Posts tagged ‘fashion’

Update on Slippery Cell Phones

In my review of my Droid Turbo, I mentioned in passing that I was frustrated by how slippery a lot of cell phones were.  I was in the Verizon store the other day killing time while they fixed something on my kids' phone, so I tried holding a bunch.

The slipperiest by far were the HTC One M8 and the LG G3.  Both, probably not coincidentally, get high marks for being attractive due to their metal or faux metal backs, but the same backs make them like a wet bar of soap to hold.  You can put a no slip case on them of course, but then if you are going to put them in a case, why buy a phone that is promoted in large part on its looks?

My Droid Turbo is OK, with no slip surface around the edges but a very slick back, at least the nylon back one I have.

The Galaxy S5 is better than average.  Its back gets a lot of grief for being ugly, but it will not slide around in the hand and is comfortable to hold.

Until this week, the no-slip champion for me was the Moto X with the bamboo case (it is real wood veneer, not some plastic fake thing).  It looks good to my eye and it is very grippy in the hand.

But there is a new champion.  I tried the Moto X with the new football leather backing (again, real football leather).  This thing is not going to slide out of your hand (unless maybe if you are Jay Cutler).  The looks are ... different, but I could get used to it.  Phones for me are a convenience item, not a fashion item.  The Moto X's only problems are a small battery and a camera that is a bit weak.  Which is why I bought the Droid Turbo, which is a very similar phone but with a bigger battery.  Just wish they had all the cool Moto Maker options the Moto X has.

On Language Courses

Last time we were in Italy, my wife and I vowed that we would try to learn some Italian before we return (she has some high school French and I have a fair amount of Spanish).   Well, we never did much about it.  I will confess that despite being often skeptical of the paradox of choice, it may actually explain my lack of action.  I could not make up my mind between the various courses.

Then along came my son, who has decided with his roommate that they want to do a semester abroad in Italy next year.  I am not sure why he chose Italy -- I can only assume it had something to do with my euphoric descriptions of finding myself in Milan on Vogue fashion night and being surrounded by Italian models.  You know that language course ad with the guy picking up the Italian course so he can have his one chance at the Italian supermodel?  It's a funny ad, but I fear it may actually hit kind of close to home in my household.

Anyway, my son pushed me over the top to buy a course.  The conflicting online reviews can leave your head spinning, but the general conclusions I came to were:

  • Rosetta Stone is all marketing, but not the best course
  • Pimsleur got the most positive ratings.

So I went with the Pimsleur course.  It is PC-based, which fits how my family works.  It allows four installations, so each family member got one.  And it allows its lessons to be downloaded to mp3 files so you can listen in the car or on your iPod (though you lose out on the other parts of the lesson which are non-audio).

So far, 20 days into the thing, I have been happy.  I have never thought of myself as good at languages but I have decided to trust the process.  So far, I feel like I am learning and retaining a lot.  My son reports that he thinks it is better than Rosetta Stone, which his roommate is using.

The weird part for me, who learned Spanish from a grammar nazi, is to work with verbs without first learning all the conjugation rules.   In fact, the course seems to work this way -- you learn examples and phrases first, then over time go back and learn the grammar behind what you are doing.  It seems to work, for a few reasons.  One is that a lot of the verbs you need early on to say basic things (is, go, like) have non-standard conjugations anyway, so memorizing them is what you would have had to do with any approach.  A second reason is that it is a hell of a lot more fun to say useful things than to spend what I remember to be years farting around with conjugation and use rules for the subjunctive.  After all, I am not trying to write an academic paper in Italian, I am trying to enjoy my tourist experience.  The third reason this is working for me is that I do remember a lot of my old Spanish verb conjugations, and it turns out Italian conjugates (at least in the present tense) very similarly to Spanish.

Postscript:  To the early joke about learning Italian to meet women, I will say we were all laughing through about the first 7 lessons of Pimsleur.  If you had designed a course solely to pick up people of the opposite sex, I am not sure one bit of the first few lessons would have been different.  Seriously, we were repeating phases like "do you want to have a drink at your place or mine?"

Corporate DNA

Almost exactly seven years ago (amazing how long I have been blogging) I wrote an extended piece about how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I was writing about GM but also used Wal-Mart as an example.  Part of this piece read:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

Megan McArdle makes some very similar points as I about Wal-Mart and how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

New Fashion and Style Blog

A new fashion and style blog for women over 40 featured my wife in their December profile.  Definitely the better half.

They Would Have Failed Anyway

This Newsweek article reviews the amazing coincidence that so many Obama DOE loans and subsidies benefited heavy-duty Obama campaign supporters.  The author seems surprised:

...these were highly competitive grant and loan programs—not usually a hallmark of cronyism. Often fewer than 10 percent of applicants were deemed worthy.

Nevertheless, a large proportion of the winners were companies with Obama-campaign connections. Indeed, at least 10 members of Obama’s finance committee and more than a dozen of his campaign bundlers were big winners in getting your money.

But his first sentence misses an important aspect.  Sure, competitive contracts for, say, building a bridge may not be fraught with cronyism.  If so, it is likely because these contracts have pretty clear decision criteria - ie we will take the lowest bid by anyone with minimum qualifications.

But the DOE loans were all to companies with sketchy prospects -- if they had actual profits or even a reasonable hope of profits, someone would have funded them privately.  So these are all wild longshots no one in the private sphere would touch.  Given that, what objective criteria can possibly exist?  And even if one can imagine such a criteria - e.g. least dollars invested per ton of Co2 mitigation - it is clear that no such criteria existed or were applied.  So of course it was going to be a crony-fest.

But my point is this - even without fraud or cronyism.  Even if every choice were made by the best and the brightest in a politically color-blind fashion, the program would still be failing.  Because by definition the program's success would require a few folks in Washington to be smarter than, and to have more and better information than, the entire rest of the country which turned down the opportunity to invest in these companies.

That Wonderful, Magical Social Security Trust Fund

Several blogs have pointed out this February editorial in the USA Today by Jacob Lew, head of Obama's OMB.  In February he told us, no, in true Obama Administration fashion, he lectured us like little kids that:

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries.

When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government — and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. We have just as much obligation to pay back those bonds with interest as we do to any other bondholders. The trust fund is the backbone of an important compact: that a lifetime of work will ensure dignity in retirement.

According to the most recent report of the independent Social Security Trustees, the trust fund is currently in surplus and growing. Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.

As many have pointed out this week, if this is the case, why does the debt limit even affect the ability to pay or not pay Social Security to grandma?  Because Lew was spouting complete BS.  Social Security has generated surpluses in the past, but these have been spent and replaced with IOU's.  And we are finding out right now how much those IOU's are worth - zero.

 

Spacechem

Spent the weekend playing Spacechem while watching the NCAA basketball tournament.  Though nominally about tearing apart and building molecules, its really a simulation of assembly line design, since you molecular engineering happens mechanically (ie carry atom over here, bond it in reactor, move it over there, etc).  There is a kind of built in re-playability, as most of the puzzles are not that hard to solve in some fashion, but can be very hard to solve efficiently.  For example, the level "No Ordinary Headache" will allow the player up to three reactors, but a one reactor solution is possible.  Took me forever to finally get it. This one is not mine but is not too different from my solution.

To that end, the game provides a distribution curve of other player's solutions based on three stats (number of process cylces required, number of reactors required, number of components required).  Even if you get the puzzle right, you may see you solution was way less efficient than other folks, driving one to try again.  I like this dynamic - it is sort of like duplicate bridge, where one is not judged by just winning the hand, but by how well one scored with the hand vs. other players playing the same hand.

Here is another positive review at South Bend Seven.  And just search "spacechem" in youtube to find zillions of videos of various game solutions, it will give you a feel for the game.

First Ever Inside Reference to My Novel

This is probably the first ever inside reference to my novel. The funny part is that when I read TJIC's post, I thought "hmm, Preston Marsh, where have I heard that name?"  LOL.  By the way, the business idea Travis has is actually intriguing

Restaurants get napkins and linens as a service "“ every day, they trade huge bags of dirty whites for clean whites. They are in the business of cooking food and hiring wait staff, not in the business of knowing how to bleach things (or in the business of picking out linens that can stand up to bleach).

So what does clothing as a service entail? It could include cleaning, sizing, rotating wardrobes as fashions change, etc.

It removes some hassles, and bundles responsibilities in the place where there are economies of scale "“ people in the fashion industry can and will know more about sizing, cleaning, coordinating, etc. than consumers.

I and others have thoughts on the model in the comments.

By the way, for those who have not read my book, Preston Marsh is an entrepreneur who has made money in a series of sortof odd business models.  Years ago I used to get bored at parties (actually, I still get bored at parties but I no longer use this entertainment technique) and make up occupations for myself.  I remember convincing one woman who had recent evidence that I could not ski well that I was on the Olympic Ski Jumping Team  ("You don't have to turn in ski jumping!")

Anyway, all the business models in the books are ones I made up for myself on the fly at parties.  One involves building fountains in malls and then recouping the investment by harvesting coins from them.  Another, which is central to the book, is a sort of guerrilla marketing startup which does some lifestyle consulting with teens but makes its money placing products in the hands of the coolest, trendsetting teens at high schools (a model that has since been emulated by a couple of real-life companies).

By the way, the book is still on sale at Amazon and available on the Kindle for download.  Just search "BMOC."

Permanently Bonded Leisure Suit

A Marginal Revolution reader asks:

How would you pick a tattoo, if you decided you were going to get one? How would you pick something that your future self is most likely to be glad to have? A favorite piece of art? Follow Leeson's lead and get an economics-related tattoo? Names of family members are off-limits, as are answers like "get a small dot in my armpit that nobody would see."

I could argue that it is impossible to make a political, religious, or personal statement one is 100% sure will still be relevant 30 years hence.  Here is the solution I teach to my kids -- never, ever make a fashion you can't remove (e.g. piercing OK, tattoos not OK).   I have lived through leisure suits and grunge, wide ties and narrow, short skirts and long, tie dye and soft pastels.  Think of tattooing as having a leisure suit permanently bonded to your body.

Some will say this is evading the question, so I will actually provide an answer.  The only thing I might have conceivably chosen to ink my body with at 20 that I could probably still live with today at 48 would be something having to do with my undergrad college (Princeton).   Call it the George Shultz rule.

Employee Reliability & FICO Scores

Megan McArdle writes:

There was a great deal of back-and-forth in the left half of the blogosphere this weekend over employers who use FICO scores as a way of weeding out job candidates.  In a sort of peculiarly American fashion, our nation seems to have decided that one's credit history is a good proxy for one's worth as a human being, and thus should be used to determine eligibility for everything from employment to excellent rates on car insurance.

I have no trouble believing that the FICO score is often a proxy for what some researchers call conscientiousness; I've certainly had roommates and others around me who had terrible credit because, well, they didn't bother to pay their bills, and regarded rent as something optional that could be turned in if no more exciting commercial opportunities immediately presented themselves.

That said, it's going to be at best a weak proxy.  It's also a proxy for things that, as a society, we may not want employers to consider, like a past history of depression.  And for things that have nothing to do with your job performance, like a car accident that left you with huge medical bills and no job, or a sudden job loss.  Looking at our national savings rate, lots and lots of Americans live very close to the edge of their paychecks; they can't all be terrible employees.

I have never really even considered asking employees for their FICO score, in part because all small business people hate these scores as, even with perfect credit records, our scores tend to be smaller than people with similar income and history due to the constant credit checks made on us by vendors and other partners.

That being said, as someone who has 500 service employees working for me, I understand the insatiable desire for information on employee reliability and conscientiousness.  A large number of our employees we hire who interview well tend to get released within 60 days of their hire.  I can't tell you how many people who seem totally normal and friendly turn out to be raving maniacs in stressful customer contact situations.

The elephant in the room that neither McArdle or folks like Kevin Drum mention is that businesses are starved for reliability information on potential employees.  It used to be the best source was to check job references.  Nowadays, though, very few employers will give a honest job reference, or will provide any information at all.  I know I am guilty of that -- my company does not allow any manager to give out performance data on past employees.  I only needed to be sued once over somehow interfering with someone's living by giving honest information about that employee's reliability to change my behavior.

I understand that this is exactly what the Left is shooting for - an environment where the competent have no advantage over the incompetent.  If employers are resorting to FICO scores, it just demonstrates how all the other reasonable avenues of obtaining information have been closed to them.

The only saving grace in this country is that employment is still mostly at-will, meaning we can fire our hiring mistakes and move on.  Of course the Left wants a European-style system where it is impossible to fire anyone too -- this is the system the post office has, and one can see how well it works out.  If they are victorious on this final front, I will be forced into a game of Russian Roulette, where I can't find out anything about those I hire, I can't fire the incompetent people I do hire, and I am infinitely legally liable for any mistakes any of these employees make.

The Danger of Community Rating

From Boston.com. via a reader:

Thousands of consumers are gaming Massachusetts' 2006 health insurance law by buying insurance when they need to cover pricey medical care, such as fertility treatments and knee surgery, and then swiftly dropping coverage, a practice that insurance executives say is driving up costs for other people and small businesses.

In 2009 alone, 936 people signed up for coverage with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts for three months or less and ran up claims of more than $1,000 per month while in the plan. Their medical spending while insured was more than four times the average for consumers who buy coverage on their own and retain it in a normal fashion, according to data the state's largest private insurer provided the Globe.

The typical monthly premium for these short-term members was $400, but their average claims exceeded $2,200 per month. The previous year, the company's data show it had even more high-spending, short-term members. Over those two years, the figures suggest the price tag ran into the millions.

Other insurers could not produce such detailed information for short-term customers but said they have witnessed a similar pattern. And, they said, the phenomenon is likely to be repeated on a grander scale when the new national health care law begins requiring most people to have insurance in 2014, unless federal regulators craft regulations to avoid the pitfall.

I would argue that these numbers for system gamers would be even higher save for a residual sense of honor in the population that resists such gaming, a sense of honor that will tend to be eroded over time by these incentives.  This is a theme I have discussed before, in answer to the question of why socialized nations seem to do well at first.  My answer to that question was that residual work ethic and values tend to mitigate, initially, against the horrible incentives inherent in socialism, but that these values erode when people see themselves effectively punished for their values and work ethic.

I Thought I Was The Only Curmudgeon Who Obsessed Over This

Via TJIC, I meet this guy on every long distance trip.

Apparently, there are some people who: A) Cannot judge their own speed except in relation to the vehicle directly in front of them, and B) Cannot hold a steady pedal for love nor money. So there we'll be, in the agrarian hinterlands of Indiana or Kentucky; me rolling along in the left lane and passing the occasional car on the right when I notice Mr. Wobbly Throttle a'creepin' up in my mirrors. When he gets close enough I'll signal right and let him pass, which he does, after a fashion, but sort of bogs down once he's just off the port bow. We'll roll in formation like that, me starting to fume, until we come upon a car in the right lane that forces me to turn off the cruise and tuck in behind Wobbly.

As we pass the slower traffic, Mr. Wobbly Throttle, now bereft of vehicles to overtake, starts to slow down. He notices me in his mirror and sometimes darts right, sometimes slows down further and gets passed on the right (traffic gods, forgive me!) I'll hit "Resume" on the cruise control in the left lane, but a mile down the road, sure as God made little green apples, here comes Wobbly again, as though drawn to a magnet in my back bumper. This dance can go on for over a hundred miles, and is pretty well guaranteed to have me chewing the steering wheel in frustration in only a fraction of that distance. For Vishnu's sake, man, pick a speed and hold it!

Where are the "Defend the Border" Folks When You Really Need Them

Via Valley Fever:

There is an unwanted phenomenon happening in California, and Arizona is being pegged to clean up the mess: Chihuahuas -- lots of them.

California is seeing an influx of chihuahuas popping up at animal shelters and it's becoming too much for the state to handle.

Rather than take these unwanted pooches out back, and deal with them Old Yeller style, California shelters are pawning these rat-dogs off on the Grand Canyon State....

Shelter officials are associating the rise in the abandoned pooches to celebutards like Paris Hilton, who popularized the use of animals as fashion accessories. When the reality of having to care for the dogs kicked in, it proved to be too much for a lot of wanna-be heiresses and they dropped the quivering canines off at animal shelters.

According to California shelter officials, more than 100 of the dogs have been driven to other states, Arizona included, for shelters there to deal with because in most states, abandoned chihuahuas are hard to come by.

Instead of stopping human beings from seeking a better life in the United States, maybe the Minutemen can be convinced to fight a real border threat.

Yeah, That's Me All Right

I was a consultant for McKinsey & Co. for about 5 years in Dallas.  This was NOT me:

Through conversations with several staffers who have endured the McKinsey interviews, we've assembled a portrait of the typical consultant. First, they're quite young! Despite the early perception that they'd look like pasty lawyers wielding big-wheeled suitcases, they're apparently a plucky, charming bunch.

"They're kind of hot," said one source.

Crisp shirts, no jackets, freshly pressed pants"”not unlike the fresh-faced boys who posed for the Harvard fashion shoot in the Styles pages of The Times this past weekend. They jot notes down on legal pads and in marble notebooks.

Though I will say, much to my kids' ever-lasting amusement, McKinsey did send me to a sort of executive charm school when I started managing teams, because I was such a hopeless geek.  Actually, my main problem was that I was adult-ADD, and couldn't sit still in a meeting.  It's fine roaming around the room in hyperactive fashion when its your own company (ala Steve Jobs) but it is not OK when you are a 25-year-old consultant to the CEO of a Fortune 50 company.

My personal style didn't work any better in any of the other companies I worked for.  Aerospace was probably the biggest mis-match.  There is just no place for a hyperactive marketing guy in a business that takes 10 years to close a sale.  So I now run my own company, and there is no one above me to complain.

Handbag Patterns

My wife has more of her patterns she has designed for knitted handbags for sale, here or at her own site here.

Knitted Handbag Patterns

Well, blogging has been light again as I a) watched the incredibly unlikely prospect of the Arizona Cardinals hosting a NFC Championship game become a reality and b) built yet another new web site, this one for my wife.  My wife has for several years had a business selling designer handbags and other fashion accessories, for which she has won a number of awards.  This week she is kicking off a new business selling knitted handbag patterns.  You can guess who was named, in absentia I might add, the new business's CTO and webmaster.

Anyway, not wishing to add another platform to my stable of web site solutions, I built it using wordpress using a template that may be suspiciously familiar to Coyote Blog readers.  No appologies here, because I spent way too much time making the transaction engine work (it turns out that digital fulfillment is actually harder, rather than easier, to implement than regular mail and ship).   Since this is basically a hobby of mine rather than a real job, getting one template to work flawlessly using css is my limit.

Anyway, check her out if you are interested (or even if you are not, she will be thrilled to see some traffic).

kt_bag_pattern

PS-  before I get comments, I know there is something wrong with the image manipulation system I used as the site is hanging up serving up resized images.  Working on it.

Let GM Fail!

This is a reprise of a much older post, but it struck me as fairly timely.

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
** Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the store went bust a while back.

Another Reason Bailouts are Bad

I think the incentives issue has been beaten to death pretty well, but there is another problem with bailout:  They leave the productive assets of the failed company in essentially the same hands that failed to make good use of them previously.  Sure, the management has changed, but a few guys at the top of these large companies don't really mean squat.  To this point:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

David Leonhart (via Carpe Diem) argues that this was exactly the long-term downside of the Chrysler bailout:

Barry Ritholtz "” who runs an equity research firm in New York and writes The Big Picture,
one of the best-read economics blogs "” is going to publish a book soon
making the case that the bailout actually helped cause the decline. The
book is called, "Bailout Nation." In it, Mr. Ritholtz sketches out an
intriguing alternative history of Chrysler and Detroit.

If
Chrysler had collapsed, he argues, vulture investors might have swooped
in and reconstituted the company as a smaller automaker less tied to
the failed strategies of Detroit's Big Three and their unions. "If
Chrysler goes belly up," he says, "it also might have forced some deep
introspection at Ford and G.M. and might have changed their attitude
toward fuel efficiency and manufacturing quality." Some of the
bailout's opponents "” from free-market conservatives to Senator Gary
Hart, then a rising Democrat "” were making similar arguments three
decades ago.

Instead, the bailout and import quotas fooled the
automakers into thinking they could keep doing business as usual. In
1980, Detroit sold about 80% of all new vehicles in this country.
Today, it sells just 45%.

As I wrote about GM:

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

Why Its OK If GM Fails

This is a reprise of a much older post, but since I have limited time for blogging, I thought it might be timely to reprise it:

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe
as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it
this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing
superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that
allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of
intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though
we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government
would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it
had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).
A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large
corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to
fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In
conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting
corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human
and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than
one. 

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
**
Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at
the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went
if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the
store went bust a while back.

The Problem in Education Is Not Expertise

Via Kevin Drum, Mark S. Tucker and Kevin Toch make the argument, if I understand it right, that school districts and state education organizations simply don't have the expertise or the capacity to handle the changes required to meet the standards that are being applied by efforts like NCLB (they also argue the tests themselves suck, but I am not going to address that issue).  By the way, you know I'm going to get worked up when the title of an article is "The secret to making Bush's school reform law work? More bureaucrats"

...we need a long-term solution, which can only lie in building
the capacity of the states, districts, and schools to reach the kinds
of goals contemplated by the framers of NCLB. This is not a simple
matter, but a vast, man-to-the-Moon kind of challenge. It means finding
people with the data management experience to build and administer the
very complex systems called for by the law. It means recruiting experts
who can help create truly world class curriculum standards so that
teachers will know what they are supposed to teach and students will be
able to reach the standards. It means identifying and training
thousands of educators who have succeeded in improving their schools to
provide on-site assistance at other failing schools, and recruiting
still others who can take those schools over if the current staff
cannot or will not rise to the challenge. It means creating and
expanding networks of talent-laden organizations--universities, think
tanks, for-profit and non-profit school companies--that have the skill,
experience, and management capacity to turn around individual schools
and entire districts. And it means greatly strengthening the
capabilities of the agencies that will coordinate this massive effort:
state departments of education.

Wow!  It's hard to even know where to start, but I guess my first thought is : What the f*ck have public schools been doing in the last 100 years?  Why, after an absolutely enormous spending growth over the last several decades, do districts still not have the ability to create world class curricula?  Why don't teachers know what they are supposed to teach?   Why is the system so talent poor, despite a huge increase in the number of administrators with various advanced education degrees at all levels of the system?  It's as if the highway department announced today that they didn't have the ability to design roads.

The first and last resort of every technocrat is to complain that the system is great, if only the right "smart" people could get put in charge.  These folks are making this same argument yet again.  Our public schools are fine, if we could just get the right experts in charge. 

Bullshit.

The issue is not the lack of expertise.  The issue is one of incentives and senescence in the system itself.  In this context,  NCLB is completely off the mark.   I work with government employees all the time.  There is a very clear difference between the incentives they see and the incentives I see in the market.  For government employees, the biggest incentive is to avoid missing some bureaucratic check box.  They are much more concerned that they not be found later in some audit to have missed a procedure or a required approval authority than with actual performance or productivity.  NOT, I want to emphasize, because they are bad or misguided people, but because that is how their incentive system is set up.  Their actions are entirely rational in the context of their incentive structure, but the results are no less disastrous.

For example, government managers of recreation facilities get almost no credit for improving the customer experience, a metric my company lives and dies for.  I have seen a government park manager do a great job obtaining funds from private sources to add a new facility to their park that pleased guests, only to get criticized for having the slope of an access ramp be 1/4 degree off ADA standards and have a grievance filed by the union that park visitation had gone up, creating more work for the government employees.  I spent an evening having a beer with that manager, and you can bet they are never going to try to actually improve the customer experience again.  As another example, I went in to my government landlord last week and just blasted them for their lack of customer service focus, for the fact that they are blocking me from making improvements customers are begging for.  They yawned, gave me no response,  and handed me a notice that they were missing some of our water testing paperwork and please get it to them ASAP.

NCLB just gives government schools another government wammy to be managed and avoided.  The authors will probably get their wish, and huge bureaucracies will rise up to manage the numbers and reports without anything being done to really improve education.  The authors lament that the California state education department has "only" 1452 employees.  I have every confidence that this "problem" will soon get fixed by California, and the number will balloon up nicely, long before children see any better education.

A while back I wrote a plea to just let GM die.  I said:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA....

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right
managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30
years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

I would say the exact same thing is true of public schools: Their DNA is senescent.  Most are the equivalent of alcoholics who keep falling off the wagon and keep asking for more chances.  At some point, you just have to give up.  At some point, it is easier to just start from scratch.  After 30 years of trying, Sears still can't change itself so there is Wal-Mart.  After 30 years of trying, GM still can't change itself so there is Toyota.  After 30 years of trying, United Airlines still can't change itself so there is Southwest.

The only difference in education is that the government has to date suppressed the emergence of Toyota and Wal-Mart and Southwest because, well, because it can.  I am sure that United Airlines would have liked to ban competition from Southwest, but it does not have the coercive power of government.  Fortunately, in most industries other than education, the public gets a choice of offerings, and companies that customers don't prefer tend to die.

It's time to give school choice a chance, and radically shift the incentives for public schools in a way that the government can't with bureaucracy-based programs like NCLB.  Some public schools will thrive, and many will die in favor of private options, but our kids will be far better off either way.  It's time to stop doubling down on failure.  It's time to stop giving the alcoholic one more chance.

Postscript:  One of the reasons that competition is important is in the very definition of "expertise."  An expert is someone who presumably has been succesful at a certain activity when others have been less so.  We call Herb Kelleher an expert on airlines and customer service because he designed a model that kicked everyone else's butt.  But would you have called him an expert in 1972, before Southwest took off?  Probably not.  He was just one of many voices with diverse, untested opinions of what would make a better airline.  What eventually made him an expert, and the others less so, is he went out and applied his ideas and they were succesful.

So the author's want to send more "expertise" to the schools.  OK, who are the experts?  Nearly every public school is using the same version of the same failed model.  Some succeed more than others, but these differences tend to be incremental rather than radical, like the difference between Sears and Montgomery Ward rather than between Sears and Wal-Mart (or even Amazon.com).  So how can you even know who the experts are within the same failed system, where no one is really allowed to go out and fully test their ideas in practice?  What happens, in reality, is that "experts" in education are the ones that can best enthrall academics and politicians and think tanks with grandiose or politically correct visions.  I would argue that as of this moment there are no experts in education in the US and we have no hope of identifying them until we let entrepreneurs go out and start testing various new models.

The Problem in Education Is Not Expertise

Via Kevin Drum, Mark S. Tucker and Kevin Toch make the argument, if I understand it right, that school districts and state education organizations simply don't have the expertise or the capacity to handle the changes required to meet the standards that are being applied by efforts like NCLB (they also argue the tests themselves suck, but I am not going to address that issue).  By the way, you know I'm going to get worked up when the title of an article is "The secret to making Bush's school reform law work? More bureaucrats"

...we need a long-term solution, which can only lie in building
the capacity of the states, districts, and schools to reach the kinds
of goals contemplated by the framers of NCLB. This is not a simple
matter, but a vast, man-to-the-Moon kind of challenge. It means finding
people with the data management experience to build and administer the
very complex systems called for by the law. It means recruiting experts
who can help create truly world class curriculum standards so that
teachers will know what they are supposed to teach and students will be
able to reach the standards. It means identifying and training
thousands of educators who have succeeded in improving their schools to
provide on-site assistance at other failing schools, and recruiting
still others who can take those schools over if the current staff
cannot or will not rise to the challenge. It means creating and
expanding networks of talent-laden organizations--universities, think
tanks, for-profit and non-profit school companies--that have the skill,
experience, and management capacity to turn around individual schools
and entire districts. And it means greatly strengthening the
capabilities of the agencies that will coordinate this massive effort:
state departments of education.

Wow!  It's hard to even know where to start, but I guess my first thought is : What the f*ck have public schools been doing in the last 100 years?  Why, after an absolutely enormous spending growth over the last several decades, do districts still not have the ability to create world class curricula?  Why don't teachers know what they are supposed to teach?   Why is the system so talent poor, despite a huge increase in the number of administrators with various advanced education degrees at all levels of the system?  It's as if the highway department announced today that they didn't have the ability to design roads.

The first and last resort of every technocrat is to complain that the system is great, if only the right "smart" people could get put in charge.  These folks are making this same argument yet again.  Our public schools are fine, if we could just get the right experts in charge. 

Bullshit.

The issue is not the lack of expertise.  The issue is one of incentives and senescence in the system itself.  In this context,  NCLB is completely off the mark.   I work with government employees all the time.  There is a very clear difference between the incentives they see and the incentives I see in the market.  For government employees, the biggest incentive is to avoid missing some bureaucratic check box.  They are much more concerned that they not be found later in some audit to have missed a procedure or a required approval authority than with actual performance or productivity.  NOT, I want to emphasize, because they are bad or misguided people, but because that is how their incentive system is set up.  Their actions are entirely rational in the context of their incentive structure, but the results are no less disastrous.

For example, government managers of recreation facilities get almost no credit for improving the customer experience, a metric my company lives and dies for.  I have seen a government park manager do a great job obtaining funds from private sources to add a new facility to their park that pleased guests, only to get criticized for having the slope of an access ramp be 1/4 degree off ADA standards and have a grievance filed by the union that park visitation had gone up, creating more work for the government employees.  I spent an evening having a beer with that manager, and you can bet they are never going to try to actually improve the customer experience again.  As another example, I went in to my government landlord last week and just blasted them for their lack of customer service focus, for the fact that they are blocking me from making improvements customers are begging for.  They yawned, gave me no response,  and handed me a notice that they were missing some of our water testing paperwork and please get it to them ASAP.

NCLB just gives government schools another government wammy to be managed and avoided.  The authors will probably get their wish, and huge bureaucracies will rise up to manage the numbers and reports without anything being done to really improve education.  The authors lament that the California state education department has "only" 1452 employees.  I have every confidence that this "problem" will soon get fixed by California, and the number will balloon up nicely, long before children see any better education.

A while back I wrote a plea to just let GM die.  I said:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA....

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right
managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30
years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

I would say the exact same thing is true of public schools: Their DNA is senescent.  Most are the equivalent of alcoholics who keep falling off the wagon and keep asking for more chances.  At some point, you just have to give up.  At some point, it is easier to just start from scratch.  After 30 years of trying, Sears still can't change itself so there is Wal-Mart.  After 30 years of trying, GM still can't change itself so there is Toyota.  After 30 years of trying, United Airlines still can't change itself so there is Southwest.

The only difference in education is that the government has to date suppressed the emergence of Toyota and Wal-Mart and Southwest because, well, because it can.  I am sure that United Airlines would have liked to ban competition from Southwest, but it does not have the coercive power of government.  Fortunately, in most industries other than education, the public gets a choice of offerings, and companies that customers don't prefer tend to die.

It's time to give school choice a chance, and radically shift the incentives for public schools in a way that the government can't with bureaucracy-based programs like NCLB.  Some public schools will thrive, and many will die in favor of private options, but our kids will be far better off either way.  It's time to stop doubling down on failure.  It's time to stop giving the alcoholic one more chance.

Postscript:  One of the reasons that competition is important is in the very definition of "expertise."  An expert is someone who presumably has been succesful at a certain activity when others have been less so.  We call Herb Kelleher an expert on airlines and customer service because he designed a model that kicked everyone else's butt.  But would you have called him an expert in 1972, before Southwest took off?  Probably not.  He was just one of many voices with diverse, untested opinions of what would make a better airline.  What eventually made him an expert, and the others less so, is he went out and applied his ideas and they were succesful.

So the author's want to send more "expertise" to the schools.  OK, who are the experts?  Nearly every public school is using the same version of the same failed model.  Some succeed more than others, but these differences tend to be incremental rather than radical, like the difference between Sears and Montgomery Ward rather than between Sears and Wal-Mart (or even Amazon.com).  So how can you even know who the experts are within the same failed system, where no one is really allowed to go out and fully test their ideas in practice?  What happens, in reality, is that "experts" in education are the ones that can best enthrall academics and politicians and think tanks with grandiose or politically correct visions.  I would argue that as of this moment there are no experts in education in the US and we have no hope of identifying them until we let entrepreneurs go out and start testing various new models.

The Kind of Philanthropy I Hate

I value many of the same things - open space, wilderness, wildlife - that environmental activists value.  The difference is that I do not wish to achieve my goals by force.  For years I have donated money to various environmental funds that focus on using private funds to buy land for preservation (the Nature Conservancy being the most famous of these, though it has had some problems of late).  I particularly eschewed donating to groups who used most of their funds for lobbying.  These groups are using their funds to try to buy government coercion to back whatever goals they are seeking, often including taking more money from me by force and limiting my rights to manage my own property as I see fit.  I hate that.

Which is why I am very disappointed in the recent actions of Bill Gates.  To date, Gates has dumped billions of his own money into trying to improve public schools.  I personally think that to be useless**, that the management and incentives of government monopoly schools are broken and no amount of money can fix them.  However, it was his money and God bless him for trying.

However, it appears Gates is tired of the slow progress, and is taking the great second-rater escape clause, using his money now not to fund improvement programs but to lobby the government to spend more of my money:

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in
American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into
improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they
are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort
to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

** I have written several times about the dynamics of organizations and management, but it is my belief that there comes a time when certain managements and cultures are beyond saving, and the only solution is for the market to let them fail and have their assets and people be taken in by more dynamic organizations.  I wrote about this in the most depth in the context of GM, in a post on corporate DNA and value creation:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP or the Limited faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

A Campaign for They

Here's the deal:  We need a gender-neutral third person pronoun.  I am tired of all the awkward constructions I have to concoct to use his or her in a grammatically correct and gender neutral fashion. 

I fully support the use of "they" and "their" as singular third-person pronouns, as in "Each person should bring their pencil" rather than "Each person should bring his or her pencil."  Unfortunately, this is not correct grammar today, so I just spent a few hours purging they's and their's from a draft novel.  However, English is a language that has always been open-source and bottom-up (in contrast to French).  Usages such as this tend to work their way into the language, as dictionary writers for the English language have generally considered themselves catalogers of the English-that-is rather than dictators of the English-that-should-be  (the book the Professor and the Madman is highly recommended).

XKCD took on this topic a while back
.

Quick, Check the Thermostat

Al Gore says that current global temperatures are the highest they have been in 1000 years.  A new study by the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich says that the "sun is more active now than it has been at anytime in the previous 1,000 years."  Related? 

Sunspots have been monitored on the Sun since 1610,
shortly after the invention of the telescope. They provide the
longest-running direct measurement of our star's activity.

The variation in sunspot numbers has revealed the Sun's 11-year cycle of activity as well as other, longer-term changes.

In particular, it has been noted that between about 1645 and 1715, few sunspots were seen on the Sun's surface.

This period is called the Maunder Minimum after the English astronomer who studied it.

It coincided with a spell of prolonged cold weather
often referred to as the "Little Ice Age". Solar scientists strongly
suspect there is a link between the two events - but the exact
mechanism remains elusive....

But the most striking feature, he says, is that
looking at the past 1,150 years the Sun has never been as active as it
has been during the past 60 years.

Over the past few hundred years, there has been a steady
increase in the numbers of sunspots, a trend that has accelerated in
the past century, just at the time when the Earth has been getting
warmer.

The data suggests that changing solar activity is influencing in some way the global climate causing the world to get warmer.

Of course, these poor scientists know that they could lose their jobs and be called Holocaust deniers if they don't acknowledge anthropomorphic global warming, so they do say:

Over the past 20 years, however, the number of
sunspots has remained roughly constant, yet the average temperature of
the Earth has continued to increase.

This is put down to a human-produced greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels.             (HT:  TJIC)

Which may actually be the case, but it is interesting that astronomers feel the need to say this without any evidence of such in their own study just to protect themselves from ostracism by the climate religionists.

However, even if the two are working in concert, the fact that solar activity explains some of the 20th century warming means that current climate models are WAY overestimating the impact of anthropomorphic warming. 

For example, the climate models in the current 2007 IPCC report assume that the world would have experienced no warming in the 20th century without man.  This is from Section 8, actual is the black line, the models without man are in blue, the models with man are in red:

Ipcc1

In other words, the IPCC models completely ignore the increasing solar activity and assume 100% of 20th century warming was due to man-made effects, even the substantial warming before 1940 (and before the onset of truly heavy world-wide fossil fuel use).

Already, the models used by the IPCC tend to overestimate past warming even if all past warming is attributable to anthropomorphic causes.  If anthropomorphic effects explain only a fraction of past warming, then the current models are vastly overstated, good for stampeding the populous into otherwise unpopular political control over the economy, but of diminished scientific value.

Postscript: I cannot prove this, but I am willing to make a bet based on my long, long history of modeling (computers, not fashion).  My guess is that the blue band, representing climate without man-made effects, was not based on any real science but was instead a plug.  In other words, they took their models and actual temperatures and then said "what would the climate without man have to look like for our models to be correct."  There are at least four reasons I strongly suspect this to be true:

  1. Every computer modeler in history has tried this trick to make their models of the future seem more credible.  I don't think the climate guys are immune.
  2. There is no way their models, with our current state of knowledge about the climate, match reality that well. 
  3. The first time they ran their models vs. history, they did not match at all.  This current close match is the result of a bunch of tweaking that has little impact on the model's predictive ability but forces it to match history better.  For example, early runs had the forecast run right up from the 1940 peak to temperatures way above what we see today.
  4. The blue line totally ignores any of our other understandings about the changing climate, including the changing intensity of the sun.  It is conveniently exactly what is necessary to make the pink line match history.  In fact, against all evidence, note the blue band falls over the century.  This is because the models were pushing the temperature up faster than we have seen it rise historically, so the modelers needed a negative plug to make the numbers look nice.

Another Leftish Howler on Government Health Care

From Kevin Drum, who I consider one of the smarter folks on the left (but not this time):

A few days ago, during an email exchange with a
friend, I mentioned that I don't usually tout cost savings as a big
argument in favor of universal healthcare. It's true that a national
healthcare plan would almost certainly save money compared to our
current Rube Goldberg system, but I suspect the savings would be
modest. Rather, the real advantages of national healthcare are related
to things like access (getting everyone covered), efficiency (cutting down on useless -- or even deliberately counterproductive -- administrative bureaucracies), choice
(allowing people to choose and keep a family doctor instead of being
jerked around everytime their employer decides to switch health
providers), and social justice (providing decent, hassle-free healthcare for the poor).

Name one industry the government has taken over in a monopolistic fashion and subsequently increased efficiency or individual choice?  Anyone?  Buehler?  In fact, I am not sure I can name one government program that even provides the poor with decent, hassle-free services. 

Lets take the most ubiquitous government monopoly, that on K-12 education. 

  • Efficiency?  My kid's for-profit secular private school has a administrator to student ratio of at least 1:15.  How many assistant principals does your public school have?  Many public schools are approaching 1 administrator for every 1 teacher.
  • Choice?  That's a laugh.  The government and its unions fight choice in education tooth and nail.  In fact, in the context of education, Drum and others have effectively argued that choice is the enemy of his last point, social justice, so it is absurd to argue that government monopolistic health care will optimize both.  Yes, people may be frustrated their insurance company does not cover X procedure, but this will only get worse when the government is making the choices for us.  Oh, and by the way, about the evils of those employers running our health plans?  They do so only because of WWII wage controls and decades of federal tax policy that have provided them strong incentive to do so. 
  • Decent, hassle-free service?  Ask a concerned black family in an inner-city school how good their kid's government-provided education is.  In fact, I will bet that most inner city parents get healthcare of better quality today despite the admittedly Rube Goldberg system we have (courtesy of years of silly government interventions) than the quality of education they receive from the government education monopoly.  After all, most of them walk out of the hospital today with their life, while many of their kids are walking out of worthless government schools with no life.

As to the claim that national health care would "almost certainly save money," that is hard to argue with for this reason:  The government, once in charge of health care choices, can simply start denying procedures and care ("rationing").  This is in fact how costs are managed in most socialist medical systems.  So while this statement is technically true, it would be very hard for anyone to really believe that for the same quality and quantity of care, the government could do it cheaper.