Politics, culture, business, and technology

I also blog at ChicagoBoyz.


Selected Posts:
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:
Forging a Rebel
The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006  

Michelle Malkin found a cartoon from WWII, which she thinks could provide remedial education for certain present-day journalists. It's part of a series created by the Office of War Information, produced by Frank Capra and with script by Dr Seuss (Theodor Geisel.) It's really well done; you can see it here--just click the small start button under Michelle's picture.

6:36 AM

Sunday, June 25, 2006  

Someone sent Lucy Kellaway, of the Financial Times, a copy of a document called Our Business Principles, from JP Morgan Chase & Co. She thought it was an excellent example of mediocre and pretentious writing--all except for page 10, which she really liked.

Page 10 was written in 1933, by J P Morgan Jr.

Kellaway suggests that the comparison shows "just how much literary value can be destroyed in 73 years." I'd agree with Kellaway that the current stuff is definitely inferior to the original Morgan writing--but I'd also have to say that I've seen much worse.

As Goethe once remarked, "When ideas fail, words come in very handy." I suspect that this aphorism is never mentioned in the coursework of university "communications" departments.

UPDATE: Original post has been corrected: thanks to Billy for observing that the original J P Morgan was no longer around in 1933, and hence could not have been the author of page 10.

7:48 AM

Saturday, June 24, 2006  

(1) In a week during which two American soldiers were tortured and murdered, a major American newpaper chose to run this assertion of moral equivalence..

(2) After American troops broke the enemy stranglehold on the city of Tal Afar, the mayor of that town praised them in the strongest possible terms: "To the lion hearts who liberated our city from the grasp of terrorists who were beheading men, women and children in the streets...(you are) not only courageous men and women, but avenging angels sent by The God Himself to fight the evil of terrorism." But the editor of a major American news magazine cut out most of a story on the battle, and also cut out all of the pictures. When the reporter who had submitted the story objected, he was told that the story and pictures were "too heroic." (link)

(3) And The New York Times decided to publish classified information about a program for monitoring international financial transactions via the SWIFT network. This program appears to have been very valuable: it was apparently responsible for the capture of the mastermind of the Bali bombings. It also appears have been entirely legal. The publication of of classified material having to do with communications intercepts, however, is not legal at all; see this analysis--you can read the relevant statute for yourself.

Michael Ledeen: These people are not acting like journalists at all. They are acting as a fourth branch of government, co-equal with the others. They arrogate to themselves the power to classify and declassify, to protect or reveal secrets and sources, as they see fit. Which is to say, according to their political ambitions.

They aren’t journalists at all, they’re pols. And they should be treated that way.

And from Ace of Spades:

The left continues to undermine national security in the most despicable, cynical way. I'm quite sure the reasonable liberals at the NYT and WaPo know full well that programs like this are absolutely vital, and their secrecy is likewise vital. However, they have made the most anti-American and evil sort of decision: While tools like this are vital for saving American lives, they will not permit any Republican President to use them. Only Democratic Presidents are permitted to employ the full panoply of powers for protecting American lives.

It's blackmail, pure and simple. Either let a Democrat into the White House, or we will continue to sabotage American security and, in effect, kill Americans. We will keep secrets when a Democrat is in office, but not a Republican. So we offer the American people a choice: Let the politicians we favor run the country, or we will help Al Qaeda murder you.

Michelle Malkin remembers some posters from World War II, with messages that certain journalists would do well to consider.

And here are some updated versions.

8:33 PM

Thursday, June 22, 2006  

Hybrid vehicles usually involve the use of a storage battery, which captures energy which would otherwise be lost in braking. Comes now Eaton Corporation, with an approach using hydraulic rather than electric technology, based on development work by the EPA and said to be particularly suitable for large, heavy vehicles. When the driver steps on the brake, a hydraulic pump/motor forces fluid into an accumulator, further increasing the pressure of the nitrogen gas stored there. When accelerating, the process is reversed, letting the hydraulic fluid drive the pump/motor. Enough energy is stored to accelerate a 5-ton vehicle from a dead stop to 25-30 mph.

Ford is using this approach in its F-350 Tonka "concept truck," but the use of the term "concept" makes me think this isn't likely to be a serious production vehicle. A more likely early application is UPS delivery vehicles...a hydraulic-hybrid UPS truck will be tested in commercial service this year. UPS is estimating a 60 to 70 percent improvement in fuel economy with the use of this technology, and one driver who tried the truck commented favorably on its driving characteristics and particularly on its relative quietness.

The hydraulic approach is said to offer a higher energy density than the conventional electric approach, and it should be particularly suitable for any heavy vehicles making frequent stops--delivery vehicles, refuse trucks, school buses, etc.

Disclosure: I'm an Eaton shareholder.

12:09 PM

Monday, June 19, 2006  

1) Susan Turnbull, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, referred to the murder of Zarqawi. Follow this link and you can hear it for yourself. Yes, she corrected herself and changed it to the "bombing" of Zarqawi. However: As far as I can tell, Turnbull is a native speaker of the English language. And I don't think any native English speaker would use the term "murdered" unless they disapproved of what had been done. Certainly, few Americans during WWII would have referred to the "murder" of Admiral Yamamoto (whose plane was shot down after his movement plans became known via communications intercepts) or the "murder" of German war criminals who were executed after the war.

2) Natalie Maines, of the anti-Iraq-war, anti-George Bush Dixie Chicks, has this to say:

"The entire country may disagree with me, but I don’t understand the necessity for patriotism,” Maines resumes, through gritted teeth. “Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”

Note well: she is not merely claiming that opposition to the war and to President Bush constitutes a higher form of patriotism: she is attacking the whole idea of patriotism. And although she appears to be trying to locate herself among a very small and courageous minority ("the entire country may disagree with me"), actually, I suspect her views are actually pretty common among the Left.

3) Follow the link to see two seriously obnoxious cartoons at a major "progressive" web site. The denizens of The Daily Kos are, of course, much courted by Democratic Party politicians: Howard Dean, Barbara Boxer, and Harry Reid were all announced speakers at the recent "yearly Kos" event. These Democratic luminaries were not deterred by the infamous "screw 'em" comment made by the proprietor of this web site in reference to American contractors killed in Iraq in 2004...I doubt if they'll be all that bothered by cartoons implying Israeli and neocon control over Yale, either.

2:21 PM

Sunday, June 18, 2006  

BusinessWeek (6/26) reports on a company that is in the business of enabling remote monitoring of intensive-care units. The idea is that a patient data is telemetered to a central location, where critical-care specialists monitor it continuously. A team consisting of one physician and one nurse can support bedside caregivers for about 100 patients. The central-monitoring approach is said to have three advantages: lower costs, better leveraging of the nation's limited supply of intensive-care specialists, and, most important, improved patient survival rates. Sentara Heathcare, which has used the system to centralize monitoring across its 11 hospitals, estimates that the system, known as eICU, has save 460 patients who would have died in traditional intensive care.

I always worry that excessive division of labor, in any field, will reduce the ability for any individual to comprehend the total job to be done (curing the patient, in this case)...but medical professionals seem to really like the eICU approach. One intensivist remarks that the best part of eICU is that he can focus, without being interrupted by pagers. Indeed, he believes that with the system, he can spot early signs of failure better than if he were examining the patient in person. The system can prompt the intensivist to remind him when a test or a treatment is due, and also contains a database with research information on treating ICU complications.

The article gives an example of a woman who was in the ICU after a heart attack. On one morning, her blood pressure declined rapidly after doctors took a balloon pump out of her auorta. The floor nurse wasn't sure the decline was dangerous enough to page her cardiologist; however, the remote eICU nurse reviewed the data with the floor nurse and they jointly decided that the situation was serious enough to get the local doctor. The patient's husband likes the system: he feels that "any intimacy that was lost when treated by an unseen doctor was offset by how closely she's watched. Plus, he can press the button and talk to the eICU if something worries him. 'Here, it just seems they're more on top of things,' he says. 'That makes me sleep better.'"

Here's the website for the company that makes eICU, Visicu.

One issue that I hope is being properly considered is communications reliability: although communications links are very reliable, they do fail. The use of redundant circuits, physically diverse and ideally sourced from different carriers, would seem to be a prudent precaution.

9:58 AM

Saturday, June 17, 2006  

I've written several posts about parents who attempt to micromanage their kids' K-12 and college educations, and even their initial employment experiences. The author of a worthwhile Wall Street Journal article (6/16) refers to the people who do this as "the panicky classes." The article is particularly focused on the abuses of tutoring. Here's an excerpt:

"I told one family they were wasting their money. The parents told me to keep doing it anyway," says Chuck Hoag, a private-school math teacher who tutors after hours in suburban Maryland. According to Mr. Hoag, the tutee in question could have done well with just 15 minutes a night of his parents' attention. He says gloomily: "So many parents seem [to be] saying, 'I'm living up to my responsibility by giving my child a tutor.'"

But parents are not simply shirking their own responsibility, they are encouraging kids not to take any. "There is a tutor culture [of] parents who don't let their children fail once in a while. They're scared it'll look bad on their record," says Caleb Rossiter, a professor at American University, who has noticed this trend even on the college level. This semester, he gave a failing grade to a lackadaisical student. The girl's mother, a lawyer, immediately phoned: "She said, 'We want to challenge this grade. My daughter can't afford to flunk.'" When Mr. Rossiter declined to change the girl's grade, the family asked about finding a tutor. "I said, 'I am her tutor,'" he laughs. "I have office hours. You're paying $40,000 a year, and yet your daughter has never once come to see me."

One Manhattan tutor reflects on the consequences of the high-pressure efforts to get into a "top college." He sees a distressing number of children who are "completely burnt out and won't accomplish anything in college because they were driven through high school the way an associate is driven through a law firm."

Fortune (5/11) recently did an interesting profile of John Rowe, CEO of Exelon. Rowe grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and one of the formative experiences of his life was reading (when he was in the seventh grade) Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels...resulting in a lifelong interest in history. If he had been subjected to today's forced-draft approach to college and career preparation, would he have ever had time or the inclination to pick up this book?

I think there is indeed a strong element of panic in the approach many parents are taking to education; the WSJ writer's phrase "the panicky classes" is an apt one. But panic is rarely if ever an effective way of dealing with things. In the name of developing a paper trail of credentials, all too many parents are preventing their kids from developing their own interests, stifling their sense of initiative and responsibility, and inculating a sense of entitlement which is likely, sooner or later, to prove harmful or even disastrous to its intended beneficiaries.

8:14 PM

Thursday, June 15, 2006  

The Wall Street Journal (6/10) reports that certain companies are auctioning off selected internships. The way it typically works is that the company establishes a relationship with a prep school, and agrees to donate the proceeds of the auction to the school. Parents then bid for the position, and the winner gets the (paid or unpaid) internship for their kid.

I understand that there have been unpaid internships in the non-profit world for some time, and I've always disliked the practice. It has the effect of making these internships available only to those kids whose parents are fairly well-off (which I suspect is often precisely the intent.) Even in the business sector, I've occasionally heard of unpaid internships, although I believe that they are relatively rare in the business world compared with nonprofits.

But actually charging for an internship is, in my not-so-humble opition, a very bad thing to do. Do we want a society in which professions are like the British Army prior to 1870? Under that army's system of "purchase," aspiring officers had to pay serious money for a commission--no matter how good a soldier and leader you were, no commission would be available unless you had the (almost always inherited) wealth to buy one.

Wise companies know that they will win by attracting the best people for the available jobs. Systems like purchase of internships artifically shrink the pool of people, and inherently reduce the average talent level of hires. Thomas Donaldson, a business-ethics professor at the Wharton School, suggests that at public companies, shareholders may not consider supplying internships to school auctions to be an appropriate use of company resources. Companies "have an obligation to hire the best people they can -- not the highest bidder -- so they'll get the biggest return on their investment," he says. Absolutely right.

A letter in today's WSJ (6/15) makes another valid point: "Parents who buy interships for their kids rob them of the opportunity of learning how to hustle successfully to find that internship or job. In turn, the students never really enjoy the satisfaction of earning the position based on their own effort. Internships lose their real value of they are just for sale."

The companies mentioned in the article are going on my "view with extreme suspicion as potential investments" list.

4:53 PM

Monday, June 12, 2006  

Carnival of the Capitalists is up at Value Investing.

And there's a special Carnival of the Insanities at Dr Sanity.

8:06 PM

Sunday, June 11, 2006  

August 1, 1914. As Europe moved inexorably toward catastrophe, Kaiser Wilhelm II was getting cold feet at the prospect of a two-front war. When a telegram arrived suggesting that the war might be contained to a Germany-vs-Russia conflict, the Kaiser jumped at the opportunity.

The telegram was from Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London, reporting on a conversation with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. As Lichnowsky interpreted Grey's remarks, England would stay neutral--and promise to keep France neutral--if Germany would confine herself to attacking Russia and would promise not to attack France. (Which was a misinterpretation--but more on that later.)

Immediately, the Kaiser called in General von Moltke, the Chief of Staff, and gave him his new marching orders: turn around the troops destined for the attack in the west, and redirect them to the eastern front. Barbara Tuchman writes of Moltke's reaction.

Aghast at the thought of his marvelous mobilization wrenched into reverse, Moltke refused point-blank. For ten years, first as assistant to Schlieffen, then as his successor, Moltke's job had been planning for this day, The Day, Der Tag, for which all Germany's energies were gathered, on which the march to final mastery of Europe would begin. It weighed upon him with an oppressive, almost unbearable responsibility...Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser's meddling with serious military matters, or with medling of any kind of the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunation lost in the midle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tacks at specified intervals of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.

"Your majesty," Moltke said to him now, "it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised...Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete...and once settled, it cannot be altered."

"Your uncle would have given me a different answer," the Kaiser said to him bitterly.

It was not until after the war that General von Staab--Chief of the Railway Division and the man who would have actually been responsible for the logistics of the redirection--learned about this interchange between Moltke and the Kaiser. Incensed by the implied insult to the capabilities of his bureau, he wrote a book, including pages of detailed charts and graphs, proving that it could have been done.

So, what happened here? The Kaiser trusted his military expert, von Moltke--but the real expert in railway operations (and this was substantially a railway question)--disagreed. At the time of decision-making, von Staab's personal opinion was never even solicited.

Clearly, what the Kaiser should have said when faced with Moltke's opposition was "Tell von Staab to get his ass in here, and let's talk about it." (Or however a German Emperor would have phrased that thought.) Indeed, there was particular reason to do this, given that the Kaiser evidently had some serious concerns about Moltke--as evidenced by his passive-aggressive "your uncle would have given me a different answer" comment.

An executive, of course, must have confidence in his immediate subordinates, and trust them to have gotten the necessary information from their subordinates. Otherwise, it would be impossible to run anything. To continually demand information directly from people several layers down, using direct reports only as messenger boys rather than as evaluators and decision-makers, is destructive to any organization. But it is also bad to have an organizational culture in which any bypassing of the hierarchy--as in bringing von Staab directly into the conversation--is automatically viewed as undercutting someone's authority (which is probably how Moltke would have viewed it.)

If you are an executive, then sooner or later you're going to have to make decisions regarding matters about which you are not an expert, and indeed about which you may know very little. Make sure your decision-making process captures the knowledge of your von Staabs as well as your Moltkes. Be especially wary when dealing with plans that have been a long time in the making: their developers are unlikely to be very enthusiastic about changing them, however good the arguments for doing so.

Now, a few notes and caveats. Prince Lichnowsky, in his desire to avoid a catastrophic war, had apparently misinterpreted Edward Grey's comments--what the foreign secretary had actually said was that he could guarantee Germany against attack by France if Germany would promise to attack neither France nor Russia. Yet even given this reality, von Moltke himself apparently later came to the conclusion that it would have been better to send the larger part of the army to the East, leaving only covering forces in the West, in an attempt to knock Russia out of the war in its early stages. Finally, was von Staab's after-the-fact analysis really correct? It's one thing to develop hypothetical train schedules in the peace and quiet of one's study; it's something else entirely to develop real train schedules in a compressed time window during a crisis. (But, presumably, in his analysis he attempted to consider the inevitable frictions involved in crisis-mode replanning.)

In any event, the Kaiser allowed himself to be put in a position where he made one of the most critical decisions of his life without the benefit of the deepest available expertise. Decison-makers of all types should learn from his mistake.

This is a post about decision-making, not international politics, and should certainly not be read as implying that I think a German attack on Russia would have been morally justified if Britain and France could have been kept out of the war.

Tuchman excerpts are from her book, The Guns of August.

8:52 AM

Friday, June 09, 2006  

Many Iraqis are celebrating.

On the other hand, many Palestinians are unhappy about Zarqawi's demise. See what Hamas had to say about the "martyr" and the "savage crusade campaign."

Seems like there are also quite a few on the American Left who are less than thrilled about the elimination of this terrorist.

On the radio yesterday, I heard an old-media type referring to the killing of Zarqawi as "a victory for the Bush administation." It strike me that this is like somebody referring to the shooting down of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto (in 1943) as "a victory for the Roosevelt administration."

The old media is so deep into the view of "politics as inside baseball" that they are largely incapable of understanding something as a loss or victory for the whole country (or, indeed, for civilization as a whole.) For the left-leaning media, the endless efforts to pit group against group--thereby creating a Hobbesian war of all against all--have reached such a fever pitch that, for them, the concept of "the country as a whole" barely exists at all.

(Thanks to Annika for bringing up the case of Admiral Yamamoto.)

8:17 AM

Tuesday, June 06, 2006  

On June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed in Normandy.

My post Transmission Ends describes the way in which one community got the news about local casualties from the invasion.

UPDATE: Don't miss this roundup of D-Day links at Blackfive. The post includes this link to a very extensive collection of D-Day links which was put together for the 60th anniversary of the event in 2004.

5:58 AM

Sunday, June 04, 2006  

On June 4, 1942, the U.S. achieved victory in the Battle of Midway--a major turning point in the Pacific War. Read about the battle here.

(via Lead and Gold)

1:18 PM

Saturday, June 03, 2006  

Two years ago, I wrote about research into processes for transforming coal into jet fuel. According to The Wall Street Journal (5/31), things are starting to happen in this field, and in the closely-related field of coal-to-diesel-fuel conversion.

It turns out that jet fuel made from coal (a 50% blend, to be specific) has been used for the last seven years for aircraft flying out of Johannesburg International Airport. The synthetic jet fuel comes from Sasol Ltd, a South African company which has been a pioneer in this field. The process, if I understand it correctly, involves first converting the coal into a gas which is similar to natural gas, and then converting the gas into liquid fuel.

For an upcoming test in the U.S., the U.S. Air Force is skipping the first stage and making jet fuel directly from natural gas. The vendor is Syntroleum Corporation, and the fuel is to be flight-tested in a B-52 bombers. It's said that this fuel burns more cleanly than regular jet fuel (which is basically kerosene.)

DKRW Advanced Fuels LLC is planning a facility in Wyoming: the plant will use GE's coal gasification technology for the first stage, and will produce diesel and other fuels. And in Pennsylvania, WMPI Pty LLC is planning to use waste coal from the antracite fields, producing zero-sulfer diesel and jet fuel.

The chief economist of the Air Transport Association sets $50/bbl as the oil price at which coal-synthesized jet fuel becomes an economic proposition. (Obviously, we're well past that price point right now, but potential investors have to be convinced that the plants will be economical over a long enough term to recover their investment.) According to the BusinessWeek article referenced in my earlier post, about 10% of U.S. refinery output is jet fuel.

One point made in the BW article, but not mentioned in the WSJ article: the coal-derived fuel can remain stable at higher temperatures than conventional jet fuel, which has advantages for new-generation, high-performance engines. I'm guessing that this is the case for the fuel made directly from natural gas, also.

7:17 PM


From Dr Sanity, an analysis of the evolution of leftist thought.

6:25 AM

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