Monday, October 12, 2009

Selected thoughts on The New Yorker October 12 2009

Selected thoughts on the 12 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Mail: Crime and Punishment
(by Adam David Cole)
Cole, a former public defender, writes in about the recent story about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. His frank account is jarring; I hope it isn't true:
It touches on things most people find hard to believe: once you’re accused of a crime, you are actually guilty until proved innocent (and sometimes the presumption of guilt is so strong that it actually overrides compelling evidence of innocence); police, witnesses, and experts often lie, fudge, cover up, or do an inexcusably poor job (as do even some defense attorneys, sadly); prosecutors routinely vilify a defendant just to get a conviction; even family members turn away in shame. Maybe Willingham’s case is easy to write off as exceptional, but those of us who have worked in criminal defense know that it has elements similar to every case we’ve worked on.

(by James P.M. Paquette)
Paquette, follows up with a reminder that we should not conflate distinct issues by putting the condemned on pedestals. Paquette's opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with a naive understanding of the character of criminals. As Coates said, opposition does not come from love for the condemned.

Inconspicuous Consumption (by James Surowiecki)
Surowiecki doesn't believe that the economic crises will lead to any fundamental change in patterns of savings and consumption. I agree.

Searching for Trouble (by Ken Auletta)
The rise of Google to near total dominance when it comes to managing information online is rather remarkable. Here, Auletta explores the nature of how Google makes money (advertising), how the company is managed, and the challenges and opportunities it faces in the future. More interesting, Aueletta offers profiles of the founders and leaders in the company, how they interact and manage.

This is an interesting article. One point to highlight: the major advancement that Google's tools provide precise information to advertisers about the effectiveness of their ads. Thus, companies know exactly what those ad's are worth, and pay for them accordingly. The suggestion that the ads that have/continue to sustain other media (print, television) are sold at drastically inflated prices.

The Pay Problem (by David Owen)
Owen offers his take on the excesses of CEO compensation. The article is mainly a profile of Nell Minow, a co-founder of the research form The Corporate Library. Minow offers up several examples of tells in contracts or compensation packages that indicate trouble at a company.

The Secrete Cycle (by Nick Paumgarten)
Lots of people see patterns that aren't really there in large data sets. This is especially true when it comes to stock prices. Many of the people are crazy, and, based on Paumgarten's profile, it seems that Martin Armstrong fits the bill.

Inside the Crises (by Ryan Lizza)
Lizza continues The New Yorker's excellent coverage of the response to the economic crises in this intriguing profile of Lawrence Summers. Summers, of course, is the brilliant economist, former Treasury Secretary, former Harvard president (remember his provocations on the under-representation of women in science and engineering?), and current Obama adviser and director of the National Economic Council.

There are several great quotes and anecdotes in here. Summers has a famously abrasive personality. He has fallen asleep in meetings (even in front of Obama). Like many protagonists, it seems like he was almost born to play the role he is currently playing in helping to direct policy and navigate through the economic meltdown. This piece is well worth reading. It offers insight into Summers the man, as well as the nature of government policy and the economic challenges that lie ahead.

Not So Fast (by Jill Lepore)
Lepore relates the interesting history of the birth of "scientific management"--the idea that worker's actions can be measured and timed and plotted to be made more efficient. Apparently "business consultants" have always been selling advice of dubious value. Lepore reviews a recent book on the topic, as well as offering larger context. This paragraph pretty much sums up the whole field:
About half of “The Management Myth” is an exposé of management consulting (the emperor has no clothes); the rest is Stewart’s exploration of his erstwhile profession’s checkered past (the emperor never did), although the kind of business book people have been buying for, oh, the past half century is instruction (you, too, can be an emperor!).
It is slightly more complicated than that pithy summary suggests. Lepore goes on to describe that there were (and are), in fact, inefficiencies and rooms for improvement. Also, she explores the effect all this had on the quality of life for the workers.

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