Friday, November 27, 2009

The Gervais Principle

We're not above dabbling in pop-sociology here at I'm Just Sayin' headquarters.  With that in mind, I offer business theory, according to The Office.

There are a bunch of convenient fictions that help us make sense of our world, or at least minimize the extent to which our world freaks us out.  We like to pretend that nations are things, that reality shows deal in reality, that drugs are the sort of thing upon which war might be declared, and so on.  Among these convenient untruths is the idea that we live in something called a meritocracy.

This meritocracy theory should fall flat on its face.  Do you really believe that you were the best person available who might have filled your slot in your company/university/bedroom/whatever?  Do you really believe the same of your cow-orkers, classmates, bosses, teachers, partners/whatevers?

Most of us resolve this discord by assuming incompetence.  Sure, SATs are a bad proxy for scholarship, and CVs are a bad proxy for competence at a job.  Judging folks based on their physical stature or dress or behavior in highly contrived situations is no good.  But we haven't got anything better.  Or maybe a select few "get it," and will revolutionize the world.

In the corporate world though, what evidence is there of firms "getting it?"  There are some internet-famous companies like 37 Signals and Joel On Software's firm that understand the evils of CVs and cubicles and retarded interview questions, but Microsoft very famously doesn't.  You KNOW IBM doesn't.  Any of the non-tech companies will fare even worse.

Why haven't the companies that "get" the flaws in our meritocratic implementation used that information as competitive advantage and won out over the others?  Perhaps the failed implementation is a feature, not a bug.  Perhaps we don't live in a meritocracy, or, more accurately, the definition of "merit" is otherwise than what we had thought.

What does our system do a GOOD job of screening for?  Folks with good social connections.  Folks who are willing and able to follow arbitrary, stupid, or even self-contradicting rules in order to get ahead.  Folks who understand and follow the mechanisms of in-group/out-group identification.  Folks who are ambitious enough to wade through a bunch of meaningless crap in order to get what they want.

Corporations have economies of scale as worker count goes from thousands to tens of thousands.  Our species on the other hand was designed to function well in small groups of related or otherwise closely knit members.  Perhaps the kinds of folks who succeed in our crazy setup are the kind that are needed to resolve that disconnect.  The "enlightened" companies like 37 Signals are like ants.  They've got a system that works well at their scale, but if they ever grew to the size of a megacorp, they'd collapse under their own weight. To their credit, the 37s folks realize this, recognize the trade-offs involved, and are okay with staying small.

So that's all well and good, but what about the elephant in the room?  The giant exception to the rule of dysfunctional, psychotic megacorp behavior?  (I won't tell you who I'm talking about... just Google it if you can't figure it out for yourself).  Are they just as dysfunctional and psychotic as the rest, but better about disguising it?  Or have they actually figured out how to square the circle?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

They treat objects like men

So the NFL Network is advertising their live and in-depth coverage of the NFL combine.  For those not in the know, the combine is a battery of tests that aspiring football players go through prior to the draft.  The media folks, GMs, scouts and other talent evaluators show up to watch the players in action, ultimately rating each according to his... personality.

Players with really fast personalities or really big personalities or personalities that earned them acclaim in college don't have much to fear.  They'll be making major money, it's just a matter of who's making more than whom.  For  those, on the other hand, whose personalities are a little less exceptional, this is the make or break moment.  The ones that don't make it will be forced to fall back on the college education that they undoubtedly took very seriously.

The lucky ones will gain entry into the NFL, where their career will last an average of 3 years.  More than three in four will fall into the pick-your-poison stat of "bankrupt or under financial stress due to joblessness or divorce."  Then there are the bad knees, the bad health from excessive weight, the concussions, and all the other things that come from spending two decades engaging in high speed collisions with others.

So the industry is hugely popular among men and makes bajillions of dollars, most of which accrue to media magnates, producers, owners and such.  A few workers do make their names and their millions.  Most who make it though don't earn much and are done long before they leave their twenties.  Most who try to make it don't.

Yeah, so this is basically the critique of the pr0n industry that you heard all the sociology and women's studies majors making in the dining halls when you were in college.  Except the pr0n industry is a fair bit further along in fighting STDs than the NFL is on concussions and knee blowouts.

That way

Another data point for the effort to describe our current technological zeitgeist.  Transistors and microphones, auto-tuners and web cams, social media and (probable) piracy, millions of hours of organized effort were deployed by the most sophisticated capitalist economy in world history in order to bring you this. Enjoy.

[Update: another data point can be found here.]

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Try reading this page and see if you can't smell the wax.

More for the "What's in a name?" files

Bear with me here, but a TV ad just inspired me to produce a history of family vehicles in the US since 1950, as told by me, with minimal and probably inaccurate research.  It's probably not worth your time to read it, but I published it anyway in the off chance that you value your time less than I do.

So... back in the day (we're talking WWII here), some bright American car manufacturers looked at the vehicles that were used to ferry luggage and passengers to and from their towns' train stations.  After the war, they started producing these "station wagons" for domestic use.  As anyone who lived through the 50's, 60's or 70's (or seen Wonder Years or That 70's Show) will tell you, the idea was quite popular. 

Station wagons have a bunch of awesome capabilities.  They can ferry large families.  Pets can fit in the back, which is removed from the human area but not as inhumane as, say, a trunk.  There's room for a lot of gear.  Surf boards fit nicely on the roof.   Such practicality lead to widespread adoption by folks who might be conveniently stereotyped as "house wives" or "family men."  The natural result, of course, was that station wagons became irredeemably uncool.

In the 80's, Detroit answered by taking an existing platform, the utility van,  fitting it with windows, adding some domesticated features, and producing... the minivan.  Unlike station wagons, minivans were never cool, but they were definitely popular.  I should know, I was there.  Head over to a soccer park on a Saturday or the Kiss and Ride at a public school on a weekday in the late 80's or 90's and you'd hardly see anything else.  Incremental improvements in the minivan continued for years.  There was a drop-down compartment for sunglasses.  A second door added on the left for more convenient loading.  Child safety locks, standard.  Eventually, automatic electronic doors and tailgates.

As vehicles though, minivans were terrible.  The ride was bumpy, especially in the earlier Dodge caravans.  The steering was loose and wobbly, the brakes unresponsive, the throttle finicky.  The vans were much taller than their station wagon predecessors.  A high center of gravity, when combined with poor handling and suspension, meant for a ride that was as rocky as it was bumpy.  House wives loved the "visibility" that came from sitting high.  Huge blind spots to the rear eliminated some of that advantage.  The fact that the car was simply not maneuverable enough to respond effectively to any newly available information... well that more than eliminated the rest.

There were two strikes against the minivan then.  First, it was uncool.  Second, it was mechanically inferior to normal passenger cars and wagons.  Foreign car companies addressed this second problem.  Honda released a minivan with significantly better handling and reliability.  Subaru released a popular all-wheel drive station wagon.  Volvo released a popular, super-safe, super-reliable station wagon.  Audi, BMW and Mercedes released luxury performance wagons that were hugely popular in Europe.

Needless to say, Detroit demonstrated no capability to make a better mouse trap.  The problem THEY saw wasn't that minivans were terrible vehicles but rather that men with families lacked the self-confidence to drive them.  The solution, we all know, was the SUV.  An SUV is a minivan for a male who's not man enough to admit that he's driving one.  Yes, the men who actually use their SUVs to tow things are excused from this judgment, but you and I both know that such cases amount to little more than rounding error among the overall sales.

SUVs continued in the tradition of domesticated features.  DVD players for the kids, automatic everything (even automatically collapsing seats), oodles of connections for cell phone chargers, you name it.  They also continued in the tradition of terrible driving performance.  The Dodge Caravan might have been a terrible platform, but at least it was based on a car (the old Chrysler "K" arrangement, from the LeBaron and others).  SUVs were built cheaply on a truck chassis.  They rode higher off the ground and were much heavier.  They used truck engines which were geared for towing instead of acceleration or economy and got terrible gas mileage.  Credit where it's due: a Dodge Caravan circa 1990 set the bar so incredibly low that the even worse performance of a Ford Explorer circa 2000 is a feat worthy of mention.

So SUVs were terrible, but terribly popular.  Foreign auto makers made great cars, but no one was buying them.  The solution, once again, was to disguise their quality product in order to fool the American market.  Toyota spiffed up the interior of the Aussie Outback-conquering Hilux, called it a 4Runner, and sold a bajillion of them.  Then they put an SUV body on a car frame, called it a RAV-4, and sold a bajillion of those.  Honda followed suit with the CRV.  VW created an incredibly awesome new platform.  The thing looked like an SUV, handled like a sports car, won the Darpa challenge, and you could buy it with a sophisticated diesel engine or as a hybrid.  Then they inexplicably called it the Touareg, as far as I can tell, no one bought one.  Then Porsche (who had co-developed the platform) put a 500HP engine in it, called it a Cayenne, and some rich people bought them.

The lesson of the Japanese car-based SUV lines though was that Americans were actually willing to purchase a decent vehicle as long as the styling was aggressive enough and the television ads featured a lot of flying rubble and mud.  Slowly and tentatively, companies started to respond.  Lexus released an SUV that was based on a Camery.  Acura released the sporty RDX, which gets 28 mpg.  These "crossovers" were all based on car or car-like platforms but dressed up to look like the light trucks with which Americans were infatuated.

As the crossovers continued to succeed, the foreign auto makers became bolder.  Honda designed a hatchback called the Fit, Mazda released a hatchback "3" (a rebranding of the old 323 models) and Toyota made some stuff that was so wacky that they had to call them Scions.  Then they made the Venza.

Which of course brings us back to the beginning.  Take a look at a Venza or a Fit sometime (or even a newer Chevy Malibu).  You'll never see the words in any marketing copy or hear them in a television ad, and there's a lot of plastic molding trying to fool you, but if you step back and take a good look, you'll realize what I've realized.  These are station wagons.  They've swapped the woody panels and the rear-facing seats for SAT-NAV and a 320HP engine with dual exhaust (Chrysler even released some monstrosity with a "Hemi" and battlement style slit windows that they called the Magnum), but they're still station wagons.  It's been a few decades in the wilderness, but we've "crossed over" to the place we never should have left.  I just saw testosterone-drenched ad, during a football game, for a station wagon.  Who'd have thunk that all we needed was a new term and some plastic body kit?

Socialist Engineering

Yes, Dilbert-creator Scott Adams has a blog.  It is as generally inane as you would think that it would be, but I do recommend it nonetheless (or as a result?).

Anyway, here are his thoughts on Chinese leadership.  The engineers that I know personally, and there are many, are generally not in favor of, e.g., censorship.  The overall idea is worth consideration though, I suppose.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Saw this and had to blog it, natch.  Hope it helps you as much as it hasn't helped me.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Some inequalities are more equal than others

So income inequality trends might not be as bad as we thought.  Or maybe this preliminary finding is wrong and they are as bad as we thought.  Who knows, and who cares?

No one but economists know or care about a Gini Coefficient.  The only measure of income inequality that matters to anyone else is perception, not some precisely measured abstract measurement of reality.  Do the poor FEEL rich, and do they FEEL like the super-rich are TOO rich?  These are subjective and amorphous concerns.  They're the reason why we get all worked up over the fraction of a percentage point of the AIG bailouts that went to executive bonuses instead of the bailouts themselves.

Pretty much the biggest financial risk for poor folks is health care spending.  If we can improve that facet of economic life, then the poor should feel a lot richer... no matter what the actual inequality numbers are.

On Executive Pay

We know it's to blame, we just can't seem to prove it...

Thing is, we're really good at the HOW... executives in good old boy networks compensated the crap out of each other irrespective of the performance of their various corporations.  The result was an economic crisis which penalized the common man through tax dollars going to bailouts and unemployment and pension fund losses and such.

It's the WHY that we don't know.   If executives knew this was coming, why did they lose so many billions of their own money?  Didn't they realize what the common man doesn't, namely that the tax dollars funding bailouts come, by and large, from the executive class, not the common class?

All told, it doesn't seem like the crisis was a good thing for executives.  What does that mean?  Did they know it was coming and mis-judge the implications?  Did they not care?  Or, and this seems too intuitive to be true, but hear me out, did they not know it was coming?

If they didn't know it was coming, then how would changing incentives help?

I'm of course the first one to argue in favor of institutions and incentives guiding behavior, but what behavior and what incentives here?  Sure we'll come up with some sort of regulations now in order to fight the last war, but we're still going to be critically under-regulated in whatever leads to the NEXT one, right?  Anybody see a way out of this?