31 December 2006

Usonian and Eurovian

In 1774 there were 32 British colonies in North America. Five of these would later become Canadian provinces; another 14 would eventually become Caribbean nations, or parts thereof. A revolution took place in 13 others, and these became the United States of America. At the time, the population of each of the 13 insurgent colonies was much larger than that of any of the loyal colonies (which played a significant role in choosing sides, but that's another story). As is usually the case with revolutions, the one that created the USA spawned a universalist ideology; many early US radicals believed they were effecting a general transformation of European civilization.

As a result, it took an embarrassingly long time before the nation known officially as the United States of America actually pinned down its natural boundaries. In particular, some of the more fanatical demagogues were obsessed with capturing the loyalist provinces to the north.1 At the same time, there was ambivalence towards Latin America and the Caribbean. While some dreamed of the New World being uniformly new-made and revolutionary, the fact was that the Americas were far too huge and complex. The North American revolutionaries were chasing in two dozen different directions, and tripped up by incompatible ideals. One other problem was that the 13 colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant; this was in an era where the Reformation was often regarded as an indispensable step towards the sort of liberty sought by the Continental Congress. That meant, sadly, a distinctly anti-Catholic twinge to early revolutionary perorations.

By the time the Revolution ended, it was well-nigh universal to use "American" as the toponym for the new federation. This reflected the inherently ephemeral aspect of revolutionary identities; the American Revolution had dreamed of a connection between the "newness" of the Americas, and the newness of the social order to be created in it. Obviously, many Americans were not only opposed to the new order, they fled to Canada to get away from it. Others who favored the Revolution, did not favor its leveling tendencies; Americans in a literal sense, they were not "Americans" in the ideological sense—they rejected any fanciful doctrines of continental particularism or, as it is often called, "American exceptionalism." Or they were indeed among the levelers, but looked to the French Revolution to redeem mankind, not the American one.

Today, there are 35 countries in the Americas; 14 have populations greater than 10 million, three more than 100 million. The total population is about 886 million, of whom 302 million live in the USA. It seems reasonable to argue that the United States really needs a better demonym (name for a category of people) than "American." One widespread problem is that the 584 million other Americans seem inclined to blame us for expropriating "American" to refer to ourselves; according to the Wikipedia post, many observers note that "American" is perjorative in Canada ("Don't you dare call me 'American'!") and culturally offensive in Latin America. In Latin American dialects of Spanish, estadounidense is preferred.

My own impression is that the preference for using "American" as a demonym mostly came from Europe; it came from the political typologies of the period 1763-1822. From the first it was used as a sort of put-down or ridicule, the way "politically correct" is used to refer to ideas the speaker detests. This custom persists; European political discourse invariably proposes a good, "European" idea; and offers an "American" idea as the monstrous counterpoint. "American" motives are always squalid; European motives are always noble and righteous. When Europeans behave in ways that disgust other Europeans, they are inclined to accuse that person of being "Americanized." Even bad ideas that undeniably come from Europe, like the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, are imputed to the USA. The subtext arises from the most jaundiced reading of radical ideas, viz., that they stem from an overweening and self-serving reflex. European accounts of the American Revolution treat it as an immense tax evasion scam, with insufferable pretensions of moral invigoration. This led to mockery of Europeans who had once applauded the Revolution as a new leaf for mankind ("How now, Lord Fox, still the American?").

The interesting thing about revolutionary federations is that they typically take the name of a part, rather than something of which they are a part. The vernacular term for the Netherlands is "Holland," the name of two provinces there. But the Dutch ruthlessly expropriated the name of the entire Low Countries for themselves, leaving the rest of the former Spanish Netherlands (AKA Belgium and Luxembourg) with the graceless regional term "Benelux."2 The Confoederatio Helvetica is known by the name of one canton, Schwyz (hence, Switzerland). The modern republic of Austria (Österreich) is actually a federation of länder, of which only two are named "Österreich" (neither includes Vienna!). Mexico is the name of a very small state in the nation of Mexico; it's also the name of the confederation of Toltec-speaking tribes whose empire covered a third of the land area of modern Mexico (the country). Western names for Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó use the defunct ancient "duchy" of Qin (Ch'in) as a toponym for China; the domestic name of Zhōnghuá ("Middle State") refers to the region between the Changjiang and Huanghe Rivers, or less than a third of the actual land area of contemporary China. The Orwellian name Eastasia would be more geographically accurate than either China or Zhōnghuá, but highly irritating to Burmese, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese.
The problem of the missing toponym/demonym is shared by another federal entity, known formally as the European Union. The membership of the EU has grown to include 27 countries and a population of 490 million. Its GDP, at $12.8 trillion (2007 PPP) is almost identical in size to that of the United States of You-Know-Where. It has spawned many efforts to rally the national spirit into a new "European identity," which would ultimately overtake existing national identities (i.e., German, Dutch, Maltese, Spanish, Bulgarian...). However, 711 million people live in the continent of Europe—in other words, 221 million non-EU Europeans.

And unlike the 1790's, when usage of "American" as a US demonym became widespread, today there is no question that it is EU member states that are the leading offenders. Today, "Europe" means the EU. Margaret Thatcher's quote, "They are not more European than we are. They are just more federal," was a vain sally against the tide of language. Those hostile to this or that aspect of federation are said to be "Europhobic"; those who are slavishly in favor of even horrid centralizing schemes call themselves "pro-European," and seethe at the perfidy of European voters who say no. This is especially cruel, in my opinion, to the Swiss, Norwegians, Croatians, Serbs, Ukrainians, Russians, and others who are passionately in love with Europe (the continent), and are excluded even as antagonists.

A demonym is readily at hand, and its need is obvious: the most important routine relations of the EU member states are with neighboring European countries, from Switzerland to Croatia. It's conceivable that a couple of members might ultimately chose to drop out, allowing the future union to adopt more robust centralized control. The greater cohesion and sense of ideological commitment would restore, I suspect, an element of idealism that has been missing in the last 15 years of the EU's history. But the EU citizenry would have to adapt to a world in which expressions of effusive "European" patriotism will be damaging to the public image. This will create a pragmatic need for something distinctive from the rest of the continent.

Things or people of the EU might be referred to as Eurovian. French nationals of the future might appeal to their Eurovian solidarity with Italians or Finns. There would be a Eurovian history that began with the Treaty of Rome in 1950; this would be cleansed of the nasty bits of European history that occurred before that date, such as wars among Eurovian member states (or "polities," as I suspect they might prefer to be called in the future). The use of Eurovian would never be used as a substitute for "Europe"; there would never any such thing as a "Eurovian Union" or "Eurovia." At worst, such barbarisms might appear in political cartoons, but only to mock certain foreign heads of state.

The ability of European countries to embrace such linguistic novelties has long been remarked upon. This power over language could be leveraged by the European Ministry of Retributive Semiotics (EMRS) to impose the use of "Usonian" as the adjective for things and persons of the United States. So far, this usage has been confined to Esperanto and the writings of Frank Lloyd Wright. The constructions I've mentioned above seem deliberately ugly and difficult to pronounce; worse, they make cognates in different languages rare. Some nationalistic Latin Americans might be pleased that their least favorite country has an unpronouncable name, but the sheer inconvenience has meant that, with ubiquitous US culture, the easy-to-say, linguistically universal, "American" wins out. Even in Magyar and Basque, not to mention Arabic, Russian, Japanese, and German, the preferred demonym sounds something like "American."

But the EMRS would be uniquely capable of thwarting this Yanqui cultural imperialism. EMRS would be able to establish the neutral and impeccably fair "Usonian" as the correct term. Europe does enjoy utterly indestructible cultural prestige; in contrast, even those addicted to higher forms of US culture, like the writing of William Faulkner, are somewhat embarrassed about it. Why pretend that Usonians have a monopoly on free will?

Usonians don't benefit from being called "Americans"; as a practical matter, ordinary US citizens suffer a cost in resentment. Even if my ancestors took a certain pride in "owning" the word, I see it as a random and dangerous accident of history. I suspect its use (in Europe) was actually meant as a put-down of US-sympathetic Europeans, which caught on among lower class Europeans who immigrated here, both before and after the passage. As migration became routine (even for individual European-Usonians), the term lost any ideological baggage. In the fullness of time, people for whom the USA served a practical function spoke of it often as a literal place—not some fantasy or Miltonic pandemonia, but just another place. Applied to individuals, "America" was just a person with US nationality, not a conscious apostle of John Locke.

The restoration of that political baggage, with the rest of the steamship (and iceberg, to boot) was fated to happen when the USA ventured into the superpower business. The others remembered their unfinished resentments from the 18th century as if no time had passed in between. US nationals were either adherents of the whole enterprise, or else "anti-American." The option of being an American with an opinion about the good and the just was no longer available. But someone against, say, the existence of popes is a contra-pope. An anti-pope is an alternative, and rival, pope—not someone opposed to popes. A Frenchman opposed to the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy is not anti-French; he isn't even anti-French if he's anti-capitalism or a teetotaling vegan. He's just a French teetotaling vegan. There were French opponents of Napoleon and French Bonapartists, French Petainists and French Trotskyists. But it is "Americans" who are obligated to approve of certain institutions or certain arrangements... and despise certain enemies.

These labels can be a tyranny unless they are objective, and they can be objective only if they are accurate.
1 The Continental Congress launched an invasion of the future Canada in 1775, as part of its plan to force a speedy settlement of the Revolution. This was a debacle, as French Canadians did not rally to the Continental Congress.

The second attempt, in August 1812, was an unmitigated disaster. In the United States, the war with Great Britain was so unpopular that New England teetered constantly on the brink of secession. The federation existing at the time was so decentralized and weak there was nothing remotely like a unified command, or even serious deliberation on the war—since the federal government was virtually powerless to stop the territorial militia.

2 In case there is any confusion, this is said tongue in cheek. The revolution that created the Netherlands was in 1578; that which created Switzerland, 1291; Austria, October 1918. Prior to the Revolution of 1911, the official name of China was the "Qing (Ch'ing) Empire," which—except for the now-lapsed inclusion of Outer Mongolia—is the most geographically accurate name of all. To make it the most offensive of the four, in 1911 the Qing Empire did not include Taiwan.

Yankee: while I find the epithet "Yankee" deeply aggravating, those who use it lose any pretense at wit or measured effrontery. The term is more likely to be used by US nationals like me making fun of fanatical loathing of us, than by actual Latinos speaking in earnest. It's like beginning a harangue with the caveat, "I know I must sound like a defeated, humiliated, inarticulate fool, but..."

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30 December 2006

Soviet and American adaptation to Peak Oil

Hubbert Peak Oil (HPO) theory has it that the industrial world is facing a permanent and irreversible decline in supplies of oil. Specifically, the daily rate at which petroleum will be recovered in the future must necessarily decline. World oil consumption is gradually increasing; in the last ten years it's grown 1.6% annually. US oil consumption has been growing somewhat more slowly, but still accounts for about a quarter of the world total. Moreover, while US oil consumption growth is slower than the 3rd world, it is higher than the rest of the first. The world now consumes about 84 million barrels per day.

POT is unrelated to the threat of global climate change ("Global Warming"). RNL&A prefers the term "Climate Change" because the phenomenon is much more complex that that of a mere increase in the ambient temperature. My own views are that a peaking and sharp decline in world oil supply would probably have a catastrophic effect on the world economy, but would not suffice to seriously mitigate global climate change. That's because the consumption of coal is over 6 billion tons per year and rising. Coal consumption rises in response to rising energy prices, and most of that increase is in Asia. After almost 20 years of steep decline, coal is recovering as an industry in the former USSR, while China's output has shot up to a third the world total.

One of the aspects of the Soviet economy, and by extension, its system of social organization, was alleged to be its profound inefficiency. After the collapse of the USSR, there was an abundance of literature explaining why the Soviet system was fated to collapse. It was regarded as the ultimate ideological validation for the managerial cadres running the US economy. The prolonged misery that gripped post-Communist Russia revealed an immense dysfunction in the industrial system. It was hugely wasteful in execution, with machines vastly larger and more elderly than made any technical sense. The Soviet system also left a massive amount of pollution, much of it spawned by an utterly unaccountable military.

However, the case has been made that the Soviet system left intact a system of consumption and material culture that was more adaptible than the US economic system. This claim was made by Dmitry Orlov recently in a presentation made for the Energy Bulletin.

The subject of economic collapse is generally a sad one. But I am an optimistic, cheerful sort of person, and I believe that, with a bit of preparation, such events can be taken in stride. As you can probably surmise, I am actually rather keen on observing economic collapses. Perhaps when I am really old, all collapses will start looking the same to me, but I am not at that point yet.

And this next one certainly has me intrigued. From what I've seen and read, it seems that there is a fair chance that the U.S. economy will collapse sometime within the foreseeable future. It also would seem that we won't be particularly well-prepared for it. As things stand, the U.S. economy is poised to perform something like a disappearing act.


Continuing with our list of superpower similarities, many of the problems that sunk the Soviet Union are now endangering the United States as well. Such as a huge, well-equipped, very expensive military, with no clear mission, bogged down in fighting Muslim insurgents. Such as energy shortfalls linked to peaking oil production. Such as a persistently unfavorable trade balance, resulting in runaway foreign debt. Add to that a delusional self-image, an inflexible ideology, and an unresponsive political system

Orlov's article is especially interesting to me for many reasons. One is that I have a deep and abiding fascination with the USSR. I share his view that there are many strong parallels between Soviet and American society, parallels that distinguish those countries from the rest of the world. Another is that the Cold War ended when I was 23. During my formative years, I suffered from something of an obsessive dread of Communist world domination, which possibly turned me into a delusional paranoiac (If so—how would I know?). When the USSR economy collapsed, my initial relief and sense of validation was soon replaced with sadness, then horror and shame. Horror, because the reality of Russian misery was something I had never imagined. Shame, because I had once looked forward to precisely this—collapse of the military threat, as well as utter discredit of the Leninist ideology. The end of the Cold War with a mostly-peaceful institutional implosion, had seemed like the best of all possible worlds. But I had not expected that the social problems of Russia would continue to worsen as Washington pressed its advantage.

The third reason was that I began to see signs that the US economy was far from immune. The safeguards I had taken for granted—chiefly, constant adjustment to technological earthquakes—were not necessarily having the beneficial effects I had assumed they were. The liquidity of our financial markets was not constraining fiscally irresponsible governance in the USA; moreover, my assumption had once been that improving technology was reducing the volume of non-renewable resources per unit of consumption. In other words, the same or better standard of living could be furnished with diminishing inputs of fossil fuels, metals, or environmental sequestration. The opposite is true.

Orlov's article "Closing" is best augmented by reading "Soviet Lessons," which is essentially the same information in more detailed prose exposition. I found this passage captured the gist of the article (i.e., from the point of view of an economist):
It can be said that the U.S. economy is run either very well or very badly. On the plus side, companies are lean, and downsized as needed to keep them profitable, or at least in business. There are bankruptcy laws that weed out the unfit and competition to keep productivity going up. Businesses use just in time delivery to cut down on inventory and make heavy use of information technology to work out the logistics of operating in a global economy.

On the minus side, the U.S. economy runs ever larger structural deficits. It fails to provide the majority of the population with the sort of economic security that people in other developed nations take for granted. It spends more on medicine and education than many other countries, and gets less for it. Instead of a single government-owned airline it has several permanently bankrupt government-supported ones. It spends heavily on law enforcement, and has a high crime rate. It continues to export high-wage manufacturing jobs and replace them with low-wage service jobs. As I mentioned before, it is, technically, bankrupt.

It can also be said that the Soviet economy was run either very well or very badly. On the plus side, that system, for all its many failings, managed to eradicate the more extreme forms of poverty, malnutrition, many diseases, and illiteracy. It provided economic security of an extreme sort: everyone knew exactly how much they would earn, and the prices of everyday objects remained fixed. Housing, health care, education, and pensions were all guaranteed. Quality varied; education was generally excellent, housing much less so, and Soviet medicine was often called "the freest medicine in the world".

On the minus side, the centrally planned behemoth was extremely inefficient, with vast lossage and outright waste at every level. The distribution system was so inflexible that enterprises hoarded inventory. It excelled at producing capital goods, but when it came to manufacturing consumer goods, which require much more flexibility than a centrally planned system can provide, it failed. It also failed miserably at producing food, and was forced to resort to importing many basic foodstuffs. It operated a huge military and political empire, but, paradoxically, failed to derive any economic benefit from it, running the entire enterprise at a net loss.

Orlov is very tactful and gentle in his mode of expression, especially considering the melancholy message he has to convey. In short, this is that the US economy has produced a population totally incapable of coping with system failure, and a system likely to fail much more comprehensively than the Soviet one did. Sure, the USSR was no longer able to maintain a colossal state apparatus, and the sudden reduction in state services or subsidized industry was traumatic; but the pieces of the industrial system had developed adaptive methods. There was no chance of evicting the majority of the population from their homes; in the United States, it seems quite likely this could happen in the event of oil supplies peaking. In the USSR, central planners designed communities to survive and function even in the event of comprehensive industrial failure; this meant compact towns that could be easily crossed on foot, and huge common areas which could be adapted to "victory gardens." Mostly this was because central planners were trying to make it easy on the Soviet economy: cities were designed to be cheap to supply and maintain, and that mean mass transit, short roads, short mains, and traditional construction techniques.

An additional problem is that the US economic system produces an immense deficit of skills. Another is the reliance on segregation to maintain civil order—by class, race, or criminality. Corrections systems are responsible for controlling over 1% of the population, but security systems and security procedures tend to creat much larger populations of quasi-criminals: Americans not accused of a crime, but essentially roped off and assumed to be dangerous. Another is that much of the US infrastructure or commonly-used technologies, such as appliances, are virtually disposable. One does not repair an appliance anymore; one replaces it. And most of the initiatives to rectify the situation are much worse than useless. Biofuels, for example, have been a disastrous confusion sown by the new concern about "imported" oil or climate change.

Mr. Orlov is skeptical than anything useful will be done at the national level. The USA is not going to mitigate its addiction to oil. It is not going to make its cities more user-friendly or more efficient. It is not going to overcome its addiction to manufactured crises or "wars" on problems. Instead, the system will run until it collapses because political systems do not sidestep calamities. Therefore, Orlov advises complete disregard of national politics. The political system is utterly useless, and doesn't even merit mockery. His discussion of the private sector is a masterpiece of tact—he merely explains that he believes private sector solutions are highly improbable. That leaves one's own initiative. This consists of reducing one's physical needs and dependence on the integral economy. I would expect many to read his article and contemplate immigrating to Patagonia.

As with any gloomy scenario, it's made more palatable by humor. Orlov is an excellent writer and his methods of self-expression are superb. But how accurate is it?


Bear in mind Orlov's premise is not merely that US society is unprepared for the collapse, whereas Soviet society was rather more prepared. According to Orlov, Russia was able to recover (somewhat), partly because of its vast reserves of energy and the fact that it actually used less than the USA. Canadian society, for all its many superior virtues, is just as vulnerable to collapse of the same sort. Mexico, sadly, has been rendered acutely vulnerable thanks to NAFTA, although it is still head and shoulders above its northern neighbors. Still, it seems likely that the lack of a vibrant overland neighbor like the EU or China would render the US unlikely to recover at all, ever.

The other premise is that there is no favorable role for political activity.

Both premises seem a little extreme. One is the idea that peak oil is like a cliff. Orlov supposes that the entire industrial system would effectively collapse within a year at most. In the USSR, the process of collapse actually took place over 8 years, 1985-1993. One way this might happen is if the US dollar were to unilaterally lose much of its value. While I've researched this as a possible response to the terrifying indebtedness, it must be said that currencies don't behave this way. A financial collapse would be important to the narrative because it would explain how the economy suddenly lost access to much more than 60% of the crude oil it imports—within, say, six months. But economies like those of Japan and China would have to avoid collapse too, something unlikely to occur since they are so dependent on exports to the North American economy.

The other is that the political system would remain useless. There is much to be said for this view, since politics does not favor highly sophisticated response to technically complex problems. However, democratic institutions have a resiliency that is lacking in authoritarian ones. A more plausible scenario is the onset of the Great Depression, which began with a loss of over 40% of production in two years. The Depression was much more dreadful than is now imagined; a gigantic proportion of the population was reduced to destitution and homelessness. There was an entrenched ideology of virtuous prosperity and vicious failure. Yet the point was never reached where civil life disintegrated. It was a cruel time, but the US or harder-hit Canada did not regress to the Middle Ages.

Second, unlike the collapse of the USSR, the collapse of the USA would actually be more global. Some countries, like Japan, would endure relatively well, since they have reduced the significance of petroleum in their economy (the ratio of GDP to energy consumption in Japan is among the lowest in the world). But the disruption would be more diffused in space and time than Orlov suggests.

Aside from this nitpicks, I'd have to say I think it's really a very fine essay that is fun to read, and summarizes the major sustainability worries that we will face in the near future.
SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING: Energy Information Administration and Projected International Oil Consumption to 2030 (Reference Case), Dep't of Energy (EIA-DOE); "Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for peak oil than the US"(Dec 2006) and "Soviet Lessons" (Apr 2005), Dmitry Orlov (via James Howard Kunstler); Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, Anna Politkovskaya, 2006

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04 December 2006

What is Microsoft Project?

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Project is a program that helps companies manage time and other resources using a Gantt chart. A Gantt chart is essentially a list of steps in the project (on the left) and a time table (on the right). Each step required to complete a task is represented as a horizontal bar displayed on the time table; depending on certain basic aspects of each step, the bars may be allowed to overlap in time, or they may not—if, for example, one must entirely complete the testing of a new design before production may begin.

Creating a new project in Project is relatively simple. One merely selects "File," then "New"; a task pane appears on the lefthand side of the screen and one selects "creat a new project."

As soon as one has the new chart opened, it's time to enter tasks. With each task you enter, four fields appear on the left: task name, task duration, start time, and end time. You can divide a task into multiple sub-tasks by indenting it (usual indent emblem on the formatting toolbar). This, incidentally, is what causes the bar for the "summary task" (i.e., task comprising multiple tasks) to change shape:

Notice how the sub-tasks remain denim blue, while the summary task is now a solid black bar with downward spikes. Of course, this particular summary task is part of a larger summary task.

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That's pretty much all there is to know about MS Office Project. The program is heavily padded with multiple ways of doing things, and the "Views" menu offers many different alternative screens for viewing the program. One of these, for example, includes a flow chart of tasks similar to that found in MS Access. But this is very seldom used. And so on; Project is, after all, a very simple relational database management system (RDMS), with all that that entails.

One fairly important feature, however, that has made the program potentially useful, is intranet-based Office Project. Here, Project is installed on a server and accessed through the company network. The settings for Project require planners to select available resources for a task, so that those resources are not double-booked--say, conference rooms or employees. In some organizations, especially highly technical ones or law offices, workers are obligated to document every task they perform on their timesheet so an exact amount of worker hours is assigned to each task. This is greatly simplified in Office Project, and in fact allows very rapid tabulation of costs.
Here's a screen capture of the "network diagram" view.

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A NOTE ON REFERENCES: I had to learn MS Project for my job using a copy of the Microsoft Office Project 2003 Bible (Elaine Marmel, Wiley). I understand that it is very difficult to satisfy everyone when writing technical instructions, and I've been severely upbraided in the past for my own attempts in this regard. Nevertheless, I found the Wiley guide to be grotesquely overdone, with truly awesome amounts of superfluous dross. I don't understand the need to spend 44 pages on explaining what projects are and how to plan for them, with essentially the same information again, in condensed form, at the beginning of subsequent chapters; or detailed explations of how and why to save one's work, at the end of the chapters. The extreme redundancy of explanation becomes very confusing when the author oscillates repeatedly between four different methods to do each thing, or even different methods to do different things, e.g, opening existing projects versus creating new ones. Despite using the searchable PDF supplied with the book, I found it almost completely useless.

The Microsoft Project 2003 page was likewise not much help. There was a lot of disjointed and difficult to browse data scattered about, but I recommend the links below instead.

I have heard wonderful things about the "…for Dummies" book and the "Complete Idiot's Guide to…" but I was unable to get copies of these books at the time of this writing.
RESOURCES: Wikipedia entry: Microsoft Project; MS website tutorial for MS Project 2003; Clayton State University tutorial (quite useful); London School of Economics Project 2003 quick guide (a nice supplement to the Clayton State University tutotial)