19 October 2021

Ten years ago today, I became a Canadian citizen: A wishlist ...

I wish we were kinder to our our Indigenous neighbours.
I wish we would abandon the monarchy.
I wish we stopped selling real estate to foreign investors.
I wish people stopped going to the U.S. to buy gasoline and milk.
I wish we drove smaller cars.
I wish people would get their CoViD vaccinations. 
I wish people stopped complaining about taxes. 
I wish higher education were free but hard.
I wish we refrained from doing business with thug nation states.
I wish we had a smarter doctor training and retention system. 

To be continued.

14 October 2021

On the smartphone

If I were an evil man, I would create a machine that keeps people busy and stupid. I would call it the smartphone. Then I would create the app store. And then Candy Crush. And then I would charge people for using it. Not much, just a little. Or just a little of their attention towards the advertisement space I sell. If I were an evil man.

17 June 2021

21 June is National Indigenous Peoples Day

As an immigrant to this country, I have always been appalled by the often blatant discrimination and always dumb prejudice against our Indigenous neighbours. As an academic, I have always been infuriated by the complicity and the hypocrisy of Canadian universities.

The wilful blindness towards "Truth and Reconciliation", like the Germans running the Nuremberg trials. The traditional land acknowledgements that sound like dishwasher warranties read by Prince Charles. The patronizing adoption of Indigenous rituals. The mindless "Indigenization" workshops with not a single Indigenous person in attendance.

Imagine if we actually did something meaningful to stand up for our Indigenous neighbours.


29 April 2021

In defence of government

Start with a particle so small that 100 million of them fit on the head of a pin. Each of these particles can replicate inside the human body, disable you, kill you. Each of them can mutate and become nastier. A lot nastier. 

Add to this an array of professional politicians, administrative bureaucrats, health officers, statisticians, ecological modellers, epidemiologists, vaccination experts, drug regulators, welfare economists, financial experts, experts on trade agreements, on constitutional law, on law enforcement, ... This is your government. All imperfect people, all with imperfect information.

Add their constituents -- children, students, senior citizens, citizens informed, half-informed, misinformed, disinformed, people who fell ill, people who lost family or friends, ... Throw in different interest groups -- ethnic communities, congregations, small business associations, the nurses' union, the teachers' union, First Nations, doctors' associations, ... 

Add actors from areas that are suffering economically -- face-to-face retail, restaurants, the travel industry, tourism, oil and gas, sports, concerts, theatres, ... Add actors from areas that are benefitting -- pharma big and small, e-commerce, streaming services, food delivery, hot-tub installers, ... Be sure to add some actors who are uncertain where they stand -- banks who suddenly see no need for expensive downtown office towers, credit card companies who see an explosion in credit card usage, universities who can operate at lower cost using blended course contents delivery, ... 

Don't forget to add a few anarchists and archconseratives who share in their delusion that the best government is no government, some anti-vaxxers who think that the government is out to get them, some loud pundits trying to make a name for themselves, and a few people who are simply nasty for no particular reason.

Now, consider the demands on the government to fulfil the varied goals of all the different stakeholders. Consider that government actions are always limited. Consider that outcomes are always uncertain. Consider that indicators are often ambiguous. Consider that data are always incomplete and often inconsistent. Consider that no government action occurs in isolation.

Hey presto! The CoViD crisis.

I don't know where people like Dr. Henry and Mr. Horgan find the strength to get out of bed in the morning. But I for one thank them that they do.

(After I had finished my article, my wife and I had a discussion over dinner what it is that you can demand from your government. That they be honest with us and that they give it their best effort towards the public good, not less, not more. In Canada, we sometimes forget how lucky we have been. Think anything Trump, think Brazil, Russia, India, and China, think W.M.D.s in Iraq, think Iran-Contra, think Chernobyl, ...)


08 April 2021

Get your vaccine, for crying out loud.

It is baffling, the discrepancy between how ill-informed people are about vaccines in general and how everybody has become an instant expert on CoViD vaccines and risk.

I dare to say that few people would know who manufactured their last tetanus shot, what the brake failure rate of their car model is, or how many toxins, and how much of each, are contained in their beauty care products.

But with CoViD ...

Remember 2003 when everybody after reading Brown's The Da Vinci Code became an instant expert on Christian mythology. (It is a mystery novel, you know that?)

The following article is written for 12-year-old geeks. It is useful if you have the courage to admit that you know nothing about vaccines.


#getyourCoViDacttogether, #stopyourfriendfrombeingCoViDstupid


04 February 2021

What exactly does a criminal government have to do ...

A QUESTION has been going through my mind lately: If concentration camps and systematic rape of internees in China, if nerve agent poisoning and frivolous show trials in Russia are not enough for our international community to restructure relationships with thug nation states, WHAT EXACTLY DOES A CRIMINAL GOVERNMENT HAVE TO DO IN ORDER FOR US TO ACT? There is precedent, you know.

#justintrudeau #emmanuelmacron #angelamerkel #giuseppeconte #yoshihidesuga #borisjohnson #joebiden


26 November 2020

On fairy tales

Last weekend my wife and I had a discussion about fairy tales. We came to the conclusion that it would be a strange child indeed that sided with the witch in Hansel and Gretel, or the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, or Rumpelstiltskin. And yet by the time we reach adulthood, many of us have turned into nasty kings or evil queens, or at least vote for them.

What is it that changes the ethics of a child into the ethics of an adult? Is our education system failing us? Is it all caused by ill-conceived reward structures in our society? Is there something fundamentally wrong with us human beings?


01 October 2020

Deconstructing the new workplace

In 2014, Jacob Morgan painted a naive optimism into a pictograph he called THE EVOLUTION OF THE EMPLOYEE. By 2018, university administrators were mindlessly adopting his ideas, acting as if humanity had no choice in its fate and universities had nothing to do with it. Consequently, I amended Morgan's graphic.

Why am I alerting you to this?

Because CoViD-19 has accelerated changes in the workplace. Many executives have recently figured out that maintaining corporate towers, office buildings, and lecture halls does cut into profits. (Bewildering, I know.) And they have started to move.

My advice is trite: Be careful what you wish for, but be wise what you ask for.


11 July 2019

On job interviews


  1. The day before the interview, confirm your interview attendance via email.
  2. Know your resume in terms of
    - Quality of education
    - Quality of work experience
    - Discipline knowledge
    - Transferable cognitive skills: Communication skills, quality of judgement, problem solving skills
    - Transferable behavioural traits: Interpersonal skills
  3. Know the ethical standards of your profession.
  4. Learn about the organization: Assume that you will only be able to use up to 25% of your knowledge about the company, so do not force information into your interview answers.
  5. Learn about the people that will interview you. E.g. LinkedIn


  1. Dress professionally according to the tribal culture (e.g. journalists, programmers), conservatively but not too conservatively, something that shows your personality.
  2. Bring two copies of your resume to the interview, one for the interviewer(s) and one for yourself, in case you need a detail from it.
  3. Greet every interviewer with a good handshake.
  4. Be honest without malice. Honesty beats everything else by far. (And you wouldn't want to work for an organization that doesn't appreciate honesty.)
  5. Have good answers for the standard questions. (Google standard interview questions, if you don't know them.)
  6. Prepare three questions that you want to ask. They can be standard questions, but the must be relevant. E.g.: What does the work day/week/year look like for the holder of this position? Is there anything that I failed to address in my answers?
  7. Say good-bye to every interviewer with a good handshake.


  1. After the interview, send a genuine thank you note via email.
  2. Never ask for feedback from interviewers unless they offer it.


  1. Tell us about yourself.
  2. Why should we hire you?
  3. What are your strengths/weaknesses?
  4. Tell us about our organization.
  5. Tell us about a time when you had to handle a conflict. (Situation, action, result)
  6. How do you manage work/life balance?
  7. What is your leadership/management style?
  8. Do you have any questions for us?
  9. What are your salary expectations?

This last one is one annoying question. First, any organization should know the financial value of a position and have properly budgeted for it. Second, it always sounds to me as if an organization wants to see what little salary they can get away with. Third, candidates will feel that they have to underbid their competitors, when really they should be competing on merit rather than desperation. In fact, I would urge organizations to include a salary ranges in their job postings.

Still, if you are urged to give a number tell them: "Compensation is a complex utility function of responsibilities, workload, number of supervised staff, quality of supervised staff, work hours, benefits, vacation, work environment, collegiality, Pink's big three (autonomy, mastery, purpose), goals, resources, salary of supervisor, salaries of supervised staff, etc.." Then give them a range of what you think is the minimum to the maximum financial value of the position. The range may be quite large, e.g. $80,000 to 160,000, which is fine, they wanted a number, and you gave them one.


Selection criteria in the labour market

Apart from the quality of your education and the quality of your experience the following categories may apply.




- Analytical
- Synthetic
- Creative: Innovation, authenticity
- Practical: Transferability from theory into practice
Learning ability
- Mastery
- Retention
- Transferability
- Potential
- Reading: Comprehension
- Writing: Clarity, conciseness
- Listening
- Questioning
- Expressing ideas: Clarity, conciseness, confidence
- Presenting
- Evaluating: Comprehension
- Calculating
Critical thinking
- Curiosity/inquisitiveness
- Causality
- Scepticism
- Ethics
- Work ethics
- Understanding of hierarchies
- Sensitivity
Problem solving
- Abstraction
- Resourcefulness
Time management
- Planning
- Goal-setting
- Organizing/prioritizing
Technology use


- Honesty
- ?
- Attendance
- Punctuality
- Attitude/Commitment
- Initiative/Motivation
- Sense of responsibility
- Contribution to the organization's goals
Ability to work alone
Quality of work produced
Volume of work produced/Effectiveness/Efficiency
Relationship building/Interpersonal
- Ability to work with others
- Adaptability/Flexibility
- Restraint
- Civility/Courtesy/Good manners
- Respect
- Courage
- Decision making
- Seriousness
- Sense of humour


Motivation of others
Conflict management
Sense of justice


17 January 2019

Leadership -- Nature red in tooth and claw

Photo: David Attenborough (2018), Dynasties. Television series S1E3.

I am a zoologist by training, and as such my expertise lies in animal behaviour and system dynamics. I know little about the psychology of leadership, except for a couple of decades of informal observation. That's why two weeks ago I asked this question on LinkedIn:

Given that LinkedIn is so rich in leadership wisdoms -- some good, many trite -- tell me, why is the world so poor in good leaders?

The results are disappointing. In spite of 175 or so views, few tried to answer my question. But then many employees are LinkedIn with their bosses and may therefore be reluctant to attract attention to themselves(1).

In any case, I myself must give the question a shot.


This is the null hypothesis, if you will, and it is always a possibility: There is nothing interesting going on, the world is in fact not poor but rich in good leaders. And it is just I who wouldn't recognize good leadership if it hit me in the face.

But why then would the world be so rich in leadership advice(2)? If good leadership is a ubiquitous phenomenon, why are people spending time writing books, developing courses, or designing websites about it. We usually don't spend intellectual effort on things that are trivial(3).

That said, one human's dream is another human's nightmare.


I have yet to meet the bad leader who doesn't think she/he is a good leader. And if you think you are good at something, you wouldn't pick up a book or take a course to teach you the basics. There are two forces at play, both revealed in a study by Kruger and Dunning in 1999(4).

First: "[T]hose with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it."

Second: "[O]ne would have thought negative feedback would have been inevitable at some point in their academic career. So why had they not learned? One reason is that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life[.]"

Promotion may lead to the delusion of infallibility. True information rarely makes it up the chain of command. How many people do you know who told their bosses that they are morons, or monsters, or marionettes?


What is good leadership, anyway? My incomplete list is this, but make your own:

A good leader is competent and diligent in work and judgement.
A good leader is confident, self-reflective, and humble.
A good leader is honest and transparent.
A good leader is open to criticism and ideas.
A good leader is aware what is going on in the organization.
A good leader gives credit and takes blame.
A good leader is kind, and tough, and fair, and can laugh about herself/himself.
A good leader builds workplaces "where standards are high and fear is low"(5).
A good leader knows her/his subordinates and protects them when necessary.
A good leader understands hierarchy.

Nobody is perfect, and that is all right. It takes talent, and education, and experience to get better at leadership. None of this matters, however, if your behaviour is not genuine.

And one thing is certain: If your natural inclination is to be selfish or lazy, to lie and to hide things, to be nasty or disinterested, leadership is not for you.


The question is this: How do so many bad leaders reach and maintain their positions?

This is a problem of natural selection, or rather unnatural selection: The character traits that cause people to move up the hierarchy may be very different from the character traits that make people good leaders(6).

I will leave it to you to explore which character traits and professional skills lead to promotion at your organization -- competence/sycophancy, humility/arrogance, honesty/pretence/scheming, realism/unbridled optimism, et cetera.

It may be argued that it is half a miracle that a few good people make it to the top. Not necessarily. Good leaders will hire good people and sack bad ones. Bad leaders will hire bad people and lose good ones(7). Consequently, we should expect to see in nature two extremes, meritocracies and kakistocracies.

Does that mean that we may be condemned to suffer bad leaders(8). I am not sure. Whether they like it or not, leaders usually feel obliged to agree that leaders should be held to the highest standards.

Let's start holding our leaders to the highest standards. Accountability should scare at least the worst people.


(1) I believe it is fair to say that in the history of humankind people were usually shot for the questions they asked, not for the answers they gave. Still, silence is golden.
(2) As of 17 Jan 2019, amazon.com lists over 60,000 books for "leadership", there are an unbelievable 23,853 groups on LinkedIn that contain the word "leadership", and a Google search on "good leadership" returned "[a]bout 4,560,000 results".
(3) One should never underestimate the capacity of universities to develop programs in about anything. As Robert A. Heinlein has his protagonist say in his 1961 novel: "But when they began handing out doctorates in comparative folk dancing and advanced flyfishing, I became too stinkin' proud to use the title. I won't touch watered whiskey and take no pride in watered down degrees." 1961, Ladies and Gentlemen, 1961.
(4) Justin Kruger and David Dunning (1999), Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6): 1121-1134
(5) "Ethical leadership … is about building workplaces where standards are high and fear is low." James Comey (2018), A Higher Loyalty: xi
(6) "But what we need is that the only men to get power should be men who do not love it[.]" Plato (ca. 375 B.C.E.), The Republic: The Simile of the Cave: 521b
(7) It is the privilege of leaders to hire their subordinates. But we can also imagine a world where the workforce elects their leader. In fact, that is what we are doing in representative democracies.
(8) Is it better to have a bad leader or none at all? With the emergence of new hierarchies where everybody is a leader and few do the actual work, something to think about.


02 August 2018

A beginner's guide to making this world a better place

So you want to make this world a better, a more civil place(1)? We all do. Here are a few things I have learned.

1: You cannot change the world on a global scale.

I knew an analyst who genuinely wanted to make this world a better place. She would tell you about her ideas how to end world hunger and reduce poverty, yet if things did not go her way in the office, she would stab any colleague in the back. That is not how it works.

If you are lucky, you can change the small world that you inhabit -- your spouse, your family, your friends, your co-workers. You can change society, but only one person at a time, and only very quietly.

2: Everybody has a boss.

A monarch is dependent on her subjects. A C.E.O. is reporting to a board of directors, which is reporting to shareholders(2). A prime minister is at the mercy of his constituency. A business owner is dependent on her customers.

Because the first goal of leadership is to maintain leadership(3), all leaders act in accordance with the wishes of those who keep them in power. Therefore, you won't change a leader's mind, if the outcome weakens his position. Besides, "justice is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party."(4) And the stronger party usually does not call you to the table, except maybe to clear the dishes.

So what to do if the leader is only acting rationally(5), nobody in the system can be held responsible, and you are not invited anyway? That is when you study the facts, the laws and policies, and the common beliefs.

For example, one common belief is that corporate leaders have a legal duty to maximize corporate profits and shareholder value. Yet, "[m]odern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not."(6)

3: Knowledge is power(7).

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say, so make sure your good intentions are well informed. Get a good education(8). Read, read, think, and read some more. Become good at thinking. It takes time.

Keep in mind the First Law of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. Anything you do will have consequences, whether they are intended or not.

Most importantly, if you don't know, remain silent(9). Silence is good protector(10), but also a good countermeasure(11).

4: If you want to be credible, you must live by example.

You cannot advocate against injustice, corruption, or stupidity by being unjust, corrupt, or stupid yourself. That doesn't mean you never will be, but that you must try. Sometimes you have to compromise, and even Hannah Gadsby recently remarked: "I am left with a choice. I either be an idiot or a hypocrite … Like ... I'll be a hypocrite."(12)

Your methods must be unassailable in principle -- authentic, civil, honest, and transparent.

Yes, it is tempting to fall into dirty trickery. Donald Trump's trifecta comes to mind -- inventing falsehoods, diverting from issues, and inciting emotional responses(13). Or Russian "active measures"(14). The brutes and the crooks seem to have it so much easier.

But keep in mind that you are in for the long haul, and that in fact credibility is your most precious weapon, in both attack and defence.

5: You stand alone, alone.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."(15)

Our Western societies usually grant us this right in some form or another. This right we hold as private citizens; it does not extend into our workplaces. Consequently, I do not recommend to try to spread your ideas in the workplace unless you are very very good.

An acquaintance of mine once questioned the fairness of faculty promotions at the University of British Columbia. He had gathered support from faculty colleagues, and they met with the dean to discuss the issue. "Remember the scene in Robocop," he told me after the meeting. "When the prototype malfunctioned, and everybody started running for their life. That's pretty much how the meeting went after the dean started talking."(16)

If you do bring your ideology to the workplace, expect to stand alone, alone(5).

6: Don't die on every hill.

You cannot make the world a better place by being nice. And you cannot make the world a better place by insulting people. Making the world a better place is a tightrope walk on an invisible tightrope made of snakes and landmines.



(1) I define "a better, a more civil place" as a place where all of us experience more peace, freedom, justice, liberty, equality, solidarity, honesty, transparency, respect, creativity, compassion, fairness, knowledge, skills, and so on.
(2): Richard Branson (2009), Losing My Virginity: "As well as the constrictions of having to report to nonexecutive directors and shareholders, one of my main frustrations with being a public company quoted on the stock market was the short-term view which investors took."
(3) Niccolo Machiavelli (1513), The Prince.
(4) Plato (ca. 375 B.C.E.), The Republic: 338c
(5) All people are rational in a very basic sense: They want to survive. Survival in modern society means to keep what you have and to secure your future employment.
(6) https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/04/16/what-are-corporations-obligations-to-shareholders/corporations-dont-have-to-maximize-profits (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(7) As Sir Francis Bacon (1597) is often paraphrased: "Scientia potentia est." Earlier, Herodotus (ca. 425 B.C.E.) expressed a caveat: "This is the bitterest pain among men, to have much knowledge but no power." I disagree with Herodotus: The bitterest pain among men is men with no knowledge but much power.
(8) The proximate goal of education is knowledge retention and knowledge transfer, not more, not less.
(9) Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Proposition 7: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
(10) As my grandmother used to drill me: "To speak is silver, to remain silent is gold."
(11) Franz Kafka (1917), The Silence of the Sirens: "Now the Sirens have a still more terrible weapon than their song, namely their silence. And although such a thing has never happened, it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing, from their silence, never."
(12) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vj2sMl1rps4 (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(13) https://youtu.be/1ZAPwfrtAFY?t=5m2s (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(14) https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/russia-is-already-winning-214648 (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(15) http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(16) R.P. (2003), personal communication: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UNJNH7UFjU (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)

(This is the last of three related articles: Would you have dinner with Hitler?, On pulling my socks up -- A letter to Ms. Gadsby, and A beginner's guide to making this world a better place.)


26 July 2018

On pulling my socks up -- A letter to Ms. Gadsby

Photo: Michael Baumann (2017)

I recently watched a very moving piece by stand-up com├ędienne Hannah Gadsby(1). In it Ms. Gadsby tells the story of her life and makes some excellent observations, including this: "[T]ension is what not-normals carry inside of them ALL of the time. Because it is dangerous to be different."

She then concludes: "To the men ... To the men in the room, I speak to you now. Particularly the white men, especially the straight white men ... PULL YOUR FUCKING SOCKS UP!! ... How humiliating. ... Fashion advice from a lesbian. That is your last joke."

The first question that came to mind was: How did I deserve this??(2)

I am with you, Ms. Gadsby, all the way, but then I get thrown into the class of "straight white man" -- the same class as Donald Trump, and Benito Mussolini, and possibly Tom Cruise. On the outside we may all look the same, but on the inside, you know, there is variability.

To be sure, I come from a country where failure to speak up for fellow citizens has led to unspeakable tragedy. Consequently, early in my life I decided that whenever I run into injustice, corruption, stupidity, or mere indifference, I shall speak up. And so I did, and so I do(3).

What difference have I made?

Absolutely none, Ms. Gadsby. Except that in my life I have been punished more often and more harshly for speaking up than the despots, and crooks, and blockheads I have criticized(4). But that is all right, because along the way I have learned a few things.

For one, within the human species unjustness, corruption, and stupidity seem to be distributed quite independently and with no regard for sex, colour, or sexual orientation(5). For another, good ideas and noble thoughts are not a prerogative of minorities, visible or not. And for another, making this world a better, a more civil place cannot be an obligation for straight white men only.

That said, it is true, the world is a nasty place, and straight white men are running much of it. But they are in a minority to all those straight white men that are NOT running the world. Consequently, I believe that not sex is our greatest divider, nor colour, nor sexual orientation. Our greatest divider is power, and the ideas and actions required to get it and keep it.

In the end I believe you are right, Ms. Gadsby.

We may be just a year away from a time when 165 million women will lose their right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. The decision on this right will be made by nine people, mostly men. And it will be orchestrated by one man who is orange. If anybody thinks that the erosion of women's rights is a problem only "of the people, by the people, for the people" of the United States, think again.

It truly is time for all of us to "pull our fucking socks up".


(1) Hannah Gadsby (2018), Nanette (Netflix Original).
(2) The second question was: Am I really that thin-skinned? Consider that I like to taunt vegetarians by pointing out that Hitler too was a vegetarian.
(3) In my professional life I have tried to expose the injustice in the academic hiring process, the corruption in the practice of science, and follies of our education system. Examples? Michael Baumann (1996), https://www.nature.com/articles/381108a0.pdf (Accessed: 26 Jul 2018); Michael Baumann (2000), Science as a churning device. Vancouver Sun 18 Oct 2000: A19; Michael Baumann (2003) Open letter to the president of the University of British Columbia. 15 Jan 2003; Michael Baumann (2007), Why education has lost its mind. Vancouver Sun 13 Sep 2007; Michael Baumann (2017), http://citizenbaumann.blogspot.com/2017/08/university-presidency-draft-manifesto.html (Accessed: 26 Jul 2018); Michael Baumann (2017), https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/need-seriously-rethink-concept-final-exams/ (Accessed: 26 Jul 2018).
(4) No doubt I have made my fair share of poor judgements along the way, some accidental, some circumstantial, and some by choice. And I am not complaining; you just cannot challenge an old battleship to a fist fight and expect to survive without a severe beating.
(5) Complacency and cowardice may be overrepresented in the "straight white men" class but that may be a sampling error on my side. Note however that most of "us" do not protest when called to pay for the crimes and misdemeanours of our classmates.


19 July 2018

Would you have dinner with Hitler?

Would you have dinner with Hitler? ... How about lunch? ... How about tea?

How about, not Hitler, but some other psychopath(1)?

Image: Hare (1993)

Would you have dinner with a compulsive liar? A hypocrite? An idiot? How about a racist? How about somebody who would say about women: "And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."(2)

How about someone who has excelled in one field but exhibited terrible taste in another -- Pablo Picasso's misogyny, Mother Teresa's cruelty, Bill Clinton's womanizing. Would you have dinner with one of them?

Of course, there are those who believe that dialogue is always better than isolation. But where are the limits? And do you think you could have changed Hitler's mind? And if so, how?

In my life I have learned three things about people: First, people do not like to stick to facts, they like to stick to whatever it is they believe. Second, people judge and choose even if they know nothing or only parts of the story. And last, people have two standards, one which they apply to themselves, family, and friends, and another that they apply to everybody else.

So, should you have dinner with Hitler? Should you have dinner with somebody who would have dinner with Hitler? Should you have dinner with somebody who would have dinner with somebody who would have dinner with Hitler(3)?

But why am I asking? It is complicated; I will answer in my next article.


(1) Robert D. Hare (1993), Without Conscience: p. 34
(2) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html (Accessed: 19 Jul 2018)
(3) If you are rigorous about acceptable behaviour, your friends will be few.


05 July 2018

When 2 + 2 = 5

Imagine you have to score student performance in a Grade 10 algebra test(1). Looking at one student's step-by-step calculations you discover that at one step she calculated that 2 + 2 = 5. Obviously, for a Grade 10 student this is a very basic arithmetic mistake.

Now, because this is a very basic mistake, would you dock more or fewer points for it than for an advanced mistake? Why? Why not? Would you dock more points if the algebra problem were framed in terms of serious consequences(2)? Would you dock "a good student" the same number of points as you would "a bad student"? Would you dock a female student the same number as a male student, a white student the same number as a black student?

How about a mediocre male student who protests every self-perceived act of injustice inflicted upon him? Would you deduct the same number of points from his test as from a mediocre meek female?

Making performance judgements on math problems is relatively easy(3). Consider judgements on more important things. All other things being equal: In an election, do you interpret dishonesty or stupidity in "your candidate" with the same gravity as you do for a rival candidate? In a job competition, do you judge experiences and accomplishments of a local candidate with the same rigour as those of an outside candidate. In court, do call for the same sentence for an offender born in Switzerland as you do for an offender born in Nigeria?

It is hard work to develop and stick by good rules of judgment. And it is easy to dress up prejudice in a mantle of objectivity(4).

My favourite example comes from an Israeli parole board where cases were randomly assigned to judges, and yet the proportion of decisions in favour of the prisoners declined in the course of the sessions and reached a minimum just before the scheduled breaks(5).

Image: Danzinger et al. (2011)

Of course, the first step towards improved judgement is a correct judgement of our judgement apparatus. Unfortunately, we aren't good at that either. Consequently, as a family member, as a good friend, as a professional, as a citizen, what are your obligations to alert someone to their faulty judgement?


(1) For example: Solve the following equation for x: -2 (x + 2) + 2 (-x + 2) + 2 (2 + 2) = 0
(2) Say: "Determine the amount x (in millilitres) of midazolam that can be safely administered in preoperative sedation." "Calculate the number of battalions required to secure the border."
(3) Given these axioms and these rules and these particulars, these results must follow.
(4) "My decision sexist? Oh god, far from it. His publication record just wasn't as impressive." "My decision racist? It couldn't be further from the truth. She just wasn't a good team-fit." "My decision age-ist? Oh my god, never. His coding skills just weren't up to par."
(5) Danzinger et al. (2011), Extraneous factors in judicial decisions: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1018033108 (Accessed: 5 Jul 2018)


09 November 2017

The simile of the doomed flight

Figure: Front landing gear of a crashed DC-10. Source: https://www.baaa-acro.com/crash/crash-douglas-dc-10-10-chicago-273-killed (Accessed: 15 Dec 2020)

[This is the easy part of a longer critical essay I am currently working on. It will take some time to get it properly published.]

Imagine you are on a flight from Toronto to London when suddenly the whole aircrew disappears. There are 100 passengers on board -- women, men, and children --, none of whom knows how to fly an airplane. What do you do?

"Well," you say. "Obviously, the goal is to land the plane safely. So you want to find someone who can do just that. And certainly, some of the passengers would know a little more than others about flying an airplane or at least about communicating with air traffic control. So you have to pick one of those."

But there is no evidence to suggest that the person who makes the most confident claims, or speaks the most eloquent, or shouts the loudest, or the longest, or the most pitiful, does actually have the greatest competence or the best ideas(1,2).

"Well," you say. "You would have to trust your judgement."

All right then, imagine there are two passengers who claim to "know a little more than others". A 61-year old female banker who wants to continue on to London and a 45-year old male school teacher who insists on turning the plane around towards Toronto. Whose course of action should be taken?

"Well," you say. "There would have to be a vote."

All right then, collective decision making it is. But who should be allowed to vote? Everybody? Everybody but the children? Everybody with children? Those between thirty-one and sixty-five years of age? Those who claim to "know a little more than others"? Should it be one person, one vote? Should the vote be weighted? But weighted by what?

What characteristics should make you eligible to vote? And how do we measure them? And who should decide on these characteristics and their measurement? And who should decide on who should decide on these characteristics and their measurement? And so on.

These are the questions of the democratic condition -- from citizens electing a prime minister, to a group choosing amongst policy options, to a committee selecting a new boss, colleague, or subordinate. Collectively we wouldn't elect an idiot leader, opt for a disastrous plan, or pick a jerk for a co-worker. Or would we?

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."(3) Churchill's conclusion implies that on the whole we cannot do better than democracy.

Is it true? Or have we just become intellectually lazy, bureaucratically paralyzed passengers on a doomed flight?


(1) "We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it." Kruger and Dunning (1999)
(2) Plato (ca. 375 B.C.E.), The Republic: The Simile of the Cave: 521b: "But what we need is that the only men to get power should be men who do not love it[.]"
(3) Winston Churchhill (1947): http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1947/nov/11/parliament-bill#column_206 (Accessed: 9 Nov 2017)


27 April 2017

Why I write

Photo: Michael Baumann (2016)

Someone recently asked me why I write. It is a good question(1).

In 1946 George Orwell wrote a short essay to answer it(2). He proposed "four great motives for writing" that exist in every writer -- sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.

Where do I stand?

I am an only child and an introvert by nature and by nurture(3). Given a choice between being with people and being alone (with my lovely wife), I can think of no situation where I would choose people. Consequently, I have little need for external recognition, and that is what Orwell's "sheer egoism" really is(4). I also have no desire to tell other people what to think, to push a "political purpose".

Aesthetics, on the other hand, is important to me. Not necessarily phonetic aesthetics, but the aesthetics of a good story or a good argument(5). There is beauty in having formulated a thought in clear and concise language. An expression with no uncertain meaning, a sentence with no unnecessary words, a paragraph with no unnecessary sentences(6).

I believe my strongest Orwellian motive by far is "historical impulse": I write to make sense of reality. I write to clarify my own thoughts to myself. I write to examine my own personality(7). But to be sure: Although writing brings me great joy, good writing is hard work, and even the most disciplined amongst us often fail(8).

But if I am writing for myself, why do I publish?

Publishing, especially publishing with no editor and no peer review, enforces the discipline to be concise and to finish a thought. It also enforces intellectual rigour with no shortcuts in the argument. Moreover, because I mostly write on weekends and always post on Thursdays, publishing enforces a certain patience, which I have come to enjoy.

My readers tell me that they like what they read. They say it makes them think. As an intellectual this pleases me, for I do want to make people think -- think before they speak, think before they act, think before they vote.

Maybe, after all, I am not writing solely for myself. Maybe the absence of political purpose is a political purpose in itself.


(1) I was a terrible writer until I was twenty, and a bad writer until I was forty. My school-day writings shall only be remembered by this abomination: "And they couldn't find his damned legs." I stole it from First Blood. The movie, not the book. My late apologies to Dr. Brunhilde Ulamec, my Grade 12 German teacher.
(2) George Orwell (1946), Why I write: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300011h.html#part47 (Accessed: 27 Apr 2017)
(3) In a society that lacks civility as ours does, introversion is a form of retreat.
(4) Compare the pitiful number of clicks even my most popular writings receive to the number thumbs-ups of even the tritest piece from LinkedIn-fluencers. If ostentation is my goal, I have failed miserably.
(5) The boldest first sentence I ever read in a novel comes from Anthony Burgess (1980), Earthly Powers: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." The finest logical argument I ever read comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (http://www.kfs.org/jonathan/witt/ten.html (Accessed: 27 Apr 2017)): Proposition "5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
(6) William Shrunk Jr. and E.B. White (1979), The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition): Rule 17. Omit needless words.
(7) Socrates's words in Plato (ca. 399 B.C.E.), Apology: "[T]he unexamined life is not worth living."
(8) To paraphrase Blaise Pascal (1656): "I wrote you a long letter, because I didn't have time to write a short one." If I am writing a 500-word piece, and it doesn't take me at least two whole days, I am not working hard.


30 March 2017

The fish that were there (but didn't exist)

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

In 2001 and 2002 I was a postdoctoral fellow with AquaNet, one of the Networks of Centres of Excellence. AquaNet sponsored "39 research projects devoted to improving the country's aquaculture industry"(1). It's Board of Directors consisted of partners from academia, government, and industry.

For us at the University of British Columbia the question was this: When Atlantic salmon escape from B.C. fish farms, what are the chances that they establish viable populations on the Pacific coast? This question can be broken down into chances of breeding success, of juvenile survival, and of adult survival. I explored the question whether juvenile Pacific salmon and juvenile Atlantic salmon show different susceptibilities to predators.

For my experiments I had to simulated a small creek in the laboratory. I set up three experimental arenas, large oval channels filled with water about 60 cm deep, pebbles and rocks of various sizes on the bottom. In April I stocked each tank with 20 juvenile Pacific salmon and 20 juvenile Atlantic salmon, all about 30 mm long. I also stocked two of the tanks with two predators each, two adult steelhead trout of about 50 cm.

Twice a week I went into the lab, fished out all the juveniles from the experimental arenas, weighed them, measured their length, put them back, and restocked those juveniles that had been eaten by the steelheads, or gone missing otherwise.

The experiments did not go well. Yes, steelheads ate juvenile Atlantics slightly more frequently than Pacifics, but they didn't eat them frequently enough to infer a statistically significant difference(2).

In early July I abandoned the experiments. I left the experimental arenas intact, however, and informed the laboratory staff to feel free and help themselves to the steelheads for their summer barbeques.

When I returned in early October(3) to clear the arenas I was surprised to see that in one arena eleven juvenile salmon had survived and grown in length to about 12 to 14 cm. Nine of them were Pacifics, two were Atlantics.

That's when it struck me.

I immediately made my way to the principal investigator. He also directed experiments investigating spawning ground competition and food competition. The Pacifics had always won against the Atlantics.

"We have looked at the problem the wrong way," I said. "The issue is not how well the average Atlantic performs against the average Pacific, but how well the fittest Atlantics perform against the unfittest surviving Pacifics. The problem of invasive species is not an ecological problem; it is an evolutionary one."

The principal investigator looked at me for a while and then leaned forward at his desk.

"Michael," he said without menace. "We will have an AquaNet progress meeting before Christmas. Some of the directors will be there. What you have to understand is that nobody in AquaNet wants to hear any ideas that could shed a bad light on the aquaculture industry(4). Do you understand?"

I didn't.

You see, the purpose of Science is the pursuit of truth, not to serve political expediency. Yes, there are philosophical problems. Yes, we do have battles between schools of thought. Yes, causation is difficult to prove, and truth is always only provisional. But if you can't trust a scientist, who can you trust?

I went back to the lab that afternoon to dispose of the evidence. I sat down for a while and watched the two Atlantics swim around the pool. The denial of their existence had made me oddly fond of them.

I killed them with a bleeding heart.


(1) AquaNet ran from 1999 to 2006. It is interesting that although at the time AquaNet was quite a prestigious project, some fifteen years later it is hard to find any detailed information about it: http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/Index_eng.asp (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017), http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/_docs/reports/annual-annuel/Annual_Report_02-03_Rapport_Annuel-e.pdf (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017)
(2) Each adult steelhead trout ate one or two juvenile salmon per week. Before we decided on steelheads as a predator, we conducted preliminary experiments with cormorants. They were too efficient. It took four of them less than ten seconds to clear twenty juvenile Pacifics from a large holding tank.
(3) After the 9/11 attacks the cleaning of fish tanks was not a priority.
(4) To my knowledge there is no evidence that suggests the establishment of a viable Atlantic salmon population on the Pacific coast. But that does not mean that one day life will not find a way.

Thursday, 6 Apr 2017

An update to note (4).

In the meantime I have spoken to John Volpe from the University of Victoria(1). John is a specialist in Invasion Ecology. He and I first met during my time with AquaNet.

John told me that about a decade ago he had evidence "of multiple year classes of wild-reared Atlantics in multiple Van Island rivers. They were competitively equal to or superior to native juvenile salmonids and in some instances very numerous. Adults were prevalent in dozens of rivers."

He also told me that no work has been done since, and nobody really knows what the status quo is.

On the other hand a 2006 Fraser Institute publication, Fraser Alert, states: "Overall, the risk of escaped salmon detrimentally affecting wild stocks in BC is currently low."(2)

Now the question is this: Who do you trust?(3)


(1) http://www.johnvolpe.ca/ (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017)
(2) https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/Escaped_Farmed_Salmon.pdf (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017). The Fraser Institute is a conservative "think tank". Fraser Alert is not a peer-reviewed publication. This paper was penned by a group of scientists from the University of British Columbia, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and the University of Glasgow. One of the authors, Scott McKinley, was the Executive Scientific Director of AquaNet.
(3) The existence of viable Atlantic salmon populations on the Pacific coast is not a trivial matter, both ecologically and economically. It is curious that in a whole decade no work should have been done on this problem. Why would that be?


23 March 2017

The fish that weren't there

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

When my daughter Phoebe was in Grade 3 or 4 her class collaborated with a Grade 7 class in a project called Salmonids in the Classroom(1). The project was (and still is) supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the idea behind it is that raising salmon in the classroom will teach students a little bit about science, among other things.

Every school day a few Grade 3ers would walk over to the Grade 7ers and take a few scientific observations. And since I was working in Fisheries Oceanography at the time one day I asked whether I could accompany Phoebe and her three classmates.

So we walked over, each of them carrying a sheet with instructions. First, they had to measure the water temperature and write it down, which they all did. Then, they had to determine the pH of the water. Of course, none of the Grade 3ers, or the Grade 7ers for that matter, knew what a pH was, but they had learned how to use pH test strips for litmus testing and how to compare them to the colour chart, and they did it well.

Then they sat down in front of the fish tank and continued their assignment, which was this: In the space below, draw what you see. So the three girls and one boy began to draw the little fish, which were supposed to be in the fry stage.

The problem was that there was not a single fish in the tank(2).

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"We are drawing fish," Phoebe answered without even looking up.

"But you are supposed to draw what you see."

"We know."

"But there are no fish in the tank."

"Believe me," Phoebe said. "We are supposed to draw little fish, and that's what we are doing."

"Aren't we supposed to draw fish?" the boy asked me."

"No," I said. "You are supposed to draw what you see."

After ten minutes the three girls(3) had finished drawing little fishes, and we returned to the Grade 3 classroom. All four of them handed their assignments to the teacher, and that was it.

Except that a few minutes later the boy was called to the teacher and was publicly reprimanded for having failed to complete the assignment. He didn't argue. He just stood there nodding in agreement to the admonition.

I walked over to the teacher and explained that there were no fish in the tank, and consequently all that they should have drawn was an empty fish tank.

A few questions came to my mind: Why did the girls draw fish that weren't there? Why didn't they listen to me? Why did the boy believe me? Why did the teacher jump to conclusions? Why didn't the boy defend himself? Why didn't the girls defend the boy? Why didn't the teacher reprimand the girls who had failed to complete the task correctly?

But there looms a larger questions: How often do you and I draw fish that aren't there?


(1) http://www.salmonidsintheclassroom.ca/index.html (Accessed: 23 Mar 2017)
(2) Later I learned that the fish had been released two days earlier and nobody had bothered to inform Phoebe's class.
(3) When I wrote this, I realized how much I resent the fact that it was the boy who was disobedient and not one of the girls.


09 March 2017

Budget Day or The Tale of the Villagers and the Pie

Every year on her birthday, the queen would send a royal pie to every village in the country. It wasn't a big pie. It wasn't a fancy pie. And it didn't even look royal.

Every year the villagers would gather on the village green, and every year the mayor cut the royal pie so that everyone could enjoy their fair piece.

And so she proceeded to hand a piece to the baker.

"Hold on," said the baker. "That's a rather small piece. I am the baker. I bake bread for the village. And without bread the villagers would all starve. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

"You're right," said the mayor. And she proceeded to hand the piece to the cobbler.

"Hold on," said the cobbler. "That's a rather small piece. I am the cobbler. I make the shoes for the village. And without shoes the villagers could not go about their business. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

"You're right," said the mayor again. And she proceeded to hand the piece to the doctor.

"Hold on," said the doctor. "That's a rather small piece. I am the doctor. I take care of the sick in the village. And without my care the sick would die. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

And on and on it went. The butcher, the grocer, the blacksmith, the farmer, the teacher, the barber, the soldier, the tailor, the lawyer, the sailor, the banker, the builder, nobody wanted to take the piece.

"That's enough!" cried the mayor. "Everybody wants a bigger piece of the pie. But if any one of you gets a bigger piece that means that somebody else must get a smaller one."

"Mayor!!" the villagers cried in unison. "You should have gotten us a bigger pie. And since you didn't do your job, you should get the smaller piece."

"Hold on," interrupted the bookkeeper. "We had the same situation last year."

"Aha!!" the villagers cried again in unison. "And then what did we do?"

The bookkeeper studied his notes and said: "The philosopher told us that we are all selfish, and that the mayor's job is to distribute the pie fairly amongst the villagers, just as it is the queen's job is to distribute the pies fairly amongst the mayors."

"It all doesn't look fair to me!!" cried the villagers a third time in unison. "Let's ask the philosopher again."

"The philosopher?" said the mayor. "We cut his piece of pie last year. He doesn't live here anymore."


02 March 2017

When sabotage and standard operating procedure become indistinguishable

In 1944, the United States Office of Strategic Services produced a 32-page document titled "Simple Sabotage Field Manual"(1). The purpose of the classified booklet was "to characterize simple sabotage, to outline its possible effects, and to present suggestions for inciting and executing it" in enemy-held territory.

The manual goes on to give specific suggestions. There are sections on how to set fire to a building, how to flood a warehouse, how to dilute gasoline fuel to the point where no combustion will occur -- water, wine, urine. There are instructions on how to ruin a water turbine, how to inconvenience enemy personnel travelling by train, and how to make the message in an enemy telegram ambiguous -- bring troop levels to a "miximum". There are even instructions on how to disrupt the showing of propaganda films by using "two or three dozen large moths in a paper bag".

Then section "(11) General Interference with Organizations and Production" recommends the following acts of sabotage:

(1) Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

(2) Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate "patriotic" comments.

(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible -- never less than five.

(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

(7) Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision -- raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

When I first read these proposed acts of sabotage from the Second World War(1), I was amused at how much they resemble the bureaucratic standard operating procedure of the modern university. My amusement faded quickly when I remembered that the evolution of any organization -- a business, an economy, an education system, democracy, the nation state, a culture -- may create the conditions for its own decline and extinction(2).

The purpose of bureaucracy is, of course, to provide safeguards against two hazards, stupidity (taking excessive risks, missing obvious opportunities) and corruption (abusing the office for personal gain, indulging in subjective preferences). Consequently, it could be argued that standard operating procedure itself provides safeguards against bureaucratic sabotage. From personal experience I must say that I have never seen a bureaucratic saboteur exposed. Does that mean that they don't exist or that they are deterred by the safeguards?

Or is it that a bureaucratic saboteur simply cannot be differentiated from an overzealous administrator?


(1) Office of Strategic Services (1944), Simple Sabotage Field Manual: https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2012-featured-story-archive/CleanedUOSSSimpleSabotage_sm.pdf (Accessed: 5 Mar 2020)
(2) E.g. Oswald Spengler (1918), Der Untergang des Abendlandes; Marten Scheffer et al. (2009), Early-warning signals for critical transitions http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7260/pdf/nature08227.pdf (Accessed: 5 Mar 2020)


09 February 2017

The Mastery of Leadership

Sometimes the senior management of an organization resolves on the idea of providing subordinates with leadership training. Often these courses are considered unnecessary for higher levels but mandatory for mid-level, perpetuating the myth that what brings a person to the top of an organization must be correlated with what will make the organization great (or great again).

Several questions come to mind:

1: What is the goal? Is it that senior management can signal to their boards that they are striving for excellence? Is it to boost employee recruitment and retention? Is it to make mid-level managers more effective leaders?

2: Who should be taking these courses? Should it be all managers? Should it be all mid-level managers? Should it be those who rank low in leadership and leadership skills?

3: Who should be teaching the course? A self-anointed expert who read three airport books on the topic? Somebody with a Master's in Leadership from Podunk University? A practitioner: An officer who has led a company in battle, a successful former C.E.O.? A specialist who studies people: A psychologist, an anthropologist, a social scientist?

4: What should the course`s contents be? Self-awareness through insights discovery? The descriptive self? The appreciative and curious self? The coach approach? Oh my.

5: Are there alternatives to taking a course? Whatever happened to reading books and time to read them? Whatever happened to time for reflection?

To be sure, it is never a bad thing to learn something new, but time is the limiting factor for all of us. Consequently, time must be spent wisely, and activities must be prioritized. Is it useful for me to observe, read, and reflect? Probably. Is it useful for me to share my self-discovery crafts, learn to knit, juggle stress balls? Probably not.


30 June 2016

The Devil's Advocate's Rebellion

K was on his way to the conference room.

The C.F.O. had organized the meeting and had sent an invitation to about two dozen managers across the company. When K entered the room only the C.F.O. was there. K greeted him politely and took his usual seat near the far end of the conference table. K liked the C.F.O.; he didn't like meetings.

Slowly other managers trickled in: the Director of H.R., the Director of International Sales. The C.I.O., the C.D.O., the V.P. Marketing. The directors of sales North, South, East, and West, the assistant directors. K didn't pay much attention; he had brought his laptop to do some work. Only when the C.E.O. entered did K notice a momentary hush.

"Thank you all for coming," the C.F.O. said. "The title of today's webinar is Managing Resistance to Change."

The lights dimmed, the projector lit up, and the enthusiastic voice of the presenter came on. He is a somebody who does something somewhere in the mid-West. He is spouting the usual stuff, stuff that anybody would come up with within an hour of sitting back.

K starts looking around: What are other people thinking? Why is everybody taking notes? Shouldn't we all know this already? Doesn't the Manager of Budgeting have a Master's in Change Management? Shouldn't she be giving this presentation?

A slide comes up: "Why do you think employees resist change?"

"Fear." "They feel inadequate." "They just don't want to change." "Fear."

K wonders: But do they really? Do employees really resist change, or is it just a convenient excuse. It implies that everything would be honky dory if it just weren't for those pesky employees. And if they indeed resist change, what changes do they resist? And do they resist change more than managers do? And there is change to the worse, you know.

Berthold Brecht once observed that advocates of progress often have too low an opinion of what already exists.

Another slide: "What is the change strategy most often used in your organization? Four options: Collaborative, informational, attitudinal, political"

It takes fifteen seconds of groupthink to settle on the proper adjective.

K straightens up in his chair. Collaborative? But how do the employees perceive the situation? Would they call it collaborative? Or would they call it political? Or worse, autocratic? How can senior managers be so uncritical of their own perceptions and judgements? Cognitive illusions can be a costly fault in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

K's eyes are met by a smile from the C.D.O. across the table. K raises his eyebrows. Is the C.D.O. going to say something? But the data man doesn't, he never does, just looks away in embarrassment.

K wonders: Should I speak up? In fact, isn't it my duty to speak up, especially when nobody else does?

But why would he? It wasn't even his job. He was the lowest paid manager in the room. And the company has never rewarded a dissenter; quite the opposite. Besides, K has tried in the past, not once but often. And it was as if he had never spoken.

K raises his arm, waits for the chair to notice. Only slowly the room falls silent. K takes a deep breath. He opens his mouth. He is about to speak. But then he remembers, remembers a sentence he once read: Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence.

They might have likely escaped from K's words; but from his silence, never.


12 November 2015

The Good Employee's Dilemma

Summary: The average employee is rational, unselfish, and holds no personal opinion. If the success of the management scheme you are implementing depends on this assumption, you are bound to fail.

This never happened to me, of course. But I am told it does happen:

You are called into a meeting to hear the latest and hottest on crisis management, employee mentorship, the 8-step process for successful transformation, sustainable business models, Scientific Management, Kaizen, chaos theory in organizational development, goal setting theory, task motivation, becoming more effective, more efficient, more this, more that. You sit down, look around, gauge the leaden eyes of the other lost souls, and calculate how much money this meeting is going to cost.

Then the webinar starts and the enthusiastic voice of the presenter comes on. Typically, he or she is not an expert in the field, is "a consultant" instead, from "a think tank", has read a book or two on the topic, the kind of books you get in airport bookstores. The quality of the presentation is bad, the ideas trite -- think outside the box, get stakeholder buy-in, reach for the low hanging fruit, eliminate waste. Your mind is wandering to the pile of papers on your desk, the pile of papers you would be working on if you had the freedom to not sit here.

The presentation ends, the presenter thanks the audience, the audience congratulates the presenter. The senior manager who organized the meeting asks whether this was a useful exercise. He looks around the room. You keep that expression of innocence that you practiced in front of the mirror, the one that makes you look like a creepy robot, but suddenly you feel your chin move up and down.

Surely, trying to get better at things is a good thing. So what is the problem?

The problem is, in the words of the great Ben Cafferty(1): "You make it sound like there is a correlation between what should happen and what actually happens."

This is nothing new. In his excellent analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis Graham Allison(2) looked at institutional behaviour of government agencies through three explanatory models.

1: The rational actor: Institutions behave like a single rational actor.
2: Standard operating procedure: Individuals like to follow rituals.
3: Institutional politics: Institutional behaviour is a consequence of battles amongst power factions.

Now at your manager meeting, look around the room. What do you see?

Do you see people whose arguments are logical and consistent? Do you see individuals who act in the best interest of the organization? Do you see people who remain silent on topics they know nothing about? Do you see people who share the glory of success?

Or, do you see people battling each other, battling each other about budgets, about workers, about space, positions, titles, influence, access to authority. Do you see people pointing the fingers at each other behind their backs? Do you see individuals whose main concern is their own well-being, their reputation, their compensation? Do you see people whose egos stand in the way of collaboration?

Work environments vary, of course, not only between institutions, but also between departments within the same institution, and between subunits of departments. So what to do?

Middle management has no choice: In an environment where honesty and co-operation are rewarded, honesty and co-operation are the rational behavioural choices. In an environment where deceit and sabotage are rewarded, the rational choices are deceit and sabotage.

It is the responsibility of leadership to set the tone, and live the tone, and monitor the tone. But I admit that it is often difficult for them to find out what is really going on. Maybe we would all be better off with a little less nodding in agreement.


(1) Veep (2015): Season 4, Episode 9
(2) Graham Allison (1971), Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Little, Brown, and Company; Boston, Massachusetts


20 February 2015

Richard Branson's favourite quote: A brief deconstruction

Image: Michael Baumann (2015)

"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Richard Branson posted the quote above on LinkedIn on 18 Feb 2015(1). It has literally received thousands of "likes" and hundreds of sympathetic comments. There was also a link to his website(2), which revealed his top 10 quotes on change. Apparently, the above is his favourite.

Let's look at it.

THE FIRST THING that should be noted is that Darwin actually never said or wrote this. Given that it takes less than a minute to find out(3), I am surprised that neither Branson nor his people cared enough to check the quote's provenance. Just because something seems plausible, doesn't mean it is true. Just because somebody possibly said something, doesn't mean he or she actually did.

SECOND, in what way are companies similar to species in the natural world? And where do the similarities break down? If book stores are selling coffee, are they still book stores? If Apple starts building cars, is it still Apple? If dinosaurs grow feathers, we call them birds.

THIRD, Branson's favourite quote implies some struggle for existence. In the natural world evolution by natural selection requires three principles:

1: Different entities have different outward characteristics
2: Different outward characteristics have different rates of success in different environments
3: There is a correlation between parents and offspring

Companies clearly fulfil these requirements, even though correlation between parents and offspring is often achieved not through genes but through the copying of "best practices" or the poaching of successful executives.

What is important here is that natural selection can only work on the raw material that is present. Furthermore, natural selection must abide by constraints. That's why we don't see chess-playing mice or flying tigers -- although both would be splendid.

LAST, what does it mean to be "most responsive to change"? Is it a variation of the tired old adage: It's survival of the fittest out there, and the fittest can easily be identified as being the ones that survive.

Or does "most responsive to change" manifest itself in action? What are the causes of success for Goldman Sachs and Google, Coca Cola and Mercedes Benz? What are the causes of failure for Blockbuster and Lehman Brothers, DeLorean and Pan Am?

But don't we always credit success and failure to competence and lack thereof, never to luck, or circumstance, or history. Don't the winners always look methodical, flexible, and decisive and the losers confused, rigid, and hesitant?

More questions than answers.

Maybe the apocryphal Darwin quote should be followed up with an apocryphal Einstein quote(4): "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."


(1) https:erences//www.linkedin.com/pulse/activities/richard-branson+0_1QuFC1WMfgfkCu8XMGj1yd (Accessed: 20 Feb 2015)
(2) http://virg.in/qoc (Accessed: 20 Feb 2015)
(3) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin (Accessed: 20 Feb 2015), http://quoteinvestigator.com/category/charles-darwin/ (Accessed: 20 Feb 2015)
(4) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein (Accessed: 20 Feb 2015)


18 December 2014

Success = Competence + Luck

It is a frightening equation, really, because all your success is a function of your competence, which you control, and your luck, which you don't control. That we have accepted this equation as a good model of reality expresses itself in our attributions: When we succeed we attribute the outcome to our competence; when we fail we attribute it to bad luck. Most of us do.

In a perfect world, in a perfect meritocracy, everyone would get what they deserve and luck could be ignored. You work your way up the competence axis and reap the rewards on the success axis.

Image: Michael Baumann, 2014.

(Competence is of course a continuous variable. However, in the workplace it is treated discretely: Educational attainment, as a proxy for competence, is reflected in discrete salary scales; experience is reflected in discrete salary steps.)

In the real world, of course, you also need luck. Luck to be born in the right place at the right time. Luck to be physically and mentally healthy. Luck to have parents who care enough but not too much. Luck to receive a good education, to meet the right soul mate, to be in the right place at the right time.

Luck can be represented as the frequency distribution of successes at any given competence level.

Image: Michael Baumann, 2014.

We neither know what these distributions look like nor how wide they spread around the mean, i.e. the shape and magnitude of the luck component. We also don't know whether these distributions look the same for every competence level. But we do know that they overlap; we have all seen good people in bad positions, and bad people in good ones.

So what to take away from this?

  1. For most of us the labour market will decide our career path. That's the way it is, and ever was, and ever will be.
  2. The labour market is imperfect; a problem that may have a considerable cost to the economy.
  3. If you are in a position that undervalues your competence, keep moving within your competence level and regression to the mean will take care of you. (And don't make the mistake to assume that increasing your competence level will automatically put you in a better success position; we usually don't hire Ph.D.s into clerical positions.)
  4. If you are in a position that overvalues your competence, stay put or regression to the mean will take care of you, as it should.

Of course, there is the problem that we usually overestimate our own competence and underestimate that of everybody else. But that is another issue.


11 December 2014

The Dark Side of Volunteering

Image: Michael Baumann (2014)

I am disappointed in young people today, not in their sense of entitlement, which is a problem across generations, but in their utter lack of rebellion. And it is a mystery, really, for much of what they will inherit is badly damaged -- economy, environment, financial system, and so on.

It is therefore ironic when you, the young person, are asked to volunteer your time to contribute to your regional and global community.

My recommendation: Volunteer if you must, but know the caveats.

1: What is your motivation for volunteering? The spirit of volunteering is that the reward be internal, never external. If volunteering carries a utility (e.g. that your are more likely to get a job), the spirit of volunteering is lost.

2: Is volunteering an activity that carries social justice? Not everybody can afford to volunteer; most people must earn a living and take responsibility for their families. Are you thinking critically? Or have you been indoctrinated by the belief that volunteering is good? And if it is good, cui bono?

3: Is volunteering good for the labour market? Volunteering may take away somebody else's legitimate livelihood. Maybe even your own. Maybe not now, but maybe in the future.

4: Is volunteering shifting societal responsibilities? Volunteering may remove pressure from organizations (e.g. the government, insurance companies) to provide the services for which they are ostensibly collecting money (e.g. taxes, premiums).

5: Is the word "volunteering" newspeak? If volunteering has become a requirement, we can speak of volunteering no longer. We should at least be honest.

As always, think of the costs and benefits, the distribution of the costs and benefits, and the consequences of your actions before you act. Nothing is simple.


27 November 2014

Ten Tips for Princes and Princesses

It's 500 years old now Machiavelli's great little book "The Prince", and it's frequently misinterpreted. But there is much to be learned by managers and employees. Here is a distillation for modern times.

(Page references are to: Niccolo Machiavelli (1513), The Prince. Unabridged, Dover Thrift Editions, 71 pages.)

1: The goal of leadership is to maintain it; not less, not more.

p. 40: "It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not use his goodness as necessity requires."
p. 40: "He need never hesitate, however, to incur the reproach of those vices without which his authority can hardly be preserved; for if he well consider the whole matter, he will find that there may be a line of conduct having the appearance of virtue, to follow which would be his ruin, and there may be another course having the appearance of vice, by following which his safety and well-being are secured."
p. 61: "Prudence therefore consists in knowing how to distinguish degrees of disadvantage, and in accepting a less evil as a good."

2: Be informed, prepared, persistent, and patient.

p. 4: "For when you are on the spot, disorders are detected in their beginnings and remedies can be readily applied;"
p. 13: "But while it was their opportunities that made these men fortunate, it was their own merit that enabled them to recognize these opportunities and turn them to account, to the glory and prosperity of their country."
p. 46: "He must therefore keep his mind ready to shift as the winds and the tides of Fortune turn, and, as I have already said, he ought not to quit good courses if he can help it, but should know how to follow evil courses if he must."
p. 65: "[I]t is human nature when the sea is calm not to think of storms."
p. 66: "Nevertheless, that our free will be not wholly set aside, I think it may be the case that Fortune is the mistress of one half of our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little less, to ourselves."
p. 67: "Moreover, I believe that he will prosper most whose mode of acting best adapts itself to the character of the times; and conversely that he will be unprosperous, with whose mode of acting the times do not accord."
p. 68: "And always, like a woman, [Fortune] favours the young, because they are less scrupulous and fiercer, and command her with greater audacity."

3: Foster good will or fear, but avoid being hated.

p. 2: "For however strong you may be in respect of your army, it is essential that in entering a new Province you should have the good will of its inhabitants."
p. 5: "And the usual course of things is that soon as a formidable stranger enters a Province, all the weaker powers side with him, moved thereto by the ill-will they bear towards him who has hitherto kept them in subjection."
p. 45: "Returning to the question of being loved or feared, I sum up by saying, that since his being loved depends on his subjects, while his being feared depends on himself, a wise Prince should build on what is his own, and not on what rests with others. Only, as I have said, he must do his utmost to escape hatred."
p. 48: "Not to be hated or despised by the body of his subjects, is one of the surest safeguards that a Prince can have against conspiracy."
p 51: "[F]or as Princes cannot escape being hated by some, they should, in the first place, endeavour not to be hated by a class; failing in which, they must do all they can to escape the hatred of that class which is the stronger."
p. 56: "But by disarming, you at once give offence, since you show your subjects that you distrust them, either as doubting their courage, or as doubting their fidelity, each of which imputations begets hatred against you."
p. 58: "[T]he Prince who is more afraid of his subjects than of strangers ought to build fortresses, while he who is more afraid of strangers than of his subjects, should leave them alone."

4: Watch your reputation.

p. 46-47: "A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities above named, so that to see and hear him, one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity, and religion."
p. 47: "Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are."
p. 47: "For the vulgars are always taken by appearances and by results, and the world is made up of the vulgar, the few only finding room when the many have no longer ground to stand on."
p. 47: "A Prince is despised when he is seen to be fickle, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous, or irresolute, against which defects he ought therefore most carefully to guard, striving so to bear himself that greatness, courage, wisdom, and strength may appear in all his actions.
p. 50: "[...] Princes should devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility, and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favour. And again I say that a Prince should esteem the great, but must not make himself odious to the people."

5: Follow what proved successful in the past or somewhere else.

p. 12: "[T]he wise man should always follow the roads that have been trodden by the great, and imitate those who have most excelled, so that if he cannot reach their perfection, he may at least acquire something of its savour."
p. 20: "Whoever, therefore, on entering a new Princedom, judges it necessary to rid himself of enemies, to conciliate friends, to prevail by force or fraud, to make himself feared yet not hated by his subjects, respected and obeyed by his soldiers, to crush those who can or ought to injure him, to introduce changes in the old order of things, to be at once severe and affable, magnanimous and liberal, to do away with a mutinous army and create a new one, to maintain relations with Kings and Princes on such a footing that they must see it for their interest to aid him, and dangerous to offend, can find no brighter example than in the actions of this Prince [Cesare Borgia]."
p. 39: "As to the mental training of which we have spoken, a Prince should read histories, and in these should note the actions of great men, observe how they conducted themselves in their wars, and examine the causes of their victories and defeats, so as to avoid the latter and imitate them in the former."

6: Set realistic goals and introduce change carefully.

p. 7: "The wish to acquire is no doubt a natural and common sentiment, and when men attempt things within their power, they will always be praised rather than blamed. But when they persist in attempts that are beyond their power, mishaps and blame ensue."
p. 13: "And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new."

7: If a battle must be fought, fight it early rather than later.

p. 4: "And let it here be noted that men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed, since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisal."
p. 8: "[Y]ou ought never to suffer your designs to be crossed in order to avoid war, since war is not so to be avoided, but is only deferred to your disadvantage."
p. 14: "Hence it comes that all armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed."
p. 23: "Injuries, therefore, should be inflicted all at once, that their ill savour being less lasting may the less offend; whereas, benefits should be conferred little by little, that so they may be more fully relished."
p. 43: "A Prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient. For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole state, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.
p. 43: "Nevertheless, the new Prince should not be too ready of belief, nor too easily set in motion; nor should he himself be the first to raise alarms; but should so temper prudence with kindliness that too great confidence in others shall not throw him off his guard, nor groundless distrust render him insupportable."

8: Always declare where you stand.

p. 60: "A Prince is likewise esteemed who is a stanch friend and a thorough foe, that is to say, who without reserve openly declares for one against another, this being always a more advantageous course than to stand neutral."
p. 60: "And it will always happen that he who is not your friend will invite you to neutrality, while he who is your friend will call on you to declare yourself openly in arms."

9: Choose your advisors carefully.

p. 62: "When you see a Minister thinking more of himself than of you, and in all his actions seeking his own ends, that man can never be a good Minister or one that you can trust. For he who has the charge of the state committed to him, ought not to think of himself, but only of his Prince, and should never bring to the notice of the latter what does not directly concern him.
p. 62: "On the other hand, to keep his Minster good, the Prince should be considerate of him, dignifying him, enriching him, binding him to himself by benefits, and sharing with him the honours as well as the burthens of the State, so that the abundant honours and wealth bestowed on him may divert him from seeking them at other hands."
p. 63: "For there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offence in hearing the truth: but when every one is free to tell you the truth respect falls short. Wherefore a prudent Prince should follow the middle course, by choosing certain discreet men from among his subjects, and allowing them alone free leave to speak their minds on any matter on which he asks their opinion, and on none other. But he ought to ask their opinion on everything, and after hearing what they have to say should reflect and judge for himself."

10: Permit your staff autonomy, mastery, and purpose, but be careful.

p. 8: "[H]e who is the cause of another's greatness is himself undone[.]" p. 61: "Again, a Prince should show himself a patron of merit, and should honour those who excel in every art. He ought accordingly to encourage his subjects by enabling them to pursue their callings, whether mercantile, agricultural, or any other, in security, that that this man shall not be deterred from beautifying his possessions from the apprehension that they may be taken from him, or that other refrain from opening a trade through fear of taxes; and he should provide rewards for those who desire so to employ themselves, and for all who are disposed in any way to add to the greatness of his City or State."