Post-Christmas book suggestion

This is a must-have for anyone living along the Strait of Canso superport, and for 14 residents of Goldboro, soon to be the site of an LNG terminal. Denizens of HRM may also want to bone up in anticipation of warships soon to be flying off the assembly line at the Irving Shipyard.


Be sure to read the reviews, especially the third one down.

H/T: Sue, via Jane Kansas

Another day, another newspaper sold for 5¢ on the dollar


The tagline at the top of this blog, which many readers will recognize as a phrase from the 1967 Beatles song, A Day in the Life, was also the name of a column I wrote for the Boston Globe, where I worked from 1968 to 1970.

It was my first job in journalism. The Globe was the most progressive big city daily in the United States, the only one to favour unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam.  It was also a great place to work. In an era of political and cultural tumult, the paper’s managers reached out to rebellious young readers in a concerted way. I was 23 when I started there. The paper’s senior editors indulged me with generosity I still marvel at 45 years later.

One weekend in 1970, the Nixon White House called reporters in on short notice. The Globe’s regular White House crew was unavailable, so Tom Oliphant, who would go on to cover 10 presidential campaigns and share in a Pulitzer Prize, got his first White House assignment on 10 minutes notice.

Oliphant, in his early 20s, arrived in the sneakers and casual clothes he’d been wearing when summoned. He found Press Secretary Ron Ziegler and introduced himself as a Globe staffer. Ziegler looked the young reporter up and down with evident disdain and said, “Figures.”

Tom Winship, the Globe’s editor-in-chief at the time, recounted the incident to me with a satisfied chuckle.

The Globe consistently ranks among the top 10 U.S. newspapers. Over the last half century, it has won 22 Pulitzer Prizes, often for exposing wrongdoing in high places. It won for “massive and balanced coverage of the Boston school desegregation crisis” (during which bullets flew through windows in the paper’s newsroom),”courageous, comprehensive coverage in its disclosures of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church,” and a series on racism that included self-criticism.

All the while, circulation plummeted. In 1993, when the New York Times Company bought the Globe from the family that had piloted it for a century, it had a weekday circulation of 506,996. Today, Monday to Friday circulation stands at 245,572, a 52 percent drop. With plunging newspaper sales, ad revenue hemorrhaged, and the rise of the internet vaporized lucrative classified sales.

Last week, the New York Times Company sold the Globe to the owner of the Boston Red Sox, thefolklorically named John Henry. The sale price was $70 million, a figure the Times story called “a staggering drop in value.” For a sense of perspective, consider that six years ago, the Red Sox paid the same amount, $70 million, for the services of outfielder J.D. Drew. Given that the Times will retain the Globe’s estimated $110 million pension liabilities, you could say the price was negative $40 million.

Included in the sale were another Massachusetts daily, the Worcester Telegram; Gazette; the websites,, and; the direct-mail marketing company Globe Direct; and the Times’s 49 percent interest in Metro Boston, a free daily akin to Halifax Metro. The Times paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993, and six years later spent another $295 million to acquire the Telegram & Gazette—a total investment of nearly $1.4 billion. Twenty years later it sold them for 1/20th of that amount.

Within days, news of the Globe sale was eclipsed by the Graham family’s sale of the once mighty Washington Post to Amazon founder and internet visionary Jeff Bezos for $250 million. In public statements, Bezos spoke respectfully of the paper’s role as a public trust, but speculation abounds as to his reasons for the purchase. Is it a billionaire’s act of philanthropy, to ensure an important institution’s survival? A Washington lobbying tool, as Amazon comes under increasing legislative and regulatory scrutiny? Or does Bezos believe his proven insights into consumer dynamics in the internet age can restore elusive value to journalistic enterprises?

You have to hope it’s door number three. We are surely in the final decade or two of the printed newspaper. Bezos, who developed the Kindle, is as well placed as anyone to figure out what will replace dead tree editions.  As Nova Scotians watch the Chronicle-Herald struggle through the same disruptions that humbled the Globe and the Post, let’s hope he finds a model that works.

The amazing tech required to pack on-line orders

I bought a lot of books on line in the run-up to Christmas, and I was struck by how much quicker Amazon was able to get them to me than Chapters. When I tweeted this observation, a fellow tweep chided me — of all people — for not patronizing local bookstores.

I like a nice bookstore as much as the next fellow. Who doesn’t enjoy wandering through the stacks at J. W. Doull’s, feeling the stairs creak underfoot, talking books with the marvellous staff he employs. But it’s no accident that John Doull can no longer afford the rent in downtown Halifax. Book buyers have voted with their feet, and Amazon is winning by a landslide.

Just as iTunes represents a much better way of buying music than the old customer-contemptuous, $20-album-in-a-record-store model, so Amazon beats the pants off the bookstore model.

That impression came early and easily to me, because I live in a bookstore desert. The nearest bookstore, a bedroom sized Coles, is an hour away, and rarely stocks the books I seek. So my normal bookstore experience is to drive an hour, go to an ill-stocked store where an ill-informed clerk will tell me they don’t have what I want, place an order, drive an hour home, and repeat the round trip a week or two later when the desired volume comes in, or fails to.

Or I can sit in my living room, tap a few keys on my laptop, and have the book delivered to my house a few days later, for less than I would pay in the bookstore. Sure, I’ll miss the creaky stores, and I’ll seriously miss the wonderful people who staffed these institutions. But I’m fine with the new method, and I get more books, quicker and cheaper, as a result.

On the Tuesday before Christmas, I heard an NPR podcast about a new biography of Leonardo of Pisa, aka Fibonacci, who revolutionized modern commerce by introducing Arabic numerals to Western Europe, thereby enhancing the computing power of ordinary citizens more than anyone before Steve Jobs invented the personal computer. This would make a great present for my math-inspired son, but I’d never be able to get it by Christmas,

I checked on line. Both Amazon and Chapters had the book, but only Amazon claimed the ability to delivery it by Friday, the last delivery day before Christmas, and only if I paid an exorbitant amount for special shipping. I bit, and at about 4:30, hit Amazon’s buy button.

The package was delivered in Halifax at 10:30 the next morning, This was a miracle on a par with the Dollar Store. I’ve been puzzling ever since about how Amazon (or LL Bean, or Zappos, or Staples) can manage these feats of order processing. Today, a new TED talk appeared that explains part of the mystery.

The TED talker, Mick Mountz, founded Kiva Systems, a material handling company that is revolutionizing warehouse management by replacing conveyors with little orange robots shown at the top of the page. In action, they look like suitcase-sized Zambonis. Instead of stock pickers wandering around the warehouse, looking for products to assemble into orders, the bots bring the products to the pickers, who pack them into boxes for shipment.

They do this by moving whole shelves around the warehouse, their patterns controlled by algorithms that learn as they go, so the process continually improves. In effect, it turns a warehouse into a massively parallel processing machine, not unlike a computer. Watch the video for the fascinating details.

All we like sheep – training division

Playmobil Security Checkpoint

Contrarian reader Andrew Bourke flags the droll consumer reviews of the Playmobil Security Checkpoint on the Amazon website (scroll way down). Moneyquote:

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger’s shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger’s scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said “that’s the worst security ever!”. But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital. The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society.

Andrew also passes along this  commentary from


Contrarian’s friend Adrian, who has skirted more security checkpoints than Contrarian has boarded planes, wonders what improvements I would like to see in airport security.

The generally accepted view is that the El Al method of interviewing (‘profiling’) each passenger is the best, almost the only, sure method. Indeed, there were moves adopt it in the USA after 9/11, but objections from namby-pamby leftist self proclaimed libertarians [like me! – ed.] precluded this.

Finally, James Fallows has consolidated his many posts on this subject here.

Capitalism fails again: why you can’t get a Kindle in Canada – updated

The Globe and Mail’s Omar El Akkad has the skinny on why Amazon’s hugely successful Kindle book reader, now available in more than 100 countries, still can’t be purchased in Canada. Moneyquote:

Sources say the delay may be due to newly discovered competition. Until recently, the wireless technology used by the Kindle was available only through Rogers. This week, however, Bell and Telus announced a new next-generation network that will go live in November, giving Amazon more options to choose from for their device. The two carriers announced this week that they will use the new network to begin offering Apple’s iPhone, previously only available through Rogers.

Neither Telus nor Rogers would comment for the story, and Bell said little. One has to wonder whether Rogers played too cute by half, trying to hold Amazon (and Apple) to ransom when it was the only game in town, and now suddenly finding itself with eager competitors for Kindle and iPhone customers. Says El Akkad:

There seems little doubt that Canadians will eventually get their hands on the Kindle, the only question is when. If Amazon does decide to partner up with Bell or Telus, then Canadian customers can expect the device as early as next month – only a few weeks after the Cook Islands.

Mike McKenzie responds:

You should pick up a Kindle on your next trip to Cuba. If you take a few cases of toilet paper, a set of wrenches, and some fish hooks you could barter for one.