Thursday, December 30, 2004
At the end of the post, Greg nails it in one:
The whole thing reinforces to me that customer service outsourcing is a false economy, particularly if your internal systems are so complicated and your rules so hidebound that your customer service people practically need a college degree in Navigating Our Company's Idiotic Backend. The Indians I talked to were completely useless, I consumed probably a year's worth of profits on Vicky's account in hours of support from US-based CS people, and the Indians in the mix merely made the whole thing take that much longer.The problem is not so much that the Indians cannot do a good job, it's that you really do need a masters degree in Navigating Our Company's Idiotic Backend. The reason why the backend is idiotic is some combination of 1) being a mix of systems that were never integrated successfully and 2) system needs to support a spaghetti of business rules that are both complex and poorly defined, and nothing kills system functionality like complex, fuzzy rules.
Fixing these has no immediate business benefit, because you spend some money and get no new functionality. All you really get is a lower cost of making subsequent changes. Instead of the basic ROI calculations used to justify business expenditures, maybe something with real options that highlights how the ability to do things more cheaply and with lower risk in the future would help justify budgets for "re-factoring" initiatives. But you know that once you've mentioned real options, you have already gone off some deep end.
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Collapse is about how certain soceities have committed suicide by refusing to change in the face of self-inflicted environmental armageddon. An example is a Viking colony in Greenland who cultivated the land out of existance and starved to death, all the while refusing to eat fish because of some cultural taboo.
It's easy to think of such behavior as stupid, but
Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren’t thinking about their biological survival. They were thinking about their cultural survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies that define a community. Not eating fish served the same function as building lavish churches, and doggedly replicating the untenable agricultural practices of their land of origin. It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those little idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of paramount importance.And hey, we all know how strongly people feel about cultural survival as we see incumbents of every stripe, from French farmers to Arabian despots whine about how evil, American led modernity is destroying their culture.
There was an additional environmental element not mentioned in the book review--cultural competition. It is quite possible that old Vikings would never eat fish but that perhaps some younger, more open minded Vikings might try some, especially if the alternative was starving. Much of the cultural whining one hears across the globe comes from parents who see their children breaking taboos, ignoring precedent, and doing whatever damn thing they want.
If cultural competition, not cultural vitality, is the key to keeping people from committing suicide, then the US is in good shape indeed. At the end of the review, Gladwell goes off the deep end arguing that
For the past thirty years, Oregon has had one of the strictest sets of land-use regulations in the nation, requiring new development to be clustered in and around existing urban development. The laws meant that Oregon has done perhaps the best job in the nation in limiting suburban sprawl, and protecting coastal lands and estuaries. But this November Oregon’s voters passed a ballot referendum, known as Measure 37, that rolled back many of those protections. Specifically, Measure 37 said that anyone who could show that the value of his land was affected by regulations implemented since its purchase was entitled to compensation from the state. If the state declined to pay, the property owner would be exempted from the regulations.What Gladwell calls "intellectual incoherance", someone more open to diverse points of view, someone more nuanced in his thinking, someone more practical and less ideological in his mindset might see a realization that 1) Oregon is too expensive, and 2) increasing the supply of houses (Q) might reduce the price (P) in time honored tradition. This person may also, while conceding their are subtle externalities associated in real estate prices, point out that a taking is a taking is a taking, and if Oregonians want acres of Pristine Wilderness they should all pay for that through higher taxes that are spent on buying off developers, instead of forcing the cost on developers who bought land to (gasp, shock) develop only to see new laws passed restricting its use and reducing its value. But hey, why even consider the average Joe when you can rail against Walmart and Target and their sin of low prices for poor people.
To call Measure 37—and similar referendums that have been passed recently in other states—intellectually incoherent is to put it mildly. It might be that the reason your hundred-acre farm on a pristine hillside is worth millions to a developer is that it’s on a pristine hillside: if everyone on that hillside could subdivide, and sell out to Target and Wal-Mart, then nobody’s plot would be worth millions anymore. Will the voters of Oregon then pass Measure 38, allowing them to sue the state for compensation over damage to property values caused by Measure 37?
It is hard to read “Collapse,” though, and not have an additional reaction to Measure 37. Supporters of the law spoke entirely in the language of political ideology. To them, the measure was a defense of property rights, preventing the state from unconstitutional “takings.” If you replaced the term “property rights” with “First Amendment rights,” this would have been indistinguishable from an argument over, say, whether charitable groups ought to be able to canvass in malls, or whether cities can control the advertising they sell on the sides of public buses. As a society, we do a very good job with these kinds of debates: we give everyone a hearing, and pass laws, and make compromises, and square our conclusions with our constitutional heritage—and in the Oregon debate the quality of the theoretical argument was impressively high.
The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the state’s ecological strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities have on water and soil and cropland and forest? One can imagine Diamond writing about the Measure 37 debate, and he wouldn’t be very impressed by how seriously Oregonians wrestled with the problem of squaring their land-use rules with their values, because to him a society’s environmental birthright is not best discussed in those terms. Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs—with making sure that Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter are married before the right number of witnesses following the announcement of wedding banns on the right number of Sundays—that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.
Monday, December 27, 2004
Creationism and the Times
I must be honest, when it comes to matters even remotely close to economics, which includes government spending, budgets etc., most newspaper folks are about as useful as Creationists at a Biology conference. I mean yes, part of me thinks we should be inclusive and let them in, but I also know that they are going to contribute nothing useful and just be an impediment to proceedings. Papers seem to be saddled with this warmed-over Marxism which prevents them from fathoming how the world really work, just like Creationists really need certain parts of the Bible to be literary true and so simply cannot compute evolution. People are welcome to hold their own beliefs, but they should note that certain beliefs just get you excluded from adult company.
Saturday, December 25, 2004
Insufficiently reverent clowns
What an addled mind.
Insurgents want their stories told
The pictures were originally run by the AP, and they were posed in such a way that it seemed that the photographer had the cooperation of the killers.
The AP wrote back saying
Several brave Iraqi photographers work for The Associated Press in places that only Iraqis can cover. Many are covering the communities they live in where family and tribal relations give them access that would not be available to Western photographers, or even Iraqi photographers who are not from the area.It seems that the cooperation was real, and the day time street murders were really more like a press conference, with the jihadis announcing to the world that they were not defeated, and to potential backers that they were the best and baddest in the business and thus most deserving of support.
Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not "embedded" with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.
The idea that the press, or anyone, can be neutral in a war has been disconfirmed. Bush's "you are either with us or you are with the terrorists" is a figure of fun, but it is also a reasonably accurate description of the reality we find ourselves in. Kerry and the Democrats were not with Bush, so by extension they were considered "with" (or soft) on the terrorists and unsurprisingly lost in 04. They will continue losing, I think, until they find some way to triangulate between Bush and Bin Laden which does not paint them as jihadi-sympathisers. This should be easy, but I fear it will actually be quite difficult.
Wretchard (of the Belmont Club) frames his posts in such a way that he calls into question the morality/loyalty of the killer-sympathetic photographer. I ask "so what if they are in cahoots?" Ideological wars are fought both on the ground and in the realm of ideas, so it is unsurprising that conduits of ideas (photographs, newspapers, weblogs) would be recruited to further one side and the other. In areas with competitive media landscapes, such as the US, audiences will find the bias that suits their taste and keep an eye on the competition by haranging them for mistakes (Faux News vs the liberal MSM). In areas without such a landscape, demand for alternative points of view will seek alternative supplies.
The executions were a staged press conference to support these particular jihadis in their quest for power, and the AP's editorial policies have been noted.
Thursday, December 23, 2004
Left Wing Conservatism
unplanned, open-ended trial and error - not conformity to one central vision - is the key to human betterment. Thus, the true enemies of humanity's future are those who insist on prescribing outcomes in advance, circumventing the process of competition and experiment in favor of their own preconceptions and prejudices.... these conflicting views of progress, rather than the traditional left and right, increasingly define our political and cultural debate.Do I agree? Sure, in the sense that to make an issue an issue, some people want to change things while other people want them to stay the same (if everyone was of one mind, then it wouldn't be much of an issue, would it?)
I don't want to get into any big debate about whether left-right is a useful way to think about people's political identity, but I have been stricken by how the "left", traditionally identified with "progressive" causes, now seems to be primarily stasist while the "right", traditionally considered "conservative" is the one driving/riding historical trends. Personally, I think this has less to do with "tides of history" or "being correct" and more to do with events on the ground, luck, and being in power, but nevertheless, if you ask what the Middle East will look like in 50 years chances are it will be more democratic, more free, and as a result more successful, and this will be in part due to George W Bush deciding to bring democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun.
Or maybe not. Maybe the Middle East of the future will be just the same as it is today, with unaccountable tyrants lording it over failing cultures and impoverished soceities, with the whole Iraq War 2 thing a bad memory.
Or maybe the entire region will be a 3 inch thick plate of glass, still cooling.
The point is that claims to be on the "right side of history" depend very much on how things turn out, and figuring that out is a tricky business indeed. People still bicker over whether Reagan's tax cuts boosted economic growth by reducing marginal rates ans dead weight loss through tax inefficiency. David Brin, who seems smart and has agrees with Postrel that the real political split is between those who embrace the future and those who fight it, goes on to argue that "back-to-the-UN-and-France" Kerry represents more forward-looking change than "reshape-the-middle-east" Bush. Surreal. And dare I say it--dumb. I mean, you can agree or disagree with policy, but there is little argument about which side is about radical change.
This nice long review of the relationship between Europe, the UK, and the US kind of makes the point that embracing the future, becoming modern, is something that the US is quite good at and as a result gets to enjoy the future on its own terms. This by itself is an excellent reason to hate it, especially if you are a country that feels profoundly discomforted by the change and unease that tomorrow brings. I remember when MTV India first came to Dubai and it seemed that India, all of a sudden, could look to the future and know that it had a place there. All countries/cultures cannot say the same thing.
This is also thematically tied to this good long piece by Eric Raymond, more well known for his work on GNU/Linux than his online geek/libertarian/anarchist musings on firearms and women. Eric looks at the website left2right, founded by left-wing intellectuals to reach out to intelligent people on the right of the American political spectrum, and is unimpressed by their efforts. In particular, he notes
Velleman’s blythe unawareness of the reactionary tenor of his own argument suggests more than just a ignorance of right-wing political thinking that is crippling for anyone engaged in Left2Right’s project; it suggests that Left thought has become so empty of any content of its own, so stuck in reflexive oppositionalism, that all that remains to it is to grab at any concept that can be used to oppose George W. Bush.I don't want to put words in Eric's mouth, but it seems like he's saying the left is now in alliance with islamic fascism because both hate America and Bush. This sounds ludicrous, and certainly it's not clear why any traditional Progressive would pick a creed known for its love of violence, devotion to God, and subjugation of women, but I suppose strange times can make for strange bedfellows. Indeed, the difficulty of articulating a position that is both anti-terrorist and anti-Bush seems to have been a central difficulty the Democrats did not manage during the 04 election and continue to struggle with to this day. Indeed, perhaps Eric is implying that the reason this was so hard for them is because those two groups really are allies, albeit allies by Brownian motion, and if the Left stopped chanting slogans long enough to look at who else was getting his talking points from Michael Moore movies, they might realize they had ended up somewhere they never really intended to be and snap out of it.
In fact, this model of a Left stuck in reflexive oppositionalism is exactly what conservative intellectuals believe about it. Their narrative goes like this: once upon a time, Left thought was a genuine world-system, a coherent if tragically mistaken competitor to classical liberalism and capitalism. The Soviet Union used this theory for evil purposes, to seduce the intelligentsia of the West and foment among them anti-American, anti-capitalist hatred. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Left’s world-system collapsed with it. All that remained was a catalogue of resentments clothed in the tattered remnants of Marxist theory, but the Left intelligentsia never let go of this. As the theory crumbled, the resentments became the theory. So we are left with a Left that is more hysterically anti-American than ever, and willing to suck up to monstrous dictators like Saddam Hussein, precisely because it no longer knows what to be for.
Now: reread the above paragraph, then ask yourself what Velleman’s rhetoric will inevitably sound like to a conservative intellectual. You will know you have gotten it when your hair stands on end.
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
But is it efficient?
[a]fter all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party?In other words, academics are smart, and since smart people cannot be Republican, they have to be Democrat. QED.
Moreover, even if academics aren't smarter than average folks, they are more caring about nonmaterial well being,
To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.Whatever the cause of far-left over representation on campus, I prefer to look at the consequences. The supposed benefit of intellectual diversity is reduces group think by introducing contrasting views. The consequence of not having this diversity, then, is that the thinking will be of lower quality, and therefore, paid less attention to.
I don't know how much attention people pay to professors, but the above state of affairs is not at all bad if you happen to support Republicans. What better way to neuter all those smart, passionate Democrats then putting them in a mind-addling nuthouse/academic setting? As for Democrats, yes they have little influence, but they also have somewhere they feel at home, and hey, feeling happy and comfortable is worth something too.
So is the current state of affairs efficient? It seems so to me.
Saturday, December 18, 2004
Firstly, IBM is selling its PC unit to Chinese company, Levano. Personally, I was surprised that IBM still had enough of a PC business to sell, since, IIRC, it had already shipped off much of that activity several years ago.
To employees at IBM, PCs are a very small part of what they do, the brands (servers and middleware software products) and services are much more important. To people outside of IBM, I guess its still PCs. At any rate, IBM should have exited this completely years ago.
Secondly, Sprint is buying Nextel. At the conference, Forsee (Sprint) looked a little nervous, and Donahue (Nextel) looked relieved. There are too many wireless carriers in the US, and I had been waiting for consolidation for a while. Nextel is actually an interesting company because it has a real competitive strategy (sell to construction workers etc.) and is quite different from the other guys, but became trapped in its niche. Sprint, after decades of dramatic growth, is coming to terms with being a mature company. Nextel selling itself to Sprint probably maximized shareholder value--good for them.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Military Force Structure for Dummies
Saturday, December 11, 2004
For example, people chide the pharmaceutical industry for spending too much effort making me-to drugs instead of new drugs. These folks call such action wasteful, and say that high-drug prices are the consequence of this inefficient management.
In fact, me-to drugs are the solution to high drug prices, not the cause. If a good has more substitutes, its price will come down. This is really simple and obvious, and yet it does not seem to be obvious at all.
Similarly, Landsberg lays out why there is no one more generous than the miser...
—the man who could deplete the world's resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.It's worth reading the whole thing because it is correct, entertaining, and short. But it seems that we are biologically wired to imaging goods as fixed sum entities that just appear (as if they grow on trees, or graze in large herds perhaps) where one person having them means another person goes without.
If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer—because you produced a dollar's worth of goods and didn't consume them.
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
Like Virginia Postrel, he understands that "left/right" is not a useful distinction to understand much of politics and instead ops for "enemies of the future/friends of the future". He rights (at length) about that in his essay, The Real Culture Wars.
Bizarrely, he then claims that Bush, and his "democracy at the point of a gun" strategy in the Middle East somehow reflects a fight against the future, while presumably the more Kerry-esque "return to the UN, go back to our traditional allies, back regional strongmen for stability just like we used to" is more future forward.
I think this is just bizarre. You may agree or disagree with what Bush is doing, but it seems a radical departure from the policies (such as they were) of pretty much every US administration before him, as well as a radical departure from the standard policy of other foreign countries in Arabia (prop up the local Sheikh, sell him stuff). To call this frenetic history making a fight to keep things as they were beggers belief. He has a blog on it, the blog has room for comments, I've commented.
I hope this thoughts on surveillance are clearer than his thoughts on who is fighting for the future, and who is fighting for the status quo.
Sanity from Bean
Even Mr Bean calls it ridiculous.
Monday, December 06, 2004
Becker is probably the smartest economist I met at Chicago, a group that includes Kevin Murphy and Ronald Coase. Posner's current position on judicial guidance ("Be Reasonable") is the product of having taken, and ultimately rejecting, pretty much every philosophic position before that. Deeply wise. Posner is also, single handedly, the most influential academic department on the planet.
Don't bury the UN, praise it
The Belmont Club has been tracking the oil-for-kickbacks scandal, but I feel that any centrally planned economy between unaccountable bureacrats and unaccountable dictatorial thugs would, as a matter of course, be riddled with corruption. The UN is corrupt because it lacks competition and accountability, not because its denizens are of below average virtue (I firmly beleive that bureuacrats of all stripes are entirely mediocare in both morals and intellect.)
So, since the UN is and forever will be a labyrinth of pen-pushing bureaucrats, expensing lunches, pilfering cash, embezzling funds, and ignoring parking tickets, why bother with the agency at all? Yes it does some humanitarian work, but so do lots of other organizations, and its record of preventing war (the UN's main reason for being) is pathetic.
In this weeks Economist, Kofi (father of Kojo who profited handsomly by the oil-for-kickbacks program) spoke about UN reform. His writing is tedious, imprecise, and lengthy, so while I attempted to read the article, I failed.
From other sources, it seems that the main point of the panel was to address the growing problems of "interstate conflict, civil war, economic and social threats, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and organized international crime." The panel itself was convened after the bruising fight with the US over UN authorization to invade Iraq.
It also seems that a key recommendation was to expand the conditions on which to authorize armed interventions, but only if the UN really did have final say of this. It also mulls expanding various stratas of the security council, which may or may not include giving more countries vetoes.
In my view, the key failing of the above recommendations is the same as the key failing of the Democratic party in the 2004 elections -- how do they help us win the fight against Islamic terror? Whether Kerry is President or India is party of the Security Council, the world is still filled with young Jihadis looking for North Korean weapons to detonate in Western cities. Bush, for all his flaws, has a pretty clear vision of what victory in the War on Terror looks like: Saudi Arabia having its second election. Correctly, Bush has perceived that the lack of competition and accountability in Arab governments has lead to those countries relative and absoute declines, which in turn lead to the intolerance and fundamentalism that colors political Islam today. Any forward looking party or institution needs to either offer something better than the above, or 100% embrace the above and promise better execution.
A widely linked New Republic piece by Peter Beinart makes exactly the same point: the Democrats lost because people who were concerned about terrorism voted Republican. I certainly know that every Bush '04 voter I know went that way because they felt that Bush would do a better job there. (Incidently, most of them were for Gore in 2000).
But you know, there will always be an isolationist electoral bloc in the US, and these folks need a political home. Once upon a time it would have been in the Republican party, but for the next decade or so it may be in the Democrat party. This isolationist bloc may end up being large enough to put Democrats in power--somewhere--or it may just mean that Democrats get to play opposition until 2010 or 2020. Either way, the votes need to go somewhere and they aren't going to Bush.
Similarly, the world is full of communitarian folks, once labeled "Communist", then "Socialist", now "Transnational Progressive", and these guys have energies that they will expend *somewhere*. The UN has become, both ideologically and practically, the motherland for these folks, and surely that is less harmful and more constructive than if they were to say, start running a country.
In this spirit, a reformed UN should be tasked with 2 goals: 1) soak up and contain transnational progressives 2) introduce competitive and accountable systems of government in the islamic world, in that order.
To this end, the security council should be expanded, with more nations having seats and more nations having vetoes. There should be more conferences, panels, and studies. Ideally, only democracies would be allowed in, but China may veto that so instead there should be even more committees. Obdurate nations, like North Korea or Iran should have prominent positions on anything to do with civil rights and liberties because of the cachet they would then bring to those panels recommendations. Arab countries should be particularly involved and encouraged to weigh in on the rights of women, the seperation of church and state, and the limits of government to create public virtue.
In other words, the UN should be like it is now, but only moreso. The US and its allies, of course, should not take matters of consequence to the organization any more.