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, October 29, 2003  

Would anyone sneer at a project for giving toys to children? Especially needy and often-traumatized children?

Well, yes, actually. At least, it sounds to me like sneering.

A Newsweek writer refers to the founder of Operation Give as "the boosterish Chief Wiggles." Boosterish? I think the last time I read the word "booster" in print was in the Sinclair Lewis novel Babbitt, in which it wasn't exactly used as a positive term. You can read the Newsweek article here to get the full flavor.

As Glenn says: "Calling Chief Wiggles "boosterish" indicates, to me at least, that Nordland can't possibly have been reading his blog, which makes clear that the Chief is working hard to make a difference, and often suffering in the process. No doubt he would be more appealing to journalists if he were exuding existential despair, and smoking a Gaulois, but I'm kind of glad that he's the way he is, and kind of unhappy that Newsweek has sent a reporter who can't tell the difference between boosterism and a sense of responsibility."

Anyhow, if sneering is the name of the game...there's a rather blatant typo in the article. It's "pseudonym," not "psuedonym." Whatever happened to editors (not to mention spell-checkers)?

Now you have an additional reason to contribute to Operation Give. Not only can you make an Iraqi child happy, you can make a cynical American journalist even more miserable.

3:07 PM

Tuesday, October 28, 2003  
Pointless PR

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.

9:23 AM

Monday, October 27, 2003  

Apparently there's an proposal that the government require restaurants to list--on their menus--the calorie content of various dishes. Some "expert" was just saying that people can't control themselves, so the only solution is a law.

Of course, if people can't control themselves, merely listing the calories won't be enough. Stronger measures will be necessary.

Maybe this wasn't just a parody, after all.

4:32 PM


Andrew Sullivan quotes George Orwell:

The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution.

Maybe some of today's left-wing web sites were already in existence way back then, using teleprinters or carrier pigeons for data transmission...

2:44 PM


When people think about India, in the context of the global economy, they tend to think mainly about software and call centers...the country that tends to be most heavily associated with manufacturing is China. But some interesting things are also happening on the industrial side of India's economy.
Consider Bharat Forge, which was included in Forbes magazine's "Best under a billion" list (200 successful companies outside the U.S.) With revenues of about $120MM, BF produces high-quality forgings, mainly for the global automobile industry--customers include Daimler Chrysler, Caterpillar-Perkins, Renault, Mercedes Benz, New Holland, and Volvo; also Ford Motor Company, which recently selected BF as a supplier of crankshaft forgings. BF appears to be a technically-advanced operation: for example, it recently began using 3-D hot forming metal-flow software, which allows advance simulation and optimization of the manufacturing process. The company is also installing information systems which support tighter customer-supplier collaboration throughout the design process. A major emphasis is on reducing the leadtime to get a new component into production.

At the moment, of course, India isn't comparable to China as a manufacturing power. But they have a number of advantages, and as a potential global manufacturing power I'd by no means rule them out.

2:02 PM


Carnival of the Capitalists is up at The Noble Pundit. It's a collection of posts on business-related topics.

6:08 AM

Sunday, October 26, 2003  

In case anyone noticed a little typo in the post "Today's Protest," I have this to say:

"Michelle" -- mis-spelled
Shoulda known that word ain't got two "l"s
It's "Michele"

(With apologies to the Beatles)

11:48 AM


Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli cabinet minister, recently visited several U.S. campuses. At Rutgers, he says, "I almost forgot I was on a college campus. The atmosphere was far from the cool, button-down academic reserve typical of such institutions. It was more reminiscent of a battlefield...My arrival was greeted by a noisy demonstration of Palestinian and Jewish students holding signs reading "Racist Israel" and "War Criminals," together with black-coated Neturei Karta members calling for the destruction of the blasphemous Zionist entity. Faculty members, predictably led by a former Israeli professor, had sent out e-mails protesting the granting of a platform to a representative of the "Nazi, war-criminal" state..." (emphasis added...note that phrase, protesting the granting of a platform) Sharansky was also assaulted by a Rutgers student who plastered him in the face with a pie.

One of the most upsetting events for Sharansky, though, occured on the campus of Harvard University. "During a frank and friendly conversation with a group of Jewish students at Harvard University, one student admitted to me that she was afraid — afraid to express support for Israel, afraid to take part in pro-Israel organizations, afraid to be identified. The mood on campus had turned so anti-Israel that she was afraid that her open identification could cost her, damaging her grades and her academic future. That her professors, who control her final grades, were likely to view such activism unkindly, and that the risk was too great."

And what classes was this student taking, such that she was afraid of professorial retaliation for pro-Israel views? Was it the normal centers of campus leftism--English, sociology, and such? No--she is a student in the Harvard Business School. The leftist domination of the campus must be very pervasive indeed if even B-school students are afraid to deviate from the "progressive" party line.

"At first I thought this must be an individual case, particular to this student," Sharansky continues. "I thought her fears were exaggerated. But my conversations with other students at various universities made it clear that her feelings are widespread, that the situation on campuses in the United States and Canada is more serious than we think. And this is truly frightening."

Frightening indeed. It's often been said that the univerisity today is "an island of tyranny in a sea of freedom." But the pervasive and continuing assault on free speech and free thought, underway on campus after campus, must inevitably have an effect on the larger society.

I also think this student, and others like her, need to look at their own behavior. It's probably true that by expressing pro-Israel views, she would be taking risks of social and professorial retaliation. But, in the spectrum of risks that people can take, how significant are these risks, actually? She is in the B-school...this presumably means she is going into business. Business is, to a significant extent, about risk...rational risk, hopefully, but risk nonetheless. Will she have the courage to stick up for a project or product in which she believes, but which has come under attack by influential people within the corporation? Will she have the courage to leave a relatively-secure position and do something truly entrepreneurial? Will she have the courage, if she ever becomes a senior executive, to make the bet-your-company decision when it needs to be made?

Courage is a muscle that grows with use. There is no better time to start than the present.

(hat tip: scsu scholars)

7:40 AM

Saturday, October 25, 2003  

China and Australia are putting together a $21B (US dollars) deal for natural gas supply. The gas will originate in Australia's Gorgon field and will be shipped to China in liquified form. This is on top of an earlier China-Australia gas deal, signed last year. China will be building new LNG (liquified natural gas) terminals to receive the shipments. (Information from Financial Times)

As big as this deal is, it is a drop in the bucket in terms of China's overall energy needs. The country is hoping to achieve the sourcing of 7-8% of its energy needs from LNG by 2020, thereby displacing some of its vast coal consumption.

As China further industrializes, the impact on commodity markets around the world is becoming quite significant (see also my earlier post on Chinese demand for shipping capacity). I think we are likely to see significant impacts from India, as well.

An interesting historical note...in the early days of the oil industry, China was a major source of demand--thanks in part to clever tactics by Standard Oil Company, which heavily promoted its Mei Foo kerosene-burning lamps. (The phrase means "beautiful companion.")

8:17 PM


Michelle is watching the "anti-war" protests on C-SPAN.

By her count, it took 13 minutes before the word "zionist" was first used.

I feel fairly confident it wasn't being used in a complimentary way.

11:10 AM

Friday, October 24, 2003  

Photon Courier is one year old today.

2:47 PM

Wednesday, October 22, 2003  
Call Center Clownishness

Call a company today, and--when you actually get through to a human being--you are likely to hear something like this:

"Good morning, thank you for calling Universal Global Entities Inc, the company where tomorrow is always sunnier than yesterday. My name is Tiffany, how may I assist you today?"

You can be sure that Tiffany did not think up these words on her own; every word of it was pre-scripted for her. And the person doing the scripting obviously feels that these words are very important. Because in times of peak call volume--when people are waiting and becoming irritated--she still says it all. She is not allowed the discretion to shorten the greeting in order to keep people waiting for shorter periods of time.

There is a strong trend toward complete pre-scripting of the words and actions of call center people. It seems to be getting worse. Product and brand managers will want to use these messages to get their particular products promoted; HR managers and consultants of various types will want to use them to hype their current buzzwords and programs. So, very soon, you may hear:

"Good morning, thank you for calling Universal Global Entities Inc, the company where tomorrow is always sunnier than yesterday. Be sure to ask me about our new Gerbilator 5000, a major advance in Gerbilator Technology. My name is Tiffany, and I am empowered to act in an innovative and entrepreneurial way to serve you with the excellence you deserve. How may I assist you today?"

It doesn't work. The attempt to pre-script everything demoralizes call center people, irritates customers, and wastes everybody's time, thereby raising costs. It damages customer relationships by missing the opportunity of establishing a real relationship, however brief, between two actual human beings. It causes people to tune out the blather, and may well cost you an opportunity to actually sell something. It is an inappropriate and inept application of Taylorist principles, at a time when actual manufacturing operations (for which these principles were originally created) have been tending to move away from strict Taylorism.

The focus should be on handling routine transactions via voice-response systems and via the web. This means that many of the transactions which reach the call center people will be non-routine and will require some level of human judgment. You want call center people who are capable of exercising such judgment, not human beings reduced entirely to the level of robots.

This is not to say that you don't need policies, automated support systems, etc. But for goodness sake--leave the people some discretion about the words that they say.

8:50 AM


In Leonard Cohen's enigmatic poem The Captain, there appear the following lines:

I know that you have suffered, lad,
But suffer this awhile:
Whatever makes a soldier sad
Will make a killer smile

I'm not sure exactly what Cohen meant by these lines...but I was reminded of them about a year ago, when I saw a certain vile photograph. The photo showed "anti-war" protestors in a European city. They were carrying signs that said no war--and they were almost unclothed, except for "suicide belts" of mock dynamite--in obvious "solidarity" with terrorist mass murderers.

And I've been reminded of these lines repeatedly ever since. More and more, it seems that those who claim to be against war and for "peace" are the very same people who excuse and even glamorize acts of terror against innocent people. These people seem to congregate especially in academia (see post below). They loathe those who fight on behalf of the policy of a state, even in clear self-defense ("soldiers"), but feel positively about those who murder in fits of apocalyptic rage ("killers").

Many of those who commit these acts of terror--and those who send them out--clearly take pleasure in the act of killing ("make a killer smile"). It is not for them an unfortunate side-effect; it is the very purpose of the act and the thing that gives meaning to their lives.

Are the academic apologists for terror so naive that they don't understand this--or are they, at some psychological level, the same kind of personalities represented by the terrorists themselves?

8:27 AM

Monday, October 20, 2003  

Chronicle of Higher Education has a colloquy on the subject of whether "suicide bombings" (aka deliberate mass murder of innocent civilians) can be morally justified..and whether attacks against Israelis should be "considered differently" than the September 11 attacks and the attacks against military and police forces in Iraq.

I have no words right now. Just go and read it.

Click "join the debate" if you want to participate in the discussion. Comments at this site are reviewed before posting, so expect a delay before your comment appears on the thread.

8:51 AM

Friday, October 17, 2003  

Jessica's Well has uncovered a Life magazine article from 1946--shortly after the Allied victory in WWII--in which John Dos Passos writes:

"Never has American prestige in Europe been lower"

"One section of the population of Europe looked to us for salvation and another looked to the Soviet Union. Wherever the people have endured either the American armies or the Russian armies both hopes have been bitterly disappointed."

"The taste of victory had gone sour in the mouth of every thoughtful American I met."

...and, most stunningly: "We have swept away Hitlerism, but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse than the disease"

We now know, of course, that the problems of which Dos Passos wrote--widespread hunger, corruption and the black market--would turn out to be temporary ones, and that Europe was on the verge of reconstruction and economic prosperity. And surely at the time there were many people wiser than Dos Passos, who understood that the problems--however terrible--could be overcome with good policies and good leadership. An epidemic of retroactive defeatism--which seems to me to be the tone of the article--would not have helped anything.

There are obvious parallels between Dos Passos' article and much of today's commentary about the situation in Iraq.

Many writers and journalists are very good at pointing out problems; they are much less good at understanding how problems are overcome and how progress is made.

3:28 PM


Jay Rosen has some thoughts on blogging as a journalistic form...some fairly insightful points, I think.

3:01 PM

Thursday, October 16, 2003  

Even if you follow the markets closely and read the financial press regularly, I'll bet you don't know about this index:

The Baltic Dry Index.

And it's quadrupled in the past year, increasing 62% in the last three weeks alone. This from an article in Monday's Financial Times.

The Baltic Dry Index is an index of ocean freight rates. A "cape-size" bulk carrier (iron ore, coal) now costs $73000/day to charter, compared with historical rates of $6000-$25000/day. The increase is being largely driven by China's increasing demand for ore and coal to feed its steel industry. Interestingly, iron ore can be bought in Brazil for $20/tonne, but costs $34/tonne to transport to China. Shipping capacity has also been in demand due to the hot summer weather in Europe (coal for electricity production), and larger-than-typical grain exports from the U.S. and Canada are also expected to play are role. New vessels won't help much in the short term: shipyard capacity is largely already utilized.

And although the FT doesn't mention it, I would expect the growing natural gas shortage to further exacerbate the situation. Insufficiency of domestic supplies will increase demand for the construction of LNG (liquified natural gas) ships, further driving shipyard utilization. Construction of these specialized vessels will probably represent only a small portion of the total shipbuilding capacity, but in a tightly-constrained situation could still have a real impact.

9:03 AM

Tuesday, October 14, 2003  

A few days ago, I contrasted the rigid approach taken by many school administrators with the flexible leadership style recommended by a U.S. Navy captain in his recent book.

But the style preferred by many administrators does have certain similarities to that of another U.S. Navy captain--albeit a totally fictional one.

In Herman Wouk's WWII novel The Caine Mutine, an insecure and rigid man is placed in command of a destroyer-minesweeper. Although the Caine has an experienced crew, things begin to go wrong almost immediately. While navigating through fog, Capt Queeg orders a right turn. The helmsman, an excellent sailor, knows that the course out of the harbor is 220 degrees, and he has just heard the captain confirm that with the navigator. So when his gyrocompass indicates that the ship has turned far enough, he begins straightening the wheel and announces:

"Steadying up on 220, sir".

"WHAT?" yelled Queeg. He dived into the pilothouse. "Who gave you the order to steady up?"

"Sir, I thought--"

"You thought! You thought! You're not being paid to think!" the captain screeched. "You just do as you're goddamn told and don't go thinking--please!"

Queeg orders the helmsman relived and insists on "an experienced man at the wheel," despite the plea of the executive officer that the sailor who was just relieved was, in fact, the best helmsman aboard Caine.

I see a more than casual similarity here to the case of the high school student who was expelled for letting another asthmatic student use his inhaler which she was having an attack. In both cases, the individual is trying to do the right thing--the student to possibly save the girl's life and certainly to save her from a frightening experience; the helmsman to protect the ship (which was operating in a narrow channel) and to make operations go smoothly. In both cases, they are condemned by authority which seems more concerned about protecting the hierarchy of authority and the rules of procedure than about doing what needs to be done.

Treating people like this has repercussions. In the novel, Caine is assigned to target-towing duty for a live-firing exercise. Stilwell, the same helmsman who Queeg had chastised for thinking, is again at the wheel. With the exercise complete, Queeg orders:

Right standard rudder

Stilwell spins the wheel to the right. Normally, Queeg would have ordered him to steady up when the ship had reached the desired course. But the captain has been distracted: he has observed a man with his shirttail hanging out--something that grievously offends his sense of naval propriety. While he is harranguing about this situation, the ship continues turning. With the rudder at right standard, it will continue in a complete circle--and, since it is towing a target, it will cut its own towline as it passes over it.

A week earlier, Stilwell would have brought this situation to the captain's attention. But not now, not after being screamed at for showing thought. He holds right standard rudder as the Caine indeed circles around and cuts its towline.

The rigid approach of many school administrators serves, I fear, to turn kids who could have been Stilwell before--alert, responsible, concerned--into Stilwell after--"I just do what I'm told." Yes, kids of particularly strong character will be relatively immune--but there will be many who--subjected to years of Queeg-like treatment--will not be.

Following the cutting of the tow rope (and consequent loss of an expensive target), Queeg is interviewed by an older and more senior captain, who is investigating the incident. At the end of the discussion, the older man has some advice:

"If I were you, Commander, I'd worry a little less about making mistakes, and a little more about doing the most sensible and useful thing that occurs to you in any given circumstances."

Excellent advice--which Queeg, of course, fails to take--and I'm afraid many school administrators will fail to take it, too.

1:52 PM


The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

John W Gardner (1962)
(via Cold Spring Shops)

Previous Worth Pondering

1:33 PM

Sunday, October 12, 2003  

On a daily basis, leftists and "peace activists" accuse the United States of "genocide" and "war crimes."

Sgt N J Todd has seen real genocide and real war crimes, and he had some words for these people.

8:37 PM

Saturday, October 11, 2003  

Until 1991, the marsh dwellers of southeastern Iraq--a location believed by many to have been the site of the biblical Garden of Eden--lived as their ancestors had for thousands of years. They built houses of reeds, and gained much of their food by fishing from narrow wooden boats. A British traveller described the marshes as a place where one could encounter "stars reflected in dark water, the croakings of frogs, canoes coming home at bevening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine." But in 1991--after the marshes provided sanctuary for Saddam's opponents--the dictator launched an invasion of the area, slaughtering inhabitants and destroying villages. Even this wasn't enough for him. He drained the marshes on which the people depended for their livelihoods. A tremendous civil engineering project was launched to divert the Tigris and Eurhrates rivers around the marshes.

"Before Hussein's drainage project, Iraq's marshes were the Middle East's largest wetland, covering about 7,500 square miles. By the late 1990s, satellite images indicated that less than 10 percent of Iraq's marshland had any water. What remained was miles of parched, salty earth covered with clumps of scrub brush...In Zayad, the water level dropped as if someone had pulled a plug, residents said. Soon there was only mud. The reeds died. The birds flew away. The water buffalo had no place to roam." Washington Post)

Immediately after the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein, Ali Shaheen took matters into his own hands. As a former irrigation director, he decided to restore the water flow to the marshes. With a U.S. military escort, he drove to a town called Garmat Bani Hassan--and opened the metal gates keeping out the river, which had been closed since 1991. He then destroyed a dam that Saddam had built for diversion of water, and blocked off the diversion canal. "Drying the marshes was a crime," he said. "I felt I needed to do whatever I could to restore what Saddam destroyed."

The Washington Post article continues: "Thin reeds now sprout on the glassy surface. Aquatic birds build nests on tiny islands. And lanky young boys in flowing tunics spend the first few hours of each day as generations of adolescent males in their families have: gliding across the water in narrow wooden boats to collect fish trapped in homemade nets.

"The water is our life," (a local sheik) said as he gazed at the marsh that now comes within a few feet of his house and stretches as far as the eye can see. "It is a gift from God to have it back...Everyone is so happy...We are starting to live like we used to, not the way Saddam wanted us to live."

Read the Post article, which is well-written and includes a photo gallery.

And when you hear people declaim about how the American intervention in Iraq is a failure--and when you hear them talk about the "chaos" they claim we have brought to Iraq--don't forget about the marshes and the people who live there.

6:40 PM

Friday, October 10, 2003  

In America's public schools, if you act to save a life then you may be risking expulsion--or worse.

15-year-old Brandon Kivi suffers from asthma, so he carries an inhaler. His girlfriend, Andra Ferguson, is also asthmatic, and uses the same medicine that Brandon does. On September 24, she forgot her inhaler. When she had difficulty breathing, Brandon let her use his.

Caney Creek High School, in Texas, chose to interpret this normal human act as a violation of its "zero-tolerance" policy. They also considered pressing felony drug charges against Brandon, but decided not to take this step. The expulsion, though, was confirmed. This despite the fact that Andra feels that he possibly saved her life--and certainly, at the least, he saved her from a terrifying experience.

Apparently, this kind of thing is not uncommon. In comments at JoanneJacobs.com, several individual indicate that they have had similar experiences involving their own children.

What was the lesson that Brandon learned from this experience? "If I had this to do again, I would do the right thing and ask the nurse before I do it, to keep out of trouble," Kivi said. So, the lesson taught by this school system is that he should put "keeping out of trouble" ahead of the well-being, and possibly even the life, of a fellow human being. What a lesson!

The people who run this school system would benefit from reading a recent book called It's Your Ship, by Captain D Michael Abrashoff, USN. In the book, Capt Abrashoff explains the leadership style that he employed while commanding the destroyer USS Benfold--recognized as an exceptional ship based on the performance and morale of its crew. Here's what the skipper has to say about rules, regulations, and procedures.

In today's fast-paced world, rules should be treated as guidelines, not as immutable laws, unless they truly are critical. If the rules weren't critical, I believed that my boss would want me to use my best judgment and do the right thing, regardless of the directive, because there are gray areas.

The gray areas, in fact, are one reason we need mid-level managers. If everything were black and white, organizations would need only chief executives to make the rules and workers to carry them out without questions. Mid-level managers shoudl be the ones to survey the gray areas and provide direction

Maybe the administrators of this school system would benefit from a tour in the Navy, ideally on the Benfold. Maybe they would learn that management and leadership are something different from "administration." And if the state legislators really passed a law that provides schools with absolutely no discretion in cases like this (as the administrators seem to be claiming), then sign them up too.

(hat tips: Joanne Jacobs, Number 2 Pencil, OpinionJournal.com)

9:07 PM


Several new links, all of which I think are worthy of your attention. Common Sense and Wonder is an insightful and well-written blog, as is Sheila O'Malley. And from academia, I think all of the following are worthwhile: Invisible Adjunct, Making Contact, Frogs and Ravens, and Academic Game.

3:17 PM

Thursday, October 09, 2003  

Writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the search for a superintendent of the Seattle schools, Deborah Bach writes:

Castro, 56, a former superintendent in Brooklyn, N.Y., is the most favored candidate among stakeholder groups, including the two unions representing local teachers and non-instructional school employees.

Uh...Deborah..when you referred to "stakeholder groups," do you think you might have left somebody out? Think hard, now.

Hint: Who are the "stakeholders" of your newspaper? Might they include (a) the customers who read it, and (b) the investors who provide capital to it? Are there any analogies to education here?

Right. Children and parents are the most important stakeholders of the schools. Taxpayers who pay for them are also stakeholders. So are businesses who will be hiring their graduates.

(hat tip: Shark Blog)

7:08 PM

Wednesday, October 08, 2003  

On page 20 of Monday's Financial Times is an interesting fact: last year, China became the world's largest market for machine tools.

Machine tools are, of course, the quintessential technology of industrialization. You need machine tools to make automobiles, jet engines, bicycles, artillery, electrical generators...just about anythiing made out of metal.

And there's one especially important thing you can make with machine tools: other machine tools. They have been called "the only machine that can reproduce itself." It will be interesting to see how long it takes before China is a major supplier of, as well as customer for, machine tools. (It's not an easy industry, and is still dominated by relatively small and specialized companies.)

8:18 AM


Emily uncovered the following great quote:

Monarchy is like a full-rigged ship, trim and beautiful, with all hands at their stations and the captain at the helm. It executes its maneuvers sharply and operates with greatest efficiency. But if it hits a rock, the frail hull is crushed and the vessel sinks. Democracy is like a raft - hard to navigate, impossible to keep on course, and distressingly slow. If it has the virtue of always staying afloat, it has its disadvantages, too. Damn it, your feet are wet all of the time.

This is from Congressman Fisher Ames (she says 1785, but I think it was actually 1795)

8:13 AM

Monday, October 06, 2003  

Reading long documents on-line is kind of a pain in the neck. It's also a pain in the neck to print them out (an experience which often includes printer jams, running out of paper, etc) and then read them off-line. Indeed, I believe that one of the main things holding back the use of the Internet in publishing is the lack of a means of displaying text which is as convenient as a book or a magazine.

This may be changing. Several companies, such as E-Ink, are working on coatings allowing characters to be electronically formed on thin materials. These become a form of "electronic paper"--you can carry them easily, bend them, read them in low-light conditions, etc. They can maintain the display without power, conserving battery life.

With a wireless modem and some form of sold-state storage device (probably flash memory), you have a "piece of paper" which is virtually infinite in its information content. If this technology lives up to expectations, then the consequences for all print media--especially magazines and newspapers--will likely be staggering. Will anyone want a physical newspaper if you can get it on your piece of e-paper--and if this device is so convenient that (unlike a laptop) you can easily use it to browse the newspaper at the breakfast table? And also, e-paper would be able to offer search capabilities (say, to find the car you are looking for in the classified ads) which cannot be matched with physical paper.

Any newspaper or magazine executive who isn't thinking seriously about this stuff is letting down his shareholders--and his own career.

And the impact may extend beyond the print media. Early versions of the technology switch too slowly for high-quality video display--but this may be changing. The Dutch company Royal Philips Electronics says that they have developed an approach to e-paper that can switch 100 times per second--significantly faster than the "frame rate" now used for television. E-Ink says that they are also working on faster switching.

It's not clear to me how far we are from commercially-deployable consumer product. For one thing, someone needs to be thinking about the user interface: I don't know what it should be, but I'm pretty sure that it's not a conventional mouse or trackball.

Disclosure: I'm a shareholder in Royal Philips Electronics, and also in a company involved in a partnering relationship with E-Ink. This post isn't intended as investment advice; if you're interested in this area you should do your own due diligence.

Common Sense and Wonder has also written about this subject.

Of course, e-paper should also do wonders for the readership of weblogs....

8:04 AM

Sunday, October 05, 2003  

Joanne Jacobs received an e-mail from a "career changer" who has enrolled in the teacher certification program at a major midwestern university.

This week's high point in idiocy comes from the textbook, "Adolescent Psychology: Transitions and Diversity." We learned that if Shakespeare had been a woman, Romeo and Juliet would not have died. 'Cause men are, like, brutal and violent and stuff. I don't know how I am going to survive this, but I am determined to stay so that eventually I can teach math, dammit!

The writer of this e-mail says that the younger students--who "can't write and don't know history"--are soaking this stuff up enthusiastially. And she (the writer) asked Joanne not to reveal her name, for fear of retaliation.

Next time you encounter the propaganda about how important it is to have a "certified teacher" in every classroom, keep in mind the kind of thing that one really "learns" while becoming certified.

7:29 PM


This project now has a name (Operation Give); a 501c3 corporation; and a new web site (designed by the ubiqutous Michelle). Go take a look; contribute; and spread the word.

9:46 AM

Saturday, October 04, 2003  

Ernest S Christian, a former Treasury Department tax official, argues that American manufacturers are being unreasonably penalized by the manner in which the value-added tax (VAT) is administered in countries employing this tax, and the restrictions imposed upon us by the tax treaties among countries.

When trade is among countries that adjust at the border for imports and exports, tax shifting nets out and has no real effect: Each one's export exclusion offsets the other's import tax and vice versa.

The problem for the U.S. is, of course, that we alone among all major nations are outside the loop. To neutralize the double-tax effect of foreign VATS, we could append to our corporate income tax import and export adjustments comparable to those the Europeans and others have attached to their VATs.

But according to a "Catch-22" provision in the current GATT treaty, we are not permitted to do under our kind of tax system what the Europeans and others freely do under theirs...

It's a fairly complex subject, so if you are interested in this topic, read the whole thing. Christian's central argument is that the problems currently being encountered by U.S. manufacturing are a function not only of economy forces, but of structural problems within the tax system.

1:42 PM

Wednesday, October 01, 2003  

CBS News actually just carried a positive story about Iraq--specifically, about the fine work done by members of the First Armored Division in helping to fix up 165 school in their area.

Unfortunately, this kind of coverage remains all too rare.

Here is another interesting and positive story, this one web-based. A Marine in Iraq writes "...more and more see that the GIs don't start anything, are by-and-large friendly and very compassionate, especially to kids and old people. I saw a bunch of 19-year-olds from the 82nd Airborne not return fire coming from a mosque until they got a group of elderly civilians out of harm's way. The Iraqis saw it, too.

A bunch of bad guys used a group of women and children as human shields. The GIs surrounded them and negotiated their surrender fifteen hours later and when they discovered a three year-old girl had been injured by the big tough guys throwing her down a flight of stairs, the GIs called in a MedVac helicopter to take her and her mother to the nearest field hospital. The Iraqis watched it all, and there hasn't been a problem in that neighborhood since." (link here.)

So why isn't there more coverage of stories like this? Media apologists will tell you that it's because people don't want to hear about good news: they want to watch bloodshed and hear explosions. It seems to like me a pretty shallow excuse. I bet a lot of people would watch (or read) something based on the story of the Marine linked above. In fact, many more people would probably be interested in this story than in the endless "inside-baseball" political stories so beloved of the media.

Journalists--especially TV journalists--seem especially prone to groupthink, and want to do the kind of stories that other journalists are doing. They may be less astute at the marketing function--at understanding the kind of stories to which their audience will responsd--than they think they are.

UPDATE: Here's a moving article about the return to Iraq of Iraqis living in exile. Again, a creative TV journalist could have done something with this.

3:41 PM


How many hours a week do you waste because of computer problems? Before answering, consider this categorization of problem types:

1) System or application just stops working...lockups, reboots, website/server outages, etc.
2) Painfully and unreasonably slow performance.
3) Lousy user interface designs forcing unnecessary steps.
4) Application design that doesn't fit the business process very well (viz, a manufacturing control system that make you transfer a newly-fabricated part to a stockroom, half a mile away, when it is going to be used at the adjacent work station 15 minutes later)

Actually, lets just focus for now on categories 1-3; the other category goes beyond computer systems per se and into the overall architecture of the business.

So, using these categories, how much time a week do systems problems cause you to waste? I'd bet that, on the average, it is at at least an hour a week, and probably much more. And I'm also pretty sure that at least 40 million people use computers significantly in their work. Put these two numbers together, and you conclude that 40 million person-hours per week are being wasted due to computer problems. This is the equivalent of one million full-time employees, representing a tremendous drain on the economy and a loss of a significant part of the productivity gains for which these systems were installed in the first place. And if, as I suspect, the average time loss is significantly greater (2-4 hours/week/person), the aggregate loss is even greater.

In a future post, I'll speculate about the causes of this problem and the things that could be done to remedy it. I'm also interested in getting your thoughts. How many hours per week do you waste because of computer problems, and what kind of problems are most harmful to your productivity?

7:38 AM

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