Friday, March 18, 2016

One Long Ted Talk: Adam Grant's "Originals"

I want to like Adam Grant.

In a shorter medium (blogs and articles in places like HBR), he has written some smart things, and he has worked professionally with people I like.

His books seem to miss the mark though. His first, Give and Take, had some interesting ideas in it. It is just that Grant seems to have this thought where he should be publishing on a big idea. Therefore, in that first book, he created a trichotomy where people fit in one of three categories professionally – you were either a giver, a taker, or a matcher. The key was to be the matcher. However, there was a weird caveat that it was not all matchers. I liked the book well enough that I remember that taxonomy that he drew, but it felt like a letdown because it relied too heavily on a few examples.

It is as if he does take that big idea he wants to talk about, finds the examples, and then uses them as a highlight. Maybe it is a narrative thing he’s doing (he does call himself a social scientist in this book more than once), trying to use examples to tell a better story because data is not as fun to read on the train, I don’t know. But he makes the same choices in Originals as he did in Give and Take.

Therefore, that lead me, as I was reading, to try to think of this book and how I would describe it. In one sense, it does feel like it is pointed towards some self-satisfied liberal elite establishment pseudo-intellectual thing. I mean, look at the blurbs. Sheryl Sandberg helped edit it as per the acknowledgements, and she wrote the forward. It is blurbed by Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Branson, Ariana Huffington, and Peter Thiel, to show you what the intended audience is. For what it’s worth, it feels like an extended TED talk. For me, that is not a charitable comparison, but it may appeal to some people.

All this is not to say that there is not valuable information and insights embedded in the book. There is a part about Martin Luther King prepping his famous “I have a Dream Speech”. There is an extended section on the birth of the women’s suffrage that brought to my attention an important figure in American history I was very unaware of. The problem is that these sections were used to illustrate the broader points that Grant was speaking on and it may not have been the best fit (the lessons were “procrastination can be useful” and then “build coalitions”). It is as if Grant is just pulling in the things that are interesting to him and trying to apply them to the larger idea that being original is good.

This of course is true. But for me the most troubling thing was that originality as looked at in the book was focused mostly on business success, with a side of politics. The only originality that Grant wrote of in the arts was in comedy – nothing about Duchamp or John Cage, but we learn how birth order may influence how often a baseball player steals a base. My guess is that art is just too far outside of Grant’s domain for him to write cogently on it, but it is a huge blind spot in a book about the importance of originality (No “Make it new” or worrying about the anxiety of influence). Nevertheless, perhaps that is just showing my domain preferences.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Check Your Priors: Superforcasting by Philip Tetlock with Dan Gardner

 I had never read the previous book that made Tetlock’s name, but that 2004 book gets a lot of play in the other social science books that I read that it is as if I feel that I had read it – especially the framing of the Hedgehog and the Fox (though I like it, I can never remember which one is better).

Therefore, when this one came around, I thought I would have a look. Tetlock and his coauthor tell a fun story about the art and science of prediction, but I would say it leans a bit towards the popular side. Not sure if it hurts the story that is being told. There are a couple of things that you need to do to be good at predictions, and theory in here. You know, don’t be too wedded to your priors, and have a good sense of probability and what it really means. That was the key thing for me, looking at how people predict normally versus someone that is trying to really figure out what the difference between a 60% and a 63% probability of something happening. I’d say we have to teach people statistics and maybe before that basic numeracy.

What really got me was that this book is really about (to me) Bayesian prediction, but the book doesn’t really mention that until page 170. I would have brought that closer to the front. Overall, it was a fun read, but I’m not sure if it really made me better at predictions. I guess I have a good resource if I’m ever in a prediction contest like the one they talk about in the book.

The Effective Executive: Reading Drucker on Two Levels

Level One

I’m finishing up my MBA. It is mid-march, and I will graduate in May. Though I have learned a lot, much of what we learned in the classes is on the higher level. What has been specific has been subject-specific. There isn’t much about the self-help about the classes or the books. That’s where I have found Drucker useful for my own knowledge as an independent thing to study. This is the second book I have read by him, and there are a lot of useful take-aways even if the book is horribly dated, (there’s only tangential reference to computers and it assumes that all knowledge-workers are men). Basically everyone can learn to be effective through self-knowledge about things as if such as how you actually spend your time versus how you think you spend your time. I’ve been doing a basic form of this in my own life, tracking just what I spend my time on at work for the past couple of years now in just an excel spreadsheet. There is also the need to know your strength and to build on that to contribute the best you can. Overall, as a work self-help book, it is one that you can read and find points of takeaway. Reading the book is one that is an interactive process because reading it made me think of my own life and how it applied how I could use the book to make myself more effective. It is a very practical text.

The second level

The other way to read this, and it didn’t strike me until I was almost done is that books like this are such that makes the aspiring effective executive one that is complicit in their own exploitation. Where in the early part of the 1900s, the working classes had scientific management forced upon them in the guise of making them more effective, the timekeeping is instead given to the executive so that they can do their own time and motion studies in the Taylorism of the white-collar worker. In this view, the book and the peers of the writer are ones that have an insidious agenda, because it assumes that the worker is one that is within a large organization and the goal is to maximize profit and not human flourishing. Or maybe I’ve just read “Labor and Monopoly Capital” too recently.

Friday, March 11, 2016

None of These Candidates Hate War Like a Soldier Hates War

When I was a teenager in the 90s, I thought about joining the military. I had some classmates who had gone though the reserves and did boot over summer to prep themselves.

One of the reasons I was thinking about was that it seemed at that time that it was a perquisite for public service (I had a timeline where I would run in this election, as this year I become eligible per the constitution). If you had not served, you had to at least have some public awkward conversation about why you hadn't. This was when the men of the WWII and Vietnam generations were passing through leadership roles and military service was a fact of life.

I suppose this stopped being important in the discourse after 2004, where the sitting president's campaign was able to successfully deride the service record of the challenger when the sitting president had a very questionable service to be charitable.

Now, none of the remaining major candidates have served in the military. I am not pro-military by any means (I wish every soldier and sailor would lose their job because there were no more wars to fight), but what does it mean socially when the people who want to wield this very powerful tool have no sense of the consequences they're asking young men and women to face?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

You Are Not Your Marginal Product

People are on social media mocking socialism as if the market price for your labor is something you earned and not a fraction of the value you created.

OK. So not a huge fan of the state as is, but it is how we order society.

The idea that socialism is just redistribution of what you already have is overly reductive.

In addition, the idea is that what we have "earned" is often a conscious decision of our employers on what a job is worth or what you are worth. In many instances, it is less than the value you create.

That's the basic Marxist framework - the employer (capitalist) takes your surplus value.

One of the problems with capitalism post about 1980 is that the tradition share of value created has gone more towards the owners of capital as more value has been created.

This means that in spite of more women in the labor force, etc, the median household wage has stagnated.

Making people defensive about holding onto what they still do have, seeing growth at the upper bounds accelerate while there is little growth in the middle of the wage distribution that most people
We all do work hard, but it seems that people think the state is the culprit (and they are in a sense of being bought and controlled by big money politics) but ultimately it is the owners of capital that have taken the excess for what we work for, not the state.

The thing is that capitalism in the US has been better and it could be better for the people. There was much greater distribution amongst the classes when the USSR was on some levels a viable option. The end of history has aided the global rich more than the people who create value.
The title is a reference to your marginal product, or what you produce when you are added to a company in econ 101 terms. The idea in the intro textbooks is that you are paid what you are worth, but there is much empirical evidence and other discussion around the minimum wage that shows it is false.

And it's this chart, which show the disconnect of productivity (how much stuff is made) versus wages (how much people are paid), and how it has grown, which speaks to so much dissatisfaction in our contemporary climate from both sides, Capitalism has long been broken, but the current version is brokener.