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Archive for March 2014

The National Coin Flip Lottery

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On January 23, 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a paper citing income inequality as a threat to economic security in developed and developing countries. In part, they found that:

  • Income inequality has increased in both advanced and developing economies in recent decades.
  • There is growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth.
  • Fiscal policy is the primary tool for governments to affect income distribution.

Unfortunately, the IMF declined to offer a solution, stating that “[t]his paper does not advocate any particular redistributive goal or policy instrument for fiscal redistribution.”

That’s where I come in.

Gettin’ Rich Ain’t Easy

Warren Buffett once remarked that if a person won $1 million flipping coins, he could sell a book entitled How to Make One Million Dollars Flipping Coins. His point is that some investors, regardless of how unskilled they are, will get lucky every now and then. We should not attribute everyone’s gains to great skill.

That said, there is a general pattern we can follow. People get rich by combining two abilities: making money and keeping money. The problem is that when you keep money it doesn’t flow through the system. Trickle-down economics in an age of hyper efficiency doesn’t work as well as it might. What we need is a low-impact system for wealth redistribution.

In the interest of creating up to 334 new millionaires every day, I propose a National Coin Flip Lottery. All 350 million Americans, regardless of age or income, must contribute one dollar per day to the lottery. We all need car insurance if we want to drive and we all need health insurance if we want to live, so this slight imposition is little more than an annoyance. If you have a Social Security number, you have to pony up.

Every morning at 5 AM Eastern time, a computer divides the database of American citizens into two groups: Heads and Tails. A representative flips a coin, probably a virtual coin because quarters come up heads slightly more often than tails, and eliminates the losers. The computer then randomly re-divides the population into halves and continues until we have 334 winners. That’s correct: after just 20 flips we will have 334 lucky millionaires.

The system collects $350 million every day, but the excess can fund lottery operations, reduce the national debt, and support a special lottery held every February 29. Let’s say we hold back $1 million of the $16 million excess from each drawing. There are 1,460 days between leap days, so we could give away enough money to create 1,460 new millionaires on that day alone.

Supporting the Public Interest

Just think about the positive social impact that creating 334 new millionaires every day could have on society. Yes, the less socially responsible winners would just blow their newfound riches and hope to win again, but quite a few of the lucky individuals will redistribute the wealth among their family and community. That level of liquidity would free up small-scale investments, provide competitive pressure for traditional lending institutions, and relieve poverty for a small percentage of the population every day.

It would be cruel for citizens to win 19 straight coin tosses and lose when they are on the cusp of being a millionaire. Therefore, I propose that individuals may enter a preference to split their prize at the $32,768 level or higher. If two individuals who are willing to split meet at a given level, they both automatically get the prize.

Given the raging expansion of gambling across the United States, with the quaint exceptions of Hawaii and Utah, this modest proposal fits comfortably into the American zeitgeist. Next February 29, join me in celebrating our new national holiday: Millionaires Day!

Review of Tim’s Vermeer

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Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, created works that diverged significantly from those of his contemporaries. Though he painted domestic scenes and portraits, his works’ appearance shared more with modern photography than paintings of his era. Where he developed these skills is a mystery — there’s no record of Vermeer’s training, which is very uncommon for artists of the mid-17th century. Normally artists listed their apprenticeships and other engagements to enhance their prestige. His works also stood out through their lack or preparatory sketches on the canvas. How he produced his work is a mystery.

Tim’s Vermeer, a Penn & Teller Film, investigates Vermeer’s process. Penn Jillette and Teller, the taller and shorter halves of Penn & Teller, respectively, have in recent years branched out from their magic show at the Rio in Las Vegas. Their other projects include Penn’s appearances on Celebrity Apprentice and Teller’s well-received direction of Macbeth. The “Tim” of the film’s title is Tim Jenison, a technologist, inventor, and friend of Penn’s for many years. Jenison surged to nerd prominence in the 1980s with products such as DigiView and the iconic Video Toaster. His company, NewTek, produces LightWave 3D, popular modeling software for artists, designers, and engineers.

During a conversation with Penn, Tim casually remarked that he was trying to recreate a Vermeer painting. Tim’s not a painter, but he has an inventive mind, an eye for detail, and an understanding of light from his work as a 3D design software developer. He happened to read British artist  David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which postulated that Vermeer had used optical aids to produce his work.  Over time, Tim intuited and tested a process that combined camera obscura projection and a series of mirrors to magnify the subject image and compare the subject’s color with that on the canvas. When there is no discernable step at the edge of the comparison mirror, a condition that surely brings joy to professional magicians Penn & Teller, the rendering matches the subject.

The film then describes Tim’s efforts to research the piece he has chosen to recreate, The Music Lesson, and build a full-size physical model of the scene in a San Antonio warehouse. One light-hearted moment comes when Tim and the gang visit London and request permission from the Queen of England to view the original work, which is in the crown’s private collection in Buckingham Palace. Originally denied access, Penn & Teller recorded a rant that could easily have fit into their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Fortunately, just a portion of this segment played briefly and at very low volume while Penn’s voiceover revealed the Queen had changed her mind and granted Tim a half-hour viewing.

While in England, Tim had the opportunity to speak with several experts, including David Hockney. One shot in Hockney’s studio deliberately exposes the reflection of the director, Teller, and a cameraman in a full-length dressing mirror in Hockney’s studio. It’s a nice touch that reminds us we are watching a mediated depiction of a conversation about a mediated depiction of reality.

Back in San Antonio, Tim’s team constructs the set and he starts painting in earnest. There are many terrific moments in this part of the film, but I won’t spoil them for you. I will say that, at a late stage of the project, Tim’s dedication to detail threatened to turn part of the process from a Seurat-like pointillist rendering into a Sartre-like existentialist nightmare. To his credit, Teller chose not to hype Tim’s obsession on the project. Rather, he lets the viewer empathize with Tim by bringing to mind pursuits they’ve taken to unlikely extremes.

I recommend Tim’s Vermeer without reservation. It’s a compact film, running just 80 minutes, and I plan to buy DVD copies of it as gifts for friends. That said, I did have some small issues with the piece. There were several instances of double exposition, where an interview or voiceover repeated the same information in close proximity. Also, I felt that sped-up sequences where Tim shifted between views of the set’s LightWave 3D model were interesting eye candy but went on a bit long and added nothing to the narrative. I found similar set construction sequences to be effective, so maybe I didn’t see how the computer graphics furthered the story. 

Regardless of these minor complaints, I think Tim’s Vermeer is a terrific documentary that will appeal to anyone who has ever thought “That’s funny…” and followed their observation to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion.

Tim’s Vermeer runs through March 20, 2014 at Cinema 21 in Portland, OR. You can find more information about the film, as well as showtimes and venues in other cities, at its dedicated page on the Sony Classics site.

Use a Premortem to Anticipate Problems

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Any time you advocate change, you should expect to encounter resistance. There are, after all, vested interests in maintaining the status quo. That’s as true for improv groups as it is for any other type of organization. One way you can reduce the disruption caused by these objections is to anticipate them and prepare responses.

To anticipate these problems, you can do a premortem where you probe a plan for every possible point of weakness. This is where you can release your negativity: Think of every possible way someone could object to your plan, how things could go wrong, whether your assumptions could be called into question, and whether the projected benefits are realistic.

There are two benefits to this exercise. The first, as I mentioned, is that you anticipate potential problems and can develop responses. If you can’t develop a good answer to an objection, perhaps you should put off your presentation. The second benefit is that it helps detach team members from the proposal on an emotional level. Once you think of all the ways something could go wrong, you are much less likely to see it as a perfect plan. Doing so lets you receive criticism objectively, and answer without your emotions taking hold.

Remember that decision-makers prefer to operate on an analytical level, even when they are selling products or political candidates to their target demographic on pure emotion. If you present your analysis and let your persuasive techniques season what you say, you’ll be that much closer to making your plan a reality.

Variety Keeps Things Fun!

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I cringe whenever I hear an improviser say, “Whenever someone does this, I always do that.” If you have multiple people doing that, you always get the same result. There are two improv games that rely on this gimmick: Mr. So-and-So and Pavlovian Response. In Mr. So-and-So, every time a player comes on stage, another player endows him with a particular characteristic. For example, a player could walk on stage and be greeted with, “Hello Mr. Yawns When He Talks.” When the player honors that endowment, he will yawn whenever he opens his mouth to speak.

Even though I say you shouldn’t repeat gags as you go along, I know that players with any significant experience will have characters and bits they can go back to when needed. They’re fine in small doses, but don’t depend on them.

In the game of Pavlovian Response, every player is given a trigger and an action that occurs whenever the trigger is noticed. A player might bark like a dog whenever someone turns away from her. You can have a lot of fun chaining these reactions together. Perhaps, upon hearing the word the, a player could respond by leaving the stage. Another player could be assigned to clap her hands twice whenever someone leaves the stage. If you want to get crazy, you can endow the light operator to turn the lights on or off whenever someone claps their hands twice.

In offstage life, not every interaction has to be unique. Companies have policies and procedures in place for very good reasons: legal compliance, standards compliance, and maintaining audit trails. For example, if you’re in a customer-facing position, you need to have a series of procedures you work through to be sure you weed out the simplest and easiest-to-fix problems. (You’re attempting to save your time at the expense of your customer’s autonomy, but that’s another story.)

One of the best interactions I’ve had with the company happened very recently. My house has a watering system from Rain Bird. After a power outage, the system turned on, and the only way to get it to turn off was to unplug the system’s control board. After working through the manual, neither my wife nor I could get the system to reset correctly. I called the company’s toll-free help line and, after a couple of questions to verify my information, the technician simply asked me to describe what was going on. Using his expertise with the systems, he was able to guide me to a solution very quickly. This interaction represented the best combination of procedure and allowing for open-ended input that I’ve encountered in quite some time.

In the end, your best bet as an improviser is to embrace the reality of the scene as you and your fellow performers have created it, and allow yourself to go in new directions. In business, you need to be ready to face the unexpected, but you should rely on existing procedures that help ensure smooth operations within your company.

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.