Archive for April, 2009

Judge not. It’s good policy.

April 19, 2009

To Jeff Jacoby:

You asked in your column today, ”Are human rights still a Democratic priority.” But I don’t think that is what you meant. I think you meant “Is criticizing the human rights policies of China and other countries and voicing  judgment over them still a Democratic priority?” There is little indication that human rights in China is advanced through our passing judgment and our voicing of criticism; and so I don’t think you are really focused on improving the situation in China.

I ask you, in turn, a different question. “Do you really believe that the US will improve its peace and prosperity by actively criticizing what we dislike most about other countries and making it the centerpiece of our foreign policy?” Perhaps you believe that a judging and self-righteous attitude by our government promotes freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity. I hope that you are wiser than that.

Judgment of others is easy and may sometimes feel nourishing. It can help people and countries to avoid focusing on their own limitations and  failures to live up to their own ideals. But it is a distraction, and it often causes harm. This is not to say that we should not support what we believe in.  Rather, it is to say that criticism of others is not the same as supporting one’s ideals.

I’ll end this post with some quotes about “judgment”, including three by past U.S. Presidents.

  • “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than what we preach abroad.” John F. Kennedy.
  • “One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty councils. The thing to do is to supply light and not heat.” Woodrow Wilson.
  • “Enthusiasm for a cause sometimes warps judgment.” William Howard Taft.
  • “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” Mohandis Gandhi
  • “Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong.” Anonymous.

On dissing Obama: prestige or embarrassment

April 12, 2009

Background. (added after receiving the comment from Sonic Charmer).  Arizona State University has invited Obama to be their commencement speaker.  Under usual circumstances they would confer upon him an honorary degree.  But a spokesperson for the University said  that they were not giving it to President Obama, because “his body of work is yet to come.”  Apparently, he has not reached the level of stature of the education minister from the Republic of China, who has received the honor.   Notre Dame has also invited Obama as a commencement speaker, just as they have invited Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush in past years.  Obama’s invitation has stirred many protests.  My objection here is to the over-the-top insulting comments from the Bishop of Chicago.

In the news, there are two major institutions who have dissed Obama recently, Arizona State University, and the Catholic Church in America.  A.S.U. apparently is worried about reducing its standards (and prestige) if it hands out an honorary degree to the first African American President of the U.S.  Perhaps they should have thought more about prestige before they made a decision that made them look like total idiots while simultaneously making them seem anti-American.

The Catholic Church did not actually diss Obama.  Rather, some prominent representatives of the church insulted him.   In particular, Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, called Obama’s planned appearance at Notre Dame an “extreme embarrassment” because of Obama’s views on choice.  Fortunately for America, Catholics do not agree.  In fact, Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a 9-point margin (54% to 45%)

Moreover, American Catholics are not even unified against abortion, despite official condemnation from the Church hierarchy.  Two weeks ago, The Christian Times reported that 40% of American Catholics view abortion as morally acceptable (the same as the non-Catholic population), and 63% of American Catholics find embryonic stem cell research morally acceptable (statistically equivalent to views of non-Catholic Americans.)

As I see it, Cardinal George simultaneously insulted the President of the United States, the majority of Americans, the majority of American Catholics, and a premier Catholic University.   And he easily could have kept quiet.  If I were a Catholic in Chicago, I think that I would be very embarrassed by his actions.

Saving our newspapers, one electron at a time

April 10, 2009

Background: Scot Lehigh, an editorial writer for the Boston Globe, asked readers whether an on-line version of the Boston Globe could generate enough revenue to  save the paper. Here is what I wrote to him.

Hi Scott.  Here are some thoughts, random and otherwise.

  1. Yes!  I do think that people would be willing to pay for an online newspaper.  I think it could work at a cost of $2 to $3 per week, but this is pure guesswork on my part.
  2. The current version of the Boston Globe on line should be kept free.   It needs to be kept free in order to maintain a large list of readers, which strengthens the brand name of the Boston Globe and provides you much more influence locally and nationally.
  3. There should be an enhanced version of the Globe that is available on line for electronic subscribers, and free for those who subscribe to the paper.
  4. Major newspapers should form a consortium to work out details on enhanced versions.  This is a national problem, and there is no reason that the Boston Globe should be the first to try make it work or should duplicate the efforts of other national newspapers.  It should be a joint effort, possibly supported by schools of journalism as well.
  • The enhanced version should  include much more local video.
  • The video should be available to all on-line readers, but subscribers could have access to an enhanced resolution video.
  • One way of increasing video for very little cost is to encourage readers to submit interesting video.
  • You could even have awards for the best submitted videos of the day or week or month or year.
  • Include many more high quality photos.  Again, the enhanced version could provide access to higher resolution photos.
  • Have an enhanced search engine (perhaps Google or some other company can figure out what would be an improved search engine for newspapers.  The current version is OK but leaves LOTS of room for improvement.)
  • Include the comics and puzzles, but possibly at an additional weekly charge of $1 per week.
  • Include an enhanced navigation tool for moving from section to section within the newspaper.
  • Add some computer intelligence so that articles can be suggested to regular readers based on their reading patterns.
  • Create an improved look and feel.  This is extremely hard to get right, but very important.  Check out the Huffington Post for a look-and-feel very well suited for on-line readers.  Unfortunately, it is also a space inefficient way of presenting information to readers.
  • Permit access to enhanced versions of other major newspapers, possibly at an extra charge.  (The move to an enhanced version for the Boston Globe would be much more acceptable and much more widely visible if other major papers coordinated on this move, and if subscribers to one newspaper in the consortium received heavy discounts for other papers in the consortium.)
  • Include important local news stories from other major newspapers that are part of the “consortium”.
  • Charge larger subscription fees for libraries, except for libraries associated with public schools, which should have free access.

Here are two more points.

  1. Newspapers have not yet figured out the right advertising model for their on-line version.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a very good model.   One approach is to encourage readers to seek out ads rather than present them to readers whether they want them or not.  Most Boston readers want ads so that they can find bargains.  The on-line version could make it really easy for readers to find discounts and bargains that they are interested in.  The ads should be available in the free and enhanced versions of the on-line newspaper.
  2. If the enhanced on-line model is popular and a revenue-generator, you should reconsider issues for the paper, such as advertising, and delivery costs and options.  You should think these through now, but take little action until much later.

Wow! Geithner’s plan is ridiculous!

April 8, 2009

It turns out that Geithner’s plan is way worse than anyone could have predicted, as described by Joe Stiglitz, Andrew Ross Sorkin and other economists.  Here is a simple way of seeing how bad it is.

Suppose that you have two toxic assets, each with a face value of $100, but each worth only around $25.  In the procedure that Geithner proposed, you could buy the first toxic asset from yourself for $100 and the government would purchase the second for $100.  (The way the plan works is based on a single asset of $200; however the example here leads to the same transfer of money from taxpayers as the real plan and does so in a similar manner.  In addition,  you can’t really purchase your own assets, but clever financial and legal experts can achieve the same outcome while making it legal.)   So, you have already sold one of your toxic assets to the government for $75 more than it is worth, and you broke even on the other.  But it’s even better for you (and worse for the taxpayers).  You only need to put up $15 to keep your first toxic asset and the government puts up $85.  And if your toxic asset eventually sells for less than $85 (which it will),  you lose only the $15.

Summary.  You have exchanged two toxic assets worth a total of $50 for $185 dollars from tax payers.   This results in a massive transfer of money from taxpayers to those who own the toxic assets.

When the stock market went up by several hundred points following Geithner’s announcement, it clearly did not understand what a good deal it was for Wall Street, or else it would have gone up much more. It also didn’t understand that  such a foolish deal for the government will not actually be carried out.  Or will it?

A Fair Process in Group Decision Making

April 7, 2009

How can one assign employees to offices, professors to time slots, college students to living suites, etc., so as to maximize fairness? An inherent difficulty is that any specific solution is viewed as preferable by some and less than preferable by others. Or put another way, no solution will be perceived as fair. The usual way around this dilemma is to design a process that is fair.

A commonly used fair process is a lottery. All interested individuals (or groups) are assigned a number randomly, and the individuals then make their choices in increasing order of their assigned number.

But what if there are additional global objectives or constraints that are important? In employee office assignment, suppose that we need certain employees to be near each other. In professor time-slot assignments, there are usually lots of constraints, including issues concerning room assignments and a desire to have certain subjects meet at different times. Student housing assignments may want to incorporate issues such as having drug free floors, or floors with an equal number of men and women, and possibly more..

Possibly, the lottery scheme will still work, or can be adjusted in a simple manner. But perhaps not.

Here is another approach that may be suitable for other situations. The persons in charge of the process can create a small number of solutions (say 10) with the help of OR tools. Subsequently, one of these solutions would be chosen at random. For the process to be considered fair, each individual should be able to inspect the collection of proposed solutions and believe that he or she is being treated roughly the same as everyone else and has a reasonable chance of getting a good solution.

The advantage of this approach over having a single decision maker (or even a committee decision) is the perceived fairness. The advantage of this approach over a lottery is that one can try to choose a collection of solutions that all satisfy some global objectives. This is nearly impossible to achieve in a typical lottery.

If you know of instances where this type of group decision making has been used, please let me know.

Please, don’t use Google hit counts to bolster arguments.

April 1, 2009

Don Kleinmutz, the President of INFORMS, wrote an interesting article on the failure of risk management in the recent issue of Analytics Magazine.  But to bolster a clearly justifiable argument, he wrote: “So are these pervasive and systematic failures of risk management something new or unusual?  No.  An Internet search of ‘risk management’ plus ‘failure’ produced 12 million hits on Yahoo! and 4 million hits on Google.”
First, it’s impossible to understand what the number of hits mean.  If the number of hits were 1/10th as large, would this be less compelling evidence?

More to the point, we have no clue what was on the pages or if it supports his conclusions, especially the last 99.99% of the pages. For example, I randomly selected the 5th page of results (which is in the top .002% of all hits), and looked at the first item.  It is entitled “Failure reduction in manufacturing systems through the risk management approach and the development of a reactive maintenance model.”
It’s tempting to use Google for justifications and it’s becoming widespread.  But it is also a bad idea. I can prove it.  I just typed in “Google” AND “bad idea” and got 1.84 million hits.