SHORT RANTS FIFTEEN

HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL

Some applicants to Harvard Business School were rejected because they accessed school computers to see if they had been accepted before the results were to be made official. This inappropriate access was deemed enough of an indicator of dishonesty, which I guess it actually is. The board of admissions is sending a message about ethics.

Fine. Let me propose an alternate explanation.

The board of admissions makes its decisions, which are filed in the computer. One of the board members looks at the list and sees that several of the people he wanted in are way down on the alternate list. He decides to clear the runway a little. He goes to a local library and emails the URL to some of the students he thinks are not really Harvard material after all. Some of them will succumb to temptation. After all, they're kids.

Of course for his plot to work he has to make sure they get caught. Checking back door access to any given directory might not be something routinely done. So I suggest that the person who caught them might have set them up to get more of his own people in.

Another alternate explanation is that this is an honesty test administered globally.

That's kind of tough, because such a test couldn't be administered evenly and could wind up being really unjust. For example, suppose two applicants want to check their results. One kid logs on and checks his friend's results as well. The kid who logs in gets the boot, the other, just as guilty, is presumed to be honest.

Spam blockers installed at ISPs and on home computers are uneven as well. If a kid has a good spam blocker he might never recieve the temptation.

RTJ -- 4/18/2005

THINK TANK

Tell you what let's do. I don't have a job and you're not up to much yourself, so let's put together a think tank and get ourselves on the Teevee. I've been watching the professional nabobs, pundits, grand-high hoodeehoos and thinktankers and I think I've got their racket figured out.

The most important thing you need is a beltway sounding name. The Potomac Institute for Rational Foreign Policy is my suggestion. Mind you nobody's requiring you to be rational or even well-informed or even to know where Canada is. It's just the name. If we say we're rational, Sean Hannity will back us up to the extent that we say what he wants said. And that is our job as a think tank, to figure out what people want said and say it loudly as if it were true. Actually formulating policy is a big time waster because our leaders would just as soon not be bothered with our piddly squat ideas. What our think tank will formulate is product, and that product is sheep's clothing for the wolf. We've got to make it look like this opinion (whatever it might be) came from a bunch of nonaligned tip-top smart guys who genuinely care for their fellow Americans. Otherwise we might as well just call ourselves the Society of Cynical Party Whores.

So mum's the word about being a cynical party whore.

Before we start getting on the Teevee we've got to get some credentials. I propose that we do what everybody else does and manufacture them. First thing is everybody in the think tank is a Senior Fellow. It doesn't matter if you're talking to the president or mopping up vomit in the bathroom, you're a Senior Fellow. I dub thee. I double dog dub thee. Congratulations.

The titles can get us only so far. All of our Senior Fellows have to have lots of honors and awards. That's why we need to form not just one think tank, but a half-dozen. Every couple of months one of our think tanks (like the Richmond Fuller Bipartisan Commission on Social Justice) will hold a banquet (at your house, I got breakable stuff) and distribute plaques and certificates to members of our other think tanks. I personally am hoping to get "Most Improved Camper."

Since all of our members are going to be Senior Fellows in all of the think tanks, you can see that in a year we'll all have two or three dozen awards, or should I say "prestigious" awards. I think I will. "Prestigious awards," "coveted awards." No, let's stick to "prestigious." "Coveted" has some biblical baggage I don't think we want to sign up for.

It's taken about twenty years, but the public is finally catching on that there's no such thing as an unaligned think tank. To maximize our earning potential we want to work both sides of the street. Half of our think tanks will have titles containing the words "Social Justice," "Environmental," "Universal," and the like. The flip side of the coin will be groups containing words like "Economic Growth," "Liberty," "Heritage," and "Coalition."

The ideal situation, the one we're all working toward, is where we have a show with a panel of experts occupied entirely by our members arguing all sides of the question. That way nobody contradicts the "facts" cited by any of the other panelists. The hosts of these political shows don't really care about the facts so much as they want a spirited discussion. Lots of yelling and screaming. The only one that checks is Al Franken, and you can see he hasn't put many people out of business.

So let me know what you think. If you want to make the most yarn out of the least wool, it seems like Thinktanking is the way to go these days.

RTJ -- 5/7/2005

THE STUFF YOU LEARN AND THE STUFF YOU DON'T LEARN

One night while away from city lights I looked up in the sky and I could see thousands and thousands of stars, only one of which I could name. Polaris. I could only name two constellations. The Big dipper and Orion. I figure that's about what most Americans know about the night sky.

If you knew all the constellations visible from the northern hemisphere plus the traditional names of a hundred stars, you'd know more about the night sky than damn near everybody. You'd be up there in the 99th percentile of night sky experts. A list of a hundred stars' names isn't that difficult. The states and their capitals is a list of a hundred things and every eighth grader learns that.

One spring I found myself looking at a field of colors and realized that I knew the names of just two or three of the flowers in that field. Clover, bitterweed, buttercup and that was about it.

If you knew the names of the hundred most abundant wildflowers where you live, you'd probably be the neighborhood expert on wildflowers. A list of a hundred flowers' names isn't that difficult. The states and their capitals is a list of a hundred things and every eighth grader learns that.

What is it that we keep in our heads that displaces all those stars and flowers and rocks and leaves and insects and all the details of the natural world?

I'm tempted to say that my Dad's generation was more in touch than mine and that a constant barrage of cheap entertainment has displaced knowledge of the natural world, but at least in my Dad's case this isn't so. He once pointed out the Little Dipper to me. It was actually the Pleides. He calls a showy evening primrose a buttercup. He's shaky on nature's decorations, but he knows the plants that affected him economically as a child. He knows that if a cow eats bitterweed, the milk will be no good. He knows a morning glory will overspread a tomato plant. But if I point out a spigelia miralandica, he shrugs and says, "Whatever. Got a name out of a book." Knowledge obtained from books is to him likely to be specious.

Around the water cooler everybody knows all the names of the contestants on The Apprentice but they don't know jasper from limestone or a flicker from a sapsucker or a redear from a bluegill. I'm tempted to be disdainful of that, but how useful are the names of the stars Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka? Just about as useful as Sam, Kwami and Omarosa, I guess.

RTJ -- 5/13/2005

STARTING A BUSINESS IN ARKANSAS

There are two separate routes for gaining state government incentives for locating your business or industry in Arkansas -- one for parties from inside Arkansas, another for parties outside Arkansas.

If you're from outside the state, you contact the Governor's office and they put together a package of tax breaks and infrastructure construction and special permission to ignore various state regulations.

If you're from within the state, you go to the Office of Economic Development and they give you a zero-interest loan with a two-year grace period. That's twenty-four months before you have to make a payment.

The result of this practice is that there are a lot of businesses, especially agricultural co-ops, that go bust and declare bankruptcy when they're only twenty months old. It's just too easy to add to your bottom line by neglecting things like routine maintenance of equipment and physical plant, so your new equipment is largely amortized right about the time the first payment is due. It's just easier to declare bankruptcy than it is to make a go of a business.

Not that any of these concerns start out with failure as a business plan, it's just that failure is most lucrative course of action when you have two years before the first payment is due. You experience a similar temptation when you rent a car. You don't change the oil on a rented car. You're not a bad person, you think, you're just not interested in the future of the car you rent. The gist of such bankruptcies is that the taxpayer has paid part of the cost of processing these agricultural products.

The worst part is that anybody who is really trying to run a business on an ongoing basis has a hard time competing in a marketplace where the state is funding a brand new state-of-the-art competitor every two years. Not only does the two-year grace period create a habit of failure among the people who cloy these loans, it also makes it very difficult for anybody who tries to run a similar business without massive government aid. The sector becomes dependent on the government.

Get rid of the two-year grace period and people who are planning to fail will stop applying for these loans.

RTJ -- 5/22/2005

NPR REPORTS RUMORS

Today I heard a story on NPR concerning a rumor that terrorist organizations were raising money through illegal bootleg copies of CD's, software and DVD's. They did manage to admit within the story that there is no proven substance to the rumor. Yet they decided to place the story in our consciousness anyway. Come on, guys. If there's no substance, there's no story. You're all big boys and girls and you know that. You knew that and you ran the story anyway.

I kind of expect Fox to build stories around rumor and innuendo, but I thought NPR was above that.

I guess what's going on is that somebody thinks if they can make this amateur psi-ops project stick, they get some of that big War On Terror budget and put it to use protecting Hollywood's intellectual property. I guess before long camp X-ray is going to be full of fourteen-year-old computer geeks who made the mistake of downloading the wrong Phish MP3.

I've got nothing in particular against big ShowBiz protecting its property; but they should spend their own money doing it, and not propagate rumors in hopes of diverting money from the real war.

RTJ -- 5/27/2005

BASEBALL

Surely I'm not the first to notice this, but here goes anyway.

I went to a Travs game last night and for the first time it occurred to me that the distance from the plate to the mound is twenty paces -- the traditional duelling distance. It does seem appropriate, given the nature of the one-on-one contest between pitcher and batter surrounded by their seconds and referees. Baseball incorporates a series of metaphorical duels. If cricket and rounders originated in the age of pistol duelling, this might account for some of the elements of the game.

Meanwhile, the Travellers are planning to build a new ball park across the river in North Little Rock and Ray Winder Field is likely to become an elephant habitat for the Little Rock Zoo. I'm against the move on grounds of tradition. A ballpark is sanctified ground, reserved for this American ritual game. Since 1931 dads have been bringing their sons to Traveller games in that spot.

Of course that's a sentimental reason, not a practical one. Bill Valentine can put his business wherever he wants; but I think there are some practical business reasons to remain at Ray Winder Field.

To my left was seated an old retired couple. To my right was a man with three small children. This describes about half of last night's crowd, and these people were there because a night's entertainment for the whole family can be had for twenty bucks, and the park is right in the middle of town, nestled at the crux of all the major residential neighborhoods. Ten minutes from everywhere.

If you build a park across the river, charge five bucks for parking and fifteen for a ticket with children half price, then your outing for a Little Rock family of four is suddenly fifty bucks and a thirty minute drive instead of twenty bucks and a ten-minute drive. Bill Valentine is going to lose almost all of his customers and will have to find new ones somewhere else.

So his new target demographic is West Little Rock, Pleasant Valley and Pulaski Heights. How's he going to attract them? The usual promotions? With those "world famous nacho cheese filled pretzels" for $3.50? By the time you add in snacks for everybody, you've torn the heck out of a hundred dollar bill. The people who are going to spend a hundred bucks on a night out might not be attracted by the promise of midget wrestling, and they're going to think of alternate ways to spend that hundred. How are they doing with that new demographic now? The park is pitching distance from about five hospitals and I've never seen anybody at the game in OR scrubs.

The change in location causes the Travs to lose valuable neighbors like the zoo and the golf course. Right now a family with small children can spend the day at the zoo and the evening at the ball park and make a day of it. A guy can play nine holes and then take in a game. More than once I've been driving west on I-630, saw the lights on and pulled off on the Fair Park exit to catch the last few innings. The new park will be out by itself until something gets built around it.

The proposed move is a risky business decision. It about a year Mr. Valentine might be thinking about selling the franchise to Bentonville. Things could work out, but he's got to find a way to build his customer base out of people who have different expectations about what they're going to get for a hundred bucks. Those folks in Pulaski Heights are not going to eat an unbranded hot dog at any price.

I understand that Ray Winder is an old park, and if it just won't hold together any more, tear it down and build the new one in its place. The place is a shrine.

I know there's a lot of money to be had in the issuing of bonds to build a new ball park, which will increase the value of surrounding property, and then there'll be money in developing that property; but I don't think the franchise itself will be made more valuable by the change.

RTJ -- 6/8/2005

MILK

Now all the milk in the dairy case is "ultra-pasteurized."

What happened to "pasteurized?" Did that leave too much nutrition in my milk? Once upon a time they started telling me that 2% fat milk was better for me than whole milk. Milk is mainly microscopic globs of fat suspended in water. Whole milk is about 10% fat, so if you take one gallon of milk and add four gallons of water, you've got five gallons of 2% milk. Is that a good deal, do you think? Are you getting your money's worth? Would you buy orange juice under those terms? Is soup best when it's thinnest?

Ultra-pasturization is like pasteurization only hotter and quicker. Both processes cook the milk in hopes of killing enough bacteria so that the milk won't spoil for 30 days (in the case of pasteurization) or 90 days (in the case of ultra-pasteurization). So ultra-pasteurized milk is deader, but it still contains enough vitamins A and D3 to qualify as milk. Of course those higher temperatures will denature some of the more fragile chemical components of the milk. Does your body need those components? Maybe not, but maybe so. If the answer is yes, would the government prohibit ultra-pasteurization? Not at all. White bread is an example of how food value is removed from a product in order to extend shelf life. The government leaves it up to the consumer whether to eat that product or the more healthful bread made from whole grains.

So if you'll pay good money for milk that's been cooked and watered down, that's between you and the store. The government is more interested in the safety of the product than in the quality.

This milk thing might be a long-term marketing experiment. Maybe they want to see how much they can dilute the product and still sell it with the word "milk" on the package. Maybe some day it will go as far as fruit juice has -- "Milk: made with ten percent real milk."

RTJ -- 6/12/2005


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