Does the bundle explain it?

Defaults are a design tool to frame thinking. One designed-default is mean reversion. For most situations, said Cade Massey, “Try regression to the mean on for size and see if that can explain it.” Another is to start with the base rate: what typically happens in situations like this? During the Summer of 2021 there were many comparisons of vaccinated and unvaccinated Covid infection rates. This was a case of base rate neglect.

Mean reversion and base rates are good starting ideas because they prevent our Narrative Spin Drives from jumping into high-output mode. For instance, there’s an annual NFL video game known as Madden NFL. There’s also a Madden curse. If someone appears on the cover they have a terrible season after. It’s happened to eighty-two percent of the athletes!

Or it is base rates and mean reversion. To earn the cover rights, a player must have an excellent season, and their “success equation” benefited from a few lucky bounces. That happens. But bad luck happens too.

To add to the value of starting with base rates and mean reversion we can add “The Bundle”: the idea that a JTBD is a collection of things.

Marc Andreessen talked about the bundle of education: a dating scene, knowledge, social interactions, signaling, potential professional connections, cheap financing, and so on. Part-of-the-reason education innovation hasn’t gained distribution is that online only addresses parts of the bundle. It’s hard to date or build friendships on a video call.

Another bundle is the meal. Every meal is a combo meal: social interactions, nutrients, calories, taste, and so on. We can see bundles further yet. Food is more than the sum of its vitamins and nutrients. Eating an orange is more than theVitamin C, fiber, and sugar.

Work is a bundle too. Economist Tyler Cowen often notes that part-of-the-problem with Universal Basic Income is that it doesn’t address The Bundle. From NPR:

“Companies, like those in the tech industry such as Google and Apple, built enormous offices and put them all right next to each other in Silicon Valley and the office expanded what it was in people’s lives. They became like a second home. They had fancy food, concerts, dry cleaning, free meals.” – Stacey Vanek Smith, Planet Money, August 2021

Okay, a confession. I love Ted Lasso. It’s my favorite show since Parks and Rec. What I admire about Lasso is that he sets a tone (assuming for a moment it’s a real football club but this ethos may exist in the real production). Players begin the day and “Believe”. That’s what starting with base rates, mean reversion, and the bundle does too. Starting with those prompts prevents the Narrative Spin Drive from generating primarily palatable explanations.


One thing I’ve changed my mind on is reading fiction. Fiction, like Ted Lasso, appeals to us because it is a fake premise sharing a human truth.
Also, the idea of online education needing distribution is from Alex Rampell, a colleague of Andreessen, who asks: Will disruptors gain innovation before innovators gain disruption? This is the “TiVo Problem.”

Show the way or in the way

One common mistake in our understanding of “how the world works” is to think that lack of action is due to a lack of information. If people just knew how important X was they would definitely do it.

One form is seen in the social media question: What would you add to the high school curriculum? Answers tend to hover around statistics instead of calculus, personal finance, or decision making.

Those are well intentioned suggestions, and on net, students would be better off if we could download a stats module in place of the first derivative. But information is not action.

Orlando Marriott hand washing sign

Geez. We’ve looked at hand washing (twice!) and there’s probably a well designed study that notes signs like that, in bathrooms such as this, change a proxy for health in some-such-way.

But, there’s a better example. It’s a real life example. It’s been tested on thousands. It’s also in Orlando. Arrange hand sanitizers to be avoided. To hijack Ryan Holiday: the obstacle is the way. But after two days people watching in the theme parks it’s very clear, this works.

And the reason for signs showing the way and not sanitizer stations in the way is incentives.

Back to Twitter. Some schools offer personal finance. From Kris’s nephew.

“I have this assignment for school where I have to invest $1,000 into a company’s stock. And I know you’re a stocks person so I was wondering if you know a good company i should invest in. Because the winner gets a prize of who makes the most money.”

Just give every twelfth grader $200. But there’s no action in that. There’s no standards or benchmarks or assessments about net learning in the second quarter of the school year. So in a way, Kris’s nephew is getting exactly what the system incentivized.

This is the system. In education it’s hard to measure “financial literacy”. In public health it’s hard to measure “healthy place”. In these systems optics are rewarded. Theme parks are in the optics business too, but for them results like: Person Gets Sick at World Famous Theme Park matter more. It’s important to know the rules if we want to play the game.


In finance there’s paper returns and there’s “moolah in the coola”, that’s another analogy. Paper returns are optics. Money in the pocket is an outcome.

Being better than Superman

Maxim four from Richard Zeckhauser is: “When trying to understand a complex real-world situation, think of an everyday analogue”.

Alex Tabarrok has been using this strategy to communicate about vaccines.

“To me the vaccines are like a superpower. Superman is immune to bullets and I tell people: ‘Wouldn’t you like to be immune to bullets? The virus has killed many more people this year than bullets have, and the vaccine makes you immune to the virus, it’s better than being immune to bullets!'” – Alex Tabarrok, July 2021

In Dan Levy’s book about Richard Zeckhauser he includes a section from Gary Orren who used the everyday analogy strategy to describe the AmeriCorps service program. AmeriCorps, Orren told legislators, is like a Swiss Army knife, it does many things well though it’s never the perfect tool. A few weeks after addressing the governmental staff Orren returned to their offices. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Swiss Army knife.”

This strategy helped, Orren explained, because it focused his thinking and the audience’s understanding. A lot of times our thinking is FAST and analogies shift complex concepts into simpler situations.

Simplification isn’t the end though. Extremes, like questioning the Ohio vaccine lotto, are not the final answers but a first foothold. If we can understand an issue’s basic components first, it can be easier to build up to the rubber-meets-the-road challenges of IRL.


My year of AmeriCorps was health based, and I remember many vision screenings .

Hurdling past covid

One way to think about “adoption” is as series of hurdles. If something is “adopted” it has succeeded by crossing the set of hurdles. There are few food bacteria “adoptions” because of hurdle technology: hot, cold, salt, and acid all make the process harder for food bacteria to survive.

Another metaphor for this approach is Swiss cheese: one layer has multiple holes but if the layers are independent, then stacking one on top of another removes the holes.

Part of the problem with studying, treating, and living with Covid is that it’s hard to figure out what works. There are models, but we’re still kinda guessing. As of August 2021, more than one-fifth of all FDA approved drugs were tried as off label treatment for Covid. Ironically, there’s not enough Covid to study it.

“What should give us reason to be hopeful is that there’s this cumulative effect that if you give the right drug at the right time along the way…there are these 15-30% reductions at each step so if you are someone that gets a monoclonal antibody early on, if you get fluvoxamine, you get remdesivir on admission, you get dexamethasone once you are on oxygen. We should model out where this puts you at.” – David Fajgenbaum, Wharton Moneyball, August 2021

Ah not so fast, Eric Bradlow follows up. How independent are these? Is this like a piece of Swiss cheese? “It’s shocking,” says Fajgenbaum, “they all seem to hit it from a different angle.” That angle appears to be time. Vaccines are like sunscreen, David explains, and that’s the pre-infection prevention. Then it’s one drug to stimulate the body’s immune response, then it’s another to slow that response way down.

Abraham Lincoln is attributed as saying, give me an hour to chop down a tree and I will spend the first fifty minutes sharpening an axe. Rather than trees and axes we can ask: Is our situation a hurdle condition? With Mr. Lincoln and the suggestion of Charlie Munger to invert, always invert (!), we can come up with a simple situational:

For deceleration, we want to create a series of independent hurdles an agent must cross. In the case of covid this might mean that a place mandates masks, vaccines, and social distancing — or maybe just be outside.

For acceleration, we want to create fewer hurdles for an agent. If not possible, we want homogenous hurdles. Smartphones did this for ride sharing: the who (payments), where (location), and when (on-demand) were all integrated into an app. Another way to consolidate hurdles is find the JTBD.


Even 17 months into it still feels early to say these are the treatments. While they may not be this approach still feels okay.

Apples to apples in Iceland

The basic base rate question is: what should I expect in situations like this? Most often we have looked at base rates through the lens of projects. We have an optimistic tendency to think, “yeah but…”. Sometimes it is! Sometimes it’s not.

but it might work for us

The general advice for using base rates has been to start with them, rather than our impressions, and then adapt from there.

Another way to think about base rates is as sampling. It’s important to get the “situations like this” part right, right? This is tricky, and this came up during the summer of 2021 as more and more covid vaccinated people became infected with the covid virus. At one point 67% of Iceland’s cases were among the vaccinated.

“When you look at Iceland and graph out (cases) by who is vaccinated, who is not, and where the cases are, you can see that there are more cases in the vaccinated group than the unvaccinated group.” – Dr. Kat, NPR Planet Money, August 2021

That sounds like the vaccine doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as well, or never-worked?! Maybe, but maybe our conclusions are muddied by an initial assumption that’s wrong.

Rather than jump right to Iceland, let’s pull a Zeckhauser and simplify everything. Imagine in Indiana there is a group of 100 people, half are vaccinated and half are not. In the vaccinated group there are five infections and in the unvaccinated group there are five infections. Putting aside “long-infection”, hospitalization, and death, it-looks-like, in-this-case, that the vaccine is meh.

Okay, now in Nevada there is another group of 100 people. This time there are 90 which are vaccinated and 10 are not. In the vaccinated group there are five infections and in the unvaccinated group there are five infections. Putting aside the same other-factors, in this case the vaccine is doing a lot of work! This was the case in Iceland too. Six of every thousand vaccinated people caught covid while fifteen of every thousand unvaccinated people caught covid. And all of the other-factors were much worse for the unvaccinated group. Vaccination reduced someone’s risk by more than half.

This idea is known as the “base rate fallacy” but really it’s comparing apples to apples which will make the idea stick better anyway(another bit of Zeckhauser advice is to keep explanations simple). BRF is good for talking with economists and behavioral scientists but for implementing this idea it’s an apple-to-apples question a day that will keep the bad decisions at bay.

Will there be another “2020”?

Probably.

“The fact is we are a more interconnected world. The two main drivers of new pandemics are the two things that are being debated about the origin of this one: animal-human interface and dangerous laboratory work.” – @DrTomFrieden, Wharton Moneyball

But let’s consider the case for why there won’t be another 2020. Tyler Cowen writes as at least three different people: an economist on his blog Marginal Revolution, a contra-Tyler as Tyrone (also on the blog), and from a business perspective on Bloomberg. He aims to understand the same story from different sides.

Cowen’s colleague Caplan (Bryan) coined the ideological Turing test (ITT). Like the Turing test asks: can a person distinguish if an output is from a machine or a human. The ITT asks: can a person distinguish if an argument is from a person who believes X or not-X?

The legs of my argument point in the same direction as the March 2020 argument to ‘flatten the curve’. If everything I note moves 10% away from “2020” then the chances of another pandemic are greatly reduced. Only rather than lots of talk about flattening people will do it anyway.

Why there won’t be another 2020:

Technology. Teenagers are driving less and doing fewer drugs. There’s less movement across state lines. Look at screen times: they’re going up and time is a zero sum game.

Work has become remote, or at least can be. In the 1990s I first heard of “Blizzard Bags”. If there was an anticipated snow storm headed for Ohio, schools made up a day of work for the kids to take home. Now there are 40 million Google Chromebook in education.

I’m not sure the move digital all bad. Audiobooks for instance are a fine addition. YouTube teaches almost anything, maybe everything by the time you read this. “My internet friend” feels less and less weird each time I tell my wife. Some jobs are more productive online.

Salience. Experiencing a thing makes us overrate it (relatively). After a serious car crash I was a very conservative driver. Even now when it rains I slow way down, especially on the drag strips known as ‘Florida highways’.

Most people know someone who passed away due to Covid, who had their lives seriously stressed as a medical professional, or who (might) have long-Covid symptoms. It’s one thing to hear about an experience and another to live it and we all lived “2020”.

Experience. It’s crazy looking back. We did what?!?!? It reminds me of a grandfather-ism: good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions.

When someone starts they often copy someone. That’s fine. That’s how humans learn basic things. Then as that person figures things out they change their game (sports), pitch (sales), interactions (relationships).

That’s how the 2020 pandemic feels looking back. We had no idea what to do. Taking a page from a long-time Florida family member, we prepared as if a hurricane was coming through. Now though, we know more than we did. It’s hard to imagine personal, local, regional, and national reactions that are worse.

Medicine. March 2020 through March 2021 was not a good stretch for most, but look at the medical field and it’s pretty dang amazing. The virus was sequenced, the vaccine was created, tested, produced (!), and distributed (!!). Treatments improved. There are probably relevant discoveries we don’t even know yet.

Each of these areas: technology, salience, experience, and medicine offers the bare minimum case. Isn’t there even a good chance medical or technological advances leap forward? Even if they don’t, a small reduction in actions (more work from home, more masks, better medicine, more experience, etc.) will flatten the future curve.

Good organizations know there’s value to argue-well. James Mattis says to be “hard on the issues, not on the people”. Ben Horowitz said you want to be friendly but not so friendly you don’t ask the opposition difficult questions.

After writing this I believe this case more. How much more is hard to say. Maybe I’ve moved from from very likely to likely.


Eric Jorgenson has been writing a lot of about leverage and I guess this post is about leverage. My main idea here is that if many people change in a small way then there will be a substantial change. Erik tweets about leverage as people, time, or money. On the blog we’ve addressed this idea too but under the name Large N small p.

Creativity, Conflict, and Choice

One skill rising in importance is choosing when to use technology. Circa June 2021, it’s pretty clear that technology does two things really well: repeated calculations and reductions in space. Rory Sutherland credits the Covid pandemic with normalizing video calls, a service wrongly pitched as the poor man’s travel rather than the rich man’s call.

Covid has also highlighted scientific accomplishments. What used to take a graduate student (or twos) career, now takes minutes. Via the BBC:

“When I was a young scientist we did this manually and it was very laborious. To get the sequence of a Coronavirus it would have taken at least a full graduate student’s career and maybe more. Now we can do it in a few minutes.” – Marilyn J Roossinck

But just because we can use tehcnolgoy to reduce distance or make calculations doesn’t mean we should.

In the room or zoom we noted Jason Blum’s opinion that to support creative things it helps to be in the room. That’s true for movies-creative but also for technology-creative. Ben Horowitz said:

“One of the things that has become clear is that remote work is more efficient than in-person work. But, there’s kinda a couple of things it’s probably not as good at. One is creativity and the other is tough conflict resolution.”

Work from home is different.

When explaining the idea of jobs-to-be-done, JTBD, Bob Moesta asks his interviewer if they like steak or pizza. ‘Well I like both’ they respond. ‘Right!’ Moesta says. Sometimes the situation calls for pizza and sometimes it calls for steak. That’s the kind of mindset good technology use calls for. What about a situation makes it better for the room or using Zoom?