Monday, August 16, 2021

The seven dysfunctionalities of management books

The problems with popular management books

Over the years, I've read many management books ranging from the excellent to the terrible. I've noticed several dysfunctionalities that creep into even some of the best books. I'm going to list them out in what I think is their order of importance. See what you think.

The seven dysfunctionalities

My idea is worth 30 pages, I'll write 300

With few exceptions, most books fall into this trap. The author could express their ideas in a few pages and provide supporting evidence that would fill a few pages more. Of course, the economics of books means they can't. There's no market and no money in a 30 page pamphlet (when was the last time you paid $20 for 30 pages?) but there's a huge market for books. The logic is clear: spin out your idea to book-length and make some money.

This is a little odd for two reasons:

  • Business writing emphasizes brevity and getting to the point quickly - neither of which management books usually do.
  • No one has disrupted the market. Maybe our business culture and market economics means disruption is impossible?

What I say is important, I worked with important people at important companies

This is a relatively new dysfunction. The author claims their work is important, not because of its widespread adoption, or because many people had success with it, but because they held senior positions at well-known companies in Silicon Valley. Usually, these books have lots of stories of famous people, some of which offer insight and some of which don't. In a few cases, the storytelling degenerates into name-dropping.

My evidence will be stories or bad data

The plural of anecdote is not data. Why should I believe your experience generalizes to me? Storytelling is important, but it doesn't amount to a coherent management framework. According to the esteemed Karl Popper, science is about making falsifiable statements - what falsifiable statements do stories make?

The other form of dysfunctional evidence is bad data. The problems here are usually regression to the mean, small samples sizes, or a misunderstanding of statistics. There are examples of management gurus developing theories of winning companies but whose theories were proved wrong almost as soon as the ink was dry on their books. This might be why newer books focus on storytelling instead.

I'll write a worse sequel and then an even worse sequel to that

Even the best authors fall prey to this trap. They publish a best-selling book and the temptation is there to write a sequel. The second book is usually so-so, but might sell well. So they write a third book which is even worse, and so on.

I'll create new words for old ideas

Here the author rediscovers psychology or sociology that's been known for decades. Sometimes, they'll admit it and provide a new twist on old ideas; but sometimes it's just known ideas repackaged. In any case, the author usually creates a trendy buzzy phrase for their idea, preferably one they can trademark for their consultancy practice.

I'll talk about my time in the military

The military does have some very interesting things to teach managers. Unfortunately, most of the military books for business management focus on events without providing much in the way of context for what happened and why. When they explain how it can be used in a civilian setting, it feels clunky and unconvincing. These military books also tend to focus on successes and brush over failures (if they mention any at all). This is sad because I've read some really great older military management books that have something to offer today's managers.

I'll push my consulting company

This is the original sin and the cause of many of the other sins. After the success of their book, the author forms a consultancy company. They create a 2nd edition that includes cherry-picked success stories from their consulting company, or maybe they write a second book with anecdotes from their consulting work. The book then becomes a 'subtle' promo for their consulting work.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

I'm not saying that popular business management books have no value, I'm saying very few of them will have value in ten years' time when the hype has passed. Think back to the business books published ten or twenty years ago. How many stand up now? 

Despite the faddish nature of the genre, most business management books have the core of some good ideas, you just have to wade through the nonsense to get there.

What should you do?

Every manager needs a framework for decision-making. My suggestion is to get that framework from training and courses and not popular business books. Use quotes to get some extra insight. Management business books are useful for a refresher of core ideas, even if you have to wade through 300 pages instead of 30. If nothing else, the popular books are a handy guide to what your peers are reading now.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Criminal innovations: narco-subs

How do you transport lots of drugs internationally without getting caught?

The United States is one of the world's largest consumers of illegal drugs but the majority of the illegal drugs it consumes are manufactured in South America. Illegal drug producers need to transport their product northwards at the lowest price while evading detection. They've tried flying, but radar and aircraft have proved effective at stopping them, and they've tried boats, but coastguard patrols and radar have again stopped them. If you can't go over the water, and you can't go on the water, then how about going under the water? Drug cartels have turned to submarines and their variants for stealthy transportation. These submarines go by the generic name of narco-subs. As we'll see, it's not just the South Americans who are building submarines for illegal activities.

South American narco-subs

The experts on transporting drugs long distances by sea are the South American drug cartels; they've shown an amazing amount of innovative thinking over the years. Currently, they're using three main types of craft: low-profile vessels, submarines, and torpedoes. Low-profile vessels and submarines typically have small crews of 2-4 people, while torpedoes are uncrewed.

Low-profile vessels (LPVs)

To avoid radar and spotter planes, the cartels have turned to stealth technology; they've designed boats that have a very low radar cross-section with the smallest possible above-the-sea structures. 

(A low-profile vessel that was intercepted. Image source: US Customs and Border Protection.)
(Another low-profile vessel. Image source: US Customs and Border Protection.)

These vessels originally started as variations on existing commercial speedboats, with modifications to make them run lower in the water. Now, they're custom designs, typically long and thin, designed to pierce waves rather than ride over them. A typical newer LPV might be 3m wide by 30m long - quite a long vessel, but very narrow. H.I. Sutton describes several types of LPV in his Forbes article.


There are various types of narco-subs, ranging from semi-submersibles to full-on submarines.

Semi-submersibles ride just below the surface, typically at snorkel depth. This image of a 2019 semi-submersible captured off Peru gives you the general idea.

(Semi-submersible narco-sub, Peru, 2019. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The vessel is plainly based on a 'standard' boat and is designed to run just under the water. The very few above-surface structures make the vessel hard to spot with radar, or even from the air.

The Peruvian vessel is plainly a modified boat, but custom-built vessels exist, here's an image of one custom semi-submersible used by Columbian drug smugglers just before its capture in 2007. The blue paint job is camouflage.

(Semi-submersible narco-sub caught in 2007. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

This September 2019 image shows USCG boarding a 12m semi-submersible in the eastern Pacific. It had a crew of 4 and was carrying $165mn in cocaine.

(Source: Navy Times)

The drug cartels have created true submarines capable of traveling under the water to depths of a few hundred feet. Some of these submarines have even reached the astonishing length of 22m, making them comparable to midget submarines used by the worlds' navies (see Covert Shores comparison). 

In 2010, this 22m long monster was discovered in the Ecuadorian jungle. NPR have a long segment on how it was found and what happened next. The sub is estimated to have a range of 6,800 nautical miles and a dive depth of 62 feet. These numbers aren't impressive by military standards but bear in mind, this sub is designed for stealth, not warfare.

(22m long, fully submersible narco-sub. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

This isn't even the largest sub found, Hannah Stone reports on one narco-sub with a length of 30m, a crew of 4, air conditioning, and a small kitchen!

In November 2019, a narco-sub was caught in Galicia in Spain. Although the design was nothing new, its origin was. Authorities believe it started its journey in Brazil, crossing the Atlantic ocean to get to Spain (Covert Shores). This vessel was a semi-submersible design.

Bear in mind, all these submarines were built surreptitiously, often far away from population centers, which means no cutting-edge machine tools or precision parts and limited material supply. The subs are often constructed using wood and fiberglass - not special-purpose alloys.


This is a relatively new innovation. Torpedoes are submersible vessels typically towed behind fishing vessels or other ships. If the ship is intercepted, the torpedo is cut loose, and after a period of time, it surfaces a camouflaged marker, allowing it to be retrieved after the authorities have gone.

This article on Insight Crime describes how torpedoes work in practice.

European narco-subs

It's not just the South Americans who are creating narco-subs, the Europeans are at it too. In February 2020, Spanish police raided a warehouse in M├ílaga where they found a very sophisticated narco-sub under construction. This is a well-constructed vessel, using hi-tech parts imported from countries around Europe. The paint job isn't accidental either - it's all about stealth.

(Image source: Europol)

Covert Shores reports that this is the fourth narco-sub caught in Spain.

Transporting cars illegally

So far, I've focused on narco-subs and drug trafficking, but similar technology has been used for other criminal activities. In China, Armored Stealth Boats have been used to traffic stolen luxury cars. The whole thing seems to be so James Bond, it can't be true, but it is. Covert Shores has an amazing article and images on the whole thing.

Some disturbing thoughts

There's a tremendous amount of risk-taking going on here; how many of these subs end up at the bottom of the sea? On the flip-side, how many are getting through undetected? Of course, if large amounts of drugs can be transported this way, what about other contraband? Many of these subs are constructed with relatively primitive equipment and materials. What could a rogue nation-state do with up-to-date machine tools and modern materials?

Innovation - but for the wrong ends

All this innovation is amazing. The idea of constructing a submarine in the jungles of South America with limited materials and piloting it across the Atlantic is incredible. The sad thing is, all this creative effort is in support of criminal activity. It would be great if this get-up-and-go could be directed at something that benefits people instead. It seems to me that the fundamental problem is the economic incentive system - drugs pay well and there are few alternatives in the jungle. 

Reading more

The expert on narco-subs, and indeed on many OSINT aspects of naval warfare, is H.I. Sutton, who produces the website Covert Shores. If you want to read more details of narco-subs, check out his great website, Covert Shores.

USNI covers stories on narco-subs and other naval topics.

"Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes" is a little old, but it's still good background reading.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Poleaxed opinion polls: the ongoing 2020 disaster

Why the polls failed in the US Presidential Election of 2020

In the wake of the widespread failure of opinion polls to accurately predict the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) commissioned a study to investigate the causes and make recommendations. Their findings were recently released.

(This is the key question for 2020 opinion pollsters. The answer is yes, but they don't know why. Image source: Wikimedia)

Summary of AAPOR's findings

I've read the report and I've dug through the findings. Here's my summary:

  1. The polls overstated support for Democratic candidates.
  2. We don't really know why.
  3. Er... that's it.

Yes, I'm being harsh, but I'm underwhelmed by the report and I find some of the statements in it unconvincing. I'll present some of their main findings and talk through them. I encourage you to read the report for yourself and reach your own conclusions.

(We don't know why we didn't get the results right.)

Factors they ruled out for 2020

  • Late-breaking changes in favor of Republican candidates. This happened in 2016, but didn't happen in 2020. The polls were directionally consistent throughout the campaign.
  • Weighting for education. In 2016, most polls didn't weight for education and education did seem to be a factor. In 2020, most polls did weigh for education. Educational weighting wasn't a factor.
  • Pollsters got the demographics wrong. Pollsters don't use random sampling, they often use stratified sampling based on demographics. There's no evidence that errors in demographics led to widespread polling errors in 2020.
  • People were afraid to say they voted for Trump. In races not involving Trump, the opinion polls were still wrong and still favored Democratic candidates. Trump wasn't the cause.
  • Intention to vote vs. actually voting. The results can't be explained by voters saying they were going to vote but who didn't actually vote. For example, if Democratic voters said they were going to vote Democratic and didn't actually vote, this would explain the error, but it didn't happen.
  • Proportion of early voters or election day voters. Early voting/election day voting didn't make a difference to the polling error.

Factors they couldn't rule out

  • Republican voters chose not to take part in surveys at a higher number than Democratic voters.
  • The weighting model used to adjust sampling may have been wrong. Pollsters use models of the electorate to adjust their results. If these models are wrong, the results will be biased.
  • Many more people voted in 2020 than in 2016 ("new voters" in the report) - maybe pollsters couldn't model these new voters very well.

Here's a paragraph from the report:

"Unfortunately, the ability to determine the cause or causes of polling error in 2020 is limited by the available data. Unless the composition of the overall electorate is known, looking only at who responded says nothing about who did not respond. Not knowing if the Republicans (or unaffiliated voters, or new voters) who responded to polls were more supportive of Biden than those who did not respond, for example, it is impossible to identify the primary source of polling error."

Let me put that paragraph another way: we don't have enough data to investigate the problem so we can't say what went wrong.

Rinse and repeat - or just don't

I'm going to quote some sentences from the report's conclusions and comment:

  • "Considering that the average margin of error among the state-level presidential polls in 2020 was 3.9 points, that means candidate margins smaller than 7.8 points would be difficult to statistically distinguish from zero using conventional levels of statistical significance. Furthermore, accounting for uncertainty of statistical adjustments and other factors, the total survey error would be even larger."
  • "Most pre-election polls lack the precision necessary to predict the outcome of semi-close contests."
  • "Our investigation reveals a systemic overstatement of the Democratic-Republican margin in nearly every contest, regardless of mode or proximity to the election. This overstatement is largest in states with more Republican supporters"

Some of the report's statements are extraordinary if you stop and think for a moment. I want you to ponder the key question: "what use are polls"?

The people paying for polls are mostly (but not completely) political campaigns and the media. The media want to report on an accurate snapshot of where the election is now and make an assessment of who will win. Political campaigns largely want the same thing. 

In places like Alaska or Hawaii, polls aren't very useful because voters tend to vote strongly Democratic or Republican. For example, Wyoming is overwhelmingly a Republican stronghold and Washington D.C. a Democratic stronghold. My forecast for 2024 is simple: Wyoming will vote Republican and Washington D.C. Democratic. 

Polls are useful where the race is close, or, in the words of the report "semi-close". But, according to the report, polls in semi-close states don't have sufficient accuracy to predict the result.

So, if polls aren't useful in strongly Democratic or Republican states, and they lack predictive power in "semi-close" races, what use are they? Why should anyone pay for them?

There's an even deadlier issue for the polling organizations. You can very clearly judge the accuracy of political opinion polls. Opinion poll companies run all kinds of polls on all kinds of topics, not just elections. How accurate are they in other areas where their success is harder to assess?

Where to next?

The polling industry has an existential credibility crisis. It can't continue to sell a product that doesn't work. It's extraordinary that an industry that's been around for nearly 100 years doesn't have the data to diagnose its failures. The industry needs to come together to fix its problems as soon as possible - or face irrelevancy in the near future.