Monthly Archives: September 2008

Sep 29

Jonathan Haidt on The Moral Matrix

By kevin | Decision Making

TED is just a universe of great videos on great topics. I really like this one by Johathan Haidt on the “morality” of liberalism and conservatism. From his webiste . . .

I am an Associate Professor in the Social Psychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. I study morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. I am also active in positive psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing) and study positive emotions such as moral elevation, admiration, and awe.

My research these days focuses on the moral foundations of politics, and on ways to transcend the “culture wars” by using recent discoveries in moral psychology to foster more civil forms of politics. Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality. It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.

To live virtuously as individuals and as societies, we must understand how our minds are built (see ch. 1 of The Happiness Hypothesis). We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness (see ch. 4). We must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own (see this talk or this essay on politics, or this essay on religion.).

The big new is his moral foundations framework . . .

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

You can explore your own point of view on this framework at

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Sep 24

McCain Unhinged

By kevin | Current Affairs

Chris Mathews calls it “Razzle Dazzle”.   George Will has taken to calling John McCain the Queen of Hearts

Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.

Channeling his inner Queen of Hearts, John McCain furiously, and apparently without even looking around at facts, said Chris Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, should be decapitated. This childish reflex provoked The Wall Street Journal to editorialize that “McCain untethered” — disconnected from knowledge and principle — had made a “false and deeply unfair” attack on Cox that was “unpresidential” and demonstrated that McCain “doesn’t understand what’s happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does.”

Once again, and this is a disturbingly regular pattern, whenever things get a bit sketchy for the Senator from Arizona, he throws a Hail Mary.  Just to pick three examples . . .

  • Cancel the first day of the Convention
  • Sarah Palin
  • Attack Christopher Cox

And now this.  Cancel the debate.

Chris Mathews take on this (on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC) is that whenever McCain becomes concerned that the public might actually start paying attention, he does the razzle dazzle to distract attention. Why now?  He’s just launched another round of particularly heinous attack ads at a time when his party is taking it in the shorts over the mess the economy has become.  Poor John is in a pickle as he’s not only been an ardent deregulator, but there’s the nasty bit of him getting caught up in the last real estate-led meltdown when he anchored the Keating Five. Having slimed Obama he decided not to stick around for the return volley.

Rachel Maddow points out that over the past forty years, the debates have gone forward in close proximity to various and sundry disasters including . . .

  • Bombing of Times Square (Nixon Kennedy).
  • Bombing the USS Cole (Bush Gore).
  • Iranian Hostage Crisis (Reagan Carter)

. . .  Just to pick three examples (there are others). 

For a man who at one pointed wanted to run on his leadership qualities, this is truly scary.  When things get dodgy he clearly and obviously panics. To repeat myself, he throws a Hail Mary.  Again, and again, and again.  It’s probably not even a good way to fly a fighter plane.  It’s a hell of a way to run a campaign. You tell me. Is that how you want our country to be run?

Again from George Will . . .

McCain’s smear — that Cox “betrayed the public’s trust” — is a harbinger of a McCain presidency. For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are “corrupt” or “betray the public’s trust,” two categories that seem to be exhaustive — there are no other people.

And this . . .

Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

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Sep 24

From A Friend Riding Through The Ukraine

By kevin | Ride Reports

Posted kind of with permission . . .


So my ride from Kiev to Vilnius was long, wet and cold. I had rain 80% of the time. My feet were wet after one hour, but the good socks made a difference (thanks for those). My feet stayed warm even though they were wet. I ended up putting my feet in plastic bags between two layers of socks inside my boots to help with waterproofing and wind both days. After 3 years I think my “water proof” boots are toast. By day two I realized that the electric vest (only a thin tank top away from my skin) was keeping my core warm. The hands and feet where the challenge. By straightening my arms and legs periodically, the warm blood from my core was able to circulate and reheat the extremities (highway pegs were awesome bonus). Make sure you can slide back enough on your seat to comfortably straighten your arms.

Route finding through Ukraine was hard. I went a completely different route than what we did on the way in (unintentionally of course, but in the end it was better because I never hit a dirt road), except for the last 30 miles when I intersected the road we took. A map would have been super helpful. Even though things aren’t labeled well, getting a native to point your location on the map is all is takes. I found myself several times cruising on an open highway and then suddenly, I’m in city streets in the middle of a town with no sense of direction (overcast) or any orientation and next to zero signage. I asked directions a lot. I had to remind myself that is was better to take the time to establish the route direction rather than putting miles on and hoping for the best (my common approach in the US). A good habit I started to do was pulling off to the side of the road at junctions in front of the major direction road signs and studying them to make sure I was on track, especially with the Cyrillic signage. It gave me all time I needed to analyze the possible directions with no stress of traffic or weather.

I ended up riding at night for about two hours both days. Not my ideal by any standard. I should have left earlier. I’ll say this again, you can’t leave too early.

The border sucked. Lines everywhere. Fortunately, as a moto, everyone (guards, customs, truck drivers, car drivers, polish and Ukrainians) made a point to tell me that I could weave in between all the cars as a moto, so go. I think they we basically like, look, your vehicle can do it…I would do it if I could, so get the fuck up there. It still took me two hours going to the front of lines. One guard talked with me about my moto for 15minutes, then pointed me to the front of the line. We never discussed anything related to customs or immigration….classic. I didn’t need that piece of paper you lost, but now have found, but it’s better to be prepared. No proof of insurance for Poland, just passport and title. The Polish customs agent did a cursory search of my panniers, while the van in front of me was closely inspected for secret compartments (his plate was Ukraine).

I’m so glad I brought food. It meant I didn’t have to stress about being hungry (ie having the right currency, getting healthy food, finding food places). And it meant I saved on time not searching, waiting or getting off route for food. One time I stopped in one of those abandoned bus stops. I pulled my moto underneath, sat on the bench, and laid out my lunch. I was plugged in the whole time and my gloves were cooking on the engine. I was also away from any crowds pestering my about the moto with questions. Any stop around people in Ukraine brought me more attention then I cared for.

Riding solo I found folks more willing to approach me then when we are together. I was offered tea/coffee twice at gas stations from the employees and they wouldn’t take money. They just had compassion for a cold, wet foreigner on his own. I had to buy everything in Poland and was never a speckle like we are in Ukraine.

Also, by paying cash, i got to fill my tank up and then pay. No need to state the liter total in advance like with your credit card. I errored on the side of filling up early and often. I didn’t want to be caught out of gas in Western Ukraine, alone and in miserable weather.

I noticed that by the end of day 1, the constant water was affecting the moto. The chain went dry, the locks and keys got more sticky and the electrics started playing games with me. I had to jiggle stuff and toggle switches to get the moto to start a few times. I still don’t know what really happened, but now with a dry moto there seems to be no evidence of any problems. I lubed the locks, ignition and chain each morning. To lube the chain, I finally used the little drip bottle I bought in Toronto. Without the spray lube we got in Stockholm, I bought a small thing of oil, filled it up and it works great for dispensing at just the right amount.

Points to remember:

-as a moto you can cut the border lines
-buy a map of Ukraine (i used maps in gas stations)
-learn how to say “Poland” in Ukrainian
-leave early
-bring food (enough until your next safe/comfortable destination)

If it’s cold and/or wet:
-balled up extra shirts in sleeves really helped cut the wind
-let the vest heat your body before you start riding
-drying gloves on engine helped
-keep chain lubed (i was bone dry at the end of day 1)
-straighten arms and leg to get hot blood from core to your extremities\
-keep helmet on to retain heat when stopped (60-80% loss out of head or
something like that)
-extra shirt or sweater on my chest to deflect and insulate from cold
air was huge

Two long days of riding in bad weather really taught me how to stay warm. I was in full survival mode. I knew if I was comfortable, that I would make better decisions, for road safety and for route finding. I still don’t have a solution for my face screen fogging, but I think you have that sorted with your face mask.

BOOM…there it is Dave. Good luck,


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Sep 23

Most Urgent Request For Your Valuable Attention Please

By kevin | Current Affairs

Saw this on Barry Ritzholtz’s excellent site . . .

This is circulating around trading desks today . . .









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Sep 23

What Sarah Palin Said to the World Leaders

By kevin | Current Affairs

Sarah Palin went to New York Today to rub shoulders with heads of state. It happens that I was in New York and I had a chance to listen in on the conversations . . .

“This is so cool. I can see New Jersey from his office!”

“Me and the kids are going to the Empire State Building after this!

“Uh huh, uh huh. Alvy, where did you say Columbia was again?

“No way, I banned books too!”

“Me too! I so want to stone unbelievers!”

“By the way, I love your dress!”

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Sep 23

Creating A Place to Innovate

By kevin | Decision Making

People have been thinking and writing deeply about how we interact with the places and spaces we habituate and habitate nearly forever. Even those of us who know nothing of the disciplines know what it feels like to turn down a street that feels somehow inviting and one that doesn’t; what it feels like to walk into a home or building that “just works” and one that doesn’t; what it feels like to walk into a room that puts you in the mood for the activity at hand, and one that makes you squirm.

In business, we have somehow lost sight of the connection between right and left brain, thinking and feeling, talking and thinking, meetings and decision making, the spaces we use and the processes we undertake in them. So we find ourselves in bizarre settings like trying to work hard problems or think deep thoughts while sitting in the midst of a cube farm under an endless sky of creepy fluorescent lighting. Or using the same meeting room for “brainstorming meetings”, formal “Ops reviews,” and overflow space when there is no other place to sit. Or going off site to a hotel facility that’s better suited to a cocktail party and trying to make it work for what you need to do. Or pick your favorite example.

There are lots of reasons why the collective we don’t do the things in business that we say we want to do: Be more innovative, make better decisions, work smarter not harder, collaborate, focus on the necessary few . . . pick your favorite shibboleth. The biggest and most obvious reason is that if we don’t organize how we think and work any differently, why do we think we’ll experience different results? Another is that if we don’t change what we value, why do we think people will make different trade-offs?

The processes and props we use prove to be extraordinarily important in signaling the people involved what’s going on, what’s expected, and the smart way to play. If I invite the person I’ve been dating to dinner at some impossibly elegant restaurant that’s five times more expensive than anyplace we’ve ever been before, what do you suppose that person is expecting? Similarly, if we schedule a one hour meeting (and we schedule a lot of them) for a board room where everyone will sit around a rectangular table roughly according to their power relationships with the boss and look at a deck none of us have ever seen before, what do we really think is going to happen in that meeting?

If we want different outcomes, better outcomes, we have to work differently. If we want to work differently, we need to change the processes and tools we use to both support and signal the new schema. We need to change what the group values to make a space for innovation and orthogonal thinking. And we need to change to spaces and places that we meet in to support more dialog and less advocacy, more inquiry and less explanation, more serendipity and discovery and less walking people to the conclusion we’ve already arrived at.

At GroupPartners, one way we think about this is to create something we call an Innovation Lounge. It is as much high concept as it is physical instantiation. Here are the general principles:


Creating the container is the first and most important step.

The container can be defined symbolically, physically, energetically, spiritually, or by any other agreeable means at your disposal. It really depends on what you’re needing to block in and block out (sound, light, attention of certain people, etc.) A council fire does it with light. What’s near the fire is in the container. What’s in the darkness is not. You can hold hands. You can go into a room. There are lots of options.

By container we mean dividing the universe now into two spaces: what is in and what is not. Inside the container exists the work. Outside is everything else. Inside the container we act according to special rules. Outside the container we follow a broader set of norms and edicts. Inside the container, it is safe to do whatever it is we came to do. Outside the container . . .

In thinking about a permanent or semi-permanent Innovation Lounge in a corporate setting, our general rule of thumb is 100 square feet, or about nine square meters per participant. You can certainly use more or less, but that amount of space creates lots of options for different types of work, fluidly making and remaking sub-units, and maintaining persistence and support (see following).


During the full cycle of the work, the output during all phases of development needs to remain in place. Creating a visual, affixing yellow stickies to things, scribbling notes on a flip chart—it doesn’t matter what your process—the bits and pieces you used to record, organize, and honor your thinking, inquiry, and dialog simply must persist. It creates an ever richer context. The artifacts hold ideas even when you’ve moved on, always there for you to see them and be reinspired by them. Putting things on the walls creates purposeful and serendipitous juxtaposition. Relationships you never saw before often jump out at you as you walk by or glance up.

For longer pieces of work, that same sense of persistence keeps your efforts rooted in a common earth. As new actors enter the drama, they can not only dig into the ground you’ve already tilled, but also see the sweep of what’s gone before with new eyes. It’s the new eyes and insights we need from these people. But if we are to usefully explore new directions and possibilities, it must always be in reference to the work that has gone before. If not, then the container is broken (maybe a good thing) and a new piece of work needs to be declared.

In thinking about setting up a space, the 100 square foot rule now starts to make more sense. If we want to be able to leave work in place so that we can constantly reference and rediscover it, we need wall space, floor space, and/or table space. To some extent this can be facilitated electronically though not as well as you think. Every time we turn a page, flash a screen, or otherwise remove something from our line of site, it’s like we remove it from consciousness. It’s just gone.


Everything needs to support the kind of work you need to do. A wide open space with little structure invites the group to first work out how it will work before it does the work. That could be a good thing. Big walls covered with whiteboards or paper with lots of markers invite people to draw and explore. Pods of chairs, or chairs and tables, invite groups to form up around tasks. Stacks of supplies like paper, stickies, markers, index cards, and tape make it possible to create a decision table on the fly, or throw together a quick Baysian influence diagram. Access to the internet and a printer offer the possibility of bringing the outside into the container without actually breaking the container. Everything counts. Everything matters. Everything either supports the work you’re there to do or takes away from it. There really isn’t a middle ground on this.

In our experience, work that extends for more than a couple of hours tends to create shifting demands for how we interact. We might start out co-creating a visual on the wall and find that we need to break into smaller groups. For work that extends over days, weeks, and months, that is absolutely true. So having the luxury of space, again referencing the 100 square foot rule, we open up the possibility of turning the space into a town square one moment, and the Lascaux caves the next.


You could also think of this as focus or even connection. The container, the Innovation Lounge, needs to send strong signals to those inside what the work is about. It needs to draw the people together around the purpose at hand. It needs to help people connect to both the work and to each other. The concepts of containment, persistence, and support do this. So does the actual content. Our ancestors didn’t just sit around the big fire at night: They sat there to hear the elders’ stories, to learn the way of the people, to consider big issues. The content matters.

The content is the problem we’re trying to solve, the opportunity we’re trying to reach, the puzzle we need to work. It takes form in words, sounds, pictures, and gestures. How we package and present the content going in, how we create and iterate the content while we work, and how we preserve and honor the content when we’re done makes the difference between inspiration and boredom, aspiration and rejection, encouraging people to bring the best they’ve got vs. their shadows, cynicism, and doubt.

In the realm of innovation, this means chucking overboard the usual decks and spreadsheets, the lifeless attempts to animate what is to often uninspired in the first place. Instead, we should be drawing pictures, looking at ethnographies, and generally seeking all manner of weird and divergent provocations. We should be recording our work on walls and on the floor, using markers and slips of paper. We should let the form follow the work and not the other way around.

Inside the Innovation Lounge, the “normal” presentation of content should be banned. The content should focus on exploring possibilities (could do) long before we start filtering down to what we should do and will do. This is where good methodology and process help.

A great space to work isn’t the magic talisman that will ensure great or even good thinking. No such amulet exists. Nor is it the case that it’s impossible to think great thoughts in a noisy restaurant or the most miserable of cube farms. It’s just that bad spaces and bad setups collide with millions of years of programming. The truth is we are highly responsive to the spaces we move through and settle in. The Chinese have been serious practitioners of the idea for at least 3000 years. It’s called Feng Shui. Much more recently, Christopher Alexander and others have written brilliantly on the topic in A Pattern Language. In between, hundreds of thousands of land use planners, space planners, architects, and researchers practice their own versions of building spaces to contain and support a particular kind of activity. An Innovation Lounge is just another example of something that works, that makes a difference, that betters your chances of better thinking and hopefully better outcomes.

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Sep 23

What Happens When You Go All In And You’re Wrong?

By kevin | Decision Making

People are starting to ask this question in different ways. Why does anyone believe that the massive bailout now pending will actually “solve” the problem?  Or, what happens if it doesn’t? This from CNN . . .

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the committee, cited Paulson’s previous plan to save Fannie and Freddie as well as its role in keeping Bear Stearns out of bankruptcy as illustrations of the limitations on what the federal government can do to protect markets.

“You can’t assure us this will work because you thought the other plans would work,” Shelby said.

One of the truly fatal decision flaws is to frame decisions such that there are only two options, one that appears necessary, and one that appears fatal. It’s not really a decision then, is it?  Against that backdrop, it is nearly impossible to have a rational dialog about uncertainty, trade-offs, and alternatives, three key components to making a quality decision.

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Sep 23

What Happens When You Spend All Your Political Capital

By kevin | Current Affairs

Regarding the current Bailout discussion, a friend of mine wrote . . .

I just wish ONE economist housed within We the People would say that they think this is a good plan.  Why are we negotiating with Bankers who will cease to exist if the plan is voted down?  Do they have another option?

I think the question here is who is “we” and who are “we” negotiating with?

It’s easy to read patterns into things in retrospect, so with that caveat, the similarities between the Iraq fiasco and this one are striking, though the common touch points come in a slightly different order.

Complete disdain for thinking ahead

In the economy as a whole, that’s called regulation and oversight.  The first is designed, at least in theory, to keep everyone in bounds.  The second is designed to create open discussion, debate, and accountability.  Given the richly documented history humans have for lemming like behavior when it comes to marketplaces (going in both directions), greed, and inability to assess risk or estimate nearly anything, you need both, ideology notwithstanding.

In Iraq, it was Cheney,’s, Rumsfeld and Bremmer’s lunatic ideology and lack of planning when it came to the obvious question: What do we do now that Saddam is gone?

Love of Armageddon

You really have to wonder if the people in charge have spent too much time reading about the End Times.  Everything they want to do is sold on the wings of Armageddon, disaster, and cataclysm. If it’s not the constant references to 9/11, it’s Condi Rice and Mushroom Clouds, Colin Powell and WMDs,  and now this.  I’m reminded of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Complete Lack of Accountability

For a group of people who is so keen on hectoring the populace and punishing people for making bad personal choices, it’s astonishing the extent to which the Bushies in particular, and the GOP in general has been eager to let those responsible for the mess skate.  Abu Graib is one example. Scooter Libby.  Alberto Gonzalez.  And now the masters of the universe.  

Disdain for the Constitution

Where do you start this list? On the current affair, Chris Dodd has this to say . . .

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the panel, called the Treasury proposal “stunning and unprecedented in its scope and lack of detail.”

Asserting that the plan would allow Mr. Paulson to act with “absolute impunity,” Senator Dodd said, “After reading this proposal, I can only conclude that it is not only our economy that is at risk, Mr. Secretary, but our Constitution, as well.”

In so many ways, this is either coming at a really good time or a really bad time depending on how you look at it.  The Bush administration has spent its credibility long ago.  Everything they say and do is completely suspect because of how they’ve played the game the past eight years ago.  It is the cost of thinking that the political stage is in fact a game and that you can win permanently.  Well you can’t.  So the short term “losers” bide their time, gather strength, and then exact their revenge later.  This is happening on the international stage everywhere we look.  It is now happening domestically.  The people pulling the strings in the GOP have badly, badly miscalculated. They have taken our country to the very edge. They have squandered the good will, treasure, and energy of generations past and to come. 

To the opening thought, why are “we” negotiating with people playing a losing hand?  Unfortunately, we have to. See my previous point. We have to keep the bad guys in the game because they stay in the game one way or another regardless of what we think or do.

There are lots of lessons here, the kind that wise people have been telling young people for a very, very long time. Don’t Cry Wolf. Don’t Spend All Your Political Capital. Careful About Who You Step On, On The Way Up. Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head. Keep Your Friends Close And Your Enemies Closer.

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Sep 23

Read The Numbers Guy

By kevin | Ethics

I just found, and I happily concede I’m late to most parties like these, a most excellent blog on the Wall Street Journal site called The Numbers Guy. In the grand arc of things, the things he writes about aren’t earth shaking, but they’re all fun and interesting.  And if you care about truth vs. truthiness, you’ll find you have a new friend.

Today’s entry is about the inaccuracy of a recent McCain claim (a favorite topic of mine I’m afraid) . . .

Here’s a line voters didn’t hear during the 1980 presidential campaign: “You, the American workers, are the fourth-best in the world — after those in Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.” Yet during the current U.S. financial crisis, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has run campaign advertisements on television in which he tells U.S. workers they’re the best in the world — based on data that suggest this isn’t necessarily the case.

In the ad, Sen. McCain says, “You, the American workers, are the best in the world. But your economic security has been put at risk by the greed of Wall Street. That’s unacceptable.”

When I contacted the campaign to ask for the basis of Sen. McCain’s claim about American workers, campaign spokesman Brian Rogers told me, “The U.S. has the highest labor productivity in the world,” and sent a link as proof. That link went to a report issued last year by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, which found that in 2006 U.S. workers, on average, added the highest value, in terms of gross domestic product: $63,885 per person employed, compared to runner-up Ireland’s $55,986. However, on an hourly basis, the U.S. ranked second, at $35.63 per hour, compared to Norway’s $37.99, as the New York Times pointed out in a fact-check of the McCain ad.

Keep adjusting for currencies and all the rest and you get to “We’re number four, we’re number four!” Not that it matters. We’ve learned long ago that “tactically adjusted views of the facts” or whatever they call it is stock in trade on the hustings, and on the Liar-Richter scale, this one hardly registers.

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