There are certain skills citizens should develop in school and nurture throughout their careers. Skills such as empathy, grit, wonder, and growth-mindset. These are often referred to as non-cognitive, twenty-first century, or intangible skills. They can empower an individual to live a fulfilling and prosperous life.
I've recently started to believe that dealing with ambiguity is another critical non-cognitive skill. This skill requires an individual to be comfortable with committing to an answer when there is no right answer. To be able to take in multiple inputs (perspectives, facts, etc.) and make a decision. To not only strive to make the best decision that can be made, but to be aware of the impact that decision may have. And to use that awareness of potential impact(s) to make an even more optimal decision.
Learning to deal with ambiguity is the antithesis of a multiple-choice test. The latter has one correct answer. Many situations in the real-world have no clear right answer. For example as new technologies emerge, regulations for those technologies can rarely be organized into a A, B, C, or D answer. The answer is there is no right answer. And we will need citizens that are capable of making decisions that are ethical and value driven. Decisions that if audited, show that the citizen made the best decision they could given the information available.
While certain questions and decisions will have narrow consequences, others will be far-reaching. In the article "Tech Giants Join Forces to Score AI Chips", the author describes how tech companies need to align around a benchmark for measuring how well computer chips perform artificial intelligence tasks:
While esoteric, the process of devising benchmarks can be surprisingly contentious, involving fierce technical battles and corporate politics. Participants are often the same companies that have heavy stakes in the results of the tests—namely, chip makers and cloud computing providers who use the scores to publicly boast about the advantages of their products and services. It is a bit like inviting students to craft the questions for an exam they’re about to take.
If you're the mediator, or a representative of a company building such chips, how do you navigate this situation? How do you deal with the ambiguity? How do you approach understanding the perspectives and goals of the other parties? How do you take a stance and recognize when it's more productive to shift your stance even if it comes with a negative cost to you.
In a white paper by Senator Mark Warner, he describes potential policies for regulating social media and tech firms. In one of the sections he talks about "dark patterns":
Dark patterns are user interfaces that have been intentionally designed to sway (or trick) users towards taking actions they would otherwise not take under effective, informed consent. Often, these interfaces exploit the power of defaults - framing a user choice as agreeing with a skewed default option (which benefits the service provider) and minimizing alternative options available to the user.
One drawback of codifying this prohibition in statute is that the law may be slow to address novel forms of these practices not anticipated by drafters.
He gives the example of Facebook asking users to provide access to their address book, and not giving the user a clear YES / NO option. The product design skews the passive user to selecting the YES option.
And thus how do you regulate this? As a free product that users have the choice to not use, should Facebook be regulated in how they build their product? How will such regulation impact other companies ability to innovate? How would you introduce regulation for something that seems clear today, but may become ambiguous in the future? Although your stance may make sense today, tomorrow a new company or technology may break it. Would you be able to adapt? As Mark Warner writes, can a law be written in such a way that it anticipates future problem areas?
As new technologies emerge the level of ambiguity around how those technologies impact our societal infrastructure increases. And as these technologies impact a majority of citizens, the decisions made around these ambiguous questions will have a far-reaching impact. And thus I hope that the citizens in positions to answer ambiguous questions are comfortable and confident in dealing with ambiguity.
How do you form an opinion on a complex topic such as climate change, immigration, or the gender pay gap? Do you read research papers by experts? Articles by news publishers? Watch the news? Listen to podcasts? Read tweets?
Are you quick to discount information outside your trusted sources? Do you actively seek alternate perspectives? Are you quick to jump to conclusions or get riled up? How often do you question the integrity of the information you're receiving? In your quest to quell your information hunger or FOMO (fear of missing out), do you find time to pause and reflect on what you're processing?
Today we have access to an unparalleled amount of information. And thus we seek more. More articles to read. More feeds to swipe. More information to digest. As we rush from one thing to the next, our opinions become susceptible to being deceived by the information presented to us. We become susceptible to misleading facts.
A misleading fact is a statement that is factually accurate, but overgeneralizes the issue. This may be for an ulterior motive, a way to sensationalize the issue, or the author has no motive and feels they are stating a fact.
Data in a misleading fact is unfairly curated to amplify the author's position. On the surface the misleading fact presents a clear problem, but the scale of the problem changes depending on how the underlying data is interpreted. Take the 2013 State of the Union address as an example. President Obama raised a statistic that on average women earn 23 cents on the dollar less than men.  Here is the quote from the addresses supporting document:
Securing equal pay for equal work: Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and two thirds of our families rely on a mother’s wages for a significant portion of their income. Yet on average women generally make 23 cents on the dollar less than men.
The Washington Post, in its State of the Union fact checking article, replied:
There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women — such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children — make it difficult to make simple comparisons.
The administration’s back-up document for this statement asserted that “on average women generally make 23 cents on the dollar less than men.” But the White House is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, shows that the gap is 19 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages — it is 14 cents — but then not every wage earner is paid on an hourly basis, so that statistic excludes salaried workers.
On the surface, this fact appears to state (and many interpreted it this way) that a woman doing the same job as a man makes 23 cents less per dollar earned. And, as the Washington Post concluded, this is just not true.  If one were to look at the data through a different lens, they may learn that each dataset tells a different story. 
Am I saying that there is no such thing as a gender pay gap? Absolutely not. Looking at a US Department of Labor 2016 report, out of the 22 selected occupations in this data set not one has women's earnings as a percentage of men's above 91.3%. Yet, as the Department of Labor writes in the report:
These comparisons of earnings are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that may be important in explaining earnings differences.
I believe such "23 cent per dollar earned" misleading facts are more prevalent today than ever before. These facts fuel the business models of social and news media platforms. They are convenient to package into tweets, eye-catching articles, and 5 minute long news debate segments. They spark controversy, rile us up, and engage us.
In a world where there is more content than attention, misleading facts are a powerful tool to capture your attention. As your attention jumps from one piece of content to the next, you're susceptible to taking the misleading fact at face value and may miss out on a deeper understanding of the issue. An understanding that could potentially empower you to do something to address an underlying problem of the issue.
Here is another example of how easy it can be to overlook and accept a misleading fact. "The Gender Pay Gap Is Largely Because of Motherhood" is an article published in the New York Times in May 2017. The tweet worthy title is clear and conclusive. It stirs emotions and may reinforce for some women their sense of unfairness and hopelessness in seeing change in the gender pay gap. A pessimistic interpretation of the title could be: "Good Luck Changing Biology. As the Bearer of Children Your Destiny is to Earn Less".
As you read through the article, you'll find links to other articles written by this author and research studies. If you're in a rush to get to the next piece of content in your queue, you're not likely to examine these additional sources. You may assume that because this is a New York Times piece, and because the author provided links to studies, the conclusion reached in this article is definitive. And yet if you did explore the linked articles and studies, would you reach the same conclusion as the author?
Here is a quote from the article:
The big reason that having children, and even marrying in the first place, hurts women’s pay relative to men’s is that the division of labor at home is still unequal, even when both spouses work full time. That’s especially true for college-educated women in high-earning occupations: Children are particularly damaging to their careers.
The first link is to another article written by this author in 2015, "Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family". This article relies on evidence from a Pew Research Center report to conclude that the division of labor at home is unequal and that women more often share that burden.
Note that the report's findings came from survey data. Here is who was surveyed:
The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted from Sept. 15 to Oct. 13, 2015, among a nationally representative sample of 1,807 parents, 18 years of age or older, with children under 18, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Therefore, the findings are based on the perceptions of those interviewed. One of the prompts in the telephone interviews was "household chores and responsibilities". 787 fathers and 651 mothers were interviewed with this prompt. 50% of the mothers perceived that they do more household chores, while 57% of the fathers stated the responsibility was shared equally.
You could use this study to make the conclusion that women have taken on more household responsibilities but, from my perspective, additional data would be needed before I can accept this as a fact. 
The second link (for the point that children are particularly damaging to college-educated women in high-earning occupations) goes to a landing page for a 340 page book. As the author of the Time's piece does not mention any specific passages from the book, here are two paragraphs from the book's summary:
Unequal Time shows that the degree of control that workers hold over their schedules can either reinforce or challenge conventional gender roles. When male doctors work overtime, they often rely on their wives and domestic workers to care for their families. Female nurses are more likely to handle the bulk of their family responsibilities, and use the control they have over their work schedules to dedicate more time to home life.
Surprisingly, the authors find that in the working class occupations, workers frequently undermine traditional gender roles. Male EMTs often take significant time off for child care, and female nursing assistants sometimes choose to work more hours to provide extra financial support for their families.
I selected these paragraphs to showcase how the narrative of gender roles may change as different segments are analyzed. For example, it's in working class occupations where workers frequently undermine traditional gender roles. A finding that was omitted from the Times article.
The two studies that the author of the Times piece used as the basis of her article are described here:
But even married women without children earn less, research shows, because women are more likely to give up job opportunities to either move or stay put for their husband’s job. Married women might also take less intensive jobs in preparation for children, or employers might not give them more responsibility because they assume they’ll have babies and take time off.
“One person focuses on career, and the other one does the lion’s share of the work at home,” said Sari Kerr, an economist at Wellesley College and an author of both papers. One will be published in the American Economic Review this month; the other was published this month as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The other researchers were Claudia Goldin of Harvard, Claudia Olivetti of Boston College and Erling Barth of the Institute for Social Research in Oslo.
The first study was published in the American Economic Review. It utilized data from the 2000 Census linked to the LEHD database (a data set that combines federal, state, and Census Bureau data on employers and employees). The study was a statistical study that looked at the wage gap from multiple data angles. As the concluding paragraph of the study states, the research was not about explaining the wage gap. The data cannot answer that question. However, the authors could use the data to theorize some of the likely causes (e.g. family responsibility) of the wage gap:
Our bottom line is that the widening is split between men’s greater ability or preference to move to higher paying firms and positions and their better facility to advance within firms. Given industry and occupation, far more is due to men’s better advancement within firms. Women’s greater family responsibilities appear to be largely responsible for both the between and within firm differences. These data cannot tell us what part of the differences are due to women’s choice to work in less demanding, and thus lower paying, industries, firms and occupations when they have greater family responsibilities. But they hint to that as an important explanation.
The second study is a working paper issued in May 2017 that used the same dataset (2000 Census data linked to the LEHD database).
Like in the previous study, the researchers did not examine the reasons for why the gender pay gap exists. They used statistical data to show that the gap exists, and then theorized as to the likely factors causing the gap:
The researchers point out that women may face both between- and within-establishment gaps. Due to family and caretaking obligations, women may be less able to put in the long hours required to score a big promotion at their employer, or to invest in the networking and job search activities that facilitate financially advantageous job changes. These effects may be compounded if employers believe that women are less likely to remain in the labor force over the long term, or if women are less likely to seek promotions and raises within and across firms in anticipation of needing more time flexibility or because of family location decisions in which the career of the primary earner, usually the husband, takes precedence.
The quotes above illustrate that the definitive conclusions presented in the Times article are misleading. The research can be interpreted in various ways and if you didn't take the time to dive into the data you'd be left with the one perspective the author chose to present.
Should President Obama have been clearer in his State of the Union address about what we do and do not know about the 23 cent figure? Should the Times author been more upfront that the researchers she quoted theorized about the likely causes of the gender pay gap, but did not study why it exists?
I view humanity as a collective group striving to improve society through shared knowledge. There are more research papers and studies published each day than each of us can read in a lifetime, yet if I read one, and you read one, and we find a format to share our knowledge without bias - we collectively benefit. But, if my intent is to get you to adopt my perspective, I'll present misleading facts that support my position and deprive you of the alternative perspective(s).
I believe that people must strive to develop their inquisitiveness. To be vigilant and curious as to how messengers reach their conclusions and what those conclusions imply. People must hold messengers to a high standard and not blindly follow them because of some underlying loyalty.
Messengers that present a misleading fact should be clear about the limitations of that fact and why they chose to present it in such a way. Break down your sources, point out their strengths and flaws. Be explicit about the assumptions you made and where the evidence was inconclusive. Don't leave it for your audience to guess what the conclusion is. A link to a study does not absolve you from the responsibility of analysis and examination.
We are reaching an inflection point. Misleading facts and outrage culture are among us. And yet we have an opportunity to rise above it through collective information. For if we collectively bring our knowledge and findings together we can rise together, and overcome the challenges facing our society.
The costly alternative is more anger, more outrage, and more divide.
Thanks to my long time friend Courtney Diamond for reading and providing feedback on a draft of this.
 If you're curious as to how the 23 cent figure was calculated, start with the 2015 Income and Poverty data tables from the US Census Bureau. Download Table A-4. Number and Real Median Earnings of Total Workers and Full-Time, Year-Round Workers by Sex and Female-to-Male Earnings Ratio: 1960 to 2015. Select year 2012, and look at the last column (Female-to-male earnings ratio), the value is 0.765 (or 77%), or $0.77 to $1.
 Is it possible that in some cases a woman is paid less than a man for doing the same job? Absolutely. Does this happen in 51% or more employment situations? Very unlikely. And, it's also just as possible that a man may be paid less than another man for doing the same job.
 The filters through which you look at the data impact the conclusion. For example, take a look at the Q1 2018 Weekly Earning Report by the US Department of Labor. The report found that "white women earned 81.2 percent as much as their male counterparts, compared with Black women (92.8 percent), Asian women (78.5 percent), and Hispanic women (85.1 percent)".
 Given that in 2015 there were 42.5 million Married Men employed and 32.9 million Married Women, is a sample survey size of 787 and 651 enough to make a definitive conclusion on the division of labor at home?
The 80s have made a comeback. Popular culture is now saturated with Def Leppard t-shirts, high top shoes, skinny jeans and "Stranger Things".
If the 80s had a soundtrack, it would be a Synthwave album.
Synthwave is a genre of music driven by keyboard synthesizers (synths), electronic drum beats, and more synths. The music will often feature saxophone, electric guitar and vocals. Instrumental songs are just as common as those with vocals. Adjectives to describe the music include dreamy, cinematic, and romantic.
Album covers predominantly feature neon, purple, chrome, and cyberpunk themes. They ooze an "80s" vibe.
The first song, "Static" features another Synthwave artist The Midnight. As an aside, many Synthwave artists collaborate and feature one another on their albums. They utilize the borderless internet to exchange audio files and form collaborations even though they may live hundreds of miles apart.
The intro in "Static" gives a classic 80s/Synthwave/Cyber punk/Blade Runner mood. Rain, lightning, and the synth envelop you. Transporting you to a Tron or Matrix inspired world. The mellow vocals (a Synthwave staple) add another layer of richness and build on the dreamy mood.
The second song on in the album is "On the Run". This instrumental is a classic Synthwave song. The mood, the synths, the electronic drums. All fuse together to create feelings of floating through a cyber world of 1s and 0s.
Today (2018) the Synthwave genre is strong. Artists from all corners of the world are producing albums and hitting the road to perform live. You can hear full albums on YouTube and discover new Synthwave artists using the Recommendations. The album covers make them easy to spot.
Here are a few of my current favorites:
Flip That Switch, my "internet based international rock group" has a new song out, "Throw Time"! For background on how the group came to exist check out this past post.
Play the song!
Get the song!
- Valentino Francavilla (Vocals) (Facebook, YouTube)
- Tony Parsons (Drums) (Facebook, YouTube)
- Rocco Pezzin (Bass, Mixing, Mastering) (Facebook, YouTube)
- Andrei Kryssov (Music, Lyrics, Guitar)
The writing and recording process for "Throw Time" was similar to group's first song. However this time I tried a new approach to writing lyrics. I'll get to that in a second.
For writing the music I started with a few guitar riffs and came up with chord progressions for the Verses and Choruses. I came up with transitions for each section and pieced them together.
The opening riff of the instrumental section (1:59) came about from a spontaneous jam session. I liked the feel of playing the riff so I added to it and then slid the section into the song.
The guitar solo in the intro was a last-minute addition. Originally that section was going to be rhythm guitar drums and bass only. However I was inspired by the power of the opening guitar solo of Majestic's Losers Shades of Hell. So I composed a guitar solo to imitate that mood.
I recorded all the guitar parts at home and sent the files to Tony who wrote and recorded the drum parts in his home. Drums and Guitar were then sent to Rocco who recorded Bass. The song then traveled to Valentino who recorded the vocals. All the recorded parts were accumulated by Rocco who then mixed and mastered the song.
Writing lyrics has been a big challenge for me in the past. I'd suffer from blank page syndrome. I'd play the song and stare at a blank page waiting for inspiration to strike. I'd toss around phrases and often not land on anything I was happy with. This lack of a process resulted in frustration and lack of progress.
Thus with this song I decided to come up with a system to focus my attention. Having a system established constraints so that I could channel my creativity. It was much more productive to work within constraints, versus having an open-ended "write anything you want" blank page.
My system was three steps. Come up with a song theme. Come up with a takeaway message from each section. Then write the lyrics.
The theme for this song is accepting that time is finite and realizing that throwing time at your "thing" (problem/goal/dream/challenge) is no longer a viable solution.
It's realizing that the thing you keep postponing or procrastinating may no longer happen. You'll eventually run out of time to throw. And thus you must change. The realization may result in hyper focus so that you can overcome the challenge with a new approach. No longer just throwing time. Or the realization may be that it's time to move on. Let it go. No more time will be thrown.
With the theme in place I created an outline of messages based on each section of the song.
In verse 1 I focused on the ideal settings to create. In that rather than sitting down and doing the work, you spend more time trying to get in the "mood" to create. Plus the idea of waiting for creativity and inspiration to strike, as though by divine intervention.
The resulting lyrics:
For the ideal moment
Just need time
The perfect setting to create
Blank page reveal yourself
In verse 2 I focused on the topic of 10,000 hours. Someone that put in the hours but didn't get the expected results. And how endless distractions (especially in modern day) are vying for your time and attention.
I spend ten thousand hours and yet
The dream is not here
And my will feels this constant duress
Temptations take my time from me
Verse 3 is the realization that it's finite. And now channeling this realization to become much more deliberate in how you spend your time.
Will not fall
In the chorus I wanted to reaffirm the idea of now deliberately throwing time. It's not just a default reaction. It's a deliberate action and choice.
I take hold
I take hold
Putting these constraints on myself greatly helped with channeling my focus on getting the lyrics done. Without the constraints I would struggle to make decisions and progress with the lyrics. Sometimes creativity needs freedom but other times it needs constraints. For it can be intimidating to stare at a blank page and think of something to say when anything can be said.
Take a look at the following lists of ingredients. They are for two confectionaries available for purchase today.
Product A Ingredients:
- Partially Defatted Peanuts
- Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Palm Kernel & Soybean Oil)
- Corn Syrup
- Contains 2% or less of:
- Artificial Color
- Resinous Glaze
- Soy Lecithin
- Modified Cornstarch
- Carnauba Wax
- Artificial Flavor
Product B Ingredients:
- Organic Coconut
- Organic Cacao
- Organic Coconut Sugar
- Organic Cacao Butter
- Himalayan Sea Salt
With just 5 ingredients Product B stands out as my preference (even if the ingredients were non-organic). The ingredients are familiar and have nutritional value. I cannot say the same for the Product A ingredients.
Product A is the famous Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. One of the most popular chocolate confectionaries in the US. Product B is the Coconut Butter Cups created by EatingEvolved. Reese's are essentially artificially flavored sugar that provide no nutritional value - even worse they aren't even empty calories, they are bad calories.
Yet why do they remain such a popular snack?
One factor is taste. Reese's taste good. Or at least people that haven't experienced an alternative think they do. But do they really? Do people truly prefer the taste of Reese's, or just the idea of it? If you give people two options: Reese's with it's current ingredients versus an alternative with two ingredients: raw chocolate and peanut butter, which one would win? Would people really prefer the taste of artificial color, corn syrup, dextrose and partially defatted peanuts?
Eating a blend of raw chocolate and peanut butter is delicious. It's a rich, sweet, and savory combination. But Reese's only delivers on this idea through marketing and product presentation. The actual product is an imposter. It's a concoction of artificial ingredients that are a farcry from the nutritional value and taste of raw chocolate and peanut butter. And for people that don't know an alternative, they believe it. They believe that Reese's is what peanut butter and chocolate is supposed to taste like.
And people know it's bad for you. Candy is bad for you is an axiom. Yet it's not the label "candy" that makes the product bad for you, the ingredients are the culprits. Raw chocolate and peanut butter has nutritional value. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and corn syrup does not. Natural ingredients versus lab processed.
Funny enough prior to writing the above paragraph I had not seen the headline EatingEvolved has on their site:
Chocolate: It's food, not candy.
I'd be curious to run a blind taste test to see if consumers prefer the taste of Reese's or Coconut Butter Cups. Ideally it would be people that have never tried either product. My hunch is Coconut Butter Cups would win easily. From my perspective they just taste better - much richer and creamier. And although this would bias the results, if you also told people that one of the products was actually good for you, the results would certainly skew towards the Coconut Butter Cups.
Another reason for the popularity of Reese's is cost. Reese's retail price is about $0.78. Coconut Butter Cups are $2.99. If you have two kids it's a difference of spending $2 versus $6 for a snack. For the majority of Americans falling into middle or lower income classes that difference is significant. The Hershey Company is able to exploit it's advantages as a corporation by minimizing the cost of ingredients which allow it to keep retail prices low. In "fairness" to them, as a publicly traded company they have a fiduciary duty to do this.
Another factor is distribution. You can get Reese's everywhere. The local department or grocery store, kiosk, movie theater or vending machine make Reese's widely available. You can even splurge on a Costco King Size bulk package (that's a lot of Partially Defatted Peanuts and Carnauba Wax!).
Add in brand recognition and marketing to low cost and distribution, and you have a ubiquitous product. According to The Hershey Company 2016 annual 10-k report they spent 60% (about $2 billion) of their gross profit on Selling, marketing and administrative expenses. For a company with already well-recognized brands (Hershey's Chocolate, Reese's) they are only increasing their advantage by investing heavily into instilling within us the desire for their products.
And so how does a company like EatingEvolved compete? Compared to the competition their product is expensive, has limited distribution and is an unknown brand. A classic David vs Goliath situation.
Some inspiration can be drawn from the automaker Tesla. Tesla launched it's first model, the expensive Roadster in 2008. At the time the electric car market was dire. Gas prices were surging and the economy was about to enter a recession. EatingEvolved is facing a parallel environment. They have an expensive product at a time when the health of Americans is deteriorating and obesity is at an all time high.
Elon Musk has often said that his goal with Tesla was never to "win" the auto market, it was to bring resurgence to the electric car. To put the pressure on other automakers to step up their game. Look no further than the announcement General Motors made regarding going all electric. This would not have happened this soon had it not been for Tesla.
Furthermore, the Tesla master plan outlined a roadmap that started with a low volume expensive car that would finance a medium volume car at a lower price, and ultimately finance an affordable high volume electric car (model 3). This could be the roadmap for EatingEvolved to adopt.
And thus with it's Coconut Butter Cups EatingEvolved may start catching the attention of The Hershey Company. As consumers get smarter about what they eat they will start to seek out alternatives to the processed products being pushed to them. As "aware" Gen X and Millenials start having kids they will raise their children with a greater emphasis on healthier alternatives and awareness about what they eat. Gone will be the generation that grows up snacking on Reese's because that's all they know. The path for EatingEvolved will not be easy, but it's necessary.
And as they say on their site, Chocolate: It's food, not candy.