The Mental Pivot Newsletter: No.7

In this issue: Slow reading and incremental progress, Thinking in Systems, Goodhart’s Law, and a fresh batch of interesting links.

Someone recently emailed me to ask about my reading habit. Having read my book notes, he wanted to know if I was a speed reader. I told him no, I consider myself a relatively slow reader and added that I don’t have any magic formula or “hack” for reading. I do, however, read consistently. Every day I set aside a couple of hours to read, take notes, and think. Over time, this has yielded a modest list of books I’ve finished as well as a short but interesting collection of public book notes. The magic—if it can be considered that—only appears after consistent engagement with this daily practice. Steady incremental progress is hard to see, but it’s deceptively transformative. Best of all, anyone can do it.

Now onto the updates...

What’s New on the Blog:

1. Book Notes: “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Donella Meadows

This book is considered a classic introduction to the topic of systems thinking. A system is a set of interconnected things that produces a specific outcome over time. Your body is a system. The car you drive is a system. The economy you work in is a system. Systems thinkers take complex ideas and mechanisms and apply a holistic lens to better understand a given system’s function, behavior, causal relationships, feedback loops, and paths for improvement. Systems are ubiquitous, surprising, and deeply impactful, so it’s in our best interest to learn more about them. 

More introductory resources on the topic of systems thinking:

The next book on my reading list is Lifespan by David Sinclair (2019). Lifespan looks at the information theory of aging and recent scientific breakthroughs that may yield future advances in human vitality and longevity. Thanks to subscribers LC and CS for the book recommendation.

2. Articles and Podcasts of Note (Week of 10/19/2020)

This is my weekly roundup of interesting links and internet finds. You can read the complete post on the blog, but here are the highlights:

The rest of this week’s link roundup can be read here.

From my notebook: Goodhardt’s Law

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Marilyn Strathern (anthropologist) came up with this pithy summation of an idea known as Goodhardt’s Law (named for economist Charles Goodhart).

This idea is best illustrated with real world examples:

  • The Wells Fargo account fraud scandal: Bank executives set employee performance benchmarks that established new account openings as a key metric. Employees, in an attempt to meet these performance measures through a combination of self-interest (to keep their jobs) and pressure from their superiors (who wanted their bonuses) began to artificially inflate new account openings through a variety of tactics: pressuring customers to open new accounts they didn’t need or to simply open new accounts fraudulently without customer consent. Once the charade began, it created a feedback loop in which quarterly targets were increased owing to stellar (fraudulent) results of the previous quarter.

  • The New York Police Department’s CompStat program: CompStat is a computer program that helps police departments track criminal activity. Hotspots could be identified and limited resources could be allocated efficiently. Critics note that CompStat also created (perverse) incentives where precincts were rewarded for demonstrating a reduction in criminal statistics. Accusations were made that some crime statistics were manipulated—either by being downgraded or left unreported—so that the CompStat painted a rosier picture than reality. There’s an illuminating 2-part podcast episode on the topic from Gimlet’s Reply All podcast titled “The Crime Machine.”

  • A similar dynamic is seen in standardized testing where a test might initially serve as an opportunity to test general aptitude as a by-product of education. However, over time students and schools will actively tailor their curricula and study goals to the skills needed to perform well on the test itself.

Mismatched system goals and incongruent system outputs is a topic that’s been on my mind after reading “Thinking in Systems.” The gap between our expectations and reality are often enormous, so it’s worth reminding ourselves to exercise greater care when aligning goals and consequent outcomes.

Odds & Ends:

  • Update: Last week I mentioned the changes to Spotify’s Developer Terms of Service that prevented the export of user playlists in utilities like SongShift. This week Spotify amended their ToS to allow for user export. Here’s a tweet from SongShift on the matter.

  • Great thread on the /r/podcasts subreddit about listener’s favorite episodes of This American Life. Check it out if you want high-quality recommendations for this long-running and always interesting program.

  • The creator and host of This American Life, Ira Glass, has an oft quoted bit of wisdom called “The Gap.” It’s Glass’s idea on early work: the discrepancy, early in our careers or a new endeavor, between our abilities and our taste. Check it out after you read Graham’s piece on “Early Work” (cited above).

  • 1000 Word Philosophy is a website that publishes bit-size pieces on important philosophical questions. I appreciate the subject, but often feel overwhelmed by its scope and prowess of the thinkers. This site is great for beginners like me. The recent post “Philosophy” is a good starting point.

  • November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The event started in 1999 with a mere 21 participants. Today it’s something of a movement with hundreds of thousands of people around the globe committing to writing at least 50,000 words over 30 days. I’ve lacked the confidence to participate (there’s no requirement to share your work—the participation’s the thing), but I’m considering giving it a shot this year. If you decide to do it, drop me a note.

  • Beyond Fuyus: The Weird World of Persimmon Varieties: Summer fruits are over so it’s onto apples, pears, and persimmons for those of us in the non-tropical Northern Hemisphere. I do like a good persimmon...

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