success of books.
  8. Leonard Mlodinow – The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2009). Interesting explanations of the implications of probability theory and how most people get probability wrong.
  9. Scott Rigby and Richard M Ryan – Glued to games: how video games draw us in and hold us spellbound (2011). Good review of computer-based games, especially the psychological aspects.

Leadership And Business

  1. Jim McKelvey – The innovation stack: building an unbeatable business one crazy idea at a time (2020). Good, insightful and sometimes funny book by one of the co-founders of Square, with the proposition that success is the result of a chain (better word than stack) of innovations rather than just one big one.
  2. Scott Kupor – Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It (2019). If you want to know how venture capitalists look at startups, this tells you how.
  3. Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Sangeet Paul Choudary – Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy – and How to Make Them Work for You (2017). While other books on the subject go more deeply into the broader policy implications of platforms, if you want to start a platform business, this is your best, almost required, user manual.
  4. Daniel Coyle – The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (2018). Culture is a frequently used word to explain the forces that drive behavior in organizations, but too often the concept is fuzzy. This book is one of the clearest and best on the subject.
  5. Dan Heath – Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen (2020). Good, as usual for the Heath brothers, well written down to earth, but important concepts underneath and guidance at looking at the more fundamental part of problems that you are trying to solve.
  6. Matt Ridley – How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom (2020). Includes many short histories of key innovations, not just invention, with an emphasis on the iterative and collaborative nature of the innovation process. Ridley advocates curtailing IP protections, thus providing more tolerance of risky experiments/innovations.
  7. Rita McGrath – Seeing Around Corners: How To Spot Inflection Points In Business Before They Happen (2019). Columbia Professor McGrath has made clear that no strategy is sustainable for a long time and in this book, she helps you figure out when you are at good or bad inflection points.

The Economy And Government

  1. Robert H. Frank – Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work (2020). Frank is one of the most creative economists around and in this review of behavioral economics, he highlights how people pursue relative positions of wealth, rather than merely being rational maximizers of wealth.  He also offers a good discussion of public policies to pursue, that are based on this understanding of economic behavior.
  2. Stephanie Kelton – The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (2020). Well written, clear exposition of modern monetary theory and the positive and negative consequences of having completely fiat money (no gold standard or fixed currency exchanges). Professor Kelton is an increasingly influential economist and her ideas – whether or not she is given credit – have enabled the US Government to spend more with less angst than used to be the case.
  3. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo – Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems (2019). A review of economics research – and, more important, its limits – in addressing major socio-economic problems.
  4. Matthew Yglesias – One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger (2020). Although no one (including me) will agree with everything he proposes, this is an interesting book with some original forward thinking – something we need more of as we face a very changed future.
  5. Michael Hallsworth and Elspeth Kirkman – Behavioral Insights (2020). This is a good overview of the application of behavior research to mostly public policy, especially about the UK.
  6. Paul Begala – You’re fired: the perfect guide to beating Donald Trump (2020). Smart and realistic proposals for the campaign to oppose Trump with many very funny lines.
  7. Jane Kleeb – Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America (2020). Along with Begala, explains her own success in rural America and more generally what needs to be done by Democrats to regain their old reputation as the party of the majority of people.
  8. Mark Lilla – The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017). Short review of how the Democratic party became dominated by identity politics and, for that reason, provides a bit of background for the previous too books.

Have a happy holiday season and a great, much better, year in 2021!

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Limits To Being Different

Product differentiation is often described as the key to business success. Companies are told that unless they really stand out from the crowd, their products or services will become “commoditized” — an undesirable position in the marketplace that results in little or no profit. This has been well-established guideline in the world of technology startups and even new technology-based product development in existing companies.

And that guidance is mostly right. Distinguishing your products from the crowd of competitors often results in greater than average profits. Consider Apple, with less market share than Android, but lots more profit than its smart phone competitors.

Of course, how to go about this is not so simple. One of the best and most inspiring books about how to differentiate — how to be really different — is Harvard Business School Professor Youngme Moon’s book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd — Standing Out In A World Where Conformity Reigns But Exceptions Rule.

These quotes summarize her forceful advice:

“What does it mean to be really different? Different in a way that makes a difference. It could mean doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing — going small when everyone else is going big…

“You could even say that breakaway brands revel in our stereotypes, since they make their living turning them upside down…

“These brands are the antithesis of well-behaved, and their mutiny is directed squarely at the category assumptions we bring to the table. And sometimes the transgression is more than a touch provocative; it’s a bit twisted as well. …

“What a breakaway positioning strategy offers is the opportunity to achieve a kind of differentiation that is sustainable over the long term. … it has no competitors; it remains sui generis.”

This advice applies not only to business, but can also apply to politics. That’s why I wrote a post four years ago called “The Breakaway Brand Of 2016” about the 2016 US Presidential election. Although I doubt that he read her book and his approach certainly didn’t please Professor Moon, Trump seemed to have been using it as his playbook for the 2016 election. His was the perfect exemplar of a breakaway brand in politics.

Now the 2020 Election also showed the limits of this approach. In a two-way election in the US, you need a majority (putting aside the Electoral College, for the moment).

 

It is also often the case that being different means you won’t get a majority, as both Apple and Trump have found out. For Apple, that’s not a problem. For Trump, it meant he lost the election.

While he did receive many votes, the limits of breaking too far away in politics was well stated by the most successful politician in American history, Franklin Roosevelt: “It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead — and find no one there.”

The limits of extreme differentiation are clear enough in electoral contests. But the election result also reminded me that there are limits to being different in business too. I’m especially thinking of most established technology-based, multi-sided platform businesses (like Amazon) and other businesses that depend on direct network effects (like Facebook).

These businesses also need to have a majority (or even more) of the market. That’s because their value to customers depends a lot on network effects. Being too different for most people will mean you do not end up getting the majority of people as customers.

So, differentiating — even creating breakaway brands — is certainly good advice in general. But like any advice, it is not always appropriate. And the art of leadership is knowing when not to follow generally good advice and take a different road — even a different road about being different.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Going Full Uber

Today, something a little different, but not too different — it’s about one of the public policy implications of an important change in the economy that technology has enabled.

As we all know, the freelance and gig economy has been growing. According to a report this year from Upwork and the Freelancers Union, more than a third of the workforce is freelancing. Many of us make at least part of our living in the gig economy and most of the rest of us depend at least part of the time on people who are gig workers.

In California, there has been a movement to apply to gig workers some of the protections that were put in place for the fast-growing number of American industrial workers 80 to 100 years ago — minimum wage, a fixed work week, unemployment insurance, assistance due to workplace accidents and the like.

In response to California’s law that requires Uber and Lyft to reclassify its contractors as employees who are provided with employee benefits, the company proposed its own reform plan for the gig economy. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on August 10, 2020, titled “I Am the C.E.O. of Uber. Gig Workers Deserve Better. Gig workers want both flexibility and benefits — we support laws that could make  that possible.”

In it, he proposed:

“that gig economy companies be required to establish benefits funds which give workers cash that they can use for the benefits they want, like health insurance or paid time off. Independent workers in any state that passes this law could take money out for every hour of work they put in. All gig companies would be required to participate, so that workers can build up benefits even if they switch between apps.”

The New York Times columnist Shira Ovide followed up with a story titled “Uber’s Next Idea: A New Labor Law …Uber’s “third way” would offer its drivers flexibility plus some benefits. It’s not totally crazy.” Hmm, not totally crazy? That doesn’t sound like an endorsement, but it’s also not dismissive. Something has to be done to equalize the protections for them with employees, while giving them the flexibility that Uber advocates.

In line with their approach, Uber and similar companies are supporting California’s Proposition 22 on the ballot this November to get them out from under the State government’s push to treat their drivers as employees. Not surprisingly, many progressive and labor groups oppose Prop 22. This picture illustrates the concerns of the opponents:

But there is a larger question here beyond benefits and rights for gig workers because the change in the nature of employee-employer relationships has been as significant as the growth of the gig economy. With increasing automation and more coming with AI, de-unionization and frequent layoffs among other trends, frankly, a job is not what it used to be. Moreover, the situation is not likely to improve since the long-term loyalty between employer and employee that was common decades ago is generally rare now.

It’s time to realize that the economy – not just for freelancers and gig workers – has changed a lot since the Progressive and New Deal reaction to the excesses of corporations a hundred years ago. The gig rights debate seems to be too limited and too much based on last century thinking which is increasingly inappropriate for our technology-based economy. 

Putting aside the limitations of Proposition 22, why not take the general proposal for gig contractors that Khosrowshahi described in his NY Times piece and expand it?

Why not go full Uber! (Something Uber itself may not like, after all.)

What does that mean? Gig workers need a better contract and so do “employees”.

Any individual — whatever the label — who is providing a service to a company would have a contract with that company which clearly states adherence to government laws and regulations on: minimum payment per hour, extra payment for more than a certain number of hours of work per week, expenses incurred performing duties on behalf of the company, safety, discrimination, normal workers compensation for accidents that occur while working on behalf of the company, and the right to form any association (union) they wish.

Khosrowshahi emphasizes the freedom and control over their lives that gig workers have. OK, maybe it is time to give employees that same freedom.

That brings up the other current disparities between gig workers and employees, especially health insurance, sick/family/vacation leave and unemployment insurance which are tied to employment status. Gig/freelance workers need this as well, but it is also time to disassociate these benefits from the companies where people work — all in the cause of the freedom that Khosrowshahi promotes.

For example, the money companies used to spend on health insurance premiums and the like would now be paid directly to the employees. The employees would get their own health insurance and not be limited to the third insurance plans their company has pre-selected. Government options could also be offered for health insurance. (Similarly, gig or freelance workers could have those premiums built in to their contracts, at a minimum being the percentage of a full work week that they devote to the company.)

In this way, there would be no windfall for corporations after they would be relieved of paying benefits to employees. The shift can be done in a revenue/cost neutral way, leaving employers, companies and governments financially where they were before the shift.

Providing protections for everyone who works for someone else, no matter whether that’s on a gig/freelance basis or “permanently”, will help everyone get some more freedom from the fear of economic dislocation. Also, they will finally have the freedom to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as well, which could help grow the economy more than forcing them to be locked into jobs that don’t fulfill their potential.

Finally, governments will, in the process, have to adjust their understanding of the nature of work in this century, which is no longer what it was when most current laws and policies were put in place.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Are You Looking At The Wrong Part Of The Problem?

In business, we are frequently told that to build a successful company we have to find an answer to the customer’s problem. In government, the equivalent guidance to public officials is to solve the problems faced by constituents. This is good guidance, as far as it goes, except that we need to know what the problem really is before we can solve it.

Before those of us who are results-oriented, problem solvers jump into action, we need to make sure that we are looking at the right part of the problem. And that’s what Dan Heath’s new book, “Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen” is all about.

Heath, along with his brother Chip, has brought us such useful books as “Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” and “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard”.

As usual for a Heath book, it is well written and down to earth, but contains important concepts and research underneath the accessible writing.

He starts with a horrendous, if memorable, story about kids:

You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water — a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another…and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

 

Going upstream is necessary to solve the problem at its origin — hence the name of the book. The examples in the book range from important public, governmental problems to the problems of mid-sized businesses. While the most dramatic examples are about saving lives, the book is also useful for the less dramatic situations in business.

Heath’s theme is strongly, but politely, stated:

“So often we find ourselves reacting to problems, putting out fires, dealing with emergencies. We should shift our attention to preventing them.”

This reminds me of a less delicate reaction to this advice: “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to find time to drain the swamp”. And I often told my staff that unless you took some time to start draining the swamp, you are always going to be up to your waist in alligators.”

He elaborates and then asks a big question:

We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Firefighters extinguish flames in burning buildings, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many fires, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

His answer is that, in part, organizations have been designed to react — what I called some time ago the “inbox-outbox” view of a job. Get a problem, solve it, and then move to the next problem in the inbox.

Heath identifies three causes that lead people to focus downstream, not upstream where the real problem is.

  • Problem Blindness — “I don’t see the problem.”
  • A Lack of Ownership — “The problem isn’t mine to fix.”
  • Tunneling — “I can’t deal with the problem right now.”

In turn, these three primary causes lead to and are reinforced by a fatalistic attitude that bad things will happen and there is nothing you can do about that.

Ironically, success in fixing a problem downstream is often a mark of heroic achievement. Perhaps for that reason, people will jump in to own the emergency downstream, but there are fewer owners of the problem upstream.

…reactive efforts succeed when problems happen and they’re fixed. Preventive efforts succeed when nothing happens. Those who prevent problems get less recognition than those who “save the day” when the problem explodes in everyone’s faces.

Consider the all too common current retrospective on the Y2K problem. Since the problem didn’t turn out to be the disaster it could have been at the turn of the year 2000, some people have decided it wasn’t real after all. It was, but the issue was dealt with upstream by massive correction and replacement of out-of-date software.

Heath realizes that it is not simple for a leader with an upstream orientation to solve the problem there, rather than wait for the disaster downstream.

He asks leaders to first think about seven questions, which explores through many cases:

  • How will you get early warning of the problem?
  • How will you unite the right people to assess and solve the problem?
  • Where can you find a point of leverage?
  • Who will pay for what does not happen?
  • How will you change the system?
  • How will you know you’re succeeding?
  • How will you avoid doing harm?

Some of these questions and an understanding of what the upstream problem really is can start to be answered by the intelligent use of analytics. That too only complicates the issue for leaders, since an instinctive heroic reaction is much sexier than contemplating machine learning models and sexy usually beats out wisdom 🙂

Eventually Heath makes the argument that not only do we often focus on the wrong end of the problem, but that we think about the problem too simplistically. At that point in his argument, he introduces the necessity of systems thinking because, especially upstream, you may find a set of interrelated factors and not a simple one-way stream.

[To be continued in the next post.]

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Second Wave Of Capital

I have been doing research about the future impact of artificial intelligence on the economy and the rest of our lives. With that in mind, I have been reading a variety of books by economists, technologists, and others.That is why I recently read “Capital and Ideology” by Thomas Piketty, the well-known French economist and author of the best-selling (if not well read) “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. It contains a multi-national history of inequality, why it happened and why it has continued, mostly uninterrupted.

At more than 1100 pages, it is a tour de force of economics, history, politics and sociology. In considerable detail, for every proposition, he provides reasonable data analyses, which is why the book is so long. While there is a lot of additional detail in the book, many of the themes are not new, in part because of Piketty’s previous work.  As with his last book, much of the commentary on the new book is about income and wealth inequality.  This is obviously an important problem, although not one that I will discuss directly here.

Instead, although much of the focus of the book is on capital in the traditional sense of money and ownership of things, it was his two main observations about education – what economists call human capital – that stood out for me. The impact of a second wave and a second kind of capital is two-fold.

  1. Education And The US Economy

From the mid-nineteenth century until about a hundred years later, the American population had twice the educational level of people in Europe. And this was exactly the same period that the American economy surpassed the economies of the leading European countries. During the last several decades, the American population has fallen behind in education and this is the same time that their incomes have stagnated.  It is obviously difficult to tease out the effect of one factor like education, but clearly there is a big hint in these trends.

As Piketty writes in Chapter 11:

The key point here is that America’s educational lead would continue through much of the twentieth century. In 1900–1910, when Europeans were just reaching the point of universal primary schooling, the United States was already well on the way to generalized secondary education. In fact, rates of secondary schooling, defined as the percentage of children ages 12–17 (boys and girls) attending secondary schools, reached 30 percent in 1920, 40–50 percent in the 1930s, and nearly 80 percent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In other words, by the end of World War II, the United States had come close to universal secondary education.

At the same time, the secondary schooling rate was just 20–30 percent in the United Kingdom and France and 40 percent in Germany. In all three countries, it is not until the 1980s that one finds secondary schooling rates of 80 percent, which the United States had achieved in the early 1960s. In Japan, by contrast, the catch-up was more rapid: the secondary schooling rate attained 60 percent in the 1950s and climbed above 80 percent in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the second Industrial Revolution it became essential for growing numbers of workers to be able to read and write and participate in production processes that required basic scientific knowledge, the ability to understand technical manuals, and so on.

That is how, in the period 1880–1960—first the United States and then Germany and Japan, newcomers to the international scene—gradually took the lead over the United Kingdom and France in the new industrial sectors. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United Kingdom and France were too confident of their lead and their superior power to take the full measure of the new educational challenge.

How did the United States, which pioneered universal access to primary and secondary education and which, until the turn of the twentieth century, was significantly more egalitarian than Europe in terms of income and wealth distribution, become the most inegalitarian country in the developed world after 1980—to the point where the very foundations of its previous success are now in danger? We will discover that the country’s educational trajectory—most notably the fact that its entry into the era of higher education was accompanied by a particularly extreme form of educational stratification—played a central role in this change.

In any case, as recently as the 1950s inequality in the United States was close to or below what one found in a country like France, while its productivity (and therefore standard of living) was twice as high. By contrast, in the 2010s, the United States has become much more inegalitarian while its lead in productivity has totally disappeared.

  1. The Political Competition Between Two Elites

By now, most Americans who follow politics understand that the Democratic Party has become the favorite of the educated elite, in addition to the votes from minority groups. This coalition completely reverses what had been true of educated voters in most of the last century, who were reliable Republican voters. In the process, the Democratic Party has lost much of its working-class base.

The Republicans have been the party of the economic elite, although since the 1970s some of the working-class have joined in, especially those reacting to increased immigration and civil rights movements.

What Piketty points out is that, in this transition, working-class and lower income people have decreased their political participation, especially voting. He thinks that is because these voters felt that the Democratic Party has been taken over by the educational elite and no longer speaks for them.

What many Americans may not have realized is that this same phenomenon has happened in other economically advanced democracies, such as the UK and France. Over the longer run, Piketty wonders whether such an electoral competition between parties both dominated by elites can be sustained – or whether the voiceless will seek violence or other undemocratic outlets for their political frustrations.

In Chapter 14, he notes that, at the same time that the USA has lost the edge arising from a better educated population, it and other advanced economies that have now matched or surpassed the American educational level, have elevated education to a position of political power.

We come now to what is surely the most striking evolution in the long run; namely, the transformation of the party of workers into the party of the educated.

Before turning to explanations, it is important to emphasize that the reversal of the educational cleavage is a very general phenomenon. What is more, it is a complete reversal, visible at all levels of the educational hierarchy. we find exactly the same profile—the higher the level of education, the less likely the left-wing vote—in all elections in this period, in survey after survey, without exception, and regardless of the ambient political climate. Specifically, the 1956 profile is repeated in 1958, 1962, 1965, and 1967.

Not until the 1970s and 1980s does the shape of the profile begin to flatten and then gradually reverse. The new norm emerges with greater and greater clarity as we move into the 2000s and 2010s. With the end of Soviet communism and bipolar confrontations over private property, the expansion of educational opportunity, and the rise of the “Brahmin left,” the political-ideological landscape was totally transformed.

Within a few years the platforms of left-wing parties that had advocated nationalization (especially in the United Kingdom and France), much to the dismay of the self-employed, had disappeared without being replaced by any clear alternative.

A dual-elite system emerged, with on one side, a “Brahmin left,” which attracted the votes of the highly educated, and on the other side, a “merchant right,” which continued to win more support from both highly paid and wealthier votes.

This clearly provides some context for what we have been seeing in recent elections.  And although he is not the first to highlight this trend, the evidence that he marshals is impressive.

Considering how much there is in the book, it is not likely anyone, including me, would agree with all of the analysis. In addition to the analysis, Piketty goes on to propose various changes in taxation and laws, which I will discuss in the context of other writers in a later blog. For now, I would only add that other economists have come to some of the same suggestions as Piketty, although they have completed a very different journey from his.

For example, Daniel Susskind in The End Of Work is concerned that a large number of people will not be able to make a living through paid work because of artificial intelligence. The few who do get paid and those who own the robots and AI systems will become even richer at most everyone else becomes poorer. This blends with Piketty’s views and they end up in the same place – a basic citizen’s income and even a basic capital allotment to each citizen, taxation on wealth, estate taxes, and the like.

We will have much to explore about these and other policy issues arising from the byproducts of our technology revolution in this century.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Is It 1832 Or 2020? Virtual Convention Or Something New?

In these blogs, I’ve often noted how people seem wedded to old ways of thinking, even when those old ways are dressed up in new clothes.

Despite all the technology around us, it’s amazing how little some things have changed.  Too often, today seems like it was 120 years ago when people talked and thought about “horseless carriages” rather than the new thing that was possible – the car with all the possibilities it opened.

So it was with interest that I read this recent story – “Democrats confirm plans for nearly all-virtual convention

“Democrats will hold an almost entirely virtual presidential nominating convention Aug. 17-20 in Milwaukee using live broadcasts and online streaming, party officials said Wednesday.”

Party conventions have been around since 1832.  They were changed a little bit when they went on radio and then later on television.  But mostly they have always been filled with lots of people hearing speeches, usually from the podium.

Following in this tradition going back to 1832, the Democratic Party is going to have a convention, but we can’t have lots of people gathered together with COVID-19.  This one will be “a virtual convention in Milwaukee” which seems like a contradiction – something that is both virtual but is happening in a physical place?  I guess it only means that Joe Biden will be in Milwaukee along with the convention officials to handle procedures.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear what this convention will look like.  In addition to the main procedures in Milwaukee, the article indicates that “Democrats plan other events in satellite locations around the country to broadcast as part of the convention”.  I assume that will be similar.

“Kirshner knows how it’s done: He has produced every Democratic national convention since 1992.”

Hopefully this will be different from every convention since 1832 – or even 1992!

Instead of the standard speeches on the screen or even other activities that are just video of something that could occur on-stage, do something that is more up-to-date.  This will show that Biden will not only be a different kind of President than Trump, but that he also will know how to lead us into the future.

Why not do something that takes advantage of not having to be in a convention hall?

For example, how about a walk (or drive, if necessary) through the speaker’s neighborhood (masks on) explaining what the problems are and what Biden wants to do about those problems?

My suggestions are limited since creative arts are not my specialty, but I do see an opportunity to do something different.  It is a good guess that Hollywood is also eager to help defeat Trump and would offer all kinds of innovative assistance.  Make it an illustration of American collaboration at its best.

This should not be an unusual idea for the Biden organization.  Among his top advisors are Zeppa Kreager, his Chief of Staff, formerly the Director of the Creative Alliance (part of Civic Nation), and Kate Bedingfield, Deputy Campaign Manager and Communications Director, formerly Vice President at Monumental Sports and Entertainment.

Of course, the Trump campaign could take the same approach, but they do not seem interested and Trump obviously adores a large in-person audience.  So there is a real opportunity for Biden to differentiate himself.

Beyond the short-term electoral considerations, this would also make political history by setting a new pattern for political conventions.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Trump And Cuomo COVID-19 Press Conferences

Like many other people who have been watching the COVID-19 press conferences held by Trump and Cuomo, I came away with a very different feeling from each.  Beyond the obvious policy and partisan differences, I felt there is something more going on.

Coincidentally, I’ve been doing some research on text analytics/natural language processing on a different topic.  So, I decided to use these same research tools on the transcripts of their press conferences from April 9 through April 16, 2020.  (Thank you to the folks at Rev.com for making available these transcripts.)

One of the best approaches is known by its initials, LIWC, and was created some time ago by Pennebaker and colleagues to assess especially the psycho-social dimensions of texts.   It’s worth noting that this assessment is based purely on the text – their words – and doesn’t include non-verbal communications, like body language.

While there were some unsurprising results to people familiar with both Trump and Cuomo, there are also some interesting nuances in the words they used.

Here are the most significant contrasts:

  • The most dramatic distinction between the two had to do with emotional tone. Trump’s words had almost twice the emotional content of Cuomo’s, including words like “nice”, although maybe the use of that word maybe should not be taken at face value.
  • Trump also spoke of rewards/benefits and money about 50% more often than Cuomo.
  • Trump emphasized allies and friends about twenty percent more often than Cuomo.
  • Cuomo used words that evoked health, anxiety/pain, home and family two to three times more often than Trump.
  • Cuomo asked more than twice as many questions, although some of these could be sort of rhetorical – like “what do you think?”
  • However, Trump was 50% more tentative in his declarations than Cuomo, whereas Cuomo had greater expressions of certainty than Trump.
  • While both men spoke about the present tense much more than the future, Cuomo’s use of the present was greater than Trump’s. On the other hand, Trump’s use of the future tense and the past tense was greater than Cuomo’s.
  • Trump used “we” a little more often than Cuomo and much more than he used “you”. Cuomo used “you” between two and three times more often than Trump.  Trump’s use of “they” even surpassed his use of you.

Distinctions of this kind are never crystal clear, even with sophisticated text analytics and machine learning algorithms.  The ambiguity of human speech is not just a problem for machines, but also for people communicating with each other.

But these comparisons from text analytics do provide some semantic evidence for the comments by non-partisan observers that Cuomo seems more in command.  This may be because the features of his talks would seem to better fit the movie portrayal and the average American’s idea of leadership in a crisis – calm, compassionate, focused on the task at hand.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[This was originally published on June 20, 2011 and it was posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas.

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

———————–

History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis