Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Opportunity Cost of Talent

There is an implicit cost that comes with the possession of talent of one sort or another: the inability to use that talent for more than one thing at a time.

The notion of Opportunity Cost, widely used throughout the world of economics and finance, is defined by Investopedia as:

The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. Put another way, the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.

In the realm of capital budgeting - which is a largely analogous to how a person decides which projects they will undertake - the opportunity cost, otherwise termed the ‘discount rate’, is the term on the denominator of the equation of the present value of the project.  Thus, the higher the discount rate (opportunity cost), the lower the value any particular future benefits from the project become.

A relatively talented individual under normal circumstances is often confronted with a relatively good set of options, or potential projects.  For instance, those who score highest in their tertiary entrance exams will be able to choose from any course in any university.  Likewise, very good looking people are generally inundated with a plethora of potential suitors.

Therein arises the problem of the relatively talented.  Because they are faced with a multitude of options, deciding which option is best becomes a hard task.  When the opportunity cost of any action is so high, the relative value of one seemingly good option over another becomes marginal, and given the number of variables usually in play, it is hard to determine which course of action is actually best.

Imagine a genius like Leonardo da Vinci.  If he were alive today, he probably would have been sent to a special school for the especially gifted, and put on the fast track to the inevitable PhD in mathematics.  Would he have been happy with that?  Seeing as left to his own devices he ended up a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographerbotanist, and writer, it is plausible that he would have felt some angst over his wide-ranging talents within being so narrowly applied.

He doesn't look too happy

For the relatively untalented, the path of action is normally much more straightforward.  As with increasing the relative returns on a project by reducing the discount rate, those with a low opportunity cost often know when they are presented with a good deal: a well-paid job v minimum wage/unemployment, a trip abroad v no holiday at all, anybody v isolation.  Beggars can’t be choosers.

So, if instead of taking what you can get, you find yourself asking if you’re getting all you can take, welcome, friend of The Spear, to the land of the relatively talented.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Specifying Specificity

Once upon a time The Spear wrote specifications as part of his job.  What he quickly came to realise, without really giving it much thought, was that there were essentially two very different ways of specifying requirements, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  We use both every day.

The first is an outcome-based, or ‘top-down’ specification.  It focuses on what is trying to be achieved, without giving much detail as to how it is to be achieved.  For instance, ‘the shirt must be cleaned,’ is a form of top down specification. 

Outcome based specifications are often used when the specifier is short on time or technical expertise, where the process used to achieve the outcome is not deemed to be critical.  They are a kind of ‘catch-all’ that cannot fail to capture the want. 

Due to the often qualitative nature of the fulfillment of top down specifications (all projects must be accepted at some stage by a human being who gives the ‘OK’), it is typical that such a specification comes with a qualitative acceptance clause such as ‘to the satisfaction of X’.  Contractors and those seeking to satisfy specs hate this ambiguity as it is hard to quantify (i.e. cost).

Their lack of detail gives the person receiving the specification leeway to satisfy the want as they see best.  While this can be a way of efficiently performing the task, it may however introduce unwanted, unspecified side effects.  A shirt may be cleaned, but it may be wrinkled in the process.  It has positively fulfilled a specification which failed to detail undesirable negatives.  As there are infinitely more things that the specifier does not want to happen to the shirt, it is impossible to capture them all in a general top-down specification.

This hunt for exactness leads to process-based, or ‘bottom-up’ specifications.  After stating that only the specification as it is detailed it to be followed, a bottom-up spec aims to detail, item by item, step by step, the process of creating the final output in as much detail as possible.  For example, ‘a shirt consisting of type A white, intertwined cotton fibres of 1.2 microns in diameter, sanitised for 35 minutes in 18L of grade 315 bleach at 66 degrees celcius in an air-tight chamber’ is a bottom-up spec.

These detailed specs are used when the writer has technical expertise in the area of specification and where the process requires a high degree of control, such as in an experiment or high-end manufacturing.  So, whereas a top-down spec may be made by an end-user, a bottom-up spec is more likely to be written by a third-party specialist. 

While infinite detail is impossible to achieve, small ‘catch-alls’ are embedded in the main specification to try and tie up any loose ends, such as ‘to manufacturer’s specifications’ or ‘to the principles of X’, in the effort to at least provide direction to those seeking more information as to how to fulfill the finest details of the spec.

While bottom-up specs are great for the person trying to fulfill the spec because their satisfaction of the spec is mostly free from ambiguity, their very rigidity may prevent the satisfaction of the desired outcome in the most efficient way, or even at all.

If a bottom-up specifier does not know what they are doing, or is not up with the latest developments in the field, a detailed specification may be nothing but a very length recipe for disaster, or the loss of a lot of money.

This is why The Spear, when making his own professional specifications, tended to cover his arse with top-down specifications in any instances where he doubts his own ability to adequately bottom-up specify on a subject.  While generally specifying detail, he would use outcome-based catch-alls wherever he thought the risk of mis-specification was too great.

He wants his shirt to be machine washed with warm water with standard detergent, to his satisfaction.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

10 Signs You’re Watching Too Much Soccer

1.          You have taken to interviewing candidates via round robbin.
2.          When wronged by a mate, you demand a free kick.
3.          You run around like an aeroplane every time you successfully throw rubbish into a trash can.
4.          You have taken to biting your adversaries.
5.          You have tried to make it through an entire day using nothing but your head and your feet.
6.          You demand your innocence/guilt be settled via penalty shootout.
7.          You dare not pass a queue, lest you are called ‘offside’.
8.          You microwave your meals for an extra three minutes of ‘injury time’.
9.          You operate on ‘Brazil time’.
10.      You by instinct fall to the ground, writhing in agony whenever someone bumps into you.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Feeling Like a Fraud

Do you ever get that feeling that you are necessarily unqualified for whatever it is that you do?

You may be new to the task or a veritable veteran, yet no matter how many tests you pass or how many years of experience you have, you can’t shake the feeling that you don’t really know what you are doing and that you are continually on the cusp of career-ending failure and exposure as a fraud?

If so, The Spear shares your pain.

Self doubt in this form of ‘impostor syndrome’ is reportedly most often felt by high-achievers; those very people who should have the least reason to feel inadequate.

The Spear has read that graduate students and those at the crossroads in their professional development can be especially susceptible to the feeling, which may explain why The Spear - on the precipice of a possible career change - has been feeling especially fraudulent in recent times, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Thinking back, there is the chance that this feeling has been dwelling in The Spear for some time.

For years he has wondered why his eyes seemed to water slightly when he is given a new task at work.  Perhaps it’s that he’s given tasks at the start of the day when his eyes are still tired, or perhaps it is the act of concentrating on what someone is saying, or as a result of the air conditioning in his office, or maybe, just maybe, it is his inner child welling up at the possibility of impending failure and ensuant exposure and ridicule?  He honestly doesn’t know.

Bertrand Russell said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."  In a reversal of blissful ignorance, it appears to be the case that the more intelligent you are, the more aware you become of all the things you don’t know, i.e. where some people are too stupid to even know that they are stupid, people suffering from impostor syndrome are usually too intelligent to believe that, while they may not be perfect, they are still relatively talented.

We should be able to take some comfort in this state of affairs, friends of The Spear, for while self-doubt may not be an indicator of intelligence, an aversion for cocksurity removes all possibility of ignorant idiocy.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Top 10 Signs You’re at a High School Reunion

1.       You’re back in your childhood town but nobody has recently died or gotten married.
2.       You’re under 50 and you’re at a bowls club on a Saturday night.
3.       You’re quickly finding out that the last ten years of your life can readily be described in a couple of sentences.
4.       Most people are only able to remember you in relation to your more popular sibling.
5.       Your anti-dacking reflexes are once again on high alert.
6.       It's been ten years since the popular group last ignored you like that.
7.       It is becoming clear that some memories were repressed for very good reasons.
8.       You are actively engaging with the majority of your past classmates rather than trying to avoid eye contact with them as you pass them on the street.
9.       There are more teachers among you now than students.
10.   It’s like that dream you keep having, except this time you’ve got your pants on.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Thought Genesis

The Spear was making his lunch the other morning before heading off to work.  He wasn’t concerned about anything in particular, and was basically running on autopilot throughout the whole exercise.  But somehow, before he knew it, he was thinking of the movie Anchorman 2 and a shark named Doby.

It struck him as odd that he should be thinking about this - how could something and dull as ham and cheese sandwiches lead him to thinking about a ridiculous scene in a ridiculous movie he had seen some six months ago? – so he took a moment to try and retrace his thought processes from the previous few moments.

It was like trying to recall the details of an unexpected incident – like a car accident or a robbery.  There seemed to be a general impression, but the exact order of the thoughts and when and at what speeds they were processed were quite fuzzy.  All in all, he managed to pin the general nature of two thoughts which had preceded Anchorman 2 and Doby:

1.       ‘Damn rip-off cheese, doesn’t even open’ as tried to pry open a new packet of tasty colby.

2.       ‘Clingwrap – gotta get value for money’ as he measured out the exact length required (and not a centimeter more) of the statically-charged plastic film.

What he then thinks follows was some association with the ‘rip-off’ or ‘value for money’ phrases with a memory he had of someone on Facebook asking his friends whether or not he should see the movie Anchorman 2, or whether it was a worth seeing, a value-for-money concept no doubt, and someone replying in the negative.

And then followed the memories of the bottle-feeding of sharks.  The Spear estimates the jump from the clingwrap thought to the shark bottle-feeding thought took all of about 3-5 seconds.
It disturbed The Spear slightly that his thoughts might so easily wonder, and so for the rest of the day he paid closer attention to thoughts suddenly appearing in his head, and if he could locate their genesis.

Alarmingly, throughout the day, The Spear was several times aware of thoughts with no apparent origin at all; especially songs.  At least three times during the day he noticed there was a song playing in his head without any detectable cause.

This in turn DID remind The Spear of a couple of well-known takes on the nature of thoughts.

1.       James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’.  In it he used a breakthrough writing technique referred to as ‘stream of consciousness’.  An example from Ulysses, where Molly seeks sleep, is given below:

‘a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brain out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early’.

2.       Kurt Vonnegut’s radio receivers.  In several of Vonnegut’s novels, (The Sirens of Titan and Bluebeard at a minimum) characters refer to humans as being subject to radio receivers in their skulls, which essentially make them think thoughts and perform actions at the whim of an external puppeteer.

While the experience of The Spear does seem to imply some form of Joycean semi-random thought generation process, whereby his current thoughts are garbled and sometimes linked to external stimuli or previous thoughts but sometimes seemingly purely random, he would like to think they are his own and not from somewhere else!

Father, forgive The Spear; for he knows not what he does?