Sunday, January 29, 2006


History Lesson: Montargis

I appreciate a newspaper (journalism publishing organisation, now that paper is rarely the medium) which provides some history as well as current events and opinions. Such was the case in Liberation yesterday, in an article about an aspect of the French town of Montargis. Apparently, the same theme was the subject of an article in Le Monde last March.

I've been to Montargis at least a couple of times; perhaps "I've been through" would be more appropriate, because I was only "there" driving somewhere else. Maybe next time I'll linger and visit.

In 1920, students from China had come to study agriculture in the school in Montargis; to support themselves, at least some of them worked in a nearby factory which manufactured rubber soles for shoes. Wikipedia notes :
"In the 1920s, the town's Chinese community was inhabited for a time by the young
  • Deng Xiaoping and
  • Zhou Enlai
, future Communist party leaders in China."
"Dans les années 20, y habita une importante communauté chinoise :
  • Deng Xiaoping,
  • Zhou Enlaï
y passèrent une partie de leur jeunesse, ainsi que d'autres moins connus (dont
  • Li Weihan, vice-président du sénat,
  • Li Fuchun, vice-premier ministre, ou
  • Chen Yi, ministre des affaires étrangères
), dont la plupart travaillaient à l'usine de produits caoutchouteux Hutchinson, à Châlette-sur-Loing."

Add Li Shizeng, founder of the Work Study movement. Add Cai Hesen, a young student who wrote on August 13, 1920, to his friend Mao Zedong explaining the necessity to create a Chinese Communist Party to save China and the world. Add Xiang Jinyu, who studied at the college du Chinchon, the first woman to open a school in China.

I never would have guessed.


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Another webcraft complaint

I dislike html which imposes unending demands on my computer. I want html to load; it may do some initializing computation while it loads (adapting itself to my browser, my language preferences, checking cookies it previously wrote), and it may be dynamic, reacting to my typing and clicking. But it should not:
  1. change (or "refresh") content, especially images, using scripts and media player objects driven by a timer. This blogging tool is a (perhaps acceptable) example, although it is mostly sending my changes to the server for safekeeping. I like my hard drive to be left in peace unless it is needed to accomplish something useful.
  2. use Javascript to animate its "decor". A symptom of this is the fan on my laptop starting up because the processor is being solicited at a high level (and therefore heating up). I like quiet.

A few minutes ago, I visited a site which someone had decorated with "falling" blue snowflakes for the season. There were only about a half-dozen of them, and all looked identical, but Firefox needed 80% of my computer's processing capacity to display their motion (versus 10% to write this blog, up to 45% when sending an update to the server).

Here is the culprit:

Snow Effect Script-- JS Snow v0.2
finished on 11-10-1999 23:04 in Zagreb, Croatia. modified on 06-12-2005 11:20 in Zagreb, Croatia.

Copyright 1999,2005 Altan d.o.o.
Created and submitted by Altan d.o.o. (,

This JavaScript code can be freely redistributed as long as this copyright notice is keept unchanged. This code is used on AS-IS basis and you use it on your own risk. Author of this code is not responsible for any damage that this code may make.

Tags: webcraft

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Saturday, January 28, 2006


DEL dot ICIO dot US

I recently discovered something else to use and do on Internet: tag and publish bookmarks (URLs). There seem to be at least two such systems in operation. One is called CiteULike: A free online service to organise your academic papers. Another, which I chose to use, is

Why bother, one might ask? I happen to like bookmarking stuff I find so I can find it again, tell friends and family about things I imagine they'll find interesting, and occasionally go through sublists of bookmarks to have a look at things I haven't looked at for a while. In a sense, it is like keeping my books and magazines sorted and accessible in bookcases.

Similar choice of placement of books in bookcases, which require that a publication be in only one place, bookmarks in browsers seem to always be tree structures. Since bookmarks don't *cost* the way books do, one can save them in several places at once, but finding them again is still basically walking through a hierarchy. The system in question, however, is not particularly hierarchical; one stores one's bookmarks with associated *tags* (keywords), not in node(s) of a tree. Apparently, one cans bundle one's tags, but I have not yet felt the need to do so and so cannot comment on the usefulness of this feature.

A second advantage to this system is that one can use one's bookmarks wherever one is, not just on one's personal *home* workstation (as long as one has an Internet connection to the service, and would presumeably be the case if one wants to use bookmarks). Folk who don't bookmark, just re-Google (or memorize URLs!), may not appreciate this advantage; I bookmark lots.

Yet another advantage is one's bookmarks can be shared. For instance, the list of tags I've used is in the left-hand column of this blog; it is regenerated (JavaScript call) each time this blog is visited. Anyone who knows me, or at least who knows my del-icio-us handle, can check out my bookmark collection. (Hint: if you click on "my tags" you get to my collection, and see that my handle is "suitable"). While I'll probably continue to send friends and family links via e-mail, I take comfort in knowing that links I forget to send they can find, with my comments, in my bookmarks collection.

The last advantage I've discovered, and which I have only begun to appreciate, is the potential for connecting with other folk whose interests coincide with mine, and benefit from referal to links they have added to stuff I hadn't yet found. And vice versa; in fact, not only can one easily navigate to the bookmarks of other folk--those whose handle one knows and those who have bookmarked the same URLs as one--, one can send and receive "recommended bookmarks"! So far, I've only done this once (to a user I don't even know, but who seemed likely to be interested by a conference announcement in his field) and recieved none. I'll see whether any regular exchanges develop.

What *could be better* so far as I can tell, is the querying. Clicking on a tag results in a list of all my bookmarks to which I have associated that keyword. For instance, clicking on *gatherings*, I get (today) a list of 15 links. I would like to now limit the list to those in 2006, and then July. This is possible by adding "+2006+July" to the search criterion, but not (so far as I've been able to find) by accumulated clicks on tags. Thus, it is only a minor inconvenience for lazy typists, not a true shortcoming.

I suppose I'll develop a tagging style more like *everyone else's* so that queries by tag scoped to "all," "popular", or "recommendations" rather than "yours" ("mine") will yield more complete and homogeneous results (and so that queries will find my links). This is not yet the case, for instance, for my tag "gatherings". I seem to be one of the few who use this term inclusive of conferences, trade fairs, association congresses and annual meetings, seminars, press conferences, and so on. I may transform it to a "bundle" and tag with these other, narrower names, which I suspect others use. Also, I need to learn whether the convention is to tag with plurals to name "category comprising:" groups to which bookmarks belong, or singular to name "an instance" of a category to which a bookmark belongs. In other words, should I tag a conference as belonging to "gatherings", or as being a "gathering"? At, the norm was to use singular for links, even when the text of the anchor was plural.

Tags: tagdel.icio.usconnecting

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Thursday, January 26, 2006


Flattery? Is it?

Perhaps the ultimate compliment for the "rational man" is to be mistaken for a logical device, a robot of sorts. I find it rather annoying, though, that this here blogging system thinks I post like a spambot, and makes me key in my reading of its distorted letters and numbers to verify my superior cognitive abilities.

Tags: splog

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Peeve of the Day: Poor webcraft

For no particular reason, today (rather than any other) is the day to complain about the user experience on some web sites; probably some of the more expensive to construct and high-traffic sites, plus some by people who should know better (i.e. FOSS projects by highly IT-literate programmers).

  1. Pages that do not seem to get focus anywhere useful. Upon arrival, the visitor sees a (possibly quite long) scroll bar (*elevator*), but nothing happens when one presses page-up, page-down, or arrow keys. It is only with the mouse on the scroll bar, or by getting the focus onto the scrollable content, that one can get the content to scroll.[Examples? Surely, but not just now when I need one!]

  2. Pages in the preceeding category and so covered with links that one cannot readily click on the content (to give focus) without a large likelihood of getting another page (or a new window!)

  3. Pages with hyperactive JavaScript menus
    • some like that encroach on content whenever one tries to navigate back to "home"
    • others, like, which present a long horizonal menu very difficult to navigate with the mouse quickly enough to get to an option at the end without slipping off (submenu disappears)
    The New York Times "Go to a section" menu is an example of how to get this functionality *right*.

Tags: webcraft

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Saturday, January 21, 2006


Another Glance at My Navel

I happened across another *fun* self-test today. Apparently I haven't completely lost my knack for giving the "right" answers on tests. Which reminds me of the stories about Timothy Leary being given tests he designed, to determine in which prison environment he should be confined.

Your Social Dysfunction:

Being average in terms of how social you are, as well as the amount of self-esteem you have, you're pretty much normal. Good on [sic] you.

Take this quiz at

Please note that we aren't, nor do we claim to be, psychologists. This quiz is for fun and entertainment only. Try not to freak out about your results.

Tags: pop psychology | self-test | traffic builder

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Let them eat pig!

Some thoughtful folk planned to distribute free soup to the poor of Strasbourg last week-end: pork soup. Sometimes they distribute ham sandwiches. It just didn't occur to them that this would be unacceptable to Muslims and Jews; not that the needy include such folks.

Alsatians do consume a fair amount of pork in traditional cookery, such as choucroute, sausages, ham hocks; it could have been planned without malice aforethought.

P.S. The city cancelled the permit, and the operation was called off.

Tags: Alsace Strasbourg

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Landlords 14 - Nomads 0

At dawn on January 11, 2006, Michel Habig, mayor of the Alsatian town of Ensisheim (pop. 6700) burned fourteen trailers belonging to "Gens du voyage" (Gypsies). They were camping without a permit. Although the mayor was accompanied by six police officers, and they were equiped with a forklift to facilitate feeding the bonfire, no court order had been granted to permit this act.

Liberation reports that in 2001, the access road to the area had been blocked by two heaps of manure. On another occasion, the electric power line to the area was "accidentally" severed by a municipal lawn mower.

Less than a month before, and not very far away, the first "European Forum of Roma and Travellers" was held in Strasbourg (13-15 December). This community comprises twelve million people in Europe. The forum brought together five international organizations of Roms, and delegations from 42 European countries (not just the 25). This community's members are often victims of discrimination; a million were killed by the Nazis, and more recently thousands were victims in the Balkans. They have great difficulty asserting and obtaining the rights of its members; health care, education, and employment are all complicated by their mobility. The December meeting was the occasion to sign a partnership agreement between the ERTF and the Council of Europe to defend the community against the discrimination it so often faces.

May 31, 1990, France passed a law known as the "Besson Law" requiring all villages, towns, and cities of 5000 or more inhabitants to include suitable sites for Roms, Travellers and Gypsies in their land use plans. However, the law did not specify penalties for non-compliance; ten years later, only a quarter had complied. In July, 2000, the law was reinforced by a second law which sanctions non-compliance, and provides national subsidies (70%) for the cost of the installation of the sites. Once towns provide the sites, they may forbid camping anywhere else.

Ensisheim has not yet installed its site. Ensisheim is only about 1700 people over the threshhold. Perhaps the mayor could leave and encourage a third of his town to follow, so those who remain would be exempted from the requirement.

The Court of Colmar has openned a case. The mayor could face ten years in prison and 150 000 euros fine.
Tags: Roms Ensisheim Alsace Council of Europe Strasbourg

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Saturday, January 14, 2006


Fool Them Once...

Granted it has been two months since the flurry of interest in "Nigergate", with lots of distractions in the interim. And there are still bridges for sale in Manhattan. Let us hope that this time the "incriminating" document really has been thoroughly vetted: the New York Times reports that the prosecution have gotten ahold of José Padilla's application for membership in al Qaeda. Not only that, it was found "by American forces in late 2001 [four years ago] in a binder that contained other terror-camp applications".

Most assuredly, these terrorists are organized. But I would have expected them to be more high-tech (or should I say higher-tech?), with encrypted Internet application forms even the NSA can't read, or application forms disguised as sasser or blaster or some other virus. Virtualizing would make sense for such a network: why risk collecting binders of applications in an administrative headquarters, where they might fall into the hands of the enemy (as they reportedly have in this instance)?

When they find records in the credit and banking databases that Padilla had an al Qaeda credit card for business expenses, remember that I suggested it first!

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Blog Tag Blues

I think I am starting to "get" tags, Technorati-style:
  1. the last bit of the href="http://somedomain/keyword", i.e. "keyword", is indexed if the link also contains rel="tag".
  2. the indexing happens if Technorati gets a ping from the post, or the blog owner, registered with Technorati, signs in at Technorati and "pulls" the post.
  3. the text in between the [a ]and the [/a] is not the tag, and need bear no relation to the tag!
  4. the tag can even be (sort of) invisible if there is no text in between the [a ]and the [/a]

If I'm right, and blogger aka blogspot is sending the feeds it claims, I should be able to find the post I tagged and published an hour or two ago: I cannot. Let me try signing in at Technorati and doing a "pull".

According to my notes, (yes, I keep a written log of my registrations)
, and I see that my blog is claimed, but was last indexed two days ago. (Can't complain, given the rate at which I add content currently).

Trackbacks are the next blogging and reticulating technique to master.

Tags: tags thinking out loud

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Delocalization and Globalization of Holidays

It seems curious that New Year's Day is such a global event. At least that is the way the media, especially television, make it seem. Has it always been this way? Or is this one more manifestation of the events-as-economic-primers phenomenon? Was the tipping point Y2K, and the anxious observation of the sweep of the year change around the world (to not miss seeing anything that went awry)?

One might suppose that New Year's Day's success is owed to its universality and non-religious nature: people of all faiths, and atheists, too, can celebrate the annual completion of our planet's cyclic loop around our heating system, the sun. Just as having the sun rise each morning is reassuring, and the lunar cycles are, too, it is nice to know that our planet made it back "home" again safely. Yet, earth is never "parked in the garage", it has no home other than its trajectory, has it? So the choice of when to celebrate is not so universal, nor non-religious, is it? Wikipedia lists a dozen different New Year celebrations, and almost all have religious bases:

The most common modern celebrations are (expressed in terms of the Gregorian calendar, and arbitrarily beginning after the May-August period, which is virtually never chosen):

  • Between 5 September and 5 October: Rosh Hashanah.
  • 11 September: The Ethiopian New Year, Enkutatash, although the first day of their calendar is 29 or 30 August.
  • Around 1 November: some neo-pagans celebrate Samhain (a festival of the ancient Celts, held ) as a new year's day representing the new cycle of the Wheel of the Year, although they do not use a different calendar that starts on this day.
  • Mid-November: the Hindu New Year is celebrated usually two days after the festival of Diwali .
  • 1 January : The first day of the year in the used by most developed [sic] countries.
  • 14 January: in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the New Year (also celebrating the infant Jesus' circumcision).
  • 21 January to 21 February inclusive: the occurs every year at a new moon during the winter. The Vietnamese New Year is the Têt Nguyen Dan. It is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year.
  • January through March (first through third days of the first lunar month): the Tibetan New Year is Losar.
  • 21 March --the vernal equinox: in the Bahá'í calendar, and is called Naw-Rúz.
  • 21 March(?)--the vernal equinox: the Iranian New Year, called Norouz.
  • March or April (date?): the Telugu New Year ; the people of Andhra Pradesh, India celebrate the advent of Lunar year this day.
  • 13 April to 15 April: the Thai New Year ,the Cambodian New Year , the Lao New Year.
  • 14 April or 15 April: the Bengali New Year, Poila Baisakh , in both Bangladesh and West Bengal.
  • Various: The Islamic New Year is celebrated on 1 Muharram. Since the Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar months amounting to about 354 days, the Gregorian date of this is earlier each year. 2008 will see two Muslim New Years.

Another view of New Year is the fiscal one. Businesses and governments typically choose to manage their bookkeeping (budgets, P+L, income) for twelve months offset from the calendar year; 1 April to 30 March, 1 July to 30 June, and 1 October to 30 September are common choices (shifts of quarter-years).

Then there are academic years (or school years), and vacation years (not to be confused with sabbaticals).

Last week, midway between Roman Christmas and Gregorian New Year, a security hole in Microsoft Windows was discovered, one for which Microsoft has not yet published a patch (nor made much effort to warn customers about, it seems). No doubt, it is hard to muster the necessary talent during this festive period. Once Microsoft shift more of their research (and support?) talent to rely on India and China, where the holiday periods are not the same, they might have more response capability at all times of the year; this could be a benefit. Or will globalization of holidays sustain the current situation?

Windows users who have not yet done so should consult the security advisories for the WMF vulnerability:
Info at :

Tags: : : :

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Governance Guidelines

At "Who Has Time For This", David Cowan, IT entrepreneur and venture capitalist, discusses his "ideal configuration" for boards of start-ups in"Control Roulette: a bet on red or black". His view is clear and to the point: small board, with at least three minorities to avoid any a priori majority. After the CEO and a couple of venture capitalists (VC), he recruits outside experts with "skill sets and credentials that would add value to the board".1 In case of lack of concensus, the CEO wins if he is making money, the backers win if he isn't. This formula may well be valid beyond privately-held start-ups.

Clive Crook writes in the Atlantic Monthly this month, that "The CEOs of too many public companies enjoy the power and rewards of ownership without the risks. Corporate values have deteriorated as a result." No doubt, this is partly structural, brought about as a side effect to changes made to the rules of the game twenty years ago to prevent hostile tackovers. These rules of "governance" are used to construct an index of CEO independence in a study cited by Bradford Plumer in a blog post,

A 2003 Harvard University/Wharton School paper entitled "Corporate Governance and Equity Prices" ranked 1,500 companies in terms of management power, sorting firms into a Democracy Portfolio (firms in which shareholder rights were strongest) and a Dictatorship Portfolio (firms in which managers were subject to less oversight). Shockingly—or not—the democratic firms outperformed the dictatorship firms by 8.5 percentage points per year throughout the 1990s.
This seems to be based on a rather "particular" measure of "governance": an index of protection from hostile takeovers, including measures to protect directors from being fired. Knowing that, it seems less surprising that the companies and directors at higher risk outperformed those who had less to fear. Being told by your fund to "put out or get out" is not synonymous to "strong governance" as I understand it.

So, what to do? If a diva CEO says she needs security to give her best performance, should the owners of the business say "no"? Perhaps not entirely; David Cowan's ink-color could well be a good guideline. But in any case, the diva CEO should be challenged.

Consider the psychological aspect: CEOs are subject to hubris; their positions, when overprotected (under governanced?) may remove opportunities to receive criticism that help most people correct for flawed self-assessment. Good governance is the chance to give CEOs constructive criticism, and improve their steering of the enterprise. This point is made in Dunning, David, Chip Heath, and Jerry M. Suls (2004), "Flawed Self-Assessment", American Psychological Society, Volume 5—Number 3.

Malmendier and Tate (in press) found that CEOs who are
heavily invested in the stock of their companies are the ones most
sensitive to free cash flows—they invest more in new projects
when internal cash flows are high and less when internal cash
flows are low. By using internal cash to finance their projects,
these CEOs avoid having to get outside commitments from financial
markets that may not agree with their optimistic views.
Interestingly, CEOs are also more likely to invest free cash flows
when they hold two other titles, president and chairman of
the board. When CEOs are allowed to accumulate all these titles,
this may be an indicator that they face weak oversight by their
boards of directors. In sum, overconfidence may cause CEOs to
see projects as promising even though other people think those
projects are risky. And they are more likely to pursue those
projects when they can do so without a second opinion from the
external financial markets or an independent, active board of
Their bibliography refers, on this topic, to

Even when the CEO does not have carte blanche, she may not receive constructive criticism if the board members strive primarily for unanimity. Writing on "Why it's so hard to blow the whistle" in the Yale Alumni Magazine, Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management, reminds us of the dangers of "groupthink", the phenomenon described by the late Yale psychologist Irving Janis thirty years ago. He goes on to list ten elements of governance he recommends to help prevent the misconduct created by groupthink:

  1. to build a climate of trust and candor;
  2. to foster a culture of open dissent;
  3. to utilize a fluid portfolio of roles;
  4. to ensure individual accountability;
  5. to ensure opportunities for the board to assess leadership talent;
  6. to evaluate the board's own performance regularly;
  7. to seek knowledge rather than marquee names for the board;
  8. to avoid joiners who collect boards like trophies;
  9. to seek those with a passionate interest in the business; and
  10. to ruthlessly purge those with conflicting personal or commercial agendas.

How can one improve CEO performance? Start with David Cowan's prescription, then use Jeffrey Sonnenfeld's checklist for selecting board members and monitoring board effectiveness.

Oh, one last point: if you are starting a business, make sure you sell your plan to backers (like bankers), even if you could finance it entirely yourself. We can all use a bit of governance.
Tags: governance business start-ups

1. When I asked him, "Would you ever want a thoughtful but (to the point of significantly underachieving) not ambitious board member?", he replied "...a thoughtful but unambitious underachiever sometimes turns out to contribute more than any other board member. However, you can't know that until it happens, and so I still try to recruit only directors with proven success and skill sets." Hmmm, I wonder, how can a candidate demonstrate that he was a successful eminence grise?

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Sunday, January 01, 2006


Clue Book for Travellers

Noticing that my travel guides for Germany are called "West Germany" and were published circa 1980, and wanting to plan a visit agenda for that country, I bought a new book yesterday. I hesitate to dignify it with the title "guide book", though, as I will explain; it is more a clue book, or a fact book for tourism.

The local bookstore with the largest section in our town offered a range of three choices, not including Michelin nor Bleu. Of the three available, I think I picked the "best"; I based my choice on comparison of their treatment of three cities I plan to visit--map of center of town, information and floorplan of major museums, hours and days places are open.

While I don't totally regret my choice, I am puzzled by some of the editor's decisions (or oversights). Consider the treatment of "Dresden": ten pages, including a half-page map, description and open hours of twenty-three sites, a lovely two page photo of a large building, and two pages each for "Zwinger" and "Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister". The floor plan and "don't miss" for the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister are given, as is the address, and yet this important museum is not indicated on the half-page map; I'm hoping that Theaterplatz 1 is near the Sächsische Staatsoper at Theaterplatz 2, which is indicated on the map. Another puzzlement is the lack of a caption for the two page photo; perhaps it would have been an "Overleaf:" caption, and would have gone were the map is, so was superceded by the map.

The arrangement of pictures around regional maps is odd. The idea seems to be to place them in numerical order following the hands of a clock, but not necessarily starting at "12"; on one, "1" is at 10 o'clock, "2" is at 12, and so on, whereas on another "2" is just below "1", then "3" begins the clock-face order. This would matter less if the same logic were used on the maps, so that the pictures ended up in proximity to the locations on the map; yet "2" is at the bottom of the map, while "5" and "6" are top center and top right, respectively. One can look at the map, then seek the photo with the corresponding number; it is not obviously wrong, it is just not very user-friendly, and was likely not tested or subjected to criticism. Levels of craftsmanship are falling, and publishers are cutting costs (and competencies) where they shouldn't.

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