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Thursday, February 08, 2007


Holding your Breath & Munger's Bee.
Here in New York: no snow, unseasonably warm and there’s a 70% chance of overconfident predictions being made by everyone in what really is a highly uncertain and complex system. Of course I could just as easily be talking about the market—which also a complex adaptive system, similarly unpredictable and could perhaps be similarly characterized as unseasonably “warm”. Aberration or part of long-term trend, I don’t know—the weather that is.
Ben Franklin said, “Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason.” In other words, people respond to emotion more than logic. Media makers, promoters and even sophisticated venture investors exploit this truism all the time. Charlie Rose had some Silicon Valley legends on his show last week to talk about “clean tech”. I hadn’t gotten the memo, but it soon became clear that yes, even Sun Microsystems, is now a “clean tech” company. As Scott McNealy explained: if you drive less and order things over the Internet (using Sun hardware of course)—you will help the environment. What’s a six letter word for “absurd”, oh right, nevermind: absurd.

In fact most everything can be lean, clean and full of green: Take Heelys. With kids sliding every few steps instead of walking, they will get less exercise and therefore get less hot, use less air-conditioning and we can save electricity. Heelys are green! (The same color the underwriters of their fad-IPO are seeing). Vonage is “green” too! Spend money on an unreliable Vonage internet phone (or its over-hyped uncompetitive IPO now down 50%) and you’d have less money to spend on gasoline.
Back to interest and reason. Your “interest” is primarily governed mostly by emotions. And the two most easily tweaked, twisted and plain-old manipulated are of course: fear and greed. For sure: there are a handful of really worthwhile ideas turned into businesses and they may even do what a business is supposed to do to be called one: turn a profit. But most will fail having raised funds by appealing to sentiment—not reason.

So what are you to do as a concerned citizen afraid of melting away? There are a few things you can do besides buying your kids Heelys and subscribing to Vonage. That’s a joke. You can go to Home Depot and Wal-Mart and buy compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs)—or should you?

Might Wal-Mart’s public push around CFL’s really be a dual pronged tactic. The first prong: fight negative PR and criticisms of environmental abuse by being out front and shaping the agenda. Wal-Mart sells around 350 million regular incandescent bulbs. They might sell 1/10th as many CFLs which are both more expensive and competitive to GE’s incandescents. Prong two: General Electric has long been more “general” than “electric” but it hasn’t had much pressure in the lighting business. Wal-Mart has long leveraged its ability to induce competition and pressure competing suppliers to squeeze a few more percentage points of margin out to make them more competitive—might it be doing the same with GE?

Then there’s the behavioral aspect. I write often about our cognitive biases. People don’t like losses and they don’t like change. They prefer taking a known thing over a possible savings in the future. And they’ve been buying standard light-bulbs for around a century. Most people put the same pant leg on first, the same shoe on first, brush their teeth and wash their bodies the exact same way and shave the same side of their face first each morning. Could any of these behaviors change? Of course! The only thing holding you back: you. Would you rather pay 10x the cost of a standard $0.25 bulb to save the difference and then some in electricity usage for a few extra years in the future? Right—then there’s the whole mental accounting bias. The electricity bill is usually one mental account, buying light-bulbs and household goods another. My best guess? A few true believers will convert. And a few true believers will convert a few half-believers. In zero-sumness, GE will transfer profits to Wal-Mart, so that they don’t transfer them to another CFL maker.

And then eventually: someone will realize that despite the energy saved, the mercury in the CFLs is the equivalent of having delivered a few milligrams of highly toxic mercury to every household that bought one. Woops. When mercury gets in the water it converts to its methylated form and accumulates. It moves up the food chain increasing its concentration: first invertebrates, then small fish, then bigger fish, then you. Oh and certain states like California, Vermont, and Minnesota already ban all mercury from their landfills, which means more energy will need to go into safely containing and recycling the CFLs.

Late 19th century preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Things have unintended consequences and what seems like a benefit today might end up a worse complication tomorrow.

I’ve figured out another way to reduce lots of carbon dioxide: stop breathing. You produce about 1kg (or 2.2 lbs) per day. That’s about 800 pounds of carbon dioxide you could eliminate each year. Though that’s also one less person skating across the house in Heelys while talking on their Vonage line.

One recent satirist (I think) quoted Al Gore saying, “We breathe out carbon dioxide, and this in turn causes global warming. I’m going to start holding my breath for two minutes, thirty times per day, in order to combat global warming. I would suggest everyone follow my lead and hold your breath every day. It will prevent the earth from being destroyed.” Someone else commented that we could all emit less CO2 if we exercised less and slept more. You can explain to your spouse or boss that you’re just saving the world—why are they being so selfish.

The truth is: I don’t know what the truth is. I hear that one tree can absorb 25 pounds and an acre of trees can absorb 5 tons of CO2. I hear that higher concentrations of CO2 make trees grow faster and spread greenery to areas that weren’t. I don’t know if this is good or bad yet. I don’t think most people do.

I don’t know if this is a long-term up trend, an anomaly or natural cyclicality on geological timeframe of which this decade or even century is but a blip. I do know that applying Pascal’s logic—it seems that given the uncertainty (or growing evidence in both directions if you prefer), insurance is a wiser choice. I also know it’s more practical to view this as a risk to be reduced than a problem to be solved.

I also know that lots of things that seem correlated might not be. That whole: “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” thing. I’ve even seen a convincing looking chart playfully constructed to show that hurricanes, earthquakes, global warming and other natural disasters are a direct result of a decline in the number of pirates since the 1800s. As pirates declined, all those things rose. Similarly, since the 1950s, atmospheric CO2 level and crime levels have increased sharply, so maybe atmospheric CO2 causes crime. Of course: statistically significant correlations don’t imply causation.

Henny Youngman exploited a variant of this logic fallacy in a witty way when he joked about inflation, “Americans are getting stronger. Twenty years ago, it took two people to carry ten dollars’ worth of groceries. Today, a five-year-old can do it.”

So I urge you to apply reason, not sentiment to the cries for your dollar. Remember that just like ideas, sports teams don’t win or lose based on how popular they are. They win if they’re successful. Not if they have more fans. Winners get more fans as a consequence of winning. In VC and general investing it’s unfortunately often the other way around: the fans come before the win.

The other complementary source of analogies to sports is always war. I write often about diversity breakdown which leads to cascades and herd behavior. So it might not seem intuitive, but unlike military conflict, a war of ideas—especially in a market is actually stabilizing. Think about it: an equal number of buyers and sellers (at war) means stability. Peace on the other hand and widespread agreement means a diversity breakdown and instability. Thus in markets healthy disagreement is well, healthy.

Speaking of healthy disagreement: my fiancée and I played Trivial Pursuit with some couple friends over the holidays. In reviewing the instructions, I saw the following: “Players should remember that making a guess is always better than not answering at all. Players often amaze themselves with what they know!”

Ah, there buzzes Munger’s Bee. As I wrote last year, “I return often to the concept of information overload: too much noise to signal. Much of this noise is produced because of what Charlie Munger has called the say-something syndrome. Silence is uncomfortable. (Trust me: I’ve tried timing my own neurotic Brooklyn family for more than 60 seconds of quiet—never once achieved.) Munger describes the honeybee which has a genetic program to find food, come back to the hive and do a directional dance indicating its location. But if the food is placed directly above the hive, the bee does a crazy chaotic dance because it never evolved a capability (as most food was not due up) to communicate and it can’t just sit quietly. So it communicates noise instead of news.

Giving Pascal the last word, “All man's troubles come from not knowing how to sit still in one room.”

BY Josh Wolfe




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