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Positioning, Analogies, and assimilation for immigrants

22 Nov

RIM positioned the Blackberry as an “interactive pager,” because pagers were something people could understand. While the device was actually was doing email, people understood it as “the pager that you could respond with.” While phrases like “mobile email and packet switching” didn’t mean a thing to RIM’s first customers, the “interactive pager” positioning proved important in attracting early adopters.

via Hubris vs. Humility: The positioning challenge | VentureBeat.

Yesterday, I was at my favorite All-American chain restaurant–the Olive Garden.  Our group was talking about how two of us were particularly adept at arguing by analogy.  The two being picked on, me and one of my good friends, are both immigrants.  We began chatting about why it was that we liked and learned so much through analogy.  Ultimately, we concluded that for immigrants analogies are everything.  Indeed, only through analogies can an immigrant get a good frame of reference for learning a new culture and for assimilating in that new culture.  For an immigrant the cultures which are more prone to analogy are simply friendlier, easier to understand, and ultimately most convenient to adopt as their own.

Which brings us to Research in Motion and the thinking behind their decision to brand the blackberry as an “interactive pager:”

RIM, the Blackberry and its network had more inventions per square inch than most startups. The founders could have easily described the product as “the first packet-switched interactive messaging network.” Or they could have said, “corporate email now seamlessly forwarded from your company’s network to your pocket.” They did none of that.  The founders swallowed their pride and simply introduced the Blackberry as an “interactive pager.” Their board, with no need to prove how smart and creative they were, agreed.

Maybe what makes certain parts of the country so good for immigrants is that the “positioning” of American culture is so heavily reliant on analogy.  We’re at our best when we shelve our pride.  I think Blackberry and their market positioning decisions are a simple example of not only successful business but also an example of how learning and integration by immigrants works.

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Why Charlie Rangel should defend himself

11 Aug

In an unprecedented 31-minute speech on the House floor done against the advice of lawyers and friends, Rep. Charlie Rangel, attacked head on the allegations against him and the process under which he said he’s suffered unfairly.

via Rangel’s Rant – Swampland – TIME.com.

I won’t comment on Charlie Rangel’s guilt or innocence but I will say that his trial will be an incredibly positive event for the country.  Trials are instructive and cathartic events.  While a plea deal only tells us that an individual did wrong, trials teach us about the systems and processes that created the person’s conduct.   Trials are sunlight on a wound whereas “apologize and resign” is a band-aid.

If Charlie Rangel defends himself, we, the American people, will learn about what goes on in our government and what favors are considered normal.  Through tales of other representatives, we’ll get to judge the normality or abnormality of Rangel’s actions.  Rangel or his witnesses will surely tell us what his colleagues do and we’ll get some insight into what’s tolerated.

There is no question that a trial could be very bad for Democrats, and maybe even Republicans, but that’s probably because the truth will be uncomfortable and maybe even a little shameful.   The lives of powerful politicians come with special privileges and unimagineable burdens.   It is a world that 99% of us know nothing about.  A vigorous Rangel defense is a good way for us to find out.

I ask Charlie Rangel to defend himself as (maybe) his last act of public service.  He may end up teaching all of us a powerful civics lesson that it seems only trials or powerful investigative journalism can bring out.  With the latter largely dead in the popular press, we’ll have to hope that Congressman Rangel chooses to fight.

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Prisons, Argumentation, and Good Night and Good Luck

29 Mar

Energy, the environment, and the economy, are often said to be the three most important challenges for America in the 21st century.  Less common are discussions about the problems facing the American judicial system. For example, how it imprisons 25% of the world’s prisoners and results in 1 in 31 Americans being in prison, jail, or some form of supervised release.  A problem rarely discussed because in the eyes of most people, it simply isn’t a problem.

Want less people in prison and you are weak on crime, want people to serve long prison sentences and you are in favor of a brutal and torture prone system.  Predictably, debate breaks down, conversations end, and we go back to talking about the best way to do something about the 3 E’s.

If you’ve never seen “Good Night, and Good Luck”, I recommend you watch it.  It is about the journalist Edward R. Murrow and his dispute with Senator Joe McCarthy over the “tactics” used to root out communism during the 1950s.  The film offers three particularly stunning elements.

  1. Black and white film allows you to see unfamiliar shades and nuances.
  2. The camera angles engagingly betray the controlled chaos of the time and of the Columbia Broadcasting System newsroom.
  3. The diction, word choice, and argumentation technique of Edward R. Murrow

The movie begins with Murrow taking up the case of an Air Force Lieutenant who has been deemed a “security risk” and suspended without trial because his father and sister alledgedly have Communist ties.  Murrow does not argue for the guilt or innocence of the Lieutenant but for the absurdity of a system that suspends the rights of individuals based on who they know, what magazines they subscribe to, or what meetings they have attended.  Today, most rational people woud consider such a system to be a travesty of justice.  Most impressive about Murrow’s argumentation technique is his use of the abstract as a way of asking his audience who amongst them would not be guilty under such a system.  In my mind, Murrow succeeds not by rightly criticizing McCarthy’s virulent anti-communism but by boiling these arguments in a crockpot of history (“we come from men who were not afraid to think unpopular thoughts or do unpopular things”), practicality (“will we arrest every man whose father or brother has gone to a meeting of socialists?”), and optimism (“our nation wil endure against the communist in a battle of weapons but more importantly in a battle of ideas”).

This may be the only way to defeat argumentation by fear.  This combination of history, practicality, and optimism has been used a structural plan for many of candidate and now President Obama’s speeches.  This morning, I was pleased to see a variation of this technique used by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia when discussing our prison problem.

“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different–and vastly counterproductive.”

Perhaps its been made before but such an argument prepares us to finally have an honest debate on what is one of the great challenges for our country in the 21st century.

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