Romance, after the bloom

Ran across two good essays recently, both on later stage romance.

One, by Heather Havrilesky:

But once you’ve been married for a long time (my tenth anniversary is in a few months!), a whole new kind of romance takes over. It’s not the romance of rom-coms, which are predicated on the question of “Will he/she really love me (which seems impossible), or does he/she actually hate me (which seems far more likely and even a little more sporting)?" Long-married romance is not the romance of watching someone’s every move like a stalker, and wanting to lick his face but trying to restrain yourself. It’s not even the romance of “Whoa, you bought me flowers, you must REALLY love me!” or “Wow, look at us here, as the sun sets, your lips on mine, we REALLY ARE DOING THIS LOVE THING, RIGHT HERE.” That’s dating romance, newlywed romance. You’re still pinching yourself. You’re still fixated on whether it’s really happening. You’re still kind of sort of looking for proof. The little bits of proof bring the romance. The question of whether you’ll get the proof you require brings the romance. (The looking for proof also brings lots of fights, but that’s a subject for another day.)
After a decade of marriage, if things go well, you don’t need any more proof. What you have instead — and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all — is this palpable, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be a human being. Because until you feel absolutely sure that you won’t eventually be abandoned, it’s maybe not 100 percent clear that any other human mortal can tolerate another human mortal. The smells. The sounds. The repetitive fixations on the same dumb shit, over and over. Even as you develop a kind of a resigned glaze of oh, this again in, say, marital years one through five, you also feel faintly unnerved by your own terrible mortal humanness.

Or you should feel that way.

Another, by Alain de Botton:

Given that marrying the wrong person is about the single easiest and also costliest mistake any of us can make (and one which places an enormous burden on the state, employers and the next generation), it is extraordinary, and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a national and personal level, as road safety or smoking are.
It’s all the sadder because in truth, the reasons why people make the wrong choices are easy to lay out and unsurprising in their structure. They tend to fall into some of the following basic categories.

Botton proposes a new form of marriage to follow on the previous two ages of marriage which he terms the marriage of reason and then the marriage of romance. He terms this the psychological marriage.

In the age of the marriage of reason, one might have considered the following criteria when marrying:
- who are their parents
- how much land do they have
- how culturally similar are they
In the Romantic age, one might have looked out for the following signs to determine rightness:
- one can’t stop thinking of a lover
- one is sexually obsessed
- one thinks they are amazing
- one longs to talk to them all the time
We need a new set of criteria. We should wonder:
- how are they mad
- how can one raise children with them
- how can one develop together
- how can one remain friends

Romance/marriage, as with many human institutions, is susceptible to human myopia. People are lousy at anticipating long-term consequences, and romance is particularly seductive with its immediate chemical rush. 

Acoustic pest detection

The U.S. Grain Inspection Service, Packers, and Stockyard Admininstration’s (GISPSA) standard quality assessment method involves sieving and visually inspecting a one kilogram sample: their guidelines “consider grains infested if the representative sample contains two or more live weevils, or one live weevil and one or more other live insects injurious to stored grain, or two or more live insects injurious to stored grain.”
However, since the larvae of many stored product pests grow inside grain kernels, where, Fleurat-Lessard notes, their “population density may be ten times more numerous than free-living adults,” a visually-inspected“clean” sample may actually be completely infested with rice weevil larvae. To look inside grains, laboratories use X-rays or resonance spectroscopy, but these techniques are too expensive and impractical to deploy in bulk grain lots.
But while rice weevil larvae are invisible, they are not inaudible: the “mean sound pressure” of rice weevil larvae feeding inside a wheat kernel is 23 dB, according to the USDA Agricultural Research Service. The idea, then, is that if you could somehow design sensitive-enough acoustic probes, combined with software to match the probes’ input against a database of field recordings, you might be able to monitor insect activity in stored grain automatically and detect infestations at the larval stage.

I had no clue such a thing as acoustic pest detection existed. Amazing.

Building a sound library of stored food insects was equally important – the field recordings on that Insect Noise in Stored Foodstuffs CD actually form the core of current acoustic pest detection databases. Years of research have gone into classifying the characteristic sonic signatures of different pest species at different stages in their lifecycles, to the point that a computer can now compare input from a grain silo’s acoustic sensor system against a library field recordings and tell you whether the rice weevil larvae eating your wheat kernels are sixteen or eighteen days old.

The smartphone is a form of human augmentation, the latest version of the “bicycle for the brain” metaphor from Steve Jobs or whoever it originated with. I'm looking forward to more sensory augmentation in compact form factors in my lifetime. The ability to increase the sensitivity of my hearing and have it plug into a database of sounds for enhanced recognition would open up a whole new world. Camping would never be the same again.

Process vs results in creative work

In the 1960s, a creative performance researcher named George Land conducted a study of 1,600 five-year-olds. Ninety-eight percent of the children scored in the “highly creative” range. Dr. Land re-tested each subject at five year increments. When the same children were 10 years old, only 30% scored in the highly creative range. This number dropped to 12% by age 15 and just 2% by age 25. As the children grew into adults they effectively had the creativity trained out of them. In the words of Dr. Land, “non-creative behavior is learned.”
Similar trends have been discovered by other researchers. For example, one study of 272,599 students found that although IQ scores have risen since 1990, creative thinking scores have decreased.
This is not to say that creativity is 100% learned. Genetics do play a role. According to psychology professor Barbara Kerr, “approximately 22% of the variance [in creativity] is due to the influence of genes.” This discovery was made by studying the differences in creative thinking between sets of twins.
All of this to say, claiming that “I’m just not the creative type” is a pretty weak excuse for avoiding creative thinking.

From James Clear.

If you've been following all the recent popular thinking about parenting, the recommendations that follow for improving your creativity won't be a surprise. As embodied in Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (how perfect is it that a book on grit is written by an author named Paul Tough, who sounds like a hard boiled detective), the vogue in self-help is sustained effort over innate talent, repeated practice over any one result.

If the path to creative breakthroughs is a probabilistic one, than an approach of sustained effort is more likely to yield success, and one's understanding that outcomes are not necessarily deterministic should render failure less psychologically crippling. A good combination for people, and entrepreneurs especially, is a small short-term memory, so you can move on from your mistakes, and an ample long-term one, so you can learn from them.

I learned the hard way as an undergrad the danger of waiting for inspiration when it came to my creative writing classes, or even just any form of writing which might be regarded as “creative” work. That's just a recipe for having a deadline scare you across the finish line in a frenzied late night of work, and it's hard to generate great work under such stress or fatigue, even if it's a great motivator.

I've come to see the simple act of writing here on my blog as a form of meditation. At some point it became a habit, one I've felt a true guilt for neglecting these past few months while I try to ramp up at a new job, and while it can seem like a maddening and arbitrary task I hold myself to, if even for just 15 minutes a day, the process bears long-term fruit. Writing forces me to clarify my thinking, and getting my thoughts out of my head and into a written piece frees CPU cycles in my head. The inspiration comes in the perspiration, as writers say, even if there usually isn't much sweat involved.

The secondary effects of writing have increased in this age, too. Readers have easier ways of finding and responding to my work, and that interaction has been not only intellectually rewarding but socially and professionally, too.

The art of the auction

Of all his crafty sales tactics, the one used to greatest effect by Christie’s 52-year-old global president – the auctioneer on top of the wave of wealth in the world’s art market – is the query: “Are you sure?” He asks it as one of the last two bidders in an auction drops out, threatening to finish it. As he halts the action for a few seconds – what he calls “the auctioneer’s pause” – pressure builds on the reluctant bidder.
Perhaps he will deploy it on Monday, as he stands in Christie’s saleroom in New York and attempts to sell a 1917 Modigliani nude for more than $100m at the start of what Christie’s and its biggest rival Sotheby’s hope will be another record-setting week of art auctions. 
It is a deft inquiry for it is impossible to dismiss – of course the bidder is unsure. No one is certain because no one knows what a work of art is worth – perhaps a few dollars more, or a few million.

Short, fun profile of Christie's top auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen.

Auctions are unusual in the 21st century – most things, even luxury items such as watches and clothes, sell at fixed prices although there is some room to haggle. Even many items on eBay, the electronic platform, are sold at fixed prices. In The Dynamics of Auction, Christian Heath, a professor of work at King’s College, London, describes them as “a somewhat anachronistic method of selling goods, more common perhaps to traditional agrarian societies than post-industrial capitalism.”
They are still used for art because every painting is different and has no intrinsic value – it does not yield anything and the cost of manufacture is usually tiny. They are also a good way to get high prices – when buyers compete against a deadline, they behave differently. The desire not only to acquire it but to beat others causes what Deepak Malhotra, a Harvard professor, terms the “emotional arousal” of auctions.

How to spot a food critic

From an interview with Ruth Reichl.

There are very few food critics you can’t find a picture of. Go on the Internet and circulate them to your staff. I went out with a big deal critic this week, and I was kind of stunned that he was not recognized in the restaurant we went to. His picture is everywhere.
There are a few really obvious things. If you’ve got a four-top and you’ve got four different appetizers, four different main courses, and four different desserts, probably you’ve got a food critic there. Usually two people will want the Steak Diane, or something.
If people are passing the plates around, see who they’re going to. Every critic has to taste everything on the table. A sharp-eyed waiter will notice people are actually passing plates around or passing a bread plate with a taste to one person at the table.
I never got up and went to the bathroom, because it was another opportunity for someone who is not my waiter to spot me. But most critics go to the bathroom to take notes. If someone is going at the end of every course, it may be a giveaway that it’s a critic.
Another sign is if you see someone coming in twice at a time when no one wants to eat. When you’re a critic, if you can go at 5:30 you go at 5:30, and if you can go at 10:30 you go at 10:30. If you see the same person come in twice at 5:30 or 10:30, take a look at them. Why are they agreeing to come at odd times? Especially early reservations are a good giveaway.

All of us who aren't restaurant critics can read this as "how to impersonate a food critic."

However, in this day and age of Yelp, the real answer to the question of how to spot a food critic is to open your eyes. Everyone's a critic. It's no longer necessary to pretend to be a food critic to receive attentive service. It can be a bit much, these often entitled trauma narratives disguised as restaurant reviews on Yelp, but it's progress that discriminatory service is less of an issue.

This, from Reichl, seems like just sensible advice in general for dealing with criticism in this age since you can take slings and arrows from any direction if you so much as set up a presence on the internet.

What would you say to a restaurateur who’s thinking about responding to a bad review? 
I would follow the Danny Meyer model. Good review or bad, I never wrote a review that Danny Meyer didn’t send me a personal note, always thoughtful and not defensive. If it was a bad review, it was thank you for pointing this out, and I’ll deal with it. If it was a good review, he always added something to it. I think you have nothing to lose by writing a thoughtful note or response to a critic. You have everything to lose by writing a nasty note. The nastier the note you write, the more it will be picked up by social media and the worse it will be for you. No matter how angry you get about it, imagine a million people reading your response. Whining gets you nowhere.

Paradox of loss aversion

...but it is interesting that, all of a sudden, baseball teams and football teams become, in general, more strategically correct when they have more on the line.
In the World Series, closer usage is a lot better, when you bring your best guy in in the eighth inning or the seventh inning. You see in the NFL teams will go for two more often in the playoffs, go for it on fourth down more often in the playoffs. Which is a hint that when the stakes are low, culture tends to prevail. When the stakes are high and the outcome of the game is all that matters, then things are different.

An answer from Nate Silver in a conversation with Tyler Cowen, emphasis mine. The context is sports, but this is a paradox that occurs in real life so often, especially in the business world.

[BTW, a conversation between those two should be self-recommending, but if it isn't, consider this a recommendation. Sports and politics (what's the difference, really?), New York real estate, food, travel...they cover all their favorite topics.]

So often, companies will try anything that what is the right move, just because it's culturally expedient. Pressure from shareholders, investors, employees, reporters, your current users, and the public at large prevent companies from doing the right thing until they're at death's door.

It may be uncomfortable to do something controversial when things are going well (why rock the boat?), but it's far more pleasant to make changes when you're still growing than when you've hit the shoulder of the S-curve and are starting to flatline.

Mathematically, you should never buy insurance in Blackjack, even if you are dealt a Blackjack yourself, but depending on how you've been running up until then, you might buy insurance, just to break a losing streak. When things are going bad, you might stop hitting on 16 or 12 even when the probability says you should, even though it's sub-optimal strategy.

So many times at Amazon we'd do things that the stock market would punish, but Bezos had enough control of the company and the conviction to ignore the cultural pressure and make the right long-term move. It's not surprising that some of the most successful technology companies today like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are able to shrug off external pressures. The founders have a controlling stake, of course, but also the will to enable their employees to play optimal strategy all the time, even if the risk of failure is higher.

Successful modern technology CEOs remind me some of studio executives in the 60's, many of whom, like Robert Evans, enabled directors to take creative risks. Now that most movie studios are public corporations, largely set up as financing vehicles, that type of movie is harder to get off the ground. The economics have changed, too, but the larger point is that leaders who understand that loss aversion is sub-optimal strategy need to create an environment in which the right types of failures are tolerated, even encouraged.

Loss aversion is most damaging, I suspect, when it's your current users who protest the loudest. If you're not willing to do your own customer segmentation, the market does it for you, and the largest segment is the the silent majority that choose not to use your product/service.

Especially for networks, analyzing the people who've tried and abandoned your service is just as important, if not more so, than rejoicing over those that have. The latter are of course critical to understanding your product-market fit, but the former are just as critical to assess when you're likely to hit the upper shoulder of the S-Curve.

The paradox of loss aversion is that so much of tech is winner-take-all, like tournament poker instead of a cash game, so loss aversion is often the strategy that leads directly to total loss.

The Witch

[MODERATE SPOILER ALERT: No major plot spoilers for The Witch below, but if you're a purist about these things, as I can be, feel free to skip this entry]

Early contender for most feminist movie I'll see all year is Robert Eggers The Witch. It's been mis-marketed a bit as a horror film, and given the huge box office returns of horror sensations like Paranormal Activity, it's not surprising that studios might try to run that playbook. The movie is less a pure horror film than one of oppressive dread, and those are far more disturbing.

A jump-scare-filled horror movie is heart-pounding for the time you're watching it in the theater, then is quickly forgotten. But a movie like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, one of my all-time favorites, laden with a feeling of inescapable doom, has been lodged in the deep recesses of my memory ever since I saw it, like a splinter that burrowed under my defensive psychic membrane. What is despair but the absence of hope? A movie of dread builds a world in which you see all the characters stumbling towards the cliff and it feels both believable and inevitable. The Witch is less a horror film than a tragedy.

The false advertising of The Witch is less worrisome as an aesthetic misrepresentation than it is as a marketing blunder. It may chase away people who don't like horror movies and disappoint those who come in expecting to be grasping popcorn by the sweaty palmful to soothe their nerves. It's no romantic comedy, some of the images are disturbing, but it's more of an arthouse horror film than you'd suspect from the trailer.

As with the most profound horror movies, The Witch locates true horror in ourselves, in Christianity and the deep-seated guilt it plants in every member of this family banished to live on the edge of a forest. A mother who doesn't feel like she is a supportive wife or adequate caretaker for her children. A father who, well-versed in the Bible but not with a hunting rifle, doesn't feel he can provide for his family. A son who feels shame whenever he glances at his sister's bosom with the first longings of puberty. And a daughter, played with remarkable emotional precision by Anya Taylor-Joy, who chafes against the limited options available for women in 1600's Puritan society.

The movie can be read many ways. It's also a story of a family evicted from the human construct of society but ill-equipped to conquer and tame nature, represented here in all its destructive power by the fairy tale trope of the dark forest and the titular witch who dwells there (played, in one scene, by Victoria's Secret super model Sarah Stephens, which we discovered much to our amusement from a look at IMDb).

The ending is controversial, and I have yet to decide where I come down on it. My initial reaction was that it was too much, that the movie should have ended earlier. I might have left it as an alternate ending for the DVD.

Still, one can understand why Eggers might want to take the movie all the way there, just to stir up some sympathy for the devil.

Trump vs. a Japanese whale

The story of Akio Kashiwagi, drawn from Trump’s memoirs and news accounts from the day, offers a revealing window into Trump’s instincts. It shows that Trump isn’t just a one-time casino owner—he’s also a gambler, prone to impulsive, even reckless action. In The Art of the Comeback, published in 1997, Trump explains that until he met Kashiwagi, he saw himself as an investor who dealt only in facts and reason. But his duel with the great whale in action made him realize “that I had become a gambler, something I never thought I was.”
Perhaps just as important, when gambling failed him, Trump didn't quit: He doubled down. But he did it shrewdly, summoning a RAND Corporation mathematician to devise a plan that would maximize his chance of fleecing his Japanese guest.
And it worked. Kind of. In Trump’s recollection, which he shared for this story, his showdown with Kashiwagi was another one of his many great wins. Just don’t look too hard at the ledger.

A bizarre and nutty tale of the time Donald Trump hired a RAND Corp mathematician to try to win back money a Japanese gambler took from one of his hotels in a hot night of Baccarat.

Before reading the piece, I thought perhaps they had changed the rules of the game somehow to raise the house edge. But no, they just changed the terms under which Kahiwagi to play, counting on the house edge to manifest over the long run.

Behind the trademark bluster, however, Trump grew more calculated. Having looked in the mirror and seen a gambler, he reverted to careful strategy. Trump consulted Jess Marcum, a mathematical probabilities expert who co-founded the Rand Corporation—a government-affiliated think tank then better known for modeling nuclear war with the Soviet Union—on how to maximize his odds in a second showdown with Kashiwagi. Marcum knew the only way to compensate for the house’s very slight baccarat advantage, of just over one percent, was to keep the game going for as long as possible. Time was on Trump’s side.
So Marcum and an Atlantic City casino insider named Al Glasgow prepared a report for Trump proposing a “freeze out” agreement. Under the deal, Kashiwagi would bring $12 million to the table and play until he had either doubled it—or lost everything. Even with huge bets, that would take a long time. Marcum simulated the match in detailed hand written notes. Kashiwagi might surge ahead early, he estimated, but after 75 hours at the table – far longer than he had stayed the first time - his chances of winning would fall to 15 percent. The key was to prevent a repeat of Kashiwagi’s first visit, when he had walked out while ahead.
Kashiwagi, presumably fuzzier on the probabilities, agreed to the terms. There was no legal way to hold him to such a deal but Trump felt the men were honor-bound. “Gamblers are honorable, in their own way—at least about gambling,” he later wrote.

The peculiar thing about Trump is that, as offended as I am but so many of the things he says, I'm not convinced he actually believes half the things he spews with such gusto. Yes, he's a politician, and they're always churning out rhetoric for reasons of positioning, but Trump exceeds even other politicians in his commitment to artifice.

Because of that, when he says something I disagree with, I'm more offended by the casual way he tosses around such damaging ideas than the ideas themselves, and when he says something I agree with—which is, admittedly, rare—I don't give him much credit.

He needs no exaggeration to be rendered a caricature, because he has done it himself, both figuratively and literally, like one of those figures in Pinocchio who becomes the physical embodiment of its own hubris. If you were a cartoonist on assignment to lampoon him, you could just snap a photo and collect a full day's pay.