Archive for June, 2007


June 27, 2007

James Lileks bites yet another madeleine. He’s talking about Fantasia:

…this was one of the moments that fixed my aesthetic sense in a particular time and place, and I’ve never shook those impressions. It was 1939. It sounds, and looks, like the last plea for grace before the world fell apart.

And how. I saw it in kindergarten, on a reel-to-reel projector (remember those?). For me, it was the Pegasus in Beethoven 6, particularly the moment when the stallion alights in the aerie. Those few seconds bit into my brain and became part of the mortar for Lewis, Tolkein, Stewart, and the rest. The rest I forgot – even that I had seen the film – until years later, when I saw it again and those memories fired up.


The Great Depression in Memory

June 25, 2007

In this week’s New Yorker, John Updike mounts a rearguard fight against Amity Shales’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Mr. Updike begins with a warning against “Great Depression nostalgia” but a few hundred words later he succumbs himself:

Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics. Business, of which Shales is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world.

These 95 words are a good precis of the core defects of twentieth-century liberalism. Government succeeds when people “feel” better, regardless of policies’ actual outcomes. Appearance of action is more important than the action itself. Business is “merciless” and “maximizes profit,” while government is “a human transaction.” (Mr. Updike should compare the experiences of shopping at Target and renewing a driver’s license.)


The Lexiary

June 24, 2007

Rare verbiage spotted at the New York Times:

Still, many in the security community and the news media initially treated the digital attacks against Estonia’s computer networks as the coming of a long-anticipated new chapter in the history of conflict — when, in fact, the technologies and techniques used in the attacks were hardly new, nor were they the kind of thing that only a powerful government would have in its digital armamentarium.

Why have an arsenal when you can have an armamentarium? In a bear of a sentence/paragraph, too.

P.S. I believe that I have coined a rare word of my own: lex·i·a·ry n. A portmanteau word meaning a compilation of unusual and interesting words. From lexicography and bestiary (Greek lexis and Latin bestiarium). Google produces only two hits for “lexiary.”  A proud day, indeed.

Mind the Gap

June 24, 2007

Gap Inc. is going to close some stores. Seth Godin says:

They should close 200 or even 500 stores and keep the very best people from each store, redeploying them to their best stores. They should invest in those great stores, invest in design, in targeted marketing. … [T]hey ought to avoid the nickel and diming and go back to what made them great in the first place.

Gap’s board might also consider revisiting its manufacturing strategy. Product cycles are getting shorter and shorter in the fashion industry, and domestic producers like American Apparel can react much more quickly to changing tastes, with less inventory at risk.

The Interpretation of Dreams

June 23, 2007

This is almost a Market in Everything: Dreamcrowd, a startup for sharing and interpreting your dreams (via TechCrunch). A dream recently featured on its homepage begins:

I drove my car to the 7-11 hopped on a bike and started to ride but somehow I got trapped under a trash truck and felt pressure and screamed. I was able to get up and start riding the bike home. I then started to go up a hill and got really tired so I hopped off the bike and walked it up…

The original is all in CAPS.

Reminds me of the dreams in Roald Dahl’s The BFG. The girls’ dreams are lovely but the boys’ dreams are about things like flying, growing a long mustache, or taking a call from the President – that is, being the center of attention or humiliating your father.

P.S. With apologies to Sigmund Freud.

Free Music

June 14, 2007

Fred Wilson at A VC has been outlining his vision for the future of music marketing and distribution (short version: music will be free). He is a maven for rock and pop and a regular commentator on technology and venture capital, so I listen to him.

I think free music can be a great business. In this post, I’d like to make explicit something Fred is leaving implicit, a key feature that I think is necessary for mass adoption. The payment model itself has to respond to consumer preferences. There is too much variation in taste for “one-size” monetization.

First, it’s worth reading all of Fred’s posts:

Here’s the core of Fred’s idea, from the original post, The Free Music Business: (more…)

Dabbawallas of Mumbai

June 12, 2007

Evolving Excellence points to a New York Times article on the amazing dabbawallas of Mumbai, the lunch-pail delivery service that uses the Mumbai municipal rail network.  The dabbawallas, in operation since 1890, are the topic of a 2004 Harvard Business School case study.  I also found a case from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, which is the source for the data below.

The dabbawallas have achieved stupendous quality using low-tech visual management (colored symbols and numbers painted on the pails).  The 5000 dabbawallas deliver 150,000 lunch pails every morning, six days a week, and return them in the evening.  They report “less than six errors in 13 million transactions,” – about 48 errors per year, or 0.5 errors per million.  For comparison, Six Sigma quality is achieved at 3.4 errors per million.  (Note however that the second article linked above, which appears older, puts the error rate higher, between 33 and 50 per million, due to theft.)

Here’s to the dabbawallas – a testament to what can be done with determination and a little ingenuity, and a challenge for all of us struggling with yield loss in the 0.1%, 1%, or 5% range.

MORE: An article from MidDay newspaper, putting the error rate at better than 1 part per 6 million, and describing how the dabbawallas work as a group to solve problems and provide one another with credit.

Review: Games Prisoners Play

June 8, 2007

Marek Kaminski’s Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic World of Polish Prison is a fascinating work of applied game theory. An underground publisher for Solidarity, Mr. Kaminski was arrested and jailed for five months in the mid-1980s. Turning lemons to lemonade, he used his term of “temporary imprisonment” to study the prisoners’ secret culture, including the elaborate and (to a rookie) bizarre secret codes and customs of the ruling inmate caste or society, the grypsmen.

I decided to make the best of my personal misfortune and use it as a unique opportunity to study this fascinating society-within-society. My goals were clear: I did not want to write nostalgic memoirs or point an accusing finger at the regime that had jailed me. I wanted to conduct an extensive and uncompromising research project, using all of my methodological skills. … Surprisingly, “researching prison” turned out to be an excellent survival strategy. … It helped me to socialize into my new role as an inmate and, at the same time, maintain a healthy distance from it. If you, my reader, are ever unfortunate enough to be jailed, I highly recommend the strategy of “researching prison.”

Mr. Kaminski found that even the most grotesque behavior of inmates was in fact the product of strictly calculated optimization. To explain the choices made by “hyperrational” prisoners (“ardent optimizers”), Mr. Kaminski turned to game theory, and the book includes many examples of interesting games with private information, hidden choices and moves, incorrectly estimated payoffs, and so on.

Games Prisoners Play may not be for the faint of heart – Mr. Kaminski treats every topic with a prisoner’s frankness. But the book is a gem for the economist and game theoretician, while remaining accessible – if not gripping – for the general reader.  Mr. Kaminiski’s dry humor is never far from the surface, as may be seen in this excerpt from the Acknowledgments:

Finally, this research would have been impossible without the collective hard work of thousands of anonymous policemen, prosecutors, and judges who tirelessly jailed and imprisoned thousands of Polish and other Eastern European dissidents during the reign of communism. Their efforts are unlikely ever to get the attention they deserve.

Here’s another review that relates Kaminski’s work to Gary Becker’s 1968 paper, “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” Here is the book’s page at Princeton University Press.

June 6, 1944

June 7, 2007

Six months ago tomorrow, we noted the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Today is the anniversary of D-Day. Remember those gallant men.

View from the Trench has some photos from the beaches.

UPDATE: James Lileks has a recording of Kate Smith’s radio program from June 7, 1944.