Category Archives: Ideas

Where is all the good information?

Reflections on information seeking post Trump:

Where Good Information is Fleeing 

Twitter: Twitter has lost 10 IQ points since Trump’s election. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing; it’s just that calling out asinine political behavior doesn’t take that much intelligence. Given that people should be calling out Trump’s bad behavior – and that Twitter is a good place to call people out – the fact that Twitter has gotten worse just seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of Trump’s election. But, while Anti-Trump Twitter might be reasonable, it’s not particularly interesting. So I’m on Twitter much less now.

Short Blog Posts: I see less and less good information happening when smart people write 1-2 pithy paragraphs about complex subjects. I just don’t learn as much. Moreover, whenever these people write on issues I know a lot about, I see how grossly they err, which makes me trust their other pieces even less.

Facebook: Basically useless at this point. All I want is friends and cat videos, all I get is 3rd rate political pontification.

Where Good Information is Emerging 

Protests and Actions: Over the past few months, my willingness to march and protest has risen significantly. Given that the immigration marches seem to have had some social and political effect, I lump this into the category of “good information.” I sent good information by participating; moreover, I gain good information by understanding what people really care about and what politicians will listen to.

Long Blog Posts: I’ve been gravitating more and more towards long blog posts: think Stratechery and slatestarcodex. When smart people spend a few weeks thinking about something and then write 1-2K words on it, you very well might learn something. I’ve also tried to shift my blogging toward this direction, with the aim of being more intellectual rigorous in each post.

Work: I’ve tried to engage in more narrow and deeper intellectual explorations at work, with the aim of spending 2-3 months on a topic and going deep on the relevant research and experts. While I think blogs and Twitter are useful for having a broad surface understanding of many issues, I’ve found carving out space to go deep on areas of interest to be hugely beneficial. There is a lot of good information in the best books and research on a given topic.

Mentors: I’m spending more time in coffee / dinners / drinks with the smartest people I know. With best folks, signal to noise ratio is wonderful and I can really pressure ideas through curiosity and debate, rather than through retweets and comments.

In Sum

Trump has turned Twitter and short blog posts into tribal warfare. While there was always some of this on social media, it’s much worse now. Perhaps this is best for the country, perhaps not. But it’s surely not good for information seeking.

Given this, I’m devoting more time to learning through getting out into the world, working more, reading longer blog posts, and spending more time with mentors.

 

5 ways Facebook could help make us better

Before getting to the recommendations, some framing thoughts:

  1. It is impossible to tell how Facebook affected the election. There is too much causal density in who people vote for to point to one cause and say: that’s the thing that mattered.
  2. I think there’s a major danger in saying: “people voted for Trump because of fake news” instead of acknowledging that people voted for Trump because of a combination of cultural and policy beliefs.
  3. Liberals have plenty of fake news of their own. I’ve spent the past 5 years dealing with a constant stream of unscientific articles about New Orleans education reform in papers such as the New York Times.
  4. The research on how people form and solidify opinions is messy, and I think social media gives a chance to run a lot of new experiments rather than assume we know how opinion formation occurs.
  5. I think censorship is almost always the wrong answer, and the line between editorial scrubbing and censorship is very blurry when it comes to a communication platform like Facebook.
  6. Since the advent of advertising driven media, every medium has had to figure out how to balance revenue and legitimacy. Modern fake news has been a problem since the creation of the penny newspaper.
  7. In considering Facebook, I think the first solution set should be to try and figure out how to harness the power of social media rather than curtail it.
  8. Ultimately, it’s not Facebook’s job to make us better; it’s our job.

Recommendation #1: An Opt-In Intellectual Diversity Function

Facebook should create an opt-in intellectual diversity function that harnesses its algorithm to populate a user’s feed with diverse intellectual opinions. This could be done throughout the newsfeed, or opposing viewpoints could be tagged to specific articles.

Overtime, Facebook could track what types of opposing articles are clicked and viewed – and tweak its algorithm to place the most effective type of opposing arguments for each type of person or issue.

Recommendation #2: An Opt-In Share My Story Function

From what I understand, personal posts garner much more engagement than article sharing. And my hunch is they are more effective in making people explore other opinions.

Facebook should create a share my story function that allows a user to give Facebook permission to share a personal story with strangers who have opted-in to the intellectual diversity feature.

Facebook could then share powerful personal stories that provide different viewpoints to its users, as well as track what types of stories resonate most with people of different intellectual viewpoints.

Recommendation #3: An Intellectual Diversity Rating

Facebook should provide the opportunity for each user to see a feed diversity rating score, that gives the user some (imperfect) estimation of the intellectual diversity of her feed.

Recommendation #4: Alternate View Feed Day

Facebook should have one day a year where users can opt-in to receiving a typical daily feed of a user who shares opposite political views.

So for a whole days a user would see the news / articles / etc. that a user from the opposite political spectrum would usually see.

Recommendation #5: Livestream Beer Summits

Occasionally, Facebook could livestream a summit of two people with different political viewpoints engaging in a discussion / visiting each other’s homes / going to a bar / etc.

It could provide a model for what we should all be doing more of: talking to each other.

In Sum

I don’t know if the above recommendations would work or not. Perhaps they would backfire and create more belief anchoring and division.

My major point is that instead of trying to censor social media we should run a bunch of experiments to try and figure out how it might make us better.

Lastly, like most posts, this post was born out of an exchange with friend: thanks to Mike Goldstein for inspiring this post by coming up with recommendations #1 and #5.

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 Tone of One’s Mind

mind blown

I’m reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

In a chapter on different theories of extinction, she relays some words from Charles Darwin. After reading Lyell’s Principles, Darwin wrote:

I have always thought that the great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind.

This got me thinking: what writers / works have altered the whole tone of my mind? Some thoughts below.

The Narrowing of Free Will

The Illusion of Conscious Will and other similar books fundamentally changed the tone of my mind, in that they convinced that we don’t have free will, at least not likely in the sense that we perceive.

The Power of Markets, The Power of Market Failures 

While I’m not a libertarian, and I have many questions about the basic foundations of the philosophy, the blogging of Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, Arnold Kling, et al has influenced how I understand the connected workings of government, markets, and citizens. The writings of Ha Joon Chang have been a good counterweight here. All told, I have become a bigger believer in both markets and market failures.

Politics as Biology and Identity 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and Robin Hanson’s “politics is not about policy” blogging have heavily influenced how I understand the political world, which I now view much more through the lenses of biology and sociology rather than policy.

Status as a Driving Force 

Robin Hanson’s writing on status has dramatically increased how much I weigh the desire for status in my attempts to understand human behavior.

Wealth and History

Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World made me understand what an anomoly the past two hundred years have been in terms of human wealth. For tens of thousands of years we had nothing, and then all of a sudden we had so much.

The Real Threat of Existential Risks

Nick Bostrom’s Global Catastrophic Risks forced me to consider that humanity may very well be eliminated in the next couple hundred years. I wish we were doing more to mitigate these risks.

The Limits of Meritocracy 

I’m really not sure who to attribute this to, but over the past couple years I’ve become keenly aware that meritocracy, at its best, is simply a machine that sorts people by genetic and environmental factors. It is not as just as I once suspected. This belief has radically increased my support for for fairly high levels of taxation.

The Likelihood of Conscious Machines

Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near opened my mind to the idea that, at some point (be it 30 or 300 or 3,000 years), artificial intelligence will likely achieve conscious status.

Data and Pragmatism

Members of NSNO’s management team and board constantly forced me to shelve ideology and theory in favor of data and pragmatism. This evolution took many years, but I now (to a greater extent, at least) approach problems through data and pragmatism rather than grand theories.

In Sum

If I had to identify a unifying theme in these learnings, it would be this: our knowledge, volition, and durability are minuscule.

One Last Note: On Schooling 

In my twenty years or so of schooling, I never took a single class that predominantly focused on any of these issues. Reading East of Eden in 9th grade did somewhat hit on free will (I wrote my term paper on the word “timshel”), and some law school classes touched on markets and regulation. But most of the ideas that have changed the tone of my mind have come from readings I undertook outside of the classroom.

What readings our conversations have changed the tone of your mind? I’d love to hear.