The other day on Twitter, I had a particularly silly/dorky Steve Jobs tweet become crazy popular, like a thousand retweets popular. So — being again, particularly silly and dorky myself — decided to pull some of my most popular tweets into a Storify to try to discern a pattern (if any).
BIG PATTERN: People love pop culture references. But my Twitter feed (and probably yours) regularly ABOUNDS in pop culture references. So that actually turns out not to have a ton of explanatory value on its own.
SMART PATTERN: What people really seem to love are oblique, unexpected pop culture references that hit a particular niche. They’re tweets that say: “this message was only for you; now share it with everyone you know.”
BIG PATTERN #2: People definitely respond in a big way to big news events. If something is going on that’s happening in real-time, the retweet button gets a workout.
SMART PATTERN #2: The problem with big events is that everybody’s tweeting and retweeting everything. Which is fine! It’s good! But at the same time, some sort of conceptual scoop that shines a light on something different about what’s happening adds more value.
BIG PATTERN #3: People love anything that reminds them of their childhood.
SMART PATTERN #3: I love anything that reminds me of my childhood. And that Proustian love is a propulsive force that drives me to write better sentences.
It’s always nice when three blogs in your “must read” folder happily converge. First, Jason Kottke pulls a couple of super-tight paragraphs from a Chronicle of Higher Ed article by Clancy Martin, philosophy professor and onetime salesman of luxury jewelry, about how he plied his former trade:
The jewelry business — like many other businesses, especially those that depend on selling — lends itself to lies. It’s hard to make money selling used Rolexes as what they are, but if you clean one up and make it look new, suddenly there’s a little profit in the deal. Grading diamonds is a subjective business, and the better a diamond looks to you when you’re grading it, the more money it’s worth — as long as you can convince your customer that it’s the grade you’re selling it as. Here’s an easy, effective way to do that: First lie to yourself about what grade the diamond is; then you can sincerely tell your customer “the truth” about what it’s worth.
As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy — we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond — where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone? — to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.
This structure is so neat that it has to be generalizable, right? Look no further than politics, says Jamelle Bouie (filling in for Ta-Nehisi Coates). In “Why Is Stanley Kurtz Calling Obama a Socialist?”, he writes that whether or not calling Obama a socialist started out as a scare tactic, conservative commentators like Kurtz actually believe it now. He pulls a quote from Slacktivist’s Fred Clark on the problem of bearing false witness:
What may start out as a well-intentioned choice to “fight dirty” for a righteous cause gradually forces the bearers of false witness to behave as though their false testimony were true. This is treacherous — behaving in accord with unreality is never effective, wise or safe. Ultimately, the bearers of false witness come to believe their own lies. They come to be trapped in their own fantasy world, no longer willing or able to separate reality from unreality. Once the bearers of false witness are that far gone it may be too late to set them free from their self-constructed prisons.
What’s nice about pairing these two observations is that Martin’s take on self-deception in selling jewelry is binary, a pas de deux with two agents, both deceiving themselves and letting themselves be deceived. Bouie and Clark don’t really go there, but the implication is clear: in politics, the audience is ready to be convinced/deceived because it is already convincing/deceiving itself.
There’s no more dangerous position to be in, truth-wise, than to think you’re getting it figured out, that you see things other people don’t, that you’re getting over on someone. That’s how confidence games work, because that’s how confidence works. And almost nobody’s immune, as Jonah Lehrer points out, quoting Richard Feynman on selective reporting in science. He refers to a famous 1909 experiment which sought to measure the charge of the electron:
Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.
Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.
It’s all little lies and adjustments, all the way down. Where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?
It’s a classic paradox of American democracy: citizens love America, hate Congress, but generally like their own district’s Congressman. (Until they don’t, and then they vote for someone else, who they usually like).
Huder points out something even more paradoxical: Congressional approval takes a hit not just when there’s a scandal, or when there’s partisan gridlock in the face of a crisis, but even when Congress works together to pass major legislation:
By simply doing its job Congress can alienate large parts of its constituency. So while people like their legislators, they dislike when they get together with fellow members and legislate.
From this, Huder concludes that “disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA.” But let me come at this from a different angle: professional and/or sports.
There’s almost an exact isomorphism here. Fans/constituents like/love their home teams (unless their performance suffers for an extended period of time, when they switch to “throw the bums out” mode), and LOVE the game itself. But nobody really likes the league. Who would say, “I love the MLB” or “I love the NCAA” — meaning the actual organizations themselves?
Never! The decisions of the league are always suspect. They’re aggregate, bureaucratic, necessary, and not the least bit fun. Even when leagues make the right decision, we discount it; they’re just “doing their job.” The only time they can really capture our attention is when they do something awful. And most of the time, they’re just tedious drags on our attention, easily taken for granted.
If it’s a structure, it doesn’t seem to be limited to politics. It’s a weird blend of local/pastime attachment, combined with contempt/misunderstanding for the actual structures that work. Because we don’t *want* to notice them at work at all, really.
My life was insane in August 2006. I moved twice and generally tried to piece my life and relationships together after a huge falling-out with my wife’s family, where we ended up moving out of a house they owned. For most of August, I sublet a bug-infested studio apartment without air conditioning or even working windows that had the questionable virtues of being on a bus line and across from a 7–11. I remember cleaning the kitchen, which had at one point harbored rats, top-to-bottom with industrial strength oven cleaner, which filled the house with toxic fumes but ate through the layers of grime and filth that had accrued over the years. Still, I stacked chairs in front of the kitchen and never used it once in the five weeks we were there.
As a consequence, I don’t really remember what the heck was going on Snarkmarket then; but that’s what archives are for! Here are a handful of posts that caught my fancy trolling through the stacks:
- “8.5″ X AWESOME,” images of paper art by Peter Callesen that I must have missed, because I posted some of the exact same material three-and-a-half years later: “I love paper so much I should marry it.”
- “Twelve Movies.” The ten-to-twelve information streams the brain uses to reconstitute the experienced universe: “Although we have the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of extremely low-resolution movies that arrive in parallel channels.”
- “A (Really Expensive) Room of One’s Own.” On the impossibility of writing a novel in San Francisco — written by Robin, of course. I really enjoyed his summary of Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire in the comments: “As people live longer and longer (we are talking serious life extension here — decades more than we’re used to now), the magic of compound interest associates wealth more and more strictly with age. So we shift from an all-ages plutocracy to a gerontocracy — and it sucks to be in your 20s even more than it does now.”
This last point reminds me of this Economist article on “the unemployment netroots” — basically, young, highly-skilled, politically-active folks who have the incentives and abilities to get organized in a way that the long-term unemployed (for various reasons) have never been able to do.
Highly-engaged older people have long made it a point to be politically active as members of a semi-solid bloc; maybe young people, who’ve been disproportionately hurt by the Great Recession (I wrote a half-joking post about this called “The Coming Age Wars”) could pull it off. After all, in all of human history, the greatest revolutionary force has always been the idle, disaffected young.
There’s been a lot of noise about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Obama-badmouthing candor with Rolling Stone, but besides perhaps Colson Whitehead (“I didn’t know they had truffle fries in Afghanistan”), Andrew Fitzgerald at Current has distilled it to its essence better than anyone on the net: first substance (“Focusing on the few controversial remarks misses the point of this RS McChrystal piece. Really tough look at Afg.”), then snark (“Let’s say McChrystal is fired… How long before he shows up as a commentator on FNC? Is it months? Weeks? Hours?”).
When I saw this last tweet, I had an epiphany. All the commentators and journalists were wondering how McChrystal could have let this bonehead, 99%-sure-to-cost-your-job move happen. Did he think he was talking off the record? Was he blowing off steam? Did he think no one would find out? And if he wanted to trash the administration publicly, why in the world would did he give this info to Rolling Stone? I mean, did he even see Almost Famous? (Is Obama Billy Crudup? I kind of think he is.)
But let’s just suppose that this was McChrystal’s intention all along. I pretty much buy the New York magazine profile of Sarah Palin, which lays out why she resigned her office; being governor of Alaska is a crummy, poorly-paying job, her family was going broke fighting legal bills, and she was getting offers she couldn’t refuse. It’s like being an Ivy League liberal arts major, getting offered a job at Goldman Sachs right out of college; it’s not what you came there to do, but how are you going to let that go? (Besides, it isn’t like you have to know a ton about what you’re doing; you’re there for who you are already.) Also, Palin could do the new math of GOP politics in her head — public office is less important than being a public figure, with a big platform. Or as Andrew says, “FNC commentator is the new Presidential candidate.”
Well, let’s try this equation: if it’s tough to be the governor of Alaska, how much harder does it have to be to be in charge of Afghanistan? What are the chances that you’re going to come out of this thing smelling like roses anyways? How can you remove yourself from that position while still coming off as an honorable, somewhat reluctant, but still passionate critic of the administration? And make a splash big enough doing it that it gets beyond policy circles and editorial pages?
I have no idea whether it’s true, but it’s worth entertaining the possibility that the good general threaded the needle here.
Well, I thought this was just great. It seemed to actually assess in a way I haven’t witnessed in my lifetime. It wasn’t just rhetoric, but actually a pretty cagey annual report.
This Obama guy… let’s keep him.
A lot of straightforward but not-always-obvious wisdom in this 37signals post, “Don’t just try to steal a share of the existing market, create a new one”:
Nintendo goes after people who aren’t using other video game systems. While Xbox 360 and Sony one-up each other trying to reach experienced, demanding gamers, Nintendo goes after newbies. The Wii’s controller makes video games so simple that a three year-old can play it. And the company is thriving because of it…
Nearly half of all undergraduate students in the US now attend community college. Why? They are more affordable, have more lenient admission standards, offer online degrees, and focus on market-driven degrees aimed at nurses, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs. All that means they are able to enroll students who otherwise might never wind up in a classroom.
You could take this lesson to politics, too — especially local politics, or anywhere you’re trying to outflank an entrenched establishment. Don’t go to the usual power brokers, making the same speech in all of the same places. Put together a coalition of people who don’t usually bump up against each other. And especially, make sure you get all of the people who haven’t been successfully targeted by a political campaign before. Don’t fight the same battles if you can redraw the map.
Come to think of it, I guess that’s how Obama did it. Smart guy.
Faiz Shakir at Think Progress has a pretty stunning proposal: appointing Harvard-based surgeon/author/hero Atul Gawande to Ted Kennedy’s vacated senate seat in Massachusetts.
On the day he would step foot in the Senate, Dr. Gawande would be the most knowledgeable health policy expert in the chamber, an incredible resource for his fellow Senate colleagues, and a champion for reform.
Matthew Yglesias writes:
Someone holding a Senate seat during a critical period but with no future political ambitions would have a pretty unique opportunity to play a kind of bold leadership role if the Senator in question were someone with the knowledge and credibility to really contribute to the debate.
I like Ezra Klein’s take best:
I’d worry that Atul himself would find it a bit of a disappointing experience, as knowing stuff is not likely to matter much at this stage in the process… But it would be a bulletproof choice, and would certainly lead to a great New Yorker article.
This jibes with my sense that the timing is off, unless the health care bill is going to take a lot longer than most people think it will. But, jeez…
It’s almost like the Senate should have a handful of at-large, two-year members who are experts on particular policy issues. They’d rotate in like non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.
(This is probably why I should not be allowed to design a system of government. It’d have epicycles all over the place. Even more than the current U.S. Senate.)