Turns Out Interruptions Are Bad, Who Knew?

I’ve been known to accuse people who say open offices are “fine with a few mitigations” of not paying attention to the cost of their mitigations. I believed they shrunk their thoughts down to the point that not much was lost from an interruption, at the cost of only being able to think the thoughts that fit in that interval. Any thought that would take too long to process could not be conceived of.

I’ve also been known to accuse people who advocate for deep, uninterrupted work without the distractions of social media of “not understanding how valuable social media is to me”. And  besides, my workflow works best with frequent breaks (that I choose the timing of) because I “background process”.

*Cough*

I maintained this illusion until, inspired by a stupidly expensive device that only does one thing, I taped my old phone to a bluetooth keyboard* and began to write in offline mode. It was immediately a magical experience. It was so *quiet*. I could go on my porch and write and it was quiet. My thoughts got much larger because I wasn’t subconsciously afraid I’d interrupt them. I began to feel angry at my laptop. Why did it insist on hurting me so much? Why couldn’t it be pure like the offline phone/keyboard experience? Why couldn’t I just create things?

[* I only found two bluetooth keyboards with an inlay for phones/tablets. The other one lacks a built in battery, and shipped with a broken key]

Locally, this lasted for about 10 minutes before the social media cravings kicked in. But that was enough. I deeply resented work for taking me away from my magic writing device and making everything so noisy

Since I started, my desire for using the quiet device has waxed and waned. At first I thought this was reflective of some deep pathology, but after two weeks it looks a lot more like “sometimes the benefits of quiet outweighs the benefits of being able to look stuff up, sometimes they don’t’”.  I’ve also changed how I interact on a connected device- I’m more likely to close Signal, less likely to open Twitter. This is less due to a utilitarian calculation of the costs and benefits of Twitter, and more that once I’m in a good state, I can notice how switching to Twitter is almost physically painful.

The problem is that I wasn’t wrong that social media was genuinely very valuable to me, and that was before we were all locked inside. But I definitely was wrong that getting those benefits were costless, in a way very analogous to mistakes I accused others of making. I’m glad I have the information now, but I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.

The Oil Crisis of 1973

Last month I investigated commonalities between recessions of the last 50 years or so. But of course this recession will be different, because (among other things) we will simultaneously have a labor shortage and a lot of people out of work. That’s really weird, and there’s almost no historical precedent- the 1918 pandemic took place during a war, and neither 1957 nor 1968 left enough of an impression to have a single book dedicated to them.

So I expanded out from pandemics, and started looking for recessions that were caused by any kind of exogenous shock. The best one I found was the 1973 Oil Crisis. That was kicked off by Arab nations refusing to ship oil to allies who had assisted Israel during the Yom Kippur war- as close as you can get to an economic impact without an economic cause. I started to investigate the 1973 crisis as the one example I could find of a recession caused by a sudden decrease in a basic component of production, for reasons other than economic games.

Spoiler alert: that recession was not caused by a sudden decrease in a basic component of production either.

Why am I so sure of this? Here’s a short list of little things,

 

But here’s the big one: we measure the price of oil in USD. That’s understandable, since oil sales are legally required to be denominated in dollars. But the US dollar underwent a massive overhaul in 1971, when America decided it was tired of some parts of the Bretton Woods Agreement. Previously, the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and many European countries maintained peg (set exchange rate)  between all other currencies and USD, which was itself pegged to gold. In 1971 the US decided not to bother with the gold part anymore, causing other countries to break their peg. I’m sure why we did this is also an interesting story, but I haven’t dug into it yet, because what came after 1971 is interesting enough.  The currency of several countries appreciated noticeably (Germany, Switzerland, Japan, France, Belgium, Holland, and Sweden)…

 

(I apologize for the inconsistent axes, they’re the best I could do)

 

 

…but as I keep harping on, oil prices were denominated in dollars. This meant that oil producing countries, from their own perspective, were constantly taking a pay cut. Denominated in USD, 1/1/74 saw a huge increase in the price of oil. Denominated in gold, 1/1/74 saw a return to the historic average after an unprecedented low.

 

 

 

(apologies for these axes too- the spike in this graph means oil was was worth less, because you could buy more with the same amount of gold)

 

This is a little confusing, so here’s a timeline:

  • 1956: Failed attempt at oil embargo
  • 1967: Failed attempt at oil embargo
  • 1971, August: US leaves the gold standard
  • 1972: Oil prices begin to fall, relative to gold
  • 1972, December: US food prices begin to increase the rate of price increases.
  • 1973, January: US Stock market begins 2-year crash
  • 1973, August: US food prices begin to go up *really* fast
  • 1973, October, 6: Several nearby countries invade Israel
  • 1973, October, 17: Several Arab oil producing countries declare an embargo against Israeli allies, and a production decrease. Price of oil goes up a little (in USD).
  • 1974, January, 1: Effective date of declared price increase from $5.12 to $11.65/barrel. Oil returns to historically normal price measured in gold.

This is not the timeline you’d expect to see if the Yom Kippur war caused a supply shock in oil, leading to a recession.

My best guess is that something was going wrong in the US and world economy well before 1971, but the market was not being allowed to adjust. Breaking Bretton Woods took the finger out of the dyke and everything fluctuated wildly for a few years until the world reached a new equilibrium (including some new and different economic games).The Yom Kippur war was a catalyst or excuse for raising the price of oil, but not the cause.

 

Thanks to my Patreon subscribers for funding this research, and several reviewers for checking my research and writing.

 

Product Endorsement: ENOF

Long time readers may remember when I endorsed Kencko, a collection of freeze dried fruit and vegetable powders in convenient packaging. I was extremely excited about Kencko, because I have various food issues that lead to not eating enough produce, freeze drying maintains most nutritional value, and powders are really easy for me. Or, they usually are. For reasons I never figured out, Kencko made me vomit. I looked around for better but couldn’t find any, and dropped it.

My interest in produce powders was re-aroused recently by concerns about the food supply chain in the US. I don’t think we’re going to starve, but I do think produce variety will be severely curtained, price will go up, and more produce will be processed rather than fresh or frozen (because harvest for processing requires less manpower). Shelf-stable produce that didn’t take up much space was suddenly attractive.

Eventually I found ENOF, which:

  1. Was exactly what I wanted, in terms of being 100% freeze dried and having a variety of ingredients. I looked really hard for this and ENOF was the only thing that fit both requirements.
  2. Didn’t make me throw up (I waited to write this endorsement specifically to test that).
  3. Came in a convenient cinnamon-shaker like container. It is embarrassing how much more I use this powder because it is a convenient shaker rather than requiring a spoon to dish out. I combined the contents of two containers to create an empty one I could put my protein powder in, and now I’m using that more too.
  4. Tastes fine for what it is.

If you are interested, I have a 25% off code here: SBHBJZGJ, which you will need, because this product is not cheap. This is not a referral code, I don’t get any money for you using it, I’m not even sure it will work for more than one person because it was sent to me personally (immediately after I made a large purchase :/  ). I honestly thought about not publishing this because I don’t want them to run out, but I decided the risk of them going out of business  due to insufficient demand was higher that I would be prosocial and share.

 

What Happens in a Recession Anyway?

A few years/weeks ago, my boyfriend asked me “what happens during a recession?”, and I realized that while I knew the technical definition- GDP shrinks, unemployment grows- I didn’t really know what the human effects were. So as part of my temp job as “something something coronavirus” at LessWrong, I went looking.

All data is for the United States unless otherwise specified.

Unemployment

My prediction:

  • Unemployment increases in a recession. This creates a long lasting negative effect on people who enter the labor force during a recession (unemployment scarring).
  • Women’s employment is more stable than men’s

By Sector

According to Have employment patterns in recessions changed? (which was published in 1981), recessions universally (for n=4) concentrate employment in the service sector, by 1-3 percentage points

Looked at in more detail, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

By Gender

From 1953-1980, women have a higher unemployment rate than men, during both expansions and recessions. From 1980 on, men and women have nearly identical unemployment rates in good times, but men’s unemployment has higher peaks during recessions.

Unemployment over time, by gender

At first I thought this was because men are more likely to work in manufacturing, which is more procyclic (see next section), but the pattern holds even within sectors

But unemployment typically means ‘is looking for work’. Perhaps women who lose their jobs are more likely to call themselves Stay-At-Home-Parents and stop looking for work. What happens to the labor force participation rate?

So that’s not it either.

By Race

Black and Latino people typically have a higher unemployment rate than white people (I did not find equivalent data for Asians over a long enough time period), and are hit harder during recessions

By Age

Unfortunately I could only find comparative data going back to 1990, but it looks like youth unemployment is continually higher than older adults, by a similar amount over time.

This isn’t the whole story though, because unemployment can have long term negative effects when you’re young, and especially when you’re just entering the workforce. This is known as unemployment scarring. People who enter the workforce during recessions have lowered employment, wages, and job fit, an effect that lasts for at least 15 years and possibly more. Here are some papers covering the effect. Obviously the longest term data is available only for older recessions, and I could imagine that things aren’t as bad now given the loss of the one-employer-for-life model… but here’s one paper covering the Great Recession that says it’s still quite bad.

Divorce

My prediction: divorces are postponed during a recession, leading to an apparent drop and then catch-up bounce

Reality: Trends in divorce continue basically unabated

This paper, the only long-time-scale survey I could find, reports a minor negative correlation between unemployment rates and divorce. However looking at their graph, the relationship is obviously mild.

Religious Participation

My prediction: religious participation increases during a recession.

Reality: Religious Service Attendance Stays Flat

I was really surprised to find only one academic paper in the last 40 years on religiosity and economic conditions, which was not available online. It reports a “strong” countercyclic effect in religious participation in evangelical Protestants but procyclic effect in mainline Protestants, in the 2001 recession. Meanwhile a Pew poll and a Gallup poll show no change in religious participation during the 2008 recession.

Life Expectancy

I googled this before making a prediction, but do not believe I would have predicted the results.

People die a little less often, especially in nursing homes.

Deaths go down during recessions; according to Ruhm 2002, a 1% decrease in the unemployment rate is associated with an average 0.4% rise in total mortality (about 13,000 deaths, relative to the average of ~2.8m). This is counterintuitive, because wealth is associated with longevity (e.g. Chetty et al. 2016) . There were a lot of potential explanations for this centering on how work was dangerous and didn’t leave time for health, but it turns out most of the additional deaths are concentrated among groups that were unlikely to be employed in the first place, such as those over 70 (70% of the total) or under 4. Fewer than 10% of the additional deaths occur among those between the ages of 25 and 64 (Stevens et al 2011).

Why does employment of working-age adults have such an impact on elderly mortality? Stevens et almake a compelling case that it’s because widespread unemployment increases the relative number of people willing to take unpleasant, low-paying nursing home jobs, particularly entry level “aide” positions, and this improves care of residents.

Fertility

My prediction: recessions lead to a moderate drop in number of live births

The effect of economic downturns on births is surprisingly complicated. On one hand, people have less money and kids are expensive*, which you would expect to lead to fewer children. On the other hand, a reduction in employment expectations reduces the opportunity cost of children, which you would expect to lead to more.

Based primarily on Economic recession and fertility in the developed world and spot checking its sources, my conclusion is that modern recessions temporarily decrease per capita births, but by and large do not change cohort fertility (i.e. women have the same number of total children they would have had without the recession, but later). Some trends:

  • The reduction in births is seen mostly in younger women (20-24), not older women (30-34), suggesting this is a voluntary decision incorporating knowledge of ability to have children in the future.
  • The effect is much larger for first births than subsequent births, suggesting this may be more about union formation than post-union decisions to have children (this could also explain the age-related effects)
  • The change seems to be driven more by change in situation than by absolute status, i.e. there isn’t a strict relationship between per capita GDP or unemployment and fertility that holds across countries, but in countries where children and women have the same status, people will react similarly to a change in circumstance.
  • Male unemployment is universally bad for fertility.
  • Female unemployment depends on the era (used to be positively associated with fertility, now is negatively) and on a woman’s socioeconomic status (richer/better educated women’s fertility is more procyclic than poorer/worse education women’s).
  • Generous unemployment insurance or non-employment-linked maternity benefits unsurprisingly raise the birth rate during a recession.

Specific numbers are hard to give because every country, demographic, and recession is different, but as an example, this article estimates ~9% decrease in fertility in 2013 in the US.

* This is in societies where children are economic sinks. In situations where they are assets, you would expect the reverse.

Thanks to Eli Tyre for research assistance on this section.

Suicide

My prediction: Suicide rises in a recession

Reality: Suicide rates rise, primarily in unemployed men

review found that out of 38 studies:

  • 31 of them found a positive association between economic recession and increased suicide rates.
  • 2 studies reported a negative association,
  • 2 articles failed to find any association
  • 3 studies were inconclusive.

Unfortunately they didn’t share the effect size for most of these studies. Looking at other sources (notes here), I found anywhere from a 4% increase (across Europe and the Americas during the 2008 recession) to 60% (among men in Russia during the 1991 crisis). Studies typically found a much larger effect in men than women, sometimes finding no change in the female suicide rate at all. Different studies found different effects on different age groups; these felt too subdivided to me and I ignored them. Unsurprisingly, unemployment was positive correlated with suicide.

That 60% increase in Russia corresponded to an additional 30 deaths per 100,000 people per year, at a time when the overall death rate was 1300 deaths per 100,000 people. That 4% Europe/Americas increase represents 5000 deaths total, across three continents.

Conclusion

I was 3 for 5 on predictions, 3 for 6 if you include the one I didn’t formally predict ahead of time.

My full notes on this are available here.

 

Many thanks to my Patreon patrons who also supported this work.

Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Part 1: Examples

There’s a thing I want to talk about but it’s pretty nebulous so I’m going to start with examples. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 if you prefer.

Example 1: Hot sauce

In this r/AmITheAsshole post, a person tries some food their their girlfriend cooked, likes it, but tries another bite with hot sauce. Girlfriend says this “…insults her cooking and insinuates that she doesn’t know how to cook”. 

As objective people not in this fight, we can notice that her cooking is exactly as good as it is whether or not he adds hot sauce. Adding hot sauce reveals information (maybe about him, maybe about the food), but cannot change the facts on the ground. Yet she is treating him like he retroactively made her cooking worse in a way that somehow reflects on her, or made a deliberate attempt to hurt her.

 

Example 2: Giving a CD back to the library

Back when I would get books on CD I would sometimes forget the last one in my drive or car. Since I didn’t use CDs that often, I would find the last CD sometimes months later. To solve this, I would drop the CD in the library book return slot, which, uh, no longer looks like a good solution to me, in part because of the time I did this in front of a friend and she questioned it. Not rudely or anything, just “are you sure that’s safe? Couldn’t the CD snap if something lands wrong?.” I got pretty angry about this, but couldn’t actually deny she had a point, so settled for thinking that if she had violated a friend code by not pretending my action was harmless. I was not dumb enough to say this out loud, but I radiated the vibe and she dropped it.

 

Example 3: Elizabeth fails to fit in at martial arts 

A long time ago I went to a martial arts studio. The general classes (as opposed to specialized classes like grappling) were preceded by an optional 45 minute warm up class. Missing the warm up was fine, even if you took a class before and after. Showing up 10 minutes before the general class and doing your own warm ups on the adjacent mats was fine too. What was not fine was doing the specialized class, doing your own warm ups on adjacent maps for the full 45 minutes while the instructor led regular warm ups, and then rejoining for the general class. That was “very insulting to the instructor”.

This was a problem for me because the regular warm ups hurt, in ways that clearly meant they were bad for me (and this is at a place I regularly let people hit me in the head). Theoretically I could have asked the instructor to give me something different, but that is not free and the replacements wouldn’t have been any better, which is not surprising because no one there had the slightest qualification to do personal training or physical therapy. So basically the school wanted me to pretend I was in a world where they were competent to create exercise routines, more competent than I despite having no feedback from my body, and considered not pretending disrespectful to the person leading warm ups.

Like the hot sauce example, the warm ups were as good as they were regardless of my participation – and they knew that, because they didn’t demand I participate. But me doing my own warm ups broke the illusion of competence they were trying to maintain.

 

Example 4: Imaginary Self-Help Guru

I listened to an interview where the guest was a former self-help guru who had recently shut down his school. Well, I say listened, but I’ve only done the first 25% so far. For that reason this should be viewed less as “this specific real person believes these specific things” and more like  “a character Elizabeth made up in her head inspired by things a real person said…” and. For that reason, I won’t be using his name or linking to the podcast.

Anyways, the actual person talked about how being a leader put a target on his back and his followers were never happy.  There are indeed a lot of burdens of leadership that are worthy of empathy, but there was an… entitled… vibe to the complaint. Like his work as a leader gave him a right to a life free of criticism.

If I was going to steel- man him, I’d say that there are lots of demands people place on leaders that they shouldn’t, such as “Stop reminding me of my abusive father” or “I’m sad that trade offs exist, fix it”. But I got a vibe that the imaginary guru was going farther than that; he felt like he was entitled to have his advice work, and people telling him it didn’t was taking that away from him, which made it an attack.

 

Example 5: Do I owe MAPLE space for their response?

A friend of mine (who has some skin in the meditation game) said things I interpreted as feeling very strongly that:

  1. My post on MAPLE was important and great and should be widely shared.
  2. I owed MAPLE an opportunity to read my post ahead of time and give me a response to publish alongside it (although I could have declined to publish it if I felt it was sufficiently bad).

Their argument, as I understood it at the time, was that even if I linked to a response MAPLE made later, N days worth of people would have read the post and not the response, and that was unfair.

I think this is sometimes correct- I took an example out of this post even though it required substantial rewrites, because I checked in with the people in question, found they had a different view, and that I didn’t feel sure enough of mine to defend it (full disclosure: I also have more social and financial ties to the group in question than I do to MAPLE).

I had in fact already reached out to my original contact there to let him know the post was coming and would be negative, and he passed my comment on to the head of the monastery. I didn’t offer to let him see it or respond, but he had an opportunity to ask (what he did suggest is a post in and of itself). This wasn’t enough for my friend- what if my contact was misrepresenting me to the head, or vice versa? I had an obligation to reach out directly to the head (which I had no way of doing beyond the info@ e-mail on their website) and explicitly offer him a pre-read and to read his response.

[Note: I’m compressing timelines a little. Some of this argument and clarification came in arguments about the principle of the matter after I had already published the post. I did share this with my friend, and changed some things based on their requests. On others I decided to leave it as my impression at the time we argued, on the theory that “if I didn’t understand it after 10 hours of arguing, the chances this correction actually improves my accuracy are slim”. I showed them a near-final draft and they were happy with it]

I thought about this very seriously. I even tentatively agreed (to my friend) that I would do it. But I sat with it for a day, and it just didn’t feel right. What I eventually identified as the problem was this: MAPLE wasn’t going to be appending my criticism to any of their promotional material. I would be shocked if they linked to me at all. And even if they did it wouldn’t be the equivalent, because my friend was insisting that I proactively seek out their response, where they had never sought out mine, or to the best of my knowledge any of their critics. As far as I know they’ve never included anything negative in their public facing material, despite at least one person making criticism extremely available to them. 

If my friend were being consistent (which is not a synonym for “good”) they would insist that MAPLE seek out people’s feedback and post a representative sample somewhere, at a minimum. The good news is: my friend says they’re going to do that next time they’re in touch. What they describe wanting MAPLE to create sounds acceptable to me. Hurray! Balance is restored to The Force! Except… assuming it does happen, why was my post necessary to kickstart this conversation?  My friend could have noticed the absence of critical content on MAPLE’s website at any time. The fact that negative reports trigger a reflex to look for a response and positive self-reports do not is itself a product of treating negative reports as overt antagonism and positive reports as neutral information.

[If MAPLE does link to my experience in a findable way on their website, I will append whatever they want to my post (clearly marked as coming from them). If they share a link on Twitter or something else transient, I will do the same] 

 

Part 2: Simulacrum

My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:

1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.

2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.

3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.

4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

In all five of my examples, people were given information (I like this better with hot sauce, you might break the library’s CD, these exercises hurt me and you are not qualified to fix it, your advice did not fix my problem, I had a miserable time at your retreat), and treated it as a social attack. This is most obvious in the first four, where someone literally says some version of “I feel under attack”, but is equally true in the last one, even though the enforcer was different than the ~victim and was attempting merely to tax criticism, not suppress it entirely. All five have the effect that there is either more conflict or less information in the world.

 

Part 3: But…

When I started thinking about this, I wanted a button I could push to make everyone go to level one all the time. It’s not clear that that’s actually a good idea, but even if it was, there is no button, and choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good. If you refuse to conceive of why someone would tell you things other than to give you information, you leave yourself open to “I’m only telling you this to make you better” abuse. If you refuse to believe that people would lie except out of ignorance, you’ll trust when you shouldn’t. If you refuse to notice how people are communicating with others, you will be blindsided when they coordinate on levels you don’t see. 

But beating them at their own game doesn’t work either, because the enemy was never them, it was the game, which you are still playing. You can’t socially maneuver your way into a less political world. In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE. In a world where no one notices things like that, positive reviews of programs become overrepresented.

I don’t have a solution to this.  The best I can do right now is try to feed systems where level one is valued and higher levels are discussed openly.  “How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know. If you do, my email address is elizabeth – at – this domain name and I’d love to hear from you. You can also book a time to talk to me for an hour. What I have are a handful of 1:1 relationships where we have spent years building trust to get to the point where “I think you’re being a coward” is treated as genuine information, not a social threat, and mostly the other person has made the first move. 

The pieces of advice I do have are:

  1. If someone says they want honest feedback, err on the side of giving it to them. They are probably lying, but that’s their problem (unless they’re in a position to make it yours, in which case think harder about this).
  2. Figure out what you need to feel secure as someone confirms your worst fears about yourself and ask for it, even if it’s weird, even if it seems like an impossibly big ask. People you are compatible with will want to build towards that (not everyone who doesn’t is abusive or even operating in bad faith- but if you can’t start negotiations on this I’d be very surprised if you’re compatible).
  3. Be prepared for some sacrifices, especially in the congeniality department. People who are good at honesty under a climate that punishes it are not going to come out unscathed.

Talk to Me for an Hour (Now 30 Minutes Long)

File:Two-people-talking-logo.jpg

Long ago I did a thing called “talk to me for an hour”, where anyone who displayed the good sense to read this blog could book time with me to discuss anything they thought would be interesting. Eventually life got in the way and I had to close the offer. But! It’s now the Great Isolation, and talking to strangers is the most appealing it has ever been. So I’m bringing TTMFAH back, albeit in an abbreviated half hour format.

What’s the catch/ All I ask is that you have a some questions in mind. We don’t necessarily have to hold to them, but I didn’t spend 7 years writing out my deepest, most important thoughts to have to come up with conversation topics on the fly.

Time can be booked on my calendly, with the caveat that calendly doesn’t sync perfectly and I may need to reschedule. If you’d like a more secure time, you can e-mail me at elizabeth-at-this-domain-name.

Quarantine Failure Report

I am a little bit sick. Not very, just enough to be sure it’s not allergies. It’s not necessarily covid, but I’d be extremely surprised if it wasn’t a contagious respiratory illness. In order to help others calibrate, I’d like to share details of my quarantine.

* I started quarantining weeks before anyone else
* I took one trip to the vet two weeks ago (12 days before symptoms started). The vet tech wore a mask and glove to get the cat from my car, and did the same to return her. I left her carrier outside after the visit.
* Cats are otherwise indoors and can’t have picked anything up from outside.
* I saw my boyfriend the day before the vet visit. Neither he nor his 2 roommates are sick, and they’d been maintaining quarantine for 3+ weeks as well.
* I’ve only left the house for daily hour+ walks (wearing a mask only on crowded streets, but going into the street to maintain 6+ feet distance with other people, except twice when some asshole runner passed me from behind), and being in my own yard.
* Incoming packages (of which there have been many) got some combination of being sprayed with peroxide and waiting two+ days before handling.
* No restaurant food
* I live in a duplex with no shared air ducts to the other unit, and I believe separate plumbing.
* I leave my windows open when it’s warm, but they are a considerable distance back from the street.

That’s it. Those are all the vectors I’ve been exposed to.

 

My symptoms:

* sneezing a bit Monday and Tuesday. This went away
* Fatigue starting Wednesday, minor loss of appetite
* Yesterday’s symptoms plus tickle in throat
* Yesterday’s symptoms plus stronger tickle in throat, very minor chest congestion

Me and Monastic Academy

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About a year and a half ago I did a retreat at a monastery. I was trepidatious about this retreat. It was designed to make you a little sleep deprived and a little undernourished, which I agree can be stimulating. But I need more sleep and more specific food than the typical person, and I was worried that what was calibrated to make the average person a little on edge would be debilitating for me. I talked to their “care person” (that’s the official title) ahead of time and was assured that there was enough flexibility built into the system that I would be fine.

There wasn’t and I wasn’t. It was not productive deprivation, it was just miserable and activating in ways that inhibited emotional or intellectual progress. In addition to the lack of sleep and food it was freezing, which they did not warn us about and which for idiosyncratic reasons combined really poorly with the bad-fit-for-me food.

I don’t blame the monastery for me being a whiny baby who crumbles under certain kinds of adversity. That’s not their fault. I do blame them for listening to my concerns and telling me it would be fine. Looking at it now, I don’t think there’s anything I could have said that would have made them go “oh, no, you’re not a good fit.”

I think that happened in part because the person in question was bad at their job. That’s not a surprise or even really a criticism, given the monastery’s explicit, deliberate policy of placing people in jobs they’re bad at to facilitate personal growth. I think personal growth is a great goal and that taking on things you’re bad at does facilitate it; the problem is that the rest of the system is built around treating people as competent. I was told the care person was qualified to decide if I could go, and I trusted her. That’s partially on me for not insisting she explain why she was so sure it would be fine; certainly part of the lesson is that trust without models is not a privilege I should extend to strangers. But it continued at the retreat; we were supposed to respect and obey people because of their position, questioning plans was bad. 

I really do not like people insisting I entrust care of myself to them and then not taking care of me. You get at most one of trust and incompetence, and my preference is neither.

To their credit, I complained and some things got changed to make it tolerable. The subtext was “you are a whiny baby who failed”, but maybe those were my own feelings externalized.

I didn’t find the meditation instruction that helpful. I’m told the head monk is much better, but he wasn’t there at the time, which was their choice. I did enjoy the circling parts of the retreat.

I didn’t take well to the busywork parts of monastic life at all, but that’s really not their fault- they were perfectly upfront that it was going to happen and I raised no concerns about it. I think if I had been well-slept and -fed it would have been a growth experience rather than growth-inhibiting misery. 

Why did it take me 1.5 years to write this, despite the fact that I began composing a version in my head before I left? A day or two before I left, the monk who’d introduced me to the monastery, who I knew best, and who had improved my experience by standing up for me, said that he was afraid I would write an angry blog post about them. And I flinched.

I stand by the initial flinch- it is good for me to realize that people I’m talking about have feelings, even if the version of this post where I don’t is much funnier. But that just means I should acknowledge the feelings, not that I should lie or distort reality to spare them. It would have been really useful to me to read a blog post like this when I was choosing to go or not; I’d be angry at someone who had this information and withheld it so the people who were going to hurt me didn’t feel bad. My compromise was to give a head’s up to the monk who made the joke before publishing (although I did not offer to let him read it ahead of time). 

The name of the monastery was Monastic Academy, aka MAPLE, which has the California spin off OAK. I regret going.

A couple of notes:

  1. MAPLE is attempting something very hard, and part of attempting hard things is making mistakes.
  2. I don’t know of anyone else who had the same internal experience I did.
  3. Overestimating the universality of a program you really believe in is a common flaw
  4. This was 1.5 years ago and lots of things could have changed, although their website’s schedule and promise of “2 healthy vegan meals each day” suggests the things most relevant to me haven’t.

 

 

Literature Review: Distributed Teams

Introduction

Context: Oliver Habryka commissioned me to study and summarize the literature on distributed teams, with the goal of improving altruistic organizations. We wanted this to be rigorous as possible; unfortunately the rigor ceiling was low, for reasons discussed below. To fill in the gaps and especially to create a unified model instead of a series of isolated facts, I relied heavily on my own experience on a variety of team types (the favorite of which was an entirely remote company).

This document consists of five parts:

  • Summary
  • A series of specific questions Oliver asked, with supporting points and citations. My full, disorganized notes will be published as a comment.

My overall model of worker productivity is as follows:

Highlights and embellishments:

  • Distribution decreases bandwidth and trust (although you can make up for a surprising amount of this with well timed visits).
  • Semi-distributed teams are worse than fully remote or fully co-located teams on basically every metric. The politics are worse because geography becomes a fault line for factions, and information is lost because people incorrectly count on proximity to distribute information.
  • You can get co-location benefits for about as many people as you can fit in a hallway: after that you’re paying the costs of co-location while benefits decrease.
  • No paper even attempted to examine the increase in worker quality/fit you can get from fully remote teams.

Sources of difficulty:

  • Business science research is generally crap.
  • Much of the research was quite old, and I expect technology to improve results from distribution every year.
  • Numerical rigor trades off against nuance. This was especially detrimental when it comes to forming a model of how co-location affects politics, where much that happens is subtle and unseen. The most largest studies are generally survey data, which can only use crude correlations. The most interesting studies involved researchers reading all of a team’s correspondence over months and conducting in-depth interviews, which can only be done for a handful of teams per paper.

How does distribution affect information flow?

“Co-location” can mean two things: actually working together side by side on the same task, or working in parallel on different tasks near each other. The former has an information bandwidth that technology cannot yet duplicate. The latter can lead to serendipitous information sharing, but also imposes costs in the form of noise pollution and siphoning brain power for social relations.

Distributed teams require information sharing processes to replace the serendipitous information sharing. These processes are less likely to be developed in teams with multiple locations (as opposed to entirely remote). Worst of all is being a lone remote worker on a co-located team; you will miss too much information and it’s feasible only occasionally, despite the fact that measured productivity tends to rise when people work from home.

I think relying on co-location over processes for information sharing is similar to relying on human memory over writing things down: much cheaper until it hits a sharp cliff. Empirically that cliff is about 30 meters, or one hallway. After that, process shines.

List of isolated facts, with attribution:

  • “The mutual knowledge problem” (Cramton 2015):
    • Assumption knowledge is shared when it is not, including:
      • typical minding.
      • Not realizing how big a request is (e.g. “why don’t you just walk down the hall to check?”, not realizing the lab with the data is 3 hours away. And the recipient of the request not knowing the asker does not know that, and so assumes the asker does not value their time).
    • Counting on informal information distribution mechanisms that don’t distribute evenly
    • Silence can be mean many things and is often misinterpreted. E.g. acquiescence, deliberate snub, message never received.
  • Lack of easy common language can be an incredible stressor and hamper information flow (Cramton 2015).
  • People commonly cite overhearing hallway conversation as a benefit of co-location. My experience is that Slack is superior for producing this because it can be done asynchronously, but there’s reason to believe I’m an outlier.
  • Serendipitous discovery and collaboration falls off by the time you reach 30 meters (chapter 5), or once you’re off the same hallway (chapter 6)
  • Being near executives, project decision makers, sources of information (e.g. customers), or simply more of your peers gets you more information (Hinds, Retelny, and Cramton 2015)

How does distribution interact with conflict?

Distribution increases conflict and reduces trust in a variety of ways.

  • Distribution doesn’t lead to factions in and of itself, but can in the presence of other factors correlated with location
    • e.g. if the engineering team is in SF and the finance team in NY, that’s two correlated traits for fault lines to form around. Conversely, having common traits across locations (e.g. work role, being parents of young children)] fights factionalization (Cramton and Hinds 2005).
    • Language is an especially likely fault line.
  • Levels of trust and positive affect are generally lower among distributed teams (Mortenson and Neeley 2012) and even co-located people who work from home frequently enough (Gajendra and Harrison 2007).
  • Conflict is generally higher in distributed teams (O’Leary and Mortenson 2009Martins, Gilson, and Maynard 2004)
  • It’s easier for conflict to result in withdrawal among workers who aren’t co-located, amplifying the costs and making problem solving harder.
  • People are more likely to commit the fundamental attribution error against remote teammates (Wilson et al 2008).
  • Different social norms or lack of information about colleagues lead to misinterpretation of behavior (Cramton 2016) e.g.,
    • you don’t realize your remote co-worker never smiles at anyone and so assume he hates you personally.
    • different ideas of the meaning of words like “yes” or “deadline”.
  • From analogy to biology I predict conflict is most likely to arise when two teams are relatively evenly matched in terms of power/ resources and when spoils are winner take all.
  • Most site:site conflict is ultimately driven by desire for access to growth opportunities (Hinds, Retelny, and Cramton 2015). It’s not clear to me this would go away if everyone is co-located- it’s easier to view a distant colleague as a threat than a close one, but if the number of opportunities is the same, moving people closer doesn’t make them not threats.
  • Note that conflict is not always bad- it can mean people are honing their ideas against others’. However the literature on virtual teams is implicitly talking about relationship conflict, which tends to be a pure negative.

When are remote teams preferable?

  • You need more people than can fit in a 30m radius circle (chapter 5), or a single hallway. (chapter 6).
  • Multiple critical people can’t be co-located, e.g.,
    • Wave’s compliance officer wouldn’t leave semi-rural Pennsylvania, and there was no way to get a good team assembled there.
    • Lobbying must be based in Washington, manufacturing must be based somewhere cheaper.
    • Customers are located in multiple locations, such that you can co-locate with your team members or customers, but not both.
  • If you must have some team members not co-located, better to be entirely remote than leave them isolated. If most of the team is co-located, they will not do the things necessary to keep remote individuals in the loop.
  • There is a clear shared goal
  • The team will be working together for a long time and knows it (Alge, Weithoff, and Klein 2003)
  • Tasks are separable and independent.
  • You can filter for people who are good at remote work (independent, good at learning from written work).
  • The work is easy to evaluate based on outcome or produces highly visible artifacts.
  • The work or worker benefits from being done intermittently, or doesn’t lend itself to 8-hours-and-done, e.g.,
    • Wave’s anti-fraud officer worked when the suspected fraud was happening.
    • Engineer on call shifts.
  • You need to be process- or documentation-heavy for other reasons, e.g. legal, or find it relatively cheap to be so (chapter 2).
  • You want to reduce variation in how much people contribute (=get shy people to talk more) (Martins, Gilson, and Maynard 2008).
  • Your work benefits from long OODA loops.
  • You anticipate low turnover (chapter 2).

How to mitigate the costs of distribution

  • Site visits and retreats, especially early in the process and at critical decision points. I don’t trust the papers quantitatively, but some report site visits doing as good a job at trust- and rapport-building as co-location, so it’s probably at least that order of magnitude (see Hinds and Cramton 2014 for a long list of studies showing good results from site visits).
    • Site visits should include social activities and meals, not just work. Having someone visit and not integrating them socially is worse than no visit at all.
    • Site visits are more helpful than retreats because they give the visitor more context about their coworkers (chapter 2). This probably applies more strongly in industrial settings.
  • Use voice or video when need for bandwidth is higher (chapter 2).
    • Although high-bandwidth virtual communication may make it easier to lie or mislead than either in person or low-bandwidth virtual communication (Håkonsson et al 2016).
  • Make people very accessible, e.g.,
    • Wave asked that all employees leave skype on autoanswer while working, to recreate walking to someone’s desk and tapping them on the shoulder.
    • Put contact information in an accessible wiki or on Slack, instead of making people ask for it.
  • Lightweight channels for building rapport, e.g., CEA’s compliments Slack channel, Wave’s kudos section in weekly meeting minutes (personal observation).
  • Build over-communication into the process.
    • In particular, don’t let silence carry information. Silence can be interpreted a million different ways (Cramton 2001).
  • Things that are good all the time but become more critical on remote teams
  • Have a common chat tool (e.g., Slack or Discord) and give workers access to as many channels as you can, to recreate hallway serendipity (personal observation).
  • Hire people like me
    • long OODA loop
    • good at learning from written information
    • Good at working working asynchronously
    • Don’t require social stimulation from work
  • Be fully remote, as opposed to just a few people working remotely or multiple co-location sites.
  • If you have multiple sites, lumping together similar people or functions will lead to more factions (Cramton and Hinds 2005). But co-locating people who need to work together takes advantage of the higher bandwidth co-location provides..
  • Train workers in active listening (chapter 4) and conflict resolution. Microsoft uses the Crucial Conversations class, and I found the book of the same name incredibly helpful.

Cramton 2016 was an excellent summary paper I refer to a lot in this write up. It’s not easily available on-line, but the author was kind enough to share a PDF with me that I can pass on.

My full notes will be published as a comment on this post.

Stop Hitting Yourself

Image result for stop hitting yourself

 

I have always taken a pretty lax attitude towards reinfecting myself via environmental contamination in my personal space. Once I have an illness multiplying inside my cells, the additional exposure from touching my face after touching a doorknob should be minimal, and once I’m immune to it, I’m immune. Not touching my face ever seemed like a real drop in quality of life. Plus air kills everything fairly quickly.

In the case of SARVS-CoV-2, I have changed my mind, for a combination of reasons.

  1. There are reports of people becoming reinfected. Details are fuzzy around this, most stories use the word “recovered” without clarifying whether the person tested negative or was simply asymptomatic (China requires a negative test, but, uh…China)*. It’s also possible the disease is biphasic, meaning the relapse was inevitable and not brought on by reexposure.
  2. Unclear about this particular strain, but coronaviruses in general have some heroic longevity on surfaces.

 

*[I want to be clear here that I think the US numbers and handling of COVID-19 are also terrible]

Luckily there’s a fairly cheap way to dramatically limit your exposure: cover commonly touched surfaces with copper (Connor Flexman’s research here). Everyone’s recommending copper tape: that seems reasonable to me but I can’t find any studies on copper tape in particular, much less specific brands. I ordered this set (affiliate link) because it came in multiple widths and that seemed useful, but I’m not vouching for it over other tape. Once it arrives I’m going to cover all my common surfaces. I’m especially looking forward to doing my sink handle, since I touch it when my hands are both dirtiest and cleanest.

I’m also upping my handwashing. Handwashing is getting a lot of attention right now, but no one is talking about the costs, which is dry skin. Dry skin leads to cracks in your hand that are more vulnerable to infection than unbroken skin (Source: My previous dermatologist). You can fight this by being religious about using lotion. I’m using Palmer’s (affiliate link) because I had it lying around; it seems to be working.