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"I'm Not as Smart as I Thought I Was"

How do you deal with feelings of intellectual inadequacy?

A high school student applying to MIT is struggling with these feelings. Here's one reply on this Reddit thread via Cal Newport:

The people who fail to graduate from MIT, fail because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out.

The students who are successful, by contrast, look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and then begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.

During my freshman year, I almost failed out of differential equations.  I was able to recover and go on to be very successful in my studies. When I was a senior, I would sit down with the freshmen in my dorm and show them the same things that had been shown to me, and I would watch them struggle with the same feelings, and overcome them. By the time I graduated MIT, I had become the person I looked up to when I first got in.

You feel like you are burnt out or that you are on the verge of burning out, but in reality you are on the verge of deciding whether or not you will burn out. It’s scary to acknowledge that it’s a decision because it puts the onus on you to to do something about it, but it’s empowering because it means there is something you can do about it.

So do it.


I am hyperaware of situations where I feel intellectually outmatched. When I do, I don't think the solution is only "deciding" that I will improve myself to meet the challenge, per the comment excerpted above. That's necessary--and it's why surrounding yourself with people who push you to do this is key--but it's not enough.

Feeling intellectually outmached also forces me to think harder about my unique combination of abilities--where I have a comparative advantage in the specific situation. No one is smarter than you in every possible way. Smart is very context specific.

NCAA Student-Athlete Commits to Alabama

Two nights ago, a top high school football recruit announced live on ESPN--during the "Under Armour All American Game"--that he will go to Alabama for college. The video of him being interviewed is pretty amazing. His mother, sitting right next to him, follows up her son's announcement by declaring immediately afterwards (still on national television) that she disapproves, and that LSU is still #1.

Probably because I'm watching Friday Night Lights (I'm in Season 3 - it's awesome), the thing I thought of when watching the interview was, "What happens if this big recruit gets injured and there's no NFL jackpot? Or what happens if he goes pro and then gets injured or has a short career? Then what?"


The Atlantic had a cover piece the other month titled The Shame of College Sports. It was a well-written argument for why college athletes--who generate billions of dollars with of revenue for companies and their universities--should themselves be paid. I think they should, given the circumstances. They are hardly "student-athletes." Stripping away the veneer of the NCAA--and for that matter, the false promises of universities everywhere--is an important project. And for some reason, the commericalized "recruiting announcement" broadcast on ESPN the other night I think helped in that effort.

Book Notes: Launching the Innovation Renaissance

AlextAlex Taborrok's Launching the Innovation Renaissance is full of common sense about how to promote innovation in America. Unlike so much "innovation" literature that is disconnected from policy realities, Taborrok offers specific policy observations on patents, immigration, education, and more. He also offers helpful ways to think about themes like the rise of China. At two hours tops to read and a $2.99 price point for the e-book, it is an easy way to be brush up on some of the straightforward ways to accelerate innovation in a country.

My highlights from the book:

After hundreds of years of experience, there is surprisingly little evidence that patents actually do promote the progress of science and the useful arts.

Imitation is not as easy as it appears even with an exact recipe. What is true about recipes and the French Laundry is also true about innovation in general. It takes effort and time to imitate a product even when the formula is known.

The major vice of a prize fund is that it replaces a decentralized process for rewarding innovation with a political process.

"Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell students, "and all will be well." Most of them, however, crash before they reach the end of the road — some drop out of high school and then more drop out of college. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to knowledge.
How many visas are allocated to people of extraordinary ability from China, a country of over 1 billion people? 2,803. The same number as are allocated to Greenland.
Should Bill Gates get prostate cancer, his billions will get him a private room and a personal physician, but they won't do much to extend his lifespan beyond that of a middle-class man with the same disease.
The United States benefits not just from more idea creators in China, India and the rest of the world but also from more idea consumers. Recall the problem of rare diseases. People with a rare disease are doubly unlucky: They have a disease and only a few people with whom to share the costs of developing a cure. Misery loves company because company can help pay for research and development. Misery especially loves rich company. I wish ill on no man, but if I get a rare disease, I do hope that Bill Gates gets the same one.
I see two views of humanity. In the first view, people are stomachs. More people mean more eaters and less for everyone else. In the second view, people are brains. More brains mean more ideas and more for everyone else. The two different perspectives are not just a matter of ideology or mood. We can look for evidence for or against these views.

Book Review: The Art of Fielding

The-Art-of-Fielding--A-Novel2How many debut novels get sold to a publisher for reportedly almost $700,000, stay on the bestseller list for weeks, receive lengthy blurbs from Jonathan Franzen and James Patterson, are the subject of a lengthy Vanity Fair piece describing how the book got written, have its film rights optioned to HBO, and on and on and on?

I'd love to signal independent-mindedness by saying Chad Harbach's Art of Fielding isn't all it's cracked up to be. But alas, I enjoyed the book immensely--it's been awhile since I've read a novel so consuming and vivid.

The seemingly non-obvious but actually obvious observation about this book is that it's more than a baseball novel. Baseball--the story of a star shortstop and his team--is ostensibly the main plot here. But there's plenty of richness to be had in the friendships that develop along the way, college campus life, and the pressure of expectations. Throw in some good old fashioned gay sex between a college president and one of his students, and you've got yourself a novel.

The book is light rather than heavy in language--there's no metaphorical excess here, and the chapters zip right along. This doesn't make Harbach's observations any less interesting. What follows are some examples of simple yet interesting sentences I underlined.

On the psychological protective role of the locker room for athletes:

The locker room protected you when you were most vulnerable: just before a game, and just after.

On the alphaness of a potential boyfriend who was willing to be temporarily aloof to his girlfriend's evaluation:

Pella felt relieved to sit across from someone who was willing to act so unreservedly glum in her presence, as if she weren't there.

On "high school and/or college were the best years of my life":

Schwartz, for his part, had vowed long ago not to become one of those pathetic ex-jocks who considered high school and college the best days of their lives. Life was long, unless you died, and he didn't intend to spend the next sixty years talking about the last twenty-two.

On feeling kind of off:

He felt a little off, a little odd, like he was playing himself on TV. He could hear his own voice bouncing around in his head.

On the uniqueness of baseball:

But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric--not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?

On doctors, from the department of humor:

Doctors were the most self-righteous people on earth, Schwartz thought. Healthy and wealthy themselves, surrounded by the sick and dying -- it made them feel invincible, and feeling invincible made them pricks. They thought they understood suffering because they saw it every day. They didn't understand shit.

Book Review: The Rational Optimist

41lE-6SCVdL._SS500_Matt Ridley's latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is a dense but fascinating argument for why life is going to get better and better. Ridley's optimism has to do with specialization, trade, globalization, networks, cooperation, exchange--there'll be more of it, all, he says. Especially as ideas cross-pollinate: "when ideas have sex" is when civilization flourishes.

I found the book highly stimulating. First, Ridley synthesized and expanded on ideas I was already loosely familiar with. It was helpful to think back to these different books, and to try to draw some connections. His discussion of the interplay of ideas reminded me of Steven Johnson and Frans Johansson; his discussion of evolving modern prosperity remidned me of Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling; his discussion of why globalization leads to huge creative gains reminded me of Tyler Cowen; his discussion of why we're pessimisstic despite the good news reminded me of Gregg Easterbrook; his discussion of non-zero sum global cooperation reminded me of Robert Wright. And of course his basic theses about trade and exchange draw on Adam Smith's foundational work.

Second, Ridley taught me several new things. For example, he spends a good chunk of time discussing global food shortages and "renewable" energy. He covers these topics with an overt libertarian bent, admittedly, though in a style that's never dogmatic.

My favorite sentences/paragraphs from the book are below. All are direct quotes from Ridley, but the bold emphases are my own.

At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.

Imagine if the man who invented the railway and the man who invented the locomotive could never meet or speak to each other, even through third parties....I shall argue that there was a point in human pre-history when big-brained, cultural, learning people for the first time began to exchange things with each other, and that once they started doing so, culture suddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic "progress" began. Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.

Specialization encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labour. The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they exchanged, the better off they have been, are, and will be.

Today, of Americans officially designated as "poor," 99% have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95% have a television, 88% a telephone, 71% a car and 70% air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these....In Europe and America rivers, lakes, seas, and the air are getting cleaner all the time...Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.

Time: that is key. Forget dollars, cowrie shells or gold. The true measure of something's worth is the hours it takes to acquire it. If you have to acquire it for yourself, it usually takes longer than if you get it ready-made by other people. And if you can get it made efficiently by others, then you can afford more of it....This is what prosperity is: the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work...A three minute phone call from New York to Los Angeles cost ninety hours of work at the average wage of 1910; today it costs less than two minutes.

The Easterlin paradox does not exist. Rich people are happier than poor people; rich countries have happier people than poor countries; and people get happier as they get richer.

It is probably true that the rich do lots of unnecessary damage to the planet as they go on striving to get richer long after the point where it is having much effect on their happiness -- they are after all endowed with instincts for "rivalrous competition" descended from hunter-gatherers whose relative, not absolute, status determined their sexual rewards.

Let it never be forgotten that, by propagating excessive caution about genetically modified food aid, some pressure groups may have exacerbated real hunger in Zambia in the early 2000s.

"Declaration of interdependence"

Think of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.

Reciprocity means giving each other the same thing (usually) at different times. Exchange -- call it barter or trade if you like -- means giving each other different things (usually) at the same time: simultaneously swapping two different objects...Barter is a lot more portentous than reciprocity. After all, delousing aside, how many activities are there in life where it pays to do the same thing to each other in turn? "If I sew you a hide tunic today, you can sew me one tomorrow" brings limited rewards and diminishing returns. "If I make the clothes, you catch the food" brings increasing returns. Indeed, it has the beautiful property that it does not even need to be fair. For barter to work, two individuals do not need to offer things of equal value. Trade is often unequal, but still benefits both sides. This is a point that nearly everybody seems to miss.... I am saying that barter -- the simultaneous exchange of different objects -- was itself a human breakthrough, perhaps even the chief thing that led to the ecological dominance and burgeoning material prosperity of the species...Economists see barter as just one example of a bigger human habit of general reciprocity. Biologists talk about the role that reciprocity played in social evolution, meaning "do until others as they do until you." Neither seems to be interested in the distinction that I think is vital, so let me repeat it here once more: at some point, after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.

A trillion generations of unbroken parental generosity stand behind a bargain with your mother. A hundred good experiences stand behind your reliance on a friend. The long shadow of the future hangs over any transaction with your local shopkeeper...My point is simply this: with frequent setbacks, trust has gradually and progressively grown, spread, and deepened during human history, because of exchange.

The working poor give a much higher proportion of their income to good causes than the rich do, and crucially they give three times as much as people on welfare do.

On average, when it lands in a town, Wal-Mart causes a 13 per cent drop in its competitors' prices and saves its customers nationally $200 billion a year.

The size of the average American company is down from twenty-five employees to ten in just twenty-five years.

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between) - and a great deal of trade, not just because the mouths and the plants will not be in the same place, but also because trade encourages specialization in the best-yielding crops for any particular district.

There is not a single example of a country opening its borders to trade and ending up poorer.

Farm subsides and import tariffs on cotton, sugar, rice, and other products cost Africa $500 billion a year in lost export opportunities -- or twelve times the entire aid budget to the continent.

Rural self-sufficiency is a romantic mirage. Urban opportunity is what people want.

Not long ago, demographers expected new technology to hollow out cities as people began to telecommute from tranquil suburbs. But no - even in weightless industries like finance people prefer to press into ever closer contact with each other in glass towers to do their exchanging and specializing, and they are prepared to pay absurdly high rents to do so.

United Nations' best estimate is that world population will probably start falling once it peaks at 9.2 billion in 2075.

Eat Global, Not Local


It is fashionable these days to decry "food miles." The longer food has spent traveling to your plate, the more oil has been burnt and the more peace has been shattered along the way. But why single out food? Should we not protest against T-shirt miles, too, and laptop miles? After all, fruits and vegetables account for more than 20 percent of all exports from poor countries, whereas most laptops come from rich countries, so singling out food imports for special discrimination means singling out poor countries for sanctions. Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is a "profoundly flawed sustainability indicator." Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4% of all its lifetime emissions...A New Zealand lamb, shipped to England, requires one-quarter as much carbon to get on to a London plate as a Welsh lamb; a Dutch rose, grown in a heated greenhouse and sold in London, has six times the carbon footprint of a Kenyan rose grown under the sun using water recycled through a fish farm, using geothermal electricity and providing employment to Kenyan women.

That's from page 41 of The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. I'll post a full review tomorrow.

Caitlin Flanagan, last year in the Atlantic, wrote about Alice Waters "hijacking school curricula" in California to teach a bizarre set of local food ideas to students.

Here's a long Foreign Policy article on why the Whole Foods mantra of "organic, local, slow" is one that may interest rich Americans and Europeans yet profoundly disadvantages the world's hungry millions.

Here's a piece on why organic food is neither healthier to eat nor better for the environment.

When We Tell Ourselves Stories

Someone at LessWrong transcribed Tyler Cowen's TEDx talk on the problem with stories and narrative--and how we let ourselves be governed by them. It's a good one, and faster to read than listen.

I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it away, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more....

One interesting thing about cognitive biases - they're the subject of so many books these days. There's the Nudgebook, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don't these books tell us that? It's because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you're learning about some of your biases, but you're making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like "I bought this book. I won't be Predictably Irrational." It's like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It's why there's such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that's maybe the bigger fallacy. It's just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They're the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It's the people that realize, "I don't know anything at all," that end up doing pretty well.


The other week I hosted a storytelling night. Eight of us convened and each went around the room and told a story. My suggested theme to the group was travel. One person's said the following near the beginning of his story: "And then I embarked on a monthlong trip through the Bolvian highlands. I was all by myself, and I had plenty of time to think about Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Tyler Cowen." It was a fun evening.

Selective Excerpting to Reach the Masses

Tumblr post with life advice got sent around to several people I know, via retweets and shares. Key excerpts:

This is the thing: When you hit 28 or 30, everything begins to divide. You can see very clearly two kinds of people. On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find … themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults. Then there’s the other kind, who are hanging onto college, or high school even, with all their might. They’ve stayed in jobs they hate, because they’re too scared to get another one. They’ve stayed with men or women who are good but not great, because they don’t want to be lonely. … they mean to develop intimate friendships, they mean to stop drinking like life is one big frat party. But they don’t do those things, so they live in an extended adolescence, no closer to adulthood than when they graduated. 

Don’t be like that. Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming. Don’t lose yourself at happy hour, but don’t lose yourself on the corporate ladder either. Stop every once in a while and go out to coffee or climb in bed with your journal.

The advice is not bad -- even if it succumbs to the "short. bursts. of advice. to do. something." formulation that peeves me -- but I have two broader reactions.

First, "there are two types of people" is a smart, simple frame that plays on people's us vs. them instinct. It also enables subtle self-congratulation when someone shares the article online--you only share it if you are on the right side of the fence.

Second, and more interestingly, the original article from which the post excerpts actually appeared in a religious magazine called Relevant, which bills itself as about "God. Life. Progressive Culture." In fact, if you look at the original article, there are various religious references that got turned into ellipses in the excerpt.


On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find God and themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults. 

Tumblr excerpt that got shared: 

On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find … themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults.


Walk closely with people you love, and with people who believe God is good and life is a grand adventure.


Walk closely with people you love, and with people who believe … life is a grand adventure. 

You could say the advice is just as valid with or without the God references. But it's interesting that whoever posted the excerpt decided to omit them. He must have figured he'd lose none of the religious readers by keeping the message secular (even if the connection with religious readers was made less intense), but that he stood to lose a lot of non-religious people were the God references kept. So he chose for the most universal excerpt.

It reminds me of the Insiders vs. Outsiders post I wrote the other week. When communicating to a group, you're always trying to decide whether to connect intensely with a small set of folks, or connect less intensely with a larger set.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger?

Whether you think of Nietzsche or Kanye West when you hear the line "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"--you probably think of it as true. Or at least I did. Short term struggle builds long term strength. Even life's toughest experiences have a redeeming quality inasmuch as it instructs or inspires or hardens or softens a person in the right away. Etc.

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer. He's undergoing radiation. In Vanity Fair he reflects on the maxim that I took as fact--and finds it false.

In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.

On the pain he felt:

To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

He ends:

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.


Here's a touching book trailer about dying. I've rarely seen someone on camera who appears truly at peace in life. Lee Lipsenthal does. He passed away a couple months ago. His book, Enjoy Every Sandwich, came out last month.

One Simple Question to Test Dating Compatability

All dating compatability tests end up testing for a simple question: "Will we laugh at the same shit?"

That's one nugget among many from the relatively recent New Yorker article on online dating.

Another nugget: the answer to the question "Do you like the taste of beer?" is more predictive than any other of whether you’re willing to have sex on a first date.

The Compensations and Losses of Old Age

Benjamin Schwarz comments on John Updike's writing at the end of his life, and says:

Above all, and most poignantly, this collection highlights Updike’s evaluation of the slackening of his own mental and athletic prowess... A generous and companionable critic and an avowed Christian, Updike met the decline of his powers with courage and good humor, but also with a clear-eyed recognition that the compensations of old age—a hard-won sagacity, a bemused detachment—don’t make up for the irretrievable losses.

I liked "hard-won sagacity" and "bemused detachment" to describe the "compensations of old age." And I love the counterbalancing statement that, no, of course nothing makes up for the "irretrievable losses"...

Things Men Will Never Understand About Women

The always worthwhile Caitlin Flanagan recently penned a gushing essay about Oprah. Oprah possess remarkable range--in a single show she can interview a guest who was abused by her husband and then, later on in the program, do a segment on the wonders of a panini sandwich maker. There are few others who handle light and heavy topics with equal aplomb, Flanagan says.

Along these lines, the paragraph below from Flanagan caught my eye: 

THERE ARE CERTAIN things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.

It's not that a woman's anxieties about body image might be equal to the delight of a new cake of soap; it's that to fully understand a person (woman or man) you need to know what keeps them up at night, yes, but you also need to know their favorite bike route, or ice cream flavor of choice, or the story behind the shirt they always wear on the weekends.

Oprah gets this. It's part of what makes her so successful.

Steve Jobs Brainstorming at NeXT

Fascinating 20 min video of Steve Jobs leading a brainstorming session (among other things) at NeXT in the late 80's. At his death he was leader of one of the world's largest corporations; but in this video he talks as a founder of a fledgling start-up dealing with office supplies and payrolls. He implores his employees to regain the "start-up hustle." Good stuff.

Knowing a Man vs. Knowing About a Man

Sportswriter Joe Ponsnaski is in the middle of writing of biography of Joe Paterno. And then last week happens.

On his blog, Ponsaski reflects on the man, and starts with this:

Writing a book comes from the soul. It consumes you — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all of it. I have thought about Joe Paterno, his strengths, his flaws, his triumphs, his failures, his core, pretty much nonstop for months now. I have talked to hundreds of people about him in all walks of life. I have read 25 or 30 books about him, countless articles. I'm not saying I know Joe Paterno. I'm saying I know a whole lot about him.

Love this distinction.

Insiders, Outsiders, and the Invisible Wink


"Inside baseball" refers to using jargon, specialized knowledge, acronyms, first names instead of full names, or other such things when speaking and writing. Using shorthand of this sort is simply more efficient when among friends, colleagues, or other "insiders." But there's a larger reason for inside references: They subtly increase the bond between the people in the know. If I tell you that Jake is sick today, and you know who Jake is without me needing to use a last name, that reinforces a defined ingroup based on our common experiences, knowledge, vernacular.

When you're with outsiders, you don't use inside references. I'd say Jake Smith, not Jake. I'd say "customer relationship management," not CRM.

Where it gets tricky is when you're in a group where there's both: some true insiders to you or the topic you're speaking/writing about, some people who are not.

When you make inside references and outsiders read/hear them, outsiders do not understand the content itself and, more importantly, feel excluded. They're in the outgroup. Sometimes the effect is trivial or inconsequential; other times it's small but meaningful.

I've been in group meetings where a few people who've worked together a long time crack an inside joke and all of us who didn't get it immediately feel like outsiders (relative to whatever bond they have). The people in on the joke feel closer, but this isn't great for overall team work and team bonding.

Romantic couples tend to do this a lot, actually, and it's annoying. You're out with a couple and they turn to each other and wink or quietly chuckle for a moment and while they feel closer, you're simply reminded of your outsider status relative to their communal bond.

So what's the right negotiation of inside vs. outside references when in a group of insiders and outsiders?

One idea: use "Invisible Winks" in your writing or speaking. A real wink, the closing of one eye, is a non-verbal cue to another insider usually about some mutually known knowledge. But a real wink is often seen by other (outsiders) in a physical context; it's also impossible to deploy in a written context. That's why the effective wink I'm talking about (in-person or in writing) needs to be "invisible" and context-agnostic. The key to an invisible wink is that insiders get the wink while outsiders do not notice the wink; additive to insiders, neutral to outsiders.

Suppose I were to write a blog post about a recent plane flight and mention that I won the critical armrest battle. For the majority of people reading this, that means nothing beyond its surface semantic content. And it's fine - they read it and move on. But for people who've been reading this blog for several years, they get the history behind the reference. It would serve as a special wink to an insider: Hey, you get the history.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a blog post awhile back (that I can't find for the life of me) in which he ended with a sentence not in quotation marks that was actually a sentence from a Yeats poem. Again, he doesn't quote Yeats with quotation marks, but he closes with Yeats's words, which happened to fit the topic perfectly. Those who didn't know it was Yeats presumably read it and absorbed it normally. Those who did catch the reference found an easter egg and felt smart -- and closer to Sullivan as a result. It was the perfect invisible wink: greater bond with insiders, neutral effect on outsiders.

David Foster Wallace did this a lot, too. His writing is packed with hidden references and allusions, but not in a way where outsiders (i.e., people who don't pick up on the allusion) feel like they're "missing" something. Insiders get them, outsiders do not but do not realize they do not, and everyone is happy. As a result, DFW obtained both a mainstream audience and deep engagement with one portion of that audience. It's rare especially in academic writing and even in mainstream novelists.

In a real life, insider/outsider mixed context, an invisible wink may simply be the utterance of an inside reference without the chuckle, physical wink, or color commentary on the history of whatever it is being discussed--and only the utterances that don't make outsiders feel excluded.

Does this all sound insanely oveanalzyed? Maybe, but I think it's important. When I think about socially brilliant people, they possess a remarkable sensitivity to insider/outsider dynamics when speaking and writing to groups. It's part of what makes them socially brilliant.

Bottom Line: The best inside references strengthen bonds with those who get it while not being so obviously inside baseball that outsiders feel excluded.


Related point: I think Tyler Cowen once said that he sometimes uses fancy economic terms on his blog without defining them because it creates an aspirational effect for the portion of his readers who are not professionally trained economists. When you use a term and do not define it or even link to Wikipedia, it signals to readers that you assume they know the meaning. It gives them an opportunity to elevate themselves. Essentially, he's giving outsiders the opportunity to feel like insiders--once they brush up on their econ knowledge.

(thanks to Stan James for helping brainstorm this idea)

Everything is on Fire...Slow Fire

I'm reading The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, his unfinished novel. There are lots of dark passages. Here's an excerpt which addresses, as DFW often does, terrible truths:

I'm talking about the individual US citizen's deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we've lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it's all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it's not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than "die," "pass away," the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday...

And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have heven heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money toh ave put in to make sure we're remembered, these'll last what -- a hundred years? two hundred? -- and they'll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I'm cremated the trees that are nourished by my windbown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, to only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1863, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to imagine, in fact, probably that's why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.

Have a great day!

What Finance is About

I thought Jerry Webman, the chief economist at Oppenheimer Funds, captured the essence of finance nicely and simply in his op/ed in the FT the other day:

At its core, finance is about linking people with savings to those that can put them to productive use. Performed correctly, it can fund retirement accounts, foster growth in emerging markets and support the technology companies that help protesters assemble in a flash. A well-functioning financial system is critical for economic growth. Investments that support worthwhile projects can build the human and physical capital that generates growth and raises standards of living around the world.

I've been negative on the finance industry and bankers in a couple recent tweets, quoting Nassim Taleb and Michael Lewis. It's good to go back to the basics, as Webman does, and be reminded of what finance is really about--when it functions correctly.


Not to be negative again on banks -- just when we were being positive! -- but a point about those Goldman Sachs / Citibank magazine advertisements and pre-roll online video commercials that talk about how Goldman/Citi help communities flourish, how they empower small business owners, etc. They've been in heavy rotation ever since the '08 crisis. And they are stylistically just like the Exxon and Shell Oil commercials that claim that oil companies are leading the way in finding renewable energy.

Our Ability to Forget

"We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were." -- Joan Didion

But it's our ability to forget that allows us to move forward.

The Effects of Going Off the Grid and Exploring Nature

Is going off the grid and retreating into nature sure to be relaxing and rejuvenating? Not for Rob Horning, who spent some time in Idaho for a nature trip awhile back. He reports:

Contra Thoreau, retreating into nature, instead of bringing me back to myself, made me feel like less of a self and a bit more like one of the many undifferentiated bison one encounters out there. I don’t feel replenished for the assault on the backlog of posts I intend to read and write. Instead, as I was out hiking, I would think of this dormant blog and wonder how I’ll ever manage to catch upa nagging thought that filled me with vague, unshakable uneasiness.

Being adrift in the natural world had come to feel very unnatural; the serenity seemed like a taunt. This seems to me the inverse of the interconnected feeling I take for granted in the time I spend online, and I understood for the first time why people would do something as inane as Twitter their hikes from their iPhones or something. I tried to feed this anxiety by taking lots of pictures with the idea of sharing them later, but this only aggravated the feeling. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures. Eventually I had to try the opposite tack and take no pictures at all.

There are two points here. The first is that if you take a vacation but spend the vacation time worrying about all the work that's piling up, it may cause more stress than you had in the first place. A valid point, which is why off-the-grid vacations need to be long enough so that you pass by that anxiety, so that you get you a point where so much work has piled up that you essentially say, "Screw it, time to relax." 6-7 days a couple times a year seems a good number for formal vacation; a couple days of stress, a few days of relaxation.

His second point is that being disconnected from technology--and out in nature--makes you feel adrift, perhaps lonely. I think this is a benefit from unplugging for stretches of time. Something that feels unnatural in the modern age is not necessarily a bad thing.

I wish I spent more time in nature and off-the-grid. That, and meditating, are two things I aspire to do more of in the year ahead in order to lower stress, improve health, and improve clarity of thought.

Impressions and Lessons from Greece


I spent last week in Athens, Greece. It was my first time to the country. I didn't have time to make it to the islands, but I did have time to meet many students, NGO leaders, and businesspeople in Athens. Some assorted impressions and lessons.

1. History. Seeing the stadium that hosted the first Olympic games; seeing the place where Socrates was forced to commit suicide; seeing where a stage play was first performed; learning about the numerous English words and images (like the logo/insignia of pharmacies) that have their origin in a Greek god or Greek word...Athens really is the birthplace of western civilization and western democracy. 

The Parthenon and related antiquities are well-kept outside, and an architectural wonder of the world, obviously. Inside, the new Acropolis museum shows off many other sculptures and art. Christopher Hitchen wrote a piece in Vanity Fair a couple years back (which I happened to read in the Best American Travel Writing of 2010 that I brought along on my trip) about the musuem. He covers the dispute over the British Museum holding various Greek art that ought to be in Athens. Hitchens thinks it's an outrage--though, to be fair, issues of national sovereignty over long-ago stolen art is a tricky one. Missing pieces notwithstanding, Hitchens raves about the new Acropolis museum. I generally don't like museums, but I'm with Hitchens on this one -- the facility does a splendid job at showing off the millenia-old history of the country.

2. Athens beyond antiquities. Besides the Acropolis, there isn't a ton to do or see in Athens. There's plenty of traffic and pollution, meanwhile. While the Acropolis sitting up high is always a sight to behold from wherever you are in the city (especially at night when it's lit up), I wouldn't say the city built for Athena is especially stunning in the 21st century.

3. Motivated students. I wasn't dealing with a representative sample of the population, that's for sure, but the several hundred students who I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to seemed driven to take control of their future, innovate, and overcome the massive economic challenges facing their country. With youth employment soaring (40% according to some numbers), the savvy students are aggressively trying to build a career without relying on the usual industries (e.g. government) or strategies. That's the good news.

4. Brain drain risk. But the potentially bad news is that these savvy students might not stay. I gained no great insight into the macroeconomic situation in Greece -- and I didn't have much insight to begin with. But an observation I did have is around a long-term risk more significant than the country's debts: the possible population brain drain of the students mentioned in point #3. Many smart young people are thinking about leaving the country; they told me so themselves. There's a self-fulling dynamic here. If the smart people perceive there's no future for them in Greece, then they leave, and when the smart people leave, there really is no future for the country. It needs to find a way to keep them. 

The common approach elders take to keeping talented youth in a country is appealing to notions of civic duty and national pride. That's one approach. But a grittier entrepreneurial approach is to focus on the business opportunities that are the flip side of societal problems. If taxi drivers strike constantly, why not start Ubercab for the businesspeople of Athens? Maybe not a great business idea, but it's an example of emphasizing practical self-interest over high-minded ideals when urging the best and brightest to stay.

5. Labor strikes. There are strikes every day in Athens thanks to the severe government cuts that are part of the austerity measures. Garbage men were on strike--so garbage was piled high on every street corner. Public transit and taxi drivers went on strike--so nobody could get around. Archaeologists and museum security guards went on strike--so nobody could go to museums. Tax collectors and government officials went on strike--so nobody could use basic government services. Apparently, daily strikes have been going on for about two years, and are now a certain occurrence. There's a web site in Greek that each day shows who is striking and for how long--it's become a must-read in Athens. Everyone I spoke to about the strikes agreed that the protesters were against the austerity measures, but were not for any specific alternative approach.

6. U.S. Diplomats and local staff. Once again, I was super impressed with the quality of the U.S. diplomats (who helped host me in Athens). The foreign service officers and the local staff they hire are truly a cut above your average federal government employee. I was also honored to spend some time with the American Ambassador to Greece and participate in a reception at his residence. What a challenging and exciting post right now. Again, just impressive all around.

7. Building entrepreneurial communities. A question we were batting around at dinner one night was how certain places (like Athens) might become hotbeds of entrepreneurship. I've thought a lot about this question over the years, particularly when I wrote an article on how Boulder, CO became a start-up hub. One point I make in the article--it's really Brad Feld's point, as he is a thought leader on the topic--is the need for leadership from individuals within the community. Not government officials, but private citizens who step up and try to galvanize the community to support the entrepreneurial process.

But the leadership or entrepreneurial push can't be momentary in response to a crisis. It has to be enduring. In Boulder, Brad's been there for more than a decade, and it's only in the last couple years that the city has emerged on the national map as a viable place to do a company. Leadership is needed over a long period of time; as Brad says, it's a 20-year journey. Government programs are prone to lose patience with programs that don't produce immediate gain; start-ups rarely produce immediate gain no matter how you measure it. It's another reason why governments cannot provide the long-term leadership necessary to drive entrepreneurial activity. (I'm fascinated to watch for how long the Chilean government funds Start-Up Chile.) In any event, for a local entrepreneur to be a true leader in the entrepreneurial community, it does seem like s/he needs to commit to leading/organizing/rallying the troops for decades, not years.

8. Being abroad. I hadn't traveled outside the U.S. for more than a year. It was great to get back out there. Though I had to camp out in my hotel room for a majority of the time, being out and about for meals, walking through Munich and Frankfurt airports, seeing the International Herald Tribune on Athens newsstands--these little things were enough to trigger the high one gets from being in a new place. And it's an energy that endures even when you return home...

Remembering Steve Jobs

There has been so much written about him already. I wanted to share a few random, personal reflections.

-- Jobs was an icon to me, though he was not a role model, mentor, or muse. It's interesting how people differ in where they find inspiration; the most inspiring people in my life are people who seem within my reach. Jobs always seemed in a different orbit--so astronomically more creative and talented than I was/am/will be that I never followed his life in the obsessive maybe I could be him/her way that I follow some people. He was certainly aspirational, but not relatable. And that's why, while I feel a lasting sadness over his death, I do not feel like I've lost something as profound as a personal pole star. 

-- I've written about the Think Different ad. I've spoken the text dozens of times to people over the years, and have begun nearly every public speech with the story of being forced to memorize it while in school. The text of the ad has been hanging in my childhood bedroom for years. The newly released video of Jobs narrating the ad, embedded below, is so moving. 

-- When I was very young, I mailed a letter to Steve Jobs asking if he could donate a computer to help me start a company. My family had a couple computers (early Macintoshes), but I figured maybe I could get a new fancy one for free, if I asked nicely. A few weeks later, I received a letter back from an Apple spokesperson. It was two sentences long. The first sentence said Apple doesn't make donations. The second sentence requested that I remove Apple from my mailing list. Looking back, that's a pretty amusing reply.

-- There's so much pessimism about politics and economics in the world right now. The celebration of innovation that accompanied Jobs's death reminded me why I love the technology industry.

-- As with all breaking news events, the best action that day was on Twitter, for the raw emotion.

RIP, Steve.

Book Review: Loyalty by Eric Felten

41+acjhZqgL._SL500_AA300_ Browsing in a book store a couple months ago--something I wish I did more, to introduce serendipity that doesn't happen when buying books online--I noticed an item that caught my eye. Beautifully packaged in a dark blue jacket cover with a gold-font title: Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, by Wall Street Journal arts columnist and musician Eric Felten. I bought it.

In the introduction, Felten says "loyalty is the virtue of being trustworthy." It means keeping your word. In each subsequent chapter, he complicates this basic definition by exploring how loyalty operates in different contexts: romance, business, politics, and others.

Felten says loyalty is essential in human affairs. Without loyalty, trust disappears and relationships crumble. The problem is, loyalties conflict. For example, when friends commit immoral acts, should you stand by them (loyal to friend) or uphold moral principles (loyal to principle)? Felten says, "Try not to renounce your old friends except when they exhibit an excess of wickedness." An excess of wickedness was Aristotle's trigger for disloyalty. Or as Sir Walter Scott said, "I like a highland friend who will stand by me not only when I am in the right, but when I am little in the wrong." A lot in the wrong is different; too much loyalty and soon we're talking about a vice, not a virtue, Felten says.

What's the difference between a little and a lot of wickedness? That's up to you. Figuring it out is an example of a tough decision Felten says we need to make, case by case. If we're not willing to untangle loyalty conflicts as they arise, we give up on loyalty altogether, and life becomes impossible.

The chapter on adultery and monogamy is strong. Couple quotes:

...the "passion-fidelity dilemma." It's a long standing struggle, and we still haven't been able to decide whether passion and fidelity are compatible. We want love that lasts, but we also want passionate intensity, and we suspect that we will at some point have to choose which love is worth having, the epic but brief romance, or the companionship that goes the distance. Many facing this choice look at passion like ripe peaches--short lived, but much to be preferred over fruit canned in cloying syrup.


So which is it? Is loyalty love's friend or its enemy? Does love bind things together or rip them apart? The advocates of passion celebrate Eros' tendency to smash the crockery. Real love, they argue, is unconstrained by stodgy, boring old notions of fidelity; real love proves its primacy by transgressing the petty boundaries of bourgeois morality; real love demonstrates itself by transcending inhibition and propriety. This is a view that aggrandizes the destructive tendencies of love and betlittles loyalty as a wet security blanket. It is also a narrow, impoverished view, one with adolescent enthusiasm made possible by an adolescent understanding of what gives life satisfaction and meaning. As alluring as the passion principle may be, mistaking romance for love is one of the most common calamities known to humankind. And, as we'll see, the difference between the two is marked by loyalty.

I mostly agree, though I think many believe in the idea of monogamous romance--and agree with Felten that the passion principle gets tiresome as lifelong practice--but still commit occasional physical betrayals. In other words, many agree that fidelity in romance is the way to the happiest life, but many of those same people still occasionally act in pursuit of momentary passion.

The topic of loyalty has been an interest of mine for awhile. Hearing people exalt others for their "loyalty"--to a person, to an organization, or a cause--has never quite sat well with me, probably because there is a dangerous, unthinking sort of loyalty that is called to mind when I hear the word. The ambiguity of it all has also bugged me. Almost two years ago, I wrote a post titled Loyalty: An Overrated and Dangerous Virtue:

Loyalty is better viewed as a phenomenon of other traits and virtues: trustworthiness, empathy for fellow humans, investing in a relationship in good times and bad, variations of the golden rule, etc. These are constitutive virtues of loyalty. For example, fidelity is its own virtue. You should be faithful in a relationship. To describe this concept, I say use the word "fidelity" and not "loyalty."

I still would rather people use other more specific words to describe certain positive traits. But Felten refreshed my understanding of the essential role of the virtue(s) at work when we use the word, without arriving at any easy or clear conclusions. My own conclusion from reading the book is that I maintain staunch loyalty to certain people, institutions, and ideas, and must be prepared to negotiate conflicts accordingly.

This is a book to give to anyone who too quickly celebrates loyalty or to someone tempted to too quickly dismiss it.

Admiring Excellence

At a San Francisco Giants game a couple months ago, I joked to Cal Newport, who was sitting next to me, that the Newportian analysis of the game had nothing to do with bases and balls and everything to do with the years of deliberate practice that rocketed each player to the peak of their profession. Cal sees remarkable talent as the product of years of craftsmanship.

I thought about that moment at the ballpark with Cal the other week when I was listening to a commentator who, after reporting that the Houston Astros (one of the worst teams in baseball this season) beat the Giants, said that it doesn't matter how bad the opposing team is--when you're competing against professional athletes, it is always hard work to win. The worst player on the worst team in the major leagues is still one of the best athletes in the world. When you see a National League pitcher go to bat and hack at balls way off the plate, he looks like he's never swung a bat before. Yet, that hitter was probably the best hitter on his high school team by far. When professional pitchers are made to look silly at the plate, it's a reminder of how good major league pitching is. Only those who devote their professional careers to hitting stand a chance--and full-time pitchers, obviously, do not.

You don't need to be a pro at the craft to admire it in others. In the baseball example, if you don't know the rules of baseball you won't appreciate the players' talents. You need a base level of knowledge. But you can be an amateur and still be awed by the pros, if you let yourself.

Why admire excellence? First, admiring excellence is part of appreciative thinking. In a terrific, packed restaurant, admiring excellence becomes appreciating the myriad details the restauranteur has nailed to make the dining experience flawless. Purchasing a product on Amazon becomes appreciating the data analysts who processed billions of bits of data in order to optimize the shopping cart process. This appreciative, admiring mentality is also a backdoor entrance--in the house of feelings--to gratitude. "I'm grateful to be in the presence of someone who's world class at their craft."

Second, consciously admiring and recognizing the excellence of someone is the first step to becoming a master yourself. If the key to mastery of any skill is deconstructing what current masters did to get to where they are, then step one is knowing when you're around professionals--and letting yourself admire them!


From Josh Kaufman, a Craftsman's Creed.

Are Online Reviews Making Brands Irrelevant?

My friend Nathan Labenz writes about the success of TripAdvisor (the leading review site of hotels) and what it means to the future of brands:

Historically, brands were built on the assumption of limited information. As mass production made it possible to sell soap and soup nationwide, companies developed brands to represent quality and cultivate product loyalty. Brands were a natural fit for radio and TV advertising, and brands thrived with the proliferation of cable channels, which kept advertising costs down while offering unprecedented demographic targeting.

... Facebook and Twitter get most of the attention for brand disruption, but the biggest problems for brands are in search and e-commerce.

Take this Google search for Super 8 Motels, for example. On the front page, you’ll see ratings that hotel guests have written about particular Super 8s on TripAdvisor, Yahoo Travel and Yelp. Importantly, the reviews vary widely. When I checked, a New Mexico location was rated 4.5 stars, while a Los Angeles location was at 3.5 stars and one in British Columbia had only 2 stars. Such location-specific information undermines brands’ ability to affect consumers’ purchasing decisions with 30-second TV spots and gives TripAdvisor a powerful position....

For the Super 8 brand, the end game could be scary: as TripAdvisor accumulates more and more trusted reviews, the best-performing Super 8s, all of which are independent franchises, may eventually realize that their business is suffering from their association with lesser motels. At that point, we might see a “brand run,” wherein the best locations leave the chain, lowering the brand’s value and ultimately leading to its collapse.

It's a solid point and underdiscussed in the hoopla about social media and how it's affecting big brands.

An even better example than Super 8 might be Mariott as I'm guessing a large percentage of Super 8 rooms are sold on no reservation and reviews don't play as much a role.

In the case of Mariott, I'm likely to have reserved a room in advance. In the old days, perhaps I assume that all Mariotts around the world are good. Now, in conjunction with booking the reservation online, I can read reviews of individual locations. There's more variance in the quality of Mariott properties than Mariott HQ would like to admit (I've stayed in dozens of Mariotts myself), and that variance is now for all to see on sites like TripAdvisor.

The end game that Nathan proposes--the outperforming properties dissociating from the national brand because they're being hurt by the low performers--seems quite possible in the long run. After all, wouldn't you rather stay at a hotel you've never heard of (i.e., no national brand) but one that has hundreds of credible five star reviews over a Mariott location that has hundreds of two star reviews?

Eventually, the good franchises will recognize this. And Mariott HQ--whose business is premised on the benefits of a national brand uniting thousands of independent franchises in an information-poor world--will be hurt.

Hard-to-Define Jobs Are More Secure

Generally, the harder it is to explain to someone you've just met at a cocktail party what it is you do on a day to day basis, the more interesting the work you're engaged in.

Arnold Kling applies a related rule of thumb to job security:

A job seeker is looking for... a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing.

In other words, how easy is it to outline exactly what you must do day to day at work? The easier this task, the more at risk it is to being offshored or automated.

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