You Think You’re Better Than Me?! An Open Letter to the Grammar Police

I was at my shul last week and got into an interesting argument with my friend Bill Schwartz. I said, “Bill, the reason you feel this way is that you’re older than me.”

“Than I,” he corrected me.

“No. I really think it’s ‘than me.’ It’s clearly the object of the sentence.”

“Let’s ask my wife Janet. She used to be an English teacher.”

“It’s ‘than I,'” said Janet.

“OK, I said. I’ll look it up and get back to you.”

“Great,” said Bill. “I love receiving email.”

So I looked it up and I found some interesting pieces. My favorite is this bit from Merriam-Webster:

Some people think they’re better than you because they say “better than I” instead of “better than me.”

They’re not, of course. They’re just among the select group of grammar enthusiasts who think that than can only be a conjunction. You, on the hand, recognize that it can also be a preposition.

That’s right: whether you say “better than me,” “taller than I,” or “more annoying than they” has to do with grammatical categories that we typically only consider when a teacher asks us to.

But the bigger issue is believing that there’s a “right grammar.” John McWhorter is a Professor at Columbia University who writes about how grammar is more a fashion than anything else. McWhorter writes:

An especially enlightening read is William Cobbett’s book-length lecture to his son called “A Grammar of the English Language.” Cobbett’s sense of what good English was in 1818 seems, in 2012, so bizarre we can scarcely imagine someone speaking in such a way and being taken seriously.

To Cobbett, the past tense forms awoke, blew,  built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove were all mistakes. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year. In Google’s handy Ngram viewer, using data from millions of books over several centuries, one can see that builded only started falling out of disuse around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.

So why was Bill Schwartz so insistent on “better than I?” Let’s use Google Ngram to see the historical trends of these two phrases. You can click on the graphic to interact with it.

As you can see, when Bill was in school, “better than I” was the fashion. But don’t lose hope, “better than me” is coming on strong!

My Blog as a Jewish Folk Tale

As I think about the sensibility that I have in this blog and the stories I tell, there’s a certain Jewishness to it. After reading the book A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, I can see it clearly. There’s an ironic wit of the underdog in Jewish storytelling that’s been passed down for generations. If you’re unfamiliar with the Jewish storyteller, take a look at Eddie Murphy playing “Old Jewish Man” from the end of the Movie Coming to America.

Jewish folk tales to a great job of explaining how I think about my blog. For example, my goal in this blog is to use stories from my life to make interesting points. But there’s a much better explanation through the following folk tale.

The Preacher of Dubno, Jacob Krantz, was once asked why parables have such persuasive power over people. The Preacher replied, “I will explain this by means of a parable.”

“It happened once that Truth walked about the streets as naked as his mother bore him. Naturally, people were scandalized and wouldn’t let him into their houses. Whoever saw him got frightened and ran away.

“And so as Truth wandered through the streets brooding over his troubles he met Parable. Parable was gaily decked out in fine clothes and was a sight to see. He asked, ‘Tell me, what is the meaning of all this? Why do you walk about naked and looking so woebegone?’

“Truth shook his head sadly and replied, ‘Everything is going downhill with me, brother. I’ve gotten so old and decrepit that everybody avoids me.’

“‘What you’re saying makes no sense,’ said Parable. “People are not giving you a wide berth because you are old. Take me, for instance, I am no younger than you. Nonetheless, the older I get the more attractive people find me. Just let me confide a secret to you about people. They don’t like things plain and bare but dressed up prettily and a little artificial. I’ll tell you what. I will lend you some fine clothes like mine and you’ll soon see how people will take to you.’

“Truth followed this advice and decked himself out in Parable’s gay clothes. And lo and behold! People no longer shunned him but welcomed him heartily. Since that time Truth and Parable are to be seen as inseparable companions, esteemed and loved by all.”

I also like to take examples and then write blog posts around them. The theory surrounding the example is subservient to the example itself. That’s an annoyingly complicated way of saying something better described in the following folk tale.

Once Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, said to his friend, the Preacher of Dubno, “Tell me, Jacob, how in the world do you happen to find the right parable to every subject?”

The Preacher of Dubno answered, “I will explain to you my parabolic method by means of a parable. Once there was a nobleman who entered his son in a military academy to learn the art of musketry. After five years the son learned all there was to be learned about shooting and, in proof of his excellence, was awarded a diploma and a gold medal.

“Upon his way home after graduation he halted at a village to rest his horses. In the courtyard he noticed on the wall of a stable a number of chalk circles and right in the center of each was a bullet hole.

“The young nobleman regarded the circles with astonishment. Who in the world could have been the wonderful marksman whose aim was so unerringly true? In what military academy could he have studied and what kind of medals had he received for his marksmanship!

“After considerable inquiry he found the sharpshooter. To his amazement,  it was a small Jewish boy, barefoot and in tatters.

“‘Who taught you to shoot so well?’ the young nobleman asked him.

“The boy explained, ‘First I shoot at the wall. Then I take a piece of chalk and draw circles around the holes.’

Though I hadn’t thought of it, I’ve been using some of the wisdom of the ages to craft this blog. I guess I wasn’t just messing around and having fun.

Lessons from My Grandparents

I’m a very lucky boy. I had all four of my grandparents until I was 25. And I had one until this year when I was 41.  Now that they’ve all passed away, I feel different. I’m a grand-orphan. Now that they are done teaching me, I wanted to honor their memory by reflecting on the lessons they’ve taught me.  To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, “By the time they died, a lot of what is good about them has rubbed off on other people. So although they are dead, they won’t be completely gone.”

My Bubbie died in January. A couple of months before she died, she told me, “I’m a fighter.” At the time I didn’t want to tell her that the fight wasn’t going well. That an 87-year-old with heart and kidney failure was not winning the battle to live forever. She could hold on a little longer but eventually, as with everyone, death will win. Looking back, I realize she was fighting for something else. She wasn’t fighting for everlasting life, she was fighting to live a good life. It would have been easy for her to just go with the flow and coast off into the sunset—being that woman who just plays bingo and watches Jeopardy until she dies. But to really try to lead a good life—that takes effort.

David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address called This is Water (or more fully This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life) where he tells the following story:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

To me, this story is about fighting against the current of the water to live a good life. All of my grandparents showed me where the water is, how to separate myself from it, and how to focus on what’s important.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s parents, Nana and Papa (Florence and Barney Liebman), and my father’s parents, Bubbie and Zaid (Connie and Norman Schlaff).

Continue reading “Lessons from My Grandparents”

Fiction Is the Lie That Tells the Truth

When my Bubbie died in January, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. People kept telling me that, “She lived a good long life” and “Her memory will live forever” but this wasn’t helpful. I know that she lived a great life and I know that I was very lucky to be 41 when my last grandparent died. But how should I deal with her death? What do I do now?

I started thinking about a conversation I had 13 years ago with Mike McGill. Mike was the superintendent of the Scarsdale school district, one of the best school districts in the country. We were talking about what students should learn in high school to lead a good and productive life.

I thought I had the answer. At 28, I’d finally learned the key skills to be successful in the business world: analytics and communication. I’d spent two years in business school and then worked for two years as a  management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the world’s most prestigious corporate strategy consultancies. Through this education, I learned to take data, analyze it, and communicate a story about it. Analytics and communication are also the skills needed to discuss issues and be a contributing member of society.

But Mike had a different perspective. He said, “Literature is the most important subject you can learn. It’s at the heart of being human. By reading a good book you learn key life lessons. There’s no better way to learn empathy and see things from someone else’s point of view.” Mike’s comment always stuck in my head and helped me understand how to read literature. So when Bubbie died I looked to literature for answers. Continue reading “Fiction Is the Lie That Tells the Truth”

My Eulogy for My Bubbie

Below is my eulogy for my Bubbie, Connie Schlaff, who died on January 9th, 2019 (1/9/19):

There’s a video of the great physicist Richard Feynman. In the video, his friend Danny Hillis said, “I’m sad because I realize you’re about to die.”

And Feynman said, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age a lot of what is good about you has rubbed off on the people and so … although I will be dead, I won’t be completely gone.”

And that’s the way I like to think about Bubbie and all the little things she left us. Like some of her favorite things. I remember the last things that Blake and Ari did with Bubbie. These might have been Bubbie’s two favorite things. Ari did a crossword puzzle with her and Blake asked Bubbie if she would watch his new favorite show, Jeopardy, with him.

Continue reading “My Eulogy for My Bubbie”

Welcome!

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

Who is Robert Schlaff?

I’m a devoted husband and father to an awesome family. For work, I’m the Banking Business Development Manager for Amazon Web Services. For more information about what I do at work, please visit my LinkedIn profile.

About This Site

I collect stories. There are so many amazing things happening every day. I need to spend some time writing them down before they slip away. Madeleine L’Engle said that every writer needs to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. But some of this stuff is too good to keep to myself. So I’m sharing it with you.

When I’m writing, I picture having a conversation with some of the world’s smartest and most interesting people — you, my readers. I picture us all sitting around a table telling stories and having fun. I’d like to think we’re a digital version of the Algonquin Round Table. Throughout the 1920s, some friends would meet daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. They included the founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross, the playwright George S. Kaufmann and the writer Dorothy Parker. This group, called The Algonquin Round Table,  would meet to tell stories and share quips in a bustling city that was finding its place on the world stage. They were the original raconteurs of New York, getting together to share stories that would enlighten and entertain. In an age when we no longer have two-martini lunches, I wanted to humbly bring that sensibility online.

Highlights

Life Lessons

Product

Technical

Human Behavior

Math and Logic

Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts

It’s always hard to design products that you are never going to use yourself.  One of the most interesting design challenges in history was the equipment for the first astronauts. And once the women went up in space,  the problem for the (mostly) male engineers only got worse. Take the example of the makeup kit.

Continue reading “Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts”

The Secret to Google’s Self Driving Cars — Google Street View

For decades the US military was trying to create self-driving cars with little success. Once the private sector got into the game, these cars improved at a breakneck speed. In 2004, when the first DARPA Grand Challenge took place, no car in the world was able to complete the 150 mile course through the Mojave desert.  By 2016, self driving cars had driven over a million miles in regular traffic. The secret was not better computers or better cameras. The secret was better maps.

Peter Norvig, Google’s head of research, told the New York Times that Google Street View is the secret sauce behind Google’s self driving cars. He said:

It’s a hard problem for computer vision and artificial intelligence to pick a traffic light out of a scene and determine if it is red, yellow or green. But it is trivially easy to recognize the color of a traffic light that you already know is there.

I remember hearing that and thinking how convenient it was that Google happened to have Street View and that they could apply it to self driving cars. This would have been a classic case of “unlocking the power of data.” But then I learned the rest of the story.

Sebastian Thrun is the creator of Google’s self driving car and the founder of Google’s “X” lab. Google didn’t just “happen” to have Street View data lying around. Street View was created by Thrun after he met Larry Page at the DARPA Grand Challenge — the self driving car race. Thrun tells the story on CNBC’s The Brave Ones:

Larry came to the race itself and … came disguised with, like, a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be bothered by everybody. But … he had a keen interest in this. Larry has been a believer in this technology for much longer than I even knew. And so was Sergey (Brin). And they really want to understand what’s going on,” Thrun said.

A later iteration of the car had cameras attached to its roof, so the team could review its progress each day, leading almost by accident to the development of Google Street View.

“We realized the video’s actually amazing. And we went to Google and said ‘we’d love to help you build Street View.’ And we kind of ended up – felt like an acquisition of a little start-up company, kind of Stanford transitioning into Google where me and four of my grad students then became Street View enthusiasts.”

“And we built up Street View and with a singular vision to photograph every street in the world.”

Street View became the first project within the secret Google X. “We had a separate building that no one knew about. At least for a year and a half, no one in Google had a clue we existed,” Thrun said.

So what did we learn? Data was the secret sauce for getting self driving cars to progress as well as they have. But it wasn’t a matter of finding a data set and applying it. It was about creating the data set for that specific purpose. Street View wasn’t a useful data set that was applied to self driving cars. It was the output of the mapping exercise that made self driving cars work so well.

One final addendum: When talking about Google Street View I have to add a link to an early version of Street View from 1979 that was created at MIT. The Aspen Movie Map (movie) used laserdiscs to simulate driving through the town of Aspen.

Game Theory for Parents

When I was in business school I had a wonderful teacher Adam Brandenberger who wrote a book called Co-Opetition. The book is chock full of lessons on how to apply mathematical game theory to business.

In the book, I learned how to fairly divide things between two companies. But it also works for dividing things between my two kids without them getting upset (formally called Envy Free division). If you have kids, you know that this is a non-trivial problem. Let’s use the example of a cupcake. The most obvious thing is to split the cupcake in half and distribute the two equal pieces to the children. Of course, because you can never cut the cake directly in half, one of the kids is going to complain of unfairness.

The book explains a better way called I cut, you choose . One child (normally the older one who’s better with a knife) makes the cut and the other child gets to choose the one he prefers. This forces the cutter to create two pieces that are as close to as equal as possible because he knows that he’s going to get the piece that’s second best.

This worked well and inspired me to try other systemic solutions to child problems. Here’s the way I solve the problem of two kids sharing an iPhone (or iPad) when watching a movie. Normally the child who’s holding the iPhone will slowly and unconsciously move the phone closer to him, ignoring his sibling. Eventually, the phone gets so far away that I hear, “Hey, I can’t see the phone!”

I’ve been able to solve this problem by having each child have one hand on the phone. Instead of one child controlling the phone, they are sharing control of the phone. This imperceptible pulling between the two children tends to leave the phone nicely spaced between them. You’d think you’d have constant fighting between the two kids — and you do! But the fights are so small that neither kid noticies.

Stories of Great Product Managers

Marty Cagan is one of the great Product Management Gurus. His book Inspired is the bible of product managers. Product Management is a field with lots of advice and best practices but light on practical examples. In this talk, Behind Every Great Product (summary here), Marty shows what how great product managers deliver great products. He gives 6 examples of product managers who embody the art and science of Product Management.

Product Management is really about two things: defining what you want the product to be and then executing against it. Jeff Bezos says it’s about being “stubborn on vision and flexible on the details.”

Marty tells the story of 6 great product leaders who are stubborn on vision and flexible on details. They all see a huge opportunity, run into unexpected challenges and manage to come out of it with flying colors.

Take, for example, the story of Kate Arnold. In 1999, Kate was a Product Manager at Netflix. At the time, Netflix was renting DVDs by mail. They were being pummeled by Blockbuster, the industry’s 800 pound gorilla. Kate worked to move Netflix to its first subscription model. While the model worked great, it created a problem because now everyone wanted to borrow the newest (and expensive to Netflix) movies, putting Netflix in the red. So Kate needed to convince people to watch some older movies. She created classic features like recommendations and queuing that got people to watch a mix of both old and new movies they loved, making them happy and allowing Netflix to stay profitable.