January 31, 2020
“The average American changes their healthcare plan every 2.7 years.”
An obvious incentive design flaw.
I was having tea with the founder of a preventative healthcare app. It helps people get flu shots on time, sync genetic info to improve diets, monitor Apple Watch data for irregular heartbeats, etc. It keeps upcoming should-do’s organized in one place
He thought they’d be able to go out and sell it to all the insurance companies to help drive down premiums for end consumers by lowering risk profiles.
Then he discovered the consumer is only on an insurance plan for an average of 2.7 years before rolling off.
One insurance executive told him bluntly, “Investing money today to improve somebody’s health years down the road isn’t in our best interest. If we improve your health 5 years from now, by then you’re no longer paying us.”
January 30, 2020
“How did the human cross the road?”
I cross 31 crosswalks on my way to work every morning.
There’s a four-stop at Steiner and Ellis. This morning, a white Ford Explorer came in hot to the stop sign before slamming its brakes.
We made eye contact. He paused. Then I took my eyes off of him, off of the car, looked straight ahead, and started crossing the street.
I wouldn’t have ever thought about this tiny interaction. But Daniel Kahneman was recently on Lex Fridman’s podcast. They were talking about how self-driving cars can possibly infer whether or not humans are about to step into the street.
Kahneman noted how, immediately after making eye contact with drivers, walkers invariably always look away before beginning to cross.
Our parents don’t teach us this behavior. “Now Johnny, remember to look away from the car as you’re beginning to cross the 8-line highway.”
But over time we’ve all learned to play a variant of this game of chicken.
January 29, 2020
From Idaho to Mars
2,402 people live in St. Maries, ID. The Lumberjack is the mascot of the lone public high school.
Tom Mueller grew up there, about a hundred miles from the Canadian border, surrounded by wilderness and chainsaws. But Tom also spent a lot of time looking up at space. His friend across the street had a telescope. The two of them would look for roaming planets and black holes in the night sky.
One day, Tom’s dad came home from a day of logging to discover Tom had strewn all the parts of the lawnmower across the yard. He was pissed, at least until Tom proceeded to put all the pistons and valves and blades back together. It still worked just fine.
Tom was really good at math. He was also really good at quickly understanding how different engines worked, and how to fix them. He loved launching homemade rockets from his backyard.
In high school, his math teacher asked if he wanted to be an engineer.
Tom said “no.”
“Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or the guy who designs it?” his teacher asked.
Nowadays, Tom is the CTO of SpaceX. He first met Elon Musk in 2001 after developing liquid-fueled rockets in his LA garage. The two decided to build rockets that would one day make it to Mars.
Tom credits his high school math teacher with nudging him to major in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Idaho, which pushed him onward to LMU in LA for a master’s degree.
“If it hadn’t been for that math teacher, I probably would have been a mechanic or a logger.”
The math teacher’s suggestion reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s observation that small nudges can be the difference in massive success and failure.
But there’s another interesting part of this story. Tom Mueller was born in rural northern Idaho. He now designs the world’s most groundbreaking rockets in LA. The move from St. Maries, ID, to Moscow, ID, to California was relatively easy.
There’s an economic efficiency in matching talent to geography. There’s a reason the auto industry clustered in Detroit, silicon clustered in the Bay Area, and healthcare clustered in Boston.
Geographic redistribution is one of the built-in advantages of the United States. Whereas even in Europe people can move around, there are still significant cultural differences between cities. It’s less likely somebody born and raised in Paris will choose to live in Berlin when compared to somebody born and raised in Chicago choosing to live in Boston.
The dynamism of people moving around is a hallmark of a free society. We get to vote with our feet. The inverse - the inability to move around - is a hallmark of centralized economies.
The startling problem, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, is that the number of people moving across state lines has dropped by 51% in a half-century.
What have we done to make it harder for somebody like Tom to move from Idaho to LA? How can we make it easier for people to move and choose where they want to learn and grow and contribute?
January 28, 2020
Andy and I sit down on a bench in Union Square. Spots are hard to come by. The man and woman to our left are eating lunches out of to-go boxes. Everyone to our right is tapping on their iPhone.
Dozens of dogs are running around in the pen behind us.
I’m glad I wore a sweater, the breeze cuts to my skin.
Still holding our coffees, we start chatting about the meeting we’d just left in one of the buildings overlooking the park.
A guy walks up with his bike. He’s wearing shorts and a grey shirt. His calves are strong, but the wrinkles in his neck and the roundness of his stomach show his real age. He leans his bike against the railing. He takes off his box-ish hulking black backpack and drops it to the ground. There’s a Postmates logo on the side of it.
“Hmmmph,” he goes as he sits down.
He cranes his head upward, closes his eyes, starts to rub his knee with his right hand, and silently contorts his face.
After a few seconds, he opens his eyes, leans down, opens a side pocket in his black backpack, takes out a bottle of Advil, and swallows 4 pills.
January 27, 2020
“It’s Vulnerability, Stupid”
Vulnerability is my favorite quality.
I struggle to be vulnerable. I’ll catch myself journaling as if my great-great-grandson is deriving the meaning of life from my words, writing in a way so as to appear “strong” and “clear-minded.”
Why is it that I struggle to write about my own flaws and shortcomings and frustrations in my own journal? Who am I being strong for? When I read my old posts, the most compelling entries are the ones where I’m most blunt.
It’s not just my journal entries. I find characters with massive character flaws more compelling. If Sherlock Holmes didn’t ignore Dr. Watson, the stories would be boring. If David Brent better understood the manager/employee dynamic, he wouldn’t be winking at the camera.
Christopher Hitchens is my favorite essayist. Tiger Woods is my favorite golfer. Elon Musk is my favorite entrepreneur. These people are not saints.
When I think about why I like my best friends, it’s because they tell me stories about peeing the bed after late-night Tinder dates. And the most successful politicians - Trump, Boris, Bush over Gore, Clinton, Nixon, JFK - seem even more depraved than my friends.
Boris goes so far as to ruffle his own hair, fall off his bike, get stuck in the sky, and forget his lines when he’s speaking at events. Even Obama, the great orator, got famous in 2004 when he emphasized how he was just “a lanky kid with a funny name.”
Paul Graham says these politicians have charisma. And they do. They have exceeding amounts of charisma. I haven’t heard a compelling reason as to why Graham is wrong about the more charismatic candidate always winning the election.
But, what is charisma? Graham tries to answer that question in an entire essay. His conclusion is that in order to be charismatic, you have to genuinely like people. And I agree. But lots of people who like other people also lack charisma. I’m reminded of this every time I get seated on a plane next to Danny From Orlando Ready To Make A New Friend.
I think charisma requires being deeply flawed.
We aren’t drawn to the Buttigieg or Romney robots. We’re drawn to the people who make us smile despite everything burning around them.
I’m left thinking about three potential relationships between vulnerability and charisma:
Maybe being flawed is a prerequisite for being liked.
Maybe flaws force people to develop charisma in order to overcome their flaws, and sometimes this spills over. Like how people who have lost their eyesight can hear things the rest of us can’t.
Or, maybe charisma gives cover to flaws and lets them fester.
January 26, 2020
Just enough to get into trouble, not enough to avoid disaster
Suman and I were in the back room of a wine shop on Friday. Alex, the owner of the shop and the founder of Subject To Change natural wines, was pouring glasses and explaining the story behind each label.
He explained how for a wine to be “Double Zero Wine”, it must either:
- Have nothing added and nothing taken out during the fermentation process;
- Or, be made from organic grapes with nothing added during fermentation.
Alex thinks natural wine should be all of it: organic grapes + nothing added + nothing removed during fermentation.
“People add stuff to the fermentation process?”
“Oh, yes,” he explains. “As much as Americans claim they like dry wines… Most vineyards at a minimum add sugar before fermenting. Gives you sweeter wines with higher alcohol content.”
Then he said: “Unfortunately we [as humans] learned a lot about food science.”
Unfortunately. I’ve noticed this pattern.
We as a species learned how to preserve stuff. It was great! We learned how to prevent botulism and food-borne illnesses. We learned how to prevent the arduous process of canning. Preserving things was now as easy as adding chemicals.
Sourdough bread became Wonder Bread. Fermented strawberries became Smucker’s Jelly. Fermented root beer became Coca-Cola.
A few generations went by and we lost our collective fermentation knowledge. It’s wild that the chefs behind Noma “rediscovered” fermentation. Just a handful of generations ago, food in the Nordics had to be fermented in bulk to last through the snow-drenched winters.
(Fun fact: Rene credits David Chang’s kimchi at Momofuku in NYC as part of their fermentation-reawakening journey.)
What we didn’t understand when we started artificially preserving food is the importance of our gut biomes. We didn’t understand the impact of sugar or the impact of processed food on our bodies.
We knew enough to get into trouble, but not enough to avoid disaster.
We’ve done this repeatedly throughout history.
We knew just enough about fossil fuels to light them on fire.
We knew just enough about genetics for academics to advocate for eugenics.
And we knew just enough about food science to add preservatives to all our food.