Monthly Archives: November 2005

That will take the stuffing out of them…

Tony D.My good friend Tony Diromualdo is frothing at the mouth over The Wall Street Journal’s article "An MBA Thanksgiving."

I had the good fortune of being at Tony’s house for dinner the day after the article was printed, and got to listen to his opinions on it directly – less polished but with the added benefit of audio and calistenics. Since he and his lovely Nancy also prepared 7 dishes with matching vines, I certainly wasn’t complaining.

I suggest the WSJ, next time an analysis of a business event that involves most of America’s populace is imminent, consult Tony and a number of other serious foodies for their implementation suggestions. How about "Eat yourself happy through your tax preparation" or "Bonfire of the Budget Preparation Brunches?"

With wine suggestions, of course. 


Eric Mack is writing about how the term he coined, YABHTU (Yet Another Blissfully Happy Tablet User)  becoming a term (a YANTUTAO – Yet Another Nerdy Term Unknown To Any Others – I suppose.) His commenters, and the general market direction, despite the Scobleizer’s hard work, seems to not have taken Tablets to their heart, though.

I for one am a not infrequent Tablet user (not sure if the blissfully happy label would stick, though.) I use my Toshiba tablet both for making quick pen drawings when verbal description doesn’t work and where doing a proper vector drawing just isn’t worth the bother. I use it for presentations, to draw ink circles and lines on Powerpoint slides and to make drawings in lieu of a proper whiteboard. And I use it to take notes in situations when typing wouldn’t be appropriate (as when I was listening to a talk by Elie Wiesel last week). The Tablet feature is a very useful tool, but not something I use every day. It adds a very much appreciated layer of functionality.

For a while I was irritated that tableting didn’t integrate well into many programs, but since I don’t use the text recognition program anyway and I write much slower long-hand than I touch-type, the tablet is the thing. I think Tablet functionality is destined to become a niche functionality, offered on high-end PCs. It might disappear altogether, though, in which case I would have to get a Wacom tablet board, since direct on-screen drawing is hard to retrofit on a laptop.

I do hope Microsoft and the laptop vendors have some staying power on this one. I like this feature, and it would be sad to see such an enabler of effortless expression disappear.

The flat and the unflattened

image Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century . New York, Farrar, Strauss Giroux. (link is updated to version 3.0)

I have long used chapters from Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree in my classes to explain the impact of information technology and globalized capital markets on the world economy. Friedman’s ability to find entertaining and highly relevant examples, and his gift for creative labels (in that book he coined two: The electronic herd to denote the legions of day-traders and other small traders who represent the volatile private capital countries now must attract, rather than the much more stable large bank loans of yore; and the golden straight-jacket, how politicians are forced to refrain from cronyism, populism and personal enrichment in order to attract and maintain the good will of the electronic herd. In Lexus, Friedman showed how politicians are becoming CEOs of their countries, managing them to compete in a global economy that cares less about color and location than education and infrastructure. I was eagerly looking forward to his next book on globalization, and, to judge from the response, so has many others.

That being said, my feelings are mixed on this one. Don’t misunderstand me – everyone, from politicians to business leaders to students – should read this book, but perhaps less for the first 10 chapters, where Friedman describes how the world is going "flat" (that is, small and interconnected) than for the latter part of the book, starting with chapter 11, "The Unflat World", where he dives into the difficulties of globalization and the dangers of holding it up. While the first 10 chapters are interesting because Friedman writes extremely lively and documents relevant, if well known cases with clarity and wit, it is in the latter part of the book, where Friedman shows why he is the New York Times leading foreign affairs journalist and not their technology or business writer. In that part, the book starts to shine and really deserve the accolades heaped on it.

His key message is very similar to the closing passages of Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations , (indeed, the whole book can be taken as a popularization of Landes with more imminent examples, with a an seasoning of Theodore Dalrymple and Ernst Luttwak, but writen up more in the style of BusinessWeek than The Economist. If that is what it takes to get people to read about and understand globalization, I’m all for it.

That being said, the weakest chapter of the book is the one about business – aside from the brilliant example of Aramex, a Jordanian rapid delivery company, most of the advice there is trite to business researchers and, I suspect, not exactly news to the common reader. Friedman’s saving grace is that he can and does travel, has an incredibly knack not only for picking the relevant examples (most of the companies mentioned, such as UPS, eBay, Wal-Mart, are overused in many other contexts but appear fresh here) but for writing them up in a style that makes them interesting. The best example by far is Dell Computer, where he simply traces (or, rather, gets Dell to trace for him) in minute but fascinating detail how the computer he wrote most of the book on came to be – showing that if China and Taiwan cannot agree politically, they are pretty good at supplying parts and know-how to each other and to the world.

Friedman has a great gift for the poignant expression (On the need to not shut the world out for fear of terrorism: "Leave the cave-dwelling to Osama.") but sometimes veers over towards the saccarine (On the India-Pakistan sabre rattling in 2002 and how big companies lobbied to get India to stand down: "The [India-Pakistani 2000] cease-fire was brought to us not by General Powell but by General Electric. We bring good things to life.")

His suggestion that the United States embark on a "man on the moon" project aimed at making the country energy-independent in ten years is nothing short of brilliant – it addresses a serious problem, is doable, would further research towards a great goal, and help the American and the world economy no end. And it would lessen the world’s dependence on oil and thereby reduce the danger of future fallouts over access to energy. Go for it. It’s a no-brainer.

Friedman also answers his critics, cheerfully admitting that he is a technological determinist – "guilty as charged" – but not a historical one. And his analysis of how the anti-globalization movement – which he thinks is extremely important  – has been shanghaied by anti-Americanism and geriatric leftist ideology is both cooly rational but also heartfelt: Friedman is honest and world-wise enough to know that globalization, to be a beneficial evolution, needs a fact-based and rational opposition – focused on how we globalize rather than whether we are. Too many critics of globalization see it in terms of conspiracy theories – it is an evolution enabled by freedom of information, capital and to a certain extent people, and attempts to put the djinnie back in the bottle are not likely to be successful, to put it mildly. (Incidentally, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I am halfway through at the moment, provides a much better foundation for this opposition than Naomi Klein’s populistic but theoretically incoherent No Logo.) As Friedman says it: "What the world doesn’t need is the anti-globalization movement to go away. We just need it to grow up. […] You don’t help the world’s poor by dressing up in a turtle outfit and throwing a stone through a McDonald’s window. You help them by getting them the tools and instutions to help themselves. […] Just ask any Indian villager."

His best writing – and underlying anger – comes out when writing about the people for whom globalization is not as much a negative influence as a distant mirage. They constitute half the world’s population, they will get restless unless as soon as they see what they can get, and if that isn’t good enough reason to start thinking about how to use globalization beneficially rather than try to stop it from happening, I don’t know what is.


Possible error: On page 268, Friedman refers to a study of "leading universities" creating 4000 companies with 1.1m jobs and $232b in revenues, refers to the "Task Force on the future of American Innovation" On page 244, however, the same figures are repeated, but instead of "leading universities" it is MIT, and the reference is to a study by BankBoston.


Notes after the jump, taken as I read through the book, offered here, caveat emptor, typos and all:

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ADD history of technology and capital markets

Kessler, A. (2005). How we got here: A slightly irreverent history of technology and markets. New York, HarperCollins.

The title is accurate – this is a short history of how technology and capital markets evolved to where we are today (and, given the evolution of the Internet, the two will merge). Kessler connects many events in a very short format, sprinkling the text with a bit too many one-liner jokes. He does better on technolology history than financial markets, but I still enjoyed it. Quickly written and quickly read, with some good little tidbits here and there (such as the account of B.F. Skinner, psychologist and pigeon trainer, creating a bomb guidance system with pigeons inside the bomb nose cone trained to peck at outlines of Japanese war ships.

Not sure if I would recommend this – too quickie unless you already know the history (but then it is fun.) The definitive book on these topics is yet to be written. Notes:

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WiFi at HBS

From a comment at a Slashdot discussion on the use of WiFi in classrooms:

How they handle it at Harvard Business School (jwachter) on Saturday November 19, @01:53PM :
I’m a student at Harvard Business School, where they have a fairly interesting solution for handling this problem. While every campus building has wireless access, all the access points in the classroom buildings require a web based log-in that checks your student ID versus your class schedule. If you’re scheduled to be in class at that moment, you are denied wireless access to the internet (in any classroom building).

Draconian, perhaps, but very effective at keeping us focused in class.

Case teaching at HBS is a pretty intense experience, but this access system surprises me. – I have always held that if you cannot get the students to concentrate in class because they are surfing, then you don’t have a technical problem. This means students cannot google for updated information while in class, which I see as useful, not disturbing. Anyway, another person further down nails it:

[Georgia] Tech has a good solution to this problem too: they let you do whatever you want, but if you don’t understand the material they fail you and kick you out. It’s effective at keeping us focused (enough) in class, and also isn’t draconian. (mrchaotica)

That net porn thing

Nick Carr has an interesting post about porn on the web, and the slow change of what we consider normal. Since I have

  1. recently read Theodore Dalrymple on our sliding standards and what it does for us (or, at least, for some segments of the population), and
  2. this morning cleared out the junk trackbacks (Spamlookup let 8 through and caught 341 in a week, bravo) which all point to the same kind of sites he is talking about, and
  3. three daughters who all have net access and use it all the time (they are 11, 16 and 19, and very smart kids, so it is not that I am very worried, but, as Edward Oakes says, "[…] a neoconservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter.")

…I am tentatively beginning to wonder where the end point in this evolution is. The right-wing crazies and naivist doogooders want to shut down the net and/or impose controls, which, of course, is an unworkable solution that is much worse than the problem. But the sort of "this is not a problem and even discussing it is the thin end of the wedge" answer isn’t helping much, either.

Aaahhh, the vagaries of the human existence… 

Update: Interesting discussion between Matt Asay and Tim O’Reilly over at Infoworld Open Resource. I agree with the Matt in one thing: It is not the existence, but the intrusion, that is the problem.

Thinking meat

To all my students who have a problem with the notion of future computers as intelligent – here is a twisted tale that just might cause you to reconsider: They’re made of meat.

Reminds me of a remark made some years ago by Ian Pearson, BT Futurist, in an MBA class teleconference (from memory): "In some years, computers will have evolved until they exceed human intelligence – but you won’t be able to have conversations with them. They wouldn’t want to talk to you. After all, you wouldn’t go out and have a conversation with a garden snail, would you?"

For the record: I maintain my right not to have a view. And to have fun not having it. 

(Via Vampus). 

The Penge Bungalow Murders

As a big fan of Horace Rumpole (John Mortimer‘s seedy but noble barrister-of-the-Bailey) I enjoyed Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, though the office intrigues and the intricacies of the plot were somewhat simplified – dare I say mellowed – compared to the usual fare. Obligatory reading for anyone with an affinity for "she who must be obeyed" and "Chateau Thames Embankment", though.

Sony’s sinking DRM

Bruce Schneier sums up the Sony DRM saga in his Wired column, stressing the somewhat complacent role the virus protection companies have played.

Now, the next twist in the saga makes the whole thing even more bizarre: It seems that Sony got some of their code for the rootkit from open source, in particular from Jon Johansen ("DVD-Jon"). If this holds true, and Sony’s use is a violation of the open source license, then we can have the deeply ironic situation that DVD-Jon can sue a music company for intellectual property violation.

Talk about turning the tables…

Display keyboard from Optimus

Detail of Optimus keyboardJust when I thought I had cracked the keyboard thing by getting a keyboard with blank keys, along comes the Optimus keyboard, which has a changeable display on every key. Certainly a brilliant concept – the problem with programmable keyboards, of course, is always remembering which key you mapt that brilliant macro to.

This offers a genuine innovation. As far as I can see, this is a proof of concept. The challenge will be in the implementation – to what extent will grit and dirt and fiddly software decide whether this will turn out a workable solution or just a cool gadget for keyboard junkies?

(Via Feld Thoughts, which also links to a great article on Tim O’Reilly) 

Strong dollar, not offshoring and imports, behind US job losses

Interesting report on the causes of US job losses by Martin Neil Baily and Robert Z. Lawrence for McKinsey Quarterly (free registration required): Strong dollar and weak domestic demand is behind the disappearing US jobs, not primarily offshoring and imports from China. The remedies lie in weakening the dollar against, primarily, the Chinese Yuan, and in reducing the budget deficit. (These goals would appear to me to be somewhat in conflict, given that China is propping up the dollar by buying US treasury bonds).

The analysis of the IT job market is especially interesting and gives some reason for reflection: 

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Email subscriptions available….

For those of you who haven’t moved to RSS, I have added an email subscription form in the left column – enter your email address, and after confirmation by email, you get updates to this site right to your mailbox. Just what the doctor ordered, more mail….

(This is untested as of yet, but supposedly this service only send out one mail message per day, no matte how many entries I make here.) 

Barbarians of times past

Just finished Barbarians at the gate: The fall of RJR Nabisco, which could be described as "the mother of all case studies." (For those who didn’t hang around in the late 80s, it is about the first mega-LBO.) I did take a course with Michael Jensen, who provided much of the theoretical underpinning for the LBO craze, in 1991 – and I couldn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.

Anyway, the book is a fascinating story of monumental egos: How RJR management (in a company that produced cigarrettes and cookies) had 6 jet airplanes, called the RJR air force. There are scenes of investment banks Salomon and Drexel nearly tanking the whole deal because they couldn’t agree on who should be on the left side of the tombstone. Another LBO company, Forstmann and Little, dickering for a day over whether their press release should say that they had been "invited" or "welcomed" to bid for the company. The final chapters when deadlines are extended in 60 and 15 minute increments (with KKR being paid $45m to wait for one hour at one point) are priceless.

The book reads like a thriller, though it is a bit hard to remember who all the characters are. Anyway, it was fun to then open New York Times and read about how the LBO industry now is flush with cash, but is running out of companies to buy – and, not least, buyers for the pieces they want to shed once they have acquired them.

A Ray of Singularity

Kurzweil's six epochsI had an hour to spend last night, and used it to leaf through Ray Kurzweil’s new book, The Singularity is Near, in which he argues that by (roughly) 2045, computer intelligence (or, at least, processing capacity) will be bigger than all human brains combined. This will lead to a merger of technological and human intelligence, and, in time, to the "awakening of the universe" – which I understood to be a sort of mobilization of every molecule in the universe in the service of creating intelligence.

Ray Kurzweil uses many exponential graphs to make his argument, which he sums up as the world going through six epochs (see figure) – physics, biology, brains, technology, merger of technology and humans, and, lastly, the awakening.

I don’t know. Kurzweil has a great track record on predictions with his previous books, and certainly knows how to provoke. Whenever I want to irritate my students, I give them Alan Turings Computing Machinery and Intelligence and a couple of chapters from Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The following discussion is always interesting, especially when students have to come to terms with what "intelligent" means.

But I can’t help feeling that there is some sort of Achilles and the tortoise about the singularity argument – I cannot bring myself to understand what happens as all these trends converge and their growth approaches infinity – nor that they necessarily do. I have always argued that processing and communication should be thought of as free resources, but, of course, within overviewable limits.

The upshot, of course, is that there is not need to panic – I’ll be 84 in 2045, and even if I don’t make it there (though, if Kurzweil is right, we all stand a pretty good chance of getting there and much longer) I will adopt a real options strategy, which is, I will wait and see, and not worry too much about it. We will know soon enough.

(Incidentally, a lot of stuff is available on the website, including chapters 1 (the six epochs) and chapter 9 (response to various criticisms). 

Peter Drucker is dead

Peter DruckerPeter Drucker is dead at 95. Known as the "consultants’ consultant", he was a management author and speaker who, despite the lack of easy frameworks, models or quickie theories was one of the most read and influential thinkers on leadership and organizations. He was prolific: His first book was published in 1939 and first management book in 1942. He gained fame with The Practice of Mangement in 1954, and his autobiography Adventures of a bystander is a gem. For some reason, my favorite is his 1994 Harvard Business Review article "The Theory of the Business", where the main message is that "Businesses don’t fail because of sloppiness, lethargy or mammoth bureaucracies, but because they fail to understand that their assumptions about their environment–their theory of the business–no longer applies."

I met him only once, at a 1995 internal seminar for CSC Index employees in Cambridge, MA. He told the following story (as I remember it):


At the Mt. Washington hotel in Bretton Woods there is a rule that no guest can go to his or her room without being escorted by a staff person. This is for historical reasons. When the hotel was first built, it had six rooms in a row. Then six more rooms where built on top of them., and six more in the back. Then the bottom rooms where merged, two and two, because they wanted to have ensuite bathrooms. Then the hotel got further expanded, in bits and pieces.

The rooms are numbered chronologically, and the system is so confusing and the hotel so large that it takes a staff person to navigate.

Most companies are organized in the same fashion.

Drucker was a writer – he didn’t do oversimplified analysis or quick silver bullet solutions, but shared this thoughts and his wisdom, arrived at by reflective observation and precise language. A life well spent.


Update: The Economist, as usual, gets it right with their conscise and insightful obituary.

Ultra-thin client computing for the masses

Ndiyo! classroom setup

The ultra-thin client from Newnham Research and Ndiyo! is a really good idea, the solution to classroom computing everywhere. With WiFi and a couple of USB ports, this could allow you to set up workstations everywhere. A stable setup with what technological complexity there is confined to the server.

Best of all: No annoying fan or noisy harddisk.

(via Nicholas Carr.) 

Dalrymple on Paris

I am currently reading Theodory Dalrymple‘s Our Culture, What’s Left of IT, as fine a collection of essays as you will find anywhere. Dalrymple is a conservative moralist, but contrary to the standard definition of that kind of person in the US, he is literate, balanced, thoughtful and erudite. There is much to like in the book, including a moving portrait of one of my favorite authors, Stefan Zweig, as well as a merciless comparison of the lives of Marx and Turgenjev, where the latter comes out as the human and the former as the monster.

In light of the recent riots in France, one of his essays is particularly prescient. It is called City The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris, is available on the web, and clearly shows that these riots are the product of a long evolutionary process that France has no reason to be proud of. Says Dalrymple:

[….] France has handled the resultant situation in the worst possible way. Unless it assimilates these millions successfully, its future will be grim. But it has separated and isolated immigrants and their descendants geographically into dehumanizing ghettos; it has pursued economic policies to promote unemployment and create dependence among them, with all the inevitable psychological consequences; it has flattered the repellent and worthless culture that they have developed; and it has withdrawn the protection of the law from them, allowing them to create their own lawless order.

Prescient, indeed. It was written in 2002.

PRX – public radio exchange

Just back from a "networking event" at Harvard Startups with the rather ambitious title  "Entrepreneurship, Disruptive Technologies and the Future of Public Media: How Participatory Digital Culture is Driving New Business Models and Changing Media As We Know It." I had expected a serious presentation, and it turned out to be a stand-up-and-shout in a hallway.

But the speaker, Jake Shapiro, turned out to be interesting. He is Executive Director of the Public Radio Exchange, an exchange for public radio programming. Public Radio is, according to Bill Bryson, the most underfunded enterprise in the USA – but it is what I listen to whenever I can.  PRX is essentially a storage house for radio programs that are created by independent producers (often local radio stations) and is made available for other radio stations to access and broadcast. PRX handles licensing and provides an infrastructure for storage and distribution.

Jake turned out to have a background as a musician with an Internet bent – with the band Two Ton Shoe. He told of how he personally had experienced the Long Tail, when a record producer called them and wanted to license their music for sale – in Korea. They went there and were rock stars for a week, with sold-out concerts and radio performances.

Public broadcasting has an interesting role in the "dot-org" bubble, as Jake referred to the current enthusiasm for distibuted content creation and distribution. Freed from commercials and thin on money, it both needs to and can innovate with new models for distribution.

I’ll see, eventually – the network in the office I am writing this from apparently does not like RealAudio streams, so I wasn’t able to check out the radio programs. But it just may happen that I decide to produce a little broadcast myself one day, and this could be a great place to post it. Eventually.