Monthly Archives: January 2007

Green retailers

The nation of shopkeepers looks like it’s leading in new ways. Eco-Advantage reports that both Marks & Spencer and Tesco have announced major environmentally conscious programs. Andrew Winston, one of the writers of Eco-Advantage, says the companies’ goals are “aggressive, creative, comprehensive, and instantly establish a new best practice”. The programs aren’t just vague aspirations, both companies have committed real money and have created timely, tough targets. Let’s hope the relatively dozy US retail sector wakes up.

Davos vade mecum

There are more blogs from Davos than you can shake a stick at these days, which is great. If you want some perspective, hurry over to David Derrick, who reflects on 14 years at the Annual Meeting.

People have been saying that “Davos” is on the decline for a long time, and new reasons are constantly given. It isn’t. Nor is it the special retreat that it was when participants skied down to the Congress Centre to have their badges written out by Maria Cattaui as they were handed a cup of Glühwein.

Health > coffee

I went to an interesting unconference on talent today at Electronic Arts. I was involved in a discussion on “the big pipe”: the need to reform the US education system so the country can have the talent necessary to thrive in the coming decades. One point we agreed on was the need for companies both to understand and lobby about the importance of education.

An executive from Starbucks made the excellent point that CEOs have a limited bandwidth for issues. For many, healthcare looms far larger than education. After all, she said, Starbucks spends more annually on employee healthcare than on purchasing coffee.

New essential reading

Eurointelligence has quickly become an essential daily read. I particularly appreciate their morning round-up of the key European papers. It fills a gaping gap for those interested in global economic issues.

Wolfgang Munchau’s commentaries are also wonderfully sharp. Here’s his summary of the choice facing French voters in the presidential election:

All this leaves us with two candidates, one of whom has no economic plan, and the other one has a poor one. I am not going to endorse one over the other, neither today nor in the future. In fact, I would hate to be confronted with such a choice as a voter. Luckily for me, I don’t get to vote in France. But looking at it from the outside, this is probably worse than Prodi-versus-Berlusconi.

Dreaming in Code

Not that long ago, being educated meant above all knowing Latin and Greek. At the more academic high schools and universities, we still expect some language proficiency (generally in modern languages) from the graduates. When I get involved in discussions about the future of education, many people promote the importance of learning Mandarin given the rising importance of China.

But there’s another realm of languages that is more fundamental to our century than Mandarin. Convinced of this, at some point in the mid-90s I went out and bought the so-called wizard book, The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, and began working my way through its chapters. Perhaps it’s a sign of my own talents and interests that I only made it about a third of the way through. I did, however, spend a year not long after that learning ancient Greek with reasonable success. Planned obsolescence on my part, perhaps.

I suspect Scott Rosenberg would agree with my hunch about the primacy of programming in understanding today’s world. His new book, Dreaming in Code, follows a single software project, Chandler, and tries to reveal what makes software both so hard to do well and so compelling for its practitioners. In the course of chronicling the twists and turns of Chandler’s development, Rosenberg writes about the history of software development and the many, generally failed attempts to turn a craft into a science.

The great virtue of Dreaming in Code is that Chandler is an object lesson for the book’s thesis. When Rosenberg started the project in 2002, Chandler’s progenitor, Mitch Kapor, estimated that a first release would be available in 2003 or, at latest, in early 2004. Here we are in early 2007 and Chandler is only up to release 0.7. The incomplete story of Chandler is also, however, a cloud that hung over my reading of the book. I knew from the start that the debates about, say, the right programming language to use, or whether or not to be server-based were preludes to endless delays, what Rosenberg terms “software time”. I was also acutely conscious, as I read about the attempts to create a revolutionary personal information manager with Chandler that new products like Google Calendar were obviating the need for some of Chandler’s ideas. The great examples of the kind of narrative that Rosenberg set out to write — I think of Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine and House or Steven Levy’s Insanely Great — have a Hollywood-like story arc. In the end, the minicomputer is made, the house completed, the Macintosh launched. There’s none of that satisfaction in Dreaming in Code.

There are many other compensations. Rosenberg helps a non-programmer like me gain some understanding of why truly innovative software is so rare and, when it works, so remarkable. Dave Winer used to say, “We make shitty software. With bugs!” Dreaming in Code makes it clear how perfectly Dave’s jolly realism reflects the reality of software development. And I’m a lot closer to understanding this key building block of our world.

The value of immediacy

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s hard to figure out the value of academic publishing if you’re not an academic. When I write here, I tend to get critique – usually smart, well-informed critique – within hours. I often discover that I’m flat out wrong about something I’ve asserted, and I can update my opinions and impressions based on feedback from people better informed than I am. That seems like a much more efficient form of peer review – at least in the academic realm I inhabit – than waiting six to twelve months to find out whether an anonymous reviewer thinks my now-out of date paper is worth publishing.

$1.2 trillion

David Leonhardt:

For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

All that would be one way to spend $1.2 trillion. Here would be another:

The war in Iraq.

These numbers, of course, aren’t new. William Nordhaus and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, did the analyses some time ago. But it’s great that Leonhardt is using his space on the business pages of the Times further to expose the obscenity of this war.