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Information Questions

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“People always ask us how we do what we do without talking to management. I say that’s probably made me more money than a single fact of my investing process.” – Jim Chanos

Part-of-the-reason we are the way we are is because of energy conservation. Human tendencies (nee biases) exist so we, unlike a robotic vacuum, get stuck in a never-ending decision loop. We’ve survived this far, so these things work.

However sometimes we need to consider, weigh, or evaluate information. One tactic to do that is to think about the who, what, when, and how of the information.

Who. The person communicating a message offers information and we use that, even when we say we don’t. Doctors face the white coat effect as well as the halo effect. In his book, Messengers, Stephen Martin notes that “the messenger has increasingly become the message.” Why, do you think, businessmen wear suits?

What. A silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is the rising awareness of statistics and their limitations. Average rarely is. The same treatments can have different outcomes because the groups are different in some way. If someone says ‘the average’ we think ‘the red flag’.

When. Ben Hunt spoke with Aaron Watson and noted “I always ask myself, why am I hearing this? It’s not just the what you’re hearing but also the why. it’s not to be conspiratorial, it’s just to ask the question.” We get this when it comes to marketing a movie but forget it in many similar areas.

How. The medium is the message. Audio offers intimacy. Have people read, listen, or watch opposing political messages and the the audio conveyers are “dehumanized less.” The sister effect is why audiobooks are different, not good or bad for learning.

On the Long View podcast, Moshe Milevsky spoke about narrowing the distribution of retirement returns. Just as some jobs are unlikely to make you obscenely rich (or poor), some financial products are unlikely to make you obscenely rich (or poor).

The employee of Enron (or Facebook) had (or has) a much greater chance of banking billions or blowing up, rather than earning an average retirement account return. A teacher who buys an annuity, has a great chance of earning the market average, but avoiding the extremes.

When Milevsky spoke in May 2020, it was a good chance to apply the who, what, when, and how to communication. Milevsky is an academic, speaking about finances during hectic time as people saw portfolios cut in half, but then running up. And it was the Morningstar podcast which has an authority and intimacy in itself.

Information used to be through a few sources and the contrast was easy. Visual or not. Political or not. Mainstream or not. Now, what is mainstream, what is orthodox, what is real? Whatever the answer, it comes from a question.

Want more? Check out this pay-what-you-want placebo prescription pdf.

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The room or use Zoom?

We noted in the Quarantine Education post that things will need to change in how teachers teach. The classroom model, with breaks for stations, specials, and snacks works fine only in the classroom. Teachers will need to adapt.

Rory Sutherland spoke on Great Minds and Jason Blum spoke on Bill Simmons and both addressed how being in-person was especially helpful in creative endeavors.

“When you’re talking to a creative person, there is so much insecurity and doubt if this is going to be a good idea. Part of what my job is making whoever I’m talking to feel early on tat there is no bad idea.

“Of course there’s bad ideas, but right now, talking early on or how something fits, we can think of any idea.

“And that’s very hard to do on video.”

Jason Blum

Blum makes horror movies in a Moneyball way so he even kinda wants things that look or sound a little hairy. He wants something to be ugly on the first draft and beautiful on screen.

Sutherland’s angle is only slightly different and it’s in the field of marketing.

Take comedy, for example. It’s a field very similar to marketing because it reframes an idea. People are relative thinkers (more than that, different from those, etc.) and comedy changes the that and those we compare against.

In his book, Shtick to Business, Peter McGraw prints an Anthony Jeselnik joke: “My parents were strict. My mom and dad once made me smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. An entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting..just to teach me a valuable lesson..about brand loyalty.”

That’s good reframing. That’s a good laugh.

But it probably didn’t start out that way. It probably started in a place, as Blum put it, of “insecurity and doubt.”

At Ogilvy’s behavioral unit, Sutherland said they have a rule to “dare to be trivial and don’t be afraid of looking stupid.” That’s easier in the room than on the Zoom.

Coming out of social distancing it’s likely that the individuals and collectives that do best are the ones who can communicate the best. If Jason Blum has a series of great meeting he’ll have a great movie. If Sutherland finds a ‘Python-esque’ framing, he’ll have a great ad and behavior change. Alchemy, is powerful but will take more work when using Zoom rather than in the room.

Want more? Check out this pay-what-you-want placebo prescription pdf.

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Mediums at School, of Words, in Ears

Three spring examples of the medium and the message.

  • Joe Rogan spoke with Eric Weinstein about what is ‘mainstream’ and wondered why Rogan isn’t ‘mainstream’ when thirteen+ million people watched his interview with epidemiologist Michael Osterholm.
  • Ben Thompson referenced his Books and Blogs post. It explains why Thompson hasn’t written a book and instead writes Stratechery.
  • Dan Carlin recalled going full ‘Mike Brady’ on radio and badly wanting to revisit that character, but didn’t because radio is different than podcasts.

It’s said that people get the government they deserve and a related expression might be that we get the content we incentivize. 

One perspective about reading books that I disagree with is that we need to read the sources. ‘Go straight to the stoics, or economists, or philosophers or whatevers’ someone will shout. Sure, eventually. It’s really helpful at first to start somewhere with some footing. It’s helpful to start first with a storyteller.

Before I read Darwin’s writings I read The Beak of the Finch. In that book the reader gets close enough to smell the Galapagos Islands. When author Jonathan Weiner writes about the beak sizes and the rain patterns and the berry growth it clicks. Of course there’s going to be variation.

Reading about finches made clear that there’s no better finch. When one type of weather pattern is more common then one type of fruit is more common and one type of finch is more common.

We get the finches the environment allows.

In the past Rogan, Thompson, and Carlin would have had a newspaper column, a television gig, or radio seat and sold books because that was the business model for ideas. It was the media the environment allows.

This works for school too.

Weather changed berries which changed finches. Technology changed media which changed models. Distance learning changed education which changes the learners. My daughter’s teachers were as out of sorts teaching digitally as a finch on the wrong island or radio personality in the wrong time.

The medium of school is the classroom. The format is seven to three. The schedule is forty-four to fifty minutes. For every class. For every student. Doesn’t that sound like radio? Like a newspaper column? Like a talk show?

What’s the incentive? Finches need to eat, producers need to earn, kids need to…

In that spirit I’ve started a daily email. It’s one story each weekday that might give you a new perspective on a current problem. Sign up.