ALS Topic 45 - What is smart & what is crazy? Part 2: Organizations

Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, ALS 45
Saturday, October 12, 2019 11 am to 1:30 PM (end time flexible)

Venue: The Rose - 31 East Terrace, Adelaide SA 5000 (Upstairs. Please buy a drink or something))

About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.

Focus Questions

1. Smart or crazy? What do voters actually choose in an election when most voters have no knowledge of issues and no genuine knowledge of most candidates?

2. One American study found that voters actually influence 4.5% of the laws passed by Congress. A 4.5% democracy. Smart or crazy? Why does this happen and what can be done about it? Is Australia any better?

3. News in democracies is mostly about a) disasters and people behaving badly, (we are biologically attuned to danger and scandal); b) escapism = sport, pop stars, media etc; c) lifestyle = health, cooking, fashion etc. News in companies and dictatorships is mostly propaganda to a) glorify the elites; b) sooth any concerns by reporting the best of all possible worlds; c) ignoring or denying disasters and people behaving badly. What is smart and what is crazy in these contrasting approaches? What is your idea of news?

4. If you are paid to dig a hole and fill it up again, this counts as "economic activity" (part of GDP) in a country. If you write a useful computer program and give it away for free, this doesn't count as "economic activity". A large part of what keeps Australia functioning and a decent place to live in is voluntary activity, but most of that doesn't count as economic activity either. Smart or crazy? How can we measure what is usefully happening in a country, versus what is uselessly paid for?

5. Most countries now have large amounts of written law. However the ways in which those laws are enforced, and the purpose in enforcing them are extremely different in different countries. Is it smart or crazy to have laws which encourage police corruption? [Examples?]. Is it smart or crazy to have judges who must follow orders from the government of the day? [Examples?]; Is it smart or crazy to apply the law in ways which favour the powerful over the weak? [Examples?]

6. My own research in 7 countries found that student productivity in educational institutions got the lowest priority when it conflicted with management preferences (= most of the time). Smart or crazy? What can be done about this? [Everyone has their own agenda, and personal agendas usually trump organizational agendas - meaning individuals have their own idea of productivity. Outcomes favour powerful individuals.]

7. Welfare laws in Australia, and the way they are applied, are extremely hostile to the unemployed and pensioners trying to start any kind of business. Initiative and business risk taking are, in practice, punished. Centrelink (the department managing welfare payments) is a failed organization internally, apparently for political ideological reasons. Is this mess smart or crazy? What can be done about it?

8. Any organization, public or private, depends on a certain stability where people can follow routines, build relationships and plan their daily lives. Usually organizations don't work perfectly, but once they have some stability, those in them will resist real change. Over time the changing real world makes many organizations no longer fit for purpose. When is it smart to change, and when is it crazy? How can change be managed?

9. The reason given for not hiring individuals into organizations is often that they 'will not be a cultural fit'? Is this reason smart or crazy? When is it justified, and when is it a cover for weakness within the organization itself? [Examples?]

10. Your pick for the most failed role in organizations? [Thor, comment: my own nomination goes to HR. e.g. From any pool of available job applicants, what's the evidence overall that HR practice across an industry leads to superior candidate choices? Nix. Workplaces still wind up with the same mix of slobs. And once you're in, is HR your friend? Hell no, they work for the boss]. So, smart or crazy - what's the best way to pick employees and nourish their welfare?

Extra Reading

"Thinking of moving overseas for work? Research says you'll struggle to return Australian Broadcasting Commission" (ABC) @

[Thor, comment: It's crazy, it's stupid, but not only people from other countries have trouble finding work in Australia. Australians who work overseas find it harder to get work after they return to Australia. Most Australian employers are very parochial (ignorant about other people and places). They don't respect other languages as a skill, and they don't respect overseas work experience - even though Australia lives or dies as a trading nation. Most politicians and the general population are similar to employers in this matter. Such narrow thinking is very bad for Australia]

Joey Watson and Ann Arnold (29 September 2019) "The convicts who shaped Australian democracy as we know it" ABC @

Kirsty Needham (29 September 2019) "A spectacular view of modern China from the nation's beating red heart" Brisbane Times @

[Thor, comment: As described here, the CCP strategically practiced popular democracy for a short period before the civil war, which the CCP won in 1949 and came to power. As Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's president and wannabe dictator, once remarked: "Democracy is like a tram. You take it to your destination, then get off".]

Kirsty Needham (29 September 2019) "Hong Kong police crack down on Umbrella anniversary" Brisbane Times @

[Quote: "An estimated 200,000 people had gathered at harbourfront Tamar Park at 7pm to listen to the Umbrella founders, including Joshua Wong. Wong was a school boy in 2014 but inspired students to sit in Harcourt Road for 79 days and demand universal suffrage... The protest movement that roared back to life this year has now surpassed the Umbrella Revolution in longevity - protests enter the 17th week on Sunday. The support from the community is also wider ... Mr Ko, 68, had brought his yellow umbrella, handpainted with the words 'I want universal suffrage', out for the first time in five years."

Cassandra Goldie (28 August 2019) "Robodebt is an abuse of power. It should never have seen the light of day". The Guardian @

Luke Henriques-Gomes (22 September 2019) "A horrible weight on my shoulders': the fury fuelling the robodebt class action". The Guardian @

University of Oxford (October 31, 2018) "AI systems shed light on root cause of religious conflict: Humanity is not naturally violent". Science Daily @

Ark Harris (15 November 2019) "Inside the first Church of Artificial Intelligence". Wired @

Roxane de la Sablonnière, Laura French Bourgeoisa, Mariam Najih (2013) "Dramatic Social Change: A Social Psychological Perspective" Journal of Political & Social Psychology, Vol. 1, No.1 2013 @  [academic article]

Nathan Heller (June 7, 2018) "The Bullshit-Job Boom -
For more and more people, work appears to serve no purpose. Is there any good left in the grind?". The New Yorker @

[Thor, comment: Recommended. Reflect, ye cockroaches, on the futility of your life in the cracks between the floor boards]

Albert-László Barabási (December 11, 2018) "What can we learn from people who succeed later in life?" Ideas.TED @

Seth Godin (31 January 2017) "Let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills’. They might be skills, but they’re not soft. Are you good at your job? Different, easier question: Was Ty Cobb good at baseball?" Blog @

Martin Parker (27 April 2018) "Why we should bulldoze the business school - There are 13,000 business schools on Earth. That’s 13,000 too many. And I should know – I’ve taught in them for 20 years". The Guardian @ (n.d.) " Manifesto" @  [Quote: " Our old Command and Control operating model was well-suited for complicated and predictable challenges. Some of these challenges still exist today and may respond to the industrial-era practices that we know so well. However, as the pace of change accelerates, the challenges we face are becoming less and less predictable. Those practices that were so successful in the past are counter-productive in less predictable environments."]

Cal Newport (3 October, 2018) "On the Law of Diminishing Specialization". Cal Newport blog @

[Quote: ".. a major culprit was the rise of “productivity-enhancing” computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff. The positive impact of this change was that companies needed less support staff. The negative impact was that it reduced the ability of managers and professionals to spend concentrated time working on the things they did best..."]

Amy Gallo (March 17, 2016) "How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You" Harvard Business Review, reprinted @

Darius Foroux (May 29, 2018) "Price’s Law: Why Only A Few People Generate Half Of The Results". Blog @

Thor May (2010) "Language Tangle : Predicting and Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education".[Through examining a series of twenty case studies from seven countries, this thesis deals with issues of knowledge worker productivity in organizations]. PhD dissertation, University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. @

Jewel Topsfield (24 January 2017) "Modern-day slavery: Indonesia cracks down on brutal conditions on foreign fishing boats". Brisbane Times @

Fiona Smith (16 February 2017) "Victoria to spend $5m in Australia's first social enterprise strategy - New social procurement plan will encourage government contracts to support social enterprises, as sector expands to more than 20,000 businesses" The Guardian @

Tim Dunlop (8 September 2017) "'Something big has to change': could Australia afford a universal basic income?" The Guardian @

The New Daily (4 October 2019) "Mental illness is now a $60 billion problem for our economy" @ 

[Quote from 'comments': " The chronic stress of trying to please everyone all of the time, often with inferior products to sell, leads to chronic anxiety and depression, exacerbated by the accompanying financial insecurity which is also part of the casual workforce. After the best part of 50 years working in mental health services it is no mystery to me what is driving the increased anxiety, depression and suicides. The hypocrisy of governments professing concern is mind boggling!"]

Thor May: A wry comment by Thor on Question 1, about democracy (yes, you can disagree with me ^_^, but justify your disagreement) -

a) Huge numbers of people are selfish, greedy, lazy, shallow, fickle, wilfully ignorant, attracted to mob thinking, and happy to believe whatever lies and conspiracy theories unscrupulous politicians dangle in front of them.

b) We give this mob a vote and they choose stupidly. What is the alternative? The alternative is authoritarian government, dictatorship, with power always corrupting those who have it, and no means to correct their abuses.

c) Democracy is a messy gamble that occasionally we may be able to bring the bad guys under a bit of control.

Wikipedia (2019) "Hedonic Adaptation" @

[Quote: “The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.”]

- Comment, Thor - Hedonic adaptation probably also applies to living with particular organizations and governments.

Ken O’Shea and Letecia Luty (10 October 2019) "'The system is truly Orwellian': our horrifying experiences with robodebt - A lot of people don’t know their rights or have the capacity to defend themselves when given an incorrect debt". The Guardian @

[Thor, reference: Centrelink's terminal failure as a welfare agency and the government's reversal of onus of proof onto the victims of Centrelink's own errors. The systemic breakdown seems deliberate and driven by political ideology. Something similar has happened in the Immigration Department. ]

Christopher Knaus (Wed 9 Jan 2019) "Witness K case: prosecutors dump brief of evidence on last working day of legal year - Commonwealth prosecutors accused of acting unfairly after delivering brief after 6pm on 21 December - Bernard Collaery, a solicitor, and his former spy client, Witness K, are being prosecuted for their role in exposing a secret Australian government mission to spy on Timor-Leste". The Guardian @

[Thor, background: there is a dispute over an oil field lying between Timor Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, and Austalia. The Australian federal government unfairly spied on the Timor Leste team during negotiations ]

Nassim Khadem (20 August 2019) "Paying more than $10,000 in cash could make you a criminal under proposed law". ABC News @$10,000-or-more-in-cash-could-make-you-a-criminal/11429230

Amanda Meade (1 March 2019) "Courts should not handle trivial defamation cases, attorney general says - “There is an astonishing amount of defamation action going on at the lowest level of our courts – neighbours against neighbours, things said by one person to three other Twitter users,". The Guardian @

Larry Elliott (17 December 2019) "Heretics welcome! Economics needs a new Reformation". The Guardian @

[Quote: "economics needs its own Reformation just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago. Like the medieval church, orthodox economics thinks it has all the answers. Complex mathematics is used to mystify economics, just as congregations in Luther’s time were deliberately left in the dark by services conducted in Latin. Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats anybody who challenges the creed of self-righting markets and rational consumers as dangerous heretics."]

John Rapley (11 July 2017) "How economics became a religion - Its moral code promises salvation, its high priests uphold their orthodoxy. But perhaps too many of its doctrines are taken on faith." The Guardian @

Alex Pareene (22 February 2018) "Billionaires gone wild - The American media landscape, like the rest of the country, is being reshaped by the whims of the ultra-rich". Columbia Journalism Review @

Annie Hastwell (June 1, 2017) "No news is not good news ". The City Standard @

[Quote: "Fake news is causing global anxiety, but the devastation of the traditional media has resulted in another less obvious, but equally insidious phenomenon: No news. While there’s more “content” available than ever before, there’s also fewer journalists and less capacity to report on the things that matter. And here in SA, that means we never get to hear the stories that need to be told".]

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


What is smart & what is crazy? Part 2: Organizations (c) Thor May 2019 return to Ddiscussion