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PHOTON COURIER
 
Tuesday, June 29, 2004  
DEMOCRATS AND MICHAEL MOORE

The Washington Post reports that DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe attended a premiere of Michael Moore's new movie...a special showing for leading Democrats. Tom Harkin was there, too, along with many others.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this, but somehow, I am. Surprised and disappointed.

Here are some things that Michael Moore is quoted as having said about his own countrymen:

"They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet . . . in thrall to conniving, thieving smug [pieces of the human anatomy]," Moore intoned (in an interview with the British newspaper The Mirror). "We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don't know about anything that's happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing."

"That's why we're smiling all the time," he told a rapturous throng in Munich. "You can see us coming down the street. You know, `Hey! Hi! How's it going?' We've got that big [expletive] grin on our face all the time because our brains aren't loaded down."

"You're stuck with being connected to this country of mine, which is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe." (to a crowd in Cambridge, England)

And about those who are killing Americans and Iraqis on a daily basis in Iraq:

"The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not `insurgents' or `terrorists' or `The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win."

(All the above quotes are from this column by David Brooks in The New York Times.)

What are the leaders of the Democratic Party thinking? Why would they want to be associated with a man who says things like this? Do they think that beliefs like those expressed above are now so strong in America that associating themselves with them will be a winning strategy?

"In years past, American liberals have had to settle for intellectual and moral leadership from the likes of John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr," Brooks writes. But now they have Michael Moore... "And the liberal grandees Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorenson, Tom Harkin and Barbara Boxer flock to his openings. In Washington, a Senate vote was delayed because so many Democrats wanted to see his movie."


7:05 AM

Monday, June 28, 2004  
IRAQI SOVEREIGNTY

Paul Bremer had this to say (in a short letter): We welcome Iraq's steps to take its rightful place with sovereignty and honor among the free nations of the world. Sincerely, L. Paul Bremer, ex-administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

And The Mesopotamian passes along a comment from an Iraqi man-in-the-street, interviewed by a reporter for an Arab network. Asked what he thinks of the new government, he answers very simply in that spontaneous genuine manner of simple folk: “aren’t these men better than the riffraff who used to govern us?”

Mesopotamian himself has this to say: All I can say is that almost everybody here has hope, great hope. Personally I am confident of the future because “That which has benefit for people will stay in the earth”...Hail our true friends, the Great People of the United States of America; The Freedom giving Republic, the nation of Liberators.

He understands that there will still be problems ahead: And the enemy is desperate, he is striking left and right, beheading, slaughtering, murdering; blind with the rage of the wounded dying beast. And we have seen them, Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, our “Brothers”, running amok in our streets, murdering our men, women and children, and for what? What are they trying to achieve? And the whole lot of lying hypocrites, shedding crocodile tears about the “Iraqi People”, it is they who should get out and shut up. That is the invasion and occupation that we want to be rid of.

But We Shall Overcome; have no doubt about that. This, more than anything else, I know with every fiber of my being. And praise be to Allah, and thank you America.


Mohammed, writing at IraqTheModel, has many observations, including this:

A big greeting to the courageous and noble man; Mr. Bremer whom we saluted this morning. He proved that he’s the right man for the tough times. He struggled together with his Iraqi brothers to overcome the hardships in a critical era for this country and the whole world. I’m going to miss his presence and so are many other Iraqis because we feel that who left today is one of Iraq’s sons.

A big greeting to the men who decided to bear the responsibility of Iraq’s safety and Iraq’s future.
They needed courage and faith to decide to work for Iraq in this hard time. May God help them guide this country with wisdom until the day when elections come.

It’s hard to appreciate the efforts of all those who helped us to get our freedom and rebuild our country. We will never forget them. We will keep them in our hearts.
God bless Iraq and her people.
God bless America and her people.

God bless all the coalition forces who supported operation Iraqi freedom.
May God bless the souls of all those who sacrificed their lives to free Iraq.


2:13 PM

Sunday, June 27, 2004  
MANAGEMENT MENTALITIES

About 20 years ago, Peter Drucker wrote a wonderful pseudo-autobiography, "Adventures of a Bystander." It tells his own story only indirectly, via profiles of people he has known. These range from from his grandmother and his 4th-grade teacher in Austria to Henry Luce (Time-Life) and Alfred Sloan (GM).

In the chapter titled "Ernest Freedberg's World," Drucker writes about two old-line merchants. The first of these, called "Uncle Henry" by those who knew him, was the founder and owner of a large and succesful department store. When Drucker met him, he was already in his eighties. Uncle Henry was a businessman who did things by intuition more than by formal analysis, and his own son Irving, a Harvard B-School graduate, was appalled at "the unsystematic and unscientific way the store was being run."

Drucker remembers his conversations with Uncle Henry. "He would tell stories constantly, always to do with a late consignment of ladies' hats, or a shipment of mismatched umbrellas, or the notions counter. His stories would drive me up the wall. But gradually I learned to listen, at least with one ear. For surprisingly enough he always leaped to a generalization from the farrago of anecdotes and stocking sizes and color promotions in lieu of markdowns for mismatched umbrellas."

Reflecting many years later, Drucker observes: "There are lots of people with grasshopper minds who can only go from one specific to another--from stockings to buttons, for instance, or from one experiment to another--and never get to the generalization and the concept. They are to be found among scientists as often as among merchants. But I have learned that the mind of the good merchant, as also of the good artist or good scientist, works the way Uncle Henry's mind worked. It starts out with the most specific, the most concrete, and then reaches for the generalization."

Drucker also knew another leading merchant, Charles Kellstadt (who had once run Sears.) Kellstadt and Drucker served together on a Department of Defense advisory board (on procurement policy), and Kellstadt told "the same kind of stories Uncle Henry had told." Drucker says that his fellow board members "suffered greatly from his interminable and apparently pointless anecdotes."

On one occasion, a "whiz kid" (this was during the McNamara era) was presenting a proposal for a radically new approach to defense pricing policy. Kellstadt "began to tell a story of the bargain basement in the store in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he had held his first managerial job, and of some problem there with the cup sizes of women's bras. he would stop every few sentences and ask the bewildered Assistant Secretary a quesion about bras, then go on. Finally, the Assistant Secretary said, "You don't understand Mr. Kellstadt; I'm talking about concepts." "So am I," said Charlie, quite indignant, and went on. Ten minutes later all of us on the board realized that he had demolished the entire proposal by showing us that it was far too complex, made far too many assumptions, and contains far too many ifs, buts, and whens." After the meeting, another board member (dean of a major engineering school) said admiringly, "Charlie, that was a virtuoso performance. but why did you have to drag in the cup sizes of the bras in your bargain basement forty years ago?" Drucker reports that Charlie was surprised by the question: "How else can I see a problem in my mind's eye?"

From these two encounters, Drucker draws this conclusion:

"Fifty years or more ago the Uncle Henry's and the Charlie Kellsadts dominated; then it was necessary for Son Irvin to emphasize systems, principles, and abstractions. There was need to balance the overly perceptual with a little conceptual discipline. I still remember the sense of liberation during those years in London when I stumbled onto the then new Symblolical Logic (which I later taught a few times), with its safeguards against tautologies and false analogies, against generalizing from isolated events, that is, from anecdotes, and its tools of semantic rigor. But now we again need the Uncle Henrys and Chralie Kellstadts. We have gone much too far toward dependence on untested quantification, toward symmetrical and purely formal models, toward argument from postulates rather than from experience, and toward moving from abstraction to abstraction without once touching the solid ground of concreteness. We are in danger of forgetting what Plato taught at the ery beginning of systematic analysis and thought in the West, in two of the most beautiful and moving of his Dialogoues, the Phaedrus and the Krito...They teach us that experience without the test of logic is not "rhetoric" but chitchat, and that logic without the test of experience is not "logic" but absurdity. Now we need to learn again what Charlie Kellstadt meant when he said, "How else can I see a problem in my mind's eye?""

(emphasis added)


9:11 AM

Friday, June 25, 2004  
MORE MISSING NEWS

The Washington Post has an article on an Iraqi woman who has been driven by economic necessity to become a prostitute. It contains this sentence:

In a public ceremony in 2000, Hussein had 200 women beheaded after accusing them of prostitution.

Somehow, I don't remember the media outcry over this atrocity. Does anyone else remember such an outcry?

A perfunctory Google search on this topic turned up mainly entries from little-known human rights organizations; no sign at all of serious coverage by the major media. I did find a mention of the executions in this 2003 article from ABC News, where they are mentioned in connection with "Saddam's Fedayeen." An Iraqi activist living in California is quoted as follows:

"Many of the women were professionals, some of them wore hijab (Islamic veil) and had been outspoken against the regime or their families were opposed to the regime. It was terrible. It's the worst way to shame a woman in Iraqi society."

These executions are said to have taken place in a public ceremony. Surely there were members of the media who were aware of them...yet the decision was evidently made not to play this as a major story.

Let the record so state.

UPDATE: See also Journalism's Nuremberg. Could there be a connection?


1:07 PM

Wednesday, June 23, 2004  
EDUCATION AND PROPAGANDA

It is generally believed that education helps people to develop balanced judgment about public affairs, and specifically that it makes them more resistant to irrational propaganda. This belief is one of the reasons why Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually on education.

In a thoughtful essay, Paul Cella challenges this belief. He suggests that education--not education inherently, but education as currently practiced--may tend to make people more vulnerable to propaganda.

...imagination, or the cultivation of the rightly-ordered intellect, not skepticism, is the only effective treatment against propaganda. Modern education teaches an ersatz method of treatment, by encouraging students to distrust, not merely the chaff of propaganda, but everything of the wheat, including the grain that is truth. The intellect is not cultivated, it is deprecated; discernment is not encouraged, nor wisdom, nor discrimination. Indiscriminate scornfulness is instead favored.

Cella argues that conservatives, as well as liberals and leftists, share in the responsibility for this situation, and calls for a return to something like Newman's idea of the liberal education. Read the whole thing.


7:07 PM

Monday, June 21, 2004  
THE U.N. VS THE JEWS

Anne Bayefsky, who is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, laid it on the line in her address to a U.N. conference today:

The U.N. has become the leading global purveyor of anti-Semitism...

Read her entire address here.

NewsMax also has an article on anti-Semitism at the U.N. It quotes a former East European ambassador as saying that as a "Jew working at the U.N." he was uncomfortable with the anti-Semitism he found permeating the organization. "It makes no difference if you are from Israel or not, the United Nations is no friend of the Jews," he once confided.


8:12 PM

Sunday, June 20, 2004  
RURAL TECH IN INDIA

Business Week (6/28) has an interesting article on the deployment of digital technologies in rural India. ATM-like kiosks are being made available to villagers, so that they can easily get copies of the land-ownership records.

Why is this a big deal? you may ask. Previously, the deeds were controlled by "powerful village accountants." They typically charged large fees to the poor farmers who needed copies of their deeds--and a farmer might need such copies 2 or 3 times a year when asking for loans (to buy fertilizer, for instance). And sometimes accountants would collude with upper-caste landlords to steal the land by altering the deeds.

In the state of Karnataka, 20 million deeds have been digitized over the past 5 years, and 200 kiosks have been deployed across the state. It now costs the equivalent of 30 cents to get a copy of one's records--the previous fees from the local accountants were in the range of $2.00 to $20.00.

The economist Hernando de Soto (not mentioned in the BW article) has argued that a major cause of world poverty lies in the fact that the property of the poor often lacks clear legal title--making it difficult or impossible to use it as collateral for loans, and also disincentivizing improvements to the property. To the extent that de Soto is correct--and he makes some powerful arguments--the digitized-deed program could have a real impact.

Rural computerization in India can also help in other application areas. Agricultural e-commerce can allow farmers to buy seeds and fertilizer at lower prices, while selling produce directly and at higher prices. And the computer kiosks themselves represent an opportunity for local entrepreneurs: one company has developed something like a franchise model, arranging a loan for purchase of the hardware (with a wireless Internet link) and providing training on how to use it.

I'm usually a bit cynical about programs for the deployment of computer technology to solve social problems...as Bill Gates said, poor people need vaccinations before they need computers. And given the choice between a computer kiosk in every village or clean water in every village, I'd go with the clean water.

Properly employed and economically sourced, however, computer technology can provide a relatively high impact per dollar--and the Indian efforts described in the BW article sound like they fall into this category.

(The local accountants and middlemen who are being bypassed no doubt have their own opinions about all this, and it would be interesting to hear their side of the story.)


6:35 AM

Saturday, June 19, 2004  
"MILITANTS" OR MONSTERS?

In the wake of Paul Johnson's murder, many Western news organizations cannot bring themselves to use any term stronger than "militants" in describing his killers. (Example here)

A.Y.S., an Iraqi dentist, has more forthright and more human reaction. Read his post, They Are Monsters.

Also read Omar's comments at IraqTheModel.




7:59 PM

Thursday, June 17, 2004  
AGAIN, THE ABYSS

Imshin, who blogs from Israel, has seen the pictures of the San Francisco "peace" protestors--including the guy with the sign that says "Smash the Jewish State." She has this to say:

Smash the Jewish State. Smash the Jews in it. Smash my nine-year-old daughter. Smash her little collection of Bratz dolls, lovingly collected one by one. Smash our three-month-old kitten. Smash my great grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks. Smash Ronit’s new baby with her dark skin and bright eyes, suckling milk from her mother’s breast in the shade of the tree. Smash Doctor Assuline, who helped bring her into this world. Smash Luda, who washed the room after mother and daughter had been wheeled away, and Hameed, who built the crib her parents bought for her when they brought her home from the hospital.

Please go and read her entire post.

The pictures are here, and my earlier comments on these "peace" protestors are here.

8:29 PM

Wednesday, June 16, 2004  
KOESTLER ON NUANCE

Since the earliest days, the teachers of mankind have recommended two diametrically opposed methods of action. The first demands that we should refuse to see the world divided into black and white, heroes and villains, friends and foes; that we should distinguish nuances and strive for synthesis, or at least compromise; it tells us that in nearly all, seemingly inescapable dilemmas there exists a third alternative which patient search may discover. In short, we should refuse the choice between Scylla and Charybdis and rather navigate like odysseus of the nimble wit. We may call this the "neither-nor" attitude.

The second, opposite advice was summed up two thousand years ago, in one single phrase: "Let your communication be, Yea, yea, Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these, comes from evil." This we may call the "either-or" attitude.

Obviously humanity could not have survived without taking both methods into account. By neglecting the first advice, mankind would have long ago torn itself to pieces. By neglecting the second, man would have forsaken his dignity and moral backbone, and lost his capacity to distinguish between good and evil.

It is equally obvious that each of these two tenents has a different field of applicaton. To enumerate these would be a tedious and pedantic undertaking, and frequently there is a conflict between both methods in the same field. Our concern here is with action in the political field. And there it seems that the first method is valid for long-term planning with a certain elbow-room in space and time, and that the second is valid in immediate and vital emergencies when, in Beethoven's words, "Fate knocks at the gate of existence."

In such an emergency, the threatened individual or group or civilization can only survive if it acts with the unhesitating assurance of an organic reflex. The nerves of living organisms function according to the so-called all-or-nothing law; they either react to a stimulus for all they are worth or do not react at all. And it is not by chance that the calculating machines called electronic brains are constructed according to the same "either-or" principle. They perform immensely complex functions, but each ime a decision is required of them, they act according to the Gospel of Matthew.

In vital emergencies like the present, when man stands at a crossroads which leaves the choice of this way or that, the difference between the very clever and the simple in mind narrows almost to the vanishing point, or even turns to the latter's advantage. It is amazing to observe how in a crisis the most sophisticated often act like imbeciles. Imbued with the mental habits of the "neither-nor" attitude, of looking for synthesis or compromise--a profoundly human attitude of essential value in its proper field--they are incapable of admitting, even to themselves, that there are situations in which an unambiguous decision is vital for spiritual and physical survival. Faced with destiny's challenge, they act like clever imbeciles and preach to neutrality towards the bubonic plague. Mostly they are victims of a professional disease: the intellectual's estrangement from reality. And having lost touch with reality they have acquired that devilish art: they can prove everything that they believe, and believe everything that they can prove. Their logic reminds one of the German students' old nonsense-song:

The elephant has his tail in front and his trunk is at his rear
But when he turns round his trunk is in front and his tail is at his rear

Don't misunderstand me; I know that many of thus who are not with us today cherish freedom too and are rather frightened of the fate which might befall them if everybody imitated their attitude of contemplative detachment. It is only that they haven't yet learnt that there is a time to speak in relative clauses, and a time to speak in terms of Yea and Nay. For destiny's challenge to man is always couched in simple and direct language, without relative clauses--and requires an answer in equally simple terms.


(From an address given at the Congress for Cultural Freedom, held in Berlin in 1950. Quoted in The Right to Say "No" in the book Bricks to Babel.)

3:57 PM

 
ANTI-ZIONISM, OR JUST PLAIN ANTI-SEMITISM?

Recently I scrolled through a website devoted to discussion of contemporary literature. Suddenly dropped into the discussion, for no apparent reason, was the following remark: "And today the Israeli army shot a child, which is their favorite thing to do."

I felt a sickening roiling in my stomach. It was a familiar feeling composed of anger, frustration, fear, hurt. Could someone really believe this?


Rabbi David Wolpe looks at today's anti-Semitism, here.


2:20 PM

Tuesday, June 15, 2004  
ABOUT COMMUNITY COLLEGES

A thought-provoking article about community colleges and how they compare with "elite" four-year colleges.


8:40 PM

 
A LOOK INTO THE ABYSS

Here are some photographs taken at a recent "peace" rally in San Francisco. Some of the more noteworthy signs:

"Do Zionists Cause Anti-Semitism by Defending the Morally Indefensible? Zionists Do"

"BUSHARON Confederacy of Sociopaths"

"George Bush Skull & Bones Freemason Brotherhood of Death"

"Israel's Wall Must Fall"

"Smash The Jewish State"

I suspect that the emotions on dispay at these protests are very, very similar to those which could have been seen at the meetings of the "America First" (isolationist) organization during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Alan E Brain provides some useful historical perspective. One of the most important leaders of the isolationist movement was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. Another leader, and an especially vitriolic one, was a priest, Father Charles Coughlin.

In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Charles A. Lindbergh claimed that the “three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration”. Soon afterwards Gerald Nye argued “that the Jewish people are a large factor in our movement toward war.”

and

Coughlin’s opinions became more extreme. In September 1940 he described President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “the world’s chief war-monger”. The following year he wrote in Social Justice: “Stalin’s idea to create world revolution and Hitler’s so-called threat to seek world domination are not half as dangerous combined as is the proposal of the current British and American administrations to seize all raw materials in the world. Many people are beginning to wonder who they should fear most - the Roosevelt-Churchill combination or the Hitler-Mussolini combination.”

Make a few word substitutions, and Lindbergh/Coughlin would fit right in at contemporary protest events.

Other links:

Citizen Smash attends a protest in LA.

A liberal attends a protest march and experiences a change of heart (June 4 post).


8:58 AM

Sunday, June 13, 2004  
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS

About a month ago, The Washington Post ran profiles of 20 leading corporate women in the DC metro area. It's worthwhile reading for businesspeople of either gender, particularly those who are early in their careers. These profiles give far more of a feel for how successful business careers actually develop than does the typical "how to succeed" book. A couple of highlights:

As her first assignment at a software company, back in 1980, one woman (now Executive VP at the same company) was supposed to assist in the implementation of a new citywide accounting system that had been sold to the DC government. Her specific assignment was to help the transportation department implement the system. But the department's chief engineer would have none of it. He gave her a hard hat and took her out to show her what he did every day. telling her: "The way I look at the world is, I manage jobs and contracts and contractors. I don't manage accounting appropriations. And if you're going to do something for me, you had better figure out how to map to my world, and my world ain't the world of object code and a general ledger and accounting books."

It would have been easy for her to take the position that her job was simply to implement the system that had already been agreed upon between the city and her employer, and that whether the chief engineer actually used it or not, post-installation, was none of her concern. Instead, she got him to agree that he would use the system if she could get a contract-management feature added to it--then got the DC government to pay for the extra feature.

Another woman, now a key executive of a major telecom company, was a young sales rep at a different telco during the early 1980s. A retail industry client wanted a specialized terminal for a computerized bridal-registry system they were developing. Nothing appropriate was available within the standard product line, so she approached her company's hardware subsidiary. Could they take a standard dumb terminal, modify it with touch-screen technology, and package it to do what the retailer wanted? The answer was "no".

Most sales reps, at this point, would have dropped the project and focused on other business (probably while indulging in several days of feeling very sorry for themselves and cursing the company bureaucracy that had cost them the business) But she didn't drop it; she flew to the headquarters of the hardware subsidiary and waited in the lobby, refusing to leave until she could see the key executive. "He stormed down with four systems engineers and told her to present her idea, complete with technology specs, a business plan and revenue forecast. She had it all. He still wasn't convinced." So next, she took him to a meeting with the the retailer's Senior VP of Marketing. He promised that if the terminal was produced, he would buy 5000 of them.

She was recognized as her company's #1 salesperson and was promoted to Branch Manager at the age of 25.

Several of the women profiled talk about their formative early experiences. The President of a major credit card business was, at the age of 15, a summer camp counselor. Two days before the camp opened, the sailing instructor bailed out, and she was asked to take on the job. Only thing was, she didn't know anything about sailing. "If you don't do it," said the camp director, "there'll be no sailing class."

By reading up and taking out the boats, she was able to teach herself sailing--and then, to teach the campers. At the end of the summer, her camp won a regatta.

"That one little event in my life I hold on to in every challenge and say, 'You know what? I won that regatta,' she said. "It's a sense of when people would count on you and you feel an obligation to them, you would rise to the occasion."


2:01 PM

Friday, June 11, 2004  
THE VIRTUAL BORDER SYSTEM

Yesterday, the House Appropriations committee voted to overturn the award of the contract for the "Virtual Border System" to Accenture. The project, which will cost $10-15B and may last for 5-10 years, is intended to improve the screening of visitors to the U.S., with the objective of keeping terrorists out. A variety of technologies are under consideration, including fingerprints, voice recognition, and facial recognition. The objections to Accenture focus on the fact that it is headquartered in Bermuda rather than in the U.S.

It's legitimate to ask whether prime contracts for defense projects should be given to companies not based in the U.S. And it's legitimate to raise privacy issues about the kind of data that a system such as this will track. But the main issue on which the focus needs to be kept, in my view, is this: How soon can we get the system on-line with a set of capabilities that will materially reduce the threat of terrorist entry into the U.S.? Failure to make meaningful progress in a timely manner could cost thousands and thousands of lives. I am concerned that there is going to be too much media and political focus on everything but the speed issue, resulting in unnecessary delays. (The next layer of lobbying is likely to be by subcontractors pushing their preferred technologies, and seeking Congressional leverage to maximize jobs in their districts.) One Congresswoman who voted to overturn the Accenture contract said something about "levelling the playing field." I'm all for levelling the playing field, but I'm even more strongly concerned about avoiding the levelling of parts of American cities by terrorist attacks.

I am once again reminded of the situation in France in the late 1930s. With the threat from Nazi Germany growing hourly, the French Air Force was urgently in need of modernization. When the aggressive Guy La Chambre took over as Air Minister (in January 1938), he reputedly "found nothing but a disheartened industry of small workshops of which only one factory alone was equipped for mass production. As war approached and the production gap with the Luftwaffe appeared hopelessly wide, he tried to fill it by means of large-scale purchases from the United States; but even this measure of desperation met with intense opposition from the French aircraft manufacturers lobby." (To Lose a Battle: France 1940, by Alistair Horne)

Of course, the situations are not totally parallel. Unlike the situation with the French aircraft industry in 1938, there are certainly U.S.-based companies that have the ability to create the Virtual Border System. But the excessive focus on economic and political issues, to the exclusion of a sense of urgency, is reminiscent.

There are also technical and project-management issues concerning this project. Huge, long-term software development projects--especially those that incorporate a lot of new technology--don't have a really wonderful track record. I'd be in favor of taking small steps, getting a working system in place, and then improving it, rather than trying to conceptualize and build the ultimate. Gordon Bell, an eminent computer scientist (and historian of the industry) says this: "The real question is how much homework they have done. They should have been running tests two years ago. When you build a big system, the key thing is to run some small experiments first." (NYT 5/31)

Another historical analogy. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, considered by many to be the inventor of radar, once said that Britain's success with radar in WWII was due to the decision to go with the third-best solution. The best solution couldn't have been built; the second-best solution could have been built, but would have taken too long to win the Battle of Britain. (Some people involved with the project referred to the deployed system as "steam-powered radar.")

I hope someone is taking Watson-Watt's comments to heart. I'd rather have a "steam-powered" virtual border system in two years, with later improvements, than the ultimate system in half a decade.




8:38 AM

 
CALL CENTERS: STILL HERE

Over the last year, the number of employees at U.S. call centers remained constant or even increased slightly, and now stands at about 360,000.(WSJ 6/9) This is a bit of a surprise given all the news about the offshoring of call center work--and, in addition, call center employment is also subject to impact from customer self-service via Internet and via voice response systems, both of which have been growing by leaps and bounds. (Viewed over a longer timeframe, call center employment has dropped, from a peak of about 415,000 in 1999.)

The WSJ article reports that companies are increasingly locating call center operations in small U.S. towns (like Kalispell, Montana), where both people and real-estate come reasonably cheap. (According to the article, real estate in India--at least when upgraded to meet call center requirements--does not come particularly cheap. And telecom costs are also significantly lower in the U.S.) And compared with larger U.S. cities, small-town workers may offer better performance. Researchers at Purdue found that "the smaller the city, the better the call-center performance, measured by number of calls completed, problems resolved or sales made."

One company is following an strategy of combining phone-based customer support done in the U.S. with web-based support done in India...an executive commented that their Indian agents "have great command of the King's language" and that accent is much less of a problem when typing than when speaking.

To me, though, the big issue with call centers--regardless of where they are located--is why so many of them are managed suboptimally (to put it politely). Call center activities are often managed in a way that leaves customers unsatisfied, irritated, or furious--yet the same companies are usually spending large amounts on money on advertising aimed at improving their image. And call centers, as a key point of customer contact, could be a gold mine of intelligence on what customers like and don't like, what's working and what isn't working. Too often, the objective of the call center is merely to close out the call as quickly as possible, with little or no effort to gather or forward such intelligence.



8:11 AM

Thursday, June 10, 2004  
WORTH PONDERING

The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.

--Winston Churchill

(quoted in Investors Business Daily)

Previous Worth Pondering

9:05 AM

 
THE NEW OBSCURANTISTS

Protesters in San Francisco attempted to shut down a major biotechnology conference. Displaying the nuanced and peaceful spirit that is so often in evidence at such protests, some of the protesters shouted "Arrest them! Shoot them!" in reference to the scientists and entepreneurs attending the conference.

It would be a very safe bet that most of these protesters self-identify as leftists and/or as "progressives." (A look at the website of Reclaim the Commons, one of the main organizations behind the protest, clearly supports this view. They link to Indymedia, and of course they oppose the war in Iraq.)

Legend has it that there was a time when liberals and leftists were fervent advocates of science and technology. Mainstream liberals supported the TVA; Marxists held out the Soviet Union as an example of "scientific planning" and were proud of its technological achievements.

Many of today's leftists are simply obscurantists who would like to undo the Enlightenment and everything that has followed from it. What can it possibly mean to call people like this "progressives"?


7:14 AM

Wednesday, June 09, 2004  
BENEFITS OF NATURAL LIGHT

The Wall Street Journal (6/9) references a study indicating that office workers, when they have a window with a view of vegetation, may improve their productivity--specifically, the study shows that they "perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall."

There's no information about the methodology used, but it seems plausible to me. If you are involved in facilities decisions for a business, school, or whatever, you might want to check it out. The study was done by Douglas Mahone, an energy-efficiency consultant at Heschong Mahone Group.



3:56 PM

Tuesday, June 08, 2004  
AUSTRALIA, TOO

I've written recently about the appalling ignorance of WWII which seems to exist among teenagers both in America and in Britain. Now here's some news from Australia: A survey of 100 people aged 16 to 25 by The West Australian reveals widespread ignorance, with only 22 able to identify D-Day as a major military campaign of World War II.

The president of the History Teachers Association of West Australia said that he was "mystified" by the results. But the director of curriculum was not surprised--he said it was more important for young people to have a broad understanding of how historical events shaped society than to recall specific events.

The mental world in which many educators live is a strange one indeed. How do they think one can understand the relationships among things without knowing anything about the things themselves?

It seems to me that a statement such as it is more important for young people to have a broad understanding of how historical events shaped society than to recall specific events might be translated as follows: it is more important for young people to be learn a predefined interpretation of historical events than to learn what actually happened so that they can form their own opinions.

(hat tip: A.E. Brain)


8:22 PM

 
COMMON SENSE AND WONDER

Common Sense & Wonder is celebrating its second anniversary. Stop by and offer your congratulations, or check them out if you haven't been there before.

I love the name of that weblog. "Common sense" and "sense of wonder" tend to sometimes be thought of as opposites. They're not really, of course--they are orthogonal. Some people have both, some have one but not the other--and some have neither.

2:07 PM

Monday, June 07, 2004  
DEPARTMENT OF DUUHHH

A marketing survey shows that women expect good customer service. "83% buy more when in a store with good customer service, and 89% will choose one similar store over another based on better customer service." Think that was a surprise to anyone?

Wonder if it's also true of men? How about Hispanics? Asians? Maybe they could keep redoing the survey with finer and finer slices of ethnicity, cross-tabulated against gender, until they find the market segment that actually likes bad customer service.

I probably shouldn't make fun of them...anyone working to improve customer service should be encouraged, even if they wind up quantitying the obvious in the process.

The USA Today article that mentioned this survey also talks about an interesting new retailing approach being taken by Maytag: appliance stores where you can actually try the product out.



12:55 PM

Sunday, June 06, 2004  
RALPH PETERS ON D-DAY

Too much there to excerpt...please go and read it.

(via Sheila O'Malley)

8:02 PM

 
A LEADERSHIP VIGNETTE

As Supreme Commander, one of General Eisenhower's most important tasks was maintaining positive relationships among the Allies. The British General Lord Ismay, in his memoirs, gives an insight into just how seriously Eisenhower took this aspect of command.

"...it was brought to my notice that a senior American officer was apt, under the influence of alcohol, to boast that his troops would show the British how to fight. He was a first-class soldier and popular with everyone, bt his unguarded talk was beginning to give rise to a good deal of indignation. It seemed only fair to Eisenhower to bring the matter to his notice in the strictest privacy. When I had finished my story, he went white with rage, summoned one of his aides, and told him to arrange for the officer in question to report to his office at seven the next morning. 'I'll make the son of a bitch swim back to America,' he hissed, as the aide left the room. I begged him to do no such thing. I told him that in reporting this very delicate matter, I had hoped that he would do no more than rebuke the offender, and, that if I had known that he was going to take such extreme measures, I would have remained silent. After a pause he promised to heed my intercession."

In another case, though, a request for Eisenhower to show leniency would be ignored. The occasion was a serious fracas between a British and an American officer.

"..he came to the conclusion, after a careful consideration of all the evidence, that it was the American who was in the wrong. He ordered him to be dismissed from the Staff and sent back to the United States. The British officer who had been embroiled pleaded for him 'He only called me a son-of-a-bitch, sir, and all of use have now learnt that this is a colloquial expression which is sometimes used almost as a term of endearment, and should not be taken too seriously.' To which Eisenhower replied, 'I am informed that he called you a British son-of-a-bitch. That is quite different. My ruling stands.' " (emphasis added)

Previous Leadership Vignette.



2:37 PM

 
JUNE 6, 1944

Blackfive has an extensive collection of D-day posts, well worth the reading.



9:18 AM

Saturday, June 05, 2004  
WORTHWHILE READING

Belmont Club has an erudite and thought-provoking post on the evolution (or devolution) of leftist thought over the past century.


8:16 AM

Friday, June 04, 2004  
KOESTLER ON CLOSED SYSTEMS

A closed sysem has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of causistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself. The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian's prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you ourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history...In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system's rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emoional hothouse...The trained, "closed-minded" theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his "open-minded" adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself.


(From Woe to the Shepherds in Bricks to Babel)

Koestler was himself a former Communist. He was one of the first major leftist writers to publicly denounce Stalinism, and is best known for his novel Darkness at Noon.


2:46 PM

 
KOESTLERFEST COMING

My book of Arthur Koestler's selected writings ("Bricks to Babel"), long misplaced, has finally turned up. Koestler quotes will soon be making their appearance.


2:07 PM

 
NUANCE NEEDED

US News & World Report (6/7) has a segment on the state of the economy in the electoral battleground state of Ohio. "In April, when...John Kerry was discussing hybrid electric cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic hybrid, he quipped, 'I don't want Toyota and Honda to be the seller of these cars"--evidently unaware that Honda is one of Ohio's biggest employers.' The article reports that many of the 16,000 Honda workers in Ohio were unhappy about the comment.

In fact, Honda's largest (worldwide) engine factory is in Ohio; it builds 1.2 million engines per year...including, interestingly, engines for GM to use in one of its new product lines. Honda also has two assembly plants in Ohio, plus a 950-person R&D center.

Liberals like Kerry put great emphasis on things like "nuance" and "shades of gray." But, in many cases, their understanding of the economy seems to be based on black-and-white, cartoon-level thinking.


7:09 AM

Thursday, June 03, 2004  
AFRICA'S TVA?

Financial Times (5/3) reports that South Africa is leading a five-country project to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Congo river and to distribute the resulting electrical power. It is claimed that the site, if fully utilized, could produce twice the power of China's vast Three Gorges project--enough to serve the needs of the countries involved and still have enough left to export power to Europe.

The other countries participating in the venture are Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Lead company is Eskom, South Africa's state-owned utility.


7:15 PM

Wednesday, June 02, 2004  
THE SUPPRESSION OF SHOP, CTD

The John F Kennedy high school (in New York) is closing its automotive shop. "The auto shop will be gutted, the students and teachers left directionless, several hundred thousand dollars' worth of equipment hauled away." You can read the whole sad story in The New York Times. (Summary at Joanne Jacobs.)

I wrote last year about the termination of another shop program, this one in San Diego, and the thoughts I expressed then are still very relevant.

***
Many high schools are eliminating their traditional shop programs. This, despite the fact that skilled craftsmen are in demand and that, for many students, shop programs could be a key to a better job and a better life. (An auto mechanic who rises to service manager may make over $100,000 per year.) And for those students who are interested in learning a craft, the ability to take shop in school would very likely have an positive effect on their overall attitude to school--including academic courses.

So why do school administrators eliminate shop programs? I think there are several reasons, none of which reflect very well on the administrators.

(1) Arrogance and snobbery. There is an attitude among many college-educated people (especially those with advanced degrees) that the only "good" job is one which involves the manipulation of symbols (especially verbal symbols). This reinforces the traditional disdain of snobs for people who work with their hands.

A well-developed human being has the ability to feel respect for skills that he himself does not possess. This trait seems rare among school administrators.

(2) Poor management skills and a lack of resourcefulness. School officials say that to teach someone to be an auto mechanic requires heavy capital investments because of the necessity for diagnostic computers and similar equipment. But a little creative thinking could go a long way toward mollifying this issue. The first year or two of an automotive shop program could consist of learning how internal combustion engines work, taking them apart, and putting them back together. This could be done in individual schools, with total capital equipment consisting of a few old engines and some basic tools. Students who want to proceed further could go, for a couple of days a week, to a consolidated location which contains the expensive equipment. Also, it's very likely that local auto dealerships would kick in money or equipment to support such a program, if asked.

One characteristic of weak managers is that they always demand "more resources," rather than thinking creatively about how resources can be used more effectively. Such people seem to exist in large numbers within the education establishment.

(3) Lack of leadership. School administrators are responding to pressure from parents, who want their children to follow a college path. But the parents are themselves responding to propaganda from the educational establishment, much of it highly misleading. If the administrators were leaders rather than followers, they would be proactive in providing honest information to parents--about the benefits of careers in crafts as well as the benefits of college.

Some have argued that craft education detracts from the common education required for citizenship. This is silly. There is plenty of time to learn basic craft skills and also to learn history and literature--if frills are avoided in the interests of substance. And, as mentioned above, letting students take at least one class that they are really interested in may help to energize their entire approach to school. From the San Diego article: (Students) hoisted cars on lifts, removed wheels and welded metal – heavy duties for teenagers at 7:40 a.m. Such dedication is the marvel of teachers who fight to keep students focused in their academic classes.

"When I come here, I know exactly what I'm doing," said Raymond Butcher, a 17-year-old junior. "This is what feeds my brain.
" It's hard to believe that some of this spirit wouldn't spill over into Raymond's academic classes as well.

And learning a craft has more than economic value. One learns self-discipline, deferred gratification, attention to detail, and ability to work with others. And one may also learn intellectual skills such as inductive and deductive reasoning. Diagnosing engine problems, for example, surely requires an internalization of cause-and-effect thinking.

The negative attitude of school administrators to shop courses demonstrates once again--as if further demonstration was needed--just how narrowminded are the people who run the public schools, and how little they really care about their students. Yes, there are exceptions--but they seem to be increasingly uncommon.

(hat tip: Joanne Jacobs)

UPDATE: I'm sure that another factor playing a role here is the fear of lawsuits. If kids are allowed to smart off in a shop class, it can be very dangerous. It's a lot easier to hurt yourself (or someone else) with a welding torch than with a computer or a piece of paper. And few school administrators seem to have the courage to insist on the right to remove troublemakers from class...so activities that could be hazardous are simply avoided.

I suspect that many of the factors discussed here are also relevant to the decline of laboratory science in the schools.
***

Those interested in this topic may also be interested in this post about what happened to kids who wanted to learn to do art and to sew.



5:50 PM

 
HISTORICAL IGNORANCE: THE DISCUSSION

Joanne Jacobs has a lively discussion going concerning the Washington Post article re student ignorance about WWII. Stop by and contribute your thoughts.


1:28 PM

Tuesday, June 01, 2004  
HISTORICAL IGNORANCE: IN BRITAIN, TOO

I posted yesterday concerning the failure of many American schools to teach WWII history effectively. Apparently, the same thing is happening in Britain:

A survey of 1,309 pupils aged between 10 and 14 and from 24 different schools found alarming levels of ignorance about the invasion of Normandy 60 years ago.

Only 28 per cent of primary and secondary pupils who sat the quiz last week were able to say that D-Day, involving the largest invasion force ever mounted, was the start of the Allied liberation of occupied western Europe.

Many of them could only say that it was something to do with the Second World War - though 26 per cent were flummoxed by even that fact. Some thought it took place in the First World War, or was the day war broke out, the Blitz and even Remembrance Sunday.


and also

Children also had great difficulty in naming Britain's war-time prime minister. Less than half of the overall sample and only 39 per cent of primary school children correctly identified him as Winston Churchill; a significant number opted for Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.

In fairness, it should be noted that these kids were significantly younger than the American kids interviewed for the Washington Post article mentioned earlier.

(via Betsy's Page)


7:30 PM

 
WORTH PONDERING

In the short term the stock market is a voting machine; in the long term, it’s a weighing machine.

--attributed to Benjamin Graham, who is considered to be the father of modern securities analysis.

Previous Worth Pondering


7:55 AM

 
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