I started this blog in 2011 in order to clarify my thoughts on how the world works. I gave it up in 2013. I rediscovered it in 2022 and began updating the relevant articles, leaving the original publication dates intact. You can sort the articles by topics by clicking on the labels on the side bar.
07 April 2022
How I am
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.
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?
11 July 2019
On job interviews
BEFORE THE INTERVIEW
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
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 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 through the company website, LinkedIn, etc..
AT THE INTERVIEW
1: Dress professionally according to the tribal culture (e.g. journalists, programmers, field scientists, lab scientists), 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. (And you wouldn't want to work for an organization that doesn't appreciate honesty.)
5: Have good answers for the standard questions. (If you don't know them, google "standard interview questions".)
6: Prepare three questions that you want to ask. They can be standard questions, but they must be relevant. E.g.: What does the workday/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.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
1: After the interview, send a genuine thank you note via email.
2: Never ask for feedback from interviewers unless they offer it.
STANDARD INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Tell us about yourself.
Why should we hire you?
What are your strengths/weaknesses?
Tell us about our organization.
Tell us about a time when you had to handle a conflict.
How do you manage work/life balance?
What is your leadership/management style?
Do you have any questions for us?
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 all organizations to include 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 two.
Selection criteria in the labour market
17 January 2019
Leadership -- Nature red in tooth and claw
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.
PROPOSITION #1: I AM WRONG.
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.
PROPOSITION #2: BAD LEADERS DON'T LEARN.
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?
PROPOSITION #3: GOOD LEADERSHIP IS HARD.
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.
PROPOSITION #4: LEADERSHIP -- NATURE RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW.
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.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(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.
09 November 2017
The simile of the doomed flight
[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?
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(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
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.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(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.
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?
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(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)
29 January 2015
The Human Mind, Time Lags, and H.R.
The human mind is the most fascinating thing in the Universe. Unfortunately, it has its shortcomings, and one of them is that it doesn't handle time lags well. About 15 years ago I ran into a problem that went something like this:
Consider an organization with 1,400 employees; 1,200 are experienced workers, 200 are trainees. Every year 50 experienced workers are retiring. All retirees are always and exclusively replaced by trainees. Promoted trainees are always and exclusively replaced by new hires. It takes four years for a trainee to become an experienced worker. For the last ten years the number of experienced workers has remained constant, when suddenly the number of retirees doubles to 100 and remains at that level. What will happen to the number of experienced workers and the number of trainees? Draw a diagram that shows the number of experienced workers and the number of trainees over time. How confident are you in your prediction?
If you are having a hard time solving this problem, you are not alone. Over the years I have presented it to a number of people, and only a few could solve it with confidence. One person sent me an equation that he had colour-coded with no less than six different colours; it was still wrong and he showed no interest in finding out why.
Other people told me after they couldn't solve the problem that the exercise was not realistic because it ignores resignations, sackings, hiring of experienced workers, and so on. Their logic: If I can't solve a simple problem, why not try a more complex one.
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.
(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.
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 administrative 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.
25 November 2011
Thank you. Thank you very much.
One wouldn't think that I have to say this, but always say thank you! (And for the utilitarians out there: Getting a job might depend on it.)
Somebody is holding the door open for you. Thank you. Somebody is giving you a piece of advice. Thank you. Somebody is serving you dinner. Thank you. Somebody is sending you information you requested. Thank you. Somebody is listening to an idea you have. Thank you. Somebody is letting you merge on the highway. Thank you. ...
Nobody ever got offended by being thanked for something they did.