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A dark chocolate sampler

Bean to bar dark chocolate is a revelation. It's got the terroir and backstory of the finest wines, it's a collision of rural farmers and modern technology and markets similar to coffee, and it also brings along the Proustian nostalgia of childhood.

Too many of us have been stuck in a Nestle/Hershey universe for too long. And if your early collisions with dark chocolate aren't positive, it's easy to decide it's not worth the trouble or expense. 

[I get at least 10 servings out of a $10 bar, though, so it's hard for it to feel like a ridiculously expensive luxury. If you skip an espresso…]

Here, in no real order, are my favorite brands, all good to start with, all great to stick with. Every one is made by a human, who cares, someone you could meet, engage with and root for.

Askinosie
Rogue (entire production already sold out)
Original Beans
Cacao Hunters
Patric
Dick Taylor
Ritual
Marou
Grenada
Soma
Fruition
Tilin

A few simple understandings and principles:

The percentage matters, in the sense that chocolate that is between 70% and 90% dark is a Platonic ideal of flavor. I avoid flavoring agents like candies, seeds or salt, because what I'm trying to taste is the bean and what the maker has done to bring it to life.

The kind of bean matters. Forastero beans are cheap, easy to grow and not particularly worth seeking out (with a few exceptions). On the other hand, Criollo (particularly the wonderful rare Porcelana hybrid which you can find from Soma and Original Beans) is a party in your mouth–but, alas, the hardest to grow. It's always that way, isn't it? And Trinitario beans are the backbone of this hobby.

The country matters. Yes, with practice, it's actually easy to tell the difference between Madagascar and Colombia.

And finally, the farmer's relationship with the grower matters a lot. Askinosie imports their own beans, and does amazing work with the farmers who work so hard to grow them.

Enjoy. Halloween doesn't have to mean bad chocolate any more! And don't even get me started on candy corn.

What does the poll say?

It says that people don't understand polls. Even smart marketers get it wrong.

What do people think? There's a lot of confusion, much of it intentional, some spawned by a presumed fear of simple math, all of it worth clearing up. 

A survey is not a poll is not a census. A census is what you get if you ask every single person what they think or who they are. There are only two reasons to have a census. Either you want each person to feel personally involved (hence an election) or you are keeping track of each person's answer. For example, if you're printing up t-shirts for the Frisbee team, you ought to do a census of the team to find out what size each person wants, then deliver each person the size they seek.

You could do a survey, which is merely a collection of answers from whomever cares enough to answer the survey. A survey is a useful tool for brainstorming, but it shouldn't be confused with what the group actually feels. Your lack of rigor in setting it up is repaid in a lack of precision in the data.

And a poll? A poll is a smart shortcut, a statistical method for replacing a census (asking everyone) with a very close approximation achieved by asking the minimum number of people required to get a useful answer. A properly done poll will get you an answer nearly as useful as an accurate census will, without the expense or the time.

It rarely makes sense to ask all of your customers about how they feel. You're wasting their time (and yours) by adding more entries into the database without those entries actually making the database any more accurate—part of the problem is that the only people who answer surveys are annoyed or have nothing better to do, and simply making a poll bigger doesn't make it better.

When big companies ask you to fill out a quick survey after talking to a customer service rep, they're not actually doing a survey. What they're doing is snooping on their customer service people, and your answers are directly connected back to each rep, so that person can be scolded (or worse) if they do a bad job.

A poll doesn't predict the future. The media has completely missed this point, again and again. If, on the day the iPhone was announced, you had done a well-designed poll of adults and asked, "Do you intend to ever buy a smartphone?" the yesses would have certainly been less than 5% of the result.

Of course, a decade later, that's turned out to be completely wrong. Was the poll in error?

No.

An accurate poll is a snapshot of right now, based on what's happening today. That's all. If outcomes end up being different a week or a year later, that's not the poll's fault, it's our mistaken belief that the future can be predicted.

To go one step further, the question that gets asked is as important as the answer. Try this at home: When you ask people a question, they rarely give you the straight up truth in their answer, especially when there are social factors at play. The very best polls combine not only the right math, but more important, the right question structure.

The magic of sample size. Let's say you had a bag of M&Ms. You know they come in six colors and you want to figure out the percentage of each that's in the bag. As long as the candies are distributed within the bag, it turns out that no matter how many are in the bag, whether it's a 2 pound bag or a 2,000 pound bag, all you need to do is randomly pull out 300 to 400 M&Ms. That's plenty. More samples won't dramatically increase the quality of this poll.

The purpose of the sample is to pick a random selection from a coherent group.

The key to this is understanding that sample size is relevant for any sized group that's consistent in its makeup. As soon as you can divide the group into buckets, you benefit by doing multiple samples.

Most of the well-done polls you hear about in public do not have a sample size problem. It's a red herring.

The power of bucketing. But what happens if you realize that there are more than one kind of M&Ms, and that different kinds have different color distributions? (This, it turns out, for mysterious reasons, is true. Almond M&Ms only come in five colors).

Well, you could take this into account and run much bigger sample groups, or you could get smart about sample size.

It turns out, for example, that women who ride Harley Davidson motorcycles want different things from them than men do. It also turns out that (I'm guessing about all the Harley stats here) perhaps 10% of the people who buy a Harley are women.

Given that, you could poll 300 women (the easy minimum) and then 2700 men (so you get the balance right). OR, you could get smart, and poll 300 women and 300 men (because every time you add a new person, it's really expensive). "But wait," you might say, "that's not right, because women are overrepresented."

So far, that's true. But after you figure out how women think, and then figure out how men think, you can weight the men's results in your final tally. If, for example, you discovered that women intend to buy a new Harley every two years, but men intend to buy one every six years, you could then report back that the average customer intends to buy a new Harley every five and a half years or so.  (Said with full knowledge that it's dangerous to average averages, but in this case, it's correct.)

Confusion about polls is easy. And the more we try to make decisions using polls, the more careful we need to be about the structure and motivation of the poll itself. 

But finding an accurate poll is pretty easy as well. Most pollsters (in private and in public work) are transparent about their methods, and the magic of statistics is that the math of how the poll is structured can be checked by others. 

Too often, marketers do surveys, not polls, or bother everyone with a census, poorly done. Worse, they then use these results as an accurate prediction of the future, instead of a reliable snapshot of now.

It's the surveys that are so often wrong, deceptive and confusing. It's surveys ("no one I know believes that") that feel like they're accurate but rarely are.

And if we're going to challenge a poll, far smarter to challenge the questions ("that's designed to get the respondent to lie") or the flaws in sampling ("this requires all polled individuals to have a home phone, but of course, an entire generation of young people don't have one.")

But it makes no sense at all to throw out the results of polls we disagree with. The quality of the cars we drive, the efficacy of the medicines we take are all directly related to the very same statistical techniques that we use to run a poll. Ask the right questions to the right people and your snapshot is going to be helpful.

If you want to, be wary of polls. But be wary for the right reasons.

On your toes

In any given meeting, on any given day, most people are merely showing up.

It's the 50th time he's performed that sonata. The guy in the outfield had a hard day at home before the game. The folks in the meeting are realizing that it's yet another meeting in a long series of meetings, and wondering if it much matters anyway.

Every once in awhile, though, someone is on their toes. This cocktail party is a big deal, he thinks, because he's going to meet that agent that could change everything. It's the key presentation before launch. This performance in Carnegie Hall is… well… it's Carnegie Hall. 

We can't be on our toes all the time. It's too exhausting, and we can't keep it up.

But what happens if we decide, everyone in this room, right here and right now, at least for a little while, that we'll act as if it's the first time, or the last time, or our best shot?

What would happen if we all got on our toes, together? Just for a little while?

That's when big things happen.

Decoding pro wrestling

Professional wrestling is fake.

The blood is fake, the lack of physics is fake, the arguing with the ref is fake, the rivalries are fake… it might be professional, but it's not real.

This willful disregard for reality is at the heart of pro wrestling. It's a juvenile fantasy, come to life. An opportunity to make up the rules, ignore authority, and exert bullying force on others, merely because you can.

So why is Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins) one of the most successful musicians of our generation, running a pro wrestling organization?

He says it's because it's one of the last transgressive arenas left. That it's a morality play, a microcosm of the human condition, a chance to put on a show that highlights our fears and our avarice. He knows that it's fake, authenticity is a foreign concept in this world.

And what lesson can we learn from politics importing pro wrestling's mindset? Once you see it, you can't unsee the connection. Worth noting that one of the key narratives of pro wrestling is the fake within the fake–someone is always claiming that the outcome is rigged. (In wrestling, of course, it is rigged. And so is the complaining.)

Pro wrestling works as a play and a medium because the people who are part of it realize that it's fake.

It turns out that modern media is a perfect match for the pro-wrestling approach. You can put on a show, with your own media, as often as you like. And that show is, to many, remarkable, and so it spreads.

And there lies the danger, the opportunity for pro-wrestling thinking to corrupt our society: When the fans, or worse, the participants, don't realize that it's fake.

In real life, the laws of physics actually work. In real life, blood feuds rarely end well. In real life, accepting the ref's decisions is the only way to have civilization…

The filter bubble creates an echo chamber, and reality stars are pushed to be more like cartoonish pro wrestlers and less like responsible human beings. If it bleeds, it leads.

You probably work with people who are living in their own pro wrestling universe. These are people who are so in love with their version of reality and their goals that they view the real world as an affront, an intrusion on the way they insist things turn out.

Reality remains our common ground, the best one we have to work with.

Two kinds of filters

There's the filter bubble of the internet, in which we willingly surround ourselves only with information sources with which we agree, soon coming to the conclusion that everyone agrees with us.

The other kind is the filter we can choose to build to avoid falling into a rabbit hole of wasted time, misogyny and dissatisfaction. This is to avoid the endless clicking, the hateful comments, the mind-numbing noise of the net.

Here's a hint: The first kind of filter is easy to build and satisfying in the short run. It's reassuring to believe we're right.

The second kind, the one that builds a foundation for us to do better work, is always under attack from within and without, and it's tempting to stop using it. Tempting to give up, but ultimately worth the effort.

The easier the filter is to build, the less it's worth.

One way to get a raise

…is to get promoted.

And the best way to get promoted is to learn something new and get good at it. Take a course. Learn to sell. Public speaking. Statistics. Become the person that your organization wants in a bigger role. You can accelerate that process with deliberate learning and practice.

Smart companies will pay for it if you ask. After all, it's a high-return investment in the very people who do the work. Organizations have learned that it is significantly cheaper to grow their people than it is to hire pre-grown people from outside.

Consider that the altMBA has been taken by leaders from organizations big and small, including Microsoft, DHL, Intel, and Warby Parker. Inevitably, our alumni become more valuable contributors.

Many companies that offer tuition reimbursement are frustrated that employees rarely ask for it. Bosses realize how useful this investment is, they're just waiting for you to take them up on it.

It might feel awkward to ask your boss if you can take a course (after all, employees are supposed to be perfect, right?) but in fact, one of the biggest insights that growing companies have is that they're only as good as their smartest people.

And their best people realize that getting smarter is the only way to avoid falling behind…

Fear of outsiders

Just in time for Halloween, some thoughts on our fear of the other, the people in the shadows, or merely those that don't look like us.

It's tempting to rile yourself up about the 'other'.

But that's not the real challenge.

The challenge is inside. It's the self-sabotage. The projects not shipped, the hugs not given, the art not made.

The real boogeyman isn't the other. The one we're afraid of is with us all the time.

On being irritated

Irritation is a privilege.

It's the least useful emotion, one that we never seek out.

People in true distress are never irritated. Someone who is hungry or drowning or fleeing doesn't become irritated.

And of course, irritation rarely helps us get what we need.

Irritation clouds our judgment, frustrates our relationships and gets our priorities all wrong.

Irritation tries to persuade us that it's justified, but it merely pushes us away from what we actually need.

In order to be irritated, we need to believe we're not getting something we deserve. But of course, that expectation is the cause of the irritation. We can choose to lose the expectation, embracing the fact that we're lucky enough to feel it, and then get back to work doing something generous instead.

It turns out that irritation is a privilege and irritation is a choice.

Moral hazard and inhumanity

One bit of economic reasoning says, "If there are no consequences, people will make bad choices."

Don't let big banks get bailouts, because if we do, bankers will take bigger risks.

So, make sure that the dentist is expensive (and painful) because that will encourage people to brush their teeth.

And don't make it too easy to collect on fire insurance, or people will be careless with matches.

Insurers call these behaviors 'moral hazards.' (And some call them 'morale hazards' fyi). In specific instances, people will make choices that cause harm to themselves and to society because they don't fear the consequences.

Without a doubt, this makes sense for organizations.

But the instances are more specific than you might guess. For example, awareness of the certainty of lung cancer forty years later doesn't do much to keep teens from smoking. The long-term consequences didn't matter—it was a tax on cigarettes that made the biggest difference.

And telling a mentally ill homeless person that he 'deserves' to live on the street because of bad choices along the way isn't doing anything for him, or to those that might be forced into his situation down the road.

Waiting for an employee to screw up so we can fire her seems a convoluted way to set a standard for the rest of the team.

Too often, we get confused about what people deserve vs. what they get. We use our instinctual, Calvinist understanding of moral hazard as an excuse to teach people a lesson, to callously embrace an efficient market. But of course, the market isn't efficient at all. It unevenly distributes rewards to people based on luck, and allows those with an early head start to amplify that lead with less and less effort.

It turns out that building homes for homeless people is a great way to cut homelessness overall. Poverty doesn't usually respond to moral hazard approaches.

Life's risky and it's played for keeps. We all benefit from a safety net.

Hardware is sexy, but it’s software that matters

You can make software if you choose to.

Not just the expected version of software that runs on a computer, but the metaphorical idea of rules and algorithms designed to solve problems and connect people…

Apple started as a hardware company with the Apple II. Soon in, they realized that while hardware is required, it's software that changes the world.

For years, the Mac was merely a container for Mac software. It was the software that enabled the work we created, it was software that shifted our relationship with computers and ultimately each other.

Over the last five years, Apple has lost the thread and chosen to become a hardware company again. Despite their huge profits and large staff, we're confronted with (a partial list):

  • Automator, a buggy piece of software with no support, and because it's free, no competitors.
  • Keynote, a presentation program that hasn't been improved in years.
  • IOS 10, which replaces useful with pretty.
  • iTunes, which is now years behind useful tools like Roon.
  • No significant steps forward in word processing, spreadsheets, video editing, file sharing, internet tools, conferencing, etc. Apple contributed mightily to a software revolution a decade ago, but they've stopped. Think about how many leaps forward Slack, Dropbox, Zapier and others have made in popular software over the last few decades. But it requires a significant commitment to keep it moving forward. It means upending the status quo and creating something new. 

Some simple principles:

  • Software can change faster than hardware, which means that in changing markets, bet on software.
  • It's tempting to treat the user interface as a piece of fashion, some bling, a sort of jewelry. It's not. It's the way your user controls the tool you build. Change it when it stops working, not when you're bored with it. Every time you change the interface, you better have a really good reason.
  • Hardware always gets cheaper. If you can't win that race, don't run it.
  • Getting users is far more expensive than keeping users, which means that investing in keeping users is the smartest way to maintain your position and then grow.
  • Software can create connection, and connection is the engine of our future economy. 

This is more than a rant about Apple. Any company that makes or uses software has a wide-open opportunity to dramatically change the way we engage. Hardware, on the other hand, often closes more doors than it opens.

If you can, make software. And bring enough value (through efficiency, power and connection) to the marketplace of your choosing that it will have trouble being productive or happy without you.

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