Month: September 2005


Large and Small Organisations


Very good piece by Arnold Kling on the differences between large and small organisations.

If large organizations are dehumanizing, then why do they exist? Brad DeLong says that my assessment of large organizations must be incorrect, or else we would not have Wal-Mart.

A point Kling doesn’t make about Wal-Mart is that it is a fairly young organisation. It was in the 1970s that it became a really large organisation, and in the 1980s that it became spectacularly huge. As I have pointed out previously, it is over time that the bad effects of states and other large organisations accumulate. After thirty years, Wal-Mart is a very effective organisation, but one would expect the problems to start soon. The massive state-managed economy Britain instituted in the 1940s started falling apart in the 1970s, and the Soviet organisation set up through the 1920s and 30s probably peaked in effectiveness in the early 60s. Small organisations can stay effective indefinitely.

This piece by Paul Graham is also relevant – describing the Venture Capital / takeover cycle as a way of getting more of the best of both worlds.

Death toll

20th September 2005

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OK, so the death toll from the Great North Run matched that of the Hatfield rail crash.

I wonder how long the court case will last?

Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen of BUPA said, “At BUPA we encourage everyone to take an active interest in their health and running is a great way to keep fit. This year BUPA is sponsoring six runs including the BUPA Great North and BUPA Great South Runs.”

Oops, wrong page. That was last year. Actually, he said that fun-runners who failed to prepare properly for such gruelling events could suffer heart attacks. (Metro, Monday 19 Sep).

Not that there is any evidence that the victims did fail to prepare properly. The brother of 28-year-old Reuben Wilson said that Wilson had trained for the race. The immediate assertion that “if it didn’t work, you weren’t doing it properly” is one of those things that I generally find very annoying. Facts first, please, then conclusions.

Seriously, I don’t think that the organisers of the race should be considered liable for the deaths that occurred. But there is at least is much justification as in many other cases of accidental death, including Hatfield.

Politeness

9th September 2005

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There are two views of politeness. One is that it’s a kind of magical fairy-dust that you can add to whatever you do by using meaningless words like “please”.

That might be OK for teaching toddlers, but it’s rubbish.

Real politeness is caring about other people. “please” isn’t meaningless, it’s a contraction of “if you please”, and it means that you’re recognising that the person you’re talking to might not want to do what you’re asking, and that you’re accepting that they might choose not do it.

Giving an order including the word “please” isn’t polite, it’s gibberish. Saying “please” isn’t polite, unless you mean it.

Now the message you get if you go to http://www.legos.com/

“… We would sincerely like your help … Please always refer to our products as LEGO bricks …”

Is, as far as I can see, genuinely polite. They’re not giving orders or making threats. They’re pointing out what they call the stuff they make, and saying that they’d prefer it if their customers called it the same. There’s nothing to suggest that they are unaware that Cory Doctorow or anybody else can call it whatever they like, but like other global companies these days, they prefer to call their product by the same name everywhere (Snickers, anyone?). Unlike Mars, they can’t rename their product from “Legos” to “LEGO”, because it was never Legos in the first place, it’s just that Americans seem to be a bit confused. So they’ve made this polite request. Complaining about seems ridiculously touchy.

The problem here is not BoingBoing, it is the people who never got beyond toddler level, who don’t know the difference between speaking politely and being polite, who say “please do not smoke here” when they mean “if you smoke here we’ll send security guards to throw you out”, who say “please do not copy this CD” when they mean “if you copy this CD we’ll sue you for $100,000”. They leave us in the position where we’re not quite sure whether the Lego message is insufferable bossiness or a mild request.

On reflection, the motive might not even be marketing. It might just make their skin crawl to hear the word “legos”. Mine does, a little, and I’m nothing to do with the company at all.

Quote of the day

9th September 2005

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“Hard as it is to believe, it would appear that promoting marijuana as a medicine for cancer and AIDS patients did not make it seem cooler to teenagers.”

Jacob Sullum

For my to-do list

9th September 2005

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I don’t like hardback books.

They’re too bulky, too heavy, and the dustjackets rip easily. I want a book I can shove in the already-crammed pocket of my laptop bag and read on the train. Paperbacks meet the need, and they’re cheaper too!

The only thing the hardbacks have going for them is that they’re available first, when the publicity hits. So what I want is some kind of application that I can notify when I hear about an interesting book, and which will let me know when the paperback comes out.

This one that Tim Worstall has picked up a review of would be a first choice: “Why Most Things Fail” by Paul Ormerod.

On a related note, “Freakonomics” is just out in paperback.

CPRE propaganda

9th September 2005

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In the news today: some utter, utter drivel from the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

If it had happened all at once, there would have been a huge outcry; determined, concerted action. But it didn’t; it happened over several decades – gradually, incrementally, without anyone really knowing who was responsible, or whether it was anything to do with them. And so those who can remember how things used to be look back uneasily. They find it hard to believe that it happened. But it did. It’s 2035, and the countryside is all but over.

The report itself is 48 pages. It will take me a while to give it the fisking it deserves, though I hope to get round to it. My first pass was to look through it for any evidence at all that would seem to contradict the key relevant fact, that Britain is mostly empty.

The report does state that the developed area of Britain is increasing (by 21 square miles per year, apparently), but nowhere does it put this in context of the area which is undeveloped. The nearest it gets to such a claim is the last bullet point on page 15:

“the total area of ‘tranquil countryside’ declined by 20% between 1960s and 1994, and continues to do so”.

The source for this claim is a 10-year-old publication by the same organisation.

They do make some accurate points: Farming is declining (good!). Light pollution is an aesthetic problem (can be fixed, by, er, pointing the lights downwards, and should be.) Some bird species are in dangerous decline (but how much of that is caused by changing farming methods rather than encroaching development?). But the central claim is that we are running out of countryside, and that claim is utterly false, and indeed is made dishonestly, since they surely must have noticed that there was no evidence to support it, when they looked for some to put in their report and couldn’t find any.

Related posts:
Crowded Island
The War on Housing

Why Clarke must lose

9th September 2005

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I don’t much like this government. I don’t like Blair, and I don’t like Brown. Their centralising, high-spending, high-taxing, interventionist policies are damaging the economy and the nation.

But set against the whole context of nasty statist politicians, they’re not exceptionally bad. They get some stuff right – like this from Gordon Brown.

Somehow I can’t see Ken Clarke making that speech. And that’s his problem. For all his cuddly image and centrist appeal, if it comes down to an election between Gordon Brown and Ken Clarke, I think I’d prefer Brown. It’s kind of a “hanging or electrocution” type question, but there it is.

The trouble with ambiguity is that people suspect the worst. If the Tory party campaigns on a platform of “we want to cut spending but we’re not going to”, voters who don’t want cuts will expect to get them, and voters who do, won’t. Everybody will be put off.

Trade and Peace

9th September 2005

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Various observers have picked up on the new report from The Fraser Institute:

Economic freedom is almost 50 times more effective than democracy in diminishing violent conflict between nations, according to the Economic Freedom of the World: 2005 Annual Report.

Well, if trade is such an effective way of preventing wars, how did we get to be in this one?

Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact we refused to trade with Iraq for 12 years? As I argued previously, deliberately antagonising the government of a foreign country, without taking any effective steps to remove it, is a very bad policy. Is there any example in history of sanctions achieving any political goal, other than the goal of provoking a war? (and other interesting by-products)

I think it should be a rule of thumb: don’t introduce sanctions against a country unless you’re willing to fight it.


Tree-stump shaped demand

8th September 2005

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Some points from the argument between Tim Worstall and Jesse Taylor over “price-gouging”.
To recap: John Stossel made an argument, with a hypothetical example, to the effect that if you pay a high price for some essential, you should be glad that the price was set high, because had it been set low the vendor would have already sold out and you wouldn’t have it at all.

Jesse Taylor attacked this argument as “odious”.

Tim Worstall then nominated Jesse Taylor as an “Economic Idiot”

After that, things started to get unfriendly.

The sides are so far apart in their unstated assumptions that they appear quite unable to comprehend each other. After much pondering, however, I think I understand Taylor’s claim that the seller is “artificially encouraging scarcity”.

Read on…

No Electronic Voting

8th September 2005

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Proposed trials of voting via internet or text message in next year’s local council elections have been scrapped by the government. (Via Risks Digest)

Just occasionally the government trips over reality and notices. It’s also encouraging that Opposition spokesman Oliver Heald was, firstly, able to dig this out, and secondly, correctly said that “Remote electronic voting is even more vulnerable than all-postal voting.” The reference to the vulnerability of large-scale postal voting strongly suggests that he understands the issues.

We’re not completely out of the woods – a Department of Constitional Affairs spokesman has said “We are not ruling out piloting e-voting in the future and any future plans will be taken forward at the appropriate time.” I hope that’s “at the appropriate time” in the Humphrey Appleby sense.

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