Speaking of research…

May 1, 2008

Speaking of research (see the last post), I have noticed lately that although I should not feel too busy or overburdened, I am finding that I have little time to do the things I feel that I need to do, so…

I am going to start tracking (writing down) everything that I do during the day and how much time it takes. Then I am going to take a look at what I am spending my time doing, prioritize, and adjust accordingly. There are already a few things that are obvious:

Work takes up the most time of each 24 hour period, with sleep coming in a close second. Beyond that, I have no idea where most of my time goes, but there are a few changes that I am going to make right now… For example, I am sure that I spend quite a bit of time camping in front of the TV, and I know that this is fairly low on my list of how I would like to spend my time… so for the next month, I am going to TRY not to watch TV… at all. I am not the kind of person that goes after these things in a “sort-of-kind-of” way (anyone who has witnessed my successful effort to give up soft drinks can attest), so I assume that I will: Not change my TV habits at all, OR: I am done with it completely. We’ll see how this goes.


What did you say you are researching?

May 1, 2008

***EDIT: After posting about silly research this morning, Mr. Dan Meyer, one of the authors of the “Sword Swallowing” study was kind enough to comment on the post (see “comments”). After reading over his response, I have to agree that any research that helps save lives is well worthwhile, and for that I sincerely commend him (although I must admit, any study titled “Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects” is good for a laugh). No offense intended, Mr. Meyer, and keep up the good work! … BTW, isn’t a sure-fire way to prevent sword swallowing related injuries simply to not swallow swords?

While browsing the news headlines today I came across a pretty funny one…

The headline read: “Alcohol linked to aggression”.

Really? What a surprise…

After reading the article (found here: http://health.msn.com/health-topics/addiction/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100202148&GT1=31033) I discovered that someone ( a group of people, actually) took a sample of 12 people, got them hammered, and scanned their brains to find the effects of alcohol. The research was time consuming and relatively expensive. What was the result, you ask?

The result showed exactly what anyone who has ever been drunk could tell you from experience… alcohol makes you think about sex and violence.

Why do I care, you ask?

As a grad student, I am always interested by the research that ends up getting published… It seems that some “academicians” like to research things just for the sake of researching things.

As a matter of fact, there is now an award dedicated to stupid research. Known as the Ig Nobel Prize, the award is given to academicians engaged in the most idiotic research in their area for the year. I recommend you visit http://www.improbable.com and take a look at some of the winners.

Last year, the winners included such time wasting research efforts as “Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects” in the area of Medicine, “Wrinkling of an Elastic Sheet Under Tension” in Physics (this was a study on why sheets wrinkle), and my personal favorite, “Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability in Language Discrimination by Rats” in the area of Linguistics, which showed that rats cannot tell the difference between someone speaking Japanese backwards and Dutch backwards.

So the next time you start to think that a friend in grad school or the PhD down the street might be really intelligent, ask them what they are researching… the results may surprise you.


Lost in Translation

April 9, 2008

I try not to post about school too much… but I can’t help myself today.

Yesterday I had an exam in Multi-National Corporate Finance… yep, a whole class dedicated to making money by doing silly, ethically debatable little tricks internationally with money (in Finance, we call this “arbitrage”).

In any case, it was probably the most difficult exam I have taken in my whole life. It was mostly concerned with hedging against transaction, translation, and economic risk using forward contracts, options, money market hedges, interest rate swaps, and currency swaps. A brief example:

You are a U.S. based company who sold a piece of equipment to a company based in the U.K. for 100,000 pounds. The company in the U.K. has to pay in 365 days… you face the risk of the British currency (the pound) depreciating before they pay (if the exchange rate is $2/pound, they currently owe you $200,000… if the pound depreciates to $1.75/pound, then they are only paying you $175,000, a loss of $25,000). Since this is a possibility, you can mitigate the risk by entering a forward contract that locks you in to a price of $2/pound, or you can use the money market to hedge the risk. For example, if the interest rate in the U.S. is 8%, and the interest rate in the UK is 5%, you could borrow 95,238 British pounds from a U.K. bank (with interest, in one year you will owe the UK bank 100,000 pounds), exchange it into dollars at $2/pound to get $190,476, and then invest the $190,476 in the US at the US interest rate of 8% to get $205,714. When the UK company pays you, you would use the 100,000 pounds to repay the British bank. As you can see, this is not difficult, but can be confusing.

As with the first exam of the semester, I feel that I did very well on the quantitative problems, but I have no idea how I did on the multiple choice stuff.

Anyway, to get back to the point of the post, as I was sitting there trying to keep everything straight and figure out some difficult quantitative problems, the fire alarm went off… we went outside and waited until they gave the “all clear”. After about 5 more minutes, the alarm went off again… we went back outside for about 5 minutes, then they gave the all clear. Upon getting started again, the alarm went off… again. This time we relocated to another building and took the exam in the noisy college cafeteria (it was dinner time).

So there you have it… I took the most difficult exam of my life in a college cafeteria… proof that when it rains, it pours.


The Bike Shop

April 4, 2008

I have never taken the time, nor had the inclination, to post anything about the job that I had prior to my current job. This, of course, does not mean that nothing occurred at the Bike Shop that was worth writing about, as those six years provided me with a lifetime worth of material. The following is a true account of a sequence of events that unfolded that would stupify even the most hardened individuals…

The day began normally enough… I was polishing a bicycle on the showroom floor while watching one of my co-workers empty the garbage containers outside the plaza. The plaza was home to the bike shop, a pizzeria, and a coffee shop, and since the owner of the bike shop owned the whole plaza and rented to the other stores, we were responsible for any garbage containers located outside of the doors of the stores.

On this particular day Jeff was handling the garbage duty. I noticed that as he emptied the garbage outside the coffee shop, he reached into one of the bags and pulled something out. After staring for a minute and trying to figure out what he was holding, I recognized the distinct shape of a can of Pringles chips (to this day, I still haven’t determined whether going through the garbage he was emptying was a regular practice for Jeff).

Jeff completed the job and came back into the bike shop, still carrying the can of Pringles.

“Dude, you aren’t gonna eat those, are you?” I asked as he walked toward me.

“No way, are you f**king nuts?” he replied. “Look inside here.” He removed the cap to the can, revealing a can about half full of chips, cigarette ashes, and what appeared to be some soggy, cappucino looking stuff. He blew into the can, sending the ashes flying into the room as he smiled and exclaimed “Follow me!”

I followed Jeff through the door on the showroom floor that leads back to our service department, getting a sense that Jeff was going to ask a mechanic if he wanted some Pringles… but to my surprise, Jeff walked into the service area, walked right past the mechanics, and set the can of Pringles down on Kurt’s bench (Kurt, a newer mechanic, hadn’t arrived for work yet). Jeff turned and walked back out the service department with me in tow.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Dude, I can’t give a can of half eaten, disgusting chips to a mechanic… if I offer them and they eat them and get some disease or something, they will try to hold me responsible…. nooo way. I ain’t that dumb.” he replied.

“Then what was the point?” I asked, still not understanding the situation.

“Just wait.” Jeff replied.

About two hours passed, and I walked into the service area to grab a bike to deliver to a customer, and the Jeff’s plan had begun to unfold before my eyes… Kurt was working on the bike, chewing a mouth full of Pringles.

“Kurt, where did you get those chips?” I asked, dismayed and disgusted at the same time.

“They were sitting here on my bench when I got here… are they yours? Sorry.” Kurt replied.

“No, they aren’t mine.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him… so I ran and told Jeff what was going on.

“YES!!!! IT WORKED!!! WHAT AN IDIOT!!!! AWESOME!!!” Jeff shouted, trying to hide his excitement well enough not to draw attention from the managers. He immediately headed to the service area.

“Kurt, where did you get those chips?” Jeff asked.

“Huh? Take that Jeff! Leave your food on my bench and it is fair game!” Kurt said, proud that he finally pulled a quick one on Jeff.

“Kurt, those are garbage chips!!!! Nasty!” Jeff exclaimed, laughing and shouting at the same time.Over the next couple hours, Jeff was sure to tell everyone in the store what had occurred, even successfully repeating the experiment on one of the managers. Everyone thought it was hilarious, except for Kurt.


Hey Billy, pass me a cold one!

April 4, 2008

Question: How old do you have to be before you can legally drive a car?

Answer: 16 years old in most states, although there is some variation.

Dangers involved: Numerous, probably too many to list. Driving is one of the most dangerous activities that most of us engage in on a regular basis. Severe injury and death are certainly possibilities.

Question: How old do you have to be to enlist in the U.S. military?

Answer: 17 years old (with parental consent), 18 years old otherwise.

Dangers involved: Quite a few, but not nearly as many as driving… If, by chance, you actually see combat you could be severely injured or die. Heck, I suppose you could even be injured or die outside of combat, considering the general nature of this line of work.

Question: How old do you have to be to purchase cigarettes?

Answer: 18 years old.

Dangers involved: Lung cancer, emphysema, burns, other types of cancer, death (long term).

Ok, so what is the point, you ask? While watching the idiot-box last night, I happened upon a show that followed the daily activities of police officers working in spring break hot-spots. I was surprised to see that their job basically consisted of going from one party to another looking for underage drinkers, and it got me to thinkin’…

I am not going to re-hash the cliche argument that goes along the lines of “if I am old enough to be drafted or take a bullet for the country, why the hell can’t I enjoy a beer?”…

But seriously, if someone is old enough to take a bullet for their country, why the hell can’t they enjoy a beer?

I am sure that some “Mother Against Drunk Driving” is going to read this and come back with a million reasons detailing the dangers of under-age alcohol consumption… but is it more dangerous than walking onto a battlefield? Better yet, is it more dangerous than driving a car or smoking? But again, the MADD person will probably say that smoking doesn’t put others at risk to the same extent as drinking…

You can get a CDL and drive a semi-truck in most states at the age of 18 (not in Ohio, my state of residence, unless you are going to drive ONLY in Ohio). Read that again: the guy driving the semi-truck next to your compact car may be 18 years old. Why is this ok? Because he has passed a course and been “licensed” by the state to do so (and more importantly, he has paid the price of a CDL to the BMV). This made me think…

One great way to fund alcohol rehabilitation programs would be by “licensing” people to drink at the age of 18… Basically, the 18 year old pays some cash, takes a few courses on the dangers of drinking and how to drink responsibly, and is then “licensed” to drink at 18 years of age. The proceeds from the licensing fees could then be used to pay for alcohol rehab programs, clinics, etc…

Would the government actually do this? Heck no! Why? Because it would make too much sense (and be costly… think of all the lost revenue in bail money for the 19 year old who just got caught getting blitzed following finals week).

Much as we are trying to “medicalize” everything into a medical condition, we are on the road to criminalizing everything as well…

Seriously, I would like someone to explain to me why a 19 year old can’t legally drink… Is it because they are too immature to make the right decisions (if so, should we really let them behind the wheel of a car, or arm them with a tank on a battlefield?)?


Lazy, lazy, lazy…

February 26, 2008

By now you have probably noticed that I hardly post anymore… I apologize. Here come the excuses:

1. My dog ate my keyboard.

2. I forgot I had a blog.

3. It is almost that time of the month (hey, if women can use this one, so can I, although I’m not sure what time of the month I would be referring to since I am a guy).

4. Barack Obama’s campaign is dependant on me not posting (hence why I am not posting).

5. Blogs have become very “trendy” and cliche… I am trendsetting by NOT maintaining a blog.

6. My coyote died (this probably only makes sense if you read “The Daily Coyote”).

7. Between writing research papers, case studies, and reading textbooks I simply have too much going on while taking six upper-level graduate classes to post as much as I would like to. < THE REAL REASON >

I hope to get back to the grind once things slow down a little. ‘Til then my posts will be sporadic, at best (kinda like intelligent thoughts from Hillary Clinton).


Series on Leadership Part 2 – Defining Characteristics

February 1, 2008

In Part 1, some questions were posed regarding what leadership is, what makes a good leader, and whether or not an individual can actually develop and improve their leadership skills (as opposed to a leader being ‘born’ rather than ‘made’).

In Part 2, I hope to move closer to defining leadership by taking a look at what characteristics and qualities make a good leader. Perhaps by listing and examining some of these qualities (which are often easy to observe), it will be easier to define the concept of leadership. As the Series on Leadership progresses, we will examine some of these traits in greater detail.

So what traits do excellent leaders usually possess? A fairly large amount of academic research work has been done on the subject, and most researchers agree on a few characteristics.

Daniel Goleman, author, researcher and co-chair of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligece in Organizations at Rutgers University, has identified five traits that are commonly noted in research papers on the subject of leadership. They include self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Broadly, I feel that a strong argument can be made that these traits are the basic necessities for good leaders.

This list, however, is very broad in definition and possibly lacks the clarity and detail necessary to truly define what constitutes each of these ideas. For example, what exactly constitutes empathy, and what qualities make someone who is ’empathetic’ different from someone who is not?

The list is also possibly lacking in other traits that may be crucial to the job of ‘leading’. ‘Trbpublising’ commented in yesterday’s post that critical thinking, along with the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, is an extremely important trait. I would tend to agree. Another is the ability to make quick, snap decisions – while it is important to be able to think things through in a logical, thought out sense, many front line leaders (especially in the military) would indicate that taking your time while making decisions is not always an option, so the ability to rapidly make good decisions is extremely important. The ability to motivate and inspire those around you is another trait that frequently makes the list.

It quickly becomes obvious that there is no real consensus on which traits are vital to good leadership and which are not. Now that we have a basic list of traits, over the next few weeks we will take a look at these traits in greater detail. Again, feel free to list traits, concepts, or ideas that you feel may add to our understanding of the topic.


The True Value of Diversity

January 28, 2008

What is diversity?

I am 25 years old, fairly young, probably still very naive, and I have lived my entire life in northern Ohio. Anyone from the area can tell you that Ohio is not exactly the capital of diversity in any sense, and if anyone tries to tell you that it is they are either very sheltered or they are fooling themselves. Having grown up in an area where everyone is essentially ‘like’ you, recognizing the value of diversity can be a very, very challenging task.

Upon starting my first ‘corporate’ job (working for a fortune 100 company) a couple of years ago, I was quickly put through a week-long ‘diversity training program’ that was supposed to be designed to help all employees recognize and appreciate the ‘value’ of a diverse workforce. After the first day of the training, I was pretty disappointed to find out that the ‘diversity training program’ was actually nothing more than a ‘try to tolerate your neighbors and don’t make fun of anyone at work’ training program.

I have to admit that prior to beginning my graduate degree last year I thought that I knew what diversity was and why it was important. While growing up, I had friends from other races and ethnic backgrounds… so I knew what diversity was, right? When I began my graduate program I saw that diversity is something entirely different…

Do we need to take another look at how we view diversity?

The standard method of teaching diversity in the U.S. has remained unchanged for quite some time, and I think that it may be time that we re-examine our methods.

In most elementary schools, children are first introduced to the concept of diversity by teaching them through various ‘holiday traditions exercises’… in other words, the first exposure to learning about the value of diversity that many American children receive is learning that diversity means ‘jewish kids celebrate Hanukkah’, or that ‘some african cultures celebrate Kwanzaa’, etc… as children continue into middle and high school, this approach changes to more of a ‘tolerance-based’ approach, essentially focusing on the idea that we all inhabit this earth together, and that we need to accept each other’s differences in order to get along… is this what diversity is? Does learning about diversity and cultural differences have no value other than tolerance? We seem to be telling our children (from a very young age) “Sure, we are all different, and it makes things tough… Get over it.”

More disturbingly, there is a strong movement in schools to eliminate these ‘holiday celebrations’ altogether. Although they are going about teaching diversity the wrong way, some mention of it is better than none. Numerous lawsuits have been brought forth in the past few years aimed at removing from classrooms any acknowledgment of the cultural differences that makes us all unique. Evidently, teaching children that their friends may celebrate other holidays because they belong to another religion is infringing upon their rights… Would they truly be better off by ignoring the fact that not everyone believes the same things they do? Evidently some socially conservative whack-jobs think so (and I must admit, I am fairly socially conservative when it comes to religion).

The Right Way to Teach Diversity

When I began my graduate studies, I was for the first time in my life surrounded by (and forced to work in close proximity with) people from numerous other cultures. In a matter of days, I went from having no concept of what diversity truly is to working face-to-face on a daily basis with people from India, Nepal, Croatia, Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, etc…

The experience of working with (and learning from) people from so many different cultures and backgrounds has been truly priceless. I have developed numerous technical and analytical skills and have had many experiences in my studies that will benefit me as my career progresses, but none of them compare to the insight I have gained from working and studying with the international students. It has become very apparent to me that the true value of understanding diversity is not the ability to be tolerant of those around you… the true value lies in the diversity itself and is a result of the various life experiences, outlooks, beliefs, and cultural differences that each member of society brings to the table. If we can learn to appreciate the value of each individual’s unique set of knowledge and beliefs, then tolerance will be a simple consequence of respecting and valuing the ideas and thoughts of others. Rather than teaching tolerance in our schools and workplaces, we should teach the concept that when we may not have the right answer to whatever problem we are facing, someone from a different background may have a unique and valuable perspective.


The Next Big Credit Crunch

January 25, 2008

Contrary to what the mass media would have you believe, Generation Y has more on its agenda than obsessing over Britney Spears, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, and Facebook. As a matter of fact, most members of Generation Y in the U.S. will attend college, and many will graduate. Many may even continue on to pursue degrees in medicine, law, or other advanced degrees. Along the way, they will develop their understanding of the world around them, make new friends, and possibly even have a good time while doing it. If they are like most other modern college students, they will also rack up a massive amount of debt.

The Expense

College has become somewhat of a necessity for the modern American youth. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when only the most wealthy, driven, or inquisitive people continued their education following high school, but now almost every child from the ‘middle class’ feels compelled to go to college or risk having no real chance at wealth and the ever foggier definition of ‘success’.

But what is the real value of a college education? Does it guarantee a lucrative job offer? Does it truly improve your earning potential over the duration of your career? If so, how much debt does it justify accruing?

Here are the facts:

The average bachelor’s degree recipient will graduate with between $19,000 and $40,000 in debt. The average graduate student will graduate with an additional $31,700 in debt beyond what they accrued during their undergraduate studies. Law and medical students will graduate with $91,700 in debt on average.

At a local State University, the current tuition rate for a full time undergrad student is $4200 a semester. Add to this the expense of a dorm room and meal plan, and you can add an additional $8000 per year. This totals $16400 per year over an average of 5 years for a total cost of $82000. Ouch. You better hope that the lucrative job offer comes through… but will it?

Law students are an excellent case in point. Many, if not most, will graduate with about $100,000 worth of student loans. Payed back over the course of 25 years at an interest rate of 8%, this amounts to a monthly payment of $771.82 a month… no problem for a newly minted lawyer, right?

Wrong.

The average starting salary for a first year law associate is roughly $46,000 a year. Take out taxes and a 401k contribution and a new lawyer is taking home about $2500 a month. If they plan on starting a family, this could be a real problem. For students who rack up this kind of debt and graduate with a degree in a field like education or the liberal arts, they are screwed.

The Next Credit Meltdown

This all sounds real scary, but most college students aren’t in this position, right?

Wrong again. Look at the facts.

This could be the foundation for an economic crisis larger than the housing crisis that we have been feeling the effects of lately. With so much debt, many of these students will have two options: pay off their student loans and live in an apartment until they are 50, or try to buy a house and start a family. If they go with the latter option, it seems obvious that either the house or the student loans will go into default, and you can bet that both the student loan provider and the bank who owns the mortgage will want their money. Will the government step in with another plan to help Generation Y save their homes? I imagine we will find out in another 10 to 15 years.

‘Ethics’ and ‘Student Loan Provider‘ – Two phrases that don’t belong in the same sentence.

Why hasn’t this issue already been addressed? Because both the schools and the student loan providers stand to benefit from taking advantage of the students.

In mid-2007, a huge scandal involving numerous student loan providers and school officials was exposed. The situation basically involved the student loan providers offering incentives to school financial aid officers for ‘selling’ their loans to students. JPMorgan Chase spent $74,000 wining and dining more than 200 school officials on a cruise ship. They also employed five college student loan officers at the bank while they were still employed at the university. At Columbia University in New York, the head of financial aid was suspended (yes, suspended, not fired) when it was discovered that he had earned $100,000 on stock in a loan company that he regularly recommended to students. The government took measures to ensure that this would be discouraged in the future and to prohibit student loan officers from accepting ‘gifts’ from banks for selling student loans, but the damage had already been done to the countless number of students who had already been sold into loans that they may not have understood or needed. Who are the schools really looking out for, anyway? Shouldn’t they be looking out for what is in the best interest of their students?

In any case, what is done is done. It seems that the legislation that was passed in 2007 was enough to ‘smooth things over’ and get everyone to turn their heads while the future generations of the U.S. are duped into an over-priced education by banks and corrupt university officials looking to make a quick buck. Our politicians will continue to argue about the merits of universal health care and ‘the war against terror’ while Generation Y digs itself into a hole of debt from which there is no escape. Eventually, the misfortune of America’s youth will be the misfortune of America’s economy. Our leaders had better take notice.


Disbelief

January 15, 2008

Let me begin by saying that this post is a very exciting post for me, and hopefully anyone who reads this may share in my excitement.

First some background:

Roughly one year ago I left a good but  very stressful job with a very reputable company to pursue a graduate degree. The job wasn’t exactly what I was looking for and I wasn’t completely satisfied. When I took the entrance examination for graduate school, I did extremely well and was offered a job as a graduate assistant at the university. The pay was considerably worse than the job I was working, but I took the offer because it included a full scholarship and would allow me to return to school full time. Since then, making ends meet has been a real struggle, but I have done well in school and have been optimistic about the situation.

 In November I began interviewing (it sounds like I got started with the interviewing process excessively early, but I wanted to be sure to have something lined up in time for graduation in May). I received a great job offer in December and was thrilled by how much they were willing to pay me and with where I would be relocating, and was convinced that I had found the right job. After researching the job for the past few weeks, however, I have become very discouraged with what I have been finding. I have also been interviewing with a very large company in the area I grew up in, and felt like the process was going extremely well, but I was fairly certain that the compensation package would be comparable to what my previous offer was.

 Today I received the call that I had been waiting for… the company in the local area wants to offer me the job. As the HR manager informed me of the details, he very casually (anti-climatically) stated the salary. At first, I was fairly sure that I did not hear him correctly, and I had to ask him to repeat himself. He stated the same number again, then chuckled.

 Naturally, I am completely thrilled.

 I should note that it is not just about the money. I have been really impressed with the quality of the individuals I have met over the course of the interview process. I also have been really excited about the fact that this opportunity will actually allow me to use my degree.

 I have until next week to accept the job, and of course I will want to talk it over with my girlfriend, but today is a great day.