Competing Ideas (Continued)

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OK.  I know I’m losing velocity on these posts.  Trust me, I have some good excuses.  I did a really great hack-a-thon to come up with some decent ideas for what to do to help refugees who are going to be arriving in Liverpool, see here.  I provided a bit of advice to some start-ups at Fishburners.  I went to an interesting academic conference. I’ve also built a working prototype of something that may help people who have back problems like me with standing desks, and have been learning to use a 3D printer.  OK, so that’s a lot of excuses, but I am enjoying those other things and finding them to be informative to the core work I am doing on this blog.  I think I’m going to keep the posting velocity down.

So to pick up where I left off:  I would like to buy a business where: I am especially fast at doing the task, that I have especially abundant/cheap resources to do, and that is good for both me and society. So let’s take the problems in turn.

What am I fast at doing?

This is a tough question. For most of my life, I have been part of a much larger institution.  This means that I often need to pitch or make it seem like I have skills in areas that are useful to the big machine.  If I am going to strike out nearly on my own, then I need to be honest with myself about my capacities.  This is not, in itself an easy thing to do for two reasons.  First, I, like many people, I suspect, have little defense mechanisms set up that guard my precious little ego. Defining what I am good and bad at threatens that.  I am, at core, a pretty selfish person, no matter how I try to expunge it. Second, and also difficult, is something I will call ‘associative benchmarks.’  I tend to make comparisons of my skills based on the people that I associate with, largely my peer group.  This is troublesome because my peer group may be quite exceptional in some ways and less so in others.  For example, when I completed the infantry officer’s course, the minimally acceptable standards were to be able to complete 30+ mile (48+km) marches with full gear on limited sleep and food.  There were officers who nearly and actually passed out during some of these marches.  There was one indecent, at the end of nearly five days without food, almost continual patrols, and intermittently having tear gas thrown at me that I too nearly passed out.  I remember walking up to one of the Navy Corpsmen and saying: ‘Doc, I nearly black out every time that I move out of the kneeling or prone position and push on with this patrol.  I’m not quitting, just keep an eye on me because I might pass out and no one will notice.’ We had a physics grad from Princeton who was a 6’3 hulk of a man who passed out from the heat and could only make baby-esq ‘raspberry’s’ until his core temperature came back down.  Nuts.  Why do I say that?  Well if I were to compare myself to that peer group, then I might say ‘I’m pretty average, or perhaps a bit above average in my ability to take physical abuse.’  Here’s the trouble: it’s wildly inaccurate.   To even get to that point my peers needed to complete:

  • Military Entrance processing screening or something called the DoDMERB which supposedly restricts the pool of applicants to ~10% of the population.  For those that pass:
  • Reserve Officer Training Corps or the Naval Academy: with weekend physical training and a high wash-out rate, and minimum physical standards. For those that pass:
  • Officer Candidates School: with ~1/3 drop out rate and very high physical standards. For those that pass:
  • The Basic School, which physically trained us to handle pretty sizable loads and had a ~10% attrition rate, and then they could have a chance at an Infantry Officer’s Course slot.
No matter how you slice it, I was working with people who were several standard deviations above the mean in terms of physical endurance, being ‘average’ in this group is not average by any means.  So before you think I’m big-noting myself I should say that I have messed up feet, knees, and lower back from all of this training, and I often think how my young self would laugh at my current self.  Let me also point that physical endurance is hardly a marketable skill outside of the military or a few elite athletic competitions, so all of the time and effort that I put into that ‘skill’ has largely atrophied.
So what am I faster at doing than most people that society actually wants?  What are the things that I am probably several deviations of the mean ahead on if I compare myself to society at large?
  • I think that I’m pretty good at grasping new concepts rapidly.
    • I tend to be able to solve the little puzzles thrown up by consulting firms, Google, and entrance exams, and it is marketable in many knowledge worker categories.
  • I am probably pretty above average at going against the grain
    • It tends to be that I don’t care that much about what other people think of me, so I fit well into places like the red-cell in planning, and often vocalize.  This has been useful in investing.
  • I am probably more obsessed than the average person with making my life efficient.
    • I get irrational amounts of pleasure from finding ways to save just a few moment’s of time repeatedly. This has been useful in my operations line of work.
  • I’m several deviations from the mean in terms of physical size.
    • I can (and do) pick up and move big heavy things.  It makes me happy, but it’s not worth much. Even the best house-mover doesn’t make much.
OK, those are probably fine as far as they go, but let’s see if I can combine them with the other two factors and come up with anything worthwhile in terms of a business to invest in.

What resources are uniquely available to me in abundance?

OK, this one is a real pain-in-the-butt.  I am not independently wealthy.  There are things that I have access to which I have in abundance which are not marketable (e.g. traffic noise in my apartment).  What does the world want that I have in unique abundance? In short, not a lot/nothing.  I happen to live in Australia, where we are rich in Sunshine, Space, and Dirt relative to the rest of the world.  I could capture the sunshine and turn it into power, but because the dirt (coal) down here is pretty cheap that’s not very useful.  I can’t yet export the power either because there isn’t a very efficient system to do that yet.  Perhaps that’s something I could work on, but it would require a LOT of capital that I (and indeed the whole government of the country) would not have.  Much of the ‘dirt’ (decent mining rights) have been bought up as well.  What does this leave me with?  Probably trying to dominate some esoteric niche here in Australia where it doesn’t make sense to outsource, and the investment required to be the second player in that market would be too high for it to be worthwhile.  Something like cement molding is probably a good example.  It really doesn’t make sense to ship cement to Australia, or even around Australia, and the capital investment in it is pretty high.  Not the perfect example, but it’s a possibility.  Here’s the next problem.  Why am I uniquely qualified to make cement?  Well, the truth is, I’m not.  Outside of my physical size, and love of efficiency, I don’t personally have much of an advantage here.

What is productive for society and for me?

What another pain-in-the-butt question.  As I said in the last post, and in my previous posts, this is not a very easy question to answer.  What may be good in the short term may be pretty negative in the mid or long term (the sonar example springs to mind again).  This question really points back to the bigger questions of ‘why’ and for whom that I am trying to answer.  In general, to take something like the cement example again, I feel like I would be pretty happy making cement.  I would be making the stuff that makes buildings/infrastructure work.  That said, if I were in Japan as a cement-maker I may have my doubts.  Many of their natural waterways are damed, guided, or otherwise encased in cement. This was in the name of a couple good things, trying to prevent mudslides/washouts after volcanoes and tsunami’s, and counter-cyclical spending to stop the lost two decades they have had, but it has come at the cost of some beautiful scenery that cannot be put back.  If I were in that society, then I would question it’s utility for Japan.
This is bedeviling, but I did get a good suggestion from my wife, and another person in the past couple of weeks.  They suggested that I start putting all of these criteria together into a checklist and sourcing it around to potential investors to make up for the capital gap.  I am very scared to do this, because I am scared that others will want to extract more money from the business than I would like to, but it does have two potential upsides:
  1. I can determine if my hypothesis about a very limited number of potential co-investors is correct (not with 100% certainty as I would not know how co-investors would actually behave, only how they say they would).
  2. I can still bounce this investment framework off potential investors and they can help me add/subtract/pressure test and even search for other opportunities.

I’m going to add a new section here:

Interesting Things I’ve looked at since the last post that I have found useful

  • Investing/Economics:
    • Economic Earnings: These are distinct from accounting Earnings.  I thought that this might actually be a measure of productivity.  It’s not, but it’s an interesting way to look at an investment
    • I read This Time is Different by Reinhart and Roghoff. It thought this paragraph summed it up
      • “If there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by the government, banks, corporations, or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom.”
    • Think Twice: a useful guide to the various mental shortcuts that all of our brains use, and how to avoid them
    • A Few interesting papers on housing which generally be summed up as ‘housing prices don’t beat inflation’, Shiller, Ambrose, and then one from the Reserve Bank of Australia that presumes growth…
  • Learning:
    • It strikes me that one of the fundamental limitations of modern society is training and retraining people.  I personally experienced this while taking a couple of my first MOOCs on Machine Learning and JavaScript, both things I hope I can use to contribute to my enterprise later on, and perhaps while still at Google.  I found the Javascript course to be exceptionally engaging.  As far as increasing my own cognitive capacity, I have been trailing TCDS (that’s right, zapping my own brain)
    • Superforecasting: This is a more-accessible follow-on to Tetlock’s earlier book Expert Political Judgement.  He conducts a longitudinal study which forces people to make their predictions and then tracks the outcome.
  • Morality
    • I re-read this paper by Admiral James Stockdale, and Medal of Honor recipient and survivor of the Hanoi Hilton. I originally read in my Marine ROTC course in college stoicism and courage. I thought this section was interesting
      • “A man’s master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave.
    • I also found this podcast on Stoicism to be interesting.  It talks about exposing yourself to what you fear, and realizing it isn’t that bad. It seems to me that this is a reasonable way to get to the above.
  • General
    • This article by David Brooks was very interesting.  I wonder if the type of social enterprise that I am thinking about would be sufficient to remove some of this powerlessness.
    • This article on horizontal history from the wait but why guys.  It gives me a lot of perspective about my place in the world that I often lack.

Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.





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