Category Archives: Business

The School of Misdirection

* Masquerade *

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
– Margaret Fuller

“Misinformation works.”
– Rand Paul

Before I became a computer programmer I was a student at a tech school. It was a fast-paced track that promised to teach employable programming skills in under a year.

On the first day the students in my class were also promised that many of us would drop out. That is what had always happened on this tough track.

But it didn’t happen to us.

The stereotype of introverted computer geeks hadn’t taken hold in the culture yet. Sociability was fairly high in the class and many of us hung out together, had lunch together, or had drinks together after class. We studied together. This group was very open, no one was excluded.

Along with a few others I was getting straight A’s and would help anyone who asked, answer anyone’s questions, keep trying to explain for as long as needed. We learned very quickly that doing this helped us to learn the material better. Things become clearer when you think them through and make them simpler.

Helping other students definitely helped me to improve.

And talking about the material made everything more interesting and studying was actually fun.

At graduation time they told us that we were the biggest class to make it through the course and we had the highest class GPA. We had a record number of students finish with an A average and few or no dropouts.

My class had gelled around a sense of mutual support.

Recently I’ve been told that some educational tracks are cut-throat. The students compete with each other for grades and ranking and the tactics can be vicious. A few weeks ago a United States Senator advised medical students to sabotage each other with bad information. Apparently within some fields of study knowledge is a zero-sum game and the incentives reward hoarding it for oneself and trying to prevent others from accessing it.

A few years after graduation I was looking for a better job. One of the students from my programming class spotted my resume on her boss’s desk. She told him that she remembered me from that class and that I’d helped her with the coursework.

I got the job.

In my career since then I’ve always tried to share whatever knowledge I have and tried to help and answer questions and offer ideas. In my spare time I became involved with a local technical group dedicated to spreading know-how and networking, and I served on the board of directors. Sharing has always enriched my life and I love it when I can make something clear enough that I can actually see the light in another person’s face as connections are clicking together.

Occasionally I’ve also encountered people who hoard knowledge or even are outright saboteurs, intentionally giving bad information in an attempt to cause the other person to fail.

I’ve found that people remember the ones who helped them and learn to distrust saboteurs.

As the use of social media rises, employers are catching on to the value of teamwork and sharing. Knowledge hoarders will find that they must learn to share or they won’t fit in.

And saboteurs? Saboteurs will find that misinformation will follow them.

Image:
Masquerade * by pareeerica, on Flickr

This Action Is Not Easier Done Than Said

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They say that some things are just easier said than done. That was true when the first doubter thought it and it’s still true. It will always be true.

Easier said than done.

Because “said” represents the expression of an idea but “done” is about the behavior that it will take to make that idea happen. And in that sense, it is true and will always be true that everything that is or can be SAID is much less easily DONE.

Keep that in mind, Sayers.

Image: DSC00001 by Santacreu, on Flickr

Security through Obscurity

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There was a time when computer programmers on IBM’s midrange platform joked about “security through obscurity.” The data and programs were safe mainly because so few people knew how to get into them. Even if a hacker found a way to connect, the platform architecture was unique and the boxes were priced out of reach for the hacker demographic, preventing experimentation.

The low-hanging fruit for the hackers was on a different platform, machines running Microsoft’s Windows. They knew those machines well enough.

And so programmers didn’t worry as much about security on the IBM midrange machines as the programmers on other, better-known machines did. The lack of public knowledge served for purposes of security and virus prevention.

There was a downside to obscurity though. The midrange programmers watched as sales of their machine stagnated and companies switched to the more popular Windows based systems in spite of security concerns. The job market for midrange programmers shrank and wages fell.

Obscurity turned out to be just another word for unpopular.

Image: “Cavern carved by the sea in an ice wall near Commonwealth Bay, 1911-1914”
Source: State Library of New South Wales

It was All Too Complicated for Anyone to Understand, Ctd

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‘Never invest in a business you cannot understand.’ – Warren Buffet

Over-Simplified Solution, meet Over-Complicated Problem.

Marketers have known this forever. The key to selling a solution is to create a problem for it to solve. Hence, the mundane everyday realities of being human: dandruff flakes, under-arm odor, imperfect teeth, are portrayed as monstrous things that could get you shunned. No one will date you, mate you, hire you. You could be voted off the island. The quality of your character is as nothing compared to these superficialities. If you suffer from anything that may impair your attractiveness, you must correct this problem now, if it takes the last cent you have! Even if you have to access credit and take out a 2nd mortgage on your home.

After all, the solutions to these suddenly enormous problems are so simple. It’s merely a matter of money.

In the buildup to the financial crisis, the simple solution for the risk-averse and fudiciarily responsible was the Triple A rating. Any bond with such a rating was certified gold. No further investigation would be necessary. Behind the rating on a mortgage-backed bond was a world of complicated calculations. The truth of the bonds would not yield to any but the most dogged, possibly emotionally disordered, financial detective with weeks or months to spend digging.

Almost no one bothered.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet has famously advised to never invest in anything that you don’t understand.

Thousands (millions?) of investors substituted ratings for understanding, having no idea that the ratings agencies didn’t understand either.

The bonds appear to have been designed that way.

Image from Flickr commons – Professor Phillips and his machine to model an open economy

It was All Too Complicated for Anyone to Understand.

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Michael Lewis is my friend.

Not really, of course, I’ve never met or talked with him, but he’s taught me a lot with his writing and for that I feel very friendly towards Michael Lewis.

I found some time this winter to spend with his book, The Big Short. He promised, right up front and on the cover to show me the inside of (cue ominous music) THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE.

I can’t believe I waited so long to take him up on that.

Wall Street had created a glorious profit-manufacturing black box, a sort of magician’s cabinet where something goes in and some other thing comes out, spewing coins. No one but the magicians and some of their assistants knew how it worked, but everyone applauded.

On the outside of every in-group is at least one out-group of misfits, and Lewis introduces a few and shows what they found when they peeked into Wall Street’s little manufacturing shop of mortgage bonds.

The investments were complicated by design, creating lots of smoke. Inside the investments, bonds mirrored each other to give an illusion of endless profits.

Endless! Profits!

Entire industries had been puffed up on the belief that there were endless profits. The money flowed in. Wall Street was sucking up money.

The misfits discovered the mirrors and saw through the complicated structure and realized it would implode. They found a way to trick the tricksters into giving them lots of the money too.

That’s about as simple as I can make it.

There are actually no magicians in Lewis’ book. It’s better than that. It’s a tale of greed and betrayal and we’re all still living in the aftermath. Wall Street is still blowing smoke to cover their tracks and the same people who helped blow smoke all along are still helping them now.

Anyone who still believes that it was all too complicated to understand should read this book.

Image by Flickr profile GlenBledsoe

My Basement Monster

The pipes in the house were bumping and thumping and making all kinds of scary noise. It sounded like a monster was chained in the basement, trying to escape. That turned out to be a fairly apt metaphor too.

I spent hours trying to bleed the air out of my boiler heating system. The air wasn’t even supposed to be in there. I’d had a special bleeder valve added to the system awhile back so that air would automatically escape. Yet there the air was.

More alarming than the noise was the monster’s breath. Sporadically, steam hissed out of the bleeder valve in a menacing blast.

It puzzled my furnace guy. He never saw the steam but he didn’t doubt me. He thought that the air in the boiler water was a sign that the bleeder valve wasn’t working anymore but he couldn’t explain how it still allowed steam to escape.

He showed me how to bleed the system manually. It was a time consuming process involving water trickling through a hose into a bucket, watching bubbles of air escape. The procedure was complete when there were no more bubbles.

The noise you’re hearing is just air in the system, he told me. Get the air out and you’ll be fine.

He promised to check on the cost of replacing the bleeder valve. It was solid brass. The metal had become very costly lately.

I trickled out bucket after bucket, watching air bubbles rise. They were endless.

The noise continued. Once or twice a day I caught the monster breathing steam again. I’d been warned that the boiler could crack if there was too much steam. That would mean a whole new furnace. I cut the power to the boiler and kept on bleeding it.

The bubbles were endless.

The house got cold.

I turned the boiler power back on. I kept burping the monster.

The bubbles were endless.

At one point the controller box began to hum loudly, so loudly that I was afraid it was some kind of alarm. I swatted it with my hand. It stopped humming.

Ah, percussion maintenance works again, I thought.

The next morning I found that the boiler no longer responded to the thermostat.

I told all of this to the furnace guy.

Keep bleeding, he said.

It was getting cold out and he was handling a lot of calls from his customers, working into the evening day after day. I’d always known him to work this hard. He’d been born into the business that his father had started in 1950 and he’d been running it himself for over a decade.

That night the boiler steamed and thumped with reckless fury.

Turn off the boiler, he said. It could crack. Do you have another heat source? Can you stay warm? You must need a new controller. I can’t get one until the morning.

The controller would be about as expensive to replace as the bleeder valve.

And the furnace guy’s labor and expertise were appropriately costly too.

The next day he showed up with a new pump.

I was talking with some of the guys, he said, and we decided the real problem is that the pump is failing. The heated water isn’t being distributed well through the system. The boiler water is overheating because it doesn’t get far so sits and cooks. That puts air into the system and makes steam.

He swapped out the pump. This part was about half as costly as either of the previously proposed solutions.

The house began to warm again. And it was quiet. The banging stopped. There was no more steam. The controller worked again. The monster morphed back into a quiet house helper.

I’m grateful that my furnace guy listened to my description of what was happening. The boiler neither thumped nor steamed while he was present, just meekly kicked in. Except for the bubbles in the system, everything had seemed to be working.

His listening skills had paid off.

I’m grateful that he kept thinking and didn’t just charge into the first solution that presented itself, or the second.

Both solutions would have been expensive and neither would have fixed the problem.

His years of experience with problem solving had paid off.

I’m grateful that he’d shared the problem with others in his field and considered their ideas.

His professional network had paid off.

The most valuable component of the service he’d provided wasn’t a new pump, it was himself.

Over the past year I’ve been saddened to hear many people devalue the labor and experience of other workers with no real understanding of the requirements of the fields they deride as overpaid. I pray this type of mass derision and contempt never falls on my furnace guy or the others in his field.

Because as expensive as the labor was for my boiler service, it could have been much worse. There is no basis for expecting omniscience from a problem solver, ever. Human beings are often inventive and clever but no one can truthfully call any of them perfect.

The best and closest substitute for troubleshooting perfection that we can have is a process that includes patience, knowledge, thought and respect.

Those attributes carry a necessary cost but such a process is what the best troubleshooters must rely on if problems are to be actually solved.

Image from Flickr : “fallrod”

But the pension fund was just sitting there

Salon interviewed author Ellen E. Schultz, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, on her new book, “Retirement Heist,” which details the mechanisms that big companies have used to loot their own employee’s pensions and earned benefits. See: The Theft of the American Pension : Salon – Economics

From the looks of this interview, the book doesn’t go far enough. The theft of retirement savings is bigger than this, as the entire credit and mortgage scheme that collapsed the global economy was about siphoning pensions and global savings from their protected pools through fraudulently overrated and priced investments. Now politicians want to sell the idea that Social Security earned benefits are just another promise that must be broken. Don’t believe it!
Cash