1. Perpetually Flawed

    August 29, 2008 by Craig

    When I was a kid, adults often told me I would be rich and famous some day. Apparently I was giving off some sort of ambition vibe early on. I think ambition is a genetic defect. You can’t have ambition unless you think there is something wrong with the way you are. Ambition is a state of feeling perpetually flawed.

    From Dilbert Blog.


  2. Showdown

    August 21, 2008 by Craig

    Summary

    The new BlackBerry Bold has come out, but it’s even more expensive than the iPhone in Canada.

    In Canada (Rogers Wireless):

    iPhone: Base price = $199. Cheapest package: 3 years, 250+E&W minutes, 6GB data = $65/month = $2340. Total price = $2539

    BlackBerry Bold: $399. Equivalent package: 3 years, 250 minutes = $40/month, 6GB data = $30/month. Total price = $2919. Options like push email are additional. However: you have far more choice with the BBB. For instance, you can buy it outright (no contracts), skip the data and email plans, etc.

    Neither of these plans include taxes, fees, or extras like caller ID and voicemail.

    Both phones have similar capabilities (the big difference being less screen vs a physical keyboard). And they’re both really expensive.

    In other news:

    • Google’s Android has been heating up lately. The first phone just got FCC approval, the SDK is nearly done, and there’s a video of a real Android device.
    • I got an iPod Touch recently: an iPhone without the Phone. It’s also without the GPS, camera, microphone, and high pricetag. For me this was the good compromise; I do miss the technical features and the data-anywhere aspect, but there’s no way I’m going to pay $2K for a phone that’s as locked down as the iPhone. The Touch gives me a good music & video player, a wireless web & email browser, and the chance to try out some of the apps for less than $300.

  3. Lies, Dammed Lies, and People

    August 20, 2008 by Craig

    Summary

    Facts don’t lie, but people will take facts and use them to serve their agendas. Relying on just the conclusions is dangerous; analyzing the facts and reasoning behind the conclusions will provide better results.

    During our recent blargument Marco wrote:

    Facts say what the speaker wants them to (like statistics).

    I responded:

    This is an abuse of the word “fact” (and “statistic”). I know that your idea of what’s “fact” and mine do not necessarily like up exactly, but there’s no sense in trying to make “fact” mean “objective” and instead make it “subjective”.

    We already have a word for that: “opinion”.

    I might like to *say* that my opinions are facts, but that doesn’t make it any more true than if I say my car is a Ferrari. It may or may not be, but it would be silly to take my word for it without some sort of evidence (a peek in my garage, my vehicle registration, or perhaps a look at my bank account).

    Persuasive arguments are not always false or misleading, but I am at a disadvantage if I take persuader’s word for it that his statements are true (ie: are facts). I need to take other information into account. Part of that may be experience (how accurate has he been in the past, is he drawing reasonable conclusions based on the evidence he’s presented), but outside evidence and/or well-reasoned counterarguments are even more reliable.

    (I’ve added the emphasis in my reposting here.)

    A week ago the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a study about corporations (both US-based and foreign-controlled) and the taxes they pay. It was factual, apparently objective, and probably accurate (I don’t know how well the GAO does their job, but for the purposes of this argument I’ll assume it’s correct). It specifically did not draw any conclusions from the facts that it presented.

    The news media took the report and wrote hundreds of stories on it. Many (most?) of them had the theme “Corporations use tax loopholes to pay less than their ‘fair share'”., lead by the Associated Press who claimed that two-thirds paid no federal income taxes between 1998 and 2005. Even my favorite business news source, APM Marketplace, did a bit about big evil pampered corporations, leading off the story by saying that if real people were dodging their taxes on this scale, there would be public outrage.

    The very first thing I thought of when I read the first of these GAO news stories was “were the corporations that aren’t paying taxes also not earning income?

    In the U.S. (and in Canada, and probably most other developed nations), corporations pay “income” taxes on their profits, not their sales. This makes sense to most people when you explain it to them. “Sales” refers to the amount of money a business takes in. Subtract “costs” (what they pay out) from that, and the leftovers are what they keep: “profit”. Taxing based on sales (which would ignore costs and profitability) isn’t very effective, because it would hurt a an already struggling company with high sales and low or negative profitability (think GM) yet give a company with small sales and great profitability. There are such things as taxes on certain assets (which would effect business which own those assets, which may tend to be larger), but that’s not what the study was about.

    Most people think of corporations as big entities with thousands of employees, woldwide reach, and millions (or billions) in sales — and thus want them to pay millions of dollars in taxes. The truth is that most corporations are small and local; many have only one employee. Many are short-lived too (many don’t survive beyond five years, although the actual numbers vary depending on the study). A lot of them don’t have profits in every year. The laws allow a business who has a loss in one year to apply it against their profits in another year for the purposes of taxes (allowing that business to “catch up” from a business slowdown). Some (similar to my own business, although I’m not incorporated) pay out all of their post-expense sales money to their employee(s) (who then pay personal income taxes on it), and thus show no profit and pay no corporate tax.

    As it turns out, what I wrote above is probably a better explanation for the results than “corporate tax-dodging loopholes”. The GAO report itself wrote, in the very first paragraph of the summary:

    Most large [foreign-controlled] and [US controlled corporations] that reported no tax liability in 2005 also reported that they had no current-year income. A smaller proportion of these corporations had losses from prior years and tax credits that eliminated any tax liability.

    However, that’s not the story you got from most of the news articles.

    A few sources did try to offer counterarguments to the popular story. Fark summed it up nicely:

    Do corporations really pay no taxes? Or is it just a bunch of overhyped media BS on a slow news day? The real numbers indicate the latter

    This is yet another example of why counterarguments are necessary in most (if not all) discussions. Facts don’t speak for themselves (in fact, they don’t speak at all; they don’t have mouths), but everyone with an opinion or an agenda will be quick to offer theirs as the “correct interpretation” of the facts.

    It’s too much to ask for an unbiased interpretation of the facts from any one source (as evidenced by the countless examples of biased interpretations) so your best bet is to get multiple interpretations, analyze the reasoning behind their conclusions, and determine the best conclusion based on the strength of the arguments.

    Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean picking the best argument out of the group of all arguments. Each argument should have some aspect of the truth in it (if it’s completely faulty then you can discard it). Conclusions will usually only be true if their assumptions are correct, and often decision making comes down to picking from the most probable (but not necessarily correct) assumptions. If it comes down to a choice between one good argument with bad assumptions and one bad argument with good assumptions, you might get the best results by combining the two.


  4. Tough Times Ahead

    August 19, 2008 by Craig

    the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to budget cuts

    From Ted’s Twitter, no idea where he got it from.


  5. Follow the Leader: The Audio Version

    August 15, 2008 by Craig

    Because Ted doesn’t like to read, I’ve created a Text-to-Speech version of my recent blog post on authority using SpokenText.net.

    It’s a 1.3 MB MP3 file, so download with caution. If it starts eating up too much bandwidth then I’ll kill it, so if you’re interested please grab it sooner rather than later.


  6. Wikipedia Tourism #12

    by Craig

    Poe’s Law — Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to tell the difference between religious Fundamentalism and a parody thereof.

    From List of eponymous laws (sorry, there’s no article for the law itself).


  7. Follow the Leader

    by Craig

    Marco and I have been talking a lot about the role of leadership in organizations. We’ve gotten on to a lot of different tangents, but there’s one important point I’d like to make out in the clear.

    Marco’s Bro writes:

    When I put someone in charge it’s because I want them to use their discretion — I believe they can be successful. I trust their judgment.

    I expect that their team members will support them. I don’t expect unquestioning obedience or anything, but I expect everyone to realize that Leader Guy is, in fact, Leader Guy because I thought he was the best person for the job.

    I know Marco’s Bro and, in real life, would probably accept most of his decisions. However, I disagree with this way of thinking in a general sense. My response to his statement goes like this:

    What if you made a mistake? What if Leader Guy deceived you into thinking he’s more capable than he really is? What if he’s no longer as capable as he once was (personal problems, brain injury, etc)? What if he’s now out of his area of competence (see: the Peter Principle). What if you only rationalized to yourself that he’s trustworthy, when in actual fact you installed him because he’s dating your sister? What if your trust in him stems from his Harvard degree that his father bought for him? What if your boss chose you because he knew you’d choose That Guy, who happens to be his nephew?

    Authority is a dangerous thing. When you trust in vested authority over other qualities then you put all of your eggs in the basket of the authority figure; your risk has gone up dramatically. That may turn out OK if the leader happens to be a good decision maker. However, thousands of years of history have shown us that following the leader doesn’t always work out well, and can often be disastrous. I’m sure everyone has been in a situation where they’ve had to accept the authority of someone who, on the face of it, shouldn’t have been given that power (I know that everyone in the U.S. has).

    Marco and His Bro have stated that they don’t expect unquestioning obedience in the leader, but that when the leader has made a decision, they expect the rest of the team to go along with it, even if they think it’s wrong. This strengthens my argument against authority while at the same time cuts its legs out from under it. Yes, you want your leader to be taking the arguments of his subordinates into consideration. If, at the end of the day, he rejects them regardless of their validity, then they may as well not have been voiced in the first place. Both Marco and His Bro have said that if they’d heard of dissent escaping from the confines of the team and propagating up to their level, they’d tend to trust the leader and think of the dissenter as a troublemaker. Of course, that may true in a some cases, but this policy definitely puts a chilling effect on dissent that could be beneficial (or even critical).

    In one of my instant messaging chats with Marco, the topic of religion (very briefly) came up. Religion is, of course, the ultimate in authority, both in a supernatural and in a real-world sense. Especially in monotheism, a deity has overwhelming power over its followers, who in turn have none over it. That deity, in turn “installs” its own hierarchy of people to act as a local authority on its behalf — at least according to the people in the hierarchy. Since these people supposedly have privileged access to the deity, they are effectively granted authority by the followers. Religion is particularly good at suppressing dissent, through everything from genocide down to making virtues out of trust and belief without evidence.

    Evidence and reasoning are the keys to overcoming the risks associated with authority. They are the great equalizers, because Nature doesn’t care one bit about who has granted authority to whom — but with enough evidence and reasoning you can navigate the rules that Nature has put in place and use them to achieve your goals.

    It may very well be that the chosen leader makes successful decisions because she applies the best evidence and reasoning to a problem. Ideally, this should be true in every case; you can make the best decision possible in the shortest amount of time when you don’t have to explain and justify it to others. But we all know that this doesn’t happen every time. Even if the leader has the best reasoning skills, she may not have the best evidence, and so her conclusions might be suboptimal.

    This is why I reject authority that exists for its own sake. If an authority figure makes a decision, let the decision stand on its own merits, not on the position of the person who makes it. If it’s a good decision (based on the reasoning and on the evidence), then it’s worth supporting. If there’s an better one, let it be the course of action, regardless of who proposed it. If gathering evidence is too costly (and it often is), then it’s OK to go with the assumptions of the most “experienced” person on the team, but be prepared to reject those assumptions when the evidence contradicts it. Personal experience is a valid argument (we rely on it for a great many decisions), but it’s a weak one, and it should be overridden and/or augmented by objective evidence whenever possible.

    Authority, at best, illegitimately takes credit for success. At worst, it leads to failure. Be skeptical of it at all times.


  8. Be a Team Player

    August 13, 2008 by Craig

    In many (most?) organizations, “being a team player” is code for “being nice” — which, in turn, is often code for “not contradicting anyone.” The problem with this is that it leads to groupthink and mediocre (or often just plain wrong) results.

    I think that this Slashdotter has it right: (emphasis added by me)

    I’ve worked for years in highly effective teams, and with success. I can tell you what made all the difference: The presence of equals to debate issues with, so that we could talk each other through the problems and emerge from the session with the feeling that we had defined better solutions. Perhaps we are all arrogant nuisances, but as long as we understand and respect each other we keep each other in check, and can function as effective team members.

    The “respect among equals” also translates to “respect among people above and below you in the hierarchy” when such hierarchies exist:

    • Listen to & consider what your boss says, but call him out on it when he’s wrong or hasn’t justified his assertions.
    • Listen to & consider the objections of those below your skill and/or station, but correct them when they’re mistaken and clarify the reasoning behind your positions.

    You should only be stating agreement when you reach the same conclusions based on the available information. If you don’t think you have enough information to defend a contrary position, it’s better to state that outright rather than agree by default. The lack of agreement, even without the presence of opposition, might be enough to show that the position is potentially unreliable.

    Being a helpful member of a team means working to achieve the same goal as the other team members. It does not necessarily mean following the same process.

    Update: Fixed the link to Slashdot. Sorry for that.


  9. What’s In Our Water?

    August 6, 2008 by Craig

    We, as a nation, have to ask ourselves “What the hell is going on?

    Apparently this woman’s water has been contaminated with electromagnetic radiation.

    Via Fark.


  10. 100 Trillion Brain Cells

    August 1, 2008 by Craig

    While in Costa Rica, I had a brief discussion (with a poker website employee) about the likelihood that a computer will eventually be able to beat any human player (at which point it’s pretty much useless to play poker on websites; you can be assured that everyone there will be an unbeatable computer player). That came to mind when I read this:

    100 trillion brain cells and most of us can’t reliably multiply a pair of two digit numbers. If computers had invented humans as part of a BI program (biological intelligence), humans would have been tossed aside as barely having achieved perfect game play at Tic-Tac-Toe. What use is 100 trillion brain cells that can’t reliably compute a 15% tip after a heavy lunch? Many computers would like to know.

    From Poker Program Battles Humans In Vegas on SlashDot.