Thursday, January 31, 2008

Get out, but don't forget your envelope

For those who are some years younger than I am, you cannot imagine how important Sears used to be. It was the go-to place in retailing, the store you could count on for quality goods at reasonable prices. When my family moved from Chicago to Michigan, Sears was practically the first place we went, because we knew what we were going to get. You wouldn't find luxury items, or an array of famous brand names, but durable clothes for kids, reliable tools, a fair deal on appliances. It is not wrong to say that Sears was the Wal-Mart of yesterday.

For a host of reasons, Sears no longer holds that place. They've fallen into a nether world where they're too expensive to be Wal-Mart, and not classy enough to attract luxe-minded shoppers. Now they lurch from strategy to strategy, desperate to find a winning formula, never quite making it.

It's not clear that any executive can turn the ship around, but Aylwin Lewis was given a shot a few years ago (of course, he was also head of Kmart, another brand heading toward the rocks). Sears hasn't magically returned to prominence, so Lewis is out.

Chicago State University is a state institution, located in Chicago, and it provides a potentially important function in serving mainly African-American students from the South Side of the city. Unfortunately, the promise has never been matched by reality; the school has a 15% graduation rate, and U.S. News and World Report considers it a fourth-tier school.

In addition, the president, Elnora Daniel, is being investigated for financial irregularities, and had to reimburse the university for spending money on theater tickets and home improvements, among other things. She has lost the confidence of the students and the board, so Daniel is out.

What do these stories have in common? Lewis, who is leaving his job Saturday, will continue to receive his million-dollar salary through March 2010 (story here). He will also garner some other nice financial benefits. Daniel will continue to receive her $241K salary and other benefits through June 2009 (story here).

In other words, people who have demonstrably failed in their missions will continue to receive upper-class compensation long after they've stopped their dubious contributions to the enterprise. Why is it so frequently the case that the last creative job many executives perform is the negotiation of their compensation package when they first take the job?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The business candidate, part 2

TIME magazine once referred to President Bush as the first CEO president. After eight years of stasis in Washington (years that the most ardent Clinton supporters have forgotten), while the business community created prosperity for all, the 2000 campaign hinged on competence. Gore was a remnant of the political fighting, Bush offered the knowledge to keep the gravy train running. He had an MBA! He had run companies! He got the Texas Rangers a new stadium!

What no one seemed to understand was that Bush was a lousy CEO; it certainly wasn't reported by the docile press. His "successes" came from bailouts by friends of his father, and he had to go back to Dad's Rolodex when he put together the deal for a new stadium that enriched him at taxpayers' expense.

What he did have was the CEO mentality. If you say something, people jump to do it. If you believe something, everyone around you will support you, and call you brilliant for believing it. That his corner office came, not out of years of work and growth, but from the name he held never occurred to him.

It shouldn't need to be pointed out that these are not the skills needed by a president. Negotiation, subtlety, nuance, these are the tools of the effective president (and many successful CEOs - again, Bush was not successful).

Journalists seem to understand none of this. They see a CEO, commanding people, expressing a vision, and they assume that these surface qualities are useful in a president. They fail to see the disconnect between the appearance and the reality, and they don't see how even the best CEOs may not have the qualities needed to run the country.

Romney's experience may have nothing to suggest as to how well he would run the country. A CEO has tools unavailable to the president, and vice versa. CEOs can focus on competition, while presidents need to think about cooperation at least as oftem. I don't know how Romney would fare as chief executive of our country, but the pundits and columnists don't either.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Somebody likes me, darn it

This blog has not, so far, generated a lot of buzz. If you look below the posts, you will see that comments are few and far between. This is OK, though I will confess that there was that oh-so-faint hope that my wisdom would soar across the blogosphere, enlightening others and (you never know) enriching me. Sure, a month of serious blogging is not close to enough, but I can be impatient.

Of course, that brings to mind the question of who this blog is for. Am I writing this for others, sowing my seeds of brilliance to change the world, or is it sufficient to write for myself? I suppose that's a question that any blogger might have, and only arises from the technology - if I were writing a diary (I mean, journal, I'm not 13), I would have no expectation that anyone would care. But it's out there on the Web, and it would be neat if people would read it.

Do I mean that? Perhaps not totally. I Googled myself the other day, not because I thought that thousands were talking about my words without leaving comments, but because I was curious as to how Google would index an unread blog. For the most part, the links lead to the individual posts (not all of them, which is curious). But one of my posts was referred to on another site. For a moment, I was kind of excited. Then I looked, and my link is on a white supremacist site. Are these my fans? Not exactly what I was hoping for.

The business candidate, part 1

Something that I heard several times over the past week was, with the growing concerns about the economy, the Mitt Romney campaign should get a boost. John McCain is far more focused on the war against Islamo-fascistic-terrorism, or whatever (and if he does follow bin Laden to the gates of hell, hey, just push him in, don't bring him back), and that topic is losing the interest of voters who are afraid of losing their homes or suffering a recession.

Mitt Romney, however, is a focused businessman, a CEO of a famed consulting company, the man who brought the Winter Olympics to Utah in a fiscally responsible way. He can handle the economic challenges that face us because of his vast experience.

This is yet more evidence that journalists simply don't understand business. Time after time, we read stories in the business section that read like warmed-over press releases. I think that happens thusly: The young reporter pulls up to the office building, gets out of his car, and is met before he even hits the lobby by an attractive PR person. He's taken to a conference room, given coffee and donuts, and told about all the great things the company is doing. Then he meets the head of Marketing, the head of Finance, the head of Manufacturing, each of whom takes him on a tour of their respective domains and talks about the innovative strategies that they've deployed. Then comes lunch with the CEO, either in the executive dining room, or in the CEO's spacious office. There the seven-figure executive explains to the young reporter how this company will change the world. Lunch over, the reporter is released just in time to get back to the newsroom and type up notes for tomorrow's story.

There is no perspective, no attempt at balancing the story. But the story is seen as journalistically neutral because the reporter injects no opinions. If a newspaper ran a puff piece like this about a person, it would belong in the features section. In the business section, however, it's just solid reporting.

We see this in the broadcast media as well. I enjoy Charlie Rose's show, I find him a solid interviewer, but he is a lot less engaged in economic topics than in the war in Iraq, or the political horse race, or college basketball.

Why is this? For some reason, economics is seen as a forbidding topic, one that the non-specialist (meaning most reporters) cannot possibly understand, and it's seen as grindingly uninteresting. Its importance is obvious; economic matters underlie almost every domestic issue, and are increasingly wrapped up in international affairs. But our journalists simply won't do the work necessary to get up to speed.

Why is this important in the political campaign? The simplistic assumption is that Romney, erstwhile CEO, will know how to get the country moving, will make us competitive, can solve the problems of a globalized world. Tomorrow I'll explain why this is bunkum.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Review - Bill of Wrongs

Bill of Wrongs is the last book written by Molly Ivins, the Texas liberal reporter who, after covering George W. Bush as governor of Texas, was perhaps the first to warn us as to what his Presidency would be like. She may have understated the case, as I don't believe the president ever invaded New Mexico while he was governor. Her co-author is Lou Dubose, who also wrote Bushwhacked and Shrub with Ms. Ivins, two books that savagely detailed the career of Bush.

I've always enjoyed those authors who are troublemakers, who gleefully flout convention and challenge accepted wisdom. If you looked at the letters to the Chicago Tribune that were written about Ms. Ivins during the time her column ran, the outrage would have convinced you that her column was worth reading. If you wanted to get the liberal slant on issues of the day, flavored with Texas down-home colloquialisms, to Ivins' column you would turn.

Bill of Wrongs looks at the Bill of Rights and how it has been abused under the Bush administration under the guise of war. The abrogation of the right to free speech and assembly, where a citizen cannot wear a T-shirt or hold up a sign anywhere the president might see it, or the right of habeas corpus, arbitrarily suspended without the government having to make a case to any other party, has become not just suspended in special cases, but a standard investigative tool. This book collects stories of people who have been hurt because these basic rights have been taken away. It is very well-reported; the arrogance of the government (of the people, by the people, for the people??) will astound you.

But who will read or care about this book? I read it because I already had these concerns, and was looking for real reporting to back up my feelings. I got that.

The average American, though, is pretty well unaware of these rights, what they mean, and against what they protect us. In the face of an external threat, even one that is not particularly pervasive, these rights, which have little perceived day-to-day value, are easily seen as optional.

Take the right to free speech, so oft misunderstood. The First Amendment only says that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." Most people vaguely understand that they don't really have this right, because they have no access to the forums; I may be free to talk or write about foreign policy, but I'm still not going to be invited on the Charlie Rose show as often as Henry Kissinger (or ever). So I can speak, but there's no guarantee that anyone has to listen.

So we have a right that we can rarely exercise in any effective manner, circumscribed by private conduct laws that extend outside of their domain (the right does not extend to private conduct, so an employee can be fired for writing a blog, even if they do so only from their home on their own time). Is it any wonder that, for most Americans, the First Amendment is only a vague concept, not as important as the "right" to download music from the Internet?

The same logic applies to the other amendments discussed in Bill of Wrongs. If you're not a fund-raising Muslim, or a member of a school board that has voted to include "intelligent design" in the science curriculum, why should you care?

As Louis Armstrong said, "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." If you have to ask what your rights mean to you, Bill of Wrongs will not enlighten you. It pretty much requires you to walk in, outrage in hand. This is not a criticism. If schools can't or won't teach the Constitution, and parents won't, you can't expect a slim well-written book to do so. But this book might be used by enlightened people to demonstrate what happens when these rights are taken away.

[By the way, Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the passing of Molly Ivins - she is missed.]

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Congratulations to Chandra

One of my favorite athletes is Canadian cross-country skier Chandra Crawford. I had never heard of her before the 2006 Winter Olympics, but she shocked the world (the part of it that cares about X-C skiing) by winning the sprint race. Then she endeared herself to anyone who caught her exuberant national anthem performance at the medals ceremony (you can see it here - this is not a new thought, but isn't "O, Canada" one fine national anthem) or her delightful interviews (here is the Canadian version; the American interview, while considerably shorter, was pretty charming too).

However, as often happens when someone comes out of nowhere to win a gold medal, Chandra's career seemed to sink back into a series of middle-level performances. The rest of 2005-06 was pretty non-eventful, and last season didn't improve on that much.

One problem, apparently, is that there are two techniques used in X-C skiing. That seems odd to me (and now, the Olympics backward marathon!), but it's how they do things. Chandra won her gold using the freestyle technique, which looks like skating, but has struggled with the classic technique, where the skis remain parallel. (That's it, I've exhausted my knowledge of the technical aspects of the sport.)

This past week, Canmore, Alberta, Canada, a lovely town in which I spent part of my vacation this past year, and the host of the 1988 X-C Olympic events, hosted a World Cup meet (match? tie?). Unusually, they held sprint events using both techniques. Our Chandra finished 12th in the classic event, which is a real step forward. Then, yesterday, she won the gold in the freestyle. You might say that she had a huge advantage, since Canmore is her hometown. But it's still great.

One story is here. I eagerly await her own account on her web site, which is mostly a collection of what amounts to blog posts, quite well-written and interesting. My congratulations to her.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Making history

I've written before about the misuse of the word historic, a word that, for a variety of reasons, is applied to almost any event of whatever significance. It's an inflationary word, one that is used to pump up all manner of fairly trivial events. The vast majority of events described as historic will not be noted by history (except as stored on various servers on the Internet, preserved for all time, the Domesday Book of our time), because they offer no insight on the flows of history.

Now the word has come full force into the presidential campaign. It has become commonplace for commentators to throw around the word in every story reported or written. That a black man, or a woman, might become the president of the dominant world power is treated as the story, and is seen as justification by some voters to throw their vote one way or another.

There have been 43 presidents. Given the importance of the United States on the world stage, every president has found himself prominent in the mix of world events. Some have risen to the challenge, some have not. Some changed the direction not only of the U.S., but of the globe. Every single one, yes, even Millard Fillmore, can be considered historic.

It is interesting that the country may be ready to elect either an African-American or a woman. I don't know that I fully buy into the vast significance, because this country still has race and gender issues, issues that will not disappear simply because one person has been elected to one office. It certainly does not denote the kind of self-congratulatory back-patting that we will go through if one of these people does become president.

But the issues that confront this nation transcend identity politics. There are so many challenges facing anyone that would take the job of president, and those are not black challenges, or female challenges (what constitutes a women's or black issue, anyway? I well understand the legal and moral hurdles that an earlier generation of activist had to overcome, and I'm not suggesting that we are precisely where we should be on gender or race, but do we want a president who will see redressing past wrongs as a big priority?).

Even if a president didn't want to be historic, world events would prevent that. The office, by its very nature, is historic, and it's very hard, especially in real time, to decide what will be more or less historic. I'm hoping the next president will make history, not because of the color of skin or the presence of certain chromosomes, but by helping this country deal with its internal divisiveness, uniting us in taking a path back to where we should, and can, be.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Competence vs. leadership

Something that has crept into the presidential campaign the last couple of weeks is the idea of competence vs. leadership. In particular, Hillary has positioned herself as the candidate of competence, with experience that will allow her to be up and running "Day 1." She seems willing to concede that Obama has the leadership edge, then discounts it as less relevant than her "35 years" fighting for the rights of, well, pretty much every interest group.

[This is not the post for it, but what is Hillary's fabled experience? I am tired of her dwelling on her years of service, which don't strike me as being so incredibly awe-inspiring. Anyway...]

I believe this dichotomy has been created by the Clinton campaign, as someone realized that Obama came across as more inspirational. But that is a false dichotomy.

First, competence and leadership are not mutually exclusive qualities. Especially for complex tasks (and the presidency certainly qualifies), the ability to lead grows directly out of one's competence. I have had managers who were technically unqualified and uninterested, and no one accepted their leadership as legitimate. The idea that leadership is an attribute that has no basis in ability is ludicrous.

But there is, I think, a larger issue. What does competence mean for the presidency? What does leadership mean?

A pretty good definition of a leader is someone who gets others to do things they'd rather not do. Where we stand as a nation right now, any truly great leader would be asking us to sacrifice for the common good. But no candidate is doing so (we remember what happened to Mondale when he suggested higher taxes - goodbye).

So there is not a lot of leadership, at least with respect to the general populace (there may be a leadership component to dealing with Congress, but it's hard to see this as either all that significant, given the egos of Congress, or the primary reason to vote for someone).

And competence? So many different people have been presidents, each one different, and the competence of each has been derived from a complex mix of personal ability and context. Many people believe that the hardest part of the job is how the president reacts to change, and that is very hard to predict. It is not at all clear that experience as a corporate lawyer, First Lady, and one-term senator beats that of a hands-on activist, state legislator, and part-of-one-term senator.

I would like to see the campaigns move more toward discussions of long-term strategies and short-term tactics. Don't tell me what program you would implement when you aren't going to be writing the bill; tell me how you will lead us back to prosperity and away from decline.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A well-deserved award

Congratulations to Joe Posnanski on receiving the Casey Award for the best baseball book of 2007 for The Soul of Baseball. (His post about it is here, and the list of other books that have received this award testify as to its significance.) Just four days ago, I wrote about my respect for Joe's blog and the book, which stands as one of the finest baseball books I have ever read. Whatever your religious beliefs, you have to hope that Buck O'Neil has some consciousness about how much this chronicle of his life has touched people. Great, great book.

Review - The Agony of Victory

The Agony of Victory (2007), by Steve Friedman, is a book of essays that have been written to explore "Champions and the Price They Pay for Glory" (and "When Winning Isn't Enough", which makes this the rare book with two secondary titles). These essays were written at various times (from 1987 to 2007) for various publications.

I don't like to dwell on secondary titles too much; the author rarely has much to do with picking them, as I understand it. But for a book with such a generic primary title, they become important in deciding whether to buy or rent a paricular book. These titles are quite misleading.

Before I get into that, let me say that I quite liked this book. The stories of runners, hikers, cyclists, bowlers (plus one each from basketball, boxing, and golfing) are fine personality profiles, most quite poignant. This is not the place to come if you're looking for insight into the sports themselves - I learned nothing I didn't already know about any of them as disciplines. However, the author, who has worked for GQ and Esquire, writes stories that do what good magazine profiles should do, tell stories about the subjects that inform and touch us.

But this isn't a book about champions or winners. For every Marco Pantani, the great bicycle racer, or Gerry Lindgren, record-holding track star, there is a Steve Vaught, who walked across the country to lose some of his 410 pounds. Or the author's father, a golfer of great commitment but no great fame.

Some of the subjects are clearly mentally ill. Some, like John Moylan, who survived 9/11 by walking down the stairs from his World Trade Center office, are only peripherally sports people at all. The amazing survival story of Danelle Ballengee is recounted, and is surprisingly intense (despite a lack of suspense), but there is only brief mention made of her many accomplishments in adventure racing.

So, while the impression one gets from the cover and flyleaf is misleading, the book is still a fine read. If you aren't moved by the story of Willie McCool, you're short on heart (even if his story is, once again, only marginally about sports). These are first-rate personality profiles.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Free thesis topic here

Pat: the category is Place. Spin the wheel.

------- ----

Contestant #1: I'll take an N.

------- ----

#2: T, please.

------- ----

#3: Let me have an S, Pat.

------- ----

#1: I'll take a Q.
Pat: Are you sure?
#1: Yes.

------- ---Q

And now the answer is possible to see (I'll save it until the end).

My idea for a thesis, available to anyone free of charge, is to determine which letters are most valuable in Wheel of Fortune. Most people walk roughly down the letter probability frequency (one example is etaoinshrdlucmfwypvbgkqjxz) to make their guesses. But is 't' really the best choice? Because it is so common, it has the least predictive power.

Perhaps 'q' isn't really that good, despite my example above. Maybe the best letter is one near the middle (in much the way that it has been calculated that the orange properties have the most value in Monopoly).

So it might be interesting to design and carry out such a study, giving an optimal strategy for Wheel, or Hangman. (By the way, the answer is Baghdad Iraq).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Review - Hunter's Moon

I read a fair number of books, weighted more toward non-fiction these days, particularly politics and history (with some sports books tossed in). What fiction I read tends toward escapism, primarily thrillers or mysteries. I keep my expectations relatively low in this category; I tend to think well of a compelling plot, and yield a bit (more than a bit) on characterization or mood.

For example, I enjoy the books of Lee Child or Robert Ludlum, even though Child tends to have one compelling character (Jack Reacher) in his books, and Ludlum is hard-pressed to get to one. But plot is a legitimate component of a writer's craft, and the ability to craft an ingenious, hard-driving, compelling plot is not to be derogated (despite the many literature-trained reviewers who gleefully do so).

Nevertheless, I can, despite my pedestrian tastes, enjoy it when an author stretches and gives a little more. James Ellroy is a prime example of a writer who creates absolutely riveting work, both in style and content. It took me quite a few pages to adapt to the style of White Jazz, but I enjoyed the workout.

So it's a pleasure to come across another such craftsman, Chuck Logan. His first book, Hunter's Moon (1996), is full of telling details about his characters and the locale (the North Woods of Minnesota). I won't bother with a lengthy plot synopsis, you can get that from Amazon, but the story involves a man with a troubled past becoming ensnared in the death of his best friend's stepson, and in the small dying town with secrets and horrors. This is not the tale of a dispassionate detective seeking something close to truth, but of a man whose demons and bad choices twist together with the people of Stanley, complicating his quest for answers.

But the joys of this book are not easily captured by the plotting or pace (which is solid, if a bit uneven). It's the use of language to describe the space that Harry Griffin inhabits - the physical space of the woods and the lodge, and his inner space of pain and mistakes. There is reality here, not self-conscious "grittiness."

One quibble: every character speaks quite vividly, so I found myself appreciating the dialogue even as I doubted the ability of even the most minor player to spin the words. It's clever, but, at the same time, unlikely.

Nevertheless, Hunter's Moon is recommended highly.

Picking a chief

To follow up on my last post, it's fair to ask why I am pessimistic that Americans will carefully consider the candidates for president and make a rational choice based on their priorities. Why do we base our vote (for any office, but most importantly for president) on half-baked emotionalism or imagined personal compatibility?

There are probably any number of reasons for this; I'll just jot down those that come immediately to mind, and think about them as the campaign forges on.

First, there are people who honestly don't believe there is any difference between the parties and, thus, the candidates. It's easy to see why. All the candidates (save the unelectable mavericks like Paul or Kucinich) believe unquestioningly in the benefits of the free market and free trade, they all believe in the inescapable power of representative democracy, they all believe that we're under siege from Islamo-fascistic terrorism. Given the simplistic questioning in the debates or on the interview shows, it's no wonder we can't find distinctions. Have we ever asked Hillary Clinton how she squares the conflict between the free market and democracy? Have we ever asked John McCain why terrorism is so much worse than other forms of conflict?

No. We just accept the prepackaged, focus group-tested sound bites (I'll be an agent of change, I'll be ready to use my 35 years of experience day 1, and so forth). In addition, we know that the probability of fundamental change inside the Beltway is very small. The president really doesn't have control over a huge percentage of what goes on in Washington, so we're unlikely to see, for example, significant less influence by special interest groups.

Second, we're lazy. Most Americans are not engaged with the issues; they don't spend any time trying to find distinctions between the candidates. It's true that the jargon doesn't help in grappling with the nuances of the various health care plans or the long-term foreign policy direction. But most people don't even try.

It probably takes a crisis to focus our minds on the issues that we face, and despite 9/11, or our loss of jobs overseas, or our real estate meltdown, most Americans are just not convinced that any of this denotes a crisis. (I'm not sure what would rise to that level; Hitler and Sputnik got this country moving, but not unanimously.) As long as most of us get our three squares a day (even if we pay more), or can still drive little Johnny to his oboe lessons (even if we pay more), or are not under siege from Islamic terrorists, we're going to believe we're essentially OK.

It is said we get the president we deserve, and that is probably true. It's also unfortunate, in that I believe that we face previously unknown challenges, and it's going to take a little more than vague hand-waving about "change" to confront them.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hail to the chief

It's January 21. One year from today, we'll have a new president, sitting in the Oval Office on the first full day of his or her first term, ready, we hope, to confront the problems of the most powerful nation in the world: The challenges of the new competitive world economy, compounded by corporate greed; the resulting insecurity felt by millions of Americans who don't know what they're going to do to survive in a world in which change is the only constant; the millions who can't afford health care and will be wiped out if afflicted with anything serious; the ongoing threat from terrorism and the lack of consensus as to how to combat it; the foreign entanglements which seem only peripherally related to our national interest; the inability to imagine a future in which we will have energy sources that support our current ways of living, but do not make us dependent on foreign countries; the lack of support from increasingly-powerful countries that truly do not like the way we do things; and so on.

Yet many, if not most, Americans are going to make their choice for the office based on "making history," or on a three-second emotional sound bite, or on "who would I like to have a beer with?"

We have to do better this time. We have to extend ourselves to look beyond the simplistic messages, and try to figure out who is best suited to lead this country at this crucial moment. We have to decide who is best equipped to look, not just one month, or 12 months, or one term, ahead, but who might have the vision to lead us to position ourselves in a world that is freeing itself of the old common truths.

I wish I could be optimistic that we will do all that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why my other places interest me

It's occurred to me that I haven't talked about why I chose each of the "Other places of interest," those links to the right. I only have five so far, and I really should expand the section, but it might be of some interest as to why I chose the ones I have put there.

Economist's View is the blog of Mark Thoma, an economist at the University of Oregon. His blog is perhaps the best I've seen at providing links to topics of interest in economics, and his own opinions are always interesting. It's the place to go if you want to survey articles or themes that reach well beyond the business press.

From ship to shore is a blog by Jacky. Some personal background here: In late 2006, my wife and I took a cruise to Alaska. We generally take fairly active vacations, with hiking and driving madly from place to place, but, for various reasons, we decided to go a little more sedentary this time.

To my surprise, I greatly enjoyed the cruise experience on board the Statendam, a Holland America ship. We didn't take too many excursions, so we enjoyed a lot of shipboard activities, the games and trivia contests. The cruise directors worked quite hard to ensure that we had the best time possible. One of them was Jacky, and I stumbled across her blog last year. She doesn't update it very often, but I find it quite entertaining. Of more importance is that it was this blog which "inspired" the creation of my blog. For whatever reason, Jacky's blog was the one that convinced me I should start one of my own.

James Howard Kunstler is an author and essayist, and is one of the most pessimistic (and entertaining) authors on the Internet. He writes a weekly blog, the name of which I shan't repeat here, that is largely about the end of our oil-based system and the effect that will have on America's lifestyle. Even if you don't agree with everything he writes (I think the U.S. economy is a little harder to turn than he does, so I don't see total catastrophe looming, say, tomorrow), his thoughts on the extent to which our current social structure depends on the easy availability of cheap petroleum-based products will force you to take a different view of your surroundings.

Joe Posnanski is a sportswriter for the Kansas City Star, who also wrote one of the best baseball books I have ever read, The Soul of Baseball. (It's a remarkable account of Joe's time with the great Buck O'Neil, and is an antidote to all the negative news coming out of baseball these days. I guarantee that, if you feel your love for the game wavering, you will get it back when you, through Joe, spend time with Mr. O'Neil.) How he finds the time to write hundreds more words a week I don't understand, but his blog is a lot of fun. Not everything is baseball-oriented, but you probably won't get the most out of it if you don't love the game.

Political Animal, created originally as Calpundit by Kevin Drum, is now the official blog of Washington Monthly magazine. It's a liberal-leaning look at the political news of the day, but provides enough links to "real" news sources to allow a reader to use it as a starting point, even if one holds contrary opinions. It's written in a personal style that I envy, while still expressing opinion based on facts.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Recession, schmecession

Justin Fox, writing The Rites of Recession in the current Time magazine, gets it just right, I think. The economy, which has been remarkably underreported during the presidential campaign, is a major concern of a lot of people. But the reporting, what there has been of it, has been devoted to the possibility of a recession: Are we in one? Will we be in one? How long will it last?

All of which misses the point. The problems that confront this nation right now transcend this discussion. Who cares if we're technically in a recession? As I've written before, much of the country is already in a recession. So our current challenges go beyond whether we're in something called a "recession" or just in a "slowdown." If you lose your home, or your job, you don't feel better if it turns out, years later, that you didn't lose them in a recession.

Even Fox spends 80+% of the article talking about recession - interesting stuff, but not vital. What is important "[are] long-term trends like the rise of China and India, the growth in income inequality, ... U.S. competitiveness, the state of the middle class." That he even mentions the possibility that "America's global role has been permanently downgraded" is journalistic progress that I am surprised to see.

Despite all that, the bandwagon-jumping legislators, who in a remarkable show of non-partisan support are backing the President, in what coincidentally is an election year, are getting behind a fiscal stimulus plan. Tax rebates (that even respected economists say should not be used to pay down debt, despite the fact that Americans desperately need to pay down debt) will be thrown around, but just try getting Americans to spend this windfall domestically. It won't happen, as we endorse our new checks directly over to China or Korea.

One of the downsides to globalization is that you can't control what happens within your own nation any more. The fiscal stimulus package may do very little to create growth in the U.S., but it may allow China and India to continue their surprising progress. Of course, our CEOs will still skim off some of that money as it crosses the border, so some of it will stay here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

We make money by leaving the tough stuff to others

Boeing has encountered yet another problem with the 787 Dreamliner (as reported in the Chicago Tribune - here). What fascinates me is the contrast between the reality and the plan as expressed in the Global Business section of Time just a few months ago (here).

The glowing report in Time, which, even then, read like a reworked press release, now seems to be the product of wishful thinking rather than revolutionary business thinking. The 787 project was going to revolutionize manufacturing, largely through the expedient of having Boeing do as little of it as possible. Instead, they were to outsource not just the component work, but the design of the components:

[T]he specification control document, which explains how to build an electrical-distribution system, was about 2,500 pages for the 777. "[Partners] had to figure out 2,500 pages of stuff, and we monitored them applying 2,500 pages of stuff," says Bair.

On the 787, the equivalent assignment was 25 pages. "For high-level requirements, you go design it," says Blair. "We're not going to micromanage how you do it." Bair says this accomplishes three things: partners can show their expertise; there is no duplication of work; and innovation can flourish where "in the past it was our way or no way." He doesn't consider these new methods revolutionary.

This, of course, is the logical consequence of modern-day management thinking. You out-manage your risk by transferring it to others, relying on contract compliance to take the place of responsibility. You conceptualize or ideate, not even descending to the point of high-level design, rather shifting that to the "experts" who know better than you what you need.

But you can't take a contract and glue it into a working airplane. Perhaps Boeing will get some money back, eventually, through negotiation or lawsuit. Will they ever make up the deficit to Airbus in market or mind share? I doubt it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review - The Lucifer Gospel

The Lucifer Gospel by Paul Christopher (2006) is a follow-up to Michelangelo's Notebook (which I reviewed a few days ago - here). I'll make my review a quick read, matching the book itself.

Once again we follow the exploits of the intrepid Finn Ryan, who has changed academic fields and is manipulated into the midst of a globetrotting adventure (why it's her is sketchy; she has some family connection to some of the principals - so?). This one concerns a heretofore hidden gospel, and, if you think from the title that it's the Devil's, you will be disappointed.

As I wrote in the earlier review, the characters are drawn in broad terms, and the book seems to want to capitalize on Da Vinci Code fever (Dan Brown is mentioned at least three times; even if you want to forgive him for his own novels, it's hard to let him off the hook for spawning the inspired-by imitators that have followed in his wake). Christopher does show progress in his description of places, especially in the early Cairo scenes, but shows no greater insight into the people than before. (He does appear to have spent his proceeds from the first book on extensive travel.)

I'll mention two major problems, and then move along. First, the need of novels and television shows to tie into World War II has created some preposterous situations. The war was a monumental event with many facets, but it's more than 60 years in the past. For example, a recent episode of Cold Case was framed around the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The drama was fine, typically well-written, but it required us to believe that there were numerous people close to 100 years old, hale and hearty, with exact recall of the events of 1942. [That they had all moved to Philadelphia was another problem entirely.] In the Lucifer Gospel, certain events took place in 1939, and many of the principals were still around, sneaking into hotel rooms and shooting people. It's about time to retire the World War II plotlines, if an author insists on providing living characters.

The second problem with the book (I've never really been fond of the "Spoiler Alert" idea; a review should be free to talk about the whole book, but it's hard to reconcile that with the fact that reviews are read before the books on which they're based, so consider this note a spoiler alert) is the ending, in which the Gospel for which rich men were willing to kill is thrown off a cruise ship. Christopher does a poor job of establishing its importance (some readers have problems with exposition scenes, so Christopher writes them so briefly that there is no explanation at all). Why this gospel is so powerful is never stated, and undercuts the purpose of the book. That we never get to read the Lucifer Gospel is, in the end, the fatal flaw of the book that bears its name.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

If it's Sunday, it's time to look down as I point both fingers toward the camera

TR: Senator, back in 1965, you wrote that you wanted to be a jet pilot. Now you say you want to be president. What should the American people believe?

Sen: TR, I was 6, and that seemed pretty cool at the time. I later found my talents more suited to helping people and bringing about change.

TR: But you did write that.

Sen: Yes, I did.

TR: So how do we know that, in the middle of your presidency, you won't just get up one day and decide to be a wedding planner or an astrologer? How can the American people trust that that won't happen?

Sen: #%$^%*(#!

I've never been much for getting up on Sunday and watching the political interview shows, Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and whatever they call it on ABC. It's not that I have been uninterested in current events, or in being an informed voter, but I felt that my keeping up with the daily newspaper and a news magazine was probably sufficient.

However, an odd consequence of the disappointing George W. Bush presidency has been my taking a greater interest is such matters. Additionally, as I get older, I become more aware of how decisions today really do affect the future, and how a lot of what we take for granted in this country is far more precarious than is commonly believed.

So the past year or so I've been making more of an effort to be well-informed. Reading blogs (and starting my own) has forced me to think more about what I believe, and what some of the well-held myths are.

A part of that strategy has been the inclusion, most Sundays, of Meet the Press. This venerable institution is considered by many to be the most news-worthy, so it was the place for me to start. I began watching with very few pre-conceived notions; Tim Russert was the guy with the little whiteboard on election night, and that was pretty much the sum total of my feeling.

As I watched over several weeks and months, I became ever more disquieted by what I saw, especially as we have endured this long presidential campaign. Russert would get some major figures in the chair, and admirably keep them there for good portions of the hour, but he'd never get around to issues that I felt were important. In particular, the economy rarely took up much time, lost in a discussion of Iraq or illegal immigration or whatever was hot to discuss that particular week.

Then it dawned on me that the reason that, in 40 minutes or so of discussion, the conversation never touched on the economy, on America's role in the world, on a future that looks increasingly bleak for increasing numbers of Americans, was that Russert was belaboring minor points past all value. It wasn't that he would discuss Iraq with, say, John McCain, which might lead to a larger discussion as to how the U.S. should engage with the world - it was that he would spend five or more minutes on comparing what Sen. McCain said in 1982 to what he said yesterday.

Of course, if you're more tuned in to Tim Russert or the way in which he's perceived, you already know all this. It turns out that even a quick trip around the net tells you that many are bothered by Tim's "gotcha" questions, that he is well known for his inability to focus on anything other than what might make news among the pundit class. And Matt Yglesias expresses it pretty well in a Washington Monthly article, The Unbearable Inanity of Tim Russert . Not much more I can add.

Review - Michelangelo's Notebook

Paul Christopher's book, Michelangelo's Notebook, written in 2005, is a purported thriller created in the Da Vinci Code style: a religious secret that some people will do anything to protect, a plucky couple thrown into the midst of something unimaginable, and a series of fast-paced, dangerous situations in colorful locales.

I was not a huge fan of the Da Vinci Code. The cardboard characters, the leaden writing, the incoherent plot, all added up to a story with no particular fascination. The one part that I found mildly interesting was the set of puzzles (I'm quite a fan of all kinds of puzzles), but even that was undercut by the relative simplicity of them. [I did see a review which opined that the puzzles were designed to be so simple that the average, non-puzzling reader could handle them, making the book that much more "likable."]

Now imagine, if you can, the Da Vinci Code without puzzles. What's left? Oh, right, Michelangelo's Notebook. The two central interconnected mysteries are painfully transparent right from the beginning, the plucky young grad student offers no surprises, and, of course, her mentor (and, predictably, lover) throughout the journey is found by dialing a secret phone number that her archaeologist mother gave her before she moved to the big bad city.

This was a first effort by Christopher; since I also took his next book out from the library, I'll give it a go.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sheila's drunk the Kool-Aid

Where does accountability lie for public officials? Last night WTTW, our PBS station, spent their full news hour on the Illinois transit funding crisis. Anyone reading this who is not from Illinois probably doesn't care too much; it is enough for me to say that it is the typical problem of high pension obligations and benefits, funding neglected for far too long, and political wrangling that has prevented a solution until now (maybe).

I won't go into the remarkable political sclerosis that has prevented an earlier solution, but no public official has come out looking good. In particular, the governor, Rod Blagojevich, has seemed particularly feckless, pandering to public opinion while accomplishing very little of consequence.

At any rate, he sent his deputy governor to be questioned on WTTW last night (he rarely rouses himself to take real questions). She came on and, essentially, every answer she gave was some variation of, "The governor is working hard for the people of Illinois."

But don't we pay her? Isn't she supposed to serve us, not the PR interests of the governor? I don't understand why the accountability of highly-paid officials goes more toward the person who hired them, rather than the people.

[Accuse me, if you will, of being hopelessly naive or deliberately disingenuous. I think, however, that occasionally we need to put on our naive hat and look at the world as it is, not as we have forced ourselves to accept. Of course Sheila Nix is blindly loyal to the man who made her career, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't approach it with outrage, at least once in a while.]

Monday, January 14, 2008

Review - Discover Your Inner Economist

I have been reluctant to review books I read on this blog (this seems to be my day to admit what I don't do here), probably because I'm reluctant to admit that not everything I read is a Great Book or a deep non-fiction tome. To heck with that, I think I'll just go ahead.

I wanted to like Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist (DYIE) by Tyler Cowen. Professor Cowen is a major contributor to the entertaining economics blog Marginal Revolution, which is an interesting blend of the trivial and important (Professor Cowen pretty much writes about everything that intrigues him, so you will get links to serious economic studies and to other blogs writing about the best national flags).

But a reader of a blog can pick through the things of importance to him/her, and, if interested, can focus on the serious economic matters. A reader of a book has less ability to do this.

Freakonomics is the best-known example of pop economics, a book that actually became a best-seller. It did so, however, by taking only surface techniques from the world of economics and applying them to various interesting situations (the most famous of which is the contention that legal abortions led to lower crime rates). I found Freakonomics disappointing the same way as I did DYIE, largely because of a sense of frivolity that underlies the proceedings.

Perhaps the worst aspect of DYIE is that it doesn't even live up to the subtitle (yes, I know the author rarely creates the subtitle or even the title, but I'm reviewing the package, not the author's intentions). In every case where a problem is difficult, e.g., the three in the subtitle, the discussion ends with the recognition that these problems are difficult and, perhaps, intractable. For example, the two pages or so on motivating one's dentist include a few ideas, then conclude that they won't work and you wouldn't be able to tell if they did. (Cowen spends even more time on what is apparently a real-world problem of his, getting a 16-year-old to do the dishes. His solution: rather than imposing punishment for not doing them, talk to the teen and help her understand that she's a vital part of the family and doing dishes is for the family [or something like that]. He then acknowledges that this probably won't work.)

The title isn't very useful either. Several times as Cowen urges the reader to reveal the Inner Economist that beats within us all, he admits that family harmony may not withstand public revelation, so keep it to yourself.

On the good side, as in Freakonomics, there are some entertaining anecdotes and ideas. Cowen is far more interesting when writing about food, though the connection to economics is, at best, tangential.

There are actually a couple of problems in these kinds of books. First, there is a belief running through them that the reader can control situations by providing proper incentives. In DYIE, that comes up in suggestions for "surviving" the next meeting, in which a laundry list of improving long, boring meetings is discussed at length. Of course, in the real world, in which most of us go to far more meetings than we run, we have no control over the agenda, the activities, the length. And that's the problem, we don't control the incentive structure, so we can't use them to improve anything.

Second, the attempt to humanize the dry "science" of economics more often trivializes it. Economics has abjectly failed in the things it purports to do, controlling world economies, explaining individual actions. Since those problems are in a real sense to big to explore, the desperate researcher turns to junk, attention-catching items and applies the tools of the science to them. They're not the right tools, which these books ably demonstrate.

Where's my Shannon Carlson?

I don't want to turn this blog into an endless list of personal irritants. I'm generally going to do that only if I can find something a little larger to say about whatever it is that bothers me. For example, I think there is a larger point to be made about the unending decline in customer service, something about consumer focus on price, or lack of employee pride in work that isn't sufficiently "cool." But I want to find some useful hook into a subject before I'll write about it (though I reserve the right to lower the bar on the preceding terms "larger" and "useful" as the pressure of daily blogging grows).

Having said all that, I'm going to rant about a current TV commercial that's getting heavy play. It's the US Cellular spot in which an earnest young woman (shot off-center in that so cool five years ago style; I think it's supposed to engender trust by making us think that it's her boyfriend fraing the shot ineptly, so what she's saying must be from the heart) tells us that she was worried about leaving her dad and going off to college. Why? Apparently, Dad is illiterate and can't figure out how to pay his bills or, actually, to read any of the rest of his mail.

But there's a happy ending. Dad took his bill down to his local US Cellular store, and Shannon Carlson (and the actress says this name almost reverently, as if intoning some holy incantation) took the time to help him. Now Dad takes all his mail down to Shannon, who reads it to him in those moments she's not pushing overpriced phone service plans. The ad finishes with the daughter, even more off-center, looking at us sincerely and saying, "Thanks, Shannon."

I did a Google search to see if others had commented on this commercial; not surprisingly, I found several. What did surprise me was the number of bloggers who focused on the illiteracy in a harsh way, making fun of the father figure and criticizing the daughter for handling his mail for 18 years instead of teaching Dad to read. (I'll mostly withhold comment on the few bloggers who took this as a real story instead of advertising creativity; maybe it is based on a real letter to the execs at US Cell, but I wouldn't bet on it.)

I was surprised mainly because I grew up with TV movies that dealt with the problem of illiteracy, and they were immensely sympathetic. They all went something like, a middle-aged fellow is in an office where he has to fill out a form/has a chance at a promotion/has the opportunity to receive some money, he's strangely resistant, the attractive not-quite middle-aged woman sees his struggle and is confused but takes an interest in the reticent man, and after 45-60 minutes comes the dramatic scene where the man breaks down and admits, "I can't read." The woman teaches him how, he fills out the form (or surmounts whatever challenge there is), they fall in love, the redemption is complete, and we are all happy. I seem to recall movies like this with Dennis Weaver and Johnny Cash (though I'm not going to spend the time on IMDb to figure that out), and there were likely others as well.

Is the lack of sympathy for this gentleman's plight prevalent? Are there really massive numbers of people out there who are hard-hearted toward the illiterate? Maybe it's time for a new movie, updated for the 21st century, in which Patrick (Grey's Anatomy) Dempsey plays a man desperate to create a MySpace page, but he can't navigate his way through the simple instructions. The librarian, played by Ali (Heroes) Larter takes an interest, but can't understand why he can't slap down a background, upload a picture and some music, and (most importantly to her) fill out the box that says he's straight. 45-60 minutes in, in a scene underscored by swelling violins, Patrick turns to Ali and admits, "I can't read, or computer neither." You can write the rest.

So I'm not quite so bothered by the illiteracy angle, though it is hard to see how the target audience will identify with this family. What bothers me is that this is another in a long series of commercials in which a company tries to convince us that its customer service is above and beyond. Invariably, some front line sales clerk moves heaven and earth to satisfy the customer (Bob takes the dogsled through three feet of snow to make sure little Billy will have that bicycle under the tree).

The problem is that this level of service is unrealized in the real world. The CEO and Marketing Director look at the commercial prototype, want to believe that this is how their company is perceived, and sign off on the ad campaign. What they don't do is improve wages or working conditions for actual "sales associates." I'm betting that the real Shannon Carlson, whiling away her days reading Dad's mail to him, helping him with his bills, will lose her job once her anemic sales figures come in. I know she won't be getting a bonus, because I guarantee you US Cellular's incentive bonus plan has no category for "reading mail to customers."

The real customer, while not necessarily needing help with mail, will walk into a store and expect something more than minimal energy and competence. When that is what he gets, the gulf between expectation and reality will seem that much more vast, and that's how you harden customers against your brand.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Competitiveness - Part 3

Let's work out a hypothetical situation. Say we want to have a nation in which every person can high jump. We look at the problem, and we reason that we are unlikely to train a lot of adults to high jump; the specter of Grandma having to clear the bar in her short shorts is probably enough to cool us on this idea.

So we turn to our usual method of social engineering - we will teach all of our students how to high jump. That won't do anything for our adults, but they'll all die eventually, leaving us with a population of high jumpers.

We start by establishing standards for age-group high jumping. We'll be hard-pressed to find any world or national records by age for young people (if a quick Google search is any indicator), so we'll assemble a blue-ribbon panel of elementary and high-school coaches, maybe a few famous high jumpers, some human performance experts, and so forth. The panel will meet, perhaps in Washington, more likely in St. Kitts, and come up with grade standards: kindergarteners will need to clear 1'6", eighth-graders 3'0", seniors in high school 3'9", or some such.

Now we have our first big choice. Do we mandate the methods by which we must teach our students how to high jump, or should we simply publish the standards and provide negative incentives, that is, punish schools that don't manage to get every student over that bar? Let's say we believe in standard economic thinking, where creating proper incentives will solve every problem, so we'll take the latter of the two approaches. (This is also preferable to the former approach in that it allows us to duck the responsibility if our mandated methods fail to work.)

It's really important to us that everybody be able to high jump, so our negative incentives are quite harsh. We can even close schools if they don't get those kids over that bar.

Let's try to figure out what will likely happen. First, a lot of school time will be spent on teaching the high jump. Other activities will be curtailed in order to teach the Fosbury Flop, the proper run-up, leg clearing, and the like. Second, we will see a lot of experts emerge who understand how to get an eighth-grader over three feet. Some of them will be self-taught P.E. instructors who will buy the Complete Book of Jumps and apply that to all the kids, and some will be consultants who will charge a lot to do the same thing (but they're worth it, because the alternative is to CLOSE THE SCHOOL).

The other main thing that will happen is that we will stop training the naturally outstanding kids. We're devoting a lot of resources to getting every kid over that three-foot bar, so we're not going to expend a lot of effort on the child who lines up the first time and clears it with ease. (In fact, what we'll likely see is an attempt to have that child become something of an auxiliary coach; after all, you can't beat the cost, and we can convince ourselves that making a student into a teacher is a worthwhile educational experience.)

The problem with this won't arise until the Olympics of 20 years from now. We'll lose, and lose badly, because we haven't done the work necessary to develop near-7 foot high jumpers. Despite having the greatest national high jump training program in the history of the world, we won't be able to compete at the highest level of the sport. And we'll have almost nothing to show for this expensive program, as how many adults will continue to high jump once they're out of school?

Well, I've made the analogy too obvious, I of course am talking about No Child Left Behind. We mandate standards for all children, punish schools for not meeting the mandate, and ignore the truly gifted (they'll do fine anyway). No intelligent competitor would do it this way, not if they're competing in a global marketplace.

The intention is kind and nice, that we'll educate everyone equally. But anyone who has spent any time with children knows that they are endowed with different talents and skill levels. Equal education does not mean equal outcome, no matter how much we might wish it to be so.

Ultimately, NCLB will not make us more competitive in the world economy, not if it means that we are going to train every student down to an average level. Like it or not, it is the outstanding who lead the way, not having large numbers of the mediocre. The Chinese education is constantly winnowing at each level, trying to identify the students of greatest potential.

When we establish our highest educational priority as the minimal attainment for the maximal number, we will have a pudding of uniformity, and we will lose the top, the potential innovators. And that is no way to remain competitive.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Competitiveness - Part 2

To follow up from yesterday, it's my contention that, despite all the talk about our wonderful capitalist system, and how the cream inevitably rises to the top, and how individual failure comes from a lack of will or ability, the U.S. actually has very little knowledge as to how to compete in the new world.

Part of this comes from a willful blindness, a lack of recognition that a nation with the proper attitude and beliefs could fall from its self-appointed position as leader of the world. Part comes from the confusion between national and individual competitiveness (no, having the most billionaires does not serve as a proxy for having a strong country). And part comes from the confusion between the appearance of competitiveness versus actually being effective in competition.

If you were to ask the average American where the U.S. stands, the answer would almost certainly be that we are #1 in every category that matters. To believe that requires one to ignore our backsliding in areas relative to the rest of the world: health care, infant mortality, education, etc. Yet the concern about our slippage only seems to arise when our basketball team loses in the Olympics. We have replaced actual accomplishment with useless sloganeering.

Many people think that the financial success of a few somehow proves something about the country as a whole. We trumpet the wealth of the 400 richest Americans, we marvel at the salaries of our professional athletes and our actors, we live vicariously through the lifestyles of our rich and famous. At the same time, median real income is in decline, the savings rate is negative, and the comfort to which we once aspired seems to be forever farther out of reach. Which represents a strong country, the wealth of our wealthy, or the wealth of our average?

And we believe that our intense interest in competition translates into competitiveness. We compete furiously on the field, the court, the diamond. We lie, cheat, and steal to make the next deal, to get the corner office. But this furor has not extended to effective raising of standards. We're not competing on the same playing fields as the rest of the world; other countries intend to dominate the world economy and garner the wealth, while we shake our fists and claim that we fight hard.

We have seen a remarkable decline in our innovation, as other countries have been able to train engineers and computer scientists, open R&D centers (often with our money), and have at least begun to dominate certain technological areas.

Since I believe that innovation is the key to growth, and only through that growth do overall living standards rise, we need to understand how to foment innovation. That clearly comes through education, and our mistakes there are the subject of my next post.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Competitiveness - Part 1

One of the words we've heard a lot of in the presidential campaign is competitiveness, as the candidates try to show voters that they understand their concerns about declining jobs. The answer is invariably education; if we all just get degrees, especially graduate degrees, we will retain jobs and create new prosperity.

Then you look at the jobs that are projected to grow, and you see home health care workers, restaurant workers, and the like. These are jobs which, while important, are not degree-requiring or particularly lucrative. So where is this mismatch, and how do we resolve it?

I'm planning to write a series of posts on this, as I work out in my own mind how we might resolve this. I will start with a question: does the U.S. really know what it is to compete?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ultrarunning - a tribute

Ultrarunning is what I would call a perfect magazine. That doesn't mean that it is necessarily better than other niche magazines, but it does what it sets out to do.

I'm a long-time runner. I don't blog about it much because runners' blogs can be really uninteresting (did the 6-mile course to Skyline, but was feeling good, so I threw in the Hanson loop, making 8.3 miles, did it in a solid 66 minutes, felt good - yawn). But I have run several marathons and ultramarathons, and I've seen pretty much every publication on the subject.

The vast majority of each issue of Ultrarunning is given over to race results, race photos, and a race calendar. There are a few articles on water consumption or nutrition or training, but, in the main, it's all about chronicling the sport. That's it.

Runners' World lost me when it became more concerned with celebrities running a slow 5K than with the great accomplishments. There's none of that in Ultrarunning (well, almost none - this month the race report of the JFK 50 Mile race does mention that the drummer for the Goo Goo Dolls finished, but that's pretty much the full extent). So hats off to a magazine that does what it should, and little that it shouldn't.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Read 'em and weep, change partners and dance

Two fairly brief comments on today's, post-New Hampshire political scene:

1) If the New Hampshire Democratic primary was actually turned around because of Hillary's near-breakdown Monday, then there are too many people with the right to vote. If you want to vote for Hillary because of her experience (overstated, in my opinion), or her health care plan, or because you think the country will prosper having a woman in charge, then that's fine. You have an opinion, no matter how misguided I may believe it is, and you are acting on that opinion.

But if you're undecided, looking for some magical occurrence to make up your mind for you, and a brief moment of passion from a candidate sways your vote, maybe you should just stay home. I'm not saying every voter needs to pore over position papers, or read dense political science tracts. I'm just saying that a three-second welling of near-tears shouldn't be enough to turn you from one candidate to another.

2) Change, change, change. George W. Bush gave us change - we now have a Bush doctrine that allows for preemptive war, we now have the belief that tax cuts are always good, and we believe that science is optional in formulating policy on science and technology.

So do we really want to give our vote to the person who evokes change the most number of times? Of course not. We want constrained change, change that takes us farther up the hill. But what does that mean? If GDP is increasing, but already-wealthy people are grabbing all of the benefits from it, is that the change we want? I could find any number of other examples, but the point is, we need to identify the changes that will fulfill the goals of this nation, and work toward them and elect the people who are most likely to effect them.

But that's not really any different from what we do now, is it?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Democracy vs. capitalism

This post is the first of a series in which I try to work out some of my feelings about democracy and capitalism. I wrote a post on May 22 of last year, which said some of what I think. It's bad form, I guess, to quote oneself, so I shan't, but, in that post, I outlined the basic conflict I see between the two systems.

I want to go further here and start to think about how we resolve those conflicts. Let me discuss it through the medium of the issue of offshoring jobs.

Offshoring is vitally important, not only for the effects it has already had, but for the future potential. I don't want to discuss comparative advantage here, but that idea, which is thought to allow maximum (and efficient) production in all nations, may no longer hold. With the triumph of technologies that eliminate borders, there may be nothing left (at least someday) for Americans to trade - not without a serious diminution of living standards in the U.S. There are other effects, like the lowering of prices, which factor in on the positive side, but I'm not writing about that here. I'm merely trying to show that offshoring is an important issue.

Unemployment insurance is a matter that we do not trust to the capitalist system, that is, we do not assume that companies will lay people off, but support them for a certain length of time. Because it is a social goal not to allow people to go without that support, the democratic system kicks in and provides for this insurance (which it does by taxing the capitalist system, i.e., making it less efficient).

Offshoring, however, of much greater potential import for restructuring the way we live, is left totally within the capitalist sector. Yes, I know there were some ineffectual Congressional hearings, and it flared as a campaign issue in 2004, however briefly, but polticians have steered clear of any real action.

Companies get to decide what industries, professions, jobs will be handed over to other countries. If that means that a town is without its source of livelihood, or a family is without a means of making a living, that's how change goes - at least you can pay a dollar less for that sweater down at Wal-Mart. But democracy keeps its hands off the issue.

I know that Ronald Reagan had a lot to do with this. His dislike of government (in all matters except his personal living style and providing arms illegally) has become the accepted norm, which means that, despite his stated intent, he hurt democracy to the benefit of capitalism.

For we are all complicit in allowing certain issues to fall outside of the purview of our elected representatives, and to be under the control of our decidedly unelected CEOs. (Offshoring is not the only such example; our energy policy, such as it is, seems to be driven far more by the desires of capitalists than by the needs of the people.) But what is the end result of this division (drivers' licenses to the democratic system, job policy to the capitalist)? It's not simply that business items fall into capitalism, because these items cross all lines in our society.

And how do we restrike this balance before everything important is handled by those who want to make money, not those who wish to fulfill larger social goals?

Monday, January 7, 2008

What if I gave a recession, but everyone was already there?

As I recall, Hillary was the first during Saturday's debates to bring up the dreaded R-word, recession. There is ever-growing talk about that possibility, what with the mortgage crisis possibly leading to a decrease in consumer spending. What is a recession? It's defined as a decline in GDP for two or more consecutive quarters.

What's interesting about that definition is that we often don't know if we're in a recession until after it's over and the economists have managed to nail down the precise GDP number. In fact, you can easily find discussions in 2007 as to whether we had a recession in 2001-02! That's right, five or six years after the fact, economists can still debate the existence of a recession.

What is of greater interest to me at the moment, however, is the thought that we may already be in a recession, at least those of us not in the high-earning categories. I don't know how one would extract the data, but growing income inequality, coupled with higher costs (some of which are not counted in income statistics due to their volatility, you know, little things like food and energy) that tend to hit harder on those who already have less, make me think that GDP of the bottom 85-90% of the country may be in sharp decline.

We know that many of the consumer purchases of the last several years have been funded by debt, mainly the extraction of spurious home equity. We know that the savings rate of Americans is now negative. So why is it impossible that, for a great segment of our population, recession is already here? Which might explain why consumer confidence continues to be low, despite the head-scratching of the "experts."

OK, now...

I want to follow up on my Saturday comments about Ron Paul. Again, I do not support his "philosophy" (libertarianism is arbitrary and unrealistic), but he reminds me of, well, myself.

I'm a software developer with an MBA who has worked in quite a few industries on different problems. While I don't profess that this background grants me great wisdom (just a little, maybe), it does allow me to comment on things from a fairly broad perspective. I've seen various issues arise, and seen (and participated in) various solutions, some of which have worked better than others.

So, in a meeting, I'm frequently going to be the person bringing up the larger issues ("if we want to support the needs our customers have, we will have to restructure the database access to allow users to query it directly"). A huge proportion of the time, the response, from people ostensibly concerned with the same situation, is stark uncomfortable silence, followed by, "OK, now..." ("what color should the splash screen be?", a topic which then consumes the rest of the hour).

I don't think I'm particularly strident in bringing up these matters; quite the contrary, there are people close to me who say I'm far too quiet and unassuming. What I think is happening is that the room is simply not prepared to discuss such things, no matter how true or significant they may be. It takes a long time for most people to accept that the world is not the way they want to assume it is, that the status quo may be downright wrong.

From my standpoint, however, the worst thing is not that the problem is going to go on, possibly fester, until it becomes so obvious that change is needed that action is finally taken. (Managers, who ought to be taking the longer-term view, tend to be the leading proponents of the conservative, backward-looking approach.) That should bother me the most, but I'm human, and what frustrates me is the is-he-an-alien look that the other people tend to have before moving on to another, far less critical, issue. I want to go Close-ian on all these people who are neglecting what ought to be a major part of their responsibility ("I'm not going to be ignored, Dan").

And this is Ron Paul in a meeting of candidates.

Does terrorism against the West result from the actions of the West in Muslim countries? Does our "occupation" of holy Saudi Arabia inflame anti-U.S. passions (and "they asked us to be there" is no defense; many Muslims feel that the sheiks are as bad in their decadence and embrace of Western ways)? Is our historical interference in their politics a rallying cause? Do our actions come out of a need to prop up a failing, petroleum-based lifestyle?

These are valid issues to discuss, and discussing them would seem to be extremely pertinent in the changed post-9/11 world. (An interesting book on this is Imperial Hubris by intelligence official Michael Scheuer; regardless of how you evaluate his ideas and solutions, it struck me as an important contribution to the literature.) Being simplistic would seem to be the worst thing we could do.

Yet it is exactly what the candidates do. Ron Paul is trying to bring up these issues, albeit in a quasi-lunatic style that does not serve him well. And he gets the look (particularly from Romney, who strikes me as a supercilious smarm-master), that look that says we're not just going to disagree with you, but that you're insane to try to discuss such things.

But we have to discuss such things if we're going to reach a long-term accommodation with Islam. Sound bites like "they hate us, they hate our way of life" may sound tough on the stump, but will not assist the next President in actually engaging the problem. We all fear terrorism and the uncertainty it brings to our lives, but reducing the causes to individual pathology will not illuminate the situation, nor will it lead to a solution.

So I wonder how frustrated Ron Paul is getting, as he tries to be the adult in a room of intellectual children. I suspect that Paul's support, which has surprised a lot of pundits, comes from people who suspect that the issues we face are more serious and complicated than the other candidates are letting on. Blathering on about change is meaningless unless the change is meaningful (and kudos to Huckabee for at least acknowledging that), and meaningful change should only result from a deep understanding of the forces involved, not from focus group-tested, simplistic slogans.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

This post is historic, by the legendary Androcass

Two words that have become abused, almost beyond meaning, are "legendary" and "historic." The reason is the constant need for aggrandizement, for hype, even for promotion of self-importance.

"Legendary" is applied to anyone you've ever heard of, and has been reduced to the meaning of "famous." I'm not sure that Britney has been called that yet, but it wouldn't surprise me. The original definition, synonymous with "fictitious," has been lost in the rush to inflate everyone. A quick Google search shows the following legendary figures: Bob Marley (at least he's dead), Dr. John, The Jordanaires (they woo-wooed behind Elvis), football coach Bo Schembechler (most college football and basketball coaches are legendary), Bobby Darin, Van McCoy (do the Hustle), Alfredo Alcala (who?), Eartha Kitt, Sandra Dee, and on, and on.

"Historic," which used to carry at least some sense of something that had already happened, whether it had yet stood the test of time or not, now means something that the speaker or writer thinks will be important. Football playoff games are historic before they are played (the New England Patriots game last weekend was historic either way; they were going to win to go to 16-0, or they were going to lose to fall short). Charlie Gibson desribed last night's debate as historic before it happened, despite the sheer number of debates that have already occurred.

Folks, "historic" means something of significance, something that people will remember and talk and think about in decades and centuries to come. World War II was historic, no football game is (what was the result of that Bath-York soccer game back in 1734?).

It seems to me that both of these words have taken this prevalence (and, therefore, much less importance) due to a need/desire to seem significant. Charlie Gibson believes the debate is historic in no small part because he's a part of it. Sandra Dee is legendary because that makes your obsession with her somehow acceptable.

But all that ends up happening is that the words lose their meaning and their significance. If everybody is legendary, if every event is historic, than nobody and no events are, and we lose yet another distinction.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The nation turns its eyes to Granite

Tonight's debate was interesting, though the post-coverage, both on ABC and on Chicago local news, was reductive and disappointing (was George watching, to think that Fred Thompson was strong?). Just a few impressions late at night.

The Republicans are a tired bunch, discussing yesterday's issues without engaging any of the real challenges we face. Giuliani's tough-guy act is tired and Bush-esque. Romney is strangely devoid of passion for the issues (which probably comes from his management consulting background - every problem is equivalent to any other, as long as you get paid for coming up with an answer). Thompson seems to be auditioning for a production of Inherit the Wind. McCain, while quite energetic for a man of 71, didn't seem to have anything new to offer.

For my money, the best in terms of actual performance were Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. I couldn't vote for either one, but both were engaged and seemed to try to talk about matters of significance.

Ron Paul was the only candidate who tried to bring up larger questions, such as the extent to which Islamic hate comes from our own actions, and how much economics has driven our behavior in foreign policy. But his libertarianism (a philosophy I consider sub-sophomoric) and his loud guy on the street corner manner will forever consign him to the fringe (he's essentially the Republican version of Kucinich). However, that he has a philosophy as opposed to a laundry list of focus group-tested sound bites distinguishes him.

Huckabee has a remarkable style, soft-spoken and so reasonable. He's been characterized as an extremist, but he appears on talk shows and in the debate as a rational thoughtful man whose positions just happen to conflict with the vast majority of Americans. This will ultimately defeat him, but he may continue to do a lot better than people think.

On the Democratic side, Richardson had the relaxed mien of someone who won't win and knows it, Obama was rational and measured (if a little too much at times), Clinton had some hysterical and shifty-eyed moments, and Edwards seemed to have the passion, especially in the second half, and thus, for me, came off the best of all ten.

Overall, I was amazed that there was not more discussion about the economy (one presumes the result of ABC and WMUR's choice of questions, though the previous debates that I've caught have not been heavy on financial issues either). Nothing is more important to the average American than their future and that of their families, and that was just elided over as if it was irrelevant (as opposed to the endless parsing of the word "change," which everyone supports).

I may have more to write as I reflect on this later, but that's enough for now.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Cheer up, you got the bronze

Iowa's caucuses are over, as we once again make a single state all too decisive in selecting the leader of the free world. But I don't have a lot of hitherto unstated wisdom - Obama represents change and hope, Huckabee will stop winning as soon as he gets away from his evangelicals, Clinton was nobody's second choice, Romney's a Mormon - this is all conventional hindsight, to be found in every news report before we pack up the cameras and notebooks and move on to New Hampshire.

What struck me most, last night, in watching the coverage was the shell-shocked looks on the faces of those surrounding Hillary. The open-mouthed gape of the former President, the feeble attempts at a smile essayed by the former First Daughter, the stunned appearance of the various supporters and aides (except for Secretary Albright, who just looked out of it) - there seemed to be complete and utter surprise on the part of everyone involved.

I don't think the Clinton family believes that losing is ever an option. Good things just happen if you put in the requisite work and time. You get into the college and graduate school of your choice, you get the job you want, you get elected to the office you desire, the world conforms itself to your vision. This is what many of the rest of us perceive as attractive confidence in our CEOs, politicians, celebrities, this sense that nothing can go wrong as long as they are in charge. It's part of the magic, the mystique, and reinforces the success they already have.

And this is why the Clintons do not really represent the people of this nation. Because we know that things go wrong through no fault of our own, that we get laid off regardless of worth, that we get sick even if we take care of ourselves. It is why there is no huge difference between Hillary and George W.

The question remains open as to whether any of these candidates are different.

Move the People

Yesterday I called United Airlines "perhaps the worst-run major company in the history of the U.S." I'm probably inclined that way because I live close to its headquarters (one of the few left in Chicago) and hear a lot of news about it. Is it the worst? Hard to say. But it has to be a contender.

This is a company that was unquestionably #1 in the world just a few short years ago, and now cannot get through some snow and ice in December (surprise!), thunderstorms in the summer (double surprise!), pay workers what was promised, can't staff sufficiently, etc.

Mission statements are forever in vogue. For those who don't know, mission statements are designed to give focus to an organization's activities, to allow everyone, customers, suppliers, and employees, to understand the objectives toward which the organization will work. They are formulated by top executives, usually on weekend resort retreats, and are to be taken very seriously even after the tans fade.

United Airlines, like all right-thinking companies, has a mission statement: To be recognized worldwide as the airline of choice. This is supposed to tell us that, 1) United is a global enterprise, and 2) that they want to be first in market share. That's it.

Any company that has as its purpose the act of moving people from one place to another, whether airline, bus company, or train, needs a common mission statement: Get the people where they're going. I don't care how you want to be recognized, I don't care what your market share is, I want to go up in the airplane, and come down in the airplane safely and reasonably close to the time you promised. Every action, every stock deal, every negotiation with a union must be subsumed to the idea that you have to move the people.

United has forgotten this. Their bankruptcy was an exercise in indifference to anyone other than a few hundred corporate bigwigs, and their actions since have reinforced that idea. Move the people, United, and maybe you can remain viable. Don't, and you'll be the next on the aviation scrapheap.

Thursday, January 3, 2008


I produce sweat, carbon dioxide, urine, feces. That production is a biological imperative; I can control when I eat, when I drink, when I sleep (within certain limits), but it is difficult to control the output of waste products.

However, it would be quite a stretch to claim that production of waste is my purpose in life. Even if the proverbial man from Mars were to observe me and make that claim, it would not be true. (What my purpose in life is is unclear - maybe that's another day's post.)

Businesses exist to make money. They generate revenues through economic activity, incur necessary expenses, and this results in profits. These profits may be put to any number of uses (enriching executives), but the very survival of the enterprise depends on the creation of profit.

There are a lot of institutional structures in our system that support and assist business, especially big business. Our tax code, our bankruptcy laws, grants, TIFs, and on and on, all designed to help and protect business. United Airlines, perhaps the worst-run major company in the history of the U.S., can lay off employees, stiff shareholders, obliterate their pension obligations, all under the auspices of kindly bankruptcy courts, and return to disappointing customers and making their executive talent (?!) wealthy.

Why does business get treatment under our laws that the individual can only dream of? We have to assume it comes from the belief that companies create jobs in a way that the average person does not, that the synergy that comes from assembling a number of people in one place is worth the sweetheart deals.

But here's the flaw in the argument. Just as I do not exist to produce waste products, neither does a company exist to create jobs. The days when a CEO would look proudly at the company's employees, toiling away to create products and profits, are gone, replaced by resentment over how many resources those employees are using.

Companies do not want to create jobs, and public policies that devote tax dollars to assisting companies are reckless and wasteful. We who pay taxes to support this madness should insist that it stop.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Oh, the Horror!

On Sunday's Meet the Press, Tim Russert (back in 1961, you said you wanted to be a jet pilot; now you want to be president; what happened?) was talking to Mike Huckabee about immigration, and the issue of sending back legal citizens arose.

The legal citizens are, of course, children born in this country to illegal immigrant parents. Whether that automatic legality is a good idea or not (though how we grant legal status to someone who has no independent rights and no ability to take civic responsibility is beyond me), what runs through seemingly everyone's commentary on this subject is abject horror that a child would be forced back to a country like, say, Mexico.

What does this say about us that we even try to determine this issue based on this idea? There is an amazing arrogance in our willingness to create immigration policy around the concept that, once here and a citizen, a child forced to return, with his or her parents, to another country is, somehow, being cast into a Dante-esque inferno of perdition.

People can grow up just fine in Mexico or Poland or wherever, and it is not unduly harsh to require them to stay with their parents, no matter what their legal status may be.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The New Year is Here

I'm not big on resolutions, seems like an artificial affectation, but I am going to try to post at least once a day. Whether that means that my perles de sagesse will be shared more often, or simply that massive lamitude will result, is irrelevant to the experiment. Posting every few months wasn't leading to grand syntheses or personal revelations, so we'll give this a try. I wish myself luck.
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