Preparation, panic, paranoia

I’ll admit it. I bought the extra toilet paper. And peanut butter. It seemed prudent.

It was Sunday, March first when I went to the grocery store and stocked up. The night before my wife and I had talked about what to do and what might happen if cases grew from the 87,000 globally and 62 in the United States. Grew they did, to 118,000 globally and 696 in the United States. Reasoning that this might get bad and that hurricane season lasts half the year in Florida, we should stock up on basics. We’ll use this eventually.

From the sounds of the news, it was a good choice. The investing community seemed to be quoting a lot of Nassim Taleb who wrote about taking a hint from nature and the advantages of redundancy. Eyes, some organs, fingers and so-on. Just-in-time deliveries may be optimized and function well when times are good but any kind of disruption and the potential for trouble arises. Taleb calls these ideas fragility, robustness, and antifragility. 

Preparation is the most like Taleb’s antifragility/robustness metric. The thinking goes that because we won’t need to worry about trips the store for food during two-weeks of social distancing, we’ll be more likely to remain healthy and that will be an advantage in our personal and professional lives.

However, where is the line between preparation, panic, and paranoia? Here’s one crack at answering:

  • Preparation: taking infrequent actions with little costs but which may have slightly to very positive effects. i.e. stocking up on TP & PB.
  • Panic: taking infrequent actions with high costs but which may have small or no effects. i.e. searching for supplies but settling.
  • Paranoia: taking frequent actions with low to high costs and may have small, medium, or large effects. i.e. storing excess goods in physical and mind space.

With these definitions it seems like buying TP and PB was a smart step of preparation on our part. If our household were a business we might be criticized for a failure of ‘capital allocation’ by not deploying the few hundred dollars of supplies towards a couple of shares of Berkshire B stocks ($180 as of this writing). However the cost in efficiency is a benefit in redundancy.

An investing plan fits this model too. Preparation is having a plan to be an investor and not a trader. In an Infinite Loops podcast with Arthena CEO Madeleine D’Angelo, she distinguished between being an art collector and an art investor. They are different types, with the latter not “giving a shit about what it looks like.” D’Agnelo said most of her investors self-select, that means they have a plan and are preparers. 

In thinking this through though I realized that I was a bit paranoid. I spent a lot more time on Twitter rather than work which made the constant news-you-can-use consumption a medium cost for little effect.

What’s most surprising is how easy this is to see now. What’s most challenging is to remember it later.


‘Does this exist elsewhere?’

People change slowly. Think about your habits, your systems, and your patterns. Without a cause, most of us change very little even though we understand we aren’t fully optimized.

What probably has happened is that we’ve settled on a certain outcome in a range of outcomes that feels okay. Because people are relative thinkers, they find something slightly worse or better and compare themselves to that. In his Cowen Convo, Hal Varian thought people envied their prosperous neighbor more than a distant billionaire. And, because people tend to become more affluent over time, we can always compare how much better things are now. As a high school kid there were many times I only bought five dollars worth of gas.

We don’t change because change takes work. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Good changes come from creativity and a cause. One silver-lining of March 2020 is ample cause:

“A friend of mine who works for ESPN was telling me that the whole concept of televising sporting events with hundreds of people, with broadcast teams flying in for the games, maybe can’t happen anymore. They might have to use people on the ground for the games. I think there’s a creativity level that has to go way up.” – Bill Simmons podcast, 3/11/2020. 

Before leagues cancelled games and suspended seasons there was shock—shock I tell you!—at playing in empty gyms. Before we get worked up we can ask, does this already happen? Kinda, and the answer is staring us in the face: mascots.

Sports has acknowledged and embraced the fact that in-person games are not pure entertainment. The last baseball stadium I was in had a playground for kids. During my internship in minor-league baseball I passed up the chance (another story) to be the on-field entertainment. Half-court-shots-to-win-book-for-the-semester-money are part of every college season. 

Live sports acknowledged the fluff and did good work to solve for it. Streaming just the games makes sense.

There’s also potential for redoing the broadcasts. What if there was an API where fans could comment on their own? What if the NBA offered a game to Twitch with comments? What if players were mic’d up? “The whole concept for how this stuff is covered will have to change,” said Simmons. 

It’ll be different, and maybe even better.

Asking does this exists in some form is a great way to remind ourselves that nothing is permanent. The NBA was founded, is thriving, but will also cease to exist again. For sports or any business, March 2020 will force operators to ask ‘why do we do things this way?’ One helpful trail will be to ask how working from home, social distancing, or productive Twitter are already successfully accomplished. Someone has already addressed your problem, go find that solution.


“Dad, can I listen to an audiobook instead?”

My twelve-year-old daughter asked that question. I said ‘Yes’. Then I thought, does it matter?

Most of the popular press pieces frame reading and listening as a difference of effort. The thinking goes that reading is harder so reading is better for you. If the brain is a muscle then a book is like a treadmill. Harder is better.

Is it?

I started looking. When college graduates in NYC read or listened to Unbroken, there was no difference in comprehension scores. When scientists used an fMRI, the same brain regions lit up for reading or listening. However, there are some things that do differ from form to form. Sequence for example, is easier to recall in a print book.

What might be most important is if reading is pleasing. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. No one enjoys boring media. There’s only bad content, not bad formats.

Part-of-the-reason the results seem to be a wash is because of the opportunity cost. Both reading and listening to a book are great options. Reading offers encoding and a visual boost. Listening offers prosody, the rhythm of a voice. It’s like soup or salad for dinner, both are healthy choices.

This research was like mortgage choices. Is a fifteen year mortgage better than a thrity year where someone can invest the difference the lower payments bring? It’s a wash. For reading, make choices you watch.

Holy smokes, my kid is twelve!


3 ways to choose a college

This post first appeared on the POV40IQ newsletter.

We’ve written a lot about education: the XMBA, film school, and culinary un-school in France. There’s also the JTBD approach to choosing college. There’s so much written about school selection because there’s no great single metric. There are numbers like tuition, magazine rankings, and graduation rates and employment prospects. But there is no unifying or simple equations like when buying a television.

The TV sizing guide.

This makes college choice a funky problem. Most students optimize for cost, given some range from home. I’d imagine that comments like, it’s the same chemical atoms no matter where you go, is uttered many times in many places.

But just because there is a system doesn’t mean it’s a good system. Another way to choose in wicked environments is to select a single priority. Pro-choice or pro-life voters do a version of this.

When it comes to college then, here are three ways to think about one big thing that might matter more than all the other things and make a college choice easier*.

Are these the kind of people I wanted to be surrounded by? If someone is the average of the five people they spend the most time with, then this would be a good question to ask. Surfaced by Justin Mikolay, it’s not the kind of thing I thought about at eighteen, but seems obvious decades later.

At the time I thought college was college. One school was as good as another. However, certain schools like Mikolay’s Naval Academy are all together different. Think of this question as a form of positive-sampling-error.

Is this the fastest path? More young people now, than I remember as a young person, seem to want to optimize college like a weekend obstacle course race. If I can get this done first and take this shortcut I’ll be able to shave twenty-percent off my time. Morgan Housel tweets about the low-cost (time and money) aspect of this option.

This perspective makes sense. Colleges are still four years, even though students learn more in high school than ever before. Colleges are still going up in price, even though it seems like the supply should be optimized as well.

Is this the most educational? There are pockets of incredible opportunity in the college curriculum. Michael Mauboussin teaches at Columbia. Tyler Cowen teaches at George Mason and says how helpful the “Mason lunches” are.

The internet is amazing at information transfer but hasn’t (yet, will it ever?) offer the value of lunch in gif form?

That said, life life, college’s value is a sum of what someone puts into it. What these questions really might be is a forcing function. Answer and act.


Reviews then pics

Photo by Pok Rie on

Academic work can sometimes be inefficient. For example, people prefer to book hotels with nice pictures. Go figure.

In the paper, The role of photograph aesthetics on online review sites, the authors conclude that, “photos with professional aesthetics make a depicted destination appear more visually appealing, ultimately driving booking intentions.” Makes sense.

However, within this kind of obvious-in-hindsight research, wrinkles arise.

One group of participants was asked to imagine they were searching for hotels for a trip to Edinburgh. What was interesting was that, “if the review was positive, there was no significant difference in visual appeal between professional and amateur aesthetics.”

The difference between a professional and amateur photo is the difference in intention to book if just the pictures are shown. However, when people see reviews, the Kodachromae contrast doesn’t matter. Word of mouth type communciations matter.

The authors write in the discussion, “when the review was positive, participants viewed hotels as visually appealing in the amateur as in the professional setting.”

We believe in Alchemy and one way to do that is to create value for customers without changing the physical thing. In this case, that means past-guests conveying why something was nice.

We believe in JTBD approaches and one way to do that is find the goal of the customer. What is someone thinking when they book a room? It’s in that answer that the difference in photographs and reviews lies.


Easy Money, Student Loans

Student’s don’t really see the dollars. They see tuition vaguely. I remember my first year of school, which I was paying for mostly myself, with the attitude of, ‘these are the books I need, I’ll just put them on the account or whatever’. I remember the vague feeling of a physics textbook costing a lot, but that was just what you did.

At the end of the year I thought I could sell them back to the bookstore but they would only give me five bucks for it. I was so mad. From then on I was like, books are five bucks. I’d share books with friends because now it was my money.

Mr. Money Mustache

There are a number of reasons student loans may have grown over time. Most problems are part-of-the-reason problems, and it’s a good frame to begin the diagnosis. Why the increase?

  • It takes longer to work a hypothetical minimum wage job to pay for college. 14 hours a week in 1970, 35 hours a week in 2012.
  • Tuition costs have risen due to more students, more staff, more admin., more perks.
  • ‘Degree inflation’ has increased the ‘need’ to have a degree.

Though student loan debt passed $1.5T, the detailed picture may be slightly different. One-in-four borrowers owe less than $7,000 and a fair chunk of the highest bills come from graduate degree programs. The underwater-basketweaving story is mostly just that, a story.

However, many student enter a bad contract. Like MMM, they don’t have a clue until it’s too late.

These kinds of situations offer a chance to use friction as a dial. This shows up again and again. Mostly, people use heuristics to make good-enough decisions and as such sometimes an artificial nudge can help.

In the study, What are Student Borrowers Thinking?, the researchers found that the students aren’t thinking very much. Only about one in three students is accurate, plus or minus 10%, of their amounts of student loan debt. Only about half of all students are within five-thousand dollars of their freshman tuition.

The authors write, “There was ample evidence for a lack of knowledge about options for financing college.” Basically kids picked somewhere close by, that had a degree program they wanted, and offered some amount of financial aid.

Another factor was paying for living expenses using loans. Kids these days.

But this isn’t a sign of a weak generation. It’s an opportunity. What’s happened is that students have found some parts too easy and other parts too difficult. It’s too easy to borrow so much and know so little.


Lead or Follow

One difficulty of family gatherings is a lack of hierarchy. As a kid we would go to my dad’s mother’s house for Thanksgiving. She made the turkey and the rest of the family filled in the sides. She also made the rules for the house, they were good for grandkids, and everyone toed the line. Different holidays had different hierarchys.

The importance of leading and following was clear after a friend griped about his family’s trip to Disney World. They had a good, but not great time. That’s too bad becuase Disney survives on great times. Part-of-the-reason for the family failure was followers not following.

One person wanted the group (of fourteen people!) to stay together all day. One group wanted to go do their own thing. One nuclear family had reservations because they planned ahead, a crucial part of a successful Disney vacation, while other families did not

I was reminded of cryptocurrencies.

Depending on the structure (proof of stake, proof of work, etc), a cryptocurrency can fork the code. Participants choose which version to use. Asking then, are you willing to lead a new direction or obiently follow this one can be a helpfu way to better corrdinate many different people.

  • When my sister-in-law visited Disney with my family, she followed along, and because our kids have similar interests everyone got along.
  • When I made dinner one night my oldest daughter didn’t want it, so she made a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup.
  • When my mother-in-law joined my family on a trip she followed along, except for a day horseback riding and she planned her own excursion.

I think these are family examples because family lacks the lead/follow structure. Good organizations tend to ‘argue zell’ but after that comes the follow part. Ted Sarandos explained the Netflix way to Marc Andreessen, this way:

“It’s all credit to Reed. Reed created a culture where you’re free to ask questions, you’re free to push back – but support the outcome. Everyone has a strong voice at the table but once the decision is made everyone supports the outcome.”

Ted Sarandos

Leaders have to offer expertise on the task at hand and be willing for their followers to “fork”. Followers trade freedom for optimization. Lead or follow. Leaders walk the walk, followers don’t talk.

A Disney turkey leg and the lunch where this idea was discussed.

Design a minibar with Tim Harford

Like engineers, we sit around and think about ways to make the good easier and the bad harder. In December of last year this happened when I swapped a tray of cookies into the pantry and replaced it with dried fruit, fresh fruit, and nuts. Though the cookies were still an arm’s reach away, they were out-of-sight behind a door the cookie consumption crumbled.

As a fan of design, it was a treat to see Tim Harford’s approach in his FT article about adjusting his mobile phone usage:

Trying to get some work done with an internet-enabled device is like trying to diet when there’s a mini-fridge full of beer and ice cream sitting on your desk, always within arm’s reach

Tim Harford

Harford removed apps from his phone and installed software on his computer. Both actions increased the friction. It was a good nudge (Harford appreciates Thaler’s work), Harford had access, but had to work for it.

Design is not divine. Design is a messy process of interviews, prototypes, iterations, and all kinds of other stuff. Designing is like any other verb. It’s a skill people learn and like learning the guitar, it’s ineffecient at first.

Designs encourage the easy. There are no pull-up bars in hotel rooms. If there were, we’d do more pull-ups.

Designs encourage the easy. There are mini-fridges in hotels rooms. There are internet enabled devices in our pockets. To change an action, try to change the design.


Word-of-mouth, for-the-win.

“This kind of thing is manna from heaven, but nobody knows how to do it on purpose. At least, I don’t.”

David Ogilvy

As Ogilvy noted, word-of-mouth is divine. It’s a moment when culture quiets, someone speaks, and ideas spread. At it’s best, word-of-mouth follows the rules of a dream. At it’s worst, word-of-mouth runs afoul.

Part-of-the-reason WOM wows is that it’s targeted. We think of Facebook as refined, but WOM is even better. Jonah Berger said in his Talk At Google: “If you don’t have a baby, no one is going to tell you about baby products. Word of mouth is like a searchlight that lurks through your social network to find the person that might be most interested in a particular product or idea.”

In his research for Contagious, Berger talks about the STEPPS to raise your batting average. There’s no guaranteed way to create a sensational idea, but there are things that make it a bit easier. 

For example, though Disney is a great brand, they could do better in the WOM game. They could follow the STEPPS for better WOM: social currency, triggered moments, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.

Berger’s book, in a sentence, might be, remind people to tell stories of helpful and meaningful things

This means Disney’s problem is this: “The problem with Walt Disney World is that we don’t go very often and there’s nothing in the environment to remind us that the product exists. When people come back they talk about it a lot but they don’t keep talking about it because there’s no trigger to remind them of the product.”

A great WOM product was the Zestimate. This Zillow feature arrived after Bill Gurley challenged the team: market without a budget. That challenge, co-founder Rich Barton said, “lit the creative juices of the team.”

When launched, the site crashed. People had to know. People told their friends. Barton hoped for this, “We figured it was so practical, and also voyeuristic, that word of mouth would carry it for a while.”

According to Berger’s STEPPS program, the Zestimate was great. It provided social currency in an era when new websites were cool. It was attached to an emotion, the largest asset for many people. It was public data and it offered a practical value

According to Zillow Talk, the Zestimate’s accuracy was 14% at launch. In 2019 it was within 1%. Barton would go on to use the same contagious ideas when he founded Glassdoor. 

When Walt Disney started to build his theme parks, he told the Imagineers that they had to include a Weenie. These were landmarks people could use to orient themselves. Move forward fifty years and that Weenie-spot is now a selfie-spot. Create someone where people can take a picture. That’s something worth talking about. 


The incentives of salted roads

On NPR’s, The Indicator, listener Tara Harvey asks host Cardiff Garcia why we salt the roads so much. “Research shows oversalting increases the possibility of slipping, costs more for materials and labor, and causes property damage.”

The Indicator is an economics podcast and Garcia offers economic reasons. Salt is cheap and effective. Salted roads reduce accidents by 87%. Salted roads allow people to get to work, “and that is an economic activity that needs to be counted against the cost.”

Everything Harvey asks and everything Garcia says are logical statements. But while numbers convey authority, they aren’t always right.

An alternative theory focuses on incentives. Consumption and payment aren’t connected

Salt is purchased by governments and governments take heat for not being prepared. Their incentive is to salt more, not less. The consumer’s immediate incentive is excess too. Better safe than sorry.

Until however it comes time to pay. Garcia knows this, “It all costs money. Not just the direct use of the salt itself, which has to be found and paid for, but also the environmental and ecological damage that it leaves behind.”

However, consumers never connect consumption with cost. Sure taxes are too high, but does anyone know how much of their taxes go to salting the roads? Ditto for the environmental effects that follow overselling. Consumers pay, but later and indirectly.

This salty situation is similar to the psychology behind too much debt. Act now, pay later. If later is long enough away and opaque (how much does salt cost a taxpayer?) then the cost seems especially low.

Photo by Simon Matzinger from Pexels