Monthly Archives: March 2009

Real tale from a real assembly line

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ben Hamper worked on the production line of the General Motors bus and truck plant in Flint, Michigan from 1977 to 1988, and wrote about the experience in this book. It is a rambling and often funny account of mind-numbingly dull work, schemes employed by the workers to make it less dull, and the equally inane managerial schemes to, well, manage. Witness Howie Makem, the "Quality Cat" mascot, an actor in a cat costume showing up at various intervals to get the workers to produce higher-quality vehicles.

The books should be required reading for business school students (and is in some courses) showing the sometimes vast difference between the managerial and worker view of the world. Hamper ridicules the ways of top management, while at the same time showing how, with relatively little effort (such as, when the factory in-house magazine reports that a country music singer was going to buy one of their cars, Hamper wants to know which car it would be and realizing that that was the first time he ever heard anything about who the customer was). In the end, the dull and hard work: Hamper develops anxiety attacks and eventually drops out from the assembly line. You kind of suspect it is from under-use of his brain – he likens it to forever dropping out of high school, staying in suspended animation in a never-ending adolescence, seeking relief in alcohol and mindless games.

Highly recommended because it offers a different view of things, sorely needed as something of a counterweight to all the starry-eyed management books out there. And it leaves you wondering, as Hamper does: If not the assembly line, what else can a middle-aged autoworker with no marketable skills do? Hamper can write and do auto shows. Most of his colleagues, you suspect, cannot. Given the current state of General Motors (at present, bankruptcy seems inevitable within a year) this is a question of more than fleeting interest for a sizeable portion of the US workforce.

View all my reviews.

Stewart, Cramer and ducking humiliation all the way to the bank

Like many others, I have been enjoying Jon Stewart’s skewering of Jim Cramer, CNBC’s money madman. But the New York Times has an interesting perspective interesting perspective on this: The media attention may be to Cramer’s advantage (as opposed to what happened to Crossfire when Jon Stewart appeared and exposed them for what they were.

Nevertheless, it must have been uncomfortable being up there, and deservedly so. But I do prefer this one:

The perils of openness

Mary Beard has a really interesting perspective on the consequences of openness: Transparency is the new opacity. In the absence of confidential channels (which, given today’s storage and search capabilities, you have no guarantee will remain confidential) very little actual information gets transmitted in student appraisals.

And the only difference between job appraisals and student appraisals, I assume, lies in vocabulary. As a technologist, I could envision all kinds of technical fixes to this, assuming that those in charge of the specifications acknowledge that they are necessary: Fields for comments hidden from the subject, fields that terminate after a certain time after reading, filters to search engines that handle confidentiality – including the fact that there is a confidential comment in the first place (which turns out to be surprisingly hard to do.)

But the more natural fix is the quick conversation in the pub, the hallway, or on the private cell phone – impervious to search, storage and documentation – where the real information can be exchanged. The electronic equivalent? Encrypted Twitter, perhaps, if such a thing exists.

What we need is online coffee shops, offering the same discreet, transient and history-less marketplace for information. Now I spend time on the phone with my colleagues for that, but that doesn’t work well across time zones. So – what would it look like and how to build it?

PS: Come to think of it, Skype is encrypted, at least the phone calls.

Wolfram is at it again

Stephen Wolfram’s next project, the Wolfram|Alpha search "engine" (or, rather, answer to everything that is computable) is due out in May visit it here.) To me it seems like a combination of Google, CYC and, perhaps, Mathematica. It certainly is interesting and should do much for factual search, not to mention conversational interfaces to search. Nova Spivack thinks it is as important as Google. Doug Lenat (in the comment field to Spivack’s blog post) says

[…] it’s not AI, and not aiming to be, so it shouldn’t be measured by contrasting it with HAL or Cyc but with Google or Yahoo. At its heart is a formal Mathematica representation. Its inference engine is basically a large number of individually hand-engineered scripts for tapping into data which he and his team have spent the last several years gathering and "curating". For example, he has assembled tables of historical financial information about countries’ GDP’s and about companies’ stock prices. In a small number of cases, he also connects via API to third party information, but mostly for realtime data such as a current stock price or current temperature. Rather than connecting to and relying on the current or future Semantic Web, Alpha computes its answers primarily from his own curated data to the extent possible; he sees Alpha as the home for almost all the information it needs, and will use to answer users’ queries.

Another way of seeing it might be as the latest shot at providing answers by processing rather than storage – which fits nicely with Wolfram’s idea of computational equivalence – that the universe can be described by a simple set of rules, which as far as I understand it means that all complexity is only apparent, not real, and only so because we have not yet understood the underlying algorithms.

I just can’t wait to try it out – and to see what the impact will be on more storage-intensive search engines and their use.

Update March 12: This is garnering some serious attention for a service that isn’t even in beta yet…

The view from the fringes

Them: Adventures with Extremists Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

My review

Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alternately deeply disturbing and howlingly funny about the paranoid of the world – and the exclusive but increasingly out-of-touch elite meeting fora that feed the fringes.

I keep shaking my head when someone can get time on national television (in any country) claming that the world’s leaders meet in secret places to plot wars and elections – and that most of them really are giant lizards inhabiting human bodies…

View all my reviews.

Introducing Lord Peter Wimsey

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries) Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually read this on the web since it is in the public domain (due to someone forgetting to renew the copyright) and I have bought a small netbook computer which works quite well for reading.

Dorothy Sayers had a fascinating career: She was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford, started working as a copy writer for an ad agency to make some money, and wrote detective novels to indulge in a bit of escapism and become financially independent. She created Lord Peter Wimsey, a seemingly scatterbrained but, of course, whip smart nobleman complete with WWI shell shock, monocle, a loyal butler named Bunter and, eventually, a girl friend named Harriet Vane who bears quite some resemblance to Sayers herself.

The funny thing is that Sayers wrote a number of religious and philosophical tracts as well as a translation of Dante’s Divinia Commedia, but she is remembered for her detective novels, which, I should say, are remarkably modern and witty for something written in 1926. (In some circles, her essay The lost tools of learning has great currency.)

"Whose body?" concerns a naked body found in a bathtub, resembling a mysteriously disappeared financier. After few twists and turns, it is pretty easy to understand who the villain is, but how Lord Peter Wimsey gets there is less easy to figure out. Sayers strictly follows the classic rules of detection – always leave all clues visible to the reader, then surprise them – and does so here as well. It is not her best work – that would be Murder must advertise or The nine taylors (the latter rather complicated, but interesting) or perhaps Five red herrings. But it is available in the public domain, gives a great introduction to the unbeatable Lord Peter Wimsey, and is not the worst way to spend an hour or two before going to bed.

View all my reviews.