Parenting teens with love and logic (book review)

Parenting Teens with Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Foster Cline is *checks Amazon* the #44th ranked book in the Parenting Teenagers category. I read it because it counts as volunteer hours for our school. And I kinda liked it.

One idea around here is don’t just do something, sit there. Our default thinking is: action = good. But that’s not always the case.

Rather, like Ike, we can find reasons for not doing things. So we can ask: am I doing something that matters or am I just doing something?

This, in part, is the case with helicopter parents. Fay and Cline write, “Other moms and dads sometimes regard helicopter parents as model citizens. After all, look how involved they are.” This rings especially true. As a stay-at-home-dad it wasn’t enough that I was a good parent for my daughters but that I was perceived as one too.

However “helicopters can’t hover forever” and helicopter parents restrict the feedback loop. There’s a lot of analytics about finding more accurate markers about how the world works but helicopter parenting moves in the opposite direction.

The second thing Fay and Cline do well is replace helicopter with consultant. Just as ‘helicopter’ is a great analogy, ‘consultant’ is too. “Consultants don’t dictate,” the duo write, “They advise. They say things like ‘I’m wondering if it would be more effective for you to…'”. And much of the book is to the effect of: what would a consultant say here?”

Like Goodhart’s Law, the goal isn’t to be a consultant or not be a helicopter, but to get teens reps with real life. “Self-esteem doesn’t just ‘happen’ by making teens feel good or happy. It begins when children assert their independence and try to show their families and the world that they are their own persons.”

That means failing, and failing means feedback. Which happens when parenting with love and logic.

Part of the reason this book resonated was because I’ve been a helicopter. Not being one is scary in the short term but not being a consultant is scare in the long term.

Overall this book was helpful. A couple of times it felt like Fay and Cline went to straw man attacks and sometimes their examples resolved themself too easily but there’s only so much ground they could cover in the context of a book. If the transition from helicopter to consultant sounds helpful, consider Parenting Teens with Love and Logic.

To Sell is Human (book review)

Dan Pink’s 2013 book, To Sell is Human is good – but you probably don’t need to read it. At least not now. That the book is ten years old helps explain why.

Prior to the explosion of online media, books used to be great vessels for knowledge, trends, connections, entertainment and more. The best example of this is Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008, Outliers, and specifically the 10,000 hour rule. Prior to Malcolm’s missive, few knew of deliberate practice. After the book everyone talked about it and it was all everyone talked about. It was a thing.

To Sell is Human kinda suffers from the same circumstances. At the time it was full of difficult to discover novel ideas. The book probably kicked off a lot of helpful conversations about where the world might head. That was almost a decade ago. Things change. Here are the big ideas.

  1. We are all in sales. Self-promotion and idea-promotion are now much more common. Some of this is too due to the shift from organizational connections to network connections.
  2. There’s no information asymmetry. For our family van and family home I knew more about the actual options than the salesperson. The Toyota salesman compared the Sienna to the 4Runner whereas I compared the Sienna to the Honda Odyssey.
  3. Find the job to be done. This last one was why To Sell is Human didn’t resonate. Because this is in my head.

The JTBD framework is the conclusion to To Sell is Human. It’s the next logical step. It’s like watching the sequel first, you kinda know what happens in the first.

So don’t read To Sell is Human, but do read Dan Pink. He’s trendy, in a good way.

On Amazon is my JTBD tour-de-force.

Status Games (book review)

The best analogy to understand Loretta Breuning’s book Status Games is calories.

For many years survival was difficult. One problem was calories. So ‘evolution selected’ creatures with a mutation where certain foods (fat, sweet, salt, etc.) released good brain chemicals. Those creatures did better than others and became dominant. In a world with plentiful food those same adaptations aren’t as helpful.

For many years survival was difficult. One problem was predators. So ‘evolution selected’ creatures with a mutation where certain social group circumstances released good brain chemicals. Those creatures did better than others and became dominant. In a world with fewer predators those same adaptations aren’t as helpful.

Evolutionary life was hard so species adapted. Tigers and orangutans have no predator and tigers and orangutans are the only mammals to live alone. Like five fingers on a hand, something about social was splendid for survival. These groups included a pecking order and status games – which have at least two advantages.

Status games as alchemy. In a nod to Rory Sutherland, status games are a form of marketing where there’s a large reward for a not very large cost. Actual fights among mammals are rare. This makes sense. Fights reduce survival chances. Having a way to find out who is right/strong/better/whatever without the fight is quite nice.

Status games protect the group. Status games trim the tails of an individual’s outcome but make reproduction more likely. Any individual mammal is more likely to survive somewhere in the middle of the pack rather than in a non-stop quest to be ‘top dog’. And, Loretta writes, “It enables weaker individuals to enjoy the protection of stronger individuals in the face of common enemies.”

Groups are good for survival and status games are good for groups. So status became part of our human operating system.

One analogy for the human brain is the elephant and the rider. The rider is our conscious brain and it is giving directions, narrating the story, and feeling in charge but really the elephant is going to go where it wants to go – and per Breuning the elephant wants to travel on well trodded paths. “Your animal brain just strives to repeat behaviors that trigger happy chemicals and avoid behaviors that trigger unhappy chemicals.” Thanks to the evolutionary advantage of being in groups, our brains have a simple set of chemical instructions.

  • Good: being in a group, ideally higher up.
  • Bad: being separate from a group, demoted in a group.

Groups are important so we seek groups. Everywhere are groups and everything is a status game. Fancy cars are status games. But so is ethics, morals, politics, house size, neighborhood, intelligence, partner, ability to drink, family heritage, even hardships. Find the chemical rewards and you will find the game. “Each brain sees the world through the lens of the neural pathways it has,” Breuning writes.

So, status games are normal but maybe not as helpful as they were. If we have to play, then we can play wisely. Remember, explains Loretta, it’s the dopamine that makes something feel good, not the thing. “The simple way to do this,” Breuning concludes, “is to put yourself up without putting others down.”

I have no idea how much of this book is true but I liked it for a two reasons. First, it acknowledges the world as it is. Animals compete and form cliques, just like us, because we are animals. Two, the book’s perspective is action oriented. This is how things are and this is what you can do, I imagine Breuning advising. Most of all this book reminded me of Spent, we are all signaling and we are all playing status games.

Comments: it is ironic that ‘pecking order’ is from domesticated chickens. Also, ‘evolution selected’ is just how we assign action and our brains like effects from actions. Examples include Headspace, poker, and international espionage and it is the source of the expression ‘don’t shoot the messenger’.

May 2022 Update. Scott Alexander’s review of The Gervais Principle offers an example of status games, and why they are helpful, in the context of Seinfeld.

Daters, scammers, and Zeckhauser

Maxim Five: low probability events

When a low probability event occurs (say an underdog wins a sports championship), we tend to come up with reasons why we might have expected it. This phenomenon is often referred to as hindsight bias, a tendency to perceive past events as having been more predictable than they actually were. But if we consider that many events occur in a year, we should expect at least some to be low-probability events. For example, there are many championships in a given year, so we should not be surprised that every year there is a championship outcome in some sport (say tennis, golf, football, etc.) that no one expected.Dan Levy, Maxims for Thinking

Something is always happening because with enough parts, something happens. The odds that one low-probability event, a 100:1 long shot wins an event, occurs is low. But the odds that any low probability event occurs is fair. Tonight many people will go to many bars. To bet that Your Friend will meet their spouse is ridiculous. To bet that Anyone’s Friend will meet their spouse is a no-brainer.

The bar points out the mechanism we use everyday: a filter. Not everyone at the bar will be there to meet a spouse and those that are there for that will very likely leave without doing so, but being at-the-bar is the filtering mechanism. It’s the same mechanism the Nigerian Prince uses.

It’s well noted that scamming emails contain misspellings, outlandish claims, and hard-to-swallow facts as a filter. A scammer, like a dater, only wants to draw from an eligible pool. And the scammer and the dater both have the same reason: resources. A scam email has minimal costs. A visit to the bar has minimal costs. These filters have to exist because the follow up is expensive.

Something is always happening, but we often don’t want ‘something’. We want ‘this thing’. One tool is to increase the probability (p) it occurs. Go to the coffee bar. Send the email with mistakes. Another tool is to increase the number (N). Will Michigan ever lose again as a thirty-point favorite? Maybe. Will a division one football team lose as a thirty point favorite? Probably. Will any football team lose as a thirty point favorite? Definitely.

Low probability events will always occur and the mechanism of a large Number or rising probability influence how often. Maxim 5 is “the world is much more uncertain than you think.” Levy, writing about Richard Zeckhauser notes, “so the next time you find yourself thinking that some event will happen for sure or that some other event has no chance of happening, pause to remind yourself of this maxim.”


Thanks to Eric Bradlow on the Wharton Moneyball podcast for articulating the idea “large N small p”.

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.