Saturday, June 30, 2012

Truth in Interviewing

One weakness of the classic job interview is that the applicant can tailor his answers as to appear that he is interested, competent, and would be committed to the position if hired.

What if the company's name and the specific position were not known by the applicant?

A placement firm could film interviews with candidates and questions that reveal fit and style. Companies could then feel better about getting closer to truth. That way the applicant couldn't tell Software, Inc. that he enjoys researching by himself while also telling Branding, LLC that he works best in an open, teamwork environment. Might as well be truthful so that a good match is made. This reminds me of the transition when politicians could tell voters in different cities opposite platforms, then mass media came about and required a consistent answer.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Euro Soccer, Separated at Birth

The Euro soccer tournament has been exciting to watch. There are a few players who may have been separated at birth though.

Spain's Xavi // Robert Downey, Jr.

Italy's Gianluigi Buffon // Al Pacino

Italy's Mario Balotelli // Kordell Stewart

Germany's Michael Ballack // Matt Damon

Spain's Cesc Fabregas // Fred Savage


Spain's Coach Vicente Del Bosque // Bernie

Italy's Andrea Pirlo // Steve Nash

Hire the Uglier Model

Hedge funds look for mispriced assets. Billy Beane popularized a similar mindset for evaluating baseball players. Some organizations in other industries have used a similar method for getting ahead. For example, in this Slate story, George Mason University hired conservative faculty members--the idea being that academia is generally hostile to conservative thinkers, so the ones who have shown success must be very strong to overcome the barriers.

Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking details a similar occurrence with introverted people. She explains how our culture undervalues people with traits more suited to listening, thoughtfulness, and introspection.

Maybe there's a model here. Regardless of realm, identify a system that treats a portion of its people consistently unfairly. Given two candidates with similar credentials, hire the person from the unfair channel. Put this way, it may seem too self-evident to have any insight value. But consider what is regarded today: the longer the list of impressive institutions, the better.

An example with two people:  Candidate A attended the most elite schools from pre-K through prep. With rich parents, A spends his free time on music lessons, travel sports, foreign languages, and world travel. Candidate B grew up solidly middle-class (or to quote Homer Simpson, "upper-lower-middle class"). Both candidates got great GPAs and SATs and attended the same top 10 college. Upon graduation, it is safe to say that Candidate B has accomplished more, given the extra hurdles. To think otherwise would be like comparing the power of two cars by only looking at the mileage covered, instead of then dividing by hours. We should care about mph, not m, when estimating future value. Job interviews will ask not only about your output, but also the input it took to get that output.

When hiring two similarly successful...
salesmen, pick the quieter one.
models, pick the uglier one.
power forwards, pick the shorter one.
researchers, pick the dumber one.
graduates, pick the poorer one.

You won't just be giving charity, you'll most likely get an undervalued asset while your competition pays for an overvalued one. It's fiscally irresponsible to do otherwise.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Deductible Insurance

Are you familiar with community rating in health insurance? Basically, your premium is set at an average instead of being lowered if you are relatively healthy. Let's say that Jane has a high deductible policy and I happen to know that she is very healthy and her expected healthcare utilization is low. I could promise to pay her deductible (when needed) in exchange for a small monthly payment. Do the math right and she can avoid paying a big deductible while I receive more in payments than I'll have to spend on her deductible.

This product would be called insurance deductible insurance. Catchy.

Maybe there's a law against this?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NFL Head Coach Value?

Disclaimer:  I have never played organized American football, although I am a fan and have watched many games.

What is the role of the NFL head coach? First, let's be clear on why I limit this to the NFL:  head coaches have important recruiting roles in college sports. This is not the case in the NFL. The major areas of responsibility are as follows:

  1. offensive play-calling
  2. defensive play-calling
  3. special teams play-calling
  4. timeouts
  5. instant replay requests
  6. practice planning
  7. game planning
  8. hiring/firing

As best I can tell, 1 and 2 are run by the offensive and defensive coordinators; the head coach can overrule a coordinator, but if the head coach is a better play-caller then he should call all of the plays. 3 is basically a subset of either offense or defense. 4 is almost a science based on clock, score, and field position. 5 is best requested from the booth, where the assistants have their own televisions. 6 is typically run by position specialists. 7 is basically a grouping of offensive plays and defensive plays (e.g., let's run the ball early, then throw an occasional deep ball; let's sit back most of the time, then blitz when #80 comes in).

This leaves #8. You would have to analyze why each play succeeded or failed and see where the breakdown occurred. Comparing these breakdown stats to a benchmark would help show who who is over-performing. A report could say that a certain play is expected to gain 4.5 yards, with a 1 yard standard deviation, while the actual average was 5.7 yards. The next step would be to attribute the improvement or decline to certain factors.

But wait. Isn't the role of the GM (general manager), often a successful ex-coach to handle hiring/firing? If the GM is excellent at this, then maybe he could handle hiring and firing assistant coaches as well.

As usual, maybe there is another factor at work. Maybe the coach serves the role as speculator, taking on the reputation risk for the team owners and executives who are interested in having long-term careers. The big shots sell their short-term accountability to the coach, who is richly rewarded when things go well and quickly shown the door when they don't. A coach with a good track record may actually just be good at one thing:  identifying which teams are set up for success already.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tips & ZIPs

When a ZIP code is required, why is the city and state also? What if they disagree? It there is a tiebreaker field, then only that field would matter. If it's for smudges or legibility, then have me write the ZIP twice, just as one might verify an email address. I understand that ZIP codes are not geographical spaces, but sets of mail routes that resemble polygons, so maybe the reason lies in that twist.

Similarly, why ask for a tip amount and the total bill amount? I saw a friend once write in a total amount, then put "math" in the tip line. Even better, why not just ask me what % or $ to leave. This would be easier, but maybe the register software isn't yet capable.

Elite Colleges and the Value Chain

The question often arises whether an elite education is worth the cost. There are plenty of studies and stories that quantify the net impact. But these studies typically assume the student attends/graduates.

What if we un-bundle the activity? Broadly:  acceptance, education, and networking. We can consider this a type of value chain, and efficient-market theory says it should all add up in the end (-ish).

Imagine a high school senior who gets accepted to, say, Williams or Princeton. The student may now claim this distinction, with minimal cost. A few hundred dollars in application fees, perhaps. Maybe an extra thousand or two in test prep. A clever self-promoter might even position himself as deliberately foregoing college to do something even better (Bill Gates, LeBron James).

Since the student does not have to attend once accepted, the education and networking valuations should be done marginally (ignoring the acceptance value). Can the process of undergraduate learning be that different from the highest to lowest ranked colleges? Does a lower ranked school withhold information? Presumably, the classes are fairly introductory and the ones that are in-depth usually fit into a pathway for a graduate school curriculum. Quality of teacher is not what determines the school's ranking, since publishing is paramount. Further, teaching as a skill may in fact be easier when students are more intelligent; the best teachers may actually add the most value with students of lesser aptitude. I don't want to rehash the debate; let's just stipulate that the variance in the ability of professors to impart facts and thought processes is less than the variance in tuition (Do you learn twelve times as much at a $60k school versus a $5k one?). If this is correct, then the extra value must come from some other factor(s).

If student A relies on his classmates to pull him ahead in the workforce, then A is not likely to be one of the top tier students. Same for student B, student C, and the other non-top tier students. So networking may, in fact, be a drain on top tier students themselves. Take from the few, give to the many; this works when you're behind a veil and don't know which group you are in to start with. So there's probably some value in networking to most students, but not all, and the net effect may even be a wash since the value is being redistributed.

There may be another factor that explains the extra value then. One thought is that the undergraduate degree is a qualifier for graduate school. An elite degree is a near requirement for elite grad school admittance. Now, that's life-changing value.

If this overall analysis is accurate, then what should a rational teenager do? The value chain above suggests two optimal branches. If grad school is in your future, then go all-in and graduate. If it's not, then get an admittance letter to a top school and then get a cheaper education or use that letter to go get a good job. (The symmetry here is that an employer would want the admitted student who sees better than to overpay for education itself.)

As always, I'm sure I haven't thought of every nuance so consider this kindling.

Friday, June 22, 2012


I'm trying to understand the distinction between payday loan shops and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Left Backs & Right Wingers (soccer)

Conventional wisdom holds that the best wingers play on the right side of midfield on a soccer team. To combat this, the left back position has required higher skill. Thus has arisen the left back's prominence.

Maybe it's all backward and for a subtle reason...
Assistant referees (ARs) roam half the touchline, but do not cross midfield. They always stay on the right half of the field, from the perspective of one facing the field. Thus, the ARs are often very near the left back and far away from the right back. The right back then has more license to practice the dark arts of harsher play. The left back has no such leeway, so must have a superior mix of athleticism and technique. This would be true at all ages and levels of competition. So growing up, a right winger would face better defensive competition and enjoy the benefits of faster development.

Sherlock Holmes, on his brother

All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Utility Paradox

Even ardent capitalist libertarians surely feel a little wince when a business event leads to a firing or pay-cut to the little guy while the rich owner gets a big bonus. Why?

Maybe it's because we think "dollars" but feel "utility." The marginal utility of your fifty millionth dollar is surely much smaller than that of your fiftieth dollar. Looked at this way, the business event creates wealth (through productivity gains) but destroys utility. I would estimate that the marginal utility of a dollar has only a gradual slope downward until it drops sharply once the amount reaches two years of expected pay. My SWAG.

How do you get around this paradox? Do the deal and take the productivity gain in dollars, then share a piece with the utility-loser? Why?

Absolute Value

Dear atheist:
"Untrue" is not a synonym for "bad." Even if you are right, religion could be offsetting some other trait that is mis-valued in the other direction. Like underestimating hope. Two offsetting transactions in the ledger.
Technically, I guess you could attempt to persuade others simultaneously that there's no god and also that we should be more hopeful. Good luck.

One Way to Avoid Loneliness

I think some people try to stay in grief so that they don't have to go to the loneliness stage.

Or as the poet Kurt Cobain said, "I miss the comfort in being sad."

You're Pretty

the art turns to look at you.

Philip Larkin Quote

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said

Street Charity

Decent people want to help others in need. How can you identify who is truly needy and will use your dollar for improvement, as opposed to buying drugs?

Call one true beggar and one deceptive beggar. Giving $1 to deceptive beggar means he gets more drugs, while true beggar goes without. You get a good feeling, but the outcome hurts others -- very similar to the definition of "selfish."

If one in four are true, while the other three are deceptive, then you would have to give four times the intended donation and be willing to hurt three other people in order to help one.

However, if you try to estimate need based on external clues then it may encourage victimhood or "looking needy" on purpose. It seems the best solution is to have someone who knows the most about the beggars allocate the funding. This is probably neither you nor faceless government. It is a local charity.

Favorite Words & Not



Float On

What if you filled the empty part of a semi-trailer with helium? Would it lower the tire friction enough to offset the helium cost?