What you should read in Sunday’s papers

In case you missed these excellent articles in Sunday’s papers, go catch them online.  They’re the best of what was in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

If you’re curious, my highly refined process for reading the papers is to go to Tryst Cafe early on Sunday morning with Sarah, grab a couch, plug in my laptop (cellular net service rocks when they turn off the in-cafe wifi on the weekends), and slowly eat my bagel while we dissect the paper.

Sarah loves the NYT, and thinks the WP is a crappy paper.  On foreign items I tend to agree, but the Metro section, Style, and the Business sections of the WP I find useful.  The technology coverage of the NYT is always disappointing.

And of course, I love the format of both paper’s Sunday magazines.

So without further delay, here’s what you should go read from Sunday’s papers…

A’s For Everyone!, WP magazine
This first-person narrative describes what’s its like to be a professor, and have students hound you to improve their grades.  Their arguments are not often based upon the merit of their work, but simply, because they really want a higher grade.  Best quote:

"At the age of 50, if I work extremely hard, I can run a mile in eight
minutes," says [Professor] Watson. "I have students who can jog through a mile in
seven minutes and barely sweat. They will always finish before me and
that’s not fair. Or is it?"

The Quantitative, Data-based, Risk-massaging Road To Riches, NYT magazine
If you’re anyone except financial and business journo-guru Aaron Pressman, this article will introduce you to the world of hedge funds and their financial stars.  Best quote:

hedge funds ”are generally run for rich people in Geneva, Switzerland, by rich people in Greenwich, Conn.”

For Washingtonians: the first of a four part series on the area’s aging Metro system entitled  "Efforts to Repair Aging Metro System Compound Metro’s Problems" provides in-depth coverage of how WMATA works to repair train cars and escalators, and how it doesn’t always result in better service.

I find the Post’s coverage of the Metro system to be slanted against WMATA.  A careful reading of the article shows several logical fallacies where the reporter analogizes a mistake in one area to flaws in others that aren’t necessarily causative.  That being said, WMATA has managed many things poorly (something they acknowledge) and has made efforts to improve.

The fact remains that the system, which is almost entirely unique, is also plagued by a lack of funding that makes lots of preventive maintenance impossible to do.  One of the great flaws is inherited by this generation of Metro’s managers: the danger of the single-user product.

I talk about this a lot with regards to technology with my clients.  I often say, "You don’t want a consulting firm to build you a product if you can buy something off the shelf and extend it a little bit.  The cost of being the only customer for a product is higher that you can imagine.  Nothing is worse that being a customer base of one.  Testing, R&D, and maintenance all are paid for by you, instead of amortized over many customers.

The article makes this point as well, when WMATA head White says this about the uniqueness of Metro’s rail cars:

White and others say quality is a problem that haunts the entire U.S.
transit industry, in part because so few companies make or rebuild rail
cars. Unlike automobiles, rail cars are built to order, so there is
little standardization or opportunity to work out kinks from one
generation of cars to the next.

Just this last week I rode Boston’s new Silver line from our downtown Boston office to Logan airport, a trip that took only a few minutes longer than the 18 minutes promised.  The vehicle for the journey was a combo electric/diesel bus, that ran on overhead electrics in tunnels through the Big Dig, and then on gas above ground.

I mentioned to Sarah that the combination of underground tunnels (same advantage of Metro to avoid traffic) with the standardization of bus technology should make such vehicles an excellent long-term choice.  Apparently my observation was spot on.

If this series does anything well, I hope it will highlight the issues around the paucity in funding for Metro.  We as a region cannot allow it to fail, and it doesn’t have the funding it needs, mismanagement or not.