Monthly Archives: October 2006

Going backwards on RSS

At a time when more and more sites intelligently offer RSS feeds, Bloomberg is moving backwards. Felix Salmon reports: “Bloomberg has killed them all. The ‘RSS feeds’ link still sits in the footer of Bloomberg’s web pages, but now it just redirects to a statement saying, in full, ‘This functionality is no longer available. We apologize for any inconvenience.'”

I didn’t think the people at Bloomberg were so obtuse.

The joy of Google Maps

One of the clever aspects of Google Calendar is its integration with Google Maps. You enter an address in your calendar item and you can click directly to a map.

Or not. I’m going to a dinner on Sunday on Kearny Street in San Francisco. The address was entered on a Google Calendar I have access to with the street address only. Click on it and what do I get? Kearny Close… in Rutherford, New South Wales.

Channeling Toynbee

For many years, my friend and former colleague David Derrick tried to convince me of the great merits of Arnold Toynbee. I never caught his enthusiasm.

But now I can get David’s Toynbee-inflected ardor and intelligence directly through his new weblog, The Toynbee convector.

Here’s a bit of Toynbee which David correctly knew would hit some of my hot buttons:

The general war of 1914 overtook me expounding Thucydides to Balliol undergraduates reading for Literae Humaniores, and then suddenly my understanding was illuminated. The experience that we were having in our world now had been experienced by Thucydides in his world already. I was re-reading him now with a new perception – perceiving meanings in his words, and feelings behind his phrases, to which I had been insensible until I, in my turn, had run into that historical crisis that had inspired him to write his work. Thucydides, it now appeared, had been over this ground before. He and his generation had been ahead of me and mine in the stage of historical experience that we had respectively reached; in fact, his present had been my future. But this made nonsense of the chronological notation which registered my world as “modern” and Thucydides’ world as “ancient.” Whatever chronology might say, Thucydides’ world and my world had now proved to be philosophically contemporary. And, if this were the true relation between the Graeco-Roman and the Western civilizations, might not the relation between all the civilizations known to us turn out to be the same?

And David’s gloss:

And so you have Toynbee. And that electrifying moment in 1914, after Europe and its chocolate soldiers had been sleep-marching towards the greatest catastrophe in their history, is easy to imagine when you read the ominous opening of Thucydides’ work.

What to do about those sensitive emails and blog posts

Today’s Financial Times has, to my mind, a bit of astounding advice. In an article about the “dangers” of unguarded emails in the corporate world, it advocates organizations install “increasingly advanced software” to block embarrassing messages from leaving the corporate system.

“In addition to dirty words you can train software to look for specific trade secrets, or the names of your executives, or research projects or clients or competitors, and block those messages from ever leaving your system,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, which conducts research and advises companies.

Ms Flynn says employers should be rushing to deploy this kind of software, and not just for e-mails. Blog posts and instant messages are dangerous as well. [My emphasis added.]

I think this kind of approach is so evidently bonkers, evoking a dystopian corporate world where concepts like trust and maturity are wholly absent, that I was curious to learn about the ePolicy Institute. It’s clearly the invention and device of Flynn and little more. She may well be providing valued advice to her members and customers, but I don’t see why a Financial Times journalist should see her institute as any kind of independent authority. She is a consultant on matters like email policy for companies and, it seems clear, makes her money by selling her brand of advice.

We need a “Law of the Institute” for journalists and bloggers. It’s simplicity itself to stick “institute” on a name. It may sound more impressive than “Inc” or “Associates” or “& Company”. But all too often it is a meaningless designation. Writer beware.

Is Obama ready?

I’ve been a Barack Obama fan for quite some time, so I’d like to think that everything that Richard Greene writes is true. Greene reckons Obama is ready to be president, a conclusion he somewhat rhetorically bases on the impact and success of his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

There are two aspects to Greene’s argument that I find questionable. First is his assertion on the power of oration. “The ability to give a great speech is the most visible and, I argue, one of the most important responsibilities of the individual who leads any nation, and particularly, the most powerful nation on earth… The relationship between great speakers and great leaders is extremely direct.” I think leaders certainly need to be effective communicators, but I am unsure whether great leaders must be great speakers. Many great leaders are great speakers, but not always. And there are certainly great speakers who have no other notable leadership capabilities.

The second part of Greene’s argument is, unfortunately, far more dubious. “Beyond the benefits of seeing a black man in the White House, once the world hears THIS black man speak – even just ONE speech – after 8 years of what they have heard, they will, instantly, regain their respect for our President and our people.” Would that were true. I think Obama and a number of other Democrats do have the potential to repair the damage of the Bush administration. But globally the damage goes far too deep for anyone to repair it in a single speech or a single year or even a single term. Undoing the damage of eight Bush years is going to be a truly long struggle for the US.

Great choice for Nobel peace prize

Muhammad Yunus. The development of microcredit, which was largely the invention of Yunus’s Grameen Bank, is one of the most positive steps in helping the world’s poorest people become economically independent and self-sufficient. A creative and inspiring choice for the prize.
I got to know one of Yunus’s followers quite well in my Davos years. Iqbal Qadir created GrameenPhone with the support of Grameen Bank and with a similar philosophy. Here’s what happened within two years of founding GrameenPhone:

Although GrameenPhone aims to cover all of Bangladesh which contains 68,000 villages, 1,100 villages where phones have been already placed (by the end of 1999) confirm that the village phone concept is economically viable. Each of the village operators is making money at the rate of $700 per year, after covering all of her costs. This earning of more than twice the country’s annual per-capita income (quite meaningful for a family in rural Bangladesh) is proof that phones are being put to good use in these villages. Soon hundreds of villages will have the same facilities and eventually all 68,000 villages will.

And of course all of those villages also gained vital connectivity which helped many other businesses.

Captured by The Box

‘I’m only a few pages into The Box and I already know that this is an eye-opening book that will change the way I look at the world.

The awkward subtitle of Marc Levinson’s book explains the point: “How the shipping container make the world smaller and the world economy bigger.” The always-excellent Peter Bernstein blurbs The Box with these provocative sentences: “The experts who tell you that the transistor and microchips changed the world are off base. The ugly, unglamorous, little-noticed shipping container has changed the world. Without it, there would be no globalization, no Wal-Mart, maybe even no high-tech.”

After one chapter, I’m convinced. I’ll try to report further as I progress through. Very exciting reading.

Warren Buffett's wisdom, yet again

In addition to being impossibly wealthy, Warren Buffett has two special characteristics. He seems to have a strong, well-oriented moral compass. And he writes like a dream. Having both those may well be unique in the higher reaches of business.

That struck me again with the Financial Times’s publication of a recent Berkshire Hathaway memo to leading managers. It makes a glaring contrast to the get-away-with-anything-you-can morality that seems to prevail down the road in Silicon Valley (take note, Steve Jobs, Larry Sonsini, HP board, etc). The memo in full:

To: Berkshire Hathaway Managers (“The All-Stars”)

From: Warren E. Buffett

Date: September 27, 2006

The five most dangerous words in business may be “Everybody else is doing it.” A lot of banks and insurance companies have suffered earnings disasters after relying on that rationale.

Even worse have been the consequences from using that phrase to justify the morality of proposed actions. More than 100 companies so far have been drawn into the stock option backdating scandal and the number is sure to go higher. My guess is that a great many of the people involved would not have behaved in the manner they did except for the fact that they felt others were doing so as well. The same goes for all of the accounting gimmicks to manipulate earnings – and deceive investors – that has taken place in recent years.

You would have been happy to have as an executor of your will or your son-in-law most of the people who engaged in these ill-conceived activities. But somewhere along the line they picked up the notion – perhaps suggested to them by their auditor or consultant – that a number of well-respected managers were engaging in such practices and therefore it must be OK to do so. It’s a seductive argument.

But it couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, every time you hear the phrase “Everybody else is doing it” it should raise a huge red flag. Why would somebody offer such a rationale for an act if there were a good reason available? Clearly the advocate harbors at least a small doubt about the act if he utilizes this verbal crutch.

So, at Berkshire, let’s start with what is legal, but always go on to what we would feel comfortable about being printed on the front page of our local paper, and never proceed forward simply on the basis of the fact that other people are doing it.

A final note: Somebody is doing something today at Berkshire that you and I would be unhappy about if we knew of it. That’s inevitable: We now employ well over 200,000 people and the chances of that number getting through the day without any bad behavior occurring is nil. But we can have a huge effect in minimizing such activities by jumping on anything immediately when there is the slightest odor of impropriety. Your attitude on such matters, expressed by behavior as well as words, will be the most important factor in how the culture of your business develops. And culture, more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves.

Thanks for your help on this. Berkshire’s reputation is in your hands.

Saying it better than I

The Smirking Chimp:

It’s a sad commentary on the state of American democracy, on the instincts of the American citizenry, and on the standards and judgment of the American newsmedia that the unsavory advances of a pathetic Forida congressman can have the nation in high dudgeon, while the ramming through of a patently illegal piece of legislation undermining a crucial 13th century civil liberty (habeas corpus), and the Fourth and Eighth Amendments of the constitution, and the secret planning for an illegal and catastrophic attack on Iran, both merit almost no complaint or mention.

And a friend wrote to me, “We are now the other guys in WWII movies.”