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Selected Posts:
Dresden
Sleeping with the Enemy
Dancing for the Boa Constrictor
Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
Hospital Automation
Made in America
Politicians Behaving Badly
Critics and Doers
Foundations of Bigotry?
Bonhoeffer and Iraq
Misvaluing Manufacturing
Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
An Academic Bubble?
Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
Education or Indoctrination?
Dark Satanic Mills
Political Violence Superheated 'steem
PC and Pearl Harbor
Veterans' Day Musings
Arming Airline Pilots
Pups for Peace
Baghdad on the Rhine

Book Reviews:
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The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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PHOTON COURIER
 
Saturday, July 31, 2004  
WASHINGTON POST'S BLOGGING CONTEST

The Washington Post is having a contest for "Best Blogs Politics & Elections." They get credit for recognizing the growing importance of weblogs, something that is not too common among the big media. But I'm kind of put off by the categories that they offer:

Best Rant / Best Democratic Party Coverage / Best Republican Party Coverage / Best Campaign Dirt / Best Inside The Beltway / Best Outside The Beltway / Best International / Class Clown / Most Original / Most Likely To Last Beyond Election Day

This seems to me to be a strange and very limiting way of looking at politics and political coverage. For example, I think Roger Simon's blog provides very thoughtful coverage of issues and of the election. But where on this categorization would it fall? It's certainly not "Democratic Party Coverage" or "Republican Party Coverage," and most certainly not 'Campaign Dirt." I guess you could call it "Outisde the Beltway," but why on earth does it matter where it's published? It's the blogosphere we're talking about here (sorry, Sheila, but I don't know what else to call it)...why does geography matter?

The whole thing seems to me like a category error...kind of like having a contest for "most fashionable sweater," with the categories being:

4-cylinder / 6-cylinder / 120 volt / 240 volt

In its handling of this contest, the Post has provided an inadvertant window into just what is wrong with much political coverage...too much focus on "inside baseball," too much trendiness, too little in-depth coverage of serious issues.

But submit your nominations anyhow.


8:30 AM

Friday, July 30, 2004  
"JUST TELL US WHAT YOU WANT TO DO"

Quite a few years ago, I was in an executive staff meeting. A junior manager (not part of the executive staff and not normally in the meeting) came in to give a presentation, which was supposed to be about some project proposal. The presentation was very complex and nuanced, and several of us were having a hard time figuring out where it was going. Finally, the senior person in the room spoke up:

"Fred," he said. "You don't have to convince us that you're smart. We already believe that you're smart. Just tell us what you want to do!"

And the guy giving the presentation couldn't do it! He couldn't stop showing off his analysis and actually come to the point of what he was proposing.

I was reminded of this incident by David Brooks' comment about John Kerry:

Kerry has been talking for years, and yet such is the thicket of his verbiage that he has achieved almost complete strategic ambiguity.

UPDATE 10/5/06: See also The Smart-Talk Trap.

8:01 AM

Wednesday, July 28, 2004  
NOT TO BE MISSED

The proprietor of Floyd the Chimp recounts a conversation between his girlfriend (a molecular biology major) and a hippie. Right here.

7:01 PM

 
DOG LANGUAGE AND POLITICAL LANGUAGE (REPEAT)

I posted this item a few months ago, but somehow it seems relevant at the current moment:

When you talk to a dog, you don't have to worry a lot about using syllogisms, complete sentences, good analogies, or crisply-argued chains of logic. What he's looking for is keywords...particular words and short phrases...like "nice doggie" or "here" or, especially, "dinner."

It strikes me that, increasingly, the way in which politicians address the American people is very similar. It's enough to say the words that are supposed to elicit the conditioned responses..."jobs" or "health care" or "education." There is increasingly litle effort to specifcy exactly what cause-and-effect relationship will cause these good things to come to pass, and why one approach might be better than alternative approaches. This behavior is most noticeable among Democrats, but is by no means totally absent among Republicans.



7:40 AM

Tuesday, July 27, 2004  
DISECONOMIES OF SCALE

A wise business friend of mine was fond of the phrase synergy costs money. There's a worthwhile post up at Lead and Gold on this subject.

When consolidating functions, it's easy to identify ways to reduce costs / improve efficiencies. Let's say we have a multidivisional company, each division with its own purchasing department. Centralization of purchasing represents an obvious way to save money...possibly-lower staff requirements, as well as more leverage in negotiating volume discounts. But what's the downside? People in a centralized purchasing organization are less likely to be familiar with the requirements of a particular line of business, less likely to have close relationships with either their "customers" within the company, or with suppliers who may be critical to a particular busines. The impact of these things could be significant delay in getting a new product to market...or quality problems with delivered products. While these impacts are harder to quantify than the savings resulting from centralization, they can be very real. In some cases, they can be life-threatening to a business.

These issues don't just apply to businesses. As public schools become larger and larger, for example, it seems certain that diseconomies of scale are kicking in.

Synergies can be real, but they aren't always. Proposals for centralization should always be reviewed carefully, and with a serious attempt to understand the possible downside as well as the upsides.

In some cases, information technology, combined with a little creativity, can be used to obtain the benefits of centralization without its downsides. For example: in the purchasing scenario discussed above, suppose that we leave the divisional purchasing organizations separate..but require them to track their purchases based on standard commodity codes. We can then identify how much steel, or how many microprocessors, the company as a whole is using...and then use a (small) central purchasing staff organization to spearhead negotiating efforts with those particular suppliers...while letting things proceed as usual for 90% of the transactions, thus preserving time-to-market.


9:50 AM

Sunday, July 25, 2004  
MANAGEMENT ADVICE FROM 1760

Captain Wheeler, Royal Navy, has this to say:

Nor will i ever keep (knowingly) a dissatisfied man in any ship with me, if he were the best seaman in the world; I would rather have a willing and contented landman, who with a little time, and his own endeavours, I could make a seaman of.

(quoted in Wooden World by N A M Rodger)

Was Captain Wheeler actually able to carry out this policy in practice? It's hard to believe that, in the Royal Navy of 1760, it would have been possible to man a major vessel entirely with volunteers and with no use of impressed men. But clearly, Wheeler believed in trying to maximize the former and minimize the latter. (And even among impressed men, many had strong preferences as to with which individual ships they preferred to serve--clearly, Wheeler would have tried to honor those preferences when possible.)

Captain Wheeler's point remains an important one, in organizations of all kinds. What matters is not just the knowledge and skill required to do a job: wanting to do the job matters--a lot--as well.


8:38 AM

 
STRAIGHT TALK FROM A SWEDE

Per Ahlmark, former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, has some tough words about the spread of anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Semitic opinions in Europe. Sample:

Extreme anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism are actually merging. The so-called peace poster "Hitler Had Two Sons: Bush and Sharon," displayed in European anti-war rallies, combines trivialization of Nazism with demonization of both the victims of Nazism and those who defeated Nazism.

Much of this grows from a subconscious European guilt related to the Holocaust. Now the Holocaust's victims - and their children and grandchildren - are supposedly doing to others what was done to them. By equating the murderer and the victim, we wash our hands.

This pattern of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism returns again and again. "The ugly Israeli" and "the ugly American" seem to be of the same family. "The ugly Jew" becomes the instrumental part of this defamation when so-called neoconservatives are blamed both for American militarism and Israeli brutalities and then selectively named: Wolfowitz, Perle, Abrams, Kristol, etc. This is a new version of the old myth that Jews rule the US.

Earlier this year, the editor of Die Zeit, Josef Joffe, put his finger on the issue: like Jews, Americans are said to be selfish and arrogant. Like Jews, they are in thrall to a fundamentalist religion that renders them self-righteous and dangerous. Like Jews, Americans are money-grabbing capitalists, for whom the highest value is the cash nexus. "America and Israel are the outsiders - just as Jews have been all the way into the 21st century," Joffe says.


Read the whole thing.


8:04 AM

 
RAIL CAPACITY CRUNCH: GETTING UGLY

I've posted before on the railroad capacity bottlenecks, which are causing delays and cost increases for many shippers and consignees of freight. Last week's Wall Street Journal (7/22) has an article on this topic; the continuation page headline is "Railroad's Woes Threaten Economy." Maybe a bit of an overstatement, but the situation on the Union Pacific is indeed worrisome. One wholesale lumberyard, for example, had to spend $200,000 to buy lumber on the spot market after his regular shipments were delayed. Lyondell Chemical had to cut production this spring because of raw materials delays; the company estimates that rail delays have cost it about $1 million. Many other businesses have been impacted also.

The problems are caused by the strength of the economic recovery and the growth of imports, coupled by staffing problems stemming from a large number of retirements. There are also equipment shortages. The UP is moving ahead with hiring and with the procurement of 700 additional locomotives. Track construction is proceeding in certain bottleneck areas, and the railroad is also considering double-tracking a large portion of the entire Sunset Route (LA to El Paso) at a cost of about $1.5 billion.

Ahead lie some major challenges: the harvest and the Christmas season.

7:40 AM

Saturday, July 24, 2004  
AUTOMOTIVE EVOLUTION

So there are these two race cars. They meet, mate, and have a baby. The baby also grows up to be a race car...and, very soon, it will face the race of its life, on one of the world's toughest tracks. Its very survival will depend on the outcome.

Sounds like a children's book, but it's for real (if only inside of a computer.) A Formula 1 race team is using genetic algorithms (simulated evolution) to fine-tune the design of their cars for specific tracks. This from Financial Times (7/23).

Populations of virtual cars are generated, with varying values for key design parameters (suspension stiffness, spoiler size and angle, etc), and the performance of the cars on the target track is simulated. After Darwinian selection, the surviving cars are grouped into pairs and mated, by selecting some of the parameters from car A and others from car B (this is done using an operation analogous to "crossover" in real sexual reproduction.) In a small percentage of cases, random mutations are also applied.

After 40 generations of this process, the evolved cars were significantly faster than the original set. The evolved designs also differed considerably from track to track: lower down force for Silverstone (UK), for example, and higher down force for Nuerburgring (Germany).

The use of genetic algorithms/simulated evolution is not new. They have been under development for decades, and have been applied to a variety of design problems. For example, GE Aircraft Engine, working with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has applied genetic algorithms to the design of jet engines. (I believe that the GE/RPI approach combines genetic algorithms with conventional "expert systems" which encompass human knowledge and experience.)

Early work with genetic approaches (in the late 1950s and early 1960s) fared poorly due to excessive emphasis on mutation rather than mating as a source of variation. There are also important issues concerning the way in which a "phenotype" is represented "genetically"...for example, if you represented designs in the form of a conventional computer programs, and then "mated" the source code for two of them, you would almost certainly get gibberish that couldn't even be executed. More subtle representations are necessary.

Interesting stuff.


7:36 AM

Thursday, July 22, 2004  
ARM AIRLINE PILOTS NOW
No More Delays Should Be Tolerated

There has been much discussion in the blogosphere recently about the incident reported by Annie Jacobsen. Based on reports so far, the Syrian men abard Jacobsen's flight seem to have been innocent. But there have apparently been many other incidents lately which should be grounds for serious concern. The Washington Times reports that, according to flight crews and air marshals, terrorist operatives are "staking out airports, probing security measures and conducting test runs aboard airplanes for a terrorist attack." One pilot said that it is "widespread knowledge" that these probes are taking place. Another pilot said that, on one of his recent flights, a man locked himself in a lavatory at the front of the plane for a long period. An air marshal forced his way into the lavatory and found that the mirror had been removed and the man was attempting to break through the wall. The cockpit was on the other side.

What would have happened if there had been no air marshal on this flight? (And only a relatively small number of flights do carry air marshals.)

It has now been almost two years since Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act. Yet the bureaucracy has continued to drag its feet, and the number of armed pilots is still quite small in proportion to the total number of pilots and flights.

One of the first posts I wrote on this weblog concerned the arming of airline pilots. I believe it is worth republishing in full.

*********

Thursday, October 24, 2002
ARMING AIRLINE PILOTS -- The Deeper Issues

If all airline pilots had been armed, then 9/11 would never have happened. This point is almost indisputable. Why, then, a year after the event, are there still no guns in cockpits? Clearly there is a powerful body of opinion that is vehemently opposed to this commonsensical policy. The nature of the arguments made by the opponents of armed pilots sheds light not only on this specific issue, but on much that is wrong with today’s political dialogue.

First, we see an unwillingness to face reality. Pundits opposed to arming the pilots repeat, like a mantra, the phrase “the pilot needs to concentrate on flying the plane.” Often, this is expanded to “..flying the plane and getting it on the ground.”

Of course, in an ideal situation, the pilot would concentrate exclusively on flying the plane. But in a situation of successful terrorist attack, the pilot will not be flying the plane. The pilot will be dead, and the terrorists will be flying the plane—directly toward the highest-value target they can find.

The pundits seem unwilling to face this reality, which since 9/11 should have been painfully obvious to all. In many cases, their thought processes seem driven by raw emotion rather than by logical thought—one noted TV personality said that it would make her “nervous” to know that the pilot of her plane was carrying a gun. Thus, she would rather accept an increased risk of her own death….and the deaths of hundreds of others…than be made to think, even incidentally, about an unpleasant matter. An ostrich looks intelligent by comparison. Or perhaps in her mental world, a “gun” is an icon of such negative power that context cannot be considered. This is not thought at all; this is reaction at a stimulus-response level.

Second, we see an obsession with “training” and “expertise”. Opponents of arming pilots make much of the fact that pilots are not trained law enforcement officials. At a deeper level, it seems to disturb them for someone to play a role other than their formal, assigned function…i.e., pilots should fly, law enforcement officers should deal with threats, passengers should sit passively in their seats, etc.

But people have the ability to do things for which they have not been formally and extensively “trained”. Consider the passengers of Flight 93 (the “let’s roll” group), who almost certainly saved the White House or the Capitol from disaster. They were not “trained law enforcement professionals,” but they did what they had to do.

Pilots carrying weapons would certainly receive training in weapons handling, but this is evidently not enough for the critics—who speak of the need for a multi-month training program such as law enforcement professionals receive. This mindset—that people are only qualified to perform a function if they have received a specific length and type of training—is becoming endemic in our society, with baleful results. The requirement that public school teachers hold “education” degrees, for example, reflects much the same type of thinking.

Human beings are not preprogrammed computers, much less special-purpose tools that can only do one thing. As Robert Heinlein put it: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” These observations are doubly true in a time of crisis.

Third, we see again the excessive role played in our society by lawyers and specifically by civil litigation . In general, the airlines themselves oppose arming pilots…largely, most likely, for reasons of potential liability. Their liability concerns may not just be the obvious one..ie, pilot shoots passenger by mistake, but a more subtle one…if pilots are armed, the airline may be perceived as taking on an increased duty to prevent hijackings, and hence, damages in the event of a successful hijacking might be increased.

The explosion of civil litigation in this country has led organizations and individuals to view every situation from the standpoint of self-protection against lawsuits. To mention the schools once more, educational policy is being increasingly driven by fear of lawsuits, with baleful results. In case of war, lawyer-driven policy is even more harmful. An especially egregious example of that may have occurred in Afghanistan, where it was reported that we had Osama bin Laden in our sights but let him get away...because the decision on whether to fire was deferred to a JAG lawyer rather than being made promptly by the commander on the scene.

During World War II, we shot down Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s plane, which we were able to locate because of an intercepted radio message. Can anyone imagine that a lawyer would have been consulted before taking this action? Can anyone imagine that we would have won the war if we had fought it that way?

Fourth, we see an obsession with fictional images. Critics of armed pilots refer to “gunfights at 35,000 feet” as something “out of a Tom Clancy movie”. Haven’t they thought that deliberately crashing airplanes into buildings might be something out of a Tom Clancy movie, too? And whether or not something might appear in a movie is obviously irrelevant to its validity from a policy standpoint.

The critics seem particularly disturbed by the image of the pilot as John Wayne, holding off the bad guys with his trusty six-shooter—there have been sneers about “pilots and highjackers” taking the place of “cowboys and Indians.” Indeed, only two weeks ago the Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred sneeringly to the arming of pilots as “a cowboy idea that conjured a cowboy image.” The core image of the Western film—a man on his own, taking action—is clearly very threatening to some people—indeed, so threatening that they would rather die than admit it may have some truth in it.

Fifth, the opponents of arming pilots seem to have little comprehension of the relevant technologies. Reading their comments on this issue, one gets a feeling that they have no understanding of either aviation or of firearms. They seem to have a mental image of the pilot firing and missing, hitting the fuselage and bringing about explosive decompression…with the plane meanwhile careening wildly out of control as the pilot neglects his flight duties.

In actuality, frangible bullets are available which are unlikely to penetrate the fuselage. And even if they did, a small hole is unlikely to have much effect. Airliners are continually pressurized by multiple pumps (turbocompressors), and an “outflow valve” allows air to escape to maintain the desired pressure level. If air begins to escape from a bullet hole, the outflow valve will immediately begin to close in order to maintain the pressure.

Furthermore, there is no reason for the airplane to careen out of control. Airliners carry two qualified pilots: one can fly the airplane while the other deals with the terrorists. And all airliners have autopilots, which are perfectly capable of flying the airplane by themselves for several minutes. In most areas of the country, air traffic controllers will have the flight on radar, and will be able to vector other traffic out of the way.

Finally, those opposed to arming pilots seem unable to understand the concept of urgency. Pundits point out that the ideal situation would be to have an air marshal on every flight, make cockpits impenetrable, screen passengers better, etc. But even ignoring the huge economic impact, the problem of recruiting, screening, and training would be enormous. It could take years to staff up fully. But in the meantime, we must deal with reality as it is day-to-day. If another airliner crashes into a building, or has to be shot down by an F-16, then all the projects that were “in process” will provide mighty cold comfort.

There is always a tradeoff between speed and perfection, as reflected in the old proverb “the best is the enemy of the good”—ie, if you wait for the perfect solution, you will miss out on the practical solution that is available right now. In business and engineering, the perfectionist attitude can cost billions of dollars. In times of conflict, the implications can be much more serious. It is said that the Battle of Britain was won by the decision to go with a “third-best” radar—the best technical solution being un-buildable in practice, and the second being buildable but taking too long. Government officials who are unable to make such tradeoffs are a danger to national security.

On this specific issue of arming pilots, there is still hope. Both the House and the Senate have passed bills on this subject. Final legislation remains to be accomplished, however, and forces in the bureaucracy are likely to drag out the implementation. We may hope that effective action will occur before there is another dreadful occurrence.

But the mindset which has delayed action in this case still remains. As we have seen, it is a mindset which encompasses: unwillingness to face reality, excessive reliance on specialization and training, overemphasis on lawyer-driven solutions, obsession with fictional images, technological ignorance, and lack of a sense of urgency. This set of attitudes has become increasingly dominant among America’s opinion-making elite: the people who write editorials, anchor news shows, and teach college classes. If such thinking can prevail for so long--even in a life-and death matter where the facts are readily available--what hope is there for rational discussion on more complex and subtle matters, such as education?


Lionel Trilling has spoken of “the moral obligation to be intelligent.” Those who publicly “reason” along the lines discussed above are in violation of this obligation, and should be considered guilty of intellectual gross negligence.

*********

The Airline Pilots Security Alliance reports that a bill to accelerate the arming of pilots (The Cockpit Security and Technical Corrections Act) has been introduced. (See also this news report on the current situation and on the bill.) The passage of this bill would be a very positive step (although I personally don't think it goes far enough.) Please review the APSA web site and consider contacting your representatives on this matter.

8:02 AM

Wednesday, July 21, 2004  
HEALTH CARE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

The Administration is announcing today a long-term plan for increasing the use of information technology in health care, with particular emphasis on prescriptions and medical records. The report on "The Decade of Health Information Technology," which is the proposed strategic framework for the initiative, is here--I haven't read it yet but will probably have comments when I do. (I've written about this topic before.) And here's the agenda of the conference now being held to discuss the initiative.

The New York Times (7/21) reports that health care investment in information technology averages about $3,000 per worker, compared with $7,000 per worker in private industry and $15,000 per worker in banking. While I agree that healthcare IT investments need to be increased, I'm a bit skeptical of these comparisons. I feel fairly confident that the "information technology" numbers used for health care do not include the IT component of (for instance) CAT scanners--yet CAT scanners are computers and software, as well as being rotating machines. Similarly, I bet that the IT investment numbers for manufacturing don't include machine tools and robotics, even though this equipment is heavily dependent on the computers and software which is built into them. "Embedded systems" (in which computer systems are embedded within some larger piece of equipment) in general get too little attention when "information technology" is being discussed.


1:45 PM

Sunday, July 18, 2004  
INSIDE BLOGGING

Critic Terry Teachout has an interesting post on weblogs and where they are going. (It dates from February, but I just saw it recently.)


11:25 AM

 
ELECTRONIC PAPER UPDATE IV

I've written before about the emergence of electronic ink/electronic paper technologies. These technologies allow information to be displayed on a medium which is (a) thin, (b) flexible (to at least some degree), (c) readable in bright sunlight, and (d) power-efficient (power is used only when changing the page, not for display per se.) These technologies could have major implications for the display of long text documents, eliminating the current undesirable alternatives of reading it on the screen or going to the trouble of printing it out, and I think they could have tremendous influence on the future of the media industry (especially periodicals)

Sony has now released an actual product (Sony Librie) based on this technology. The product is reviewed in The Wall Street Journal (7/15) and, unfortunately, the review is not tremendously favorable. The reviewer does like the display--"looks almost identical to black print on white paper. For reading, it's a vast improvement over the liquid-crystal displays common in notebook computers.." He also took it out into bright sunlight, and still found it very readable.

The display didn't do as well on graphics, partly because there are only 4 levels of gray shading. Most seriously, it takes about a second to change from page to page.

The only content available comes from a site run by a Sony-affiliated company; only 600 books are now available (most of them in Japanese.) As I've previously noted, I don't think that book-reading is, at least initially, the best application for this technology: it would be more useful for periodicals and for simple downloading of computer information, to be read at one's leisure.

Hopefully, someone will release a product which takes better advantage of electronic paper and ink technologies sometime in the near future.

(Previous posts on this subject here, here, here, and here.)


9:43 AM

Saturday, July 17, 2004  
HOW SERIOUS ARE THEY REALLY?

The leaders of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA) have equated Israel with apartheid South Africa and have voted to stop investing in Israel. The church has total investment funds (foundation and pension) of around $7 billion. The decision passed by a vote of 431-62. (link here)

I have a question for those who voted in favor of this "divestment" decision:

Israeli companies are leaders in many aspects of drug development and medical technology. If you become ill, and you need treatment that requires the products of such companies, will you refuse such treatment?

Wouldn't it be rank hypocrisy for you to take advantage of products created by the very same enterprises that you are trying to starve of capital?


(Earlier post on Israeli medical technology here)

7:29 PM

 
DEMOCRATS VS ISRAEL, CTD

So the House of Representatives held a vote on a resolution condemning the ridiculous "International Court of Justice" condemnation of Israel's security wall. (More specifics here):

* 94.2% of the Republicans voted in favor of the resolution, with only 7.8% voting "Nay" or "Present" (or not voting)

* 71.7% of the Democrats voted in favor of the resolution, with 28.3% voting "Nay" or "Present" (or not voting)

28.3% (58 representatives) is a big number; it's more than a quarter and only a little less than a third. It can't be pretended any longer that anti-Israel views are only a fringe opinion within the Democratic Party.


7:10 AM

Thursday, July 15, 2004  
POSITIVE SUGGESTIONS

Much writing, in the blogosphere and the mainstream media alike, is devoted to pointing out problems with existing institutions. Here are a couple of detailed and well-thought-out suggestions for how to actually make things better:

Michael Porter and Elizabeth Olmsted Teisberg, of the Harvard Business School and the University of Virginia, respectively, propose changes in the way the U.S. healthcare system operates.

Timothy Burke of Swarthmore redesigns the liberal arts college.

8:28 AM

Wednesday, July 14, 2004  
RAIL CAPACITY CRUNCH, CTD

I posted previously on the bottlenecks in rail freight transportation. Washington Times reports that these problems are continuing. This is a real issue for companies like Dow Chemical, which makes 150,000 rail shipments annually. The problem is caused by increased rail freight traffic (up 5.3% the first six months of this year), combined in some cases with retirements of experienced employees and with inadequate equipment.

CSX, one of the two major east coast railroads, is hiring 1400 more people and buying 120 additional locomotives, while its rival Norfolk Southern plans to hire 1500 employees this year.

Rates are also headed upwards; Union Pacific is increasing rates for intermodal shipments (which would include most import traffic) by 9.5%.


8:54 AM

Tuesday, July 13, 2004  
A RANDOM RANT

Somewhere, I feel sure, there is a school of anti-marketing. In this school, students learn how to position and promote products in a manner which will minimize their success in the marketplace.

After students graduate, many of them go to work for the publishers of "classics" books.

At least that's the impression I get from walking by displays of these books in the bookstores. The cover art seems to say (especially to high-school students) I am boring...high-class, maybe but very borrring. Don't buy me unless you absolutely have to.

Obviously a subjective view...anyone agree or disagree?


3:25 PM

Sunday, July 11, 2004  
COTC

Carnival of the Capitalists is up at The Outsourcing Weblog. Carnival is a selection of current posts on business and economics.


2:36 PM

 
DUMB COMPANY TRICKS

My computer was recently infested with adware/spyware/whatever you want to call it. I switched my browser to Firefox, and downloaded and ran Ad-Aware...hopefully, the problem is solved, at least for the moment.

What's really disturbing, though, is to observe the number of supposedly-reputable companies that have chosen to deliver advertising in this manner. (Articles in major business magazines also confirm that large, well-known companies are using this kind of advertising vehicle.)

I doubt that very many people, if they understood in advance the impact that these adware/spyware programs would have on their computer-using experience, would have chosen to download such programs. Perhaps they didn't read the fine print carefully enough. In any event, I posit that in at least 90% of cases, the software in question is there despite the desires of the person on whose computer it is running.

There are many, many ways to conduct an advertising campaign. So why would a company choose jeopardize its reputation by associating with this particularly-sleazy way of doing things? I can think of only two reasons: (1) The company doing the advertising is itself a fundamentally-dishonorable organization, and would, given the chance and the ability to get away with it, directly employ deceptive business practices on its customers, or (2) (probably more common) the company has serious management and cultural problems to the point that some gnome 15 levels down in the Marcom department can make a choice like this without anyone in a responsible executive position thinking consciously about the impact.

In either case, it's probably a good idea to reassess any business relationships with such companies.


10:59 AM

Wednesday, July 07, 2004  
MONOLINGUAL DOG IS BANNED

A blind, French-speaking man signed up for an English-immersion course at the University of New Brunswick. But the university isn't letting him attend. Why? They have an iron-clad rule that only English may be spoken in the program--and the man's guide dog only speaks French.

The arrogance and casual brutality of the academic world continues to astound.



2:32 PM

Monday, July 05, 2004  
WORTHWHILE BLOG

Check out Letters from NYC, written by Michele (not to be confused with the Michele who writes A Small Victory.) There's a story that goes with this blog.

On 9/11, Michele lost many friends. Following a great amount of soul-searching, she re-evaluated her political opinions, which had previously been of the liberal persuasion, and published her conclusions on her blog. Many of the comments made by her formal friends were evidently quite offensive. Finally, her blog was hijacked and vandalized. You may find the evidence of that vandalism here.

Al Gore accuses people of being "digital brownshirts" for writing letters to the editor or making web posts of which he disapproves. Attempting to destroy someone else's web site because you don't agree with the content is real digital-brownshirt behavior. (The blog has now changed hosting providers and hopefully will be secure against further attacks.)

Read Michele's post J'accuse,written in the style of Emile Zola.

And link her blog. Let the leftist goons know that their acts of vandalism will not succeed in shutting down free speech.


7:47 AM

Sunday, July 04, 2004  
INDEPENDENCE, AMERICAN AND IRAQI

Some guy on a news program this morning was quoting from the Declaration of Independence, about the right of peoples to choose their own form of government--and then proceeded to attack the American intervention in Iraq, on the grounds that, by intervening in the affairs of another country, we are denying the Iraqi people this right. There's something especially obscene about using the ideals of the American Revolution to argue that the Iraqi people should have been left under the rule of Saddam Hussein--which is what the foregoing "logic" basically amounts to.

Suppose that America had fallen under the rule of home-grown dictators. Imagine your least-favorite group...whether extreme Christian fundamentalists (as in The Handmaid's Tale), leftist goons, or Ku Kluxers...had seized absolute power. Now imagine yourself living under the rule of this group, with absolutely no ability to change the situation or even to discuss possible change with other Americans. Imagine that friends, neighbors, and relatives disappeared frequently...many never to return, others returning with horrible mutilations.

Now suppose that India sent a powerful military force to overthrow the dictatorship and to return America to democratic governance. Would you feel that they were interfering with the right of the American people to choose their own form of government?

Anyone who would prefer home-grown dictators to Indian liberators is, I submit, either a racist or a fool. The right of a people to choose its own form of government is only meaningful when they have in fact the ability to exercise that right. The idea that a people has "chosen" a leader merely on the grounds that that leader is of the same nationality seems to me to be racist on its face.

The language in the Declaration of Indepencence reflects the specifics of the situation that existed at that point in time: the people of the American colonies were being oppressed by an overseas government. That is by no means the only form of oppression that exists.

Some may point to the existence of Iraqis who are fighting--against Americans and against the new Iraqi government--as evidence that Iraqis preferred the previous situation. But again, think about the scenario that I discussed above. If America had been ruled by a dictatorship for 20 years...don't you think that there would be a significant number of Americans whose collaboration with the dictatorship made them uneager to see its replacement? Wouldn't some of these likely fight against the liberation by Indian forces?..especially if Indian media were clamoring for a withdrawal and giving them hope that such withdrawal might actually occur? Would you want the Indian forces to pull out precipitously and abandon you to the vengeance of a restored dictatorship?

Or would you hope that the Indian people had the vision and stamina to support the liberation effort until American democracy had been once again secured?



12:37 PM

Thursday, July 01, 2004  
"A WHOLE NEW SET OF PROBLEMS"

The mental world inhabited by most New York Times letter-writers (not to mention the columnists) is very different from the one in which I live. In yesterday's NYT, for example, there is a letter which states in part:

"While we have removed a murderous dictator, we have left the Iraqi people with a whole new set of problems they never had to face before..." The writer then goes on to say that this has left "a fertile plant bed in which Al Quaeda can sow the seeds of terrorism."

There are, of course, many situations in which people and nations have to deal with sets of problems they have never had to face before. When the United States became independent, there were many new problems that we had never had to face before. When people were freed from slavery during the American Civil War, they faced many new problems that they had never had to face before. When the U.S. entered World War II, we had to carry out a two-front global war, a problem that we had never had to face before.

In what imaginable universe would people not have to deal with problems they had never faced before--and to do so, often, with very high stakes riding on the outcomes?



8:55 AM

 
MOORE AND NADER ON ISRAEL

Another quote from Michael Moore:

It's all part of the same ball of wax, right? The oil companies, Israel, Halliburton.

As David Brooks puts it, in Moore's worldview these entities seem to be "the epicenters of evil in the modern world."

And here's what Ralph Nader has to say:

What has been happening over the years is a predictable routine of foreign visitation from the head of the Israeli government. The Israeli puppeteer travels to Washington. The Israeli puppeteer meets with the puppet in the White House, and then moves down Pennsylvania Avenue, and meets with the puppets in Congress. And then takes back billions of taxpayer dollars...

If John Kerry were to become President...would he be able to resist the visceral loathing for Israel that is so increasingly dominant in the Democratic Party and among the "progressives" on its left flank?


7:45 AM

 
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