Know who you’re competing against

For years, Cadillac thought of itself as a car company who competed against other car companies. This view almost cost them their business.

In The Essential Drucker, Peter Drucker tells the story about what led to their turnaround:

“The Cadillac people say that they make an automobile, and their business is called the Cadillac Motor Division of General Motors. But does the man who buys a new Cadillac buy transportation, or does he buy primarily prestige? Does the Cadillac compete with Chevrolet, Ford, and Volkswagen? Nicholas Dreystadt, the German-born service mechanic who took over Cadillac in the Great Depression years of the 1930s, answered: ‘Cadillac competes with diamonds and mink coats. The Cadillac customer does not buy transportation, but status.’”

Cadillac was not a car, it was a luxury item first and a car second.

Which means it competed with other luxury items first and other cars second.


The Essential Drucker is a must-read. And if you’re looking for other great books, sign up to get the book recommendations email.


Throw yourself off a cliff and build an airplane on the way down

I enjoyed this profile of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

His first principle is speed. His most tweeted quote ever is, “If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.” His second most tweeted quote ever is, “In founding a startup, you throw yourself off a cliff and build an airplane on the way down.”

Practically, he employs several decision making hacks to prioritize speed as a factor for which option is best—and to speed up the process of making the decision itself. When faced with a set of options, he frequently will make a provisional decision instinctually based on the current information. Then he will note what additional information he would need to disprove his provisional decision and go get that. What many do instead – at their own peril – is encounter a situation in which they have limited information, punt on the decision until they gather more information, and endure an information-gathering process that takes longer than expected. Meanwhile, the world changes.

Getting elected in 18th-century Virginia

If you’re nostalgic for the democratic process from the early days of the republic, you might want to reconsider:

Sometimes crowds of inebriated voters and onlookers created such a disturbance at the polling place that it was impossible for the sheriff to conduct the election. A candidate who was present at the courthouse on Election Day could try to calm his supporters so that the voting could proceed. . . .

Because so many voters expected to be treated to liquor and food, candidates sometimes had to spend substantial sums of money to run for public office, making it difficult for those of modest means to win the election. The favorite beverage was rum punch. Cookies and ginger cake were also frequently provided. Some candidates offered picnics with barbecues. . . . If [voters] believed they were not being treated well, by either the sheriff conducting the election or the candidates, they could be surly and disruptive. . . .

Even George Washington had to satisfy the expectations of the voters. During a July election in Frederick County in 1758, his agent supplied 160 gallons of alcohol to 391 voters.

That is from Richard Labunski’s James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights.

Some things you didn’t know about high-end mustards

Pierette Huttner is New York City’s first–and only–mustard sommelier at Maille, where it’s possible to buy mustard on tap.

The mustards on tap run from $25 for 4.4-ounce jars, to $99 for the 18.6-ounce jar of truffle. The extended range starts at $9 for 100 milliliter mustard.

She recommends this mustard for a hot dog:

With a more traditional palate, I would do whole-grain Chardonnay, and if someone wanted to do something more expansive, I’d go with the sun-dried tomato and Espelette chili pepper. It’s really one of my favorites and it pairs well with meats. That would be quite fantastic. Even trying something like the black currant would be fantastic, believe it or not, because it’s a different kind of flavor progression, where it just adds a little bit of tartness without being too fruity.

What it would be like to swim on the moon

I loved the most recent “What If?” on xkcd about swimming on the moon:

Everything else would be different and way cooler. The waves would be bigger, the splash fights more intense, and swimmers would be able to jump out of the water like dolphins.

And this:

A 2012 paper in PLoS ONE, titled “Humans Running in Place on Water at Simulated Reduced Gravity”, concluded that while humans can’t run on the surface of water on Earth, they might just barely be able to do so on the Moon.

Read the rest.

The rate of Russian expansion

From Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1929:

Over the more than four centuries from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day.


Russian Eurasia—104 nationalities speaking 146 languages, as enumerated in the 1897 census—was the world’s most spectacular kaleidoscope. . . .

The book overall is excellent, but it reads as more a history of the Russian revolution in general and less as a biography of Stalin in specific.

For example, Stalin is mentioned about as much as other prominent figures from the era. It would be reasonable to assume a biography, instead of a general history, would contain a higher proportion of Stalin mentions.

  • Stalin: 80 mentions
  • Lenin: 82 mentions
  • Trotsky: 80 mentions
  • Nicholas: 87 mentions

(These numbers are incomplete, because revolutionaries were known by these names later in life. Still, the numbers are incomplete in the same way. This likely still makes them useful for comparative purposes.)

Rejected ideas for preventing airline highjackings

Spoiler alert: metal detectors became the preferred method.

But before there were metal detectors at airports, two options for preventing hijackings were:

  1. Build a phony airport in south Florida.
  2. Give all the passengers boxing gloves, because people who were boxing gloves can’t hold guns.

Two hundred people wearing boxing gloves in cramped quarters for multiple hours. What could go wrong?

This is from the excellent 99% Invisible podcast.

The history of the modern high five

This I did not know: the modern high five is only a few decades old:

Most scholars agree that the modern high five wasn’t popularized until about 35 years ago, in the cloudy twilight hours of October 2, 1977. It was the last game of the Major League Baseball season, and the Los Angeles Dodgers hosted the Houston Astros before a crowd of 42,501. Late in the sixth inning, Dodger Dusty Baker demolished a three-run home-run to tie the score — a significant moment that also made Los Angeles the first team in history to have four players with 30 home runs. Then, as journalist Jon Mooallem recounts, Baker’s teammate instigated something much greater:

“It was a wild, triumphant moment and a good omen as the Dodgers headed to the playoffs. Glenn Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it.”

“His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” Baker later recalled. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.” The high five’s legend was sealed when Burke stepped to the plate next, hit a home run of his own, and returned to the dugout to return Baker’s high five.