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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Have you ever had a word where your definition works for you and based on that you seem to be in conflict with every other definition of the word? And you don’t want to give up yours because you like it but then you have to recalibrate your brain every time the subject comes up? You might not even have a perfect I-can-write-it-out-on-a-piece-of-paper thing but sort of like the carpenter test (I don’t need to be a carpenter to know if my table is level) you know it when you see it? Meritocracy is one of those for me. I see it in a fair number of articles and books; just this year I read Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. I was pretty unsatisfied with the read but more because in my head meritocracy is so different. If I had accepted the author’s starting point and followed through I think the read probably would have hung together better. That is on me, not the author. I don’t think I’ll probably reread it for the sake of checking.

Meritocracy is one of those notions that I think that sounds sensible and as long as we don’t get into the murk of defining and determining merit we can all nod our heads about. Moreover, I think at the squishy undefined level it may be an important national myth or at least part of the fabric of our national myths.

It seems a shame to step away from that level. When you do it all falls apart pretty quickly.
Wikipedia has a variety of cuts at the definition. There are enough to where you can kind of find something for anyone.
Merriam Webster is concise:
1: a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2: leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

Part of my original intent I suppose was to pick through some of the definitional stuff and poke holes -> Education as test of merit – really? – how is my merit demonstrated by having smart parents that had the money and will to get me through X brand college and provided me with the network that will likely get me wherever I’m going? Poking holes seems easy enough to do on your own.

What I’m more interested in is grappling with the notion I associate with meritocracy and once some of that is on paper then trying to figure out better schemes for identifying it. As a first stroke, one piece of the notion I have is work ethic versus ambition. I’m pretty sure work ethic is in the notion but, while not completely excluding it, I don’t think ambition is. Humility seems to be in there somewhere. Willing to walk away if something isn’t right. Shirt off your back friends at every level. Ignorance or a seeking form of intelligence.

Something to noodle on.

Matthew Yglesias had a post up on autonomous cars reminding us of the eventual promise of a world where that is the norm. I largely agree with him that as envisioned it does represent a game changer. His focus is how it will change ownership, land use, and public policy taking the change in to consideration.

The problem autonomous cars solves for me is the driving coordination problem represented by traffic. On a percentage basis much of the road infrastructure during most times of day doesn’t face this problem. For some stretches of road at specific times though you have far too much traffic. Normal urban commutes suffer badly from this. Barring a change in living/work patterns that eliminates the problem, I’m up for us solving this problem and I don’t think we need to wait until such time as the autonomous cars are the norm to do it. The problem I think is how to optimize the shortest time to make a trip given whatever flexibility I can afford in terms of leave time, route, and manner of driving. There seem to be three components that tie in to this. 1) the technical piece 2) the incentive piece and the 3) herd behavior piece.

The technical piece looks to be pretty straightforward and off the shelf. Smart phone penetration rate is high and getting higher. Most of what is needed as far as location and user interface is right there. The coordination piece is a bit more interesting. Do you come up with a better solution from a central process that directs all the action or some decentralized rules that allow various nodes to interact with each other to come up with the rolling solution? This part of the problem benefits from similar problems that have been solved.

The incentive piece is a lot less clear. How do you incent drivers such that they will alter their individual behavior? Time savings as long as it actually manifested would at least be a weak incentive. If you could regularly save 10 minutes of commute time by some adjustments in driving behavior there would be some folks that would bite. 10 minutes might represent a pretty steep goal depending. I’m thinking you would need something stronger than that. The kinds of things that pop to mind are free bridge tolls, or a break on gas tax or some other kind of tax reduction incentive. Based on X minutes of driving within parameters or based on say leaving X minutes early/late, you accumulate incentives. You could flip that on its head and try to figure out how to disincent not participating but that might be a tougher nut.

The last piece is the herd behavior. What percentage of participants do you need to achieve where the entire herd benefits? This piece might be less problematic than at first glance. For some herd items like immunity, you need a pretty high percentage for the herd to benefit. Given that roads have limited capacity, relatively few participants are needed in some circumstances to get a result. If you have 4 lanes and a car in all 4 lanes going about the same speed, effectively nothing is going faster than that. This aspect might drive some folks crazy but I wonder how long before everyone would systemically adjust to the new norm. Given that it only needs to be enabled to manage particular volume situations there are plenty of times for folks to drive however they want.

This may all be hopelessly naive and impractical but at the root I guess I dislike the idea of waiting for some event to happen where everything improves when some improvement may be viable right now.

I’m always happy to see someone come out and admit they were wrong. It must be because this is such a rare bird to see. I’m not talking about your PR flack walking you through damage control. I’m also not talking about having hedged your way six ways to Sunday in whatever it was you said and even that proving to be inadequate. I’m particularly not talking about any of the variations of wrong but not wrong; for example, “I underestimated exactly how stupid they would be”. I’m talking about I said (or did) X on the basis of Y and that has been shown to be wrong.

I recently saw a person that I follow come out with one of those. I read this person because I feel I have learned stuff in an area that I’m not too well versed in but am interested. I was particularly pleased in this case because it reinforces a hypothesis that I have. That hypothesis being that the only folks who come out and admit they are wrong are those who are competent, and possibly to a lessor degree confident. Barring of course the type of shenanigans mentioned above.

My theory rests on the notion that incompetent people can never admit they are wrong. It plays too close to the self perception they already have of being a fraud. When you are already worried about being discovered, you probably aren’t going to hand others fuel for the fire. This implies a certain amount of self awareness in knowing you aren’t competent. What about the people who are truly clueless? That I am less certain about. If you are clueless, believing yourself to be competent when you aren’t, do you admit to being wrong? My suspicion is no but I don’t have a good notion yet for why that would be. That is a possible hole in the theory. Apart from that I think it stands up reasonably well.

I think the confidence piece probably has to do with with having enough belief in yourself that you aren’t that worried about the possible consequences of having been wrong and admitting it. It seems to me you can have a competent person who might not have much faith in their bosses getting the whole wrong thing and for example not being sure they can land another gig. In that case, I don’t think you are going to see someone coming out and admitting they were wrong.

Obviously I’m at risk for confirmation bias here.

Some time ago I was introduced to the Up Goer Five: http://xkcd.com/1133/ and was completely taken with it. The basic exercise was to explain the Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most often used words. There is a spinoff tool that you can dump a chunk of text in to and have it highlight the words that don’t make the limit. Then you have to reword your text to try and still having meaning without using prohibited words. Great exercise. From a design perspective the Up Goer Five demonstrates simplicity and elegance, two things that you often hear with regard to good designs. Simplicity can be incredibly hard.

I think I was so taken with it because we are surrounded by so much BS that’s main point seems to be to cloud rather than clarify.There may not even be intent and in some cases, it comes from using discipline specific shorthand or lingo. I think a case can be made that whatever gain there is in communication shortcuts is lost in clarity of communication. In my experience you can have a roomful of experts that are in violent agreement about a point, so much so that it is taken as a given. When you do an exercise that aims to make sure that the point has a common understanding in simple terms, you often create violent disagreement. How is that even possible?

This is a long way of getting around to where I would love to see the Up Goer Five applied: Economics. (Possibly just Macro) There maybe some other area that might be better but if so I don’t follow it. They should start handing out PhDs to anyone that can apply Up Goer Five to a concept in economics and get say 80% agreement in the profession that going forward it will be the standard explanation for that concept. Perhaps there are some concepts that this would be easy for and you’d end up with some easy PhDs but that would be an incentive to get this going right away. Economics is nothing if it isn’t about incentives. There may be some disciplines that match it (love to know which) but I don’t think there are any that exceed economics in having so much said, so many obfuscatory terms thrown around, so much name calling, and so much disagreement often on what the profession terms the most basic concepts, let alone the more advanced stuff that relies on agreement in basic concepts. This strikes me as a discipline highly in need of a reboot and I think a library of economics concepts as explained in Up Goer Five language is the place to start. Sure it will be hard but my challenge would be if you are a practitioner and can’t sit down and hammer out an acceptable Up Goer Five version of a concept, do you really understand that concept?

Full disclosure: I’m not entirely certain I could write this blog post using the Up Goer Five though I think that lack of certainty may stem from lack of patience.

It seems there are few insults that wound better than being called ignorant. It brings about all kinds of connotations of being lower class, stupid, foolish and the like. Someone can shout profanities at you but that is more about volume than effect. To be called ignorant is to be challenged on all manner of personal characteristics. This is unfortunate because my preferred definition of ignorance is: not knowing. Not only is it harmless in that context, it seems like the base state in which we will all live our lives. There is apparently something wired in to us (or learned) that to not know is inferior. On many levels we will go to almost any extent to fill the hole of not knowing concocting whole narratives to pretend at knowing. This permeates our lives. Every day there is a narrative about why the stock market is up or down. ‘Today the Fed Chairman passed wind during the meeting and that was viewed as a sign of his/her comfort about current conditions, markets were up on the news.’ This is treated as news and taken more or less seriously but we don’t know that is why markets did one thing or another. On an individual level it is hard to avoid hearing or reading someone holding forth on some area where we strongly suspect little knowledge.

The other side of the coin is how transient knowledge can be said to be. Much of what we think we know is something of an illusion. In some cases what we know is just the best version of something at the moment. We don’t even know how far along the line we are in what there will be to know about the item or whether new work will completely tear down what it is we think we know. You can feel how perilous our knowledge is when a study or experiment is recreated later and the expected effect isn’t seen. Other bits of knowledge that were developed as offshoots of the original study now come in to question. Is part of this branch of knowledge valid or invalid?

This isn’t to adopt the stance that we can’t know anything but rather to highlight the uncertainty. Ignorance is certain. Knowledge is uncertain. We seem far better served with that as a model than the other way around.

Connecting ignorance with another thread: ignorance, or putting oneself forth as being ignorant(not knowing), strikes me as a vulnerable state. I’ve been reading recently about vulnerability as neither a good or a bad thing but rather just as something that exists within ourselves. How we access vulnerability determining any number of ways that we experience things. If, as posited in the reading it takes courage to be vulnerable and if ignorance is rightly thought of as a form of vulnerability, then it would seem to follow that it takes courage to live in/with ignorance which would in turn open oneself to pursuing knowing.

For this combinatorial I am indebted to:
1) Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein.
2) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
3) Brainpickings.org by Maria Popova (for bringing these to my attention)

PS I felt the need to add not knowing in parenthesis after being ignorant in the last paragraph because the word still feels too loaded, even after having defined it a particular way above. I wonder why that is?

Some time ago, I think in someone’s post about what advice they would give to folks, Tyler Cowen’s response was something to the effect of not necessarily taking your stated preference over your revealed preference. At least that is how I remember most of it. Taking some liberties with what the actual meaning of stated and revealed may be, I chose to look at them as whatever it is that I say that I will do/think/believe versus what I actually end up doing that can be observed. For example, my stated preference may be that I spend time reading when my revealed preference may be a lot of time spent watching TV. If I understand what Cowen is saying correctly, I shouldn’t automatically assume that the stated preference is somehow right/better/brings more happiness than the revealed preference. The necessarily is a key word choice. It may be the case that the stated preference is somehow better than the revealed preference but it may also not be the case and I should examine each situation where this occurs and consider why there is a difference between the two. The corollary is that in his observation people don’t consider whether there is a reason to think the stated preference is better.

One place that I think this occurs is in self improvement and our various plans to perform that on ourselves. We want to be thinner, more productive, more interesting and the like. Or at least that is our stated preference. Our revealed preference is to be about the size we are, about as productive as we are, etc. The first item, being thinner is a case study. The stated preference to be thinner is prevalent and supports an entire industry. The question is whether we would be that much happier or better off by achieving that stated preference keeping in mind that there are potential costs. In some cases the answer is yes. We may have a better self image, be able to do more, face fewer health issues. In some cases the answer is no. We may not gain anything in self image or the activities we can do/enjoy, and it is possible at least to create more issues for our health. We can decrease our happiness by moving away from our revealed preference. Somewhere in between we may want a bit of the stated preference while only incurring a bit of the costs.

The insight here for me is that accepting or trusting the stated preferences exclusively over the revealed ones may cause me to pursue actions that decrease my happiness. It is necessary to consider revealed preference, why it differs from stated preference, and what the motivations are in having a separate stated preference.

So we are supposed to get 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week according to the American Heart Association. That is a figure I have heard quite a few times. That totals out to 150 minutes a week.  That got me to thinking about frequency of exercise, duration of exercise, and efficient use of time. My first question is if there is a proven advantage to doing exercise over 5 out of 7 days or whether fewer or even one exercise session is comparable in terms of benefits.  With few exceptions (not exercising to where you break a sweat) there is a time cost associated with activities you do before and after exercise.  You can optimize that by combining things, say going for a run before you shower etc and head to work, assuming you would normally shower before work, so no increased time cost over normal.  There still is dressing and stretching that you would normally do so you still have a bit of time cost multiplied by number of times you engage in exercise . This is in the best case scenario.  In the worst case scenario,  you add in travel time to wherever you exercise, and potentially prep time to your time cost. Think going to the gym before/after work where you need to pack a bag and your work clothes and now you are doing your morning routine in a place that never seems well designed for it.  So there is increased inefficiency or to word it differently there are multiple instances of time lost for each exercise session.

If this is the case, then unless there is some overriding benefit such as improved health outcomes then why incur all the extra time cost? If there is some overriding benefit, how many sessions are necessary to see that benefit – 2,3,4? Would you be even better with 20 minutes of exercise 7 days a week?  I wonder when I see this kind of recommendation whether the 5 days/30 minutes is optimized based on all factors or whether it’s a more squishy “This is what we think we can reasonably ask folks to do and get some response” kind of thing.

P.S. I’m realizing that as I’m writing this that I’m going to need another post; it isn’t just about efficiency (getting the most outcomes for the amount of time invested) but in a bigger sense how a person goes about optimizing all the variables that go in to the problem. Frequency, duration, intensity, recovery, injury potential, time cost, enjoyability, and I’m probably forgetting some.