A Living Wage

A couple of unrelated trends clicked together in my brain this afternoon in an unexpected way and I thought I’d share. In case it needs to be said, this is interesting but wild speculation and not meant to be taken very seriously.

One trend is the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family over the last several decades. Another is the more recent economic anxiety in the era of Brexit and Trump. And finally, we have a push from liberals in the last twenty years to raise the minimum wage to what is known as the “living wage“.

As a single adult with no dependants who keeps a comprehensive budget of my finances, I know both what I spend each month, and roughly what it would be possible to live on if times suddenly became tight for me. Interestingly, a full-time job at the minimum wage where I live would be more than enough for a pretty decent single life, since until recently I was living below that line more-or-less by accident. However, it’s also clearly not enough for a family, nor even necessarily enough for a family with two income-earners at that level given the costs of transportation and child-care.

My core speculation is as follows: what if the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family has increased the “supply” of single workers and decreased the “supply” of workers with families, thus driving down the market price for labour and making it even more difficult to have a family. This would be a very unfortunate negative feedback loop, if true.

Maybe somebody with more economic/demographic expertise can dig into this more or tell me where I’m making an obvious error?

3(ish) Rules for Life

I realize I’m quite late to the party with this one, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. My initial verdict is that it’s neither quite as insightful nor as ethically terrible as the controversy around it had let me to believe. Peterson has a very flowery writing style, with extended metaphors and a lot of repetition. I’m sure the joke’s been made somewhere already, but this really could have been just a list of the twelve rules, with maybe a paragraph of explanation each and a few footnotes to the relevant studies.

All that said, insight is somewhat a matter of perspective. I’ve dug enough into philosophy and psychology already that some of his points which I took as given are probably surprising to a good chunk of the population. And per the title of this post, I did take away three ideas that genuinely changed how I think in minor ways. Not that two of them were actually from the titular rules, but still.

Rule #1: Risk violence to assert your preferences.

This is not one of Peterson’s twelve, and the wording is distinctly counter-intuitive, but it captures two related ideas that Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on throughout his book (largely in rules #1, #8, and #10). First, it captures the idea that all conflict is founded on the threat of violence. Without that threat looming in the distance, there is never any incentive to back down, and no way to escalate. No conflict would ever resolve.

Second, it captures the idea that people need to assert their preferences to be happy, and thus occasionally cause conflict. This is, I think, fairly trivially true, though of course Peterson goes into some depth on the psychological problems that occur when somebody never asserts their preferences and becomes a complete and total pushover. It was still interesting to me, because despite being fairly obvious-sounding, a lot of the examples and verbiage he used to back up his point didn’t harmonize with how I view myself. So this one triggered an examination of how often I stand up for myself and assert my preferences, which has been interesting.

Rule #2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

This is straight from Peterson (and in fact it is conveniently his rule #2 as well). This is the only one of the titular twelve that directly made me sit up and metaphorically smack myself on the forehead in dramatic fashion. For those of a slightly more analytical bent, he also rephrases this as the idea that the so-called golden rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) in fact works in both directions. This one is straight from the text, so I won’t elaborate here.

Rule #3: Be prepared to change your goals.

This isn’t straight from the titular twelve, and it isn’t really a theme throughout either, it’s just a throwaway mention in the middle of Peterson’s rule #8. He’s talking about lies, and the concept of a “life lie”, and writes that “a naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie”. This is just mumbo-jumbo for the idea that the goals you set yourself today might not actually be goals you still want to accomplish in five years, and that clinging to those goals eventually results in simple unhappiness as you push yourself to do things you don’t really want to do.

Again, it sounds fairly obvious but the extended examination of it in the book made me re-examine a few of my own life goals in a slightly different light.

Bonus

I’ll leave you with a bonus extract which isn’t really a rule so much as a pithy paraphrase of an observation that Peterson makes off-hand in the midst of rule #10: a happy couple is two people animated by a shared adventure.

There’s a lot more that I could write about this book, but this post will have to do for now.

Me-nies and We-nies: The Relative Merits of Individualism vs. Collectivism

Hi folks, I’ve got some very smart offline friends with things they occasionally want to share, so I’m giving some of them access to this blog to write posts. Their opinions are not my necessarily opinions (and vice-versa!) so the typical caveat lector applies. I likely won’t add this prefix in future, so if you’re not sure, please check the post author!

Scientists love playing with slime molds. One of their favourite games is arranging oats on a surface in such a way that maps the geographic locations of populations, and then watch the little goobers replicate our transportation networks. Despite being single-celled, brainless organisms, slime molds solve problems of population networking about as well as we do – if not better.[1]

While it was the media coverage of slime molds as tiny, gooey, civil engineers that first drew my attention to them, it was another characteristic of theirs that really piqued my curiosity: “When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows.”[2] And it’s not just food scarcity that tempers the slime mold’s individualistic behavior. Physical threats, such as exposure to electric shocks or hot, dry air, slow the slime mold’s exploratory behavior.[3]

What struck me about the slime mold was how much it reminded me of what I was studying at the time, which dealt with differences between liberals and conservatives. Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’, et cetera) suggests that while liberals are more individual-oriented (“progressive” policies, focusing on personal rights and freedoms), conservatives are more collectivist-oriented (maintaining cultural traditions and protecting social order). I couldn’t help but wondering (in a half-joking kind of way) if people weren’t just complex slime molds, using elaborate post hoc rationalizations to explain a far more primitive set of responses to stimuli in our environment (real or perceived). After all, liberals are notoriously more open to new experiences, and conservatives are more sensitive to perceived physical threat. But if people really do behave like slime molds, then we should be able to do more than explain individual differences within the population. If humans truly fit the  slime mold (sorry), it is predicted that when exposed to threat, individualistic liberals would become more like their collectivist conservative cohorts – and research suggests that they do!

The political arena, true to its namesake, is a combative one, with liberals and conservatives constantly vying for dominance. If either had their way, this dominance would become permanent, as each side believes themselves to be the correct side – not just today, but always. If there is any truth to the idea that liberalism and conservatism are essentially fancy-pants versions of slime mold behavior, the implication would be that neither side is ultimately and forever right – only conditionally so. When times are good, resources are plentiful, and society is secure, an individualist approach may be the best one. However, when times are bad, resources are scarce, and society is threatened, we may be better served by a more collective approach. The question that should guide our actions then is this – to what extent is our current situation either one of plenty and security, or scarcity and threat?

Unfortunately, we are not necessarily accurate interpreters of our reality. Through some combination of innateness and socialization there are, at any given time, those of us who see the world through very different lenses. So, if we want to behave in a manner consistent with the realities of our world with more regularity, then liberals are going to have to start seeing the gorillas in their midst, and conservatives are going to have stop seeing death around every corner.


[1] Of COURSE there’s a TED Talk about them…
[2] Article
[3] In fact, if you zap the wee beasties at regular intervals, it will actually slow its roll in anticipation of the coming shock!

The Efficient Meeting Hypothesis

This is a minor departure from my typical topics, but was something I wrote for work and wanted to share more widely.

Meeting efficiency drops off sharply as the number of people in attendance climbs. A meeting with two or three people is almost always a good use of everyone’s time. If it’s not, the people involved simply stop meeting. Meetings with 4-6 people are worse, but are still generally OK. Meetings with more than 6 people in attendance (counting the organizer) are almost universally awful.

Why are meetings inefficient?

People do not exchange opinions the way machines exchange information. As the number of people grows, so does the number of different opinions, the number of social status games being played (consciously or not), the number of potential side conversations, etc. Achieving consensus gets harder.

In my experience, six people is the limit for anything resembling a useful caucus-style meeting. Above six people, it’s less likely that a given topic (at a given level of abstraction) is of sufficient interest to everyone present. Tangential topics drift so far that by the time everyone has had their say it’s hard to get back on track. Side-conversations start to occur regularly. People who naturally think and speak slowly simply won’t get to speak at all since there will always be somebody else who speaks first.

Why don’t people exit useless meetings?

People mainly stay in useless meetings for two reasons:

  • a variation of the bystander effect where everyone assumes that somebody else must be getting value from the meeting, and nobody wants to be the first to break rank
  • a fear of missing out, because the topics discussed at useless meetings are often so variable (due to tangents and side conversations) it’s hard to know if maybe this will be the moment where something relevant is discussed

How to run an efficient meeting

Keep it as small as possible, and always under 6 people.

How to run an efficient meeting with more than 6 people

You can’t. But if you really think you *have* to…

Give your meeting a rigid structure. Note that this does not just mean “have an agenda document that people can add to ahead of time”. At the minimum you need:

  • A moderator whose only job in the meeting is to moderate (either the meeting organizer or somebody explicitly appointed by them).
  • A talking stick or some digital equivalent. Basically: an explicit process for deciding who gets to speak, and when. A good moderator can manage this entirely verbally for medium-sized groups, but it’s hard. Something explicit is much better.
  • A formal meeting structure and topic, set in advance.

Again, a structure does not just mean “an agenda” or “a slide deck” but some common conversational rules. Here is a list (definitely not exhaustive) of common or useful meeting structures:

  • Stand-Up: each person in turn gets a fixed amount of time (enforced by the moderator) to present to the group.
  • Presentation: one person presents for the majority of the meeting, and then (optionally) holds a question/answer session afterwards.
  • Ask-Me-Anything: the moderator works through a list asking pre-curated questions to specific people.
  • Parliamentary Procedure: this would typically be Robert’s Rules of Order.

Some common pitfalls:

  • Never try to make consensus-based decisions in a meeting with more than 6 people. If a decision has to be made then you must either:
    • Have a smaller meeting. OR
    • Appoint one person the decision-maker in advance, in which case the meeting is actually about presenting and arguing to that person, not the actual making of the decision. OR
    • Use a majority-rules process (typically a vote), in combination with a more parliamentary structure (Robert’s Rules of Order or others).
  • The moderator absolutely cannot talk about anything other than the meta-level (moderating) unless they also hold the talking stick. Ideally the moderator has no stake in the actual topic of the meeting to begin with.
  • The moderator cannot be “nice”. Shut down tangents and off-topics aggressively.
  • Avoid automatically-recurring large meetings like the plague. They shouldn’t be frequent enough to bother auto-booking them to begin with, and the manual process will make it much easier to stop holding them when they are no longer useful.