Monthly Archives: January 2016

Friendly Triangles and Spectator Ions

There are many different ways that you learn things. You can learn things from school, from books, from videos, from sticking a fork in a light socket.

But we’re talking about the things you learn in passing, or by osmosis, as you’re growing up. Sometimes these are things learned so early on in your education, so basic, and built upon by thousands of other concepts. Sometimes they are the ways of speaking of your parents, their ways of thinking.

For me, this was Spectator Ions. Growing up, my dad would always talk about (aqueous) chemical reactions, for example, from Wikipedia:

2Na+(aq) + CO3 2−(aq) + Cu 2+(aq) + SO4 2−(aq) → 2Na+(aq) + SO4 2−(aq) + CuCO3 (s)

In this reaction, the carbonate anion is reacting/bonding with the copper cation. The two sodium cations and the sulfate anion have no part in this reaction. They are merely ‘spectators’.

So this is all reasonable, this makes sense. But I was trying to explain this to someone recently, and I realized that I didn’t know the phrase ‘spectator ions’, I just knew intuitively that sodium cations are basically never involved in reactions. The best way I can describe is knowing them as ‘small and bouncy’. (Perhaps ‘small, bouncy, and indivisible’, unlike N2(g), which is ‘small to medium-sized, bouncy, and divisible with significant effort.)

So, how do you explain something like this, when you approach it in such an intuitive way? I feel like it approaches or becomes an issue of privilege, like being the only person who can access the underpinnings of the system.

Sometimes, I feel the same way about ‘friendly triangles’. Probably the most famous of these is the ‘3,4,5’ triangle, which has been known (and presumably used in construction) since antiquity.

The other triangles commonly called ‘friendly’ are:
– 1,1,sqrt(2), or the ‘45,45,90’ triangle, used with unit vectors everywhere, also interestingly the right-angle triangle which has the largest percentage of its perimeter in its hypotenseuse.
– 1,2,sqrt(3), or the ‘30,60,90’ triangle, used most often probably with equilateral triangles and subsections thereof

Once these concepts are automatic, you start to see them everywhere. If you want a better explanation of ‘friendly triangles’, try here:

But back to our original question, which was all about how you deal with having a very intuitive sense of something, which underpins your world view in a subtle but fundamental way that is difficult to describe. I don’t know. All I can do is to try to notice when it happens, and try to learn how to best describe it, which is really all you can do to try to communicate something unconscious to you and which may be outside the other person’s experience. I think a later post will talk about some of my other interactions with math of this type, and how I learned to describe while showing and sharing.

Better Conference Calls

So, I was talking with A earlier this week about meetings, and she mentioned the issues that many people have with conference calls.

But what are those issues? I can only talk about issues that I’ve had with conference calls.

For those who are not familiar, we’ll start with audio conference calls.

A humorous video by Tripp & Tyler may help illustrate.

To me, these problems can be broken down into the following categories:

Human factors:
– Absence of body language
– Outside distractions

Technical factors:
– Lag
– Other audio artifacts of VOIP
– Technical issues with audio conferencing software

We’ll start with the Technical factors.


Lag feels like it’s only gotten more prevalent with greater use of mobile phones and VOIP. Of the two components of lag (encoding/decoding time and routing/travel time), you can probably improve routing/travel time the most by spending more money on better dedicated VOIP connections. You may also get some mileage from having your conferences during off-peak hours and being on a wired (rather than wireless) connection. The anti-jitter algorithms described in this ‘how VOIP works’ article inherently have a tradeoff* between jitter/dropout and lag. If you make things easier for them, they should be able to improve both for you.

Other audio artifacts of VOIP:

These other audio artifacts are also products of the packet data nature of VOIP. ‘Toilet bowl audio’ is caused by VOIP losing packets and the sound being recreated artificially by the algorithms. (Before they figured this out, you would hear pops or crackles or even more annoying sounds, like in early mp3 encodings.) Sound cutting out is the result of too many consecutive packets being lost.

Feedback is an interesting one. I’ll use the iPhone as an example. When you have the speaker on a device very close to the microphone, you’re liable to get feedback. The device gets around this by analyzing the sounds coming in through the microphone, and ‘subtracting’ them from the output stream. The echoes you may hear sometimes is what happens when this fails. These algorithms were required to make satellite communications viable.

(A better history of echo cancellation is here, for those who are interested: ECHO_history_of_echo_cancellation )

Other audio artifacts of VOIP have similar origins and solutions.

Technical issues with audio conferencing software:

This one still puzzles me. Like microwaves, they seem to be all different, and none of them intuitive. I can’t tell if this is because the industry has not converged on a solution, or the problem is actually that unsolveable. My current favourite is Google hangouts, but that could be because I generally use them for one-on-one conversations. Perhaps this problem is because of the always problematic nature of security, when controlling access of people to be able to phone into a conversation. But even when there is no conference call security, there are still always issues, with people trying to call into the conference, calling the wrong way. I feel like the solution is to have an intuitive interface, where you can see all the calls coming in to your phone and then drag them together to make a conference.

We could even make a game of this. We could call it ’21st century switchboard operator**’.

Now, on to human factors.

Absence of body language:

This is a tough one. Interestingly, humans figured out a method for showing body language in text at most 11 years after the first email*** was sent, while 140 years after the invention of long-range audio communication****, we still do not have an effective method of conveying body language over audio transmissions. I would say that video conferencing will supplant all audio within our lifetime, but there is still space communication, satellite communication, dark rooms, non-working cameras, etc… Perhaps some sort of interstitial click language would work.

In the meantime, the best solution is to have people meet each other, in person if possible, over video or at least a one-on-one audio before they engage in a conference together.

The other elephant in the room is people who are normally bad at in-person body language cues for when it is time for them to finish talking. In person, this can be difficult, even with a strong moderator. In an audio conference, this can be well nigh impossible. A moderator with the ability to selectively mute participants might work. The social hierarchies in many organizations may not permit this, but improving the flexibility of those hierarchies and teaching people to *listen* is one of the key components of Agile.

Outside Distractions:

This one feels like a tossup between having a strong moderator and having an engaged workforce. Sometimes life does indeed intrude into work, but if this is occurring on a regular basis, perhaps it’s an indication that the meeting is at the wrong time, or too long, too low a priority, or the participants are not as engaged as they could be, for whatever reason. Addressing those issues is probably the best next step here.

So, that was a lot of words. Apparently I have a lot of thoughts about this. If you want more, comment below!

Some other useful links:

An explanation of packet loss and discards.

*Because you’re sending voice data in packets, these packets have to be reassembled at the other end. Because the packets are going over the internet, they can be delayed. A delayed packet either has to be left out or waited for. This causes jitter and lag, respectively. If you have a better connection, the algorithms can make better decisions for you.

**This just makes me appreciate the people who did this job even more, and I always thought it was difficult.

***The article also goes in depth about the specific strengths of email, and how it may be a more natural method of communication for humans than some other types…

****I did not know before reading this article that Alexander Graham Bell was “Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University [and] engaged in training teachers in the art of instructing deaf mutes how to speak”

Multidimensional Word and Sentence Rotation

I was talking to G during a life coaching session, and the topic of ‘Opposites’ came up. Specifically, the use of ‘Opposites’ to swap out parts of a sentence to gain more understanding of the sentence, the topic, or perhaps something else.

There are a number of different ways one can swap out parts of a sentence. I’ll go in approximately the order I use them, but the fun ones are at the bottom. 😀

We will use a famous* sentence to illustrate:

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.”

First, we can start by swapping parts of the sentence:
– Spoonerisms swap the first characters or syllables of words, such as ‘linc and zead’ for ‘zinc and lead’, or ‘The quick frown box jumped over the dazy logs’, which is nonsensical, but highly creative, especially if you drew it.
– One can swap words, swapping the subject and object: (‘The quick brown dogs jumped over the lazy fox.’), or descriptive words with nouns: (‘The quick brown dogs jumped over the foxy laze.’) This second one could be nonsensical, but could also refer to lasers, which could trigger other thoughts or creativity in the listener.
– We can completely swap the object half of the sentence: (‘The lazy dogs jumped over the quick brown fox’)
– We can move words around and change their parts of speech: (‘The brown fox quickly jumped over the lazy dogs’), in this case changing the meaning from descriptive/innate (quick fox) to intent (fox quickly).

There are more ways to do this, but they are generally more complex combinations of the above.

Second, we can remove parts of the sentence:
– ‘The brown fox.’
– ‘The fox jumped over the dog.’
– ‘The quickly.’

Third, we can change the cultural referent of the sentence or parts of the sentence:
– ‘The swift vulpine soared over the meddlesome cur.’
– If I knew enough Japanese, I could give examples of different levels of formality here.

Fourthly, we can do what I can only describe as ‘Word Rotation’, where you chose a word in the sentence, and rotate about one of the axes that the word is on, similar to a gimbal or leather punch.
– You can rotate animal species, such as ‘the quick brown bear jumped over the lazy cat’
– You can rotate action words
– You can rotate tightly or loosely:
– Tight: Dog, cat, mouse, hamster
– Loose: Dog, horse, panda, bear**
– Absurd: Dog, mushroom, amphioxus, pool table
– You can rotate senses*** (my favourite, although ‘propriocept’ is not a very good verb.)
– You can take a sub-word and rotate it. This one is clbuttic.
– You can rotate more than once (although this is only very subtly different from rotating once more loosely).
– You can exchange words or word parts for the ‘more formal’ version: ‘Mark my words!’ becomes ‘Marcus my words!’
– Rotation also works with antonyms.

Basically, any way you could #hashtag a word in a sentence, and then replace that word with a different word that also qualified for that #hashtag.

Join us next time, when we explore the mysteries of %tags, and try to figure out whether a single open bracket or closed bracket is more annoying. As always, let me know what you think in the comments below!

*This sentence was commonly used to test typewriters, as it uses each of the letters in the alphabet and is reasonably short and easy to remember.

**Banda, pear.

***Space Quest IV had an icon which alternately allowed you to look, touch, or taste objects. It’s possible this is where my analogy of rotation comes from.

Predictive Punning

I tell many, many, many bad puns, as anyone who has hung out with me knows. What many may not know is how much preparation and mental remapping has gone into this process.

The two key factors in the success of a pun are Timing and Obscurity*.

By Timing, I mean that the pun has to be said close enough to the sentence it is riffing on so that the short term memory of the listeners is willing to go back and look and compare, to find the humour/reference. If you wait too long, you risk your listener timing out** and ignoring you, as they have already forgotten the specifics of the original sentence. Too soon, and the listener has not finished understanding the meaning of the original sentence, and the pun sentence will pass them by.

By Obscurity, I mean that puns which are too obscure will cause the listener to think about the pun for a brief while, then time out and move on. Puns which are too obvious will cause a groan as the pun wave collapses, and the listener will move on. Only a pun somewhere between these, where the listener is subtly forced to engage their brain will get the reaction you desire***.

Complicating matters is that Obscurity is defined differently for each listener****, as each listener will have different amounts of knowledge in each area. So, you’re constantly juggling what you know of the knowledge levels of each of your listeners, and trying to find puns that will fit inside enough of the Timing and Obscurity windows of your audience.

What can help is Sentence Prediction. Just like Amazon can tell that you will need toothpaste before you do, you can predict what words someone will say in a sentence before they know themselves. Once a person has started a sentence and is about halfway through, it is remarkably simple to predict how they will finish the sentence*****. More importantly, it is easy/possible to predict the exact words****** they will use, as you will need the exact words they will use in order to generate your pun.

So, you’re listening to someone speak. Partway through their sentence, you fill in their sentence with what they’re going to say. You then spend the next couple/few seconds planning your pun, you wait until they’re done speaking, and then you strike! Mental chaos ensues! Coyote is happy.

Want to hear more about this? Let me know in the comments below!

*I use ‘Obscurity’ instead of ‘Difficulty’ here because a specific pun will have different ‘Obscurity’ levels for each listener, depending on the specific shape of their knowledge/experiences.

**I’m using ‘Timing Out’ in the sense of the computer term ‘Timeout‘, where after a certain defined period of time, the computer will simply go and do something else. If you want a great example, watch two cats interact. You will see one or both of them timing out on a regular basis.

***If they start hitting you, you’re probably doing this right. Or wrong. It’s all the same. Dada is the anti dada.

****Timing is probably different for each listener as well, but I haven’t studied that in as much depth.

*****I’m sure someone has studied this, but I can’t find a link.

******Incidentally, I quite enjoy the feeling of ‘cache miss‘/’branch misprediction‘ that I get when someone uses a word I don’t expect. It jumbles my neural net and makes me think.

What is the Difference Between a Duck?: Mu Jokes and Mental Push Hands

UPDATE: While I was writing this, this blog passed 1000 page views since I started counting on Dec 29th! You people are awesome!


Yesterday, I briefly touched on the concept of ‘the space between meaning’.

One way to demonstrate this concept is with a Mu-joke (not really an anti-joke*):

Q: What is the difference between a duck**?

A: One of its legs are both the same!

The goal here is to say some words which sound not too much like nonsense, such that the listener really tries to understand.

Like a good pun, you want to draw the listener in by making things the correct level of ‘difficult to understand’. Too easy, the listener groans and moves on. Too difficult, the listener times out and moves on. (Note that this changes with each individual audience member. If ever there was an argument for (education) streaming, this is it. 😀 )

By analogy, you want your Mu-joke to make the listener feel like they would understand it if they ‘just tried a little harder’.

Also, a good Mu-joke will play with language and parts of speech, the goal being to make the listener more aware of the structure and inner meaning of what they are saying and what is being said around them. Normally, the word ‘between’ refers to two things, but we are using it to refer to one object, a duck. This gives the listener a mental ‘cache miss‘ or ‘branch misprediction‘ error, and it can throw them off balance as they try to reassemble their mental model of the conversation.

This trick can be used in a ‘Mental Push Hands***’ competition. I have fond memories of doing this with MC as we reshelved books at the library in high school. I suspect many of the best debaters use variants of this, and the best politicians have well-developed defenses against these kinds of tactics.

But back to ‘the space between meaning’. It is the space in your head where you are comfortable with ‘between’ referring to any number of things, where you are comfortable with ‘both’ referring to one thing.

It is a space I enjoy, and I hope you can help put me there. 😀

*Anti-jokes are not quite what I mean. They seem to be defined online as jokes with a standard leadup and an opposite-ish punchline. Many of the punchlines seem to take a ‘standard’ punching-down joke and subvert it. Funny, interesting, useful, but not what I’m taking about.

**I first saw this joke in one of those ‘choose-your-own-adventure-rpg’ books: Probably my favourite series in the genre.

***I learned ‘Push Hands’ as a martial arts balance exercise. You plant your feet and touch palms with your opponent. The object is to make your opponent move one of their feet without moving yours. For me, it was all about being as flexible as possible while trying to find my opponent’s inflexibilities.


Warning: 25-year-old TNG spoilers below! Imbibe at your own risk! If you wanted to see Dr. Crusher at her finest, read further!

It’s always interesting how certain things lodge themselves in your brain, to be retrieved only at certain personally defined times…

There’s a scene from ‘A Matter of Perspective*’ where Riker says “Riker to Enterprise, I’m ready to leave. Now.” I often replay these words to myself when it is clearly (in my head) time for me to leave. 8 words from a TV show I saw once 25 years ago, and yet it has stayed with me and the memory has perhaps only gotten stronger with time.

This brings us to the title of the post, ‘Three’. This is from a different TNG episode: ‘Cause and Effect****’, where the Enterprise is caught in a time loop, and Data** sends himself a message so that they can break free. This message is ‘Three’, which represents the number of pips on Riker’s collar that Data glances at just before the Enterprise is destroyed. Data surmises that he was trying to tell himself that Riker was correct and he was not***, and vents the shuttle bay doors, saving the ship. Earlier, he and Geordie had described the effect as a ‘post-hypnotic suggestion’. Interestingly, this may have been more powerful than they realized. Often, when I am asked a question, I will randomly answer with ‘Three’. Sometimes I do this because I enjoy putting people into ‘Mu*****’ space, but sometimes it’s probably just because of my memories or subconscious effects from this episode.

Incidentally, this was probably my most favourite episode for Beverly Crusher. I feel like she was the only one who could play the part she played, bringing together the early detection of Deja Vu, with the scientific and analytical mind to analyze what was going on and to gather the data that no one else would think to do. Data may have sent and received the message, but Beverly told him and Geordie that something was going on, and gathered and analyzed data to prove it. If you like this character (or want to), watch this episode.

Also incidentally, it felt almost like the scenario may have been designed by Q (or some being like him), as there are just enough clues for the crew to figure it out, without that legendary crew, they would have been trapped for 90 years, just like the Bozeman, but also because it hints at helping humans understand space and time just a little bit better, like Q was talking about in ‘All Good Things…’

*A really interesting look at perception and consent, as well as other things.

**And Geordie. They have an excellent bromance, from before such a thing was named.

***Riker wanted to decompress the main shuttle bay to move the Enterprise away from the collision, Data wanted to use the tractor beam to push the other ship away. Why they didn’t simply use both from the start, or have established emergency procedures for moving the ship when engines and thrusters are down is anyone’s guess.

****Incidentally, one has to google ‘data three tng’ to retrieve this episode. ‘data three’ is a data center, and ‘tng three’ is the third season of TNG. Interesting to think how Google and its pseudo-venn-diagram method of searching has changed the way we think******.

*****I like to refer to this as ‘the space between meaning’, similar to the effect of asking the question ‘What is the difference between a duck?’. (This will be the subject of a later post.)

******I used this when I was playing a party game many years ago. (I thought it was Cranium, but it looks like it was more likely Taboo.) I would get a word like ‘Superman’, then name two words which, if you googled for them, would return ‘Superman’.

Focusing Meetings

What kinds of meetings do you actually need in an organization? I don’t really know the answer to this. What I do know are the meetings that work for me on an ongoing basis. I would call my process ‘Scrum-like’, in that I think it takes the best features of Scrum, but I’m sure I’m not doing it exactly by-the-book.

1) Daily 5-minute standups. When I say ‘5 minutes’, I mean 5 minutes. I have said much more on this here: They keep people up to date, and should spawn whatever conversations you need to keep things flowing

2) Bi-weekly* planning and retrospective meetings. You may be able to get this down to 1 hour every two weeks for both if your team is well defined and has been working together for a while. You may need an hour each plus one hour for backlog grooming every two weeks. Again, depending on how defined the work is that your team is doing, YMMV.

3) One-on-one weekly meetings with each of your direct reports. Long term, probably the most important of any of these. This is where you find what is actually happening, how your people are actually feeling. ‘Managing Humans’ by Michael Lopp has multiple chapters on this. Fundamentally, you want to establish trust with your reports. This includes listening, asking them about what they want (both now and in the future), followed by more listening, then following up to actually get them what they want and need as much as you can.

4) Broadcast meetings. I’m talking about town halls, other meetings where you want to get news out to a lot of people quickly. Best to keep these reasonably short, and choose your most interesting public speakers. If you have a CEO that can hold a room and answer questions, this is a great opportunity for them to shine. Many of these meetings can be avoided by a fanout leading to 30s announcements by leads in your daily standups (or email).

5) This last category is more fuzzy. It includes all those meetings outside your regular schedule. These are generally a mix of long term planning meetings (vision/strategy/etc…), short term planning meetings (figuring out what we’re doing with this project so we can make it into bite-sized tickets), and unblocking meetings (this project is behind, these people disagree, this thing you want us to do is physically impossible, etc…).

It is this fuzziness that that can be the death of a meeting. The first four types have pretty defined schedules and agendas**. This last type is pretty free form. Here are some things we’ve found that help:

A) Make sure the meeting is ‘Ready’

In Agile, there is the concept of a ticket being ‘Ready’, where before someone starts work on something, that something has to reach a certain level of definition. Generally, this would include things like ‘Acceptance Critera’ (how you know it’s done), and a ‘Why’, ‘What’, and some idea of ‘How’ you are going to do it***.

For our meetings, we had a pretty simple of ‘Ready’:
– Someone is in charge of running the meeting
– The meeting has a stated purpose
– The meeting has an agenda

B) Make sure the person**** in charge of running the meeting can run a meeting

This generally means:
– They are familiar and can follow the purpose and agenda described above
– They can tell when a conversation is going off topic or over time
– They can bring the conversation back

This last point can be as simple as ‘in the interest of time’. Having a written agenda on a whiteboard or flipchart can help a lot with this. If you include time allotments, this will give your meeting runner something to point to to get people back on track.

C) Have plans for action items

– Assign action items

Often, this is the role of the meeting runner (chairperson, really), but could be some other person in the room with the gravitas/authority to persuade/compel people to do the required/decided on things.

– Track action items and follow up if necessary

You want the follow up assignments to be in a place where everyone in the meeting can track their progress (whatever ticketing system you have is ideal, or perhaps whatever wiki system your organization uses).

– Avoid a further meeting on this topic

Depending on your particular participants, someone may need to be assigned to follow up, or it could be ‘homework’ for the next meeting. Ideally, you want to make these meetings as infrequent as possible, so subsuming the action items into your regular ticketing and tracking system is ideal and obviates the need for a specific follow-up meeting.

And that’s it! If you follow these simple steps, your meetings should be much more focused and productive!

Let me know what you think in the comments (as well as if you want me to delve deeper into parts of this).

*I say bi-weekly because we do two week sprints. YMMV.

**If you want me to talk more about agendas for planning meetings, retros, one-on-ones, and broadcast meetings, I can do so, but this is out of scope.

***The exact contents of this definition of ‘Ready’ are generally defined on a team-by-team basis.

****There are a bunch of specific skills here which are out of scope. Comment if you want more on this.

Waving Shipfish

The waves existed, as they always had. Well, as they assumed they did. There was not much memory in waves. Every so often, they would etch some comments onto shore rocks, or read comments from before. These comments were all-too-transitory for the waves, as they would inevitably erode them away all too soon. There were also the old stories kept alive by the deep waves, those of the time before waves, when the waves were rocks and rocks were waves. The old stories also told of times when sky water was different liquids, but those times were long gone.

But something different was happening now. Normally, the waves would be fed by sky water, nurtured by winds, but there were organics coming from above? Organics had not come from above since the sky water was different, and never in sizes larger than droplets. The waves were not concerned, as waves never are. But the waves felt the pain of the shore beasts diving under the waves for protection. At the same time, the underwater beasts seemed almost giddy, swarming to the surface and feeding voraciously everytime the strange organics fell. The fliers would wink in and out, sometimes feeding, sometimes with fire, sometimes evading the sky organics.

Time passed. The waves existed. The organics stopped falling from above. They started again. They stopped. They started again. The waves were no longer visited by large shore beasts. The underwater beasts multiplied and proliferated. The fliers kept flying. The cycle continued. The waves existed. Time passed.

Something changed again. Large beasts from the sky! Some of metal! The waves had new friends! Large water beasts who talked to each other and played with the waves. The land beasts also played with the waves and traveled among the waves in mobile artificial land. As much as waves could feel joy, they felt joy.

The cycle progressed. The sky organics returned. The waves saw less of the beasts. There was less time for play. There was much fire above the waves, much pain from the land beasts. There were different chemicals at play. Runoff from the land beasts now included residue of strong dissolver. The Southern waves stopped seeing the land beasts. They heard word from the Northern waves that land beasts had appeared there and seemed to hide under rock, some artificial, some carved by waves. The waves were happy that their eons old carving work had served some purpose. The waves existed.

The waves existed. Time passed. The large water beasts played with the waves. The larger water beasts went deep under the waves and sang to them. The waves existed. The waves were happy. The waves existed.

The Luxury of ‘Picking Your Battles’

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.”
– Sun Tzu

Choosing which battles you fight and do not fight has been a cornerstone of strategy probably for as long has strategy has existed. One can look at the history of military strategy* as a sequence of wrestling** matches writ large, with each of the opponents trying to force the other to fight on their terms.

More recently, the strategy of ‘Picking your battles’ has been applied to many other, more mundane confrontations. When someone accosts you on the street, when the phone company charges you two dollars extra, when that person bumps into you in the supermarket.

And this makes sense. You don’t want to go through your life fighting or arguing with everyone all the time.

But what if you don’t have a choice?

What if every time you walk downtown near your office by yourself, people make sexual comments about you? What if you’re never selected for a job interview because of your name? What if every time you express yourself online, you receive death threats?

Yes, you could avoid doing all those things, or you could do them and simply endure, but is that really picking your battles? You’re having wars of attrition waged against you every day.

Huge parts of the modern reading of ‘pick your battles’ implies that you can win some, or some substantial portion of them.

If you can’t win most, or even any of them, can you really be said to be ‘picking your battles’?

Having battles that you can win is a privilege. Choosing which battles to fight is a privilege. Even choosing which battles to choose from is a privilege.

A privilege that not everyone has.

*This is assuming they knew what they were doing…History is rife with examples of belligerent parties who did not know what they were doing***.

**Perhaps more ‘push hands’ than wrestling…

***Of course, this is often difficult to know with certainty, as the victors generally write the history books…

It takes privilege to be able to do this…

Resisting Regulatory Capture

Most people, if you asked them, would agree that corruption is a bad thing, and should be reduced or avoided. Most of them will not have heard about Regulatory Capture, though.

‘Regulatory Capture’ is the process by which an industry ‘captures’ the governmental bodies which are assigned to regulate that industry. It is generally thought to happen because of two factors:
– The people who are assigned to perform the regulatory tasks spend most of their time talking to people in the industry they’re regulating
– There are huge financial incentives for the industry to persuade the regulators to change the rules in their favour

These rule changes can take many forms. They can be laws, regulations, even constitutional changes.

The rule changes can diminish penalties, replace jail time with company-paid fines, make it more difficult for new competitors to disrupt oligopolies or monopolies, lessen oversight or protections against fraud, and many other forms.

The bribery or coercion of regulators can also take many forms. Most countries have rules in place which make it difficult to perform the obvious ‘money in brown paper bags’, but there are many other ways to induce regulators to rule* in your favour:
– Many industries have laws about the amount of time between when you can work in an industry and when you can regulate it (and vice versa), but this does not seem to have stopped anyone
– Many industry consortia write the regulations** which regulate them, so the regulator (who may feel overworked and underpaid) doesn’t have to spend the time to do so.
– Most people have family or other tribal associations of some sort. A spouse’s job has been suggested to influence even supreme court justices
– The politicians who are in charge of the regulators are often persuaded by campaign contributions
– Various illegal inducements such as drugs or ‘favours’
– Threats, extortion, etc. may also come into play

So, how do we solve this? The closest we seem to have come to this is an interlocking set of checks and balances, including freedom of speech, lobbying laws, freedom of information acts, and the occasional incorruptible investigator.

We haven’t solved this yet, and it might not be solvable, given the power dynamics. Next time, we’ll talk about some current and possible solutions.


**There is a lot to be said for including industry as major stakeholders when regulations are written, as for the same goal, there may be very different ways to implement them, which would have vastly different costs.