The Case for Working With Your Hands

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford gives the case for working with your hands:

After finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago in 2000, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift workshop I set up in the basement of a Hyde Park apartment building, where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm. Stumped by a starter motor that seemed to check out in every way but wouldn’t work, I started asking around at Honda dealerships. Nobody had an answer; finally one service manager told me to call Fred Cousins of Triple O Service. “If anyone can help you, Fred can.”

I called Fred, and he invited me to come to his independent motorcycle-repair shop, tucked discreetly into an unmarked warehouse on Goose Island. He told me to put the motor on a certain bench that was free of clutter. He checked the electrical resistance through the windings, as I had done, to confirm there was no short circuit or broken wire. He spun the shaft that ran through the center of the motor, as I had. No problem: it spun freely. Then he hooked it up to a battery. It moved ever so slightly but wouldn’t spin. He grasped the shaft, delicately, with three fingers, and tried to wiggle it side to side. “Too much free play,” he said. He suggested that the problem was with the bushing (a thick-walled sleeve of metal) that captured the end of the shaft in the end of the cylindrical motor housing. It was worn, so it wasn’t locating the shaft precisely enough. The shaft was free to move too much side to side (perhaps a couple of hundredths of an inch), causing the outer circumference of the rotor to bind on the inner circumference of the motor housing when a current was applied. Fred scrounged around for a Honda motor. He found one with the same bushing, then used a “blind hole bearing puller” to extract it, as well as the one in my motor. Then he gently tapped the new, or rather newer, one into place. The motor worked! Then Fred gave me an impromptu dissertation on the peculiar metallurgy of these Honda starter-motor bushings of the mid-’70s. Here was a scholar.

Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.

As it happened, in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning. As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

Mechanical work cultivates different intellectual habits, and these habits, Crawford feels, have an ethical dimension:

Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral

Mechanical work put Crawford in a state of flow:

I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja that was practically brand new, while performing its first scheduled valve adjustment. I escaped a complete tear-down of the motor only through an operation that involved the use of a stethoscope, another pair of trusted hands and the sort of concentration we associate with a bomb squad. When finally I laid my fingers on that feeler gauge, I felt as if I had cheated death. I don’t remember ever feeling so alive as in the hours that followed.

Contrast this with the experience of being a middle manager:

This is a stock figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews, and he poignantly describes the “moral maze” they feel trapped in. Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

Read the whole thing. Then watch Office Space.

Power Laundering

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Robin Hanson (Overcoming Bias) believes that prediction markets should be harnessed for policy decisions — something he calls futarchy.

Mencius Moldbug considers this retarded. Naturally Hanson disagrees.

But Moldbug makes a more interesting point when he asks why Hanson — Professor Hanson — would be recommending decision markets to the US government:

If futarchy or predictocracy is truly an effective new way to make decisions, don’t you think our good professors would have better luck in marketing it to, say, Apple? I mean, why doesn’t Apple use decision markets already? They seem so, well, wired.

Well. I have never worked for Apple, but I have worked for some of its competitors. And I can tell you exactly how decisions get made at Apple. Or at its competitors.

You see, Professors, when Apple wants to make an important decision, here’s how Apple does it. First — not being un-PC, just quoting Mark Twain — Apple finds a man. Hires him, in fact. And having hired this man, it tells him: sir, this decision is yours.

Consult with your subordinates, consult with your supervisor, consult with your colleagues, consult with El Stevo himself. Do you need data? Immerse yourself, sir, in data. Is technical input required? Apple’s star nerds shall file, one by one, into your cube. But at the end of the day, you are a man, this decision is yours, and you are responsible for its consequences.

No process is more foreign or repugnant to [the US government].

The US government, Mencius notes, does not make decisions, because it always does the right thing:

The question is how that right thing is defined. Within [the US government], here are the preferred sources of policy, ranked in order of rough precedence.
  1. The Law. A [US government] employee is always on extremely solid ground when his actions are dictated by the majesty of the law. He has no choice at all. Therefore, he cannot possibly be accused of any personal turpitude, and nor is he responsible for any suboptimal outcome. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum. Sorry, bub, it’s the law. He just works here. Of course, anything good that happens in his vicinity will redound to his credit. With the law — you can’t lose.
  2. Science. The ordering of #1 and #2 are a matter of taste, as the two hardly ever conflict these days. Indeed, when science is available, if you read the law it will generally say: follow science. And #2 enjoys all the fine benefits previously described under #1.
  3. Public Opinion. [The US government] is, of course, a democracy. Sometimes it is helpful, in future-proofing one’s ass-covering, to know not just what public opinion is today, but what it will be tomorrow. Ask a journalist — that’s his job. Of course, when today’s public opinion conflicts with science or the law, it is the role of the brave civil servant to defy it. And of the journalist to mend it.
  4. A Committee. Sadly, some decisions appear for which #1, #2 and #3 produce no clear answer at all. In this case, the only remedy is to gather as many “stakeholders” as possible in the same room. After all, too few cooks spoil the broth, they say.
  5. Personal Authority. This is sometimes sufficient to order pens. But usually not.

The pattern here is not hard to find. [The US government] craves mechanical processes for decision-making. If a decision is made mechanically, no one is responsible for any bad results. Since mechanical management tends to produce bad results, this ass-covering imperative perpetuates itself. Of course, everyone in [the US government] wants to be “in the loop” on everything — even the disasters. Better to be in on a fiasco than twiddling your thumbs around a success. Who needs responsibility?

And mechanical decision models have another benefit. Obviously, [the US government] makes real decisions all the time. Somewhere inside the great machine, there are real people with real power. But, since they exert that power by massaging a mechanical decision process — by disguising their personal whims, which are just as personal as anyone’s, in the trackless bureaucratic wastes of law or science or the like — they get to rule in secret. Power without responsibility. What fun!

Mechanical decision processes perform a kind of power laundering. Because all these processes can be gamed and hacked and massaged, they are not truly mechanical at all. But since the machine is so complex as to be incomprehensible to outsiders, no one can see the true power structures of the Beltway.

Thus the incentive for futarchy. If it wasn’t retarded (and indeed, it is no more retarded than many of the phenomena that inside the Beltway pass for law or science), it would fit perfectly in this hierarchy, right between #2 and #3. Law, or science, or the market. Of course, if science tells us to ask the market — then there’s no conflict, then, is there? And so it goes.

You might think this is a new problem. Au contraire. It is intrinsic to 20th-century economics, which stole the good name of 19th-century political economy and applied it to the science of economic central planning. Like any zombie, the whole field cries out for its nine grams of lead. And its cold, stinking life in death is older than most can imagine.

Speed and Tempo

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

”If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.”
— Mario Andretti

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”
— General George Patton

Steve Blank‘s CEO friend was trying to run an agile tech startup but found himself still making slow, thorough, deliberate decisions like an engineer, so Steve offered him some advice on speed and tempo:

The heuristic I gave my friend was to think of decisions of having two states: those that are reversible and those that are irreversible. An example of a reversible decision could be adding a product feature, a new algorithm in the code, targeting a specific set of customers, etc. If the decision was a bad call you can unwind it in a reasonable period of time. An irreversible decision is firing an employee, launching your product, a five-year lease for an expensive new building, etc. These are usually difficult or impossible to reverse.

My advice was to start a policy of making reversible decisions before anyone left his office or before a meeting ended. In a startup it doesn’t matter if you’re 100% right 100% of the time. What matters is having forward momentum and a tight fact-based feedback loop (i.e. Customer Development) to help you quickly recognize and reverse any incorrect decisions. That’s why startups are agile. By the time a big company gets the committee to organize the subcommittee to pick a meeting date, your startup could have made 20 decisions, reversed five of them and implemented the fifteen that worked.

Tempo = Speed Consistently Over Time

Once you learn how to make decisions quickly you’re not done. Startups that are agile have mastered one other trick — and that’s Tempo — the ability to make quick decisions consistently over extended periods of time. Not just for the CEO or the exec staff, but for the entire company. For a startup Speed and Tempo need to be an integral part of your corporate DNA.

A Fatalistic View of Traffic

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

After WWII, when Reuben Smeed brought his operational research methods to bear on civilian problems, he arrived at a fatalistic view of traffic flow:

He said that the average speed of traffic in central London would always be nine miles per hour, because that is the minimum speed that people will tolerate. Intelligent use of traffic lights might increase the number of cars on the roads but would not increase their speed. As soon as the traffic flowed faster, more drivers would come to slow it down.

Smeed also had a fatalistic view of traffic accidents. He collected statistics on traffic deaths from many countries, all the way back to the invention of the automobile. He found that under an enormous range of conditions, the number of deaths in a country per year is given by a simple formula: number of deaths equals .0003 times the two-thirds power of the number of people times the one-third power of the number of cars. This formula is known as Smeed’s Law. He published it in 1949, and it is still valid 57 years later. It is, of course, not exact, but it holds within a factor of two for almost all countries at almost all times. It is remarkable that the number of deaths does not depend strongly on the size of the country, the quality of the roads, the rules and regulations governing traffic, or the safety equipment installed in cars. Smeed interpreted his law as a law of human nature. The number of deaths is determined mainly by psychological factors that are independent of material circumstances. People will drive recklessly until the number of deaths reaches the maximum they can tolerate. When the number exceeds that limit, they drive more carefully. Smeed’s Law merely defines the number of deaths that we find psychologically tolerable.

Tens of millions of years

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) started his high-tech career as an enlisted man in the Air Force, where he kept asking questions about the big picture:

I was 19 in 1973 and in Thailand in the Air Force working on electronic warfare equipment on fighter planes, gunships and Wild Weasels, at the tail end of the Vietnam War. I remember asking out of the blue one day, “Where does our equipment come from, what is exactly that we’re doing?”

My sergeant looked at me like the dog just talked: “What do you mean, what are we doing? We’re fixing this equipment; that’s your job. When the pilots say it doesn’t work we take the stuff out of the plane, bring it to the shop make sure it really is broken, you know, and unbreak it.” And I went, “No, no, no, but why are we doing this?”

I wanted to understand more about the North Vietnamese and their surface to air missiles and radar guided AAA they got from the Russians, and how we were trying to out-smart them with receivers to pick up their radar and jammers to jam the acquisition radars and missile guidance uplink signals — a little of which I had learned in my one year of training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi. Since it was the military and I was a lowly airman (I was outranked by the rest of the entire air force), the answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep fixing that equipment.”

But I kept on asking enough questions until finally I got the attention again of the guy who had brought me off of the very hot and humid flight line into the shop in the first place, John Scoggins. John said, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah, you know, like where did it come from, I mean, how long have the Russians had this stuff? Why did they build it? How did we figure out how to build jammers?” There was no public history about surface to air missiles, though I’m sure there were probably some good classified histories, which I didn’t have access to.
John said, “Well, Steve, it’s been going on for tens of millions of years.” I said, “What are you talking about? I’m asking about electronic warfare and countermeasures.” He said, “Tens of millions of years.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Meet me at the tennis courts tonight.”

John was a lifer, who I guess in hindsight was a nerd and was in his element as an enlisted guy, but a master sergeant. He must have been in his 30s, so a real “old” guy to a 19 year old.

So, he said, tennis courts, 8:00 PM tonight. You’re on an airbase with 180 fighter planes, but we had a tennis court and gym and all kinds of accoutrements to give thousands of airmen in the middle of a war zone an alternative to almost free drugs and women (note to military, nice try but it didn’t work.)

The tennis courts had these very bright lights, and they would attract all kinds of bizarre tropical insects, including these large flying water beetles. I don’t know their actual genus, but they were called “Baht Bugs” because the Thai locals would come and capture them and sell them for a nickel each since they were a delicacy, and the Thais would take the raw bugs and literally slurp out their insides in real time. So, they would be running around the tennis courts collecting Baht Bugs.

There were also these large moths that would attract bats.

So, I go to the tennis court, and there’s John Scoggins, and there’s a pile of electronic equipment in the corner, and it’s night, and no one played tennis at night, even though they lit the tennis court. But there’s a pile of electronic equipment under one of the lights with a parabolic dish antenna, kind of a miniature setup of stuff we had in the labs and our shop.
And I said, “What on earth is this?” John put on headphones, and he gave me a set of headphones, and all of a sudden I could hear this chirping sound. And I said, “What are we listening to?” He said, “Bats.” “What?” “Bats.”

John explained that bats have the equivalent of radar. Not radar in terms of microwave radar frequencies, but they use ultrasonic frequencies to locate their prey at night, and so it’s essentially radar to locate bugs. And since they fly at night, they don’t use vision; their ultrasonics are essentially their eyes. They’ve build up a mental map — just like our vision — with echolocation. They send out these chirps, and when one bounces off an object, it comes back. Then they would go after the moths. That’s what I was hearing was the radar signals of a bat.

We’re listening, and it’s very cool. And John was recording all this stuff on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, recording the flight of the bats as they were going after bugs. Every couple minutes he’d say, now listen to this one, and you’d hear the bat chirp, and then every once in a while you’d hear even a higher frequency but lower volume sound.

John said, “Listen, you can hear the jammer.” The what? “The jammer,” he said, “Watch the moths.” It turns out the moths, through evolution, had developed their own electronic countermeasures to jam the bat radar. They had developed ultrasonic receivers and ultrasonic jammers and physical countermeasures. When they picked up the bat radar illuminating them by sensitive hairs on their antennas, they would send out their own little squirt of ultrasonics by rubbing their legs together, jam the bat radar, and then they would immediately take evasive action and dive to the left and right.

Through Darwinian selection over millions of years, these moths had developed an entire electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, electronic countercounter-measures suite, and here was a guy in 1973 in Thailand who was figuring this stuff out. To be honest, it was my first insight that there was really a bigger picture.

So, John’s point was, “I keep trying to tell officers way above me that there’s probably a ton we could learn from watching these natural systems. What we’re doing in the air war over the North is just nothing more than something that’s been going on in nature for millions of years, but I can’t seem to get anybody’s attention.” (Thirty years later MIT would develop the Insect Lab and work on swarm behaviors for UAV’s and robotics.)

Years later, I searched Google for anything written on moth/bat radar and countermeasures, and while now there are quite a few papers, John had never published anything on the subject. If he did he would have been 20 years ahead of everyone else. But I always had thought the bat and moth thing was incredibly cool, and it answered a question I had never even asked: where is all this coming from?

They never saw it coming

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

During WWII, the RAF’s Bomber Command told air crews that their chances of survival would increase with experience, and the crews believed it. Then Freeman Dyson ran the numbers:

They were told, After you have got through the first few operations, things will get better. This idea was important for morale at a time when the fraction of crews surviving to the end of a 30- operation tour was only about 25 percent. I subdivided the experienced and inexperienced crews on each operation and did the analysis, and again, the result was clear. Experience did not reduce loss rates. The cause of losses, whatever it was, killed novice and expert crews impartially. This result contradicted the official dogma, and the Command never accepted it. I blame the ORS, and I blame myself in particular, for not taking this result seriously enough. The evidence showed that the main cause of losses was an attack that gave experienced crews no chance either to escape or to defend themselves. If we had taken the evidence more seriously, we might have discovered Schräge Musik in time to respond with effective countermeasures.

Smeed and I agreed that Bomber Command could substantially reduce losses by ripping out two gun turrets, with all their associated hardware, from each bomber and reducing each crew from seven to five. The gun turrets were costly in aerodynamic drag as well as in weight. The turretless bombers would have flown 50 miles an hour faster and would have spent much less time over Germany. The evidence that experience did not reduce losses confirmed our opinion that the turrets were useless. The turrets did not save bombers, because the gunners rarely saw the fighters that killed them. But our proposal to rip out the turrets went against the official mythology of the gallant gunners defending their crewmates. Dickins never had the courage to push the issue seriously in his conversations with Harris. If he had, Harris might even have listened, and thousands of crewmen might have been saved.

The part of his job that Smeed enjoyed most was interviewing evaders. Evaders were crew members who had survived being shot down over German-occupied countries and made their way back to England. About 1 percent of all those shot down came back. Each week, Smeed would go to London and interview one or two of them. Sometimes he would take me along. We were not supposed to ask them questions about how they got back, but they would sometimes tell us amazing stories anyway. We were supposed to ask them questions about how they were shot down. But they had very little information to give us about that. Most of them said they never saw a fighter and had no warning of an attack. There was just a sudden burst of cannon fire, and the aircraft fell apart around them. Again, we missed an essential clue that might have led us to Schräge Musik.

Watching the demise of the auto industry

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Steve Blank’s first job out of the Air Force and out of school was installing broadband process control systems in automotive and manufacturing plants throughout the Midwest in the mid-1970s, where he got to watch the demise of the auto industry:

[Automobile plants] were like being inside a pinball machine. At the Ford plant in Milpitas the plant foreman proudly took me down the line. I remember stopping at one station a little confused about its purpose. All the other stations on the assembly line had groups workers with power tools adding something to the car.

This station just had one guy with a 2×4 piece of lumber, a large rubber mallet and a folded blanket. His spot was right after the station where they had dropped the hoods down on the cars, and had bolted them in. As I was watched, the next car rolled down the line, the station before attached the hood, and as the car approached this station, the worker took the 2×4, shoved it under one corner of the hood and put the blanket over the top of the hood and started pounding it with the rubber mallet while prying with the lumber. “It’s our hood alignment station,” the plant manager said proudly. These damn models weren’t designed right so we’re fixing them on the line.”

I had a queasy feeling that perhaps this wasn’t the way to solve the car quality problem. Little did I know that I was watching the demise of the auto industry in front of my eyes.

How the World’s Poor Live on $2 A Day

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

In Portfolios of the Poor, Daryl Collins and her colleagues explain how the world’s poor live on $2 a day:

In the US, people are very, very concerned about building strong balance sheets and acquiring assets, like houses. What we found in South Africa is that what you needed to focus on first was cash flow. When you think about analyzing a company that has been around for a long time, you would look at assets and liability to judge the strength of that company, but when you have a start-up company, you look at cash flow. Low-income families are the same way. It’s a sign of the financial health when they are able to come up with the right amount of money at the right time, or have fallback measures in their financial portfolio that will allow them to put food on the table, even if they just suffered some big loss.
But these [poor] households very clearly said, “I get it. I need to delay gratification.” They know that when they get money into their hands, they are going to spend it, because there are a bunch of useful things they could spend it on. So as soon as they get cash, they try to put it somewhere, so that their relatives don’t come asking for it, so they don’t give their children something.
Here is an interesting mechanism. They call it money guarding. If you get a fairly decent chunk of money, you give it to a money guard, a neighbor or relative or friend that you trust and say, “Hold this, and don’t let me touch it.” Sometimes the same money guard asks you to hold their money, and so when someone comes to borrow money, you say, “It’s not my money.” It works.


Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

From Freeman Dyson’s description, the firestorms caused by strategic bombing were essentially “lucky” — from the bombers’ perspective:

For a week after I arrived at the ORS, the attacks on Hamburg continued. The second, on July 27, raised a firestorm that devastated the central part of the city and killed about 40,000 people. We succeeded in raising firestorms only twice, once in Hamburg and once more in Dresden in 1945, where between 25,000 and 60,000 people perished (the numbers are still debated). The Germans had good air raid shelters and warning systems and did what they were told. As a result, only a few thousand people were killed in a typical major attack. But when there was a firestorm, people were asphyxiated or roasted inside their shelters, and the number killed was more than 10 times greater. Every time Bomber Command attacked a city, we were trying to raise a firestorm, but we never learnt why we so seldom succeeded. Probably a firestorm could happen only when three things occurred together: first, a high concentration of old buildings at the target site; second, an attack with a high density of incendiary bombs in the target’s central area; and, third, an atmospheric instability. When the combination of these three things was just right, the flames and the winds produced a blazing hurricane. The same thing happened one night in Tokyo in March 1945 and once more at Hiroshima the following August. The Tokyo firestorm was the biggest, killing perhaps 100,000 people.

The third Hamburg raid was on the night of July 29, and the fourth on August 2. After the firestorm, the law of diminishing returns was operating. The fourth attack was a fiasco, with high and heavy clouds over the city and bombs scattered over the countryside. Our bomber losses were rising, close to 4 percent for the third attack and a little over 4 percent for the fourth. The Germans had learnt quickly how to deal with WINDOW. Since they could no longer track individual bombers with radar, they guided their fighters into the bomber stream and let them find their own targets. Within a month, loss rates were back at the 5 percent level, and WINDOW was no longer saving lives.

The morality of fire-bombing was an open question, colored by the previous war:

While the attacks on oil plants were helping to win the War, Sir Arthur continued to order major attacks on cities, including the attack on Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945. The Dresden attack became famous because it caused a firestorm and killed a large number of civilians, many of them refugees fleeing from the Russian armies that were overrunning Pomerania and Silesia. It caused some people in Britain to question the morality of continuing the wholesale slaughter of civilian populations when the War was almost over. Some of us were sickened by Sir Arthur’s unrelenting ferocity. But our feelings of revulsion after the Dresden attack were not widely shared. The British public at that time still had bitter memories of World War I, when German armies brought untold misery and destruction to other people’s countries, but German civilians never suffered the horrors of war in their own homes. The British mostly supported Sir Arthur’s ruthless bombing of cities, not because they believed that it was militarily necessary, but because they felt it was teaching German civilians a good lesson. This time, the German civilians were finally feeling the pain of war on their own skins.

I remember arguing about the morality of city bombing with the wife of a senior air force officer, after we heard the results of the Dresden attack. She was a well-educated and intelligent woman who worked part-time for the ORS. I asked her whether she really believed that it was right to kill German women and babies in large numbers at that late stage of the War. She answered, “Oh yes. It is good to kill the babies especially. I am not thinking of this war but of the next one, 20 years from now. The next time the Germans start a war and we have to fight them, those babies will be the soldiers.” After fighting Germans for ten years, four in the first war and six in the second, we had become almost as bloody-minded as Sir Arthur.

At last, at the end of April 1945, the order went out to the squadrons to stop offensive operations. Then the order went out to fill the bomb bays of our bombers with food packages to be delivered to the starving population of the Netherlands. I happened to be at one of the 3 Group bases at the time and watched the crews happily taking off on their last mission of the War, not to kill people but to feed them.

Founders and dysfunctional families

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) has a theory about founders and dysfunctional families:

I was having lunch with a friend who is a retired venture capitalist and we drifted into a discussion of the startups she funded. We agreed that all her founding CEOs seemed to have the same set of personality traits — tenacious, passionate, relentless, resilient, agile, and comfortable operating in chaos. I said, “well for me you’d have to add coming from a dysfunctional family.” Her response was surprising, “Steve, almost all my CEO’s came from very tough childhoods. It was one of the characteristics I specifically looked for. It’s why all of you operated so well in the unpredictable environment that all startups face.”

I couldn’t figure out if I was more perturbed about how casual the comment was or how insightful it was.

Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen recently completed a study called Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?

They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.

David Brooks notes that such humble, diffident, relentless, and one-dimensional individuals are a bit dull:

For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.

For the same reason, business and politics do not blend well. Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington, while political leaders possess precisely those talents — charisma, charm, personal skills — that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution.

The punch-line?

We now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won’t be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.’s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge.

Facts Exist Outside the Building

Monday, May 18th, 2009

When Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) took over SuperMac’s marketing department, he had to explain to his team that facts exist outside the building, opinions reside within — so get the hell outside the building:

My first day at work I found myself staring at a set of marketing faces, mostly holdovers from the previous version of the company that had gone belly up, some were bright and eager, some clearly hostile. “OK, let’s start with the basics, who does marketing think our customers are?” We went around the room and every one of them had an opinion. Unfortunately, all their answers were different.

By now, nothing surprised me. This was a company that had sold 15,000 graphics boards and monitors to consumers. A large number of these customers had mailed back their registration cards (this was pre-Internet) with their names, phone numbers, job titles, etc. So I asked the fatal question, “Has anyone ever looked at the customer registration cards? Has anyone ever spoken to a customer?” Silence. Most just stared at me like the question was incomprehensible. The one or two product mangers who should have known better glanced down at their shoes. Then someone asked, “Well, who do you think our customers are?” Ah, a leading question. I said, “I don’t know. And if I tell you what I think we’ll just have one more uninformed opinion. But what we need right now is some facts. Does anyone know where the registration cards that the customers sent back are?”

Why did I ask these questions? As a company with a past history, the company had a massive advantage over a typical startup — it had customers. Normally in a startup you spend an inordinate amount of time and energy in Customer Discovery and Customer Validation. Yet here was a “restart” with over 15,000 customers who by putting their money on the table had personally validated the market. Now I was cognizant I might find a customers that hated the products or company. Or I might have found that the company was in a business that wasn’t profitable and no way to get profitable (which I had concluded was the case with their commodity disk drive business.) But this was an opportunity that needed to start with customer facts, and I was going to get them.

Twenty minutes later a cart rolls into my office with 10,000 unprocessed, unlooked at, and untouched registration cards. All with names, addresses, phone numbers, job titles; all wonderful data longing for human contact.

How often do you get phone calls from the VP of Marketing?

With the questionnaire written I turned and stared at the cart full of registration cards. They were in shoeboxes arranged by month and year they were received. I figured that the newer ones were more relevant than those sent in years ago. I took a deep breath and plunged in. I grabbed 500 of the most recent cards, which were from the last four months, and I started calling. Quite honestly since few customers ever get “hi, how are you doing calls” directly from an executive at the company who sold them a product, I didn’t know what to expect. Would anyone take my call, would I get hung up on, would they answer this long list of questions?

Three hours and ten customers later I was beginning to feel like this would work. It had taken about two registration cards to get one customer on the line. And out of those, 9 out of 10 were happy to talk to me. Actually happy is the wrong word. Stunned was more like it. They had never had anyone from any company, let alone a computer company call and ask them anything. Then when I told them I was actually the VP of Marketing they were flabbergasted. They were happy to give me everything I asked for and more. And then to their surprise I offered them either a SuperMac coffee cup or T-shirt for their troubles. Now I had happy and surprised customers walking around with paid advertising for my company.

For the next three weeks I spent 8 hours a day calling customers and another 6 hours a day managing my new department. I’m sure the CEO thought I was crazy. But after three weeks and three hundred customer calls I was done. I had been to the mountaintop and had gotten the message.

He learned some pretty valuable information, including the fact that many customers valued performance over price — and customers never admit that they value anything over price.

Between Night Fighters and Collisions

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Somehow I missed Freeman Dyson discussing his time in the Operational Research Section (ORS) of the British Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command:

My first day of work was the day after one of our most successful operations, a full-force night attack on Hamburg. For the first time, the bombers had used the decoy system, which we called WINDOW and the Americans called CHAFF. WINDOW consisted of packets of paper strips coated with aluminum paint. One crew member in each bomber was responsible for throwing packets of WINDOW down a chute, at a rate of one packet per minute, while flying over Germany. The paper strips floated slowly down through the stream of bombers, each strip a resonant antenna tuned to the frequency of the German radars. The purpose was to confuse the radars so that they could not track individual bombers in the clutter of echoes from the WINDOW.

That day, the people at the ORS were joyful. I never saw them as joyful again until the day that the war in Europe ended. WINDOW had worked. The bomber losses the night before were only 12 out of 791, or 1.5 percent, far fewer than would have been expected for a major operation in July, when the skies in northern Europe are never really dark. Losses were usually about 5 percent and were mostly due to German night fighters, guided to the bombers by radars on the ground. WINDOW had cut the expected losses by two-thirds. Each bomber carried a crew of seven, so WINDOW that night had saved the lives of about 180 of our boys.

Dyson’s assignment was to map out the cloud of WINDOW as the night progressed — and to convince air crews to stay in that cloud:

Smeed explained to me that the same principles applied to bombers flying at night over Germany and to ships crossing the Atlantic. Ships had to travel in convoys, because the risk of being torpedoed by a U-boat was much greater for a ship traveling alone. For the same reason, bombers had to travel in streams: the risk of being tracked by radar and shot down by an enemy fighter was much greater for a bomber flying alone. But the crews tried to keep out of the bomber stream, because they were more afraid of collisions than of fighters. Every time they flew in the stream, they would see bombers coming close and almost colliding with them, but they almost never saw fighters.

The air crews didn’t realize how deadly the German night fighter forces were:

The German night fighter force was tiny compared with Bomber Command. But the German pilots were highly skilled, and they hardly ever got shot down. They carried a firing system called Schräge Musik, or “crooked music,” which allowed them to fly underneath a bomber and fire guns upward at a 60-degree angle. The fighter could see the bomber clearly silhouetted against the night sky, while the bomber could not see the fighter. This system efficiently destroyed thousands of bombers, and we did not even know that it existed. This was the greatest failure of the ORS. We learned about Schräge Musik too late to do anything to counter it.

The air crews also didn’t realize how rare collisions were:

Observational evidence of lethal crashes over Germany was plentiful but unreliable. The crews frequently reported seeing events that looked like collisions: first an explosion in the air, and then two flaming objects falling to the ground. These events were visible from great distances and were often multiply reported. The crews tended to believe that they were seeing collisions, but there was no way to be sure. Most of the events probably involved single bombers, hit by antiaircraft shells or by fighter cannon fire, that broke in half as they disintegrated.

In the end I found only two sources of evidence that I could trust: bombers that collided over England and bombers that returned damaged by nonlethal collisions over Germany. The numbers of incidents of both kinds were reliable, and small enough that I could investigate each case individually. The case that I remember best was a collision between two Mosquito bombers over Munich. The Mosquito was a light, two-seat bomber that Bomber Command used extensively for small-scale attacks, to confuse the German defenses and distract attention from the heavy attacks. Two Mosquitoes flew alone from England to Munich and then collided over the target, with only minor damage. It was obvious that the collision could not have been the result of normal operations. The two pilots must have seen each other when they got to Munich and started playing games. The Mosquito was fast and maneuverable and hardly ever got shot down, so the pilots felt themselves to be invulnerable. I interviewed Pilot-Officer Izatt, who was one of the two pilots. When I gently questioned him about the Munich operation, he confessed that he and his friend had been enjoying a dogfight over the target when they bumped into each other. So I crossed the Munich collision off my list. It was not relevant to the statistics on collisions between heavy bombers in the bomber stream. There remained seven authentic nonlethal collisions between heavy bombers over Germany.

For bombers flying at night over England in training exercises, I knew the numbers of lethal and non lethal collisions. After more than 60 years, I can’t recall them precisely, but I remember that the ratio of lethal to nonlethal collisions was three to one. If I assumed that the chance of surviving a collision was the same over Germany as over England, then it was simple to calculate the number of lethal collisions over Germany. But there were two reasons that assumption might be false. On the one hand, a badly damaged aircraft over Germany might fail to get home, while an aircraft with the same damage over England could make a safe landing. On the other hand, the crew of a damaged aircraft over England might decide to bail out and let the plane crash, while the same crew over Germany would be strongly motivated to bring the plane home. There was no way to incorporate these distinctions into my calculations. But since they pulled in opposite directions, I decided to ignore them both. I estimated the number of lethal collisions over Germany in the time since the massive attacks began to be three times the number of nonlethal collisions, or 21. These numbers referred to major operations over Germany with high-density bomber streams, in which about 60,000 sorties had been flown at the time I did the calculation. So collisions destroyed 42 aircraft in 60,000 sorties, a loss rate of .07 percent.

How David Beats Goliath

Monday, May 18th, 2009

A non-stop full-court press gives weak basketball teams a chance against far stronger teams — it’s how David beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell says — so, why have so few adopted it?, he asks.

He doesn’t really answer the question though, which opens up many game-theoretic avenues of thought.

Instead, he cites an amusing example, the “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City who went to the National Junior Basketball championships under the coaching of Vivek Ranadivé, who had never played basketball growing up in Mumbai, but whose daughter, Anjali, played on the team:

A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot. Actual basketball took up only half of that twenty-second interval, so that a game’s real length was not forty-eight minutes but something closer to twenty-four minutes — and that twenty-four minutes of activity took place within a narrowly circumscribed area. It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection.
Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. “Think about football,” Ranadivé said. “The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass.” Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trap” her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic — or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. “When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything,” Anjali said. “So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them.”

The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. In one of the few games that Redwood City lost that year, only four of the team’s players showed up. They pressed anyway. Why not? They lost by three points.

“What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses,” Rometra Craig said. She helped out once Redwood City advanced to the regional championships. “We could hide the fact that we didn’t have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn’t have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups. I was honest with the girls. I told them, ‘We’re not the best basketball team out there.’ But they understood their roles.” A twelve-year-old girl would go to war for Rometra. “They were awesome,” she said. 

Gladwell emphasizes that the full-court press demands more effort and a higher level of fitness, and he seems baffled that the other teams coaches and parents would be downright angry about the press. The little blond girls are just trying harder.

What he ignores is that these are 13 year-old girls still learning the game, and that a press works much better against easily flustered young players — and it does this by keeping them from using the skills they’re trying to learn. The youth league isn’t an end in itself; it’s training for the older leagues.

What Makes Us Happy?

Monday, May 18th, 2009

For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been following 268 men who entered the college in the late 1930s. For 42 years, George Vaillant has been director of this amazingly long longitudinal study into what makes us happy — and healthy:

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.

Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.

What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”

The study has yielded some additional subtle surprises. Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63. More broadly, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.

More than 80 percent of the Grant Study men served in World War II, a fact that allowed Vaillant to study the effect of combat. The men who survived heavy fighting developed more chronic physical illnesses and died sooner than those who saw little or no combat, he found. And “severity of trauma is the best predictor of who is likely to develop PTSD.” (This may sound obvious, but it countered the claim that post-traumatic stress disorder was just the manifestation of preexisting troubles.) He also found that personality traits assigned by the psychiatrists in the initial interviews largely predicted who would become Democrats (descriptions included “sensitive,” “cultural,” and “introspective”) and Republicans (“pragmatic” and “organized”).

Again and again, Vaillant has returned to his major preoccupations. One is alcoholism, which he found is probably the horse, and not the cart, of pathology. “People often say, ‘That poor man. His wife left him and he’s taken to drink,’” Vaillant says. “But when you look closely, you see that he’s begun to drink, and that has helped drive his wife away.” The horrors of drink so preoccupied Vaillant that he devoted a stand-alone study to it: The Natural History of Alcoholism.

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”