Nov 21, 2021

You Need to Read to Think Well

“You can't replace reading with other sources of information like videos, because you need to read in order to write well, and you need to write in order to think well.”

- Paul Graham

“Writing is often the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about,” adds Farnam Street's Shane Parrish.

Shy Away from Small Risks & You Embrace Big Risk

“Most people don’t understand how to handle uncertainty. They shy away from small risks, and without realizing it, they embrace the big, big risk. Businessmen who are consistently successful have the exact opposite attitude: Make all the mistakes you want, just make sure you’re going to be there tomorrow.”

- Nassim Taleb

(Source: Esquire)

Taleb is talking about traders who blow up. But I see wisdom here for my business as well.

For us, the small risk is investing in one's own projects. It can be quite costly to develop a product, create a commercial for that product and then fund the market testing. Since only about one in 10 projets succeed (industry-wide), there is a definite risk of losing one's money here, and the losses can mount up quickly.

However, these are the small risks in the grand scheme of things. The big money comes when projects succeed and roll out nationally. Getting a fair deal and a meaningful chunk of the profits requires having the leverage of a tested project you fully own. The timid — those who avoid the small risks of self-funding and sell-in early — get bad deals and miss out on the kind of brand equity that pays dividends for years to come.

Debtors are Not Free People

“I have never, ever borrowed a penny. So I have zero credit record. No loans, no mortgage, nothing. Ever. When I had no money, I rented. I have an allergy to borrowing and a scorn for people who are in debt, and I don’t hide it. I follow the Romans’ attitude that debtors are not free people.”

- Nassim Taleb

(Source: Esquire)

Nov 19, 2021

If 50 Million People Say a Foolish Thing

“If fifty million people say a foolish thing ... it is still a foolish thing.”

- Anatole France

What a perfect quote to articulate the ad numeram fallacy!

Per My Logical Fallacy:

“The argumentum ad numeram wrongly equates the numbers in support of a contention with the correctness of it. Ideas which have mass support are not necessarily more likely to be right; but the ad numeram supposes that they are ...

“If ideas were decided by numbers, no new ones would ever be admitted. Every new idea starts out as a minority viewpoint and gains acceptance only if the evidence for it wins converts over from the prevailing view. If numbers are the test, then Giordano Bruno was wrong when he said the earth moved around the sun, and the authorities were right to burn him at the stake.”

Nov 15, 2021

Science Cannot Answer Childlike Questions

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as 'How did everything begin?' 'What are we all here for?' 'What is the point of living?'”

- Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar

Oct 16, 2021

Healthy Skepticism, Suspended Judgment

“The scientist explores the world of phenomena by successive approximations. He knows that his data are not precise and that his theories must always be tested. It is quite natural that he tends to develop healthy skepticism, suspended judgment, and disciplined imagination — not only about other people's ideas but also about his own.”

- Edwin Hubble

Adding this one to the list of similar quotes from scientists and thinkers that includes Albert Einstein (here and here), Richard Feynman and Karl Popper.

(NB: The italics indicate the latter part of the quote may have been added by others.)

Oct 13, 2021

The Most Powerful Force

“Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understand it, earns it. He who doesn't, pays it.”

- (attributed to Albert Einstein)

“All the returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge, come from compound interest.”

- Naval Ravikant

Financial compounding can turn a consistent saver earning a mediocre salary into a multi-millionaire. That same powerful force can bankrupt a consistent borrower making only mediocre debt payments. Now imagine two siblings who start in the same place but go in these opposite directions. Because of compounding, they will have an ocean of financial difference between them in just a few decades. 

As Naval observes, this is not just true of wealth. It's true of many other things: knowledge, health, relationships and more.

Might all success in life ultimately be explained as the compounding returns of good choices? And might all failures be explained as the compounding returns of poor ones?

Everyone is fallible. We all make good choices and some really bad ones. But perhaps it's the amount, direction and pattern of those choices that counts  — because choices compound over time. 

Sep 21, 2021

Brandolini's Law (Bullshit Asymmetry Principle)

“The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.”

- Alberto Brandolini, Italian programmer

Twitter commentator "Gurwinder" (@G_S_Bhogal) reformulates the law this way: “It takes a lot more energy to refute bullshit than to produce it. Hence, the world is full of unrefuted bullshit.”

We should all keep that in mind the next time we read something online. As I often say (sarcastically): “I read it on the Internet. It must be true!”

Sep 16, 2021

Good Science is Skeptical Science

“We should never forget that good science is skeptical science. One way in which science proceeds is by attempting to falsify hypotheses; and further, we can embrace any given hypothesis; and then only tentatively, only for as long as we are unable to falsify it.”

- Dr. Samuel Shapiro, founder of BU's Slone Epidemiology Center

Dr. Shapiro is yet another addition to a long and impressive list of great thinkers who have made similar points about science: Albert Einstein (here and here), Richard Feynman, Karl Popper, Nassim Taleb and Michael Crichton.

From these quoteworthy giants one idea becomes clear: The idea of a "scientific consensus" or "settled science" is antithetical to science.

(HT: Chris Kresser)

Aug 27, 2021

Exploit Explained: Left-Digit Bias

{This post is part of the Archive of Human Exploits}

“Humans are hardwired to focus on the left digit in numbers. It’s why products are priced at $3.99 instead of $4.00. But does this left-digit bias also affect medical decisions?” asked Dr. Babu Jena in a recent episode of the Freakonomics, M.D. podcast.

Dr. Jena was talking about something called left-digit bias and a study that examined the frequency of surgeries performed on heart-attack patients who were admitted to hospital two weeks before their 80th birthday (while they were still 79) compared to patients who were admitted two weeks after their 80th birthday. Per Forbes, the study found that:

“[P]atients who just turned 80 were 24% less likely to receive cardiac bypass surgery compared to medically similar 79-year old patients who were two weeks shy of their 80th birthday. The 80-year old patients also experienced higher death rates compared to the 79-year old patients, after 30 days of hospitalization.

“Furthermore, these discrepancies were not seen when comparing patients two weeks before and after their 77th, 78th, 79th, 81st, 82nd, or 83rd birthdates. Only the transition from age 79 to age 80 resulted in a statistically significant change in treatment.”

This human exploit has long been known to practitioners is my industry (As Seen on TV), the offer shown at the top of this post being so common it isn't even given much thought anymore. That is, no ASOTV marketer would ever market a product for $15 or $20. It's always $14.99 and $19.99. (On a side note, some still use $14.95 and $19.95 despite the fact this gives away four cents for no good reason. There is no corresponding right-digit bias!) 

We use this little trick because we have long known that prices ending in 99 somehow feel like one dollar cheaper instead of just one penny cheaper. Now, apparently, there's an official name for it.

Aug 6, 2021

The Atheists' Dilemma

“The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality...

“Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings...

“And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree.”

- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

When I quote people on this blog, that usually implies I admire their thinking and agree with their conclusions. With the quote above, that isn't exactly the case. I'm not really a Harari admirer, and I only agree with his quote in a particular sense. That is, I think he's absolutely right about there being no basis for equality and rights in nature.

As I wrote recently to a friend: Isn’t Harari's quote a perfect rejoinder to the atheist who claims Christianity and the Bible are misogynistic, homophobic, racist or whatever? It seems every other atheist I encounter online is allegedly offended by my faith for these reasons. But these are moral reasons, and that creates an interesting dilemma.

When debating such people, I often ask the question this way: What's the basis for your morality? Atheists say they reject God and religion and embrace science instead. But this leads me to make the point Harari is making: There is no morality in evolution. The only reason an atheist thinks people of all races, genders, preferences, etc. should be equal is because of Judeo-Christian beliefs from the Bible.

This is the atheists' dilemma: The basis of their morality is the very book and religion they reject out of moral outrage.

The Point of the Health Insurance System

“The whole point of the US health insurance system is to make sure nobody ever figures out who bears any particular cost, so that there's no constituency for keeping prices low.”

- Scott Alexander

Alexander is insightful as always and neatly summarize the arguments of Dr. Keith Smith of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma

Jul 11, 2021

Giving Money to the Government

When you give money to the government, where do you imagine it goes?

I first thought of this question when reading a ProPublica article about how tech billionaire Peter Thiel used the structure of a Roth IRA to amass a fortune in tax-free wealth. ProPublica was clearly outraged. They wrote that Thiel “deprived the U.S. government of untold millions in tax revenue. Perhaps billions.”

(When I emailed that quote to a friend, I joked that I had fixed it and added “that it would have wasted on useless, inefficient projects and handouts to political cronies.” What did Thiel do with the money instead? He built Palantir, a company that among other things helps shut down terrorists.)

Thinking more about this recently caused me to look up some statistics and then work to make them more relatable. What follows is the result of that exercise.

To begin, imagine the person you want to help when you give a dollar to the federal government. The image in your mind is something like the image at the top of this post, isn't it?

Now realize that for every dollar you give, this is more like what happens:

  • A quarter goes to a rich doctor (via subsidized medial payments)

  • A dime goes to a rich banker (via interest on debt)

  • Another quarter goes to a retiree, one who is often relatively affluent

  • Two more dimes go to a weapons maker or other warmonger (so-called “defense” spending)

The remaining pocket change is split between helping the poor person you imagined (about 8 pennies), educating a child (2 pennies), fixing a road (2 pennies), and other pro-social endeavors.

That isn’t even completely accurate since those pennies for poverty assistance, education, infrastructure and so on are all filtered through giant bureaucracies rife with corruption, waste, fraud and abuse.

So once again: Imagine the person you want to help when you give money to the government, and then realize he or she only gets whatever little trickles down.* Most of your money goes to the affluent, the corrupt, government-sanctioned killers and the like. If you had a choice, would you voluntarily give money to such an organization? More to the point: Wouldn’t you do everything you could to minimize the amount of money such an organization received?

Now let's get really crazy. Let's think about tax “cheats.” I don't mean people like Thiel who avoid taxes using legal loopholes. I mean people who actually lie to the government in order to keep their dollars for themselves. Are these bad people?

Let's make it worse. Let's think about the most selfish thing a person could do with that money they kept. Buy a yacht? Buy a mansion? Fly in a private jet while sipping the finest champagne?

Is that worse than giving the money to the federal government? Think it through.

* I used the phrase “trickles down” intentionally. The idea that tax breaks for businesses, investors and entrepreneurs benefit society by promoting economic growth has been disparaged as "trickle down" economic theory. Such critics fail to realize that giving the money to the government involves the same sort of theory. After all, taxes aren't direct payments to the less fortunate. Tax money is filtered through the government and government-favored organizations. If we accept the premise of the criticism, then it's all trickle-down economics in the end. The question becomes: Who does a better job of trickling?

Jun 20, 2021

The Fatal Conceit

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

- Friedrich Hayek

Imagining one can design a better economic system than the free market is what Hayek more broadly referred to as “the fatal conceit,” the title of his 1988 book.

I thought of this today while ruminating on wealth taxes and the reasoning of those who suport them. Proponents of such a tax seek to take money away, but they don't think clearly about to whom that money will be entrusted: the fatally conceited.

Jun 19, 2021

Sleep Timing & Depression

I'm a natural sleeper. To feel right, I need to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Nine is preferable. If I don't hit that number, or my sleep is interrupted too many times, I'll be trash the next day. When deprived of sleep, I feel nauseous, irritable and completely unfocused until I catch a nap or get a proper night's rest.

Many people I know are either sleep sensitive or food sensitive, often in inverse proportions. For instance, I have gone without food for as long as five days and, while it wasn't fun, it was quite manageable. My wife's the opposite. Whenever we had newborns in the house, she was able to perform heroic feats of sleep deprivation. But if she misses a meal: Watch out!

For people who have no trouble with sleep deprivation, there tends to be a pervasive belief that sleep is a waste of time or some form of laziness. So, as a natural sleeper, I have been pleased to observe the building scientific evidence that proper sleep is critical to human health. The biggest recent revelation is that sleep allows the brain to clean itself of certain kinds of gunk — the kind of gunk that scientists believe build up and cause dementia and Alzheimer's — so those who don't get proper sleep are setting themselves up for cognitive impairment down the road.

How much you sleep is just one factor. It also seems to matter when you sleep. I first learned about this in the context of insomnia and the related problem of jet lag. Most people know that light and dark are critical to the sleep equation, but it seems natural light is a uniquely potent factor. And while it's obvious how daylight might impact our sleep quality and why, the impact it can have on our health is less obvious. Consider the following:

“Previous observational studies have shown that night owls are as much as twice as likely to suffer from depression as early risers, regardless of how long they sleep …

“In 2018, Vetter published a large, long term study of 32,000 nurses showing that ‘early risers’ were up to 27% less likely to develop depression over the course of four years …

“If someone who normally goes to bed at 1 a.m. goes to bed at midnight instead and sleeps the same duration, they could cut their risk by 23%; if they go to bed at 11 p.m., they could cut it by about 40%.”

When I came across this, I made an immediate connection with teenage sleep patterns. These days, many (plausibly) attribute depression among teenagers to social media, but could sleep be a significator factor as well? Teenagers love to stay up late and sleep in, pushing their sleep window in the opposite direction the above research would indicate is wise. Might doing so have the effect of increasing their chances of experiencing depression?

Source: "Earlier sleep timing associated with lower depression risk," University of Colorado Boulder

Jun 18, 2021

The Six Human Needs

According to Tony Robbins, there are six basic human needs:

  1. Certainty. Assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure. We all have a need for certainty, safety, stability and predictability in our lives. We like to feel secure in our jobs, in our homes and in our relationships.
  3. Variety. The need for the unknown, change, new stimuli. We crave change, excitement and new stimuli. Variety makes us feel alive and engaged.
  5. Significance. Feeling unique, important, special or needed. Deep down, we all need to feel important, unique and special. We want our life and our work to have meaning, importance and significance.
  7. Connection. A strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something. Everybody strives for a level of connection and affiliation with people around them and wants to feel part of a larger community. We want to be loved and cared for and we want a feeling of closeness or union with like-minded people – be it friends, family, colleagues, members of a club or an online community.
  9. Growth. An expansion of capacity, capability or understanding. As human beings we all have a need to grow and expand in our personal and professional lives. People are most happy when they feel they are making progress. We all need something to strive for, something that will challenge us to grow and expand emotionally, spiritually, physically, financially and intellectually.
  11. Contribution. A sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others. This is the need to help, serve and support someone or something bigger than ourselves in a meaningful way. As human beings we have a desire to contribute something of value, whether that is manifested through community, family, society or the project work that we do. 

“Everyone ranks these human needs differently, and the way they are ranked explain why you are the way you are as a person,” according to Robbins. “The top four needs in the list above shape our personality, while the last two (growth and contribution) shape our spiritual needs.”

When I did this analysis, I concluded that my top two needs are Variety and Growth while Significance and Contribution are much less important to me. 

Source: The list above combines an article on the and a LinkedIn article by executive coach Susanne Madsen.

They Happen to Things

“In his popular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey says the number-one habit of highly effective people is that they are proactive. They ‘happen’ to things. Things don’t ‘happen’ to them.”

- Dave Ramsey

I like this quote because it reminds me of my military days. Statements like "things don't happen to me, I happen to things" typify classic military bravado. (In my lexicon, "bravado" isn't a bad word. It's an empowering way to approach the world.)

These days, when it's trendy to find a way to be a victim and to assume people do not have agency, we could use more of this kind of thinking.

Jun 17, 2021

The Theories of Soros

“Jean-Manuel Rozan once spent an entire afternoon arguing about the stock market with Soros. Soros was vehemently bearish, and he had an elaborate theory to explain why — which turned out to be entirely wrong. The stock market boomed. Two years later, Rozan ran into Soros at a tennis tournament. ‘Do you remember our conversation?’ Rozan asked. ‘I recall it very well,’ Soros replied. ‘I changed my mind, and made an absolute fortune.’

“The truest thing about Soros seemed to be what his son Robert had once said: ‘My father will sit down and give you theories to explain why he does this or that. But I remember seeing it as a kid and least half of this is bullshit. I mean, you know the reason he changes his position on the market or whatever is because his back starts killing him. It has nothing to do with reason. He literally goes into a spasm, and it’s this early warning sign.’”

- “Blowing Up,” Malcom Gladwell, The New Yorker, April 2002

The whole article from which this anecdote comes is worth reading, but this one story summarizes its central query: Do complex systems and analyses really create success in chaotic environments? Or is success ultimately random, and we create complex systems and theories to post-rationalize and feel secure about our future?

Jun 6, 2021

You’re Entitled to Your (Unspoken) Opinion

“You’re entitled to your own opinion if you keep your opinion to yourself. If you decide to say it out loud, then I think you have a responsibility to be open to changing your mind in the face of better logic or stronger data. I think if you’re willing to voice an opinion, you should also be willing to change that opinion.”

- Adam Grant

Source: The Knowledge Project

May 16, 2021

Science: Belief in the Experts?

Feynman famously said that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” In the real world, though, it seems the words “ignorance of” have been dropped from the definition. At least, that's the conclusion I often reach when reading about various scientific developments. Many times, I find one expert with influence has determined what scientists believed for decades.

A case in point is a recent Wired article about how the World Health Organization (WHO) went from declaring “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne” in April 2020 (see above) to “placing the inhalation of aerosols at the top of its list of how the disease spreads” in May 2021. The problem appears to be a 60-year misunderstanding of something the first chief epidemiologist of the CDC, Alexander Langmuir, said about tuberculosis. His words seem to have led health scientists to believe particles must be 5 microns or smaller in order for any virus to be classified as “airborne.” (It turns out that even particles as large as 100 microns can spread through the air.)

The irony is that Langmuir's speech was an apology for his own blind belief in the experts that preceded him. In it, he confessed he had been wrong to dismiss the work of Harvard engineer William Firth Wells:

“Like his peers, Langmuir had been brought up in the Gospel of Personal Cleanliness, an obsession that made handwashing the bedrock of US public health policy. He seemed to view Wells’ ideas about airborne transmission as retrograde, seeing in them a slide back toward an ancient, irrational terror of bad air—the ‘miasma theory’ that had prevailed for centuries. Langmuir dismissed them as little more than ‘interesting theoretical points.’”

Langmuir's attitude toward Wells' ideas arguably set tuberculosis health policy back seven years. That was the amount of time that transpired between Wells' book about his findings (1955) and Langmuir's 'apology' speech (1962). Of course, that pales in comparison to the nearly 60 years that have transpired since that speech, which inadvertantly gave rise to the 5-micron myth.

We like to think science is a rigorous process of constant belief interrogation, but that isn’t even close to reality. It turns out scientists are just as lazy as the rest of humanity. They accept without question, assume without challenge and generally fall prey to all the same cognitive biases as the rest of us.