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The Situation Room Photo

I've looked at it several times. It's the Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden assault. Gripping. A good example of the power of a photo to convey emotion.

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David Brooks and Gail Collins analyze:

David Brooks: The other photo I’ve been fascinated by is the one of the president’s security team gathered in the White House Situation Room. The first thing the photo illustrates is that whenever we disagree with an office holder, we should all nonetheless pay them a large dose of respect. Presidents and others make these horrific decisions that could lead to death and suffering for people thousands of miles away, and then they sit passively far removed from the action, hoping that things turn out right.

On a human level I’m struck by the varied emotions etched on people’s faces. I can read nothing on Bob Gates’s face or even Joe Biden’s, whereas Obama, Denis McDonough and John Brennan look tense. Hilary Clinton’s face is the most riveting, a mixture of anxiety, dread and concern. I suspect most people will relate to her expression.

Gail Collins: Did they have to pick the one where Hillary had her hand over her mouth? The secretary of state doesn’t need to prove her toughness, but it would be nice if the definitive photo didn’t show the only woman in the room looking stricken.

David Brooks: The second thing the photo shows is how small the room is. In the movies, executive decisions are made in big, Roman Empire type rooms. But the White House is an early 19th century kind of place. It does all it can to humble the people who work there with its smallness, at least in the work areas.

The posture of the president is fascinating. Instead of occupying the power chair in the center of the table, he is perched on a low chair off the side, hunched over looking tense. If you just looked at this picture, you might think that Joe Biden was president or Bill Daley, who is standing behind looking imposing and grave. You’d think Obama was a midlevel aide. 

Gail Collins: The president really did put all his chips on the line. These are the kind of moments we elected him for — we knew from the financial crisis that when all hell breaks loose, he doesn’t lose his cool.

But he’s also lucky. People partly make their own fortunes, but I wonder if he’d have had the confidence to take such a huge gamble if he didn’t believe innately that he’s the kind of guy fortune favors.

Meanwhile, our report says Biden was fingering his rosary beads. Luck is good, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is better.

David Brooks: In the case of Obama’s perch in the Situation Room, I think what happened is this: some sort of communication or technical relay had to be done, so the president got out of his chair and relinquished it to Brig. Gen. Brad Webb, who is the assistant commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command. The president just slid over to the low chair off to the side, which one of the standers must have relinquished.

Still, I wonder how many White Houses would have been confident enough to release a photo with the president looking so diminutive. I think it speaks well of Obama and the administration that they released this as the iconic image of the decision-making process behind the event.

Will Smith Quote of the Day

I've never viewed myself as particularly talented. I've viewed myself as...slightly above average in talent. Where I excel is with a ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy's sleeping, I'm working. While the other guy's eating, I'm working. While the other guy's making love, I mean, I'm making love, too, but I'm working really hard at it!

That's from Will Smith in an old 60 Minutes interview.

I once heard Jay Leno say something similar. Leno apparently hasn't taken a vacation in more than 20 years and he says whenever he sees Letterman ("the other guy," to use Smith's phrasing) on vacation, he keeps on working.

Smith and Leno see their work ethic as relative to their competitors.

A Pithy Sum-Up of the Structural Ailment of U.S. Government

The bigger problem with Obama's approach is his failure to address—at least so far—the reform of Medicare and Social Security. Without big reductions in spending on these programs, the kinds of investments in the future prosperity that Obama envisions won't be possible. We'll continue to evolve toward a government whose primary function is transferring income from working people to retirees. You don't have to frame this dynamic in racial terms, as Ross Douthat does, to see it as a recipe for social misery. The simple generational unfairness, as well as the drain on economic vitality, is going to become increasingly apparent. If Obama wants to offer a convincing vision of the federal government's role, he will need to recognize the growing imbalance between generosity for the old and investment in future generations. Preserving our biggest entitlement programs in their current form because they have a powerful constituency is hardly a progressive stance. It's the definition of reactionary liberalism.

That's Jacob Weisberg, at Slate.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Look Beyond the Mirror

Tear down the mirror and find people who you can help. That's the key to happiness, he says. Not fame or fortune.

May sound cliche, but Arnold (who's lived an amazing life by any measure) shares a poignant story of helping special olympics kids in the following four minute clip that makes the point well. It's from a commencement speech at Emory University.

The Difference Between Politeness and Tact

In the film Baisers volés, Delphine Seyrig explains to her young lover the difference between politeness and tact: "A visiting gentleman accidentally opens a bathroom door and discovers a woman completely nude. He quickly takes a step back, closes the door, and says, 'Pardon, Madame!' That is politeness. The same gentleman, pushing the same door, discovering the same completely naked woman, then says, 'Pardon, Monsieur!' That is tact." It is only in the second case, by pretending not to have seen enough even to make out the sex of the person in the shower, that one displays true tact.

-- from Slavoj Zizek's essay in the January 20 issue of the London Review of Books, via April issue of Harper's, pg 13.

Hiatus

Fishin

Blogging will be very light for the next couple months (until June or July, 2011). I will, though, be bookmarking web pages in delicious and occassionally tweeting.

I encourage you to subscribe to this blog by RSS or email, or bookmark the site in your browswer.

Posting will resume with gusto in the (northern hemisphere) summer!

Editor of Modern Love Column: "Hard Stuff" More Interesting than Romance

Daniel Jones, the editor behind the insanely popular Modern Love column, talks about trends in submissions:

What is the one relationship theme or essay topic that you see over and over?

I see a lot about Facebook.

Really?

That’s got to be the single most written-about topic. It’s just invaded modern life so much that people can’t get away from it. The more surprising thing I see a lot of for a column called “Modern Love” is people being diagnosed with and dying of cancer. It’s gotten to the point where it becomes a red flag, something to avoid. When I’m reading, where I get to that line of “and then he was diagnosed,” or “and she was stage 4,” whatever… It sounds horrible to say it, but, really, there’s just way too much of it.

Have you seen a shift in the trends of the topics you see, from when you first started the column?

In the past year, I got a bunch of stories about people dealing with siblings – or friends, or lovers – who were dealing with going through gender changes and surgeries – like, people whose daughters became sons. That’s not something I saw any of for years. I think the public acceptance of that has shifted, at least in what I see in what people are willing to talk about publicly.

And this on romance vs. the hard stuff:

Do you consider yourself a romantic person?

Umm… I don’t think I’m all that romantic. I think I have romantic dreams about what my life should be, but I’m not getting all excited about Valentine’s Day or anything.

Then, do you think it’s at all ironic that you’re the editor of a column about love?

I think it’s just more about how complicated human relationships are. I pretty much equate romance with naiveté, you know, before “the hard stuff.” And I’m more interested in the hard stuff.

Las Vegas: Authentically Unauthentic

Lasvegas

I recently spent a long weekend in Las Vegas. The buffets were outstanding, the weather warm and pleasant, and the hotels stunning. (I hadn't been there in probably 10 years -- a lot has changed.) But the main reason Las Vegas was a surprisingly relaxing city to spend time in is because it is a city that's authentically unauthentic.

When you visit New York City, you worry about whether you are being a tourist, about whether you are doing as the locals do. Same with visiting Paris, Rome, London. But in Las Vegas, everybody is a tourist. Anybody who's not a tourist works in the tourism/hospitality industry. There is no real thing. It's fake all the way to the bottom. The very idea of a sprawling, water guzzling city that sits in the middle of barren desert is too absurd to take seriously.

There was no sin for me in Sin City, but I still found it a nice place to spend a few days in the winter to overeat, have my photo taken in front of the Effiel Tower, walk the strip, and lie by the pool.

Being Wrong vs. Realizing You're Wrong

Most profound (to me) question at TED: "What does it feel like to be wrong?"

audience answered: bad, embarrassing, awful, etc

"You're answering a different question: what does it feel like to *realize* you're wrong?"

Actually *being* wrong doesn't feel like anything at all. It feels just like being right.

That's from John Lilly's Twitter feed, reflecting on the TED conference.

Imagine No Self-Censorship

Scott Adams has a "winning" post on Charlie Sheen:

Imagine if you stopped filtering everything you said and did. You'd have to be in Charlie Sheen's unique position to get away with it, but just try to imagine yourself living without self-censorship. Wouldn't you sound crazy?

Imagine you are so unafraid of consequences and the opinions of other people that you start sentences before you have a plan for how they will end. Sometimes a sentence turns out well, and sometimes you compare yourself to tigers and mythological gods.

I think Charlie is fascinating because he's living without fear. That translates into a disturbing degree of honesty. And at the moment it gives him an amazing amount of power over the media, which he is using to his advantage.

I can't judge his mental health. And clearly he has a drug issue that will last a lifetime. But I also think that a total lack of fear would look like insanity to the casual observer. And perhaps it is. But it's a strangely great kind of crazy.

Friends: People Who Have the Same Flaws as Us

Anne Lamott:

A person's faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators [of novels] to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I. Preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency toward procrasination, self-delusion, darkness, jealousy, groveling, greediness, addictiveness. They shouldn't be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting. I like for them to have a nice sick sense of humor and to be concerned with important things, by which I mean that they are interested in political and psychological and spiritual matters. I want them to know who we are and what life is all about. I like them to be mentally ill in the same sorts of way that I am; for instance, I have a friend who said one day, "I could resent the ocean if I tried," and realized that I love that in a guy. I like for for them to have hope -- if a friend or narrator reveals himself or herself to be hopeless too early on, I lose interest. It depresses me. It makes me overeat. I don't mind if a person has no hope if she or she is sufficiently funny about the whole thing, but then, this being able to be funny definitely speaks to a kind of hope, of buoyancy.

That's from her 1995 classic, Bird by Bird.

27 de Febrero

2010-Chile-Earthquake-81

The 5th largest earthquake in history (8.8) struck Chile one year ago, today. La Tercera is doing a bunch of one-year anniversery coverage, including a blow-by-blow that begins at 3:34 AM with a 30 second video of security camera footage. Captures the feeling well. Here's an article in English about the recovery effort a year later in the hardest hit areas.

I just spent an hour reading some articles, looking at old photos, and reflecting on the earthquake and my time in Chile more generally. For a second I couldn't remember the names of either of the main newspapers in Santiago. It's not the first instance I've found myself forgetting details, memories, or Spanish words that I used to know so easily. It's sad to notice memories slipping away. But no matter how much time passes, I know I will never forget el veintisiete de febrero, 2010.

Good Marketing is Good. Bad Marketing is Bad.

Fred Wilson blogged about marketing:

I believe that marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks or when you make so much profit on every marginal customer that it would be crazy to not spend a bit of that profit acquiring more of them (coke, zynga, bud, viagra).

Brad Feld piled on with a post titled: Why a Start-Up Shouldn't Have a Marketing Budget. Brad says when he hears the word "marketing" he vomits in his mouth a little.

But, Brad's not anti marketing. He's anti bad marketing. He actually says every one of his start-ups spends money on marketing. It's just that the marketing efforts are "wired into the DNA" of the product and company.

And Fred, after dismissing the importance of "marketing," endorses a bunch of activities from his portfolio company that could easily be called marketing.

The word "marketing" encompasses a bunch of good activities and a bunch of bad activities; a bunch of useful philosophies and un-useful philosophies. The question is which specific marketing activities and philosophies are productive and useful and which are a waste of time and money.

And that depends on the specific company, product, industry. We can all agree throwing $10k to a social media consultant to "promote" a product on The Twitter is a waste. But usually it's more complicated. For example, Fred noted he was referring only to consumer internet companies and not enterprise SaaS companies. That's a crucial distinction. Another example: manning a booth at an expensive trade show like CES may be a good marketing expense for Orbotix, but not a good marketing expense for other companies.

Marketing is neither good nor bad, neither a waste nor a necessity. It's both; it depends. This sounds obvious, and maybe it is, but it seems worth keeping in mind when reading broad-brush posts like the one Fred wrote this morning.

Understanding Your Customers, Brazil and Senior Citizen Edition

Proctor & Gamble wasn't selling enough diapers in Brazil. So they took a closer look at the cultural dynamics of the market:

In America, when parents buy nappies they often demand fussy add-ons (think nappy flaps, subtle scents, biodegradable material and so on). But in Brazil, babies often sleep with their parents, and many families are poor. Thus what consumers really care about is keeping the baby (and parents) dry all night. So Procter & Gamble eventually launched a cheap, ultra water-tight nappy in Brazil, without fussy details – and sales soared. Many parents are happier now, they are getting more sleep,” one industry leader observed with a chuckle, at a recent debate at the World Economic Forum

Other cultural mistakes of western companies entering international markets:

...western multinational companies have repeatedly tried and failed to sell breakfast cereal in India; apparently this is because local families want hot breakfasts, and most western cereal cannot survive contact with hot milk. Similarly, I also heard a story about how a US car company tried to sell a cut-price version of its bestselling car to India – and removed the rear-seat electric window controls to save costs. That also flopped since the Americans had failed to notice that while the rear seat is low-status in the west (since that is where kids sit) it is high status in India (since wealthy families have chauffeurs).

Makes sense.

Understanding your customers also matters when selling to a demographic in your own country that may have unique needs. GE's industrial design team emphasizes "empathy" when its engineers try to design products for the booming Baby Boomers segment:

We hold empathy sessions to help our designers understand what the aging population goes through every day -- we tape their knuckles to represent arthritic hands, put kernels of popcorn in their shoes to create imbalances, and weigh down pans to simulate putting food into ovens. We have a moving-parts kitchen that helps us build products like our wall oven, which is at a height where people don't have to stoop down or stretch awkwardly over the stove to take that turkey out of the oven.

Literally putting yourself in the shoes (and clothes and environment) of your customer. I love it.

Sometimes It's Faster to Do It Yourself

When it comes to delegating or outsourcing small tasks, the question always is, "Would it be faster if I just did it myself?"

I was struck by this thought when I saw the following picture of Barack Obama editing his remarks on a laptop before addressing an audience at Northern Michigan University in February. Yes, even for the POTUS, despite his legions of speechwriters and aides, sometimes it's faster to sit down and just do it yourself.

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The White House flickr stream is kind of fun to flip through. Here's a photo of Obama and crew watching Mubarak's speech on television. Yep, they're watching the same thing we're watching!

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