Considering Intellectual Honesty

I'm generally wary of virtues preceded by adjectives. For example, consider "social justice." Would a socially unjust act otherwise be considered just? If not, then wouldn't unadorned "justice" suffice?

Reservations notwithstanding, I do consider "intellectual honesty" as distinct from "honesty." In my lexicon, a speaker is intellectually dishonest when he either a) makes two statements that cannot both be true, or b) makes a statement that cannot be true, given other previously established facts. This dishonesty stems from the logical invalidity of his statement(s), rather than his insincerity or deceptive intent.

With this definition in mind, consider a hypothetical dialogue between a Speaker and Listener, where the Speaker has just made a claim that cannot be true, given the other statements he's made. In such an exchange, our Listener now finds herself in a bind. She must either a) point out the logical inconsistency of the Speaker's statement or b) accept his invalid point of view and proceed.

In my experience, such speakers tend to confront the former choice with active resistance, striving to eliminate the cognitive dissonance that's been created. However, if the Listener chooses to accept the Speaker's premise rather than protest, she's now chosen to build on a sinkhole, proceeding although any conclusions or decisions that follow from this premise will be logically invalid.

An intellectually honest Listener can only preserve her integrity by protesting the invalid assertion. Meanwhile, the Speaker's intellectual dishonesty deteriorates into conventional dishonesty when he, once corrected, attempts to proceed without acknowledging the logical inconsistency of his assertion.

In fairness to the Speaker, it's possible that an additional fact, heretofore unknown to the Listener, would resolve the inconsistency. However, when a Speaker simply dismisses the protest, he loses his credibility and his conclusions can no longer be trusted.

Since none of us have all the facts, I'm sure we'll all find ourselves cast as the Speaker at some point. The question is, how will you react when someone points out your own logical inconsistency? One needs both humility and acuity in order to proceed gracefully. Humility, to keep your ego in check, and acuity, to understand the objection and respond to it directly.

We can't always be right, but we can choose to interact in a way that preserves our integrity and the integrity of those with whom we communicate. In doing so, we maximize the precision of our thoughts and arguments, and we create circumstances where the best ideas and arguments win. Otherwise, we're simply winning Pyrrhic victories, surrendering our reason for ego or ignorance.

My Kindle Upsell Idea for Amazon

When I buy books from Amazon, I often do something weird, crazy, or maybe just stupid; I pay for the book twice, so I can have a copy on my Kindle and also IRL. Here's how this happens:

  1. I prefer physical books to e-readers (the exception being Jack Reacher novels, and such).
  2. However, I have a huge bias for "traveling light" with just my iPad (no books), so prior to a trip, I'll re-buy anything I'm in the middle of reading.
  3. I also enjoy having a parallel "Kindle Library" for impromptu web browser / phone / iPad reading, so I'll re-buy my favorite books and the ones I most frequently revisit or re-read.

I probably value #2 and #3 more than most people (otherwise my purchasing behavior wouldn't be weird); however, I suspect that this value proposition becomes attractive to a critical mass of customers at a lower price threshold. This morning I was kind of bored, so I decided to run the numbers. In short, I believe Amazon could make a lot of incremental book revenue (and make me a happier customer) by offering a discounted Kindle "upsell" to physical book buyers. I would select this 80-100% of the time at the right price (for me, $5.00).

The really interesting opportunity for Amazon, though, rests with the presumably larger segment of the population that considers buying a book twice to be stupid but that could see the value in an "upsell." In all scenarios, converting these non-duplicate buyers into duplicators makes Amazon more money.  Here's how the numbers shake out.

My back-of-the-envelope math on what I spend on books each year:

Here's how my annual book spend flexes as my duplication frequency increases and the upsell cost decreases:

Here's how that looks on a percentage basis:

In practically all cases, this is a win for Amazon.  The only scenario where this doesn't work is where they decrease prices, but it has no impact on my behavior. However, for my n=1 sample size, I can vouch for that not being the case.

The even more compelling opportunity, though, is with the customer who never buys twice. I assume that this represents the bulk of the book-buying population, so any movement in this segment's average book spend has a big impact on Amazon's book revenue. To evaluate the numbers, we'll invoke The Onion's "Area Man."

Regardless of what % of the time our Area Man buys the upsell, it's incremental revenue for Amazon. He wasn't buying it before, and he is now.

See. In all cases, Amazon makes more revenue.

Now, I know some of you are at home, doing backflips saying, "But Cameron, you big dummy, you've ignored expenses in your analysis. Obviously, if Amazon lowers prices, people will buy more frequently, and if you assume the increase in frequency more than offsets the decrease in price, revenue will go up. But what about PROFIT?!"

OK. Let's talk about costs. However, before we get into the weeds, I want to make one thing very clear. Kindle books are DATA. There is no variable cost to manufacturing them, storing them, or shipping them. There's some amount of infrastructure overhead, and the publisher gets a rip. That's it.

From Amazon's perspective, they're on the hook for some amount of money to the publisher. As long as the upsell price is greater than this cost, my proposal still works. The only stumbling block is if the cost to the publisher is greater than the threshold where this is attractive to a critical mass.

However, from the publisher's perspective, this ALWAYS makes sense. You are selling your IP twice! Even if the second time only nets you a couple of dollars, this is money that you were otherwise not going to receive (remember, Area Man never buys books twice), and it costs you NOTHING to earn it. Blocking this would be totally short-sighted on the part of the publisher, since it creates value for all parties to the deal (book-buyer, Amazon, and publisher).

So Jeff, if you're listening, I think it'd be awesome if you guys did this. What do you think?

Karaoke Like Weather

Friday night I ended up discussing karaoke bars with a friend. We agreed that they were generally awesome, and we each proffered various arguments explaining why. The most compelling point was that karaoke performances provide a unique, shared experience, generating a wealth of low-risk subject matter for conversation. Unlike the regular bar, which facilitates interaction by simply reducing inhibitions, the karaoke bar actually gives you something to talk about. It's like user-generated content, but before that was even a thing!

In this way, karaoke is a lot like the weather. It's something shared and neutral that we can discuss without infringing upon anything personal. Now there's an interesting wrinkle. What is it about not infringing upon anything personal? Have you ever thought about how much conversation we spend on impersonal, more or less irrelevant subject matter? We talk about sports, politics, reality television, people who aren't in the room, etc. Rarely do we actually engage each other about each other.

I'm not sure if that's necessarily problematic, but it's hard to see much benefit from meaningless chitchat aside from some sort of social grooming. Real, honest, personal conversation enables us to get to know a person and develop trust. This can be uncomfortable, though, because it requires you to be vulnerable.

Perhaps we've stumbled onto the real reason why people like karaoke - vulnerability. What could be a more vulnerable act than standing in front of a crowd of strangers and belting out How Can We Be Lovers or Stay (I Missed You)?  Our shared acts of vulnerability bring us closer together, while the general ridiculousness and variety of the performances give us something to talk about.

Like most magical things, we're probably better off not trying to crack the code on the magic of karaoke. We can simply enjoy this gift from the Japanese.

The "Friends and Family" Phenomenon, and Depletable Resources

While driving today, it occurred to me that most new endeavors share a common element that I've dubbed the "Friends and Family Phenomenon." The idea comes from industries like residential real estate, investment advice, insurance, etc., where the newcomer begins by selling to friends and family. This initial phase is comfortable and perhaps even moderately successful.

Then, suddenly, you've exhausted the well. The only way to continue moving forward is to figure out how to generate leads, cold call, go door-to-door, all highly uncomfortable compared to calling your uncle. Creative endeavors are very similar in this regard. As I was driving through Nashville, I listened to a radio interview with Justin Moore, a country music singer who recently released his second album. He commented that you have your whole life to write your first album, then the pressure's really on to write your second. Not only do you have less time, it requires more work, and you've already set the bar if it was at all successful. it's no wonder plenty of bands flop after their first album.

Another example: this blog. The first 10 or 20 posts were relatively easy for me. I drew upon ideas that I'd been pondering for a long time, in some cases years. Well, now I'm starting to exhaust that bucket of thoughts and the pressure is really on to keep generating new ideas. We'll see what happens. The easy way out would be to just post less frequently (as you may have observed), but I like the idea of publishing something daily. I guess that's what Steven Pressfield means by "going pro."