Steve Jobs as a Modern-Day Jules Verne

I’m a bit late to this, but Maria Popova, editor of Brain Pickings, has a wonderful personal post reflecting on the life and legacy of Steve Jobs:

I grew up in Bulgaria in the 1980s. Before the fall of the communist regime in 1989, scarcity underpinned the status quo — of commodities, of information, of opportunity. So limited were Western imports that once a year, around New Year’s, a handful of grocery stores would make available “exotic” produce like tropical fruit. The supply-demand ratio was so skewed that the store had to ration these exorbitantly priced annual luxuries — one banana and two oranges per person — and people would line up around the block to get them. (Meanwhile, the unworthy apple, Bulgaria’s most ample fruit crop, would sit neglected in the produce aisle at 50 stotinki a kilogram, roughly $0.15 per pound.) The most ambitious parents would camp out in front of the store overnight to make sure they got the bananas and oranges first thing in the morning as they went on sale.

In my lifetime, I’ve only seen such lines twice since — first in front of the Apple Store on June 29, 2007, when the iPhone was released, and then again in April of last year, when the iPad became semi-available. Under Steve Jobs, Apple became the bananas of the West.

In the 1990s, my mother joined Bulgarian Business Systems — Bulgaria’s first and, for over a decade, only official Apple dealer. I had grown up reading Jules Verne, so when we got our first Macintosh, I remember thinking that the man behind it — because, let’s face it, such was the cultural conditioning that I wouldn’t have expected a woman — must be some modern-day Jules Verne, having just handed me a portal for curiosity and exploration that helped me lean into knowledge in a way that has since become the fundamental driving force of my intellectual life.

Definitely worth reading. In the post, Maria touches upon networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity, the subject of her Creative Mornings talk earlier this year.

China to Cancel College Majors That Don’t Pay

It appears China, like the United States, is struggling with an increasing population of students who graduate but cannot find jobs. But China’s solution? Slash those majors. Reports the WSJ:

China’s Ministry of Education announced this week plans to phase out majors producing unemployable graduates, according to state-run media Xinhua. The government will soon start evaluating college majors by their employment rates, downsizing or cutting those studies in which less than 60% of graduates fail for two consecutive years to find work.

The move is meant to solve a problem that has surfaced as the number of China’s university educated have jumped to 8,930 people per every 100,000 in 2010, up nearly 150% from 2000, according to China’s 2010 Census. The surge of collge grads, while an accomplishment for the country, has contributed to an overflow of workers whose skillsets don’t match with the needs of the export-led, manufacturing-based economy.

Yet the government’s decision to curb majors is facing resistance. Many university professors in China are unhappy with the Ministry of Education’s move, as it will likely shrink the talent pool needed for various subjects, such as biology, that are critical to the country’s aim of becoming a leader in science and technology but do not currently have a strong market demand, a report in the state-run China Daily report said.

I doubt the move will actually bring about the desired changes. In fact, the opposite effect may emerge: those majors that are currently at the threshold of demand will become the new undesired majors. Of course, one can imagine how institutions will try to pad their numbers with regard to graduation rates, salary levels, etc. It’s all ripe for corruption.

The United States of Europe

Niall Ferguson, author of the excellent The Ascent of Money (which I highly recommend reading), peers into Europe’s future and sees Greek gardeners, German sunbathers—and a new fiscal union. Welcome to the other United States…in 2021:

Life is still far from easy in the peripheral states of the United States of Europe (as the euro zone is now known). Unemployment in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain has soared to 20%. But the creation of a new system of fiscal federalism in 2012 has ensured a steady stream of funds from the north European core.

Like East Germans before them, South Europeans have grown accustomed to this trade-off. With a fifth of their region’s population over 65 and a fifth unemployed, people have time to enjoy the good things in life. And there are plenty of euros to be made in this gray economy, working as maids or gardeners for the Germans, all of whom now have their second homes in the sunny south.

The U.S.E. has actually gained some members. Lithuania and Latvia stuck to their plan of joining the euro, following the example of their neighbor Estonia. Poland, under the dynamic leadership of former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, did the same. These new countries are the poster children of the new Europe, attracting German investment with their flat taxes and relatively low wages.

But other countries have left.David Cameron—now beginning his fourth term as British prime minister—thanks his lucky stars that, reluctantly yielding to pressure from the Euroskeptics in his own party, he decided to risk a referendum on EU membership. His Liberal Democrat coalition partners committed political suicide by joining Labour’s disastrous “Yeah to Europe” campaign.

Egged on by the pugnacious London tabloids, the public voted to leave by a margin of 59% to 41%, and then handed the Tories an absolute majority in the House of Commons. Freed from the red tape of Brussels, England is now the favored destination of Chinese foreign direct investment in Europe. And rich Chinese love their Chelsea apartments, not to mention their splendid Scottish shooting estates.

If for nothing else, read the piece to find out who Ferguson thinks won the 2012 Presidential Election in the United States.

How to Be Thankful on Thanksgiving

A few good tips on being grateful this Thanksgiving (but hey, the tips are useful year-round):

Don’t confuse gratitude with indebtedness. Sure, you may feel obliged to return a favor, but that’s not gratitude, at least not the way psychologists define it. Indebtedness is more of a negative feeling and doesn’t yield the same benefits as gratitude, which inclines you to be nice to anyone, not just a benefactor.

My favorite part is the “gratitude visit”:

Try a gratitude visit. This exercise, recommended by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, begins with writing a 300-word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person, preferably without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole thing slowly to your benefactor. “You will be happier and less depressed one month from now,” Dr. Seligman guarantees in his book “Flourish.”

Do you have any tips of your own to express gratitude?

What is a Person?

What is a person? Is it a human being, or can the word be extended to corporations, animals, and other entities? Mark Peters has a thoughtful essay in The Boston Globe touching this subject:

Why so much controversy over a word? Why have some found it vitally important to extend person to include not-exactly-human things, while others find it grotesque and overreaching? Partly it’s because we think of person as meaning human. But the word isn’t that simple: There’s a long history of person being used in other ways, including definitions that mean both less and more than being a member of the human race.

Person has led a double life in English since the early 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning both a human and a type of role, especially the theatrical kind. This theatricality goes all the way to the word’s roots, in the Latin persona–a type of mask used by an actor. (That word, too, survives in English, meaning an alias, disguise, or character.) The etymological origins of personhood, then, are all about the mask, not about who’s wearing it.

From the beginning, personhood was flexible and adaptable. The idea that corporations have some of the rights of persons, for example, is centuries old. As William S. Laufer has written in “Corporate Bodies and Guilty Minds: The Failure of Corporate Criminal Liability,” the seeds of corporate personhood were sown in the 1300s under King Edward III, when corporations attained some property rights. This example from the Common Laws of England in 1765 lays out the distinction that still vexes us: “Natural persons are such as the God of nature formed us; artificial are such as are created and devised by human laws for the purposes of society and government; which are called corporations or bodies politic.” Then as now, corporate personhood granted a business privileges while sparing the members from blame.

Older idioms such as “put on a person” highlight the artificiality of personhood, as in this example from 1653: “No man can long put on a person and act a part, but his evill manners will peep through the corners of the white robe.” Many uses of person still carry this sense of role playing. It’s no accident that giving an inanimate object human characteristics is called personification, not humanification.

On the other hand, since at least 1390, person has been used to mean someone’s physical self or body, a meaning still evident in phrases such as “in person” and “concealed on his person.” Sometimes this sense is narrowed to mean genitals, especially the male variety, producing some amusingly euphemistic statements such as this prohibition from the British Vagrancy Act of 1824: “Every Person wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his Person in any Street or in any place of public Resort, with intent to insult any Female, shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond.”

Even as these lighter sides of person live on, the word carries another, more serious meaning: “an individual regarded as having human rights, dignity, or worth,” to quote the OED. Personhood, then, means a corporation can claim the right of free speech–in the form of campaign contributions. Animal-rights advocates want animals to have personhood so they will be treated as worthy, dignified beings who deserve protection from poaching, experimentation, and other harms. The quest for personhood is the quest for rights.

What’s in a word? I like this conclusion:

Still, it’s possible that our current struggles over the meaning of person will seem tame compared to what lies ahead. Since the beginning of the field of robotics, scientists have wondered if a robot will ever achieve enough autonomy to be considered a person. If we ever encounter an alien race, they sure won’t be humans, but they’ll probably be persons. Is a human clone a person? Personally, I would think so; I bet many won’t agree. But then, arguing over who’s a person and who’s not may be part of what makes us human.

What is your definition of a person?

A Blow to Pinstripe Aspirations: Wall Street Layoffs

This piece in today’s NYT’s Dealbook has generated a flurry of comments. It’s about young people losing their jobs from investment banks and other financial firms. Read the entire piece here and then judge for yourself…

The money quote:

Sam Meek, 27, who was laid off in September when his Connecticut hedge fund decided to downsize, used to spend $500 on charity dinners and lavish golf outings. Now, it’s home-cooked meals and beer on the sofa. Recently, Mr. Meek and his roommate, another unemployed banker who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his job search, sat together in the kitchen filing for unemployment and drinking a bottle of Champagne.

“I’m scraping by right now,” he said.

Scraping by, huh? Needless to say, the majority of the 300+ comments have been pejorative; many have been deleted for abusive language and/or content.

And this was a good quote about the sentiment of elite/prestigious jobs:

The mood has darkened so much that even the young Wall Street workers who still have prestigious jobs are considering letting go of the brass ring.

“It’s lost its luster,” said a former Goldman analyst who left the financial sector this year. The former analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he signed a confidentiality agreement with the firm, said that in addition to losing some of the monetary benefits of their jobs, his friends who remained in finance were suffering from peer envy. “The new status jobs aren’t at Goldman Sachs. They’re at Google, Apple, and Facebook.”

A brief collection of comments was posted in another post here. I will agree with the nuanced comment by Timothy C. from Queens:

“Let’s not be too harsh here. I work in the financial industry, and in my own company, about half the workers (myself included) are in the back office, where salaries are generally in the middle-class range. Cuts in the financial industry tend to hit support staff much harder than the headline-grabbing six-figure earners in the front office. Many of my friends who have been laid off were making $40 or $50K a year. Not bad, of course, but nowhere near the stereotype of the financial industry worker.”

What are your thoughts on these young unemployed? Do you have any sympathy for them?

Why Did Borders Fail and Barnes & Noble Survive?

A short piece in Business Week provides some clues:

Borders’s demise, though, has as much to do with real estate as any metaphysical market shift. During the superstore boom of the 1990s, Barnes & Noble paid close attention to where it put its outlets, which were usually in prime locations. Many of the profitable Borders stores were also centrally located, but numerous industry observers characterized the company as grasping for growth. It had a policy of picking “B locations,” says Fox, and trying to turn these sites into “A economics.” Leases on its stores were also “unproductively long,” adds CEO Edwards. As the company’s fortunes turned, it was difficult for Borders to buy its way out of leases that still had seven and eight years remaining on them.

Analysts predict that Barnes & Noble will have to shrink the number and size of its stores, and it hasn’t tried to gobble up many of the vacated Borders locations—70 percent of which, Barnes & Noble says, were within five miles of one of its outlets. (Barnes & Noble did purchase the remainder of Borders’s Web business.) But so far Barnes & Noble is holding on to its stores, focusing on e-books and filling its outlets with high-profit-margin nonbook items, such as educational toys and games.

The one thing Borders did have going for it was its huge selection, yet even that wasn’t worth as much as the company thought. An average Borders superstore stocked around 140,000 titles at immense cost, but if a customer craves selection, no store can compete with the long tail of the Internet. Maybe more crucially for Borders, the assortment of titles that provided the key to its identity didn’t give it a competitive edge over Barnes & Noble. Mark Evans, a director of merchandising strategy and analytics at Borders until 2009, says that [Borders] surveyed customers to understand why Barnes & Noble, with its slimmer selection, continued to clobber them in terms of year-over-year growth, average sales per store, and even the number of books sold at each location. “Customers didn’t notice our larger assortment of books,” Evans laments. “They didn’t care.”

It’s true — I hadn’t noticed the larger selection of books at Borders.

Also, do you really expect a company to survive whose claim to fame is their “secret sauce”?

The Borders story began in Ann Arbor, where Louis and Tom Borders opened their first store in 1971. Students at the University of Michigan, the brothers developed a then-revolutionary system to track sales and inventory; for years Borders executives called it the company’s “secret sauce.” Their “Book Inventory System” could oversee the flow of a huge number of titles broken into thousands of different subject categories across multiple stores. By evaluating sales data, the system could understand local tastes and predict demand in specific communities. Initially, the brothers hoped to sell the program to independent stores across the country, but bookshop owners proved resistant, asserting that they—and not some punch-card computer—intimately understood their clientele. Instead, Borders opened additional stores, first in suburban Detroit, Atlanta, and Indianapolis, ultimately forcing out many of those reluctant independents. By the 1990s it had stores all over the country, and together with Barnes & Noble controlled 40 percent of the bookselling market.

Perhaps a better answer comes from Mark Evans, who provides his answer of why Borders failed and Barnes & Noble is thriving in this Quora post:

  1. Failure to adequately address the internet sales channel and the subsequent ebook market. Specifically, the decision to outsource Borders.com toAmazon.com. To be fair, Borders.com was costing the company millions of dollars in losses each year ($20m I think when they decided to outsource) and one could argue that the outsourcing solution was a case of letting the most efficient etailing organization (Amazon.com) handle the job and turn a big negative into a profitable business. In the short-term, this saved a lot of money. In the long run, the internet is too important to outsource in this manner and Borders’ branding, multi-channel strategy, and customer base suffered. They also dropped the ball on ebooks, but by the time this became an issue they were just trying to figure out how to keep the whole house from burning down around them, so I find it more understandable.
  2. Poor real estate strategy – Borders leased space that was too large, the storefronts did not compare well to B&N, and they were complacent in picking and relocating existing stores to the best locations. Some of this is subjective as I don’t have great data to back this up – just my own educated assessment based on observation.
  3. Over-investment in music – while this was a big plus for Borders in the early to mid 90’s, it was a disaster in the long run. This is why the stores were too big once the music business cratered – stores were sized and modeled to provide a large music CD business which largely disappeared. In addition, infrastructure was sized to support this business, including a dedicated warehouse distribution facility. This last part has been addressed over time, but soaked up money, time, and energy. Music was also part of what made Borders a destination for many customers, so when music sales tanked, other product categories’ sales suffered as well.
  4. Over-reliance on assortment size to compete as opposed to efficient operations – Borders was renowned for its wide and quality assortment of titles. The very large assortment size was an advantage early on before Amazon. However, by its very nature the internet was better at quickly and efficiently connecting customers with obscure titles and bringing the “long tail’ to market. Thus, competing on assortment size was especially vulnerable to internet retailing and Borders suffered disproportionately as the “long tail” customers abandoned them.
  5. Failure to build efficient systems and processes – While Borders’ legendary “expert system” was considered cutting edge and an advantage early on, the company failed to successfully build upon this foundation and create new, better assortment, replenishment, and supply chain systems and processes to keep pace with the changing state of technology and efficient retail operations. B&N invested considerable time/energy/money through the 90’s in systems and processes. To provide one example, a lower ranked title that sells out in a B&N will be replenished from a central warehouse within 2-3 days. The same process could take up to 16 weeks for Borders. Borders sought to upgrade systems with two large efforts in the 00’s: first one was a home grown effort called Common Systems. Second was a “buy and integrate” project to implement Retek and E3. Both failed spectacularly. The Retek effort dramatically hurt the Walden chain, the only business unit that was managed by the system. With both of these efforts, large sums of money and, perhaps more importantly, human resources and time were squandered.
  6. Branding failure – In addition to the Borders.com problem, Borders never reached the mindshare that Barnes & Noble did for a variety of reasons. Also, Barnes & Noble secured the exclusive U.S. Starbucks partnership, a major branding and traffic-driving win for them.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Borders. I still go to bookstores. It’s just that I will return home and then purchase the books I saw on Amazon.