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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betsy's page
one hand clapping
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lead and gold
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Tuesday, August 31, 2004  

None of the three major networks covered last night's events at the Republican convention. In my neck of the woods, the NBC affiliate was showing "Fear Factor" and "Last Comic Standing." ABC was showing the NFL preseason, while CBS has a variety of programs including "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "CSI:Miami."

Political bias? I doubt it. More the consequence of a business decision the networks seem to have made, and not a very smart one in my opinion. These organizations could have taken advantage of their history and their once-dominant market shares to position themselves as the meeting point of the American community, the place you go for things that are of general rather than niche interest. Instead, they have acted like they are just 3 additional cable channels, out of the hundreds that are out there. This is not an example of leveraging your strengths.

And furthermore, the networks differ from the cable channels in that their distribution is dependent on their government-licensed affiliates. When the time comes to defend why this range of spectrum should be retained for television, rather than being assigned or auctioned off for other uses, the networks' lack of statesmanship is not going to count in their favor.

6:07 AM

Monday, August 30, 2004  

I've posted previously about the (freight) railroad capacity crunch in the United States. Financial Times today reports that the Association of American Railroads is hosting an emergency meeting, to be attended by RR executives and government regulators, next week in Kansas City. The impact of the capacity problems does not seem to be diminishing. At the port of Long Beach, ships are queuing up to offload containers--turnaround time for vessels has increased, from 3-4 days up to as long as a week. And rationing of rail capacity has made it difficult for construction companies to obtain rock, in what the FT article calls a "crippling blow" to the construction industry.

The busiest time of the year for railroads is about to begin, as the corn harvest coincides with imports for the holiday season.

7:37 AM

Sunday, August 29, 2004  

MIT Technology Review (Sept 04 issue) reports on what is possibly the weirdest application to date of computer-based vision/recognition technology. HyperActive Technologies, a startup based in Pittsburgh, has developed a system which counts cars and people entering the parking lot and waiting in line at fast-food restaurants. It distinguishes between small cars, minivans, pickup trucks, etc, and also between adults and children--and thereby predicts what is about to get ordered (for example, pickup trucks might suggest double cheeseburgers, while minivans might foretell chicket nuggets for the kids) so that it can be put on the grill in advance. One McDonald's franchise is now using the system at eight outlets, and says that it reduces waiting time by us to a third, while also reducing wasted food. A manager of the franchise says that the system also reduces stress on employees: "It was beautiful...there was no yelling and screaming."

One of the founders, a PhD in robotics, worked as a fast-food cook for six months to see what things were really like from the inside.

The idea seems a bit Rube Goldberg-ish, perhaps, but I can't think of any reasons why it wouldn't work. I suspect that there are industries other than restaurants at which it could apply, also.

But guys...you might want to think about changing the name of your company. It doesn't really say anything about what you actually do, and just reading it is probably enough to make people nervous.

9:12 AM

Thursday, August 26, 2004  

An exiled Iranian doctor adds an important point to the story of the hanged 16-year-old girl. He says that on the night before the execution of a virgin, goons are sent to gang-rape her so that she will be prevented from "going to heaven."

Iran is a country which--as has been widely discussed--is alarmingly close to obtaining nuclear weapons. (See this very sobering analysis from the engineering journal Spectrum.)

What's also worth noting--and has been less discussed--is that Iran already has missiles with fairly long ranges. True, the warheads on these missiles are not nuclear or (presumably) other forms of WMD--but if one of these warheads goes off close to you, you won't know the difference.

The missile now deployed is known as the Shahab-3. It carries a warhead of 800kg, or about one ton. Its range is about 1300km, or 800 miles. It is not a particularly accurate weapon; its Circular Error Probable is said to be 2500-4000 meters. (Circular Error Probable, or CEP, is the radius of a circle within which 50% of the missiles could be expected to land)

For comparison, the German V-2 missile (which had a much shorter range) carried a somewhat smaller warhead, and had a (hideously inaccurate) CEP of 17km, or 17000 meters. Nevertheless, in the V-2 campaign against London, these weapons killed 2500 people and seriously injured over 5000 others, while destroying 20,000 houses and damaging half a million others. I feel fairly confident that the technology of high explosives has improved since 1944.

With a 1300km range, the Shahab-3 could (if fired from Iranian territory) reach targets including: all of Iraq, most of Turnkey, western Pakistan, much of Saudi Arabia, almost all of Afghanistan--and all of Israel.

It is believed that the range of the Shahab-3 can be extended to 1600km. This would put western India (including New Delhi) within range. Iran currently has 20 Shahab-3s, and intends to acquire 150 of them.

Next on the horizon is the Shahab-4. This missile is estimated to have a range of 2000-3000km (1200 to 1800 miles), with CEP of 2000-3000 meters. Information about how far along this weapon is in development is not totally clear. A 3000km range would encompass Rome, Naples, Vienna, Hungary, and Rumania. It would include almost all of India, including Calcutta. Shahab-5 and Shahab-6 are also projected, with ranges of 4500km and 6000km, respectively. (see data here and here.)

Concern has also been expressed that Iran could acquire the sea-launched missile now said to be under development by North Korea. This missile, based on the Soviet SS-N-6, has a projected range of 2500km.

The good news--if such a phrase may be used in such a grim context: First, even if Iran were to have both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, that does not automatically mean that the nuclear weapons are deliverable by the missiles. The nuclear weapons might--at least initially--be too heavy and/or bulky for the missiles. Second, all of these missiles are liquid-fueled. This means that some amount of time would be required to set them up and prepare them for launch--a time interval during which they could possibly be destroyed on the launch pad, if the U.S. President or other national leader could make the decision rapidly enough. Third, it is likely that these weapons are subject to interception by antimissile technology--if not now, then in the near future. This wouldn't be 100% protection, but is far better than nothing.

Ever since the idea of missile defense was first raised, it has been mocked by many liberals. We should all be very grateful that the work has continued despite the mockery.

And, if we want to survive, we must reject the ideas of people like New Zealand "Disarmament Minister" Marion Hobbes: "We can always give them a fair hearing because we are not on one side or the other. We're not north or south. We are actually for disarmament."

Iran's "disarmament program" is summarized above. Does anyone think that the people who hanged Atefeh Sahaleh would have a moment's compunction about killing people in New Delhi or in Rome?

UPDATE 7/28/06: Judging from the referrer logs, there seems to be a lot of recent interest in this post. Please see also my other post on Atefeh Sahaleh, here.

ALSO: See this about the growing epidemic of "honor killings" in Germany.

6:28 PM


Squander Two Blog has some additional thoughts about customer service problems.

6:37 AM

Wednesday, August 25, 2004  

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help, and no help came

--W H Auden

A 16-year-old girl was just publicly hanged in Iran. Her crime? Having sex...not totally clear if it was consensual or if she was raped. Her real crime, though, was apparently showing insufficiant respect to the judge while defending herself. Hanged for sex and a sharp tongue.

The hanging was not conducted using a gallows. She was noosed around the neck and lifted off the ground to strangle slowly.

The judge in the case personally put the noose around her neck and gave the signal to the crane operator to pull her up.

Where is the world's outrage?

In July, the European Union objected to the reinstatement of capital punishment in Iraq--where it would most likely be applied against Saddam Hussein and his minions. Where are the EU protests against the killing of Atefeh Sahaleh?

And yesterday, New Zealand signed a trade deal with the mullahs of Iran. "We can always give them a fair hearing because we are not on one side or the other. We're not north or south. We are actually for disarmament," New Zealand "Disarmament Minister" Marion Hobbs said.

Not on one side or the other. Nine days after the hanging of Atefeh Sahaleh.

There has been very little media coverage of this killing.

Can anyone imagine the horror and loneliness that this girl faced in the days and hours before her execution?

And could not hope for help, and no help came.

6:12 PM


If so, you should probably vote Democratic. If not, you might consider voting Republican.

Mark Steyn: "One of the most agreeable aspects of the Republican Party is that there's minimal risk of running into celebrities."

3:07 PM


Today is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from German forces.

3:01 PM

Sunday, August 22, 2004  

TheStreet.com has an article filled with awful customer service stories. Jim Jubak, the author, goes so far as to suggest that customer service problems are stifling economic growth, because people just hate to do business with some of these companies.

Jubak suggests that there are two potential ways to fix these problems: First, they can rehire the employees who kept that extra checkout lane open, train sales staff about their products, repatriate some of the customer service jobs that have gone offshore, and the like. In other words, companies can spend more on people. The second alternative is more -- and better -- technology. Jubak feels that the first alternative--increased staffing--is unlikely in most companies, which leaves the second alternative.

I agree with Jubak that customer service problems have reached very serious levels. But in many cases, the solution does not lie either in hiring more people or in going out and spending lots of dollars on "technology." It lies, rather, in clear, serious, action-oriented thought about the work being done and how it can be done better. For example:

1)What is the proper organization structure and allocation of responsibilities? In a retail chain, for example, what decisions should be in the hand of the store manager versus buyers and various staff people at corporate headquarters?
2)What kind of incentive programs should be in place at various levels of the organization?
3)How can the insights about customers which are obtained by front-line personnel--the staff at the store or the people at the call center--be made available to the larger organization? Most companies, in my view, do an absolutely awful view of this, even as they invest large sums in "customer relationship management" systems.

In her interesting blog Brand Mantra, Jennifer writes about a recent focus group she conducted. The participants were B2B tech buyers who just wanted to receive a phone call from a senior manager (not the sales rep) once a year to thank them for their business, find out how they like the product and learn how they could help them better. Once a year!!! Just a call from a branch manager once a year would make these customers happy... and they spent several hundred thousand dollars on these systems. That would mean a couple phone calls per week for a manager to gain customer loyalty and repeat purchases. I'd call that a good return on investment. Note that achieving these customer service benefits would require no new staffing and no technology investments. This example is business-to-business (B2B), but there are certainly similar cases in the business-to-consumer world.

There are indeed cases where companies need to hire more customer service people and/or make major technology investments in customer service. (And many companies don't seem to understand very well the financial tradeoffs between the cost of keeping existing customers versus the--usually much higher ones--of obtaining new onses). But a little creativity, supplemented by the willingness on the part of senior management to dive into the details, can go a long way.

8:19 AM

Saturday, August 21, 2004  

Why is there so much following of intellectual fads? A new "paradigm" of some kind is introduced, and--often without much in the way of inductive or deductive support--it sweeps the landscape. This phenomenon is very strong in the universities (especially outside the hard sciences), and perhaps even stronger in the K-12 educational establishment. But it is by no means unknown in the corporate world--see Fortune's summary of management fads over the last 50 years.

Lead and Gold quotes Andre Maurois in suggesting that those who are fad-followers tend to be intelligent men who are not in any way creative...and that those who are not capable of formulating a system for themselves tend to throw themselves "voraciously" on those they come across, and to apply them more vigorously than would their inventors.

I think there's a lot of truth here, but would change the formulation slightly. Those who tend to be excessively devoted to particular intellectual systems, it seems to me, are those who concretize abstractions..who think that some conceptual model, which may be useful under particular circumstances, is actually something real and tangible. Falling under the sway of abstractions, when one doesn't really understand how abstractions work, can be dangerous. Whether a person who thinks this way is "intelligent but uncreative" or really not all that intelligent in the first place is, I guess, mainly a matter of definition. But as more and more people find themselves in jobs where they work with symbols, rather than with tangible objects, it becomes increasingly important that people learn to use abstractions in the right way--as servants rather than as masters...and to keep those who misuse abstractions out of policymaking jobs.

8:21 PM

Sunday, August 15, 2004  
The Dangers of Functional Chauvanism

I'm thinking of someone who was hired as a regional sales executive. In this job, he was responsible for maybe $50 million in annual revenue, and had about 200 people working for him, divided evenly between pure sales people and technical sales support people. This individual's own background was in sales, and it soom became clear that he was much more interested in the pure salesmen than in the technical sales support crew. Things came to a head when, for his region's attendees at the (companywide) annual sales recognition event, he nominated very few people from the technical side--something that was not consistent with the culture of the larger company. After a little more than a year in the job, he was replaced.

This kind of thing happens frequently. And note: I am not implying that people with a sales background are more likely than others to engage in this kind of behavior. There are many other flavors. There is also the company founder who came up the technical side, and fails to understand the importance of the sales and marketing functions. There is the manufacturing manager who thinks that no one is making a real contribution unless they physically touch the product. There is the pure-marketing strategist who views operations as a trivial matter to be conducted by lesser minds. And so on.

To some extent, this is natural. A person typically spends his early career in a particular function, and interacts mainly with others in that function. And there is often an unwholesome kind of functional "patriotism" which goes beyond pride in one's own work and disparages the work done by others ("we could get this software written if those marketing idiots would just stop bothering us.")

An individual who has become a functional chauvanist may be promoted a step or two in management without his chauvanistic attitudes getting in the way too much. But at some point, he gets promoted to a point where he must work closely with people of different functions--and/or has people of other functions working for him. Then, either his career is likely to self-destruct, or--much worse from the standpoint of the overall organization--higher management will fail to recognize the problem and will leave him in his job, doing damage to the spirit and performance of the enterprise.

This kind of chauvanism is by no means limited to the business world. It also exists, for example, in universities. People who have developed a particular skill...for instance, exploring the nuances of literary texts...often fail to understand that the mental and personality attributes required for this job are not necessarily those required for other jobs (like those of a national leader).

Returning to business: in developing one's own career, it is important to consciously avoid functional chauvanism and to learn to appreciate the skills and contributions of those in other functions. Often, simply showing a genuine interest in other functions can help get a person favorably noticed. Sales executives are likely to notice "that engineer who wants to learn more about sales and actually wants to go out on sales calls." Strategic marketing executives will remember "that salesman who was actually interested in the general strategy and not just his specific deal."

And, in selecting candidates for management positions, it's particularly important to avoid functional chauvanists--or at least to identify who they are and help them to change. Proper organization design, also, can help in mitigating the problems of functional chauvanism. Decentralized business/P&L responsibility minimizes the evolution of large, monolithic and self-serving functional empires, the primary breeding grounds of functional chauvanism. Proper use of cross-functional teams can also help.

Respect for talents other than one's own. A key element of individual and organizational success.

And, while respecting the talents of others, don't forget to also respect the talents of otters.

8:45 AM

Wednesday, August 11, 2004  

...the dark and bloody crossroads where politics and conscience collide

Edward Alexander, a professor at the University of Washington, has an article entitled "The Democratic Party's anti-Semitism Problem."

Read it.

3:05 PM

Tuesday, August 10, 2004  

In the Sunday Doonesbury, Mike has a summer daydream in which: "George Bush never became President.."...and "We never invaded Iraq.."...and "We didn't torture and kill prisoners.."...and "We're not hated around the world" and..."The American people are far more secure.."

Shortly after reading this comic strip, I read a post by Omar, who blogs from Iraq. On Al Iraqyia TV, he saw a program about an event that happened in the early 1980s. A member of an opposition group was arrested by Saddam's agents. He was tortured to get him to reveal the name of the leader of the group...at first he resisted but finally broke and said "Sabah, a student in the college"...then lapsed into a coma and soon died. Saddam's goons arrested and killed everyone they could find named "Sabah" in the colleges in Baghdad (except for known regime supporters). There were 40 of them.

And according to Omar, this was in the days when Saddam was still relatively easygoing. This was the time when Saddam was still using documents when he executed “traitors” before he changed his style as the number of “traitors” increased incredibly and started to use mass graves in remote areas without using any document. Things didn't get better...they got worse.

Is this kind of thing part of Garry Trudeau's dream? Because in this universe..in the one where actions have multiple consequences...it is an inescapable consequence of the fantasy which is portrayed.

Many other elements should also be added to the dream. There are the Israeli children killed by suicide bombers, subsidized by Saddam Hussein. There are the American pilots, dodging missiles fired by Saddam's forces on a continuing basis. There are the long-range missiles being acquired and developed by the Baathist regime. There is the widespread corruption of the oil-for-food program. There are the terrorists sheltering under Saddam's protection (like the one that threw a wheelchair-bound American off the cruise ship Achille Lauro). And there is the clear intent of Saddam to do harm to the U.S. whenever he gets the chance...whether through WMD, support of terrorists, killing of a U.S. President, whatever.

What a great summer daydream.

1:36 PM


I've linked together all the posts in the "Worth Pondering" series, for anyone interested in reading the whole collection. The chain starts here.

1:32 PM

Saturday, August 07, 2004  

Columnist Suzanne Fields has this to say:

Mr. Kerry tells Jewish audiences what they want to hear, and when he imagines he's safely out of their sight, flip flops. During the primaries, in a speech to the Arab-American Institute, he denounced the fence Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was building on the West Bank. "We don't need another barrier to peace, " he said. Eight months later, with the Democratic nomination safely tucked away, he sang a different tune: "The security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense erected in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israeli citizens."

He suggested that he might send Jimmy Carter, the rare evangelical Christian who is not a friend of Israel, to work on Middle East peace negotiations. When that idea bombed, he blamed the "mistake" on his speechwriters. It's not clear whether Mr. Kerry would encourage negotiations with Yasser Arafat, whom he described as a "role model" and "statesman" after the signing of the Oslo accord. How he really feels apparently depends on where he is and who's listening.

Referring to the views of former New York mayor Ed Koch, she says: Mr. Koch, like a growing number of his coreligionists, don't think a President Kerry could withstand the pressures from the left-wing radicals of his party, no matter how hard they bit their tongues in Boston. These lefties are hostile to Israel and cultivate strong links to anti-American partisans in Europe, especially in France and Britain.

5:38 PM

Thursday, August 05, 2004  

Mesopotamian passes along the following:

The atrocity has backfired. If the intent of the criminals was to incite sectarian violence between Moslems and Christians; then they have achieved exactly the opposite. In my living memory I have never witnessed such upsurge of sympathy for the Christian community as what is happening right now.

Read the whole thing.

9:52 AM

Tuesday, August 03, 2004  

"Whenever you see a sucessful business, someone once made a courageous decision"

----Peter F Drucker
(quoted in Investor's Business Daily)

Previous Worth Pondering

3:36 PM

Monday, August 02, 2004  

The recent intelligence on highly-specific terrorist plans resulted in this comment from Howard Dean:

I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism....It's just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of this is politics, and I suspect there's some of both in it..

Joe Lieberman, on the other hand, had this to say:

I don't think anybody who has any fairness or is in their right mind would think the president or the secretary of homeland security would raise an alert level and scare people for political reasons...That's outrageous.

Unfortunately, the Dean attitude seems all too common, and the Lieberman attitude all too rare. When a nation faces danger, the reduction of everything to the level of political gamesmanship is just plain dangerous. I am reminded of some comments I made earlier regarding the fall of France in 1940:


There are many reasons why the French collapse occurred. One important factor was the tendency of many French politicians, during the interwar years and in 1939-1940, to put their quarrels with each other ahead of their country's security. After the German attack began, Georges Mandel, the courageous Minister of the Interior, observed a Deputy (legislator) whose district had been bombed by the enemy...he went about the lobbies (of the Chamber of Deputies), screaming "I will interpellate the government on this outrage as soon as the Chamber meets!" Mandel remarked to his friend, the English General Edward Spears, about the disconnect of this behavior from reality. "Paris is bombed by the Germans? Let's shake our fists at our own Government." Sadly, this kind of behavior was by no means exceptional.

(original post here)

6:00 PM

Sunday, August 01, 2004  

In March 1942, the British General William Slim was appointed to command of a Corps in Burma, which was then under heavy attack by the Japanese Army. Within two months, he suffered a severe defeat, with heavy casualties, and was forced to withdraw his forces to India. In his book, Defeat Into Victory, he reflects on his thoughts and feelings at the time.

The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted...Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory--for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. 'Here,' he will think, 'I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.' He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. he will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. 'I have failed them,' he will say to himself, 'and failed my country!' He will see himself for what he is--a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.

And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these atacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat--they are more than from victory.

General Slim carefully studied "the lessons to be learnt from defeat." He reorganized his army--British, Indians, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Africans, Chinese--and reinvigorated their morale (in which he was assisted by his remarkable linguistic skills). By May 1945, Slim and his forces had broken Japanese power in Burma.

(Previous Leadership Vignette here.)

7:58 AM

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