Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To Fire a Pistol

Congratulations on owning your new Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol, a beautifully crafted, perfectly lethal firearm. Please read the following instructions before operating your pistol, as the firing procedure varies under different circumstances.

In a Western: Stand upright facing your opponent, arms casually dropped on the sides, with elbows slightly bent outwards. Gaze at your opponent intensely. As soon as your opponent breaks down under your gaze and attempts to draw his gun, reach for your pistol and yank it out of the dust-caked holster. Spin the pistol three times around your index finger, and fire. Your opponent will slowly collapse to the sandy ground with his gun in his hand. Blow the smoke from the barrel of your pistol, and bow to the fair lady with golden curls who has witnessed the incidence calmly on the nearby terrace. Spin the pistol three times around your index finger and in one unbroken motion thrust it back into the holster. Walk up to the lady and offer to buy her a drink.

In a Schwartzenegger movie: Grip the bad guy by his collar, cock the pistol and point it at his head. Ask who he works for and where the hostage is. Having obtained the information, say "Hasta la vista baby", release the bad guy and he will fall down to the street from the roof-top of a fifty-story building. Pocket the pistol and tidy up your suit.

In self-defense: Usually you will be panicking in face of the approaching assailant, so try best to steady your hands. Take the pistol out of your pocket, grope for the safety slide and push it downward to free the hammer. Should you drop the gun in the course of this action, pick it up and repeat. Should you complete this action before the assailant wrestles the gun away from you, point the gun at the assailant and continue pulling the trigger until the magazine is empty or the barrel is jammed, whichever comes first. Check if any of your bullets has disabled the assailant. If not, scream and run away as fast as you can.

In a paroxysm of anger: Take out the pistol, cock the hammer, and aim at your object of anger. Threaten the person and demand an apology. Your request may be denied, which will fuel your anger even more. If a rush of blood to your head impairs your judgment, that is, if you lose your head, pull the trigger. You have killed your victim. Say to yourself: the person is dead.

And repeat: the person is dead.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Pity She is a Whore

Why is prostitution illegal in most places? Moral decadence in the profession, exploitation of female body, transmission of diseases, and abomination in God’s eyes, these have been foisted as reasons for banning the sexual service. But these reasons confuse cause and effect. The question is: how come prostitution is associated with evil in the first place?

Only one condition can trigger the legal ban of a human activity: that activity must harm the interests of a group of people whose collective power can rewrite the law. For example, cocaine was banned because its use by black slaves has lead to aggravated assault on white people. In Prohibition, alcohol was declared illegal because the factory owners felt that their workers’ productivity had been negatively influenced by booze. In contemporary time, marijuana remains illegal because the tobacco companies feared its powerful competition against cigarettes.

Prostitution must have suffered a similar fate. At one time or another, it must have harmed the interests of a powerful group ruling the society. That conflict lead to a lopsided legal battle that resulted in the demise of prostitution as a legal profession.

So the real question is: who are harmed by prostitution, so much as to take the trouble to drive the prostitutes underground?

Or rather, who stands to benefit by having the prostitutes underground?

First, let’s take a look at the profession. A man pays a prostitute to have sex with her. In this act, the man gets sexual satisfaction, the woman enriches her finance, possibly also gets a bit of sexual pleasure. No one is a victim. Of course, before the introduction of condoms, there was the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. For a believer of the Bible, prostitution is an abomination. But prostitution became illegal after the advent of condoms. Also, prostitution has been an abominable occupation even before the knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases. Bible was written by men. What in prostitution offended the society?

Why was prostitution considered immoral in the first place? From time immemorial, men have patronized the brothels and the streetwalkers. If they had no qualms in the purchase, what motivated them to declare prostitution evil?

Here is an idea. Prostitution is profitable. If it were also respectable, what woman would not do it? In a male dominated society, prostitution could be a way to independence for women. Now that was a threat to men. To insure that they pass on their own genes, men need the fidelity of their wives. There is of course no surer way to do so than making the wives financially dependent on the husbands. So men are comfortable screwing around with prostitutes, but they vilify the whores so that their wives would not pursue a similar career and gain financial independence. That, more than anything else, is why prostitution got its bad name.

Nonetheless, in many places, prostitution had been legal for a long time, before it was declared illegal. What happened?

In China, prostitution has been sanctioned until the communist’s rule. Why did the communist government ban prostitution? Simple, it was part of a scheme to control people’s ideology. A sexually deprived mass is a lot easier to control than a sexually active population. When life is bleak, one might as well believe in anything. It is for the same reason that institutionalized religions condemn prostitution.

In New York City, prostitution had been a prosperous business in the famous, or should we say infamous, red light district next to the United Nations. Then Giuliani decided to drive all the prostitutes out. Why? Not because the sinful profession is a blemish on the city’s reputation. Oh, no. The real reason is that the real estate developers coveted the untapped neighborhood. It is far cheaper to drive all the sexual workers out of the city, than to organize the profession and detach it from the organized crime.

Should prostitution be legal after all? By all means I think the answer is yes. Transmission of disease? Condoms can stop that. Exploitation of women? This no longer applies in a society where there are many careers for women to financial independence. Vulnerable to organized crime? Well, how many casinos in Las Vegas are still run by mafia?

The remaining question is just: how much?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dating, Audition, and Interview

Nicholas Metropolis, the co-inventor of the Monte Carlo method – indisputably the crown jewel of numerical computation, was once asked how he conceived such an ingenious idea. He answered:

“By working with the right people.”

The reply was toned in humility and humor. But the statement, taken out of context, sounds trite. “Working with the right people” is the well-known secret of all successes. Jim Collins, in his best-selling business book, Good to Great, made it a clear principle: First who, then what. The paramount task of a successful business is to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and assign the right people to the right seat. Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron CEO, believed in this principle. He told reporters that the greatest asset of Enron was nothing else but its people. Consulting firms and investment banks can’t agree less. Each year, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and their competitor firms lavish millions of dollars on fresh graduates from top universities in the grand endeavor to recruit the next superstars. In the style of a Mastercard commercial, the recruitment effort can be justified as:

First-class flight from San Francisco to New York: $1500.

Five-star hotel near Time Square: $300.

Lunch at Four Seasons: $70

Finding the next business superstar: priceless.

Finding the right people, however, is easier said than done. Like all principles of life, there is no concrete guideline to implement it.

The firm where I work now is obsessed with recruiting. It even has a fancy name for its recruiting department: Strategic Growth. (I half-jokingly call it Star Gate, which shares the same acronym and has pertinent connotation.) Shortly after joining the firm, I realized that everyone in the firm works for SG, since everyone is at SG’s disposal to be put on the interview schedule. And SG uses us good: I have had at least one interview each week. Before long, I wondered: am I conducting sensible interviews and hiring the right people?

One central premise of all interviews, it seems, is that past achievement is the best indicator of future success. Hence the resume-based questions. How did the candidate overcome obstacles, deal with failures, work in a team, demonstrate leadership, etc.? These questions are so prevalent that tons of books have been written on how to answer them. Nowadays no job-seeker shows up in an interview without preparing for these standard questions. This, of course, diminishes the value of these questions, much as the cheat sheets diminish the value of an exam. So a short memo circulating in the firm encourages the interviewers to ask candidates surprise questions. Regretfully, the memo suggests no example of such questions.

Unimaginative of surprise resume-based questions, I looked elsewhere to find my own interview questions. I started an experiment: I would not look at the candidate’s resume before the interview. Instead, I would just chat with the candidate about something of our common interests. With one candidate, I asked him about his favorite movies; with another, I talked to her about humor writing. This way, not only did I put the candidate at ease, I also gained a good idea of his communication skill and style.

I would then outline a technical problem from my past work to the candidate, and ask him to work out a solution together with me. Of course, the choice of the problem is tricky. A good problem should require no specialized knowledge, and can be solved to different extent so that the candidates’ abilities can be differentiated. Due to obvious reasons, I cannot reveal here any specific examples.

So how did I do with my resume-free approach? I took a look at my colleagues’ recommendations on the candidates that I interviewed, and found that most of them agreed with my own. There were differences. In the case of a recent candidate, my hire recommendation was overruled by unanimous no-hires from my colleagues. But overall, I was not an outlier. My resume-free interview technique seems to be working.

Knowing now that my resume-free interview works reasonably well, I wonder: does it work better than the resume-based interviews? I have no data to answer that question. But two analogies come to my mind.

In dating, we also look for the right person. Imagine dating as a resume-based interview:

Man: So tell me about your last relationship.

Woman: Well, we got along really well, and had a very happy relationship.

Man: What made your relationship successful?

Woman: I had a good sense of humor, and he knew how to appreciate it.

Man: Why on earth did you break up then?

Woman: I had to relocate. Now tell me something about your last relationship.

Sure that is no way to date. Dating, we go to restaurants, movies, bowling alleys, and other fun places. The right person is the one who we enjoy the time with. Success of a past relationship seems irrelevant.

Take another example: audition of actors. In choosing the right actors, the foremost requisite is that they fit the roles. Audition ensures that by having the actors perform the intended roles. The best performance stands out clearly. In contrast, interrogating the actors about their past performances is useless. (Of course, past successes get them the audition. But the influence ends there.)

The interview is supposed to answer the question: is the candidate going to work well with us? So why beat about the bushes and half-guess the answer, when we can directly address that question by having the candidate work with us during the interview? Why not create a real working situation and have the candidate solve a problem with us? Why ask about past experiences when we can create a present one first hand?

McKinsey, the leading management consulting firm, interviews by case questions. The candidates are presented with real business situations and are required to collect relevant information from the interviewer and produce concrete recommendations to solve the problem at hand. The interviews are not different from a real work day of a consultant. Hardly can there be a better way to select future consultants.

It is time that we all follow the suit. Toss away the resume-based questions. The resumes tell what the candidates have done in the past, and get them in the door. Interviews are time to find out what they can do here and in the future. Forget the silly brain teasers. Being smart is nice, but are they willing and able to use that intelligence in real work? Just get up and walk to the whiteboard, sketch the problem, and say to the candidate:

“Here is a problem that we will be solving today. Any ideas?”

And let the candidate disappoint or delight us.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Us, Them

The world consists of two groups of people: us, and them.

On Tuesday morning I went to the Immigration and Naturalization Service Center in Flushing to get fingerprinted. The center is located on Rooselvelt Avenue, under the rails of the 7 train, inside a plain, grayish and old one-story building, adjoined by a 99-cent store on the right and a florist on the left. It has one glass door openning onto the street. Inside the glass door is a small foyer, where a large paper box contains a stack of application forms. Applicants are to fill out the form before admission, apparently to expedite the transactions.

My appointment was at 9 o'clock in the morning. I arrived twenty minutes early, and there was already a long line outside on the street. Every twenty minutes or so, a guard would open the front door and let in a group of people. I waited for a good hour and a half before moving close to the front of the line. As the guard let the next group in, I thought I was going in with them, but he gestured me to stop, without a word. The guard looked sulky, and used no words but only gestures to direct the visitors. I thought: either he did not speak English, or he assumed that all immigrants did not speak English, and either way there seemed to him no means of verbal communication.

Finally, the guard opened the door again, and gestured me to proceed into the office area. Behind a second glass door was a spacious lobby, furnished with a few dozens of chairs, with just handful of vistors inside. I was beckoned to the counter, where a Chinese woman, in Chinese, directed me to the back office to have my fingerprints taken.

Like all great things in life, the excitement is in the waiting. I waited for one hour and a half to be fingerprinted in less than five minutes. The Immigration Service certainly knows how to thrill the aspiring immigrants. My 9 o'clock appointment seemed to be for mere reference. Also, standing on the street probably heightened the sense of anticipation, an effect that would have been lost should the applicants have been allowed to wait sitting in the lobby. Sadly, I went on a sunny morning of early winter. Wait until the first snow storm hits New York, and that will give the immigrants a more awe-inspiring experience.

I could not help noticing that nearly all the workers in the Immigration Service Center, like in many other government agencies in New York, are immigrants themselves. Had they not gone through the same irrespectful treatment themselves? Why, sharing once our indignition, do they choose to repeat the same disrespect on us?

Because once they were us; but now they think of us as "them".

Fifteen years ago, when I was in high school in Chong Qing, every spring break, I would take the train to go to my parents' city. In those years, the transportation system in China was severely undercapacitied, and spring spelt disasterous congestion for home-goers. The train was completely packed. If all the passengers in the train had taken off their shoes and laid them side by side on the floor, there would not have been enough room. I stood for hours on the train, pressed from all sides by people who were in turn pressed from all sides. Yet more people tried to get on the train. The doors were closed. So people started to clamber through the windows. As the train approached the stations, passengers frantically closed the windows. A window left open would surely invite an attack from the platform.

Unfortunately one open window close to where I was standing was neglected. Before the train could come to a full stop, a desperate home-goer started to climb into the window. The passengers on the train fought back. Someone tried to pry the man's hands off the window, another pushed down the man's head. It looked like a struggle of life and death. Neither side was willing to give up. With incredible tenacity, the desperate home-goer managed to clamber into the car, despite extensive bruises inflicted by the passengers on the train. I expected a real fight to break out in the car.

What happened next, though, was utterly unbelievable. As soon as the man entered the car, instead of giving a good beating of the ones on the train who beat him so hard to keep him off the train, he turned outside and started to push the next window-climber off the train. The man, just a moment ago in alliance with the home-goers on the platform, had switched side.

Before the man got on the train, other men on the platform were "us"; once he was on the train, they became "them".

The pain, once it is no longer one's own, is simply gone.