Seeing Isn't Always Believing

The written word can be illusory very much like an optical illusion, albeit word illusions are much harder to notice. Today, for example, I read an email and took it to mean "x" and later when I re-read it and thought more deeply about it, I took it to mean "y". The change in perception felt very much like how one feels with the puzzle where you see only a young lady; then suddenly, a witch. Which one is it? Both? I was amused at first but soon became deeply disturbed. "I can't even trust myself", I thought.

So now the rationalization. I think electronic media induces these types of written illusions because:

1) more people are less clear in their writing (possible causes: (a) smaller input devices make it more difficult to write, (b) auto-correct features on said devices replace mispelled words with the incorrect words, (c) poor quality education i.e., people haven't been taught to write properly, (d) more people with a,b, and c)

2) there are more instances of (1) given the increased number of written communications (email, texting, social media, e-docs)

3) given (2) people receiving message speed read in order to process the increased amount of incoming information and

 4) people in (3) respond and create a type II written illusion guilty of both repeating (1) AND responding to the message based on what they misread.

I might need to reconcile all of this with a short story. But first, I need to post my thoughts on Ergodicty (more to come on this in the coming days).



Lost in the Library

As I finish my months long Borges digression (his non-fiction is as superb as his fiction), I think my sentiment of his works can be summed up with this bit of short prose (or is it verse?):

A young man picked up a book to read and was piqued by a footnote on the first page. He turned to the endnotes and jotted the source. Curious still, he arose to search the stacks. Many books and many years later, upon his death, it was recorded in the stars that the young man still hadn't finished the book. Perhaps next time.

Vergil Den


Good Reads

Recently I came across Nassim Taleb’s lecture notes/syllabus from 2005. It can be found here. The notes are fantastic but the links to the papers and other materials covered in the notes are broken in the pdf. So I spent a few days tracking them down and was able to find many of them. Below is the list with links and grouped based on the sections in the lecture notes. (Note: If you decide to print the materials many contain mathematical formulas or are scanned in versions of the originals, so be prepared for it to take some signifcant time to print.)

Module 2
Unskilled and Unaware of It
Tiesska-Zielonki (just an article on)
herding by prominent econophysicist Bouchaud

Module 3
Data-Snooping Biases in Tests of Financial Asset Pricing Models:
A Reality Check for Data Snooping:
Data Snooping Technical Trading Rule Performance, and the Bootstrap:

Module 4
How the Finance Gurus Get Risk All Wrong:

Module 5
Kahneman’s Nobel lecture:
Thaler’s mental accounting:
Lowenstein & Prelec Neuroeconomics:
Caveman Economics:

Module 6
On the nonobservability of probability:
Coval & Shumway: “Expected Options Returns
Why are Put Options So Expensive:
Risk Aversion or Myopia:,d.b2I

Module 7
The Economics of Superstars:
On a Class of Skew Distribution Functions:
Cumulative Advantage as a Mechanism for Inequality:
Talent and the Winner-Take-All Society:

Module 10
“long tail” article by Chris Anderson:

Module 12

Module 13
Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit

Appendix 1

Barabási, A.-L. and R. Albert. 1999. Emergence of scaling in random networks,

Barabási, Albert-László and Eric Bonabeau. 2003. Scale-free networks,%2060-69%20(2003).pdf

Faloutsos, M., P. Faloutsos, and C. Faloutsos. 1999. On Power-Law Relationships of the Internet Topology

Lotka, Alfred J., 1926. The Frequency Distribution of Scientific Productivity–%3D-YUefx%2F0auEG8%2B29U7Cdc&N=Lotka+1929.pdf&T=application%2Fpdf

Merton, R. K., 1968. The Matthew effect in science

Mitzenmacher, Michael. 2003. A brief history of generative models for power law and lognormal distributions

Price, D. J. de Solla, 1965. Networks of scientific papers

Price, D.J. de Solla. 1976. A general theory of bibliometrics and other cumulative advantage processes

Watts, D. J., 2003. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

Simon, Herbert A., 1955. On a class of skew distribution functions. Biometrika 42:425-440

Vogelstein, Bert, David Lane and Arnold J. Levine, 2000. Surfing the p53 network.

Willinger, W., D. Alderson, J.C. Doyle, and L. Li. 2004. A pragmatic approach to dealing with high variability measurements.

Yule, G. 1925. A mathematical theory of evolution, based on the conclusions of Dr. J. C. Willis



Short Story: The Before the End of After


The Before the End of After

As he lay prone, a boot pressed against the back of Jim’s neck. His right arm was badly shattered: dislocated at the elbow and broken at the wrist. He was in great pain but it had moved south, from his arm to his legs. The truncheons beating against his calves, hamstrings, and buttocks were working as designed. He struggled to rise, but the knees of the officers pressing into his lower back proved overwhelming for just one arm, one man.

“Tell me who’ve you collaborated with,” a man shouted, which momentarily stopped the beating as the officers waited for a response.

“No one,” Jim groaned. He was being truthful. Technically, he had committed the crime alone but he couldn’t last much longer in his casuistry. Pain, and the terror of more pain, was making it difficult to maintain the subtlety of the lie and he feared that either he would confess the names of his accomplices or he would die from sheer bludgeoning before he could give them up. He thought he had no other options, but he was wrong. The beating did finally stop, and neither had he confessed nor was he dead. He had one other option, at least temporarily.

“Get up!” the same man shouted, as the boot eased from his neck and the knees from his back.

Jim couldn’t move his legs. They, too, had gone completely numb. He struggled with his one good arm and was able to raise his head and chest a few feet from the floor. He wasn’t certain what happened next, but he was knocked unconscious. He realized only later, while lying in a pool of spit and teeth, that he had been kicked in the face.

He awoke in a dark cell of unknown size and location, where he had been for a period of time that, to him, could have been a second or an eternity. He didn’t know the date or time he had arrived, and the dark, windowless room gave no indication of day or night. Time doesn’t really exist when there are no fixed points to measure against—there is only movement and his knowledge of this movement was his growing weakness, as if life was literally being slowly drained from him.

As he weakened, he started drifting, and it wasn’t clear when his clear thinking changed from conscious thought to visions or perhaps dreams. But as he lay there, in his mind’s eye, he stood before a chamber. To the left and to the right, behind and in front, as far as the eye could see, were other chambers, each identical to the other. He entered the chamber directly in front of him.

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Short Story: A Parable of Sorts

This story has gone through a number of revisions… actually full rewrites. It’s ended up as a 700 word parable: the interpolation of a mouse so to speak and an homage to the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson and the great Kafka.

The Moment In Between 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Cat asked her little mice students. The students waved their hands vigorously in the air, “oohing” like monkeys. Mrs. Cat pointed to Ricky Mouse, the smallest mouse in the class but the most eager to answer.

“I want to be me!” he squeaked confidently.

Mrs. Cat laughed. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You have to be something.”

Ricky simply stared at his teacher. Clearly, he did not understand her. 

“Well, for example, you can be a firemouse, an astromouse, a policemouse, or really anything. Whatever it is you want to be, you can be. You just need to do well in school and work hard at becoming whatever it is you want.”

And so Ricky Mouse put his mind to it. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to be but he had the formula. He did very well in school. He always finished his homework on time and excelled on the standardized tests. His parents were proud because Ricky was on his way to becoming successful.

Ricky graduated high school at the head of his class and attended a top-ten university, according to a business magazine that ranks such things. Ricky took to the Mousemanities and also loved numbers, so he decided that he’d become a banker. He worked studiously, graduated summa cum laude, and went on to get advanced degrees in accounting and business administration. Ricky’s teachers were proud because his success validated their methods—it is, of course, the goal of education to develop successful individuals.

After graduation, Ricky found a good job at a prestigious bank and began to earn a respectable living. The state was proud because Ricky, who was now known as Richard, was a successful citizen—which meant he always paid his taxes.

Richard Mouse became one of the bank’s best and most valued employees. He generated more cheese and bread on an annual basis than any of the other bankers. The bank was proud, because the point of a successful employee is to be productive, and Richard was certainly productive.

Richard was proud of himself too. When asked “What do you do for a living?” he would respond portentously “A banker.” He had become what he had set out to be.

After many good years with the bank and becoming fantastically wealthy, it came time for Richard to retire.

“But I don’t want to retire,” Richard said to Mr. Rat. “I’m a Banker.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Mr. Rat. “You’re Mr. Richard C. Mouse, and an old mouse at that. Go relax and do what you’ve always dreamed of doing.”

And so Richard retired. He was a lost mouse. He didn’t know what to do now. He had to become something else. He spent his days wandering through Mouseville and sitting on a bench in the park, usually alone.

One summer day, a little mouse sat next to him.

“Hey, mister, watcha doing?”

“I’m sitting here not sure of who I am. I used to know, I think, but not anymore.”

The little mouse giggled. “You’re a pig, silly.”

“I’m not a pig.” He said. “I’m a mouse.”

Cheeks flushed, the little mouse asked.  “Oh, so what’s the problem?”

The two sat silently. Richard felt an overwhelming despair. He knew the answer to the problem. It came down to simple math. The zero property of multiplication applied to him. That anything multiplied by zero is zero. That everything he had accomplished, that all his collected credentials and the sum of all of his wealth amounted to nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s as if he didn’t exist. “Perhaps on this calm summer’s eve when other mice are coming home from a day of earning cheese and bread,” he thought, “what if old Richard C. Mouse should put a bullet into his little mouse head? What would it matter?”

“Madeline, it’s time to go”. Richard looked up; before him stood an older looking mouse. She smiled at him as she gently tugged the little mouse’s hand. “It’s late and if we don’t go now we’ll miss supper.”

Richard returned the smile. His heart, silent for all these years, finally spoke to him. “It’s not too late ol’boy. Become what thou art.”



A Student's Assessment

I received an email from a student who recently finished a social science course called “Masculinities”. The student chose The Simple Man’s Burden as the primary text for his/her final paper and attached it to the email for my edification. Although I don’t agree with some of the assertions in the paper, I think the conclusion is fitting.

“Conclusion and thoughts about social change

Through Vergil’s first hand experiences and those of the characters discussed in the other texts, there is a revelation of the myriad of ways men are self-destructive either in their pursuit or resisting of hegemony or in the perpetuation of it. The actual men in power who perpetuate hegemony reward men for artificial signs of success rather than true fulfilling deeds and moral character. This creates a culture void of meaning, morality or quality. The men trying to achieve the hegemony will ultimately fail to live up to it and in the meantime sacrifice the things in their life that would have brought them true happiness, success and meaning… Male success should be redefined by the measure of his good character and kind deeds, and positive contributions in multiple areas of his life. It should not be defined by measurement of his production in one isolated area of his life. Neither should the number of rungs on a constructed ladder he has ascended measure it nor by the amount of men and women he is capable of suppressing.”




Short Story: The Creativity of Nature

Nietzsche, Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut had their own take on eternal recurrence: time, space, infinity, order, chaos, etc… In my short story “The Recurrence of Henry Edward Jr.” (apprx 2700 words) I put a little spin on the idea of eternal recurrance and make it a bit more Darwin and Lamarckian and a bit darker. I wonder what a Transhumanist would think? Note: Given the way the story is structured, I’ve been told that a second read is a new experience in itself.

 The Recurrence of Henry Edward Jr

Four months, two weeks and today – the day Henry and his wife would know with medical certainty if their unborn child was a boy or a girl.

 “Honey, you almost ready?” Henry yelled from the kitchen to his wife upstairs.

“Ten minutes. I need to dry my hair”.

Henry mumbled something inaudible from under his breath, looked at his watch and paced the kitchen. He turned his attention to the living room table where a medium sized package, having arrived the day earlier, sat unopened.  It was addressed from the estate of the renowned, but now deceased, Dr. Samuel Pritchett.

Click to read more ...


Against Dawkins

Coincidently, over the last several weeks I’ve received a few queries about why, on my About page, I crossed out Richard Dawkin's name as someone I admire. I’ll keep it short and sweet - consider the following:

  • Dawkins is fooled by randomness (expected of journalists, not acceptable for scientists)
  • Dawkins inability to see that most of what is referred to as science is doing more harm than religion.
  • His atheism has become a pseudo religion.
  • Idea of “selfish gene” is an idea of Robert Trivers often attributed to Richard Dawkins (per Taleb communication with Trivers) See reference in Antifragile Page 459



Short Story: When Information is Bliss

I was driven to write this story after reading an article about Certain eBooks purchased by customers were being removed from their Kindle devices when the eBooks were flagged as containing questionable content.  This was done without the customer’s consent or knowledge. Regardless of how one feels about the subject of the books, it's a scary thought that information can be managed by a select few and unbeknownst to you, they can do “things” to your reading list. The article reminded me of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 but instead of book burnings, books are vaporized - more like Fahrenheit 72.

I ran with this idea in “When Information is Bliss", where we follow an idealistic teacher who teaches a group of problem students and we slowly learn the chilling methods a post-literate totalitarian society uses to suppress and control thought.

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Starbucks Doesn’t Care about your Health

Over the weekend, Starbuck enacted a policy at its US and Canadian stores whereby smoking is prohibited within 25 feet of its store premises (not just the front door or outdoor eating area, the entire perimeter).  According to a Starbucks’s spokesperson “The intent is to provide a healthy environment for our customers in the outdoor seating areas of our stores."

Many have applauded this measure citing SB’s commitment to its customer’s health, a sign of its continued commitment to corporate social responsibility. Unfortunately, corporate social responsibility is a euphemism for a type of marketing approach and so Starbuck’s doesn’t really care about your health.  Like all public companies, what matters is shareholder value, or in other words, the health SB cares about is that of its balance sheet. 

Let’s dissect this: If SB cared about their customer’s health, they would have banned smoking within 25 feet of its stores at all of their approximately 17,000 locations globally (not just most of the 3,000 franchise stores in the US and Canada). According to SB, they also serve customer is in: Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong/Macau, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates.

So if the health of its customers is not driving this, then what was the impetus to this new policy? Here are four possibilities:

1. Listening to Customers: SB is listening to its customers in the US and Canada many who are non-smokers. Ok, if that’s true, then why 25 feet? Is second hand smoke such a concern “outside” the SB store and that far away from the store? I don’t think so and my guess is that most people don’t care enough to voice their concerns to SBs about some smokers outside the store - not letter writing campaigns. Complaining is easy but there is a general lethargy amongst most when it actually comes to doing something like voting or drafting a letter to the CEO (particular lethargy in the US based on the amount of abuse it citizens are willing to take from government and corporations). Sure a few ardent customers sent letters to SB  - probably former smokers who, based on my experience, have the most visceral hatred for anything tobacco - but not enough to elicit change.

2. Employees Breaks: This policy was aimed at changing employee bad behavior: Too many SB employees smoke and they were taking too many smoking breaks. Certainly this policy would make it inconvenient for them but this is unlikely the reason for the policy. There are other less public and more effective measures to keep employees from smoking such as increasing the cost of health insurance for smokers or simply enacting a employee policy that prohibits the behavior.

3. Cost of Cleanliness: Cigarrette butts are garbage and it was costly to keep the storefront clean. This is unlikely because storefronts need to be swept regardless; moreover my guess is that 15 of the 25 feet is the street (public sanitation is responsible for cleaning).

4. Marketing: I think the most plausible reason is that this is propaganda in a good disguise. SB can feign it cares about the health of its customer even if they don’t. The press on this has mostly been positive from what I can tell and people actually believe SB cares about the health of its customers. People have taken the bait and are arguing about how SB is a good corporate citizen by tackling the second hand smoke menace. This marketing strategy redirects the conversation away from SB products many of which are unhealthy by any standard (and not to mention that they sell these products to kids too – think Frappuccino). The outdoor second hand smoke argument is a BS arguement as well – I mean this is a ban *outside* the SBs store – 25 feet away from it. The outdoor second hand smoking argument is intellectually dishonest and conflates a mouse with an elephant.   I won’t get into the details on this as it should be common sense.

So what’s the cost of this marketing effort for SB?  Probably not more than the paper for the press release. There isn’t any cost for enforcement because this policy isn’t enforceable. SB can’t keep people from smoking in the street even within the 25 foot perimeter. They can’t keep the owner of an adjacent store from smoking within his store. They can’t keep people from smoking inside their cars while they are parked enjoying their Sausage & Cheddar Classic Breakfast Sandwich. So unless there is a related local law that has this prohibition, SB can’t call the cop or chase away smokers with a broom. SB is aware of this policy overstepping: "If it's public space and something we do not have control of, and the law allows it then we can't enforce it.”. Well then, why didn’t they simply make the ban effective on their premises, both inside and out, instead of the seemingly arbitrary 25 feet rule?  Simple: shock value. In other words, the press wouldn’t have picked up on this story if this was just a point of clarification of an existing policy. Certainly I wouldn’t have (which raises the question: have I fallen for the bait too?)

I hope this clears this up a bit. And if you ever want to have a stogie but are concerned about violating SB policy - whether inside the 25 feet limit or inside one of its stores - just travel outside the U.S. and Canada where SB cares less about the health of its customers. You’ll certainly find an accommodating SB franchise.



The Seemingly Peculiar Property of Projects

I recently drove over the Henry Hudson Bridge that connects the Bronx (Riverdale area) to Manhattan. It looks very much like it did five years ago – that is, that it is still under heavy construction.  My guess is that it’s over-budget and should have been completed a few years ago. These sights are not the exception, they are the norm.  Take the Freedom Tower in downtown Manhattan:  it was supposed to be completed in 2003. Now ten years later, it’s still not complete. Or the recent deployment of New York City’s Upgraded 911 System (which by the way has been experiencing periodic crashes since it recently went live) is $1 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.  These incidents aren’t isolated to government run projects. Anyone who’s worked in a corporate job knows that projects frequently run over budget and rarely finish on-time as planned (or even as re-planned). What is going on here? Why do projects seem to always live longer than expected, sometime so long that the only way to stop them is to kill the project entirely?

There are a number of theories that try to explain this phenomenon. They’ve never satisfied me and are as follows:

  1. Talent: The wrong people were on the project
  2. Buy-In: Not sufficient support from senior stakeholders (managers)
  3. Incentives:  Individual rewards were not  aligned to project objectives
  4. Project Management: Undisciplined project management methods were employed

I’ve seen it too many times where all four of the above were not present and yet failure occurred. Less "consultant" theories on planning failures include personal bias/psychological issues and inherent uncertainty in predicting the future.  But I don’t buy these either.  If they were the case, there would be an equal distribution (or more equal distribution) between projects that go over budget and projects that go under budget.  In short, these reasons are project platitudes (or failure triggers at best, but certainly not causes). There is something else going on that until recently escaped me. Projects fail not because of any of the reasons above. They fail because 1) they are projects and 2) projects are typically structured incorrectly.

Let’s address the first point: projects fail because they are projects. To understand this, let me refer to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Like many things, projects are susceptible to the effects of random events. But for projects, the impact from random events is asymmetrical in that it favors negative results.  In other words, things that go unexpected on a project tend to have a negative consequence for the project rather than positive.  For example, when random events are introduced into a project (say an entire business unit was overlooked and not included in setting requirements), the project doesn’t get completed sooner; it goes over budget and off schedule. This effect is similar in non-project domains. Take for example air travel: random events (e.g., mechanical difficulties) tend to delay a flight rather than accelerate it and the delays tend to be more severe then acceleration benefits by orders of magnitude  (delays often last for hours whereas accerlations may be only a few minutes). This leads to my next point.

Not only do random events introduced into a project carry with them negative impacts, but those negative impacts are scalable.  Here’s an excerpt from NNT’s seminal work The Black Swan that helps to explain this concept of scalability:

“Like many biological variables, life expectancy… is subjected to mild randomness. It is not scalable, since the older we get, the less likely we are to live. In a developed country a newborn female is expected to die at around 79, according to insurance tables. When, she reaches her 79th birthday, her life expectancy, assuming that she is in typical health, is another 10 years. At the age of 90, she should have another 4.7 years to go. At the age of 100, 2.5 years. At the age of 119, if she miraculously lives that long, she should have about nine months left.  As she lives beyond the expected date of death, the number of additional years to go decreases. This illustrates the major property of random variables related to the bell curve. The conditional expectation of additional life drops as a person gets older.

With human projects and ventures we have another story. These are often scalable, as I said in Chapter 3. With scalable variables… you will witness the exact opposite effect. Let's say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days, the same expectation in days as the newborn female has in years. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it should have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.

Let's say you are a refugee waiting for the return to your homeland. Each day that passes you are getting farther from, not closer to, the day of triumphal return. The same applies to the completion date of your next opera house. If it was expected to take two years, and three years later you are asking questions, do not expect the project to be completed any time soon…This subtle but extremely consequential property of scalable randomness is unusually counterintuitive... But let us say for now that they are central to our misunderstanding of the business of prediction. “

So for a project, a random event extends its life expectancy and every day that passes without completion exponentially increases the project’s life expectancy.  This scalability helps to explain the old adage referred to as Hofstadter's law: a project will take longer than you expect even though you know that it will take longer than you expect (or for you techies, the 90% Rule: The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.)

Random events are unpredictable so the answer is not trying to better predict. Although this is common sense, many project managers are asked to predict tasks and milestones months (sometimes years) in advance and to stay the course the entire way. These often are those projects with a status of “green” until a few weeks before a critical milestone date when suddenly the status goes “red” and management wonders WTF just happened. Expecting project managers to predict and not allowing deviations from plan only leads to surprises. Talent, Buy-In, Incentives and Disciplined Project Management are not the answers either – they are tertiary to project proclivity and as we will see, project structure.

Projects cannot be monolithic. They cannot be command and control. They need to be structured to take advantage of tinkering. I covered tinkering in an earlier post, but in short tinkering (also known as organic, grass roots, agile, along with a slew of other names) is the process of unplanned trial and error – of experimentation – to see what works and what doesn’t and then move forward with what does (or perhaps move forward with what doesn't if it turns out to be better).  Tinkering is inherently about smallness and components and projects structured to take advantage of it work for a number of reasons.

  • Failure avoidance: Allows for changes to be made before the failure occurs. Accepts small errors over total failure.
  • Loss management: Allows for changes to be made before significant costs are incurred. Accepts small costs associated with tinkering over risk of total loss.
  • Results realization: Incremental approach reduces latency between expected and actual results.
  • Discovery exposure: Increases the chances of accidental discoveries (i.e., serendipities).
  • Random event mitigation: Impact from random events can be isolated to individual components. Accepts small delays per component rather than larger systemic delays. This is critical because each day a project goes over expected timeline, the longer it can be expected to take to complete. If projects delays can be isolated to units and distributed across those units, delays run in parallel as opposed to serially.

The challenge with adopting a tinkering approach is that errors are more frequent, which gives the perception that things are going wrong all the time.  Delays too are more frequent as negative impacts are addressed on small cycle times rather than once at the end of the project.  There are often frequent change requests which give the perception that requirements weren’t properly gathered. There are apparent redundancies in processes (e.g., multiple small iterative releases instead of one big one) which increase upfront costs (big projects that don’t use tinkering always look cheaper upfront but cost more overall). Results are incremental and are subject to the dilettante's "yeah, so that's all you have to show?" Finally, with complex projects, more components working in parallel are needed which is unmanageable in a command and control environment. In order for tinkering to work, control needs to be decentralized into the hands of individual teams. Although large projects fail in a command and control environment, the perception while managing in this structure, although illusory, is control.

For more on this see the wikipedia entry on the Lindy Effect.

Vergil Den



Naïve Intervention and Humanity

A recent discussion initiated by FOT (Friend of Taleb) Greg Linster about Antifragility, Humanism and the apparent contradiction between the two -- namely, that protecting the weak potentially fragilizes the human race -- got me thinking (these FOTs are good at that). The more I thought about it, the more daunting the problem seemed. I feel (believe, trust, know, whatever) that naïve intervention is a sacred human right; that the alternative is vulgar, profane; but how does one explain the… ineffable; how does one explain nature’s preference for humanity is the former and not the later? I can probably find aphorisms from great thinkers and philosophers to support this. I can even prepare an essay that tries to reason it through.  But I think there is a better way for me to express my thoughts. I went to the cemetery of my old stories and resurrected one that was looking for life. I feverishly rewrote it and here it is anew: “Things Great and Small”, a story about a guy named Ray whose life can explain my position better than me.


Things Great and Small

Ray and his wife Amelia came home after a night that included dinner at a trendy Latin-Asian fusion restaurant followed by drinks at a romantic little wine bar. Now that their daughter was a teenager, they felt free to spend an evening out, as if they were dating again. Years had gone by and they hadn’t done anything for themselves; their sole focus was on Gabby. But now she was older, and they began to let go. Recently, they had been spending their Saturday nights sampling the restaurant scene. So much had changed over the years, and they were eager to catch up.

They were in a giddy mood, acting like teenagers themselves. Ray opened a bottle of Cabernet and poured two glasses. They toasted and indulged in a tender kiss.

The phone rang.

Ray and his wife broke from their kiss and looked at each other. A call near midnight wasn’t uncommon; they had fielded many calls in the past at this time of night.

The phone rang a second time.

Most often, it was just their daughter calling for a ride home from a friend’s or from the movies. Yet even knowing this, each call always brought fear with it.

The phone rang a third time.

“I’ll get it. Gabby probably just needs a lift,” Ray said, smiling at his wife. The smile was only a mask. He always tried to reason with himself that it was nothing, but he could never shake the nervous spasm in his stomach that would reverberate to his chest. He smiled only to help offset his wife’s momentary fear. He was aware that whatever he was feeling, she was feeling it exponentially worse.

Ray picked up the phone.

“Hello? Yes. Oh, hi, Mary. Is everything OK?”

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Effects of Forced Cohabitation

I've always been fascinated at how humans behave when forced to cohabitate, particularly at work. One is compelled by the need to earn a day’s wage to "work" with others. Day in and day out they suffer yet they continue on; although some eventually break. My short story “Shared Remunerations” (~2300 words) takes this idea to the absurd extreme.  Edmund and Matthew, both recent hires at a law firm, take turns telling the story of the events since Matthew’s hire. Edmund is an effete, arrogant dandy; Matthew is more of a regular guy. Edmund, while possibly as intelligent and superior as he believes himself to be, is also both unbalanced and fragile. He thinks that a great friendship exists between them. Matthew sees Edmund as an eccentric, but pleasant enough and no more than a colleague. When the firm moves Matthew into Edmund’s office, Edmund begins to see Matthew as a threat to his position, and finds one of Matthew’s personal tics to be infuriating.  

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Core Principles of Freedom and Maintenance of Liberty

Absent a moral code, I’ve been wondering what exactly are the fundamental principles to a practical code of Freedom.  I’ve compiled a list of what I think are these key principles. I collected them as fragments from a number of thinkers including Popper, Hayek, Socrates, etc. They may exist elsewhere as a whole, but I’ve been unable to find them (Update: I came across the Non-Aggression Principle

Principles of Freedom

1. Do no act to harm a man or woman. 

2. It is better to suffer an injustice than to do an injustice.

3. If Principle 1 is violated, the victim (or their proxy) has the right, but not the obligation, to exact a punishment of equal or less measure on the individual(s) who violated Principle 1.

4. If men and women choose to come together in mutual cooperation for the purpose of protection against physical violence and fraud or more generally, the enforcement of the Principles 1 and 3 (collectively "defense"), the system that they design should not seek first what is best, rather, they shall seek first what can easily be dismantled without violence.

5. The men and women that have come together for the purpose of defense can exact a tax on one another only in order to cover the expenses required to enact and maintain (collectively "implement") the system of defense.

6. If the system of defense or any system that is implemented violates Principles 1 and 3, an individual has the right and the obligation to restore adherence to Principles 1 and 3 using non-violent means against the system.

7. If the system of defense or any system that is implemented violates Principles 1 and 3, and all non-violent means to restore adherence to principles 1 and 3 have been exhausted and principles 1 and 3 continue to be violated, an individual has the right and the obligation to use violence against the system to restore adherence to principles 1 and 3, even if it violates any of the aforementioned principles.


Principle 1 is the rule of Freedom and asserts that one can do as one wishes as long as one does not actively hurt another in the process.  It is important to note, however, that if one hurts another through an omission, Principle 1 is not violated. In other words, a free person cannot be forced to act, even if it means someone is hurt by their inaction. To assert otherwise is a rule for a moral code.

Principle 2 is a rule for Justice and it is important because without it, one can assert a violation of a principle even if one isn’t certain that it was violated and by whom (it must come before Principle 3)

Principle 3 is a rule of Justice and without it; freedom is tyranny (see Paradox of Freedom). It asserts that one can seek justice if someone acts and hurts another. Justice can only be in proportion to the action, and whether or not to seek it is at the discretion of the victim. Indeed if one kills another and commits suicide during or after the act, justice is served.  Principle 2 must come before Principle 3 as it is necessity to offset erroneous capital punishment (see Albert Camus’ essay Reflections on the Guillotine for support).

Principles 4 thru 7 outline the maximum amount of government that can support Freedom and the recourse afforded the individual in the event the government violates an earlier principle. In extreme cases, an indvidual has the right and the obligation to restore freedom through violence even if they must violate earlier principles.






The Illusion of Progress

Karl Popper wrote extensively on a number of topics, most notably on objective knowledge, the fallacy of historicism, and the enemies of an open society. There is a common theme through these works – that is, in order for there to be progress, there must be free and open discourse.

In the following exposition, I attempt to deconstruct Popper’s argument supporting this contention. Furthermore, by doing so, I hope that it becomes clear why ‘too big too fail,’ the expert problem, and other modern complexes present significant risks.

Truth vs. Untruth

Fundamentally, progress is synonymous with solving problems, leading to improved knowledge. To understand this, first, we need to understand the concept of truth and untruth. The difference between truth and untruth is not binary – in other words, a proposition isn’t either true or not true. There are gradations of truth. So think of truth as a bull’s eye and untruths as the circular bands around it. The nearer the proposition is to the bull’s eye, the closer that proposition is to the truth (or less untrue, however you like it). The farther from the bull’s eye, the farther from the truth it is (or more untrue it is).  The objective of improved knowledge is to move closer to the truth (note the word "improved" as this distinction will be important).

Schema of Knowledge

So the growth of knowledge is all about problem solving.  Popper has a problem-solving formula, or schema as he calls it, that is characterized by the following expression: PS1 then TT1 then EE1 the PS2

First, there must be a problem PS1. In order to solve the problem PS1, one must formulate a Tentative Theory TT1 (e.g., proposition, conjecture, etc.).  How this theory is formulated is not relevant. It can be established through induction or intuition or quite frankly through any means – even from a dream.  It doesn’t matter. The point is that it should be a solution to a problem.

Next, the tentative theory TT1 must be tested. This is called Error Elimination EE1. This is perhaps the most crucial element in the schema. The process of error elimination should be as rigorous as possible through falsification, i.e., proving the tentative theory to be false.  Examination of TT1 will show that 1) it is proven completely false, 2) it is proven partially false, or 3) it is not proven false at all. The better the theory is at surviving the refutation process, the more “fit” the theory is. However, although it is more "fit," it is not necessarily more true as we shall see later.

If the theory survives, either partly or wholly, one or more new problems are raised (PS2) which are more complex than the predecessor problem (PS1), and the evolutionary cycle repeats itself with the new problem (PS2) at its base.

The Growth of Knowledge

So the growth of knowledge is evolutionary in that, if the tentative theory survives, other new problems and theories arise from it like children, and if they survive, they have children, and so on and so forth. The crux of the issue should be more apparent now. That is that the growth of knowledge is a progression – however, to my earlier note, there is a distinction between improved knowledge and worse knowledge (i.e., ignorance).

Ignorance grows in the same way and therein lies the problem.  Ignorance is knowledge that moves farther from the truth or becomes less true with each successive cycle of Popper's schema.

For example, a problem is addressed with a tentative theory. The theory, however, is either not tested or not rigorously tested, so it survives the error elimination process with a multitude of errors. It then spawns a new set of erroneous problems, each more complex than its predecessor, and the cycle of ignorance continues.

The error elimination phase of the schema is most critical because it determines survival.


Rigorous error elimination is performed by critical argument. When critical argument is hindered, then the process is not as rigorous. There can be no constraints as part of an argument, and freedom of expression is so important. But it is deeper than simply a government provisioning this freedom. One needs to be free in all things. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in his aphorism, it is “Only he who is free with his time will be free with his opinion.”

For example, a man’s opinion is inhibited if he can’t argue freely because he doesn’t want to lose his job, or he has a conflict of interest with the one who owns the tentative theory he is arguing against. Think of the agency problem such as the incestuous relationship between regulators and bankers, or the relationship between researchers and corporations.  Only freedom can ensure that the error elimination process can run its course.

‘Too Big to Fail’ and the Expert Problem

It should be clear now why ‘too big to fail’ and the expert problem are such issues. The process of error elimination was running its course during the financial crisis in 2008, but instead of allowing it to run its course, it was replaced by the bank bailouts. The U.S. federal government allowed these financial institutions to survive when they shouldn’t have. Instead of having one set of problems to deal with that would have risen from the failed banks (problems that lead to improvement), we have another set of problems, a worse set, based on the bailed banks.

The same concept applies to the expert problem. Experts often act as the sole error eliminators of a tentative theory. Often an expert can propose a theory, and because of the standing of that expert, it is presumed that the theory is correct and no critical testing is necessary. There are entire institutions that have developed from this expert problem and are built either upon fallacious foundations (e.g., economics) or on fallacious reasoning (e.g., healthcare).

Modernity Retrogression

This is the fundamental argument for the failure of modernity or why there has been little progress (or even that there has been retrogression) in modern times. Unless you understand the argument presented, it is hard to appreciate why this is the case. People have confused increased complexity for progress. They also assume that the future will only bring progress – as if time and improvement were in lockstep. This is the illusion of progress.

Modernity is building on ignorance and fallacies that with each successive cycle worsen the situation because of new erroneous problems and increased complexities that successive problems bring. We are not improving our knowledge; rather, we are increasing our ignorance. We are moving farther from the truth.

“Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made. “ --Franz Kafka


Anatomy of the Failure to Learn From Failure

There seem to be hundreds, if not thousands, of postings on the Web about failure. Most talk about why failure is a good thing, touting how valuable it is because you can learn and grow from it. As many of you know, I don't subscribe to this. My point: why not try to avoid failure? Negative thinking and tinkering support learning and growing more effectively and, incidentally, improve the likelihood of success. But except for a few contrarians, you can hardly find a wisp about failure avoidance in the ether. 

With all this talk about failure, how does one actually learn from mistakes? It takes humility and a little understanding on how we think about past events. Both, however, are usually in short supply. Typically, the retrospective process of failure recognition is fraught with a number of cognitive biases – which of course will lead to a high likelihood of repeat failure.

Stages of Failure Recognition

1.      Why did this happen?        Self-Serving Bias

2.      How did this happen?        Confirmation Bias

3.      What can I do to avoid future failures?     Hindsight Bias

Nonetheless, when failure occurs or when it becomes imminent, one typically takes stock of the preceding events in the hopes of discovering the cause(s) of the failure. So what does this process of discovery look like? I thought about this for some time and perhaps the failure recognition process would look similar to the following three stages. I use a failed restaurant as an example to provide context.

Why did this happen?

This may be the first question that is asked and for most, it really means “Why did this failure happen to me?” Of course most people don't want to take the blame for failure, so they look for someone or something else to blame besides themselves. The bias associated with this type of thinking is called self-serving bias.

Self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that attributes personal success to skills or talent and failure to randomness. For example, a restaurateur believes his restaurant failed because of the poor economy which is a random event that he had no control over. However, he ignored the fact that he overstocked his refrigerators with perishables which resulted in a high spoilage rate. Not to mention, he bought his products from a wholesaler who sold him the goods at retail prices.

For those that watch Kitchen Nightmares, you often see this delusion of the restaurant owner. Owners blame their workers, their spouses, their families – you name it and they blame it. Never do they take ownership of their mistakes – not until Gordon Ramsey stuffs it down their throats. Only then do they realize that they ultimately own their failure. But I digress.

How did this happen?

Now armed with the external excuse and the reason for the failure, the search is on for details to support the hypothesis – a validation exercise if you will. Another bias comes into play here – confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to confirm a hypothesis regardless of whether it is true. In this case, given that the bad economy was the reason behind the failure of the restaurant, the restaurateur looks for data to support his contention. And by golly, he finds data to support it.

He finds an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that states that on average, due to the poor economy, people are dining out less. The restaurateur believes that this supports his assertion as to why his restaurant failed. But he fails to scrutinize the information – what are the data to support the analysis by the WSJ? Are people dining out less on average? Is the restaurateur’s area experiencing more people dining out rather than fewer? If the economy is so bad, why are his competitors running profitable businesses?

What can I do to avoid future failures?

With this evidence, the restaurateur is now certain that the poor economy was the cause of his restaurant's demise. This raises the question, to avoid future failure: How can a person know whether the economy will be good or bad? This leads to the next bias – hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is the inclination of seeing past events as being more predictable than they actually are (i.e., illusion of predictability or the “I should’ve seen it coming” illusion). In the case of the failed restaurateur, he will open restaurants only during boom economic cycles. He will determine when the boom cycles will occur by reading economic predictors in the WSJ which notoriously does not predict well.

So how did the restaurateur do the next time he opened his restaurant? It turns out that he was wildly successful (during a bad economy no less). He attributed his success to his “front of the house” charm and the handsome menus he designed.

In fact, the restaurateur's success can be attributed to other things. During the bankruptcy proceedings, his judge had just eaten lunch resulting in a more favorable outcome. This allowed the restaurateur to open his next restaurant three months earlier than expected. By opening in advance, a soon-to-be-retired restaurant reviewer at the local paper was able to rate his restaurant. And since it was going to be his last review, he wanted it to be positive so ... I think you seeing where I am going with all of this.

It is a difficult undertaking to determine causality in general, even more so when analyzing past events of something as uncontrolled as real life. Success and failure are often the result of fortune (aka unpredictable events). There are just so many reasons why things happen – how do you determine which reasons are salient? Further complicating matters are our own cognitive biases that further distort the retrospective analysis.

But there are things that you can do to improve the likelihood of success – avoid failure whenever possible. By protecting your downside risks (negative thinking) coupled with tinkering (small iterative controlled steps of trial and error) avoiding failure is possible – but of course, nothing is guaranteed.

P.S. The restaurant failed because the "closed" sign was inadvertently, but prominently, displayed in the window for weeks.


Failure as a Prerequisite to Success?

I recently read an article on a self-improvement blog about failure and its relationship to success. The article stated that "... everyone that has ever succeeded did it by failing first.” And that “You have to have the guts to pick yourself up after you fall and try again, and again, until you find the right fit.”

Obviously we all fail in life at some point or another so the statement was logically true. The dumbest clout would also agree that one needs to learn from one’s mistakes. But I am sure this is not what the author meant. The author’s meaning is that to be successful in a particular area (probably some business venture) one needs to have failed first. But why fail at all and why make that an attribute for success?

My guess is that the writer is trying to sell a book on positive thinking. If the author wanted to be honest and accurate about success, which unfortunately does not sell a lot of books, he would have provided a practical and better reason for success, or more importantly, for failure avoidance.

A better reason would be that one should prevent failure whenever possible. So to be able to recognize when something is going to fail rather than let the thing fail is an important attribute. By being preemptive, you can take action before the failure actually occurs. This is called being agile, adaptable – some may call the process tinkering.

Now back to success – let’s first identify the attributes that are not critical for one to be successful.

  • Good ideas – Many bad ideas are or were successful (think pet rock)
  • High GPA – People with average GPAs are successful
  • Failure – People can be successful without experiencing failure in the area they are trying to succeed at. They know that failure is an option but choose otherwise when possible (see Tinkering)

So what are the practical attributes of success?

  • Luck – Many successes come by serendipity. Plain and simple.
  • Preparation – This is also called “doing one’s homework.” This can be as simple as talking with people who have done it before or performing some market research. A restaurant in Manhattan is likely to fail – so one should avoid opening up a restaurant in Manhattan.
  • Tinkering – If things seem not to be working, make adjustments. Recognizing and adapting to change is called evolving. Those that fail to evolve are extinct.
  • There you have it. So please, don’t go around trying to mess up so you can be successful.

Raise Your Hand

There is a great Sam Adams beer commercial from a few years back. It goes something like this: A bunch of businessmen are sitting around a lunch table. The waitress comes over to take their drink order. The first bloke orders a glass of water, and the rest follow suit. The last bloke to order switches it up. He orders a Sam Adams and then the rest change their orders to a Sam Adams.

Aside from being funny, there is some truth to this phenomenon. It’s called the "Asch Paradigm" or the conformist of groups. Tim Hartford covers this in his excellent 2011 TED presentation Management Lessons from the War in Iraq. At about 5:50 into the clip, he speaks about the suppression of dissent and its dangers. It’s basically the Sam Adams commercial if no one ever dissented from the group and ordered a Sam Adams.

It got me thinking. How many times, when a bad idea was introduced, did people who thought the idea was bad just sit on the sidelines and never voice their opinion? My sense is that the leadership at Blockbuster fell into this trap when they decided not to purchase Netflix in 2000 for $50 million and chose instead to invest in Enron. I am certain they continued to fall into this trap in the decade of debacle that followed.

PwC is another example. Back in 2002, PwC Consulting was spun off from the Audit and Tax service lines and was shockingly named “Monday.” Before this was published, someone must have thought, “Geez, Monday doesn’t remind me of a fresh start. Monday is depressing because the weekend is over.” Only after it was published and the public ridicule that followed did PwC reconsider the name. The comedy of errors continued in the subsequent months. The new company was offered $18 billion by Hewlett Packard which was rejected as too low. A few months later and given the change in market conditions, PwC consulting sold to IBM for a mere $3 billion. Do I know for certain that no dissenting opinion was voiced in the above cases? Of course not, but because of the domino effect of failures – I suspect that it wasn’t.

But we all know that you just can’t go about voicing your opinion indiscriminately. Those blokes don’t last too long in a company because they are seen as bigmouths and know-it-alls. So what can you do, given the obvious side effects to dissensions? Here are some tips:

1. Advice from the advisor is neither good nor bad. This maxim from Machiavelli's The Prince is a good summation: “Good advice, whatever be its immediate source, has its true origin in the wisdom of the prince.” In other words, raise your hand and voice your opinion. Let others decide its efficacy.

2. Be careful where you voice your advice: Not all advice can be perceived as good – particularly when someone may take offense to it. For example, you may have the best intentions with the dissenting advice you want to provide your boss. But this advice may make him look bad in a meeting. So unless your true intention is to challenge him in public, be discreet when providing advice.

3. Try to provide preemptive advice: Some advice is best given BEFORE a meeting or event rather than during the event or after it – particularly if this advice will help keep your boss from looking like a fool. So again, if your intention is to humiliate your boss – the omission is a good tactic. But if you want him to save face, give it to him beforehand.

4. I told you so: When your advice is not heeded and hindsight proves you correct, don’t rub it in. This is not to say it shouldn’t be raised – but again discretion is the better part of valor. Gently point out the mistake but, moreover, provide advice on how to fix the problem. You will be positioned to look like both a prophet and a savior.

5. The above tips can be useful but only if your boss or company culture values openness. If you work in an environment that actively suppresses opinion through intimidation or general ignorance – you may want to find another company to work for or you may end up in a Blockbuster. 


A Job Well Done

As an ardent procrastinator, time management has always eluded me. I much prefer to work hard than to work long. I am amazed at how people seem to tread the work water for eight hours every day. I seem to have fits of excited activity (working) with long moments of recovery (not working). It has been told to me more than once that there is something wrong with me.

It wasn’t until a few years back, when reading Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week, that I realized that I was not utterly crazy (nor was my method of habitual procrastination). I was comforted by the reintroduction of a theory on time management – particularly something referred to as “Parkinson’s Law.” In short it states that work effort will expand to fill the time available for its completion. Tim suggests that we shorten the time allowed for a task, and by doing so, the time pressure forces us to focus on only the bare essentials required to complete the task. He purports that the quality of the work will be equal to, if not better than, the quality of work had you afforded yourself the additional time.

There is some truth to this. Heaven knows that if you give yourself too much time, things seems to just drag on – from pruning and questioning, to reordering and overanalyzing. I think for me, unconsciously, my procrastination was the application of Tim’s method.

Needless to say, Tim’s method shouldn’t be taken to an extreme. That is, if you shorten the time allowed to perform a job by too much, you will certainly sacrifice quality. David Hume, the famous philosopher, partially blamed the lack of acclaim for his book A Treatise on Human Nature on this exact problem – “I had been guilty of a very usual indiscretion, in going to press too early.”

The art, then, is finding the threshold where quality is maximized and time wasted minimized – or otherwise put, finding the right balance of quality and time. I am rather good at finding the right balance when doing the work myself (albeit, it’s never quite level). But this balance becomes ever more difficult to find as the complexity of the work effort increases – even more so when the people dimension is added.

I think that most sellers of people services and managers of people/projects believe that there is a science to finding this balance. They tend to apply overly quantitative approaches in search of getting it right. This approach inevitably assumes people are machines and the result of the work is an output. The end product is delivered “on time” and “on budget” (the quantitative measures) but quality and human dignity are sacrificed (the qualitative measures).

So choose your poison. Some choose to offer unrealistic stretch goals by compressing time and changing nothing else. I’d rather give everyone a bit more time and let people work as they choose. The procrastinators may be stealing time, but I don’t measure output – I measure outcomes.


Be a Generalist Specialist

Recently I was browsing the Web and checked out Seth Godin’s website. For those that don’t know, Seth is a best-selling author and successful entrepreneur. On a daily basis he posts a short thought about one topic or another. They are usually very insightful and on point. Today, however, I was somewhat disappointed. The topic of today was titled “Unskilled Labor” and in short Seth contends that “Unskilled now means not-specially skilled.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t disagree with him more.

The article is not well reasoned (I don’t blame him – daily blogging is difficult) but this is what I think he was trying to say:

People with and without college educations have high rates of unemployment. The reason is that for many, their skills do not match the demand in the market. Neurosurgeons and talented database designers, etc., on the other hand, have low rates of unemployment because they have the specialized skills that the market demands. Unskilled today therefore means not skilled in the right specialties.

Even if he had reasoned this way, I would have taken it a step further because, frankly, this is fairly obvious. What is not obvious is how to keep oneself from being unemployed.

The skills that are in demand today may very well not be in demand tomorrow. For example, in 1999, COBOL programmers were in high demand and they commanded high premiums for their specialty. Today, COBOL programmers are not in demand. If the COBOL programmer in 1999 did not change with market demand, he probably would be out of a job today.

The most important skill to have today is adaptability and recognizing that, like in nature, the highly specialized are the first to go extinct. So be a generalist specialist instead. Have a great command of the general concepts in your specific field. For the programmer, understand the tenets of programming. Understand Web development, database programming, object-oriented concepts, software as a service, etc. By doing so, you can adapt and change when needed.

Some argue that the downside to the generalist specialist is that you may not command the highest salary. True, a specialist does command higher salaries for delivering his services. But on the contrary, the generalist specialist has longevity. Moreover, generalist specialists know how to leverage the specialist and usually rise through the ranks within the organization. In other words, they are the bosses.