Archive for March 2014
Quite a story from the Washington Post about a massive inefficiency — sort of totemic of a whole class — in the US government bureaucracy. The trait, so often parodied, of a weird system that continues well past the point you’d expect it to:
Here, inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers.
But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.
The employees here pass thousands of case files from cavern to cavern and then key in retirees’ personal data, one line at a time. They work underground not for secrecy but for space. The old mine’s tunnels have room for more than 28,000 file cabinets of paper records.
I don’t know if it’s a job I’d want, but it sure does sound like it’s not like any other job I’ve had. Apparently there exists a number of trade secrets:
[Taster]: … We were taught a trade-secret flavor intensity scale that we used as a metric to judge all other foods against. At the low end is oil, and at the high end is a strong fruit juice.
[Interviewer]: So you were trained to distinguish the taste of food on a specific scale.
[Taster]: Yes, the main goal of the scale was to be able to objectively rate foods numerically. The oil would be a 2, the fruit juice a 10, and then a whole number of other foods in between. You would say, “This piece of cheddar cheese is an 8, higher than the orange juice, not as strong as the cranberry juice.”
Nothing super exceptional about the post or the concept, but the combination resonated with me:
We do so many things for the attention, to feel important or praised. But what if you had so much attention and so much praise that you couldn’t possibly want any more? What would you do then? What would you stop doing?
We do so many things for the money. It’s so deeply built into our culture that it takes a real effort to realize it’s the reason behind so many of our actions. But what if you had so much money that you couldn’t possibly want any more? What would you do then? What would you stop doing?
You don’t have to agree, but it’s a pretty plausible explanation for many things, include the leadership gap he’s talking about:
There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?
In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.
Jason Kottke says, accurately:
No matter who you are, this is pretty funny. But if you have kids, it’s very nearly transcendent.
Rhonda Byrne is a good columnist “whipping boy” — I’ve penned an attack myself — but this piece from Adam Alter rises above by actually offering scientific results in support of its attack. This I’d never heard of:
Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically.
The most lasting thing I took away from the news of the discovery that gravity waves exist — still an idea I’m not sure I fully comprehend — is Jason Kottke’s enthusiasm for this video in which the creator of gravity waves theory discovers it has been discovered:
The commentary Jason has added, about what exactly the revealing scientist is saying, is great too:
Many people have asked what Kuo is saying to Linde on the doorstep. Let’s start with “5 sigma”. The statistical measure of standard deviation (represented by the Greek letter sigma) is an indication of how sure scientists are of their results. (It has a more technical meaning than that, but we’re not taking a statistics course here.) A “5 sigma” level of standard deviation indicates 99.99994% certainty of the result…or a 0.00006% chance of a statistical fluctuation. That’s a 1 in 3.5 million chance. This is the standard particle physicists use for declaring the discovery of a new particle.
An Indian entrepreneur, shocked by the rags women were using to cope with their menstrual flow, set out to solve the problem. The result is quite an inspiring story. Here’s an awkwardly funny excerpt showing his impressive dedication:
He managed to convince 20 students to try out his pads - but it still didn’t quite work out. On the day he came to collect their feedback sheets he caught three of the girls industriously filling them all in. These results obviously could not be relied on. It was then that he decided to test the products on himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he says.
He created a “uterus” from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat’s blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly - but it didn’t stop the smell.
The inspiring part:
“Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty - everything happens because of ignorance.”
He believes that big business is parasitic, like a mosquito, whereas he prefers the lighter touch, like that of a butterfly. “A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it,” he says.
I don’t honestly even know the language being spoken in this video, but you certainly don’t need to. All you need to do is watch these dogs’ surprise. It’s delightful.
(via Stellar Interesting)
An intriguing argument, whether or not you’re convinced by it:
Over the first decade of the twenty-first century, about 5.8 million U.S. manufacturing jobs disappeared. The most frequent explanations for this decline are productivity gains and increased trade with low-wage economies. Both of these factors have been important, but they explain far less of the picture than is usually claimed.
I found myself pretty sold, though I’d clarify that these forces aren’t as intentional or chosen as the author/title seems to suggest. Technology and the narrow pursuit of efficiency are the issues.
(via 5 Intriguing Things)