An argument for being lazy at work

In a country famous for the hard-working attitude of its work base, the idea of life-work balance might be at odds with the ideal worker image that the older generation (a.k.a. the bosses) might have in mind. Putting long working hours is praise-worthy and often seen as a sign of commitment, irrespective of whether such long hours yielded any tangible results.  And is precisely this mentality that is at odds with life-work balance.  Under this mentality (much too common among old-school managers) workers have very little incentive to work efficiently, as doing the same amount of work will not necessarily result in a better marks. If anything, leaving on-time while getting the job done might make that employee look lazy. (Or even worse, it might result in him/her getting more work, with little extra recognition, since you are expected to stay late anyways).

This is  typical example of a prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, so I tried to define such a game. In this game I and my co-worker have two choices. “Work efficiently and go home early” or “Work inefficiently and stay late”. Of course there is a case where you are both working efficiently and staying late, and the issue of death from overwork, but that is subject of another post, for now lets keep things simple.

The payoffs (arbitrary as they may be) are as follows:

If we both work efficiently and go home early,  we are both well-off, get a good life-work balance and no one is marked as lazy , in such case, our happiness level goes to 15 (again, any number will do but let’s say 15 for now). However, if i work efficiently and go home early, and my co-worker decides to work inefficiently and stay in late, he will get recognized as a hard-working employee and I get marked as lazy. Because we as humans care about what others think of us (especially at work!) being marked as a lazy employee reduces my happiness level to -15. Even though i still get my life work balance, now I am worried about not getting promoted, or getting sidelined at work. In a similar manner, being recognized as a hard-working employee increases his happiness level to 20, even though he does not get a life work balance. The same goes for me if I decide to stay late when my co-worker goes home early. Either way, both of use have a strong incentive to  not work efficiently and stay late. However, since for both of us, our best strategy is to stay late, we end up not getting any life-work balance, and loose the benefit of being recognized as a hard-worker against my “lazy” co-worker, and thus we both end in sub-optimal conditions.


Even if individually we agree that there are merits to working efficiently and going home early, under the current system the right incentives are not in place to allow that to happen. As the government struggles to reduce the infamously long working hours in Japan, a move to recognize the “lazy” employees might be a step forward.

3.11, reconstruction & seawalls

Today is the 6th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. As such, I want to talk about an issue that is always in the back of my head, and comes to mind every time I am near a coast in Japan. And that is the seawalls.

More than 50% of Japan’s coasts have been modified in some form through the construction of seawalls and erosion control structures according to the Ministry of Environment. Now, these walls failed in an epic fashion in 3.11. testimony of the scale of the tsunami that ensued the magnitude 9 seism. Now, i’m not saying that engineers and planners should have seen it coming. The impact of this kind of high impact low frequency events is very hard to assess, and we all know that predictions are very hard, especially when about the future (You can attribute this claim to whoever you want, I’m gonna stick with Yogi Berra), what I am asking is whether rebuilding taller, longer, stronger is the right solution in the first place. Rebuilding taller, longer, stronger is perhaps ignoring the very lesson the tsunami taught us. Is like saying “we got it wrong last time, but we ain’t gonna fail next time!”. And the key issue here is exactly how effective these walls really are, and is this the best way to address this problem?

First of all, we have now way of telling whether or not these new seawalls will be effective when “the one” happens. Nonetheless because we don’t know which one will be “the one”. that is, we have now way of tsunami-proofing a town against all possible scenarios. There can always be one that overcomes our walls. And a first step to a more successful planning is to acknowledge this. Then we have other issues that are completely disregarded in current plans: ecosystem disruption, scenery and effective evacuation.

The construction of a seawall strongly disrupts beach ecosystems, but under Japanese law, seawall construction does not require an environmental impact assessment. And if ecosystems is not your thing, well, seawalls are just plain ugly, and they can really destroy the natural beauty of a coast almost instantly. And by this point you are probably thinking, “well if it means saving lives!”which brings me to the third point, does it really? In the aftermath of 3.11, one theory suggested that the very existence of the seawalls might have actually delayed evacuations as a result of a false sense of security. Granted, this theory is to the best of my knowledge yet to be validated, but we are working on that right now.

At any rate, it really begs the question, if seawalls negatively affect beach ecosystems, are unsightly, and we are not even sure they save lives, why are we building them to begin with? In earthquake prone Japan I certainly see the need for some sort of protection against less destructive yet more frequent tsunamis, but does it have to come at the cost of ecosystem & scenery disruption? When locals started complaining about the fact the with the new seawalls they would be unable to see the sea, the government responded with the idea of adding some acrylic “windows” to the walls, which sounds to me like a really, really bad joke. And do note that amidst the hollowing of local industry, and an increasing influx of foreign tourists to Japan, tourism might become a way to revitalize the Tohoku region, and for that you need to have resource that you can sell, and that ain’t concrete. Finally, there is the issue of safe evacuation. Prompt evacuation is the best way to save lives in the case of tsunami, and while a seawall of certain height might buy priceless time, relying on the assumption that the wall will hold is dangerous, as it might be the fact that if you cannot see the sea, it is even harder to assess the level of risk you are exposed to.

So is there a better way to deal with this problem. I certainly think there is. First, set the walls back enough so they disrupt the ecosystems as little as possible,and allow for tidal flats to recover. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of marine biologists ready to give their assessments and recommendations on this issue. Second, the wall should be high enough that they protect the city from more frequent type of tsunami, Now, what type of tsunami this is, I’ll leave it up to the experts, but it is not a once in a millennia type of tsunami. Furthermore, the wall should not be that high the it leads us to believe we are fully protected and that there is no need to evacuate, or that it makes you feel you are trapped inside a citadel. Again, prompt evacuation is the best way to save lives. This is important because, while anyone who lived through 3.11 might remember the devastation, future generations will not (as we did not remember documented damage by previous disasters). I’m thinking of a seawall that is probably lower than the existing ones in 2011, and way lower than the ones that are being built right now. Third, design the walls so that the blend with the context as much as possible. It sounds to me like a great subject for an urban landscape international design competition, specially given that some plans suggest converting low lands into parks and relocating people to higher ground.

I am not in any way suggesting that the reconstruction process is an easy one, certainly it is not. But it seems to me we could use some more creativity to address these problems in a more comprehensive manner, and come up with solutions that are more satisfactory to all parties involved.

Tenured university students?

Last weekend, the University of Tokyo held its entrance examinations, which for some “lucky” high school graduates means the end of the infamous (in Japan) exam hell. Now, the university system in Japan has the particularity that as opposed to most countries I know of, it is “hard to get in, but easy to get out” , which brings me to what I want to talk about today, incentives.

What I enjoyed the most about the freakonomics books, is their main thesis on how people respond to incentives to do what they do (or don’t). And the university system in Japan is perhaps a textbook example of such incentives. That is, given that university pedigree is such a good predictor of landing a full time job in a big corporation or the government, high school students, have very strong incentives to bust their assess to get into a prestigious university, usually paying big bucks for cram schools that teach them how to excel in these exams (and these schools mean business. One cram school was giving away the results of the exams outside campus barely 30 minutes after the University of Tokyo exams were done!) Now, I did not do my undergrad in Japan so I am not much of an expert, but my theory is that most kids do cram schools because everybody else is doing it, and if you have your incentives straight, you will do everything you can not to loose to all the people around you! Call it a global interaction if you will, but that is a subject for another post.

However, such incentives are all but non-existent once you are in the university, and many courses require but mere attendance and submission of a final report to get credits (Of course I am overly generalizing and there are many good teachers, and hardworking students out there, but if you doubt me, ask around). That out of the way, students are free to enjoy their university life in club activities, and then get serious with job-hunting. So this strikes me a very similar situation to the by now much maligned faculty tenure system, which Wikipedia defines as “an appointment that lasts until retirement age, except for dismissal with just cause”. Although there are many virtues to the tenure system, it is true that it provides a perverse incentive to work near burnout until you get tenure, and the relax and chill until retirement. Note again the over-generalization. A lot of good researchers do excellent work even after tenure, but it cannot be denied that the incentive is there. Which is the exact same incentive universities students have after getting in. So, I conducted a “small scale convenience sample” on this issue , a.k.a. I asked some professors around me, and most seem to agree that the “hard to get in, easy to get out” part doesn’t make much sense. So why doesn’t the situation change? I have some hypotheses:

  1. Political inertia. No need to elaborate,do I?
  2. Tenured* professors, who hold most of the power, have very little incentive to change the way things are. After all, they are already tenured.
  3. Compared to western universities, young faculty have much less responsibility over teaching than tenured ones (at least in public universities). This means that even if the younger (more motivated) generations were up for shaking things up, they have very little chance to do so. And by the time they have the chance,and if they’re lucky, they will probably have a permanent position , and well, see point 2.
  4.  And finally, and perhaps most critically, the Japanese job-hunting/work system. The fact that the vast majority of of companies give work offers way before students are ready to graduate, under the assumption that they will graduate on time, and that new recruits must almost always start working on the start of the new fiscal year (April 1), means that students must graduate in March no matter what. Now, Universities could start failing students that do not meet their standards, but such students will probably have their work offers rescinded, and who wants to hire a dude from a university where you have no idea if he will actually graduate? (Don’t mind that he was still a junior when you offered him work).

As such, all the incentives are in place to have exact same system we have today. Now, amidst decreasing number of students, many universities may be wary to take any bold measures to eliminate “student tenure” as to maintain recruitment numbers at profitable levels. So as Japan braces to compete with the rest of the world for global talent, and increase it’s own competitiveness as a nation, it is the task of high ranking (mostly national) universities to address the issue,as they are the ones most likely to gain from this, so forget faculty tenure, how about addressing student tenure first?


*Note that in Japan, the tenure system as in the western university system does not exist in most universities. But most faculty at the associate professor and professor levels have permanent employment, which is at this point equal to tenure. The situation is in fact changing and many new positions are contract based, which is a whole different can of worms that I might or might not discuss in other post.






Hello world! (Again)

So I have been wanting to do this for a while now, and given that this is actually my third attempt to blog, it is not a very promising endeavor. But I was reading Freakonomics’ latest installment “When to rob a bank: and 131 more warped suggestions and well-intended rants” on the train the other day, and it got me thinking.  I also have some well-intended rants in need of venting, so why not give it a shot. And so this happened.

If I am able to keep the discipline, I intend to post on planning, education, planning education, and maybe some research in a very, very casual way. Well, let see what happens. And if I really keep it going maybe posting some stuff in Japanese as well, albeit a very weird Japanese.