Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: The Wealth of Humans

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I just finished Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century.

Summary: Economic Disruptions Require New Social Contracts, which can be a Bloody Process 

Ryan’s primary argument is as follows:

1. Periods of rapid technological innovation usually lead to increased prosperity, but the transition can be very disruptive to the existing social and economic order.

2. During these periods of disruption, workers, the economic elite, and those in governmental power have to create the social contract will be for the new order. This is a very difficult process that involves a lot of trial and error.

3. The last time this happened was after the industrial revolution, where numerous wars and revolutions eventually led to a few dominant orders: capitalism and the welfare state (in the West, South and Central America, and parts of the East), socialist dictatorship (in China), and resource based dictatorships (primarily in the Middle East). Of these different variations, capitalism + the welfare state have proven most successful.

4. The digital revolution, which is being driven by continuing gains in computing power, will requite a new social order, especially if this revolution leads to massive surpluses of labor.

5. Creating a new social contact for this age could be just as bloody – or bloodier – than the last go around (WWI, WWII, Mao, the Cold War, etc.).

Reflection #1: Time Between Disruptions is Decreasing, Power of Weapons is Increasing 

I generally agree with Ryan’s argument. One additional issue to consider is that the time between economic singularities is decreasing. It took us a very, very longtime to get from hunter gathers to farmers, and a very longtime to get from farming to the industrial revolution.

It’s barely taken us a 150 year to get from the industrial revolution to the computing revolution.

And it’s likely that the computing revolution will seed another revolution (perhaps general artificial intelligence) in another 50-100 years – and who knows what next economic singularity will spring from superior artificial intelligence…

Additionally, technological advancement increases the power and scope of our weapons. We will likely continue to build new weapons that can wipe out humanity, such as synthetic viruses.

In short, the time between the rolls of the dice will decrease, while our odds of losing any given die roll may increase.

One way to reduce the odds of losing is to disperse ourselves and / or our decendents amongst the cosmos in order to decrease the fragility of single planet living.

Reflection #2: A Minor Guess of How to Ease Into the Next Social Order

The more I puzzle over the accelerating impacts of the digital revolution, the more I come back to wage subsidies as the best tool we have for stumbling our way into the next social order.

While universal basic incomes might at some time be warranted, this will be incredibly expensive (given current productivity) and we don’t yet know how to structure a modern society where many people simply don’t work.

Wage subsidies, on the other hand: (1) maintain the connection between work and income (2) lead to less economic distortion, especially compared to minimum wage raises (3) can be raised over time to maintain a sense of economic progress, and (4) help avoid an economy where purchasing power (and presumably social power) consolidates with the top 10%.

Reflection #3: What is Inflationary? What is Deflationary?

Over the past few decades, goods have faced deflationary pressures (most things you buy for day-to-day uses are cheaper now).

Education and healthcare, on the other hand, have been subject to inflationary pressures (they cost more than they used to).

From a pure material progress standpoint, a deflationary future means that wage subsidies might not be necessary to keep improving welfare.

However, if healthcare, housing, and education continue to eat up budgets, people will need higher wages to keep up, especially those that don’t receive government subsidies in these areas.

Lastly, it’s possible that even if purchasing power increases, if income inequality is still increasing, social unrest could still be a major issue.

All this is to say: it’s worth looking at both income and expense.

Reflection #4: Consider Yourself, Consider the Monkey, Consider the Dog 

To the extent humans survive the new social order that comes after an artificial intelligence singularity, it’s worth considering what this existence might be like.

Dogs, for example, have done quite well during the era of human dominance. Specifically, they were bred to be happier.

Dogs have also been provided a universal basic income in the form of shelter, food, and treats.

I often struggle with the gap between what I believe to be the best version of myself and the actual reality of the current version of myself. I sometimes get depressed by the lack of progress I’m making.

The fact is that it’s incredibly difficult to become an even better person once you’ve eaten up the low-hanging fruit of adopting classical liberal beliefs and not murdering your fellow humans.

So it’s worth noting that humans (perhaps?) have created the best version of dogs.

Perhaps our descendants will do the same for us, especially if we are able to bring value to whatever is they are seeking in life. Interestingly enough, more intelligent primates have not faired as well as dogs and cats. So don’t assume being #2 on the intelligence pecking order means you’ll be ok.

This may all sound crazy, but it seems extremely unlikely that humans are the endpoint of evolution. So it’s worth considering – what comes next?

Elon Musk vs. the Environmentalists – Some Lessons

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One of the core values of our team is: we face and solve brutal realities.

Another on of our values is: we ask why. 

Recently, at a team retreat, we read and discussed Musk’s biography. It is well worth reading.

In reading the book – and reflecting on our values – I was struck by how Musk differs from many environmentalists.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Climate Change

Both Musk and the environmentalists care about the future of humanity.

Both Musk and environmentalists believe that humanity is at-risk due to human induced climate change.

In this sense: each has faced the brutal reality of the dangers of climate change.

Because of this brutal reality, environmentalists are doing important policy and conservation work.

Because of this brutal reality, Musk launched Solar City and Tesla.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Single Planetary Existence 

But Musk, in considering the threat of environmental disaster, did not stop asking “why” when it comes to the risk of human extinction.

Rather than being satisfied with the (true) morality tale of humans destroying the planet; he kept on asking why humans were so exposed to environmental collapse on Earth in the first place.

The answer is of course obvious: Earth is the only planet we live on. As it goes, so do we.

In terms of human continuity, it is very fragile to only live on one planet. Ultimately, even natural environmental shifts (volcano explosion, meteor, etc.) can destroy humanity. Musk realized this was a major problem that many environmentalists did not seem to be working on.

Yes, slowing human made climate change is important, but it is only a stop-gap solution. Leaving Earth is the more sustainable solution.

Completing this logic pathway (of asking why humanity is truly at risk) only requires the knowledge one might pick up in high school.

Ultimately, getting  down to the root solutions is as much as about mental habits as it is about knowledge: facing brutal realities, continuing to ask “why,” having the boldness of vision to put forth a solution – this is what is needed…. as well as having the operational capacity to make a good attempt to realize this vision.

It is rare that all these qualities sit in one person. This is what makes Musk so special.

And it is why we have Space X.

Our Work 

I’d like to think that some of our greatest successes in New Orleans were because we faced brutal realities and we asked “why” a lot.

Some of our biggest failures likely came from a failure to live out these two values.

When it comes to facing brutal realities, I find the following to be of use: soberly analyzing existing performance data; reading the criticisms of thoughtful people in other tribes; taking the time to quantitatively role forward your expected impact over 10-20 years.

When it comes to asking “why,” I find the following to be useful: sitting on potential solutions before acting on them; setting-up a culture and process for rigorous team questioning; having a board of directors that constantly questions your work; reading broadly to build-up false solution pattern recognition.

 

Managing Humans is a Form of Cultural Evolution

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I’m reading: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

The book is good, but it feels overly long, and I don’t know if I will finish it.

The main premise of the book is that accumulated cultural wisdom drives much of human progress.

For example, if you were dropped off in the middle of the Amazon, you would probably die because you are not a part of a culture that has developed the knowledge necessary to survive in this environment.

This may seem obvious, but it is still profound.

We survive not only because of our individual intelligence but also because of our collective intelligence, and our collective intelligence is often narrowly tailored to the environment of our birth.

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Here is how Patrick Collison, the founder of Stripe, describes their organization:

We’re relatively conventionally organized. There’s always a temptation to reconceive the nature of humanity and social structure; you should really try to discourage that inner voice. First, think about all the risks you’re taking in your business. The standard ways of organizing a businesses are empirically sufficient for creating Google, Facebook, etc. Do you really want to add your novel organizational ontology as an additional business risk factor? Second, you’re not going to be very good at anticipating the problems with any alternative that you might conceive, since — chances are — many of the future problems are ones you won’t have encountered before.

Here is Sam Altman in the Startup Playbook:

One mistake that CEOs often make is to innovate in well-trodden areas of business instead of innovating in new products and solutions. For example, many founders think that they should spend their time discovering new ways to do HR, marketing, sales, financing, PR, etc. This is nearly always bad. Do what works in the well-established areas, and focus your creative energies on the product or service you’re building.

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Managing humans is a form of cultural evolution.

Over time, we have figured out ways to organize humans to accomplish great things.

When I helped start NSNO, I had no idea how to manage humans. Luckily, great people on our team taught me how to do this.

I also read a lot of books.

Now, whatever the endeavor, I take the time to create: goals, a strategy, core values, vehicles for individual feedback, and systems to monitor overall progress.

Of course, I don’t do this perfectly, but I always do it.

Humans have evolved to manage other humans in a manner that, when done well, can be inspiring, meaningful, and lead to great things being accomplished.

As such, I don’t try to reinvent the human management wheel that has been created by our human ancestors.

My marginal units of energy are most often spent on (1) human management execution; and  (2) product innovation.

I try not to bother with human management innovation. You probably shouldn’t either.

Rather, you should focus on product innovation.

In our team’s case, that means spending energy on trying to figure out how society can best deliver an excellent education to all children.

We have a long way to go, but early results are promising:

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Reflections on the Hive Mind

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I just read Hive Mind by Garett Jones. It is well worth reading.

Garett’s thesis is this:

  • Average IQs vary across nations.
  • A nation’s IQ (the average of the IQ of its citizens) is extremely important for economic development.
  • It is so important, that, for the average individual, it’s much better to have a lower IQ and live in a nation of high IQs than it is to have a high IQ and live in a nation of lower IQs.
  • National IQs can increase.
  • We don’t really know how to raise IQs, despite the fact that many nations have done it.

If you want to evaluate the thesis yourself, you should read the book. It’s not too long.

Here are questions I’m left with after reading the book:

What’s Going on with China?

China’s per capita income (lower) and corruption levels (higher) are different than most countries with similar (high) IQs.

On twitter, I asked Garett for an explanation, and he pointed to Mao as a destructive force whose legacy still causes China to underperform.

I then pointed out that China underperformed its IQ in 1935, before Mao.

Garett then pointed to the decline of the Qing dynasty.

Fair enough, I guess. But if you have to explain away a hundred years of underperformance across a dynasty, a communist tyrant, and the modern Communist party – at some point the story risks becoming a little suspect.

Given China’s game playing with international education tests, my first instinct was that China is overstating its IQ by discounting its rural population.

However, Ian Morris and others have demonstrated that China used to be a world leader in energy production and technology, so perhaps the IQ is (or used to be) there.

Which leads to an interesting question: did China go from a relatively high IQ society to a low / mediocre IQ society to a rising IQ society?

Maybe.

Which leads to a larger issue: most of Garett’s data is from the 20th century – in general, it would be fascinating to try to understand how IQ changed over past centuries and / or millennia.

Test Scores vs. Educational Attainment…. Fluid vs. Crystallized Intelligence

Garett toggles between pointing to test scores (standardized tests) and educational attainment (years of school), while usually emphasizing test scores as a better indicator of progress.

Schooling ain’t learning, after all.

However, in some areas, such as economics, education is a good predicator of supporting sound policies (those aligned with expert opinion).

Readers of this blog will know that Jay Greene and I have been debating whether or not increased educational attainment matters if it is not associated with higher test scores.

My guess is that, broadly speaking, increases in test scores are more important for society, while increases in attainment are more important for the individual.

Which creates an interesting K12 accountability question: should we measure K12 school performance more for impact on test scores or for increases in attainment?

My guess: probably on both, with an emphasis on a certain floor being met.

Moreover, test score performance can be broken down into fluid test score performance (abstract thinking) and crystallized test score performance (factual knowledge).

High-performing charters have been both applauded and jeered for raising crystallized test score performance but not fluid performance.

Even more complicating: most research shows that domain expertise is not transferable, which, perhaps, calls into question our fetish for fluid intelligence (save for the caveat that increased fluid intelligence might help someone gain greater content expertise).

All in all, I’m left with more questions than answers on this subject.

How Can We Raise National IQs? Which Interventions Will Work in Which Nations?

Garett explores the varied research on how we (might) be able to raise IQs.

There aren’t many clear answers.

Here’s a few guesses, drawing both from Garett’s review of the research and my own reflections.

Extreme Poverty: In nation’s that suffer from chronic malnutrition and disease, ameliorating health deficincies is probably the best way to quickly raise IQs, as well as providing for a sound basic education.

Low Income Nations: In countries that are poor but not extremely poor, more effective education (preferably through high school) and modernization (living in a world where you’re constantly dealing with abstract issues rather than issues like hunting) may provide a bump.

It’s interesting to think about interventions that could increase the modernness of an environment at low costs. Perhaps technology and media can do this effectively.

Middle Income to Wealthy Nations: There are statistically significant IQ differences between wealthy nations, with a few (often smaller) East Asian nations often outperforming Western nations.

At this margin, it is very unclear to me if increasing IQ is the most direct path to increasing flourishing in already high IQ nations (would you rather live in the United States, Singapore, or Japan?).

But I do think there are gains to be had, especially with those citizens who are greatly underperforming national averages. My guess is that for a wealthy nation as a whole,  it’s culture first and education + early career work as a potential second.

I really have no idea how to change national culture, but my instinct is that it only really happens due to extreme events.

As for how to increase educational outcomes, readers of this blog will know that I favor relinquishment, whereby power is handed back down to educators (to run schools) and families (to choose from these schools) with some government regulation (to close bad actors and keep an eye on equity).

Time will tell if this is true, though signs are encouraging.

In Sum

Garret’s thesis is a fascinating one. If it’s true, it has implications for health, education, economic, and immigration policy, to name a few.

Moreover, Garett, handles potentially tricky subjects (differences in national IQs) with grace and evenhandedness.

The subject is also complex enough that I’m sure I got things wrong in the above…

Lastly, though this is more of case of fortune than author intention, Garett’s conclusions point to the fact that raising IQs across the globe is potentially possible and likely transformational.

Our marching orders are clear.

Book Review(s): 6 Books on Our Mental Limits

I’ve had some good reading time over the past two months and have been able to get through six books (as well as the new Dragon Tattoo book, which will not be reviewed here):

  1. Triggers: Creating Behaviors that Last (adult behavior change)
  2. Superforecasting (predictions)
  3. Work Rules! (Google’s HR systems)
  4. Simple Rules (utilizing simple rules to guide decisions)
  5. The Evolution of Everything (evolution as a principle for all change)
  6. Hive Mind (how national IQ is more important than individual IQ)

All are worth reading.

Here are some major themes that ran through them all:

We Have Weak Minds

Triggers pushes hard on how much environment impacts us.

Super forecasting details how badly pundits do at prediction because they rely on situational judgment rather than baseline data.

Simple Rules makes a convincing case that the world is too complex to navigate by fully analyzing every situation.

The Evolution of Everything rightly argues that even our geniuses are most often well situated for breakthroughs due to past intellectual evolution, not because they along were capable of achieving such breakthroughs.

Collectively, We Have Better Minds

Hive Mind demonstrates how individual minds are made more effective by having other good minds around.

Triggers lays out an accountability regime whereby other people hold you accountable for your behavior commitments.

Superforecasting talks about how even the best forecasters improve when working together.

The Evolution of Everything narrates how it is our collective knowledge, built over the ages, that allows to enjoy the fruits of modernity.

Those Who Use Data Effectively Will Win 

Work Rules! vividly portrayed how heavily Google relies on data analysis to make any decision, be it about people or anything else.

One memorable quote went something like a manager saying this: “If you don’t give me data, I will give you my opinions, and you don’t want that.”

Super forecasting is all about how baseline data is needed to anchor any situational judgment.

Triggers recommends systematic daily tracking of any desired behavioral change.

How I’ve Changed Because of these Books

  1. After reading Triggers, I created an end of the day 10 question checklist to hold myself accountable for the behaviors I’m trying to implement (I use an app to record them every night).
  2. After reading Superforecasting, I’ve tried to ensure that we conduct a  research review of any issue before even beginning to make judgments, to ensure we understand baseline data.
  3. After reading Work Rules! I reflected on how much I over relied on my own judgment when I led NSNO. I should have done a better job of always asking for the data before making any managerial decisions.
  4. After reading Simple Rules, I revised a decision checklist I had made for grant making to include a priority rule (most of them were boundary rules and stop rules).
  5. After reading Hive Mind, I reflected on my strong preference for very open immigration. While I still hold this belief, the book helped me understand where and why I might draw limits.

I don’t know if I will be successful in sustaining any of these behavior changes. But I hope I can.

If you have a chance, I recommend picking any of the books up for holiday reading.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things in Education Reform

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I’m rereading Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth reading.

The book is an attempt to be brutally honest about how hard is to build a company, as well as give some advice on how to survive the hard times.

I learned a lot from reading about Ben’s experience.

So in case it’s of use to you, here’s some summaries / lessons from my very hard times in my own professional career.

Leading School Development Work Without Instructional Knowledge

NSNO had two experienced educators leading our new school creation work. It was very hard to find two top notch instructional people and we’d done a lot of recruiting to get these awesome folks and I thought we were in good shape staffing wise. I was wrong. They both had children at roughly the same time and I ended up leading our school support work while they were out.

Even writing this now, I feel some sense of embarrassment and guilt as I was 100% not ready for the job. I remember being very anxious and feeling dread going into the schools we working with. They were all start-up schools that needed excellent support and I knew that I personally could not give them the support that they needed.

There is really nothing more to say other than I showed up and did what I could and kept the work moving until our team was reassembled.  The only thing I think I did well was stay calm and focused. I never freaked out publicly and I kept our support visible. We kept on showing up to schools. I’m not sure there is anything I could have done different. It was an external shock and sometimes when external shocks happen you just have to survive.

Failing in Raising a Major Fundraising Round

NSNO was trying to raise somewhere around $15 million for the city and we arranged a final pitch day for our biggest funders. They flew in from all over the country and for the day we put them in front of high status speakers and panels full of our best educators. Then, at the end of the day, they said they needed some time to debrief. So our leadership team, including our board chair, left the room for about an hour. Then we came back in. The funders proceeded to tell us that they weren’t ready to make another major investment; that they still had too many questions.

I was shocked. I thought we had everything lined up. I thought we put on an awesome day. And I felt passionately that the work had to continue; that we were on the cusp of something very very important and that they were going to abandon us. With as much calm as I could muster, I told them this; that they needed to invest. I was very young at the time and if my voice wasn’t shaking audibly my mind surely was shaking. They said they understood where we were coming from but that they weren’t ready to invest. The meeting ended. I went up home to my girlfriend and cursed loudly about how the funders were abandoning us. Then I drank a few bourbons and went to bed.

Shortly after, we told the staff that were unsuccessful in getting the commitments we needed. I forget what we said or how we said it. Mostly what I remember is creating a plan to go back to each of the funders individually and figure out what their concerns were and make sure we fixed it. This is what we did. Eventually we raised more than we had initially set out to raise.

The reason the day was a failure was all our fault. Instead of understanding our funders’ concerns and having deep discussions about these issues, we put on a dog and pony show for them. They were rightful frustrated, and, I think, felt like they had wasted much of the day. Putting on this dog and pony show both kept them from getting the information they needed and made us look like we did not have our shit together. The reason we were able to get through it is that we were very dogged; we did not hold grudges; and, ultimately, we put forth a realistic and compelling vision of what we could accomplish as a city.

Failing to Lead the NSNO Management Team

When I first became CEO everyone on our management team was much more experienced than I was. And while I was confident in my ability to develop our organizational strategy and communicate this vision to internal and external stakeholders, I was not confident in my ability to manage senior staff who had more content knowledge than I did. So instead of building a management team I simply met weekly with our senior staff to make sure the work was moving. I did not set high expectations for the work; I did not build trust amongst the team; I did not provide thoughtful feedback; I did not create an atmosphere of debate.

During our first 360 performance review, I received brutal feedback. The management team made it very clear that I was failing to lead them. It was extremely, extremely difficult to hear. I was emotionally hurt and for about a day couldn’t even really deal with it. Then I got my act together and met with each of them to figure out how I could get better. I built a plan to become a true leader of the management team and mentally committed myself to deliberately managing the team. Soon after, we did an off site retreat and got much more vulnerable with each other; we began to push each other; and I began to internalize the fact that perhaps the most important role I had was leading the management team. Overtime, the management team became, in my opinion, very high-performing and all members stayed with me through my tenure.

Not leading the management team was 100% my fault. I was unprepared to be an effective CEO and if I had prepared more fully I could have avoided some early mistakes. The only reason I survived is that I think every member of the team knew two things: (1) I was passionate about NSNO and (2) I was an extremely committed constant learner.

If people believe you care and they know you want to get better and they trust that you can get better they will forgive you when you fuck up.

Anyways, those were some hard things. I’m sure I got some of the details wrong. But, at the very least, that’s how they felt.

A Book Well Worth Reading

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Last week I left my Kindle at a hotel in Memphis.

So I picked up a book off the shelf that I’d ordered a month ago, The Education of a Value Investor, by Guy Spier.

The book is well worth reading.

I find most autobiographical books to be tedious, dishonest, and overlong.

This book was none of these.

Guy’s story is one of privilege: Oxford to Harvard Business School to Wall Street. Over the course of the narrative, he loses himself, finds himself, and then obsesses about improving himself.

The last piece is what makes the book different than similar books, and it is what I found to be the most interesting, as I have a similar obsession, though it does not run as strong as it does with Guy.

Some highlights:

Guy (and his editor, presumably) do not seem to polish Guy’s personality: Guy describes himself as having both ADD and an obsessive personality. The book’s tone and structure reflect this. By not hiding himself, Guy allows the reader to accurately discount some of the book’s claims and recommendations. No one is perfect, and when an author is open about her imperfections, the reader can better evaluate the author’s main points.

An acceptance of irrationality: Guy comes to the conclusion that he can’t overcome all his irrational biases through logic and mental training. As such, he tries to structure his environment, relationships, and work processes in order to manage his biases. This even includes moving to Zurich because envy makes him invest poorly (he makes too big of bets). Over time, he comes to the conclusion that he’d be a better investor (and person) if he moved to a more egalitarian city, so he moves from NYC to Zurich.

Hacking one’s specific self: In doing things like moving to Zurich, Guy consistently reinforces that these hacks might not work for others who have different weaknesses or strengths. In the effort of self-improvement, it’s easy to fall into the trap of copying what successful people do rather than taking the time to figure out what will make one successful – these will likely not be the exact same things. There are meta lessons to be had from observing others. But ultimately you have to do the handwork of understanding who you are before major improvement is possible.

Intellectual implementation over intellectual sophistication: Guy’ sources of knowledge are diverse, including everything from the self-improvement sector (especially Tony Robbins) to psychotherapy to Roman scholars. But what most struck me was his commitment to intellectual implementation. He talks a lot about reading, re-reading, practicing, and implementing any ideas that could plausibly improve him as a person. It is one thing to be well read. It is another to figure it how to implement what one reads. And Guy obsesses over this. Too many people, I think, read for knowledge instead of behavior change.

An obsession with role models: Guy’s obsession with Warren Buffet borders on worship. Regardless of what one thinks of Warren, reading how Guy learns from role models is quite fascinating, as it is an odd mix of humility (“Warren is much better than me”) and egoism (“I think I can be almost that good”). Reading these sections made think a lot about the fundamental dynamics between mentor and pupil.

Do read the book.

Even if you disagree with most of Guy’s conclusions, you should be able to learn a lot by evaluating the merits and weaknesses of how he thinks.

All in all, this book caused me to increase how much I value author transparency in what I read.

The more honest someone is, the easier it is to learn from her.