My commentary


Fairy tales and ethics (26 Nov 2020)
Why I write (27 Apr 2017)

Public policy

CoViD-19 and young adults (10 Sep 2020)
CoViD-19, public policy, and buying time (26 Mar 2020)
The fish that were there (but didn't exist) (30 Mar 2017)
When sabotage and standard operating procedure become indistinguishable (2 Mar 2017)


Leadership -- Nature red in tooth and claw (17 Jan 2019)
Budget Day or The Tale of the Villagers and the Pie (9 Mar 2017)
Everything you ever needed to know about management (26 Jan 2017)

The labour market

Deconstructing the new workplace (1 Oct 2020)
On automation (2019)
On job interviews (2019)
Success = Competence + Luck (18 Dec 2014)
Selection criteria in the labour market (29 Nov 2012)

Fairy tales and ethics

Thursday, 26 Nov 2020

ILast 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?

Deconstructing the new workplace

Thursday, 1 Oct 2020

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.

CoViD-19 and young adults

Thursday, 10 Sep 2020

I have no great liking for young adults. It is not because they are idiots, and it is not because they are hypocrites. Who is not an idiot when they are young? And living a consistent life is hard at the best of times.

No, I have no great liking for the current young adults because of their lack of self-awareness combined with their inflated need to give their "input". (I do admit it is largely my generation's fault to have circus-trained them that way.)

Still, when I heard that the second wave of CoViD-19 in B.C. is largely driven by young adults, I wanted to see the raw data first. In fact, I was hoping to vindicate young adults on this one, despite the display of stupidity I witnessed on U.B.C.'s sports fields over the weekend.

Unfortunately, vindicate them I can not. The age class 20 to 29 makes up 12.7% of B.C.'s population. In the eight weeks from 6 Jul 2020 to 30 Aug 2020, they produced 912 of the 2,778 CoViD-19 infections in B.C.. That's 32.8%, or >2.5 times their fair share.

In times like these, choosing not to wear a mask is about as smart as choosing not to stop at a red traffic light. Be smarter. Prove me wrong.

CoViD-19, public policy, and buying time

Thursday, 26 Mar 2020


  1. A large proportion of the population will contract CoViD-19.
  2. Behavioural restrictions will only make a difference when strictly obeyed and adhered to for a long time.
  3. There is always hope.


On 11 Mar 2020 German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that 60 to 70% of the German population may contract CoViD-19(1). I thought that the number is rather high. But Dr. Merkel is not an incompetent idiot -- and neither is her advisor on this matter, Dr. Wieler, Head of the Robert Koch Institute. When no other world leader announced similar predictions, I became curious.

So I did what I was trained to do and developed my own quantitative model (Figure 1). The model is simplistic, of course, the assumptions many, and the parameters calculated from public sources(2).

Figure 1: A simple S-I-R model for CoViD-19 with four state variables (Susceptibles, Infected, Recovered, and Deaths) and three flow variables (becoming infected, recovering, and dying). Simulations were run on a spreadsheet for a period of 720 days at a resolution of one day.

(To those unfamiliar with the technique of modelling: The purpose of a quantitative model is to clarify relationships, to communicate understanding, and to explore the outcomes of alternative policy options. The key product of a model should be "a small set of strong (robust) qualitative arguments and conclusions that can be understood and debated by actors without quantitative skill."(3) Qualitative insights into the dynamics of a complex adaptive system, not accurate emulations are the goal(4).)

The most important flow in the model is (becoming infected):

(becoming infected) = (Daily probability of encountering an infected person) * (Probability of becoming infected in one encounter with infected person) * (Number of Susceptibles)

(Daily probability of encountering an infected person) itself is a function of the (Daily number of encounters with other people)(5).

Just keep these two in mind:

n: Daily number of encounters with other people
β: Probability of becoming infected in one encounter with infected person

For a full explanation of the model and to explore policy options, please download the spreadsheet from the link below(6).


The goals (health goals, social goals, economic goals) of governments during an epidemic are simple: Keep the epidemic short and contained, with as few people falling ill and dying as possible. Epidemic indicators that measure the state of the epidemic are:

  1. Period to the peak of the epidemic
  2. Daily number of people becoming infected -- the curve that must be flattened(7)
  3. Percentage of population becoming infected during epidemic
  4. Total number of deaths during epidemic

Governments are expected to act and the two variables they have acted upon are -- you guessed it -- n and β. n can be varied by self-isolation. β can be varied by social distancing, washing your hands, and wiping surfaces clean. That said, in terms of behavioural restrictions, it is a lot harder to reduce n than β.

The results of my simulations qualitatively match Dr. Wieler's assessment(1). Reducing the daily number of encounters with other people to eight and the probability of becoming infected in one encounter with infected person to 4%, will still result in 72% of the population becoming infected during epidemic.

Figure 2: Model simulations runs. Top: n = 32 and β = 8%. Bottom: n = 8 and β = 2%. S and R are scaled on the left ordinate, I is scaled on the right.

Furthermore, as can be seen from the graph, changing n and β will have opposite effects on some of the government goals. (For details see Table 1.)

Table 1: Sensitivity of the four epidemic indicators to two policy variables.

Note that for a high n reducing β has only moderate effects on the percentage of population becoming infected and on the total number of deaths. And for a high β reducing n has little effect on these indicators. Only a combination of low n AND low β produces preferred outcomes. The landscape of the n-β co-ordinate system is flat in the high values and steep towards the smaller values, the region of more severe behavioural restrictions on personal freedoms.

Also note that simulation runs indicate that behavioural restrictions will only make a difference when strictly obeyed and adhered to for a long time.


There is currently a lot of uncertainty, the most important being that with limited testing capacity our knowledge of the current status of the spread of CoViD-19 remains limited(10).

What is clear from these simulations is that the government will have to make some hard choices. That said, there is always hope.

First, CoViD-19 may go the way SARS has gone(7). The CoViD-19 agent SARS-CoV-2 is a single-stranded R.N.A. virus, and R.N.A. viruses usually have high mutation rates because errors in replicating the genomes are not corrected by proofreading.(8).

Second, the CoViD-19 outbreak has accelerated the development of new vaccine technology, making vaccine development quicker and more effective(11).

Third, if CoViD-19 does not disappear on its own accord, we will need a good deal of creativity and imagination to minimize its impact and maintain a functioning society. The key will be the appropriate people in the appropriate places to do some serious thinking(12).

One thing is certain: Reducing n and β will buy us some time(13).

In the meantime: Keep calm and be kind.


(1) (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020)
(2) (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020)
(3) Carl Walters (1986), Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources: 36.
(4) For a completely misguided CoViD-19 model see (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020)
(5) Note that defining what exactly constitutes "an encounter" is not a trivial problem, and that both n and β are notoriously difficult to measure in situ and are best estimated from outbreak data.
(6) (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020)
(7) (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020)
(8) In order to determine what percentage of the population has contracted CoViD-19, tests for human antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 rather than P.C.R. tests for the SARS-CoV-2 genome will be necessary.
(9) (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020); Netflix series (2019) Explained (S2E7): The Next Pandemic.
(10) Neil A. Campbell et al. (2008), Biology (8th edition): 39. Note however, that while mutations can go in any direction, natural selection will favour some over others.
(11) (Accessed: 26 Mar 2020)
(12) My suggestion is to treat the outbreak as a meta-population problem and develop creative policies from there.
(13) Once the epidemic is over, let's make sure that cause and effect are attributed accurately.
As always, no thanks would be too much for the Tech Industry.

On automation

Thursday, 2019


"As has been the case throughout economic history, such augmentation of existing jobs through technology is expected to create wholly new tasks -- from app development to piloting drones to remotely monitoring patient health to certified care workers -- opening up opportunities for an entirely new range of livelihoods for workers."
Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum (2018)(2)


(1) Rephann, T.J. (2011), The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry in Virginia.
(2) Schwab, K. (2018), Preface to The Future of Jobs Report 2018. World Economic Forum (; Accessed: 2018).

On job interviews

Thursday, 11 Jul 2019


  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.

Leadership -- Nature red in tooth and claw

Thursday, 17 Jan 2019

Source: 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, 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.

Why I write

Thursday, 27 Apr 2017

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: (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 ( (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.

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

Thursday, 30 Mar 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: (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017), (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) (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017)
(2) (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?

Budget Day or The Tale of the Villagers and the Pie

Thursday, 9 Mar 2017


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."

When sabotage and standard operating procedure become indistinguishable

Thursday, 2 Mar 2017

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: (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 (Accessed: 5 Mar 2020)

Everything you ever needed to know about management

Thursday, 26 Jan 2017

There is initiative management, incentive management, and reward management. There is scientific management, task management, and best practices. There is people management, and change management, and risk management. There are literally thousands and thousands of books on any kind of management, the kind of books you get in airport bookstores. And, of course, there is McKinsey, and B.C.G., and the Big Four, and endless hours of meetings and sharing, about planning, resourcing, organizing, co-ordinating, commanding, and controlling.

I never understood that. All you really need is the following graph and a little bit of common sense. But do mind the arrows!

(And yes, the details matter, but nobody can tell you how to motivate Jesse Pinkman.)

Mind you, I am talking about simple management here, like running a country, a university, an H.R. department. When we are talking about finding the optimal policy choices, the first thing you need to understand is this figure:

Source: Carl Walters (1986), Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources: p. 268

Take it from here.

Success = Competence + Luck

Thursday, 18 Dec 2014

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 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.

Selection critieria in the labour market

Thursday, 29 Nov 2012

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

Discipline knowledge Transferable cognitive skills Transferable behavioural traits Leadership
- 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

End of text.