Hugh McGuire

publishing, technology, media, philosophy, a bit of politics.

One Wonders How This All Ends…

“The Big Takeover: The global economic crisis isn’t about money – it’s about power. How Wall Street insiders are using the bailout to stage a revolution,” by Matt Taibbi, in Rolling Stone:

In essence, Paulson and his cronies turned the federal government into one gigantic, half-opaque holding company, one whose balance sheet includes the world’s most appallingly large and risky hedge fund, a controlling stake in a dying insurance giant, huge investments in a group of teetering megabanks, and shares here and there in various auto-finance companies, student loans, and other failing businesses. Like AIG, this new federal holding company is a firm that has no mechanism for auditing itself and is run by leaders who have very little grasp of the daily operations of its disparate subsidiary operations.

In other words, it’s AIG’s rip-roaringly shitty business model writ almost inconceivably massive — to echo Geithner, a huge, complex global company attached to a very complicated investment bank/hedge fund that’s been allowed to build up without adult supervision. How much of what kinds of crap is actually on our balance sheet, and what did we pay for it? When exactly will the rent come due, when will the money run out? Does anyone know what the hell is going on? And on the linear spectrum of capitalism to socialism, where exactly are we now? Is there a dictionary word that even describes what we are now? It would be funny, if it weren’t such a nightmare. [more…]

And:
“No Return to Normal: Why the economic crisis, and its solution, are bigger than you think,” by James K. Galbraith in Washington Monthly.

The oddest thing about the Geithner program is its failure to act as though the financial crisis is a true crisis—an integrated, long-term economic threat—rather than merely a couple of related but temporary problems, one in banking and the other in jobs. In banking, the dominant metaphor is of plumbing: there is a blockage to be cleared. Take a plunger to the toxic assets, it is said, and credit conditions will return to normal. This, then, will make the recession essentially normal, validating the stimulus package. Solve these two problems, and the crisis will end. That’s the thinking.

But the plumbing metaphor is misleading. Credit is not a flow. It is not something that can be forced downstream by clearing a pipe. Credit is a contract. It requires a borrower as well as a lender, a customer as well as a bank. And the borrower must meet two conditions. One is creditworthiness, meaning a secure income and, usually, a house with equity in it. Asset prices therefore matter. With a chronic oversupply of houses, prices fall, collateral disappears, and even if borrowers are willing they can’t qualify for loans. The other requirement is a willingness to borrow, motivated by what Keynes called the “animal spirits” of entrepreneurial enthusiasm. In a slump, such optimism is scarce. Even if people have collateral, they want the security of cash. And it is precisely because they want cash that they will not deplete their reserves by plunking down a payment on a new car.

The credit flow metaphor implies that people came flocking to the new-car showrooms last November and were turned away because there were no loans to be had. This is not true—what happened was that people stopped coming in. And they stopped coming in because, suddenly, they felt poor.

Strapped and afraid, people want to be in cash. This is what economists call the liquidity trap. And it gets worse: in these conditions, the normal estimates for multipliers—the bang for the buck—may be too high. Government spending on goods and services always increases total spending directly; a dollar of public spending is a dollar of GDP. But if the workers simply save their extra income, or use it to pay debt, that’s the end of the line: there is no further effect. For tax cuts (especially for the middle class and up), the new funds are mostly saved or used to pay down debt. Debt reduction may help lay a foundation for better times later on, but it doesn’t help now. With smaller multipliers, the public spending package would need to be even larger, in order to fill in all the holes in total demand. Thus financial crisis makes the real crisis worse, and the failure of the bank plan practically assures that the stimulus also will be too small. [more…]

Ada Lovelace Day: Danielle Zaikoff (and many others)

My friend and colleague Suw Charman-Anderson launched an Ada Lovelace Day initiative (site, twitter) getting bloggers to pledge to write a blog post about women in technology.

To honor my pledge, I am writing about Danielle Zaïkoff, P. Eng.

But first, a little introduction about my more recent experience with women in technology. Every project I’ve worked on on the web has had women playing integral an role in making it happen:

LibriVox started growing with the help of Kristen (designed the site) and Kara (pretty much ran the forums, and continues to do much of the heavy-lifting on cataloging), and later Betsie (developed the structure for the cataloging system), Annie (developed the structure for the cataloging system), Cori (helped develop the community podcast, and general internal systems), Gesine (designed much of the internal systems workflow), and Kristin (numerous wordpress improvements and php hacks). Of course many more people, men, women and children contributed to all of this, but it’s fair to say that LibriVox never would have succeeded without the efforts of these, and later, many other women.

Collectik (RIP): was designed and turned into html/css by Kristen.

Earideas, and the Canadian Podcasting Directory (RIP): were designed by Marie-Eve, with html/css integration done by Patricia and Madeline.

Datalibre: is driven mostly by Tracey.

The Atwater Digital Literacy Project: is run by Miriam.

The Atwater Library’s computer centre: is run by Jun.

BookCampToronto: is being organized by a team including Lex, Erin and Julie.

Book Oven, my biggest and most ambitious project, was co-founded by my business partner, the extraordinarily talented Stephanie (read the Ada Lovelace post about Steph here) who is CTO, product manager, production manager, project manager, UI designer, and countless other things, every day. Marie-Eve does the design; and Suw Charman-Anderson is developing our community management approach, managing user testing, and generally helping us think better about that grey zone where people and technology intersect.

So it’s fair to say that my life in web technology has been spent surrounded by dedicated and skilled women who have helped me build some things that I am proud of.

But back to Danielle Zaïkoff.

My first real job out of university, was with a group called the E7 (now E8), a non-profit group funded by electric utilities from G7 (now G8) countries. The mandate of the group was twofold: to develop joint policies about sustainable development in the electricity industry, around pressing issues such as climate change; and to do knowledge transfer projects about best practices and environmental management in developing countries. I worked in the Secretariat (permanently based at Hydro-Quebec in Montreal), which consisted of a senior engineer, nearing retirement, and a small team of junior engineers just out of university. The Managing Director (I worked for two, both women) was generally a senior executive from Hydro-Quebec, who was winding down a successful career, and wanted to spend a couple of years doing something challenging, but not necessarily tied to central operation of Hydro-Quebec.

Danielle Zaikoff was my first boss at E7. She had started as an engineer at Hydro-Quebec in 1972, I believe she was the first female engineer on staff at the company. Not content to stay in the offices in Montreal, she worked as a project engineer on the huge James Bay hydro installations, a post she was initially refused, because the company did not think women should work in in remote field operations. She went on to become the first female director of Hydro Quebec, the first female president of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec and the first woman president of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers.

I learned many things from Danielle, mainly the importance of precision and clarity in work, and the dangers of sloppiness. She was a generous boss, who spent much time mentoring the young engineers and others under her command. She demanded excellence and promptness, was exacting, fair, tough and dedicated.

Like many of the women I’ve worked with in tech over the years.

MediaHacks #5: Twitter as Google Rival

Media HacksMedia Hacks #5: this one ended up pretty interesting, talking about Twitter as a search engine and possible Google rival, Google search tweaks, brands, and conferences/unconferences. On the media hacks hotline: C.C. Chapman, Julien Smith, Chris Penn, Mitch Joel and me.

LISTEN HERE: Media Hacks: Episode 5

Brett on BBC

Brett’s movie, RIP: A Remix Manifesto on the BBC:

Some Bonuses Are More Equal Than Others

From TPM:

Earlier today, we highlighted some excerpts from a 2004 deposition given by Joseph Cassano, who was then the head of AIG’s financial products unit — the division whose massive losses on credit default swaps would later bring the company to its knees. But the story of the underlying case, as summarized at the time by a trade publication, is just as revealing as Cassano’s testimony.

AIG was being sued for breach of contract by a former employee, Rob Feilbogen. Feilbogen claimed that when the unit he worked for, AIG Trading, was put under the control of Cassano’s AIG Financial Products, he was informed in writing by an AIGFP executive that the company’s previous guarantee to pay him a bonus of $1.3 million would no longer be operative. Feilbogen said he was told he would still be eligible for a bonus, but the $1.3 million figure would not be guaranteed.

In a letter to Cassano, Feilbogen insisted on receiving his $1.3 million bonus. In response, Cassano played hardball, telling Feilbogen he could agree to the new deal, or resign. Feilbogen continued to resist, and was soon informed by an AIGFP lawyer that his employment had been terminated “as a result of his decision to resign.” [more…]

Media Hacks #4: Economy, Advertising, News & Books

Media HacksMedia Hacks #4: a conversation about the economy, advertising, newspapers, books and where the money might be, with C.C. Chapman, Chris Brogan, Chris Penn, Mitch Joel and me.

LISTEN HERE: Media Hacks: Episode 4

BookCampTO Logo

So along with a few others, I’ve been organizing BookCampToronto, a:

conversation about the future of books, writing, publishing, and the book business in the digital age.

The event is June 6, but it’s currently full (huge flood of demand), but send an email to bookcampto@gmail.com if you’d like to get put on the waiting list.

I asked Book Oven’s wonderful designer, Marie-Eve Bélanger to come up with a logo, and this was the beauty she produced:

bookcampto logo

Sweet, eh?

Cognitive Dissonance

March 10 (Bloomberg) — Citigroup Inc. Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit said his bank is having the best quarter since 2007, when it last posted a profit. The shares rose as much as 27 percent and helped spur gains for finance company stocks.

“I am most encouraged with the strength of our business so far in 2009,” Pandit wrote in an internal memorandum obtained today by Bloomberg. “In fact, we are profitable through the first two months of 2009 and are having our best quarter-to-date performance since the third quarter of 2007.”

“I am, like you, disappointed with our current stock price and the broad-based misperceptions about our company and its financial position,” Pandit, 52, said in the memo, adding that the price doesn’t reflect the New York-based bank’s capital strength and earnings potential. The company had $19 billion of revenue in January and February excluding writedowns that have already been disclosed, Pandit said. [more…]

vs.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Citibank (C) has become the latest recipient of a government bailout – this one to the tune of $300 billion, or thereabouts, depending upon how you do the math which, in this case, appears to be quite complicated. [more…]

Blind Spot, Chapter Three

From an old unpublished novel, for a lark, here is Chapter 3:

Vivianne stood inside the walk-in refrigerator, with her back to me, her small wiry body tight and ready to pounce, her mass of curly blond hair bobbing with her head. She wore her crisp white chef’s jacket, with loose-fitting black-and-white checked pants, held a note pad and pen in her little hands. She swore in creative flourishes, in English and French, at the produce.

“Nothing,” she said, turning to me finally, “is personal in my kitchen. There’s no such thing as private personal business in the kitchens of Révolution”

Genevieve, the manager responsible for scheduling had failed to accommodate my request for time off for driving classes; she had referred my application for Tuesday nights off to Vivianne. I pressed my case. She walked past me out of the refrigerator.

“This is a collective kitchen. We,” she continued, sweeping her hand around the room, as if showing me her kitchen and staff for the first time. Julie rushed into the kitchen, taking her pink, puffy winter jacket off and she hurried by us, muttering an apology for her tardiness, which Vivianne ignored. “We are a team, a unit,” she continued. “One for all, Oscar. It’s like a, like a … battalion in, you know, a … an army here. The marines. No man left behind, that sort of thing.”

[more…]

Previously, on Blind Spot:
Chapter One
Chapter Two

Computers in the Classroom

Have there been any studies about whether having computers & wifi in a class improve or diminish the success of teaching? I’m a bit of a luddite on this front: I suspect that students get distracted by their technology, and the great brain sucker, the Internet.

But I have no idea.

On the other hand, as a teacher (especially at university level) you should be able to be interesting enough to your students that lolcats will seem boring.

Anway, I’m of two minds on this, but sympathetic to teachers and profs who don’t want the web in their classrooms. From Language Labs Unleashed:

A professor I had last semester had a bad experience with her undergraduates and laptops, banned them, and noticed a dramatic change in her classes. She then decided that she would do the same thing with her Educational Psychology graduate course on CMC, (a course full of 30 and 40-somethings), due to seeing someone in class doing e-mail next to her and her being distracted by the typing sound. Needless to say, I was very upset. I simply cannot keep up when trying to write by hand, and the Internet access allows me to better challenge points raised in class that need challenging. I think I understood her position, but I didn’t agree with the policy.

When I put on my teacher cap, I can understand the urge for faculty to ban everything they can’t control, including the technology of the time. We’ve all heard the stories of the ballpoint pen being banned by faculty in the late 1940’s in favor of the fountain pen and the calculator in the 1950’s in favor of the slide rule. Faculty do have legitimate authority to control the classroom environment, and to eject students from class for anything they choose, including staring at a laptop screen instead of the professor, I guess. [more…]