Performance-based rewards considered harmful

One of this year's TED talks was seriously counterintuitive but extremely well-founded. Dan Pink's talk on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation illustrates the scientific conclusions that high financial incentives for success increase the length of time taken to solve a cognitive problem.

The research establishing this result is clearly referenced (“Large stakes and big mistakes” and “Incentives, Decision Frames, and Motivation Crowding Out — An Experimental Investigation”). The implications are huge: higher bonuses don't lead to higher performance when the problem is nontrivial (don't tell your local bean-counter). Pink's alternative motivators (autonomy, mastery and purpose) aren't as well-founded, but they have a certain intuitive appeal.


Dutiful plug: Google Code University

Google has collected and published a compendium of useful computer science courseware, and given it the slightly dramatic name of Google Code University. I normally avoid plugging my employer's various offerings, mainly because there's no way to be unbiased about it. But after the disappointment of Open Courseware, this actually looks useful.

(Not that Open Courseware doesn't deliver a lot, by the way. It just promises far, far more.)

code.google.com/edu seems to have substantial content for each title, and (with the possible exception of the occasional Powerpoint data file) the content looks pretty good. I'd have found that stuff useful during the summer before I started college. Even when you correct for the fact that most ef it hadn't been invented way back in 1990.


Socializing the Weather

I came back to Ireland from the US in 2000, and was immediately disappointed by the weather service. I don't mean the perpetual overcast (though I was also disappointed to see I hadn't imagined it after all). I mean the way Met Éireann tries to sell the forecast information it compiles, in spite of the fact that it is paid by the taxpayer to do its work — it is part of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

In the US, the forecasts are similarly funded but then they're made publicly available. They're on the NOAA website; they're broadcast regularly on dedicated radio channels, and (if you're a pilot planning a flight) you can even make a free call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF and get a customized in-person professional weather briefing. My favourite was the technical brief which gave fascinating insights into the levels of certainty of the forecast.

Now look at Ireland's Met Éireann. The most detailed forecast available from their website (a site which is useless without Javascript, by the way) is actually less detailed than the text on Aertel page 161. There's a phone service too, but it's a premium-rate telephone number, and I suspect it's a prerecorded message rather than an in-person briefing (and no, I won't pay to find out). For pilots, there are Self Briefing Units installed at major airports — no trained weather briefers for you, and you're SOL if you want a briefing when not at one of those places.

In the US, this would be a hideously-embarrassing way to run a government service. It indicates inadequate funding without implying cost controls, and it combines the inefficiency of the government budgetary process with the costs of collecting money from service users and of investing in measures to stop those users getting that service for free.

And it's all for nothing, because the information is quickly exported and aggregated with the free information available in the rest of the world. A search for [eidw taf] (even on the Bing engine) immediately shows links to places like all met sat which not only report the current Terminal Area Forecast, they decode it into English so you don't even need the TAF Decoder Ring.

Ha, ha, etc.


Aughts, Teens, Twenties, Thirties, ...

It really annoys me to hear people refer to this decade as “the noughties”. Even the BBC, who should know better.

I recall seeing recorded interviews with some right old codgers who talked about “the aughts” and “the teens”, meaning the first decades of the 20th century. These are good solid woody words. There's no reason to resort to inferior neologisms.

However, by the end of this year, I fully expect to sit nervously twitching as otherwise-sensible people look forward to the Teenies, or the Tenties, or the Naughtiers, or something equally saccharine and unforgiveable.

By the way, if you got here by searching for [naughty teens], then I'm sorry. As a sort of apology, please accept this link to a popular destination for [coprophagia video].