Sunday, 28 February 2010
the machine that ran too hot
Feb 24th 2010
The woes of Toyota, the world’s biggest carmaker, are a warning for rivals
AS EXECUTIVES from Toyota, including the firm’s boss, Akio Toyoda, explained themselves before their tormentors in America’s Congress this week, there was little public voice from rival carmakers. Although it is Toyota that is currently in the news after a crushing series of safety-related recalls across the world, competitors are only too aware that it could be their turn next. After all, there is not a single big carmaker that has not modelled its manufacturing and supply-chain management on Toyota’s “lean production” system.
That said, there is a widespread belief within the car industry that Toyota is the author of most of its own misfortunes and that its mistakes, hold lessons for others. In testimony delivered to the House oversight committee on Wednesday February 24th, Mr Toyoda, the carmaker’s boss, acknowledged that in its pursuit of growth Toyota stretched its lean philosophy close to breaking point and in so doing had become “confused” about some of the principles that first made it great: its focus on putting the customer’s satisfaction above all else and its ability “to stop, think and make improvements”.
James Womack, one of the authors of “The Machine that Changed the World”, a book about Toyota’s innovations in manufacturing, dates the origin of its present woes to 2002, when it set itself the goal of raising its global market share from 11% to 15%. Mr Womack says that the 15% target was “totally irrelevant to any customer” and was “just driven by ego”. According to Mr Womack, the requirement to expand its supply chain rapidly “meant working with a lot of unfamiliar suppliers who didn’t have a deep understanding of Toyota culture.”
By the middle of the decade, recalls of Toyota vehicles were increasing at a sufficiently alarming rate for Mr Toyoda’s predecessor, Katsuaki Watanabe, to demand a renewed emphasis on quality control. But nothing was allowed to get in the way of another goal: overtaking General Motors to become the biggest carmaker in the world. Even as Toyota swept past GM in 2008, the quality problems and recalls were mounting.
The majority of those problems almost certainly originated not in Toyota’s own factories but in those of its suppliers. The automotive industry operates as a complex web. The carmakers (known as original equipment manufacturer or OEMs) sit at its centre. Next come the suppliers, such as Bosch, Delphi, Denso, Continental, Valeo and Tenneco, who deliver big integrated systems directly to the OEMs. Besides, these are the suppliers who provide individual parts or assembled components either directly to the OEM or to another supplier. CTS Corp, the maker of the pedal assemblies that Toyota has identified as one of the causes of “unintended acceleration” in some of its vehicles, is a supplier whose automotive business accounts for about a third of its sales.
On the outer ring of the web are the suppliers who often make just a single component for several other suppliers. Toyota revolutionised automotive supply-chain management by anointing certain suppliers as the sole source of particular components, leading to intimate collaboration with long-term partners and a sense of mutual benefit. By contrast, Western carmakers tended either to source in-house or award short contracts to the lowest bidders. The quality Toyota and its suppliers achieved made possible the “just in time” approach to delivering components to the assembly plant.
Most big car firms now operate in a similar way. By and large, the relationships between the OEMs and the suppliers run smoothly. When problems crop up, it is usually with the other suppliers. One top purchasing executive says that consolidation, the need to trim capacity and the shock to demand that began in mid-2008 have put the weaker parts of the supply chain under great strain.
A consequence of Toyota’s breakneck expansion was that it became increasingly dependent on suppliers outside Japan with whom it did not have decades of working experience. Nor did Toyota have enough senior engineers to keep an eye on how new suppliers were shaping up. Yet Toyota not only continued to trust in its sole-sourcing approach, it went even further, gaining unprecedented economies of scale by using single suppliers for entire ranges of its cars across multiple markets.
One senior executive at a big supplier argues that although Toyota’s single-supplier philosophy served it well in the past it had taken it to potentially risky extremes, especially when combined with highly centralised decision-making in Japan. In the aftermath of Toyota’s crash, the question the industry is now asking itself is whether sole-sourcing has gone too far. Until very recently, Toyota was the peerless exemplar.
For now, at least, it is seen as an awful warning.
Copyright © 2010 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
Friday, 26 February 2010
How rest helps memory
Feb 23rd 2010 SAN DIEGO From Economist.com
Researchers say a nap prepares the brain to learn
MAD dogs and Englishmen, so the song has it, go out in the midday sun. And the business practices of England’s lineal descendant, America, will have you in the office from nine in the morning to five in the evening, if not longer. Much of the world, though, prefers to take a siesta. And research presented to the AAAS meeting in San Diego suggests it may be right to do so. It has already been established that those who siesta are less likely to die of heart disease. Now, Matthew Walker and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that they probably have better memory, too. An afternoon nap, Dr Walker has discovered, sets the brain up for learning.
The role of sleep in consolidating memories that have already been created has been understood for some time. Dr Walker has been trying to extend this understanding by looking at sleep’s role in preparing the brain for the formation of memories in the first place.
His team was interested in a specific type of memory—episodic memory, which relates to specific events, places and times. This contrasts with procedural memory, the skills required to perform some sort of mechanical task, such as driving. The theory the researchers wanted to test was that the ability to form new episodic memories deteriorates with accrued wakefulness, and that sleep thus restores the brain’s capacity for efficient learning.
They asked a group of 39 people to take part in two learning sessions, one at noon and one at 6pm. On each occasion the participants tried to memorise and recall 100 combinations of pictures and names. After the first session they were assigned randomly to either a control-group, which remained awake, or a nap group, which had a 100-minutes of monitored sleep.
Those who remained awake throughout the day became worse at learning. Those who napped, by contrast, actually improved their capacity to learn, doing better in the evening than they had at noon. These findings support the theory that sleep is clearing the brain’s short-term memory and making way for new information.
It is already well-known that fact-based memories are stored temporarily in an area called the hippocampus, a structure in the centre of the brain. But they do not stay there long. Instead, they are sent to the prefrontal cortex for longer-term storage. Electroencephalograms, which measure electrical activity in the brain, have shown that this memory-refreshing capacity is related to a specific type of sleep called Stage 2 non-REM sleep.
The ideal nap, then, follows a cycle of between 90-100 minutes. The first 30 minutes is a light sleep that helps improve motor performance. Then comes 30 minutes of stage 2 sleep, which refreshes the hippocampus. After this, between 60-90 minutes into the nap, comes rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep, during which dreaming happens. This, research suggests, is the time when the brain makes connections between the new memories that have just been “downloaded” from the hippocampus and those that already exist—thus making new experiences relevant in a wider context.
The benefits to memory of a nap, says Dr Walker, are so great that they can equal an entire night’s sleep. He warns, however, that napping must not be done too late in the day or it will interfere with night-time sleep. Moreover, not everyone awakens refreshed from a siesta.
The grogginess that can result from an unrefreshing siesta is termed “sleep inertia”. This happens when the brain is woken from a deep sleep with its cells still firing at a slow rhythm and its temperature and blood flow decreased. Sara Mednick, from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that non-habitual nappers suffer from this more often than those who siesta regularly. It may be that those who awake groggy choose not to siesta in the first place. Perhaps, though, as in so many things, practice makes perfect.
Copyright © 2010 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
Andrey Ternovskiy, who set up the internet chat sensation, could be the next Mark Zuckerberg
By Jonathan Harwood
LAST UPDATED 6:41 AM, FEBRUARY 15, 2010
A 17-year-old Russian student has been revealed over the weekend to be the brains behind the most talked-about web sensation since Facebook. He is Andrey Ternovskiy, and his brainchild is ChatRoulette, which connects users with randomly selected strangers.
As its name suggests, the site has a very simple premise - to introduce people who know nothing about each other and see what happens.
After logging on, visitors are confronted with another user who appears on the screen via a webcam. They can either chat to that person or click 'next' and see who else pops up on their screen. The web's usual array of weird and wonderful characters - many of them naked - have taken to the site and turned it into a kind of global trend with millions of users worldwide.
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Sales show Optimism in Manhattan Real Estate
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS
The 2009 Manhattan real estate market ended on a better note than it began, according to fourth-quarter reports that were released last Tuesday by the city’s largest brokerages.
The improvements in the market that began over the summer pushed through to the end of the year. Most reports found that sales increased from the third quarter to the fourth. Prices, meanwhile, stayed about flat — some of the reports showed slight increases, but most showed small declines.
“Considering where we came from, the results this quarter were much better than we could’ve imagined a year ago at this time,” said Jonathan J. Miller, president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, who prepares the market report for Prudential Douglas Elliman. “There are a lot of challenges ahead for housing, but I think the worst is behind us.”
Dottie Herman, president of Prudential Douglas Elliman, said that in the first half of 2009, apartment sales were low. “People were thinking, If I buy this, will the market go down more?” Ms. Herman said. “You don’t have that any more.”
The Prudential report showed that the median sale price in Manhattan was $810,000 in the fourth quarter of 2009, a 10 percent drop over the same period in 2008 and a 4.7 percent decline over the third quarter of 2009. The average sale price, $1.296 million, was down 2.1 percent since last summer and 12.7 percent since the fourth quarter of last year.
Real estate sales figures usually represent contracts signed several months earlier. Mr. Miller said that the median sale price of $810,000 in Manhattan was down 21 percent from the peak of $1.025 million in the second quarter of 2008. The average sale price of nearly $1.3 million last quarter was 24.8 percent lower than the peak of $1.72 million in the first quarter of 2008. Prudential said the number of sales increased 10.9 percent from the third quarter to the fourth last year, and they were 8.4 percent higher than in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Inventory has been reduced by the rise in sales that started in the summer. That is unusual because the busiest time for sales in the city is usually the spring. The Prudential report found that inventory had fallen 18.3 percent since the third quarter of 2009 and 24.6 percent since the fourth quarter of last year.
Some of the decline in inventory, however, is seasonal. Sellers often pull their homes off the market before the holidays and put them back on in the new year. Those owners might be joined by many others who have sat on the sidelines for the last year or so, hoping to wait out the economic storm.
But even with buyers and sellers, there is a third party to consider: the banks.
Lending remains extremely tight, especially for “jumbo” mortgages, those above $729,750. In Manhattan, these represent a much larger part of the market than in most parts of the country.
But for anyone who can get a mortgage, rates are still low. They have nowhere to go but up, and this year, some economists say, they are likely to rise, which could put some downward pressure on the market. High unemployment and concerns about commercial real estate foreclosures could play a part as well.
Monday, 22 February 2010
China has the highest level of spousal satisfaction, at 83 percent.
68 percent of respondents say they would marry the same person again
China has the highest level of spousal satisfaction, and Malaysia the least, survey finds
On average men were more dissatisfied with their wives than women with their husbands
(Reader's Digest) -- "Would you marry the same person again?" could be a dangerous question.
However, an international poll conducted in 15 countries reveals that 68 percent of respondents, and even more women, would again say "I do" to their spouse.
The survey, which was conducted by Reader's Digest and published in the March issue, reveals that China has the highest level of spousal satisfaction (83 percent.)
Also at the top of the list: The Philippines, Germany and the Netherlands. The United States came in at number 12 for satisfaction levels (63 percent) and Malaysia last (59 percent.)
On average, men were more dissatisfied with their wives than women with their husbands. Malaysia tops the list with 48 percent of men stating they would untie the knot if given the chance. In Italy, however, 42 percent of the women would say "arrivederci" to their husbands.
Peggy Northrop, VP/Global Editor-in-Chief, Reader's Digest, said: "In the countries where marrying young is part of the culture, people seem to have a long time to wonder 'What if?' Age and wisdom still influence marital satisfaction."
In the United States, Brazil, and Great Britain, respondents over age 45 are more likely than younger people to feel satisfied with their choices. But in Canada, France, India, Malaysia, and Spain, it is the 45-and-unders who feel more happily matched.
In the Philippines, where couples marry younger than in most nations, only 20 percent of those over age 45 say they would stay with the same spouse.
The countries that participated in the survey were Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, Philippines, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Sunday, 21 February 2010
Nap improves brain learning power
A nap during the day doesn't just beat tiredness, but actually improves the brain's ability to absorb new information, claim US scientists.
Volunteers who slept for 90 minutes during the day did better at cognitive tests than those who were kept awake.
The results were presented at a conference in California.
A UK-based expert said it was hard to separate the pure "memory improving" effects of sleep from those of simply being less tired.
The wealth of study into the science of sleep in recent years has so far failed to come up with conclusive evidence as to the value of a quick "siesta" during the day.
The latest study, from the University of California at Berkeley, suggests that the brain may need sleep to process short-term memories, creating "space" for new facts to be learned.
In their experiment, 39 healthy adults were given a hard learning task in the morning - with broadly similar results, before half of them were sent for their siesta.
When the tests were repeated, the nappers performed far better than those who had carried on without sleep.
"It's as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full, and, until you sleep and clear out all those fact e-mails, you're not going to receive any more mail.
Story from BBC NEWS:http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/health/8524549.stmPublished: 2010/02/21 10:28:00 GMT© BBC MMX
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Sunday, 7 February 2010
The science of music
From The Economist print edition
The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It. By Philip Ball. Bodley Head; 452 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
MUSIC is a mystery. It is unique to the human race: no other species produces elaborate sound for no particular reason. It has been, and remains, part of every known civilisation on Earth. Lengths of bone fashioned into flutes were in use 40,000 years ago. And it engages people’s attention more comprehensively than almost anything else: scans show that when people listen to music, virtually every area of their brain becomes more active.
Yet it serves no obvious adaptive purpose. Charles Darwin, in “The Descent of Man”, noted that “neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life.” Unwilling to believe that music was altogether useless, Darwin concluded that it may have made man’s ancestors more successful at mating. Yet if that were so, you might expect one gender to be musically more gifted than the other, and there is no evidence of that. So what is the point of music?
Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist best known for his book “The Language Instinct”, has called music “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” If it vanished from our species, he said, “the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” Others have argued that, on the contrary, music, along with art and literature, is part of what makes people human; its absence would have a brutalising effect. Philip Ball, a British science writer and an avid music enthusiast, comes down somewhere in the middle. He says that music is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions. We have a music instinct as much as a language instinct, and could not rid ourselves of it if we tried.
Music can mean different things in different cultures. But although it is culturally specific, some of its building blocks are universal: melody, harmony, rhythm, the timbre produced by a variety of instruments and the distinctive style added by particular composers. Almost all musical systems are based on scales spanning an octave—the note that sounds the same as the one you started off with, but at a higher or lower pitch. Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher who lived around 500BC, is said to have discovered that notes that sound harmonious together have simple ratios between their frequencies: for example, one that is an octave higher than another has double the frequency. The Pythagorean “diatonic” scale, still the basis of most Western music, is made up from seven notes. But it is far from the only one. Javanese gamelan uses two scales with different numbers of notes; North Indian music has 32 different scales. Arnold Schoenberg devised a 12-tone scheme of atonal music about a century ago.
Mr Ball goes through each component of music in turn to explain how and why it works, using plentiful examples drawn from a refreshingly wide range of different kinds of music, from Bach to the Beatles, and from nursery rhymes to jazz. If you can read music, you will find yourself humming aloud to see what he means. If you can’t, you might occasionally get lost among the technicalities. But before things get too rarefied, Mr Ball’s facility for conveying complex facts in simple language comes to the rescue.
His basic message is encouraging and uplifting: people know much more about music than they think. They start picking up the rules from the day they are born, perhaps even before, by hearing it all around them. Very young children can tell if a tune or harmony is not quite right. One of the joys of listening to music is a general familiarity with the way it is put together: to know roughly what to expect, then to see in what particular ways your expectations will be met or exceeded. Most adults can differentiate between kinds of music even if they have had no training.
Music is completely sui generis. It should not tell a non-musical story; the listener will decode it for himself. Many, perhaps most, people have experienced a sudden rush of emotion on hearing a particular piece of music; a thrill or chill, a sense of excitement or exhilaration, a feeling of being swept away by it. They may even be moved to tears, without being able to tell why. Musical analysts have tried hard to find out how this happens, but with little success. Perhaps some mysteries are best preserved.
|Copyright © 2010 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.|