The Lobby: Edition 6

RIP RBG, America's pandemic spiral, lessons from Singapore, and more

“I think the word ‘unprecedented’ gets way overused this year, 2020, and you use the figure of speech ‘earth shattering,’ which I don’t actually think we can use in 2020 because it might actually literally happen.” 

— Paul Jacobson, C.F.O. of Delta Air Lines

2020 isn’t letting up.

I haven’t been particularly organized this week, so here’s a collection of the links that I’ve found interesting. The overarching themes on my mind are mostly around career (more on that in another post) and the continuing impact of COVID-19 on business and politics.

This week saw the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka The Notorious RBG), a pillar of the Supreme Court and a well loved, highly respected, absolutely formidable woman. She’s been the subject of a recent documentary, biopic, and numerous books. Her presence on the Supreme Court will be missed tremendously, and the fallout as a result of her vacant seat has extreme implications for this election cycle - and could be a turning point for America in the 21st century.

Amidst the flood of remembrances and speculation for a replacement, a friend shared this heartfelt obituary by NPR reporter Nina Totenberg, a personal friend of Ginsburg’s.

Some of the stories that follow have little to do with her brilliance, hard work or devotion to the law, or even her pioneering role as the architect of the legal fight for women's rights in this country. Rather, they are examples of her extraordinary character, decency and commitment to friends, colleagues, law clerks — just about everyone whose lives she touched. I was lucky enough to be one of those people.

It’s easy to forget that behind the landmark decisions and superhuman achievements is a real, mortal human being. Rest in peace.

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

As the United States nears the grim tally of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, our national response continues to be lackluster at best, downright antagonistic at its worst. This well-researched piece lays out the conceptual errors policymakers and everyday citizens alike make in the face of the pandemic. We can only hope that we, as a nation, learn from our mistakes sooner rather than later - before it’s too late.

How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You)

Wait But Why applies its relatable storytelling to the game of life.

This post isn’t me giving you career advice really—it’s a framework that I think can help you make career decisions that actually reflect who you are, what you want, and what our rapidly changing career landscape looks like today... For those of you yet to start your career who aren’t sure what you want to do with their lives, or those of you currently in the middle of your career who aren’t sure you’re on the right path, I hope this post can help you press the reset button on your thought process and get some clarity.

Wherever you are in your career, it’s always a good time to re-evaluate your guiding principles and consider if you’re on the path that brings you the most fulfillment - be that in terms of adventure, stability, or growth (there’s no right way to go about it!). As I’ve been talking myself and some peers through career considerations and pivots, this lengthy and incredibly thorough article has helped to elucidate some of the incredibly complex underpinnings of our inner decision-making processes.

It really boils down to what we want and what we can have - ie, what we strive for is the intersection of what we desire and what’s realistically possible. Identifying those two buckets is a constant, practically lifelong process, but understanding the underlying framework and personal principles to do so is taking an important first step. Also important for career development: a healthy amount of luck and willingness to take a leap of faith.

The True Story of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Excerpted from Lee’s infamous takedown of the SIA pilots union

What exactly is the Singapore Model? Beyond the crude label of enlightened authoritarianism, what are the philosophical assumptions that underlie the Singaporean approach to governance? What are the limitations of these assumptions? What has happened when foreigners have attempted to replicate the Singaporean model, or when Singaporeans try to export it?

Singapore has been a shining star of authoritarian success since the nation-state rose from poverty to first-world prominence within a single lifetime - Lee Kuan Yew’s lifetime, to be specific. While his iron-fisted control has led Singapore to prosperity, the replicability of the so-called Singapore Model is still unproven.

This article tells the tale of Singapore’s modernization, beginning with the controversial origins of Lee’s dominance, and explores the legend of his influence.

Part of the mythos of Lee Kuan Yew is that he succeeded as an authoritarian where so many others have failed. Would-be Lees around the world use the Singapore story to argue that authoritarian modernism works if the authoritarian himself is brilliant and wise. Perhaps it is the case that with the right leader, the problems of scale can be overcome?

The author concludes (with some evidence) that it was a combination of particular circumstances - Lee’s contribution chief among them - that led to Singapore’s success. That said, there’s little reason to believe the Singapore Model scales well to larger or significantly different populations. Intuitively, top-down methods of governance aren’t particularly portable. While the simplicity and effectiveness of concentrating power in authoritarian leadership is attractive, more so in these times of worldwide unrest, we need to be especially careful of the consequences.

Laws of Tech: Commoditize Your Complement

A classic pattern in technology economics, identified by Joel Spolsky, is layers of the stack attempting to become monopolies while turning other layers into perfectly-competitive markets which are commoditized, in order to harvest most of the consumer surplus; discussion and examples.

An exploration of the phenomenon with which businesses expand their competitiveness, sometimes in unintuitive ways, by “commoditizing the complement”.

The most relevant bit:

Every product in the marketplace has substitutes and complements. A substitute is another product you might buy if the first product is too expensive. Chicken is a substitute for beef. If you’re a chicken farmer and the price of beef goes up, the people will want more chicken, and you will sell more.

A complement is a product that you usually buy together with another product. Gas and cars are complements. Computer hardware is a classic complement of computer operating systems. And babysitters are a complement of dinner at fine restaurants. In a small town, when the local five star restaurant has a two-for-one Valentine’s day special, the local babysitters double their rates. (Actually, the nine-year-olds get roped into early service.)

All else being equal, demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease.

…In general, a company’s strategic interest is going to be to get the price of their complements as low as possible. The lowest theoretically sustainable price would be the “commodity price”—the price that arises when you have a bunch of competitors offering indistinguishable goods. So:

Smart companies try to commoditize their products’ complements.

If you can do this, demand for your product will increase and you will be able to charge more and make more.

When IBM designed the PC architecture, they used off-the-shelf parts instead of custom parts, and they carefully documented the interfaces between the parts in the (revolutionary) IBM-PC Technical Reference Manual. Why? So that other manufacturers could join the party. As long as you match the interface, you can be used in PCs. IBM’s goal was to commoditize the add-in market, which is a complement of the PC market, and they did this quite successfully. Within a short time scrillions of companies sprung up offering memory cards, hard drives, graphics cards, printers, etc. Cheap add-ins meant more demand for PCs.

When IBM licensed the operating system PC-DOS from Microsoft, Microsoft was very careful not to sell an exclusive license. This made it possible for Microsoft to license the same thing to Compaq and the other hundreds of OEMs who had legally cloned the IBM PC using IBM’s own documentation. Microsoft’s goal was to commoditize the PC market. Very soon the PC itself was basically a commodity, with ever decreasing prices, consistently increasing power, and fierce margins that make it extremely hard to make a profit. The low prices, of course, increase demand. Increased demand for PCs meant increased demand for their complement, MS-DOS. All else being equal, the greater the demand for a product, the more money it makes for you. And that’s why Bill Gates can buy Sweden and you can’t.

More interesting reads

Taboola, Outbrain and the Chum Supply Chain: If you’ve ever wondered what those clickbait ads on otherwise reputable news sites are, look no further than this enlightening explanation.

Yoshie Shiratori: The Incredible Story of a Man No Prison Could Hold: The daring escapades of Yoshie Shiratori, a four time prison escapee, reads like fiction.

Is Spotify killing the top 40? “Radio hits” by well known artists are starting to dwindle as a proportion of top streamed songs on Spotify, lending credence to the idea that streaming is democratizing access to up and coming musicians.

On a positive note, the smoke has cleared these last few days in San Francisco and I can once again venture outside (still with a face mask) and breathe some fresh air. It’s the little victories. ☺️

Hope you and yours are staying safe!