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. 

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YABHTU

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.

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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.

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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).