Public Sector Blues

“One of the things the government can’t do is run anything. The only things our government runs are the post office and the railroads, and both of them are bankrupt.”
Lee Iacocca 1973

History seemed like it was repeating itself today with these two stories hitting headlines in the UK:

The railways in Britain have suffered from a lack of investment for decades, and commuters are now paying the price. I don’t think the general public appreciates how difficult it is to rejuvenate an industry like rail. It could very well take as long to renew as it took to decline, which puts the current Government in a difficult position. What can it possibly do to improve the railways before the next election?

The BBC’s business correspondent has an interesting albeit brief analysis of the problems plaguing the British Post Office (Drastic surgery at Consignia). As luck would have it, I visited my local post office today for the first time since Christmas. When I arrived, the queue was so long that I could barely cross the threshold. With 18 people in front of me and four tellers at work, it took 14 minutes to be served and the queue was even longer when I left. There clearly is a demand for the service, so perhaps a few of the 15,000 imminently unemployed workers should be retrained as tellers?

Ironically the Royal Mail is the best post office with which I’m familiar, the others being Canada Post and the United States Postal Service. If the recent experience of My Life As An American Gladiator is anything to go by, things haven’t improved much in the US.

Perhaps, as in other walks of life, modern technology is forcing postal services to come full circle by undermining the importance of the mail? In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote:

For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it.

That certainly corroborates my experience these days.

What did Henry David Thoreau have against the Post Office? In 1863 he also wrote:

In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.
Of course, he’s not really criticising the Post Office in this instance, merely the people who use it as a distraction from their own reality. It’s hard to imagine visiting the Post Office in order to escape, but if you replace it with television I think his statement would be equally applicable today.

A Kinda Harman Kardon

“Workers of the world forgive me.”
Graffito on the bust of Karl Marx in Bucharest in 1990.

Here’s an interesting article from this week’s Economist (Are Sidney Harman and his kind the answer to America Inc’s woes?) about the management style of Sidney Harman, founder of Harman International (i.e. maker of Harman Kardon stereo equipment among other things). It seems the idea of improving business productivity by attending to the workers might be making a come back.

It Is A Small World After All

“All I know is I am not a Marxist.”
Karl Marx 1818-1883
41 Maitland Park Road, London

Karl Marx’s Last Home
41 Maitland Park Road

Yesterday I discovered that some of my ancestors lived two doors away from Karl Marx’s last London home only a few years after he died in 1883 (they may even have been living there at the same time as Marx, but that has yet to be proved). Earlier this year I confirmed that another branch of the family living at the same time in Canada was related to Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States.

These coincidences started me thinking about the phenomenon called “six degrees of separation” which is the theory that we are all only six people away from any other individual in the world (for more on the theory, aka the small world effect, and its increasing popularity see WLO: January/February 2000: Six degrees of separation).

This theory originated in 1967 but in 1997 some bright sparks thought of using the Internet Movie Database to demonstrate the theory on a small scale. I don’t know why they picked on poor Kevin Bacon, but you can try it out for yourself by viewing UVA Computer Science: The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia.

So in terms of connections between people, is the world getting bigger or smaller? There are more people in the world than ever before, so that should increase the degree of separation. On the other hand communication is easier than ever before, so that should decrease the degree of separation. Perhaps the two trends are just cancelling one another out and the degree of separation remains largely the same.

I wonder if anything else links Karl Marx and Ulysses S. Grant? Yes indeed. A quick search via Google suggests that:

  • both were born under the astrological sign of Taurus;
  • both suffered migraine headaches;
  • and both knew Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune.

Greeley employed Marx as European correspondent for the Tribune in the 1850s and lost resoundingly to Grant in the US Presidential election of 1872.

Tempus Fugit

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”
Hector Berlioz 1803-1869

BBC2 recently started broadcasting the American television drama “24” staring Kiefer Sutherland. The central idea of this timely thriller is that each hour-long episode portrays one hour in the same day. So the twenty four programmes will form a full day-in-the-life of the characters. Viewers are regularly reminded of this conceit by the appearance of a digital clock displaying the current time in this virtual 24-hour day. In another 22 weeks (5

That’s so Sept 10!

“It was very prettily said, that we may learn the little value of fortune by the persons on whom heaven is pleased to bestow it.”
Sir Richard Steele 1672-1729

The American Dialect Society has decided that the 2001 Word of the Year is the expression “9/11” in its various forms (e.g. nine eleven, 9.11, 9-11). It would be interesting to discover who first coined the phrase and the source of their inspiration, but I fear it’s probably a simple case of laziness.

I suspect whoever it was tried to apply the same logic as “24/7” (an abbreviation for “24 hours a day, 7 days a week”). Except, of course, that they got it wrong. In the case of 24/7 the units of time increase; hours are followed by days which are followed by weeks. But 9/11 is the opposite; the units of time decrease. So, the logic isn’t the same.

Of course, 9/11 is consistent with the standard US format for abbreviating the date in writing (i.e. month/day/year). But it seems strange that our spoken language should adopt the format of written English (or should I say “American”?). I was always taught that good writing should reflect the way we speak, but 9/11 is a case of speaking the way North Americans write. Here in Europe where the standard format is day/month/year, it’s only due to the incredible speed of the modern-day news media that we have realised those appalling events did not take place on the 9th of November!

Now, I gather someone has used the term to define an entire generation. “Generation 9/11” includes all those students who entered school in September 2001. I guess they’ll all talk like this:

“So, are you doing anything special for 12/25?”

“Yeah, I’m flying to Florida for 2 weeks. Leavin’ on 12/24 and I’m gonna party 24/7 the whole time! But don’t worry, I’ll be back for your big bash on 1/1. “

“Man, you oughta be more careful. That’s all so Sept 10th!”

At the sound of the beep…

More from that Economist survey:

Some employers handled last year’s job cuts in remarkably insensitive ways. For example, at Cap Gemini, a software firm, employees were informed by voicemail that they had lost their jobs.

This would probably happen more often if more businesses knew how to operate their voicemail systems!

The Theory of Business

“It is so stupid for modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil when he is the only explanation of it.”
Ronald Knox 1888-1957

Regular readers of this page (are there any?) will probably realise that “the theory of business” is a recurring theme. That’s partly because I have an MBA, which despite its reputation can be a highly theoretical degree in places, and also because my most recent former employer is the worst managed business I have ever come across. So every time I find new information about how businesses should be run I find it particularly interesting.

For example, this week’s edition of the Economist includes a Survey of Management (subscription required). As the introduction says:

This survey suggests that the core of good management is a set of three old-fashioned virtues that were often forgotten in the bubble years, when anything seemed to go. At a minimum, good managers have to meet the following criteria:

  • be honest;
  • be frugal;
  • be prepared.

As is so often the case with business theory, this statement makes simple common sense, and I can’t help comparing it with my personal experience.

My former employer is incredibly old-fashioned (not surprising for a business founded in 1766), but lost sight of these principles long ago. It is not honest with customers or staff; it is extraordinarily wasteful, which is one reason why it is not very profitable (it actually made a loss in 2001); and it is rarely well prepared, which is why many business decisions are knee-jerk responses to fast moving events.

Had I known this was the case I would never have accepted the job offer, let alone promotion. How do you determine if a prospective employer subscribes to the Economist’s principles before it’s too late?

Just so you know what I mean by “old-fashioned” in the post above, BBC Radio has just announced that the British House of Commons has agreed that female Members of Parliament and staff will be allowed to breast-feed infants (with certain restrictions). My former employer only allowed women to wear trousers in 1998, at which rate breast-feeding should be permitted sometime around the year 2230!

Well I Never!

“A plagiarist should be made to copy the author a hundred times.”

Karl Kraus 1874-1936

Never in a million years would I have guessed that I could influence the mighty Microsoft, but I’m pretty sure I have. Here’s how…

Thanks to the Internet I have become a world authority on the history of carbon paper. In 1994 I wrote an essay on that subject as part of my MBA. Later that year, when I was teaching myself HTML in order to develop my own web page I uploaded my essay as a simple test of my new web skills. I didn’t want to write anything new so I simply used my old essay. I never bothered to remove it, and so it’s been on my website in one form or another ever since.

I didn’t register my site with any search engines or promote my essay in any way, so I was surprised when a couple of months later I received an e-mail from someone asking for more information about carbon paper (although I didn’t promote it, the essay had a link back to my homepage). Since then (1995) I have received many similar requests. The essay has been referred to twice by articles published in the New York Times. It has appeared in an Australian anthology of stories (intended for school children) about the history of technology. I have had requests for more information from several manufacturers of carbon paper and even one German documentary film maker. I have even been interviewed via telephone about carbon paper!

Well of course, you can probably guess what had happened. The search engines had found my essay while crawling the net, and because it’s a fairly esoteric subject, my page was listed whenever anyone searched for information about carbon paper using Yahoo or Altavista or Infoseek, etc.

I must admit that I am amazed at the situation today, seven years later. Google cites my page first (at its old location) and second (at its current location) in its list of 670,000 hits when you search for carbon paper (try it now Google Search: Carbon Paper). Given the way Google ranks hits, this means in effect that my page is the most popular page about carbon paper on the Internet!

Interestingly, the third link in Google’s results takes you to an essay on Microsoft’s site about the importance of computer accessibility for people with disabilities: Curb Cuts and Carbon Paper. It includes the following introduction…

When a chime sounds to signal that an elevator car has arrived, few of us realize that we?re taking advantage of a technology originally developed to give people with disabilities extra time to reach the door before it closes. In fact, many technologies that were first designed to assist people with disabilities were later widely adopted because of their value to everyone. Carbon paper was first developed for blind and partially sighted clerks who could not tell when their quill pens ran out of ink. The typewriter was invented for a countess who was blind. Curb cuts, first created for people using wheelchairs, are now used by everyone from cyclists to parents with strollers.

Well, where did they get that information about carbon paper and the Countess? No sources are given, but I’ve never come across it anywhere other than my essay and my original source which was Michael Adler’s book on the typewriter. So, I’m pretty certain that Microsoft’s author took it as written by the world’s foremost networked carbon paper historian: me!

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