May 13

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day every other day for the month of May.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

We are volcanoes, making new land,
Transcending borders with seeds in our hands.
Natural killers perfectly planned,
But all is entirely out of our hands.
-Sleeping at Last

We’re nearly halfway through May but only 1/4 through the book. In the interest of staying on track I’m declaring posting bankruptcy on this chapter and doing a quick brain dump of my thoughts in this single post. Some random ideas:

  • Diverse vocabulary : rich writing :: diverse experiences : abductive reasoning If you’re trying to become a good writer you’re well served by gaining exposure to the most diverse set of raw materials (unique writing styles and a broad vocabulary). Likewise if you’re seeking to become a serendiplomat and improve the likelihood of making more mental leaps, you are well served to relentlessly seek out diverse experiences.
  • Unearth the meta: I believe an unaddressed aspect of preparedness is developing the instinct to seek the meta in what you’re doing. The authors share a neat story on the genesis of their company Get Satisfaciton and how it emerged from solving support challenges for their Valley Schwag hobby business in a social way. I just posed this question on Quora on this topic and there’s already a few interesting responses.
  • The explained variance of success: if luck truly plays as pivotal a role in successful outcomes as founders credit it, then a framework for courting it more reliably is the modern day philosopher’s stone. It’s a tricky thing to quantify but it would be great to see some studies done that attempt A/B test the impact of implementing the skills suggested in this book.
  • Ideation sans criticism: pondering Thor’s consultant story where he is able to salvage a meeting on a downhill slide and turn it around into a productive session by creating a “Geneva of ideation” – this reminded me something I suggested long ago for why mind mapping works in that a subtle tweak to how we remove friction while expanding on ideas can have such a massive impact on the output.
  • A new accounting system? On this thread of subtle tweaks to systems having dramatic effects, we tend to think of accounting as a fairly well-established practice. But could there be an as-of-yet-undiscovered new form of accounting that satisfies the fundamental financial insight needs while taking into account serendipity costs and value? Almost unquestionably our political system could be revamped with today’s minds and technology to better achieve the original Constitutional values. Could the field of accounting be ripe for such a revamp to emphasize the values proposed in this book?
  • The real value of playtime: the authors point out that the floppy rabbit ear discovery gives us a rare look at the closest thing we have to a controlled study in serendipity. I would say Google and their “20% time” practice gives us a rare opportunity to calculate the ROI of encouraging employees to follow geekish pursuits. Being a public company one could take last year’s financial report, break out profit on the products that can be directly attributed to the 20% time projects (profit of serendipity), divide by 1/5th of the total engineering salary line item (expense of serendipity) and calculate a dollar-for-dollar ROI.
  • No result is a result: the authors’ concept of “arrest the exception” is powerful. This post was in the headlines a few weeks back regarding a project that aims to replicate the results of past published psychology experiments and determine whether they can reliably produce the reported results. The theory is that aspiring scientists are so heavily incentivized to see their work published that they might conduct an experiment nine times with failed results and only publish the tenth iteration because it supports their work, and that this if true, is a very harmful thing for science. What however if scientists were commended for publishing results that disproved their own work and revealed some other truth? One person’s trash is another’s treasure and the absence of my expected finding might be a pearl for you when taken in aggregate with other failed studies.

Sadly, looking at the calendar, my workload and the remaining chapters left to cover in the book I need to limit my writing to exactly one day on each remaining chapter to pull off this project.

With that said, I want to spend the rest of this post exploring one of these frivolous thought experiments that grabbed me awhile back. Very simply my question was this:

Are rain storms good for carwashes?

It seems straightforward. Of course they’re good, without them we’d almost never have a reason to wash our car and car washes go out of business. But as you start playing with the sliders it’s not a black and white question, it’s an optimization problem. If it rained all the time there would be no car washes either. So my geek mind immediately turned it into:

What is the optimal rain storm frequency that generates the most business for a car wash?

I sat down one night with the intent to answer this question and got as far as looking up the NAICS code for car washes (811192), getting the economic census data for this industry nation-wide, downloading the historical precipitation reports from the national weather service and comparing per capita revenue for car washes relative to yearly precipitation by state. Geek. Flag. Unfurled

The result of this effort ultimately was a big dead end. There was no immediately discernible correlation. But I realized some obvious flaws with the experiment methodology:

  • Needs to account for storm frequency as opposed to annual precip amount.
  • Needs to have more granular data at the city level – precision issue by having only state data.
  • Potentially confounded by cultural and SES biases in how much residents of different areas value having a clean car.
  • Prices need to be normalized on cost of living.
  • I ended up dropping the experiment because it mushroomed into challenge that was too complex to justify the effort. But I have no doubt that pursuing it further would be hugely interesting and yield all kinds of unexpected awesomeness which leads me to…

    The Takeaway

    On any given day you can go to Hacker News and find half a dozen geeks publishing posts on their frivolous experiments like this one. These are people motivated out of pure curiosity. Like a detective following a hunch on off-hours, they go out of their way chase down a curiosity. Yet there’s no villain to be caught or bounty to be won. The motive here is just “climbing the mountain because it was there.” And these are the people I would hire.

    Imagine the result if more companies and schools were to follow Google’s lead and embrace this kind of open-ended playtime with their members. Could a microformat emerge that lets these experimenters publish their findings in a more structured way that makes them more immediately discoverable and useful to others? And could that then help recirculate the product of these efforts amongst circles that could then take the torch and carry the experimentation forward in unexpected meaningful ways? What would a Github of frivolous experimentation look like? Kickstarter is doing miracles for microfinancing artistic and creative for-profit endeavors- is there perhaps room for a “Kickstarter for whimsical experimentation” that would encourage and curate this type of side work? Things to ponder…

    Next post we’ll delve into the skill of Divergence.

    Change your tune: Youth Lagoon – Montana

    Leave a Reply

    preload preload preload