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September 2022 BenGoldhaber(.com) Newsletter
Foreign travel tips paired with All-American advice
This past month I traveled to the Czech Republic and spent time in Prague and the surrounding country side. It’s a very beautiful city, and while it pains me to admit it, the Europe-philes are unfortunately correct that the walkability of European cities is actually pretty awesome. That and the cafe and breweries on every corner make getting lost downtown and wandering around the best way to see the city.
Fun fact: Eurotrip, the 2004 teen comedy which is the basis for everything I know about Europe, was filmed almost entirely in Prague.
While there I gave a lightning talk at a conference on the topic of Operational Excellence as Organizational Integrity, which now continues to rattle around in my brain as an ‘Important Concept’(tm). Organizations have integrity like people have integrity, which is a word with many meanings but is nearby to concepts like trustworthiness, honor, and reliability. An organization that is high in integrity is one that you can interact with and trust that its internal mechanisms are aligned to give reliable outputs. Operational excellence is the ‘catchphrase’ for building and maintaining processes that can ensure reliable, trustworthy interactions, while executing on its mission.
Like a lot of good old fashioned virtues, you most notice it in its absence. Every health insurance company I’ve interacted with had low integrity - I never know if I’m interacting correctly with the machine, it it might take several emails/letters to get a meaningful response, and I’m constantly aware that I’m probably failing to take advantage of some benefit that could help me.1
Other things I highlighted in the talk:
It’s not just about being fast, though speed does seem correlated with operational excellence. What I think of as the ‘Warren Buffett’ model of an investment firm - that is deliberate and ignores many things and has a website with basically just a phone number - still could possess operational excellence, in that they are explicit about the process they are running and are able to execute it reliably.
I think a lot of burnout is the result of constantly being pushed out of one’s integrity.
It’s useful to analyze boundaries within the org and between the org and the outside world, and the communication patterns that ‘gatekeep/defend’ these boundaries.
Operational excellence doesn’t have to mean flowcharts for everything - it often looks like ‘my guy Brian, the absolute legend, handles everything’. That could be enough!
Accounting was and is a virtuous profession for its service to the ideal of integrity.
I’m a bit bashful that I’m a recent convert to this belief in operational excellence; in my wayward youth I was a non-believer, someone who thought operations just meant ‘low-status-grunt-work’. And yes, that’s part of it; no amount of espirit de corps can make processing the 10,000th invoice glamorous. But it would have chaffed less if I had understood better that the world is constantly trying to wear down organizations, get them to break, and that good operations practices turn intention into execution and help organizations and the people in them to stay in integrity.
The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology. - H.L. Mencken
The Onion Test for Integrity: Continuing the theme of integrity, I like this post from Andrew Critch about why it’s important to prioritize honesty and integrity, and how to do so in a way that maintains boundaries.
You (or your organization or your mission or your family or etc) pass the “onion test” for integrity if each layer hides but does not mislead about the information hidden within.
Will Putin resort to nuclear weapons? I’ve been quite worried that the war in Ukraine, in particular this last month, has dramatically increased the risk of nuclear war. So I appreciate, if I don’t quite know how to weight, this contrarian take on nuclear weapons and nuclear risk - nukes might not be as bad as we fear?
Thus we get to the real reason why Putin will not use nuclear weapons: they're just not all that effective compared to the boogeyman that is in our collective imaginations. Were a nuclear missile to detonate over central Kiev, no one would believe that it was an actual nuclear blast because the city is still there and all the major buildings are still standing.
... It's been more than twenty years since the Putin kleptocracy came to power. I'm sure that Russia has a number of Potemkin warheads that are kept in top shape for inspectors, but given the current Russian system, the Russian nuclear arsenal most likely resembles the Russian tank reserves: the bare minimum kept in service while the rest is a scrap pile.
[Edit: There’s back-and-forth on a recent ACX10 post about the quality of Labdoor, and in particular this response by the founder of Nootropics Depot makes me far more skeptical of Labdoor] Labdoor: A consumer-reports like site dedicated to testing and grading supplements. Last newsletter I suggested that ‘internet-native’ orgs that can help people make good decisions are needed; I think this is a good example of one!
Make-A-Video: More progress in text2anything generation. Facebook AI Research released a paper showing high quality text to video creation. Not surprising, but still very impressive.
The Follower: A performance-art piece where an artist took instagram photos taken in places with publicly accessible surveillance camera footage, and found the matching video clips from when the photo was taken. A compelling demonstration of the way instagram isn’t real life, and how context dramatically changes the vibe.
There Will be Blood: I finally saw the quintessential Daniel Day Lewis film. I really enjoyed it - an original plot and staple about an under dramatized part of the American mythos, the wildcatters.
Is an organization that filters on fuzzy class knowledge like ‘awareness you can send a legal-looking form letter and get 10x better results’, high integrity in that they are reliably executing a terrible-on-purpose process? I posit integrity includes an implicit commitment to honorable actions, but I could be convinced they are better classified as high-evil high-integrity orgs.