At coffee with a male friend, I was talking about a female colleague that he really wants to work with. He was reviewing his pitch with me and he kept emphasizing his ability to bring her hard problems to solve. “That’s great,” I replied, “but she’s really more interested in doing original research on new solutions than on solving hard problems.”

He looked at me like I was nuts, which is honestly not an uncommon reaction when I say things. But to me, there is a very real difference between our attraction to problems and our attraction to solutions.

For example, I’m a hard problems person. While I’m interested in the new research that emerges in behavioral psychology, it pales in comparison to my interest in applying behavioral science to the problems of the world. Even if what that boils down to is utilizing the same basic principles over and over again. This may explain why I end up giving the promoting/inhibiting pressures talk over and over and over.

What gets me excited is the execution layer, designing and delivering something that moves the needle. If I can use a solution I designed before, so much the better; that just means I have more time for the next problem on down the line.

The love of new solutions is a different beast. I have an amazing engineering friend who delights in solving the same problem in new programming languages, just because she can. If she runs out of new languages, she just makes up some artificial constraint and then tries to solve the problem again. I once saw her try to program something using only the keys in the home row on her keyboard. She failed…but she had a lot of fun doing it.

Certainly there are correlations: it is often true that a hard problem requires a new solution. But I’m not as convinced that the predilection goes both directions or is always balanced. At the end of the day, something will always attract you more and knowing what floats your boat can actually be helpful in thinking about the right roles to choose. One of the reasons that Chief Behavioral Officer is so appealing to me is that it applies an existing body of knowledge against a diverse set of problems. Had new solutions been my focus, academia probably would have been a better home than it ended up being.

It is also worth thinking about as a manager, particularly in terms of attracting and rewarding talent. I’ve talked extensively about the importance of work worth doing and knowing what someone views as meaningful is a huge part of that. Trying to lure or reward someone with hard problems when what they want is new solutions may mean that you miss out.

Feels like we could probably make a test for this fairly easily. Create a challenge, let someone complete it, then offer them a choice between a new challenge or repeating the same one with the requirement of an original solution. We can add that to the long list of “Things Matt Wallaert will eventually build”. It is starting to be a very long list.

Side note: I sometimes get the feeling that no matter what I’ve thought about, someone else has already thought of it. I’m willing to bet that somewhere, someone has talked about pretty much every subject I’ve ever brought up in a blog. And after writing this, I realized that maybe the reason that doesn’t bother me is that I don’t actually care about novelty, just challenge. Forget the sexy product/service/blog post, I just want the one that solves the problem so we can move on to the next thing.

At Microsoft, one of the common cultural tropes was that no meeting ever started on time; being perpetually late was an accepted norm. And while plenty has been written about productivity loss and respect and all the other downsides of being late to a meeting, I want to talk about something slightly different. I’d like to suggest that constantly running late actually is the cause, not the symptom, of one of the largest problems of modern companies: the tendency not to fix known problems.

Let’s start with some science. In a 1973 experiment by Darley and Batson, a group of seminary students were recruited to participate in a study they were told was about measuring religious beliefs. After filling out religiosity questionnaires in Building A, they were told to go to Building B to do one of two tasks: give a talk about seminary jobs or give a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. In addition, students were told they were either a little early, right on time, or running late.

Here’s the twist: on the way from Building A to Building B, the researchers had planted an actor who appeared to be in respiratory distress, slumped on the ground while coughing and groaning. That was the true measure of the study: when confronted by an opportunity to help the sick, what determined whether students would stop to help or step over them and keep going?

The first possible determinant of who stopped was how the seminary students viewed religion and themselves. Perhaps those who resonated with the social mission of Christ or believed deeply in service might be more likely to render aid? Alas, no. Despite people’s mistaken belief that goodness is some sort of mostly internal attribute, helping or not didn’t seem to be based on anything they measured about a person’s beliefs or character.

The second possibility was that what the student was going to speak on would persuade them to stop. A quick reminder on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked about God’s desire for kindness, Jesus tells the story of a man who is beaten and robbed, then left by the side of the road. A priest, and then a priest’s assistant, see the man and don’t stop to help. A third man, the titular Samaritan, was part of an ethnic group that should have hated the beaten man. But it is he who stops to heal and help, taking the beaten man to a nearby home and paying for his care. And it is this Good Samaritan, says Jesus, who is going to heaven.

So surely this will work. Here these seminary students are, about to go give a talk about the importance of helping those in need. Surely this, of all possible interventions, will make them stop. But, of course, it doesn’t. Whether the student is going to give a talk about seminary jobs or saving people has absolutely no effect on whether they help.

What does matter is the most dramatically simple of interventions: how rushed do they feel? If they felt early, they stopped to help. If they were running late, they stepped right over the wounded actor and kept moving.

I’ll admit to always being a little amused by the image of the highly pious student rushing off to give a talk about helping people while literally stepping over someone who needs help. Rather like The Mayor in Chocolat, it is hard not to see the tragic comedy in such a juxtaposition between our stated intentions and our actions. And I’m not laughing at them, as much as with them: I’ve been the modern equivalent of the hurried seminary student, a hundred times over.

For those that have spent some time with my Competing Pressures Design framework, another way of stating this result is that the promoting pressures (personality and religious doctrine) are massively outweighed by the inhibiting pressure (feeling rushed). It is one of the reasons I love this experiment: it is such a vivid depiction of how much environment matters.

I would argue that most modern employees want to be good: at our jobs and as people. We recognize that human experience matters and want to be positive bosses and coworkers and employees. We want our customers to feel honored and respected and get what they need. And we want to do the right thing. The promoting pressures are not the problem.

But there is a reason we are late to meetings. Most workers will tell you that they are constantly hurried, with never enough time to do everything. We all feel like we’re running late, all of the time, and this is one of the single most powerful inhibiting pressures around. Although I started by talking about Microsoft, I’d argue the problem is even worse at startups, where you are always racing your funding runway and mostly feeling like you’re losing.

Much of modern innovation work (particularly innovation consulting) is predicated on the idea that people simply can’t see problems, that they are unable to respond to potential disruption because they don’t believe that it will happen. I don’t share that belief, but even if you do, there is no denying that most businesses have a large number of visible problems that go unsolved. And what I’m suggesting is that the reason those problems go largely unfixed is not for lack of ability or empowerment or permission, but simply because we are running late for what we believe we supposed to be doing, the omni-meeting.

The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way; we don’t always have to step over problems and rush on. One of the reasons corporate hackathons and startup team retreats are so successful is that create an unhurried space in which people can fix things that bother them. These are often falsely labelled “passion projects”. Certainly some people use those events to pursue something about which they are highly passionate, but if you look closely, many of the projects are simply working on known problems that they’ve felt too busy to fix.

This is one of the reasons bug bashes exist: they are a form of explicitly setting aside time to fix known problems. But they are sadly limited to engineering. What if the marketers bug bashed, optimizing all those campaigns and fixing systems and addressing all those things that have been silently driving them crazy? I have trouble thinking of a department this wouldn’t benefit. Imagine line assembly workers taking time out just to work on the process of the line itself. The benefits vastly outweigh the costs.

For leaders, this is largely about accepting ambiguity in time usage and embracing autonomy. Google started there with the 20% time, but as Marissa Mayer so aptly put it, the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time is that “it’s really 120% time.” Unhurried is really a cultural value, at the end of the day, and the best programs have to be buttressed with clear and unambiguous top-down messaging that prevent it from becoming simply an ask for employees to do more.

And for the individual, this is something around which we have control. We don’t have to wait around for some vague corporate overlord to permission us to take a step back and reevaluate how we think about time. Because it isn’t just being busy or not; it is about feeling busy or not.
When I was a kid, my dad taught me to recall often the first line of the Desiderata: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” Over the years, I’ve frequently lost sight of that mantra and it is one of the reasons I have taken the last several months off, after leaving Microsoft, to concentrate on family.

Even without working, I find myself filling every minute. And yet the unfilled minutes, the blank spaces on my calendar, are the true moments that I breakthrough. Because they do get filled. An empty space on my calendar is not an empty space in life; more often than not these days, those blank spaces are really time with my son. It is true, #YOLO, but that isn’t a command to fill every moment; indeed, it is the precise opposite, an invitation to step back. And we all need to work on remembering that.

Side note: There are so many people I love that I haven’t taken the time to just see and talk with, completely without agenda, because of the pressing demands of people with direct and articulated need. If you are one of those people, I apologize. Please send me a note and let’s have an unhurried lunch.

It feels like every few years, the startup community figures out that they have a shortage. First it was engineers, then product people, then UX, and lately everyone has been coming to me asking if I know any good salespeople.

Now that might be the result of the rise in enterprise software but even SMB products are recognizing that they’re going to need a ground game and asking about how to build sales teams. And rightly so: whether it is through marketing or sales, in a world crowded with competition for our attention, even the best products need someone to bring them to market.

Here’s the problem: there aren’t enough salespeople to go around. And it is our fault.

Every shortage has had its unique contributors. There weren’t enough engineers because STEM education efforts hadn’t yet begun (and I’d argue this shortage continues because we failed to welcome women and minorities into engineering until very, very recently). We ran short on product people because it was a new discipline and nobody really knew where to find them or what to look for. Ditto for UX.

With salespeople, though, it is our culture that is at fault. And if we want to have enough to power the startups of the future, we have to make some fundamental changes in how we talk about sales and its experts.

Before I talk about culture, I want to dispel the myth of compensation as the cause. Certainly money matters. Because we have trained sales people to expect compensation that is at least somewhat commissioned based, the lifetime value of a product directly affects who you can get to sell it. If an advertising or finance sales gig can net you seven figures, startups tend to look less attractive.

But look at all the startup engineers. While it is mathematically true that the expected value of a career at a Fortune 1000 is higher than that of startups, they still leave big companies to go to startups in droves and plenty of new graduates end up there as well. The lure of being closer to the product, having more control, with greater connection to users and to the meaning inherent in the work captures plenty of attention. So clearly compensation isn’t everything.

Therein lies the much deeper issue. Borrowing Werner Vogel’s conception of startup folk as either missionaries or mercenaries, we have created a culture where we only allow salespeople to be mercenaries. “Salesperson” has become startup language for “necessary evil”. They are the lowest of the low, highly paid but never loved.

Even customer support gets more respect than sales. Fancily renamed into customer advocates, customer service is seen as the voice of users, feeding back into the great product cycle of launch and revise. They may be paid dramatically less than salespeople but they are given far more cultural credibility. Couple that with a low barrier to entry and rarely do you hear complaints that we can’t find enough customer advocates.
Cultural credibility matters. If the consistent message of startups is that they are the place you go for meaning, and we deny salespeople access to a meaning orientation, we are essentially denying them access to startups. So experienced salespeople don’t leave big companies and young people don’t go into sales roles.

I don’t blame them. If you can be a customer advocate, or a product manager, or really anything else, why would you pick a career where you will be consistently denigrated? Rather like young black men who opt out of continuing their educational journey because of the bleak prospects beyond, we can’t fault salespeople for acting rationally and refusing to enter into a world that constantly accuses them of being hired guns.

If we want to change this, we need to make a different set of cultural choices. We need founders to highlight and celebrate outstanding salespeople who helped them on the path to outsized exits. We need to start meeting salespeople where they are and genuinely wanting to learn more about their craft as part of broadening our own skillset. And product people and marketers need to actively solicit the expert opinion of salespeople and incorporate their feedback into design choices.

But most importantly, we must allow them to be missionaries. Just like any other startup role, salespeople have a particular skillset that they can choose to apply in a variety of ways. If we want to compete for their attention and convince them to choose to use that skillset on behalf of our products and services, we need to disentangle all our assumptions about motivation and personality from those skills. This isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross; nobody is getting murdered for sales leads. Good salespeople can help us save the world but is on us to invite them to do so.

Side note: If you are looking for salespeople, my best advice is to ask other salespeople if they know anyone who is looking. Homophily is still in play – birds of a feather really do flock together. And for my money, look at Mormons, psychology students, strippers, and anyone else who has looked public shaming in the face and made the shamers blink. Once you’ve had a thousand doors closed in your face when you started talking about God, or stood in a train station trying to get people to fill out surveys for hours, or counted on your ability to earn tips while naked to make ends meet, you don’t mind a little bit of cold calling and aren’t ashamed to make the ask.

The morning after Donald Trump was elected our president, I gave a talk at a women’s leadership conference put on by Thomson Reuters. During the Q&A, the highest voted question was “How do we think about what happened last night?” This is the answer I gave.

There are a number of ways to approach the election, and I’m sure there will be both scientists and pundits who comment at length in the coming days. So let me speak from a personal place.

I love Hemingway, and particularly For Whom The Bells Tolls. There is a quote that has always stuck with me: “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for…”. At the end of the movie Se7en, Morgan Freeman’s character shares this quote, adding “I believe in the second part”.

I still believe the world is a fine place, that people are essentially good, and that we will continue up and to the right in the long term. But if you cannot convince yourself of that, remember that the second part remains true. Good or bad, this is worth fighting for. This is not a time to flee to Canada; we need fighters, here and now. We need you.

Republicans used to say “Love it or leave it”. I love it. So I’m staying.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up my right to be opinionated. To note that we elected (not they, we) a man who makes openly sexist and racist comments. To not be OK with that. To be angry.

But I’m reminded of the story of C. P. Ellis. I grew up in rural Oregon and though I have been away these many years, I am indelibly a country person in ways that are difficult to describe. Across race and class and gender last night, no demographic was so important as where you live: cities voted for Clinton, everyone else for Trump.

They are not idiots. They are not all racist, or sexist. They are a part of my family (both metaphorically and in actuality) that deeply and powerfully feel that they have been marginalized. They are experiencing the pain and loss that comes from that. And they voted accordingly.
C. P. Ellis was an avowed racist and head of the Ku Klux Klan in his town. When his town desegregated the schools, he was invited to co-chair the committee, alongside a black woman named Ann Atwater. And because she did not reject him but embraced him, because she treated him as intelligent and worth talking to, he left the Klan and eventually became a labor organizer. And her lifelong friend.

One of my friends texted me this morning and said “Just scary to think how we have no idea who our neighbors are.” Maybe that needs to change. Maybe it is time to find out. We need to get to know each other at a deep and personal level, and to take the extraordinary step that is empathy and compassion.

That’s easy for me to say, as a white man with wealth. I am probably better off, individually, than I was yesterday on lots of measures, if much poorer as a husband, father, and member of a civilized society. I recognize the gall of saying to those who now face an even more uphill battle against racism and sexism “Open your arms and embrace they who have put you here”.

I also know that if we want change, short of bloody revolution, compassion is our greatest hope. The Ballot or The Bullet. I cannot abide the bullet. I want to live here. So we elected Trump together – now what? Who will we be? What will we do? We get to decide, each of us, today and tomorrow and for the next four years. Love it or leave it. Understand or reject. It is a decision we must all make carefully.

Side note: Today reminds me of power outages. Or 9-11. Or any of the other events, both large and small, that cause people to rally together and to recognize the common human decency that lives in most everyone. I have this amazing little boy that I love; not one given to prayer, or God, I pray we all do the right thing. Oh, how I pray.

Recently, Tinder has a public reaction on Twitter to an article in Vanity Fair. The brief gist is that the Vanity Fair writer, Nancy Jo Sales, wrote about Tinder as contributing to a negative hookup culture. Tinder wrote a long series of tweets in response about all the good, positive interactions people have on their platform. Notice how I have left out all the judgment words (don’t worry, it won’t last). But I did so deliberately because regardless of what you think of Tinder, hookup cultures, or Nancy Jo Sales’ reporting, the real winner here should be science education.

Judgement time. The Vanity Fair piece was actually not very good (despite Wired referring to it as “excellent”). The Tinder response was also not very good. But they were both not very good for the same reason: selection bias. And focusing on how that bias plays out is actually where some use might come out of this public meltdown.

In the VF piece, the interviewees seem to almost all be young men and women who are actively using Tinder. The women seem to think it contributes to a hookup culture that devalues them; the men seem to agree. Yet therein lies the key problem: by talking only to people who are currently using the app, Sales is actually interviewing the “failures”, also known as a negative selection bias.

If the point of Tinder is for people to find long-term romantic relationships, than the majority of the people on the app will be people who are not yet successful at doing so. Thus, if you want to explore the potential effect of the app on finding a mate, you have to interview people who are no longer on the app and find out why they left. Is it because it was all hookups and they tired of it? Or is it because they no longer need the app because they found someone?

Tinder seems to be trying to point this out in their Twitter rant, but they go too far and end up falling victim to the other end of the spectrum, the positive selection bias (sometimes referred to as the survivorship bias). They mostly focus on people who should have theoretically left their platform: marriages. A “shit ton of marriages”, according to them.

If you throw enough people at a situation, usually some of them are going to come out with positive results. But if you only look at those with positive results, you ignore the disappeared failures who either left and didn’t have positive results or are still around and failing. Tinder specifically calls out how they are relying on the stories users tell them, which they call #SwipeRight stories.  Given the interaction pattern of the app, that presumably means just the positive ones.

The real pity is that avoiding the positive and negative selection bias should have been relatively easy. You could interview people in all four quadrants (current user/positive, current user/negative, ex user/positive, ex user/negative). Even this is a sort of selection bias, however: there are plenty of people who get married or have bad relationships entirely without the aid of technology. Tinder is taking credit for the marriages, Sales is blaming them for the hookups, but in reality both happen in populations that have never touched Tinder. So what you really want is to understand how the populations that use Tinder and those that don’t differ. And even then, you can’t blame that difference entirely on Tinder. After all, they might have been different to start with in a way that made them choose to be on the platform or not.

Now clearly, journalism isn’t science and Twitter certainly isn’t science. And we can debate whether either of those two mediums have a responsibility to uphold some sort of ethics. But science education means that we don’t have to rely on the ethics of others. All the spectators reading the article and Tweets, with a bit of STEM education, can actually recognize the biases for themselves and avoid perpetuating them. And I sincerely hope that someone uses this debacle as a reason to increase science education funding. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Side note: It is always amazing to me how quickly people treat changing sexual and relationship norms as if they are the end of the world. In the 90s, divorces became more common. And yet people still fall in love and we actually just worked really hard as a country to make sure that all people have the right to marry. It is far from the death of marriage. I don’t know if hookup culture is meant positively or negatively (probably depends on whether you are actually hooking up or not), but there is one thing I know: it is not the end of love.

One of the biggest fights my wife and I ever had was about engagement rings. Specifically, her engagement ring. My position was that engagement rings were gendered (notifying other men that women were sexually claimed), expensive (relative to other things we were saving for), and not consistent with our values as a couple. Her position was that I was an idiot and she wanted one.

Predictably, I bought my wife the ring she wanted. And in the process, I learned a few things about myself and, given the number of my friends who have had the same fight, probably other people as well.

Rings are a unique problem. My wife is a fairly reasonable person and doesn’t advocate the spending of large amounts of money on non-functional things. We’re not at the same place on the spectrum of frugal (I buy my clothes on eBay, which I recognize is pretty close to the endpoint), but we’re at least in vaguely the same quadrant. So for her to advocate spending a pretty large sum on a ring isn’t consistent with her other values. The ring was a special case for her.

It was also a special case for me. Generally speaking, when my wife wants to spend money on something, I’m willing to go along with it. The budgeter in me moans and groans about it, but ultimately, we usually do it without a full-on fight. Something about the ring was triggering for me in a way that other purchases weren’t and I was willing to fight to the death over it.

Part of getting past it was accepting that we were fighting over symbolic meaning and nothing else. My wife needed a symbol of the stage that is engagement, without going directly from couple to married. She recognized that the value of the ring was socially imposed but as a member of society, she also felt how she felt and no amount of reasoning was going to make her feel differently. By that same token, I needed to know that our marriage would start from a place of reason and logic, free of traditions and values that were imposed on us rather than chosen.

To that end, it helped when I stopped thinking about it as a ring and started thinking about it like a couch. That is, I needed to get past the symbol and start thinking about my wife. If the argument had been over whether we should buy a couch, I might hem and haw a bit about it, but we’d get the couch. Because logically speaking, I love my wife and if a couch is really important to her, then it is important to me too.

And just like the couch, the ring actually has utility. You can’t sit on it but it still made my wife feel a certain way, predictably and reliably. I could rage against why it made her feel that way and I do: I don’t think we should socialize young women to respond to shiny baubles and when I eventually have a daughter, I hope to teach her other values. But the issue isn’t whether it should make her feel a particular way. No matter what else was said, the fact is that it did make her feel that way.

Now you could argue that I had to compromise my values here and she didn’t; after all, she did get the ring in the end. She also could have stepped back and thought of the ring as a couch, decided to let it go, and I’m sure there will be times when she will. All arguments require someone to compromise to move past them: either you buy the ring or you don’t. But compromising doesn’t have to mean win-lose. Buying her a ring was consistent with my values because I value my wife. The ring is just a couch for me and a whole lot more for her. In the end, I’m glad I bought it. We both won.

Side note: One of the reasons people love personalization so much is that it substitutes meaning for expense. That is, you can take something not that expensive and make it meaningful by making it personal. For example, my wedding ring has a design element called a “river”. And since they are made one at a time to size, designer Todd Pownell made my river match a topographical map I sent him of the river I grew up with (the Clackamas River in Oregon). It should be easy to do this with almost anything; engraving should be one of the most standard free services around.

I love talking to people as a way of designing products. At Thrive, I used to put a little note at the bottom of every weekly email that invited users in the New York City area to let me buy them lunch in return for just sitting down and talking about the day-to-day of how they related to their finances. With Avi Karnani, I’d chat up people in bars and collect stories about the best and worst of their money moments. Some of the most successful features we ever created came from just listening and watching.

In general, the tech industry has been moving in the same direction, trying to be more user-centric and responsive to their needs. But somewhere along the line, many companies made a critical mistake: they started listening only to their existing users. An emphasis on social media has made it the era of the “fan”, with products chasing the needs of the most passionate users.

The reason I call that a mistake is that I think it trades understanding for mere description. That is, focusing on fans tends to result in a list of directives, of favorite features and requests rather than insights into the process. Much like bad data science, it describes rather than explores, and it means features that ignore the needs that unite non-vocal users/non-users with super users.

As an example, let me use some real data from (special thanks to Jason Shah for agreeing to let me share it). helps people run productive meetings, by setting agendas, documenting action items, and auto-summarizing. And prior to March, you had to either create an account directly or use Google to sign up. Their conversion rates were good, they were growing, and all was right with the world.

Like many companies listening to their existing customers, used UserVoice to collect user feedback and vote for new features, and while a few people had asked for Office 365 integration, it hadn’t risen to the top of the stack. Which isn’t surprising: if Google is your primary login, you’re going to end up with a big crowd of Google users, simply via homophile.

This is where Jason bucked the trend. Instead of simply relying on his existing users, he started talking to people who weren’t using Do. And a clear theme emerged: productivity-oriented users overwhelmingly used Office 365. So he got in touch with me, I set him up with some Office 365 API engineers, and Do ended up integrating Office 365 into their platform.

Two things happened. First, their conversion rates from the signup page went up significantly (7%). Because the only options had been creating an account or using Google, had been unknowingly turning away many new customers.   And because those customers abandoned pre-signup, their voice was almost never heard.

7% is a huge number, especially as far down the funnel as signup. If you imagine the amount of marketing money you would need to spend to drive a corresponding change by running people over the top of the funnel, considering what barriers you are putting in the way of signup seems dramatically more efficient.

The second thing that happened was that 25% of their existing userbase connected O365 accounts. Previously, because the only option was to hook up to Google calendar, all of their active users connected to Google. Once Office 365 was an option, Do saw an immediate reaction from their community and a corresponding rise in utility.

This is particularly important because it illustrates the limitations of passive user listening. If you only rely on users motivated enough to vote on features, etc. you ignore the fact that there may be a large group of people who want a feature but simply are too busy to tell you about it. Passive data collection relies on fans and fans have a myopic few of features. And in a world where there are an increasing number of options available for common tasks, you can’t simply live off early adopters and the passionate – you must also reach those who are seeking the path of least resistance.

I don’t want this to come across as decrying user research; I’m all for listening to users. And non-users. It is important that, as those concerned with creating behavior change in the world, we are not just passive listeners but active participants in the world that we want to change. It isn’t just good product, its good business – I’ll take 7% and 25% any day of the week.

Side note: Forget MOOCs; if you want to rapidly increase your knowledge about a topic, take a grad student to lunch. Most grad students are living off $25K or less and are eager for a good free meal – if you make it work on their time, you can find out virtually anything in 1:1 format, from someone who has more passion about the topic than the average online facilitator. Plus, you might just make a new friend.

As a kid, I was obsessed with entropy. Partially because of my obsession with science and in particular all of the special properties of ice, most notably freezing as a local reversal of entropy. And partially because of the Young Wizards book series, in which the antagonist is a personification of entropy and the protagonist wizards are those actively working to aid in helping the universe maintain itself in an orderly way.

I recognize now that worrying about the heat death of the universe was a bit unusual for a ten year old; I was sort of a weird kid. But even now, I feel an ache in my chest when I think about the fact that no matter how hard we struggle, chaos will eventually win and all we can really do is work hard to maximize the order of our local systems.

Two recent exposures to entropy in literature have brought it to the top of my mind. The first is the Mars Trilogy, which is so painfully full of science that it makes me want to go back to college. In it, the economic system the Martians develop has an entropic component, in which low-entropy goods are considered more desirable than high-entropy goods. The second is a quote from Dragon Age: Inquisition, uttered by a relatively minor character in non-essential dialogue: “My life is a debt I intend to repay, however I can.”

I was raised with strong values of service. My father was fond of saying that my brother and I were his chance to change the world, which I have always carried with me as the best sort of burden. And small towns always have this pervading sense that resources are limited, that you have been invested in, and that you damn well better make something of yourself to pay it all back to the community.

But musing on entropy, I wonder if we can’t take those values a little farther, as implied by the science itself. That is, the creation of a human life is an exercise in entropic (and yes, I am using the term broadly here) reduction: immense calories are burned and heat is generated, raising the overall entropy of the universe, but the local result is this beautifully organized system, a human life.

If we imagine entropy as a giant economic system, this implies that we literally take on an entropic debt to the universe when we are born. Resources are expended and without them, we wouldn’t exist. And it is only through work – specifically anti-entropic work – that we repay that debt. Just like the wizards in those childhood books, we can work to promote life, minimize our entropic waste, and help create a better, more efficient system for others.

I don’t mean this to imply that everyone should be forced into a life that is oriented towards service. But in a world where many people seem to think that the world owes them something, it feels as though in teaching the science of entropy, we could remind them that the precise opposite is true. After all, the universe died a little bit to make you, so you damn well better contribute.

Side note: An important quote in today’s article came from a video game. And it isn’t a nostalgia piece, like “all your base are belong to us”, but rather a serious expression of literary merit. If there is any doubt that video games will eventually surpass movies/books, let this stand as evidence that eventually, all fiction will be interactive.

Originally, this blog post was simply about the fact that nobody was saying “net neutrality” and “zero rating” in the same sentence. But then I found out that somebody was and far more eloquently than I, so go read this as a primer.

Given that Jon Healey made the argument so well, I am going to try to make a slightly different point. Not “Why doesn’t anyone object to zero rating?” but rather “How is it that people can both support zero rating and net neutrality?” After all, that is a fairly complicated mental gymnastics routine: “I am unwilling for networks to decide what content should be fast or slow, but I am entirely willing for them to decide whether it should be free or not.”

Brief recap of the argument: zero rating is actually a form of preferential traffic handling that is exactly analogous to the speed discussion that is dominating the net neutrality debate. It just subs cost for speed. In the same way that Comcast could choose to make Netflix faster or slower, they could choose to make you pay for the actual bandwidth to deliver Netflix or not, either by specifically charging you for Netflix traffic (which consumers would rebel against) or by making other types of traffic free (which consumers are celebrating in the form of zero rating on mobile carriers).

From a psych perspective, this is all about framing. Zero rating is framed as a gain: you would normally have to pay for this content but due to the benevolence of networks, it is free. Traffic shaping is framed as a loss: you would normally get this content fast but due to the evil of networks, it is slow.

You could, however, switch the frame on either statement. For zero rating: you would normally get this content for free but due to the evil of networks, you have to pay. For traffic shaping: you would normally get this content slow but due to the benevolence of the networks, it is fast.

And those statements are actually true. Right now, zero rate services are a marketing tactic simply because most services don’t zero rate and you do have to pay for the data they use. To put it differently, there is a contrast effect, where paying is the norm and free is different. If zero rating became the new norm, however, paying for bandwidth would feel exactly like slow services – a loss.

It would have the same market effects as well. Pandora and T-Mobile are big enough to have bizdev folks and lawyers and finance that make zero rating possible; your average startup can’t zero rate. Thus, if zero rating becomes rampant, big companies will win and small companies will lose, because they don’t have easy access to the machinery that allows for zero rating. Middlemen like Syntonic may fill in that market gap, but that will come at a price.

I’m not advocating for or against net neutrality, at least not here. But I do believe that that discussion should include zero rating. Whether it is cost or speed, gain or loss, it is important that we don’t let our framing biases keep us from making guidelines that are based not the internet as we use it today but the internet that will exist tomorrow. For every scenario we consider, we must consciously resist our biases and posit its opposite in frame, in concept, and in execution. It is only then that we can build an internet for the future.

Side note: If we made connectivity free, the price of hardware would go up steeply. Is it possible that we’re going to return to a world where the ability to afford the phone is going to be the gating factor, not affording the data?

When I was a kid, I rode the bus for an hour and a half to get home because they wouldn’t let an eight-year-old cross rural highways, so I had to go clear to the end of the route and come back.  I spent that entire time reading and consequently, as an adult,  I am an inhumanly fast reader.  My superpower is as geeky as I am.  But after watching me devour material, most people who ask me what I generally read are surprised, for two very simple reasons.

One: I don’t read nonfiction.  That’s a bit of a lie, as I read a ton of primary source material (psych journals, academic papers), but what I mean is that I don’t read what most people think of when they talk about non-fiction: New York Times best-selling books that are serious history, science, etc. written for a popular audience.

Two: I don’t really read blogs or websites.  Again, it is a bit of a lie; more accurate would be that I read hardly any blogs regularly or deeply.  I skim Anandtech and BGR, mostly for straight news announcements about technology.  I’ll binge on RockPaperShotgun when I have an hour to just indulge in the weird games people are building.  And I read a lot of articles sent to me by friends I trust, though these aren’t from any one source particularly.  If Betsy or Dave or Julie says “thought of you when reading this”, I’ll certainly check it out.

When I read for pleasure, it is fiction (everything from sci-fi to serious literature) and only fiction.  That’s why they call it “reading for pleasure”.

And more importantly, if the latest Gawker article or pop science book is really that interesting, I’m sure someone will tell me about it.  I can always tell you what the book of the moment is because people have summarized it for me over drinks or dinner – they’ve done the hard part of reading it, they’ve applied an intelligent analysis, and summarized.

Think of it this way: It is important that someone reads this blog post.  But it is not important that everyone reads this blog post.  You could succinctly summarize much of what I’m saying to someone after reading and for the spread of an idea, that’s probably good enough.  Even better if you’ve made it your own, put your twist on it, made it even better.

We have to stop reading for self-presentation, going after the book of the moment simply to appear well-educated or well-informed.  Instead, we need a system that allows you to read the books that are interesting to you, meet for a drink to tell me the good bits, and then we can spend more of our time talking about why you find it important and what may or may not be true about it and how it intersects with everything else we’ve read.  You tell me all about The Omnivores Dilemma and I’ll tell you about how I see that reflected in the Mars Trilogy and we’ll both be better off.

In other words, there is more than enough interesting material in the world for us all to have read different things and bring different opinions.  I think I’m talking about some sort of reading material version of the Nash Equilibrium.  And if that’s a wrong use of Nash Equilibrium, some friend that has read his papers will correct me and I’ll have learned something new.

Side note: You see how I did that there at the end?  Even if you prove I’m wrong, I’ll still be right about something.  And let’s be honest: the only reason I write this blog is to feel like I’m right.  Also, non-fiction is essentially defined by not suffering from summation (since non-fiction is itself a summation of reality), whereas fiction, like all art, is definitionally reduced by summation.