Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Fates of Wristwatches and Email

Earlier this week The New York Times had an article about Beloit College’s Mindset List for the Class of 2014: a set of observations about how college kids’ lifestyles and worldviews are changing.

Among the observations were, “With cell phones to tell them the time, there is no need for a wrist watch,” and “Email is just too slow.” (The observations came from a professor and a former public-affairs professional who divined and distilled the incoming class’s zeitgeist into statements like these.)

For me, the main point of interest was how the Times’ headline writer spun the story. The headline said, “For the Class of 2014, No E-Mail or Wristwatches,” as if email and wristwatches were fast becoming things of the past. Do you see the potential fallacy?

It is true that fewer people are wearing wristwatches for functional purposes, as opposed to fashion purposes. Because many college kids never wore a watch to begin with, their generation exemplifies this change. Fair enough.

But can we say the same for email? College and younger kids communicate primarily with family and friends. This type of informal communication has trended toward texting, instant messages, and quick updates via social networks. But when the Class of 2014 hits the working world, its members will find that, unlike a wristwatch, email is still a necessity. For many types of communications with customers and co-workers, email is not just expected but is still the best way to connect.

That said, instant messaging and social networking are finding places in the working world. In some cases, they are relieving email of duties it was never suited for, like rapid back-and-forth exchanges or quick updates. That is a real trend, but it does not amount to email going away any time soon.

So, the fact that the Class of 2014 isn’t into wristwatches and email is true on the surface, but leaving it at that is misleading. The reasons why—and the implications for the future of wristwatches and email—are different.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lessons from “Million-Dollar Murray”

Million-Dollar Murray is a Malcolm Gladwell essay from 2006. The title character, Murray, was an actual homeless man whose alcoholism landed him in jail or the emergency room so often that he cost Nevada taxpayers one million dollars over ten years.

Murray was an extreme case, but that is Gladwell’s point: What would happen if we attacked a seemingly intractable problem like homelessness at the extremes, where the cost/benefit is obvious? That is, if taxpayers are paying $100,000 per year for the state to react to Murray’s problems, what could be done proactively for, say, $50,000? Rent him an apartment, pay for treatment, and get him close monitoring?

Gladwell recognizes the moral hazard: The worse Murray screws up his life, the more the state can justify spending on him. Although economically rational for the state, solutions like this...

...have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness [targeting only the part of the problem that is cost-effective to address] suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.

Gladwell explores this dilemma with his usual mix of masterful storytelling and data-mongering. The kicker is, the dilemma is not necessarily about the morality of homelessness. It’s about societal problems that are concentrated in a relatively small percentage of extreme cases. For homelessness, Gladwell cites research that only 10% of homeless people are chronically so, and a subset of those approach Murray’s level. Gladwell finds similar concentrations of extreme cases in police brutality and auto emissions. These issues have less moral complexity than homelessness, yet targeting the concentrated part of the problem is still the exception, not the norm. For auto emissions, it’s common to test all cars the same even when the vast majority, especially newer ones, are near-certain to pass. With police brutality, the tendency is to spread an even dose of reform across an entire police force rather than focus strong medicine on the relatively few offenders.

So, Million-Dollar Murray is less about Murray’s problems than about society’s dealing with a class of problems that Murray represents.

It’s Gladwell at his best. Check it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Two By David Grann

David Grann is a writer for The New Yorker. I like his work a lot. Here are a couple worthy reads:

  • The Mark of a Masterpiece” is a New Yorker piece about the world of art authentication: the people and processes that determine whether an old painting is a lost Leonardo or a worthless pretender. The difference may only be discernible by a small group of self-appointed experts—art historians, scientists, and others aspirants—who don’t necessarily agree. With millions of dollars riding on some judgments, the field is rife with intrigue, so much so that Grann’s survey evolves into a real-world detective story. By magazine standards, it’s a long read (maybe an hour’s worth), but it has the richness of an entire book.
  • The Lost City of Z is about a British explorer’s quest for the ruins of “Z,” an Atlantis of the Amazon. Circa the early 1900s, Percy Fawcett had superhuman survival abilities in uncharted jungles that routinely claimed those who entered. Yet even he eventually disappeared, searching for Z. Almost one hundred years later, Grann follows Fawcett’s life path, culminating in Grann’s own Amazonian search for Z and Fawcett’s fate. The book’s preface is here, so sample away.