What if we never used the phrase “common sense” again?

On Tuesday night, I heard my local NPR station interviewing a newly-elected representative. At one point, he made some reference to “common sense” policies. I don’t even remember what they were talking about, but it doesn’t matter. When someone says “common sense”, what I hear is “I don’t have any substantive arguments in favor of my position.”

This is not unique to one political party, or even to politics as a whole. In any field, “common sense” is a shorthand for “this is the only reasonable position and you’re unreasonable if you disagree with it because I said so.”  In most situations where “common sense” is deployed, reasonable people can disagree on what the sensible approach is.

In addition to silencing dissent, the phrase “common sense” also oversimplifies most issues. What seems like an obvious solution on the surface may not fit the underlying complexity. Life is rarely as simple as it seems.

If it’s really common sense, it should be easy for you to explain why. So let’s all agree to never use “common sense” again.

The future is browseable

Browsing and searching are not the same thing. Anyone who has sat on the couch trying to figure out what to watch on Netflix knows this. With so many choices available, there’s bound to be something

Seth Godin wrote a blog post about this recently. How do we find what we didn’t know we wanted to find? We’re pretty bad at this in the digital world, but truth be told, we’re not that great at it in the offline world, either. At least, I don’t think we are.

I love going to my local library. Books smell amazing and even though I have this annoying tendency to buy a book that I know I’ll only read once, the public library’s collection dwarfs my own. But when I don’t really know what I want to read, I just sort of wander the shelves and judge books by their covers. Or their spines, in most cases.

Amazon is one of the few sites that seems to tackle this really well. Their recommendations aren’t always on the ball, but I’d rate them well overall. Having enough data to tell me what people who bought one item also bought is a huge part of making good recommendations.

I would have loved a similar recommendation engine was when I was putting together my plan of study for graduate school. I essentially had the entire University course catalog at my disposal. If I could make the case to my committee that it was a good course for me to take, it was all mine. But with so many courses to choose from, how would I know what to pick? I was forced to browse manually, but a recommendation engine would have really helped.

That’s one reason I like traditional radio stations and services like Pandora: I don’t have to search. I can start with a general genre of music I want to listen to and then I get to browse. I credit Pandora with the tremendous broadening of my musical tastes that happened in the late ‘aughts.

I look forward to a time when browsing is easier. Just think of the undiscovered gems we’ll find.

Amazon should not be the library

Edit (7/24/2018): Quartz reports that Forbes has pulled the article.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Forbes ran an article suggesting Amazon should replace the public library as a way to save taxpayer money. This is a bad take from anyone, but particularly from the Chair of the Economics Department at LIU Post. Apparently the good professor does not realize that Amazon exists to make money, so there’s a good chance that savings would be funded in part by a loss of service and local accountability.

Or maybe he doesn’t realize poor people exist. Or even that the well off sometimes like to have public spaces where they are allowed to exist without having to buy something. When I was a kid our house wasn’t air conditioned. On hot summer days, my mom would take us to the county library. We could sit and read in comfort for a few hours and no one cared.

I’d check out a dozen or more books. A few weeks later, I’d bring them back and get abkther armful. Imagine how much my parents would have had to spend on Amazon. And libraries don’t just provide books. Ours had music and movies and paintings available for checkout. It had genealogy records and newspapers. It had meeting spaces and community programs. If the Internet had been widespread then, it would have had that, too.

My current local library has digital subscriptions in both text and audio format. It has state park passes available for checkout. It has a mobile library to visit the elderly, infirm, and others who can’t make it to one of the three branches in the county. If there was profit to be made in doing all of this on a broad scale, Jeff Bezos would be doing it already.

A library is more than just the books. It’s a part of the community. Removing it from the commons in favor of a private corporation is a terrible idea. My friend Doug explained it well a year ago.

Everyone, just by the act of existing, gets aceess to this valuable resource at the cost of a fraction of a percent of the assessed value of local property. A few years ago, I looked at the detail of my property tax bill and realized I was getting way more value out of my library than I paid for. So I started donating to the library foundation. If Professor Mourdourkoutas can’t get more value from his library than he puts in, that’s on him.

Reinforcing unintended consequences

I heard a story on NPR last week about how the oil industry is changing in Alaska. Specifically, it is adapting to climate change. You see, as air temperatures warm, the permafrost becomes less perma- and less -frost. This presents challenges for energy extraction operations.

Of course, entrepreneurs have stepped in with solutions to help. Not to mitigate the effects of climate change, but to allow the industry to better cope with it. For example, one company deploys sensors to determine when construction of ice roads can begin. These roads made out of literal frozen water are an important part of getting materiel to and from drill sites.

But what really struck me was the company that’s helping oil sites keep buildings cold. Thawing permafrost means the buildings shift. This leads to cracks in walls and ceiling, stuck doors, etc. So what is their solution? Pipes filled with coolant extract heat from the ground and release it into the air. This, of course, requires the input of additional energy (probably derived from fossil fuels).

I get it. Energy is a complicated problem with no easy solutions. A sudden stop to petroleum usage, while good for carbon dioxide levels, is ruinous to Alaska’s economy. But it’s an important reminder that we sometimes deal with unintended consequences by reinforcing them. And that is not sustainable.

International House of Brand mistakes

Last week, restaurant chain IHOP (fully known as “International House of Pancakes”) teased a name change. They’re going to flip the “P” and become IHOb. But what does the “b” stand for? Breakfast? Biscuits? Blockchain? Belly aches?

On Monday we learned it stands for “burgers”. It’s a temporary name change to promote their new Ultimate Steakburgers. And I think it’s pretty dumb.

IHOP has a well-known brand. They’ve sold non-breakfast-food for as long as I’ve been aware of them, but — as the name suggests — breakfast food is their bread and butter. They got a lot of free publicity out of this stunt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was beneficial. The reaction I’ve seen has mostly been negative, including this scathing take:

You can get a burger in just about any restaurant in America. Even a temporary abuse of the brand to go after a crowded space seems cruel to a brand that has served so well. As The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding points out, products aren’t sold anymore, they’re bought. And they’re bought because of branding. A brand can be a company’s most valued asset.

Maybe this works out for them, but I expect that it doesn’t give IHO* any long-term benefit. What would be more interesting to me is dropping the non-breakfast menu entirely. There’s something to be said for simple food menus. The more items on the menu, the less often they get made. This means less skill in that recipe for the cooks and more ingredients that need to be stocked (and potentially sit for a while). With a simple menu, you can do a few things really well.

McDonald’s has learned this lesson over and over again over the years. Every time they expand their menu, quality and customer satisfaction seem to go down. So they simplify the menu a bit for a little while, until it’s time to chase a new customer segment. In comparison, Chick-Fil-A has a relatively small menu that they execute well. Restaurants don’t need to be everything to everyone, and I think there’s space for a “we only serve breakfast, you’ll just have to like it” chain. Let’s face it: few things are as popular as breakfast foods at not-breakfast times.

But if IHO* is really serious about competing in a crowded burger space, there are better ways to go about it. “Burgers are like pancakes made of meat!” is a slogan that just came to mind. It’s not great, but it could be worked on. Sure, it might get less attention than changing the name to “IHOb”, but attention doesn’t necessarily mean increased sales. Sometimes it’s not how many people you reach, but which people you reach and what message you reach them with.

But at least other brands are having fun:

Everyone needs to know how to program, or not

A common refrain I’ve heard over the years is “everyone needs to know how to program”. Computers are pervasive in both work and leisure. Knowing how to make them do what the humans want is valuable both from a practical standpoint and from a financial standpoint. But does everyone really need to know how to program?

This topic has been on my list for a long time, but I got a convenient nudge on Twitter earlier this week. My friend, speaking about science communication, exactly captured my feelings:

The spectrum of computer skills is very broad. At the high end is computer science (which doesn’t necessarily translate to practical computer usage skills). As my friend Dave describes it, CS “is a branch of mathematics built around complexity.” This is clearly beyond the level that everyone needs. At the low end is basic computer literacy like using standard desktop software. That seems to be a safe bar for “everyone”.

So we know the high end is too high. The low end is a bare minimum. Where’s right spot in the space between those two extremes? I’m inclined to lean toward the low end. Programming, and thus automation, has applications in almost every profession. But that doesn’t mean it’s a key skill for every profession. In my current job, I have almost no need for programming skills. Basic use and troubleshooting of the applications I use is all I need. I wouldn’t tell someone looking to get into product marketing to not learn programming, but I wouldn’t say they have to in order to be successful in the role.

I’m generally skeptical of using the education system as vocational training. Especially in fast-moving fields like technology, curricula can’t keep up with the changes in the field. How much of what you teach a 7th grader about programming in a particular language will be relevant by the time they enter the work force? At best, you can teach broad concepts.

If you asked me what’s driving this push for coding in the classroom, I’d say it’s two things. First, policymakers who don’t understand technology themselves see this as a way to drive economic growth and help the fortunes of their constituents. Second, technology companies are seeing a shortage of workers with the skills they want and so are looking to get the public to fund their job training programs. I don’t see similar efforts to teach electrical or plumbing work to everyone, even though they’re both well-paid and also highly practical to those outside the profession.

So let’s put more computer literacy into the curriculum. But let’s not assume that means programming. If anything involving computers and education needs to change, it’s that computer science and programming curricula need to include ethics courses.

Sidebar: one area where programming in education may help

The main area I see a true benefit for adding programming into primary and secondary education is helping under-indexed minorities get involved. Tech has more than just a “pipeline problem”, to be sure. But while the cultural problems are worked on, it can only help to get more under-indexed minorities interested. If nothing else, it will help dilute the bros.

You’re an SEO company

Business owners, regardless of their industry, often view themselves in terms of what their business does. “We’re a bookstore, a coffee shop, a web design company,” or whatever goods or services that customers pay money for. But a recent conversation made me realize that most small businesses in a mature market are really a search engine optimization (SEO) company.

Okay, there are a few caveats here. I’m thinking of mature markets as fields where there are many small or small-ish players that are attempting to serve a large number of users. Think generally of the early and late majority sections of the technology adoption life cycle. Ride sharing, for example, is out of scope. It’s pretty solidly in the middle of the bell curve, but it has three players: Uber, Lyft, and everyone else.

The subject of the conversation was a VPN service. A friend was using VPN software and observed that it would be easy to share his server with others for a fee. All the other challenges of running a business aside, I immediately asked what his differentiation is.

VPN services may not be mainstream exactly, but the market is mainstream enough. And there are a lot of players with no one particularly dominant. So how does a new entry set itself apart? There’s a little bit of room to differentiate on price, location, service, etc, but not much. So the best way to differentiate and get new customers is to be better at search engine optimization than the rest of the field.

In essence, making a business successful requires skills entirely unrelated to the business itself. When you can’t easily differentiate your product, you have to differentiate your marketing.

Disrupting our way to the old days

My coworker recently shared an article from The Economist about changes in insurance. As more workers forego traditional employment to participate in the so-called “gig economy”, they find they’re in need of insurance. So companies are working with insurance companies to provide part-time insurance coverage.

Some of these cases make sense. Couriers are ride share drivers may not have auto insurance that covers their job-related use of the car. A pay-per-minute model of relevant insurance that’s in effect when the app is in use makes sense. What I struggle to understand is how coverage “against illness, disability and death” works under such a model.  The article mentions an agreement between Uber and an insurance broker that charges on a per-mile basis, but is coverage similarly rated?

But what gets me is how this brings the gig economy a little closer to traditional jobs. Gig economy companies have fought very hard to have participants labeled as contractors, not employees. But by offering benefits, aren’t they weakening that claim? In the same way that ride sharing companies have re-discovered the concept of buses, I look forward to the day when they’re indistinguishable from traditional employers. Of course, they’ll find a way to boast about how disruptive their 401(k) matching and generous paid time off plans are.

Be like Harry

Editor’s note: This is a lightly-edited version of the introduction to my most recent newsletter. I’m reproducing it here in the interests of having #content on this blog and because Harry Anderson meant more to me than I realized.

Last week was rough for famous people. R. Lee Ermey, Carl Kasell, Barbara Bush, Avicii, and Verne Troyer all passed away. But one name stood out for me: Harry Anderson. I first got to “know” Harry when I was young. My parents would often watch the TV series “Dave’s World”. Since we only had one TV, that meant I watched it, too. I have no real memories of the show, but I remember being amused by it.

The memory that sticks out most is a recollection from a road trip to visit my grandfather in Florida. It was a two-day drive for us, and I remember one particular time we stopped in a motel on the way down. My parents turned the TV on to distract us kids while they got the room ready and the toothbrushes unpacked. I saw Harry Anderson and said “oh good! ‘Dave’s World’ is on.” It was actually “Night Court”.

Years later, I began watching “Night Court” in earnest, largely through clips on YouTube until my wife started a tradition of buying me a season on DVD for each Gift-Giving Occasion™. The show is an absolute gem of popular culture. Some of the jokes were probably funnier 30 years ago, but most of it holds up well.

Part of what makes it so great is Anderson as the goofball Judge Stone. Stone is not perfect – he’s a real jerk sometimes – but he’s fundamentally a decent person who wants to do right by everyone. Harry Stone had the ability to see the best in people and bring it out of them. Funny one moment, sappy the next, Harry Stone wasn’t just someone you could aspire to be, he was someone you could be.

I don’t know what Harry Anderson was like as a person, but I’d like to think he was a lot like his Harry Stone character. I think we should all be a little more like Harry Stone.

The lies we tell ourselves

Not long ago, I was catching up with a friend who lives overseas. She works for an environmental non-profit, and she’s a believer in their mission. At some point in our wandering, hour-long conversation, she mentioned how she doesn’t do something she knows she should. But it’s okay because of where she works. It balances out right?

I agreed with her somewhat self-deprecating observation. I tend to be a pragmatic guy, and I understand that we can’t do all the things we should do, even in support of the causes we care about. I said “oh, the lies we tell ourselves.” And maybe it is a lie, but it can be a necessary lie.

My family primarily uses a hybrid car. We recycle heavily and compost our food waste. We keep the house cool in the winter and warm in the summer. We line dry our clothes. it’s okay that we waste energy sometimes, right? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But we tell ourselves that it is because otherwise we’d go mad. It’s always possible to do a little bit more.

In a similar vein, I often tell myself lies about work. I got a degree in meteorology partly out of self-interest (storms are cool!) but also because meteorologists do important work that save people’s lives. When I ended up working in IT instead, I told myself that it was better that way. Sure, I could be a reasonably competent forecaster and do my part. But by supporting researchers at the university, I was enabling people much smarter than me to do work that could have a much broader impact.

When I left my departmental sysadmin job for a role on the central research computing group, that impact became even larger. I wasn’t making a direct impact, but there were now hundreds of professors and graduate students working to solve real problems not only in meteorology but in engineering, agriculture, and more.

And then I left for the private sector. While my company was enabling life sciences researchers to develop new pharmaceuticals and study genetics, most of the customers I worked closely with were in financial services. I was helping insurance companies make slightly more money. Now that I work in marketing, I’m even further removed from the work that makes the world a better place.

But I still find ways to convince myself that I’m taking my meager skills and using them to magnify the work of those smarter than me in order to make the world a better place. I have to or else I’ll go mad.