Thousands of minks set loose in Germany

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

This cute little fellow is one of thousands of minks set loose in Germany — to die and likely destroy the local ecology in the process:

German conservationists have condemned the release of some 17,000 minks from a fur farm, apparently by animal rights activists, saying they are likely to starve in the wild and could disturb the ecological balance in the region.


Women in Science

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

On the topic of Women in Science, Phil Greenspun notes that “Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.” Perhaps there are few women in academic science because they found better jobs:

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:
  1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
  2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
  3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
  4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
  5. age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn’t quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a “second rate has-been” label on his forehead.

Don’t be fooled by sample bias, he notes, if you’re a young student at MIT, surrounded by Nobel-winning science professors.

For whom does academic science as a career make sense?

The picture so far is pretty bleak. The American academic scientist earns less than an airplane mechanic, has less job security than a drummer in a boy band, and works longer hours than a Bolivian silver miner. Roger W. Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, in a March 2, 2006 discussion run by the Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the situation of the tenure lottery winners:
“The average full professor, someone who has been teaching for, say, fifteen years or longer, is making five times less than the average president at most institutions; works 60 – 70 hour weeks, uses holidays to do research, and tries desperately to find time to be a good spouse, father, mother, or partner. The life of the mind may seem cushy, but it is not.”

Does this make sense as a career for anyone? Absolutely! Just get out your atlas.

Imagine that you are a smart, but impoverished, young person in China. Your high IQ and hard work got you into one of the best undergraduate programs in China. The $1800 per month graduate stipend at University of Nebraska or University of Wisconsin will afford you a much higher standard of living than any job you could hope for in China. The desperate need for graduate student labor and lack of Americans who are interested in PhD programs in science and engineering means that you’ll have no trouble getting a visa. When you finish your degree, a small amount of paperwork will suffice to ensure your continued place in the legal American work force. Science may be one of the lowest paid fields for high IQ people in the U.S., but it pays a lot better than most jobs in China or India.

Read the whole thing.

Love on the Net

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Not everyone’s ready for Love on the Net:

George McCutcheon was in the business of selling periodicals, and he wanted to be able to take orders on the net. He wasn’t very into technology, so he asked his teenage daughter, Maggie, to handle that part of the business. Maggie soon had the connection working, but also used it to flirt with many men she met on-line. She invited one of them, Frank, to visit her in the real world. Her father found out, and was furious…furious to the point that he threatened to kill her if she saw Frank again. Maggie had her father arrested and charged with threatening behavior.

Yawn, you say…why is this newsworthy? Things like this probably happen all the time.

The above incident, though, happened in the 1880s, and was written up in the 1886 edition of Electrical World. The “net” referred to above was the telegraph network.

That story came from Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.

The Harvard Indicator

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Investors are always looking for new, useful indicators to predict market performance. Behold The Harvard Indicator:

Many different indicators have been used in an effort to project future stock market directions — everything from interest rates to transportation volumes to the length of women’s skirts. Here’s a new one. Roy Soifer suggests that the collective career decisions of Harvard MBA graduates are a contrarian market indicator…that when the graduates are heading for Wall Street in droves, then the market is likely headed for a fall — whereas, when they are choosing jobs that aren’t stock-market-oriented, then the future of the market will be bright. Specifically, Soifer (who is himself a Harvard MBA) says his data implies that: when the percentage of Harvard MBA grads going into market-related jobs is under 10%, it’s a signal that stocks are a long-term buy…and when the number is over 30%, it’s a sign that the markets are overvalued and due for a fall. (The most recent number is 26 percent, at the very high end of “neutral” territory.)

Chesterton on Living in a Small Community

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

This quote from Chesterton on Living in a Small Community seems increasingly relevant in our modern world of niche Net communities:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique….The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell.

Ask "Why" Five Times

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

One tactic of The Toyota Way is to Ask “Why” Five Times:

The Japanese mantra “ask why five times” is by now pretty well known, I believe, in U.S. manufacturing companies. But “ask why five times” has value outside manufacturing, and indeed in nonbusiness organizations as well as businesses. For those who are interested, a brief summary of the concept, taking the form of a manufacturing example:

There’s a puddle of oil on the shop floor. One of the machines is leaking.

ACTION: Clean up the oil. But then ask…
WHY is there oil on the floor?

The machine has a bad gasket.

ACTION: Replace the gasket. But then ask..
WHY was the gasket bad?

Check out the condition of the gaskets on some other machines.
Looks like we’ve been buying inferior gaskets.

ACTION: Change the specifications so we don’t get any more of these. But also ask..
WHY did we decide to buy the gaskets that we did?

Uhh…they were cheap? Turns out the purchasing policy for supplies like this says “always buy the low bid.”

ACTION: Change the policy to give more weight to quality as well as price. But also ask…
WHY did the head of Purchasing ever approve a policy like this in the first place?

Maybe because his *incentive program* includes a big component for year-over-year reductions in supplies cost, with no measurement for downtime impact of bad items?

ACTION: Change the incentive program.
WHY did a one-sided incentive program like this get created and approved?

Turns out no one in Human Resources has any experience in incentive program design.

ACTION: Assign someone in HR to take some courses and do some reading in the field of incentive programs, how they go right, and how they can go wrong.

It may seem like common sense, but it’s not that easy to implement:

As you go up the levels of successive “why”s, the nature of the problems changes, and hence, the set of people who must be involved in resolving them changes. You can expect a machine operator to notice the oil on the floor, and perhaps to assess and replace the gasket, but it would be unreasonable to expect him to identify the problems in the incentive plan for the director of Purchasing. Hence, handoffs in some form need to occur between the successive levels, and it is at these handoff points that the thread of the problem is likely to be lost.

Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Low Buzz May Give Mice Better Bones and Less Fat

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Dr. Clinton T. Rubin, director of the Center for Biotechnology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has found that a Low Buzz May Give Mice Better Bones and Less Fat:

All he does is put mice on a platform that buzzes at such a low frequency that some people cannot even feel it. The mice stand there for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Afterward, they have 27 percent less fat than mice that did not stand on the platform — and correspondingly more bone.

Some background:

The story of the finding, which was published online and will appear in the Nov. 6 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, began in 1981 when Dr. Rubin and his colleagues started asking why bone is lost in aging and inactivity.

“Bone is notorious for ‘use it or lose it,’” Dr. Rubin said. “Astronauts lose 2 percent of their bone a month. People lose 2 percent a decade after age 35. Then you look at the other side of the equation. Professional tennis players have 35 percent more bone in their playing arm. What is it about mechanical signals that makes Roger Federer’s arm so big?”

At first, he assumed that the exercise effect came from a forceful impact — the pounding on the leg bones as a runner’s feet hit the ground or the blow to the bones in a tennis player’s arm with every strike of the ball. But Dr. Rubin was trained as a biomechanical engineer, and that led him to consider other possibilities. Large signals can actually be counterproductive, he said, adding: “If I scream at you over the phone, you don’t hear me better. If I shine a bright light in your eyes, you don’t see better.”

Over the years, he and his colleagues discovered that high-magnitude signals, like the ones created by the impact as foot hits pavement, were not the predominant signals affecting bone. Instead, bone responded to signals that were high in frequency but low in magnitude, more like a buzzing than a pounding.

That makes sense, he went on, because muscles quiver when they contract, and that quivering is the predominant signal to bones. It occurs when people stand still, for example, and their muscles contract to keep them upright. As people age, they lose many of those postural muscles, making them less able to balance, more apt to fall and, perhaps, prone to loss of bone.

“Bone is bombarded with little, teeny signals from muscle contractions,” Dr. Rubin said.

He discovered that in mice, sheep and turkeys, at least, standing on a flat vibrating plate led to bone growth. Small studies in humans — children with cerebral palsy who could not move much on their own and young women with low bone density — indicated that the vibrations might build bone in people, too.


Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Today’s dose of cute comes from a four-day old male tapir named Gesztenye, or Chestnut:

Four-day old male tapir Gesztenye (Chestnut) stands in his enclosure in the Xantus Janos Zoo of Gyoer,Hungary, as the baby is first shown to the public in Gyoer, 124 kms west of Budapest, Hungary, Monday, Oct. 29, 2007.

The Future of Tradition

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

I’ve cited Lee Harris’s The Future of Tradition before, but I stumbled across it again, and I find it well worth re-reading:

A tradition, [Hayek] realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it. If a primitive tribe justifies its incest taboo with a myth about divine siblings whose sexual liaison produced a monstrously deformed cockroach, this does not make the tradition a bit less useful to the community.
For implicit in this observation is the insight that every inherited tradition has come down to us at two distinct levels — first, as a behavioral phenomenon, as an embodied value hardwired into our neural circuitry and into our sweat glands, and secondly, as an articulated value that can be analyzed and discussed, attacked and defended, in words.

In the case of the tradition against incest, at the primary level it exists in the form of the commandments, injunctions, prohibition, and so on, to keep brothers and sisters, or parents and children, from having sexual intercourse. They work by programming the members of the community to automatically and instinctively avoid committing incest. They constitute the visceral code of the community that commands us to act in certain ways and forbids us to act in other ways.

At the secondary level, there is what might be called (to use Marxist terminology) the ideological superstructure; i.e., the system of myths and statements and arguments that are used by the community to justify obedience to the commandments, injunctions, and prohibitions. In the case of our islander, this secondary level is represented by the myth of the gigantic cockroach spawned by incest. This ideological superstructure may be used polemically and apologetically as well and is often most fully developed and exploited for this purpose, frequently ending up in immense intellectual constructions that are Summa contra Gentiles: everything that can be argued against those who challenge the truth of the ideological superstructure.

In evaluating whether a “tradition” is useful or not, we must keep this distinction in mind. For when confronted with any particular tradition, we now have two different criteria to evaluate its usefulness — first, the usefulness of the tradition’s base, the visceral code out of which the social structure of the community is created, and second, the usefulness of the tradition’s ideological superstructure.

But once we grasp this distinction, it immediately becomes apparent that there can be a conflict, perhaps violent, between the two manifestations of one tradition: the embodied and visceral version versus the articulated and ideal version. In our primitive island’s traditional taboo against incest, for example, the visceral form of the tradition might succeed in preventing inbreeding among the islanders by producing visceral aversion; yet its articulated form, namely, the myth of the monstrously deformed cockroach, may work quite differently. Indeed, as the islanders become more and more sophisticated, the continued use of this myth may actually tend to make people more likely to violate the visceral code and to commit incest on the basis of the quite correct empirical belief that incestuous unions do not produce gigantic deformed cockroaches.

This means that as a population becomes more “enlightened,” it is more likely to challenge the tradition on the basis of its transparently mythic or fabulous origin; this in turn threatens to undermine the population’s willingness to instill the visceral code into its children. If “everyone” knows that incestuous lovers do not spawn enormous insect children, then what is the point of teaching one’s children not to commit incest?

DIY Drones

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Chris Anderson has put together a site for DIY Drones:

This is a resource for all things about amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): How-to’s, links, videos, images and a discussion group.

Among other things, this is where we’ll be listing all the parts, software and instructions to build each of our UAVs.

In my copious spare time I may have to give this a try:

GeoCrawler 2 (Based on a Lego Mindstorms autopilot. Less than $1,000 — start with this one)

The Innovator’s Solution

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

David Foster reviews The Innovator’s Solution, which develops four major themes, “which are amplified using examples ranging from semiconductors to automobiles to milkshakes”:

  1. Disruptive innovations — those destined to change the structure of an industry — tend to attack from below. They usually first appear in a form that is in some ways inferior to the existing dominant technologies, and hence are unlikely to get the attention or respect of industry incumbents.
  2. In a venture dedicated to the introduction of a disruptive technology — whether a start-up business or a division of a larger company — early profitability is more important than early rapid growth. (This is a very contrarian opinion in some quarters.)
  3. When attractive profits disappear in a market as a result of commoditization, the opportunity to earn attractive profits will usually emerge at an adjacent stage of the value chain.
  4. In segmenting a market, the purpose for which the product is being bought (“circumstance,” in the terminology of the authors) is a more useful dimension than the attributes typically used, such as customer demographics or product features.

Read the whole review. The summary points only hint at what he has to say.

After Succeeding, Young Tycoons Try, Try Again

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

After Succeeding, Young Tycoons Try, Try Again:

The Internet, a low-overhead medium with a global reach, has greatly accelerated the wealth creation phenomenon, producing a larger breed of multimillionaires even younger and richer than in the past.

They are happy to be wealthy, of course, but many of these baby-faced technology tycoons often seem indifferent to the buying power of their money, at least at this stage of their lives. Instead, nearly all of them have chosen to throw themselves back into a start-up, not so much because they want a spectacular new home or a personal jet — though many of them do — but because they are in a competition with themselves and one another.
Maximillian Rafael Levchin was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, a Jew living under Soviet rule for 16 years. As the Soviet Union was crumbling, the family moved to the United States and settled in Chicago. But the worst year of his life, he said, was not when he was growing up but after eBay bought PayPal.

He thought he would spend the time after the sale “exploring my inner self.” Instead, he spent the better part of 12 months “feeling worthless and stupid” and baffled by what he might do with the remainder of his life. He felt too young to retire or downshift a gear or two — and too restless to become a philanthropist.

“I enjoy sitting on nice beaches and hanging out with my girlfriend and playing with my dog, but that’s three hours a day,” Mr. Levchin said. “What about the remaining 18 hours I’m awake?”

Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men originally appeared in the February 1924 issue of The American Magazine. An excerpt:

Every year I picked up a half-dozen live young fellows who seemed to have a capacity for hard work, and shoved them in at the bottom of the pile, letting them make their way up to the better air and sunlight at the top — if they had it in them to do it.

For a time I tried picking these youngsters out of the colleges. But my experience with college men was not fortunate. If I selected good students, I found too often that their leadership had been won by doing very well what their teachers had laid out for them. They had developed a fine capacity for taking orders, but not much initiative. If I hired athletes, too many of them seemed to feel that their life work was done; that the world owed them a living in exchange for what they had achieved for the grand old school. Also, there is not much social distinction in the grocery business. Young ladies — and their mothers — are much more thrilled by bonds than by butter and eggs.

So I took most of my raw material from our delivery wagons, or other places right at hand. Out of this hard-muscled, hard-headed stuff I have built a business that has made me rich according to the standards of our locality, and has built modest fortunes for at least twenty other men. More important than that, it has stood for clean dealing and a faithful adherence to the best business ethics. Even our hottest competitors, I think, are willing to grant us that.

Will Work With Food

Monday, October 29th, 2007

I was just discussing the logistics of Internet-based grocers with some colleagues, and I came across this Forbes piece, Will Work With Food, about FreshDirect, which is succeeding where WebVan failed:

FreshDirect’s continued success depends entirely on product quality and logistical prowess. “The challenge is for the 33 pieces to show up in the factory at the same time to get on the truck,” says Kelly McGowan, chief information officer. He still spouts the lingo of his old job on Wall Street, comparing food delivery to the electronic transmission of stock and bond trading orders.

FreshDirect worries about things as minuscule as the number of times an item gets scanned before it gets to the packing station. There, workers wearing snowsuits (parts of the warehouse are chilled to 36 degrees) take items off a conveyor, scan them and put them in a cardboard box.

If the wrong item gets sent to the packers by mistake, a runner exchanges it, holding up the order and possibly the entire refrigerated truck. Over the last few years the company invested in additional scanners so that items get scanned three times before they reach the box, providing extra places to catch mistakes. The additional 50 cents it costs to find an error is a lot less than the $6 or so it would cost if the error slipped through. “We’re eliminating human error as much as possible,” says Operations Manager Ariel Ramirez.

FreshDirect benefits from not having to arrange items as a store would, with high-profit items at eye level and low-profit bulk items down low. Instead, items on eight long shelves are arranged based on how often they’re ordered, how much they weigh and how delicate they are. Heavy jugs of Tide detergent go at the beginning of the picking process and fragile sliced breads at the end. Pickers take the items off the shelves and put them into a nine-box array that moves between picking bays on an overhead track, like a ski lift.

If orders are finished but their picking basket has to wait in line behind incomplete orders, the company wastes money. Pickers now send 35% of all orders through quicker, cutting the boxes’ travel time from 45 minutes to 30. The software creates one pick list for items stored in farther-out aisles and another for closer-in items, where most of the pickers work. Where once an order traveled an average of 1,000 feet in the warehouse, now it goes 830 feet.

FreshDirect’s 150 drivers must race to meet the two-hour window the company promises customers. Without maps or GPS, Manhattan-bound drivers have to know the intricacies of service elevators, parking spots and difficult building superintendents. That’s why new drivers deliver 35% fewer orders than experienced ones. During rush hour FreshDirect limits the number of delivery slots it offers and keeps drivers away from crowded streets, instead dispatching a bigger truck to serve as a base for deliverymen pushing handcarts to customers’ apartments.

The kitchen where FreshDirect’s executive chef, Michael Stark, prepares his packaged meals is increasingly automated, too. Stark spent two years translating his recipes into the SAP factory software. When an order for lasagna comes in, the system checks the kitchen’s inventory and orders meat, pasta, cheese and tomato sauce, routing the meat to the deli for grinding. There’s more automation to come, with machines to grill pizzas and form meatballs.

New Yorkers already turn to Stark for 1,000 rotisserie chickens a week. As the company gets bigger, squeezing costs is as important as squeezing oranges.