Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Disrupting Traditional Education

On the recommendation of a colleague, I recently started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast – specifically, his Blueprint for Armageddon series about World War One.

Since I started the series last week, I’ve been pretty hooked.

Dan Carlin is a captivating and passionate story teller.  The material is incredibly well researched and presented in a way that’s truly compelling.  It’s really an incredibly body of work and I highly recommend you check it out.

What really fascinates me, is that the material that Carlin covers in the podcast is the exact same material we all learned in 9th grade history class.  The first podcast starts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and leads up to the German invasion of Belgium.  Pretty familiar stuff, right?

I remember learning about these same events back when I was in high school – perhaps you do as well?  If I close my eyes, I can picture the room where I first learned about Franz Ferdinand – I can see my classmates and my teacher.  I also remember what I thought of the material: it was boring, dry, and uninspiring.

However now, 18 years later, I find the exact same source material to be completely enthralling.

What’s the difference?


Learning Something New

Ever since my son was born last September, I’ve been (very slowly) teaching myself how to play the guitar.  Thanks to a busy schedule at work and home, my repertoire so far consists of two Cat Stevens songs that both feature patches of awkward silence because I haven’t learned bar-chords yet.  And, like learning anything new, at times the process has been very frustrating.

One piece I have particularly struggled with is playing the opening chord for Cat Steven’s Moonshadow, which requires you to play a D-chord, but stretch your left pinky and hit the e string on the fifth fret (which outlines the melody of the song).

On Saturday (yesterday) I almost gave up learning the song because I figured I’d never actually be able to play the riff correctly.  It seemed impossible – my fingers just didn’t bend that way.

Then something wonderful happened, I picked up the guitar today (Sunday) and something was different.  My fingers moved in a way they hadn’t just one day prior and I was able to successfully play the riff.

Saturday it seemed impossible.  Sunday it was possible.  The magic of leaning something new – going from impossible to possible – never ceases to amaze me.  It’s truly one of my favorite things in the world.

I’ve had this same experience with understanding new concepts at work and in school.  One day the material seems abstract and intangible, then all the sudden it “clicks” and I can grasp the material in a new way.

What changed in my brain between Saturday and Sunday?  What “clicked”?


The Balance of Facts vs. Opinion


In discussing President Trump’s recent immigration ban with friends and coworkers many have mentioned the notion that we’ve entered a “post fact” or “post truth” era.  There is even a new Wikipedia page (created just last summer) to explain the concept.

Personally, I’ve been really struggling with the concept of a post truth era.  Rezwan Khan (my coworker and commenter on last week’s post) helped me think about this topic in new light.

Rezwan’s point is that we aren’t really living in a post-fact world, but rather “not-facts” are much more available than they’ve ever been before.  Here, I think he makes an important point.

If we rewind 20 years ago, the way that most Americans got their news was through the newspaper.  Now, it’s been a while since I’ve picked up an actual print newspaper, but as I recall there is a pretty clear divide between the section for “news” and section for “opinion.”  Typically, the first 15-20 pages of the paper are news, and then way in the back are a few pages of opinion.  I think it’s safe to say that the balance of fact-based-news to opinion is about 10/1 in favor of news.

Fast forward to today.  Two things have happened:

  • The barrier to entry for publishing an opinion piece has been eliminated
  • The “news” vs. “opinion” labels have been mostly lost

Today, everyone (even me) can enter the publishing world at practically zero cost.  And, most of the people that enter the new internet-enabled-zero-cost publishing world are presenting some degree of opinion.

Due to this trend, the balance between fact and opinion has changed – it’s no longer 10/1, now it’s more like 10/10,000,000 with facts drowned out by a vast sea of loud opinions.


Immigration Ban

I started writing this post last week, but I was unable to finish it.  In some ways, I’m really at a loss for words.  Like many of you, I’m terribly offended and troubled by President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries.

How on earth did we get here?

A while back I wrote a blog post about then-candidate Trump and his platform.  I was never a Trump supporter, but rather wrote it as a thought experiment (at a time when it seemed very unlikely that Trump would win) to really understand why people considered him a good candidate for president.  At the time, there was an angle that actually made a lot of sense to me.

In the post I talked about the somewhat popular opinion that our government is “broken.”  The quintessential example of broken government that I highlighted was the plan for the F-35 airplane and it’s supposed $1.5 trillion price tag.  I linked to a Quora article by Jack Menendez that called this price tag an example of government corruption.

In his bitter rebuke of the F-35 program, which I found very compelling, Menendez writes:

“The entire F-35 program is supposed to cost $1.5 trillion; in today’s dollars that is 3 times what the interstate highway system cost and 14 times the cost of the entire Apollo program i.e. going to the moon.”

On the surface, and without thinking about it much, this is a very troubling reality and one that might warrant a new kind of President to go into Washington and disrupt the status quo.  That’s where I hypothesized Trump could be (and has been) successful.

There’s one small problem though – Menendez had the facts wrong.  As it turns out, the $1.5T figure isn’t in today’s dollars, and there is a lot more in the F-35 program than just building an airplane.


Lincoln’s Boys: A Topical Retrospective of a Divided Nation

This weekend I finished reading Dr. Joshua Zeitz’ book Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. First let me say, the book is incredible. It’s detailed, well researched, and beautifully written. It’s also remarkably timely. Having watched, over the past year, the most divisive political campaign in recent memory, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see the similarities between our current political climate and the tension of the late 1850’s. Reading Lincoln’s Boys, you will see it’s quite scary at times.

From the title, you might conclude that the book is about Abraham Lincoln. However, rather than “about” Lincoln, I would say more accurately that the book is “around” Lincoln. The narrative is told through the eyes of Lincoln’s two young aides John Hay and John Nikolay, and presents a vivid account of life and politics in the antebellum era.

The book begins with Lincoln’s run for the Illinois State Senate and the infamous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The debates, and the accompanying socio-political atmosphere are artfully described in a way that is a touch too familiar.

Douglas is described as an aggressive personality who would routinely misrepresent Lincoln’s positions and who had little regard for facts or truth. Lincoln, on the other hand, is described as the stately leader, taking the higher ground and campaigning for the limitation of slavery – the very same issue that would ultimately define his presidency.

The debates were tenacious. There were ugly personal attacks, exaggerations, and lies.

At one point Zeitz notes of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that, “Public opinion in this country is everything, and Douglas was manipulating it in a vicious and highly immoral way.”

On the weekend of President Trump’s inauguration, it’s impossible to ignore the topical relevance of this material.


In Waze We Trust – a PM’s Perspective.

Since moving to the suburbs of New York a year and a half ago, we drive everywhere.  Going to Boston to visit the in-laws?  We drive.  Going to Baltimore to see my family?  We drive.  Going to run errands on the weekend?  We drive.  Going to visit friends in Brooklyn?  We drive…

You get the idea.

Since we spend so much time in the car, and we have a three-month-old son who only sleeps when the car is in motion, avoiding traffic is absolutely critical.  So, when we drive, we always use Waze.  I love the app.  If you haven’t heard of it, or you haven’t tried it – you should.  It’s amazing.  It’s saved me from sitting in traffic so many times, I can’t even count.

However, there are some things that could be better about the app.  So, allow me to get up on my product manager soapbox for a minute.

The biggest problem with Waze is that you simply have to “trust Waze.”


The Turing Test of Marketing

Happy New Year and welcome to one of my favorite times of year – prediction season.  What marvelous innovations will 2017 bring?

This is exactly the question I was asking myself over the holidays.  The answer came to me as I was cleaning out the garage and came across a giant stack of “to recycle” marketing solicitations we received in 2016.

I quickly thumbed through the pile.  Credit cards, home goods, clothing, technology, you name it, it was all there.  Pretty much every store, bank, airline, etc. sends us something whether it’s a catalog, an application, or a solicitation.

All the sudden a realization hit me: this is all terrible marketing.  Every direct mail marketing piece in the pile was just really lousy marketing.

As I started to read some of the letters more careful, the marketing tactics started to segregate into three buckets: (more…)

It’s Never Been a More Terrible Idea to Follow the Herd

“Best business practices.”  The first time I herd this phrase was Sophomore year of college.  I was in business class and we were seated in the round having a discussion about business strategy.  I don’t remember the exact case, but it was about a new company entering a crowded market.  The question was: how should this new entrant compete against the established players?

One of my classmates, who thought he was clever, stood up and said, “Why doesn’t the new business just copy what the other businesses in that market are already doing?”

The class giggled a little bit, because copying

other businesses was obviously not the right answer to the case.  However, the teacher surprised us.  He said, “We call that, best business practices.” – and went on to explain how copying other businesses is something that happens all the time and how it can be a good strategy (or part of a strategy).

To be fair to our professor, by his frame of reference, he was right.  He had spent his entire career working in more traditional industries that experienced a very slow rate of change.  Copying your competitors, in some established industries, was a sustainable strategy in the pre-internet disruption era.

However today – we live in a completely different world.  For the most part, copying your competitors has never been a worse idea.


Business Books

I spend a good chunk of my free time reading business books.  Whether it’s the classics like Christensen, MgGrath or Moore, or newer business books by the likes of Youngme Moon or Cal Newport – I love learning about different types of businesses and hearing about stories of failure and success.

One of the principal reasons I read these books is to try to glean some lessons that I can apply to my job.

I’m usually in luck – authors of these books almost always believe their lessons can be applied broadly across businesses.  I suppose that’s the reason they think people will buy their books.

However, after spending hundreds of hours reading dozens of books, the most important lesson I think I’ve learned is that the correct thing to do with your business is more based on the life stage of the business than anything else (and there are a lot of different life stages).  Chances are, nine out of 10 times the lessons described in a typical business book are inappropriate to the life stage of your specific company.

An analogy.


A Letter to my Son About Prejudice

Like many others, the recent US presidential election and the subsequent increase in hate crimes have been very troubling to me.  As a new father, there are so many things I want to explain to my son.  I want to put all of this in context, explain why people sometimes do things that are wrong, and ensure that he grows up to be a kind and compassionate person.

At just two months old, he’s still too young to understand, but I’ll record my thoughts here with the hope that someday he will read through these posts and know who his father is a little more clearly.


With the election of Donald Trump and his ties to the “alt right” white national party, racism and antisemitism has resurged in our country in a way that I have never seen before in my life.

With this unfortunate turn of events, we must remember what racism and antisemitism is.

Popularly, we call it hate, we call it prejudice – and it is all of those things.  But it’s likely that those descriptors don’t resonate with some of the perpetrators of racism and anti-semitism.

There are, of course, some people who are truly disturbed or evil, but I would guess that many racists and anti-semites don’t see themselves as hateful at all.  Rather, in a way, they are simply misusing statistics.