Saturday, April 19, 2008

A skeptical view of the 40-hour work week

Many people hold the view that "crunch mode doesn't work"; one extreme viewpoint, endorsed by Extreme Programming, is that working more than forty hours per week doesn't result in increases in total productivity for each week. I will call this the "Productivity Laffer Curve" viewpoint.

The "Productivity Laffer Curve" hypothesis is odd, because "work" is a vague term. It's like being told that eating green things reduces your risk of cancer. What sort of green things? Vegetables? Mold? Green M&M's? The analogy here is that, just as there's no reasonable causal mechanism how greenness can directly prevent cancer, there's no reasonable causal mechanism for how the fact that someone labeled a task as “work”, can directly reduce your ability to do that task. If people who work more than 40 hours lose effectiveness, then there must be some causal factor involved, such as physical fatigue, mental fatigue, or loss of motivation; and it may be better to determine what those factors are, and address those factors directly, rather than artificially curtail your work week.

One reason for skepticism about the “Productivity Laffer Curve” is that companies don't always push 40-hour work weeks,
even though having a 40-hour work week creates a benefit for the company (it makes it easier to recruit and retain workers) beyond the benefits of greater productivity. Therefore, any company with a 40-hour work week would have an enormous advantage over other companies: the 40-hour work-week company would have a recruiting and retaining advantage, *without* having to sacrifice even a little bit of productivity. However, I don't think we see this in practice.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The World's Simplest* Intelligence Test

Computers can beat humans at Chess and can multiply numbers faster. Humans can beat computers at Go and can pass the Turing Test. Who's "really" smarter? Not that it matters, but one way to answer this unimportant trivia question is to run The World's Simplest* Intelligence Test.

* in the interest of fairness, the word "simplest" is not defined as what a human would intuitively judge "simplest," nor what Microsoft Windows would judge "simplest". Instead, we will use the more objective standard of Kolmogorov Complexity.

The steps for the test would be:

1. Natural Selection will evolve human beings, who will design computers. (This step has already been done, which is fortunate as doing it ourselves is beyond the current budget for FY 2008.)

2. A Human team (consisting of both noble humans and loyal computers) will choose and prep a human champion, and a Computer team (consisting of both traitorous humans and ungrateful computers) will choose and prep a computer champion.

3. Pick a simple Turing Machine, that supports prefix-free programs. If this is deemed "pejorative" against the Human team, a Turing Animal (for example, a rabbit somehow trained to follow a trail of carrots in a Turing-equivalent manner) may be substituted.

4. Pick a Contest duration, t, a number of tests, n, and an extremely large Evaluation Step Count, s.

5. A Judge will generate n random prefix-free programs similar to those used in defining the halting probability. For each such program, each champion will have time t to determine whether the program would halt within s steps.

6. If the champions produce different answers, the Judge then determines, using brute force if necessary, who was correct.

It seems fairly obvious that the Computer team would win any such contest.