mm055: The New York Times > Business > What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence

July 9, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

An oldie, but goodie, from, not yet on the blogroll… 

The New York Times

December 7, 2004

What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence


BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – R. Craig Hogan, a former university professor who heads an online school for business writing here, received an anguished e-mail message recently from a prospective student.

“i need help,” said the message, which was devoid of punctuation. “i am writing a essay on writing i work for this company and my boss want me to help improve the workers writing skills can yall help me with some information thank you”.

Hundreds of inquiries from managers and executives seeking to improve their own or their workers’ writing pop into Dr. Hogan’s computer in-basket each month, he says, describing a number that has surged as e-mail has replaced the phone for much workplace communication. Millions of employees must write more frequently on the job than previously. And many are making a hash of it.

“E-mail is a party to which English teachers have not been invited,” Dr. Hogan said. “It has companies tearing their hair out.”

A recent survey of 120 American corporations reached a similar conclusion. The study, by the National Commission on Writing, a panel established by the College Board, concluded that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.

The problem shows up not only in e-mail but also in reports and other texts, the commission said.

“It’s not that companies want to hire Tolstoy,” said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, an association of leading chief executives whose corporations were surveyed in the study. “But they need people who can write clearly, and many employees and applicants fall short of that standard.”

Millions of inscrutable e-mail messages are clogging corporate computers by setting off requests for clarification, and many of the requests, in turn, are also chaotically written, resulting in whole cycles of confusion.

Here is one from a systems analyst to her supervisor at a high-tech corporation based in Palo Alto, Calif.: “I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information … However after verifying controls on JBL – JBL has the indicator as B ???? – I wanted to make sure with the recent changes – I processed today – before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to ‘C’.”

The incoherence of that message persuaded the analyst’s employers that she needed remedial training.

“The more electronic and global we get, the less important the spoken word has become, and in e-mail clarity is critical,” said Sean Phillips, recruitment director at another Silicon Valley corporation, Applera, a supplier of equipment for life science research, where most employees have advanced degrees. “Considering how highly educated our people are, many can’t write clearly in their day-to-day work.”

Some $2.9 billion of the $3.1 billion the National Commission on Writing estimates that corporations spend each year on remedial training goes to help current employees, with the rest spent on new hires. The corporations surveyed were in the mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation, finance, insurance, real estate and service industries, but not in wholesale, retail, agriculture, forestry or fishing, the commission said. Nor did the estimate include spending by government agencies to improve the writing of public servants.

An entire educational industry has developed to offer remedial writing instruction to adults, with hundreds of public and private universities, for-profit schools and freelance teachers offering evening classes as well as workshops, video and online courses in business and technical writing.

Kathy Keenan, a onetime legal proofreader who teaches business writing at the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz, said she sought to dissuade students from sending business messages in the crude shorthand they learned to tap out on their pagers as teenagers.

“hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again,” one student wrote to her recently. “i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didn’t get a respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation.”

Most of her students are midcareer professionals in high-tech industries, Ms. Keenan said.

The Sharonview Federal Credit Union in Charlotte, N.C., asked about 15 employees to take a remedial writing course. Angela Tate, a mortgage processor, said the course eventually bolstered her confidence in composing e-mail, which has replaced much work she previously did by phone, but it was a daunting experience, since she had been out of school for years. “It was a challenge all the way through,” Ms. Tate said.

Even C.E.O.’s need writing help, said Roger S. Peterson, a freelance writer in Rocklin, Calif., who frequently coaches executives. “Many of these guys write in inflated language that desperately needs a laxative,” Mr. Peterson said, and not a few are defensive. “They’re in denial, and who’s going to argue with the boss?”

But some realize their shortcomings and pay Mr. Peterson to help them improve. Don Morrison, a onetime auditor at Deloitte & Touche who has built a successful consulting business, is among them.

“I was too wordy,” Mr. Morrison said. “I liked long, convoluted passages rather than simple four-word sentences. And I had a predilection for underlining words and throwing in multiple exclamation points. Finally Roger threatened to rip the exclamation key off my keyboard.”

Exclamation points were an issue when Linda Landis Andrews, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a workshop in May for midcareer executives at an automotive corporation based in the Midwest. Their exasperated supervisor had insisted that the men improve their writing.

“I get a memo from them and cannot figure out what they’re trying to say,” the supervisor wrote Ms. Andrews.

When at her request the executives produced letters they had written to a supplier who had failed to deliver parts on time, she was horrified to see that tone-deaf writing had turned a minor business snarl into a corporate confrontation moving toward litigation.

“They had allowed a hostile tone to creep into the letters,” she said. “They didn’t seem to understand that those letters were just toxic.”

“People think that throwing multiple exclamation points into a business letter will make their point forcefully,” Ms. Andrews said. “I tell them they’re allowed two exclamation points in their whole life.”

Not everyone agrees. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood of San Francisco, author of a popular how-to manual on effective e-mail, argued in an interview that exclamation points could help convey intonation, thereby avoiding confusion in some e-mail.

“If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation points,” Ms. Sherwood advises in her guide, available at, where she offers a vivid example:

“>Should I boost the power on the thrombo?

“NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you’ll overheat the motors, and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!”

Dr. Hogan, who founded his online Business Writing Center a decade ago after years of teaching composition at Illinois State University here, says that the use of multiple exclamation points and other nonstandard punctuation like the 🙂 symbol, are fine for personal e-mail but that companies have erred by allowing experimental writing devices to flood into business writing.

He scrolled through his computer, calling up examples of incoherent correspondence sent to him by prospective students.

“E-mails – that are received from Jim and I are not either getting open or not being responded to,” the purchasing manager at a construction company in Virginia wrote in one memorandum that Dr. Hogan called to his screen. “I wanted to let everyone know that when Jim and I are sending out e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to the e-mail. Its important that Jim and I knows that the person, intended, had read the e-mail. This gives an acknowledgment that the task is being completed. I am asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says “ok”, “I got it”, or Alright.”

The construction company’s human resources director forwarded the memorandum to Dr. Hogan while enrolling the purchasing manager in a writing course.

“E-mail has just erupted like a weed, and instead of considering what to say when they write, people now just let thoughts drool out onto the screen,” Dr. Hogan said. “It has companies at their wits’ end.”

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The New York Times > Business > What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence

Story: Mudge has always considered himself a strong communicator, and was totally shocked when a boss strongly suggested that an executive communication course would be an excellent remedy for my presentation shortcomings. Turned out to be an interesting two-day course, complete with videos of my performance, before and after they taught some basic lessons that had eluded me in my less-than-S&P 1000 career to date.

In that same spirit, and acknowledging the truth of the above story, I once again will pay more attention to my office written communication.

I’m known for its descriptiveness if not its brevity, since I prefer to use adjectives and adverbs in place of the now stigmatized exclamation point. And, I like to tell stories.

But, I promise my co-workers at the HCA (Heart of Corporate America — not its real name!) that I will endeavor to succinctize my memoranda in the future.

It’s it for now. Thanks,



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mm054: Chicago Tribune news: An idea for Bloomberg

July 9, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

For better or worse, the Chicago Tribune is Mudge’s hometown print newspaper, and Michael Tackett is one of its most insightful political correspondents.


An idea for Bloomberg

By Michael Tackett
the Tribune’s Washington Bureau chief
July 8, 2007

The current political swoon is for an unlikely object of affection, a 5-foot-7 billionaire media mogul turned mayor of New York who was a Democrat before he became a Republican before he became an independent.
Among his supporters, there is an undeniable allure to the prospect of Michael Bloomberg running for president. He can pay his own way and won’t be reflexively beholden to donors and special interests. He built a visionary business before turning to politics. He has a record for competence and efficiency in his tenure as mayor of New York City. He has a deadpan persona that is decidedly non-partisan.

So it is logical that some see Bloomberg’s recent pivot from Republican to Independent as the predicate for a White House campaign.

This presidential cycle is delivering many things early. Money is coming in sooner; so are endorsements.

Television advertisements are already running, and a half-dozen debates have been held.

Bloomberg, though, represents something else that is at least six months ahead of schedule, namely the notion that voters — all together now — “want more choices.”
The 20 or so already in the field apparently just aren’t quite good enough. So Bloomberg is filling the role of the Great Alternative.

Clearly, he would have no real difficulty getting on the ballot in every state. That in effect is a function of lawyers and money, and Bloomberg has an abundance of both.

More difficult would be the prospect of winning any actual electoral votes. If he really wanted to have a shot at victory, Bloomberg might put his money behind a movement seeping into state legislatures that would change the way Americans have been picking a president for more than 200 years.

The movement, pushed by a group called the National Popular Vote, would ensure that the candidate who received the most votes nationwide would actually be sworn in as the next president. Recall that didn’t actually happen four times in U.S. history, 1824, 1876, 1888, and, oh yes, 2000.

As of last month, only Maryland had passed a bill that would allot its electoral votes to the candidate who won the national popular vote, regardless of the actual results in Maryland. The Illinois House has passed a similar measure, one of 10 states to do so in at least one legislative chamber. The group says that its National Popular Vote bill has sponsors in 47 states.

Though the primary force behind the move is to award victory to the candidate with the most votes, states offer secondary reasons as well. In Illinois, lawmakers argue in part that states that are reliably Democratic or Republican in presidential elections get the flyover treatment during the campaign from the major candidates. If popular vote totals counted, Illinois would again become a favored track.

Among the notable backers of the National Popular Vote are John Anderson, a former Illinois congressman whose third-party bid in 1980 failed to win any electoral votes, and former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, a candidate for president in 1976.

Robert Bennett, a law professor at Northwestern University, has been urging a similar change since the 2000 election. “The basic idea is that any state could if it wished say that our electors are committed to the winner of the nationwide popular vote rather than committed to the winner of the statewide vote,” Bennett said in an e-mail.

He said the Constitution would allow this because it gives state legislatures authority to determine the manner of selecting electors.

So for a candidate like Bloomberg, this would potentially provide a path to clear the hurdles faced by Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992, among others, to actually win votes in the Electoral College. Under the popular vote scheme, Bloomberg could win by racking up huge margins in states such as New York, California, New Jersey and Florida, to name four.

A strong Bloomberg candidacy could also result in no candidate winning a majority vote, though under Bennett’s proposal the electoral votes would be awarded to the nationwide plurality winner.

“That is in contrast to the present system where if Bloomberg won a state or two — say New York — he might well deprive either of the major party candidates of the required Electoral College majority,” Bennett said. Which, he is quick to point out, is not the preferred outcome.

“But under the current system it seems entirely conceivable that a well-financed effort by Bloomberg could walk off with some electoral votes.”

That would make Bloomberg a spoiler instead of a president. And a bad end to another third-party boomlet.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune news: An idea for Bloomberg

I’m liking Michael Bloomberg more and more, and National Popular Vote seems (at this first peek) slightly less hidden agenda-ish than the organization I naively jumped at a few weeks ago (won’t even list the name).

It’s it for now. Thanks,


mm053: The case for turning crops into fuel. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine

July 9, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

William Saletan is one of my favorite reads at Slate blogroll .

human nature: Science, technology, and life.

Food Fight: The case for turning crops into fuel.

By William Saletan
Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007, at 7:32 AM ET

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.Just when you thought George W. Bush and Fidel Castro were dead—one politically, the other literally—they’re back at it. Their new fight is about biofuel, the conversion of living things into liquid energy. One president says it’s an assault on nature and humanity. The other says it’s an agricultural revolution that will liberate the masses. Bush is the revolutionary. Castro is the reactionary.

Bush has been evangelizing for biofuel since he lost control of Congress last year. Castro has been attacking it since he returned from surgery this spring. “Transforming food into fuels is a monstrosity,” Castro wrote two months ago in a series of angry essays. He said it would devour the world’s food supply, “killing the poor masses through hunger.”

Castro’s argument has gained widespread support. The Economist declared (subscription required) that “Castro was right” and faulted Bush’s “unhealthy enthusiasm for ethanol.” Foreign Affairs published a long article titled, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor.” On July 4, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that “increased demand for bio-fuels … could drive up world prices for many farm products.” In a visit to Havana, the director of the U.N. Environment Program echoed Castro’s concerns.

The critics are right about several things. Corn-based ethanol isn’t very economical or environmentally helpful. It inflates food prices, and it’s propped up by foolish subsidies and tariffs. But to write off biofuel is to miss the forest for the trees—or, in this case, the grassland for the corn. Enthusiasm for ethanol isn’t the problem. It’s the solution.

Biofuel is our next logical technology. We’ve had an agricultural revolution, an industrial revolution, and an information technology revolution. Now, we’re putting them together to harness the power of life. Ecologically, it’s ideal: a fuel that literally grows on trees.

But biofuel has aroused the same fears as free trade, with a twist. The argument against free trade was that people in poor countries would underbid and take jobs from people in rich countries. The argument against biofuel is that people in rich countries will outbid and take food from people in poor countries. The old buzzword was job security. The new buzzword is “food security.”

What critics of free trade forget is that people in rich countries aren’t just producers; they’re consumers: Competition from poor countries drives down wages but compensates by lowering prices. Conversely, what critics of biofuel forget is that people in poor countries aren’t just consumers; they’re producers. Crop purchases by rich countries drive up prices but compensate by driving up incomes. Castro says turning food into fuel is a “waste,” but that’s not true. Fuel helps make food available and affordable.

Castro thinks the very idea of making fuel from food is “diabolical.” But using food for fuel wasn’t Satan’s idea. It was God’s. Fuel is the whole point of food. That’s why edible crops such as corn and cassava are also easy ethanol sources: They’re loaded with energy-bearing starch.

Biofuel doesn’t feed people directly. But we’ve been diverting food from direct human consumption since we domesticated animals. Most of the corn we export today feeds livestock, not people. Two months ago, a U.N. report calculated that one-third of the increased demand for food over the next 30 years will come from people shifting their eating habits to meat and dairy—a net loss of dietary efficiency—as they become able to afford it. I don’t see Castro complaining about that diversion. In fact, he worries that biofuel is taking land from “producers of beef cattle.” Evidently, he’s suffering an irony deficiency.

Castro says Bush insists that biofuels “must be extracted from foods.” That’s false. Bush points out that corn is an inefficient ethanol source. In its place, Bush touts sugar cane, wood chips, and switchgrass. Such “cellulosic” ethanol could lower the output of greenhouse gases and deliver up to six times as much energy as its production requires.

If you want to help poor people, biofuel beats the heck out of oil. In a biofuel economy, the chief asset is open land. Who has open land? Poor countries. Latin America has sugar cane. Africa and Asia have cassava. Switchgrass, which grows in dry regions, will level the playing field further. Bush says switchgrass will empower the Western United States. That’s nice, but the real story is that it’ll empower the Southern Hemisphere.

What makes Castro and other radicals so conservative about biofuel? The same thing that troubles Bush about human embryo research: the industrialization of biology. For the right, the chief concern is humanity. For the left, it’s nature. That’s why Castro worries that genetic crop modifications by ethanol conglomerates will unleash “transgenetic contamination” and put “food production at risk.”

True, biotechnology can go wrong. But it can also go wonderfully right. Scientists are learning to split corn so it can make ethanol and still feed animals. We’re studying the use of microbes to extract fuel from straw and wood waste. We’re trying to grow biofuel in algae. We’re even learning to make fuel from animal fat and excrement.

Yes, ethanol subsidies are a scam. Yes, we should drop our trade barriers and let Brazilian sugar cane wipe out American corn. Yes, we need solar power, conservation, and efficiency. But don’t give up on biofuel. It just needs time to grow.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.

The case for turning crops into fuel. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine

Hybrid cars and ethanol are merely interim baby steps toward the total technological revolution that will be required in personal transportation, as petroleum stocks diminish and are re-purposed (we should be using oil for high-value applications such as plastics rather than inefficiently burning it anyway).

As a veteran (not to say refugee!) of the packaging industry, whose feedstock is the ultimate renewable and recyclable resource, paper from trees, I’ve long awaited this revolution.

But, the interim steps are useful, as noted above, to support the learning curve. Will Mudge’s next vehicle be a hybrid, or will it burn a higher proportion of ethanol than the 10% current standard? Hybrid? Found another story this past weekend that seems to indicate that when battery disposal is taken into account as part of the total life cycle of a hybrid vehicle, the total lifetime environmental cost of that Prius you love, or crave, is higher than a conventional vehicle. Go figure!

Ethanol? From switchgrass or sugar cane, yes. From corn? I vote no.

It’s it for now. Thanks,


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