Thorpe’s Two Questions

Ed Thorpe is in graduate school and has a professor who is ‘mailing it in’. In class Thorpe stands up to the instructor, demeans him, and is threatened with expulsion. Needing to stay in school, if only to avoid the Vietnam War draft, Thorpe crafts a careful apology:

“I explained that I’d come to realize his teaching methods were unique and that students, though they may not always appreciate it rarely encounter a professor of his caliber. What I said was true, but allowed more than one interpretation.”

It was an early lesson that was almost quite costly. In the future, Thorpe started to ask two questions: “None of this would have happened if I’d have asked myself beforehand, if you do this, what do you want to happen? And, if you do this, what do you think will happen?

Book: A Man for All Markets

History through Industry (I)

The common way to learn history is commonly politics, including war. This is not that. Suggestions? Send them over. These are affiliate links. If you buy anything from Amazon I will earn a small commission. Quips and gripes? Send them too.

Cadbury [1824-Current] The Chocolate Wars. Chocolate. Simple right? Nope. It took a lot of work to get chocolate right. This book tells the chemistry and business side of the story starting with Cadbury but including Hershey. “Despite its long and colorful history of cultivation, by the mid-nineteenth century the dark cocoa bean was mostly consumed in liquid form, largely unprocessed and unrefined. The Cadbury brothers were still thinking along lines rooted in ancient history.”

Budweiser [1876-Current] Bitter Brew. The rise and fall of Budweiser. Runner up book.

Coca-Cola [1886- Current] For God, Country, and Coca-Cola. A hefty history, but really good. Probably no other book on this list covers history as much as this one.

Disney [1923-Current] Walt Disney. The Disney+ documentary is better, and possibly shorter than this tome, but this focuses on the person.

Volkswagen [1937-Current] Thinking Small. The founding of VW, the post war split of Germany, and the very interesting marketing which helped the bug sell in America.

McDonalds [1940-Current] Grinding it Out. Ray Kroc, in his own words. Kroc was selling an obscene number of milkshake mixers in this small California town: “the fact that this was taking place in San Bernardino, which was a quiet town in those days, practically in the desert, made it all the morning amazing.” Also how potatoes age differently in open California desert kittens and cold Chicago basements.

In-N-Out [1948- Current] In-N-Out. Riding the California population boom the story of Harry and Esther Snyder starting the burger chain.  The three expansion tenets: The Snyder Way, Location, No Debt.

Walmart [1962-Current]. Made in America. Sam Walton’s story, in his own words. “At the very beginning, I went along and ran my store by their (that is, Ben Franklin’s franchise system) book because I really didn’t know any better. But it didn’t take me long to start experimenting – that’s just the way I am and always have been.”

Nike [1964-Current] Shoe Dog. How did Nike survive? Phil Knight audited other shoe companies and saw what made them thrive or die?

Amazon [1994-Current] The Everything Store. Gates was “flabbergasted” about Amazon. “Amazon’s culture is notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forth when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently.”

Honorable Mention. Books which highlight a moment but don’t quite tell a longer story.

Stroh’s Beer [1850-2000]. Beer Money. More shirt-sleeves-to-shirt-sleeves memoir than business book.
Lockheed [1966] Skunk Works, and the Blackbird.
Chez Panisse [1971-Current] Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. The California cooking revolution.
Seinfeld [1990-1996] Seinfelda. Possibly peak mass culture.
Beanie Babies [1993-Current] The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, Beanie Babies comprised 10% of eBay’s sales.
Pixar [1995-Current] To Pixar and Beyond. How do movies make money?
Oakland Athletics [2002] Moneyball. One of, maybe the, first data impact books.
OkCupid [2004-Current] Dataclysm. Lots of good early data on online dating.
YouTube [2005-Current] Videocracy. Lots of good early data on YouTube. Gangnam 1st 1B+ views.
Zillow [2006-Current] Zillow Talk. Lots of good early data and findings on home sales.
IBM [2011] Final Jeopardy. Can Watson defeat Jennings?

Large N, small p (cancer, Netflix)

In addition to the first post, we can add two more ideas of small probability times a large number yielding a significant result.

In the first instance, our large N is t (time), and the small probability event is genetic mutations which lead to cancer. Jason Fung writes about mutations: “This small likelihood of success explains why cancer often takes decades to develop, and why cancer risk rises sharply in people over the age of forty-five.”

The second is an idea from Mario Cibelli about accumulating advantages. Cibelli told Patrick O’Shaughnessy that he visited a Netflix distribution center during their DVD heyday.

“I think what we saw essentially was an operation that was very, very hard to replicate. They had years and years of finding and bumping into bottlenecks and eliminating them, and getting more and more and more efficient. That would range from how labor was used, the lack of storage of DVDs. They actually didn’t store them anywhere, they always remained on the desks. The manager explained to us how the DVDs were always looking for a home. They weren’t trying to find the DVD that the home wanted, they would have the DVD in hand and say, “Hey, which home wants this?” To a bunch of machines that they bought that sorted the material that didn’t work, that destroyed a number of DVDs, and that they had to customize.”

Each obstacle was small, take many small improvements and you’ve got a business. Netflix’s small p large N effort was how they won the TiVo Race.

Second Order Parenting

“Perhaps the most important thing is supporting a kid’s sense of autonomy.” – William Stixrud

Peter Attia wants to be an Olympian. When he’s 100. When Attia first explained the idea, he worked backward. What should someone do now if they want to do something else later? If you want to be able to go to Disney World with your grandkids you better be able to walk eight miles now. Or some such thing.

Working backwards is a nice tool for solving problems. I want to get to n so first I need to get to n-1.

A similar approach is advocated in the book, The Self Driven Child. In that book William Stixrud and Neil Johnson ask parents to consider their future eighteen-year-old. Then, like Attia, work backwards and consider what a child needs to do at twelve so they are successful later.

Stixrud’s and Johnson’s ideas come down to four pieces of advice for parents:

  1. Offer help, not force 
  2. Offer advice, it’s their choice  
  3. Encourage children to make their own decisions
  4. Have kids solve their own problems, as much as possible 

It’s not so much about ice-cream for dinner, but it’s about setting some (wide, but safe) boundaries for children to operate within.

This has been hard because parenting is a bit of a wicked problem. There’s a lot of showy things a parent can do but might not necessarily be that helpful. Once a child is mentally and physically safe, what’s the next clear thing?

In the ERE book, Jacob Fisker shares a reverse fishbone diagram to show ‘net’ effects. The aim is to end up above the horizontal line. Eating a candy is a positive first order effect, it tastes good. But a negative second order effect (low nutrients, high sugar), and maybe even more (bad habits).

Early Retirement Extreme --- A philosophical and practical guide to  financial independence -- Contents

Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.

There are many things with negative first order effects (difficult conversations, certain exercises, working late/early) but which have positive n+1 effects and so they are worth doing. Personal finance follows this diagram for example. Parenting according to Stixrud and Johnson follows it too. It might not feel easy and it might violate the actions=progress maxim, but it’s difficult non-actions that help kids the most.

One personal instance is schoolwork. We’ve been distance learning and I’ve played a large role from checking work to answering questions. And, sometimes just telling my daughters the answers. Like junk food it’s easy at first but it violates both the fishbone approach and the self-driven child advice.

How much to change, I don’t know. But this isn’t baking. Like over-price or over-rated or over-indexed, the direction for gains is clear: my kids have to learn to live their own lives and it’s my job to support them.

What the mean age means.

The Math of Life and Death is a good addition to the when are we ever going to use this collection of popular science books. With numeracy being so important in life, a regular diet of these ideas keeps someone mentally fit. Consider the story of student loans as one example.

Often the mathematical manuscripts show mean and median differing in network systems like in the case of income or the social graph. Or, how much Bill Gates skews average wealth but not legs.

Kip Yates reminds us of other instances.

“However, ecological fallacies can be more subtle than this. Perhaps it would surprise you to know that despite having a mean life expectancy of just 78.8 years, the majority of British males will live longer than the overall population life expectancy of eighty-one years. At first this statement seems contradictory, but it is due to a discrepancy in the statistics we use to summarize the data. The small, but significant, number of people who die young brings down the mean age of death (the typically quoted life expectancy in which everyone’s age at death is added together and then divided by the total number of people). Surprisingly, these early deaths take the mean well below the median (the age that falls exactly in the middle: as many people die before this age as after). The median age of death for UK males is eighty-two, meaning that half of them will be at least this age when they die.”

Kip Yates

Numeracy is becoming more important because we are generating more data. Luckily, we don’t have to become mathematicians but we do have to see if ideas pass the sniff test. We have to think about how survivor explains sampling, and consider gambling parlays. We have to be mathematically minded.

Is “wet bias” a bad thing?

“Bias” tends to have negative connotations. It’s the “wrong” answer.

The problem here is a translation issue. It’s going from the world of One Answers (mathematics) to the world of Many Answers (life).

Weather is a fascinating demonstration. Nate Silver writes in the 2020 edition of The Signal and the Noise, “The further you get from the government’s original data and the more consumer facing the forecast, the worse this bias becomes.”

Relatedly:

(John Gruber) “I staunchly believe that Fahrenheit is the better scale for weather because it’s based on the human condition. Who gives a crap about what the boiling point of water is, it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

(Ben Thompson) “The other thing is that Celsius is not precise enough. In the car it adjusts it by point-five because a single degree of celsius is too much for the car. Fahrenheit is more finely grained in a positive way.”

This is why we have a wet bias. We design weather for people.

Silver again, “It’s deliberate and it has to do with economic incentives. People notice one kind of mistake, the failure to predict rain, more than another kind, false alarms. If it rains when it’s not supposed to they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic. Whereas an unexpectedly sunny day is taken as a serendipitous bonus.”

One change in my thinking over the yeas has been to reframe ‘bias’ as ‘tendency’ and then consider what’s happening. Humans are only illogical in the game of optimization, which matters in the world of calculations rather than considerations.

Wet bias may be inaccurate but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Fermi Knowledge

There’s the Fermi Paradox, which wonders where the aliens are. There’s also the Fermi Problem, which considers piano tuners in Chicago. These two are related to each other and also to what we will call Fermi Knowledge.

This story is from The Last Man Who Knew Everything and is told by a family friend who lent a teenage Enrico Fermi a book.

For instance, I remember that when he returned the calculus book by [Ulisse] Dini I told him that he could keep it for another year or so in case he needed to refer to it again. I received this surprising reply: “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary because I’m certain to remember it. As a matter of fact, after a few years I’ll see the concepts in it even more clearly than now, and if I need a formula I’ll know how to derive it easily enough.”

That’s a deep understanding to aspire to. Reading about Fermi, or Feynman, it makes me wonder how much of insight is due to seeing the world through first principles and then verifying a new idea works.

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.

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.