Thursday, February 28, 2013

How to learn the names of every country in one hour

I've tried before to learn the names of all the countries in the world and where they are located. I find it annoying to read an article about, say, Burkina Faso, and have no clear idea of where the country is located. Despite some efforts with flashcards, I never made much progress learning all the names of the Balkans, countries in Africa, countries in Oceania, and the former Soviet Republics.

Then recently I checked out a website that my son, a second-grader, was using in school to learn the names of the countries in Central and South America.  (Click on an area of the world, and then select the "Level 1 - Beginner" option.)

In less than an hour, I learned the names of every country in the world. (Here's lookin' at you, Narau.) This type of quiz that you can take quickly and repeatedly is an excellent way to learn certain types of content very efficiently.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Update on Amazon author alerts idea

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, I sent letters to Amazon execs with the suggestion that they add an "author alerts feature." Partly just because I was curious how the organization would respond.

So far, I've received two responses.

The first was a boilerplate response designed to protect them from any claim I might make on the idea:

Thank you for your correspondence recently sent to Amazon. Please be advised that Amazon does not accept unsolicited submissions of creative ideas, proposals, concepts, suggestions or materials (whether of a technical, business, financial or other nature) and does not accept any legal obligation (whether of confidentiality, compensation or otherwise) with respect to any ideas, proposals, concepts, suggestions or materials submitted to us unless we agree to such obligations in an agreement signed by a duly authorized representative of Amazon. We also specifically reserve the right to implement and develop similar ideas, concepts and materials in the future without restriction or obligation.

Thank you again for submitting your information to us, and we wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

Doesn't exactly encourage one to contribute ideas.

This one was customized and a little friendlier, but still making clear that they are probably already working on this idea so I shouldn't try to take credit for it:

Dear Will,

I'm Jonathan Norberg of's Executive Customer Relations. Jeff Wilke received your letter and asked me to respond on his behalf.

Thank you for taking the time to send your feedback about author alerts. Your ideas were clearly organized, and it was obvious you've thought about how a program like this could be most effective. While I'm certain our book team is already evaluating changes such as what you suggest, I've forwarded your letter to make sure it's seen by the appropriate parties.

We'll continue to look for ways to improve the shopping experience for our customers, Will, and we appreciate you sending your thoughts.

Have a great week!


Jonathan M. Norberg
Executive Customer Relations

Master in the Art of Living - source of quote

I had a strange Internet experience recently. I'm fond of the "Master in the Art of Living" quote. A couple years ago I remember I tried to find the source of the quote, and ended up with sources indicating it was either a traditional Zen Buddhist saying or a quote from James Michener. But a Google Book search of Michener's books didn't turn up the quote.

I did the same search recently and found the following post, on precisely this question. When I got to the bottom of the post I found this:
(This question was inspired by a question from “Will B.” in the comments section at the weblog of Freakonomics: Quotes Uncovered.)
Is there a term for the opposite of deja vu? I.e., I see evidence that I've been here before but I don't have any recollection of the place?  I don't remember putting that request on the Freakonomics blog, so it was bizarre to find out that someone had answered a question that I must have posted.

Here is the full post from the Quote Investigator:

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been deeply moved by an inspirational passage that I thought was written by a Zen Buddhist master:
The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.
However, when I recently searched the internet to locate the name of the Zen master I was shocked to find that the words were attributed to the late author James Michener whose fame was based on writing fat tomes that became bestsellers.
Michener did win a Pulitzer Prize and I do not wish to disparage his work but when I think of a spiritual guide I envision someone different. Could you look into this quote and determine who really created it?
Quote Investigator: There is no compelling evidence that this quote was crafted by Michener. Nor is there evidence of a Zen Buddhist origin. The spiritual tradition of the creator of the passage is Unitarian. Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, an educator and Unitarian minister who is pictured in the center image above, crafted the quotation and used it in a book he authored in the 1930s. His name is often abbreviated as L. P. Jacks.
Several websites that specialize in collecting quotations do attribute the words to James A. Michener, e.g., ThinkExist [TEZ], QuotationsBook [QBZ], and Quoteland [QLZ]. No specific citation into the large body of Michener works is given. There are different versions of the quotation, but the alterations are usually not large.
WorldofQuotes has the passage listed under the category Zen Buddhist Quotes [WQZ]. A website called “The Anywhere Office” prefaces the passage with the following:  ”Here is a quote I have hanging on my home office wall. It ties in perfectly with my philosophy of work life integration.” After the quote is the label: “From the Zen Buddhist text”. Commentators on the webpage wonder if the words should be assigned to James Michener [AWOZ]. Sometimes the passage is used without a specific attribution as in this example of a wife’s loving description of her husband [TSZ]:
She then summed up her “soul mate’s” life in two warm paragraphs she had read somewhere.
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religions. He hardly knows which is which.
He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.” And with that she said thank you and sat down.
The earliest instance of the quote located by QI occurs in the 1932 book “Education through Recreation” by Lawrence Pearsall Jacks. The passage appears in the first chapter near the beginning of the book. The modern version of the passage has been altered. For example, in this original version, the sub-phrase “his love and his religion” does not appear. The quote begins with “A master” and not “The master” [LPJ]:
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.
Jacks does not credit the words to anyone else, and the paragraph summarizes the main theme of his book. QI thinks he is the likely originator of the influential passage. Thanks for your question and QI hopes that you are able to find enjoyment in your work and your play.
(This question was inspired by a question from “Will B.” in the comments section at the weblog of Freakonomics: Quotes Uncovered.)
[TEZ] ThinkExist website, Quote attributed to James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link
[QBZ] QuotationsBook website, Quote attributed to James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link
[QLZ] QuotationLand website, Category: Motivational Quotes, Quote attributed to James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link
[WQZ] WorldofQuotes website, Category: Zen Buddhist Quotes, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link
[AWOZ] TheAnywhereOffice website, Quote labeled “From the Zen Buddhist text”, “The master in the art of living”, Accessed 2010 August 27. link
[TSZ] 2003, Off the Record by Tim Skubick, Page 394, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books preview) link
[LPJ] 1960 [reprint of 1932 book], Education through Recreation by Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, Page 1 and 2, [reprint of Harper & Row, New York], McGrath Publishing Company &  National Recreation and Park Association, Washington D.C. (Google snippet view, Verified on paper) link

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Compound interest applied to personal development

Just any any financial planning book you pick up will sing the praises of the wonders of compound interest.  How investing now at some seemingly small annual rate of return will have huge impact over twenty years.  We're familiar with the idea of investing now for retirement.

The same principle applies to improving one's own skills.  Make small, regular investments, and the effects will compound over time to a surprisingly large payoff.

Say you decide to learn one new word per day.

After a month: not much impact.
After a year: still not much.

But over five years, ten years, twenty years: a dedication to building your vocabulary could have a substantial impact on your personal and professional success.

Not because you are going to impress people with twenty-dollar words.

But because, as E. D. Hirsh points out in "A Wealth of Words" in the Winter 2013 edition of City Journal, your working memory has a limited amount of space. It can only hold so many words or concepts at a given time. If you have a richer vocabulary, the words that you ARE holding in memory can be more complex, more specific, and more likely to result in creative ideas. Quote from the article:

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Leaders: avoid overexposure

Leaders know they need to avoid overexposure. I thought this was primarily a feature of the modern media-driven age, but here is Shakespeare on the topic:

    Had I so lavish of my presence been, 
    So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men, 
    So stale and cheap to vulgar company, 
    Opinion, that did help me to the crown, 
    Had still kept loyal to possession 
    And left me in reputeless banishment, 
    A fellow of no mark nor likelihood. 
    By being seldom seen, I could not stir 
    But like a comet I was wonder'd at; 
    That men would tell their children 'This is he;' 
    Others would say 'Where, which is Bolingbroke?' 
    And then I stole all courtesy from heaven, 
    And dress'd myself in such humility 
    That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts, 
    Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths, 
    Even in the presence of the crowned king. 
    Thus did I keep my person fresh and new; 
    My presence, like a robe pontifical, 
    Ne'er seen but wonder'd at: and so my state, 
    Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast 
    And won by rareness such solemnity. 
    The skipping king, he ambled up and down 
    With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits, 
    Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state, 
    Mingled his royalty with capering fools, 
    Had his great name profaned with their scorns 
    And gave his countenance, against his name, 
    To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push 
    Of every beardless vain comparative, 
    Grew a companion to the common streets, 
    Enfeoff'd himself to popularity; 
    That, being daily swallow'd by men's eyes, 
    They surfeited with honey and began 
    To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little 
    More than a little is by much too much. 
    So when he had occasion to be seen, 
    He was but as the cuckoo is in June, 
    Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes 
    As, sick and blunted with community, 
    Afford no extraordinary gaze, 
    Such as is bent on sun-like majesty 
    When it shines seldom in admiring eyes; 
    But rather drowzed and hung their eyelids down, 
    Slept in his face and render'd such aspect 
    As cloudy men use to their adversaries, 
    Being with his presence glutted, gorged and full. 

Henry IV, Act 3, Scene 2 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Strange pricing on magazine renewals

So I received a subscription invoice the other day to renew The New Yorker for two years at $119, which seemed OK: I mean, that is about a dollar per issue. I was about to send it a check when I thought, well, let me just check the lowest rates online.

I Googled it and found an offer for two-year renewal at $52! But it didn't seem to apply to me.  So I sent a request to customer service, and then I got a Subscription Invoice in the mail to renew for two years at $52, or three years for $77, which I then accepted.

Some magazines have adoped the automatic credit card renewal, and I wonder why more of them don't. The notice I got from the New Yorker didn't even have that as an option I could opt into.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Amazon author alerts follow-up

Continuing my effort to get Amazon to offer an author-alerts feature:

I've sent the idea to a friend who works at Amazon, who likes the idea and has forwarded it to the store team.

I also sent a hard copy letter to all of the officers of, Inc.

It will be interested to see if:

1) They actually implement the idea
2) They acknowledge the letters
3) They provide any kind of thank-you

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Author alerts on Amazon

I just sent this note to Seth Godin. It would be pretty cool if he is able to make this happen:


It seems like you have close relationships with folks at Amazon, so perhaps you could raise this with them.

They are missing a very obvious feature which shouldn't cost them much to create and ought to help drive revenue and customer loyalty:

Add an "author alerts" function where I can opt in and select a set of authors such that I'm informed whenever any of them releases a new book.

(In my ideal world, there would also be an alert whenever any of them publishes a long-form piece in a magazine as well, which I could then purchase as a Kindle single. Magazines and authors get an extra source of revenue, everyone is happy.)

Sure, I could accomplish the same thing by individually signing up at each author's website.

Or I suppose I could follow the Twitter feeds of all of these authors. But there are a lot of people (including me) who don't want to follow an author's Twitter feed or blog. I read your blog daily, but that's about it.

This seems to be a no-brainer for Amazon. Let me opt in to be alerted by the next book written by Nassim Taleb, Louis De Bernieres, Daniel Pink, Daniel Kahneman, Alain de Botton, Seth Godin, etc.

They could do this easily during the checkout process, as either an opt-in or opt-out.

There is this website, that already does the service (just books, no alerts on articles):

But I don't want to have to go to a separate site - I want it integrated with the Amazon/Kindle ecosystem.

Here's to driving book sales,

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Worthless endorsements on LinkedIn

LinkedIn realized that the "Recommendation" feature required too much work. Not many people wrote them, and not many people read them.

So they created an alternative: "Endorsements." But it seems that they've gone too far in the opposite direction by making it too easy to endorse someone.

They might have done more to consult some economists and psychologists before implementing the new system.

Some people are running around endorsing everyone they are connected to, in hopes that those endorsed will reciprocate.

I've had people endorse me that have never worked with me, and have no idea whether I'm competent or not.

The currency has been devalued so that it is worthless.

LinkedIn might have provided the currency of endorsements with some value by creating artificial scarcity. You only get, say, five endorsements per month to hand out.  Then they would have some value.

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