Coffee in Lisbon (Avenida Palace) next Tuesday, September 19?


I’ll be in Lisbon next Tuesday, September 19. Meet for coffee at the Avenida Palace at 5 pm? If interested, please add a comment to this posting. I will have limited email access, but should be able to check this site on Tuesday morning.

How to get news from old people for whom nothing ever changes


I recently completed a five-year term as Secretary of the MIT Class of 1982.

Our new Secretary emailed to ask for “tips on extracting information from classmates” and “Did you ever target specific individuals?” Here was my response:

Thanks for stepping up.

A good salesperson doesn’t hear the first three times the prospect says “No.” So I think you may want to send out at least 2-3 emails between issues.

Also, people are much better at reacting than generating content. If you ask someone “What’s new?” the invariable answer is “Not much.” If you tell them about going to see Wonder Woman, though, they start talking about the last time that they went to the movies, what they saw, etc. Or maybe they saw Wonder Woman and had some reactions. You saw that every now that I then I had to bring out the big hammer and mention Trump 🙂 [though I myself am pretty much indifferent to federal politics]

I thought that it helped to have themes for various issues. That way people can pipe up with “Kid X graduated College Y” but others can share life wisdom. Since we’ve reached the age where not too much changes, instead of searching for conventional news of changes think of yourself as a sociologist with a group that you’re following. Can you figure out if it is better to live in the U.S. or a different country. Is it better to live in the country or city? Are people happier if they have kids or don’t have kids? Is it better to be married and divorce than never to have been married at all? What happens when someone tries to get a new job at age 60? What is it like to go back to school at age 60?

I didn’t try the individual email approach, but the group of people who actually care is small enough (e.g., the ones who showed up at the reunion) that yours is probably a good idea. People can’t not respond on the theory that someone else will.

[How have times changed since 1982, other than the Wisconsin glaciation having receded from the MIT campus? Tuition was around $5,000 per year when our class started. The acceptance rate for people who applied to join the Class of 1982 was roughly 50 percent. Freshmen entering this fall will pay $50,000 per year in tuition. They had less than an 8 percent chance of being accepted.]


9/11 reading list


Sixteen years after 9/11 and we are still at war. Here are a couple of books that I have read recently that are relevant…

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden. The book is about more than the one battle. There are excellent introductory chapters putting the entire conflict into context. According to the author, we were on the wrong side the whole time, opposing the democratic will of the Vietnamese people. We fooled ourselves with wishful statistics. Our Air Force was plainly useless against an agricultural society. Eventually Robert McNamara figured out that we were losing and, despite having been a primary author of the war under both Kennedy and Johnson, admitted it. He was then fired by Lyndon Johnson for “having gone soft.”

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, by Roger Crowley. One of the smallest and poorest European powers blunders around Africa and into the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. This was the first modern conflict between Islam and the West and, thanks mostly to superior skills with artillery, the West came out ahead. The lack of understanding between Western Europeans and the rest of the world was already well-developed. When the Portuguese arrived in India and were taken by a Hindu prince to a Hindu temple, for example, they thought that they were being hosted by a Christian and taken to worship in a variant of Christianity.

Readers: How are you marking this sad anniversary? Or at least what are your thoughts and reflections?

If failed, why is succeeding?


One of the most notorious failures of the era was, which cost investors $300 million.

Recently I got a direct mail piece from, which appears to be the same thing. The Miami Herald says that is growing wonderfully.

Mindy the Crippler gets Hill’s Ideal Balance for $48.59, including Prime shipping, from Amazon. The same product is available at the exact same price from Since almost everyone is already an Amazon customer, what would motivate them to switch to

Readers: help me out here… how can this idea that completely failed in the 1990s suddenly be viable? Why instead of, et al.?

[I recognize that some ideas did become more viable with the growth of the Internet, e.g., the collaborative online encyclopedia (tried many times before Wikipedia, but never reached critical mass). But if anything Amazon and the other big retailers seem to have become more dominant compared to the 1990s.]

Why we have such bad commuter rail service in Boston


Labor Day Week continued…

Part of the misery of work in the U.S. is commuting in a country of 325 million trying to use infrastructure (highways, railroad tracks, bridges, tunnels) that was built for a country of 150 million.

This summer I was amazed that a guy at a party admitted to being an executive for the company that runs the universally hated commuter rail system here in the Boston area.

When they’re on schedule, our trains run every hour or two during off-peaks times and usually no more frequently than every 30 minutes at rush hour. This renders the commuter rail more or less useless except for those who can plan their lives to the minute.

I asked Could the trains run every 15 minutes as they do in Moscow? [Subway lines in Moscow run every minute on weekdays, every two minutes on weekends, but commuter rail is less frequent.]

The answer was “no” because the MBTA uses super heavy rolling stock, more like what you’d see on a freight train, and the tracks would be quickly destroyed by such frequent usage. The difference is easy to see if you go to England, for example, where the long-distance “trains” look to an American eye more like subway cars.

Why couldn’t we buy these lighter vehicles here? “I don’t know,” he responded, “but I think there are political connections involved with the rolling stock manufacturer.”

Why were the prices so high and yet the system was always losing money? “Unions,” was the answer. The company that runs the train is French. How could our unions be less efficient than workers in France? “It is on a completely different scale,” the international executive responded. “I have never seen a group of workers as unproductive as American union members.”

We have structural problems here in Boston as well. Because North Station and South Station aren’t connected, trains can’t be scheduled to keep rolling through a station. They have to back up after reaching downtown Boston. The $15 billion Big Dig project didn’t connect the stations. “Take long view, build N-S Rail Link” suggests that we redo the Big Dig so as to accomplish this goal.


U.S. versus Kenyan productivity measured objectively


Labor Day Week continued…

Before you jump on the globalization train… A friend works at a company that cleans up databases using Mechanical Turk-style human labor. They tested folks in their U.S. office on a straightforward task. It took them between 2 and 30 seconds, with the average being roughly 6 seconds. Their $8/hour workers in Kenya? An average of 1 minute, 16 seconds.


Robot romance versus reality


Overheard on the MIT campus:

“Designing robots sounds romantic but you have to major in EE and at that point you’re just a number.” — female student talking to male student as they walked near Building 18

If you’re in school: Good luck picking a major this year!

New slogan for Volkswagen?


It’s September and showrooms are filled with 2018 cars (“spend $50,000 on an asset that will become worthless if there are big advances in battery or self-driving technology”).

Volkswagen has had some PR problems lately. What about a new slogan for them that is alliterative and covers the high points of their history?

My proposal:

Hitler, Hippies, Hidden software

Readers: Any better ideas?

Happy First Day of School (and Watch Out for Killer Salmon)


Today is the first day of school for a lot of Americans. If you’re a young reader, Happy First Day of School to you. If you’re a parent, Happy First Day of Taxpayer-funded Daycare!

Here’s the latest email from our town-run facility for the pre-K crowd (most of it was bold-faced, but I removed that):

… there are students in the preschool that have severe allergies to PEANUTS, TREE NUTS and SALMON. Strict avoidance of all peanut and nut products and salmon is the only way to prevent a life-threatening allergic reaction. Even touching a small amount of a product or an accidental ingestion of a food product containing peanuts could result in a life-threatening situation. We are asking your assistance in providing all students with a safe learning environment.

To reduce the risk of exposure, PEANUTS, all TREE NUTS AND SALMON will NOT be allowed in the preschool this year. Please do not send any foods containing peanuts, nuts or salmon for your child to eat for snacks (morning and extended day) or for lunch in the classroom. Please read ingredients labels carefully. Any exposure to peanuts or nuts through contact or peanuts, nuts and salmon by ingestion can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction requiring emergency care.

Additionally, if your child eats or handles food that contains peanut/nut, peanut/nut oils or peanut/nut dust for breakfast on a school morning, we ask that he/she wash their hands before coming to school.

Readers: What allergies are you getting emails about? Could aggregated school letters from around the U.S. be a useful data set to track to see how Americans are evolving?


Union jobs are great, but try to pick the right union


Continuing the Happy Labor Day theme…

At a social gathering that included musicians from America’s top symphony orchestras, I learned from a Los Angeles Philharmonic member that Gustavo Dudamel‘s star power is earned (“he’s inspiring”), though Esa-Pekka Salonen was more technically accomplished. A New York Philharmonic member described a project in which the 160 union musicians received “slightly less” total cash than the 5 stagehands required. (The stagehands set up the chairs, music stands, etc.) “The senior stagehands make $550,000 a year,” he explained.

Were the musicians envious of the stagehands’ higher compensation? No. “They should get as much as they can,” said one. The musicians did not see themselves as being in competition with the stagehands for slices of their orchestras’  total income (ticket revenue, charitable donations, etc.).

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