Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. Incredibly Bad Corporate Writing

Harvard Business Review finds a soft target to illustrate how bad business writing hinders productivity: Marissa Mayer’s email to employees after the Verizon deal. A sample:

When I mentioned to friends that I was going to Burning Man with my 69-year-old father, “Good idea” were the words out of no one’s mouth.

HBR's take:

Mayer uses “incredible” or “incredibly” four times in a single paragraph. All that cheerleading reads like misdirection. It’s going to be challenging for Yahoo to continue to succeed as part of Verizon, and happy, vacuous language certainly won’t inspire the workers who haven’t quit yet. 

2. Not Catch 18, 11, or 14: Catch 22

This excerpt from editor Robert Gottlieb’s memoir describes the scramble to land the right title for Joseph Heller’s masterpiece novel, Catch 22:

Through the seven or so years that Joe worked on his book…its name was Catch-18. Then, in the spring 1961, the new novel by Leon Uris, whose Exodus had recently been a phenomenal success, was titled Mila 18. They had stolen our number! Today, it sounds far from traumatic, but in that moment it was beyond trauma, it was tragedy. Obviously, “18” had to go. But what could replace it?  There was a moment when “11” was seriously considered, but it was turned down because of the current movie Ocean’s 11. Then Joe came up with “14,” but I thought it was flavorless and rejected it. And time was growing short. One night lying in bed, gnawing at the problem, I had a revelation. Early the next morning I called Joe and burst out, “Joe, I’ve got it! Twenty-two! It’s even funnier than eighteen!” Obviously the notion that one number was funnier than another number was a classic example of self-delusion, but we wanted to be deluded.

3. Stop the Sports Romance

Call us unromantic, but when Georgetown University’s athletic department offers a “Proposal Package” to facilitate in-game engagements, complete with the services of a proposal planner “to develop a customized surprise proposal at a Georgetown basketball game,” things have gone too far. Claire McNear pleads to the betrothed to stop the madness:

Your fellow attendees weren’t proud of you when you graduated or signed your first lease, or quietly pleased when you broke up with Angie, who was just so bad for you, honestly. They have literally never wished for you to end up with someone nice. I’m sorry to break it to you, but they just don’t care. But now here you are, trapping them in your display. One minute they’re in the midst of their own days with people they have chosen to spend at least a regulation period of eternity with, and then suddenly they’re staring, confused, into someone else’s camera as the people in front of them recite long, nervous speeches and then make out.

4. If We Build It...

Economist Edward Glaeser revisits the popular arguments for increasing investment in infrastructure – and finds them lacking. He backs his position with a number of current and historical examples, but the most eye-opening is Japan:

Japan has invested enormously in infrastructure, building scores of bridges, tunnels, highways, and trains, as well as new airports—some barely used. The New York Times reported that, between 1991 and late 2008, the country spent $6.3 trillion on “construction-related public investment”—a staggering sum. This vast outlay has undoubtedly produced engineering marvels…But while these trillions in spending may have kept some people working, no one can look at the Japanese numbers and conclude that the money has ramped up the growth rate. Moreover, the largesse is part of the reason that the nation now labors under a crushing public debt.

Glaeser, who is no enemy of infrastructure investment, thinks part of the answer is better public debate: “America spends too much time arguing about whether to spend more money or less on infrastructure…and far too little time on how to construct and maintain infrastructure wisely.”

5. Cars in Idle Mode

Lyft co-founder John Zimmer’s essay in Medium argues that our cars spend far more time in park than drive. There is obviously a heavy dose of self-interest here, but Zimmer does make a serious point about under-utilization:

Americans spend more than $2 trillion every year on car ownership — more money than we spend on food. What’s even more staggering is that for all the money we spend on them, the 250 million cars in America are only occupied 4% of the time. That’s the equivalent of 240 million of the 250 million cars being parked at all times. For the most part, your car isn’t actually a driving machine at all. It’s a parking machine.

Zimmer believes we are on the brink of a new age of transformation in which the end of private cars pave the way for redesigned cities. Persuasive.

6. Was Westworld Way Ahead of Its Time?

Westworld, the 1973 futurist movie directed by author Michael Crichton and starring Yul Brenner as a too-realistic robot in a Wild West theme park, was a huge hit. Now, with much hype, HBO will soon release a series based on the movie. Writing in Popular Mechanics, Tim Grierson suggests that the original identified the ethical dilemmas of virtual reality long before others:

Crichton would tackle a similar theme of an amusement park suddenly out of control in his 1990 book Jurassic Park, of course. But in Westworld, he hits upon an idea that has haunted sci-fi creators for decades: What happens when the machines enslave us and humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain?


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