Tremors in Bank Land


Jason Baker | Flickr

Markets are putting Deutsche Bank through a safety drill. If we’re lucky, the rustle of investors fleeing Deutsche Bank late this week will prove to be a minor hiccup in the world of capital. If we’re unlucky, it will be the first domino to fall in another wave of financial disaster like the one we experienced in 2008. Deutsche Bank’s recent round of woes started with a $14 billion fine by the U.S. government for the bank’s sale of mortgage-backed securities during that last bank crisis, which sent investors for the doors (Fortune). Along with the recent scandal at Wells Fargo, which revealed that thousands of its employees had for years been opening fake accounts to meet sales incentives, Deutsche Bank’s problems remind us that, as a result of hard lessons learned a decade ago, our banking system’s safety protections got some upgrades, but they haven’t actually been tested yet. And if they’re not up to the next crisis, then we’re all going to be stuck paying the price — again.

When is a poll not a poll? When it’s an online survey in which anyone can vote and vote again. One of the foundations of data science took a beating in the political arena this week, as Donald Trump crowed over his wins in snap post-debate online “polls” even as the real polls started tilting in his opponent’s favor (CNN). Real polls, scientific ones, try to map the reality of public opinion through a process of weighted sampling. You might only ask 1000 people what they think; but if those thousand respondents match the national population in race and religion, party affiliation, income, and so on — or, if they don’t, you weight them a bit so they do — you’ve got a snapshot of something real. But if you just open the tap on the internet and ask anyone to vote, your results are nearly worthless. Trump’s wins are like Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf’s victory in People’s “Most Beautiful People” online poll; a self-selected sample is just a gauge of partisan excitement level. In a larger sense, this overvaluing of online polls reflects our deeper confusion over how to use all kinds of metrics. By turning yardsticks into targets, we break them (Quartz). Your poll becomes someone else’s campaign; your Key Performance Indicator stops telling you anything useful because everyone in your organization is trying to game it. Without context and understanding, raw data is worse than useless — it can be toxic.

How to respond to bad ideas like “Women should use their initials.” This week an ill-considered Wall Street Journal column by an investor named John Greathouse proposed that women win jobs in a tech industry that’s stacked against them by using only their initials and otherwise hiding their gender from employers. The piece fully earned the outrage-storm it provoked, and Greathouse has since apologized for it. In the meantime, it inspired some valuable advice from Anil Dash (Medium) for anyone wading into such waters. Before you offer some well-meaning advice to people who might be the victims of discrimination, ask yourself: “Is this suggestion something so obvious that every person in an underrepresented group would have thought of it in five minutes?” and “what happens if this tactic is effective?” (In the Greathouse case, women who took his advice would end up with jobs “at companies that they had to trick into giving them a fair opportunity.”) Then, Dash suggests, you can set out to hold the people who are responsible for the problem in the first place (i.e., not the victims) also responsible for its solution. Also see: Resilient Coders’ David Delmar (NewCo Shift) on bringing diversity to startups by moving way beyond “cultural fit.”

Something in the air. Here’s another factor to consider when analyzing how productive your team is from day to day: air quality (Harvard Business Review). Researchers studied workers at call centers in Shanghai and Nantong and found that productivity dropped by 5–6 percent on days when the government-reported daily air pollution index was high. As a possible mechanism that might explain this correlation, the study proposes that poor air might reduce cognitive function. It also suggests a simple ready: Good air filters in the workplace could make a difference, though they won’t be able to limit exposure during commutes or at-home time. How much work we get done isn’t always a matter of how well we manage our time or how motivated we are; we’re also at the mercy of the physical environment.

Dishonesty in packaging: the upside. VanMoof, which makes city bikes and sells them online, found that, too often, its sleek products landed on customers’ doorsteps looking beaten up and mistreated — “like they’d been through a metal-munching combine harvester.” The company came up with a novel trick for assuring gentler handling: They printed pictures of flat-screen TVs on their cartons (Medium). Voila! They got kid-glove treatment. Normally we’re against all forms of deception, but this one seems victimless, defensible, and kind of nifty. Why our deliverers take better care of giant TV screens than lovely bicycles is a question we’ll have to leave for another day.

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