Among the Disrupted, or: Get Off My Lawn!

Leon Wieseltier, the author, has written a cover essay for the NYT Sunday Book Review that is ostensibly a review of a book by Mark Greif but is actually a grumpy gripe-fest filled with overstatements, misstatements, and misunderstandings. While it generally fits the "things used to be good and then everything started changing" trope, I give Wieseltier credit for the fact it didn't become a "technology is making life so impersonal!" snoozefest.

Instead, the thesis was something like "humanism is really valuable and is being replaced by something else that's less valuable because of thoughtless technology worshipers". I didn't know what humanism meant but, apparently, it denotes both a "pedagogy" and "worldview". All that aside, it seems that what he's really arguing is that "critical thinking is super-important".

Being somewhat in the belly of the tech beast I can happily reply: No argument here!

Given the banality of the central thesis I have to wonder why Wieseltier felt compelled to spend tens of minutes of his life writing this essay. (Presumably his angst over tech and metrics cheapening thought comes out of all the recent turmoil at The New Republic.) I think he's spilled so much ink to say so little because he doesn't actually know what he's talking about, has a narrow point of view, and may not even realize he's arguing with straw men.

These are some of the tells:

"the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry"

That's a phrase from the first paragraph and I think he's referring to Amazon, or maybe it's just any company that distributes digital versions of books and music. In any event, in the light of the recent thuggery in Paris this phrase strikes me as a bit overwrought and just plain wrong.

I've read the reports about Amazon's heavy handed business tactics, many of which seem slightly thuggish, and I'm aware that it's very hard for an artist to earn a living off of Spotify plays but does he really believe that these companies and the people that work there are the greatest thugs in the history of culture?

I'm no historian but... Destroying the Library of Alexandria seems super-thuggish. Stealing the Elgin Marbles seems thuggish. But creating a really easy way for people to get access to the ideas and thoughts of the times? I see the downsides but it's just not thuggery.

this time is really different from all the other times

At the end of that same very long first paragraph Wieseltier writes "It was always the case the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous". It's not entirely clear what he's referring to but I think it's twitter (he may not know about other forms of instant communication), which he thinks is debased medium because "alacrity" and "terseness" are rewarded.

The funny thing is that he seems to make the same mistake that tech evangelists are sometimes accused of making: He thinks that the thing he's observed and has been a part of is exceptional.

How likely is it that this moment, of all moments in the several thousand year history you're situating the present moment within, is the truly and ultimately "ridiculous one"? Can't this just be another phase?

"the idolatry of data"

Wieseltier then spends some times arguing that data has become a god that is expected to provide answers and helpfully points out that there is a "distinction between knowledge and information". Unfortunately, he misses everything important about the current data movement.

Leon: In practice, no one misses that distinction and everyone understands information to be a building block for acquiring knowledge. Data isn't an idol, it's the thing we use to sharpen the chisel.

The humanities matter

The next critique of tech is that it devalues the humanities and deems them "soft and impractical and insufficiently new". It may be that tech companies fetishize tech skills and certain types of people - Kate Losse has tons of insights on this - but you don't have to dig deep to find the message that liberal arts matter.

I mean, you could check out the recent NYT archives and find Laszlo Block, head of hiring at Google, telling Tom Friedman that the liberal arts are "phenomenally important".

I could go on

The rest of the essay includes enormous hedges (his take "is not the whole story, but it is an alarmingly large part" of it) and additional attacks on straw men (Google's effort to catalogue every book is great but "is not the end of the story") but it doesn't seem worth fisking the entire thing since one thing is already clear: The Times and Wieseltier have written a very long and dense essay but forgot to use their humanities training: critical thinking, deep research, and all the rest.

Humanist, heal thyself!

Don't Kid Yourself

Despite misgivings and handwringing, I've watched a fair amount of the NFL playoffs this season and noticed an exception to the general rule that head coaches look and act like intensely crazy lunatics. Namely, they stay calm when instant replay results go against them. [Some context: Certain decisions made by officials on the field can be reviewed after the play is over. If there's clear video evidence that the call made on the field was wrong then it is overturned.]

Beyond the fact that the next play needs to get started in 25 seconds, meaning there's very limited time to freak out, I think the coaches stay cool because by the time the decision is being announced they already have a very good sense of which way it's going to go thanks to their assistant coaches who are reviewing the same video as the officials.

The generalizable lessons seem pretty clear.


You don't do yourself any favors by pretending that the facts are other than what they are, even if they're the opposite of what you hoped for.

Wait and see refers to decisions, not prep

The periods when things are out of your control and shaking themselves out - your resume is being considered, an A/B test is being run, a prospect is considering your offer, etc - are the vital  times for figuring out what you'll do in different contingencies. "Wait and see" applies to the decision, not to the prep.

Get over it and move on

There's no time to sit around and be bummed about the twist of fate that went against you since the next decision or challenge is coming up fast.


Icon credit: Lawrence Willmott

Can You Imagine Making a Buck?

Where I start: Unit Economics

Seems to me that one of the first questions you should ask yourself when you've got a product idea is "Any way I can make a penny on this?"

It's a useful way to triage the tons of ideas that come along and it's more or less the first tool I reach for: If I can't conceive of circumstances where the idea makes at least a penny on a unit basis  then it's a pretty strong signal that the idea needs to be reconsidered.

This approach clearly has limitations and can give a false sense of certainty but it's a useful smell test.

Case in point: My uncle's app concept.

My Uncle Mark is a great guy and an experienced businessman. A Red Lobster years ago, rental properties more recently, etc. A couple weeks ago he emailed with an app idea and asked (in so many words): "Am I crazy?" I sidestepped the question of his sanity but answered the question of whether he's got a good business idea on his hands with a little unit economics thought experiement.

Here's the important part of his email and my reply. (NB: I got his permission to "give away" his idea to all 50 of my readers!):

Consider:   I thought of what I think may be a great "ap".  Called "Do I have a case?.com". We create several teams of attorneys knowledgeable in different fields of law. People wanting to know if they should persue a law suit hit the ap and our team gives the pro and cons of their issue. We do not give legal advice per se but recommend they consult an attorney or tell them why not. We can provide names of attorneys near them who pay us  to be on our list.
Don't know if it's a good ideas or even legal but am I crazy?  Burn this message after reading and remember. Lose lips, sink ships".
Love. Uncle.    Think on it.  Oh yes, $10.99 for our service.

My reply:


Sorry to take so long but here's how I'd think about this:

What's the cost to acquire each plaintiff? Let's call this the "customer acquisition cost" (CAC).

What does it cost to service each plaintiff?

How much will you earn from the plaintiff? Let's call this their "lifetime value" (LTV).

CAC calculation:

  • Let's say you decide do advertise on Google and bid to be displayed as an ad whenever someone types "i want to sue" (or variations). My guess is that those are very competitive terms and the "cost per click" (i.e., the amount you'd pay to Google each time someone clicks on your ad) would be at least $10.

  • Not everyone who clicks on the ad will actually convert into a paying customer but let's assume that 25% do. (This would be very optimistic). With these numbers you're paying $40 per customer.

Service costs:

  • Let's assume that you get a bunch of very crappy lawyers who are willing to work for $50/hour and the analysis of each claim take one hour.

  • Now we're up to $90 out of pocket for each customer.


  • Everyone pays $10. Nice! We still need to make $80/customer to break even.

  • Assume that 25% of the cases are viable and are worth referring to an actual lawyer who has agreed to pay you for qualified leads. Those lawyers would have to be willing to pay you at least $320/lead to pay for the costs associated with that lead.

  • Question: How much are lawyers willing to pay for qualified leads? 

It gets more complicated (and expensive): You have to actually build and maintain the app, offer customer service, pay overhead (probably you'd want some sort of insurance), AND you'd need a salesforce to sell those qualified leads to attorneys.

So you'd need to be bringing in enough money to both cover the $320 it cost you find a lead PLUS those other fixed costs.

My intuition is that this might be a useful app but it'd be a very tough business to make work. That said, it's impossible to really know without having a better sense of the actual numbers.

Thanks for the fun thought experiment!

Icon credit: Dan Hetteix

Seinfeld, Apps, Scripts, and Wearables

We recently un-cut the cable cord and I once again have a 100s of channels to be disappointed by. Naturally, I've watched a lot more Seinfeld over the past few weeks than I have in the past few years years.

This week I saw an episode where (1) Kramer moves to LA and lands a small role as a Murphy Brown's secretary and (2) George and Jerry discover that Elaine has secretly been working on a Murphy Brown script.

Because Seinfeld was so driven by "observational humor" it acts as a record of what things were kind of really like in the '90s and it occurred to me that our Seinfeldian predecessors can help us understand ourselves.

Kramer : Desktop computers :: Jeremy : Wearables

What strikes me in watching Kramer's Murphy Brown scene is how much of a foreign object the computer seems to be. It's central to the gag - Kramer is flummoxed and clearly overwhelmed - but the computer isn't central to the fictional office. Turns out that what was once a super-powered typewriter that evolved and miniaturized and came to run the world.

This got me thinking about my own reaction to new technologies, such as wearables, and my tendency to dismiss them as (needlessly) super-charged versions of already pretty good tools. My guess is that it won't be long before the glasshole jokes become seen as a goofy step in an important evolution. As Fred Wilson puts it, we're probably headed to a mesh.

Elaine : Sitcom Scripts :: Everyone : Apps Under the Age of 40

I wasn't old enough to have a side project in the '90s but between Elaine writing a secret Murphy Brown script and that scene in Swingers when Jon Favreau's character tells Heather Graham that he moved to LA because he heard that they were giving standups TV deals as they walked off the plane, I get the sense that writing a script was what every bored editor, lawyer, banker, and consultant dreamed of doing instead of their day job.

Observation 2: Is "I'm working on an app" is going to sound as silly as Elaine's Murphy Brown escape plan. It's already something of a joke and I sincerely hope that someone is writing a book right now called "I Don't Care About Your App".