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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: July 2010

Miss Management

Judging by the moniker for the physical unit of power, horses must be pretty mighty creatures. Your fancy new sports car would certainly lose much of its luster if the stated output of its engine was denominated in platypuspower, wouldn't it? People have been trying to harness that natural motor ever since they realized they are the Masters of the Universe and as such can relegate much of toil and drudgery to lower creatures. Horses remained a valuable source of cheap and highly portable energy throughout history, even after man figured out how to set fire to liquefied dinosaur droppings in robust metallic cylinders.

The other day I saw a cool contraption. It looked just like your regular treadmill, except it could generate electricity while you exercised. Very cool, and very green. Now imagine some bright bulb would try to use that contraption to extract work from a draft horse. You'd push the unsuspecting farm animal onto the narrow rubber conveyor, tie its reins at the console and stick an extra bale of hay behind the handle bar. But turning the machine on would reveal a fatal flaw in its design. It was not horse friendly. The stumbling beast would undoubtedly display such awkward lack of fine muscular coordination that even the most optimistic entrepreneurs would have to admit that this was not the right way to extract power from a horse.

Every person (or a horse) has a natural modus operandi. Achieving the best outcome is possible only if you can fit that unique mode seamlessly into the overall operation of a larger unit. Some people like their work space messy and chaotic, some like it clean and orderly. Some people like to work in short spates of intense activity punctuated by breaks, some prefer more continuous and concentrated effort. Micromanaging employees and forcing them into unnatural modes of operation can have shockingly devastating effect on the overall productivity.

People sometimes think that managing does not require any special aptitude. Certainly a young lady standing in line behind me at Panera Bread yesterday thought so. Endowed with an advanced sense of humor and a slight trace of slight in her voice, she gigglily opined to her friend that the only subject managers must be good at is "bossing people around all day long". But I think she was sadly mistaken. Good managers are few and far between, because - contrary to popular belief - what they do involves the rare skill of finding the "right" way how to maximize the collective output of their managees.

Managing is kind like playing Tetris. You have to combine individuals possessing different skills and personalities to flawlessly process the impending work flow. You have to fit them together so there are as few "holes" in the production structure as possible. You have to tease the best qualities out of them, you have to make sure they interface smoothly with each other, you have to unleash their hidden potential and you have to regroup when situation warrants it. And all that jazz has to take place in real time.

Sadly, many managers don't get it and saddle their subordinates with seemingly logical but practically dysfunctional procedures, many a time insisting on using high-tech gadgets which not only do not contribute to the success of task at hand, but often stand in the way of optimal performance. Since I started with an animal analogy, let me also finish with one.

Imagine an "overzealous" manager presented with a task of guarding a house. They would probably hire a pesky German shepherd and outfit it with all sorts of modern protective contraptions, high tech weaponry, assorted bells and whistles and autoloading ammunition belts. Sure, their intentions might have been good, but had the thief actually entered, the poor dog would have tripped all over itself and had it been particularly ferocious, it might have even shot itself in the paw with a poorly designed trigger. All that technology - so useful in other cases - would have gone to a complete waste. Once in a blue moon, a good old fashioned "woof-woof" does the job just fine.

A case study in mismanagement.

The Meaning of Trees

My Mom and Dad just had a golden wedding. That meant both good news and bad news for me. On the one hand, the event clearly portended that I would be pushing the big five o in uncomfortably foreseeable future, on the other hand my parents chose to hold the festivities in the house where my Mom grew up, which happens to be located in one of my favorite places on Earth - a little mining village in northeast Bohemia called Radvanice. When we were kids, me and my sister spent every summer holiday there, roaming the deep woods from dawn till dusk, playing soccer on a grassy hill, looking for interesting minerals on a slag heap and naming local creeks after major North American rivers.

So it happened that last week I found myself lying supine on a lawn under a huge maple tree in front of my Grandpa's summer house, not far from a place where my favorite dog Dalan used to have its doghouse. As my eyes were slowly scanning the sinuous boughs of an old tree, I couldn't help recognizing some of their curves. Those were exactly the same branches I stared at when I was pondering the mysteries of the universe with my 8 year old mind. As I kept gazing at the leafy maze, parts of my memory were stimulated the same way a pad lock gets stimulated when a fitting key blade engages the wards in the keyway. Those crooks and forks and gnarls were still stored in my memory like a set of reference points.

Trees provide us with a sense of continuity and coherence in a world driven by hectic and random change. Much like ourselves, trees are living organism, but they function on a very different time scale. From our vantage point, they are like little buoys on the majestic river of time. And make no mistake, time is not a lake, it is indeed a river. Sometimes slower, sometimes faster, but river nonetheless.

Not far from that maple tree there stood a row of birches which we planted with my grandma when I was about ten. They were barely my size then. Now they were large almost adult trees, easily 30 feet high. The sight of those stately trees made me realize my age more acutely than my own birthdays. It was a gentle reminder that time does flow and that we should make the best of it while it does.


World According To Stereo

There is a reason why we have two eyes and two ears. They furnish our perception with an extra dimension. Not only they widen our field of audio-visual ogling, but they also create a stereoscopic illusion by blending two slightly different sets of sensory input together. Thanks to them we can enjoy the world in all its three dimensional splendor and dolby surround sound. Thanks to them we can appreciate perspective and tell which direction a dog is barking from - a bit of information that can be a life saver, particularly if you are a postman or a cat that has already died eight times.

I spend most of my time in the United State, but I pay a biannual visit to the Czech Republic to inspect the cobwebs of my youth. While foreign travel is usually associated with a transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, arriving in Prague airport always plucks me from one familiar environment and dumps me into another one which is even more familiar. In a sense, it feels like living two lives separately - hanging out with two different sets of friends, dressing thoughts in two familiar languages, wasting money in two familiar currencies, heartily cursing two sets of familiar politicians.

But the best part of this mildly splitting life style is watching the world from two very different vantage points. No matter what the event is, whether the doping scandal at the last Olympics, Paris Hilton's dressing habits, or a war du jour in the Middle East, there are always different lens through which you can view it. Reading New York Times is a very different experience than reading Lidove Noviny. You get almost opposite extremes in your viewing angle. One is that of a major superpower whose shored are washed by two oceans and one comes from a negligible landlocked country somewhere in the middle of Europe. Together they form a nearly perfect holographic image of a lavish planet haphazardly roamed by six billion biological paradoxes.

In the old days of Austro Hungarian empire, back when Albert Einstein was still merely a curious schoolboy, apprentices were often sent "into the world" to interact with different ethnic groups and experience other folklore and mores, to discover for themselves that crucial postulate of the Theory of Cultural Relativity: one nation's glower may be another nation's smile. I think it would be helpful to the well being of our society if all young people had the opportunity (whether as students or apprentices) to live for a year or two in a foreign country. It would give their schooling an extra depth and with it a few ounces of a much needed tolerance for their personalities.

We have just wasted untold billions of dollars bailing out some old filthy rich dudes. Spending a few more on international stipends for our youth would pay for itself sooner than you could say AIG.

Analytic Beer No. 100

At the beginning, you never know how things will turn out. And that is what makes life so enigmatic. Just look at a bunch of kids in a kindergarten. Can you tell who will end up on Wall Street trading junk bonds and who will join a freak show as a part time vinegar addict? Can you tell who will be the next Bill Gates and who will only be his personal chauffeur? Nope, you can't, and neither can anyone else. Future is complex beyond anyone's calculating might. Subject to a maze of myriad influences, it percolates forth in inscrutable ways.

Take the first settlers who escaped from the religious sauna of medieval England. When they arrived in this country, they had no idea they were laying foundations for a future superpower. And had they been foolish enough to make any claims to that effect, the Native Indians would have been rolling on the dirt floor laughing. But at the end - due circumstances not even imaginable at the time - the settlers had the last laugh. They prevailed and their new country eventually celebrated its 100th and then 200th birthday. And if all goes well, we'll be watching the quarter millennium fireworks in a couple of years.

When I studied Math in Prague, I was a member of a small theater group called "Lipany". Even rigorous scientists need entertainment every now and then. In 1986 when we came back from the military service (it was mandatory after college), we decided to have a group reunion in a cramped smoke filled pub in the Prague district of Nusle. Being mathematicians, it didn't take us long to pull out our notebooks and start crunching differential equations, estimating integral inequalities and doing all sorts of nasty things that mathematicians do when they think no one is watching.

We found the event so exhilarating that shortly afterward we sent an invitation to two more "Lipany" members to join us the next time. Since we had to give our tentative gathering some name, we invited them half-jokingly to the second "Analytic Beer seminar" organized by a "Union of Czechoslovak Mathematicians and Alcoholics", which was just a little word play on the name of the official mathematical association at the time. We also added a short advisory note stating that "teetotalers and abstainers are strongly encouraged to have their physical exam performed by a doctor prior to the occasion as they may be exposed to second hand beer vapor; in addition to it, and to be on the safe side, they may need to obtain a one-time drinking license issued by the Society for the Protection of Rare Animals."

The idea of interlacing beer mugs and coasters with sheets of paper scribbled over with chunks of improper integrals, Fourier series and symbols for Lipschitz continuous functions caught on and we had our third Analytic Beer in two weeks and then fourth and fifth and before we knew it, the Analytic Beer seminar had become integral part of our lives. The secret to unlocking the scientific potential of the seminar turned out to be finding that fine limit where we had had enough beer to escape the straitjacket of scientific orthodoxy, but not quite enough to cease recognizing the quickly blurring Greek letters and mathematical symbols.

When we dispersed all over the world, the frequency of our seminars notched down a bit, but we still met whenever we could. We put away our 70th Beer in 1997, 80th in 2001 and 90th in 2005. For the Analytic Beer No. 100, which was approaching fast, we wanted to do something special. This July, when it finally arrived, we rented a picturesque log cabin in Northern Bohemia and spent four days in nearly pristine nature biking, hiking, sampling local brews, dawdling around, calculating infinite sums and watching the World Cup which happened to coincide with our Guzzle & Puzzle Fest. The College of Mathematics and Physics of the Charles University in Prague, our Alma Mater, used to have an owl in its emblem, so it didn't come as a big surprise that our gathering was a resounding hoot - a four day romp in a parallel Universe - although it needs to be admitted that we never quite figured out what was the probability that Spain would hit three goalposts within three seconds in their quarterfinal match against Paraguay. I think we just ballparked it as incontestably astronomical.

Life is the ultimate mathematical riddle. Twenty five years ago, Czechoslovakia was immersed in communism from soup to nuts - people were allergic to TV that was allergic to any manifestation of freedom and everyone's Mom was going bananas from standing in a long line for bananas. Mathematics was one of the few oases which the stinky breath of Kremlin could not quite reach. As we were honing our computing skills in that dingy old pub in the middle of Prague during our first tentative seminar, we had absolutely no idea that one day we'd be celebrating Analytic Beer No. 100, let alone in a country that would be part of the European Union. But that's how life on this planet is - you never know how things will turn out. Especially after you've downed a few.


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