Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Confirm your bias

I liked this WaPo story on many levels.

First, it's just interesting to see what happens when you take a fantastically talented, world class violinist, and have him busk. Classical violinist, Joshua Bell, busked in a busy subway station in DC incognito. People pay ~$100 to see him perform in concert halls -- will they give him a dollar (or even notice) if he plays on a street corner?

Second, the predictions people made before finding out about the story reveal wonderful prejudice. This is not to say that prejudice is wonderful, but their quotes were so stereotypically prejudiced, that I wonder how honest the reporter has been in 1) selecting their quotes, and 2) actually quoting from real life.

Some examples:
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."
Of course he would get a larger audience in Europe! But is it because Europeans are more likely to be unemployed, or not care about getting to work on time, or because they are more cultured, and sensitive to all things cultural? That question remained unasked, so we must speculate. But I loved the "of course".

Next example:
Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."
Yes -- because in Brazil people are.... what exactly? She leaves it unclear, but whatever it is, in Brazil they would without a doubt stop and listen in a large crowd.

In my experience, and as this article shows, it is very difficult to predict how you will act in an unusual situation, and even harder to predict how others will act. People like to believe that certain groups (those refined Europeans, those vibrant Brazilians) are more cultured than others, but in reality, people are people the world over.

Lastly, I also enjoyed, and would recommend the little video clips embedded in the article. They illustrate just how remarkable Joshua's playing was, and how remarkable it was that people passed without noticing.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

I know that face

I ran into this post, and recognized the face. I met Rod Humble at EA just last week. He was a really nice guy, and the game looks very cool


Great article from Michael Lewis on how if it's public, it's not worth having. Something to consider now that Blackstone is up for IPO.
With the shrewdest and most sophisticated investors armed with essentially unlimited capital, any company that is available to the public is almost by definition an inferior asset, i.e., an asset that the private-equity people have no interest in. We may not have arrived at the point where the publicly traded shares in a company are a sure sign that those shares are a poor investment. But that's the obvious, ultimate destination.

Planned obsolesence, or better products?

This post on the rather paranoid "Stay Free" argues that products last less long now because companies can make more money that way.
The reasons behind this are many and complex, but Slade hones in on one: companies profit more when products have shorter lifespans - because they sell more products that way. This is no conspiracy theory but, rather, simple economics. Small wonder, then, that product lifespans are shrinking across the board. In 1997, a PC was expected to last 4 or 5 years; by 2003, only two years, and today the life expectancy is even less.
It's simple something, all right, but not economics.

From an economic standpoint, it is not more profitable for companies to make shoddier goods. This is because people are less likely to buy shoddy goods, and if they do buy them, they are less likely to pay as much for them because they know they will wear out sooner. As electronics have less moving parts, they become harder to repair, but also more reliable (moving parts break down first), which is why the local VCR repair shop has not been replaced by the local DVD repair shop. I certainly have paid for quality, and I suspect you have too.

At any rate, picking an example of the computer to highlight this non-phenomenon seems really crazy. People don't replace computers because they break down, they replace computers because new ones are *so much* better and cheaper than older models. This isn't planned obsolesence, this is things improving so fast it is silly not to upgrade. I would also add that the trend in computers has been going in the opposite direction -- there was a big difference between a 1994 machine and a 1998 machine, there was a smaller difference between a 1998 machine and a 2002 machine, and an even smaller difference from a 2002 machine and a 2006 machine. Computers have been "good enough" for a while now, and getting people to update to new hardware and operating systems is much tougher than in the past -- just ask Microsoft.