Pop Sensibility

Sociological theories illustrated through musical examples and other half-baked ideas.

Category: Uncategorized

The Mobile Imbecile.

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How many times have you heard a proud parent say their kid is brilliant because he/she knew how to use a tablet since age two? The next time you have to endure a similar situation, you might want to point out that a baby using a tablet is a success for the tablet makers, not the baby. It means that the level of simplification achieved by the tablet technology is such that it can be understood by babies.

While making technology more accessible to the elderly and people with special needs is a great thing for numerous reasons, doing the same for the kids is creating a generation riddled with Attention Deficit Disorder, anxiety and a significant lack of imagination, patience and willpower. Yes, it helps them become dexterous in the handling of simple screen-touch interfaces and ludic technologies, but that’s about it. Kids don’t have a clue as to what is really going on beneath the hood. And a superficial familiarity with technology is in no way synonym with the technological or digital savviness younger generations are supposed to have. Previous generations, while not so fast at grasping digital interfaces, have more patience and discipline learning complicated things.

But, setting aside differences between age groups, people in general are capable of less things each time.They have access to more. But they can do less with it. This progressive atrophy is a direct result of the progressive simplification -or even elimination- of all the little activities that inadvertently kept our brains trained. From memorizing a phone number or a birthday, to finding an address, to doing math calculations without a calculator, to mentally editing a phrase before typing it in a typewriter, to countless other menial tasks (more on this here). And the new activities that are replacing the old ones in our daily lives aren’t as intellectually demanding. Simply put, we are running out of the things that were once used as  “brain gym”.

SOCIAL NETWORKS DUMB YOU DOWN.

As they cater to the whims of an increasingly dumber and childish consumer, social networks are becoming increasingly cheezy and idiotizing mediums. What used to be about innovation, is nowadays just about herding people for the number. Doesn’t matter if it’s for better or for worse. If people are doing it, social networks move in that direction.

Youtube is planning on having a default vertical video screen just because “more people are watching videos on their smartphones and don’t even bother to tilt the screen for a better view”. Nevermind the fact that screens are horizontal because our eyes are set horizontally, thus providing a better viewing experience.

Instagram, an app that used to be a medium for posting interesting pictures now offers emojis and childish fonts for people to infantilize and soil their pictures with.

Predetermined filters for pictures promote homogenization of style. Intuitive swipe keyboards atrophy our typing skills. Whatsapp voice messages promote laziness. Micro content and video-kills-text philosophy promotes shallowness.

Social networks started as mediums to connect with people through different types of content, based on the different features of each platform. Nowadays, social networks have copied each other’s functions to the point where there is no sense in posting native content in each platform anymore, since they all have the same features and do exactly the same. Less variety, more homogenization.

The over customization of our whole online experience minimizes the chances for discovering anything new, different or unexpected (more on this here). The “If you liked this, here´s some similar content.” structure of most of the big players on the web kills creativity. Fuck similar content. I want different content. I want new things. Things I haven’t seen or considered before.

Social networks have the chance to ignite creativity on a global scale by mixing up things a bit. But they’re not likely to do it any time soon because, despite what they say, they hate risk. Instead of using their huge consumer base to popularize more mentally stimulating ways to share content and promote the discovery of new things, they follow the herd on their downward spiral towards stupidity.

“EXPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY WITH OUR NEW SMARTPHONE”

Every feature on a smartphone is designed to make things easier. A smartphone is the ultimate anti-gym. A brilliant instrument to soften your brain as well as your body, built and engineered to avoid you physical and mental efforts all throughout your day, where everything is just a touch away, with big colorful buttons, like a baby toy. It keeps you from having to remember appointments, phone numbers and birthdays, finding addresses, doing math calculations, typing things properly, arranging food deliveries, making reservations, interacting with people face to face, and countless other things, to the point where many features that were once reserved for disabled people, like voice commands, are now used by everybody.

Technology avoids us simple, repetitive, time consuming chores. Simple, repetitive, time consuming chores. Just like the ones we perform at the gym. But we go to the gym because we know those simple, repetitive and time consuming chores replace other extinct activities that once helped us to naturally keep our bodies in shape. What happened to our body is happening to our brain as well and we have arrived to the point we need to start doing some “brain gym”.

Spending time away from screens, doing math calculations by yourself, taking the time to type things properly, learning road directions beforehand instead of relying on GPS instructions, drawing by hand, listening to new music, learning new things, trying to write with your left hand (if you are right handed and vice versa if you´re not) and an almost infinite list of possible etceteras that anyone can do, provides us the mental stimulus we need to -at least partially- keep our thinking machines from turning into jelly.

 

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The Disloyal Customer

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The reason why Capitalism is often seen as a greedy and perverse system is because it promotes bigger fish eating smaller ones. But, in all truth, this behavior is stimulated by us, the consumers, repeatedly choosing to feed the same fish over and over again.

Yes, we love to deprecate Capitalism as the root of all that is evil. But we simultaneously contribute to the problem by promoting the very practices we so righteously condemn. We endorse monopolistic tendencies by giving money to the same players over and over again without even thinking. We buy the same brands without considering for a moment if a better alternative is around and we boost their ego and their market value without evaluating if they really deserve it. We, literally, ask them to take us for granted us by repeatedly buying their products despite the fact that they continuously lower the quality and raise the price.

There is a reason why big companies have entire departments devoted to Customer Fidelization: to make sure you keep buying their stuff. To make sure you won´t go looking around for something new or different that you might find more appealing than their stuff.  And it´s quite easy for these big companies to continue ripping you off because they know that you want to be a loyal customer. They have you pegged as a brand consumer who will stick to what you already know. And they are right. It’s basic human nature: we search for something we like and when we find it, we settle for it. But, while such an approach may serve us well in certain areas of our life, we would benefit greatly from a little more curiosity in our consumer profiles.

If your town has three groceries and you always go to the same one, the favored shop will grow while the other two, won´t. Maybe you like the first shop better for a number or reasons. But if, from time to time, you give the other two a chance, you might find that grocery B or grocery C has improved its quality, lowered its prices or at least has better bananas and tomatoes than grocery A. Don’t settle for a brand. If you need a pair of jeans, do not automatically go to Levi´s. Look around for smaller brands. Maybe you’ll find something that fits much better, has better quality or better colors. If you like Coca Cola and you´ve always bought it without thinking, maybe the next time you go to the store, you buy a Pepsi, a Dr.Pepper or any other brand of soda or beverage and find that you like it better. Or maybe you don’t like it and you go back to Coke but perhaps and just perhaps, you have found something that suits you better and you have added a little improvement to your life.

Brands and products should never be accepted at face value. Brands don’t deserve your loyalty. Consumers should always audit their choices and constantly decide if what they are buying is really the best option for them. Plus, trying new stuff is an excellent exercise for your brain.

One of the main reasons why new entrepreneurs find it hard to compete is because people go blindly to the big brands they have always bought and don’t really look around for better alternatives.

Want to help Capitalism become more balanced toward the smaller fish? Don’t be a loyal costumer. Be a demanding, hard customer. Challenge brands. Don’t buy the same names every single time. Look around. Try new stuff. Change your mobile phone company. Go to a different restaurant. If you watch sports, look for a different sport than the ones you usually follow. Try different brands of every possible thing. I guarantee you will find better options. Not every single time. But if you constantly look around for better consumer alternatives, you will add small improvements to your consumer life. And, at the same time, this helps the smaller brands grow and balance the market. If consumers shifted brands like they shift socks the power balance between big companies and small companies would shift too, creating a healthier environment for new players. If we really start doing that, we will begin shifting towards a healthier, more balanced capitalism.

Pop goes the world

the-simpsons

A few months ago I read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a science fiction/humor novel. I had been meaning to read it for quite some time because of its fame and because of countless recommendations from people whose literary opinion I respect. And as I went through the pages, I noticed the amount of cultural references this book has spawned just about everywhere: music, movies, TV shows, famous quotes, you name it. I started to understand the meaning of many references that had been previously hidden to me. I began filling in the blanks and completing all the conversations I had been missing out in.

This led me to think about pop culture and where resides its relevance, if any. Why is it important to know who Superman is? Why is it advisable to listen to the most famous Beatles songs or to read George Orwell’s 1984?

Pop culture is not really important as a media generator but as a concept generator. Pop culture is relevant to its contemporaries because its concepts feed our daily communication. If we fail to grasp them, we are missing a part of the conversation.

A pop culture concept is any reference to an artifact of contemporary media that, because of its iconic signification, can be mentioned in a context other than its own to represent a situation, mood or a given group of characteristics. For example, if I say: “My boss is the Darth Vader of the third floor” I am taking a character from a movie and using it in an office environment. If the majority of the people reading this sentence understands its meaning, then we can safely assume that Darth Vader is a pop culture icon. And as superficial and irrelevant as it appears to be, knowing who this fellow is, matters because Darth Vader is, as a pop culture icon, a block that our society uses in its language structure. If you don´t know who this character is, you are missing out on a part of the conversation. To set another example, if you are a journalist and someone says “You are the Superman of journalism” but you don’t know who Superman is, you won’t know if you have just been insulted or praised.

If you have never seen Star Wars I strongly recommend doing so. Not because of the quality of the movie itself -which is great- but because of the sheer number of references to it that are constantly made everywhere. The same thing happens if you learn who Albert Einstein was, if you read JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, if you listen to Chuck Berry´s Jhonny B. Goode, if you watch Jaws and countless more examples. Once these pop culture concepts enter your conscience, you start catching the references to it that are just about everywhere.

This does not mean that we need to immerse ourselves in the neanderthal world of trash celebrities, reality television, pop music and sports in order to properly understand the current zeitgeist of our culture. Even within the world of pop culture there is high culture -the one that spawns pop culture icons and concepts into our daily existence- and low culture -the one where most of the current media resides and one that has an expiration date. There is a reason why Kim Kardashian will never become a pop culture icon: putting aside the media exposure she has, there is nothing special, meaningful or worth remembering about her, even from a pop culture perspective. Very similar characters from the past didn’t survive either for these same reason. And those past characters had the added bonus of existing in a world with far less competition and far more patience than the ones we have today.

The Simpsons TV series is a great compass of what constitutes a pop culture icon. In its vast catalogue of episodes we can find references to many pop culture concepts. A person who is steeped in pop culture will enjoy a Simpsons episode more than someone who isn´t. For example, on the Simpsons episode “Treehouse of Horror V” the family has to stay in an lonely house in the mountain. The whole story references “The Shining”, a classic movie by Stanley Kubrick. The episode is good and it will provide a few good laughs regardless of the viewers knowledge of “The Shining”. But if you have seen the movie, then the episode reaches a whole different level and the gags become much funnier. If it appeared in The Simpsons -specially in the first twenty seasons- then it’s most likely pop culture material.

Most pop culture icons are tied to the boundaries of their original language. Although many pop icons transcend idiomatic barriers -as the English language is the most universal language of the world, its own pop culture is often interlaced with the universal pop culture- most of them remain within the boundaries of the language they were created in.

Sometimes it is hard to assume which pop culture references are universal and which ones aren´t. A huge number of people know who Darth Vader is. But not everyone. I don’t think my mother knows who Darth Vader is. Almost everybody in the world knows who Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Adolf Hitler are. But what about David Bowie? He is extremely famous, but, is that enough to make him an universal pop icon? I’m quite sure most north-koreans don’t know who Bowie is. But, likely, most of them have heard of, or at least can recognize a picture of Albert Einstein. A pop culture icon is something that can be used depending on the circumstances.

There are three different levels of pop culture terms: universal, regional/local and tribal. A universal pop culture concept is one we can use in a communication with anybody in the entire world and safely assume that it will be understood. Also, it is the one with the most longevity of the three. Very few icons belong to this category. With a few exceptions, we will find mostly religious and political figures here.

A regional/local pop culture icon is one we can use within a certain region where we can find similar cultural characteristics. General arts, sports, politics, and assorted personalities are to be found here.

A tribal pop culture icon is one we can use with like minded people with whom we share a common language and cultural codes. Lesser known figures populate this category.

The more pop culture you absorb, the more references you will catch. The more references you catch, the more conversations you will understand. Depending on your personal interests you will become more steeped in certain areas while leaving others unattended. This is inevitable: no one can absorb all the pop culture out there and it’s not even advisable to try doing so. However, it is always advisable to know a few basic pop culture icons that are referenced everywhere in our world. Therefore, to set a few examples, I will name a couple of the pop culture “classics” that are constantly referenced around us:

People: Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon

Books: The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien), 1984 (George Orwell)

Movies: Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Godfather, Back to the future, 2001 A Space Odyssey

Musicians: W. A. Mozart, Ludwig Van Beethoven, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson

Music: Johnny B Goode (Chuck Berry), Imagine (John Lennon), Hey Jude (The Beatles), Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)

Who´s the King of Pain?

who is the king of pain

What was the saddest, most soul-crushing experience you ever had? Do you remember how you felt? And what was the saddest experience you had before that? Do you remember what that felt like?

If the worst thing that ever happened to you was losing your favorite toy then your emotional response to it will be the saddest you ever experienced. In other words, your “emotional pain meter” will have reached its peak. Unfortunately, at some point in your life, something worse than losing a toy will probably happen to you, thus, making the previous loss a less dramatic occasion. As we grow up and life takes its course, most of us experience many sad, disheartening, soul-crushing and devastating moments. Our emotional pain meter reaches new peaks every time a bigger tragedy strikes us. We lose our favorite toy. We lose our first girlfriend. We lose our parents. We lose our lifelong companion. As we reach new pain thresholds our peak is pushed higher each time. Perhaps what once was a 10 now only qualifies as a 5 in our personal scale.

Have you ever seen -and heard- a baby who has just lost his/her favorite toy? That cry is certainly going for a 10. If you look at it closely, you´ll realize that the grief expressed by the baby is huge. How often do you see grown ups crying like that? The fact that the toddler stops crying the very second the beloved possession is retrieved doesn´t mean that the grief he/she was enduring wasn´t deep. If the reasons why adults grieve where as easily solvable then adults would stop mourning just as fast. That huge grief over something so small does not mean that the baby is a superficial bastard. It means that the baby is suffering just as much as an old man who has just lost its lifelong companion because at that point in his/her life, the worst thing that ever happened to the baby is losing the toy just as the worst thing that ever happened to the old man was losing his wife.

We are quick to dismiss the grief of a teenage boy who has lost his first real girlfriend because, eventually, he will have it worse. Because we have experienced that and worse things as well. Because we now know that there are much worse things in life than losing your first love. But, emotional pain is directly relative to personal experience. We can never relate to a person who has just lost his/her entire family in an accident unless the exact same thing happened to us. Just the same as the teenage boy cannot relate to us when we tell him that losing your 10 year marriage is more painful than what he is experiencing. That kind of upward empathy is not really possible. Just like the baby who lost his toy, he is suffering as much as an old man who has lost his wife. He will grow up to experience worst things and then he will be able to see his past sorrow in perspective. But right now, he is coping with the worst thing that ever happened to him, just like the old man, because they both are reaching their emotional pain thresholds. They both are hitting a 10 on that scale. And, no matter what, a 10 is always a 10.

 

 

Instead of killing an arab, try killing Allah.

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The recent kidnapping of 200 hundred nigerian girls by an extremist islamic group has induced me to express an opinion that might seem a bit excessive to some but which I feel is the best course of action in order to stop the continuous threat of religious terrorism everywhere: Instead of concentrate on killing the terrorists themselves, we should concentrate on killing their raison d’être: Allah.

The reason why -at least most-  terrorists kill innocent people everywhere and make the life of women miserable all over Northern Africa and the Near East is because of their religious beliefs. Because their deity says that women are inferior to men and can´t have access to education, justice, medical procedures, driving vehicles, freedom to choose their marriage, their job, the way they dress, and many more pearls of divine wisdom. Because their deity says that any person who does not believe in Allah is an infidel and deserves to die. Because their deity is so insecure that can´t stand a joke and needs its followers to express death threats every time a caricature of Allah emerges. Because their deity says that if they die killing infidels, then the soul of the terrorist will spend eternity in a place filled with virgins for him to enjoy.

Therefore, the way to end religious crimes is to eliminate religion. How do we do that? A massive campaign of education and atheism. A massive infiltration and over flooding and over saturation of atheist propaganda in every single medium available. A massive campaign of education, specially reading and writing skills, math, basic physics and science would reduce greatly the number of muslims because religions are a symptom of ignorance. It´s not by accident that Islam, the world´s most brutal and ignorant religion, thrives in under-developed countries with poorly educated populations and the best way to fight it is to educate the masses.

Extremists of any religion are primitive, brutal and dangerous. But none more so than extreme muslims. Just last week a sudanese pregnant woman was sentenced to lashing and death for marrying a non-muslim man. How can anybody seriously defend a religion that requires this? A religion that does this is a setback to Evolution and it must disappear for good.

You might think that depriving a person of its beliefs is a cruel thing to do but cutting a young girl´s nose and genitalia and throwing acid in her face just because she wants to study is something that goes way beyond cruel. Such crimes are a much greater offence to the entire Mankind than eliminating a religion.

13-01-2015 update: The attack on the Charlie Habdo creators perpetrated by a couple of jihad monkeys has prompted me to start using toilet paper with the face of Allah in it. Such crimes don´t provoke fear or a newfond sense of respect for a religion but quite the opposite. Now more than ever I am convinced that islam should and will be wipped off the Earth for good. Be it by military action or by sheer evolution, islam has an expiration date.

(F)Ailing Areas of Technology

Evolution cellphones vs batteries

Not only the Batteries Department is doing a poor job; the Printer Cartridge Department has been underperforming for years too.

Technology is always advancing. Everything is constantly getting better in terms of speed, safety, accuracy, memory size, definition, comfort and almost every other parameter you can think of. I don’t know if it actually works like this but the way I see it is: There are scientists and researchers working on every single field of technology. Somewhere there is a person whose job is to make memory storage units with more capacity. And that person is doing a great job: hard drives, memory cards, usb drives and other memory storage devices are gaining capacity in smaller sizes every day. Somewhere there is a scientist whose job is to come up with cleaning products that remove stains more efficiently. And that scientist is doing a great job too: Cleaning products are more potent and less harmful to our clothes than it used to be. Somewhere there is a guy whose job is to create seedless fruits. And that guy has managed to come up with a couple of those too -special thanks for the seedless grapes, whoever you are-. The person in charge of improving the quality of monitors and screens is doing such a great job that I hesitate at buying a new one because I know that a better one will appear in less than a year. Actually, it´s hard to think of a technology area that hasn’t evolved significantly in the last 30 years.

Except batteries.

What´s the deal with the Batteries Department? Don’t they take any pride in their job? Maybe that area is an incredibly difficult one and the scientists involved are struggling to come up with significant advances but, they should’ve made at least some progress. Or maybe they should get a job somewhere else and leave the task to someone more qualified. We are curing terrible diseases, we have invented seedless grapes and cars that drive itselves but we can’t get our Smartphone to run for a full day without having to recharge the batteries. Don´t mind what environmentalists say, electric cars never really catched up because they weigh much more than regular cars and need to devote a lot of space to the bulky batteries, which only last a few hours. I´m sick of reading product descriptions that say Memory Size: 2 days of continuous recording. Battery Life: 2 hours. Are the people in charge of the Batteries Department the dumb cousins of the scientific community? Everybody is doing a great job but them. Them and the Printer Cartridge Department.

I have a printer at home and it produces pictures of a fairly decent quality. But when I have to print something in color I go to the copy shop around the block because it´s so much cheaper than using my own printer. The cartridge cost per printed pages ratio is so bad that it´s actually less expensive to keep going to the copy shop and paying three bucks for an A4 color sheet than printing it at home. I’m ok with Capitalism but this is just ridiculous: how can it be that printer cartridges are almost more expensive than the printers itselves and last so little?

Some time ago my printer ran out of black ink and I had to buy a new cartridge. I went to the store and they offered me a combo pack with two black cartridges. The price was a bit less than buying two separate items but that wasn’t a very tempting offer as I only needed one. I ended up buying it anyway because that was all they had and I thought I’ll need a new one sooner or later. Sometime after that the printer itself broke down. I contacted the manufacturer to ask about the repair service and they told me that they didn’t offer repair service for my printer as it was an old model -mind you, it was only five years old. Apparently printers measure time in genetically defective hamster years-. Long story short: I ended up buying a new printer and new cartridges as the spare one I was forced to buy in the two cartridges combo pack didn’t fit in the new printer -they never do-. Again, I’m ok with Capitalism but this is just ridiculous.

Batteries and printer cartridges. Two key products whose evolution has been held back by -what I suspect is- sheer incompetence and/or excessive greed.

 

Evolution will kill us all

evolution will kill us all

 

High education levels and equal job opportunities for men and women are two of the greatest landmarks of an advanced society. No one can deny that these two factors are hugely beneficial things and should be fostered everywhere but, at the same time, they are partially accountable for a significant decrease in the birth rates of the most advanced societies of the world. And will also play a similar role in an increasing number of countries as the rest of the world -slowly- moves in the direction of knowledge accessibility and gender equality.

Actual proof of this is the fact that the most advanced societies tend to have lower population growths than under-developed societies -Japan and Germany, two of the world´s most advanced countries, have a negative population growth-.

Such a situation is extremely adverse for any national economy as it causes not only labor shortage but a constant reduction in the number of taxpayers: By 1965 Japan had nine active workers for every pensioner. Nowadays, only two. A heavier toll on fewer individuals isn’t exactly a morale booster thus, again, impacting negatively on birth rates.

Let´s analyze these two factors separately:

1. The most advanced societies have the highest education levels.

There´s no need to explain the obvious benefits of accessing a higher education level. But if we had to point one downside to it, it would be that more often than not, knowledge breeds a certain dose of cynicism. Cynicism entails a pessimistic view of the world. And a pessimistic view of the world generates less desire to bring new life into it.

Knowledge is always a good thing. And, no matter what, is always best to know than not to know. But as great as it is, knowledge seldomly brings happiness with it. You may achieve happiness in your life because you were able to use the received education in a way that generated benefits for yourself but that is an indirect product of knowledge.

You might argue that you often see highly educated people who seem to be perfectly happy with their lives but the truth is, knowledge is not the determinant factor there. The happy people are the ones who do well in life -and not necessarily in economic terms-. Some of them are very knowledgeable folks and some are thick as a brick. Some have lots of money and some don’t have any.

When asked which was the happiest time of their lives most people will say `Childhood´. A period of simple pleasures and innocence. A time when you weren’t aware of all the bad things the world has to offer. How often do you see a depressed child? As we access higher instances of knowledge we grow weary of all the negative things that we learn along the way. The old saying “Only the ignorant are truly happy” holds some truth into it and as every country in the world is slowly accessing a higher education level we can expect to see a corresponding growth in the levels of cynicism everywhere. Again: Cynicism entails a pessimistic view of the world. And a pessimistic view of the world generates less desire to bring new life into it.

2. The most advanced societies are the ones with greater equality amongst men and women.

Another important characteristic of an advanced society is the increased equality of working men and women. Less gender discrimination in terms of job availability, promotions and salary. All good so far but: Several studies reveal that countries where women employment is higher (developed countries) have lower birth rates than countries where women employment is lower (under-developed countries). This is not so hard to understand: Working women have less time to take care of their children and if the opportunity to advance in their careers is real -as it happens in developed countries- then a huge number of them will feel inclined to postpone or even suspend the whole maternity issue. Which again, impacts negatively on birth rates.

You may argue that more job opportunities for women generate more stay-at-home dads. Yes, it does. But does that really account to a number large enough to restore the balance? Everywhere in the world, where women have good job prospects men have -at least- equally good opportunities. And men, specially in large numbers, have never been very good at refraining from opportunities.

If anything, this is an indicative of what might happen in a very long time as most of the countries have growing population rates but as the global tendency is headed towards a broader access to education, knowledge and equality of men and women rights -albeit, in some places faster than others- we can infer that as necessary as it is, Evolution will kill us all.

Can a company grow without growing dumber?

can companies grow without growing dumber

Why is it that successful companies that grow bigger and stronger also grow slower and dumber?

Almost every time a company grows, it becomes dumber and slower in its reactions. Maybe this is because of the bureaucracy growth that every company experiences as it expands its size. The dozens of steps and approvals required for every single move make it seem not unlike a huge dinosaur, where every bit of information takes longer to get to the brain and make the way back with an appropriate answer.

Also, the moment when a company becomes dumber more often than not matches the moment when you can’t reach the decision makers directly anymore. The moment when you don’t have access -at least via e-mail- to the top boss anymore. The moment when the CEO stops reading his/her own mail and somebody else sorts through it.

CEOs love yakking about “communication” and “being open to new ideas”. But they are not putting their money where their mouth is because 99% of the times, unless you have or you know someone with the proper connections, you can never reach the true decision makers directly.

Internet gives the chance to tap into the world´s virtually infinite pool of ideas . So, why aren’t big companies taking advantage of that?

Some CEOs of big companies do this. I happen to know so because I’ve been able to contact them easily. Some celebrities do this as well. I know it because I’ve managed to get in touch with them. Easily, too. Be it an e-mail account, Twitter, or any other medium, they all have an open line of communication for you to reach them directly. They answered back. Maybe in five minutes or two months, but they all did. And, coincidentally, these are always people whose businesses do well. People who is able to listen and extract valuable information out of it.

If a regular Joe has an amazing idea to turn Blackberry around and put it back on top of the market but he just can’t get a hold of the true decision makers in the company, then Blackberry has a problem. Maybe Joe does not want to send his idea via some anonymous Suggestion Box where he doesn’t know who will read it. He wants someone important to read it and he wants that someone to know that the idea belongs to Joe. Because 99% of the times, Joe will want some sort of compensation for it. Nobody wants to see their ideas fall into the cracks of bureaucracy before reaching their intended destination.

If I were the boss of some big world-renowned company I would make sure that there is a visible e-mail address where anybody can find me. Not my secretary or somebody else but me. And I would set aside a bit of time to check it every day. Bosses are usually good at managing time. They should devote some of it to read the mail they receive from the “outside world” on a daily basis. They are the only ones who can decide if an idea is good or bad. Not their secretary. Or the guy in charge of reading the suggestions from the Suggestion Box email. Most of the ideas sent to big companies are rubbish. But if at least one idea is actually great then it´s worth going through the whole pile. And it´s worth taking the time from a person who has a real criteria and understands what the company needs to a level that only the top bosses possess because, aside from being good time managers, bosses are usually people who can recognize a good idea when they see one. They should exercise that talent more often by personally reviewing the ideas sent by the outside world.

The Big Kahunas should be easier to reach. Be it Barack Obama, the Pope, Larry Page or whoever is in charge of each boat. I´m not asking for their home number. Just a direct e-mail address where I know if I send a message it will reach its intended destination. Quite possibly I can´t change the world. But I’m sure that there is someone amongst the 7 billion people in the world who can. And that person, whoever and wherever he or she is, should have the path as cleared as possible.

Solving Luck

solving-luck

Defined as “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”, luck is, quite simply, the Imponderable Factor. A variable that is difficult or impossible to estimate or assess.

If we express it in mathematical terms:

Luck is an equation with too many Xs.

I´m going to use a coin toss here because a coin toss is probably one of the most universally accepted examples of “luck”. If you could calculate all the variables in a coin toss, then you could calculate exactly which side the coin will fall. If you could calculate the angle and speed of your thumb tossing the coin up in the air, the temperature, humidity and current ambient pressure, the weight and exact shape of the coin, the acceleration and the number of spins it makes in the air, the angle of your hand catching it and a couple more variables, then you could predict with absolute accuracy which side the coin will fall on. You will have calculated Luck.

Therefore:

Luck usually exists because of human limitations or sometimes even laziness.

The variables that make up luck are always the harder to calculate. That is why we leave them aside and collectively dismiss them as “luck”. If people actually made the effort of calculating all those complicated variables then a whole lot of things that we mystifyingly call luck would be certainties.

As we know, ignorance breeds superstition. What people don’t understand, they mystify (Religion. Look it up) . And Luck is one of the most popular superstitions around still going strong simply because people aren’t willing to do the math. Now, having said that, I’m not up for crunching all of those numbers either. But, as we have calculators and automatizations for so many complicated processes, we should have systems to anticipate more accurately certain phenomenons.

How many times do we hear things like:

“In the end, the hurricane changed its direction”

The weather is one issue that is still, for a big part, within the realms of luck. The accuracy of weather predictions is simply not high enough. We need more exact weather predictions so we can stop calling it, well, predictions. Predictions are for palm readers. Weathermen should tell it like it is.

But at least they are trying. They really are. Weather scientists are always trying to come up with better ways to calculate more accurately weather related phenomenons. They are well aware of the amount of time, money, effort and even lives that could be saved if better weather reports were readily available. We should be making the same kind of effort in other areas that are still influenced by luck.

How many lives would be saved if we calculated the same number of variables NASA calculates in each space launch for, say, automobile safety?

Again, a lot of the situations that escape our control because we hastily label as “luck” could be predictable and manageable if we were able to calculate the variables involved. It would mean more time and money for processing all those complicated variables, but in the long term the savings in terms of money, lives, time and effort would hugely surpass the cost.

Child Economics 101

monopoly money

Childhood. The closest to Zen simplicity most of us get in our lives. Or at least that is what our nostalgia-infused memory tells us. Truth is, children have issues of their own. Petty problems by an adult´s standard perhaps but, nonetheless, problems that trouble their young souls. Kids spend their lives in an environment not unlike an all-inclusive resort where they don’t have to pay for anything; but where the service staff has to be convinced with very solid arguments each time they want something. This happens because kids don’t have money. But they cannot be classified as being indigents either because they are not supposed to handle money. Such dilemma presents them with the previously described awkward situation of having to ask somebody else for every single material urge they have. In all truth, the only medium a kid has to acquire any sort of personal property is in the form of a gift. That is why Christmas and birthdays are most important when one is a child: those are the only predictable occasions when one can acquire desired personal items.

The rules and regulations of commercial operation are radically different in the world of children. That is why kids will ask you “Who gave you that?” whenever you show them something they find appealing. Not “where” did you get that but “who” gave you that. Such information has value for them because the person who gave you the coveted possession could present them with a similar item. When asked the above question the adult will wonder for a moment and usually reply something in the lines of “I don´t remember” or worse: “No one, I bought it myself” –which is a despairing answer for the child as it arises the money issue once again–. Kids are like Cubans: they have a financial embargo. And they need to work their way around that to acquire personal property.

The kafkian bureaucracy of dealing with parents to get things can be extremely frustrating for the child. A kid sees the TV commercial for some hot new action figure and runs to the old man to make him cough up the big bucks. And also walk him to the toy store that very second, which, conveniently enough, he knows exactly where it is –kids get lost on the way from the water shore to the family beach umbrella but can find the toy store with a blindfold on, in the middle of a blizzard–. Oh, the innocence. And the kid really believes he can pull that off. That he can actually convince his father to drag his grinded corpse on a trip to the toy store and buy a ridiculously overpriced piece of plastic right there and then. Father has the slippers on. Kid fails to read the subtext in that. Put some shoes on, man! The store closes in twenty minutes. We can still make it if we run! Father mumbles something about going to the store after the kid bathes and eats dinner. Naively enough, kid buys into that and gets screwed like a champ.

When I was ten years old I won a gold medal in a skiing competition. My grandfather was quite proud of me and decided to reward my accomplishment by letting me choose anything I wanted. Back then I was quite fascinated by a small hand held pocket TV I had seen somewhere and I decided I wanted one. I wasn’t sure where to get such item –mind you, the year was 1990 and we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Portable mini TV sets didn’t exactly grow on trees here– but I assumed household appliance stores would carry such item. Besides, I had an adult at my disposal to drive me around and foot the bill. An unparalleled opportunity. A Golden Ticket, if you may. We took a cab and went to the nearest such store. No luck. Another cab ride to the next store. Nothing there. One more, near downtown. Nope. Try that place. What, mini TV? No way. Go check there. Missed again. Grandfather getting tired. And cranky. Myself, desperate and power-drunk. We have to pursue the quest to its last consequences! One salesman suggested some place in the outskirts of town. Let´s go! What are we waiting for? Grandfather hit the brakes right there and then. Ended up returning home empty handed with the promise of another excursion to find the mini TV on the following weekend. Needless to say, that excursion never happened.

As any other social group, kids are consumers. But as consumers, they are poor. Dirt poor. Well dressed indigents is what they are. Their meager means of acquisition barely allow them to buy some candy and a piece of gum. At most. Adults will condescendingly handle down a few coins and some low denomination currency sprinkled with words of wisdom regarding the benefits of saving. Saving, my socks. What do you expect me to buy saving five bucks a week, more candy? At this pace I’ll be able to buy that Lego pirate ship when I’m 80.

Children tend to associate with their peers in social circumstances to pull resources together, much like adults do in natural disasters, war events or hippie communities. I have a bucket, you have a shovel. Let´s build a sand castle together. You have the He-Man action figure with battle staff, I have a Skeletor. Let´s play. Oh, no! The robot´s batteries are dead! We need to get the batteries from something else! A simple situation by an adult´s standard where the logical solution would be a quick trip to the store to buy new batteries. Not in the world of children. Kid doesn’t have keys to leave the house by himself and he doesn´t have money to pay for the batteries either. Tough spot. Therefore, the solution is getting the batteries out of Dad’s shaving machine. Children are scavengers: something else they share with hippies and refugees. Fish for loose change in Mom’s coat pockets, hunt for batteries in household appliances. Dad will get mad if he finds out we took out the fresh batteries he just bought for his shaving machine but that´s the way things work in the world of children. Angry and unshaven Dad will confront us later on about this but that was the only available solution at the moment. Fred Nietzsche said something about children being dead serious when they are playing and if you have any recollections of your own childhood then you know how truthful that statement is.

I remember a particular Christmas as a child, when I finally received the remote controlled police car I wanted so much and the ensuing horror after realizing that batteries were not included in the set. Grandpa´s eyes sparkled as he disappeared for a moment and came back triumphantly with the batteries from his flashlight. The enjoyment of the present was greatly diminished by the fact that the batteries were almost dead and the police car with its flashy lights and siren wasn’t exactly at its top form but Dad promised we would get new batteries the next morning. Yeah, right.

Kids get a raw deal. Imagine being stuck in their position: You live in a society where money is the only currency and medium established to acquire anything and you, as every other targeted consumer group, are constantly being bombarded by advertising designed to make you want things you don’t have. You do your part: stay quiet, keep your clothes as tidy as possible, eat your greens, brush your teeth, go to bed at nine but you don’t receive any sort of financial compensation for it. And no one in their right state of mind would hire you to do an adult´s work. Nobody hires kids as accountants. Or physicians. We know some places in Asia hire kids. And those places are conveniently close to the places where most toys are manufactured too so that would seem to be rather convenient scheme for the child: Available work in close proximity to the toy factory. But that situation has a whole new set of issues and implications that the kid would probably fail to foresee if presented with such a career option.

Eventually, children grow up and gradually gain financial strength of their own. From a piece of gum to a summer house in a process so painstakingly slow that you hardly notice it. A process so disheartening that you never really stop fearing that something will go inexplicably wrong when asking for a bank loan or paying for something with a credit card. As if the person in front of you will see that you are still a child in disguise, deny your request and send you back home in tears. Such financial turmoil remains the everyday reality of the child. Lucky for us, our nostalgia-infused memory is kind enough to make us remember childhood as a haven of Zen simplicity. Yeah, right.