Category Archives: Book reviews

The Case Against My Own Education

Bryan Caplan just released a new book: The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

Instead of a doing a regular review of Bryan’s book, I thought I’d do a little introspection. Bryan’s argument is that education is a major waste of time and money.

Does this hold true for parts of my own education? If so, which parts?

Pre-K: Not wasteful!

My formal education started at a Montessori pre-k. It’s a little difficult to use introspection to determine whether this was a waste of time and money, as I don’t remember much about pre-k. I do have a vague memory of being confused most of the time. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do there. But perhaps this is the point of Montessori. I don’t know.

But I don’t view this as a waste of time (what else was I supposed to do at the age of 3?) or a waste of money (the pre-k was not that fancy so I assume it was priced just a bit above the cost of babysitting). So seems like a decent use of mine and my parent’s resources. It allowed me to be confused in a safe environment and it allowed my parents to work.

Elementary School: Not wasteful!

At Parkview Elementary, I learned to read and write and do math, which have all been very useful in my life. Me being at school also allowed my parents to work, which provided our family with a home, food, and the comforts of a middle class lifestyle, which made for a happy childhood. If I had not been at school, I can’t really think of many productive uses of my time, so I don’t see many trade-offs in having attended Parkview Elementary. The combination of the school teaching me the basics and providing cost-effective babysitting (Indiana is not an extravagant spender on elementary schools) seem well worth the time and money.

Middle School: Not wasteful! 

At Ben Franklin Middle School, I honed my basic writing and math skills, as well as picked up some basic science and social studies, which probably helped ground me in the modern / liberal world order (science, democracy, etc.). I also was put in an orderly environment which helped prepare me for a society that values conscientiousness, agreeableness, and the maintenance of civilized social coalitions. If I had not been a school, I suppose I could have worked in nearby farms (labor laws permitting), which would have also reinforced conscientiousness, but probably have been lacking in math, writing, and more advanced form of social coalition building. I don’t think I was prepared to work at the types of firms that would have developed my professional skills, nor do I think that most firms would have found it cost effective to teach me math and writing, which would have been hard to teach myself.

Early High School: Not sure 

9th and 10th grade at Valparaiso High School were also good educational  years: I learned Algebra (which I still use) and further practiced writing, with an additional emphasis on research (which I still use).

However, at this age there were some real trade-offs in going to school. By the age of 14, I could have started contributing to companies at a rate that would have been worth paying me a minimum wage (if not more!) for roles that would have both helped the company and helped me build a lot skills. This is probably true at free market rates, and definitely true if the government took some of the money they were spending on me in education and used it subsidize employers paying my wages.

On average, I think you learn more about how to succeed in skilled jobs rather than in school, so I imagine I would have picked up a lot of useful soft and hard skills (goal setting, data analysis, project management, giving and receiving feedback, etc.) that I didn’t really pick up at school. And while I doubt most employers would have taught me Algebra, I imagine I could have taught myself in the future if the job required it.

So this feels like a toss up: I was learning things in schools that have helped me, but I also could have learned a lot by working at interesting jobs.

Late High School: Waste of time and money!

Most subjects I learned in high school (advanced math, science, literature, etc.) have been of very little use to me in life. Of course, I didn’t know what I would end up doing for a career at the time, but taking a bunch of advanced coursework seems like a pretty inefficient way to keep doors open for a wide breadth of future careers. For the most part, given my strong foundation in reading and math, I could have learned many subjects down the road if my chosen career had required it.

Probably 90% of what I learned in late high school I’ve forgotten and don’t really use.

I do think going straight to the work force would have been a much better education than school, but I worry a bit about making career decisions at such a young age. But a bunch of 3-12 months internships / travel experiences / short-term jobs likely would have been much better than learning Calculus, both terms of intellectual and social development.

Had I been working, I would have become a better person (in all senses of the word) faster.

College: Complete waste of money!

I was an English major at Tulane. I learned very little. Writing papers about novels is not a very transferable skill; the courses weren’t that rigorous; and most of the good novels I read I probably would have read eventually throughout my lifetime. I would have learned so much more (and been happier) had I been working at a few great companies over this time.

People also always argue that college is a time for intellectual exploration, but I don’t buy that. Life is a time for intellectual exploration, and you either enjoy being curious or you don’t. Even if I had been working, I would have still read a ton and had a bunch of great conversations, which probably would have allowed me to explore more topics at deeper levels than I did at Tulane.

1st Year of Law School: Not wasteful!

The first year at Yale Law School is basically a one year bootcamp in a mental model (how lawyers think) and logic (outline the arguments of legal cases). Even though I don’t practice law, both of these things have been helpful to me. I’m a big believer that mastering professional mindsets (lawyer, entrepreneur, teacher, VC, etc.) helps you solve a diverse set of problems as you move up in your career, and I do think that logically ordering arguments is a generalizable skill in the modern day workforce.

I sometimes wonder if schooling from ages 16 to 20 should alternate between internships and 3-6 months of curriculum from a variety of graduate degrees that provide useful mental frameworks. This would also be a great way to meet a lot of interesting people.

2nd and 3rd Years of Law School: Wasteful

I just got deeper and deeper into a knowledge base that I never use.

In Sum

My personal experience has been that school was really valuable until about 10th grade, and then, save for the first year of law school, was pretty wasteful relative to what I could have learned in a bunch of internships and jobs.

Of course, what is true for me might not be true for others.

One last point: from a policy perspective, I do think that grades K-10 are very important for both individuals and society, and I’m grateful to be working at a job that is trying to make that experience more pleasant and productive for millions of children.

My favorite books of 2017

I felt this was a pretty weak year for books. I don’t know why. I only really loved three books that came out this year.

Especially with regards to work, I found I learned a lot more by doing rather than reading. I’m curious if this trend will continue.

That being said, the best books was incredibly good: because of the first two books below, I’ve tried to up my meditation to 40 minutes a day and reduce social media to under 30 minutes a day. I’ve also done a lot to reduce iPhone screen time. I’ve also spent much more time contemplating the nature of the self. My meditation practice is a little less tactical and includes more philosophical exploration.

I feel more in control of mind than I have in years.

Why Buddhism is True by Robin Wright

Robin’s thesis is:

  1. Our brains were mostly built during hunter and gather times.
  2. The modern world has hijacked useful desires (for food, sex, stimulation, and status) so that they are no longer that useful (we over eat, watch too much porn, constantly check our phones, etc.).
  3. There is no CEO in your brain. Your brain is made up of a bunch of competing desires / modules. And whichever you feed and reward will grow stronger.
  4. Meditation is a technique that can reduce the power of the feeling -> action sequence. Desires need not be orders if they are observed with distance and objectivity.
  5. The idea that there is no CEO of the brain also fits Buddhism’s core philosophical tenet that the self is an illusion.

I think arguments #1 through #4 are correct. Robin surveys a mounting body of scientific case evidence that makes this case, from evolutionary psychology to neurobiology.

I think #5 is directionally correct, but that ultimately humans do not have a brain that is powerful enough to make hard claims about these types of metaphysical conditions.

iGen – Jean Twenge

Jean’s thesis is that:

  1. Socio-economic conditions (in part families having increased wealth and less children) has led to a lengthening of childhood. High school is the new middle school.
  2. The iPhone has fundamentally altered how teens interact.
  3. Taken together, changing socio-economic conditions and the smartphone has led children to be more tolerant, less risk taking (sex, alcohol, and driving are down… marijuana is up), more insecure, less happy, less religious, more concerned with wealth, and more politically independent.

I’m not an expert in the field, but I found her found her argument compelling.

This generational shift is a striking example of how productivity and technology can combine to change societal values.

For you parents in the crowd, she gives thoughtful parenting recommendations at the end of the book.

The Dark Forest Trilogy

I previously reviewed the books here. Some of the best science fiction I have ever read.

The series is premised on this logic path:

  1. The primary goal of each civilization is to survive.
  2. There are finite resources and space in the universe.
  3. Civilizations tend to expand.
  4. Civilizations tend to advance technologically.
  5. You have no way of truly knowing whether an alien species is peaceful or hostile.

If this ends up being true in our reality, we will likely be destroyed by more technology advanced aliens.

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 Deus 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 Deus 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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