Monday, October 24, 2011

Thinking skill, subject matter expertise, and information

Good thinking depends on all three, but they have different natures.

To illustrate, I'm going to use a forecasting tool called Scenario Planning to determine my chances of dating Milla Jovovich.

First we must figure out the causal structure of the scenario. The desired event, "Milla and I live happily ever after," we denote by $M$. Using my subject matter expertise on human relationships, I postulate that $M$  depends on a conjunction of two events:
  • Event $P$  is "Paul Anderson – her husband – runs away with a starlet from one of his movies"
  • Event $H$  is "I pick up the pieces of Milla's broken heart"
So the scenario can be described by $P \wedge H \Rightarrow M$. And probabilistically,

$\Pr(M) = \Pr(P) \times \Pr(H).$

Now we can use information from the philandering of movie directors and the knight-in-shining-armor behavior of engineering/business geeks [in Fantasyland, where Milla and I move in the same circles] to estimate $\Pr(P) =0.2$  (those movie directors are scoundrels) and $\Pr(H)=0.1$  (there are other chivalrous nerds willing to help Milla) for a final result of $\Pr(M)=0.02$, or 2% chance.

Of course, scenario planning allows for more granularity and for sensitivity analysis.

We could decompose event $P$  further into a conjunction of two events, $S$  for "attractive starlet in Paul's movies" and $I$  for "Paul goes insane and chooses starlet over Milla." We could now determine $\Pr(P)$  from these events instead of estimating it directly at 0.2 from the marital unreliability of movie directors in general, using $\Pr(P) = \Pr(S) \times \Pr(I).$

Or, going in another direction, we could do a sensitivity analysis. Instead of assuming a single value for $\Pr(P)$ and $\Pr(H)$, we could find upper and lower bounds, say $0.1 < \Pr(P) < 0.3$  and $0.05 < \Pr(H) < 0.15$. This would mean that  $0.005 < \Pr(M) < 0.045$.

Of course, if instead of the above interpretation we had
  • Event $P$  is "contraction in the supply of carbon fiber"
  • Event $H$  is "increase in the demand for lightweight camera tripods and monopods"
  • Event $M$  is "precipitous increase in price and shortages of carbon fiber tennis rackets"
the same scenario planning would be used for logistics management of a sports retailer provisioning.

Which brings us to the three different competencies needed for scenario planning, and more generally, for thinking about something:

Thinking skill is, in this case, knowing how to use scenarios for planning. It includes knowing that the tool exists, knowing what its strengths and weaknesses are, how to compute the final probabilities, how to do sensitivity analysis, and other procedural matters. All the computations above, which don't depend on what the events mean are pure thinking skill.

Subject matter expertise is where the specific elements of the scenario and their chains of causality come from. It includes knowing what to include and what to ignore, understanding how the various events in a specific subject area are related, and understanding the meaning of the events (as opposed to just computing inferential chains like an algorithm). So knowing that movie directors tend to abandon their wives for starlets allows me to decompose the event $P$  into $S$  and $I$  in the Milla example. But only an expert in the carbon fiber market would know how to decompose $P$  when it becomes the event "contraction in the supply of carbon fiber."

Information, in this case, are the probabilities used as inputs for calculation, as long as those probabilities come from data. (Some of these, of course, could be parameters of the scenario, which would make them subject matter expertise. Also, instead of a strict implication we could have probabilistic causality.) For example, the $\Pr(P)=0.2$  could be a simple statistical count of how many directors married to fashion models leave their wives for movie starlets.

Of these three competencies, thinking skill is the most transferrable: knowing how to do the computations associated with scenario planning allows one to do them in military forecasting or in choice of dessert for dinner. It is also one that should be carefully learned and practiced in management programs but typically is not given the importance its real-world usefulness would imply.

Subject matter expertise is the hardest to acquire – and the most valuable – since it requires both acquiring knowledge and developing judgment. It is also very hard to transfer: understanding the reactions of retailers in a given area doesn't transfer easily to forecasting nuclear proliferation. 

Information is problem-specific and though it may cost money it doesn't require either training (like thinking skill) or real learning (like subject matter expertise). Knowing which information to get requires both thinking skill and subject matter expertise, of course.

Getting these three competencies confused leads to hilarious (or tragic) choices of decision-maker. For example, the idea that "smart is what matters" in recruiting for specific tasks ignores the importance of subject matter expertise.*

Conversely, sometimes a real subject matter expert makes a fool of himself when he tries to opine on matters beyond his expertise, even ones that are simple. That's because he may be very successful in his area due to the expertise making up for faulty reasoning skills, but in areas where he's not an expert those faults in reasoning skill become apparent.

Let's not pillory a deceased equine by pointing out the folly of making decisions without information; on the other hand, it's important to note the idiocy of mistaking someone who is well-informed (and just that) for a clear thinker or a knowledgeable expert.

Understanding the structure of good decisions requires separating these three competencies. It's a pity so few people do.

-- -- -- --
* "Smart" is usually a misnomer: people identified as "smart" tend to be good thinkers, not necessarily those who score highly on intelligence tests. Think of intelligence as raw strength and thinking as olympic weightlifting: the first helps the second, but strength without skill is irrelevant. In fact, some intelligent people end up being poor thinkers because they use their intelligence to defend points of view that they adopted without thinking and turned out to be seriously flawed.

Note 1: This post was inspired by a discussion about thinking and forecasting with a real clear thinker and also a subject matter expert on thinking, Wharton professor Barbara Mellers.

Note 2: No, I don't believe I have a 2% chance of dating Milla Jovovich. I chose that example precisely because it's so far from reality that it will give a smile to any of my friends or students reading this.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

There's no consistent realistic utility over wealth

Kind of a technical point, but I'm tired of making it in discussion forums.

Utility over wealth is usually considered concave: an extra 10 dollars make more difference to one's life when one's total wealth is 100 dollars than when it is 100 000 dollars. This is an outcome of optimal use of limited resources: spend scarce dollars on the essentials, abundant ones on frivolities.

On the other hand, response to price is also usually assumed concave: a price increase of 1 dollar leads to a stronger response for a initial price of 10 dollars than for 10 000 dollars.

These two statements are mutually inconsistent, and both are true. In other words, there's no single utility function that captures both, but both phenomena exist in reality. This means that you can't have a utility function over wealth that is true in the world. It's fairly obvious since price is negative wealth, and you can't have a function that is concave both in one of its variables and its symmetric.

Formally, if $u(\cdot)$ is the utility over wealth $w$, the response to price $p$ is given by $u(w-p)$ since paying $p$ decreases the wealth $w$ by that amount. If $u(\cdot)$ is a concave function of its argument, then $u(w-p)$ is concave in $w$ and convex in $p$; if $u(\cdot)$ is a convex function, then $u(w-p)$ is convex in $w$ and concave in $p$. Both concave is an impossible case.

But... but... but... I hear some empirical modelers say, we use a concave utility function over price all the time, typically $\log(p)$.

Yes. I know. That's why I'm writing this post. Of course since price is a negative term in wealth, your "concave" function is actually convex in wealth, as the term enters as $- \log(p)$, a convex function.

Math doesn't lie. All you need to do is pay attention.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The costly consequences of misunderstanding cost

Apparently there's growing scarcity of some important medicines. And why wouldn't there be?

Some of these medicines are off-patent, some are price-controlled (at least in most of the world), some are bought at "negotiated" prices where one of the parties negotiating (the government) has the power to expropriate the patent from the producer. In other words, their prices are usually set at variable cost plus a small markup.

Hey, says Reggie the regulator, they're making a profit on each pill, so they should produce it anyway.

(Did you spot the error?)

(Wait for it...)

(Got it yet?)

Dear Reggie: pills are made in these things called "laboratories," that are really factories. Factories, you may be interested to know, have something called "capacity constraints," which means that using a production line for making one type of pill precludes that production line from making a different kind of pill. Manufacturers are in luck, though, because most production lines can be repurposed from one medication to another with relatively small configuration cost.

Companies make their decisions based on opportunity costs, not just variable costs. If they have a margin of say 90 cents/pill for growing longer eyelashes (I'm not kidding, there's a "medication" for that) and say 5 cents/pill to cure TB, they are going to dedicate as much of their production capacity to the eyelash-elongating "medication" as they can.* (They won't stop making the TB medication altogether because that would be bad for public relations.)

Funny how these things work, huh?

* Unless they can make more than eighteen times more TB pills than eyelash "medicine" pills with the same production facilities, of course.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Books on teaching and presentations

During a decluttering of my place, I had to make decisions about which books to keep; these are some that I found useful for teaching and presentations, and I'm therefore keeping:

Some books I find heplful for teaching and presenting (Blog version)

They are stacked by book size (for stability), but I'll group them in four major topics: general presentation planning and design; teaching; speechwriting; and visuals design.

1. Presentation planning and design

Edward Tufte's Beautiful Evidence is not just about making presentations, rather it's about analyzing, presenting, and consuming evidence.

Lani Arredondo's How to Present Like a Pro is the only "general presentation" book I'm keeping (and I'm still pondering that, as most of what it says is captured in my 3500-word post on preparing presentations). It's not especially good (or bad), it's just the best of the "general presentation" books I have, and there's no need for more than one. Whether I need one given Beautiful Evidence is an open question.

Donald Norman's Living With Complexity and Things That Make Us Smart are not about presentations, rather about designing cognitive artifacts (of which presentations and teaching exercises are examples) for handling complex and new units of knowledge.

Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick is a good book on memorability; inasmuch as we expect our students and audiences to take something away from a speech, class, or exec-ed, making memorable cognitive artifacts is an important skill to have.

Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think is about making the process of interactions with cognitive artifacts as simple as possible (the book is mostly about the web, but the principles therein apply to presentation design as well).

Alan Cooper's The Inmates Are Running The Asylum is similar to Living With Complexity, with the added benefit of explicitly addressing the use of personas for designing complex products (a very useful product design tool for classes, I think).

I had other books on the general topic of presentations that I am donating/recycling. Most of them spend a lot of space discussing the management of stage fright, a problem with which I am not afflicted.

If I had to pick just one to keep, I'd choose Beautiful Evidence. (The others, except How To Present Like a Pro, are research-related, so I'd keep them anyway.)

2. Teaching

As I've mentioned previously, preparing instruction is different from preparing presentations. The two books I recommended then are the two books I'm keeping:

Tools for teaching, by Barbara Gross Davis covers every element of course design, class design, class management, and evaluation. It is rather focussed on institutional learning (like university courses), but many of the issues, techniques, and checklists are applicable in other instruction environments.

Designing effective instruction, by Gary Morrison, Steven Ross, and Jerrold Kemp, complements Tools for teaching. While Tools for Teaching has the underlying model of a course, this book tackles the issues of training and instruction from a professional service point of view. (In short: TfT is geared towards university classes, DEI is geared towards firm-specific Exec-Ed.)

I had other books on the general topic of teaching (and a number of books on academic life) that I am donating/recycling.

3. Speechwriting and public speaking

Speak like Churchill, stand like Lincoln, by James Humes, should be mandatory reading for anyone who ever has to make a public speech. Of any kind. Humes is a speechwriter and public speaker by profession and his book gives out practical advice on both the writing and the delivery. I have read many books on public speaking and this one is in a class of its own.

I have a few books from the Toastmasters series; I'm keeping (for now at least) Writing Great Speeches and Choosing Powerful Words, though their content overlaps a lot with Virginia Tufte's Beautiful Sentences, a book I'm definitely keeping as part of my writing set.

I'm probably keeping Richard Dowis's The Lost Art of The Great Speech as a good reference for styles and as motivation reading. (Every so often one needs to be reminded of why one does these things.)

I have other books on writing, in general, but the ones in the pile above are specific to speechwriting. I'm throwing out a few books on the business of speechwriting; they are so bad that I thought of keeping them as satire. Donating them would be an act of cruelty towards the recipients.

If I had to pick just one book on speechwriting, I'd go with Speak like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln. Hands down the best in the category, and I've read many.

4. Visuals design

Yes, the design of visuals for presentations or teaching, not Visual Design the discipline.

Edward Tufte's books are the alpha and the omega in this category. Anyone with any interest in information design should read these books carefully and reread them often.

The Non-Designer Design Book, by Robin Williams lets us in on the secrets behind what works visually and what doesn't. It really makes one appreciate the importance of what appears at first to be over-fussy unimportant details. I complement this with The Non-Designer Type Book and Robin Williams Design Workshop, the first specifically for type, the second as an elaboration of the Non-Designer Design Book.

Universal principles of design, by William Lidwell, Kristina Holden, and Jill Butler is a quick reference for design issues. I also like to peruse it regularly to get some reminders of design principles. It's organized alphabetically and each principle has a page or two, with examples.

Perhaps I'm a bit focussed on typography (a common symptom of reading design books, I'm told), but Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style is a really good and deeply interesting book on the subject. Much more technical than The Non-Designer Type Book, obviously, and the reason why I hesitate to switch from Adobe CS to iWork for my handouts.

Zakia and Page's Photographic Composition: A visual guide is very useful as a guide to laying out materials for impact. Designing the visual flow of a slide (or a handout) -- when there are options, of course, this is not about "reshaping" statistical charts -- helps tell a story even without narration or animation.

I had some other books on the general topic of slide design, which I am donating. I also have a collection of books on art, photography, and design in general, which affords me a reference library. (That collection I'm keeping.)

If I had to pare down the set further, the last ones I'd give up are the four Tufte books. If forced to pick just one (in addition to Beautiful Evidence, which fills the presentation category above), I'd choose The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, because that's the most germane to the material I cover.

CODA: A smaller set

Not that I'm getting rid of the books in the larger set above (that's the set that I'm keeping), but I think there's a core set of books I should reread at least once a year. Unsurprisingly, those are the same books I'd pick if I really could have only one per category (or one set for the last category):

Final Set Of Books (for blog post)

Note that the Norman, Heath Bros, Krug, Cooper books and my collection of art, photography, and design books are exempted from this choice, as they fall into separate categories: research-related or art. I also have several books on writing (some of them here).

And the books that didn't make the pile at the beginning of the post? Those, which I'm donating or recycling, make up a much larger pile (about 50% larger: 31 books on their way out).

Somewhat related posts:

Posts on presentations in my personal blog.

Posts on teaching in my personal blog.

Posts on presentations in this blog.

My 3500-word post on preparing presentations.