Monthly Archives: May 2006

Politics at BloggerCon

As an optimist about the power of blogging and other user-led tools to create positive change, I’m excited that I’ll be leading the discussion on politics at BloggerCon IV on June 23-24 in San Francisco. I had a fascinating time at the first BloggerCon, but geography and other commitments have conspired against me for the succeeding two. With BCIV just a Bart ride away, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Dave Winer and I had a discussion this morning about both the role of a discussion leader and how we might frame the politics discussion. I agree with Dave that the primary role of the discussion leader is to keep the conversation vigorous and on target, to ensure that everyone can be an active participant and that everyone comes away feeling they have both enjoyed the conversation and learned something.

In the nature of an unconference like BloggerCon, the approach to the topic will be protean, not fixed. But I think the starting point for the politics discussion will be to examine whether and how blogging and other new participatory media can make a positive contribution to the 2008 national election in the US. There’s a real risk that these great tools will just make negative, attack politics more potent. I don’t think it has to be that way.

The other foundation of the discussion should be understanding what the next great shift might be. I recently had a discussion with a leading political consultant who said one very perceptive thing: “The Dean campaign did something truly innovative and new in 2004. But if anyone thinks the next step is to do that, only better, they’re missing the real opportunity.” What’s exciting is that I don’t think anyone has a clear idea yet of what that next revolution might entail. BloggerCon IV will be a wonderful platform for that discussion.

Culture change at Home Depot

Joe Nocera’s account of the Home Depot annual general meeting in today’s New York Times is unmissable, a wholly worthy successor to the paper’s meticulous dissection of the cosy intertwined relationships on the company’s board.

Afterward, the words on people’s mouths are “appalling,” “disgraceful” and “arrogant.” I would add one more: contemptuous. I’m sure there are plenty of boards and chief executives who have contempt for their shareholders, but most of them are at least smart enough to keep it to themselves. On Thursday morning, in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Nardelli and the Home Depot board let the world know exactly how it feels about the people for whom they are supposed to work.

I’d like to think a reaction against the contemptuous and arrogant behavior of chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli will be a turning point in the outrageous rewards grabbed by so many corporate chieftains in the US. But I fear not.

Whatever shame may result from The New York Times’s flaying of Nardelli is more than balanced by a lengthy hosannah he received in the Bible of the corporate elite: Harvard Business Review. In its April issue, leading management guru Ram Charan wrote a lengthy paean to the “culture change” Nardelli has led since he took the reins at Home Depot in 2000. From the abstract:

The story of the vision, strategy, and leadership skills Nardelli used to move Home Depot to the next level has been told. But vision, strategy, and leadership alone–while necessary–are not enough. Typically, culture change is unsystematic and, when it works, is based on the charisma of the person leading the change, Ram Charan says. “But Home Depot shows–in perhaps the best example I have seen in my 30-year career–that a cultural transition can be achieved systematically.”

Funnily enough, unlike the Times, Charan doesn’t dwell on the $245 million Nardelli has reaped from his job in five years (the founders he replaced kept their salaries at $1 million). Nor does he explain why Home Depot has so badly underperformed compared to its rival Lowe’s. Since Nardelli arrived, Home Depot shares have dropped 12%, while Lowe’s have gone up 173%. As Nocera remarks, “You’ve heard of pay for performance? This is the classic definition of pay for pulse.”

Clearly Home Depot’s culture has changed. But it’s hard to see how any objective observer would see it as a change for the better.

Getting rid of the jokers in the pack

One of the consequences of riding my bike to work is that I have to face the ride home, 2.5 miles up hill, at the end of each day. So I’m acutely conscious of any extra weight in my bag.
Bill Mauldin, Up Front

Sadly, I couldn’t find a Bill Mauldin cartoon I remember from my childhood (so I’ve made do with another). His great creations, Willie and Joe, are slogging up a hill, with their heavy army backpacks and rifles. The caption reads: “I told you to throw the jokers out of that deck of cards.” In my trivial, daily hill climb, I know what Willie and Joe meant.

My father was a captain in the infantry in the Second World War. Among the few visible memories of the war that he retained was a battered copy of Mauldin’s Up Front cartoons. I suspect these cartoons, certainly mostly unknown to my generation and younger, were a common touchstone for those fighting men.

The ageing of Germany

Luke Harding: “Cycling home to our west Berlin flat, I recently noticed a shiny new undertaker’s, offering some attractive deals on wooden coffins. It had replaced a children’s clothes store – a neat metaphor for the demographic transformation of Europe’s biggest state.”

Toshiba service is rotten

I was going to write a nice note about the telephone support I received from Toshiba this morning, about my messed-up laptop. Richard on the US support line was helpful and technically well informed.

But something is truly rotten in the state of Toshiba, or at least Toshiba Europe. I bought my Portege M200 in London about 20 months ago. It’s still under warranty. The problem is that moving from London to Berkeley means an awful lot of stuff is in boxes that haven’t been touched yet. In one of those boxes, I’m pretty sure, is my Toshiba recovery disk. But wouldn’t it be easier to get a replacement recovery disk from Toshiba?

Trouble is Toshiba USA can’t provide a recovery disk for my European-spec laptop. That has to come from Toshiba Europe. I’m helpfully provided the phone number in Britain. That’s where the problems begin.

Toshiba Europe can send a recovery disk. But they can only send it to a European address. Oh, and they don’t accept a credit card. So they suggest we find someone in the UK who can send them a check (or cheque), they will then send the disk to that person, who can then send it to me.

That’s a great way to treat a customer who has a product that is still under warranty, isn’t it? When the day comes to replace this laptop (which might well be sooner rather than later), I’m sure not going to have good thoughts about Toshiba. Extraordinary.

Update It gets better (read: worse). Just received this from Toshiba Global Support Centre: “Please find attached the Replacement Product Recovery Media form. The replacement cost for the recovery media is £35.25 (£30 plus VAT). In order to receive the requested software, please carefully read and complete the form, and mail it together with a cheque for the replacement cost to the address indicated on the form. The delivery of the replacement media may take up to 4 weeks after the form and payment have been received by Toshiba.”

Is there any reason why I shouldn’t be able to download this from a Toshiba website for free?

Thank god for Gmail and Mirra

Something has gone desperately wrong with my Toshiba laptop. It fails to restart and even trying to boot from a Windows XP CD doesn’t work (I get a mysterious “halacpi.dll could not be loaded. Error code is 7”, which even Google doesn’t seem to elucidate). Toshiba recommends I use the recovery disk, which will instigate a full system recovery.

That, of course, also means the loss of all my data. Fortunately, Gmail and Google Calendar allow me to function from any computer (so much of my life is browser-based these days). And when I get my computer up and running again, there’s the handy little Mirra box in my office that has quietly been backing up all my stuff all the time. Phew.

The vanishing book editor

I’m hugely enjoying David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Both Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman lauded the book as an insightful account of the development of endogenous growth theory, sometimes known as the economics of increasing returns. But even 70 pages into the work, I do fear for the state of book editing.

When Warsh introduces David Ricardo, he mentions that his family moved to England in the middle of the “nineteenth century”, before Ricardo was born in 1772. Later a key Ricardo quote has “these these” muddling up the sense. When John Stuart Mill appears, he is referred to as John “Start” Mill. All authors make these kinds of mistakes, but even a poor editor should catch them. Books were once edited to a higher standard than newspapers and magazines. Now, I’m not sure. I don’t think Norton, the publisher of Warsh’s book, is the only culprit.

There’s another editing niggle I have with the book. Throughout the discussion of Adam Smith, Warsh refers largely to England. Given Smith’s firm Scottishness, I think he should have used Britain in almost every case (curiously, the one time Britain gets a look in is when Warsh discusses Napoleon’s planned invasion of England being foiled by the British Navy). I don’t think Warsh or his editors made a conscious choice here. Too many Americans seem to think England is Britain. It isn’t. Great Britain has three nations: England, Scotland and Wales (and it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).