Three problem-solving prompts

1/ What is the asymptotic limit? To be a multi-planet species, says Elon Musk, people will need to design, build, and use reusable rockets. Okay. Is that possible? One way is to think to the limit. “Look at the raw materials of a rocket: aluminum, steel, titanium, Inconel, speciality alloys, copper. Now ask the weight and raw material value. That sets the asymptotic limit for how low the cost and weight can be unless you change the materials.” Musk calls this the magic wand number. What’s the cost if you had a magic wand to rearrange the atoms?

Another way Musk uses limits is to think about scale. Making many versions of a thing is much much harder than one version. This too is a problem for Disney imagineers, writes Kevin Rafferty. Coming up with attractions is fun but the hard work is what Rafferty calls ‘day two problems’. What happens when this thing has to be open for ten hours a day 365 days a year?

2/ Is this a money problem? Starting the cable channel Discovery, John Hendricks had a lot of challenges. One was content, but that was easy. The BBC was willing to sell their documentaries to Hendricks and enjoy the found money. Later Netflix would take this to detrimental consequences to the content providers, but in 1985 Ted Sarandos was managing eight video rental stores in Arizona.

But there was cable regulation working against Hendricks. The deregulation of cable (like with airlines) wasn’t a money problem. Host Guy Raz analogizes it to having a new iced tea and having to call every convenience store operator in America to get on the shelves. Hendricks then had one problem that was a money problem but another that was a political one.

3/ Is this a branding problem? One of the covid lessons ‘we clearly haven’t learned‘ according to Zeynep Tufekci is to follow best practice. “We have everything we need,” she told Ezra Klein, “not a day goes by that I don’t get a pitch for some gimmick, some new mask that is blah blah blah. Thank you, but I just need an N95. I don’t need your new potentially miraculous science.”

This, says Rory Sutherland, is a marketing mistake. Good marketing changes the perceived value without changing the thing. Good marketing is ‘being better than Superman‘. To Tufekci, we’ve not figured this out – yet.

2a March 24 update, winter wheat is the largest wheat crop in the world and that has to be planted in certain places at certain times. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going to influence how much the planted wheat can be harvested. This is not a money problem.


This is part of the made up start up series.

My mother-in-law has a problem when she goes out to eat. The problem is a combination of information, imagination, and conceptualization. The problem is: my mother-in-law doesn’t know what to order.

But she’s 70 years old. She has solutions. Is it familiar? Is there a picture? Is it recommended? Everything she orders falls into those three buckets. And thanks to Covid19 all that can change.

Part of the (uneven) Covid19 strategy are QR menus. These codes mostly link to a pdf version of the old menu. Consequently, these menus mostly suck. PDF or HTML menus take all of the worst parts of ordering food and make them more difficult to see. But things don’t have to be this way. QR codes for menus are the perfect opportunity for this peripheral technology to become a main course.

Here’s the pitch: a startup that builds interactive menus.

This is a hard problem. Restaurants are hectic, restaurant retention is tough, and there’s not a lot of excess capital for investment, but QR code menus may be a wise pairing thanks to framing.

Restaurant menus are terrible at framing. A paper menu is static and the only form of framing is the relative price framing. I’m not buying the most expensive or cheapest so this middle item seems fine. A digital menu can be dynamic. The options for choice architecture are abundant.

  • Guests who liked this also liked this.
  • The chef recommends this with that.
  • Add in this appetizer for only $3 more.
  • This item has been ordered 1,000 times this month.

All this startup needs is a few salespeople, a copy of Cialdini’s Influence, and an AWS account!

Restaurants are hired for multiple jobs: food, atmosphere, social status, signaling, and so on. Restaurants are also hired to make things easier: I don’t have to cook, clean, plan, or shoulder the burden of honey-what-is-for-dinner-tonight? A well built menu can reduce the diner’s decision demand.

This startup isn’t obvious because customers won’t articulate why they had a nice time at Dariano’s Diner but they will have a nice time because it’s a better experience which begins with the menu.

Yes, there are many restaurants to sell to – but this startup is competing with non-consumption. This isn’t a better reservation system (though it could be) or a better procurement provider (it could be that too), it only has to be better than a PDF or webpage.

So join me in raising funds for some QR IQ, a business that will build on human psychology to create a better dining experience.

March 3, 2022 update: This works! At least for automotive. The full video is here but according to one ex-industry person the digital signing of documents can increase (via framing I’d wager!!) back-end profits by 25%.

Energy for change

This post is part of our thinking about ease and its counterpart design.

Football in Florida in February

John List begins his book, The Voltage Effect, with the example of Nancy Reagan’s D.A.R.E. program. That program, failed, List notes because it was based on a false positive. “It was a pretty large scale study in Honolulu,” List said, “the problem was it was only one study, it was never replicated, and it was never the truth.” Part of the reason D.A.R.E. is a case of something is always happening is the social incentive. It felt good to have a solution. It felt good to align with Nancy Reagan or local law enforcement or your child’s school.

A modern parallel is Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program. My year of AmeriCorp was in this heyday and it felt good to align with a political party or athletes or your child’s school.

Contrast Obama’s and Reagan’s initiatives with what I witnessed the first week of February: Florida football. This park was swarming with kids. Every NFL team was represented (and what a rollercoaster the kids on the Bengals team went through) and the parents were into it.

There’s no lack of football in Florida. If the current First Lady wanted a win, she should create a program that further promoted football in Florida. And the reason why is the ease. There’s not friction for Florida football. The weather is good to great (though dangerously hot) all year long. The culture welcomes football. There’s lots of people already doing it, so doing more of it wouldn’t be too much. Contrast Florida football with ‘Just Say No!’ or ‘Let’s Move!’. All the things in favor of Florida football are missing for the former First Ladies.

How to vaccinate the world: Hire the smartest, most attractive, and persuasive medical students (doctors and nurses) to go door-to-door across the country. Or along the football theme, get the best recruiters. Have them sit on the couch, look the person in the eye, and sell them on vaccination. That would work. But like ‘Just Say No!’ and ‘Let’s Move!’ it takes too much energy. But football in Florida? No energy needed.

There’s a gap between things I would like this person to do and things this person does. Energy closes the gap. Wordle wonderfully demonstrates energy. It’s easy to learn, easy to share, easy to play, easy to habituate. But Wordle will fade because it struck kindling. Unlike football in Florida there’s not a lot of factors working in its favor like with Facebook or automotive culture or take-out-pizza.

Energy, ease, friction, design – they’re all ways to address the same idea, how to change.

$1 Toronto real estate

Average is like my reciprocating saw: never as useful as I expect. Part of the reason average sticks around is economics, It’s cheap to produce.. Average is a crude tool, like with student loan debt, and often hides the heterogeneity of a situation.

We’re entering an era of precision. One covid lesson has been the effect size of heterogeneity. At the macro level, the impact of covid depends on time and place. At the micro level, the impact depends on age, immunity, and social network. Covid was (is?) difficult to judge because there are a lot of factors that need fitted together.

If we need precision we should probably think about distributions at least as often as we think about averages. An example is the periodic one dollar real estate listing. Yes, this generates attention, spins up the market mechanism, and might be the marketing magic an owner needs. But it also changes the distribution of offers without changing the average offer.

“When you give people a listing price they ask if it’s worth more or less and by how much, so they anchor at the listing. If you don’t have an anchor people build a valuation from first principles. The average (offer) doesn’t change but the distribution does. For a one dollar listing you get some really high rates and some really low ones. In the listing price you get distributions around what the asking price was. This is a world where the seller doesn’t care about the average, they only care about the top end of the distribution.” – Dilip Soman, The Decision Corner, October 2021

Maybe this is being too hard. Average, like the saw, has its uses. The aim here is to combine numeracy with psychology to get by in the world. That means presenting the ‘best’ wait times or predicting rain more often. Being numerate is understanding that the average age is 78, but if you make it to 65 you’ll probably live well past eighty.

“The average looks like 10-12 years lost due to Covid – but that’s an average of a distribution with a very odd shape, a highly skewed distribution, some people have lost forty years of life. The peak of the distribution is people who lost less than a year of life.” – David Spiegelhalter, Risky Talk October 2021

Interval training

One of the perks of this blog is repetition. There are areas afield of the core focus (which itself moves) but there’s a lot of repetition. This is good. Jason Zweig once said that his Wall Street Journal articles were just the same principles in different forms.

There are other intervals. Sleep and exercise seem to be daily intervals. Eating might be longer or shorter. A business’s innovation interval depends on the industry. What’s the interval might be an interesting question.

There are vaccine intervals. Pfizer and Moderna tested three and four weeks and were (largely) administered in that time space too. But not always.

“In Quebec, in early 2021, the world was short on vaccines. To spread the doses in Quebec they decided to spread the interval to sixteen weeks. The researchers looked at the immune responses after the second doses and found a lot of similarities to people with hybrid immunity: high levels of antibodies, and neutralizing diverse coronavirus variants.” – Ewen Callaway, Nature podcast, October 2021

In Quebec at least the longer interval worked better.

Part of what makes cac such an interesting business angle is that there are a lot of ways to reduce the number and a low cac changes a lot of the economics. Intervals are like that too. The cost to experiment in intervals is low but the effect might be large.

DuoLingo experimented a lot with their reminders and what ultimately worked was one of their early interval tests, remind people about a day later. That will happen with experiments, but knowing about intervals as an option expands our field of experiments.

The capacity-efficiency tradeoff components

One of the things brought to light by Covid has been the balance between capacity and efficiency. In general, things with high excess capacity aren’t efficient and things with high efficiency lack excess capacity. Another way to think about capacity is as a margin of safety.

Each link in the medical supply chain, wrote Scott Gottlieb, balances capacity and efficiency. Swabs, like those for Covid, are produced efficiently.

“One of the things I learned at the FDA, watching other critical medical products go into shortage, is that it’s often the lowest-margin constituent in a complex supply chain that’s most vulnerable to shortages. Often the only way to produce such a part profitably is to manufacture it at a very large scale, which means it’s likely to be made by a small number of big, consolidated suppliers.” – Scott Gottlieb, Uncontrolled Spread, published 2021

Sixty percent of the swab market was from an Italian supplied, an Italian supplier in the Lombardy region. Eventually the United States scaled up swab productions only to be limited by the machines that ran the tests, another part of the system where the incentives pointed more towards efficiency than capacity. A system is only as strong as the weakest-link-in-the-supply chain.

There is a tradeoff between efficiency and capacity and that tradeoff depends on time and consequences.

“Flatten the curve” demonstrates this. Our highly efficient (low capacity) healthcare system could have been overrun. The consequences of that were huge. One physician friend thought she might have to work in a field hospital – and she’s a dermatologist.

A smaller example is a student taking Algebra. If an Algebra exam is during a sport season, the student will have less time to study being highly efficient with their use of time. The lack of capacity might lead to a lower grade.

However, in the case of Algebra, the time and consequences are more muddled. Is the goal to ‘learn Algebra’ or ‘score 93% on the Algebra Chapter Two Test’? In the case of the former, the time pressure changes.

Personal finance encompasses this idea too. A large capacity is an emergency fund. Those dollars could be invested to earn the historic seven percent. Time here matters too. Typically a person has one source of income (their job) and these vary in pace of payment. A salesperson can work more – and get paid more faster – than a bookkeeper. Their time aspect is different and the consequences for each depends on the difference between income and expenses.

Like the tuning of stereo, these three aspects can be balanced to fit the conditions. There is a trade off between efficiency and capacity. There are consequences in that exchange. And there is cadence for reaction.

Big shocks, like Covid, are out of our control. But though exogenous to our life, there’s still at least three dials to get things that sound right.

Covid and breakfast cereal

cereal selfie

Me, a box of cereal from Aldi, and our kitten. When I bought this cereal the checkout process was 40% faster than rival stores. Plus the cost savings! Sure I had to collect my cart – with the quarter deposit in hand – and also return the cart, but often I meet someone half way and we do the Aldi parking lot exchange of quarter for cart and some goodwill good-to-see-yas.

This Aldi aesthetic is intentional. The cart, the product, the extra long barcodes for the extra fast cashiers are all tactics that support a strategy. I’d heard tactics are not strategy but it’s through the Aldi aisles and Marc Lipsitch’s interviews that the idea becomes as clear and legible as that bar code.

One of the lessons from Covid is how much conditions matter. We’ve learned that individual treatments are dependent on disease stage. We’ve also learned that societal actions are dependent on infection stage. The travel ban, Lipsitch said in May 2020, “was a tactic not a strategy, it was an attempt to show we were doing something rather than a piece of a strategy to make us safe from this virus.”

Strategy is important because our resources are limited. Sure, I’d love to invest in the cryptocurrency of the moment as a lottery ticket but there’s no extra dollars in our investing budget to allocate to a different strategy.

“In the beginning of the intense phase, New York City was working very very hard to do contact tracing at a time when they knew they had lots of cases and didn’t know about most of them. That’s exactly the setting where contact tracing can’t work. No matter how hard you fight the 10% you know about, you’re not doing anything about the rest.” – Marc Lipsitch, May 2020

When tactics fit together like puzzle pieces it creates a beautiful strategic picture. Aldi’s boxes are optimized for speed rather than customer acquisition. Classic cereals use bright colors and cartoons to scream pick me! The cereal aisle is the competition. It’s Cap’n Crunch vs Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Aldi’s products are private labels, so the competition is between big box stores not boxes in stores. The Aldi CAC is speedy checkouts, self-service, and quality goods.

A good strategy has a collection of homeotelic responses. Aldi is one example, but they’ve had almost eighty years to figure it out. Covid is a non-example, but we’ve learned some good lessons and it probably won’t happen again.

There’s a certain amount of what economists call ‘transaction utility’ at Aldi too, we like finding deals. Also, Lipsitch is such a balanced voice on Covid or any field with some uncertainty in the future.

Mayors jumping queues

One benefit (with distance!) of living through the first year (2020) of Covid was the lesson in ambiguity. Never forget, the thing we did the most of was stock up on toilet paper. It’s silly with hindsight, but at one time the zeitgeist was making up songs so we all washed our hands the appropriate amount. With those actions as a reference, it makes a bit more sense that issues like masks, contact tracing, limited gathering, and vaccines were confusing. How might things have gone better?

One potential solution to vaccine hesitancy is a skin-in-the-game approach. Don’t tell me what to do, Nassim Taleb might bark, tell me what you do do. But that can lead to the suggestion that someone is jumping the queue. This pushback came up, rightly, but there is at least one potential solution.

“I think there is a way to do it. We advised mayors and their communication directors to approach it more like: ‘We are opening up a new site, let me show you how safe and effective it is, here’s the shot in my arm.’ Definitely don’t do it in the moment when there is extreme vaccine scarcity, do it as a symbolic moment that the floodgates are opening. It’s about the time, place, and moment.” – Carolina Toth, Inside the Nudge Unit, June 2021

What I liked about this example was the second-order thinking Toth offered. It’s not the line jumping per se but it’s line jumping and-I-can’t-get-mine. Lines aren’t about waiting. Lines are about fairness.

Imagine queueing up for a spring training baseball game. You’re in sunny Florida. It’s March. It’s seventy-eight degrees, Fahrenheit. The sun is out. It’s a beautiful day.

Being a well-prepared baseball fan you bought tickets ahead of time. Section C, Row 4, Seats 15-18. They’re behind the third-base dugout. You told your thirteen-year-old not to be on their phone when a left-handed batter is up. Who knows if they listened. Amid these happy thoughts you see that two groups ahead of you in line a party of two has become a party of six. The duo was saving spots for their friends. Do you care?

Probably not? Your seats are your seats.

There (probably) won’t be another 2020. However any situation can be helped by getting to the first principles: how do viruses transmit, what’s wrong with mayors jumping queues? It’s these answers that remove the ambiguity of a situation and get us all sorted.

Queues exist to solve allocation problems, like the New York Marathon.

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.”

April 2022 update. Taylor Pearson highlights Kris Abdelmessih’s post.

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.