Time, books, and nice words from Mr. Gates

I was pleasantly surprised to read  Bill Gates calling me ‘my amazing teacher’ on his GatesNotes blog and calling me ‘brilliant’ in a tweet:


It is very nice to be called ‘my amazing teacher’ or ‘my brilliant teacher’ by anyone. It is especially nice to have those words said about you by Bill Gates.

The curious thing is that I don’t feel like I have taught Bill Gates much of anything. For the last decade or so, a few other people and I have been running a series of learning sessions for Bill, bringing in experts on different topics related to climate and energy. All I have done is help expose Bill Gates to some information. He is a self-learner, and generous enough to attribute his self-learning to the people around him.

The thing that I have learned the most from interacting with Bill is to value my time and use it thoughtfully.

I have never seen Bill Gates try to multi-task. I have never seen him check his text messages or email in the middle of a meeting. He does one thing at a time and gives that one thing his full attention.

Bill is limited by resources in many of the big things he wants to accomplish: eradicate diseases, bring prosperity to the poor, solve the climate / energy problem, etc. However, in terms of personal consumption, Bill is not limited by money. He is limited by the amount of time he is willing to allocate to an activity. For Bill, time his is his most precious resource. And he thinks very carefully about how to allocate his limited time.

If time is Bill Gates’s most precious resource,  maybe it is my most precious resource as well.

One of the things that is great about Bill is that he takes time to read. He usually reads at least one non-fiction book each week. Here is the richest man in the world, who can allocate his finite time to any activity he wants, and the best thing he can think to do with his time is sit in a chair and read.

When people think about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, maybe they think of wild beach parties in Bali. However, sitting in a chair and reading a good book is also part of the lifestyle of the more intelligent of the rich and famous. And I can partake of the lifestyle of the rich and famous simply by buying a book and sitting in an easy chair and reading.

Why don’t I read more? Is it because of the cost of books? No. The amount of time I spend reading is limited primarily by my willingness to allocate time to that activity.

My mom lives in a retirement community. She brings a kindle with her when she has to stand on line in the cafeteria so she can read while she waits to reach the steam tables. She asked another person on line why he was just waiting without doing anything else. The man replied, “What does it matter? I’m retired. I have all the time in the world.”

My mom responded, “What do you mean? You’re in your 80’s. You don’t have much time at all.”

My interactions with Bill have taught me that money can relieve constraints, but even with those constraints relieved, we need to ask ourselves the question: “How do I want to allocate my time? What do I want to spend my time doing?”

Yes, we are more constrained than Bill Gates, but we all have time that we can allocate more wisely. Money opens up possibilities, but we can all be choosing better among the possibilities that are already open to us.

I remember, as a kid, spending whole summers playing Monopoly with my friends, and these summers seemed to last forever. Perhaps the last time that time seemed infinite was playing bridge with my friends in college. Time then wasn’t zero sum. There would be time enough for everything. I look back fondly on that feeling of time abundant.

As one progresses through life, it becomes clear that time is very finite. Time is in short supply and there will not be time enough for everything.

Time is our most precious resource, and we must learn to use our time wisely.

This is what I have learned from Bill Gates.


Coffee and Climate: A Common Problem


There is a shared departmental coffee pot for my office – and my office is filled with people claiming that they are willing to sacrifice a little bit of their short-term self-interest to help solve the climate problem.

The person taking the last cup of coffee is supposed to make a new pot for the next coffee drinker. This involves throwing out the old grinds and filter, putting in a new filter and some ground coffee, and filling the water reservoir. It takes a little bit of work – a couple of minutes at most.

What happens as the coffee gets low is that people start taking smaller and smaller cups of coffee, leaving enough in the pot to represent a plausible cup of coffee. Of course, this little bit of coffee evaporates down to some burnt-tasting brew and sometimes ends up as a pasty semi-solid on the bottom of the pot. Even though we are an office full of people claiming to be willing to sacrifice a little bit for the greater good, we can’t get people to cooperate enough to maintain a steady flow of drinkable coffee. (And don’t get me started on the tea kettle situation!)

The problem is that, as perhaps too simply described by Carl Sagan in The Dragons of Eden, deep beneath our modern and rational neo-cortex lies an emotional structure derived from an ancient reptilian brain. We might know cognitively that we should make that next pot of coffee for the greater good of the community but our reptilian brains are narrowly focused on the short-term benefits. This is related to Malcom Gladwell’s Blink or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. We make snap, almost automatic, decisions that do not accord with what our slower, more thoughtful, selves would decide.

We evolved as hunter gatherers, where rapid response could mean the difference between life and death, where thinking about long time scales meant thinking about saving enough food to last through the winter, where thinking about big spatial scales meant worrying about attacks from the village in the next valley. Now, we have created a technological world to which we are no longer adapted. Problems like climate change mean we must think about problems extending out over decades to millennia and even millions of years, and that we must think on spatial scales that encompass the whole globe. Our ancient lizard brains can’t do this. We need to solve modern problems with our neo-cortex.

To oversimplify once again, we might imagine that Hillary Clinton asked us to vote with our neo-cortex. She asked us to think about what policies government could institute to help solve some of our problems. Donald Trump asked us to vote with our lizard brains. He asked us to vote our emotions. He asked us to ignore that what he was saying didn’t make cognitive sense, but to follow our emotions and him into the voting booth.

Imagine how our coffee situation might change if there was a public list where each person wrote their name when they took a cup of coffee, and maybe put a star next to it when they made a pot of coffee. Then you would know who left this last bit of black goo (and think a bit less of them) or who made that gleaming new potful (and think a bit better of them). The solution lies in aligning self-interest a little more closely with the community interest.

How do we solve the climate problem? Is it by getting everybody to agree to sacrifice in the here-and-now to help people far away and in the distant future? Do we expect people to deny themselves something in the sensory field of their lizard brains to help people that exist only in the abstract thinking of their neo-cortex? Seems unlikely to me.

We will not solve the climate problem by teaching people to be less selfish. If we have to wait until people learn to make self-sacrificing snap judgments before we can solve the climate problem, we will be waiting until it is too late.

The challenge then is to create incentives that more closely align narrow short-term self-interest with the broader long-term collective interest. What can do this is policy. A carbon tax. Standards regulating greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven or kilowatt-hour used.

Even if we act in the here and now with our emotional lizard brains, we can hope that we produce a government of people with fully functioning neo-cortexes that make decisions based on rational considerations. In this context, the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency is particularly disturbing. We are emotional beings so we need a government that acts rationally. We need a government that will help us to align self-interest with community-interests. Instead, I fear we are getting a government that steers narrow self-interest down avenues that advance only narrow self-interest.

We need to move beyond the emotional lizard brain to solve the coffee and climate problems. We need rational, thoughtful policies that will better align individual interests with community interests. It is difficult to get such policies enacted at the level of my department, even harder to get such policies enacted at the level of a country, and even harder at the level of the entire world.

We have little choice but to try.

This is a slightly shorter version of an essay I wrote in an effort to think about what I might say in an opening statement for a panel I will be on at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union in a session titled Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future. It was easier for me to cut paragraphs in a new version than to cut the previous version.swatch-white_8

Solving the coffee and climate problems

I was asked to make an opening statement for a panel I will be on at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union in a session titled Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future. An edited version is here.  This is just the stuff I cut but couldn’t bring myself to throw away at the time.



In Britain, people queue for the bus, whereas in most other place, people crowd around as the bus arrives, rewarding the most aggressive among us. Clearly, it is better for the society as a whole to queue, so why doesn’t everyone queue? Why isn’t everyone willing to sacrifice a bit of their short-term self-interest for the greater good of the broader community? Are the Brits really more community spirited than the rest of us? I think not. If someone tried to jump the queue in the Great Britain, I believe that people would do something that would make that person feel bad. This could be a bit of tut-tut-ing or perhaps something more forceful. But I imagine the queue jumper would feel a bit embarrassed by the end of the exchange.

(Another path would be to buy a fancy new super-automatic plumbed-in coffee machine. Should the resources for that coffee machine come from the budget for scientific equipment, postdoc salaries, or where? Who and how will we make that decision?)

(Another path would be to institute a carbon dioxide removal program at massive scale. But where would the vast amount of resources needed for that carbon dioxide removal program come from? What valuable thing that we have today would we be willing to give up? And who and how would we make that decision?)