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Framing Celebrity Photos

From An Economist Walks Into a Brothel:

“On April 1, 2002 Us Weekly first published it’s Star, They’re Just Like Us weekly series featuring pictures of celebrities doing mundane tasks like getting coffee or pumping gas. Before this, everyday pictures weren’t worth much but Us Weekly humanized celebrities by showing them looking less glamorous and people loved it.”

Allison Schrager

Just Like Us is fascinating. The most mundane media yet we scroll.

The context something is presented in changes the way the something is viewed. From power lines to work from home, context matters. That someone changed non-glamorous or every-day to just-like-us is a bit of Alchemy.

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The Abiline, Frie, and Simpson’s Paradox

Names make thoughts legible. Here are a few recent paradoxes to consider.

The Abiline Paradox. Don’t rock the boat (YouTube). Or, when one person goes along with another because they think that I think that they think I want to go along. More from Rory Sutherland.

The Fire Paradox. The more successful humans are suppressing fire in one season, the more likely a larger fire in the next. May also apply to influenza.

Simpson’s Paradox. On Wharton Moneyball , the hosts asked why women die more than men from Covid? It’s because there are more old women. How can someone have a higher overall shooting percentage but a lower percentage from near and far? A nice YouTube explainer is here. Via Wikipedia:

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First principles: story

Imagine a young Ben Folds. He’s walking to piano lessons. He loves the piano but not this particular teacher. It’s snowing. And windy.

There’s a bicycle track through the snow. It’s all Folds sees. It’s snowing and windy.

He sees the track and imagines what happened. The track changes direction, the story changes too. Folds writes:

“I want to laugh at how old-fashioned and easily entertained I must sound to a kid today, who has a lot more seductive electronic shit competing for their attention. But a story is a story, in any era. And the best ones, I’ve always thought, develop from mysteries you want to solve.”

There’s a dichotomy between deep work (Newport) and Against Waldenponding (Rao). We balance on this tightrope each day. Some days more on one end, other days at the other, and some we troop between the two.

Newport wants people to learn first principles, to study things which change slowly. Rao wants people to fit first principles into the world in interesting ways, to prototype, to gather rough consensus and run code. 

Stories are a first principle idea to consider. We run on stories and one way to get better at telling them is through boredom. Folds again:

Related: The 3 Ways to Spend Your Day.

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The 3 Ways to Spend your Day

There are three ways to spend your day working in the knowledge economy.

The first day is to spend it trending. Follow the popular topics on Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. This is good for serendipitous moments of discovery, awareness of the world, and to ‘keep-up’ with what the external algorithms suggest.

The second way to spend your day is to spend it in the feed. Cultivated email, RSS, and perennial podcasts. An infovore knows what they like and has is delivered. Often it will be confirmatory information from familiar sources, that’s okay if you’re honest about it.

The final way to spend your day is in search. There’s something to be curious about and you intend to do just that. Google offers the broadest service but new entries like Listen Notes and Twitter search modifiers have started to index novel parts of the internet.

There’s no ‘best practice’ for the 3 Ways to Work, rather the work of the day dictates the way.

Much of what we call knowledge work focuses on decision making and much of this is a cycle between the exploration of the new and application of the familiar. It’s a balance between finding new things and digging into curio-seams.

Tyler Cowen is an example. His feeds at Marginal Revolution and Twitter offer the day-to-day goings-on, but searches on Listen Notes, YouTube, and the blog allow someone to figure out ideas like mood affiliation (my notes here), which is one way we make mistakes.

For example: Are plastic bags more harmful than paper? Are bag-bans beneficial? What’s the metric? We’ve already noted another Cowen-ism about solving for the equilibrium, but without search, we’d have missed the idea about mood affiliation. Cowen told Russ Roberts:

“Plastic is often more environmentally friendly than having a paper bag because it takes less energy to make and dispose of. Plastic is better for the world and can even be better than those reusable cloth bags unless you use them two-hundred times and up but that’s hard to do and that’s the break-even point. The environmental virtues of plastic compared to a lot of other alternatives is underrated.”

The question of bag bans for me was pure mood. Us good, them bad. I didn’t consider transport costs (paper is much heavier) and production costs (efficiency figures). Instead, I took the easy route of WYSIATI: what you see is all there is, and all I see in my laundry cupboard is plastic bags.

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Drizzle as marketing

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We made this for the Fourth of July. There were delicious. They were also tedious. 

We microwaved a block of white chocolate and used kabob sticks to carefully dip each pretzel into the creamy confection. It required careful speed. Go too quickly and the ratio of chocolate to pretzels was off. Go too slowly and the chocolate vat stiffened but the ratio was better. 

The next time we’ll drizzle the pretzels. The next time we’ll lay them flat and drizzle spoonfuls of white chocolate and red-white-and-blue sprinkles. It would have tasted just as good, looked just as nice, and it would have been drizzled. Think about something that’s been ‘drizzled’ compared to dipped or dunked or plunged. Each of those words carries a different meaning. Each of those words has a tiny bit of Alchemy. 

Businesses succeed by delivering value to customers as well as keeping some value for themselves. Reframing by renaming is an easy way to do just that. 

These ideas are everywhere. Sometimes, like the case of our patriotic pretzels, it can be more work to provide less value. The next time I’ll be delivering some Drizzled Delights rather than chocolate covered pretzels with sprinkles.  

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The Vaccine Friendship Paradox

One non-intuitive concept, at least in scale, is the network. Like average numbers, it takes some work to construct the correct conclusions. Graph, chart, and count the way that people interact, decide, and connect and there will be patterns. It’s network effects which fuel companies like Instagram and create the increasing returns economy.

Networks, as Nicholas Christakis notes, are agnostic. They spread whatever they are seeded with, whether real viruses like Ebola or WOW viruses like corrupted blood. The question then is; How and what to seed a network with?

Eric Bradlow wondered about Covid vaccines on Wharton Moneyball:

“We study diffusion of products all the time. In theory, you want to observe the social graph. In marketing the question is: Who do you give the free product to? This is standard network analysis and with that data you could do a smarter initial seeding (of a vaccine).”

Is there more bang for the buck if one person gets the vaccine rather than another?

Yes, though it’s not intuitive.

As the Friendship Paradox video shows, we aren’t all connected to the same number of friends. Some people have more, some have fewer friends and to wisely allocate a scare resource (like with marathon slots) it takes some small adjustments.

Christakis has spent a lot of time mapping networks and noted that across cultures, space, and time most human networks look the same. Some people are more connected than others. A few have hundred of connections and hundreds have a few.

It’s important for Christakis because like Bradlow, he works with a diffusion problem. Rather than marketing products though, it’s about sharing vaccines and vitamins. The thinking for both goes like this, if you can share something that works with the right person then they will share the benefits of that with the rest of their network.

But how do you pick the right person? Christakis shared this tip: “Go into a village and pick people at random. Have them suggest their friends and vaccinate their friends rather than the originals.”

Most networks are like the Curb Your Enthusiasm network (via Funkhauser).

curb_your_enthusiasm_-_season_9_-_network_graph

Randomly enter that network and you could get anyone but then ask for that person’s friend and more often than not you’ll get Larry. He’s the hub. He’s the super spreader. He’s who to vaccinate or market to.

It’s a neat bit of math. Rather than random choice, ask one question to improve the odds of an idea, movement, or effect catching on.

While there’s nothing on networks, my latests pay-what-you-want is on Tyler Cowen’s ideas about decision making. One idea is ‘meta-rationality’ or knowing when you don’t know AND knowing where or who to go to to find out. 

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What you pay: Deals in the NBA

Shane Jensen to Seth Partnow, “you make the decision to be agnostic to contract in your analysis, but as you think about building a team, contracts are something you need to take into account.” Partnow notes:

“If you’re doing an asset value ranking then age and contract come into the decision making process. There’s some players at the very high end you pay whatever: LeBron, Kawhi, Giannis. You pay them whatever because they still outperform that based on the max contract structure. It’s almost literally impossible to overpay those players.

Partnow

The other group that tends to outperform their contract is rookies, again based on contract structures.

This was in the same podcast where the Wharton hosts discussed Tom Brady, who is making more things go right, and appears to be defying the Howard Marks word of warning: “Buying good things can’t be the secret to success in investing. It has to be the price you pay. It’s not what you buy, it’s what you pay. There’s no asset so good it can’t become overpriced.”

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The Netflix and Pool Co. Contrast

Marc Andreessen once noted that it’s important to learn the right lessons from our experiences. As the expression goes, you never step in the same river twice.

One lesson from Reed Hastings’ No Rules Rules book about Netflix is the idea of cadence. To survive in their system, Netflix must tack from explore to exploit at a faster pace than the local pool construction company.

In the book Hastings writes that the Netflix expense policy (‘Act in the best interest of Netflix’) probably costs 10% more than a more strict policy but that it allows the employees to make faster decisions in an industry where the cadence has to be quick.

Co-Author Erin Meyer points out up front that Netflix has succeeded at four inflection points: DVD by mail to streaming, streaming licensed content to original, licensings original content from external studios to internal, from USA only to global.

That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time.

Pool Co. by contrast will probably stay in the exploit region for a longtime, in the right geographic region forever.

The filter from Hastings is this: the internal cadence should reflect the system’s cadence.

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What are the incentives behind this prediction?

Predicting like Tyler Cowen, Enrico Fermi, and Nate Silver.

One way to think more like an economist is to think about incentives.

In our piece about Tyler Cowen, the setting is finding food in a strange place. The incentives question is, what to ask a concierge or driver considering their incentives are often avoid blowback rather than emphasize excellence.

The incentives of predictions are boiling in the last week before the US presidential election. Though math is always clear cut (2+2), the selection isn’t (why do 2+2 explain this?). Some polls, Nate Silver noted (on ModelTalk) offer extreme predictions as a form of marketing. Their incentive is attention, not precision.

In his update of The Signal and the Noise, Silver writes that it’s hard to change ones mind once allies, alliances, and reputation are created.

One way to avoid this pitfall is to make guesses to and with others who have a similar incentive structure. In the book, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, David Schwartz writes about Enrico Fermi. It’s December 1938 and Fermi has just fled Italy via Stockholm for his collection of the prize. It seems a good choice as the Italian media and Mussolini-mob wonder why Fermi shakes hands to receive his prize rather than give the fascist salute.

Settling into his professorship at Columbia (New York, but soon headed to Chicago) Fermi joins the “Society of Prophets”, or that’s at least what his wife calls it.

The Society meets monthly, and each member predicts ten yes/no events. A tally and total are kept. When the family moves to Chicago in 1942 Fermi successfully predicted 97% of the events.

“He did this, she (Laura) writes, using the most conservative algorithm imaginable: the next month would look almost exactly like the previous month. He did, however, miss one prediction—the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union. The game was ideal for someone of Fermi’s temperament, invariably conservative and skeptical of any predictions of quick or revolutionary change.”

Fermi had strong priors. Fermi made boring predictions. Fermi was right. For Fermi and his colleagues the incentives were academic accuracy. For pollsters it’s media recognition.

The book is a bit thick, but inspiring is that while Fermi won the Physics Nobel Prize in 1938, his explanation for the discovery was wrong.

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“Online” Banking, “Traditional” Celebrity

In one of the business classes I took in college (2000-2005) a professor used online bill pay as a way to demonstrate up-selling. A bank charged clients for the privilege to pay bills online, up to so many a month of course. That feature looks to become commonplace around 2011.

Related is brands and “traditional” celebrity endorsement, a topic between Connie Chan and Tiffany Zhong (more on Zhong here).

First, something is a thing; a celebrity. Or it’s a verb; dating or bill paying. Then, with a new way to do it, its explanation is modified

  • traditional celebrity rather than influencer
  • online bill pay rather than mail the check bill pay
  • online dating rather than dating
  • e-learning rather than school
  • social media rather than media
  • iPhonography

This post will be a marker along the way then, when we noticed the world shift slightly, from one of many paths to another. That celebrity must be modified.

“If you use Tinder, you do not do online dating, you just do dating. If you get in an Uber, you’re not doing digital car sharing, you’re just getting somewhere.” “People now behave in a way where the internet is background to everything they do.”

Tom Goodwin, 2018 YouTube

Feel free to add others in the comments.