My Heroes

My heroes…not really

It’s always fun to begin with an apology, so I’m sorry to all the very important people in my life, whether I’ve met you or not, that I forget. I’m putting together a list of heroes as I write, and undoubtedly I’ll leave someone very very important to me off and I’ll feel bad about it. I’ll feel even worse if they’re someone who knows me and could feel left out. Well, on to the brain dump.

First, since the little picture I made features cartoon super heroes, who are my heroes that have only existed as ideas, books, and movies? My favorite writers are Frank Herbert, Ayn Rand, and J. R. R. Tolkien. There are lots of others, but I’ve spent more time in those three authors’ books than in any other, except for maybe the Bible. Perhaps Vorian Atreades or Miles Teg from the Dune Universe, but no one really speaks to me from there. Ayn Rand’s Characters are supposed to be heroic, but none of them speak to me individually. I’m not a fan of Hank Reardon, or anyone in Atlas really, maybe Howard Roark (not a fan of the rape/quasi-rape or whatever), but not really him either. I like many of Tolkien’s characters as well, but none I’d call heroes. If I had to come up with a fictional hero, I suppose Valentine Michael Smith (from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land) is as good a choice as many. I’ve thought several times about changing my name to Valentine in his honor, so I guess he got to me, or I just want a really cool name….

So, that was a bust. Let’s look at family. My mom and I have had our differences, but I truly admire her. She always worked, and worked a lot. She has amazing artistic talent. She is beautiful and kind. Other than her I don’t have a lot going in my family. In my foster families (I’ve had several) there were lots of people I took little bits from to try and make myself better. Truly though, my last foster father, Bill, is one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. Calm and ordered, brilliant, funny, and not once in my life have I seen him out of control. He handles the world with kindness, attention, and thoughtfulness. I hope someday to be like him.

How about famous people? I’m a fan of the accomplishment of tech giants like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, people with giant media empires like Oprah Winfrey and Rush Limbaugh, and brilliant entertainers like Dustin Hoffman, Audrey Hepburn, Helen Mirren, and Keanu Reeves. (You can question the last one if you like, but how many people saw John Wick, and why?) When I wanted to be an actor (some days I still do) I never cared to have a career, or really thought about the money. I love to affect people. Stunned silence was just as flattering to me as applause. I can’t think of a single actor who has been a hero to me. But I can, off the top of my head name several comedians. First for me was George Carlin. He loved comedy, but he loved freedom of speech even more. His work was brilliant. The good he did for the art is immeasurable. Of course, he stands on the back of Lenny Bruce, who was a hero of his, and also of mine. He did some really heavy lifting on freedom of speech, and while fighting all of that redefined what comedy was and what comedians did. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy move me as well as entertain me. I’d be proud to have 10% the talent they have. And I can’t mention comics without talking about Greg Giraldo. Most people who are not comedian junkies haven’t heard of him. But he was a one man roast machine. I would love to have that kind of presence.

No musicians are my heroes. I have wide tastes and deep interests, but no musician has risen to hero status with me. I loved Prince, I loved Bowie, I love a lot of bands and admire their work greatly, but none are heroes to me, at least not in the mood I’m in today. On another day maybe David Byrne, or Dave Stewart or Frank Zappa or Sun Ra, but not this day.

Scientists. Richard Feynman. Issac Asimov. Maybe others. I know Asimov was a writer as well. I’ve read many of his fiction and nonfiction works, but he transcended being an author, at least for me. I saw him as a learned man first, and an author second. And Richard Feynman could teach theoretical physics to a rock. He had a once in a generation gift, or that’s how it seemed to me.

Social Scientists. As a social scientist myself, I should be influenced by a lot of professors. There’s a long list. Mike Goldsby and Jim Fiet, without which I’m not sure I’d exist as a professor. Peter Klein, Per Davidsson, Howard Aldrich, Donald Siegal, Jay Barney. Many others. I’m grateful for all of them. But the only one I’ve met that I say to myself ‘I’d like to be like that one when I grow up’ is Don Mosley. And it’s really not about academics. It just seems like he really has his priorities in order. He’s a lot like my foster father Bill.

Regular folk. First has to be Anne Reed. I’ve watched her pursue a dream for years, and finally get it. It’s amazing to see that. Michael Crum. He decided to be a professor, and went full tilt. I think he ended up getting his PhD at 24 or something. He was focused, but still had a life. I have yet to master doing both those things together. Another that had that mastered was Gary Butterman. He passed away just before getting his PhD, but he really seemed to have his life together and was a joy everywhere he went. I think about him a lot, and would like people to think about me the way I think about him. (This list could go on a long time too.)

So, what have I leaned from this brain dump? Well, I value kindness most of all. After that I think competence, tenacity, and intelligence, in more or less that order. So to make myself happy I probably should focus in being as nice a person as I can. Then, decide on some things to go after, things that are difficult, and will stretch my mental abilities, and start going after them. Easy advice to give myself. Wonder if I’ll take it.

I’m Sorry

Zoe Saldana (left) has previously defended the decision to play Nina Simone.

The woman on the left is Zoe Saldana. She is an actress. The woman on the right is Nina Simone, a singer. The woman on the left apologized for playing the woman on the right in a movie in 2016. She wasn’t ‘black enough’ and should have realized that. Plus, she had to wear a prosthetic nose. She deeply regrets it.

Wasn’t. Black. Enough. I think what she means is then she wasn’t woke enough, but she is now. When will this end?

People are having to very carefully frame Shia LaBeouf’s role in ‘The Tax Collector’ so that we all understand that he’s not playing a Hispanic character, he’s playing a Hispanic adjacent character.

How about we just enjoy the damn movie? How about we admit why he’s in the movie in the first place. He’ll put buts in the seats (assuming audiences are ever allowed to go to the movies again). From a studio standpoint they would love to sub in Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, or Sandra Bullock. They make money, so they work. And they’re all bigger bankable stars than poor Shia.

Anyway, actors are tripping all over themselves to apologize for ‘taking work’ from protected groups. If you’re not black, you can’t play a black person. Does not apply to blacks playing whites in Hamilton, but that (fantastic) play is having its own special moment separate from this tragedy. Heterosexuals should no longer play homosexual people. I’m waiting for the backlash on Emmas Stone, for playing Billie Jean King. Only people actually switching genders should play roles of that nature. I’m not sure about Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club. (He played a transsexual. So, in this case the transsexual was a man who dressed as a woman and he is a man and he did dress as a woman, so, is that ok or not?) Even voice actors can’t ‘act’ outside their race without garnering intense criticism. I wonder where they’re going to find a snowman….

Here are a few updates from ‘tinsel town’. Brian Cranston has legs. Al Pacino can see. Ben Stiller is not ridiculously, ridiculously, good looking. George Peppard was not, in fact, a sea monster, or various sea monsters. Daryl Hannah is not a mermaid. And believe it or not Christopher Reeves was not from the planet Krypton.

In order to get out on top of all of this I have a confession to make. Several confessions, as a matter of fact.

  • I played a ghost in a play in high school. I am not in fact a ghost.
  • I played an old minister in another play. I am not in fact, a minister, and am not now as old as the character I played 35 years ago.
  • I have played characters of various races, with different sexual orientations than my own.
  • I have played people younger, and older than myself.
  • I have played people who were in vocations I knew nothing about and involved in activities which I find reprehensible.
  • I have played people with various handicaps, including stutters, physical deformities, and mental impairments.
  • I have not appeared in what is considered ‘traditional blackface’ but only because I was never cast in a role that required it.
  • I have worn makeup to alter my physical appearance, including skin color, facial features, body features, height, and weight.
  • I have even appeared in white face, as a mime, as a minstrel, and as a vampire, at least. I am not now, nor have I ever been any of those things.
  • I have worn Halloween costumes of all kinds. I was never actually any of those things. I didn’t have access to the irony of going as myself to a Halloween party. But now that I mention it…

And here’s the big confession: I’m not sorry. I love acting. If, in the future, I’m given the opportunity to act I won’t think twice about dressing up as a woman, a man pretending to be a woman, a person of a different race, a non-person of any kind (say a dog, or an alien, or a floating blob of gas or something), a homosexual, or even a combination of several of the above. Yes, I’ll play a black, homosexual vampire, and I’ll do my best to knock it out of the park. What I won’t do is wring my hands about all the poor black homosexual vampires who’s work I’m stealing. If they want it, they can spend more time working on their monologue and less time being offended.

RIP Redskins

Been nice knowin’ ya

The Washington Redskins have announced that they are changing their name. Honestly I really don’t care. I’m not a sports guy. I’m glad that people find enjoyment in it, but it’s pretty boring to me. I liked to play sports, and might like to do so again, but to sit and watch others play isn’t my idea of fun.

I am not attached to the name Redskins. Thousands of fans are, but their opinions don’t matter. The owner vowed to never change the name, but he has seen the error of his ways when Amazon and Nike and other retailers decided to no longer sell team merch.

Who the name offends, and why it’s offensive is interesting. Most native Americans are not offended, at least according to several polls I’ve seen. White liberals, on the other hand decided that it was derogatory and get super offended about it when there’s not something else more interesting to be upset about. Hooray for white liberals deciding to be offended on behalf of another minority. There seems to be a pattern here, but hey I’m sure the world needs more white saviors.

The rage industry will march ever on. Its tools are the euphemism treadmill and the slippery slope, among others. Keeping this in mind, the team formerly known as the Redskins must be very careful when choosing a new name. I’d like to suggest Savages, but that term has a clearer pejorative history when applied to native Americans. It would be funny though, to watch the NFL jump from the frying pan to the fire. (Probably shouldn’t say that, the phrase ‘frying pan to the fire’ is probably triggering to someone.)

Seriously though, what to name the team? In a time when Americans are tearing down and defacing memorials to the men who wrote the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and freed the slaves, any choice will be suspect. What should the team colors be? They’ve indicated that they’ll keep the same colors, but those colors are so closely associated with the name they’d be better advised to let them go so that they don’t have another battle down the road. Obviously they can’t use gray, because it’s associated with slavery, or white, because everything white is suspect. (Companies that make products to lighten skin are tiptoeing around this problem now looking for ways to accurately communicate what their product does without using the words lightening or whitening.) Orange is now associated with the most hated man in the world, so it’s out. But most colors are still safe, again for now.

Animal names are common, but they are already being attacked by fringe groups, who will in time become non fringe groups. So best to stay away from animals altogether. It seems that every number has been construed to be associated with some hate group or other, along with many shapes.

I really see no other alternative than to name the team ‘ ‘. That’s right, four spaces. No mascot, no colors. The inescapable roll of the euphemism treadmill will at some point crush every word, shape, and color. Someone, somewhere, will find a way to be offended, and because one is offended, all will have to change. It will be difficult to be offended by four blank spaces, but eventually that will happen too, if for no other reason than the blank spaces are sometimes called white space, or four of them strung together will develop some deeply disturbing ‘dog whistle’ of meaning that no one actually hears, but people can get upset about nonetheless.

Moving Towards Happiness

My last couple posts could have been interpreted as being political. That is not my intent, but in today’s world (It’s 5/22/2020) the choice between yellow and brown mustard will be construed by someone as a redpill decision. This particular blog is supposed to deal less with all that and more with my life as an academic. My intent is to share things that I think other academics, other entrepreneurs, and other people who are in my orbit might be interested in and might learn from. Like most blogs, this one is self-serving, at least to some degree. I write about what interests me, and pretend as I’m writing that others will be interested in my words. Sometimes they are, often not, but the act of putting words on (virtual) paper is both therapeutic and helps me clarify my thoughts. (This is called writing to think.) So apology, if it was an apology, over. On to what I want to work through and share today.

I have been very fortunate for the past few years. Almost everything has gone right for me, despite my eager attempts to mess it up. I have a lovely wife, a nice home, a great (and I mean really great) job in a wonderful community that’s a short drive to the ocean. I was (and still am I guess) having a little trouble getting the requisite number and type of academic articles published that will help me secure this job long term. Just as I was getting really desperate my dean sent me to a conference that I hated at the time but has changed my publishing portfolio considerably. Everyone around me is losing their job, but mine seems secure for at least the next year, so I don’t even have to worry about that. Life is good.

I did not engineer my good fortune. I’m helping it along the best I can, but I do not feel like the architect. My decisions led me here, but those decisions have magnified my fortune in ways I’m very grateful for. I want to talk about those decision briefly, and maybe think of some other decisions I should make at the end.

  1. One decision that has driven me forward has been to engage with the Academy of Process Educators. This is the group from the conference I mentioned that I hated above. The experience was like drinking from a fire hose and I got fed up. It is the only time post-graduation that I’ve ever felt like I wasn’t in control. But it was an excellent opportunity to stretch, and the people involved are all focused on self improvement in the classroom and in life.
  2. I decided for a time to step away from politics. I was happier, but I drifted back. I’m stuck now between ‘this is too important to not pay attention’ and ‘I’m so much happier when I don’t engage. If the world goes to hell in a hand basket and I don’t do anything to stop it, if I’m unaware it’s even happening, doesn’t that make me the bad guy? But really, what can I do to stop it? Voting red or blue once every couple years is no way to affect change, so I think I’m back on a no politics track.
  3. I decided when I started this teaching thing that it was the right thing to do because it was where I’d have the most leverage. I get a fresh batch of people who have not yet lost hope every semester. Considering them as the most precious resource was a good decision.
  4. I decided to de-emphasize the role of venture capital in my classes, and focus on what people could do for themselves, with the resources they already had. This may mean that none of my students start the next Facebook or Uber, but I can live with that.
  5. I have recently decided to join another community. This one is called ‘The Third Way’. It is focused on side hustles. The people I’ve met in the community so far are interested in bettering their lives in meaningful ways, which quite often requires generating an income that is not dependent on an employer. They seem to be very positive people overall.

There are probably lots of other things I’ve done that have added up to my good fortune. But what started this line of thought is that I’m happier now than I have been in the past because I’m surrounded by happier people than I have been in the past. Some of them are more successful by a lot, others, not so much, but the people I see and talk to are enjoying their lives, and maybe because of that, maybe not, I’m enjoying mine.

Since I’m being introspective in public, let’s see what new decisions I maybe should make. I’m totally spitballing here, I haven’t thought this through at all, but here I go, writing to think again.

  1. I mentioned above banning politics and replacing it with something better. Something better could be anything, or even nothing (hello Headspace). So I think that’s been on my subconscious a while. Let’s do that.
  2. I really need to address this weight problem. It’s thorny. It has the potential to disrupt my life in ways I’m kind of scared to contemplate. I don’t mean that being obese is a burden. It probably is, but the things I’d need to do to address that will probably create problems in my home and social life.
  3. I was on a good run at the gym, but they closed the gym. It’s open now and I haven’t started. I think know I should do that right away.
  4. I have been sleeping a lot. One of the things I’ve prided myself on is designing a life where I didn’t need an alarm clock. I only wake up to an alarm clock a few times a year at present. But my sleeping time has migrated up from the 7-10 that I used to get. I averaged 9 hours over the last couple years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time I look at the data I’m averaging 12 hours a day. That’s too much, even in a quarantine.

I think those make a good starting list. I can’t promise I’ll report back, because I’ve been insanely inconsistent on this blog, but I’ll try to check in soon. I have a list of things I want to write about that probably has about a hundred items on it currently, so there isn’t any reason I can’t bang a few of these out. I may have to delete the entire blog if I go looking for a job someday, but worrying about that is like any worry, interest on a loan I may not owe. Good day.

Thoughts on this Pandemic Inspired by Life

It feels silly to even describe the present situation because it is so pervasive, so, for lack of a better descriptor, heavy. But the internet is forever, and I don’t know when (or if) this will be read, so here’s a brief ‘beginning of the season after a cliffhanger’ update. Donald Trump, the reality TV star, is President. 40% of the country hates him for reasons, legitimate and made up. As a relative outsider it seems to come down more to not what he does or doesn’t do, but how he does it. They will deny this of course. 40% of the country believes that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and he probably has an edge over sliced bread. They would, as he once famously said, still support him if he killed someone in the middle of Broadway. Their love seems to stem from the exact place that the hatred stems on the other side. They too will deny this. But he has enacted policies that liberals have wanted for years, like prison reform, and he is mocked, ridiculed, and even impeached by the left. He has enacted policies that the right would crucify anyone else for (red flag laws and other firearm limitations) and the right has cheered. It’s a strange and dangerous world when a leader leads by force of personality. The other 20%? I don’t know. Some are apolitical. Some are amused by all this. And some, like me, are living with an existential dread for what comes next. I fear the sensation seeking nature of humanity will lead this country astray, in very bad directions.

But that’s just prologue to the real craziness going on right now. We have a virus, a pretty bad one I guess, traveling around the world infecting everyone. It has been estimated that over 2 million people will die in the United States. That estimate has been steadily revised downward, and as of this writing the number is 60,000. The media and the model makers are claiming that our efforts at mitigation are what’s driving the numbers downward, but that’s a lie that’s easy to see through. After the very first estimate, all the models included all the same quarantining and social distancing. The reason the numbers are falling is that the more we find out about this virus, the more we realize it is less dangerous than we first thought. That is not to say that it is not dangerous, 60,000 of my fellow human beings, my fellow Americans, is a big deal.

In order to protect people from this virus, which has according to the press has a mortality rate of 15% if you are admitted to a hospital, 3.4% or so if you contract it we have shut down, more or less, the world’s economy. However, a large scale study in Germany found the fatality rate among people contracting the disease to be 0.4%. Further, a study in Iceland found it to be 0.47%. Le’s be pessimistic and call it 0.5%. If everyone in America gets it we could lose 1.6 million people. That’s really bad, but lower than initial estimates and includes nothing. Not washing hands. Not wiping down shopping carts. Not covering your mouth when you sneeze. And certainly not shutting down the entire bleeding economy. So to me, the only number that is important Is the difference that all of this makes between 1.6 million and 0.

But let’s assume, for a moment that every single one of those 1.6 million passes away. Most will be elderly, and/or in poor health. And it sucks. I will be in that position before too much longer and I wouldn’t want to die because people weren’t willing to sacrifice. I would understand, but I wouldn’t like it. Anyway, we have 1.6 million people saved, within a rounding error, and a shut down economy. (Never mind that many of the 1.6 million wouldn’t have been exposed anyway and so on, we’re doing worst case.) We literally crashed the economy. We put 6.6 million people out of work. There are many different estimates of GDP damage. We’ve had a 6% loss, and we are due for another 12% to 24% loss according to the people who track this stuff. GDP was $20.5 trillion in 2018. Let’s just say that this gets over quickly and we lose 18% total due to this thing. This amounts to $12,812,500 per saved person. We passed a $2 trillion dollar stimulus bill. That’s $1.25 million per person saved. Finally, the Federal Reserve will be doing something Federal-ly (I use this on purpose, as someone might say squirrelly) to create another $4 Trillion dollars. I’m sure we’ll end up paying for that somehow, but I’m not sure how that works so I’m not going to put it on the tab of those poor 1.6 million people who didn’t die.

To sum up, literally. Each life has cost us, as a nation, ($12,812,500+$1250,000=$14,062,500) and let’s say 4 jobs. That’s worst case life lost matched with more or less best case economy. I know that we say we don’t put a price on human life, but insurance companies and juries do it every day. Besides that, even if you’re a greatest good for the greatest number type of person, Taking four families’ livelihoods away per life saved and adding $6,051 to the debt load that every man, woman, and child in America today must cover seems like a steep price.

I’ve had these notions in my head for a while, kind of stirring around. There has been a vague discomfort in my mind about the response’s proportionality to the event. I’ve ‘felt’ that it was out of balance, but haven’t delved into the numbers until now. I was nudged to do this because last night was my son’s last day at work. He’s been laid off. The business he worked at has been closed for the foreseeable future.  The lights are going off in the community one by one. Things are remaining civil for now. It seems that the toilet paper thing has finally sorted itself out, but businesses are closing. It is both like, and unlike the businesses closing in Atlas Shrugged. I can see that if we don’t alter course we will descend into anarchy. Government is certainly causing this catastrophe, to a certain extent. And they are encouraging it, hopefully unintentionally. People at my son’s workplace will be making up to triple what they made working there on unemployment. What is their incentive to return, as long as there’s money for nothing? Only the business owner will suffer. So what is being incentivized? I have yet to discuss with him the ‘business owner bailout’ but other business owners I’ve talked to either don’t qualify or tell me that the process for qualification is very onerous. That might lead a conspiratorially minded individual to believe that the idea is to support workers while driving the business owners out of business. But all of this together is just making me wonder how long until September 2nd.

Socialism Doesn’t Work, and I’m Willing to Bet the Market on it!

There is a huge divide in the United States right now. We’re fighting over practically everything. One key issue in this ongoing conflict is how to best distribute limited goods and services. Arguments on both sides are passionate and persuasive. Probably the most contentious issue is healthcare. Liberals believe that the free market is not good at making sure healthcare is distributed fairly. Many conservatives would take issue with the idea of fairness entering into the equation at the distribution level at all. If you’re reading this you’ve probably invested some mental effort in understanding your own beliefs about this issue and the web of issues surrounding it. Although it would be fun to delve into all of those things, give impassioned and reasonable arguments concluding that my way is the right way or whatever, that is not what today’s exercise is about. I want to think differently about government distribution vs. market distribution.

Turning over one fifth of the nation’s economy to the government on a whim, or even as an experiment, seems a little nuts, but what if we could pre-test the hypothesis that government can do it better? For the moment we’re going to leave aside failed socialist states, and assume as liberal orthodoxy tells us, that they just did it wrong.

So let’s not use twenty percent, or two percent, or even two tenths of a percent of the economy. Let’s test the government’s ability to provide a single product at or above market efficiency. If they can do that, then perhaps they can take on something a little bigger, and we can eventually move to a completely state controlled market substitute. The key is picking something that is perceived as necessary, something that is very important to Americans, but, something that if it were to be completely mismanaged and we couldn’t get it at all, or we could only get it in Minnesota, or whatever travesty happened, we, as a country would still be all right.

I’m sitting in Starbucks right now, waiting for a new screen to be put on my iPhone, so I nominate coffee. Let’s let the government completely take over all the coffee business in the United States. Let the government decide how much we get to drink, where we can purchase and at what cost, what beans get imported and how they get roasted, etc. Now, if you own a coffee shop, even if you agree with my premise, which is the government will cock this up and maybe, just maybe America will get the point, you are saying ‘hell no!’ because the government would be coming in and messing with your livelihood. Imagine how the doctors feel.

But you’re right. We need buy in before we pick a product/service for the government to test their abilities on. (But haven’t they already with some healthcare, the military, the roads, education, space, and so on…yes, but repetition is the mother of learning.) So, we need to nominate 19 more products or services. That way Ms. Coffee shop owner only has a five percent chance of her industry being disrupted and is more likely to sign on to my grand experiment. Local governments are neck deep in regulating barbers and hair braiders and so on, so maybe haircare. Maybe breakfast cereal. I don’t know. We just pick them and get everyone to agree.

Once we have the product list it should be simple to get agreement. If you, as a liberal, believe that the government is going to be better at managing the health care industry than the market you should be all in. First, coffee, then cereal, then THE WORLD! If you’re conservative, and you’re sure that the government is going to botch this, you don’t want to sign because you like your coffee and Grape Nuts in the morning, but you realize that the lesson is worth the sacrifice. Plus, if you know it’s coming you can trade some of that gold you have stashed in your safe for a year’s supply of vacuum-packed coffee, and just ride it out. So the conservatives should agree.

There are only two hold outs that I can think of.  People who think governments do some things well, and some things poorly, and philosophical libertarians such as myself who think that even if they did it better, it doesn’t matter because it’s wrong. Since this is my rodeo I’ll sign on. I can’t speak for my fellow crazies, or for the people that look at the highway system, or NASA, or the military and see something that the market couldn’t create. I don’t understand them anyway, so speaking for them is beyond me.

It seems to me that at least eighty five percent of Americans should be behind this experiment and honestly interested in the results. There are problems. If the state knows this is a test they can throw massive resources at it, like cramming for a test, and they could ‘fool’ America in to thinking they were competent when they were not. But I’m not sure they would. Admitting, even to themselves, that they had to cheat to run coffee shops might put philosophical brakes on even the most progressive thinkers. The thought process might be something like, I know I had to cheat to win at tic-tac-toe, but I’m sure I can be a grand master at chess.  I hope that no one in power would think that way, although lately I’m not so sure.

The other problem, and one I’m willing to admit is at least possible, is maybe they’re good at it. Maybe coffee gets better under government regulation/control. Obviously I think this is unlikely, but if it were to turn out to be true I’d be willing to reexamine my thoughts. But I’m certain a third of the country wouldn’t, just as I’m sure that if it were a colossal failure a third of the country would say ‘they just didn’t do it right.’

Back Channel Communication

can you hear me now?
Early Back Channel Communication

The idea of certain people engaging in backchannel communications (BC) has been making the news lately. The practice has been made to sound very ‘spy vs. spy’ and something that is somehow distasteful. However, if you’ve ever asked your neighbor in a classroom what the professor just said, or ‘do you think that will be on the test?’ then you’ve engaged in backchannel communications. Like any tool, BC can be used an any number of ways and for many different purposes. Today I’d like to gather and share my thoughts on using BC in the classroom. The thoughts and practices I’ll be discussing have not (to the best of my knowledge, which is incomplete and almost certainly wrong) been empirically examined for effectiveness or systematically developed. They are an ad hoc collection that has been useful to me. I probably stole all of this from someone, and when I remember where it is from I’ll include that, but in most cases I’ve been doing this stuff for so long the origins have faded from my mind.

BC participation, Active, Passive, Asynchronous, and Non: Participation in BC communication, at least in my classes is voluntary. Some individuals prefer to focus their attention on one thing at a time, others are unable to multitask in this way. That’s OK. If there is something important in the BC they can always look it up later, a practice known as asynchronous BC, a term I just made up and am quite proud of. Some students may prefer to log in to a platform and just read what happens without comment. This passive participation, also called lurking, seems to help some students maintain focus on what is happening in the class. Finally, some students may choose to engage in BC by making comments, asking and answering questions, and upvoting or downvoting other questions and comments.

The use of BC during Q & A: This one comes directly from the people who developed iCorps. When people are pitching business ideas in front of an iCorps panel any instructor is free to ask a question. However, there is typically one instructor assigned to do a deep dive on understanding each business being presented, and that person leads the questioning. iCorps uses the text messaging tool Slack to ‘feed’ questions to the primary interrogator (sounds scary, and it feels scary when you’re being shot gunned with questions, but that is part of the purpose of the practice). This helps the overall process in a few important ways. First, the interrogator doesn’t run out of questions before Q & A time is up. Second, it is often easier for the business person (or victim—just kidding)  to respond to the same instructor repeatedly instead of keeping a bunch of names straight. Third, people don’t step on each other verbally. And finally, when presented with a large que of questions, the person who has done the deep dive can weed out irrelevant or less important questions to maximize the learning experience for the business person. This is a flipped version of learner to learner BC below.

Learner to learner (private) BC: Any method of communication that includes you and your fellow learners, but not the teacher, falls into this category. Quite often team organization apps become impromptu BC’s in a classroom setting. On one hand, this is great because it self organizes. However, there is usually no channel for the entire class. Getting the entire class on one platform and creating a channel for everyone solves this problem. If it is important, due to the situation or student preference that the instructor not be involved in the BC, a student can create a channel and share with everyone but the instructor. This sort of a channel with no oversight will empower some students to ‘speak up’ where they otherwise would not, and might end in great conversations in some classes. There is a greater risk of bullying and other non-socially acceptable behavior however. Students in this sort of group should self-monitor and try to keep on topic, otherwise, the value of the BC will be diminished.

Inclusive BC’s: All skate. Everyone can see everyone’s comments and questions, including the instructor. This seems to be the most common use of BC products in the classroom. It has many advantages, and very few problems, at least in my limited experience. Typically, most if not all comments are ‘aimed’ at the instructor, but often if something is asked and a student can quickly answer, they do, leaving more time for other topics. If a question resonates with students, they retweet it, upvote it, or ask it again so that the instructor can see in real time where there are gaps in understanding, or where new topics need to be introduced. I’ve heard that when this is set up anonymously some professors have had behavior problems but I’ve never experienced it. Also, although I don’t do it, if you use a platform that attaches identities to students, BC activity could be factored into a participation score.

BC Platforms: Just about any platform can be used as a class BC. I’ve used Facebook Messenger in the past and it works pretty well. Students can have their own team chat, a group chat without me, and a chat with me in it that I put up on the projector for everyone to see, whether or not they are personally logged in to it. I’ve been thinking of experimenting with Twitter, but so far haven’t. I’ve used Chatzy as an anonymous platform, and I’ve heard good things about Socrative. I’m looking into GoSoapBox as well, primarily because it has a feature called a confusion barometer. That sounds pretty neat to me. I’m still looking for a simple, easy to use, free, classroom tool with some sort of upvoting feature. But I might find a unicorn first, and then, hey, I’d have a unicorn so I’d probably be out all day riding it and not teaching.

Final Thoughts: Here is a short list of suggestions for using BC’s as a student.

  1. Stay on topic.
  2. In private BC’s if you must stray from the topic be as succinct as possible.
  3. If it’s been said and you agree, upvote instead of restating (if you have that capability)
  4. Refrain from downvoting unless a comment or question is inappropriate or off topic. Remember, just because it’s not important to you doesn’t mean it’s not important.
  5. Remember, the internet is forever. Even if your platform is supposed to be private it only takes a second for a screenshot.
  6. Anonymity is not an excuse to be an ass.
  7. If this (or any) tool enhances your learning, use it. If not, don’t.

A Thought or Two on the Business Model Canvas

9 boxes arranged in a rectangle. each box conforms to one area of business that a startup needs to figure out. The boxes are labeled Key Partners, Key Activities, Key Resources, Value Proposition, Customer Relationships, Channels, Customer Segments, Cost Structure, and Revenue Streams
Business Model Canvas

I’ve been teaching the business model canvas for a while, both to students and to people actually starting businesses. From time to time there has been a question about where to put some specific piece of information or hypothesis, and I’ve been kind of lax in my understanding and explanation of where various bits of info go. The area labeled channels is where the confusion started for me. In business we typically talk about distribution channels and marketing channels, so it seems that this box has to do double duty. At least that was my logic, and that led to making other assumptions, such as your employees could be part of your cost structure as well as key resources and key partners. I discussed this for just a few minutes with Dr. Michael Chambers recently, and he corrected my thinking so gently I almost didn’t notice that he was doing it. I was explaining to him how I handled channels, and through our conversation he got me to realize that although in business we talk about marketing channels, when we’re starting a new business (and probably thereafter) it is more appropriate to think of marketing as communication with the customer, thus part of the the customer relationship. (I believe that this flaw in my logic stems from my inherent mistrust of marketing communications.)

After we had this conversation I starting thinking about other situations where I allowed students to categorize a fact or a hypothesis in more than one place, and I think I’m coming to agree with Benjamin Franklin “a place for everything, and everything in its place,” at least when it comes to the business model canvas. Take the earlier example of employees. Their salary is certainly part of the cost structure, maybe other expenses associated with them, but they themselves are not part of that structure. They are also not key partners. The company literature may say that. They may even be called partners, but I think a better characterization of their role, if they are central to the success of the organization, is a resource, and if they are not, then they don’t really show up on the canvas at all. If they were not employees, then they would be partners. I’ve gone though example after example in my head, and if I think about it deeply and clearly, I am able to fit each and every hypothesis into a single box.

I think accurate categorization is important because there are often important differences in how you test hypotheses, according to how they are categorized. Confirming a hypothesis (academics forgive me) for a distribution channel involves determining how you will get your products into that channel, and whether or not your customers will use that channel to purchase your products. Testing a customer relationship involves attempting to reach the customer and determining the hypothesis’s effectiveness in strengthening the relationship and/or generating a purchase.

I’m sure my thinking on this will evolve further as I use and teach the business model canvas, but I believe I’ve made a leap forward in understanding that will hopefully help lots of people.

P.S. If you’re one of my students and I gave you less than stellar advice using my previous approach to the business model canvas I apologize. I do stand behind my previous statements that testing is better than not testing, and capturing the information is good, even if it’s not precisely correct. I’m not sure if this is where people say sorry/not sorry, but I’ll just say if you feel like you could use some help with an ongoing project, or to understand this process better, just get a hold of me.

Thoughts on My Moms’ Businesses

Visit Memaw's Magic Art on Facebook
This image is from Memaw’s Magic Art on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/colorfulfluidart/)

When you teach entrepreneurship, you are inevitably asked for advice (usually free) on starting a business, by all sorts of people. I don’t mind helping out, but when it’s a family member I think twice. I want everyone to succeed, but on some level if some man doesn’t follow my advice, or some woman does but fails anyway I’m not really bothered. I know that the advice I hand out is sound, based on received theory, empirical research, experiential learning, and my own personal experience. But if my mom’s business fails, I feel like it’s my fault, whether it is or not.

What follows are my recollections of two of my moms’ businesses. Believe it or not, the apostrophe is in the right place. I was for a time, probably due at least partially to my own shortcomings as a child, a foster child. I had the honor of calling many wonderful people mother and father. If not for some of them I’d be a very different person today, and I’m thankful for each one that stepped up, even for a little while.

Mom business number one: Nancy, my foster mother for the last three years of high school and a lifetime inspiration wanted to start a business. She had done some of the heavy lifting of finding a niche in a crowded market, designing a product, having stock manufactured, and beginning to sell. She asked me, along the way for advice and some help, but it was clearly her business. I bought her a web domain, got a graphic designer to create a banner, got her original website set up and so on, so that she could supplement her in-person sales with online sales. That business ran quite well until she fell ill and passed away. I have asked a couple times if I could run that business, more or less to keep her memory alive, but I’ve been shut down at every turn. I’m told that the family intends to restart the business, but its unique place in the market has been eliminated by imitation, and its established goodwill erodes daily. It makes me sad because it’s wasteful for no reason. This could have been avoided through planning. A simple succession plan is all it would have taken for this business to have survived the death of its founder.

Mom business number two: Dicki, the amazing woman who gave birth to me, and puts up with all my crap, recently started a business. She asked me for advice on various things and I gave her the same answers I would have given anyone else, the same answers I gave Nancy several years ago in fact. She asked someone else to do her website, which is fine, I told him how I would get the information to get it online, and I believe it’s being done as I write this. However, when she realized she wasn’t going to get a website immediately, she made one herself, on Facebook. She didn’t wait, she just did it. She had already developed a novel artistic product, and produces beautiful, salable art pieces which she sells for about 25% of what they should go for. (If you’re reading this and you’re selling something I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you that you should probably raise your prices. Most people undersell themselves.) She markets them in person at various venues. She’s in a conservative market and wants to move product, so I understand the low prices. Selling is half the fun!

The point is, in both cases, action is more important than just about anything else. This is the one thing that is so hard to get through people’s heads. The days of planning to plan to plan the plan are behind us. We have phase-shifted into a world where action is the first step. Maybe we’ve always been in that world, and it’s just taken the internet to show it to us, I don’t know. But for my money, give me a person, even (especially) a relative, that’s going to do it with or without me and I’ll be on board. I’ll do what I can to facilitate their success; we can work out the details later. But if someone wants to hang around the ‘startup culture’ and talk about starting a company, they can pay market rate for my time.

If you’d like to seem my mom’s business, click here.

Why didn’t I win the Causeway Pitch Competition?

Four smiling winners of the Causeway Pitch Competition
Winners of the 2017 Causeway Pitch Competition

This post is specifically about the Causeway Pitch Competition (CPC) at the University of South Alabama (USA). Some of what I write here may be useful to you for other contests as well. This year’s CPC was structured as a two stage contest. In stage one contestants submitted a poster about their business idea. That poster was judged on its own merits to determine which ideas made it in to the finals. In the finals students gave a 1-2 minute prepared speech explaining their idea.

Part One: My Poster Wasn’t Selected for the Finals

There are many reasons your poster might not have been selected. I’ll list and comment on some of them in no particular order.

  1. We received 29 entries. Not all of them could win. It might be that your poster was very very good and you just missed the cut.
  2. We received 29 entries, 23 of them on the last day. It is possible all the entries were working diligently on their entry for weeks or months. It is also possible that some students put together their entry at the last moment. Only you know if this applies to you. Research shows that people believe that they perform well under pressure, but really they don’t. I’m not pointing any fingers here, I had a deadline yesterday (as I write this) of 5:00 p.m. and I turned in the work at 4:12 p.m. I had thought about the project for a while, but I didn’t really settle on exactly what I was going to do until yesterday morning. As a result I was rushed and probably didn’t make as good a case for myself as I could have.
  3. You may not have tailored your poster to what the judges were looking for. This is hard. We tried to make it easy by publishing the judges instructions on the contest web page so that you could see exactly how they were going to judge. For example, in this particular contest, posters for for profit businesses were rated from 1 to 5 on four different things: the problem your business is solving, how your business was going to solve it, why you think it will work, and how much money you think you’ll make. So your minimum score is 4, and your maximum score is 20 (5 in each category). If you said nothing on the poster about how much money you thought your business idea would make it would be very difficult for a judge to give you more than one point (the minimum) in that category. Some judges looked at an idea and decided for themselves how much it would be likely to make, but they were not instructed to do so.
  4. The judges might be less knowledgeable than you, at least in your specific area of expertise, or have a different opinion of what is important than you do, or any number of other differences of that nature. For example, if you take a strong stance on a political issue, and the judge disagrees with you, it is possible that they would score your idea differently than if they agreed with you.
  5. Your poster may have been difficult to read, or hard to understand, or perhaps it didn’t communicate your idea as well as you thought. A poster is one form of communication. It’s different than speaking in person because it has to stand alone. Perhaps if you had been standing next to your poster to explain it, it would have been much better, but that wasn’t point of this part of the contest. If your poster didn’t explain your idea on its own, then it is unlikely it would make it though to the next round.

Part Two: I Pitched, But I Didn’t Win

  1. If you pitched in the Causeway Pitch Competition, you did win and congratulations! But I know what you mean. So let’s talk about it.
  2. There were 12 entries and 3 winners. We had a bunch of judges, and perhaps you were just edged out.
  3. There was a short span of time to prepare your pitch after you found out you were in the finals. All of the winners were preparing their pitch before they got in the finals. I know this because every one of them was emailing me and coming to my office before the finalists were selected. If you started preparing after you found out you were in the finals you may not have had enough time to adequately prepare.
  4. What you presented may not have matched up with rubric the judges were using. This is the same idea as point 3 above. The recommended way to present an elevator pitch for this contest was to present the 5 p’s in order. The reason for this was so that the judges could ‘follow along’ and know where your presentation was headed. This was to make scoring easy and fair. If you presented different information than the 5 p’s or presented them in a different order it is possible that one or more of the judges was confused and didn’t know how to score you.
  5. You may not have presented as well as you could have. This could be due to lots of things. Speaking in front of people is hard. I find it easier to talk to groups about things I care about, but many students tell me the more they care about something the harder it is to overcome nervousness or ‘stage fright’. Again, if you didn’t know your material well you may have missed an important point, or not communicated it as well as you could have.

In Closing

No matter how far you made it in the competition, no matter if you won money or a trophy, I am proud of your effort. The 29 of you who entered did far more than your peers. Just like the sign at our rec center says ‘the only bad workout is the one you don’t do’ or something like that. This was a mental workout. It was hard. It’s supposed to be. I hope it was rewarding, and I hope you learned something that will help you later in life. And great news! We have another contest coming up in the spring. It’s harder, but there’s more money, and I know you’re capable. I look forward to seeing more great ideas from you in the spring.