Risk-o-phile: Royal Navy and Silicon Valley

Opening lines of Patrick O’Brian’s very fine book “H.M.S Surprise”:

But I put it to you, my lord, that prize-money is of essential importance to the Navy. The possibility, however remote, of making a fortune by some brilliant stroke is an unparalleled spur to the diligence, the activity, and the unremitting attention of every man afloat.

They’re talking about the British Navy, during Admiral Lord Nelson’s heyday around 1800. Ship’s officers and crew were rewarded, sometime substantially, when they captured enemy war and merchant ships. Capturing a prize required skill and luck, and was a rare and random event, but a real motivator.

Just like starting a software company.

The Royal Navy was a very important institution at the time, projecting power and keeping Napoleon at bay. Luckily for England it was also very effective, despite all the political maneuvering, and the inefficiencies imposed by an hereditary aristocracy.

The work was hard, the hours were long, and the women were scarce.

Sound familiar?

Home Depot’s decline?

Is it just me, or is Home Depot going downhill?

I remember a few years ago how Home Depot was a really fun store. The shelves were well stocked and organized, the selection was great, the staff could point you to anything, the displays were fresh and fun to look at, the garden plants were healthy, and the seasonal stuff was always exciting. But now the place seems grubby and disorganized.

For example, yesterday I was looking for a socket to fix a lamp. It’s not hard to find the sockets, in the aisle with electrical switches, plugs, and other doo-dads. But the little boxes under the display switches are a mess — all jumbled together with random stuff from other parts of the store mixed in. I finally found the socket I needed, about 4 boxes away from where it belonged.

There were only a few switches to choose from, all from the same manufacturer, and all somewhat overpriced at about $3.50. A couple years ago (when I last fixed a lamp) there were twice as many choices. Even Lowe’s has more selection. And better prices.

This is just one little thing of course. But over the past year I’ve been noticing more and more a feeling of grubby disorganization in the store. I used used to find inspiration at Home Depot, but nowadays it’s just depressing.

Two weeks ago a friend of mine was telling me about another friend who was laid off from Home Depot. He said they got rid of all the most experienced people because they were the highest paid.

Yikes. I know there’s always at least two sides to a story like that — I’ve been through layoffs, and they’re awful for the employees, but they’re also awful for the managers who have to fire people. These decisions are very hard.

Still, this story jibes with my anecdotal impression. Somebody on the sales floor has to really care about all the little details. Someone has to make sure the dust is dusted, the bins are straightened, and the obscure items are stocked. That someone has to be on the floor noticing details every day. Not working the register. Not stuck in an office writing performance reviews.

Argonne on Twitter

I just noticed that Argonne National Lab is on Twitter. Hmm, makes sense I guess. Maybe the United States of America should also tweet. Oh, I see it already does ;-). (btw, I’m allowed to use smileys on my own site.)

Argonne is also on facebook.

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