Take Five

A lone mule drew the car, and sometimes drew it off the track, when the passengers would get out and push it on again.  They really owed it courtesies like this, for the car was genially accommodating:  a lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and cloak, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the “girl” what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house.

The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car:  they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion.  In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were longer; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody.  Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried the less time they had to spare!  In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones–another ancient vacancy profoundly responsible for leisure–they had time for everything:  time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!

The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington

This reminded me of a nineteenth century version of the now ubiquitous Louis C.K. bit.

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Venn Diagrams; Is There Anything They Can’t Illuminate?

My major professor used to tell me that if you’re working on a project/idea/problem that no one else has ever thought of, it’s probably not worth doing.  It’s sort of an “efficient market” theory of ideas and a corollary to “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  In any case, after yesterday’s post I ran across this little gem on David Kanigan’s blog which is very close to what I had in mind while thinking about the intersection of one’s natural work and prosperity, with an added dimension:

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A friend of mine recently quit Facebook.  He ended his farewell post with “Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about you!”  If true, would it matter?  If Bill Gates was the greediest man alive whose sole motive was making money, what relevance does that play in the fact that he brought the power of the computer into millions of homes?  In many cases people who make phenomenal amounts of money are not primarily seeking profits, rather pursuing some other objective that people are more than happy to pay for.

I’ve recently started reading John Kay’s book, “Obliquity,” which explores why our primary objectives are best achieved indirectly.  According to John Stuart Mill:

 Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.  Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

In the last post I quoted from the Gita which says we should find our Natural Work and do it.  Is it so rare that one’s Natural Work leads to prosperity and happiness?

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Natural Work

From Anderson Layman’s blog:

    “Now you shall hear how a man may become perfect, if he
devotes himself to the work which is natural to him.  A man
will reach perfection if he does his duty as an act of worship
to the Lord, who is the source of the universe, prompting all
action, everywhere present.
     “A man’s own natural duty, even if it seems imperfectly
done, is better than work not naturally his own even if it is
well performed.  When a man acts according to the law of
his nature, he cannot be sinning.  Therefore, no one should
give up his natural work, even though he does it imperfectly.
For all action is involved in imperfection, like fire in smoke.

from Chapter XVIII
The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita

So what’s your natural work?

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Rational Procrastination

From grade school on up we’re warned of the perils of procrastination.  “You have three weeks,” says teach, “don’t wait till the last-minute.”  There was always that “overachiever” who finished early and was looked upon with contempt by the rest of us with guilt-bred resentment.  It wasn’t until recently that I realized just how rational procrastination can be.  Is there virtue in finishing early?  You have free time, but so does everyone else who started later.  And hours are like dollars, one today is worth two tomorrow.  So why start working on something before you need to?

I just read a book called The 80/20 Principle.  The principle, though not new, is simple:  80% of our output comes from 20% of our inputs.  For example, 80% of revenues come from 20% of clients, or 80% of the value we add to the business comes from 20% of our time/effort.  There’s nothing sacred or even empirical about 80/20 as a number, but it serves as a useful guide to show there’s no one-to-one relationship between effort and results.

This principle came natural to me.  You see, I was a solid B+ student in High School.  There was no reason I couldn’t have been an A student.  I just learned very early on that I could work a great deal less than most students and perform nearly as well.  That free time was spent devouring the books I wanted to read, or studying subjects and people that interested me.  The most important lessons I learned during High School were never graded.

You perfectionists out there might cringe or call me lazy, but you economists will immediately identify the law of diminishing returns.  If I start a paper today and work on it for three weeks, is the incremental improvement over a procrastinated paper worth the extra effort?  (especially given the subjectivity of grading, but that’s another story.)

A professor of mine used to say, “‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well’ is wrong.  There are plenty of things that are worth doing that are worth doing ho-hum.”  It’s not about laziness; it’s about not wasting time on the 80% of low value activities.  And putting off a project/paper/proposal for later can be a perfectly rational.


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Just Around the Corner…

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success.

Thomas Alva Edison

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From A Drunkard’s Walk:

IBM Pioneer Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

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A Drunkard’s Walk…with Drift

I just finished Leonard Mlodinow’s book, A Drunkard’s Walk:  How Randomness Rules Our Lives.  It’s a superb guide to properly interpreting seemingly improbable events and should be a mandatory read for anyone in Business, Sports, Politics, Economics…pretty much everybody.  A part of me enthusiastically devoured the myriad examples of long shots and how when taken in the proper context are easily explained by random chance.  A different part of me struggled to reconcile my belief in the laws of chance that can explain remarkably well chaotic events (from Roger Maris to Warren Buffet) and my certain knowledge of Divine Providence.

First, a thought experiment that captures how randomness can explain that 1 in a million shot.  What’s the probability of flipping a fair coin and getting 20 heads in a row?  It’s about 1 in a million for a specific run.  Now, imagine a million people flipping coins; those whose coin lands on heads get to flip again.  After the first round you’d expect about half to be eliminated and half again after the next round and so forth.  You would expect 1 person on average to end up making it 20 rounds.

Most of life’s experiences are of the sort where there are multiple players with a distribution of possible outcomes.  Take the stock market.  There are only a few Warren Buffets.  Those few believe they are able to leverage market inefficiencies and we all bow down in deference at their knowledge.  Or it could just be that there are millions of traders and hedge fund managers and a few of them would be expected to perform a great deal better than the market just by chance.

My favorite thing about this book is its wealth of examples.  It’s a very compelling case.  So how do I reconcile a belief in Randomness and a perfect knowledge of Divine Providence?  The answer came as I turned the final digital pages of the book.  Mlodinow’s  allusion to a Random Walk is incomplete.  We are not particles suspended in a liquid being bombarded by molecules which, in aggregate, move us along in a Brownian motion.  Our life is not a random walk…it’s a random walk with drift!  The drift is guided by an active God who is able to influence our lives and His work in ways that can only be perceived by those with adequate methods of estimation.

This explains how God can build a church, a nation, or a life when everything looks like chaos. He can move things along despite free will, natural disasters, and market turmoil.  The drift also explains how God can influence human events without being responsible for the random walk component, the devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, murder, war, hunger, etc.  He can use these events to guide nations and lives without being the cause of evil.

Here’s a graph of a random walk and a random walk with drift.  History clearly follows the latter as does evolution.  World Wars, depressions, global recessions, none have extinguished technological progress.  And as for biology, random permutations of DNA all tend toward improvement.

The noise and randomness may increase, and it may get harder to see the signal through the noise, but those with eyes to see will have the power (in the statistical sense) to estimate the drift parameter.

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Personal Experience Shows…

The film critic Pauline Kael allegedly said, in response to Richard Nixon’s landslide victory, “How is that possible!  I don’t know a single person who voted for him.”  While she may not have actually said it, this kind of reasoning is not as rare as you might hope.

I had a friend in high school who wasn’t allowed to drive a car.  His parents gave him a scooter because they had known more people who died in car crashes than motorcycle accidents.  Apparently 2-wheeled death traps are much safer than cars.  And take this recent article.  A presumably educated and credentialed psychiatrist actually heralds the death of marriage as an institution with this gem:

I would venture that 90 percent of the married patients I speak with would rank their marriages in the top two stressors in their lives, while only 10 percent would rank their marriages as one of the top two sources of strength in their lives.

Besides being incredibly vague (rated in the top two stressors?  out of how many?) the good doctor doesn’t even pretend to have real summary statistics about his biased sample (“I would venture that…”). If there’s one thing worse than the “studies show” argument, it’s conversations that begin, at least conceptually, with “my own experience with self selecting groups shows….”    It’s this type of thinking that leads people to believe that figures lie and liars figure.

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Little Green Men

Last St. Patrick’s Day my wife played a few fun tricks on our little ones.  For breakfast she dropped a splash of green food coloring in the frying pan before adding the eggs.  My four-year-old caught a glimpse of her sneaking about.  When the eggs started to turn green my wife said it must be the leprechauns playing tricks.  My son thoughtfully commented, “Leprechaun’s have red hair.  You don’t have red hair.  So it must not have been a leprechaun.”  I was stunned that a four-year-old could turn such a textbook logical argument.  (I’ll allow that he omitted a minor premise.)  I was proud of my little guy.  After all, isn’t it cold Reason and its prized pupil Logic that set us apart from lesser beasts?

On the other hand that same four-year-old is deadly convinced that there is a “gunny monster” that will eat his toys if they’re left out.  Even after we’ve told him that there is no such monster, he’s meticulous about picking up every night…just in case.

It turns out wild imagination and logic are really two sides of the same coin:  They are both uniquely human attributes.  In a Cartesian world there’s no question which is more prized, but it is imagination/passion/faith that is by far the more powerful.  Think of it this way, all technological, scientific, and artistic achievements  are a product of faith.  Faith is not stepping to the edge of the light and leaping blindly into the dark hoping there’s something worthwhile there.  True faith is exercising every ounce of strength we possess in pursuit of something that may exist nowhere but in our own minds, but is true.  If what you believe turns out to be false despite a rational degree of belief in its truthfulness, then it was not true faith.  Putting a man on the moon was an act of pure faith.  It had never been done.  Many were convinced of it’s possibility and worked their guts out until it was accomplished.

So what does this have to do with probability and statistics?  This post is already too long, so I’ll leave that for another time.

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