Monthly Archives: December 2005

The lights are on but there’s nobody home

eWeek has an interview with Tim Berners-Lee, which gets involuntarily comical by two glaring misspellings: "wizzywig editors" and "the Symantec Web". (Here is a PDF printout, in case the link gets cleaned up.)

The fun angle here is how the publication provides a comment function, how most of the comments are foaming over the embarrasing errors – and how there is absolutely no reaction from the magazine, even after one week. Web 1.899997, if you ask me…..

(Via Jorunn). 

Pinker’s well-filled slate

41-lxeaqn7l-_sx248_bo1204203200_Steve Pinker‘s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a wonderful book, not only for its wide reach and deep discussion, but also for the lively and opinionated language. Like The Economist, Pinker writes objectively with a view – though he clearly has an a opinion, well thought out and researched, in the nature-vs-nurture debate, he is careful to examine evidence and give the other side its due. Not that there is much.

Articulated, polemic and with more than a whiff of exasperated sarcasm, Steven Pinker attacks three misconceptions in modern culture: The Blank Slate, the idea that nurture, not nature, is the main shaping force behind human behavior; The Noble Savage, that the badness of the modern condition comes from the modern conditions – and things were somehow better before we got modern technology and transportation; and the Ghost in the Machine, that human thought is somehow an unexplainable superset of the machinery of the brain. Pinker starts out by describing these ideas, showing how they are founded not on scientific evidence but rather because of wishful thinking and deeply held beliefs about how the world should be.  Scientific studies find that our genetic makeup to an uncomfortable degree shapes who we are and what we will do.  The good old days, especially in the jungle and on the savannah, turn out to be just another myth.  And increasingly sophisticated models of the many complex mechanisms in our brains makes it easier to understand, if not accept, the idea that our soul essentially is “the program that runs on our brain’s computer”, to quote Daniel Dennett (in Consciousness Explained).

Pinker then goes on to what for me was the first new part of the argument – showing that there is no inherent moral position in either nurture or nature – in fact, showing that taken to extremes, they are both as bad.  He positions Nazism as the ultimate genetic extremism – the belief that a certain race or other group of people has inherent superiority over others.  Then he argues that the communism of Pol Pot – who killed a third of Cambodia’s population – is the ultimate environmental extremism, arguing that anyone who exposed to the corrupting influences of modern ideas, such as education or even urbanism, should be killed (“Only the children are innocent”).  (I suppose Mao’s cultural revolution was based on some of the same thinking.) He mocks the idea that either stance frees us from responsibility for our actions.  The beliefs, for instance, that criminals, as a group, are incorrigible or redeemable depending on whether you see them as monsters born to rob or innocent victims of unfortunate circumstances are both wrong.

Pinker attributes the anxiety about human nature – especially the idea that we may be more shaped by genes that we like to think – to four fears (p. 138):

  1. The Fear of Inequality: if people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified
  2. The Fear of Imperfectibility: if people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile
  3. The Fear of Determinism: if people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions
  4. The Fear of Nihilism: if people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose

In the subsequent four chapters, he deals with each of these fears, laying out a foundation for a humane moralism that does not rely on myths as its foundation, making humans responsible for their fate no matter their genetic setup. The downside of the misconceptions of the blank slate and the other ideas lies in their consequences: “persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth.” (p.193)

The fourth part of the book takes as its starting point that much of our world-view is based on intuitions that served us well in a small society – nomadic hunter-gatherers – but which may no longer be true in a modern society, such as our fear of advanced science, of genetically modified food (all our food is genetically modified – by selective breeding through hundreds of years). We are prone to misinterpreting images, to misunderstanding evolution, and to overindulging in sanctimony, reasoning by moralism rather than sense.

The fifth and last part of the book deals with certain “hot buttons” that Pinker criticizes science for refusing to discuss, such as politics (why left and right fall into patterns), violence (humans are violent), gender (there are physical differences, notably that while the mean is the same, men have a larger variance than women, i.e., more idiots and more geniuses), children (shaped by genes and peers rather than parents, though the parents play a part in selecting the environment), and the arts (threatened less by lack of funding and quality than by “…a surfeit of of Ph.D.s pumped out by graduate programs that failed to practice academic birth control.” (p401)). I especially liked his digs at postmodernism, which makes challenging of its authority impossible.

Wonderful stuff, deeply researched, fantastic language, strong arguments – what’s not to like? Nothing. Read it.

Update 18 jan 2006: Here is a video of Pinker presenting and discussing his book at MIT.

Continue reading

Brad on growth

Brad Delong has an excellent review of Ben Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which really sounds like required reading for any politician or student of international economy. I especially like his conclusion about what the structural changes currently happening in the USA are doing:

The desirability of the United States as a place in which to locate economic activity is growing rapidly: the underlying engine of technological progress is spinning faster than it has in at least a generation. I see rising working- and middle-class incomes in America during the next generation generating what is in Friedmans terms a virtuous, not a vicious, circle.

Via Brad himself, incidentally.

Merry Christmas, dammit

Political correctness hasn’t hit Norway quite as hard as the US, so I will take my chances wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, offered here with a few pictures from Tove Jansson’s “Trollvinter“, perhaps the most beautiful book ever written about winter, alienation and friendship. Incidentally, don’t confuse this wonderful book with theMummitrollet og v�rl�sningen latter cartoon characters – it bears the same. relationship to those as A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh bears to Disney’s version.

In Norway, Christmas starts early – for us, at least, on December 23 with the traditional “julegrøt” – rice porridge. In the porridge, eaten with sugar, cinnamon and an “eye” of butter, goes a few almonds – and the one who finds the most almonds gets a prize.

Tomorrow, the 24th, is the big day, with a slow morning and, for the children, an even slower afternoon until (after church around 2pm) it is time for the big Christmas dinner. (Incidentally, I don’t go to church myself, so I have the house to myself and get to put on Swedish television with Disney’s Christmas – largely unchanged since the 1960s – prepare the potatoes and sample the wine until the family returns, which for me is the best possible start of Christmas.) After dinner, when the younger children are close to exploding from repressed anticipation, comes the unpacking of gifts – always done slowly, one gift after another – from under the Christmas tree. This takes a while, during which heaps of cakes, wine, and other goodies are consumed until everyone drifts off to sleep, to awake on Christmas morning to prepare for a late and very large breakfast.

Until then, not a word will be heard from here – may your Christmas be peaceful and quiet, the food delicious, the gastrointestinal apparatus in capital shape and the gifts well thought out (or, failing that, returnable.)

GM and IT outsourcing

Tony D. has some reflections to offer on GM’s current IT sourcing process – essentially saying that they are trying to copy BPX’s famous "divide and conquer" strategy without taking into consideration that the implementation part of that deal was a qualified success, at best. I wasn’t really surprised that BPX had had problems with their very creative deal, but confess to not having followed it after the initial story was published.

Tony is the man on outsourcing deals: His article gives some idea on how complex such a decision really is, and how much the history of the corporation shapes the thinking. As Click and Clack once said, when you have had a very small car for a while, you get so frustrated that you err on the other side, getting a huge monster just to make up for all those years with a mailbox-on-wheels. I wonder if GM is doing something similar: Setting up a deal that will give them total power to squeeze their multiple outsourcers – a position that looks great when the contract is signed but turns out to be untenable in the long run. In an outsourcing relationship, you need to worry about the long-term economic health of your partners. There, too.

Mobile blogging

This entry is written from my mobile phone, a Sony Ericsson P910, using a ThinkOutside Stowaway bluetooth keyboard and Opera for mobiles. It is actually pretty simple – the keyboard is not as good as the one I used to have for my PalmPilot, but it is usable for a slow kind of almost-touch writing. Haven’t tried anything fancy such as links or pictures, but you have to crawl before you can leap. Anyway, blogging and surfing is now mobile for me – I can feel freedom from my laptop and 1.5 hour battery life approaching….

NY Times on a self-made child pornographer

Incredible reporting in Kurt Eichenwald’s story about a boy who started his own live porn site on the web, with excellent side stories on the analysis of the customers’ credit cards, child pornography as a growing business, how the story came to be (including what can only be described as a rescue operation for the protagonist), and how it was documented.

Although the story is rather simple, and nobody should be surprised that this goes on, I was very impressed by this reportage – not only did the reporter take considerable personal risk, but The NY Times had to thread very carefully to avoid doing anything untoward.

The story poses problems for a number of online companies, such as Amazon.com (who enable transactions through their online wishlists) and creditcard handlers such as Neova.net. Messages boards and webcam manufacturers could also get scrutinized – I suppose we will see all kinds of calls for filtering software and identification of individuals before they sign up for common electronic commerce sites.

I like the fact that the articles don’t discuss how this traffic should be stopped, and mercifully does not blame the technology for child pornography. They let the story speak for itself – for instance, the journalist documents how vital the credit card operation is to a porn site, which shuts down within hours of losing its credit card agreement.

Once again, technology is neutral in itself, but not in its uses. We want wish lists at Amazon, we want easy payment through Paypal, we want eBay as a channel to market for our few transactions. When it becomes easy to transmit content and set up a payment structure, it becomes easier to satisfy all kinds of demands – also the unsavory ones. Somehow we as a society need to figure this one – an operational way to stop illegal online activity – out without discarding the baby with the bathwater. I for one don’t know how, though I suspect it would involve using normative rather than instrumental initiatives – for instance, exposing the customers, making a trip to a child porn website as dangerous as pursuing that kind of activity would be in the physical world.

John Quelch on business schools

John Quelch, senior associate Dean at HBS and former dean of the London Business School, has an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) called A New Agenda for Business Schools. In it, he describes an evolution in business schools that is all too recognizeable:

To meet expanding student demand, many business schools had to hire Ph.D.’s in disciplines such as economics or psychology with little interest or experience in administration, management, or leadership. Determined to command the respect of their peers in the faculty of arts and scienses, most of those specialists engage in narrow research that has little or no relevance to or impact on practicing managers, and they seek to publish in journals with the word "science" in the title.

The ensuing lack of interest in teaching and business contact has an effect:

The bright, enthusiastic students who clamor for admission are not being well served, and they know it. They pick up a credential but invariably learn little about how to analyze and solve the complex, messy probelms that confront today’s business managers and leaders as they seek to navigate the global economy.

Quelch argues that what is needed is not the either-or of soft vs. hard or empirical vs. clinical research. What is needed is a balance, especially within broad themes of leadership, ethics, global thinking, management skills, and technological innovation. Currently, the faculty is fragmented :

[…] with their narrow functional expertise, most business-school professors can offer only the individual building blocks. Students are therefore left to integrate what the faculty cannot.

Quelch argues for broad-based capstone courses and field projects to integrate these specialities. He also want business schools to practice the leadership they preach within a the larger university community, especially since they (at least in the USA) are better financed than most other parts of the university and can spread some of the wealth around.

I find little to disagree on in this article, though I recognize the argument as somewhat Harvard-centric, in the sense that many other business schools are either independent of a university or more loosely connected to than what is the case in the top-tier US schools. I agree wholeheartedly in his observation that the pendulum has swung too far over towards specialty and rigor, particularly in Europe, and that it is time to pipe up for the messy realities of imprecise observations, equivocal data, and conflicting priorities and motivations. A good manager is comfortable with ambiguity and change – that should go for business school professors as well.

Wikis and blogs and CLOs

I just did a presentation to a Concours Group teleconference called the CLO Staff Meeting, with a number of large companies in the US and Europe participating. I talked about wikis, blogs, and other new technologies and how they both are new elements in the external environment – using blogs to address customers and suppliers, for instance – and very powerful tools for internal knowledge sharing and communication.

I was very encouraged by the lively discussion and good commentary – several of the companies, both in the US and Europe, were using wikis internally, and were considering blogs. They were wrestling with such issues as to what extent the wikis or blogs should be public or not, as well as how people’s concept of ownership of information was being challenged.

One reflection I made after the call was that blogs, in addition to the increasing use as communication tools with end consumers, will be great tools for shared services organizations to communicate with their internal customers – the relationship between an internal IT provider and their customers is more collaborative, there is less of a "leak" issue, and a blog might just be the tool to move the relationship from a transactional, user-provider relationship to a partnership where provider and customer are exploring new opportunities together.

If they are used honestly and creatively, of course.

Anyway – great fun!

PS: Here is a link to my paper Using Wikis in a corporate context, which discusses some of these issues.

Those who help themselves….

Message from a Concours colleague who works from home (name withheld to protect him from the telco union…):

FYI – I’m back online. My connection is precarious, at best, but that’s because I rigged it myself. I talked to BellSouth twice, and they said that they may not be able to fix it until the 19th of December, which seemed unfathomable to me. After a little investigation, it appears that a truck pulled through the wire in my alley, yanking the connection out of the box attached to the house. I managed to untangle the wire from a tree and then used nail clippers (guess it helped to watch so much MacGyver when I was a kid) to strip the wires so I could re-connect. Anyhow, I’m up and running. Hope BellSouth won’t mind my meddling. 

Nail clippers. Good for him – if he had had fiber to the home, he would have to reach for the vanity mirror…

Firefox Scholar plugin (under development)

Firefox scholarAccording to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), a team at George Mason University is developing Firefox Scholar, an academically oriented reference harvester for Firefox. Boy, would this be a godsend – I spend way too much time entering references by hand into my Endnote database. The tool is meant to replace Endnote – I am not sure I am ready to replace that very useful tool, but I sure would like to have some interoperability.

Bonus: When looking up Dan Cohen, I found this great history site with a list of what seems to me very interesting research tools.Not to mention that Dan has one of the best designs for an academic web page I have ever seen – excellent combination of blog and archive site. Something to emulate.

(Via Edupage)

And the winner is…

…not me, but Eirik Solheim, whose blog has a mixture of technical stuff (it is a real technology blog) as well as delights such as this year set of photos through a window as well as a cartoon explanation of why the media industry needs a rethink in their approach to strategic marketing.

Thanks to those, from Australia (The Skau family) to California (Jim Ware) via many places in between, who responded to my plea for votes. And I can revel in nice comments, such as this one:

Yours is definitely the best Norwegian-language blog that I have ever looked at

Come to think of it, he is monolingual….

The innovation-hindering IT organization?

Tim O’Reilly and Paul Kedrosky are both pointing to an article in Financial Times about how many private users now have access to much better equipment and services from home than at work, because the IT department has locked down the infrastructure and are slow to upgrade (for very financially sound reasons, I should say.)

This is not new. I remember interviewing IT executives in the late 90s who sheepishly conceded, when I asked them to send me an email, that they had to go home to do that. The corporate email was within-company only (this was a large international oil company).

The job of an IT department is to act as an intermediator between technology and business, and in doing so, it frequently takes on the role of UN soldier – insulating the two sides from each other to keep the peace, in the process inadvertently limiting the degree of interaction and integration between the two.

I think this is a continuing challenge for CIOs – they are expected to be the technology expert, but their day-to-day information needs leeds them away from the rapid and chaotic innovation that happens in the consumer-oriented market. It used to be that the military developed technology, which then companies bought. Then companies drove the evolution, during the mainframe and mini-computer era. With PCs and then with the Internet innovation became first individual and then consumer-oriented. Now the consumer-market drives innovation, and the traditional CIO better take a study tour to the nearest electronics store.

I am just waiting for the first CIO to implement an entire infrastructure on, say, MS Xboxes running Linux. With iPods instead of dictation machines and corporate accounting done in Quicken (don’t laugh, I have seen departmental accounting done that way.) How about corporate email on Gmail, online office solutions, and the corporate web page via Typepad. It is not only possible, it might in fact be the future. As soon as the consumers have been served….

Pancaked Kansas

Kansas and pancakeAccording to this little article in the Annals of Improbable Research, Kansas is flatter than a pancake. I dunno. Seems to be a bounding problem, since the edges of the pancake are included. Since Kansas has a politically, rather than naturally set boundary, I think the border values of the pancake should have been excluded. That is, the edges should not be trimmed off, an action which physcially depresses the pancake, but mathematically removed from the analysis. This introduces a different problem – how far in should you cut?  Since Kansas is part of the American plains, should you trim off until the area of the pancake specimen equals the relative area that Kansas occupies in the Western Plain?

Inquiring minds would like to know. Or maybe not.

And with that, we return to our regularly scheduled programming. (via Volokh)

Rebates of ill repute

There is an interesting little thread over at Slashdot about computer rebates and how good or bad they are. Everybody likes the discount but hates the paperwork, and some pretty sinister conspiracy theories are bandied about, which, of course, is the way we have come to like it at Slashdot.

What gets me, though, is the marketing consultant quoted in the point article, who says that there are rebates because "unlike regular sales, people perceive them as a one-time opportunity to get a product at a lower price than it would normally be sold at."

What utter rubbish. The simple reason rebates and coupons exist is that they allow price discrimination. They are a way of offering a price reduction only to those customers who want it. If they didn’t exist, the seller would have to discount the price for everyone, losing revenue from the customer who would be willing to pay more.

I live in a pricy country on a pricy continent, and tend to buy electronics and other things when in the US. I get the rebate coupons but often don’t bother sending them in – both because of the hassle (the rebates often can be redeemed to US addresses only, adding extra complexity), but also because the price already is significantly lower than in Europe and I just want the product. I can easily imagine many rich and/or busy Americans buying things and not bothering about the rebate – which means that the seller gets more total revenue.

Price discrimination works to the benefit of both the spendthrift and the miser: The former gets the product he wants at a price he is willing to pay. This allows the seller to increase the amount on the rebate, making it cheaper for the miser, who is willing to spend the time and do the paperwork.

Rebates and coupons are outlawed in Norway and in many other European countries, less, I suspect, because they are seen as tricking the consumer than because the wage differentials are smaller in Europe, making price discrimination less effective.

Anyway: To all those carping about how much work the coupons are and the 60% fulfillment rate: If all rebate coupons were redeemed, the rebates wouldn’t be so good. So keep quiet and keep filling in those forms. They are good for you precisely because they are a mechanism allowing you even lower prices than you would get without them.

Vote early, vote often…

My Norwegian language blog, Tversover, has been nominated for a prize of "Best technology blog" in Norway. If you would like to vote for it (I think the voting is open until Dec. 5, but am not sure, so vote early…)  you can do that here.

It is in Norwegian, so for "Kategori", choose "Techno", then choose "Tversover" (the word means both "across" and "bowtie" in Norwegian). Assuming you want to vote for me, of course. Then fill in name, email (non-spam) and type in the spam-stopping security thing, and I will be eternally grateful. Or maybe not.