Emotion, Reason, Models

Jonah Lehrer has a piece in Wired recently that says the following:

While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion – David Hume was a prescient guy – it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions.

The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.

Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome. Pham’s catchy name for this phenomenon is the emotional oracle effect.

No doubt this is true in many situations, and Lehrer pointed to many of them in his book How We Decide. But it’s important to distinguish between individual reason and basic formal modeling.

I’m in the middle of a lecture on modeling right now and via that course, here’s a graph from Tetlock:

Hedgehogs, in Tetlock speak, are people who reason based off of a single mental model – they know one big thing and it informs their reasoning. Foxes, who do much better at prediction, know many things, and reason using many mental models.

But note up top that formal models beat both of those. Of course, neither of these is speaking exactly to intuitive thinking exactly, but I’d wager the same effect would be seen in the cases Lehrer cites.

Kahneman addressed this in Thinking, Fast and Slow, (I wrote about that part of it here):

…it is possible to develop useful algorithms without any prior statistical research. Simple equally weighted formulas based on existing statistics or on common sense are often very good predictors of significant outcomes. In a memorable example, Daws showed that marital stability is well predicted by a formula:

frequency of lovemaking minus frequency of quarrels

You don’t want your result to be a negative number.

That’s why, for instance, I basically outsource my estimations of the upcoming presidential campaign to Nate Silver, who essentially has built a fairly simple model based on a few variables known to be important. His model is unlikely to be perfect, but highly likely to be better than both my rational and my intuitive guess.

Me at Nieman Lab: Hacking Consensus

For the past few years I’ve bent quite a few ears about how much better arguments could be online. The earliest of these ear-bendings (that I can remember) was in Q1 of 2008. Since then I’ve talked to policy wonks, developers, journalists and plenty of friends and family about how I think the basic op-ed model should be improved. Four years since that first conversation, I finally have an essay on the topic that I feel comfortable standing behind.

My piece is up at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and I hope you’ll give it a read. I’d appreciate any feedback you have. Here’s the intro:

In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman argued that we should impose a tax on financial transactions, citing the need to reduce budget deficits, the dubious value of much financial trading, and the literature on economic growth. So should we? Assuming for a moment that you’re not deeply versed in financial economics, on what basis can you evaluate this argument? You can ask yourself whether you trust Krugman. Perhaps you can call to mind other articles you’ve seen that mentioned the need to cut the deficit or questioned the value of Wall Street trading. But without independent knowledge — and with no external links — evaluating the strength of Krugman’s argument is quite difficult.

It doesn’t have to be. The Internet makes it possible for readers to research what they read more easily than ever before, provided they have both the time and the ability to filter reliable sources from unreliable ones. But why not make it even easier for them? By re-imagining the way arguments are presented, journalism can provide content that is dramatically more useful than the standard op-ed, or even than the various “debate” formats employed at places like the Times or The Economist.

To do so, publishers should experiment in three directions: acknowledging the structure of the argument in the presentation of the content; aggregating evidence for and against each claim; and providing a credible assessment of each claim’s reliability. If all this sounds elaborate, bear in mind that each of these steps is already being taken by a variety of entrepreneurial organizations and individuals.

Please read the rest!

Ping U: Bringing open courseware to your inbox

As someone who recently completed CodeAcademy’s brief Getting Started with Programming lessons, I couldn’t be more excited for CodeYear, CodeAcademy’s latest offering. Says the site:

Make your New Year’s resolution learning to code. Sign up on Code Year to get a new interactive programming lesson sent to you each week and you’ll be building apps and web sites before you know it.

There are tons of free programming lessons out there, so why is this so exciting? Because this one will pester me in my inbox. I’ve experimented with a variety of online learning resources in various disciplines, and one thing I’ve wished for is the ability to sign up for the course as if it were an RSS feed. Send me one lesson per amount of time (ideally at my discretion) so that I can apply the same mania that drives me to keep my RSS reader and my inbox under control to learn new stuff.

As it is, the 1000+ in Google Reader and the [number not to be named here] in my inbox seem to call out and demand my attention, while the next Khan Academy lesson sits silently, never bothering me about when I’ll get around to it. In this very minor way, pinging me about the next lesson gets at one of the core bottlenecks of education, as Matt Yglesias has described:

I even downloaded an MIT lecture course off iTunes for free to refresh my existing base of math knowledge and lay the groundwork to pursue it further. But did I actually watch the lectures, study, and learn the stuff? Of course not!

That’s life, just as I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who finds himself not exercising as much as he probably should. Whoever finds good ways to ameliorate these kind of motivation / time consistency / akrasia problems will have the key to revolutionizing the sector. But for now, I think people focus a bit too much on the policy barriers to successful online education and not enough on the fact that we genuinely haven’t figured out how to make it stick at all.

As technology continues to improve, online education will be as much a motivation problem as anything else. I guess we’ll see in a year to what extent CodeYear’s simple solution of showing up in inboxes actually matters.

How inequality harms

I try to avoid politics here on the blog, even though it’s something I read about and talk about quite a bit. But there’s a point about inequality that I’ve been startled to see conservatives either missing or ignoring. In the clip above, Rich Lowry makes what I believe is a very misguided statement, arguing that inequality doesn’t cause harm per se. His exact words: “It’s just not true that [the bottom fifth of the population are] not getting ahead because of inequality… That Peter Orszag goes to Citigroup and makes two or three million dollars and merrily joins the 1% has zero effect on people who may be stuck at the bottom fifth in the Bronx, for instance.”

Woven in here is a point about poverty in America but I’m going to treat this as an example more broadly of the claim that the rich getting richer doesn’t make anyone else worse off. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting Lowry; perhaps he was very narrowly talking about the “stickiness” of serious poverty in the U.S. But the more general argument is something I’ve seen pop up elsewhere.

As for the broader claim that inequality isn’t hurting anyone… There is a logic to it, as I’ll explain, but it ultimately doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Before I get started, let me say this: even if everything I say here is correct, it doesn’t necessarily imply any particular policy responses to inequality. My aim here is to get past some faulty reasoning so that we can focus on the difficult questions around inequality that ultimately will determine what policies we do or don’t favor. So if you’re a conservative, try to keep an open mind as I go through this. Nothing here implies that you have to change your policy views.

A Simple Economy

To think about this, let’s consider inequality just between you and I. And even though we’ll eventually want to think about incomes, to keep it simple let’s start off just talking about wealth. I have $100 and you have $100. Now you come into some money and suddenly your wealth increases by $1000. You’re now quite a bit richer than I am, at $1100 net wealth to my $100. But am I worse off in any sense? Seemingly, no. This is the point I believe Lowry was trying to make.

Considering Alternatives

But here’s the problem with that line of reasoning: in saying I’m not any worse off, we’re comparing my current state only to my previous state, rather than to any other alternatives. Back when we each were worth $100 there weren’t many interesting alternatives to consider. I couldn’t become any richer without you becoming poorer (in our simplified, static model). Doing so would be unfair – or to stick to the language of harm, if you assume diminishing marginal utility, transferring money from you to me would lead to a loss in overall welfare.

But now that there is so much more wealth in the system, the alternatives get more interesting. What would happen if you gave me $100? I’d have $200 and you’d have $1000. Again, assuming diminishing marginal utility, that’d be a net welfare improvement. To take it even further, you could give me $500 so that we each had $600 of the full $1200 in the pot.

If at this point you’re thinking something along the lines of “It’s my money; I have no obligation to share it with you” try to put that to the side for now. It’s a legitimate feeling and I will return to it later. My point now is that from the perspective of welfare/utility/harm, the new unequal situation – while not worse for me than my previous situation – is worse than some other alternatives we can suddenly imagine.

What We Can And Can’t Afford

I want to consider one more super simplified scenario before trying to map some of this to anything approaching the real world. Imagine the same scenario where we each had $100 and then you got a sudden windfall of $1000. But now imagine that we jointly owe $100 in debt (which we inherited) to some third party. Now the Lowry’s of the world are basically saying 1) that I’m not any worse off than I was before you got that windfall AND 2) I had better cut back on my spending because I simply can’t afford to live the same lifestyle I’ve been living, given the fact that we’re jointly in debt.

As in the previous example, it’s clear that while I’m not worse off relative to my state prior to your windfall, I am worse off than I would be in various alternative distributions of the $1200 in the economy. The additional point to be made is this: I’m now being told that we can’t afford for me to maintain my lifestyle.

This is where I want to draw my first parallel to reality. Conservatives maintain that the top 1% getting filthy rich doesn’t make anyone else worse off. And then they turn around and claim that the economy simply can’t afford to maintain the social safety net (Social Security + Medicare + Medicaid) that the middle class has come to depend on. But as my examples have hopefully made clear, the 99% – while not worse off than they would have been had no one gotten richer – are much worse off than they would be if that wealth were more equally distributed. And it is in this context that claims of “we can’t afford it” become downright perverse. A world in which wealth were equally distributed would be a world in which we could afford it, at least in part.

Considering Objections

A quick recap: I’ve argued that while the rich getting richer doesn’t make the rest of us worse off relative to status quo, it does leave us worse off than we would be if that new wealth were more equally distributed. I’ve further argued that this argument has particular salience at a time when the 99% are being asked to make major sacrifices in the form of a reduced social safety net in order to reduce the deficit and pay down the debt. Claims that we can’t afford it rightly trigger consideration of alternative distribution schemes more than might be the case in less austere times.

But as I said at the outset, none of this implies that we must act to mitigate inequality (if we even could agree on how to do that). I want to mention the two most obvious objections to doing so, even if one accepts everything I’ve laid out here:

1) Property rights. If you were thinking “It’s my money; I have no obligation to share it with you” then fair enough. This is essentially an ethical question, so I won’t bother arguing about it here. If you believe that this is more a question of rights, that could be grounds for being ok with inequality. But don’t claim that it’s not hurting anyone. Relative to more equal distributions of wealth it is.

2) Economic growth. I’ve ignored the role of growth in all these little examples, but a common complaint about economic redistribution is that it tempers growth. That, one can argue, hurts even the worst off over time. That may or may not be true, but it’s at least a legitimate point to raise.

My hope is that we can move on to debating #1 and #2. They are both tough questions, but to me they’re where the action is. Claims that inequality isn’t harming anyone make little sense once alternatives are considered. I’d like to see conservatives abandon that argument so we can focus on the ethical question of property rights and the empirical question of economic growth.

UPDATE: A great graph via Mother Jones puts some numbers to this:

Fight bias with math

I just finished the chapter in Kahneman’s book on reasoning that dealt with “taming intuitive predictions.” Basically, we make predictions that are too extreme, ignoring regression to the mean, assuming the evidence to be stronger than it is, and ignoring other variables through a phenomenon called “intensity matching.” 

Here’s an example (not from the book; made up by me):

Jane is a ferociously hard-working student who always completes her work well ahead of time.

What GPA do you think she graduates college with? Formulate it in your mind, an actual number.

So Kahneman explains “intensity matching” as being able to toggle back and forth intuitively between variables. If it sounds like Jane is in the top 10% in motivation/work ethic, she must be in the top 10% in GPA. And our mind is pretty good at adjusting between those two. I’m going to pick 3.7 as the intuitive GPA number; if yours is different you can substitute it in below.

Kahneman says this is biased because you’re ignoring regression to the mean, another way of saying that GPA and work ethic aren’t perfectly correlated. so here’s a model to use Kahneman’s trick for taming your prediction.

GPA = work ethic + other factors

What is the correlation between work ethic and GPA? Let’s guess .3 (It can be whatever you think is most accurate).

Now what is the average GPA of college students? Let’s say 2.5? (Again, doesn’t matter).

Here’s Kahneman’s formula for taming your intuitive predictions:

0.3(3.7-2.5)+2.5 = statistically reasonable prediction

So apply the correlation between GPA and work ethic to the difference between your intuitive prediction and the mean, and then go from the mean in the direction of your intuition by that amount.

I played around with some different examples here because my intuition was grappling with some issues around luck vs. static variables, but those aside, this is a neat way to counter one’s bias in the face of limited information.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if the knowledge that this exercise was designed to counter bias led anyone to avoid or at least temper intensity matching. In other words, what were your intuitions for the GPA she’d have after just reading the description of her hard work? Did the knowledge that you were biased lead you to a lower score than the one I mentioned?

Here’s what I’m getting at… If it’s possible (and this is just me riffing right now) to dial down your biases (either consciously or not) when the issue of bias is on your mind, it would seem possible that one’s intuitions could be dialed down going into this exercise, at the point of the original GPA intuition, which could ruin the outcome. Put another way, the math above relies on accurate intensity matching which is itself a bias! If someone were able to come into this with that bias dialed down, they might actually end up with a worse prediction if they also did Kahneman’s suggested process.

Enough self-control not to need it

I just finished Willpower, the new book by psychologist Roy Baumeister and NYT columnist John Tierney. My overall take on the book is towards the end of this post. I first was introduced to the science of self-control via the Bloggingheads video above, which I highly recommend. The most fascinating bit to me was the fact that aggregate self-control predicts happiness in couples, but that self-control “opposites” attract. If you’re high self-control, you’ll be attracted to the messy procrastinator, but you’ll be happier with the similarly fastidious, strong-willed mate. Neat stuff, right? So I was pretty excited for this book.

The video made clear that willpower was both a scarce resource in the short term – using it on one thing like resisting food meant you had less of it for something seemingly unrelated like holding your temper – and able to be strengthened over the long term. On any given day you have a finite amount of willpower, but like a muscle it can be strengthened over time.

That got me wondering if there was a tension between self-control and the sort of “choice architecture” pre-commitment devices  tricks recommended by folks like Dan Ariely. If Ariely recommends putting your credit card in ice so you don’t overspend, are you actually foregoing the opportunity to strengthen your self-control, to your long-term detriment?

I emailed philosopher Josh Knobe (from the BhTV video) about this in July 2010, putting it this way:

In the diavlog, you discuss how self-control is finite – at least in the short-term.  Yet, over the long-term it’s something you can exercise and grow.  So hypothetically let’s say I’m the kind of person who would have eaten the marshmallow.  I have low self-control that needs to be dealt with somehow.

One prescription would be to practice self-control and build up my resources there.  But it seems like there’s another solution that’s also being popularized at present, in line with some of the work of behavioral economists including folks like Dan Ariely.  This school of thought seems to suggest that if I have a tendency to make a certain bad decision that jeopardizes my long-term happiness, I can deal with that by taking steps to constrain my future actions, to alter the choices I’ll have to make in ways that make me more likely to make good decisions.

But does this strategy come at the expense of developing needed self-control?

To take a specific example… Say I have a problem with credit card debt.  I just can’t help myself from buying things with my credit card that I can’t afford.  Ariely says I’d be better off just carrying around cash since I feel a twinge of guilt when I pay with it, and I’d be less likely to build up debt.

But in a way, this is skirting the self-control issue.  I’m actively avoiding that circumstance where I lack self-control, which may be missing an opportunity to build up greater stores of it for the future.  You could object that I could still build up self-control in other arenas, while using the cash technique.  But if you consider these two strategies more generally, I still see at least a potential conflict.

So the question is this: in general, will I be better off coming up with tricks and systems to avoid decisions that require significant self-control that I might not have, per Ariely?  Or should I face these decisions head on, and use the practice to build up greater self-control in the long run?

Professor Knobe was kind enough to respond. He didn’t answer definitively but guessed that in practice it wouldn’t end up being a problem (my intuition as well). And yet I remained curious. So I was pleased to see Baumeister and Tierney provided the answer in Willpower:

Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often? But then an explanation emerged: These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations. This explanation jived with the conclusion of another study, by Dutch researchers working with Baumeister, showing that people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and work. (pg. 239)

So there shouldn’t be any tension here. To change your choice architecture takes self-control. If you’re taking tips about avoiding vices from Ariely or anyone else, you still are getting in your self-control “practice” in instituting the change. And so you build up self-control and then also don’t need to expend it in the face of temptation (since you’ve avoided it). That leaves you with built up discipline to institute new life changes to further avoid temptations, and so on. So in practice it seems clear to me that the tension I’d wondered about doesn’t exist.

So that was nice to finally have settled.

Now, the book in general… I have to say I think this is a mediocre book on a fantastic topic. Baumeister’s research is fascinating and Tierney is an excellent writer, but I felt throughout that the material was just a little thin for filling up a whole book. That’s how I interpreted the inclusion of things like David Blaine or Drew Carey and Oprah’s battles with self-control. They felt a bit like filler. Perhaps I’m wrong, and they were meant to make the book more accessible. But the writing was already admirably accessible and the material incredibly relevant. There seemed to be no need to add these lengthy anecdotes.

There was also a fair amount of confusion and potential contradictions. Am I supposed to only make one goal at a time? Or always have several? Both are recommended at different points. Should I make goals that are “bright lines”, like no drinking, or set realistic goals like cutting back only a little? Both are recommended. These contradictions aren’t inherent; I’m certain that in conversation with Baumeister or Tierney they could explain how these aren’t in tension. But many of these seeming contradictions went unaddressed (some were addressed, to be fair).

This is still worth a read if, like me, you find the subject fascinating. But I couldn’t help but think that it had the meat of about 3 excellent long-form magazine pieces (like the terrific one Tierney did on decision fatigue!) that could have cut out the attempt to read self-control lessons into figures in popular culture and could have been slightly more careful in their recommendations.

But this is stuff you need to learn more about. You’ll get a lot out of the book if you’re not familiar with the subject. If you’re not sold based on my lukewarm review, at least read the Tierney article or watch the BhTV video. As for me, I knew when I came home from work and decided to blog that I was using up willpower, leaving me less available to force myself to go for a run. But I’m going to try to use the last of my glucose – yep, read about it – to get a few miles in.

UPDATE: changed choice architecture to pre-commitment devices, which is a bit clearer. And I did get my run in. Go willpower.

Review: The Penguin and the Leviathan

I have a review of Yochai Benkler’s new book up at The Atlantic today. Here’s the gist:

Benkler had described and classified the possible motivations driving Wikipedians in his 2006 tome The Wealth of Networks, in which he analyzed the Internet’s impact on the economics of information. In his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler builds on the lessons of Wikipedia to explain why humans cooperate, and to debunk the notion that we are compelled singularly by mere selfishness. The book is, in his terminology, a response to Wikipedia’s greatest gift. In taking aim at selfishness, Benkler puts in his crosshairs a fundamental tenet of modern economics, and this, ultimately, is what lends the book its relevance and gravity.

It’s a good book, and here’s my bottom line:

Benkler’s guidelines are useful at the micro level, but they are not far enough along to provide much guidance at the macro level. Whatever the merits of the Washington Consensus, it is an actionable macroeconomic agenda in a way The Penguin simply is not. This is not a criticism of Benkler himself, as he has done as much as anyone to push forward these lines of inquiry. But, given his framing, one cannot help but feel frustrated knowing that universal selfishness is both empirically wrong and yet necessarily at the heart of how we make decisions about economic policy.

Benkler’s work is both a formidable refutation of the assumption of narrow selfishness and a useful guide to building successful cooperative projects. And while the false assumption of selfish rationality will for now continue to guide the formal modeling of the macroeconomy, The Penguin and the Leviathan equips readers to begin changing the public conversation on the question of how humans work together. It is comforting to be reminded that most of us are not fundamentally selfish. It is long past time that our institutions in business and government realized as much.

I have some related thoughts to blog on this that I couldn’t fit into the review, but in the meantime, I wrote about much the same subjects last year in my post Markets and Networks.

Different thinking on Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs implored us all to “Think Different.” And while I don’t claim that any of what follows is particularly original, I do think that the conventional wisdom on Jobs deserves some push back. Jobs was clearly a talented, passionate, and influential person and I’m sorry he’s dead. What follows is designed less as a critique on Steve Jobs or Apple, and more as a counterbalance to the public reactions to Jobs’ passing. Here goes…

1. CEOs don’t matter as much as we think

It’s human nature to attribute the success or failure of organizations to the individuals we see as running them. But we tend to over-emphasize the importance of those individuals. My favorite example of this is political candidates. To really understand campaigns it’s often more useful to remember that campaigns are organizations, not candidates. Candidates are a powerful part of the campaign, but at the end of the day, a campaign is an organization. The same thing applies even more to the presidency. And it applies to major companies. Here’s an excerpt from The Drunkard’s Walk, a book on the history and practical application of probability:

In major corporations, in which operations are large and complex and to a great extent affected by unpredictable market forces, the causal connection between brilliance at the top and company performance is even less direct and the efficiency of reactionary firings is no greater than it is in sports. Researchers at Columbia University and Harvard, for example recently studied a large number of corporations whose bylaws made them vulnerable to shareholders’ demands that they respond to rough periods by changing management. They found that in the three years after the firing there was no improvement, on average, in operating performance (a measure of earnings.) No matter what the differences in ability among CEOs, they were swamped by the effect of the uncontrollable elements of the system, just as the differences among musicians might become unapparent in a radio broadcast with sufficient noise and static. Yet in determining compensation, corporate boards of directors often behave as if the CEO is the only one who matters.

I think it’s fair to say we tend to make the same sort of error in over-attributing Apple’s success (or failure while he was away) to Jobs. As one blogger succinctly put it:

No matter how much we enjoy our iPods and iPhones, we should be careful about attributing their existence to individual “genius” rather than to collective effort and the education and organization on which that effort depends.

2. The innovations we associate with Apple mostly would have happened anyway

My second mp3 player was an iPod. I forget who made my first. Perhaps Samsung? The iPod was an upgrade in many ways, and a downgrade in others. Most notably, it stored a ton more music. And I suppose it looked fairly snazzy. (Although, my dad had the original iPod and that thing looked like a glass paperweight.) But it was also huge and bulky. That plus the fact that it used a hard drive rather than flash memory made it much worse for running. My point is simply that iPod didn’t invent mp3 players. They made good (but expensive and imperfect) ones and helped shape their direction, sure. But if Apple never got into the market, we’d still all be using mp3 players.

This doesn’t take away from the success of Apple, with Jobs at the helm, in its endeavors. But it does point to what I think is a more accurate understanding of Jobs’ legacy: he identified promising, existing technologies and he marketed them. That’s surely important. From the graphical user interface he saw back at Xerox to mp3 players, mobile devices that are both phones and computers, and finally tablets, Jobs oversaw the design of some really good products. He helped make them cool. But for the most part, they would have existed with or without his involvement, and even with or without Apple.

3. Shiny != Great

Aesthetics aren’t everything. A developer friend explained the genius of Jobs as convincing people they need extremely expensive, high end electronics, instead of the minimum to meet their requirements. That PCs are both cheaper and uglier isn’t entirely unrelated.

4. Closed systems do damage

Richard Stallman has caused a lot of controversy for a callous blog post in response to Jobs’ death. I wish Stallman had been more respectful, but that doesn’t make his basic point wrong: Apple under Steve Jobs championed closed systems. If you’re of the view that open systems are beneficial for the world in various ways, it’s fair to say that Jobs’ legacy in that respect is negative. (For my money, the value of open systems is well articulated by both Lessig and Benkler. You may favor others, or you may disagree. But it’s a well-credentialed position.) One caveat: good for developers is distinct from good for the world. As a non-developer, I have no view on the former. I’m talking about the broad normative benefits of open systems.

5. The charity thing

I sincerely hope that this changes following his death, but the charity thing is kind of an elephant in the room. From DailyFinance, when he resigned as CEO:

[Mr Jobs] doesn’t give any money to charity. And when he became Apple’s CEO he stopped all of its philanthropic programs. He said, “wait until we are profitable”. Now Apple is profitable, and sitting on $40 billion in cash, and still no corporate philanthropy. I actually think Jobs is probably the most charitable guy on the planet. Rather than focus on which mosquitoes to kill in Africa (Bill Gates is already focusing on that), Jobs has put his energy into massively improving quality of life with all of his inventions.

Both The Economist and Dealbook are good on this. You don’t have to be a raging lefty to find it troubling that someone so wealthy foregoes charity so completely. And don’t think the libertarians aren’t making hay out of this.

6. Dubious commencement advice

From his 2005 Stanford commencement address:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Both Robin Hanson and Will Wilkinson have taken this on already, although I swear I had it on my outline of this post before I read them! I’d describe this slightly differently than Robin or Will. I think of this as a clear bias. We only hear from the people who take this path and have it work out. Imagine that there’s a “play it safe” career route and a “follow your dreams” route. The former has high odds of a secure life that is moderately fulfilling, and very low odds on either end of the spectrum of either a) fantastic success that allows for the kind of engagement Jobs describes or b) abject failure leading to considerable stress and unhappiness. The “follow your dreams” route, by contrast, has slightly higher odds of fantastic success and engagement, but they are still low. The odds of stable and moderately fulfilling are significantly lower, and the odds of abject failure and the corresponding negatives is no longer insignificant.

In this scenario I’ll leave it to you to pick your path. But my problem is that we don’t have an accurate picture of the “follow your dreams” route, because we tend to hear about that one mostly from the folks for whom it works out! If 1000 people born the same year as Jobs took that path and he’s the one who made it, he gives the commencement speech and the 999 aren’t much heard from. So we’re getting obviously biased information.

Now it’s somewhat unfair to pick on Jobs here, since this sort of advice is so pervasive in our culture. And it basically is the commencement speech genre. Heck, I even buy it plenty of the time. (This, for instance.) But that doesn’t make it right. And with Jobs’ speech cruising around the web, it seemed worth pointing out.

7. “Think different” is often a terrible way to think

If you’re setting out to create a new, innovative product, the mantra “Think different” makes a lot of sense. But in at least as many (and likely more) scenarios in everyday life it’s a terrible way to think! Take, for instance, politics. If you’re an average citizen, “think different” is just about the worst thing you can do with respect to, say, the impacts of climate change, the effects of marginal tax rates, etc. In all sorts of scenarios, the mantra needs to be “think boring”. Again, this is a bit unfair, as I’m sure Jobs never meant to suggest that everyone should be creative in picking a stimulus multiplier, but with this line bouncing around I had to say it.

And, finally, can we please not compare him to Gandhi?

Was I wrong about the NYT paywall?

In a nutshell: not yet.

I wrote a post for The Atlantic back in March when the paywall first launched that called it “unsustainable.” And yet, as Felix Salmon has detailed here and here, the paper is on track to hit its goal of 300,000 digital subscribers. Was I wrong? I don’t think so; at least not yet.

A bit more from about NYT’s success, from NYMag:

It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success. The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website.

As Felix notes, that revenue is a drop in the bucket, but still promising. So here’s what I wrote when the paywall launched:

I wouldn’t be surprised if the NYT can raise some revenue from this in the short term from people young enough to have canceled their paper subscription but not so young to be heavily into social media, at least as a means of getting news. (Age isn’t the only relevant factor here, but it’s one.) But that already limited demographic will shrink over time. Put another way: the number of users interested in NYT content but not already reliant on social media — or even just capable of using it — to access news is shrinking and will continue to do so.

In other words, NYT was leaving some money on the table and they decided to pick it up. But I’m skeptical that they can grow digital subscriptions over time. Eventually, I’d expect the pool of digital subscribers to shrink. But Felix has some good pushback on that kind of logic:

Sales people and business-side executives tend to believe as a matter of faith that if people can get something for free, they won’t pay for it. But all they need to do is look at their own behavior to see how that isn’t true: when they go to a restaurant in a distant town that they’ll never visit again, they still leave a 20% tip. A large segment of the population feels that it’s only proper to pay for something if you’re getting value from it…

I had a couple brief online conversations after I posted a quick screed against record companies that suggested paying for music may not be necessary, and based on those conversations Felix is, at minimum, partially right. At least when people are used to paying for something, they feel obligated to keep paying for it. Multiple people spoke to me about how important it was to pay for music in order to support the artist, etc.

But is this true in some absolute sense? That it’s getting value that prompts people to pay? More likely it’s being accustomed to paying for something that gives you value. Which is to say I expect that a generation that grew up never paying for information won’t feel compelled to pay for news.