Job Training

There has apparently been a decline in on the job training:


My hackles are raised.

In my world, the average employee is much, much more skilled today than even when I started 11 years ago and this has nothing to do with formal training. I am defining skills as using technology to get jobs done.

And we aren’t just more skilled, we are required to be more skilled. There is a lot of survivorship bias in what you observe today. Not everyone made it.

So more skills but less formal education. What gives? One key maybe is that training on the job is much easier than it once was. Wikipedia, open offices, small teams. All favor smaller increments of learning in the key moments when something needs to be achieved.

Cheaper, more effective. A better way of learning, to me. But not measurable, so no articles celebrating its effectiveness.

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The Most Undervalued Business Insight

Cramer is very close to the following insight: the reason why more companies don’t imitate Berkshire Hathaway is that they would have to destroy too much of their existing corporations to make it worth their while.  As such, the “secrets” of Berkshire Hathaway can be hidden in plain view of all, because the only way to create something like it would be to start from scratch.  Yes, you can imitate pieces of it, but it’s not the same thing.

Creating a very profitable diversified industrial conglomerate financed by insurance liabilities is a very unique strategy, and one that few would have the capability of replicating.  It required intelligent investing, conservative underwriting, shrewd analysis of management teams so that they would act independently and ethically, and more.

That’s David Merkel. I first started thinking about this reading and listening to Horace Dediu, for example here commenting on Microsoft’s firing of Steve Ballmer:

To succeed with a new business model, Microsoft would have had to destroy (by competition) its core business. Doing that would, of course, have gotten Ballmer fired even faster.

Say there is a clearly superior strategy presenting itself to a business and changing over is not an incremental change, it’s a revolutionary change. Lots of existing processes go out the window. Certain stakeholders ‘lose’ in this trade. So they block it.

There’s an entire branch of economics dedicated to this kind of thinking, called Public Choice. It mostly focuses on how government employees typically act in their own narrow interests. Zooming out even more, this is a refinement of agency theory and agency costs. The lazy, uncharitable interpretation is that all these people are evil or stupid. Easy to say. Probably false. Instead I like to say obstructionists emphasize knowledge problems (‘how do you know it’s a better strategy?’ or ‘do you really understand that strategy?’) or the real risks of change (what if it doesn’t work and we can’t go back?) . All reasonable objections to any high stakes decision.

Ideas, as they say, are cheap. And they’re cheap because there isn’t any demand for them, in the deep sense of people actually using new ideas. We all like to say we care about ideas, because we want to think we’re smart folks.

But in the end, our interests are typically much less high minded.

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Squeeze your Mind Grapes

A good study day for me is a cycle of exhaustion and recovery. By the evening I literally can’t think any more. I’ve got this fuzzy feeling like someone threw a thick blanket over my mind and it can’t breathe properly. The only cure is sleep. And boy does sleep come easy.

I get this feeling after perhaps a surprisingly small amount of pure desk time, maybe 6 hours in a 15 hour day. In the morning I do a few hours right away then go for a run while mulling things over. Then sleep for about 20 minutes to an hour. Then back at it for a couple more hours until I become so unproductive I have to stop. Exhausted.

Well, according to this interview with Samuele Marcora, I’m not just passing Actuarial exams, I’m also improving my marathon time.

Marcora studies perception of effort and he’s found that the perception of physical effort originates in the mind rather than in the body. Obviously the mental perception of physical effort is related to actual physical effort but not perfectly related. This raises the possibility that you can train your mind to be more tolerant of physical effort without doing any physical work.

This is a big deal for sports where fatigue is a real problem like long distance running, which Marcora studies. And he’s shown times improve when combining physical and mental training versus physical training alone.

So what kind of mental training, exactly? How does one increase mental endurance?

Games, of course. Specifically response inhibition games where you need to suppress your instinctive answer to a question. Here’s an example: flash yourself a cue card with the word green written in yellow ink and identify the color of the ink. Our minds really, really want to say green and overcoming that instinct (in Kahneman’s terms, favoring system 2 over system 1), takes exactly the kind of mental effort Marcora wants to train. And to get physical benefit you have to do it for a while, like an hour at a time.

To our minds this obviously feels the same as going on a long run and makes us better at the next long run. And so the reverse must also be true: going on a run isn’t just about unwinding; it must improve mental endurance for things like actuarial exams.

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Review of *Frozen* (sorta)

I often hear jokes from parents about kids watching frozen for the 50th time, 550th time, 1550th time. And of course the toys:

On Tuesday, Walt Disney shattered Wall Street’s expectations for its first quarter, led by seemingly inexhaustible demand for all things Frozen.

So kids like the movie. And it’s good. But it’s not just good and in my view kids aren’t just watching it. You see, it’s both fun and complex. Complexity rewards rewatching enough that you might say kids are actually studying the thing.

If it was live action, I’d say that the acting is extremely good, particularly the sisters’. But what’s the animation equivalent? Characterization? The characterization is good. Watch the initial meeting scene between Hans and Anna. Very subtle, very quick. These complex characters have complex motivations which makes for complex plots.

None of this is easy to pull off. Wikipedia has an excellent section on the development of all this complexity. It’s not surprising that it was a painfully iterative process. No such thing as great writing, as they say, only great rewriting.

Ultimately this complexity is manifested in plot twists, which brings me to my point: do plot twists ruin older movies? Consider that a plot twist relies on an implicit understanding for what is ‘supposed’ to happen. Supposed to happen according to cultural precedent (ie in older movies). We know an act of true love is a hero kissing the princess because we all know Sleeping Beauty and maybe a thousand other stories that have used that device. But here instead we get that idea toyed with.

But kids don’t know that. Will they never enjoy Sleeping Beauty because of its one dimensional plot after a few thousand iterations of frozen?

I say yes. The cultural canon is littered with stories whose elements are so deeply incorporated into our culture that we cannot appreciate their genius. People who drone on about the merits of older works of art are just trying to signal sophistication. How boring.

Next question: is this progress? Is there an aggregate effect on a culture of leaving behind older, less sophisticated memes? Are our kids smarter because Frozen is smarter than Sleeping Beauty?

Could be.

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Facebook is the Internet. For some.

“Awareness of the Internet in developing countries is very limited. In fact, for many users, Facebook is the internet, as it’s often the only accessible application.”

More here (via @cdixon) with this graph.


And also this from Wikipedia :

Internet services like Facebook, Wikipedia and Google have built special programs to use zero-rating as means to provide their service more broadly into developing markets.

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Design and Your Business

What would you do to your industry with these people?

He likely won’t be the last Apple executive poached by Tesla. The company has hired at least 150 former Apple employees, more than from any other company, even carmakers. The former Apple staffers work in many areas of the 6,000-employee automaker, including engineering and law. “From a design philosophy, [Apple] is relatively closely aligned,” says Musk, Tesla’s co-founder and chief executive officer. Apple declined to comment for this story.

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Hamming vs Taleb

The turkey problem, which more or less sums up the kinds of things Nassim Taleb thinks about, goes like this:

Taleb is on econtalk here talking about GMO crops among some other thing. A key passage with Russ is as follows:

The question now I have is that: Where is the evidence that this GMO process is a fat-tailed process rather than a thing-tailed process? Guest: The first thing you’ve got to–when you think of are we in fat-tailed or thin-tailed domains is look the other way and say, ‘What is the evidence that we are in a thin-tailed domain?

Taleb is interesting because he emphasizes themes, like tail risk, that most others ignore, indeed most others (including me) can’t even talk about intelligently. I’m not sure Taleb can either but he’s heroic for trying.

I can see both sides. On the one hand tail risk is really important, on the other hand without an intellectual framework for processing it, there isn’t much to say or do, Taleb’s voluminous speaking and writing notwithstanding. His strategy, the precautionary principle goes something like this: if you think the downside is bad, like really really bad, don’t do it (no matter what the probability) . Well, don’t do it unless your can then convince yourself that it isn’t as bad as you once thought.

Hamming may agree with Taleb for all I know and indeed Hamming spends a lot of time writing about the pitfalls of complexity. But he also tells two stories where downsides are large but the tail (the probability of extreme outcomes) looks like it should be fat but instead is ambiguous.

First, in calculating the trajectory of a missile, he found that his setting of the initial conditions of the launch didn’t matter. He tells the story as a counterpoint to GIGO,in that he inputted garbage and got out a solution that worked. The important insight is that small errors in course could be corrected by the missile’s own guidance system. There was a positive feedback loop.

Second story involves Los Alamos, in designing the atomic bomb. He found that many of their data were imprecise but he calculations were aqcurate:

But further examination showed as the “gadget” goes off, any one shell went up the curve and possibly at least partly down again, so any local error in the equation of state was approximately averaged out over its history. What was important to get from the equation of state was the curvature, and as already noted even it had only to be on the average correct. Hence garbage in, but accurate results out never-the-less!
These examples show what was loosely stated before; if there is feedback in the problem for the numbers used, then they need not necessarily be accurately known.

Taleb understands positive feedback loops and the law of large numbers and that systems can have the capacity for self-repair. I would say his solution to the precautionary principle (wait until you are sure it isn’t bad) actually requires one of these phenomena to be in place to avert catastrophe. So why not talk about the wonders of how nature builds resilience as well?

Maybe Taleb feels frustrated that discussion of tail risks in the mainstream does not do justice to the magnitude of downside in downside scenarios. So, this line of thinking goes, he doesn’t emphasize the resilience of systems because he’s trying to motivate people by telling scary stories.

I would hardly agree that’s necessary, watch CNN for a few hours to get a feel for how well covered scary things are. Taleb’s emphasis is somewhat smarter (or at least smarter sounding) than run-of-the-mill scare mongering. But does he achieve anything more than CNN with his “just don’t do it” advice?

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