Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Version 0.3

Reactions to Free by Chris Anderson

Overall the book struck me as quite thought provoking and worth a careful reading. He gets you to think about many things in new ways, often with a powerful phrase that he throws off in passing. For example he throws off a comment about the ultimate personal value of memorable experiences and made me think of an entire business model built around exploiting local climates for off-season vacations centered around live musical events.

One of the recurring themes that bothered me was advertising. He clearly regards it as a benign influence and neutral source of funding, but he never seems to consider that advertising itself has negative externalities and hidden costs. It's most revealing to consider advertising from the perspective of the people making the ads. Do you really want to deal with a highly educated and well informed audience that will carefully and accurately assess every claim in your commercials? Or would you prefer couch potatoes who simply obey the fairly obvious commands to "buy this to be happy"? Or from the perspective of the providers of the goods and services, do you really want to spend the money to have the best quality in the market? Those last increments near the top of the quality scales tend to be quite expensive. There's a much higher RoI if you have adequate quality and use a few ads to create a perception of higher quality, and perhaps nurture the imaginary needs, too, thus creating demand where none would exist. Obviously I regard advertising as a rather corrupt foundation for any economic system. A certain amount of advertising can be a lubricant, but the main point of his "free" is to exploit free goods and services as alternative forms of advertising. To me, it seems too much like treating one disease with a more dangerous disease...

However, my main conclusion was that his understanding of economics is distinctly uneven. The word "free" is powerful marketing-speak, but the value still has to go somewhere. His recurrent mentions of "time" are actually quite significant, since time is the ultimate in non-fungible and scarce resources, but I concluded that the main thrust of the book was on ways to say "free" as in beer without really meaning it.

As is often the case, here are some notes and reactions as I went through the book:

Chapter 2 was supposed to be a treatment of the misunderstood word "free", but it basically didn't say much, and not just because it was a short chapter. The basic assumption was that "free" means free as in beer, at least for the purposes of this book. The important sense of free is "meaningful and unconstrained choice", and he scarcely addresses that at all.

On page 65 he talks about Zappos free shipping policy for shoes. He does mention the higher prices this leads to, but he didn't mention the obvious and much larger problems with the Web-based business model for shoes. Certainly the first things that came to my mind were questions like: "Where have these shoes been? How many times have they been returned? Did the previous people just try them on briefly or perhaps wear them around for an hour? Were their feet clean?"

On page 76 he writes "as certain as the fact we'd once dwelled in caves." In reality only a tiny fraction of homo sapiens ever lived in caves, and even for them the caves were probably just seasonal housing. There were other places where his basic knowledge of historical or anthropological facts seemed questionable, though I didn't flag them.

Page 82 he attributes a quote to Gordon Moore: "Moore's law is a violation of Murphy's law." (sic) The citation notes are unclear, but it doesn't appear in the Wikipedia article cited for page 82 nor is there any citation for page 81. However, what really struck me was that it's nonsense and shouldn't have been used at all. Murphy's Law says that anything that can go wrong will, but there is no way to construe or interpret Murphy's Law so that Moore's Law somehow becomes a violation. Even if Moore was so confused about Murphy's Law (which I strongly doubt), the confusion shouldn't have been reproduced here. I think I managed to dig up the video of the interview that was probably supposed to be the source (based on reports in other articles). However, when I listened to the video I didn't hear this quote. (If I missed it, please let me know where it was via a comment. It's a long video and my attention might have wandered at some point...)

On page 142 he mentions "near-zero marginal cost", but that mostly got me to thinking about the spam problem, which is never mentioned in the book, though it is the ultimate example of free unto death. The closest he comes is a closing reference to "You can't compete with free" on page 230. I think it noteworthy that spam has not-quite-entirely succeeded in destroying email-based marketing by legitimate businesses.

Page 166 mentions OSS, but his numbers belie his own claims of economic significance. The potential has always been FAR greater than the reality. However, it mostly reminded me of RACS (Reverse Auction Charity Shares), which I should send to him as a suggestion... The same page mentioned the failure of a bike-loaning system in Brussels, apparently due to the competitive interference of Clear Channel. Is that an international investment of the ultraconservative company of the same name, the one that owns all those right-wing talk radio stations in America? If so, then perhaps Clear Channel deliberately prefers that such a "socialistic" business model fail even if they have to sabotage it? The American company could certainly afford to write off their minor losses in killing the idea.

Page 192 was like page 76 in the twisted interpretation of science, though evolutionary biology this time rather than anthropology. Mostly reminded me of the Chinese Granny Amazons as an alternative resolution... He should read Dawkin's Blind Watchmaker. However, my basic response is that humans aren't blind and we don't have to be wasteful with random search. He actually writes that "scattershot strategies are the best way [for search]", which shows a basic misunderstanding of heuristic approaches. The natural evolutionary scattershot approach is for the eyeless genes driving backwards to the results. (However, this thinking helps explain his own large family, as mentioned in the acknowledgements.)

On page 218 he writes in praise of the now-defunct Sun Microsystems. Even though he praises Sun's understanding of "free", it obviously didn't work out very well and no longer counts as evidence in his favor.

Page 222 is similar to Chapter two. Here he considers privacy in relation to freedom. He is arguing that some advertisers are more respectful of individual privacy than others, but he again ignores the competitive pressures. Remember that the success criteria are encoded into laws by professional politicians owned by the least ethical businessmen, whose three main criteria are "bigger is always better", "only profit counts", and "damn the externalities". Most businessmen are much better people than that, but they are NOT the ones who are buying the politicians who are writing the new laws about who owns our personal information and what can be done with it. In addition, I felt that he doesn't appreciate the deep threats imposed by the abuse of such personal information. It isn't just that our weaknesses and vulnerabilities or past mistakes might be exposed and used against us, but even our tastes and strengths can be turned against us and used to manipulate us and take away our freedoms.

On page 239 he mentions new business models, which again reminded me of RACS... He also introduced the BizSpark marketing campaign from Microsoft, which is exactly like the drug dealer giving out free samples. Start your new business with "free" Microsoft software, and Microsoft will OWN your data no matter how large you become.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Israel Lobby

Reactions to the Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

I suppose that anyone who writes a review about this book that is even vaguely favorable must start out by saying they're not an antisemite. Well, I'm not. However I am anti-religious, especially when it comes to governments influenced by extremely religious people, and anti-fanatic, especially when it comes to anything. The Palestinians are a Semitic people anyway, though the sources say that the word "antisemitic" is usually specific to Jews in its usage.

The metaphor that came to me a few days after I finished this book was of the balance of blind justice, but with the fulcrum off center. In other words, what the so-called Israel lobby has done is move the fulcrum so that the human rights of the Israelis have lots of leverage and influence and even power in the American political system, while the various other considerations such as the human rights of the Palestinians or even America's own foreign-policy interests are practically without weight. On a physical scale, that would be like moving the fulcrum away from the Israel side, but the political situation is different, especially in that it is more multidimensional.

Overall their description of the situation seems quite insightful and accurate to me, and I've read a lot about the American political system and world history. The situation around Israel is exceedingly unreasonable, and there must be reasons why they can't reach any political accommodations for stable peace with their neighbors. Before reading this book, I felt that the primary obstacle was just the religious fanaticism of a relatively small group of Jewish extremists, but now I feel that the Israel lobby is quite significant, too.

The rational view of the situation is that Israel is a small country that can't indefinitely maintain hostilities against vastly larger enemies. The rational solution would be to engage in reasoned discussions in search of peace--but the example of the Israel lobby in America is that all reasoned discussions can by avoided, apparently indefinitely.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Can You Win the iWoz Lottery?

Version 0.4

Can You Win the iWoz Lottery? A Review of iWoz by Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith

An interesting read, but mostly lacking in suasion from my perspective. The short critique is that it's like a book written by the winner of a lottery trying to encourage other people to play. His particular lottery was the innovation lottery, but the odds are about the same or lower compared to other lotteries, especially when you consider the cost of playing. Insofar as lotteries are just a special tax on people who are bad at math, and insofar as the Woz is claiming to be good at math, I feel that I have to expect better. In addition, when you consider how he struck out the second time he seriously played (with his universal remote control), even his own winning average drops to 50%.

The difference is that a regular lottery just takes a few bucks and a bit of patience to play, while the innovation lottery has much tougher requirements. First you need to have a good idea, but there are lots of great ones floating around, and his winning idea of personal computers was widely shared at the time. The second requirement is good timing as regards any technical and economic prerequisites. In the main example in the book back when Apple was founded, integrated circuits were just reaching the degree of sophistication needed for useful computers and the prices had fallen to the point where individuals could afford to buy the chips. Then there's the hard work aspect as all of the competitors race towards the big prizes. (In my interpretation, probably the most decisive moment in the story of Apple was when the campaign Steve Jobs had started succeeded in persuading the Woz to leave HP. After that the company had the key people with the time and the focus to succeed.) In his conclusion, the Woz talks about individual creativity, but his story makes it clear that the team is crucial. It was the combination of skills that made the difference, with his technical skills balancing the marketing and leadership skills that Jobs brought to the new company.

Not enough, however. There were plenty of competitors in that race, and even though the Woz felt the Apple II was technically superior, I'm convinced that there is also the element of luck. Even the Woz frequently refers to luck in the book. Too bad the book isn't currently searchable on the Web, or I'd get a word count for "luck"...

He talks a little bit about what I regard as the most important philosophic change of the period, but without much insight. He came out of the hobbyist days when it was almost expected that computers would be used by hackers who understood things in a deep way. That was the open box philosophy that was epitomized by the Apple II, and he gives many examples. However, he only nods vaguely at the Mac, which was the first major closed-box success. In my view, he even went over to the dark side in his praise of the iPod later on.

I was also troubled by some of the technical flaws of the book. Some of them probably reflect the technical limitations of his interviewer combined with his desire to make the book accessible to nontechnical readers. For example, the glossary includes EEPROM, which is essentially irrelevant to the book and collapses PROM programming to burning a singular fuse in contrast to the extremely plural reality. However, one that really bothered me as casting a doubt over the Woz's technical abilities was on page 113, where he talks about the search for a manual that listed the frequencies needed for the cross-tone generator. I feel like a real hacker would just throw the signals onto a oscilloscope and find them out observationally. He seems to regard this manual as a major technical secret? (Actually, it mostly reminded of the time I wired a cross-tone keypad into the bottom of a rotary phone so that I could pick up the phone and switch from pulse to tones, probably as part of the non-ATT long-distance phone service I was sharing with my co-residents at the Laurel House Coop back in the early '80s...)

In conclusion, I can't regard it as a great book, but a good read. The Woz comes off as a nice guy who deserved to win--but I feel the same way about many of the losers in those innovation lotteries, and there are far more losers than winners. I should try to read the new Steve Jobs biography for comparison...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Food Politics

Version 0.2

Discussion Questions derived from Food Politics by Marion Nestle

Quite a good book in many ways, but mostly it made me think about some extended questions and even paradoxes that were not addressed:
  1. Isn't it a paradox that the food companies valued the reputation of the FDA and wanted to exploit it whenever it was possible to get approval from the FDA, but meanwhile the same companies were acting to destroy the effectiveness and ultimately the good reputation of the FDA that they were so eager to exploit?
  2. Isn't it a winning situation for the food companies to make more obese people precisely because fat people need to eat more to sustain their fat?
  3. Don't the food companies want inefficiency such as feeding 10 pounds of grain to cows to produce one pound of meat, even if the resulting meat is less healthy than the original grain?
  4. Don't food companies prefer stupid consumers who can be more easily convinced by less expensive and less substantive advertising? Aren't naive and trusting children the best possible targets for such advertising?
  5. If consumers vote with their wallets, won't the fat people win as regards food since they are the people who buy the most food? In other words, don't the economic votes of overweight people count more?
  6. Isn't it a paradox for food companies to argue that food commercials pay for children's TV when there is wide agreement that less TV would be better for the children?
  7. I have to ask, but what about her name? There is only one brief comment in the book that she isn't personally related to the giant food company of the same name, but I still wonder. It certainly isn't a common name and I don't think I've ever heard of anyone else named Nestle. I wonder if there was some interesting story there? Maybe she was kicked out of the family? Or maybe the coincidence inspired her to become a dietitian?
Overall, the book was extremely well prepared and meticulous. The only typo I noticed was on page 61, where it used "avalance" where it meant "avalanche". Perhaps that was a mistake in the original source that is being quoted, but in that case the error here is the lack of a "sic" notation.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Version 0.6

Did William Poundstone sell the answers in How Would You Move Mount Fuji? to Microsoft?

Not sure how else to explain things there... I'm not thinking that he allowed Microsoft to directly censor the book or anything, but more like an arrangement in which they would look over the book, ostensibly to check for mistakes and to protect him from liability, and Microsoft would offer a few suggestions and so forth. Perhaps even with a variable payment schedule that took into account the degree of his cooperation?

What's bothering me about the book is mostly the number of 'troubled' solutions. I hit the first one just after I started reading the book, as described in the slightly redacted email that appears below. However, the one that is bothering me most now is the puzzle about the village of philandering husbands. The supposed key to this analysis is that the wives suddenly knew that there was at least one philandering husband in the village--which directly conflicts with the premise that every wife already knew that there were 49 cheating husbands. There's also a contradiction between the 'friend' used in the presentation of the problem and the later description of the perfectly logical and utterly friendless pseudo-people used in these puzzles, but that doesn't bother me as much as the more obvious contradiction. Apparently the visit of the oracle resets the clock in some mysterious way, but if the chain of logic is actually valid then I can't see why THAT particular 50-day clock should be unique. The puzzle forbid certain kinds of knowledge sharing among the wives, but NOT obviously or specifically the knowledge that there is at least one philanderer in the village, and as soon as any wife realized that all the other women knew this simple existential claim, then the 50-day clock would start running for her. Or in other words, any of the wives could start the clock at any time with a statement similar to the oracles. There's something rotten in Denmark, or wherever this weird village is located, and at this point I'm just too suspicious of the logical flaws.

Microsoft's motivation for 'tampering' would seem to be obvious. They could plant seeds in the book to quickly spot the book-reading game-players among their interviewees. That could involve both seeded answers or bogus questions...

Not sure if it's related, but I recently concluded that Microsoft's essential interface design philosophy is fatally flawed, and this may be an inevitable result of the mental straightjackets created by this kind of interview process. Even if it works exactly as they intend, they can only wind up with the best configuration for the largest number of users--but no individual user is really the perfect fit for the resulting straightjacket.

Meanwhile, here's the earlier email messages:

On Wed, Aug 24, 2011 at 10:09 AM, Shannon Jacobs wrote:
Answer to the fourth question of Chapter 4 in "How Would You Move Mount Fuji", first need for errata. However, my main interest at this point is how many people have already [sent] you these [kinds of] comments--and remember you could probably short-circuit most of this kind of email with an errata page on your website... However, in the lack of any response, I probably won't say more. (The way my memory works these years, without highly specific prompting I'll barely remember the details in two weeks.) [Evidently an exaggeration?]

The part about the natural 180 degree rotation of the right hand was good, but called for some mention of the starting position of the key. Why assume it's vertical? However, my own thinking was more along the lines hinted at by your note at the end, that the passenger side door is reversed. Your analysis of the supposedly correct answer didn't say anything about the mechanism of the lock. A convenient and natural design for an outside door of a home is to open outwards with the hinge on the right side. If it opens inwards it wastes that space inside the house and if the hinge is on the left side the right-handed person has to shift the door to his left hand to avoid his own right arm as he enters the house. If the key mechanism is a rotating cylinder and the bolt it is rotating against is located above the lock, then the natural direction of rotation to retract the bolt is to rotate to the right which is clockwise. (No, I've never studied locks, but I heard that my grandfather knew a lot about them.) Therefore my guess would be that the clockwise direction became traditional to unlock doors, and the designers of the locks for car doors followed that convention for the driver's door. [However, rather than] design a completely different mechanism for the passenger's side, they just mirrored the design from the driver's side [causing it to turn in the other direction].

P.S. My own assessment is that the only position I could possibly qualify for at Microsoft would be CMO--but Microsoft wants a morality officer like a hole in the head. If by some misfortune I had wound up there, based on your book I'm pretty sure they would have classified me as a tester, but only briefly.

On Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 10:24 AM, Shannon Jacobs <redacted email address> wrote:
Just stumbled across your "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" book in the local library. Before actually starting to read it I ran a few tests, including with one of the top scientists of my acquaintance (since I work for a research lab at one of the so-called biggies). Upon starting in earnest, my initial thought was that I should check for errata on the Web, lest I go nuts over a typo.

Quickly found your website, but it didn't help much in my quest. These days we live and die by the search webform... Probing around, your quicktime poems killed my poor computer, which has been suffering pretty badly since the latest round of security software was installed. (The option of buying a more muscular machine out of my own pocket was eliminated by a previous change in corporate security policies...) No joy (so far as this particular book goes, and none of your others are conveniently available in English around here).

After poking around your website a bit more, I do have a reaction to your "Ann Coulter: Human Document". At first I wondered if it was some kind of endorsement. However, now I see it as related to knowledge dysfunctions, an area I've been thinking about a lot these years. It fits into the category of super-ignorance, where Coulter is one of the high priestesses. In brief, most people tend to believe what they want to believe, and the Internet now makes it not merely possible but convenient for people to completely saturate their input channels with whatever garbage they want to believe. You might call it search engine personalization, but I predicted it a couple of years ago as pandering.

Just in case you're curious about the topic or even interested in new ideas to worry about, I've concluded that the most serious category of knowledge dysfunction is abuse of personal information. I may have a twisted mind, but it isn't the corporate theft by collection of personal information that should belong to the real persons (of which corporations are NOT, my friend), but the potential for more subtle forms of abuse. From consideration of the recent Norwegian madman, for example. Imagine that there are terrorists who figure out how to spot such incipient or potential loonies by their writings on the Web. Then the real troublemakers send anonymous email to the police about the possible 'lone wolf attacker', and of course the police can't ignore it. With the other hand, they send anonymous email to the potential loony--and possibly even help push him over the edge. I still feel like knowledge is fundamentally a good thing, but the tools remain morally neutral, and it increasingly seems that the bad guys have more energy... (I see my tangential angel has run amok again.)

Anyway, if there is any errata for this book, I'd appreciate a pointer.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Happy for No Reason

Version 0.2

The American Love of Pseudo-science such as Happy for No Reason by Marci Shimoff

Justification is that Dubya would never admit he needed to be more happy, though he'd like the "no reason" part of it. Tie breaker is that the book is introspective and Dubya ain't, so he wouldn't read it.

The pseudo-science is supposed to be something like science of happiness.

The basic ideas are old, going back to The Power of Positive Thinking and similar books and similar motivational speakers.

Entire book is full of fake scientific veneer, though it was in Chapter 5, which is basically a plug for an obvious scam called the Institute of HeartMath. She tries to give them plausibility with a claim that it was verified by Stanford University and some other institute--but with no citation. Then you reread it more carefully and even the claim is meaningless. Maybe they rented a room in a building owned by Stanford? Nothing there. However, the kicker was the bogus graph, which is supposed to show pulse fluctuations over time as influenced by your mental state. It's easier to start with the supposedly good graph, which shows the pulse varying from 60 to 80 bpm--but within one minute. Wait a minute. Think about it. The pulse is about once a second, but from that data you are supposed to calculate smooth fluctuations in the average rate over the course of a few seconds? It's nonsense, which is exactly what the other graph shows. They are obviously playing some kind of game with the minor fluctuations, but the entire passage is just stuffed full of meaningless fake jargon and obviously false claims that are intended to sound scientific.

Other especially bogus and fraudulent claims involved the power of prayer and mental control over crystals (which was a Japanese scammer). Those are just some of the most glaring examples that came to mind now. Basically I just have to repeat it on a larger scale, the entire book is stuffed full of false claims that are intended to sound scientific.

I do think there is a tiny kernel of truth at the heart of the book. A positive attitude is a good thing and helps you in life. It's possible to be happier, though she never goes as far as saying that happiness is just a state of mind. It's one thing to be content and to adjust your expectations to be more content, but she's arguing for delusional states.

Another aspect that bothers me is the circular nature of the business. They basically endorse each other and help sell each other's books and classes and lectures.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Essential Drucker

Thumb in the Eye Reactions to The Essential Drucker by Peter F. Drucker

Don't think I could do a rapid review of this one, but I wanted to record some of the things that stuck me in the eye as I read it. The problem with trying to summarize it for a more normal review is that his perspective is pretty unusual in a way that is hard to capture. The ridiculously short summary is that a lot of what he says here is valid, but some parts are dated, and there are pieces that don't pass my smell test. The last group is what struck me hardest as I read the book, and those are things I can quickly record.

Digesting the rest of this book is going to take a while, especially his sideways perspective on profit. He tried to argue for justified and necessary profits, but without directly addressing the question of losses. It seemed that his argument was sort of that you needed to have profits sufficient to cover your failures, and that was quite justified, but he didn't say what you were supposed to do when there were fewer failures than you planned for. The implication was that those profits would somehow become excess or unjustified, but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be his intention.

Anyway, here's a linear presentation. I'm not sure why the frequency of 'clumsy thumbs' seemed to be increasing as I read. It might reflect the chronology of when the sections were written, since the book was compiled from many older sources. Alternatively, I may have been becoming more sensitized to things that didn't fit with my developing interpretation of his ideas...

On page 66 he claimed that income equality was improving in the US, but that trend had been reversed long before this book was compiled. The kindest resolution is that this section was originally written sometime before 1980 and the editors somehow overlooked it.

On page 89 he argued that there was an increasingly fair form of parity between a pharmaceutical company and professors at a university. I can't even remember a time when that perception could have seemed justified or even plausible as a projection into the future.

Page 183 includes one of his digs against Ralph Nader, who he clearly dislikes rather intensely. This dig was especially weak, since he was making a blanket claim about customers being intelligent while lumping Nader with the advertising agencies.

His treatment of corporations was inconsistent as regards biological metaphors, and I think that was related to confusion about the purpose of companies. On page 199 he is arguing that the organization is not like an animal and survival is not the goal, but elsewhere, as on page 210, he is argument that the organization is like a human body, based on a comparison of results to calories in a nutritious diet. On that same page he argues that the organization is "a means of overcoming the limitations mortality sets", which seems to be a strong defense of my own position, that a business is mostly in business to stay in business (though of course too many sustained losses will kill it).

On page 260 was an especially annoying incorrect citation confusing two of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The mystery that was solved by the dog that didn't bark was NOT "The Hound of the Baskervilles", and this quotation is clearly a fabrication. I'd already caught him in an earlier mistake, where he claimed that a confederate general had said "Hit them where they ain't." My research convinces me that this was a distortion of a famous baseball player's quote. Perhaps Drucker misled himself with his more accurate but nameless earlier citation of a confederate general for the "Get there fustest with the mostest", though there is some doubt that the general in question ever said it quite that way--but rather less doubt that the general became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, which explains why the name got left out.

On page 288 he had a kind of diatribe that included "radical feminists", but the entire thing was pretty hard to follow and mostly convinced me that he didn't like the idea of liberal education because he didn't understand it very well. He actually seems to be arguing for a kind of education that I can only describe as liberal, but with a more pragmatic focus. This was actually related to a confusing and rather racist section from pages 306 to 309. He starts by saying knowledge work is accepted as a good thing "(except in the black community)" before he speculates whether Europe might follow "the American black" in what he implies is a negative and anti-intellectual course. Then he argues education must be the "center of the knowledge society", apparently ignoring the trends against public education in America over the last 25 years (before this book was assembled). On page 309 he had this sentence, that really hit my poor eyeball: "Thomas Jefferson's society of independent small farmers, each being the owner of his own family farm and farming it without any help except for that of his wife and his children, was never much more than fantasy." Of course the thing that strikes me is that there were slaves involved, too--and it struck me harder when he mentioned slaves and serfs later in the same paragraph... However, he came back to education near the end of the book, as on page 318 in an unclear but negative context, on page 330 when he talks about public schools "going downhill" and in a confusing paragraph on page 345, where says "every American college" is following the lead of a school in Vermont. Though it isn't fully clear what he means, it is clear enough that I'm sure it was never the case... On page 312, he claims the first pyramid built in Egypt is still standing, which is another exceedingly unlikely claim. On page 315 he has a kind of silly passage about government's failure to cure the ills of society, though the most obvious response seemed to conclude that things could be much worse if government wasn't trying to mitigate the problems... Perhaps that's because I felt he never adequately dealt with the roles of government as referee and provider of infrastructure? I guess this paragraph of my comments mostly shows the risks of getting outside of your own domain of expertise, which is actually a theme he mentions in several places.

Still, I want to reiterate that there were many places where he left an impression of wisdom. For example, on page 341 he has a very thoughtful paragraph that meshes with many of my feelings about size and specialization: "It would surely be counterproductive for the cockroach to be big, and equally counterproductive for the elephant to be small. As biologists are fond of saying, The [sic] rate knows everything it needs to be successful as a rat. Whether the rat is more intelligent than the human being is a stupid question; in what it takes to be successful as a rat, the rat is way ahead of any other animal, including the human being. In an information-based society, bigness becomes a 'function' and a dependent, rather than an independent, variable. In fact, the characteristics of information imply that the smallest effective size will be best. 'Bigger' will be 'better' only if the task cannot be done otherwise."

An interesting book, and thought-provoking, too, but right now I feel like the years were unkind to it and the editors should have been more careful. I'm pretty sure that the author was basically in a detached supervisory role that close to his death.

As an interesting coincidence, I should note that this week they just released a Japanese movie, called "Moshi" or "Moshi Dora" that is supposed to be based on Drucker's management philosophy. Those are actually short forms of the real title, which is ridiculously long. In translation the title talks about the manager of a girl's baseball team who reads one of Drucker's books.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What Eisenhower Thinks

Version 0.6

How What Eisenhower Thinks by Allan Taylor Makes President Eisenhower Look Like a Failure

This book was actually published in 1953 and somehow found its way into the public library of Kasawaski-shi in Japan. It's an interesting collection of excerpts of Eisenhower's speeches and writings. The editing was mostly done after Ike had declined the 1948 Republican nomination and before he decided to run for President in the election of 1952. It seems pretty clear that the editor was a supporter hoping to encourage him to run.

I don't know whether or not this book contributed anything to Ike's change of heart, but it did change my feelings about Ike. On the one hand, it gave me more appreciation for his understanding of the problems that America was facing at the time and in the future. However, at the same time it made me feel that he was a failure as president, whereas before I was pretty much neutral about his presidency.

Before reading this book, I regarded President Eisenhower's greatest mistake as the interstate highway system. This was a really crucial decision and policy that helped make America dependent on private automobiles instead of mass transit. I've always felt that the decision was made primarily for short-sided reasons of military exigencies. Mass transit is militarily vulnerable and positionally useless. The facilities of mass transit are sitting ducks and just can't delivery troops to arbitrary destinations where the generals want to attack or need to defend. I'd like to see the exact statistics, but I've often felt the interstate highways were the #1 deep cause of America's harmful dependence on foreign oil.

I felt that Ike's greatest positive legacy was actually the defense of individual rights by the Supreme Court. However Ike himself regarded his two progressive appointments to the supreme court as his greatest presidential mistakes. Kind of hard to give him credit in that situation, even if the results were good. Yes, there were some important events in such areas as civil rights for blacks, but Ike was NOT leading the way, but basically just passively going along for the ride.

However, from reading this book, I felt that President Eisenhower deserves more criticism for knowing better and failing to do anything about the problems he understood. There are many examples in the book, but I'm just going to pick on two that struck me as especially interesting and significant.

One was his advocacy of universal military service. Obviously he did not succeed in leading the country to the adoption of such a policy. I actually agree with the basic idea, though without restricting it to military service. His focus was purely on military preparedness, but I'd prefer including options for various other forms of public service. My own preference would be a weighting system where the least pleasant forms would also be the shortest. For example, one year of military service versus two years of medical support or foreign aid work versus three years of teaching. Yes, I could have missed it, but I've never seen any evidence that he even managed to start a dialog on the topic.

Another area that rather surprised me was Eisenhower's advocacy of a stronger United Nations and inspections-based nuclear disarmament. Again, it seems pretty clear that he failed to move the country in those directions. Some of his comments about America working compatibly with the United Nations now seem downright laughable considering our obstructionist history there.

Considering the era, it's hard to blame him for the anti-communist stuff. However, that part certainly looks kind of laughable now. However, even in that area his understanding of the importance of non-military economic development as the foundation for real national strength makes his leadership look misguided.

In conclusion, if I were a presidential historian being asked for my ranking, President Eisenhower would drop several places because of this book. Remember that this was a contemporary work, not colored by later revisionism and fishing for the best things to remember.