Beyond the Rhetoric


Sunday Snippet: Malcolm Gladwell

April 13th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Malcolm Gladwell - Pop!Tech 2008

“But the better answer is that Hotchkiss has simply fallen into the trap that wealthy people and wealthy institutions and wealthy countries—all Goliaths—too often fall into: the school assumes that the kinds of things that wealth can buy always translate into real-world advantages.”

I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, in audiobook form for the last couple of weeks. In it, he explains how something that we may perceive to be a weakness could actually be a strength, just as what we perceive to be advantageous could actually turn out to be a disadvantage. Intuitively, this doesn’t make a lot of sense and it doesn’t apply to every situation and circumstance, but it sure is fascinating when it does.

The Nature of Goliath’s Weakness

The story of David and Goliath is a familiar one for most of us, but the truth behind the tale is far more complex. Yes, Goliath is definitely bigger and stronger than David, but he may have suffered from a health condition that impaired his vision. And his bulk could have significantly impaired his mobility. Even so, with his brute strength and protective armor, Goliath seemed unbeatable… under the normal conditions of single combat. However, David didn’t play by these conventional rules. When Goliath dared David to come to him, David kept his distance and slung his rock at Goliath instead.

David’s vision was better. Because he was smaller, David was also faster and more nimble. Even though Goliath appeared to have the clear advantage, he ended up losing the fight.

Mo Money, Mo Problems?

We don’t need to be Goliaths to think that having more money is probably a good thing. In many of our circumstances, having more money would be advantageous, but it also comes with downsides. A different set of challenges arises among children of wealthy parents. The parents can no longer use the “we can’t afford it” argument to deny their children the latest toy. And these children can grow up with a tremendous sense of entitlement. By contrast, children of working class parents might be raised with more of a fighting spirit and tenacity, because they learn that you have to work for everything you have.

Is it “better” to be poor than to be rich? Not at all, but it does present a different set of challenges and obstacles. Just as being big and strong could mean that you’re also slow and lumbering. This is why it’s difficult for large corporations to “change direction,” while smaller startups can completely shift and adapt their approach far more quickly.

Happiness Is Relative

“Which do you think, for example, has a higher suicide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Canada? or countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, whose citizens describe themselves as not very happy at all? Answer: the so-called happy countries. It’s the same phenomenon as in the Military Police and the Air Corps. If you are depressed in a place where most people are pretty unhappy, you compare yourself to those around you and you don’t feel all that bad. But can you imagine how difficult it must be to be depressed in a country where everyone else has a big smile on their face?”

In the book, Gladwell also explores related issues like how we tend to compare ourselves to our peer group rather than to the population as a whole. If you are reading this blog post, chances are that you’re better off than the majority of the world’s population. They don’t have reliable shelter or clean water, let alone a computer and Internet access. You might fit into your middle class neighborhood, but you may feel nearly destitute when you try to keep up with the Joneses in a wealthier, gated community.

Words of Wisdom

Some people clearly have their gripes with Malcolm Gladwell. He can come off as an elitist snob at times; he does write for The New Yorker, after all. Nonetheless, he offers tremendous insight in all of his writing. We’ve already learned about the other minds problem and why it may be in your best interest to trust your gut reaction.

And with David and Goliath, we confirm that it may be a tough road for David, but even a lowly shepherd boy can take down the mighty Goliath if he’s smart about it.

Movie Reviews – Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Muppets Most Wanted

April 11th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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You know, as much as I enjoy how they’re putting together the Marvel cinematic universe, I didn’t think the first Captain America movie was all that great. Sure, we got to see how Steve Rogers became a super soldier and we were introduced to Red Skull, but it was just okay. This sophomore effort (if you can call it that, considering that Captain America was also in The Avengers) was a lot better.

We are now in the present day and Steve Rogers has largely grown accustomed to modern technology, but he’s becoming less of a fan of how SHIELD is now going about conducting its business. There is a distinct anti-NSA sentiment throughout The Winter Soldier, particularly when it comes to what freedom really means. Indeed, we learn that there are internal threats to SHIELD and the Captain can’t really trust anyone. Or at least that’s what Nick Fury tells him.

For my part, even though he doesn’t say all that much, the titular character of the Winter Soldier was a fantastic highlight for me. Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) exudes an undeniable sense of “badassery” throughout the film and the action sequences, shaky camera and all, are very entertaining. Yes, The Winter Soldier does run a little long, but it’s a fun adventure that keeps you captivated with its plot twists and impressive battles. And like all other Marvel movies, you need to stick around during the credits for two bonus scenes. Let’s just say some powerful developments are forthcoming.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

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There’s a very special place in my heart for the Muppets. I loved watching The Muppet Show as a kid and, looking back, I see how the variety show format with celebrity guests really appealed to adults too. And perhaps it is partly due to this sense of nostalgia that I had such a good time with the Jason Segel-led relaunch a couple of years ago. It did well and I had high hopes for the sequel.

Unfortunately, it’s almost like Muppets Most Wanted predicted its own fate. Very early on in the movie, we get a self-aware musical number that talks about how this is a sequel. And, if our movie-watching experience has taught us anything, sequels are oftentimes worse than the originals. And that’s the case here.

It’s not that Most Wanted is bad, per se, but it doesn’t capture that same sense of whimsy, imagination and hope that was so eloquently delivered in the first film. This time around, we have Kermit replaced by an evil frog named Constantine. It’s a tale of mistaken identity as Kermit gets thrown in prison (with plenty of musical numbers along the way). The fake accents by Ty Burrell and Tina Fey were more jarring than entertaining, though the small part played by Danny Trejo as himself gave me a few chuckles.

If you like The Muppets, you won’t hate Most Wanted. Just don’t expect it to be filled with the same wonder and creativity as earlier efforts.

Grammar 101: Mother Lode or Mother Load?

April 10th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

You’ve probably come across a lot of English idioms. Some of them don’t seem to make much sense at all, like saying that it’s raining cats and dogs. Other idioms can almost be taken literally, like talking about winning by a hair’s breadth. These idioms become particularly challenging when the words used are oftentimes only seen or heard in the context of that specific idiom.

A prime example of this is when you talk about hitting the mother lode. Or is the mother load?

As far as I know, this is an idiom that is largely only used in American English, though I’m sure it has spread to English variations in other parts of the world too. The correct spelling is mother lode, even though a mother load might almost make sense. It also doesn’t help, as mentioned, that the word “lode” isn’t really a part of our normal, everyday speech.

A mother lode refers to a large or abundant supply of something, typically something of great value. For example, if you just won the jackpot on a slot machine in Las Vegas, you might say that you hit the mother lode. In an action movie where the heroes are looking for weapons and come across a massive cache of guns, they might also say that they found the mother lode. But why does the idiom use the word “lode” in the first place?

Most of us are likely familiar with the word load. Used as a noun, it would refer to something large or heavy that is going to be carried in one go. The wall shelf can carry a load of up to 20 pounds. It could also refer to the pressure taken on by something that is carrying that added weight. The engine could not handle the extra load. If you want someone to relax or to relieve themselves of a burden, you might tell them to take a load off. “Load” can also be used as a verb. When you open a file on your computer, you’re also “loading” that file.

A lode is a different word altogether. In a geological sense, a “lode” refers to a deposit of ore or a mineral (usually valuable) found in the crack or space in a rock formation. If some gold is filling a crack in the side of a cliff, then you could say that there is a lode of gold in there. You might also hear people talking about the mineral lodes at a mine site. Given this, a “lode” can be generalized to refer to an abundant supply of non-minerals too.

In a literal sense, then, a mother lode is “a principal vein… of gold or silver ore.” In a more figurative sense, a mother lode can refer to a large stash of something valuable and that’s why the idiomatic phrase makes sense. Whether you’re talking about a valuable treasure, a room filled with guns, or a library filled with great knowledge, you could be hitting a mother lode.

I’ll admit that I always thought it was mother load too. Then again, outside of some obscure video game references, I’ve hardly ever come across the word “lode” at all. Go figure.

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What’s Up Wednesdays: A Worldly Affair

April 9th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Helsinki, Finland by Ed Lau Photography

It’s Wednesday, so let’s get over the hump day blues with another whirlwind speedlink.

We start things off with Ed Lau, who returned from his trip through Northern Europe some time back. One of the highlights of his trip was the opportunity to sample reindeer meatballs in Helsinki. You may as well eat like a local, particularly when it comes to foods that you normally can’t find back home. For example, I ate kangaroo and camel when I was in Australia and I thought they were pretty darn tasty.

Moving a little closer to home, Claire Livia Lassam from Vancouver Observer put up a great article exploring the origins of Phnom Penh. No, we’re not talking about the actual city in Cambodia, but rather the restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown that is highly praised for its deep fried chicken wings and butter beef. You might remember the Dot Com Pho episode we shot there a few years back.

While on the topic of Asia, Karly Pinch rounds up the final week of her trip to Vietnam. She took the opportunity to rent bicycles for the day to explore the town of Hue, do a little shopping in the more cosmopolitan city of Hoi An, and to soak in the natural beauty of Halong Bay. After a one night stay in Bangkok, Karly will be continuing her trip through to the Philippines. This all sounds like a terrific adventure!

It looks like Tris Hussey has been keeping himself quite busy lately. First, he has returned to the startup world with his work on Nugg, a platform that is “designed for today’s teams” to help them “ask questions, share updates, discover what’s most important and inspire performance.” He also finished his new book, WordPress Absolute Beginner’s Guide, a substantial tome of over 400 pages for anyone who wants to use WordPress.

And finally, we get to indulge in the April Fool’s Day gag put forth by Mike Vardy. Meant to be read with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mike explains the real meaning of highlighter colors. For instance, while we may think that using a blue highlighter is associated with bigger, “blue sky thinking” that is more creative and innovative, what it really means is that the person “is sad, knowing that they will have to do whatever they have highlighted.”

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Common Myths About Hiring a Freelance Writer

April 8th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Audiência na CDHU - IMG_6680

In the past, I’ve written about some of the misconceptions about freelance writing that some people may have, but those discussions were from the perspective of someone who was considering freelancing as a career. For example, some people think that being your own boss is an absolute dream or that you only work when you want to work. The actual business of freelancing is far more complex than that.

And, following a similar line of thought, there are many common misconceptions about freelance writing from the client’s point of view. Let’s debunk some of these myths.

Hourly Rates Are The Same As Employees

If you have an in-house writer at your company that handles all of your corporate communications, blogging, and press releases, you may pay this person a certain hourly wage. However, this hourly wage will not directly translate to the hourly rate of a freelancer, largely because of non-billable hours and other factors. You have to realize that the “true cost” of employee goes beyond the hourly wage to include utilities, rent, and equipment, as well as the support of other staff for human resources, accounting, marketing, and the rest of it.

I Can’t Afford to Hire a Freelance Writer

On the other side of the same coin, some people may assume that hiring an outsourced worker for these types of projects can be very expensive. They assume that they don’t have the budget to pay a professional to write a press release or sales letter for them, so they take the task upon themselves instead. However, if you are not experienced in these matters yourself, you may find that your end product is not going to be as good.

Great examples of this can be found in related industries. You could design your own website, but you may end up spending countless hours trying to figure out how to do it and, even when you do, it won’t look the best. Instead, it makes far more sense to hire someone who designs websites for a living, as you’ll get a better product and you’ll get it more quickly. Freelance writing works much the same way. You can afford it; you just have to allocate your budget accordingly.

They Don’t Charge Sales Tax

Whenever you hire any professional to perform a service for you, you probably expect to be charged sales tax. This could be a lawyer, a plumber or a house cleaner. When you hire a freelance writer, the relationship is much the same. There are some sales tax complexities, given the nature of working over the Internet. Since I am registered in Canada and operate solely in Canada, for instance, I don’t charge Canadian sales tax to my American customers.

Freelancers Are Lazy and Unemployable

There is a stereotypical image of a freelancer sleeping in, only to slowly crawl over to his computer to work in his pajamas. While I’m sure there are some folks who are like that, the rest of us take our business just as seriously as someone who sets up a brick-and-mortar shop. We chose to be freelancers and not because we couldn’t find a more traditional job elsewhere.

Working with a Larger Company Is Always Better

Yes, you may benefit from working with a larger company under some circumstances, but there are also some pitfalls that you may want to avoid too. When you work with a larger company for your writing and editing needs, you may become “just another client” and you could easily get lost in the mix. As a freelance writer, I am a company of one, so I can only take on so many clients at a time. What this means is that you can get far more personal attention, as we’ll work together every step of the way.

I Should Always Hire Local

When you are looking to hire an employee to work at your office, it makes perfect sense that you’d be looking for someone local. You can’t expect them to commute from New York to Seattle each day. For some projects where more in-person meetings are required or more local knowledge is valued, then this sort of arrangement makes more sense.

However, given the vastness of the Internet, there’s nothing stopping you from hiring a freelancer from somewhere else. You’ll still want to have the same kinds of considerations in mind — strong language skills, professional demeanor, and so on — but hiring a remote worker is easier than you may think.

They’re Not Worth It

This goes back to the earlier point about affordability. Freelance writing is a profession that should be approached the same way that you would approach a graphic designer, photographer or app developer. While it may be possible for you to take on some of these projects yourself, it is oftentimes a far more prudent choice to outsource these tasks to a professional with the skills, talents and expertise to do a fantastic job for you.

I could have tried formatting Beyond the Margins myself for Createspace, but I hired a professional because he already knew what he was doing, could do it well, and could do it far more quickly than I ever could. The same is true for the book cover, just as it was true for my business card design. And they were all worth every penny.

Michael Kwan Freelance Writer