Loyalty vs Objectivity

A fundamental cultural value is the relative importance of loyalty and objectivity.

To illustrate by obvious extreme, suppose your friend does something illegal.  The police stop by to ask you about it.  Do you tell all, or cover for a pal?  Your answer mostly depends upon whether you value loyalty or objectivity more highly.

Does this seem distant from your daily experience?  It’s not.  You may have no sketchy friends, but stepping away such extremes, this dichotomy is as ubiquitous as air, and as invisible.

When you argue politics, do seek to defend a party (loyalty), or explore an answer (objectivity)?

If a married friend divorces, do you side with the friend (loyalty), or with the injured party, whoever it may be (objectivity)?

This is one of those distinctions that is true at nation scale.

  • Corruption:  loyalty > objectivity.
  • Resigning due to scandal: objectivity > loyalty.
  • Property rights: objectivity > loyalty.
  • Amnesty for undocumented immigrants:  loyalty > objectivity.
  • Loosening immigration law to reflect reality:  objectivity > loyalty.

As you might expect, objectivity-based cultures appear to be more fair, egalitarian and prosperous.  Getting the right answer is really important, it seems.

“They” are “we”

In my twenties, I bicycle-camped across the United States.  People would stop me to talk.  The most common chat-starter was the excruciatingly dull, “how many flats have you had?”  More than once, a family man in his late forties opened by looking wistfully at the bike and saying, “I wish I had done that when I was 25.”

This was awkward.  These guys seemed like they were from another planet, and almost inauthentic:  obviously (to me), they could bike across America right now, if they chose.  The ride takes two months at an easy pace, and you can train as you go.  People in their sixties do it all the time.  So were these guys condescending to me?  Envious?  Or something else?

Now it’s twenty years later, and I’m one of those guys, from that other planet.  This makes it easier for me to see that they and I were never so different in the first place.  I think maybe they were just bad at small talk, or trapped by habit.  Just like me, both then and now.

I would have appreciated those chats more then if I had appreciated our similarities as much as our differences.  More generally, I think most interactions are improved and simplified when we presume they occur among a group of “us,” not “us and them.”

When you talk with a person who has no formal education, remember there is no they.  They are we.  We both love our kids, get old, fear death, enjoy sweets.  Our goals and dreams are more similar than may at first appear.  If we can’t converse easily, it might not be because we are different, but because we’re hampered by the false presumption that we are different.

When you feel weird talking to a billionaire, again remember.  Same goals and dreams, same struggles with motivation, same fears of isolation.  It is cynical to presume that the billionaire’s problems have disappeared because they are wealthy.  In fact, if you truly believe the most important things in life cannot be bought, then it would be hypocritical for you to not to empathize with someone who is rich and unhappy.  Our differences are more superficial than our similarities.

When you talk with someone much older or younger than yourself, remember that they are we.  That 80-year-old still fears isolation or not making a difference, still can’t help noticing attractive women or men, still fears making a bad impression, is still uncomfortable with small talk.  The mix changes, but the ingredients stay the same.

When the 40-year-old talks with the 20-year-old intern at the office, it can be awkward.  The awkwardness might come from both parties forgetting that they are we.  Is the 40-year old condescending, or just bad at small talk?  It could be either one.  Does he really envy the 20-year old’s youth and freedom, or is he just afraid to risk a bad impression by saying something truly revealing and non-obvious?  If he is just a fearful conversationalist, then he is just a regular person, no different from many 20-year-olds.  He is just forgetting that “they” are “we.”  And if the 20-year-old doesn’t see that, then maybe both are forgetting.

Self-discipline as a substitute for cash

Self-discipline can often substitute for cash.

  • Go to bed early => buy less coffee the next day.
  • Watch what I eat => cook at home instead of eating out.
  • Get rid of things I rarely use => eliminate need for storage unit or bigger house.

There are few situations in which more self-discipline results in more expense.

Do what’s possible, not what isn’t

As digital storage capacity grows huge, governments find they cannot maintain secrecy.

You can fit years of critical secret information on an SD card the size of a postage stamp.  As a result, leaks are asymmetric.  Attacks are vastly cheaper than defenses, and no defense is perfect.  This is inherent to the technological landscape, and there is no way to alter that landscape.

The obvious response is to have fewer secrets.

This is generalizable.  We build our goals and interests, and we even innovate, around an existing landscape of requirements and constraints.  Those constraints change over time, but are fixed in the short run.  To travel, you paddle downstream, not upstream.

Avoid Sweet Flavors

Simple dietary rule for adults:  avoid sweet flavors.

Much of the low-carb “revolution” boils down to just that.  It’s easy to get caught up in complex rules, tracking, measuring, but not everyone has time and attention for all that.

A very simple rule of thumb is just to avoid sweet flavors.

The hard part is simply noticing what is sweet, especially when your sensitivity is blunted by chronic exposure to extremely sweet flavors. But that’s a homeostatic reaction that reverses easily.  

Start by moving away from the most extreme sweets: liquid sweets like cola and juice. After a few weeks, you’ll find you are more sensitive to sweet flavors. Next, drop ice cream. You get more sensitive again. At each step, simply remove the sweetest thing, and your palate will get more and more sensitive.

Once you are really re-sensitized, certain foods you would never think of as sweet suddenly taste insanely so.  Milk.  Cereal.  Bread.  Fruit.  Even carrots.  It’s no coincidence that these foods all deliver a high glycemic load. You can taste this fact, when you are re-sensitized and paying attention.

“But what about artificial sweeteners?  they’re sweet, but low-carb.”

This misses the point on a number of levels.  First, it turns out that artificial sweeteners may actually make you fat by confusing your insulin response.  Second, and more germane to this post, if you consume something extremely sweet, you blunt your own sensitivity to sweetness, making it harder to trust your own instincts about what is sweet, and so less able to make good choices without resorting to complex rules.

Ultimately the challenge is psychological.  Do you have the wherewithal to say no to experiencing a sweet flavor?  If you do, the payoff, in self-awareness and health, is huge.

Just avoid sweet flavors.


Sleep More

100-hour weeks are the dumbest thing about otherwise-brilliant Silicon Valley culture.  They result in suboptimal quality, but worse, they waste human capital.

A recent true-life post, The Truth About What It’s Like Working For Uber, sounds like every job I had in the Valley — except the company I ran, where I could  encourage rest.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the engineering culture for at least 40 years has promoted self-flagellating sleep deprivation.  For example, at a VC-funded software company I wrote code for in Menlo Park, our head of engineering held a contest to see which coder could sleep the least during the final weeks to our initial release.  The “winners” were basket cases for years afterward.  I took last place, sleeping an average of 5 hours a night — yet I am the only guy on that team to finish another programming project in the next 5 years.  The rest were wiped out, ruined in their mid-twenties.  This is not unusual.

Later, I ran a software company in Mountain View.  With the previous company’s death marches fresh in my mind, I gently asked everyone to leave the office by 6 or 7pm, to get some sleep.  With no death marches, we still hit deadlines, either by narrowing product scope or through clever workarounds.  We released groundbreaking mobile apps a decade before everyone else, but more importantly, we wasted no human capital:  our engineers generally went on to productive jobs elsewhere.

Programmer David Heinemeier Hansson concurs in his post, Sleep Deprivation is Not a Badge of Honor.  DHH created the Web development framework Ruby on Rails, co-founded cloud-based project management SaaS firm BaseCamp, and won the 2014 Le Mans auto race (how’s that for polymath?).  He does it on a reasonably consistent 9 hours of sleep.

Just sleep more.

Minimalist geopolitics

Global influence is won by a strong financial position. Weapons are merely a cart, pulled by horses that include tax base, borrowing capacity and GDP. These are the things that buy influence, whether through guns, elections or direct investment. (Conversely, empires collapse for lack of money.)

Nations seeking influence focus all their energy on raising their own people’s aggregate income, which increases private-sector financial strength, as well as the tax base.

This means investing mainly in education, infrastructure, public safety and rule of law, while avoiding resource drains like civil strife and, especially, external wars.

Countries that did this single-mindedly in recent decades — China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore — gained significant influence in a short time. Countries distracted by internal strife — Thailand, Malaysia — gained less. Countries that didn’t prioritize at all — the United States — lost relative influence.

Any country that is not primarily focused on increasing sustainable national income is off its game. It will lose relative influence over time. If your country under-educates its people, encourages consumer debt, and prioritizes spending over investment, it will decline. It really is that simple. We just get lost in the details.

Everything is like Jenga

The game Jenga is actually a contest of minimalism.  You start with a stack of wooden blocks as shown, and take turns removing blocks, until the tower collapses.

To a certain degree, everything is like Jenga.  The most efficient solution to just about anything involves removing as many extraneous pieces as possible without destabilizing the original aim.

Fewer pieces means less time, less curation, fewer errors, fewer losses, lower maintenance, higher return, higher efficiency.

Few people realize that Occam, who passed away in 1347, was actually talking about Jenga.  In a way.

Amazon fumbles simplicity

Years ago, I had a FewerNicer revelation:  buy everything with Amazon Prime.  It did not save money, but economized on something much more valuable:  time and attention.

Prime was not the cheapest, but ended shopping as we know it.  You think, “I need sunscreen and shaving cream” — one minute later, the order is in, the need struck from your to-do list, and you can get back to work, with barely any loss of focus.

Yet today, for the first time in years, I bought sunscreen and shaving cream from different sites.  Why?  As before, the change had nothing to do with price, and everything to do with time and attention.  Amazon is getting complicated, ruining their primary advantage.

My sunscreen brand is now sold only as an “add-on,” meaning I need to come up with $25 of other Amazon purchases before they will send me what I actually want.  Or I can wander  the site looking for another vendor of the same item at a higher price.  But this demands time and attention — exactly the cost I’m trying to minimize.

The shaving cream, a high-margin item, is now overrun with fakes and “new old stock,” sold by dubious third-party vendors that use the Amazon distribution network.  Again, I have to wander around the site, judging the quality and quantity of customer reviews, in hopes of finding the real item.  Decisions, decisions.  More time.  More attention.

Or, I can just go to the manufacturer’s website, buy direct, know that I have exactly what I want, and be done.  For today’s purchase, Amazon Prime lost the simplicity contest, which was my only reason for using it.

Manage to a single number

For a long time, I had various business goals — revenue per year, cost per month, widgets per microsecond, and so on — but business only took off when I boiled it all down to a single number I could measure daily.

Essentially, that number was “net daily change in gross profit.”  What was today’s revenue from new clients, minus revenue lost from any departing clients, minus the cost to acquire new clients?

Because my other costs were relatively fixed, that one number turned out to explain most of any change in fortunes for the whole business.  This, in turn, told me exactly how I was doing every day — a highly motivating and focusing flow of information.

Imagine how effective US economic policy might be, if managed to a single number.

The Federal Reserve once managed to a single number — inflation — but this was abandoned  in recent years, in favor of two numbers, namely inflation and unemployment.  There are legitimate reasons to want to reduce unemployment, but the two are often irreconcilable, and at minimum are a dilution of focus.  So this was a step backward from a management perspective.

Still, at least the Fed uses only two metrics.  Congress and the White House use an unlimited number, ranked in no particular order.  Cut inflation?  Control unemployment?  Flatten the income distribution?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Everything is important, so nothing stands out.  And then, nothing ever happens.

US economic policy could be hugely effective if we developed a single number that captured all the other goals.  The best metric, in my opinion, would be one that doesn’t exist yet:  median real disposable income per work hour.

What a mouthful!  But every word matters.  “Median” forces government to act in the interest of the middle class, because the median won’t go up much unless the masses earn more.  “Real” forces inflation management.  “Disposable” holds policy makers accountable to uncontrolled expenses like healthcare, education and housing, which for a generation have eaten up more than 100% of the real increase in middle-class income.  “Per work hour” acknowledges that workers’ time is not unlimited:  working twice as many hours doesn’t make them twice as well off.

If that single number goes up, Americans are generally getting better off, in a way that they will actually feel.  If it does not, then they are not.  Simple.