Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pawlenty - an opportunist to despise

Tim Pawlenty is governor of Minnesota, with about four months left to serve. He's not running for reelection. He's supposedly running for the 2012 Presidential election.

Given his time remaining, this announcement will probably have limited impact. It's a good reminder, however, of what a sleazebag he is ...
Pawlenty restricts health money | StarTribune.com

In a move that could cost the state $1 billion or more in federal health care funds, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced an executive order Tuesday designed to keep what he terms "Obamacare" out of Minnesota.

Pawlenty said he will require all state agencies to funnel their federal grant requests through his office in order to "stop Minnesota's participation in projects that are laying the groundwork for a federally controlled health care system" -- unless they are required by law or approved by his office...

... Pawlenty could be closing the door, at least during the remaining months of his term, to more than 100 federal health care grants that would fund projects ranging from diabetes prevention to postpartum care for new mothers to tighter regulation of insurance companies...
Think of Pawlenty as a brighter and more cynical version of Michelle Bachman.

Cross-Country Skiing in MSP - Adelsman

The web is a lot like LA. It has no history.

Almost no history. By web standards Adelsman's XC ski pages are ancient civilization. I linked to them in my 1995 skijoring page (long neglected) but they're still around, and better than ever.

I found them again when I wondered where a marvelous paper listing of Twin Cities trails had come from. Google showed me it was a reformatting of Adelsman's metro ski page.

They do take advertising, but, as marvelous as this site is covering Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, I doubt they get rich from it. It must be a labor of love.

Our MN state fair visit is past, the days are getting shorter, and now we pray for a rerun of the excellent XC ski season of winter 2010. We'll be using this site, including the lodging section (hint to advertisers :-).

PS. Naturally skinny skiers are big on tradition, but a feed would not be amiss...

Gmail's personalized classifier: your own private AI

When you read about Gmail's new "Priority Inbox" feature, it helps to know that "Classifiers" are at the heart of what we used to call "AI" ...
Gmail Priority Inbox
....Google has to build a personalized classifier for each Gmail user and it needs a lot of messages. 'Email importance ranking works best for people who receive a lot of email,' explains Google. Google takes into account implicit signals like: the messages from people you frequently email are important, if a message includes words frequently used in other messages you usually read then it's probably important, the messages you star are probably more important than the messages you archive without opening. There are also explicit signals: click on the important/unimportant buttons, create filters to mark messages as important."...
Classifiers are used in speech recognition, Google Search and so on -- they're not new. For that matter, this kind of "what's important" ranking has been done many times without using formal classifiers.

Still, this is a mini-milestone of sorts. Classic AI technology is moving to our personal lives from multiple directions. The next step is deploying these classifiers into Google's Facebook-alternative, and then it's another step to our pending lifestream classifiers (which might help keep memory-impaired boomers functional longer).

Yes, those are Skynet's footsteps you hear ... :-).

Yes, this is part of why the IT driver of our whitewater world is not going away, but only getting bigger.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Michael Lewis - The Big Short - how we lost our economy

Tim Bray has written a review of Michael Lewis book "The Big Short". Tim loves Lewis book.

Do read Bray's review and lessons learned. Lesson 1: People in the Finance industry are in the business of making money for themselves. Obvious, but easily forgotten.

Bray gives us some links to read. Here they are, followed by some of mine:

Tim's links:
Old posts of mine:
It all feels like ancient history, but it was only two years ago, it's not fixed (especially the rating agencies from hell), and most of us are still unsure we really understand what hit us.

Of course I think it was fundamentally computers and China. Robotics, AI and Peak Oil lie ahead, so get used to the whitewater.

Answering Krugman: Why the Obama administration isn't panicking about the elections

Paul Krugman doesn't understand why the Obama administration isn't panicked about a pending electoral catastrophe.

I think he believes they're delusional.

That could be. Denial is a prerequisite for the happiness of a sentient organism. We're good at denial. We're also prone to assume that our local slice of humanity is representative of the nation.

So it would be normal primate behavior for Team Obama to expect catastrophe will be averted.

Except -- they're smart, they're professional politicians, and they don't hate science. So I don't think they're delusional. I think they know what's going to happen this November.

They know the GOP will take at least one of the House and Senate, and probably both. They know this will be very bad, but they expect the Senate will not be able to override a filibuster or a veto. (I will applaud if the GOP ends up trashing the filibuster, though the consequences will be short term terrible.)

They also know that this outcome was decided when the the economy failed to recover. It doesn't matter what they say or do; American elections are decided by "undecideds" and "independents", and those voters typically have no connection to reality [1]. They respond to personal circumstance and mass feeling -- and there's no way either of those are going to change as the Great Recession grinds on.

So Team Obama isn't panicking because that would be pointless. We have already entered a state of political paralysis, and this will probably persist from 2010 to 2012. There will be some opportunities for "lame duck" actions and recess appointments -- and that's where the political pros are fighting now.

Will Obama lose in 2012? It's certainly possible. I fear the Great Recession is going to grind on well into the Peak Oil era, in which case we'll start calling it GD II. On the other hand, I never expected him to win either. Don't underestimate Obama.

[1] Really. The political science profiles are definitive.

RV timeshares today and tomorrow

We've got 3 Kids around 11, 1 dog, an old van and a newish Subaru wagon.

A new van is the default purchase, but most of the time I just need a commuter box. For our epic family road trips an RV might be cheaper and better.

So it occurred to me we need a timeshare RV. These days, to think of a business is to discover it. Turns out, RV Timeshares exist.

I don't know how well they work. There are all sorts of perverse incentive/tragedy of the commons problems in the timeshare industry. I expect they've been a fringe industry.

That's likely to change as we near Peak Oil [1] time and as the Trilateral Commission [2] prepares to implement a Carbon Tax. My family doesn't need a van most of the time, and when we do need it a camper/RV combo would be preferable. If gas were more expensive a market would develop to provide RV type vehicles -- and I could buy a commuter car.

We just have to wait.

[1] Yeah, it's coming. We'd see gas over $4/gallon now if not for the fact that the economy of the industrial world cratered. Given the way things are going the Great Recession will slide right into Peak Oil territory, in which case we'll just call it GD II.

[2] I was a member! Or at least I got their mailings in College. Maybe if it'd been less chatty I'd be a member of the Great Council by now. (PS. This is a joke.)

Guided evolution in cancer therapy

Another of my speculation is cheap (but fun) posts.

I searched Google Scholar today with the terms guided evolution cancer. I didn't find anything interesting. I bet, however, that in 10 years a similar search will have many hits. Today, for example, a search on guided evolution HIV gets some tantalizing hits.

The idea is easier to understand in the context of HIV, particularly if you know the evolutionary history of  parasite/prey relationships. So I'll start with predator/prey, then HIV, then Cancer.

When a pathogen, like the rabies virus or smallpox, is introduced to a new species it is often very lethal. Over time it often transitions from parasite to symbiote. This transition involves adaptation by both host and parasite. This happens because one of the best ways to "get ahead" in the living universe is to "get along" -- particularly if your host shows "promise".

HIV (and other retroviruses) have such mutable genomes that they evolve within the lifespan of a human host. Modern HIV therapy takes advantage of that. Therapy tries to trap the virus into an adaptation box, where one adaptation compromises another. I wouldn't be surprised if the newest therapies try to guide HIV to evolve down a path where a yet-to-be-used drug will be particularly potent. That would be guided evolution in an HIV context.

Which brings me to cancer. All physicians know patients who have lived many years with a metastatic cancer. The malignancy is not gone, but neither does it kill. The host and the "parasite" are "getting along. In time the tumor will kill, but of course we all die. The goal of medicine is not (yet) immortality, but rather deferred morbidity.

If we think of a cancer as a competing set of "parasites" (for the cancer is genetically diverse) laying claim upon the resources of the host, then can we guide the evolution of that ecosystem? Could we use one set of drugs to guide the development of a subset of the cancer that will outcompete other tumor lines? That successful subset might be so guided as to be very vulnerable to a "knockout" drug -- or to persist but in a relatively tame state.

Just speculation. I'm only about 50% right with these sorts of things.

Survivors and Foragers: speculation on group selection and obesity

Speculation is cheap.

What if one of the variables in human weight control was activity response to caloric restriction?

Ok, so that's not too speculative. We know obese humans decrease activity when they diet. This is one reason that, in a nation of very cheap calories, so many Americans are obese. When these people diet, they are put into an involuntary lethargic state.

It's a behavior that makes lots of evolutionary sense. Throughout most of human history these people would have been survivors of famine. We can call them The Survivors.

But what if there's a distribution across the population? What if there are people who respond to caloric restriction with increased activity? That makes a sort of Darwinian sense too, particularly if you think of humans as group selected Big Brain Bees (BBBs). Think of these people as Foragers, they roam from the Hive looking for new options. In todays world, some of them are anorexics, but mostly they're just slender.

I am positive that if I knew the scientific literature on obesity, and I knew the right search terms, I would find articles exploring this model. It feels plausible that there's a range of responses to calorie restriction -- from Survivors to Foragers and everything in between.

Of course feelings are the fount of grant proposals, not of science. This is, however, a testable hypothesis. So it could turn into science.

There are implications for drug discovery. If this model were correct, the magic obesity pill would convert Survivors into Foragers. So pharmas should be looking for Foragers to study ...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Google's bicycle directions are getting scary good in MSP

A few weeks ago Google's bike directions from my home to my office were pretty good, but they did send me over a fairly narrow and crowded overpass. Still, I was impressed. It was as good as I could do at the time.

Today I remembered a really obscure hidden footpath that would be an improvement on that route. I went to Google Maps so I could provide feedback to the bicycle map team.

The route improvement was already there:


PS. Don't get too cocky Google. Your "draft" Blogger rich text editor still can't handle European language paragraphs. My theory is it's being developed by a team unfamiliar with the paragraph.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Anthem - Putting the Hell in Health Insurance

My corporate health care insurance is administered by Anthem.

Tonight we tried to find out if a particular physician is in their coverage network.

First I tried their Account Registration. It includes a CAPTCHA test.

Why does it include a CAPTCHA test? Really you don't need to ask. Since CAPTCHA hacking software exceeds human performance, it's really a filter to eliminate humans. Particularly elderly humans who might need expensive services.

I kept failing the test. Emily checked, and I seemed to be typing the correct response. We even tried the audio test. That one would  have impressed Mephistopheles.

So Emily tried their customer service number. Voice recognition of course, no keypad entry. It couldn't understand anything she said. Her voice kept rising, but it didn't help. I tried not to laugh too much.

So I tried the web site again. This time I got a different response: "Sorry, we're experiencing technical difficulties at this time. Please try again later or contact Customer Care. Error ID: 21573301".

Terry Gilliam couldn't have done it better.

It's moments like these that make me more optimistic about the future of humanity. Our civilization is sure to collapse before we can create the sentient machines that will end us. We will be saved by our own greed and incompetence.

PS. The coup de grace came as a post-visit survey. An opportunity to provide feedback! So I started answering questions. The questions kept coming. I noticed the the scroll bar size -- I was only through 15% of what must have been 50 questions. I tried scrolling to the end and submitting. Of course that was rejected; I hadn't answered all the questions. I had to smile at the style of it; sadism with a flourish.

Update 8/27/10: There's an old joke that the best way to improve health insurance plan revenues is to put the registration office on the top floor of a building with no elevators. Only the healthy can join, so that even low rates will be profitable.

The CAPTCHA is the modern equivalent of the top floor office without elevators. In this case there was a web site failure, but I'd wager their web site is always fragile. Since Anthem has already been paid, their incentive is to deny services altogether.

The beauty of these sorts of scams is that they're emergent. They develop in the same fashion as antimicrobial resistance in bacteria, or lousy service in AT&T's flat rate data network. Entropy and funding choices provide the "mutations", the commercial market provides the "selection", the system irresistibly evolves until we get the Anthem web site.

This kind of perverse incentive is built into many systems, but it's particularly strong in the health insurance business. If we recognize and understand these processes we can work around them -- much like modern HIV therapy works with an understanding of the the virus evolves. I suspect oncology is going to go the same way -- using therapies that "guide" the "evolution" of the cancer / tumor ecosystem towards forms that may be most vulnerable to a 2nd wave treatment -- or most compatible with the life of the human "host". (I kind of like that cancer idea btw, I do hope it's really part of modern therapy.)

As a society, however, we're only in the most early stages of understanding the evolution of emergent corporate dysfunction and how to manage it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Who does phone surveys anyway?

I'm a grateful reader of the FiveThirtyEight Blog, now hosted by the NY Times. They give everyone access to electoral data that was once available only the pros.

Of course their data is only as good as the phone survey. I've been wondering, lately, how well that is working.

We get quite a few "survey" calls. Some of them are surely legitimate, but others are ploys to raise money for campaigns. Some are probably "phishing" (identity theft) operations. Given the range of "survey" calls we get, it's not surprising that we never answer any of them.  (In fact I never had time anyway, but Emily used to be more cooperative.)

So we're not surveyed.

So how common is our reaction? I know we're very peculiar in most things, but I would imagine that the fund raising tricks and phishing exploits must turn quite a few people off of surveys.

PS. We always tell them to take us off the call list, but I doubt that does anything. We're in the 'do not call' registry anyway.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Schmidt really did sell Google's soul to Verizon

Apple could do a deal with AT&T and emerge unchanged because, of course, Steve Jobs is Satan. He is beyond mere corruption.

When Google did a deal with Verizon though, they lost everything (emphases mine) ...
Marvin Ammori: Google-Verizon Pact: Makes BP Look Good

A lot of people have been discussing the Verizon-Google pact, including venture capitalists (on NYT's Room for Debate) and Silicon Valley companies. Most people agree: Google does evil, calls it net neutrality.

Last week I wrote up a guide of the FCC negotiations on net neutrality, setting out all the loopholes, and noting that the carriers needed only one loophole to kill an open Internet. Verizon and Google announced their pact two days ago. Rather than including one loophole, they went down the checklist and included just about every loophole they could.

Maybe the most ridiculous one--which has received almost no attention--is something I didn't mention last week. It's the liability limit. The maximum fine for a violation, after all the loopholes are met, is $2 million dollars...
Fixed rate fines are one of the great scams of American government. A true fine would max out at 30% of Google's yearly revenue.

This Taiwanese video is now quite plausible.

Schmidt is a lesser version of Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. If Google doesn't dump him he'll take them down.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Bowhead whale can live how long?!!

A graphic in Why Can't We Live Forever? (Scientific American) lists maximal lifespan of various familiar species.

The Jellyfish and Hydra are "immortal". The Galapagos tortoise can live 150 years. Humans 122, Dogs 39, Cats 36, Horse 62(!), Chimp 59(!).

There are a couple of surprises there. I didn't dream a horse could live that long. I imagine that's a bit of a problem for many horse owners. I wonder how many horses ever die a natural death, even if the average lifespan is only half that.

And, of course, the Bowhead whale can live up to 211 years.

WTF?! Where did that come from?

I found this 1999 reference, it's apparently the source for the 211 year estimate ...
... Based on these data, growth appears faster for females than males, and age at sexual maturity (age at length 12-13 m for males and 13-13.5 m for females) occurs at around 25 years of age. Growth slows markedly for both sexes at roughly 40-50 years of age. Four individuals (all males) exceed 100 years of age. Standard error increased with estimated age, but the age estimates had lower coefficients of variation for older animals. Recoveries of traditional whale-hunting tools from five recently harvested whales also suggest life-spans in excess of 100 years of age in some cases.
It turns out Bowhead Whales and Naked Mole Rats both have weirdly long lifespans  ...
... Mitoptosis can be also activated in adult postmitotic somatic cells by evolutionary conserved phenotypic adaptations to intermittent oxygen restriction (IOR) and synergistically acting intermittent caloric restriction (ICR). IOR and ICR are common in mammals and seem to underlie extraordinary longevity and augmented cancer resistance in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) and naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber)...
So to live long and prosper spend mealtimes holding your breath rather than eating?

Not surprisingly a 2007 article advocating genome sequencing of mammals with atypical longevity ...
... we propose the sequencing of three organisms of unique interest for aging research: the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) whose record longevity of 28.3 years makes it the longest-lived rodent (2), the white-faced capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus) which can live 50 years (3), and the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), the longest-lived mammal with estimates suggesting that it may live 200 years (4).
Hmm. Maybe we should do this sequencing before we drive all whales to extinction?

Even if the 211 year estimate is an exaggeration these whales live much longer than I'd imagined. I'd have guessed 40 years, but they're still young adults at that point.

Until this minute I was skeptical that there was really much room to slow the human aging process. Now it feels inevitable. Not likely in my lifespan, but maybe the future of my children or their children.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Corporation - what next?

In my seventh year within the fascinating, feudal, emergent machinery of a classic publicly traded corporation I volunteered to write a white paper about supporting internal collaboration for shared services. I wrote a post in 2008 asking about examples of systems to enable such collaboration.

I can't share the final paper here, but the conclusions were unsurprising. I think they are true of any corporation of significant size.

In the absence of internal markets, contracts, and currencies, true corporate collaboration requires either accounting system reorganization, or serious executive pressure, or some sort of baby-sitting coop style internal currency. All of these things are very hard to do; ironically collaboration outside the corporation is easier (see also - outsourcing) [3]. For example, executive power, like Presidential power, is a limited currency that must be used sparingly. [1]

I felt when I wrote the paper that I was walking old ground, but my real expertise is in health care and more esoteric domains. I didn't know how to follow this trail.

Later I learned I was intersecting the path of Ronald Cause and his 1937 paper The Nature of the Firm [3]. Alan Murray describes the paper in a recent WSJ article on the future of the corporation ...
The End of Management - Alan Murray - WSJ.com
... British economist Ronald Coase laid out the basic logic of the managed corporation in his 1937 work, "The Nature of the Firm." He argued corporations were necessary because of what he called "transaction costs." It was simply too complicated and too costly to search for and find the right worker at the right moment for any given task, or to search for supplies, or to renegotiate prices, police performance and protect trade secrets in an open marketplace. The corporation might not be as good at allocating labor and capital as the marketplace; it made up for those weaknesses by reducing transaction costs.
Mr. Coase received his Nobel Prize in 1991—the very dawn of the Internet age. Since then, the ability of human beings on different continents and with vastly different skills and interests to work together and coordinate complex tasks has taken quantum leaps. Complicated enterprises, like maintaining Wikipedia or building a Linux operating system, now can be accomplished with little or no corporate management structure at all...
I wasn't quite following Ronald Coase however; I was intersecting him. Seventy years after his paper was published, I came from a world where intra-corporate transaction costs were higher than extra-corporate costs. By 2007 collaboration within a typical large corporation had become more difficult than similar collaboration with an external agent.

Why did this happen? That's a rather interesting question. I expect there are publications on it, but they'd be hard for me to find. I wouldn't be be surprised if the costs of intra-corporate transactions are higher in 2007 than in 1937, and that the costs of extra-corporate transactions are substantially lower. The balance has shifted.

So why does the Corporation persist?

Well, for one thing, entrenched institutions are like cities of the northeast or trees tangled in the tropical canopy. They don't collapse overnight just because their sustaining systems are gone. The publicly traded corporation is deeply embedded in American law (including taxation law), accounting standards, international treaty, and politics (senatorial ownership). It's going to be around for decades to come.

Beyond mere inertia, however, Corporations are awfully good at economic warfare; a mode of operation more in the province of Macchiavelli's The Prince than standard economics texts [4]. Microsoft was once the master of this economic warfare, Intel still is. This mode of operation actually destroys customer value, but it's not going away.

Even though the 20th century Corporation will persist, but better and for worse, it's clear we're in one of those times of cranky dissatisfaction where the ancient Monster of the Market is looking vulnerable. We can at least hope there will alternatives.

Murray's sources don't know what those alternatives will be, and they seem reluctant to speculate. His prescriptions are a rehash of the usual management book pap - "agile, flexible, ruthless, cut their losses, lots of bets, Google [5], inspire, entrepreneurs, push decision-making down, wisdom of crowds, feedback, change, innovation, adaptability" , blah-blah-blah.

For my part I've been looking for good speculation since 2006, and I haven't come across much. I wrote up some of my thoughts last June, and some speculations by Iain Banks yesterday. I'm behind on reading Clay Shirky's 2008 book, I suspect I'll have some follow-up posts when I do that.

I'm guessing that we'll somer interesting variations emerge over the next decade. Some of them will resemble Apple (Singaporean model of the brilliant tyrant in what's effectively a public-private corporation), some Google (natural selection - creates sharks and tapeworms), and some may come from China (what is Foxconn [6]?).

I'm hopeful that within a decade I'll be able to invest in privately held companies where the owners have major organ systems in the game. I wouldn't mind working for or owning a part of one of those companies.

Interesting times.

See also

Gordon's Notes
[1] I concluded that any collaboration must be informal. This can work because are many employees will, for a minuscule amount of recognition and commendation, happily share their work. (Unless their private knowledge becomes job security - which is a bit of a big caveat.)
So the question becomes how best to enable informal networks of internal collaboration at a time when personal connections within corporations have greatly weakened.
If I were (heaven forfend) running a publicly traded company I would require my IT department to choose a network sharing environment that supported search and discovery, and I'd train people to use it. I think you could actually do this on a large scale using an improved version of Microsoft SharePoint wiki (the rest of SP is an unredeemable disaster) and its companion search and discovery services.
This is hard stuff to do in hard times of course, and in easy times it does not seem necessary.
[3] Yes, all these Wikipedia links do have special meaning in this context.
[4] Christiansen's original Innovators Dilemma is one of the very few business books worth reading; his follow-up books are not nearly as good. Machiavelli's The Prince is still the champion though.
[5] An unfortunate example considering the tragic mess they've made of so many of their projects. Apple is conspicuously absent from the list of examples. As always, omissions are interesting.
[6] And why is its english Wikipedia entry so very brief?

Update 8/22/10: I rewrote my original post after I'd thought about it for a while.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Troubled capitalism: The corporate entity

Iain M. Banks sticks his ideas into his fiction as digressions. They're often quite interesting digressions.

Transition is one of his books with several digressions. It's a powerful book, but it's not an easy book (my fave reviews: 1, 2, 3). It reads like a mixture of his literary fiction (written as Iain Banks) and his science fiction (written as Iain M Banks).

Since Transition came out in 2009, after the great crash of 2008, and since Banks is a critic of capitalism, it's not surprising that one of his digressions concerns the problems of a world with American style capitalism [1] ....
... this was a Greedist world, a world where the untrammelled pursuit of material wealth and the virtues of money itself were extolled, venerated and even worshipped...
... There are as many types of capitalism as there are types of socialism – or any other ism for that matter – but one of the major differences – a major difference founded on what appears to be a minor detail – between whole bundles of ostensibly fully capitalist societies centres (indeed, depends) on whether commerce is governed by private firms and partnerships, or by limited companies.
... the invention and acceptance of the limited company means people can take big risks with money not their own and then – if it all goes wrong – lets them just walk away from the resulting debts, because the company is somehow regarded as being like a person in its own right, so that its debts die with it (not the sort of fairy story a partnership is allowed to get away with).
It’s a piece of nonsense, really, and I used to wonder that legislatures anywhere bought into this blatant fantasy and agreed to give it legal house room. But that was just me being naive, before I realised that there was a reason why it always dawned on all those ambitious, powerful gents in all those various legislatures that this ludicrous hooey might actually be quite a good idea.
Anyway, limited company worlds often progress faster than other types, but always less smoothly and reliably, and sometimes disastrously. I’ve looked into it and frankly it just isn’t worth it, but you can’t tell that to anyone caught up within the seductive madness of the dream; they have the faith, and are forever relieved by the invisible hand...
I'm sympathetic to the general idea that there's something broken with the publicly traded company. I haven't, however, taken that to mean that there's also something broken with the very idea of the corporation personified.

I'll have to give it some thought.

See also:

[1] I started typing from the book, then it occurred to me to Google some key phrases. That's how I discovered that there is a Russian web site that contains transcriptions of at least this book - and probably others. It is, of course, completely illegal. The site is entirely in Russian, but Google found the book within it, including this digression.

Public education in America - Primary and Secondary

On the same day Gail Collins tells us about American aristocrats seeking power, Bob Herbert reminds us (yet again) of an inconvenient truth [5] ...
... The Schott Foundation for Public Education tells us in a new report that the on-time high school graduation rate for black males in 2008 was an abysmal 47 percent, and even worse in several major urban areas — for example, 28 percent in New York City....
...More than 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers... Black men ... have nearly a one-third chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives...
...White families are typically five times as wealthy as black families. More than a third of all black children are growing up in poverty...
Those are bad numbers on several fronts, though it's worth noting that 66% of Icelandic infants are born to unmarried mothers and in 2007 60% of babies born to all American women in their 20s were out of wedlock.

Black Americans are not unique on the educational front either ...
The Dropout/Graduation Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students — The Civil Rights Project at UCLA
... Data from 2005 is drawn from the seven states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students as well as five states in the Pacific and Northwestern regions of the United States ... On average, less than 50% of Native students in these twelve states graduate each year.
Public education isn't even working that well at our above average elementary school and state of Minnesota (in 2007 the St Paul school District was ... "30 percent Asian [2], 30 percent black, 26 percent white and 13 percent Hispanic" [1]) ...

Herbert is right that American blacks, and especially black men, are in serious trouble. At least when it comes to education though, they're not alone. Their trouble is a leading indicator for a lot of others.

So maybe we should beat up on the teachers? I can think of many ways reading and math [4] education and student assessment could be improved, but, at least for the particular St Paul school in the above graphic, I believe the teachers are pretty good to excellent. Some teacher-kid-parent combinations work better than others, but those teachers aren't the problem.

Ok, maybe we should beat up on the parents? Oh, wait, I'm a parent. Skip that one.

Maybe we should get better students? That does work. They used the better student method to improve test schools in Bush era Houston and in Mississippi. Health providers have long used similar techniques to improve health care outcomes. True, this is the same way wolves contribute to the health of caribou, but we don't eat the losers. We house them.

Hmm. So we can't beat up the teachers, we can't pummel the parents, and eliminating the weak kids is kind of cheating. So what's left?

Maybe we need to rethink the goals of our educational enterprise. Maybe, in a turbulent world of rapid change, we need to have different options for different kids. In 2020 it's not hard to imagine that a skilled gardener might have better employment opportunities than an accountant or a dermatologist.

Maybe we need to restart with the end in mind.

See also (my stuff):

[1] In Minnesota white flight is often to "Charter" schools.
[2] Large Hmong population.
[3] A nonsensical statement since skills are relative to teacher, student, class topic and so on.
[4] Die Everyday Math, Die!
[5] Glenn Loury, writing for the Boston Review in 2007 about American imprisonment, said much the same thing ...
... a central reality of our time is the fact that there has opened a wide racial gap in the acquisition of cognitive skills, the extent of law-abidingness, the stability of family relations, the attachment to the work force, and the like. This disparity in human development is, as a historical matter, rooted in political, economic, social, and cultural factors peculiar to this society and reflective of its unlovely racial history: it is a societal, not communal or personal, achievement....
Update 9/4/10:

This post on how bad statistics led to a blunder in evaluating small schools is very relevant. With most Pay for Performance initiatives mall schools are randomly rewarded and randomly punished for normal fluctuations in the composition of the student body. The same thing will happen to small health care facilities.

How we know humans have not yet adapted to the digital world

I still often read that "young people" are naturally "digital".

Writing as a definitely-not-young person I don't see it. I've never seen it.

I did see, before phones had qwerty keys, that teens were very good at texting using numeric keypads. In the later tactile qwerty era they were very good at typing with two thumbs. Young motor cortices and cerebella just pound geezer brains - even if we don't mention gaming. (In the iPhone era, however, the keyboard advantage seems more modest.)

What haven't seen are major improvements in the abstract domain of interacting with knowledge, information, and early AI systems. If young people were naturally digital then sheer demand would force Gmail to let us edit subject lines. Hasn't happened.

They are certainly not better programmers than the geezers I know. Coding used to be something of a young man's game, but now it takes so long to learn that it's becoming almost a middle-aged game.

Our brains evolve much more quickly than we used to think, but they don't switch tracks in a generation. Computer adaptation is cultural, and we're still in the early stages. We have a lot of cultural evolution to go through before we get maximal benefit from the IT infrastructure of even 2010 -- much less the infrastructure of 2020.

Which means that we'll be in a whitewater world of technology transition for decades to come.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lessons from a wrecked Toro Personal Pace recycler lawn mower

I'm not a motor guy. I prefer bikes, skinny skis, kayaks, skates, feet - most anything else. Even so, I've kept my usually pre-owned lawn mowers going for a few years.

Until I got fancy and bought a new, monstrous, Toro "guaranteed to start" "Personal Pace" self-propelled "recycler" mower with a "Briggs and Stratton" engine. I used it for about 1 season before I confirmed this chap's experience:
Toro Personal Pace Recycler Mower 20073 Reviews. Buying Guides & Consumer Product Reviews - Epinions.com
Pros: Easy to move around not much more to say about Pros.
Cons: Check the oil often. I'm leaving this one at the curb and buying a Honda!
I purched my Toro a year ago. Make sure you check the oiloften I checked it once in the year I owned it (like I did with my Honda I have had for 15 years) and the engine seized. save your money and buy a Honda!...
I probably used it about 8 times. Did I mention I'm not a lawn guy? I'd have probably checked the oil come the fall, but it never got there.

So I'm out $400 or so for the mower, - plus $35 for the checkup because lack of oil isn't quite covered by warranty. The manual, by the way, says to "check oil before each use or daily". I kind of missed that bit.

I get annoyed when I waste $10 on a bad book, so I'm definitely looking for lessons from this one. The one silver lining was I despised the mower. It was heavy, clumsy, lousy on hills, and overall it was designed for cutting estate lawns rather than our weeds.

Here are my early lessons. I'm still looking to add more ...
  1. Never buy anything from Toro or Briggs and Stratton. I think I can remember that one.
  2. Don't buy anything without research. I'm used to researching bikes, cameras, cars and so on, but I thought I could go to a reputable place and just pick up a mower. Wrong.
  3. Buy the simplest stuff possible. I didn't need the "personal pace" feature, I didn't need the recycler. I did need a minimal maintenance device. The store I went to didn't have anything simpler.
  4. Never buy anything over $50 in a hurry. I should have left the store when I didn't see what I wanted, instead I bought what they had.
  5. I'm really not an engine guy.
Now I'm researching the alternatives. I like the look of this Gardena LiOn mower (high-end cylinder motor with LiOn boost), but I'm definitely doing my research first ...

Update: My Amazon review. Most of the reviewers do like this mower.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I like Krugman ...

I like Krugman because he makes testable predictions ...
Liquidity Preference And Loanable Funds, Revisited - Paul Krugman Blog - NYTimes.com 
A brief revisiting of the issues I raised more than a year ago regarding alternative views of interest rates.

This was never a question of simply forecasting what was going to happen to rates. It was about what would drive rates.

The view of Ferguson and others, back then, was that government deficits would drive up interest rates, choking off recovery. I and others argued that this was bad macroeconomics: interest rates would rise if and only if recovery took place. More specifically, short-term rates would stay near zero as long as the economy was deeply depressed; long-term rates would depend on expectations about the future of short rates, and hence on prospects for recovery.

So the key point is not the fact that rates are now considerably lower than they were when that debate took place; it’s the fact that rates have fluctuated very much with optimism about recovery, never mind the deficits.

In fact, if you had a naive loanable funds view, you’d expect the recent downgrading of expectations to drive rates up, not down — after all, a weaker economy means bigger deficits. But the opposite has, in fact, been happening.

The bottom line is that events have utterly confirmed one view, utterly rejected the other. Too bad such things don’t count in politics.
Testable predictions are a fundamental distinction between science and mere scholarship.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Taliban and Patriarchy

Family and friends of a young Afghan couple stoned them to death. Did the girl's father throw a stone? Will his sleep be forever tortured?

Humans are revolting. We should really start over with dogs.

Pending a better sentient animal, however, while stonings, whippings, and mutilations of women are momentarily in the public eye, it is worth resurrecting the old question ...
What fraction of the Talib/Afghan/Saudi/Wahabi cross-gender resistance to the American agenda comes from a desire to maintain extreme patriarchy and male power?
There are, of course, many reasons for anyone to resist the (fungible) American agenda, and many reasons to question the value and expression of that agenda. Those are good discussions, but they don't change my question. (Note that the resistance I'm referring to is cross-gender; women in these cultures are often strident supporters of their current cultural milieu.)

My guess is that maintenance of patriarchy is the strongest single reason for resisting American interventions including education and health care. If we could quantify contributing factors, I bet 2/3 would fall under patriarchy.

I wonder if there's any way to objectively measure this. It might be important to understand, as we enter Year 10 of the Long War.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Another nail in the coffin for the Alzheimer's amyloid hypothesis

Researchers bet careers, and pharmas bet billions, that amyloid plaques caused neuronal dysfunction in Alzheimer's disease. If the plaques could be prevented, you could prevent the disease.

Those bets have been going bad over the past four years. Today Lilly lost another bundle ....
Lilly Halts Alzheimer’s Drug Trial - Prescriptions Blog - NYTimes.com
... semagacestat, did not slow progression of the disease and was associated with a worsening of cognition and the ability to perform the tasks of daily living....
... The failures, and particularly this newest one by Lilly, could raise questions about the validity of the prevailing theory about Alzheimer’s, which is that the disease is caused by the accumulation of so-called amyloid beta plaques in the brain. 
 Lilly’s drug was designed to reduce the body’s production of the plaques by inhibiting the activity of an enzyme, called gamma secretase, that is believed to play an important role in formation of the plaque...
The contrary hypothesis was that the characteristic amyloid plaques of Alzheimer's disease were either a consequence of the disease process, or perhaps even some sort of protective measure. That hypothesis has been getting more support.

This latest result is just one example of all the recent bad news on delaying age-related dementia in general, and Alzheimer's disease in particular. We now know that "mental exercise", "social prophylaxis" and so on don't delay disease onset. We have shown that most treatment medications are, at best, marginally effective and poorly tolerated. We have no preventive meds -- estrogen, statins, non-steroidals and so on all are unimpressive.

We do know that head injuries are bad - worse than we imagined. Not only are concussions associated with Alzheimer's dementia, they're also associated with motor neuron disease. Most contacts sports, including American football and "soccer" will look very different in 10 years.

We believe, bizarrely, that exercise really does preserve the brain. We don't have a solid mechanism for that.

We also have tests that can diagnose Alzheimer's early, which is a good way to ensure you'll never be able to buy long term care insurance. Otherwise the tests look pretty pointless.

We need some good news. Forget the blather about social security -- that's not the crisis. That's just a GOP distraction. The crisis is pre-dementia and dementia in an aging post-industrial America.

Lessons from Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters

I learned a very valuable lesson from Meg Meeker's book "Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters".

Always read the 1 star reviews (mine). [1]

Always, always, always.

Sometimes my lessons need to be painful.
[1] Incidentally, Amazon's "most helpful" and "least helpful" filters are worse than useless -- they're misleading. Readers of ideological books like this one routinely mark negative reviews as "not helpful". That's way the "most helpful" critical review on this book has 3 stars.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Into the Wild

I skimmed Krakauer's Outside article on Alex McCandless decades ago, but I've only recently read his 1996 book Into the Wild. It's recommended for parents with restless idiot kids, and for idiot kids to remind them of the people who love them.

Of course I say that having been, as a kid of 21, self-centered and fairly idiotic. And I say it after losing my even less sensible kid brother into the wild [1].

That's Krakauer's point -- a lot of feckless and reckless boys grow up to be good, even wise, men. Others die young and leave shattered hearts. The difference between dying from bad choices like Alex McCandless, and surviving equally bad choices like young Jon Krakauer, is often mere chance.

The true tragedy is not, in the end, the young life cut short. For these men that, at least, was a choice. The tragedy is all the broken hearts left behind. I feel for Alex's parents and loved ones.

Good book.

[1] It's unfair to claim Brian was less sensible than me, since we really don't know what happened to him after he left the Whistler Youth Hostel in the summer of 2002. Maybe he did fall in a crevasse atop the Rainbow Mountain glacier. Maybe not. We don't know.

Managing the Google-Apple war: keeping options open, expecting the Android bicycle computer

The Google-Apple war continues, with a new front opening last week. The notorious Larry Ellison, close ally of the infamous Steve Jobs, has attacked Google from the left flank. With Schmidt, Jobs and Ellison business is personal. They are more like feudal kings than the mythical servants of the board imagined in business schools.

On the main front Apple continues to block iPhone customers from delicious Google (Android) Apps (emphases mine) …

Practical Traveler - Google Maps Add a Feature for Bike Riders - NYTimes.com

… “For Google Maps not to have bike directions is like the Gap not selling underpants,” said Eben Weiss, the author of the BikeSnobNYC blog. “Even though it’s not 100 percent reliable, it’s still better to have it than in no form at all.”

Yet the reviews within the biking community, notorious for its outspokenness, have been mixed at best. There are the technical glitches, like its unavailability on the iPhone (it’s available only on BlackBerrys and Androids) …

At the moment my family is still best served by the iPhone/iTunes/App Store/OS X ecosystem, but between iOS weaknesses and Android strengths the balance continues to shift towards Google. I can imagine the day when I’ll call on resolution 242 and write-off the sunk costs of our FairPlay investments for the entire family.

Towards that day we keep our family domain in Google Apps, and use only Google’s Calendaring, Contacts and Mail services. MobileMe is the enemy, Microsoft’s (!) ActiveSync is our friend. I track my Apple dependencies, with a close eye on Apple’s Data Lock.

I’m also expecting to see an Android showing up in special purpose devices, such as Android bicycle computers and Android car computers. I’ll be favoring those as a partial end-run around Apple’s failures.

Life would be a lot easier if Jobs and Schmidt weren’t replaying the 10th century. Given Jobs undeniable genius, I’d love to see Schmidt take early retirement.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

When Microsoft ruled the earth ...

Paul Graham used to work for Yahoo!. He's written about why Yahoo! failed. One reasons, he says, is because they were paralyzed by fear of Microsoft ...
Paul Graham - what Happened to Yahoo 
... It's hard for anyone much younger than me to understand the fear Microsoft still inspired in 1995. Imagine a company with several times the power Google has now, but way meaner. It was perfectly reasonable to be afraid of them. Yahoo watched them crush the first hot Internet company, Netscape. It was reasonable to worry that if they tried to be the next Netscape, they'd suffer the same fate. How were they to know that Netscape would turn out to be Microsoft's last victim?...
"...several times the power Google has now, but way meaner" - yes, that's about right. In those days there was a trade press, and any rag that crossed Microsoft died.

Even now I find myself imagining Microsoft will rise from the dead and again crush the innovation from the tech industry. It's an irrational fear, but it's common in my generation. There's nothing today to compare to Microsoft 1994. Neither Apple nor Google has anywhere near the power they had then.

Graham claims Yahoo's other great mistake was to treat its geeks badly. I think if you substitute the word "Creatives" for geeks it's a true statement for many industries. Creatives can be a pain to manage. They're always trying to work around things they don't like. Most companies pay them much less than senior managers. I can understand why that happens -- but it's a mistake.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cloud data: Should I trust (Simplenote) Simperium?

My memory prostheses got a nice upgrade when I integrated my Outlook and Palm/Toodledo "notes" into a single Cloud based repository with powerful OS X (Notational Velocity), Win (ResophNotes), and iOS (Simplenote.app) Clients.

I'm loving this ecosystem. There's speed, simplicity, data freedom, multi-platform and integration with Spotlight and Windows search (both ResophNotes and Notational Velocity can create local stores with each note a simple text file available for indexing and editing).

Did I mention Speed and Data Freedom? Just wanted to check. I'm copying a pasting notes from various scattered sources, building a single searchable repository of my memory extensions. It's a good complement to the memory stores distributed in my blogs and google reader shares and integrated via my Google Custom Search Page.

It's all good fun - until someone gets hurt. Tonight Simperium, the creators of Simplenote, had a single ominous blog post:
Simplenote will be unavailable on the App Store for (hopefully) a short period of time. We apologize to our potential new users. You're welcome to create an account in the meantime and we'll let you know when we're back.
Right. Simplenote, you see, owns that Cloud repository I mentioned. They've evidently been booted from the App Store. Their too-brief posting lends itself to grim interpretations.

I do so love the Cloud.

We must hope that Simperium "simply" violated an API rule with a new release, and that they'll be back soon -- hopefully with a longer news post. For now, however, a comment on my tech blog is especially relevant ...
Blogger:Migrating Notes comment: Martin: "... how can I trust the 'Simperium' entity without any further information available?"
Cough. Good question. How do we know, for example, that Simperium isn't a KGB front mining data to be used by Russian crime syndicates paying for Putin's personal submarine? Maybe "sImperium" is a clue.

The short answer is I don't trust them. I don't trust Google or Apple either Simperium, so it's nothing personal. Or, more correctly, I trust these companies to do what's best for the people who control them within the limits of what they think they can get away with.

So I don't put anything in my Simplenotes that I wouldn't put in my blog. I keep my passwords in 1Password, not in my Simplenotes. I also don't put anything in Simplenotes that I can't afford to lose. All my notes are synchronized by Notational Velocity (open source, the superb ResophNotes does the same thing for Windows) to a local store on my personal hard drive, where the UTF-8 plain text files are also backed up hourly.

I also know that Simplenote is used by some serious geeks, including the notorious John Gruber and the authors of ResophNotes and Notational Velocity. It it should vanish something like it would be recreated.

So I don't trust Simperium, but I'm not worried about them either.

Or at least, not panicky.

PS. All of this stuff is basically free. Simplenote.app is very cheap, and ResophNotes and Notational Velocity are free (donations accepted and encouraged - I gave!). The Simplenotes cloud service is normally free, I paid for premium service. This, by the way, is a bit worrisome. I'd rather Simperium had a clearer revenue stream.

Update 8/13/10: Simplenote responds in comments. They took themselves offline to fix an error in how they configured their update. I expect next time something like this happens their blog post will be more informative.

Update 8/23/10: Simplenote update just appeared in the App Store. So they're back at last.

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Inline Skating (rollerblading) Foot Pain and Suggestions

I promise, this is the last post tonight from my 1990 web page archives. I wrote this one back when inline skating was new and popular in Minnesota. It was about managing foot pain ...

Inline Skating (rollerblading) Foot Pain and Suggestions

In trying to help a colleague who experiences mid-foot pain while skating, I posted a newsgroup query to rec.sport.skating.inline. I received many helpful suggestions. They are listed here for others who may be looking for ideas. Thank you to all who have passed on their experience.

Skating associated foot pain has many causes. A podiatrist would likely have a comprehensive list. Much pain is related to strain and vibration along the ligaments (plantar fascia) that maintain the arch of the human foot, and to unaccustomed workload on some of the small muscles of the foot. Compression of the mid-foot is a significant issue for many other skaters. General solutions include: better fitting skates, decrease vibration, better support, warm-up, and less mid-foot compression (substitute ankle compresson for mid-foot compression).

Some pain decreases with skating, other types may increase. A common pattern is pain after 3-4 minutes that may decrease after 30-40 minutes. The pain can be quite severe. There is a market niche here for a skate manufacturer!...
  • High performance skates, with carbon/glass frames and aluminum frame clips and light boots transmit a lot more road vibration. I tried some K2 Escapes for a while, and while I loved the speed and agility the transmitted road vibration was much worse than with my boat anchor Rollerblade Fusions.
  • On the other hand, the standard K2 skates, with their partially nylon fabric uppers, have helped some people. The Flight 76 is perhaps the best skate for its price on the market ($200)
  • Relaxing the toes and arch. Many novice skaters curl their toes to "grip" the skate. This is a primate falling reflex -- very important for tree dwellers. When skating the muscle strain produces pain. Try to constantly move the toes about and resist toe curling.
  • Strong ankle support and a firm ankle retention may secure the foot, and reduce foot strain and mid-foot pressure during skating.
  • Limit skating to very smooth surfaces which produce less vibration.
  • Use softer wheels (78A). Note they will wear faster. I don't know how wheel diameter affects vibration.
  • Try Thorlo Inline skating socks. These $10.00 a pair socks have extra padding at contact areas. I really like them. Campmor (http://www.campmor.com/) sells them mail order. The relatively thick socks may make a close fitting skate too tight however, and thereby worsen foot pain.
  • The Technica skates come with "Anti-Vibration System Technology" that is supposed to reduce discomfort from vibration. I don't know if it works. These are very nice but high end skates ($250-$320).
  • Use spenco gell arch supports or other vibration absorbing support. In some cases, however, arch supports increase mid-foot compression and produce more pain. In this case you may want to replace a boot's insole with a thinner insole.
  • Instead of full arch supports, try silicon heel supports (heel cups) alone. These are typically used for heel pain, but in some people they help with midfoot discomfort.
  • Stretch the foot and calf muscles prior to skating.
  • Skate for the first 15 minutes with very loose laces, or with the mid-buckle unlatched. Then gradually tighten the skate as the foot warms-up. Some persons feel an actual lack of blood perfusion to the distal foot from a tight mid-boot.
  • Persons with wide feet may prefer Ultra Wheel skates, which have a wide last. The wider UltraWheels are, per the manufacturer: The Great One, UltraAir, Infinity and Vision.
  • Some persons with foot pain buy a longer skate than their foot sizing would suggest. It's possible to fill the empty toe space with some foam. It's possible that the longer boot has more vertical room in the mid-foot area. Mid-foot compression seems to be a significant problem for many skaters.
  • Some ski boot retaillers do custom fitting and insert design. This is expensive, but some folks say it helped a lot.
  • People with "duck feet" (feet point outwards in a relaxed position, this may actually have to do with tibial or femur orientation) may experience discomfort from twisting the feet forwars. Try adopting a less "proper" skating style for the first 10-20 minutes of skating until the foot muscles stretch a bit.
  • Try keeping the feet in motion, and avoid prolonged gliding. Doing regular gentle curves and easy constant foot motion may decrease discomfort.
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Pay for performance in health care and teaching - we know how this ends

It seems pretty clear that if you want better quality healthcare, or better teaching, then you should pay professionals for the results they obtain. "Pay for Performance" is one of the mantras of healthcare reform. We saw the same arguments in 'No Child Left Behind', where paying principles to lower failure rates has worked so well.

There's been a lot of research in many industries about how well Pay for Performance schemes work in practice, but this historic statement from my archives says it best ...

010514_SovietPlanning.gif (16057 bytes)

(Thanks to Google, I didn't have to retype this ..)
... The planners tried various expedients,” wrote Alec Nove in his economic history of the Soviet Union. They issued instructions that user demand should be met; they modified bonus systems so that it was not enough to achieve purely quantitative targets; they experimented with value-added indicators. “Each of these “success indicators” had its own defect, induced its own distortions. Thus, insistence on cost reduction often stood in the way of the making of a better- quality product. A book could easily be filled with a list of various expedients designed to encourage enterprises to act in the manner the planners wished, and the troubles to which each of them gave rise...
Update 8/19/10: See also Fake graduation rates and other predictable outcomes of no child left behind

Reengineering the Corporation: A summary

I was browsing my archives, when I found a post where I promised to go through my old pre-blog blog-like web page fragments. I then forgot about them again.

Here's the second in the series. Sixteen years ago, as America tried to forget the dreary eighties, two consultants got rich "reengineering" corporations to be better suited to the high tech world ahead. Most corporations ended up using the concept as cover for big-time downsizings, so it got a real bad rap. I remember the book as being more interesting than that. If nothing else, it's a marker of a historic transition as corporations became fully dependent on networked computers.

So, in honor of our recent reenactment of the 1980s, here are my 1996 notes, copied and pasted from a web 1.0 page (btw, the Amazon link is the original from the late 90s. It still works.) ...

Reengineering The Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution

Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering The Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. Harper Collins 1993.

I wrote up these notes when I was reading Hammer and Champy's book. They're reprinted here for public use. The notes are my own, and may bear no resemblance to the book. My comments are in italics, they focus on primary care. Hammer and Champy's ideas are not all original, and many people (myself included) disagree with their analysis of the costs and benefits of their particular approach to reengineering. Indeed, since I put these notes together (1996) reengineering has fallen from grace. I still think there's something to it however.

Reengineering Notes

Key Characteristics of Reengineering

  • processes: process oriented (most important component)
  • fundamental
  • radical
  • dramatic
  • When I read this book, I felt that the "technocentric" reorganization of work was common to all of their successful examples. That is, changing work to organize it around inflexible but powerful technologies. It is an unfortunate truth that we humans are far more flexible than our technologies. Change for us is painful, but it is possible if the rewards are sufficient.

Themes for Reengineering

  • process orientation
  • ambition
  • rule-breaking
  • creative use of information technology: IT enables change

Characteristics of Reengineered Business Processes

  • several jobs combined into one
  • workers make decisions
  • the steps in the process are performed in a natural order
  • processes have multiple versions
  • work is performed where it makes the most sense
  • checks and controls are reduced
  • reconciliation is minimized: reduce "accounting" procedures.
  • a case manager provides a single point of contact. example: the primary care physician
  • hybrid/centralized operations are prevalent. (I'm not really convinced by their arguments for this point.)

Characteristics of the Reengineered Workplace

  • work units change from functional deparments (gastroenterology) to process teams (family practice).
  • jobs change, from simple tasks to multidimensional work (a professional)
  • roles change: "empowerment". and, inevitably, power shifts, ergo depowerment
  • job preparation changes: from training to education.
  • focus of performance measures and compensation shift from activity to results (what if the results are very hard to measure?)
  • advancement criteria change -- from performance to ability. (How does one measure "ability"in clinical practice? By board scores? I don't think so ... By outcomes?)
  • values change -- from protective to productive.
  • organizational structures change -- from hierarchical to flat (Here again I'm not sure how well this applies to all settings, or how fundamental this is to the reengineering process. Does "equal" mean equally replaceable?)
  • executives change -- froms scorekeepers to leaders

Approaching a Reengineering Project

  1. Identify problem processes, other problems, challenges, puzzles (use standard systems analysis techniques). Look for known broken processes or symptoms of broken processes
    • data redundancy, rekeying, extensive information exchange
    • inventory, buffers, system slack
    • high ratio of checking-control to value added
    • rework and iteration
    • complexity, accretions, special cases
  2. identify/note technologies: computers, systems
  3. apply "inductive thinking"
    • recognize a "solution" (computer/systems technology) and seek the problem it might solve.
    • identify longstanding "rules" or limitations that a new technology can now break.
    • want to keep up on latest technologies, and evaluate opportunities. This is what has been long criticized as a solution in search of a problem!
  4. start with feasible projects
  5. Benchmark from the world's best, not the industry's best.

Understanding Processes

  • Most companies have ten or so principal processes.
  • Begin by understanding what the processes's customer does with the process output. What are the customer's real requirements? How does this compare to their self-identified needs?
  • Learn the what and why rather than the how. The how will change.

How to Fail at Reengineering: Common Mistakes

  • Try to fix a process rather than change it.
  • Don't focus on business process.
  • Ignore everything except process redesign.
  • Neglect people's values and beliefs.
  • Be willing to settle for minor results
  • Quit too early.
  • Place prior constraints on the definition of the problem and the scope of the reengineering effort.
  • Allow existing corporate cultures and management attitudes to prevent reengineering from getting started.
  • Try to make reengineering happen from the bottom up -- without strong top-level support.
  • Assign someone who doesn't understand reengineering to lead the effort.
  • Skimp on the resources devoted to reengineering.
  • Bury reeningeering in the middle of the corporate agenda.
  • Dissipate energy across many reengineering projects.
  • Atttempt to reengineer when the CEO is two years from retirement.
  • Fail to distinguish reengineering from other business improvement programs.
  • Concentrate exclusively on design.
  • Try to make reengineering happen without making anyone unhappy. (I think they could have said more here about identifying winners/losers and considering compensation for "losers"
  • Pull back when people resist making reengineering's changes.
  • Drag the effort out.

Comments now without captcha and without moderation

Blogger, long left for dead, tottered into the pub this week. Among other signs of life, there's a new comment spam filtering system.

I disabled comment moderation and the captcha on tech.kateva.org a few days ago, and I haven't seen many problems. So today I've removed it for posts less than 28 days old on notes.kateva.org.

It's good to get rid of the captcha. I really don't like those.