How to Castrate A Bull

The Book of the Week is “How to Castrate A Bull” by Dave Hitz with Pat Walsh, published in 2009. This ebook chronicles Hitz’s career, describes the ups and downs of the tech company he co-founded– NetApp, and imparts wisdom on management, leadership and interesting trivia. A flash drive can store a small amount of personal data of everyone on earth, a hard copy of which would represent 20 million pounds of paper.

NetApp was a start-up in the early 1990’s that built and sold business-to business, a “…network storage system in eighteen months with eight people and $1.5 million.” It went public in November 1995. A start-up has to sell something people are willing to pay for, such as a physical product, or advertising.

During the year 2000, NetApp’s share price tanked– as did that of many other tech stocks– plummeting from $150 to $6. The company delayed laying people off, and did not speak of it, as long as possible. “We announced layoffs one day and did them the next.” Hitz thinks taking care of such unpleasantness quickly is the best policy. Prolonged “palace intrigue” is bad for the work environment. Employees who know their last day is in the future are going to have less than optimal productivity, loyalty and a stable emotional state, to say the least.

When it came time to write the section on the NetApp’s philosophy in the company manual, Hitz says, “Company values only work if the leaders say, ‘These are things I really do believe. If I violate them, please call me on it… Values should remain constant, but appropriate behavior will change as a company grows.” When an employer provides “fun stuff” or free food to its employees, “that’s a symptom of good culture, not a cause of it.”

Read the book to learn Hitz’s explanation of how NetApp became a tremendously successful company, and how it fared after the dot-com crash.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook “Moving Beyond Words” by Gloria Steinem, published in 2012. It is a collection of articles about Phyllis Freud (a fictional character created to explore how things would be if Sigmund Freud was a female), Steinem’s experiences working at Ms. Magazine in the early 1970’s and other topics.

At Ms. Magazine, Steinem writes that it was like pulling teeth to try to convince Philip Morris to advertise its Virginia Slims cigarettes without the slogan “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” in the magazine. “No amount of saying that we, like men, are a segmented market, that we don’t all think alike, does any good.” Through the years, Ms. lost a vast quantity of ad dollars for sticking to its guns, not only at the hands of Philip Morris. “…But no matter how desirable the Ms. readership, our lack of editorial recipes and traditional homemaking articles proves lethal.” This, despite the fact that the Ms. ad sales reps did their homework in providing ample evidence of women’s lifestyle changes, to potential advertisers. Four years of research went into showing that “…women make their own travel choices and business trips” to try to persuade airlines to advertise in Ms. The airlines made various unrelated excuses for advertising elsewhere. The late 1980’s saw the financial troubles of the magazine continue to worsen– not caused by poor subscriber demand, but caused by misguided advertising departments run by men.

In her 1990’s article on economics, Steinem opines that her checkbook was a reflection of her values– what her spending consisted of, and in what amounts. This blogger thinks that the modern-day equivalent of that is physical keys and online passwords. The author also discusses unequal pay for men and women: “Because I was helping to establish speaking fees for other feminists and was giving away some of what I earned, I had become part of the problem.” Recently, this blogger has observed women doing themselves a similar disservice–perpetuating the degrading of all women with their behavior– but might not realize it: Many women post profile-photos on job websites, in which they are nearly topless. This blogger guesses that they think looking sexy will advance their careers. Wearing a strappy or sleeveless top in a professional photo is inappropriate. It’s as unprofessional as wearing flip-flops in a white-collar office. Wearing a top with short sleeves at minimum, would be appropriate. It appears that they want to be treated like sex objects rather than as professional workers who want to be taken seriously.

Read the book to learn of Steinem’s views on and/or experiences with Freud, the strongest woman in the world, working for a women’s magazine, Victoria Woodhull, economics and aging.

Savage Spawn

The Book of the Week is “Savage Spawn” by Jonathan Kellerman, published in 1999. This short ebook, authored by a child clinical psychologist, discusses topics associated with violent children, including serial killers, psychopaths, psychology professionals, the nature/nurture controversy and violence in the media.

The cynical Kellerman writes that “profiles” of serial killers should be taken with a grain of salt: “Profiles are most effective as career builders for retired FBI agents seeking to be best-selling authors and consultants to the film industry, but they miss the mark as often as they hit.”

Kellerman believes that psychopaths (conscienceless people) cannot be rehabilitated because:  1)  “…no medication has been found that alters antisocial behavior” and 2) they do not respond to the treatment of traditional psychotherapy because they lack insight and the desire to change.

At least since the mid-twentieth century, due to competition with psychotherapists (who hold PhD’s) to treat patients, psychiatrists have been big advocates of attributing biological causes to mental health disorders in order to prescribe medication.

The author provides a real-life example of two boys, thirteen and eleven, who, in spring, 1998, went on a shooting spree at a middle school and killed four girls and a teacher, and wounded ten other kids and another teacher. Kellerman thinks that had the kids not had access to firearms, “…their misdeeds likely would have expressed themselves as some variant of schoolyard bullying, perhaps a knifing.”  He proposes one simple rule for “…preventing child criminality: Restrict access to firearms [to kids].” Teaching psychopathic kids “practical shooting” will result in their bullying other kids. After the occurrence of untoward events, adults who gave kids guns, even with training, should never wonder why such events occurred.

Obviously, it is hard to pinpoint all of the exact causes of violent incidents. Psychological research that would produce a general consensus on the causes of extremely violent behavior would require: a) a long-term study of a sufficiently large number of subjects, and b) other difficult, expensive measures that would minimize bias. Kellerman mentions that longitudinal biological studies of psychopathology have been performed in Scandinavia, but he fails to provide details.

It is inconclusive which, genetics or the environment, is the more responsible for violence committed by kids. The fact that “Genetic traits can make themselves apparent at any age.” throws more of a wrench in the works. The author opines that media violence is not a proximate cause of violent behavior; kids who injure or kill people would probably do so anyway, regardless of the movies or TV shows they had watched. The author’s own children consumed a large quantity of carnage on-screen, and were none the more physically hostile for it. However, Kellerman cannot resist saying, “…media violence is likely to endure as a fruitful source of research grants for social scientists…”

Read the book to learn:  a) the relationship between the heart rate of certain toddlers and probable future violent behavior;  b) three strong predictive factors of violence in teenagers; c)  the age before which, if there is an arrest record– a lifetime of criminality is likely, too;  and d) how to intervene in the lives of high-risk youngsters to try to head off violent behavior.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Word of Mouse” by John Riedl and Joseph Konstan, published in 2002.

It is about the concept called “Collaborative Filtering.” That means the ability to make product-recommendations to consumers based on a significant number of their self-reported likes of products via an algorithm in a computer program.

The authors claim that the program makes recommendations with a high degree of accuracy, once a subject provides sufficient data on likes and dislikes. Such data are superior to demographic data such as age, occupation and sex, when it comes to predicting future preferences.

Collaborative filtering can be applied to sales of clothing, books, movies and goods sold on the internet– simple products that are purchased according to taste. “Cultural tastes seem to run in patterns.”

This blogger theorizes that the algorithm would do poorly on complex offerings that involve customer service– restaurant meals, hotel rooms, flights or personal services, because they are an experience that varies every time and are more likely to be enjoyed multiple times. A singular product like a book or movie, is a one-time experience.

When polled by the computer program on a book or movie, consumers express their like or dislike only for the book or movie, not bookstore atmosphere or moviegoer rudeness. Consumers might rate a hotel room on hotel-staff friendliness, room decor, cleanliness, and a host of other variables; if they have stayed at the hotel more than once, the rating might also reflect consumers’ general vibe about the hotel for all their stays. On any given day, the consumer might have a good or bad experience at a hotel. Anyway, the algorithm might achieve the same degree of accuracy by recommending a hotel simply based on other hotels with similar amenities and features, as by recommending based on the consumer’s likes of other hotels.

The authors discuss an online business that was started in 1998, Priceline, which allows customers to name the highest price they are willing to pay for a product or service, and if their purchase is approved, (presumably) receive it at a deep discount. For the most part, this appears to be irrelevant to collaborative filtering. Nevertheless, interestingly, the “reverse-auction model” has turned out to be profitable for travel-related services but not for gasoline, groceries and financial services. The reason is that airlines and hotels suffer a total loss on each plane seat and hotel room unfilled on any particular flight or night, respectively. Recouping some revenue from passengers and guests, even at a deep discount, is preferable. The authors make a point about how Priceline displays local geographic expertise in selling its services. Displaying expertise is important for online selling.

The authors boldly proclaim, “We envision recommenders moving out more into the public and the bricks-and-mortar sphere… Recommenders can limit the number of items a customer needs to see on each [Web]page… Recommenders can also be used in voice interfaces where the limiting factor is low bandwidth…”  Clearly, Riedl and Konstan underestimated the algorithmic proficiency of Google.

Read the book anyway to see the authors’ enthusiasm for collaborative filtering and get numerous tips on online selling, marketing, and what we now know about the internet. 🙂

Antifragile

The Book of the Week is “Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2012. In this repetitive ebook, Taleb reiterates a few of the concepts from his earlier book “The Black Swan” and again appears to derive pleasure from pointing out human fallibility. He writes that “Uncertainty, incomplete understanding, disorder, and volatility are members of the same close family.” He shows how people generate inaccurate predictions and draw the wrong conclusions through spurious causality, or “epiphenomena.”

Taleb discusses a state of being he calls “antifragility” (or more often, a lack thereof) in the realms of politics, economics, science, academia and medicine, taking swipes at all of them as he goes along. He gives tips on how systems and individuals can make themselves more antifragile (the opposite of fragile), a good thing. The author also provides real-life and theoretical scenarios that perpetuate fragility.  Humans appear not to be learning from past scenarios, as they continue to make the same mistakes over and over. One example of a real-life scenario includes the economic bailout of certain big companies, by the United States government (and by extension, American taxpayers) in 2008.

Fragility is vulnerability to negative occurrences. Antifragility is the ability to withstand negative occurrences due to various measures taken to reduce risks; this state of being actually benefits from volatility and randomness.

Humans tend to overestimate their ability to predict shocks and rare events (like revolutions, crises or budget deficits), and when the worst happens, it is worse than the previous occasion. Taleb writes that after havoc strikes, blame incorrectly gets assigned to one factor of the big picture. “The focus is wrong even if the logic is comforting.” People need to study the system and its fragility, not events.

One general example Taleb provides of spurious causality includes the questionable, widely-held assumption that academic research is the generator of wealth because so much research comes out of countries that are wealthy. Taleb thinks it is actually the other way around. “We have no evidence that academia helps science and technology, which in turn help practice.” One narrow instance of this was the building of the atomic bomb, in which there was directed research. But in that, there was selection bias and confirmation bias.

Another example that Taleb provides– a theoretical one– is when an Ivy League university scientist lectures a bird on how to fly. The bird takes flight. The scientist hastily writes books, articles and reports stating that the bird listened to him. The university is now an authority on aerial transportation by the avian species. It will implement further studies with funding by the government. Unfortunately, birds do not write books and papers, so we cannot get their side of the story.

The author advocates interventionism in particular areas and not others. He thinks the government should impose restrictions on the size, concentration and speed of entities including itself (obviously idealistic of him) because bigness increases fragility and the probability of disasters. He thinks less is more (do nothing or implement minimal intervention unless a medical condition is life-threatening) when it comes to medicine.

Taleb says education is useful in that it helps a family retain wealth insofar as its descendants use their educations to enter professions that were more lucrative than those of their ancestors. Almost all projects take longer and cost more when an element of uncertainty is added. “We have never had more data than we have now, yet have less predictability than ever.”

Read the book to learn more about: a) errors in human reasoning that aggravate adverse situations;  b) why fragility is increased with fiscal deficits and awarding of prizes in the fields of literature, finance, and economics; c) which actions are helpful in promoting antifragility and d) an inopportune event caused by Taleb’s own fallibility and his reasoning in dealing with it.

In sum, “The problem with people who do not incur harm [suffer no punishment for their influential opinion-making that causes economic collapse or a war] is that they can cherry-pick from statements they’ve made in the past, many of them contradictory, and end up convincing themselves of their intellectual lucidity on the way to the World Economic Forum at Davos.”

In the Garden of the Beasts

The Book of the Week is “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson, published in 2011. This ebook describes the ill-fated German ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A history professor at the University of Chicago for more than two decades, Dodd possessed no public-service experience. As a D-list candidate for other reasons too, he reluctantly accepted the post anyway. Nevertheless, he believed in speaking out against injustice, and in the past when he became embroiled in a controversial situation, he said, “…to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.” He moved his wife, teenage son and grown daughter to Berlin in the summer of 1933.

Part of Dodd’s job as ambassador at the time was to get the German government to pay its reparations to the United States from WWI. Germany owed more than $100 million in bonds through National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and Chase National Bank. Dodd failed to do so.

Dodd was also ill-suited for other aspects of the position. Foreign Service officers were an independently wealthy lot– golf-club members with fancy cars and mansions– who threw lavish parties at their own expense, unconcerned with the cost. The German ambassador lived frugally.

As well, Dodd’s daughter caused diplomatic embarrassment, as she became romantically involved with a series of men of political intrigue through the years. These included the chief of the Gestapo, a Soviet political operative, and Fritz Haber, who first formulated the poison chlorine gas that was used at Ypres in WWI. He proved that cumulative exposure to small quantities of gas in the long run was just as lethal as large amounts of a short duration.

Sadly, Dodd and a colleague, George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general, were two of only a very few prescient government officials who understood that Germany posed a serious and growing threat to world peace. The U.S. government was more concerned with Germany’s war reparations.

In the mid-1930’s, lurid stories of extremely uncivil behavior of Germany’s law enforcement apparatus were leaked to the international press. People rationalized that the violent acts (mostly against Jews) were just isolated incidents because they did not want to believe that an evolved society such as Germany’s could be so evil.

Read the book to learn the details of how Dodd became the prophetic, tragic figure in an existentialist drama that set the stage for WWII.