Monthly Archives: May 2005

Personalized offshoring

My former colleague David Derrick has come up with a great idea.

May have said this before, but am seriously thinking of outsourcing admin to India. Basic appointment making, thank you letters, expenses, and tax returns. It would cost about 15k max per annum, I’d guess. I think it would pay. If you know how to set about it, please tell me. I think there is a real case to be an early adopter in individual outsourcing if you are a) self-employed, b) driven nuts by repetitive routine tasks (and a prevaricator), c) always busy with more interesting things anyway.

I’m not sure the price is right, but there’s surely a market for such a service. There are a lot of people like David who are busy, self-employed workers, who either can’t be bothered to do the paperwork, or are congenitally incapable of doing it.

David knows he could hire an assistant in London to do the same. But it’s conceivable that the same price and efficiency benefits that corporations can find in Bangalore or Manila would apply for individual services. I think it’s a winner, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a little digging uncovers someone already offering such a service.

Gourmet business

I don’t usually look to Gourmet magazine for political or business analysis, but one of the best pieces I’ve read on Wal-Mart is in the June issue (not available on the web). It looks at how the world’s biggest company’s entry into food retailing only 17 years ago has transformed the industry. Supermarkets are under unprecedented pressure. Wal-Mart already has 15% of national food sales and is aiming for 35% by 2007. Suppliers have had to trim their product lines and cope with Wal-Mart’s steady pressure to reduce prices.

All of that is familiar to anyone who has read the business press. What makes the article so good is the detail, particularly from the suppliers. Consider dairy producer Organic Valley. At first, it decided to become a Wal-Mart supplier. CEO George Siemon explains:

My family was devoted to downtown business, and the trend was toward mall shopping. So for me, my lesson from that is: If you’re going to have a mission, that’s great. But in order to keep that mission, you have to run a professional business and stay up on what goes on. Nowadays, what’s the trend? Wal-Mart.

But subsequently, Wal-Mart finds another “organic” milk supplier, Horizon (there’s a very interesting discussion about just how Horizon can claim it’s organic, incidentally), that will accept a lower price. What does Organic Valley do? “Realizing that the writing was on the wall — that the pressure to push down prices while maintaining a steady supply might just overwhelm his company, especially since it could hardly keep up with demand as it was — Siemon decided to pull out of Wal-Mart altogether.” It’s apparently the first time that a supplier decided to get out of Wal-Mart.

The article also points out the pro-Wal-Mart arguments. Significantly lower prices for its customers, and access to products — like organic milk — that might otherwise be difficult to source in many of its superstore locations. A really good piece of journalism that helps the reader understand one of the most significant developments in business today.

Why not? for the Senate

Brad DeLong has a wonderful Why Not? idea.

To the extent that heavily-populated states that pay federal taxes swing more Democratic, and lightly-populated states that receive lots of giveaways (military bases, agricultural subsidies, cut-price access to national resources) swing more Republican, senate votes will become less and less legitimate.

Time, I think, to reapportion the senate: combine the Great Plains states and divide up California, New York, and Texas for purposes of senate representation.

The fact that it won’t happen for selfish political reasons shouldn’t matter.

Vicarious football

Together with one of my colleagues at my new company, Q Network, I was interested in following today’s Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan. So from 11.45 this morning (the time of the kick-off for Californians), I had my browser open to The Guardian’s invaluable minute-by-minute report.

On the first refresh of the browser it was already 1-0 to Milan. “It’s over,” we chorused. After all, it was Milan, and everyone knows about solid Italian defending. We went to lunch down the street, to a rather poor Mexican restaurant. Lo and behold, the game was being shown there. So over our enchiladas we watched as Milan overran the poor Reds and went up 3-0 at halftime. If it had been all over at 1-0, there’s no doubt what 3-0 would mean.

We walked back from lunch just as the second half was starting. When I refreshed my browser, it was 3-2. A couple of minutes later it was 3-3. And then, as is only just, Liverpool won the penalty shoot-out after extra time couldn’t separate the two scores.

I wish I could have watched the whole game. But our vicarious, half attentive following was excitement enough. Even filtered through a text report, that was as tense a match as could be imagined.

Finding perspective

Rick Segal does a brief deconstruction of two blog posts on the same event: Bill Gates’s talk at a recent technology conference. Segal’s key point, which goes to part of what I was talking about in Melbourne the other week:

In my opinion, being able to read this kind of material with a critical eye, being fully aware of styles, history, agendas, etc, affords you training to make better decisions with data that is coming at you from all sides.

We’re at a very early stage of developing our internal “software” for this kind of analysis. But it will be crucial for extracting intelligence from the evolving media ecology.

Selective statistics

New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent signs off today with a column where he lists the things he wished he had written about in his 18 months, but didn’t. Here’s one of them:

Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.

Okrent doesn’t cite any chapter or verse for the attack on Krugman (or Maureen Dowd or William Safire, who he also cites). Here’s his cute line: “I didn’t give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.”

The whole point of having Paul Krugman write, it seems to me, is that he is exercising his considerable judgment and expertise to single out the statistics that matter. He is trying to make a point, of course, that’s what opinion writing is about. But as a close reader of Krugman I’m not aware of a “habit” of distortion. Okrent should really put up or shut up. Not all statistics are created equal.

One of the tides that Krugman is valiantly trying to hold back is the right’s pseudo-statistical arguments. I recently saw that this is happening on climate change. Instead of dealing with the scientific consensus that it is carbon in the atmosphere that matters, the Bush administration is trying to push the notion that it is carbon “intensity” that counts. So you divide emissions by GDP and you find that the US isn’t so bad after all. But that “statistic” means nothing in the face of the evidence that it is the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere that is the problem — whether the use is intense or non-intense.

Okrent’s gullibility on matters economic may be revealed by his quoting the bizarre economics writer Jude Wanniski later in the same column. I hope his successor as public editor has more of a grip on such important issues.

Update: Brad DeLong weighs in and the comments stream is particularly worth reading. Many of his readers point out that if Okrent wanted to single out columnists that wilfully distort facts, there are plenty of more deserving candidates.

Anxious Amsterdam

I visited a friend in Amsterdam yesterday and — despite the enduring beauty of the city — had a rather disquieting experience.

Partly it was the discussion I had with my friend. He’s a distinguished economist, a friend from my Davos days. And he was gloomy about the current course of the world. He sees the US increasingly influenced by evangelical groups, wholly alien to a liberal European perspective. Latin America, after some signs of promise in the ’90s, is slipping back to dangerous populism, personified by Hugo Chavez. Continental Europe is sclerotic. And Africa should be a scar on all of our consciences, but is hardly thought about by most of us.

Europe was a particular worry. I’d taken the metro to his neighborhood and been shocked by the ’80s-era NY graffiti covering every carriage. It looked horrible and my friend told me he no longer feels safe taking the metro in his home city. What’s happened to easy-going, tolerant Amsterdam?

It gets worse from his perspective. He recently attended a presentation of the latest Shell scenarios. His question to Shell’s CEO: have you considered the problem of localized chaos in western Europe? He envisages destablizing riots in France, Belgium and the Netherlands in the not-so-distant future. He thought it was a good time to be heading for Berkeley. “Here in Europe,” he reflected, “we’re no where near understanding the nature of a multicultural society.”

It was a sunny day on the canals, but I left with images of dark times ahead.

Getting back on track

I arrived back from Australia feeling both jet-lagged (understandable) and very much under the weather, which is highly unusual for me. I don’t know what bug I had, but it’s still working it’s way through my system and I’m still not 100 per cent.

Which is a partial explanation for the lack of posting.

The main thing I planned to write upon my return was a reflection on how valuable it had been for me to concentrate on a biggish piece of writing — that Deakin speech — after too much time writing far shorter things, whether they are blog posts or journalistic articles. I know in the big scheme of things, 6,000 words isn’t Ulysses, but it had been a while since I wrote over 3,000 words and there is a step change that is required.

It’s not that I just can waffle through 3,000 words (although I can). I’d like to think my 3,000-word pieces, or 1,500 worders, are well thought through and well written. But for the Deakin lecture I needed to think through a range of issues that I had only dealt with anecdotally before that. For me, that proved an enjoyable and useful exercise.

So a personal resolution: carve out time for occasional bigger writing projects. I’ll post the sporadic results here.

It's a long way

I’ve just arrived back in London from Melbourne. Although the trip was comfortable, it’s still an incredibly long way and I’m shattered.

But the gift economy that Jay Rosen spoke about on Wednesday night has been in action while I’ve been in the air. Thanks Dan and Mark.

A palpable hit

Jay and I talked up a storm last night, in front of a responsive crowd in Melbourne’s Town Hall. The questions after our respective lectures were particularly good, although most people didn’t share our general tone of optimism about the new landscape of media.

I hope — and trust — that some of the people who came last night will have gone home, opened their browsers and begun participating in the weblogging world. There were certainly several people I spoke to afterwards who were wondering how their own organizations needed to respond to the changes we described. Could be quite exciting.