Blog

Creating a Commonplace Book with Google Drive

Here’s a problem I’ve had for a long time: I would invest a lot of time into reading a great book, then inevitably as time passed the insights I gained would slowly disappear from my mind. This was pretty discouraging to me and seemed to defeat the purpose of reading the book in the first place.

So, I was very excited to come across this blog post by Ryan Holiday on keeping a “commonplace book”: your own personal repository of important insights from the various sources you encounter throughout your life.

The source of these insights can come from anywhere, like books, blogs, speeches, interactions you’ve had with others, interesting situations you’ve been in, jokes, personal life stories, ideas, etc. I’ve been doing it for about a year and have added 220 notes and counting. 

There are a bunch of benefits from keeping a commonplace book:

  • You can easily review it and go back to categories of ideas as you encounter challenges in your life, and your commonplace book will have all the most important insights for you at your disposal, ready to go. For example, if you have a challenge with one of your kids, you have your “parenting” category in your commonplace book ready to go to provide you with support.
  • You improve your reading skills by consolidating and condensing the most important and relevant material from your sources, as it forces you to think more carefully about what you’re reading and what it means.
  • By reviewing and reflecting on your commonplace book entries, you improve your writing skills and increase your memory and comprehension about the materials you’ve read.
  • You can use the quotes from your commonplace book to enhance in your own writing. For example, I’ve noticed Ryan Holiday’s writing liberally uses quotes from other sources. These often come from an extremely wide variety of sources and are really effective at supporting the points he is making in his writing. This is clearly the result of his voracious reading habits and commonplace book note-taking.

A commonplace book is like an investment that grows and grows over time. Much like a stock or bond, the earlier you invest, the bigger the payoff.

My commonplace book system

There are a million different ways that you can develop a commonplace book. There’s obviously no one “correct” way to do it, but hopefully my personal commonplace book system gives you some inspiration.

My system uses Google Docs, using a template designed to maximize my retention and reflection on the commonplace book notes and make the commonplace book easily searchable. The system also uses the Google Drive API to send myself daily emails each morning with commonplace book notes to review.

As much as possible, I’ve designed the system to take advantage of scientifically proven learning and retention techniques, including testing and recalling, spaced repetition, varied practice, and elaboration.

Aside: I highly recommend the book Make it Stick, which outlines the best evidence-supported study and learning methods and debunks a lot of common misconceptions, For example, re-reading passages and highlighting are horribly inefficient learning techniques.

My Template for Notes

Here is the template that I use for each of my commonplace book notes:

I make one of these notes for each important point or insight that I come across. For a good book packed with useful information, I’ll probably create about 10-20 of these notes. Each of the components of this template have a specific purpose:

  • Title of Note: This typically labels the content of the note in some way to trigger my memory about what the passage is about. I try to make it somewhat vague so I don’t give away all the content. Then, when I review my notes, I’ll read only the title and then look away to try to recall what the passage is about. This is a way of incorporating testing and recall into my review. It helps improve retention and memory of the note and makes it more likely that I’ll have it in mind, ready to apply when the time is right.
  • Content: The main content of the note – usually a quotation, but not always.
  • Notes: A place where I can connect the content with existing knowledge and add any personal ideas or insights. Doing this kind of elaboration helps with understanding and retention.
  • Citation information: The author, source, page, and url so I know exactly where each passage came from and can look it up or cite it easily if necessary. This also makes the notes way more searchable. Google Drive has great built-in search features (as you would expect), making it easy to find notes from a particular author, book, or tag.

Here’s an example of a note I took from the business and management book The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. I added this quote to my commonplace book because it had actually never really occurred to me that a job could be poorly designed and unfit for humans. Seemed like a good insight to keep in mind as a prospective employee and if I’m ever in the position of creating job positions myself. 

The Folder System

I divide my notes into folders and subfolders related to the topic. Often, one note could fit in more than one folder. To solve this problem, I make sure to write tags in the filename, and then randomly pick one of the relevant folders to put it in. Using tags, I can rely on search more easily for notes applicable to multiple topics. So if something belongs to both “Business” and “Productivity”, I can just add it to productivity and make sure I add both the business and productivity tags. 

The great thing about having your notes in Google Drive is that you can take advantage of Google’s powerful search feature to find exactly what you need. For example, you can see below the options available in the search feature. You can search by file type, folder location, filename, and contents. With the structured note templates, you can find pretty much anything you need at the snap of a finger. For example, finding all the notes from Peter Drucker is simply a matter of writing in “Author: Peter Drucker” in the “Item Name” option shown below.

Daily Reviews Using Python and the Google Drive API

If you don’t have any programming knowledge, this commonplace book system will still serve you well and you don’t have to read on. But since this is a blog about hacking APIs and open data for the purposes of automation and competitive intelligence, there is more to my commonplace book system than simply adding documents to a Google Drive folder.

The commonplace book notes aren’t of much use if they’re just sitting in Google Docs unused, so I wanted to create a system of regular and automated review. Specifically, I wanted to receive an email every morning with 5 randomly selected notes from and review these notes a part of my daily routine. This helps incorporate the learning techniques of testing, spaced repetition, and varied practice. Regular review emails also give me a chance to edit notes if there are things I want to change or add.

You can find all of the code for this review system here. Here is an overview of what it does:

  • Selects 5 documents at random across all the files in your commonplace book folder and subfolders
  • Builds an email template with links to the five randomly selected commonplace book notes. It does this using the Jinja2 template engine.
  • Sends the email of commonplace book notes to review to yourself (and any other recipients you want). See this previous blog post on how to write programs to send automated email updates.

I run the code on a DigitalOcean droplet, set on a cron job to run build_email.py at 7 am every day.

Before you try to run the code, you should follow steps 1 and 2 in this Python quick-start guide to turn on the Google Drive API and install the Google Drive client library. This will produce client_secret.json that you will need to place in the top directory of the code.

You’ll also need to make a few substitutions to placeholders in the code:

  • Enter in your Gmail email and password in the file email_user_pass.json.
  • Enter in the email that will be sending the email update and the list of recipients in the file emails.json.
  • In build_email.py, you need to provide a value for COMMONPLACE_BOOK_FOLDER_ID. You can find this by looking in the URL when you navigate to your commonplace book folder in Google Drive.
  • Install any of the required packages in build_email.py

You can customize the way that the email looks by modifying templates/email.html.

Note that this code is useful not just for this commonplace book system, but any system where you need to receive automated email updates that randomly select files in your Google Drive.

Just do it

Start your common book now. Even if you don’t know Python and can’t do the automated email update stuff, it doesn’t matter. This is just icing on the cake, and there are other ways you can review your commonplace book notes.

Trust me, you won’t regret taking the time to do this. The only thing you’ll regret is the fact that you didn’t start doing it 20 years ago.

The Triple-Pass Method to Remember What you Learn, Forever

You read books. You watch videos. You listen to podcasts. There is a firehose of high-quality information available at your fingertips.

But how much do you actually get out of your media consumption? How much do you remember? For a long time, my answer was “not a whole lot”. I was often shocked at how few key points I could recall from material I had read only days or weeks earlier.

To me, this is unacceptable. Why bother doing so much reading if I’m just going to forget it all? Sure, if reading for entertainment, then no big deal. But most of the material I spend my time on is highly relevant to my professional and personal life. I want this knowledge to compound.

I’ve spent years experimenting, testing, and tweaking systems to get more value out of the media I consume and remember key points forever. I’ve eventually landed on a solution that I want to share with you: the “triple-pass” system. Using this system, I’m confident I’m getting everything I can out of my reading, and not a moment is wasted.

High-level Overview of the Triple-Pass System

At the highest level, the triple-pass system consists of the following stages:

  • First Pass: Active Media Consumption. Take notes and highlight important points from the media you consume (e.g. books, articles, videos).
  • Second Pass: Consolidate and Summarize Notes. Export notes and highlights from the first pass to a central note-taking system, then review, refine, and consolidate. This pass produces what Tiago Forte calls your “second brain“: an external system storing your knowledge in a format that can be easily searched and retrieved for use.
  • Third Pass: Commit to Long-Term Memory using Spaced Repetition. Add the most important parts of your notes from the second pass to a spaced repetition system. This stores the information efficiently in your long-term memory so you can access it in-the-moment when needed.

I go into each of these three stages in more detail below, including the technologies I use at each stage.

First Pass: Active Media Consumption

At this stage, you consume the media that you want to absorb. The key feature about this stage is that it is active media consumption, i.e. highlighting and taking notes as you read.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the first pass:

  • Err on the side of more highlighting rather than less. It’s good to have a lot of context in your highlights. You can always eliminate things that are redundant or unnecessary in the second pass.
  • Highlight chapter titles. Titles provide useful context for organizing your notes and understanding the broader picture for an excerpt.
  • Prioritize the new, useful, and the interesting. There is no need for anything useless and uninteresting to exist in your knowledge base. Also, avoid including things you already know well.
  • Look for scaffolding. Keep an eye out for material that provides a “platform” to tackle more advanced concepts. For example, I always highlight definitions of important terms I’m unfamiliar with. I also like information about people, places, or things, since I can use these as context to learn related topics faster.

Technology I use for the First Pass

The tools I use at this stage vary depending on the type of media I’m consuming. There are two main criteria: i) the tool must allow me to record highlights and notes digitally, and ii) the tool must allow me to export materials to my note taking system (Roam) with little effort.

  • Books: Usually I purchase books on Kindle, which has excellent highlighting. I then use Readwise to automatically sync highlights to Evernote, and can copy and paste from Evernote to Roam (apparently Readwise now has a direct export to Roam, so it looks like I can cut out the Evernote middleman). For physical books, I use the Readwise mobile application, which has an OCR feature that lets you take a picture of the page you are reading and highlight it.
  • Articles / Blogs: I try to read all articles and blog posts on Instapaper, which allows me to highlight and take notes on articles. Again, Readwise allows me to import these notes into Evernote, which I copy / paste into Roam.
  • PDFs: At the moment I don’t have a good solution for PDFs. Since I can’t highlight them easily, I’ll often just take notes directly to Roam as I read, with the PDF open in one window and Roam open in another.
  • Videos: Typically I’ll sit at my computer when watching videos. So, I keep Roam open while watching the video and take notes, with timestamps. Here’s an example of video notes I put together for a Jeff Bezos Lecture on innovation.
  • Podcasts: I do listen to some podcasts (especially Conversations with Tyler), although I haven’t found a great tool for taking podcast notes. I usually listen to podcasts when I’m on the go, so note taking in the browser is typically not possible. Usually, if there’s a podcast that I listen to that’s really good, I’ll just revisit it and take notes while I listen at my computer desk.

Second Pass: Consolidate and Summarize Notes

In this pass, edit the highlights and notes that you’ve exported to your note-taking system. Activities here can include:

  • Deleting irrelevant or redundant notes
  • Summarizing excerpts into key points, while keeping some direct quotes from the material that is notable or quote-worthy
  • Reformulating material into your own words
  • Bold-facing the most important points so your notes are “glanceable”
  • Creating commentary on the material, expanding on points that you liked, critiquing points you disagreed with, filling in missing arguments, creating connections to other material in your knowledge base, or creating a high-level “book-review” style summary
  • Marking particularly important material for long-term memory

A key advantage of the second pass is it produces a valuable digital asset that you can draw on the rest of your life: you now have a searchable, quick-to-read summary of what you have read. The knowledge is now part of your “second brain” for easy access and connection to your existing knowledge.

Yet another advantage of this second pass is that the act of editing helps you absorb the material. This is because it requires elaboration and recall, which are both well-known to foster learning and memory.

Technology I use for the Second Pass

My note taking tool of choice is Roam. It is a fantastic piece of software, although it’s difficult to explain its value in words (you really just have to try it). I recommend looking into it if you are not already heavily invested in an existing note taking app. I find it allows me to easily make connections between knowledge, and its incredible functionality has led me to ditch Evernote, Asana, and 90% of Google Drive.

Third Pass: Commit to Long-Term Memory Using Spaced Repetition

In this third and final pass, add material material flagged “long-term memory” in the second pass to a spaced repetition system.

Spaced repetition is reviewing material at increasing intervals of time, allowing you to remember material with minimal effort. I won’t go into more detail here, but I highly recommend this overview by Gwern Branwen. You can also subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter.

The advantage of this third pass is access to your knowledge in the moment, when it matters, without any external note taking tools. This is useful for the many situations where it’s not feasible to consult your notes. For example: job interviews, meetings, or creative work where speed of thought is important and you need lots of in-memory scaffolding to make progress.

One nice feature of this third pass is you’ve thoroughly vetted the material in the first two passes. This means you’ll be less likely to add things you don’t need to your spaced repetition system, and you’ll only add information you understand (see rule 1 of flashcard knowledge construction: do not learn what you do not understand).

Technology I use for the Third Pass

Personally, I use Anki, which is probably the most popular spaced repetition software tool today. Some examples of other options include Mnemosyne, SuperMemo or even paper flashcards if you’re a technophobe.

Examples of the Triple-Pass System in Action

To get a feel for what the end result of this system looks like, here are a couple of examples:

This Seems like a lot of Work…

It’s true that using this system will almost certainly mean you’ll take more time to consume media. Compared to just passively reading a book, the highlighting, summarizing, and spaced repetition all add time.

But before you dismiss it, ask yourself a couple questions.

First: are you a genius that effortlessly absorbs the materials you consume? I don’t mean this sarcastically. People like this exist, like Tyler Cowen. If yes, there’s no real benefit to you from this system. It would just slow you down.

Second: why are you consuming the media in the first place? Is it something you really want to remember? If the answer is yes, then I believe using a system like this is a no-brainer.

Yes, it takes some extra time. But if you are consuming high-quality material relevant to your life, the benefits of that extra 10-30% of effort is well worth it.

To receive content like this weekly in your inbox, subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter, which provides latest news, tips, and ideas about spaced repetition, using learning tools like Anki, and improving your learning productivity.

Roam Notes on Balaji Srinivasan’s “Applications: Today & 2025”

  • {{[youtube]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jPYk7ucrjo}}
  • "Author::" [[Balaji Srinivasan]]
  • "Source::" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jPYk7ucrjo
  • "Tags::" #Entrepreneurship #startups #Technology #crypto #decentralization
  • "Anki Tag::" srinivasan_apps_today_2025
  • "Anki Deck Link::" link
  • Overview: [[Balaji Srinivasan]] discusses about crypto applications in 2020 and also beyond that point to 2025. Also includes a history of how we got to the present moment, and some underpinning concepts of all [[crypto]] projects.
  • 1:45 Talk begins
  • 2:20 Why [[Bitcoin]] was invented in the first place. It represents the latest step in a progression of digital cash: #money #payments #Ankified
    1. Physical cash: A hands B cash and B no longer has it.
    2. Naive digital cash solution: A sends B serial number via email, but A still has a copy, so this doesn’t work
    3. Centralized digital cash: A bank C acts as trusted intermediary – debits A and credits B.
    4. Decentralized digital cash: Centralized bank C is replaced by decentralized networks of competing miners updating a [[blockchain]].
  • 5:25 [[blockchain]] is the fundamental innovation behind [[Bitcoin]]. There are many blockchains; for example [[Ethereum]], which is more programmable than bitcoin and allows for [[smart contracts]]. Allows for more complex transactions than simple "debit A and credit B".
  • 8:06 Technological concepts underlying [[blockchain]] projects
    • [[blockchain]] is a database for storing things of value. Although slower than centralized databases, they provide tamper-resistant shared state in an adversarial environment.
    • 9:15 [[Bitcoin]] is a [[protocol]] – you can open [[Wireshark]] and see raw packets updating the underlying [[blockchain]]. Entirely packet-driven without reference to a bank. So, machines can now hold and send money.
    • 13:30 [[blockchain]] means having a greater choice over who to [[trust]]. Previously you had to store money at one of a few banks; now you can store at a bank, exchange, or any computer.
    • 13:54 [[blockchain]] enables internet-scale [[cap tables]]. Cap tables are tables examining who owns what percentage of a company. #Ankified
    • 16:10 [[blockchain]] breaks [[network effects]] because token upside is inversely proportional to network effects. For example, competitor to Facebook could issue tokens to new users, giving value to early users that decline in value as the network size increases. Turns customers into investor-like entities. #Ankified
    • 17:30 [[blockchain]] will transform [[Social Networks]], moving from liking and poking and messaging to real value being create (paid DMs, surveys, task)
    • 18:00 [[blockchain]] is a partial move from [[the cloud]] toward more privacy. Users increasingly keep private keys local and private, and this will be an anchor leading other data being encrypted and moved locally. The bulk of data will still be remote, but it will only be decrypted when you download it locally.
  • 19:15 The [[blockchain]] community
    • A blockchain community is economically aligned. "If they’re holders, none of them can win unless they all win". #incentives #[[crypto cliff]]
      • For example, with [[DNS]] if someone seizes a lol.cat domain, you keep your .com domain so you don’t really care. In contrast, seizing a person’s .ens domain means interfering with the [[Ethereum]] blockchain. "You now have a monetary incentive to defend another’s rights". He calls this the [[crypto cliff]]. #Ankified
    • 21:30 This allows for experiments in [[self-governance]]. Suddenly, [[macroeconomics]] becomes an experimental science. "If [[federalism]] meant the laboratory of the states, [[decentralization]] is creating the laboratory of the networks.
  • 23:08 Applications: 2020, i.e. what are the successful things currently built with [[crypto]]?
    • These are things already built at scale at 2020: [[exchanges]], [[hardware wallets]], [[miners]], [[issuance]], [[stablecoins]], [[defi]]
  • 25:30 Applications: 2025, i.e. the stuff that’s up-and-coming and might be big in 2025 in [[crypto]]? #[[startup ideas]]
    • [[privacy coins]] (e.g. [[Dash]], [[Monero]], [[ZCash]]).
    • [[Lending]] and [[Interest]] (e.g. [[Compound]], [[Maker]])
    • [[Scaling]] (e.g. [[Starkware]] and many others)
    • [[Decentralized Cold Storage]] (e.g. [[Casa]]) helping people store at home that don’t technically know how to do that, so this provides services that allow you to do that.
    • [[SaaS-for-gas]] (e.g. [[Starkware]] and others). Smart contracts that are on-chain and charge for each API call. Right now you have to do a Stripe billing layer, but maybe put in a code snippet and you have a function that executes and makes you money.
    • [[Insurance]]
    • [[Multiwallets]] which add more functionality than send/receive, adding new verbs like buy, sell, sign, vote, stake, register, etc.
    • [[Security]]
    • Novel [[financial instruments]]
    • Blockchain games
    • Crypto [[Social Networks]]
    • Decentralized [[DNS]]
    • Automated Market Making
    • Decentralized [[Identity]]
    • [[Personal Tokenization]]: issuing an equity-like token for your time or some function of your time.
    • [[Mutuals]] and [[Guilds]]: Attempt to incentivize collective action (e.g. [[Moloch]], [[Gitcoin]])
    • [[Founder’s Rewards]]: New business model for funding developers from rewards (e.g. [[Zcash]], [[BCH]]).
    • On-Chain Developer Bounties (e.g. [[Tezos]])
    • Clients for [[dApps]] to make it easy to interface with these applications (e.g. [[InstaDApp]])
    • [[Developer Tools]]
    • Oracles and [[Prediction Markets]]
    • [[Decentralized Autonomous Organizations]] – semi-autonomous programs, many of which make you money.
    • [[Community-Owned Organizations]]
  • 36:33 Q&A
    • Internet companies have captured a lot of value from [[data monopolies]] or [[attention]]? Where do you think the value capture will come from for the [[crypto]] applications in the next 10-15 years?
      • Balaji is bullish on [[tasking]]. "It’s the better-than-free economy. Rather than trying to hack your [[attention]], they are paying you for it".
        • [[crypto]] uniquely enables this for a lot of reasons, but one big reason in ease of [[pay-outs]]. [[pay-ins]] are hard, and [[Stripe]] has succeeded by making them easier, but pay-outs are even harder. As an example, think about how many sites where you’ve entered in a credit card to pay for something (pay-in). Probably 50-100 sites. Now, think about how many sites you’ve entered in your bank account information to get paid yourself for a service? Probably no more than 5, possibly none, because a website with your bank account information could potentially debit as well as credit. #[[pay-outs vs pay-ins]]

Roam Notes: Elon Musk Interview from Air Warfare Symposium 2020

  • "Author::" [[Elon Musk]] [[General John F. Thompson]]
  • "Source::" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp8smJFaKYE
  • "Tags::" #Business #Management #Leadership #Innovation #SpaceX #Tesla #Government
  • "Anki Tag::" musk_2020_air_warfare_symposium
  • "Anki Deck Link::" link
  • {{[youtube]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp8smJFaKYE}}
  • Overview

  • [[General John F. Thompson]] interviews [[Elon Musk]] with a focus on [[innovation]], and how organizations such as the [[US Air Force]] can become more innovative. The interview contains practical information for senior management in large organizations that want to improve innovation.
  • Notes

  • 6:15 Interview Begins. How do you ensure products don’t remain static and incrementally improve over time? #[[radical innovation]]
    • It’s important to push for radical [[breakthroughs]]. If you don’t push for these, you won’t get radical outcomes. To get a big [[reward]], you must have a big [[risk]]. The [[US]] will fall behind in [[innovation]] if it doesn’t continue to do this. It’s a risk today and wasn’t in the past.
  • 13:00 Is this need driven by competition with other countries? Or is this regardless of competition? #competition
    • Without a doubt, if the [[US]] doesn’t make big moves in [[space]], it will be second place in space. [[Innovation]] is the key attribute of the US and it needs to use it.
  • 14:00 What does the US need to do to maintain that innovative competitive edge? #Ankified
    • [[Outcome-Based Procurement]] is very important. You say "this is the outcome sought" and whoever can achieve this outcome to a greater degree the [[government]] will do business with. #Procurement
  • 17:45 The workforce is a key component in radical innovation. What do you do to motivate a workforce to help them become more radically innovative? #Hiring #incentives #[[encouraging innovation in an organization]] #Ankified
    • The most important thing to do is to make sure that you have an incentive structure where innovation is rewarded and lack of innovation is punished. Carrot and stick. People that are innovating should be promoted sooner, and if someone’s in a role where innovation should be happening and it’s not, then they should not be promoted or exited. "Then let me tell you, you’ll get [[innovation]] real fast. How much do you want?"
  • 19:40 Wouldn’t that make people too risk averse?
    • You have to have some acceptance of failure – failure has to be an option. If you don’t allow trying and failing you might get something worse than lack of innovation – things may go backwards. "You want reward and punishment to be proportionate to the actions you seek." Reward for trying and succeeding, minor consequences for trying and failing, and major negative consequences for not trying. "With that incentive structure you’ll get innovation like you won’t believe."
  • 21:20 What about processes – are there processes you recommend to bring about radical change?
    • Designing a production system of a new product is at least 1-2 orders of magnitude harder than designing the initial prototype.
    • Designing a rocket easy. Making one of it is hard. The making of a production line that builds and launches many is extremely hard.
  • 26:00 [[Starlink]] – as you scale to build more and more satellites and launch them, what are challenges you’ve had to overcome? #Ankified
    • It’s important to have a tight feedback loop between the [[design]] of the object and the [[manufacturing]] system. When you design, you don’t realize the parts that are difficult to manufacture, so bring manufacturing and design up together. Counterintuitively, it can be the right thing to do to manufacture the wrong thing, i.e. build it before design is done, because you discover what’s hard to manufacture.
  • 29:15 To figure out what to build, you could query customers ("customer pull", e.g. improving a [[Tesla]] based on customer feedback), or innovate and push something into the customer base ("company push", e.g. iPad). How do you think about that balance? #Ankified
    • [[Henry Ford]] once said that if you ask the public what they want, they would have said "a faster horse". When it’s a radically new product, people don’t know they want it because it’s not in their scope. Customer feedback once they have the fundamental product is a good thing, though. #[[market research]] #[[customer research]]
  • 34:00 In the next 5 years, what technology do you think will see the most advancement?
    • [[AI]] will be the most fundamentally transformative. Computer science and physics is what you would want to study to prepare for this future. If you want to understand the nature of the universe, these two fields have great predictive power.
  • 35:23 What should the Air Force be investing more in for innovation, other than reusable rockets?
    • Once you have dramatically reduced cost access to space, many things are enabled. Analogy: the [[Union Pacific Railroad]] made travel across the country much faster and less dangerous.
  • 41:30 The failures you’ve had to endure would drive many nuts. What’s the mindset to get through that?
    • You want the net useful output to be maximized. In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. What you mostly care about is not any individual at-bat but the overall batting average. [[Failure]] is irrelevant unless it’s catastrophic.
  • 44:00 Intellectual property – how do you protect it in a world where information is constantly under attack? #[[intellectual property]]
    • [[Tesla]] open sourced their [[patents]] a few years ago. The goal of Tesla is to encourage the use of sustainable energy, so they want to help others that want to make an electric car.
    • The real way you achieve protection is by innovating fast enough. If innovation is high, you won’t need to worry about [[intellectual property]] because competitors will be copying something you did years ago. Innovation per unit of time is what matters. What is your rate of innovation, and is that accelerating or decelerating? [[Big Business]] tends to get less innovative per employee and also sometimes in absolute terms, and it’s likely because of incentives. Incentives must be aligned with innovation. #Ankified
  • 47:30 What are your thoughts on the competition between the [[US]] and [[China]].
    • [[China]] economy is going to be 2-3 time the size of the [[US]] economy, due to their huge population advantage. So, innovation has to close this massive gap in economic output. Economics are the foundation of war.
  • 50:40 How do you create a culture of enthusiasm at [[Tesla]] and [[SpaceX]]?
    • There is a pretty big selection effect, because especially in important engineering roles, they look for people that have demonstrated innovation. As mentioned earlier, the incentives in the company help – they reward innovation and punish lack of innovation.

Tips From Anki Flashcard Refactoring: Add Enough Knowledge to your Deck and Review your Sources

My flashcard refactoring for today is a reminder of the classic knowledge construction advice: do not add what you do not understand. It is also a reminder of the importance of providing enough related cards in your deck for a piece of knowledge.

Here’s the card I came across that was giving me trouble, related to SQL programming (double-sided):

  • Side 1: Oracle SQL syntax for creating object table
  • Side 2: CREATE TABLE (table name) OF (object type)

When revisiting this card, I realized that I didn’t have a good concept of what “object tables” are, so this is definitely a case of not understanding the material before committing it to spaced repetition.

But the thing is, I wouldn’t have added it if I didn’t have a good understanding of object tables, at the time of adding knowledge to my spaced repetition system. The problem is I forgot the concept of “object tables”, and seeing the answer to this card was not enough to bring it back. I didn’t have any other cards in my deck about “object tables” and how they differ from other related concepts in Oracle SQL such as nested tables.

In a situation like this, it helps to go back to the source, clarify any misunderstanding, and add new cards that solidify your knowledge.

So, in this case, I looked up Oracle documentation and found a great article almost immediately that clarified the meaning. It also provided a bunch of useful nomenclature for closely related concepts, providing further scaffolding for the knowledge. This lead me to add a bunch of cards:

  • Card 1 (Cloze): Objects can be stored in two types of tables: [object tables] and [relational tables].
  • Card 2 (Basic 1-sided Q&A):
    • Q: What’s the difference between object tables and relational tables? (Oracle SQL)
    • A: Object tables store only objects Relational tables store objects with other table data
  • Card 3 (Basic 1-sided Q&A):
    • Q: What does each row represent in an object table? (Oracle SQL)
    • A: An Object

So to recap, here the main lessons from this refactoring:

  1. Don’t add stuff to spaced repetition that you don’t understand
  2. Make sure you add enough knowledge about the concept in your deck, so there is sufficient context for you to understand again when you forget
  3. When dealing with 1 or 2, the solution is to go back to the original source to understand the knowledge and add more relevant material.

To receive content like this weekly in your inbox, subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter, which provides latest news, tips, and ideas about spaced repetition, using learning tools like Anki, and improving your learning productivity.

Roam Notes on “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” by Bryan Caplan

  • "Title::" Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than you Think
  • "Author::" [[Bryan Caplan]]
  • "Reading Status::" #Complete
  • "Recommended By::" [[Tyler Cowen]]
  • "Tags::" #Book #Parenting #genetics #[[nature vs nurture]] #[[reasons to have kids]] #[[impact of parenting]]
  • "Roam Notes URL::" link
  • "Anki Tag::" caplan_selfish_reasons
  • "Anki Deck Link::" link
  • Overview

    • [[Bryan Caplan]] takes a dive into the research on parenting impact, and finds answers that fly in the face of the current Western parenting assumptions and cultural norms. Caplan convincingly argues that many of our common attitudes about our impact on our kids are an illusion and not supported by the best academic research (i.e. Twin Studies that effectively distinguish nature vs nurture). In light of this lack of impact, parents are placing unnecessarily large burdens on themselves.
    • The book is the antithesis to Tiger Mom. It raises a firm, but polite equivalent of the middle finger to spartan, obsessive, anxiety-ridden, stress-inducing style of helicopter parenting that is surprisingly common today. It also rails against a common assumption that parenting must always be hard, and its hardness is an indication that you’re doing a better job.
    • Given that modern parenting is unnecessarily hard, and you can do less work in many areas without sacrificing your child’s development, Caplan concludes that, at the margin, you should consider having more kids, and there are indeed selfish reasons to do so.
  • Summary Notes

    • Four Big Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (pg. 2) #[[reasons to have kids]]
      • There are many selfish reasons to have more [[kids]], but there are four big reasons we can put on the table right away: #Ankified
        • Parents can sharply improve their lives without hurting their kids. Nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, so parents can safely cut themselves a lot of additional slack. #[[nature vs nurture]]
        • Parents are much more worried than they ought to be. Despite the horror stories in the media, kids are much safer today than they were in the “Idyllic Fifties”. #worry #safety
        • Many of the benefits of children come later in life. Kids have high start-up costs, but wise parents weight their initial [[sleep]] deprivation against a lifetime of rewards – including future [[grandchildren]].
        • Self-interest and altruism point in the same direction. Parents who have another child make the world a better place, so you can walk the path of enlightened selfishness with a clear conscience. #[[self-interest]] #altruism
    • Four First Places to Look to Adjust Parenting to be Less Work and More Fun (pp. 22-30) #[[easier parenting]]
      • Before you do something for your child, good to ask yourself three questions: do I enjoy it, does my child enjoy doing it, and are there any long-run benefits. #Ankified
      • There are many potential adjustments to make your life easier, but here are four first places to look:
        • Sleep: Getting your kid to sleep is crucial for livable parenting. The [[Ferber method]] is great for this. Also, mandate regular naps until kids old enough to quietly entertain themselves for an hour. The author kept their kids on nap schedule until they were almost 6 (1-2 years more than needed). Then, switch from nap time to quiet time.
        • Activities: These are often not a break for a parent. Let kids drop any activities enjoyed by neither parent or child. Also, no need to be so negative about “electronic babysitters” (television, video games, computers). If you give mature adults free time, they’ll often relax in front of a TV or computer – what’s so bad about that?
        • Discipline: Remember [[discipline]] is for the child’s welfare, but also to prevent the child from abusing you and the people around them. Discipline should have 3 characteristics: Clarity, Consistency, Consequences. #Ankified
        • Supervision: If your kids want to stretch their wings, you don’t feel like supervising them, and everyone is safe, go for it! #[[supervision]]
    • On Paying Your Kids for Work (pg. 31) #allowance #[[paying your kids]]
      • Caplan recommends paying kids for actual work, and don’t be so stingy about compensation. Don’t pay them for every little thing, but when you want to give kids a major project or recurring chore, make it worth their while.
      • If generous terms fall on deaf ears, you’re probably giving them too much for free. Handing out goodies “just because” is fun, but don’t expect a child with a $40 a week allowance to be hungry for work. #[[To Ankify]]
    • Parent Wish List for Kid Outcomes and their Actual Influence (pp. 46-71) #[[impact of parenting]]
      • [[Health]]: Parents have little / no effect on life expectancy and overall health, maybe a small effect on smoking, drinking, and drug problems.
      • [[Intelligence]]: Parents have little to no long run effect on their children’s intelligence.
      • [[Happiness]]: Parents have little to no long run effect on happiness, self-esteem, unhappiness.
      • [[Success]]: Parents typically want high-[[income]] and fancy degrees for their [[kids]]. Turns out parents have little effect on how much school their kids get, they have little or no effect on how much [[money]] their kids make when they grow up, and no effect on [[grades]].
      • [[Character]]: Parents have little to no effect on conscientiousness or agreeableness (i.e. hardworking, diligent, honest, polite, cooperative, kind, etc), little or no effect on criminal behaviour.
      • [[Values]]: Parents have big effect on religious / political labels, but little on religious / political attitudes and behaviour, moderate influence over when daughters start having sex, little / no effect on teen pregnancy, adult sexual behaviour, marriage, marital satisfaction, divorce, or childbearing.
      • [[Appreciation]]: Parents have a large effect on child’s long-run feeling about their parents and views about their [[childhood]].
    • Are children like clay? (pg. 80) #[[nature vs nurture]]
      • “We often compare children to clay. When they’re soft, you can mold them into any shape you like; after they harden, they stay the way you made them. What common sense and science tell us, however; is that children are more like flexible plastic. Both respond to pressure. Yet when you remove the pressure, both tend to return to their original shape.” #Ankified
    • What the Science of Nature and Nurture Means for Parents (pp. 86-90)
      • Lighten up – If parental investments don’t typically pay off, relaxed parenting is a free lunch – better for parents, no worse for kids.
      • Choose a spouse who resembles the kids you want to have
      • If you want to drastically improve a child’s life, adopt from the third world #adoption
      • Raise your children with kindness and respect
      • Share your creed, but don’t expect miracles
      • Don’t write off your teens (parents affect juvenile antisocial behaviour and sexual behaviour for girls, also good to discourage smoking / drinking / drug use) #Ankified
      • Have more kids
    • Why More People in the World is not a Source of Poverty (pg. 127) #[[zero-sum thinking]] #population #poverty
      • Those who see more people as a source of [[poverty]] are missing half the story: Over the course of their lives, human beings do not just consume, they also produce. Kids eventually grow up and pull their own weight. The world economy is not like a party where everyone splits a birthday cake; it is more like a potluck where everyone brings a dish. #Ankified
    • The Best Way to Understand a Position (pg. 163) #thinking #reasoning #debate #criticism #Ankified
      • The best way to understand a position is to argue on its behalf. You learn as you speak. Sometimes you find that objections are stronger than you realized; other times you discover that they’re weaker than they looked. You may end up abandoning the position – or improving it and returning to the fray. Critics don’t just keep you honest; they show you the light.

Roam Notes on “Taking on the Challenge” Lecture by Jeff Bezos

Overview

  • [[Jeff Bezos]] talks about the [[Amazon]] approach to [[innovation]].

Excerpts

  • 0:45 [[Betty Graham]] invented white-out because she was annoyed by the inability to erase on a typewriter. She sold it to [[Gillette]] for $45M, and it was just white paint!
  • 2:07 Two approaches to solving problems with innovation: #[[To Ankify]]
    • Encounter a problem, and find a solution for it.
    • Work backwards by taking a new technology or understanding and finding important problems to solve with it. This is common in technology. E.g. [[carbon dating]].
  • 2:45 Persistence is a key attribute of innovators. E.g. WD-40 stands for "Water Displacement, 40th attempt". They originally made the product to keep water off [[Atlas 5]] rocket on US government contract. #[[persistence]] #[[characteristics of innovators]]
  • 4:30 One of the most pernicious obstacles to innovation: [[learned helplessness]]. Ordinary things bother innovators, while non-innovators become complacent and accept things as they are. E.g. windshield wipers – people used to stop every mile and use a rag. The inventor had to push through criticism that the wipers would be distracting, but in 10 years they were standard. Once people tried it they saw the value.
  • 10:00 A big impediment to innovation is [[either/or thinking]]. [[Amazon]] is always trying to reduce the number of [[customer contacts]]. This is a win-win for [[Amazon]] and its [[customers]]. It saves money for Amazon, and customers enjoy not having to deal with support. Eliminating defects saves money because you don’t have to handle customer contact and you improve the customer experience. There’s no [[trade-off]]. #[[barriers to innovation]]
  • 13:34 To innovate, you need to maximize the rate of [[experimentation]]. To do that, the cost experimentation has to be low. [[Amazon]] has built infrastructure to make experimentation easy, in a self-service way, without huge coordination or approval. #[[To Ankify]]
  • 18:00 [[Amazon]] is [[customer]] focused rather than [[competitor]] focused. Competitor strategy changes all the time, but the core things that customers want do not change: selection, low prices, and convenience. In 10 years, that’s going to stay the same. #[[customer vs competitor focus]]
  • 22:00 You need to have small, separate, empowered teams that aren’t subject to [[dependencies]] across the organization. They need to know whether they’re getting better or not. It’s easy to do that in a broad way (e.g. company profits) but difficult for individual teams – that’s the key. #KPIs
  • 29:00 The [[internet]] makes the customer experience a [[fixed cost]] rather than [[variable cost]]. "Buy With 1 Click" costs [[Amazon]] the same amount to develop whether they had 1000 customers or 1,000,000 customers. For retail stores, it’s not the same – with more customers, an improved experience costs more. #[[To Ankify]]
  • 35:00 Invention will always lead you down paths that people think are weird. #invention #innovation
  • 45:00 Hire builders. To have an innovative company, the single most important thing (more important than reducing the cost of experimentation) is to make sure you’re hiring the correct people in your organization. Hire people that like to build, like to invent. Get people that do this at all levels of granularity: some people are only interested in inventing at the grandest whiteboard level, but they can’t make progress in the real world, because they’re unwilling to figure out how to mount the camera on top of the truck. It turns out, that’s incredibly important. #Hiring #innovation

Tips from Flashcard Refactoring

Include your Sources, Have a Single Answer, and Break-Down Your Cards

Here’s a flashcard related to Oracle SQL that was giving me trouble (lapsed 8 times and was automatically marked as a leech):

  • Side 1: Collection (Oracle SQL)
  • Side 2: Data types in Oracle SQL that lets you internalize parent-child relationships between tables in the parent table.

This was a double-sided card, so both Side 1 and 2 serve as the question. Let’s see if we can improve this one.

First things first: do I need this card at all? Yes: SQL is highly relevant to my career in Data Science, and the organization I work for relies heavily on Oracle database. It’s important knowledge for me that I didn’t want to remove.

Next, figure out the issue with the card. Looking at the card statistics, it turns out I was always getting Side 2 wrong. After some consideration, I realized that this is actually a poor definition of a “Collection”. In fact, it’s not really the “definition” of a Collection, but a characteristic of a Collection. In other words, the flashcard doesn’t have a unique answer: it’s true that a Collection internalizes parent-child relationships, but it does a lot of other things too.

I consulted the original source of the material and there isn’t a clear definition of a Collection there. I did some Googling for other sources and apparently there isn’t really a great definition of an Oracle Collection. It turns out that Collection refers to a generic programming idea not specific to Oracle.

So, rather than trying to define Collection, I’ve opted to break the existing card down into multiple cards, following Rule Number 4 of Knowledge Construction: stick to the minimum information principle, which means if you can break a card into multiple simpler, easier-to-answer cards, do it.

Card 1 (one-sided):

  • Side 1: What Oracle SQL data type lets you internalize parent-child relationships in the parent table?
  • Side 2: Collection

Card 2 (one-sided):

  • Side 1: What kind of relationship does an Oracle SQL Collection help you represent?
  • Side 2: Parent-child (aka “one to many”)

Card 3 (one-sided):

  • Side 1: Does the Oracle SQL Collection data type internalize parent-child relationships in the parent table or child table?
  • Side 2: Parent table

I also tracked down a good definition of the generic “Collection” concept in Computer Science, and added it:

Card 4-5 (double-sided):

  • Side 1: Collection (Computer Science)
  • Side 2: Object that groups multiple items together as a single unit (Computer Science)

I feel confident these cards will be easier to remember, cost less time and frustration, and help me remember the concept much better.

Lessons learned:

  • Flashcards should have a single answer. Multiple correct answers for a card is a recipe for confusion and frustration. Interestingly, this isn’t included in Poitr Wozniak’s Twenty Rules for Formulating Knowledge, although you could interpret this as a form of interference (Rule #11)
  • Keep track of your source material when making cards. It makes it easy to look up more details when needed. 
  • Browse related sources through Google search if you’re unsure about what to do to an item. This will give you more context around the card to see whether the knowledge is even required at all. You may also come across a clarification or better formulation. In the example above, I discovered the generic concept of “Collection” in programming and realized that it was futile to try to include a definition specific to Oracle SQL.
  • Break cards down into a larger number of simpler cards. This is classic knowledge construction advice that is often not heeded, because it feels like more cards means more work. Counterintuitively, it is really a free lunch: you remember the concept better, you spend less time reviewing than you would have with the single complicated card, and reviews become much more enjoyable. 

To receive content like this weekly in your inbox, subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter, which provides latest news, tips, and ideas about spaced repetition, using learning tools like Anki, and improving your learning productivity.

Roam Notes on “I Could Do That in a Weekend! by Dan Luu

  • "Author::" [[Dan Luu]]
  • "Source::" https://danluu.com/sounds-easy/
  • "Tags:: " #software #programming #[[Dunning-Kruger Effect]] #[[Big Business]]
  • Summary

    • Outside developers often look at a large software company and think "that’s easy, I could build that in a weekend". This article describes why that’s misguided.
    • Reasons why are divided into two categories: technical and organizational. #[[To Ankify]]
      • Technical: Large businesses find it profitable to do lots of optimization and build new features that are often more complex than outsiders realize. This requires hiring engineers. You want to keep hiring engineers until the marginal benefit of hiring 1 more engineer = marginal cost of hiring 1 more engineer. Companies that are smart do this math and often find they should hire many, many engineers.
      • Organizational: Large organizations have complex communication barriers that outsiders underestimate.
  • Excerpts

    • I can’t think of a single large software company that doesn’t regularly draw internet comments of the form “What do all the employees do? I could build their product myself.”
    • Businesses that actually care about turning a profit will spend a lot of time (hence, a lot of engineers) working on optimizing systems, even if an MVP for the system could have been built in a weekend. There’s also a wide body of research that’s found that decreasing [[latency]] has a roughly linear effect on revenue over a pretty wide range of latencies for some businesses. Increasing performance also has the benefit of reducing costs. Businesses should keep adding engineers to work on [[optimization]] until the cost of adding an engineer equals the revenue gain plus the cost savings at the margin. This is often many more engineers than people realize. #[[To Ankify]] #Hiring
    • And that’s just performance. Features also matter: when I talk to engineers working on basically any product at any company, they’ll often find that there are seemingly trivial individual features that can add integer percentage points to revenue. Just as with performance, people underestimate how many engineers you can add to a product before engineers stop paying for themselves. #features
    • Additionally, features are often much more complex than outsiders realize. If we look at search, how do we make sure that different forms of dates and phone numbers give the same results? How about [[internationalization]]? Each language has unique quirks that have to be accounted for.
    • It’s fine to ignore this stuff for a weekend-project [[MVP]], but ignoring it in a real business means ignoring the majority of the market! Some of these are handled ok by open source projects, but many of the problems involve open research problems.
    • Everything we’ve looked at so far is a technical problem. Compared to [[organizational problems]], [[technical problems]] are straightforward.
    • Distributed systems are considered hard because real systems might drop something like 0.1% of messages, corrupt an even smaller percentage of messages, and see latencies in the microsecond to millisecond range. When I talk to higher-ups and compare what they think they’re saying to what my coworkers think they’re saying, I find that the rate of lost messages is well over 50%, every message gets corrupted, and latency can be months or years. #communication #[[communication issues]]
    • It’s entirely plausible that someone will have an innovation as great as PageRank, and that a small team could turn that into a viable company. But once that company is past the VC-funded hyper growth phase and wants to maximize its profits, it will end up with a multi-thousand person platforms org, just like Google’s, unless the company wants to leave hundreds of millions or billions of dollars a year on the table due to hardware and software inefficiency.
    • It’s not that all of those things are necessary to run a service at all; it’s that almost every large service is leaving money on the table if they don’t seriously address those things. #[[To Ankify]]
    • This reminds me of a common fallacy we see in unreliable systems, where people build the happy path with the idea that the happy path is the “real” work, and that [[error handling]] can be tacked on later. For [[reliable systems]], error handling is more work than the happy path. The same thing is true for large services — all of this stuff that people don’t think of as “real” work is more work than the core service

Roam Notes on “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande

  • "Title::" The Checklist Manifesto: How to get Things Right
  • "Author::" [[Atul Gawande]]
  • "Reading Status::" #Complete
  • "Tags::" #Productivity #organization #process #Management #coordination #checklists #planning
  • Overview

    • [[Atul Gawande]] is a famous surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. This book is an ode to simple checklists as an extremely powerful tool to aid process and quality improvement, especially in situations where there is a lot of [[complexity]] and [[coordination]] required. The author became interested in checklists as a tool in his surgical practice, and the book points to many examples of how checklists improve [[efficiency]] and [[safety]] in a variety of situations.
    • A common theme in the book is the fallibility of human beings and the importance of acknowledging these shortcomings. The author points to examples where excellent surgeons and other professionals have made serious and "obvious" errors. It’s easy to dismiss these errors by blaming the person committing them as incompetent or lazy, but the fact is, without proper systems, these mistakes will happen regardless of how well trained or skilled a person is. Properly designed checklists can provide a crucial safeguard.
  • Excerpts

    • Three Different Levels of Complexity for Problems in the World (pg. 49) #complexity #[[problem solving]] #[[To Ankify]]
      • Simple: there is a recipe. Sometimes there are a few basic techniques to learn. But once mastered, following the recipe bring a high likelihood of success. #[[simple problems]]
      • Complicated: Can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems, but there is no straightforward recipe. Success often requires multiple people, multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination are serious concerns. E.g. sending man to the moon. #[[complicated problems]]
      • Complex: Problems where the solution is not repeatable, and outcomes remain highly uncertain. Expertise is valuable but not sufficient. E.g. raising a child. [[complex problems]]
      • This distinction was developed by [[Brenda Zimmerman]] of [[York University]] and [[Sholom Glouberman]] of [[University of Toronto]] in their study of the science of complexity.
      • Note that many problems in engineering and operating a business are simple or complicated, and thus can be aided by [[checklists]].
    • How Skyscraper Engineers Build Checklists (pp. 62, 70) #engineering #coordination
      • Since every building is a new creature with its own particularities, every building checklist is new, too. It is drawn up by a group of people representing each of the sixteen trades… Then the whole checklist is sent to the subcontractors and other independent experts so they can double-check that everything is correct, that nothing has been missed.
      • They rely on one set of checklists to make sure the simple steps are not missed or skipped and in another set to make sure that everyone talks through and resolves all the hard and unexpected problems.
      • The biggest cause of serious error in this business is a failure of [[communication]]
      • [[Mark’s Notes]]: This almost magical process ensures that the knowledge of hundreds or thousands is used in the right place at the right time in the right way.
    • Why Dictating from the Top Fails in Complex Situations (pg. 79) #micromanaging #decentralization #centralization #complexity #Management
      • under conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either – that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of [[freedom]] and [[expectation]] – expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals. #leadership
      • [[Mark’s Notes]]: The example in the book is the [[Katrina disaster]]. [[FEMA]] tried to centrally control everything. In contrast, [[Walmart]] helped the community very effectively – its leadership sent a clear message to do what’s right, and do what you can to help these people in trouble.
        • Also, the skyscraper builders understand this, and learned to codify this type of [[decentralization]] in [[checklists]]. They have checklists for simple tasks, combined with checklists to make sure everyone is coordinating and communicating with each other. There must be judgement, but judgement must be aided / enhanced by procedure.
    • Good Checklists Versus Bad Checklists (pg. 120) #checklists #[[how to make checklists]]
      • Bad [[checklists]] are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. They are made by desk jockeys with no awareness of the situations in which they are to be deployed. They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on.
      • Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.
    • The Most Common Obstacle to Effective Teams (pg. 163) #coordination #teamwork #communication #[[To Ankify]]
      • The most common obstacle to effective teams, it turns out, is not the occasional fire-breathing, scalpel-flinging, terror-inducing surgeon, though some do exist … No, the more familiar and widely dangerous issue is a kind of silent disengagement, the consequence of specialized technicians sticking narrowly to their domains. ‘That’s not my problem’ is possibly the worst thing people can think, whether they are starting an operation, taxiing an airplane full of passengers down a runway, or building a thousand-foot-tall skyscraper.
    • Key Decisions to Make when Building Checklists (pp. 123-124) #[[To Ankify]] #checklists #[[how to make checklists]]
      • Define a clear pause point (point at which the checklist is supposed to be used)
      • Decide on whether you want a DO-CONFIRM checklist or READ-DO checklist.
        • DO-CONFIRM – team members perform a job from memory and experience, often separately. But then they stop. They pause to run the check-list and confirm that everything that was supposed to be done was done.
        • READ-DO – people carry out the tasks as they check them off – more like a recipe
      • Test it: “no matter how careful we might be, no matter how much thought we might put in, the checklist has to be tested in the real world, which is inevitably more complicated than expected” #testing
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: Sometimes, testing is not easy to do. That’s why they have simulations in aviation and the author tried a similar test for surgery with his surgical team and a dummy.
    • How Not to Respond to Failure (pp. 185-186) #failure #Systems #fallibility
      • We are all plagued by failures – by missed subtleties, overlooked knowledge, and outright errors. For the most part, we have imagined that little can be done beyond working harder and harder to catch the problems and clean up after them. We are not in the habit of thinking the way army pilots did as they looked upon their shiny new Model 299 bomber – a machine so complex no one was sure human beings could fly it. They too could have decided just to ‘try harder’ or to dismiss a crash as the failings of a ‘weak’ pilot. Instead they chose to accept their fallibilities. They recognized the simplicity and power of using a checklist.
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: It is such a common sentiment to blame failure on people’s abilities or motivations.

Roam Notes on “Red Tape: Its Origins, Uses, and Abuses” by Herbert Kaufman

  • "Title::" Red Tape: Its Origins, Uses, and Abuses
  • "Author::" [[Herbert Kaufman]]
  • "Reading Status::" #Complete
  • "Recommended By::" [[Devon Zuegel]]
  • "Tags::" #Book #Bureaucracy #Government #[[role of government]] #[[Government excess]] #[[Big Government]]
  • Overview

    • The author provides an in-depth analysis of red tape. It’s a great read for anyone that wants to get a better understanding of bureaucracy and how it works.
    • The book starts out with an overview of the main reasons why red tape is subject to such loathing. The big culprits include duplicative requirements, contradictory requirements, inertia (requirements remaining in force long after conditions that spawned them have disappeared), and failing programs that don’t do what they were intended to do.
    • He then goes on to discuss the main causes of red tape. Government employees are the usual scapegoat for red tape, but he argues that this is misguided and the demand for red tape comes from us "Every restraint and requirement originates in somebody’s demand for it." He also argues it often plays an important role to alleviate distress, forestall systemic disruptions, and promote representative democracy.
    • Finally, he discusses how to improve red tape. He argues the usual sweeping solutions of Shrinking the Government, devolving federal power, concentrating authority, and manipulating pecuniary incentives are ineffective. There is no panacea. Instead, targeted interventions are better than grand visions.
  • Foreward by [[Philip K. Howard]]

    • [[Mark’s Notes]]: This is an interesting forward – a solid and fair critique rather than a fawning review. Refreshing!
    • [[Herbert Kaufman]] was one of the twentieth century’s keenest observers of the inner workings of [[government]].
    • Red Tape, published in 1977, observes a very different [[government culture]], one that had been transformed by the [[1960s]] rights revolution. Instead of giving officials a measure of autonomy to meet public goals, under the new model [[autonomy]] was to be purged.
    • this new model of [[government]], dedicated to purging official [[discretion]], unleashed a tidal wave of [[red tape]].
    • It is preferable to spend $20 to avoid $1 of theft. And so he concludes that “red tape turns out to be at the core of our institutions rather than an excrescence on them.”
    • To Kaufman, bureaucracy was the necessary antidote to having venal, biased officials who try to impose their way. Today, [[bureaucracy]] is the default value for officials who don’t seem motivated to impose anything, including decisions made for the [[public good]]. Instead of asking “How do I get the job done?,” officials are trained to ask “What do the rules require?” #rules
    • The book also presents, albeit in undertones, an argument for bureaucratic superiority. Yes, it’s too bad that [[red tape]] is a pain, but that’s the only way to achieve a minimal standard of [[consistency]], [[virtue]], and [[fairness]] in [[government]].
    • Kaufman rightly points out that [[public employees]] are the [[scapegoats]]. He sees them blamed, inconsistently, as either “clever, self-serving” manipulators of power or “dull [and] slothful” drudges when the truth, he concludes, is that they are the worst victims of [[bureaucracy]].
    • The common denominator is that [[bureaucracy]] ends up foiling anyone who is trying to do what’s right—whether through the manipulative official using bureaucracy to gain power, the slothful civil servant using bureaucracy to avoid responsibility, or the ubiquitous powerlessness of people (including well-meaning officials) trapped in [[red tape]].
    • Kaufman notes that the real source of [[red tape]] is us. A major incentive for red tape, Kaufman observes, is mistrust: “Had we more trust in one another and in our public officers and employees, we would not feel impelled to limit [[discretion]] by means of lengthy, detailed directives.” #[[trust]]
    • Personal [[responsibility]] with [[transparency]], not [[red tape]], is the best way to keep someone from abusing his or her position.
    • human responsibility model—like the “guided discretion” model of The Forest Ranger—officials are judged not by their mindless compliance or other objective [[metrics]] but by a broader view of their [[effectiveness]].
      • [[Mark’s Notes]]: This is the philosophy of [[Linton Sellen]], who taught an excellent leadership course you attended.
    • Law need not be a bureaucratic jungle if people can be held accountable all the way up the chain of authority. #accountability
    • The paralysis of modern government is the inevitable product of a governing philosophy dedicated to avoiding human [[responsibility]].
    • In order to reimagine how the U.S. government can meet its many responsibilities in the modern world, any striver for good government must come to grips with Kaufman’s defense of the current operating system.
  • Chapter 1: Object of Loathing #[[reasons to hate red tape]]

    • One person’s “[[red tape]]” may be another’s treasured safeguard. (pg. 1)
    • When people rail against red tape, they mean that they are subjected to too many constraints, that many of the constraints seem pointless, and that agencies seem to take forever to act.
    • Duplicative and Contradictory Requirements #[[duplicative requirements]] #[[contradictory requirements]]
      • Even when they acknowledge the usefulness and relevance of specific requirements and prohibitions, people are incensed at having to do the same thing many times for different agencies when it appears to them that once would be enough if the government were more efficient. (pg. 8) #[[duplicative requirements]]
      • Still more irritating from the point of view of the conscientiously law-abiding person, in government as well as in private life, are government requirements drawn in such a way that to obey one seems to lead to violations of the other. #[[contradictory requirements]]
        • For example, legislation protecting the right to privacy may conflict with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Freedom of Information Act.
        • These conflicting guidelines shift the difficulties of reconciliation from the promulgators of official policy to the individual private citizen or public employee without much guidance and with the possibility of punishment no matter what course is chosen. #[[To Ankify]]
    • Inertia. Once requirements and practices are instituted, they tend to remain in force long after the conditions that spawned them have disappeared. (pg. 10) #inertia #[[To Ankify]]
      • a single embarrassing incident may inspire practices that go on and on at great cost and minimal benefit. As a former director of the Bureau of the Budget put it, The public servant soon learns that successes rarely rate a headline, but governmental blunders are front page news. This recognition encourages the development of procedures designed less to achieve successes than to avoid blunders. Let it be discovered that the Army is buying widgets from private suppliers while the Navy is disposing of excess widgets at a lower price; the reporter will win a Pulitzer prize and the Army and Navy will establish procedures for liaison, review, and clearance which will prevent a recurrence and which will also introduce new delays and higher costs into the process of buying or selling anything. It may cost a hundred times more to prevent the occurrence of occasional widget episodes, but no one will complain. #media #[[risk aversion]] #government #incentives #inefficiency
      • The search for outmoded practices takes government time and money, yet old, unchanging procedures, once learned, are easily followed, and utterly obsolete ones are usually ignored by everyone. So the burden of correcting them may be greater than that of letting them linger.
    • Programs that fail. Nothing, however, is as likely to render requirements pointless, in the opinion of some of those who must comply with them and of neutral observers, as constraints that obviously do not produce the results proclaimed as justifications for them. Restrictions and burdens imposed for announced ends that are never attained are probably the hardest to bear. (pg. 11)
      • regulated interests often benefited more from [[regulation]] than [[consumers]] did. The interests were relieved of [[competition]], yet the controls on them allegedly did not shore up quality or hold down prices in return for this security. #[[special interests]]
      • regulatory officials acquire the same perspectives and values as the interests they regulate. #[[special interests]]
      • in the contest to exert influence on the regulators, [[consumers]] are ordinarily outclassed by the well-organized, well-heeled, well-informed, well-connected, continuously functioning, experienced producers. #[[special interests]]
      • Furthermore, the incentive structure motivates the powerful more effectively than the weak; a regulatory decision meaning millions to a firm often costs individual consumers less than the cost of protesting it, so it would be irrational for individual consumers to fight even though the loss hurts them deeply. Adding to dissatisfaction is the ability of regulated interests to pass along to consumers their costs of exerting pressure and of fighting consumer suits. Under these conditions, ask the critics, how effective can regulation be? #[[special interests]] #incentives
      • Indeed, regulatory bodies have even been called agents of the regulated rather than their masters. That is why regulated interests, once the bitterest foes of regulation, are now among the most ardent defenders of their regulatory agencies, and why some industries have actively sought to be placed under regulation. #[[special interests]] #incentives #[[unintended consequences]]
      • When violators are able to penetrate the defenses yet honest people who would never think of defrauding the government or abusing their authority must go through all the rigamarole set up to thwart scoundrels, it is understandable that the honest people grow resentful. #[[honesty]] #[[resentment]]
      • To people with this outlook, catching the handful of crooks does not prove that all the troublesome constraints designed to avert dishonesty justify all the machinery; rather, it proves that the machinery is not worth the hardships it inflicts on the innocent.
    • The Scapegoats (pg. 19) #[[government employees]] #scapegoats
      • Two contradictory, negative portrayals of government employees: #[[To Ankify]]
        • It is conceivable that officials intent on aggrandizing their own power and protecting their own jobs would, unconsciously if not deliberately, contrive a blizzard of incomprehensible paper, a procedural maze, and a mass of technicalities that only someone completely familiar with these provisions could hope to find his way through. Then, insiders could not be easily replaced, even after changes in political leadership. Their decisions could be challenged by outsiders only with difficulty, for full-time specialists are not easily defeated by victims or insurgents who make their living at other pursuits and cannot devote themselves exclusively to operating the system.
        • Conversely, it is equally plausible that official stupidity and laziness might be responsible for the crazy quilt of provisions and procedures in government. Dull, slothful public servants would have to be furnished with specific, minutely detailed rules for every conceivable situation because, lacking intelligence or initiative, they could not be trusted to devise sensible responses on their own.
        • Obviously, the two portrayals of officialdom are mutually contradictory. Nobody can be both diabolically clever and dull-witted at the same time, nor can those who invent and execute complicated strategies also be too indolent to put themselves out on any account.
        • it is as hard to swallow the notion that knaves and fools are the dominant elements among thousands of government officers and employees
        • the level of their mental gifts and their characters is by no means below that of the general populace. Neither the conspiracy theory nor the incompetence theory seems to me a persuasive explanation for the abundance of government requirements and prohibitions or for the unhappy and unwanted effects of these constraints.
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: It’s true that a single individual cannot simultaneously have these two characteristics. But his argument here doesn’t fully address these stereotypical criticisms of government employees. His argument doesn’t address the idea that government is still ruled by knaves or fools. In other words, there could still be a prevalence of these two separate types of people.
      • On the negative impact of [[red tape]] on [[government employees]]:
        • Indeed, government personnel are greatly disserved by [[red tape]]. They would like to get on with their missions as they see them, to pursue their program goals energetically, efficiently, speedily. They chafe at the obstacles placed in their way, the restraints imposed on them, the boundaries they must observe, the procedures they must follow. Nobody is more critical of red tape than they. To them, it is ironic that they should be blamed for it. Unquestionably, they are tightly constrained. Their discretion is legally limited by statutes, regulations of sister agencies, judicial decisions, executive orders, and departmental directives. It is also politically limited by the need to accommodate powerful political figures and influential interest groups, by the practical independence of nominal subordinates, by the demands of clienteles, and by the risks of adverse publicity in the communications media. So they are often prevented from moving forcefully and promptly when they would like to and compelled to yield to pressures when they would prefer to stand firm, even though this may mean an injustice is done or suffering is not relieved. They are also forced to allocate precious time and money to the endless demands for reports and information
        • In short, the costs, inconveniences, and burdens of government constraints oppress government workers as much as anybody. In fact, perhaps more. Understandably, they see themselves as experts in their fields, yet many of the constraints on them are the work of people they regard as uninformed amateurs. Career diplomats who must answer to legislators with no experience in foreign affairs, urban specialists who must defer to interests from back-country farm regions, and professional military officers challenged at every turn by civilians with slight knowledge of military strategy and tactics, for example, grind their teeth in frustration. #[[To Ankify]]
        • If people outside government think they are victims of irrelevant obligations and prohibitions, they should see what those inside have to put up with—at all levels, too.
        • Leaders are equally frustrated. Political superiors find administrative agencies less responsive to them than they would like because the agencies are bound by generations of accumulated obligations and restraints. #politicians
        • Public officers and employees get the blame for red tape (pg. 22)
        • It would not surprise me, however, if they are merely [[scapegoats]] in a literal sense—bearers of the blame for others. We may accuse them because, intuitively, we want to divert the guilt from the real cause: ourselves. #[[To Ankify]]
  • Chapter 2: Of Our Own Making #[[reasons for red tape]]

    • Every restraint and requirement originates in somebody’s demand for it. (pg. 25) #[[To Ankify]]
    • there are so many of us, and such a diversity of interests among us, that modest individual demands result in great stacks of official paper and bewildering procedural mazes.
    • Alleviating distress (pg. 29)
      • much of the great volume of governmental requirements and prohibitions that we encounter on all sides owes its existence to the government’s endeavors to keep some people from being hurt by other people.
      • The government has also responded to pleas for assistance from people buffeted not so much by their fellows as by forces over which they have no control.
      • The moment a government program for a specified group gets started, legislation and administrative directives and court battles proliferate. It is essential to define who is in the group and who is not. The amounts of benefits and the criteria for determining who in the group is eligible for which amount must be established.
    • Forestalling Systemic Disruptions (pg. 32) #[[systemic failure]]
      • Another way in which the federal government strives to prevent pain and hardship from afflicting people is by heading off systemic breakdowns.
      • the suffering from systemic breakdowns evidently is so much less acceptable than the controls and procedures set up to prevent them that we prefer the certain constraints and annoyances to the possibility of even temporary disruption.
    • Representativeness and its Consequences (pg. 34) #[[representativeness]]
      • Americans assert a need to be protected from the government as well as by it, and they recognize a need to protect it from those who would despoil it.
      • Unfortunately, like so many other unexceptionable objectives, this one too brings procedural complications, substantive constraints, paperwork, and additional agencies in its wake.
      • Preservation of [[due process]], for instance, obliges officials to give people affected by governmental actions a fair chance to get their views on official decisions registered so that their interests are not overlooked or arbitrarily overridden by those in power.
      • At least some of the slowness, awkwardness, and intricacy of federal administration can be traced to the protection of the rights of people who work for the government. A society less concerned about the rights of individuals in government and out might well be governed with a much smaller volume of paper and much simpler and faster administrative procedures than are typical of governance in this country. Americans have adopted a different mix.
      • Government procedures were therefore designed to avert these doleful possibilities by facilitating [[interest group]] participation in official decisions to a greater extent than would be dictated by concern for [[fairness]] alone. This makes it harder to reach policy decisions. But giving every interested party a voice in official decisions increases the likelihood that no feasible option will be overlooked, that no important consequence of any feasible option will be forgotten or unperceived, that conflicts and contradictions will be brought to light and resolved, and that the policies ultimately emerging from such broadly reviewed deliberations will enjoy a higher degree of voluntary compliance on the part of the public than policies fashioned in ignorance of public attitudes and expectations.
      • Old or new, the methods of interest-group representation generate more directives and controls, more steps in the forging of governmental policies, more bargaining before decisions are reached, and more postdecision litigation than would otherwise develop. Fairness, comprehensiveness, and community acceptance of policy decisions obviously rate higher than administrative simplicity and speed.
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: the word "obviously" seems incorrect here. Is it really true that in no circumstances we would prefer simplicity and speed?
      • One method is compulsory clearance of pending decisions with every relevant organizational unit whose jurisdiction touches on the matters under consideration;
      • Another method is to require studies and written reports on various “impacts” of proposed policies; [[environmental impact]] statements are now mandatory prerequisites for official action affecting the environment, inflation impact statements must accompany draft legislation, rules, and regulations proposed by executive branch agencies, and similar statements about the consequences of pending measures for the public’s paperwork burdens, for the costs of doing business, and for family life have been proposed.60 Still another method is to place separate organizations under a common command with authority to compel coordination.61 All these devices are internal counterparts of external-group representation and are defended with the same arguments: fewer vital considerations are neglected, less opposition and evasion are engendered.
      • Similarly, we try to do whatever is necessary to keep the government from turning into an instrumentality of private profit for those in its employ or those with private fortunes at their disposal. (pg. 41)
        • The temptations facing the government work force are varied and enormous.
        • Public officers and employees are also tempted by opportunities to sell their official discretion and information.
        • They have also been tempted by the opportunities to extort payments.
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: These arguments seem to point in favour of less government not more
        • But our attitude toward public property is typified by the comments of a famous economist ordinarily inclined to reject costs that exceed benefits in dollar terms: “The Office of Management and Budget should spend $20 to prevent the theft of $1 of public funds.” Not only are public property and public discretion held to have a special moral status; they occupy a special political position because abusing them eats away at the foundations of representative government. So we are willing to put up with a lot to safeguard their integrity. Is the ratio really that high though (spend $20 to save $1) – that seems so irrational. At the margin, should it be more or less?
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: This is an interesting and somewhat convincing argument. It seems deeply irrational to spend $20 to save $1, but perhaps it is worthwhile considering what corruption can do to the overall legitimacy and trust in the system. [[corruption]] imposes a huge [[externality]] in terms of credibility of government. But why is this more-so the case than private companies? I think the difference is, government is a [[monopoly]]. Customers cannot leave and government cannot go out of business for bad behaviour. So, we use legal safeguards that create [[red tape]].
        • Much of the often-satirized clumsiness, slowness, and complexity of government procedures is merely the consequence of all these precautions. Things would be simpler and faster if we were not resolved to block abuses that turn public goods to private profit.
      • Were we a less differentiated society, the blizzard of official paper might be less severe and the labyrinths of official processes less tortuous. Had we more [[trust]] in one another and in our public officers and employees, we would not feel impelled to limit discretion by means of lengthy, minutely detailed directives and prescriptions or to subject public and private actions to check after check. If our polity were less democratic, imperfect though our democracy may be, the government would not respond as readily to the innumerable claims on it for protection and assistance. Diversity, [[distrust]], and [[democracy]] thus cause the profusion of constraints and the unwieldiness of the procedures that afflict us. It is in this sense that we bring it on ourselves. #diversity
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: The arguments about trust remind me of the points made in the forward by [[Philip K. Howard]]. Instead of loading up [[red tape]], why not increase [[authority]] and [[trust]] all along the hierarchy, providing more power so [[government employees]] can exercise greater discretion and apply their expertise. At the same time, this increased [[responsibility]] could be accompanied by increased [[accountability]] through things like greater ownership of outcomes, and greater ease of hiring and firing for bad performance (like the [[private sector]]). #[[Personal Ideas]]
  • Chapter 3: Rewinding the Spools #[[dealing with red tape]]

    • On the surface, [[red tape]] resembles other noxious by-products we generate in the course of making things and rendering services we are eager to have. More of what we want means more of what we don’t want as well. More automobiles mean more pollutants in the air. More electric power means either more air pollution or more radioactive wastes to dispose of, perhaps both. More food means more runoff of fertilizer into our water. More metals and minerals mean more slag heaps. Increased convenience in packaging means more solid refuse. Similarly, it appears, the more values the government tries to advance, the more red tape it inevitably generates.
    • In the case of government requirements and restraints, both substantive and procedural, people disagree about what is valued output and what is dismal by-product.
    • Intractable problems often engender proposals for sweeping solutions. In the case of red tape, the sweeping proposals are of four kinds. #[[To Ankify]]
    • Shrinking the Government (pg. 51) #[[shrinking government]]
      • Powerful contrary factors militate against comprehensive governmental shrinkage.
      • Chief among these is the danger that many of the evils and follies, both intentional and unwitting, against which the constraints scored as [[red tape]] are directed, might resurge if the measures taken to suppress them were lifted.
      • Another factor counteracting the case for shrinking the government is the substantial [[sunk cost]] in ongoing federal programs and services. When a program or service is instituted, people adjust to it, and their calculations include its operations in their assumptions and reasoning.
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: This seems like incorrect usage of the term [[sunk cost]]. I’m not sure if there’s a specific word for this, but he’s basically saying it’s costly to change when a variety of [[special interests]] are invested in a particular arrangement.
      • Debarred but aspiring entrants into previously regulated fields would also applaud the removal of entry barriers by deregulation. But many established firms, having acted in good faith according to standards prescribed by government, would be hard hit and would naturally feel they had been misled. And many neutral observers would have to agree with them.
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: Again, this is an argument for avoiding regulations in the first place. Another factor working against the debarred but aspiring entrants is the fact that they tend to not be organized in an identifiable [[special interests]] group, and as a result they are much less coordinated to advocate for themselves effectively.
      • Remote activities are expendable; those that hit close to home are indispensable. In these circumstances, the inevitable outcome is [[logrolling]]. Groups join in the defense of things to which they are indifferent in order to win allies for the things they are really concerned about. In the end, practically nothing will disappear. The sweeping rollback will break up on the endless variety in the system. #[[To Ankify]]
      • In these circumstances, only carefully selected, egregious, generally acknowledged failures among governmental activities stand a chance of elimination. Such modest measures would not significantly reduce the body of federal red tape. But they would doubtless accomplish more than attempts at an all-encompassing contraction of government on all fronts simultaneously.
    • Devolving Federal Power (pg. 59) #devolution
      • according to this school of thought, devolution is desirable not only for the major reason that it constitutes a bulwark against tyranny, but also because it incidentally reduces the conditions referred to as red tape. First, by bringing government decision centers closer to the people supposed to obey government decisions, devolution would increase the probability of local needs and conditions being recognized and taken into account. It would also afford local interests better opportunities to take part in the formation of policies directly affecting them.
      • Second, things would move faster if few matters had to be referred to the center before they could be resolved. The proverbial timidity of the bureaucrat and the collective evasiveness of bureaucracies would decline because the buck could be less easily passed to distant superiors. Communications channels would not be jammed with inquiries and requests flowing upward and commands and elaborations flowing down.
      • general concern for uniform application of policy also militates against wholesale devolution. #consistency
      • Moreover, some policies are unlikely to be effective unless they are managed on a national basis; energy conservation, pollution control, transportation development, and economic planning, for instance, can hardly be effective if they are not broadly conceived and executed.
      • In any event, people whose demands on government are not met at the state and local levels or at lower levels of the federal hierarchy will not hesitate to try their luck in Washington.
    • Concentrating Authority (pg. 64) #authority
      • The greater the dispersal of functions and the diffusion of authority in the governmental process, the stronger are the centripetal tendencies. Fragmentation itself breeds the very things decried as red tape.
      • Numerous small units mean many boundaries, and every move across jurisdictional lines can mean new procedures to master, new permissions to obtain, new applications to file, new requirements and prohibitions to learn.
      • Many critics of red tape therefore recommend concentrating power.
      • The strategy seems to work to some extent, for a time. Seldom for very long, however. Whatever its merits on other grounds, its effect on red tape is slight. The unpleasant symptoms gradually reappear. The misgivings of the government minimalists and the decentralists about the consequences of congestion at the center are apparently not without foundation.
      • the czars and expediters often add to the overall congestion in the system even if their initial effect is to break specific bottlenecks.
      • concentrating authority does not banish red tape any more than devolving power does. Sometimes it even adds to the problem.
    • Manipulating Pecuniary Incentives (pg. 67)
      • The new approach is to reach for the best of both [[the market]] and the governmental mechanisms, taking advantage of the powerful motivations of the former and the public-interest orientation of the latter.
      • The alleged beauty of this approach is that it skirts the shoals of red tape and inefficiency that government regulation and operation cannot avoid while attaining the social ends these policies are supposed to accomplish.
      • It is quite possible that the beneficial effects would be pronounced. There is certainly great promise in employing tax burdens and advantages and the granting or withholding of subsidies to influence behavior because these measures allow each individual and organization to invent compliant responses instead of being locked into prescribed ways of doing things. The spur of [[competition]] and the rewards of [[innovation]] are thus retained.
      • But it is far from obvious that this method would necessarily reduce red tape. The contention is persuasive only if one assumes that the collection and distribution of money by the government entail less red tape than does regulation or direct government operation and that government financial powers are easier to administer, less burdensome, and more acceptable to the public than regulatory powers or public services. The assumptions are not self-evidently valid.
        • Taxation has become the chief source of complaints about government-imposed paperwork. #taxes
        • Similarly, the distribution of subsidies and other forms of assistance is not a smooth-flowing, unanimously lauded, virtually automatic process. #subsidies
        • There is no reason to expect a smaller output of [[government directives]] from [[tax]] and [[subsidy]] programs than from regulatory or service programs. It is no simple matter to define what is taxable and what is not, what qualifies for aid and what does not, and what the extent of liability or eligibility should be.
        • It may have other justifications, but rolling back red tape is not likely to be one of its accomplishments.
    • No Panacea (pg. 70)
      • What, then, is to be done? The surest way to get rid of the [[red tape]] associated with the federal government is to shrink the federal government itself, but the prospects of shrinking it to even its size in the early twentieth century are not bright #[[shrinking government]]; the disadvantages would be too great for too many people. [[devolution]] likewise is not free of costs balancing many of its gains, and some of the frustrations of decentralization can match those caused by federal red tape. Concentration of [[authority]], on the other hand, undeniably is often responsible for congestion at the center, layering of administrative levels, and long lines of communication; its disadvantages, too, are discouraging. And even the ingenious proposal for taking advantage of private incentives through [[taxes]] and [[subsidies]] would apparently result in just as much government paper and procedural complexity as the currently prevailing techniques of government intervention in social and economic relations.
      • Curiously, as constraints on discretion both outside and inside the government accumulate, they sometimes reach a point where their effect is to broaden the very discretion they were supposed to contain. When there are multitudinous categories and definitions, shrewd operators can find somewhere in the stack justification for almost anything they want to do. #[[manipulating regulation]]
      • But there are ways of keeping red tape under control and endurable. They are not spectacular or glamorous. They work no miracles. Nevertheless, they can provide relief.
    • TREATING SYMPTOMS (pg. 72) #[[improving government]]
      • Specific, targeted interventions are better than grand visions: Those ways are the normal methods of [[politics]]. The political system responds to pointed demands for specific actions, not to grand visions or all-embracing lamentations. Grand visions and ill-defined complaints, of course, often determine the particulars of demands. But until and unless they are translated into concrete measures that officials can act on, they seldom evoke any governmental response. They may win offers of sympathy, expressions of shared outrage, and even symbolic gestures of solidarity and support. But not tangible benefits. #[[grand vision]] #[[To Ankify]]
        • railing against all red tape or advancing some panacea that will purportedly dispose of it once and for all avails nothing; an attack on a particular procedure in a particular agency or on a designated tax or application form or on a specified requirement long since out of date is much more likely to get results.
        • They had specified targets. Their fire was focused. Moreover, they made their views known through professional, articulate, politically sophisticated spokesmen.
      • Where / who to target your proposals for improvement: Nor is a top-level [[commission]] necessary to correct every instance of [[red tape]]. A change in specifications here, a relaxation of restrictions there, a restraining influence on an over-zealous agency, a prod for a sluggish one, an improvement in a single procedure, or a simplification of a single form may alleviate a great deal of pain for a great many people. An individual legislator or a member of his staff, the members or the staff of legislative or appropriations or budget committees or subcommittees, a journalist eager for a good story, a court, congenial bureaucrats, and competing agencies are among the points at which pressure can be quietly but effectively applied to induce a change. It is done all the time. A good many victories over red tape are won in this fashion.
      • On the value of the [[ombudsman]]: Yet some students of government have concluded that even these organizations, in all their variety, are inadequate to relieve every person with a grievance against official action or inaction. (pg. 78)
        • Hence the interest in the [[ombudsman]], the [[Swedish]] institution for pressing citizen complaints against government. #[[To Ankify]]
          • The [[ombudsman]] is, in essence, the head of a complaint bureau clothed with official power to receive and investigate complaints against administrative action anywhere in the administrative machinery of government. If the ombudsman finds merit in a complaint, the expectation is that the accused agency will normally accede to his finding and redress the grievance as he recommends. If the agency does not, the ombudsman may appeal to higher administrative authority, to the courts, or even to the legislature for corrective action.
      • Institutional reforms are not immune to the viruses that infect large organizations generally. We may therefore anticipate that the procedures set up to ease the pains of red tape by assisting individuals trapped in the coils will themselves be denounced one day.
    • Death, Taxes, and Red Tape (pg. 81)
      • Chipping away at a problem calls for more [[perseverance]] and [[stamina]] than blasting away at it.
      • From all indications, our descendants will be chipping away at it just as we are. For them, however, the character of the problem may be different. [[automation]], for instance, will contribute to change. Already, information from cash registers can be linked to accounting and inventory-control computers, reducing the flow of paper significantly. #[[government IT]]
      • Even a fully wired and automated society would not be rid of [[red tape]], though. Safeguards against abuses would be extensive. Methods of appeal from errors or abuses would have to be developed. Most of all, the machines themselves would impose an unyielding set of obligations and prohibitions on their users. #automation #[[government IT]]