Tuesday, April 21, 2009

AC/DC The Savage Tale of the First Standards War

By Tom McNichol

For a number of years, I've enjoyed telling the story of how Thomas Edison managed to convince the authorities in New York to use AC rather than DC to power the nation's first electric chair. He then began talking about that "deadly AC" in his efforts to make the nation's early electric grid DC rather than AC. His last great hurrah in that effort, was the widely publicized killing of Topsy, a rogue circus elephant, with 6000 volts of AC.

Thomas Edison, for instance, didn't really have a working electric light bulb when he began publicizing and building the first DC power grid in NYC. He told everyone he did, but in fact, he did not. He sold the grid on the basis of providing light, but his light bulbs, up to that point, were failures, with the elements burning out almost immediately. He got it figured out just in time to forestall an embarrassing disaster (not to mention financial ruin).

It's not only of historical interest to look at how electrical standards became part of our routine life, but it can also serve as a guideline for perceiving our future. McNichol hints at this in his closing chapters with a brief discussion of the Sony Betamax versus the VHS video tape war, and (at the time of his writing) the still emerging battle over HDTV.

One thing is clear; the best technology isn't always picked as the best standard. The human element is paramount. I recall looking at two computers side by side many years ago, with one running MS DOS as its operating system, and another running on Texas Instruments DOS. The TI DOS was easily superior, but fell aside as Bill Gates and Microsoft won the operating system war.

Anyone will benefit from reading about the emergence of electrical standards. It's difficult to imagine our culture without electricity, and had Edison's vision of the electrical grid prevailed, many things that we now accept as standard would be different. Not necessarily worse, just different.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Alice Schrodeder wrote this recounting of the life and times of surely one of the most enigmatic men of our generation. Buffet, usually a very private individual, cooperated with Schroeder on this work, and while the book may lack a bit in its critique of Buffett, it does provide a revealing look into his life and philosophies. The title comes from a Buffett quote, "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."

To begin with, it's clear that Buffett is not an ordinary person, although he modestly credits most of his success to luck. "I won the ovarian lottery," Buffett is quoted as saying, giving credit to his parents and schooling. However, this is a child that asked for a stopwatch as a kindergartner, and carefully noting the time it took for various marbles to race down his bathtub, learned to calculate odds. He became so enamored with numbers, that he sat in church calculating the lifespans of hymn writers in the hymnals, in order to figure out if piety actually resulted in a longer life.

As a fifth grader, Warren memorized most of the world almanac, including the population of every major city. His first business, at six, was selling chewing gum, and his genius for complex business principles began to evidence even then. He would refuse to break apart packs of gum to sell individual sticks, reasoning that neither the profit nor the risk was worth doing so. He also began his love affair with Coca Cola at an early age, selling cokes to sunbathers during family vacations. At 10 years of age, Buffett requested and got a trip to the New York Stock Exchange and was mesmerized by what he saw.

As a teenager, Buffett learned about handicapping race horses and parimutuel betting, and began publishing a tip sheet for betters. He figured out that the rules of the racetrack, applied to the stock market as well, and hence the beginning of Buffett's famous abilities in that area.

Warren is uncomfortable in posh settings, and is noted for pulling a server aside at a state dinner and asking if they could bring him a hamburger and coke.

There's a sad side of Buffett as well. Schroeder doesn't dwell on it, but its hard to escape the "poor little rich boy" side of him. As with many of us, Buffett's strengths are also his weakness. He's not unkind, but can be distant. He doesn't seem to know how to relax, and his relations with his family are odd at best. He doesn't live with his wife, but with a defacto mistress, and while he's notoriously miserly, he doesn't seem to be motivated by money in the traditional sense. Perhaps to Buffett it's just a scorecard.

What he seems to be fixated on, is the game. The book can serve both as an inspiration and a warning. Buffett seems to have the business of business well figured out, I'm not so sure about the business of life.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Outliers by Malcomb Gladwell

When a friend first told me about Outliers , I was not impressed. Over and over we've heard "It's not my fault. It's my parents, or my race, or my school, or whatever." I never questioned that some have advantages others don't, be it innate intelligence, family connections, luck, or what have you. But, it always seemed to me, that blaming others for your own shortcomings is to guarantee prolonging and exacerbating those shortcomings.

I still believe that, but Gladwell's book, I must admit, gives one pause. He begins by using statistics on the Canadian Hockey league to drive home a very simple point. The month an aspiring hockey player is born plays a huge role in whether or not the talented player will make it to a professional level. Gladwell doesn't deny talent, but the statistics are inescapable. The vast majority of professional hockey players have birthdays that fall within a narrow range of months. When a new class of youngsters begin to play hockey, the oldest within that group have advantages.

The reason is simple. The slight difference in age at that stage of a boy's life, results in significant differences in size and ability. And once a child gets labeled as either a star or a mediocre player within the youth leagues, that label tends to stay with him. The better players get more playing time, more coaching, and end up on the top amateur teams. From those elite teams, come the professionals.

Gladwell takes this same premise and applies it to education, and other disciplines. He uses examples such as Bill Gates and others in support of his Outlier theory.

It's an interesting and thought provoking book. The only issue or question that I have with Mr. Gladwell's work, is that although he makes a point of almost always giving talent, hard work, and ability credit, I get the feeling that he doesn't really believe it. In other words, he over emphasizes, in my opinion, the environmental and situational circumstances, and in the process, minimizes the individual accomplishments.

That being said, it's a book that I've recommended to almost everyone I know that teaches school. There's no question, that labeling a child at an early age, is a dangerous process, because he or she may actually believe that they are somehow, less able than those labeled more highly. And, it reiterates the sober duty that parents and grandparents have to both discipline and encourage a child to discover and maximize their innate gifts and talents.

Eddie M.