My Top Career Influencers

At the start of this new year, I’ve been thinking about how I got to where I am in my career. While I’ve had the privilege of working with many amazing and talented people, the two most important people who shaped who I am professionally are Neal Viemeister and Rodney Perkins.

Neal Viemeister and Rodney Perkins

Neal Viemeister, who passed away in 2020, trained me to be a scientist. I came to his lab after finishing my PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, where my research applied digital signal processing to auditory neural processing. Neal’s lab in the psychology department of the University of Minnesota was (arguably) the top psychoacoustic lab in the country at the time. What helped with the transition from engineering to psychology was the way in which Neal applied signal detection theory to his thinking about the performance of the human auditory system, along with his rigorous and mathematical approach to basic auditory perception research. Neal helped me discover that while engineering is about solving problems, science is about identifying important questions and developing elegant solutions to gather data that can answer them.

Neal engendered robust scientific debates in his lab. Every week those of us in his lab would argue over our ideas on the function of auditory perception and the meaning of our latest data, and Neal would bet a cookie on who was right if he disagreed with our hypotheses. He didn’t care if he was right or wrong in these situations but enjoyed the debate and working through the theoretical arguments. Neal wasn’t dogmatic about his scientific beliefs, but he made us deeply justify why our theories made sense and our experiments were the right ones to answer our hypotheses. He would always frame these discussions with a razor-sharp application of logic–imagine applying the “five whys” to scientific debate. Neal let us explore our ideas while he nudged us towards the best ways to design experiments, still letting us figure things out for ourselves.

There was no one I was more eager to talk to at scientific conferences than Neal because he would bring clarity to how the latest research fit into our current world-view of hearing science and provide meaningful alternate explanations for findings that were presented, often illuminating gaps in thinking, flaws in experimental design or missed hypotheses by the researchers at the conference. Debating science with Neal was a joy that I continued long after I left his lab to join the hearing aid industry.

If Neal was responsible for the scientist part of me, then Rodney Perkins was responsible for the entrepreneurial side. Rodney is one of the most successful medical device entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. I was privileged to work at three companies that he founded (ReSound, SoundID and Earlens), help him start one of them and significantly grow another. Rodney has founded a dozen (and counting) medical device companies in Silicon Valley, all resulting from his finding unmet needs in hearing health and developing solutions that often benefited other fields of health care.

Rodney embodies the prototypical entrepreneur. He identifies unmet needs and continually iterates ideas for solutions until he comes upon one that not only works but is practical and implementable in medical practice. When we were applying Bluetooth technology to hearing aid technology at SoundID in 2002, Rodney explained that most innovation in the Valley resulted from finding technology and solutions in one field and applying them to another; the secret for success was identifying those opportunities and timing it so that the resulting solution can be successfully commercialized. Rodney emphasized that you need to have a deep understanding of unmet needs in health care so that you can always be on the lookout for possible solutions emerging in other fields.

Being in meetings with Rodney almost always exposed me to the creative process in action. Rodney would offer idea after idea on how one might solve the problem being discussed, never focusing on the obvious or easy fix but on creative solutions born out of new ways of thinking about the problem. He constantly sketched new ideas and solutions to problems in his notebooks, which were incredible to see, and created an endless resource for scientists and engineers to investigate and prototype solutions.

In addition to seeing the innovation process firsthand with Rodney, I also observed the stoic nature required to be successful in the startup world. In a world known for hot-headed CEOs and egos causing chaos within their companies, Rodney dealt gracefully with every setback. Whether it was technical setbacks in a prototypes, challenges with VC funding, or any of the hundred issues that arise when starting and building a company, Rodney took everything with a calm demeanor. Yet he was persistent in driving progress towards what he wanted to accomplish, continuing to push where others might give up and focus on something else. This ethic was embodied in a plaque that he gave to early employees in his startups which read “Make It Happen”, encouraging everyone to find and implement solutions to problems, to accomplish yourself that which is important and not stand on the sidelines waiting for someone else to do it. As Rodney said many times and as he embodied himself, the hard part of innovation and entrepreneurship isn’t developing ideas; what is the difficult and challenging part is the execution and bringing the ideas to the market for people to use–making it happen. He instilled this ethos in people around him: to not wait for someone else to solve problems that you see, but to solve them yourself. I took this to heart in 2004 when I realized that there was an unmet need in the hearing aid industry for a translational research center: a place that would take basic hearing science and translate it into solutions for audiologists and those with hearing loss. I took inspiration from the Make It Happen plaque sitting on my desk, and from years of watching Rodney make it happen, and wrote a business plan for such a venture and sent it to all of the major hearing aid companies. A year later, I opened the Starkey Hearing Research Center in Berkeley, California–I made it happen.

Thank you, Neal Viemeister and Rodney Perkins, for the inspiration and guidance that you’ve provided me in my career, which would not be what it is today without your impact.

Innovation Lessons from a Mouse

ImageOn July 3 2013, Douglas C Engelbart died. He was the inventor of, among other revolutionary computer advances, the computer mouse, and his history is worth considering for what it says about innovation.

In 1968, Engelbart made the first public demonstration of the mouse at a computer conference in San Francisco in front of over a thousand of the world’s top computer scientists. The public introduction of the mouse at that presentation, today called “the mother of all demos”, had little impact on the acceptance or use of the mouse at that time. In fact, the computer mouse languished for over a decade at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center until Steve Jobs saw the mouse during a Xerox PARC visit and in 1984 introduced the mouse to consumers with the Macintosh. Jobs knew that acceptance of the mouse by consumers would be difficult, though, so he eliminated cursor keys from the Mac to force consumers to use the mouse as the only means of moving the cursor. “Jobs did not believe that the customer was always right; if they wanted to resist using a mouse, they were wrong.” (Steve Jobs, p. 137).

The facts that the computer mouse did not naturally get accepted upon its public display in 1968 and that consumers in 1984 had to be forced to use the mouse define two of the top challenges to innovation: (i) customers can’t tell you what innovation they want, and (ii) customers will be resistant to innovation that changes their current way of doing things.

Henry Ford famously said of his development of the car, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Customers are well known to be unreliable sources for innovative ideas and for assessing the value of innovative ideas because their only point of reference is what they already know—they can’t tell you that they need something new unless it is an obvious modification to what already exists. This makes sense when you consider that one of the key characteristics of innovation is risk: if customers are asking for a technology, there’s no risk-taking in giving it to them and therefore there’s no innovation being created. No one was asking for multiband compression in 1989, and the introduction of wide dynamic range compression in hearing aids was initially rejected by experienced hearing aid wearers; they wanted more gain, having only experienced linear hearing aids, while compression actually provided less! No hearing aid wearer ever said that they want their next hearing aids to have frequency lowering—in the early 2000s, most hearing aid experts predicted that frequency lowering would not have value in a hearing aid—yet today frequency lowering has provided benefit to hundreds of thousands of people with severe high-frequency hearing loss.

“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” said Jobs. This is because customers often don’t realize that they have an unmet need until a solution appears. Humans are adept at finding and getting used to workarounds to problems so they don’t realize that the potential for an improved solution exists. Proctor & Gamble employees once conducted consumer research about the user-friendliness of their detergent boxes. Their customer focus groups did not reveal any problems, but one of those customers was observed to keep a screwdriver beside their box of Tide. Why was the screwdriver there, the P&G researchers asked? To open the box of Tide, replied the customer, not recognizing that they had so gotten used to a workaround to a problem with P&G’s product that they were unable to recognize the opportunity for improvement. This is why superstar innovators like IDEO, the world’s top design firm, rely on customer observation rather than focus groups for their breakthrough customer insights.

Some innovations are accepted right away by consumers but, like the computer mouse, many take time for people to recognize the benefit that the innovation provides. This is not unlike acceptance of gain by first-time hearing aid users, who initially don’t want their full gain prescription and are satisfied with insufficient audibility but eventually learn to value the full gain prescription that meets the needs of their hearing loss.

As technology advances—with wireless technology accessories, new signal processing features, advanced user interfaces, connected hearing health—you will be faced with these innovation challenges of how to get your patients to accept innovation and to accept the change in behavior that some innovation requires. You yourself will also be faced with this challenge as new tools for fitting your patients are created and new hearing health solutions for better meeting the unique needs of your patients are developed. Similar to the introduction of innovation throughout history, many of the innovations that will be introduced to your business may not be obvious solutions that you have been asking for and may require a change in your process with patients. When the new computer mouse of the hearing aid field is introduced, will you give it a try and see if it benefits your business and your patients?

Inspiring Innovation

I gave a 25 minute talk on innovation to over 3000 customers of Starkey Hearing Technologies in Las Vegas. It’s purpose was to educate people on what innovation is beyond buzzwords and to inspire people to innovate themselves. I also walk through my own innovation journey, highlighting the innovation challenges that I faced as a I developed a Research department for Starkey. I think it was a fun talk and I received great feedback from people. I continue to give similar versions of this talk.

The talk is in two parts:

An Olympic Anthem Made To Stick

The New York Times had an article today on successful and failed commercials from the just completed Olympics. I eagerly read it because I wanted to see what they said about the one commercial that I liked so much that I actually rewound it (using Tivo) and watched it many, many times. And I actually stopped my Tivo (an act that should be a metric of marketing success) whenever I spotted this commercial while fast-forwarding through Olympic commercial breaks. Not only that, I searched for the commercial on YouTube and watched it again. Not only that, I found the original source for the commercial and watched that again. Surprisingly, Stuart Elliott, the NYTimes article’s author, didn’t mention the commercial at all in his article on memorable commercials during the Olympics. So I will.

Nike’s United We Rise commercial takes film of Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner at a 1983 NBA game and intermixes it with footage of the American Olympic basketball team preparing for the games. The effect, for me, was mesmerizing.

The appeal of the commercial, of course, is Marvin Gaye. To be able to take a national anthem and make it so different, so soulful, and so memorable is stunning even today. I can’t even imagine what the reaction was in 1983, although I know that Jose Feliciano almost ruined his career doing something similar at a baseball game in 1968.

What makes the Nike commercial so memorable? Let’s consider it within the context of Made To Stick, one of the more insightful commentaries on marketing of the past several years. In their book, Chip Heath and Dan Heath (brothers, one of whom is a Stanford Business School professor) outline the qualities of what makes a message (or commercial) sticky—what makes people remember a message and want to tell others about it, or in my case want to watch it over and over again.

The Heaths identify six characteristics that make a message sticky. Let’s examine the Nike commercial with these principles in mind:

  1. SIMPLICITY. The commercial’s message is simple enough: Gaye brought greatness in his own way to  honoring America, and the Redeem Team is going to do the same, in a way that will be memorable for ages. With style, and with a whole lot of coolness.
  2. UNEXPECTEDNESS. Needless to say, associating Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem with the Olympic basketball team was quite unexpected. Check.
  3. CONCRETENESS. Well, I’m not so sure what’s concrete about this commercial. Certainly it’s meant to embody Nike’s Just Do It, but without knowing that slogan already one would have a difficult time pulling that from the images. I’m going to rule that the commercial doesn’t capture this principle.
  4. CREDIBILITY. I believe that part of what Gaye brings to this commercial, believe it or not, is credibility to the USA basketball team. Gaye was a world-famous music icon who had recently had a hit with “Sexual Healing”, yet he chose to open an NBA game with a moving rendition of the national anthem that was as likely to hurt as help his career. Gaye took an American-born music genre and honored his country by applying his incredible talents in that genre to his national anthem. The American team had the ability to take an American-born game and apply their incredible talents in that game to honoring their country. The question pointed towards the USA basketball team as they entered the Beijing Olympics was whether they’d put their NBA stardom on the shelf during the Olympics and focus on representing America against the best of the rest of the world to the best of their ability. In today’s star-driven society, it’s easy to imagine a Kobe saying, “What’s the point? I’ve already achieved greatness in the greatest basketball league in the world.” Well, let’s consider what Marvin Gaye would say to that…
  5. EMOTIONS. Music has a way of touching people’s emotions unlike any other art form. Not only was Gaye’s performance masterful, when have you ever heard a national anthem transformed into a pop-art-form performance that preserved the spirit of the original anthem? There’s a reason that some of the most memorable (sticky) commercials have featured memorable music. Recent JC Penny commercials come to mind. This VW commercial from several years ago is said to have caused the significant posthumous revival of Nick Drake. And, of course, there’s Apple’s iPod commercials.
  6. STORIES. Well, there isn’t a strong narrative here. The message is more implied, as I’ve outlined above. I’m ruling that they didn’t meet this one as well.

So, that’s four out of the six Sticky principles achieved by this commercial. Not surprising that it stuck with me.

Given the nature of this blog, I’m forced to consider: was Marvin Gaye’s performance innovative? Given the requirement of economic value that many of my innovation colleagues require for something to be considered innovative, I suppose not. This Nike commercial, however, undoubtedly is.

Todd Mintz has a wonderful recount of his attendance at the NBA game in which Gaye performed. Below is the 60–second Nike commercial that I watched so many times on my Tivo (there’s 150 second version available on YouTube as well). And below that is film of the original Marvin Gaye performance. Enjoy.

Nike ad:

Original performance:

Lessons from the Olympics

Phelps2The Olympics are always inspiring with the amazing results achieved by the competing athletes. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael Phelps and decide that he provides no inspiration for the average person because he has been groomed for over a decade to excel at this event due to his extraordinary natural talent–and the reality is that yes he has.

What is easy to ignore in Michael’s life-story, however, is that he has worked extraordinarily hard to get to the position that he is in. Unbelievably extraordinarily hard. And so has every athlete at the Olympics. They’ve found what they are good at and have worked extraordinarily hard at doing their best at it. This is not only the secret of successful athletes in all sports but also the secret of successful entrepreneurs and technologists worldwide, and a model of success that can be accessed by anyone: find what you are good at and work extraordinarily hard at it. Don’t be lulled into the job model that has been created for those who work at something that merely defines something they can do. There is an unspoken job model that is not taught in school and never really discussed, but it is a model for those who find themselves in the unique position of being able to work at what they are best at:

If you resonate at your job, ring it as hard as humanly possible.

I am constantly amazed at talented people who have the ability to do great things in their professions…yet they don’t achieve greatness because they treat their job like the average job that they’ve been taught to expect: working nine-to-five (well, nine-to-six is the norm these days) and only do what they are asked to do.

Finding what you are good at and working as hard as you can at that is, frankly, a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people aren’t able to spend their salaried time doing what they do well—most people just work to make a living no matter what the job. Being paid to do what you do well is an opportunity that perhaps one can only truly appreciate at the end of one’s career—to be thankful for being paid to be best at exactly what one is in fact best at. The satisfaction of this unique situation is not about being paid for it, of course; it’s about being judged at what one does best and being given the opportunity to excel at what one does best. If one takes that opportunity, that is.

OlympicsThat opportunity, of course, defines the lives of Olympic athletes. And nothing defines them more than matching their talents to their training and working as hard as they can to be best as they can. In the spectacular finish of the American 400m freestyle relay, the finish of Jason Lezak was spectacular: his performance seemingly pre-destined for the history books, and an achievement celebrated worldwide. Yet what’s not seen nor appreciated by the Olympics viewers is the incredible—and I mean incredible beyond what most people can ever imagine—incredible work ethic that Lezak executed to put himself in the position to be able to make one of the most amazing comebacks ever.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became an online sensation when he gave a Last Lecture after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (and who passed away soon after), provided simple yet insightful advice about achievements and work ethic:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!

Work hard. Work harder than others. Work hardest if you are really good at it. Challenges simply exist for you to overcome then if you are up to it.

Most people complain about their jobs and the perceived difficulties and obstacles that they experience. This tip is for the few of you who want to be able to look back on your career with sanguine satisfaction rather than a melancholy attitude towards all that you simply put up with: the brick wall is there for a reason, so let your colleagues complain about it while you scale it, put it behind you, and face new challenges that few ever progress far enough to even come up against.

Better than Prime Time TV

I just discovered a pretty interesting video site that describes itself as a Brilliant Ideas Network for Discourse and Debate: It’s videos include conference speeches and interviews, such as several from the Aspen Idea Festival. Unfortunately, most of the ones that I saw were abbreviated versions of the full speech/interview—tantalizing tidbits instead of complete content.

The video/audio content on the site is organized by category and varies from Entrepreneurship to Science to Visual Arts & Film to (of course) Innovation.

The videos aren’t as mind-changing as as the incredible TED talks, but are definitely worth spending time with.

As a sample, check out this discussion on innovation and R&D breakthroughs:


Disruptive Innovation in Health Care

Most people interested in innovation will have some familiarity with Harvard B-School professor Clayton Christensen and his classic books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen recently lectured at MIT on the topic of his upcoming book, The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution to Health Care. Christensen is an excellent lecturer and I recommend that you watch this video, courteously pointed to by Irving Wladawsky-Berger who also provides an excellent summary of the class. Make sure that you allot time for watching—the video is 88 minutes long.

Christensen spends the first half of the lecture reviewing the basic concepts of his first book: the process of disruptive innovation.

Here’s a tip for those who don’t want to watch the video or read his books: if you find yourself in a business that is happily conceding low-margin commodity business to small start-ups and happily retreating to the more lucrative high-margin business, be careful or you may end up as one of Christensen’s case-studies on extinction by disruptive innovation (you will never forget this lesson if you watch Christensen’s video).

I love the way that Christensen phrases his preventive medicine for avoiding extinction by disruptive innovation: create a division that is given an unfettered charter to kill the parent—imagine that mission statement on a conference room wall!

Christensen’s prediction for the future of health care (which begins around the 38–minute mark of the video) is that it will experience disruption due to three emerging technologies:

  • molecular diagnostics,
  • imaging technology,
  • high-bandwidth telecommunication.

Part of his message is something that I heard biotech guru Steve Burrill talk about a couple of years ago when predicting future trends in biotech: that better diagnostics will allow health care professionals to treat causes rather than symptoms. I’ve talked about how my field of hearing impairment will go through a similar transition, with better diagnostics allowing us to identify the physiology behind different hearing loss etiologies and provide individualized treatments. This falls under the general theme of individualization in health care, a future trend not only in my field by in health care in general.

For the rest of Christensen’s thinking on innovation opportunities in health care, check out the video—it’s worth the time.

New Yorker on Speech Recognition

I always hold my breath and get a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever a field in which I have expertise takes center stage in a news story or pop-culture piece. More often than not, there are misrepresentations of both sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated aspects of the field (e.g., see Wired Magazine).

Such errors are a common occurrence in movies and television—accuracy in details play a secondary role to the story, and the vast majority of the audience has no idea whether the details are accurate or not. Pilots may object that the location of landing gear switches are not accurately portrayed in a movie, but does anyone else really care? (I recall the howls of protest that arose as outraged chess players complained about inaccuracies in the portrayal of competitive chess in the charming and under-rated movie Searching for Bobby Fischer—seriously, does anyone really care that the players weren’t writing down their moves, or that the games were actioned-up? Chess players worldwide should have been grateful that such a beautiful portrayal of the game was the framework for such a great family film).

HALThus, it was with surprise that I read a recently published article in the New Yorker on speech recognition by John Seabrook that provided an interesting and accurate tour of speech recognition, with brief asides on on a variety of related fields—the physiology of speech production, the physiology of hearing, prosody of speech—all tied together by the promise of computer-based communication that HAL presented in 2001 when the article’s author was  a little kid. I was also surprised to see a popular magazine reference John Pierce’s Acoustical Society letter Whither Speech Recognition, a scathing throwdown on the field of speech recognition in 1969 by the then executive director of research at Bell Laboratories (in this highly debated letter, Pierce criticized the state of speech recognition research at the time for having a “scarcity in the field of people who behave like scientists and of results that look like science.”) I highly recommend reading this New Yorker article for anyone with an interested in the topic.

One odd aspect of the story is that it ends with a discussion of a company called Sound Intelligence, which has developed audio sensor technology that detects violent activity on city streets for use by police. The company is cited as an example of the successful application of the work that Seabrook detailed on detecting emotion in speech. An engineer of the company, whom I heard speak about their technology last year, is quoted as saying that the Sound Intelligence grew out of auditory modeling research at the University of Groningen and its application to separating speech from background noise. It’s unclear to me how much the success of the technology requires complex auditory models or any of the science and technology the article had detailed up to that point. While I applaud Sound Intelligence’s success, the inclusion of their technology as the coda to an otherwise great review of the speech recognition field makes for an empty conclusion. I’m sure that the folks at Sound Intelligence, however, would disagree with me completely.

Read This Post for Free!

FreePeople often make irrational decisions when money is involved. They’ll go out of their way to save 25 cents, say by driving around and around looking for a parking meter with time remaining, yet immediately after blow that much and more without a thought ($4.50 for a latte, anyone?).

Dan Ariely explores such irrational behavior in his book Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a business school professor at MIT, and much of the book describes simple yet ingenious experiments he’s conducted that demonstrate over and over again the consistently illogical behavior of people when making choices. This field of research, known as behavioral economics, stems from the ground-breaking research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s that won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in economics (I’ve been citing Kahneman for years in my talks on cognitive attention and effort, but it seems that every week for the past year I’ve read Kahneman’s name referenced in a different news story, book, or magazine article. Behavioral economics seems to be the hot topic these days). Ariely’s experiments demonstrate the fascinating ways in which people repeatably make decisions that appear to be contrary to common sense.

Ariely details, for example, the powerful allure of something being free. People’s choices change dramatically when items change from being effectively free (costing one cent, for example) to being actually free (costing zero cents). For example, he tells how Amazon’s customers bought more books on average once Amazon started shipping for free on purchases greater than $25—the increase in customer spending far exceeded the amount that they were saving on the free shipping, but they gladly spent more on books to get shipping for free. More puzzlingly, Amazon saw this behavior exhibited worldwide except in France. Was this because the French were more logical in their purchasing behavior? No. The country manager in France decided not to make shipping free but to reduce it to one franc, or 20 cents, which wasn’t a small enough shipping amount to change people’s purchasing behavior. Is 20 cents really a significant amount when buying a $20 book? No. Is a shipping cost of 20 cents effectively the same as 0 cents? For most people,yes. But when the manager in France reduced Amazon’s shipping charge from 20 cents to Free, French customers suddenly increased the amount of books they purchased per order by the same amount as the rest of the world.

The reason that I am writing about Predictably Irrational is to contest an explanation that Ariely gives for his first example, and one of the most interesting, of irrational behavior. In the example, Ariely describes an offer that I’ve seen before but never understood, which made me even more interested in his explanation (and my alternative one).

Ariely noted an ad in the Economist magazine that offered three different types of subscriptions:

  1. an electronic subscription for $59;
  2. a print subscription for $125;
  3. a print and electronic subscription for $125.

That’s right, the price for a print-only subscription was the same as the price for a print&electronic subscription. Why would they bother offering the print-only option when it was clear that no one would select it because they could get both the print&electronic versions for the same price? Being the good researcher that he is, Ariely decided to run some experiments to determine if there was a reason why the Economist made this offer (Ariely’s ability to set up simple experiments to provide insight into unusual behavior is fascinating).

Ariely asked two different groups of students to make a selection among a choice of Economist subscriptions, but each group were given a different list of options. One group was given the same three selections that the Economist offered. The percentage of students who selected each option was as follows:

  1. electronic: 16%
  2. print: 0%
  3. print&electronic: 84%

No one chose the print-only option (not surprisingly). This begs the question of why one would offer that option at all (the same question that motivated this experiment).

For the second group, the unchosen print-only option was removed and only the electronic subscription and print&electronic subscription were offered (still priced at $59 and $125, respectively). One might expect results similar to those from the previous group (16% for electronic and 84% for print&electronic) since there wasn’t any interest in the print-only option that was removed. The results for this second group were as follows:

  1. electronic: 68%
  2. print & electronic: 32%

Without print-only as an option, the number of people interested in the print&electronic option dropped from 84% to 32%! In other words, by offering an option that no one wanted, 52% of the people changed their preference from electronic-only to print&electronic at a $66 higher cost. What’s going on here?

Ariely’s explanation was that people need a basis for comparison when evaluating whether a deal is a good one or not, and from this comparison they make their decisions. With a similar item for comparison, they can assess the value of an item and determine whether that item is a good or bad deal. He gives a couple fascinating examples where the choices that people make are biased by the presence of a similar and inferior alternative. If people are choosing between A and B, they will choose A more often if there exists a third alternative similar to but inferior to A, and they will choose B more often if there exists a third alternative similar to but inferior to B. Having that third alternative allows people to say to themselves, “I can’t judge whether A or B is a better choice, but I know that A is better than this similar third alternative, so A must be a good deal.”

Ariely suggests that this is why the selection for print&electronic is high when print-only is offered for the same price—the print-only option gives people an alternative from they determine that print&electronics is a better deal, and that drives their choice.

I believe, however, that there’s another possibility for these results: people are more likely to select the print&electronic option in the presence of a print-only option because of the Free phenomenon. Let me explain.

Ariely’s explanation is partly correct: in the absence of knowing the cost of the print-only subscription, people cannot judge whether the combined subscription is a good deal or not. Maybe print-only was $66, and the cost of print&electronic was simply the sum of the costs of the individual subscriptions ($59+$66=$125). Or maybe print-only was $100 and getting the combined subscription would save $34. Or maybe print-only was also $50 and $125 for print&electronic was a rip-off. No one can tell whether both together is a good deal in the absence of a print-only option—in that, Ariely is correct.

The fact that the print-only and print&electronic options are priced the same, however, suggests another explanation for the large difference in behavior between whether or not the print-only option is offered. Ariely made the convincing case later in his book that getting something for free can have a hypnotizing allure on people’s decisions. Providing a print-only option at less than $125 probably would not be enough to drive such a large percentage of people to change their selection from print-only to the more expensive print&electronic option—the print-only option had to be priced at exactly same same price as print&electronics so that the electronics version was free if they chose both. It was the identification of something free that made such a large percentage of people select the print&electronic option. This is similar to the phenomenon observed by Amazon: 20–cent delivery didn’t change behavior but free delivery did. Given the convincing case that Ariely made for this free effect, one would probably have predicted that people would switch their decision from the electronic-only option to the print&electronic option when they discovered that the latter choice would get them the electronic version for free.

So, now you know why so many ads offer free cheap items if you purchase an expensive product A free month of HBO if I get the Lifetime Triple Gold package of cable—sign me up!

A World Champion Encounter

ChessMost people strive to be good at their jobs and hobbies, and this often requires a considerable amount of dedication, effort, and innate skill. To be great at these, however that is defined, is more difficult still. To be considered by one’s peers to be one of the best in that field is rarely achieved. To be known as the best in the world at something…well, that achievement is nearly incomprehensible.

A month ago I played a game of chess against the current world champion in chess in his age division:12 and under. Daniel Naroditsky, who goes to school in the Bay Area, won the world championship in Turkey last fall. The achievement, the skill and effort required, of becoming a world champion in chess in any age bracket is mind-boggling. My game against him was less so. Herein are the details of that game.

Daniel conducted a 17–person simul, where he played against 17 people at the same time. I was one of those 17 people. Playing against many people simultaneously is not a new concept; The great American player from the 1800s Morphy used to play blind simuls with regularity. It doesn’t take a world champion to be able to play a simul successfully, but if there are reasonably ranked players among the challengers, then such a contest can be interesting.

One doesn’t play against a world champion chess player and expect to win (unless one is delusional or also ranked as a grandmaster). When playing against someone rated much higher than you in a simul, your best chance of success is for the higher-level player to offer you a draw if you give him a decent challenge; the higher-rated player would do this if he wants your game out of the way so that he can focus on other games that are more challenging. This was my goal. By the way, I also have hopes to hit a hole-in-one when I play golf, to have my luggage be the first one unloaded when I am waiting at an airport carousel, and to have celebrities talk to me with great interest when I see them in public places. Basically, expecting to win or draw against the world champion in chess is like expecting to beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.

Back to the simul.

The rules of a simul differ from regular competitive chess in that there is no clock dictating the amount of time allotted for moves. In a simul, you make your move when the champion appears in front of you—not before, and you certainly don’t continue to think about or hesitate in making your move once he appears before you. He then makes his move and proceeds to the next table, upon which the next nervous challenger must immediately make his move. Interestingly, the champion has no time constraint on his moves. After you make your move, he can think as long as he likes. Of course, he’s got other games to get to, so he usually doesn’t take too long. Also, the person in my simul is the world champion—how much time does he really need to decide how to respond to my castling? I can answer that, in fact: less than a second is how much time he needed.

Before the simul began and the challengers were standing around waiting for instructions on how the event would be conducted, it was clear that the majority of the challengers were young kids—possibly Daniel’s classmates from his school but clearly not typical students: they all had that dead-stare in their eyes indicative of a well-honed and massively complex calculating machine behind them. These kids wouldn’t be going to go back home after the game to play hacky-sack, they would likely immediately reference several chess books from their library of similarly sounding titles (“Variations in the French Defense,” “Countering the Sicilian”) and study how they could have better played the opening before firing up the latest Fritz computer program for some quick games of blitz chess.

Five of the adult challengers, including me, stood together before the event, nervousness in our body language. This group was clearly insecure about its age. There was a “please let at least one of the adults put in a good showing” attitude, not wanting our age to be proven irrelevant in this arena, our intellect crushed by a 12–year old. I’ve played chess competitively before (reaching a temporary Master’s rating, sort of…see the link), and one quickly realizes that age and ability do not have a high positive correlation. Sitting down against a 10–year old in a chess tournament, shaking their tiny limp hand at the beginning of the game, hearing their high-pitched “good luck,” facing them across the board as their head barely sticks up above the table, and having them proceed to suffocate the life out of your King while laying waste to your supporting pieces is a humbling experience. I was under no illusion about the fate of us adults, given that only one of us (not me) appeared to have had any experience with chess over the past few years: we would likely be among the first to relinquish our seats at the game for the observation gallery.

The 17 chessboards were set up in a U-shaped table arrangement, allowing the champion to walk from board to board inside the U while the challengers sat in front of their board around the outside of the U. Looking at the game setups, I was surprised at first to see that all of the boards were arranged so that Daniel played as White on all of them. At the grandmaster level of competition, playing as White is a considerable advantage because White makes the first move, and the best that one typically hopes for when playing as Black is a draw (tie). Thus, I was surprised to see that the simul was set up to give Daniel the advantage of White. Even though he was playing against 17 people simultaneously, giving him White in all games seemed an unnecessary advantage for a world champion. After his first move, though, I realized why the sides had been arranged this way.

We challengers sat at our tables and awaited the start. Daniel approached the first table, shook the challenger’s hand, and played Knight to f3. An unusual opening, and certainly a confusing one for a novice, who is used to seeing a pawn advance as the first move—usually the King’s or Queen’s. Daniel then moved to the second table, leaving the first challenger to ponder his response to this opening.

At the second table, Daniel shook the challenger’s hand and played Knight to f3 again. He moved on to my table, whereupon he shook my hand and also played Knight to f3. Daniel in fact opened every game with this move. Now I saw the reason that he was playing as White. Doing so allowed him to keep some consistency among all of the games. Each one had the same starting point and therefore was a a little easier for him to adjust his thinking as he approached each board. Makes a lot of sense.

At first, I had quite a lot of time to consider my moves. The rules were that a challenger had to make their move as soon as Daniel appeared in front of them. They couldn’t make their move before because Daniel needed to see what the move was. They couldn’t delay their move once Daniel showed up because that would hold up the whole process. At first, I had a whopping 2 minutes to consider my move between the time that Daniel left my board and he returned again, which was quite a bit of time to think about a move, particularly early in the game.

Time passed quickly. As Black, I created a King’s Indian Defense, developing the pieces on the King’s side and being cautious with pawn movement in the center and the Queen side. Whenever Daniel appeared before me, I made my move, he thought for a second (perhaps thinking about a game 34 years ago that had produced this same position), made his move and walked on. It wasn’t long before I looked around and saw one of the challenger’s seats empty. The pieces had been put back to their starting position except for the Black King, which lay on its side in the center of the board, slain by Daniel. Victim number one: one of the adults. Mere minutes later, I saw the second victim extend his hand in defeat to the world champion. Another adult gone.

As the position on my board started getting complicated (at least by my judgment), the time between Daniel’s appearances seemed to accelerate. I realized that as more players dropped out, there were fewer moves that Daniel had to make between moves in my game and thus I had less time to spend between my moves. With only 10 games in play, I figured that I’d have just over a minute between moves. If I made it to the final five, I’d have little more than half-a-minute. Time would get tighter the longer I played. For Daniel, however, the time he spent on his moves at my game remained the same.

The game went on. I played it fairly safe, developing pieces and slowly acquiring territory on the Queen’s side while he built space on the King’s side. More players dropped out of the competition, more Kings lay dead in the center of their boards. I had no illusions that I was going to win this game. I also had no illusions that I would give him a good game. With half of the players gone now, I also had no illusions that he was going to offer me a draw in order to focus on more critical games. He was in it for the kill. Most of the time, Daniel watched my move, thought for a second, then made his. I considered it a minor victory each time he actually had to stop and think for 5, 10, 15 seconds about his response before making his move. One time, he actually put his hand up to his chin in contemplation! In the face of certain defeat, I took such minor satisfactions where I could.

In chess, resigning doesn’t have the stigma that it does in other games. In fact, it is considered not only dignified but also good manners to resign if the game is clearly lost. Unlike most sports where one plays one’s hardest even if it is clear that there is no chance of winning, playing chess to the bitter end in a tournament is considered a waste of time and disrespectful of the person who won. This is in fact why the game ends on checkmate and not on the actual taking of the King—if there is no way to avoid the King being taken on the next move, then the game is over.

While in casual games it’s fun to play to checkmate, that rarely happens in competitive chess (except in the movies, where pieces are also slammed on the board and moves are made with the speed of a boxing match). At the grandmaster level, the play is so precise that if a player gets a piece down then the game is over. Players will even resign when they get a pawn down and their opponent has a good board position; the skill level is so high that the slightest advantage is enough to guarantee a win. As my game progressed, I became a pawn down, then we exchanged pieces, then I lost a rook for a Knight and pawn—plenty to cause another grandmaster to resign, let alone a patzer like me. Yet, to resign at a slight disadvantage against a world champion would be absurd, because realistically I should have resigned after his first move were I to resign once I realized that I had no chance of winning. The point of this game was not to play until it was clear who would win—that point occurred even before the game started. So, to resign after being a pawn down was to pretend that losing a pawn was a critical turning point against the world champion: “Oh, now you have me, sir; your pawn advantage has tipped the scales to ensure you a win.” So, I wasn’t going to resign just because I knew I was going to lose. However, I wasn’t going to keep playing until he checkmated me either; to force a world champion to checkmate me would be an insult (“I’m sorry, you are going to have to prove that you can win with a K-Q-B-B-R against my K-N pair…”) I decided that I would resign when I got more than one piece down.

As more challengers bowed out, Daniel’s appearances came quicker. With the time to ponder moves shortening and the game becoming more complex, I started to feel as if I had stalled into a death spiral. Daniel would appear, I would move, Daniel would spend 1–2 seconds considering what I had done (What was he thinking just then: Idiot? Book? How sad? That Hannah Montana is quite a talented singer?), Daniel would quickly make his move and walk away, then reappear seemingly seconds later. I no longer had enough time to assess the move choices that I had—I had to start doing partial analyses and taking my best guess. Soon, I made a mistake and he took my Rook. And then…and then…

And then I saw it. Two moves later I would be able to fork his King and Rook! This was kind of move one giggles with anticipation of playing in a normal game, and I was going to do it against a world champion. I was going to put the world champion in CHECK! This move would simultaneously attack his King and Rook at the same time, so that when he moves his King to safety, I could safely take his Rook. This was my moment, far beyond any outcome that I had anticipated. A series of scenarios rushed through my head once I saw what I was going to do. “Check, sir,” I would say, calmly taking a pawn with my Knight while simultaneously attacking his King and Queen’s Rook. Or I would simply make the move, and he would look up into my eyes with appreciation, reach out to shake my hand and give me the game. Or, making an unforgettable spectacle out of it, I would suddenly rise up out of my chair with the palms of my hands slamming down flat on the table, snatch up my Knight and slam it down on his pawn’s space, knocking the pawn sideways into the board beside me, and growl as loudly as I could, “Check, punk!!” while glaring over the table and looming an easy two feet above Daniel’s head. With this last possibility, of course, I would have been immediately humiliated by his play on the following moves, assuming that the parents in the room didn’t throw me out of the building first. While fantasizing about how I would play my pending check move, Daniel suddenly appeared at my board. I reached forward, moved my Knight while simultaneously taking his pawn with the same hand; he paused for two seconds, moved his King to safety, and disappeared to the next table. Hmm, not the dramatic event I was expecting.

The game lasted a few more moves but, as I said, the end result was a foregone conclusion. I made a couple more mistakes (that I knew of) and then resigned, embarrassed that I hadn’t resigned long ago. I reached my hand across the board, said “Good game,” got out of my chair and stepped back among the rest of the observers. As the organizer put the pieces on my board back to their starting position, except for the Black King which he laid on its side in the center of the board, I looked at all of the other boards similarly set. Two players remained, but it was a matter of minutes before those two also resigned. It was over: 17–0, a clean sweep.

Everyone clapped for Daniel’s performance. I’m not sure what he thought about the whole event, but it was fun and thrilling for me to have the opportunity to play a world champion at their own game, even if the result was a foregone conclusion before the first move.

Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe, says an ancient Indian proverb. I would say that I’ve slurped from it a little bit in my life, while Daniel is not just bathing but swimming in it and diving deeply. It was great to have been in the water however briefly as Daniel temporarily entered the shallow-end, taking a short rest from his deep-sea diving.