Learned of “Zugzwang” in Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, which I’ve just finished reading:

Zugzwang (German for “compulsion to move”, pronounced [ˈtsuːktsvaÅ‹]) is a term usually used in chess which also applies to various other games. The term finds its formal definition in combinatorial game theory, and it describes a situation where one player is put at a disadvantage because he has to make a move when he would prefer to pass and make no move. The fact that the player must make a move means that his position will be significantly weaker than the hypothetical one in which it was his opponent’s turn to move.

In game theory, it specifically means that it directly changes the outcome of the game from a win to a loss. The term is used less precisely in games such as chess; i.e., the game theory definition is not necessarily used in chess. For instance, it may be defined loosely as “a player to move cannot do anything without making an important concession”. Putting the opponent in zugzwang is a common way to help the superior side win a game. In some cases it is necessary to make the win possible.

Killing the Abraham


In Matthew 1:1 in the Bible, we find the begats.

Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; and Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias; And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon:

And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

I call the founder, founders or founding team of a company “The Abraham”. The Abraham influences all that follows, sets the vision and direction for the company, and the Abraham’s mores, habits, preferences, flaws and prejudices are often built, consciously or unconsciously, into the fabric of the company. This influences the products and services, first and foremost. But the Abraham also influences everything from company HR policies, the kinds of employees that work there, its investors, its customer service and even its logo and office decor. You can often tell what the founder cared about, and didn’t care about. You go to Google and it’s like a playground for adults– curious, smart adults — massive dinosaur in the courtyard, lego tables, beanbag chairs, primary colors — and then you read interviews with Larry and Sergey where they credit their success to having attended Montessori schools, and you see where it came from.

Often the Abraham is CEO, but doesn’t stay CEO. Google’s Abrahams are Larry and Sergey, and they had a strong influence on the company even during the 10 years that Eric Schmidt was CEO. Oracle is very Larry Ellison. Martha Stewart is very Martha Stewart. Zynga is very Mark Pincus. Groupon is very Andrew Mason. And isn’t Apple so very much Steve Jobs, so much so that when he left, and his successors tried to kill the Abraham, the company nearly died? It’s hard to kill the Abraham. Not only that, if you succeed, it may not be possible for the new leader to assume the mantle. Best for the Abraham to stick around, and work closely with the new leaders to make sure the spirit of the company survives. This has been, in my experience and observation, the best method for retaining the magical juju. This is why the role of incoming, non-native CEO at a startup is a notoriously difficult job. They don’t fit in with the company culture. Most of them don’t last a year.

Companies without a strong Abraham lose their way. If you can’t identify who is at the helm, it better be a commodity business that anybody can run (Warren Buffett: “Invest in a company any fool can run, since some day a fool will.”) Did Pierre Omidyar leave too early, or cede too much control to be able to set the course for eBay? In the book The Perfect Store the author talked about Meg Whitman asking if Pierre was going to stay, but did he strongly influence its direction? Yahoo wasn’t led for very long — from what I can gather, less than a year? — by David Filo and Jerry Yang, its Abrahams. The Abraham can also lose control when the extent of the empire becomes too great, and the Abraham can no longer see what’s happening in the farflung regions. The farther you get from the people you are making decisions for, the worse those decisions are likely to be.

The Abraham is especially powerful in social software, in anything that shows the people, the members, what to do, how to communicate, and how to behave. The founders dictate what the software does, how people use it, what the practices and mores are of the community. This is built into the software, and its assumptions of human behavior. As Larry Lessig noted, code is law. In social software how you interact with others is influenced by what values are built into the software. On Facebook we are very much living in Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of society. MySpace was like Chris and Tom, Friendster was like Jonathan Abram, LinkedIn is like Reid Hoffman. Foursquare is like Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. And dare I say Flickr was like something that would have happened if you put some English majors, a philosopher, some artists and hackers in a blender.

There’s a lot of glory in being the Abraham — you’re the father or three religions after all. People follow your lead. But most founders aren’t thinking about this when they start out, they just like making things, have a vision of something new. In dreams begin responsibilities, as Delmore Schwartz wrote. Abrahams are often called upon to do difficult work, thankless tasks, and sometimes, terrible things, as when god asked Abraham to kill his own, firstborn son, Isaac. Steve Jobs was rightly praised for his ability to “Kill his babies” — that is, disrupt himself. We may be taking the metaphor too far here, but hey. Let’s.

That’s the fate of the Abraham. Kill your babies, or be killed by your babies. Beget something great and the begats will follow! Salmon, Booz, Jesse, Ozias, Zorobabel and all the rest.

The basics

“The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”

— Cicero, 55 BC

Naturalist, 13, studies fibonacci sequence in trees

The Young Naturalist Award, given to 13-year-old Aidan, who studied the Fibonacci sequence and applied it to trees, conjectured it made trees more efficient at capturing sunlight, and set off on a series of experiments and explorations:

when I went on a winter hiking trip in the Catskill Mountains in New York, I noticed something strange about the shape of the tree branches. I thought trees were a mess of tangled branches, but I saw a pattern in the way the tree branches grew. I took photos of the branches on different types of trees, and the pattern became clearer.

The branches seemed to have a spiral pattern that reached up into the sky. I had a hunch that the trees had a secret to tell about this shape. Investigating this secret led me on an expedition from the Catskill Mountains to the ancient Sanskrit poetry of India; from the 13th-century streets of Pisa, Italy, and a mysterious mathematical formula called the “divine number” to an 18th-century naturalist who saw this mathematical formula in nature; and, finally, to experimenting with the trees in my own backyard.

His conclusion:

The tree design takes up less room than flat-panel arrays and works in spots that don’t have a full southern view. It collects more sunlight in winter. Shade and bad weather like snow don’t hurt it because the panels are not flat. It even looks nicer because it looks like a tree. A design like this may work better in urban areas where space and direct sunlight can be hard to find.

Make things

Anil and I have had a few conversations lately about building cool stuff for the internet, the Golden Age of the independent web, and how it’s increasingly hard to filter out industry noise. He posted a quote from Dave Winer and it reminded me of our “About” page for Ludicorp, where we outlined our corporate philosophy (kicking ass), which is akin to avoiding a tour of gas stations. I have a quote behind my desk from Freeman Dyson that I see every day: “There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.”

Anil worries that it’s hard to communicate this motivation to a new generation of entrepreneurs, and I agree. There are so many conferences these days, so many voluble, charismatic leaders, and so much noise. I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs in their 20s who are knowledgeable about the valuations various Y Combinator startups have attained, know the names of all the angel investors in the Valley, have in-depth knowledge of the Facebook diaspora and their doings, have opinions on various Zynga acquisitions, and know exactly how to get Andrew Mason on the line…it boggles the mind. These are good things to have in your tool kit. But I want to hear about things out there that they love. About loving the thing they’re building. There’s less of that. Nevertheless, Anil remains “optimistic that we can make this mindset the default.”

Just after reading his post, I settled in to read a book about homeschooling, by John Holt, and in it I found this heartening quote:

Leaders are not what many people think–people with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. The include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, determination, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head even when things are going badly. This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about.

And this made me think. People ask me who inspires me. This question often stumps me because I have been inspired in my work by stuff that people make. I fell in love with zines and independent radio when I was an isolated teenager living in the suburbs. Then BBSs, people’s personal web sites, Usenet, Entropy8, online zines (holy crap, the old Bitch magazine site is now a porn portal! And Maxi is squatted!), blogs, Excel, online communities, Amazon, Salon, eBay, O’Reilly books, Google, Friendster, Alamut, NQPAOFU, Metafilter, board games, Blogger, paper games, 1000 blank cards, The Mirror Project, 1000 journals, Moveable Type, 20 things, Google Maps, Flickr, Gmail, last.fm, iPhone, NaNoWriMo, McSweeney’s, Kingdom of Loathing, muxtape, vimeo, Etsy, iPad, Kickstarter …the people who make these things are my leaders. Most of the time I don’t know their names. Sometimes I’m lucky and do.

So, to hell with all that noise. It’s just a big mass of envy, chatter and FOMO. Let’s get excited and make things.

Huston Smith on Confucian Ideals

Huston Smith sums up Confucian ideals under five key terms:

The first term is jen, which “involves simultaneously a feeling of humanity toward others and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears…In private life it is expressed in courtesy, unselfishness, and empathy, the capacity to ‘measure the feelings of others by one’s own’…

The second is chun tzu “Fully adequate, poised, the chun tzu has toward life as a whole approach of an ideal hostess who is so at home in her surroundings that she is completely relaxed, and being so, can turn full attention to putting others at their ease. The chun tzu carries these qualities of the ideal host with him through life generally…Only as those who make up society are transformed into chun tzus can the world move toward peace…

The third concept, li, has two meanings. Its first meaning is propriety, the way things should be done. It is comme il faut. It is wary of excess and it guards the Five Constant Relationships, “those between parent and child, husband and wife, elder sibling and junior sibling, elder friend and junior friend, and ruler and subject. It is vital to the health of society that these key relationships be rightly constituted.

The fourth pivotal concept, Te, means literally, “power, specifically the power by which men are ruled.”..No state, Confucius, was convinced, can constrain all its citizens all the time, nor even any large fraction of them a large part of the time. It must depend on widespread acceptance of its will, which in turn requires a certain positive fund of faith in its total character…Real Te, therefore, lies in the power of moral example…”

The final concept, Wen, refers to the ‘arts of peace’ as contrasted to the ‘arts of war’; to music, art, poetry, the sum of culture in its esthetic mode. Confucius contended that the ultimate vitory goes to the state that develops the highest Wen, the most exalted culture…For in the end it is these things that elicity the spontaneous admiration of men and women everywhere.

— Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, pp. 159-166