Monthly Archives: July 2011

Let’s Run It Up the Flagpole and See if Anyone Salutes

Warhol's Light Bulbs

I’ve seen this advice to new and recent college graduates: don’t worry too much about your lack of experience, because what you have to offer is your ideas.

I’d suggest that’s actually true regardless of how long you’ve been in the workforce. I’d also suggest that you do your best to make sure those ideas are good ideas.

While it’s (pretty much) true that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming–because my bad idea might trigger you to have a better one, and vice versa–that doesn’t mean that all ideas are good ones, and it doesn’t mean that all of your “interesting” ideas have a sound foundation. It’s particularly important to make sure that you keep this in mind when you’re presenting those ideas in a highly public forum–say, on the Web.

Case Study #1: Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein posited that the votes of the young should count more, because they will feel the effects of that vote longer (because they’re younger–get it?). Klein writes:

If your response to this is that it’s crazy and offensive, that all American adults are equal and so is their vote, you might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Senate, where a Wyoming resident’s vote is worth almost 70 times as much as a Californian’s, or the electoral college, where the presidency could be won by a candidate who loses the popular vote 4:1.

All of which is to say, we already reweight voting in this country. But we do it to give residents from small states more power.

So before the reader has had time to get past the suggestion that we vote like we’re living in the world of Logan’s Run, Klein seems to overlook both the concept of a bicameral legislature and the Great Compromise. He did add an update in which he alludes to the latter, but he doesn’t actually suggest an alternative–he’s mostly concerned with justifying his original idea, which still doesn’t seem to be very well thought-out.

Case Study #2: In the same blog, Brad Plumer speculates on the constitutionality of the debt ceiling. He seems to be suggesting that President Obama choose which law to enforce, effectively ignoring conflicting law. That is a legal conundrum, regardless of topic, and worthy of scholarly analysis and public debate. But what Plumer says is “If Obama decided to treat the debt ceiling as unconstitutional and start floating new debt anyway, it’s not clear anyone could stop him.”

I’m not sure how one would “treat” something as unconstitutional. But the error that originally caught my attention comes in the post title: “Why won’t Obama just declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional?”

Was this title written by Plumer or by an editor? Regardless, someone this closely involved in content creation for the Post ought to know that the answer is “Because he’s the President, not the Supreme Court.” After all, in Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that established the concept of judicial review, Chief Justice John Marshall declared:

It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each.

Now, if one needed to be a constitutional law specialist to understand these issues, the errors would be easy to excuse. But each of these topics–bicameral legislature, the Great Compromise, and judicial review–is covered in every high school government textbook in the U.S. Marbury v. Madison is one of only a handful of cases identified by name in those textbooks. These are not obscure references, but subjects vital to an understanding of how federal government works in the United States. I didn’t know Katharine Graham and I’ve never met Ben Bradlee, but I have trouble imagining that either of them would have put up with this.

So when you have what you think is a great idea, don’t just ask your friends–run it by people who may know more than you. They might be able to help you find the holes before you put them on display for the whole world to see.

Photo by zetson, via Flickr.


Limiting Yourself Can Boost Creativity

When I was growing up, my mother would say, “Look at Picasso’s early work. He knew how to paint conventionally. Then he came up with his own style. But the early work tells you that the later work was the result of his talent and vision, not the result of someone who couldn’t paint shapes correctly.”

In college, I had a seminar class led by a professor who would only accept two-page papers. He said that if we couldn’t make and support an argument in that amount of space, we hadn’t focused our topics enough.

A few years later, I worked on a print project that had specific space limitations. The freelancer said, “I can’t be creative if you’re going to be that strict.” I pointed out that all work is done within certain parameters, and that I thought she could do a great job within the ones we had. Lo and behold, she delivered.

I was reminded of all of this as I read Seth Godin’s post about embracing constraints. As he says, “Once you can thrive in a world filled with constraints, it’s even easier to do well when those constraints are loosened.”

There’s a lot of validity to this. Identify your goals and find ways to meet them. If you can do this when your resources are limited, then you’re really developing your skills and thinking creatively about challenges and solutions. If you can create something beautiful by coloring within the lines, you’re going to be much better able to choose how to color outside them.

Carmageddon Communication: What We Can Learn from the 405 Shutdown


Months ago, it began. The news alerts, the warnings, the PSAs. The tweets from celebrities. The hopeful said, “Maybe it’ll be like the 1984 Olympics, when people decided to leave town and the traffic really wasn’t that bad.”

And then it was here. People took vacation days. Businesses allowed telecommuting. Workplaces closed early to let employees get home before the freeway closed. Several local transit lines offered free fares for the weekend.

So how was it? Well, according to periodic looks at Google Maps, the freeways were wide open. Certainly when I drove under the 101, the predicted traffic jam . . . was nowhere to be seen. Apparently people heeded the warnings and stayed off the freeways. Now, an awful lot of people are proclaiming it a failure.

Me, I think it was an unqualified success. While the coverage did seem overwhelming, particularly for the last couple of weeks, the results are evident. People paid attention and planned ahead. Failure, in contrast, would have involved a giant traffic jam.

What have we learned? I think we’ve learned that if you tell them enough times, people actually do hear what you’re saying. I think we learned that it’s possible to find ways to spend time and money in our own neighborhoods. And I think we learned that just because the freeway is there, doesn’t mean we have to drive on it.*

I have no real confidence that we’ll retain these lessons, though. Because next year, it’s going to happen all over again. But I have a sneaking suspicion that people will forget why it worked this time.

*Let’s not forget that a great many people do have to travel those routes. Not every job allows telecommuting, and not every job can be done remotely. The people who clean office buildings on the weekends have to actually go to those buildings. Doctors and nurses and radiology technicians have to actually go to the hospital. And so forth.

Google+: A Guide to Guides

So you’ve gotten an invitation to Google+ and you’re not sure what to do next. Is it the new Facebook? The new Twitter? The new LinkedIn? You can find people using it like all of these, as well as people who seem to be using it in a way all their own. But where to start? Here are a few primers produced by early adopters, with tips you may find useful.

Chris Brogan has some suggestions and some how-to videos to offer. He recommends starting with security settings, to make sure that you’re sharing in the way you intend.

The Huffington Post has tips about circles, who to follow, and more. They’ve also got suggestions about “sparks” and “hangouts.”

Already active on Google+? You might be interested in Jeff Bullas‘s ideas about how to increase your followers.

Christina Trapolino encourages you to look at Google+ as its own service, rather than a new Facebook. She’s got some interesting points to make about how interaction on Google+ is different than on Facebook, and what that means to her.

And if you’re wondering how Google+ will change as people use and respond to the service, well, right now only Google knows. But a post by Matthew Humphries points to some possibilities.

So go forth, +1 to your heart’s content, and build your Google+ world in a way that makes sense to you. It’s an odyssey of discovery.

Netflix: How Not to Communicate with Customers

I am one of the Netflix customers who opened an e-mail titled “Important Netflix Account Info: Price Change and New Plans” to find that Netflix will soon be charging me more.

I’ve been a Netflix customer for many years, and have always been happy with the service. And I’ve had a number of subscription plans during that time, based on my viewing patterns.

Here’s the thing I noticed: Yes, Netflix is about to charge me $19.99 a month instead of $14.99 a month. And, yes, that’s a third again as much for the same service. Also, yes, it is only $5 a month–hardly likely to break the bank. But–and this is to me a bigger deal than the cost–previously, I have been able to continue whatever plan I was on until I chose to make a change. That plan was grandfathered in, and while new customers might not be able to select it, I could continue with it because I was already subscribed.

That’s not the case here. Netflix has made this change across the board, regardless of whether you are a new or an existing customer. And they’ve done it with fairly short notice; the new pricing will take effect starting September 1, and this is the middle of July. Considering that it’s summer, and people are at various stages of vacations (assuming they’re not moving), that doesn’t feel like a lot of time to me.

It feels like even less time when I click through the e-mail to change my subscription and find that the new plan will actually take effect next week. And the confusion continues when I see that one page tells me to return my current DVDs within seven days, and another tells me within 14 days. Come on, Netflix–make up your mind. What are these time frames, and why can’t you communicate them consistently within the same information stream?

Nevertheless, I’ve changed my subscription. We’ve had two DVDs for months, because we haven’t had the opportunity to watch them. So, clearly, we don’t need X number of DVDs per month. Streaming video is the way to go for this. If we really want a DVD, we can rent from Redbox.

So here’s the real question: Is it worth paying for Netflix at all when I already have a membership in Amazon Prime?

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