Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Right Mix of Independence and Interdependence for Group Decision Making

My Mom is a beekeeper so I've been reading articles on how bees live and work. Much about bee life is very interesting and relevant in other contexts: their teamwork, how they relate to their CEO (queen bee), division of labor, and more. Below's a fascinating excerpt from a recent academic paper on how honey bees select their nest. They employ a blend of individual, independent assessments of quality nest sites and consensus-driven deference around the most promising, emerging nest sites. With a right combination of independence and interdependence, they are able to make a decision that draws upon collective wisdom while also avoiding groupthink.

We have developed an agent-based model of nest-site choice among honeybees. The model not only explicitly represents the behaviour of each individual bee as a simple stochastic process, but it also allows us to simulate the bees' decision-making behaviour under a wide variety of empirically motivated as well as hypothetical assumptions. The model predicts that, consistently with empirical observations by Seeley & Buhrman (2001), the bees manage to reach a consensus on the best nest site for a large range of parameter conditions, under both more and less demanding criteria of consensus. Moreover, the model shows that the remarkable reliability of the bees' decision-making process stems from the particular interplay of independence and interdependence between them. The bees are independent in assessing the quality of different nest sites on their own, but interdependent in giving more attention to nest sites that are more strongly advertised by others.

Without interdependence, the rapid convergence of the bees' dances to a consensus would be undermined; there would not be a ‘snowballing’ of attention on the best nest site. Without independence, a consensus would still emerge, but it would no longer robustly be on the best nest site; instead, many bees would end up dancing for nest sites that accidentally receive some initial support through random fluctuations. It is only when independence and interdependence are combined in the right way that the bees achieve their remarkable collective reliability.

(hat tip Paul Kedrosky)

Email of the Day, Youth Sports Edition

A girls soccer coach in Massachusetts was recently forced to resign after emailing the parents of his 7 and 8 year-old players that he expects them to "kick ass." Here's the entire email. Below is an excerpt. When you read "kids" remember it's 7 and 8 year old girls.

Some say soccer at this age is about fun and I completely agree. However, I believe winning is fun and losing is for losers. Ergo, we will strive for the “W” in each game. While we may not win every game (excuse me, I just got a little nauseated) I expect us to fight for every loose ball and play every shift as if it were the finals of the World Cup. While I spent a good Saturday morning listening to the legal liability BS, which included a 30 minute dissertation on how we need to baby the kids and especially the refs, I was disgusted. The kids will run, they will fall, get bumps, bruises and even bleed a little. Big deal, it’s good for them (but I do hope the other team is the one bleeding). If the refs can’t handle a little criticism, then they should turn in their whistle. The sooner they figure out how to make a decision and live with the consequences the better. My heckling of the refs is actually helping them develop as people. The political correctness police are not welcome on my sidelines. America’s youth is becoming fat, lazy and non-competitive because competition is viewed as “bad”. I argue that competition is good and is important to the evolution of our species and our survival in what has become an increasingly competitive global economy and dangerous world. Second place trophies are nothing to be proud of as they serve only as a reminder that you missed your goal; their only useful purpose is as an inspiration to do that next set of reps. Do you go to a job interview and not care about winning? Don’t animals eat what they kill (and yes, someone actually kills the meat we eat too – it isn’t grown in plastic wrap)? And speaking of meat, I expect that the ladies be put on a diet of fish, undercooked red meat and lots of veggies. No junk food. Protein shakes are encouraged, and while blood doping and HGH use is frowned upon, there is no testing policy. And at the risk of stating the obvious, blue slushies are for winners.

These are my views and not necessarily the views of the league (but they should be). I recognize that my school of thought may be an ideological shift from conventional norms. But it is imperative that we all fight the good fight, get involved now and resist the urge to become sweat-xedo-wearing yuppies who sit on the sidelines in their LL Bean chairs sipping mocha-latte-half-caf-chinos while discussing reality TV and home decorating with other feeble-minded folks. I want to hear cheering, I want to hear encouragement, I want to get the team pumped up at each and every game and know they are playing for something.

Lastly, we are all cognizant of the soft bigotry that expects women and especially little girls, to be dainty and submissive; I wholeheartedly reject such drivel. My overarching goal is develop ladies who are confident and fearless, who will stand up for their beliefs and challenge the status quo. Girls who will kick ass and take names on the field, off the field and throughout their lives. I want these girls to be winners in the game of life. Who’s with me?

Go Green Death!

(hat tip to Andy McKenzie for the pointer)

Native English Speakers Don’t Say “Clever” Much

Always interesting to hear and analyze how non-natives speak the English language. What’s difficult? What do they mess up?

One random observation: the word “clever.” Most fluent English speakers I know don’t use the word “clever” very often, certainly not as a catch-all compliment for intelligence or savviness. If anything, “clever” can have a slightly negative connotation — like sneaky. Yet many folks in Latin America use “clever” very often and in broad contexts.

Second random observation: “this” and “that.” Neither is technically grammatically better than the other, but you can hear it when it doesn’t sound right.

Horseback Riding in the Countryside

On Sunday the group went horseback riding for about an hour outside Medellín. We had a fantastic time.

There were about 20 of us on horses and about 15 police officers on horses as well, acting as our guides and escorts. One of the guides' horses was the "DJ" – two stereo speakers playing traditional cowboy Spanish music draped over each side of the horse.

The countryside was beautiful — lush green hills, lots of vegetation, trees, trails, etc.

Horseback

My horse got tired as the journey went on as he became gradually less responsive to my kicks which are supposed to jumpstart him. Or maybe he just realized his "driver" was a real amateur and that he could follow his own pace!

One of the most impressive aspects of the horses were how they always picked the best path to take on difficult, rocky downhills. That is, they would instinctively bob and weave on the path to avoid the sharpest rocks or least steady ground. Also, my horse had a penchant for grass, and stopped a few times to munch on grass on the side of the trail. Just like with walking dogs, the horse will eat grass forever unless you pull him away.

Hosreback2 All in all, a wonderfully authentic experience. Horseback riding is a traditional weekend activity in many countries in South America. I'll post pictures next week.

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Some people swear by these Stoic teachings, but even me, a confessed lover of nuggets, could not fully engage with the long list of short aphoristic nugget-y blurbs. I’ll try again later. I do want to better understand Stoicism.

2. Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. There are many reviews and summaries of this book on the web (including an entire Ted talk) so I’m not sure I’d recommend reading the whole book itself. Schwartz’s argument — that too much choice robs us of satisfaction — is clearly presented and convincingly supported, even though it’s a “problem” only the very fortunate seem to have. I found much of the book familiar, but if you haven’t already dipped into happiness books or any of the recent slew of pop psychology books, Schwartz brings a lot of the research into one place.

3. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb. Another book that’s been well reviewed and summarized. I read Fooled by Randomness and loved it. I didn’t love Black Swan, but this is probably because over-high expectations. It’s a good book with important points about statistics, randomness, planning, and human nature. With the onset of the financial crisis, I’m sure Taleb has been dancing a jig. The book’s weakness, to this reader who isn’t qualified to assess the statistical arguments, is stylistic. He proudly resisted any editorship, and it shows. Also, he seems to enjoy his reputation for brashness so much that he hurls bitchy, pointless insults toward people like Richard Posner. All this notwithstanding, you should still read this book.

2. The Knack: How Street Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham. Brodsky and Burlingham have sterling reputations in the business journalism world, but I found nothing new in this grab bag of entrepreneurship tips and tricks. Like most business and entrepreneurship books: pass.

The best book I’ve been reading recently is John Updike, but that review deserves a separate post.

Colombia: Uribe, Clinton, Barrett, Reid, and Others

The Inter-American Development Bank is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Medellín so we’ve been able to piggyback on those festivities to meet some amazing people.

Our first meeting was with the former prime minister of Jamaica, James Patterson. He opened by expressing his “sincere disappointment” that no one from the Caribbean was represented in our group of 20. He then discussed the state of Jamaica, the drug trade, and his country’s precarious financial situation. Anti-American sentiment shimmered throughout.

At lunch we heard from the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who’s now launching a presidential bid. A mathematician and university professor by training, he got involved in politics by giving voice to the everyday people on the street. He mentioned several times that he’s “walking around the country” meeting with everyday people, hearing their concerns, etc. A grassroots effort. He’s deservedly proud of Medellín’s turnaround from drug haven 20 years ago to a very safe, beautiful city today. Whether this record will be enough to win a nation-wide presidency remains to be seen; if Uribe successfully amends the constitution and runs for a third term, it’s Uribe all the way (he has 60% approval rating). If Uribe is out, Fajardo has a good chance.

Next we chatted with Craig Barret, chairman of the board at Intel, former CEO there, longtime employee. He began his remarks by saying “We old people have screwed the world up — it’s up to you to solve the problems we created.” Unfortunately he didn’t specify what problems, exactly. Most interesting tidbit: 75% of Intel revenue comes from outside the U.S. and all future growth will come from emerging markets.

Next was Michael Reid, Americas editor of The Economist, and author of The Forgotten Continent which I read and posted my notes. Reid was impressive. He’s spent 20+ years in the region and knows it inside and out. He wrote the editorial in the Economist calling for drug legalization. The political will to legalize drugs will only come when there’s universal understanding that the War on Drugs has been a failure. Reid also said it would be a “terrible mistake” for Uribe to amend the constitution and run for a third term.

The following day started with Agustín Carstens, Treasury Secretary for Mexico. Very smart dude. He said it’d be nice for Mexico’s economy to be less dependent on U.S., and for Mexican companies to have a more diversified customer base. But practically speaking, companies are going to continue to try to penetrate the world’s largest economy next door. As long as the Mexican-US trade relationship remains tight, Mexico’s economy will mirror America’s. He also said he expects more Americans to immigrate TO Mexico, as 10-15 million Americans retire in the next decade. Another fun fact: 50% of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. in a six month period is grown in Mexico.

Our next meeting was with Robert Merton, Nobel prize winning economist at Harvard. He famously co-founded Long Term Capital Management, the disastrous hedge fund in the 1990’s that used complex statistical models to make trades. Merton struck me as an arrogant prick. His remarks were all over the place, and his overconfidence was shocking given the state of the global financial system.

Our meeting with Bill Clinton got cancelled but we were able to catch the end of his talk to the larger group. He had some very gracious things to say about Colombia’s stunning progress on the security front. He closed by saying Colombia should not give up on its neighbors — that it should talk to countries that disagree with them. This meant Venezuela, for sure, and maybe Ecuador too?

The day ended with the big meeting: President Uribe of Colombia. It was my first time meeting a head of state. He was impressive and thoughtful. We got to ask questions. We asked about his move to amend the constitution to allow for a third term and asked his reaction for observers who say such a move would weaken the “institutions” of Colombia. He pushed back and asked what specific institutions would weaken. He noted that Margaret Thatcher in England was in office for 14 years (or so). He said the security work in Colombia is not yet done. Most of all, he said he just wants to respond to the people’s will. If they want him for another term, he should have another term. On drugs he said the “US is not spending too much on it.” Ie, they’re spending the right amount, not too little.

Length of Meals in Latin America

Meals go on forever in Colombia. Each lunch and dinner has taken about two hours. Today, for example, we had a two hour breakfast, 2.5 hour lunch, and will have about a two hour dinner. That’s about seven hours of sitting in a restaurant for the day!

So much in this part of the world happens over food and drink.

Whereas in France and Spain and Europe in general I got frustrated with how long everything took (for waiters to arrive, food to come, etc) so far in Colombia I’ve enjoyed the leisurely pace.

I suppose if you’re eating at super nice restaurants with a large group of interesting people, a 3.5 hour dinner feels better than if you’re a solo backpacker on-the-go. 🙂

Better to Start a B2B Company in a Recession

Sometimes, the best way to save money is to spend money.

You invest in education to improve your long-term earning potential. You invest in software to make your employees more efficient.

This is a basic concept that can get lost in the oh-fuck-we're-in-a-real-recession panic that is striking boardrooms and kitchen table conversations around the world.

But companies tend to remember it better than individual consumers. Companies tighten their belts more rationally. Consumers will blindly slash costs across the board. They hibernate and are unable to think about the long term benefits which can accrue from short term investments.

What does this mean to entrepreneurs? I think it's better to start a B2B business than a B2C.

Bottom Line: All else being equal (and this is a huge qualifier), if I were starting a new company in a recession or depression period, I'd prefer to sell to companies over consumers.

In Defense of Downtime

The always interesting Jonah Lehrer channels Joseph Brodsky and defends moments of boredom:

…boredom can be a crucial mental tool. In recent years, scientists have begun to identify a neural circuit called the default network, which is turned on when we're not preoccupied with something in our external environment. (That's another way of saying we're bored. Perhaps we're staring out a train window, or driving our car along a familiar route, or reading a tedious text.) At first glance, these boring moments might seem like a great time for the brain to go quiet, to reduce metabolic activity and save some glucose for later. But that isn't what happens. The bored brain is actually incredibly active, as it generates daydreams and engages in mental time travel.

Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time lying on my bed with either a Captain Planet toy or a miniature football and daydream for hours.

Most kids have plenty of time for imaginative fantasies. As busy adults, however, reflective, idle time is harder to come by. But still important for allowing our brain to "form connections among seemingly disperate ideas."

Staring blankly out the window of a car, train, or plane, thinking about nothing in particular, not listening to an audiobook, nor talking to anyone else: this is my present-day version of idle downtown that most often leads to mental time travel and creative "what if" scenarios.

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Jonah Lehrer's blog is excellent, by the way. Here he is on gender differences and decision making.

Colombia, Day 1

I've blogged about the annoyances of taxi drivers who hound you moments after stepping out of a third world airport. It creates a terrible first impression for visitors.

Imagine the sense of relief I felt, then, when I stepped outside of the airport in Medellín, Colombia this evening, prepared to not look any of the drivers in the eye (what I learned in Dalian, China is that if you give a driver eye contact he won't let you go), ready for an onslaught of "Taxi! Taxi!"…. and instead encountered a pleasant, quiet, area with taxi drivers patiently waiting for customers.

I love this city already!

When I arrived at my hotel the check-in process required my limited Spanish and the desk agent's limited English.

I gave him my American passport for the check-in. He studies it, opens it, looks at it. He asks me where I'm from. I say USA. His eyes widen with surprise, "Oh ok, USA."

I get my room key and ask if the restaurant is still open. He says no but he can order food from a local restaurant and have it brought up to my room. I say ok. He asks what I want. I ask if there's a menu. He says no. Silence. I'm not sure what to say – my food vocabularly in Spanish was escaping me. He asks if I like meat, I say yes, and he nods and says he'll take care of it.

30 mins later the desk agent and the restaurant dude show up at my room with two plates of thin steak and fries. It reminded me of the type of steak that's served as "casado" in Costa Rica.

He tells me I need to pay in pesos. I don't have pesos. Only credit card and dollars. Shit. I go online and check the currency conversion – 15,500 pesos into U.S. dollars. They stand there waiting for me and talking in Spanish as I figure out how much to give in dollars.

The whole meal comes out to US $6. I feel a little guilty at how cheap it is. I give the agent a $20 bill and say, "Give me back $11 and give the rest to the restaurant." They trust my conversion numbers. I get change back in pesos.

Tomorrow, I must go to an ATM and get the local currency. In the meantime, I feel lucky that the U.S. dollar still has street cred. 🙂