Friday, November 21, 2008

Bailout for Detroit? Heck No!

Link to blog post by Seth Godin

Not only should Congress encourage/facilitate the organized bankruptcy of the Big Three, but it should also make it easy for them to be replaced by 500 new car companies.

Or perhaps a thousand.

That's how many car companies there were 90 years ago.

What we don't need are giant companies with limited choice, confused priorities, private jets and a bully's attitude.

Link to Business Week article
that mentions:

Three different members of the House of Representatives pointed out on Nov. 19 that the three CEOs and the union chief were flown to Washington in separate, private planes.

For the second straight day, members of Congress asked the CEOs if they would limit their own salaries. The suggestions ranged from $1 million a year as suggested by one congressman to $1 a year for the next year or two as suggested by another. Only Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli agreed, while GM's Wagoner and Ford's Mulally sidestepped the question.

From another article, when Ford CEO Alan Mulally was asked about dropping his salary from $21.6 million (last year) to $1:
I understand the point of the symbol, (but) I think I'm OK where I am.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Collaborative Editing

Link to EtherPad

It’s comparable to Google Docs or a wiki, but it’s far more useful. You start off by creating a new workspace. You type basic text on numbered lines at will. Then invite someone else in and have them type as well. Each user’s edits are highlighted a different color. Changes are made in absolute real time, something even Google hasn’t been able to do (Google docs update every fifteen seconds).

Users can also chat in the sidebar, save versions and make a few tweaks to the settings like removing line numbers. One great feature optionally highlights Javascript syntax (making this a great way to write code collaboratively) And that’s it for now. There is very little bling to the site at this point.

High-throughput sequencing - the future?

Link to NY Times article

Using cells donated by a woman in her 50s who died of leukemia, the scientists sequenced all the DNA from her cancer cells and compared it to the DNA from her own normal, healthy skin cells. Then, they zeroed in on 10 mutations that occurred only in the cancer cells, apparently spurring abnormal growth, preventing the cells from suppressing that growth and enabling them to fight off chemotherapy.

Leaving aside the nit-picky details like how they selected the cell(s) to expand to a quantity sufficient for sequencing, how homogeneous the expanded cells were, how similar the expanded cells are to the original tumor cells, etc. etc., I believe this is the future of bioinformatics. When sequencing is fast and cheap enough that we can sequence everything quickly, we can answer new questions that are not tractable using current techniques.

Besides, playing with that much sequence data will be challenging (and super-fun!).

Other keywords: deep sequencing


Courtesy of the Nov. 12, 2008 Mythbusters episode that had a segment about polishing crap (literally)

Link to Wikipedia article

Dirt, and time. That's all you need... Amazing.

Link to a photo gallery and more information

Reacting, Responding and Initiating

Link to blog post by Seth Godin

Most knowledge workers spend their day doing one of three things:
  • React (badly) to external situations
  • Respond (well) to external inputs
  • Initiate new events or ideas
How much of your time is spent reacting to what people say in meetings or emails? The rest of your day may be spent responding. And that's it. You go home having done virtually nothing in the third bucket.

Some marketing jobs are about responding. None are about reacting. The best ones are about initiating.

Group Theory

Or how teams get exponentially dumber as the number of members increase...

One commonly held inflection point is ~150 (I'm using the layman's definition of the phrase, not the mathematical one)
Wikipedia article on Dunbar's number

In his 2000 best-seller The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell described Gore’s traditional practice of limiting the size of its plants to roughly 150 workers, because that was the largest group of people who could know one another well enough to converse in the hallway.

Link to Workforce Management article about W.L. Gore

Another classic example of a "tribal" workplace is GE's Durham jet engine plant

Link to FastCompany article

GE/Durham has more than 170 employees but just one boss: the plant manager. Everyone in the place reports to her. Which means that on a day-to-day basis, the people who work here have no boss. They essentially run themselves.

The jet engines are produced by nine teams of people -- teams that are given just one basic directive: the day that their next engine must be loaded onto a truck. All other decisions -- who does what work; how to balance training, vacations, overtime against work flow; how to make the manufacturing process more efficient; how to handle teammates who slack off -- all of that stays within the team.

Everyone knows how much money everyone else makes, because employees are paid according to his or her skill. There are three grades of jet-assembly technician at this plant -- tech-1, tech-2, and tech-3 -- and there is one wage rate for each grade. There is no conventional assembly line. One team "owns" an engine from beginning to end -- from the point when parts are uncrated and staged to the moment a team member climbs on a forklift to place the finished engine on a truck for shipment. The members of the team do the jobs that interest them. No one ever does the same job, shift after shift, day after day. There is usually choice -- and there is always variety.

This plant has no time clock. Workers leave to go to their kids' band concerts and Little League games. Every technician has an email address and Internet access, voice mail, business cards, and a desk shared with one teammate. The plant manager -- the boss -- sits in an open cubicle that's located right on the factory floor: Engines float by, just 20 feet away.


The techs at GE/Durham have challenging jobs that matter, they have a degree of control over their work that is almost unprecedented, they adhere to demanding performance standards, they receive the training and support that they need to do the best work they can--and, as a result, they do just that. There is somethng so extraordinary about this place that you wish you could walk through it with Karl Marx and Max Weber--just to hear them explain how its revolutionary culture squares with their theories about the dehumanization of work in modern society.

Why do we tip?

Link to NY Times article

Economists have struggled to explain tipping. Why tip at all, since
the bill is presented at the end of a meal and can't retroactively
improve service? And certainly there's no reason to tip at a
restaurant you will never revisit.

"The need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the
unequal relationship is so strong that very few are able to ignore
it." Ego needs also play a part, especially when it comes to
overtipping, according to the Israeli social psychologist Boas Shamir.
Ego needs also play a part, especially when it comes to overtipping,
according to the Israeli social psychologist Boas Shamir.

Incentive-based Management

(Always fails...)

Link to article by Joel Spolsky

There's a great book on the subject by Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin -- Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations. The book's central thesis is fairly simple: When you try to measure people's performance, you have to take into account how they are going to react. Inevitably, people will figure out how to get the number you want at the expense of what you are not measuring, including things you can't measure, such as morale and customer goodwill.

...His point is that incentive plans based on measuring performance always backfire. Not sometimes. Always. What you measure is inevitably a proxy for the outcome you want, and even though you may think that all you have to do is tweak the incentives to boost sales, you can't. It's not going to work. Because people have brains and are endlessly creative when it comes to improving their personal well-being at everyone else's expense.

An Interview with Costco's CEO - Jim Sinegal

Link to FastCompany interview

Some of those analysts have argued that Costco's generosity to its workers hurts the company and its shareholders.

You have to recognize -- and I don't mean this in an acrimonious sense -- that the people in that business are trying to make money between now and next Thursday. We're trying to build a company that's going to be here 50 and 60 years from now. We owe that to the communities where we do business. We owe that to our employees, that they can count on us for security. We have 140,000 employees and their families; that's a significant number of people who count on us. We owe it to our suppliers. Think about the people who produce products for us -- you could probably multiply our family of employees by three or four times. And we owe it to our customers to continue to offer good prices. Our presence in a community makes pricing better throughout that community because when you have a tough competitor in the marketplace, prices come down.

And I quite like this little anecdote:

The reason we did it originally was exactly as you're suggesting -- to save money. We put the skylights in so that we didn't have to turn the lights on. But of course it's also environmentally correct. We also recycle all the boxes that the goods come in. And we're working on how we can simplify packaging and save on fuel. We just reconfigured our cashews. They were in a round canister, and we put them in a square canister. It sounds crazy, but we saved something like 560 truckloads a year of that one product. That's significant savings.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Minimalist Workspace

Link to blog post

Related blog post

Favorite quote (from the second link):

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
- William Morris Workspace of the Week