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.

A confusing life expectancy calculation

“Statisticians are sometimes dismissed as bean counters. The sneering term is misleading as well as unfair. Most of the concepts that matter in policy are not like beans; they are not merely difficult to count, but difficult to define…the truth is more subtle yet in some ways easier: our confusion often lies less in numbers than in words.” – Tim Harford, The Data Detective, 2021

One of Harford’s goals is to help people understand the world more as it is and less as they wish it. Harford kindly covers ideas like base rates, sampling bias, and algorithm associations.

That last one has some quite funny anecdotes. For instance, one AI system was trained to distinguish healthy skin from cancerous skin. Crunching and comparing over and over are two things computers do really well, so this seemed a good fit. And it was! The AI categorized correctly. But computer code is like a mango slicer – it has a singular use. In the case of the skin cancer, what the AI “learned” was that if a ruler was present it was cancer.

That’s funny.

But also not. One economic principle that’s going to affect (is affect_ing_) work is the idea that as something gets cheaper it’s used more. LEDs and cameras are two recent examples, name an electronic product that does not have one of those. Data too, is going to be part of our lives more, and Harford wants us to think about the numbers a bit more. For instance, what does “life expectancy” mean?

“They take the relative risk at every age and they integrate it. They ask, if the relative risk this year stayed constant forever, how long would someone born today live? That’s where we lost a year, but that’s assuming Covid stays and the year we just had gets repeated .” – Adi Wyner, Wharton Moneyball, July 2021

This isn’t the only way to calculate life expectancy, but it was the way that lead to headlines like, “US Life Expectancy in 2020 Saw Biggest Drop Since WWII, With Virus Mostly to Blame”. That’s true, but is that how most people understood it?

Most of what happens, and Harford starts his book on this idea, is that we think fast. “Biggest drop”, “WWII”, and “Virus” are all oh-boy-this-is-bad bits of information. But we dig in to what the words really mean and things look a little better.

Our tendency to think fast doesn’t have to be a hinderance. We can use this tendency to be more numerate. Books like Harford’s bump up (be Bayesian baby) these ideas. Riddles like: most British men live past the average age help too. A steady dose of numeracy uses the availability heuristic for our own good.


Not into the book thing? Harford has great podcast that cover these ideas. Wharton Moneyball is another with more of a sport’s bent. Gambling podcasts too cover these ideas. As Tyler Cowen said, it’s not that these things are VERY IMPORTANT but that if we see them more we update our mental toolboxes so they are marginally more important.

Ohio’s Vaccine Lotto

On May 12, 2021 Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio announced a one million dollar vaccination lottery. Teens were eligible for a college scholarship. Two days after the announcement Ohio doubled its vaccinations-per-day figure to thirty-three thousand people. Success!

Maybe. “States with lottery programs,” noted the Boston Globe “are not doing any better compared to states without such initiatives.”

And.

But, there are at least two reasons Ohio’s strategy was a good one. The first is the testing of new approaches. One of the beautiful things about the United States of America is the differences in states. When states do different things academics call this “heterogeneity” and “natural experiments”. While not perfect, these opportunities and observations lead to novel lessons. Part-of-the-reason there won’t be another 2020 are these learnings.

The second reason Ohio’s vaccine lottery was a good idea is an idea from Maxims for Analytical Thinking, a Michael Mauboussin recommendation:

MfAT is a book of thinking tools by Dan Levy who focuses on the ideas, information, and influence of Richard Zeckhauser. Maxim 1 is When you are having trouble getting your thinking straight, go to an extreme case. Using this lens, was the Ohio Lotto a good idea?

Imagine it this way. What if there were a Hypo-Ohio, where thanks to the industriousness, intelligence, and ingenuity of the individuals, a vaccine holiday was declared on February first. Employers gave employees the day off. Starbucks and Subway donated their stores for stick sites. Netflix was free for Ohio ISPs. Everyone that was willing and able to get a vaccine got vaccinated.

Ohio Vax

If that happened, like poker chips slid across a table, the May blip and March wave would be compressed into an early February explosion. This would have been awesome. We know from the vaccine friendship paradox that all social networks have a super-spreader. At the extreme, pulling the demand forward would be a good thing.

But what was the effect size? Here I’m over my skis. But that’s actually okay. The techniques I learned in my Ohio high school still work: remove the bad answers first. Like the 15y or 30y mortgage question, I’m looking for choosing from only the good options. At the extreme, pulling demand forward is a fantastic idea. How much effect, I don’t know, but I’m glad they tried.


Bias Warning: I thought the Ohio Lotto was a good idea from the start.

Framing as a Fire or as a Fight

One way to change an experience, and all experience is subjective, is to change the framing of it. Our food takes longer because we make it fresh. Via a16z:

“There has been some interesting work in the linguistics community asking if we should be using war as a metaphor for the virus. There’s a lot of discussion about ‘front line workers’, which is a war metaphor, but unlike people in the military, they didn’t volunteer for this degree of risk.”

Gretchen McCulloch

McCulloch goes on to consider how things would be different if the pandemic were described as a fire or natural disaster. What if outbreaks were flareups, people sheltered temporarily, and we extinguished the threat?

Some added stress of this pandemic is from our ambiguity aversion: we don’t like the feeling of not knowing.

So we use metaphors. Fights are: Us vs them, victory is this mark, loss is this, collateral damage is undesired but expected.

This post isn’t to say that Fire or Fight is better for the pandemic, but to think about using framing in interesting ways. Here’s one we’ve featured before:

This ad frames opportunity cost. It says, you’ve got 1,200 dollars. Do you want a new iPhone or a nearly-new iPhone and tickets to the ballet?

Framing works not because people can’t do the thinking by themselves, but that they don’t because thinking about all this is hard. We’ve evolved to process information where available equals important. That’s often good enough, so we stop thinking.

This is all good news. It’s why Alchemy is possible. Using the right words changes the focus which changes the understanding which changes the actions.

Would the pandemic be different if we viewed it more as a natural disaster? Maybe. Would our understanding, focus, and concept be different? Certainly.

The Vaccine Friendship Paradox

One non-intuitive concept, at least in scale, is the network. Like average numbers, it takes some work to construct the correct conclusions. Graph, chart, and count the way that people interact, decide, and connect and there will be patterns. It’s network effects which fuel companies like Instagram and create the increasing returns economy.

Networks, as Nicholas Christakis notes, are agnostic. They spread whatever they are seeded with, whether real viruses like Ebola or WOW viruses like corrupted blood. The question then is; How and what to seed a network with?

Eric Bradlow wondered about Covid vaccines on Wharton Moneyball:

“We study diffusion of products all the time. In theory, you want to observe the social graph. In marketing the question is: Who do you give the free product to? This is standard network analysis and with that data you could do a smarter initial seeding (of a vaccine).”

Is there more bang for the buck if one person gets the vaccine rather than another?

Yes, though it’s not intuitive.

As the Friendship Paradox video shows, we aren’t all connected to the same number of friends. Some people have more, some have fewer friends and to wisely allocate a scare resource (like with marathon slots) it takes some small adjustments.

Christakis has spent a lot of time mapping networks and noted that across cultures, space, and time most human networks look the same. Some people are more connected than others. A few have hundred of connections and hundreds have a few.

It’s important for Christakis because like Bradlow, he works with a diffusion problem. Rather than marketing products though, it’s about sharing vaccines and vitamins. The thinking for both goes like this, if you can share something that works with the right person then they will share the benefits of that with the rest of their network.

But how do you pick the right person? Christakis shared this tip: “Go into a village and pick people at random. Have them suggest their friends and vaccinate their friends rather than the originals.”

Most networks are like the Curb Your Enthusiasm network (via Funkhauser).

curb_your_enthusiasm_-_season_9_-_network_graph

Randomly enter that network and you could get anyone but then ask for that person’s friend and more often than not you’ll get Larry. He’s the hub. He’s the super spreader. He’s who to vaccinate or market to.

It’s a neat bit of math. Rather than random choice, ask one question to improve the odds of an idea, movement, or effect catching on.

While there’s nothing on networks, my latests pay-what-you-want is on Tyler Cowen’s ideas about decision making. One idea is ‘meta-rationality’ or knowing when you don’t know AND knowing where or who to go to to find out. 

Jobs with Rules

Education has been top of mind lately around our house (thanks Covid). We’ve considered college admissions, advantages of online learning, and whether reading is different than listening to a book (spoiler: both are good).

There’s some big picture ideas too: curriculums, college, and careers. My daughters (12, 10) aren’t near that yet, but it’s hard not to think about as we see careers adapt to remote work. My wife can work online, somewhat. Teachers can teach online, somewhat. Aside from some manual labor, for the last decade all my income has been earned online.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft Mathew Crawford notes that you can’t hammer a nail over the internet. Or, are things rule based or not? Rules mean code, code means computers and as Feynman explains, computers are fast at following rules.

TikTok’s design is simple rules. On, off. Yes, no. Open, closed. Watched, not. Shared, not.

Circa 2013 self-driving trucks were the topic du jour. However, driving a truck isn’t that binary, it’s not that rules based.

Our truck driver, Finny Murphy writes more about the problems solving involved. Keep the truck between the lines. Pick up this cargo, take it there. Then go here. Unload, schedule workers, back down this long driveway. Get stuck. Negotiate with owner to use his chainsaw, trim a limb. Murphy’s job would have been better with more computer help as he’d spend less time ‘bob-catting’ (driving without a trailer) if there were a network that listed jobs.

Contrast truck driver with financial planner, the latter has years of college. They’re licensed. They’re a charter holder or a master of business. Even more likely is that they have a podcast. The financial planner helps people with money, a very important thing. They wear suits! They have offices!

Which is more rule based?

One sign to spot rule based conditions is when we stop calling something the ‘internet something’. Internet banking, internet dating, and ‘I read it online’ are all things of the past. It’s just banking, dating, and reading now. Did you know, that internet bill pay used to be an add-on, banks *charged* for that service.

Which is more like TikTok, financial planning or truck driving? Finances is already rule based with target date and index funds.

Okay, so what direction should education head?

In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen writes that three things are scarce: quality land and natural resources, intellectual property or good ideas that should be produced, and quality labor with unique skills. I’ll read ‘good ideas’, ‘quality labor’, and ‘unique skills’ as antonyms for ‘rules based’.

Note: About 7% of truck drivers have bachelor degrees compared to 35% of the population. Both figures lower than I’d guessed. Also, rules can be especially helpful when they make you ‘color blind‘ to unhelpful information.

The pool of tears

A lesson from distance learning.

To keep up with my kids I’ve been taking Khan Academy classes and in one, founder Sal Khan noted that when Abraham Lincoln was in law school he used Euclid’s geometric proofs as a test for understanding. Recounted:

“In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate,” Lincoln said. “I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not.” Resolving to understand it better, he went to his father’s house and “staid there till I could give any propositions in the six books of Euclid at sight.”

That’s ambitious, and demonstrates how much of learning is not linear.

In this way online learning excels. If we need time we take time. If we’re done early we make things. We act like Lincoln. Like Naval.

This is hard to do in school, scheduled to the year, week, day, hour, and even minute. Compounding and confounding is that we are relative creatures. I don’t get it compared to the kids that do. In the same way we are spending by neighbors but not saving, we see those who excel and calculateaccordingtothat.

Online learning isn’t great but it’s not all bad either and we’ve shed a few fewertears.