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Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
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Foundations of Bigotry?
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Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
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Repent Now
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They Made America
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PHOTON COURIER
 
Friday, December 31, 2004  
INTERESTING NUMBERS

Yesterday's WSJ (12/30) has some interesting numbers on unemployment rates. Out of the total unemployment number in the US, 8.5% were classified as long-term unemployed--that is, unemployed for 12 months or more. (This is 2002 data.) The data including corresponding numbers for certain other countries is shown below:

U.S. 8.5%
Britain 23.1%
Japan 30.8%
France 33.8%
Germany 47.9%
Italy 59.2%

I knew that Europe had a serious problem with long-term unemployment, but the differences from the US shown by these numbers are so dramatic that I first thought that perhaps the data was being skewed...by the set of people who have just plain given up on finding work dropped out of the job market. But evidently not--the "workforce participation rate" in the US is around 76%, which compares with rates of 61% to 72% for Japan, Germany, France, and Italy. So these differences are apparently real.

So, whatever our problems in the US with jobs--and I do not mean to minimize them in any way--Europe has a very serious issue with long-term unemployment (as does Japan, apparently), and it is going to be a difficult one to solve.

Financial Times (12/31) has an article on the attempts in Germany to deal with this problem. Effective Monday, benefits to the long-term unemployed will be cut substantially. Everyone claiming unemployment benefits after more than a year will receive the same amount regardless of their prior earnings, and failure to seek work seriously will bring cuts in benefits. There will also be more emphasis on job placement services. Not surprisingly, many Germans are not happy about the changes.

There is substantially less flexibility in most European economies than in the US economy, and the problems of long term unemployement there will not be easily solved.


7:22 AM

Thursday, December 30, 2004  
TSUNAMI INFORMATION

A good collection of information can be found at The Command Post, together with ways to contribute.

UPDATE: In today's Wall Street Journal (12/31), Daniel Henninger offers these thoughts:

I think if one experiences enough human tragedy by watching it on a screen, a TV or a PC, tragedy starts to look like a show. Rather than real, life becomes "realistic," moving us where we don't want to go, close to the experience of a video game.

Modern television news provides little context to its data and images. Print--old-fashioned, line-by-line reading--particuarly in the best newspapers, as provided the most help in comprehending this incomprehensible event.

Television's round-the-clock feeds of raw images, such as we are now seeing from Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka, are known in some circles as "data-passing." In daily life or as now amid catatropic disaster, technology pushes large amounts of information at us--data--that we don't have time to process and that we don't altogether comprehend. Who has time to think much about the images hopscotching around Sri Lanka, India or Malaysia when there's more drama on the way, adnd more after that/ The visual of shattered villages and broken families enthralls the eyes, but the emotions, like a pinball machine banged too hard, finally "tilt" and stop.

7:14 PM

Tuesday, December 28, 2004  
TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD, PASS II

Every morning 'bout seven o'clock
There were twenty tarriers workin' on the rock
And the boss comes along and he says "keep still!
And bear down harder on that cast-iron drill"

And drill, ye tarriers, drill
And blast, and fire


(The above lines are, of course, from the song Drill Ye Tarriers Drill. A "tarrier' was an Irish railroad construction worker.)

The transcontinental railway was completed on March 10, 1869. Now, both the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe are engaged in major projects for the complete double-tracking of their main lines between Chicago and Los Angeles (See WSJ 12/28). BNSF is ahead, but neither railroad is expected to finish the project before 2008.

Ironically, over the last few decade much American railroad mileage has gone from double-track to single track. One reason has been reduced traffic on some routes due to competition from trucks. Another reason is technology-driven: Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) allows switches and signals to be controlled from a point that may be hundreds of miles away...this allows better coordination and hence better utilization of line capacity. But even with CTC, the capacity of a single line is limited, and when traffic grows substantially, there comes the time to call out the tracklayers.

Even with benefit of modern machinery, it's still hard work. But working conditions are hopefully much better than they were the first time around:

The foreman's name was John McCann
By God, he was a mighty hard man
Last week a premature blast went off
And a mile in the air went big Jim Goff

And when next payday came around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
When he asked, "What for?" came this reply
"You were docked for the time you were up in the sky"

And drill, ye tarriers, drill



4:53 PM

Sunday, December 26, 2004  
Book Review: They Made America
Harold Evans
Rating: 4 Stars

You probably learned in school that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat. They probably didn't tell you, though, that Fulton lived in a menage a trois while he was in Paris. (And he didn't really invent the steamboat, though he made important improvements to it.)

This book is subtitled Two Centuries of Innovators. The category "innovators" includes, but is not restricted to, the classic inventor/entrepreneur. Along with people like Fulton, Edison, Ford, and George Eastman, the book profiles A P Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, Georges Doriot, who established the first true venture capital firm, Martha Matilda Harper, creator of the first retail franchise network, and Walt Disney. They Made America will be good reading for anyone who is interested in the history of technology and/or the history of business (and in my view, any practicing businessperson or serious investor would do well to become a student of business history.)

A couple of interesting tidbits: (continued)

2:52 PM

Friday, December 24, 2004  
CHRISTMAS EVE, 1906

98 years ago this evening, a few shipboard radio operators--listening through the static for signals in Morse code--heard something that they had never before heard on the radio, and that most had never expected to hear. A human voice.

The first voice radio broadcast was conducted by Reginald Fessenden, originating from his experimental station at Brant Rock, Massachussetts. After introducing the transmission, Fessenden played a recording of Handel's "Largo" and then sang "O Holy Night" while accompanying himself on the violin. Fessenden's wife and a friend were then intended to conduct a Bible reading, but in the first-ever case of mike fright, they were unable to do it, so the reading was conducted by Fessenden as well.

The signals were created by a high-frequency AC generator, an electromechanical device created by Ernst Alexanderson of GE and modified by Fessenden. The transmission took place at around 80KHZ. (Low frequency compared to today's normal radio, where the AM band starts at around 500KHZ; high frequency compared to the 60HZ that rotating machines normally produce.) I believe that the generator was powered by a steam turbine.

The Alexanderson machines were expensive and very large--broadcast radio on a commercial scale was not practical until the introduction of the vacuum tube for both transmitting and receiving, many years later.

More about Reginald Fessenden and his pioneering broadcast here.

1:26 PM

Thursday, December 23, 2004  
CHRISTMAS IN THE RADAR ROOM

If you're travelling by air this holiday season, give a thought to the people behind the scenes--the men and women in the control towers, the radar rooms, and the flight service stations. They have a lot to do with getting you there safely, and in as timely a fashion as possible. Almost all the time, they do a great job in orchestrating a vast and complex aerial ballet.

Here is an Air Traffic Control version of "The Night Before Christmas."

The FAA has recently announced a plan to hire as many as 12000 new controllers over the next several years. The controllers' union believes that the plan is not aggressive enough, and that the hiring needs to proceed on a faster-paced timetable.

8:46 PM

 
INTERESTING JUXTAPOSITION

Right next to the NYT article on Jeri Ellsworth (see below), there is the lead-in for an article headed An S.A.T. Tool Aimed at Children: A popular gift for children facing ever more standardized tests is the Time Tracker, which is meant to help children as young as 4 learn to manage their time. A professor of education and economics is quoted as saying, "Lower-middle-class parents are concerned about their school quality and their children's grades. The upper middle class is less concerned about the quality of the school than about the performance of their own kids on these make-or-break tests." The product's manufacturer, Learning Resources, describes it in these words: Perfect for: Study sessions, Projects, Tests, Experiments, Practice sessions, Classroom Assignments, Cooking, Hearing impaired and hundreds more uses!

Whatever the intentions of the manufacturer, I suspect that this product will be bought largely by those parents who are highly focused on getting their kids into "top colleges" and are, to a substantial extent, programming the kids' lives to that end.

And that brings me to my question. If Jeri Ellsworth's parents had micromanaged her early life with college admissions in mind--rather than just letting her hang around her father's garage and play with the Commodore 64--would she have become the creative and entrepreneurial person that she obviously is?

Let's just say that it surely wouldn't have improved the probability.

9:58 AM

Tuesday, December 21, 2004  
A NEW OLD PRODUCT

Here's a heartwarming story of entrepreneurial creativity, from the New York Times business section. Jeri Ellsworth, now 30, has always been intereted in both technology and business. At the age of 7, she started using a Commodore 64 computer, and soon learned to program it. As a teenager, she designed and sold dirt-track race cars, using her father's service station as a workshop. She later started a business to assemble personal computers, and eventually owned a chain of five computer stores. With declining margins in the industry, she sold the stores, and decided to return to one of her early enthusiasms, electronics. She enrolled in a circuit design program at a college, but left after less than a year--she was a cultural mismatch for the program where, she says, questioning the professors' answers was frowned upon.

She then decided to design a specialized chip that would emulate the behavior of her first computer, the Commodore 64. It eventually could also mimic other early home computers, including the Atari, TI, Vic, and Sinclair. After demonstrating her chip at an industry convention, she received considerable notice, and a series of job offers.

Mammoth Toys engaged her to turn her prototype into a commercial product. The chip was embedded in a joystick that connects by cable to a TV set. The product, which sells for $30, runs 30 video games from the early 1980s. It sold 70,000 units in one day when it was introduced on QVC last month. During the productization effort, Ms Ellsworth travelled to China to work directly with the manufacturing facility involved.

Andrew Singer, CEO of Rapport, says that Ms Ellsworth has abilities that engineers with advanced credentials often do not. "It's possible to get a credential and not have passion," he said, while comparing her to Steve Wozniak and Burrell Smith, the hardware designer of the original Macintosh--neither of whom had formal training when they made their most significant contributions at Apple.

The NYT reporter found Ellesworth leafing through a copy of MOS Integrated Circuits, a handbook from 1971, so more retrocomputing projects may well be in store.

Michele, who is an aficionado of old video games, should be very proud.


7:46 AM

Monday, December 20, 2004  
THE BROKER INDICATOR

Yesterday, I wrote about a stock market indicator based on the buy/sell decisions of corporate directors. Here's another indicator, which is currently giving opposite results. The Wall Street Journal (12/20) reports on a study of activity by stockbrokers, other brokerage employees, and investment bankers: specifically, trading decisions by these individuals with regard to their own companies' stock. An attempt is made to compensate for option positions: for example, if an individual exercises 10,000 options, sells 5,000 shares, and holds the rest, then this is regarded as a net "buy" transaction.

The article reports that over the time period 1990-2004, consistent buying of their own firms' stock by brokerage employees has been a good leading indicator for the S&P 500 in the next year. At present, such buying activity is going on with a consistency not seen in 7 years, and selling among the same population is the slowest it has been in 10 years.

This indicator is a bit counterintuitive to me...after all, most Wall Street people are, directly or indirectly, in the business of selling securities. It's hard to sell something you don't believe in, so I would think psychological factors would lead to a consistent bullish bias on the part of this group of people. But maybe not. Anyhow, an interesting contract with yesterday's indicator.

As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.

4:06 PM

Sunday, December 19, 2004  
THE BOARD INDICATOR

Trading by insiders is often used as a stock-market indicator. (As used here, the term refers simply to the buying and selling of securities by people--officers and directors--who by virtue of their position are corporate insiders. It carries no implication of illegal "insider trading" activity.)

One problem with the indicator, at least in recent years, is that senior corporate officers generally have substantial option positions--often representing a high proportion of their personal assets. So for reasons of pure portfolio diversification, it often doesn't make sense for them to buy company stock directly, even if they think the price is attractive, and it does often make sense for them to sell stock, even if they think the price is likely to be headed up...simply to avoid overconcentration and the associated risks.

These considerations seem to be much less applicable to Board of Directors members, though, since (a) the option grants to board members tend to usually be more modest that those to top officers, and (b) board members often serve on the boards of several companies. Thus, I think that trading by board members may be a more interesting indicator than trading by officers.

Barrons (12/20) has an chart of buy/sell ratios by directors of U.S. public companies over the last 24 years. An eyeball analysis of the chart indicates that the sell/buy ratio, which is quite volatile, has most typically been in the range 1 to 3....on rare occasions, it has been as low as .4 (ie, twice as many "buys" as "sells"), and these occasions indeed presaged significant upward movements of the S&P Index. The sell/buy ratio currently stands at 6, a ratio which has been exceeded only once before in 30 years, although ratios above 4 have been encoutered several times. My superficial analysis of the chart suggests that high ratios are not as good an indicator of an overvalued market as low ones are of an undervalued one...nevertheless, interesting and somewhat worrisome data.

As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.

See also: The Harvard Indicator.






1:19 PM

Thursday, December 16, 2004  
60 YEARS AGO TODAY

On December 16, 1944, the Battle of the Bulge began. The Germans had managed to secretly concentrate large forces in what the American command considered to be a quiet sector. Snippets of intelligence had suggested that something was going on, but the dots had never been connected. The German assault, when it came, was a complete surprise, and was on a massive scale. By Christmas, the Germans had forced a 50-mile-deep bulge in the American lines.

By the time the battle was over, sixteen thousand Americans had been killed, and sixty thousand had been wounded or captured. German casualties were probably at least twice that.

A good summary by Paul Greenberg is here.

See also this description.


4:00 PM

Wednesday, December 15, 2004  
***BRIEFLY SURFACING--MORE RERUNS***

Taking advantage of a wideband connection to post a few more reruns for your reading pleasure...

MISVALUING MANUFACTURING
(Originally posted 12/10/03)

In the blogosphere and in the media, there have recently been many comments running basically as follows: "We're better off without all those manufacturing jobs, anyhow...let the boring assembly line jobs be done somewhere else, and let our people concentrate on high-value knowledge work."

I believe that comments like these reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of manufacturing. (continued)

***

AN ACADEMIC BUBBLE?
(Originally posted 5/2/03)

Over at Critical Mass, there's recently been much discussion of Brooklyn College. This is the institution at which English professor Frederick Lang was removed from the classroom--evidently in large part due to his hard-nosed grading policies and his unpopular habit of writing honest comments on student papers.

The devaluation of standards in academia has been going on for a long time. Eric, a commenter at Critical Mass, reports on a conversation that took place at SUNY--Stony Brook when he was a professor there. Faculty members were discussing the math final grades:

"What should the minimum D be?"

"180 out of 420."

"No, we'd fail too many people."

They eventually decided on 140 out of 420. At this point, Eric asked:

"Bernie, would you trust someone who got 140 out of 420 to do your taxes?"

"Eric, that's not the point."

"Would you trust him to be your doctor?"

"Eric, that's not the point."

"Would you trust him to build a bridge for you?"

"Eric, that's not the point."

So what is the point?

Of course, we all know what the point really is. (continued)

***

SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP

As the U.S. prepared for war with Iraq, many American religious leaders vehemently opposed such action--and continue to do so. And the tone of their statements is often, as Michael Novak has noted, "bombastic, fiery and murderously polemical. They are not content to disagree civilly. They describe their opponents as evil, venal, and brainless. They calumniate."

Writing in The Weekly Standard, Joseph Loconte looks at what religious leaders were saying during an earlier debate about war and peace--that which took place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the threat grew from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. These statements, although made 60 and more years ago, have a contemporary ring to them.

German militarism, said one Methodist minister, "may be provoked by bitter belief..that there is no peaceful way of solving a desperate economic problem." Condemnation of Hitler, according to a leader in the United Church of Christ, was a "short-circuited, adolescent hatred of individual leaders." And a Unitarian minister in New York said that "If America goes into the war, it will not be for idealistic reasons but to serve her own imperialistic interests." The it's-all-our-fault line was echoes by a Reverend Holmes, who said that a German victory should be viewed as "the punishment for our transgressions." Stunningly, comments along these lines continued to be made in 1940 and even in 1941.

One wonders if the people who said these things ever reflected on just how wrong they were. One wonders, also, if the outspoken Reverends of our own day are familiar with this history.

(Hat tip to Relapsed Catholic for the Novak article.)

1:25 PM

Thursday, December 09, 2004  
***RERUN SEASON***

I'm going to be travelling for the next few days, and may not have Internet access. Here are reruns of some previous posts that I think are still relevant and hopefully thought-provoking.

SUPERHEATED 'STEEM
(Originally posted 10/31/02)

A kid I know got his first introduction to self-esteem training a couple of years ago, when he was six. All the children in the kindergarten had to watch a video on the general theme "You are wonderful." Sam came home and asked his mom, "How can the people who made the video be so sure I'm wonderful? They don't even know me!" So a 6-year-old has more sense than the mainstream of our educational establishment. (continued)

***

A DIFFERENT SEPTEMBER 11 ANNIVERSARY
The Heroism of Noor Inayat Khan
(Originally posted 9/11/04)

60 years ago today, a woman named Noor Inayat Khat was executed at the Dachau concentration camp. The name is not something one would expect among a roster of concentration camp inmates in 1944. She was not Jewish, nor indeed European. Although she had been in France at the time of the German invasion of 1940, she had escaped with her family to England, and could have remained there safely for the duration of the war. Why was she in Dachau?

Her story is one that deserves to be better known.

Noor (the name means "light of womanhood") was the child of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leader of the Sufi movement, and his American wife. She was a descendent of Tippu Sultan, a prince who had been one of the most effective enemies of British rule in India. Strangely, she was born in Moscow, where certain members of the Czar's court were interested in Sufiism. After the Revolution, the family moved to a suburb of Paris. Noor is remembered as gentle, shy, musical, dreamy, and poetic. She was noted for her kindness to animals, and it was to her that neighborhood children often brought an injured kitten or puppy. She attended the Sorbonne and became a writer of children's books and stories; she broadcast some of her stories on the radio. (Her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, is still in print.) (continued)

***

BOOK REVIEW: The Forging of a Rebel
Arturo Barea.....Rating: 5 Stars
(Originally posted 1/1/03)

We had to fight them. This meant that we would have to shell or bomb Burgos and its towers, Cordova and its flowered courtyards, Seville and its gardens. We would have to kill so as to purchase the right to live.

I wanted to scream.


The Spanish Civil War is more relevant to Americans than it might have seemed a few years ago. In the aftermath of 9/11, it is easier to imagine the reality of a Madrid under sustained shellfire. In the environment of hysterical political correctness which exists on so many campuses, it is easier to understand how a casual remark could land someone in front of a firing squad. And in a time of suicide bombings, the slogan "Long Live Death" (first adopted by the Spanish Foreign Legion and later by the Fascist movement) becomes even more chilling.

This book is "about" the Spanish Civil War, but it is not conventional military or political history. It is the story of Spain in the first half of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of one man. The writing is so rich, dense, and vivid that reading it is like finding yourself inside someone else's dream. (continued)

***

MANAGEMENT MENTALITIES
(Originally posted 6/27/04)

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." (continued)

***

THE DICTATORSHIP OF THEORY
(Originally posted 6/22/03)

Professor "X" teaches at a prominent private university. Recently, he taught a course on "Topics in Theory and Criticism." He thought the class was going poorly--it was difficult to get the students to talk about the material--but on the last day of class, he received an ovation.

"I didn't understand what was going on until a few days later," he writes (in an e-mail to Critical Mass.) "Several students came to see me during office hours to tell me that they had never taken a course quite like this one before. What they had expected was a template-driven, "here's how we apply ****ist theory to texts" approach, because that is how all of their classes are taught in the English department here...Not a single one of these students had ever read a piece of theory or criticism earlier than the 1960s (with the exception of one who had been asked to read a short excerpt from Marx.) They simply had never been asked to do anything other than "imitate without understanding.""

(continued)

***

WORTH PONDERING
(Originally posted 6/28/03)

Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well...Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted...We refuse to believe that the "civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.


This from the incisive writer and former soldier Ralph Peters (in his book Beyond Terror.)

6:30 AM

Wednesday, December 08, 2004  
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

If you've ever gone on a road trip with your dog(s), you've probably experienced problems in finding hotels/motels that will accept them. Check out DogFriendly.com to find suitable places.

8:12 PM

 
JUST RIDICULOUS

The Washington Times reports as follows:

Thomas Quinn, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), paid a surprise visit to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Thanksgiving to thank the law-enforcement officials for their holiday work. He reportedly was angered when nearly 30 marshals deplaned and only one was dressed satisfactorily.

In response, supervisors are being assigned to airports nationwide to inspect the air cops before and after flights to make sure business suits or sports coats are being worn, according to numerous memos issued last week and obtained by The Washington Times.


and

Air marshals are being told that if their dress is not up to snuff, they will be suspended from flight duty. They are referring to the incident as the "Thanksgiving Day massacre."

and

Marshals say the strict code does not take climate into consideration. In the Miami heat, marshals are required to keep their suit coats on at all times, yet in Pittsburgh, agents are forbidden from wearing overcoats in cold weather. "You wear a sports coat, or you wear a suit coat, or you look for another job," agents were told Monday.

Several points. First, an insistence on a rigid dress policy does not help the agents to "blend in" with the general flying public--quite the contrary. People might have gotten dressed up to fly back in 1975--they rarely do today. This is especially true during the holiday season and on vacation routes. Second, removing people from duty because of a dress code, at a time when we already have a shortage of Air Marshals compared with what we need, is irresponsible and dangerous. This sin is compounded by the assignment of supervisor resources to track this issue. Third, this kind of policy rigidity is almost certain to be devastating to the morale of the organization. And finally, I think that when executives focus excessively on issues like dress codes, they are usually taking their eye off the ball on things that really matter.

Sounds to me like some serious management change is called for at this agency.

1:51 PM

Tuesday, December 07, 2004  
BAD BUSINESS WRITING

The New York Times has an article about the problems caused by inadequate writing skills of many people who work in business. They seem to think that the problem is caused largely by the expansion of e-mail...that many people who previously communicated orally must now communicate in writing, and aren't very good at it.

Although there are indeed many badly-written e-mails floating around, much bad writing also occurs in forms that predate e-mail...such a press releases. Last year, I wrote the following:

Many corporate press releases read as if they were written by the pointy-haired guy in Dilbert. I was just reading one that goes, more or less, as follows (with names changed to protect the guilty):

Amalgamated Entities today announced its enhanced, best-of-breed Gerbilator product. The Gerbilator 5000 represents an industry-leading solution, using state-of-the art technology...

So what is a Gerbilator 5000? A piece of software? A consumer electronics device? An industrial robotics system? A diesel locomotive? The catch-phrases could apply equally well to any of them.

This isn't good writing, and it isn't good selling. Your potential customers aren't going to be impressed with chest-thumping: they want to know what the product does and why they should want it.

Part of the problem here is that, too often, press releases are drafted by outside agencies or internal marketing communications people who have minimal familiarity with the business, and thus fall back on generic terms because that's all they can do. The fault lies equally with them and with the line management of the business--with the line management, because they need to take a more active role in the creation and review of press releases, and with the PR people, because they need to insist on this and to broaden their knowledge of the business (and also maintain some minimal level of writing standards.)

I'm a strong advocate of the PR function: properly done, it can be more effective than advertising--and usually a lot cheaper. But "properly done" occurs in far too few cases.


Press releases don't usually contain obvious grammatical or spelling errors, like those in the e-mails cited in the NYT article...but they do often fail to communicate information effectively.

6:00 PM

 
DECEMBER 7, 1941

Today is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the forces of Imperial Japan. Good historical summary here.

1:26 PM

Monday, December 06, 2004  
NEW FRONTIERS IN OFFSHORING

Via Daniel Drezner comes this article on teleradiology (registration required). The idea is that medical images (x-rays, CAT scans, etc) are digitized and sent to India for review, rather than being analyzed locally. Two advantages: first, the time zone effect helps with getting work done when a scan needs to be analyzed in the middle of the night, and second, radiologists in India are said to work for about 1/10 the stated median $350K salary for U.S. radiologists.

This example of offshoring raises questions for people on both sides of the debate about offshoring and international trade.

For those who favor restrictions on offshoring: If teleradiology indeed has the potential to be successful on a large scale--and if it were to be restricted--the U.S. would be foregoing a reduction in healthcare costs (or, at least, in the rate of increase in healthcare costs) while at the same time using government action to protect the incomes of a fairly well-compensated group of professionals. Is this a good thing, and if so, why? (And, if your answer is that offshoring should be restricted in most cases but not in this case--what decision rule do you propose for distinguishing betweeen cases where it should and should not be restricted? And is there any evidence that government decisions on this kind of thing would be made on any basis other than political infighting of the lowest kind?)

For those who oppose restrictions on offshoring and favor unrestricted free trade: An argument often made by those on your side of the debate is that it is lower-skill jobs that will tend to be outsourced, allowing Americans to concentrated on higher-skilled and more-rewarding activities. If teleradiology succeeds on a large scale, can this belief still be justified?

6:04 PM

Saturday, December 04, 2004  
WORTH PONDERING

The true aim of literary studies is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him "the spectator," if not of all, yet of much, "time and existence." The student, or even the schoolboy, who has been brought by good (and therefore mutually disagreeing) teachers to meet the past where alone the past still lives, is taken out of the narrowness of his own age and class into a more public world. He is learning the true Phaenomenologie des Geistes; discovering what varieties there are in Man. "History" alone will not do, for it studies the past mainly in secondary authorities. It is possible to "do History" for years without knowing at the end what it felt like to be an Anglo-Saxon eorl, a cavalier, an eighteenth-century country gentleman. The gold behind the paper currency is to be found, almost exclusively, in literature. In it lies deliverance from the tyranny of generalizations and catchwords.

( C S Lewis )

previous Worth Pondering

7:57 PM

Friday, December 03, 2004  
LOVE ON THE NET

George McCutcheon was in the business of selling periodicals, and he wanted to be able to take orders on the net. He wasn't very into technology, so he asked his teenage daughter, Maggie, to handle that part of the business. Maggie soon had the connection working, but also used it to flirt with many men she met on-line. She invited one of them, Frank, to visit her in the real world. Her father found out, and was furious...furious to the point that he threatened to kill her if she saw Frank again. Maggie had her father arrested and charged with threatening behavior.

Yawn, you say...why is this newsworthy? Things like this probably happen all the time.

The above incident, though, happened in the 1880s, and was written up in the 1886 edition of Electrical World. The "net" referred to above was the telegraph network.

The early history of telegraphy shows many parallels to the recent history of the Internet. These parallels are explored in the book The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, which mentions the above story. (Also referenced in the link here.)

Turns out there were many female telegraph operators, and on-line romances were fairly common. There were also many telegraph-oriented scams (though as far as I know none of them involved Nigerian businessmen)...and there were optimistic views that the telegraph, by bringing nations closer together and preventing misunderstandings, would help make war obsolete.

3:00 PM

Thursday, December 02, 2004  
GOON SQUAD

The entire press run for the November issue of the Yale Free Press, a conservative publication, has been stolen. Stealing of publications that challenge the prevailing campus orthodoxies--for the purpose of preventing them from being read--has, of course, become common on America's campuses. The perpetrators are usually people who consider themselves to be "progressives."

Based on the linked article, it doesn't sound like the Yale administration is being very aggressive in investigating this crime.

Previous Goon Squad post


3:18 PM

Wednesday, December 01, 2004  
DUMB COMPANY TRICKS

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a CD player with an adapter for an automobile tape deck. The CD player works fine, except for one irritating trick. Whenever you start it/ stop it/ pause it/ skip a track, it emits a high-pitched, very loud and irritating beep.

After I finally got around to reading the instructions, I discovered that there was some way to use a "menu" function to disable the beep. But why was the beep ever used in the first place? You can tell when the music starts, because you hear it. You can tell when it stops, because you stop hearing it. A beep seems totally redundant. But even if the manufacturer felt it necessary to provide it as an option, why didn't they set the default to no-beep rather than to beep? It would probably be less irritating to 90% of customers, and the remaining 10% could use the menu to enable the beep.

This particular user interface was perpetrated by Sony. If any Sony people in the relevant organizations happen to read this, I'd be curious to know what your thinking was.

Yeah, in the scale of things this is a really trivial matter. But the choice of a particular low-priced consumer electronics product from among many competing alternatives is also a pretty trivial matter, in the galactic scale of things. The next time I see the Sony logo, I'll remember how irritating the beep was.

User interfaces are a key part of product design, and few companies cover themselves with glory in this area.


3:55 PM

 
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