E-mail Gathers Friends “into the immediacy of our lives”

Amid all that is wasteful, distracting, irrelevant and downright evil about e-mail, there is also this. We carry dozens of people, sometimes hundreds, around with us in our heads. They pass in and out of our thoughts as quickly as thought itself. E-mail is a way to gather these people — so many of them scattered across the globe — into the immediacy of our lives in a way that makes even a phone call feel highly formalized. It is the nearness of e-mail, the conversations it creates, that is addicting as much as the minute-by-minute stimuli. I try to remember that when I am getting twitchy, when I start wondering whether the mail server is down again. I tell myself that I’m just listening for a chorus of voices, a chorus of friends.

For the full commentary, see:
VERLYN KLINKENBORG. “EDITORIAL OBSERVER; ‘ No Messages on This Server,’ and Other Lessons of Our Time.” The New York Times, Section 4 (Sunday, January 29, 2006): 15.

Specialty Coffee: How Does it Fit Christensen?

Christensen and Raynor:

(p. 55) Not all innovative ideas can be shaped into disruptive stategies, however, because the necessary preconditions do not exist; in such situations, the opportunity is best licensed or left to the firms that are already in the market. On occasion, entrant companies have simply caught the leaders asleep at the switch and have succeeded with a strategy of sustaining innovation. But this is rare.

 

Source: 

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

 

In several later chapters of Mark Pendergrast’s Uncommon Grounds, he documents how the major coffee retailers failed to perceive and respond to the threat posed to their business by the specialty coffee retailers.  In some ways specialty coffee firms would seem to be disruptors.  But they were neither "low end" nor "new market."  Wasn’t specialty coffee what Christensen would call a "sustaining innovation"?

 

French “regard the open economy with horror”

The French still regard the open economy with horror. A recent poll suggests that, while two-thirds of the population accepted that reform was necessary, they also wanted to keep the advantages of the present system — a short working week, early retirement for many, and almost invincible job protection. After years of assiduous propaganda, they believe that anything else will lead directly to the horrors of the United States: uninsured people dying of untreated diseases in the streets and, above all, riots.
The case of the state monopoly, EDF (Electricité de France) is instructive, and explains why any reform is so politically difficult. Employees of this vast organization work 32 hours per week; their meals are subsidized to the tune of 50%, their electricity and gas bills by 90%; they can retire at 55; they have the right to holidays at a fifth of their market value, and on average work the equivalent of eight months per year; and when their mother-in-law dies, they can take three days’ paid leave to celebrate. These are not all their privileges, only some; so it is hardly surprising that when the government proposed the privatization of EDF, they went on strike. (The government caved in.) They did so in the name of “the defense of public service” — and the French call the Anglo-Saxons hypocrites!
When a certain critical mass of such subsidy and special privilege for important sectors of the economy is reached, reform becomes impossible without explosion. The government has created an economic monster that it cannot tame, and that is now its master. In any case, periodic explosion has long been the means by which French society has undertaken major political and economic change. In the meantime, repression will become more necessary. For the moment, the banlieues are quiet: That is to say, only 100 cars a night are burned, and life elsewhere continues in its very pleasant way. But there is an underlying anxiety (the French take more tranquillizers than any other nation). No one believes that we have heard the last of les jeunes and of profound economic troubles. The last episode was but a very minor eruption of the social volcano. Every Frenchman believes that the question of a major eruption is not if, but when.

For the full commentary, see:
THEODORE DALRYMPLE. “An Update From France . . . (Remember Those Riots?).” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 11, 2006): A8.

Hayek Was Right: Free Speech is Fragile, When Property Can be Seized


For those who doubt the central message of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, something to ponder:

 

(p. 351) The Sandinistas called coffee farmers who cooperated with them "patriotic producers." Anyone who questioned their politics or policies was labeled a capitalist parasite. Throughout most of the 1980s, any farms that did not produce sufficiently, or whose owners were too vocal, were confiscated by the government.

 

Source: 

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2000.


“Growing Recognition of Economic Costs” of Koyoto Protocol

Commentary on the Kyoto Protocol:

(p. 3) . . . the current stalemate is not just because of the inadequacies of the protocol. It is also a response to the world’s ballooning energy appetite, which, largely because of economic growth in China, has exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. And there are still no viable alternatives to fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gases.

Then, too, there is a growing recognition of the economic costs incurred by signing on to the Kyoto Protocol.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, a proponent of emissions targets, said in a statement on Nov. 1: ”The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.”

This is as true, in different ways, in developed nations with high unemployment, like Germany and France, as it is in Russia, which said last week that it may have spot energy shortages this winter.
. . .
The only real answer at the moment is still far out on the horizon: nonpolluting energy sources. But the amount of money being devoted to research and develop such technologies, much less install them, is nowhere near the scale of the problem, many experts on energy technology said.

Enormous investments in basic research have to be made promptly, even with the knowledge that most of the research is likely to fail, if there is to be any chance of creating options for the world’s vastly increased energy thirst in a few decades, said Richard G. Richels, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit center for energy and environment research.

”The train is not leaving the station, and it needs to leave the station,” Mr. Richels said. ”If we don’t have the technologies available at that time, it’s going to be a mess.”

For the full commentary, see:
ANDREW C. REVKIN. “THE WORLD; On Climate Change, a Change of Thinking.” The New York Times, Section 4 (Sun., December 4, 2005): 3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Coffee Cartel Quotas: “someone always cheated”

In his comprehensive history of coffee, Mark Pendergrast discusses efforts of the coffee-producing nations to raise the price of coffee in 1977:

 

(p. 332) Quota restrictions without consumer country participation never worked in the past, since someone always cheated.

 

Source:

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

 

A Censored Google is Better than No Google at All


Surfing the web at a Shanghai internet cafe. Source of image: the NYT article cited below.
At lunch a couple of weeks ago some of us in the department discussed Google’s agreeing to China’s desire to censor some searches. Some view this as Google violating its corporate motto: “don’t be evil.”
But I suspect that Chinese citizens with a hobbled Google, have more freedom than Chinese citizens with no Google at all.
There are many alternative ways to search for “freedom.” No government is clever enough to block them all.

SHANGHAI, Feb. 7 — For months now, the news about the news in China has been awful. Carrying out its vow to tighten controls over what it calls “propaganda,” the government of President Hu Jintao has busied itself closing publications, firing editorial staffs and jailing reporters.
More noticeably, the government has clamped down on the Internet, closing blogger sites, filtering Web sites and e-mail messages for banned words and tightening controls on text messages. Last year, Yahoo was criticized for revealing the identity of an Internet journalist, Shi Tao, who was subsequently jailed. [On Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said court documents posted on a Chinese Web site showed that Yahoo had done the same in 2003, resulting in the jailing of another writer, Li Zhi.]
Against this grim backdrop, the news that Google had agreed to apply censors’ blacklists to its new Chinese search engine might have seemed like the ultimate nail in the coffin for freedom of information in this country. Chinese Internet mavens were outraged at Google for collaborating in the government’s censorship effort. “For most people, access to more diversified resources has been broken,” said Isaac Mao, a popular Chinese blogger, in a typical sentiment. “The majority of users, the new users, will only see a compressed version of Google, and can’t know what they don’t know. This is like taking a 30-year-old’s brain and setting him back to the mind of a 15-year-old.”
Some threatened that Internet companies that toed the government line would regret it someday. “Doing the bidding of the Chinese government like this is like doing the bidding of Stalin or Hitler,” said Yu Jie, a well-known dissident writer. “The actions of companies that did the bidding of Stalin and Hitler have been remembered by history, and the Chinese people won’t forget these kinds of actions, either.”
Whether Chinese will hold a long-term grudge is arguable. But Web specialists are far more confident that the government will fail in its efforts to reverse a trend toward increasingly free expression that has been reshaping this society with ever more powerful effects for more than two decades.
Last year, China ranked 159th out of 167 countries in a survey of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based international rights group, said. But rankings like this do not reflect the rapid change afoot here, more and more of which is escaping the government’s control.
A case in point is the Chinese government’s recent effort to rein in bloggers who tread too often into delicate territory, criticizing state policy or detailing official corruption. In December, the government ordered Microsoft and its MSN service to close the site of Michael Anti, one of China’s most popular bloggers.
Although Mr. Anti — who is also an employee of the Beijing bureau of The New York Times — had his site closed, any Chinese Web surfer can choose from scores of other online commentators who are equally provocative, and more are coming online all the time.
Microsoft alone carries an estimated 3.3 million blogs in China. Add to that the estimated 10 million blogs on other Internet services, and it becomes clear what a censor’s nightmare China has become. What is more, not a single blog existed in China a little more than three years ago, and thousands upon thousands are being born every day — some run by people whose previous blogs had been banned and merely change their name or switch Internet providers. New technologies, like podcasts, are making things even harder to control.
“The Internet is open technology, based on packet switching and open systems, and it is totally different from traditional media, like radio or TV or newspapers,” said Guo Liang, an Internet specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “At first, people might have thought it would be as easy to control as traditional media, but now they realize that’s not the case.”
. . .
“Symbolically, the government may have scored a victory with Google, but Web users are becoming a lot more savvy and sophisticated, and the censors’ life is not getting easier,” said Xiao Qiang, leader of the Internet project at the University of California, Berkeley. “The flow of information is getting steadily freer, in fact. If I was in the State Councils information office, I certainly wouldn’t think we had any reason to celebrate.”

For the full story, see:
HOWARD W. FRENCH. “Letter From China; Despite Web Crackdown, Prevailing Winds Are Free.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 9, 2006): A4.