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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joy of knitting
lead and gold
damian penny
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a constrained vision
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Sunday, February 27, 2005  

Most businesspeople understand that having a "better mousetrap" isn't enough...while there may be the occasional exception, in general the world will beat a path to your door only if you market and sell your product effectively.

There are many choices involved in setting up the appropriate sales channel(s) for a particular product, and some of the issues are fairly complex and subtle. I would guess that many products have failed completely--or, at least, failed to live up to their potential--because of too much assuming and too little thinking concerning the "how to sell it" question.

A recent article in Forbes illuminates some of the complexities involved in selecting an appropriate sales channel. The company profiled is Sonosite, a manufacturer of hand-held (and relatively inexpensive) ultrasound devices. Sonosite competes primarily with GE, Philips, and Siemens.

When Sonosite emerged as a business in the late 1990s, they selected a distributor of physician office products--a company that sold everything from bandages to glucose monitors--to sell their machines. It seemed a plausible decision...this distributor already had relationships with thousands and thousands of physicians, and was calling on them frequently. And Sonosite's research had suggested that the machines would practically "sell themselves," anyhow.

But sales results were disappointing. The distributor reps, who carried very broad product lines, couldn't answer detailed questions by the doctors about the characteristics of the machines. After six months, Sonosite determined on a new strategy.

This time, they went to the opposite extreme. Sonosite hired a direct sales force consisting of 28 experienced sonographers. Having used similar equipment themselves, these individuals could easily explain the Sonosite machines and point out their advantages. Sales jumped significantly, but the potential of the products still wasn't being fulfilled--for all their expertise, many of the sonographers just didn't have the ability to actually close sales.

The next step was to replace underperforming sonographers with experienced medical sales reps. This helped a lot, even though some sales positions had to be left open because a sufficient number of experienced reps could not be found.

In 2002, Sonosite introduced a new, pocket-sized, and relatively low-cost machine, the iLook...and promptly ran into more sales issues. The sales reps were used to pushing expensive products carrying high commissions, and were reluctant to focus on lower-cost, lower-commission (although, presumably, potentially higher-volume) items. So Sonosite signed up with Boston Scientific's catheter sales force to sell the Sonosite line to vascular surgeons and directors of nursing. (Research shows that many injuries caused by incorrectly-placed catheters could be avoided by use of ultrasound, implying that the products may go well together.)

I'm impressed by the way in which Sonosite has kept working the sales issue and adjusting their strategies based on experience. It's best, of course, to make the right choices up-front, but no one is omniscient.

When matching sales channels and products, think about what the salesperson needs to know in order to sell the product effectively--both product knowledge, and knowledge about how the target customer works. If the knowledge requirement is high, is it reasonable to assume the product can be sold by a sales rep who is also selling many other products? Think also about the nature of the sale from a process point of view...is the product something that sells quickly, or is it something that will involve a decision cycle of months of years? Sales reps who are used to selling products where the decision is a matter of weeks are unlikely to adapt well to a multi-year sales cycle...particularly if they still have the shorter-cycle products available to them. Think about the size of the sale. Reps who sell products for $100K each are often unhappy when asked to devote significant attention to products going for $5K. It's not just a matter of economic calculation; it's often a matter of self-concept as well. And there are also issues involved with the distinction between selling products and selling services. Finally, think about synergies--are there products whose sale is mutually supportive?...but think about synergies somewhat suspiciously, since they are often stronger in theory than in actuality (although there are indeed exceptions, of which the catheter/ultrasound combination may be one.)

And finally, be very suspicious whenever someone tells you that a product "sells itself."

Conscious and systematic thought about the channel/product combination will do much to improve the odds of success.

Disclosure: I'm a Sonosite shareholder. As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.

3:03 PM


Christopher Caldwell, writing in the Financial Times (2/26-27), uses current events at Harvard as a springboard for some more general observations about the present state of American universities:

Mr Summers is trying to behave as an intellectual in one of the most anti-intellectual corners of American life. To call American universities anti-intellectual is not to say they are unintelligent. It is to say that the free inquiry Mr Summers cherishes takes a back seat to other considerations. The members of the Harvard faculty now seeking Mr Summers' ouster believe that good manners and doctrinal orthodoxy are higher ideals than intellectual curiosity. This is a defensible hierarchy of values. It is the hierarchy to which Harvard (along with most European elite universities) subscribed for most of its history before the meritocratic 20th century. It is useful for grooming a ruling class, teaching good manners and inculating pieties. Mutatis mutandis, this has once again become the Harvard faculty's aspiration--even if it is not the one that those baying for Lawrence Summers' head think they have.

8:23 AM

Saturday, February 26, 2005  

Sheila has finally read Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon...last night, all in one sitting. See her comments here.

I think this is an extremely important book, and indeed an essential one for anyone who wants to understand the 20th century. Go read Sheila's thoughts, and add it to your list if you haven't already read it.

But, as I advised Sheila, don't read it at 3 AM.

9:34 AM

Friday, February 25, 2005  

Jerry Brown, former Governor of California and current Mayor of Oakland, has a blog.

Frustrated Artist and History Teacher are two promising blogs.

12:50 PM

Thursday, February 24, 2005  

In one of my early posts of the excesses of the self-esteem movement, I wrote:

A Google search on "self-esteem" combined with "fraud" turns up 16,600 hits. Anyone want to project in which direction this number will be moving? In the same post, I observed that the total number of google hits on "self-esteem" (without the "fraud" qualifier) was over one million.

I thought it might be interesting to update these numbers. As of now, the combination of "self-esteem" and "fraud" turns up 152,000 hits. On the other hand, the total number of "self-esteem" hits is 3.8 million. So, the ratio of self-esteem+fraud to total self-esteem has increased, for whatever that's worth.

USA Today (2/23) has some letters following up on their recent story on this topic. A college instructor with 15 years of experience has this to say:

During the past five years, I've had to adapt my lectures to address the damage done to students as a result of years of receiving accolades just for showing up to class. Students' responses to criticism have ranged from crying "You hate me!" to obstinate proclamations of "I prefer to do it my way."


Every student who wants to succeed should understand that in order to do so, he or she must be prepared to fail and to fail repeatedly. This is a realistic and process-oriented fact of achievement and true learning.

6:29 AM

Tuesday, February 22, 2005  

The New York Times (2/22) reports that the artisans who made medieval stained glass windows were unknowingly taking advantage of nanotechnology. Mixing gold chloride into molten glass created tiny gold spheres, producing a rich ruby color.

At the nano scale, the size of a particle can influence its characteristics. While a 25 nm particle made of gold is reflects a reddish brown color, a 50nm sphere of the same substance reflects green--and a 100nm reflects orange. (nm = nanometer = billionth of a meter)

And if reading this puts you in the mood to look at some stained glass, here's a nice collection.

See also Medieval Multitasking.

7:27 PM


The Wall Street Journal(2/22) reports that some American executives are taking jobs in India. More money, reduced bureaucracy, and better job security are all cited as attractions by some of the people interviewed.

6:48 AM

Monday, February 21, 2005  

Carnival of the Capitalists is up. It's a collection of posts on business and economics.

And the History Carnival is looking for submissions.

4:07 PM

Sunday, February 20, 2005  

Everyone has stories about unpleasant customer service experiences; here's one from Jennifer.

Obviously, businesses can't provide perfect customer service all the time...nothing works perfectly, and in most industries there are very real cost pressures. But I think that on the average, customer service is much worse than it should be, with real impact on customer satisfaction and corporate bottom lines.

There are many reasons for today's customer service problems. One of them, I believe, is that too many customer service operations are simultaneously overmanaged and undermanaged. What do I mean by this seemingly self-contradictory statement?

Phone a typical customer service call center. When you finally get a human, you are likely to hear something like "Thank you for calling the Snorkolator Division of Universal Galactic, my name is Yvonne, how may I assist you today?"...which Yvonne left to her own devices would never by herself have perpetrated in a thousand years. She has been precisely programmed; told exactly what to say in many different circumstances. This is the "overmanagement" part.

Yet on the very same call, you may well notice that the flow of things doesn't make much sense. For example, a voice response system may ask you for your account number or telephone number...yet when you finally get Yvonne, she asks you for exactly the same information (despite the fact that technology is readily available to transfer this information to Yvonne's screen.) Voice response trees can be very deep, with little apparent thought about how things work from the standpoint of someone who is trying to solve a particular problem. One often gets the sense that no one has tried to dry-run the system (and by "system" I mean here the human-computer combination) by accumulating a set of typical/hypothetical customer problems and checking to see what they actually involve in order to get them resolved. This is the "undermanagement" part.

To draw a manufacturing analogy: it's as if a company devoted great effort to time-and-motion studies for individual operations (like installing a seat in a car) while paying little attention to the overall flow of the assembly line (like making sure the seat isn't installed before the bolts that need to go under it are tightened.) In fact, it's worse than that...because the installation of a seat really can be improved by time-and-motion studies, whereas it's extremely dubious that the activity of greeting a customer is subject to being improved by standardization.

Meanwhile, B-school professors are continuing to write papers about competitive advantage. Yet how many B-schools offer courses in how to run an effective customer service operation? I just took a look at the curriculum for Emory's biz school, which is where the "competitive advantage" link above came from, and I didn't see a single course in running customer service operations. Admittedly, it was a quick look and I could have missed something--but I certainly don't get the feeling the the B-schools in general are giving very much attention to this area except at the level of abstractions and platitudes.

(hat tip: the Emory link is from BusinessPundit)

3:35 PM

Friday, February 18, 2005  

I originally ran this post in March 2004, but since that time there has been a lot of water under the bridge and a lot of photons down the fiber, so many readers may not have seen it. And it's definitely worth seeing...

This photograph was taken in 1910:

In the early 1900s, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii won the Czar's support for an extensive photographic survey of the Russia empire. He developed his own color photography process, using filters to split the image into reds, greens, and blues (three different plates were recorded.) Display was done using a slide projection system which combined the images again on a screen.

The Library of Congress has a wonderful on-line exhibit of these photos. Some of my other favorites are:

A group of peasant girls (1909)

Jewish children with teacher (1911)

Children on a hillside (1909)

Ekaterinin Spring (ca 1907-1915)

(caution: these are big images, around 100KB each)

To me, these pictures are magical. One doesn't expect to see color photos from this period: the impact is kind of like entering a time machine. My reaction is probably a faint echo of the way people felt when photography was first invented.

(hat tip: Class Maledictorian and Brian Micklethwait)

UPDATE: Sheila also has a wonderful picture from Russia up...in fact, it was probably her picture that prompted me to repost this...

4:24 PM


The "self-esteem movement" started out with some reasonable-sounding postulates: kids should be encouraged, not discouraged, and expectations, when set high, will usually be lived up to. But it quickly morphed into something not so benign. Kids were to be praised independent of anything they had actually accomplished or failed to accomplish. Criticism--even constructive criticism--was to be avoided, as was measurement. Teachers were even told to avoid red ink in commenting on student papers, lest the use of that color create undue stress in their students. Grammar and spelling errors were to be ignored lest students become "discouraged" about their writing abilities. Prizes had to be awarded to everyone, so that "everyone wins"--even those who didn't try at all.

USA Today has a report on the consequences:

...Kids born in the '70s and '80s are now coming of age. The colorful ribbons and shiny trophies they earned just for participating made them feel special. But now, in college and the workplace, observers are watching them crumble a bit at the first blush of criticism.

"I often get students in graduate school doing doctorates who made straight A's all their lives, and the first time they get tough feedback, the kind you need to develop skills," says Deborah Stipek, dean of education at Stanford University. "I have a box of Kleenex in my office because they haven't dealt with it before."

A Houston teacher remembers being taught the evils of red ink at a teacher training course in 1991.

"They said it had a very negative impact, because red is so symbolic of wrong answers," she says.

Some also said grammar and spelling errors should be overlooked so students wouldn't be discouraged from writing, Green says. "It was so 'don't damage their self-esteem' to the point where you would praise things that weren't very good."

Cassie Bryant, 22, is a product of those times. "I kind of became an award junkie," she says.

She believes the awards motivated her and helped her get into a competitive college. But, she recalls her first semester at New York University as "brutal."

"I had always been in honors in high school, and the writing teacher said, 'I don't think that's a good place for you.' I started crying right there. I had never been told that before."

A psychology professor says that her students tend to have an inflated sense of self. "When you correct writing, they'll say, 'It's just your opinion,' which is infuriating..." A corporate recruiter had similar observations.

The article claims that things are now beginning to move toward a more balanced approach: the Girl Scouts is now promoting self-esteem "by emphasizing strengths and skills while encouraging feelings of competence."

Bet they used to do that back in 1940, and maybe even in 1970. Was this 20-year detour really necessary?

You should definitely read the whole article. See also my 2003 post Superheated 'Steem Can Burn You, which references some research on this subject.

3:41 PM

Wednesday, February 16, 2005  

...go and visit the multitalented Sheila. She's been blogging up a storm lately, writing about everything from Arthur Miller to Thomas Jefferson to the Christo thing in NYC to an equation found on a college blackboard. And don't miss the unforgettable story of Sheila's eyeball.

2:22 PM

Tuesday, February 15, 2005  

Katie, at A Constrained Vision, links a Washington Post article contrasting George W Bush with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder:

To measure the gap that President Bush will be trying to bridge on his goodwill tour of Europe next week, you could start by counting words.

In his inaugural address Bush used the word "freedom" 27 times. Twenty-one more "freedoms" graced his State of the Union speech.

On Saturday...Schroeder's speech was the opening event of the Munich Conference on Security Policy... Schroeder...touched on many of the same subjects that Bush did: Middle East peace, terrorism, 21st-century threats and 21st-century defenses.

Here's how many times Schroeder used the word "freedom": zero. By contrast he cited "stability" or "instability" or "stabilization" or "stabilizing" eight times.

The concept "stability," however, can be deceptive. As Mark Steyn says:

'Stability’ is a surface illusion, like a frozen river: underneath, the currents are moving, and to the casual observer the ice looks equally ‘stable’ whether there’s a foot of it or just two inches. There is no status quo in world affairs: ‘stability’ is a fancy term to dignify laziness and complacency as sophistication.

Or, as George Eliot said in Silas Marner:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

(quoted by money manager David Richard in Barrons, probably in a rather different context)

8:21 PM


Read about a student who was expelled from Le Moyne college because of “mismatch between his personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the Le Moyne college program goals." Erin O'Connor has the story and links.

FIRE is on the case.

2:35 PM


The owner of a shop in London has introduced rationing for children who want to buy sweets. She found some old ration books from the 1950s and had them reproduced. Now, parents write a daily allowance in the books, and kids get them stamped when they get their sweets.

Kind of reminds me of No Steak for You!

(via Kimberly Swygert)

7:04 AM

Monday, February 14, 2005  

Read here about what a public school in America did to a six-year-old girl.

The girl had put some rocks, clover, and dirt into a bad, and given it to a friend. Teachers and/or administrators thought the substance in the bag looked like marijuana. It wasn't. But innocence was no excuse. She was given a two-day detention, and her mother was told that it will stay on her record that she made a "look-alike drug."

If you have the heart and stomach for it, there are lots more stories like this at Zero Intelligence.

Who are the people who perpetrate these things on a day-in/day-out basis? Are they actually human, or has a race of poorly-programmed androids taken over our schools? Are we sheep, that we allow this to continue?

7:40 AM

Sunday, February 13, 2005  

Academy Girl, of the much-missed blog academicgame, is back with the post-game show.

7:10 PM

Successful and Unsuccessful Projects

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear that the FBI lacked effective means of sharing information among its offices. To remedy the situation, it undertook the development of the Virtual Case File system, intended to allow on-line document sharing and workflow management. The work was contracted to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and the total price tag was on the order of $170MM.

A few weeks ago, it was announced that the resulting system may be completely unusable--or, possibly, small portions of it may be placed into limited operation as a stopgap and a means of gathering user feedback for a new system.

When it became clear that the project was in trouble, Aerospace Corporation was contracted to perform an independent evaluation. It recommended that the software be abandoned, saying that "lack of effective engineering discipline has led to inadequate specification, design and development of VCF." SAIC has said it believes the problem was caused largely by the FBI: specifically, too many specification changes during the development process...an SAIC executive asserted that there were an average of 1.3 changes per day during the development. SAIC also believes that the current system is useable and can serve as a base for future development.

This issue has been covered in a pretty low-key manner in the media, and in the blogosphere not much at all. What coverage there has been has tended to focus on the $170MM...but I am much more concerned about the loss of time. $170MM may sound like a big number, but it is pretty small compared with the cost of a single large-scale terror incident.

There have, of course, been many large-scale software failures...for incisive review of such failures, read Software Runaways, by Robert Glass. It is a book that manages to be simultaneously both entertaining and depressing. I wonder how many of the people involved in the VCF project, either on the FBI side or the SAIC side, have read this book, or other analyses of software project history? In my view, both computer science programs and MBA programs should include this kind of material.

As far as the War on Terror goes, we can't afford this kind of thing. Our technological strength should be one of our greatest advantages: too often, we are failing to leverage it effectively.

One case in which we do seem to be using technology effectively against terror was recently covered in Business Week (1/31, registration required).

About a year ago, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) was asked for help with an urgent problem--enemy snipers in Iraq. Could a system be created to spot incoming bullets and identify their point of origin? The system would have to be mobile, operable under field conditions, and useable by ordinary soldiers.

BBN Technologies (a longtime DARPA contractor which was instrumental in the development of the Internet) was contracted and asked: Can you solve this problem? In 60 days? And deliver 50 working units? The answer was "yes, and we'll call you back Monday morning." The contract was signed on November 17, 2003.

The system would identify bullets from their sound..the shock wave created as they travelled through the air. By using multiple microphones and precisely timing the arrival of the "crack" of the bullet, its position could, in theory, be calculated. In practice, though, there were many problems, particularly the high levels of background noise--other weapons, tank engines, people shouting. All these had to be filtered out. By Thanksgiving weekend, the BBN team was at Quantico Marine Base, collecting data from actual firing...in terrible weather, "snowy, freezing, and rainy" recalls DARPA Program Manager Karen Wood. Steve Milligan, BBN's Chief Technologist, came up with the solution to the filtering problem: use genetic algorithms. These are a kind of "simulated evolution" in which equations can mutate, be tested for effectivess, and sometimes even "mate," over thousands of simulated generations (more on genetic algorithms here.)

By early March, 2004, the system was operational and had a name--"Boomerang." 40 of them were installed on vehicles in Iraq. Based on feedback from the troops, improvements were requested. The system has now been reduced in size, shielded from radio interference, and had its display improved. It now tells soldiers the direction, range, and elevation of a sniper.

A really remarkable achievement, right up there with the engineering and production miracles of World War II. In the wake of learning about the VCF problems, I was actually very relieved to read this story...as a society, we haven't lost it in terms of our ability to get important things done quickly.

How can we have fewer projects that come out looking like the VCF, and more that come out like the sniper locator? I continue to believe that President Bush should appoint a Director of Industrial Mobilization. This individual should be an experienced and respected executive, and he should have a small staff of people who are experienced in various aspects of technology and manufacturing. The organization should have no direct line authority, but should advise on where things are running off the rails and help in breaking bottlenecks.

We cannot afford to use our technological weapon with anything less than maximum effectiveness.

7:21 AM

Friday, February 11, 2005  

CNN News executive Eason Jordan has resigned.

Here's what disturbs me most about this matter. Jordan's remarks were made almost two weeks ago, and were witnessed by credible people. Since that time, most of the mainstream media organizations have utterly failed to cover this story. I'm not talking about putting it on page 44, or downplaying it, or slanting it...I'm talking about failing to cover this news story at all. If you obtained your current-events information exclusively from newspapers and television, you would probably be completely unaware of the Jordan affair.

There's something worse than slanting the news--and that's stonewalling it, dropping it into the memory hole as if it never happened. It is deeply disturbing that this strategy is apparently considered acceptable across broad regions of the American media.

4:46 PM


Via The Joy of Knitting, from Italy:

Yesterday, February 10th, was the first Day of Memory, instituted by Parliament to commemorate the foibe. A foiba is a natural vertical cave excavated by a river that went underground. They are found in the North-East of Italy. After the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist regime and until after the end of WWII, Yugoslav General Tito’s communist partisans massacred thousands of Italian civilians and threw them down the foibe. They took them to the edge of the foiba, tied to each other with barbed wire, and shot them so that they fell down into the huge pothole. (more)

4:32 PM


Daniel Henninger, of The Wall Street Journal, suggests that the Nobel Peace Prize should be given to the voters of Iraq.

They certainly deserve it more than some of those who have been awarded this prize in the past.

4:27 PM

Thursday, February 10, 2005  

A couple of weeks ago, Time (1/24 issue) had an article about "twixters." These are twentysomethings, usually college graduates, who can't, or don't want to, settle down...who change jobs frequently and who sometimes go back to live with their parents.

I'm not sure if we really need to worry all that much about the "twixter" phenomenon. People have been saying that the younger generation is going to the devil at least since the time of Socrates. And the Time defintion of "twixters" may lump together some very different phenomena. The person who tries out several different kinds of jobs in different cities seems to me to be a very different kind of animal from the person who moves back into the family home and plays video games all day.

But I was struck by this line:

There are few road maps in the popular culture--and to most twixters, this is the only culture--to get twixters where they need to go.

What struck me specifically is this phrase:

and to most twixters, this is the only culture

Remember, we are talking mainly about college graduates here. And one of the reasons why we spend such vast sums of money and human energies on higher education is precisely to give the students an exposure to a cultural framework extending behond the popular culture of the moment.

Yet, it's probably true. For most college graduates, the popular culture probably remains the only culture.

It seems to me that university professors and administrators should either disagree with this statement, or be profoundly disturbed by its truth.

3:40 PM

Wednesday, February 09, 2005  

Most people probably think of inland water transportation (via rivers and canals) as something out of the distant past--but, as I've noted before, it continues to play an important role in the economy. The Wall Street Journal (2/8) has a story illustrating how important the waterway system still is.

Back in January, heavy rains--and the resulting high river levels--resulted in two bad accidents on the Ohio river, temporarily shutting down navigation. As a result, GE Plastics had to partly shut down production as a West Virginia plant, because barges carrying raw materials couldn't get through. The production of plastics for phones and laptops was impacted. As a result of the same accidents, Consol Energy found itself having to delay coal shipments to power plants.

Many other businesses are dependent on inland water transport. Costs and energy consumption are much lower than truck transportation, and substantially lower even than rail. The WSJ article raises the concern that many waterway facilities (locks, etc) were built a long time ago, and are in serious need of rehabilitation to keep the system vital.

As my earlier post mentions, it now appears that there may well be potential for container freight--as well as bulk cargoes--to travel on the inland waterways, relieving the overburdened rail and highway systems and improving overall energy efficiency--assuming of course that the waterway infrastructure is kept in good condition.

8:24 PM

Tuesday, February 08, 2005  

Here's some unpleasant stuff:

At a recent workshop entitled "Free Speech in the Classroom" I had the distinct privilege of listening to a colleague bemoan the fact that her students were challenging her when she decided to include a section about how the war in Iraq was wrong in an introduction to Anthropology course. She was in fact teaching the students based on her opinion, something she did not deny and her justification was that "I know these things, I have a PhD.", the fact that her PhD. was in social movements notwithstanding. And therein lies the crux of the problem. There is significant weight behind a PhD. Those who have acquired one are vested with an innate authority and credibility, and their word goes a lot farther than the laypersons.

"I know these things, I have a PhD"

I am reminded of Peter Drucker's prediction (written in 1970!) that:

It is highly probably that the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt in the United States will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned.

Although it seems that the most arrogant people in academia--those that say or project things like "I know these things, I have a PhD"--tend not to be the truly learned, but the pseudo-learned.

4:55 PM

Monday, February 07, 2005  

In connection with the Ward Churchill matter, there has been much discussion of academic freedom. University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman said last Friday that academic freedom is "sacrosanct" at CU, adding that professors must "behave with integrity."

What about academic freedom for students? Does it exist at this university?

In this article, former student Kimberly Hickel asserts that her own freedom of speech--and that of other students--was infringed upon by that same Ward Churchill. She says that she complained to university authorities, but that they did nothing.

Is this allegation true? If it is, then does the University of Colorado think that the academic freedom of professors gives these professors the right to suppress the free speech of students? Given this published statement by Ms Hickel, the university should be investigating this matter, and specifically the allegation that university officials failed to take any action to protect student freedom of speech.

5:27 PM

Sunday, February 06, 2005  

In just about every developed country, there are concerns about the economic impact of slower population growth...which results in a smaller number of working-age people supporting a larger number of retireees. An analysis in BusinessWeek (1/31) points out an additional variable that needs to be considered in the analysis: productivity growth.

Writer Michael Mandel presents an analysis of the annual growth rate of productivity needed to double income per person by 2050, across five countries--taking into account the projected demographic changes. He then compares that required growth rate with the actual historical productivity growth in the same countries.

Worst-off of the countries, by this analysis, is Germany: the required productivity growth rate is 2.0%, whereas the historical experience is 1.5%. By contrast, the U.S. has a required rate of 1.6% and a historical experience of 1.7%. Interesting, the best of the the lot is Britain, with 1.7% required vs 1.9% experienced. France comes in at 1.8/1.5, and Japan at 2.3/2.0.

Note that this is a very macro-level analysis; it is silent on the merits/demerits of specific retirement-financing mechanisms, whether Social Security, private accounts, or whatever. To the extent that the analysis is correct, though, it implies that the demographic problems may be less fearsome than they look.

It's not clear to me that this analysis deals properly with cross-border issues: investment in other (and potentially faster-growing) economies, impact of "guest workers," and so on. I'd like to see considerably more detail on the analysis and will probe around a bit and see if I can find anything more.

Note: If you go to the linked article, the table with the cited data does not appear in the text. You have to click on the link "Graphic: What's Needed" to get it.

8:35 AM

Saturday, February 05, 2005  

A visiting columnist had a question for a classroom full of aspiring journalists: Can you name a columnist (newspaper, magazine, or on-line) you read on a regular basis?

Only one student answered in the affirmative: he mentioned a sports columnist. The rest of them couldn't think of a single one.

But it isn't just columnists that these students aren't reading. "My generation is very visually oriented," explains one junior. "My generation grew up watching MTV. We are used to short spurts of words, lots of images...We're used to immediate gratification." Other students said that words on a page are hard to deal with when you have "a fast-paced lifestyle" or when "you have four kids and you're going to college."

So, why would people who feel this way about text choose careers in journalism? Laura Berman, the writer of the article linked above, explains it thus: "(they have) seen enough movies and TV shows that depicted enough exciting newsroom scenes to make journalism seem enticing, even glamorous. TV has a way of selling the wrapper -- the image, all glossed up. And so -- voila -- a career. But it includes, like, words on paper? That you have to read? You're kidding me."

I'm not sure how representative these students are..after all, this is only one college. And journalism students are probably not a good sample of college students in general...based on things I've read, they have lower average SAT scores than students in most other majors. But at least one commenter at Joanne Jacobs, where I originally got this link, says she's seen the same attitude toward reading in classes of other types. (Comments have since disappeared due to site problems.)

Somebody, though, is reading blogs, which are mostly text--and some entries on successful blogs are pretty long, too. And I doubt that most of the blog-readers are over 40. So maybe the future for reading/text isn't as bleak as it might appear.

On the question of why people like those in this class are majoring in journalism...it probably is true that many students pick their majors based on whatever is being glamorized on TV at the moment. Which makes me wonder...will we shortly be seeing an influx of business majors inspired by The Apprentice?

1:33 PM

Thursday, February 03, 2005  

Barring government intervention, AT&T will be acquired by SBC Corporation. I was going to write a post on the sad disappearance of this great institution, which has contributed much to the economy, to technology, and to national defense. But in this morning's Financial Times, there was a letter from a gentleman who in 1991 was CEO of Hutchison Whampoa (a large international company with roots going back to the early 19th century.) Here are some of his remarks on AT&T:

How well I remember the day in 1991 visiting AT&T. I was chief executive of Hutchison Whampoa and we had started a small mobile telephone operation at that time. The analysts were predicting gloom and I tried to sell a piece of the company to AT&T to get some market recognition. With 16 people in the room in their US offices (slightly larger than Heathrow airport) they told me, looking down their collective noses, they had not yet formulated a policy (attitude) to mobile phones and thanked me for my visit.

Competition--"creative destruction"--can be brutal. But without it, entrenched institutions would simply sit there forever and "look down their collective noses" at everybody else...and progress of all types would be stymied. In a competitive market, there is an automatic timer attached to those who would isolate themselves from reality, and when the timer runs out, it's somebody else's turn.

9:29 AM

Wednesday, February 02, 2005  

Jay Nordlinger reports on some of the conversations he overheard and participated in at Davos. Here's one:

A famous left-wing professor says that "diaspora groups" — e.g., Jews in America — ought to "shut up, or be shut up." Do not those words have a whiff of thuggery about them? When we hear that someone, or some group, ought to "shut up, or be shut up," the hair on our necks should stand on end. A great many groups around the world are shut up, indeed.

More than a faint whiff of thuggery, I'd say.

Previous Goon Squad post

3:44 PM


Offshoring/outsourcing activity is beginning to pick up in Africa. According to this New York Times article, there are now over 54,000 call center jobs in Africa..a partial count that excludes several countries. Both English-speaking and French-speaking people are available for these jobs, many of them with college degrees.

The growth of offshoring in India has clearly been a significant factor in the reduction of poverty in that country during recent years...perhaps it will also help in Africa.

2:56 PM

Tuesday, February 01, 2005  

Back in April 2003, Eason Jordan of CNN admitted that his network had refrained from reporting on many atrocities committed by the Saddam regime (see also here.) There is also evidence that members of other news organizations behaved in the same way.

Now, Jordan has evidently been making accusations about the U.S. military's treatment of journalists--and has been challenged by Congressman Barney Frank.

This reminds me of a post I wrote back in September 2003, which I think deserves re-running....


Writing about the performance of journalists in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, NYT correspondent John Burns says: There is corruption in our business. He is talking about the many journalists who chose to play along with Saddam's regime in order to stay in Iraq and maintain their contacts with the regime.

Terror, totalitarian states, and their ways are nothing new to me, but I felt from the start that this was in a category by itself, with the possible exception in the present world of North Korea. I felt that that was the central truth that has to be told about this place. It was also the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here. Why? Because they judged that the only way they could keep themselves in play here was to pretend that it was okay....

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people's stories -- mine included -- specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.

Read the whole thing. As Glenn Reynolds says, This isn't journalism's Enron. It's journalism's Nuremberg. Or ought to be..

And, speaking of Nuremberg, there is a certain parallel here to the case of Leni Riefenstahl--sometimes called "Hitler's filmmaker"--who died a few days ago. (Lynn Crosbie has written a good article about this reprehensible individual--who was not, of course, tried at Nuremberg although she was imprisoned briefly after the war.) Riefenstahl claimed that she was not a committed Nazi: that what she was concerned with was her art. If this is true, then the fact that she was willing to work for the Third Reich meant that she rated her responsibility to her profession more highly than her responsibility as a human being. Is this so very different from the attitude of those journalists who rated their "access" more highly than their responsibility to tell the truth about what was really going on inside the human nightmare of Iraq?

People in other professions, of course, have made similar choices. In his mammoth novel Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon tells the story of a German rocket scientist named Franz Poekler. The character is fictional, of course, but there were many like him.

Poekler--a likeable if weak man--is assigned to work on the development of the V-2 missile. He does so not because of any particular affinity with Naziism, but because rocket development is his profession; he finds it intellectually interesting. (He is given an added incentive by the fact that his daughter is being held hostage by a Nazi official--but it seems clear to me that he would have willingly worked on the rocket even without this factor.)

As is well-known, the V-2 was used to attack civilians in London. As is less well-known, the very production of this weapon involved an atrocity. Substantial parts of it were manufactured by slave laborers, prisoners at the Dora concentration camp--adjacent to the facilities at which Franz Poekler carries out his design tasks. In the novel, Poekler is vaguely aware of this, but prefers not to think about it.

As the war ends, Poekler walks into Dora, and is confronted with the reality of the V-2 project on which he has worked:

The odors of shit, death, sweat, skckness, mildew, piss, the breathing of Dora, wrapped him as he crept in...All his vacuums, his labyrinths, had been the other side of this. While he lived and drew marks on paper, this invisible kingdom had kept on, in the darkness outside...

And while journalists in Iraq lived and drew marks on paper, or on video or computer screens, the invisible kingdom of Saddam's torturers kept on.

In Pynchon's novel, Poekler makes a small act of contrition:

Where it was darkest and smelled the worst, Poekler found a woman lying, a random woman. He sat for half an hour holding her bone hand. She was breathing. Before he left, he took off his gold wedding ring and put it on the woman's thin finger, curling her hand to keep it from sliding off. If she lived, the ring would be good for a few meals, or a blanket, or a night indoors, or a ride home...

It's not much. But it's more than Riefenstahl ever did--and more, one suspects, than will ever be done by the journalists of whom Burns writes.

8:30 AM

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