Monthly Archives: January 2005

Duality of race and belonging

Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father
Barack Obama is an amazing person: A child of an absentee black father (student from Kenya) and white mother (small-town girl from Kansas), he has been elected senator of Illinois and was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. At the last Democratic Party convention, his keynote address instantly positioned him as the new hope of the party, with his personification of the American Dream.
The book, a very introspective autobiography, sketches rather than chronicles his journey from small child in a somewhat protected environment up to going to Harvard for his law degree, much of the time spent as a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side. He visits Kenya searching for an understanding of his father, finding the societal and familial relations in Kenya no less difficult than in Chicago. Though slightly dated (the book was written 10 years ago, and not updated save a new preface), the complexity of dealing with poverty and slums in Chicago and other urban areas are well described through personal experiences (a refreshing brake from the sometimes stereotypical reporterese commonly seen in NY Sunday Times Magazines and similar publications).
The book resonated with me because (while not multiracial as he is) I can understand and empathize with Obama’s feeling of not belonging – or, rather, of simultaneously belonging many places and yet not completely identifying with any one of them. In an age of seemingly simpleminded politics and increasingly spin-oriented politicians, it is rather reassuring to know that at least one US senator has the experience of life in the less privileged lane; the perseverance and intellectual capability to analyze deeply entrenched issues and work at resolving them; and the willingness to keep the complex issues complex and (as his keynote speech at the Democratic convention shows) the simple things simple.
Highly recommended.

My favorite bookstore bites the dust….

I am just back from a week’s travel in New England. While it was fantastic to be back at Harvard Square again (one of my favorite places in the world), the happiness was considerably marred by the discovery that my favorite bookstore, WordsWorth, had closed just a month before.
WordsWorth was fantastic – you could spend hours in its rather small, but extremely well-stocked (100.000 titles) store. I have never gone in there without coming out again with something – often more than my budget and luggage allowance really would allow. And the service – I once asked for three different books: One technical book, a novel, and an (at least to me) relatively obscure book on history of economic theory – and the guy behind the counter not only knew where they were, but also that one was on order (the economic history) and would be there in a week. Without consulting the computer. Wow.
Oh well, I suppose one reason for the demise was that the Harvard COOP bookstore finally provided some serious competition when Barnes and Noble took over its management. Still, a sad story.
Luckily, there is the Harvard Bookstore, with its knowledgable staff and well-stocked used book cellar. And in Amherst, I found the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, which has much more than their Emily Dickinson collection.
So there is still hope in variety. Harvard COOP isn’t too bad (though the web site doesn’t do it justice). But I’ll miss WordsWorth.

Transaction costs, theory and apparent practice

It has long been the case that companies selling products, such as GE, make no money on the products themselves, but on financing or service (once the products are installed.) This can, of course, work in reverse: I learned last week that IBM, allegedly, sells outsourcing services without profit but make their money on product sales to their (in practice, captive) service customers.
This is a conundrum to me, for I learned in the late 90s that the falling transaction costs caused by vastly increases communications and coordination capability would lower factor prices and make cross-subsidization more difficult. Of course, our ability to construct and maintain complex pricing schemes would increase as well, but still – are these cross-subsidizing schemes clever bookkeeping, intentionally complicated pricing to confuse customers and competitors, or simply the result of historical developments, where companies structures haven’t yet caught up with economics realities?

Taking up Anders’ challenge

I have already posted about the Tsunami in my Norwegian blog, but who can resist Anders Jacobsen‘s call for links to feed a donation with muliplier effects?
(In my posting, I suggested that Norwegians should donate the money normally spent on fireworks for New Years eve to the Tsunami victims. I think this was one of those ideas that many people came up with at the same time – I soon as I had posted it on my blog, I heard that there already had been little “Tsunamis” of SMS messages swarming around the country. Fireworks sales were down (and donations up) quite substantially.
Here are Anders’ links to international aid organizations:
UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund)
United Nations’ World Food Programme
Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors without Borders (donate!)
CARE International
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Disasters Emergency Comittee (DEC) – comprises a raft of aid agencies, including the below and others
British Red Cross
Save the Children UK
North America:
American Red Cross
Canadian Red Cross
Save The Children
Oxfam America

Will Wikipedia’s maturing necessitate policy changes?

There is an interesting article by Larry Sanger at Kuro5hin called Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism. Sanger argues that as long as Wikipedia does not provide for recognizing expertise in a formal way, few serious experts in specific fields will bother contributing articles, since any fool with an agenda can screw them up, necessitating much maintenance.
I agree that some of the policies of Wikipedia need to come up for revision. I used to be a relatively frequent contributor to Wikipedia myself, but lately I have spent less time editing there. The reason is simple – when Wikipedia was new and growing, there was need for a lot of “quick writing” on many topics. I am reasonably eclectic in my knowledge and can quickly write short stubs, sometimes backed up with some Web research – so I started many articles with what I knew. For example, I started articles on Martin Heidegger and Primo Levi, people I had a reasonably educated person’s knowledge about. For some articles, like Fridtjof Nansen, I knew more, because I am Norwegian and had recently read Farthest North, his book about trying to reach the North Pole. That was fine for an initial posting, to plug an obvious lexicographical gap. As time went by, each article grew to a point where further improvements require both commitment and more specialized knowledge. The article on Heidegger was pretty soon taken over by some people with more knowledge of Heidegger’s philosophy, and is now a point where I certainly can’t add anything. The same has not happened to the article on Primo Levi, but eventually it will. And for Fridtjof Nansen, quite a bit of my text is still in there.
I think this is a natural evolution: As the content of each article becomes deeper, the lay person’s role shifts to language, formatting and readibility editing. I suspect that one reason topic experts are reluctant to write in the Wikipedia is that an encyclopśdia is not written for other topic experts – that’s easy – but for someone with a certain level of general knowledge. Writing popular science or popularized explanations of philosophy or economics is hard – witness the popularity of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophies World, which is basic popularized textbook in philosophy masquerading as a rather trite novel. Anyone who can explain general realitivity for laypeople (myself included) will have an audience – but if you can do it, doing it in Wikipedia does neither pecuniary nor academic rewards bring. As Mark Twain said, “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
As Wikipedia matures, it is pretty clear to me that some sort of authorization process needs to occur – perhaps in the form of a fork, as argued by Sanger. I suspect the time to fork still is a little early. Wikipedia was formed to generate raw material for Nupedia, a properly reviewed encyclopśdia on the Web. Nupedia turned out to be too slow a process, and Wikipedia took off. Perhaps we now are beginning to have enough grist for a more standard lexicographical process – and perhaps it is time to impose a little bit more structure and qualification, both from the content and presentation side?
In the meantime, I will continue to use the Wikipedia as my first lookup for overview knowledge. I will continue to fix obvious errors and extend articles where I can do so easily. I don’t think I will take deep responsibility for particular areas – but I am sure someone else will.
The fact that Wikipedia is maturing and needs to evolve also in its policies does not change the fact that it is one of the most exciting Web projects ever – a communally written, free, dynamic knowledge store of surprisingly high quality. Go ‘pedia!

Caravellian moment

Airlines have personalities. Singapore and Thai are delightful. Virgin Atlantic is genuinely hip. Lufthansa is desperately dull and tasteless. Air France can’t speak English or keep time, but serve delicious lunches. SAS is mercilessly Scandinavian (don’t for a second try to do anything out of the ordinary – and don’t expect a joke unless the flight attendant is Danish).

Icelandair, where I am sitting right now, is unapologetically provincial, and a throwback to an earlier time of flying. Not only do they fly old SAS planes with blue seat-covers and have stewardesses in blue uniforms with little pillbox hats. They also serve “Egils sodavatn” and a chocolate called Prince HPolo, and the inflight music is relentlessly optimistic (boy, is it fun and vaguely stylish to fly) in a way I haven’t seen outside a Dan Ackroyd parody commercial.

They used to have the smallest business lounge I have ever seen, where you got to know your fellow travellers surprisingly well in the five minutes you got at Keflavik between plane changes, but that has changed – it is now elegant in polished granite and dark wood, and, at least on January 1st, largely empty. Still, it remains fun to see cheesy Christmas decorations in the plane and vaguely threatening signs in Viking language (“Sitjid med s√¶tis√¶lar spenntar”). Now, I hope they have some interesting volcano show going as we pass Iceland…..

Update June 7, 2005: See also…