Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fails to refute moral relativism

Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put to the Test
by Rushworth M. Kidder

While this book contains many interesting and illuminating anecedotes of personal courage (or the lack thereof), it fails on one key point.

Kidder argues against moral relativism, suggesting (based on interviews) that honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion are universal values. These are just words, however, and they can mean very different things to different people. To people in a very communal culture, responsibility might be used to mean the individual's responsibility to the community. In more individualistic cultures (and in the philosophy of Ayn Rand) it would more likely mean responsibility to self. To some fairness means equality, while to others it can mean extreme discrimination. A refutation of moral relativism demands that different people agree upon the same meanings, not merely the same words.

With this failure, Kidder's entire case falls down. He presents moral courage as "the string" holding together the pearls (of moral values). When those very values are in question, moral courage becomes undefinable.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Good drug legalization analysis

Between Politics and Reason: The Drug Legalization Debate
by Erich Goode

In this brief analysis, Goode takes the reader beyond the value statements and ideology that characterize most conversation about drugs in the US, analysing the real cost in dollars and lives, and how the equation might change under various legalization proposals. He thoroughly presents the physical and social effects of most of America's commonly abused drugs, including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. In the end, Goode suggests a number of ways to mitigate the damage of tobacco and alcohol, many of which have been implemented since the book's publication.

The book's shortcoming, if any, is that it completely ignores America's most commonly used drug, caffeine. He gives just half a sentance on the drug, saying that it is a mild stimulant with no euphoric effect.

If you have any interest at all in the subject, you will find this a valuable book. It is concise, but offers thorough references, and aside from the above-mentioned suggestions, reads like a recent publication.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Enjoyable and unpredictable

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger

This is hands-down, the best recently-written novel I have read.

Henry DeTamble is an adverturous librarian involuntarily and unpredictably travels through time. Clare Abshire is the artist he marries, who life is natural and sequential. This is the story of their life together across 72 years of Clare's life and 18 years of Henry's.

The book raises, without answering, several curious circularities caused by this time travel. Most notably, the first time Henry meets Clare, she is looking for him because she grew up with (older) time displaced Henry. The first time Clare meets Henry, he is already married to her and goes to see his wife's childhood. (He does not strictly control the time displacement, but he tends to visit times and places that are somehow important to him.) Niffenegger largely ignores this causal dillema, though the characters do spend some time considering time-displaced causation.

More interesting (and subtle) is a red herring, which I will not go into in detail, regarding Henry's death. Suffice it to say that a heavily forshadowed event does not go down as the reader is initially led to expect.

On the whole this is quite an enjoyable novel, and a rather unpredictable plot.

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A moving tale

The Kite Runner
by Khalid Hosseini

Although the principal setting may seem exotic to many American readers, the themes of betrayal and redemption are as old as the Mullah Nasrudin jokes the characters tell, and they may never have been as well-told as here.

This is a particularly difficult book to comment upon without spoiling the plot, although perhaps that would not be a bad thing.
In Afghanistan, the ending was all that mattered. When Hassan and I came home after watching a Hindi film at Cinema Zainab, what Ali, Rahim Khan, Baba, or the myriad of Baba's friends -- second and third cousins milling in and out of the house -- wanted to know was this: Did the Girl in the film find happiness? Did the bacheh film, the Guy in the film, become kamyab and fulfill his dreams, or was he nah-kam, doomed to wallow in failure?

Was there happiness at the end, they wanted to know.

I am in America, however, not Afghanistan, and so I will not reveal the end of this story here.

For its 370 pages this book is a remarkably quick read, and not overly demanding. Khalid Hosseini develops his story patiently, never rushing it but not letting it drag either.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

A great band's best album

by the New Grass Revival
Flying Fish Records #254

Commonwealth is probably the best studio album released by the New Grass Revival (although Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn fans may argue for Hold to a Dream). This was the last recording with founding members Curtis Burch and Courtney Johnson; by this time the line-up had been playing together for 7 years (Burch, Johnson, and Sam Bush for more than a decade) and this familiarity comes through in the tight sound of this record. This album also has by far the best production qualities of the earlier recordings. This album veers back and forth between more traditional bluegrass songs like Monroe's "Wicked Path of Sin" and newgrass tunes like "Sapporo," one of the jammingest tunes NGR ever played.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Kentucky Peace of Mind, Dwight McCall

Kentucky Peace of Mind
By Dwight McCall
Featuring J.D. Crowe, Rickey Wasson, Ron Stewart, Harold Nixon, Randy Kohrs, Josh Williams, Brian Stephens, Randy Pollard, Kandace Jaymes
Lavenir CD 1091

This first solo album (from the now-defunct Lavenir Records; copies are available at from the artist) from veteran bluegrass mandolinist and vocalist Dwight McCall is, possibly, one of the most technically perfect bluegrass albums ever recorded. This is to be expected from an album including five bandmates (McCall, Crowe, Wasson, Nixon, and frequent guest Stewart) from the New South.

The liner notes are a bit understated when they say that "There are no fancy experiments here, no stretches for novel material, no explorations beyond the boundaries of straightahead bluegrass...a listener will find nothing extraneous...." In other words, the album is boring.

Only one song here, "Let's Go Back To The Love" is an original composition, and it does not sound terribly original. Other songs, while played well, have been done better many times before. The best songs of this album, in fact, are probably among the most-often performed and recorded; songs such as "Where You Gonna Hide," "There'll Be No Blind Ones There," and "Handsome Molly."

The simple, disappointing fact is, that for all of its technical quality, and as much as I wanted to like this album, it is so boring as to be nearly unlistenable. Better recordings exist for all of these songs.

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Good to Great, by Collins

Good to Great
by Jim Collins

Because Jim Collins writes such a great deal about the research supporting this book, this review will focus on the validity of, and possible flaws in, that research.

Although apparently thorough, Collins’ research process is questionable at a number of points. He limited his pool of companies to “Fortune 500” listees (p 220), he excluded companies without an “obvious shift to breakthrough performance” (p 222), he eliminated Coca-Cola and Pepsico for not substantially exceeding their industry (p 227) rather than considering that these two dominating companies may have driven the strong industry performance, he improperly applies the scientific method, and he appears to have ranked acquisitions subjectively (p 259-260). These combine to weaken his otherwise strong argument about the nature of “good to great” companies.

Limiting the pool to only Fortune-listed companies is justified by the statement that the Fortune list only includes large companies, and that most Fortune firms are publicly traded (this was an implicit screen). However, many publicly traded companies of a reasonable size have not been listed in Fortune, or may have come on and then fallen off the list in years he did not survey (Collins only looked at the 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1995 lists). By limiting his “company universe” in this way, Collins created the possibility of a selection bias.

It is entirely possible that a company’s stock value would show a gradual shift from “good” to “great”, and in fact 19 companies from the limited universe did. If Collins had included the 18 of these companies with no other elimination criterion, it is possible that his finding may have been different. For example, he compared the company performance to the apparent breakthrough in the hatching of a chicken from an egg. In these additional companies no breakthrough was present, but a gradual shift did occur. Perhaps he might have asked why some companies appeared to make the gradual shift, while for others a breakthrough appeared.

Collins’ exclusion of Pepsico and Coca-Cola appears to reflect a misconception of industry v. company performance. The truth is that an industry is simply a grouping of like companies, and if the larger industry players are successful the industry will appear to be successful. As dominant companies, it should be expected that Coca-Cola and Pepsico would not substantially exceed their industry performance; rather that they would pull the industry average up with them.

Finally, Collins improperly applies the scientific method. He emphasizes repeatedly that his recommendations are not based on any preconcieved notion, but solely upon research. This actually undercuts, rather than strengthens his case. Proper application of the scientific method would call for his hypotheses to be tested against data, but he has turned this backwards and created hypotheses to fit his data. One way around this might have been to split the study group in two, using one group to establish the hypotheses, and then "testing" the hypotheses against the other group. Since it is obviously too late for that, another good possibility would be to use the additional years of data that have accrued since he completed this study to identify new "good to great" companies, and test the hypotheses against them.

Despite these shortcomings in methodology, Good to Great is well formatted and provides highly useable suggestions for how to make the transition in any type of organization. Possibly the most helpful sections were those in which Collins gave non-business “good to great” examples, such as his wife in the Ironman triathlon and the high school track team, because they demonstrated the broader applicability of his findings.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Execution, by Bossidy and Charan

Execution: The discipline of getting things done
by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

One of the most intriguing elements of this book was the basic concept. Is execution really a major element in corporate success or failure? Why Smart Executives Fail suggests that it is not, arguing that execution expertise can be quickly purchased (p 5). One answer to this difference of opinion may be the nature of the businesses studied. Why Smart Executives Fail studied instances in which successful companies failed, while Bossidy and Charan tell us that good execution must occur to achieve any success. In other words, most or all of the companies studied in Why Smart Executives Fail probably had a record of successful execution prior to their collapse. Johnson & Johnson’s stent business is a prime example of these divergent viewpoints, and Finklestein wins this argument through his (apparently) more wide-ranging and in-depth research. Despite this, many of the recommendations in the two books are very similar, for example, Bossidy and Charan say, “Insist on realism,” (p 57) and Finklestein gives “They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t 100 percent behind them” as Bad Habit #4 (p 226).

Bossidy and Charan present their ideas well, and give a good theoretical framework for successful execution. Their advice on how to integrate the people process with strategy and operations is particularly valuable, and they follow their own advice by breaking down their theory into operable steps. Their evidence in support of execution as a competitive advantage is thin, however, resting largely on personal experience. Other examples are much weakened by anonymity. In the end, Bossidy and Charan are not convincing in their argument that “Most often today the difference between a company and its competitor is the ability to execute.” (p 5) While a fundamental level of execution is clearly necessary for success, in most cases it is not sufficient; other elements of strategy play a large role.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Predictable Surprises, by Bazerman and Watkins

Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them
by Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins

A major shortcoming of Bazerman and Watkins’ book is the failure to provide adequate evidence to support their arguments about what they call “predictable surprises”, which they define as “an event or series of events that take an individual or group by surprise, despite prior awareness of all of the information necessary to anticipate the events and their consequences.” Bazerman and Watkins build their case substantially on just two examples: aviation security failures leading to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and auditor independence concerns leading to the collapse of Enron and Arthur Anderson. Several other examples are discussed in less depth throughout the text, however many of these are not actually predictable surprises under the definition provided. For example, global warming is discussed a number of times; however global warming has been in public discussion since the 1930s, and today a substantial majority of people believe not only the concept of global warming but that current warming is man-made. By 2050, this subject will have been under study for 120 years and popular consensus will have been achieved for 50-60 years. This is certainly predictable, but hardly a surprise. The United States’ looming crisis in entitlement spending also falls in this category.

Flaws exist in other anecdotal support as well. For example, Bazerman and Watkins cite aviation security failures as an occasion when overly discounting the future lead to a predictable surprise. Quick calculation based on figures provided in the book show that, using equal discount rates for the expected future cost of security and the future cost of disaster, even with a disaster probability as high as 10% for any given year, the airlines would be ahead on a cost basis. The total destruction of both World Trade Center towers and the massive ensuing death toll was not reasonably foreseeable by the airline industry; based on the typical passenger plan carrying 78 people, this was the equivalent of an absurd 41 simultaneous aircraft disasters! Given the cost of implementation and the low probability of such a large disaster, even at a full cost of nearly $50 billion, the airlines’ decision to oppose security measures on a cost basis was reasonable. The full scope of this surprise was unlikely enough that it should not be termed “predictable.”

Despite some good analysis of reasons predictable surprises occur and ways to avoid them, this book is critically weakened by its lack of evidence. Bazerman and Watkins try to make it stand largely on just the aviation security and auditor independence failures; however these are insufficient evidence for their broad analysis and conclusions, particularly given the weakness of those arguments provided. This book would be substantially more persuasive with more anecdotal support.