Friday, January 22, 2010

The Peter Principle resolved: The Simmonds Solution

1) What is the Peter Principle?

Simply put:

"Everyone rises to their level of incompetence"

or: people get promoted when they are competent, up to the point where they are no longer competent in their job, then they rise no further.

This sounds rather self-evident, but it took until 1969 for it to be formulated, by psychologist Laurence Peter.  There are corollaries: that, over time, every post gets filled by an incompetent, and that the real work is done by those who haven't yet arrived at their level of incompetence.

Of course, it was humorous, but undoubtedly gained so much traction because there seemed to be rather more than a grain of truth in it.  You can read more about it in the Wikipedia article.

2) The surprising outcome of a scientific study
New Scientist  (19-Dec-09) reported studies that came to some unexpected solutions.  Stanford's Edward Lazear's modelling suggested people have a baseline competence which is enhanced by some circumstantial factor to the point they perform a particular task (or project) "unusually well".  Once they're promoted, that circumstance is gone, and they fall back to their baseline (lesser) competence level.
Further modelling by Alessandro Pluchino et al examined whether ability at one level was a predicator of ability at a higher level.  They found it was not so: in fact, promoting the best performers merely removed people from successful position fits.  Promotion ended, and the Peter Principle is demonstrated, "locking incompetence in place".  On the other hand, promoting poor performers at least removes them from unsuccessful work situations.  They thus suggest the best strategy seems to be to:
promote people at random

3) The Simmonds Solution
At the risk of stating the obvious (which, it must be said, Laurence Peter did, to great acclaim), I suggest the solution is to:

Rotate non-stellar performers into higher positions,
then choose the best for permanent advancement

That way, you'd keep good performers in good positions (and could reward them accordingly), while testing the options for moving people into positions that may suit them better.

Admittedly, rotation is also suggested in the New Scientist article.  But I claim provenance with my provisos: that high-performers are excluded from rotation (with appropriate recompense), and that permanent promotion should be the outcome of a successful rotation exercise - without obliging that the position be filled by the best less-than-competent person.

Obvious, isn't it? - once spelt out.  Still, if nobody else has articulated this exact solution, I claim naming rights.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why moderate comments? Or, Attack of the spambots

I reckon I just got hit by a spambot.

A comment on a 2006 post of mine on CeBIT (seeking the future at CeBIT) seemed a bit off-topic. So I did a search of one of the less common phrases.

I found that since December 2009, someone had been posting an identical comment on a number of blogs.  Something about some research into online marketing.  The spammer was obviously not the originator of the words - the original probably resides somewhere in the recesses of Google, buried under this avalanche of spam.  The original was making a point that small business was looking to email for marketing (the phrase I extracted was "banner and search crowd a little wary") - not exactly riveting news.  But it was buried in a somewhat inscrutable turn of phrase which would make it past someone who was too busy to pay attention.

The comment concluded with a link to a website that basically hawks... stuff.  A disparate bunch of stuff, with no commonality save to sell to passing traffic.

It must be a slow way to market.  Using, I found it to be run from Texas, possibly someone purporting to provide search engine optimisation services.

It's a slow way of making a living.  It would make more sense if someone wrote some code to automatically trawl blogs to add comments under a revolving list of names.  Maybe: most of the blogs didn't need someone to register to make a comment.  One comment was made as a registered user, requiring a registration process (which was created only this month) which is less susceptible to automation, making the effort somewhat less explicable.

...Just investigating the phenomenon, I see Wikipedia has a page on it: Spam In Blogs, which it characterises as a form of "spamdexing": using less than ethical methods to increase a page's profile in search engines.  So it doesn't even need people to click through to the site to achieve the objectives; it just needs the comments to hang around to be caught by the search engine(s).

That's one of the reasons I moderate comments on this blog.  This means a comment doesn't show up until I get notified to approve it.  I'd say I reject more comments than I allow, which shows how much off-topic spam gets posted.

Understandably, this results in confusion over whether the comment has taken hold, so some people try reposting a comment.  My apologies; bear with me please.  And don't make the comment too off-topic, or it might not make it.

14-Jan-10 Update:  Spammers don't even read the posts.  Another just tried again!
18-Jan-10 Update: Same again.  The phrase this time:"By the way, did you guys hear that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again".  The point: if you are suspicious, drag part of the post into google, see if it's been around the blocks.

22-Jan-10 Update: This is getting ridiculous. 2010 will be the year of the spambot!
I just got another comment that seemed totally innocuous:
"I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often."

- but because it was off-topic, I did a google search, and found multiple copies of that comment - complete with typo (or spelling mistake, if it was Chinese-originated).  The only other part of that comment was a web link, which I don't need to reproduce.

Two possibilities:  comment spam is trying to get smarter, or they borrowed a contentless comment from elsewhere.

So if it is the year of the spambot, don't bother publishing comments unless they are clearly on-topic.  Otherwise, you're propagating free advertising at best, or carrying links to nefarious sites at worst.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2009 blog statistics: What questions did people ask?

Following is an aggregation of search terms that led to my blog, with some insights.  In each case, the search term was some variant on the heading.

1) What does IBM do?  That was by far the most common question.  Askers landed here because of the heading of a post: "Just what does IBM do?", which discussed the corporations transformation from computer mainframe manufacturer to software and services vendor.  Most people asking this question seemed to come from the US, as it happens.
2) Vigrass and Osbourne: the underrated 1970s duo, who are perhaps most famous for the original version of Forever Autumn, used in Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds.
3) Worldwide Gun Statistics: perhaps again popular due to the post's heading.  The queries were typically variants of gun ownership statistics, followed by gun homicide stats, followed by gun control stats.
4) Error converting data type varchar to real: In Microsoft's SQL Server database (more specifically, in Transact-SQL), I had difficulty translating a text data type to a real number data type.  So I researched the answer, and published it.  It's a common enough need that it ought to be reasonably intuitive, but on the basis of those searching for the solution, it wasn't.
5) Cancion MixtecaHarry Dean Stanton sang this mournful old Mexican tune beautifully, on the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas.  Given the rendition was so moving - and so was the film - you would expect the song to be in the film.  But for some reason it's not - the film carries only a snatch of Ry Cooder's instrumental version.

I suspect a given post's heading was the chief deterimant of a search engine directing traffic here.  So it pays to consider the heading carefully: pithy and direct.

In fact, if you count image searches, the above would be swamped by people's searches for pictures of stars, planets, and moons in perspective, and platypuses, or their eggs.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Ms Gladys Knight, at her best.

Although I don't, in general, see the point in discussing well-known music, I will make an exception with Gladys Knight - for a possibly contentious reason.

Gladys Knight And The Pips were best known for their 1973 hit Midnight Train To Georgia, although their career stretched for decades either side, and they hit with Heard It Through The Grapevine before Marvin Gaye.
Knight and the Pips had minor hits in the early 60s, then subsequently signed with Motown. Although they hit with Grapevine, they were always treated as second stringers, and so left for Buddah Records in 1973.

I have in front of me two of their compilations: one from their Motown catalogue, and one from Buddah. I was listening to their Buddah compilation and thought "that woman can really sing".

So I turned to Motown. But I just didn't get the same feeling. Thus my contention: their move to Buddah somehow brought about a significant boost in the quality of Knight's performance - and even the Pips come off well.

Midnight Train is a pleasant listen. Their followup, I've Got To Use My Imagination, doesn't move me as much - although Knight's gutsy performance must be well appreciated. Then followed You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me: schmaltzy, but again a bravura performance. Two singles later, You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me again hit a peak.

A variety of styles, and Knight always impresses. She poured in a lot more substance, more emotion than she had in the past.  Even the Pips, who only ever came along for the ride, do pretty well on all these pieces.

The three albums these songs came from were all produced by different people. The material was drawn from a more diverse stable of songwriters than in the past, including country writer Jim Weatherly. Although that gave Knight the opportunity to spread her wings, it seems to remain that she put a good deal more oomph into her work upon first leaving Motown.

Why? Many reasons for outcomes dwell behind the scenes; this answer may remain inscrutible. The usual reasons - production, songwriting - seem absent here. It may be that management or executive production from Buddah was the driving force.

I think it's worth drawing attention to this dichotomy. For the best of Knight, you only need turn to the Buddah recordings.

Footnote: apparently the title (but not the story) for Midnight Train To Georgia derived from Lee Majors commenting to Weatherly about the then-unknown Farrah Fawcett catching a midnight plane to Houston.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Most popular posts in 2009

The most popular of last year's posts on this blog were:

1) a discussion and illustration of the relative sizes of star types and the solar system's planets and moons;
2) an overview of Data Provisioning, Karen Heath's proposal for new generation business intelligence and data warehousing (now moved to my technical blog);
3) Some words on Ellie Greenwich, the 1960s songwriter who died last year (with a discography lacking in Wikipedia);
4) Evolution and the eritherium, an odd elephant relative from the early days of the mammal;
5) An overview of BI Survey 8, the annual analysis of the market and use of Business Intelligence tools;
6) The music of the revered New Zealand new wave band Toy Love, with a comprehensive discography;
7) An insightful comparison of Madonna's and Van Halen's touring contracts, after Madonna's stage collapsed last year;
8) An appreciation of the duo  Georgie Fame and Alan Price, two British musicians of the 1960s who collaborated in the 1970s (again, with discography);
9) A discussion of corporate ethics and the underhanded actions of the Australian corporation James Hardie, who tried to escape their obligations over asbestos poisoning;
10) A discussion of the eventual fate of the Beatles' songwriting catalogue, and royalties.

So it would seem that the most viewed posts were music-related (comprising half the most popular discussions), followed by business intelligence (two pieces), then general science, evolution, and corporate politics.

That may be a bit misleading.  In fact the top post, on planets, moons and stars, positively swamped everything else.  And like some of my posts, the only reason it arose was my personal curiosity: to improve my understanding with a bit of research.

Let's look at overall traffic last year, for all posts since 2006.  The story is a little different:
1) The abovementioned  discussion of moons, planets and stars;
2) The evolution of milk (simply because it included a photo of a platypus egg);
3) IBM's evolution as a software and computer services company, from its earlier incarnation as a mainframe computer manufacturer (the traffic came mostly from people asking the question: 'What does IBM do?');
4) Vigrass and Osbourne: sparkling forgotten pop music from the early 70s, with discography and links;
5) The giant tube worm: an evolutionary oddity;
6) The relationship between handgun ownership and homicide in different coutries (most people were seeking statistics on gun ownership around the world);
7) A discussion of the breakup of Gondwana and the formation of  New Zealand, in the context of the discovery of an extinct egg-laying mammal in New Zealand (the SB mammal, or waddling mouse);
8) A discussion of the evolutionary significance of heterochrony (although it's possible people were just looking for a picture of an axlotl);
9) About Harry Dean Stanton's haunting rendition of Cancion Mixteca (with lyrics and translation);
10) How to solve the issue of translating type varchar to type real in SQL Server.

Friday, January 01, 2010

This blog in 2009: the subjects

The next few posts will let you know what people viewed on this blog in 2009.

I started including a traffic counter in July 2009, so all the statistics here relate to the latter part of the year.

There were around 50 page views per day, of two and a half years' worth of posts.  The main subjects viewed were:
 - Evolution: nearly 50% of page views;
 - Science: about 25%
 - Technology: about 10%
 - Music: about 10%

It's hardly surprising that Evolution tops the list: that's my most frequent subject.  But the overall figures were slightly skewed by two pages that turned out to be particularly popular:
 - An illustration of the relative sizes of the planets, moons, and different star types (in fact, most searches were asking about the relative sizes of different stars);
 - A picture of a platypus egg, in a discussion of the evolution of milk.

Those pages each garnered over 20% of page views, making up about 45% of site traffic.  In particular, much of the search engine traffic was drawn to the platypus egg - because, I guess, mammal eggs are such an oddity.  In today's world, at least.