Tag: Tyler Cowen

The Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

Tyler Cowen is consistently one of my favorite sources of reading material. There hasn’t been a year where I don’t find something new from his recommendations and this year is no exception.

He’s out with his 2014 list of the best nonfiction books. If he had to pick three favorites out of this list he would choose Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City, and Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition. (Also revisit his selections from 2013, and 2012.)

I ended up picking up copies of Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, Stalin, vol. 1Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph and Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Average Is Over: Why The Skills Required For Great Jobs Are Changing

“Knowing one’s limits is more important than it used to be.”

“Welcome to the Hyper-Meritocracy,” Cowen writes in his latest book Average Is Over.

This is an important book. Cowen is his typical thought-provoking self, showing us a possible (and probable, in my opinion) future where the skills needed to succeed will differ from those today.

Welcome to a world of extremes. On one hand, many people are “seeing the erosion of their economic futures.” On the other hand, “the very top earners, who often have advanced postsecondary degrees, are earning much more.”

This is how the book got its title: Average is Over.

This maxim will apply to the quality of your job, to your earnings, to where you live, to your education and to the education of your children, and maybe even to your most intimate relationships. Marriages, families, businesses, countries, cities, and regions all will see a greater split in material outcomes; namely, they will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results.

Cowen believes that workers will increasingly fall into two categories.

The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

If you and your skills are a complement to the computer , your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery . If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other.

Welcome to the age of machine intelligence.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that mechanized intelligence can solve a rapidly expanding repertoire of problems. Solutions began appearing on the margins of the world’s interests . Deep Blue, an IBM computer, defeated the then– world champion Garry Kasparov in a chess match in 1997. Watson, a computer program, beat Ken Jennings— the human champion— on Jeopardy! in 2010, surpassing most expectations as to how quickly this would happen.

We’re close to the point where the available knowledge at the hands of the individual, for questions that can be posed clearly and articulately, is not so far from the knowledge of the entire world. Whether it is through Siri, Google, or Wikipedia, there is now almost always a way to ask and— more importantly— a way to receive the answer in relatively digestible form.

It must be emphasized that every time you use Google you are relying on machine intelligence. Every time Facebook recommends a new friend for you or sends an ad your way. Every time you use GPS to find your way to a party.

Date-matching algorithms are steering our love lives and replacing the matchmaker. Match.com recently improved its services, and as of summer 2011 more than half of the emails sent on the service originate from recommended matches, rather than from unaided individual choices. Better algorithms often are seen as the future of the sector, whether or not they really find the best person for us. Arguably the machine recommendations are a way of tricking the user into making a plausible date choice rather than cruising more profiles and postponing a decision; that possibility illustrates our willingness to defer to the machines, even when they aren’t necessarily better at the task at hand.

Think we’re ages away from machines doing amazing things? Do you remember the New York Times Story that illustrated how Target, through algorithms, knew a teenage girl was pregnant before her father.

In an age of machine intelligence, where will most of the benefits go?

To put the question in the bluntest possible way, let’s say that machine intelligence helps us make a lot more things more cheaply, as indeed it is doing. Where will most of the benefits go? In accord with economic reasoning, they will go to that which is scarce.

In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:

1. Quality land and natural resources
2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.
3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)

As machines become more powerful, the people who benefit will be the people who are “adept at working with computers and with related devices for communications and information processing.” The way to earn well will be to augment the value of tech, even if only by a small bit.

That means humans with strong math and analytic skills, humans who are comfortable working with computers because they understand their operation, and humans who intuitively grasp how computers can be used for marketing and for other non-techie tasks. It’s not just about programming skills; it is also often about developing the hardware connected with software, understanding what kind of internet ads connect with their human viewers, or understanding what shape and color makes an iPhone attractive in a given market. Computer nerds will indeed do well, but not everyone will have to become a computer nerd.

The key to the future is the ability to “mix technical knowledge with solving real world problems.”

There is a chapter in Cowen’s book called “The Freestyle future.” Rather than type out lengthy excerpts from the book, Cowen explains the concept briefly in this interview:

Russ: So let’s talk about what you’ve learned as a chess fan. And you write at some length. At first I was rather taken aback by this, but I grew to find it quite fascinating. You write at some length about the role of machines in chess tournaments, and particularly in freestyle. Talk about that and why it’s a nice potential template for future human interaction.

Cowen: Freestyle is a form of chess where a human teams up with a computer. So, if you play human-and-computer against computer, for the most part human-and-computer, if it’s a practiced human, will beat the computer. Even though computers per se are much stronger than humans at chess, it’s the team that’s stronger than either one. And I think this is a good metaphor for a lot of what our job market future will look like. So there’s a big chunk of the book that looks rather closely at freestyle chess and tries to see what we can learn from it.

Russ: The thing I found most provocative about that is that the best freestyle teams do not necessarily have the best human players. In fact that could be something of a handicap.

Cowen: That’s right. The really good human players are too tempted to override the computer and substitute in their own judgment. The best freestyle teams, they are quite epistemically modest, the human or humans involved. And what they are really good at is asking questions. So they’ll run two or three different computer programs and then just check on where do those programs disagree. And then they’ll probe more on those points. And that’s what the humans do well that the computers, at least not yet, aren’t able to copy. So it’s knowing what questions to ask that has become the important human skill in this freestyle endeavor.

Russ: So, applying that to the medical diagnosis example you gave earlier, it suggests I don’t want the guy or the woman who had the best grades in medical school or the most arrogant–which is often in today’s world, can be, the best doctor. I might want the most modest doctor, or not the most modest, but someone who is willing to let the diagnosis provided by the machine be the “right” one.

Cowen: That’s right. So, wisdom and modesty will become much greater epistemic virtues in the future scheme. I think that’s overall a good thing. We should revere those qualities more. And we will have to, looking forward.

We have to ask questions. And we have to be “meta-rational,” to borrow a term from decision theory. “That is,” Cowen writes, “I must realize that in most situations the judgment of (Shredder, the computer chess program) is simply better than my own, and defer accordingly. I am most likely to succeed in overriding the judgement of Shredder in complex strategic positions, in some endgames, when the program is fooling around with questionable opening choices, and when the program is getting greedy for material. … I can’t out-calculate the machine unless it boils down to the machine’s shorter time horizon, and I don’t always know if the length of the time horizon is the key issue.”

Most of us don’t want to listen to the machines. We think we’re smarter and we don’t know enough to know where we are smarter and where we’re not. Without knowing we operate outside of our circle of competence. So as much as anything the future will mean knowing our limits and wanting/being willing to listen to machines. This goes against the entire “go with your gut” industry.

In another interview, Cowen says:

So I think as humans we’re somewhat programmed to be a bit rebellious and to not want to be controlled, which is perfectly understandable given that others are trying to control us as often as they are. But that’s going to mean in those new settings, which we’ve never biologically evolved to handle, we’re going to screw up an awful lot.

What are the broader lessons we can take away?

1. Human-computer teams are the best teams.
2. The person working the smart machine doesn’t have to be an expert in the task at hand.
3. Below some critical level of skill, adding a man to the machine will make the team less effective than the machine working alone.
4. Knowing one’s limits is more important than it used to be.

If we merge Cowen’s thoughts in Average is Over with How Children Succeed and the concept of Grit, we come to the conclusion that in a world of information, what will be scarce is the ability to sit down in a quiet room and apply yourself. “Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it,” Cowen argues. But maybe we’re getting lazy.

So if you’re an individual, say from China or India, and you’re really smart and motivated, you’re going to do much better in this new world than say 10 or 20 years ago.

But there are a lot of people in the wealthier countries, I wouldn’t describe them as lazy, but they’re not super motivated. They think they can more or less get by. I think in relative terms those people are already starting to see lower wages because they’re just not quite the prize commodities they think they are. They’ll do okay. They’ll be able to get jobs, but they’re not really individuals who are going to see a lot of income growth, and I think this could be a rude awakening to a lot of people.

Echoing some of the advice of Genevieve Bell and Christian Madsbjerg Cowen supports humanities.

I think there will be a lot of so-called soft humanities roots that could have potentially big payoffs for hard, smart workers. It’s not all about how we all become programmers, and a lot of that kind of work can be outsourced or given to smart machines anyway.

So I would just stress to people that the value of really beginning to understand how other people think, to the extent you can acquire that in education, if that’s what you love, if that’s what you’re good at, that’s great. Not everyone has to jump on the computer science bandwagon. Though, of course, many people should.

Average is Over will help you navigate the future of work and position yourself accordingly.

The Impoverishment of Attention

“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”

***

Focus matters enormously for success in life and yet we seem to give it little attention.

Daniel Goleman‘s book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, explores the power of attention. “Attention works much like a muscle,” he writes, “use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

To get the results we want in life, Goleman argues we need three kinds of focus: inner, other, and outer.

Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A (person) tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

How we deploy attention shapes what we see. Or as Yoda says, “Your focus is your reality.”

Goleman argues that, despite the advantages of everything being only a click away, our attention span is suffering.

An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Her students have loved it— until five years or so ago. “I started to see kids not so excited— even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it,” she told me. “They say the reading is too hard; the sentences are too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page.”

She wonders if perhaps her students’ ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he’d spent two thousand hours in the last year playing video games. She adds, “It’s hard to teach comma rules when you are competing with World of WarCraft.”

Here is a telling story. I was in a coffee shop just the other day and I noticed that when two people were having a conversation they couldn’t go more than a few minutes without picking up their phone. Our inability to resist checking email, Facebook, and Twitter rather than focus on the here and now leads to a real life out-of-office. Sociologist Erving Goffman, calls this “away,” which tells other people “I’m not interested” in you right now.

We continually fight distractions. From televisions on during supper, text messages, emails, phone calls … you get the picture. This is one reason I’ve changed my media consumption habits.

It feels like we’re going through life in a state of “continuous partial attention.” We’re there but not really there. Unaware of where we place our attention. Unconscious about how we live.

I once worked with the CEO of a private organization. We often discussed board meetings, agendas, and other areas of time allocation. I sensed a disconnect between where he wanted to spend his time and what he actually spent time on.

To verify, I went back over the last year of board meetings and categorized each scheduled agenda item. I found a substantial mismatch; he was spending a great deal of time on issues he thought were not important. In fact, the ‘scheduled time’ was almost the complete inverse of what he wanted to focus on.

Goleman also points to some of the implications of our modern world.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voice mails, skimming messages and memos. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean.

In 1977, foreseeing what was going to happen, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon wrote:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

William James, a pioneer of modern psychology, defined attention as “the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

We naturally focus when we’re lost. Imagine for a second the last time you were driving in your car without your GPS and you got lost. Think back to the first thing you did in response. I bet you turned off the radio so you could increase your focus.

Goleman, paraphrasing research, argues there are two main varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional.

The sensory distractors are easy: as you read these words you’re tuning out (our sponsor and all of the text on the right). Or notice for a moment the feeling of your tongue against your upper palate—just one of an endless wave of incoming stimuli your brain weeds out from the continuous wash of background sounds, shapes and colors, tastes, smells, sensations, and on and on.

More daunting is the second variety of lures: emotionally loaded signals. While you might find it easy to concentrate on answering your email in the hubbub of your local coffee shop, if you should overhear someone mention your name (potent emotional bait, that) it’s almost impossible to tune out the voice that carries it— your attention reflexively alerts to hear what’s being said about you. Forget that email. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go—or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do.

To focus we must tune out emotional distractions. But not at all costs. The power to disengage focus is also important.

That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.

We’ve all seen what a strong selective focus looks like. It’s the couple in the coffee shop mentioned above, eyes locked, who fail to realize they are not alone.

It should come as no surprise that we learn best with focused attention.

As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections. If you and a small toddler share attention toward something as you name it, the toddler learns that name; if her focus wanders as you say it, she won’t.

When our mind wanders off, our brain activates a host of brain circuits that chatter about things that have nothing to do with what we’re trying to learn. Lacking focus, we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.

Goleman goes on to discuss how we connect what we read to our mental models, which is the heart of learning.

As we read a book, a blog, or any narrative, our mind constructs a mental model that lets us make sense of what we are reading and connects it to the universe of such models we already hold that bear on the same topic.

If we can’t focus we’ll have more holes in our understanding. (To find holes in your understanding, try the Feynman Technique, which was actually an invention of George Eliot’s but I’ll save that for another day.)

When we read a book, our brain constructs a network of pathways that embodies that set of ideas and experiences. Contrast that deep comprehension with the interruptions and distractions that typify the ever-seductive Internet.

The continuous onslaught of texts, meetings, videos, music, email, Twitter, Facebook, and more is the enemy of understanding. The key, argues Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is “deep reading.” And the internet is making this nearly impossible.

There is, however, perhaps no skill better than deep and focused thought. “The more information that’s out there,” says Tyler Cowen, author of Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.” Deep thought must be learned. In order to do that, however, we must tune out most of the distractions and focus.

Goleman reminds us that some of this too was foreseen.

Way back in the 1950s the philosopher Martin Heidegger warned against a looming “tide of technological revolution” that might “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be … the only way of thinking.” That would come at the loss of “meditative thinking,” a mode of reflection he saw as the essence of our humanity.

I hear Heidegger’s warning in terms of the erosion of an ability at the core of reflection, the capacity to sustain attention to an ongoing narrative. Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections; likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. Heidegger, were he alive today, would be horrified if asked to tweet.

The rest of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence goes on to narrow in on “the elusive and under-appreciated mental faculty in the mind’s operations” known as attention and its role in living “a fulfilling life.”

The best non-fiction books of 2013

Economist Tyler Cowen, who was named one of the top 100 influential thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, offers some interesting picks:

Nothing that caught your eye? Try his 2012 list.

How You Can Make Brainstorming Better

Generally brainstorming is inefficient and ineffective. The benefits, if any, tend to fall into the social category and not the creative one. New research suggests that with some tweaking we can improve the quality of ideas.

Why does brainstorming suck?

One reason is because we get stuck on the ideas of others. This is actually cognitive fixation, or the concept that, “when exposed to group members’ ideas, people focused on those and blocked other types of ideas from taking hold.”

Adding more people won’t help. Tyler Cowen mentions this in his book Discover Your Inner Economist:

the larger the group, the greater the loss of productivity. We all know that many people rely too much on the work of others and become “free riders.”

One reason is self-deception

Self-deception is one culprit for this failure of perception. When we are in groups, someone else is usually talking. We feel less pressure. We don’t feel stupid just because we are silent or devoid of new ideas. Rather the sense of continuous activity gives us the feeling of being engaged in collective discovery. If I am experiencing no revelation, well, maybe someone else is. After all, something good must be happening; why else would we all be gathered in this room? We do like being on teams, especially winning teams.

Cowen adds, “Many people, after working in groups, mistake other people’s ideas for their own. After the meeting they feel better. Furthermore, if the problem is hard, everyone can see that everyone else found it hard too; this makes us all feel better.”

If brainstorming doesn’t work, why does it persist?

Susan Cain addresses this in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

Indeed, after all these years of evidence that conventional brainstorming groups don’t work, they remain as popular as ever. Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity—group brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.

What can you do to improve results?

Two new tweaks promise to improve ideas: Brainwriting and Electronic Brainstorming. Fancy terms no doubt, but let’s look at how they work to see if they address some of the points mentioned above.

Brainstorming’s foundation

Both use the basic brainstorming rules developed almost half a century ago by the advertising executive, Alex Faickney Osborn:

Don’t criticize.
Focus on quantity.
Combine and improve ideas produced by others.
Write down any idea that comes to mind, no matter how wild.

How do they work?

Electronic Brainstorming is done online using something like Microsoft Messenger. This way you can see all the participants ideas scroll across the screen. Brainwriting, on the other hand, involves getting together in a room like you would for a normal brainstorm. Only unlike traditional brainstorming where you all shout out ideas, brainwriting, much like it sounds, means that you write your ideas down Post-It note style. You can initial your ideas but no talking allowed.

A new study compared these ideas and found that Electronic Brainstorming produces the most new ideas.

The drawback of the Brainwriting method is that each person has to reach forward and pick up other ideas and people don’t do this as much as they should.

In contrast, Electronic Brainstorming allows (forces, even) every member to see what the others are saying with little or no effort. It means that the group is exposed to the flow of ideas with very little effort.

On top of this it solves some of the problems with face-to-face brainstorming. When it’s done online, each person doesn’t have to wait for the others to stop talking and is less worried about being evaluated (plus brainstormers don’t have to be in the same country!).

This probably helps to explain why people report finding Electronic Brainstorming to be a satisfying experience.

Oh, and use a group of 8 or more to optimize results. I wonder if chat addresses the “free-rider” because your ideas are now written down so people can easily see your “output.”

The bottom line is brainstorming can be effective if you know how to use it, when to use it, and its limitations.

Tyler Cowen on The Dangers of Storytelling

Tyler Cowen

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion

Tyler Cowen with an excellent TEDtalk on the dangers of storytelling:

So if I’m thinking about this talk, I’m wondering, of course, what is it you take away from this talk? What story do you take away from Tyler Cowen? One story you might take away is the story of the quest. “Tyler came here, and he told us not to think so much in terms of stories.” That would be a story you could tell about this talk. It would fit a pretty well-known pattern. You might remember it. You could tell it to other people. “This weird guy came, and he said not to think in terms of stories. Let me tell you what happened today!” and you tell your story. Another possibility is you might tell a story of rebirth. You might say, “I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories!” That too, is a narrative you will remember, you can tell to other people, and it may stick. You also could tell a story of deep tragedy. “This guy Tyler Cowen came and he told us not to think in terms of stories, but all he could do was tell us stories about how other people think too much in terms of stories.”

As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your I.Q. by ten points or more.

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