But how do we know it is true?

paper in typewriter says Investigation

In response to an email suggestion to watch the documentary “Totally Under Control,” a friend replied saying: “Thanks! Sounds interesting…but I have to ask the question: is it true? How do we know?”

Official Trailer for The Social DilemmaWith all the charges of “fake news” and media distrust, it turns out the methods for determining credibility and levels of truthfulness from various information sources hasn’t changed that much and most people know about it to one degree or another. My recommendation to watch the documentary carried with it the caveat it was controversial.  But I do think it is true, and toward the end, I explain why.

Most can discern when information supplied to us is trustworthy and true. Few people equate their doctor’s prescription for a new medication to an Internet video hawking a miraculous supplement. We know now research studies underwritten by tobacco companies “proving cigarettes were highly valuable digestive aids and safe,” were lies. Educated people naturally consider the sources of the data to judge the degree of trust it should be given.

In high school my “sport” was debate. I loved debating, was very competitive and on a team that made it to the state level. Between my junior and senior years of high school I spent two weeks at Michigan State University in a debate training institute.  Anyone in debate knew arguments must be supported. The first step in building that support was verifiable facts from trusted sources – encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, etc. And one’s sources meant something – judges did not score facts gleaned from The Reader’s Digest as high as from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.  Lacking factual support for an argument, you went to the next tier of proof, which was opinion.  Sometimes a quote supporting your position from a well-known, highly-educated and credible individual with a trusted position in the topic area could be almost as persuasive as fact. The more and better your sources and quotes supported sound reasoning and logic, the greater your chances of winning.

Dan Gillmor

Another area where I have experience is journalism.  Early in my free-lance writing experience, my work was subjected to fact checkers. Wow, what an experience! These professionals walked me through my piece sentence by sentence, challenging everything I’d written, asking over and over again, how did I know the truth of what was on the page, did I have more than one source, what were the sources, and so on.  Not all writers are trained journalists following ethical standards and not all magazines demand it, though a great many do.  Dan Gillmor wrote for the San Jose Mercury News during the part of my career when I was starting companies in the Bay Area. His articles were universally prized and hard to get. Meeting him once at a coffee shop for an interview, I offered to buy his coffee. He said, “No, it isn’t permitted by the newspaper.” In those days, coffee was only $2.00, but he was still not allowed to accept even that.  The paper understood a gift, any gratuity, or anything like that could subtly seep in, create familiarity and affect a story. Their reporters had to remain totally unbiased. Years later we became friends and he told me one day, “You know I can’t write about your companies anymore, don’t you?” He went on to explain he considered me a friend and the paper would assign someone else to cover if in the future I believed I might have something newsworthy.

Newspapers and magazines have various levels of ethical reporting and journalistic standards. The very best ones not only make those standards and policies available to the public, but make it absolutely clear to all writers and editors, that violating any of the guidelines can lead to termination. As an example, you can find the standards and ethics for the Washington Post here.

The WSJ and The Washington Post news organizations are widely respected, even though their editorial (opinion pages) hold very different opinions from one another. To their credit, both publications understand the difference between opinion and the facts they gather and report in their news pages and draw distinct lines between them.

At one time, both network and local television stations had newsrooms and viewed themselves as professional journalists.  Some still do, but others clearly dedicate the time formerly considered news, to creating stories that attract the most eyeballs and advertising revenue. When these programs began to be disguised as actual journalism, is when television news lost its credibility and became pure entertainment.  Today, cable and network television “news-like” content is being produced by people who fall into one of two camps:

  1. Television reporters, writers and anchors who are actual journalists and operate within a well-defined set of standards and ethics, which they have no problem disclosing or talking about. They have no issue correcting mistakes on the air.  They have frequently graduated from top schools with advanced degrees, are well-read, articulate and cautious. They tend to work hard on stories, ask interview questions which display deep, expert and thoughtful preparation. They provide highly useful and important context and background to help viewers comprehend a particular story.
  2. Reporters more skilled at story-telling than having a real concern for actual facts. Their goal is high ratings for entertainment. They are often egotistical and shamelessly sensationalist.  They have little or no respect for journalistic ethics. They may have a certain view of the world which they frequently share with their audience. They are not above promoting and sometimes even creating unsubstantiated stories with zero fact checking or scenarios they “report,” as if it were “news.” They are rewarded with massive amounts of money because they generate eyeballs/ears which the media entities that employ them turn into dollars.

So, how to you know truth? The easiest and fastest way, look at the source.  In the case of the documentary I recommended, it was produced by Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian. You don’t win Oscars in the documentary category by making stuff up. His team was careful to site their sources. Since this is about Covid-19, they filmed interviews and reproduced other interviews with attribution from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield and others directly involved.  Others they interviewed were the people in charge during the period for which they were reporting. Michael Bowen, who is interviewed extensively for the film, is a republican who voted for Trump and believed in him passionately. Bowen’s life-time of involvement and experience in the medical supply chain business provide highly credible insight into what caused so many deaths in the US.

Beyond this particular film, generally, if you don’t want to be deceived by what appears to be news but really isn’t, follow these guidelines:  First, reduce the amount of time you spend with any television programs in category 2 above. Second, read news as reported by news organizations with a documented set of ethical standards and a track record of supporting reporters who write challenging pieces, even when unpopular. And third, read the opinion pages of not only the publications with which you agree, but also read opinions of those who are on the opposite side of where you typically tend to be.  Reputable fact-based publications are always careful to label opinions as opinions.  They do not peddle opinions as facts.

Disproportionately High Value – Episode 3

Writing for Motorcycle Consumer News magazine, I watched for things to enhance a rider’s ability to enjoy, maintain or repair their motorcycles.  When I found, bought and wrote about JIS screwdrivers, it generated a great deal of reader mail.

As regular subscribers to my newsletter know, this series is about items or experiences which turn out, in hindsight, to be far more valuable than when first encountered or purchased.  It’s been fun to write and a blast to hear stories from many of you about your favorite stuff.  When I bought my set of JIS screwdrivers, I only thought they were neat screwdrivers.  After many years, I now find them an absolute joy to use and I’m jazzed they’re in my toolbox.  Let me tell you why.

If you’ve ever run across a rusted or corroded Phillips screw nearly impossible to remove and you fear you’re about to strip off the top, it turns out there is a reason why this is happening.  Philips screws were actually made to resist high amounts of twisting effort.  A JIS screwdriver will help.  They look like standard Phillips head screwdrivers, but they’re not. They’ll work on Philips head screws, but where they really shine is on any bike made in Japan.

Nearly every product from cameras to carburetors made in Japan conforms to Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) 4633B-3/1991.  Although using a Phillips screwdriver on JIS screws will work, using a JIS screwdriver is mind-blowingly different. JIS screws are far less susceptible to stripping and a JIS screwdriver provides a satisfyingly tight, snug feel you only get when you’re using the right tool for the task. This is the rare treat when something just fits together perfectly.  But it’s not by accident.

JIS (squarely indented) vs regular Phillips (roundly indented) tipsHenry F. Phillips invented Phillips screws/drivers in the 1930s. He created them for automobile assembly lines. In addition to self-centering, his Phillips screwdrivers were built with an angle on the flanks and had rounded corners. This taper on the driving faces was created to cause the screwdriver bit to “cam out” of the slot before twisting a screw head off, which was a requirement for automated assembly lines. But what fills the requirements in an automated environment is prone to stripping when used by hand.  Unlike a machine, people are unable to deliver an exact and specific downward force to an appropriate screw and, as a result, the chances of stripping the head go way up.  JIS screwdrivers, on the other hand, have parallel faces on the driving flanges and will not cam out. They are likely to break whatever was keeping the screw from giving way (good), or strip the thread with excessive force (bad).  They were designed for humans to use, with appropriate human judgement, and not on an automated assembly line.

Identifying JIS screws is simple; they often have a small dot to one side of the cross slot.  Using a JIS screwdriver in the right situation on the appropriate screw head feels really good.  Every time I reach into my toolbox and come out with one of my JIS screwdrivers to use on a Japanese made product, I can’t help but smile. Not a giddy smile, but a smile, okay?  It is a genuine pleasure to have something work so well.  And it explains why so many Phillips head screws seem to get so bungled up and why it feels like they push back when pressure is applied.  And if you’re a tad pedantic, you now have something new to lecture your fellow weekend mechanics about the next time they visit your workshop.

Using a JIS screwdriver on regular Phillips head screws has some benefits, but you won’t get all the advantages. However, don’t apply a Phillips screwdriver to JIS screws, as it really won’t work well.

At one time, JIS screwdrivers were expensive and hard to find.  A few years back, none of the common tool places (ACE Hardware, Lowe’s, Harbor Freight) carried them.  But Amazon.com does and you can now buy them for $20 for the most common sizes.

Disproportionate High Value – Episode 2

After retiring, I stopped renewing subscriptions to 5-6 monthly business magazines, daily delivery of the WSJ, NYT and half a dozen trade publications. Electronic versions have not caught on with me, so call me a journalistic dinosaur.  I don’t care. I missed BusinessWeek and the WSJ Weekend Edition the most. Then a friend gave me a copy of THE WEEK Magazine. It grabbed me.  It seemed expensive ($74 for six months, $129 for a year), but I subscribed anyway. This weekly magazine is now on my very short list of things delivering massively more value than what they cost.  Let me explain.

First, the magazine is all about content – not advertising.  With revenue so dependent on subscribers, this publication really focuses on making things great for readers. The next peculiarity is not investing in reporters or original news gathering. They don’t spend a dime trying to be the first one to report anything. Instead, they deeply research what happens every week in the areas they cover, examine everything known about a topic and summarize the key points, giving full attribution to their sources. This has several benefits:

  • First, good writers and editors are paramount, and they have the very best. After twenty five years of having my articles published in a host of different magazines, I learned good editors were priceless.
  • Next, every article and topic covered is done with the fewest words possible. Again, it takes excellent editors to cut extraneous text. Since they reference sources for every article, if you want to go deeper, it’s easy to find the full story on which their summary is based.
  • They don’t tell you how to think and I love this. They report the facts of what happened.  As most stories generate opinions, they quote meaningful views from both sides.  My liberal-leaning friends have told me while they like The Week, they feel it leans a bit to the right. My conservative friends like it too, but say they detect a slight left-leaning view.  Threading the non-partisan needle is near impossible, but my sense is they get it right far more often than not.
  • Like Goldilocks, they’ve managed to find nearly the exact right number of pages to cover the week’s news. Not too many, not too few. Just the perfect number of topics and the mountain of information chiseled down to the elements for each. The magazine can easily be read, cover to cover, in one sitting.
  • And like Goldilocks with her perfect porridge, they include enough critical subjects to make me feel I’m (sort of) keeping up with the news. In just 40 pages, they cover the following: the week’s main stories, how they were covered, the controversy of the week (and who thought what about it), the USA at a glance, the world at a glance, people news, summary of the three best opinion columns in the US, three best from Europe and two international during the week and who agreed/disagreed and why. Then it’s on to the week’s best editorial cartoons, one page each on Technology, Health & Science, Arts & Music, best books, top film & home media, Food & Drink, Consumer section (best values), Real Estate (best properties on the market), Business Page, Personal Finance page, Best Business Columns and Obituaries, followed by the last word, a two-page summary on a topic the editors feel will appeal to readers. The subject areas never change and always stay in the same place. I love that.

If you’re interested, I found a page that shows all of their covers and appears to let you look inside any of them.

Lastly, I’ve heard you can try The Week Magazine for free, for six weeks, and cancel afterwards and not owe them anything.  I’ve no idea if that works or not, but if you want to try it for yourself, here is a link to their subscribe page.

P.S.  Maggie occasionally makes the recipe-of-the-week and we have always enjoyed them.

High disproportionate value

our Jura coffeemaker

Remember the JURA and TESLA newsletters? Earlier this week my friend, Roger Meinershagen told me of his and his wife’s frustration in shopping for a JURA coffee maker.  As we talked about the machine we’d purchased six years ago, I found myself putting our JURA Impressa C60 into a rare class of acquisitions: things which end up providing far more joy, happiness, value and usefulness than what was imagined or expected of them when first purchased.

As half a dozen items fitting this category popped into my head, it occurred to me this experience was not unique.  Others have had this happen, too.  Wouldn’t it be cool to make a list and maybe compare them?  So, first a brief definition and then I will kick things off with one of my favorites.

My thinking is that disproportionately high value is the delta between your expectations when first purchasing something and then how things end up.  You believed it would perform at a specific level or provide a certain experience and it far exceeds that, going above and beyond what you had hoped.  It could be big things like a house or car, or small like a screwdriver or scissors. It doesn’t have to be a product, it could be a reflexology foot massage or a B&B stay.  Of course, there is a totally legitimate corollary, something with the opposite impact. For instance, earlier this year, I upgraded to the most recent, just released Apple iPad Pro. It wasn’t cheap.  With its advanced keyboard and pencil, it was close to two grand.  Sure it’s a neat machine, but it provides only a small increased levels of enjoyment to me over my previous, much older and far cheaper iPad.  I’d believed the ads and had expected much more, but it wasn’t to be.  So, about the JURA.

Six years in and we love our JURA coffeemaker more every day.  It is so awesomely convenient, rewarding us with a splendid cup of utterly delicious coffee, freshly ground at exactly the strength and temperature we prefer with the touch of a button.  We experiment with great coffee beans from around the world, easily recreating in our own kitchen cups of Kona coffee from Hawaii or deep Italian roasts taking us back to sipping cappuccino in an Italian Piazza.  We’re never tempted to stop at a local Starbucks or some other pricy coffee boutique, as we know we can have a better tasting cup once we’re home. The Jura cleans and rinses itself, disposing of the used grounds. We only need to add water and coffee beans and empty the grounds holder every few days. But here’s the coolest thing.  When I did the math on this expensive machine, it paid for itself in the first two years. We’re now enjoying coffee at the same 20-30 cent a cup price we were paying with our old Mr. Coffee maker, but with far better coffee, easier use and clean up and so many more options.  When we bought this, I felt it was silly and a bit extravagant. Six years later, I am thrilled.  We got an awesome deal economically, and have been rewarded over and over again far over our initial investment.  It provides truly disproportionate value to its cost and is one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.

So, how about you? Have you made a purchase that vastly surpasses your expectations? What was it? Do you still have it?  Why is it so wonderful? Thanks for connecting.


P.S.  For the first time ever, I’m also posting this to Facebook. This newsletter goes to a rather small, elite group, of which you are a member.  But I’ve a number of Facebook friends who don’t get the newsletter who might have some valuable ideas as well.