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NSA, the Cloud, and Profit

August 29, 2013 Leave a comment

The NSA's Utah Data Center

The NSA’s Utah Data Center


[AP/Rick Bowmer]

This site is great. (Hat tip: Jim Fallows.)

I suggested months ago that the NSA should go into business as the ultimate cloud service.

Isn’t it great to know they’re backing up all our email? And phone conversations too? … Why don’t they offer to charge us a fee for access to old data? … I would pay for this. Wouldn’t you?

(I know, I’m not the only one to think of this. But I’ll accept credit as an independent suggester, having written about it before seeing the idea anywhere else.)

And now, as an offshoot of the NSA’s PRISM program, there’s PRSM, which provides the very service I had in mind. Some highlights:

  • Unlimited Storage: With the world’s largest data center, share endlessly.
  • 320 million strong: You’ll find every person you’ve ever known. Even grandma.
  • Instantly upload trillions of megabytes of data.
  • Really big computers: Our datacenter can store up to 5 zettabytes of information.

And then there’s the list of key partners: Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL, and AT&T. I recommend exploring all the service’s features.

Meanwhile, back in the non-parodic world, Craig Timberg and Barton Gellman write in today’s Washington Post:

The National Security Agency is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to U.S. companies for clandestine access to their communications networks, filtering vast traffic flows for foreign targets in a process that also sweeps in large volumes of American telephone calls, e-mails and instant messages.

The bulk of the spending, detailed in a multi-volume intelligence budget obtained by The Washington Post, goes to participants in a Corporate Partner Access Project for major U.S. telecommunications providers. The documents open an important window into surveillance operations on U.S. territory that have been the subject of debate since they were revealed by The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper in June.

New details of the corporate-partner project, which falls under the NSA’s Special Source Operations, confirm that the agency taps into “high volume circuit and packet-switched networks,” according to the spending blueprint for fiscal 2013. The program was expected to cost $278 million in the current fiscal year, down nearly one-third from its peak of $394 million in 2011.

Voluntary cooperation from the “backbone” providers of global communications dates to the 1970s under the cover name BLARNEY, according to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. These relationships long predate the PRISM program disclosed in June, under which American technology companies hand over customer data after receiving orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In briefing slides, the NSA described BLARNEY and three other corporate projects — OAKSTAR, FAIRVIEW and STORMBREW — under the heading of “passive” or “upstream” collection. They capture data as they move across fiber-optic cables and the gateways that direct global communications traffic.

The documents offer a rare view of a secret surveillance economy in which government officials set financial terms for programs capable of peering into the lives of almost anyone who uses a phone, computer or other device connected to the Internet.

Although the companies are required to comply with lawful surveillance orders, privacy advocates say the multimillion-dollar payments could create a profit motive to offer more than the required assistance.

787: Outsourcing and Coordination

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment
United’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington

United’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington

[Photo from Boeing]

For years, my best insights on (mis)management at Boeing have come during Stan and Judy’s Passover Seders. Stan, a physicist, worked at Boeing for twenty years and was part of the bargaining team for SPEEA (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) during the 1999-2000 negotiations that led to a strike. Soon after, he joined SPEEA full-time.

No longer do you need to attend Stan’s seder to find out what’s going on at Boeing. You can read Stan’s column, which appears in the Huffington Post. Stan has omitted his characteristic humor and you-are-there anecdotes, but in their place are deeper truths about business, labor, and management.

For instance, a few days ago, Stan wrote about what went wrong with the development of Boeing’s 787. The context is the FAA’s grounding of all US carrier 787 flights two Wednesdays ago, followed a day later by grounding of 787s around the world. From the NYT coverage:

The decisions are a result of incidents involving a 787 that was parked in Boston on Jan. 7 and another in Japan that had to make an emergency landing Wednesday morning after an alarm warning of smoke in the cockpit.

[snip]

The grounding — an unusual action for a new plane — focuses on one of the more risky design choices made by Boeing, namely to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries aboard its airplanes for the first time.

Until now, much of the attention on the 787 was focused on its lighter composite materials and more efficient engines, meant to usher in a new era of more fuel-efficient travel, particularly over long distances. The batteries are part of an electrical system that replaces many mechanical and hydraulic ones that are common in previous jets.

The 787’s problems could jeopardize one of its major features, its ability to fly long distances at a lower cost. The plane is certified to fly 180 minutes from an airport. The U.S. government is unlikely to extend that to 330 minutes, as Boeing has promised, until all problems with the plane have been resolved.

For Boeing, “it’s crucial to get it right,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “They’ve got a brief and closing window in which they can convince the public and their flying customers that this is not a problem child.”

What went wrong? Some have raised the issue of outsourcing.

From the same article: “Boeing has said that it outsourced too much of the work on the 787 to suppliers who were willing, collectively, to cover billions of dollars of the development costs, and that many parts needed reworking.” See also Brad Plumer in the Washington Post, or Mark Lacter:

Still no word on what caused the battery fires that grounded the next-generation plane – and no indication when it might start flying again. But did you know that more than 30 percent of the components came from overseas suppliers, compared with 5 percent with the Boeing 747?

Stan’s latest piece offers a more thoughtful analysis, beginning with the observation that substantial outsourcing isn’t new to the 787, after which he identifies the key issue: coordination.

True, the 787 is heavily outsourced. However, Boeing’s previous airplane, the 777, was also heavily outsourced.

The lesson I learn starts with the large investment Boeing made on the 777 program to integrate all the key stakeholders into design and manufacturing teams, so we could react promptly when problems came up. In business school, that’s known as a coordination cost.

[snip]

The 777 program leaders built in, from the beginning, the engineering problem-solving culture we used successfully on decades of previous programs. Technical leaders could capitalize on trust built through teamwork to allocate sacrifice to some stakeholders, and focus extra resources elsewhere, optimizing on the program overall. This is best done upstream in the course of a program — assuming you have the decision-making authority, which was intrinsic to the 777 business model.

It’s much harder to solve problems downstream, and harder still, if, like on the 787, you have weak decision-making authority and poor understanding of what other stakeholders are doing.

The 777 was built on schedule and delivered on time; it qualified for long-range operations over water at entry into service; it had great dispatch reliability from the beginning; it is currently making customers happy; and is making money for shareholders.

In contrast, the business culture on the 787 program was structured, from the beginning, to skip all those coordination costs. The 787 business model relies much more on suppliers for design and manufacturing. Coordination and problem-solving are relatively weak. Program leaders seem paralyzed when problems come up, because authority for fixing problems is also diffused into the supply chain.

Have a look at Stan’s article in full. And follow him. He’s worth reading.

Categories: Business, Labor, Technology

Crossword Constructor Exploitation

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

crossword

I have long wondered how well compensated NYT crossword constructors are. Each day, the paper dutifully prints the name of the puzzle’s constructor. With a magnifying glass you may be able to learn who it is. But Will Shortz always gets top billing, and you’ll have no trouble reading his name. My sense that constructors don’t get their due is confirmed by Ben Tausig in a recent piece (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).

The financial stakes of the crossword are higher than a casual solver might realize. The New York Times, which runs the most prestigious American crossword series, pays $200 for a daily or $1,000 for a Sunday, which is certainly more generous than its competitors. However, The Times also makes piles of money from its puzzles. Standalone, online subscriptions to the crossword cost $40 a year ($20 for those who already subscribe to the dead-tree edition of the paper). In this 2010 interview, Will Shortz, the paper’s famed puzzle master, estimated the number of online-only subscribers at around 50,000, which translates to $2 million annually.

Meanwhile, The Times buys all rights to the puzzles, allowing them to republish work in an endless series of compendiums like The New York Times Light and Easy Crossword Puzzles. In that same interview, Shortz called these “about the best-selling crossword books in the country.” All royalties go to the New York Times Company, the constructor having signed away—as is the industry standard—all of his or her rights. Visitors to NYTimes.com will also be familiar with the crossword merchandise—mugs, shirts, calendars, pencils, and the like—pitched aggressively by the paper, and perhaps also with the 900 number answer line, which still makes some money from a presumably less Google-minded segment of solvers. Finally, the crossword has a significant impact on overall circulation. Lots of people buy the paper, or even subscribe, in whole or part because of the puzzle.

Tausig makes clear that his beef isn’t with Shortz, who has been a steady advocate for higher constructor pay. It’s with the Sulzbergers.

The crossword business needs its Curt Flood and its Marvin Miller. Yes, not a perfect analogy. But in the knowledge economy, the content creators deserve more. Royalties at the least.

Categories: Business, Crosswords

Failure, or Success?

May 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Whenever I read mainstream news sources (NYT, NPR) these days, I realize that my notion of reality has undergone a major shift in recent years. Either I’ve gone crazy or, after decades of complacency, the scales have fallen from my eyes. I think I know which, but perhaps I’m not in a position to judge.

Here’s the thing. I attended a presentation today about the future of museums, museum best practices, and such, and at one point I realized that I heard something the speaker said in a way that must be at odds with how everyone else in the room heard it. Are they all blind, or am I just mad?

The speaker was talking about the need for museums to engage their communities. Not just outreach, bringing the riches of the museum to the people, but engaging them more deeply. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without examples, and she offered a few, such as a program a small museum in a southern state ran that engaged inmates in painting, in parallel with an exhibition.

That’s roughly what the program did. The details don’t matter. What matters is that the speaker spoke about other work engaging museums and prisons, and mentioned how poorly we do in this country with our prison system. She passed over this lightly, not wanting to turn the conversation to the politics of prisons and our failed war on drugs, but she said enough to suggest that this is what she had in mind. First offenders locked away for years because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, drug offenders locked up for life rather than getting treatment and becoming productive contributors to society. States spending funds on ever-growing prison populations rather than on underlying social issues. That sort of thing.

The underlying message: our prisons are failing us. Our legal/justice structure is failing us. Well, yes. Then again, maybe it’s succeeding. This was what I thought, and what sent off the alarm that maybe I’m crazy.

What is the goal of the prison system anyway? Rehabilitation? If so, then yes, the system is a disaster. But we can make sense of it all if we simply re-state the mission of the system. It’s not rehabilitation. It’s increasing the profits of the corporations that build the prisons and, more and more often, run them. State after state is privatizing the prison system.

Let’s see. Oh, here. Here’s Adam Gopnik, reporting on prisons four months ago in The New Yorker:

A growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

Who said our prisons are failing?

Then there’s our war on terror. You can see where I’m heading. Failure? All these years and we still can’t shut al Qaeda down? Well, what’s our measure of failure? More money to private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. More money for drones in countries with which we aren’t at war, such as Pakistan and Yemen.

Heck, what about our own country? We’re not at war with ourselves, are we? Yet, drones are our future, with local law enforcement agencies getting into the act. And all those full body scanners at the airports. Do they work? Do we need them? No matter. Companies are making big bucks off them. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, is a lobbyist now representing the companies that make the scanners. What’s good for our national security corporations is what’s good for the country.

And education. Yes, our public schools are a failure. We all know that. Everyone says so. The answer? Privatization, of course. We’re going to pay companies to make the schools better.

But perhaps school failure is a success, as it justifies handing public funds to a handful of for-profit companies that have convinced mayors, governors, presidents that they have the answer.

You see? Our prisons aren’t failing. Our national security system isn’t failing. Our schools aren’t failing. They are succeeding. They are ensuring that money flows where it’s meant to.

Crazy, huh?

Don’t agree just yet. I bring you Diane Ravitch, who has an article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. I may be crazy, but she isn’t. She’s one of the most widely respected voices on public education in this country. Professor at NYU, Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board under Clinton and the second Bush.

In her NYR article, Ravitch reviews the recent Council on Foreign Relations report U.S. Education Reform and National Security: Independent Task Force Report, written by, among others, Joel Klein (former head of NYC city schools, now a Murdoch employee) and Condi Rice. The article is not behind the NYR paywall. You can read it without charge, and I urge you to do so. After reading it two nights ago, I was feeling a little more relaxed about my bout of madness.

The beauty of the report is its brilliant interweaving of two great failures: our schools and our national security system. The solution? Shovel money into the usual educational stoves.

I could quote many passages. This one will do:

Statistics are marshaled to prove that our schools are failing, our economy is at risk, our national security is compromised, and everything we prize is about to disappear because of our low-performing public schools. Make no mistake, the task force warns: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk [published in 1983], which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.

What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement.

Ravitch’s skewering of the report is worth reading in full.

With that, I rest my case. I’m not mad after all. Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Let me out of here!

Categories: Business, Politics

The Wonders of Privatization

May 4, 2012 Leave a comment

[Richard A. Chapman, Chicago Sun-Times]

It seems that in 2008, the city of Chicago sold its parking meter concession to a private investment company, Chicago Parking Meters, for 75 years for a one-time payment of $1.15 billion.

Is that a good deal for the city? To have an idea, we would need to know what the annual revenue is. A sidebar in a Chicago Sun-Times article today has the numbers. The city took in $23.8 million in 2008. Chicago Parking Meters has taken in $45.6m, $71.2m ,and $82.8m in the three full years since.

Which brings us to the point of today’s Sun-Times article. (Hat tip: Atrios.)

The private investors who run Chicago’s parking meters are doing better than expected, and now they’re demanding an additional $14 million they say they’re owed under obscure provisions of the wildly unpopular 2008 deal that privatized metered parking and caused rates to soar, records show.

Disputing the claim, City Hall says Chicago Parking Meters LLC is seeking a “windfall to which it is not entitled.”

The $14 million bill stems from parking revenues the meter company says it lost when the city took meters out of service last year because of street repairs, festivals and other city-sponsored activities, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

This is the second time in a year that the company has hit City Hall with a claim for a big parking tab. The Emanuel administration already is in arbitration over a $13.5 million claim over free parking that Chicago Parking Meters says it provided to people displaying disabled-parking placards or license plates in 2010.

That makes the total disputed amount more than $27 million.

I’m thinking Chicago Parking Meters got a pretty good deal. I’d love to pay a little over a billion up front — if I had the change sitting around — and get their rate of return. Plus, it will keep growing.

Faced with widespread technical problems after the takeover of the parking system in early 2009, the company’s early returns fell short of expectations. But it rapidly rebounded, posting revenues of about $45 million in 2009 and more than $70 million the following year. Analysts have said they expect that number to hit $162 million by 2020.

Who did ante up that billion?

Partnerships assembled by New York-based financial giant Morgan Stanley hold a 50.1 percent stake in Chicago Parking Meters. The rest of the company is owned by German financial company Allianz and the investment arms of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

What could Mayor Daley have been thinking?

Categories: Business, Government

Amazon Miracle?

March 3, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m not much of a photographer. However, when I decided to go upscale a few years ago and bought an expensive wide-angle zoom lens for our digital SLR, I immediately discovered why photographers get those fancy flash attachments. It’s not just to look cool. If instead one relies on the little built-in pop-up flash, every shot acquires a lens barrel shadow. It’s simple geometry. Protruding lens + flash just above lens = shadow. A day later, I ordered a flash attachment.

At the time, Nikon offered their SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlight flashes. I didn’t know anything other than that I needed one. I figured the cheaper one, the 600, would suffice. And so it has, until I tried to use it two months ago when Jessica was here to celebrate her birthday early, the night before Joel flew back to North Carolina. I attached it to the camera, pushed the on/off button, and nothing happened. I got 4 new AA batteries (these things eat batteries) and tried again. Nothing. I stared inside the battery compartment, saw some sediment on one of the contacts, cleaned it as best I could, and tried again. Nothing. I put on the fast fixed lens I bought last summer (almost the subject of a long post at the time, but I let the matter drop), took a few flashless photos, and left it at that.

Last weekend, thinking ahead to my big birthday this past Wednesday, I remembered that I had a non-functioning flash. I would have to check it out before the birthday dinner party. Before I knew it, Tuesday night had come. I had done nothing, and Gail asked if I planned to bring the camera to Rover’s for the dinner.

I pulled out the flash again and put in still newer batteries, with the same result. Gail got a tool and played around with the battery contact that seemed to be bent. Still no help. I did a search on SB-600s that don’t turn on. Some people posted to forums about the same problem. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy, but there were suggestions that they are repairable, cheaper than buying a new one.

I went to Amazon’s website to see what new ones cost. It seemed that the SB-600 and SB-800 were replaced by the SB-700 and SB-900. I went to a review site and learned that the SB-700 was a significant upgrade to the SB-600. Indeed, it was close to the SB-900, itself a significant upgrade to the SB-800. Buying an SB-700 looked appealing. Not that I had a clue how to take advantage of the upgraded features or imagined I ever would. But it was now 8:57 PM on the eve of my birthday and I needed a working flash in 21 hours.

I looked up the website of our local camera store, saw that they were open until 9:00 PM, and gave them a call. They’re just down the hill from my office. I could pick one up on the way home the next day. But no one answered. Understandable perhaps. Why get stuck talking to someone at closing time?

Back to Amazon. If I ordered a flash immediately, it would ship out the next day, my birthday, with free two-day shipping, arriving two days late. Or for only $3.99 extra, I could get overnight shipping and it would arrive one day late. Then I saw that there was a third option. For the same $3.99, I could get express local same-day delivery. It would go out and be delivered the next day. I took the deal.

Cue up Miracle of Miracles from Fiddler on the Roof.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles indeed. I got home at 2:00 PM Wednesday and there it was, my brand new Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight Flash. I opened the box, popped four AAs in, attached the Speedlight to the camera, and it worked. We were all set for the party. (If you went to the already-linked post about my birthday dinner, you would have seen an example of the flash’s handiwork already.)

Is this an amazing time to be alive or what?

Alas, on Thursday I discovered that miracles don’t just happen. They come at a price. And I don’t mean $3.99.

That morning’s daily New Yorker To-Do List feature linked to and quoted from Mac McClelland’s piece I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave in the newly available Mother Jones March-April issue. In the evening, I turned to the piece, which makes for nightmarish bedtime reading. McClelland explored work at a third-party warehouse company, one with horrific work conditions, and reports on what she found. She doesn’t say specifically that the warehouse where she worked was used by Amazon, but one imagines it was. And if not, the warehouses they do use are surely much the same.

I hardly know what passage to quote to give a taste of her experience. Any one will do. However, I recommend the cumulative effect of reading the entire article. Perhaps I’ll rely on the New Yorker’s wisdom and quote the same passage they did:

By the fourth morning that I drag myself out of bed long before dawn, my self-pity has turned into actual concern. There’s a screaming pain running across the back of my shoulders. “You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day,” a woman in her late 50s or early 60s advised me when we all congregated in the break room before work. When I arrived, I stashed my lunch on a bottom ledge of the cheap metal shelving lining the break room walls, then hesitated before walking away. I cursed myself. I forgot something in the bag, but there was no way to get at it without crouching or bending over, and any extra times of doing that today were times I couldn’t really afford. The unhappy-looking guy I always make a point of smiling at told me, as we were hustling to our stations, that this is actually the second time he’s worked here: A few weeks back he missed some time for doctors’ appointments when his arthritis flared up, and though he had notes for the absences, he was fired; he had to start the application process over again, which cost him an extra week and a half of work. “Zoom zoom! Pick it up! Pickers’ pace, guys!” we were prodded this morning. Since we already felt like we were moving pretty fast, I’m quite dispirited, in fact….

One suggestion for minimizing work-related pain and strain is to get a stepladder to retrieve any items on shelves above your head rather than getting up on your toes and overreaching. But grabbing one of the stepladders stashed few and far between among the rows of merchandise takes time. Another is to alternate the hand you use to hold and wield your cumbersome scanner. “You’ll feel carpal tunnel start to set in,” one of the supervisors told me, “so you’ll want to change hands.” But that, too, he admitted, costs time, since you have to hit the bar code at just the right angle for it to scan, and your dominant hand is way more likely to nail it the first time. Time is not a thing I have to spare. I’m still only at 57 percent of my goal. It’s been 10 years since I was a mover and packer for a moving company, and only slightly less since I worked ridiculously long hours as a waitress and housecleaner. My back and knees were younger then, but I’m only 31 and feel pretty confident that if I were doing those jobs again I’d still wake up with soreness like a person who’d worked out too much, not the soreness of a person whose body was staging a revolt. I can break into goal-meeting suicide pace for short bouts, sure, but I can’t keep it up for 10.5 hours.

I got my Speedlight 700 in time for the party. I’m a happy guy. But talk about Faustian bargains!

Categories: Business, Economy, Shopping

Hold the Pesto

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

[From The Wall Street Journal]

One of these days the WSJ will finally stop arriving at our door.* Two months have passed since we stopped paying for it. But as long as it shows up, I’ll keep reading the great fluff features, such as yesterday’s on casual dining restaurants.

Regular Ron’s View readers know I have an unending fascination with Olive Garden. I’m determined to understand why people love it. My interest is more conceptual than experiential. Years can go by between field investigations. (Though see here for a report on our last field trip.) Thus, when new research appears on their business model and offerings, I devour it. I dream of dropping by Olive Garden’s research and development center, the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, next time we’re in the neighborhood. And I always ask Gail to unmute the TV or avoid the skip button on the remote when an Olive Garden ad appears.

What a joy, then, to discover yesterday’s WSJ article, with its review of the pressures on our national casual-dining chains to upgrade their offerings while maintaining their appeal to a broad demographic, and its focus on Olive Garden as the prime example. Let me highlight one revealing line:

“We don’t use the word authentic,” to describe the Olive Garden experience, [Olive Garden president John] Caron says. The chain prefers “Italian inspired.”

The article offers this example of Italian inspired:

Chefs at Olive Garden headquarters reverse-engineer menu items from real Italian dishes. A current seasonal dish, baked pasta romana—a mix of lasagna pasta, rich cheese sauce, spinach and either a beef or chicken topping—started as a fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs eaten by company chefs on a trip to Northern Italy.

Chefs found the dish “really rustic, but still kind of normal,” the magic formula Olive Garden chefs often look for, says Marie Grimm, director of culinary development for Olive Garden. In restaurant tests, the company tried a chicken version with roasted tomato sauce, but diners didn’t find it “cravable,” says Ms. Grimm. The restaurant switched to a cheese sauce.

That “fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs” sounds enticing, doesn’t it? But, if I went to a high-end Italian restaurant and saw that on the menu, would I choose it or would I search lower down the menu in hope of finding a dish of lasagna pasta, cheese sauce, spinach, and beef? Am I a member of the Olive Garden demographic? I don’t know.

I do know I like my pesto. Yet, earlier in the article we learn that “for chains that aim to entice almost every demographic group through their doors, there are limits. In several years of tests, Olive Garden diners often deemed pesto too oily, bitter or green.” I fear that I’m trapped between demographic groups, condemned never to find my proper home.

Read the entire article, check out the accompanying video, and study the graphic, which I’ve copied above.

*As a reminder of my desire to bar the WSJ from our house, see today’s opinion piece on Ron Paul by editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz, in which she feels free to describe him as “a leading spokesman for, and recycler of, the long and familiar litany of charges that point to the United States as a leading agent of evil and injustice, the militarist victimizer of millions who want only to live in peace.” And that’s only the beginning of her unsubstantiated hatchet job. Boy oh boy. I have written often of my affection for the WSJ’s Saturday arts and culture sections. The TV reviews, courtesy of Ms. Rabinowitz? Not so much.

Categories: Business, Restaurants

Ninety-Four

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s number week here at Ron’s View. Two days ago, I wrote about Eleven. In this post, I’m giving 94 special billing, as you see. Why? Because today my father turned 94.

You know how you can buy birthday cards for all the multiples of 10 up to 90? (Or maybe 100. I never looked for one of them). And you can buy birthday cards for all the smaller brithdays, 1 through, I don’t know, 10 for sure, maybe 12 or 15 or 18? Well, if I had Mr. Hall‘s ear, here’s what I’d suggest. They should view the scale from 0 to 100 as symmetric about 50 and produce cards in the upper reaches that mirror the ones lower down. As an example, since there are cards for 5-year-olds, there should be cards for 95-year-olds. If there are cards for every age from 1 to 12, there should be cards for every age from 88 to 99. Don’t you think?

I’ll be keeping an eye out for that 95 card for next year. Happy Birthday, Dad.

Categories: Business, Family

Mountaintop Removal Mining

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Barry had a superb piece in today’s NYT about Lindytown, West Virginia, whose residents have been bought out by a coal-mining subsidiary of Massey Energy. With the mountaintop mining operation taking place above the town, buying the town out may have been cheaper and easier than dealing with resident complaints and claims.

The article explains that after a mountain is removed (literally removed) to mine its coal, the land must be restored. Typically, this is done by placing the remains into an adjacent valley, then planting over it all. Barry describes the typical result,

an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of feet in the air — “a valley fill,” [environmental advocate Maria Gunnoe] says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Ms. Gunnoe has a point. James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom and crushed rock from deeper in the ground to the top. With the topography and soil properties altered, Dr. Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

“You have hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have acclimated to the native, undisturbed conditions over the millennia,” he says. “And now you’re inverting the geologic profile.”

Coincidentally, zunguzungu had a post yesterday on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). He describes the annual floods he was accustomed to during his West Virginia childhood and notes that

[f]looding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining …

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass … . And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

zunguzungu’s post is worth a look, at the least, for its photos, one of which is at the top. And be sure to read Barry’s article.

Categories: Business, Environment

Academic Accountability, Texas Style

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

The Wall Street Journal expanded their Saturday arts and culture coverage earlier in the month, splitting the old weekend section in two. Review has a vastly-enlarged pullout books section plus coverage of science, commerce, politics, language, technology, art, and ideas. Off Duty treats food and wine, travel, fashion and design. Yesterday’s Review section led off with a two-page cover story on measuring accountability of faculty members at public universities. Texas is leading the way.

Carol Johnson took the podium of a lecture hall one recent morning to walk 79 students enrolled in an introductory biology course through diffusion, osmosis and the phospholipid bilayer of cell membranes.

A senior lecturer, Ms. Johnson has taught this class for years. Only recently, though, have administrators sought to quantify whether she is giving the taxpayers of Texas their money’s worth.

Chester Dunning, a history professor, has won several teaching awards. According to a report by the chancellor, he also loses money for the university, though his department is in the black overall.

A 265-page spreadsheet, released last month by the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, amounted to a profit-and-loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.

Ms. Johnson came out very much in the black; in the period analyzed—fiscal year 2009—she netted the public university $279,617. Some of her colleagues weren’t nearly so profitable. Newly hired assistant professor Charles Criscione, for instance, spent much of the year setting up a lab to research parasite genetics and ended up $45,305 in the red.

This is extraordinary, attaching a dollar amount to each faculty member in order to measure the member’s worth. As noted in the next sentence, faculty members called the sheet “misleading, simplistic and crass.” That sounds about right. Yet, as further discussed in the article, there has for years been a growing insistence by state legislators and other constituencies that public universities account for their productivity, in parallel with shrinkage of support for state universities, as measured either in real dollars or, more dramatically, in percentage of state expenditures.

Any effort at numerical measurement of faculty worth is inevitably going to be misleading and simplistic. On the teaching side, how does one measure a faculty member’s impact on students in the long term? Student teaching evaluations have many failings, but at the least, they are short term, not allowing students to look back and recognize the strength or weakness of a course based on how it helped them with later courses, careers, or well lived lives. In the context of a major research university such as mine, it is tempting to measure research productivity in terms of grant funds received. This has some value, but it has the weakness of putting the cart before the horse. Measuring research by the funds generated is like measuring a restaurant by how expensive its food is. Well, that may not be the best analogy, but the underlying point is that you can’t measure quality by cost alone. I don’t deny that some attempt must be made to measure quality. A single number isn’t likely to do it though.

In any case, if one were to measure research quality by grant funds, one would have to take into account disciplinary norms, and university administrators do exactly that. Which is fine for subjects with significant research funding, such as physical and biological sciences. At the other extreme, how does one measure the quality and impact of creative work in arts and humanities? Some people won’t have a problem answering this: to them, it’s a waste, not worth support from state (or federal) governments. I would happily argue against this view, but not here. Instead, let me conclude with the closing paragraphs of the WSJ article.

The concept of a productivity spreadsheet came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that Gov. Rick Perry invited to a state university summit in May 2008. The group suggested several reforms with a common theme: Let taxpayers see what’s going on at every public institution—and let them decide what’s worth subsidizing.

Bill Peacock, a vice president at the foundation, acknowledges that this approach could mean a radical reshaping of academia, with far more emphasis on filling students with practical information and less on intellectual pursuits, especially in the liberal arts.

That’s OK by him. “Taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Mr. Peacock says, should decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.”

When the choice is put that bluntly, Chester Dunning, a history professor at Texas A&M, wonders if he’d pass muster. Mr. Dunning teaches two classes a semester and has won several teaching awards. His salary of about $90,000 a year also covers the time he spends researching Russian literature and history. His most recent book argues that Alexander Pushkin’s drama “Boris Godunov” was a comedy, not a tragedy.

Mr. Dunning says his scholarly work animates his teaching and inspires his students. “But if you want me to explain why a grocery clerk in Texas should pay taxes for me to write those books, I can’t give you an answer,” he says.

His eyes sweep his cramped office, lined with books. Then Mr. Dunning finds his answer. “We’ve only got 5,000 years of recorded human history,” he says, “and I think we need every precious bit of it.”

Categories: Business, Education
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