Thursday, 28 October 2010

Goodbye (Magnetic) Yellow Brick Road

Earlier this week, the Sony Corporation announced it would cease production of its famous "Walkman" devices. For those unawares that music was actually once something one either paid for or waited patiently to hear on the radio rather than "on demand," this machine was a revolutionary little device that allowed one to listen to FM radio or cassette tapes whilst exercising, working in the yard, or engaged in some other mobile pursuit.

Oh; I reckon I ought to add that a "cassette" was a type of media that was popular somewhere back in the late Cretaceous Period that allowed one to record music for later playback.  And it involved moving parts.

My first "Walkman" was about half the size of a tissue box - it seemed incredibly compact at the time, and I used it walking back and forth to school or when cutting the lawn.  In those days, that latter task was not yet one "Americans wouldn't do."

There is little doubt in my mind that the pace of technological advancement is getting faster (see Moore's Law as an example;  devices are becoming obsolete quicker than you can say "Akihabara." ), and that generally, this is a good thing. I don't lament the passing of the Walkman.

My thoughts today are about how, with the change in technology comes another sort of evolution that is going unrecorded, and that is around the obsolescence of language itself.  In 10 years, will people know what a "cassette" was?  Or, more obliquely, will euphemisms like "rewind" remain, even though the meaning is lost?

It's a bit of a rhetorical question, but not one that's unprecedented.  Examples are manifold.  Think of the colloquialisms that are common in our language"

  • "Dial" a number
  • "Turn" the channel
  • In the same "Area Code"
  • Performing "in the clutch."
My brother in law is only 10 years younger than I am, but when I was discussing music with him some years back and mentioned listening to "45s," he was truly puzzled.  I might as well have said I heard it on the wireless or purchased scrolls for the Victrola.

No one owns a rotary phone, so "dialling" is essentially meaningless.  We use digital tuners on our televisions.  Area codes, once actually tied to physical locations are no longer applicable (my mobile is in the 408 "Area Code," which is 2500 miles away.)

So, to the Walkman, I simply quote an oldie by the Stone Ponies (a band from the late 1960s):

"Goodbye... I'll be leaving.  I see no sense, in crying and grieving."  

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Were the Good Old Days REALLY that Good?

Time waits for no man, as the saying goes, and thus I like everyone fortunate not to run into medical (or other) problems of a serious sort, confront the wonders of middle age.  In looking back at memories that grow longer from a life that grows shorter, I am often struck with nostalgia.

But I wonder... Were the old days really that "good?"

Case in point.  A couple of weeks ago, in travelling home from a trip to Hawaii, we stopped for breakfast in a restaurant in LAX called "Ruby's Diner."  For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, it's a retro-themed diner that claims to be a purveyor of "40's style food and fun" (emphasis added).

I'm not sure, exactly, what "40's style food" is (my imagination is a lot of simple meat-heavy meals fried heavily in lard), but I was struck by the idea of  "40's style fun."  When I think of the 40's, I think of a terrible war, rationing, and austerity.

What of that is "fun?"

One might argue that the times were simpler (some aspects of that may be good, some less so), or that the movies were better, or perhaps the music.  But it seems more likely just an appeal to nostalgia.

I wonder if, in history, people have always been so eager to recollect earlier times so fondly?  I'm not talking about on a personal level - most of us who are over 40 recall with some fondness our youth, when we had less responsibility, less pressure, and perhaps less weight around the middle.

Retro-style seems to be omnipresent, whether it's the new wave of nostalgia for the 1980s that has arisen with Sony's announcement that it will discontinue the "walk man," or flashback music on the radio, or movies that paint the times of Queen Elizabeth I in soft-cell light (ignoring of course the abysmal hygiene and squalor that the time held for most).

I'm a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote light opera in the Victorian era.  One of their most famous works - a play that formed the subject of the acclaimed movie "Topsy-Turvy" about 10 years ago, is "The Mikado," a comedy ostensibly about Imperial Japan, but less obviously, a satirical commentary on Victorian England itself.  In the First Act, the Lord High Executioner has a song called "I've Got a Little List," wherein he delineates a group of people who, if necessity arose, would go onto his list of convenient "customers" whom society would not miss.

On his list is the

         Idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone.
         All centuries but this and every country but his own.

So apparently, at least these to recognised the theme of remembering the past as being better than it really was.

It's my opinion that at some points in history (the 1950s, perhaps) the focus was on the future and not the past.  It was the space-age.  Cars looked sleeker.  People envisioned space travel.    

Then again, maybe I'm guilty of my own nostalgic myopia.  The 1950s also was a time of yellow and avocado coloured appliances, polyester suits, and cars with monstrously ugly tail fins.


Monday, 25 October 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad (and Foreign) Wolf?

Fear is back in fashion, at least if the chattering classes are to be believed.  Not that it ever went out, of course.

In the space of a week, we've seen at least a couple of flaps that lead to cries of 'xenophobia.'  First, German chancellor Angela Merkel, in addressing young members of her party, made the comment that Germany's attempts at building a "multicultural society have utterly failed."  And more recently, liberal columnist and writer Juan Williams was excommunicated from even more liberal National Public Radio for comments he made regarding his personal fear of people who "are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims."

Both cases resulted in a wave of editorials on the impolitic nature of the comments.   In particular, James Carroll of the Boson Globe here declaimed a perceived rising tide of xenophobia.

Whatever one's opinions of the comments, I think it's fair to ask, "where does one draw the line between a legitimate desire for a nation and its people to ask those who wish to join them to accommodate their new homeland, not the other way round, and real, honest-to-goodness xenophobia - the irrational fear of those who are 'foreign' solely because they are foreign."

Setting aside the history of Germany towards its ethnic and religious minorities and semantic arguments about what a "Christian" country is, if one examines the facts on the ground - not only in Germany, but more generally in Western Europe - is it fair to ask how successfully the so-called multi-cultural model has actually worked, and not in some sort of Pollyanna way, but in reality?  Are ethnic Germans and ethnic Turks skipping through fields of daisies singing "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke?"

Carroll's own article points to second and third generation immigrants with scant language skills, stuck on the economic fringe.  The Guardian in London - hardly the English equivalent of National Review  commented on, e.g., the fact that German mosques need to bring in Turkish imams because the population doesn't speak German sufficiently well, and  there are simply none trained in Germany who can speak Turkish.  Regularly, we are treated to stories about riots in the ethnic banlieues of Paris, or the murders of people like Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands.

I disagree with Angela Merkel on at least this - Western democracies, and in particular the US, are pluralistic societies, and to some degree, innovation, growth, and advancement in the arts, science, culture, and industry have been the hallmarks of the West for nearly 500 years because of our willingness to incorporate new ideas.  And I think that our societies benefit enormously when industrious, enterprising people are welcomed to our shores.  Nations that shut their doors to new paradigms are doomed to stagnation and decline - one need look no further than China during the end of its imperial days, or the Arab middle east today.

But I think it's entirely appropriate as part of the bargain that those coming make an attempt to assimilate to the nation that they've chosen to join.  And it's not xenophobia to ask that some core principles that can define a nation beyond simply a geographic, economic, and political corporation be identified.  

E pluribus unum, despite what Al Gore mis-spoke some years ago, means  America is more than a place to sleep and way to earn a dollar.

Put simply - Carroll is right that this is not a "Christian" country; but separation of Church and state equally applies to separation of Mosque and state.  And in this respect, Williams's comments that those who self-identify ostentatiously that, first and foremost, they are any particular religious adherents and then and only thenAmericans are cause for pause, whether they be extremist Christians, Jews, or, yes, Moslems.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Educating Sebastian - Education and the Crab Pot

Up on the shore they work all day
Out in the sun they slave away

While we devotin'
Full time to floatin'
Under the sea

Just finished reading the excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System by acclaimed education researcher and writer Diane Ravitch.  On the whole, it's an excellent, fair treatment of the current infatuation with school testing, accountability, and choice in the zeal to reform our troubled system of public education.  I don't agree with much of what Ravitch writes, and she's a bit too unquestioning of the motives of the big teacher unions, but the book is a good read.

Her ultimate conclusion - that applying corporate models of statistical testing and reward or rebuke - is at the least, not a panacea for the problems of public education and perhaps actually is undermining the real purpose, which is to offer the best education to the most students possible.

One area I do find particularly problematic is her conclusion that the introduction of school choice, either through vouchers, charter schools, or some admixture of the two will lead to an even worse situation than the current status quo, in large part because the results show that the benefits of this sort of reform lead to the decidedly muddled result that some students do particularly well under such a scheme, and some students show little to no benefit or even do worse.

Her analysis asks "Who are the students who benefit?"

Well, the most important predictor of who will receive the most benefit from vouchers/charters are those students whose parents are heavily involved and invested in their childrens' educations, and those students who are most motivated to learn. Those whose parents do not bother to go to parent/teacher conferences, who spend hours in front of the tee vee and not books, and who are more interested in disrupting the class than learning do not show any significant benefit from being placed into a "better" learning environment.

The charters/private schools that do succeed succeed because they have the ability to impose discipline on their students, demand that they listen to their teachers, and can remove from the classroom or expel students who fail to do both.

In short, the "good" students.

Carrying her argument a bit further, if the "good" students are removed and sent to the charter/private school, what's left back in the "regular" public schools are the kids who need the most "help."

This of course is no revelation, at least not if one spends any time to think about the problem.

What I find troubling here is then the question that Ravitch asks implicitly: "What is the role of universal, public education, especially in poor urban areas?  She is troubled (rightly) that the current reform agenda will undermine the traditional, democratic role of the public schools, perhaps leading to ever more unequal outcomes for those at the bottom.

I suppose that Ms. Ravitch has the luxury of worrying about such a thing whilst all the time her children presumably attend "good" schools, and live in a home where books and learning are valued.

The issue with Ms. Ravitch's proposal is what is called the crab pot analogy.  Simply put, if crabs are captured and placed into temporary holding pots, some may struggle towards the top and escape, but will ultimately be pulled back into the pot by others at the bottom, and thus, none escapes.

Trapped in terrible schools are students who truly want to learn, who will do as they are instructed by their teachers, will put in the extra effort over their books, who will eschew television to complete their work, and whose only real means of escaping poverty is education. Students who, if not offered the scholarships/vouchers/charter schools will in all likelihood be condemned to remain in the crab pot.

Ultimately, our public schools should have a vision of providing the best education to as many students as they can.  But is there not room for some sort of help for the poor who value education and are willing to put the time and effort into obtaining it?  If I were the parent of a bright, motivated child whose only crime was being poor, I would be somewhat angry at the misplaced concern of the upper middle class about democracy in my neighbourhood.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Question: Is There Actual Value to an MBA?

The title of today’s walk on the random side is of course a rhetorical device.  Obviously, an MBA degree itself does have value.  It is at the same time a credential and the keys to the door behind which the higher steps on the career ladder are hidden.  This door, in my personal experience, is jealously guarded by those who already have the key (i.e., other MBA types) who do not want the barbarians - people with other types of education and skills - past the gates.  It's equally apparent that inside our top biz schools, valuable instructions on hair styling, shoe polishing, and how to insert flashing transitions into impenetrable and opaque PowerPoint slide decks are being provided.
No; the question I ask is, beyond the ipso facto value of putting those three letters on to your curriculum vitae, is the information taught in an MBA school of any actual, demonstrable value?

The question came to mind today as I read through the brilliance on display at the blog for the Harvard Graduate School of Business.

The article, titled “Pharma’s Future Depends on These Three Trends,” was prepared by Sunil Gupta, a chaired professor of “business administration.”  Professor Gupta holds forth over a number of paragraphs over what the pharmaceutical industry needs to do to succeed.  The tone taken implies that the industry itself is in peril, which in at least my opinion, greatly overstates the case.
What earth-shaking trends does the professor identify?  The incursion of generic products, the importance of emerging markets, and the dawn of evidence-based medicine.
Taken as a group, all of these ideas are more or less correct.  The value of such information is, shall we say, dubious.
Whilst all of these "insights" are relevant, and may in fact be helpful to people unfamiliar with the current state of pharma (e.g., MBA students at Harvard), they are all well-known and part of the DD process in the pharma companies I know of.  "Evidence-based medicine" and individualised treatments are not a wave of the future, but in fact are here, now. And have been for some time. The approach is successful, but any company that is not currently operating with this in its workstream is one that is almost sure to fail. Soon.
The branded generics approach is one that has been considered by all of the big, branded pharma companies; some have adopted it (e.g., sanofi-aventis) and some have not. The jury is out as to how well this will play.
Professor Gupta’s points about emerging markets, especially India, are somewhat novel and intriguing.  India as a market presents challenges unique to India. China has its own basket of opportunities and challenges, but I think is a far better bet in the long term.  And there are other emerging markets that may in the short to medium term present even better opportunities.
In short, the challenges facing pharma are not marketing; not in the traditional sense.  Increasing strains on large, frequently government-payors, demands for increasing evidence of value for medicine, and massive demographic shifts are putting pressure on the drug development process that no amount of marketing wizardry is going to solve.  The solutions, such as they are, are going to revolve around development strategies, reliance on genetic and other bio-markers for identification of targeted patient populations and sub-populations, increased use on economic models to support the clinical process, and creative ways to work with and help payors circumscribe their budgets.  They do not involve clever, short-sentenced, poorly-referenced PowerPoint slide decks.
The bottom line here is that what I see coming out of the mouths (and pens and keyboards) of high-priced MBA graduates is largely bromides, case studies, obvious “solutions,” and generally cliches of marginal utility.  Very, very little creative, innovative, or provocative ideas ever emanate from their well-coiffed heads.  The reason may be that business school ‘classes’ largely consist of case studies, many of which represent mistakes made in the past by businesses.  

These suggestions would be of very high value to, for example Wile E. Coyote, who seems forever doomed to fall into the same traps, Saturday after Saturday.  Perhaps if he got an MBA, he would not use ACME for his instant-hole, explosive, and propulsive needs.  Better yet, he might figure out that the coyote-bird-meal paradigm needs to be re-examined.

But for a business looking for actual, workable change solutions, I am less sure.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Does Lady Gaga "Fit the Suit?"

Those who don't study history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.  This is not a good thing, no matter how "groovy" some of the past may be.

This was brought to mind recently when I saw a FaceBook discussion about the pros and cons of Lady Gaga.  To make a short story even shorter, one party was of the opinion that Lady Gaga is a star more or less in spite of herself, because she has no remarkable talent other than an ability to package and publicise herself.  The other party offered that the ability to package oneself is a kind of 'talent.'

Whilst I have no particular objection to Lady Gaga (I agree her 'singing,' such as it is, does not likely provoke jealousy in Julie Andrews) I do tend to think that she is a bellwether of sorts - that we have almost come full circle from where the music business was in 1962.

Put simply, I wonder if Lady Gaga (and 'Fergie' and American Idol) were not foretold more than 30 years ago?  A lot of people of roughly my age watched countless hours of Brady Bunch repeats, and thus will react with a knowing nod to the name 'Johnny Bravo.'

He Fit the Suit

In this 1973 episode, Greg Brady was selected to be a singing star - not because he was particularly talented, but because "he fit the suit."  Whether he could sing or not was beside the point.

In an age where a person need only sing in the same postal code as the key of the song in order to allow sound engineers with elaborate equipment to work their magic, I think Greg could have had a brilliant career.  That one need only "look the part" is the ultimate triumph of style over substance.

The bad perm, gull wing collars, and mood rings may be gone, but Johnny Bravo is back.

Those who know rudimentary music history of the 1950s and 1960s will recall the struggle between musical acts (e.g., the Beatles) and the record labels and writers (e.g.,  Leiber and Stoller).  With few exceptions (Chuck Berry), prior to Lennon and McCartney, the acts were pretty much puppets; think: the animatronic "children" in Disney's Small World ride.  Lennon and McCartney changed the paradigm, though not without a struggle.  One of the attempts to keep control - the Monkees - gave Don Kirshner one last shot.  The story, ironically, is played out in one of the episodes of The Monkees ('The Devil and Peter Tork').

Who knew that, 40 years later, the ghost of Kirshner would return, and Johnny Bravo would not be saying "Adios."

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Randy Jones and Randy Johnson: An Epic in Two Acts

Recently, San Francisco Giants left-hander Randy Johnson announced his retirement, ending a long, successful, peripatetic career.  It seems silly now, but there was a time when he so struggled with his control that he was a guy who was considered a high-risk prospect.  Enough so that he was not the main guy in the trade that brought Mark Langston from Seattle to Montreal (look up Brian Holman).

Johnson now is a guaranteed Hall of Famer; second all-time in strikeouts. More than 300 wins.

In reading about Johnson, one often sees comments about his being a hard-throwing lefty, with frequent comments about the stereotype of left handers being soft-tossers who get by on guile and trickery.  What serious baseball fan is unawares of the phrase "crafty left-hander?"  There has been no shortage of lefties who had long, even successful careers who seemed like their fastballs would not break a window pane.  Randy Jones won the 1976 Cy Young award, for example.  Jesse Orosco pitched until he was 100.  Frank Tanana had a very long career with a fastball that would not bruise a baby's butt.  That's not entirely true of course; Orosco was only 72 when he retired, and a lot of people forget that at the start of his career, Tanana had a good fastball.

Johnson certainly went against the common thinking, which of course, is frequently wrong.

But why does this perception exist?  ARE left hand pitchers more likely to have less than blistering fastballs?

Of course, only a real analysis would reveal the truth, but here is a thought.  There certainly is a tremendous bias in big league scouting for guys who can throw hard.  For the most part, this bias is useful - a pitcher who can only throw 82 mph had better have some extra-ordinary other talent.  All else being equal, the guy who can throw 95 is going to have a much better career than the guy who can only throw 88.

But looking at the distributions I think reveals something.  Demographic and epidemiological data show that in the US, about 11 per cent of the population (one in nine) is left-handed.  If this were to transfer to major league rosters, a standard pitching staff (10 pitchers) would have about one lefty.  This is not the case.  Usually, a roster will have at least one starter, one "left hand specialist," and one other left hand pitcher.  A cursory look at the rosters reveals that left hand pitchers have about a 300 per cent premium to their value versus right handers.  

To see this effect, look also at the roster of outfielders (infield is a biased sample, since there are NO left hand throwers playing any of the positions other than first base for obvious, physical reasons), and compare the percentage of left hand throwing outfielders to left hand pitchers.

What is the implication?

In order to fill the rosters with lefties, teams have to go deeper into the talent pool.  Guys who if they were not left-handed would have quit baseball and taken up work elsewhere are on big league rosters. That means a lot of pitchers with mediocre, or worse, fastballs.

Put simply, pitchers like Randy Johnson seem like exceptions to the rule because there are a lot more guys on rosters like Scott Schoenweis than guys like Doug Jones.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The MG as Metaphor for "Authenticity"

I have a handful of passions in my life; my wife and son, naturally.  Baseball, though this grows more lukewarm as time (and awareness of the more Mondrian aspects of professional sport) erodes the soft sand at the edges of youth's shore.  Mathematics.  And more recently, classic cars.

In a quick historical synopsis, the funds I earned from my first job (refinishing wood floors) I put towards purchasing my first car.  Having grown up in the US, which is to put it mildly, a car-culture, this is a big event for a lot of males in the demographic 16-25 (at the time, I was 20).  The car I *wanted* to buy was a nearly half-century old MG.  It's not a terribly practical car - two seats; no trunk.  Built before Ralph Nader helped squeeze a lot of the joy out of motoring and therefore not equipped with seat belts.  It had the rumoured reliability of a Central American junta.  And thus, unsurprisingly, common sense (in the verbum caro factum of my mother) intervened, and a much more reasonable Datsun Stanza ended up in the driveway.  Over the next 20 years, I often thought of that car, and thus as middle-age-dom settled in, and along with it the means to essentially spend money on some things that propriety and youth made impossible, I acquired the car I had wanted in my youth.

For a visual, think of the film American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey (the anti-hero) says to his wife, "It's the car I always wanted, and now I have it.  I rule."

Because I am not terribly mechanical, when this or that goes wrong, I turn to the internet for help and suggestions on fine tuning, and one of joys of classic car ownership is that there exists a quite interesting brotherhood (and it's mostly, though not exclusively male) of people who share this interest, and are very helpful and keen on helping out one of the bretheren, no matter the level of mechanical skill.

At the site I visit, there recently appeared a discussion about what will become of the objects of our passion when we are gone.  I am on the young end of the spectrum, and the fear is that the younger generations will not have the appreciation or the knowledge to maintain vehicles that will by then be in the range of 75 years of age.  And I got to thinking about these vehicles as a metaphor for the common buzzword one hears, "authentic."

Personally, I find one of the charms of these cars (and there are of course other things that fit this category equally well) is that they are at once elegant and simple.  My day to day car is a PT Cruiser; it has a lot of technical gizmos, including little lights that illuminate when something is wrong.  It even can self-diagnose a problem and display it in the digital odometer.  And yet, if something goes wrong, despite (because of?) all this wizardry, I simply have no hope of fixing the problem.  It's almost a perfect metaphor for the problems of modern medicine - we can diagnose the illness, but not really treat it.  For example, most recently, my PT Cruiser, which was running seemingly perfectly, popped up the check engine light.  A couple of quick turns of the key, and the problem (P-0441) appeared, which is apparently something that the computer detects is wrong with the emissions control.

Contrast that to my MG; it has *no* computers.  The body is attached to its frame with simply, flat-head screws.  There is no fuel injection.  It cannot tell me when something is wrong.  There is not even a fuel gauge to let me know when it is running low.  Knowing that there is a problem requires me to be aware of the idiosyncracies of the car - is the engine making strange noises?  Does it take longer to start?  How far have I driven since I put gasoline in?  I have to pay attention to how the engine looks and how the whole of the thing performs.  In short, I have a much more "real" connection to it.

And if something goes wrong, almost surely it's a problem that even I can delve in to with a simple armamentarium of a rubber hammer, a couple of spanners, and a flat-head screwdriver.

It's a throw-back to a time when machines were simple, not because of faddish, Hollywood-derived ideas of authenticity (think "Slow Food"), but because life itself was simpler.  That is not to say that they were better, necessarily - these cars tended to break down more often.  They could not go from 0 to 60 in five seconds, or cruise at 80 MPH like even the most basic econobox of today.  But they came with the explicit understanding that you, as the driver, would invest something in their day to day use, and that that time could accomplish something.

And I think in that is something charming to these cars, something "real."  To me, from time to time getting your hands dirty is what "authentic" means, and that is why I think that these cars will persevere, even when the brotherhood of current caretakers passes.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Two Roads Diverged in the Woods...What Will We Leave Behind

A couple of items have me thinking today.  The first is a thread on my favourite MG Bulletin Board Site; the second is a song from the "Mary Poppins" soundtrack, now a favourite of my four-year-old son.  Seemingly divergent ideas, but both speak to me in a similar way.

The former, the thread about MG cars, discusses the question of who will take on our passions for antique cars (in my case, a 1952 MG-TD) once we are gone.  The latter is an observation made towards the end of the film, where Mr Banks is ruminating on his apparent, perceived ruin:
A man has dreams of walking with giants
To carve his niche in the edifice of time
Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal

What I'm thinking about today is the modern view of time, its passage, what we want to leave behind, and indeed, if we ought to leave anything behind at all.  Our ideas of permanence and impermanence have taken different views over time, of course.  As has modernity.  What we value changes.  The Victorians definitely had ideas of grand monuments; Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his epic poem Ozymandias about the folly of such an idea.  Today we claim to value "authenticity," but talk about footprints in not always good terms.

I plan a couple of my own thoughts, but am curious about how others think about what constitutes lasting value, what "lasting" even means, and what we would want to leave behind if we could, Ozymandias be damned.