Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tolstoy and the fat woman

It is not because Miuccia Prada cannot abide women who are a size 18 that she makes no dresses in size 18. Matters of image and fears of brand diminishment may play a role, but the business of making plus-size clothes turns out to be enormously complicated.

The most formidable obstacle lies in creating a prototype. If you already have a line of clothing and a set system of sizing, you cannot simply make bigger sizes. You need whole new systems of pattern-making. “The proportions of the body change as you gain weight, but for women within a certain range of size, there is a predictability to how much, born out by research dating to the 1560s,” explained Kathleen Fasanella, who has made patterns for women’s coats and jackets for three decades. “We know pretty well what a size 6 woman will look like if she edges up to a 10; her bustline might increase an inch,” Fasanella said. “But if a woman goes from a size 16 to a 20, you just can’t say with any certainty how her dimensions will change.”

Thin people are more like one another; heavier people are less like one another. With more weight comes more variation. “You’ll have some people who gain weight entirely in their trunk, some people who will gain it in their hips,” Fasanella continued. “As someone getting into plus-size, you can either make clothing that is shapeless and avoid the question altogether or target a segment of the market that, let’s say, favors a woman who gets larger in the hip. You really have to narrow down your customer.”
--Gina Bellafante, NYT Magazine, on Anna Karenina's adage adapted to body weight

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NGO distortions

Last year, while in Addis Ababa, I visited with my friend Sammy, an Ethiopian entrepreneur. Interested in how his new venture was going, I've long since learned that if you want the straight scoop from an entrepreneur, you don't ask "how are you doing." They are simply too optimistic to ever provide a meaningful answer. Instead, I asked Sammy about his greatest challenge in his new SMS content platform business. His two word answer? The "NGO economy."

Sammy noted what should have been intuitive to me after so many trips to Africa, that Africans are naturally entrepreneurial -- many have been making something from nothing all their lives, just to stay alive. But what Sammy said next rocked my world.

"Africans don't see a reward system in place for being entrepreneurial. In fact, they view it as a matter of survival, not an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather, what they learn at a very early age, is that in order to make good money, they should learn to speak English incredibly well and then maybe, just maybe, they can get a job driving for an NGO. In a few years, if they play their cards right, they might be able to land an NGO job as a project manager and even advance further."

Sammy's point was simply this. As a struggling businessman creating new start-ups, he could not compete with what NGO's were paying for some of the best and brightest. And even worse, he said, "by the time the NGO's are done with them, there isn't an ounce of entrepreneur left."
--R. Todd Johnson, Friends of Ethiopia, on a downside of paying above-market wages. HT: Chris Blattman

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The keys to the Internet

A Bath entrepreneur has been selected to safeguard the future of internet security across the world.

Paul Kane has been chosen to look after one of seven keys, which will 'restart the world wide web' in the event of a catastrophic event.

Mr Kane, based at the University of Bath's SETsquared Innovation Centre, will be the key holder for Western Europe.

Six other people from across the globe have also been asked to look after a key.

In the event of a security breach - such as a terrorist attack - Mr Kane may be required to travel to a secure location in the US.

Here he will meet five other key holders, to recover the master signing key.
--BBC on a true story to base your summer blockbuster movie plot on. HT: Gizmodo

Friday, July 23, 2010

Preventing Yankee/Laker fandom

When my kids were babies, I thought about holding Yankees hats and Lakers hats over their heads in their crib, then pinching them until they started crying (to condition them to instinctively hate their logos/colors). Then I realized that was barbaric and would probably get me thrown in jail. Still, if your kids root for teams you hate, that means you've failed as a parent and you should probably just give the kids away and try again.
--Bill Simmons,, on keeping your kids on the straight and narrow

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kindness vs. cleverness

At that age, I'd take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic... I'd been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can't remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, "At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!"

I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. "Jeff, you're so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division." That's not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. ... We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."
--Jeff Bezos, 2010 Princeton baccalaureate remarks, on the truly hard thing

Greece is to Hellenic Railways as San Francisco is to Muni

Analysts estimate the total [debt of Hellenic Railroads, backed by the Greek government,] to be around $33.6 billion, a sum that would add another 11 percentage points to Greece’s current debt level of about 120 percent of gross domestic product. ...

Some have argued that Hellenic Railways should shut down the majority of its routes, especially in the mountainous Peloponnese region where trains manned by drivers being paid as much as $130,000 a year frequently run empty. ...

In the latest annual figures available, Hellenic Railways reported a loss of more than $1 billion in 2008, on sales of about $253 million. ...

According to an analysis by [former Hellenic Railways CEO John] Mourmouris, for Hellenic Railways to just break even, it would need to increase passenger traffic by a factor of 10, an outcome that seems unlikely. Greece has a well-developed road network, a relatively short distance separates its main cities and the railway’s shabby reputation makes it an unpopular travel option for most Greeks. ...

[T]he average salary of a rail employee is over $78,000. Employees benefited from politically inspired pay increases over the last decade. Between 2000 and 2009, the cost of the company’s payroll soared by 50 percent even as overall personnel decreased by 30 percent.
--Landon Thomas Jr., NYT, on more railway employee salaries gone amok

Score one for old media

The iPhone’s antenna problems might have remained a dust-up between Apple fanboys and skeptical bloggers except that Consumer Reports — that stolid, old-media tester of everything from flooring to steam mops for the last 74 years — came out with a report detailing the issue and concluding that “due to this problem, we can’t recommend the iPhone 4.”

How did Consumer Reports make Apple blink? In large measure, the article in Consumer Reports was devastating precisely because the magazine (and its Web site) are not part of the hotheaded digital press. Although Gizmodo and other techie blogs had reached the same conclusions earlier, Consumer Reports made a noise that was heard beyond the Valley because it has a widely respected protocol of testing and old-world credibility. Mr. Jobs acknowledged as much, saying, “We were stunned and upset and embarrassed by the Consumer Reports stuff, and the reason we didn’t say more is because we didn’t know enough.”
--David Carr, NYT, on what new media still can't do

Friday, July 16, 2010

The upside of time to kill

Q: These are Fermi questions—made famous by the physicist Enrico Fermi: one question he asked physics students was how many piano tuners are there in Chicago? He also estimated the blast from an atom bomb by how far some scraps of paper he threw up in the air were displaced from his observation point. These are common types of questions in physics PhD qualifying exams. Do you give Fermi any credit? – Dr J

A: Fermi was a master of this kind of analysis. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was himself a master of it, said (in his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!) that Fermi was even better at it than he was.

How did Fermi become so skilled? Partly from the way he tried to understand physics. In the years just following World War II, physics underwent huge changes, many due to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Because Europe was physically devastated by the war, and because many of the leading physicists fled Europe for America, America became the scientific center of the world. Leading centers in America included Berkeley and Caltech on the West Coast and Princeton and Harvard on the East Coast. Conferences on both coasts meant lots of cross-country travel—which in those days meant taking the train or driving. On those trips, Fermi would sit in the back of the car and think about physics. He would pick one area of physics and review in his mind all that he understood about it, and try to figure out ways of thinking that made the results obvious. Before the distractions of email, the Internet, and cell phones were invented, that meant days of concentration and deliberate practice (for more on deliberate practice, see the above answer to the questions about improving one’s educated guessing).
--Sanjoy Mahajan, Freakonomics blog, on a benefit of uninterrupted thinking

When unions need to hire

Billy Raye, a 51-year-old unemployed bike courier, is looking for work.

Fortunately for him, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters is seeking paid demonstrators to march and chant in its current picket line outside the McPherson Building, an office complex here where the council says work is being done with nonunion labor. ...

[T]he union hires unemployed people at the minimum wage—$8.25 an hour—to walk picket lines. Mr. Raye says he's grateful for the work, even though he's not sure why he's doing it. ...

Protest organizers and advocacy groups are reaping an unexpected benefit from continued high joblessness. With the national unemployment rate currently at 9.5%, an "endless supply" of the out-of-work, as well as retirees seeking extra income, are lining up to be paid demonstrators, says George Eisner, the union's director of organization. ...

The union's Mr. Garcia sees no conflict in a union that insists on union labor hiring nonunion people to protest the hiring of nonunion labor.
--Jennifer Levitz, WSJ, on the inexorable law of demand. HT: Megan McArdle

The shade from the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market sign is minimal around noon; still, six picketers squeeze their thermoses and Dasani bottles onto the dirt below, trying to keep their water cool. They're walking five-hour shifts on this corner at Stephanie Street and American Pacific Drive in Henderson—anti-Wal-Mart signs propped lazily on their shoulders, deep suntans on their faces and arms—with two 15-minute breaks to run across the street and use the washroom at a gas station. ...

They're not union members; they're temp workers employed through Allied Forces/Labor Express by the union—United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). They're making $6 an hour, with no benefits; it's 104 F, and they're protesting the working conditions inside the new Wal-Mart grocery store. ...

The union accuses Wal-Mart of dragging down wages and working conditions for other grocery-store workers across the nation. ...

But standing with a union-supplied sign on his shoulder that reads, Don't Shop WalMart: Below Area Standards, picketer and former Wal-Mart employee Sal Rivera says about the notorious working conditions of his former big-box employer: "I can't complain. It wasn't bad. They started paying me at $6.75, and after three months I was already getting $7, then I got Employee of the Month, and by the time I left (in less than one year), I was making $8.63 an hour." Rivera worked in maintenance and quit four years ago for personal reasons, he says. He would consider reapplying.

Rivera is one of few picketers here who have ever worked for Wal-Mart—it's strictly coincidental that he was once in their employ. Most of the picketers were just looking for work through the temp agency. ...

"I asked him (union organizer Hornbrook), I said, 'How come we're working here for $6 an hour? I need you to help us find a better job. I want information on the union,'" Rivera said.

He was told, he says, to secure his own job with a grocery store, and then the union would help him to be sure the store paid him appropriate wages.
--Stacy Willis, Las Vegas Weekly, on the same arrangement in 2005

Thursday, July 15, 2010


It’s crucial to take a sense of humility into the world. By the time you make it to a top graduate school, almost all your learning has come from people who are smarter and more experienced than you: parents, teachers, bosses. But once you’ve finished at Harvard Business School or any other top academic institution, the vast majority of people you’ll interact with on a day-to-day basis may not be smarter than you. And if your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.
--Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Review, on how to learn from everybody

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cleveland's revenge

When LeBron and the Heat visit Cleveland for the first time next season, the game will almost certainly be nationally televised. Cleveland fans could go ahead and boo and hiss when James takes the floor as expected. But that would really be no different than the reaction of every other city who lost a hometown hero to a bigger market. As these things go, what James did to Cleveland was uniquely insulting. So when James comes back to town, Cleveland needs to come up with an appropriately unique collective middle finger to let James know just how his home city feels about him. It needs to be special.

Here’s my idea: Make him play before an empty arena.

Go ahead and buy your tickets to that game. Sell the place out. ...

But come game time, don’t step foot in the arena. Do go downtown. Patronize the local bars and restaurants. Watch the game from a sports bar. Do some shopping. But keep your tickets in your pocket. Set a goal: See if Cleveland can set an all-time record for lowest attendance at an NBA game. Put so few people in the stands that LeBron’s first dribble actually casts an echo through Quicken Loans Arena. ...

It would demonstrate a lingering anger still potent enough to compel an entire stadium of fans to eat the price of a couple tickets. And if it works, it would be a pretty awesome spectacle to behold.

Even better: There’s a pretty good chance that the first Miami/Cleveland game in Cleveland will be on . . . ESPN.
--Radley Balko, The Agitator, on how to express collective rage. HT: Jess Austin

Monday, July 12, 2010

The most qualified Census workers ever

When the Census Bureau hired upward of 700,000 Americans over the last two years — most in the last six months — it landed more experienced workers with more sophisticated skills than any time in recent memory. This was the unintended upside of the nastiest recession of the last 70 years. ...

Angular, with close-cropped gray hair and a voice laden with hard New England vowels, [Bob] Hamilton, too, is a temporary worker with a backstory. He was vice president for a retailer until he took some time off in 2007, his mortgage paid and bank account strong. Then the economy tanked, as did his retirement fund. He tried to return only to find that when it came to finding a job, the rug had been pulled out from under him.

“I was reluctant to do this at first,” he says. “I finally said to myself: This isn’t going any better. I better take the next step.”

That pattern repeats across the country. In south Connecticut, a laid-off executive for a large insurer helps coordinate the door-to-door counters. In Orange County, Calif., unemployed real estate lawyers work as counters, and the office is managed by a down-on-her-luck corporate trainer.

In the census office in Worcester, Mass., the guy who took the tech services job acknowledged quietly that he had a degree in nuclear engineering from M.I.T.
--Michael Powell, NYT, on the nuclear engineer in the Census bureau

Monday, July 5, 2010

Racial integration's unintended consequence?

Some black students in the 1990s had a derisive name for their peers who spent a lot of time studying in the library: incog-negro. The larger phenomenon is all too well-known. Many blacks—especially black young men—have come to the ruinous conclusion that academic excellence is somehow inconsistent with their racial identities, and they ridicule peers for "acting white" if they hit the books instead of the streets after school. ...

What if [racial] integration [in schools] inadvertently created that culture in the first place? This is the startling hypothesis of Stuart Buck's Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Buck argues that the culture of academic underachievement among black students was unknown before the late 1960s. It was desegregation that destroyed thriving black schools where black faculty were role models and nurtured excellence among black students. ...

Buck draws on empirical studies that suggest a correlation between integrated schools and social disapproval of academic success among black students. ... Desegregation introduced integrated schools where most of the teachers and administrators were white and where, because of generations of educational inequality, most of the best students were white. Black students bused into predominantly white schools faced hostility and contempt from white students. They encountered the soft prejudice of low expectations from racist teachers who assumed blacks weren't capable and from liberals who coddled them. Academic tracking shunted black students into dead-end remedial education. The effect was predictably, and deeply, insidious. The alienation typical of many young people of all races acquired a racial dimension for black students: Many in such schools began to associate education with unsympathetic whites, to reject their studies, and to ostracize academically successful black students for "acting white." ...

Buck argues that poverty can't be the cause of "acting white" because "blacks in the Jim Crow era … pursued education eagerly even in the presence of far more dire poverty. If poverty … caused the 'acting white' criticism, it surely would have shown up long before the 1960s."
--Richard Thompson Ford, Slate, on where acting white may have come from

As for what sparked his interest in the "acting white" topic, Stuart and his wife Farah adopted a black baby boy and later a 7-year-old girl from Haiti. In the books they read on inter-racial adoption, a common theme emerged: inter-racial adoptees were often criticized for "acting white" or "trying to be white." Buck then started to explore the broader context of this criticism as used in schools.
--Stuart Buck's biography on living out racial integration

Friday, July 2, 2010

Et tu, Baja Fresh?

Walking home one night in Los Angeles with his sister-in law, Mark Manguera, who worked in food services at a hotel at the time, had an epiphany. What if he stuffed a tortilla with Korean barbecued short ribs? This was the birth of the now-famous “Korean taco,” a concept that fused two of L.A.’s favorite cuisines—both associated with abundant alcohol and good times—into one delicious combination. Within a month Manguera had teamed up with his friend Roy Choi, an accomplished chef, who took the idea and made it work. Together, they launched a business selling Korean tacos out of a truck. They called it Kogi, a play on the Korean word for meat. ...

The rest is food history. Roy Choi was just listed as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s 10 best new chefs, and today there are hundreds of gourmet food trucks in L.A., offering everything from banana pudding to sushi. Of course, there are also many trucks offerings knockoffs of the Kogi taco. Even Baja Fresh, the fast food Mexican chain, began offering a Kogi taco, though it quickly changed the name to “Gogi.”
--Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman, Freakonomics blog, on the path from innovation to chain-store offering

Math in blue-collar manufacturing jobs

And because they laid off so many workers — more than two million since the end of 2007 — manufacturers now have a vast pool of people to choose from.

Yet some of these employers complain that they cannot fill their openings.

Plenty of people are applying for the jobs. The problem, the companies say, is a mismatch between the kind of skilled workers needed and the ranks of the unemployed. ...

Now they are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker. ...

All candidates at [contract drug maker] Ben Venue must pass a basic skills test showing they can read and understand math at a ninth-grade level. A significant portion of recent applicants failed, and the company has been disappointed by the quality of graduates from local training programs. It is now struggling to fill 100 positions.
--Motoko Rich, NYT, on being screwed if you can't do math

The tax code and the Bible

Of only one other book can it be said ... that great minds have devoted countless hours to the scrutiny and learned exegesis of every passage; that differing interpretations of the text have given rise to some of humanity's most epic struggles; and that, while millions mine it for valuable insights and inspiration, those who claim to live by the book and follow its precepts probably far outnumber those who actually do so.
--Mark Iwry, senior advisor to the Treasury secretary, on the similarity between the tax code and the Bible