Category Archives: Book reviews

Rational compassion is a competitive advantage

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Paul Bloom recently wrote a book called Against Empathy.

The thesis of the book is: rational compassion > empathy.

In other words: empathy (caring how someone feels at the moment) is poor guide for moral decision making when compared to rational compassion (which is more utilitarian in nature).

The difference is easiest to see when it comes to parenting: an overly empathetic parent might respond to a child’s failure by giving the child a cookie (thereby immediately decreasing the child’s suffering), while a parent utilizing rational compassion might help the child process her emotions (thereby reducing the probability of future instances of suffering).

While the idea is rather intuitive, we’re so hardwired for empathy that practicing rational compassion, especially at work, is very difficult.

Because it’s so hard to practice, and because most people are not good at it, the consistent use of rational compassion can be a competitive advantage for doing good in both the for-profit and non-profit sector.

List of Areas Where Rational Compassion > Empathy at the Work Place

Executing strategies that cause short-term harm for long-term gain: Tough decisions (such as school closures) cause short-term pain to others but can provide significant long-term outcomes. Being guided by rational compassion can help you get through this pain.

Pivoting and cannibalizing: Similarly, at times an organization needs to destroy existing program lines and harm existing beneficiaries of their work in order to pivot to a more productive model which will eventually add move value to more people (think Netflix going from mailbox to streaming). Empathy for existing employees and customers can blind one from the rationally compassionate act of eventually serving more people better.

Performance feedback: Rational compassion will lead you to give very direct and practical feedback so a colleague can improve her performance and achieve her and the organization’s goals. Having empathy for underperformance will lead to the avoidance of direct conversations, which in the short term causes more pain.

Firing people: Too much empathy for an individual who needs to be let go can cause immense harm to the people you are trying to serve. Especially in philanthropic work, firing a relatively privileged person in order to better serve people in extreme need is the rationally compassionate thing to do.

Accepting flaws of ambitious people: Sometimes ambitious people have a lot of flaws, which can lead you to empathize with all the people they are negatively impacting. However, these flawed people can also change the world for the better. Analyzing their actions through a rational compassion lens will help you understand if it’s worth supporting or partnering with people who are flawed but who can help the world become amazingly better. It will also help you avoid working deeply with nice people who are not effective.

The Risk of Rational Compassion 

One of the hardest parts of rational compassion is that it often involves overriding the legitimate short-term needs of others.

In other words: you’re saying you know what’s better for someone than she does.

While this is less of a tension in managerial situations (it’s your job to make feedback, coaching, firing decisions) and for-profit work (the customer will ultimately hold you accountable), in philanthropy (where it’s your job to help others) this can be a deadly sin.

It’s a blurry line between rational compassion and technocratic hubris.

There’s no easy way around this, though research and accountability can help.

In education, test scores, attainment, and parent demand can provide medium term feedback loops to provide a check on incorrect rational compassionate assumptions.

But while there are risks with rational compassion, most of society is so tilted toward empathy (especially in the education sector!) that an increase in the practice of rational compassion would be a welcome turn.

 

Book Review: Homo Deus

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Homo Dues is Yuval Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, which was excellent.

I. Book Summary 

The Past 

For most of time, humans struggled to overcome three evils: famines, plagues, and wars.

In part because humans really had no good answers to these problems, God became the center piece of coping with this evils. It was God’s will, rather than human agency, that was the causal foundation for what happened on Earth.

The Turning Point 

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution changed all this – rationality and science allowed humans to begin taming famines, plagues, and war – which also eroded God’s standing.

The Present 

Together, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – as well as the decline of religion – led to a very turbulent 20th century, where numerous countries and societies experimented with new social structures.

Ultimately, capitalistic welfare states won out on the economic front, and Humanism (seeking meaning by looking inward rather than by following God’s will) is winning out on the social / spiritual front.

Because we’ve made so much progress defeating famine, plagues, and war – we’re now turning our attention to achieve immortality, happiness, and, ultimately, god like abilities.

The Future

Humanistic capitalism will be threatened by the rise of robots / computers that will undermine the foundations of both humanism and capitalism.

Because machines will be become more advanced than us, it won’t make sense for human intuition and reasoning to be the foundation for morality; and because machines will takeover the human economy, human centered capitalism / welfare states will no longer be the optimal way to structure an economy.

The two most likely futures are: techno-humanism (humans become part machine) or data-ism (humans become functionally obsolete and are replaced by intelligent machines that will likely not be conscious).

Harari indicates that techno-humanism would likely collapse on itself pretty quickly and that data-ism is our more likely future.

II. Harari is a Great Writer and Historian

It’s hard not to envy Harari as a writer: he’s logical, funny, insightful, and has an uncanny ability to elucidate complex subjects through pithy one-liners, stories, and thought experiments.

We’d all be a lot smarter if more non-fiction writers wrote with his intelligence.

Harari also does an incredible job of identifying and explaining the drivers of human material and cultural development.

III. Harari Adds Little to Futurism

Most of the main ideas in Harari’s analysis of the future can be found in deeper and more expansive works (writers along the lines of Ray Kurzwel, Robin Hanson, etc.)

While Harari’s writing and analytical abilities make him a first class historian, these skills do less work in enabling him to make insightful predictions about the future.

What I would have thought would be obvious topics of deep exploration – such as technical analysis of the computing power needed for a singularity type event, as well as the underpinnings of consciousness – receive very little treatment.

Harari just argues that data-ism will likely occur and that we can’t really predict what that will be like.

I would have loved to read a much deeper analysis of on how and when data-ism might occur, as well as some hard thinking about what economics and values might govern this new world.

Sapiens is required reading.

Homo Dues is worth reading, but, unfortunately, it’s not groundbreaking.

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.