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Book: The End is Always Near by Dan Carlin

I love Dan Carlin’s „Hardcore History” podcast. The stories of mundane concerns during wars, plagues, and other terrible events in human history are somehow deeply informative of the human spirit.

I am very grateful that Dan spares the gory details, but he keeps in the weight of the event and pulls lessons from the history books.

Thanks to Dan Carlin, I realized that history is like a TV series that really happened. And one more unpredictable than any “Game of Thrones” or „Witcher” script.

„The End is Always Near” is the first Dan’s book and a little more organized than the podcast. It has a central message that it supports very well – Humans always seem to be on the brink of extinction.

What stood out to me:

  • Through most generations in history, people were much tougher than we are. They have watched their sons and daughters die horribly, the wars and plagues were rolling constantly
  • The children were treated horribly as well. Basically everybody was traumatized, but somehow they haven’t seen it as trauma. Maybe with the constant risk of dying, psychological trauma was a less pressing concern?
  • The consequences of the Atomic bomb were enormous. Because nuclear retaliation is a tool that has to be deployed in minutes, only 1 person needs to make this call. Now, that the US president has this cross to bear, it automatically transformed the office of the president into one-man apocalypse machine
  • Cold War has introduced the tensions that turned the USA into a Police state and that is still the case.

If you want to listen more about the Cold War, here is the „Destroyer of Worlds” episode:

My highlights ( I’d love to have more, but I was not reading this on Kindle and my hardcover highlight game is not strong  )

  • Andrew Mellon, the secretary of the treasury under President Herbert Hoover when the 1929 stock market crashed, which initi­ated more than decade of economic collapse, thought the coming hardship would be good thing. “It will purge the rottenness out of the system,” Mellon said, as reported in Hoover memoirs. “High costs of living will come down People will work harder live more moral life Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people From Mellon’ point of view maybe he got his wish. The Depression put an end to the Roaring Twenties time remembered for high living, speakeasies, jazz, flappers, the Charleston, and the advent of motion pictures What Mellon might have thought wasteful frivolity was simply fun to others. Things got lot less fun when money became more Scarce.
  • Before the modern era, the number of people who lost multiple children to illness was astonishing One wonders what effects this might have had on individuals and their society as whole The historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was one of seven children All six of his siblings died in infancy.
  • One member of the Greatest Generation offered this solution for bringing down the Soviet Union: “We should have been dropping Playboy magazines, blue Jeans, and Elvis Presley records on them, and they’ll do It themselves
  • Lloyd deMause quotes piece written by the chief of police in Paris in 1780 estimating that of the, on average, 21,000 children born in that city every year, only 700 were nursed by their biological mothers. 
  • From 410 onwards successive Western imperial regimes Just gave way or lost practical auditority over more and more of the territory of the former Empire The Western Empire delegated itself out of existence Central authority
  • Saxons apparently ignored the warning, continued to kill evangelizing clergy, and never ceased their usual small-scale raiding and banditry on the border. Charlemagne fought cam­ aign after campaign against them, and eventually succeeded in Cutting down the sacred tree they venerated as holding up the universe and allegedly beheading 4.500 of them in day at Verden in 782. And, like the Roman emperors who preceded him, Charlemagne found out that there always seemed to be more ferocious barbarians behind the ones he’d just subdued. 
  • In the end, the clergy suffered fatalities at the same rate as the rest of the population, and their deaths led to unexpected consequences For example, to replace losses in their ranks, the church lowered the ages at which people could attain positions of authority. This led often to very young, hardly prepared peopie in positions that had previously been held by much older, more august figures. Before the epidemic, members of the clergy had devoted their whole lives to the church. The people who replaced them weren’t necessarily as committed or as educated. Corruption began to creep in, especially as men attained elevated posi­ tions in the church due to money changing hands, not thanks to their lifelong commitment or qualifications. Over the course of around two centuries, the clergy reputation diminished, tarnished by abuses and excess and lack of high standards. This dissatisfaction led to the development of the many complaints that the German theologian Martin Luther
  • In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia ? called meeting that would come to be known as the Hague Convention, the first of many to be held on the establishment of international law re­ garding armaments There, representatives of more than two dozen countries took up the issue of airships, with the Russians proposing ban on all bombing from the air. The American del­ egate counterproposed that the ban last only five years, since the science might improve to allow for precision bombing which might prove humane insofar as it could shorten Wars.
  • From September until November 13, London was bombarded every night. total of 13,000 tons of high explosives and 12,000 incendiary canisters were dropped. Other cities were raided, too, and the most famous raid is the one on Coventry on 14 November 1940, when 450 bombers discharged 500 tons of high explosives and 880 incendiary canisters. Civilian losses were appalling, mainly because there were few adequate air raid shelters. The attacks failed both to stop the British raids over Ger. many and to squash morale. Indeed, the whole idea of using bombers to destroy civilian morale was flawed for several reasons. One may have been the bravery of the citizenry
  • The physicist Freeman Dyson, who worked for the raps Bomber Command, said years after the war, “I felt sickened by what knew. Many times, decided had moral obligation to run out into the streets and tell the British people what stupidi- ties were being done in their name. But I never had the courage to do it. sat in my office until the end, carefully calculating how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people It takes time to get to point of logical insanity
  • It’s hard to really know how much of the navy’s opposition was truly based on morality or how much might have been an effort to defend the necessity and relevance of its branch of the military services In the face of those looming budget cuts. (Indeed, the moral complaints would be notably muted later when navy submarines began to carry nuclear weapons The admirals’ testimony elucidated key moral question that the world still wrestles with decades later

Your product is either a commodity or hospitality.

Have you ever been to a truly great hotel? You walk in and find yourself thinking:

  • “Oh, this makes sense” when you see an extra pillow
  • “Ok, that’s nice” when you discover a lovely porcelain tea set, with all you need prepared for you,
  • “That’s beautiful” when you open the window.

Everything is just where you want it, whenever you want it, just how you want it before you even realize what it is that you want.

You feel like all your concerns are melting away, and you don’t have to deal with minutiae anymore.

These are the same thoughts I would use to describe my Apple experience. Of course, we can talk about the declining quality of the keyboards, but when interacting with Apple products or great hotels, I don’t mentally tick off the list of benefits. I enjoy the feeling ‘everything being in its rightful place.’

MacBooks and iPhones are expensive – they don’t stack up feature-to-feature or number-to-number to other offerings on the market. My more technically-inclined friends keep reminding me that a different machine has more burro-bytes or zetacycles than a $2000 Macbook.

What I usually tell them is hard to justify, so I started viewing it through a lens of how I would judge a hotel.

Welcome to the Hotel California

Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)

Such a lovely face.

– The Eagles

That hospitality is Apple’s entire business strategy. Playing in the commodity sandbox requires you to play the cutthroat game of racing to the bottom of the lowest margin.

According to Forbes, Apple’s profit share is over four times larger than Samsung, its nearest competitor. 

Despite this success, people rightly point out, that by most of the measurable parameters, devices from Cupertino are falling behind – they have slower processors, smaller pixel density and are more expensive.

And yet, this is not the game Apple plays.

The full vertical integration is the strategy that also works in luxurious resorts. They have thought deeply about every single need of their users and designed an experience to cater to them. There is rarely a need to venture outside.

‘We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!’

– The Eagles

I won’t belabor the Apple point any further, I promise.

Think of the great products you really love. Maybe it is an app for tracking your fishing expeditions or a tool you use at work.

If you feel at home while using this product, then it’s real business is hospitality. A great host knows exactly what his guests want and provides it to them before they realize it themselves.

Focusing on the user’s secret needs, of course, is simple but not easy. Your business has its own budgets and trade-offs, and you will have to make it all work. Both types of businesses have to tackle logistics, value chain, porter’s forces, and labor laws.

But the first question they ask is different.

The hospitality business is about leading with Qualitative Questions, like:

  • “How can we make this experience better.”
  • “What do our guests secretly want?”

Commodity business asks Quantitative Questions first:

  • How can we make this cheaper?
  • How can we have more feature X?

Hospitality is opinionated. To best suit your specific needs, it has to know what is the group of people that it does not want to make happy. In a truly great hotel, the other guests matter. They make you proud to be a part of the group and – in truly exceptional ones – they help you learn a thing about yourself.

There are, of course, hotels that I would consider a commodity and not hospitality. The proliferation of price comparison engines makes it easy to shop around with numbers, commoditizing the whole industry.

When searching for a hotel during my travels, I’ll use Booking.com to find something affordable. But inevitably, after an hour or two, I’ll stumble upon a photo that will make me abandon my price limits.

I’ll know if this hotel is genuinely hospitable if it has a working iPhone charger by the bed instead of some useless desk phone.

The Hospitality vs. Commodity lens helps me better understand the product-market fit for consumer businesses. B2B and enterprise markets have their specifics – like bundles and vendor relationships that make it play by different rules.

But every consumer business can learn a lot from great hotels.

Feel free to attach this post to your expense report, but don’t blame me if it gets rejected.

Still, the stay will be lovely.

“Well, we have to measure something.”, And the perils of metrics.

“What gets measured, gets managed,”

Peter Drucker famously said.

The sentiment makes sense. If we are not looking at a compass, how can we know if we are going in the right direction? How can we keep ourselves honest, and how can we course-correct?

Thanks to the culture of metrics, in 2019 Amazon has surpassed Apple as the most valuable company on the face of the planet.
Indeed, what gets measured, gets managed, but at the expense of everything else. Less famously, Drucker said

Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective. This is not capable of being measured by any of the yardsticks for manual work.

It is very human to want a put significant round number, so we can judge it’s value. We like explicit situations, and a moral gray area is always unwelcome. Your score is 73rd percentile, and eating meat on a Friday is a sin. At least that is clear.

But life is more complicated and nuanced. It is somehow tough to measure the desired outcome accurately. So we defer to measuring the closest thing that is easy to gauge. Can’t hurt, right? At least we’re in the ballpark.

Well, it can.

In 1956 V. F. Ridgway has pioneered an area called “Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements.” In the first study of such kind (and the one that gave the name to the whole genre), a systematic analysis of the quantitative measurements in the governmental sector and found multiple examples of it going terribly wrong.

(Quantitative is a fancy term for something that has a number.)

“Indiscriminate use ( of quantitative measures) may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits.”

It boils down to the fact that unlike scientifical phenomena, organizations, markets, and people are really complex. By creating simplistic representations, we leave uncomfortable stuff out, ending up with a perfect model for a world that does not exist. We develop synthetic metrics to gauge “the best we can” and start to measure the progress against that number.

As phrased in “Goodhart’s law“, once you make that artificial number your target, it stops being a useful metric. Everybody in the organization will now realign their priorities in order to “bump” the number. With no regard to how that translates into the bottom line.

  • As pictured by sketchplanations above, as a nail-making company, you want to make a lot of customers happy with your nails (a noble cause indeed). But if you are sloppy with your metric-choosing, you can get the opposite effect,
  • Let’s imagine you are trying to measure the output of support employees. If you make them answer the most support tickets, they will try to hit that number at the expense of actually helping the customer, or even worse – making the customer come back a few times with the same problem.
  • If you’re a private doctor trying to avoid lawsuits (like in the USA), you will order unnecessary expensive tests to ensure legal defense. Conversely, when incentivized to curb spending (like in Poland), you will try to guess the diagnosis to avoid costly tests.

Jerry Muller, the author of “The Tyranny of Metrics,” coined the term Metrics Fixation, which is where you replace judgment with numeric indicators.

The most characteristic feature of metric fixation is the aspiration to replace judgment based on experience with standardized measurement.

Jerry Muller

In a frantic search for performance metrics, we often grab the number that is easiest to gauge, ignoring that “Not everything that matters is measurable and not everything that’s measurable matters” (Jerry Muller).

Metrics fixation not only punishes the organization by delivering unexpected outcomes and lower performance. I would argue that it is one of the most significant risks the modern world faces today.

Broad societal problems with metrics.

1. The educational system.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Public Education is, of course, a lofty goal and a massive achievement of our civilization. It is intended to teach young people a habit of life-long learning, open their minds, and realize their full potential. But the education system has a metric: grades.

The entire school experience is designed to be measurable, controlled, and spoon-fed. You cannot take a long time getting to know algebra because it would be unfair to your fellow test-takers. You cannot skip ahead because the class is not moving at your pace. And in effect, children learn one lesson the most: Learning is not fun.

When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than Students value learning.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

2. Economy and finance.

Photo by M. B. M. on Unsplash

Shockingly, economists and investors are not judged by the performance of their models in real markets! They are not eager to wait decades to validate a model, so they pick metrics easier to measure – testing the hypothesis on synthetic data, ending up with a perfect model for an ideal world.

If you are a passenger on a plane and the pilot tells you he has a faulty map, you get off the plane; you don’t stay and say “well, there is nothing better.” But in economics, particularly finance, they keep teaching these models on grounds that “there is nothing better,” causing harmful risk-taking. Why? Because the professors don’t bear the harm of the models.

Colorful Nassim Taleb, best-selling author of Incerto, on Economy.

3. Artificial intelligence

Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

Unintended consequences of metrics is the core reason why Elon Musk thinks artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to the human race.

The biggest problem with AI is not that it will become wary of us giving it orders and decides to wipe us out on a whim. This is exemplified in the canonical thought experiment called the paperclip maximizer. Nick Bostrom shows us that artificial general intelligence, presented by a single metric ( number of paper clips produced ), designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity.

OK, I GET IT! But what else can we do? Should we fly blind?

Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Of course not!

Measuring is still the best way to keep you honest and on track. If you measure against real, tangible goals like revenue – it will help you achieve them.

But it’s hard to find those goals in other areas. If your goal is to “be healthy,” should you aim for lower weight? Body Fat percentage? VO2Max (the amount of oxygen you can consume in the unit of time)? Your maximum bench press weight?

Every single one of those numbers represents an opinionated model, and those models are in odds with each other. If you go to 10 different doctors, you will probably get 11 different answers. And each one will not be focused on you but their pet model of the world.

But you know what a great model of reality is? Real-world. It is not entirely measurable, it’s not an exact number, but it’s real. If you want to feel great, then you can use what “Qualitative” measuring is – your answer to the question “do I feel great”

  • If your goal is to learn a foreign language, then ask yourself the question, “did I just have a meaningful conversation in a foreign language.”
  • If you want to hire a great employee, don’t judge them by the diploma. Give them a trial project and see how they work, interact with colleagues, and further the real goals of your organization.

People have a natural drive to do a good job and demonstrate autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It has been proven over and over again that intrinsic is the only motivation that makes sense long-term It has also been proved, that when you introduce extrinsic one (this one big metric, higher salary, more pocket money for doing house chores), the intrinsic motivation will vanish, and your employees will stop trying to further your agenda under the singular guidance of the all-important metric.

The more a quantitative metric is visible and used to make crucial decisions, the more it will be gamed—which will distort and corrupt the exact processes it was meant to monitor.

An adaption of Campbell’s Law

Instead of putting a round number on the wall, create an organization where you can trust your people to do the right thing. At least until the advent of Artificial Intelligence.

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