"Restore(s) a little sanity into current political debate" - Kenneth Minogue, TLS "Projects a more expansive and optimistic future for Americans than (the analysis of) Huntington" - James R. Kurth, National Interest "One of (the) most important books I have read in recent years" - Lexington Green
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I have written several posts that use Carroll Quigley’s “institutional imperative” as a lens for understanding contemporary events.  Mr. Quigley suggests that all human organizations fit into one of two types: instruments and institutions. Instruments are those organizations whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. (Think NASA in the 1960s, defined by its mission to put a man on the moon, or the NAACP during the same timeframe, instrumental to the civil rights movement.) Institutions, in contrast, are organizations that exist for their own state; their prime function is their own survival.
Most institutions start out as instruments, but as with NASA after the end of the Cold War or the NAACP after the victories of the civil rights movement, their instrumental uses are eventually eclipsed. They are then left adrift, in search of a mission that will give new direction to their efforts, or as happens more often, these organizations begin to shift their purpose away from what they do and towards what they are. Organizations often betray their nature when called to defend themselves from outside scrutiny: ‘instruments’ tend to emphasize what their employees or volunteers aim to accomplish; ‘institutions’ tend to emphasize the importance of the heritage they embody or even the number of employees they have.
Mr. Quigley’s institutional imperative has profound implications for any democratic society – especially a society host to so many publicly funded organizations as ours. Jonathan Rauch’s essay, “Demosclerosis” is the best introduction to the unsettling consequences that come when public organizations transform from instruments into institutions.  While Mr. Rauch does not use the terminology of the Institutional Imperative, his conclusions mesh neatly with it. Describing the history and growth of America’s bureaucratic class, Mr. Rauch suggests its greatest failing: a bureaucracy, once created, is hard to get rid of. To accomplish whatever mission it was originally tasked with a bureaucracy must hire people. It must have friends in high places. The number of people who have a professional or economic stake in the organization’s survival grows. No matter what else it may do, it inevitably becomes a publicly sponsored interest group. Any attempt to reduce its influence, power, or budget will be fought against with ferocity by the multitude of interests who now depend on it. Even when it becomes clear that this institution is no longer an instrument, the political capital needed to dismantle it is just too high to make the attempt worth a politician’s time or effort. So the size and scope of bureaucracies grow, encumbering the country with an increasing number of regulations it cannot change, employees it does not need, and organizations that it cannot get rid of.
I used to think that the naked self-interest described by Mr. Rauch was the driving force behind the Institutional Imperative. It undoubtedly plays a large role (particularly when public funds are involved), but there are other factors at play. One of the most important of these is what business strategists call Marginal Thinking. Read the rest of this entry »
John Barnes asks: Are we as a society putting too much emphasis on abstract categorization rather than practical application? The so-called Flynn Effect says that average IQs worldwide rise by about 3 points per decade, but:
Stuart Brown has described younger engineers at advanced research facilities who are “good at filling in bubbles” but don’t seem to be able to make a machine work. Senior engineers lament that the next generation overvalues its high test scores and undervalues the things that get the job done. Fine arts teachers tailor assignments to students who want to express simpler ideas with easier tools rather than acquire more open-ended and sophisticated skills.
Speaking of 3-D printing, GE is running a couple of interesting contests. First, there is the GE jet engine bracket challenge–participants submit a design taking advantage of additive manufacturing capabilities to meet all performance criteria while minimizing mass. Submitted designs will be evaluated by simulation: the top ten will then be fabricated and subjected to actual loads. There is also the 3-D printing production quest: high precision and advanced materials. This one is focused on making parts requiring extreme precision with complex geometries, especially for healthcare applications–entrants are going to need production as well as design capabilities, and in addition to the $50K prizes there may be an opportunity to become a GE supplier or otherwise “collaborate” with the company.
General Electric posted a cool video of jet engine fuel nozzles being fabricated–in one piece–with a 3-D printing process. Extensive data collection during the process is done for quality control purposes (they use the term “big data,” of which I am not overly fond.)
Welders have monitored weld pools for centuries with shaded glasses, listening to the “bacon sizzle” of the molten metal, and later using infrared sensors, cameras, and pyrometers. GE is collecting all this data, as well as information from sensors checking the mechanical stability of the 3-D printing machines and the laser beams, and feeding it into algorithms that reduce terabytes of raw data to megabytes of useful information.
It seems that certain skills, such as understanding what is happening to molten metal via direct sensory perception, are becoming less important in this manufacturing process…other skills, surely, are becoming more important. It would be both interesting and worthwhile for someone to perform a multi-decade analysis of the actual skill mix required to produce a particular product. For example, how does the set of skills that built the J-47 jet engine in the early 1950s compare with the set of skills for building the engines being produced today? Millions of words and trillions of pixels have been devoted..by academics, journalists, consultants, educators, and even the occasional practitioner…to talking about “jobs of the future,” but a high proportion of this writing and talking is of the hand-waving variety. It would be nice to see some serious historical (and quantitative) comparative research.
More on 3-D printing in today’s WSJ. Note that the Ford and Mattel examples are for 3-D printing of prototypes, not of actual customer products.
David Foster’s post included a link to this column about career risk. The author argues that it’s risky to bind yourself for the long run to an apparently-secure institutional job, because institutions can fail and leave you hanging. You are better off to keep trying new things and accepting failures and short-term uncertainty, in exchange for greater long-term adaptability. I think he’s half right about this.
He’s right that it’s a good idea to accept opportunities and take calculated risks, but he’s a bit off in his framing of the overall issue. What distinguishes the resilient from non-resilient career paths in his examples isn’t risk-taking per se, it’s diversification. Instead of investing all of your career effort in a relationship with one big company that is the sole buyer of your services, you should diversify among multiple, smaller customers, none of which is big enough to put you out of action if they fire you.
This is basic risk management. It is difficult to assess long-term risk going into a venture, no matter how smart or experienced you are. There are too many things that can change over time. The big-company job or big institutional customer may appear to offer security but that’s an illusion. They can be belly-up in a few years for reasons no one can anticipate. The rational strategy is therefore to diversify your income among multiple sources as smart people have always understood. Just as independent professionals know to keep a large enough number of clients that a loss of business from any one client won’t hurt them much, prudent people with institutional jobs may use their income streams to finance investments in real estate or other alternative revenue sources. There is no one career path that works for everyone. As America transitions from its 2.0 institutional model to a more decentralized and individualistic system, people increasingly will need to take account of risk and diversification in managing their careers. That’s probably better for everyone in the long run.
The CEO of Siemens USA thinks young people should seriously consider careers in manufacturing. (When he talks about high-level executives at Siemens who started as apprentices on the shop floor, I have to wonder how many of these success stories are in Siemens USA versus Siemens in Germany)
Catherine Engelbrecht and her husband own a small manufacturing business.
Catherine dared to express political opinions and organize political activities which were not to the liking of the Obama administration and its left-wing allies. Very quickly, Engelbrecht Manufacturing found itself facing inquiries from the IRS and the FBI and OSHA and the ATF.
Of course, we can’t be sure–and Catherine can’t be sure–that these investigations were politically-motivated. Maybe the aggregate of separate actions by separate agencies was merely a matter of chance. It seems about as likely as being hit on the head by a meteor, but it’s possible.
And it is specifically this impossibility of knowing what is really behind discretionary activities on the part of large and powerful government bureaucracies (absent legal action forcing the agencies to reveal their internal documents and discussions, which most people will not be able to afford) that makes this sort of thing so frightening.
I don’t think any seriously-informed person can doubt that a climate of intimidation is being driven by the Obama administration. Obama has clearly brought some of the toxic aspects of Chicago political culture to Washington with him, and these are added to the end-justifies-the-means philosophy which is a staple of leftism in general.
As long as Barack Obama is in office, I don’t see how anyone can feel reasonably assured of fair and nonpolitical treatment by any federal agency.
Catherine Engelbrecht says the harassment has forced her to seriously reconsider whether her political activity is worth the government harassment she’s faced.
“I left a thriving family business with my husband that I loved, to do something I didn’t necessarily love, but [which] I thought had to be done,” she says. “But I really think if we don’t do this, if we don’t stand up and speak now, there might not [always] be that chance.”
Negotiators had to choose between a hard-line approach favored by Republicans, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that would have required immigrants and employers to painstakingly piece together a tax history so the government could collect what is owed and a less burdensome option of focusing on people who already have a past-due bill with the Internal Revenue Service.
Yup. No tax audits. Only if they already have an assessment is it pursued.
Rubio’s published materials now often carefully say to-be-legalized immigrants would have to merely ”pay taxes” as opposed to pay “back taxes.” That hasn’t stopped the bogus “back tax” meme from being propagated during Rubio’s current round the clock Con-the-Cons tour.
The Senate has served up another in Harry Reid’s menu of “Unanimous Consent” bills with no hearings and no amendments except those he approves. This is not how the Senate is supposed to work and is a large part of the reason that Congress has produced such bad legislation since 2008. Now, we have another massive bill which is being presented with minimal hearings and debate.
The “Gang of Eight” has written this bill and it is supposed to be fast tracked with no argument. Marco Rubio has been pressing for approval and now Paul Ryan is aboard.
In an interview last week with the Catholic television network EWTN, Ryan recalled his history at Kemp’s side and how they worked together to fight Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative that prevented non-citizens from using the state’s social services.
One reason why immigration worked in this country for 150 years was the fact that immigrants were here to work and support themselves. There was no welfare for them. Prop 187 in California was passed with 60% of the vote and even had majorities in heavily Hispanic districts. It was ruled “unconstitutional” by the California Supreme Court and the decline of the “Golden State” has followed. His reasoning at the time ?
“I actually campaigned with Jack Kemp against a thing called Prop 187,” Ryan told host Raymond Arroyo. He said they both worried that the proposal would burn Republicans within the immigrant community, and “make it so that Latino voters would not hear the other messages of empowerment.”
On April 8, 1838, the steamship Great Western..the first steamship to be purpose-built for the transatlantic passenger traffic…left Bristol for New York City. Four days earlier, though, another steamship, the Sirius, had left Cork for the same destination. Sirius had not been designed for the Atlantic run; it was a small channel steamer which had been chartered by the rivals of Great Western’s owners. This competitive enterprise had encountered delays in the construction of their own Atlantic liner, the British Queen, and had chartered Sirius to keep Great Western from scoring a win in the PR battle. Sirius did arrive at New York first, on April 23, but Great Western came in only 12 hours later…its crossing of a little more than 15 days was the fastest ever from England to America.
There were earlier crossings that had been at least partly steam-powered: the American ship Savannah in 1819 (which actually used only sails for most of the voyage), and the Dutch Curacao and the Canadian Royal William, which made their crossings in 1827 and 1833 respectively. But it was the Great Western vs Sirius race which marked the beginning of steam passenger and mail service across the Atlantic.
The paddle wheels and auxiliary sailing rigs of the early steamers gave way to screw propellers and total reliance on steam, and reciprocating steam engines were later supplanted by steam turbines…which in turn have now largely been replaced by diesels and in some cases gas turbines. Aircraft carriers and submarines still use steam turbines, though, with the steam generation done by nuclear energy rather than the burning of coal or oil.
Here’s the British actress Fanny Kemble, writing circa 1882, in annotation of her years-earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by slow communications between the continents:
To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.
Also: the ultimate development of the steam-turbine-powered passenger liner was represented by the SS United States. Sadly, this beautiful ship is in imminent danger of being turned over the the scrapper’s’ torches…to save her, the SS United States Conservancy needs to raise $500K in the next month and will welcome contributions.
This is part of a letter I just sent to my employees:
*In speaking with the owners of (company A) and (company B), both times the conversation turned to health insurance. With the “Obamacare” legislation being passed and coming into effect, we are not only going to be taxed on our current health insurance, but our insurance rates will be skyrocketing, yet again. (other business owner), myself, and the owners of (company A) and (company B) just looked at each other and said – and I quote – “we don’t know what we are going to do”. Note that this is not a political statement in any way, I am simply sharing with you the reality of the situation.
We have always considered “free” health insurance to our employees to be one of the massive benefits we like to provide, but if these increases go through as expected, the model will simply be untenable.
There may be decreased coverage, employee contributions, decreased profit sharing, and/or a combination of all three, or perhaps something else. We are not sure where this will take us, but we will do the best we can to come up with the best solution for everyone. Just be aware that there is a possibility of changes in the future. You will have ample notification and time if and when any changes are made.*
Continuing my retro-reading of old Forbes ASAP issues. In the October 1993 issue, Rich Karlgaard, arguing that book value is of declining importance in evaluating companies, says:
Human intelligence and intellectual resources are now any company’s most valuable assets.
(Note that word “now”…we’ll be coming back to it)
Rich quotes Walter Wriston:
Indeed, the new source of wealth is not material, it is information,knowledge applied to work to create value…A person with the skills to write a complex software program that can produce a billion dollars of revenue can walk past any customs officer in the world with nothing of ‘value’ to declare.
I think Rich Karlgaard (now publisher of Forbes) is a very smart and insightful guy. (His blog is here.) And Walter Wriston was one of the giants of banking, back when it was possible to use such a phrase without snickering. But in this case, I think they are seriously overestimating the newness of the importance of knowledge in the economy. And such overestimation has continued and increased in the years since 1993.
The reality is that the leading companies of the much-maligned “industrial era” were themselves based on knowledge. The original Boulton & Watt steam engine business (which James Boswell visited in 1776) was based on James Watt’s design knowledge of how steam engines could be made more efficient and Matthew Boulton’s process knowledge about how they could be better manufactured. The original General Electric Company was based on Thomas Edison’s knowledge about numerous topics related to electricity. And so on.
And it would be a mistake to believe that while these businesses may have been based on an original brilliant idea or two, everyone other than the original inventors was restricted to uncreative drone work. The truth is, any substantial and surviving business requires thousands of innovations big and small, on a continuing basis, by many people. This is not new.
And knowledge isn’t something that only applies in laboratories, engineering departments, and executive suites…and has never been. I recently picked up an interesting autobiography by the engineer-writer L T C Holt, who grew up in the Welsh border area and worked in several factories in the 1920s and 1930s. Here’s his description of the work of a steam-hammer operator in a locomotive factory:
Recently I saw this sign in River North, indicating the start of another large high rise project, with an optimistic start date of 2016. Apparently there is plenty of money sloshing around to fund the construction of large buildings, because cranes are up in the sky all over the downtown area. I don’t know if lessons have been learned from the last and most recent bust in 2008, where developers who put in only a bit of equity defaulted and handed the projects back to the creditors, who also took big losses. The most obvious lessons would be 1) require developers to put significant equity into the project 2) don’t fund too many projects competing for the same tenants. These projects don’t seem to be condominiums for the most part; I am only speculating but perhaps the failure of so many condominium projects rattled the banks (those that are still standing, at least).
I would consider it a victory if they finished a few of the half-built structures that have stood idle for five or more years without any progress. This hotel in River North is now restarting; I have been looking at this ugly mess for years so it is great to see some sort of actual effort to complete the hotel.
The real issue is whether or not the structures being built right now, at what is likely the apex of the boom, will be seen through to completion. I certainly hope so, because it is depressing to see half-built structures marring the skyline for years. The famous “Chicago Spire” didn’t get far (only a hole in the ground) which is a good thing because it would have been sad to see the “Stub” along the lake shore for years to come.
People at home feel isolated. That isolation can lead to depression. It’s rough being an independent contractor. There is a lot of rejection. Entrepreneurship is hard. It’s better to experience it with people in the same boat as you.
All of this is true in my experience. Working at home gets depressing. Getting a conventional office removes the distractions but you are still isolated. Working from someone else’s office removes the isolation, but typically you don’t have much control over your environment, and the fact that the other people in the office are a team while you are operating solo kills some of the social benefit. The best situation is to be part of a team that you lead or are a partner in. Next best is to work independently in the same physical space as other people who are working independently. Starbucks or the public library ain’t it. Businesses that offer high-quality flexible working environments at low-enough rates to make using them a low-thought decision for contractors and entrepreneurs should do well, going forward.
UPDATE: Another take on the same issue:
These are variations on a theme of tech-driven individual empowerment that’s closely related to the America 3.0 argument.
Prior to joining the Obama administration (initially as a Deputy Secretary of State, later as White House Chief of Staff), Mr Lew worked at Citigroup, where his employment agreement contained an interesting provision…specifically, a provision protecting his accrued bonus money in the event that he left the bank to take “a full-time high level position with the United States government or regulatory body.”
Suppose you were running a business, the XYZ Company, and were considering hiring for a key position a person who was working for one of your customers or suppliers..and you found out that he had an employment agreement providing special bonus protection in the event that he takes “a full-time high-level position at the XYZ Company.” Would you hire him? Might you be just a little bit concerned that your customer/supplier was trying to implant in your company an individual who would steer the business decisions in favor of that customer or supplier, rather than focusing resolutely on the interests of XYZ Company itself?
Anderson is not merely making a technologically oriented argument , but a profoundly cultural one. In his view, the existence of the Maker movement, operating on the collaborative, “open-source” ethos is an iterative, accelerative driver of economic change that complements the technology. Anderson writes: “…In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics, all of which are transformative:
Recently I was reading how a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago was arrested for bringing an unloaded handgun to work, and that it made the news media. I reflected briefly on the fact that you can bring a loaded, concealed gun with you in most places in many states in the US and it wouldn’t be news, it would in fact be normal activity, for instance in the adjacent state of Indiana.
Meanwhile, in California, it is common for people to smoke marijuana openly as is discussed here. Needless to say, this behavior would get you immediately arrested in many states particularly in the south and midwest.
Taxation is also highly variable on a state and city basis. New York and California have some of the highest taxes, particularly on income beyond a particular level (progressive taxes). On the other hand, states like Florida and Texas have a much lower level of taxation and a much freer business climate in terms of regulation.
Without getting into the hottest of hot-button issues, clearly there are differences in the types of marriages and reproduction rights / right to life on a state by state basis. These differences are narrowing in some areas and getting wider in others.
Some states have “right to work” laws which massively limit union power, and have flourishing and expanding manufacturing economies as a result. Visit Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas to see where all the former manufacturing might in the midwest and Northeast and West Coast migrated to (if it didn’t go to China or overseas). The enacting of “right to work” laws obviously sends an important signal to business leaders whether or not a state is a friendly place to do business for incremental investment (along with taxation).
The “fracking” revolution has unleashed vast wealth in some states, and in other states it has been banned or severely curtailed. Meanwhile, California is going in on its own with carbon regulations and highly aggressive “green” energy targets, while other states are heavily reliant on traditional (and cost effective) technologies.
The differences on a state-by-state level on these different dimensions seem large and growing. They are much more subtle (though often correlated) with the Red / Blue analysis. An attempt to classify these vectors could be done as follows: Energy Freedom – the ability to extract and use cost effective technologies (like natural gas, fracking, and coal) and a state’s willingness to invest more for reliability or the requirement to use expensive (green) technologies and curtail energy use even at the expense of industry competitiveness and reliability. California is likely on one end and Texas is on the other side, although many others have large freedom including Pennsylvania. Safety Freedom – the right to defend yourself at home, in transit, at work and during study or whether that is assumed by the state. Sadly the most restrictive is Illinois and there are many candidates on the other side throughout the south and midwest (Indiana). Personal Substance Freedom – the right to smoke, the right to drink, and the right to use various drugs or stimulants. Some odd states (like Colorado) are leading the way on this, it isn’t always the traditional Red / Blue divide. Freedom to Work & Hire – the right to work and not be forced to join a union, and this is also tied with local laws and practices that limit the ability to hire and fire and direct hiring or limit firing in various dimensions. Freedom to Build / Live / Rent – Houston is famous for having very limited zoning while other states and municipalities have highly restricted zoning practices. The New York co-op concept also severely limits new entrants along with rent control. These laws can also include whether you can work or have a business in your home. While subtle, these practices can have a large impact on prices and how the region functions. Freedom From Excessive Taxation – Some level of taxation is necessary for government to function but high tax levels have severe intended and unintended consequences of under investment and evasion. Taxation includes state, local, city, sales, estate, property, and “sin” taxes. These vary significantly by area but are highest in California and the East Coast and likely the lowest in the South. Freedom of Marriage Choice – A larger portion of states are recognizing marriages beyond the traditional marriage, and this varies by state Freedom of Reproductive Rights – There are a wide variety of approaches and trends on a state level and then there are practical impacts, as well. This is highly variable by state in practice Freedom on Medical Rights – an emerging model will be how each state approaches new medical practices and funding methodologies, along with the practical availability of doctors that subscribe to the state’s controls and funding methods. This area will grow exponentially in the near future
I believe that these sorts of analyses on a state by state level are much more useful than the traditional Red / Blue view (although they are often correlated) and when you start to dig in to the differences on a state and municipal level they are staggering, particularly when you view the extremes.
It would be interesting and useful to begin to put together the various data sets to analyze states and municipalities along these continuums, and others that I’ve likely missed.
CFM International, a joint venture between GE and the French aerospace company Snecma, will be using 3-D printing to make certain components for the Leap series of turbofan engines. They cite an example of a component which previously required the brazing together of 15 or 20 separately-fabricated piece parts and which will now be made as a single printed entity.
A couple of other approaches to the fabrication of one-off and low/medium-volume items:
eMachineShop.com is a service which provides remote (Internet) access to a whole range of fabrication technologies, including CNC turning and milling, casting, extrustion, and waterjet cutting…as well as 3-D printing. A downloadable CAD package allows the user to design a part, get a price quote, submit it for manufacturing (using whatever combination of machines is required for the task), and get the part(s) sent back to him.
Protomold is focused on providing fast turnaround for injection-molded parts. The customer electronically sends them a CAD model and fills out an on-line quote form; after the price and terms are accepted the company fabricates the mold (out of an aluminum alloy) and then makes the parts from the selected resin. You can play with the quote form here.
I recently reviewed Chris Anderson’s book Makers. What 3 D printing needs is the affordable, user-friendly, versatile device to move 3 D printing from the arcane realm of techno-hobbyist geeks to the general population’s “early adapters”, which will put the next “consumer model” generation on everyone’s office desk; eventually as ubiquitous as cell phones or microwaves.
Formlabs should send one of these to John Robb and Shloky for a product review.
Very little attention is being paid to the holiday today, except as a traffic annoyance. When I was a child, we still celebrated Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and Washington’s birthday (February 22). Since the holidays were combined and made into a long weekend, like most other American holidays, interest has declined in the subject. It has been for many years the weekend of the Midwinter yacht races in southern California, so I enjoyed it as much as anyone.
Mr Heilbrunn does not seem to be an economist and I am not certain of his qualifications to criticize President Coolidge, other than the obvious invitation by the New York Times.
James Ceaser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, said it was important to revive the “moral stigma” of debt, and added, “I want to go back to Coolidge and even McKinley.” The Claremont fellow Charles Kesler, author of “I Am the Change,” a recent book denouncing President Obama and liberalism, agreed: “We’re in for a Coolidge revival.”
Indeed we are. Coolidge was a figure of sport in his own era. H. L. Mencken mocked his daily naps — “Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored” — and Dorothy Parker reportedly asked, “How could they tell?” when his death was announced. But such quips have only heightened the determination of a growing contingent of Coolidge buffs to resurrect him. They abhor the progressive tradition among Democrats (Woodrow Wilson) and Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover) as hostile to big business and prosperity. Instead, their aim is to spread the austere doctrine of what might be called Republican Calvinism.
For Christmas a friend of mine rented a house to host their family staying from out of town and to have a holiday party. The house was in a “hip” part of town (near Wicker Park, where I used to live) and was a large 3 story very nice home typical of the area.
She rented the house from Airbnb. Private individuals rent whole apartments, houses or rooms in their house to essentially strangers using the service. For example, this is an example of an entire house for rent in Wrigleyville.
While I was first thinking that this seemed like a risky move, the party turned out very well. The house was beautiful, with a nice TV, stereo, fully stocked kitchen, and even a decorated Christmas tree. Since the house was so nice, everyone seemed to go the extra mile to keep it clean – if a drink was spilled, someone cleaned it up right away (probably the fact that there was a damage deposit helped, too).
A recent BBC News article on Airbnb described the phenomenal growth of the service and how an idea that seemed radical (renting out your home to complete strangers) is now becoming mainstream.
Airbnb is a website matching up homeowners with tourists and backpackers wanting a place to stay. Set up in 2008, it’s one of a wave of sites – like Wimdu, and Homestay – making money out of those seeking a bargain. The firm says it has listings in more than 35,000 cities in 192 countries.
I know of other people who travel around the world using Couchsurfing, where you basically just crash for free on a strangers’ couch. This seems even stranger, but apparently works out well and people generally make friends and have a good time, although of course there are horror stories (probably the ones your mother would send you if you told her this is how you planned to travel the world).
Likely one element that makes this successful is the fact that most of the people doing the hosting and the people using the service are outgoing and friendly types. The sort of person that would use or trust someone else in the first place are generally the ones that would make these services successful. Another type of service like this is HomeExchange, where you can exchange your home in a tourist friendly area for one in another tempting locale (generally there are additional checks on these sorts of arrangements that you wouldn’t see in Couchsurfing).
An analogous situation is when we go on a tour with a company called “Backroads” where you travel to great locations like Italy but you do active vacations including bikes, hiking and even kayaking (although I am certain it wouldn’t stress out Dan). If you take an “active” tour, you seem to have positive experiences with your peers, since the fact that they volunteered for a tour involving physical fitness (and not just sitting on a bus) makes them the type of people less likely to complain and generally to have an upbeat attitude. We have been on four of these trips and have not had significant issues with any of our fellow tourists, even though we are confined with them (at various times) for 5-7 days.
The idea is that the type of people likely to assume that the other person won’t steal or take advantage of you, and in fact might be someone interesting that you might enjoy spending time with, is a positive social trait that would be associated with many parts of the world. I don’t know if I’d expect this type of reciprocity everywhere, however.
Grand Central Terminal is celebrating its 100th anniversary…see photo essay here. The station building itself is only the most visible element of a massive, courageous, and very profitable infrastructure project carried out by the New York Central Railroad.
In the late 1800s, hundreds of trains a day entered and departed Manhattan on the NY Central lines. All were hauled by steam locomotives, and large amounts of land in the vicinity of the terminal were used for yard and support facilities. People living in the vicinity of the tracks probably did not view steam trains, with their smoke and cinders, as being especially romantic. Indeed, the smoke was so thick at some points as to represent a serious safety hazard, impeding visibility of signals.
That is what somebody told me after I told him about an experience I had with AT&T. It fits.
I wanted to upgrade our backup AT&T DSL line, so that I could cancel our unreliable Comcast cable Internet service. The AT&T rep said that DSL is outmoded, that what I wanted was U-Verse, which has many more features and is cheaper than DSL. I was about to sign up, but I was googling around while talking to him and started to realize that U-Verse means replacing our old-style, robust, power-outage-resistant landline phone service with some kind of VOIP. This would be unacceptable. So I told the AT&T guy to cancel our U-Verse order until I could learn more.
Since then we’ve gotten three calls from AT&T seeking to schedule our U-Verse installation. Telling them that we didn’t order U-Verse and were slammed by their sales rep results in punishment by being put on hold for large fractions of an hour while the clueless AT&T people try to find out what’s going on. We may not know for sure until we see our next phone bill.
It strongly appears that AT&T’s system is set up with bad incentives. I would bet that the sales rep gets compensated based on how many U-Verse accounts he opens, and that he isn’t penalized for having a high ratio of cancellations. So it’s probably in his interest to open as many new accounts as he can. And it’s in AT&T’s interest to look the other way if he signs people up who don’t really want it. They can always cancel later, right? Since some of them won’t cancel, everyone on the AT&T side comes out ahead from this strategy. It’s like when companies require customers to mail in rebate forms in order to get a discount. To the extent possible, I try to avoid companies that operate like this.