Thursday, March 30, 2006
CHURCHILL: ON INTIMIDATION
In the late 1930s, Winston Churchill spoke of the "unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure...In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands" which "may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty." A "policy of submission" would entail "restrictions" upon freedom of speech and the press. "Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians." (excerpt is from The Last Lion: Alone, by William Manchester.)
Churchill's concern was not just a theoretical one. Following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, photographs were available showing the plight of Czech Jews, dispossessed by the Nazis and wandering the roads of eastern Europe. Dawson, editor of The Times, refused to run any of them: it wouldn't help the victims, he told his staff, and if they were published, Hitler would be offended. (same source as above.)
Aren't we today seeing examples of the kind of fear-based submission about which Churchill warned, both in Europe and in the United States?
UPDATE: A case in point here, with discussion here.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
FORMER TALIBAN OFFICIAL AT YALE, CONTINUED
Just about everyone knows by now about Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the former Taliban official who was admitted to Yale University and is now studying there--and about the arrogance displayed by Yale toward those who questioned this admissions decision. Now it turns out that Yale was asked, in 2002, if it would be interested in accepting an Afghan woman (who obviously would not have held a position under the Taliban government.) In a letter to Yale, Paula Nirschel, who founded the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, asked that institution if it wanted to award a spot in its next entering class to an Afghan woman. Yale declined, as did many other universities.
Makai Rohbar, is an Afghan student in New Haven who doesn't attend Yale--she goes to Gateway Community College. Like Hashemi, she has only a high school equivalency degree, because schooling in the refugee camp where she grew up was limited. She had never imagined that she could be accepted into Yale or ever find a way to pay for it.
WSJ writer John Fund asked what she thought about Mr. Hashemi attending Yale with the help of a Wyoming foundation and a discount from Yale of 35% to 40% on tuition. "It's like a nightmare that you can't believe when you wake up," she said. "This is a good country, but I think some people in New Haven are so complacent they don't know what officials like Hashemi did to my people."
As a reminder of what the Taliban did do to the people of Afghanistan, Fund cites the documentary film Afghanistan Unveiled.:
The heart of the film is a searing journey to Bamiyan, a place that made headlines in March 2001, when the Taliban blew up giant 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha there. That month Mr. Hashemi visited me and my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal to launch an impassioned defense of the destruction of the monuments, which had been declared a world heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
At the time, no one knew what else the Taliban were doing in Bamiyan beyond blowing up Buddhas. Nearby, the Afghan video journalists found the remnants of the Hazara tribe. One survivor told them the Taliban had "tried to exterminate" the entire tribe, starting with the men.
Zainyab, a Hazara woman so thin and wrinkled that her age was indeterminate, was found by video journalist Marie Ayub living in a cave "like an animal." She told the filmmakers that "from hundreds of women here, not one has a husband. From 100 children, maybe just one still has two parents. They bulldozed houses with women and children inside; they cut off women's breasts."
And here is a very interesting document from something called the International Education Foundation, which facilitated Hashemi's entry into Yale. Note this extract:
The first phase is modest: to take one former Taliban government official from Afghanistan and get him into a top university in the United States and support his education – and understanding.
And, while at that university, this Afghan will teach about the perspective and logic that led up to the Taliban playing a part in the action against us. Behind every action is a unique perspective and rationale. When this person returns to the political world in Afghanistan – he will be changed – those who met and listened to him – they will be changed.
Rahmatullah Hashemi was the chief translator for Mullah Omar who was the head and founder of the infamous Taliban of Afghanistan. At the age of 21, he became a roving ambassador under the foreign minister – Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil - and traveled to the west as translator and ambassador. In the spring of 2001 he came to the U.S. for a series of talks to try and bridge the growing gulf between the moderate Taliban and the U.S. government.
(Note the reference Hashemi's trip to the U.S. in the spring of 2001 "to try and bridge the growing gulf between the moderate Taliban and the U.S. government"--with no mention of his defense of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas during that very same trip.) Reading this document, it seems pretty clear that to the International Education Foundation, Hashemi's Taliban connection was "a feature not a bug," to use the phrase sometimes employed in the software industry. And given Yale's decision to admit Heshemi, while turning down the opportunity to admit Afghan women, it seems likely that the same is true of the university itself.
Monday, March 27, 2006
SIGNS & PORTENTS
A venture focused on news content syndication, which will compete with traditional wire services like the Associated Press, has been launched under the name Mochila. (The name, pronounced mo-CHEE-luh, is the Spanish word for knapsack, and is a reference to the mochilas used by the Pony Express.)
Sellers (who are expected to be newspapers, magazines, web sites, and broadcasters) establish the fees for their content, and purchasers (other similar entities) can get this content on a by-the-drink basis. Mochila, of course, will take a substantial cut from each transaction.
Mochila's web site is here.
See also the NYT article: An Online Syndicate Plans to Challenge News Wires.
Carnival of the Capitalists is up at Decker Marketing.
And Carnival of the Insanities is at Dr Sanity.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
THE STORY OF A SOFTWARE FAILURE
Greatest Debacle in the History of Organized Work?
About a year ago, I wrote about the failure of the FBI's Virtual Case File System...which was intended, among its other purposes, to permit the integration of multiple sources of data about terrorist activity. Failures of large software projects are, of course, nothing new. One of the most famous failures was the FAA's project to develop the "Advanced Automation System" for air traffic control. Robert N Britcher, who was involved with the project and has studied and written about it extensively, remarks that it may have been the greatest debacle in the history of organized work.
Before going further, I'd like to emphasize that this post is not intended as FAA-bashing. I think the FAA's air traffic control organization, in particular, does, for the most part, a pretty darned good job. It is very, very rare for airplanes under ATC control to run into each other, and that is, after all, what it's all about. Much of the strident criticism directed at the FAA in the media seems to be to be both unfair and not very knowledgeable.
The Advanced Automation System, though, really does seem to have been a goat rodeo on a truly amazing scale.
The AAS, which was begun in 1981, was to be a revolutionary system that would drive sweeping change in all aspects of air traffic control--"as radical a departure from well-worn mores and customs as the overflow of the czars," as Britcher puts it. Computers had been used in air traffic control since the late 1960s, when an IBM-based system for enroute control was put in place, along with a UNIVAC-based system for terminal-area control. These systems operated successfully for many years, but by the early 1980s, they were growing a bit long in the tooth. Air traffic had dramatically expanded, and congestion was increasing. The federal government was facing budget pressures, and was looking for cost savings. And, in the aftermath of the controllers strike (1981), anything that would reduce staffing requirements was attractive to FAA management. Finally, radical automation projects were in the zeitgeist--it was also in the early 1980s that Roger Smith would kick off his gigantic (and ultimately not very successful) project for the comprehensive use of robotics in General Motors assembly plants.
The radical ambitiousness of the AAS was described metaphorically by an engineer who worked on the project:
You're living in a modest house and you notice the refrigerator deteriorating. The ice sometimes melts, and the door isn't flush, and the repairman comes out, it seems, once a month. Then you notice it's bulky and doesn't save energy, and you've seen those new ones at Sears. The first thing you do is look into some land a couple of states over, combined with several other houses of similar personality. Then you get I M Pei and some of the other great architects and hold a design run-off...
The design run-off, in this case, was between Hughes and IBM. IBM won. The $3.7 billion contract was celebrated with a great ball at Union Station in Washington, DC, featuring Chubby Checker and "The Twist."
Almost immediately things started to go wrong.
SIGNS & PORTENTS
Legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (a founder of Sun Microsystems) has lately been putting money into energy-related ventures. He's particularly interested in cellulosic ethanol: instead of being produced from corn or sugarcane, it's made from wild grasses (miscanthus, switchgrass) and from plant waste and wood chips.
The New York Times (3/26) quotes Mr Khosla: "Ethanol is cheaper to produce, unsubsidized, than gasoline today. As these technologies ramp up, they will be cheaper--unsubsidized--than gasoline even if petroleum drops to $35 a barrel."
The article also quotes Daniel Kammen, a professor at UC Berkeley, to the effect that ethanol can be produced from sugarcane at $6 to $7 per gigajoule (a unit of energy) versus $14 a gigajoule for oil-based gasoline. (I'm not sure if he's using US-based or Brazilian-based costs: if the latter, I am sure that the numbers don't include the ridiculous import tariff that the US now has on Brazilian ethanol See also here for more on the tariff.)
Here is a report on a talk that Mr Khosla gave in India last month on the subject of biofuels.
As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.
Neo-Neocon has a three-part series about art, kitsch, and propaganda: here are parts one, two, and three. All three posts have active discussion threads.
Virginia Postrel writes about how container freight has changed the world, and also links this well-written article on the subject.
A single ship can carry 6000-7000 twenty-foot containers (or a proportionately smaller number of forty-foot containers, which have become increasingly popular. As a result of the tremendous efficiency of these vessels: for a bottle of Australian wine sold in Europe for seven and a half euros, transporation makes up only about 12 cents of the price.
More information about Malcom McLean, the creator of the container shipping industry, at my post here.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
COMPUTERS IN THE CLASSROOM: A CONTRARIAN VIEW
Michael Schrage, always an interesting and thoughtful writer, has a column in Wednesday's Financial Times. Excerpt:
What better way to breed cognitively spoilt children than sparkly tools that interactively cater to their impatience and short attention spans? Tears of frustration are an essential part of education. The ability to press on even in the absence of simulated cooing and "isn't this fun?" encouragement matters. But most educational software has nothing to do with cultivating character. Character does not even rise to the level of an afterthought. It is all Rousseau and no Epictetus.
This absence of character is sadly revealing. Classroom computing offers less of a bold vision than a cowardly cheat by technocrats counting on technical innovation to shield themselves from hard questions about what schools should be. That sensibility is emblematic of a monied elite that would rather buy tools than go through the painful process of determining how best to use them.
Of course, computers in the classroom don't have to be used as "sparkly tools' catering to short attention spans...there are lots of other things one could do with them. But, given the overall nature of K-12 educational thinking in the U.S., the odds are that 95% of the time they will be used in the way Schrage fears.
"All Rousseau and no Epictetus"... a great line, though probably lost on most professional educators. I also like the line about those who would "rather buy tools than go through the painful process of determining how best to lose them"...there is far too much of this in the corporate world as well, though in that case the need for profitability at least puts some eventual rationality into the process.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
CHURCHILL ON RHETORIC
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.
From a paper titled The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, written by Winston Churchill in 1897, at the age of 23.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
DENMARK-BASHING BY AMERICAN MEDIA
60 Minutes ran what seems to have been basically a hit piece on Denmark. Samuel Rachlin, one of Denmark's most distinguished journalists, is not happy:
The picture of Denmark presented by CBS and its 60 Minutes magazine on American TV as a country of aggrandizing, arrogant bigots, blond models and happy-go-lucky fools out of tune and touch with the real world has nothing in common with the country I call home.
This kind of journalism does not have much in common with the tradition of Ed R. Murrow or what his associate, Fred Friendly, taught me at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University when I took my degree there in the late 70ies.
From speaking to colleagues at Jyllandsposten, I understand that the message from the 60 Minutes producers was that they should line up for the interviews or else… The tone and attitude were intimidating. This is 60 Minutes and we are not accustomed to be turned down. Well, we saw what “or else” means in Bob Simon’s school of journalism.
Read the whole thing.
(via Michelle Malkin)
Friday, March 17, 2006
SUPERHEATED 'STEEM IN THE WORKPLACE, CTD
See my post at Chicago Boyz.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
ACADEMIC ARROGANCE, #3414343432
As almost everybody knows by now, Yale university chose to admit Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former high official of the Taliban, as a student. Yale's former dean of admissions even referred to this individual as a prize catch for the school.
In protest of Yale's decision to admit Hashemi..and its unresponsivenes to questions about this matter...two young Yale grads named Clinton Taylor and Debbie Bookstaber launched a protest called Called NailYale. This is in reference to the Taliban's practice of yanking out the fingernails of women who wore nail polish. In a column on TownHall.com, Taylor and Bookstaber alumni "not give one red cent this year, but instead send Yale a red press-on fingernail."
After the column was published, Taylor and Bookbstaber received an anonymous email with the subject heading: "Y [sic] do you hate Yale." Quoted in its entirity, the email reads:
What is wrong with you? Are you retarded? This is the most disgraceful alumni article that I have ever read in my life. You failed to mention that you've never contributed to the Yale Alumni Fund in your life. But to suggest that others follow your negative example is disgusting.
Taylor traced the email to the office of Yale Law School's assistant director of giving, Alexis Surovov. In a telephone conversation, Surovov accused Taylor of "terrorist tactics," later amended to "terror tactics." When Wall Street Journal writer called Surovov, the latter largely defended Yale's refusal to answer questions on the ex-Taliban official by saying, "We can't respond to every political case. We need to show the university isn't here to make political decisions." When Fund asked him if admitting a key propagandist for the Taliban was a political decision, he claimed he was "only vaguely aware of Taliban practices." (Surovov is himself a Yale graduate.)
Fund called Yale at noon last Friday to ask if any official would talk to me about any aspect of the Rahmatullah case. At noon on Saturday, Yale called back to say that once again no official would grant an interview of any kind. (See Fund's report on this matter here.)
As of today, Fund reports that Yale has "temporarily suspended" Surovov and stated that "We deeply regret his inappropriate and unauthorized behavior." Does anyone think--given Yale's earlier stonewalling on a mere request for an interviw--that this suspension would have happened if the blogosphere had not kept this issue alive?
The written document that Yale finally put out last week stands as a monument to academic blindness and arrogance:
Ramatullah Hashemi escaped the wreckage of Afghanistan and was approved by the U.S. government for a visa to study in this country. Yale has allowed Hashemi to take courses for college credit in a part-time program that does not award Yale degrees. Contrary to what has been reported by some in the media, he has not been admitted as an undergraduate to Yale College or to any of the other schools at Yale. We hope that his courses help him understand the broader context for the conflicts that led to the creation of the Taliban and to its fall. We acknowledge that some are criticizing Yale for allowing Hashemi to take courses here, but we hope that critics will also acknowledge that universities are places that must strive to increase understanding, especially of the most difficult issues that face the nation and the world.
One way to "increase understanding" would be to ensure that Yale graduates and officials actually have enough education and intellectual curiosity to be more than "vaguely aware" of things like the Taliban. Another would be to create an organizational climate in which it is understood that you do not behave abusively to alumni...or others...because they disagree with you.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
A NEW ANGLE ON WIND POWER
...a 90-degree angle, to be precise. The Economist (3/11) reports on a new wind turbine design developed by a company called TMA. Standard wind turbines rotate around a horizontal axis, like an old-fashioned windmill; the TMA turbine rotates around a vertical axis, like a merry-go-round (or a typical hydraulic turbine.) In the standard turbine, the blade at the top of the cycle is in compression from its own weight, while at the bottom of the cycle the weight puts it in tension: no such effect occurs in the TMA turbine, and the blades are also said to be easier to fabricate. Some experts quoted in the Economist article think that offshore turbines using the TMA technology can be built up to ten megawatts, as against five megawatts for a large turbine today.
TMA also says its turbines are quieter and "less visually obtrusive"...I don't think they look quite as elegant as the horizontal-axis types, though--a matter of taste, I guess.
The TMA turbines can also keep running in wind speeds which would require a standard turbine to shut down..this could be very important from a return-on-investment standpoint since power output increases much more than linearly with wind speed.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
MANAGING TIME EFFECTIVELY - BUT WHOSE TIME?
Managers and executives are constantly advised to manage their time better, and shelves full of books have been written to assist them in their efforts. Jack Yoest points out that if you are a manager, what's really important is not so much your time, but the time of the people who work for you. After all--if you're running an organization of 50 people and you waste an hour a day of time for each of them--then that's a lot of hours.
Jack's suggestions focus on the need for the executive to make decisions rapidly and not let issues become bottlenecked on his desk. This is important, but I don't think it's by any means the whole story on using employee time effectively. Rational organization structures are an important part of the solution. So are policies and procedures which are useful and flexible, rather than being straitjackets. Effective feedback channels, so that recurring problems get identified and fixed, are vital. Encouragement of an emotionally-healthy organizational climate, and the suppression of excessively-vicious backbiting and politics, is also important.
Even more important than not wasting the time of your employees, I would suggest, is not wasting the time of your customers. If you run a state Department of Motor Vehicles, or a public school system, then maybe you can get away with wasting citizen or student time...they don't have much choice. But if you run an actual business, with actual customers, they do have choices. An important part of positive customer service is for customers to feel that the value of their time is respected..and far too many businesses are failing miserably at this goal, if indeed they have even reached to point of conceptualizing it as a goal.
Often, the fault lies in systems (using system in the broad sense, to encompass both information technology systems and the whole realm of policies and procedures) which have not been well-thought-out, and in employees who have been disempowered to the point at which they cannot effectively overcome the gaps in these systems. Such systems are harmful on two dimensions: they waste the time of both your customers and your employees.
While it's important for executives to be effective at managing their own time, it's critical for them to use the time of customers and employees well, and Jack is correct that this is a point that needs more emphasis.
See also my post about how many customer service operations are simultaneously overmanaged and undermanaged.
Friday, March 10, 2006
Unremarkable lives are marked by the fear of not looking capable when trying something new.
--Epictetus (quoted in IBD, 3/9)
Previous Worth Pondering
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
WHEN WILL THEY EVER LEARN?
Is the AT&T acquisition of Bell South a smart business move?
Daniel Gross doesn't think so.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE SPITFIRE
Today marks the anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire fighter--March 5, 1936.
In the early 1930s, the general belief was that the bomber was invincible. Prime minister Stanley Baldwin expressed this view in a 1932 statement: I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through....The only defence is in offence, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves. I mention that so that people may realise what is waiting for them when the next war comes. George Orwell put the same point more eloquently and brutally: When someone has dropped a bomb on your mother, there is nothing for it but to go and drop two bombs on his mother. Few people believed that effective defense against the bomber was possible.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the visionaries--among them Air Marshal Hugh Dowding--who did create an effective air defense system, including radar, the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and the complex command network that tied it all together. Without their accomplishments, the history of the world would likely have been very much worse.
More about the Spitfire and about its designer, Reginald Mitchell. Although Mitchell was a very sick man during most of the period of Spitfire development, he completed his design work and helped to drive the airplane through to production.
(hat tip: Silent Running)
REALLY BAD TIMING
The New York Times summarizes a paper Dumb Money: Mutual Fund Flows and the Cross-Section of Stock Returns by two finance professors. The research, which covers the period 1980-2003, demonstrates that people tend to dump mutual funds just before the funds enter several-year periods of above-average performance, and to buy funds that are about to sag.
The authors cleverly take the analysis down from the mutual fund level to the level of individual stocks, by calculating the change in ownership of a stock by mutual funds which is attributable investors switching into or out of particular funds. The stocks most sold by funds that investors were leaving showed a return of about 18% going forward, while those most bought by funds that investors were switching into came in at around 7.3%. The authors suggest that a strategy of buying stocks with the most negative flow while simultaneously selling short stocks with the most positive flow would have produced a 10.7% annual rate of return...while involving very low risk, since the strategy doesn't involve a bet on the overall direction of the market. (Transaction costs excluded from rate of return; also, apparently, interest costs on the short positions.)
It's not clear to me how much of the reported effect is due to the bubble of the late '90s versus how much of it can also been seen in other periods over the 1980-2003 range. I haven't read the study in detail yet, but intend to do so. It's 50 pages long with lots of math, but serious investors should find it worth the effort.
As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.
Saturday, March 04, 2006
MICROMANAGING THE KIDS
In a wise article in The Wall Street Journal (3/3), Sam Schulman takes on micromanagement by parents of their children's lives. One recent study by a college, he reports, revealed that its freshmen were in touch with their parents by cellphone as many as 15 times a day.
Parental hovering has not simply produced a large number of inane conversations -- "I'm on my way to class, I'm walking into the building" -- it has destroyed the private lives of children. Kids no longer have the privilege of making their own worlds and participating in a separate culture. This kind of childhood was celebrated not only by Robert Paul Smith but by Peter and Iona Opie in "Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" (1959). The Opies discovered that teasing games, hide-and-seek and tag, have been around at least since the time of Chaucer.
Another version of childhood as a separate realm is visible in Booth Tarkington's Penrod books, which were published in 1914 and 1916 and remained best sellers until mid-century. The American childhood that Tarkington's children experienced was beset by grown-ups, but they wanted to impose adult responsibilities on the young ones, not supervise their childhood adventures. Penrod's traumas came from haircuts, dancing lessons, school arithmetic and mixed-sex parties where he was expected to act like "a little gentleman." His parents -- a stern father and a sentimental mother -- knew that there were certain things he needed to be taught but generally let Penrod look after his own childhood.
The seemingly obvious notion that kids need to be left alone sometimes if they are to grow up has been so lost that more than one American university has been forced to station security guards outside freshmen orientation sessions to keep anxious parents out. There are no reports, encouragingly, of freshmen on the other side trying to pull their parents in.
Friday, March 03, 2006
John Deere has been selling equipment to farmers for a long time.
Farms are often excellent places to install wind turbines.
So...putting these two considerations together, Deere has established a business initiative to help farmers get started with wind turbines. The farmer can either lease the wind turbine rights to Deere, or can become an investor in the turbines and participate in the revenue from the power sales to utilities. Very good thinking.
I do think it's important to note, though, that wind will only be able to serve a fairly small proportion of the nation's electrical needs--unless significant improvements are made in electric energy storage technology--because its unpredictable nature would create problems in matching supply and demand and hence tend to destabilize the grid. Wind should be fine, though, as a minority contributor even without new storage technologies, and I'm hopeful that ultracapacitor technology (see discussion a few posts down) will provide new options for storage.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
From Ralph Peters, a first-hand report from Baghdad.
Also from Peters: The Sewers of Babylon.