Thursday, August 28, 2008

Recommended Reading

So I've been meaning to read something by Cory Doctorow for a while. The guy has class, and he's a prominent member of today's civil-rights community, which I have a lot of respect for.

I've finally gotten round to looking up his site, and read one of the e-books he makes freely available: Little Brother. It freaked the hell out of me. And it prominently raised a question that's been bothering me for a while: why don't most people pay any attention to attacks on their rights?

Why do people cheer when the government arrests people, locks them up without trial, and won't release them even if they're proved innocent? Why do people accept the government's right to snoop on people in the hope of catching them in minor misdemeanours? In short, how can anyone hear the words "if you've nothing to hide then you've nothing to fear" without spitting soft drink all over their keyboard?

Governments are made of people. People can get things wrong. Worse, a decent minority of people are power-hungry bastards. Any organisation that possesses power will tend to attract such individuals like wasps to a picnic. Once a critical mass of bastards builds up, a powerful organisation can go bad real fast.

Terrorist groups are also made up of people, most of whom can be legitimately considered to be bastards. However, there are several important differences here:

1) Governments have better raw materials. So far no terrorist has ever got hold of a nuke; the government of the USA has about 10,000 and once blew up two whole cities.

2) Governments have more manpower. Al Qaeda is estimated to have on the order of 20,000 members worldwide, many of whom have day jobs. The UK Civil Service has 500,000 full-time employees, and that's just one component of one country's government.

3) Governments have stronger surveillance capacity. Fraudsters have to struggle to get access to even a few people's records; the UK government has lost 30 million personal records this year alone, including mine.

4) Governments tend to get the benefit of the doubt. If any non-governmental group had killed as many dogs as the various USA police forces, they'd have been (ahem) hounded out of the country.

Governments have 99% of the power, 99% of the weapons, and 99% of the mob support. Goverments have a long history of going bad. And yet we're worried about those terrorists who don't work for the State?
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Tuesday, August 26, 2008


One of my favourite books, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stevenson, contains frequent references to a specialist mailing list for crypto geeks. The problem is that, in the real world, any mailing list offering high-level cryptographic discussion quickly gets colonised by opinionated numpties. So, in true Darwinian form, they're quite hard to locate.

I think I've just stumbled across one here. This is great for me, because I've wanted to develop a more advanced knowledge of cryptoanalysis for some time. Probably not so good for the list that it's been discovered by the outside world.

Once my forthcoming actuarial exams are over, I'll have to have a browse through the archives (in between learning Bengali and ancient Assyrian and brushing up on my computational biology). I'll let you know if I discover anything particularly interesting.
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Random poetry day (week?)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

- "If" by Rudyard Kipling

This poem is the best expression of the Stoic philosophy I've ever come across, and every time I read it I find some new application to my life. Stoicism is intended to inure people to the stresses of existence - a good lifestyle for kings, generals, and those who try to arrange large lunch gatherings.
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On the Psychology of Military Incompetence the title of a rather good book I came across a couple of years back. Despite being dated by its Freudian lingo, it was a rather well-thought-out consideration of an apparently simple question: why do generals suck so badly?

It used to be (possibly still is) a well-worn aphorism among soldiers that, whilst the poor sod in a different uniform might kill you, it was your general who would murder you. That was adequately demonstrated by the "meat-grinder" battles of the World Wars, where millions of men were thrown into combat with effectively no chance of achieving the mission objectives or coming out alive.

Or, for another example, consider the infamous defence of Johore (in Malaya). The British commander decided what direction he thought the attack would come from, concentrated all his forces in that direction, and stubbornly ignored all evidence to the contrary. He even ordered that no barricades be built because it would be "bad for morale". Of course, when the Japanese arrived, the defensive line was obliterated.

Why would someone give orders that were so blatantly stupid? OtPoMI gives a thorough discussion of this question, and turns up two main conclusions:

1) The reputation of the military is such that the people who join it tend to be insecure people looking for a stable foundation.

2) The structure of the military is such that risk-averse careerists tend to rise through the ranks fastest.

The result of this is that you get a whole range of commanders who replace self-confidence with bluster, who are inexperienced at dealing with trouble, and who see each battle not as a learning experience but as a threat to their personal reputation. You get people who, faced with a deteriorating situation, are completely unable to get their brain in gear, let alone sort things out (in fact, the Johore story gives a clear example of generals focusing on morale to the exclusion of reality - were they just trying to clear their heads?)

In short, you get people who are likely to screw up really badly.

I've currently got a bit too much of that in me for my liking. In yesterday's restaurant debacle, I was more worried about my reputation as an organiser than about the actual event. A good leader would have focused on making sure everyone was happy, even if this meant ditching the restaurant early and hitting the canteen. But I was too busy panicking to display that level of flexibility.

A good leader would have accepted that this was just one of those things, taken his lumps from the rest of the group, and moved on. I got defensive. I don't think I did anything particularly dumb, but the potential was there. Again, I was focusing on my reputation, and thus failing to "keep my head when all about were losing theirs and blaming it on me".

I have a naturally careerist streak. I don't necessarily apologise for this - it's an excellent source of personal motivation, and frankly I'd have done a lot better at uni if I'd developed this tendency sooner. But it does leave me open to precisely this sort of funk. Before we left for the restaurant, the dept manager had complimented me for arranging the leaving do unasked. If anything, being in the spotlight like this just made me freeze up even worse when everything went pear-shaped.

However, one advantage I have over the generals of yesteryear is that no-one can(successfully) accuse me of avoiding novelty or challenge. Hell, I went to one of the weirdest (and hence most successful) universities in the world. I can hack it.

The problem with careerism isn't so much that it leads to bad behaviour as that it leads to overfocusing on reputation and hence to bad stress reactions. I hereby resolve to learn to control this behaviour. In a way, yesterday was great, because I learned how much damage my adrenal gland can do me. Next time the shit hits the fan, I intend to be carrying an umbrella.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Opposite of "up"

Feeling fairly down at the moment. I'm dealing with the aftermath of a massive adrenaline spike round about lunchtime, followed by an emotional kick in the goolies during the afternoon.

Today was a co-worker's last day in the team - she's leaving for a more interesting job elsewhere. I've only been on the team for a couple of weeks now but, when I found out that no-one had arranged a goodbye lunch for her, I figured "what the hell, worth a shot".

This is the first time I've organised something like this, so I made a point to cover all bases. I booked the restaurant, sent emails to the group, kept a log of who was coming. I even called in to the restaurant earlier today, just to make sure nothing could go wrong. I got everyone out of the office promptly, made sure they made it to the restaurant, ordered food, and sat chatting while we waited for it to arrive.

And waited. And waited. And waited.

After 40 minutes, we're getting a bit worried. The food hasn't arrived and, although the conversation has been excellent, we do need to be back at the office in about half an hour for a team meeting. It's only a three-minute walk so this isn't a problem, as long as the food arrives now. I check with one of the waitresses and she tells us it'll only be five minutes more.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. And all the time my blood pressure is getting higher and higher as I contemplate the consequences of having invited everyone to a lunch at which no food was actually served.

Turns out that the restaurant next door had closed for the day, so all its business was coming to our restaurant. And, being such helpful fellows, they couldn't possibly turn anyone away...

Eventually the manager comes over to us and confesses that there's unlikely to be any food arriving. He's very apologetic, and offers us a stack of free pizzas for collection in half an hour or so. So at least people got some lunch in the end, but it was still bloody stressful to feel like I'm responsible for everyone going hungry.

That was Act One. By this point, I'm on the boil, out of my mind on fight-or-flight hormones, I feel like the sky is falling, etc, etc. And another co-worker (who hadn't even been to lunch) picks that moment to request that I don't talk to him again except about work stuff.

That's kinda harsh. The worrying thing is, I have this complete uncertainty about whether I did anything to deserve it. I've said nasty things to this guy previously, but only in a well-defined context of mutual bloke-on-bloke teasing. Did I cross a line? Did I go outside that context? If so, why did he wait til now to say something?

Or, more worryingly, is it something I'm not even aware of that set him off? I react very badly to adrenaline. Round about the lunch-induced hormone spike, there are periods where I can't remember precisely what I said to whom. What did I say to him???

My brain is currently frying in its own juices on a mixture of emotional exhaustion and Othello-level paranoia. So no management skepticism tonight. I'll be OK come tomorrow, when my body chemistry is normal and the molehill stops looking quite so mountainous.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008


One of the useful features of a new job is a chance to reinvent yourself a bit. I've been doing OK on that front, but of course there's some things you can never change.

For example, as a long-time introvert, it's inevitable that I'll seek peace and quiet to recharge my batteries. As an introvert, I should do better when focusing on my own personal tasks than when interacting with others. Right?

Well, actually, I spent today's "dead time"* organising a leaving do for a team member. And, despite the slight possibility that everyone will weasel out and the restaurant will break my legs for booking too much space, it's been really energising. It totally got me raring to go, and my ability to focus on work improved dramatically.

So what's the secret here? What is it that turns an habitual introvert into a contact-seeking extrovert? After a couple of weeks in my current role, I think I've put my finger on it.

Extroverts are people who have really. Boring. Jobs.**

* In case my employers come across this, I should clarify that this refers to e.g. the time between handing over a massive stack of completed cases and being given another massive stack to start on.

** I'm not so bothered about my employers reading this, because it's a widely-acknowledged fact of life in our team. If they fired everyone who said the work was dull, they'd get lonely real fast...
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Random poetry day

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much

- Excerpt from Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

Hat tip to Matt Ridley and his excellent book The Red Queen
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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Management Skeptic #3: Detecting Lemons

This series discusses the concept of "management models" from a skeptical viewpoint. In my first post, I raised the question: do "management models" such as PRINCE2 improve a practitioner's ability to manage? In my second post, I discussed a common argument in support of this claim and demonstrated why it doesn't hold up.

This post analyses a second common argument in support of management models, and provides more reasons why a course can be popular without being any good.

Argument #2: Management models must be good, or why would companies buy into them?

In my last post, I discussed how a qualification can be very useful for job applicants without actually achieving anything in itself. Candidates who have been on well-marketed courses like PRINCE2 will often be seen as more competent, regardless of their real proficiency. As a counterexample I presented the "VISCOUNT4" thought experiment: a training course that is deeply popular despite sucking.

But why, one might ask, does this work in the long term? Why would companies hire people with a worthless qualification, and how can they prosper if they do? In short, why doesn't the "natural selection" of capitalism weed out VISCOUNT4-style courses?

From this question, it's easy to start jumping to conclusions. If these companies survive then preferential hiring of PRINCE2 practitioners must be beneficial for a company, so clearly PRINCE2 itself must make managers more effective...

I already discussed one objection to this chain of logic: it's possible that this preferential hiring is doing damage, but that the self-interested interviewers still favour a qualification that many of them possess.

In this post, I will provide another answer. I'd like to draw your attention to one of the most fascinating developments in economics since the young Adam Smith got a summer job at the nail-making factory: the new concept of information asymmetry.

The basic principle is simple. When someone suspects that a purchase isn't worth the asking price, they won't buy it. For example, why is it that the value of a car drops dramatically as soon as it leaves the vendor's turf? Because a small number of cars in any batch will be dodgy - "lemons" - and, by trying to sell your car on so soon, you're signalling to the world that you've been landed with one of them.

This sounds like common sense, but it creates a headache for economists. For example, back when England's currency was based on precious metals, it was well-known that "bad money drives out good". Some coins would be adulterated, forged, and otherwise tampered with in order to extract some of the value from them. Of course, when you found that you'd been landed with one of these lemons, you'd try to palm it off on some other sucker, but you'd keep the good coins safe in your wallet.

After a while, the very fact that you were trying to pay with a coin sent a signal to the vendor that that coin sucked. The value of money declined, which made it even more futile to pay with a good coin. A race to the bottom ensued that required heavy-duty government intervention to resolve.

The job market seems like it would be very vulnerable to this effect. If companies tend to retain good employees and ditch bad ones, soon the very fact that someone is after a job is itself enough to taint their application. How do we get around this? How does a good candidate signal to the employer that they are indeed a good candidate?

The answer is that they perform a task that is relatively easy for them but would be deeply painful for a poor candidate. Back in the old days, hunters used to prove their strength and tactical expertise by slaying a large predator, and anyone who hadn't yet done so was given reduced privileges within the tribe.

These days, students flock to universities in their thousands, in the safe knowledge that the time spent (wasted?) on some obscure academic subject will repay itself when they hit the job market. It's (fairly) easy for a smart, disciplined individual to pass exams, but very difficult if you're a poor candidate.

Similarly, although VISCOUNT4 may not contribute to a manager's effectiveness, the fact that someone has put themselves through expensive training courses demonstrates a great deal of commitment to the cause. Imagine: they could have gone on a three-week bender, they could have spent a weekend in Amsterdam's red light district, they could have knocked a month off their mortgage repayments, but instead they went on a training course. What dedication that individual must have!

So, counterintuitively, even if VISCOUNT4 sucks it may still be in employers' best interests to hire VISCOUNT4 practitioners. The world is weird that way.
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Management skeptic (post #2)

In my last post, I raised the question: what advantage do "management models" such as PRINCE2 convey to the practitioner? Are they really worth the expensive training courses?

I've discussed this with many people, and they all seem to think the answer is "yes". In fact, it's almost unquestioned in management circles that applying management models can improve your management ability. In particular, implementation of quality management models like EFQM is in many cases required before people will entrust you with business. And you have to pass an exam on the Actuarial Control Loop (a variant of the management control loop I mentioned last time) before you can become an actuary.

If management models really are effective then that's fair enough. But I'm not sure the question has been answered.

In this and future posts I'll look at the various arguments provided for management models, with a description of why each gets my skeptical spider-sense tingling.

Argument #1: Management models look good on your CV

This one is actually true: if you've taken PRINCE2 (for example), it's generally assumed that you're a more competent project manager than a similar candidate who hasn't. This contrast is amplified by the number of managers who have taken PRINCE2 and therefore have an incentive to emphasise its coolness.

However, this effect isn't directly due to PRINCE2 itself, but rather to the packaging, marketing and community that surrounds it. Consider an imaginary qualification, which I'll call VISCOUNT4. This qualification is completely useless, but the VISCOUNT4 company has excellent advertising skills and soon manages to convince everyone that what their CV really needs is a VISCOUNT4 certificate.

As a result of this, VISCOUNT4 becomes immensely popular, and is subject to the positive feedback loop I mentioned above where managers with VISCOUNT4 tend to hire other managers with VISCOUNT4. The course quickly becomes a prerequisite for project management. But it still sucks.

In short, the popularity of PRINCE2 is not an argument for the effectiveness of PRINCE2, because the VISCOUNT4 scenario demonstrates another way that this popularity can arise. The PRINCE2 model cannot be said to have value simply because the PRINCE2 marketing is superb.
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The Pink Link

It's well-known that many animals use colour to signal to each other (the classic example being baboons' bottoms), and of course this applies to humans too. We have the additional advantage that we can change our colour scheme without application of any nasty hormones.

I think I've identified one interesting example of this. It's noticeable in (British, financial-sector) offices that the colour pink is rarely worn by guys - unless that guy is a manager.

My best guess is that this originated as a statement of independence - the guy is signalling "I'm so powerful/self-confident that I don't need to obey peer pressure. That's a message that would be expected to propagate within the management community (because they like to think of themselves as standing out from the crowd) but not outside it. It's like deliberately picking the wrong urinal.

If I've noticed this trend, other people probably have too, so I suspect that the fashion is evolving into a way for management-inclined individuals to make their presence known to each other. In a spirit of scientific enquiry, I'm going to wear a pink shirt into work today and see if my new boss (who I've also seen wearing pink) pays any attention.

Watch this space.

Update: Nope, doesn't make any noticeable difference apart from getting me the occasional funny look from co-workers. I still think there's a correspondence here between managers and pink shirts, but clearly it only goes one way.

Update #2: Just received some rather good feedback from the new boss at the client company via my boss from the company that's farming me out. Bear in mind that this has passed through two layers of management, so is probably more motivation than message. However, this is the first time anyone has ever used the word "charismatic" to describe me, so I must be doing something better than I usually do.

This feedback provides slight support for the Pink Principle. It's a rather weak data point, but I've at least reverted from "skeptical" to "undecided" on this question.
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Monday, August 04, 2008

I can has intarweb?

Yes, u can has intarweb!

In English: I'm currently on contract (basically my company decided to farm me out for a few months to another company). This means that I'm staying at a hotel. With wifi (which my flat still lacks). And sod-all to do in the evenings, pardon my French.

Given half a chance, I'll use some of the time to complete the series on management skepticism, and maybe expand it a bit. It's something I need to think through anyway.

Other random thoughts, before I forget:

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