Monthly Archives: September 2005

Avoiding the difficult stuff in the White House

Barry Ritholtz:

My personal theory for a lot of what has gone wrong over the past few years is that ideology (i.e., Neo-Con) and faith-based belief systems (insert your choice here) have replaced elbow grease, deep thought, and long term strategizing as the methodology of implementing policy.

Its apparent in the anti-intellectual bend of much of the White House. Is it a surprise that pseudo-science is challenging Science? Not if you have been paying any attention.

The bottom line is that this distasteful, difficult stuff — planning, strategizing, executing — matters. It matters to the nation, its population and ultimately, to their safety from all manners of ordinary, natural and extra-ordinary man-made disasters.

This is one of the few times I get to admonish the public and exhort members of both political parties with words such as these:

Figure it out — or die.

Run the world: fun but silly

The BBC World Service has been engaged in a “Who Runs the World” season. As a little game to accompany the programs, it encourages listeners to pick their own team to run the world.

It’s harmless fun, and a bit silly. It’s also highly eccentric. Amartya Sen, Nobel prizewinner in economics, is listed under Thinkers. Under Economists, you get such great economic thinkers as Rupert Murdoch, Sergey Brin, Richard Branson and Bill Gates (and Steve Levitt and Joe Stiglitz). I think someone was confused between economic actors and economists.

For what it’s worth, here’s my world ruling XI, chosen according to the BBC rules: Desmond Tutu, Amartya Sen, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Lee Kuan Yew, George Soros, Barack Obama, Balthasar Garzon, Carlos Ghosn, Joe Stiglitz, Shirin Ebadi.

Very little time or thought went into my choice, but I tried to pick people who I thought had their heart in the right place (very rare, in my experience) and had shown great competence at what they do. I’m not sure Lee Kuan Yew’s heart is in the right place, but he’s frighteningly brilliant and vastly competent, and in the company of people like Clinton and Blair – with Desmond Tutu making sure they didn’t stray morally – I think he’d do well. There’s only one woman on my list, but the BBC didn’t offer much choice.

Reasons for skepticism

Tyler Cowen doubts we’re approaching the so-called Singularity – the merging of human and machine: “No, I won’t dispute the science on any single point, but nonetheless I feel confident in my skepticism. I am still waiting for an Internet Explorer that doesn’t crash, and for an NBA with the common sense to move out the three-point line. More generally, Kurzweil has thirty-four good arguments why his scenario will happen, but only one of those has to fail.”

What's happening in Germany?

If you want to keep up with the results of Germany’s inconclusive election, have a look at Davids Medienkritik. Via Marginal Revolution.

I have an uninformed hunch (the best/worst kind) that Hurricane Katrina could have had an impact on the German election. After all, for undecided voters in the last couple of weeks, Angela Merkel was offering a shift to a more Anglo-Saxon approach to economics and social issues. (I saw one German newspaper comment that the voters had rejected “Manchester economics”, shades of Friedrich Engels.) Well, the most visible example of the Anglo-Saxon approach in the run-up to the election was the woeful response of the US government to Katrina.

I think blaming the system is a mistake (see Philip Klinker’s excellent rebuttal of that approach), but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how a lot of undecided German voters saw it — encouraged by Gerhard Schroder’s trumpeting of the superior Rhineland system.

"Please let me make my point"

Bruce Bartlett via Daniel Drezner:

My point is a plea to news bookers and producers: Please let me make my point. Have the reporter or anchor ask what they please. But don’t force me to engage in an artificial debate just to create “fireworks.” And if I must debate someone, please make it someone of equal stature to myself. I was once forced to debate the minimum wage with an actual, honest-to-God homeless person. I refused to ever appear on that cable channel again, despite many requests. Thankfully, this channel no longer exists.

Although I haven’t discussed this matter with friends in the Washington policy community, I am sure most — if not all — would agree with me. I suspect that it is why it is less and less common to see widely respected policy people on cable news programs and why one more and more often sees total nobodies labeled as “consultantsâ€? to one party or the other. Such people know absolutely nothing except how to memorize talking points and disagree vigorously with their opponent, regardless of the facts or logic of the case. I don’t see how this does anything to enhance public discourse or even attract viewers.

The fact is — and everyone knows this — that few issues are black-and-white. There are always nuances that are impossible to discuss in a debate format. But the debate format creates the illusion that there is always a simple answer to every complex problem and encourages average television viewers to assume that those of us in the Washington policymaking community are all idiots totally beholden to our party, without a lick of common sense or integrity.

The NYT Select disaster

Of course putting Paul Krugman behind a subscription firewall is dumb. But Laura Rozen provides chapter and verse on how badly executed the move to Times Select has been.

I, too, am a subscriber to the Times print edition, but when I tried to register on the NYT site it consistently returned “A system error occurred while processing your request”.

Update Felix Salmon writes in the comments to note that he has covered this extensively, and provided answers to some of the annoying questions about NYT Select. Here and here.

Further update Kieran Healy sums it up: “We won’t have David Brooks or Airmiles Friedman to kick around any more. But is that bad for us, or for them? NYT columnists are the pinatas of the conscience collective. If not so many people are reading them, you have to wonder whether it’s worth signing up yourself just for the content. I think we benefit at CT. The Times makes you pay to read Paul Krugman, but his substitutability with our own John Quiggin is pretty high, and as of this evening we’re therefore a better deal than ever.”

U-Haul without a clue

There are certainly plenty of still-clueless companies around when it comes to using the Internet.

I rented a U-Haul van today to transfer some boxes from our storage in my sister’s basement to our house. The online reservation system seemed to work well enough on Friday. But I encountered a strange glitch today.

“Why,” I asked the woman in the Berkeley U-Haul office, “does it say ‘Only $19.95’ on the outside of my van, but I’m being charged $29.95?” “Oh,” she replied, “that’s because you booked it on the Internet. They have different prices. And if you phone us we don’t charge you the $5 reservation fee either.”

She looked at me uncomprehendingly when I suggested that an online booking saved them money, so it should cost less. I won’t be going back there in a hurry.

"Something called e-mail" – the difference ten years makes

Stephen Roach, who is always worth reading for economic insight, posts a wonderful reflection on ten years of publishing Morgan Stanley’s Global Economic Forum on the Internet.

We were immediately engaged in an animated discussion about an article in the Wall Street Journal that described a late-breaking monetary policy development in Germany. I told Don that the information was already dated — that I had spoken to my colleagues in London early that morning before driving to the train station, who gave me a more up-to-date assessment of the Bundesbank’s policy stance. Furthermore, I told Don that when I got to work I would show him something called an “e-mailâ€? that provided far more insight into this development than he could possibly find in the Journal. Remember, this was 1995.

A light bulb went on. Don asked me how many of these so-called e-mails were likely to be awaiting me when I got to the office that morning. I told him there would be several from economists in Asia and Europe — all of whom had been hard at work while we were sleeping. We had recently started using the e-mail to help us “pass the bookâ€? — in effect, flipping our insights from one time zone to the next over the course of the 24-hour workday. He was interested in how and why we were doing this. In response, I noted that several months earlier, the global economics team had something of an epiphany — we had discovered the benefits of e-mail. After figuring how to send, receive, and forward these electronic messages, I actually issued one of my first team-wide orders: I set up a group email address — let me assure you, a huge effort back then — and asked each member of our far-flung global team to file a daily 100-word dispatch describing a development in their respective economy.

Roach’s lessons are worth heeding: content should drive technology, IT can bring teams together, real-time communications can drive the debate, technology is not a substitute for creativity and beware of the time-consuming pitfalls of IT.

Note to FT reporters: credulity required

Once again, there’s a front page report in the Financial Times which takes at face value a number of meaningless statements from a major corporation CEO. (Oddly, the online version doesn’t contain some of the material in the print version, which I quote.)

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer gets on the front page of the FT to declare that his company has overhauled its core software development practices so that future software issues won’t be plagued by the delays that have pushed Windows Vista into late 2006.

Here’s the key paragraph from the article: “While Mr Ballmer did not give details of the changes [to the way they develop software], other executives have talked of taking a more ‘modular’ approach to Microsoft’s biggest products, breaking them down into smaller elements that can be worked on independently before being ‘bolted together’.”

What’s being described is a software development Valhalla which, according to people who really spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, is as far away today as it has ever been. It’s just not going to happen.

And then there’s this bizarre line (print edition only): “The rise of Google, which releases frequent updates of its software, has added to the urgency for Microsoft to do the same…”

There’s a big, big difference between changing software on a sea of servers you own (true at Google and in some parts of Microsoft, like MSN) and changing the software on several hundred million desktops that you don’t own.

I need my fix of the FT every day for my own well-being as well as for my job, but someone there really needs to encourage their reporters to display some backbone in the face of CEO vaporware.