Saturday, May 20, 2006

When the drug tests come back, somebody in Billing is soooooo fired ...

You've got to love State-owned monopolies. To err is human, but to really screw up you have to get the government involved. Better yet a government-owned telecomms monopoly like Telekom Malaysia Bhd.

It seems that a Malaysian from northern Kedah state named Yahaya Wahab said he disconnected his late father's phone line in January and settled the 84 ringgit ($23) bill. But Telekom Malaysia later sent him a 806,400,000,000,000.01 ringgit ($218 trillion) bill for recent telephone calls along with orders to settle within 10 days or face legal proceedings. Thats a fistfull of ringgits!

To put this in perspective, $218 trillion is quite a bit more than the sum of the entire world's GDP (or GWP if you want to be specific, which is around $50 trillion) let alone the Malaysian GDP. You know, sometimes there are errors that seem so egregious that you figure someone, somewhere along the line should have caught them. But never underestimate the entrenched stupidity of government bureaucrats (or the fallibility of their computers).

Mr. Wahab seems to be a sensible man; he said exactly what I would have (this of course, being my benchmark for sensibility). He told a local paper "If the company wants to seek legal action as mentioned in the letter I'm ready to face it. In fact I can't wait to face it."

One of the Telekom Malaysia aparatchiki (who wisely declined to be identified as she was not authorized to speak to the media) said Telekom Malaysia was aware of Yahaya's case and would address it. I'm sure they are. But your average telecomms bureaucrat is unlikely to lift a finger to do anything, unless maybe it's to point it at someone else.

You have to give the press credit for admitting that "It wasn't clear whether the bill was a mistake, or if Yahaya's father's phone line was used illegally after after his death." But you do have to wonder just how many phone calls it would take, between January when the last bill was paid and now, to create a $218 trillion phone bill.

I hope Telekom Malaysia hasn't started spending on infrastructure improvements while waiting for Mr. Wahab to pay his bill.

Did Robert Gallo Kill Isaac Asimov?

"In the spring of 1981 a handful of young men began turning up in the emergency room at the UCLA hospital in West Los Angeles with swollen lymph nodes, a rare type of pneumonia, and highly suppressed T-cell count. Over the next year this was repeated in New York, Washington, and other major US cities, where doctors watched the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome."
So begins Pulitzer Prize-winner John Crewdson's definitive history of the discovery of AIDS and the surrounding scandal in his book Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-up and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo.

Robert Gallo, the National Cancer Institute researcher originally credited with virtually every important AIDS-related discovery, was revealed as a self-serving huckster who stole his laboratory samples from the Pasteur Institute, faked his scientific papers, and with the complicity of the Reagan administration, kept the US blood supply at risk for the AIDS virus for nearly a decade after the rest of the world had begun valid testing of blood for the AIDS virus. Harold Varmus, head of the National Institutes of Health, described Gallo as a "thug" yet Gallo has won every major award short of the Nobel Prize, and maintains a comfortable sinecure at the University of Maryland to this day.

Gallo made headlines in April 1984 as the "discoverer" of the AIDS virus (the year, incidentally, after the Pasteur Institute's patent filing for its AIDS blood test). Gallo claimed to have devised a test for the presence of the virus and to have mastered the art of growing the virus in the large quantities needed for research. Gallo's “discovery” of the cause of AIDS was the HTLV virus – a purported cancer virus that Gallo had previously (and unsuccessfully) promoted as a cause of leukemia, and that fit well with his proposals for funding and research at the National Cancer Institute. Gallo argued that HTLV had been shown to cause immunosuppression. Gallo's claims (which were rejected by most of the scientific community) were touted by the Reagan political machine, and press releases were packaged to produce optimal belief. Health Secretary Margaret Heckler greeted the press in the National Academy of Sciences auditorium packed with journalists and television crews. She declared that "today we add another miracle to the long honor roll of American medicine and science. Today's discovery represents the triumph of science over a dreaded disease." Gallo's "discovery" was a convenient answer to the chorus of critics who complained that the Reagan administration was doing too little to combat AIDS. Heckler dazzled critics with Gallo's American "miracle " and reminded the public of the gratitude it owed to medicine for triumphing over this "dreaded disease".

Gallo lost no time in making money from his deceit. Under pressure from the Reagan administration, the US Patent Office shut the door on any application for an immunoassay (blood test) patent that did not come from Gallo. The Pasteur Institute made its initial application for a US patent in 1983, but it stalled. Gallo and the US Department of Health applied for a patent on the day of Heckler's announcement. It was granted almost at once. The French cried "Foul!" The public wrangling threatened to undermine the integrity of AIDS science. It was settled by an unprecedented agreement between heads of state (Reagan and Jacques Chirac), which gave a percentage of US royalties on test kits to the French. A detailed report in June 1994 by the Inspector-General of the US Department of Health and Human Services on the issues between Gallo and the Pasteur Institute states that Gallo obtained his patent by unlawfully concealing relevant information from the patent office attorney; that he admitted this unlawful act; that Pasteur scientists were first to discover the AIDS virus, to isolate it successfully from several AIDS patients, to describe it in a scientific article, and to use it to make a diagnostic blood test for antibodies to the AIDS virus.

Thus began a decade of US government backed testing for the cancer virus HTLV in the US blood supply. Gallo's HTLV samples ultimately turned out to be not a leukemia causing virus, but samples of the LAV virus stolen from the Pasteur Institute, and cultured in Gallo's laboratory. All the deception had resulted in US blood tests that were essentially worthless, yet which were the enforced standard for all Red Cross testing (the rest of the world had moved to the Western Blot test recommended by the Pasteur Institute).

And this faulty testing meant that thousands of patients contracted AIDS from tainted blood supplies. Other patients were diagnosed with AIDS when they actually were free of the virus. Some of the misdiagnoses ended tragically in suicide.

In 1983, Isaac Asimov the noted science-fiction writer had triple bypass surgery and received blood transfusions containing HIV. His widow Jeppson Asimov recalled that after his triple bypass "the next day he had a high fever... only years later, in hindsight, did we realize that the post transfusion HIV infection had taken hold." In the mid-1980s, his wife noted that her husband had some AIDS symptoms and brought them to the attention of his internist and cardiologist, who pooh-poohed and refused to test him. He was finally tested in February of 1990, prior to further surgery, when he presented HIV-positive with his T cells half the normal level. The fact of Asimov's AIDS was kept secret at the advice of his physicians.

1983 may have been too early for the Pasteur Institutes blood test to actually have been used in the field. Nonetheless, it existed in 1983, and under the right circumstances could have prevented the science fiction writer from receiving tainted blood. But Gallo's grip on the US medical establishment precluded that. Asimov unfortunately choose to have his operation in New York where he had lived his entire life (he traveled infrequently as he was afraid to fly). In 1983, this decision resulted in his infection; nowhere else in the United States had a higher incidence of HIV in the blood supply than New York at that time.

And this is where Gallo's 'science fictions' may indeed have put an end to Asimov's science fiction. There were many others less well known than Asimov who also sufferred greatly and in many cases died as a consequence of Gallo's frauds.

Real science can be a double edged sword; but false science is never anything but a foul and costly crime. The victims of Robert Gallo's malfeasance should never be forgotten. They remind us that fraud - even in the most abstract realms of science - has real consequences for our day-to-day lives.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Internet Follies

I can't decide whether the Internet is democracy's ultimate weapon of mass destruction , or whether it's just another tool for flim-flam artists to expand the gap between the world's rich and poor. There have been plenty of stories about how much cheaper and faster broadband access is in places like Japan and Korea than in the US, but that doesn't mean the US has the highest prices. It just means you don't hear the stories about the countries that are in worse shape than the US. Well, I just saw a new report that Africans pay an average of $1,800 per GB!! Perhaps this explains why only 1.5% of Africans are online.

Meanwhile in the rich world, hucksters continue to think up new ways to inconvenience Internet users on a routine basis. For example, ICANN's five day money-back period for domain name buyers has created a new, highly profitable industry. Hucksters are colluding with registrars to continually buy blocks of domain names, publish pay-per-click advertising pages, return the blocks for a refund, then buy them again. Others flim-flam artists are simply throw back nonproductive domains before the time's up. Either way, ICANN loses its fees, and those looking for an appropriate domain name can't find one. We've known about this for some time, but it appears that the problem has exploded – an astounding 93% of domain names registered last month were for such scams. Either way, consider this the next evolution of the typosquatting obsession.

ICANN could, if it so desired, fix the entire problem with the 25¢ fee which it receives on each and every .COM name (and others) kept past the grace period. The ICANN fee is tabulated by each registrar and paid quarterly. A small change here would fix this problem entirely – simply make the fee non-refundable.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A sad sad day ...

This just in from Wired magazine. It appears that Blue Security is shutting down operations under pressure from spammers (is there no justice?) ....

Blue Security's Blue Frog antispam tool worked by having customers install a small piece of software in their browsers that they used to report spam. After aggregating the reports, Blue Security would try to contact the spammers, the websites of companies being advertised and their ISPs to try to convince the spammers to clean their lists of e-mail accounts on the company's Do Not Intrude list.

If that did not work, Blue Security would write a custom script that spam recipients could use to send an opt-out request to the advertised website. In practice, that meant that hundreds of thousands of Blue Frog users could attempt to opt out at once. In addition, the software would fill in online order forms with the opt-out request if there was no other way to communicate with a spammer-advertised website.

This tactic, which Blue Security says is legal under the Can-Spam Act, was controversial with spammers and some antispammers alike.

Spammers complained in internet forums that the opt-out requests were simply a denial-of-service attack.

Anne P. Mitchell, president and CEO of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, is also a vocal critic of Blue Security's tactics who thinks the company was breaking computer crime laws by having its members fill in order forms with opt-out requests.

"Do you think Blue Frog cares if they are knowingly causing customers to break the law of their own home country?" Mitchell asked. "They don't care because they are sitting in Israel."

But Peter Swire, a law professor and former head privacy official for the Clinton administration, looked into the company's operations, found them legitimate and innovative, and signed onto the company's advisory board earlier this year.

"I get one spam e-mail and my computer sends one opt-out request," Swire said. "That is exactly what Can-Spam gives me the right to do."

Swire says he understands why Reshef has decided to shutter the service, because these levels of attacks are too much for a small company to withstand.

But he says the company showed that this tactic can work.

"If little Blue Security can affect 25 percent of spam, then this approach shows great promise if the big boys get involved," Swire said. "If there is a concerted effort by the big ISPs or by the government, the Can-Spam Act provably is the basis for reducing spam."

Eric Benhamou, chairman and CEO of Benhamou Global Ventures and one of Blue Security's lead investors, said he knew going in that Blue Security's task was difficult. Benhamou is not writing off Blue Security, whose technology he says has other uses, but he supports the company's decision to shut down in order to avoid more collateral damage.

"We knew it would get really serious when the adversary was wounded," he said. "There were no surprises on my part. When I first did my due diligence, Eran and Amir (Hirsch) told me clearly that they knew how to build the technology to accomplish this but weren't sure of the overall business proposition. I said that's fine, because I want to explore something that hasn't been done before and before there were only clever filters. This was totally innovative."

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Spam Wars

Well it was just too good to be true. There have been quite a few reports (apparently all citing one source called memhacker) in the last week that self proclaimed "Spam King" Alan Ralsky had been arrested by the US Department of Justice on fraud charges. Mr. Ralsky was supposedly picked up and was being held under a sealed indictment. The spam and botnet underground as well as the hacking community were in fear of Mr. Ralsky making a deal with the Federal Government in an attempt to garner a reduced sentence or outright immunity (a distinct possibility since Ralsky is already a convicted felon). But the Department of Justice and the Detroit FBI field office said it just wasn't true. Too bad.

Think about it: Ralsky is a convicted felon who has served three years probation on bank fraud charges, and has a lot of people very angry at him because he epitomizes the sleaze of the spam world. I wonder why he is still living in Detroit (in fact several posters noted passing his house in Detroit, apparently a modest one story affair in a blue collar neighborhood, despite Ralsky's reputed millions in span earnings).

I took a quick look at http://www.spamhaus.org/ to see if Ralsky was still registering as a 'top' spammer. Nope. It appears that Russian criminals (operating oddly enough out of ISPs in the US and China) are apparently the big spammers these days. Leave it to the Russians to corner the market on anything illegal.

For obvious reasons, several Israeli firms have adopted a counterpart role as spam policemen. I sometimes wonder if there isn't a supply-demand conspiracy given the massive Russian immigration to Israel in the past decade. My favorite company is antispam firm Blue Security which operates an antispam service which punishes junk-mailers by spamming them back. Blue Security’s "Do Not Intrude" program allows individuals to register their e-mail addresses with the company and essentially flood spammers who send them e-mail with automated opt-out requests. All evidence indicates that spammers really, really hate being spammed.

Spammers hate being spammed so much that they are fighting back. Blue Security's service was knocked off-line by a spammer called PharmaMaster who used a combination of methods to knock out the company’s Web site and the servers hosting its services. The attacks that crippled Blue Service were preceded by PharmaMaster sending out threatening e-mails to subscribers of the Do Not Intrude Registry, warning them of even more spam if they did not withdraw their subscriptions. PharmaMaster then appears to have gotten someone at a major ISP to block Blue Security’s IP address on the Internet’s backbone routers via a process called black-holing. Traffic to the company’s main Web site dropped from the usual 100 hits per minute to about two per minute in less than an hour -- and nothing at all from outside of Israel. At almost the same time, massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks were launched against the dedicated servers that provide Blue Security’s antispam service. The servers, located at five separate hosting provider sites, were bombarded with up to 2GB of traffic per second, rendering them inaccessible.

There is justice though. Jeanson Ancheta, a 21-year-old southern California hacker, was sentenced just this week to 57 months (almost 5 years) in prison for using an automated program to hack into some 400,000 PCs and infect them with pop-up generating adware. In 2004 and early 2005,when Acheta was still a minor I might add, she used a customized "rxbot" Trojan horse program to build a "botnet" of compromised PCs, on which he installed ad-delivery programs from two companies: Quebec-based Gammacash, and LOUDcash, which has since been acquired by adware giant 180solutions. Today's kids! Can't live with em, can't lock 'em up ... oh, wait. I guess you can lock 'em up.

It's a jungle out there. I'm going to look into a signup with Blue Security's service. It may not be a clear winner, but it does make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Microkernels

Microkernels? Arent' they the gritty part of the popcorn that gets caught in your teeth? I know that Linus Torvalds has been talking a lot about microkernels vs monolithic kernels, and this time with an interesting twist. From a recent article: "The real issue, and it's really fundamental, is the issue of sharing address spaces. Nothing else really matters. Everything else ends up flowing from that fundamental question: do you share the address space with the caller or put in slightly different terms: can the callee look at and change the callers state as if it were its own (and the other way around)?"

Linus also said "In the UNIX world, we're very used to the notion of having many small programs that do one thing, and do it well. And then connecting those programs with pipes, and solving often quite complicated problems with simple and independent
building blocks. And this is considered good programming. That's the microkernel approach. It's undeniably a really good approach, and it makes it easy to do some complex things using a few basic building blocks. I'm not arguing against it at all."

Anyway the whole discussion of micro-kernel vs monolithic kernel is pretty pointless. All popular OS kernels are monolithic. Its a meaningless debate without a working fast microkernel in the market that is actually competitive. I'm pretty sure it's a load of work to port the Linux kernel to become a micro kernel. Anyone got the spare time to do that?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Where thieves and pimps run free


"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

Hunter S. Thompson
____

Hunter Thompson's observations on music industry sleaze surely ring true. But what is becoming of this world? Are Gonzo ethics now invading college entrance too? I'm shocked. Shocked! But witness the factory-like creation of a babe-liscious author that makes the music industry's packaging of Britney Spears look a bit amateurish, all in the name of getting into the 'right' college.

Kaayva Viswanathan, you see, is this smart, attractive teenager. The daughter of two New Jersey-based doctors who were obsessed about her getting into Harvard (not unlike a lot of parents these days), who got her break while using a $10,000-plus college entrance counselling service.

Here's how it happened. This consultant reads some of Kaavya's writing, which happened to be about a girl whose parents want her to get into Harvard so badly that she never has any fun. The founder of the service looks over her novel and passes it on to an agent at William Morris, the famed talent agency. From there it was farmed out to 17th Street Productions, a division of Alloy Entertainment, now probably the most famous “book packager” in America. Alloy specialises in developing young adult “chick lit” authors before passing them on to publishers. Alloy’s team craft the proposal, shape the plot and create characters. Even the writing of the book is often farmed out to a team of authors. The process is more similar to television writing than most readers’ idea of the creation of a novel and the packaging closer to creating a boy band than promoting a new literary star. The book is called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. And Kaavya, just 17 at the time, gets close to US$500,000 (HK$3.9 million) for a two-book contract. She also gets a movie deal with DreamWorks. Oh, and she gets into Harvard too.

Woo-oo!

Kaavya got her book deal when she was - hello! - like - 17 years old - Dude!? As super smart as she is, the truth is she was and is still a teenager, and there's a reason that teenagers usually aren't professional writers. Like - yo! - dude - the same reason they don't perform surgery or fly jetliners. Totally! Well I guess Mary Shelley did write Frankenstein when she was only 19, but then, that was in 1816 when you weren't always getting interrupted by SMS messages. Most authors aren't really up to the task until they're in their 20s or even really old, like in their 30s or 40s.

So a few years go by and Kaayva's book finally comes out (and they print 100,000 copies, which is a lot ... I should be so lucky; my books have runs of 2000). You'd think this would be the best thing that ever happened to her but, in fact, this is where Kaavya's life starts to tank.

Kaayva Viswanathan has admittedly had a bad week. She's had a really, really bad week. Not the kind of bad week where you have premenstrual tension and then your boyfriend dumps you for some unthreatening minx who takes remedial chemistry. No. Worse.

Last week, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper ran a story saying she allegedly copied several passages from two books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, by author Megan McCafferty. By the next day, the story is all over the media, and McCafferty's publisher finds more than 40 passages in Opal Mehta that are scarily similar to McCafferty's work.

Whoa! Kaavya does not seem like the kind of person to do something like that. She goes to Harvard! But the weird thing is that Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings happen to be two of her favorite books ever. McCafferty, who had to wait until she was 28 to get a book published, was hugely inspiring to Kaavya when Kaavya was growing up.

When Kaavya goes on The Today Show to try to fix everything, Katie Couric is totally super mean to her. Then her publisher pulls Opal off bookstore shelves. Ommagawd! Not only is this totally embarrassing but she's now not even sure herself how this happened.

And the big winner in all of this is Megan McCafferty. And she didn't even go to Harvard! Her publisher calls the whole thing "nothing less than an act of literary identity theft." But the publicity is sure to generate a whole lot of readers.

How cool is that?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Transparency and Accountability

Michael Chugani, the editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs recently decried the “new culture of Hong Kong which has in its dictionary buzzwords like 'transparency' and 'accountability'.”

Come again? Aren't transparency and accountability desirable things in a civilized society? What are these 'buzzwords' Michael Chugani is talking about?

Mr. Chugani was referring to the recent drama enacted at the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) where chief executive officer Samuel Lai Man-hay and general manager Michael Lai Kai-hin for years managed to outmaneuver (nonexecutive) chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun effectively keeping him in the dark about operations and problems at the railroad (little things, uh, like structural cracks in the chassis of passenger cars). Smart and successful (he founded the U2 and G2000 clothing lines, and is the younger brother of legislator James Tien Pei Chun) Michael Tien engaged in a little of his own high drama to get the railroad's management back on track, tendering his resignation to Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, citing the sabotage to his campaign for accountability and transparency at the railroad by entrenched bureaucrats. Certainly Michael Tien's relationship with brother James (who is chairman of the pro-business and pro-Beijing Liberal Party) couldn't have hurt his cause. But his greatest stroke of genius was to blame the bureaucrats. The public, press and politicions came over immediately to Michael's side, pointing fingers at the KCRC's management, who didn't do their own cause any good with a press conference the following day staking out their own political turf. The South China Morning Post ran the page 1 picture of these 'appaling old waxworks' (to borrow a phrase from Prince Charles, though he's hardly one to talk) further inflaming public opinion against them.

Fast forward one week, and Samuel Lai has 'resigned', Michael Tien is in control and KCRC's board has decided to take action against the 20 senior managers who had held a press conference (the ones in SCMP's page 1 picture)in support of Mr Lai. The government apparently anticipated Mr Lai's departure and had already come up with his successor, James Blake (that didn't work out quite the way they planned, did it).

It's clear that public opinion was always on Michael Tien's side, no matter what the merits of his position were. And why wouldn't it be; Tien chose an easy target. Hong Kong is largely fed up (not that it is alone amongst countries) with what appears to be an overstaffed, effete, generously paid and under-worked civil service corps. Bureaucrats are regularly viewed with suspicion – even if the trains run on time, the lights stay on, and numerous other government jobs are completed expeditiously and efficiently (which they are in Hong Kong).

Why the suspicion? Well, it's usually that because when there is a mistake, there is a widespread instinct among the bureaucrats to run, hide and point a finger at someone else. In between these crises, Hong Kong's bureacrats engage in non-stop lobbying to make sure that decision processes are kept secret (i.e., not transparent) and that blame is difficult to affix and problems are hard to resolve (i.e., not accountable). The only solution left to the government is to hire new bureaucrats in response to a crises, which further bloats the bureacracy.

Most recently, for example, records of 20000 police complainants (which should be of utmost secrecy given the danger in which these individuals could find themselves with the release of this data) were found posted to the Internet, a mistake that to this date, no government department has either taken responsibility for, or for that matter even raised a finger to make sure it doesn't happen in the future. Mistakes like the release of 20000 sensitive personal records to the Internet hold the potential to undo whatever goodwill the government has created. Follow up that appears to be nothing more than obfuscation and fingerpointing only makes it worse. There have already been incidents resulting from the leak. Activist Lau Shan-ching receiving threatening mail and legislator Leung Kwok-hung receiving obscene and abusive SMS messages citing their complaints and personal information. Mr Lau is demanding $400,000 in damages from the government, with any successful claims being settled ultimately by we the taxpayers.

Sin Chung Kai, our Legco representative for the Information Technology functional constituency, should have responded forcefully to this breach of security. Instead he was making the lecture circuit for the month following this security breach, with the message that Hong Kong's IT security was admirable, and that our real problem is spam (unsolicited emails, presumably from places outside of Hong Kong). This certainly sends a strong signal that Mr. Sin is concerned about little more than covering his own posterior. True to form, he has 'run' from his office (where he might need to actually work on upgrading Hong Kong's information security) and 'hidden' on the lecture circuit, where he has taken every opportunity to 'point his finger' at those nasty foreign spammers preying on Hong Kong.

Why are the bureaucrats such an easy target? Because by thwarting transparency and accountability, they make it impossible to ever get passed a crisis; resentment simmers without end. The traditional method of gaining closure on a crisis is to find a scapegoat and sacrifice. Donald Tsang knows this, and he chose to let Samuel Lai fall on his sword. My prejudice is to believe that Samuel Lai was probably a dedicated and capable civil servant, and very likely was not directly responsible for the spate of recent problems endured by the KCRC. But by opposing Michael Tien's push towards modern governance, accountability and transparency, he sealed his own fate.

That, in my opinion, is why transparency and accountability are far more than buzzwords. They are an essential component of any serious management culture. Modern business and government requires the added information that only a culture of transparency and accountability can provide. To oppose the emergence of such a culture is reactionary, and can do little more than seed suspicion, mistrust and personal dishonesty.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Business, Bullshit, BINGO!

I saw this on the Internet and have to admit that it is the best idea I've seen in a long time. Kudos to whoever came up with it.

Do you keep falling asleep in meetings and seminars? What about those long and boring conference calls? Here's a way to change all of that.

1. Before (or during) the next meeting, seminar, or conference call, prepare yourself by drawing a square. I find that 5" x 5" is a good size. Divide the card into columns-five across and five down. That will give you 25 one-inch blocks.

2. Write one of the following words/phrases in each block:
Synergy, strategic fit, core competencies, best practice, bottom line, revisit, expeditious, to tell you the truth (or "the truth is), 24/7, out of the loop, benchmark, value-added, proactive, win-win, think outside the box, fast track, result-driven, knowledge base, at the end of the day, touch base, mindset, client focus(ed), paradigm, game plan, leverage.

3. Now check off the appropriate block when you hear one of those words/phrases.

4. When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally stand up and shout "BULLSHIT!"
___

"Real Testimonials" from satisfied players, after the jump...

"I had been in the meeting for only five minutes when I won." - Adam W., Atlanta

"My attention span at meetings has improved dramatically." - David T., Orlando

"What a gas! Meetings will never be the same for me after my first win." - Dan J., New York City

"The atmosphere was tense in the last process meeting as 14 of us waited for the fifth box." - Ben G., Denver

"The speaker was stunned as eight of us screamed 'BULLSHIT!' for the third time in two hours. The Bullshit Bingo Championship will be played at the next meeting." - Rod H

Friday, April 14, 2006

Buying Scholarship

My daughter recently sat for her SAT exams in Hong Kong, at a venue that was attended by about 50% mainland Chinese.

Shortly after the exam takers had all entered the hall, the invigilator made an announcement that Mainland Chinese students who were attending the exam in Hong Kong need to make sure that they indicate this on their college applications. It seems that US schools are now discounting Mainland Chinese SAT scores, because cheating is so rampant.

As a university professor, I make a fundamental assumption about reported grades and SATs for students who apply to our programs: that these numbers are accurate (after all, who has time to run down a bunch of cheats). But over the past seven years, we have received two messages from ETS to ignore SAT exam results from a particular sitting because (apparently) cheating on those exams was even worse than normal.

I have at these times asked my own students from the Mainland (about half of our students are from PRC) how difficult it is to cheat, and they all have the same reply: "no problem." No ETS exam apparently makes it into the country without the examiners taking copies and selling thim to obsessive parents (apparently not for that much money either).

Examinations have always been important in China. They determined who or who would not be able to hold a comfortable lifetime sinecure in the Chinese bureaucracy. Thus the idea that it might be easier to buy scholarship than to earn it has ancient roots in China.

The great Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Kang Xi was clearly frustrated by the education examination system in China when he wrote:
Even among examiners there are those who are corrupt, those who do not understand basic works ... As to the candidates, not only are there few in the Harlin Academy who can write a proper eulogy, there are many whose calligraphy is bad and who can't punctuate the basic history books. When I had the Chinese Bannermen who'd bought their ranks given, a special examination, many either brought in books to copy, or hand in blank sheets. Other candidates hire people to sit the exams for them, or else pretend to be from apiovince that has a more liberal quota than their own.

Kang Xi may have passed from this earth, but his frustrations are alive and kicking today. China boasts an exam system with more than 2,000 years of history, arguably the world's oldest continuous systematised programme of National examinations. Today, it is also arguably the world's most debauched.

But fear not, for the Ministry of Education is working on a draft law on examinations. This has come about partly because of the centralised nature of China's higher education system. In short, universities do not have individual exams, developed by their professors, for each course. Instead national exams are applied uniformly in each subject. One's professional status, from the rank of professor to assistant translator, is determined very precisely under the national exam system.

This is just great. The lack of exam individuality makes cheating on a national-scale not only possible but a very saleable business model. Cheating has been made an industry in itself.

Last year the lid was lifted following the raid on the innovatively named Hired Gun Group, established by a 23 year-old graduate. It provided online services ranging from answers to national exam papers to “hired guns”, that is, people who would sit the exams for students. The website assured that the activities were legal, due to "friends within the Public Security Bureau", and it "guaranteed a 95 per cent success rate". The group took 1.7 million yuan (a bit over $200,000) duping 990 students in 19 provinces and 200 cities.

The National Auditing Bureau has been investigating and found that local governments and educational institutions have also run their own rackets. Since 1989, local governments have pocketed 224 million yuan in cheating scams for fourth- to sixth-grade English exams alone. Who knows about the rest?

Even in the capital, the problem is rampant Of the 107 students caught last year cheating during exams, about half were "hired guns". One examiner at Beijing's Agricultural University was so determined to stop the practice that he invited police officers to check the identity cards of every student sitting his exam. To his relief and surprise, they did not uncover one single "hired gun". Only later was it discovered that every student had been an impostor, and because everyone had used fake personal ID cards that day, the police thought they were all real.

Professional exam-takers advertise their services on websites and even on university noticeboards. The going rate averages 1,500 yuan per exam, with 500 yuan going to the company that makes the deal and the rest to the impostor. For exams required to enter American universities, the rates are closer to 10,000 yuan for each exam, making it a profitable career.

Tianjin, known for its hi-tech zones, apparently produces a 6mm device which, when fitted into a student's ear, can connect him or her to a mobile-phone signal. Answers can be read out, so the exam impostors may soon become extinct.

If Kang Xi could only see the situation today, he might be disappointed, but certainly not surprised. Perhaps this is something to think about next time you hear someone extolling the brainpower of the Peoples Republic of China. Yes, there are a lot of smart people in China; but exam scores and degrees don't tell the whole story here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Nicola Tesla had it right

It's interesting how we came to have our current mess of global voltage standards - a problem which every traveler deals with on a recurring basis. Nicola Tesla did some great empirical work in the 1860s to determine that 220vac at 60Hz was the optimal combination (at least for motors, which were the key to having an electricity business in the late 19th century) but Edison forced 110vac on the US because that's what his DC generators on Pearl Street in NYC ran at. And post WWII the Europeans decided to follow suit when they rebuilt, but wanted 50Hz because that fit with the 1,2,5 numbers in the metric system. But at 50Hz motor efficiency drops about 15-20%, which is especially a problem as you move further from the transformer and voltage drops, so they decided to go with 240vac to make up the difference. Who says it's science? Here's the full story.

The system of three-phase alternating current electrical generation and distribution was invented by a nineteenth centuryby the ideosyncratic electrical genius Nicola Tesla. Tesla was considered the reigning authority on alternating current in that day (Edison was promoting direct current systems, thinking AC too dangerous for commercial use). When air brake tycoon George Westinghouse invested in AC distribution systems, which could bridge the distance between his generators in Niagra Falls and his markets in New York City because of their low line losses, he consulted Nicola Tesla on developing a motor (a key part of the whole system, just as the light bulb was the key component in Edison's systems).

Tesla made many careful calculations and measurements and found out that 60 Hz (Hertz, cycles per second) was the best frequency for alternating current (AC) power generating. He preferred 240 volts, which put him at odds with Thomas Edison, whose direct current (DC) systems were 110 volts. Perhaps Edison had a useful point in the safety factor of the lower voltage, but DC couldn't provide the power to a distance that AC could.

Tesla built Westinghouse a prototype motor, optimized for 60 Hz and 240 volts AC. Westinghouse's original system ran at 133 Hz, and not surprisingly, Tesla's motors failed to put out any power at that frequency. Westinghouse's own engineers tried to redesign the motor (Tesla would have nothing to do with redesign, insisting that Westinghouse change his generating network to 60 Hz and 240 volts). The rest is history, as Westinghouse gave in to Tesla (and more importantly, the laws of physics) and changed is grid to 60 Hz - our standard today. Thomas Edison, the largest player in the electrification business in the US, initially conducted smear campaigns against Westinghouse's system (he even coined the term 'Westinghousing' for execution of criminals in the electric chair) arguing that alternating current was too dangerous for domestic use, sometimes accompanied by garish public electrocutions of stray dogs just to demonstrate. But Edison ultimately came to believe in the superiority of AC, and switched his 110 volt DC systems over 110 volt AC systems, which is where we get our US standard of 60 Hz and 110 volts AC.

When electricity was first introduced into households it was primarily for lighting, largely due to Edison's marketing of lighting as being the 'killer app' that would justify a households investment in electrification (motors were more important for industrial factories). All original electrical appliances had a screw-in light socket connector. However, as it became a viable alternative to other means of heating and also the development of labour saving appliances, a means of connection to the supply other than via a light socket was required. In the 1920s, the two-prong plug made its appearance. At that time, some electricity companies operated a split tariff system where the cost of electricity for lighting was lower than that for other purposes, which led to low wattage appliances (e.g. vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, etc.) being connected to the light fitting. Europe followed suit with adoption of 120 volt systems.

As the need for safer installations grew, three-pin outlets were developed. The third pin on the outlet was an grounding pin, which was effectively connected to ground, this being at the same potential as the neutral supply line. The idea behind it was that in the event of a short circuit to ground, a fuse would blow, thus disconnecting the supply.

The reason why we are now stuck with no less than 13 different styles of plugs and wall outlets, is because many countries preferred to develop a plug of their own, instead of adopting the US standard. Moreover, the plugs and sockets are only very rarely compatible, which makes it often necessary to replace the plug when you buy appliances abroad. In Hong Kong, we use the British square plug, which has a fuse built into the plug (thus allowing it to be used with the ancient wiring in buildings in the U.K. which might not be fused properly). This plug has three rectangular prongs that form a triangle. British Standard BS 1363 requires use of a three-wire grounded and fused plug for all connections to the power mains (including class II, two-wire appliances). British power outlets incorporate shutters on line and neutral contacts to prevent someone from pushing a foreign object into the socket.

The British domestic electrical system uses a ring circuit in the building which is rated for 32 amps (6 amps for lighting circuits). Moreover, there is also a fusing in the plug; a cartridge fuse, usually of 3 amps for small appliances like radios etc. and 13 amps for heavy duty appliances such as heaters. Almost everywhere else in the world a spur main system is used. In this system each wall socket, or group of sockets, has a fuse at the main switchboard whereas the plug has none. This is a clever system, and much more complex than in most areas of the world.

This is the way things stayed through the end of WWII. In the rebuilding of Europe after the war, companies had an opportunity to rethink the design of electrical distribution from the ground up. Unfortunately, they ignored Tesla.

When the German company AEG built the first European generating facility, its engineers decided to fix the frequency at 50 Hz, because the number 60 didn't fit the metric standard unit sequence (1,2,5). At that time, AEG had a virtual monopoly and their standard spread to the rest of the continent. In Britain, differing frequencies proliferated, and only after World War II the 50-cycle standard was established. Big mistake!

Not only is 50 Hz 20% less effective in generation, it is 10-15% less efficient in transmission, it requires up to 30% larger windings and magnetic core materials in transformer construction. Electric motors are much less efficient at the lower frequency, and must also be made more robust to handle the electrical losses and the extra heat generated. Today, only a handful of countries (Antigua, Guyana, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea and the Leeward Islands) follow Tesla’s advice and use the 60 Hz frequency together with a voltage of 220-240 V.

Originally Europe was 120 V too, just like Japan and the US today. It has been deemed necessary to increase voltage to get more power with less losses and voltage drop from the same copper wire diameter. At the time the US also wanted to change but because of the cost involved to replace all electric appliances, they decided not to. At the time (1950s-60s) the average US household already had a refrigerator, a washing-machine, etc., but not in Europe.

The end result is that now, the US seems not to have evolved from the 50s and 60s, and still copes with problems as light bulbs that burn out rather quickly when they are close to the transformer (too high a voltage), or just the other way round: not enough voltage at the end of the line (105 to 127 volt spread !).

Note that currently all new American buildings get in fact 240 volts split in two 120 between neutral and hot wire. Major appliances, such as virtually all drying machines and ovens, are now connected to 240 volts. Americans who have European equipment, can connect it to these outlets. Unfortunately, as we found out when we moved to Hong Kong, which adopted British standards, you can't hook American appliances such as washers to 240 volt systems. This is because some of the electronics actually use 120 volts on these appliances (thus use the center tap) and others take the full 240 volt spread.

Monday, March 20, 2006

How Robertson got Betamaxed

The Pythagorean philosopher Archytas of Tarentum (5th century BC) is the alleged inventor of the screw. Screws came into common use around the 1st century BC. These were the wooden screws that were used in wine presses, olive oil presses and for pressing clothes. Metal screws and nuts only appeared in the 15th century. 16th-century screw-making was a cottage industry. The threads, filed by hand, were imperfect and shallow, and screws were so expensive that they were sold individually. In the 18th century, industrialization brought consumers mass-produced screws at cheaper prices, but they still had one drawback: The machinery of the day couldn't file a screw to a point. Workers had to drill a hole into material to get the blunt screw-end started. The familiar machine-made, pointed self-starting screw didn't appear until the mid-19th century.


The effort to find a superior head is an interesting story in its own right. From 1860 to 1890, the author discovered, American screw manufacturers explored numerous solutions, including magnetic screwdrivers and double slotted screws.

In 1906, Canadian Peter Robertson hit on a head design with a square recess that is still a favorite among many woodworkers (see picture). The Robertson head, however, is today only standard in Canada.

The Phillips head emerged as the choice of the international community. Henry F. Phillips, a Portland, Ore., businessman and former traveling salesman, hit on the idea of an X-shaped socket head. It was initially rejected, but eventually accepted by the American Screw Co., which persuaded General Motors in 1936 to use the Phillips-head screw in manufacturing Cadillacs.
The auto industry soon embraced it, setting the stage for even wider acceptance during World War II. Automakers liked the fact that there is a degree of cam-out or slippage inherent in the Phillips design that allows automated screw-driving machines to pop out once the screw is tight.

The Phillips head screw (a.k.a. the fastener from hell) was invented in the early 1930s by Henry F. Phillips, a Portland, Oregon businessman. He knew that car makers needed a screw that could be driven with more torque and that would hold tighter than slotted screws
he legend goes like this: Sometime around the turn of the century, Peter Lymburner Robertson was setting up a street booth from which he planned to sell tools, when the slot-headed screwdriver he was using slipped out of the screw head and slashed open his hand. "There must be a better way," he vowed to create the ultimate screwdriver. P. L. Robertson did indeed patent his square-headed driver and screw system in 1908. And not long after, the Fisher Body Company (famous for constructing the Ford Model T) decided to use his invention in its production line. The rest is history.

Robertson's colour-coded screwdrivers (green, red and black from smallest to largest) and square-headed screws have grown to dominate the Canadian fastening market: Fully 85% of the screws sold in Canada use the Robertson head. And after a mere 90 years of production, our American cousins are finally keying onto the fact that Robertson indeed created a better driver. About 10% of the screws sold in the U.S. are Robertson and This Old House and New Yankee Workshop guru Norm Abram suggests they could dominate the industry in 15 years.

They never did. They go 'betamaxed'

There's a related story (not that closely, but here is a chance to write about it). The screw standard played an important part in the WWII. Many British tanks and trucks were left stranded in the desert because they used BSW / BSF threads, rather than the world standard Unified UNF/UNC threads. One consequence was a European obsession with adherance to the metric system during post-WWII rebuilding.

In the later half of the second world war all British Military vehicles/Equipment were changed and were made using Unified UNF/UNC threads. This was because of commonality of spares to support the massive amount of equipment being given to the war effort by America. For UNF/C read ANF/C there were only very small technical differences in tolerancing. However, our national standards since the 1870's were British Standard Whitworth and British standard Fine. BSW / BSF These are similar to UNC/U NF but the main differences are the BS use a 55 degree flank and the UN a 60 degree, as do the current ISO Metric threads in Europe. However 1/2" BSW has different pitch to 1/2" UNC as do most of the BSF series. I would strongly recommend that you do not cross mix threads as they will be 20% weaker due to the different thread angles at the very best! Most coarse UNC / BSW threads are used into aluminum and this is where you will have problems with stripping and corrosion particularly with Stainless steel bolts.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Beat

I've been listening to pianist Erroll Garner's classic "Concert by the Sea," along with his other solo and trio work while I'm working out in the mornings. Garner does some interesting things with rhythm. At times, he plays right on the center of the beat with his left hand, while playing way behind the beat with his right hand. When his right hand "caught up" to his left hand, the release of tension was very cool. This left-hand tempo is pronounced in Erroll Garner's playing because of his stride-like left hand playing, and his tendency to play steady eighth notes like Basie's guitarist Freddie Green, an uncharacteristic thing for a pianist to do (at least I can't think of anyone else who plays this way regularly). Well worth hearing.

This brings to mind an interesting question on the mechanics of music - what exactly comprises this all important musical pulse that gives life to music, this thing that we call the 'beat'?

A beat is not a fixed point in time; artists are humans, not machines. The beat is more like a Gaussian distribution with exactly "on the beat" being in the middle. For example, a drummer and bassist in a typical jazz trio might be playing exactly on the beat (the mode of the distribution). Playing ahead of the beat, the note falls to the left of center (i.e., it is played before the beat) with rapidly declining probability (since way to the left will lose the groove). This makes the piano part sound a little "pushed" but still in time. It brings the energy level up a bit. The more to the left of center you play, the more urgent the feel.

When playing behind the beat, the note falls to the right of center; i.e., a bit late. This makes the piano sound a bit more relaxed. This is, for example, a signature of Dr. John’s New Orleans style of playing. Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) started out as an electric bass player, where playing behind the beat makes the bass and kick drum lock in better, since the beater of the kick happens milliseconds before the bass note, so the end result is a percussive whump followed by the bloom of the bass note.

It’s all part of the innately human aspect of jazz. No good musician plays every note exactly on the beat. A typical drummer will keep the hats pretty much consistent, either on the beat or slightly ahead of the beat. Most kick drum parts are on the upbeat except when they want to emphasize a downbeat in which case that kick might be slightly ahead of the beat. The snare hits will often move from ahead to on to behind the beat depending on verse/chorus/fill, and so forth.

Playing along with drummers is the key to developing your own feel for things. Put on an old Police track - Stewart Copeland was almost always playing ahead of the beat. Now put on some old Al Green - Al Jackson Jr and Howard Grimes were almost always playing behind the beat (especially on the 2). Now put on the Stones' Honky Tonk Women - Keith Richards is always behind the beat and Charlie Watts is staying with him except for the kick drum, which ties it back to a solid beat every two bars.

It's not a science, but art. Or maybe its ... artsy science.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Fiddling the Numbers

There is some truth in the old saw that you either publish or perish. But that’s not the whole of it, because not all publications, you see, are created equal. Publications are considered ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in loosely defined ways. Scholars have tried repeatedly to generate an unequivocal ‘quality’ statistic for journal papers. But only one ever had legs – the ‘Impact Factor.’

The Impact Factor is the Holy Grail of academic publishing. High Impact Factors promise more subscriptions for your journal, promotion and tenure for your authors, and prestige and power for your editors. The Impact Factor beat out its rivals by the sheer force of money. You see, it is marketed by ISI, the journal citation subsidiary of publishing powerhouse Thomson Scientific. Since ISI was sold by its founder, Eugene Garfield, in the early 1990s, Thomson has responded to the increasing demand for academic accountability by producing software packages to help users probe its journal citation database, which in turn helps ISI by generating more revenue for access. ISI spends part of that revenue to preemptively field experts to defend their metrics wherever debate over their validity arises, much as the tobacco companies send lobbyists into every debate over smoking. The money involved is significant; the cost of buying certain ISI data rose almost fourfold between 1995 and 2003. The ‘Impact Factor’ is not only a Holy Relic – it is big business for Thomson.

The term ‘Impact Factor’ itself is a triumph of cagy marketing over candor. Thomson doesn’t actually claim to measure quality, usefulness, value, or anything else about an author's contribution that might actually mean anything. They have simply implied that they are measuring some vaguely articulated ‘impact.’ And in a way they are – their marketing department makes sure that this is the only measure in town, and that gives immense impact to their Impact Factor. Take that to the bank.

Over the past two decades I’ve been primarily publishing in the information systems area, where according to the Financial Times the two most influential journals are MIS Quarterly (MISQ) and Information Systems Research (ISR). Now a curious thing happened recently. Both journals underwent subtle but important transformations that boosted their Impact Factor from around 1, where both had hovered for nearly a decade to 2.884 for MISQ and an astonishing 3.512 for ISR – one of the highest impact factors of any journal tracked by Thomson!

How did these guys manage to do that? (Wouldn’t the other academic departments like to know!)

Well, as it turns out, the information systems folks weren’t the first to figure out how to manipulate the Impact Factor. Nearly a decade ago, the savviest citers who resided in the Organizational Behavior departments of universities figured out the game. Their main journals saw their Impact Factor jump – to 2.647 for Academy of Management Journal; 3.405 for Administrative Science Quarterly; and 3.717 for the Academy of Management Review – while nearly every other journal in business languished below 1. Contrast the performance of these three rather stodgy and abstract journals with the widely read (and highly influential) Harvard Business Review which is able to muster only an unimpressive 1.148 Impact Factor. Indeed, that’s pretty good. Most business journals are content to hover around 0.500 or so; an Impact Factor of 1 is doing pretty well, thank you.

So, just exactly what is this Impact Factor – this most Righteous of Right Stuff, Holiest of Holy Grails of academic success – and how can you fiddle the numbers to generate these astronomical values. I’ll tell you how MISQ and ISR did it in my next blog entry.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Picking Winners (Fiddling the Numbers, Part 2)

Impact Factor is calculated each year by the Institute for Scientific Information for those journals which it tracks, and are published in the Journal Citation Report, and is defined as is a measure of the frequency with which the "average article" in a journal has been cited in a particular year or period.

The Impact Factor is calculated on a three year period. For example, the 2006 Impact factor for a selected journal would be calculated as follows:
  • A = Number of times articles published in 2004-5 were cited in all of ISI’s tracked journals during 2006
  • B = Number of articles published in 2004-5 in the selected journal
  • A/B = 2006 Impact Factor
ISI excludes. news items, correspondence, errata, and other ‘non-scholarly’ publications from the denominator. So, to fiddle the Impact Factor, one needs to either increase a, or decrease b or the optimal strategy will do both. The number of articles cited in ISI’s tracked journals is going to be a function of
  • W: the rate at which papers are published in the journal (remember that this analysis is taking place at the individual journal level),
  • X: the number of journals that could possibly cite it,
  • Y: the number of citation references per citing paper, and
  • Z: the number of topic areas into which authors tend to group themselves.
  • A is proportional to W*X*Y/Z
A look at the past four years shows ISR publishing a steady 20 articles a year, while MISQ has jumped from 10 articles per year in 2002 to 30 in 2005. So if there is any manipulation, it must be in A rather than B. The field of IS has been reasonably stable at perhaps 500 active researchers, much of the publication effort coming from untenured assistant professors. From a journal editor’s standpoint, an increased Impact Factor can be accomplished by reducing W, or forcing more self-citations in Y, or by reducing Z. Y is difficult to manipulate, since an editor typically won’t create a new journal to compete with your own (though it has been done). The fastest and easiest way for the editor to increase A is by reducing the number of topic areas Z allowed to be published in their journal. Let’s investigate this further.

Because citations provide clarification and support for arguments presented in a paper, a paper seldom includes citations for papers outside its own topic area. Now consider what happens when we reduce the number of topic areas from three (see figures) to two, without changing anything else.



There is an increase in A because there are fewer choices for topics for publishing authors, and there are fewer choices for what to cite to support their own arguments. Even if all topics were created equal, this would be a powerful effect, but other factors make it even more powerful. The amount of increase in A is nonlinear and accelerating, because the number of papers published by topic area tends to follow a rank-frequency distribution dictated by Zipf’s Law (which is called Bradford’s Law in Library Science, after Samuel C. Bradford, the former librarian of the Science Museum in London). Thus pruning back the number of topic areas acceptable to a journal has an enormous influence on its Impact Factor. Let’s see the implications this has for ISR and MISQ.

The decision to manipulate a was made cautiously; initially it was made in suggestions presented by several current and former journal editors in several articles published in their journals. The articles suggested that the field of IS needed a central governing authority that determines – a priori – which research topics may or may not be considered IS research. The idea was to restrict the number areas in which academics could conduct research. The rationale for this at the time seemed a bit artificial, but I have a better appreciation for what they were doing now that I've seen its effect on Impact Factor.

This trend towards long reference lists in IS is accentuated by its copying – per the example set by these leading journals – in numerous second tier journals. Peffers and Tang, 2003 found that the IS research community – consisting of around 500 active researchers and around 20 active research topics – tended to publish in around 120 pure IS journals and around 200 related journals. IS is a discipline that has a small number of topics, a moderate number of researchers, and a large number of journals. When each article tends to cite a lot of references – this holds the potential for huge Impact Factors. The question up to this point was how to get everyone ‘citing in the same direction.’

So the journal editors got together and concocted arguments and selected methodologies for the correct picking of ‘core’ topics a priori, rather than allowing ideas to stand or fail based on their merits. The net result was that an essentially small group of people get to pick ‘the winners’ – the topics that are likely to be published in the future (then again, that is one of the prerogatives of an editor I suppose). Not surprisingly this small group tended to choose ‘allowed’ topics from their own research. These editorial suggestions have since been reinforced by editorial statements by the current editors of ISR, MISQ and the IS department of Management Science, and have become de facto editorial policy at the journals.

Many people find this approach to scholarship intellectually problematic, since in real science, we normally assume core topics are determined ex post facto through a system of checks and balances involving experiments and other evidence. In contrast to other research areas IS gets its very own theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ – a faith-based initiative for picking ‘allowable’ research in terms of the ‘IT artifacts’ with additional mechanics provided by a previously discredited concept – ‘nomological net.’ So ‘IT artifacts’ and ‘nomological nets’ are now central to any engagement in valid IS research.

The truly bizarre suggestion in all of this is that allowable research should only deal with information technology artifacts, dusty intellectual relics described as “bundles of material and cultural properties packaged in a socially recognizable form such as hardware and software.” There seems to be no rational justification offered for this idiosyncratic perspective, an odd one given that hardware (for example) is usually presented in discussion, research, and the press in terms of its physical, mechanical and electrical characteristics.

So, IS gets its own quasi-anthropological theory of primitive ‘found objects.’ Good luck investigating the latest technology. But as weak and silly as are the philosophical justifications for ‘IT artifacts’ and ‘nomological nets,’ there are clever and fully intended consequences. Now the editors can force everyone to ‘cite in the same direction.’ Of course this was the central and unstated subtext of this original proposal anyway. No one really cares about IT artifacts and nomological nets; in fact, no one even seems to know what they are. It is the Impact Factor that is the real IT artifact – the Holy Relic that validates the research being published. IT artifacts and nomological nets are just scripture that keep the flock from straying.

Proof of effectiveness of the new policy crops up in various statistics. Both ISR and MISQ papers are distinguished by the large sizes of their reference lists; a size that has steadily gotten larger over the years. ISR’s articles typically finish with 30 to 50 references, while MISQ’s recent articles have an astonishing 50 to 90 referenced articles. A closer inspection reveals that the same references appear regularly and repeatedly in multiple articles in the journal. Anecdotally, we understand that many of these references only appear after ‘suggestion’ by reviewers and editors to include them.

My quick tally of articles published in MISQ and ISR pre-2003 and post-2003 indicates a reduction of the ‘allowable’ topics from around 20 to about 6 – a 70% reduction in allowable topics. If citations in those topics were evenly distributed, this would imply a three-fold increase in Impact Factor, which is consistent with the actual increases in Impact Factors from around 1 to 2.884 for MISQ and 3.512 for ISR. The increase in publication rate at MISQ is probably responsible for the lower impact factor there.

The results by 2006 were nothing short of miraculous (Hallelujah!!). In just two years, ISR and MISQ have gone from ‘also rans’ to ‘winners’ – proof that a policy of ‘picking winners’ with a vengeance does indeed do the job.

Next, the consequences of ‘picking winners’

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Newcomers Guide to Jazz

A must read for anyone interested in jazz, this instructional essay has been bouncing around the Internet for some years, and is just too good not to repost. For more, see Bill Anschell's website)

There’s much more to jazz music - and to the "session" in particular - than meets the eye. This primer will help you better appreciate the intense psychodrama being played out on stage. Special "Insider’s Hints" ("I.H.") highlighted throughout the text will help you make the most of your maiden voyage.

I.H.: Although your food and drink dollars are the lifeblood of the jazz economy, remember that to the musicians, you’re irrelevant. Don’t make requests. Don’t start dancing. And don’t try to sing along. The last thing the session needs is another ego. Things are complicated enough already.

1) The Room

Session venues fall into two distinct categories:

Yuppie jazz dives

Yuppies don’t generally like dives, but jazz, to a Yuppie, is a daring adventure. There may be no valet parking, but caution be damned!

The club will be located in a "transitional" part of town. Walking hurriedly from parking space to venue will raise the courageous Yuppie’s heartbeat past Stairmaster level. All the more gratifying, then, to finally feel the club’s warm embrace. Home at last among the expensive cigars and fancy martinis.

The food will be overpriced and lousy. There will be at least one fake Cajun dish on the menu. There will be an abstract painting of a saxophonist. There will be a state-of-the-art ventilation system that makes the thick cigar smoke swirl around in impressionistic patterns. In the restrooms, a fresh coat of Lysol won’t fully supress the smell of vomit.

There will be no piano, or there will be a Samick. "Samick," translated from Korean, means "looks like a Steinway but sounds like a Hyundai." (I.H.: an actual piano; can Yugo be far behind?) The room itself will be an acoustical nightmare. In the absence of carpeting or drapery, sounds will reverberate and distort like a bad LSD trip. Feeding this psychedelic nightmare will the the bar’s blender, a cash register, a big-screen television, and a CD player cranking out music that bears no resemblance to jazz. When the band starts, somebody will forget to turn the CD off. Yuppie conversation, to compete with these sounds, is elevated to a roar. Somewhere, in the background, a jam session takes place.

Non-Yuppie jazz dives

Same as Yuppie jazz dives, but without the Lysol.

I.H.: Sit as close to the band as possible. Stare intensely at each musician during his solo, and move your mouth along with his lines. Don’t smile. Now watch - each will assume that: a) you play his instrument, and b) you think he sucks. You are "vibing" them, and they’ll come undone. All jazz players, regardless of age, instrument, or ability, are deeply insecure. Have fun with this.

2) The Musicians

While a jazz artist may claim to have a "unique voice" on his instrument, sociological analysis tells us otherwise. In reality, jazz players are simply the embodiment of instrumental archetypes. Jam sessions, then, are the playing-out of archetypal conflicts. Jazz "standards" performed at the sessions make up the script. Over time, an epic play is realized. Here are the characters:

Piano: Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don’t. They were social rejects as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.

Bass: Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he’s listening.

Drums: Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest person in the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest. Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most of which stem from the fact that they aren’t really musicians. Pianists are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they play louder. If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break, be careful not to sneak up on him.

Saxophone: Saxophonists think they are the most important players on stage. Consequently, they are temperamental and territorial. They know all the Coltrane and Bird licks but have their own sound, a mixture of Coltrane and Bird. They take exceptionally long solos, which reach a peak half way through and then just don’t stop. They practice quietly but audibly while other people are trying to play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists sleep with their instruments, forget to shower, and are mangy. If you talk to a saxophonist during a break, you will hear a lot of excuses about his reeds.

Trumpet: Trumpet players are image-conscious and walk with a swagger. They are often former college linebackers. Trumpet players are very attractive to women, despite the strange indentation on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided critics then compare them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending whether they’re black or white. (I.H.: Arrive at the session early, and you may get to witness the special trumpet game. The rules are: play as loud and as high as possible. The winner is the one who plays loudest and highest. Caution: It is loud and high.) If you talk to a trumpet player during a break, he might confess that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson, the merciless God of loud-high trumpeting.

Guitar: Jazz guitarists are never very happy. Deep inside they want to be rock stars, but they’re old and overweight. In protest, they wear their hair long, prowl for groupies, drink a lot, and play too loud. Guitarists hate piano players because they can hit ten notes at once, but guitarists make up for it by playing as fast as they can. The more a guitarist drinks, the higher he turns his amp. Then the drummer starts to play harder, and the trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal. Suddenly, the saxophonist’s universe crumbles, because he is no longer the most important player on stage. He packs up his horn, nicks his best reed in haste, and storms out of the room. The pianist struggles to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a guitarist during the break he’ll ask intimate questions about your 14-year-old sister.

Vocals: Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as "...jazzy." Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," and "Route 66." Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see "The Vocalist" below). I.H.: The vocalist will try to seduce you - and the rest of the audience - by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her "manager."

Trombone: The trombone is known for its pleading, voice-like quality. "Listen," it seems to say in the male tenor range, "Why won’t anybody hire me for a gig?" Trombonists like to play fast, because their notes become indistinguishable and thus immune to criticism. Most trombonists played trumpet in their early years, then decided they didn’t want to walk around with a strange indentation on their lips. Now they hate trumpet players, who somehow get all the women despite this disfigurement. Trombonists are usually tall and lean, with forlorn faces. They don’t eat much. They have to be very friendly, because nobody really needs a trombonist. Talk to a trombonist during a break and he’ll ask you for a gig, try to sell you insurance, or offer to mow your lawn.

3) The Music

Now that you know a little bit about the room and the players, it’s time to turn your attention to the music. Your new-found knowledge will give you astonishing insights. Let’s look at some typical session landmarks:

Picking the Tune

Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. That’s a fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jam session group processes.

Tune selection makes a huge difference to the musicians. They love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable, and they tremble at the threat of the unknown. But to pick a tune is to invite close scrutiny: "So this is how you sound at your best. Hmm..." It’s a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick a tune.

The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and - under extreme conditions - even impromptu elections. The politics of tune selection makes for some of the session’s best entertainment.

Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune

(previous tune ends)

(silence)

trumpet player: "What the f#@*? Is someone gonna to pick a tune?"

(silence)

trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. I’m outa here." (Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab).

rest of band (in unison): "Yes!!!" (Band takes extended break, puts drinks on trumpet player’s tab).

Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and eventual tune selection

(previous tune ends)

(pianist and guitarist simultaneously): "Beautiful Love!"/"Donna Lee!"

guitarist to pianist: "You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note chords!"

pianist to guitarist: "You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!"

saxophonist: "Giant Steps’." (I.H.: a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)

guitarist and pianist (together): "Go ahead, asshole."

trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. 'Night in Tunisia'." (I.H.: a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high playing.)

saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard."

(long, awkward silence)

pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer: "Your turn, Skin-head."

(drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune) I.H.: a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes

drummer: "Stablemates."

trumpet player: F#@* this! I’m outa here." (Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.)

("Stablemates")

trombonist: "Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?"

Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that will last all through the night. I.H.: As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics on individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should you take sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough already.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

FEMA = Fraud+Equivocation+ Mismanagement+Abuse

Well, here’s something you don’t see everyday – government bureaucrats wasting my hard earned tax dollars (and they get paid for this, too?). It seems that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) purchased 24,967 prefabricated homes at a cost of $857.8 million, and 1,295 modular homes at a cost of $40 million to house residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, Richard Skinner, stated in testimony to the Senate that "it is unclear how the decision was made" to spend $900 million on the more than 26,000 homes given that FEMA's own regulations prohibit the use of mobile homes in flood plains. Duh-uh-uh!

As a result, FEMA cannot use the homes in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, where they are desperately needed. Some have been sent to fire victims in Texas and Oklahoma and to those few flood victims who live outside flood plains. But for the rest, around 20,000 prefabricated homes or three-quarters of them, the agency is establishing a staff of "sales personnel" to sell them for pennies on the dollar. They'll be lucky to get rid of them at all. Many of the homes, including nearly 10,000 sitting in open fields near Hope, Ark., are already unusable because they have become warped from sinking into the mud. Oh, and no one loses a job over this. Not one bureaucrat! Not even a scapegoat. At least in the private sector, you’d have the satisfaction of seeing some clueless functionary taking the blame for the loss of $700 million dollars.

How could FEMA waste nearly $1 billion on unusable housing? More to the point: How could FEMA have been totally unprepared to buy homes for hurricane victims, given that the agency makes similar purchases almost every year? Tell me there isn’t some FEMA bureaucrat whose brother is in the prefab home business. Tell me!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Counterintuitive

The bicycle was invented in 1790, and the motorcycle around a century later. Thus it is interesting to find that the physics of riding both were a mystery until quite recently. For nearly two centuries it was assumed that gyroscopic forces stabilized a bicycle and made it ridable. In 1970, physicist David Jones decided to test the received wisdom. He mounted another set of wheels on the bicycle. The second set was engineered to rotate in the opposite direction to the normal wheels at the same speed. If the gyroscope theory was true, the counter-rotating wheels should have canceled out the effect and the bicycle should have been difficult to ride. He found no difference in ridability, which then raised the question “why in fact is a bike stable?”

It turns out that the critical factor is something called “trail” – the position where the tire touches the ground compared to where the steering axis hits the ground. If the wheel touches behind the imaginary extension of the steering axis, then the bicycle is stable. The basic reason why this makes a motorcycle is stable is that the friction of the tire on the ground pulls the tire in line behind the steering axis. This acts to straighten up the wheel.

Now riding a motorcycle or bicycle involves more than just keeping it stable. If you are going to go anywhere except straight ahead, then you need to steer. Steering a motorcycle or bicycle is counterintuitive; to turn right, you must steer left initially, and vice versa. Most bicycle riders don't notice that they are doing this, because the bicycle is light, and they can easily 'muscle' the bike onto the path they want. Not so with a motorcycle, which can easily weigh 500 pounds. The only way to get any sized motorcycle turning is through an initially counter-directed turn by turning the handlebars explicitly (called countersteering) or by throwing your hips to the side. Gyroscopic forces play only a limited role in balancing and steering; and there is no way you are going to muscle this bad boy into doing your bidding!

Centrifugal forces will throw your bike over on its side if you steer the handlebars in the direction of a desired turn without first leaning the bike into the turn (not a healthy turn of events). Indeed, bike crashes are often caused by road obstacles like railroad tracks or sewer grates turning the front wheel and handlebars abruptly. Leaning the bike into the turn allows gravitational forces to balance the centrifugal forces, leading to a controlled and stable turn. Thus steering a bike involves a complicated interaction between centrifugal and gravitational forces, and torques applied to the handlebars, all mediated by the bike geometry.

Countersteering is employed by both motorcyclists and bicyclists, though most bicyclists countersteer unconsciously. You may have noticed, however, that while on a bicycle, it is surprisingly difficult to ride clear of a nearby high curb or sharp drop. This is because you must steer towards the edge to get away from the edge. It is easy to directly demonstrate counter-steering on a bicycle. While riding at a brisk pace (possibly downhill to avoid the complications of peddling), let go with your left hand while pushing the right handlebar with the open palm of your right hand. Since your hand is open, you can only turn the handlebar left, but the bike will turn right. Bicycles are also designed with large (for their weight) handlebars, that provide substantial leverage over tire motion. Motorcycles (except for dirt bikes) tend to have short clip-on bars, which are more or less useless for steering; they are used to nudge the bike into countersteer.

The process of making a countersteered right turn (right and left are from the perspective of the rider) can be broken into five steps:

1. You initiate the turn by applying a torque to the handlebars, steering the front wheel to the left.

2. The wheel steers to the left. The rate at which the steer-ing angle increases is set primarily by the moment of inertia I, of the wheel, fork, and handlebars around the steering axis, and by the “trail”

3. As the bike is now turning to the left, a centrifugal torque leans both you and the bike frame to the right. Gyroscopic action also leans the bike to the right, but, as I will show later, its effect is negligible.

4. Transmitted by the fork, the increasing lean attempts to lean the front wheel over as well. For the first time, gyroscopic action becomes important, as the wheel responds to this “leaning” torque by attempting to steer to the right, thus counteracting the steering torque. The steering angle stops increasing.

5. The leaning torque overcomes the steering torque and the wheel steering angle decreases. Note that the lean continues to increase because the bike is still turning left.

6. As the bike has now acquired substantial leaning velocity, the lean increase cannot end instantly. Driven by the still increasing lean, the wheel steering angle passes smoothly through zero and then points right. The centrifugal torques reverse direction, eventually halting the lean increase and balancing the gravitational torques. As no more leaning torque is applied to the wheel, the steering angle stabilizes, and the bike executes the desired right turn.

Alternately, the required lean can be generated by throwing your hips in the direction counter to the turn. Throwing your hips is how a bike is steered no-hands. The sign of the effect is subtle, but a half-hour session in an empty parking lot should convince you that while riding no-handed, you steer the bike by leaning your shoulders in the direction of the desired turn. Since angular momentum is conserved by a sudden shift of your shoulders, your hips move the opposite way, thereby leaning the bike the opposite way as well. With the bike now leaning, the bike’s “trail” becomes important. As the steering axis is not vertical, the point of contact of the wheel with the road “trails” the intersection of the steering axis with the road. The trail makes the bike self-steer: when the bike leans to the left, the front wheel steers left; when the bike leans to the right, the front wheel steers right. This effect is easily demonstrated by standing beside a bicycle and leaning it from side to side.

The trail is the single most important geometric parameter which enters into the handling of a bike. Countersteer is the single most counterintuitive thing a biker needs to learn.