Intelligence, Evolution and Politics

In the most recent Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni argues that being “smart”, at least in the scholarly academic intellectual sense that President Obama is generally considered to be smart, is not a guarantee that a President will be a strong leader, or always make wise policy decisions, or have the ability to effectively carry out their decisions.

I agree with the basic assertion. There are multiple components to intelligence. Being good at one aspect does not automatically make you superior in all aspects. If it were otherwise, it would mean that nearly everyone on the faculty at Harvard would necessarily make a great president. I don’t think anyone believes that. It’s no different than athletic prowess. Being a good sprinter does not mean you are also a good long distance runner.

However, it does not follow that “intellectual” intelligence is irrelevant to being a good President. I believe a substantially above average intellectual intelligence should be a bar which all viable presidential candidates should be expected to surmount. In the extremes, there is no argument here. That is, while I doubt anyone would contend that being able to read guarantees that a person will be a great President, we all expect our President to be able to read.

So where do we set the bar? How much intellectual skill should be required for a Presidential candidate?

Here is where we can get into legitimate debate. If we can all agree that being “smart” is a desirable attribute, I hope we can similarly agree that being “dumb” should be case for elimination from consideration. [“Dumb” is a hard word to define here (and has an insulting context). But I’m not sure what other word better fits here as the opposite of “smart.”]

One way to demonstrate that you are not “dumb” is to show you are not ignorant of and do not reject basic tenets of science. We wouldn’t want a president making decisions about global policy if he thought the world was flat. We wouldn’t want a president in charge of the space program who though the sun revolved around the earth. We wouldn’t want a president in charge of the economy who planned to spend huge sums of money on finding a way to turn lead into gold. We wouldn’t want a president overseeing our national health care policy who rejected the idea that bacteria is a major cause of disease.

In this same list of basic tenets is evolution. As Dobzhansky famously stated: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” To biologists (and virtually all other reputable scientists), support for “creationism” or “intelligent design” has no valid basis. It makes no more sense than supporting the notion that the earth is flat or asserting that gravity is a questionable concept. We should certainly not be teaching it in science classes in schools. Just because an idea exists, and some people believe it, is not a sufficient reason to include the idea in a science curriculum.

[Note: I’ve written several prior columns here on the evolution “controversy.” This is not the place for me to do another. If you’re interested in this matter, I would recommend Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. I would also direct you to the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District decision, in which a Republican-appointed judge gave a definitive ruling rejecting intelligent design as a thinly veiled attempt to get creationism back in schools, that creationism was religion and not science, and that as such creationism in schools should be rejected. Finally, I strongly recommend you check out “Understanding Evolution: 17 Misconceptions and Their Responses.”]

This gets me, finally, to the subject of politics — and especially to the current crop of Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for President. As covered in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the candidates’ positions on this issue, while not exactly surprising, are appalling.
Every one of them, except for John Huntsman, gave at least minimal support to a belief in creationism and in teaching “intelligent design” in schools. Here are three examples:

• Rick Perry has described himself as “a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect.”

• Ron Paul said he does not accept the theory of evolution.

• Rick Santorum calls himself a “fierce believer” in creationism.

There are only two explanations for such “dumb” statements. The first is that the candidates are being hypocritical, that they don’t really believe what they are saying. Rather, they are saying it only because they fear that saying anything else will so antagonize the conservative base of their party (most of whom cling to the “creationism” fantasy) that they lose any chance to get the nomination.

The second is that they truly believe what they are saying.

In either case, it should be sufficient to eliminate such candidates from consideration. In the first case, not only are they liars, but they are deliberately misleading to their own supporters. In the second case, they have shown they are unable to surmount the intelligence bar that I argued should be a minimum requirement for the job.

I don’t expect the candidates or the Republican party in general, to follow my recommendations. I just ask that you keep all this in mind when you go to the polls.

Posted in Evolution, Media, Politics, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Intelligence, Evolution and Politics

Imitating Apple is a Losing Strategy

Note: I wrote the initial draft of this column prior to the announcement of Steve Jobs’ resignation. The point of this article seems even more pertinent now. In particular, I believe Apple’s success is likely to continue even without Jobs at the helm.

The story of the iPhone’s success is now almost a cliché. Sure Android phones have outpaced the iPhone for market share. But the iPhone 4 is still the single most popular smartphone (even though it’s over 14 months old) and it’s surely the most profitable. Equally compelling, the iPhone has forever changed smartphone design. Almost every smartphone available today bears a striking resemblance to the iPhone — beginning with a stylus-free touchscreen. Prior to 2007, there were no such touchscreen smartphones of any design.

The story of the iPad’s success follows a similar path — except it goes even further. None of the iPad’s competitors have gotten any significant traction as yet. Not even Android-based ones. RIM’s Playbook tablet is going nowhere fast. HP’s TouchPad went down in flames within weeks of its release. The iPad continues to dominate the market with around a 90% share. As the current joke goes, “There is no tablet market. There’s just an iPad one.” The iPad is not only a success in comparison to other tablets, its reach extends to the market for desktop/laptop PCs. iPad sales continue to soar as PC numbers (except for Apple’s) flatline. If HP exits the PC market, Dell will be the lone surviving U.S. manufacturer of PCs (other than Apple).

None of this is a surprise at this point. If you follow technology news, you’ve heard variations of these statistics for months. What is a bit surprising (at least to me) is that there is a third act to this play: The MacBook Air. It too has become a huge competition-stomping success. As pointed out by Jason Cross in a recent PCWorld article: “This year’s fourth-gen [MacBook Air] is proving to be the must-have laptop of the year. For every laptop manufacturer not named ‘Apple,’ the race is on to make new super-thin and super-light laptops.”

This idea that “the race is on” highlights a critical point that helps explain why Apple is succeeding where other companies flounder: Every one else is racing to catch up with Apple (with the possible exception of Android smartphones). For Apple’s competitors, this is a doomed strategy from the start. True, Microsoft managed to pull this off with Windows back in the 1990s, but the market is far different today. Even Microsoft has been unable unseat Apple’s iPod as the dominant MP3 player (and let’s just skip over their Kin smartphone humiliation). On top of all of Apple’s hardware success, the iTunes Store remains the number one source for purchasing music.

Apple competitors will never win if their essential strategy is to wait for Apple to come out with the next ground-breaking game-changing product — and then take a year or more to scramble to imitate it, eventually releasing a product that is inferior to what Apple is selling.

What the companies ought to be doing is developing their own new products, hopefully coming out with something so different and innovative that Apple has to play catch-up with them. The problem is that Apple’s competitors don’t seem to operate in a way that allows for this possibility. As Jason Cross wrote: “If you want to make the product that everyone else compares their product to, you have to go outside the envelope. You have to take a risk to build something nobody has told you they want, because they don’t know they want it yet, and then you have to invest in it and stick with it until you get it right.” This idea is really a variation of a famous Steve Jobs dictum: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That’s what Apple does: Takes the risk and builds the products it believe customers will want, even if the customers don’t know it yet.

Too many companies are afraid to take these big risks. They seek products that offer incremental improvements at best, rather than looking to shake up the market. Instead of asking “How can we deliver a product that blows the competition out of the water?” they ask “How can we market a product that will give us an edge, however slight, over our nearest competition?” This is a recipe for remaining in Apple’s shadow. Rather than leading in bold new directions, they play follow the leader.

If companies truly want to compete with Apple they should strive to imitate the corporate culture that allows Apple to make great products, not the products Apple makes.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 1 Comment

What I Learned at the Apple Store Today

I was at the Grand Opening of the new Apple Store on 4th Street in Berkeley today. Hard to believe that, until now, the city of Berkeley (with one of the biggest and most renowned universities in the world) has been without an Apple Store. At last, this oversight has been corrected.

There was an impressively long line outside the Store by its 10:00 AM opening. Several hundred people by my estimate. The line had dissipated by around 11:15, but there were still t-shirts remaining to be given away when I left at 11:30.

I didn’t buy anything. But, while inside the Store, I did learn two intriguing nuggets of information:

Don’t buy Apple’s $69 OS X Lion USB Thumb Drive. The Apple Store webpage for the Lion USB Thumb Drive states: “When you install OS X Lion using the USB thumb drive, you will not be able to reinstall OS X Lion from Lion Recovery. You will need to use the USB thumb drive to reinstall OS X Lion.”

The reason for this limitation is that Recovery HD, before allowing you to reinstall Lion, checks with Apple’s servers to verify your computer’s eligibility. Unless you purchased Lion from the Mac App Store, the verification will fail.

What if you want both an Internet-free Install Lion thumb drive and the ability to use Recovery HD to reinstall Lion? Apple’s “official” solution is to purchase Lion from the Mac App Store ($29) and buy a Lion USB Thumb Drive. This will cost you $69 + $29 = $98.

But there is a far cheaper solution. Buy the Mac App Store version of Lion and make your own 5GB or larger USB Install Lion thumb drive, using a simple procedure detailed on numerous web pages (such as this Macworld article by Dan Frakes). Assuming your thumb drive costs $10, your final cost is $39 — saving you $59 over Apple’s official route.

Are these two approaches really identical? That is, is there anything you get by buying Apple’s Lion USB Thumb Drive that you miss by going the do-it-yourself route? Nope.

I asked an Apple Genius at the 4th Street Store about this specific question. His reply: “That’s an interesting way of looking at it. And you’re right. They are the same.” I had assumed this was the case and others I had asked confirmed my assumption. Now I had an Apple Genius confirming it.

So…if you want a Lion USB thumb drive…make one yourself from the Mac App Store download of Lion. Not only will you save money, you’ll bypass the limitation on using Recovery HD. The Apple Store Genius didn’t exactly make this recommendation. But it’s surely what he implied. [By the way, the Berkeley Store didn’t have any of the drives in stock, even if I had wanted one.]

How to disable the iPad Home button. This was my first time in an Apple Store since Apple began placing iPads next to each Mac (as well as other products) on the Store’s tables. These iPads display the basic specs of each adjacent product. You can tap buttons along the bottom of the screen to get further information about the product or even request a sales associate to come over and assist you. Very slick. It’s obviously a lot more expensive than having a paper spec sheet next to the products (as used to be the case), but heck Apple has the cash to afford this.

Interestingly, what you can’t do is get to the Home screen by pressing the Home button on these iPads. The function has been disabled. This makes sense. Apple wouldn’t want customers to be able to exit the display, so the iPad is placed in a “kiosk mode.” The question is: How did Apple do this?

I asked an Apple employee if I could enable this kiosk mode on my own iPad and, if so, how would I do it? He replied that it was indeed possible but “If I told you how to do it, I would have to kill you.” He was smiling when he said it, but that’s really what he said.

So I didn’t actually learn how to do this trick at the Apple Store. But my visit did start me on the path to learn how. As it turns out, you needn’t put your life in danger to accomplish this goal. However, you will need to jailbreak your iPad — and install IncarcerApp (as covered here). I’ve tried the app and it works exactly as advertised. To activate and deactivate the lock feature, you use the Volume Up/Volume Down buttons.

In the Apple Store, the iPads were encased in plexiglass which (as I recall) prevented access to the Volume buttons. So I imagine the Apple Store iPads work in the same or similar way. Still, I assume Apple has their own (non-jailbreak) way of accomplishing the lock. But (as the Store employee said) they’re not revealing what it is. Too bad. I bet many iPad owners would find a use for this feature if Apple officially offered it.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, Mac, Technology | 2 Comments

“Liberal Fantasy” Accusation Misses the Point

Fareed Zakaria wants liberals not to be upset with Barack Obama. In his latest column, he accuses those on the left of clinging to “a liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry.” In this regard, he especially cites Drew Weston, whose article “What Happened to Obama” appeared recently in the New Yor Times. Mr. Weston indeed said: “Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end.” Zakaria makes the straw-man argument that such a speech, even if Obama were to give it, would never have the desired effect.

Story Telling

I agree with Zakaria’s distilled assertion that one speech will not have any magical effect. However, I believe Zakaria is wrong in his assessment of what Weston and liberals in general are saying. If you read Weston’s entire article, you’d see that he was not assigning any magical power to a single speech. Rather, he was asserting the immense power of a well-told and repeated story, a story that helps make the complexity of today’s events understandable and relevant.

By story, I (and Weston) do not mean something made-up, like a fairy tale. Rather, I mean a framework that can be used to hold together a group of often complex facts and help people make sense of them. For example, one basic story, often told by Republicans, is that raising taxes is a bad idea. It hurts the economy by taking away money from consumers and businesses, leaving them less to invest and spend. And it gives it to the government, who will either waste it or use it on things that you oppose, with the net effect of needlessly increasing the national debt. If you can convince someone that this story is true, it will color almost every other political opinion that they hold. It will almost certainly mean that they will oppose President Obama and all of his economic initiatives — or any initiative that involves raising taxes. It will mean they will be against universal health care. And so on.

To convince people to accept this story, Republicans tell it over and over again, in their talking points, in interviews, in articles, on the campaign trail and wherever else they can. As Weston points out, and as has been well documented by numerous others (especially George Lakoff), a resonating story is more powerful than an armful of facts. People start with a belief in a story. If your facts contradict the story they believe, people will reject the facts. Lies that fit within the framework of the story are accepted as true. To get people to break out of this box, you must first convince them to accept a different — or at least a modified — story.

This is what Weston was hoping Obama would do. It is much more than simply giving a stirring speech. Mr. Zakaria may think that this is of little consequence. But he is wrong.

Centrist vs. Extreme Positions

Later in the Time magazine version of his column, Zakaria warns his readers “not to fall prey to ideology from the right or left and to celebrate the democratic process that balances the two extremes.” I believe Mr. Zakaria is wrong here as well.

I agree there is value in being able to assess both sides of an issue, to seeing the grays and not assuming that everything is either black or white. If this means I am a centrist, I am guilty as charged. However, I also believe it is a mistake to assume that extreme positions are always wrong — that a centrist position is the one that, in the end, is the best course to take. In the end, a centrist position may be the only possible course of action. Extreme positions rarely become public policy because they are, by definition, a minority position. You have to accept compromises along the way. But that doesn’t mean you should start by pushing for a centrist position.

In fact, centrist positions are often on the wrong side of history. There was a time when it was a centrist belief that a “woman’s place is in the home.” There was a time when (at least in the South), the center firmly held that blacks belonged in the back of the bus. There was a time when the center held that gays should not be allowed in the military (some may argue that this is still a centrist belief). Heck, there was a time that most of the people living on this planet thought that the earth was flat at that the sun revolved around it.

It takes courage, sometimes risking one’s own life, to stand by and defend the “extreme” beliefs that run counter to centrist positions. In the examples I cited, “extreme” positions were eventually adopted by the mainstream. Indeed, they are today’s centrist maxims. But back when they were considered extreme, I contend that the centrist position would not be the wisest course of action. On that basis, no one would have ever fought for the extreme beliefs — women would still not have the right to vote and blacks would still be sitting at the back of buses.

There are ideas today that are considered extreme. Single payer health care on the left. A balanced budget ammendment on the right. Some of these ideas may be exactly on target. That is, if the country adopted them, the country would be better off, by almost any measure. But we’ll never know if we stick to the idea that only weak compromises that barely move the needle from the center are the ideal we should strive to achieve, As Paul Krugman eloquently stated (in an article appropriately titled The Centrist Cop-Out): “Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.”

Pragmatism?

In defending Obama, Zakaria points out the “pragmatism” of many of the president’s positions, noting for example that “he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.” That is all well and good. But the problem is not in the president’s position, or his accepting some centrist compromise. The problem is that, when the bill was finally passed, there were no tax increases. There were only spending cuts. It looked very little like a compromise and very much like exactly what the Republicans had demanded. From the very beginning, the Republicans had set the terms of the debate (almost taking any revenue increases off the table) and left the Democrats in an all-too-familiar defensive crouch.

The same is true for issues like health care. While the Republicans pound ceaselessly on the importance of repealing “Obamacare” — Democrats (including Obama) too often shy away from even mentioning the topic. Instead of strongly defending the law, and offering a coherent “story” explaining why Americans should support it, the Democrats’ logic appears to be: “Now that the bill has passed, talking about only risks alienating voters and gettting us nothing.” Unfortunately, that leaves Republicans as they only ones with a story to tell. In such an environment, where only one side is on the ofdensive, lies can easily become accepted as fact.

Bottom Line

This returns us to my original point. Zakaria is wrong about his supposed “liberal fantasy.” Telling a story, and convincing voters to believe in it, is critical to political success. Republicans are winning at this game because they are far superior to Democrats in getting their “story” out. The fantasy is believing that this story telling doesn’t matter.

Posted in Media, Politics | Comments Off on “Liberal Fantasy” Accusation Misses the Point