Monthly Archives: April 2010

Consulting Isn’t About Advice

An extended anecdote by MIT alum Keith Yost, paid $200,000/yr. straight out of school by Boston Consulting Group to consult in Dubai:

I was regularly advertised to clients as an expert with seemingly years of topical experience relevant to the case. … Even my very first case .. I was the most senior consultant on the team. …

Analytical skills were overrated, for the simple reason that clients usually didn’t know why they had hired us. They sent us vague requests for proposal, we returned vague case proposals, and by the time we were hired, no one was the wiser as to why exactly we were there.  I got the feeling that our clients were simply trying to mimic successful businesses, and that as consultants, our earnings came from having the luck of being included in an elaborate cargo-cult ritual. In any case it fell to us to decide for ourselves what question we had been hired to answer, and as a matter of convenience, we elected to answer questions that we had already answered in the course of previous cases – no sense in doing new work when old work will do.  …

Most of my day was spent thinking up and writing PowerPoint slides. …  What I could not get my head around was having to force-fit analysis to a conclusion. In one case, the question I was tasked with solving had a clear and unambiguous answer: By my estimate, the client’s plan of action had a net present discounted value of negative one billion dollars. … But the client did not want analysis that contradicted their own, and my manager told me plainly that it was not our place to question what the client wanted. … “Change the numbers, but don’t change the conclusion.”

Hat tip to Kevin Burke.

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Slaves To Culture

Bryan Caplan started a stir Monday, saying women were freer in 1880 than today:

Women of the Gilded Age were very poor …  But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.  … Marriage was still voluntary.  … One exception to the feme covert rule [limiting wife property] was in the instance of a prenuptial contract. All colonies accepted these contracts, but few couples signed them. … In economies with primitive technology and big families, it makes perfect sense for men to specialize in strength-intensive market labor and women to specialize in housework and childcare – and for default rules to reflect this economic logic.

Today Bryan says Amish women today are as free as others.  Tyler’s “views are close to those of” Will Wilkinson:

One way to deny an individual the ability to choose really freely is to raise her in a way that constantly cultivates and reinforces a set of preferences and expectations that fit comfortably within a social and legal order of paternalistic control and systematic inequality of status and rights. … I take it that [Bryan] would be unwilling to endorse slavery even if slaves could be conditioned from childhood to consent to their chains?

Judging relative freedom across centuries seems hard; so many things have changed.  But the idea that we should discount voluntary choices in other cultures more than in ours because of their supposed cultural brainwashing is pretty arrogant.

Sure the choices of the Amish, or of Utah polygamists, are greatly influenced by their culture.  Same for typical US folks of 1880.  Yes, I might want a chance to warn the young of other cultures against committing to their culture’s life plan, until they’ve considered the virtues of my culture’s plans.  Yes, I could imagine a hyper open culture that went out of its way to get its kids to consider a wide range of possible plans before committing.  And yes, we are now are rich, and wealth can buy many freedoms.

But other than being rich, we are not an especially open culture; on the whole our young are just as brainwashed into doing things our way as are the young of most cultures.  Is it really obvious, for example, that should devote so many of our early years to schooling?  Our descendants may well be as horrified by our common commitments, as we are by those of our ancestors.

Most folks in most cultures voluntarily commit to their culture’s usual life plans.  The young tend to be freer than the old, but once they have committed, they become less free.  The young enslave their future older selves, tying them to choices favored by their culture.  In this way we all become slaves to our culture.  I’ve argued we should try harder to overcome this provincialism:

Try to celebrate, and truly listen to, honest intellectual travelers, who take the time to be trained in other cultures, disciplines, and schools, which then influences their thoughtful contributions.

But to just assume that others are less free because they don’t do things our way is simple inexcusable arrogance.

Added 10p:  When the issue is marginal cultures, like Amish or polygamists, surely they are much more aware of dominant culture plans and arguments than vice versa.  Remove the log from your eye before you try to remove the speck from theirs.

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Conspiracy Capacities

Huge brains helped primates fight via coalition politics, and language let human foragers enforce egalitarian norms against such fights.  If neutrally applied, such norms should have cut the gains to huge brains, yet we had the biggest brains. This suggests hierarchy and coalition politics continued via covert rule bending.  Support for this hypothesis comes from our highly evolved capacities for covert coalitions:

  • Body Language – Winks and nods and other body language are not just redundant or complementary to our words. “A wink and a nod” is a common expression for a communication intended to be less visible to third parties, in particular to enable corruption.  Since we are very good at seeing where other eyes look, we can often communicate via the direction of our gaze. Our unconscious status moves include the high status looking directly and the low status looking away; this grants more eye-talk conspiracy power to the high status.
  • Indirect Language – When talking with words, we commonly veil our language, instead of speaking directly.  Indirection makes it harder for others to interpret what your mean. So those who are very socially distant, lacking local context, may just not understand, while those closer may understand but be unable to prove what was meant; you’d have plausible deniability.  By varying the indirection of our language we can control how close a circle can understand or prove what we say. Extreme indirection can also signal; if we see that we understand each other, we confirm our intelligence and close connection.
  • Rumors – Even when rumors are expressed in direct language, they are not intended for all ears. We explicitly say to not tell certain others, or implicitly understand to only tell a shared coalition. At a minimum, we understand not to tell the subject of the rumor.  Spreading a mild rumor about a person allows us to test how well connected is that person.  If they never complain, perhaps they never heard of the rumor, and so are poorly connected, and thus can be conspired against more easily, perhaps via further rumors.

These skills seem to me too well developed in humans today to have only begun with farming ten thousand years ago.  Compare them to our clumsy farming, war, and writing skills that have to be explicitly taught.  Clearly, foragers had great conspiracy capacities, and so often conspired, bending their egalitarian rules.

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Beautiful

I just saw the 2000 Movie Werckmeister Harmonies, with music by Mihaly Vig.  I found it quite moving, and am at a loss for words to say more.  So I’ll just say: it is beautiful beyond my words.  I found it via Metacritics’s All-TIme High Scores.  Here is some music, and the opening sequence.

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Less Disaster

The last great catastrophe probably wasn’t as bad as we’d thought:

Toba is a supervolcano … eruption, 74,000 years ago, … Releasing 2500 cubic kilometres of magma – nearly twice the volume of mount Everest … the largest eruption on Earth in the last 2 million years … Previous computer models … suggested global temperatures dropped by about 10 °C following the blast.  This supports the idea of a decade-long “volcanic winter” and widespread catastrophe. … Modern humans, … would have been whittled down to just a few thousand breeding pairs scattered in dispersed refugia. …

Graf and his colleagues suggest a new estimate of global cooling of just 2.5 °C, which lasted for just a few years. … In places like India the average temperatures may only have fallen by about 1 °C. …

Recent archaeological and geological work in India seems to support Graf’s claims. .. Had there been a sudden deforestation event … topsoil no longer anchored by trees would be expected to wash down into valleys. … “We don’t find a rapid influx of soil arriving on top of the ash layers.” … [A] hunter-gatherer camp … has yielded more than 1800 tools, … hominin life appeared to continue in the same vein immediately after the eruption, with hundreds more stone tools in the layers immediately above the ash fall.  The team uncovered a similar story 1000 kilometres further north … “We see very little change in tool technology across the Toba ash.”

If last near-existential disaster wasn’t as bad as we’d thought, maybe our existential risk is a bit less than we’d thought.  Not big news, but good news even so.

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Strange Law

Six recent samples of strange law:

  1. Newly released video … shows police officers … beating a University of Maryland student with nightsticks on March 3 after a basketball game. … Paperwork filed by police that contradicts what the video shows. (more)
  2. [Journalist] Michael Yon continues to question why he was arrested upon arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for his refusal to answer a question about how much money he makes. (more)
  3. You are a police officer on traffic patrol and you pull over an irate driver who refuses to admit she was doing 32 mph in a 20-mph zone. She won’t sign the speeding ticket, … she is pregnant. What do you do? … Grab the keys from the ignition, tase her three times, force her out of her car, and arrest her.  In the minds of three Seattle police officers in 2004, [this] was the reasonable course of action … and last week, a federal appeals court agreed. (more)
  4. WikiLeaks has released a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff. … The U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own “Rules of Engagement”. (more)
  5. Something else we [soldiers in Iraq] were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and nudge, was to carry ‘drop weapons’. …  If we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent. … One time they said to fire on all taxicabs because the enemy was using them for transportation. …  After that, the town lit up, with all the units firing on cars. … Carrying a shovel, or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew [meant those people] were to be killed. I can’t tell you how many people died because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us. (more)
  6. House M.D. and Grey’s Anatomy … He watched a total of 46 episodes from the two series and tallied up bioethical and professional breaches. … Half of the time informed consent came up, the show’s doctors failed the ethics test. … Grey’s Anatomy … included 58 instances of sexual misconduct between doctors or nurses and 27 between these professionals and their patients. (more)
  7. Last year, Maryland hunters killed 100,663.  Now, the deer eat almost everything, and almost nothing eats them. … When the tall trees age and fall, there may be no next generation to shoot up in their place. …  One idea is to reintroduce the cougars and wolves that kept deer populations in check before. …  So far, government officials are leery of that approach. (more)

It would be nice to think these are rare exceptions that prove the rule, but I fear such large differences between what we say the law does, and what it actually does, are common.  It seems there are many laws we have little intention of enforcing, and others we intend to enforce even if the consequences are dire.

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Why Rules Bend

From 1992 to 2008, nearly 2,000 New York Police Department officers were arrested, according to the department’s own annual reports of the Internal Affairs Bureau, an average of 119 a year.  The rarely seen internal reports were obtained last month by the New York Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Law. They show that the number of tips logged each year by Internal Affairs has tripled since 1992. … The number of investigations pursued over the same period has dropped by more than half. … “These reports depict a department that, in the mid-1990s, was candid about its anticorruption work,” said Mr. Dunn, of the civil liberties union. “The recent reports, by contrast, reveal almost nothing, signaling an N.Y.P.D. that seems unwilling to confront corruption.”

More here.  An obvious enabler of police corruption is the fact that internal affairs units, tasked with exposing corruption, usually report to the same police chief that would be embarrassed by such exposure, and who may also be corrupt.  An obvious solution is to make internal affairs more independent, e.g., reporting directly to a city council or even a governor.  In the US the FBI sometimes serves in this role, though rarely at the request of local governments, and within the FBI its internal affairs still reports to FBI’s chief.  Why don’t more governments create independent agencies to investigate corruption, to assure citizens that corruption is not tolerated?

This is an example of a more general puzzle: why do our rules allow so much rule-bending?

Gains to rule bending could be greatly reduced via social norms with very clear simple rules. … [But] both complex broad incest rules and allowing sorcery complaints greatly increase the scope for gains to large rule-bending [forager] brains, and suggest that we tend to prefer to allow such scope.

The degree of allowed rule bending may result from a balance of two opposing forces.  On the one hand, many folks benefit from bendable rules, e.g., the well connected, powerful, clever, and articulate.  If you publicly oppose such rules, e.g., by proposing independent corruption police, you signal that you are not as well-connected, clever, etc., as others, and you risk retaliation from those who now benefit.

On the other hand, many lose from bendable rules, and might be roused into self-righteous indignation to show their support for changes that affirm traditional egalitarian norms.  Furthermore, more distant communities may well think less of this community if it becomes widely know as especially lax about standard norms.  Consider the reputation of especially corrupt nations, cities, or corporation.

So rule bending is at risk if it becomes too obvious that distant outsiders can see it, and if losing insiders can coordinate enough to clearly identify and target its enablers, such as non-independent internal affairs.  But if rule bending insiders can muddy the waters, and raise credible doubts about whether any particular arrangement promotes rule bending, they may prevent such coordination.  The fact that police internal affairs units remain bendable shows just how easy it is to muddy such waters.

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Zoos Don’t Help Animals

There remains no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors.

More here. HT Marc Bekoff who notes:

Elephants in captivity lived an average of 19 years compared to 56 years in the wild.

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The Dark Side Of Cooperation

A few hours ago I heard a talk by Frans De Waal, author of the great classic “Chimpanzee Politics,” on his new book, “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” (excerpt here).  Before and during his talk, De Waal showed a deep understanding of animal empathy and sociality, but he never once mentioned any of the lessons for humans his subtitle promised.   I inquired in the Q&A, saying: if humans show about as much empathy to each other as related species do, what more lessons can we learn from nature?

He said the lesson is that it is bad to have societies “like the US, based on social Darwinism”, as revealed by its shameful response to Hurricane Katrina and reluctance to support Obamacare.  I pressed: humans have some empathy, even in the US, so how can we tell what the right amount is?  A bit later I pressed: how can we tell who should show empathy for someone in need: their family, neighborhood, city, state, nation, continent, planet, or what?  Other than repeating that the US should do more, and that it is nations who are responsible, he had no further comment (though he had ample time).

Alas, I conclude that while De Waal is very smart and feels strongly on this topic, he seems incapable of even the most basic analysis of it.  He has a slogan, which identifies him with his side, and that is all he, or his readers, seek.  Sorta like folks who sing “Love is all you need.”

One might argue that empathy is good because it promotes cooperation.  But a striking experiment in the latest AER shows the dark side of cooperation; better cooperation within teams that fight each other can lead to far more destruction and waste. Continue reading "The Dark Side Of Cooperation" »

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Why Speak Truth?

The title of this blog, Overcoming Bias, marks a theme here: I try to look past appearances and correct biases, to see and say things as they are.  Periodically someone will ask: what’s so great about truth?  They commonly presume I’ve made a strong claim, such as that it is always better to believe and say the truth, no matter what the cost or topic.  I make no such claim.

Instead I’ll just note that it is a big world, and people vary in many ways.  A great many people give lip service to the truth, talking as if it was their highest allegiance.  Far fewer folks, perhaps none, are actually this way.  But since folks vary, there will be a furthest tail of this distribution, and those most-truth-seeking folks might appreciate relevant things to read.

In the vastness that is the web, there should be some places where folks who most want to see and say truth can congregate.  Of course far more folks want to claim the mantle of truth-teller than want to pay its real costs.  So you should treat with skepticism any claim that I’ve actually achieved this status far more than most folks.  And I make no such claim.

I will, however, suggest that truth seeking and telling can make useful and important contributions to the world.  The tendencies that we have inherited, genetically or culturally, to deceive ourselves and others no doubt contain wisdom, at least about when such behavior is in our personal interest.  But since the world is changing rapidly, our inherited tendencies can’t always get it right; someday they may go very wrong.  Somewhere, someone should think carefully and truthfully about recent or upcoming changes, ready to warn others about where our inherited self-deceptions could go off the rails.

This post dedicated to the high quality comments of TGGP.

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