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Posts tagged 'business'

  • Ticks

    One of my understated goals is to transform ideas I've written down from single-sentence entries in a notepad somewhere into something a bit more robust and shareable. While sorting through Bear notes today, I found one idea that I feel I can expand on in short order.

    Ticks are fascinating and terrifying creatures. They have one overall motive—to suck blood—and they are singleminded in that pursuit.

    In the Army we went into the Kentucky backwoods for a group land navigation course, and during a break for lunch (happily, away from the Drill Sergeants) my battle buddies and I stopped for a tick check. One of our guys—Palmer—found a tick on the back of his arm, in a place that had been covered by his blouse sleeve, and spent the next five minutes freaking out as we attempted to get it off him.

    By this late point in our training cycle, our DS allowed us to purchase and carry multitools, and having eaten MREs we had matches on hand. So, remembering the old wisdom about tick removal, we tried heating up a knife blade and putting it on the underside of the tick to get it to release. Between curses and shaking his arm, Palmer informed us that all we had accomplished was burning him. So, we got more aggressive: one of our knives had a pair of tweezers, and we used those to wrench the nasty creature out of his skin. After several attempts, we got the tick out, and (to the best of my knowledge) Palmer was shaken but otherwise okay.

    The mere existence of ticks is enough to make me want to have nothing to do with them. If they bit and moved on, like mosquitos, I might tolerate them more. But they bite, and they suck your blood, and they spread diseases like Lyme—which is often misdiagnosed for years, and causes remarkable neurological effects—and can even cause you to become permanently allergic to meat. Seeking to avoid these effects, any time I go into the backwoods or anywhere that has a chance of having ticks, I spent ten minutes with a mirror fastidiously checking every part of my body for ticks. So far, I've been lucky.

    However, in their quest for blood, they have pursued me. In 2013, I visited my dad in State College, PA, and together we traveled to Gettysburg to see the battlefield in person. There's a little trail on the east side of the battlefield, a little south of the Union artillery emplacements, that's mostly meant for horses and small vehicles. On a lark, my dad and I began to walk down this trail (consisting mostly of dirt and tall grass) when something—the twitch of a hair, a stir of breeze—prompted me to glance down at my legs.

    You have to realize that since Iraq, and the Internet, I'm absolutely paranoid about parasites. So when I saw this little… <expletive> punaise1 crawling among the hairs on my leg, I about lost it. Imagine: here I am, a 230+ lb person, cursing up a storm while trying his damnedest to swat a tick off his legs, while the little bugger is holding on for dear life. It hadn't even bit into me, and already it had a firm grasp.

    Now, the internet says that ticks can't jump, but I'm pretty sure I didn't brush any grass while we were walking up that path. Perhaps it got on board the Peter train much earlier, when we were walking out on the battlefield, and I only noticed it once it got higher up and the difference in feeling on my leg hairs clued me into its presence. No matter how it got there, though, I was pretty sure I managed to swat it off, and, not wanting to risk any further encounters, we turned back.

    Well, wouldn't you know it, not ten minutes later I found another one (or perhaps the original was more tenacious than I thought). Just as profanely but much more focused, I got rid of this one, and promptly tied my shorts2 as far down my legs as they would go. Crisis averted, we spent a few more hours wandering the battlefield before hopping back in the car to return to the hotel. I spent a chuck of the ride back that night telling my dad (who was apparently uninformed) about the dangers of ticks and Lyme, and encouraging him to check himself.

    All this is to say that ticks are very good at what they (try) to do. But there's another, more salient point that I want to bring home. There's a reason health professionals no longer recommend people use the "hot knife" method to remove ticks (other than the risk of burning your battle buddy), and further a reason they recommend you use shard tweezers and grab as far down the tick as possible when removing it.

    You see, ticks aren't optimized for letting go; they're optimized for hanging on for dear life. Ticks that let go don't breed. Burning a tick can cause it to vomit into the bloodstream, increasing the risk of catching any diseases they carry, and failing to grab a tick far down its head can cause the head to break off while drinking. The head might not get the message that the body is no longer there, and continue 'drinking' well after it should be dead (again, raising the risk of infection).

    Why don't ticks evolve to have a stronger connection between their heads and their bodies? Well, first of all, that's not how evolution works; they have to work in large part with the pieces they have. But, more importantly, a stronger neck is a cost without a direct benefit to the singleminded purpose of hanging on for dear life. A tick with a strong neck might have a better chance of surviving separation from the host, but a tick that risks getting separated from the host at all is a bad tick.

    High ROI, from a tick's perspective, comes from a) skill in finding a host b) escaping detection while they seek a good feeding spot c) hanging on while feeding d) escaping to lay eggs. None of these criteria is improved by surviving removal, because when one tick dies, there are many ready to take its place.

    If we view design, or business, as a competitive environment like nature, we can see parallels: there isn't much potential ROI from being a "careful" company, to insure against unlikely scenarios. The most successful configurations are those that are singleminded in their pursuit of survival, avoiding the risk of removal in the first place. Your survival chances are dictated not by how "good" a company you are, but rather how dogged you are in pursuing a single goal, and if someone comes along and cuts your company off at the head… that's just business.

    1. I really understand, since that moment, why the French use the word for "bug/parasitic insect" as a swear word 

    2. BDU-style cargo shorts, with blousing ties at the base 

  • The Prevalence of Talent

    There are limits to what a person is capable of. In a given population, maximum skill lies along some sort of distribution. If everyone were to devote themselves totally to a single pursuit in a given society, people would eventually reach a point where there was a compressed distribution of that skill close to the maximum possible within that society.

    To put this in concrete terms, if everyone in the US decided to devote themselves to football, we would eventually (within a generation or two) see every person within a couple percent of their maximum possible skill in football. The variance could be explained by factors such as lack of motivation, choosing a bad position (a person whose physiology was more suited to being a linebacker devoting themselves to becoming a quarterback, etc.), and normal imperfections of the world.

    Ignoring other follow-on consequences of such an arrangement—such as the selection pressure to breed more capable children—a lot could be said about the population in a world like this. For instance, the total market for talent would be nearly saturated. Many of the people who are professionals today would not be in such a world because of selection pressures. Most people would be better at evaluating others' skill at the common task—not good necessarily, just better. Given that evaluation of skills and performance of them are correlated yet distinct, not everyone would be suited to determine which of their fellow citizens is better than others.

    Consider: in a given domain, not only are there different specialties (quarterbacks and linebackers; percussion, strings, and wind), there are also different meta-specialties and synergies. A football team, due to the nature of competitive games, needs trainers, managers, coaches, strategists, data analysts, businessmen, and so forth. What makes a team successful in a competitive sense (winning games) and what makes a team successful in a business sense (bringing in as much money as possible) are somewhat distinct skills. Getting the attention of customers and getting them to want to spend money is in part due to the prospect of being excited—close scores, a memorable experience, novelty (being part of something no one else is), camaraderie (being part of something others are)—and not necessarily seeing one team utterly destroy another. A single star player is not enough to produce long-term interest: if no one can ever get the ball to the running back or the defense crumples under an offensive drive, no one is going to be interested in the "product" over time.

    The football metaphor is limiting, so I will set it aside for now. Consider the following, then:

    There is nothing that everyone does well, so we don't know what the limits of performance are. Given that time and attention are limiting factors in most business relationships, we tend to choose products and experiences not on raw quality but rather on some combination of the above factors, and others: exclusivity, inclusivity, identity, memorability, compatibility, reputation, exhaustion.

    When it comes to occupations, there are two main poles at which work accumulates: that which can only be done by many people, and that which need only be done once. The former is represented by the term "labor": cleaning, cooking, building, advising, teaching. The latter is represented (mostly) by the term "creation": design, invention, research, architecture. That isn't to say that this second set of tasks only need be done once, ever; however, designing a particular (e.g.) car allows for the creation of a practically unlimited number of cars, whereas the construction of a single car doesn't allow thousands of people to drive.

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