Category Archives: Interesting

How We Think About Charity is Wrong

This is a fantastic TED presentation by Dan Pallotta on why the non-profit industry is perpetually hamstrung by its inability, among other things, to break out of a structure that limits compensation, suppresses risk-taking, prohibits access to capital markets, imposes frugality at the expense of future growth potential and tags all overhead as negative.  It’s a must-watch for anyone in the non-profit sector, but the charitable arm of the non-profit sector in particular.

Here’s a link to the full transcript and a couple of excerpts that really hit home:

So in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself…

Businessweek did a survey, looked at the compensation packages for MBAs 10 years of business school, and the median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38, was 400,000 dollars. Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a $5 million-plus medical charity in the U.S. was 232,000 dollars, and for a hunger charity, 84,000 dollars. Now, there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.

Some people say, “Well, that’s just because those MBA types are greedy.” Not necessarily. They might be smart. It’s cheaper for that person to donate 100,000 dollars every year to the hunger charity, save 50,000 dollars on their taxes, so still be roughly 270,000 dollars a year ahead of the game, now be called a philanthropist because they donated 100,000 dollars to charity, probably sit on the board of the hunger charity, indeed, probably supervise the poor SOB who decided to become the CEO of the hunger charity,and have a lifetime of this kind of power and influence and popular praise still ahead of them…

So we’ve all been taught that charities should spend as little as possible on overhead things like fundraising under the theory that, well, the less money you spend on fundraising, the more money there is available for the cause. Well, that’s true if it’s a depressing world in which this pie cannot be made any bigger. But if it’s a logical world in which investment in fundraising actually raises more funds and makes the pie bigger, then we have it precisely backwards, and we should be investing more money, not less, in fundraising, because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of moneyavailable for the cause that we care about so deeply…

This is what happens when we confuse morality with frugality. We’ve all been taught that the bake sale with five percent overhead is morally superior to the professional fundraising enterprise with 40 percent overhead, but we’re missing the most important piece of information, which is, what is the actual size of these pies? Who cares if the bake sale only has five percent overhead if it’s tiny? What if the bake sale only netted 71 dollars for charity because it made no investment in its scale and the professional fundraising enterprise netted 71 million dollars because it did? Now which pie would we prefer, and which pie do we think people who are hungry would prefer?


Be Part of the Smithsonian Crowdsource

Here’s a pretty cool volunteer opportunity with the Smithsonian:

The Smithsonian Institution has followed the crowdsourcing crowd, with the opening of an online transcription center allowing members of the public to help decipher thousands of digitized pages of Civil War diaries, botanical labels, correspondence and other documents that cannot be easily read by a computer.

Over the past year of beta testing a team of volunteers has transcribed more than 13,000 pages of documents, including personal correspondence of the so-called Monuments Men; the 1948 diary of Earl Shaffer, believed to be the first man to hike the entire Appalachian Trail; a 19th-century ballooning scrapbook; and a significant portion of the tiny labels in the National Museum of Natural History’s collection of nearly 45,000 bumblebee specimens.

Now the Smithsonian is hoping the broader public will help transcribe, among other highlighted projects, the field notebooks of the Virginia bird-watcher James W. Eike; the research notebooks of Joseph Henry, a physicist and the Smithsonian’s first secretary; and a collection of letters from American artists to be included in the coming book “The Art of Handwriting.”

Getting Lucky

This quote from a blog post about how people get lucky (not what you’re thinking) really hit home:

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Here’s the source piece for the quote. I also like this advice about how to become more lucky:

  • Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell – a reason to consider a decision carefully.
  • Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.
  • Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.

So I Was Wrong About the Double-Space

Because I learned to type on a manual typewriter back in the dark ages I’ve been doing the period-space thing all wrong for 30 years and didn’t know it:

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left. Every major style guide—including theModern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

I hereby officially apologize to every design professional upon whom I’ve inflicted my double-spaced prose.

Meet the Ultimate Beer Bureaucrat

Who knew? If you want to sell beer in the US you have to get the label approved by one guy:

Any brewery that wants to market its wares in this country needs to get it through Kent “Battle” Martin, giving the federal official extraordinary power. With only vague regulations outlining what is and isn’t permissible, he approves beer bottles and labels for the Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, a section of the Treasury Department…

This year, Battle has singlehandedly approved over 29,500 beer labels, the only fact his press handler would provide…

Most government departments are nebulous and anonymous. But because of the sheer volume of his interactions with brewers, Battle has become a symbol for the TTB’s nonsensical rules…

Battle has rejected a beer label for the King of Hearts, which had a playing card image on it, because the heart implied that the beer would have a health benefit.

He rejected a beer label featuring a painting called The Conversion of Paula By Saint Jerome because its name, St. Paula’s Liquid Wisdom, contained a medical claim—that the beer would grant wisdom.

He rejected a beer called Pickled Santa because Santa’s eyes were too “googly” on the label, and labels cannot advertise the physical effects of alcohol. (A less googly-eyed Santa was later approved.)

I’m Right to Distrust Cats

From the wonderful newsletter Now I Know:

That raises a second question, though: if the cats living in our house see themselves as wild animals in their natural habitat, from the cats perspective, there shouldn’t be human. Feline brains, therefore, have to create an explanation as to who the Jon Arbuckles of the world are. We’re all cats. Bradshaw offered the following explanation, as described by CNET: “Cats think you’re just a a slightly big, dumb non-hostile cat. Quite specifically, he says that they treat humans as if they were their Mama Cat. All that rubbing up against you with their tails up is apparently no more than a hopeful check that you really are just another big, fat, slovenly cat who doesn’t intend to eat them with their Welsh Rarebit.”

To that end, Bradshaw doesn’t think that the cat you love has much appreciation for you. CBS described a kitten’s cuddles as a sign of hunger, not love; it was “how it used to get milk from its mother.” Or if you’re Garfield, lasagne from your adoptive dad.

And my wife wonders why I don’t like cats.