With The Grain



An occasional audio companion to Potatowire's blog, With the Grain.


  • I’m Back


    I’m back, baby. Well, maybe. If you’ve been here a while, you know I start and stop a lot. I also have periodic identity crises. I can’t reliably make any promises about where my writing may go, but I am going to commit to posting every day again, because I tend to be an all-or-nothing sort of guy. I’m not sure what’s next, but that’s part of the fun. Right? Before you go, please take a minute to filling out a quick poll. I’m trying to figure out what matters to you, dear reader. Loading... If the embed isn’t displaying correctly, please click here. Before you go, for real this time, please consider signing up for my email list. I don’t currently send out any actual emails, so I figure only dedicated fans will sign up, and that’s what I’m looking for. I also have to admit I am not terribly comfortable describing anyone as a fan, but that just makes me okay with zero responses. What I’d like to do, eventually, is form a community of likeminded folks, but in the meantime, please send me an email if you w

  • Off the Cuff


    A lot of introspection has brought me to what I think will be the third iteration of this blog. The rest of the answer is in the audio, which is really the point. With the Grain is supported by listeners like you.If you’d like to hear more from Potatowire and other Difficult Podcasts hosts, visit http://difficultpodcasts.fm/support and subscribe today.Besides supporting the work you love and keeping it ad-free, you’ll gain admission to the Difficult Podcasts Slack channel where you can chat with your favorite hosts, tell us what you think, and help us improve future episodes.Thanks for listening.

  • Proper Leaps


    There is something romantic about the notion of intuition. Who doesn’t love the idea of a respected art critic getting a fleeting view of a work of art and knowing immediately that it is a fake? How about a chess grand master walking past a game in the park boldly pronouncing, “white mate in three.” This leads us a nagging feeling that we can become masters of intuition, if only we work hard enough, making any decision a trivial task. The trouble is, most of life renders intuition unreliable. As Chip and Dan Heath explain in their book Decisive: What is sometimes lost in the work celebrating intuition is a sense of the relatively limited domain where it can help us make good decisions. A research consensus is now emerging about situations where intuition reliably generates reasonable answers. Robin Hogarth, one of the researchers who have done the most to clarify situations where intuition does and doesn’t work, describes learning environments along a continuum from kind to wicked. When we acquire our i

  • Predictions


    Throughout The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb bemoans the prevalence of Gaussian functions, perhaps known best graphed as characteristic bell curves. Much of the natural world sorts itself into a bell curve (see also the 80/20 “rule,”) but if we expect everything to fall within a Gaussian framework, we will be continually surprised by real life. Consider my previous discussion of casino risk management. The games are all statistically reliable and predictable, but the biggest risk to its business come from non-gaming threats. The desire to fit nature into a probabilistic straight-jacket has infected the Nobel Prize in Economics, much to Taleb’s chagrin: …True, the prize has gone to some valuable thinkers, such as the empirical psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the thinking economist Friedrich Hayek. But the committee has gotten into the habit of handing out Nobel Prizes to those who “bring rigor” to the process with pseudoscience and phony mathematics. After the stock market crash, they rewarded two

  • The Wrong Examples


    I find Nassim Nicholas Taleb captivating. He possesses the amazing ability to reveal and clarify what should already be obvious, but isn’t. I also love the way he writes and how radical he is in his honesty. This also polarizes. In his book The Black Swan, Taleb analyzes the concepts of uncertainty and probability in light of the truly unpredictable. Casinos illustrate this well, and he describes the situation from the perspective of one such establishment: The casino’s risk management, aside from setting its gambling policies, was geared toward reducing the losses resulting from cheaters. One does not need heavy training in probability theory to understand that the casino was sufficiently diversified across the different tables to not have to worry about taking a hit from an extremely lucky gambler… All they had to do was control the “whales,” the high rollers flown in at the casino’s expense from Manila or Hong Kong; whales can swing several million dollars in a gambling bout. Absent cheating, the per

  • Hard Work


    Occasionally, I get the idea that I am a hard worker. For times such as these, I keep stored up in my heart this passage from Robert Caro’s The Path to Power: Every week, every week all year long—every week without fail—there was washday. The wash was done outside. A huge vat of boiling water would be suspended over a larger, roaring fire and near it three large “Number Three” zinc washtubs and a dishpan would be placed on a bench. The clothes would be scrubbed in the first of the zinc tubs, scrubbed on a washboard by a woman bending over the tub. The soap, since she couldn’t afford store-bought soap, was soap she had made from lye, soap that was not very effective, and the water was hard. Getting farm dirt out of clothes required hard scrubbing. Then the farm wife would wring out each piece of clothing to remove from it as much as possible of the dirty water, and put it in the big vat of boiling water. Since the scrubbing would not have removed all of the dirt, she would try to get the rest out

  • The Premortem


    Human beings are masters of overconfidence. Even when we’re wary of a rose-colored outlook, we find it tough to reliably determine whether a particular course of action is wise or not. This effect is not eliminated by combining fallible people together into groups, either. Daniel Kahneman describes this dynamic in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Can overconfident optimism be overcome by training? I am not optimistic. There have been numerous attempts to train people to state confidence intervals that reflect the imprecision of their judgments, with only a few reports of modest success. An often cited example is that geologists at Royal Dutch Shell became less overconfident in their assessments of possible drilling sites after training with multiple past cases for which the outcome was known. In other situations, overconfidence was mitigated (but not eliminated) when judges were encouraged to consider competing hypotheses. However, overconfidence is a direct consequence of features of System 1 that can b

  • To Everything


    Yesterday, Erik and I released the first episode of our new podcast Seasons of Obsession. He introduced it far better than I can, but I think of the show as a combination rough draft and director’s-cut version of our writing. As the name suggests, we will also sometimes veer off in pursuit of short-lived obsessions. Today on this site, I am launching a new feature: podcast companion posts. Since I know how hard it is to read everything I want to on a daily basis, I’m hoping an audio version might allow more folks to follow along as I try to get better. Functionally, this will be simple: each Tuesday and Thursday I will publish new posts in audio and text form. You can read or listen online right here or subscribe to the feed in iTunes or your favorite podcatcher. Without audiobooks, I could only cover a small fraction of what I want to read, and I hope the audio option here will mean some of you will listen to With the Grain when you can’t read it. One way or the other, I hope you stick around, and please l