History through story

In college I was a campus tour guide and even then had an inkling of the JTBD. While the training consisted of learning dates and statistics, the visitors wanted to know questions about ‘What it was like to be a student here?’.

Historical podcasts offer a similar idea. Rather than precision, it’s appreciation. I don’t remember much from high school or college history, but thanks to historical podcasts, I have some sense of the world. Much like the History through industry books, these are some recent favorites.

1760s The hero of two worlds, The Marquis de Lafayette. My daughters’s favorite character from Hamilton had quite the life experiences, truly a ‘skin in the game’ character. Washington considered him a son, and Lafayette named one of his sons Georges Washington. And it pairs well with…

1790s The Napoleonic Wars featuring Dr. Alexander Mikaberidze. Subtitle, you can’t do just one thing. Following France’s help in the American Revolution was France’s financial debts. This is a strong two hours about the life of Napoleon, his lucky breaks and the world that was kinda set up for someone like him.

1900s Sears Historian Jerry Hancock. Sears is nice to study because it spans a few retail periods: mail delivery catalogs and railroads, urbanization and city center, then stores and suburban malls. This interview is mostly about Sears’s connection to Atlanta.

1939 The start of WWII with Dan Snow. Like the French Revolution, a bunch of factors ‘lined up’. In both cases, one major factor was the economic conditions.

1940s The teenage communist hit squad of the Netherlands. A group of teenage girls are recruited to find (seduce?) inebriated German officers in local bars, convince them to go to the woods, and shoot them in the head. One member, was Hannie Schaft (Wikipedia).

1962 The Cuban Missile Crisis from Dan Carlin. This is one I listen to each October. Also, The Tunnel documentary on a handful of college students digging a tunnel from west to east Germany to help rescue their friends.

Have a suggestions? Let me know!

Cold War incentives

“We’re mostly pretty right,” I told my daughters (13/11). The gist was that our diet is pretty good, but some of what we do will be wrong, we just don’t know what. Even though we shifted to eat slightly less meat, thinking like Bayesians even in the kitchen, I’m 100% sure we are not 100% right.

Related is the idea of incentives. We think our current incentives are aligned, and they may be, but they too need occasional updates. Hopefully exposure and examples tune us in to them a little more.

To set the scene, it’s 1983. The Berlin wall has been up for two decades. Ronald Reagan has been president for three years and he’s rattling the Soviet Union. The U.S. is conducting war games, which is exactly the pretense the Soviets planned to use to disguise their first strike. The Soviets have an information problem. They need to orient themselves.

“They (the Soviet Union) started an operation to look out for indicators that the Americans were preparing to launch a nuclear attack. Are the military mobilizing? Were blood banks being stored up in case the casualty rate increased? Eventually it became completely absurd. Agents were told to count the lights on in the Pentagon in Washington or the Ministry of Defense in London. If there were more than a certain number, this would clearly conclude they were plotting away at night. And, if they came up with ideas they would get promotions. The agents in the field didn’t get promotions for saying nothing. You only got promotion for finding evidence that, yes, they are planning something.” – Taylor Downing, September 2021

This is the opposite of the don’t just do something principle (part of the Favorite Ideas Daily Email), which notes that sometimes the best action is not to act. But it’s hard to reward inaction that leads to a good outcome. That’s just not how we see the world.

The seeds of the ’80s were laid in the post-war alignments. A few favorite bits: Dan Carlin has a great podcast episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). Konrad Schumann jumps over (1961) the barbed wire wall, and it’s fascinating to think that this thing basically showed up overnight. There is also a documentary on YouTube about building a tunnel, maybe the first reality TV?, under the wall to save some college friends.

Sampling wine

“Let’s say you want to learn about trade in the ancient world. If you’re using archeology I have good news. We know a lot about trade in olive oil and wine in the Roman world. Olive oil and wine both moved in clay (Amphora) vesicles. They were disposable. When a giant pot of wine reached its endpoint, you poured it into bottles and chucked the big transport pot. Pottery survives, you can shatter it but the pieces are still there.” – Bret Devereaux, EconTalk, August 2021

By Ricardo André Frantz

Grain meanwhile was transported in sacks. “Imagine what parts of your life,” Devereaux asks, “are archeologically visible.”

This example highlights a bigger question: how do I know something is true? Big right? We can’t know everything, so we use samples. And Amphora highlights two caveats.

First, is that easier-to-find data may overstate the case. Covid19 in 2020 had a lot of early data that was easy to collect but not necessarily a good sample. During the first six months we talked a lot about the number of cases, maybe we still do depending on when you read this. Cases are okay, but the best predictors in the early days looked at hospitalizations and deaths. Not to stop there, Covid19 also affected ages quite differently, a fifty year old was fifty times more likely to die than a fifteen year old.

Second, easy data is usually ‘expensive’ because many people use it. If they use it in the same way then, like an auction for a Beanie Baby, prices rise. If the information turns out to be wrong, then prices fall. The heart of moneyball was to find data that was also good, but ‘cheap’ because fewer people used it.

Archeological visibility is a neat analogy to use for thinking about sampling. Though an ancient effect, we can use it still today. The next time we see data, we can ask, is this data more like a clay pot or a cotton sack?

The fifty/fifty/fifteen ratio was an estimate based on CDC data. Also, “Today’s persuaders don’t want you to stop and think,” writes Tim Harford in The Data Detective, “They want you to hurry up and feel. Don’t be rushed.”

From field to city to car to circuit

This is a podcast episode covering the consumer journey from field to city to car to circuit.

The consumer journey has been one where a business shares information to a consumer depending where they are. That started at the farm with the creation of the Sears catalog, a moved to the city with the creation of stores, then moved to the car with the creation of malls and large big box centers like Walmart, and finally our story is at the point where it is on the Internet with online brand Zappos, Amazon, Warby Parker.

The selling, at least to the American consumer, is remarkably consistent. There has to be a way to talk directly to consumers whether in a store on the pages of a catalog or via an Instagram account. There has to be a way to get the product to the consumer, whether that is the new railway system, the rural mail delivery, or two day shipping.

This episode was a little less organized than normal and recorded outside. Thank you for your patience.

The podcast is available as Mike’s Notes: Apple, ListenNotes, or Overcast.

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?

Cuban Missile Crisis (58 years)

It’s about halfway through the Cuban Missile Crisis anniversary and if you want to dip in, Dan Carlin did a great podcast about the event.  I enjoy listening this time of year to ‘feel it’. Media transports us through time and space but to listen on anniversaries or read in places adds a something.

Three ideas:

1/ It’s no wonder game theory thinking came from this era. John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan project and later advocated for mutually assured destruction. My prior is more Oppenheimer less Neumann, but as Carlin reminds us, life is complicated:

“What if the US had gone the full force Robert Oppenheimer ban-this-stuff route? What would the Soviets and Joseph Stalin had done? To a man they (the Russian advisors) say it would have been seen as weakness and Stalin would push forward with his weapons program.”

Like the prisoner dilemma, if one player will choose with certainty it reduces the opportunities for the other.

2/ As we covered, Eisenhower liked to argue well. That can be difficult for leaders to model. One technique according to Marc Andreessen, is for those in charge to challenge each other.

Eisenhower gives the Atoms for Peace speech but before playing a clip Carlin confesses, “nothing can be trusted from this era, nothing. The presidents, from Truman to Eisenhower all have two faces to them and I don’t know which one is real.”

Or, it’s hard to have ‘Yes’ men if no one knows what you’re thinking.

3/ That Atoms for Peace speech only comes about because of career capital. Eisenhower succeeds Truman, born in 1884, the year the steam turbine was invented. Carlin suggests we imagine Truman as a grandfather calling his grandchildren asking how to turn the damn devices off.

Eisenhower is elected, gives the speech and coins military industrial complex eight years later. Carlin adds, “I can’t imagine our leaders today giving a speech like (Atoms for Peace). In 1953 he laid the whole situation out.”

If you’ve a long solo fall drive, fall walk, or evening outside take a listen. There’s many more parallel ideas like between humanitarian intervention (related: With the Old Breed) and herd immunity. It’s also a prompt for thinking about hot and cold communication (it took half a day for Kennedy’s letters to make it to Krushchev as well as alternative histories.