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Critical Thinking

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Whom Do You Trust? America or Facebook?

Do we need it anymore?

The promise of cryptocurrencies is that we can create a widely-acceptable medium of exchange without having to trust anyone.  Cryptocurrencies have no central authority, no government agency to vouch for them. We don’t need to trust a government or a bank or a stock exchange. Elites can’t cheapen our currency because no elites are involved. Indeed, no one is involved. The currency is distributed across multiple computers and multiple networks. To manipulate the currency, one would need to control all the computers in the world – a seemingly impossible task.

In the original conception, the value of a cryptocurrency is based on nothing more than supply-and demand. Value is not linked to any physical asset like gold or oil or even paper currencies like dollars. Since there is no asset behind the currency, no one can manipulate the value of the currency by manipulating the underlying asset. Rather than trusting a government or an agency or a bank, we place our trust in an algorithm distributed around the world.

(The distributed nature of cryptocurrencies also makes them quite slow. Speeding up transactions is a major challenge for blockchain researchers. The most promising solution seems to be “sharding” – a technology worth keeping an eye on.)

Traditionally, we’ve trusted governments to create and maintain the value of national currencies. That’s been a pretty good bet in the United States, less so in Venezuela. But, really, do we need a nation to create a widely acceptable currency? Cryptocurrencies suggest that the answer is “no”.

But there’s a not-so-subtle problem with cryptocurrencies. The elephant in the room is that many people (myself included) view cryptocurrencies as a new version of the Wild West – a territory populated by libertarians, wild-eyed visionaries, snake oil salesmen, drug dealers, scam artists, and terrorists. And, by the way, some person created the algorithm and could potentially manipulate it for illicit purposes. Simply put, the current cryptocurrency scene does not inspire trust.

To fill the trust gap, several “trusted” agencies have stepped forward to offer cryptocurrencies based on a trusted brand and/or on physical assets. Case in point: J.P. Morgan Chase’s “JPM Coin”. Announced earlier this year, (click here, here, and here) JPM Coin is backed by a major bank and based on a physical asset: the U.S. dollar. The company touts JPM Coin as a simpler, faster way to make and clear payments.

This past week, of course, another “trusted” organization – Facebook – announced that it will introduce a new digital currency called Libra next year. (Click here and here). Facebook wraps its announcement in humanitarian gauze – it’s simply providing an effective payment service to the world’s unbanked citizens. As Evgeny Morozov points out, however, Facebook is actually doing two things:

  • Preparing to take on China’s social media giants, Tencent and Alibaba, which already combine payments and communications.
  • Positioning itself as a “as a rebel force against mediocre bureaucrats and sluggish corporate incumbents”. It’s doing battle against a coalition of lazy, inept, corrupt – untrustworthy – bankers, bureaucrats, and politicians. Morozov suggests that Facebook is activating its populist supporters to keep regulators at bay. More broadly, it’s a “plan to break the global financial system.”

Could Facebook’s Libra actually become a global currency at the expense of the dollar, yen Euro, and renminbi? Facebook currently has 2.38 billion active users. That number makes even China’s population look small. If a significant portion choose the Libra over existing currencies, then the money we know today could become irrelevant. If a nation’s currency is irrelevant, how relevant is the government?

Given all this, here’s a basic question — whom do you trust more: 1) the American government; or 2) Facebook?

(Note that JPM Coin and Libra are not truly cryptocurrencies, at least not in the original sense of the word. A cryptocurrency has three elements: 1) No central authority, agency, governing body or processor. Clearly J.P. Morgan and Facebook are centralized governing bodies. 2) No physical assets backing the currency. JPM Coin, uses the U.S dollar as its backing asset – it’s a digital currency based on a fiat currency. Facebook says that Libra will be based on physical assets, though it hasn’t quite defined them. 3) Permissionless – you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to use a cryptocurrency. To use JPM Coin, you need to have an account at J.P. Morgan. To use Libra, you’ll need a Facebook account. Given this, it’s probably best to call JPM Coin and Libra “digital currencies” as opposed to “cryptocurrencies”.)

What’s Walking Good For?

No, I don’t think you should marry Tom.

I often ask my students a simple question: What were you doing the last time you had a good idea? Whatever they answer, I say: “Do more of that and you’ll have more good ideas.”

So what are they doing when they have good ideas? A fair number – often a majority – are walking. Taking a break and going for a walk stimulates our thinking in ways that produce interesting and novel ideas. Walking takes a minimum amount of conscious effort; we have plenty of mental bandwidth left for other interesting thoughts. Walking also provides a certain amount of stimulation. The sights and sounds and smells trigger memories and images that we can combine in novel ways. By moving our bodies slowly, we create thoughts that move much more quickly.

Going for a walk with a friend, colleague, or loved one can also help us create richer, deeper conversations. Walking stimulates novel thoughts; if a companion is beside us, we can share those thoughts immediately. The back-and-forth can lead us into new territory. A good conversation is not just an exchange of existing ideas. Rather, it produces new ideas – and walking can help.

Walking can also help us have difficult conversations. The key here may be our posture and proximity rather than walking per se. When we walk with another person, we are typically side-by-side, not face-to-face. We’re not confronting each other physically. We’re talking to the air, rather than at each other. We’re slightly insulated from each other, which makes it easier to both make and receive blunt statements. 

According to Walk-And-Talk therapists like Kate Hays, walking can also enhance traditional psychotherapy sessions. Walking with a therapist “…spurs creative, deeper ways of thinking often released by mood improving physical activity.” Walking seems especially helpful when the conversation is between a parent and, say, a teenager. We feel close, but not intimidated. (Side note: we often describe deep conversations as “heart-to-heart” but rarely describe them as “face-to-face.”)

What else can walking do? It’s an “active fingerprint.” As the MIT Technology Review puts it, “… your gait [is} a very individual and hard-to-imitate trait.” In other words, the way you walk uniquely identifies you.

Clearly, we can use gait-based identification for positive or negative ends. With so many security cameras in place today, we’re rightly concerned about facial recognition as an invasion of privacy. But we can hide our faces with something as simple as a surgical mask. Disguising the way we walk is much more difficult.

On the other hand, think of a device – perhaps a smart phone – that can uniquely identify you based solely on your gait. You put your phone in your pocket and walk along; it “knows” who you are. Rather than depending on fingerprints or passwords, the device simply monitors your gait. One benefit is convenience – you don’t have to enter a password every time you want to use the device. The second benefit is perhaps more important: security. A thief could steal your password or even an image of your fingerprint. But could they imitate your gait? Probably not.

What else is walking good for? Oh, simple things like health, flexibility, weight loss, mental acuity, sociability, and so on. I’d like to hear your stories about the benefits of walking. Just send me an e-mail. I’ll read them after I get back from my walk.

Will AI Be The End Of Men?

Can you say “empathy”?

A little over two years ago, I wrote an article called Male Chauvinist Machines. At the time, men outnumbered women in artificial intelligence development roles by about eight to one. A more recent report suggests the ratio is now about three to one.

The problem is not just that men outnumber women. Data mining also presents an issue. If machines mine data from the past (what other data is there?), they may well learn to mimic biases from the past. Amazon, for instance, recently found that its AI recruiting system was biased against women. The system mined data from previous hires and learned that resumés with the word “woman” or “women” were less likely to be selected. Assuming that this was the “correct” decision, the system replicated it.

Might men create artificial intelligence systems that encode and perpetuate male chauvinism? It’s possible. It’s also possible that the emergence of AI will mean the “end of men” in high skill, cognitively demanding jobs.

That’s the upshot of a working paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) titled, “The ‘End of Men’ and Rise of Women In The High-Skilled Labor Market”.

The paper documents a shift in hiring in the United States since 1980. During that time the probability that a college-educated man would be employed in a

“… cognitive/high wage occupation has fallen. This contrasts starkly with the experience for college-educated women: their probability of working in these occupations rose.”

The shift is not because all the newly created high salary, cognitively demanding jobs are in traditionally female industries. Rather, the shift is “….accounted for by a disproportionate increase in the female share of employment in essentially all good jobs.” There seems to be a pronounced female bias in hiring for cognitive/high wage positions — also known as “good jobs”.

Why would that be? The researchers consider that “…women have a comparative advantage in tasks requiring social and interpersonal skills….” So, if industry is hiring more women into cognitive/high-wage jobs, it may indicate that such jobs are increasingly requiring social skills, not solely technical skills. The researchers specifically state that:

“… our hypothesis is that the importance of social skills has become greater within high-wage/cognitive occupations relative to other occupations and that this … increase[s] the demand for women relative to men in good jobs.”

The authors then present 61 pages on hiring trends, shifting skills, job content requirements, and so on. Let’s just assume for a moment that the authors are correct – that there is indeed a fundamental shift in the good jobs market and an increasing demand for social and interpersonal skills. What does that bode for the future?

We might want to differentiate here between “hard skills” and “soft skills” – the difference, say, between physics and sociology. The job market perceives men to be better at hard skills and women to be better at soft skills. Whether these differences are real or merely perceived is a worthy debate – but the impact on industry hiring patterns is hard to miss.

How will artificial intelligence affect the content of high-wage/cognitive occupations? It’s a fair bet that AI systems will displace hard skills long before they touch soft skills. AI can consume data and detect patterns far more skillfully than humans can. Any process that is algorithmic – including disease diagnosis – is subject to AI displacement. On the other hand, AI is not so good at empathy and emotional support.

If AI is better at hard skills than soft skills, then it will disproportionately displace men in good jobs. Women, by comparison, should find increased demand (proportionately and absolutely) for their skills. This doesn’t prove that the future is female. But the future of good jobs may be.

It’s Social Science. We’re Screwed.

Quick! We need a sociologist!

What’s harder: physics or sociology?

We tend to lionize physicists. They’re the people who send spacecraft to faraway places, search for extraterrestrial life, and create modern wonders like virtual reality goggles. In short, many of us have physics envy.

On the other hand, we tend to make fun of sociologists. What they’re doing seems to be nothing more than fancified common sense. I once heard a derisive definition of a sociologist: “He’s the guy who needs a $100K federal grant just to find the local bookie.” Few of us have sociology envy.

But is physics really harder than sociology? I thought about this question as I listened to an episode of 99% Invisible, one of my favorite podcasts. The episode, titled “Built to Burn” is all about forest fires and how we respond to them.

We take a fairly simple approach to forest fires: we try to put them out. But this leads to unintended consequences. If we successfully fight fires, the forest becomes thicker. The next fire becomes more intense and more difficult to stop. As one forest ranger puts it: “A fire put out is a fire put off.”

A general question is: Why do we need to put out forest fires? The specific answer is that we need to protect homes and properties and buildings. We assume that we have to stop the fire to protect the property.

But do we? Enter Jack Cohen, a research scientist for the Forest Service. Cohen has studied forest fires intensively. He has even set a few of his own. His conclusion: we can separate the idea of stopping wildfires from the goal of protecting property.

Cohen’s basic idea is a home ignition zone that stretches about 100 feet in all directions around a house. By spacing trees, planting fire resistant crops, and modifying the home itself (no wood roofs), we can protect homes while letting nature takes its course. We no longer have to risk lives and spend millions if our goal is to protect homes.

Cohen has done the hard scientific work. So, can we assume that his ideas have caught on like … um, wildfire? Not so fast. People seem to understand the science but are still reluctant to change their behavior.

Cohen relates a conversation with a friend about the difference between fighting fires and saving homes. It goes something like this:

Friend: “Modifying homes to make them fire resistant isn’t rocket science.”

Cohen: “No. This is much harder. This is social science.”

Friend: “Oh, jeez. We’re screwed.”

Cohen has done the hard science but the hard work remains. As Albert Einstein, the most famous physicist of all, said: “It’s easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.” Perhaps it’s time to develop some sociology envy.

Critical Thinking — Ripped From The Headlines!

Just because we see a path doesn’t mean we should follow it.

 

Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel prize in economics, reminds us that, “What you see is not all there is.” I thought about Kahneman when I saw the videos and coverage of the teenagers wearing MAGA hats surrounding, and apparently mocking, a Native American activist who was singing a tribal song during a march in Washington, D.C.

The media coverage essentially came in two waves. The first wave concluded that the teenagers were mocking, harassing, and threatening the activist. Here are some headlines from the first wave:

 

ABC News: “Viral video of Catholic school teens in ‘MAGA’ caps taunting Native Americans draws widespread condemnation; prompts a school investigation.”

Time Magazine: “Kentucky Teens Wearing ‘MAGA’ Hats Taunt Indigenous Peoples March Participants In Viral Video.”

Evening Standard (UK): “Outrage as teens in MAGA hats ‘mock’ Native American Vietnam War veteran.”

The second media wave provided a more nuanced view. Here are some more recent headlines:

New York Times: “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students.”

The Guardian (UK): “New video sheds more light on students’ confrontation with Native American.”

The StrangerI Thought the MAGA Boys Were S**t-Eating Monsters. Then I Watched the Full Video.”

So, who is right and who is wrong? I’m not sure that we can draw any certain conclusions. I certainly do have some opinions but they are all based on very short video clips that are taken out of context.

What lessons can we draw from this? Here are a few:

  • Reality is complicated and — even in the best circumstances — we only see a piece of it.
  • We see what we expect to see. Tell me how you voted, and I can guess what you saw.
  • It’s very hard to draw firm conclusions from a brief slice-of-time sources such as a photograph or a video clip. The Atlantic magazine has an in-depth story about how this story evolved. One key sentence: “Photos by definition capture instants of time, and remove them from the surrounding flow.”
  • There’s an old saying that “Journalism is the first draft of history”. Photojournalism is probably the first draft of the first draft. It’s often useful to wait to see how the story evolves. Slowing down a decision process usually results in a better decision.
  • It’s hard to read motives from a picture.
  • Remember that what we see is not all there is. As the Heath brothers write in their book, Decisive, move your spotlight around to avoid narrow framing.
  • Humans don’t like to be uncertain. We like to connect the dots and explain things even when we don’t have all the facts. But, sometimes, uncertainty is the best we can hope for. When you’re uncertain, remember the lessons of Appreciative Inquiry and don’t default to the negative.

 

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