Saturday, April 28, 2007

Where were the generals?

USA Today has a thorough discussion of failures in generalship during both Vietnam and the current Iraq War. One of the author's most important points is that moral courage is essential to generalship: having the courage to present unpleasant truths to civilian policymakers, and to the public if necessary, is just as important as courage under fire. In a democracy, generals owe their allegiance to the nation, not to a particular President or Defense Secretary.

Peter Drucker emphasized the importance of moral courage in corporate leadership as well. In the long run, dishonest accounting and other dicey business practices cause damage far beyond whatever short term benefit they achieve. Too often, though, the participants in corporate scandals float to earth under golden parachutes while shareholders and ordinary employees struggle with the mess they left behind.

Moderating comments

As an anti-spam measure, comments are now held for review after posting. When I have time, I'll set up authentication so trusted commenters aren't moderated, but that's going to take a little while.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Who was that violinist?

Joshua Bell was recently named the best classical musician in America. A few days before that, he played at Washington's L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop, just to see what would happen. Mostly he was ignored, but the few people who noticed what was going on got a real treat.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Starvation the safest option?

I'm probably like a lot of people. I buy organic produce when I can because it tastes better, but don't worry too much about the ingredients in other foods. The manufacturers have too much to lose to mess up, right?

You would think so, but apparently some genius in China decided that spiking vegetable proteins with fertilizer was an easy way to boost profits. (The fertilizer increases the apparent protein content, and therefore the selling price.)

The whole foods advocates do have a point: if you cook your own food from fresh ingredients, you can be pretty sure about what's in it.

Oh, wait. Wasn't there something about E. coli contamination of fresh spinach? Sigh...

Monday, April 23, 2007

One of the best, one of the brightest

Journalist David Halberstam was killed in a car accident on Monday. He was 73.

It's impossible to do justice to his work here. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam in 1964. In 1972 he published The Best and the Brightest, probably his most famous book and one of the definitive analyses of American involvement in Vietnam. More recent books included Firehouse, about New York City firefighters and Sept. 11, and Bill Belichick: The Education of a Coach. An aspiring journalist who read nothing but Halberstam's books wouldn't go too far wrong.

Journalism needs more like him. America needs more like him. He'll be missed.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Getting better all the time

I've been reading Atul Gawande's new book, Better, about medical performance and ways to improve it. One of his most important points is that positive deviants -- people who lie at the upper end of the bell curve -- exist everywhere, and consistently achieve above average outcomes. They range from mothers in Third World villages who raise well-nourished children in spite of overwhelming poverty, to doctors in India who achieve some of the best ulcer surgery results in the world under conditions that would terrify most Western doctors and patients, to cystic fibrosis clinics whose patients live more than ten years longer than those at average clinics. Superior performance in these cases does not come from better technology, but from better science: seeing which interventions make things better, applying them consistently, and never being satisfied that something is "good enough."

Medicine makes the contrast between good and merely average performance especially stark-- patients who get better care generally live longer -- but the bell curve exists in every field. It's the difference between the Hall of Fame baseball player with a lifetime batting average above .300, and a weak hitter with an average of only .250 or so. (For non-baseball fans, that's a difference of only 50 hits per thousand at-bats.) In semiconductor manufacturing, the difference is measured in percentage points of yield, or weeks of production ramp, and it adds up to millions of dollars.

Technology certainly helps -- those doctors in India could do even better with better facilities and adequate supplies -- but it is only a tool. Performance is a process.

Electronic paper emerges

Congratulations to the folks at E-Ink. I had a chance to play with a Sony Reader, which uses their Imaging Film. The display was very, very nice. I'm not quite ready to jump on the e-book bandwagon, but I'm getting really close.

One lucky idiot

I hope New Jersey Governor Corzine, currently in the hospital with twelve broken ribs, makes a full and complete recovery.

Still, he's made himself the poster person for the vast improvements in auto safety over the last few decades, as well as a case study in how hard it is to protect people from their own stupidity. He wasn't wearing his seat belt. His SUV was going 91 mph in a 65 mph zone. His driver had four previous accidents.

Corzine is lucky to be alive.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Doesn't anyone read any more?

So we spent the weekend house hunting. We probably visited eight or nine different homes, some of them twice. And about the time I got home, I realized there was something very strange about all of them.

No books.

A few places had a coffee table book or two set out to impress buyers with their good taste, but no indication that anyone in the house actually read anything. No Serious Literature, no junk novels, no technical reference libraries. I didn't even see any children's books, although I guess those could have been tucked away in a toy chest or something.

They all had very nice televisions, though. Sigh...

Monday, April 16, 2007


Note to self: if you change the blog password before you go on a trip, make sure the computer you take on the trip knows what the password is.

I'm back now. Sorry about the dead air.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Forget the techie stuff, where are the cats?

By special request, a link to the Summerhill Kitten Farm.

The blogroll will come back eventually, but I haven't yet figured out the best way to work it into the new template.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Grain goes missing

How do you lose 800 metric tons of wheat gluten? ChemNutra says it imported the stuff from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development, then shipped it to Menu Foods and other companies. Both the Chinese government and Xuzhou claim that the company has never exported wheat gluten to the US or Canada.

All of this matters, of course, because the wheat gluten turned out to be contaminated, leading to a massive pet food recall, lots of sick pets, lots of unhappy owners, and inevitable lawsuits. The earliest known source of the stuff -- ChemNutra, at the moment -- is in a world of trouble with their customers.

Stealthy in plain sight

The current issue of Technology Review features "stealth startup Rinera Networks" in a special section on emerging technologies. Seems to me that it's pretty tough to be stealthy when you're being featured in Technology Review.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

News 2.0

The latest Columbia Journalism Review offers a lengthy analysis of the impact of the web on newspapers. It turns out that editors and reporters have largely embraced the web: it's more dynamic, can easily accommodate materials other than the written word, and offers a much closer connection to readers. On the business side, both the top national papers and the community-oriented weeklies are doing pretty well. The mid-size local and regional papers are struggling, though. They don't have the resources for the excellent total package delivered by national papers, or the close community connections of the weeklies.

Long, but worth reading in its entirety.

When a loan isn't a loan

There's an interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal about financial products that comply with Quranic prohibitions on interest while still offering a competitive rate of return. The interesting part is that Malaysia is leading the way. Malaysia's financial sector has historically been dominated by ethnic Chinese, and the new financial products are seen as a way to help promote entrepreneurship among the country's Muslim majority.

(Sorry, available to Journal subscribers only.)

Monday, April 2, 2007

All the news

The long-ignored site newsletter has new software, and a new page. It will have new content eventually, too, but I wouldn't count on that happening before the move.