Two Ideas

Bureaucracy and Thermodynamics

In his otherwise spot-on post, The Collapse of Complex Business Models, Clay Shirky makes the confusing statement:

Bureaucracies temporarily reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

Now, I'm no physicist, but it seems pretty clear to me that bureaucracies absolutely obey the second law of thermodynamics.

"Process" isn't anti-entropic at all, any more than gasoline-powered engines are anti-entropic. The process itself, the bureaucratic imperatives, are entropy and waste heat. Which isn't to say that you can perform useful work without a certain amount of process, or that certain applications don't require an enormous quantity of process. A good startup is an efficient engine, generating lots of results with a minimum of process. A good large organization is less efficient, but trades that efficiency for reliability and consistency—it's a big rig, with a big diesel engine, or possibly an industrial motor of some sort.


Misleading Housing Numbers

I'm sick of articles like this which report data as follows:

The 20-city slice of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price index recorded a drop of 0.6% from March to April, compared with a 2.2% drop in the prior month. The index has declined every month since July 2006.

The problem is, as Seattle Bubble is fond of pointing out, there's normally a bump in housing prices from March to April due to the seasonality of home sales.

A more fair comparison would be comparing the year-over-year price changes from March and April. The Wall Street Journal reports that the 20-city index reported a year-over-year decline of 18.7% in March, and The New York Times reports that the 20-city index reported a year-over-year decline of 18.1% in April.

The numbers CNN reports sound as though we saw a 72% improvement, but once you remove the seasonality and look at the year-over-year numbers, the improvement is only 3.2% better. That's quite a difference.

And in either case we're looking at a second-derivative number here: the change in the rate of decline. We're still talking about a very significant decline, which appears to be ongoing. Even if we see a few months of positive changes, Japan saw several multi-month periods of positive improvement in their housing market before it bottomed out.

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Astronomers: Alien annihilation of Earth not expected in ’08

Okay, that wasn't actually the headline on CNN's business page this morning.

The actual headline was Economists: No global collapse in '08.

The reason nobody published the "Alien annihilation of Earth not expected" headline is that the possibility isn't on the radar of anyone reputable.

Draw your own conclusions.

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Professionalize Tech Support, part two

A few months ago, I wrote about professionalizing technical support.

Last week, I presented at SASAG on this topic. I've made my presentation on Professionalizing Technical Support available here; it's still a PowerPoint document. Please let me know if you'd like this data but require a different format. The extensive notes, of course, represent what I wanted or tried to say, not what I ended up actually saying. (Like any good SAGE meeting, the presentation was much more a discussion than unidirectional transfer of information and ideas.)

Read on for my impression of the meeting.


Professionalize Tech Support

[ Update, 2007-07-16: Please see my followup post ]

I'm in tech support, and I love my job: I love helping people solve problems, and I love working on the tricky things. I like working on streamlining processes to reduce support effort, I like figuring out how to communicate internally and document our processes. I even get to do a little bit of writing scripts for internal use and to solve customer problems that, strictly speaking, shouldn't be our problem.

That said, I often feel like I'm making it up. I feel like my management's making it up. And I don't think that's their fault, or mine.