Saturday, March 25, 2006

Collective wisdom.

March 26, 2006

Under New Management

Here's an Idea: Let Everyone Have Ideas

LIKE many top executives, James R. Lavoie and Joseph M. Marino keep a close eye on the stock market. But the two men, co-founders of Rite-Solutions, a software company that builds advanced — and highly classified — command-and-control systems for the Navy, don't worry much about Nasdaq or the New York Stock Exchange.

Instead, they focus on an internal market where any employee can propose that the company acquire a new technology, enter a new business or make an efficiency improvement. These proposals become stocks, complete with ticker symbols, discussion lists and e-mail alerts. Employees buy or sell the stocks, and prices change to reflect the sentiments of the company's engineers, computer scientists and project managers — as well as its marketers, accountants and even the receptionist.

"We're the founders, but we're far from the smartest people here," Mr. Lavoie, the chief executive, said during an interview at Rite-Solutions' headquarters outside Newport, R.I. "At most companies, especially technology companies, the most brilliant insights tend to come from people other than senior management. So we created a marketplace to harvest collective genius."

That's a refreshing dose of humility from a successful C.E.O. with decades of experience in his field. (Mr. Lavoie, 59, is a Vietnam War veteran and an accomplished engineer who has devoted his career to military-oriented technologies.)

Most companies operate under the assumption that big ideas come from a few big brains: the inspired founder, the eccentric inventor, the visionary boss. But there's a fine line between individual genius and know-it-all arrogance. What happens when rivals become so numerous, when technologies move so quickly, that no corporate honcho can think of everything? Then it's time to invent a less top-down approach to innovation, to make it everybody's business to come up with great ideas.

That's a key lesson behind the rise of open source technology, most notably Linux. A ragtag army of programmers organized into groups, wrote computer code, made the code available for anyone to revise and, by competing and cooperating in a global community, reshaped the market for software. The brilliance of Linux as a model of innovation is that it is powered by the grass-roots brilliance of the thousands of programmers who created it.

According to Tim O'Reilly, the founder and chief executive of O'Reilly Media, the computer book publisher, and an evangelist for open source technologies, creativity is no longer about which companies have the most visionary executives, but who has the most compelling "architecture of participation." That is, which companies make it easy, interesting and rewarding for a wide range of contributors to offer ideas, solve problems and improve products?

At Rite-Solutions, the architecture of participation is both businesslike and playful. Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company's internal market, which is called Mutual Fun. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in "opinion money" to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Volunteers share in the proceeds, in the form of real money, if the stock becomes a product or delivers savings.

Mr. Marino, 57, president of Rite-Solutions, says the market, which began in January 2005, has already paid big dividends. One of the earliest stocks (ticker symbol: VIEW) was a proposal to apply three-dimensional visualization technology, akin to video games, to help sailors and domestic-security personnel practice making decisions in emergency situations. Initially, Mr. Marino was unenthusiastic about the idea — "I'm not a joystick jockey" — but support among employees was overwhelming. Today, that product line, called Rite-View, accounts for 30 percent of total sales.

"Would this have happened if it were just up to the guys at the top?" Mr. Marino asked. "Absolutely not. But we could not ignore the fact that so many people were rallying around the idea. This system removes the terrible burden of us always having to be right."

Another virtue of the stock market, Mr. Lavoie added, is that it finds good ideas from unlikely sources. Among Rite-Solutions' core technologies are pattern-recognition algorithms used in military applications, as well as for electronic gambling systems at casinos, a big market for the company. A member of the administrative staff, with no technical expertise, thought that this technology might also be used in educational settings, to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math.

She started a stock called Win/Play/Learn (symbol: WPL), which attracted a rush of investment from engineers eager to turn her idea into a product. Their enthusiasm led to meetings with Hasbro, up the road in Pawtucket, and Rite-Solutions won a contract to help it build its VuGo multimedia system, introduced last Christmas.

Mr. Lavoie called this innovation an example of the "quiet genius" that goes untapped inside most organizations. "We would have never connected those dots," he said. "But one employee floated an idea, lots of employees got passionate about it and that led to a new line of business."

The next frontier is to tap the quiet genius that exists outside organizations — to attract innovations from people who are prepared to work with a company, even if they don't work for it. An intriguing case in point is InnoCentive, a virtual research and development lab through which major corporations invite scientists and engineers worldwide to contribute ideas and solve problems they haven't been able to crack themselves.

InnoCentive, based in Andover, Mass., is literally a marketplace of ideas. It has signed up more than 30 blue-chip companies, including Procter & Gamble, Boeing and DuPont, whose research labs are groaning under the weight of unsolved problems and unfinished projects. It has also signed up more than 90,000 biologists, chemists and other professionals from more than 175 countries. These "solvers" compete to meet thorny technical challenges posted by "seeker" companies. Each challenge has a detailed scientific description, a deadline and an award, which can run as high as $100,000.

"We are talking about the democratization of science," said Alpheus Bingham, who spent 28 years as a scientist and senior research executive at Eli Lilly & Company before becoming the president and chief executive of InnoCentive. "What happens when you open your company to thousands and thousands of minds, each of them with a totally different set of life experiences?"

InnoCentive, founded as an independent start-up by Lilly in 2001, has an impressive record. It can point to a long list of valuable scientific ideas that have arrived, with surprising speed, from faraway places. In addition to the United States, the top countries for solvers are China, India and Russia.

Last month, InnoCentive attracted a $9 million infusion of venture capital to accelerate its growth. "There is a 'collective mind' out there," Dr. Bingham said. "The question for companies is, what fraction of it can you access?"

That remains an unanswered question at many companies, whose leaders continue to rely on their own brainpower as the key source of ideas. But there's evidence that more and more top executives are recognizing the limits of their individual genius.

Back at Rite-Solutions, for example, one of the most valuable stocks on Mutual Fun is the stock market itself (symbol: STK). So many executives from other companies have asked to study the system that a team championed the idea of licensing it as a product — another unexpected opportunity.

"There's nothing wrong with experience," said Mr. Marino, the company's president. "The problem is when experience gets in the way of innovation. As founders, the one thing we know is that we don't know all the answers."

William C. Taylor is a co-founder and founding editor of Fast Company magazine. He lives in Wellesley, Mass.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Idea of simple life takes hold

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — It began as a simple, or simply terrifying, pledge taken by a small group of friends feeling overwhelmed by all the things in their lives. Over a potluck dinner two years ago, they made a pact: Buy nothing new except food, medicine and toiletries for six months.

The effort lasted a year before falling victim to the demands of modern life. But the commercial craziness of the Christmas season brought the group back together a few months ago.

Only now they're not toiling in relative anonymity. A whiff of media interest over the past month has turned their tool-sharing, library-going, thrift-store-shopping band into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon with more than 700 members joining through their Yahoo website. Groups are meeting in Maine, Alabama, Texas, Oregon and Wisconsin, and satiated consumers in Japan and Brazil are making inquiries.

The original group named itself the Compact after the Mayflower Compact, a civil agreement that bound the Pilgrims to a life of higher purpose when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The goal of the members wasn't so much to save money, or even the environment, as much as it was to simplify their lives, says Rob Picciotto, a high school French teacher who attended that first potluck. "It saved us time because there was less time spent shopping. We still buy groceries and go to the drugstore, but we don't go to Target on a Saturday, which was a ritual before just to see what the sales were," he says.

It was Picciotto's partner, John Perry, employed in high-tech marketing, who initiated the reincarnation of the Compact, an effort that drew the attention of the San Francisco Chronicle. When an article hit the paper's website on Feb. 13, it became apparent that the Compact had tapped into a very deep stream of consumer discontent.

Today the Compact exists as several local potluck groups who meet to celebrate their successes (a free sewing machine from online Craig's List) and dilemmas (Do new keys count? What about makeup?). A national and several state-based Web discussion groups serve the same purpose electronically.

Joining is simple, says Julie Fitzpatrick, a third-grade teacher from Madison, Wis., who signed up on the Internet site the day she heard about it on the news. There's no ceremony involved. "You just say 'I'm going to do it,' " she says.

She has found being in the Compact helpful when she is invited to direct-sale events such as candle or Tupperware parties. "I can say, 'I'm sorry, I've taken a pledge.' So now I'm out of that circle."

Still, it's not easy to refrain from the great American pastime. The desire for new sunglasses was the downfall of Sarah Pelmas, a high school English teacher, when she joined the group two years ago.

"It was killing me," she says. Finally she broke down and bought a pair, stepping onto the "slippery slope" that brought her back into mainstream consumerism. "It was like vegetarians and bacon," she says: You can't just stop at a taste. But she re-enlisted in December.

Relatives taken aback

Not that the idea is embraced by everyone. In Chilliwack, British Columbia, Tira Brandon-Evans says that when she and her husband told friends they weren't going to exchange Christmas and birthday presents, they acted as if she'd suddenly developed a mental illness.

She jokes that from her friends' reactions, you would have thought she had announced plans to have a sex change or join a satanic cult.

The biggest challenge for San Franciscan Rachel Kesel was a camping trip, which "takes a lot of gear." But for a fall outing, the 25-year-old student called friends to borrow what she needed. It worked out great, "because it's so rare that you're using camping gear at the same time as everybody else."

Dorice Baty of Monett, Mo., says her family was forced into "involuntary simplicity" when her husband lost his job two years ago. The couple now get by on her salary as a substitute teacher. She likes sharing ideas on how to get by without buying with people in the Compact, whether rich or poor.

"If someone is wealthy and they're doing this, God bless them," she says. "If they've taken on the challenge, then I admire them as much as the people like me who are struggling."

But to many, the entire notion seems strange, even downright un-American. Compacters interviewed on the radio have been accused of wanting to destroy the country. Bloggers have attacked the idea as "conspicuous anti-consumerism" and "pretentious."

Compacter James Glines of Copperas Cove, Texas, says relatives have asked him, "How can you do that? Are you going to steal?"

But there's a strong history of frugality in the USA, says David Shi, president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and author of The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Religious groups such as the Shakers, the Mennonites, the Amish and some Quakers have long embraced the notion of living a simpler life. Writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau idealized it.

Shi says that for the past decade, Americans have been turning toward "therapeutic simplicity."

"It's a function of individuals beginning to feel a sense of crisis in their lives," Shi says. "The frenetic pace of our high-tech society, coupled with the barrage of seductive messages coming from our consumer culture, have reached a point that many people simply feel like they're about to self-destruct."

For Pelmas, it's about "avoiding the hysteria that seems to govern a lot of our consciousness right now around consumerism. It's the kind of craze where fathers are beating each other up to get the latest Nintendo for their kids. It strikes me as some strange kind of 21st-century spiritual lack."

It's not just her. Surveys done by Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College who studies consumer society, have found that 81% of Americans say the country is too focused on shopping and spending, and 88% think it is too materialistic.

The Compacters are simply the most recent manifestation of a kind of underground mass movement, Schor says.

She studies the "downshifter movement" that began in the 1980s with people making choices about earning and spending less money so they could focus on the quality of their lives and their families, typically by working fewer hours or changing jobs.

A common thread

The Compact is not such a new idea.

In 2003, USA TODAY columnist Craig Wilson vowed to buy nothing but food, toiletries and gifts for a year. The column "had one of the largest reader responses ever. Thousands and thousands of readers e-mailed me," Wilson says.

Just this month saw publication of a whole book about a year without buying. Judith Levine had her own "no more" moment in 2004 and went on to write Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping.

There's even a glossy magazine called Real Simple that taps into the trend, although its focus is more on buying things to make life simpler rather than not buying things.

They're all onto something, says James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "The research is overwhelmingly clear," he says. "The more materialistic you are, the less happy you are. We get happiness through love of others and sense of community. But we've been told by Madison Avenue that happiness can come through the mall."

For Glines, joining the Compact was about taming the need for the new. "I wanted ways to be frugal without cutting into my kids' happiness," he says.

But it's harder in central Texas than San Francisco, where thrift stores are hip, and people put on things like the "Really Really Free Market" at a park once a month. At that urban potluck picnic, people bring what they don't need and take what they do.

It's hard but not impossible, Glines found. Putting in a raised vegetable garden, he was stymied by a lack of nails. But new houses are going up all over the place in Copperas Cove. "I talked to some of the builders, and they had half clips of nails from nail guns they were just throwing away, and they said I could have them.

"I just popped them off, and there were my nails," he says.

For Pelmas, the Compact kept a lot of things out of her life but did bring in something very important — a husband.

She had met Matt Eddy, a high school science teacher, through friends several years before, but when she asked him out, he said no.

"Then a year later, he was having dinner with some friends, and they said, 'Oh, Sarah's part of this Compact where she doesn't buy anything new.' "

Eddy, with his great love of environmental science, instantly rethought his rejection. He called Pelmas, and as she puts it, "the rest was history."

They were married 18 months later. The couple just bought a 1920s house that they plan to bring up to snuff using only recycled materials.

After all, she says, "it's a used home."

Too many tools spoil the cook.

The sharpest knives in the drawer
And that's just the beginning. Here's how Oxo tools became the gold standard for serious cooks.
By Regina Schrambling
Special to The Times

March 8, 2006

IF you happen to have just bought the best salad spinner on the planet, here's some bad news: At the giant International Home & Housewares Show beginning Sunday in Chicago, Oxo International is introducing one that is even better — and so gorgeous you could actually serve from it.

But if you hate your steamer basket, here's some great news: Oxo has finally tackled the infuriating design of one of the most essential kitchen tools. When you try it, you'll wonder why cooks ever settled for anything clumsier.

And then there's the new Oxo pastry brush, with silicone bristles cut to capture and convey liquids, and the new Oxo kitchen shears, with a special stripper to separate herbs from their stems, and the new Oxo mixing bowls, stainless steel on the inside to retain heat and cold and plastic on the outside to protect the hands.

Every one has been "Oxoized," as company employees say, to add what they variously refer to as the "wow" factor, the "eureka" factor or just the "why give a damn" factor.

Ever since Oxo came out with a Good Grips vegetable peeler in 1990 that changed the way America prepped mashed potatoes, the company has become so known for its hyper-clever takes on everyday things that the wow factor should be increasingly difficult to come by. But spending a few hours at the company's sprawling, sunny home base in the Chelsea Market here, where about 40 employees devote their days to sweating the extremely small stuff, makes it pretty clear that there is almost madness to the method.

God, after all, took a rest on the seventh day. "Oxonians," as they call themselves, can work for years to perfect a single product only to start trying to find something wrong with it as soon as it arrives from the factory. Good is never enough.

"A lot of this is just a culture of people constantly looking for something wrong, not only other people's products but ours as well," said Alex Lee, the company's president, sitting in a room with a Planogram, a model for store displays that hangs floor to ceiling with every one of the 500-some Oxo innovations.

Some of those are revolutionary, some evolutionary, but all come to those four walls in much the same way: all ideas, all the time. You might not want to be married to an Oxonian, many of whom admit they are anal-retentives who would pick the most microscopic nit, but it's hard not to admire what they produce.

Spinner success

CONSIDER the new salad spinner. Oxo's original version worked like a one-handed dream, with a very simple pumping mechanism modeled on a child's toy substituting for the old pull cord that had to be tugged repeatedly to spin the basket holding the greens.

Then consumers started asking for a lid that could be used to turn the spinner into a storage container. The greens would last longer that way, Lee said, but there was no real reason for the lid, aside from the fact that "consumers were hesitant to put the mechanism in the refrigerator."

So a snap-on white plastic lid was added. And then consumers started saying they wished they had some way of "knowing when the greens were done," according to Michelle Sohn, category director for kitchen products.

That inspired a change to see-through plastic for the top with the pump, in two layers that pop apart for easy cleaning.

Once top-down visibility was a possibility, the formerly clear bowl could be made of stainless steel, as some European salad spinners are. The result is a utilitarian product made worthy of the dinner table.

"We never consider anything finished," said Larry Witt, Oxo's vice president of sales and market development.

Even the swivel vegetable peeler has been modified repeatedly and now comes in three styles, including one with a replaceable blade.

The steamer basket, completely new this spring after years in development, provides a different illustration of how Oxoization works. First, Sohn said, "We took the thing and tackled all the things people hate." No. 1 on the list turned out to be the ring in the center, which is too small to grab, gets too hot to handle and takes up too much space when something like a whole cabbage or slab of fish needs to be steamed.

The Oxo pop-up handle is easier to grab, is made from a heat-resistant material and comes with a slit in the center where a fork can be slipped in to make a secondary handle. It also unscrews, and the whole steamer folds flat for storage.

Finally, the spiky legs were replaced with flat feet that are taller than normal so that more water can be placed underneath for longer steaming without refilling the pot.

Throughout the whole process, "we did a lot of vegetable steaming," Sohn said. Products are always tested in the Oxo kitchen, in employees' homes, at a cooking school. And once the first steamers were in from the factory, Sohn said, she immediately handed one to a tester.

"I asked her to unscrew the handle but wouldn't tell her why." Watching to see how easily and instinctively she could do it was just another indicator of how well it worked. Or didn't.

The staff is constantly considering products to Oxoize as the company founder, Sam Farber, first did by adapting regular kitchen tools to make them more comfortable for his arthritic wife to use. A wall in the company's common room, where staffers meet and eat, is covered with single gloves found on the street, each a reminder that "hands come in all sizes." The theory of universal design, meaning one tool should fit all of them, compels Oxo to look for ways to change anything for the better.

"We do a lot of shopping, we do a lot of talking to consumers and chefs," Sohn said. "We do consumer testing, we do a lot of surveys, we talk to people we know, people our sales reps know, all over the country."

Oxonians also apparently do a lot of yelling. Sohn said product meetings among the staff can be brutal, in a culture where criticism is not just encouraged but venerated. Everyone is looking for trouble. But then, Sohn said, they all sit down and eat together to stay friendly.

Oxo takes advantage of its location on an upper floor of the Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco factory that is now Manhattan's best one-stop food source, with shops selling fish, bread, produce, meat and takeout. Oxonians can go downstairs and corral casual shoppers and professional bakers to give feedback on products under development or under consideration.

Input from outside

AND that is a crucial Oxo technique. As Lee said, people are often better at showing than they are at telling; mostly they could only articulate that the problems with the traditional Pyrex measurer were that it was "glass, hot, greasy." But watching them struggle with the cup revealed the ultimate flaw: You cannot tell how full it is without lifting it up to eye level.

The Oxo measurer has markings down the inside, large enough to read without glasses. And the latest version is made of a hard plastic that stands up better to repeated runs through the dishwasher. (Improvements in materials and technology account for many Oxo upgrades — the silicone potholder can now be bonded with fabric; plastic can adhere to stainless steel in a mixing bowl.)

The measuring cup is one of five Oxo products that were not in-house eurekas but came to the company from outside in the last 10 years. "We have some very passionate consumers," said Gretchen Holt, who handles media for the company, demonstrating to editors why "they should give a damn" about an Oxo breakthrough. Ideas also flow in from retailers and wannabe inventors.

An ice cube tray that releases one cube at a time came from a man who only insisted that the tray carry a line saying it was invented in Peru; a potato masher was suggested by a "mom in Toronto who was not looking to make money" and took a case full of mashers as payment; a mango splitter was devised by a minister from upstate New York who travels to underdeveloped countries in the tropics where mangos are a staple.

"He came up with a prototype and a video of him using it," Sohn said, but other prototypes may show up as "two paper clips stuck together with gum." One idea that did not work out was a turkey lifter that just didn't sell.

Oxo can "spend 18 months on a product and then make a decision not to go forward," Witt said. "We might find seven things needed but if they were incorporated, it would cost $900," Sohn added. "We don't believe in making something unaffordable." And that is one reason why the company is careful about embarking on products, let alone dreaming them up from scratch. As company president Lee said, "When you create something new, you create a hundred other problems."

Surprisingly, what Oxo does not do is design. The staff is made up of product managers and engineers, all focusing on the idea end. They then work with nine industrial design firms, including two in Japan, to translate pie-cutter-in-the-sky notions into eminently usable gadgets.

"The ideas of what to make and what features to offer come from here," Lee said, then designers at companies such as Smart Design in New York and Bally in Pittsburgh do the rest. Once the prototypes come back, temps are hired to test them repeatedly — throwing a chip bag clip against the floor 10,000 times, running a measuring cup through the dishwasher into soapy infinity — and the second-guessing begins.

Many products are also tested at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York, where students are "heavy, heavy users — one month at ICE is the equivalent of years in someone's home," Holt said. The cutting boards Oxo started selling this year tested so well, in fact, they are now bought by the school; special edges keep the boards from slipping.

Sohn said the company did not target either chefs or home cooks but intended all its products to be equally useful to both. But many turn up in restaurants, particularly the mandoline, which she said is in the kitchen at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York. And that mandoline may be a long way from a potato peeler, but Oxo approached it with the same goal.

"We started looking at how can we make a mandoline better," Lee said. "One of the first things you identify is that it's very dangerous. People get it out and they're afraid of it. We spent a lot of time with Smart Design trying to figure out how to make it safe. But you don't always get what you want. You can't make it safe. It's like a knife — how can you make it cut smoothly without losing what makes it dangerous? So we abandoned that.

"We eventually identified a whole bunch of things that could improve the mandoline: The blade slides out; the legs are spread out to make it more stable as you're slicing; a two-sided blade hides underneath. Each change was very incremental, addressing a very particular thing, and in the end we got a product that is very highly rated. It might not jump out to the consumer, but it's improved."

Tongs, reinterpreted

THAT was also the case with Oxo's reinterpretation of kitchen tongs, Lee said. "The designer wanted to reinvent them, but the French have been using the classic kind for a hundred years." And so the basic design stayed the same, but Oxo added pads on the sides to make them easier to grip in greasy hands, designed the sides to lie flat on a pan, made them fold flat for storage and added a hook for hanging.

In January, Oxo introduced precision tongs, with a tip designed to pick up tiny foods. While those were developed for the Japanese market, as were products such as a miso soup maker and a daikon grater, they crossed over into universal design.

Not everything turns to squishy gold in Oxo's hands, though. Lee said an attempt to make a better bagel slicer was a disaster because it was designed using bagels from the tri-state area around company headquarters.

When it was unveiled at the housewares show in Chicago that year, the local bagels were smaller and did not fit. After struggling to adapt it to fit bagels of any size, the company ultimately gave up. "If we had known how hard it was," Lee said, "we would have designed it from scratch."

Oxo has already expanded into home and garden products and has just developed a line of tools such as hammers and screwdrivers. But no one there seems to think just anything in the house can be Oxoized. Lee said people are always coming up to him at parties and suggesting he tackle a garage door opener, for instance.

For now, they're sticking to basting brushes and poultry shears, the ones that will be in stores in the next month or two, the ones that evolved to solve problems ordinary Americans never think about.

But then while we are sleeping, Oxonians like Michelle Sohn are literally dreaming of the next little thing.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

RE: forget world hunger....are colleges obsolete?

the previous post brings up the question: are colleges obsolete? it all started so well: secluded institutions dedicated to the higher education of young men and women. it was a means to an end for those who sought an extension of the intellectual life before joining the workforce masses. now, college is seen as the destination by parents who see it as their duty to get their kids into college, sometimes at all costs, and colleges have been all too willing to oblige. the accelerating undergraduate cost is a supply and demand phenomenon of rabid parents who remain attached to legacy notions of what a college education is worth. it has always been recognized that the college experience is a combination of intellectual and social education, but what is marketed and purchased is purely the former and its real world value is getting increasingly murky as evidenced by the plight of the 20somethings. given the trajectory, one wonders what college education might look like and cost in 50 years, and would a renegade alternative model emerge....some other mechanism to gather young people to develop their nascent independence, socialization, and sporadic intellectual study. what might that look like? while we are at it, let's think about how graduate schools, residencies, high school, and the entire education pyramid have been distorted as merits of the model have been rendered legacy. graduate school, once the pinnacle of intellectual apprenticeship, has become institutionalized as low-cost labor for professors still struggling for security. residency served a similar role in medicine and but has also become an institution for low-cost labor. high school is now one long college preparatory course. time to rethink all educational models.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Forget world hunger; I need a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Beyond Their Means

Today's young adults are in a bind: so much to buy, so little money.

Reviewed by Amanda Henry

Sunday, March 19, 2006; BW06


Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead

By Tamara Draut

Doubleday. 277 pp. $22.95


Why Now Is a Terrible Time To Be Young

By Anya Kamenetz

Riverhead. 265 pp. $23.95


Take Control of Your Money -- A How-to Guide

By Carmen Wong Ulrich

Warner Business. 254 pp. Paperback, $12.95

If the threat of dirty bombs, bird flu and melting ice caps isn't enough to keep you up at night, a trio of new books has identified another looming disaster: financial insolvency among today's twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Yes, in spite of their material trappings, from iPods to Xboxes, today's young people are behind the economic eight ball, according to Tamara Draut's Strapped and Anya Kamenetz's Generation Debt . The third book, Carmen Wong Ulrich's Gener@tion Debt , offers fiscal self-help for this emerging niche market.

You say you're more concerned with the plight of the crested shelduck than a flock of latte-guzzling boomerang kids? The authors are aware that their premise goes against the accepted stereotype of spoiled "adultescents" who would rather sponge off their parents than get a real job. Their contention is that the postponement of adulthood may have more to do with socioeconomic conditions than with an epidemic of thumb-sucking fecklessness.

The idea of struggling in your post-student days is nothing new. The problem, according to all three books, is that for today's young adults, those lean early years -- the Top Ramen phase -- may never give way to the stability and prosperity enjoyed by their boomer parents. A number of factors are blamed, chief among them student loans, credit cards, wage stagnation, the rising costs of health care and home ownership, the disappearance of pensions and the likely collapse of Social Security under the weight of all those retiring boomers.

Much of the evidence used to support this bleak scenario, in which young adults can expect to toil away well into their seventies, is persuasive. Inflation-adjusted tuition at public universities has nearly tripled since 1980, while federal student aid has shifted from grants to loans. The average graduating student now carries a debt load of around $20,000 -- and more than double that for grad school. Deregulation of the credit card industry and heavy on-campus marketing of plastic power haven't helped, either.

All of this debt, as well as various other public policies unfriendly to the young, theoretically snowballs into a variety of social effects, from delayed marriage and parenthood to a widening gap between rich and poor.

The more scholarly take on this tale of woe is found in Strapped . Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at the New York-based think tank Demos, offers diverse, thoroughly contextualized case studies with supporting statistical data, as well as the occasional outburst of advocacy. The thirty-something author knows whereof she writes, and occasionally references her own experience. But having already reached some milestones of adulthood -- marriage, career -- she also has some perspective on the situation.

Generation Debt author Kamenetz, on the other hand, is still mired in post-college flux, and her writing has some of the unfiltered indignation of first discovery. This is useful as a window into the angst that accompanies youthful financial and professional uncertainty, but complaints about economic inequality grate a little coming from someone whose parents covered a four-year education at Yale. Nor is it easy to muster much pity for a twenty-something journalist who has already published a book -- Generation Debt is based on her work for the Village Voice -- when she laments that no employer has offered her a job with benefits.

Kamenetz empathizes with the plight of her less fortunate peers and clearly intends her book as a public service, but she doesn't seem entirely aware of her own good fortune -- or the difference between suffering under an oppressive system and not being handed your dream job immediately upon graduation. Whether you call it optimism or a sense of entitlement, that attitude plays into the cliché of a generation of Veruca Salts, clamoring for their golden ticket.

In their rush to absolve young people of primary responsibility for their financial plight, Kamenetz and Draut are too quick to dismiss, or paint as virtues, the cultural and lifestyle factors that affect this generation's bottom line. The middle class may be sinking, but we're going down with plenty of stuff: BlackBerries, beauty treatments, yoga classes, therapy, restaurants, coffee, cable, cell phones and all of the other luxuries now considered staples.

The one failing for which Kamenetz and Draut take their peers to task is a lack of political awareness. Today's young people don't follow the news or vote in large numbers, much less organize to lobby for their interests -- unlike powerful boomer-centric groups such as the AARP.

If they did, they might achieve another of the authors' cherished goals: grafting European social policy onto our free-market economy. A national health care system, tuition assistance and generous family leave and child-care subsidies could be paid for by -- wait for it -- taxing corporations and rolling back individual tax cuts. Penalizing big business to pay for social programs doesn't sound like a top agenda item for a Republican-controlled government, but you never know -- first ethanol, then nine months of paid maternity leave.

While they wait for a new New Deal, impecunious young folk may want to check out the third book in this group. The chatty, accessible Gener@tion Debt skims over much of the same information covered by Strapped and Generation Debt but devotes most of its pages to practical advice for the young and equity-less, from banking and taxes to insurance, investing and home ownership.

The underlying ideas are -- or should be -- intuitive: Spend less than you earn. Make a budget. Save, save, save. There are also guidelines for dealing with specific situations, such as harassment by creditors or identity theft, and day-to-day tips for staying out of money trouble. Leave those credit and debit cards at home when you go out, for one thing, and it'll be a lot harder to blow your budget.

It's a cursory overview, but each chapter ends with a comprehensive list of resources -- mostly of the online variety -- for further information. You won't find the definitive answer to every financial pickle, but it's a good primer based on a sound economic principle: self-control. Ulrich also offers something even more valuable than a free credit report: hope. With a little education and some will power, she suggests, young people don't have to drown in a sea of red ink.

It would be naive, even by the standards of this generation, to think that the sweeping legislative and philosophical changes urged by Draut and Kamenetz will occur overnight. We have a proud national tradition of ignoring depressing predictions, even when the sky is falling (global warming, anyone?). Rather than waiting idly for the deus ex machina of government intervention, it's nice to think that we twenty- and thirty-somethings could exercise a small measure of control over our own destinies -- without moving to Canada. ·

Amanda Henry is a thirty-something journalist who writes for the Tampa Tribune, and Public Radio International.

A shortage of slack.

China's Competitive Edge
While the US pushes for competence in the sciences, Chinese researchers hope for a less intense work environment.

by Mara Hvistendahl • Posted March 15, 2006 12:50 AM

Credit: Nathan Watkins
Behind President Bush's recently announced competitiveness initiative are statistics that predict China—with India in tow—will overtake the US in science and technology, if not tomorrow, then, say, next week. As US high school students flunk math and science tests, the argument goes, Asia turns out a majority of the world's engineering graduates and pours money into research and development. But lost in the hysteria is the fact that China faces a problem of its own: Chinese science, many say, is too competitive.

In 2001, Mao Guangjun returned to China from a post-doctoral position in Japan to accept a coveted, three-year teaching post at Beijing's Institute of High Energy Physics. When his contract came up for renewal in October 2004, a review committee decided against keeping him on. Mao took a position at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but last year, one month before the start of the fall term, he jumped to his death from the fourth floor of his apartment building. He was 36 years old.

Mao's motivations were apparently not entirely work-related— his marriage was failing as well— but many in the Chinese science community nonetheless see his death as evidence of an arduous system that needs reforming.

"On almost everybody, the pressure is very high," said Jiang Zhu, an oceanographer who also returned from Japan in 2001 when the Chinese Academy of Sciences offered him two million yuan (approximately $250,000) to establish a research group at Beijing's Institute of Atmospheric Physics.

Part of the problem, Zhu said, is the direct connection between scientists' salaries and their performance. Reviews like the one that Mao underwent happen yearly at some institutions and salaries are readjusted to reward or penalize research output.

"In the West you are fixed [at one salary] and you can concentrate on your work. In China, this is not the case," he said. "Some scientists joke that we are just labor."

Now, as deputy director of his institute, Zhu, who holds a doctorate from Lancaster University in the UK, hopes to help change that policy.

In the 1980s, China emerged from its Cultural Revolution with a generation of scientific minds lost to farm work, its educational and research institutions stunted by politically motivated appointments and aging, sub-par labs. But over the next two decades, China's reformist leaders pursued a forward-thinking strategy: Send students abroad in droves to get quality educations, then woo them back with attractive opportunities and new facilities. Between 1980 to 2000, 125,000 of the 380,000 scientists who went abroad returned—fluent in English and armed with connections to the international science community—to reinvigorate tired institutions. Many of the returnees were in their thirties, assuring a long future of productivity ahead of them.

The two-decade sprint toward scientific achievement has had its side effects. The recent suicide of Mao (along with three other scientists in 2004) has alerted the international science community to a problem previously confined to discussions in science chat rooms and the halls of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. For many scientists, the heavy emphasis on publishing, direct linking of salary with performance and political maneuvering they encounter upon returning from abroad can add up to culture shock.

"There really is enormous pressure on a lot of these young hotshots," said Richard Suttmeier, a political science professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in Chinese science policy. "They have to set up their labs and recruit graduate students very quickly because they're facing evaluation two or three years after their initial appointment."

In 2001, Suttmeier and colleague Cao Cong interviewed 52 returnees who had been brought in under the National Science Foundation of China's Distinguished Young Scholars program, which provides generous grants for scientists under the age of 45, most of whom have foreign graduate degrees or post-doc experience. Suttmeier and Cao found that the "publish-or-perish" creed, imported from the West in the push to make Chinese science competitive, acquired some intensity in translation. Scientists are expected to regularly publish in English journals with high Science Citation Index factors, and these standards are often stringently applied to a point that Suttmeier believes is unrealistic.

"It's a question of younger people having to face a lot of demanding criteria pretty early on in their careers," Suttmeier said.

In addition to performance expectations, social connections, or guanxi, play an important role in Chinese science. The old guard of science officials—who tend to know more about officialdom than they do about science—has not yet completely disappeared, so success depends to a certain degree on active self-promotion. For shy scientists accustomed to getting ahead by logging long days in the lab, this can be difficult.

"The general difference is that in the West if you do good work usually people will notice you," said Zhu of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. "In China, if you do good work you have to tell other people."

Still, producing high-quality, internationally acclaimed research may not even be enough; the country's leaders unabashedly desire a Nobel Prize. While Chinese scientists living overseas have won Nobels, the absence of a prize for research done on Chinese soil is a persistent source of dissatisfaction. Every year when the awards are announced, the Chinese press reports on "the China Nobel question" or "the Nobel dream," and officials at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have predicted a win in China's near future.

As elsewhere in Asia, science in China is wrapped up with national pride. While President Bush attempts to instill competitiveness in a population that cannot differentiate a molecule from an atom, China's scientists are like state-sponsored athletes: heroes in the making for whom losing is not an option.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

So it only takes one...but which one?

Yet another development for which we are biologically capable, but psychologically wholly unprepared.


Sperm Donor Siblings Find Family Ties

March 19, 2006

(CBS) All over the United States, new kinds of extended biological families are springing up that no one ever anticipated or dreamed possible. As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, these families are made up of something called "donor siblings," and if you don't know what they are, neither did we until we began working on this story.

Every year an estimated 30,000 children are born in this country to mothers who have been artificially inseminated with sperm from an anonymous donor. Most of these children grow up never knowing their biological father — but now, with the help of sperm bank records and the Internet, some of them are finding half-brothers and half-sisters they never knew they had, who were sired by the same anonymous donor, forging family ties they never knew existed.

Wade Anderson is a pioneer of sorts, an unwitting participant in an unanticipated drama. He was conceived four years ago with the help of an anonymous sperm donor, a man that neither he nor his mother, Robin, have ever met.

Robin and her partner, Cindy Brisco, had been together for 15 years when they decided they wanted a child; they went to a San Diego sperm bank, looked through a donor catalog, and paid $320 for two vials from a man identified only as donor "48QAH."

Asked what she was looking for in a donor, Robin Anderson says: "What was important to me, was heart. That the donor had heart. And I didn’t know how we were gonna find that."

They knew from 48QAH's profile that he was a doctor, one of many who have helped defray the cost of medical school by donating sperm. He described himself as 6 feet 4, 190 pound with brown hair and green eyes and an interest in caring for critically ill children.

"And I thought, this is a sensitive man," Cindy says. "I like this. I like the way this feels. This guy's gotta be deep."

As it turned out, 48QAH proved to be a popular choice. At a party last summer, Robin was introduced to a single mother named Maren, who said she had conceived her daughter, Lila, after a visit to the Fertility Center of California.

"And just then, Cindy walked up. And she said, 'Oh, that's where we went. What donor number did you use?' " Robin recalls.

Cindy told her they had used 48QAH.

"And she said, very calmly, 'That's it.' And we're like, 'What?' " Robin says.

In that moment, the three women realized that this was more than a just a coincidence. Their two children were half-brother and half-sister.

"And to think that this baby girl was his half-sibling," says Robin.

Cindy and Robin say they really consider Wade and Lila to be brother and sister.

"They have each other. They don't have the donor, the father; they have each other," Robin explains.

The two children live just 10 minutes apart. Their mothers talk frequently on the phone, get together every few weeks, and say they have begun to raise Wade and Lila as siblings.

"We love Maren, the mother. We love baby Lila. I mean, we have a lot in common. We're a great family match," says Robin.

"But you have to admit this is a little unusual," says Kroft. "I'm still trying to get my mind around it. This is not a traditional family in any stretch of the imagination."

"I mean, what is a traditional family today? I mean, I didn't have a father growing up," Cindy says.

It may seem like something out of "Brave New World," but this extended family of five, with its complicated genealogy is not as unusual as you might think.

A decade ago, donor insemination was used almost exclusively by married couples with fertility problems, often keeping the children in the dark. Today, roughly half of the people going to sperm banks are lesbian couples and single women.

With no male in the household, it’s harder to conceal the truth, so a generation of donor kids, like Ryan Kramer, has stepped out of the shadows and begun to seek answers to some of life’s most basic questions: Who am I, and where did I come from?

Asked why this became so important to him, Ryan says: "Having that half of my family and half of really where I came from be a complete unknown was something that I was very curious about. I feel that I'm a whole person, but I'm missing part of where that person came from."

When somebody asks who his father is, Ryan says he tells people he doesn't know. "I was born through anonymous donor insemination. So, I don't know who he is exactly," he explains.

Asked what he puts down on forms he has to fill out for school, Ryan says, laughing, "N/A (Not Apply)."

Ryan lives outside Denver with his mother, Wendy. She conceived him with an anonymous sperm donor because there were fertility issues with her and her husband. That marriage ended in divorce when Ryan was 1. Over time, her son’s endless curiosity about his biological father and potential half-siblings piqued her own.

"You said that there were traits that obviously didn't come from you. What were the traits?" Kroft asked.

"His brain," Wendy replied, laughing.

Ryan is a mathematics prodigy. At 15, he is a sophomore at the University of Colorado, studying aerospace engineering. Lots of mothers hope to raise a rocket scientist; Wendy Kramer got one.

She says that didn't come from her. "And I used to joke that, ya know, as far as, ya know, the sperm goes, I put in for regular and somebody gave me high-test," Wendy says.

Hoping to find Ryan’s biological father, Wendy contacted her sperm bank. The California Cryobank is one of the largest in the country, and has supplied the sperm to create as many as 200,000 babies. But like other banks, it is built on the bedrock of anonymity, insulating donors from paternal obligation — legal, financial, or otherwise. So Wendy Kramer went to the Internet and began building an online database called the Donor Sibling Registry.

It's a worldwide registry for donor conceived people. Wendy says the response has been huge.

"Adult donor conceived people, parents of the donor conceived and, now more than ever, even the donors themselves are coming to the site saying, 'I had no idea that I had the right to be curious,' " she explains.

The Web site now has more than 7,000 members. They send in their contact information, along with the name of the sperm bank that was used, and the donor number. The Web site collates the information, allowing donors, their offspring, and half-siblings to contact with each other.

On the site, one can spot quite a few matches, highlighted in yellow.

And some of these new family trees can be quite large. It’s not unusual for an anonymous sperm donor to make multiple deposits in a sperm bank. Some of them, whether they know it or not, have fathered more than a dozen children.

Asked who the record holder is on her Web site, Wendy says one donor has fathered 20 children.

So far, more than 1,600 people have found biological family members through Kramer's Web site they didn’t know they had.

"And there've been many stories of people meeting," Wendy says. "First e-mailing on the Internet and then, you know, flying all over the country to meet each other and it's like — it's redefining family. It's making family where there was none."

They are new families like Justin Senk, Erin and Rebecca Baldwin, and McKenzie and Tyler Gibson. Just looking at them you wouldn’t know there is anything remarkable about them, aside from a certain family resemblance, until you hear their story.

They’re the sons and daughters of three different mothers, and each of them was conceived with the sperm of the same anonymous donor, No. 66 at the Rose Medical Center. The kids met after finding each other online through the Donor Sibling Registry and, incredibly, they all live in the Denver area.

Tyler thinks there is definitely a bond between the five children, beyond the fact they know they are half-siblings.

"Even the first time that we've met each other, it was just kind of like, you know that there's something more to than just knowing who they are," he explains. "There was something else there."

As soon as they met, they noticed striking similarities, more than just the same fair skin and blonde hair

"When I saw McKenzie, my jaw dropped because I was like, 'That looks exactly like I did when I was 11," Rebecca remembers.

They share half their DNA, and provide a fascinating study of nature vs. nurture. They can see aspects of their personalities reflected in each other — but that only makes them more curious about where it all came from.

"It’s always been really interesting to me to know where my personality came from. And, yeah, I see it a lot more in these guys," says Rebecca. "And it's great to have half-siblings, to see that, 'Oh, that's where my personality came from, that.' But it'd be even more interesting to see it straight from the source."

They’d like to see a picture of donor 66, and know why he decided to donate the sperm that helped create them. But unless he decides to step forward, that is not likely to happen. Only a small percentage of donors have shed their anonymity, which is why Robin Anderson and Cindy Brisco were shocked when they went online and saw that their donor had posted a note saying that he was willing to be contacted.

"That night, I clicked on his e-mail. And I said, 'Are you 48QAH? And if you are, I have an incredible child to tell you about,' " Robin recalls.

Behind the mysterious 48QAH was now a face, and a name: Matthew Niedner, a 34-year-old pediatrician living in Ann Arbor, Mich. “QAH,” it turns out, stood for “quite a hunk” at the clinic where he had donated sperm for seven years.

Niedner says he got paid about $50 a specimen and estimates he donated between 150 and 200 specimens. Conceivably, he could have more than a hundred children.

Matthew Niedner doesn’t know how many children he’s fathered, although he thinks it’s no more than a couple of dozen.

"If I have information or can answer questions that nobody else can that can help those kids, then I feel very good about participating in trying to bridge that informational gap," Niedner explains.

"I have seen pictures. They e-mailed me some pictures," Niedner says.

Asked if they're good looking kids, Niedner says, laughing, "Well, there's a loaded question."

Niedner began donating sperm when he was single, and continued to do so after he got married. He and his wife, Nicole, are now expecting a child of their own.

What was his wife's reaction when he told her that he had gotten these e-mails?

"Well, I shared them with her and she was ecstatic," Niedner recalls.

Asked if it was delicate in any way, he says: "Yeah. I mean, you know, I tried to be very thoughtful and cautious about the whole thing. But she's been nothing but wonderful and loving and supportive."

Kroft asks: "When you decided to become a sperm donor, did you actually sit down and think that there were going to be babies created out of this and that someday they might try and contact you? Or you might try and contact them?"

"I guess I entertained the possibility of that. You know, I look at it a little differently," Niedner says. "This may sound a little detached, but I don't really look at these children as my children or, you know, that I'm their father. I was somebody who provided a tool or a necessary ingredient for a family to have a child that was wanted."

Niedner says he is not interested in fulfilling any sort of parental role.

"Do you think the children will think that way?" Kroft asks.

"Well, I don't think there's a blanket answer to that. I think different children will feel differently," he says.

His donor children, Wade and Lila, are each growing up without a father, which might make it harder for him to keep his distance.

Asked if he really thought this through and thought of all the possibilities, Niedner says: "I'm not sure it's possible to think through all the possibilities. I don't have to be able to predict the future exactly to be willing to wade into it."

For now, he's proceeding cautiously, and since the mothers of his donor children have never met Niedner or heard his voice, 60 Minutes decided to surprise Cindy and Robin with a little video preview.

What did they think?

"He's animated, like my Wade," Cindy says, laughing. "He's cute."

"Kind, you can see the kindness," Robin says. "And look at the eyebrows."

"There is my boy's eyebrows," Cindy adds.

Just this week, they met another donor sibling, Alexandra, a half-sister to Wade and Lila. Their 21st century donor family, made possible by 48QAH, is still growing.

Produced By Mitch Weitzner ©MMVI, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.