Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist

Wear your damn helmet!

July 30th, 2014

I’ve been seeing several references on Facebook and email recently to this site or similar sites, which makes the claim that it is safer to ride a bicycle without a helmet.

This is ridiculous nonsense to me, and I finally snapped and wrote a long email rant in response, and decided to post a version of it here as well.

I do agree with these sites that the best thing for a bicyclist is not to get hit in the first place. So I have no issue with emphasizing safe riding skills and not acting stupid just because one is wearing a helmet. But accidents still happen, especially with distracted drivers on the road.

I think that wearing a helmet while cycling is like wearing a seatbelt when driving. If you don’t get in an accident, you don’t need either one. But if you do get in an accident, the vast majority of your potential serious injuries will be prevented by wearing a seatbelt or helmet – according to the CDC, seat belts cut the risk of serious injury by 50%, and I believe that helmets have a similar effect on reducing serious injuries (as a couple ER doctors in the discussions I’ve seen have suggested).

The site suggests that helmets have little protective value, and that any benefit they have is cancelled out by other problems. The main problem they suggest is from one study which suggests that cars give you more room if you are wearing a helmet than if not. I think that’s irrelevant – the dangerous drivers are the ones who don’t see the bicyclist at all, let alone whether the biker is wearing a helmet. A recent example from my experience is a BMW rocketing up Page Mill Road at 50 mph in a 25 mph zone, not realizing the next turn was a U-turn, and skidding well into the other lane where I was descending at 25 mph on my bike. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the car, but it was a close call. Those are the scenarios I worry about (or ones where a driver is calling or texting and doesn’t notice themselves drifting over into the bike lane), not ones where a car gets 3 inches closer to me because they notice that I’m wearing a helmet.

The other “problems” with helmets that the site suggests (that it might increase neck injuries and that it might affect one’s senses) are equally stupid, and have even less support – they are just theories that people made up to justify their point of view. Which is admittedly what I’m doing here, but I’m not claiming that’s evidence.

Is a helmet going to prevent all serious injuries? No, of course not. Is it going to prevent me from dying if I’m hit by a car going 50 mph? No. But will it help if my head gets bounced on the pavement at 20 mph? I believe it would. And I want any edge I can get to preserve my brain in the case of an accident. And I don’t believe there is any downside to wearing a helmet, despite the claims to the contrary on these sites.

I do agree with the site that the world would be a better place if we had more cyclists, and that with more cyclists on the road, drivers would change their behavior. But in that transitional phase, I plan to keep wearing my helmet until after the drivers change their behavior, not before. And I don’t see how not wearing a helmet will encourage more people to ride a bike – it may make it look more dangerous, but all it takes is hearing of one horrible injury because the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet to deter somebody from riding a bike for life.

All that being said, I’m totally in favor of more people biking. And I don’t want people to think biking is highly dangerous – I commute to work by bike 90% of the time, and have put ~2-3k miles a year on my bikes for the past 6 years and have not yet had an accident (knock on wood). But I wear a helmet just in case, the same way I wear a seatbelt just in case while driving – I plan to never need it, and drive/ride defensively, but I want the extra protection if I do need it.

P.S. I should note that I switched over to wearing a helmet while skiing about ten years ago for similar reasons – if I do get in a bad crash, I want the extra protection. I haven’t needed it, except for a couple falls while learning to snowboard, but it was impressive even in those minor falls how much it helped. Ski helmets are admittedly more robust than bike helmets, though.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

May 27th, 2014

Amazon link

I finally read this book, which has been on the to-read list since it came out because of its discussion of cognitive biases. I hadn’t been in a particular hurry to read it, especially since I’d listened to Kahneman’s Long Now talk which covered the main themes of the book. But I finally got it from the library and it was a nice summary of the psychology of decision making.

Kahneman sums up the book in the first paragraph of his final conclusions chapter:

I began this book by introducing two fictitious characters, spent some time discussing two species, and ended with two selves. The two characters were the intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources. The two species were the fictitious Econs, who live in the land of theory, and the Humans, who act in the real world. The two selves are the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and makes the choices.

System 1 and System 2 are the most discussed portion of the book – System 1 is our intuition that leaps to conclusions, System 2 is our logical rational brain which has to be effortfully engaged. Kahneman is quick to point out that System 2 is not superior to System 1 – somebody with only System 2 would never get anything done because they would spend all their time thinking about possibilities (as suggested by the anecdote of the man who could no longer make decisions after he lost his emotions).

So the question is when do we engage System 2. Kahneman says in the conclusion: “The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2”. However, he follows up by saying it’s difficult to recognize those signs in the moment – System 1 is very good at substituting easy answers to questions that aren’t being asked (e.g. substituting “I like this person” as an answer for the question “Is this person qualified for this job?”) and we have to recognize those signs. The first part of the book is an excellent tour of several different cognitive shortcuts that System 1 uses:

  • Anchoring – giving a random number before asking somebody to estimate a number will bias the result.
  • Law of small numbers – assuming that small sample sizes represent the population and leaping to conclusions based on samples as small as one.
  • Availability bias: Things that come to mind easier are considered more likely and probable, which is related to recency bias.
  • Specificity and story – System 1 likes situations which are specific and vivid e.g. when asked “Which is more probable? (a) Linda is a bank teller and (b) Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement”, most people chose (b) which makes no sense logically – (b) is a complete subset of (a) – but System 1 could construct a specific story of (b) whereas (a) was too generic.

Kahneman has one chapter where he discuss co-writing an article with Gary Klein, the author of Sources of Power, which I quite liked as a summary of why we should trust our intuition (or System 1 in Kahneman’s terminology). Kahneman believes we shouldn’t trust System 1 so it was interesting to read of their work to try to figure out where they agreed:

“Our conclusion was that for the most part it is possible to distinguish intuitions that are likely to be valid from those that are likely to be bogus. … If the environment is sufficiently regular and if the judge has had a chance to learn its regularities, the associative machinery will recognize situations and generate quick and accurate predictions and decisions. You can trust someone’s intuitions if these conditions are met. … In a less regular, or low-validity, environment, the heuristics of judgment are invoked. System 1 is often able to produce quick answers to difficult questions by substitution, creating coherence where there is none. The question that is a answered is not the one that was intended, but the answer is produced quickly and may be sufficiently plausible to pass the lax and lenient review of System 2.”

In other words, you can not trust your intuition just because you are confident – you can only do so in regular situations where the subconscious pattern building machine can be effective.

In the second part of the book, Kahneman moves on to discussing the pitfalls of assuming that humans make rational decisions. These are pretty well-known e.g. there is a huge difference volunteering to be an organ donor between countries where you have to opt in (< 15%) or opt out (> 85%). Since the question is exactly the same, clearly something else is going on (in this case, the bias for inaction overwhelms any rational consideration). He also discussed his work on prospect theory, where he and Amos Tversky measure loss aversion and determine that we need the gain to be twice as big to risk losing (in other words, we want to win $200 in a coin flip to risk losing $100). He also discusses our inability to estimate probabilities, where we overestimate rare chances (treating 1% chances as 5%, and 99% chances as 91%) and therefore want inordinate protection against them. In all of these cases, he suggests taking the “outside view” (the perspective of an unknowledgeable observer) and/or reversing the situation (opt-in vs. opt-out) to see if our intuition changes to understand if we are truly being rational or just going with our intuition. He uses the acronym WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) to remind us that we often put blinders on ourselves to make our decision making easier.

Lastly, Kahneman delves into the remembering vs. experiencing self. He describes an experiment where people are asked to experience pain (e.g. by placing their hand in a bath of ice cold water) for a duration of time. There are two scenarios – holding the hand in for 60 seconds, and holding the hand in for 60 seconds, and then an additional 30 seconds where the bath was warmed slightly. People consistently said the second scenario was preferable and they chose to repeat that rather than the first scenario. This logically makes no sense – they are experiencing more pain and discomfort in the second scenario. But Kahneman says that we remember only the average of the peak pain and the end pain, and are oblivious to the actual duration. The experiencing self which suffers through 90 seconds instead of 60 is ignored. You can play with this to design optimum experiences for yourself e.g. when planning vacations (always end on a high note and take pictures to remember the peak experiences).

All in all, I don’t think I learned anything particularly new from reading the book, but it is a great summary of the different quirks that prevent our brains are not perfectly rational. By having a mental list of such quirks, we can be more aware of them, and try to combat them by bringing the slower and more effortful System 2 into play. We won’t always succeed, and that’s where friends are helpful to give us the outside view and a new perspective beyond whatever we are seeing at the moment (Kahneman calls it the focusing illusion: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”). Let me know when you see me leading myself astray and I’ll try to do likewise.

How is your memory indexed?

May 13th, 2014

My Facebook friends have heard me complain a few times that I have apparently exceeded my brain’s capacity to keep track of people. At Google, I have worked with hundreds of people, and it’s entirely embarrassing when one of them sees me at lunch or elsewhere on the Google campus and says “Hi Eric!” and I completely blank on their name. I recognize them, and I know we worked together, but I don’t remember any of the details. A couple weeks ago, somebody waved me down in the cafeteria, and I had lunch with him, and talked for 30 minutes without me being able to remember his name or what specifically we had worked on together.

The funny bit is that once I got back to my desk and looked up his name, all of that information came flooding back in. And that’s how it works for me in general – when another Googler says hi and I can’t place them, a glance at their name badge will trigger the memory cascade of how we know each other. As far as I can tell, my memory is indexed on people’s names, not on what they look like, so I can’t look up information on them with their face, but only with their name. I was talking about this with a friend yesterday, and he thought it was the weirdest thing ever because he is a visual thinker, and faces are what trigger all the memories for him.

The analogy to a database is clear – in a database, there are many fields in each record, but one of them is generally marked as the “primary key”, which the database will index on and optimize lookups for. If you try to look up a record by a different field, it will be much slower and more inefficient.

So I’m curious how other people feel their memories are indexed. Are you a visual thinker and seeing a person triggers all the memories you have associated with them? Am I the only text-based thinker?

P.S. Based on the On Intelligence theory of pattern-recognition, I wonder if my memory indexing on text/names is because most of my information gathering as a child was by reading, rather than by learning from my peers. I definitely think in terms of text and ideas, and that’s part of why I have a blog – text hyperlinking is a perfect fit for how my brain works. I also wonder if that’s why I don’t get Instagram – maybe Instagram is the equivalent of blogging for a visual thinker – it matches how their brain works.

Expertise as exception handling

April 24th, 2014

A few months ago, I wrote a post claiming that expertise was doing difficult tasks consistently and Rif challenged me on that. And I’ve been thinking about it over the past few months and have another model I’m going to throw out there: expertise as exception handling.

One example of this is my experience as both a skier and a snowboarder. I am an expert skier, having skied on and off since I was a kid, and an intermediate snowboarder, having picked it up a couple years ago. I spent most of the winter skiing in anticipation of skiing trips to Japan and Baldface. After I got back from Baldface, I got on the snowboard for the first time in a year, and it was interesting to see how my mindset changed. On my skis, I am confident I can handle any terrain and conditions, even people cutting me off while I’m speeding down the hill. On the snowboard, I can comfortably go down any groomed run, no matter how steep, but as soon as the conditions are uneven (e.g. moguls) or off-piste or if people around me do something unexpected, I freak out because I don’t know how to adjust quickly.

Another example comes from volleyball, where a previous post noted how better teammates put me in a better position to succeed. If I’m given a good set, I can hit it down. If a ball is spiked right to me, I can dig it. However, if the ball is a little off, I’m not as reliable. Meanwhile, the expert players can take a ball hit out of their reach, and if they can get one knuckle on the ball, they’ll pop it up perfectly to their partner. And if the set is five feet off the net, they find a way to hit it down anyway.

A last example comes from bridge. I’m an intermediate bridge player at best, but I am subscribed to the bridge players list at Google. The discussions on that list are often around rare hands, where there’s no standard play or bid to cover the situation. The experts on the list debate about how to handle such situations, and many of them have arcane bidding systems to cover all sorts of unusual hands. These are situations I could never figure out how to handle with my basic understanding and the standard bidding system, but they have played enough to figure out how to handle these corner cases.

In all of these examples, the difference between the intermediate player and the expert is that the expert can handle a wider variety of rare situations. The intermediate may be almost as good as the expert the majority of the time, but in unusual situations, the greater experience of the expert allows them to do something when the intermediate is frozen by uncertainty.

This also explains why mere repetition is not enough to acquire expertise. Mastery requires deliberate practice, where one is continually and deliberately testing the edge of one’s ability. By setting up artificial practice situations which don’t come up normally, one gains the ability to handle these exceptional situations whereas repeating the standard situations would not help. It was described once to me as the difference between ten years of experience, and the same year of experience ten times.

I don’t think my advice changes from my last post on expertise, which suggested that deliberate practice was how to gain consistency, but I like this model better. Expertise is learning about how to handle anything that an activity can throw at you, and do it with confidence because you’ve seen it all before. This is also consistent with Gary Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decision Model. Build up your intuition and expertise by getting oneself into more difficult and rare situations so that you can handle them better in the future.

Maximizing collisionability

April 23rd, 2014

Last night, Tony Hsieh of spoke at the Long Now on the topic of Helping Revitalize a City. He described Downtown Project, which is the company he designed to create a thriving community (tech, art, fashion, family) in downtown Las Vegas.

As he discussed the project, he brought up a great concept that I want to apply to my own life, which is the idea of “collisionable hours”. The idea is that a community is built by maximizing the number of times that community members might run into each other: at the bar, at a cafe, on the street, etc. Suburbs have low collisionable hours since residents go into their garage, hop in their car, drive to the store, drive straight back home, and therefore spend little time in public spaces where they might have unplanned collisions. City neighborhoods can have high collisionable hours, when everybody is out walking around to get their errands done (shades of Jane Jacobs). So for the Downtown Project, they now evaluate projects based on maximizing collisionable hours.

This made me think about maximizing my own personal collisionability. How do I put myself into more situations where I have unplanned interactions that can spur new thoughts? I made some effort at that in my Year of Yes last year by going to new conferences and trying new things, but how can I build on that? One thing I’ve started is a monthly SF Salon, which is a great excuse for me to see SF friends and talk about ideas. I also need to start posting more here, as I think that increases the chance of random people on the Internet finding me and interacting with my ideas.

That points out a difference I have with Tony Hsieh – he’s focused on unplanned physical interactions, which I think are valuable and interesting (I depend on them for parts of my job at Google). But I’m interested in building a community of ideas as well, which I think can be done online. We’ll see if I make progress on that.

Two other vignettes that I think are relevant to the collisionability discussion:

  • When LBJ first got to Washington as a congressional aide, all the aides stayed in a communal dorm. He would get up in the morning, go to the communal bathroom, shower, brush his teeth, shave, and chat with others. Then he’d go back to his room, wait 5 minutes, and go back to the bathroom and do it again. He would do this 4-5 times a morning, which is how he met everybody and started his path to becoming the most influential person in Washington. That’s maximizing collisionability!

  • At the YxYY conference last year, we had a great session on “Finding the Others” inspired by this Timothy Leary quote:
    Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…

    What we concluded was that finding the others required putting oneself out there into the world and increasing your “surface area” to make it easier for the others to find you. In other words, increasing your collisionability.

Anyway, I liked the concept, and plan to use it more in my own life. And if anybody reading this has ideas or people that I should be colliding with, please put me in touch!

Hosting update

March 30th, 2014

I should have known better than to keep pushing my luck with after last year’s catastrophic meltdown, but I didn’t want to deal. Unfortunately, textdrive went down without even an email to its users a couple weeks ago, and their provider deleted all their data on Friday. Oops. At least I had a backup of my blog this time.

I was able to migrate everything over to relatively seamlessly, but couldn’t get my many-years-old WordPress theme to work right for some reason, so I’m trying a more current one. Still need to tweak fonts and colors, but it’s mostly there now.

Anyway, if you got a bounce message from over the weekend, that’s why. My apologies – I think is likely to be a more stable host – fingers crossed!

Don’t act like a special snowflake

March 12th, 2014

Disclaimer: This post is not about you. Please do not take offense. It is an exaggerated amalgam of people for the sake of making a point.

Over the past several months, I have talked to a number of people looking for jobs or practicing company pitches. And what I see is people getting frustrated that their audience doesn’t see why they are special, and not being given the opportunity to show that they are special. They do not understand that it is their responsibility to put in the work of framing themselves to make their special-ness easily visible to their audience. I am repeating points from my advice on writing a resume, but the general principle is that your audience does not have much time. You have to make it instantly clear to them why they should care about you and not move on to the next candidate.

When I hear people complaining about how much work it is to hand craft each resume or interview or pitch, I feel like they are acting like they are a special snowflake and the world should marvel in their presence. They are putting the onus on their audience to dig deeply and spend their time to figure out why this person is a special snowflake. And sadly, the world does not work that way – the people you are trying to impress are busy, and so you have to make it easy for them to understand why they should work with you.

What I think they should do instead is to spend the time to really understand their audience and what problems they have. After that, they can craft a resume or pitch to explain quickly and concisely how they (or their product) solves that problem. And to be clear, I am not advocating lying or exaggerating – I am talking about being selective in what is presented to the audience so that their focus is only on the attributes relevant to this interaction.

Engineers hate this advice. They feel that the truth is the truth, and framing is lying, and this is all annoying MBA nonsense. And I get that – it took me a long time (and the work of George Lakoff) to convince myself that framing mattered and was a meaningful activity. But as I get older and crankier, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who waste my time. If I’m interviewing you, and you insist on giving me a laundry list of your accomplishments with no consideration of showing how you can help me, it’s not a good sign. I value those that demonstrate they have thought about what I’m looking for and how they can help.

I also think this is a completely transferable skill. No matter what your job is, you will have to go to other people and ask them for help or resources. And when you do that, if you can demonstrate that you understand their criteria for making decisions and frame your request in those terms, I guarantee that you will be more successful in your pitches.

One last piece of advice – people’s attention is given iteratively. With a good pitch, you have 30 seconds to get their attention that there is a problem worth solving. A good problem in the first 30 seconds earns you another 2 minutes to convince them that your product can solve the problem. Once you’re past that, then you can get into the details of the investment and the company. But start with the hook and get their attention immediately, or you will never keep their attention long enough to talk about the rest of your material. Get to the point quickly – if they ask for more clarifying details, you’ve caught their attention, which is the first step.

A similar process applies to a job search – a resume is not to get you a job. A resume is to catch the eye of the hiring manager and get you a phone interview. Your goal in a phone interview is to get an in-person interview. Once you’re at the in-person interview stage, then your goal is to get a job. But if you try to get the job with the resume, you’re skipping too many steps.

So the next time you’re doing a pitch, whether it is for a job or for investment, take the time to think about your audience and how your pitch is quickly demonstrating to them that you can help them out. Good luck!

P.S. I really enjoy critiquing pitches so if you want to brainstorm on your pitch with me, please contact me.

P.P.S. There is one exception to the “special snowflake” rule – if you have enough of a personal brand, the goal of your audience is to spend time with you, so you don’t have to figure out what they’re looking for. I once went to a Seth Godin seminar where he asked everybody to describe their superpower that made them special (I said mine was interdisciplinary storytelling). When we finished, somebody asked him what his superpower was, and he said “At this point, my superpower is that I’m Seth Godin.” In other words, he had a big enough audience that just being himself was enough (and it sure was, since dozens of us had paid for a three-day seminar with him). But he spent a long time building up his audience to get to that point, and he did that by filling a need – I think Seth’s superpower was writing clearly and thoughtfully about the consequences of the Internet on marketing.

Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

March 4th, 2014

Amazon link

Taleb is known for his book The Black Swan, which I own and have read but apparently never wrote a review for. While his writing style is a little annoying, the central concepts of nonlinearity and power-law distributions are worth remembering (described in a Long Now talk here if you want the short version).

His latest book, Antifragile, is about how to live in a world with black swans and nonlinear outcomes. His writing style was even more annoying in this one, as he insults everybody that dares to disagree with him, and wanders off on irrelevant tangents as he apparently fired his editor. So I’m writing this post to summarize the few interesting ideas I got out of the book so you don’t have to actually read it.

The core concept is that in a world of volatility, where black swans can explode out of nowhere unexpectedly, there are three ways to deal with change – Taleb uses examples from financial investing to illustrate:

  • Fragile – unstable equilibriums where volatility is bad because it is likely to tip you into a worse state – in other words, you have limited upside and unlimited downside. A fragile investment strategy would be one where you borrow money to invest in something with a slightly higher return – if you are overleveraged and something goes wrong (and something always goes wrong), you will be bankrupt many times over, and even if you are successful, you didn’t make that much money.

  • Robust – stable states which don’t change under volatility. A robust investment strategy would be one where you don’t invest in the market at all – just stick it in your bank account and do nothing – you can’t get hurt by change but you can’t benefit from it either.
  • “Antifragile” – states that are at the bottom of the state space, so they benefit from volatility (or as the subtitle says “Things that gain from disorder”). He uses a lot of fancy concepts like convexity and concavity and references to abstruse options theory, but the basic idea is that you have limited downside and unlimited upside. An antifragile investment strategy would be what Taleb describes as a “barbell” strategy, with 90% of your wealth in robust investments that are rock-solid, and the last 10% spread around a number of highly speculative investments that have big upsides (e.g. angel investing, big options bets, etc) so that if a black swan does take off, you have a piece of it. The reason the strategy is antifragile is that your downside is limited (only 10% of your wealth), but the upside is large – even a small piece of a positive black swan like a Google or Facebook is hugely valuable.

One important aspect to Taleb’s mindset is that he believes that prediction is impossible in a non-linear world. If things can blow up unexpectedly (as he described in The Black Swan), and if very small differences in initial conditions can lead to wildly disparate results (as he described in Fooled by Randomness), then any strategy that depends on accurately predicting the future is doomed to failure. Hence the focus on creating antifragile states which have limited downside and let you keep the upside – in such states, you don’t have to predict the future, as most volatility will benefit you. Forecasting the future only matters if you are in a fragile state, and leads to your downfall when you get the forecast wrong, as Wall Street did in 2006-2007 – Taleb points out that Wall Street was taking the fragile bet of limited upside (ongoing subprime mortgage payments at a higher interest rate) and unlimited downside (holding the option if the mortgage defaulted).

That’s basically the entire message of the book: don’t think you can predict the future, and put yourself in an antifragile state where you limit your downside and keep the upside (in case you get lucky with a black swan).

Taleb also goes off on all sorts of other rants that are sometimes amusing but only marginally relevant to his central argument:

  • When investing in anything, don’t assume you can forecast the future and predict what will pay off – better to spread your investments around than make big bets. As he says, “Small amounts per trial, lots of trials, broader than you want. Why? Because in Extremistan, it is more important to be in something in a small amount than to miss it.”

  • Taleb has a long rant against iatrogenics, which is preventable harm due to medical intervention. His point is that medical intervention in cases where the patient is not imminently dying is a fragile intervention, with limited upside (in most cases the patient will get better if the doctor does nothing), and unlimited downside (unexpected side effects leading to death). Obviously, the opposite is true in cases where the patient is dying which makes that an antifragile intervention – there is limited downside (they are dying anyway), and unlimited upside (intervention might save them). That all makes sense (and I already had a policy of never going to the doctor for anything routine), but I think he goes too far with his contention that the best way to kill somebody is to get them a personal physician who will feel compelled to intervene.
  • I agree with his larger point that when we are uncertain of the consequences (and we should generally be uncertain), we should bias towards inaction. Many people bias towards action to make them look like they are contributing and doing their job, but it often contributes to a worse result e.g. active fund managers are generally outperformed by index funds.
  • I don’t agree with his bias that natural selection is always correct. He believes that nature has done a perfect job of crafting our bodies to fix themselves, but I think he is missing the point that natural selection only works on situations where reproduction is affected. Cancer is a problem because it happens after reproduction, and generally beyond the life expectancy of anybody before the 20th century – there is no way for natural selection to have dealt with cancer, so expecting our bodies to deal with it naturally doesn’t make sense.
  • He has a nice discussion of comparative advantage – the idea in economics that it is best to specialize and only do one thing as everybody gets better goods at cheaper prices in that theoretical world. His point is that the world changes, and if you put all of your effort into one thing, you are in a fragile state with the unlimited downside if that thing is made worthless for some reason (e.g. being an expert in Cobol was great for years, until it was worthless).
  • Another nice observation is that the best way to predict what technologies will last into the future is to look at how old the technology is. A technology that has been around for a hundred years (e.g. the car) is more likely to be around for another hundred years than a technology that has only existed for a year (e.g. Snapchat). This is consistent with my long-standing bias against technological determinism – technology does not drive social change – technology is adopted when it serves a social need. Technology that has been around for decades has been shown to serve a social need, and is thus likely to stick around.

All in all, I can’t recommend the book as it is really terribly written, but I think the core ideas are worth considering. If you’ve read it, I’d love to get your take, and if you haven’t, let me know if this summary is useful.

P.S. I’m hosting a salon in SF this Wednesday evening with this as a potential discussion topic – contact me for details if you’re interested in attending.

2013 review

January 6th, 2014

I’m a little late to this, but a 2013 review is an easy post to kick off my theoretically renewed commitment to blogging in 2014.

For the first time since joining Google in September of 2008, I wasn’t completely swamped by work, and thus had time to invest in the rest of my life as well as in my job.

At work, I started a new role in November of 2012 as the chief of staff to the product VP of AdWords. Instead of the fire drills and processes of finance (month close P&Ls, budget planning cycles, etc), my role was more open-ended, helping out on whatever concerned my boss, whether it was strategic questions, coordinating with sales or finance, or nailing down operational processes. The lack of structure was both wonderful (I wasn’t working like crazy) and terrifying (it was up to me to get the right stuff done without much direction). I’m still figuring out how best to focus on the big questions and issues facing Google, and convert my hand-waving ramblings into concrete actions and forward progress, but it’s a great opportunity to use my generalist tendencies and meld my finance and technology and product management perspectives.

Outside of work, I decided that 2013 was the year of Yes – whenever I heard about something that sounded intriguing, I said yes and did it, even if it wasn’t something I would normally do (with confidence built by my India trip last December and my bike tour last July).

  • I went to both Overlap and Yes By Yes Yes despite knowing nothing about either “conference” beforehand, and actually talked to people I didn’t know (which is terrifying for introverts like me) and made new friends that had no connection to my existing circles.

  • I went backpacking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness despite not having done a backpacking trip in 10 years.
  • I went to a wedding in Milwaukee where I only knew the bride and groom, and I was nervous that I’d be that weird guy off by himself all weekend, but I was welcomed with open arms by their friends and had a fantastic time (we went trap shooting and saw the Fonz!).
  • I went to Tulum, Mexico, even though I didn’t think beach vacations were for me.
  • I took a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon!
  • I volunteered for the MIT Venture Mentoring Service despite not having been an entrepreneur myself and not being sure what I could add. It turns out I have plenty of thoughts to offer the company I’m advising (I don’t know how useful it is to them, but I’m having fun so far :) ).
  • I started mountain biking, which I’d never really done despite having a mountain bike for ten years – it had always been my commuting bike, but after buying a dedicated commuter bike a couple years ago, it was time to actually use my mountain bike on the trails. I’m still terrified of hurting myself, but I’m gaining confidence slowly.
  • I even made a real effort at dating, going on ~50 dates with ~20 women. While that effort did not result in a relationship, I considered it a success in getting more comfortable with putting myself out there, talking to people I didn’t know, and building my social confidence.

To balance all the new things, I returned to a couple old familiar activities. Over the summer, I started playing volleyball regularly for the first time in years, finding a group of coworkers to play doubles with on the sand volleyball court at Google a couple times a week. And in the fall, I started singing again, joining the Collage Vocal Ensemble, a small chamber group in Los Altos. Plus there was the occasional pickup ultimate frisbee game at Google or weekend road bike ride (like this overnight trip to the Pigeon Point Lighthouse).

It was a good year. Now I have to figure out what my focus will be for 2014. Since 2013 was an outward year, this might be an inward year – thinking and reading and writing more. I’d like to update this blog more regularly with “Deep Thoughts I Have Thunk” (™ Jofish) and read more challenging books. I also want to more regularly have challenging conversations with people that stretch my mind – it might be time for me to restart SF salons for that purpose. We shall see.

Regardless, happy new year! Hope y’all have a great 2014.

Inequality, Globalization and Technology

November 26th, 2013

There has been a discussion about economic inequality on an email list I’m on. It started with a link to this CNN summary of “must reads” on inequality, and has continued over a few other threads the past couple months. I’ve written a few thoughts in those threads, and thought I would assemble them here to see what others have to say.

My main theory is that the rise in inequality is linked to the rise in globalization. Capitalism (theoretically) links income to the impact that a company has. When that company can operate globally instead of locally, they (a) can make more money because they are having a bigger impact with more customers and (b) are out-competing local providers who are losing their customers. So the successful companies get richer while the local providers get driven out of business, which increases inequality. Within the US, you can see this in Amazon and Walmart rising to dominance at the expense of local shopping.

This dynamic of greater competition from globalization is also playing out in the labor market. A manual laborer is now competing with billions of people worldwide, and with that greater supply of people, demand has gone down and thus the price for their labor has gone down. At the same time, highly skilled software engineers can now be employed worldwide, and with companies from around the world bidding for their services, incomes for those engineers have gone up. Again, globalization is increasing inequality. The best in the world at their professions, whether they are a CEO, athlete, or engineer, are reaping the benefits of their expertise while those without similar skills are losing out.

One other effect that is happening is that technology is enabling more work to be done by less people. For instance, the graph at shows average productivity going up without wages going up, with the implicit statement that these should go up in parallel. But suppose an engineer creates a machine that increases productivity by 10x, such that one person can now do what 10 people did before on the factory floor. 9 people are now out of a job, and if the engineer gets paid, say, 50% of that difference, the difference between average productivity and wages will have increased while also increasing inequality. A similar story is in play when a technology company is willing to give away a product for free (e.g. “Android may be the greatest legal destruction of wealth in history”).

If those inequality trends are linked to globalization and technology, as I posit, then I don’t see how efforts to decrease inequality by mandating pay caps (e.g. this Swiss law proposing that executives can make no more than 12x their lowest-paid employees) are going to work without also breaking the market economy. Under such caps, somebody is not getting paid “fairly” – either the executives or engineers are not getting paid enough, or the janitor is getting overpaid.

“Fair” has two meanings here, which is also part of the confusion. I am using “fair” in the sense of “people should earn what they are paid”, and so people who have more impact should get paid more, and that people who aren’t contributing don’t deserve anything (shades of the Protestant work ethic). But many liberals believe that it is unfair for one person to earn orders of magnitude than another because we are all humans and all interconnected. (thanks to Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind for identifying this interesting split on the meaning of “fair”)

So is the rise in inequality intrinsically a bad thing? Many liberals, using the second definition of fair in the previous paragraph, take the stance of “Inequality is growing. That is unfair. QED.” I disagree and believe that inequality is “fair” in and of itself, as it is a reflection of the greater impact that people and companies can have in a world of rising globalization and increasingly powerful technology. But that’s not the whole story.

One thing that came out of the email discussion is that the effects of inequality serve to perpetuate inequality. In particular, highly concentrated wealth uses the existing system to reinforce itself. There are two ways in which this happens:

  • Money buys access in our political system, such that those who make a lot more money can change the rules to preserve their advantage in a de facto plutocracy.

  • Money buys access to education. For children, parents need money to afford private schools or to afford houses in great school districts. For college students, the best universities cost an absurd amount of money, but I still think those elite universities are worth it. So having more money gives a huge advantage to the next generation also, making it more difficult for people outside the wealthy class to get a “fair” chance to break into that class.

These are both problems that need to be addressed, but I don’t think that the problem is inequality per se. A cap on how much people can earn does not feel right to me, as it is attacking inequality directly, when I think it is these effects that are the problem. And trying to cap how much people or companies can earn via laws feels like it will be a game of Whack-a-Mole, as people will find loopholes in the laws, and other countries (e.g. tax havens) will write their own laws to attract such people and companies.

For political access, I’d prefer to address that with Lawrence Lessig’s efforts to attack the money problem in politics directly. Let’s figure out how to get money out of politics and out of campaigns, and then it won’t matter as much if companies make a lot of money. They will have the same access everybody else does

For educational access, we need to break the connection between money and education. I don’t know if the right answer is better public schools (particularly preschools), funding public schools from the state level rather than the district level (to break the connection between property taxes and school quality), or just finding ways to pay our teachers more so that our best students can make a good living by teaching (I know several people who loved teaching but eventually give it up, because they can get paid so much more as an engineer). It’s a tough problem, but it’s the right problem to solve – not how to stop inequality from happening.

What do you think? Is rising inequality a problem in and of itself? Or is it in the effects of inequality perpetuating itself through political and educational access? And what should we do about it?

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