Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by Amazon.com, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

Apple Inc. and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Big week for Apple fanboys and girls. New iPhone. You better keep up with all the cool people and buy one. It will change your life. Well, maybe not, but you’ll be the envy of all those iPhone 4 losers. “Wow dude,” you can say to them, “that’s one short, thick, throwback phone.”

A recent book by two Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters titled, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” criticizes Apple for outsourcing too many of its jobs. Here’s a National Public Radio story on the authors and their book.

Even though I’m an Apple fanboy and investor, I believe the bigger the company and the greater its influence in the world, the more we should hold it accountable for being transparent, honoring workers’ rights, and protecting the environment. Apple’s marketing, products, and momentum can bedazzle at the expense of critical inquiry.

I’ve been swapping emails with my friend—Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man—about driverless cars. The last one I sent him linked to an article that suggested, initially at least, driverless cars will cost around $300k. “Just do what Apple does” he wrote back sarcastically, “and outsource it (the manufacturing of the driverless car) to China.”

In the United States, especially during election season, knee-jerk criticism of outsourcing is legion. Few of the critics take any time to consider how much more they’d have to pay for their toothbrushes, clothes, iPads, bicycles, and cars if they were all completely manufactured in the United States. Heaven for bid if we connected a few dots.

In their critique of Apple, I wonder whether the “Betrayal” authors factor in the daily benefits of its products to users around the world. I made light of the newest iPhone, but you’d have to pry my MacBook Pro from my cold dead fingers.

Also, outsourcing is an abomination only when economic nationalism prevails. It’s possible, theoretically at least, to think more globally without sacrificing love of country, and therefore, to cheer job growth irrespective of political borders. Especially given global economic interconnectedness and the fact that most of Apple’s foreign-based employees buy some U.S. imports.

The authors would chuckle at my naivete. They’d point out we continue to run a tremendous trade deficit with China because international trade is conducted on a grossly uneven playing field. China has far fewer labor and environmental regulations, pays workers far less (even when adjusted for cost of living), and places protective tariffs on our imports. The uneven nature of the international trade playing field is a pressing problem.

But I wonder what the authors would say about the charitable giving the GalPal and I will be doing the next few years as a result of recently selling some Apple shares that had quadrupled over the last four years.

For me, the jury is still out on what kind of corporate citizen Apple is. I value critical analyses, but at present, I will continue to use its products and invest in it. I am not a model to follow. Apple’s fate will be determined by the individual and collective decision-making of technology users around the world.

For cutting edgers like me, there’s just one decision left. A black or white iPhone 5?

The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

I wish I had written this insightful post on decluttering not just our closets and garages, but our lives.

Here’s an example of the ideas in action via John Gruber and Kottke:

I like this as a basic theory for understanding Apple’s exceptional success. Steve Jobs was famous for his pride in saying “no”. At All Things D in 2004, asked about an Apple PDA: “I’m as proud of the products that we have not done as I am of the products we have done.” (Other examples here and here.)

Tim Cook, at the 2010 Goldman Sachs technology conference:

We can put all of our products on the table you’re sitting at. Those products together sell $40 billion per year. No other company can make that claim except perhaps an oil company. We are the most focused company that I know of, or have read of, or have any knowledge of.

We say no to good ideas every day; we say no to great ideas; to keep the number of things we focus on small in number.

App Review—Zite Personalized Magazine—Algorithms Ain’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

When I first met the Zite Personalized Magazine App I was totally infatuated. She was a total looker, great interface, and totally customizable. Our first dates were fantastic. We created structure by selecting several newspaper “sections” including: architecture, arts & culture, automotive, business & investing, film & tv, food & cooking, gadgets, health& exercise, mac news, personal finance, philosophy & spirituality, and sports.

Then we settled into a nice daily rhythm of just hanging out and reading. When I read an article on Steve Jobs, she asked me if I’d like more like it. “Yes,” I answered. Always so selfless, when I read a Sports Illustrated article on recruiting controversies at the University of Oregon she asked if I’d like more articles from Sports Illustrated (yes), about the University of Oregon (no), and NCAA recruiting (no). So inquisitive, and such a patient listener, she totally “got me” in very short order.

But now we’ve plateaued, maybe even started to drift apart a bit, and I’m not sure how to get the lovin’ feeling back. The problem is, with all her fancy pants algorithms, she’s gone overboard in personalizing my homepage. Nevermind what’s happening in Iran, Syria, or Putin’s Russia, my home page is filled with stories about Apple computer, college sports, and, not sure where she got this, Prince Harry partying in Belize.

As you know, whether we answer “did you like” inquiries or not, algorithm-based highly personalized internet suggestions and marketing are the future. iTunes and Netflix tells us what music and movies we’d like based each of our choices. Same with Amazon. At Amazon and other commercial sites we don’t even have to make purchases. Big Commercial Brother tracks our internet surfing and then creates personalized suggestions and ads.

“Free” customizable newspaper apps shouldn’t be as controversial should they? It’s a real time saver not having to sift through less interesting stories. Right? The problem is the end result—hyperpersonalized newspapers that make it less likely we’ll stumble upon interesting, quirky, challenging stories that stretch us. Spontaneity is sexy, endlessly staring into a mirror is not. We already live in economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, we watch television that affirms our political biases, and we attend churches and recreate with people that look like us.

Where are the diverse neighborhoods, schools, churches, and public places where people can begin learning how to get along with people different than them? People who are richer or poorer, people from across the political spectrum, people who are and aren’t religious. And where are the internet apps and websites where people’s thinking is challenged, nourished, deepened?

Another article on my Zite homepage today is titled, “The Gray Divorcés” which is about the increasing percentage of 50+ year olds deciding to divorce. (More evidence I was right that divorce is the new default.) I’m not quite ready to break it off with Zite altogether, but she’s getting on my nerves.

Grade: B-

Apple Cares About Profit Margins Not Its Chinese Workers

My conclusion after carefully reading Charles Duhigg’s and David Babroz’s NYT article, “In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad“. Major props to Duhigg and Barboz for the thoroughly researched, fair, convincing, damning description of Apple’s negligent, laissez faire approach to working conditions in its suppliers’ factories in places like Chengdu, China where I once lived for a few months and toured the largest television factory in the world.

In fairness to Apple, I should read Tim Cook’s “we care about every worker in our supply chain” email to Apple employees, but Duhigg’s and Babroz’s analysis convinced me that Cook’s email is most likely hollow, public relations spin.

Apple recently reported their 2011 fourth quarter results—$13.06b in profit on $46.3b in sales. The sales number is remarkable, but given industry norms, the profit margin even more so. I’ll return to it later. As a result of the record quarter, my AAPL holdings increased in value way more than the cost of the MacBook Air I bought the GalPal for Christmas and the iPad 3 I’ll be buying myself in March. I divulge that to point out I am complicit in Apple’s pernicious business practices.

I have a responsibility to carefully consider Apple’s relationship with its suppliers in China because I help create demand for Apple products. I also think of myself as a global citizen with a social conscience, I have praised the company in previous posts, and I own individual shares of AAPL both directly and through stock index ETFs.

Some key excerpts from Duhigg’s and Barboz’s article:

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Foxconn is one of the few manufacturers in the world with the scale to build sufficient numbers of iPhones and iPads. So Apple is “not going to leave Foxconn and they’re not going to leave China,” said Heather White, a research fellow at Harvard and a former member of the Monitoring International Labor Standards committee at the National Academy of Sciences. “There’s a lot of rationalization.”

Granted, China is still a developing country with a serious urban/rural imbalance. Young people are choosing, of their own free will, to migrate to its cities to work in factory jobs that require, by our standards, long hours in tough conditions. Even when adjusting for where China is in its development, Apple is failing its Chinese workers who had no idea they’d have to suffer grievous injury and in some cases death as a result of toxic chemicals, aluminum dust, and large-scale explosions.

Three quarters through the article I sadly concluded Apple is to technology as Walmart is to retail—so large and influential that it can dictate conditions to suppliers. Apple says to suppliers, “Get us this product, tomorrow, at this price.” In order to make money, the supplier has to figure out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper, which often means cutting corners on implementing Apple’s ineffectual code of conduct. Then, Apple pays suppliers less each year and looks the other way when they fail to implement the code of conduct.

What makes this unconscionable is Apple’s unprecedented profit margins. If Apple users and shareholders like me take the baton from Duhigg and Babroz and put serious pressure on Apple to truly enforce their code of conduct, they could not only match the global labor practices of Intel, H.P., and the ubiquitous swoosh, they could raise the bar for every other multinational operating in China.

More key excerpts:

“If you see the same pattern of problems, year after year, that means the company’s ignoring the issue rather than solving it,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “Noncompliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear.”

“You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”

“It is gross negligence, after an explosion occurs, not to realize that every factory should be inspected,” said Nicholas Ashford, the occupational safety expert, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If it were terribly difficult to deal with aluminum dust, I would understand. But do you know how easy dust is to control? It’s called ventilation. We solved this problem over a century ago.”

But ultimately, say former Apple executives, there are few real outside pressures for change. Apple is one of the most admired brands.

People like Ms. White of Harvard say that until consumers demand better conditions in overseas factories — as they did for companies like Nike and Gap, which today have overhauled conditions among suppliers — or regulators act, there is little impetus for radical change. Some Apple insiders agree.

Will Dughizz’s and Babroz’s reporting create a groundswell of pressure that forces Apple to care—even in a Chinese context—about the quality of life of their Chinese workers? “Right now,” Harvard’s White says, “customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.

Near the end of the article a “current Apple executive” is quoted as saying, “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.” That’s flat out wrong. Given Apple’s unprecedented profit margins, here’s what the exec should have said, “You can manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper in factories that supersede existing Chinese standards if stockholders—especially my Apple execs and me—are willing to accept smaller profit margins that are more typical for the industry.”

I’m not ready to sell all my shares and boycott the products until work conditions in China truly improve, but I am willing to accept slower growth in AAPL’s share price as a result of smaller profit margins.

Steve Jobs—A Life Well Lived?

I enjoyed and recommend Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio. The overarching question it has left me with is what’s the best way to assess whether one’s living or lived a good life? And how best to define “good life”? Specifically, do professional successes trump the personal or vice versa? Do you most want to be remembered as an amazing chief executive, lawyer, teacher, trooper, counselor, sales manager, engineer, doc, pastor, carpenter, nurse, or as a caring and loving father, mother, husband, wife, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, neighbor, friend, citizen?

Everyone answers those questions somewhat differently in the way they live their lives. Jobs’s professional activities—he reinvented six separate industries—were clearly more important to him than his personal roles and identities—he was self absorbed, he was a distant father to his three daughters, and he rarely cared about anyone else’s feelings.

We seem to excuse people like Jobs—people at the very top of their field—for being what some readers of the book have described as a “self absorbed asshole”. Why is that? Is it because people at the very top of their fields tend to be extremely wealthy? Do we give the ultra rich a pass on being shitty parents or people?

Most of the time I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished throughout my thirty year teaching career, but in my own personal calculus of assessing whether I’m living a good life, I emphasize the personal. It’s most important to me that I be a good husband, father, friend. I can’t help but wonder though is that because I haven’t accomplished more professionally? Is my personal orientation an excuse for not being more ambitious and not working harder? Or do I emphasize the personal because I’m overcompensating for my dad’s explicit “professional accomplishment” orientation?

Jobs didn’t have the ideal balance, but I’m not sure I do either. More questions than answers.

Coping With Narcissists

Is it just me or is it seemingly impossible to get along with narcissists? Of course if you caught my betrothed after one of our spats, she’d say I’m a self-centered sad sack.

I’m three-quarters the way through Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and I can’t help but make connections between it and Whybrow’s American Mania.

Don’t know if I’ve ever been so conflicted about one person. There are at least three Steve Jobs—1) the counter-cultural Zen Buddhist, exquisite designer, artist-philosopher, modern Stoic, vegan; 2) the focused, driven, scarily perfectionist, extremely mercurial, control-freak, business genius; and 3) the sometimes cruel, heartless, empathy impaired human being.

Readers of the bio are probably most interested in Jobs 2, but I find the human nature/human being story far more interesting.

I need to finish the book and think some more about it before reconciling my schizophrenic thoughts. For now I can say Jobs 3, the uncaring, mean, empathy impaired knucklehead often repulses me. Which brings to mind Whybrow’s insights on empathy. He writes, “. . . the experience of intimacy and the stability of the attachments one has in early years ultimately shape our capacity to understand the feelings of others. Human empathy is largely a learned behavior, much as is language. . .”

So we’re not hardwired to care about others? Whybrow says empathic understanding results from “social anchors” or a “. . . wellspring of healthy families and the nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities. . .” In other words, immerse young children in caring families, schools, religious and civic organizations and they will follow the caring adults’ lead and end up empathetic young adults.

Could the fact that Jobs was adopted have compromised the stability of his attachments so much that he never “learned empathy” in the way he learned English? I wouldn’t think so because he was months old when adopted and his adopted parents were stable, supportive, and loving.

After deciding not to marry Jobs, one of the two women he was closest to in his life found a psychiatric manual, read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and concluded that Jobs embodied all of the symptoms. (Here’s hoping Betrothed never stumbles upon that.) She said, “It fits so well and explained so much of what we had strugled with, that I realized expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see.” “I think the issue is empathy,” she added, “the capacity for empathy is lacking.

I’m clueless as to the root causes of Jobs’s lack of empathy, but the larger, more important takeaway is that empathy is learned. Whybrow convincingly argues that empathy results from a “wellspring of healthy families and nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities.” Sadly, some families aren’t sufficiently healthy, nurturing, supportive, or economically stable enough to pass on empathetic understanding to the young in their charge.

If expecting narcissists to someday be nicer or less self-centered is like expecting blind people to someday see, the best way to cope with them is to stop expecting them to return personal interest and care with similar curiosity and kindness. Far easier said then done.

Narcissus admiring himself shortly before his first triathlon