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GP 28 February 2007: In Search of Searchlights

“You know that I write slowly.  This is chiefly because I am never satisfied until I have said as much as possible in a few words, and writing briefly takes far more time than writing at length” – Carl Friedrich Gauss 

“The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter.” – Blaise Pascal 

Getting Basic; the Utter Necessities.  We reviewed the list of doodads we said you should get in last week’s “A Few Good Buys,” only to discover that we proffered very little that you could use before 5 p.m.  Tucked away amidst the flotsam and jetsam of Sam’s Club, you will find some Ralph Lauren shirts and Izod shorts with cargo pockets, which together could pass as a uniform in many parts of the Southeast and Southwest.  Or at least they were there last time we looked.  Beyond that garb you only need some mouth blistering, high-octane coffee to get you through the day.  That comes from Try Me in New Orleans.  Try Me has started to get a little fancy, but we still notice some chicory for $4.76 an almost pound.  With your shorts, your Polo engraved shirt, and hard- knocks coffee, you’ll be ready to deal with the slings, arrows, and barbs coming from almost anybody as you tackle the day. 

Watching Wal-Mart.  All our partners spend a whole lot of time watching Wal-Mart, the most important company in the world and China’s biggest customer.  Sam’s is its warehouse division, which we find more civil than the ticky tacky, cluttered stores.  A few of our observations about this eerie Empire are recorded in our Watching Wal-Mart section of the Global Province which, we notice, attracts an awful lot of visitors.  Wal-Mart is a mix of good and bad, brilliant and dumb, and, like so many of America’s formulaic goliaths, has not had the moxie to change fast enough to keep up with global consumers.  It has been an excellent supply chain company, but a marketing disaster.  That is, it has known how to shave dimes when buying something, the key to its early success in rural towns where it offered lean pocketbooks a way to stretch the money.  But quality, product durability, and merchandising just are not part of the DNA.  So a decent producer often cannot make a living selling to Wal-Mart, and a consumer frequently cannot find what he or she wants. 

As frustrating, in Sam’s or in the gargantuan Wal-Marts, is the whole nature of the shopping experience.  It’s a pain to find what you might want.  Every store has tens of thousands of SKUs (stock keeping units), and we are, most times, looking for 50 at best.  Finding the good stuff—the needles in a haystack—is daunting.  Wal-Mart is not customer friendly, and it has lacked a real merchant since its founder passed from the scene.  So it’s not a frequent stop for this country’s affluent.  Someday, for sure, Mick Jagger will give a lecture to those executives secreted away in Bentonville, Arkansas: 

No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
And if you try sometime you find
You get what you need. 

Better Search Engines.  Whether we’re in giant stores or playing around in the virtual world of the Internet, we’re confronted with the same dilemma.  We’re in need of better search engines to find what we want.  For years Dotcom nuts have made a great deal out of the Lycoses, and Yahoos, and Googles—and the stream of other search engines that uncover all the things we don’t need to know.  Google has won the popularity contest.  But if the truth be told, it’s not very good either. 

The entries it and others turn up are ranked by popularity—by the number of times a site is visited or the number of ways it is linked to other sites on the Internet.  In fact, whether we’re looking for a dress shirt at Sam’s Club or a absinthe variant on the Internet, chances are many of us are looking for the least popular, the most abstruse.  The real buys turn up at the bottom of a search list—or not at all. 

Nor do we even want to know about the companies which have paid money to claw their way to the top of search engine rankings, the first 5 or 6 names that show up when you do a search.  To boot, as we said in “Missing 99%,” search engines only get at .03% of the Web—or one page in 3,000.  By and large, we’re missing out on the best there is.  That spells out the economic puzzle.  How do we find what we want to find?  How do we find the best there is amidst a plethora of information? 

Jimmy Wales Again.  Jimmy Wales, the inventor of Wikipedia, is at it again.  He is talking of a search engine that will improve on conventional engines, using the legions of volunteers that have made his Wikipedia—the wonderful, sometimes reviled, online encyclopedia—a boom to everybody but the too precious.  “The project, called Wikiasari for now, was announced in December by Wikia, a for-profit company co-founded by Jimmy Wales, the former options trader who has been the public face of Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia, a wiki search engine would be based on the idea that volunteers can do the work of paid specialists—in the case of search engines, the work of sophisticated computers that evaluate Web sites for relevance using secret criteria” (New York Times, January 1, 2007).  “Gil Penchina, the chief executive of Wikia, compared the search-engine process to filtering spam.  ‘Humans are pretty good at that; machines are not so good at that,’ he said.  ‘What is obvious to a person is not always obvious to a machine.  There are all sorts of tricks to fool the search engines.  We think that people are better than machines at making decisions about what are proper results for any search term you type in.’”  While we are not at all clear that Wales has it right, we think he is on to something in suggesting that human networks will have to be combined with software engines to generate more meaningful searches.  In a ‘knowledge economy,’ our task is to lay our hands on the right stuff and make sense of it. 

Meaningful Intelligence.  Richard Lehman died on February 17.  “Richard Lehman, a high-ranking Central Intelligence Agency analyst … on orders from a perturbed President John F. Kennedy, developed the succinct intelligence summary that has been handed to presidents each morning for 45 years” (New York Times, February 24, 2007, p. B10).  “Mr. Lehman created the President’s Intelligence Check List (referred to as the ‘pickle’) in 1961, after President Kennedy complained of being overwhelmed by intelligence memorandums, many duplicating material while sometimes leaving out vital information.”  “Mr. Lehman said General Clifton told him to produce a daily memo that would fit into a breast pocket so the president could carry it around with him.  What the general wanted, Mr. Lehman said, was ‘a single publication, no sources barred, covering the whole ground, and written as much as possible in the president’s language rather than in officialese.’  On a Saturday morning in June 1961, President Kennedy read the first PICL while sitting on a diving board at a hunting farm in Virginia.” 

The world of intelligence is the same as the world of media is the same as the world of digital media.  We’re looking for editors who can pick out the utterly quintessential from a host of sources and then cook the potage up into an elegant one-page digest.  This is the eternal battle between class and mass—learning how to make mountains into beautiful molehills, so that we can get a grasp of what’s going on.  In our own business, we find that to be the challenge.  To take enough time to say it short and get out the and’s, if’s, and but’s.  As the world becomes ever more complex, the task is to achieve ever more useful simplicity.  But without the canker that infects the tunnel vision of the ideologue or obsessive compulsive. 

The Meaning of Life.  Ubiquity this week published a reasonably entertaining essay by Albert Borgmann, a philosopher out at the University of Montana, called “Cyberspace, Cosmology, and the Meaning of Life.”  He challenges us to reap the value of kairos, or, as he would prefer to say, focal moments within the context of our digital world and the claims of the universe.  In other words, he wants us to have moments of heightened awareness that still fully take into account the realities of our 21st-century world.  Perhaps this is like the hero of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, who first turns tail in the fright of battle, but then engages the battlefield and more as his pinpoint of intelligence gives him command of his circumstance.  For Borgmann, “that comes to saying that the meaning of life constitutes a two-fold task-locating focal occasions and securing an appropriate fit of the occasions with the larger context of the world.” 

For sure Borgmann reminds us that the search for anything important is not done by mechanical means.  Illumination comes because an individual presses the levers at hand—search engines, heuristics, algorithms—all the while letting the forces in his nature separate the wheat from the inevitable chaff. 

P.S.  Philosophers are much given over to “meaning of life” stuff at the moment, properly reacting to the narrow compass of a world that would make us into drones.  Apparently Nicholas Fearn, a trained philosopher and journalist, has tackled the gamut of thinking in interviews with 30 philosophers.  His The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions, well-reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2007, p. W4, looks to be a good contemporary review of how several thinkers confront the queasy sense of identity experienced by moderns amidst too much information and too many people. 

P.P.S.  As we think about how to find what we want, we learn why strategy has never been more important.  More information than ever before presses us from all sides, and we don’t have time to sort it out.  We find ourselves immersed in the urgent at the expense of the important.  Our circumstance is equivalent to the spatial disorientation that attacks inexperienced pilots, and the result is just as fatal.  Spatial disorientation as a result of continued flight in adverse weather conditions is a recurring cause of fatal airplane accidents.  According to literature found in most FAA approved flight training books, a pilot’s inability to see the horizon leads to spatial disorientation.  The inner ear may give the pilot the impression that the plane is turning when it isn’t.  It takes many hours of instrument training for a pilot to be able to fly in instrument-flight-rule conditions, one’s only recourse when the weather is bad enough.  Navigation is just darn complicated. 

P.P.P.S.  Our extraordinarily unreliable Beltway gossip grapevine has dredged up the ‘true’ father of Anna Nicole’s baby.  The alleged: Scooter Libby.  Of course, this is just a hamfisted effort to blacken the Scooter’s name, and he really does not need any help with that.  Libby was of counsel to the infamous Marc Rich, who had fled to Switzerland to avoid facing up to criminal charges, but whom Clinton pardoned towards the end of his scandal-racked administration.  In 1996, the Scooter gave birth to The Apprentice, reputed to be a rather salacious novel.  For sure he is father to a host of ill-conceived events. 

P.P.P.S.  The Corduroy Appreciation Club, which started up in New York, has at its mantra, “Hail the Wale.”  This should be heartening to Jimmy Wales—maybe he can aspire to become its chairman.  Eventually he should tire of all this Internet stuff.  We started a run on Old Fashioneds at the one meeting we attended. 

P.P.P.P.S.  We estimate that some 400 books are stacked up around our various offices, and we don’t know if we will ever catch up.  Our readers, avid to educate us, slide them under the door.  We’d like to finish up Darwin’s Formation of Vegetable Mould.  Also high on our list is Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral.  We’re through Tom Davenport’s nifty Competing on Analytics, which tells us the multitude of ways businesspeople are using mathematics to sift their data to good effect.  If you know what you’re looking for, you can reap some rich rewards. But then there are the Wal-Mart’s, which know how to look at data, but solve the wrong problems.

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